Friday, December 11, 2009

Putting a minaret in my window this Hanuka

Tonight is the first candle of Hanukkah and I can’t imagine placing the chanukkiyah in the window without concurrently speaking out against the Swiss referendum banning the building of Minarets in mosques.
Why am I celebrating this holiday? is a question I ask every time I punctuate my year with a holiday. It seems natural. I probably share this ritual with my co-religionists, compatriots, neighbors and friends. Doing things without asking would be acting like a robot.
I just came from Israel’s first human rights rally ever. It was held in Tel-Aviv and it included every color of progressive activist you could imagine. There were Gay, Lesbian,Transgendered and Bisexuals, Arabs, Foreign workers, unions, socialists, environmentalist and more. They all came to uphold the basic principle established in Genesis; we are all made in God’s image, thus we are all entitled to the same human rights.
The march and rally were beautiful. This is my left. Before I departed the States, I was a member of a left that didn’t let me feel at home. They made me feel like a pariah because I wanted national rights for my people. It was not a warm place. The left in Israel are unique. They put vision before anger. They articulate a message about humanity that has profound meaning. There values are native to this little piece of the world.
And today, the day I place my chanukiyah in the window to say to the world, “I am a Jew and I am proud.” The day I remember the dedication of the Temple and consider God’s heroism as an act of self-restrain and control in a sometimes violent world, today I want am full of pride from the Jewish resistance to the Swiss referendum against the building of minarets in new mosques. For instance, Rabbi Pinchas Dunner, executive director of the Conference of [Orthodox] European Rabbis, said "a war on religious freedom cannot defeat Islamic extremists. The best weapon against radical Islam is support for moderate elements in the Muslim community and promoting interfaith dialogue." The Anti-Defamation League said, "This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance,... A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter, in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population." And the American Jewish Committee's David Harris exclaimed, "The referendum result amounts to an attack on the fundamental values of mutual respect... While there are certainly understandable concerns in Europe over Islamist extremism, these cannot be legitimately addressed through a blanket assault on Muslim communities and their religious symbols.”
I wish these comments were shared today at the rally and on the floor of the Knesset, but I’m happy we have a strong starting point for condemnation of this terrible Swiss referendum, and I’d like to think the our experience of Hanukkah and the various retellings of the story over millennia, have helped create this humane sensibility.
Happy Hanukkah. Chag Urim Sameach.

My brother Benny is Superman

I wrote about Benny recently. He’s my buddy that was arrested for “moving while black.” I spoke to him the other day and he told me he isn’t superman, and I cried.
Benny is superman. He is one of the most amazing people I know.
Benny was a general in one of the strongest and most influential army’s in the world, a Chicago gang which I cannot mention by name. He had everything a nihilist could want; sex, drugs, money, power. He was respected and revered by his subordinates. He was protected by a circle of guards wherever he went. All Benny had to do was rule fiercely, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t send kids out to sell drugs or commit violent crimes. He couldn’t teach new members of his gang to go through the ranks as he did. He couldn’t stand to have his own son grow up in this world. So he did what know one has done before him. He picked up and left.
For those that don’t know the codes that gangs operate under, take my word, exiting the gang is a capital crime and Benny was the top of the list of violators. But there was something different about Benny and his successors knew it. They didn’t prosecute. They didn’t even cut off the friendship. They just let Benny go off on his own into a life of monogamy, fatherhood, manual labor and a few notches above poverty.
But Benny took his choice and made the best of it. He raised a wonderful son who has served two tours in Iraq and continues in his service of the country. He has a loving wife who works hard and is dedicated to her husband. He has a new apartment which, among other things, he had to pay for with a month of his freedom, he has many dedicated friends, and he has his integrity, which is worth everything.
Benny works hard. He helps everyone who asks. He even helps those that don’t ask. As my father’s right hand in the management of his properties, he stays overtime to help out the nuns that operate a day care center in my dad’s building. He helps drug addicts and alcoholics on Chicago Avenue find day labor without judging them or their habits. When I ran a book club for homeless people in the neighborhood, Benny always brought dozens of people to participate and, according to Benny, “Improve their lives through education.”
The other day when I called Benny from Tel-Aviv, he told me that he’s not superman anymore. This was his way of bragging when he would lift a couch for a new tenant or move a refrigerator for a long termer. He said he could do anything, and I believed him. Benny could explain to me what the Cubs needed to change in their line-up to improve their game, and then when they finally got around to it, it would be a vast improvement just like Benny predicted. Every Monday he would break down the weekend football games for me and in the dead of winter he’d explain the ups and downs of Chicago hockey and basketball. Benny could have switched me in my statistics classes with ease because the statistics he watched and devoured every day when he’d read his paper on the bus to work were alive and ontological for him. This was how he understood the game. The fact is, Benny did teach for me. He lead discussions for my high school students in the school I ran and in the Chicagoland Jewish High school where I occasionally volunteered. He spoke to my master degree students about phenomenology and how to really understand the experience of inner city children. Benny could do anything.
So when Benny told me he’s not superman, of course I cried. Who wouldn’t? My society had beaten Benny to pieces. They put kryptonite at his doorstep and expected him to come out smiling. They greeted his integrity with shackles and chains. All this because of the color of his skin.
In America, the problem is not “driving while Black,” it’s not “moving while Black,” as in Benny’s case. It’s “breathing will Black,” and it is a shanda and a disgrace. And it’s our loss. We have to live without superman. Even worse, we have to live as Lex Luther, a whole society of Lex Luther’s. And the worst part about it is that we don’t see it. By allowing Benny to sit in jail and not concerning ourselves with the basic dignity of all Americans, be it through proper, affordable health care, or be it through the elimination of all forms of racism, we are not doing our part, and it really sucks being Lex Luther.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Same old square

When I first went to Kings of Israel Square (Kikar Malchei Yisrael) with the fledgling political conscience of a Habonim kid living in Israel during the first Lebanon War, I was swiftly consumed by the angry response of much of this country to the governments culpability in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. I was 17 and my older friends, who were already serving in the army, asked me to demonstrate and get them back home as soon as possible. I was also work supervisor over 250 students in my agricultural high school, the Kfar HaYarok, and I remember consciously turning away as most of the people I supervised ditched work that day to go to the rally. Some reports suggested that 600,000 Israelis were at what was undisputedly the country’s biggest demonstration ever. I was proud to be among them.
The square was much smaller when I returned as a proud Israeli citizen and new father. Thirteen years had passed, along with many demonstrations, but none felt as powerful as this. It was November 4th, 1995, and my wife and I took our 4 month old baby to see the first Israeli prime minister either of us had voted for. Little did I know that the events that unfolded that night would create a commonality with my parents of a sad and unique nature. Both me and my parents lost the first leader we chose to assassins bullets. They, of course, lost John F. Kennedy, and I lost Yitzhak Rabin.
Last night, when I returned to the Square with my daughter, it bared the name of my lost leader, but little of his legacy. A mere 15,000 people, as reported by the free Hebrew version of the Jerusalem Post, showed up to honor my prime minister, and among those who spoke were people who must have had him turning in his grave.
I must admit that I didn’t boo loud enough when Defense Minister Ehud Barak took the stage. The traitor to Rabin’s legacy who has destroyed the great Labor party of my childhood is also the man behind the continuous building of settlements in the occupied territories and the right hand of the evil Benjamin Netanyahu, who now occupies the prime minister’s office.
If Barak wasn’t enough to make Prime Minister Rabin turn in his grave, then the appearance of Education Minister Gidon Saar surely finished the job. Saar is the minister who’s first act in his new job was to cut off funding for public school, co-existence education. He also had the great idea of teaching Palestinians living in Israel the Jewish national anthem, HaTikvah, as if this will win over their loyalty.
The beacons of light last night were the thousands of youth movement members in their blue uniforms, the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni and my other president, Barak Obama, who was broadcast to the crowd on big screens throughout the square. Tzipi was most impressive for me as I know that she has made huge ideological transformations, as had Rabin before her. Minister Livni was raised in a Revisionist family, like our current prime minister, but she was able to transcend the ideals of her upbringing to meet the tough realities of power. Ms. Livni told the crowd last night what all of Israel needs to accept; we cannot continue to rule over our neighbors. Their dreams of independence need to be fulfilled just like our dreams.
Prime Minister Rabin would be proud of Tzipi Livni. The man I once detested for saying that if the Palestinians throw stones (during the first Intifada) we should break their arms, became the man who said, at the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan,

There comes a time when there is a need to be strong and to make courageous decisions, to overcome the minefields, the drought, the barrenness between our two peoples. We have known many days of sorrow, you have known many days of grief -- but bereavement unites us, as does bravery and we honor those who sacrificed their lives. We both must draw on the springs of our great spiritual resources, to forgive the anguish we caused each other, to clear the minefields that divided us for so many years and to supplant it with fields of plenty... The time has now come not merely to dream of a better future -- but to realize it.

Prime Minister Rabin, the time has come, and your memory is a constant reminder to us that in order to create a better future, we must realize peace with our neighbors.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Brother Benny

I have a brother. His name is Gregg and he was born on my fifth birthday. Ironically, my buddy Benny, who I love like a brother, was born on my birthday as well. Actually, I was born on his since he is 3 years older than me.
Benny just got out of jail. His crime, blackness. That's right. Benny got arrested for being black while moving. His landlord wasn't fixing all kinds of problems in his apartment, so he and his wife decided to move. My dad was on his way to Benny's house to lend him his van to make the move easier, but, when he arrived, he found Benny in handcuffs next to the boxes of his stuff on a hand truck.
My dad told that police that Benny worked for us, and that he was a great guy, and that he was just coming to lend Benny his van, but they wouldn't listen. Instead, they put my brother Benny in hand cuffs, like a common criminal, and took him off to jail, where he sat for thirty some days. His crime, blackness.
The police arrested Benny because they saw a Black man moving boxes on a Saturday morning. They checked their computers and saw he had a record, but it had been over ten years since Benny had last been arrested. During those years Benny worked as a construction worker, for the last six of them he worked for me and my dad.
Benny could have continued his life as a gang banger and made much more money than he did with us. He could have had drugs and money and women and power, but Benny chose to leave that world. He also tried his best to prevent others from entering it. On numerous occassions, Benny lectured, for me, to my students. When I was doing my doctoral work, Benny advised me as I volunteered in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. He wanted to come with, but they wouldn't have a convicted felon speak to delinquent kids, even if his message was preventative.
For most of the time I know Benny, his son has bravely served in the United States military, including two tours of duty in Iraq. Benny's wife works in a local supermarket as a cashier. She doesn't have the same burdens as Benny because her skin is white like mine. If she were moving the family's possessions with a hand truck, she wouldn't have been stopped. But Benny lost more than 30 days of his life because of racial profiling, and this insanity must stop.
Please, if you care at all about human dignity, go to the Southern Poverty Law Center's website, Teaching Tolerance, and read more about racial profiling, then call your congress person. You may even want to forward Benny's story to a friend. Just make sure you do something.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Success Method - Shitat Hamatzliach

My mother in law walks into a dress shop with her son, who is about to get married, and one of three daughters. She sees a dress she likes and her daughter asks how much it costs. The salesman walks over to them and says 1800 shekels, about $450. My mother in law then takes out a piece of paper and writes on it, seven, zero, zero. Seven hundred. She gives the salesman the paper and he says OK. She can have the dress, then he asks about alterations. She says of course and he tries to get her to pay for the alterations. She refuses. By the time they leave the store, the salesman cannot give her enough and promises to ship the altered dress to her house for free.

This, my friends, is called the success method, shetat hamatzliach, and it is a moving force in the Middle East. The only problem is when it enters the public sphere, which it has in many ways here in Israel. For instance, my brother in law was shocked to see his electric bill which had jumped 200% from one month to the next. He went to look at the meter and found that the electric company had made a mistake. He called and they corrected the problem. The next month, the same thing all over again. According to my brother in law, they tried to get away with something, were unsuccessful and then tried again the next month.

Even this story isn’t so bad when you consider what the success method looks like in politics. Dalia Itzik, former chairperson of the Knesset, decided to redo her private residence. She hired an interior designer, bought all kinds of things for her house, and then she submitted the bill to the government office for 40,000 Shekels, $10,000. As the method goes, Ms. Itzik tried to get her way, in this case she failed, and then she paid the price for her lack of success. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

And now we have the tip of the iceberg, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak spent a quarter of a million dollars on a business trip to Europe. Yes, he was doing business for the citizens of Israel, and possibly, by extension, the Jewish people, but what could have cost him $250,000 in four days of meeting with European leaders? Shitat Hamatzliach.

I am all for a little irreverence. I think there are times rules are made to be broken, but this is insane. These people are bilking my people for lots of money. And if those are their ethics when they use my tax shekels, then where are their ethics when they send our boys and girls to Lebanon and Gaza? Where are their ethics when they discuss attacking Iran. Where are their ethics when they lead my country in every which way but forward? This is not a matter of right and left. It is not a question of love of country or not. This is something every Israeli and every pushke contributing Jew should think about and then decide to demand, “Enough. We want good government and we want it now. Including a constitution.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

For the love of Da Bears

It's 3:46 AM. Itamar and I have been awake since 2:30 watching the Bears play the Atlanta Falcons through Itamar's invention. He has our friends place their computer in front of the TV during the game and we watch through Skype. It's not the best picture, but it allows us to watch with friends. Now if we could figure out how to get the Old Style from their living room into ours life would be near perfect.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Peace Now doing the right thing


I just spent the day with Peace Now in the West Bank, and my commitment to our cause has been reinvigorated. Peace Now is the conscience of this nation. They will look into the big, dark truthful mirror and then raise it up so that the rest of society can see for itself what we look like and what we are doing.

On our tour today was Yair Oppenheimer, the head of the movement, and many activists. We went to Nokdim, the settlement where Foreign Minister Lieberman has his private residence and we saw many demolished homes in Beit Jallah. We also saw hundreds of vacationing settlers climbing the Herodyon as if greater Israel were a fact on the ground.

All in all, the trip was sad on two levels. First of all, we are constantly marginalized, and our numbers really do point to our position on the fringe of Israeli society (not fringe in terms of our positions). There were plenty of empty seats on our tour bus during Sukkot vacation throughout the country. Granted, people travel, but there are also many more of us with time off from work. We should have been a larger group.

Second, what we saw was disgusting. Usually you think of house demolitions as a kind of family punishment for a terrorist, but the houses we saw were demolished on false pretenses: they were built illegally. The problem is that many of them were built before Israel conquered the land. Even my building in Chicago has many problems grandfathered in, so it seems highly unlikely that the Jerusalem municipality was working in the best interest of all of its citizens when they decided to wreck these homes. This was simply a matter of forced, unjust, eminent domain for the benefit of Jerusalem's Jewish citizenry.



To give some proportion to this issue, a house replacement costs about 80,000 NIS, which is slightly over $20,000, less than my annual rent in Tel-Aviv, but this cost is low because the houses are built by the sweat of the families that live in them.

Anyway, I want to encourage anyone involved in Peace Now to continue the good work and anyone still undecided to tip in our direction.

Sunday in the West Bank with Peace Now



Outside Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's home in the settlement town of Nokdim.
The police here don't like free speech when it comes from the Israeli Left.

Response to "Netanyahu at his best"


The text below was sent to me by a rabbi friend who wanted to answer congregant’s questions without exposing his own biases.

Make this document live. Add your own comments. Argue. It’s like exercise for your mind. Just keep it civil.

Subject: Netanyahu at his best

Even those who aren't particularly sympathetic to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, could get a good measure of satisfaction from this interview with British Television during the retaliation against Hamas' shelling of Israel.

The interviewer asked him: "How come so many more Palestinians have been killed in this conflict than Israelis?" (A nasty question if there ever was one!)

Netanyahu: "Are you sure that you want to start asking in that direction?"

Interviewer: (Falling into the trap) Why not?

Netanyahu: "Because in World War II more Germans were killed than British and Americans combined, but there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the war was caused by Germany's aggression. And in response to the German blitz on London, the British wiped out the entire city of Dresden, burning to death more German civilians than the number of people killed in Hiroshima. Moreover, I could remind you that in 1944, when the R.A.F. tried to bomb the Gestapo Headquarters in Copenhagen, some of the bombs missed their target and fell on a Danish children's hospital, killing 83 little children. Perhaps you have another question?"

Answer to question above: More Palestinians died for many reasons, not all one sided.

Against Palestinians: The terrorists among them hijacked Palestinian society and used innocents as human shields.

They are much less sophisticated fighters and were not capable of inflicting the pain Israel did to them, not to say that they wouldn’t if they were given a chance.

Against Israel: We are Goliat today. We are fighting a band of terrorists as if they are an army, and we are fighting a nation as if they were all terrorists. This is not true of the Palestinian people, many of who resent Hamas rule in Gaza.

Israel was so vicious in the war that they used white phosphorus against innocent civilians in contravention to the Geneva Conventions. They also, not coincidentally, had to rewrite their code of ethics for the army and, under the guidance of a highly unethical and not very Jewish behaving professor at Tel Aviv University name Asa Kasher. Read the document. It is a neo-con, Bush era twist of morality.



Answers after each number below.

Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu gave another interview and was asked about Israel's occupation of Arab lands. His response was, "It's our land". The reporter (CNN or the like) was stunned - read below "It's our land..." It's important information since we don't get fair and accurate reporting from the media and facts tend to get lost in the jumble of daily events.

"Crash Course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict."

Here are overlooked facts in the current & past Middle East situation. These were compiled by a Christian university professor:

BRIEF FACTS ON THE ISRAELI CONFLICT TODAY

It makes sense and it's not slanted. Jew and non-Jew -- it doesn't matter.

1. Nationhood and Jerusalem: Israel became a nation in 1312 BC, two thousand (2000) years before the rise of Islam.

So what. Nationhood is not a static term. Their were no modern nations in 1312 BCE. What is the point of trying to put a round peg in a square hole. The ancient Hebrew term nation is not equivocable with the modern term as used today.

2. Arab refugees in Israel began identifying themselves as part of a Palestinian people in 1967, two decades after the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

Just as I don’t want others to establish my identity for me, I don’t want to do it to others. In Israel in 1967, the big crisis was Israeli soldiers saying to the leadership that they are not Jews, they are Israelis. Identity is fluid.

3. Since the Jewish conquest in 1272 BC, the Jews have had dominion over the land for one thousand (1000) years with a continuous presence in the land for the past 3,300 years.

Have you ever heard of eminent domain. Sometimes governments need to step in and make adjustments. Sometimes it’s for the sake of stupid things like a sports field, which happened to my sister in Parkslope, Brooklyn and happened to be very lucrative for her. Sometimes it happens for important things like justice for the people who share the land. As my friend Professor Busool likes to say, “Neither of us are tourists in the land.”

4. The only Arab dominion since the conquest in 635 lasted no more than 22 years.

This is not a question of dominion. It is a question of justice. We need a just solution for two distinct people. I want a Jewish state that behaves Jewishly. It would be wrong to force that on “the strangers among us,” so I choose separation under fair conditions. The Palestinians need a viable state in the land that they treasure.

5. For over 3,300 years, Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital. Jerusalem has never been the capital of any Arab or Muslim entity. Even when the Jordanians occupied Jerusalem, they never sought to make it their capital, and Arab leaders did not come to visit.

The Jerusalem that was once the capital of the Jewish kingdom was two square kilometers surrounded by a wall. Palestinians are not making claims on West Jerusalem. Why don’t we just gerrymander East Jerusalem so each community can rule over it’s own people and both communities can have free access to their holy sites.

6. Jerusalem is mentioned over 700 times in Tanach, the Jewish Holy Scriptures. Jerusalem is not mentioned once in the Koran.

I may be wrong, but neither is Amman, and certainly not Washington, D.C. What is the point of this statement?

7. King David founded the city of Jerusalem. Mohammed never came to Jerusalem.

Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven from Har HaBayit. Maybe you should read the Koran.

8. Jews pray facing Jerusalem. Muslims pray with their backs toward Jerusalem.

Maybe 20% of all Jews pray. All of them make money. Maybe we should ask for Fort Knox as our capital.

9. Arab and Jewish Refugees: in 1948 the Arab refugees were encouraged to leave Israel by Arab leaders promising to purge the land of Jews. Sixty-eight percent left (many in fear of retaliation by their own brethren, the Arabs), without ever seeing an Israeli soldier. The ones who stayed were afforded the same peace, civility, and citizenship rights as everyone else.

Arabs left for the reasons stated above and because there was some degree of what we call today “ethnic cleansing.” Some also left because they were afraid. The Israeli Declaration of Independence is a beautiful document that did afford the remaining Palestinians equal citizenship. It is a pity we don’t live up to the standards we set for ourselves.

10. The Jewish refugees were forced to flee from Arab lands due to Arab brutality, persecution and pogroms.

True to varying degrees depending on the country. I don’t like to justify my bad behavior based on the bad of others.

11. The number of Arab refugees who left Israel in 1948 is estimated to be around 630,000. The number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is estimated to be the same.

Wonderful. Is this an equation for justice? An eye for an eye?

12. Arab refugees were INTENTIONALLY not absorbed or integrated into the Arab lands to which they fled, despite the vast Arab territory. Out of the 100,000,000 refugees since World War II, theirs is the only refugee group in the world that has never been absorbed or integrated into their own people's lands. Jewish refugees were completely absorbed into Israel, a country no larger than the state of New Jersey.

This is a huge generalization. If you’d like to speak to my friend Ray, whose father fled the coutry around the time of the establishment of the state and made a great life for himself in the United States, I can give you his number. Palestinians went to many places, and some of them had weird plans for the refugees. Does this mean we have no role in trying to make justice for the Palestinians.

13. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: the Arabs are represented by eight separate nations, not including the Palestinians. There is only one Jewish nation. The Arab nations initiated all five wars and lost. Israel defended itself each time and won.

These broad statements of truth are hard to address as a whole because they are such complicated issues. For instance, when the 1967 war started, we bombed the Egyptian air force before they ever shot a bullet. Much of the prelude to the war was the Soviets stirring the pot. It’s simply not fair to speak of so much history in a sound byte and think you can close the subject.

14. The PLO's Charter still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. Israel has given the Palestinians most of the West Bank land, autonomy under the Palestinian Authority, and has supplied them.

There are two sides to all the Oslo agreements. Both sides have failed to meet the terms. Changing the charter would be a gesture of good faith, but it would be giving up an important card for negotiations. On the other hand, the Palestinians have not declared statehood independent of Israel’s consent, and this seems to be a much more valuable gesture on their part.

15. Under Jordanian rule, Jewish holy sites were desecrated and the Jews were denied access to places of worship. Under Israeli rule, all Muslim and Christian sites have been preserved and made accessible to people of all faiths.

This is not the truth. Many Palestinians do not have access to their holy sites because they cannot traverse the separation wall freely.
Also, it doesn’t matter what they did to us. We need to maintain a high level of decency in spite of what happened to us. “In a place where there are no people, try to be a person.


16. The UN Record on Israel and the Arabs: of the 175 Security Council resolutions passed before 1990, 97 were directed against Israel.

17. Of the 690 General Assembly resolutions voted on before 1990, 429 were directed against Israel.

18. The UN was silent while 58 Jerusalem synagogues were destroyed by the Jordanians.

19. The UN was silent while the Jordanians systematically desecrated the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

20. The UN was silent while the Jordanians enforced an apartheid-like a policy of preventing Jews from visiting the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

The UN is not perfect, just like democracy, but it is the best system we have. If you have suggestions for a better system that doesn’t include a theocracy and retains power in the hands of people, let’s hear about it.

These are incredible times. We have to ask what our role should be. What will we tell our grandchildren about what we did when there was a turning point in Jewish destiny, an opportunity to make a difference?

START NOW - Send this to 18 other people you know and ask them to send it to eighteen others, Jew and non-Jew - it doesn't really matter.

Be Jewish about it and keep the answers in bold and add your own answers in other colors. Machloket is a Jewish value. Chevruta is how Jews make sense of the word and the world. Let’s not bow our heads before every demagogue.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kol Nidre

I must admit, this will be the first Yom Kippur that I fast in Israel. Despite this, I am typing this reflection during the day which my people consider the holiest on our calendar. Typing, for many, is a transgression on this holiday, yet writing is the way I best reflect on my life, which many would agree is part and parcel of this day.

Kol Nidre, All vows and oaths and promises which I made to God and was not able to fulfill from last Yom Kippur to this, may they be annulled? Give me a break God, I am only human.

This is the message of the evening. I start off my day of repentance by reminding God of my condition. I love this part of the tradition. We except that we are flawed and remind God of our fallibilities, but like everything else in the world this concept only works in balance. If we take it too far, we can excuse egregious behavior - because we warned God that we are only human, shit happens.

Another part of this holiday is the notion that it is the greatest of rest days. Not only do we refrain from everything we don’t do on Shabbat, but we also refrain from that which gives us sustenance; food and libations. Yom Kippur is a fast day, and in Israel, more important than refraining from food is refraining from driving. Go figure.

Last night, after our final meal, my 12 year old daughter rushed to meet her classmates in a teacher organized bicycle trip around the car-less streets of Tel-Aviv; not that otherwise she would take out the family car and cruise the town. Her class was merely taking advantage of the safety of Israeli streets without Israeli drivers.

The irony of this ritual, and it really is elevated to the level of a ritual, is that it probably evolved from two very different engagements with the holiday; no driving respects the holiness of the day for all Jews - an effort at Jewish pluralism or consensus, and respecting the restfulness of the holiday - like in not driving. (By the way, there have been many Yom Kippurs in cold, rainy Chicago where not driving to shul violated the restfulness of the day for me.)

I like the former aspect of the ritual. It’s not really pluralism because it forces everyone to accept behaviors that don’t necessarily agree with their own sensibilities, but it is an effort at consensus, which is rare among my stiff-necked people. There are two interesting sidebars to this. Last night, as I walked the car-less avenues of my new/old home town, I saw a group of Arab children from Yafo (Jaffa) enjoying the safety of the situation without any connection to the ritual. I thought this was great because it supports my firm belief in context. In a Jewish country, Yom Kippur provides a source of enjoyment for everyone, whereas, even in New York City, that second (?) Jewish Mecca, they only get the day off of school but no respite from taxis barreling down the broad avenues. The other sidebar is less pleasant. It happened last year when an Arab resident of Akko (Acre) accidentally drove into a Jewish neighborhood and riots erupted among the Jewish residents, many of whom were not even observant. This was a terrible example of a lack of balance in the observance of our ritual. The value that many of us reflect on during Yom Kippur, compassion, was thrown out the window and replaced with violence and anger. Instead of being introspective and examining our own behaviors, the people of Akko and their supporters around the Jewish world became obsessed with the wrongs of the other and sought to execute justice to the exclusion of the God they would otherwise be praying to. This has left a major scar on my evaluation of the success of the Zionist endeavor.

The latter issue of creating a new Jewish way (halacha, as informal as it may be) can also be problematic. It begs the question - did creating a Jewish country where Jews can be free, as the hope of our national anthem proclaims - help or hurt Judaism? Of course, this is a problematic question. Judaism is not easily defined. Imagine bringing Moses via time machine to Israel today. What would be recognizable for him, the land or the religion he helped found? Is Judaism the religion of the Jews or a concrete, reified set of practices and beliefs which one can refer to in order to check one’s own behavior; a sort of check list or rubric from which we evaluate our Jewishness.

I just finished a wonderful book by an editor at Esquire magazine, A.J. Jacobs, called The Year of Living Biblically in which the author describes his effort to live according the the letter of the law for a year. The book is funny and challenging, but, to my surprise, it was also profound. Near the end, Mr. Jacobs addressed the issue I raise above. Is Judaism a rubric which can be measured in ritual practices and beliefs? He addresses the question with an analogy to something at work in the Christian community where “more observant” fundamentalist types will say about their “less observant” co-religionists that they are “cafeteria Christians.” In other words, they pick and choose which observances and beliefs fit their needs at any given time, and, need I add, this is a derogatory ascription. The beauty of Mr. Jacobs insights, after his year of living biblically, is that everything is cafeteria style. Just think about those moments, for example, where “Do not lie,” is in conflict with the golden rule. (The rabbis address this in a famous Mishnaic argument between Hillel and Shamai about whether you answer a bride’s question about how she looks on her wedding day with the whole truth or the answer that will make her feel good.) A former Israeli Supreme Court Justice and Talmud scholar, Menachem Elon, has the same conclusion but phrases it differently. He says that there is no distinction between scripture (kra) and drash (interpretation). In other words, when you address a text, just like a cafeteria, you make choices.

In Israel, a lot of choices have been made about Jewish life, many by default. When the founding leaders of this country established a rabbinic court to rule over all matters Jewish, they consolidated power. In the words of John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902), "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." I am not going so far as to call all Chief Rabbi’s of Israel “bad men,” but I fully agree that power, consolidated in the hands of the few, is corrupting, and this, I find to be the biggest contributor to the crisis in Judaism today. There is an official Judaism in the Jewish country, and everything else is “not Jewish,” according to the powers that be. And this creates a dichotomy that works bad for the Jews because the natural response is that we are either “not Jewish” or we need to redefine what Jewish is (or we ignore the question altogether.)

It was a tradition on many HaShomer HaTsa’ir kibbutzim to redefine Judaism by doing that which is furthest from tradition. Instead of fasting and praying, these new Jews would barbeque pork and feast on Yom Kippur. And if you think that this is a rare phenomenon, you are mistaken. I remember a permutation of this ritual that happened to me on Yom Kippur in 1983 while serving in the Israeli army. My base was not far from the kibbutz that housed us as part of our service and we all had families that adopted us on the kibbutz. On that particular Yom Kippur, beside many other groups of soldiers, we feasted on cakes and pastries brought to us from the kibbutz by our adopting families.

Maybe more common than this response to the hegemony of the orthodox official Jewish establishment is the non-response. This maybe best summarized in a story about Israeli soldiers who defined themselves to then Prime Minister Golda Meir as Israelis, not Jews. This led the country, at the time, into deep soul searching about Jewish identity and the relationship between Israelis and their Diaspora brothers and sisters. More recently, the Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua stirred up the pot with similar declarations when he addressed a group of American Jews. What I found most interesting about this episode was the comment by a great Israeli journalist, Yaron London, who said that he has more in common with the Philippino and other foreign workers in this country than he does with American Jews. Mr. London explained that if a Scud missile hits the country, the foreign workers share the same risk as he does. Of course, this is true for Israeli Arabs as well, many of whom died in the recent Lebanon War, but Mr. London added that the foreign workers participate in our Israeli culture and now speak in our native tongue.

Among those that adhere to so-called “authentic” Jewish practice, that which is legitimized by the existence of a Chief Rabbinate, there is a lot of diversity, and some tolerance and pluralism, but just like anything that tries to define itself, it must also define what it is not, and this leads to an othering (a term which is not always negative). It is reasonable to declare that a person who believes in Jesus as the son of God is not Jewish, and I am clearly among those who exclude Jews for Jesus. Do I exclude Jews who barbequed pork on Yom Kippur? Absolutely not. They are struggling with their Jewishness, and while I don’t want their practice to be a generally accepted principle of our tradition, I want them to sit at our table and join the conversation. And as for the place of balance in this equation, my struggle and my resolution for this coming year is to work for a Judaism, here and abroad, where the discourse and the practice are equally valued so that we can continue our journey as Jews as a large inclusive family.

(Big Pause: I think I should stop here. I am deliberating between my responsibility to reflect on my own life and that of my community. I love that in Judaism we stand before God as individuals and as a collective. We pray, “Ashamnu,” we sinned, to God in the collective “we,” but our tradition also presents God as inscribing individuals in the Book of Life based on their individual behavior. I think now is the time to reflect on my own shtick.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Things I learned in school today

Today I started my orientation at the Hartman Institute. It was a great day. Here are some things that David Hartman told us about the institute he started.

I feed hungry people. Your task is to make people hungry.

This institute doesn't have the truth. It has seekers of the truth.

The task of philosophy is to undermine religious certainties.

To be an educator is to live in the gap between the reality and the dream.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Welcome 5770

There is a familiar term for many Jews in America. They are called 3 dayers for the three days that they show up in synagogue each year: two for Rosh Hashana and one for Yom Kippor. In the last two years, while working for a Reform congregation, I learned that this can be brought down to 2 days, as the Reform only celebrate the new year for a day.

As Jews we all have a unique New Year celebration. Auld Lang Syne is not the song of the day and the spirit is very contradictory to the spirit of its lyrics, “Should old acquaintances be forgotten, and never brought to mind?” Like most Jewish holidays, our memories are exercised and our in-boxes are filled with greetings from “auld” acquaintances, some of whom we wish we could forget. And we are expected to ask forgiveness and to forgive.

In Israel, unlike my Diaspora upbringing, presents are also a big part of the celebration. My sister in law took my daughters shopping for new clothes, and my son received a remote control helicopter from his uncle. What was more amazing was the second day barbeques. After two days of going to shul, on Sunday afternoon, my religious in-laws had a big barbeque. Of course there were no pigs with apples in their mouths, but, as an interesting sidebar, you may be surprised to hear that this is a popular tradition on some of the more radical kibbutzim on Yom Kippor.

Our barbeque included steak, liver, an Israeli version of a combination Polish/Italian sausage and chicken. The idea behind it is quite simple. On Shabbat you are not allowed to light a fire, but on a regular holiday you can transfer existing fire. We transferred existing fire from the holiday candles to the presoaked charcoals.

After the festive meal, which didn’t include honey cakes or a round challah, as I am used to in America, everyone did their own thing. At one table, my mother in law read Psalms, my brother in law played games on my iphone and my father in-law argued with his grandchildren who wanted to choose their own flavors from the non-dairy Neapolitan ice cream. He later told me that kids these days are spoiled. “When I was offered ice cream, I would say thank you. Kids today want to choose their own flavors. Not in my house.”

By the time the holiday was over, I was glad to be back in Tel-Aviv with my secular homeys. The noon football games were starting at 8 PM and I was hopeful that the Bears would be broadcast. Unfortunately, hope was shattered. We watched the Saints clobber the Eagles and they didn’t broadcast the 3 PM Bears game which started at 11 PM here. Fortunately, when I woke up at 4:45 AM for my morning run and swim at the beach, I checked the Internet and found out that my year started with a Bears victory over the defending world champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Thank God for little things. Shana Tova.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Relativism and the lessons of a paper cup

The other day my mother-in-law taught me a great lesson about relativism. She definitely didn’t mean to. She is a person who believes in order in the universe. She believes God has a plan and that He listens to prayer. I am ruled by doubt.

My lesson came when she very generously tried to stock us up with pots and pans and other kitchen necessities. Our shipment hasn’t come from America yet, and we don’t want to buy stuff we will be receiving in our container.

Among the things Raquel (Irit’s mom) tried to give us was a big stack of paper cups, and, despite her generosity, I rejected the cups on the grounds that it would be bad for the environment. This was when I learned my lesson. Raquel, rightfully, snapped back at me, “There has been a drought in this country for five years. Here it is better to waste a few paper cups than to waste water washing dishes.”

I know it’s not a major epiphany, but it was a great lesson for me. My environmental righteousness may have been well intended, but it was off-target for the environment I live in, thus the relativism.

The last time I learned this lesson was in a class for my doctorate called The Politics of Assessment. In the class, my teacher Terry Jo Smith, illustrated how standardized tests are inherently unfair because they demand answers that imply an absolute answer for the population. This could be true in most mathematics problems, but it is definitely not reasonable for issues of human behavior.

The example Terry gave was a question off the tests that asked what a person should do if they found a wallet; a) look for the owners information and call him to return it, b) take the money out of the wallet and leave it where it was found, c) return the wallet without the money. The first answer everyone gave was the one that was right for their personal situation in the world. As middle class students, we all said that you give back the wallet with all the money. But Terry challenged us. “What if you are a homeless student or a very poor student with unemployed parents? Would it be such a terrible thing to take the money if you really needed it?”

In essence, we all have relative values. This is why we cheer for Robin Hood or Nazi killers. I remember the uproar when the actor Will Smith said that the Nazis thought they were doing the right thing, but what was so outrageous about that? There are few things I believe about human behavior, but one is that we like to see ourselves as acting righteously. Nazis created a reality in their minds to justify their behavior. They spent a lot of resources on propaganda because they needed to make a societal shift in perceptions.

I learned from my Talmud teacher that the Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Menachem Elon said there was no difference between scripture and interpretation. In essence, even what God said in stone, written with his own finger, is relative. This is the beauty of the oral law. It provides us with a framework for interpreting God, or what we think of as the source of righteousness, because everything is ultimately relative. “Thou shalt not kill,” what about self defense. “Honor your Father and Mother,” what about those parents who abuse their kids, or, for instance, the orthodox Israeli mother who tried to starve her three year old to death.

I know relativism is hard to accept, but I think it is much healthier for us as a society to deal with creating the frameworks for interpreting what a good God would want for us than it is to waste time being dogmatic or fundamental about what we think She wants.

First baseball practice at Park HaYarkon

Sahar and Itamar's walk home from school

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When in Rome…

In a place where there are no people, try to be a person
– Rabbi Hillel, Mishna

There are some bad things about Israel that even the most staunch, nationalistic Jews would have to agree with me about. The one on my mind is the “I’m not a chump (Hebrew: Frier)” attitude in this country. Chump may be a bad translation. A chump is na├»ve, innocent and gets taken advantage of. A frier is worse. In fact it’s probably the worst thing you can be in this Jewish homeland.
A frier is someone who pays full price for anything, who drives according to the law, crosses at crosswalks only when the green man/light permits it, gives up his seat for an elderly person on a bus, believes what the government says, etcetera. In an effort to not be a frier, Israelis do whatever they can to advance themselves at the expense of most people around them without making waves.
Yesterday, when we went to check out the space where Irit was interested in opening her clinic, we were told that the guy who can show it to us will be there in 10 minutes. Irit sat in the sun and I ran an errand. Ten minutes later, when I returned, we kept waiting, for 35 minutes. Nobody called to say they were in traffic or that we should go sit down somewhere and have a coffee while we wait and that they would call when the guy is near. So we waited, until we called, and we heard that he’s almost there, which was 25 minutes before he arrived. Of course, this is not the biggest sin in the world. It’s just a sample of the many rude, inconsiderate and outright nasty things we have experienced here.
I am embarrassed to admit that at 35 minutes into our wait, I said to Irit, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I was trying to get her to leave and show the guy we were waiting for the same disrespect that he showed us. It took me a few minutes to cool down and then I had a mini-epiphany. The Romans had conquered this place 2000 years ago, and my role as a modern Zionist is to reclaim the land and the culture. This is not Rome, nor is it meant to be a bastion of Roman thinking. I am here to train to be a rabbi and Jewish educator and I must act in accordance with tradition. Then I remembered the quote of the great sage Rabbi Hillel, “In a place where there are no people, try to be a person.”
It was at that moment that I decided to drop my anger and discouragement with Israeli society and simply be a mensch. This is not Rome, I don’t want the influence of these meshugena statements in my life, and I am going to be a mensch, no matter how much of a frier I will appear to be. In essence, it doesn’t matter how people around me behave, I will be a mensch because that is how I believe that we should be. I can’t be a frier if I know I am doing what I think is right.

Gleanings

Language
I went running with Itamar to Park HaYarkon to a Muscle Beach like workout park along the Yarkon River and learned something interesting about language adoption. It was five AM when we arrived and there were a bunch of Asian women speaking in their native tongue with occasional tangents in Hebrew and English.
All over Tel-Aviv you see women like these who accompany elderly Jewish Israelis, and what I found interesting is that when they speak Hebrew they have the same Eastern European accents as their employers. Imagine Jackie Chan speaking and it sounds like Jackie Mason. When I heard them, all I could think of was the Woody Allen movie, What’s up Tiger Lily.

Commercialism
I like to think of myself as a student of media, and I have been very sensitive to the nuances of Israeli advertising as compared to the American advertising media I am most familiar with. There is a lot of science that measures and tells us about our consumer behavior and how to address it, and I have always thought that this is a sham because humans are too complex to be measured in metrix that answer all questions about their behavior.
In support of my believe, I find that the differences between American and Israeli advertising don’t illustrate a difference in human constitution; i.e. now I am an Israeli consumer and included in the metrix of Israeli research. The differences in advertising simply illustrate the malleability of human responses. There is not one way to scientifically declare that 6 minutes of commercials during any given half hour of television is the maximum amount tolerable to humans. At best, we can say that this thesis applies now in this specific context.
My point, we need to be more critical of science. It doesn’t describe the world any better than religion, great literature or fine art.

Antibiotic treated fruits and vegetables
I have heard all the arguments against the industrialization of farming and have been sympathetic, but it the opponents of agribusiness really want to make there case, they need to bring people to a place where agriculture is still uninfected by hormones and antibiotics. The fruits and vegetables in Israel are so delicious. I could just eat tomatoes and cucumbers all day and be happy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Steiner's first home video from Israel

Tel-Aviv

Saturday, September 5, 2009, Motzei Shabbat
There is a scene in the movie Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (one of my top ten favorite movies) where we get a very romantic tour of London that makes you fall in love with the city in much the same way Woody Allen makes you fall in love with New York. I often feel like I could direct the scene that would make anyone fall in love with my beloved windy city on Lake Michigan, but today I felt the same about Tel-Aviv.
Many people have heard me say that there is no place like Tel-Aviv on a Friday, and I’m sure this is still the case, but this time around my Friday in Tel-Aviv was dramatically changed. As usual, I went to the Carmel Market to do my vegetable shopping. The Carmel has the freshest and cheapest fruits and vegetables available in Israel, and it is loaded with characters, smells, colors, sounds and tastes that are simply delicious.
In my past incarnation as a Tel-Avivi, I would ride to the Carmel on my bike, do my shopping, bring everything home and then go out for beers with my friends into the afternoon before heading to Beit Shemesh for Shabbat dinner at the in-laws. Once we got a car, this ritual changed for the better as I wasn’t trapped without public transportation in a city that has nothing to offer on Shabbat.
This past Friday was much different than in my previous life here. As a parent, the day started with sending off the children to school, and, as this was Friday, I had to accomplish all my errands by noon because of early dismissal. Also, the walk to the Carmel is about 3 times as long from our place in North Tel-Aviv, which makes me glad I bought a basket with wheels for my shopping. Of course, all this will be resolved when our container arrives from the US and we get our bicycles.
Shopping in the Carmel was fun, but the joy was lessened by the extreme heat and long walk. When I passed Choni HaMehagel Street, I was reminded of his story in the Talmud and considered drawing a circle around myself and making a deal with God that I would move when he would make rain. I took a bus home and got off at the Land of Israel Museum where I once worked. It is minutes from our apartment and across the street from the Kibbutz Seminar where I would love to be an adjunct professor of education.
After a small lunch, so we could save room for my mother in law’s wonderful Morrocan Shabbat dinner, Itamar and I went to Park HaYarkon, five minutes from the apartment, to join the Israeli version of Little League. Unlike in Skokie where I have coached for the past three seasons, the Israeli baseball league has semi-professional coaches. Itamar’s is a twenty year old who is still in the army and serves as a physical educator. He is the son of a guy named Larry who made aliyah from New York, I believe, and he coaches in a mix of English and Hebrew; Hebrish, ala the James Brooks movie Spanglish. This coach told the kids about how he was sent over the summer to a MLB training camp where he worked with Barry Larkin of Cincinnati Reds fame and learned drills that really impressed me. What I think he didn’t learn is to match the drill to the age of the player.
In Chicago, Itamar had a personal baseball trainer who we refer to as Pete the UPS guy because he would come watch Skokie Youth Baseball after driving his shift for UPS. Pete would always answer questions I had about training with, “That will come when the kids get older.” It was as if he had a secret trainers manual that broke down the training process into ages. Itamar’s new coach was sharing great exercises with the team, but I think some of them were not completely age appropriate.
After baseball (Is there life after baseball?) we went home and borrowed our car from my brother in law, Lior. We owned a car 13 years ago when we lived here and left it with the family instead of selling it because of complicated tax related reasons that I won’t get into. In this incarnation of our lives in Tel-Aviv, we are hoping not to be car owners, which explains why we borrowed the car from Lior.
Going to Beit Shemesh and having two great meals, dinner and lunch, doesn’t explain much about why Tel-Aviv is amazing, so I will skip forward to Shabbat afternoon.
When we returned to Spring Hill, the translation of Tel-Aviv, Itamar, Sahar and I took a walk to the beach. As this was the first time, we had no idea what was in store for us. We walked out of our neighborhood, Kochav HaTsafon, and headed south on Ibn Gvirol, over the bridge which crosses the Yarkon River, to a beautiful river boardwalk that leads to the sea. On our way, we discovered the unit of scouts (Israel doesn’t segregate boy and girl Scouts) dedicated to sea life. The Sea Scouts, as they are called, have a big clubhouse on the shore of the river where they store lots of boating equipment and have their weekly meetings. We took a brochure, and I hope to send Maya and Sahar to the first meeting on Monday (Itamar is still too young).
From the scouts to the sea is a short walk past the Tel-Aviv pier. The closest beach is called Mitsitsim, Voyeurs Beach, after a movie in the late sixties with the same name that was filmed there. The first impression at this beach was that it couldn’t be Israel because all the stores and restaurants were open. I was also impressed by the crowd. There were hundreds of people, all ages, and there was even an Elvis impersonator playing guitar and singing. The water was the same temperature as the air and there was a good sprinkling of clouds in the sky and breeze from the sea to keep the oppressive sun at bay. When we left the beach, we stopped for hummus in a cozy little restaurant. Sahar said the hummus was, “a hundred times better than anything in America.” I know a better place in Jaffa that I’ll save for her.
In the evening, the family took a walk to Park HaYarkon to the public workout area which reminded me of Muscle Beach at Venice Beach in LA. I did one of my greatest practical jokes of all time at Muscle Beach when I first arrived in LA with my friend Marc. The two of us were getting a tour from my native friend Danny when we stumbled upon Muscle Beach. We were a bit ahead of Danny and decided to knock him off his native high horse. We went to the biggest, strongest guy in the workout area and asked him to play along with our plank, then we got Danny.
“Danny, check this out. It’s so cool.”
“Look at these guys.”
Danny was unimpressed and snobbish. That’s when I went up to our co-conspirator, tapped him on the shoulder, pointed at Danny and said, “That guy called you a fag.”
The guy dropped his 4000 pound weigh, walked up to Danny, pointed at his chest and said, “Did you call me a fag?”
All Danny could say, in perfect Ralph Kramden fashion, was, “Huminah, huminah, huminah.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised in this city of actors that even a muscle bound body builder could act, but he had me totally fooled as well until he laughed and said, “Hah, your friends gotcha.”
Every year before Rosh HaShana, I consider calling Danny and apologizing.

In Park HaYarkon, there are no muscle bound actors, but it is also a place that breaks the image of the scrawny or paunchy scholarly Jew with glasses, a beard and a Talmud under his arm. Everyone in the park was exercising in one way or another. There were people on the machines, people playing basket ball, Israeli folk dancers, joggers and bikers. I felt totally out of place with my glasses and paperback, but I left my family to do their thing while I read.

When we got back to our apartment, I promised Itamar that we would jog through the park in the morning, which we just did, and now I must take a shower before the titanium of my MacBook rusts from my sweat.

Boker Tov Yisrael. Boker ohr, Tel-Aviv.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wholey, holy, holey

Friday, September 4th, 2009, Shabbat
It’s Shabbat, which according to tradition means I’ve entered holy time. I’m also in the Holy Land, but I’m struggling with the whole holiness thing (would it be very inappropriate to say thang?).
This is my second Shabbat in the Holy Land. Last week I went to shul with my father in law and felt distinctly foreign, like a stranger in a strange land. The melodies were unfamiliar and the mechitsah, which separated the men from the woman, gave me a very bad feeling. This week, I was glad to arrive at the in-laws after Irit’s father already left for his shul.

In our family, we have tried to adopt the traditions which are most dear to us, so we have created a Moroccan, American, Jewish, Labor Zionist Kabballat Shabbat which includes the secular “Hachamah Meirosh” from our Habonim summer camp - Tavor, “Lecha Dodi” from the Kfar Hayarok, my agricultural high school, and the regular Shabbat blessings with my in-laws Moroccan melodies. It’s a nice combination that helps us merge our families and our values as we welcome the Shabbat, and if we didn’t go through this process, which includes creativity and reflection on our values, I don’t believe I would feel like I was creating holiness in welcoming the Shabbat… And if you unpack my last sentence, you may start to understand one of my key beliefs that worry me about my entrance into the world of rabbinic studies.
I have always felt that humans create holiness. In fact, I never even consider whether God creates holiness. I’m not even sure how to define holiness other than to describe when I’ve felt it.
I have felt holiness welcoming Shabbat at camp on top of a knoll we call Shabbat Hill in the 160 acres of Michigan farmland we call Tavor. I’ve felt it in the seventh inning stretch in many ballparks, major and minor league, around America, and I’ve felt it when my daughter read Torah at her bat-mitzvah. I know it is a completely rationalist approach to understanding things, but I know holiness through experience, and people created all of my holy moments.
In Israel, I find it particularly hard to find holiness. I have tried feeling it at the Western Wall, but when I visit, my mind fills with thoughts of idolatry. As Cheech and Chong might say, “If it looks like an idol and smells like and idol, it probably is an idol.” I remember reading in Exodus that God instructs Moses to remove his shoes because he is on holy ground, but I don’t know how this stone remnant of our ancient Temple has become so holy that some Orthodox man has to place a kippa on my head when I visit it, and I can’t worship beside it with my wife. On the other hand, the place where I proposed to my wife on the Mediterranean shore has always held a special place in my heart (in much the same way as Wrigley Field or Shabbat Hill).
Likewise, I have sat on the beach in Tel-Aviv and felt awe at the amazing work of creation, but I don’t feel like this is holy. Awe and holiness, to my sensibility, are two distinct feelings.

What I’d like to do with my rabbinate (it seems like forever from now) is help facilitate a sense of holiness in people through acts of loving-kindness. I’m not sure what I feel can be experienced the same way as I experience it, but I know that I have managed to create holiness facilitating a film club in the synagogue where I recently worked or leading a rich discussion with the students in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. For two years, I ran a book club for homeless people on Chicago Avenue in the neighborhood where my father and I own property, and when I saw the light bulbs light up over the heads of the club members during our meetings, I felt like holiness was present.
I guess this is what makes the experience, and even the stories of the experience at Sinai so powerful. It was a moment of holiness in space and time when/where my people joined together to accept Torah. Now we can argue about the source of Torah or about the historical truth of that moment, but none of that really matters when you position yourself within a people that sees itself with a common history, mythological or not. We created holiness together and I want my rabbinate to reflect the idea that was present at Sinai: these are the precepts of a good god and we are willing, collectively, to bound ourselves to them.
Lila Tov.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"On the face."

Thursday, September 3, 2009
“On the face,” my barber, Itsik HaKatan, Little Isaac, translated a very common Hebrew saying, which loosely means, “It sucks.” He was trying to sound sophisticated by showing me his level of English. Little did he know how silly he sounded?
Itsik is not silly. In fact, 13 years ago, it was in Itsik’s barber’s chair that I decided to take up my grandfather’s offer to come back to the States and help him deal with his businesses while he fights Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the diseases that eventually killed him. Itsik said that if I stayed in Israel, I would be spinning my wheels and not reaching my potential. He reminded me that America excels in many ways, and that I have a unique opportunity to benefit from what my country has to offer. One of those areas of excellence is education, even if I struggle with the government’s education policies.

This week my kids started school for their first time in Israel and neither Irit nor I can recall the details of our own Israeli education enough to instruct ourselves about the nuances of this challenge. Irit did all of her schooling here and I went to agricultural high school. I didn’t come back to Israel with high expectations for my kids’ formal education, but I knew the supplement of life experience would be well worth the loss in the classroom. In education circles, this is referred to as non-formal education or life lessons.

My son, Itamar, came home from his first day of school and had what we call in America a play date. It was very refreshing to not have to stand face to face with another parent, or on the phone, and pull out calendars and schedule time for the kids to play. When Itamar came home from school, he said his friend’s mom would be calling and we need to get the two of them together. Life lesson number one: Over scheduling is bad and leaves no room for spontaneity. In Israel, my kids will learn to take charge of their own free time and plan it in ways that give them fulfillment.

My eldest, Maya, started high school. Wow! And I mean wow! on many levels. Wow! I have a kid in high school. How can that be when I’m still a 20 something? Wow! My daughter is following in my footsteps and coming from America to study in an Israeli high school. Wow!

I must say, speaking with my doctor of education hat on, I am not thrilled about the Israeli education system. When we went to the high school to meet the advisor and principal, I asked what makes this school special. He said that all Israeli schools teach toward the bagrut, the Israeli matriculation tests. Ugggh. In essence, Israel has decided that education is something concrete that can be passed from one generation to another. Students don’t learn to think. They learn to know, which, I’m sure if I opened up my Merriam-Webster dictionary would fit better under the definition of indoctrination. Of course, in America we call this, “No child left behind.”
I will have to work hard to deal with life lesson number two: currently, school is not the place where knowledge is constructed. I will need to expose my kids to the richness of Israeli society outside of the classroom. This reminds me of high school when my older friends came back from the first Lebanon War and told me that everything I was learning in school was a lie. We were all programmed that our country, Israel, does no wrong, and they had just returned from Israel’s Vietnam.
In school, my daughter will learn about her obligation to serve her country in the Israel Defense Forces, but she won’t be taught to think critically about the amount of IDF resources wasted occupying the Palestinians in the West Bank. She’ll be taught that we consider 1948 the year of our independence, but she won’t be taught that that same year is considered a major catastrophe for the indigenous Palestinians who lived here. She’ll be taught about her Jewish heritage, but it will seem like a museum exhibit in the context of modern, secular Israel.
Life lesson number three: Think critically and challenge authority.
My daughter Sahar and son Itamar are going to a school wear they are forced to wear uniforms. It’s really not so bad, just a t-shirt with the school logo and it comes in many colors. But Sahar didn’t like it and was upset that she has to wear a uniform. I told her not to wear it, but she’s afraid of making a spectacle of herself, so today I bought her some materials to personalize the shirt. Sahar is very creative, so she should have fun with it, if I can get her to go along with the rebellion. I told her about one of my approaches to authority, “better to ask forgiveness than permission.” I qualified it by adding, “from people other than your parents.” I know it is a delicate balance, but she will need to learn to not accept the world as it is and to make it the way she thinks is right (as long as she doesn’t hurt anyone).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

First Impressions

August 29, 2009
Okay, I’m now living here 4 days including a Shabbat, so I am ready to give a first impression. Mind you, I have lived in Israel 10 years already, five as a kid and five as an adult, so it’s not like I don’t understand what’s going on around me. But here’s what I have to report as a first impression regardless of my somewhat veteran status.
But first a joke.
Sherlock Holmes and Watson go on a camping trip. They set up their tent, put their things inside, roll out their sleeping bags and go to sleep.
In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes up and says to Watson, “What do you have to say about that sky?”
Watson, always swift to answer, responds in his usual character. “Well Holmes, from a cosmological perspective, this is proof that we are just a small speck in the vast universe. And from the astronomical perspective, I think Jupiter is aligned with Mars. From a meteorological perspective, it doesn’t look as if there is a cloud in the sky which leads me to believe that we will have a rather nice day tomorrow, and from a astronomical perspective, I think the moon is in the seventh house.”
Holmes responds, “Watson, are you a bumbling nincompoop?”
“What so ever do you mean, Sherlock?” Asks Watson.
And Holmes responds, “Can’t you see, my dear Watson, they’ve stolen our tent?”

Get it? You don’t have to answer. My point is that it is hard to answer the question about first impressions and give a single, comprehensive answer. So I will segment.
For many people moving to Israel is a very Jewish thing, so I will say this from a Jewish perspective, I am not impressed. Well, I am actually impressed, but poorly. For instance, the most Jewish thing I have seen repeatedly is a poster explaining why the war of Gog and Almagog, part of the end of days, has already started. You could ask me to qualify why I say the most Jewish thing when everyone around me is speaking the Jewish language, but I would answer that there are plenty of Philippines’, Taiwanese and Africans here who speak Hebrew and are not Jewish, let alone Palestinians.
Of course, the buses all stop for Shabbat and many stores are closed, but in Tel-Aviv plenty are also open; more than I ever remembered in the past, and it seems that the city comes back to life well before three stars appear to end the Sabbath.
Something about living here makes me want to be a secular Jew; especially when I see the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox, who this weekend rioted again to keep a parking garage closed on Shabbat. Maybe that’s part of their values, to break Shabbat in order to force others to keep it. Go figure.
And now for political impressions, maybe you should sit down. Today the former finance minister started serving time for taking bribes, and the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was indicted for criminal behavior and abuse of power.
When I asked my brother in law where he thought I could find a political home here he said that Meretz, the left of center party I supported in the 90’s, has become an Ashkenazi, libertarian elitist party that is out of touch with the country. The Labor party is run by a squad of corrupt veterans that have replaced vision with a lust for power. Chadash, the communist party, is openly anti-Zionist and claims that Israel was a mistake, even though they support a 2 state solution, and Kadima, other than some bold ideas on the diplomatic front, visa vi the Palestinians, is a party with a Republican social-economic agenda.
The advice I was given, and I may follow it, is to join Labor and help create a coup. I don’t know if I will have the time or political capital to do this, but I want to discuss the question with my friends in Peace Now and others.
From a moral perspective, I am completely appalled by this place. Everything is corrupt from the bottom up. When we got our cell phones set up, the people at the phone company told us where to get our iPhones unlocked. When we went to do it, we were charged value added tax for the service. In essence, what this guy was doing, which Apple Computer would consider a violation of its intellectual property rights, was fine as long as he paid taxes on the money he collected.
When we went to Maya’s school, we told the principle that we expected extra tutoring hours for Maya, which the Ministry of Absorption promised us, and we were told that the Ministry of Education never pays its bills when they provide these hours, so they had no plans on helping. The list is long, and these are not the best examples, just the most recent.
Last but not least, from a purely patriotic perspective, things haven’t changed. My barber, who 13 years ago told me I would be a fool not to go back to America, now tells me that things here are wonderful and “there’s no place like Israel.” And then there is the cab driver today who told me I was a fool for coming back. Yes, there was the religious woman in line beside us as we bought lunch who said she didn’t mind the long process of my kids ordering as long as we were happy with our return to the country, and there was the bank manager who said that he wanted to improve service so Jews all over the world wouldn’t feel like they were going down in quality of life when they came here.
So there’s my answer. My first impressions are all over the place. I love and hate this place, just like I do in Chicago. Here I curse the heat, there I curse the winters. Here I am astounded by the fundamentalist religious just as much as I am in Chicago, and here I have a hard time finding a political home just like I have experienced my share of unsettledness in Democratic circles, at times. Most of all, just as I love my home town, that toddling town, I love Tel-Aviv with all the good and bad, and I’m happy to be here for now, especially while I have no worries about missing a Cubs World Series.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teaching baseball to Ethiopian immigrants

This morning we woke up to more extreme heat. I imagined myself playing in the Cubs game in San Juan, Puerto Rico a few years ago. My kids and I taught a group of 6 Ethiopian immigrants to play ball, but we didn't have enough mitts to go around. My in-laws live in a relatively poor part of Beit Shemesh and the neighborhood is filled with Ethiopians.
My brother in law, Shaul and his fiance (my kids helped pick out the ring last week) were at lunch as were my other brother in law, Lior, and his kids. Lior is doing some ground breaking work with gray water which I will report about as I learn more. Yochi, my sister in law, the acupuncturist, was also present. She is wonderful, and I'm glad to be close to her.
After lunch, I passed out. It was a combination of jet lag and forgetting to take my synthroid. Later we returned to Tel-Aviv, even hotter than Beit Shemesh, and signed a lease for our new apartment. We now live at Abba Kovner 13, have two parking spaces, a storage closet, a view of the sea and no money to speak of. Everything here is so expensive and we are house poor without owning a house. I will have to explore doing some adjunct teaching in addition to my studies.
Now it is 1:30 AM and I am taking advantage of the MLB TV I subscribed to before I left. The Cubs had a 3 PM game, which allows me to listen live and I'm loving it. The benefits of jet lag.
Go Cubs Go & Pleasant dreams.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Lufthansa, Pope Benedict and my arrival in the Holy Land

Thursday, August 27th, 5 PM CST.
The soundtrack in my mind this morning has been the song, Far from the home I love, from Fiddler on the Roof. That’s not to say, as the lyrics suggest, that my family doesn’t understand “why I do, what I do.” But I am full of sadness to leave my beloved city, my friends, parents, family, Cubs…
I started the day at my shul, Beth Hillel. Rabbi Kensky gave me the Levy aliyah to the Torah and then said a meesheberach prayer for me. This was a very touching way to say farewell to my congregation and well worth waking up at 6 AM after a night at Wrigley Field with my dad.
Breakfast at Jack’s in Skokie was also a treat. Some of my closest friends came to bid me adieu at my favorite breakfast restaurant. I often imagined myself sitting in Jack’s with my grandchildren and these same friends sharing stories of our past. I hope this is part of what the future holds for me.
As has been the case for the last week, I left Jack’s with my yellow “to do” list and made my way to the bank, Staples and a few other stops before a final packing of the suitcases. My last chore, to send out the prospectus for the book I have made out of my doctoral dissertation. The field of presses that publish peace education books is not very wide, but I sent four copies out and I hope I do better than the team average of my Cubbies. It only takes one publisher, and I hope it is among those I mailed my prospectus to.
On the way to the airport, my dad’s wife pointed out the irony of moving to Israel on a German airline. I thought that my last summer’s adventure in Munich had changed my perspective on this issue, but when they billed me an extra $150 for my overweight baggage, I temporarily reverted to my old stereotypes and cursed the anti-Semites. I know this has little basis in reality, but $150 could buy me a lot of baseball tickets and I’m angry.
Now I’m on the plane, which is packed. My friend Bennett mastered the art of sending someone off by sneaking a box of my favorite chocolates in with the baseball mitt he returned to me from our venture up to Milwaukee to see a Brewers game. In my last week in America, I managed to see the White Sox, Brewers and Cubs. Fortunately for me, my deal with God precludes a Cubs World Series victory before I return from Israel in 4 years.
I have to make a choice now between Chicken Teriyaki or Asian vegetarian. My travel agent forgot to order me a Kosher meal, so I guess I’ll go with the Asian vegetarian, not that I am strict about these things, but I am on my way to becoming a rabbi.
Well, I guess this is all for now. I promise to be more interesting as time goes on. It’s hard to reflect on your big life decisions when you’re in the midst of swimming in the deep water. Ciao for now.

Saturday, August 28th, 3 AM, Israel

It’s Shabbat and I’m writing on my computer. Really, I am not so bothered by this. I don’t think this violates the restfulness of my Shabbat. In fact, it is nothing compared to the unrestfulness of my jet-lag. The only other question is what behavior do I want to model? As I study to be a rabbi, this will become more of an issue. For the time being, I have ruled out “growing a black hat and buying a beard.” A favorite line from a secular Israeli lyricist, I think Yonatan Gefen, making fun of the orthodox here.
My flight to Frankfort was improved by the company I kept. In the seat next to me was a Polish divinity doctoral student. At first I was agitated by his arm creeping over the armrest that separated us, but eventually I was won over by his stories of work in Chicago on Polish-Jewish reconciliation. What most fascinated me was his comparisons of Pope John Paul and Benedict. Bill Ayers refers to Pope Benedict as Benny the Rat, and I coupled that with the little I hear about him in the news to form a negative impression. After speaking with Michael, my opinion has changed.
Yes, his changes to the Catholic liturgy regarding Jews is not something I feel good about, not his comments about Islam, but I was won over by two little understood facts. First of all, relative to John Paul, Benny is a much bigger supporter of Vatican Two, which was a major step in the right direction for the church, and second, Pope Benedict invited Jurgen Habermas to sit at his table and discuss the idea of discourse ethics. The school where I will study to be a rabbi, the Hartman Institute, has one guiding principle, every is welcome at our table that is willing to sit at our table with everyone there. For me, this is a great foundation piece for productive pluralism, and I see Pope Benedict’s action as very much in line with Hartman’s.
This said, I am very pleased to have witnessed Congressman Barney Frank put up a wall and say to an absurd (insane?) constituent who waved a picture of President Obama as Hitler and compared his health care plans to Nazism that “talking to [her] would be like talking to a dining room table.” Some people don’t earn their seat at the table, others earn my respect by making the table inviting, even for their philosophical enemies. Kudos to Pope Benedict.

From Frankfort to Tel-Aviv I sat with a fundamentalist 20 year old woman who was on her way to study Bible in a Christian university in Jerusalem near the Jaffa Gate. While she was a very nice girl, (I say girl without intention of patronizing) she was very innocent and I couldn’t help but feel as if she were filling voids in her life with Evangelical mumble jumble. She told me that she was coming to study Bible because she loved it, but when I tried to understand what that meant, she didn’t have much to say. She was loaded with platitudes about the role of women in the family, but didn’t understand that that was interpretation, not scripture (Even if Menachem Elon, the great Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Talmud scholar and candidate for the Israeli presidency claims that there is no difference between scripture and interpretation.) In essence, I saw this girl as a great example of that thin line between education and indoctrination. Lots of ideas and concepts were deposited in her with the hope that they will nurture her (indoctrinate) into a fine Christian woman, but she wasn’t educated to think for herself or understand why she holds the beliefs she does.
Regardless of the theoretical world surrounding her journey, she was very scared and excited and alone, and I felt great compassion for her. We got our baggage together and walked through customs together before I was greeted by Maya, Itamar, Irit and my two brother’s in law in Israel (the third lives in Vegas).

Arriving in Beit Shemesh, it started to hit me that this is my new world; Shabbat with the in-laws, extreme heat all summer, no baseball and a great distance from the home I love. Fortunately, the ten years that I lived here, over two 5 year stints, were quite joyful and I am full of hope that these next four years will be as rich and exciting as my past experience here has been.

Now I will disconnect the computer, walk over to the corner of my in-laws yard where I can piggy-back (can you say piggy-back in a Jewish country without sounding antagonistic?) on the neighbors wireless connection and upload this rant. Please share The Radish (www.davidsteinersblog.com) with your friends and send feedback.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jubilee, Hank Williams & other pangs of pleasure in this rabbinic pursuit

It’s 5 AM, Sunday morning and I can’t sleep. I’m wondering how this Jewish kid from Chicago who used to wake up early on Sundays, to watch Jubilee, the gospel music program, is now moving to Israel to become a rabbi. What’s even crazier is the destination. I have lived in Israel for ten years of my life, and in my Israeli identity, I have never inclined toward Judaism as a religion. In fact, I was among the numerous secular Tel-Avivis who stood in line at the video store the day before Yom Kippur to get my movies before going to the market to stock up the refrigerator. One year, to honor the distinctiveness of the holiday, I even rented Terminator: Judgment Day as a cynical twist on the intention of this day of fasting and repentance.

To be quite frank, the same irreverent kid still lives inside this aging body. I am not going to Israel to become a rabbi because I regret the behavior of my youth or because I have seen some light. I still get goose bumps when I hear the Staple Singers or Hank Williams singing I like the Christian life. The only difference now, I think, is the reverence I have for the rabbis who saved Judaism, and my awe and respect for the system they created which made a discursively ethical people out of our nation.

I am not going to become a rabbi because I believe in God’s revelation to my people and want to ensure that we follow Her ways.

I am not going to become a rabbi because of a newfound reverence for God. I do not know how I could ever be certain of Her existence. I’m not even sure it is relevant to me.

I am going to become a rabbi because I have discovered for myself that I was born into a radical tradition of progressive thinking intellectuals who initiated a self-correcting system that could uphold and sustain human dignity. And I want to promote that system among my people and as a light onto the nations.

As I understand it, the Talmud teaches us that the title “Rav,” rabbi, was established to indemnify teachers of this radical tradition, so they could share this progressive philosophy with their people free from the encumbrances that would limit their reach and depth of penetration in society. Talk about freedom of speech, my people created the freedom to teach, and they did it with style. Discourse was encouraged, disagreement welcome, and anyone was welcome to the table that would sit with everyone at the table. How cool is that?

The rabbis of the Talmud were victorious over challenges from their fundamentalist brothers. They faced their Roman oppressors as peacemakers, for the most part, in a style Gandhi would have respected, and they left us a tradition that we can be proud of and need to study and share. This is why I want to join this tradition and become a rabbi, and this is why I am willing to travel far from the home I love, the professional sports I crave, the culture I grew up in and the friends and family I love so much.

This is why the Jubilee watching kid and the middle aged body that houses him are moving to Israel. I just hope I do a good job learning my new trade and I hope I can manage without my Cubs and Bears and other human distractions that make being an American so lively.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I won't be needing Langston Hughes's phone number

I am not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I wrote this short poem to capsulize my family's experience over the last 7 months. I hope reads well.

i won't be needing Langston Hughes's phone number
or an email address to find out
What happens to a dream deferred
Mine is not drying up like a raisin in the sun
Nor is is festering like a sore
Although i hope it plays out to be like a syrupy sweet,
one that won't give me cavities
or add to my weight

My dream is not deferred
it just took nearly 7 months, the last 40 days without a job
but we kept our eye on the prize
and now we are off to the promised land
full of cliches,
and dreams of peace and learning and family
and appreciation for the strength and support
that got us here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

One man's catastrophe...

I have always thought that it must be very hard to be an indigenous American in the United States on Columbus Day or even Thanksgiving. It must be hard to celebrate the fall of one’s culture and the turn of events that forcibly changed the direction of one’s nation. For this reason, I found it quite objectionable this week when I read that in Israel the new Education Minister, Gideon Saar of Likud, has decided to use his position to force Palestinians living in Israel to rewrite their own history in a way that is palatable to the Jewish majority but not their own narrative.

According to the Associate Press, found in the Baltimore Sun “The Israeli government will remove references to what Palestinians call the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel's creation from textbooks for Arab schoolchildren.”

In Israel, for those who don’t know, there are three publicly financed school systems; Jewish-secular, Orthodox Jewish and Arab. If this reminds you of America before Brown versus Board of Education, I am not surprised. Yet, on the other hand, I think the intention of this system is not segregation but respect for the plurality of ways of living in Israel. I am a Zionist and I am proud of this attempt, but separate has not been equal, and Israel should do more to level the educational playing field when it comes to funding.

The fact that Israel included the reference to a catastrophe, al naqba, for the Palestinians experience of Jewish independence in the state is quite remarkable, but it is also very recent and short lived. As Minister of Education under the centrist Kadima government, Princeton trained political philosopher and Labor party Minister of Education, Yuli Tamir inserted the naqba reference in 2007. With the fall of Kadima and the rise of the Likud led, right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the progressive leadership of Ms. Tamir has also died. Long live progressive education.

The Associated Press reported Education Minister Gideon Saar as saying, "No other country in the world, in its official curriculum, would treat the fact of its founding as a catastrophe." While Israeli Arab lawmaker Hana Sweid responded, "It's a major attack on the identity of the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state of Israel, on their memories and their adherence to their identity,"

In the first pages of Jonathan Kozol’s On Being a Teacher, you can read the following quote from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best that we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of a particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetrating system… Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.


As I read these words, I wonder what the, “narrow and particular needs” of Israeli society could be that would cause them to want to change another people’s narrative. I am reminded of the vicious words of the late Prime Minister Golda Meir when she proclaimed, “There are no Palestinian people.” And I am reminded of our pain as we recall the vicious lies and propaganda spread against us by over the years by our detractors.

What is so wrong with two narratives coexisting side by side? Does their naqba lessen the joy I feel for my Jewish independence? Should it?

I am proud to be a Jew and proud of the State of Israel, and still I can look at myself in the mirror and see my faults and blemishes without rushing out to buy another mirror or put blinders on my eyes. Our independence had an effect on the world, just as it had an effect on us. That is basic physics. All the curricula in the world cannot change the past. As Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit likes to say, we cannot revivify the past, all we are able to do is retell it.

Personally, as an Israeli and as a Jew, I was much more proud when my country and my Jewish homeland let all its citizens tell their narrative as they saw it.

Of brokered kidneys, money laundering and the Halacha

Is it me, or is it getting quite embarrassing being a Jew and reading the headlines in our nations newspapers. The Madoff scandal was bad for our public image, but he was a lone individual, every people has a bad egg. But last week, next to the headline, 44 Charged by U.S. in New Jersey Corruption Sweep, there was a picture of black suited rabbis wrapped in hang cuffs, not tefillin, and this list; "the rabbis arrested included Saul J. Kassin, 87, a leader of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and New Jersey; Mordchai Fish and Lavel Schwartz, both rabbis in Brooklyn; and Eliahu Ben Haim and Edmund Nahum, who lead congregations in Deal.” Oy!
When the last two governors of my great state of Illinois were arrested for corruption, I was embarrassed, but I had only voted for one of them, and neither was a member of my tribe. Now we have five community leaders, rabbis who teach and interpret Torah, arrested by the feds, how could this be? Or maybe we should ask why it doesn’t happen more often?
When I read about the rabbis in New Jersey and Brooklyn, my mind went directly to something Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israel scientist, Talmud scholar and peace activist explained about his orthodox beliefs, something that has bothered me for a while and may explain why some observant Jews can see themselves as so pious and yet behave so unethically.
For Leibowitz, whom I happen to see as a very ethical person, there are no such things as Jewish values. Observance is not a matter of right and wrong, it is about doing what God asks of Jews. While in our morning prayers we proclaim that God listens to our prayers, Leibowitz believes that worship is merely the fulfillment of a commandment. It is the service of the God who asks us to pray thrice daily. The same is true for other commandments that would seem otherwise neutral and value free such as keeping kosher or not mixing linen and wool. This is what God wants, so we do it. There is no value judgment. Not mixing milk and meat is just as important as visiting the sick because both are commanded by God. For me this explains why some rabbis can justify for themselves their money laundering and brokering of human organs. It affords them the ability to build their communities and continue to observe mitzvot. For me, this is observance of the letter of the law without respect or concern for the spirit of the law. I wonder what kind of God they imagine they are loyal to. In my system of beliefs, Judaism is designed to make us holy. What these rabbis in New Jersey did was not even mundane. It was a desecration.
This is not to say that those commandments that are not clearly ethical are null and void. That Reform approach to the Halacha, our Jewish way, also seems antithetical to the spirit of Judaism. Halacha is not a shmorgasbord of commands to be picked through like items in a rummage sale. It is a system of our practices that should be studied and reinterpreted in each generation, for the same reason that we pray to, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, The God of Jacob…” and hopefully the matriarchs as well, because in each of our forebears generations there was a unique understanding of the law and it’s inception. Starting out the Shmonah Esar, our silent prayers, with a reminder of this changing understanding keeps us in that beautiful and vital tradition. Jewish tradition that is fundamentally good, not fundamentalist. The letter of the law is subjugated to the spirit of the law and its adherents. Just ask Rabbi akiva.
While I am ashamed of these rabbis in New Jersey, and dread the public scrutiny of our beliefs, there is a part of me that wants to make lemonade from these lemons. Now we have a chance to confront the fundamentalism in our own backyard and ask what it really means to be observant. Now we are nudged to ask why we observe the way we do and what are the intentions of our laws. And now we are confronted with a conflict between laws and ethics, and good thinking comes out of these conflicts. So let’s not totally hang our heads low and feel the well deserved shame of our co-religionists. Let’s take this as an opportunity and reexamine where we stand and why we stand there so that each and every one of us can own the tradition as we understand it in our time.