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.