Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping up with the Steiners: The Sequel

We had a lot of challenges in making Sahar’s bat mitzvah a success. Maya’s bat mitzvah felt magical. Our whole community came out to Beth Hillel to cheer as we welcomed her into the responsibilities of adult Jewish life. Now in Israel, significantly poorer than we were a mere year and a half ago, with a smaller community much less interested in Jewish ritual, we had to make this feel equally special.
Together with Sahar, we chose to do the entire enterprise in a small Bedouin camp called Khan HaShayarot in the Negev desert near the Ramon crater. The decision was brilliant. This location oozed symbolism. We were five minutes south of David Ben Gurion’s desert home, a place where my mother, as a teenager, ate dinner with Israel’s first prime minister during a trip she was on to break ground at the ORT school my grandfather helped build. Likewise, we were probably camping on land the patriarchs had traversed numerous times as they shepherded their flocks. Maybe this was one of those places that Abraham heard God’s call. Ideally, an echo remained for my daughter’s ears.
Our bus left North Tel-Aviv with twenty six kids from Sahar and Itamar’s school in the Lamed neighborhood and another twenty plus family members and friends who chose not to drive the three hour journey on their own. I drove our fifteen year old Mitsubishi station wagon but heard reports of the noisy drive which included a viewing of the movie Madagascar with Hebrew subtitles. They stopped twice along the way, which is not atypical for Israelis who are not used to traveling such long distances.
Upon arrival, everyone disembarked and unloaded their things from the bus. Some of the older guests ordered cabins at the Khan, while most of us planned to stay in the mahal, the Bedouin tent, which was large enough to contain a full basketball court and beautiful enough to be part of the set in an epic desert movie. Shortly after we arrived and settled in, we sat down to eat. Of course, this meant finding a spot on a mattress on the ground, around a big round table, which served five or six. The chicken came out whole, on trays loaded with rice and roasted potatoes, onions and peppers. The rest of the table was filled with various Bedouin salads. I am certain the food was good because my mother in law must have told me so five times how much she liked it, and she knows food. My father in law only eats at home, and I, who had the pleasure of eating couscous in Morocco, would prefer Safta Raquel’s couscous any day. Her seal of approval means much more than that of the Chicago public television show Check Please or any newspaper review. And she wasn’t alone. Everybody loved their dinner.
Dessert was less appreciated but good. We had baklava and tea. People got dressed in their party clothes and the entertainment set up their world music show. They unloaded about thirty drums, set up a screen for our montage, broke out the sound system and lights. The party was set and the guests were ready. We passed out instruments and had an incredible drum roll as the guest of honor entered the tent. The entertainers taught everyone how to play their drums. We sang. There was belly dancing, and my wife was the leader of the pack. She even brought her special belly dancing waist wrap with the Middle East equivalent of rhinestones. After the show, we danced the night away and then sat down for a montage about Sahar’s life. As a video editor, I felt compelled to produce something beyond a Power Point slide show. I was also bound by the montage I made for Maya’s bat mitzvah, and had to include humorous film clips. I included something from Borat, which I had also done for Maya, and I put in a scene from Joshua Then and Now, a movie based on a Mordechai Richler novel, in which the Mafioso father explains to his son that the Ten Commandments is like a test and, “If you get 8 out of 10, you’re in the top of the class.” Everyone loved the montage. Next, we went outside, under a star covered sky, roasted marshmallows and sang along with my guitar wielding classmate Uri Allen, who very generously came to make the evening special and accompany Sahar during the service.
If there was one downside to the bat mitzvah, it was sleeping in a tent with twenty seven kids from north Tel-Aviv. These kids don’t recognize dust in their own homes, let alone sand on the desert floor. Many of them had never slept away from home. All of them were trained by Israeli society to be rambunctious and not respectful of authority, and they were far from being ideal tent mates. For Irit and me, it was a challenge to be somewhat firm and have the kids respect the others in the tent who wanted to sleep and to not make Sahar look bad in front of her friends. Fortunately, we had Sahar sleep in a cabin with her grandparents, which gave us a little more freedom to be firm.
Breakfast was at eight, and boy was it good. Fresh pita made on a Bedouin tarboon, eggs, labaneh and other cheeses, vegetable salad… We left time for the possibility of guests coming just for the service and were happy to welcome Irit’s cousin Galit and her family from Pardes Hanna. They drove 4 hours just to celebrate with us. There were many things about the ceremony that were spectacular. My classmate, Josh Ladon, who is training to be a rabbi, proved that he will excel in his choice of vocation. Another classmate, Shoshi Rosenbaum, who wants to be a cantor and trained Sahar in reading Torah and the prayers, added a ton with her beautiful voice and reassuring presence for Sahar. I found it particularly interesting that we were praying on ground that Abraham, Sahar, Leah, Rivka, Rachel, Isaac, Jacob, Hagar and Ishmael, among many others, had prayed on, and that at the time of our prayers, we were randomly interrupted by the sounds of Israeli jets flying overhead. We also prayed facing north toward Jerusalem instead of our traditional East, and in our line of view were mountains, tents and a herd of camels.
Sahar gave a dvar Torah that hinted at a potential future in the rabbinate. She questioned how a God who got mad at the angels for rejoicing when Pharaoh’s army was destroyed, “When my creations are dying,…” could possibly ask Moses and the Jewish people to make animal sacrifices. She also lamented the current events which included the plan to lay a cornerstone of the third Temple. Sahar argued that she preferred Rabbinic Judaism which replaced sacrifice with “Torah, worship and acts of loving kindness.”
Near the end of the service, Irit and I gave Sahar the priestly blessing and I presented my own blessing for Sahar. Here is part of my blessing.

As your father, I want you to understand where I see myself in this binary, and what I would like for my children. I think that the decision to believe in God is much less important than what you think of that God. At the same time, I have great fear of those who believe in God and think they know Her absolute truth.
The way I have always lived my life is not to concern myself with God, but to act as if She is warm, generous, just, intelligent, merciful, loving and completely impotent in affecting my world. This way, I am forced to act as if the world rests on me and my fellow human beings. It also prevents me from getting angry at a God who allows so much evil and tragedy. Not concerning yourself with the question of God’s existence has freed me up to do my share of good in the world and I believe it will do the same for you.
That said, not believing in a commander means that you will have to find ways of understanding what a warm, generous, just, intelligent, merciful and loving God might want from you and you’ll have to figure it out with the people around you. This takes lots of skills and sensibilities which I am very proud to observe in your behavior.
I have always been proud to march beside you, whether it was for the rights of all loving couples to be able to get married legally, or for the sake of the victims of the fighting in Darfur, you have always had a keen sense of Justice and a call to action. These are among your best qualities.
But I see in you even more than an activist. You are a person who develops her skills in order to understand the world and express yourself in it. You don’t just read books, you devour them. You are also among the best young writers I know. In poetry and prose, you express yourself with passion and verve. You radiate your joy for life in dance and song, and your keen sense of fashion adds to the world’s beauty. These are amazing qualities that I hope you continue to pursue and your mother and I will continue to support in everyway we can.

At the end of the service, we ate cakes prepared by my mother in law, packed our things and loaded up the bus. Ironically, I was reminded of the end of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar when all the passion play actors loaded up their bus and left the desert. The whole ride home, I was kvelling. Sahar was amazing. The experience Irit and I created for our friends and family was perfect, and we were surrounded by love. What a way to bring a daughter into her adult Jewish life?

Two down, one to go.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Of states and peoplehood

    My teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute asked us to consider the implications of statehood for the Jewish people. This is no surprise at an institute founded by a rabbi who claims that Israel changes everything. The irony is that in the same week I was asked to write about these considerations, I have traveled to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinians, I was told by my wife that she is constantly confronted by people who say I find no good in Israel, and my American vice president was seriously disrespected during his visit to the country. So where does one begin?
    I think there are assumptions behind this question that need to be unpacked. Jewish peoplehood is a touchy issue. Lots of greater minds have written about it. I can only skim the surface.     One question that comes to mind is “how is peoplehood established?” Once in Sarayevo, I heard Benjamin Barber, a professor emeritus from Rutgers University, describe a difference between ascribed and assumed identities. I understand him through two stories. One is a small piece of Jewish learning that says that Abraham didn’t receive the Torah from God because he didn’t have a people to lead. The second story is in the first chapter of Exodus when Pharaoh decides that Egypt is threatened by this growing nation; the children of Israel. Pharaoh is the first person to call us a nation, Am in Hebrew (no, I don‘t think Pharaoh spoke Hebrew).
    For Barber, Abraham may have had an assumed identity as one commanded by the sole God of humanity, but it wasn’t a national identity. Likewise, the children of Israel, forced into slavery by the Egyptians, were victims of the ascribed identity given to them by Pharaoh. He thought they would rise up against Egypt. Little did they know that we can barely do anything as a collective except quarrel. The implications of the these contradictory yet coexisting notions of identity have great implications for the Jewish people. One might ask, “Are we a people because we have a common set of values
?” Or, “Are we a people because we have been treated as one for millennia?” Both of these questions are oversimplifications of Jewish peoplehood. Clearly, we are not a people bound together by values. I could bring several proofs for this; my Buddhist cousin who does seder with my family or the behavior of committed and engaged Jewish community members, the extreme being Madoff. There are lots of examples and every Jew has her own.
    As for the way we have been treated, this is an extremely complex matter. Jews have a shared and collective memory. A great book about this is Zakhor by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi#. Of course this is a myth, but it is the myth we live in. One might even say that it is the glue that binds our assumed identity. We are Jews because “Our father was a wandering Aramean.”
    I believe that memory has a great affect on human agency, and, kal vachomer, therefore, collective memory has an affect on collective agency. We Jews, sometimes, act as Jews upon the world and not as individuals. We do this because we imagine ourselves to have experienced everything Jews have experienced for ages. This is the result of ascribed identity affecting assumed identity. Part of the way we respond to the world is based on the way we perceive the way the world treats us. Think of the ramifications for the Jewish people and statehood. When we have a state, we have some tools previously unavailable to us as a collective. We have an army, police, laws and other social institutions. We have a government, a land and an official standing in the comity of nations. There are also some things that many nations have which we have not acquired for ourselves yet, particularly, a constitution and permanent borders.
    I proceed to unpack the inquiry of my teacher by looking at Jewish statehood through the lens of Barber’s dualism. The wise son asks, “Is Israel a Jewish state or a state of Jews?” and the wicked son, “What have you done by creating this country?” The innocent - though maybe the wisest - challenges us by simply questioning, “What is this?” And the one who doesn’t know how to ask will simply assume a different identity until he is reminded of his Jewishness by the ascribers of our negative attributes.
    Jews have lived without assuming the yoke of their Jewishness. The ascription of the identity is probably worse for these people. Heinrich Heine, the great German poet who converted from Judaism to Christianity, was quietly resting in his coffin, years after his death, when Hitler bothered to desecrate it during the mere 24 hours he spent in Paris after its fall. Clearly Jewish identity is something that can’t be completely removed, but we should ask if everything a Jew does is Jewish? When Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippor, he was undoubtedly acting as a Jew. Ideally, that could also be said for wealthy Jewish philanthropists like George Soros, although I tend to believe that he would not ascribe his generosity strictly to his Jewishness.
    When Jews have a state of their own, is it fair to say that the ingenuity of Jewish Israeli citizens is a collective contribution of our people to the world? Most Jews would answer in the affirmative. I have loads of emails testifying to the collective contributions of individual Jews, even though I am not sure that Avram Hershko, a Hungarian born Israeli chemist (2004 Nobel winner), would say that his science is Jewish or necessarily a part of his living in Israel. Would it be fair to make the same claims about a non-Jewish Israeli citizen?
    “Is Israel a Jewish state or a state of Jews?” is not really that wise of a question, but neither is the wise son’s question on Passover. “What is this?” however, is brilliant?
    When the vice president of Israel’s greatest ally and financial backer comes to Israel as a guest hoping to reignite the peace process and is greeted with an announcement of 1600 new homes being built in East Jerusalem, we can describe this in many ways, but nobody would be so bold as to call it Hachnasat Orchim, the Jewish value of welcoming the guest. When I encounter Palestinians in Bethlehem deprived of basic human rights like freedom of movement or the right to visit their holy sites, I am quite certain that this is not a case of “veahavta lereehcha cmocha,” loving thy neighbor as thyself. But when I rebuke my fellow countrymen and leaders for our misbehavior as a state, I am quite certain that I am following the Jewish behavior prescribed in Leviticus, “Hocheach, Tocheach,” you shall surely rebuke your neighbor.
    The question that remains open for me is whether a state, which is a modern creation of humans, can embody all the characteristics of what we refer to when we speak of peoplehood? Is peoplehood something we use as a word for descriptive purposes but don’t dare try to reify as a concrete object, or is peoplehood something that exists and needs to be channeled properly to make its essence good? I don’t like states, but I find that they can be beneficial to my existence. My American passport can get me into any country in the world, even Cuba with some lubrication (I’ve been twice). States can also protect human freedoms in ways that universalism cannot. Some countries allow people of the same sex to get married. Some countries have free press and assembly. But states are still forms of authority, and authority can be used for good and bad purposes.
    Israel is a state that includes Jews who seek refuge from their oppressors, or who want to be here, some who came to be part of this huge Jewish enterprise and others who were simply born here and don’t have a Jewish identity as much as an Israeli identity. The addition of non-Jewish Israeli citizens and foreign workers may exacerbate the problems, but they are not the cause. Quite simply, it is not easy to imagine or bring proof for the existence of some moment in history when Jews had personal agency, lived democratically and functioned as a collective. The fact that we have a collective memory does not have clear implications for how we should build a collective future. Yes, our understanding of our ascribed identity and the victimization that has caused us leads us to acknowledge the need for a refuge state, a state of Jews. But what about a Jewish state?
    When David Hartman says that, “Israel changes everything,” he is absolutely correct, even though change is nothing new to our people. Having a state creates a new Judaism just like living during the Middle Ages or in a ghetto in Poland. The addition of sovereignty and a vehicle of collective agency, byproducts of statehood, accelerate the pace of change, and being part of the comity of nations limit’s the change, but Israel changes everything. There is a new dualism in the Jewish world. No longer are their just assumed Jews and ascribed Jews. Today we have Jews who are part of the biggest Jewish project in our history and those who are not. And the way to make the best of our existing reality, being a people with a country, is to find ways to collectively and righteously address our predicament.
    To this goal, I think that the idea of Israel education is a myopic term. Israel is a project of the Jewish people on the same level as Jewish community centers, synagogues and kosher restaurants. We need to assess the assets of our nation and find ways to work together to reap the benefits of these assets. The key is finding ways. At one time in our history, the mara d├ítra, the spiritual leader of a community, was a directive force in Jewish enclaves. Today, in a smaller, global village linked together by computer networks and extremely rapid forms of transportation, the conversation needs new rules. We need to develop a discourse literacy with guidelines that can help us continue the collective pursuit and discussion of what it means to be Jewish, and that conversation should not be limited to Israel education. Israel is a means, not an end for the Jewish project. As a refuge, it is a response to anti-Semitism. As a collective endeavor, it is only one, albeit the largest, Jewish enterprise. But if we want Judaism to succeed, I believe that it will require of us to examine our projects within the trajectory of Jewish history and not as an end in themselves. To do this, we will have to reflect hard on why we believe God gave us His Torah, and what was the purpose of promising this land to our ancestors. Most importantly, though, we must develop the skills and disciplines needed to have the conversation which is the constitutional part of our peoplehood. We must remember that the Torah is no longer in Heaven, and it is our task alone to extrapolate its meaning.