Monday, April 19, 2010

My Dance with Dvora

I first met Dvora Bertonov at the home of Ruti Dyches, our mutual friend and acting  teacher. Dvora was 79 and I was a mere 29. It wasn't exactly Harold and Maude, the acclaimed (1971) Hal Ashby movie featuring Ruth Gordon as an 80 year Holocaust survivor and Bud Cort as her young lover, but it was a different kind of love as I understood from her frequent reference to me as "mein kind."

Mein kind was not just a term of endearment. In 1972, Dvora lost her only son, Ido Bin Gurion, to suicide after a long battle with depression. Ido, a wunderkind, was an actor, singer, and the first to translate Edgar Allen Poe into Hebrew. No wonder, he was the grandson of the renowned author Micha Josef Berdyczewski (Berdichevsky), the Hebrew, Yiddish and German author described as "the first Hebrew writer living in Berlin to be revered in the world of German letters." Berdichevsky was the father of Dvora's husband, Emanuel Bin Gurion, who spent much of his life archiving his father's legacy. If this is not enough, Ido's maternal grandfather was Yehoshua Bertonov, the doyen of the Hebrew National Theater in Moscow which became The Bima before the troupe came to Mandate Palestine in 1928. One of Dvora's favorite stories was of her dancing before the Hebrew National Poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik as a young child in the shadow of her parent's work at The Bima.

Bridging between Ido's and Dvora's legacies, I had the rare opportunity to interview the members of Ido's singing group in the Nachal branch of the Israeli Defense Force. Ido served with such legends as Arik Einshtein and Uri Zohar, and some of the troupe members gathered for an interview I conducted for a CD ROM Dvroa and I collaborated on. This was just one of the many expressions of love and respect for Dvora I observed in our 15 year friendship.
Unlike the Ruth Gordon character in Harold and Maude who took her life on her eightieth birthday, Dvora was full of life at eighty with no plans to stop. She had just acted in the movie, The Flying Camel and was working on a duet dance performance called "Curfew" (Im Kibui Orot). While she had received the Israel Prize recognizing her contributions to Israeli Arts and Culture in 1991, in 1995, at eighty years old, she was reaching new heights. This is when we had the bright idea to celebrate her work with an 80th birthday party at the Suzanne Dallal Dance Center in Neveh Tzedek. The night was spectacular. The audience was filled with dignitaries including the Mayor of Tel Aviv Roni Milo, Ehud Manor, Naomi Shemer, Chava Albershtein and more. On stage, Dvora was interviewed by Rivka Michaeli, lauded by former President Yitzhak Navon, and entertained by several dance companies including the Kibbutz Dance Troupe. Of course the show was stolen when Dvora and her young dance partner took the stage and performed "Curfew."

Big names and big performances were par for the course with this small woman of great stature, as her friend Dan Almagor used to refer to her. But maybe her biggest contributions were in the field of dance research and ethnography. I remember once sitting in Dvora's living room with Judy Alter, a dance professor at UCLA, listening to the two of them discuss dance in the performance of Jewish ritual in the Tanach. In that same conversation, Dvora explained the difference between Ghanese and Indian dancing as they related to the tiles of her two dance ethnographies, Dancing to the Earth and Dancing to the Horizon. "In Ghana," explained Dvora, "they hunch over and dance to the mother Earth. In India," she explained as she demonstrated, "they dance to the horizon."

Academics and the spotlight aside, my favorite moments with Dvora were when we sat alone in a Tel Aviv cafe and she would explain Schopenhauer to me or talk about the religious philosophies of the Gurdjieff. When my first child, Maya, was born, Dvora explained to me that Maya is a name for the creative energy of the Gods in India.

Once we had Dvora over for Shabbat chamin at my mother in law's house in Beit Shemesh.  I invited a peace activist friend from Ramallah, Hania Bitar. During the meal Dvora said to Hania, "If my father knew what coming here would mean to your family, I am not so sure that he would have come." She then proceeded to ask with complete bewilderment why we can't all just get along? It was really a beautiful scene, especially since we had 4 generations, Dvora from Russia, my mother in law from Morocco, my wife and Hania from here and my daughters from America, and all of them call this place home.

I left Israel in 1996, shortly after the birthday celebration. For 13 years we stayed in touch long distance and during my summer visits. One of the greatest of these was when Dvora took my three children into her basement dance studio in her apartment building in Holon and told them about and demonstrated her performances of The Begger's Dance in The Dybuk. Dvora handed out instruments from her vast collection of musical folk instruments and the kids played along as she danced. This is my most treasured memory of Dvora,  and it is the one that will stay with me as she dances her way back to mother Earth. Good bye Mein Imma.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Passover letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I am an American Jew living in Israel. In America, I proudly voted for you for the Senate and for president. I campaigned with my three children for your presidency in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. I came to Israel to train to be a rabbi and to live among my people in a sovereign Jewish state with my wife and children. When I finish my studies, I hope to return to America and to join you in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

My wife and I also have Israeli citizenship and as dual citizens, we want to express how much we appreciate your stewardship of the relationship between our two countries. Sometimes, as my Israeli father in law says, “You can’t see the forest because of the trees.” I think this is the case of my Jewish homeland.

We are a well-intentioned people. We treat our destiny as if we have a unique relationship with God. Not all of us believe this narrative, but we all live within it and it frames our worldview. Soon we will be celebrating Passover. We will engage in the ritual of a Passover Seder and recall our collective memory of slavery and redemption. Whether this narrative is history or not, we all treat ourselves as a nation of freed slaves who have an obligation to wrestle with our freedom and our nationhood. Sometimes we do this better, sometimes worse.

Added to this narrative is the narrative of anti-Semitism. Anyway you look at it, we are a people who have been oppressed for being who we are. It is an ascribed identity that is irrational but must be treated with the utmost seriousness because of the numerous human tragedies it has led to. If for no other reasons than the Holocaust and the continued hatred of my people for the simple fact of their Jewish birth, we need a country of our own.

Israel isn’t perfect. We are a country of immigrants, many of who were forcibly driven from their places of birth. We are still working on writing a constitution to regulate our collective rights and responsibilities. We still don’t give freedom of religion to all of our Jewish citizens, a reality which was specifically harmful to me and my wife when, living here sixteen years ago, we were forced to get a civil marriage abroad in order for our Jewish wedding with a Reform rabbi in Israel to be accepted.

But we are also a country that takes its role in the comity of nations very seriously. We recently participated on a grand scale in Haitian relief. We have even tried to do the same for some of our Arab neighbors in times of natural disaster. We contribute greatly to biotechnology and the computer industry, and we have a considerable flock of great artists and writers who make the world a more cultural and beautiful place to live.

Our problem now is not seeing the forest for the trees, and it is very similar to our ancestors, who we will soon recall on Passover. Granted freedom, they didn’t know how to behave as a free nation and built a golden calve. Despite their redemption, they continued to accept and participate in the institution of slavery, and blessed with a great leader, many chose to rebel and some yearned to return to the tyranny of Egypt.

Today we suffer from similar misgivings. Granted our sovereignty, we continue to deny it to our neighbors, people who, like us, are not tourists in this land. We have built golden calves, idols, out of land instead of creating holiness in time as a nation that shows mercy and compassion to the people living under our rule, qualities we ascribe to our God. And as free people in our own land, we now show little understanding or appreciation for our freedom as we import foreign workers to do that which is hated by us and turn away refugees when we are best suited to understand their pain.

President Obama, sometimes it takes a courageous leader, a Moses, to throw the tablets at the people as a wake up call. We need someone who responds to injustice, as the young prophet did with the Egyptian taskmaster, someone who seeks justice among brothers, as he did when he saw his own people fighting amongst themselves, and who seeks justice for the stranger, as he did when he defended Jethro’s daughters at the well. These are the qualities of great leaders, and they are the reasons why God chose Moses to demand of Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have these types of leaders here. Instead of self- reflection, our leadership has created an environment of self-censorship. Instead of moral leadership, we have come to rely on loyalty over justice and vilify those fine citizens who question the integrity of our ways. And we have become a nation that speaks in the evil doublespeak of George Orwell’s 1984. We demand of our Palestinian neighbors, as a precondition for serious peace negotiations, that they acknowledge the Jewishness of our state, as if this were really something they could judge and in spite of the fact that our behavior is not very Jewish. We talk about the eternal, indivisible capitol of the Jewish people as if we ever ruled outside of the walled ancient city of Jerusalem, and then use this language for a land grab of conquered Arab real estate beyond the city walls. And we talk about living in a democratic state, when we have over two million people living under our control without basic civil rights, Palestinians and foreign workers alike.

So president Obama, I am urging you to continue your pursuit of justice in this region. Don’t feel obligated to seek the approval of public affairs committees who don’t represent the silent majority of my people. We need another Jethro, a non-Jewish leader who saw us from the outside and advised our leadership in ways that made us a better nation.

It will not be enough this year for Jews to say, at the end of our Seders, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Rather, we must make the name of our eternal capital fulfill its mission, Jerusalem, city of peace. Then, and only then, will we Jews be able to sanctify our redemption by living the values of our ancestors and acting responsibly among the rest of God’s creations.

It is with your leadership, President Obama, that we will finally leave the wilderness of war and bloodshed and enter the promised land of peace and sovereignty, two states for two peoples. This Passover, I wish you Godspeed in your mission.

Most sincerely,

David Steiner
Tel-Aviv, Israel

Passover Pita

Passover is here in Israel. The season of our joy, the celebration of our freedom, holiday of matzah and the arrival of spring. And yes, it is a joyful time in the Jewish country. We read in the newspapers about the pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem to receive the priestly blessing and about the continued growth of the economy. On the beach yesterday with my son, I heard people sing the echoes of Seder songs stuck in their heads after the mere one night of recounting our Exodus story as is required in Israel. Oh what a joy to live, if only for an extended hiatus, in the holy land.
There is, however, an undertow to this holiday celebration which is increasingly bothersome to me and reflects a larger trend in Judaism. It could be best explained with the example of my friend Ofer.
Ofer is a great guy. He and I come from very very different worlds. His parents were immigrants from Iraq. He worked hard, at the exclusion of a higher education, to make his small fortune and started with the mini-market next to my apartment 18 years ago. Now he runs a successful Shwarma and falafel restaurant in central Tel Aviv. I remember two things very well from the five years we were neighbors. One is the coffees he would make us in the little kitchen in the store, the other the kindness he showed to poor people who he frequently gave food to for free. Ofer was there at my wedding and at the birth of my first child. We have a bond.
That said, Ofer is a businessman, and, as such, he looks to fill needs in society. During this week, that need is something resembling leavened flour that can house the contents of a falafel or shwarma. In short, Ofer's kosher restaurant continues to sell food as usual with a kosher for Passover version of his usual pita. What's the big deal, you might ask, and how does this relate to a larger trend in Judaism? As I see it, this is the perfect microcosm for understanding the direction of our people and, in a sense, the changing relationship we Jews are having with the God who we believe took us out of Egypt.
For many people in Tel Aviv, where I live, Passover is an excuse for a party, time to see family, paid vacation days from work and a bump in the road to culinary delights. It may be a time to tell the stories of our collective memory of exodus, but it is not a time of unique commandments or rituals that guide our collective behavior, and I am not trying to make a bad name for Tel-Aviv, my second favorite city after Chicago. The conclusion I get from this is that we are more a community of memory than we are of belief. But belief is not the only reason we refrain from leaven during Passover. In fact, the only reason I don't eat bread this week is because it helps me remember my collective past and reminds my that the bread of affliction is still being served around the world.
This year, my mother's husband, grandfather of my children, an African-American, sat at my mother in law's table for Seder. Just before we sang Oh Freedom, the Negro spiritual used frequently in civil rights demonstrations, I reminded everyone that Grandpa Claude is the person at the table who is best suited to really recall the enslavement of his ancestors. What I didn't say was that as an African-American, Claude remembers differently.
Rabban Gamliel reminds us, at our seders, that whoever does not discuss the pascal lamb, the matzah and the bitter herbs, has not completed the Passover observance properly. What does he mean? Does he want us to discuss the minutiae of what makes matzah kosher for the holiday or does he want us to discuss the expediency with which we had to flee Egypt and why that didn't allow time for our bread to rise? Does he want us to focus on cute furry mammals or is he interested in their role in past ritual observance? Does he care whether we eat horseradish or bitter lettuce or whether we remember how Pharaoh's treatment of us as resident aliens, enemies of the state and slaves made our lives so bitter? In short, as the innocent son asks, “What is this?”
Today, particularly in Israel, the so-called “wise” son rules. He asks a narrow, almost scientific question, “What are these testimonies, statutes and laws?” and we answer with narrow answers about why Ofer's pita replacement is kosher but not Shlomo's pita. And we forget the answers given to the wicked and innocent sons, that God did things for us when we were in Egypt and that He led us to freedom with a strong hand.
What I want to know is where is freedom in Ofer's pita? Where is memory?
More and more these days, I find Judaism focusing on the letters of the law and not the spirit and purpose. It reminds me, in a way, of the dilemma I have when I sit at a red light for an excessively long time, late at night, with no cars on the street. I ponder whether I should drive through the red or not. The purpose of the law, I understand, is to moderate traffic patterns, but there is no traffic. Thus far, I have been conservative and decided that I don't want the law interpreted by each individual, on her own, so I remain faithful to the letter, but in truth, I am not adhering to the spirit of the law which only wants to keep people safe and traffic flowing. The law doesn't intend to disrespect my time.
Some might not like the comparison between human law and that of the divine. I can respect that. But in many ways, this comparison is useful. I am not completely in favor of every Jew taking the tradition in her own hands. Just as we persist as a community of memory, I think that memory must serve a collective function. There is no value in remembering that “my father was a wandering Aramean,” if it doesn't teach us something about being strangers in strange lands and compassion. But, on the other hand, I am more fearful of strict adherence to the law, especially when some Jews dictate for all what the tradition might be. This can lead to Passover as the wise son will understand it, as a set of testimonies, statutes and laws at the expense of larger social missions.
I believe that Ofer's matzah is dangerous because it makes the holiday about laws and not their purposes. The Passover Seder, on the other hand, is wonderful because it is our chance to lean back and recline as we consider why we do the things we do, and it forces us to do it together in a framework that uses memory to instruct our decisions about the future.
The problem is that we only have a Seder once a year and that leaves us a gap that is filled by chief rabbis, non-democratically chosen community leaders and self-interested politicians. We don't participate in a Jewish national Seder, or dialog, neither as a country nor as a people. Our Jewish homeland hasn't had a constitution since it's establishment 62 years ago. And now we are acting as if we have no future without the intervention of God's strong hand.
So this year, as I avoid my friends kosher for Passover pita, and crunch my matzah, and remember the suffering of my ancestors, and grapple with the realities of Jewish statehood, I ask why remember the pascal lamb, the matzah and the bitter herbs, if doesn't lead us to celebrate our freedom and remember the slavery of others? But more importantly, I ask how I can make the spirit of the law come before the letter and how I can reach an understanding of this spirit collectively with all of my people?