“Translating Hebrew into another language is like kissing a bride through a veil” – I thought of this quote, most often attributed to Bialik, one of the greatest Hebrew poets of the 20th century, during a recent wedding in the French speaking parts of Canada. As the speeches began during the wedding banquet, an older woman turned to me and whispered, in English, with a thick (Slavic) accent, ‘can you translate mazeltov? What does it actually mean?’
I did my best to explain this generic Jewish way of congratulation, its forgotten Hebrew origin (astrology based – ‘may the planet that guides you be in alignment’), its juicy gist, but I still found it difficult to convey the indigenous essence, specific flavor. ‘Good luck’ doesn’t quite cut it, but it’s the closest and does have something to say about fate, and faith, and relentless optimism. She smiled and nodded – one of those smiles that bridged all languages. But did she ‘get’ it? Do we ever successfully convey the innards of our words when we translate into another culture? Or is it always skin deep? A kiss through a veil? And is that better than no kiss at all?
Henry dies around 2am Jerusalem time. I put the book down, sobbing. It wasn’t unexpected but his loss, nevertheless, is shocking. I go online and look on gchat for A. who is in India, god know what time, and I type ‘Henry just died.’ She immediately replies ‘o honey I’m so sorry. I know how you feel.’ And so on. We chat for about 10 consoling minutes, she in the middle of the monsoon and me in the hot Jerusalem night, grieving an imaginary dead man in Chicago.
The 4th of July fireworks over the Hudson River were fantastic. Crowded among the hundreds of thousands on the West Side Highway of Manhattan, we ooh and ahh and then make our way among the crowds to drink beers on a quiet roof and talk politics. One of us, the only born and bred American, sighs: ‘it’s so nice to finally celebrate the United States knowing that the leadership is in good hands.’
It’s odd, but I feel badly for the Madoffs. Aren’t they, in some way, also victims of the sins of their father? Bernie’s sentence of 150 years behind bars will likely mean that he will die in prison, but as he himself declared in court – his legacy will outlive his mortality – and his family name will be forever associated with disgrace and the sins of excess. I was sitting in JFK airport on my way to Chicago when CNN announced the verdict. People in the terminal clapped. A woman sitting next to me exclaimed “not good enough! That sinner should burn in hell before he is sent to prison on tax payers’ money.”
I walked away.
The Sabbath lunch table was set for 40 – heavy linen table cloth and matching napkins, crystal wine glasses – but it was all about the view. Outside the dining room windows – the golden Dome of the Rock – in full glory, only a few hundred feet away: The best view of the Temple Mount I’ve ever had. The home that overlooks the dome belongs to a very orthodox, very wealthy, very generous, quite nice and, it appeared, quite right-wing American Jewish couple, who’ve turned their multi-leveled palace in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter into a Judaism & Zionism Boost Center.
On the last day of their first trip to Israel, they had a terrible fight. D. stayed up all night crying on the balcony of their hotel room, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. K. was down at the hotel bar. K. is an old friend of mine, born and bred in NYC, a nice Jewish boy. D., his partner, born to a devout Hindu family in London, is considering conversion. They’ve been together for three years. This trip was meant for them to really discuss the conversation issue, to see Israel for the first time, together.
We met for breakfast early in the morning after their terrible fight. I walked into the hotel lobby and immediately saw that something was wrong: both of them sitting, stiff, at two ends of a sofa wearing sunglasses, reading newspapers.
Next door to my apartment in the German Colony is a small synagogue, belonging to a Turkish community. Now that it’s summer and my bedroom window is wide open, I lay in bed on Saturday mornings and hear them pray and chant the Torah. It’s beautiful, trance-like – very different from the European style synagogues I grew up in and am most familiar with. These guys are all sing-song and rhythm, drumming and banging with their hands on the tables. The man who chants the Torah raises and lowers his voice dramatically, using a Middle Eastern trope that makes haunting music of the worn words. Last Saturday I sat up in bed and followed along, listening, familiar enough with the text, enjoying his subtle interpretations. I have no idea who they are or what any of them look like.
Pope Benedictus the 16th is visiting the Holy Land this week, stirring some trouble – immense traffic jams being the least of it. The Holy Father has disappointed many here – Jews, Arabs who were hoping for a spiritual message, but instead encountered a timid diplomacy.
On Monday, my father was invited, among a small group of Holocaust survivors and government officials, to attend the pope’s ceremony of remembrance to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad VaShem – a mandatory event for every dignitary visiting Israel. I got to go along as my father’s escort – a little celebrity-struck, and curious to witness this occasion, hoping, like many others, that something important will be said, some significant gesture to help heal the many hurts that still linger in this dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, and between all people of faith on this crazy holy land. It’s not every day that one gets to see a Pope up close. And it’s not everyday that the leader of the Catholic Church, who also happens to be a former member of the Hitler Youth, is invited to address the world inside a Memorial Tent for the Holocaust.
Blue and white dominate Israel this week. The country is in high gear for Yom Ha’atazmaut – the 61st Annual Day of Independence. Israeli flags flap everywhere – roadsides, billboards, balconies, rooftops. In the paper goods section of Ace Hardware today a saleswoman shrugs in reply to a customer ‘we are totally out of all white and all blue paper plates, paper cups, napkins and tablecloths’. But they do still sell flags – in every shape imaginable, including cocktail umbrellas and queen size sheets. For 10 shekels you get a plastic flag that attaches easily to the car. My mother bought one last Friday, raised it high and drove off, with fresh chicken soup, to visit her sister who lives in one of Jerusalem’s Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. When she came back out to her parked car thirty minutes later– the flag was gone. Only the plastic handle was left dangling. She was furious as she told us about it over Shabbat dinner. ‘It had to be some kid or yeshiva boy, anti Zionist, ungrateful and rude; As though they don’t benefit from national health insurance and basic plumbing!’
The lights went out with the last chord of music and for a few seconds a great hush fell over the packed theater. Then the lights came back on stage, the actors bowed, holding hands, and all of us in the audience leaped to our feet for a standing ovation. Next to Normal, a powerful new musical about the perils of mental illness (!) opened on Broadway this past week and I was lucky enough to be invited.
A lot of excited chatter followed as people left the theater and congregated on 45th street to exchange opinions. There was much to talk about – the show is a provocative and inspiring rollercoaster– but I had nothing to say, or rather – nothing I could yet say. I needed more time to digest quietly. My friends went off to have a drink – and I walked away, into the city night, slowly and in total silence. Sometimes, a great hush is all one needs. Sometimes, it is all one can handle.