Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #3 – Shemi Zarchin and the Mizrachi experience

December 19, 2014 by

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My third candle was for Shemi Zarchin. He is a screenwriter, film director and novelist who creates beautiful rich and complex women characters in particular, and in particular hits on the Mizrachi experience in Israel. I still think that Aviva My Love was one of Israel’s best films – exploring creativity and exploitation, as well as the working-class Mizrachi world of Tiberias. The two sisters with their “we don’t talk about that” catch-phrases of intimacy and love are a delight, and Asi Cohen puts in one of the great performances of Israeli film.

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Zarchin’s novel, “Some Day”, came out recently in English translation. I don’t know how it translates, but I imagine that the magical realist plot and characters will storm past any awkwardness of language. It is a story of overflowing passion, extreme both morally and emotionally, and one of the best books I’ve read.

So the candle I lit last night, the third of this festival, was lit for the words, the people, and the life that Shemi Zarchin brings to Israel’s cultural and political discourse.

North Americans can stream Aviva my Love from here, and the book Some Day is available in English here.

The light of Israeli’s women poets – Candle #2 – Leah Goldberg

December 18, 2014 by

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This second candle is particularly challenging. When I first read the poems of Leah Goldberg, I feared I would never be able to write poetry again. I was twelve or thirteen years old, I scarcely understood what was being said, but the power of the words struck me. I’m not a fan of Holocaust literature, I struggle to cope with the atrocities. In Leah Goldberg’s creation the horrors of the thirties and the Holocaust years are gently drawn. That date. 1935. And the location Tel Aviv.

I dedicate the second candle to all the men and women who left one homeland for another.

Memories of memories

Then the aerials on the city’s roofs were
like the masts of Columbus’ ships
and every raven that perched on their tips
announced a new continent.
And the kit-bags of travelers walked the streets
and the language of a foreign land
cut through the heat of the day
like the blade of a cold knife.
How could the air of the small city
bear so many
childhood memories, wilted loves,
rooms which were emptied somewhere?
Like pictures blackening in a camera,
the clear cold nights reversed
rainy summer nights across the sea
and shadowy mornings of great cities.
And the sound of footsteps behind your back
drum the marching songs of foreign troops
and it seems – if you but turn your head
there is your hometown church floating on the sea.

In “Tel Aviv 1935” (page 134) –
the first section of a long poem called “The Shortest Journey,” trans:  Rachel Zvia Back

הַמַּסָּע הַקָּצָר בְּיוֹתֵר / לאה גולדברג
מספרה “עם הלילה הזה”, 1964

א. תֵּל-אָבִיב 1935
הַתְּרָנִים עַל גַּגּוֹת הַבָּתִּים הָיוּ אָז
כְּתָרְנֵי סְפִינָתוֹ שֶׁל קוֹלוּמְבּוּס
וְכָל עוֹרֵב שֶׁעָמַד עַל חֻדָּם
בִּשֵּׂר יַבֶּשֶׁת אַחֶרֶת.

וְהָלְכוּ בָּרְחוֹב צִקְלוֹנֵי הַנּוֹסְעִים
וְשָׂפָה שֶׁל אֶרֶץ זָרָה
הָיְתָה נִנְעֶצֶת בְּיוֹם הַחַמְסִין
כְּלַהַב סַכִּין קָרָה.

אֵיךְ יָכוֹל הָאֲוִיר שֶׁל הָעִיר הַקְּטַנָּה
לָשֵׂאת כָּל כָּךְ הַרְבֵּה
זִכְרוֹנוֹת יַלְדוּת, אֲהָבוֹת שֶׁנָּשְׁרוּ,
חֲדָרִים שֶׁרוֹקְנוּ אֵי-בָּזֶה?

כִּתְמוּנוֹת מַשְׁחִירוֹת בְּתוֹךְ מַצְלֵמָה
הִתְהַפְּכוּ לֵילוֹת חֹרֶף זַכִּים,
לֵילוֹת קַיִץ גְּשׁוּמִים שֶׁמֵּעֵבֶר לַיָּם
וּבְקָרִים אֲפֵלִים שֶׁל בִּירוֹת.

וְקוֹל צַעַד תּוֹפֵף אַחֲרֵי גַּבְּךָ
שִׁירֵי לֶכֶת שֶׁל צְבָא נֵכָר,
וְנִדְמֶה – אַךְ תַּחְזִיר אֶת רֹאשְׁךָ וּבַיָּם
שָׁטָה כְּנֵסִיַּת עִירְךָ.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #2 – Israeli taxi-drivers

December 18, 2014 by

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monitThe distance between my work and my home means that I take at least 4 taxi rides a week. I love Israeli taxi drivers.

You get to sit up front – to sit behind is to imply a class distinction, which would be frowned upon – and you are expected to converse. Unlike others I know, I really enjoy this – especially if the driver is insistent on lecturing me on his opinions that are very different from my own.

I see every taxi drive as an opportunity to learn, and to see outside of my bubble. Friends, work colleagues, family, facebook – all of these connections serve to reinforce my separation from those who do not think like I do. Taxi rides force me to come to peace with the nature of a democratic diverse society. There are real people out there who have crazy ideas, and they have a right to be heard, even if I know they’re wrong…

Last night Asaf (I always ask for names) regretfully turned down my offer of some cashew nuts because he’d undergone some dental work. He shared with me that he’d spent years as a combat soldier, had caught three bullets and been stabbed twice. “I don’t know what fear is,” he said quite simply, “But man, when that dentist comes up to me… I’d prefer Gaza!”

As we got chatting it turns out that he has interesting opinions on micro versus macro economics, and that our military strategy is all wrong. We are, apparently “defending ourselves to death”, and the Iron Dome system is going to cripple us financially. We should be investing in better ways to attack them, not defend ourselves. Destroy not just their homes but also their entire families’ homes. “But hey,” as he said, noticing my ever-raising eyebrows, “this is a conversation for a long-distance trip to Tel Aviv, not just up the hill from Carmiel to Tuval…”

As he dropped me off, I realized I was smiling. Although I hugely disagree with him, he’s a lovely guy. A full human being. He gets a vote too, and he gets a say.

Candle #2 for people who teach me the world is broader than my opinions.

The light of Israel’s women poets – Candle #1 – Esther Raab

December 17, 2014 by

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At this Hanukkah festival I choose to light a small candle for women’s Hebrew poetry. Without detailed historiography or complicated biographies. Every day I’ll bring a short poem, translated into English, and explain why it’s significant for me. I do hope this small candle will light a great light and develop within us the taste, memory, and longing for words once spoken in a whisper and today as a cry.

The first poetess is Esther Raav. She was born in 1894 in Petach Tikvah, and saw herself as a native-born poet. Her poems are full of sensuous descriptions of landscapes, and excel at their details of flora and fauna. She sang songs of praise to the Land, songs of longing for a lover taken from her, and many of her poems deal with women and femininity.


For our first Hanukkah candle I chose the poem “Who Made Me A Woman”, that in its gentle way argues with the Dawn Blessing “Blessed be He who has not made me a woman.” Esther Raav reflectively suggests some more positive language with which to address God.

Every morning I bless “Who made me a woman”. You (f) are invited to join me.

Blessed is he who made me a woman –
that I am earth and Adam,
a tender rib;
Blessed is he who made me
circles upon circles –
like the orbits of planets
and spheres of fruit –
who gave me living flesh
that blossoms,
and made me like a plant of the field –
that bears fruit;
so your cloud tatters,
slide like silk
over my face and thighs;
and I am grown
and want to be a girl,
weeping from sorrow,
and laughing, and singing aloud,
thinner than thin –
like the smallest cricket
in the sublime chorus
of your cherubs –
smallest of the small –
I play
at your feet –
my Creator!

© Translation: 2002, Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
From: Thistles: Selected Poems of Esther Raab. Translated by Harold Schimmel
Publisher: Ibis, Jerusalem, 2002, 965-90124-8-9

שירַת אִשָּׁה/ אסתר ראב

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשַׂנִי אִשָּׁה –

שֶׁאֲנִי אֲדָמָה וְאָדָם,

וְצֶלָע רַכָּה;

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעֲשִׂיתַנִי

עִגּוּלִים עִגּוּלִים –

כְּגַלְגַּלֵי מַזָּלוֹת

וּכְעִגּוּלֵי פֵּרוֹת –

שֶׁנָּתַתָּ לִי בָּשָׂר חַי


וַעֲשִׂיתַנִי כְּצֶמַח הַשָּׂדֶה –

נוֹשֵׂא פְּרִי;

שֶׁקִּרְעֵי עֲנָנֶיךָ

מַחֲלִיקִים כְּמֶשִׁי

עַל פָּנַי וִירֵכַי;

וַאֲנִי גְּדוֹלָה

וּמְבַקֶּשֶׁת לִהְיוֹת יַלְדָּה,

בּוֹכִיָּה מִצַּעַר,

וְצוֹחֶקֶת וְשָׁרָה בְּקוֹל,

דַּק מִן הַדַּק –

כִּצְרָצַר זָעִיר

בְּמַקְהֵלַת כְּרוּבֶיךָ

הַנַּעֲלָה –

קְטַנָּה שֶׁבִּקְטַנּוֹת –

אֲנִי מְשַׂחֶקֶת



© 1988, Zmora Bitan Publishers
From: Collected Poems
Publisher: Zmora Bitan, Tel Aviv, 1988
ISBN: 965-03-0528-9

Eight candles of cultural hope – Candle #1 – Teapacks

December 17, 2014 by

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I was at a performance of the newly-reunited Teapack band last night. It being a gig in Jerusalem, on the first night of Hanukkah, with Kobi Oz as band-leader, the show was put on hold to light a Hanukkiah candle on stage, together with all the blessings. (One band-member wore a “Kippat Barzel”- “Iron Dome/Kippah” on his head)

kipatbarzelIt was a lovely moment. What with the warfare in the summer, the oil spill in the Arava, and the pending elections, I’ve been kind of miserable. The Teapacks evening forced me to remember the light in the darkness.

So this week I’m going to write up my eight candles in the Israel darkness: Eight events, cultural phenomena, or just eight thoughts that make me feel optimistic about life in Israel. Bearing in mind the doomsday predictions on all sides, they may well be my eight Hanukkah miracles.

Teapacks are my first candle. The gig was sold out, people of all ages were singing along and realizing once again how prophetic were the lyrics of the young Kobi Oz. Back in the early 90s when he sung of how “people are rolled up in newspaper”, he was referring to a neglected underclass few mainstream Israelis knew. Now in 2014, the song was for all of us.

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Back then when he sang in clear-eyed longing for the messy multi-cultural community of the Old Bus Station, he was referring to a shared experience of a specific place. Now, singing to an audience 50% of which only knows the New Station, the Old Bus Station became a state of mind to be yearned.

The band themselves have grown up. Whereas they used to sing songs that mocked their parents’ worries for their children: “Listen to your parents – why aren’t you more careful?” they themselves are now parents, sporting grey hairs and hints of bellies. They have families, we in the audience now have families, and – reinforced by the candle-lighting – we all that night felt like one family.

To feel like a Jewish family together in a public space, only a few weeks before potentially polarizing elections, that qualifies as my first Hanukkah miracle of the festival.


Navigating co-existence at the supermarket

December 4, 2014 by

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I enjoy my trips to the supermarket in the small industrial zone tucked away on one of the slopping hills of the northeastern suburb of Jerusalem, Maale Adumim. Aside from the thrilling search for the latest sales, the occasional who-was-in-line-first shouting match at the deli counter, or the short prayer that they stocked my daughter’s diaper size, there is an encounter I look forward to every time I walk through the doors. And it has nothing to do with shopping.

In this suburban “West Bank” city, the largest shopping market, Rami Levi (Jewish owned), employs a large number of Palestinian Arabs in positions ranging from bag boys to directing managers. The staff comes from the neighboring towns of Issawyia, Azzariah, Jahalin and other smaller villages in the vicinity.

My bi-monthly trip is one of the rare opportunities I have to interact with the men and women who live one town over (across the street in some cases).  The encounter is brief and light, but it’s also real, ordinary and spontaneous. And while asking where the tomato sauce has been moved to, can hardly be considered peace talks, it is a real interaction that leaves me wanting more.

As I step into line at my favorite checkout counter and approach the Arab cashier, my mind starts to spit out unfiltered questions: What does he think of me? What do I think of him? Am I justified in being cautious and wary in his company? Does he fear me for something that has happened to him or someone he knows? Is he thinking about the same questions that I’m thinking about?

However, as time passes I realize that I am asking myself the wrong questions. The question I should be asking myself is not what we are thinking, but rather how can we can go about changing how we think and the impressions that we make.

So with my best ahlan (Arabic for hello), a warm smile and a little extra chit chat than my norm, I pass through the queue hoping that I have somehow left an impression. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling my supermarket a model for co-existence, it is the most real, natural and consistent chance I have for real interaction with the so-called “other side”.

Last night, I drove to my supermarket for a different reason. A close friend of mine had been caught hours earlier with his two year old daughter at the store in the thick of a stabbing attack, where a terrorist went on a stabbing rampage and two individuals were hospitalized with upper body wounds. My friend hurriedly fled the scene, jumping into a car with a stranger to flee the mayhem.

Upon bringing him to the supermarket to pick up his car that he left behind, he showed me how he managed to run out the back exit, and maneuver himself and his daughter over an eight-foot-high steel fence to protect them both and bring them to safety.

Having rehashed the scenario to me and wanting to be home with his family, my friend hopped into his car and drove away. Once there, I figured I may as well pick up a few items we needed at home. Walking through the doors into the store, which had been freshly mopped from the blood on the floors, there was a palpable tension in the air. Shoppers and staff alike seemed on edge, calculating their actions and weighing their words.

So I did the only thing I could: I picked up my groceries, stood in line, smiled and chatted with my cashier, and drove home.

My friends to the right will tell me that last night’s incident proves that my desire for interaction is naive and dangerous, while my friends to the left will say that I have no business being there in the first place. However, I still believe that my supermarket is exactly where I am supposed to be.


Avi Staiman is an intern at Makom.

If we’re on the subject of poultry…

November 6, 2014 by

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Cartoonist Shay Charka plays with the language of the White House…


Why I chose not to program ‘Klinghoffer’ and still support it

October 28, 2014 by

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Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the productionreviews of its artistic meritsocial critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities.

Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed.

Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.”

By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first, loses


By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

My own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard.

I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy.

The work felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict


One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far.

Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy.

To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible.

And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled.

Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to Israel’s survival.


That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism.

But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly.

“Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?”


In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?”

Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.


Joshua Ford is a writer and arts consultant in Washington, D.C. He blogs at and is on Twitter @jfo_in_dc

The sweet desserts of Berlin – aliya, yerida, and Zionism

October 27, 2014 by

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Here is the thing about the Berlin Balagan and the Milky Moan. They have nothing to do with the city of Berlin or the Milky dessert.

The controversy has been simmering for some time. Young Israelis have been working to attain European passports so as to more easily leave Israel. Berlin is their most attractive and symbolically incendiary European destination. The thought that an Israeli could actively seek to live in the Land of the Holocaust sends shivers down Zionist spines.

The rhetorical stakes are high. To Full Post

4 points about doing politics on North American campuses

October 26, 2014 by

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Cross-posted with

Image by Shay Charka

I have recently returned from an 8 city, 11 flight, 2 weeks’ tour of campuses in North America – with 4 questions.

I was one of the Jewish Agency’s Makom team running full-day workshops on “Gaza, Israel, and the Jews” for the staff of thirty Hillels. Our aim was to empower Hillel and campus leaders to frame constructive conversations about the Gaza Conflict by identifying pertinent questions (rather than institutional answers), and by defining a successful conversation as one that leads to a second conversation…

Apart from learning that DC taxi drivers are the most interesting in the world, and that United Airlines are not always to be trusted with your luggage, I have been left with a few thoughts to ponder: To Full Post

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