Culture Connection VIII – The Palace of Windows and Loss

 

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A brief Culture Connection, to make up for the “limited edition” of our last one! (The publishers of the Rosner-Fuchs book asked us to postpone our piece until after their English-language version came out, and we happily obliged.)

Some thirteen years ago I was first introduced to a “revolutionary photographer” called Yoram Amir. This tall, scruffy-looking man with magical eyes took me on a walk through Jerusalem, and changed the way I see cities forever.

Yoram Amir, showing us some of his wedding work…

While working as a wedding photographer, he’d started to find it more and more difficult to photograph a couple against a back-drop that hadn’t been spoiled by the latest architectural monstrosity of Jerusalem’s real estate boom. So many beautiful, exotic stone buildings had been spoiled either by the high-rise that loomed beside it, or by a second or third storey that had been squashed on top.

“You see the arched windows here on the ground floor? Now look to the third storey. They built an extension. You see the windows there? Boxes. Cut and paste. Cheap stone. You see?”

And suddenly I did. From then on I was unable to walk around the ancient beauty of Jerusalem’s houses and buildings without also noticing where it had been ignored, or spoiled. As Amir once talked of the wedding liturgy he would hear while working as a wedding photographer: “At night I hear If I should forget thee Jerusalem… and in the morning it’s I’ve forgotten thee…

Yoram would take Makom groups on tours around Jerusalem, bringing us inside his heart and his eyes. “Jerusalem is a beautiful city. A city that was built slowly. Now we build too fast. For centuries people came and gave the beautiful city some beautiful jewels – its buildings. If we love Jerusalem, I think we should give it many many jewels…”

And as he guided people to see the devaluation and destruction of these architectural “jewels”, he also took to rescuing their “precious stones”: Their windows and window-frames. Over a period of a few decades he had gathered thousands of unique window-frames.

And then he fell sick.

Friends, fellow-artists Itamar Faluja and Lili Peleg, Jerusalemite activists, and the amazing Mekudeshet Festival, came together with him to help realize a dream he would not live to see: The Summer Palace of Window Stories. Made of over 500 of Yoram’s rescued windows, this palace stands in the center of busy Jerusalem. A monument to a man’s love for this ancient city, an installation of peace and sanctity surrounded by the honking of car-horns and the dazzle of street lights, this palace is open to everyone throughout this summer.

Rather than share more of my inadequate photos snapped from my cell phone, I really encourage you to click on this link to an article in Haaretz. Even if you don’t read Hebrew, the images photographed by Olivia Fitoussi speak far beyond page and screen.

A few days ago I spent an evening sitting in this miraculous palace, a modern fable of Jerusalem or a secular temple. All these windows that were defeated by “progress” are united in gentle defiance, brought together by their savior the late Yoram Amir and his talented and generous collaborators. The palace hints at the ways in which humanity can spoil a city, and at the same time quietly glistens with the ways in which humanity can sanctify a city too.

The Hebrew title for the piece is חלונות מתגשמים – Chalonot Mitgashmim. It’s a play on the Hebrew for “Dreams Come True” – Chalomot Mitgashmim – חלומות מתגשמים. Instead of dreams coming true, becoming real, it is the windows – chalonot – חלונות that are made flesh.

When wandering Jerusalem with the sight Yoram Amir had gifted me, I would always see the harsh juxtaposition between ancient stone homes and hard new apartment blocks as a painful affront. Chalonot Mitgashmim offers, if anything, an even more dramatic contrast between the square angled apartment blocks and the arching nostalgic transparency of the palace’s windows. Only this time, here, this summer, this brand new combination of ancient windows completely overpowers its harsh urban surroundings with light, beauty, and peace.

Photo by Anat Naveh, grabbed from Google Maps

If you can get to Israel before the end of the festival – go to Gan haSuss! And if you can’t, send a friend there with a zoom connection and get them to take you on a virtual tour…

 

Click here to download the article.

Can anyone say Never Again? Depends what it means…

July 1, 2019 by

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Screen grab of AOC instagram

“Never again,” called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her famous tweet condemning the US Administration’s immigration policy, as she talked of “concentration camps” on the Mexico border. 

The jury is out as to whether this use of language drew more attention to the plight of the imprisoned kids, or to the legitimacy of Holocaust imagery. Some argue the incendiary language has become a distraction, and others celebrate the way it has raised awareness.

What is clear is that the linking of “concentration camps” and “Never Again” left no doubt that an analogy was being drawn between the current immigration policy of the United States, and the history of the Holocaust. 

This has given Jews around the world, and Holocaust historians among them in particular, a stomach ache. There is a school of thought within Holocaust history that argues that the Holocaust should never be analogized to anything, because it was unique. Unique in scale, in long-term planning, in intent, in passive and active support across nations, and in cold-eyed precision. To compare the Holocaust to any other event past or present is to diminish its horror, even to trivialize it. 

Others argue that this kind of intellectual purity is counter-productive. Of course history never stands still and never repeats itself exactly. But this does not mean one can learn nothing from the past. How on earth are we to prevent further genocides without making comparisons and learning from history? Does “Never Again” mean nothing?

And here, it seems, lies the rub. “Never Again” means different things to different people. 

There are many, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, President Obama, and the late Elie Wiesel among them, who understand “Never Again” to mean that we should never allow genocide to happen again anywhere to anyone – whatever the precise historical details. 

Yet the person who seared this phrase into the consciousness of English-speakers across the world had a very different intent. Meir Kahane, later to become the leader of the racist Israeli party Kach, began pushing these words back in the early 1970s. And he meant “never again will Jews respond passively to antisemitic attacks”. Kahane, widely credited with popularizing the phrase, meant Never Again to Jews – not Never Again to All. 

It has even been said that this understanding of “Never Again” was a way of saying Jews’ Lives Matter, not All Lives Matter. (Which in itself is another example of how comparing horrors with horrors is rarely useful…)

This terrible tension, between us vs all, between communitarian vs cosmopolitan, is at the heart of the immigration debate and also at the heart of how we debate immigration. 

How do you address this tension?

Culture Connection VI – Let’s Go Eurovision!!!

 

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Long-term planning is a Jewish value. How about in Israel?

May 22, 2019 by

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Matthias Stom

Genesis 25: 29-34 tells us about Esau stomping in after a hunt, absolutely starving. Jacob is cooking some lentils, thinking of the future. Esau wants to eat – now! Jacob wants Esau’s birthright, whose value will only come to fruition many years down the line. As we know, Esau does not hesitate. He sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils.

Jacob looks to the long term. Esau is more of the ADD type…

It feels like the whole world and Israel in particular has gone the way of Esau. Every news item must be fresh, every piece of information must be distributed immediately, both Peace and Messiah must arrive NOW.

Dan Ben David, head of the Shoresh Institution for Socio-Economic Research, has been calling for Israel to look beyond Esau’s view of security and corruption, and think more like Jacob about the deeper issues waiting beyond the corner.

Our health system is suffering from long-term decline. In the past two decades the number of Israelis dying from infectious and parasitic diseases has doubled – 73% more than those who die per capita of the same causes in the United States, and more than ten times as many who die on Israel’s roads.

Our transport infrastructure leaves us with three times as much traffic congestion than other countries our size – even though we have fewer cars on the road.

And don’t get Ben David started on education… Haredi schools do not study core subjects at all, and the academic achievements of Arab kids in Israel are way below par. These make up over 40% of our future adults…

All this has an effect on productivity. We’re far behind the rest of the developed world, and now over half of all Israelis don’t earn enough to pay income tax.

Can a country that needs extraordinary defense capabilities, cultivate a less-than-ordinary population?

The Esau in Israeli culture has served us extremely well. The world praises the spontaneity and creativity that spawned the Start Up Nation. Indeed the whole country has been the poster child for how a State can improvise brilliantly when faced with endless emergencies ever since its birth.

But perhaps the pendulum needs to swing back the other way?

Perhaps Jacob needs to take back the birthright once more?

So do you really have no influence over Israel’s elections?

April 21, 2019 by

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So do you really have no influence?

Jewish social media around North America has been responding to Israel’s election results. Irrespective of how devastated or delighted people seem to be, the underlying music has been similar: We can only observe from the outside – the decisions are in the hands of the Israeli electorate, not in ours.

This is not entirely true. There are two crucial areas in Israeli elections over which American Jewry – in particular non-Orthodox Jewry – does have a huge impact.

The Kotel, and the Palestinians.

Every pundit in Israel knows that when one is counting the parties in the pro-settlements Right-wing bloc, one automatically counts the Haredi ultra-orthodox parties. This is a correct analysis of the political reality in Israel, but has little to do with actual Haredi convictions about settling the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. As veteran Haredi politician Moshe Gafni has candidly explained: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Haredi issue. The Haredi aim in government is to take care of the issues close to their hearts – they are generally willing to back any policy over the Green Line, just so long as their own electoral needs are met.

What are these needs?

There are, of course, budgetary needs for their impoverished supporters. There are great obstacles to the idea of drafting Haredim to the army.

And then there is the issue of diaspora progressive Jewry and their “obsession” with the Kotel.

Haredim will abandon any government that “gives away” the Kotel to “the Reform”. Put another way – any government that distances itself from the Kotel Agreement could receive Haredi support on other issues, such as the Palestinians.

See how you have an influence?

In Israel’s current political structure, it is extraordinarily difficult to address simultaneously BOTH Israeli religious pluralism AND the Two State Solution. As far as the Haredim are concerned, the latter can be bought by selling out the former.

How would you react if Israel’s leaders on the Left said – “We think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than religious pluralism. We are dumping the Kotel Agreement and reaching out to the Haredim. An additional 15 votes for the Left taken from the Right will enable us to make a deal with the Palestinians.”

Would you applaud? Would you rage? Would you grit your teeth? Would you shrug? (Or would you make Aliyah and vote yourself?)

Ad Kan! Up to here! Where do we draw the line?

April 2, 2019 by

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Last week a rocket was fired from Gaza, hitting a house in Mishmeret, some 20 miles North of Tel Aviv.

All hell broke loose.

All headlines and all politicians were going crazy, calling for revenge, for responses, for resolutions.

Why did this storm break out when it did? After all, since the last full-on conflict of 2014, Gazan rockets have been falling on Israel for many months, to say nothing of the incendiary balloons that burned hundreds of acres of Israeli farmers’ land throughout the summer?

The answer is clear to all: This time the rocket fell near Tel Aviv, in the Gush Dan metropolis.

Folks living on Kibbutzim near the Gaza border are pulling their hair out: What makes a rocket on Tel Aviv different from one fired at Kibbutz Beeri?

It is a painful question.

For sure, there are good reasons why the government avoids a full military response to Gazan attacks as much as it can. Any military response even approaching the strength its critics demand would – in the short term at least – lead to more Israeli casualties, as well as devastation on civilians in Gaza.

The question is why the line is drawn where it is drawn?

Bomb Sderot – we’ll issue warnings. Bomb Gush Dan – עד כאן! Ad Kan! (Up to here and no further!)

Here the question of security, To Be, comes face to face with the question of People: Which people’s security are we looking out for? Is every citizen’s security of equal importance?

Not a rhetorical but a real question – how might the US government respond if the Russians shot over a few make-shift rockets to Alaska? Or New York?

 

Israel or Diaspora – where does antisemitism strike?

January 31, 2019 by

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Difficult times lie ahead for North American Jewry, as antisemitism rears its ugly head. As Debora Lipstadt points out, Jews are now under attack from the radical Right, from the radical Left, and from radical Islam.

In past times, the only redeeming feature of antisemitism was the way in which it at least galvanized unity in the Jewish People, against these threats. No longer. Not when Israel is so tortuously involved.

On the Right, anti-Semites argue their kosher credentials because they support Israel. Richard Spencer may be keen that “Jews will not replace us” in the United States, but at the same time is a supporter of Israel and even calls himself a “white Zionist”. Backers of President Trump will likewise point to his support of Israel to rebut condemnation of his friendship with antisemites.

The Right would seem to be saying – I cannot be an evil antisemite, because I support Israel. I may hate Jews at home, but I like them in Israel.

On the Left, Israel is also a painful part of the equation. New congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, argue the evils of Israel together with their support for the Jewish community in the States. Sarsour even led heart-warming fundraising campaign for victims of antisemitism in Colorado and Pittsburgh.

The Left would seem to be saying – I cannot be an evil antisemite, because I fight local antisemitism. I may hate Jews in Israel, but I like them here in the States.

Unfortunately the current Israeli leadership does not make this dilemma any easier for Diaspora Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to make common cause with those such as conspiracy theorist President Orban in Hungary and the Polish leadership that supports Israel while denying its role in the Holocaust.

It would seem that Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken sides in this “choice” between Diaspora Jew-hatred, and Israel hatred.

How does your soul respond?

 

Israeli Elections are coming – are you?

January 21, 2019 by

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The most direct and powerful opportunity for individuals to influence Israeli policy is upon us. On April 9th, every Israeli citizen has the chance to have their say as to how Israel should best answer the Four Hatikvah Questions.

What would be the best way to ensure Israel’s security? How should Judaism, the Jewish People, and Jewish values affect policy in Israel? How can Israel’s current EIU Democracy Index ranking rise higher than 30th in the world? Are we configuring our land and its resources in the most equitable and sustainable way?

In later Headlines for Identity, we’ll look into how the political parties do or don’t address these questions, but for now it might be worth asking a more fundamental question:

Why aren’t you voting?

Why don’t those American Jews who express so much care and concern for Israel and her policies, just come over here and vote? For Jews around the world it’s real easy to get the vote in Israel: You just make Aliyah. Technically speaking you wouldn’t even need to live here. Pop over to become an Israeli citizen, and then fly in to vote. It’s not nothing, but it’s nowhere near impossible.

So what is behind this desire to critique and influence Israel on the one hand, and this unwillingness to put one’s money where one’s mouth is on the other?

Do Diaspora Jews care less than they say they do? Do they view Aliyah in such hallowed terms that they could not bring themselves to “exploit” it in this way?

Or are they simply afraid that if given the right to vote in Israel’s elections they’ll find themselves confounded over whom to vote for, like the rest of us poor saps living here?

Culture Connection IV – The Transformation of the Salt Bride

 

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To Be – under threat of annihilation, or defeat?

December 26, 2018 by

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As they say, when the United States sneezes, the whole world catches the flu. While the decision of President Trump to withdraw US troops from Syria has led to political headlines and speculation in DC, it has put many in our area in fear for their lives.

The only buffer between an Iranian-Russian takeover of Syria, Israel’s Northern enemy, has disappeared overnight. Kurds fear massacre, and Israel fears the nightmare scenario of Iran on its border: Both in Syria and in Lebanon through Iran’s proxy army Hezbollah with their tunnels.

How should we respond to a sworn enemy that aims for our annihilation?

Ironically enough, President Trump’s move comes in a period when more and more military and ex-military personnel are calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. They, echoing Helit Bar El’s presentation to us, argue that we must differentiate between Iran’s threat of annihilation – TO BE – and the Palestinians’ threat to areas of OUR LAND and our own sense of liberal democracy (FREEDOM).

These Generals argue that if an enemy threatens our values or our interests, but does not threaten our existence, then this is an enemy with whom we can and should compromise.

In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump has strengthened Israel’s hand vis a vis the Palestinians, and in announcing the withdrawal from Syria has weakened Israel’s hand against Iran.

Some might say that Americans do not understand what it means to be under threat of annihilation. Are American Jews different in this respect?

How should American Jews, often opposed to US military exploits in the Middle East, respond to President Trump’s priorities?

 

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