If you have been following me on FB, you will know my obsession with Koolulam, especially their 70th Yom Haatzmaut event. Prior to the event I was asked by 7 or 8 people, friends or talmidot/im, whether they could attend during the Omer. (If you watched the video, about half the participants were religious-looking.)
I am generally halakhically conservative (small “c”!) and I try to keep halakha even if it disrupts my lifestyle. I am committed to halakhic practice and I don’t knowingly contravene the law. So was it forbidden? To Full Post
I’d been bracing myself for this moment – the moment the veterinarian would announce the total we owed.
Our beloved calico cat, Lucy, had been run over and after five days of hospitalization, surgery, an IV, a feeding tube, and excellent care, she was being released to me with eight cans of food that cost 11 shekels each.
The young woman who explained to me how to inject the mixture of food and water, stirred to exactly the right consistency, with the syringe into the feeding tube, was clear and patient and, after demonstrating, wrote down the exact amount of food and water she was to get each day along with a feeding schedule.
I took for granted that I managed this and every other transaction with the vet’s office with no problem, with a command of the language and the culture that allows me to live comfortably in Israel after ten years.
So, when the receptionist told me the most concrete fact of the whole ordeal, how could it be that my language skills failed me?
I’d heard about someone who paid 12,000 shekels for their dog’s surgery. I was prepared. She made the final additions to the bill. My heart was racing, we’d been in denial, only worried about the cat’s survival. For the past eight years Lucy has been the family’s source of comfort. These have been hard years and as we sat together at dinner on Shabbat after the accident, we realized just how much we all receive from Lucy. She gives us unconditional love and we love her back that same way.
I had my credit card in my hand and I hear the receptionist say, “The total is 320,000 shekels.” (That’s $88,888.00 at today’s exchange rate.)
I was stunned. I couldn’t move. She sees my shock and says, “let me deduct one day of hospitalization.” Of course, this couldn’t possibly help the fact that my account is already in minus, but it was a nice gesture.
Then I tried to protest – not understanding why they didn’t give us a clue that it would be this much. She showed me the documentation that we approved the feeding tube and the surgery. I told her no one had prepared us to deal with such a sum. Suddenly I was losing it, asking them how this could be, getting angry, even yelling at one nurse who, in typical Israeli fashion, suggested that it was my fault for not knowing how much it would be.
Then the receptionist told me again the total amount owed. And this time I understood Hebrew.
“The total is 3,200.00 shekels.” I looked at her and it sunk in that I’d misunderstood and then I started to laugh and cry, feeling so relieved and so stupid and the people with the dogs in the waiting room laughed with me.
But I could not stop laughing. They offered me water: I asked for a glass of wine. Just so has it that the vet also owns a boutique winery we’d been to a few weeks ago which is something that would happen only in Israel.
When I mentioned to the receptionist that this reminded me of the tale of the man who complained to the rabbi that his house was too small and the rabbi told him to bring a goat home… then a cow, etc. and when he took them out he’d feel how big his house is… I knew that it is also only in Israel that the vet’s receptionist would know the classic Jewish story “It could always be worse”.
I was so happy to pay 3,200 shekels that I didn’t care a bit about the parking ticket I found on my car when I got there with the cat. Who understands the parking signs here anyway?
After ten years in the country and more years of knowing Hebrew, you can function at work, navigate the systems, watch the news, and read the newspaper, but sometimes you’re still just a new immigrant who can’t understand how much you owe the vet.
In the lightness of Purim, and in the echoes of International Women’s Day, we’ll just put this here…
This is a video salon we hosted back in 2013 between Rachel Azaria (now MK), and R. Marcelo Bronstein of Bnei Jeshurun community of Manhattan. The conversation was public, and seen live and after the event. A baby had also invaded the event, yet it received nothing like the coverage of Robert Kelly’s unfortunate and hilarious interview.
It was only a few days later an article appeared in Haaretz revealed the full story. Apparently Azaria’s hungry baby had threatened to disturb the interview. Without anyone seeing or realizing, for the rest of the intelligent and fascinating conversation, Rachel Azaria was breast-feeding her child just out of shot…
Far fewer hits, but a great story…
In some professions, facts can indeed be your enemy.
It makes sense for politicians to argue over facts, and even hope to suggest alternate ones. Because for a politician facts are valent. There is either a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact – one that supports or weakens their agenda. Same goes for many other professions. I’m sure that when tobacco producers found out that smoking was bad for one’s health, they found this fact to be deeply troubling. TV dramas are full of “bad” facts: Throughout that HBO crime/court series “The Night Of” you are constantly left struggling with the idea that this kid must not tell the truth. The facts are against him.
But an educators’ job is to make sure that facts are neither friends nor enemies. Facts are there to be gathered, the more the merrier.
Facts are there to be gathered, the more the merrier.
And Israel Education in particular, forces us to embrace a fact-filled existence.
Because Israel is a “subject matter” so vibrant and complex that it can no longer fit into a straightforward narrative. There is no way we can only teach about Israel through her towering heroes, when some awkward myth-busting anecdote is waiting to be found online. We can’t only teach the woes of Israel as a Haredi-dominated theocracy, when Tel Aviv still exists. We can’t only teach about Israel being the safe haven for the Jewish People, when evidence of dangerous enemies calls this into question every day. Something contradictory will always crop up.
These contradictions, these complicating facts, these endless annoying and endearing anomalies, are what makes Israel so fascinating and dynamic. And as such, they become the educator’s magic dust. The fascinating truth about Israel, is that it is always going to be infinitely too broad for one person to grasp. When this is one’s educational message, then facts are not our enemy.
This is not to say that the educator’s only job is to overwhelm the student! But once freed of one’s exhausting “guard duty” against uncomfortable facts, we can focus on what is most important: To act as the “Guide for the Perplexed” by offering frameworks for the student to make sense of what threatens to be babble, and to build Israel into the Jewish identity of the learners.
Why write about fantastic Israeli music trends, when you can just as easily listen to them?
This is the first in a series of podcasts about Israeli culture, narrated by Robbie Gringras. This episode looks at two classics, one Israeli and one American, that received a fascinating upgrade by two Israeli bands…
The Arik Einstein/Judy Katz version of “What’s with me?”
Teapack version of “What’s with me?”
To buy the Teapacks track, click here
Tracy Chapman performs “Baby can I hold you?”
Red Band and Sarit Hadad perform “Baby can I hold you?”
To buy the Red Band/Sarit Hadad track, click here
We are currently in the middle of the period of the Three Weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av, also known as the period of “Bein ha-Metzarim” (“Between the Straits”). Many of us can relate to the increased sense of panic, worry, or uncertainty. Between terror attacks around the world, political shifts, and baseless hatred between people and groups – it can be felt wherever you turn. How can educators and leaders address this?
In this educational session, we offer several sources, quotes, and guiding questions, which help us reflect and introspect during troubled times. This program can be used as-is in summer camps, synagogues, learning groups, or at home. Alternatively, one or more sources can be used as a trigger to something else or as an introduction to a Dvar Torah or reflection session.
Wishing our People a time of thoughtful reflection and introspection.
Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913)
What Happens to a Society in Times of Trouble?
Five things befell our ancestors on the seventeenth of Tammuz and five on the ninth of Av. The seventeenth of Tammuz the Tablets were broken and the eternal light went out, and the city was breached, blasphemers burned the Torah and placed an idol in the sanctuary. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed against our ancestors that they would not go into the Land, and the Temple was destroyed the first time and the second time, and Betar was taken, and the city was ploughed. When Av enters rejoicing is lessened.
“Fourth Letter” by Moses Hess, from his book Rome and Jerusalem (1862):
My pious grandfather was one of those revered scholars who, though not using the Torah as a means of subsistence, yet possessed the title and knowledge of a rabbi. Every evening, at the close of his business day, he spent several hours in studying the Talmud and its commentaries. But in the “Nine Days” [of mourning leading up to the commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple on Tisha B’Av] this study was interrupted, and instead he read with his grandchildren the stories and legends concerning the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. The tears fell upon the snow-white beard of the stem old man as he read those stories, and we children, too, would cry and sob. I remember, especially, one particular passage which impressed us both deeply. It runs as follows:
“When the children of Israel were led into captivity by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, their road lay past the grave of our Mother Rachel. As they approached the grave, a bitter wailing was heard. It was the voice of Rachel, weeping at the fate of her unhappy children.”
- Do these stories make us want to cry?
- Does the crying of adults make us feel this way?
- What are the adults crying about?
Meir Tzvi Grossman, “Al HaMoadim”, 50 Conversations on the Bible and Rabbinic Literature
“A time of trouble unto Jacob” (Jeremiah 30:7) Yet it is not said “Disaster” rather “trouble” and trouble means something different from Disaster. Disaster denotes a tragic and saddening event, a one-off. But a time of trouble signifies a period of suffering that may often last a long time. It is natural that such a period will arouse responses among those suffering, that are different from those that might arise from a disaster, and also after a disaster the public awakens and checks its causes and discusses how opportunities to avoid it might have been missed. It is even possible, that one may search for calming ways to move past the sadness, the grief, the depression, that result from the disaster. But “trouble” – will be met with different responses. In addition to checking what causes led to the trouble, there will appear – as long as the trouble continues – protest movements, calls to rebellion will be heard, and schools of thought will develop that wonder and doubt. At the same time a process will emerge of scrutinizing deeds and checking ways to escape from the trouble. It is possible that at this hard time many will be caught up in an atmosphere of despair, destructiveness, and depression, and they will begin to accommodate themselves to live in troubled times. An acceptance of the new situation will gradually take its central place.
- How do we as human beings deal with “Times of Trouble”?
- How do we respond in the eyes of Grossman?
- During contemporary troubled times, communal prayers or communal gatherings in support of protests and demonstration of solidarity are often organized. Why? Does this resonate with you?In many places in the Jewish tradition moral and religious reasons are given for the destruction of the Temple and the Exile.
Tractate Shabbat 119b
Abaye said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the Sabbath was desecrated therein, as it is said
Abbahu said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the reading of the shema morning and evening was neglected…
Hamnuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they neglected [the education of] school children…
R’ Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they [its inhabitants] were not ashamed of each other
R’ Isaac said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the small and the great were made equal…
Amram son of R. Simeon b. Abba said in R. Simeon b. Abba’s name in R. Hanina’s name: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they did not rebuke each other…
Rab Judah said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because scholars were despised therein…
Tractate Gittin 56a:
He then sent against them Vespasian the Caesar who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years. There were in it three men of great wealth, Nakdimon b. Gorion, Ben Kalba Shabua’ and Ben Zizith Hakeseth. Nakdimon b. Gorion … One of these said to the people of Jerusalem, I will keep them in wheat and barley. A second said, I will keep them in wine, oil and salt. The third said, I will keep them in wood… These men were in a position to keep the city for twenty-one years… The Rabbis said to them: Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans]. They would not let them, but on the contrary said, Let us go out and fight them. The Rabbis said: You will not succeed. They then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued.
- Who is the enemy?
- What is the dynamic between internal conflicts and external conflicts?
A Prayer for Peace by R. Nachman of Breslav
May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors,
that You abolish all wars and bloodshed from this world
and extend a great and wonderful peace in the world.
Nations shall not lift up the sword against one another,
neither shall they learn to make war any more.
May all the inhabitants of this universe
acknowledge the one great truth;
that we have not come into this world
for friction and dissension,
nor enmity and jealousy and vexation and bloodshed.
We have come into the world solely
that we might know You,
eternally blessed One.
And therefore have mercy upon us
that through us
the written word will become a reality.
“And I will grant peace in the land,
and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone;
I will give the land respite from vicious beasts
and no sword shall cross your land.” (Lev. 26:6)
“But let justice well up like water,
righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos.5:24)
“For the land shall be filled with devotion to Adonai
as water covers the sea.” (Is. 11:9)
If I’m being honest, the main reason I chose to make aliya, was because in Israel I had a greater chance of getting a job that wouldn’t require me to shave every day. (It was 20 years ago. Designer stubble wasn’t fully respectable, and hipster beards were unheard of.)
So there are periods when I shave daily – mostly when I’m feeling old and don’t want all my white tufts to show – and there are periods where I can go a whole week without shaving. I am a crazy wild man, I know.
Yet while the informality of life in Israel perhaps grants me more freedom than I might have in the UK, it does not free me from being misunderstood in at least four different ways.
First, living in a majority Jewish land means that when anyone sees you are unshaven, their first instinct is to wish you long life. They sympathetically assume that you are in mourning, and so that haggard unshaven look is nothing to do with a hangover (or your advancing age) but only due to a loss in the family. When I dispel their side-angled-head with a “nah, I just couldn’t be bothered shaving”, they look somewhat disappointed.
Second, it is always dangerous to go unshaven between Pesach and Shavuot. It confuses people. They don’t understand why it is that I am strictly observing the counting of the Omer, and yet have no kippah on my head. One year I decided to tell people that I was indeed keeping the Omer, and went weeks without a shave. Got a lovely bush going. But then I forgot to shave it come Shavuot and all hell broke loose.
Of course, here in Israel, a man with dark hair and a scraggy beard may well be a terrorist. Most Muslim men in Israel go for the stubbly look, and racial profiling is nothing if not racially predictable in its predictions. My chances of getting double-checked at the entrance to a shopping mall if I’m unshaven rise exponentially with every morning I don’t put razor to face.
And finally, if we’re talking hirsute cliches, I have learned always to shave before getting on a plane. I’ll never forget the time I was stopped by a plain-clothed policeman at Ben Gurion airport. A scruffy-looking bloke in a short coat, unshaven and sneaky-looking, took one look at my three days’ growth and made a beeline for me. He identified himself to me as a policeman, showed me his badge, and then asked me, in an unshaven sneaky kind of way, “You got any drugs on you?”
It was kind of surreal. As if a) people hawk their razor blades for drugs, and b) lack of shaving makes you stupid. I told him, honestly yet perplexedly, that I didn’t have any drugs on me. And he came back with the classic: “Maybe we should take you off to search you. What do you think? You’re looking nervous. Why are you nervous?” Which of course suddenly made me feel nervous. After a stressful few moments, in the end I ‘fessed up. I told him he was welcome to search me, but all he would find was a few unused razor blades. “Sorry mate,” I said in my best Hebrew, “I’m not a drug-dealer. I just haven’t shaved recently.”
He put his head at a commiserating angle, and said disappointedly, “Ah, I’m so sorry. Death in the family? I wish you long life.”
Identity is both given and chosen: it is given in that one’s choices are not unlimited and it is chosen in that there are multiple groups and ideas to which one subscribes. Identity is gender, profession, religion, ethnicity, and nation among others. What pulls these together is a story or a narrative. Groups need a narrative to justify who and what they are, because they do not want to perceive themselves as either totally eclectic or as totally self-serving. We want the stability provided by the anchor of story.
Yet narratives change; they are ‘puncturable’, and we sense their fragility in the modern history of the Jewish People. Let’s think of the Zionist narrative – on my teenage Israel experience there was no more poignant moment than when we visited the ‘magic mountain’ of Masada, exploring the story of heroism and the symbol of Jewish defiance and dignity, that we had heard so much about from when we were little children. Today, we go to Masada the tourist site and the tour guide relates: ‘But you know, maybe they weren’t heroes. Maybe the story happened in a different way.’ The narrative is punctured the moment we ask: do we really want to view suicide as the embodiment of Jewish potential?
It goes deeper. Think about what Zionism represents – the contemporary realization of millennial Jewish longing for the ancestral homeland. And then recognize that one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world today is in Germany. Germany! Put that in your Zionist pipe and smoke it! Can we just carry on? When there is compelling historical evidence, the narrative is undermined. Yet within the best, most exotic stories, and the Jewish story is certainly that, there is the power to rebuild, to reconstruct, to add and to change.
This Shavuot the festive celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, I would like to remind myself that we would do well both to remember and to forget. Berl Katznelson taught us that: ‘Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden…And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness and spiritual life?’ Human beings are really good at both remembering and forgetting, although we sometimes get confused as to what should be in which category.
Eric Hobsbawm taught us that the ‘authentic’ Scottish kilt, which we suspect is an ancient tradition, only achieved widespread use as a result of an enterprising English businessman in the eighteenth century. This should give us heart. We can rewrite the lachrymose view of history, that Jewish life is an ongoing tale of woe, into a creative narrative that gives purpose for the future. The key property will be truth-likeness, rather than truth as the historical record, and its promise is that a people can rebuild and invite us into an ongoing conversation of the many and varied stories that we will create.
Our tradition teaches us that we were all present at Mount Sinai for the receiving of the Torah, those of us then and all those yet to be born, which means us. A few years ago, in a heated debate in the Israeli Knesset the interlocutors pressed their respective claims with reference to the Torah. One secular member retorted to a dismissive claim of her right to quote Torah by declaring: “I too was present at Mount Sinai.” And she continued, “even if it never happened”. Chag Shavuot Sameach.
Jonny Ariel directs Makom – the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency
Professor Alan Johnson is Editor of Fathom and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. He is an editorial board member of Dissent Magazine and Senior Research Associate of the Foreign Policy Centre.
First, Sean Matgamna
It was Sean Matgamna – or ‘Rebbe Matgamna’ as some in the Union of Jewish Students affectionately called this brilliant Irish intellectual and former Docker at the time – who woke me from my dogmatic One-State slumber in the mid-1980s. Sean was the leading theoretician of Socialist Organiser, the far-left entryist group I had been a member of since 1980. Out of a clear blue sky he walked in one day with a paper arguing that we should drop the demand for a ‘democratic secular state’ and embrace ‘two states for two peoples.’ After a long internal debate – the sophistication and seriousness of which I was never to find in academia – his arguments prevailed.
‘It seems to me,’ Matgamna wrote, ‘that the terms of the only just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear and unmistakeable. Unless you think the interests of one side should be entirely sacrificed to the other – that is, unless you are either an Arab or an Israeli chauvinist – there is only one acceptable solution. Each nation should have self-determination in the territory where it is the majority. I understand that to mean, essentially, the 1967 border. There should be full equality for members of each nationality in the other’s state. The secular democratic state necessarily involves replacing the Jewish state of Israel with another arrangement in which Jews will not have a state. The goal is not only to secure Palestinian rights by putting an end to Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, but to deprive Israeli Jews of their national rights.’
Well, indeed. Obvious enough, you might think, but those ideas were a heresy on the far left at the time. And so we were heresy hunted.
‘Zionists!’ screamed Chris Harman, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers Revolutionary Party even wrote that ‘a powerful Zionist connection runs from the so-called left of the Labour Party right into the centre of Thatcher’s government in Downing Street’. Armed with those ideas, and those enemies, we fought alongside UJS to prevent the far left drive to ban student Jewish Societies as ‘Zionist’ so ‘racist’.
We worked closely with UJS inside the NUS and I was impressed by the Jews I met. I recall Adrian Cohen, after he was called an antisemitic name at an NUS conference, squaring up and threatening to bury his ‘Jewish fist’ in the guy’s face. How could a Suedehead from North Shields not be impressed with that? It was our youth leader Jane Ashworth – who later set up the Engage website with another Matgamna boy, David Hirsh – who came up with the phrase ‘cultural Zionists’, to describe ourselves at the time.
Second, Leon Trotsky
I still revere the Old Man and bristle when people attack him in words that should really be reserved for his followers. His final words were read out at my wedding to Debbie, a Matgamna girl, by our children:
‘Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.’
And it was from Trotsky that I learned that the assimilationist approach of classical Marxism to the problem of antisemitism was wrong. A target of both Tsarist and Stalinist antisemitism himself, Trotsky understood antisemitism was no feudal hangover. He grasped the modernity of antisemitism. I read his searing account of the antisemitic pogroms of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his desperate and prescient warnings about Fascism. ‘The next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’ (emphasis in the original) he wrote, before his murder by the Stalinists in 1940.
As Enzo Traverso, an intellectual historian of Marxism and antisemitism, has put it, ‘The rise of Nazism in Germany led the Russian revolutionary to a global revision of his approach to the Jewish Question’ i.e. to the question of antisemitism. Though Trotsky never thought of himself as a Zionist – having faith in a World Socialist Revolution which we cannot, in good faith, still claim – he became convinced of the necessity of a national solution to the problem of radicalising antisemitism.
The Jews, Trotsky came to believe, have every right to live in a ‘compact mass’ as a nation. And nations, he wrote as far back as 1915, ‘constitute an active and permanent factor of human culture. The nation will not only survive the current war, but also capitalism itself.’ ‘The Jewish nation’ he said in 1937, ‘will maintain itself for an entire epoch to come.’
Third, Isaac Deutscher
From Trotsky’s biographer, the Polish socialist Isaac Deutscher, I learned that the Jewish state is not only a right but a necessity, and that to oppose its existence on the basis of abstract left-wing dogma is, literally, a matter of Jewish life and death:
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality. Whatever their cleavages, grievances, and frustrations, the Jews of Israel are animated by a fresh and strong sense of nationhood and by a dogged determination to consolidate and strengthen their State by every means at their disposal. They also have the feeling – how well justified – that the ‘civilised world’, which in one way or another has the fate of European Jewry on its conscience, has no moral ground to stand on when it tries to sermonise or threaten Israel for any real or imaginary breaches of international commitments.
Fourth, the experience of teaching the Holocaust
A sustained engagement with antisemitism as a university teacher – deep reading in the texts, images, films, memoirs, and histories; sustained discussion with your students; the effort to write about antisemitism, in my case about the work of Primo Levi – produced this insight: our natures are mixed, capable of great good and great evil. In the words of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, we are centaurs, a ‘tangle of flesh and mind, of divine inspiration and dust’.
Then add this in: humanity, for reasons that do not concern us here, for no good reason, again and again, has selected the Jew as the scapegoat. More precisely, and with a smidgeon more hope, let us say that humanity has done so for millennia and is still doing so today, though we can allow ourselves the hope – as we may hope for the return of the Messiah – that humanity will not do so in the future.
But what we can’t not know is that from time to time, in the words of Levi’s favourite writer Dante, western civilisation takes leave of its senses and ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums’. And when it does, the Jews – not only, but above all, the Jews – need a state with ramparts and an IDF standing on those ramparts. At one level, my Zionism comes down to that brute fact.
Fifth, boys and girls in Jerusalem
Walking in Jerusalem one day I came upon Jewish children playing in a narrow street, the early evening sun warming the stone flags and lending their ringlets a glow. They were playing a game I could not understand, white shirts flapping, Kippahs in danger of falling off, one shriek chasing another. I had two thoughts. My first, as ever, was about Primo Levi. I was reminded that in play we adults can find again ‘the savour of childhood, delicate and forgotten,’ and that to enjoy play is rather ‘like receiving, free of charge or almost, a rare and beautiful object.’ A second thought then shadowed my first, a typical experience for anyone who has spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust, let alone those who have a familial connection to the Shoah: other images and other shrieks from another time arrived unbidden.
In some indefinable way, my own Zionism was expressed at that moment, by that juxtaposition.