Notes from a Visit to Israel - October 2002
Note: Below is the text of a talk, "Jerusalem Today," given at Madison’s Beth El Temple on October 27, 2002, following my visit to Israel from October 7-21. It is prefaced by a poem written a few days later.–EC
As you know, I’ve just come back from a two-week trip to Israel, most of which was spent in Jerusalem. I’ve entitled my talk "Jerusalem Today," and must add the obvious disclaimer that I speak from the kind of very personal experience from which one can generalize only with great caution.
I was privileged to live in Jerusalem for ten years, from late in 1979 to mid-1990. Since then I’ve made five visits back, thanks largely to the hospitality of one family. F. and C. L. are American-born baalei teshuva, moderate Orthodox. C. collects donations for a small charitable foundation, Ezrat Avot, that helps older people and needy families. In 1990, after my departure, they planted a tree in the yard of their apartment house to symbolize the hope of my returning there someday. On returning this time I saw that the main trunk had to be cut down, because it was diseased, but these other trunks have survived. They live in Kiryat Moshe, a few blocks from the Central Bus Station, near the Angel Bakery. It’s an unpretentious, quiet neighborhood, predominantly religious but not quite "haredi." It is typified for me by the boulevard strip on Sderot Ha-Meiri, a brick-paved space with regularly spaced benches that manages to seem quite peaceful despite the fact that, beyond those cypresses on either side, the traffic of the twenty-first century crawls by, bumper-to-bumper. The benches are empty, a memory of a quieter time perhaps. For me this boulevard strip epitomizes the atmosphere of Kiryat Moshe, even though I myself have never had much time to sit down and enjoy it! On each scant two-week visit, I have rushed around from meeting to meeting, till the point of exhaustion and departure.
My last visit before this one was in November 2000, just after the start of the war that is still going on. At that time the shock of the war was still fresh, and everyone had something to say about it There were those who had seen it coming and those who hadn’t, those who were still willing to accept blame for the history of "occupation" and those who were anxious to charge me, as a visitor, with the task of reporting Israel’s cause aright to the outside world.
Well, it is two years later. This time I heard less debate about the conflict, although of course the theme was omnipresent. Someone mentioned a survey showing that sixty percent of Israelis now believe the war is not about territories and policies, but about Israel’s right to exist. My first impression was that many in Israel were at the stage of traumatization where you don’t want to talk about it any more. Of the poets whom I met, only one showed me a new poem having to do with the "situation." Not only the direct shock and fear of the bombings, but the economic decline and the worldwide resurgence of anti-Semitism were taking their toll. In fact, during my stay the doorpost of the apartment next to the one I was staying in was defaced by swastika graffiti. [Picture] My hosts thought it might have been done by a foreign worker in the neighborhood. The resurgence of anti-Semitism perhaps is especially calculated to take away the desire for discussion, for in its presence words seem useless. And even the most sympathetic visitor is separated from Israelis by not having passed through the fire of this experience.
I spent the morning of my first full day there wandering about downtown. (Someone later warned me not to do that, but as someone else said, no place is safe, and the downtown area of Jerusalem is now probably as safe as anywhere since it is so heavily guarded.) The fronts of all too many closed businesses told the tale. On a shawarma-falafel place on Ben Yehuda street, the sign on the closed door said "Kitchen equipment for sale." On Jaffa Road the impression of devastation is augmented by the fact that half the street is dug up for the building of a light railway through town. This is meant to alleviate the traffic problem eventually. But on that first morning, downtown Jerusalem seemed to me like a symbol for the battered soul of the nation.
You’ve all read statistics about poverty in Israel. I didn’t, personally, see the worst of it, though it was bad enough to see a friend who is a licensed and dedicated tour guide devoting most of her time to cleaning houses. The worst was brought home to me quite incidentally by a few sentences in an article by Hava Pinchas-Cohen, in the magazine "Erets Acheret" of which more presently, about the potential leaders who have fallen in the perpetual war for survival. One of these lost leaders, Shlomi Cohen, from an evidently well-to-do Moroccan family living in Rehovot, is described as follows: "He was a natural leader who combined the ability to give orders with a personal sense of responsibility and high morality. Shlomi made the basic assumption that a soldier cannot be a good fighter if he is worried about economic and family problems. ... Shlomi paid debts for rent for two of his soldiers, and supplied winter clothes and coats to soldiers who did not have them. On Passover eve he went to visit a home in a Jerusalem neighborhood and found that some soldiers’ homes were without furniture, without heat, without preparations for the holiday. Shlomi spent tens of thousands of shekels of his own money to buy furniture for these soldiers and send it to their homes on the eve of the holiday."
Nothing has so strongly emphasized for me the terrible need in Israel, the need for any help we can send. I would like to mention again in this connection the work of my hostess’s charitable foundation, Ezrat Avot. It’s a small organization with low overhead, and you can be sure that your donation will go directly to those in need of the basics. I’ve included the address of Ezrat Avot on my handout.
But besides this terrible trauma and this great need, I also saw a few signs of hope, signs that some sectors of Israeli society are responding to the crisis in a constructive way. I don’t want to forget to pay tribute to the bravery of Israeli soldiers, few of whom, despite predictions, have refused to serve. But beyond this, the crisis has become an occasion for introspection, to a degree
one could certainly wish for in the United States. One could feel on the streets, in the snatches of radio broadcasting heard on the bus, a certain muting of the deliberate shamelessness of secular culture which had been so distressing to witness from the 80's on, as though part of the country was determined to turn its back on all Jewish values. To some degree, the trend toward "polarization" between religious and secular has been arrested. There is now a great interest in Torah study precisely in secular circles. Torah study, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean a complete rapprochement. One Orthodox friend of mine criticized the current wave as "Torah study without obligation." And a secular woman who had been studying Torah with the circle of a Lubavitcher Kabbalist said that she had become distanced from them again because of her
unwillingness to practice the mitsvot. Nevertheless, there are some signs of a true resynthesis of religious and secular values. That same Orthodox friend recommended to me a new bimonthly magazine, Erets Acheret, which is published with the help of the New Israel Fund. The current, eleventh issue is devoted to the theme "What Kind of Leadership Do We Need"? One article in it reported an interview with Shai Zarchi, the head of a midrasha called "Oranim," one of many new institutions of Torah learning that have sprung up without connection to the religious establishment and are teaching a Torah adapted to social needs. Mr. Zarchi is quoted as saying, "The halakha which served Israel in the Diaspora cannot serve the Jewish state today in the creative process which requires daring. A new Torah is already being written, with less about kashrut and more about remission of debts, ..., the status of the foreigner, charity and justice."
Promises often come wrapped in dangers. The destructive effects on Israeli society of the current war are well known. But in the midst of it something may be taking shape that may eventually fulfill the promise "For out of Zion will come forth the law." It behooves us to pay attention to this beginnings, to try to learn from them and further them in any way we can.
I was very much heartened by one event that took place in my own circle of friends in Israel. Some of you may have heard of a movement that I have been trying to start in Madison, called the ‘Olam Katan, or the Small World, the basic unit of which is a small group of people who meet regularly to free-associate on the theme of tikkun ha-‘olam, the repair of the world. (I hope some of you will ask me about this later.) One group based on this idea did get together in Jerusalem four a couple of years during the 1980's. Let me tell you that to get people to sit down and think aloud together, rather than arguing, is the hardest thing in the world. The group, which included both Orthodox Talmud scholars and freethinking poets, struggled with this difficulty and finally broke up a few years before I left. But on my fourth visit back, in 2000, one of the participants suggested a reunion meeting, which was held. And on this visit, too, there was a reunion meeting. The fact that we could still come together amid these shattering events for the difficult yet fruitful exchange which an ‘Olam Katan meeting invariably is, seemed to me a sign of hope.
There is still conflict and controversy about the best way to meet the events. I did speak with one person – an Orthodox woman child psychiatrist – who had participated in a demonstration by the Women in Black, to "end the occupation" (the Hebrew for "occupation" is "kibbush" or conquest). But our discussion revealed not only a commitment to this particular stand, but also a concern about the quality of leadership which appears to exist across the political spectrum. I asked her, "As a person who wants to see the ‘occupation’ end, what would you expect to happen afterward?" She answered, "Oh, I know there would not be peace. We got out of Lebanon, and it did not bring peace. But still we should get out of there, because of what we are doing to them and to our own souls. We should build a high fence and concentrate on our own society." Then, evidently remembering the Orthodox objection to surrendering any portion of the Promised Land, she said, "This is not the only generation. We cannot have everything ‘now’ - neither peace ‘now,’ nor the complete land of Israel ‘now.’ We have to think about the long term." She criticized the current leadership not only for continuing the ‘occupation’ but for lacking a clear direction. "If Sharon would say clearly, ‘We’re going to annex the territories,’ I wouldn’t agree with it, but it would be a clear direction, something on which to build." Beyond her position on this particular issue, I felt that her words revealed a concern about the structure of society and the long term, which amid the atmosphere of crisis is very heartening.
As the next-to-last item in this brief presentation, I’d like to show you a few images by two women artists, who both also happen to be poets. Eva Avi-Yonah immigrated many years ago from Austria. She writes very fine poetry in both German and English, occasionally in Hebrew too. But it is her painting that has really taken off in the last few years, in an explosion of dramatic imagery that mixes politics with a very unorthodox spirituality. She was getting ready for a show at Kibbutz Urim when I visited her. One of her paintings might have been entitled "Politics in a Nutshell" – it shows two embryos curled inside a walnut shell, glaring at each other. Another is a self-portrait that shows her turning into an owl. In a third, which she called "Unexpected," the face of the woman expresses stark terror and dismay, but with the X-ray vision of the painter we can see that she is carrying the Buddha. And the message of this painting was expressed by several other people I met, all of whom were artists and not the kind of people you would expect to start talking about the "birth pangs of the Messiah": the belief that terrible as these times’ events are, something is taking shape among them that will eventually bring hope to humanity. The same theme emerges in the digital photography of Reva Sharon (one of whose images adorns this page; further images can be seen at http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/jerusalem.html). Reva Sharon lives on the edge of Talpiot Mizrach, and her living room window looks right out ona Palestinian village. The apartment next to hers was firebombed last year. I had first met Reva on my visit in 2000. She was then intensively involved with counteracting anti-Israel propaganda and getting the true story out via the Internet. Then as now she felt that the current stage of the conflict is not so much a territorial dispute between Israelis and Palestinians as it is part of a worldwide fundamentalist terror campaign. Since 2001, of course, awareness of this is considerably more widespread. And on this visit Reva seemed to be shifting her emphasis from getting the story out to finding a centered response. She told me that she often thought of Yeats’ line "Things fall apart, the center will not hold." "But," she added, "If you are deeply rooted enough, you can’t lose the center." I was particularly drawn to the image called "Hope (http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/hope.html), where a door seems to be opening in a stone wall. And I hope that I have managed to show you in this talk not only the pain and destruction and need in Jerusalem today, but also some possibilities for growth.
I would like to close with something I brought to Israel – new words which came to me this Yom Kippur, to the tune of the Partisan song "Zog nit keinmol az du gehst den letzten veg." Please feel free to join in!
Never Say That There Is Nothing You Can Do"
Never say that there is nothing
you can do
All the questions of the world
Though the sky is shaken with our
When each person brings their
Never say that there is nothing
you can do
A donation to EZRAT AVOT (US Tax ID# 11-3113560; P.O.B. 5603, Jerusalem 91056, Israel) will help provide Jerusalem’s poor and elderly with food, clothing, blankets, heat...