Do You Have an Answer?

As part of the Jewish People, I ought to…

When we walked into our room this morning, Rabbi Michael Marmur, our presenter this morning, had written this question on the board. We looked at a few texts about what the Jewish people is/are and what the purpose of Jewish peoplehood might be, but that was all to prompt us think about answering this question. Of course, this is not a question with a limited answer. One may be able to respond with 1, 10, 613, 4, 7, or any other number of answers.

As we started to list responses on the board- to Live Jewishly, to have a relationship to Israel, to seek to understand God- I came to the conclusion that really any answer which addresses an aspect of the Jewish tradition is a valid one. That puzzled me. It is a great question, one that makes us think about who we are and what our purpose for being and for being Jewish is. But, with such a wide range of answers, what do we do with all of them?

I raised this question to Dan Pekarsky, one of our faculty members. We got into a great discussion, and to help me frame my concern, he asked me another great question. He told me to think of my tallit, and more specifically of the four tzitziot, four fringes that hang from each corner. We wear them as a reminder of the mitzvot. The combination of knots and strings, when counted and added a certain way, add up to 613, the number of mitzvot found in the Torah. Thus, they are a physical representation of the mitzvot, one understanding of what our job as Jews is.

So, Dan told me that, to help narrow his thinking into something more understandable and relatable, he tries to identify four principles that reflect the essence of the Jewish tradition that he finds most compelling. It’s not that those principles are more important than any of the others, they are just what, to him, are what motivate him the most.

As a corollary to the question raised above, What are your four tzitziot?


A Unique Jerusalem Day

Of the varied complaints that I and many of my friends occasionally lodge against Jerusalem society, a regular one is the discomfort of interacting with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Although we walk the same streets and inhabit the same city, we really live in different worlds. In our eyes they stick out- black hats, black coats, white shirts, beards. But what stuck out today was the presence of another sector of Israeli society in Jerusalem in numbers that I have never seen.

Yom Yerushalayim commemorates and celebrates the reunification and liberation of the eastern parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City and Western Wall, during the Six Day War in 1967. For those who believe that Jews ought and have a God-given right to inhabit the entirety of the Land of Israel as described in the Bible, that was an accomplishment of tremendous meaning potential theological implications. These Religious Zionists filled Jerusalem today touring, rallying, celebrating, and generally enhancing the vibrancy of the city. It’s not unusual to see members of this community in Jerusalem; many Religious Zionists live here. But today, and all this week, others have been coming into the city to revel.

Interestingly, the only mention of Yom Yerushalayim in Yediot Achronot, one of the most widely read papers, was on page 12, with about four paragraphs. What might that mean? That Yom Yerushalayim is not something that most of the country is interested in. Paul Liptz, a former instructor at HUC in Jerusalem and our facilitator this morning, commented that if we called 100 people in Tel Aviv and asked them what today is, 99 would say “Wednesday,” and one would say “Yom Yerushalayim.” An exaggeration, but reflective of the reality that for much of Israeli society, Yom Yerushalayim is important to national history, but not in their lives today. For many, “unified” and “liberated” Jerusalem is a political quagmire, a city where two peoples who often want nothing to do with each other are compelled to be next-door neighbors, roommates, and share a cubicle. Former Mayor Teddy Kollek’s solution was to encourage integration of the Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, in the hopes that they would develop a workable relationship. But the reality is that Jerusalem is fairly segregated.

We walked from the Mandelbaum Gate, which was the only point of crossing of the 1949 Armistice Line, down that line, looking at Israeli neighborhoods on our left and Palestinian on our right. Paul reminded us that the “border” from 1949-67, the “’67 Border” that caused such an uproar in the past few weeks, is not a border at all. A border is a negotiated, agreed upon line. What separated Israel from Jordan during that time were lines of soldiers’ posts, barbed wire fences, and arms. The Armistice Line represented where Israeli and Jordanian troops were when they agreed to stop fighting; a long-term solution was never enacted. We are still waiting.

As we walked, we crossed paths with a group of a few hundred Israeli school aged boys, clearly coming from a school or youth group. They were excited and energized. The strode with purpose towards wherever they were going; an event of some kind. I was keenly aware that, as we walked on Nablus Road, there might be potential for trouble if this group found itself in the right situation. Young, ideological boys aged 9-18, here to proclaim and celebrate Israel’s claim on all of Jerusalem, walking near and venturing into Palestinian neighborhoods. We were only a few blocks from Sheikh Jarra, one of the hotspots in Israeli-Palestinian land politics. If this group of Israelis were confronted with a similar group of Palestinians, a West Side Story rumble might ensue. Was I scared? No. Nervous. A little.

Not two blocks away, we encountered a Palestinian school group. Half a dozen pigtailed schoolgirls, dressed in their school uniforms, came up to us. The tallest one (I think their captain) smiled and said in deliberate English, “Hello! How are you today?” The others follow suit, turning to each of us randomly and saying hello, good morning, how are you?, what is your name? They weren’t particularly interested in hearing us respond; they just wanted to try out the English phrases they had been learning. The only moment of tension was when the Captain asked Paul, “How old are you?” To which we all laughed.

There I was, in Israel’s Eternal Capital, feeling much more at ease with Palestinians than I did with Israelis not five minutes before.

Over lunch, we talked with Paul about the recent Obama-Netanyahu tete-a-tete. His take: Obama said nothing controversial, new, or threatening. But he also noted that in international politics, what is said and what is heard are not always the same thing. There was an immediate emotional response, but over time the clarity has come through. But Bibi Netanyahu has capitalized, garnering a 13 point jump in his approval, and energizing his right-wing base, some 40% of the nation that speaks more loudly and clearly than the 60% who oppose him and his approach to The Situation. I wondered that reality, of a louder, clearer, more unified, albeit perhaps smaller right was parallel to the US. Fox News and conservative talk radio may be louder than the left, but does that mean that they represent the largest group of Americans? We shall see in the next year and a half…

Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim

Riding the bus, writing on my BB. Just had a history of Jerusalem lesson from Paul Liptz at Hebrew U. on Mt. Scopus. Whatever your political inklings and feelings about the status and future of Jerusalem, it’s still a beautiful view of a visually beautiful city.
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First Day Back in Jerusalem

Everything changes and everything stays the same. My first day in Jerusalem has proved that. The city looks the same, only different. Where there once were holes in the ground, there are now tall buildings. And in some places where there was the beginning of a construction project, it still looks like the beginning of a construction project (Waldorf- Astoria, I’m looking at you). The big change is the light rail. Yafo is just a pedestrian walkway with tracks running down the middle. Empty trains run by every few minutes doing their test runs. I’m wondering if they are testing how the tracks and cars work, or how well Israelis respond to the repeated horns to get out of the way. We shall see.

The Seminar started today as well. It was great to get back together as a group, to hear what everyone has been up to since January, and to start thinking about our topic for the month:עמיות, Jewish Peoplehood.

To welcome us, Lisa played a great song by Arik Einstein, כמה טוב שבאת הביתה, “How Good that You Came Home.” All of us are returning to Israel after having spend a year here together four years ago. For some of us it was our first time back, for others (like me) we had been back. And yet, every time you come it’s like coming home; everything is the same and everything is different.

I’m sitting at Cafe Hillel on Yafo in Jerusalem, at the center of the city. It is utter madness. Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, started at sundown. Today, we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. There are about eight bajillion Israeli teens around the city (that’s what I get for coming downtown tonight), but the bustle is electrifying. The energy is keeping me up at this late hour (9:30 pm), fighting through my jetlag that I hope will be gone by tomorrow. A good night’s sleep tonight should do the trick. Our plan tomorrow is to walk and drive around the city to take in a variety of Yom Yerushalayim activities.

For those who are keeping score at home, I have not yet been in Lina for hummus, Istanbuli for shwarma, or Aroma. All need to be done in the very near future. Having said that, I do also love Cafe Hillel.

Finally, but most importantly, I have to wish a Happy Anniversary to Tami. We are celebrating our second wedding anniversary today. Obviously neither one of us wanted to be apart today, but the Seminar’s and her work’s schedules prevented us from being together. We had a great time in San Diego last week celebrating, and got in a quick video chat today before she went to work. It helps, but it isn’t like being together. I love you baby, Happy Anniversary.

Off to bed, hopefully through the night, and another great day tomorrow.

Arrived in Israel

I’m sitting in the Nesher Sheirut (shared taxi) from the airport in Tel Aviv to my hotel in Jerusalem. The weather here is absolutely gorgeous. Sunny and 79 in the middle of the afternoon. Let’s hope and pray for a month of this weather.

I got my BlackBerry up and running; gotta love BBM for staying in touch. I didn’t sleep much on the plane, and so I’ve started a countdown to 9:30 tonight when I can go to bed. Ill hit the hotel, get unpacked and cleaned up, a bite to eat with friends, and then it’s off to bed before tomorrow’s first day.

Here we go again…

As I start this, my second attempt at blogging, I also know that I am doing something else again…heading off to Israel. Four years ago, right around this time, I was packing up my life, moving it from Jackson, MS back to Chicago, putting it in storage (thanks Dad), and getting onto an Israir flight. Now, I am leaving most of my life where it is (including Tami), and just heading off for four weeks. But, since we are planning to move when I get back, I know that we are packing up our lives in a very short period of time.

Why am I going to Israel (and why isn’t Tami coming with)? For a month-long seminar with my rabbinic/education classmates. Thanks to the Mandel Foundation, who have given all of us a fellowship this year, we have had the change to learn with and from each other in Malibu in September, in Boston in January, and now will be going to Israel for a month. I leave on Sunday, and we get started on Tuesday. So now, I’m off to pack.