Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Surely God is in the place but I, I did not know it – Jacob the Dreamer 28:16

This blog is best read listening to this.

I went to the desert to learn about the desert people, the ancient Hebrews, who spoke to God from the empty space. It was 5am. I was in Mitzpe Ramon. There was no wind, no birds, no leaves rustling, no other people to be heard. Only silence. The instruction was to sit and think for an hour, and then when the sun rose, return to the bus. Fine.

For the first 10 minutes. Still Fine. But then I started getting bored. I stood up, looked around and sawmy friend Baruch praying on the next hilltop. He was wearing his tallit and tfillin. He was speaking to God, maybe God was listening? I have always found tfilla difficult. I go to shule and there is always something that bothers me. I don’t like the shule’s rabbi, its politics, the location of its mechitza, the length of the service, the tunes and so on. I have many excuses as to why I don’t pray at shule so much. That doesn’t mean I don’t go. I go every week, some would say religiously.

Yet I feel further away from God in Israel than I do in Australia. I thought, maybe in the holy city of Hevron, at Maarat HaMachpela where my heroes lie, there I will find my kavana. But Hebron, unfortunately, is one of the most unharmonious sites of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where many people have their lives curtailed every day in the name the sanctity of this cave. Praying at the tombs of my ancestors from behind iron bars, due to the conflict over their bones, was not a place where I could find God.

But now I was in the desert. Here there is no conflict. No blood is spilt for this soil. Who wants to live in this place? This is neutral ground. And, what did God do for Hagar in the location where I was sitting?

And she wandered about the wilderness of BeerSheva.. and she thought “let me not look on as the child (Ishmael) dies.” And sitting thus, she burst into tears.

God heard the cry of the boy and an angel of God called to
Hagar from heaven and said to her, “what troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand and I will make a great nation of him” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Gen 21:14-19

I had no excuses not to pray here. There was no politics to bother me in the desert. Davka the opposite. The desert is where my ancestors have prayed, Hagar, Eliyahu, Hannah, and God has listened.

So I tried to pray. I said the Shma, I tried Amida. But nothing. No voice from heaven spoke to me, there was no thunder and lighting, not even a still small voice. I heard only the deafening silence of the desert. I wanted to tell God “Hineni!” But instead I asked Him “Ayeca?”

A week later, I shared this story with my friend Sarah (not her real name) and asked if she has heard God before. She was sure she had. I was very excited. She told me that she once really wanted something in her life, so she went to a rabbi and was told that if she prayed shacharit for 40 days straight at the kotel, her desire would be granted by God. She prayed for 10, 20, 30, 40 days. Nothing happened. On then on the 42nd day, her desire was granted. She was convinced that it was a reward for her tfilla. I asked her, why didn't God grant her desire on day 1? She said, "because God wanted me to earn it, to show I had emunah". “Yafe” I said. "But what if God had not granted your desire? Would you have stopped believing?" Sarah replied “of course not.” I would have understood that I was asking the wrong desire from God. I said “that’s a nice logic there, God wins both ways.” My question was not answered.

So I went to Aviva Zornberg’s Parasha Shiur on Parshat Vyetze. After the class I chatted with a girl named Rina (not her real name) and asked what she did when she had trouble praying. She told that her Rabbi from Kehilat Hadar told her on Yom Kippur, whatever your thoughts about God are right now, tell him. Have a conversation. Whatever you feel, say it. I have tried this too. But how long can you say how you feel, when the audience is an ancient wall whose enormous stones bare only silence despite the overflowing paper requests within her? If the conversation is a monologue, then maybe “God is not in this place?”

But earlier on Aviva had drawn my attention to Yaakov. Yaakov, the ish tam who dwelt in tents, Yaakov, who lied to his father and stole the birthright, Yaakov, who was on the run from Esav. Yaakov, who had a dream, and when he awoke said “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” What was this place? The Torah tells us it was Beit El, which had previously been the city of Luz. Rashi disagrees. He says that place was in fact Har HaMoriah. The place where father Abraham had prayed, and Yitzchak too. But Yitzchak almost died there. So Yaakov was terrified of this place, where had the akeida been fulfilled, he would not have been born. So Rashi says that at this point “Mount Moriah was forcibly removed from its locality and came hither to Luz.” Why did God have to uproot the mountain and drag it to Luz? Yaakov was running way, and avoiding confronting his past. Like a second generation survivor perhaps?

What did Yaakov mean when he said “God is in this place but I, I did not know it.” It was a revelation he had after his famous dream where Bob Dylan says Yaakov “built a ladder to the stars and climbed on every rung.” Chazal say this was the first time in 14 years that Yaakov had slept, having occupied his nights as well as his days studying Torah in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber until this point. But how could Yaakov, who has been in yeshiva for 14 years, not know God yet? Aviva suggested that perhaps he only learnt Sod HaTorah during this time, not Sod HaTfilla.

Sod Hatorah is going directly to what one wants. It is rolling the giant stone of the well and kissing Rachel. It is working to get what one wants. It is control, unity and harmony.

Sod HaTfilla is spending the whole night calling out the name Rachel and waking up to realize that “Behold, It was Leah.” Leah was not what Yaakov desired. But in order to obtain the bechora he had to find his dark side, saying to his father, “Anochi Esav, your first born.” The Sfat Emet says that Yaakov was speaking the truth at this point. Yaakov wants to amplify his identity beyond that of the ish tam yeshiva student. Yaakov needed to become Esav, the one who was destined to marry Leah, despite her crying her eyelashes out in protest. After Yaakov married Leah he hated her.

After Leah bared three children as the unloved wife, Yehuda was born. She said “This time I will praise the Lord.” How did Leah and Yaakov find their peace and reconcile their animosity for each other?

Because Yaakov stopped being Anochi Esav, and became Anochi Yaakov. How did he find his Anochi Yaakov? Like Hagar it the desert, God opened his eyes. And then Yaakov stumbled over it.

So maybe in order to have a meaningful tfilla experience, I will need to find my “Anochi” this year. That is the Sod Hatfilla. Hineni ki karata li.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

From trees and bees

Shalom from Jerusalem. I have been living here for six weeks now. It's giving me a lot of sympathy for God. Being Ellul now, every morning, the Moroccan shule 50 meters from my apartment in Abu Tor begins slichot/shacharit at 4am. Shortly after, the muezzin from the nearby village of Silwan calls the residents there to prayer. Then the church bells from the Old City to the St Andrews Church of Scotland toll. Everyone here is crying and screaming to God. She must be a very good listener. I have visited the Kotel a few times. Cynics sometimes say that praying to God is Israel is like speaking to a wall.
I understand what they may mean. But it is Ellul, with Rosh Hashana fast approaching and I need to find a language in which to communicate. The king is in the field. Now is my opportunity. But for what shall I ask?

Every year I ask for peace, for the wellbeing of my community, friends and family. Doesn't everyone? But "Next year in Jerusalem" is now.
Rosh Hashana in Israel is like Grand Final day in Melbourne. For those who follow the event, the lead up takes a whole year.

The popular radio station galgalatz(think Fox FM) is asking for votes in the lead up to its annual top 40 countdown on erev rosh hashana, the supermarkets are already advertising their specials for the chaggim, Shules are sending out emails reminding the faithful to book seats for the main events.
There is talk that someone may top last years bid of 10,000 shekels to open the ark at one shule. I feel that this year, I should pray for something more specific.
Our tradition says that God's house once stood on the mountain next to the one where I live. Perhaps this year, with front row seats at the Kings former palace, my prayers may be answered.

This is not my first time in Israel. Something I have noticed on this visit compared to previous sojourns in this land is that the gaps within the Jewish community are widening. The antipathy between those on opposite sides of the political/religious spectrum is palpable. The differences in opinion are so wide, that the bridge to reconciliation seems filled with enough troubled water to end Australia's drought.

What do about the Kassams coming from Gaza with increasing frequency? The Syrian/Iranian threat? The construction and route of the security barrier? The challenge to the authority of the High Court from the Knesset? The widening gap between Jewish and Arab Israelis? The neo nazis in Petach Tikva? Returning Gilad Shalit home? The people in Tzahal who won't obey orders from their commanders? The people who now refuse to serve in the army at all?
The same people are offering the same options. Few inspire hope. Few seem to be bringing any of these issues closer to resolution.
So this year. I'll be praying for the following:

I pray that we will find a place in our hearts
A place that is hidden deep down
A place that is optimistic That is sweet and innocent
That has tasted no bitterness and war
I call this place Eden.

It's just north of Caulfield or Emek Refaim
There, one loves his neighbor more than he hates him

There, one honours the difference in the other
There, fear does not rule
There, one is wise, because he learns from all

There, one has time, because nothing is more important than the person looking into his eyes

There "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
They shall never again know war;
But every person shall sit Under their grapevine or fig tree
With no one to disturb them" (Micah 4:3-4)

The trees and bees have been working hard this year. On Wednesday night we will be enjoying their apples and honey.

May their sweetness be the beginning of a journey to a teshuva shleima that allows us to love the world anew, or in the words of Hannah Arendt:

"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which., except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world."

I'm here to learn how to educate children. Sometimes, it's tough being an optimist in Israel. I pray that I will keep being one.
Shana Tova U Metuka
Love Ittay

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I have just returned from a three day coexistence gathering with over 1200 Israelis and Palestinians held in the Olive Groves of the Latrun Monastery. Sponsored the grassroots organization Sulha Peace Project, the encounter aimed to use the indigenous process of mediation (Sulha), to rebuild trust and restore dignity between the two historic nations of this land.

It was inspiring and hopeful as it was sad and confronting. On presentation that particularly grabbed my attentionsentation of a movie from the Bereaved Families Forum called Encounter Point
After the film, there was a discussion facilitated by the two brave protagonists.

Ali Abu Awwad was shot by an Israeli settler in 2001. Whilst in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment his brother, Yusef was killed by an Israeli soldier. Ali had spent years in Israeli prisons for actions like demonstrating against the occupation, throwing stones, and being a member of a political party. When Yusef was killed, Ali joined the Bereaved Families Forum to work with Palestinians and Israelis who together advocate nonviolence and reconciliation.
Robi Damelin is an Israeli mother whose son David was shot dead in 2002 by a Palestinian sniper whilst he was manning a checkpoint. Robi is haunted by the loss of her son, and the knowledge that he was posted to defend an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territory to which he was politically opposed. After David was killed, Robi also joined the Bereaved Families Forum.

They stood together after the film and had a very clear message. For many years both Israeli’s and Palestinians have been fed two myths by their respective media.

On the Palestinian side, there is a perceptions that all Israelis don’t want peace. They all serve in the army which inflicts a brutal occupation on the Palestinians. They have never offered to completely withdraw from the occupied territories.

On the Israeli side, the mantra being heard all too often is that the Palestinians don’t want peace and are only interested in driving us into the sea. Even this week, whilst Olmert is trying to restart negotiations, the leader of the Labour Party(which calls itself a leftist party) Ehud Barak repeated this mantra. Why? Meron Benvenisti writes in yesterdays Haaretz:

With the Camp David failure and the outbreak of the second intifada, the Israeli public needed a narrative that would unite its parts, justify its deeds and allow it to deal with a difficult situation while describing the situation as a war for survival. The narrative presented by Barak, in which he offered the late PA chairman Yasser Arafat the moon and Arafat chose violence instead, has become resistant to any contradicting argument, fact or evidence. Barak and his disciples have succeeded in convincing the Israelis that the Palestinian rejection of the generous and unprecedented offers led to the wave of violence, and that the Palestinians are not ready to end the conflict, which is not territorial but stems from their refusal to accept Israel's very existence.

The "there is no partner" formula is what led to the peace camp's destruction. Anyone who dared present a more complex picture was accused of supporting the enemy.

But the pundits' decree is unequivocal: Barak's motives are personal; he is undermining the process out of fear that someone will succeed where he failed.

Hearing Robi and Ali speak about how they have chosen the path of nonviolence was truly inspirational. They travel around the country visiting both Palestinians and Israeli schools sharing their stories and those of the others in the Bereaved Families Forum. Their message of non violence includes an admonition of Palestinian terrorist activities parallel to an equal condemnation of the Israeli occupation and soldiers who, when obliged to do serve in the IDF, act in a way for more brutal than is necessary.

For the path of non violence to work, we need to let go of a number of dreams.
1. That military force alone will eradicate the threat from the other side
2. That the occupation, in any form, can continue indefinitely
3. That Jerusalem can remain undivided

I know many Israelis and Palestinians who will never let go of these dreams. They say the dream of the left is a fantasy. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will always want to kill innocent Israelis. The Israeli government will never dismantle all the settlements. But what’s the alternative? Perpetual war? Continued UN resolutions and Quartet mediated peace conferences were neither side budges from their “red lines?” Unending occupation corrupts Israeli society as much as it harms Palestinian dignity.

Each morning of the sulha, there were sharing circles where we listed to each other’s stories. The pain and anguish was evident. In the evenings both Jewish and Arab musicians including David Broza, Yair Dalal and a Palestinian dance troupe performed and I witnessed something I had never seen before. Israelis and Palestinians dancing wildly together until 2 in the morning. It was like a wedding.

During the closing ceremony, many Palestinians, especially the teenagers, cried. Knowing that this island of peace and mutual respect was going to end the moment they stepped of their busses in Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin behind the wall and humiliating checkpoints.

I left feeling hopeful that such a gathering actually exists. Many of the Israelis present would be considered members of the extreme left , the Palestinians present would be considered traitors. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, Sulha is a grassroots movement. Most people present left convinced that the method I have just described is the best way to achieve peace between our two nations. We are but small minorities, the majority in both countries remain unconvinced.

From little things, big things grow…..

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yamim Kashim Ve Yamim Raim

I was privileged to hear the renowned Israeli Poet and author Haim Gouri today at the Hebrew University Ulpan.

Gouri is most famous for his song Hareut which he wrote in 1949. Two days before Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated he asked for it to be played for him during a radio interview.

It's beautiful words evoke a bygone era when unity and friendship were the raison d'etre of this state. The song is a memorial to the brave soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.

על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך.

כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו.
אך נזכור את כולם

את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את לבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח

They are gone from our midst,
All their laughter, their youth and their splendor.
But we know that a friendship like that,
We are bound all our lives to remember,
For a love that in battle is forged,
Will endure while we live, fierce and tender
After Rabin's assassination the song Hare'ut resounded frequently on Israeli radio. The line in the chorus: "Et Yafim hablorit vehato'ar" was strongly associated with a picture of the young Yitzhak Rabin of those days as the icon of the Palmach generation.

Towards the end of his talk I asked Gouri if when he wandered the streets of Jerusalem as he likes to do often, he felt despair for what this nation has become or hope. His answer was fascinating.

He explained that there are two types of periods in the history of Israel.
Hard days and Wicked days – ימים קשים וימים רעים

The Yamim Kashim were the days gone by when the nation of 600,000 in 1948, doubled its population in six years. There was a dire lack of resources, a siege on Jerusalem, and times were tough in the maabarot (refuge camps filled by mostly mizrachi olim).

יותר רעים מאשר קשים
Today's Israel is more reflective of Yamim Raim than Yamim Kashim. Why? Due to the lack of unity and hatred in this country. Jews have always had their differences, but the sharpness of the conflicts between am yisrael have never been as fierce as they are today. Datyim V Chilonim, Ashkenazim V Sephardim, Orthodox V Non Halachic Judaism.

Gouri continued to explain that the animosity is most intense when it comes to our conflict with the Palestinians. The inhumanity of this conflict is palpable. Only pure wickedness could conjure a political device so malevolent as the suicide bomber. An occupation that lasts 40 years is celebrated with fireworks. Collective punishment, the security fence, ID cards, Separation.

After reading this analysis, despair is a feeling that seems more apt than hope. But not for Gouri. For he sees this as merely a phase in an historic struggle. The Rhine was once red with blood, today there is a European Union were one can travel from Siberia to France without showing a passport. The Catholics and Protestants in Ireland murdered each other for centuries, and this wicked chapter is too now coming to a close. The Middle East will also one day merit its arrival of peace. How? Gouri says only when both sides realize that this conflict will not end by force alone.

סבלנות נרגילית

Patience is a rare virtue in Israeli politics. Sitting by a nargilla as the hours go by in the Old city has taught Gouri something he calls the "patience of the nargilla. "

Talking is the solution. But talking means making hard compromises that none of us want to do.

Tomorrow I'm heading of the Sulha in the Olive Groves by the Laturun monastery. To everything there is a season. I'm ready for the season of listening and patience.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Jerusalem Stories

This evening Carm and I went to see a play in Hebrew called Jerusalem Stories. Directed by Carol Grossman after four years of interviewing and researching, this play put on stage some of the many confronting and challenging life experiences that are common to the citizens of Jersualem. The two actors portrayed six characters, three Israeli and three Palestinian. There was a bus driver who was injured in a suicide bombing, a Jewish woman who joins a tehillim group that gives her strength, a Palestinian older lady who has to cross several border crossings in order to sell her fruits in Jerusalem, an uncle of a young boy killed in the Al Aqsa mosque riots of the second intifada, a displaced Palestinian who reminisces on his childhood playing downball against the Western wall, and perhaps most touchingly, a mother of a 15 year old boy who was killed in a suicide attack in Ben Yehuda St. All the stories are based on real interviews conducted in the years prior. When the actress portraying Miri, (the mother of Assaf who was killed on Ben Yehuda) spoke, the room became chillingly quiet. There was enormous sadness in her monologue, in particular as she described reading in the newspaper that the mother of her sons’ killer was proud of her son, and would gladly sacrifice her other children for a similar cause.

The play is also being performed in Arabic in East Jerusalem. After the show we sat in a circle on the stage and were invited to share our reactions to the play. In a very heated hour of conversation, we talked of how it feels to have the others’ side of the story told so sympathetically, what it is like to live in fear, what we have done to create this enormous hatred from Palestinians, and what some solutions may be. During the course of the discussion, we realized that one of the participants was the real ‘Miri’, the mother of Asaf Avitan
who was murdered along with 10 other youths one Saturday Night on Rehov Ben Yehuda in December 2001.

When Miri spoke and explained who she was, the group fell silent. Her grief was palpable, and even though several years have passed, it is clearly a very raw pain for her. Her contribution to the discussion was in a sense quite aggressive towards the other participants who were mostly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. She hated the way leftist ranted on about the checkpoints and the occupation, as if this somehow justified the motivation of the murders who killed her son. She said, “If I had to live with a giant wall and checkpoints and was greatly inconvenienced each day on my way to work, but all this meant that I could see my son again, I could live with this.” She continued, “So many of you here criticize the wall for the hardship it causes to ordinary Palestinians, but I tell you, had that wall been built around Abu Dis(a Palestinian suburb east of Jerusalem) in 2001, the those two Hamas bombers would have never been able to reach my son and the hundreds of others victims that evening.”
Some tried to respond to this by saying that the harm we cause to the Palestinian is greater than what they inflict on us. She responded by saying “This is not Switzerland or Holland. We can’t have dialogue groups and hold hands and think it will make things peaceful. It’s the Middle East. We are playing with fire here. After 59 years, this state needs firm and clear borders. Only that will make us safe.”

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tisha BeAv in Jerusalem

For those reading this from abroad, just letting you now that Israel is always very warm during this time of year, so this blog will be experienced best in the room of your house that makes you most sweaty.

The day before Tisha B’Av I visited an Israeli youth movement camp to see how Zionism and Judaism are taught to Israelis. When they do their “issues in Israel” peulot (very similar format to how youth movements run in Australia in terms of trigger, circle, discussion , sikkum) it was interesting to hear how the Israeli kids responded to the many issues facing their country including areas such as the environment, treatment of women (agunot), disabled people and foreign workers by both government policy and/or social discrimination.

In the leadup to Tisha B’Av the students each wrote about their own personal churban (destruction). Many spoke about the war last summer. The mudrichim emphasized the national dimension of Tisha B’Av as well.

I heard Megillat Eicha in a very warm room sitting on the floor with some 240 campers. In between each chapter, the mudrichim took on roles to create dramatic interludes. After perek one, a very passionate text sounding like it could have been written by Jeremiah, extolled the Jews to look at themselves and see what their sinat chinam has caused. A second act involved single, powerful words being read out around the room. A third and most powerful act included no words, just an old woman standing in the middle of the room and holding a baby and weeping.

On the day of Tisha B’Av I spent the afternoon at Beit Avi chai( It is a cultural center situated in the center of the city, “in the heart of the thought process, mindset and creation of Jewish and Israeli society.”

This cultural center believes in gathering the voices heard in the Jewish-Israeli dialogue, to give them a facility to allow them to be heard and have an effect on Israeli society and culture.

The architecture of the building is extraordinary in its size, décor and facilities perfect for any cultural event in the city. The building is situated in the center of Jerusalem, with a convenient location, in between the Jewish Agency building and the Great Synagogue, near the Prime Minister`s house and other important landmarks in the city.

To mark Tisha B’Av, they screened a number of films on the topic of ‘baseless hatred’ and love( The auditorium was packed, so they filled the upstairs classrooms as well. I assume there were many hundreds of people there, from their attire, most seemed to be modern-orthodox.
The first film screened was called Neila (Sam Speigel film school) and depicted a struggle between two shules. It’s a story familiar to Jews the world over.

The next film was Eicha (Maale film school). It depicted a national religious family who had four children named Sinai, Yerushalayim, Hevron and Eicha. The parody of the fundamentalism of the Dati Leumi community interposed by the ignorance and lack of sensitivity of the secular community made many people laugh. A few thought, is it right to watch a comedy on such a day? I think so. Perhaps laughing at ourselves is the first step at realising how ridiculous many of the stereotypes we create for each other are. This in turn may lead to ahavat chinam, instead of sinat chinam, which lead to the destruction of the temple in the first place.

The next screening was one episode from an Israeli miniseries named “Merchak Negia” which dealt honestly with issues of Russian aliya (doctor becomes parking attendant), violence in Haredi communities (husband beating wife is hushed up), love between religious and secular Jews (you can guess how it ends) and the way that honors are doled out in Haredi communities (who gets to write the final letter at a siyum sefer torah). All in 40 minutes. Amazing. Only in Israel could such a documentary be made where one can’t help but identify so closely with each character. It was an amazing example of how a piece of art can change years of perceptions and stereotypes that are crafted so consistently negatively here by the media.

The final movie I saw was "Ruach Kadim". Around the time of Israel’s 50th birthday, there were many films made that tell the story of the history of the Nation since the birth of Zionism. Ruach Kadim was made as a response to those other films. The director, Haim ben Sheetrit, felt that these other films, such as ‘Tkuma’, only told of the establishment of Ashkenazi narrative. So he decided to create a film with only Mizrachi voices about the early years of the State. Ruach kadim focuses mainly on the Moroccon aliya after 1948, concentrating on the experiences of former MKs Aryeh Deri (jailed Shas member) and Shlomo Ben Ami (former foreign minister).

It featured many difficult truths about the lies used by the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) to entice the Moroccan Jews to make Aliyah, the selection process which took place (Jews who were not fit to work were not invited to Israel) and the horribly paternalistic manner in which they were treated when they arrived. Never were they told where they were going - many ended up in peripheral border towns in the middle of no-where, when they believed they would live in Jerusalem or Haifa). The children’s heads were shaved and they were sprayed with DDT as if they were infected. The pride and rich heritage of these Jews were stripped from them.
As you can imagine, the discussion after the film was extremely heated. Many disputed the filmmakers one sided approach, whilst others applauded this rare telling of a Mizrachi rather than Ashkenazi narrative of recent Zionist history. In response to one of the comments, Moshe ben Sheetrit said “kulanu Bachyanim.” We are all criers. Each segment of Israeli society has its own discrimination story. Each segment claims that its suffering was the worst. Each group is crying for the sympathy of the others. Sheetrit said the fact that so many were offended by his film shows how much we still have to learn as an Israeli society. Why is it that one can’t listen to one person’s narrative of history, and empathise with their pain and their hurt, without judging them and dismissing their feelings?

For my part, the most insightful moment of the day occurred during a break between films when I had a chat with two lovely Yemenite girls. Both in their twenties, their families had similar stories to those depicted in the films. One pointed out that for all the poor treatment suffered by both the Mizrachi Jews and the many other migrant groups, we as a society learned nothing. And what evidence did she have to support this assertion? Look at the status of Ethiopian Olim in Israel today. Many are poorly integrated into Israeli society and have become the new underclass.

Tisha B’Av is more than a day to mourn an ancient temple. It is a day of reflecting on the national calamities we have suffered and inflicted. I can’t think of a better place to explore this than the in the heart of the capital of the Jewish state. Welcome to Israel!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Altneuland (Old-New Land)

I am writing this entry on a train ride from Milan heading towards the political and spiritual capital of the empire that has had more influence over Judaism than any other. ROME!

For many years, I have been amazed at Israel’s balance and blend of the ancient and the new. I used to think that ancient ruins next to mobile phone towers was unique to the Jewish state. Bat alas, today in Italy I find an equally stark contrast where see that people are more enraptured with contemporary materialism (the latest mobile phone and Fendi bag) than the rich history, archaeology and flavor of ancient Rome.

But why am I writing about Israel in Italy? Because like Israel, the beautiful country of Italy, and especially Milan where I have spent the past few days, is a contradiction of ancient and modern. Wandering down past medieval canals constructed by Leonardo Da Vinci, through cobbled streets filled with romantic terraced apartments decorated with renaissance art, one will be enthralled by more than just the magnificent gelati ice creams and pizzas. The architecture here devoted to the glorification of Christianity is breathtaking, none more so than the finely sculpted cathedral, the Vernada Fabbrica Del Duomo.

I have never seen a more awesome physical structure for the glory of God, or perhaps for the power of the church. Many visitors tour the great expanse of this magnificent place of worship. Some pray, some take pictures, some take a moment to be inspired by the architectural greatness of Italy’s Renaissance engineers and artists whose work so finely adorns this structure.

Whilst some revere this place as holy through prayer, others see it as another place to tick off on the standard European backpacker itinerary, as having “done it”. There are lovers who cavort intimately on the roof, youngsters who joke around and complain about the stairs, whilst meters away, thousands gather to shop for some of the most exclusive handbags and shoes in Europe with labels such as Luis Vuitton and Prada. I had previously thought that such a blend of the sacred and the profane was something only apparent in Israel.

Milan’s’ Golden Quadrangle’ is the hedonistic end point of limitless consumer culture manufacturers for clothing and accessories. In this street block, finely dressed shoppers from across the world gaze at the immaculately presented windows of Dolce & Gabbana and Versace to name a few. I guess because those that shop in this area would be reluctant to tempt the gods of fashion with poorly dressed staff, there is even a shop devoted entirely to the stylish dressing of maids and servants.

Old and new are like mozzarella is to pizza here in Italy. The same was true in England, where I saw similar images around St Paul’s cathedral in London.
This train ride is about to terminate at Rome’s central station. As we enter this historic city, I am reminded of the contrast, namely, that our ancestors arrived here in chains, whilst we arrive here with backpacks. I conclude by hoping that as I enter Ben Gurion airport this Friday, the old and new of Israel are less palpable, and perhaps more palatable!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Senior Educators Program

In three weeks I will be leaving Melbourne for a year of study in Israel as a member of the Senior Educators Program, which as based at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education of the Hebrew University.
The Senior Educators Program offers Jewish educators from all over the world a unique opportunity for professional development and personal enrichment. Participants from assorted countries and cultures, representing every stream of contemporary Jewish life, bring their varied professional backgrounds and diverse areas of expertise to the Program. Senior Educators explore innovative approaches to Jewish education, probe critical issues in Jewish thought and develop new skills to bring home to their communities. Over 300 Jewish educators have graduated from the program.

So why is Ittay swapping Caulfield for Katamon? Well, in the past five years I have been working as a professional Jewish educator, I have come to a number of conclusions.

1. Love – I love what I do. I love the students, the staff, the ability to positively influence the Jewish identity of those around me and the opportunity to entertain and make people happy.
2. Israel – This is the place to be to learn about what I do. Because Israel, is the best textbook I have found yet to learn about being Jewish. It is one giant laboratory, filled with 5,393,600 Jews and 1,413,500 Arabs. Herzl outlined his vision for this experiment in Altneuland. To put it mildly, it hasn’t turned out as he expected. (The book repeatedly makes the point that Arabs in Herzl's utopian state have equal rights, and one of them, Rashid Bey, is deputy prime minister. The villain of Altneuland is not an Arab but a Jew - a rabbi who runs for office on a platform of depriving non-Jews of citizenship.) I want to find out why modern Israel hasn’t turned like any of the Zionist thinkers envisioned. I think this guy has good idea about what went wrong and how to fix it. Expect more on this topic went I begin blogging from Jerusalem.
3. Judaism – It's an extraordinary belief system that dictates a way of living and describes a God that never ceases to fascinate me. Educating about Judaism can become an incredibly rewarding and life-changing profession after a while. It has for me. The nature of the content I teach constantly forces me to reflect upon my own Jewish identity and practice, as much as I ask my students to do the same.

So there you have it, that’s my preamble. I’m looking forward to writing the story of one Australians take on Jewishness in a Jewish state over the period of a year. I invite you to visit this blog once a month and join me for the ride.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sex Education – One Jewish Perspective

As part of my work, I read many divrei torah on everything from Zionism, environmentalism, consumerism and most often, the weekly parasha. Usually the parasha shiurim, no matter what the week, retell the narrative of the sidra, and conclude with a moral lesson that one should attempt to implement in the following week. Cute… but not always gripping stuff.

It is for this reason, that I was pleasantly surprised to read a very main stream rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, writing on a very mainstream website, Jerusalem Post, about what some may consider a taboo area in terms of topics for divrei torah.

For those of you who are fans of the weekly parasha like me, you will have found the past months quite difficult. You see, the torah starts with some great narratives and heroes, Abraham and Sarah, Tamar and Yehuda, Joseph and the decent to Egypt, Moses, the great Exodus… and after this gripping formative narrative, …. well on the face of it… a whole lot of boring details about an ancient temple which was essentially a massive slaughterhouse of animals with literally a river of blood flowing through it.

From Parashat Terumah onwards great detail is given about the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was the centre of the Israelites' religious life during the years they wandered in the wilderness. The Book of Leviticus (named thematically so due to it’s laws concerning the Levites and the sacrificial cult) deals almost exclusively with this topic. For a non temple fan like myself, what can I learn from the parshiot at this time?

Rabbi Riskin piqued my interested again in parsha with his commentary on the parsaha last month entitled Parshot Vayakhel-Pekudei: Sacred Sex.

Referencing the pasuk "The cherubs were with wings spread upwards, sheltering the Ark cover... with their faces toward one another" - (Exodus 37:9) he explained the symbolism of these two lovely headpieces of the Ark by quoting the following from the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a.
"Rabbi Katina said, 'When the Israelites would ascend [to the Holy Temple] on the festival, [the priest/kohen] would roll up the curtain for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were joined together [in an embrace].' The priest/kohen would then tell them, 'Behold the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omnipresent are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female' "

Rabba bar Rav Shila explains that "[The cherubs appeared in the engravings] as a man joined in an embrace with his female companion"

Hold on! Hold on! So the cherubs were embraced in a sexual manner on top of the ark. Many would think that this would be the last place for such an image to appear. But no! In fact Rabbi Akiva who taught that if each of the 24 books of the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs(which deals exclusively with an erotic relationship between young lovers) is the Holy of Holies.
And Rabbi Akiva did not merely mean to say that the lover in the Song of Songs is the Almighty and the beloved is the nation Israel; after all, the sages have already taught us that no verse is to be completely detached from its literal meaning. Therefore what R. Akiva is teaching is a lofty truth: every proper and passionate love relationship between man and woman resembles the cosmic love between God and Israel. Love is a sacred feeling, marriage is a sacred union.

So what’s the message young Ittay learns from this? Well, young kids are always going to be interested in learning about sex, and frankly, I think the Torah is generally going to be the last place they look for such information. But no, perhaps the torah, if more divrei torah were explored in such a manner, should be the first place to learn about sex. Rabbi Riskin concludes:

So it is tragic when our young receive their sex education from the street or from impure movies and Internet porn. Our educators must be trained to teach about sexual relationships from our Bible, just as these teachings once emerged from the engravings of the cherubs. Parents must explain to their children not only the evils of immorality, and not only the legitimate joys of marital sex, but also the sanctity of the sexual union from the perspective of Judaism. Sex must once again be joined to love and marriage, and be seen as one of the great wonders of a fulfilled family life. And such education has to begin no later than the sixth grade!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What will bring the Israeli’s and Palestinians closer towards Peace?

You will have to believe me when I tell you that I read an excessive amount of news and opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am writing what is now my 50th entry on this blog which is devoted mostly to this issue. Absorbing the news is for me, as it is for you given that you read this blog, an endless outlet for introspection on what in means to be a Jew and a Zionist in the 20th century. Most articles you and I read about our beloved state, criticize excessively the decisions of the Ehud Olmert, or praise excessively the noble and moral IDF. Either way, both perspectives always find some way of mentioning the Holocaust, Aparthied, and general stereotypes of all Arabs as fanatical Islamists, and all Jews as the extension of the colonial arm of the great Satan, USA.

It is with this in mind, that I was pleasantly surprised to read this thoroughly sobering and pragmatic response to Jimmy Carter’s latest attack on Israel. It is penned by Bradley Burston of Haaretz.
The occupation is horrid, but it is not apartheid.

The occupation must be opposed not because it resembles apartheid, but because it is overtly destructive to both Palestinians and Israelis.

The use of the term apartheid actually contributes to one of the primary reasons why the occupation continues. It is the "Oom Shmoom" syndrome - the Israeli mindset that says "The whole world curses and mislabels us for anything we do or don't do, so we might as well go on doing what we're doing."

As it is, it is too easy for Israelis to maintain a state of denial over the occupation and its evils. It is too easy for Israelis to dismiss hyperbole, to wave away comparisons to the Nazis and other genocidal regimes.

What is needed is honest criticism of the occupation as it is. What is needed is exposure of the specific ways in which Israel's policies cause harm to the harmless, and, in the process, are bad for Israel as well.

The occupation will not end because of a thousand rockets, or ten thousand. It will not end through boycotts by publicity starved academics.

It will end by means of Israelis being exposed to and coming to terms with wrongheaded and often immoral acts committed in the name of security, acts which often harm only non-combatants. It will come through the actions of Israeli courts, of a U.S. administration actively seeking solutions, and, eventually, though the actions of courageous Israeli politicians.

It will come through diplomacy, international involvement, and a process in which mutual demonization gives way to compromise.

What is needed is an attempt to approach Israelis as human beings trying, if often failing, to deal with an impossible array of complex variables.

Human beings, not evil, bloodthirsty colonialist Zionist thugs. Human beings, not a collection of facile, mean-spirited labels.

Zionists and Israel hater’s alike, I hope you are both listening!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Foriegn Workers in Israel

Today’s Haaretz editorial has commented on yet another example of our beloved state failing to live up to it’s mantle of “or lagoyim.”
The government approved a scandalous bill yesterday - submitted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon -to import 3,000 foreign laborers to work in agriculture. They would join the 26,000 foreign workers already employed by the Israeli agriculture industry. The bill runs contrary to previous government decisions to gradually reduce the annual quotas for foreign workers in agriculture, construction and industry.
It seems as though the real ‘or lagoyim’ is Australia (for a change).
The deputy governor of the Bank of Israel, Prof. Zvi Eckstein, is in the process of formulating a comprehensive plan to drastically reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel. Eckstein, an economist and expert in labor market policy, relies on a model adopted by Australia and intended to curb the entry of millions of foreign workers from other countries in the region. Instead of bringing in a foreign and cheap labor force, Australia introduced agricultural mechanization. Eckstein thinks there is no reason for the Israeli government not to adopt a similar policy and subsidize farmers who bring mechanization into their fields and hothouses. Given the small number of landowners who make a living from agriculture, this is not an impossible task.

Yet the Israelis prefer to hire the foreign workers. Why? What happened to A.D Gordon’s vision? Already in 1920 he wrote “The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for two thousand years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor- of labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor… for it is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people's toil and the people's labor. ...

I find this quote so poignant. By not labouring on our land, we are weakening the connection (and perhaps our rights of ownership) to Eretz Yisrael.