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(www.avi-chai.org). 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, d├ęcor 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(bac.org.il). 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!