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, 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( 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!

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