Bethlehem, Mar Saba, the Aida Camp – And Weighing in on the Impossible

Dear Readers,

On Friday morning, we hopped onto a bus in front of the beautiful Jerusalem YMCA, which lies across the street from the ritzy King David Hotel, and took a 20-minute ride to a place of poverty, warped dreams, humiliation, dark humor, degradation… and some sweet children.

The “we” in the above sentence, includes fellow Temple Beth Hatfiloh congregants from Olympia, Susan and Michael, who are in Israel for a couple of weeks, visiting friends, going birding, attending a conference and doing a wee bit of touring. When we found out that we would be in country at the same time, Susan kindly asked me if I’d like to join them for a tour of the West Bank. I immediately said yes, and their friend David, who was arranging the excursion with Green Olive Tours, added me to the attendees’ list.

Green Olive Tours is a USA-based “Social Enterprise and Workers Collective… dedicated to social change, cultural development, political activity and economic enterprise that cultivates humane and just societies…. The Collective binds itself to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It bills itself as an “alternative tour company,” and in the case of Friday’s tour that we took to Bethlehem and environs, it was led by a resident of the West Bank named Yamin.

Under the Oslo Accords (a set of mid-1990’s agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization), the West Bank is divided into three areas: A, B and C. Area A’s principal administrative control is by a governmental entity (it’s not labeled a nation or state) called the Palestinian Authority – though the Israeli military apparently has free reign to enter it at any time after midnight to sometime in the morning (we weren’t told when and I didn’t ask). Area B is jointly managed by Israel and the PA and Area C is controlled exclusively by Israel. There are published maps defining these areas which are very complex, but my take is that overall Area A is mostly existing, Palestinian Arab towns. Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are growing rapidly, frankly look like fortresses on hilltops: plenty of tall buildings, modern and ordered.

West Bank Jewish “Settlement” between Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Mar Saba Monastery

After arriving in a suburb of Bethlehem to pick up our guide, Yamin, we sip some strong coffee (with cardamom), get a brief orientation to the itinerary, and ride off to a 5th Century monastery.

The Mar Saba Monastery, dating back to the 5th Century, lying about 10 kilometers east of Bethlehem, fortress-like along the Kitron Valley

The monastery sits precariously over the deep gorge of the Kitron Valley. Here, for thousands of years, humans have been creating and expanding caves to dwell in, protect themselves from other humans, and in the last 1500 years lead secluded lives as religious monks. Over the centuries, the monastery has been attacked by various sects, so it built more and more armor to protect its inhabitants. It now is still functioning consistent with its original intended purpose, with occasional visitors – male only – allowed in.

A solitary desert flower adorns a precipice abutting the Mar Saba Monastery.

A Palestinian’s Perspective

After the monastery, we head for Banksy’s “Walled Off Hotel and Worst View in the World.” The artist Banksy has built a small hotel in Bethlehem adjacent to what is labeled a “separation barrier ” between the town and the Aida Refugee Camp. Aida is administered by an agency of the United Nations. Within the hotel walls is a museum and art gallery which deftly summarizes the current political, economic and social challenges faced by the Palestinian population. The museum is mostly in English. Tour folks like us are clearly the intended attendees. The art is angry, funny, and very very sad. The only real rays of hope I take emanating from the place, is the profound recognition that even surrounded with despair, the human spirit still creates. The day-to-day can still instill.

In the Banksy Museum
Surviving in Palestine

Outside the hotel, along the “separation barrier,” art is triumphant.

At Bethlehem’s Separation Barrier
Yamin provides history of wall art, and prepares group to enter Aida Refugee Camp.

The tour promised an opportunity to hear directly from Palestinians about their view of Israeli control of what the League of Nations in 1923 gave to Britain as its noblese oblige responsibility for rule, known as the Palestine Mandate. Yamin is about to begin that opportunity.

“I’m not going to sugar coat this,” Yamin warns us. “I’m going to tell you what I believe. I’ve been studying this for 10 years. I’ve talked with many people and I’m going to tell you the honest truth. I am for a one-state solution to Palestine, ” Yamin starts. “I know that is not the position of the PA or the Israelis, but it is my position.

Yamin goes on to decry the leadership of both the Israelis and the Palestinians with real rage aimed at the Saudis and other Arab States. “In Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims get along. I know that Jews and Muslims can get along too, if we learn to respect each other. I am for one state, with equal rights for all. For Palestinians, we must have the right of return to our homes where we lived prior to 1948 when the Israelis threw us out. Now, any Jew can come into Israel from anywhere in the world, but Muslims can not live in the homes of their fathers. This is wrong.”

The tour group, filled principally with politically progressive American Jews, is mostly silent. Listening.

We get back on the bus and head for Aida.

The first surprising thing to me about the Camp is how un-camp-like it all seems. While the structures are perhaps not as sound, and certainly not as large or well apportioned, as outside the Camp, the warrens seem as a whole relatively clean, with some larger streets accommodating private cars and taxis inching along paved surfaces. Perhaps we are shown only a distorted, positive portion of Aida, but everywhere we go we see smiling and laughing children looking well-fed and well-dressed.

Those children come up to we tourists eagerly wanting to engage. Yamin tells us “Please, no matter what you do, don’t give them money. We do not want them to develop that pattern of behavior.” But my friends Susan and Michael had already purchased a bag full of sweet treats and crayons. Yamin thinks that is fine, so he supports Michael while he passes the goodies around. As Michael went to the little tykes, all would say – or be directed to say – “thank you” in English before running off. Yamin also engages playfully with the children. One young boy apparently wants to become a model, so he takes turns posing for our cameras. It actually is quite sweet.

The Streets of Aida Refugee Camp, adjacent to Bethlehem.

Yamin takes us to a children’s art education center. There, a European-funded program provides opportunities for refugee youth to make a “beautiful resistance” through theatrical and dance performance, visual arts, media production, and various forms of education. We see kids of many ages engage their creative juices.

At the Aida Refugee Camp adjacent to Bethlehem, a monument to Arafat’s vision. Yes, the same geography as Israel’s current maps, just a different group in charge.

After the Aida Camp, we head for Manger Square and lunch. I’m fortunate enough to sit next to Yamin, and so my questions – and that of others – begin.

“I think I understand what your vision is, Yamin, and why you think it is just,” I say. “But I want to know something more. Given your critique of the Israeli political position and your desire for change, what do you think is possible? What is a practical direction to go that results in an achievable long-term solution?”

Yamin considers that for a second, looks at me and says, “no one has ever asked me that before. Give me a second, I need to think about that.”

But then someone else asks him another question, and he never returns to me.

What’s Possible?

Across Manger Square from our restaurant lunch stop is something called the Bethlehem Peace Center. Having a few minutes between lunch and our visit to the Church of the Nativity, I scamper over to take a peek. The exterior looked new and impressive. The interior was dark and abandoned. A small book and card shop was staffed by a friendly looking older lady at the end of the dilapidated hall. She was alone without customers. I had the feeling that I might have been the first customer all day. Or all week.

“Can you tell me about this place,” I ask?

And so she tells me its history. The edifice, built in 2001 with funds from a couple of European sources, was supposed to house all the functions listed on the exterior wall. It never did. The Europeans ran out of money, or will, or both. By 2007, they handed the whole kit and caboodle to the Bethlehem municipality. “The city doesn’t have the resources to open up the museum and barely keeps the tourist office functioning,” she explains in perfect English. (I never did see that office.) An underfunded peace center in a prominent location – much too sad for even ironic humor.

We go on to the Church of the Nativity. Like the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, when the Ottoman Empire packed its bags in the Holy Land, it left in charge an association of five different Christian sects to collectively manage the two sites. What could possibly go wrong? Both churches, of course, are in various states of disrepair, but they remain about the most important sites in Christendom, signifying for some but not all Christians, the sites for Christ’s birth and resurrection. The murmurings among my Jewish tourist brethren as we explore the Church’s various apses and naves and dungeons, is surprisingly critical, as I overhear one say “I just don’t get the whole dying for others sins bit.”

But I digress. Yella yella! (Arabic for “let’s go!) Let’s get away from Christian theology and back to something simpler. Like my thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Yesterday I read a small book by the Israeli author Amos Oz, “How to Cure a Fanatic.” I paraphrase and distill what he said as: there are two peoples, Jews and Palestinians. Each with legitimate claims to the same piece of land. Each have been rejected by the rest of the world. Both have faced death and abandonment, and have fought to survive. Both are, in a fundamental way, “right.” But neither can truly get all that it wants and all that it believes it needs. So painful compromise will be necessary for each to live apart from the other and have enough of what they need to find it minimally acceptable. Then and only then after acceptance, can more normal feelings emerge. Then and only after acceptance can they sit down together and drink coffee and share bread.

Oz writes this in 2002 and then in an afterward he was asked to affirm this in 2012 and does so.

Given events in the intervening years, I’m not so sure that Oz’s prescription is practical anymore, if it ever was. Or to be more specific, I’m not so sure that a two-state solution is practical in the foreseeable future. And perhaps, dear readers, you are seeing the outcome of years working in the legislative process, but I’m not interested in the impractical when it comes to people’s lives. I find that kind of unethical.

Throughout this trip to Israel I have found exactly no one who is hopeful about resolving peacefully the Israeli-Palestinian nationhood issue.

“Left wing” Jewish Israelis – I admit that those are the folks closest to my emotional heart – seem despondent. They don’t see a realistic partner in Palestinian leadership, the political right is ascendant, and Jewish demographic trends are brutal to the left. Their continuing isolation from a growing Haredi population, and the differing morality of right-wing politics has led them to feel a growing alienation from their nation’s current ethical foundations that they were so instrumental in forming lo those decades ago.

As for the right, they not only gave up long ago hoping for pan-Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to be a Jewish nation-state, they no longer feel a need to care about it. Their mantra has been to simply grow so strong and so powerful, that Palestinian rights or opinions in particular, and Arab opinions in general, just don’t matter. The Jewish nature of the state seems far more important to the right, than its democratic nature. And as an objective measure, they believe they are winning the argument for the future in a slam dunk: big economy, huge Jewish population increases, spreading land control, and increasing political support not only within the country, but even from international rulers on the right, like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Ader (Hungary).

As for the Palestinians, they appear alienated from their political leadership, humiliated, imprisoned and even killed by Israel if they fight back, and constantly losing land and rights. While the classic line by Abba Eban about Arafat was that “he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” in the current dynamic, Israel doesn’t even have to give the Palestinians an opportunity. And even if they did, it would be hard to conceive of them accepting one. And even if they accepted one, it would be hard to conceive that they would have the capabilities to effectuate such an agreement.

So what does an empathetic, caring person do and believe in such circumstances? Here’s my answer for now. I believe that Israel is the more powerful side of this conflict, and thus has a greater responsibility to be decent, and respectful and just. It can and must protect its citizens, but also must thoughtfully act in the long-term interests of those citizens. This means supporting those forces in Palestinian society which are progressive and non-violent. It means helping Palestinians build a civic culture that can eventually take on a true partnership. And it means fully respecting the different parts of Israeli society, as it builds its own civic culture.

Who am I to say anything about another country’s issues? What gives me the right – and arrogance – to dive into this? Well, I’m a Jew, that’s who. And for that reason alone, I’ve got the right, and kinda the duty, to enter into the ring of ideas and … wrestle away.


Election Day

A View From Jordan

The Treasury, center of the ancient city of Petra, with horses, camels, and donkeys ready for travel miles of passages and through-ways.

Before Jean returned to the good ole’ US of A yesterday, she and I spent most of the weekend in Jordan. We toured Wadi Rum – the site of numerous movie sets that seek to evoke desolation (Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, The Martian.)  It is a National Park and it is also the home to thousands of Bedouins.  We met some of them, driving us around in their pick-ups, offering us tea in their tents.  Their lives, while seemingly placid and unhurried, are no doubt filled with their own kind of hardships – though I’m not sure what those might be. Certainly they don’t have material goods nor have access to the finest modern medicines.  But I wonder about their own sense of struggle and what that means and their own sense of living the good life.

We also walked into Petra, superficially famous in the West from Spielberg’s 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie, but certainly one of the world’s most important, ancient archaeological and cultural sites. As my sister Laurie intoned five years ago “the word awesome is overused in America but this place truly is awesome.” I agree.

Our Jordanian guide on this tour, Omar (not his real name and you’ll learn why soon), was a charismatic middle-aged Bedouin, who had served in Jordanian special forces during the second Iraq war alongside the Americans and almost lost his life in the fighting. He had lived for years in Wisconsin, had several academic degrees, and was a man of both varied experience and strongly held opinions – which he confidently and assertively shared with his captured tourists.

“I will now tell you the key to the past, present and future of the Middle East,” Omar enticed. “You need to know the three things that dominate this region’s economics and politics and then you will know everything.”

My skeptics nose was on full sniff mode, but my ears were perked.

“First you need to know that the Middle East is now, and has been since the beginning of civilization, a crossroads for trade and commerce. That was the role of Petra during the era of the Silk Road, and it remains so today for many commercial endeavors.

“Second, is religion, Omar continued. “It is the geographic focus of three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Collectively most of the world’s people are adherents to one of those three religions. (Farber editors note: OK, Judaism is about 0.2% of the world’s population, but let’s not quibble with its “major” status since to a great extent the other two religions emerged from it). And those three religions have been in evolving conflict with each other ever since they have been around. Sometimes it is Muslims fighting with Christians. Sometimes, Christians against Jews, etc.

“Third, is oil. Some countries have it and some don’t. But oil distorts each of the countries’ power and purpose, and functions as an impediment to shared and sustainable prosperity.”

OK. He’s on to something, I’m thinking. Pretty reasonable stuff. But then, it gets bleak.

“And that is why,” Omar says, “there will never be peace in the Middle East. Ever.”

Until… yep… you guessed it… the end days. The apocalypse. The second coming. The return of the messiah. Whatever language from one of the three religions you want to use, Omar went there with Islamic terminology.

“Well, that’s depressing,” I thought. And also felt not a small bit trapped in a lecture I didn’t want to hear. Yet this all was an “experience,” so I went with it – as did Jean. But then it got worse. Way worse.

Jean and I ended up traipsing about Petra alone with Omar. The rest of the tour group were all young and vigorous hikers who marched off to more distant sites in Petra, while Omar gave us a personal tour – and went into more detail about his Weltanschauung.

According to Omar, it was important to understand the future of the Middle East by understanding the Jews. “They are a people throughout history who have manipulated the powerful to get their way. Their periodic annihilations at the hands of others were because people caught on to what they were about. But notice the destruction was never absolute. They always found a way to come back. For example, now, they control Hollywood, control banking, control media. And Israel, will soon be taking over all of the West Bank, Gaza and more. The Jewish power will grow and grow until they are put back in their place – again.”

“But why is this?” I ask. “What is the point if this is all G-d’s will?”

“It is Allah’s way,”Omar replies. And when the final judgment comes, only the true Muslims will go to heaven, and all others will go to hell.”

Jean’s view of Omar’s view, is that “this is what is holding them back. This is why progress in Arab lands is so difficult.”

A View from Mea Shearim

Earlier last week, Jean and I had lunch with the mother of a friend of ours near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. This is Israel’s most famous Haredi – also called Ultra Orthodox – neighborhood. She has lived there, after making Aliyah from Berkeley, for 15 years. The lunch was at a restaurant called Shteisel, which is said to be the inspiration for the name of the terrific Israeli TV program on Netflix about the daily lives of the Haredi.

During today’s election, there were massive street protests occurring in Mea Shearim, with Haredi demonstrating against the “illegal Zionist State.” In many Haredi minds, a Jewish state is antithetical to their religious view that such a state may only be possible after the return of the messiah. The protesters are begging folks not to vote.

My own cousins, who live just outside of Jerusalem and are also Haredi, have given me a book to read: “The Final Resolution.” In it the author maintains that the messiah will not come until all Jews are observant. He does support the state of Israel. Just not the secular elements of that state.

For many other Jews in Israel, there is an absolute belief that G-d gave to the Jews all the land westward of the Jordan River. For various groups, the extent of “the land of Israel” has different geographies north, south and east. Some more extensive than others. But that G-d-given absolute right to all the land is sacrosanct.

A View from Evangelical Christians

Two weeks ago, Sybil and I spent time with Sybil’s friend Lindy who has, for the past 40 years, ran a tour service in Israel focused on servicing Evangelical Christians explorating the Holy Land. Like the Haredi and fundamentalist Muslims, there are a wide variety of views about the Second Coming and the role of the establishment of the state of Israel as a preliminary and necessary step toward that day. For some Christians, support for Israel is vital… until the Second Coming, when Jews and all others must decide to go with Jesus, or spend eternity in hell.

Secular Politics

Bibi through the evening haze.

Jewish Israelis (about 75% of the country), for the most part, do not believe any of the above. The large majority (70% plus) are secular. They want to live their lives in safety. Raise their kids. Hang with their families and friends. Lead regular “western style” lives. But the nature of the political structure of Israel provides great power to minority voices. Not once in the history of the country has a single political party retained a majority of the votes in The Knesset (Israel’s parliament). So coalition governments must be formed and they always have been formed with aide of Jewish religious parties. The apocalypse must have a vote!

Forecasting the results of today’s election for an outsider like me is pretty foolish. To begin to understand the extraordinary complexity of the politics of this country, one must dive into books and steep oneself with political analysis – which is EVERYWHERE on the internet and in bookstores. But I will share a few observations – as several of you have asked me to do – of the nature of political experience in Israel as distinct perhaps from the American experience.

Israelis openly talk about “right wing” and “left wing”parties. When the Israeli “right wing” label themselves, they do so with pride. When they label the “left wing” they mean everyone who isn’t them and it is meant as a pejorative. The actual Israeli left wing has been getting smaller and smaller over the decades. The socialist founding Labor Party leaders – Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres – have not only all passed, but their party heirs look to be only the 3rd, 4th or even 5th largest party in today’s election.

Here is my basic political analysis (they used to actually pay me pretty good money to give my political judgments on the Washington State Legislature, but my views now are worth precisely what you are paying me) of the current state of political life in Israel:

  • The vast majority of Jewish Israelis (of the ones who vote) – 80 – 90% – do not believe that they have an effective partner in Palestinian leadership who have the interest and capacity to deliver peace through a two-state solution.
  • The “left” in Israel believe in treating the Palestinians at least with basic decency in hopes that they in the future will be able to rally themselves to become a capable partner.
  • The “right” in Israel believe either that Arabs are unworthy or incapable of self-governance or that there is not a reasonable future capability for Palestinian partnership and the best alternative is to – over time – simply crush the opposition and “win.” Winning means extending sovereignty over more and more of the land. It means demographically winning too, with more and more Jews and fewer non-Jews in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).
  • The 20% of Israelis who are Arab will continue to vote, but in all likelihood in lessor numbers with little or no influence in civic affairs.
  • Whether a Rightest bloc – with Netanyahu as the leader – continues to rule, or a new Center-Left bloc with three former army general chiefs of staff in leadership roles eventually takes control is the key choice in the election. Benny Gantz would be the Prime Minister if the latter won. The polls say that Netanyahu will triumph again. This even though he is likely to be soon indicted on corruption charges and need to stand trial. He is also likely – if he wins – to try to push through new legislation that would allow him to continue to serve even if he is indicted.
  • We may not know the final outcome for many days if the election is close. The president (Rivlin) first asks one of the parties to try to form a coalition government, then negotiations between the different parties can take up to 45 days to complete. It might get very messy indeed.
  • A fundamental issue seems, in my opinion, to revolve around the question of the future of the Jewish State, with the Center and Left still hoping for a democratic state for all its citizens, and the right wanting a democratic theocracy for its Jewish citizens.

Historically, the power of the extremes on both the Arab and Israeli sides have been manifest since each can fairly easily resort to violence to make security the paramount issue. To the degree security takes precedence, the extremes tend to win. The movement to the right over the past 40 years seems inexorable. And with the average Jewish Israeli’s life pretty good right now, and the nation’s economy zooming forward, it’s a hard case to make that major changes are in order and major risks for peace are in the cards.

How to Say Goodbye

Dear Readers,

On this topic, I’m open to suggestions.

I have never liked the process or substance of the parting of ways and as a consequence, I’m lousy at it. Awkwardly bad. Embarrassingly bad.

The family legacy of the “bad goodbye” was my oldest sister Ann’s predictable tantrums as the moment approached for her to return to college in Portland from some short stay at home. My parents said that these outbursts were due to her mixed feelings of separation from her loving family of origin, so she needed to trump up some excuse to want to leave (have you noticed lately either a reluctance to use the term “trump up” even when it is appropriate to do so, or then again an eagerness to insert the term… I’m not sure what???). Well, that was their social worky analysis of what was happening related to teen separation anxiety. It could have been that just like any 17 year old, you can only handle the folks for so long before it is time to leave – again – the nest.

I don’t remember exactly getting into fights when I said goodbye to folks, but the theme for me has been much more the stress of not knowing how to sum up properly the positive experience of being together, or more simply, not liking anything about saying goodbye. If is was good to be with someone, why does it have to end, and if it wasn’t that good, what does one say?

Time and time again, I have failed at the goodbye. (Macabre alert… do not read the rest of this paragraph if you don’t have taste for the tasteless.) My classic and maximalist failure was to sort of say goodbye – poorly and incompletely – to my dying sister, Ann, at her bedside. Leaving to go to the car, I realized I had lost my car keys. A half dozen of us ended up searching her bed (with her in it), before my niece found that I had left the keys on the top of the car.

This trip to Israel has been filled with a weird kind of hybrid of saying goodbye or anticipating that saying. Three months is a definitive ending, yet it is a ways off. My fellow students in ulpan, my relatives who I can see see for multiple times, the folks at Bimkom where I am volunteering and others at choir or ping pong. Are these ongoing relationships or just preliminaries to a goodbye?

As I have already mentioned in a previous entry of this blog, my cousin Sybil from South Africa decided, after a conversation with me expressing my assessment of her sister Adele’s aged frailty, to come to Israel to see her sister in a nursing home. This was almost certain to be – but nothing is ever certain – the last time she would see her. So, in a manner, the opportunity to say goodbye. Sybil and I talked about what that meant to her and what similar experiences meant to me. I won’t discuss here the details. That is her privacy at stake. But the core question she faced, and most all of us face at one point or other, is how to say goodbye to someone important in our lives, when we think it is likely to be the last time together, but one may not be able to come right out and say it.

The experience of witnessing Sybil, in front of me and my wife Jean, Adele’s son Danny and his partner Shirley, taking on this task/opportunity to say something special and akin to goodbye, has been the emotional highlight of this trip. Sybil was magnificent. And so was Adele, rising to the occasion. Each acting in a unique (for them) and binding way.

The Israelis may not have figured this goodbye thing out. But I kinda like the Hebrew. The word for goodbye is Shalom. The word for hello is Shalom. The word for peace is Shalom. You can also say Lahitraot (see you again) or just Lahit, for short. But perhaps Shalom is the most comforting expression. It doesn’t HAVE to mean goodbye. And just like the elusiveness of peace in this volatile and always tense part of our world, we can always hope for another chance to fix what has been broken, and another chance to say hello.

Return Again

The Museum of the Diaspora – Beit Hatfutsot – in Tel Aviv. Under remodel in 2019.

In 1980 my father and mother were traveling around the world as part of dad’s second sabbatical. I had previously mentioned in this blog my teenage experience of journal writing in London which occurred during his first sabbatical 8 years earlier. This second time, he was exploring intentional inter-generational communities focused on wellness – a professional social work interest and a personal avocation.

They went to Japan, China and then India, where he took ill. Dad had a heart condition (mitral valve prolapse – yes the same condition that I had successful surgery to repair last year), that was not at the time curable per se). He spent time in an ashram and began to feel better. Then they went on to Israel to investigate a particular health-centered moshava (colony). While in Israel, they visited the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora – called Beit Hatfutsot – in Tel Aviv. It was there that dad had complete heart failure and died on the museum floor.

Only the week before in dad’s travel journal did he – a non-observant Jew – write “I feel the Shema closer to me than it has ever been.”

The Shema is the central prayer of Judaism which asserts the universal unity of G-d :

Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d the Lord is One. שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words.

On Sunday I was with Cousin Sybil in Tel Aviv. I walked to Beit Hatfutsot to pay homage to my father. The museum is under major renovation with new exhibits planned for completion later this year. As I got to the front desk I asked the clerk the cost of entry. He mentioned that most of the exhibits are not available and I said I knew that. He then asked if I was a senior, and I said I was but not an Israeli citizen. He said that didn’t matter and charged me the lower fee. I then said “I want to tell you that this museum is very important to me. 38 and a half years ago my father died in the museum.” As I said it, I felt my heart leap.

He looked at me and asked for clarification “in the museum?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then there is no entry fee for you,” he said softly, and proceeded to give me back all the money.

We both spontaneously welled up… it felt like about at the same level. We just looked at each other for a few moments. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do to challenge his touching act, so accepted with a kind of reverent thanks his gift.

In the Jewish High Holy Days, we sing:

Return again, return again,
Return to the land of your soul
Return again, return again,
Return to the land of your soul.

Return to what you are,
Return to who you are,
Return to where you are born and reborn again.

Of course, we don’t need to wait for that once a year opportunity. We can return to who we are and how we came to be anytime we wish. And we can thank those – past and present – whose positive examples inspire us to be our better selves.

Playing Hooky on Purim

From an exhibit on Jewish Humor at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

My cousin Danny and partner Shirley urged me to come with them and their friends Arieh and Omer up to the Galilee for a day in nature (teva). “But I will miss a day of school,” I complained. “I’m horribly behind already and missing a day will be hard to overcome.”

“But it’s Purim,” they practically begged. “Come on… let it go.” And so we went.

A wild iris in the Gilboa Hills, Southern Galilee, on the first day of Spring and … on Purim no less!

We hiked in the Gilboa Hills National Park, with views of the Yizrael Valley (also known as Jezreel Valley in English sources.) This is the valley where supposedly Armageddon is to be fought. Oh boy… perhaps later if you don’t mind. But for now, the valley is a rich agricultural plain, with kibbutzim dotting the landscape.

After our hike in the hills, we drive down to the valley and go to another national park (Ein Muda or Muda Spring). This one is a series of spring-fed ponds and a very cool (in both ways of the word) spring-fed brook, that you simple walk down and let the waters flow with you.

Omer along the spring-fed stream.

Sandwiches eaten on rocks and delightfully slow and nature-centered conversations made this a full break from Jerusalem’s urban intensity.


Of course retirement, with all its potentialities, is also a time that most people experience as a race with the inevitable losses of physical and/or mental vitality. What adventures can we pursue while we can still pursue them. Last year I had my own brush with a serious illness. One that I have thankfully moved beyond.

As I said before, one of my reasons for coming to Israel was to see people while I still could. Today, for example, I visited for the third time with my 84-year old cousin Adele who is in a nursing home in the town of Ra’anana. I’ve been staying with her son, Daniel, and spending time with him and his partner Shirley.

When I was nine years old, Adele stayed with us in Bellevue. I called her “Miss South Africa” because I thought she was about the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and, well, she was from South Africa. She was at the time very attentive to me, and left a positive impression. Later, I saw her when I visited Israel 25 years ago, and she came visiting with Danny in Olympia for a couple of weeks after that. We occasionally talked on the phone over the years and regularly exchanged new years greetings. I was left with a very positive reserve of affection for both Adele and Danny. I also got to meet several times, and visit with her younger sister Sybil and her family and infrequent visits and much more easily established internet voice, visual and text connections have allowed the fostering of real, emotionally rich connections.

Our visit today was filled with both sweetness and pain. Adele is in a severely limited state. It leaves her with difficulty in communication and an understandable melancholia. Danny visits with her virtually every day. His apartment – which used to be hers – is just about 2 miles down the road. He brings her food. He brings her magazines which she either does or doesn’t like or read. And mostly he brings her himself. Shirley is amazing with Adele, feeding her, stroking her hair, and generally giving, giving and more giving. These visits are reminiscent of my own visits with my mother, lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

I called Sybil upon seeing Adele for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was hard for her to understand the real condition of her older sister. After our call, Sybil decided to make the trip up from South Africa to see her. For me, it is a great joy to be able to see Sybil again. That will happen tomorrow when she arrives at the airport. But for her, I have no doubt that it will be a journey that will have moments of pain and reflection.

Sitting in the nursing home today with Adele, Danny and Shirley, I was mostly quiet. Looking at the scene. Not knowing the right thing to say or do. But taking it all in nonetheless, knowing that this too is what this trip to Israel is about. Part of the full range of experiences in launching into not just retirement, but being aged.

On Jewish Identity: Family, Tribe, Religion and/or Nation

Bambi (being held) with my Cousins in the Village of Bet Hlllel, Hula Valley, Israel

Family – Youthful Exposure to a Jewish Life

Dear Readers,

This Israel derekh – path – that I am on is in large measure a Jewish path. What does it mean to be Jewish? How am I Jewish? I know that Jewish identity is so much more complex than any particular theological belief.

At the age of 6 months, my parents moved me and my two older sisters across the country from New York City to Seattle (specifically Mercer Island) for dad to take on the job as the Director of the Caroline Kline Galland Jewish Home for the Aged. He was the first professional gerontological social worker to direct that institution and by all the accounts I have heard, he did his job well. Later he took on the position of Director of the Jewish Family and Child Service, thus leading two of the most significant Jewish social service organizations in the region.

Our parents sent all three of us kids to Jewish Sunday school. My sisters and I both attended as campers and counselors Jewish day and overnight camps. I played basketball for the Jewish Community Center team – in the Catholic Youth Organization league no less! I studied for and carried out the Bar Mitzvah ritual, which was a beautiful and life-affirming event with family and friends of many generations from throughout the country in attendance.

My father spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. My mother’s mother tongue (mama loshen) was Yiddish. Theodore Bikel’s Yiddish records were played in the home and occasionally my mom would both begin to hum the songs (she rarely remembered verses; a trait I have unfortunately inherited) and burst into sweet tears at the sound of the Yiddish language. Late in life, mom would go back to her Yiddish roots and join a Yiddish Club and was active in JCC governance and elder activities.

Around the dinner table, the talk of politics and current events included discussions of Israel and anti-Semitism. I remember the little blue and white tin boxes where we would put our coins to plant trees in the Jewish State. Much of the Jewish identity that I derived from my parents was focused on an awareness of the Jewish People’s (our people’s) history of oppression, culminating most recently with the horrors of the Holocaust. I ended up sensing that my parents motive force for social justice was somehow a Jewish part of their being – even though they never quoted the Torah or Talmud or referenced Jewish liturgical or ethical precepts. (OK… “never” is not quite fair. I remember dad saying “choose life” and Hillel was quoted with his “if not now, when” from time to time. But really, does that count?)

One would think from the above description that I was instilled with a strong Jewish identity as a youth, and perhaps that is correct. And yet…

  1. In moving to Seattle my parents took their children far away from family and the bosom of a large New York Jewish culture. Our nearest relatives at the time lived in Los Angeles, and we saw them less than a handful of times throughout my childhood. Eventually my Uncle and Aunt moved to Berkeley, California with their two sons, 700 miles to the south. But that was it. All other known relatives remained on the East Coast and were rarely seen. I spent my entire childhood (age 2 – 18) in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Our high school graduating class had less than 10 Jews among 700 graduates. I knew about half of them and was a close friend of one.
  2. For a short time we joined a Reform Synagogue, though I never remember once going to Shabbat or any other services at the Shul. We never said prayers in our house, with only two exceptions: Hanukkah and during the Passover Seder.
  3. We neither kept kosher in the home, nor observed in any manner shabbat rituals. Neither of my parents ever learned how to read Hebrew (or Yiddish for that matter). Growing up, I never remember them ever trying.
  4. Even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, we didn’t go to Shul. Sometimes I fasted. I don’t remember my parents doing it.
  5. Both my grandfathers were actively hostile to organized religion. My father’s father, the only grandparent who lived long enough for me to get to know as a young adult, would rail against the “bombast and prejudice” of the religious.
  6. While apparently my mother’s youth included some observance of kashrut in the home, she not only ignored that in her own home, but the kosher issue never came up during my childhood. The abundance of shellfish in Washington State didn’t make a kosher lifestyle any easier for those with creative palates. My mother’s father experienced horrible oppression from his religious father, being whipped when found to be reading secular books. He fully rebelled from religious life, and wrote poetry about that rebellion.

I left my childhood aware that I was a Jew, even generally proud of being a Jew, though I could understand only a few words of Hebrew or Yiddish, had never studied the Torah (after bar mitzvah), had never attended religious services, and was neither physically nor emotionally close to any religious (ritual-practicing) relatives.

Jewishly Dabbling – and a Bit More – in Adulthood

As a young adult, and beyond, my Jewish religious explorations have been sporadic. Sincere, but rather shallow.

A vivid memory from college days, is visiting the Chabad House down the block on Friday night because of curiosity and hunger (they provided free chicken soup and other Shabbat meal treats). During services the rabbi asked me to do a certain prayer. I responded, with embarrassment, that I didn’t know how to read Hebrew. “That’s OK,” he replied. “G-d understands English.”

I never seriously dated a Jewish girl/woman until I met Karen, who would become my first wife. She was more knowledgeable of Jewish ritual from her family and community life in New York City, though she did not practice kashrut nor attend shul herself when we met. We got married by Rabbi Vicki Hollander, one of the first female ordained (Reform) Rabbis the world has ever known, under a chupa and with smashing of glass. It all felt highly important for me to be somehow part of the ancient Jewish lineage.

When we moved to Olympia, we found out that coincidentally Rabbi Hollander was leading services part-time at the local temple. We went, felt the embrace of a nice, small and welcoming community of interesting people, and joined a temple for the first time as adults. Even though Vicki left a few months later, the temple has been a surprisingly large part of my life ever since. Our son Zac, went through all the main Jewish life-cycle events, from being given away by a Cohen, to you know what (sorry about that, Zac!), to Bar Mitzvah. And even after our divorce, and my remarriage to Jean, who is not Jewish, I found myself comfortable to be around other Jews, with the temple as somewhat of a refuge from the dominant Christian-oriented culture around us.

I say surprisingly large part of my life above, in that for one who has off and on played a meaningful role in temple governance (on the Board, committees, etc.), I have remained largely ignorant of Jewish ritual practice and observe less than I know. But as the temple has evolved over the years to affiliate itself with the Reconstructionist Movement, I found a theological home in the basic thinking of its principal founder, Mordecai Kaplan, in which he views Judaism “as the civilization of the Jewish people” without the need of supernatural explanations for that which is divine in the universe. And I have experienced endless delight in exploring with smart and more knowledgeable people than myself, the abundant, engrossing and at times highly humorous ideas and debates found within the Torah and Talmud.

Rediscovering Family

In the last 25 years, I have been so fortunate to be able to connect with parts of my larger world-wide family (mishpocha). Whilst on a sabbatical year, touring the world with my mother in 1980, my father passed away due to heart failure while visiting the Museum of the Diaspora (Beit Hatfootsot) in Israel. This dramatic ending was at least part of the motivating force that resulted in my first visit to Israel in 1994 to be with my mother and return to that museum. Also it was an opportunity to reconnect with my Cousin Adele who had visited us in Bellevue in my youth, see her children Danny and Michal, and meet a whole set of relatives on my mothers side who grew up in Kibbutz K’far Giladi, in the northern tip of the country, adjacent to Lebanon.

The magic of the internet, and the technologies of connection, have permitted parts of our families, long thought dead or simply unknown, to miraculously come to life over these past years. Jean and I visited Adele’s little sister Sybil in South Africa nearly 12 years ago, and through Sybil, other family in that amazing country have become people we love and care about. 5 years ago, Sybil, her husband Arnold, Jean and my sister Laurie went to Israel and linked up with even more relatives that I hadn’t known existed. With a Jewish genealogy conference taking place in Seattle about 3 years ago, we found that there were a plethora of relatives from throughout the world that we knew nothing about but who were thriving participants in their communities. So a reunion on my mother’s side of the family was hatched, and 20 months ago, 90 people connected through our great grandparents (or closer) met in New York City to laugh and tell stories.

The diversity of our family’s Jewish identities is breathtaking. I have – and have met – relatives who are:

  1. Haredi Jews, who live principally within their religious community and adhere strictly to religious rites in all their events and daily life. (You’ve got to watch Shtisel). There are literally hundreds of different groups within this category. Some are strongly attached to a particular rabbi (Hasidim) who see this individual almost with messianic attributes. Others are offended by such devotion to a man (always a man), and have leaders with less charismatic expectations. Some Haredi are anti-Zionist (these are often in New York and elsewhere in the diaspora) who believe that Israel should not be re-established prior to the arrival of the messiah. Many Haredi (most?) do not serve in the Israeli Army, instead are provided a student deferment. There is great political and legal conflict over this public policy. Some strains of Haredi believe that until all Jews fully practice Jewish ritual life, the messiah will not come. How do you think they view Reconstructionist Judaism?
  2. Modern Orthodox Observant Jews, who follow Jewish ritual law (halakha), but also find ways of living in the larger society. For example, many hold jobs outside of religious institutions and interact with the non-religious.
  3. Modern Orthodox Semi-Observant Jews, who pick and choose the halakha they follow and have mixed emotions about how observant (frum) they really should or want to be.
  4. Conservative Jews, who are frankly mostly of American descent, and also pick and choose their adherence to halakha. They are just beginning to move to more gender-inclusive forms of ritual which clearly would distinguish them from the Orthodox, who have so far rejected that.
  5. Reform Jews or otherwise Progressive Jews, who find in their participation in Jewish life and community both social purpose, friendships, and the comforts of ritual. Again, this is much bigger in the US than in Israel. The Israeli version of this group constantly is in a fight for credibility and legal status as “Jews” from the dominantly Orthodox rabbinate. For example, Israel does not necessarily recognize the “right of return” for diaspora Jews if they were converts performed by Reform rabbis.
  6. Unaffiliated Jews, who, especially in Israel, observe certain rituals, believe in the basic notion of the Hebrew G-d, but whose secular life is paramount. These folks appreciate the joys of Shabbat shared with family and friends, light the candles, say the prayers, and would probably be uncomfortable eating oysters. They see themselves clearly as Jews, and not just Israelis, but resent some of the restrictions placed on their lives in Israel by some laws pushed forward by the Haredi and Orthodox.
  7. Secular Jews, or more to the point in Israel, Secular Israelis, who’s identity as Israelis is more nationalistic than religious but nonetheless consider themselves Jews.
  8. Anti-Zionist Secular Israelis, who neither see themselves as Jews, nor agree with the notion of a Jewish State. They would probably be fine with a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine political question, if safety were assured.

As I have shared meals with these relatives and talked about our lives and beliefs, the richness and pain and joy and wonder in the diversity of the Jewish people is brought home to me in intimate ways.

Other Explorations of Religion and Identity

I’ve run into the most extraordinary folks. A few examples and we’ll call this blog entry much too long but over:

  1. A couple of nights ago, my landlady Gila had a lovely dinner party with neighbors, her daughter, her friends and me. What a feast! These folks were all Zionists, a mix of some of the above religious categories, and generally left of center politically as Israelis measure these things. We got to talking about all the difficulties presently facing Jews and the country. But then one of them said, “You know, Jews are a happy people. If you look at the happiness ratings of countries in the world, we’re number 8.” So I looked it up. OK… number 11. Not so bad. Today, as I was studying Hebrew with a local Mizrahi Jew (from Morocco and Iraq), she talked without my prompting about how happy she and most Israelis are. What prompted her expression was the upcoming holiday of Purim, which is the official “you’re allowed to go completely nuts and have all the fun you can” holiday around here. At least part of that joy, they claim, and I have to agree, is their Jewish lifestyle.
  2. I’ve been going to the Kol Haneshama Synagogue when in town for Friday night services. This is one of the first Reform shuls in Israel. It’s service is simple and very very beautiful which consists almost entirely of singling and praying musically. It is all – or almost all – in Hebrew, so I can not yet understand hardly any of the content, but musically it is very familiar to what we do at our Olympia temple. However with this group, of between 75 and 100 folks, the singing participation is by just about everyone, they know what they are singing and it is very powerful.
  3. I walked home from Kol Haneshama a few weeks ago with a gentleman who turns out to be the Father of Reform Zionism, Dr. Michael Livni. He also founded a Reform Kibbutz in the Negev Desert. We got a ride together a couple of days ago home from my Skilled Volunteers for Israel Jerusalem program head Terry, who was mentioned earlier in the blog. I’ve reached out for a conversation with Dr. Livni and hope he can find the time to engage.
  4. Went for a falafel with a Jerusalem Palestinian student from my ulpan last week. Really sweet, nice young man. He took me to the East Jerusalem side of city, and we sat down outside on some plastic chairs to eat. There were no empty tables so he asked whether we could join a group of older Palestinians hanging out. They said fine. One of them, Ibrahim, then started to tell me about his life and his work for peace. He claimed to have been to the White House and all around the world advocating for peace. Here is his website. The site is exactly like sitting next to him. He invited me to his Peace House. I might just go.
  5. There is an English language Jewish education center in my neighborhood called Pardes. I will be going to a workshop there this coming Thursday. Jerusalem is replete with educational opportunities about religion, history, the arts and culture. I will continue to explore these and share highlights with you along the way.

The Big Infrastructure Kvetch

Dear Readers,

I may have the attribution all wrong, but I believe it was the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who said – and I paraphrase: “I first got into politics because I wanted to solve problems and make people happy.  I’ve learned over the years that the measure of my success as a politician is the size of the problem that people are completely unhappy about. If they are complaining about road conditions and not about the war then I’m doing pretty well. But they’ll despise me all the same.”

Even before arriving in Israel, I heard complaints and warnings from the locals.  “Don’t take the new high-speed rail from the airport to Jerusalem. It’s unreliable. The whole thing is a big balagan (mess). Trust me, you don’t want to do that.”

“But it’s only $4 and I love trains,” I practically begged.

“Just don’t do it. I know what I’m talking about.  Take either a cab that I can get for you, or a sherut.”

(First aside: A sherut is the word for a collective taxi in Israel.  The drivers wait at a central stop – like outside an airport – until they fill up with a certain number of passengers. They then take those passengers where they want to go.  An aside upon an aside is that the word “sherut” means service. The plural of sherut is sherutim. Add a “the” – or “Ha” – to the front of that word and it becomes “ha’sherutim” which is also the word for public bathrooms.  “Eyfo (Where is) ha’sherutim” is the most important phrase to learn for an old man foreigner in Israel!)

So I end up taking the sherut and on the drive to Jerusalem along modern super-highway #1, I look to my north and there are the super-modern bridges and abutments for the high-speed rail line. I’m still desperately yearning to take that train. Both the highway and the rail right-of-way consistent of miles upon miles of bridges spanning huge chasms on the greater than 2000 foot climb into the Jerusalem hills. Nothing less than spectacular – even beautiful – engineering. And for those who don’t get what beauty I’m talking about, check out the Deception Pass bridge.

I have heard several friends and relatives in Israel state something to the effect “The public services in this country are appalling.  Sure we are making some progress in some areas, but we are clearly falling further and further behind.”

And yet, from my American eye, I see first-world public infrastructure broadly distributed. For examples:

  1. My bus number 78, which starts a couple hundred feet from my front door with arrival intervals of 10 minutes – I’ve yet to wait more than 8 minutes for a bus – delivers me close to my ulpan, close to my volunteer office, directly to downtown and Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, directly to the “shuk” (Mahane Yehuda market), directly to the Central Bus Station, a short walk to choir, and 300 feet from my ping pong club.  And if I wanted to walk 500 feet more from my house, I’d have a choice of a half-dozen more bus routes that take me anywhere I would want to go in the city.
  2. At major bus stops there is an electronic readerboard listing the projected arrival times of all buses in the next 15 minutes of so. Amazingly accurate… and comforting as one waits.
  3. The buses themselves are comfortable and modern.  You enter and exit the articulated (bend in the middle) bus at any one of 5 doors. You use a smart card – I bought one with unlimited travel for one month at about $60 – and just press the card against a card reader and it automatically recognizes whether you are paid up or not.  If your card is not unlimited in use but rather you have paid for a certain amount of money in rides, the reader automatically deducts the correct cost and gives you a receipt. The whole system works on a semi-honor system. People can go on and off the bus at their whim, but there is some possibility that an inspector may be present and ding you I suppose.  I’ve never noticed one, but then, like the air marshal in the movie “Bridesmaids” they could be secretly hiding their identity.
  4. The intercity bus system is called “Egged.” (Pronounce it correctly as Egg Ed and consider yourself “Egg-ucated.”)  It goes everywhere in the country and at very reasonable cost. I just took the bus from Jerusalem to the northern part of the country – a greater than 2 hour drive – for about $4.
  5. Generally, the roads are well-paved, both in the intercity highway system and the in-town streets. There are problems and inequities that I have seen, but they seem on par with the States. Especially in the older areas, the rights-of-way are narrow and winding. Drivers use their horns frequently – often of necessity but sometimes  – and I am speculating here – based on marital difficulties, work frustrations, or because they are kinda impatient jerks. Probably it’s Obama’s fault… but I date myself.
  6. Pedestrian amenities are inconsistent, but they are clearly aware of their value and improvements are being made. There is a wonderful rail trail that I love and take regularly to school and around the neighborhood.
  7. There has been a great deal of rain since I have arrived.  It is gratefully welcomed, and this winter has ended what apparently has been 5 years of drought. But even while this highly arid country has likely been made more so by climate change, potable water availability has been increasing. Why? Because the Israelis have created the most advanced, most extensive water desalination system in the world.
  8. For the most part, sanitary sewerage… check.
  9. Stormwater systems on roadways… check.
  10. Recycling systems in cities for paper and plastic bottles… check.  Though oddly, not metal.
  11. Nationwide telephone system… check. And the country is basically run on WhatsApp.  Get it on your phone for free and call me or any Israeli free whenever you want – just remember the 10 hour time difference.
  12. Wifi – virtually everywhere.
  13. Need to pay for your parking on the street?  There is a fully automated online, GPS-based system activated by your cell-phone.
  14. Health Care – there is a national – and highly imperfect – system for that.  But everyone is covered.
  15. Public Education – universal before college… but funding and curriculum a constant source of concern and tension.

And yet, for all the jaw-dropping advances, problems are real to people’s lives.  Traffic IS a mess in the big cities. Poorer neighborhoods do have weaker infrastructure.  There are considerable differences and blatant inequities – based on what I have read (much more on this in a future blog post regarding my volunteer work with Bimkom) – with infrastructure in Arab villages and East Jerusalem.  Housing prices are through the roof.

And yet again… Jerusalem is less than 150 miles from Damascus. Less than half that distance from a million Syrian refugees in Jordan. Another million plus Syrian refugees are across the border in Lebanon, joining decades of refugee camp existance there by Palestinians. Gaza is a public health and safety disaster. The West Bank is a simmering powderkeg. As is, frankly, Egypt.

My fondest wish for Israelis and their neighbors is what Olof Palme sought – may their greatest kvetch be the traffic.

On the Tip of My Tongue

Context…. Context

As a nation formed predominantly of immigrants in the last 70 years (Palestine’s Jewish population under the British Mandate in 1948 was approximately 600,000 and now Israel’s is greater than 10 times that number), and immigrants who primarily did not speak the language (which was reinvented almost from scratch about 140 years ago), it was incumbent to the nation-building process that people learn Hebrew and learn it quickly. So the nation created a program of language learning focused on the ulpan, or Hebrew language school. It subsidized this program so that anyone who wanted to immigrate to Israel (“make aliyah”) could not only attend ulpanim (plural of ulpan) free, but also combine that with free to inexpensive housing and other programs to facilitate integration into society.

I had previously had an experience in the early 2000’s in Mexico of trying to learn Spanish. Their private language school system – developed also post-WWII – was an intensive language immersion experience which included not only 3 – 5 hours of school each day, but residential placement in a Mexican household so that you would continue your Spanish learning at “home.” That worked pretty well for me – though those of you who know my Spanish skills might not agree. So I naturally assumed that some version of that would be available to me in Israel. No such luck.

Turns out that the ulpanim in Israel cater almost exclusively to people wanting to immigrate (olim), young people (under age 35), or preferably, both. Foreign alter kockers (old farts) are apparently no prizes to the State. And the ulpanim do not have a residential placement option with the exception of college dormitory-like places which, again, are exclusively for folks under 35. People like me – and you’ll see later there ain’t many of us – are on our own facing the Jerusalem housing market. A market which can almost make Seattle’s look reasonable. As it turned out, after much effort and some great help, I ended up with much of what I wanted – a shared apartment with an Israeli. But the topic of housing is for another entry.

The ulpan I am attending, Ulpan Milah, is operated in an extraordinarily central location, down the block from the King David Hotel, the modern Mamila Shopping Mall designed by architect Moishe Safdie, and a short walk to the Old City. It is housed in the Hebrew Union College campus, which is connected with the institutional movement of Reform Judaism. A movement which is WAY bigger and more established in the United States than in Israel, where it struggles for its legitimacy as a Jewish entity.

Learning Hebrew was one of my principal motivations for this Israel experience. As with Spanish, I had been exposed to Hebrew off and on since grade school. I remember Senor Ibarra coming to 4th grade and teaching the words for mother and father and house and dog and cat in Spanish and then doing it again in 5th grade and in 6th. I remember learning the same words in my Sunday school Hebrew class from Rabbi Podet and others. I learned to count to ten in both languages and could sing the alphabet songs by memory. Because I went on to have a Bar Mitzvah, I learned to read printed Hebrew letters pretty well. Over the years, with both languages, I took stabs at improving my ability, but nothing really stuck and no real progress was made in either until the 10 weeks in Mexico in 2001. My objective for these three months is to get to approximately the level in modern Hebrew (as distinct from biblical Hebrew) that I got to in Spanish in 2001.

But why learn Hebrew now? There are several motivations. First, but not most importantly, is that learning another language is vital for brain alertness, especially as one gets older. My experience with last year’s heart surgery was a surprisingly traumatic impact on that alertness. It didn’t result in a personality change or major loss of long-term memory, baruch Ha’Shem, but I did experience a slowing down of speech and a markedly declined capacity for short-term memory and spacial orientation. I didn’t and don’t like those limitations and want to actively fight them.

But of course, that could be done more easily and cheaply by another language course in Mexico or Costa Rica. So the other and principal motivation for Hebrew learning is that it enables a richer exploration of my Jewish identity. We can see, even in the above use of baruch Ha’Shem, which is both a religiously inspired term and a common, and yes even secular, expression of everyday life in this country, that speaking Hebrew is a part of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st Century.

All that positive motivation being a given, I began this trip with trepidation, even fear, that I will fail to learn Hebrew. That I won’t be able to keep up. That my brain is not “young” enough to take this task on. So prior to even the Monday morning, February 11 start of ulpan, I went to the school on Sunday to purchase the text book and to begin to case the joint. The guard at the entrance didn’t speak a word of English. I finally blurted out “Ulpan Milah” and he pointed down the hall to a lady sitting behind a desk with young students congregating around her. When it was my turn to talk to her, I asked if she spoke English. Gratefully the answer was yes, but she seemed harried. I got the text book and sort of felt out of place taking her time up with such questions as “where do I go to class tomorrow?” A lack of knowledge that was to prove of some minor consequence the next day when classes begun.

The Ulpan

Walking into the front door of Hebrew Union College, I saw many students scampering here and there. I asked someone where Kitah Alef (beginning) class is for Ulpan Milah and they directed me with hand gestures and language that I didn’t understand. Upon entering a classroom – where I asked “kitah alef?” and was assured it was a yes, there were about 6 other students sitting at the little school desks that we work off of. All of them were young Palestinians*. I know this by their garb and the little clue that they were speaking Arabic. Soon more students drifted in. 8, 10, 14, 18… all but me were young Palestinians. Hmm…. that’s surprising and probably more challenging to my learning. The teacher came in and started calling the roll. When we came to the end, I told her I hadn’t been called. She said, that I am probably in the room directly across the hall. And it was so.

That class – my class – is wonderfully diverse. While I am the oldest member – by more than 10 years – there is an even mix of male and female students who hale from Cuba, Bulgaria, Korea, China, the Sudan, the Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Latvia (where my mother’s family came from near Riga), the United States, and more than a third Palestinians from Jerusalem. The picture below is from our whiteboard in class after our teacher asked students to write her name in their native tongue.

The text book is called “Hebrew from Scratch” in English. In Hebrew that is “עברית מן ההתחלה.” After two weeks of 3 hours a day, 4 days a week, I can describe our pattern of learning.

There is one teacher in the classroom at any one time. We actually have had three different teachers (Liat, Nofit and Shlomit) during our two weeks together. Shlomit is a dead ringer for the actress Emma Stone. I tell her that and she thanks me as if it is a special compliment. But I ask her, “surely others have mentioned this?”, to which she smiled coyly, shrugged her shoulders, nodded head up and down and said, “yes… a few.”

The three teachers trade off times, but the curriculum is identical. We tackle about one chapter in the book per day. There is a strategic balance of reading, speaking, listening and writing. The writing is all in cursive – which is to me new and quite difficult. Hebrew cursive is very different from the “block” lettering found in books, newspapers, the internet and this computer. Like all cursive, it is subject to great variety of styles. So this has been one of several major challenges for me, especially given my poor penmanship. I don’t write cursive in English, so making my Hebrew intelligible is harder still.

All the students in the class know some English, yet the class is pedagogically assumed to be 100% in Hebrew. When extremely frustrated, some students in the class ask questions of the teacher in English, and the teacher may “give in” and at least say a word or two in English to help out. That all will likely improve with time, but being lost or not really understanding what is being asked can be exasperating. At one point my exasperation was showing enough, that the teacher came up to me during a break, sat down next to me with a warm smile, and said slowly and calmly “Daniel, lo panicka,” which means “Daniel, don’t panic!” She went on to say in English to me “Daniel, you have only been here a few days. You’re doing well and you will learn this. I am here to help, so if you don’t understand something, it is ok to ask. It is my job and I love my job.”

We learn to write each letter of the alphabet. We pronounce each letter. The teacher and students give examples of words that start with that letter. We go on to read, write and speak in dialog. The teacher often pairs us up and we solve problems with the other person. The teacher insists that we all move around the room so that we can get to know each other with different pairings. One woman – she is a character and a half – complained that she likes always being in the same place. The teacher would have none of that and she too needed to circulate.

There is time for call and response from the class as a whole. Like when the teacher presents a picture and the class must say in unison what the word for that picture is in Hebrew. Other times, the teacher calls on each person to respond individually.

I can’t say the three hours – actually 2.5 hours with a 30 minute break in between – goes quickly. At the end of each lesson I am plum worn out. It all feels SO HARD. Sometimes I feel like I am genuinely behind the rest of the students. I find it difficult to do anything at the same speed as all the others. Other times – especially when I have spent a bit extra time on homework – I feel like real progress is being made. Overall, I still feel uncertain about my chance for success. I asked our teacher Nofit what percentage of students make it? She said 99%. I didn’t believe her but I appreciated her optimism.

A few words about my fellow students and then we’ll call it an entry.

  1. A friendly and ebullient young Palestinian woman classmate is named Noor. I asked her if she was named after Queen Noor of Jordan – King Hussein’s 4th and last wife and now the dowager queen of the Hashemite Kingdom. My classmate Noor drew a complete blank. No, she didn’t know about Queen Noor.
  2. Noor, like a number of the Palestinian women in class, seem very gracious and solicitous of me. I think my advanced age now gives me a kind of safe, grandfatherly mien about me. This is both a bit of a relief and a disappointment for my ego! This aging thing is a two edged sword. A 40-something man came up to me and said that I reminded him a lot of his father. Thanks, bro.
  3. A young non-Jewish American woman classmate is volunteering at a hotel in the Israeli Arab city of Abu Gosh. We got into a discussion of hummus, to which she says proudly said that a recent contest put on by the Guinness Book of World Records claimed that the best hummus in the world is from Abu Gosh. A number of our fellow students gave enthusiastic support. “But I was just in Ra’anana with my cousin,” I said, “and he claimed that the best hummus in Israel was at his local hummus shop. I tasted that hummus last weekend and had to say it was pretty wonderful hummus.” But they all laughed and scoffed at that. “Impossible”, they said. “Ra’anana is a new town – it can’t possibly make good hummus.” I now wanted that Abu Gosh hummus to judge for myself and I wanted it badly. Who could have foreseen that just the next evening, a friend of my cousin – whom Jean, sister Laurie and I stayed with 5 years ago – picked me up for a dinner date. I asked her, “where are we going for a meal?” “Abu Gosh” was her reply.

Ai yai yai…. Was that good hummus! (see below)

Abu Gosh Hummus Plus

4. During our 30 minute break in a class, I get to talking with a student from the Sudan and a student from Germany. The German student it turns out is actually from Riga, Latvia by way of Russia. I tell him that my mother was born in Russia though her family lived near Riga for awhile and she always thought of herself as a Lithuanian/Latvian Litvok (an ethnic type of Jew). He was thrilled to hear it. He himself was a Khasen (canter) and had come to Israel to improve his Hebrew. He said he knew what to sing but not what it meant. As the three of us talked about Israel, one of them said that it is such a narrow country in its middle. I asked “how do you say ‘narrow’ in Hebrew.” The reply was “tsar,” to which I said. “yes, Israel is very tsar… “tsar meod.” We looked at each other with a jolted recognition and said “Gesher Tsar Meod” which means “a very narrow bridge.” We started laughing and instantly burst into the hit Israeli song that was popular just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War:

And of course, my fears of not learning Hebrew all snapped into place.

Fear. It’s a hot topic now. The title of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the Trump Administration. The core political question as Israel goes to the polls in April with each side focused not on hope but which faction can generate more fear of the other. And a very personal question generating my motivation for this Israel experience – failing to learn Hebrew as part of experiencing a meaningful old age. Here’s a wonderful drash (opinion) about the notion of fear. A deeper meaning behind Kol Haolam Kulo.

*I use the word Palestinian warily. My presumption, which is based on some initial conversations but may be tested in the future, is that all of the students who seem like Arabs in appearance are from East Jerusalem. What people are called is a matter of great controversy around here. There are some people in Israel who do not believe that Palestinians are a definable people. There are others – the United Nations and most of the world – who have concluded that they are a people seeking self-governance. And there are extraordinarily complex questions of identity for those non-Jews who are living in East Jerusalem. In class, when the teacher asks “where are you from,” all these folks answer “Jerusalem.” Everyone else in class says what nation they are from.

Settling In… with Flowering Rosemary, Agave Cacti, Windmills, and Cranes

Windmill near the King David Hotel

My Neighborhood

With almost three months in one spot, you have both an opportunity and a need to establish certain routines. Where will I lie my head at night? Where do I get food? What will be my commute routes and modes of travel to language school (ulpan) Monday through Thursday mornings, and my afternoons of volunteering (Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights – you can look it up online to see the organization’s purpose and activities). And what of cultural activities? And social visits with friends and family.

Dear readers, I am writing to you on a Thursday evening – which is like Friday evening in the States for one of those working stiffs I think I can still recall being. Well, it isn’t exactly like Friday night, because in Jerusalem, the whole place shuts down on Friday after 2 pm and doesn’t awake till Saturday evening. There are exceptions – there are always plenty of exceptions – but shabbat is taken pretty seriously around here, so such things as public transit simply aren’t available. If you need something from the world, you best get it by Thursday evening…Friday morning at the latest.

I am now comfortably sitting in my North Talpiyot room, part of a three-bedroom unit I share with the owner of the condo, Gila. I was so fortunate to connect with her, and this rental arrangement is excellent for me – I hope for her as well. It is now one week in Israel and by George if I haven’t figured most of that routinizing stuff out!

Please let me tell you about my neighborhood. Across the street a major condominium complex is expanding. There are five cranes operating and perhaps as many multi-story buildings going up. Around the corner to the south is the entrance to the Haas Promenade, with beautiful views of the Old City of Jerusalem and surrounding west and east Jerusalem urban centers.

Overlooking the Jerusalem Peace Forest on the Haas Promenade adjacent to the cranes looming across the street from me

Terry, the Jerusalem contact point for Skilled Volunteers for Israel, the organization which performed matchmaker (Shadkhinit – שַׁדְכָנִית) duties for me and Bimkom, gave me a driving tour of my neighborhood on my first afternoon in town. She showed me the likely grocery shopping places, the urgent care medical facility which is 3 blocks away, an up close look at the (in)famous “separation wall” which divides East Jerusalem from the West Bank not far from my apartment, and the proximity to the Haas Promenade. We then had dinner together at a traditional Middle East dining place at the First Station (a Food, Arts and Cultural site that reminds be a bit of a small scale Granville Island in Vancouver).  After dinner I walk back “home” along the beautiful “train track park.” They kept the rails, and filled the interior with preserved wooden planks.  

My first supper in Jerusalem at the Old Train Station Food, Culture and Entertainment Center. And no, I couldn’t finish everything!

Also, minutes by foot from the apartment is a walk to Emek Refaim Street, the heart of the German Colony, an upscale neighborhood. The Reform Synagogue, Kol Haneshema, which I went to for services 25 years ago, is also in the neighborhood, so I walked to Friday evening erev shabbat services there. While all in Hebrew, and filled with a number of different tunes, nevertheless, I felt right at home with the liturgy and the songs I did know so well. Just a touch on the universality and continuity of the Jewish people… and a pleasant walk back along the train track park to my flat.

The next day – shabbat – I had, as they say, “time to kill.” So I walked to my ulpan site to make sure I knew exactly where it was located, and then walked to the Old City because… well, because I could. Yes, my location is so central that it feels like the Old City is my “hood.” I took a tour of the Old City, checked out another falafel joint, and explored alternative ways of commuting to school.

In the foreground, a construction site for what will be the visitor’s center at The Western Wall (הכותל), and in the rear the Wall itself. Holiest site for the Jewish People, and hugely significant for Muslims and Christians, it is the remnant retaining wall for the Temple Mount, which was constructed about 2000 years ago in King Herod’s time, and housed the 2nd Temple.

Forthcoming Blog Entries: The Ulpan Experience, Volunteering, and Connections with Friends and Family