American Jewish Identity and Israel

Upon returning from Israel in early May, several people at our Temple Beth Hatfiloh synagogue came to me and expressed both their positive impressions of my blog and a desire to have me do something Israel-related at TBH. I wasn’t sure what to do and neither were they. So I got together with Rabbi Seth Goldstein to talk about it.

The topic of Israel is a very sensitive – even raw – one in our community. Olympia is the home of the Olympia Food Coop which was the USA’s first grocery-type store to join the BDS (Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions) boycott of all Israeli products. As a charter member of the Coop some 40 years ago, that action caused me to quit membership, and the boycott continues to be a significant cause of pain and alienation for me and many others in our community – both Jewish and non. Olympia was also the home of Rachel Corrie, a student at The Evergreen State College, of which I am an alum, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, while trying to protect a Palestinian family’s home from demolition. That death became a cause celebre for the international Palestinian rights movement.

TBH’s relationship to these larger internationally significant issues has been fraught. The temple has lost membership. Friendships have ended or been strained. And the topic of Israel and our American Jewish relationship to it has been downplayed because of it.

It is in this context that Rabbi Seth and I talked about what exactly we wanted to do and say about Israel. Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz, TBH’s former principal Rabbi who is still an Olympia community member, had encouraged both me and Rabbi Seth to use my blog as an entry point for conversation. When Seth and I sat down to discuss this, he indicated that he did not see a productive conversation coming out of people describing their political positions vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine. I agreed. While I provided observational views and political/historical context in some of my blog entries, it was easy to see how delving too deeply into that might risk any dialog quickly devolving into unsettling and unsolvable semantic and political argument.

What we determined was more promising was an opportunity for people who had ever visited Israel to more directly describe their motivations for going there and their actual experiences and insights. It turns out that 6 TBH members had been there in the last few months and many more had been there in the last two or three decades. So we decided to have a facilitated conversation about American Jewish Identity and its relationship to Israel as part of a Shavuot educational session. I would lead off with a description of my own motivations for Israel travel and then facilitate others in doing the same.

Last Saturday night, the event occurred. About 40 people turned out and about 10 ended up speaking about their experiences. I distributed out to folks the following “instructions” for their informal talks:

If you are open to talking a bit about your experiences visiting Israel, here are some guiding questions to help structure your contribution to our discussion:

  1. When did you go and for how long?  If it has been more than once, can you describe the frequency of your visits and any significant differences between the different visits?
  2. Who did you go with?Why did you go?  What were your motivations?  What did you hope to see or learn or accomplish or otherwise experience?
  3. What are your current connections to Israel (familial, practical, spiritual?) and how does that relate if at all to your perception of your Jewish Identity or the Jewish Identity of loved ones?

I then led off the evening reading out loud the following material:

On October 14, 1980, my dad was a dead man resting. Convalescing at a health-oriented moshavah in Israel after flying in a couple of days earlier from India, he thought he was feeling a tad better that morning.  Along with my mom, his travel companion, Dad was on sabbatical from his teaching gig at the UW School of Social Work; studying intergeneration wellness communities throughout the world.  The Israeli moshavah was one of those communities. 

Clearly, that moshavah analysis was the most immediate reason for his visit to Israel.  He knew of no Israeli relatives at the time.  As a secular Jewish man brought up by irreligious parents, he was not planning a visit to the “holy sites.”  Yet, he wrote in his journal that October 14th day of his father:  “Charles was such a stirred up, spiritual soul!  Why have I been fooled by his railings against the ‘bombast of the religious’ and not seen his own deep and abiding well of Jewish sentiment.”  Dad wrote on: “I now feel the shma closer to me than ever.”

The next day, mom and dad visited Beit Hatfootsot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora at the University of Tel Aviv.  It was there that dad’s dysfunctional mitral valve gave up on him and he died on the museum floor.

14 years later, I visited that same museum with my aging mom, who was already showing the debilitating signs of Alzheimer’s. It was my first time in Israel and mom’s second.  At that time, my own feelings about Israel were decidedly mixed.  Emotionally drawn by the many heroic stories of its pioneers, I felt connected with Israelis as part of my Jewish identity, yet also highly critical of Israel’s politics and policies in relation to the Palestinian Arabs.

It was in that first visit to Israel, that I met dozens of relatives.  I reconnected with an Israeli musician friend whom I knew from Seattle.  I traveled from the northern tip of the country to its southern tip. And for the first time in my life, was surrounded by people who wanted me to join them.  Join them in what?  Join them in the great adventure of building a Jewish nation.   Every day there was exhilarating. Fascinating.  At times disturbing and more than once a bit scary.  But it was undeniable.  I felt a kinship with these people, even though I did not speak their Hebrew language. A kinship with my Haredi relatives, oddly enough, no less than my secular ones.

I’ve gone back twice since that first visit almost 39 years ago.  Most recently for 3 months from early February to early May of this year.  When I got back this time, I was encouraged by Rabbi Marna to share my experiences with the TBH community. I had been writing a blog that she and a few others had read, and she felt I had something to say.  As it turns out, 5 other TBH members had also been in Israel at the same time I had been!  So after talking it through with Rabbi Seth, and some of my fellow Israel visitors, we decided upon this event that we are now about to dive into.

For it is not just 6 of us who have been to Israel.  Many community members of TBH have gone to Israel.  And it is not a stretch to conclude after conversations through decades with a lot of them, that their Israel experiences were an important part of their decision to explore their Jewishness. To remain Jewish. To join TBH, or just to keep a heightened attention to Jewish or Israeli topics.

Tonight, we want to have an opportunity to hear from each other about our experiences in going to Israel.  But because just about everything about Israel is controversial, emotionally sensitive, and a source of potential vulnerability, we want to put some structure to this discussion.

((It was at this time that I made sure that the “instruction sheets” were available to any who wanted one.))

A bit of context before we dive in.

Why is Israel important to many of us?  In the spirit of counting the Omer, which we just finished earlier today, let’s look at the numbers (Wikipedia, 2017).


Country
Core Jewish
population
% of 
total (world)
1 Israel 6,451,000 44.5%
2 United States 5,700,000 39.3%
3 France 456,000 3.1%
4 Canada 390,000 2.7%
5 United Kingdom 289,500 2.0%

Our connections to Israel are emotion, spiritual and for many of the people you will hear from tonight, highly practical. What the world population figures tell us is that if you are a Jew in the 21st Century, the highest likelihood is that you are either an American or an Israeli.  And the back and forths between these two countries will continue to be major factors in the evolution of Jewish identity. Israel’s second language is clearly English, with New York accents all around you as you walk the streets of Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. Conversely, estimates of Israelis now living in the US (mostly in the New York and Los Angeles metro regions) range from just over 100,000 to upwards of 500,000.

Conclusions

In my presentation I then went on to talk about my motivations for going to Israel, which you, my devoted blog readers already saw discussed in the most previous entry.

It was a very satisfying evening. People had an opportunity to express themselves about their intimate experiences with Israel that had been built up over many years. Some of these experiences were quite lovely. Others, frightening or troubling. But collectively, the richness and complexity of the relationships were revealed.

I’m not sure whether a follow up to the Shavuot discussion is called for or would be useful. It had value as a moment of expression and insights for those present. I can see it would have been valuable too for many others in the shul who have been to Israel or may go in the future to have similar evenings. We’ll see if there is that interest, but for now, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share my Israel experience with others. And I hope to have the opportunity to return again to family and friends soon.

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Reflections and Closure

Looking West from the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.

Dear Readers,

On the first post in this string of stories along my Israeli derekh, I laid out an initial rationale for the three-month visit to Israel. Now, as I write in my basement office at home in Olympia, having returned about a week ago, let’s revisit those expectations and see how they match up with my experiences.

A “Clean Break” from a Work-Centered Life

What I Wanted: First of all, I want a clean break from my work-centered life. Many folks who retire from full-time professional work, find an emptiness that needs filling. Find a need to redefine self, now that a large part of their identity is stripped from them. Without a major and consuming break from past habits, I might find the road to the next stage of my life more subject to inertia than positive choices.

What I Got: For many years, my professional work consumed almost all my creative and intellectual energies. Add in the very real sacrifices of multiple moves, geographic separations from and long drives to wife Jean, and intense seven-day work week requirements, and you have a guy who made choices (or the world forced certain choices) that resulted in a distinct imbalance between work life and non-work life. The reality was that for the most part, I actually thrived in that world. It filled me with meaning and consequential decisions and a frequent and vigorous sense of delight.

How could I leave that world and still fill my yearning for continuing intellectual stimulation as well as an ongoing sense of purpose?

With that question in mind, I filled – over-filled – my time in Israel with commitments. Not only did I enroll in language school (ulpan) for 3 hours per day, 4 days a week, but I also committed 10 – 20 hours per week of intellectually challenging volunteer work, and also sought connections with relatives and friends that took me away from “home” in Jerusalem for about 2/3rds of my weekends. I also wanted to feel like a normal Jerusalemite, so I joined a choir which met weekly, and joined a table tennis club, which also met weekly. In my effort to make a clean break from “work”, and in my fear of lacking “purpose,” I clearly took on more than I was capable of executing with high quality.

In the ulpan, I was the oldest student (by more than ten years) and found that toward the end, I just wasn’t able to keep up with the rest of class. I still enjoyed my time with my fellow students, was able to make progress every day I was there, and did form a much stronger base for learning if I wish to seriously pursue Hebrew in the future. But I am not sure my aged brain can take it on with the capabilities it exhibited 19 years earlier as I took on Spanish immersion.

In my volunteer efforts, I was not able to finish my commitments on time. I did deliver two worthwhile presentations, gained insights into the professional planning environment in Israel/Palestine, and most wonderfully, am set for continued research and writing over the coming months that will both complete my volunteer commitments and provide opportunities to explore ongoing stimulating activities. Maybe even compensated work that I would both enjoy and be very different from the professional work I did prior to retirement.

In the words of my clean break goal above, I feel like I have before me many “positive choices.”

Exploring my Jewish Self

What I Wanted: Secondly, I want to explore my Jewish self…. I want to connect with my relatives, some of whom are quite elderly, while I still can… And I want to explore Jewish practice and culture.

What I Got: Toward the end of the trip, I became aware of a set of relatives I didn’t know I had. Some I was able to briefly meet. Others, I couldn’t find time to connect with. But all through the stay in Israel, I prioritized meeting with cousins and friends and families of friends. And everywhere, with every person I reached out to, I f0und people who were warm and welcoming. Without exception.

Some of these folks, I was able to spend a fair amount of time with. Cousin Danny Brahms and his partner Shirley in particular deserve my heart-felt thanks for their hospitality and care. Cousins Hemy and Anat were extraordinarily generous with their time and talent (the food was unbelievable!). They were genuine in their hospitality, and intelligent and engaging conversationalists – add in brilliant and socially skilled children and sweet and intelligent grandchildren – and you understand why I left Israel feeling that I left not just relatives but people who would be my close friends if only we lived in the same continent.

Some of my relatives are secular Israelis. Others make religious practice central to their lives. I asked all of them about their connection to Jewish ritual practice and saw that each person had found a solid home in Israel whether they lived fully secular lives, fully observant Haredi-ritualized lives or something in between.

Beyond the homes of relatives and friends, I also attended various places of worship. From the musical-oriented kabbalat shabbat at the Reform shul Kol Haneshama, to an Orthodox shul where men and women pray separately. I walked the streets of Mea Shearim, and prayed at the Western Wall. Even in exploring many Christian sites I had never seen (Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, to Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation, to the Church of the Loaves and Fishes along the shores of the Sea of Galilee) I was exploring my Jewish self and my reaction to those sites.

And while my Hebrew skills are not now as strong as I hoped they would be, I certainly can read and write with greater speed and accuracy (understanding is a different story). So as I continue to explore my Jewish self, I have a better grounding now to do so.

Closure

Three days ago, I went to Costco to get some groceries and asked a staff person where they keep the falafel mixes. He didn’t know what falafel is. Nor did another staff person I asked.

As I walked today from my house on the West Side to downtown Olympia, I passed about thirty homeless folks in tents residing for the time-being under the 4th Avenue Bridge. I never once saw a homeless person sleeping in a tent or on the street in Israel the last three months.

When I returned from Israel, many people asked me if Iwas ok there or if I was frightened by the bombs that were dropping everywhere. I tell them I was not, although apparently 4 Israelis and 25 Gazan’s were killed the last weekend I was there, before a ceasefire was arranged just in time for Ramadan. I explained that for the most part, the dangers for Israeli Jews are in those portions nearest Gaza. For Gazans, and for Arabs in the West Bank to a lessor extent, the hazards are far higher. But even with all that intensity, the day-to-day life for most Jewish Israelis now feels safer than the average American. Women of every age walk the streets of Jerusalem at any time of the day or night.

Wherever I went, people asked me in Israel if I were going to make aliyah – if I expected to immigrate. I told them all the answer was no. It was not my intention. But I also told them that I loved being in Israel and that I will miss Israel very much when I go back to America.

And so here I am, back home. Feeling very much an American. Very much part of the American Jewish diaspora. And feeling exactly as I told all my Israeli relatives, friends and acquaintances I expected to feel. That is that I loved being in Israel, miss it very much, and hope I can find a way to come back again and again.

How to Help

In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, when the kibbutz movement was in full flower, foreigners wanting to help in Israel knew just what was expected of them: get on your hands and knees and start digging in marginal agricultural soils. Or spread the feed in the chicken coops. Or take care of the wee ones, while other able-bodied youth picked the yellowish Jaffa oranges for export to a scurvy-adverse European market.

For this retirement launch, I too wanted to contribute in some meaningful way to Israeli society. I wanted to be useful, in part because that is intrinsically satisfying, and in part because it selfishly could provide an avenue to explore my curiosities about Israel and about myself as I age. But digging up carrots in the field was not on the agenda. My body couldn’t hack it and any old machine would be more helpful to a farm than trying to train me.

Through an internet search, and help from an Israeli friend of the family, I chanced to link up with the organization “Skilled Volunteers for Israel.” As their web page describes it:

What we do: Through our extensive network of Israeli nonprofit and educational partners, we match you with a service project tied to your interests, experience, goals, and skills. We are there to orient you to Israel and help you prepare as you are welcomed onto the teams of our organizational partners.

All my feelers were up as I made initial inquiries into the organization. It functions as a matchmaker – a Shadchen – between volunteers who have had professional careers and want to contribute skills developed in those careers – and organizations that could use those skills. My skills are unusual. And as they interviewed me for the purpose of truly understanding my interests and abilities, looked at my resume, which they required me to provide, I quickly felt that these folks were asking the right questions and had a genuine desire to help me have a wonderful volunteer experience. As it turned out… they proved to be not only great matchmakers, but extraordinarily helpful in leading me through a number of logistical issues – not the least of which was finding me a perfect place to stay in Jerusalem.

Instead Of

My principal volunteer commitment in Israel has been to an organization called Bimkom, which in Hebrew means “instead of.” My parks planning colleagues will note that I am obsessed withe the “alternatives” stage of the planning process, so this match just felt right.

I encourage you to glance at Bimkom’s website here. Its tag line is “Planners for Planning Rights.” It’s been around for about 20 years as “an Israeli non-profit organization formed … to strengthen democracy and human rights in the field of planning.”

While still in the USA, Terry Henden, the Jerusalem coordinator at Skilled Volunteers for Israel helped arrange for a phone call between me and Sari Kronish and Ma’ayan Turner, Bimkom staff, as we explored potential work I could perform. Bimkom was working on projects that actually advocated against the establishment of certain national parks in Israel. The reasons are complicated, but they asked me “surely, with your parks planning background you are always in favor of new parks, right?”

“Well, actually, no” I replied. “There are properties that for one reason or another may not be worthy of park status.”

We talked. I asked more about the rationale for their objections and they asked more about my relevant experiences. We began to explore what they saw as injustices and non-equal treatment between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis in land use planning and development. I initially saw no relevant analogies in the USA between two potentially sovereign bodies, whose peoples may have different rights in the same property. Until… now wait a second… how about the sovereign rights of Indian Tribes and their members to carry out activities? And as our discussion went on, what emerged was a research and writing project for me that both fascinated them, and provided me an opportunity to delve into something that I have long sought to explore. My volunteer project emerged from those discussions. I would do a case study write up of the creation of the USA’s first joint State Park and Indian Tribal Preserve – Kukutali Preserve in Washington State’s Skagit County on the Swinomish Tribal Reservation. I would include other international examples of co-management of parks (e.g., Ebey’s Landing, Peak District), and explore co-management as a model for resolving disputes.

As the volunteer project has evolved, some of the most valuable elements for me – and they have told me for them as well – have been our conversations about what might be analogous and what clearly isn’t. And I have gotten a pleasant surprise out of the experience as well. I want to delve more deeply into this topic upon my return to the US. This volunteer opportunity in Israel has led to exactly what I hoped would happen from this retirement launch. A purposeful next act.

Migrations

My Kibbutz Connection

At the very northern tip of Israel, less than a mile from the Lebanese border, lies my family’s kibbutz; Kfar Giladi.
For a brief and fascinating background on the kibbutz, click on this Wikipedia link.

In the fall of 1938, my mother’s first cousin, Shirshara Jaffe Itai and her husband Abraham, left their kibbutz, Kfar Giladi, with their 4 year old son Avner (they left baby Yuval to be cared for by the kibbutz children’s program) to come back “home” to Riga, Latvia where they had grown up. Shirshara and Abraham and about 100 others from the greater Riga area had traveled to Palestine about 7 years earlier to help build a socialist Jewish homeland. As the storm clouds of war were converging on Europe in 1938, in their youngest son Hemy’s memory of family lore, it wasn’t clear what their objective in going back was all about. It could have been to organize Latvian- and Lithuanian-area Jews to gather their possessions, say their goodbyes, and emigrate to Palestine. As quickly as possible. Or it could have been to gather political and/or financial support. Nor was the outcome of their effort clear.

But by the Summer of 1939, Shirshara, Abraham and Avner successfully made it out of Riga, and smuggled their way back into Kfar Giladi. Those Jews who didn’t leave would see Germany invade Poland in September, Latvia taken over the next year, and all would almost certainly then perish in the Camps thereafter. Jewish immigration into Palestine under the British Mandate was illegal then, and Kfar Giladi was part of a major smuggling route into the area.

80 years later, I am sitting next to Avner at the Kfar Giladi Passover Seder. The Seder is unlike anything I have ever seen or could imagine for such an occasion. The whole event an enormous production, with 700 kibbutzniks dining and singing along as music and dance and theater performances carry the multitude through 4 hours of bedlam. It is marvelous! And yes, these avowedly secular – and mostly irreligious – Israelis – go through the gantze megillah (whole story), chow down on Ashkenazim essentials (gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and far far too much food) and manage to make it through 4 cups of wine just fine.

With the exception of one verse in English of “Go Down Moses,” everything is in Hebrew. Avner kindly summarizes the gist of the evening to me as it evolves. An early dance number has a dozen young women and girls, dressed in biblical-era garb, formally expressing an Exodus scene in movement. Turns out that Shirshara, who led the dance and theater program at the kibbutz for decades, had done the choreography for this dance piece 50+ years ago and it is an annual tradition to have it performed at Seder.

For Avner, it is a deeply emotional reunion, as he both led music in the kibbutz for years, and hadn’t lived there for more than 50 years. His talents were viewed by the kibbutzniks as too great not to share more broadly, and all agreed he must relocate to the urban core of the country and pursue where those talents could take him. Avner went on to be Israel’s foremost choral director (see a reference to his career here), but at his heart, he still remains a kibbutznik. All through the night, former students come up to him to pay their respects.

The Pushing and Pulling of Migration

The core story of Passover, of course, is about the yearning for freedom that motivated the Israelites to migrate away from slavery and oppression and migrate to a promised land of milk and honey. The Torah, however, is not a single story, and history neither starts nor stops at any time period. For every action, there are complex causes and continuing consequences. The Israelites freed by G-d, proceed to defy his commandments, are punished by being required to roam homeless and stateless for 40 years, and then are allowed to enter into Canaan. In this final act of migration, G-d directs the Israelites to invade Canaan and slay every native man, woman and child so that they could not come back later and retake the land. This is what progressive rabbis would call “a challenging passage” of Torah. This also wouldn’t be the first or last time that the area now known as Israel/Palestine would be subject to violent invasions. Its peoples and their cultural supremacy would frequently change hands.

The underlying legitimacy for Jewish settlement in 19th Century Palestine (conceived predominantly under the concept of Zionism) had both a push and a pull rationale. The push was the all-too prescient belief that European anti-Semitism left Jews at risk of death if they stayed in Europe. The pull, was the notion of return to a land that was a core part of the ethos of Jews in the diaspora. The underlying tragedy and the basis for conflict since has been that the Jews were moving to a land already dwelt in by a different people. At the beginning of Jewish immigration into Palestine in the mid-19th Century, Jews represented an estimated 3% of the area population.

We now live in an era of human history where migrations of people throughout the world are both physically easier than ever before to accomplish, and also a profound source of tension which is leading to cruelty and violence. In every migration there is the ideal of freedom for those individuals either fleeing danger or yearning for a better life in a new land. In every migration there is the risk of unwanted or unfair displacement of indigenous communities. Every migration is chock full of real and potential heroics and injustices.

This last Thursday, on Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoa) at 10 am, sirens blared and most Israelis stopped driving or whatever else they were doing, and stood for two minutes of silence to think about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. But not all Israelis did this. At ulpan, I saw my fellow Arab students milling about, making themselves scarce at the appointed time. In a classic lack of empathy, many Arabs have been taught that the Holocaust was not real, or at least there were legitimate choices for the post-war Jews other than Palestine. In a classic lack of empathy, many Jews have been taught to believe that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Migration conquers all emotion and all reason.

My most thought-provoking experiences in this exhilarating visit to Israel, Jordan and Palestine have been when I have tried to juxtapose the daily lives of individuals I encounter with some level of understanding of the larger forces – historic, political, economic – at work on their lives. For most, though not all, of these interactions, a deeper understanding of each person’s relationship to their family’s migrations has been a key to the stories of their lives and those of their countries.

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.

Aging

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.