The Person Behind The Posts

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Seeing With Affectionate Eyes

Over Pesach, I read a couple of novels for pleasure.  One of them was Islands by Anne Rivers Siddons, The novel is about a group of lifelong friends and how they cope with aging and loss.  But more to the point, the book is set in Charleston, SC.

I'm pretty sure I've been in Charleston, SC at least once in my life, but it left nary an impression on me. For Anne Rivers Siddons, however, Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry is as vivid as a character in the novel.

Generally, I skim quickly over descriptions of scenery in books, jumping to dialog or drama for much the same reason that I prefer lyrics to music alone.  I am exceedingly verbally wired.  I didn't read many of the scenic passages in this book either, but it did occur to me that the author must love that part of the world quite a lot to write about it in such detail.  She sees the South Carolina Lowcountry with affectionate eyes and, as a result, she notices its details - its smells, its sounds, its color.

And that inspired me to notice more of the details in the place I love.  Even though I don't yet feel wholly at home here in Israel, there are so many things I love and, inspired by the novel, I tried to remember to notice them.
In grocery stores all over Israel, the aisles of chametz, foods that we don't eat on Pesach, are covered up.  I know this isn't the prettiest photo, but look below for a detailed image of the graphic.
It says, "Chag Aviv Sameach" in Hebrew.  Even the plastic sheeting in the grocery stores in Israel wishes the Jewish People a happy Passover - a happy springtime holiday.

Today, we drove to the Dead Sea on Route 90. We had the Dead Sea to our left and this amazing vista to our right.  If you look closely at about 9:00, you'll see what I think is an opening to one of the many caves in the the area, not far from Kumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  This scenery is 30 minutes from our home and  I can go see it whenever I want.
This was a tiny little hop-plop snack bar on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, selling cold drinks and not much else.  I loved it so much, I wanted to buy something there, just so it would remain in business.
As we sat at the shaded tables eating lunch, I glanced over and saw this tree.  I have no idea  what kind it is, but I love it nonetheless because it grows in Israel.
I saw many other things through affectionate eyes today - like floating on my back in the Dead Sea and looking up at this view:

And the Dead Sea mud hole that was, literally, an unadorned hole in the ground. I didn't get in because I wasn't sure I would have been able to get out, but I did see lots of these mud people.  My mud people.

I've loved these last few days of seeing Israel with affectionate eyes.

May I always be privileged to remember to look.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ascending Har HaBayit

A few weeks ago, an old friend sent us an email inviting us to tour Har HaBayit (The Temple Mount) with her family on the first day of Chol HaMoed (the middle days of the Pesach holiday).  Immediately, I felt conflicted.  I knew that ascending Har HaBayit is considered controversial, especially for women.  Har HaBayit is the mountaintop where the First and Second Temples stood and where the Third Holy Temple will be rebuilt very soon, Gd-willing.  The holiness of the site is so extreme, so much more so than the Kotel (Western Wall), that many say we are not spiritually prepared to ascend in these days.

Holiness, or the prospect of being close to such holiness, invokes a feeling of awe.  I wanted to go and was afraid to go in equal measure.  So I asked my rabbi for a ruling according to Jewish law.

He was very encouraging and told us exactly how to prepare.  Ascending the Temple Mount requires immersion in a mikvah and one must wear non-leather shoes.  My friend had arranged for a knowledgeable tour guide to lead us, both to explain what we were seeing and also to keep us on the permitted path, since Jews in today's time may not walk too close to the exact place where the Temples stood.

In the end, we decided to go.  We met near the entrance to the Mughrabi Gate, right off the Kotel Plaza. We were a group of about 15 religious Jews.

At the Mughrabi Gate, throngs of non-Jewish tourists were ushered through as quickly as if they were entering a shopping mall.  A brief pass through a metal detector and off they went.  We, obviously religious Jews, were required to present ID and to wait over half an hour for clearance.  Once we were cleared to enter, we were followed the entire time by a handful of Israeli police officers who kept urging us to move along.

I realize that they are charged with keeping peace, and that, as religious Jews, we might "make trouble", but the fact that non-Jews are assumed to be mere tourists, permitted to walk all over the Temple Mount without escorts while religious Jews are suspected of coming for incendiary purposes is, minimally, hurtful.

Being singled out for an intensive security check, being made to wait while hordes of non-Jews were passed through in moments and being watched and urged along by 3 or 4 eagle-eyed Israeli police were the first of several surprises of the morning.

What were my impressions, as a first-timer?   The mountain top is huge, with many open plaza areas.

There are dozens of Muslim buildings, large and small, up there.

The whole place was filled with Arabs, for whom the Temple Mount, among other things, seems to serve as something of a National Park, with lots of lovely places to have a picnic.

Notice the Arab women enjoying their picnic behind the trees.

Didn't get a photo, but about halfway into our tour, we passed what seemed to be a school with dozens of Arab boys outside at recess, playing soccer, making a lot of noise.  We were walking, quietly and respectfully around the perimeter, being followed like hawks, lest we move our lips in prayer at the holiest Jewish site in the universe, while Arabs were everywhere, eating lunch and playing soccer and non-Jewish tourists were roaming around without a hint of reverence.

One of many non-Jewish groups with whom we shared HarHaBayit.
Deeply, deeply ironic.

That contrast sparked strong feelings among the people in our group.  Why don't more religious Jews come up here?  Why have we ceded the holiest ground in the universe to Arabs, Christians and secular tourists?

While walking around, careful not to move my lips, I spoke to Gd in my head and heart.  I'm sure the others in our group did as well.

Finally, we were near the most dramatic place of all, The Dome of the Rock, built by Muslims in the 7th Century, on the very place where the Temple stood.  It makes me shake with awe to think of how close we were.

We couldn't get any closer.  There is so much more holiness here than anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps that's why this veiled Arab woman chose this exact spot to sit and beg for charity.

At this spot, the tour guide reminded us that, as Jews who ascended Har HaBayit, we were praying with our feet.  He encouraged us to come back and to bring others with us.

As we exited, though an ordinary door into the Arab shuk, the men in our tour group spontaneously burst into song and dance, a prayer for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

And that's when I started to cry.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Erev Pesach Photo Blog

An early sign of Pesach (or any Jewish holiday in Israel, actually) is that the Coke bottles and potato chip bags start offering holiday wishes to the Jewish people.  Look to the left of the colorful Coke bottle.  It says, "Chag Sameach" (Happy Holiday) in Hebrew.
Stacks and stacks of Kosher for Passover Coke, all bearing the Chag Sameach greeting.
The onions in Israel are often sold with, ahem, a different level of attention to dirt removal.  It takes some getting used to, but I find it earthy and more real than overly sanitized produce in Styrofoam, covered in plastic.  What does this have to do with Pesach?  Well, I cook with a lot of onion on Pesach :-)  

Walking around the Shuk the day before the Seder, we found lots of men working hard to help Jews sell their chametz before the holiday begins. 

Other opportunities to sell one's chametz included this "Lucy booth" at the Malcha Mall, 
right in front of a grocery store.
In Baltimore, burning the last of our chametz was a major community event a few miles from home.  Here, it was a much more modest affair.  We walked across the street, put our bag of stale bread, crackers and cereal on the pile, said the appropriate prayer in Hebrew and English and walked back across the street for lunch, all in under 10 minutes.
Notice the giant pot next to the yeshiva guy with the red glove and the tongs.  The pot is almost as tall as a person, filled with boiling water.  All day long, neighbors line up at the ha'agala station where people can bring their utensils, pots,oven racks and other metal objects to immerse in boiling water to make them kosher for Passover use.  This is a free service provided all over Israel.  Just one more way Jewish life is easier to live in this country. 

Finally, my official Israeli driver's license arrived in the mail this week.  Now I'm 2/3 of the way to the Israeli Citizenship Trifecta.  All I need is an Israeli passport, for which I become eligible after we've been living here a full year.  No road test to get a passport.  Just one more reason to rejoice on Pesach.
!חג כשר ושמח לכל היהודים בכל מקום
A happy and kosher Passover to all Jews everywhere!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Israel Standard Time

Decades ago, my first job out of graduate school was at an Historically Black University. Among certain members of the staff, there was a concerted effort to teach me - the new, young, white, Jewish colleague, about their culture.  One of the expressions I learned that year was [WARNING: racially sensitive comment follows] "CP Time" which Urban Dictionary defines as, "The usually correct stereotype that African-Americans are incapable of punctuality, and are chronically tardy in both arriving at and beginning events and functions."

I think of that expression now and then because it reminds me of the similar expression "Jewish Standard Time" which seems to operate in very much the same way.

Then there's something about time in Israel whose name I do not know but under whose influence I live on a daily basis.

I experience time in Israel differently than I did before.  In some senses, time passes much more quickly here. We just had our nine month aliyahversary and I can't believe we've already been here that long.  Perhaps a better example is a conversation I had with a neighbor who was trying to explain to me why she hadn't gotten around to calling me about a shul issue.  She said, "Shabbat ends and I intend to do something about it, but then I blink and it's Friday again."

My life revolved around Shabbat in America too, but it's different here.

Of course, the classic example of Israel Standard Time is "acharei hachagim" (literally, after the holidays) which is an absolutely legitimate excuse for postponing anything due in the general proximity of a major Jewish holiday.

But there's another sense of Israel Standard Time that comes from being more in tune with the Divine.  We might fairly call it God Standard Time.  It's the sense, palpable here in Israel, that things move, not according to our schedule, but according to some Divine Plan.  After living here awhile, one becomes adept at foregoing any solid expectations about when things will happen.  It's humbling, in a way, to be constantly reminded that the world runs on a timetable entirely separate from the one in my calendar. 

I had a hint about this before I came to live in Israel full-time.  On a few trips here, I needed to conduct a handful of business meetings.  Being the conscientious American administrator that I was, I tried to set appointments weeks in advance. Invariably, my Israeli counterparts would say, "Call me when you're here and we'll arrange something."  I thought it was an odd way of doing business, but now I see that it's more accurate to say that it's an Israeli way of doing life.

I detect something admirable, if unarticulated, in the constant awareness that things can change in a heartbeat because God runs the world.  It's not that Israelis don't ever plan for the future, but there is a profound respect here for the malleability of the future.  It takes some time for inveterate Western thinking to change.

A corollary to this is the way that I have adapted to things not happening when they were originally supposed to.  Lots of stuff plainly takes an uncommonly long time to accomplish here.  There's a great Israeli expression  one hears in response to a demand for an explanation for which there simply is no explanation - kacha zeh - that's just the way it is.  I've watched myself going through The Three Stages Of Kacha Zeh:

Stage 1 - That is just an unacceptable answer!
Stage 2 - Oh well!
Stage 3 - I can't believe I just answered kacha zeh in response to someone else's question!

One learns to live inside the flow of time and not rush things.  Things (jobs, events, friendships, construction, resolution of bureaucratic glitches, etc.) bloom in their right season. 

 It's very Zen, very Simple Living. And, in the end, very biblical.*

* See Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1.  Or The Byrds.