Sunday, November 20, 2011

Enlistment and a Baby Boy!

Ok Crew, 
Long time no talk, time for an army update.  [Disclaimer: several parts of this email are copied from an email to my immediate family, so sorry for any re-reads.  But there are additions and changes, too...]
Unless something radically changes, I will be joining the Nachal Brigade (חטיבת הנח"ל) of the IDF on Wednesday, November 23rd (three days!).

My host dad (abba me'ametz; and maybe mother, too?) will drive me to the processing center in Tveria on Wednesday morning where I will then sit for several hours as they process me (whatever that means), give me army gear, and mostly just sit.  After this, I will part ways with whoever may or may not show up to see me off (Maybe a couple Regba dudes?) and then I will get bussed down to what will become my new base for the following several months, Ba"ch Nachal (בא"ח נח"ל).  There is no ceremonial aspect to the enlistment: no live streaming, no big hullaballoo. Just hugs to whoever is there and a 'see ya soon.'  

Basic training for Nachal is several months and is located at Ba"ch Nachal, near Arad.  For me this means taking a 3 hour train ride from Nahariya to Beer Sheva (the full length of the Israeli train system) and then another 40-45 minute bus ride to Arad.  All things considered this is an excellent commute because most Tzabarnikim complain about having to take 3-6 buses and it taking a loooong time to get places (two guys in my group going to שיריון, or Tanks, have something like 8 hours of transit to and from base).  I've known all along that living by the train was gonna be huge no matter where I serve and I think it will immediately pay dividends (3 hour naps to and from base sound great to me).  After that I will be stationed at a base 5km away from there for another several months of advanced training. So I'll be conceivably making that commute for the next solid amount of time.

Towards the beginning of basic training, there will be a tryout that everyone is invited to for the elite unites within the Nachal Brigade.  [Now, my plan was to try out for the elite units within צנחנים (Paratroopers), but since they didn't take me (oh well, their mistake), let's go Nachal baby.  When it's all said and done I'll have done every tryout possible!]  If I get into an elite unit in Nachal (going for either the פלס"ר/recon commandos or the פלח"ן/explosives specialists), then I'll have another, even more extended period of advanced training.  After training my base will be near Netanya (on the train line, easily accessible by train) and from there we'd go to different places and guard/do missions.  

Nachal has a great reputation and is known historically as the place for kibbutznikim, moshavnikim, and other youngsters from youth movements.  Today it also takes a lot of immigrants so there will definitely be a good number of Garin Tzabar folk interspersed throughout the various Nachal divisions and units.  On my manilla I put Tzanchanim and Nachal as tied for top choices, and I know it will be a good fit based on what I have heard from EVERYONE I've talked to.  Specifically from my garin, I will be enlisting with Tomer and Shai, both great guys.  As of last week, 4 girls in my garin have enlisted (out of 6), and almost all of the guys will enlist this week at some point into various units.   

Basic Nachal websites to check out at your leisure: 
If this was not a crazy enough day -- indeed a day I've been dreaming/contemplating/worrying/philosophizing/debating and ultimately gearing up for for the past 5 years, it also will mark the day of my older sister Talia's baby boy's ברית מילה (Brit Milah/Bris)!  So I will be charged with a personally dually emotional task of being there with my family in New Jersey in thought and spirit while also mentally preparing to join the army.  I knew the day was coming where Talia would give birth and more recently I realized that I would enlist around the same time.  I knew it and I prepared myself as best as possible to miss this incredible שמחה in my family's life but even so, it still truly -- for better lack of a work, sucks to miss it (just as it will be really tough to miss my cousins Kim's Bat Mitzvah next month and well as my sister in law's childbirth בשעה טובה in a couple months and so on).  A friend consoled me though and reminded me that though I might miss this one in person, there will be plenty of celebrations and gatherings in the future that I will be able to get to.  Amen to that.  In the meantime, מזל טוב (MAZAL TOV!) to my sister, to my brother Gabriel, and to all the extended Liben and Yarmush clans.  Believe it or not my thoughts will be with you that day!  And yes, our family grows once more :)

שבוע טוב ומוצלח לכולם,
Wishing everybody a good and successful week, 


P.S. My beard is currently longer than my hair! Just had to put that out there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Perspectives on Shalit

An attempt to show my outlook leading up to and immediately following the Gilad Shalit deal...

Rewind 10plus days ago: news sources from around the world report that Gilad Shalit will be released from the terrorist group Hamas' underground cell in Gaza.  The deal, mediated through Germany and Egypt, would include a swap of 1,027 prisoners for one Israeli soldier.  For the next several days, all Israeli media outlets (radio, tv, newspapers, internet) discussed was the impending deal (I too got caught up in it, sending out several tweets on the matter).  And soon the world media was covering it, too.  Here in Israel, it did not surprise me that the possibility of a deal actually going through demanded non-stop national attention.  For my first two months here, to the t, every official event of any sort that I went to -- no matter whether it was at the two massive social justice protest rallies I went to in Jerusalem and Nahariya, a Garin Tzabar ceremony, or my Garin's Declaration (where we 'declared' our permanent presence to the rest of the moshav/village with skits and movies), every event devoted time to bring up the hope and need to have Gilad Shalit return home as soon as possible. 

Although there was a vast majority of Israeli opinion in favor of the swap, there was also a minority who outright rejected any deal of this sort.  Hence, a significant part of the Israeli media coverage went towards families and friends of loved ones who were murdered in terrorist attacks, admittedly emotional and upset that the perpetrators of multiple heinous crimes would now be freed.  I empathized and thought of it this way, if convicted murderers serving several life sentences are all of a sudden let free, wouldn't you be upset?  How is that justice being served?  Especially if one of these people was directly related in killing your kin or good friend?  I would.  Especially after the list of the 1,027 names was released and their bios and crimes became available via a quick google search, this minority seemed to be making an incredibly powerful point: why release such a large number of people, especially when hundreds -- yes, literally hundreds, were directly involved with murdering innocents?  Needless to say, the names of some of the to-be-freed prisoners and the crimes they committed were also being flashed all over Israeli media in the days leading up to the deal.  I couldn't help but then scoff at the Al Jazeera Op-Ed that asserted that Israel was releasing "1,027 faceless Palestinians" and yet the whole world only cared about the one Israeli.  ההפך, the opposite!  When names like Ahlam Tamimi kept appearing, with her cold blooded testimonials and interviews explaining her acts of terror (and there are many other names out there with equally brutal story lines), it was painfully clear to each and every Israeli that this was not a "fair" trade in terms of actions done to merit imprisonment in the first place.  Every Israeli knows that not every prisoner on that list is an actual murder.  But to imply that because the world cannot name all 1,027 prisoners in one breath, Israelis and the world at large do not care who these people are is ludicrous.  We are acutely aware, and it is scary.  

[Re the Al Jazeera post, for a more balanced and much more biting piece that makes the Al Jazeera point, in a more (honest-and-thus) effective manner, check out this Op-Ed written by Syrian journalist Dr. Faisal al Qasim, writing in Doha, for the Gulf News.]

So, in the final days before the swap, there was considerable anxiety in Israel.  Would the deal actually go through?  Will Gilad Shalit, everyone's soldier, actually make it home?  Will we regret this decision in the months/years to come, if a) the freed prisoners commit more acts of terror or b) the release of the prisoners encourages more attempted kidnappings?  No matter what the particular political outlook on the issue, everyone in the country truly waited with baited breath...

Here are two articles that eloquently represent many of my feelings I had while justifying the exchange in my head.  The first is a Jewish legal approach to the issue, by Rabbi David Ellenson.  The second is an honest (and critical) piece from the increasingly hardened realist, Danny Gordis.  Ellenson hits the Jewish aspects right on, and Gordis is especially appropriate for me as incoming soldier of the IDF.  If you haven't read them yet, do it!

But at the end of the day, I think Rabbi Avi Weiss, writing in HuffPo, gets at the crux of it for me.  Though I quote below, the full article is short and well worth the read.  Rabbi Weiss writes:
"Ecclesiastes writes: 'everything has its season ... a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to wail and a time to dance ... a time to rent garments and a time to mend.' Ecclesiastes seems to be saying that there are distinct times for each of these emotions.
Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, understands it differently. He writes: 'Ecclesiastes was wrong about that ... A person needs to love and hate at the same moment. To laugh and cry with the same eyes ...To make love in war and war in love.'
Jewish law marks this phenomenon when it asks that at the height of our greatest joy, at a wedding itself, that we break a glass to remember the shattered Temples, the shattered human temples, that need fixing. [...]
Today, the heart wins out. But this is not a moment of euphoria. It is that moment under the chuppah (wedding canopy) when we celebrate joy and happiness only to firmly plant our foot on the glass and breaking it remembering the souls and the families whose lives are forever shattered."

Incredibly happy to see Gilad back in Israel; impossible to be happy enough to rejoice wildly in the streets.  Beautiful metaphor from Weiss...  

The Shalit saga has touched Jews around the world in different ways for over 5 years.  And now, after an anxiety filled, emotional roller coaster of a couple weeks, the prisoner exchange has happened.  Gilad is home, and it is time to let him sleep, let him be, and let him live with dignity and quiet as a free man once more.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Theology and Sand Dune Sprints: a Yom Sayarot Postscript

Notes and thoughts on יום סיירות/Yom Sayarot...

First of all, for those who don't know what Yom Sayarot is, here is a great post from another blogger who did it last year. I definitely suggest you read it to get an idea of the hellish day of testing I went through 13 days ago to see if I was fit for elite army units.  There are other blogs out there with similar explanations of the day, but I think the first one provides the most realistic picture based on where I stood going in (compared to these other guys who were clearly in much much better shape than I).  So choose one, read it, and then continue below...

I can definitely say that it was incredibly hard. And physical. And a really good barometer of where I stood after nearly two months in Israel.  People there had been training for 6, 8, 10, 14 months, and I went in after a month and a half of honest exercise.  My goal was to never give up and finish the day (not a given at all, some 90-100 kids out of 290 dropped out over the course of the day+).  The first 15 minutes of the sprints on the sand dunes were mentally some of the toughest minutes of my life.  It was 5:15 am, kids were throwing up left and right, others panting and saying screw it and throwing in the towel, I was being pushed to the ground and tripped up in the fracas for first place, and all I wanted to do was join those who had given up.  But I started out by saying, "I will not be the first one to drop out."  And as my body began to warm up, I reminded myself why I was there.  To test myself, to prove myself, to succeed in my goals, and to see how far I could push.  I decided that regardless of how I was placing compared to the rest of my group, I would not give up.   -- And over 3 hours later, I finished! 

Of my group (we started with 18 and ended with 16; by all counts a strong group), I consistently came in somewhere between 7-10th in every exercise/sprint.  In other words, this told me that I was coming along fine in my own personal 'Jonah needs to be getting in shape for the army' regiment, but also told me that though I finished the day, there was a clear line between the top kids in my group and me.  All that said, I finished the day, maintained a positive attitude throughout (and perhaps more importantly was able to convey my positivity to the vets who tested us), and I think proved that I was a worthy person to have in a group.  I say this last part because at the end, every one of the 16 kids in my group ranked each other and I am assuming that they saw something in me.  Again, I say this because although I never came in the top 5 in any of the exercises of the whole morning, I still got an invite to an elite unit tryout!  As ID numbers were called off for the top two groups (Matkal aka Delta Force and Shayetet aka Navy Seals), my number wasn't called.  Buuuut my number was called for Chovlim, or a unit that trains people to become Sea Captains.  Along with about 25 other guys, we went off to a tent where we were explained the next step, i.e. a day of mental testing in Tel Aviv where officers would determine whether we would be appropriate for Chovlim, Tzolelot (submarines), or nothing at all.   

Chovlim is a 7 year commitment that I wasn't so fancy about, but I was thrilled to get an invite and I decided to at least go to the day of testing and see what happened from there.  Well, it turns out, Chovilim was not the right place for me.  I was at that base for literally a full day (8am to 5pm) of waiting around, testing, waiting, and more testing, only for them to tell me -- and the other 4 new immigrants from Garin Tzabar as well as a Druze guy, that we weren't going to get anything after all.  The common thread with the 6 of us is that Hebrew is not any of our native tongues.  Indeed, all the testing was in Hebrew (some 450-500 questions, with Hebrew instructions, much of it timed), and it was really hard.  If we had done them in English or Arabic, respectively, it probably would have been a different story.  The point is the Chovlim course is super long and, along with being physically challenging (think 4 months of throwing up every night in the middle of the night in the ocean), also includes heavy and intensive learning loads, in highly technical and advanced Hebrew.  I guess it made us an easy out.  Oh well.  As I've been saying all along, I will be happy and highly motivated in whichever unit I end up in, and it's only a matter of time until I am placed in the correct spot.

But forget about all of that, because the most interesting part of my Yom Sayarot experience revolved around a friend I made during tryout.  I had just completed the first test of the tryout, a 2k free for all of a run, and was sitting some nearly 300 hungry young men waiting to eat.  Naturally I started up a convo with the guy sitting next to me.  His name was Saker and he was from the village of Yarka, near Akko.  I said oh nice I'm from Moshav Regba, I'm new in the country but that's also near Akko so we must live close to each other.  Indeed, Yarka is a Druze village around 20 minutes away from me.  Saker is young (then again, most everybody there is across the board somewhere between 1-5 years younger than I am), graduated high school in May, works for his father's independent construction group and is trying to decide whether he should serve in a combat unit in the army or do something called Ahtoodahee, where the army pays for your university degree and then you use it in the army.   Think ROTC but you don't go combat afterwards.  I had a buddy in Haifa from my gap year who was studying law, and is serving as a lawyer for the army now.  Another friend from my grade in high school, Reuven Kawesch, studied engineering (I think) at the Technion and is either finishing now or is already using his degree in the army.  Saker said he was leaning toward Ahtoodahee but since he got the Yom Sayarot invite he thought he'd try it out.  [Notice, in all of this, that Saker was deciding where to serve in the army, not whether he should serve or not.  Indeed, a fact that is rarely stressed is that there is a significant number of Israeli Arabs (Christians and Druze) and Israeli Muslim Arabs (primarily Bedouins) who proudly serve in all sectors of Israel's military, including the most elite and prestigious of the units.] 

Anyway, within minutes I was cutting through to the interesting stuff, i.e. the highly secretive nature of the Druze religion.  I asked Saker if he was religious, to which he promptly replied no.  If he was religious he would be wearing the garb of religious folk and his life would be spent in a much different manner -- religious Druze for the most part don't serve in the army (Haredi comparison, anyone?).  If the Druze religion was a 12th century offshoot of Islam, does that mean he was forbidden to drink alcohol as per Islam, or was he allowed?  With a wry smile, he said he shouldn't, but since he wasn't religious..well..
I interrupted and said, "Perfect!  After all of this, no matter what happens tomorrow, we should drink in Akko."  Whiskey shots were agreed upon.  Saker then asked me if I was religious, to which I gave my reply (for all those from Temple Israel of Natick, sorry you already know my answer) רוחני, spiritual.  We talked for several minutes about faith in God, theology and religion in general, and how that translates for us each in a day to day basis.  What I loved about this conversation was that in the middle of a cutthroat competition for elite Israeli army units, I was talking to a man of a different faith about God.  You can take me out of JTS, but you can't take the JTS out of me.  And honestly, anyone who knows anything about the Israeli army knows that it is a melting pot for all socio economic strata of Israeli Jews.  I learned that it can also easily be a melting pot for different religions, too, something that should not be taken lightly or for granted.    Our chat was interrupted as we were called for dinner, and I didn't see Saker at all for the duration of Yom Sayarot.

I did, however, see him again.  At the very end of the testing, as I kind of described above, the people who finished the day successfully were split up into four groups, one for Matkal, one for Shayetet, one for Chovlim, and one for people who finished the day but didn't get an invite.  Lo and behold, Saker also received an invite for Chovlim.  And as you  might have guessed by now, he was the Druze from the day of testing in Tel Aviv who, along with us 5 Garin Tzabar kids, completed the testing but did not get an invite to the actual 4 day tryout.  Pretty wild that we ended up in such similar tracks this far, I'm interested to see where he ends up!  And of course those whiskey shots still await us...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trying to put together thoughts on the U.N. vote

First of all, here are two interesting/relevant texts to further blur/clarify/blur your opinions...

Poll: 70% of Israelis say Israel should accept U.N. decision

Obama's speech at the U.N.; Full Video plus text re Palestinian vote

Those are just two randoms (that are not so random) from today that added to my thoughts, that are only somewhat coherent.  Furthermore, you can find plenty of articles fleshing out all of these points and more better than I did just now; I doubt I am saying anything new, but since several people have asked me for my opinion here goes...

1) I want to see a two state solution become a reality.  I certainly do not think that the current Israeli government has done a good job showing that it is interested in a two state solution.

2) I do not want a failed Palestinian State.

3) A U.N.G.A. vote will not bring about a Palestinian state in reality. Any/every Palestinian who does not already know this will realize it the next morning when s/he wakes up and there are still checkpoints.

4) Think to yourself what you would want in a successful, recognized state in the international arena (functioning government, functioning economy, economy that is not almost totally dependent on foreign aid, the ability to have order within borders aka a functioning police/security force, and basic provisions for things like health and education, and whatever else might come to your mind), and then research whether the Palestinian Authority can/does provide these things for its people.  I can honestly say that I only believe they have accomplished a functional security force (trained by U.S. General Dayton, and cooperative with the IDF), as well as a 9% GDP growth it can boast as a legitimate sign of economic growth.  With the caveat that at this point everything still hinges on aid; and should U.S. or Israeli or other foreign aid cease, the PA would collapse rather quickly, a bad thing!

5) Tangible questions: Where will Palestine's capital be? More generally, what does a Palestinian state look like? Only the West Bank?  Where does the Gaza Strip fit in to this picture?  Where is Hamas?

6) Is the Palestinian Authority (or the Palestinian people for that matter) willing to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state?  All statements thus far have been resolutely no.

7) Finally, most importantly, where is the detailed plan of what an actual Palestine will look like post the vote? Something that answers all of the above questions?  I've seen nothing specific.

What does this mean to me?  It means that I am absolutely empathetic to Palestinian nationalist aspirations.  As a Zionist (that is to say, a Jewish nationalist), I appreciate other peoples' wills to have a country of their own -- so long as it does not seek to delegitimize my right to exist (in words) or physically try to remove my place in this world (through terror and war).  Hence, I want nothing more than to have an end to all fighting and bloodshed and live peacefully next to my Palestinian neighbors.  BUT, I know very well that going to the U.N. this week does not help accomplish anything short term in terms of palpable changes on the ground for the Palestinian people.  And here is where I am really conflicted. 

On the one hand, I truly believe that the only way to solve this is through direct negotiations between the two countries (possibly with an agreed upon 3rd party mediator), complete with set rules of conduct that go along with negotiations.  This is the best way to solve the final status issues (Jerusalem, Right of Return, Water, Borders) that have prevented peace to this point.  Going to the United Nations and applying for statehood without solving these issues through negotiations with Israel means that in reality there will still be no Palestinian state because none of the questions posed above will be able to be satisfactorily answered and solved.  If the U.N.G.A. does vote a symbolic state into being, should Israel accept the voice of the world?  Yes, sure, but nothing changes without negotiations...  On the other hand, the current government in Israel has done a pretty deplorable job at showing interest in a negotiated two state solution.  In my opinion there is simply no reason to be building in land that will be part of a Palestinian state and no excuse to not have every settlement deemed illegal by Israeli law dismantled.  In other words, the government has either been cowed by a zealous minority that has no regard for Israeli law or civility or actually tacitly condones settlement extremism.  Either option is scary.  [An argument can thus be made that the PA has no faith in the current Israeli government to negotiate and is seeking an alternate path instead.  And an argument can be made that there are intractable differences between the Israeli and Palestinian governments as long as the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as the undisputed homeland of all Jews and thus Israel sees no reason to make any moves.]

So in a nutshell, I believe that there must be a change in the Israeli government, with the new one reflecting the fact that 70% of Israelis do want to see that Palestinian state.  If we're being honest, Bibi and Lierberman have spent two years fighting with each other to prove who can be more hawkish.  They have not helped bring peace.  In the meantime, it would be well worth the Palestinian Authority's time to continue on its path of statebuilding by continuing to build the infrastructure of a functional country.  It should actually model itself after the Zionist Yishuv model of the Turkish and then British Mandate era, where the Jewish pre-state government spent some 40+ years building up its state infrastructure (hospitals, universities, courts, etc.) in preparation for independence and sovereignty.  It should continue to work on economic development independent of foreign aid.  It should focus on how it can convince its enemies in Gaza (read: Hamas) to put down their weapons and learn to accept Israel as a reality.  And finally and quite importantly, it should think deeply and carefully about the concept of Israel as a Jewish state and internalize that it is a reality that will not change.  Either way one looks at it, this must be a two sided street.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, going to the U.N. this week in no way helps bring about an end to this conflict. 

Ok.  Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Disagreements? Please post!
My opinions are also quite malleable and I am always learning from your input!

Getting up in 5 hours for advanced Hebrew,


Monday, September 19, 2011

לילה שקט עובר ברגבה

This is a poem I wrote for my Garin 'newspaper' a couple of weeks ago.  It details a middle-of-the-night-screaming-wake-up our two חיילות (we have two lady soldiers -- chayalim are males and chayalot are females, that are in charge of our garin) treated us to.  Such events in the army are called הקפצות/hakpatzot, and entail running half asleep soldiers around for any given amount of time, and our חיילות, both 21 year olds and both named Sharon (thus, henceforth, the Sharoniot), thought it would be a cute idea for us to 'experience' this during our period of absorption here on Regba. 

The poem is in limerick style (AAbbA, CCddC, etc.), or חמשיר in Hebrew.


לילה שקט עובר ברגבה

לילה שקט עובר ברגבה
צברים חדשים נהנים בזולה
לא חוששים, לא דואגים
כי מחר יש שמש ובריכה...

קומו! צועקות המפקדות
צאו! מהמיטות הנוחות
זמן לסיים את החלומות שלכם
תהיו בחוץ תוך שתי דקות

מה קרה? שואל בחור עם סכין
פיגוע! צעק צעיר הגרעין
כמה פוחדים, אחרים מתעצבנים
ואחד ישן כתינוק עדין

הקפצה! צורחות המפקדות
לריצפה! לפעמים בלי סיבות
עומדים באיזה ח', חצי לילה-- יו בט
עד שמגיע כבר זמן לשחות

לילה שקט עובר ברגבה
צברים חדשים נהנים בזולה
לא חוששים, לא דואגים
כי מחר יש שמש ובריכה...

יונה ליבן

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who gets the homage in the title

Saturday, September 17, 2011

First Post as a Citizen, Ben Gurion style

Shabbat Shalom l'kulam,

I hope everyone is having a restful weekend.

First of all I have to apologize; I have been in Israel now for exactly one month and a NEW IMMIGRANT (woo!), and only now am I starting to find time to write a bit. I imagine that as per previous posts, I won't really be giving day by day updates of what I'm up to, but more snippets, poems, and relevant opinions that will hopefully, when taken as a whole, shed light onto what I'm up to over here.

That said, I wanted to devote my first post to a letter from David Ben Gurion dated on 5.5.53/כ' אייר תשי"ג sent to his Minister of Finance (who, in Israel's 4th government, happened to be Levi Eshkol). The letter -- or more appropriately, the memo, was shown to me in an excellent class I took in my final semester at the Seminary called Revival of the Hebrew Language, and for multiple reasons I simply love it.

First, allow me to quote the letter in entirety, and I'll follow with comments.

לשר האוצר,

חתמתי היום על "הצהרת העובר(ה) לצורך קביעת נכויי המס".

בהצהרה, כסעיף 4 נאמר שם בעלי/אשתי. לדעתי יש להגיד: אישי/אשתי.

במלה בעל יש משמעות של אדנות ועבודה זרה, שאינה הולמת כבוד האשה, השווה לגמרי בזכויותיה לאיש.

תעשו כדברי הושע הנביא: "והיה ביום ההוא - תקראי אישי ולא תקראי לי עוד בעלי (הושע ב' 15).

בכבוד רב,
ד. בן-גוריון

I just Google Translated that and it completely botches the meaning, so follow my explanation instead. Basically, Prime Minister Ben Gurion is writing to his MOF to scold him. On a tax form that DBG had been filling out earlier that day, he had the option of circling either "בעלי" or "אשתי." Traditionally (and still very much the status quo today), a wife calls her husband her בעל, which can be translated as husband, master, lord, owner, and Baal (a Biblical era idol) among other things. אשתי, on the other hand, is simply translated as "wife." So the husband circles "wife" and the wife circles "husband/master/Baal." DBG immediately calls this out and says the options instead should be "אשתי" or "אישי" which immediately give a more egalitarian parallel. After all, he explains, "בעל" has the meanings of mastery and idolatry [whereas "אישי" simply means husband]. And here comes the kicker. Ben Gurion finishes his memo to Eshkol by telling Eshkol to act in the ways of Hosea, and ending with a quote from the ever humanistic and social justice oriented prophet. 'And it will be in this day, you shall call me husband/man ["אישי"] and you shall not call me master ["בעלי"] anymore' [Hosea 2:15, my translation].

So here's why I love this memo so much. It is 1953 and David Ben Gurion is nearly 5 years post Independence. He is desperately trying to absorb over a million immigrants (primarily Jews of the Middle East and N.Africa who fled/were kicked out of their homes in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, but also Holocaust survivors from Europe), many of whom spend several years in transitional tent camps in the fledgling state. His budget is by all means tiny. He is trying to feed a country (food stamps were the norm; everything was rationed) that is growing rapidly. He is trying to keep the country defended in a region that actively seeks its destruction -- dealing both with bellicose cries in the media from neighboring countries as well as actual terrorist attacks (sound familiar?). And on and on. The point is DBG was literally building a nation. And yet, he finds time to do his taxes, and while doing them, take note that something is remiss in his vision of a progressive social democracy in the Jewish homeland. In one minute's worth of a memo, Ben Gurion is seeking to change something fundamental about how his government functions, and how it portrays itself. And he does so by quoting the Jewish canon.

David Ben Gurion, the self proclaimed Atheist, could quote the Jewish Bible at will, as well as much of the Talmud. Judaism, though not necessarily important to him in a religious sense, permeated all aspects of Ben Gurion's life. On the international and national scales, Ben Gurion was able to do things that we should all dream to be able to do. And incredibly, Judaism was infused in the macro and micro levels of all of his actions. I think that the conversation surrounding DBG's personal educational upbringing/history and how that history affected his personal and national Zionisms which thus affected his choices on how education in the new country should look like (he was a staunch believer in the separation of church and state) deserve an entire thesis worth of discussion (I'll also try to tackle it one of these days in a post). However, what I can conclusively say right now is that it is letters like these that give me confidence in what I am doing here in Israel today.

I am a proud Zionist with tons of questions and doubts about Judaism. I naively thought that after four years at JTS (and I guess at Columbia, too) I would be comfortable with my Judaism and ready to move to Israel as a man comfortable with his faith and level of observance. Instead I came out of there with more doubts about religion than ever. But, at the same time, my doubts have never once deterred my involvement with Judaism, my constant intermingling with Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and language. What is beautiful about Judaism is that even if we have our crises of faith and questions that remain unanswered, we can still look to it as a wellspring of ideals and values to make the world a better place.

Ben Gurion was here to make Israel a viable place for Jews to live, for whenever they wanted to and for whatever reason. His vision was social, democratic, and Jewish. He is an obvious inspiration in my life, and so in my own small ways, I too am here to make this country a better place.

I'm off to the beach now with my garin, but more posts to come soon!

With love,


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Joseph Cedar on his movie "Campfire," and Comb Overed Settlers

I had a great opportunity to catch a screening of the Israeli film מדורת השבט/Campfire (literally: Tribal Bonfire), a 2004 movie directed by the esteemed Joseph Cedar. The movie won several Israeli awards when it came out, and Cedar has since gained international notice and applause for his Oscar nominated Beaufort in 2007.

Since Cedar himself was showing it followed by a conversation moderated by my former professor, Uri Cohen, I figured I should probably go. Well let's be honest, I helped publicize the event (sponsored by Columbia's Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies -- IIJS) and was even invited to dinner with Uri and Mr. Cedar the previous evening (unfortunately not until 3 hours before the reserved time and long after I was already booked for the eve) so I planned on going a long time ago. Both the film and discussion were excellent and I was not disappointed.

As per Wikipedia's summary, CAMPFIRE is "the story of a young widow, mother of two beautiful teenage daughters, who wants to join the founding group of a new religious settlement in the West Bank, but first must convince the acceptance committee that she is worthy. Things get complicated when the younger daughter is accused of seducing some boys from her youth movement." The setting is 1981 Jerusalem, in the immediate years following the Labor party's fall from 30 years of dominance in successive Israeli governments and when the country saw for the first time a corresponding rise of settlement growth with the Likud in charge. Most people today say that settlement building back then was looked at much differently, naively really, in the post-'67 generation. And no, I am not talking about the religious who justified their ideological yearnings by pulling the security card (i.e. Israel needs to settle these areas for they are strategic assets) in order to align themselves with the secular Rightist camp, I'm talking about the majority of the rest of the country who naively went along with the plan. Cedar himself spoke about how his family was 'on that bus in 1981,' how they went with a group of prospective families to scout out an area in the West Bank to see if it was suitable for a settlement's location, but in the end chose to remain in Jerusalem.

I thought Cedar's keenest comment of the discussion came in the form of a metaphor he made about one of his central characters. Motke (played by the ever-excellent Assi Dayan and shown on the right), the leader of the founders of the would-be settlement, is middle aged, pot bellied, and balding. He also has an obvious comb over. Cedar noted that when Motke stands in his house and looks at a mirror at a very specific angle with very specific lighting, he appears and even truly convinces himself that he has a full head of hair, even though from every other angle and light one can obviously see the balding. Just as Motke can convince himself, so too can today's ideological settlers choose to see themselves as pure, moral, and just -- but only in the very narrowest of viewpoints. Agree or disagree with Cedar's analogy (and concomitant not-so-couched political statement), the metaphor certainly provided the audience with a striking image to ponder.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Translating Bialik, Take 1: "In the City of Slaughter"

"?חציר תלוש העם - ואם-יש לתלוש תקווה"

As is well known, Ch. N. Bialik wrote his famous poem בעיר ההרגה”/"In the City of Slaughter," as a response to the infamous Kishniev Pogrom of 1903. The question in the above title, posed by Bialik in line 173, is for me one of the most important passages of the epic. Klein translates it as “The people is plucked grass; can plucked grass grow again?” but I believe some of the meaning is compromised in order to fit into Klein’s admirable attempt (a successful one overall) to maintain the rhyme and rhythm of the high Hebrew in his Victorian-esque translation. I personally would interpret it as “the nation is [like] plucked grass – and is there any hope for the plucked?” I find the key difference between the two translations is with the word תקווה, hope, left out entirely in the Klein edition. The scathing nature of Bialik’s tone throughout the poem is well documented and is based on his lack of faith in East European Jewry to rise to the challenge of self-defense in an age of heightened political self-awareness.

As Professor Alan Mintz aptly writes in his introduction to the Kishniev 100 collection of essays, “the shame of mass victimization had spurred the emergence of political Zionism and Jewish socialism, both of which emphasized the exigent need for organized self-defense” (p.1). Even though there were examples of Jewish resistance in the Kishniev pogroms - documented by Bialik in his notebooks but problematically ignored in the poem itself, these instances were but individual blades of grass among the torn fields, at the end of the day still plucked and disseminated to die out like the rest of the massacred innocents. On the one hand, if one only reads Klein in English one can legitimately debate whether grass can regrow if replanted -- and surely it can. But Bialik’s worry is not in the short term whether Jews will find a new home and life in a neighboring village or return to life as usual in Kishniev. His question is meta: how long can a people continue like this? For if indeed the nation was spread so thin with stocks so easily uprooted, then was there any long term hope to be found? It is within this context that the line should be read, and unfortunately the reader loses some of it in Klein’s translation.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Miike Snow, Keeping it Real

I dunno what it is, but I love this song "Animal," by Miike Snow

Pretty simple riff, very catchy. Love (some of) the lyrics, too

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Theo-ethical Problems with Radha Worship

Radha, one of several revered goddesses in the Hindu tradition, provides her worshipers with what is widely considered an appropriate metaphor for the divine-human love affair. David Kinsley writes in his pan-Hindu text/source book, Hindu Goddesses, of the origins of the divine love relationship between Radha and the extremely important male deity, Krishna. Explicit references to Radha in the Hindu cannon do not appear until rather late in the religion's trajectory, most notably in Jayadeva's Gitagovinda (see below post).

Kinsley writes, however, that starting in Northern India in roughly 500 C.E. there began a "mythological tradition surrounding Krishna's sojourn in Vraja and his dalliance there with the gopis, the cowherd women of the village" (p.83). It is from the gopi tradition that the character of Radha truly develops. Although Krishna had long been worshiped as a supreme god, the Vraja mythology additionally gives him the reputation as ideal lover. Kinsley expounds:

The gopis "are all married women, but none is able to resist Krishna's beauty and charm. He is described as retiring to the woods, where he plays his flute on autumn nights when the moon is full. Hearing the music, the women are driven mad with passion and give up their domestic roles and chores to dash away to be with Krishna [...] They are so distraught and frenzied as they rush to his side that their clothes and jewelry come loose and fall off (10.29.3-7). The text makes no attempt to deny the impropriety of the gopis' leaving their husbands and abandoning their social responsibilities in order to make love to Krishna" (p.84).

Indeed, Kinsley continues, "the nature of true devotion, the text [in this case, the Bhagavata-purana] says, is highly emotional and causes horripilation, tears, loss of control, and frenzy (11.14.23-24). Those who love the Lord truly behave like the gopis. When they hear his call they abandon everything to be with him. Even though they are married [...], even though they incur the censure of society, they rush off to be with Krishna when they hear his call" (84-85).

This utter disregard for societal norms and values is thus an appropriate metaphor for how one should act in devotion toward God. Jayadeva takes this gopi model of many cowherdesses and applies it specifically to Radha in his epic, Gitagovinda, elevating Radha's status as a gopi higher and more special to Krishna than the other women, and thus making her a specific object of worship.

Does anyone see something wrong with this story? Look, I imagine that if I had been born female and encountered someone who seemed to be a combination of King David's military prowess and musical skills and King Solomon's ability to pull off some 1,000 wives and still keep the peace in the home, I might be tempted to cheat, too. Even though Kinsley, and to be sure the theologians who are Radha and Krishna devotees, explain that the love affair notion is just a metaphor for how one should act toward his/her god, it seems more than a little problematic to encourage infidelity, metaphorical or not. What kind of example does it send to the men out there? Maybe this is crude, but it's hard not to think of the Krishna paradigm as being misappropriated to encourage extra-marital relationships and upon chastisement using religious texts to justify actions.

I don't know, something about the cheating gopi just doesn't rub me the right way even if it is at the end of the day her choice...