To boldly go where too few have gone before
You might think that in a country where computer and cell phone ownership is higher per capita than any other in the world, that books would be passe’ by now.
You’d be wrong.
Muhammad wasn’t wrong when he called us People of the Book. You might even say he was ‘prophetic.’ I’d just amend the moniker to People of the Books.
The last time I was at the Israeli book festival, probably a decade ago, it took place in Liberty Bell Park (Gan haPaamon) and seemed to go on all day. So when I moseyed on over to the Tachanah Rishonah (The First Station) around 3 p.m. yesterday I was sure I’d see a great crowd but, no, it was almost empty. All the stalls were set up with covers over the books. I couldn’t find any information about times and thought I may have missed it for the day.
It turns out the festival is now set up for the evening, from 6 p.m. to midnight. When we went around 8 p.m. it was packed. Religious, secular, black hat, tattoos, mohawks (alright, not so many mohawks), woven kippot, men, women, children of all ages, talking, flirting, selling, asking for money…
Before we got to look at a single book a man with hearing impairment was motioning to us to give him 10 Shekels for a card that said in Hebrew, English and Russian: “This is the voice of group (sic) of deaf people. We mean to make a living from the production of hearing aids.”
I gave him $5 from my stash of tzedakah given to me by friends in Louisville and he gave me the card which had the Hebrew alphabet in sign language on the back.
Later we were cheerily accosted by a young woman raising money for an organization that supports the IDF. By giving her $25 I got a new t-shirt for my daughter.
I decided to go through all three long two-sided sets of stalls to see what interested me first before going back to buy. As it happens, I ended up spending less than we paid to take a taxi from Ben Gurion Airport to our rental apartment in Jerusalem.
Here were my selections:
1. The Garden of the Apikorsim: Atheism, Judaism and the Pursuit of Happiness by Yaakov Malchin. I’ve always been interested in the Jewish appropriation of Humanism and this seemed a good introduction and not to difficult Hebraically.
2. The Orange Peel and other Satires by S.Y.Agnon. An English translation of stories by the only Israeli author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
3. Hard Questions for Allah: You Ask — God Answers by Noa Yedlin. Despite the title, it became pretty clear this was a Dear Abby format in Hebrew of questions for God, not an Islamic theology creed. The first one was from Dorit: From what age did you know you were God? Should be a fun read. Who knows, perhaps some unintentional profundity will leak through occasionally.
4. Haggadah for Passover with commentary by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. As many of you know, I collect Haggadot. Although I already have two by Steinsaltz, this looked like a more recent and expansive commentary than those I already own.
5. The Ten Days of Awe by Aharon Meged. For those who just finished Melton, they know Meged from a long excerpt of one of his stories from the Crossroads Curriculum regarding the naming of a child in Israel. This story’s plot involves a historian of ancient Eastern culture who notices one morning that the ancient Hebrew-Canaanite letters that he wrote the night before flew off the page. The rest of the story is about how he goes to find them during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
6. Midrash Naomi by Avraham Zigman. For someone who loves Naomi Shemer’s music and lyrics this is a great resource which looks at the Jewish sources in her songs. Some are obvious to me but many are not.
This morning, Friday and Erev Shabbat, we went out as a family to buy what we would need for Shabbat: Challah, produce, wine, chocolate, vinegar, etc. We also decided to have an early brunch at one of the many places along Bethlehem Way. As we were eating, a young girl came over and tried to sell us a little purse. We said were not interested (in a nice way) but she was VERY persistent, showing us all the different openings as well as the shoulder strap hidden inside. Finally, when she realized we weren’t going to buy it, she asked for money for Ramadan.
In one word she hit the guilt-trifecta: Jewish-White-American. I gave her some money from my stash of tzedakah. I still am not sure whether the money was for her family (she didn’t look particularly poor or distressed and I’m guessing young children don’t fast as adults do) or for those in the Moslem community who have a hard time providing for their own Iftar. Either way, she walked away with something. Not long after a young man with his grandfather came over trying to sell produce, also speaking of Ramadan. I gave him a few dollars which he didn’t want to take, seeming not to understand it was worth more than a shekel or two.
It occurred to me that for many Arabs in Jerusalem, even under the best of circumstances, it must feel odd to live in a society that doesn’t observe it’s holidays. I suppose it might be like being Jewish in a city with great bakeries and walking around smelling the bread for the week of Passover.
Yesterday, long before the book sale, my wife and I visited four galleries near downtown Jerusalem and saw some amazing art. We saw some early Tarkay (imagine the women with some of their eyes open), Menashe Kadishman (who is very much into painting the faces of goats in very colorful almost Chagall-style but is also a well-known sculptor with pieces in the Museum of the Seam I had just visited that morning), Avi Ben Simchon (a favorite of my wife’s who takes old magazine pages and uses them to create an unusual artistic expression), Dan Groover (yes, that’s his name; his works play with Israeli historical events in a colorful way), Arie Azene (whose realistic jeans jacket on a wooden chair has been replaced in this octogenarian’s work with a series of beach scenes; my wife particularly liked one of his pieces from an older series of doors he painted in Jerusalem). We were even present at one of the galleries when an artist came to present his work before the gallery owner. Lo Ra (not bad) was what we heard for two paintings that I thought were quite compelling. It’s a tough room.
One can’t go to Israel and not run into people who live much closer to you in the US but whom you never see there but only here. Also, many who used to live in the US now live here and we get the pleasure of seeing them here as well.
Friday night, we went to Tziyon, the Israeli Masorti K’hillah under the direction of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum. The musical service was quite lovely with a great singer, an Oud and guitar player. They took sections from Song of Songs and chanted them back and forth (we musicians call that ‘antiphonally’) in Hebrew. I thought if I did that in Louisville, now that we have the new Siddur with the sometimes traditional text of Song of Songs in Hebrew and English that we might go back and forth as well from one language to the other. At the service were a group of international Noam volunteers from Australia, Uganda, England and more.
We ran into Danny Gordis who came to Louisville over a year ago to speak about his biography of Menachem Begin. For those who were privileged to hear him, he was an incredible speaker. He had to guests from the synagogue where the current Cantors Assembly president hails in Chicago. Unfortunately, Tamar was not in attendance last night!
This morning I went to one of a few Masorti congregations in Jerusalem about a 25 minute walk from my apartment, Maayanot. Last I went they were in a different space. Their current location is a community center and is quite lovely. I ran into a Wexner fellow that my wife and I had studied with 12 years ago (who now works for the Hartman Insttitute where I studied), Rabbi Jim Lebeau (who was one of the directors of the program that I took when I began my cantorial studies some 27 years ago), Rabbi Lauren Sykes (who was program director at Ramah Wisconsin and later head of Darom who now has made aliyah to Israel) as well as the same group of Noam volunteers. I went to introduce myself to the young man from Uganda and Rabbi Sizomu, as I suspected, is his rabbi. I asked him to say hello from his friends in Louisville as well as to his wife and kids who put a concert together a number of years ago at AJ of Ugandan Jewish music.
I met my wife and daughter on our way to a much anticipated lunch with Rabbi Susan Silverman and Yossi Abramowitz. They were incredibly hospitable and casual. They said 12:30ish and we had a hard time finding them (long story, not obvious on the map, etc.) and we got there around 12:45 p.m. They were just setting up. Their three kids that are at home drifted in and out of the meal as was their inclination (the two eldest are in the US right now). As we ate and spoke, a number of people showed up at various times. They have a policy that they do the Jewish rituals of their guests! I’m not sure what they do when they have guests with different rituals!
Susan had just been featured in a picture at the Wall, responding to an Orthodox demonstration against non-Orthodox Jews praying at Robinson’s Arch. One of their friends challenged me in a political conversation that got quite heated. What impressed me more than the details of the debate was that both Yossi and Susan called their kids to come and listen. These are kids that are being raised to care about the existential situation in which their country finds itself. Both Susan and Yossi were on the lists of Kenesset parties (different ones!) and are not currently serving but are very involved.
We have an open invitation for shabbat. I can’t imagine we won’t take them up on it.
After all, they almost always have Ben and Jerry’s to get rid of on Shabbat.
I’d love to tell you that my first day at the Conservative Yeshiva was great, awe inspiring and everything I’d been hoping to get from my Sabbatical.
I’d be lying.
If you’re a data-driven kind of person, you might get a hint from the notes I took. My first day, I filled one page and four lines of a legal size tablet. Some of it included things I already knew but I just felt I needed to write SOMETHING.
On the other hand, if I told you my SECOND day at Yeshiva wasn’t great, awe-inducing and much of what I hoped to get from my Sabbatical, I’d be lying too.
Because it was all those things and more.
Again for the data driven among you: almost 8 full pages of notes.
Let’s start from the beginning. As we were introduced to one another and given security instructions and logistics the first day, I learned there were students from Australia, Norway, Germany, Lichtenstein (a tiny country between Switzerland and Austria), Andorra (a tiny country between Spain and France), L.A., New York, Las Vegas, and even Madison, WI. There was also a significant gap-year contingent from London. The great thing about the Brits is that they sound smart even when they’re not. These 18 year olds seem quite impressive, really. The name of their program includes the word Keilim (vessels — you may know Rabbis and occasionally Cantors are referred to as K’lei Kodesh, vessels of holiness) and one of the young upstarts translated it, not incorrectly, as ‘Tools’. ‘I’m such a tool!’ he exclaimed to general laughter.
Perhaps the most interesting question posed to us the first day was from a Human Rights class in which the teacher asked us to read Genesis 1 and answer the question: What Does God Want? My answers, among many, included Creativity, light, the idea that speech is powerful, that time and it’s differentiation matters and should be celebrated, Abundance, Sexuality and a balance and harmony between rest and creative work.
Most importantly, two things occurred to me regarding darkness and light. After all, God begins with darkness and creates light. Why not get rid of the darkness altogether? Perhaps God WANTS us to bring light to the world and find ways of dealing with the darkness, even when it doesn’t succumb to our best efforts. Further, perhaps our day begins at twilight so we will appreciate the morning even more.
In a later Mishna class I think I may have come up with a translation of a difficult word that makes more sense to me than the ones normally used. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was the 3rd century CE sage who redacted the Mishna and his title is translated as ‘Prince’ which he certainly wasn’t. It would be anachronistic to say he was ‘President’, the modern Hebrew meaning of the word. It occurred to me he might best be called The Exalted as Nasi is from the same root as Nasa which means to lift up or carry.
In my delightful 2nd day Hebrew class, our teacher warned we are allowed to speak English as much as we want if we’re willing to pay a 10 agora fine for every word. I learned many new words, usages and rules that were inspired by the conversations she conducted throughout the class. Among them I learned that there is a Hebrew word for texting now based on the letters SMS (l’sames) and that some Biblical usages have re-entered modern Hebrew since they are shorter and more amenable to texting (ka-et for ‘now’ is more in usage currently than it was because achshav is harder to text).
We read together an article about Book Week in which a bookseller claimed that it’s the Woodstock of Books, without the drugs, Rock and Roll and public nudity. Apparently the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who is pretty controversial among the artsy class, was well received by the authors on the first day even though she did away with a law that kept booksellers from keeping first time novels at a full retail price for a year and a half after publication.
In a class on King David’s Wives (The Merry Wives of King David) I learned that often, according to at least one Biblical scholar, the 4th in a series will be the one that changes direction. Examples include Judah (fourth son) and Adoniyah (David’s 4th son who seems like he should become king after his dad). Further, the insight was raised that in ancient Israel, after it’s first king Saul was anointed, there was no system of succession. S/he could be chosen from the king’s sons, sons-in-law, or simply by God in a merit-based process. There is a hint from the generations of Esau that perhaps the sons-in-law were preferred as inheritors of the crown as it brings a greater merit-based opportunity into the system.
Finally, the parallels between the story of David and his first wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Jacob and Rachel are brought to bear:
1. Both include a double payment (Jacob 14 years for both sisters and David 200 foreskins of Philistines rather than the 100 required by King Saul for Michal’s hand).
2. Both Rachel and Michal are described as having house idols (Trafim).
3. There is a betrayal in both cases: Leah is switched for Rachel and Michal betrays her father by making sure David escapes before being put to death by the king’s henchmen.
That’s one small part of two days worth of study.
There will be more.
Two Blog Night
I just returned from a screening of 2nd year films by students of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School (http://www.jsfs.co.il/english/). I was kind of astounded. Apparently their 3rd year colleagues make even better films.
I know of three film schools in Israel: The Maale School that Rabbi David has reached out to, providing the Louisville Film Festival with a free evening of student films for many years now. Last year, for the first time, we also included a film from the Tel Aviv University Department of Film and TV. Perhaps we’ll add a third Israeli film school to the mix for our 2017 Festival.
I know of this school only because I was contacted last year by a graduate of the program whose documentary about a group of Downs’ Syndrome kids visiting Auschwitz was featured at the International Film Festival at the Galt House last year. She agreed to come and speak at AJ about her experiences as a filmmaker as well as a documentary she made about getting secular and religious women together to share experiences and break down the boundaries that exist in Israeli society.
Because of my connection with Timor Ashur, I was able to get an invitation to this ‘family and friends only’ event. Every film was between 8 and 15 minutes. It’s amazing how much many of the film makers were able to squeeze into such a short narrative format.
Here’s a taste of some of the 10 films shown tonight:
1. “A Collar around his Throat” A father brings his young daughter to bury the family dog. Then something truly scary happens.
2. “Happy Birthday!” A 70 year old father and grandfather grapples with his mortality in many surprising and touching ways. I had tears in my eyes by the end and was surprised at least 5 times by the narrative moves in the film. That’s a lot for a 9-minute film.
3. “Lido” A documentary meditation on a resort/restaurant that used to be right up against the shore of the Dead Sea which went to ruin as the lowest body of water on earth continued to dry up and leave it stranded.
4. “Extraction” A young girl needs to have a tooth taken out and the dentist needs to go tot extreme measures of anesthesia to get the desired result. The dream sequence is incredibly compelling.
5. “Clean Day” An Israeli recovering addict works in a treatment facility and has to help a friend who shows up at their door.
6. “Buds” A young girl finds she has powers she hadn’t realized but friendship conquers all.
Again, if these are only the ‘junior’ projects — many of which would be appropriate for our festival — I can’t imagine the quality of the ‘seniors’.
I intend to visit both the Sam Spiegel School and Tel Aviv University Film Department before I leave in August.