To boldly go where too few have gone before
Three Sitting Ovations
Erev Shabbat for many in Jerusalem (what we in the US call ‘Friday’) is the beginning of a two day weekend. The last few weeks, I’ve bought the ‘Friday’ papers (analogous to American Sunday papers in size and scope), one in Hebrew and one in English, to keep up with all that’s going in the world and the country.
One of my daughter’s friends from her gap year program who made aliyah spent the night with us, beginning her shabbat-break from army service, and this morning the two of them, carrying backpacks larger than they, traipsed off to her Israeli family at a kibbutz in the upper western corner of the country near Rosh Hanikra.
My wife and I bought a bag full of fresh vegetables and fruit at the farmer’s market across the street from our apartment. Then, as she began cooking our shabbat meal, I went to buy challot, beer, apples and my weekly newspapers, all within walking distance.
Early this afternoon we walked to the Jerusalem Theater, home to a great variety of Israeli and world culture in music, theater, film and dance, for an amazing afternoon of music by a string quartet from Poland who call themselves MotzART Group: Comedy String Quartet (http://www.mozartgroup.net/).
They were immensely entertaining through an hour and twenty minutes of almost non-stop theatrics including Bluegrass, Jazz, Rock, Rap and Tango interpretations of Mozart classics as well as impressive arrangements of popular classics in all those genres. They played their instruments as guitars, percussion instruments, with and without bows, sometimes exchanging instruments with one another. They played one entire piece on an iPad (guitar), a smart phone (trumpet), a dixie cup (or whatever the Israeli version of that is) and a tiny violin. They played the opening to Rhapsody in Blue at least twice, once with the second violinist whistling the opening glissando and later the violist playing it on a wooden slide whistle. They all played a piece one-handed (the left), using a table tennis racket and ball to create the rhythm for a piece as well as a balloon squeaking out its melody.
Mostly they spoke in English and the audience was very forgiving at their attempts at Hebrew. To introduce a set with an electric violin the first violinist announced, in Hebrew, that the greatest enemies of the violin are Chatula-im, or cats (which, as everyone in the auditorium knows are wildly ubiquitous throughout the city and the country). No one held against him his mispronunciation, which should have been chatulim. The second violinist seemed to have more of an ear for the language and the few times he spoke he sounded like a native.
I learned something I had forgotten or never known about Israeli audiences. Apparently they don’t give standing ovations; they just don’t stop applauding (and applaud in unison) when they want more. Long story short, they gave three encores:
Encore the 1st: They found a member of the audience and had him come up for the recording of an operatic aria. Two of the string players lip synced the piece until it got to the volunteer whom they had dressed in a tux top like theirs and he had to sing it himself. Not “Luciano” for sure, but he acquitted himself quite well. They then gave him a copy of their DVD and coached him in what to say so people would buy it, because clearly they were sure they wouldn't have an...
Encore the 2nd: They played a movement from a Mozart string quartet straight. Although it was obvious all of them were brilliant musicians based on the performance we had heard, it was the first piece done without any schtick and it was a pleasure. The only funny thing about it was the introduction: “We are from Poland and our most famous composer is Frederick Chopin. Thus we will play a piece by Mozart.”
Encore the 3rd: They played a piece with the violist behind the cellist in such a way that they played the cello with four hands. There was a lot of other schtick involved, of course. The two violinists did the same thing with both violins, the second violinist playing low. reaching around the first.
But Seriously, Here's what I got out of my first week at Yeshiva...
“There’s no such thing as being late; just coming on Israel time!” our Hebrew teacher explained. Of course, in the US we call it Jewish time, but Israelis seem accustomed to taking the lead here as well. I went to the Sam Spiegel evening of 2nd year student films which was supposed to start at 7:30 and I got there just in time. It started around 7:45 p.m.
Having concluded the first week at the Conservative Yeshiva I thought I’d share a few insights from my classes:
One of the interesting rules about the use of foreign words in Hebrew is that often it’s the more ‘sophisticated’ term that is foreign. So a Talmid is a student in elementary school; a Student (imagine an Israeli saying it…) is in college. A gan-shaashuim is a little playground for kids; a park-shaashuim is an amusement park. Only when it comes to politics does it switch: A poleeteekai is the most cynical use of the term ‘politician’ whereas a m’deenai is a ‘statesman’ or ‘stateswoman.’
Worth a laugh are those foreign words that Israelis use in the singular even though they are plural in the original. Then they ADD the Hebrew plural suffix. So Cheeps (chips) become Cheepseem. Shrimps (don’t ask) become Shreempseem. Gentlemen becomes Gentelmenim.
Before I read about the blood libel accusation made by Mahmoud Abbas in Europe, I learned why he is called Abu Mazen. Apparently, in Islamic Arab culture, a father is often called ‘Father-of First-Born-Son’. I remember for many people whose kids went to school with my daughter when she was in preschool and beyond I was known as Natania’s dad. Not so different: Abu Mazen is the Father of Mazen (his first-born son).
MERRY WIVES OF KING DAVID
Speaking of politics, I’ve been loving this class. We read in our second class this week about David and Abigail. It seems that after fleeing from King Saul, David, justifiably, still doesn’t trust the sovereign not to come after him; this is even after David proves he could have killed Saul but didn’t. Thus, David is forced to gather a force of other young guys, kicked out of their families or tribes for one reason or another, and fend for himself. His gang protect the goats of a wealthy Naval from Hevron and expect a payment. When they go to get the money (not so different from the kind of extortion/protection money a mafia might expect: You pay us monthly and we ‘make sure’ your store doesn’t get robbed or damaged), they are rebuffed but the man’s wife, Abigail, sees the light (and the danger in not giving in to a greater force than her husband’s) and prepares a nice meal for David and his troops before he gets to Naval with a 400-man-strong militia. When Naval dies a week or so later of what seem to be natural causes, David remembers and Abigail becomes his wife.
HUMAN RIGHTS AND TORAH
In my Human Rights and Torah class, we learned a fascinating midrash about the killing of Abel by Cain. Famously, the Torah remains silent about what was said before the killing in the field — And Cain said… The Midrash fills in three ways:
1. They split up the world so that one gets all the land and the other all the movables. One says to the other, You’re wearing my clothes — strip! The other responds, You’re standing on my land — Fly!
2. They split up the world evenly with both getting land and movables but they both want the Temple built on their side.
3. Cain and Abel, according to the midrash, each married their twin sister. Yes, the Torah prohibits incest but at this point in the story, what choice did they have? It seems that Abel had an extra twin sister. Cain said, I’m the eldest so she’s mine! Abel said, she’s my sister so she’s mine!
One of the students aptly suggested that there were other ways to solve the issues presented: The property could have been shared, the Temple could have been built in between the real estate of the brothers and they might have asked Abel’s second twin what she might prefer. Greed, honor and sexual ownership seem to be an archetypal way into the issues that plague the arena of Human Rights advocacy to this day.
SMILE, IT’S ALMOST SHABBAT!
At the end of the study week, yesterday, our teacher had us bring kibud (snacks, sweets, fruit) for a short pre-shabbat celebration and jokes. I told a couple that you may have heard before but are even better in Hebrew.
A few students went to the internet to find some and they got riddles. There were two that are translatable and aren’t as old as the hills (the Hebrew term for an old joke is “a joke with a beard”):
1. How many computer programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None, it’s a hardware problem.
2. What do a computer and an air conditioner have in common?
They work more slowly the more windows are open.
But what happened on Shabbat?
So glad you asked.
I went back to Tzion for their instrumental Kabbalat Shabbat services and this time Rabba Tamar was there and it did make a difference.
It wasn’t that much fuller than last time (but the presence of a bar mitzvah family did create a more crowded experience) and the music wasn’t that different (although the instrumentation was slightly varied as was the song leader) and the Dvar Torah was still part of a series about the liturgy.
But Rabba Tamar is an arresting presence. I don’t know many Rabbis, let alone people, who combine her sense of joy, passion and calm. She radiates a sense of peace and commitment I wish I could bottle.
She urged us to leave the week behind with all it’s intense ‘reality’ and honor the letting go that Shabbat means. I think most of us did. The music has a very strong mizrachi (middle eastern) feel for the most part with some standard Israeli songs included. In at least two of the minyanim I’ve attended Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is sung as the melody for regular liturgy. In the daily minyan I’ve been going to as part of my Conservative Yeshiva studies, L’chu N’ran’na, they use it for Psalm 150. At Tzyion it’s used for Yedid Nefesh. It works pretty well - I may be trying it myself for that when I get back.
Saturday morning I went to Moreshet Avraham, a Masorti congregation that’s been around since the early ‘70s. There I met Benjie Segal, the professor who wrote a commentary on the book of Psalms who spoke at AJ last year. Also, Reuven Hammer who wrote a stinging response to the recent attack of the Orthodox head rabbi of Jerusalem on the liberal streams: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/These-.... I tend to agree with him that the ultimate solution is not so much the government supporting the liberal streams but forcing the Orthodox to fend for themselves in collecting dues from their congregants to survive like the rest of us. There re many things that Israel can learn from the US and vice versa. In this case separation of Shul and State would be a good start.
I spent Shabbat finishing the Hebrew novel I’ve been slowly working through, Aharon Meged’s Ten Days of Awe, the beautifully written journey of a secular Near Eastern Studies professor at Tel Aviv University who goes to Jerusalem to find the proto-Canaanite letters that have mysteriously disappeared, flown off the parchment upon which he had been practicing. Did I mention that the novel is set on Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur 1973? I didn’t think so.
On my way back from the 30 minute walk in the hot son from Shul to my apartment I walked by one of many Israeli free outdoor ‘libraries’ where books are left and borrowed, returned and exchanged. I was taken by another Hebrew novel, the first by a Yoav Blum, The Coincidence Makers. It looks like that will be my next Hebrew novel project. I was drawn to it because of the quotes in the introduction:
“God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Albert Einstein
“Einstein, stop telling God what to do with his dice!” Niels Bohr
As I reached the block before my apartment, a young man walking back from another minyan in the opposite direction stopped me and said, “That’s a great book but his 2nd novel is even better. On the back cover it says, “You’re standing in a bookstore reading this back cover. Someone is watching you from outside.”
Naomi Shemer's Gregorian Yahrzeit
When I bought a ticket to hear a concert of Naomi Shemer’s music tonight, there were a few things I knew and didn’t know. I knew that Astrit Baltsan -- who went viral with her explanation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on YouTube (while playing it as well as the various musical roads not taken by the jazz innovator: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-n...) -- would be telling the story of Naomi Shemer alternating with playing her music on the piano and accompanying a noted Israeli singer.
Here’s what I didn’t know: 1. Apparently today is the 12th anniversary of Shemer’s death (I’m not sure whether it’s her yahrzeit on the Jewish calendar or the Gregorian day of her death in 2004). 2. Baltsan apparently knew Shemer quite well personally giving an incredibly intimate portrait of the mythic Israeli composer. 3. Shemer’s son from her second marriage, Ariel Horovitz, is a noted jazz and rock musician in Israel who would be performing an entire second act set of his mother’s music and his own following the hour-and-a-half presentation by Baltsan.
Baltsan told stories I knew and didn’t in such a compelling manner, I wished I could have taken notes but the auditorium was too dark.
I knew the story of Jerusalem of Gold for the most part (commissioned by then Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Koleck 3 weeks before the 6-Day-War for the annual Israeli singing competition as a composition about the holy city but not as part of the trials). What I didn’t know was that Shemer had a hard time getting started because Jerusalem was too serious a topic and theme. She was told to start a piece about something else and then adapt it for Jerusalem. She didn’t but felt freer. She walked through the city until it came to her.
Baltsan also explained the controversy about the Portuguese lullaby which some say Shemer ‘stole’ to write the piece that truly catapulted her to stardom in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Baltsan played the lullaby over the sound system, the beginning of which did sound very much like Jerusalem of Gold, but the continuation was completely different. According to international musical copyright laws one needs 8 notes in a row to match to qualify as a theft of intellectual property. Baltsan played the first notes of the lullaby through the 8th note, then Shemer’s iconic contribution to the Jewish people. The 8th note of Jerusalem of Gold was different!
Still, even though Shemer didn’t remember hearing the lullaby, she questioned herself incessantly, dictating a letter on her deathbed admitting the possibility that she may have heard it and forgotten about it when she sat down to compose the 1967 hit.
Her son Ariel Horovitz told the story of her almost-as-famous song Machar, Tomorrow, which has become practically a folk song in the Israeli canon. The group that had commissioned her to write it showed up at her doorstep at 10:40 am one morning to get the music and play it together. She had completely forgotten the commitment but, without losing a beat, told them, “We said we’d get together at 11 a.m. and I’m not ready for you.” She wrote Machar in that 20 minutes.
Quite honestly, I didn’t love all of Ariel’s performances of his mother’s music. Although his arrangement of Machar in particular was a fascinating and full realization with a rhythmic kick all it’s own.
His own music, however, was very moving especially 20,000 Folks. It was written about a lone-soldier, one of the many Israeli soldiers who come to live in and serve in this country without their families. They are all ‘adopted’ by Israeli families who try to make a place for them to come ‘home’ to on Shabbatot. By chance, one of my daughter’s friends who was on the same gap year program as she and made aliyah is now serving as a lone-soldier and she spent the night at our apartment before going to her Israeli family at a kibbutz in the upper western corner of the country. Then, just this morning, I ran into Louisville’s own Meir Dovid “Max” Goldstein at the Supersol across the street from the Yeshiva whose Israeli host from the Conservative Center was giving him a sendoff this Sunday morning before rushing back to his base.
20,000 Folks was dedicated to Sean Carmeli of Texas who was a lone-soldier who died in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war. 20,000 Israelis showed up for his funeral even though he didn’t have any direct relations in Israel. If you want to listen to it, here’s the link:
20,000 folks and you’re first in line/20,000 folks are behind you, Sean/Marching quietly with flowers/2 sisters and 20,000 brothers
Soccer fans with their team’s scarves/A woman with a flag/Not sure why she was crying so hard/Not having known you
They came to say thanks and depart/To say there’s no such thing as a lone-soldier/And even if we aren’t a people dwelling alone/As long as there are in Texas, Haifa, Gush Etzion/Folks like you, Sean
May the One Who Makes peace in the heavens/Make peace among us/With the coming of the autumn which you will no longer see, Sean/Thus they came here from elder to child/From Haifa and Gush Etzion
20,000 folks and you’re first in line/20,000 folks are behind you, Sean/Marching quietly with flowers/2 sisters and 20,000 brothers
Next Week, I'll be off to Spain for the Cantor's Mission!