To boldly go where too few have gone before
Tempest in Jerusalem
A couple months ago when my sabbatical began, I was amazed by all the performances at the Jerusalem Theatre: Film, Theatre, Dance, Music, Art exhibits, etc. When my wife and I went there to make some reservations I was convinced to become a subscriber which would save me money, give me a few more performances to decide on beyond the ones we had already chosen, give me discounts on ‘outside’ groups using the theatre as well as a discount at the cafe and bookstore. So when I saw this evening that they were playing The Tempest, I thought I’d go see it in what they call their Mikro stage -- it’s small; kind of like what we might call a black box theatre.
Let me begin with a couple of caveats: 1. I’ve seen Tempest at the Old Vic in London with Derek Jacobi as Prospero. This wasn’t THAT well acted. 2. There are only two more performances of this show, Monday and Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. I don’t there will be English supertitles (there were Russian supertitles this evening). 3. There will be spoilers so if you ARE going to see the show, you might want to stop reading NOW!
It wasn’t until I got home and read the program that I remembered how alone Prospero is. In this performance, his inner voice is played hauntingly by a woman and I spent the entire show thinking Prospero had a wife (but couldn’t remember her name....).
Another innovation in this performance included 2 Ariels, women in tights who arranged for the various characters to prance, sleep, and NOT assassinate each other while moving stealthily around the stage, doing some Cirque de Soleil like moves on a pair of blue curtains and singing a theme from Mozart every time they are called. They worked very skillfully together and shared his lines with aplomb.
Prospero, I hadn’t remembered, is described in the play as an artist and he manifests this skill with four walls that are really blackboards. I don’t know whether the actor Ilan Hazan is a natural artist or had to learn these particular moves for the part but his caricature introductions of most scenes with pictures of the characters that are coming up were quite effective. Caliban, you won’t be surprised to find out, did most of the erasing.
Near the end of the show, during the reconciliation scene, they start speaking in a pidgin Italian/Hebrew-with-Italian-accentuation scene which I found incredibly funny and entertaining.
Okay, so if you’re going to see the show, you really should stop reading NOW!!!!
I still remember Derek Jakobi ending the Tempest in London. It was a truly magical performance from beginning to end.
Although Mr. Hazan is no Jacobi, the ending he and his inner voice were directed to perform took my breath away quite differently than in the London (or any other production) I’ve seen.
Remember, at the end Prospero releases Ariel(s) from his service and announces that he’s no longer protected by the spell which he’s used all these years stranded on his island. Towards the end of his Epilogue, his brother Antonio and the king’s brother Sebastian -- both of whom had intended to murder Alonzo the king but were prevented by Ariel -- come back onto the stage, seemingly to share this final moment with Prospero. Just as he’s pronouncing one of the final lines, Antonio stabs Prospero with a dagger. As he dies and the assassins leave the stage, Prospero’s inner voice, who was seated next to him, cradles Prospero in her arms, repeats the last phrase out of Prospero’s lips and concludes the play.
Oh, I forgot. Prospero’s last work of art -- before the final scene of reconciliation and repentance by Alonzo the King and his surprise that his son Ferdinand has survived and will make Miranda his princess -- is a dove with an olive branch.
Those olives: quite bitter on the branch.
Or so they say.
What's Baseless Hatred, Anyway?
Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, always precedes the commemoration of the destructions of the Temples, 1st and 2nd. Even though there’s a difference of opinion in the two Biblical sources about the date of the destruction of the 1st Temple (7th and 10th of Av) and, according to Josephus, the destruction of the second was on the same day as the 1st (10th of Av), the 9th of Av has been the traditional date of commemoration for most of the last 2000 years, perhaps because the most recent destruction, the victory of the Romans over the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE was on the 9th of Av so that date stuck.
Because we never observe the commemoration on Shabbat, which fell on the 9th this year, we ended up on the more ‘accurate’ Temple destruction date of the 10th in any case.
I went to Moreshet Israel, the Masorti congregation on Agron and got to hear some beautiful davvening by Saralee Shrell-Fox, a wonderfully executed Haftarah with all the pivots to and from Eicha Trope to Haftarah Trope by Cantor Seth Grossman who was in Israel with his family and whose daughter had a ‘bat-mitzvah’ aliyah in anticipation of her fuller participation in Braintree, Massachusetts in a few weeks, a stirring Dvar Torah by Rabbi Dan Schiff, pinch hitting expertly for vacationing Rabbi Adam Frank, and a lovely final midrashic touch by Paul Shrell-Fox. The kiddush was pretty good too (top mention: rugelach, watermelon and some serious alcohol called B&B).
Rabbi Schiff spoke with great passion about the many minor humiliations experienced by the Israeli team at the Rio Olympics. Being blocked by the Lebanese team from the bus they were supposed to share, being booed as they entered during the opening ceremonies, having two athletes from Arab countries forfeit rather than confront an Israeli athlete, having another refuse to shake the Israeli’s hand after losing to him in Judo. I had known about some of these minor infractions of good will and manners but hadn’t realized that the first suggestion for solving the bus imbroglio was scattering the Israelis among the rest of the international delegation buses wherever there was room. Hard not to draw macro-analogies from that micro-humiliation. Eventually they decided that was not going to work and got the Israelis their own bus. Hertzelian solution if I ever heard one.
Most shocking was the letter sent by the Syrian competitor who refused to go to the Olympics at all to compete with a representative from the “Zionist Entity” whom he accused of killing Syrians while his own government in the last few years has taken the lives of far more of his countryman than Israel ever has in its history. Furthermore at this time Israel has selectively opened its border for those of his countrymen who are injured and in need of medical care.
Rabbi Danny Schiff continued, speaking of a far more significant example of anti-Semitism from the recent paragraph from Black Lives Matter which singles out Israel and Israel only in the entire world, accusing it of genocide, among other things. I’ve never understood how Israel could be guilty of genocide when there are, by the Palestinians’ own statistics, more Palestinians now than there ever have been. At the same time the Jewish people has still not replaced itself from the genocide perpetrated against us over 70 years ago. Black Lives Matter seeks to right real wrongs against African Americans in the US. It shouldn’t confuse its worthy mission with accusing us of the unthinkable.
In short, there were many reminders of the kinds of anti-Jewish sentiment to, unfortunately, put us in the ‘mood’ for the 9th of Av commemoration of the Destructions of the Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, numerous killings scattered throughout our history from York to France, from the beginning of World War I to the acceptance by Himmler of the Final Solution.
Rabbi Schiff spoke passionately and beautifully without a note (except when reading the letter from the Syrian athlete because he didn’t want to misquote him). Before reciting Kiddush later in the service Paul Shrell-Fox shared a midrash in which Rabbi Akivah laughs when he sees foxes traipsing over the place where used to stand the destroyed Temple. When asked by his colleagues why, he responds that if the prophecy by Jeremiah that the Temple grounds will be overrun by foxes is true, then the prophecies foreshadowing a future in which Jerusalem will be a live city full of people and work and play will also come true. It wasn’t a future Rabbi Akivah himself would see, but he believed that one day it would come to pass.
Saturday night we went to the reading of Eicha by Congregation Tziyon which included an opportunity for participants, after the chanting of the megillah, to share their own sense of purpose when it comes to mourning and fasting in a time when Jerusalem is alive and Jews have sovereignty. Since most of us present didn’t pray for an actual re-building of the ancient Temple and the sacrificial system, those present spoke about a desire for a more gay-accepting culture (the recent Gay Pride parade attracted 25,000 without incident but couples with kids still prefer Tel Aviv as they are more easily accepted there), a sense of loss since the disengagement from Gaza, a desire for better relations between Jews and Arabs.
On Tisha B’Av itself I went to the beginning of a day of study at the Pardes Institute where I had been in Yeshiva for the prior two weeks. The class I took was a short interpretation and explanation for the special Kinot, the poems of mourning, associated specifically with Tisha B’Av.
Our instructor Zvi Grumet began by saying that Lamentations itself, now called Eicha based on the first word of the Megillah, HOW?, used to be called Kinot themselves. The Kinot, or liturgical lamentation poems which were inspired by Eicha fall into two categories: the large corpus written by Rabbi Elazar HaKallir from the 2nd Century CE and the many that followed. Sometimes the latter are inserted in the midst of the Kalliri works so that that logic and artistry of his opus is overlooked.
The Kinot he wrote are in three sections: A. Denial: It can’t be! Eicha? How did it happen? B. God is not absent after all. Not only is the covenant not abrogated; this punishment is part and parcel of the covenant. C. Tzidduk HaDin, acceptance of the judgment and responsibility for what happened.
When we look at the Biblical book of Lamentations itself, the Temple is hardly mentioned at first, the city is. She’s first a widow and then a lonely widow; nobody shows up to visit her at her shiva. The streets are empty. There’s no traffic. The primary mourning is for the loss of all those things that represent the life of the city -- the Temple is almost an afterthought.
Eichah itself is composed of 5 chapters. the first, second and fourth are all alphabetical acrostics of 22 verses. The third is a triple alphabetical acrostic of 66 verses. Some see these chapters as the two different rabbinic interpretations of the T’truah, the shofar blow that we hear on Rosh HaShanah: the slow wails of three versus the 9/13/24 sobbing cries. Why alphabetical acrostic? When you have lost everything, you don’t know where to start, so you start with Alef and go to bet. Once you start crying, how do you know when to stop? Well the alphabet helps there too, ending at Taf. By the fifth chapter, Jeremiah, traditionally assumed to be the composer of Eicha, keeps to the 22 verses but lets go of the acrostic. There is no longer any rhyme or reason, just pure lamentation.
Zumet showed some of the Kalliri’s poetic techniques, explaining that the first few Kinot are actually midrashim, expansions of the book of Eicha itself.
The first Kinah we looked at starts ‘Zchor Adonai Meh Hayah Lanu, Oy! Habitah uR’ei et Cherpateinu, Oy, meh Hayah Lanu!’ Roughly translated: Remember God what happened to us, Oy! Look and see our disgrace, Oy, What Happened to us!
The first stanza is a quote of the first verse of chapter 5 of Lamentation, interrupted in the middle by ‘Oy!’ and concluded with ‘Oy, What Happened to us!’ These interruptions will be used throughout the poem as the first three verses of chapter 5 are cut in two similarly. By the fourth stanza, Kalliri starts to get a little more creative. He’ll start with the first half of a verse and then, rather than quoting the second half, he’ll substitute it for a poetic description of why it happened. For instance, the 5th stanza, parallel to the 5th verse of Eicha (They are chasing our necks, We labor and have no rest). He keeps the first half but adjusts the second half like so:
They are chasing our necks, Oy!
For we chased baseless hatred, Oy, What has happened to us?
Much of rabbinic thinking has assigned blame for the destruction of the 2nd Temple to baseless hatred. Zumet argued as did Professor Gafni last week and as I have intuited for awhile but never articulated: What is Baseless Hatred, anyway? Most of us hate with very good reasons to back us up. His understanding of baseless hatred is one of choosing hatred when there are other options: Letting it go, have a conversation, find ways to justify the behavior you don’t like (i.e. try to see it from their side), give them the benefit of the doubt: perhaps they didn’t mean it.
Baseless Hatred is not purely baseless then. It’s merely a choice we make rather than considering the many alternatives.
Among the poems from the second part of the Kinot of Rabbi Elazar HaKallir is one that quotes from the Rebuke of Leviticus in which God promises reward of rain and crops for good behavior, serious consequences for bad behavior. Each stanza ends with a quote from that chapter, the first 11 stanzas with a quote from the ‘blessings’ and the last 11 with a quote from the ‘curses.’
In the third part of the book there are notes of consolation. Also an alphabetic acrostic, each stanza compares the going out of Egypt triumphant with the going out of Jerusalem humiliated, for instance:
Then Moses sang/A song that would not change --- in my Exodus from Egypt
But Jeremiah wailed/As it was, is and will be --- in my Exile from Jerusalem.
Throughout the alphabet, the Kalliri uses this back and forth, comparing the Exodus from Egypt with the Exile from Jerusalem. My translation doesn’t get to the irony of the Hebrew in which Exile and Exodus are the same word -- B’Tzeiti, literally, In-my-leaving. This holds until the very last stanza which goes as follows:
Torah and Certificate and vessels of beauty -- in my Exile from Egypt.
Joy and Happiness/the Escape of weariness and weeping -- in my Return to Jerusalem.
I spent the rest of my Tisha B’Av at Beit Avichai where they had films and lectures appropriate to the day. The first film was one I had previewed for the Louisville Film Festival (and only realized as I was watching it) about a group of siblings that finds out some shocking facts about their mother after she dies and goes on an adventure in France to find out what really happened, The Kind Words.
Second was a documentary film about the Murder Victim 17, a story that came out of a bus bombing in the early aughts near Megiddo in which one of the passengers couldn’t be identified and no one came to identify him or report him missing. After searching through illegal worker communities and figuring it wasn’t a member of that society (which seemed a lot easier than it must have been) they got the bus driver, a soldier who had talked with the passenger as well as a young interviewer who had met him briefly to try to describe the man so he could be found. A police sketch artist (with peyos...only in Israel) really got the people who didn't remember him so well, to try and give him a sense of the man’s personality, not just his looks. It’s kind of amazing that when they find out the identity of the missing man (a less-than-successful 33 year old from Sderot who disappears occasionally: a good reason the family wasn’t worried about his going missing) the resemblance to the sketch was pretty striking.
Third was a documentary called The Secret of the Hate Crime. A Russian/Israeli filmmaker goes back to Russia to try to find the Neo-Nazis who murder two men on Youtube, much like the ISIS murders we’re more accustomed to seeing. The film takes many twists and turns, looks at two different fascist organizations in Russia today, suggests the government secretly supports these organizations for its own ends and tries to find the spot where the crime occurred as well as the perpetrators.
The filmmaker was there, a Jew from Azerbaijan, and he spoke about the convoluted and scary politics into which Russia has descended since Perestroika.
At the end of the films, there was water and bureikas to break the fast.
Even better, a real dinner made by my wife at the apartment.
Believe it or not, it was a pretty easy fast.
There’s a great relief that comes from the end of the three weeks of ever-increasing mourning that culminates in the 9th of Av, both physically and emotionally. For those who don’t shave (as I practiced this year for the last week) their wives and significant others have the relief of a non-scratchy kiss. For those of us who immerse ourselves in study related to the destruction, there is an intellectual freedom to turn our minds to more inspiring lessons from the canon of Jewish learning and civilization. For those of us who prefer the rabbinic variety of Judaism to the Sacrificial version we were forced to give up 2 millennia ago, there is still a great sense of loss, both physical and emotional, from those years of wandering, persecution and chaos that proceeded which is concentrated into a, thankfully, short period of time. For those of us who fast and avoid washing and the other restrictions of Tisha B’av, there is a relief in having a good meal (and a good Israeli craft beer as a beverage accompaniment).
This past week has had it’s own form of melancholy and reflection built into it as I am coming to the end of my slightly-less-than-three-month-Sabbatical. Many have asked me when I’ve told them about my profession and purpose whether I would have a year for my period of study. I answered that many of my colleagues are not blessed with sabbaticals AT ALL and I’m very grateful to my congregation Adath Jeshurun, Rabbi Robert Slosberg and his wife Deborah and all the congregants who covered for me while I was gone and made my absence possible and tolerable to those who have depended upon me in one way or another for the past 22 years.
That said, even though I didn’t have a year’s sabbatical, sometimes I felt as though I tried to cram a year’s worth of experience into a three month summer.
Post-Tisha-B’Av, in addition to continuing my daily study of Tractate Peah (the Corners of the fields left in ancient Israel for the poor), I’ve been trying to pack in as much culture and nature as I’ve been able.
On Monday morning, I went to an exhibit in Mishkenot Shaananim at the Dweck Gallery with an exhibit of conceptual art by one artist, Yair Garbuz called “Logic has its Own Sorrow.” I’ll share just one example from the exhibit:
Text: What happened to your style? It ran off with another artist.
Monday and Tuesday I went to the Art and Craft Festival in Jerusalem. There are basically 4 components in geographical, north to south, order: Israeli artists, the Beer Garden and Food Court and Wine Tasting, the International section with arts and crafts from China to Hungary to Ghana to Peru, and a nightly performance by a popular Israeli artist. The first night was Shalom Hanoch who sounds an awful lot like an Israeli Joe Cocker in style and voice. The next night was HaDag Nachash, an incredibly popular Israeli rap group (great horn section and flute solos too by the way). The name of the group is a Hebrew lesson all its own. Literally it might mean The Serpent Fish or the The Fish Guesses or Divines. The Hebrew letters are actually an anagram of Nahag Chadash or New Driver.
HaDag Nachash at Jerusalem Art and Craft Festival
On Tuesday morning we took a walk to see an art gallery, the great concrete cushions of Safra Square where Jerusalem city hall is located, a book store where we found a book that my wife and been looking for by her first serious Hebrew teacher and Ethiopia Street, a connecting alley between the center of the city and Meah She’arim, finding the doorway which her art teacher had painted and is now our newest watercolor.
The Rosenbach Gallery had an incredible number of works by Israeli artists, many if not all of whom are religiously observant. The art was as compelling and arresting as anything we’d seen.
The city hall ‘pillows’ are surprisingly comfortable to sit on but just don’t ‘plop’ yourself down or you’ll get an uncomfortable surprise:
This one was particularly comfortable:
Don't plop down!
On our way we saw some graffiti:
Ethiopia Street, not surprisingly, features an Ethiopian church across the street from a plaque about Eliezer Ben Yehuda who, almost single-handedly, recreated Hebrew as a spoken language.
The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has Triumphed
At the end of the road is the entrance to Meah Shearim where there are severe warning signs against immodesty. We were hardly appropriately dressed for that experience so we kept our distance.
Entrance to Meah Shearim
On Wednesday and Thursday we decided to at least devote some of our day to a nature hike without renting a car or going far out of town. There are two places we decided to check out: Gazelle Valley and the Bird Sanctuary. Both are centrally located in Jerusalem and not very big but they seem to have a real impact on the city.
Gazelle Valley was founded a little less than a decade ago when the city decided to create a preserve so the dwindling deer in town could be replenished. At the entrance to the park there was a statue of Jacob’s Stairway. Why not Ladder? Many commentators understand the Hebrew word Sulam to refer to a staircase like the ones featured as part of Babylonian Ziggurats. This one, like the one Tevye sings about in “If I Were a Rich Man” seems to be going ‘nowhere, just for show.’
At one end of the park was a well which was quite dry as it’s still mid-August and the tributaries are not flush, as it were. The sign we saw below which says ‘Listen’ (it’s one of the last portions in the Torah, the beginning of Moses’ final song האזינו) turned out to be a bit ironic in practice: We couldn’t hear the rushing water we were supposed to be listening for but could easily hear the hammering and drilling from right behind us where a new building was going up just outside the park.
We went in the middle of the day for a hike and found out that not only Wild Dogs and Englishmen (and Rabbi/Cantor Intrepid Travelers) go out in the midday sun. We didn’t expect to find any deer at all but two little ones came out and I managed to get a photograph of one of them, well camouflaged.
2 Year Old Deer in Camouflage
Yesterday, we went to the Bird Sanctuary which is a very small site between the Kenesset, Cinema City and Sacher Park. Both local birds and those who use the Israeli bottleneck as a resting spot between Scandinavia and Kenya (among many other extremes) can eat, sleep and be tagged by local ornithologists. Their travels are thus tracked via an international data base online. We saw a couple of the staff people catch, weigh, measure, and place tiny rings on a Bulbul (a ‘singing’ bird) before letting one of the kids on the tour set him free again. The seeds that the birds eat and excrete cannot reproduce as trees without that intestinally chemical interaction making birds and trees hugely symbiotic in relationship.
Last night we went to one of two pretty much sold out performances at the Pais Arena near the Malcha Mall and Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem of comedian Louis C.K. Aside from the late start partly due to Israeli Time and a huge traffic jam, the first show was truly inspired. The three warm up comedians were quite funny but Louis C.K. was brilliant. I think he was a little taken aback by the incredibly warm response he received even before opening his mouth.
He doesn’t shy away from controversy tackling issues such as Suicide, ISIS beheading (saying that under specific circumstances in which no one cares they might be whining ‘It’s just no fun anymore’), not being gay but being willing to consider it if it were with ‘the best, top shelf guys’, the guy who stole his first date now being a trans who knew he was really a girl at 7 (‘which means he knew already when he stole my date!’), his crypto-Jewish grandfather, his father’s conversion to Judaism and how the Christians clearly won the culture war because, after all, what year is it all over the world? And in case you think it’s really China, just try putting a Monkey on your check and see whether Citicorp will cash it. He added for the Israeli audience (which I’m guessing he didn’t in Amsterdam), Of course we really know it’s 5776 but we’ll keep that as a secret between us.
He got a true standing ovation but with another show to do in a couple of hours he was gracious but didn’t offer an encore.
On the way home, we waited for buses that didn’t show up before deciding on a cab. Our cabbie had just taken a couple from the central bus station to the show who had come from Netanya. I’m sure they came from all over the country. He wondered why it wasn’t translated. I suggested that, although it’s a largely scripted show, it would be hard to translate all his asides in real time (and there were clearly a few). Also, comedy is very hard to translate well. I couldn’t record or photograph during the show but the warnings before the show were funny and the example below proves why translating the show would be difficult.
Pre-show warning for Louis C.K. in Jerusalem
The third line in Hebrew is translated as ‘Don’t be a Zero’. There’s a lot of connotation missing from that rendering to say the least.
This is our final shabbat in Jerusalem. I hope to make it to the First Station for their outdoor family service with the Renewal Congregation Naavah T’hillah, the Great Synagogue (I’m not sure if I’ll hear the choir but it will likely be a quality musical experience), Sod Siach tomorrow morning (an egalitarian independent minyan nearby) and for Mincha/Maariv the Yemin Moshe synagogue, one of the oldest still running prayer locations since before the founding of the state.
Tomorrow night, an international Klezmer concert at the Jerusalem Theatre.
By the end of next week I’ll be back in Louisville.
With my luck, Louis C.K. will be performing at the Yum Center!
See you soon!