Archive for April, 2018

ISRAEL ON MY MIND, PART TWO

Two matters challenged me during my visit to Israel: family and God’s presence.

Carolyn and I spent Passover week at Masada by the Dead Sea. There, the last Jewish rebels against Rome held out until 73 CE. We joined my cousin Maxine, who lives in Karmiel east of Haifa, her children and their families, other relatives and friends.

Family is crucial to Israelis. They spend much time together. American families often seem fragmented, psychologically and geographically, separated by many hundreds or thousands of miles. Because Israel is small, families can “scatter” there yet remain close.

I wondered if Israelis’ family focus produced insularity and conformity. But my Israeli family’s views and practices cover a broad spectrum. Outside ultra-Orthodoxy—a minority—Israelis freely disagree and argue while accepting each other. Family is family. Carolyn and I share that value. Still, we have one son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (grad school) and another in Tennessee, soon moving to Los Angeles. Our youngest, fortunately, lives in San Francisco. Being American comes with a price.

As to God’s presence, I regularly attend Friday-night services and Shabbat Torah Study at my Reform synagogue. At Masada, the services I attended were “traditional” and way different. I was totally lost as the men (no women) raced through the prayers. Did they find spiritual fulfilment when I didn’t? My friend Larry Raphael offered perspective: In the same circumstance, he let the rapid flow of prayers create a space for meditation. There are multiple ways to pray.

Then there was my visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I had a brief conversation with God. Yes, we talk. Yet I experience God as much, if not more, at home. To be honest, I was put off by men in the plaza on cell phones and empty water bottles littering its stones. I wondered: Do visitors to the Kotel become too familiar with God?

Last week’s Torah portion (Shemini) offers the story of Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, both priests. They bring “alien”—not prescribed—fire offerings to the Tent of Meeting, which preceded the First Temple. Their zeal may have been genuine, but God kills them! Later in Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites they should neither take away nor add to the commandments. In Judaism, boundaries are crucial. As at Mount Sinai during the giving of the Ten Commandments, we must keep our distance.

A contemporary commentator suggests that the many laws regarding ritual purity were written to keep Jews awayfrom the Temple. The priests might be overworked. And familiarity with the holy place might erode our sense of awe.

Not everyone feels this way. Hours before we visited the Davidson Museum of Archaeology near the Kotel, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox activists sacrificed two Passover lambs. They want to establish the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, an explosive proposition. I doubt that most Jews want to revert to sacrificing animals. Moreover, would this represent getting too close to the Holy One?

I love Israel, even in challenging times. And they’re always challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Jews belonged somewhere, not everywhere. Yet the God they worship is the God of everywhere, not just somewhere.” Israel plays a central role in Jewish life. Still, I live in San Francisco. Rabbi Sacks lives in London.

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ISRAEL ON MY MIND, PART ONE

Carolyn and I just spent three weeks in Israel. Let me share some of the experience.

Let’s start with visiting leafy Perlstein Street in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv/Yaffo. In 2014, I discovered the street and “walked” it via Google Maps. It was a kick to be on a street bearing our name. Well, that of Jacob Perlstein (no relation), a developer. Life is good, right? But Elisha, our taxi driver, told us how hard life is in Israel. As in San Francisco, buying a home is out of reach for many people.

In high-energy Tel Aviv, we ate several breakfasts and a lunch (gigantic portions) at a café on Habima Square. It contains two theaters where large groups of new soldiers—men and women—see films and hear lectures there about Israeli history. Recruits—military service is mandatory except for the ultra-Orthodox, some of whom serve voluntarily—also visit museums like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and archaeological sites. All to better understand what they’re defending. By the way, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Israel Museum in Jerusalem are standouts.

The young soldiers made me want to cry. They’re drafted after high school at about 18. (Torah sets military service—men only—at 20.) Why should young people—Israelis and Palestinians—continually face death? Chalk that up to the intransigence of Iran-backed Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Former prime minister Golda Meir said it best when she castigated the Palestinians not for killing Israeli children but forcing Israelis to kill theirs.

I mention this because English-language newspapers reported Palestinians in Gaza being killed during Friday protests near Israel’s border fence. It’s terrible. But let’s not delude ourselves. Protests urged by Hamas don’t seek a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The goal remains getting “their” land back—the right to return to all of Israel. Which would annihilate the world’s lone Jewish State.

Note: Fifty-seven totally or heavily Muslim nations belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Fifty-seven!

Do Gazans and West Bank Palestinians expect Israel’s 6.5 million Jews to desert the thriving nation they and their ancestors built over 70 years of statehood and in previous decades since the late 19th century? In 1947. the U.N. partitioned Palestine—an administrative area, not a nation. Israel accepted partition. A Palestinian state was available. The Arabs rejected it.

Easily overlooked: Many “Palestinians” migrated to what is now Israel from other nearby regions of the Ottoman Empire and following World War One, the British Mandate. Jewish economic development created jobs.

I’m no fan of the Israeli right’s desire for either a single state—which likely would disenfranchise Arab citizens—or Palestinian autonomy in part of the West Bank rather than independence. The former, would legitimate Palestinian cries of “Israeli apartheid.” Palestinians show no inclination to accept the latter. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to oppose Israel’s right to exist. Gaza’s suffering worsens.

Israel is a marvelous country built with pluck and brains. Still, beneath the glow of technology, medical breakthroughs, great restaurants and superb arts—in Tel Aviv, we attended a Batsheva company dance performance—an undercurrent of anxiety remains.

It’s easy to comment—and sometimes condemn—Israeli politics from the safety of North America. Also, no matter how well-intentioned—a bit dishonest.

Next week, I’ll offer thoughts on religion based on visiting the Western Wall and family re our Passover stay at Masada.

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