Monthly Archives: July 2015

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: The 9th of Av

“Oh why did she go and fall in love, I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av. My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor.” Alan Sherman

I love Alan Sherman but he more or less ruined the possibility of Tisha B’Av for me. Until now.

It is early Saturday evening, a couple of hours before sundown. I had confirmed that the hotel restaurant was open since it was both Shabbat and Erev Tisha B’Av. It was empty as I approached. The drapes were drawn as the sun formed seams around the edges. I stepped out onto the terrace for an end of Shabbat l’Chaim. The bar was empty.

I returned inside. The hostess explained that while in fact the restaurant was open (and it was perfectly legal for it to have been so), it could not be seen to be open as Tisha B’Av approached.   Understood. Although my meal was halachachly correct as I understood it, I felt guilty for eating.

I was joined by the Swedes for dinner before observance began. I returned upstairs, my leather shoes came off, and my first Tisha B’Av in Israel commenced in Tel Aviv.

I awoke early for the trip to Jerusalem. While I have enjoyed my break, I could not even begin to imagine observing Tisha B’Av anyplace else. But getting there had a hiccup. I have long prided myself on my facility with public transportation around the world. It appears that, in Israel, I am transportationally challenged. I took a cab to the Central Bus Station. The bus lot was blocked by a police car and tape. Bomb scare. This is a country in which these things are taken with the utmost seriousness.   For reasons that should be obvious. I took a cab, the driver of which had the decency to quote a non-rapacious price.

It was hot and damp as it has been. On the ride back, I read a Jerusalem Post alert that this morning police had quelled a riot on the Temple Mount – dozens of policemen had to control people stockpiled with with kerosene, bottles, and rocks, planning, as I later learned from a more in-depth article, to attack those of us who would be praying at the Kotel. Good to know, as I had every intention of being there this afternoon for Minchah. Nothing would change my plans. As long as Jews were mourning the Temple at its mount, I would be there too.

The sky was summer white. It remained that way from Tel Aviv until we began to climb the hills into Jerusalem. As we did, the air began to clear and the sky regained its characteristic clear blue. By the time I got out on French Hill, the air was, to quote Naomi Shemer, clear as wine. The air was hot and dry, and a cooling desert breeze was blowing.

I don’t make this up.   This is Jerusalem.

If the Romans (and Babylonians) really did have to destroy our Temples, they picked a fine time of year to do it. Jerusalem at 90 degrees is considerably better than Tel Aviv at 85, but hot is hot. I arrived at the Kotel around 12:30, because I wanted to be there for early Minchah. The Kotel doesn’t get a whole lot of shade in the first place. Just after high noon in late July, well. And it is blazing white as is the entire plaza in front of it. And a wool tallis. You get the picture.

I had arrived a bit too early, so sat in the shade of an arch just past the plaza. I won’t say anything about the German tourists who decided to honor this public fast day by spreading out their picnic under the arch, other than to observe that in almost any other place in the world, and certainly any other place in the Middle East (including the place just above us on the Temple Mount), such cultural insensitivity would have been met with some kind of reaction, if not violence. Yet the small brigade of heavily armed, very young police officers resting and joking beside them after their morning’s work protecting us continued their rest. This is, after all, a nation dedicated to tolerance and equality. It behooves the world to remember this.

I removed my sweat-stained tefillin. I suppose I could try to write about what it felt like to daven against the Kotel on Tisha B’Av but you can probably imagine and I don’t have a whole lot of words properly to express it.

So I won’t try. Upon arriving back at my apartment, I watched some excellent lectures directed toward the meaning of the day. None was better than this fantastic talk by Rabbi Abraham Twersky. http:// hope all of you will watch it. All of it. While the Jewish attitude toward suffering is clear, I doubt it has ever been better expressed.

Night is falling. Only about half an hour until the fast ends. As befits one who claims Yom Kippur as his favorite holiday, I find fasting wonderfully cathartic.

May all suffering end. And, as long as it doesn’t, may we see the good in it and be grateful for that good.

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We arrived yesterday midday in Tel Aviv. Anybody who wants to argue about the differences (or lack thereof) between dry heat and humid heat is more than welcome to spend a few hot days in Jerusalem and then come to Tel Aviv. On the hottest days so far, Jerusalem has been comfortable in the shade and cool to chilly at night. Tel Aviv is rather a different story. Even with the breezes coming off the improbably intensely and multivariantly colored Mediterranean, this feels more like the Washington of the Middle East.   And yet this city was built by people who didn’t have the option of coming out of the heat into the air conditioning. Kol Ha’ Kavod!

So yesterday afternoon we swam through the air to look at Tel Aviv’s world-leading collection of magnificent Bauhaus buildings. ATA observed that this most European of architectural styles looked surprisingly at home here. It occurred to me to think that in fact is perfectly situated in Tel Aviv. The land is flat. The brilliant sun bathes the air. The buildings – with their simple white concrete and sensuous contours or sharp angles – add all of the texture that in other climes would be provided by hills and valleys, trees and winding streets. European and American contours are horizontal. Tel Aviv contours are vertical. Bauhaus perfectly suits.

This morning was special. I had never been to Beit Haazmaut – Independence Hall. I have rarely felt so much Jewish pride. And it’s all internal. Independence Hall –despite the grandeur of its name (and the grandeur of associations an American naturally has) is rather an unprepossessing structure, a three story Bauhaus wannabe that previously housed the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and, before that (and prior to its expansion), the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meier Dizengoff, and his family. The lobby is a bit run down and overly crowded. The small room where a film on the creation of Tel Aviv and the State is shown is as resolutely unattractively institutional as it could possibly be. And yet there is an aura.

That aura explodes into brilliance when you walk down a few steps and into the main hall. Main hall is a bit of an aggrandizement – it is at best the size of a small lecture room at a poorly endowed college. But, at the front, is a bima, arranged exactly as it was on May 14, 1948, with name plates for each of the signatories, including the overflow chairs in front of the bima (yes, that’s where Golda (then still Golda Myerson) sat, right in front of Ben Gurion). The flags flanking the about-to be Prime Minister, the microphone – and then – the recording of the conclusion of Ben Gurion’s 17 minute address announcing the creation of the state against all odds, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon’s recitation of the Shechiyanu, and it was done. We all rose for the historical recording of Hatikvah. I was trembling but, even so, I found myself standing ever taller as the final verse repeated. And then, on that Shabbat in May 1948, Ben Gurion returned to direct the State as the combined armies of Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (whose King Abdullah had first promised Golda not to attack Israel but later broke his promise) attempted to drive the Jews into the sea.

They failed. They continued to fail. They will always fail.

And they should. Consider this paragraph from the Declaration of Independence:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Few countries in the world — and I suspect no country in Asia – contains such a statement. And, despite its imperfections, Israel lives it.

All of this got me thinking (as if I ever stop thinking) about the irrational rise in anti-Israeli sentiment (leaving aside the rise in anti-Semitism). And I’ve decided not to write anything remotely defensive. Israel makes mistakes, as does every nation. (The US is far from exempt in this respect.) But few other nations on earth uphold the standards of justice, equality, respect for human dignity, and just plain decency as does this one. If the world is having trouble seeing this, that is the world’s problem.   If the world chooses to ignore history, so be it. If the world wants to forget (or choose not to learn of) the wasteland this country had been turned into before massive Jewish immigration restored it to vibrantly productive land, so be it. If the world wants to pick on the 15 million of us who are Jews out of the almost 8 billion people in the world, we who preserve the values of law, justice, and compassion given to us at Sinai, we who have transmitted and continue to transmit those values to the rest of the world —  let them pick on us.

Say what you will of Bibi Netanyahu – one of my proudest moments as a Jew was during his speech before the Joint Session of Congress where he told the world that if nobody else would stand with us, we would stand alone. It was, for the first time in perhaps 2000 years, a credible abandonment of abuse and victimhood, a credible assertion of the power of our ideals and our faith, a proud declaration to the world that we will no longer be abused. Our lesson from Jacob’s abuse at the hands of Laban is not to take it, not to outsmart the abuser, but simply to stop the abuse. That is where we are historically.  It is where we should be.

So did we stand alone on that May Erev Shabbat in May 1948. The founders of the state had no expectation of support from anybody else. And yet the nation they created survived the repeated attempts to exterminate it to become an intellectual, technological, scientific,  and economic powerhouse that has given and continues to give the world tremendous value. It does so in a liberal democracy with largely liberal social values. It does so surrounded by enemies who still will its extinction. It does so in the face of a world whose ingratitude for what Israel and the Jewish people have done is matched only by the cupidity and sanctimonious hypocrisy of so much of that world. Too bad.

Am Israel Chai.



If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Things

ATA, after only a month of Hebrew, is translating chapters of B’reisheit (Genesis). Shabbat dinner, he presented his translation of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. It was a simple, literal translation, quite direct as Hebrew is. And it was the deepest and most beautiful translation I have heard, better even than the excellent Everett Fox translation (which is an attempt to do the Martin Buber/ Franz Rosenzweig German translation in English, which is a fascination of ATA’s).

In any event, one begins to understand the remarkable depth, beauty, and interconnectedness of the Hebrew language. For all we Jews like to talk, it turns out that you don’t have to say many words to say many things. Theodore Dreiser wrote, in Sister Carrie when Drouet is chatting up Carrie on the train: “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.” Perhaps in English (the utter simplicity of which I have come to realize). In Hebrew, it is words that contain the volumes, and so much depends upon context, interpretation, and the many connections each word has with many others.

So, I have admitted several times that I am hardly original in my thoughts, and I am quite sure that millions of people have observed this over time. That said, I’m the one who’s writing. So here goes. ATA’s translation got me thinking, and this morning while praying I focused on the word “d’var” or “d’bar.” It appears an awful lot in the Torah, especially when Ha’Shem is talking to Moshe Rabbenu. I guess I started thinking about this really on Shabbat as we finished B’Midbar (Numbers) and prepared to start what in English is known as Deuteronomy, but in Hebrew is D’varim. Words.

And things. D’varim means both – words and things. I think the connection would be interesting in any event, but it is especially so because Jewish theology – and especially the teachings of Kabbalah, focus so heavily on words as things. Even the way we refer to G-d – Ha’Shem—literally the name (and Kabbalah is fascinated by the name and the spoken word) connects the word with the object (if I may use such a word in this context). Words simply are things, and things would not be things without words. I know I’m being simplistic (after all, I’m not writing a treatise here), but appreciating this connection opens up so many paths for understanding.

From the sublime to . . . (But not unrelated.) Leonard Bernstein (with whom I come close to sharing a birthday) famously had no music instruction until he was about 11. When his father was later asked why he didn’t give Lenny music lessons earlier, he replied: “Who knew he was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”

Funny of course because in one sense his dad had no idea he would become a great musician. But funny as well because of course his dad knew he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.

What’s in a name? It’s something I’ve thought about my entire adult life because I don’t particularly like my name. (Sorry Mom and Dad. It’s not your fault. Really). There are several things I don’t like about it (besides that fact that “Larry” makes me sound like a used car salesman in a checkered jacket and the only time I have ever been called “Lawrence” was in my own private Egypt and that’s not going to happen again). But let’s start with my surname.

“Mitchell.” My dear friend and former uber-boss at GW once described my name as “androgynous.” I thought that was hilarious. But it does get to my point. (It also brings to mind a time when – at the White Shoe Wall Street Law Firm at which I improvidently began my career – a senior partner took me aside and said: “Mitchell, you have to be Irish. You can’t be Jewish because I like you.” Oops. Resume out on the street in two days.

But that simply highlighted an issue I have had since I was young. I never liked that my surname was not only androgynous (thank you, Steve) but, more importantly, not Jewish. (My other family names – Cantor and Reisner and Bernstein – are most decidedly Jewish.) But I was never sure what our name had been. Family legend had identified a name, but there was no confirmation. Yet many years ago I discussed changing it, even after I had developed a significant scholarly reputation. But Alex was upset so I dropped it.

Recently, my dad received research that a European distant relative had compiled. It confirmed that indeed our name was Wasserman, and traced my grandfather’s family back to Nathan Wasserman in Galician Poland at the end of the 18th century. (I cling to my maternal grandfather’s Vilna roots because, well, Vilna was the intellectual capital of European Judaism and I’m not relinquishing the bragging rights.) Nathan’s son, Morris (which I assume had to have been changed from Moshe) was found in England in the 1850s as Morris Mitchell. Soon thereafter, he emigrated to the United States, apparently fought in a New York regiment in the Civil War, and returned to England where my great-grandfather, Abraham Mitchell was born.

Enough of the family tree. The point is that I now have confirmation of the Jewish name that was taken from me by assimilationist desires. I blame nobody. We believe Morris to have been a Chasid, and I have no idea what I would have done were I in his position. But I know what I would like to do. So, I have seriously been considering restoring the name Wasserman, especially in this time of rising anti-Semitism.

What’s in a name? I leave for another day my given name – Lawrence. My Hebrew name is Ezra (preceded by the Yiddish Lazar). Given the path of my career, Ezra is a good name. So perhaps Ezra Mitchell Wasserman? Perhaps. I haven’t spoken with Alex yet (nor with mom and dad), but I’m kinda serious.


If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: To Life

I’ve noticed that I’ve been making a few typos for which I apologize. My explanation – if not my excuse – is that I’m dizzy. The pace has intensified – we covered four chapters today. In just less than 4 weeks we’ve covered over 250 pages of our Hebrew book. Our teachers are talking faster. The homework is harder. Oy!

Which brings me to tonight’s installment – at least in part. Yesterday afternoon was great. Our class was given a guided tour –in Hebrew of course – of parts of Jerusalem I would never have discovered, principally a few of the older neighborhoods of the New City. They are delightful, as was Ateret, who joined the tour with us and seemed to enjoy every minute. As I told ATA at dinner last night, these neighborhoods reminded me a bit of Venice. Yes, right, we’re in the desert, there are no canals. The food is better in Venice. But what I mean is that the back streets and alleys that come across shaded courtyards, the low-rise buildings that share just enough of themselves with the street to reveal how special they are but not so much as to allow passers-by to intrude on their intimacy, the meandering byways and lazy alleys, reminded me very much of the lovely peace of Venice. Synagogues that appear modest from the street but are light-filled and beautiful upon entering. Children, cats, mothers, men coming home from work. Civic life in an atmosphere of calm and beauty. For at least a few hours, I felt relief from the relentless intensity of this most intense of all cities.

But yesterday was special for another reason. I bought something I have long needed, and rather badly. Here’s the story. When I was a boy, my grandparents gave me a gold Chai. For my gentile readers, chai is the Hebrew word for life. Also for the number 18, which is why Jewish monetary gifts often are made in multiples of 18. In any event, this gold chai was on a gold chain. It was big. It was heavy. It was a work of art, albeit perhaps a bit gaudy for my tastes (and everybody who knows me knows that my taste can sometimes be a bit out there). But it was chai and, even more important, it was a gift from my grandparents.

I wore it every single day of my life. From my rising up to my lying down. Without exception. It became such a part of me, meant so much to me, that I would have felt naked and exposed without it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t idolatry or superstition that drove me. It doesn’t compare with my tefillin.  It was something else.  For as long as I wore it, I felt like I had a physical connection with my Judaism. And, after my grandparents were gone (and I was blessed to have them for many years), I felt as if they were somehow protecting me when I was wearing it. So I wore it. Always.

Years – many years – later, I was in a hotel room in Philadelphia. I took off my chai and left it on the desk to take a shower as I had done so many times before. I didn’t realize that the lock was compromised and the door was ajar. (The hotel fixed the lock immediately after the horse had left the barn.) I hadn’t been in the shower long but, when I emerged, the door was open and my chai was gone. I was devastated. What could I do? Hotel security was useless (except to repair the lock) and I was already late for a public event at which I was the featured guest. No time even to mourn.

That was that. I didn’t replace it because, well, it was irreplaceable. And my grandparents were gone so another would not be forthcoming. I managed. I have never felt quite right since.

But I am in Jerusalem. And somehow I began to think. Were I ever to want to replace my chai, there would be no other place that could infuse it with the kind of meaning my grandparents gave it than Jerusalem could. And so, somewhere between the moon and the Holy City, I decided to try. I left my class in Ohel Moshe as they were planning a picnic to meet ATA for schnitzel and beer. But I had time. I walked into a shop on Yafo Street. Way too busy for my taste, and a quick look around suggested that there was little I would like. And so I walked into another.

It, too, was busy, but the possibilities seemed greater. I approached the island in the center, where the saleswoman had taken out a couple of trays of pendants so show another customer. I moved the discarded tray closer to me. The customer decided to leave. The saleswoman began to take away the tray from under my nose.

And then – from my mouth – “Mah pitom? Ani lo po?” Seriously. From my mouth. Not from my brain. I didn’t think. I didn’t’ plan to say it. It just came out. Loosely translated it means: “WTF? I’m not standing here?”

Ateret and Michal would be so proud. Because they have been working hard to get us to talk like Israelis. And this is exactly how Israelis talk and exactly what they would say. And it just came out. I was mortified. And so very proud!

The saleswoman (who turned out to be lovely) immediately apologized and replaced the tray. After taking a deep breath, I more politely explained to her what I was looking for. After a moment she turned to another customer. When she turned back, she started to address me in English. Then she stopped herself: “Oh, you speak Hebrew,” she said in Hebrew. And that was that for the remainder of the transaction.

She was very kind. I pointed to some things for her to show me. (I’m pleased that we had learned the word for necklace just the week before.) She brought out some other things. And then I saw it.

Far more money than I wanted to spend. Less gaudy than the one my grandparents gave me. But, like that gift, it was the work of an artist. It was carefully conceived and beautifully executed. It honored my grandparents, and it was infused with the essence of Jerusalem.  After negotiations (after which I still paid too much), I walked out of the store, confident for the first time in several years that my grandparents were protecting me.

In Jerusalem, everything is possible.  To life.

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Three Little Words

I know I’ve mentioned that I have already succumbed to the problem of losing concentration sometimes in prayer. Aware of this, I have been reading more slowly, and working to understand each word. Even that frustrates me as it sometimes seems more like a translation exercise (I am, after all, studying Hebrew), than a means to achieve kavanah. But I persevere. Most people my age who do this have been doing so all their lives and seem to have no problem. And, as I know I also mentioned, seeing the faces of the Yeshiva bokhers at the Machlis’s light up as they prayed and sang gave me hope for greater depth.

So I have decided to concentrate on three little words. Three little words that I think express everything I really need to say. And three little words that I might suggest for any reader curious about perhaps setting out on the path I have, but who might feel a lack of knowledge to engage in traditional prayer. Three little words that we say countless times a day. Three little words we repeat so often that we can easily overlook them. Three little words that define who we are. Three little words that explain why we are here.

Baruch Atah Adonai. Blessed are you, Ha’Shem. We say these words so many times that we don’t even think about them. Even those among us who are not especially observant, who perhaps pray on a Shabbat or two a year, a bar mitzvah, a Seder, Rosh Ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur. Baruch Atah Adonai. It is the start of every blessing. It starts each of our morning prayers. It concludes every prayer of Shemonah Esrai. We say it upon rising, upon sleeping, upon eating and washing, upon donning tallis and tefillin, upon seeing a beautiful sunrise and a person in distress. It is our formula. For a reason.

Baruch Atah Adonai. One doesn’t need to know another word of prayer. One doesn’t need another word of Hebrew. All one needs to attain true kavanah, true spirituality, true gratitude and appreciation of all that we have (“for he has made to me all that I need”) are these three little words. Blessed are you, Ha’Shem.

Repeat these words. Just these words. Repeat them when you want to pray but don’t know how. Repeat them when you see beauty. Repeat them when you are happy. Repeat them when you see misery and when you are sad — especially when you see misery and when you are sad, for you do not know and cannot know when misery becomes glory and sadness becomes joy. But you do know that without misery and sadness happiness and joy do not exist. And you do know – or I hope you do – that even in misery and sadness is the pure act of living, the pure appreciation of life that you would not know were it not for – Baruch Atah Adonai.

 We played a game in class the other day – we were to write things about ourselves but not identify whom we were, and Michal (my future pet rabbit) read them to the class and asked them to guess. I suppose that, like Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” because with almost every reading the class guessed it was me.

Yet, when it was in fact me, they could not guess and were puzzled – all except Michal. Because to the question “favorite holiday” I gave my honest answer – Yom Kippur. My classmates were baffled. Who in their right mind chooses Yom Kippur as their favorite holiday? Pesach, Chanukah, Sukkoth, Purim, even Shavuot. But Yom Kippur? They asked me to explain. I demurred both because of the lack of time and the fact that my Hebrew is not yet at a level where I can explain it all. And don’t worry – I’m not going to explain it all now.

But here it is, at least in part. Baruch Atah Adonai.   Nowhere are these words more meaningful than when facing existential questions. Questions of reward and punishment, happiness and misery, joy and sorrow, life and death. U’netenah Tokef – on Rosh Ha’Shanah it is written – on Yom Kippur it is sealed. But who knows why? Who can tell? Why is one serene and one troubled, one healthy and one ill, one prosperous and one suffering? Why is there sorrow? Why is there evil?

Who knows? The great unanswered questions.

The answers are unimportant.  For what we do know is that we are alive. And to be alive is to experience the world, however we experience it. That, in itself, is a blessing. The greatest of all possible blessings.  And so, Baruch Atah Adonai. Three little words that are the essence of gratitude. Three little words that are the essence of prayer.

Three little words. All the rest is commentary.

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Let All Who Are Hungry . . . .

A quiet table with coffee and bourekas next to Yafo harbor on a brilliant Friday morning is serenity itself. Despite a late night downtown for an excellent Moroccan meal (the pastilla at Darna is every bit as good as I remembered if from a decade ago), ATA and I jumped in a cab in Jerusalem at 7 and were sitting by the fishing boats by 8. While I know the buildings are different, it is nice to sit and see the very same shoreline from which Jonah set sail on his encounter with a big fish.

I viewed the cab fare as tuition. Almost as soon as we got in, the driver asked if we spoke Hebrew. (ATA’s biblical Hebrew wouldn’t get him all that far (except perhaps with Jonah) but I enthusiastically affirmatively responded). We began a conversation – all in Hebrew but for just a few corrections – that lasted until we arrived. I felt a bit like Eliza at the Embassy Ball – but without the dress. Characteristically Israeli, the driver (a Persian immigrant who has been here for 60 years) asked me to call him from New York so that he could help me practice my Hebrew).

After a time by the water, we did some shopping in Tel Aviv at the atelier of a young, Parsons-educated, Israeli designer that ATA had discovered. I enjoyed talking with him in his leafy, stylish neighborhood (which he described as the Chelsea of Tel Aviv). His clothes were lovely but only a couple of shirts were cut for me. ATA had much greater success. And then for a walk downtown, lunch, and the opera.

It is a measure of the acculturation that I’ve experienced that I was startled to see calamari on the menu of the restaurant opposite the opera house. I know there are non-kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv, but still . . . .

I’m glad Israelis are writing opera. I’m glad opera is being created in Hebrew. I’m glad Tel Aviv has an opera house. I was impressed by the attendance at an erev Shabbot matinee. But I’m not going to write a review of the program (which consisted of two relatively short operas) other than to say that I found them a bit peculiar. As did ATA who, after all, directs opera for a living (and is sufficiently accomplished that he was comped our tickets). I am really happy that we went, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the operas despite my puzzlement.

We returned to Jerusalem in time for some rest and laundry before Shabbat dinner. As tired as I am I wanted to be reasonably well rested since this particular Shabbat dinner promised an experience unlike any I’ve ever had.

Maalot Dafna is an interesting and reasonably large East Jerusalem neighborhood, large, that is, if you are searching for a place and having trouble finding it. And I was becoming anxious because I had volunteered to lead us (ATA, Norwegian girl, Charming Swede, and Delightful Australian) to dinner at the home of the Machlis family, a Jerusalem institution. And anxious because it was only after entering the neighborhood that I realized why GoogleMaps hadn’t been able to give me directions. Maalot Dafna is not a street, and house numbers are not street numbers and do not correspond with anything obvious (and I have not studied Kabbalistic numerology so wasn’t equipped to try to figure it out). But it was simply a number in Maalot Dafna that I had been given.

Cheerfully, I led the group. But I quickly realized I would need to ask for help. Two girls, no older than about five and seven, were standing next to a building. I asked them in Hebrew whether they knew where the Machlis family lived. The older one looked at me and, with the charming contempt of a child her age (imagine her words sung to the tune of “you are an idiot, mister”), replied: “We know how to speak English.” Oops. Anyway, they did in fact know of the Machlis’s, although not exactly where they lived since the directions consisted of a journey down the hill and several indeterminate turns. But it was Shabbat, the streets were full of men coming home from shul, and each question got us closer (for each person knew of the Machlis family). Finally – up stairs into a large compound of indistinguishable and largely unnumbered buildings, down a pathway into a small courtyard filled with light and people, and we were there.

Where? Well, at the Machlis residence. Why, you might ask? For Shabbat dinner. But who are these Machlis’s to whose home we wangled an invitation? We didn’t – not really. An invitation isn’t needed, although I did write in advance to let them know how many of us were coming.

You see, for approximately 35 years, Rabbi and Rebbitzin Machlis and their children have opened their home for Shabbat dinner (and lunch and the seuda meal) to whoever wants to attend. Anybody. From anywhere. Any time. The price of admission – and it is a lovely price – -is that dinner is accompanied by learning, shiurim not only from Rabbi Machlis but from visiting rabbis and learned guests. The teaching shifts between Hebrew and English.   And it goes on almost from the time we sit down until we leave (which was after midnight).

Why do they do this? From what I have read, Rabbi Machlis and the Rebbitzin want to demonstrate the beauty of Judaism, to show to everybody the glory of Shabbat, and this just happens to be their way. Certainly the rabbi’s early remarks were in keeping with this mission of demonstrating quite how special is Shabbat. Although they accept donations (which I will certainly make after Shabbat), the meals are self-funded. And they are prepared by the Rebbitzin in a kitchen that cannot have more than about thirty square feet of floor space. If that. Perhaps this doesn’t sound so staggering –except that hundreds show up for these meals and nobody is turned away. And the meals are meals – salads, homemade gefilte fish, chicken soup, roast chicken, kugel. Prepared by the Rebbitzin in her kitchen and served at table to every person there. I estimate that last night there were at least seventy to eighty people in attendance.

Now, the fact that the kitchen is small should lead to another inference – so is the apartment. The seventy or so of us in attendance were packed like herring along long tables into a space of perhaps five hundred book-lined square feet constituting the living area of the apartment.There was barely room for the mouse that caused a ruckus in the women’s section toward the end of the meal. Tables were crowded so closely together that in order to get out to leave, each person had to take his plastic chair with him and stack it in a corner to open up egress for the person next to him.

It was a delight. First, it is a miracle that no food spilled, no tables were upended, no crisis occurred but for perhaps a bit of claustrophobia. And the crowd was as advertised. At our table were a Mexican living in Israel, an Italian who had just discovered his Jewish roots, a young yeshiva-bokher from B’nai Brak who spoke no English and was charming in the course of our getting to know one another, and several yeshiva-bokhers from England studying in Jerusalem. The differences in our worlds of course were clear. None of the Yeshiva students even knew of Hebrew University, let alone our Ulpan, and of course we knew nothing of their yeshivot. They were lovely and kind and quite interested in learning about us, as we of them. The obvious emotion and joy with which they sang Shabbat blessings and songs was truly humbling, leaving me to pray that I can find such beauty in prayer. There were scattered Chasids, secular Jews in Jerusalem on their travels, non-Jews who were studying in Jerusalem, and even – astonishingly enough – an alumnus brother from Williams who lives in Mexico City and had just arrived in Israel that morning whom I overheard explaining to somebody the meaning of the “W” pin in his lapel.   Having studied at Williams near the end of the informal Jewish quota, I can safely say that the Machlis home might have been the very last place on earth I would have expected to meet somebody from Williams.

If the Machlis’s goal is to show the warmth of Judaism and the beauty of Shabbat they succeeded. And they did so I think for all of us, even if unfortunate food allergies and devoted vegetarianism limited the ability of some of my friends fully to enjoy the meal. I, of course, ate everything.

There are places in the world that are unique. Every person is by definition unique. There is no place like the Machlis’s. I am so very glad they exist.

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Wandering Thoughts From a No Longer Wandering Jew

I feel like writing today but I don’t have anything especially profound to say. I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing a bit of a mélange of random thoughts after another ten hour day of Hebrew.

I start with a word in French in honor of my lovely classmate, the French doctor, who got my day right off to a good start. We were in the classroom alone. She has always been kind and complimentary (except for the setz she gave me yesterday when we were touring the Botanical Gardens and saw some frogs. Can I help it if the Hebrew word for frog and – well – umm – French person, is the same? Blame the British Mandate – not me.)

Anyway, we were having a pleasant conversation when, out of nowhere, she pointed out how execrable is my accent. Ouch. I mean, I know my resh’s are inadequately guttural, but I’ve trying really hard to lose the oys and ays. Apparently I am not succeeding. I single out FD because her comment was unexpected. But, in truth, pretty much each of my European friends has, at one time or another, commented on my accent. Perhaps I’d feel more at home in Meah Sharim.

It gets worse. Not an hour later, as I was talking in class, our teacher, Michal, made a crack about my Ashkenazi accent. (I don’t know what it is about Hebrew teachers. All I can say is that if I ever have another pet rabbit I will name it Michal. Regular readers of this blog will understand exactly what I mean.) What to do? Ask for extra help from the teacher J (This is the first – and likely the last – time I have ever used/ will ever use an emoticon in this space. Forgive me.) What I got instead was a recommendation for a program called “Sound Like a Sabra.” I kind of expect that ain’t ever going to happen, but I shall try.  (When I was younger, mom used to say that I was born to be an old Jewish man — of the New York variety.  I guess I’ve fulfilled her ambition for me.)

Class ended early so we could see an Israeli movie, Noodle. It was funny and beautiful, and a bit affecting for me since the eponymous character is a little Chinese boy and I am missing terribly a little Chinese girl. I did my best to avoid looking at subtitles (I cheated a bit), and ranged between pride at how much and despair at how little I understood. And, after tomorrow, there is only one more week of class. The scary thing is that Ateret and Michal have determined we will finish the book. It clearly is a point of pride for them (and for me as well). While we have covered something on the order of 180 pages in less than three weeks, there are about 150 pages left to go. Tighten our seatbelts . . . .

But a lovely break is coming. Tomorrow evening I dine with ATA at a Moroccan restaurant I first went to a decade ago. I remember the atmosphere as warm and the food as fantastic. And the next day, ATA and I are going to the opera in Tel Aviv. This will be particularly exciting since ATA has made his career as an opera director. And the work we are seeing is Israeli. As unbelievable as has been this experience, I can use a break and a little culture as well.

That’s enough for tonight. Shabbos dinner we are joining the remarkable Machlis family in Jerusalem. That will be an experience justifying its own post.

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: Derekh Sheli (My Way)

When we last left moose and squirrel . . . .

But before I continue yesterday’s post on my reasons for being here, let me once again remark on how fantastic is this place. This morning in class we read about and discussed the Dead Sea Scrolls. This afternoon I went to the Israel Museum to see them. It just keeps getting better.

Anyway. So. I described the moment where the discomfort with my practices reached the point of epiphany. My own private road to Damascus (well, Shechem), if you will. The next service I attended was at a different – and far more traditional – shul.

I’m not sure what I expected. At the same time that something felt quite right about it, it was bewildering. Worship for me had consisted of abbreviated liturgy almost entirely in English. This was the full Monte, entirely in Hebrew. I had no idea where we started, no idea where we were going, little idea as to the end. Obviously I recognized the Torah service, although it was a full Torah service, not a pesukalah here and there. I had to admit that I wondered whether I should return.

But nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, or so it has been my experience. I live the second round of Ike and Tina’s version of Proud Mary.  So I returned. Not every week – -not nearly – but I returned. And gradually I began to figure things out. (I’m quite sure I could have asked the rabbi for help but such is not my way.)   I continued reading. I studied the Siddur. I still had no idea where I was going, but I increasingly felt that wherever I had gone there was no turning back. Kadima!

There matters stood. I had the great fortune, in my own personal Egypt, to have befriended a wonderfully warm and kind young Chabad rabbi (who prefers that I not mention his name). Were it not for him, I am sure my exodus would have been more difficult. And so when I returned home, to New York, I began attending Chabad services. Actually, the first thing I did was attend Chabad seder. It was warm and comfortable despite the fact that Rabbi Lipskier (whom I have already mentioned) accused me of speaking Yiddish like a Daytch.   This is really quite a problem, since Germans accuse of speaking German like a Yid. I am a man without a Mame Loshen. I think that Hebrew will become my language of choice. It is a beautiful language.

And I went back. And went back. I don’t think anybody davens faster than the Lubavitchers. And yet even as slowly I began to understand the order of service, even as I came close to finishing t’fillah before the repetition, I began to understand the beauty of the ritual. Far from understanding every word, I began intuitively to feel not only the warmth of community and the legitimacy of tradition, but also the way that ritual itself brought me closer to communion with Ha’Shem.

Never would I have imagined the power of ritual. Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember the first time I walked into St. Peters. I stopped cold inside the entrance. And stared. The power and the majesty. The agony and the ecstasy.

But the ritual of which I speak lacks grandeur and formality, at least superficially. It takes place in rather an aesthetically unappealing room. It is a little bit chaotic, and far more personal. Daven at your own pace – loud or quiet as you like. Come together, pull apart, all ending together in a rousing Eyn Keloheynu. The experience is mystical. Years ago I would have sneered at such peculiar practice. But now I felt its power.

Despite appearances, the grandeur is there if you know how to see. It is present as the SeferTorah, the book that has sustained us for 2,000 years, is paraded through the congregation. It is present as the chanting of the sacred words fills the space. It is present as we hope with Isaiah, ki miZion, tezeh Torah. And it is present in the frequently repeated haunting refrains of Kaddish. Buildings crumble.  Words endure.

My diet began to change. I began davening at home. At first Shema once a day. Then Shemona Esrai. Then Minchah. Then morning prayers. And then tefillin. I can no longer imagine a day without it.

My reading continued, as did my personal study of Hebrew. And I came to realize that is what truly mattered to me. This was in fact the meaning of my life and the purpose of my life. The beauty of the complete and comprehensive world -view that is Judaism began to draw me ever deeper.

I came to realize that my journey home would be limited unless I learned the language. And so I am here. But more than that. I have spent my life trying to give to others, trying to use what talents I have to create opportunities for others, to guide others, to teach others. Now I began to understand that I had been given a remarkable gift. The path that I had struggled and stumbled on was now clear and straight. I decided that I wanted to share this gift. No, not really decided. I don’t feel like I have much choice. After all, if I could arrive at this beautiful place by myself, surely I could help others to walk with me and find the kind of magnificent meaning in their lives that I have found in mind. For that I need a formal education. I need to fill the gaps that are an inevitable result of the autodidactic mind. I need to speak the language of my people, to read the language of Tanakh and Mishnah. And I needed to do this immersed in the lives of my people.

That is why I am here. My only regret is that I will never be able fully to express my gratitude. But I shall try, and to try to express that gratitude remains the purpose of my life.



If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: On the Kibbutz — Introducing Guest Blogger Isaac Bentata

This post is special.  I invited my classmates to blog on their experiences here in Jerusalem and I present today the first of these.  Isaac Bentata is an 18 year old Spaniard, studying in London (and of course now here).  He is smart, sweet, and speaks Hebrew with a wonderful Spanish accent!  I had the pleasure of seeing him last Shabbat as he was emerging from the Sephardic shul (which I don’t think they call it in Ladino) and I from the Ashkenazic shul and ,of course, every day in class, where he is delightfully energetic and entertaining.  I sometimes have to remind myself how doubly impressive it is that he is learning Hebrew in his second language while I am struggling to learn it in my native tongue.  He is also a committed, sincere, and proud Jew.  I am lucky to call him a friend.  Last week marked Isaac’s first trip to a Kibbutz.  Here are his reflections:

I’d like to start by thanking Larry for offering me this refreshing opportunity to get my thoughts in order and condense them into a short, but hopefully meaningful, entry.

It is interesting to note how an experience, no matter how brief, can forever change our perspective of a topic. Visiting a Chiloni (non-religious) Kibbutz should have sprang a 404 error code in my brain and set my psyche into hibernation mode the moment I stepped out of the bus. Socialism and a non-religious lifestyle do not always mix well with Orthodox, Sephardi-born-and-bred Jews – specially given that the former is something only a few of us have experienced before. Oddly enough, Kibbutz Tzuba provided an experience which differed massively from what I was expecting. You see, if there is one thing one would highlight about Am Israel, it is the sense of brotherhood and community. Kibbutz Tzuba enhanced this feeling in a way no scale could measure. The madrich (whose name I shamefully do not remember) made it very clear from the beginning that in the Kibbutz everyone knows everyone.

It sort of reminded me of Parasha Bamidbar, which Larry mentioned in his previous entry. When G-d instructed Moshe to count the number of Jews in the camp (by each giving half a shekel – the reasons are quite deep and I would not like to turn this entry into a Divrei Torah!), it was not out of lack of knowledge – of course G-d knew how many people there were at the camp at the time! G-d wanted to let the Jewish people know that He cared (and cares) about every single one of them, of us. We are all loved. There is always Someone watching over each one of us. Something I got from the Kibbutz straight away was the feeling that everyone counts.

Kibbutz Tzuba was built around Jewish life. Level of religiousness is not necessarily related to the Jewish feeling and the Kibbutz is living evidence of this. It revives the ancient Jewish tradition in which everyone feels relevant no matter how large the ‘camp’ is. It was clear wearing or not wearing a Kippah; davening once, twice, thrice or no times a day… Make no difference. In the Kibbutz, they eat together, they work together, they celebrate and they cry together… The Kibbutz resembles that G-d has always told us to do, something many Dati communities should feel envious of, something Hillel told the non-Jew who ‘dared’ asked him to summarise the Torah in the time he stood on one leg: “Veohavto l’reacho komaucho” – “You shall love your neighbour like you love yourself”.

Sometimes we forget the importance of this pasuk (verse). Having been to the Kotel three times since my arrival to Israel, I had not until my visit to the Kibbutz sat down and thought about what had resulted in the fact that only a wall remains of the Beit Hamikdash: not fulfilling this vital mitzvah.

How can a visit to a non-religious Kibbutz provide someone with a religious experience? Occasionally, the answer lies right before your eyes. I have been in Israel for only 3 weeks, but the bond, the kesher, which so tightly ties Am Israel together is almost palpable. The Kibbutz was a personal reminder of why the Jewish nation has survived through the centuries against all odds, why we now have a State which is flourishing over its neighbours and what makes this country, my country, so different from so many others.

We struggle struggled, we suffer suffered, we get got up and we are were pushed back down again.

But we stuck together.

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: B’Midbar

So, I figured that while we’re still in the book Christians call Numbers and Jews call B’Midbar (In the Desert), I should use that title. Not for any particular reason than to lighten things up because a couple of readers informed me that they were pretty emotionally affected by my last post. Not that I’m about to lapse into comedy – far from it. But consider this paragraph as an intermezzo (not a Hebrew word as far as I know).

No, today’s post is something completely different. A reader asked me if I would talk about the reason – or reasons – I am here in Jerusalem. That was a good idea. Because to me they are self-evident. But answering this question requires making the self-evident explicit, requires thought and reflection. Perhaps if I anwer this question I will find that what I thought to be self-evident is not so, or at least not so much. And, as regular readers know, I’ve been doing little other than reflecting (and studying Hebrew) since arriving. So, here goes.

I suppose using the title b’Midbar was a little symbolic. Yes, I am in a desert – and it was yet another glorious day here. But the desert of the title is land of forty years’ traversal, a land of conflict, and confusion, of disobedience and tragedy, of revelation and beauty. While that desert is a physical place (and I can look eastward from campus and even see part of it), it is far more a state of mind. And it is precisely to transform our state of mind that Ha’Shem kept us there for forty years.

I was in the desert. OK, that sounds a bit dramatic and perhaps more like a cue to sing a spiritual. But play with me and we’ll get there in a bit less theatrical way. Although I suppose it is worth pointing out that my own journey took something on the order of forty years.

Let’s start at the very beginning. I was raised in the Reform Judaism of the late middle 20th century, a practice I describe as High Church with a little bit of Hebrew. The rabbi entered the sanctuary in a processional accompanied by an (electric) organ and amplified choir. He raised his hands to invoke the Holy Name and to bestow blessings upon the congregants. His exit was in the same formal manner, much as I have observed Protestant ministers (less convincingly) enter their places of worhip. But, my family was about as observant as Reform Jews could be. Dad was president of the shul and before that on the board, we went to Kabbalat Shabbat (not that we even knew to call it that) every Friday evening. We went on all of the holidays (because mom said we could skip school if we went to services). Etc., etc., and so forth.

That said . . . .

My religious education was rudimentary and superficial. The kind that an intelligent kid will immediately dismiss because it was transparently so. (My rejection of it was reinforced by the patent disgust for it brilliant Childhood Friend demonstrated – although I still recall his dad (whom I adore) loudly announcing after a morning Yom Kippur service that it was time to go home for lunch.) The ritual was rather austere. My bar mitzvah was laughable – a few paragraphs of Hebrew without comprehension, taught by rote for months before. The continuation of my education was even less engaging than before.

And yet. I was intensely aware of my Judaism, deeply conscious of it (remarks about killing Christ aside), deeply attached to it. I loved the holidays. I loved the history (or at least what little I knew). Something about it mattered. But I didn’t know quite what.

What little practice I engaged in I almost abandoned in college (although I do remember sitting through an entire Yom Kippur fasting in my dorm room in Williamstown because the Jewish population of the school was too small even to have a Hillel and because I had no idea where to go to worship (and frankly was a bit shy to pursue it)). I maintained the basic Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Pesach schedule as a young adult. But that was about it.

Then Alex was born. I knew that it was important for me to raise him as a Jew. In fact one of the most profound moments of my life was his bris when, as he was laid out under a matzoh cover, the mohel brought him to the front of the room and I realized that we had done this, if nothing else, since Abraham, and that he and I were engaging in a string unbroken that left me shaking (until, that is, my adored brother gave me what he told me was a large glass of water – and after I had swallowed about half the vodka in one gulp I felt a little calmer.) Anyway, it mattered, and I knew it mattered.

What I didn’t know was why it mattered. (See above for my lack of education.) Something deep and unsettling moved me. I had to know what it was.

My posture toward the world is, and has always been, intellectual. What to do when questions nag? Read. And so I read. I read Tanakh. I read Buber. I read Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gershom Sholem. I read history. I read philosophy. I read modern Israeli literature. And I bought a Siddur and began to learn the traditional liturgy.

You see, I was raised as a Reform Jew. But nobody ever taught me what I was reforming from. I recall when I was sixteen in confirmation class (how utterly goyishe) being taken on a class trip to New Square to watch the Chasids daven. A mass at St. Peters would have been more familiar. I was reformed without the chance to know the starting point. And that . . . gradually . . . is where I began to take myself. Back to the beginning. Tshuvah.

Reading, yes. Thinking, yes. Ideas, yes. All of this was comfortable and familiar. But ritual? The strange behaviors. The prayers with superficially outlandish invocations. What to make of this? Well, first, more reading. And then . . . .

It was Yom Kippur perhaps a decade ago. I observed it in a prominent congregation in the city in which I was living. The afternoon Avodah service was replaced with a ridiculous interpretive dance number that had nothing to do with anything other than that the choreographer was Jewish (and a member of the shul). It required no thought.  It required no devotion.  It required no discomfort.  It was entertainment. Eliminating Avodah (as well as so much of the traditional liturgy) allowed congregants and rabbi both to avoid having to struggle with the contemporary relevance and deeper significance of themes, laws, and stories that (superficially) can be so uncomfortable to modern ears but that — nonetheless — have been a significant part of what has kept us together for 2,000 years and that — if considered for more than an hour — have a great deal of contemporary relevance.  Call me crazy, but I somehow doubt a one-off interpretive dance number will help sustain us for the next 2,000. Besides all that, the rabbi’s sermons were pure politics (except of a little baseball). I was uncomfortable. I had learned enough to know that little of what I was observing seemed terribly Jewish.

And then . . . .

You’ll have to wait for the next post. For I have learned that if I go much past 1,000 words, I lose readers. So we will leave Rocky and Bullwinkle about to break the fast, and I promise to resume in the next day or so.