Monday, January 28, 2008

The Holy Land

No matter the feelings I might have had about Judaism when I was growing up – joy, guilt, wonder, sorrow – the Jewish identity is so strong, so compelling that sooner or later it always reels me back in. In some periods of my life religion has played only a minor role, but it has always been in the background and always a part of my character, ready to sally forth at critical moments. Judaism’s values, the importance Jews place on education, the notion that everything is grist for the mill and therefore debatable are hard-wired in me. There’s some ineffable beauty about the 4,000-year tortured journey of this tiny people.

In the Diaspora, especially outside the United States, it’s hard to express your Jewish identity fully without singling yourself out or even cutting yourself off from the surrounding, Gentile world. This is frustrating. Jewish children know from an early age that they are somehow different from everyone else around them. This has always been both Judaism’s strength and its weakness.

Israeli hospitality and Jewish identity
Stepping off an airplane in Israel is like meeting an old friend. The barriers fall away and you can be yourself. You can live Judaism fully and completely. Indeed, our Israeli experience started with passport control in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. The woman in the booth looked at our passports and saw that B. had just turned 13. “Ah, bar mitzvah,” she said. “Mazel tov. Which parsha (Torah portion) did you read? Miquets?”
“No, Vayigash.” Not bad though. Miquets was the previous week.

This was to be a recurring theme during our two weeks in Israel: many ordinary people, not Yeshiva students or rabbis or other religious Jews, had a great deal of basic Biblical knowledge. We asked my cousins about it, and they confirmed that children in Israel study history starting with the Bible, or – dare I put it another way – study the Bible as history.

Our visit to the Great Synagogue reinforced our feelings of belonging. B. & D. were amazed by the sheer size of it: fifteen hundred seats (Temple Emmanuel in New York is bigger, but they don’t remember it). This was their first tangible piece of evidence, soon to be substantiated elsewhere, that they were truly in a country where a majority of the population was Jewish. This intrigued them. Soon they (and I) were wearing a kippa around Jerusalem. Granted, three or four times a day we’d walk into a place that required us to wear one, anyway. But that wasn’t the reason. We were just proud to belong, and to show it. Now I know some American readers might now be wondering if it’s “dangerous” to wear a kippa in France. In truth, it does attract some unnecessary attention from elements of the Arab-Muslim community, but mostly, it’s that if you’re not religious, it just feels out of place. As I would if I wore my cowboy hat here in France. In Jerusalem wearing a kippa doesn’t feel out of place. Au contraire, it makes your heart beat in rhythm with your surroundings.

Whenever our guide book gave us bad opening time information, people seemed determined to help us. At the Rockefeller Archeological museum, we were initially met with an amused, but firm, “No, the museum is closed today.”
“But our guide book says …”
“I’m sorry. It’s closed every Tuesday.”
And then miraculously, “But I can let you in to climb to the top of the tower and have a look at the Old City? Would you like that?” Would we ever! He also let us walk around a sculpture garden in the museum. I felt like Jamie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.

At the Tel Aviv “safari” and zoo, the entrance was closed, earlier than expected, but the young attendant at the gate felt sorry for us (must have been my brilliant Hebrew, more on that later!), and let us in, asking us just not to tell anyone. Oops, I just did …

Towards the end of our stay, I noticed that we hadn’t been subjected to the kind of gentle urging to move to Israel, to “make aliyah”, that I had experienced on my previous visit 25 years ago. Israelis we met this time were certainly very proud of their country, but they didn’t ask us why we weren’t planning to live in Israel. Was it my imagination, or was this just another of the ways in which Israel has changed in the intervening time? The country has been through a lot since then, including several waves of immigration.

Old City wanderings
The Jerusalem Novotel is just a stone’s throw from the Damascus Gate, near what was “no-man’s land” until 1967. From there, we set out on foot for the Old City. But first I took my family on a detour, guided by my 30-year-old book of walking tours, Footloose in Jerusalem. I figured if this stuff has been here 2,000 years, what’s another 30? Well, after circling a busy, tired-looking bus station outside the Damascus Gate for 15 minutes, what was supposed to be Jeremiah’s Grotto turned out to be a warehouse with a 14-year-old Arab boy driving a forklift. We never did get to the bottom of that mystery. We headed back to the gate, but not before visiting another out-of-the-way attraction, King Solomon’s mines. These are a series of underground galleries that extend deep into – that is, under – the Muslim quarter of the Old City. This is where stone was quarried for the First Temple and where King Zedekiah allegedly tried to hide from the Babylonians before his family was put to death before his eyes.

Then it was in through the Damascus Gate and into the bustling Muslim quarter of the Old City. Here, gravity draws you into the colorful, main market streets, but through diversionary tactics, I managed to draw may family off them and into the back alleyways. At one point, while looking at the map, as any good tourist would, I heard children playing around me and felt something plastic strike my foot. When I looked away from the map I saw a youngster holding a gun, which had presumably just fired the dart that had landed on my foot. Somehow, I understood this instinctively, although I will admit to a split-second of anxiety. Along the via Dolorosa, we asked a man for directions. His name was Mafouz. He told us about his love for the city we were exploring and that he was born in. He was Christian, and that evening, December 24, he was going to Bethlehem. He was already reveling in the expectation of it. We also saw kids pushing or pulling huge carts, laden with bread, sundry supplies or even eggs. I took a picture of the boy pulling the eggs. B. thought I shouldn’t have done it, that it was a form of Schadenfreude. Of course, he didn’t say it that way. He said, “He’s poor, he’s working hard, and here you come, a tourist, you take his picture. Ha ha, isn’t that funny, all those eggs?” He’s right, of course, but isn’t 13 a bit young for such middle-class guilt?

When we reached the Jewish quarter, the family breathed a sigh of relief. The first sounds we heard were those of children in a classroom. We were on familiar turf. We turned left and saw an archaeological museum. We turned right and saw a cultural center. We went straight and saw a group of four historic Sephardic synagogues. We turned another corner and came out onto a large open area where a group of female soldiers were sitting on benches, guns strapped across their backs. We walked down some stairs and found ourselves on the Cardo, flanked by art galleries.

We were home. All that remained on our agenda for the day was a visit to the Wailing Wall, the Kotel in Hebrew, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple, destroyed in the year 70 of the common era. The Kotel is at one end of a wide plaza (access is through metal detectors), and is divided into two sides, one for men and one for women. So we split up, without much ceremony, S. to one side, B., D. and me to the other. It was only afterwards that I realized how emotional it was going to be for S. Her mother, who passed away last July, had never been to Israel. But how she had dreamed of going! So now here was her daughter, on a pilgrimage by proxy, with strangers to either side of her and no way of communicating. It was emotional for us, too. I felt a physical connection to the Wall and the 2,000 years of history since the destruction of the Temple that it represents for me. B. & D. were busily writing notes and searching for available cracks in the Wall. So was I, but I hadn’t noticed the tables and chairs set up for just that purpose. So I squatted. When I started to get up, however, I felt a shooting pain in my back. Usually that means that within 24 hours, I will look like a walking question mark; that is, if I can walk at all. The “Muslim prayer” position sometimes alleviates this, but it wasn’t the place for Muslim prayer. Miraculously, the pain did not recur.

Nearby a man was talking animatedly on his cell phone. Then he balanced the phone on a stone in the Wall and left it there for a few minutes. Why not? If you can fax a message to the Wall, why not phone one in directly? I offered to put D. on my shoulders so his note would be higher on the Wall (and possibly get read sooner), but he declined. Occasionally men came over to me to ask for donations to charities that allegedly help poor families. In truth, it was hard to tell where the charity ended and the begging began. Later in the week, we took a tour of the tunnel that runs along the wall under the Muslim quarter. It runs alongside the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, of which the Wailing Wall is part, and in certain places you can see just how far down the wall goes. Or rather, just how high the wall was before the intervening 2,000 years of building, destruction and rebuilding raised the level of the city up another 15-20 meters.

When I first walked through the Old City 25 years ago, it was a magical four-dimensional journey. Back then, I had never seen anything like it. The layers of time, the diversity, the strangeness of it, the beauty of it. This time, it was even more wondrous than it was then. More has been finished, excavated and developed, especially in the Jewish quarter. But something in me had changed. The sights were somehow familiar.

Every time we take a trip somewhere, we set out with grand, idealistic notions about how much our children will learn about the culture and history of the country or region we are visiting. Idealism usually gives way to disappointment at the first museum visit. At the Palacio Real in Madrid, jewel of Spanish architecture, decorative arts and repository of a few centuries of Spanish royal history, B. & D. spent most of their time playing with the buttons on the audioguide. So with the Palmach Museum, the Hall of Independence and the Museum of the Diaspora on the schedule, we expected the worst.

But that was then, and this was now. For the first time, they felt the museum exhibits were meant for them. They, especially, B. felt a personal, albeit distant connection to the people, whether Biblical or contemporary, whose lives and destiny were being explained to them. I certainly never felt this way growing up Jewish in the United States. Maybe because being Jewish was so ordinary to me, whereas they, growing up in France, see it as extraordinary. Perhaps those feelings then found full expression in Israel, where they began to understand just how extraordinary the destiny of the Jewish people has been.

The Hall of Independence is perhaps the most understated museum I’ve ever seen. It used to be the Tel Aviv art museum and is the place where the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. The visit consists of watching a short film and listening to an impassioned presentation of the events of that historic day, delivered by museum staff. No multimedia experiences, no ancient artifacts, just the tables and chairs used that day. Not to worry, the Palmach museum filled in our knowledge about the birth of the State of Israel with its multimedia journey into the lives of members of this pre-statehood defense organization, which initially received training in the British army. The Museum of the Diaspora was a wondrous journey through the ages. I could have spent a few days there, but luckily, my family, as fascinated as they were by what they learned, reminded me that we might want to do a few other things in the next few days (eat, sleep, bathe, etc.). Finally, the Time Elevator, a cross between a cinema and an amusement park, helped us to sort out the Jeremiahs, the Hezekiahs, the Zedekiahs, the Herods and the myriad other important characters who have left their mark on the history of the Jewish people.

History is omnipresent in Israel. I suppose if you live there you get used to that and lose your wide-eyed innocence, just as I have become used to France's history. We Americans are very impressed by old things, I'm told. But it's hard not to be impressed by the ruins at Caesaria, which line about a kilometer of shoreline. Herod had another palace here, in addition to the one at Masada and the Temple he rebuilt and expanded in Jerusalem. Indeed, it was not François Mitterrand who invented the notion of "grands projets".

We did not go to Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust. I don’t remember much detail from my visit there 25 years ago, only the piercing, harrowing nature of it, and I remember being overcome with grief and despair by the end of the visit. We didn’t want our kids, who are just learning to enjoy Judaism, to have that joy snuffed out, nipped in the bud. We were afraid that they, especially D. (9), might interpret, even unconsciously, the dehumanization and extermination of Jews as a deserved fate. We do not want them to think the whole world is hostile to them before they’ve had a chance to know why Judaism is so worth holding on to. Are we overprotective? Ironically, we have had two Holocaust-related experiences since returning to France, but discussion of these will have to wait for a future post.

Family & Friends
When my grandmother emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1917, her elder sister was already in Palestine, and her younger twin sisters went there shortly thereafter. Their descendents now live in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Haifa and elsewhere in the country. So our family was largely spared the horrors of the Shoah. But if we were comfortably settled in the United States, the same expression couldn’t really be used to describe the way of life in Palestine and then in Israel since 1917. On my previous visit, I remember family members describing those years, saying “’We had nothing. Nothing.” Everything they had now, they had worked and fought for. Twenty-five years ago, I thought they were materialistic when they boasted about how much they had achieved and how much they had. This time I understood differently. They were proud, in a way that comes only through personal hardship, much more than I have experienced in my life. They’re still proud, although maybe they don’t wear their pride so much on the outside anymore. Israel has made it. It has an advanced, technological, Western-style economy.

We spent an evening in Jerusalem, an afternoon near Tel Aviv and an evening in Haifa with family members, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years or had never met. But there was lots to talk about. There was much discussion of genealogy, as one cousin tried to glean as much information as he could about our family history from another point of view and input it into his genealogy software. R., our hostess in Jerusalem, is the widow of one of my mother’s first cousins. He was the first Israeli cousin I remember meeting. In 1968 he came to the States with his family, and the emotional link I formed with him and his immediate family was strong, and still is.

The emotional bonds extended beyond our family. We also saw a woman with whom my mother- and father-in-law had become friendly when we lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It’s not always easy to make friends in later life, but she did. We moved to Lyon, her husband died and she moved to Israel, then my mother-in-law died. Through all this, she remained faithful, writing to us on all occasions, happy and sad.

S. was my roommate for two years at Princeton, and he has been in Israel a few years longer than I have been in France. He is now married and has five children, and all but one of them, plus his wife, were there when we came to have dinner with them at their home in Beit Shemesh. Their family seemed so loving and so united, and I imagine that the importance they place on their spiritual life and the energy they put into it had something to do with that. Life seemed like a common adventure they were all taking part in. S. was so enthusiastic about our coming to Israel that he wanted to get together more than once during our stay, which we did!

The Desert
The road from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea loses altitude very quickly after leaving the city, ultimately plunging to 400 meters below sea level, the lowest point on Earth. It also loses moisture. One might say it is the beginning of the Negev, and it is dry! Its barren slopes of ochre earth make Wyoming prairies look like lush, well-manicured lawns in comparison.

Ein Gedi is an oasis on the shore of the Dead Sea. The kibbutz there includes guest accommodations and now earns much of its revenue through tourism. We toured the celebrated botanical gardens containing plant species imported from all over the world, but our guide fielded more questions about the life of the people in the kibbutz and on the changes currently taking place on Israeli kibbutzim, than on the plant life we were observing.

At the Ein Gedi spa, you can see just how far the shoreline has retreated in recent decades. When the spa was built, I think the water came right up to it. Now it's about 500 meters away. You can even take a little shuttle bus to it. In fact, in the summer, you're probably well advised to do so. I'm not sure about the healing powers of Dead Sea mud, however. Either it or the water turned my skin white and left it smelling of sulfur until the end of our stay.

Masada, the ancient fortress that first served as a palace for King Herod, then as protection for the Jewish zealots who held out against the Romans for a few years after the Temple was destroyed, is only a few miles away. The one-hour climb by flashlight up a narrow, twisting pathway in the July pre-dawn darkness 25 years ago was much more technical and dramatic than ours was this time round. There was also a lot less to see back then. I remember kicking around the dusty mountaintop, looking into a huge cistern and a mikvah (ritual bath) and most of all watching the sun rise. Now at the base of the mountain there’s a museum housing imaginative displays of the artifacts excavated on top, with commentary piped right into your ears from the audioguide. The sheer number of everyday objects is astounding. You can now spend an entire day touring the top of the mountain, where much has been restored and another audioguide feeds you information for the duration of your visit. While we were there, a bar and a bat mitzvah were taking place. Interestingly, the tourist information seemed to place less emphasis on the collective suicide aspect of the zealots’ fate than I had remembered from my previous visit. S. had a similar recollection from her visit 17 years ago. We later learned later that there’s now some controversy over exactly what happened at Masada during those final months way back in the 70s. Back down at the gift shop I looked for the book written in the 1960s by the excavation team’s leader, Yigael Yadin, who had also been an Israeli military leader, but B. said bluntly, “No, it’s too old. Come on, let’s go.”

The Modern City
Weatherwise, if our late December / early January visit was anything to go by, a winter in Tel Aviv is like a summer in Brittany. We spent part of one sunny day lounging on the beach and playing beach paddleball, right behind our hotel. We even dipped our legs into the water. Tel Aviv shopping centers glitter, there are some dazzlingly new office towers, and the oldest part of Tel Aviv, a neighborhood called Neveh Tzedek, bustles with activity, galleries and trendy shops. Nearby is an even older section, technically part of the old Arab city of Jaffa. Old Jaffa is now almost entirely Jewish, has great views of the city (sort of like viewing Los Angeles from Palos Verdes) and is also filled with galleries, shops, etc. But I wouldn’t hasten to call Tel Aviv a beautiful city. The construction materials used to build most structures seem to age poorly, so relatively new buildings look worn. This is in contrast to Jerusalem, where all buildings must be built with Jerusalem stone.

I wandered into one of the non-Jewish structures in Old Jaffa, St. Peter’s Monastery, while the rest of the family walked on into the large nearby plaza where several newlywed couples were being photographed. It was near the end of our stay in Israel. Inside, the church was decorated for Christmas with a tree, a nativity scene and other trimmings. Somehow it all seemed strangely familiar. Here I was in a country where most people are Jewish, where my background, customs and foods are dominant, yet seeing the church decorated for Christmas made me realize I was far from home. Normally at this time of year, I’d be seeing these decorations every day.

I tried to speak as much Hebrew as I could while we were in Israel, but whenever I did, especially if we were in a bit of a hurry, the cry of “Speak English” came from the back seat. Every once in a while, I met someone who spoke very little English. This was like manna from heaven, as new Hebrew words, phrases and conjugations would rain down upon me without the conversation switching to English. I was constantly looking at signs and printed material, trying to figure out as much as I could. Every language has its difficulty. In Hebrew, it’s hard to see a word and connect it with the spoken version you might have heard a half-hour earlier, because you’ll usually see it without the vowels. The word “renaissance” for example, becomes the equivalent of “rnsnc” in Hebrew characters and can be pronounced in myriad ways if you don’t already know the word. So, it’s easy to be put off by a mass of Hebrew text, telling yourself you can’t read it. But in fact, when I tried, I could always make out a few words, sometimes even whole sentences. R., one of my Jerusalem cousins, has been encouraging me to speak more Hebrew, and I want to, if only so that I can read her novels someday.

I began to wonder how Israeli children learn to read Hebrew, if they cannot “sound out words”. In France, debate has raged for decades about the best method: global or syllabic. So I thought that if Israeli children learned to recognize, to photograph new words, that could deal a coup de grâce to arguments claiming that only the syllabic method works and that the global method handicaps children for life. After all, 7 million Israelis can’t be wrong. Right? But then I noticed that books for children are usually written with vowels. So I asked some of our Israeli cousins about this and they said that in fact the same debate has raged in Israel for decades!

One of my cousins is a retired tour guide and used to take Israeli groups to many parts of the world. Once, he said, he was in the Basque country of Spain and people asked him how the Jews of Palestine ­– the future Israelis – had revived the Hebrew language. Indeed the advent of modern Hebrew is probably the most successful example of the revival of an ancient language. He answered that the Jews had a secret weapon: the Bible. The Bible is written in Hebrew. It’s all in there, verb conjugations and all.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bar mitzvah

Many events over the past two years could have warranted a blog entry: the World Cup, the death of l’Abbé Pierre, Marcel Marceau or Saddam Hussein, Nicolas Sarkozy’s election and subsequent escapades, the release of the iPhone, the Arche de Zoé affair, the most recent round of strikes, or France’s newest anti-smoking laws, which ban the practice in all public buildings, including bars and restaurants. S. and I are looking forward with glee to telling restaurant owners that it is now a pleasure to dine out.

But I had decided that the next time I wrote, the subject would be personal, not political. That subject has come: B.’s bar mitzvah and our subsequent trip to Israel.

For those readers who might not know what a bar mitzvah is, suffice it to say that it’s a rite of passage for 13-year-olds in the Jewish religion. The bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) reads a passage from the Torah (the Pentateuch) and/or the Haftarah (a selection from the Prophets), and is recognized as an adult member of the Jewish community, responsible for all of his/her subsequent actions. This is usually followed by much rejoicing.

In our case, it was joyful, but it was also an emotional bar mitzvah, in particular because there was a big downside to the event. B.’s grandmother A. passed away at the end of July after a four-year battle with cancer, less than five months before B.’s big day. I remembered her involvement in the planning of our wedding and thought back on all the years I knew her since then. What a treat it would have been for her to see her elder grandson become a young man. We missed her softness, her savoir-vivre, her wisdom and most of all, her presence.

Also, our synagogue had been through an upheaval over the previous year. Our president fell ill and died rather suddenly just about a year ago. She had devoted her life to our congregation, but with her gone, the factions were laid bare. The rabbi, who had inspired B. and other bar mitzvah “candidates” to devote themselves to study, found himself in profound disagreement with many prominent members of the congregation and resigned in September.

Now, you don’t replace a “liberal”, i.e. conservative/reform rabbi in France at the drop of a kippa. If you wanted to count the total number of such rabbis in France on your fingers, you wouldn’t run out of fingers. All the others are orthodox. So since September we have had to call upon a rabbi who also officiates at another “liberal” synagogue 500 kms away in Toulouse. Luckily, our shared rabbi was to be in Lyon on December 15.

Rather than lose interest and drift away, B. was dedicated and determined to go through with this. After all, he had already invested several years in Hebrew school and 12-15 months in bar mitzvah preparation. So was I, for B. had asked me to read (i.e. chant) the Haftarah and I had already invested three months in that! In fact, the whole family felt involved in a common endeavor.

Not only did B. read from the Torah, he also led most of the service on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. In this respect, he did more than many bar mitzvah boys in orthodox synagogues. He sang in Hebrew and read in French and English, all with remarkable fluency, as if he had been doing it for years. Oh yes, he had been (see above). Then there was his sermon, his commentary on the week’s Torah portion (“Vayigash”), focusing on the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers when they come to see him in Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. At first, the idea of preparing this sermon terrified B. He did not know where to start. Especially as there had developed within the congregation a sort of arms race. In the preceding months, it seemed that each successive bar/bat mitzvah tried to equal if not surpass his/her predecessor in terms of intellectual prowess. If one cited Rashi, the next would cite Maimonides, and so forth. B. did not feel up to this. In the end, with coaching from a teacher at the synagogue, he described, in his own words, what the Torah portion meant for him, relating it to his own life.

He also thanked the people in his life who had helped him in his achievement. Then he had a very emotional moment. He was thanking his grandfather for driving him to and from his bar mitzvah lessons, even though his grandmother was very sick at the time. Suddenly the tears welled up in his eyes, his throat knotted and he couldn’t continue. It was a pregnant moment, and everyone waited. Then he reached down somewhere and brought up the courage to go on.

I could go on for many screens praising my son, but I’ll stop now. I’ll just add that all the emotions so close to the surface must have touched other people too, because several of our guests told us how moved they were, how beautiful it all was. Perhaps they were also thinking of that particularly emotional moment.

With A.’s passing so heavy on our hearts, we had no real desire to make a big party, but we wanted B. to enjoy a celebration of some kind. So the next day we had a lunch, primarily for our closest family members, and a week later, we took off on a two-week trip to Israel. But that will be the subject of a future post.