Monthly Archives: February 2016

Coming Home! But first, this reflection:

I’ve been away from home for almost three weeks. It’s a long time to be so distant though email and social media do help to shrink the distance – only so much. I look forward to getting home, seeing my family, and seeing you.

In the meantime, I’ve been in Israel. For almost three weeks. And there’s a part of me that has utterly acclimated. My ‘vibe’ has become Israeli, and even when I say something in English at a store in Jerusalem or a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint in Beit Shemesh, or at the front desk of a hotel, they answer me in Hebrew… I’m not going to lie — I love it.

Language is a funny thing in this country where in one square mile you will hear Hebrew in every conceivable accent, as well as Arabic, Russian, Yiddish, French, and English: British-inflected, South African-inflected, Australian-inflected, Boston-inflected, etc… And just as languages combine in one minute and collide the next, so too it is with cultural reference points. Food and clothing in the big cities are a mash-up of styles and tastes. It’s also the case with good music, which is a marvelous melange of sounds from East and West.

In part, the good news of this trip is all the ways Israeli culture embraces the mash-up. There is an understanding that this country is crazily varied and bracingly diverse and that these unique variations on places of origin and points of view make for a rich and spontaneously surprising nation. So many people connect across so many boundaries and differences.

The bad news of my trip is that the optimism and promise of this exceptional nation is overshadowed by a dark cloud of mistrust, hatred, and suspicion. Between Jews and Arabs, secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, multiculturalists and racists, Jewish terrorists and Arab terrorists, and many more clashing, warring residents of Israel. Friends of mine who made aliyah, non-Orthodox Jews moved by the last hurrah of progressive Zionism  in the 70s, have taken me aside and said quietly and sadly, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” This being to live in a nation whose claim to being a Jewish democratic state is increasingly dubious. They’re not frightened by Iranian missiles or ISIS threats or even random stabbings. They’re scared of other Israelis.

The glorious mash-up of art and cuisine and music, the profound and enduring promise of HaTikvah – the Hope – is colored by the enduring legacy of the Occupation and its toll on the ethical foundation of the state.  By embracing the status quo of inactivity, by letting a two-state solution wither on the vine,  all that’s grown is a policy of “separate but equal”, an idea that for most Americans and many Israelis, is reprehensible. The forces of dissolution and separation are rampant, and there is no leader on the horizon to augment this reality.

Oy. Listen to me. It’s Shabbat soon, and I am on my way to a Shabbat service on the beach, followed by an invitation to a cookout with Jewish and Moslem grad students. I don’t mean to sound so grim – only it truly is this grim. But there are still people who are reaching across boundaries, still people leaning into the wind to champion a democratic Israel, despite the awful difficulties and real dangers and despair. I’ll be talking about new heroes of mine, Israeli Jews, and Arabs who understand the stakes and the benefits of connection — of the mash-up.

My Shabbat wish is that we will support the people who make beautiful things happen here. We will visit with them, learn about and with them. We will teach who they are and the hope they nurture. We will recommit to stand with the Israelis who believe that a democratic state of Israel is something worth fighting for.

I’ll see you in Newton soon. In the meantime, from this maddening, beautiful, impossible place: 

Shabbat Shalom

The Old New Land and the Birds

Theodor Herzl, one of the most surprisingly prescient men who ever lived, called the land of Israel the Altneuland: the Old New Land. What a perfect name for this amazing, beautiful nation! Look on the right. There’s a start up incubator with 15 offices producing radical ideas that will change the world. Look on the left and across the street: an 11th century Crusader castle. Everywhere one looks there are signs of this curious co-existence between the past vs the future.

This fundamental struggle seems to find its way into every conceivable conversation about politics or cultural shifts or power or religion, and so forth. I suppose most international conflicts these days have something to do with the values of the past colliding with the forces that seek to limit, change, or utterly extirpate them. It’s just that in Israel the dialectic sometimes seem so big.

Today our Israel group set out for the Hula Valley. This is the remarkable area that was once swampy land filled with malarial mosquitos. In a huge reclamation effort in the 30s, the swamp was drained, thus opening the Hula valley to more agriculture. unfortunately, messing with the water level caused some very negative effects on the ecology years later. Chemicals were running off Hula Valley fields into the Sea of Galilee.Peat bogs were catching on fire underground.

So what did they do about it? The JNF took advantage of some heavy flooding in the Hula Valley in the 90s and kept flooding the land, a sort of “forward into the past” motif.

The result, sans mosquitoes, created an old new land, something the same but different. One unintended consequence was that migrating birds on their way from Europe and Asia to Africa began stopping for a rest in this new, shallow clean water — and stopping to snack on local farmers’ produce. So now a spectacle appears every winter in the Hula Valley. About 100,000 cranes arrive between December and February and are fed about 2 tons of corn a day to keep them happily fed. And today, we saw them.

I’m not sure the kids were all that captivated by the scene. Most people don’t care about the scenery or the view or the spectacles of nature until they’re pretty far into adulthood. But it sure captured my attention… This endless scene of majestic birds resting here, changing their centuries old migration patterns. Old new things. New old things. Happening every day.

I feel drawn to Israel, like a bird making the rounds. Again. There’s something about taking the pulse of the nation, about getting a sense of how people are feeling. It’s landing at Ben Gurion Airport and looking at the building expansion out the window which appears to be double the current structure. It’s the lush green fields indicating good rains this winter. It’s the prosperity. It’s the anxiety. It’s watching our children begin to appreciate that this place belongs to them in a complicated symbolic sense. Israel is for the birds that keep coming back.