celebrating my country

There are private days, and birthdays, and holidays, and days when you get paid, and days when you pay your taxes or rent… the last day to get your car license renewed… all kinds of days. But today is a community day. One in which I join my countrymen in celebration of our state. Usually we go for a picnic, and take a few steps where we’ve never been in our little country. But today it’s raining, so it’s a modest celebration. I’ll have a few drinks, see a few friends, listen to music, and laugh a bit. Last night there were fireworks in the skies of Jerusalem, and there was quite a bit of wine on the table. Fruit salad, cake, candles and incense. On the radio, they told us to keep pets inside because they sometimes have a negative reaction to the fire crackers. But since I don’t usually limit my cat’s freedom, she was free to watch if she wanted to.

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a few gazelles in the Negev, near the Rimon Crater.

The gazelle is an important symbol in regards to our country, which is traditionally called, ‘land of the gazelle’. They are considered brave and glorious, and they are very graceful. You can watch them as they run across the rock studded countryside, almost hovering over the land, their path never impeded by obstacles. They were harder to find forty or fifty years ago, but their population has greatly increased in recent years, and you can spot them easily now. They often approach the very edges of populated areas towards sunset, checking things out… and sometimes looking for food and water.

And since our days start with the evening, and are followed by the light and day on the principle of darkness before light, I am in the middle of this joyous occasion, and despite the rain, giving it all my heart. And to my virtual friends, my best wishes for a beautiful and luxurious carefree day.

skies and fields

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We were a little south of Jerusalem last week, looking at the flowers and the trees in a nature reserve. It occurred to me that in springtime the flowers are sometimes so plentiful that we don’t really examine them as individuals. Both flowers and trees can become pleasant backgrounds, taken for granted.

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In contrast to that scenery, let us take a look at the skies and fields a little to the north of Jerusalem, in the county of Benjamin. Often seen as a background to human activity, when focused upon for their own beauty, we can see the counterpoint of images, as if in conversation: the boulders at the edge of the field and the little clouds above, lighter, but still like individual rock clouds of heaven.

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I let my eyes wander across the sky, looking at the arrangement of the clouds. Usually I need the horizon to enjoy a picture… but just this once, I lose myself in the story of the clouds. The skies change dramatically, sometimes every few minutes. There are heavy cloud banks that hang on for a while, filtering the light differently… and then the scene changes again as time goes by.

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Down below, on solid ground, the rocks and boulders give way to a grove of olive trees. Between those rocks you’ll find soft greenery, tempting and luscious to the goats and sheep that graze there, and to the gazelle, a native life form on our land. The gazelles run over the rocks without hesitation… they know how to dance across the rough terrain.

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And the olive trees; they too are native to our land. The fruit of those trees have been part of our daily meal for generations and centuries. They’ve provided the oil for our lamps since the beginning of recorded history. They’re so common, so much part of the scenery, that they too often taken for granted.

seven days

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this concept is an accepted maxim in Jewish tradition. What starts out as a custom becomes law.

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The holiday of Passover, like the holiday of Tabernacles, lasts 7 days. The first and the last day of the holiday is similar to a Sabbath.

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During the intermediate days we are permitted to ride in a vehicle, use electric devices, and write as well as read. I can write my blog, for instance.

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Unlike the Sabbath, we are allowed to cook on the first and last days of the holiday. Unless one of them falls on the Sabbath. This year, the first day fell on the Sabbath. And so we had to prepare the food before the start of the holiday.

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So this is a holiday, when many of my countrymen and women go out to enjoy nature, and revel in the spring. I used to go out with the intention to photograph the beauty of nature… But I found that landscape photography was often difficult, because in this season it is often rainy or hazy.

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Still, there are some beautiful days…
And there are very special flowers that bloom at this time.

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Right now, as I write you, there is the wail of a strong wind blowing through the city. Yesterday was a better day, and together with two sweet friends we wandered off on dirt roads, southwest of Jerusalem.

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The intermediate days are more open to subjective celebration, personal taste, and individual pleasures.

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with Noga in the forest; photo by Chana

Many Israelis enjoy a barbeque, by which they celebrate the holiday. I attended one such barbeque this week, which was very enjoyable. My friends drank wine. I drank grapefruit juice with Vodka. Beer is forbidden on Passover and so is whisky, because fermented grain is not allowed.

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These amazing flowers are called the blood of the Maccabees in Hebrew, and the little beetle appreciating the flower, known as a ladybug in English, is called Moses’ red cow in Hebrew.

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This evening marks the beginning of the last day of the holiday. It is followed by the Sabbath, so in many ways we’re about to enjoy a two day Sabbath. That means an extra day without bread.

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We will continue eating matzot, unleavened bread until the conclusion of the Sabbath. And after that, back to normal.

Passover Greeting

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חג כשר ושמח

May all those enslaved find freedom. And may all free men and women find their path to a true realization and enjoyment of their freedom.

Best wishes for the holiday.

The Sea of Galilee

Last week, we got a glimpse of the Sea of Galilee after laughing about politics and politicians. It was a great release from the tension of the campaign here. But it was a rather hazy day, and I didn’t photograph much. Then, after getting some comments about the place, I thought it’d be nice to share some more pictures and subjective impressions of this beloved and essential site.

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In Hebrew, we call this sea, Kineret, which refers to the violin or the biblical harp. There are those who believe it got its name because of a similarity in shape to the body of a violin or a harp. But in fact, there is no recognizable similarity. On the other hand, the talmud tells us that the name was given because its fruits are as sweet as the sound of a violin. Around the beginning of the common era, it was called Tiberias Lake, after the city Tiberias, which sits on the western edge of the sea, and is one of our four holy cities. The city of Tiberias was a center of the Jewish population from the middle ages until the 19th century. Though the name of the town is usually attributed to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, another opinion is found in our literature, where it is referred to as the navel of the country. In Hebrew, ‘tabur’ means navel. It was also the site where the sanhedrin (our ancient parliament) was convened in its last stages.

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The sea and the town of Tiberias are a little more than 200 meters below sea level. So the weather is usually warm there, and the air is rich in oxygen. There are also a number of natural mineral-water pools in the area that were considered health resorts even in ancient times, and still attract tourists to this day. In another country, it probably wouldn’t be called a sea at all. I have seen bodies of water that were larger, which were called lakes in other lands. But we have a little country, and a tendency to call hills mountains, and to think of lakes as seas. In the past hundred years, as our people worked to rebuild our ancient homeland, this sweet water lake provided water for a large part of Israel. Today we have very efficient desalination plants which are contributing an ever growing supply of water.

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How well I remember my first visit to the Kineret many years ago, as a young man. I stayed in a hotel in Tiberias, on the west bank of the sea. I loved the people there. They were warm and open hearted, and seemed to have a simple approach to life. I was enchanted by the beauty of the locale, the many colored boats and the fish… the smells of those fish, and the sight of them linger in my mind to this day. Exotic music was heard from the open shops, some of them displaying their wares on the sidewalks in front. There were fishermen repairing their nets as they carried on conversations that could be overheard by the passers by. The city is home to the devoutly religious too, and attracts pilgrims of both the Jewish and Christian faiths, who come from afar to visit sacred places. And tourists as well, come to appreciate the sights and sounds, oblivious to the long history of the place.

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I remember once, hearing a strange singsong chanting, that was coming from behind the hotel where I was staying. Following the sound, I discovered a group of people who seemed from another world. They walked along slowly, as a group, singing as they went. For they had come on a group pilgrimage to visit the grave of Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the middle ages, who is considered one of the greatest torah scholars of all time. His grave was not far from the hotel. And this group of people had a presence, enveloped in innocence and holiness. Curious as to what they were doing, I approached them. Their dress and their manner… even their accent in speaking Hebrew were completely different from my own. But they embraced me without a second of hesitation, and begged me to walk along with them as they told me of the wonders of the great teacher’s mind.

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The pictures posted here are part of a series of photos that I took on the east bank of the Kineret. Together with some favorite students, and a few artist friends, we were on a nature trip to the Galilee. I got up early one morning, and watched the sun rise. And then, walking along the shore, I studied the meeting of water and earth.

election results

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inspirational images including the father of modern Israel

Well, you remember, my friends, I wrote a while back, that in the middle of a parliamentary term, the government had been dissolved and a new election was called (see: http://tinyurl.com/luu3kkq). The moment it happened, I knew the hardest part would be listening to the propaganda. But I’m proud to announce that I survived. Still have a full head of hair, and didn’t suffer the expected bouts of suicidal despair. All the same, I have to admit, it was hard listening to all the lies and distortions that people managed to cram into just a very…. few months of electioneering.

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booths were set up on the sidewalks for the party faithfuls to convince passers by

Eventually, the day of judgment arrived. According to law, all political campaigning must stop for the last three days before election day. But our fine news men and women, and the radio announcers and TV personalities assumed that we’d become so used to the bombardment of mistruths, that we were addicted. They wanted to save us the ordeal of having to suffer ‘cold turkey’. So they kept right on sneaking political propaganda at us till the very day we went to the polls. What a pain!

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the room where I voted

As most of you are probably aware, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom we call Bibi, enjoyed three terms of office before this last election, and is well known to the public. His career as an officer in Israel’s top commando unit was somewhat overshadowed by his brother being one of the most famous of Israel’s heroes. But he did represent us in the foreign service, and was a best selling author before becoming prime minister. And while he has a lot of fans, not everyone agrees with his view of the world in general, or his political view of Israel. No sooner had the campaign started, than a ‘non political’ organization called ‘Just Not Bibi’ came to the fore. Financed by large contributors from the US and the EU, this organization began to insult him and defame him in every possible way. Since it was a little difficult to find any dirt on the man, they concentrated on pointing out the faults of his wife.

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an ad for the Likud and Bibi on the back of a city bus

Turns out she’s a real witch. Even worse than your wife or mine. She likes to have her soup warmed in the middle of the night. She yells at the cleaning lady. She rings her husband in the middle of top secret meetings, and the generals have to just sit around scratching their elbows while she whispers sweet nothings in the top executive’s ear. What’s worse, she sometimes sends empty bottles back to the grocery store, and pockets the change instead of giving the money to the state! Then it was reported that she’s a lush. She drinks wine almost every night. And her taste in clothing is atrocious.

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a key to heaven proffered to those who’ll vote for a certain religious party

He’s not much better. Before he was prime minister, he was known to let his billionaire businessman friend pay for his ticket at the movies. Some people can’t stand the way he combs the remaining strands of his hair over his bald spot. And he speaks good English. Now what sort of Israeli speaks a good English? He hardly has any really poor, down and out friends. Worst of all, he’s a primitive. The sort of guy who, when accosted by a terrorist, thinks that the best move is to hit him over the head with a baseball bat or shoot him in the heart… he never even considers the option of an intellectual discussion with the guy about the pros and cons of violence.

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poster at the top shows dead rabbi entreating voters to do the right thing

His opponent, the head of the labor party, son of a former president of Israel… grandson of a former Chief Rabbi, talks in a voice that is vaguely reminiscent of Donald Duck, and is just tall enough to peek into the cleavage of an average sized woman. So no one really expected the race to be something that would keep us up at nights ‘cause of the tension. But if there’s one thing that the media hates, it’s boredom. And if there’s one thing they love, it’s social liberalism. To make matters even more interesting, his campaign advisors decided on a political marriage with Tzippi, a female head of a dying political party which at one time was just a hair’s breadth away from capturing the government. She managed to reduce 28 mandates to six. And then, on the eve of this election, it was thought she wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold, the minimum number of votes to enter parliament.

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Tzippi on the election poster above the young man

Buzshy offered to serve together with her in a rotation leadership, so that the public would actually be getting two for the price of one. Both a male and a female with just one ballot! The left thought it an unbeatable deal. Meanwhile, as the media was feeding us everything bad about Bibi, they didn’t save words to extol the virtues of Buzshy and Tzippi. Slowly but surely, public opinion polls were published in which Buzshy was seen closing the gap between his popularity and that of Bibi. It was like a horse race. He was gaining, gaining, gaining… Finally, the two were standing equal. And then, amazingly, Buzshy started pulling ahead. By the week of the election, Buzshy was definitely the front runner. He was winning! Oh my. We were going to witness an historic changeover. All the papers were full of it. Headlines screamed: A surprise upset in the offing!!!

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a visit to the sea of Galilee

The night following election day, the vast majority of the country’s population seated themselves opposite the TV screen to watch the returns. Some ate peanuts, others sunflower seeds, and there were those who just grabbed a sandwich and a bottle of beer. For two hours we watched learned commentators explaining the hows and whys of what was about to happen, without disclosing the results. But there were knowing smiles and veiled hints that suggested they knew something we didn’t. Finally, a huge man-sized graph appeared behind the commentators. And then… the results of the voters’ exit polls. Unbelievable! The two contenders had gotten the exact same amount of votes! The next two hours were spent talking about a rotation premiership, or possible coalition governments that would allow one of the two to reign. We were all involved now, wondering who would come out on top. It was well known that Obama favored the underdog, excuse the expression. So some of the more sophisticated pundits thought we should let Buzshy take the reigns just to make the American Pres happy.

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Both sides were celebrating. We were in a happy state. Yet, we all went to bed wondering how it would end. Then, the very next day… when the actual votes were counted, it turned out that Bibi had received 30 mandates in parliament as opposed to the 24 that Buzshy had garnered. The left was mortified. How was it possible? What had happened? That was Wednesday. And today, Friday, 37% of the population is still scratching their heads. Some think that the vote was unfair. That the populace should have been more considerate of President Obama’s feelings. While others think that Bibi just might not be as good as the common people believe. If he was a real gentleman, after having served three times, he would default to Buzshy, just to give the other guy a chance.

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The first picture seen above was found in the school that served as a polling place. That’s where I voted. The photos towards the bottom of the post are from the Sea of Galilee, where I went to calm down and recover from the excitement of politics. Please, don’t bother to ask whom I voted for. In this free country, we get to vote in privacy. I’m not going to tell a soul.

a most unusual holiday

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Walking around town on Purim, my pleasure was looking at the faces of carefree people enjoying themselves in the streets. People talking to strangers and friends, amusing one another with costumes and jokes. All too often, in recent years, I’ve seen people sitting or standing together in groups, in the cafes of Ben Yehudah Street or in restaurants… and each individual occupied with some sort of business by way of his or her cell phone. But on this day, the streets were filled with unhurried people, moving along with grace and good cheer, and alert to the others around them. Entertainment wasn’t just passive. People were relating to one another.

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Last week’s post was in the spirit of Purim. But since then, I’ve received a number of questions about the holiday. And this year, my experience of this holiday was a bit different. Usually, I invite friends to feast with me in my home. But this time I chose to walk about in the city. We are counting down to an important national election, which will take place on this coming Tuesday. There is a certain tension in the air. And I was wondering if I’d sense that out in public. But I didn’t.

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I was thinking that the holiday provides us with a much needed mood break. Both personal problems and the issues of the day seemed forgotten as I watched the friendly crowds walking one way or the other. People were walking in the middle of Jaffa Street as well, with the streetcar politely ringing its bell to make its way through civilian groups that had taken to the streets.

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Kurt Vonnegut, a great 20th century American writer, tells us a wonderful adventure story in ‘Cat’s Cradle’, in which he invented a religion whose messages to mankind are revealed in songs. There you will find the following:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

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Humans are rational beings. We have the indefatigable desire to understand. And even when we don’t, we have the need to rationalize what happens around us. On Purim, we remind ourselves that there are things happening all around us, that we don’t understand. Traditionally, the masquerading and the costumes are meant to remind us that things aren’t always what they seem to be.

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a little angel

Most of us live a regular day to day regime. There is a time for a wide variety of choices. But we realize that we have to make those choices. We can’t have everything. There are obligations incumbent on all of us. Each of us has a role to play. And there are times when we’re barely in touch with our own emotions, or have time for free thoughts because of all the things that are obligatory or routine. And yet, we have our fantasies. Not just the forbidden fantasies… Sometimes, light hearted silly fantasies. Usually pushed aside as we go about our daily routine and work, this traditional holiday of masquerading encourages fantasy. There are those who don’t have the need. But to go along with the spirit of the holiday, they wear pom poms or silly animal ears. Not as a disguise. Just to signal that they are part of what’s happening.

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two blue people with dog

The holiday commemorates an event that happened some two and a half thousand years ago, in ancient Persia, which had a large Jewish population after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The most important minister in Persia, second only to the King, planned to wipe out all the Jews of that empire. And had it happened, it would have been something like the holocaust, which annihilated most of the Jewish communities in Europe a little over 70 years ago. As it turned out, the hand of fate intervened in this story, after the plan had already gotten the approval of the all powerful King. The evil minister fell from greatness to dishonor. Instead of watching the extermination of the Jewish people, he himself was executed, together with his closest associates.

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We fast the day before Purim, to remember our fear, as the catastrophe was approaching. And then we celebrate. Jews are actually encouraged to drink to drunkenness (an uncommon practice in our culture). A great banquet is held in many private homes. And most of the population take part, either in producing the banquet or being a guest at the banquet of a friend. People masquerade in costumes. Not just children; adults too. Joking, clowning, and juggling is the order of the day. It is common to watch humorous skits which have a farcical nature.

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A book telling the long story is read in the synagogue or in a public place, and every time the evil minister is mentioned, people make a great noise with noisemakers, in derision. Sweet cookies, representing the ear of the villain of the story are eaten. Charity is emphasized. People bring baked and cooked foods as presents to their neighbors. The pictures on this post were taken a week ago, on Friday. Here in Jerusalem, we celebrate one day later than in most of the world. The reason for that was mentioned last week.

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