yin & yang of independence day

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On the Jewish new year, we have a two day celebration, and there is a lot of feasting, and prayers and song… and then we have a fast day immediately after; it is called the fast of Gedalia in memory of a politician who got murdered about two thousand years ago. The fast day fits in right with the holiday, it is a built in anti-climax to the feast.

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This week we have Independence Day. It comes with a prologue. The day before is memorial day, and that gives us the opportunity to thank the soldiers who died in defense of our country immediately before celebrating our independence. Each year is somewhat different. There have been times when the excitement and happiness of the holiday filled me before I had adequately mourned for our fallen soldiers. And there were times when I managed to transcend from mourning into joy exactly as prescribed, on the eve of Independence Day.

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This year was different for me. I got into reveries of memorial day as never before. Could be because there has been a lot of politics in the air lately; a lot of political controversy here in Israel, and I couldn’t turn on the radio, even to hear the news without being exposed to an overdose of politics. And so, on memorial day, I chose not to listen to the radio as I usually do. Instead of listening to the stories of different soldiers who died in our many disparate wars, I thought back on some of my friends and relatives who had died in action. I got up in the morning and after a short prayer, started listening to a Jewish blues musician whom I thought could well accompany this day’s mood. I opened my mail, and there was a letter from my old friend Alan, who lives in the northern Negev. He wrote about memory and memories, which complemented some of my reflections.

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My thoughts were on the painful memories. How to deal with them. There was a time when I was much younger, that I wished to erase them from my mind. I thought I knew how to do that at the time. I left a message with my mind, ‘don’t ever remind me’. And a whole block of memories just disappeared from my thoughts. Till one day, I was struggling with new problems… and decided to do some soul searching. Well what do you know? A whole slew of unexpected memories awoke, all of them ready to party in my head. I tried to relate to them from the perspective of an older man. I wasn’t old then, but I’d had quite a bit of experience since I’d lived those earlier times, and I was able to think of them rationally. It occurred to me that I had been a different man when I had those earlier experiences. I had kept growing… I had kept changing. And the circumstances around me had changed. Thinking about it, those earlier memories were part of an incarnation that I had lived and left. There had been more than one reincarnations since then, and I was truly living another life today. It seemed I could look back and consider the events of that previous lifetime without suffering all the pain.

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Thinking back to fighting and war, losing a friend who was a true hero with a lion’s heart… another friend, who had been disadvantaged from childhood, and overcame a handicapped body, built a life for himself, and found a wife and started a family relatively late in life, only to be stabbed in the back by an Arab at a bus stop. He might not even have known what hit him. It’s a hot day in Jerusalem. A taste of summer in the spring. There’s something of a dust cloud over us, blocking out the blue skies. But they say it’ll cool down tomorrow and the skies will clear. It should be a good day for a celebration. I plan to go out on my balcony, and have a picnic there with friends. I used to go out to nature to have that picnic, according to the advice of Rabbi Cook. He said it would be proper to celebrate the holiday by walking at least four paces on our land where we’d never been before. And this was something I enjoyed doing. But then there were more and more people who did likewise, and now there are millions who go out on the holiday, and I don’t want to be caught in a traffic jam in my search for ‘nature’. So I find satisfaction on my back balcony, outside but still attached to home. When you’re fighting for your life… or your country, you like to think of the future, and your hopes for your survivors. You think of destiny. But on independence day this year, I’ll just enjoy the present. I’ll sit with my friends on the balcony, and open a bottle of wine. I’ll enjoy the freedom that those friends dreamed of when fighting our country’s battles.

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Jonah In The Whale

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found in a Jerusalem garden…
and finally an answer to those of us who were wondering all these years, what was Jonah doing in that whale? studying torah, of course.

another generation

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Passover is coming to a close. This evening we will celebrate the last day of the holiday which will continue through tomorrow. Then on Saturday we will continue eating matzot instead of bread, and maintaining the passover diet, because the sabbath will have arrived without giving us the time to change our pots and pans and dishes back to normal.

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The holiday was a continuous social event with many meetings of dear friends and relatives. I’ve grown used to a lot of solitary time, and found the emotional pitch, the many conversations… even meeting with so many very different individuals, somewhat enervating.

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What an intense experience it was to be in a room filled with my youngest grandchildren, each of them different, a world onto himself or herself, part of the family… and at the same time, part of a generation that I can barely understand. Looking at them and listening to them I became very aware of the new world and the new souls already on their way to replace almost all I’ve known in my lifetime.

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These young souls had great sensitivity, and much sensibility, though occasionally I would hear a blood curdling scream or a growl of discontent. So different from one another, and yet managing quite well to co-exist in peace. So many words. More than stars in the skies. I listened for a while, but just couldn’t keep up. I saw some youngsters putting together a building from plastic semi transparent and brightly colored plastic. Is this something like Lego, I asked. No, they explained. This is magnetic.

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Spent time with people of all ages, from the very young who had just recently learned to speak their minds to old folks like myself, and most of them were completely unconcerned with the things that usually occupy my mind. But that didn’t bother them or me. There were a lot of rickety old bridges between us, and we had no fear. We sat around long tables and short. Round tables too. And the variety of food was amazing.

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My biggest problem was the immense contrast between the light coming through the windows, and that within the rooms when visiting with some of my grandchildren. I would have had to photograph with flash in order to get some sort of balance in many of the pictures or arrange people in better relationship to the light. But I like to catch them as they are.

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I was reminded of the many stations of life I’d gone through, the decisions; turning a house into a home; finding a balance in life; bringing children into this world with my wife; learning the characters of those children, and building bridges. I’ve been reading a book by Wendell Berry called ‘Hannah Coulter’. Here’s a short passage from that novel: “Nathan and I had to get used to each other. We had to get used to being two parents to Little Margaret. We had to get our ways and habits into some sort of alignment, making some changes in ourselves that were not always easy. We had to get used to our house. We had to get used to our place. It takes years, maybe it takes longer than a lifetime, to know a place, especially if you are getting to know it as a place to live and work, and you are getting to know it by living and working in it. But we had to begin”.

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on every level

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I could feel the approach of spring as I traveled up north a couple of weeks ago, to the western Galilee. The rolling hills were showing green. There were flowers peeking through the grass, promising the delights of spring despite the chilly weather and the low hanging dark clouds that hid the sunlight more often than not. I’d slip out of my guest cottage on my way to the home of a friend, and find myself enchanted by the flowers in random stretches, in corners, cyclamen hugging the roots of sturdy trees. Though photography had not been the object of my trip, the gorgeous sights stimulated my somnambulating appetite and I had a great desire to take out the camera and capture some of those flowers. But like the birds who smiled at me from the branches of high trees till I began to unveil my camera, and then lifted their wings and flew away… so it was with the flowers whose petals blushed in a moment of sun, and then retreated in modest shyness as a cloud passed overhead, withdrawing the hot yellow brought by the sun. Though teased and frustrated by the momentary flashes of sunlight, once I had gotten my camera out, there were moments when I reluctantly accepted compromise, and took a shot of the blossom in the shade.

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Today is the eve of that great holiday, Passover. It honors the spring and reminds us to tell our children of the exodus from slavery, challenging us to examine our longing for freedom, and all the good reasons that lead us astray along the way. This obligation to tell our children of our aspiration for freedom and the many difficulties in achieving that state most characterizes the nature of our holiday. Their questions are valued, and we don’t have to have all the answers. But spending the whole evening around the dining room table in serious discussion, and the participation of all ages is the major feature of the holiday. The feast is the most extravagant of the three major festivals of our culture; those three events in which all of Israel would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in ancient times. We prepare fun and games for the kids in order to keep the them awake as long as possible, till the middle of the night. This is a week long holiday, so a lot of folks go out on family expeditions to enjoy nature. Some go camping. And there are some unique dietary laws that remind us of the very special quality of these days.

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We do all we can to make the festival perfect. But we know as we strive, that nothing is perfect, just as in our desire for freedom we know that it beckons to us only when we’re out there somewhere, still escaping slavery… once we have that freedom, history has taught us just how easy it is to corrupt and disrupt, and if we picture ourselves amusing the cows in the meadow by playing lullabies on a flute, it’s just a fleeting vision to be followed by monkeys’ mischief and entropy.

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We had barely left Egypt when we began wailing nostalgically for the watermelon of the ‘old country’. Forty years we traveled around in the desert, working to change ourselves from slaves to free men and women. And since that time, a lot of years have gone by, and every year we’ve commemorated the exodus, studying still another aspect of the work of freeing ourselves. And in every living room, another set of folks have considered those same questions in a different context, and found answers from a different perspective. Some see slavery as addiction, or obsession, or fear… or chasing after an illusion. And everyone sees freedom in his own subjective way. We’ve known miracles, so we don’t dismiss any goal as impossible. There’s been ups and downs all along the way. Even the most miserable of circumstances have left souvenirs in the shape of handwritten and hand illustrated copies of the Passover chronicle as it was recited and learned.

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Since I can’t share with you the many tastes, aromas and textures of those special Passover dishes, nor can I sing you the songs and responses that we sing to one another through the first evening, or share the light headed inebriation fostered by a minimum of the obligatory four goblets of wine this evening, I have chosen to share with you a few photos of spring’s nature. As it happens, these are the pictures I took when the clouds were hiding the full colors available only in the light of the sun. Take them for what they’re worth. Maybe next year I’ll have better.

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Close to our borders, the hyenas are preparing a picnic. They say it’s going to be a peaceful get together, but some of us are suspicious. We have been attacked before on holy days… and hyenas are better known for their attacks than their picnics. So a lot of young fathers are going to be called away to watch the border on this joyous occasion. But we still hope it’ll all work out alright this year. A happy Passover and a beautiful spring to all my friends.

spring and forgotten memories

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Google says this is a cherry blossom. I didn’t know that, though I’ve watched these trees for years. I can tell you that the hyraxes love the fruit. I haven’t tried them myself… yet.

When my dear old mother was in her 90s, she used to preface many a story by mentioning what a fine memory she used to have… but it was gone now. Every time she would say that, it saddened me. Why did she have to say that over and over again. I knew she had had a fine memory once. I knew that she had lost much of it. Was she trying to excuse herself for her lapses? Was she apologizing? Whatever it was, I wished she wouldn’t mention it then, because it pained me to think of the decline. After all, I was moving into old age myself. It could have been that she didn’t remember she had said that to me many times before.

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wild grasses growing on a vacant lot near my home

Now it’s my turn. I have begun to lose memory… though my doctor tells me its nothing to worry about, and that the process begins at about 30, at this point I have just begun to be aware of it. I always had a catalogue of my photography, but for many years it just catalogued which photos were shot for which customers and where the negatives were. Then at some point, I started recording where certain ‘art’ photographs were. I didn’t really have to because I remembered just about every photo I had shot, and when… but since I had a catalogue anyway, I started writing down where the negative or digital file was kept. But there were so many pictures, that there was no point in writing down everything. So I just wrote down the ones that I thought I might look for later.

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the redbud tree flowers at the beginning of spring

Then this morning, I was planning to write about early spring. There is one scene that typifies the very start of the season for me. It is when the very first shoots of grass push out of the dirt on the barren hills of Benjamin or in the northern Negev. It doesn’t look so much like grass from up close. It isn’t that dense. But from a distance you can clearly see the green color on the hills. I know I’ve photographed the phenomenon many times… but looking for it this morning, in albums and in my catalogue, I was unable to find an example. It’s not the first time that has happened. Sometimes I want to write about something, and look for a good illustration… and though I remember a specific photo, I am no longer able to remember where it can be found in my archives.

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snap dragons growing out of the stone wall

Today, the failure of my search for that example distressed me. I started wondering, what would I do if I could no longer find the photos I needed as illustrations. Was this reason enough to stop writing? And then it occurred to me, that I could work the other way. I could look through my collection of photographs, and find a few that brought back memories… This time, I’ll  share some pictures from last week. The holiday of Passover is just a week ahead. And for me, that is springtime at its best. These are the signs of spring in my immediate environment.

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I’ve also included this old picture of Nechama enjoying the wild grass that used to grow behind my old home. It’s a fond memory. Like her, I’ve always preferred wild grasses, though their season is relatively short in our country.

a Jewish lion

You remember that picture of the modest mermaid that I’ve already posted here twice over the years? There are certain examples of graffiti, signs in stores etc’, that I treasure… for me, they are examples of the Jerusalem spirit even though they are sometimes so marginal that most people don’t even notice. And they are more precious to me, if I get the impression that they’re not going to last long… like the two-dimensional sculptures I once found on the roof of a school. Those sculptures did disappear quickly… they were probably just an exercise… but I enjoyed the work.

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The concrete or plaster lions are lasting much longer than I expected them to. Someone had the idea to cast a lot of lions, and then let different artists paint them as they pleased for decoration. The lion of Judah has been the mascot of Jerusalem for more than a thousand years, and he is found on every manhole cover in town, as well as park benches and other city properties. But these plaster lions were neither traditional nor did they resemble the animal in nature. The city moved them around a bit after a few were posted in town… and then they were moved again… and recently a number of them seem to have found their niches in stations of the light train. I particularly like this lion because he’s wearing glasses… even though he’s the king of the jungle. As a boy I had to wear glasses, and there are quite a few young scholars in our town with the same handicap.

myth of the washrag

Western culture as we know it, has been influenced to a great degree by the ancient cultures of Greece and Israel whose histories were an example and an ideal for the many countries of Europe and the Americas. Of course, culture is fluid, and change is constant, and every generation added something of value as societies evolved and developed. The Roman empire and its establishments still influence us today alongside the Christian ethic which spread some of the values of Israel while serving as an antithesis to early Roman culture. Through history, we defined and redefined our values, and these values found their way into art and history and the many different cultural expressions that were part of our education, recreation, politics and social services.

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I felt the holy spirit in the joy of the multitude

Even today, a youngster might have heard of Achilles. If not by way of Homer’s Iliad, then he might have met the hero in the pages of a comic book, or in a poem or a movie. Throughout history we have been influenced by heroes as an ideal. We loved Socrates for his questioning conventions, and Ulysses for his adventures, and learned that the first had a wife who made his life miserable, and the second, a wife who threw a party in his absence. Our heroes were strong and committed to ideals. They had to overcome certain disadvantages, and that is part of what made them heroes. Achilles was invincible except for his heel. Moses was a stutterer who, though extremely modest led a revolution against the pharaoh of Egypt. David was a small statured redhead, a guitar player who faced a warrior giant and defeated him before becoming king of Israel.

These heroes and the many who came after them were often flawed. They had to rise above their flaws. But it seems that in contemporary culture the flaws have overcome the hero. The more flawed the better. In literature and films, the anti hero is more popular than the heroes of old. I saw this process of changing direction in my own area of expertise some years ago, when photography became attracted to the banal. What was revolutionary at first when Marcel Duchamp challenged the decorum of museums by installing a urinal as a piece of art (called the ‘Fountain’) became quite tiresome as more and more artists extolled banality. One is just as likely to see an old washrag or used tire in a photo exhibition as once we saw the wonders of nature. That urinal was installed in the museum 100 years ago. Stephan Hawking took pride in the fact that he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, and now that he’s died on the birthday of Albert Einstein, there seems little question that he was an extraordinary scientist. Whether he’s the greatest ever is still not decided. What we can be sure of, is that he is the ultimate hero of this generation: a flawed hero who could not walk, and could not write. Couldn’t even talk. He was our first real bionic man, with a computer built into his wheel chair to talk for him; a mind bereft of a body. He was the embodiment of the myth we were looking for; the victim of evolution gone wrong saved by artificiality.

D2685_070and I felt the holy spirit here too, in the desolation

Unlike Albert Einstein to whom he’s often compared, his theories have yet to be proven. But like John Lenon (who said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and that rock n’ roll might outlast Christianity), he had the temerity to state plainly that god didn’t exist. His theory regarding the creation of the world was that gravity could create the universe out of nothing. Now I have always had great affection for this man for no other reason than that he kept on going, regardless of the body that had betrayed him. Sigmond Freud, the inventor of psychology as science, faced a similar physical challenge. When cancer had decimated his jaw, and he was forced to sacrifice half his face in order to stay alive, he continued to hold on to life, wearing a veil to hide his disfigurement. At the end though, he did choose to die by an overdose of morphine rather than suffer the cruelty of nature.