Tag Archives: culture

hindsight

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I recently reread Winston Churchill’s ‘The Second World War’ after which I reread Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben Gurion in Hebrew. Not the English translation which fits into 426 pages, but the 3 volume Hebrew edition which is 1604 pages long, not counting notes and bibliography. Both of the narratives are fascinating, and cover much of the same time frames from two very different perspectives. In another book I’d read on the politics of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a comparison of Ben Gurion to Churchill. Since I had read Churchill and learned to respect and admire the man, I thought long and hard about the comparison.

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There are two more or less accepted attitudes regarding the influence of individuals on history. The first is that there are certain unique individuals in history who are able, because of their brilliance or amazing talents… sometimes with the help of a charismatic personality, to rally together a great many other people and produce noteworthy changes in human society or change history by invention or war. The second attitude regards the individual as less important. The exponents of this theory see the progress of humanity as great collective social structures which reach certain strategic planes at which time the most fitting candidate takes the lead in the same way that a dominant lion becomes the leader of a pride. They believe that at any specific time, there are a number of candidates who could take it upon themselves to fill the same role.

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If we look at historical inventions, for instance, we can see that often the same inventions were created in different places at approximately the same time, without knowledge of one another. On the other hand, if we were to study the history of chess, we would see that throughout, there were always chess champions, but some of them were so much more imaginative, that they are thought to be the greatest of all time. When I looked at these two great men, one of whom led his people through a terrible challenge and saved his country from defeat and destruction, and the other who tried to save his people and failed, but who re-established a nation state that had been vanquished and dispersed two thousand years ago, I saw something that I had missed at first read; something they both had in common.

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Both had a vision at an early age and committed themselves to serving their nations in a great way, and they both prepared themselves for the job with severe self discipline. They were both very talented individuals, but more than anything else, they were professionals. That is to say, despite the righteousness of their cause, and their emotional dedication to their goals, they never lost sight of the practical limitations of the circumstances in which they operated. Both of them had to accept choices that were hard for them to live with. They had to be objective about what they could and couldn’t do. They had to accept defeat and continue onward.

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I mentioned in my blog of two weeks ago, after-ache, that I had been studying the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. Now there have always been Jews living in Israel, but it was only in the late 19th and the 20th century that relatively large groups started returning to our home country, the country in which we are the indigenous population. First Theodore Herzl, then Chaim Azriel Weizmann and David Ben Gurion worked to reestablish the state of Israel, and convince the nations of the world that we too deserved a homeland. Coming as I do from a minority group within the Jewish people, it was not that difficult for me to be objective about Ben Gurion, our first prime minister here in Israel, and to compare his vision to what we actually got. When I read that biography the first time, I thought he was a great man, but also made some big mistakes. Looking at him now, I am reminded of the many writers who claimed that after they’d created their characters, they just couldn’t force those characters to act in a certain way… the characters had a will of their own.

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I now believe that history as it unravels, in ever changing circumstances, has it’s own momentum that won’t be bent by man. We can make the most of circumstances, can use our talents to save a hedgehog or teach a kitten to climb a tree, but even with the help of all of mankind’s wisdom and talent, including the wondrous power of the computer, there’s just no way we can make a hedgehog or a kitten. There was no way he could make Israel the way he wanted and hoped it would be, but he had the capacity to understand what it had to be, and that in itself was a type of genius. He was a midwife to the rebirth of our country, and in my heart I believe there was no one else at the time that could have taken his place. There are many quotes by him to choose from, but here’s two that might be the keys to his success.

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.

Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.

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in honor of the temporary

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Riding a bicycle (though I haven’t done it for years) is an allegory for me on living life. We have to be constantly aware of balance, and at the same time are bolstered by the forward movement and the wheels going round, establishing centrifugal force. Though yin and yang is not part of the Jewish tradition, when I read about it in my study of eastern religions, I accepted it as an inherent part of life, familiar and inclusive. Each year we have the same holidays at the same time of the year. Are they repeat performances of something we’ve already done? Yes and no. Every week, we read a portion of the pentateuch. Is it the same each year? Again, yes and no.

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These cyclical events are in fact a repeated framework, and there is a general message that is enforced with each experience. But they are different for us each time we observe them. Each time we read a particular portion of the five books of Moses, we look at it differently, and examine it in the light of different commentaries and by comparing the historical chapter to things that have happened in or own lives, or bits of wisdom that may be understood in the context of our own experiences.

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The holiday of tabernacles comes at the start of our year, after celebrating the new year and having a day dedicated to soul searching and the acceptance of our own mortality. Tabernacles reminds us of our exodus from the slavery of Egypt, but we don’t usually dwell on the subject. I live in a stone house as do all of my neighbors, but once a year, we leave the comfort of our homes, and move into temporary booths which are considered home for a week. It is meant to remind us that all of life is temporary. That even the security of home is a temporary circumstance. We don’t suffer much from hurricanes or terrible earthquakes, so we have to take it upon ourselves to remember that the physical structures of our lives are not permanent. The roofs of our booths are built so that we will see the sky through the roof, and the walls of our temporary homes do not insulate us from the environment. On the outside, they all look pretty similar. But on the inside, they are usually decorated, and pictures may be added to make them as pleasant as possible.

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As the years go by, each year provides a very different experience, even though the framework remains the same. Many of us have used the same boards or tent cloth from year to year with very few changes. What’s important about the tabernacles is our own subjective experience, which changes from year to year. Of course, different people have varying enthusiasm towards custom and tradition. Some folks are satisfied to visit such a booth just once, or a few times maybe. They might choose to visit the booth of a friend, or sit in one set up by city administration, or by one of the many synagogues in our town. Those of us who are more religious will build their own booth, and spend more or less time in it. Most of those who have their own booth will eat their meals in the booth. And there are some people who are so adherent that they will not eat in any other place but a booth, which is called in Hebrew, a sukkah. A lot of the restaurants in town have set up booths for their customers to sit in while they eat. This custom is prevalent in our town.

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Among my family and friends it is common for us to eat all our meals in the sukkah, but only a minority insist on sleeping in the booth. Even so, this practice is respected. In my youth I often slept in the sukkah, but nowadays I’m no longer willing to give up the comfort of my own bed.

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The days of this holiday, this year, have been very intensive. I no longer have the strength I once had and was used to. And in this period of my life, it is wearing for me to spend a lot of time with people. Long conversations and continuous social activity wears me out, even though I have the very good luck of meeting with the finest of people, folks that I truly love. So I didn’t really expect that I’d have the strength to write a blog post today. I thought maybe I’d post a photo and leave it at that… maybe a photo and a link to some previous post. But then, I started searching out pictures of the holiday in past years, and I found so many that it was hard for me to choose. And while looking at old pictures, chose to check out some of the recent photos of family and friends in booths this last week, and that made it even harder. And now I’ve written all of this, so here’s another post on the festival of tabernacles.

an eye for an eye

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A new generation has taken over the world, and there are folks still around who don’t know it. Can you imagine that after the French or Russian revolutions… people just living their lives and not being aware of how history had recorded changes that would affect people everywhere in the world? But it happened then too. The world changed radically, as it changed during the Industrial Revolution, and there were a lot of folks who didn’t notice.

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To those of you who feel heartbroken about Trump winning the US presidency; who are hoping with all your hearts that he will be impeached, I say to you, dry your tears, and go about your lives… try to find happiness. Because it doesn’t matter that Trump won. And in the long run, it won’t matter much. It was just a side issue. It wasn’t really that important.

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Looking back, the French Revolution established a new set of values for our world. There was some instability after the revolution, a lot of cruelty, unnecessary deaths and impositions on innocent people, but that’s life. There’s no denying that the human being is a cruel animal. This latest revolution, which I refer to as the Digital Revolution, is much more than the start of a new technological era. It encompasses all the activities and the beliefs of man, and by the time it’ll be accepted by the vast majority, the past will be almost completely forgotten. Of course, there’ll be a few historians who’ll remind those interested of what happened before the new age of enlightenment. But for most, all that was before this millennium will be included in the ‘dark ages’.

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I don’t know how it was for those of my readers who live in countries around the world, but I can tell you I was amazed that on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution there was no mention of it in the media, here in Israel. Such an earthshaking event. Forgotten. There were some really fine Israelis too, who though they were living fully active lives at the time, and bringing about the rebirth of Israel as a politically independent state, gave up everything and ran to ‘help the revolution’. Most of them died in the gulag, or were killed by Stalin, and never heard from again.

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Back in the days when I was a child, people were still arguing whether the ends justified the means. And if you’re young, you may be surprised to learn that there were some very intelligent and good hearted people who insisted that the ends did justify the means. Their thinking went something like this, “I really hate having to kill Millie the turkey. But Thanksgiving is getting close, and folks have to eat”. While watching Stalin fight Hitler, many enlightened minds were willing to forgive his excesses. But after World War II, most if not all of those same people came to the conclusion that the end doesn’t justify the means, and drummed that particular truth into the next generation.

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I don’t think they’re going to put an end to gambling this time… or an end to eating meat. But they will put an end to smoking tobacco, and will allow smoking cannabis. They’ll legitimize homosexuality, create an environment more friendly to women, and there’ll be a completely different attitude towards family. If we were worried once about the population explosion, it now looks as if that will no longer threaten us. And were it not for hatred and war, we could very likely insure that there’d be no hunger in the world. There is speculation that soon hard work won’t threaten us. And since the less we work, the less we want to work, we’ll have more time to dream… and to dream up collective worries. For instance, that life is so empty… that there’s no meaning to existence…

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I remember asking my father when I was a child… what is this business of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Why do we still learn such savagery? He answered me, No, that’s not savagery. That’s justice. If we were to trust to the magnanimity of the human heart, there’d be at least two eyes to pay for the one… and more likely, ten.

tools of the trade

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I was a young man when I first began writing professionally. It was what I expected to do… what I’d set as my personal goal. I had been so grateful for the advice and friendship I had received from writers in my childhood and youth, that I felt a personal debt to them, and in this way I hoped to repay them. I wrote long pages in blue-black ink from a fountain pen on white linen bond paper. That same pen is still in one of my drawers. The act of writing was as gratifying to me as the possibility of conveying thoughts to paper. I could smell the ink. I enjoyed watching the trail of blue-black ink slowly drying on the page as I continued to write. I had a number of different pens, and numerous nibs which enabled me to write in different styles as well as different languages. I preferred a fine line, but used wide nibs as well… sometimes to emphasize something in the text, I used italics as well. To me, good writing meant no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and the ability to organize my thoughts in such a way that they would be readily understood by the reader. This was so important to me because if I (or my editor) found a mistake, I would usually rewrite the page. Which took some time. Such work was drudgery.

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My first typewriter was a present from an aunt. I was greatly moved by her gesture. It seemed such a personal and appropriate gift. And strangely enough, I received another three typewriters through my life, from very close friends. But as much as I enjoyed typing, I felt most comfortable and most natural writing by hand with pen on paper. Though I felt no need to study journalism or creative writing, I did take a typing course so as to learn to put my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. Typewriters could only write in one font, which meant that I needed separate machines for Hebrew and Latin letters.

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The machines stayed with me for decades, and became part of my physical presence in this world from my point of view. In a way, they were more an extension of my body than the pens I used, maybe because I typed blind. The Royal portable traveled with me across the world on ship and in airplanes. I used to feel a sense of intimacy in my relations to tools. But since the start of the digital age, tools come and go. The life expectancy of a computer is so short that I haven’t really gotten attached to any of them. Software programs change and become more complicated. I would discover that I didn’t have enough RAM, and by the time I moved on to a new computer I was glad to get rid of the old.

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Language too, is an intimate tool. A tool of the mind by which we communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings. And that too is changing. When I was young, our ancient language was sacred. Educated people went to great pains to conform exactly to the rules of grammar. The language we heard on the radio was elegant. When a word was added to our vocabulary, it’s addition was decided by The Academy of the Hebrew Language, and though we laughed sometimes at the new inventions, they were necessary for scientific and technological subjects that hadn’t existed when our language first flowered. But then slang appeared in the army, and folks were amused by these new additions and used them. Foreign words were included in our speech as well, and slightly changed to correspond to our rules of grammar. Slowly, gradually, the slang increased, and nowadays when conversing with the young, I have to ask the meaning when hearing an unfamiliar phrase. It makes me feel less grounded.

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The pictures on the store front windows, were found on Jaffa Str., here in Jerusalem. They represent visual illustrations of Jerusalem slang and expressions unique to our town. The artists involved in this project wished to decorate the city with local expressions.

moral qualms

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We live in different countries, different cultures, speak different languages, but the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist affects us all. When I think back to the 60s, I remember the strong feeling I had then, that people were reexamining their values, and that the world would never again be as it was before. A conversation comes back to me from those days. I was sitting with my parents on their balcony and my father was discussing the similarity of scientific research on both sides of the iron curtain. Perhaps this was after Sputnik, that first venture into space. I remember saying something about changing attitudes, especially on college campuses. My mother turned to me and said, “Every generation thinks that they’re going to change the world.” I remember thinking, but this generation is really different, though I didn’t say it. I respected her perspective.

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Back then there were folks coming from all over Europe to volunteer on kibbutz. Young people were rejecting the crass commercialism of the 50s, and even in America, there were new experiments in communal living. Free speech was the battle cry of youth. Forward thinking people were building homes and public facilities based on geodesic engineering. But looking back, the effect of that cultural revolution was short lived. What remains of those bright eyed and long haired revolutionaries is not much more than the obsessive use of the word fuck in Hollywood movies.

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Here in our country, a new law is being discussed in parliament which is intends to put an end to prostitution. Any person caught hiring the services of a prostitute would be made to pay a sizeable fine. If caught a second time, he would pay double the fine. And after that, might face criminal prosecution. As expected, there were protests from the ‘working girls’, and a television program pointing out the advantages of such employment for handicapped people who might suffer were it not for the release provided by such service. But most of the progressive people in our society support the legislation. Women too. Our Minister of Justice is a fine, intelligent and serious thinker, and she was for the law. And the head of our socialist leftist party, also a woman, was pushing for it.

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When Israel achieved statehood after being a colony of Great Britain, we inherited an English law prohibiting homosexual activity. Though I am a religious Jew, and we believe that male homosexuality is a perversion and contrary to the injunctions of the bible, I supported the repeal of this law. Believing in ‘live and let live’, I don’t think the state should get involved with a person’s private life. On the subject of homosexuality, it is interesting to note that the Greeks and the Jews disputed this issue more than 2000 years ago. The Greek standpoint was that homosexual relations were on a higher level than heterosexual love, because they weren’t necessitated by self-perpetuation.

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Nowadays, there are many examples of the state’s involvement in the lives of citizens. Compulsory schooling is already taken for granted in all western countries. We have recently seen the heavy handed approach to smoking, while at the same time there is a growing tolerance of Marijuana. In the past, the US made a great effort to prohibit the imbibing of alcohol, which caused havoc and the loss of lives. But these days, the common attitude is to encourage individual liberties.

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Prostitution is an immoral act, and has become an allegory for a great variety of distasteful behavior, including the self promotion of politicians, journalists, and business men. But if two consenting adults agree to have sex in exchange for money, is it our business to interfere? What if a rich man or woman suggests a date with a younger indigent person? Will that too be against the law? Will we allow discrimination against the obese? Israel already has a law against pimping. The law hasn’t been very effective, especially since the arrival of the internet. Because women looking for that sort of business can advertise without an agent. If this new law will work, it’ll deprive a minority of their freedom. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll demean still further the respect of society for law and government.

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I believe its important that laws are made to protect the society within a framework representing consistent values. It is very sad to see the constant growth of laws and ordinances to the point where an individual is easily strangled by the heavy weight of never ending paperwork, and where changing fashions dictate the lives of all, including personal preferences. Appearing before a court is an expensive enterprise and we are becoming completely dependent on lawyers for dealing with the judicial system.

The photos on this post describe a visit to my favorite market, Machaneh Yehuday, and dinner at a restaurant there with my dear friend Noga.

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.

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.