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One of the most beautiful aspects of the summer is that it’s vacation time for students. And just as the rest of us are inclined to fall into routine, to live our lives automatically, like unfeeling robots (with a headache, at times), so too, students can get into the habit of learning bits of information by heart, and collecting them under the tongue or in the inner ear, till they start sliding out the nose. How wonderful, and how necessary, the vacation. And in honor of summer vacation, let me share with you my thoughts on this very special occupation.
Unlike monks, priests, rabbis, nuns, religious or monastic men and women, there is one category of holiness that requires no ascetic self discipline. That is the role of the student, who follows his curiosity, and grows day by day, increasing his understanding of the world around and within him, his awareness of his fellow man, and his love for all living things and even the inanimate objects that make up our universe.
Unfortunately, because society has deemed it necessary for children and youths to study certain functional bits of knowledge, and combined this need with the need of adults to be rid of children for the majority of the day… so that they, the adults, may be free to work, there has been an ever growing resentment towards study. This anger becomes more acute, and at times turns to outright hatred when the ‘baby sitting’ is accompanied by torturous tests which humiliate the so-called student.
But those who have tasted the sweetness of study for its own sake, and have opened their hearts and minds to the thirst for knowledge, there is no pleasure that can compete with learning, for it is in itself a transcendental experience. The study hall is richer than the finest palace, and its occupants melt from pleasure as their awareness grows without bounds or boundaries. Nothing is forbidden. Everything makes sense. If not at first, then eventually. The student learns to be self assured in the knowledge that whatever is known by another human being can be learned by any man or woman.
The true student doesn’t study for the sake of a degree. He has no need for prizes or awards. Even if graduated or accredited in his profession, he continues to apply himself diligently because learning is uplifting and fills him with joy. Our greatest teachers were simple craftsmen who didn’t make a profession either of learning or teaching.
Study itself is best unselfish. Students take great pleasure in sharing their knowledge. And the best teacher is one’s fellow student who’s taken an extra step ahead. All the social stigmas fade and disappear in the study hall. One’s personal wealth is negligible. Beauty is skin deep. Toys and luxuries are forgotten. The more one learns, the stronger one becomes. Not like the muscle builders on the beach who become bound and crippled by their overwhelming muscles, the wise student becomes more sensitive and modest with each passing day, and more aware of the infinite presence of the universe. His or her determination to learn more is not for the sake of self aggrandizement, but out of love for the world as it is.
Tests… yes, there are tests. Life is full of tests. As long as we are alive and conscious we are tested. We may choose to avoid, to evade, or try to escape those tests, but they come running after us with indefatigable determination. The test of knowledge is that it be clear in your mouth. So that if someone asks you something, you need not hesitate, and then tell it to him. You should be able tell it to him immediately, and in such a way that it is easily understood.
The photos seen here are of students and their living quarters at the University of Ariel. Oh what a pleasure it is to be a student.
Around this time, towards the beginning of summer, we celebrate books. It’s called book week, or the book fair. And it’s a long standing tradition here. But this year has been a little different. There’s been a lot of discussion about books and the way they’re sold for some time now. And because I’m one of many who feel a personal connection to books, I’ve been following the public discussions and debate. Books are very important in Israel. I believe there are more books published and translated from other languages here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. And I would guess that Jerusalem houses more books than anywhere else in the country.
When I was young and traveling abroad, I remember learning what mattered to other peoples just by noticing the proliferation of certain types of shops or stores in a particular city. There was this one town in the far west, where I saw filling stations on every street corner. Well, at the time, it was hard to find a petrol station in our town, but there was a bookstore on almost every street.
In recent years though, there’s been a change in the way books are sold. For one thing, instead of the many Mom & Pop bookstores, each one with a certain expertise and interest, catering to a specific customer base, we saw the rise of chain book stores. It was a bit like MacDonald’s. Steimatzky, one of the major booksellers in our city, and known for its wide collection of English language volumes, first sprouted a few offspring, in different neighborhoods of our city. Following that, they spread across the country. Then publishers started selling their books retail, setting up chains of bookstores countrywide. They would sell all kinds of books, but pushed the volumes that they’d published themselves. As the competition increased, you could hear advertisements on the radio. Books were offered to consumers in the same commercial way that they had sold us movies in the past.
It’s commonly thought that competition improves the market place. But what started out as playful sport between people of like pursuits and tastes, eventually turned into the fierce competitive spirit of commercial giants. By the time stores were selling 4 books for a hundred shekels, people started wondering if this was really advantageous. True, books used to cost between 70 and a 100 shekels. But what if you’re only interested in buying one particular book? Of course, you can always buy one for a friend… Still, that’s only two, and you had to buy 4 to meet the provisions of the deal. In your mind you’d already reduced the price to 25 shekels… it was a nuisance. And then we started hearing what the authors of these books were earning per book.
Needless to say that the store owners were recompensed for their trouble. And so were the publishers. But the authors couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes for what they got from the sale of a book. I know what you’re saying; the author should stop smoking. But I’m just bringing this up as an example.
Last year, parliament passed a law which insured that the author would receive a decent part of the income derived from the sale of his or her books. It prohibited the bundling of new books in sales campaigns. But the results weren’t that gratifying. It turns out that during the last year, less books were sold than in previous years. And it’s harder than ever for a new writer to break into the business. Aside from that, one has to keep in mind that there are not that many people in this world who’re looking to read a good book in Hebrew. Not to speak of the fact that there’s always more reading material available on the internet. Newspapers are going out of business. We wonder… are books the next to go?
The book fair this year was a great celebration, despite the controversy over sales methods. All the stores and publishers set up booths in the old railroad station, and most of the books were available at discount. Local bars and restaurants set up shop on the perimeter of the fair. A big tent top was erected pretty much in the middle of the area, and all comers were invited to listen to some of our finest native talent. At seven we heard blues for women. And by nine, we were listening to a wide variety of musical offerings played by some of our favorite musicians. The sound was great. We were entertained by some really excellent local versions of blues, hard rock, psychedelic rock, folk and jazz. It was wonderful.
In fact, it was close to what I imagine as heaven. In the old days, I used to go to nightclubs to listen to fine jazz, while eating a light repast and having a couple of drinks. But since they outlawed smoking, I just don’t enjoy it as much, and hardly go out anymore. In this fine arrangement, smoking was allowed. Because most of the places were outdoor affairs, on balconies or patios. Even the music was considered outdoors, with just the tent top to give us some protection. And here I was, surrounded by books and friends, listening to music that just swept me away, drinking beer and smoking as much as I wanted. Just like heaven, don’t you think?
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.
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.
Before I knew of the existence of the sexual urge, I had a passion for life… for the continuation of life. I came to this world at a time of existential threat to my people and culture. My childhood was associated with the systematic destruction and murder of my people, including members of my own family. Don’t talk to me about it. I am still traumatized after a lifetime.
But I am mentioning this subject, so as to share with you some of the thoughts I had last night, when celebrating Chanukah with some of my younger grandchildren. I have older grandchildren too, adults, who are making their own choices, and living their own lives… a granddaughter who is soaking up culture and adventure in far away India. But the younger grandchildren were assembled last night in the home of Jonah and Yael, enjoying the festival of lights with music and games, good food and stories.
The holiday of lights, Chanukah, as we call it, goes back to the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek occupation in the second century BCE. The holy temple had been desecrated. Jerusalem had been overrun and defeated. And yet, when the future of the Jewish people looked most bleak, a small group of idealists, led by a priest, succeeded in revolt against a powerful nation that had defeated us. The holy temple, which was a symbol of enlightenment to us, was once again consecrated, and the temple lamp which had gone out, was relit.
It was a miracle. That was the common consensus. But for those who wanted a more specific description of the miracle, there were differing opinions. Some felt that the miracle was that one flask of oil which should normally have lasted just a day, lasted eight days until more oil could be prepared for the temple lamp. Others saw the miracle in the fact that a little amateur army could overcome the prowess of a great nation. One of my favorite rabbis, said the miracle was that Jews were willing to fight at all. For me, the miracle is that even after total devastation, we are able to reorganize, fight evil, clean up the mess, and find what is sacred and holy.
If you’re wondering why it took eight days to prepare the oil for the temple lamp, this is how they would do it. They would take a sack of olives, and squeeze each one. The first drop that came out of the olives was collected. And that was the oil they used for the temple lamp. The lamp symbolized the temple. In our days it is the symbol of the State of Israel. Some of our sages saw the tending of the lamp as even more important than the activities surrounding sacrifices. At our family celebration, all of the children lit their own candles.
As a young man, I was greatly attracted to the arts. In part because the arts connect to values which are more lasting than our own individual lives. Knowing without doubt that I personally would eventually die, I wanted to be part of something that would last longer than I did. Afterwards, when I had children of my own, I started thinking of my children as a continuation of myself. Even after I’d die, my children would continue to live, and my blood would continue in them.
Last night, as I sat in a comfortable chair and watched my grandchildren playing, reading, making music… I asked myself, was I pleased? So many grandchildren… living and learning… healthier and happier than I was at their age. I looked at them all. And each one was different. Each was a world in himself or herself. Each with a distinct and separate personality. Not one of them was me. But there was comfort in the fact that these children are a part of this culture I love. And that they are continuing in their own way along the path I have walked. They’re starting where I got as an old man. And they’ll get further than I ever dreamed.
There have been ups and downs along the way, And I’m sure that they too will have their ups and downs. Honestly, most of them are more interested in sharing with me what they are learning these days, than listening to what I’ve learned through life. But it doesn’t matter that much to me. I see a continuation of the same values I love. And that’s enough for me. We ate potato pancakes and pizza. You know, potato pancakes are part of our tradition for this holiday. And pizza… well, pizza is always a good thing…
When I was just a little chap… before I’d learned to drive or read the newspaper… I had a visit from Moses Ben Amram, our beloved teacher, forever famous for writing those wonderful best sellers, the holy bible and the book of Job. He said, Shimon, my boy, you’re about to go out there… and have the most wonderful life. He told me all the secrets of life on this earth, and how to recognize sanctity in the midst of banality, how to please god… and the very best recipe for chicken soup with matza balls. But I wasn’t impressed by any of that. I said, ‘I’d prefer to stay right here, dear teacher’, and curled up in my mother’s womb, determined never to leave. He pressed his index finger against my upper lip, and said, ‘don’t tell a soul’. I’ve had a depression on my upper lip ever since…
That’s the way I’ve been all my life; trying to appreciate what I have, and not looking over the fence, envious of my neighbor’s greener grass. I’ll smoke my own grass, thank you. And so, when my dearest friends came to the conclusion that my neighborhood had lost its youthful charm, and that my home, having embraced me in warmth and security for the last 40 years, no longer suited me, … and offered to find me a better place to live, I said, ‘No thanks, guys. No place could possibly be better than this. I’m surrounded by my books and memories, live on the ground floor so that my cat can come in and out without an elevator, and everyone in Jerusalem knows exactly where to find me’.
But you know, I can tell a story… and I can sing a song… I can even photograph a picture… But I’m just no good at arguing. And when these friends started arguing with me, and proving without a doubt that they were only pressing for my own good… I just gave up, and wrote a couple of poems about how life sucks. What do we have friends for, I wondered… if not to listen to their advice? So my old home was sold, and a new home was found… snails were hired to drag my books and furniture from the old home to the new… and meantime, I went off… to find refuge in the country, and then back in the alleys of my city… moving from one place to the next, inhaling the dust deposits on the curtains of rented rooms, and rediscovering the magic of life as I smelled roses in the company of village cats outside of Jerusalem. It was a learning experience. It was almost like getting reborn.
The process started at the beginning of October, and this week, the last week of February, I moved into my new home, joining my beloved cat Nechama who seems to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as she drinks tomato juice through a straw and avoids meat and fish. She barely recognized me when I first arrived. I tried to reason with her. ‘I was as much a victim as you were’, I told her. ‘I couldn’t take you with me… I stayed in a house with a dog!’
‘You think that’s bad?’, she countered. ‘I had to live with children!’ She knows that I too am unable to withstand the assault on my nerves of the screeches and shouts of happy children…
So here I am at the top of a hill, with a living room that is surrounded on three sides by big beautiful windows… work tables in every room, music easily available, a library separate from the living room, where guests may entertain me, a large refrigerator in the kitchen, and air conditioners that have been designed to warm me up in winter, as well as to cool me off in summer. My old cuckoo clock, once attacked and defeated by a previous cat of mine, has been repaired, and now cuckoos on the hour. Looking out the window in the right direction, I can even discern when there’s a traffic jam on the freeway that leads to my neighborhood, and plan my exits wisely. I would never have thought of such comforts, and am overwhelmed by the upgrade of the quality of my life. I don’t believe I deserve all of this. I keep thinking it must be some terrible mistake. But I can’t wait for spring, so that I’ll be able to take advantage of my new balcony, which is roomy and surrounded by flower pots under the blue skies of Jerusalem.
Nechama has already learned to use her cat door… to traipse through the cat door and out to the balcony. With one graceful leap, she is able to land on the hillside behind our home, and to visit the park, with me or without me. And being an existentialist cat, she’s already halfway to forgiving me for deserting her, and busy smelling the plants the trees, the grass and the flowers in our new surroundings. She doesn’t smile… and her eyes look piercing… but it does seem that she’s happy. I’ve been smoking as much as I can, drinking whisky, and listening to music, as I try out the speakers in each room. There are a few boxes of my things that haven’t been unpacked yet, and I use this readily available excuse to complain to my friends. I don’t want them to get too smug thinking they were right and I was wrong.
What do I know about life? Was there anything more important about this move than the many lessons I learned along the way? I am grateful for the kindness. Overwhelmed by my good luck. This evening I will welcome the Sabbath surrounded by dear friends, and a wise cat who turns from time to time… sometimes to look out, and other times, to look in.
Though not raised in the Chasidic movement, I learned to appreciate it later in life. It offers a transcendental understanding of the human predicament in this life. One of the ideas I found there, was that descent is necessary in order to ascend. At first, I found the concept difficult to accept. In fact, when I first heard this theory, I thought that the whole idea had been invented to console the individual who found himself down, and was suffering from his misery. But the more I studied the concept, the more I realized that there was a great truth behind it.
If you look at a seed, say our teachers, you realize that first it has to soften and come apart before it can grow to become a fruit tree. In order to climb a mountain, says another, one can not go up higher and higher all the time. No, one reaches a certain height, and then has to go down a way before one can go up even further. An example is found in the Talmud of Rabbi Zira who decided to go to Israel from Babylon, and fasted a series of fasts in order to forget the religious rules of the diaspora, so as to learn the rules of living in the holy land with a clear head. Many examples are given, but the message is enforced again and again…
For a serious person, being down is not a state in itself, but part of the process of going up. When all goes well, a person is satisfied with his life, and doesn’t push forward. But when he is unsatisfied or unhappy, he examines himself and his situation, and in that way finds a path to improvement. And so our teachers tell us, we shouldn’t look at unhappiness and misery as bad luck… crying out, ‘why is this happening to me?’ but should see it as part of the preparation for ascent.
In another place I found this explanation. When a person is on a high, he sees everything about what he is doing and how he is living as perfectly all right. And so, is unable to see alternatives that are even better. To remedy this, he has to fall from his position of grace in order to ascend to a still higher level of consciousness.
In the last couple of weeks, I found myself more and more miserable after hearing that my previous landlord was not interested that I continue to rent his apartment. I didn’t like the apartment that much. There were a lot of things wrong with it. But I liked moving even less. I felt uprooted and homeless. It has been about four months since my friends convinced me to move from my old apartment to a new one, and during that time, I’ve been living in temporary conditions. I have been without all sorts of tools and implements that I was used to. I’d moved from one temporary home to another. And there didn’t seem an end in sight. When I asked how my new home was coming along, I got one of two answers. Either I was told it was almost ready. Or I was told that there was a lot more to do to set it up. If I got the first answer, I would immediately suspect they were just trying to cheer me up. If I got the second answer, I would despair.
My last move to still another temporary home was made with great speed and little caution. The new place was cleaner and nicer, and it had a little garden next to it. But though it was a two room flat, it was very small, and there wasn’t enough room to store all of my possessions in an orderly fashion. The kitchen was so small that I had to move the drying rack for dishes to the couch in order to have room to prepare a meal. And the two little windows let very little light or air into the apartment. I had to use artificial lighting all of the time.
When my daughter Rivka was about to visit, she asked me if I would like her to bring dinner. I told her not to bring anything. I thought that since the kitchen was so small, it would be more trouble to prepare a good meal for us than it was worth. I decided to eat out. We went to Pini’s new restaurant. For years I used to go to the old one, and it was a place I loved. The story of how and why he moved is too long to tell here.
When we arrived at the restaurant, it was full. There were musicians playing in one dimly lit corner of the restaurant, and we were offered a table right next to the band. It was clear that we would have to give up any hope of dinner conversation, but I said yes immediately. I love music. The music was of the Grecian style, and warmed the heart. It started out good, and got better when a singer joined the musicians. At a certain point, Pini himself, proprietor and master chef, joined the musicians to play the drum, Customers got out of their seats and started dancing. I hadn’t brought my favorite camera, because I worried that the rain my damage it. But I did have a little pocket camera that I always take with me for emergencies. These photos tell the story. As I started beating the rhythm on the table, while eating the exotic foods offered in this wonderful restaurant, I raised my head with a radiant smile, and said… ‘ah now I understand. The descent is for the sake of the ascent’. I was one with the world, and filled with happiness.