Tag Archives: tradition

A Christmas Greeting

D2502_096
Merry Christmas

For the last three months or so, it has been very hard to for me to write my usual Friday blog post. What has been going on here in my country… a post modern war… has provoked thoughts and feelings that I’ve been unable to share with any but my closest friends who live here and understand the paradoxes that are part and parcel of coexistence with a hostile minority that takes advantage of all the many comforts of our free and modern society, while trying to destroy the state at the same time.

D2502_002

Especially, because my view of how to deal with the situation differs from the policy of our government, and because I know that the ‘enemy’ is listening, I dare not discuss the issues while we are still at war. And I won’t hide the fact that what’s been happening on the streets of my beloved city cause me great pain and sadness. This too, limits my ability to express myself… to the extent that I didn’t even reply to the generous comments of my friends on my posts. Last week, I had intended to post an article about how I deal with this depression and sadness. But then there was another insane attack, and once again I was struck dumb. I just posted a picture I had composed during the week, and let it go at that.

D2502_077
I see my lunch… how’re you doing?

This week too, there have been a number of news items that radically influenced my state of mind. Not just on the subject of the war. There were a number of subjects I could have discussed, had I been in a more positive mood. But unhappy as I felt, it seemed best to say nothing. I thought I’d just publish a photo I like to let my friends know that I’m still alive. But then, this morning, I looked at the calendar, and realized that it was Christmas day. Unexpectedly, I desired to send my heartfelt good wishes to my Christian friends for a very happy holiday.

D2502_068
we see the spirit of creation in all nature

You know, I’ve spent some time in Europe, and in the Americas, where Christianity was the religion of the majority, in many of the places that I visited. And I was aware of certain characteristics that might be criticized, when the establishment is identified with religious morality. But this was half a century ago, and since then religion has become much less imposing, and many young people pay it no mind regardless of their cultural heritage. And that is even further complicated by the commercial abuse of the traditional holiday. But in my country, Christians are a small minority. And those I’ve gotten to know exemplify forbearance and modesty as well as a desire to do good deeds and act out their love for their fellow man. They remind me a bit of an animal who is native to our country, but seldom seen because he’s shy; the rock badger, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions.

D2502_110
cuddles from Jerusalem

Since my neighborhood is at the very edge of Jerusalem, rock badgers often come and visit. And when I go off to meditate or collect my thoughts in a park or nature preserve, and sit quietly for a length of time without moving, I have the opportunity to see them and watch as they relate to one another and to the wild life and lush vegetation in our fair city. They are exceptionally intelligent, and different members of their community have different roles to fulfill within the framework of their organized life. I am often amused at the thought that they are related to the elephants, for they are quite small, between the size of a cat and a dog, and have very small ears compared to those of an elephant. In any case, I’ve chosen to share some pictures of them together with my wishes for a Merry Christmas.

Succoth 2015

D2477_021

At the synagogue in Mazkeret Batya

going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

A0911_05
fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

A0628_23
portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

A0385_35
a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

D1036_068
a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

Sculpture and the Jews

A038_11

We have a problem with art. In Hebrew, art and craft are almost the same word. They come from the same root, which is also the root for the word ‘faith’, from which the English word ‘amen’ is a derivative. Amen simply means ‘(I) have faith’. It is a Hebrew word. And though sculpture of a certain kind was found in the holy temple, it has most been associated with idol worship. And there are specific laws found in the bible prohibiting making reproductions of men or women, animals, or even objects found in nature. Throughout our long history, the plastic arts have been avoided by most of our people and those artists who did produce something, were always the exception to the rule.

D819_12_F

During the 18th century, there was a movement that gained some popularity among our people who were living in Europe, called ‘the enlightenment’, which tried to import some of the cultural standards and the knowledge which had been accepted in the west into our own culture. Despite the opposition of most of the religious leaders of the time, the movement became quite popular, and is credited with easing some of the anti-semitic laws which severely restricted us, as well as promoting greater integration between Jews and non Jews in Europe. It also brought about the modernization of a great many Jewish communities. Scientific and literary texts were translated into Hebrew, and absorbed into our common culture.

B086_05a

But influenced by cultural prejudices an ingrained attitudes, even the non religious, secular, and highly educated creative souls among us were reluctant to express themselves in the arts. And when they did, they often chose some sort of abstraction or embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.

B240_08

The concept of one god who could not be represented by any image was in direct opposition to art as understood by other cultures. Sculpture suffered the worst. And to this day, one can find numerous abstract works of sculpture on some of the streets of Jerusalem, but the more realistic, representative pieces are hidden away in private spaces.

A605_17

One of the most interesting sculptures in modern day Israel was created as a memorial to the holocaust, and is hidden away in a forest, and completely unknown by most of the citizens of Jerusalem. It presents images from the history of our people and particularly from the holocaust in a series of reliefs found on a large column.

D2456_005

Aside from the religious injunction prohibiting idolatry, modesty is considered one of the most important virtues. This too, has dissuaded many artists from using nude images. Even so, the restrictions inspired a creative spark as well, and I have seen fascinating two dimensional sculpture, and other variations on the use of three dimensional media by a number of our local artists.

B086_ 01

The conflict between the arts and our traditional view of the world is felt in other areas as well, including music. I hope to write about that one of these days. And because I feel limited regarding how many images to show on a blog post, I might add another post regarding the many ways Jewish artists have tried to express themselves in sculpture while still respecting the prohibitions of our culture.

A605_08

for the love of books

D2442_017

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.

D2443_112

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.

D2443_125
you can still see the rails in the old train station

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.

D2442_093

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.

D2442_098

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.

D2442_036

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?

D2442_069
blues for women

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.

D2443_194

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?

IMG_4235-1
Shimon in heaven by Chana

love and ego

D2419_090

Many years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was visiting with friends and students in Jerusalem. Word of his presence in our city soon spread among his followers, and one by one and then in small groups, people started showing up at the apartment where he was staying. Outside, the sun was setting. Inside, it was beginning to get dark. A friend went to the light switch, about to turn on the electric light. But then Shlomo said, I would prefer a candle. A candle was placed in a single candlestick and lit. The sun went down completely, and more people came. After evening prayers, Shlomo asked for more candles.

A314_36
Rabbi Shlomo singing with friends

Friends melted the base of a candle and stuck it to a little plate. More and more candles were lit and placed on shelves and on the tops of high book cases. The apartment filled with people and Shlomo encouraged them to light more candles. A few friends went out to get more candles, and soon there were more candles than could be counted. They provided a soft light that filled the room. Friends pulled guitars out, bells and drums, and other musical instruments. We told each other stories, and sang songs together. Though each particular candle offered just a modest amount of light, all of the many candles together filled the apartment with light.

D2419_011

At one point, when there was a natural pause in the conversation and the music, Reb Shlomo waved his hand, signifying the many candles, he said, ‘You see, each candle is like a human soul radiating its own particular light. But when we are all together, the space is filled with light, and it is difficult to attribute this great light to any specific source’.

D2422_043

This week began for me with a visit to the rose garden opposite the Knesset, our parliament here in Jerusalem. The newly elected members of parliament were trying to organize a new government. And the news media was filled with dire warnings about what might or might not happen. But now, in the height of spring, the rose garden was filled with flowers, and the sun was shining overhead, and the sky was blue.

D2422_092

Yesterday was the holiday of Lag B’omer. A day dedicated to the memory of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was born and married and died on this day, and taught us a mystical understanding of the light in this world. It is also a day in which we remember the struggle of our ancestors against the Romans. It is a holiday which is marked by bonfires and celebration in the middle of a very serious period of time, during which we progress from our exodus from slavery and aspire to the acceptance of enlightenment. And that is such serious work for the soul, that it is a great relief to have a day of fun and joy to offer release from our contemplation on the fact that true freedom is found only when one has a framework of values and intentional behavior.

D2422_074
dancing around the bonfire

While watching the revelry around the campfires, I was reminded of Reb Shlomo’s words in praise of the candles. Let us remember the unique character of each and every human being, and value his individual contribution to our society. But remember too that the light that we generate is not held within, but is shared by all, lighting up the world around us and bringing us the warmth and happiness of love.

marriage of a torah scroll

D2262_35
he’s recording it for posterity

As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.

D2262_14
the beginning of the procession

We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.

D2262_49
the wagon with the torah on it

On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.

D447_40
the way they do it in Jerusalem

When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.

D447_41
children celebrate with torches in their hands

Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.

D447_66
and the adults in their own way…

We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.

D2262_28
the villagers are more informal

We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.

D447_31
as seen in Jerusalem

I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.

D2262_24
and yesterday in the village