Archive | March, 2012

Chag Sameach

8 Mar

Once upon a time, in a land far away (also known as ancient Persia), there lived a king. This king decides that he wants a new wife, and he holds a search and lots of parties in order to find the fairest lady in all of the land. Meanwhile, Esther, a young girl living with her uncle Mordechai, is chosen from the far-off reaches of the nation to compete for his affection. She goes to the palace and her beauty wins the king’s heart.

In my Children’s Theater shows, this would make for a great stopping point. Typical fairy tale rags to riches affair, boy meets girl, boy carries girl into his palace on horseback while the sun is setting. But of course, the fact that I am taking the time to type this from my iPhone in the middle of Tel Aviv means that there is a little more to it than that. This story is not a fairy tale; it is a passage from the Book of Esther, and it is the tale behind the celebration of Purim, a Jewish holiday that I participated in for the first time last night.

In the Book of Esther, there are a few twists. Esther happens to be Jewish (shocker!) but under the recommendation of her uncle, decides to keep her identity hidden from the king. Also, there’s a villain: Haman. Haman is an advisor to the king who is trying to get the king to issue an edict to kill all of the Jews because of his deep hatred for Mordechai. To make a long story short, Esther ends up strategically revealing herself to the king and telling him about Haman’s plan, at which point the king puts a stop to the whole thing, and Purim celebrates the heroism of Esther and the survival of the Jewish people. As someone on my trip said, “Purim has the same theme as every Jewish holiday: someone tried to kill us, and they failed. Then we light candles and drink.”

But drinking is not the only thing we do on Purim (though our group did our best to carry on that tradition); we also dress up in costume to emphasize the discrepancy between what we see in someone’s appearance and their true self. Thus, yesterday in Tel Aviv looked an awful lot like Halloween in America, just with more adults dressed up during the day and more Hamantaschen (delicious cookies in honor of Purim). Exhibit A, though not visible halfway around the world, is my full and contented belly (wine and cookies do wonders for the soul). Exhibit b is below (and for those of you who are wondering, I was a cat. Appropriate, I thought, to help acknowledge the “cat”astrophe that was averted):

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Another Purim tradition, and the one that had the deepest impact on me, is audience participation. When the story is read from the Book of Esther, the entire audience (congregation?) participates with loud noises of disapproval whenever Haman appears, approval whenever Esther appears, and other charades for each of the remaining characters. So, the most striking moment of yesterday for me was when one of our tour leaders was up on the bus mic explaining the story to those of us who were unfamiliar, and the entire bus behind me erupted into one long, unsolicited BOOOOOOO! the moment that Haman appeared. The only equivalent I can give (and one that definitely gives away my interfaith upbringing) is when a group of near-strangers starts singing Christmas carols together unprompted; a collection of people with very different backgrounds and very different levels of commitment to their faith spontaneously sharing a tradition. And a very loud tradition, at that. Sitting at a reading last night (and dancing, and eating), I said to a friend, “The only time I hear yelling like this is during the Super Bowl.” (Yes, that’s another hint at my upbringing. Thanks, Dad.)

That could have been the end of our experience of Purim, and it almost was – we were on the bus leaving central Tel Aviv before learning this last fact. But during that ride, one of the Yale rabbis from our trip told us that the story doesn’t actually end the way that it seems from the kids’ services. Yes, Esther persuades the king to change his mind – but rather than reversing the edict, as we had thought, the king says that he is unable to take back an order that he has already given. Instead, he says that he will give advance warning to the Jews of the day that they are supposed to be attacked, so that they can defend themselves, and the story ends with the Jews killing a lot of Persians in order to stay alive.

This ending, though shocking to almost everyone on our bus, no matter how often they had celebrated Purim, felt somehow appropriate in our current setting. Jewish survival – and the survival of the Jewish state – is not always a win-win equation – it seems that there is always one side who must defeat the other in order to continue living their lives, and some kind of extra complication lying beneath what may at first appear to be a fairy tale ending. To be in the right, in Israel, rarely means that the other side is entirely wrong, and there is always a new version of the story to be told.

Chag Sameach (happy Purim) and good morning from Tel Aviv.

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Borders and Belonging

6 Mar

“We’re still in a situation where we’re not sure where our borders are and we’re not sure who our citizens are, more than 60 years later.”
–A director of the Galilee Foundation, speaking in the Jewish settlement of Shorashim

Deep in the loose hills of the Golan Heights, both Israeli and Lebanese citizens live in the village of Ghajar. But the mix is not the result of deliberate cultural diversification; rather, it is an unintended consequence of an international peace-keeping border between the two nations that happens to run smack down the middle of Ghajar’s homes. This means that some members of the town began their lives as Syrian citizens, fell under Israeli control after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, and then found themselves in Lebanon as part of a truce facilitated by the United Nations in 2006. Over the course of one lifetime, the identity of this village has already shifted three times under three drastically different regimes.

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We saw Ghajar in the distance today (you can see its faint white houses in my photo above) as we looked across the valley into Lebanon and then again into the old border with Syria (see below) and the new, far-more-dramatic-in-its-altitude border with Syria since 1967 (also below – please ignore the Jess-sized figure blocking the important view.) And though the actual border shifting (or, in Ethan’s words, shapeshifting) of Israel through the years did not come as a surprise to me after my Middle Eastern studies courses, the extra oomph of seeing it so intimately did, because it instantly brought the political banter down to a personal level. These changing lines on a map, which in America we only really experience in the form of gerrymandering voting districts, mean so much more here: they can be the difference between being able to freely visit family members in a different country and never seeing them again, or between living in a democracy or a dictatorship. Three feet — or, more accurately, meters — in either direction drawn on an international map alters the course of many more lives than the average Model UN team (or, for that matter, the actual UN itself) can easily comprehend.

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And yet changing physical borders are such a norm here that every map that we have been given of Israel contains colored lines and dotted lines and explanations with asterisks in the margins. The realities of this physical instability only really became clear when I saw for the first time how SMALL Israel is. It’s about the size of New Jersey, and if you discount the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank, it is only about ten miles across at its narrowest point – for the record, that’s less than half of the distance that I used to drive to get to middle school each day and tiny enough for us to see from one end of the country to the other on a clear day. I mean no offense to the Jersey Shore fans when I share this, but I found myself agreeing with the person on our bus who wondered aloud: “How can an entire culture exist in something the size of New Jersey?” Now try and imagine if New Jersey kept ceding and reclaiming some of its land to and from New York on a regular basis and you can start to understand how crazy the border situation here really is.

The cultural boundaries in Israel, however, are even more mind-achingly complex than the physical ones, at least in my view. We spent the afternoon after today’s hike meeting with Israeli-Arabs of around our own age in the Jewish village of Shorashim and learning, through their stories, of the divisions that exist within Israeli society itself. Israeli-Arabs are Arabs who remained within the new state of Israel after its war of independence in 1948 and who became full Israeli citizens at that point (in contrast with the people whom we now refer to as Palestinians, who had a claim to the land that became Israel but who either fled or were driven out before the end of that war.) They make up about twenty percent of the country’s total population. Israeli-Arabs have the right to vote, to participate in Israel’s government and supreme court, to receive government services, etc. Yet even with their citizenship, they continue to live mostly separated from Jewish Israelis and most of them decide not to serve in the Israeli armed forces (they, unlike the remainder of the country with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, are not required to enlist.) The majority of them attend different school systems and live in municipalities with smaller-than-average budgets. And some of them run into conflicts of allegiance almost daily. For example, for Arab-Israelis who are Muslim, it can be uncomfortable to salute a flag made up of Jewish symbols and to sing a national anthem proclaiming the glory of the Jewish people returning to Israel. It can also be difficult to avoid job discrimination (whether out and out discrimination by background or more obtuse discrimination by requiring certain levels of army achievement as part of professional qualifications), to achieve an equal education, and to be trusted as a day-to-day shopper in Jerusalem’s stores or a representative in the Knesset.

From Israel’s point of view, it is important to protect the rights of everyone in its democracy. Yet it needs to find a way to do so while still affirming its Jewish identity and catering its policies to prioritize Jewish success and growth, a goal that many politicians believe requires the maintenance of a Jewish majority within the entire state. Yet how can Israel laud its tolerant laws and approve extra support for Jewish settlement in the Galilee to equal out the growing number of Arab-Israeli living there, both at the same time? America has slowly repudiated the idea of “separate but equal”; can Israel find a way to do the same and still keep its legitimacy?

Before I end this post and its open-ended questions, I want to reiterate one more thing that was said today by our facilitator: “I am going to try to be objective, and fail.” I want to put out there in the open that I write these posts knowing that they are on sensitive topics and that I only know some of the facts. I write them knowing that my own opinions have been changing during each bus ride between destinations, and that there is often more power in what I don’t know yet than what I do. So excuse me for that, and please contribute your own knowledge and stories and opinions as they occur to you. Know that I am writing because I believe that something said and thought is better than nothing; that difficult and sometimes not politically-correct topics should not be abandoned merely for the discomfort that they can cause; and that I have a responsibility as a person who is getting a unique opportunity to see something “up close and personal” to, in turn, personalize that experience by offering up some of myself as I help to translate it for others.

Sweet dreams and open thoughts from a kibbutz in Galil,
J

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Israel and a time of return

5 Mar

Four months ago, I received a voicemail from an unknown number. “Hello, Jessica,” said a male voice on the other end of the line. “Please give me a call back. We have a few questions that we’d like to ask you about your Jewish affiliations.”

Despite the fact that I called him back while cooking bacon for my apartmentmates and just a few weeks before I hosted the giant Interfaith bash of Chrismahannakwanzaatheismadon, I felt defensive. Of course I am Jewish, I thought as something inside of me twisted with anxiety. My mother’s Jewish! I celebrate Hanukkah and Passover! And my grandma lives in New York City and knows how to curse in Yiddish!

“…And yet…” the voice on the phone reminded me, my father is Christian (“A priest?” I was asked); and yet, I went to more Sunday School lessons than Hebrew School ones; and yet, neither my brother nor I were ever bar or bat mitvah’d; and yet, I refused to renounce my upbringing in a fairly secular, though spiritual, family that was determined to be respectfully interfaith and to let both children choose their own religious identity at will. And yet…

This phone call, which came to verify my eligibility for the Taglit Birthright program, was not the first time that I have struggled with what it means to identify as “Jewish and…” Like many children with mixed heritage, I grew up thinking that I had a legitimate claim to multiple cultures, but slowly grew to realize that without true immersion, I would never have the kind of social currency to thrive in any of them. It’s a realization that drew me to take a course on the New Testament during my freshman year at Yale and that drove me to apply to Birthright to begin with. While for many people, Birthright is a journey to the home of their past, Birthright for me is one tool to help me to determine what I want for my own future, as well as that of my children. It is a return — both to my bloodline and to thoughts of my own religious and cultural identity, thoughts that I have mostly placed to the side during my time at Yale (with the exception of a few 3am deep life conversations) in favor of more intellectual or social inquiries. And it’s also a return to the kind of complicated, sometimes painful, sometimes delicious (see: Italian baker), travel that I have written about on this blog before.

And with that, I introduce you all to Israel. I am only about 24 hours in on this 10 day trip around the country and am doing my best to record as much of it as possible, in the hopes of expanding my thoughts now and my conclusions later (spoiler alert: there are no immediate, easy answers here. That became apparent before I even set foot on the plane.) I recognize that this trip is not the be-all, end-all – in fact, many of us on the trip packed a healthy dose of skepticism along with our clothes for Shabbat, and I have taken too many courses on the Middle East to ignore the larger geopolitical issues at stake – but it is, for me, a first step, albeit a first step large enough to carry me halfway around the world.

I’ll keep updating, but I’ll leave you with the same wish that Muriel, my grandma’s friend as well as my own, sent to me in card form: may you experience the best that life has to offer, and travel well:

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