Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Different Kind of Culture Shock

Over time, Israeli society has become more sensitive than ever before to the issue of smoking in public places. Several decades ago, smoking was permitted almost everywhere—on buses, in restaurants, in workplaces. Today, after many efforts by various groups, it no longer is. The laws against smoking in public places and in workplaces are much stronger, and although enforcement is still far from ideal, it is much better than it was.

However, much still depends on where you go. In one of the buildings where I work, for example, the owners ignored the anti-tobacco laws even after they were passed and continued to allow approximately fourteen large, ugly, sand-filled ashtrays to remain in the building. After having spoken to the building manager many times and heard his promises to remove them—promises that remained unkept for months—I finally contacted the municipality. Only then did the owners remove the ashtrays. But the smoking persisted, and does in various degrees to this day.

Last August, a local college opened a branch in the building. It happens to be the branch for Arab students. At first, many of the students smoked in the hallway outside the college’s office and classrooms. In addition, both students and staff smoke in branch’s front office almost all the time. The smoke spills into the corridor, forcing anyone who passes by to breathe it in.

Over the past several months, I asked the people in charge many times to deal with the smoking problem. They refused, and continued to smoke there in full view of everyone. Today, after breathing in one lungful too many, I decided that it was time to call the municipality to complain. The woman I spoke with promised to send inspectors out as soon as possible.

When I left work a little while later and got into the elevator, I encountered the two inspectors that the municipality had sent. They had arrived, witnessed the people smoking, and fined the branch’s management five thousand shekels.

The director, who was furious, got into the elevator with us and leaned his face close to mine. “I know I have you to thank for this,” he told me. “I just got a fine of five thousand shekels, all because of you. You can be happy now.”

“I’m not,” I told him, looking him straight in the eye. “I’m not happy about it at all.”

“What you did was racist,” he said, as the elevator reached the ground floor and we got out. “It was a racist act. I’ll make sure that you leave this building, and I’ll have you in court!”

I didn’t care much about his threats to make me leave the building, as he put it, or to take me to court. After all, what grounds would he have to sue me? I had acted within my rights according to the law, and I have a solid record of acting against smoking in the building regardless of the smoker’s racial origin. Still, his accusation of racism bewildered and even shocked me. “Racist?” I asked him. “What has this got to do with racism? Please, let’s talk about this. Please explain to me why what I did was racist.”

“People smoke here all the time,” he said, “and I’m sure that you never called the municipality about them.”

“Actually, I did,” I told him. “I reported a Jewish-owned business a while back, and its owners were fined five thousand shekels, too.”

“We’re a non-profit organization that works for co-existence,” the director continued. “We don’t have five thousand shekels to pay such a fine. You’ve caused us terrible damage. How could you do this to us?”

“It’s your own behavior that’s responsible,” I said. “I asked you many times not to smoke in the building. I explained that it was harmful and against the law, and you chose to do it anyway.”

“There’s something else,” he said. “The inspectors were two men, and they entered a classroom where twenty young women were sitting. Since only women were in the classroom, they had taken off their head coverings. As soon as the men entered, they scrambled to put them back on as quickly as they could. A few of them started to cry. I can see that you have a conscience and that you understand about modesty. Do you have any idea how much this hurt them?”

“Yes, I do,” I said, thinking about the male police officers and workers who move freely about the women’s section at the Western Wall. “And I regret with all my heart that it happened. I never would have wanted it to happen, and I had no idea that it was going to. It sounds like the inspectors behaved insensitively, and that was wrong. Nevertheless, you knew that smoking in the building was harmful and against the law, and you did it anyway. That is a separate issue. It has nothing to do with racism or modesty.”

Gradually, the branch director calmed down. I think that in the end, we understood each other better. We ended the conversation by wishing each other well, and that was encouraging.

I’ll see what happens this coming Sunday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Catschka, RIP

Sad news: Catschka, my friend’s young cat, was found dead today outside her building. The veterinarian’s post-mortem examination determined that the cause of death was a car accident and that Catschka died instantly, without suffering.

Here are some photos of Catschka that have been posted here before.

On the stone fence outside her building:

Catschka on the stone fence

On my lap:

Catschka on my lap 1

Swishing her long, beautiful tail:

Catschka's tail-swish

Peeking around a tree trunk:

I see you!

Catschka was a lively, joyful and loving cat who was taken from us far too soon. We will miss her very much.

May she rest in peace.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tzvi of Sar-El: “I Am Proud of the Work I Do”

I first came to Israel in the winter of 1983 on the Sar-El (Volunteers for Israel) program, through which people from abroad come to Israel for three weeks in order to work on army bases, in hospitals, and on archaeological digs, to name just several options. (Read about how Sar-El was founded here.) Today, women soldiers undergo an intensive seven-week training course in order to become Sar-El group leaders. But back then, only a year after Sar-El’s inception, no such training program existed in the IDF, as least as far as I know. Tzvi (not his real name), the man in charge of the volunteers on the army base where I worked, was a career soldier of many years’ standing who had fought in several of Israel’s wars. He had immigrated to Israel as a child together with his family and grown up here during the state’s early decades. His knowledge, leadership skill and devotion to the groups in his charge quickly earned him legendary status in the program. Mention his name, or the name of the base where he worked, today among current and former Sar-El volunteers of a certain age—and their eyes will light up and the stories will pour out joyously, like streams in the Judean desert after rain.

As part of the program, volunteer groups went on trips once a week. As we rode the bus to our destination, Tzvi—who is not religiously observant but is nevertheless a proud, devoted and knowledgeable Jewish man—gave us divrei Torah—talks on the weekly Torah portion—that reflected his love for Israel and the importance of living here. So it is hardly surprising that he is responsible for several hundred aliyot, including mine.

Tzvi, who is still connected with Sar-El (though, as far as I know, not as a group leader these days), is still in touch with many of his former volunteers by email. A few days ago, he sent us a brief note that contained the following links:

ABC News report about the Israeli medical delegation to Haiti

Jewish Life TV report about the Israeli medical delegation to Haiti

CNN report about the Israeli medical delegation to Haiti

With his characteristic succinctness, Tzvi wrote only the following by way of explanation:

“This is the immediate result of the Sar-El volunteers’ work at the Matzrap base. I am proud of the work I do.”

That was it. No elaboration. Since Tzvi is modest, I knew that if I wanted more information, I was going to have to ask for it.

So I did. What does Sar-El have to do with the medical delegation in Haiti? And what on earth is the Matzrap army base?

Here, with some minor edits, is Tzvi’s reply:

“The name Matzrap is an acronym for Merkaz Tziud Refui—Central Medical Supply. The volunteers there work mainly on sorting medicines of all kinds for the IDF to be used in case of war by medics and doctors on the battlefield, but also for humanitarian causes (such as tsunamis, earthquakes and floods all over the world). The supplies prepared by the Sar-El volunteers are packed and used for situations like these. The Israeli medical delegations have saved many lives in many countries which suffered from disasters like the one in Haiti.

“This base has priority over all other bases when it comes to receiving volunteers. Because of the importance of the work that is done there, it would receive volunteers even if we had only one group.”

So Sar-El volunteers had packed the medicines that were flown to Haiti. Incredible.

I can only shake my head in awe... and wish that I, too, had worked on the Matzrap base during my volunteer days.

(A note to fellow Sar-El volunteers: if you know Tzvi’s true identity, please don’t reveal it here.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010


As I was waiting for a bus last Friday morning, a woman approached me. While she was not dressed as a religiously observant woman, she appeared to come from a traditional background. “Do you know where there’s a synagogue open?” she asked me. “I need to talk to a rabbi.”

“The synagogues here are usually open in the morning and then again in the late afternoon,” I told her, starting to think about whom I could call.

“I need to talk to a rabbi,” she said. “I need to ask him a question.”

I nodded, still thinking, but didn’t say anything. Very often, questions for rabbis are about personal matters—sometimes extremely personal ones. So there was nothing to ask here, nothing to say, as I wondered where I should send her. Inspiration struck. “I think I can call someone for you,” I said, taking out my mobile phone.

She said, “My daughter had a fight with her sister a while back and swore that she would never see her again. Now, her sister is in her ninth month of pregnancy and she wants to take back her vow. Is that possible? Is she allowed?”

Jews consider a vow sacred, to the point that some populations strongly discourage the use of the phrase “I swear.” Nevertheless, there are ways to annul vows that were made in the heat of the moment or that were simply ill-advised. I told the woman, “There is a ceremony known as hatarat nedarim—release from vows. It can certainly be done.” And I gave her a description of the brief and simple ceremony.

“I’ll go to the shuk,” the woman said then. “Surely I’ll find an open synagogue there, and a rabbi to advise me.”

I told her, “There’s a store nearby that sells scribal supplies. Ask the proprietor where to go. He’s a good person, and I’m sure that he’ll direct you to a rabbi who will be able to advise you.”

The bus arrived, and both the woman and I got on. I sat down, but felt uneasy. I realized that while I had given the woman useful directions, I hadn’t told her all that I wanted to say.

She was on the phone when I approached her, but when the conversation was over, I leaned toward her and said, “Please listen. I’m not a rabbi’s wife or a rabbi’s daughter. I’m just an ordinary person who happens to be religiously observant. But I wanted to tell you what my heart and my gut are telling me. May I?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then this is what I have to say,” I told her. “Our God is a God of mercy. He is pleased to see families reunite. Just have your daughter see her sister as soon as possible.”

“And should my daughter just state that she cancels her vow?”

“I think that what matters is that she see her sister,” I said.

“Should she pray?”

“If she wants to,” I said. “But I think that the most important thing is that she see her sister right away.”

The bus reached my stop, and I got off.

Quite a bit later, I thought of what Jewish tradition has to say about vows and their risks. I thought about Jephthah and his daughter, and how, according to the biblical commentaries, Jephthah could have had his vow annulled easily by going to the high priest. But Jephthah, a victorious general, felt that the high priest should come to him, and the high priest thought that he should not have to humble himself by going to see Jephthah, a skilled fighter but a man of no learning. And so, because each man cared more about his own status than about saving the life of an innocent young woman, that life was lost, and both men suffered terrible punishment afterwards.

But like I said, that was later. What occupied my thoughts at the time was something much more immediate, much closer to home. Those who know me well may know what it was—and I ask that it not be mentioned in the comments because it is a private matter, something that I do not blog about.

I have only this to say:

If someone reading this post is thinking about severing all connection with a family member, I am telling you with all my heart: don’t. It is a bad idea, a terrible and tragic mistake, an act that will cause enormous suffering to you and all your family for years and perhaps for generations.

I am not talking here about abusive situations, in which sometimes the only solution may be to cut off contact with the abuser for a time and, in extreme cases, perhaps even permanently. I am talking about situations in which the reason for cutting off contact may seem compelling at the time but is actually absurd: a real or imagined slight, a disagreement, a quarrel. That sort of thing.

Such reasons, in my opinion, are complete and utter BS. They’re not worth such suffering.

Believe me. I know. I have no intention of talking about it here, but I know.

If you’re thinking about doing it, think again. And again. And again... until you think better of it.

And then, thank God that you came to your senses before it was too late.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bev in Heaven: A Hundred-Word Story

In honor of the second yahrzeit of my late friend Bev, who worked at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo for many years, I am reposting the hundred-word story that I wrote shortly after she died.

“Beverly Burge?” asked the angel. “Welcome! Right this—” Suddenly she froze. “Goodness! Duck!
Bev looked into the distance and grinned. “Cassowary,” she corrected as the cloud of feathers, fur, skin and scales hurtled closer. The angel leaped aside as a young Persian leopard sprang forward, knocking Bev to the ground.
“Roo, let me up! I’m glad to see you too, but I can’t hug you all at—”
Roo nudged her gently, his eyes twinkling.
“Oh,” Bev breathed, spreading her arms and finding that her embrace was as wide as it needed to be. “Oh. I guess I can.

Bev, who was the section head of the Quarantine Unit at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, hand-raised many animals including a tiger, lion, kittens, ferrets and, last of all, a Persian leopard named Roo who died suddenly in the fall of 2007.

Bev was also a writer, musician and friend to people all over the world. She is very much missed.

May she rest in peace.

"Geveret, geveret"

I originally wrote this post approximately two years ago, after the funeral of a dear friend.

What I’m about to write here has percolating in my mind for quite a while. Every time I have attended a funeral—and I have attended entirely too many over the past several years—I have thought to myself: it’s time to write it already. And then I’ve thought: no, I shouldn’t. Funerals are no place for protest, even after the fact. And anyway, who wants to write about funerals?

Today, after my friend Bev’s funeral, I decided that it’s time.

As many of my readers probably know already, in Israel—at least for Jews—there is very little separation between religion and state. If we want our marriages to be legally registered as such, we must either have them performed by the rabbinate or marry abroad. And unless we have made arrangements in advance to be buried in one of the recently-established civil cemeteries, when we die we are buried in the municipal cemetery, which means that the local burial society is in charge.

In the United States, many if not most Jewish burial societies are comprised of community members, people who knew the deceased personally. In some cases people may even designate, before they die, which members of the society they want to prepare them for burial. Here in Israel, burial societies are official agencies, paid by the state. The up-side of this is that every citizen is entitled to free burial in his or her city of residence. The down-side is that the burial society, which operates according to the strictest possible religious custom, decides what shall be done and not done at the ceremony. In practical terms, this means that except for special circumstances, women may not deliver eulogies or participate in the burial.

I have attended at least two funerals where there were “special circumstances”—in other words, where women spoke. In one case, the mourners were a prominent rabbinical family from abroad, and the deceased’s sister gave one of the eulogies. In another, the deceased’s sister-in-law, a well-known public figure and Israel Prize laureate, delivered a eulogy. (Incidentally, when the question of women delivering eulogies at Jewish funerals here went all the way up to the High Court of Justice some years ago, the petitioners cited these two cases as evidence that women should not be barred from speaking at funerals. I admit that I don’t know whether a ruling has been handed down or, if so, what it was.)

On the other hand, I also attended a funeral in which the deceased’s daughter had prepared a eulogy for her father, but when she went toward the podium to speak, the members of the burial society stopped her. Only after intensive negotiations between her brothers and the men of the burial society was she allowed to speak—not from the podium, but from the place where she was standing, and only after the members of the burial society had left the room.

So much for the equal application of custom.

At Bev’s funeral today, one of her co-workers, a woman, delivered a eulogy. Since we arrived a little late, I did not see whether anyone tried to discourage her from doing so. But since she was one of the large delegation from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, a respected institution here, it is likely that no one intervened, though I can’t say for certain. After her eulogy, she sang excerpts from the Twenty-third Psalm, which was particularly moving. I thought that the members of the burial society might try to silence her because of “kol isha” (an opinion from the Talmud that a woman’s voice is equivalent to nakedness and therefore men should not listen to a woman singing), but they didn’t. They simply left the room until she was done.

The burial was a different story.

As the director of the zoo said during his eulogy, while Bev had no family in Israel, her co-workers at the zoo, where she worked for more than a quarter of a century and to which she gave her heart and soul, were her family. So when one of her long-time co-workers, a woman, stepped forward to take the shovel to fill in the grave, it seemed perfectly appropriate. But the rabbi in charge of the burial thought otherwise, and called out “Geveret, geveret” (“Ma’am” or “Lady”) to stop her. “It’s not the custom,” he said. “You can put a stone on the grave afterwards.” She obediently went back to her place.

I believe that most people want to behave decently, properly, without making waves. I believe that this is particularly true at emotionally-charged events such as funerals, where people especially want to mind their manners and avoid causing offense. I also believe that the members of the burial society understand this and take unfair advantage. So as my friend’s co-worker from the zoo went back to her place, unwilling to cause a disturbance, I stood quietly, seething. When the burial was completed, I walked some distance away from the gathering to have a private word with the rabbi.

Speaking quietly, controlling my tears, I told him: “Rabbi, I think it is very strange that at the end of the burial, you made the customary statement asking forgiveness of my friend, the deceased, for any unintentional slight to her honor. But during the burial, you wouldn’t let her friend help to fill in her grave. I don’t think that would have been a slight to her honor. In fact, I think it would have honored her very much. After all, the woman worked together with her for years, and they were good friends.”

“I respect your position, but I don’t agree with it,” the rabbi answered. “This is minhag Yerushalmi—the custom of Jerusalem—and must never be changed. If we change it even a little, then it will be completely broken, and that must not happen.”

“I disagree,” I told him. “There are religious communities where this is not even a problem. And at the funeral, one of the women spoke and even sang.”

“That is forbidden,” he said.

“Still, it was done and no one stopped her,” I said. “With all respect, Rabbi, this woman was a close friend of mine. If I had been the one to take the shovel, I would have kept right on filling in the grave, custom or no custom.”

“In that case, I wouldn’t have stopped you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have used force or argued with you. But I have a duty to God and to my employer to uphold the local custom as much as I can.”

“I understand your position,” I told him, “but I don’t agree. I can’t see how it would be any dishonor to the deceased to allow her friend to help to cover her grave.”

It was only a few hours later, as I recounted the conversation to a friend, that I realized that the rabbi had given me some important information, whether he intended to or not.

In that case, I wouldn’t have stopped you. I wouldn’t have used force or argued with you....

It was true. I remembered how, at my friend Larry’s burial, a mutual friend of ours, a woman, had taken the shovel to fill in the grave and no one had stopped her. But after she had placed the shovel back on the ground (according to custom, the shovel should not be handed directly from person to person), a member of the burial society had seized it and used it until the end of the burial in order to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Nevertheless, she had done it. She hadn’t asked anyone’s permission or checked to see whether anyone would stop her. This religious woman (the woman at Bev’s funeral was religious as well) had simply acted on her convictions, quietly, firmly and from her heart.

So, right here and now, I am declaring for all to see that when my time comes, any woman who wishes may speak at my funeral and fill in my grave at my burial. Go ahead, sisters. Please. I’m asking it of you. Don’t ask anyone’s permission. If you have something to say, then get right up there, take the microphone and start talking. If a member of the burial society calls out “Geveret, geveret,” then I, as the future guest of honor, give you permission to ignore him. I will not consider it a slight to my honor in the least. Even if all you say is that you hated my guts and you’re glad to see me dead, I don’t care. Do it. Speak. Sing if you want to. If there’s any way I am present, it will make me happy.

And at my burial, guys, once you’re done with the shovel, put it down near the woman next to you—provided that she wants to use it—and don’t budge until she does. And women, while you’re shoveling that earth, if someone calls out “Geveret, geveret” and mentions the local custom, please do me a last favor: ignore him. Don’t shout at him or argue. There’s no need. Just ignore him and continue with your hesed shel emet—your final act of kindness to me.

It’s long past time we had some other local customs at our funerals: customs that acknowledge that women have feelings, that we mourn, and that we, too, need religious outlets for our grief. Of course, I am not advocating using someone else’s funeral as a stage for protest. Nevertheless, since the only way to change a bad custom is through action, then—assuming that I have any friends left alive by the time I go and that these horrible, insensitive customs are still in force when it happens—you are more than welcome to use mine.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Catschka, Where’s Your Towel?

Catschka, babe, did you forget your towel? Is that why you’re snuggled so tightly into Her Ladyship’s back?

Where's your towel, Catschka?

Who Remembers These?

In a local flower shop, an antique:

Payphone in flower shop

A pay telephone! How long has it been...?



I’d been hearing a lot about purslane lately—specifically, that it’s very nutritious and is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. I decided that I’d like to grow my own, and started keeping my eye out for it.

Green Deane’s channel at YouTube, Eat the Weeds, helped a great deal. I recommend his channel highly to anyone who wants to learn how to identify edible greens.

I’d almost given up on spotting any purslane when I suddenly came across some yesterday afternoon on the way home from synagogue. Those reddish stems practically jumped out at me. I bent closer to the plant and identified it. Yup, there were the tiny seed cups with black seeds, and the tightly closed yellow blossoms (the blossoms open only in the morning).

But there was nothing I could do. It was Shabbat. No picking greens allowed.

So I waited until this morning, got myself a pot and some soil, headed back down the street, and luckily for me, the purslane was still there in all its reddish-stemmed, fleshy-leafed glory.

I picked it carefully by the roots, planted it in the pot, brought it home, put it on my terrace and gave it plenty of water. (Dad always used to say: When you transplant anything, give it plenty of water. That helps ease the shock to the plant.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the newest resident of my terrace: purslane!

I hope to have cuttings and seeds available soon for any locals who would like them.

Purslane in the pot

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pictures from This Week

Some pictures from this week.

These potted plants liven up an otherwise drab corridor in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone:

Corridor of plants

An old editing machine at the Jerusalem Film School:

Film editing machine

The cover of an old book—Hallam’s Literary History, to be exact.

Cover of an old book

A sticker bearing the name of the company that bound the book:

Sticker inside book

The bookseller’s sticker:

Sticker on inside cover of book

The spines of the books, showing the older paper used in the binding process:

Spines of old books

It makes me wonder: who originally bought those books, and for what purpose? Were they school textbooks? A gift? When and how did they reach Israel?

The imagination soars... and isn’t that what books are for?

Cats About Town

Here’s a lovely orange kitty whom I saw yesterday.

Crossing the old train tracks, no doubt intent on some important feline business:

Orange cat 1

Taking a breather on a rock:

Orange cat 2

One picturesque leap for cat-kind:

Orange cat 3

“Yes, I know I’m a good model. I’ll be negotiating a catnip clause in my next contract.”

Orange cat 6

Bonus photo: a dilute calico whom I saw outside a neighborhood post office:

Dilute calico

The Friday Ark. The Carnival of the Cats.

RivkA Nails It

This blog is usually my refuge from politics. Occasionally, I will link to something that speaks to me.

This does.

RivkA nailed it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Anat Hoffman on What the Women of the Wall Want

Anat Hoffman’s article, “What the Women of the Wall Want,” has been published in the Forward.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Catschka the Curious

Catschka asks: “What are you doing with that flashy box?”

Catschka the curious

“And what do you mean, ‘Go back a bit so I can focus’? What’s that focus thing, anyway?”

The Friday Ark. The Carnival of the Cats.

Peer Pressure of a Different Kind

Last Friday, I was in Givat Shaul, a Haredi neighborhood. Here are several things that I saw there.

First, a sign in English asking women to enter a particular establishment only in modest dress:

Modesty sign

I can’t help wondering what kind of pressure was exerted on the proprietor to put this sign on his door. I don’t get to Givat Shaul very often, but the last time I was there—a few months ago—I didn’t see this sign. I’ve also seen them in Geula, in Hebrew. This appears to be a recent development. This is the first time I’m seeing such signs in stores or on their doors, and I’ve been here a long time.

To me, the signs are not a polite request but rather a veiled threat. I translate them as follows: “Dress as we tell you to, down to the smallest detail, or we won’t be responsible for what we do.”

(Fine observance of Halakhah, that.)

Now, an outright scare tactic. On this bus station is a printed sign stating that the reason that a No. 2 bus was blown up some years ago was because the passengers were not careful to sit separately. Therefore, the sign says, the power of the mitzvah did not protect the passengers.

Scare tactic

Next to it was this sign:

Sign promoting segregation on buses

Here is my translation, with commentary:

Think before you sit. [The verbs are in the plural, present tense, rather than in the imperative, so that the sign can also be read: We think before we sit. In any case, the idea here is to soften the imperative tone and to give a feeling of in-group, of community, as in: This is what we do.]

Before we board the bus, we think about the most important thing: where to sit?

We all obey the instructions of the great sages of Israel!

Men: in the forward portion

Women: in the inner portion.

Notice that the sign says “inner portion” rather than “rear portion.” In my opinion, that is nothing but a lame attempt to disguise what the sign is really saying:

“Women to the back of the bus!”

After I boarded the bus that I had been waiting for, I found myself wondering what it must be like to grow up in these neighborhoods, bombarded with these messages day after day, week after week, year after year. I came to Jewish observance as a young adult after having had plenty of interaction with the world around me. I had tools for critical thinking and discernment. I also know plenty of older observant Jews who never had to deal with anything like this, and who are as distressed by it as I am.

When I was a child and young adult, I prided myself on my ability to resist peer pressure. (Yes, I was stubborn. Still am.) But usually, peer pressure is pressure to do something that, in one way or another, is not OK.

This is peer pressure taken to the other extreme: to be, as some see it, better and better and better. In a religious community, where the residents have a sincere desire to do God’s will—or, at least, know that they had better show such a desire to their neighbors and friends even if they might not feel it themselves—who can resist this sort of thing? Where will it end? And how will it affect all the people who are growing up in this generation, both now and later on?

Finally, for a bit of comic relief:

Bumper sticker

“Don’t touch me,” the bumper sticker says. “I’m not that kind of car.”

(Click on any photo in order to see a larger version.)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

What You Can Do

I just got a comment on this post that read:

Thanks for the posting the photos along with a detailed explanation of the situation for women. It truly is shocking and discriminatory. Something must be done about it.

You’re absolutely right. So here’s something that you can do to protest the latest outrage: if you’re a US citizen, please write a letter to Israel’s ambassador to the US, Mr. Michael Oren.

Here is the text suggested by Women of the Wall:

Dear Ambassador Oren:

On behalf of the Jewish people fighting for religious pluralism in Israel, I am outraged that one of our leaders, Anat Hoffman, was interrogated and fingerprinted by Jerusalem police on January 5th, 2010. Police told Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what many consider to be Judaism’s most sacred site.

Hoffman’s interrogation came less than two months after the November 18th, 2009 arrest of the Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frankel for wearing a talit and holding a sefer Torah.

We will not tolerate this discrimination and abuse any longer—where women are treated as second-class citizens at a holy and historic place that has great symbolic importance for all Jews.

We are shocked by the brutal and callous insults to which Women of the Wall have been subjected. Many of these curses cannot be repeated in polite company. Israeli police have seen fit to arrest women who go to the wall for peaceful prayer, and make no attempt to reprimand those who spit and curse at them, a stark reminder of the power enjoyed by the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, and their success in forcing their religious practices on an entire nation.

If this were to happen in any other country in the world, the Jewish community would be up in arms. Israel is the rare democracy today that tolerates and even endorses religious discrimination against Jews.

Make no mistake: What appears to be a growing religious crisis in Israel is as much a threat to Israel's survival as are the external threats, and perhaps more so. Israel has shown that she can protect herself from armies and terrorists. Protecting herself from religious extremism may be Israel's biggest challenge—a challenge that cannot and must not be ignored by those who care about Israel’s soul.

We cannot allow this discrimination to continue any further. We must protect our religious rights in Israel.

Pass on our message to the Israeli government, that the Kotel is the beating heart center for the whole of the Jewish people, and not an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue. The arrest and intimidation of women praying at the Wall must stop and it must become a place in which all Jews can pray and connect spiritually to Israel.


[Your name here]


Anat Hoffman, fingerprinted

I just got off the phone with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a former Jerusalem city councilwoman. She asked me to publish the details of her interrogation yesterday at the Kishle police station, which is located near Jaffa Gate in the Old City and was once a Turkish prison. Absolutely, I answered. Things like this should never be kept in the dark, but have the brightest possible light shone on them for all to see.

Anat said: “At the beginning of the session, the interrogating police officer, Senior Staff Sergeant Major (rank in Hebrew: rav samal bakhir) Yoram Suleiman, notified me that I was being interrogated as a suspect in a felony: not complying with a legal order and disturbing the peace.

“The interrogation took place at the Kishle police station. The police got my address from the Registry of Non-Profit Organizations.

“I was asked the following questions:

  1. Do you know what the Supreme Court decision was?
  2. What did the police officer demand from Women of the Wall during their prayer services on Rosh Hodesh Kislev (November 18) and Rosh Hodesh Tevet (December 18)?
  3. Are you a member of the organizing body of these prayer services?
  4. How many women attended?
  5. Did men shout at you?
  6. What did they shout?
  7. (Anat says that the police officer asked her this question in order to find out whether she knew at the time that she was doing something that disturbed the sensibilities of others.)

  8. Were women wearing tallitot [prayer shawls]?
  9. What is a tallit?
  10. Did the women wear kippot [skullcaps]?
  11. Did you hold a Torah scroll?
  12. Did you hold a Torah scroll with intent to read it?
  13. Did you hold a procession in the direction of Robinson's Arch?
  14. Did you say on Army Radio that the aim of your group is to hold a quiet protest against the discrimination against women at the Western Wall?
  15. (Rahel’s note: this question is particularly disturbing. Since when do the police hold a citizen accountable for statements that she makes to the media? Last I heard, Israel was supposed to be a democracy with freedom of speech.)

  16. For what reason do you think there is discrimination against women at the Western Wall?
  17. (Again, I take the liberty of inserting my own note. If you want to know the answer to that question, just go here.)

  18. Do you personally wear a tallit and a kippah?
  19. Is there anything else you would like to add?

“Then,” said Anat, “the police officer took me to the other room, dipped my fingertips in ink and took my fingerprints, just like they do in the movies.”

Anat Hoffman fingerprinted

Women of the Wall has existed since December 1988. I have been a member since 1992. We have never behaved violently toward anyone. Ever. We have been cursed, struck, had chairs thrown at us. In the early days of our group, before I came to Israel, one woman was injured in the head and neck by a thrown chair—the kind made of metal and heavy plastic that used to be at the Kotel, not the lightweight plastic ones that are there now—and had to be taken to the hospital. In November 1996, two men—husbands of members of our group—intervened when a group of several men evidently bent on violence approached us. The police took the two husbands, one of them a rabbi, to the police station for interrogation and allowed the men who had threatened us to go free. Except for one incident that I can recall, as far as I know, the police have never called anyone who threatened us or attacked us to account for their behavior.

But they are treating Anat as a suspected felon—Anat!—who, to the best of my knowledge, has never raised a hand against anyone in her life.

What is going on here? Someone, somewhere, must be feeling very threatened. After all, Women of the Wall has been in existence for 21 years. Why, all of a sudden, is one of our most prominent members being treated as a criminal?

Indeed, what is going on here?

I have no words to describe how appalled, disturbed and outraged I feel over this as an Israeli citizen, an American citizen and a Jew.

No words at all.

(Full disclosure: I am a prayer leader for Women of the Wall—have been for some years now—and know Anat from the group. But even if I had never prayed once with Women of the Wall or laid eyes on Anat in my life, and even if I disagreed with the group for whatever reason, I would still be as horrified over what is happening as I am now.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Booked for Praying

Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a former Jerusalem city councilwoman, was questioned by police, fingerprinted and told that she may be charged with a felony for helping to organize Women of the Wall’s recent prayer service at the Western Wall. The Forward reports:

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said that police interrogated her for more than an hour on January 5 about her activities during Women of the Wall’s last monthly service in December. Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, Hoffman said she did nothing differently that day than she had for the 21 years of her group’s existence.
But this incident follows the arrest in November of another member of the group, Nofrat Frenkel, and is contributing to a sense among the women in the organization that the Israeli authorities are stepping up their surveillance and intimidation of activities that challenge the ultra-Orthodox control of the holy site. A spokesperson for the Israeli police said he did not know of the interrogation and declined further comment.

But of course. Doesn’t it make perfect sense? A group of women worshipping at the Western Wall, wearing prayer shawls under their coats, might be so captivated by this small taste of crime that they might join the underworld next. And after we read from Torah scrolls? Kidnapping and armed robbery, for sure.

Either it’s been a very slow day at the police station, or someone in high places is feeling threatened and pulling strings. Anybody want to take bets on which one it is?

In any case, that doesn’t make Anat’s interrogation any less appalling.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What a Surprise!

I tossed off what I thought was a slightly witty comment to my blogging friend and fellow ailurophile, Elisson... and got this!

Wow, what a surprise! Thank you, Elisson!

Now, since one good turn deserves another, here are some kittypics for you. First, Her Ladyship and Catschka in mirror poses:

Two cats

Catschka washing Her Ladyship, who graciously accepts her ministrations:

Catschka washes Her Ladyship

Sorry I have no figgy pudding... but I do have a figgy photo:

New figs and leaves

Enjoy, and thanks again!