Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twenty thousand brothers

This song was written by Ariel Horovitz (the son of Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s best-known and best-loved songwriters) in memory of Nissim Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas who fell in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Fearing that his funeral would be sparsely attended, thousands of people who had not known him answered calls made over social media to attend his funeral, which took place late at night in Haifa.

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
in silence, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

The soccer fans
who came wearing scarves in the team colors,
and a young woman holding a flag
who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much
when she’d never even known you.

Twenty thousand people...

They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone
as long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion
there are people like you.

Twenty thousand people...

May the One who makes peace on high
make peace for us in the autumn
that you will not live to see, Sean,
and that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,
from Haifa, from Gush Etzion.

Twenty thousand people...

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
silently, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers,

Twenty thousand brothers.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Rabbi Akiva and the kaddish: What I wish we'd been taught

Most of us have heard or read the midrash that explains the Jewish custom of saying kaddish on behalf of the departed. (The story, with quite a bit of background, is here. Please read it first, and then come back to this page.)

There are several versions of the story, spanning several centuries. While they have minor variations, they agree on one thing: that since the kaddish has the power to redeem souls from punishment after death — in this case, a punishment that is both terrible and earned — we are obligated to recite it on behalf of our departed loved ones. But I think that the story contains other important messages that deserve a closer look.

When Rabbi Akiva asks the deceased man (whose name is given variously as Ukba and even as Akiva, the rabbi’s own name) why he is being punished so severely, the man confesses that in life, he was a corrupt tax collector who committed serious crimes including theft, rape and murder.

One might imagine a typical response to the man’s confession: “Well then, this is your just punishment. You did the crime; now you must do the time.” A gentler response might be: “I am sorry for your suffering, but it comes from God, and where God has decreed, what can a mortal do?”

But Rabbi Akiva’s response is entirely different. He focuses on one thing only: rescuing the deceased man from his suffering. He appears to forget his confession as soon as he hears it, seeing the deceased man only as a suffering soul in need of rescue. (Perhaps Rabbi Akiva, who famously opposed the death penalty in the Jewish high court, feels that the man has suffered enough, or that his punishment exceeds his crime.) When the man tells him that his only hope of salvation lies with his son — and since he died before his wife gave birth, he does not even know whether he has a son, or any child at all — Rabbi Akiva sets out to find the boy without even knowing whether he exists.

When he finds the boy living shunned and neglected in his father’s village, he takes a father’s responsibility for him. He has the boy circumcised — the townspeople’s rejection of him was so total that they had not bothered to perform even this basic commandment — and begins raising him. (The story does not make it clear whether his mother was still alive. It tells us that the townspeople loathed her as well, but does not tell us why. Was she Bonnie to her husband’s Clyde, or did she suffer from guilt by association?)

Things appear to go well until the rabbi tries to teach the boy Torah. Then he hits a wall. As the story tells us, the boy cannot learn; his heart is closed to Torah.

This is hardly surprising. The boy has been an outcast from infancy, made to pay for crimes committed by the parents he never knew. He has never known love or friendship. Now this stranger has appeared out of the blue with demands and expectations: Be circumcised. Sit up straight. Sit down and study. What does this fellow want from him, anyway? After everything he has been through in his short life, how can he be anything but suspicious?

But then there is a shift. As I imagine it, the rabbi has been preparing the boy’s food day after day and eating with him. One day, something changes: the rabbi continues to prepare the boy’s food, but waits until nightfall to eat. The boy can’t help but notice this, and after several weeks, he finally asks the rabbi what’s going on.

At first (as I imagine it), the rabbi demurs. He does not want to call attention to himself. But as the days go by and the boy keeps insisting, he tells him the truth: “I’m fasting to ask God to help you learn. It is important to me. You are important to me.”

The boy is stunned. No one has ever taken an interest in him before. Never has anyone shown him the least bit of caring, done him even the smallest favor. And now this stranger who appeared in his life out of nowhere is fasting for his sake, every single day, from dawn to dusk. Forty days. Leaving out Shabbat, that’s almost seven weeks.

He realizes that the rabbi’s interest in him is sincere. Rabbi Akiva earns his trust, and his heart opens.

A brief digression. Imagine Albert Einstein (who had learning difficulties as a child; his teachers wrote him off as a lost cause as early as second grade) working out the theory of relativity and receiving the Nobel Prize... and then dropping everything to search in a remote village for a despised and neglected orphan boy, the son of notorious criminals, and teach him how to read and write.

In this story, that’s exactly what Rabbi Akiva does.

Rabbi Akiva knew what it was to be a despised and rejected outsider. The descendant of converts to Judaism, a shepherd by trade, he remained illiterate until he was forty and began studying only in middle age. At first the children laughed to see the big man hunched on the small benches of their classroom, laboriously copying the alphabet onto a slate. But Akiva persevered, working his way up class by class until he became the foremost scholar of his day. Eventually he was so respected that the deans of the academies — the universities of the time — would not make a move without him.

But he never forgot what his earlier life had been like or how the community’s rejection had hurt him. Later on, when he was a respected scholar, he recalled that as a young man he had hated scholars so much that he had wanted to bite their limbs as a donkey bit — hard enough to crush bone.

The story also shows Rabbi Akiva’s exemplary leadership. We can imagine that when he reached the village, he was disappointed, even appalled, by the villagers’ treatment of the boy. But he doesn’t scold or preach. He doesn’t call a meeting in the synagogue and lecture the inhabitants about judging favorably or caring for those less fortunate. He simply lives in their midst and shows by example. Once the boy is under the personal care of the country’s most prominent and revered scholar, the villagers dare not show him anything but respect.

I imagine that their respect is grudging at first. The villagers, who had suffered from the depredations of the boy’s father (and possibly of his mother as well), may even resent the loss of their scapegoat. But “mi-tokh she-lo lishma ba lishma” — doing the right thing for the wrong reason eventually leads to doing it for the right reason. In time, the villagers treat the boy kindly on their own, not just because he has a revered and beloved protector. By the time he stands up in the synagogue to lead the short prayer that frees his father’s soul from its punishment, he is no longer a hated outcast, but a full member of the community.

In my opinion, it is the boy’s acceptance into the community that frees the father’s soul from torment. The prayer he recites, to which the congregation responds, is not the final goal. The final goal is his integration. The prayer in the synagogue is only the proof of it.

One might also interpret the father’s punishment, terrible as it is, as the anguish that he suffered over the legacy he had left his son. Outcasts make outlaws (as happened to Jephthah and King David in early manhood). Once the man had entered the World of Truth, he realized that the victims of his crimes were not the only ones he had harmed. He had also condemned his unborn son to follow in his footsteps as an outcast, outlaw and criminal. That knowledge, unconscious as it may have been (when he met Rabbi Akiva in the cemetery, he did not know whether he had any offspring), caused him terrible suffering, and he could not rest until he had found a way to undo the damage he had done.

But what are we taught about this story? None of the above... only that it is important to say kaddish for our loved ones who have gone before. Yes, it is important, for a host of reasons. Yet I still could wish that the other aspects of this story were taught as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Five minutes

(The core of this story is true, though I have changed some details to protect privacy.)

She was a well-known artist and art critic whose articles were published in a monthly journal. In high demand as a speaker and judge, she traveled frequently to art shows, conferences and competitions all over the world. I was a freelance copy editor employed by the journal she wrote for. Since she wasn’t a native English-speaker, the journal sent me her articles to edit for publication. Over time, we developed a good professional relationship.

One day, when I had been editing her work for several years, she sent me an email. “I’ve written a poem,” she wrote. “It’s in English and I think it’s good, but as you know, English is not my native language. It’s on my website. Would you take a look at it and edit it for publication?”

I asked, “Is your poem for the art journal?”

“No,” she answered. “It’s just for me, until I decide where I want to send it.”

She hadn’t mentioned payment. I sent back an email telling her my rate. She didn’t reply.

She emailed me again a few months later.

“I’ve been invited to judge an art show abroad next month,” she wrote, “and I need to send the organizers a bio. Here it is. Please take a look at it and check it for mistakes.”

She had included her bio in the body of the email. I could tell at a glance that it needed quite a bit of editing, but I was extremely busy with work and didn’t know when I would be able to get to it, and I told her so.

I didn’t tell her how surprising I found her tone. She had written to me almost as if I were her own employee rather than a freelancer for the journal we both worked for.

Later in the week, she sent me another email. “Have you had a chance to look at my bio yet?” she asked.

“I’m still swamped with work,” I answered. “I’m not sure when I’ll have time for it.” My workload was still extremely heavy and my deadlines tighter than usual.

“Just read it over and check it for mistakes,” she wrote back. “I need it in a hurry. It’ll only take you five minutes.”

I reread that line several times to be sure I’d really seen it. Then I took a deep breath.

I wanted to write back: It will probably take me five minutes just to read the text. But all right — let’s assume that in those five minutes, I read it and find all the mistakes. What then? Would you expect me to send the bio back to you with the mistakes pointed out — and nothing more? After all, that’s what you asked me to do: “Just read it over and check it for mistakes.” In five minutes. Right?

Of course not. You would expect me to correct the mistakes and edit the text to accommodate the corrections, and polish it until it was fit for the program of one of the most prestigious art competitions in the world. That is not something that can be tossed off in five minutes. It is serious work. Even for a brief bio, it takes time, and it takes effort.

Yet when you say “It’ll only take you five minutes,” what you’re really saying is that to you, editing is not serious work at all. In fact, what you’re saying — even as you need your bio edited in a hurry, and never mentioned payment or even asked it as a favor — is that to you, editing is worthless.

If you needed to call in a plumber or electrician for a repair and the job turned out to be brief, would you insist on not paying because the work had taken only a few minutes?

But I didn’t write any of that. I took another deep breath, got up and made myself a cup of tea. Then I sat back down at the keyboard and wrote: This is a serious editing job. It requires close reading, concentration and rewriting, and it’s going to take longer than five minutes.

All right then, she wrote back. Forget it. Thanks anyway.

Later on, I realized I could have handled it a bit differently. I could have — should have, actually — told her my editing rate as I had done the previous time, when she asked me to edit her poem. But I hadn’t done that. Chalk it up to being utterly swamped with work. Or maybe I’d hoped that she’d learned the previous time that editing, like any skill, takes time and effort and has value.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

More than 60 years later, mystery solved

In Mount Herzl’s military cemetery was a grave with a tombstone that bore the name “Yisrael Mir,” with little information besides. The man buried in that grave had been killed in the War of Independence, and had lain underneath that name for more than 60 years.

Thanks to the persistence of a local tour guide, the man’s real identity was found last year. He was Ya’akov Maman, a recent immigrant from Morocco.

The story (in Hebrew) is here.

The English version (my translation) is below the jump.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Barukh dayyan ha-emet

Dr. Nechama Ben-Eliahu, 1935–2014.

Activist, marine biologist, researcher, musician,

long-time board member of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo,

Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem...

... and dear and beloved friend.

Nechama and Ozmah

Here is Nechama’s obituary from In Jerusalem, the local supplement of the Jerusalem Post:

Monday, March 17, 2014

The women's Megilla reading at the First Station

This morning, I went to the women’s Megillah reading at The First Station in southern Jerusalem. It was great. The readers were amazing, and the audience was far larger than the organizers had anticipated. They asked for more chairs, which were provided, and even so, more people kept arriving. Some sat on the floor, others stood, and everybody listened.

Shortly after I arrived, a table was brought and the Scroll of Esther prepared for reading.

The reading began...

... and the audience listened and followed along.

People followed the reading closely, as is customary. One woman used a booklet with the text:

Another used what looked like a text used in schools:

Several people brought kosher scrolls of their own.

Some used technology to follow the reading.

Parents and children followed the reading together.

Lots of people were in costume. Here’s a farmer with a penchant for photography:

This young man is wearing a frankfurter on his head.

An elephant in the room:

A sweet little tiger:

The sound was heavenly, even though the guy in charge was a bit of a devil. Maybe he just needed a cup of coffee....

After the reading, I caught a bus home. Like all the buses around the country, it wished us all a happy Purim:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More thoughts on Purim

As Purim approaches, I think about how Esther risked her life to save the Jewish people. I also think about how, although she succeeded and survived, she lived out the rest of her life trapped in a marriage she had never sought and could not leave.

I think of the other women forced to “audition” for the position of Ahasuerus's queen. They, too, were trapped and imprisoned: even after the king rejected them, they were not free to leave the palace and go back to their former lives. They were stuck in the harem for the rest of their days.

I think of Vashti, too.

Yes, I know the awful stories about Vashti in the midrash. I didn't believe them when I first read them, and I don't believe them now. Maybe Vashti really was a vain, horrible woman who abused her high position and her servants. Maybe she was a good and decent queen. Or maybe, like the hundreds of other women in the harem, she was trying to survive the intrigues rampant there only to be manipulated into a situation where she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. What would have happened to her if she had obeyed her husband's order and appeared before the men at his drunk-fest? Might not Ahasuerus, that champion of logic and consistency, have taken her to task once he sobered up, and perhaps even deposed her, for having compromised the royal dignity by obeying him?

The text doesn't tell us one way or the other. All we know about Vashti from the text is that she refused to obey the king's order to appear before him and his drunken buddies so he could brag to them about how hot she was — and that she was deposed for it.

The poet and writer Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911) also thought of Vashti. Here is a link to “Vashti,” the poem she wrote about the deposed queen.

Here is a link to information about Harper herself.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A vet visit in the Hebrew month of Adar

So I’m at the vet’s, and he’s giving my cat his annual exam. Weighing, shots, a look at his teeth, the works. Then he starts petting my cat. At first he’s all smiles, but then he gets all quiet.

A moment later, I realize why. There’s no purr. Just... click. Click. Click.

The vet turns to me with a serious expression. “Over-petting,” he says, shaking his head. “You’ve been over-petting your cat, haven’t you? How long has it been since you heard him purr?”

My mouth drops open. Yes, it’s been a few days, come to think of it... and I’d been wondering where those odd-sounding clicks were coming from. “Over-petting?” I ask. “There’s such a thing?”

My vet sighs, as if this is the twentieth time he’s had to explain it that morning. “You’ve petted your cat so much his purr-box has gone out of alignment. I’m going to have to realign it.” He signals to the tech, who holds my cat gently in place, and gets to work. A second later, he’s petting my cat again, and a rich, deep purr fills the air.

He hands me a small bottle of oil. “Three drops every morning,” he tells me. “Let the cat lick them off your finger. Then you can pet him as much as you like. But he’s got to have the oil every day. Oh, and five drops if you’re planning on giving him tummy rubs.”

We settle up the bill, and that concludes my visit to the vet in Adar... the Jewish month of narrischkeit, nonsense and silly stories.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Art, education and a long life

In the summer of 1985, artist and educator Temima Gezari returned to Cejwin Camps to restore the mural she had painted there in 1935.

The video of the mural’s rededication in 1985 was filmed by Jeff Young. In my opinion, it is worth watching even for people who never went to Cejwin — it is a snapshot of American Jewish history of the time.

Watch and listen to Temima Gezari and be amazed. This incredible lady was climbing on ladders and doing painting and restoration work at the age of 79! (She went on to live for 24 more years, dying on March 5, 2009, aged 104.)

When Cejwin Camps closed in the 1990s, Temima's mural was moved to the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, where it remains today after having survived the Carmel fire of 2010.

Talk about a long, productive and full life. How many artists get to restore art that they created half a century earlier?

Here is Temima Gezari’s article at Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia. Here is her Wikipedia entry.