a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

a prayer for the children of abraham

Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been an estimated 40,000 deaths in Syria.

But journalists are not flocking there. The conflict is not the main subject of every media outlet’s programs. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are not brimming with posts advocating for each side.

These Syrians, it seems — like the Rwandans and the Sudanese and many, many others before them — had the misfortune (on top of many other misfortunes) of being killed by their countrymen.

I have long maintained that I would rather do  . . . anything, really, . . . than talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have many friends who are devoting their lives to the conflict, and I know that I couldn’t spend a day in their shoes. But last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, and reading the news from the region became an obsession. So here I am, again wading into the fray, again writing about a difficult issue.

I started this post the way that I did to underline the irrationality that underlies this conflict from left to right, from top to bottom. I understand that number of deaths alone isn’t an indication of merit for attention, and the contrast here tells me what is at stake are things other than the fact that people are dying, which is right about where the issue loses me. As it turns out, for many people, only certain deaths matter.

My Facebook friends basically fall into four groups: progressives, libertarians (hey there, DPR folks!), Jews, and family. (Of course among those there is a fair amount of intersectionality.) And I follow an even broader range of people on Twitter. I am guessing that everyone who posted about the conflict is convinced of the rationality of his or her position, but I’ve seen expressed everything from “Israelis are Nazis” to “Palestinians are animals.” My views are not fully developed, and I still found fault in what almost everyone posted. Which tells me there is necessarily a great deal of nuance to be embraced.

We only barely addressed the conflict at school. Even before the latest escalation in violence, we didn’t talk about Israel. There is even an agreement that topics about Israel/Palestine are not to be posted to community email lists, at least in part because of the many different opinions held by members of the community. (Since I’m new, I’m not completely familiar with the history there.) This is crazy. I’m not saying that the practice is not an appropriate response to a past situation. But it’s objectively odd that there exists a group of rabbis-in-training who don’t talk about Israel with each other (and I say this even as I am loathe to do so). However, in light of the current situation, there are now voices advocating that we do in fact start having these tough conversations.

On Monday, Hebrew College was a co-sponsor of CJP’s Rally to Support Israel, and the day before a letter was sent to President Daniel Lehmann questioning that sponsorship, signed by current and former Hebrew College rabbinical students. This prompted both a public response from President Lehmann, as part of his already scheduled “Community Update” address, and an email response from Dean Sharon Anisfeld (and no change in the school’s status as a sponsor). In a development that probably surprised exactly no one, it only took four responses to the dean’s email to get to, Your position means that you don’t care about me/my family. I was writing this post as that began to unfold. (Since then, more level heads have tried to prevail, with success for now.)

The one place at school that we did touch on the attacks was Hebrew class: My teacher started a discussion about the name of the IDF’s operation, “Pillar of Cloud,” a reference to the manifestation of G-d in the Torah that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose the effort was admirable, since there was silence everywhere else. But I can’t think of a topic that requires more careful or more precise language, and in Hebrew I can barely summarize an article about Israel’s indigenous plants. (Yes, this is an actual example.) Plus, my teacher is an Israeli whose entire family still lives in Israel. She laughed as she told us the story of her sister stubbornly driving on through rocket sirens, but she’s not where I would chose to start this difficult conversation.

I, too, have family (on my husband’s side), plus friends and classmates, in Israel; I don’t know anyone — or even know if I know anyone who knows anyone — in Gaza, such is the divide that exists in that tiny corner of the world. But I’ve seen too many claims of righteousness based on the fact of “having skin in the game.” In this conflict, in its current form, there is not — and there never will be — a winning side. I can only see death and despair — and more distance.

There were glimmers of reason among the overwhelming voices of intransigence. Two great primers came to my attention: how to support Israel without being racist and how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Wiser friends — and wiser friends of friends — than I wrote insightful words, and I am grateful to them. But the war of words paled in comparison to the actual war, and even I, as steadfast a believer in the power of language as there ever was, wondered what we were doing. As if an article could comfort. As if an email could soothe. As if a status update could transform. As if 140 characters could heal. As if a blog post (ahem) could assuage. We feel helpless, and so we fight who we can and how we can.

May there indeed be peace in our days.

*The title of this post is taken from an original poem at Velveteen Rabbi.

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

rabbinical students on israel

j street's "fill to the green line" shot glass; photo by salem pearce via  instagram

j street’s “fill to the green line” shot glass; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Last Sunday, I managed to walk the five blocks from my apartment to the convention center to attend a session at J Street’s annual conference. I say “managed” because Sunday was a busy day for D.C.-area Jewish organizations. I ran Sixth & I’s Exodus 5K in Rock Park in the morning and went to JUFJ’s Labor Seder in the evening. Among the events I couldn’t squeeze in were Federation’s “Good Deeds Day” and a lecture by Anat Hoffman. (I think it’s possible that the Jews need to coordinate their events a little more.)

I’m really glad I took the time to attend the panel, called “The Changing Attitudes of Rabbinical Students on Israel: Perspectives from the Deans.” The deans in question were HUC-JIR’s Renni Altman; JTS’s Danny Nevins; and Hebrew College’s Daniel Lehmann (who I’m pretty sure is actually the president of Hebrew College, but no matter).

The creation of the panel was prompted by an article by Daniel Gordis published last year in Commentary: “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” The response was of special interest to me as an enrolling rabbinical student — but also because part of what prompted Gordis’s article was the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron at Hebrew College (where I’ve decided to enroll). The article caused quite a bit of uproar when it was first published: I happened to get an earful about it in October when I ended up sitting next to a man from the Republican Jewish Coalition on a trolley in Arlington Cemetery on the way to the dedication of the Jewish Chaplains Monument. When he found out I was applying to rabbinical school, he immediately brought up his horror about the article (published some five months earlier). His interpretation? Rabbinical students today more closely align themselves with the philosophy of J Street than with that of AIPAC.

For those not in the know, the reason this is so upsetting to some is that J Street engenders a lot of suspicion — if not downright hatred — among a large (or possibly the most outspoken) part of the American Jewish community. As for example: In November 2010, I attended a Federation lunch event that featured a debate between a conservative and a progressive about the meaning of the mid-term elections, particularly for the Jews. (The conservative viewpoint was represented by Bill Kristol, with whom I almost never agree, but who was miles more articulate than the progressive, who was unfortunately ridiculous — and whose name I can’t remember.) They argued for an hour, disagreeing about everything.

Until someone asked their opinions of J Street. Kristol responded that he thought the organization was a front for a pro-Palestinian agenda. The progressive: “I agree.” The room exploded in laughter.

This is not an uncommon view. J Street’s slogan is “Pro-Israel. Pro-Peace.” — but its opponents generally don’t believe any of its stated positions. It is routinely labeled “anti-Israel.” Recently I witnessed a Facebook exchange between an acquaintance of mine and an acquaintance of his about the BDS controversy at the Park Slope Co-op. (And if you haven’t seen “The Daily Show’s take on this vote, you must.) The person I didn’t know crowed about the failed boycott, adding the comment, “Take that, J Street.” When my friend pointed out that a) the BDS movement precedes the founding of J Street by several years, and b) that J Street opposes the BDS movement (and has position papers on its website to this effect), the former was unswayed. And he remained unswayed even when a VP at J Street weighed in on the feed that she has spoken on numerous occasions about J Street’s opposition to BDS. And so it went.

salem in israel in 2002

I’m nervous about wading even a little into the Israel-Palestine issue here, as it is, in the words of Rabbi Nevins, “unbelievably messy.” And I don’t really want to get it into it (more on that below), in no small part because it’s just not an issue I know that much about. I’m taking this risk, though, to explain the stakes and to make the point of how important it was that J Street addressed the issue. And it made me happy to see leaders of the schools I applied to at the conference. Whether or not you agree with J Street, they’re one of the few Jewish organizations that allows expression of a variety of viewpoints on Israel (as for example, when J Street noted that it disagreed with Peter Beinart but invited him to speak at the conference anyway). One of the things that I love about Judaism is that it values debate; but on Israel some believe that there are things we can’t say.

Also on the panel was Professor Steven Cohen of HUC-JIR, who had conducted a survey of JTS rabbinical students’ attitudes towards Israel in the wake of the article. All of the deans expressed disagreement with Gordis’s conclusions, and Cohen’s data seems to back them up. I suppose the deans’ remarks could be interpreted as merely defensive, but I’ve met and spoken with all three of them, and they are all thoughtful, responsible rabbis. Plus, they belong to the generation to which Gordis was drawing his contrast with current rabbinical students. But Cohen’s study did concur with the RJC staffer’s interpretation of Gordis’s article (if not his condemnation): Rabbinical students tend to agree with AIPAC less than with J Street or Rabbis for Human Rights — or the New Israel Fund, which was rated highest in political affiliation by students.

All of the deans acknowledged a shift in their students’ attitude towards Israel: “an evolution, not a revolution,” as Rabbi Altman characterized it. They agreed that rabbinical students do tend to hold more varied, diverse, and complex opinions about Israel than their predecessors. Gordis and his ilk attribute this to the fact that our generation didn’t grow up during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, when existential threats to Israel were inescapable. But as Rabbi Nevins pointed up, our generation did grow up when bombs were exploding at pizza parlors and discos in Jerusalem, making Gordis’s point “more of truism than a deep truth.” Rabbinical students today — and indeed, young Jews in general — tend to prioritize different values in their support of Israel: human rights, say, versus the previous generation’s emphasis on loyalty. What most resonated with me was Rabbi Lehmann’s observation that Israel is now much less of a motivating factor to enter than rabbinate than it once was. Indeed, I remember thinking that it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that a North American Jew would become a rabbi because of Israel (I’ve certainly never heard anyone cite it).

Ultimately, the panel was an interesting glimpse into my future classmates and some of the issues I’ll be grappling with. I was reassured to hear about the diversity of opinion among my soon-to-be peers, and I’m looking forward to furthering my own Israel education.

golda

golda In her excellent biography Golda, Elinor Burkett gives her readers an entirely new definition of the word “tenacity.” Her subject, Golda Meir, the first female head of the state of Israel, achieved all that she did through sheer force of will. And she did so with little support from her family — father, mother, sister, husband, or children — and, for most of her career, in extremely poor health. Adored in America, she was reviled in Israel for her role in the Yom Kippur War, but it’s ultimately hard not to have sympathy for this woman from another time, doing the best she could in a modern world that had disappointed her.

Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev at the very end of the 19th century (she became Meyerson upon her marriage and Meir under pressure from David Ben-Gurion to Hebraicize her name), she was shaped by her first memories of pogroms in the Russian empire. As a young girl, she and her mother and two sisters followed her father to Milwaukee, where he had moved to find work. After 15 years in the United States, Golda made aliyah to then-British Mandate for Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1978.

Golda was heavily influenced by her older sister Sheyna, who introduced her to Labor Zionism, which informed Golda’s drive to establish and work for the state of Israel — and led her to try to join a kibbutz upon her arrival in Tel Aviv. But she and her husband’s first application was rejected, as was their second. Golda eventually managed to wrangle a place on the communal farm, but she and Morris were never fully accepted as kibbutz members, in part because of the perception of them, as a married couple, as hopelessly bourgeois Americans. Yet Golda persisted, thus establishing a pattern she would follow her entire life. Motivated by idealism, Golda tries to do something; Golda is rebuffed; and then Golda “bashes heads together” to get her way. Working her way up through pre-state quasi-governmental organizations and later the Israeli state apparatus, Golda would do it again and again.

Interestingly, Golda’s commitment to Israel was purely a matter of ensuring self-determination for Jews, so that they wouldn’t ever again have to rely on other countries for their survival. Her experiences of the pogroms of her youth and the Holocaust of her middle age solidified her militancy on this topic. It’s somewhat hard to imagine, given the influence that the ultra-religious now have on Israel, but its founders were largely completely secular. On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, as the war brewed, Burkett relates how Golda sat down to dinner with her family — on a holiday when even the least observant religious Jews generally fast.

As might be imagined, this ambition — as it could only somewhat accurately be described — didn’t leave much time for even a semblance of a personal life. Indeed, Golda was never as much wed to Morris as she was to her work. Although she did manage to make time as a younger woman for a few lovers (a fairly typical practice among the early, free-love Socialist Zionists, for whom divorce was equally rare), she and Morris gave up acting like married couple less than 10 years after emigrating. Morris died in 1951, and Golda never remarried — or it seems, ever had another intimate relationship. Golda’s children judged her especially harshly for her lifestyle, and while they were certainly justified in feeling so — and Golda admitted as much — Burkett doesn’t address their father’s abandonment, arguably as complete. Morris struggled with employment his entire life; he certainly had the time to step in for Golda. But in 1938, he moved to Persia, leaving their two children to her.

goldaSoftening her edges a bit was her famous wit. The stories are legion of her one-liners and quips, and the press hung on every one. On her 80th birthday, in the midst of peace process negotiations, she declared, “I wouldn’t want the West Bank even if it were given to me as a birthday present.” When Henry Kissinger, mediator after the Yom Kippur war, whined about her public coldness towards him (“When I reach Cairo, Sadat hugs and kisses me. But when I come here, everyone attacks me.”), Golda rejoined, “If I were an Egyptian, I would kiss you, too.”

But she couldn’t joke away her health problems, though she tried valiantly to ignore them until she was ordered into recuperation. She suffered from obesity; heart and circulatory problems; a twisted leg, and later phlebitis and blood clots; migraines; gallbladder attacks; kidney stones; a broken shoulder; and lymphoma. These weren’t helped by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And as with everything else she deemed inconvenient, Golda barreled through her illnesses, often cutting short treatment to attend to a matter of state.

In the book, Burkett manages the near-impossible: building suspense in the story of the founding of Israel, an incredibly painful narrative. I actually found myself wondering whether the new state would be able to overcome its challenges. But I shouldn’t have, because Golda was always there, willing it into being behind the scenes.

tu bishvat

“a carved tree in rock creek park”; photo by rachel tepper (first prize in Washington DCJCC’s “Every Person is a Tree” 2012 Tu Bishvat photography contest)

Today is the Jewish holiday called Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of the month Shevat. It’s the new year for trees. (There are technically four “new years” in the Jewish calendar: The new year for kings, Rosh Hashanah; the calendar new year, Nisan (the first month); and the new year for tithing animals (the least well known one), Elul.) Originally a date to help farmers obey a Torah prohibition not to eat of a tree’s fruit until its fifth year, it’s come to be a minor festival. Today in Israel Tu Bishvat is celebrated with tree planting ceremonies, while in the Diaspora some give money to plant trees in Israel. There are also Tu Bishvat seders, as well as various ecological or environmental programs.

This is not a holiday that I’ve given much thought to in the past, but when I started this blog I committed myself to reading, reflecting, and writing about the Jewish holidays each year. Consulting several sources, I have learned more than I knew. I’ve attended at least one Tu Bishvat seder in the past, and we talked about the holiday last night at my b’nai mitzvah class, saying blessings over almonds, raisins, and olives). When I got home, I made almond mandelbrot.

But if I am being honest, I don’t feel much connection to this holiday right now. Lots of rabbis and other Jewish educators have said beautiful things this year and in the past about the meaning of Tu Bishvat and the Jewish people’s connection to trees, but I am just not there. I haven’t read or heard anything so far this year that has spoken to me. It’s probably best to just acknowledge that and see what happens next year, when, G-d willing, I’ll be in my first year of rabbinical school. How will things have changed by then?

Until then, I’ll join the ranks of at least two Tu Bishvat curmudgeons. In 2009 I began a weekly adult education class via the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, offered by the local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Over a year we covered both the “Rhythms of Jewish Living” and the “Purposes of Jewish Living” curricula; the former concerned the Jewish lifecycle. In late winter, one of the class instructors, the Hillel rabbi at an area university, shared his theory about Tu Bishvat. He felt that the rise in prominence of Tu Bishvat among Jewish holidays in modern observance was the Hebrew school cycle. Holiday-wise, there’s not much between Chanukah and Purim, so Tu Bishvat becomes more important just because of when it occurs in the Jewish calendar: Tu Bishvat as a glorified Jewish Earth Day. He was adamant about his interpretation of recent history — a point generally lost on us — and rather upset by it. Maybe I’ll be, too, after six years of rabbinical school? However, I don’t think that I’ll ever be as upset as my friend Ben over the spelling of this holiday. But I do appreciate his grammatical fervor.

To end on a high note, I do love this story about Theodore Herzl when he planted a tree near Jerusalem. It seems to prove his famous dictum: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

the dovekeepers

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

On New Year’s Eve I finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, my first by her. I picked it up because it’s the next book of a Jewish Reads book club I just started getting emails from (not sure yet if I will go to a discussion).

The book is the about the settlement at Masada, where Jewish rebels in 70 C.E. resisted the Roman army for months before killing themselves in a mass suicide when their destruction was inevitable. The story is told in four parts, each by a woman who took a different path to arrive at the mountain in the Judean desert.

Yael begins the story. Her father is one of the Sicarii, assassins who kill Jews complying with Romans bent on the destruction of the Temple. It’s in this environment of civil war and anti-Semitism that Yael’s brother, also an assassin, and eventually Yael and her father, are forced to flee Jerusalem. On the way across the desert, Yael and one of her traveling companions become lovers, but he and his family don’t survive the journey. She arrives pregnant at Masada and begins to work in the dovecotes with three other women.

One of them, Revka, picks up the thread of the story. A baker’s wife in Shiloh, she leaves with her daughter, scholar son-in-law, and their two sons after her husband is killed by the Romans. En route to Masada, on Yom Kippur, they are set upon by Roman army deserters, who brutally gang rape her daughter. Her son-in-law returns from prayers to find his wife and her attackers dead. They arrive at Masada, her grandsons rendered mute by the trauma and her son-in-law, a brutal warrior with a death wish.

Aziza speaks next. Raised as a boy in the land of Moab, across the Dead Sea, she becomes a skilled warrior. She arrives at Masada, along with her half-brother and beloved half-sister, after being sent for by her mother’s lover.

Her mother, Shirah, the last of the dovekeepers, finishes the story proper. Born in Alexandria, she is raised by her mother to practice magic. But when her mother falls out of favor with the Jewish community, Shirah is sent to her mother’s family in Jerusalem. Unmarried, she is banished after she gives birth to Aziza but is rescued by a Moabite, who takes her to his homeland. She arrives at Masada from Moab, with Aziza and two other children, to reunite with her Jerusalem lover.

The historian Josephus, the main source of the siege of Masada, reports that the only survivors were two women and five children. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s imaging of how a settlement of nine hundred got winnowed to seven. But it doesn’t just seek to humanize those who in modern times would be considered akin to the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple. It is a story of women in the society of ancient Israel that is constructed by and for men. As Hoffman notes in the acknowledgements, “[T]he stories of women have gone unwritten . . . It is my hope that . . . I can give voice to those who have remained silent for so long.”

Hoffman immediately sets up the dichotomy between the world of men and the world of women when Yael seeks out the kephashim for a protection charm for her brother as he begins to kill as part of the Sicarii. She notes,

In the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and imposters by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches.

But in the book, kephashim magic runs the world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, explained by Yael at the outset, is tuned on its head as the reader is left with the clear feeling that women’s magic, over and over again, sets right the world that is continually destroyed by men. It is not the women who want a civil war, or to fight the Romans (they are used to doing that they need to do in secret), or, least of all, to make a stand at Masada. And that is probably why only women (and children, their wards) survive. Though the men of Masada are fierce warriors, it is the women of Masada who have the real strength.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of ancient Israel is, although it has been reported that Hoffman researched the book for five years. She explains how moved she was by a visit to Masada — and how her story is built around the remains that were found in the archeological excavation of the site. To the extent that it’s true to life, it did help me understand, at least a little, the motivations of the Jewish rebels. When I visited Masada, in contrast to Hoffman, I was struck by the fact that we might be lionizing crazy people.

In the world of ancient Israel, men set the rules — and time and time again, women break them. And that world is better because of it. In Hoffman’s beautiful and haunting narrative, each of the women gets to tell her story and how she became who she is against the backdrop of impending disaster.

crying to the walls

Note: I updated this post on 12/21/11 with a photo that better illustrates it.

On Thursday night I went with my friend Noah to see singer-songwriter David Broza at Sixth & I Synagogue. It was an awesome night, not least because, since the concert was sponsored by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israeli Embassy, it was free! Noah first introduced me to Broza years ago, with the song “Crying to the Walls.”

As with most concerts at Sixth & I, Broza played in the sanctuary, on the bimah. Noah and I were in the balcony, looking down on the “stage.” I followed the lights that were coloring the wall behind Broza to the ark. Two nights ago, I had stood in front of the ark with the members of my adult b’nai mitzvah class while the rabbi explained the significance of its architecture.

david broza at sixth & i; photo courtesy of embassy of israel

And then I had a moment that made sound fade away and time slow down: I realized I was looking at a scene that perfectly expressed the confluence of the past, present, and future of Judaism. Thinking back, it seems so simple; I feel like this should have occurred to me before, at previous events. But of course, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently.

The ark at Sixth & I holds four sefer Torahs, each of which had been hand-lettered by a scribe’s quill on pieces of animal skin that were stitched together into scrolls — as they have been created for generations. The features of the ark itself — the parokhet (curtain), ner tamid (eternal flame), menorot (candelabras), and ten commandments’ tablet — all have their roots in the first temple.

An Israeli, Broza himself presumably led to the search of attendees before the concert — byzantine security measures that have come to characterize any event in the United States having to do with the modern state of Israel. And he sang that night to a crowd of diaspora American Jews in Hebrew before the Israeli ambassador addressed the crowd.

Sixth & I is an unique space: a synagogue, turned church, almost turned nightclub, turned non-membership, non-traditional, non-denominational synagogue. It’s where young Jews connect to their Judaism in often non-religious ways. (I saw Ani diFranco in the same place six weeks earlier.) Attendance at its events continues to increase even while synagogue membership is down.

The ancient, the contemporary, and the world to come, all swirled together in a mix of rainbow lights and guitar strums and stained glass. I looked at the salmon-colored walls of the building and thought, “Remember this.”

Crying to the Walls

mikveh

On Wednesday night, I took in a performance of “Mikveh” at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. (And thanks to my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, who led an interfaith panel on “Water and Ritual” afterwards, my ticket was comped! Free stuff = good.)

The two-hour piece takes place exclusively in a mikveh in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel; all of its characters are female (although the male characters — the husbands — play important roles in the action off-stage). A mikveh, or a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion, is the way in which these women regain ritual purity after menstruation. Ostensibly, the women come to the mikveh each month for the same reason, but it becomes clear during the course of the play that things are not as they seem with the mikveh’s regular visitors.

One of the most serious secrets that is revealed to the two mikveh attendants, who supervise immersions to ensure that they are completed according to halacha, or Jewish law, is the physical abuse suffered by one of the women, Chedva, at the hands of her very powerful — and purportedly very religious — husband. Ultimately, the women who end up at the mikveh together each month band together to help this “battered wife,” as well as to comfort each other in their respective problems.

I didn’t love the way that the domestic violence was handled on stage. For one, the new mikveh attendant, Shira, a community outsider and the subject of much speculation and gossip, is set up as Chedva’s savior. New on the scene, she tricks Chedva into accepting a DV helpline number, is insistent that Chedva leave her husband, and then offstage, after a particular bad beating (we assume), makes the decision to remove Chedva from her home and hide her and her daughter.

As my friend Alicia notes in her blog post on battering in public places,

often, survivors would say that they didn’t want people to get involved because it only made it far more dangerous for them- they know their abusers best, and how to survive just enough. they know their partner’s moods, schedules, patterns. they have had to. they are surviving. they are incredibly resourceful and resilient. other folks coming in to “save” them only makes abusers mad (and leaves the survivors feeling more disempowered). and those abusers very rarely take it out on the strangers. they take it out on their partner.

It was great to see the very different women in the play come together to buck the patriarchal world of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative was a little insulting to those women. Were they not capable of seeing the abuse and devising an organic solution, one specific to their community? Wasn’t Chedva herself capable of deciding if and when she left her abusive husband? Plus, the scene in which Shira is trying to get the other women in the mikveh on board with her solution suffers from being an unfortunately strained, melodramatic moment on stage.

I was also concerned that the literature around the play didn’t contain any trigger warnings, which it really should, dealing as it does with the traumatic issues of domestic violence and rape. (The website and program do contain the spoiler that the play contains nudity (gasp!), which seems both kind of obvious and not really a big deal at all.) Indeed, it was really hard for me to be unexpectedly faced with fairly graphic representations of these issues. One of the women (spoiler alert) commits suicide over, in part, the non-consensual sex that she has with her husband. It’s not pretty.

I did enjoy the variety of women’s experiences that were presented in the play: All of the characters were seeking something slightly different from her mikveh experience. Unfortunately, the presentation was on the heavy-handed side.

refuge in hell

Yesterday I finished Refuge in Hell, recommended to me by one of my Melton instructors (and University of Maryland Hillel executive director) Rabbi Ari Israel. Ari brought up the book during the Melton lesson about Yom HaShoah; we were discussing the post-war debate by Israel’s Knesset about whether to designate a day as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Hard as it is to imagine in the early 21st century, when the Holocaust is generally considered *the* defining Jewish experience of the 20th century (rivaled only perhaps by the non-unrelated event of the founding of the state of Israel), there were members of the Knesset who spoke out against establishing such a day. For some, the issue was choosing a day to be symbolic of the extermination, as many Holocaust survivors rightly considered every day of the war to be “Holocaust Day.” Others argued that the victims of Nazi genocide should be remembered on the traditional Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Ultimately, the Knesset decided to designate the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but this was problematic because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. The date was finally moved to the 27th of Nisan.

During our class, the discussion wound its way to the commemoration of Holocaust, when Ari brought up the fact of Berlin’s WWII-era Jewish hospital — which had potential to become a symbol of Jewish survival but never did. In fact, most people don’t even know its story.

Daniel B. Silver’s book would seem to be the definitive history of the institution (in English at least). Silver is an attorney, not a historian, who just happened upon his knowledge of and interest in the hospital, which inspired him to write the book — but his account is obviously exhaustively researched and documented (including interviews with former hospital employees). The story begins a little slowly, and is slightly repetitive at the outset, but overall Silver presents a detailed view of Jewish life in Berlin from 1938 to 1945, during which time the hospital survived as the one, improbable outpost of Jewish life in the headquarters of the Third Reich.

One of the most interesting details that Silver uncovers is the role that intermarriage played in the hospital’s survival. Pre-war, German Jews were among the most assimilated in all of Europe, leading to a much higher rate of Jews’ marrying Aryans than in neighboring countries. Although Nazi racist ideology would, all other factors’ being equal, have not considered these Jews to be any different than less assimilated Jews, German ideals about the sanctity of marriage trumped (for a while) the Nazis’ ability to dissolve these family ties through deportation and arrest. Thus, Jews in what were deemed “mixed marriages” (although in many cases the participants themselves might not have considered them so) were afforded more privileges than other Jews. And many members of these mixed marriages worked, or came to work, at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. So while intermarriage in descried in the United States in the 21st century as a threat to Jewish life, in Nazi Germany it might have contributed to its survival.

And herein lies the main reason that Silver posits for the obscurity in which the hospital has languished, in historical terms: It is admittedly difficult to seize upon, as a symbol of Jewish survival, an institution that may well owe its existence to intermarriage and assimilation.

Silver concludes the book with an afterword, in which he notes the current locations and occupations of the hospital employees. I was struck by how . . . ordinary their post-war lives war. Almost all emigrated from Germany and then found fairly pedestrian employment in their adopted countries. Perhaps the routine and quotidian was by then a siren call, after years of living on the brink of hell. But I think the post-war stories also serve to underline the fact that it was ordinary people, pressed into extraordinary circumstances, who contributed to the survival of a Jewish institution — and therefore many Jews — in the heart of the Nazi regime.

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