Monday, July 30, 2012

A post Tisha B'Av rant

Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.
Benjamin Disraeli

I have a confession to make. I’m a talkback reader. Sometimes, I read articles just so I can read the talkbacks. Usually, they make me laugh. People know they can say absolutely anything in a talkback because it’s anonymous. So yesterday, when a friend posted an article on Facebook about a Canadian sports broadcaster who stated that he thought there should have been a moment of silence in memory of the Israeli athletes murdered in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, I skimmed over the article (which was lovely) and got straight to the talkbacks. They were not so lovely. Many of the talkbackers made comments such as: “What about the 1000s of Palestinians the Israelis murder every year?” or If you occupy someone else’s country, what can you expect?” etc. etc. I would like to say I was stunned at the remarks (from Canadians no less!) but sad to say I was not particularly surprised at the vitriol.

Several years ago, I read the English translation of Sholom Aleichem’s The Bloody Hoax (Der Blutiger Shpas). Originally published in 1913, it was only translated into English in 1991. It tells the story of two young graduates – one Jewish and one not – from a Gymnasia in a large Russian city who discuss their chances of finding work. The Jewish character claims that he will not be able to find work, despite his high-class education because he is a Jew. The non-Jew and hero of the story, Popov, assures his friend that this cannot be true. With a good education, even a Jew can get a good job. To prove his point, the two friends change places; for a year the Jew pretends to be non-Jew and Popov the non-Jew goes to live in a shtetl for a year and passes himself off as a Jew. This was much harder to do that he had assumed.
Sholom Aleichem wrote this story in response to the Mendel Beilis trial. Mendel Beilis, a Ukranian Jew, was accused and arrested for the murder of a Christian child in 1911. His accusers maintained that he had murdered the child for its blood to make matzot for the upcoming Passover holiday. After spending more than two years in jail, Beilis was eventually exonerated of all charges, but not before his case caused an international outcry against the anti-Semitism rampant in the Russian Empire.

The arrest of Mendel Beilis.
It's the same lie

While The Bloody Hoax tells the story of a blood libel allegation against Popov, there was one sentence in the book that I perceived as being more relevant today.
Popov lives with a Jewish family in the shtetl, and on the day before Passover he accompanies them to the bakery to assist them in making matzot for the Seder. Popov is eager to go; he wants to discover the truth behind the wide-spread Christian belief that Jews put Christian blood (especially that of children) into their matzot. By this time, he has lived with Jews long enough to know that they do not consume blood of any kind, least of all human, and that they are, on the whole, a gentle people; he can’t imagine them killing anyone at all ever. But, he concludes to himself, there must be something to it. Everyone believes it. Where there’s smoke, there must be fire. Maybe they add wine and someone noticed the color and claimed it as blood. Maybe they cut themselves during the ritual.
As Popov watches the pre-Passover mayhem at the bakery – setting timers, mixing the flour and water, baking, cleaning – in a moment of anguish he comes to the realization that the ‘universal truth’ of the blood libel is a great big lie, made up of whole cloth, without a single atom of truth in it, designed only to hurt the Jewish people.  

It was that sentence that resonated with me, that the lie was cut of whole cloth.
Most educated people today understand that the blood libel – the accusation of a Jew of killing a Christian child to drain its blood to bake in matzot – was a purely anti-Semitic legend, that there is no truth in it whatsoever. A similar accusation is made, every so often, by the Saudi Arabian or Egyptian press—or course they claim that a Muslim child rather than a Christian child is killed for its blood. In the last few years, the old fashioned blood-in-the-matzah myth has taken a 21st century twist. Israelis have been accused of a) killing Palestinians to harvest their organs to implant into Jews awaiting operations and b) of going to Haiti after the earthquake there to find corpses to harvest organs and/or kill Haitians to harvest organs. Some versions have the Israelis selling the organs to the highest bidder and making tons of money.
All these stories have generally been dismissed.

In comparison to the destruction these blood libels caused in the past, when made today, these accusations just pass us by.
Not because they aren’t hideous and revolting, but because a different lie has replaced the blood libel that is even more pernicious and destructive.   

Today’s lie against the Jewish people is that we are occupying ‘Palestinian’ land.
This lie is so wide-spread that distinguished prize-winning writers spread it without thinking. Newspapers across the globe use it as background to their stories. Politicians use it as a base to their speeches. This lie has tentacled into more lies: That Israeli soldiers murder ‘Palestinians’ on a daily basis; that Israelis deny ‘Palestinians’ water, electricity, and basic foods; and –the latest – that Israel practices ‘Apartheid’.

This lie is so pandemic it’s breathtaking.
Just about everyone believes some form of the lie is true, from practicing full apartheid, to officially treating Arabs as second-class citizens, to the ‘Palestinian people’ have been brutally exiled from their home of thousands of years, all the way to the belief in the ‘Holocaust’ we are perpetrating on the poor Palestinians. Even many Jews, who are no longer educated in their own history and heritage, have come to believe this is true. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, right?

Yet, in reality, it is a lie cut from whole cloth.

Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels once said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Just to be very clear:
·  There is no apartheid in Israel.
·  There is no official policy in Israel to treat Arabs as second-class citizens.
·  According to the US Census Bureau, in 1970 (three years after Israel regained the ‘West Bank’) there were approximately 690,000 Arabs living there. Today, the Arab population of the West Bank numbers over 2,500,000. The number of live births in the area today totals 155,000 a year, as opposed to 44,000 a year in 1950. (If this is genocide, we’re doing an awfully bad job.)
·  The only land we are occupying is the Land of Israel, which belongs to the Jewish people, historically, morally, and legally.
·  Jews don’t consume blood, human or otherwise.

Our hero Popov was not an anti-Semite. He believed in the blood libel because it was a big lie, repeated often enough.

If you don’t believe me, why would you believe them?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Families are like fudge, mostly sweet, with a few nuts

Home is the place, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Robert Frost

Israel, for better or worse, is the Land of the Jews. Jews have returned to the Land from just about every country on earth, each with their own customs, language, and heritage. There are gefilte-fish-eating Jews and humus-eating Jews, and jachnoun-eating Jews. There are Arabic speakers and French speakers, and Russian speakers. There are religious and secular Jews, right and left. And let’s not forget the different colors.
The media says that there are great divisions in the Israeli population, that there is inequality, prejudice, even racism, that Israeli society is splintered. Perhaps it is. But that’s because there are always fights in a family and, whether we like it or not, the Jews of Israel are a family. Gefilte-fish-eating Jews will (mostly) happily munch away at melawach with their Yemenite in-laws. Humus-eating Jews will (often) laughingly try blintzes and knishes with their Polish neighbors (and then pronounce them tasteless, but hey, they tried). There are always Haredi relatives at a secular wedding, and seculars at a Haredi wedding. It’s rather hard to miss them. (You can always tell the work table at a wedding because they are the ones eating when everyone else is dancing.)
George Santayana must have Israel in mind when he said “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.
This feeling of family manifests itself in all scopes of life. These are my personal examples: being asked to mind a stranger’s baby at the beach so the parents can go in for a swim; having your own baby wrapped up tight (in 35° C) by an old lady in the street so ‘he shouldn’t get cold’; being offered birthday cake by the secretary from the office two stories below yours, whom you’ve never met; being told the most intimate details of the life of the person sitting next to you on the bus/standing behind you in the line at the supermarket/riding up in the elevator with you/waiting to pick up their kid from kindergarten.
Being in an extended family definitely has its perks. You can always ask the person next to you at the shoe store what she thinks of the shoes you chose and you can be sure of receiving an honest answer. Nobody is too shy to tell you what color looks good on you, where you can find the best bargain for whatever it is you’re looking for, and how awful you look you should get more rest I know a great bed and breakfast up north I’ll speak to the manager for you he’s a relative of my neighbour….
There are volunteer organizations that make sure that everyone has a place to go to for the holidays; pensioners, foreign students, soldiers with no ‘real’ family in the country. Other volunteers supply meals for new mothers, post-op patients, and people in mourning. Because soldiers of the IDF are everyone's children they get special prices in movie theatres, clothing shops, book stores, and restaurants.
A family is the most complex of all relationships. You can’t pick your family. In fact, you can’t even ask to be in a specific family. A family just is, comprised of those who don’t eat carrots or eggs, those who only eat grapefruit and peas, those who only wear pink and black, oddballs, zealots, politicians, sportsmen, rabbis, mothers-in-laws, grandchildren, and the one you don’t talk to anymore because he never returned your garden shovel. 
Family is the people you love, even when they are not so lovable.
Tomorrow is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B’Av. Our sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of hate spread throughout the nation.
Let us rectify that by spreading love among us, remembering that, at the end of the day, we are all family; with a shared heritage and history, and more importantly, with a shared destiny.
There is no better way to contribute to society, to your country, or to the world.
“What can you do to promote world peace?” asked Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mother Teresa. “Go home and love your family.” 
I invite you all to come home. Be part of the family.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We are ready to obey all commands

IDF Mission:
To defend the existence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the State of Israel; to protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life of its citizens.

We are ready to obey all commands.
The Song of the Palmach

The summer induction of new soldiers into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began this week. Hundreds of young men and women are being drafted in the various brigades and units in the IDF. This week, those joining the Infantry Units are being called up, starting with the Golani Brigade, followed by Givati, Kfir, and Paratroopers (tzanchanim). Next week, the Air Force draftees are being called, followed by the Home Front Command, and finally the Armor and Artillery Corps (tanks and cannons).

According to the Israeli papers, despite the bad international press the IDF continually receives, approximately 72% of the draftees volunteer for ‘kravi’ or combat units – as opposed to asking to be a ‘jobnik’, i.e., having a non-cobat job (technical or service jobs). I suppose the draftees, like most Israelis, know that the bad press is 99% lies, and 1% non-truth.  

It’s hard to decide which brigade to volunteer for because each one has a different colored beret (koomta in Hebrew). My daughters and I have spent time deciding which the prettiest color is. I like the blue of the armored brigade, but others prefer the purple of Givati, or the scarlet of the paratroopers. Nachal has a cool green, and the Combat Engineers is silver. Very fashionable. (For a list of the units koomta colors and other insignia see this surprisingly important element of the army.)

Approximately 65% of eligible women and almost 73% of eligible men serve in the IDF. The largest group not drafted are religious women, however many of them volunteer instead for two years of ‘Sherut Leumi’, or national service. Almost the same number of men receive exceptions on medical grounds as religious. 

The IDF is, without doubt, the most moral and liberal army in the world.
While Israel is the only country that has a mandatory draft for women, it treats those women equally under the law, and they serve in all capacities; whether in combat or support units.
Hard-of-hearing citizens are drafted into non-combat units, gays are given equal rights and serve in all capacities, and other handicapped people can volunteer for certain positions within the IDF.

I can’t claim there is no crime within the IDF ranks. All armies have crime, and the IDF is no exception. However, there is almost no violent crime within the IDF and, despite the lies one hears, there is virtually no violent crime at all against the ‘enemy’. Because rape is completely non-existent within the IDF against Arab women, an extreme-leftist university ‘research’ paper came up with the theory that IDF soldiers don’t rape ‘because they are racist’. (Does this mean that armies who send their soldier to rape are really liberals at heart?) When IDF soldiers had been caught looting in Gaza during the 2009 Cast Lead war, they were prosecuted and sent to prison (a credit card was stolen). More common than looting, are soldiers who leave money on the table when they eat the food in a captured house in Lebanon or Gaza.

Millions of words have probably been written about the IDF, positive, negative, and neutral. I can’t compete with that.
But I can tell you that when my two sons took the oath of loyalty (one as a soldier in the Givati Brigade at Latrun, and the other as a soldier in the Nachal Brigade at the Kotel), I felt simultaneously prouder of my boys than at any other moment in their lives, and sicker to my stomach than any other time ever. That’s one of the weirder emotion combinations. Pride overcomes nausea however, and anytime I see either of them in uniform (which is really quite rare, as both tend(ed) to rip off the uniform as soon as they walk(ed) in the doorway – apparently it’s hot and itches) I have to stop myself from grabbing the camera and capturing a ‘Kodak moment’.

War is not glorious. It is not exciting, or adventurous, or inspiring. It is frightening, and heartbreaking, and tragic. There is nothing good. But the men and women of the IDF are inspiring, and since we have no choice but to defend our country and our people, I’m glad it’s our boys and girls doing it.

Please pray for the safety and security of our soldiers, wherever they are.

The IDF Oath of Loyalty (translated)
I swear and commit to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the authority of the Israel Defense Force, obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life for the protection of the homeland and liberty of Israel.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rosh Chodesh Av

Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh; All Israel is responsible, one for the other
Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a

Life in Israel is never boring. It’s been said that more happens here in a day than happens in Canada in a year.
In a recent three-hour visit to Jerusalem, two events occurred within an hour of each other; neither event were happy occasions, indeed, one was sad and the other tragic. Both were particularly Israeli events, and both commanded a reaction that only Israelis could provide.

One event was mentioned in the Winnipeg Free Press, but in small letters, the other wasn’t mentioned at all (I looked).

I had gone to visit my niece who had just given birth (see my previous blog Star Trek; the Next Generation). As my daughter and I were making our way to the hospital, we heard on the radio that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv passed away at age 102.
Rav Elyashiv was the leader of theLithuanian-Haredi (non-chasidic) community, and considered by many Ashkenazi Jews as the posek ha-dor, or the leading authority on Halacha, Jewish law.
Rav Elyashiv had come to British mandated Palestine at the age of 12, in 1922. He became a student of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook – then Chief Rabbi of then-Palestine – who made the shidduch (match) between Sheina Chaya Levine,the daughter of Rav Arye Levine – the Tzaddik of Jerusalem and his pupil. Sheina Chaya died in 1994.

Rav Elyashiv spent his life learning and serving his people. He lived a modest life, concerned with neither power nor riches. Notwithstanding, he actually wielded a tremendous amount of power amongst his followers.  

At the time of his death, he left behind approximately 1000 descendants to the sixth generation; in 2009 a grandson had been born to his great-grandson.

In Israel, the feeling of family and of belonging is all-pervasive. It is customary to share in both the joys and the tragedies of others. It is usual to have 800-1000 people at a wedding. It is not unheard of to have 5000 people at a funeral to honor the deceased and his/her family.
There is a feeling that, despite differences in beliefs or appearances or customs, we are all in this together and are responsible one for the other.
While there were many stances of Rav Elyashiv that I disagree with, I firmly believe that it is because him, and men like him, who immerse themselves in Torah and in spirituality, and whose primary concern (whether we agree with their methods or not) is the spiritual health of the Jewish people, who protect us in our Land and give us the right to be here.

More than 250,000 people accompanied Rav Elyashiv in his last journey from his home in Mea Shearim to the Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem.

250,000 people are half the population of the city of Jerusalem. While most of those were Haredi followers of the Rav who came from all around the country, there were many others who came to pay respect and honor Rav Elyashiv.

Just over an hour after Rav Elyashiv passed away, a suicide bomber blew up a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, a resort town on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. Five Israelis and three Bulgarians were killed, dozens were injured, some critically.

Blowing up a bus full of Israelis is, sadly, not remarkable. What is remarkable is the Israeli reaction. Within hours, Israeli air force planes took off filled with doctors, nurses and supplies to treat the wounded, and to bring them and the dead home.
By the next day, all who could be moved were home.

It is Israeli policy to go where ever a Jew needs help, be it travelers hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, tourists stranded after a tsunami in Thailand, a student lost in the jungles of Chile, or Jews attacked in India, Kenya, or Bulgaria, the long arm of the IDF will go where it’s needed. Because, no matter what our political or religious opinions, our customs or colours, no matter how far away from home you’ve strayed, all Jews are responsible for each other. We take this seriously.

But more: Israel also believes strongly in the Talmudic dictum that one who has saved one life has saved the world. Because Israel has so much experience in emergency rescue operations, we deal not only with our own tragedies in our own country, but we assist other countries all around the world when tragedy strikes.

The IDF has sent search and rescue missions to India, Turkey, and most notably Haiti in 2010 after earthquakes destroyed whole cities. They were the first to set up a field hospital in Haiti, saving dozens of lives and delivering babies.

Israel even offered to send a team to Iran after an earthquake hit that country in 2003. Iran turned the IDF down, saying they would rather die than accept Zionist help. And they did.

Doctors were sent to help in Japan after the tsunami hit that country last year. After a building collapsed in Kenya, a search and rescue team was sent to find those trapped under the rubble.
According to the IDF spokesman, the Home Front’s Search and Rescue Unit and the IDF’s Emergency Medical Unit have gone on 14 missions in the past 26 years across the world, rescuing people in need. Israeli medical personnel have saved more than 417 people, provided medical care to more than 3,700 injured patients and delivered more than 47 babies.

For a full list see of Israeli operations go here.

May HaShem avenge the blood of those murdered in Burgas and may their merits and the righteousness of Rav Elyashiv protect us from the evil that haunts us.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Star Trek; the next generation

"It's time to put an end to your trek through the stars"
Q (All Good Things...)

I read an editorial in the Jerusalem Post today claiming that because of the Birthright program, more and more young Jews today identify themselves as “Jewish” through their attachment to Israel, not through attachment to the culture or religion or history of the Jewish people.
I can’t remember when I established an attachment to Israel. It seems always to have been there.  I read Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus’ in the summer between Grades 6 and 7 and knew then that I wanted to live Israel, eventually. When I first came to Israel two weeks before my 18th birthday, I planned to spend some time here, go back to the old country, continue my education, and one day, when everything was in place, come back to live. It took me about 10 days after first arriving to decide that Israel was home, and that there was no going back.

Which makes it kind of ironic that I never actually made Aliyah.

I stayed on, first as a volunteer on a kibbutz, then studying in University, followed by working, getting married, having kids, living a life.

But the whole packing and saying goodbye, landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and kissing the ground thing passed me by. I was never greeted by a Jewish agency agent, never had a lift of all my worldly possessions arrive, and never had a free taxi ride anywhere in my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an Israeli citizen, pay taxes, vote in municipal and national elections, and have an Israeli passport.

Jerusalem in the winter

One wintry Jerusalem morning way back in the last century, I simply made my way to the Ministry of the Interior and changed my status, from illegal (I had never bothered to renew my student visa) to citizen. The clerk at the ministry thought I was slightly insane, but the paperwork went smoothly, and I left the building in less than half an hour with my new status. From there, I went to work, and carried on with my day. I didn’t even get a balloon.

Two recent incidences have brought this ancient history of mine to mind.
Last week, 245 people from North America came on Aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates Aliyah from western countries. There was a groovy ceremony at the airport welcoming these people ‘home’, complete with government officials and balloons. These people are among the 2500 American, Canadian, and British Jews who are planning on coming on Aliyah this summer.
Watching the pictures on the nightly news, I sighed thinking that all I got in the way of ceremony was a clerk giving me bizarre looks.
Nonetheless, I celebrate the homecoming of these new Israelis. The more the merrier! I wish them all the luck and happiness in their new/old homeland.

And I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will return your captivity and gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will return you to the place whence I exiled you.
Book of Jeremiah 29:14

With a pleasing savor I shall accept you when I take you out of the nations, and I shall gather you from the lands in which you were scattered, and I shall be hallowed through you before the eyes of the nations.
And you will know that I am the Lord when I bring you to the land of Israel, to the land that I lifted My hand to give to your forefathers.
Book of Ezekiel 20:41-42

The words of the prophets are coming true before our eyes. Our people are gathering from the ends of the earth and are coming home. Our trek through the stars is beginning to come to an end.

The second incident is a bit more personal.

For many years, I was the only member of my immediate family to have made my life in Israel. As my and my siblings’ families grew, the distance between us seemed to grow also. Our lives were taking different paths, and it was sometimes hard to hold on to the things that made us family.  

But as time passes, and we grow older, and the kids grow up, the distance between me and my siblings is closing, as they are coming to visit more often, and their kids are beginning to make aliyah.

My oldest niece made Aliyah on one of those ground-kissing, balloon-giving Nefesh B’Nefesh flights. Like me, she married here, and this week gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. These babies are the first of their generation, my mother’s first great-grandchildren. A new generation, returned from exile, born in Israel.

How wondrous to be a witness to the miracles of G-d bringing His people back to their Land in all ways and in all manners.

May this new generation grow in the Land in happiness and health, with joy and loving kindness, in honor and dignity, and in peace.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Trees of Life

TREESI think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
Joyce Kilmer

But I prefer this one:

I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash

Israel is the only country in the world that had more trees by the end of the 20th century than it had at the start. While Europe and the United States have both established programs of reforestation, much of their programs are based on the Israeli model. Israel is the only country where the deserts are actually shrinking because of programs put in place over 100 years ago.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in Basel at the fifth Zionist Congress of 1901 to redeem the Land. The JNF [known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), which would literally be translated the Fund for the Existence of Israel) was established with the aim of buying land in the Land of Israel (what was then known as Southern Syria), which was then under Ottoman rule. Many of the landowners were absentee, i.e., they didn’t live on the land, but rather were tucked comfortably away in Damascus, Beirut, or Constantinople. They charged exorbitant prices for swamps, deserts, and rocky hillsides.

For 400 years, from1513–1917, during the entire time the Ottomans ruled the area, the Land was devastated due to a policy of taxing landowners according to the amount of trees they had on their land. Naturally, these the landowners would order that all trees be cut down, so as to cut down on their taxes. It mattered little to them that the people who did live on the land depended on agriculture to survive, and this policy of deforestation crippled any kind of economic advance. In addition, the tradition of the Bedouin to graze their animals on land until all greenery was gone and then move on to the next area laid waste the indigenous flora of the region. 

Pushkes through the ages

The JNF raised money to buy lands by distributing ‘blue boxes’ throughout the diaspora. Few Jewish homes in America or Europe did not have a small ‘pushke’ where stray pennies, nickels, and dimes were saved away for the JNF man. In this way the Jewish nation as a whole contributed to the redemption of the Land. By World War Two, there were over a million blue boxes distributed across the world.

The results were immediate. In 1904, the JNF bought its first tracts of land, near the Sea of Galilee, and by independence in 1948, the JNF had bought 54% of all Jewish-held land. The rest had been purchased privately or by other organizations.

Because the land was bought by the pennies and pfennigs of Diaspora Jews, the JNF policy was to rent the land, not to sell. The Land didn’t belong to the JNF but to all those who had contributed from their hard got earnings.

Over the years, the JNF established programs of redeeming the land it had bought, planting trees, building reservoirs, drying swamps.

In the first 50 years since of its existence, the JNF planted 260 million trees. That is about 18.5 trees per Jew in the world today. Anyone who has ever visited Israel has the seen JNF forests that were planted the width and breadth of the country.

Yatir Forest

Environmentalism is a late 20th century fashion. Today, it’s known that trees reduce the amount of toxins in the air (created, for example, by car emissions), produce oxygen, store CO2 (the cause of the ever popular global warming) and provide a habitat for mammals, birds, insects, and other life forms – all essential to man’s existence.
But in the early 1900s, none of these issues were critical. There were far less CO2 emission, plenty of oxygen, and nobody really cared if some bug became extinct. Unlike today’s reforestation programs in America, Europe, and Africa, conservation in the Holy Land was not the objective.

Land reclamation was the objective; to reclaim holy Land that had been destroyed by the conqueror and to rebuild a home for the Jewish people in their ancient land. Little by little, acre by acre, tree by tree, river by river, the Jewish people bought the Land so that no one could ever say that it wasn’t theirs. Trees were planted to hold the soil down and to dry the swamps, so that crops could be planted to provide food, shade, and homes could be built for the Jewish people returning to their Land.

Planting trees in Israel is not just a politically correct form of conservation. It is a holy task. We plant trees when people die, thus keeping alive their memory in the Jewish Land. Trees are planted to celebrate special occasions – a birth, a bat or bar mitzvah, a wedding or anniversary, even being drafted into the army – because planting a tree in the Holy Land is a mitzvah – a holy deed – and a blessing is received by the person in whose merit the tree was planted.

There is a midrash – a story – that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai (a rabbinic leader during Roman times before and during the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) taught that if a person is planting a tree and another comes rushing to him saying “come quickly the Messiah is here”, the person is required to first finish planting the tree and then rise to greet the Messiah. If we find that the Messiah hasn’t actually come – that the call was a false alarm – nothing will hasten the coming of the Messiah faster than planting trees in Israel. And if the Messiah really has arrived, we will still need to plant trees in Israel.

May He come speedily in our time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

And you shall do my statues and keep my judgements and do them and you shall dwell in the Land in safety.
Leviticus 25:18 ויקרא כה:יח

Politics, everyone knows, is a dirty game. And it seems to be especially dirty in the Holyland.
I have no statistics for the number of politicians who have landed in jail or on what charge, but a few years ago there was one party who ran on the slogan “we’re the only party never to have had a member go to jail” – or something like that.

Less well known than its dirty politicians, however, is that Israel, like in other areas, is a trendsetter in the law. The Knesset has passed some laws that could have global implications.

In March of this year, the “Underweight Model Law” went into effect. Basically, the law says that fashion models must show a medical report, not less than three months old, at every shoot s/he has, to determine that the model is not medically underweight. If s/he is, s/he has to pass up the shoot. In addition, if the pictures have been digitally altered in any way, the publication must print a notice to that effect. The aim of the law is to combat the spread of eating disorders among teens; approximately 2% of all Israeli girls between 14-18 suffer from such disorders as anorexia and bulimia, similar to other developed countries. This type of law is the first of its kind in the world, and legislators are hoping that girls will stop idealizing the extreme thinness shown in digitally doctored photos or malnourished models, and make more healthy choices themselves.

Another law that has just taken effect is an anti-smoking law. While it has been illegal to smoke in enclosed public places or places of work since the early 80s, yesterday it became illegal to smoke in outdoor public places such as bus stops and train platforms, doorways, and outdoor restaurants and cafes. Violators will be fined NIS 1000, and places of business that don’t enforce the law can be fined up to NIS 5000. According to the Knesset, people have the right to non-smoking environments outdoors as well!


It is also illegal to raise a Rottweiler dog in your home. After a three-year-old girl was killed by a privately owned Rottweiler in 2011, privately owning this particular breed of dog became illegal. 

One cannot raise pigs in Israel either. The law actually states that one cannot raise a pig on Israeli soil. This has led some pig farmers to build raised platforms for their pigs, thereby getting round this particular legalism. Not raising pigs here is really not that big a deal, as by both Jewish and Muslim law, pigs aren’t ‘kosher’. There isn’t a huge demand for them (though there is some). 

Did you know that in Israel, a man with the surname of Cohen cannot marry a divorced woman? This is because the ‘kohanim’ – priests in English, but have nothing to do with Catholic priests – are forbidden by Jewish law to marry a divorcee. (Actually Catholic priest are also forbidden to marry a divorced woman – but this is probably a coincidence.) A man with the name of Cohen is assumed to be of priestly ancestry.

A law was proposed last year banning parents from giving their kids ‘weird’ names. Apparently the Ministry of the Interior would be able to refuse to register a child’s name if deemed too weird.  "Giving a hurtful and insulting name to a minor, or names of curses or negative figures, could make him an object of mockery in the eyes of his peers and damage his self-image and self-confidence," reasoned the MK who was responsible for this law. I guess the Israeli couple who called their baby daughter ‘Like’ (presumably they were Facebook addicts – or just weird themselves) did so before this law was discussed. Or maybe they are the reason this law is being discussed…. Sweden, Norway, Portugal and Peru have laws of this nature also, so, in fact, this particular law isn’t so cutting edge.

What brings all this up is that today the “Popcorn Law” was passed. This essential law states that movie theatres (and other public places of entertainment such as stadiums) must allow people to bring food in from the outside if the establishment sells food. If the establishment does not sell food they are allowed to ban food from outside. This critical bill was brought about because of the exorbitant cost of popcorn at movie theatres – about $5.00 a box. Seeing as it costs about 75 cents for a half kilo bag of unpopped popcorn, that kind of markup does seem to be a bit high.

It’s comforting to know that we have lawmakers who really are looking out for our welfare. While some dirty politicking is bound to occur as it does in every democracy, (ever see West Wing?) really, our Members of Knesset’s hearts are in the right place. I can go to sleep tonight, knowing that nobody will be bringing their bears to the beach. It’s against the law.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

More than just camels

Start spreading the news,
I'm leaving today.
I want to be a part of it -
Frank Sinatra

We have a first-time visitor coming to see us this summer. While discussing what we should show him while he’s here, my eldest simply sighed and said, “There’s nothing you can do about it, Beer Sheva is a boring place.”
And so, it gives me much pleasure to prove her wrong:

Beer Sheva is the second largest city in Israel in area. The largest is Jerusalem. It takes about an hour and a half to drive across Jerusalem. It takes about 20 minutes to drive across Beer Sheva, if all the traffic lights are working. It takes me 12 minutes to drive to work. That's the first good thing about Beer Sheva.
Though smaller in both size and population, Beer Sheva is actually older than Jerusalem, and was founded by none other than our Patriarch Abraham. Known as the City of Our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lived here.
True, for an awfully long time after the Roman exile, the area was barren, though the Greeks and Romans maintained a garrison here. The Byzantines built a town here, but that was destroyed in approximately the seventh century. Byzantine ruins keep popping up around town, most recently during the renovations of our city bus station.

Over the centuries, because water was available here (the beer in Beer Sheva means a well – not Budweiser – and should be pronounced Be’er, with two syllables, but nobody ever says it that way), the area was used as a meeting place for local Bedouin. A weekly market (shuk) was created, where camels, goats, and wives were the main merchandise for sale. The Bedouin shuk still meets weekly, but unless you come at around the only camel you’ll see is a stuffed one, and today it’s illegal to sell wives. But you can find nargillas, bronze swords, and enormous chess sets, if that’s your thing. Mostly, however, there are cheap name-brand knockoffs that seem to have fallen off the back of a truck. There aren’t even that many Bedouin in the market anymore. But it’s still good fun and you can find some great bargains.

The area began to be built up under the Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. With German assistance, they built a police garrison (mostly to deal with those same Bedouin selling camels), a train station (the Orient Express stopped in Beer Sheva on its way from Constantinople to Cairo), a Mosque, and a school for Bedouin children. These buildings, along with the Governor’s house, still exist. For years, the structures were left to rot, but in the last few years they have been/are being renovated. The Governor’s house, built in 1906, is now the Negev Museum and houses works of art of local artists. The Mosque, which was empty for more than 60 years, now houses the Museum of Beer Sheva, which shows the 4000-year history of Beer Sheva in pictures and archeological finds.
Governor's House
The Turkish train station is still there, but doesn’t receive any trains. It’s the headquarters of the Society for the Protection of Nature, but is in pretty bad shape, physically. There are plans to renovate it and make the area into a park. The old Bedouin school is being renovated to the tune of $30,000,000 to become a children’s Science Museum, scheduled to open in about two years.

Beer Sheva circa 1917

After the Ottomans were defeated by the British in 1917, Beer Sheva became a major administrative center for the Mandate. British-built buildings dot the city center. Most of these building have been redone into shops or restaurants. The center of town, after years of neglect, is being restored, with old fashioned lighting, cobblestone streets, and cute pubs and boutiques.  There are now open-air concerts near the revamped Mosque, craft fairs on Mondays and Fridays on the pedestrian walk way in town, wine and beer festivals, and many ethnic restaurants and stores. You can also buy falafel. 

Beer Sheva has become a haven for artists. Beit Omanim (The Artists’ House) is home to the works of dozens of Negev artists. In addition, they host weekly events open to the general public. The Beer Sheva Simfonietta is considered one of the best concert orchestras in the country. We boast a ‘Youth Center’ that hosts plays, concerts, choirs, and more. The piece de resistance in cultural Beer Sheva is the Center for Performing Arts. This architecturally interesting building (you either love it or you hate it) holds performances by Israeli and international stars and is home to the Simfonietta, the Beer Sheva Theatre, and the Kamea Dance Company. Oh, and Beer Sheva has the largest number of chess master per capita in the world. 13.

Center for Performing Arts

One of the largest universities in the country, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has almost 20,000 students. The Medical School opened following the Yom Kippur War in 1974. In 1998, the Medical School moved to a new set of buildings. Architecturally acclaimed, the buildings also house one of the world’s best medical museums.
Also at BGU, you can see a dinosaur.

There’s more to see:
·        The Air Force Museum where one can find every different airplane ever flown by the IAF, and an awful lot of planes flown by their enemies.
·        Kibbutz Nevatim (about three minutes south east of Beer Sheva) was founded by Jews from the Indian province of Cochin. On display there is the synagogue they brought with them.
·        Allenby park, where a monument to Edmund Allenby, who overthrew the Ottomans in 1917 was rededicated in 2007, 90 years after the battle. It was the first park in Beer Sheva, and is the only public park in the city with bathrooms.
·        Abraham’s Well, which actually is a well but probably isn’t Abraham’s, is enclosed in an old Ottoman building, and is being renovated into a museum of Beer Sheva.
·        Tel Beer Sheva, a national archeological park, is about 20 minutes outside the city. Some of the oldest finds in the world have been discovered there. 

Ottoman Train Station
After 2000 years and with a population of 5000 – none of them Jews – Beer Sheva, once again, came under Jewish administration after the 1948 war. To our lasting sorrow, the liberation of Beer Sheva from the Egyptian army took many lives. Situated on a hilltop, just outside of town, a memorial to the Negev Brigade overlooks the city. Made of a series of huge stone edifices engraved with the names of the fallen, today, kids dart in and out of the stones. It’s also a great place from which to watch the fireworks on the evening of Independence Day.

Beer Sheva quickly became the destination for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and grew swiftly. By 1985, there were 60,000 people living here. At that point, Beer Sheva was mostly known for its bus station as a stop on the way to Eilat.
25 years later, the population, boosted by the Russian and Ethiopian Aliyah, has skyrocketed to 205,000 people, from 140 different countries.

Another time, I’ll write about some of those people.

Monday, July 9, 2012

“Dare to dream…and when you dream, dream big.”

"Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." 

Charlotte Whitton

On my 11-year old daughter’s first day of day-camp this summer, she came home with the news that her group is called ‘Chana Senesh’, and she was the only one who knew who Chana Senesh actually was. She read about it in the Israeli ‘Time Tunnel’ series, which tell the stories of different episodes of Jewish and Israeli history through the eyes of two children who travel through time by walking through a magic tunnel. (The series, aimed at children age 6-10, is quite excellent and fills in lots gaps created in school history lessons.)

The overall topic of my daughter’s day-camp is Jewish Women Heroines, and those covered are the usual crew. Aside from Chana Senesh, all the other women are Biblical: Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel, Queen Esther, and maybe Devorah the Judge. I don’t remember. These characters are, without question, heroic, Jewish, and women. But the girls in G’s summer-camp already know all about them. They learn the lessons of these great women during school hours.
I would like to think that these girls learn that heroes don’t live only in the Bible and that you don’t have to be related to a great man to be a great woman.

There is no lack of contemporary Jewish women heroines that the girls could learn about and from.

Here are three: (and I’ve kept it down to three because if I named all the women heroes, there wouldn’t be enough cyberspace….)

1. I did a quick Google search on Jewish Israeli Heroines and the first name that came up was Chaya Hammer, known far and wide as the Chicken Lady. I had heard of Chaya some years ago, and am pleased to put her first on my list.
More than two decades ago, Chaya visited her local Jerusalem butcher to buy chicken for Shabbat. She saw one of the clerks put a large bag of bones and skin on the counter and a young girl say thank you, take the bag, and quietly leave the shop.
“How many cats and dogs does that family have to get such a large bag of bones,” she wondered.
Of course, it turned out that the family had no pets, no income, a sick father, and seven hungry children. From that day on, Chaya paid for the family’s Shabbat meat. Over the next 20 years, Chaya came to help hundreds of Jerusalem families, at a cost of over $1000 a week. In addition, she sent checks to more hundreds of families across the country every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) with cards she designed herself. Her great-granddaughter addressed the envelopes.

She received donations from around the world to help her expand her ‘business’. She adopted families impoverished by disease, victims of terrorist attacks, and holocaust survivors.
Chaya herself was a survivor of Russian pogroms. She knew what it was to be hungry. Yet, when asked why she worked so hard to help feed others, she would simply answer, “It’s the Jewish way.”

Chaya Hammer passed away in May, 2010 at the age of 100. May her memory be for a blessing.

2. Unlike Chaya Hammer, my next heroine is already well-known, with hundreds of streets throughout Israel named after her. There might even be a Time Tunnel book about her (but I don’t think so). However, her life and her activities are not a part of any school curriculum. Yet, her actions have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians over the last 100 years.
Henrietta Szold was born to a rabbinic family in 1860 in Baltimore. Working as a teacher, she established the first night-school for immigrants in the USA. This enabled working immigrants to learn English and, eventually, gain a wide education.
A great Zionist, Szold first visited Palestine in 1909. She was already 49 years old, but it was only then that she found her life’s passion. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, she noticed the flies and the filth. She realized that she could do something to eradicate the germs and disease that was rampant at the time in the city. Szold returned to the US, and in 1912 she founded what would eventually become known as “Hadassah”.
Hadassah’s first program was the establishment of a visiting nurse system in Jerusalem in 1913. Starting with two nurses, the organization, which funded the American Zionist Medical Unit, brought American personnel, equipment, and know-how to the Holy Land. Eventually, Hadassah, under Szold’s leadership, established a nursing school, clinics, x-ray labs, infant welfare stations, and more. All this eventually morphed into the world renowned Hadassah Medical Center, comprising two hospitals with over 1000 beds and outpatient clinics all over the country, giving quality healthcare to everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. From its website:  More than a million people are treated each year in over 120 outpatient clinics and one of more than 70 departments and specialized units. A complete range of diagnostic laboratories as well as the most-up-to-date imaging machines and other state-of-the-art equipment backs these clinical arms. Hadassah provides practically every possible medical service available in the most advanced medical centers in the world. Some departments are the only facilities of their kind in the Jerusalem area; others are unique in Israel, which has led the government to designate Hadassah as a National Center in a number of medical specialties.

Today, 100 years after its founding, Hadassah is the world’s largest Jewish organization, and the largest volunteer women’s organization.
Profoundly Zionistic, Szold moved to Palestine in 1920 to take charge of the medical unit. But other challenges awaited her here. In the 30s, she became active in the administration of the Youth Aliyah, an organization set up to bring youngsters from Europe to Palestine. She was instrumental in saving 1000s of young lives from the Nazi death camps.
All this, because Henrietta Szold dared to dream of making life in the Holy Land better for all its people.
Her achievements came at a price. Szold never married, never had a child of her own and lived far from her family in America.
She died in her apartment in Jerusalem, in February, 1945. May her memory be for a blessing.

3. My third hero is as obvious as she is common. Nevertheless, the girls in my daughter’s summer-camp should learn what their older sisters, their mothers, their aunts, and grandmothers have done and how they have contributed to Israeli life, and what they sacrificed to do it.

The young women who give two years of their lives to either the IDF or to National Service are my personal heroes. And they should be recognized as such.

Israel is the only Western country that has a mandatory military requirement for girls.
In pre-Israel days, women made up of 20% of the units (Hagana, Palmach, Irgun) that would eventually make up the IDF. Today, they make up 33% of all IDF soldiers, and 51% of its officers (!!!). There are women in all ground, air, and navy units of the IDF. 1500 female combat soldiers are drafted each year and serve the same 36 months as the male soldiers. There are female combat pilots, tank drivers, navigators, and infantry soldiers. They work in intelligence units, engineering units, and computer analysis. There is no sphere in the army that women are not a part of.

Religious girls are exempt from the IDF and instead volunteer for two years performing National Service. These girls work in hospitals, assisted living centers, special education facilities, museums, immigrant organizations, and many more places. Though required to work 30-40 hours a week, many of these girls work up to 100 hours a week, all on a voluntary basis. Established in 1971 with 60 girls, Sherut Leumi (National Service in Hebrew) today has thousands of women working in various institutions around the country that would not be able to function without them. 

Whereas their American counterparts are choosing colleges, dating, and planning for their future, 18-year-old Israeli girls are putting their personal lives on hold, giving their time and energy to their country and helping their fellow citizens. How many women around the world are willing to sacrifice these years, and perhaps their lives for their country, and for their people, because it's 'the Jewish way'.  
These Israeli girls, despite the uniforms, despite the hard work, and the fatigue, and the dirt – or maybe because of them – are the most beautiful in the world. Ask any Jewish mother.

May the merits of these women protect and bless us all.