Monday, August 9, 2010

I'm in high school- again.

Today I took a mini version of the Hebrew Literature Bagrut (High School Exit Exam). Let's totally skip over the fact that I've only been studying Hebrew for a year and I have to take these high school level exams IN HEBREW to re-earn my teaching certificate here in Israel. Needless to say, I find rapid fire intensive courses in history, citizenship, Hebrew literature and Hebrew grammar conducted in a level of Hebrew that is easily twice my own ability extremely frustrating. Thus I've reconnected with my 10th grade self that cursed (yes, out loud and colorfully) every time I had to enter a Spanish classroom and bemoaned being forced to learn another language. My dear study partner is very patient with my sporadic streams of cursing that punctuate our cramming sessions. And yes, since we're doing material for four high school subjects in 6 weeks, it's all cramming.

Even so, as we were cramming away last night- but still going slow enough for me to actually understand what we were doing- I realized I really liked one of the poems/ songs we studied. True to Jewish tradition, song and poem are pretty much one and the same here. Here's the song version, grace à youtube:

So, what follows is the original Hebrew text, the best translation I can muster (without online translators because they're EVIL!) and an explanation why I really like this piece. Yep, I'm in high school literature mode. But, it's a good thing considering that I will be teaching English Literature for the Bagrut exam starting this month (yikes!) And I took a couple liberties to help the translation flow, be more clear in English but retain its original meaning (to the best of my understanding.)

כי האדם עץ השדה / נתן זך .......Because Man is a Tree of the Field/ Nathan Zach

כי האדם עץ השדה.....................Because man is a tree of the field
כמו האדם גם העץ צומח............ Like man, a tree, too, is planted
כמו העץ האדם נגדע. ................ Like a tree, man is cut down
ואני לא יודע ............................. And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה............. Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

כי האדם עץ השדה..................... Because man is a tree of the field
כמו העץ הוא שואף למעלה ......... Like a tree, man breaths in, reaching upwards
כמו האדם הוא נשרף באש.......... Like man, a tree burns in fire
ואני לא יודע . ............................And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה...............Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

אהבתי וגם שנאתי ......................I have loved and I have hated
טעמתי מזה ומזה........................I have tasted this and that
קברו אותי בחלקה של עפר...........They buried me in a piece of dirt
ומר לי, מר לי בפה...................... And I have bitterness, bitterness I have in my mouth
כמו עץ השדה............................ Like a tree in the field

כי האדם עץ השדה......................Because man is a tree of the field
כמו העץ הוא צמא למים..............Like a tree, he thirsts for water
כמו האדם גם הוא נשאר צמא.......Like man, a tree also remains thirsty
ואני לא יודע ............................. And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה............. Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

The title, Because Man is a Tree of the Field, is a verse in the Deuteronomy 20:19. The context is rules for engaging in war. The Torah prohibits the destruction of fruit trees, explaining "because man is a tree in the field". Most of the English translations I've found of Deuteronomy 20:19 choose an interpretation of the Hebrew and solidify it in the English version. But, lucky me, I can now go back to the Hebrew and all the juiciness that allows me. So, כי האדם עץ השדה can be interpreted as either a statement or a question (there isn't any punctuation in the Torah scroll). As a question, it implies that the trees are not men, but rather just trees, and therefore have done nothing to harm the approaching army and deserve to be unharmed. They are innocent in the ways of war, to say the least. As a statement, it implies that trees are indeed like men and thus deserve to be treated with respect and dignity of men and therefore not to be cut down when they are innocent. In good Jewish tradition, I choose to accept both interpretations side by side. (Why choose one, when you can have both!?)

In the song, there are three couplets that compare man and tree. The first deals with being planted and cut down, the second with breathing and burning in fire and the third thirsting for water. I interpret this song as dealing with the Holocaust- where men are moved, planted, cut down, starved and burned with less thought than that given to replanting, tending, harvesting, using, and burning a tree. In the Holocaust, the world is afouk- turned upside down and logic no longer reins, but rather craziness. In lieu of the biblical verse that raises respect for trees to that of human status, here humans burn like wood in crematoriums.

The first, second and final verse emphasis that both man and tree are subject to external forces and lack control in their own lives. "I do not know where I've been and where I will be, like a tree of the field." Jews suffering through the Holocaust most definitely experience a lack of control over their own lives as the advancing army of Nazis approached, relocated them, starved them, cut them down and burn them.

The third verse, which follows a separate lyrical pattern, deals with a man's life before the Holocaust and his subsequent death during the Holocaust. In life, he has various experiences and emotions, while in death, he is "planted" into the earth. Planting a man is death, while planting a tree is life.

I really liked this piece with it's beautifully dark and sorrowful feelings. I feel like the analogy between man and tree is one in which I can get lost and turn around in, looking at it upside down and rediscovering it every time I read it. The Hebrew is simple yet poignant, which is characteristic of the language. I also feel that song is strongly rooted in Jewish culture- from it's title to the high level of respect given to trees. (In Judaism, there are four year cycles that run congruently (think academic year, calendar year, financial year). This leads to four new year's celebrations- including one for trees. Yep, that's an entire year dedicated to trees, planting them, celebrating them, loving them. (Some of us like to think of it as the oldest Earth Day ever.) Also, planting trees in Israel is a mtizvah.) I find this poem to be haunting in it's history and the deep meaning of it's deceptively simple words.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflections on riding the bus in Jerusalem

The bus: my constant companion. I wait for her. I get annoyed with her. I marvel at her. I wish I could give her directions that would directly take me to my destination in lieu of her circuitous routes that reach out to everyone. I’m grateful for her despite my frustrations. One of my proudest Courtney trumps Israeli style bureaucracy and spiteful office workers was getting my discounted 6 month student bus pass.

I’m back on the bus today after an attempt to have an affair with the train. The bus was against me. She avoided me. When my fellow waiter (soon to be rider) informed me the bus snuck by silently just before I arrived for our rendez vous I decided to splurge for a cab to catch the train. I flirt with the train- it’s smooth ride and fewer disruptions. She has large windows opening to our beautiful countryside, spacious tables, and larger, more comfortable, seats. She doesn’t confine me like the bus does. The bus wants me to stay in my small space defined by chairs covered in blue carpet-like upholstery with electric colored squiggles. But the train is a fickle, infrequent affair. The taxi arrived in time for me to see her sleek body pull out of the station, red warning lights flashing at the crossing.

Frustrated, dejected, I returned to the bus. I had to look for her. And she made me wait, maybe a little longer than usual to make a point. But she accepted me back, ignoring my attempted transgression. So, I board bus 4 Aleph from the south of Jerusalem, to the center. 8 takes me to the Central Bus station and now 480 and bearing me to Tel Aviv, where again, I flirt with the idea of the train to take me to Tel Aviv University so that I can at least catch the end of my class and meet in instructor.

The bus in Jerusalem is a microcosm of society. Strangers talk to each other in these double long busses that haul Jerusalemites and tourists alike. A rich brew of Russian, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English bounce around inside, maybe flavored with Yiddish or Ahmaric on the right bus lines. We ask for help, strike up conversations, make comments on everything, invite strangers home, and run into friends. Strangers can become friends on a bus, trapped for the long halting stops through the congested streets. There isn’t just the assumption that we will help each other, but the expectation. Fellow bus riders are constantly helping mothers with strollers alight and disembark through the rear doors, passing their fares up to the driver. The wheelchair ramp isn’t automated but requires a passenger to lean down to open and close it. Today, I was one of 6 people who, without asking even if there was a need, rose to the expectation to help a woman in a wheelchair navigate off the stiff curb, and up the steep ramp into the bus and then pass her fare card to the driver and back. No words are needed; we all know how we’re supposed to help. I live in that alternate reality where youngsters pop up and insist that elderly people and pregnant woman take their seats. These are the moments I love the bus.

The bus in Jerusalem: I love her, I loath her, I wait for her. But I say my blessings that I do not fear her. The fear of busses still clings to our group consciousness. Today, a reminder of that fear was a black roller bag, ownerless, sitting near the front of the bus. “Is this someone’s black bag?” an older man calls out. No answer. Again, “Is this someone’s black bag?” he shouts louder into the back of the bus. “It’s no one’s bag,” the back of the bus answers him. I can see his nervousness. I feel the tension. He looks around. He studies the bag. The bag stares back at him, silently, menacingly. The bag challenges the man at the front of the bus. The man finally accepts the challenge and opens the bag. “Don’t open it,” a voice floats up from behind me. I’m relieved when he’s finished his search and closes the bag. No explosives. We won’t be tonight’s news, unidentifiable limbs mixed with the metal that once was a bus. That terrible, horrible wall that brings international condemnation as a cheap land grab is working. We are free from the reality of the second infatada that blasted its angry shouts with daily suicide bombs and converted the busses from the most popular transportation to a gamble with your life. Soon an elderly woman is running up next to the bus, banging on the windows with her fists. She runs inside, explains she took a taxi to catch up with the bus and reclaims her bag. We, the bus riders, smile inside with relief. Today a lonely bag is just that: forgotten, but not a threat. And again I hate the need for the large concrete wall I can see traipsing across the east of Jerusalem and I’m so thankful that simple concrete can save so many lives.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Checking in

It’s been too long- in terms of communicating with you and also with myself. The decadently long expanses of solitary reflective time that characterized my time in Bangladesh are distant memories. From a single “single friend” I’ve landed spat into a beautiful, inviting community of single friends with lots of time and energy. From being a teacher and managing my own time I’ve become an overloaded student- Hebrew classes, Torah classes, grammar classes, teacher recertification classes, Jewish thought classes- and neglected homework. I’ve fallen into a long forgotten habit of over committing myself, above and beyond the coursework. I’ve discovered volunteering and dove in- reading to the elderly, helping lone soldiers, doing morale boosting for members of the Israeli Defense Forces and helping to coordinate large Shabbat meals to bring various members of our diverse community together. The hours of silence- without work, to do lists, roommate, phone calls, rushing errands- are gone. So too, it seems, are the blog entries and all the wonderful reflection and repackaging they required.

But I finally, regardless of my own critical judgment about creating a quality, readable, reflective piece starting with a clear direction, I’m letting go of my own expectations and just writting. Letting go of my need to express my anger and defensiveness about the flotilla escapades and journalistic creative fiction and spin that followed. Letting go of my need to provide a documentation of daily events. Writing to reconnect- with you- and with myself.

Shifting through the layers of commitments and conversations, studies and bureaucracy, errands and endless bus rides- searching back to the source, the central experience of my time here- and I find- settled contentment. It’s been the biggest life shift of all. A lifetime of running after new adventures, pushing my boundaries, exploring my ever shifting paradigm, immerging myself in languages and cultures as I bounced and bopped around the globe- the great trips and fanciful adventures have lost their hold on my heart. What started to root in my heart as a traveled around Asia and saw such amazing sites remains- yes the world is an amazing and diverse place, yes I feel very privileged to have seen and experienced so much of it in such a personal way, and I’d rather be in Israel.

And true to my inner voice, everyday as I walk around Jerusalem, watching grapes, olives, figs and pomegranates form in my neighbors’ yards, I give thanks for being able to be here. I marvel daily at the very communal, non city feel cultivated in such a walkable, beautiful city where strangers help each other without question and I always run into people I know. I cringe at the intolerance of the inhabitants of neighborhoods like Mea Sharim who I perceive as perverting Judaism in the conquest to save and preserve it. I flair up at the disproportionately large amount of spinning incorrect journalism about my home. I revel in the glorious walls of the old city and the multitude of invitations I receive into the homes of my fellow Israelis. What are my challenges in adapting? Too many welcoming people creating an outpouring of invitations? Friends always finding new adventures from climbing Masada, eating at Black Out, hiking near Tzfat, listening to the Israeli Philharmonic or simply enjoying the sights and events of Jerusalem? People always trying to figure out how they can help me? Should all people be so lucky to face similar challenges.

And since it’s been a while, I’ll also let you know. Next school year I’ll be gainfully employed teaching English to Hebrew speakers in grades 7 through 9 and also English literature to native English speakers in grade 10.

And since my silence has been echoed back for so long, I hope that my voice can also be echoed back with a small insight into your lives as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

yom ha'shoah

Upon leaving my apartment in Jerusalem this morning I found myself frozen in place, my eyes darting to follow the movements of a delicate yet majestic humming bird. I smiled, distracted from my task, as I watched it's beautiful black and iridescent green wings flutter and pause, reflecting the morning sunlight as it dashed from plant to plant, investigating. It was a moment of rejoicing in the amazing beauty of the world and remembering my grandfather, who loved humming birds.

But that was not the only time my world froze today. At ten this morning everyone stopped and silently stood as a sirens sounded across Israel. Cars halted in the middle of roads, doors opened, passengers and drivers standing. Talking stopped. Music stopped. Busses stopped. Pedestrians stopped. Students stopped. A frozen 120 seconds as millions of individuals country -wide stood in silent recognition and remembrance of the millions senselessly and systematically murdered by Nazis. Each individual standing in defiance of the Final Solution. Millions of minds simultaneously focused on the collective act of remembrance.

A couple of years ago a colleague of mine commented that he thought holocaust education was 'overdone' and now it's time to study something else. His comment knocked the wind out of me and shook my brain to numbness. Yes, I can understand a level of his sentiment but it seems to me that any logic would undermine it. The world has not learned from the multiple country, continent-wide effort to exterminate an entire group of people and thus, the cycle of mass slaughter and dehumanization continue worldwide. Yes, sadly, there are now other tragedies. However the idea of studying them in lieu of the holocaust seems to be a lesson not learned. What greater example of organized evil and baseless hatred exists? Could we really fathom a cessation of holocaust education in a time when scaringly empowered individuals are calling to wipe Israel, the Jew among nations, off the planet?

As a Jew, of course I'm biased towards remembrance. As an individual, I constantly force myself to look the ugly, evil elements of the world in the eye- form international sex slave trade and devastating poverty to national leaders who punish their people while promoting their own comforts- but why should the world care about the Jews? Why should the world choose to remember in face of active holocaust deniers and passive, simple collective negligence and forgetfulness?

I once read that the Jews are the world's canary in the coal mine. Just as the canary's death when deadly gases start to fill the mine warn miners to exit and avoid the invading danger, Jews are often attacked first, as Martin Niemöller well-known poem "First they came for the Jews" illustrates. From Nazis to radicalized suicide bombers, Jews, and now Israel, often take the first waves and hardest assaults from these destructive forces.

I've also heard people complain about having to hear or read about the holocaust. In comments that stink of "get over it already" many individuals act as if remembering this catastrophe suffered by the Jewish people were a crime in and of itself. With the defensive, "do you think you are the only ones on this planet that suffer?" air, other individuals I have met display an intolerance to learning about such a great loss of human life- each individual a spark with limitless possibilities to contribute to greater humanity. Would some people believe that there is limited space in our human brains to process the suffering of others? Does the act of holocaust remembrance kick out Rwanda or other great catastrophes from our grey matter?

Today I had the privilege to listen to Morris Wyszogrod, a holocaust surviver, tell his story. It was the third time in my life I've had such an opportunity and each time I have been amazingly struck by the vivacity of life displayed in these individuals. When Morris was asked if he told his story soon after leaving Europe and arriving in the United States he said no. Some of the people who lived through it didn't want to hear it and the people who didn't, couldn't believe it was true. As Eisenhower stated upon visiting the sites of destruction and mass murder, "The things I saw beggar description...the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda. Ohrdruf April 15, 1945."

During Morris' speech, he stopped, overcome with tears and emotion. The tears were not fueled by hatred or revenge, or waves of pain. He was choked up by mentioning his children and grandchildren, who all live their lives as Jews. Tears of pride and joy left him speechless after calmly or even humorously describing the tortures to which he was submitted or witnessed. At the end of his speech, a question from the audience prompted him to mention that the words coming out of Iran remind him of listening to Hitler's rhetoric.

Just as humans are capable of amazing acts of kindness and grace, giving and gratitude, creation and discovery, we too are equally capable of masterminding and executing the most sinister acts of dehumanization, torture and hell known on our planet. To forget or blissfully ignore the destructive capacity of man is just as sinful as failing to cultivate our creative grace.

As the well-known adage states: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

I stand with Israel, with the Jewish people and with the world, if you will have us, in remembering.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The adventure of a kosher kitchen

Some changes happen at imperceptible rates, others are more visible and seem to avalanche upon us or act like walls, mountains, fortresses of separation. My decision to "go kosher" and the consequential steps of that decision have been both. Did anyone truly take note when I started to exclude shellfish from my diet? (But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales--whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water--you are to detest. Leviticus 11:10) After years of being an on-again off again vegetarian who generally avoided all seafood- including the scaled and finned variety- I could barely even call it a sacrifice. And the most widely known non-kosher animal? An emblem of all things not kosher in the American mind? The pig? I've pretty much avoided the consumption of this creature after my unappealing introduction to pork skins- which are indeed deep-fried puffed-up pieces of skin of a pig. (Thanks, Dad.)

Of course, there is the idea of kosher meat, which is defined not only by the type of animal (Every animal that has a split hoof not completely divided or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you Leviticus 11:26) but also by the type of slaughter. (Not to go into too much detail, but the general way a cow is slaughtered in the US, by sliding down a ramp and having rods gorged through it's eye sockets and into it's brain doesn't quite make the kosher cut.) Again, with my already vegetarian tendencies (At 7 I thought I was having the best hamburger of my life, until my mom pointed out that I forgot to put the meat patty in it.) the avoidance of non kosher meat, regardless of country, shouldn't be too difficult. (However, I decided to wait to adopt this step until I made aliyah to the land of kosher meat.)

Here's my personal challenge: Separation. I must admit that this very common theme in Judaism (the 7th day from all other days, the Jewish people from all other peoples, and meat from dairy.) I alternately struggle with these ideas of separation. Shabbat (literally "seventh" in Hebrew) is a joy to separate and make different. No work allowed, sorry, God said so. (For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. Exodus 31:15) It might sound a little extreme at the moment, but please separate a moment now to say thanks to the creation of what you now know as the weekend. For me, it is a full day dedicated to family, friends and food- with no TV, Internet or phones.

But the separation of food is challenging. It's not only challenging for the new habits, double (or triple, thank you passover) sets of dishes, multiple labeled sponges, dish rags, etc. It's challenging because separation of food means separation of people. One could argue that keeping kosher reenforces Jewish communities- a person is obligated to find a kosher butcher, etc and thus, the community. But what of more worldly yet observant Jews who don't want giant barriers in friendships with non-Jewish friends? I know that many Jews find this balance- I just spend Shabbat with a lovely family whose grandfather is a world renowned physicist. He and his wife have managed to keep kosher in many places around the globe and seem to do it with upmost joy. Surely an inspiration.

But back to separation. This is a part of kashrut (or kosher laws) that many people are less aware of. And, one of the more challenging aspects, at least for me.

The Rabbis have taken this pasuk (verse in the Torah) and ran with it. It has become that no meat is eaten with dairy. If physical separation were not enough, a temporal one is also invoked. After eating meat one must wait somewhere between 1 and 6 hours (depending on one's family's tradition) before consuming dairy. (I've opted for 3 hours. It seemed the happy medium.) And, a Jew keeping this commandment needs, so say the Rabbis, separate dishes, pots, pans, utensils, etc. in order to avoid any accidental mixing.

So labels are a good idea.

Side note- food in judaism is divided into four categories- traif (unclean and inedible), meat, dairy and parve (being edible but neither meat nor dairy. Fruits, vegetables, eggs and fish fall into this category.)

Also, all the dishes must be "kosher" or permitted. The Rabbis ruled that certain materials absorb the flavors that were in them. Ceramic dishes must be new- one they have touched both meat and dairy, or anything traif, they're done for. So, before leaving Bangladesh I sold all my ceramic dishes (okay, that was a sacrifice) and bought three new sets- meat, dairy and passover. Metals and plastics must be boiled.

But, pots and pans that have used to cook traif meat or mixed meat and dairy- they get a blow torch treatment; which took place in my living room. (Let's just say I wasn't the calmest person on earth with the blow torch being waved around my living room. )

After all the fun of burning and boiling, glass and metal items need to be taken to a mivkah for dishes. (a pool of water that has a natural source) and have a prayer said over them and be dunked. I happened to do this around midnight with the help of a guy a never met before but who insisted he wanted to be helpful. (Another guy, who helped me move my furniture put us in touch.) He was, indeed, very helpful.

So now, I'm in the process of washing everything (by hand). Basically everything is getting submitted to the soapy sponge. (Color-coded of course.) And I'm labeling my kitchen items. (Because, you KNOW I do not want to repeat any of this process again!)

And I've borrowed a book to help me out with the technicalities of separation.

As far as the more personal aspect of separation- like my favorite pastime of cooking with friends- I don't think there is a book to help me with that one. I am inspired by Jews who observe kashrut (keep kosher) and still travel to their hearts desires. I originally planned to avoid this internal confrontation for a while by hanging out in the land of kosher kitchens and restaurants for an extended period of time before voyaging back into the not-so-kosher world. But, I'm Texas bound in 8 days. I guess finding my equilibrium (albeit a temporary one) will happen sooner than later.