Monday, March 26, 2012

Israel or Holy Land? Visiting Ein Kerem

            Jerusalem has a new light rail system – the rakevet kalah.  (Some call it the rakevet klalah, the accursed train.)  Take the light rail to the end of the line at Mt. Herzl and you come to an intersection that gives you three distinct choices.  You can go to the Herzl Museum and learn of Zionism’s early beginnings, then visit Herzl’s grave and those of many leaders and fighters for Israel. You can walk another street to visit Yad Vashem’s Holocaust memorial, or you can go left and wind your way down the mountainside to Ein Kerem, a small Arab village, now largely Jewish, that fills with chiloniyim, secular Jews looking for a good restaurant and a shop open Shabbat noon.  It’s the same Ein Kerem that Hadassah Hospital overlooks from its perch on the hillside.
            Loren and I made a thirty minute descent down the mountainside, most of the path a beautiful, broad sidewalk, and some of the way edging along residential streets.  We took time to rejoice in the bright red anemones blossoming among other wild flowers, and we stopped to enjoy almond trees, shekedim, in full flower.  From a distance, their white or pink blossoms make the trees look as if they have no branches at all, just a blur of colour waving in the wind.
We entered the village with a goal: to visit the Church of St. Jean Baptiste.  That’s right, Ein Kerem was the birthplace of John the Baptist, not a Jewish site, to be sure, but one that I felt two Quebecers ought to visit.  The street to the church gate is little more than a laneway lined with shops selling everything from Dead Sea face creams and Israeli wine to Christian mementos.  Arab shopkeepers stand at the door showing their wares, many doing so with a quiet dignity that cannot be found in the Arab Shuk of Jerusalem’s Old City.
We entered the walled courtyard of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste, his reputed birthplace, to find that its walls were covered with a particular Christian prayer in two dozen languages.  A group of pilgrims from Portugal stood before their version, chanting words in a Gregorian mode.  Constructed in 1955 over ancient church ruins, the structure contained well-conceived mosaic work, including some ancient ones, but no exceptional paintings.  During construction the archeologists found a 2nd Temple period mikveh ritual bath.  Who knows?  Perhaps that was what led early Christians to link the spot to John the Baptist and his dedication to purification by water.
After a brief visit to the church, we walked again along the shopping path, across the main street, and began to ascend the mountain dominated by Hadassah Hospital and several churches. 
First we came upon a combination mosque/Christian site, Mary’s Spring, said to be the site where Mary met Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Then we climbed a magnificent and long staircase of Jerusalem stone to reach the Church of the Visitation.  A goodly number of pilgrimage buses were parked at the base of the mountain in the village, and pilgrims, escorted by guides and clergy, were found wending their way upward to the various sites.  We, too, visited the site, which Constantine the Great’s mother Helena designated as the place where Zechariah the prophet lived and where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and family, as well as where Elizabeth hid from Herod’s soldiers behind the stone cover of a cistern still to be seen today.
We two Jews did not feel impelled to stay long.  We noted the magnificent Gorny Russian Orthodox monastery with its golden domes and also the Sisters of Sion structure, well-hidden by large walls.  Pilgrims lingered on the mountainside, while Loren and I  made for the village.  We had come to Ein Kerem to rejoice in the flowering of spring, to shop a little, to sight-see, yes, and ultimately to have lunch.  The pilgrims had other plans, finally boarding their buses and heading for other points of Christian interest.
In Ein Kerem, that little village now incorporated into Jerusalem’s city limits, you can see clearly that there are two Israels.  One is the Jewish State, and that’s the Israel we are visiting.  The other is the Holy Land, and that’s the one the Christian pilgrims visit.  They don’t go to Hadassah Hospital to see the Chagall Windows or to rejoice in the existence of this huge and incredibly competent medical centre.  They don’t visit the Herzl Museum to learn the history of Zionism’s origins, though they usually go to Yad Vashem to understand the Shoah and its meaning.  They go to Ein Kerem to -- excuse the pun -- to immerse themselves in their Christian beginnings: John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth. 
In many ways, these Christian pilgrims are not seeing Israel.  They’re visiting the Holy Land.  Israel is a protrusion on the landscape, an intrusion on the true goals of their visit: Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, where he lived; the Galilee, where he preached; Jerusalem, where he died.  Even at the Israel Museum, which Loren and I have visited 7 times for its wide-ranging content, the pilgrims see a model of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few enter the museum itself.  Their tour is not greatly about modern Israel, and whether they see the modern nation that’s in front of their eyes, I do not know. 
If a person came only to visit a set of ancient sites, as if all the rest did not exist, a week would be plenty, I imagine.  That is a pilgrimage, for a pilgrim comes. . .and goes, probably never to return again to the Holy Land. 
For us, three months in Jerusalem was not enough.  Our sabbatical has been to Israel, from its ancient past to its present problems and hopes as a living nation.  It has been about falling more deeply in love with Israel, with Israelis, and with the life of the Jewish people in our old-new land.  We hope to return at length, again to immerse ourselves in the greatest Jewish enterprise in 2000 years.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Who Makes Reform Judaism Real?

     We Reform Jews may be major players in North America, but we’re not major players in Israel, where our rabbis cannot officially do marriages, divorces, burial services, and conversions.  The Israeli rabbinate does its best to delegitimize our movement.
     There is one problem in their program of delegitimization: the Law of Return.  The Law of Return requires Israel to recognize converts of rabbis from outside the Land.  The Interior Ministry, controlled by an Orthodox political party, decides who is accepted as a Jew from outside Israel.  If it can block American, Canadian, and other Reform converts from recognition, the ministry advances its desire to marginalize us and ultimately to force the Jewish world to see us irrelevant, even heretical.
     We draw the line of battle for Reform (and Conservative) converts at the Israeli Supreme Court.  That’s why I betook myself at 9 AM one February morning to sit in Courtroom Gimel waiting for 3 judges to hear the case of one Reform convert to Judaism defended by Nicole Maor, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center’s Legal Aid Center for Olim (Immigrants). 
     I wanted to see and hear Nicky in action.  Yes, I admire her work, but also, I owe her.  No, we owe her.  She and her team of lawyers have gone to bat for at least 3 Jews who studied and became Jewish in Montreal, and she won their aliyah each time.  I expected the same for a woman who converted in New York, whose case was before the court.  I wanted to be present as a statement: Nicky, we support and honor your work.
     Nicky Maor and the legal squad at IRAC have winning ways.  The law is on our side, and our movement is not frivolous about conversion requirements, but to defend us, IRAC deploys top-notch legal minds like Nicky Maor.  The court listens to her and endorses our pleas. 
     I waited 3 hours for our case to come forward, but because of an Israeli general strike, the case was delayed.  The experience of our own Montreal converts tells that waiting and patience are part of the game.  I believe that Nicky will win the case for us, and I wish I could be there to see the smile on one New Yorker’s face. 
     By winning Jewish status for Reform converts who make aliyah, IRAC legitimates our movement world-wide and makes it real to Israelis and non-Israelis alike.  Do every-day Jews really care if an Orthodox rabbi recognizes Reform converts as Jewish?  I don’t’ think so.  They want to know if Israel recognizes them, and that’s what Nicky Maor makes happen.
     There’s a thank-you we can give to Nicole Maor, to her legal staff, and to IRAC executive director Anat Hoffman, who so capably supervises Reform’s legal defense of our movement in many Israeli spheres.  That thank-you is to support and sustain their work of assuring that the full acceptance of the Israeli government goes to all of us Reform Jews, including those who have chosen Judaism, including our Israeli rabbis.          
    If we’re not real in Israel, in today’s Jewish world, we’re not for real.  IRAC fights for our legitimacy, fights all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, and IRAC is winning.  In effect, they legitimate our congregations, our rabbis -- and the congregations and rabbis of all other non-Orthodox movements.  That’s why I focused my sabbatical volunteer work on IRAC and that’s why I believe IRAC must be strengthened.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tagging Along With Taglit

            This week, touring Israel with my daughter, I understood our generation gap a little better, and I understood it because of Birthright Israel.
            Birthright Israel has toured 280,000 young Jews between the ages of 18 and 28 all over Israel.  Called Taglit in Israel, Birthright kept going when the Intifada scared most Jewish tourists away, and it continues today to connect a whole generation of Jews from around the world to life in Israel and to each other.  It was originally funded by Charles Bronfman and another philanthropist.  Some years ago, I took the time to thank Mr. Bronfman personally for this mitzvah, or shall we say, this set of nearly 300,000 mitzvot that he has accomplished.
            Taglit has a rule.  If you’ve already been on a youth mission to Israel in the past, you are not eligible for Birthright.  I had hoped that when my daughter Sasha was a student at Concordia University she might go on Birthright, but she had already been on a sponsored youth mission and was ineligible, to my great disappointment. 
            Last week, Sasha came to Jerusalem to visit us.  We left Jerusalem for a day to visit Tel Aviv, and among the important sights in the area of Rothschild Boulevard is Israel’s “Independence Hall.”  Originally this was the home of Meir Dizengoff, first mayor of the city.  After his death it became the Tel Aviv Art Museum, but that has grown and prospered over the years, having just opened another new wing, and long ago it left the premises of the Dizengoff home. 
            It was decided that the historic importance of the Dizengoff house lay in the fact that Israeli independence was proclaimed there.  The setting of that historic meeting was recreated, with the same dais, the same blue and white drapery and Israeli flag, the same old microphones, the same chairs, each marked with the name of the person in attendance.  After a short and moving introductory film, visitors enter the hall, receive an orientation to the history surrounding the moment, hear a recording of the event, and rise as if with the hundreds originally assembled to sing Hatikvah.  Loren and I have visited before, found it moving, and wanted to share the experience with Sasha.  This time, however, there was a surprise. 
            We arrived early, and it looked as though there would only be half a dozen visitors, when suddenly a vast group of young people with deep, dark bags under their eyes entered Independence Hall.  I whispered to Loren, “It’s got to be Birthright,” and it was.  All were from the USA with the exception of a couple of Viennese young adults, and when we questioned those around us, we learned that their experience in Israel continued daily to uplift them, but also that they were on the go from dawn ‘til dark.  We didn’t ask about their own partying habits. 
            I thought to myself, “This is Sasha’s Taglit.”  It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate moment.  Together we had walked the tunnels of the Western Wall, gotten lost in the Arab Shuk, gone to the Kotel, ambled through the streets of Jerusalem to Machaneh Yehudah public market, a market so huge it makes Jean Talon Market look like a sweet corn stand in St. Zotique.  We had visited Montefiore’s windmill and seen the early Zionist developments, then wandered through the massive and newly refurbished Israel Museum.  (The archeology wing was dedicated to Sam and Saidye Bronfman.)  We walked the steep hills of Ein Kerem and visited Hadassah Hospital, saw the Chagall Windows, and much more.  It was all wonderful, mostly father/daughter, so the time had come for Sasha to be with her generation, and there they were in Tel Aviv at Independence Hall, and in grand numbers.
            A guide stepped forward to speak, and for the next 1 hour and 15 minutes our attention was nailed to each word he spoke.  I want to convey to you the heart of his message and how he reached Sasha’s generation.
            The guide asked if anyone present had a cell phone.  Nearly every hand went up.  It’s the cellular generation, a generation in constant contact with each other by voice and by texting.  Of course, he said, from Hollywood movies, the whole world knows what number to call in North America when you need help.  What’s the number?  A chorus chanted,  9-1-1. 
            When you’re in trouble, he said, you know what to do.  You call 911.  Someone will immediately pick up the phone on the other end and help will be on its way.  An ambulance, police, fire trucks, whatever emergency need you have – 911 will reach a helping hand to get you out of trouble.  That’s the main reason we put cell phones in the hands of our children, so they can call us in an emergency, or if not us, 911.
            In 1948, Jews looked back upon the death camps and the destruction of the 6 million.  Jews looked out at DP camps across Europe.  They saw British troops blocking the way into Palestine for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who needed rescue.  They saw Arab lands cranking up their persecution of Jews after the 1947 UN resolution on Palestine creating two countries, one a Jewish state.  Those Jews who died in concentration camps, those Jews stuck in DP camps, those Jews being persecuted across the Arab world – what was their 911?  Upon whom could they call for help?
            What happened in that room in Tel Aviv, in Independence Hall, can be called the creation of the Jewish 911.  The resolution that the Jewish council passed in that hall did not create the State of Israel.  No.  Read Israel’s declaration of independence carefully  It created a Jewish state to be known as the State of Israel.  For the first time in 2000 years, there was a territorial nation in existence whose purpose was the maintenance and efflorescence of the Jewish people.
            For those outside Israel, this meant that for the first time in 2000 years, they at last had their own 911.  If you were in trouble, shried gevalt, cried for help, someone would, so to speak, pick up the phone at the other end of the line in Jerusalem, and help would be on its way.  That’s what happened in Meir Dizengoff’s old house on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv.  The Jewish 911 was born.  That’s the explanation that made the moment so clear and so compelling to the young people sitting in the room, and among them, Sasha Lerner.  That’s when we rose to sing Hatikvah and tears were in my eyes.  You, too, would have wept.  
            My tears were not simply from the joy of knowing that Israel exists, strong and free, but that my daughter and I shared an understanding about Israel despite the difference in our generations, and all thanks to our cell phones and 911 -- and thanks to a very wise Taglit guide. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

More Wondrous Than Petra

    There are eight wonders of the world.  With seven of them, you pay when you visit.  With one, you’ll pay if you don’t.  I learned this last Monday when we visited Petra in Jordan.
    Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, lies a kilometer or two west of the path by which Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land.  When you leave Eilat and enter Jordan, you’re walking in the footsteps of your ancestors.  Did they skirt the Wadi Rum, as we did, marveling at the jagged, low mountains and mesas that jut straight skyward from sand dunes?  Now Israelis love to camp there.  Did they thank God that the countryside is less dry than what they traversed in Sinai, or did they peer through mountain passes, craning to get a glimpse of their land, hoping that it was not as sere as it looked.  Today’s Jordan sits on an entirely different plate of the earth from Israel, so soil, climate, and scenery differ somewhat from Israel’s Arava.  It’s desert, yes, but more like Arizona than the Sahara. 
    After turning from the King’s Highway, a four-lane between Aqaba and Amman through territory peppered with Bedouin tents and villages, we head toward Petra.  In the distance on the left and overlooking Israel, a bright white spot tops a craggy, high peak.  The purported tomb of Aaron, Moses’ brother, stands blindingly white against the blue sky, and the mountain, Jebel Nebi Harun, Aaron’s mountain, Mt. Hor from the Torah.  Not all agree that Aaron died on this 4800 foot peak.  Nevertheless, I cannot tear my eyes from it, until at last it is out of sight.  Onward we press to Petra, the abandoned Nabateaean city made famous by Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
    Petra demands a long downhill walk through a canyon whose colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and beige, tell-tale signs of the minerals found there, streak through tall sandstone cliffs forming a narrow defile.  Along the way, too, are tombs and sculptures testifying to a civilization as fixated on trade as it was on the afterlife.  The narrow, twisting canyon surely qualifies as one of nature’s greatest wonders, the most magnificent city gateway in all the world, ancient or modern.  When at last the end is near, a few columns of “The Treasury,” Petra’s most famous facade, can be glimpsed, hinting at a greater human presence only meters away and beckoning the traveler from the cool canyon to the ancient city’s broad street and warm sun.
    Then you stand before it, The Treasury, so named because the Bedouins in the area were sure that treasure lay hidden somewhere within.  They searched for centuries, but found nothing.  In fact, The Treasury is a tomb, like all the great facades of Petra, tombs carved into the rock, with very little room behind them, for people did not live there.  Only the dead occupied the great “buildings” 2000 years ago.  More recently, Bedouins lived in the spaces, making a life in rooms the ancients had decreed fit only for corpses on their way to Paradise.  The ancient city of Petra, capital of the Nabataean world, existed on the flat places between the hillsides.  Little remains to behold of that life, but Petra retains the way they treated their honored dead, and The Treasury is the best of many such monuments.
    We walked, we climbed, we learned from our guide, we saw and photographed, and then we made the long upward march back to the site’s beginning.  “Why do they call this area ‘Wadi Musa’?” I asked the guide, who explained that locals deemed this the place where Moses had led the Israelites when, dying of thirst, they demanded water.  God told Moses to speak to a stone, and water would come forth for the people.  Moses, however, struck the rock with his staff.  Though water flowed forth nonetheless, God told Moses that he had disobeyed and condemned him never to set foot in the Promised Land.  Then the guide smiled.  “The rock and the fountain of water are here.  Remind me. I’ll take you there after lunch.”
       We ate quickly because we wanted to see the rock, see the water source, Ayn Musa.  A mere minute from our restaurant, the guide was parking his car in front of a small, three-domed structure open to all.  I crossed the street and stepped inside.  A rock that would fit just under a table for six stood above an oblong pool where water continuously gurgled from the earth.  Ayn Musa. 
    I touched the rock, put my hand in the water, considered the Torah traditions and history behind this place, then stood back and let others have their turn.  As Muslims pass in their vehicles, they stop for minute and do as I did.  Our guide said that despite recent drought-filled years, Ayn Musa was giving more water than ever.  “I think it’s a miracle,” he declared.
    I pondered that Moses moment.  Why did it cause God to withhold him from the Land of Israel?  Years before, Moses had struck a rock, and it gave water, but that was early in the Exodus, when he was leading a slave people who had known only the rule of force.  The new generation could not be threatened by a beating.  They were free people, and just as Moses was told to communicate with the rock, so he would have to communicate with the Israelites in order to lead them.  Striking the rock signified to God that, with only 100 miles to the Jericho crossing, Moses was not ever going to become the great communicator.  He led slaves well, but Moses could not lead a free people into the Land.  We, too, are generations that understand communication, reason, feeling, but not force.
    There was another lesson to be learned at that rock.  Petra means “rock.”  Ayn Musa is also a rock.  Petra is Nabataean rock, Roman, Byzantine and Crusader rocks.  Ayn Musa is a Jewish rock.  Loren and I saw Petra’s architecture, its beauty, its stunning canyon colors – one of the 7 wonders of the world.
    Rather do I commend to you the 8th wonder of the world, better than all the rest,  the wonder of a Jewish heart that finds a fountain of inspiration in its own history.  The Musa stone is in Jordan, but it’s Jewish.  The Musa water is in Jordan, but it’s Jewish.  The stone and the water are in a Muslim memorial, but it’s Jewish, too.  Moses, the stone, the water – they tell our story, bring us a step closer to Israel, testify to our God-given need to be free and to speak our truths.
    We paid a price to visit Petra, and it was worth it, though Petra is largely a monument to the dead.  Nearby, Ayn Musa touches the eighth wonder of the world, the living Jewish heart, which must revisit the message of Moses’ rock in every generation.  It calls us to renew Jewish life and leadership in our time, to grow as free people do, through heartfelt communication, not through force.  If we Jews do not speak our hearts to each other, there’s a price to pay: the cost is our future.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Day the Music Lived

    The day the music died - it may be a song you know from Rock'n'Roll days, but for a lot of us, the music died a year ago when Debbie Friedman, originator of contemporary Jewish music, passed away.  Saturday night, I listened to the forbidden sounds of Debbie Friedman and let my soul be rocketed upward. 
    You know Debbie Friedman's music, even if you don't think know you know it.  If you've ever been at services when we offered a "Mishebeirach for Healing" prayer, you sang Debbie's music.  If you ever attended our Shabbat Chanukah evening, you heard "Not By Might and Not By Power."  If you attended a bar or bat mitzvah at Temple or sang along to a modern Shehechiyanu,  you probably heard Debbie Friedman's compositions.  She influenced an entire generation of Jewish music and, I dare say, taught us rabbis some important lessons.
    Debbie died last year at the age of 59.  Saturday night, one year later, we marked her yahrtseit at Hebrew Union College on King David Street in Jerusalem with a Melaveh Malkah, a gathering to bid farewell to Shabbat entirely dedicated to Debbie Friedman's music.  Cantorial students and others formed a choir of voices, with guitars, drums, and piano, and the hundreds of people in attendance, of every age, but heavily weighted toward youth, all sang their hearts out.  The spirit in the synagogue was palpably inspiring and energetically uplifting.  There was laughter.  There were tears.  There were a few short reminiscences, including Debbie's own voice from a recorded interview.
    One of the MC's asked,"How many of you here can remember a special Debbie Friedman moment?"  I certainly could.  Debbie Friedman was from St. Paul, and it was at Mt. Zion Temple, where I was rabbi-ing, and in NoFTY, the Northern Federation of Temple Youth, that her star began to rise.  The Temple employed Debbie to help her get started after she returned from a long visit to Israel.  Her first album, the one that put her on the Reform Jewish charts, was partly recorded with the choir of the high school she had once attended.  Debbie sang  at my daughter Sasha's bat mitzvah 15 years ago.   For me, there were a lot of memories at that Melaveh Malkah: singing the music, sharing the yahrtseit with so many others, letting recollections flow. 
    Above all, there was the spirit of Jews united.  Her songs, largely settings of prayers, made us one as we reviewed through Debbie Friedman's music what we stand for, what we are all about.  And yet for some, her music is forbidden.  There are places where her inspiration cannot reach. 
    A few months ago, 9 "religious" Israeli soldiers walked out of an official army event because it included singing by some Israeli women.  As far as these soldiers are concerned, the voice of a woman is a forbidden temptation to lust.  They were booted out of the military school they were attending.  The Israeli in the street was infuriated at the 9, but Tsahal needs the participation of "religious"-oriented Jews.  It remains to be seen whether Tsahal can hold the line in the future.
    Of course, Debbie Friedman was a woman.  An entire segment of Israeli society will never listen to the exciting and very Jewish music that she wrote.  But wait, there's more.
    Last year, one person told a reporter, 'We're not even allowed to use any of Debbie Friedman's music in our congregation.  The rabbi forbids it because she's gay.'
    Yes, Debbie Friedman was gay, but for her, that was part of her private realm.  Her music, her life's work was not about gayness .  It was about inspiring Jews to love God and our tradition.
     Debbie herself said, "More than people need me to come out as a gay person, they need me to come out as a liturgist and a spiritualist. People are more uptight talking about God, more inhibited about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex.
    "That concerns me -- people's spiritual inhibitions. That is my agenda: that people's spiritual vocabulary is so limited, even as they're so spiritually hungry without knowing how to nourish themselves."
    Debbie Friedman was gay, but in respect to the musical inspiration she wanted to give - and did give to the Reform Movement, and through us to all Jewry -- being gay was irrelevant.  By force of her own talent, personality, and creativity, she did wonders.  Not only did she make it possible for contemporary rock and ballad music to become part of our liturgy, inspiring hundreds of other Jewish songwriters, but she filled gaps in our faith and practice.
    What Reform rabbi offered a prayer for healing until Debbie wrote her Mishebeirach?  She confronted the rabbis and taught us how to return a key spiritual dimension of caring to public Jewish worship.  When we read about the Israelites crossing the sea, we heard only Moses' song until Debbie noted that Miriam and all the women sang and danced, too, according to the Torah.  You should have seen them singing and dancing Saturday night when Miriam's Song was played.  It was Debbie, too, who helped finish off the service that was reserved for listeners only.  When Debbie sang and played her guitar, we all wanted to sing along, to clap, and to add our own fillips to the music. 
    So if we in the Reform Movement had said, "She's gay.  Her music is forbidden," how much poorer, how much less inspired, how much less committed we would all be as Jews.  Letting Debbie Friedman do her thing - and accepting and loving her as she gave us her gifts -- wrought the greatest change in Jewish worship music of the last 175 years.
    How great a change was it?  The Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music in New York City, our school that trains cantors for the Movement and for all Jews, was recently renamed "The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music" -- named after a woman.  Named after a gay woman.  Named not after a person who endowed it with cash, but after a gay woman who endowed her soul to God and the Jewish people and whose gift was ruach, soul-spirit.  We turn down such gifts at the peril of Jewish survival.  Accepting such gifts from any Jewish person - Ashkenazi, Sephardi, male, female, white, black, straight, gay - lifts us all towards the light of Judaism's greatest teachings.  
    Forbid me from having the inspiration of Debbie Friedman's music because she was a woman?  Or because she was gay?  Thank God, that's not Reform Judaism.
[Debbie Friedman's music: ]

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tapped Out On Shabbat

    Today, Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, terror struck deep into this Canadian’s heart, and into my wife’s, as well.  I know exactly when it happened.  At 8 in the morning I drew some drinking water from the tap, finished it off, and headed to the washroom for my daily ablutions.
    At 5 minutes after 8, I turned on the water, listened for its gushing sound, but heard nothing.  Nevertheless, I, pulled the button forward on the valve that redirects the water flow to the shower head.  Sure enough, there was nothing.  Not a drop.  I tried the sink.  A few drops flowed from the faucet, then gave out.  In the kitchen, same story.  No water. 
    Don’t panic, I told myself.  There must be a reason.  The city of Jerusalem must have had a water emergency and turned off the flow to the neighbourhood.  But wouldn’t they have warned us?  Not necessarily.  It’s Shabbat.  They would only do emergency work.  They’re not going to run around the German Colony warning each occupant that there’s no water. 
    Perhaps it’s a national emergency, an emergency so dire that it requires rationing to begin, even on Shabbat?  My brother-in-law told me that with only 33% of the rainy season remaining, Israel hasn’t had 50% of the normal rainfall.  Was our water shut-down a brave last-ditch attempt to ration water?  Couldn’t be.  This is Israel, so people and the newspapers would have discussed it endlessly for a month in advance.  I call my brother-in-law for advice.  He is not awake.  With tremulous voice, I leave a message begging for his wisdom.
    Loren is practical.  She goes to the internet, seeking the number for the waterworks, City of Jerusalem.  Quickly she googles it, clicks on the URL, and zip-zap, there it is, everything you wanted to know about water in Yerushalayim since 1000 BCE.  Everything, including the clearly stated emergency number, with a single disclaimer: the emergency telephone is closed on Shabbat.  That’s right, even if you had an emergency, on Shabbat, no help for you!  There's always the general emergency number, 103.  Of course, only Arabs will come to your aid on Shabbat.
    Ah, it occurs to me, the owner of the apartment didn’t pay the water bill, so they cut off the H2O.  But no, that makes no sense.  If the waterworks doesn’t labour on Shabbat, why would they cancel our water on  God’s holy Sabbath day?  Scratch that idea.
    Wait!  Recently a Lubavitcher rabbi in Tel Aviv’s black hat neighbourhood, B’nei B’rak, ruled that people living in units of a multiple dwelling are not, according to halacha, Jewish law, permitted to use the water tap on Shabbat.  Why?  Because the many apartments using water cause the pumping station’s electrically operated machinery to go to work, and that violates the Sabbath.  Jerusalemites pay more attention to halacha than any other Israeli citizens.  Have they made it impossible for us to use our tap water on the Sabbath, starting today?  Seemed far-fetched, but no more far-fetched than that rabbi’s decision.  At least my upset turned to laughter as I thought of it.   
    But now we are desperate, in fact, terrified to the core.  We come from a city, Montreal, where more water passes by our island ville every single day than Israel receives in an entire year.  We have so much water, we don’t even meter it.  For a Montrealer, having no water is an unimaginable emergency.  You’ll forgive my recounting the consequences, but first and foremost, the WC’s won’t flush, the showers won’t function, we’ll have only milk and Arak to drink – we finished off the Shabbat wine on Friday night, and we cannot even wash our hands before eating.  Panic..
    What to do?  Contact the landlady.  She’s not in her apartment, so I can’t go knock on her door.  She’s at the home of some family.  I have to call, but it’s Shabbat.  She’s Shomer Shabbat and won’t answer the phone until 3 stars are visible.  I decide to call anyway and leave a message.  Maybe she’ll hear the desperation in my voice, take pity, and answer the phone.  It rings and rings some more.  I’m told to leave a message, through which I explain our difficulty. 
     Loren comes up with a brilliant plan.  Let’s get dressed and go to the YMCA, that magnificently towered building directly across the street from the King David Hotel and only steps away from Hebrew Union College, my rabbinical school.  It’s a 15 minute walk; it’s open; we’re members; they have showers.  They have coffee.  Maybe we’ll be done in time for services, after which we’ll spend the day in the lounge at the Y reading, or walk to the Wall, then wander rootlessly about until nightfall, when we can reach our landlady.  It will be taxing, but we’re from Great White North, and Québec sait faire. 
    The telephone rings just as we begin to pack our necessities for the trip to the “Yimkeh.” A stranger’s voice speaks, “Did you call your landlady?” she asks.  “Yes, YES!”  I say.  The voice wants to know what the problem is.  I reiterate: no water.  The voice is a Shabbas Goy, a non-Jew doing this “work” of phoning me on the landlady’s behalf so she does not have to desecrate the Sabbath. 
    Voice to landlady, “No water.”  Landlady to Voice, yelling from across her room, not speaking into the phone, “Tell him to check the water inlet valve.  It’s on the street to the right of the entry gate, behind a metal door.  If that doesn’t work, go the neighbour around the corner, and she’ll help.”  Voice:: “Did you hear that?”  To the unknown holder of the telephone, I say thank you and hang up. 
    Outside, exactly where it is supposed to be, I find a large metal door that has been left open.  Behind it, the water valve to our apartment is marked and clearly facing the wrong direction.  Someone tampered with it by turning it off at 8:05 AM.  A prankster?  A “pushtak” (punk)?  A hater of Canadians, an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew?  There are 4 units in the building.  Why was ours selected?  Why us?  Ah, that great theological question, in our case, writ very small.
    Life returns to normal.  Water flows, showers spray, we are ready for services.  On the way, we notice one weakness of Jerusalem.  Nearly everyone’s water meter is out on the street, connected to a valve that anyone can turn at will, an invitation to trouble that would take millions of shekels to set aright.  I guess when you live in a country that requires every home to have a bomb shelter capable of shutting out toxic gases, the temporary loss of water supply at the hands of a pushtak hardly matters.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Israel: Checking It Out

    There’s a restaurant chain in the U.S. that declares, when you’re with us, you’re family.  That’s the way it is throughout Israel, and I can prove it.  How?  By taking you to any cash register check-out counter.
     How do we check-out in Canada?  Take Walmart for example: You stand in line with a huge shopping cart that separates you from anyone else, except maybe the person who’s at your side as the line doubles back on itself, and you hear a machine voice say, “Veuillez passer à la caisse trois.”  You greet caissier #3, who snaps your goods through the laser light, you pay your bill, and you’re on your way.  It’s fast; it’s efficient; it’s impersonal.
    Not so in Israel.  In Israel, standing at the cash is part of your human experience.
    Buying wine for Shabbat at the corner grocery, the cashier corrects the Hebrew of the customer.  Basic message: here we speak Hebrew. I should help you speak it correctly.
    Checking out at a major grocery chain, Supersol, the line crawls forward.  What’s happening?  An elderly man is bobbling the coins from the change purse that took him a good minute to open in the first place.  He has paid all but 32 cents of his bill.  The last 32 cents is taking 5 minutes.  The woman at the register waits patiently, chatting him up in kindly fashion until all the coins are assembled.
    The next customer is living on coupons similar to food stamps.  Customer and cashier converse while the special currency is counted out.  There must be requirements about how the coupons are used.  Paying with them takes more time than with cash or credit, and management approval is required for something.  The cashier steps away from her slot and scurries to the office.  Another 3 minutes are lost.  We wait.
    Arrayed next to the cashier are bargain items, 3 different products in multiples.  In Israel, you don’t just operate a cash.  You sell.  “Only 20 shekels this week” she says to each client of the store, lifting up some avocado oil.  “Or maybe you’d prefer a deal on napkins?”  “How do you use the avocado oil,” asks one, and the employee is happy to suggest several ways.  A few more minutes lost.  All this waiting, I think, for my chocolate bar and milk.  But it’s entertaining, and it’s human, and more often than not, the cashier is demonstrating a magnificent Jewish value, total respect for the elderly.
    Loren went shopping at Mega with our sister-in-law, Dorit Biran Deckelbaum.  The store is as large and well-stocked as any grocery in Montreal, but believe me, the check-out experience is different.  Both women chose magnificent strawberries featured upon entry, but notably, with no price attached.  At check-out, the woman at Loren's register commented, "The price of these strawberries is too high.  Do you really want to buy them?"  When my wife heard how much they were, she demurred.  Dorit, in her line, did not receive the same friendly advice and paid the high price.  She felt her clerk should have been as forthcoming as Loren's and was disappointed, not only because she actually knew her, but because she expects clerks to offer advice when price or quality should be questioned.
    One time there was a young visitor from North America in front of us.  She didn’t know anything about Israeli currency.  The cashier stopped the line and took the time to show her, coin by coin, how to identify the value of each part of a shekel, in itself worth about 30 Canadian cents.
    At Office Depot, we thought we could check out quickly, but we had to wait until the cashier put down her cell phone – family emergency, I’m sure, to help another customer whose teen-aged daughter was crying, weeping, sobbing bitterly that whatever her mother was buying her, it wasn’t what she wanted.  This time the cashier held her tongue, but neither did she say a word about others waiting to be served.  After a five minute temper tantrum, it was our turn.
    Try getting on the bus in Montreal without correct change.  You might as well get off at the next stop, or be thrown off.  Not in Israel.  The driver makes change, answers questions about local directions, helps people get transfer receipts into their hands, converses with them as they get on, all part of the reason why a 12 minute car ride to Hebrew University became a 40 minute bus ride through the very same streets. 
    Once I was paying for several people to ride the bus.  I didn’t have perfect change, but close, and more than enough.  I didn’t wait for change.  So the driver patiently made the 1 shekel and twenty grush change and gave it to another member of our party to give to me.
    I don’t wait in lines very patiently, but I’ve taken to observing the human theatre unfolding before me at Israel’s check-out counters, as well as seeing derekh eretz, Jewishly well-mannered behaviour, in action before my eyes. The Israeli check-out counter comes from another world, one where everyone knows each other, even if they don’t.  In Israel, with us, you’re family.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner