Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Extraordinary Bar Mitzvah in Germany, and Impressions of Prague

An Extraordinary Bar Mitzvah in Germany

Dear Friends,

I am in the midst of a brief but deeply moving and fascinating trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, and I want to share some of my experiences and observations with you all. This post is fairly long, so please take your time, and I hope you find it worthwhile.

The purpose of this 5-day jaunt to Europe was to officiate as Solomon Bloch, son of Gale Wolfe and Dr. Dean Bloch, became a Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat. Solomon chanted from the Torah in the restored synagogue in the picturesque village of Floss, Germany. Floss was the hometown of Solomon’s Opa (grandfather) David Bloch, of blessed memory. David became a Bar Mitzvah in that same synagogue in 1923. The last Bar Mitzvah to take place in that sanctuary was that of a Bloch cousin, Willy Ansbacher, in 1933. The synagogue, built in 1815 after the previous synagogue burned down, was ransacked and scorched on the night of November 9, 1938, when across Germany thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and schools were destroyed in a government-sponsored pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The Floss synagogue remained desolate until the official Jewish community of the wider region took on its restoration in the 1970’s and again just a few years ago. The synagogue is beautiful, with a high vaulted ceiling painted blue and covered with stars. The original, large granite stones that make up the floor guarantee cool temperatures. A museum display in the women’s balcony remembers the Jewish girls’ school that thrived nearby until the Holocaust. But the synagogue is mute – there are no longer any Jews to fill it. This past Shabbat Solomon became the first Bar Mitzvah in Floss in 78 years. There is much to tell, and with Solomon’s and his parents Dean and Gale’s permission, I will share some of this many-layered story with you now.

David Bloch was born in 1910 in Floss. His family had lived, worked and prayed in Floss for several generations. The Jews were restricted to the Jewish part of town up the hill from the river, while the Christian residents lived down by the river. By David’s time there were about 400 Jews in a town of perhaps a couple of thousand.

David Bloch’s life has an epic quality to it, both as a personal story and as a story emblematic of European Jewry’s desperate and chance–driven scramble to survive the Nazi era. Even after all the history and personal accounts that I have read and heard about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, it remains difficult for me to grasp the insane terror of that regime. David was a man of great resilience, physical strength, and love of life, qualities that would serve him well on his journeys. I am fortunate to have gotten to know him a bit during his last years, and I can attest that he always had a twinkle in his eye, even in very old age.

David lost his hearing in infancy, and his parents died shortly thereafter. His maternal grandparents raised David, but he spent much of his youth away at boarding schools for the deaf, where he learned to sign and to read lips. David was a gifted artist, and art was his calling. In 1938 David was rounded up and sent to Dachau. One night he had a dream that he was being released, and the next day he indeed was freed from the camp, thanks to the efforts of an older half-brother. But David was now one of the hunted, and just before the jaws of the Nazi machine closed the gates of Europe, David bundled up his canvases and paints and brushes and he ran. He didn’t have the money or the papers that could get him to the States, so he traveled overland down to Venice and grabbed the last boat to…China. Through the Suez Canal (during Passover, as he would later recall), around the horn of Africa, and finally to Shanghai, David escaped with his life.

Shanghai was (as it still is) a freewheeling, business oriented port city, and a Jewish community was well established there. As Jewish refugees from Europe began arriving in Shanghai, the Shanghai Jews assisted as many of them as possible. David settled in Shanghai, painting and etching, managing fairly well on $10 a month from his American cousin. At the deaf club in Shanghai David met Lily (of blessed memory), a stunning girl from a property-owning Chinese family. They married. But as the Communist revolution in China gained strength, David once again had to run. After a long, long wait for a visa, David sailed in 1949 for San Francisco, and six months later Lily managed to follow. They continued east and settled in Mount Vernon, New York, where Lily converted to Judaism. Dean and his brother Daniel (of blessed memory) were born and raised there.

In 1977, after 40 years away, David decided to journey back to Floss. In Floss an old Christian acquaintance recognized David, astonished to see him alive. That acquaintance was the uncle of the daughter that David did not know he had. It turns out that when David was forced to begin his life on the run, he left behind in Floss a Christian girlfriend who was carrying his child. This woman gave birth in 1938 to Lydia, David’s daughter. According to the notorious Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935, Lydia had Jewish blood and was therefore Jewish. Desperate to conceal Lydia’s Jewish heritage, her mother hastily married a German Christian, and gave Lydia his last name. But Lydia had always wondered about her actual father. By 1977 Lydia’s parents were both gone, and when her uncle told her that David Bloch was alive, Lydia knew that she must meet him. And so it was in 1985 that Dean found himself sitting at the kitchen table in Mount Vernon across from Lydia Abel, who explained to him that she was the sister he never knew he had. Lydia met her father David when she was 50 and he was 75, and David welcomed her, as was his nature. David and Dean and Dean’s family subsequently made many trips to Germany to visit their new found family, Lydia, her husband Willy, their son Rainer and his four children. These trips included a number of visits to Floss, where David would show his childhood haunts. When David passed away in 2002, Lydia, a committed Christian, moved bureaucratic mountains so that a stone could be placed for him next to his parents and grandparents in the old and jumbled Jewish cemetery in Floss.

A couple of years ago, Dean suggested to Solomon that perhaps Solomon could have his Bar Mitzvah in Floss. Solomon was game. Thanks to Dean and Gale and especially cousin Rainer’s persistence in making arrangements all of our paths converged in Germany this past week.

I landed in Nuremberg on Friday, where Lydia lives. My overwhelming associations with Nuremberg are related to the Third Reich. Nuremberg was the city selected by Hitler for enormous annual nationwide rallies of the Nazi Party; Der Sturmer, the most hateful and damaging anti-Semitic newspaper, was published in Nuremberg as the organ of the Nazi party beginning in 1923; The infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws that I mentioned above made into law the pseudo-scientific concept of German “blood”, and thereby stripped Jews (and other groups) of their German citizenship and all legal rights; and of course the Nuremberg Trials, at which the Allies tried many of the Nazi leaders after the war. The Americans insisted on Nuremberg as the site for the trials because of Nuremberg’s notorious importance in Nazi party history. (And those trials set the precedent for the expectation that any national leader can be tried for crimes against humanity.)

So, I landed in Nuremberg filled with these gruesome thoughts, and forced myself back into the present, to see what I might see. I have found in my recent trips to Germany and Austria that this internal wrestle between the past and the present is both unavoidable and necessary for me, and I am learning a great deal as I travel. Dean met me at the airport and we took a quick metro ride to meet Lydia and Willy at their simple home, along with Rainer and his twins Jan and Tim. Jan and Tim were immersed in iPads and ice cream cones with their Bloch cousins Simon, Sid, Solomon and Sadie. We piled into vans and cars and drove to Weiden, a town near Floss, which had the nearest hotel. Weiden is in the heart of Bavaria and has a well-preserved, lively and incredibly picturesque medieval city center. Beer, bread and meat appear to be the staple of the Bavarian diet. We enjoyed our evening there, and in the morning we made the short drive to Floss.

The Burgermeister (mayor) of Floss met us in front of the synagogue. A burly, friendly man, born and raised in Floss, he was tremendously proud of his village. As the keeper of the synagogue key, he let us in, and we quietly took in the beautiful sanctuary. Everything in this 200 year old building is intact and in excellent repair, but there is of course no Torah scroll in the ark. I had brought a miniature Torah with me in my suitcase, which, though not “kosher”, would have to suffice. I had prepared a short service on photocopies which I distributed to the assembled: the Blochs, their cousins the Abels, Steve Bock and his daughter Isabel, who had taken this journey with the Bloch family, the Burgermeister and his wife, and several other townspeople in attendance. Rainer translated my explanations of the service into German so that everyone could participate. We were short of a minyan, but I decided to bend the rules, given that we had made it this far. And then I sang. The acoustics of the room were magnificent. I had no idea how long it had been since Hebrew chant and davenning had filled that space, so I lifted my voice to the heavens and made certain to let the sounds ring and linger. Solomon chanted the beginning of Devarim, Deuteronomy, from the little scroll: “When you sit in judgment, hear out every person fairly, whether they be rich or poor, Israelite or stranger…” These were good words from Moses to fill the void that the Nazis created when they murdered and expelled the Jews from Floss and the rest of Europe. We recited kaddish in memory of all the Jews of Floss who were murdered during the Shoah (Holocaust), and then I concluded the service with two songs: “Gesher Tzar Meod” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and it is essential not to be stopped by fear” – and “Ani Maamin” – “I believe with all my heart that an era of peace and justice will come, and even if that time is delayed, I still believe”. As you may know, many Jews sang that declaration of faith even as they walked to the gas chambers. One might say that to be a Jew is to still believe, despite everything, that humanity can rise up to its highest potential.

The Burgermeister and his wife seemed deeply and genuinely moved by the ceremony, and I embraced them both. The Burgermeister then led us to the Rathaus, the Town Hall, where he spoke with pride about his town, about Floss’ huge investment in photovoltaic solar panels and wind generators. He presented a specially minted silver coin to Solomon, along with a brief testimonial. And then he showed us a very large, gorgeous, panoramic painting of Floss hanging on the wall, and directed us to the signature: David Ludwig Bloch, 1976. Dean and Gale had never seen this painting, did not even know of its existence, even though it had been hanging in the Floss city hall for more than 30 years. Lydia excitedly explained: her father David had begun this canvas while still living in Floss in the 1930’s. He had rolled it up and carried it with him to Venice, to Shanghai, to San Francisco and to New York. Somehow David Bloch hung on to that canvas. He only completed it in 1976, and when he first returned to Floss, he presented it to the town. It has hung in the Town Hall ever since. That canvas of David Bloch’s hometown had literally traveled around the world with him, as he sought a home. Now his children and grandchildren, all standing together, had seen it, and another journey was complete.

For our final stop, the Burgermeister led us to the unused Jewish cemetery, more than 400 old gravestones climbing a steep slope. We scrambled up to the very top row, where we found David Bloch’s small marker. Near it stood the grave of Simon Bloch, David Bloch’s father, for whom Gale and Dean’s first-born Simon is named. I honor Dean and Gale for their huge commitment and effort to connect their children with their Jewish past. I don’t know who the next person will be to visit that cemetery, or when, but we left stones on the graves to say, “we were here”. And that means the world to me: even though a huge swath of our people and our culture was obliterated, we Jews are still here to remember our dead and honor their lives. We are still here, filling that old synagogue with life. We Jews are still here.

Impressions of Prague

Prague is just a 2-hour drive from Floss, which lies near the Czech border, and I accompanied the Blochs and the Bocks for a couple of days of exploring this vibrant city. Prague is a wonder. As I begin this piece, it is early evening and I am sitting on an island in the middle of the Vltava River, looking out at the splendid, bustling city of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. I have spent the day wandering through the city, taking in as many sights as I was able: the Prague Castle with its colossal St. Vitus cathedral, the Strahus Monastery with its 800 year old library; Petrin Park, a hilltop park created for the 1891 world exposition, replete with an Eiffel-esque tower, a house of mirrors, families strolling the paths and young lovers embracing on the lawns; the enormous medieval “astronomical clock” in the old main square, with its mechanical whirring figures and bells and crowing rooster all announcing the hour. Just now a rain shower has sent me under a café umbrella, where I seek refuge with other strollers. The sounds of a band playing Beatles’ covers on the far riverbank float past my ears. Around me spreads a cityscape covering the past millennium: castles and cathedrals, footbridges lined with baroque statues, spires and impossibly steep towers topped with flags, cobblestoned squares, and the “New Town”: grand 19th century Parisian streets and buildings punctuated by the curving façade of a Frank Gehry creation, all mingling in a glorious architectural cacophony.

My fundamental “American-ness” is showing: my only reference points for this sight are Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom and, more recently, Harry Potter movies. But Prague is not a theme park or a movie set; Prague is real. Somehow this great European city has survived fundamentally intact for 1,000 years, all the more remarkable after the massive destruction of two World Wars and then 40 years of Communist neglect. I understand that when Czech students toppled the Communist regime with their “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, Prague was in a state of terrible disrepair. But the coming of freedom unleashed a torrent of energy to repair and remake this amazing city, and today Prague stands clean and functioning and proud, catering to masses of tourists, young people and artists from all over the world who fill her streets and squares with energy day and night. How magnificent that Prague has survived.

Because Prague survived, its ancient Jewish Quarter survived as well, and this makes Prague a unique repository of European Jewish history. The survival of the Jewish Quarter is perverse: even though Hitler eliminated the Jews of Prague, whose history in this city also dates back 1,000 years, he apparently planned to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a museum, depicting the “History of The Extinct Jewish Race”. Jewish ceremonial objects that had been confiscated from all over Czechoslovakia were catalogued and stored in the now vacant synagogues, and thus survived the war. The Communist regime that followed certainly was not interested in highlighting the history of the Jews, but since 1989 the remaining Jews of the Czech Republic, with local and international help, have poured their resources into restoring the history and the architecture of the famed Jewish Quarter of Prague. The quarter is now a truly unique extended museum of Jewish history and life. Here one encounters the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Altneushul, in continual use since the 13th century. One walks through the Jewish cemetery, an impossible jumble of gravestones (it must be seen to be fully appreciated) where Jews were buried for centuries. Here one encounters the traces of the 16th century Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, leader of the Jewish community and reputed creator of the Golem, the clay creature brought to life by the Maharal’s esoteric wisdom, who is said to have protected the Jews of Prague. And here one walks in the footsteps of Franz Kafka, who spent most of his life in this Jewish Quarter, and is emblematic of the great intellectual and artistic impact the Czech Jews had during the late 19th and early 20th century heyday of Prague as the European center of the avant-garde. The Pinkas synagogue now stands as a memorial to the Czech Jewish victims of the Holocaust; the synagogue walls are everywhere covered with names, the names of every victim who has been identified. Upstairs in the Pinkas Synagogue is a heart-wrenching exhibit of the artwork of Jewish children made during their stay in Terezin. Terezin (also called Terezienstadt) was the “model” concentration camp near Prague that the Nazis created in order to show foreign visitors that the Jews were being treated well in captivity and were permitted to engage in educational and cultural pursuits. Most of the Jews of Czechoslovakia passed through Terezin on the way to their deaths. The Spanish synagogue and the Maisel synagogue are now museums of the history of the Jews of the region, from the 10th century to the present. The communal funeral building depicts in wonderful detail the work of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society that cared for the dead and maintained the cemetery through the centuries.

My visit was powerful, enlightening, and very moving – the Jewish Quarter is a treasure. Just as I felt in Floss, however, there is everywhere the deep sense of absence: the Jewish community being remembered is gone, destroyed. What can we say? Words simply cannot encompass the tragedy. But the act of remembering these Jewish communities is an act of survival and healing. As we Jews refuse to sacrifice our past to the monstrous forces of obliteration, we retain the threads of connection that keep our culture alive. I cherish the Jewish commitment to remembering and passing on our story. Ever since the Torah commanded us, “And when your child asks you, ‘what is the meaning of this Passover ritual’, you shall tell them how we were rescued from slavery in Egypt”, we Jews have been committed to transmitting our collective memory from generation to generation. This commitment can be obsessive at times, and a burden as well, but it is our affirmation of the life of our people, a life that is worth preserving and passing on.

Because of that stubborn commitment of ours, the Jewish Quarter of Prague that Hitler intended to be a museum of the “History of The Extinct Jewish Race” is instead our museum, a museum of the living memories of the Jewish People. I hope each of you has the opportunity to visit one day.

Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On the Egyptian Uprising

(This piece appeared in the Woodstock Jewish Congregation newsletter last month. It is therefore dated, but still relevant. -JK)

Dear Friends,

As I write these words in early February there is one story dominating the airwaves around the world. The people of Egypt have risen up against their authoritarian government. The situation changes every day, and I am certain that by the time you read these words many more dramatic changes will have taken place in Egypt and around North Africa and the Middle East. I am amazed by the power of the Internet and satellite television and cell phones to circumvent centralized control of information and to galvanize popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes. In certain ways the “information age” in which we live is truly revolutionary, and it is still only in its infancy.

From the Jewish perspective, there are two subjects, one political and one religious, which I wish to raise in relation to the current tumult in Egypt. The political issue, of course, is what impact these sweeping changes in the Arab world will have on Israel. Israel has maintained a peace agreement, however lukewarm that agreement might be, with Egypt since the Camp David Accords of 1978. That means that for the past 30 years Israel has done business with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s de facto dictator. Mubarak has maintained control of Egypt by running a police state and by brutally suppressing dissent, and Egyptians cannot wait to see him go. Now that Mubarak is or will soon be gone, who will emerge as the new leadership in Egypt and what form of government will they espouse? Will this new leadership choose to continue the current relationship with Israel? As part of the backlash in Egypt against Mubarak, Israel may very likely find itself demonized even further in Egypt than it is today. And how might this wave of popular uprisings across the Arab world affect international recognition for Palestinian national aspirations? I wonder if we will see a continuing acceleration of nations recognizing Palestine as a sovereign nation. Is their any way for Israel to be diplomatically nimble enough to ride this tidal wave of change in the region, or should Israel only brace itself as it waits for the worst? I wish I knew. (And if I did know, I wish everyone would listen to me!)

The Jewish religious perspective directs us toward Passover, coming soon, and to the story of Pharaoh’s unwillingness to free his slaves. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “This story is not just an antiquarian tale. It is an archetypal vision of what happens, again and again, when top-down tyranny becomes addicted to its own power, at first unwilling and then unable to change.” Our archetypal liberation struggle is set in ancient Egypt, but its actual setting is wherever power is abused. Ironically, the President of modern-day Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is now in the spotlight as the Pharaoh of the moment. Rabbi Waskow continues, “We have seen hundreds of thousands of Egyptians face down their own modern Pharaoh - dictatorial, repressive, and corrupt.” At Passover each year we reaffirm our ancient faith that tyranny will ultimately crumble, and that repression of the human spirit will always ultimately be overturned.

Israel is also party to repression, as it seeks to control the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation. Israel is also guilty of Pharaoh-like behavior. Of course, Israel has real and dangerous enemies, and, as they say, lives in a very bad neighborhood. But as Passover approaches, we Jews are asked to wrestle with the moral implications of the abuse of power, including our own complicity. As Jews, politics is both a strategic and a moral enterprise, and we must never lose sight of those twin goals. Otherwise, if the story of Passover is correct, and I believe it is, we may find ourselves one day staring as uncomprehendingly as Pharaoh at the ruins of our once great endeavors. I pray for the individual and collective wisdom to balance strategic security and moral purpose, so that we can ultimately always side with the cause of human dignity and freedom.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Final Miracle in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv from Jaffa (Photo by Steve Pittelman)

Dear Friends,

Tel Aviv was the final stop on our tour. During the morning we visited the Jaffa Institute, an impressive non-profit organization that does its best to support at-risk youth, and poor and underserved populations in the greater Tel Aviv area. The Jaffa Institute’s spokesman was Mitch Chupak, a lovely man who, even though he has been an Israeli for almost 40 years, has a Bronx accent so pronounced that some expert could probably identify which block in the Bronx Mitch grew up on. We helped out by moving cartons of food that they were preparing for distribution to needy families.

We then enjoyed a lunch break in Jaffa. This ancient port commands a view northwards up the Mediterranean coast, taking in the sprawl and ever-heightening skyline of metropolitan Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009; it was founded by Jewish pioneers who wanted to move out of the confines of Old Jaffa. There is a famous photograph of these founders standing on the sand dunes of their future city as they choose building plots by lottery. Today a metropolis covers every trace of those dunes.

Our next stop was Independence Hall. Israel’s Independence Hall occupies the former home of Meir Dizengoff, one of those founders standing in that 1909 photograph. Dizengoff was the first mayor of Tel Aviv. After his retirement, he donated his home to be the first art museum in this young city. On May 14, 1948, the art gallery was hastily transformed into a meeting hall. Standing at the podium that day, David Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the State of Israel. The Declaration of Independence was then signed in that room, which henceforth was known as Independence Hall. The museum guide set the stage for us, and we listened to the famous tape recording of David Ben-Gurion’s declaration, and then we all stood and sang with the scratchy recording of the assembly singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem: “We have not lost our hope, our hope of 2000 years, to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” And despite all of the problems and dangers and uncertainties, here we are.

It was time for dinner before heading to the airport, but first we had an unplanned detour. One of our first-time Israel travelers, Kay Marmorek, knew that she had a prominent Zionist ancestor named Alexander Marmorek, who had a street named after him in Tel Aviv. We all agreed that we needed to find Marmorek Street so that Kay could get a photo of herself standing under the street sign. Marmorek Street, it turns out, is a major thoroughfare. Dudu found the first place where he could pull over without blocking traffic, and Kay grabbed Steve Pittelman and asked him to take her photo. They hopped off the bus. A minute later they climbed back on the bus…with Luke Brenowitz! Luke Brenowitz is the older son of Nathan Brenowitz and Laurie Schwartz, the founders of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Luke was the impetus for the founding of the WJC – his parents wanted a place in Woodstock where he could become Bar Mitzvah. Nathan and Laurie succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in imparting a Jewish identity to Luke. Luke recently finished his Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, and is moving back to New York soon.

So, the miracle: out of every street in Tel Aviv, we were looking for Marmorek Street. Out of the full length of Marmorek Street, we pulled over in front of the café in which Luke was sitting. Out of the 30 people on the bus that Kay could have chosen, Luke would have recognized only 3, Steve and Elise Pittelman and myself. Kay chose Steve, who is a founding member of the congregation, and whom Luke has known his whole life. When Luke climbed on the bus, I hugged him and didn’t want to let him go. He felt to me like our lucky talisman, the embodiment of why the WJC came into being, fulfilled now on a street corner in Tel Aviv. As the Kabbalah teaches, everything is imbued with purpose; life is an unfolding tapestry, and each of our lives is a purposeful thread in the pattern. On Marmorek Street that evening we were graced with a glimpse of the Mystery that weaves our lives together. In that moment, at the culmination of our journey, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and the Land of Israel twined together and our hearts were entwined as well.

Wishing you all miraculous moments,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

Around the Galilee: It's Complicated...

Israeli soldiers thanking Faye "Toots" Pittelman, 94, for her many years supporting Israel (photo by Steve Pittelman)

Dudu

On our Israel tours a bus driver is assigned to us for the entire trip. Our driver this time was Dudu. Dudu was a tall, handsome and well-groomed man from a family of Kurdish Jews. Dudu possessed breathtaking skill at maneuvering a full-sized bus through streets that had never been intended for cars, let alone busses. What Dudu didn’t possess was the ability to ever acknowledge when he made a wrong turn or didn’t know where he was going. Dudu was one macho Israeli dude. The bus driver and the guide work as a team, and Aliza had her hands full with Dudu, but Aliza was tough. Since I sit in the front of the bus, I enjoyed listening to their spirited banter, glad that arguing with Dudu was not my job. Dudu was really tested as we climbed into the small mountaintop city of Ts’fat (Safed). Somehow he backed the bus up the winding alley to our hotel, and we settled in for the night.

Ts’fat: Painful Contradictions

The next morning, we wandered the alleyways of Ts’fat on foot. We began our day visiting the studio of Avraham Loewenthal, an artist originally from Detroit whose spiritual seeking led him to this holy Jewish city some years ago. Avraham is a sweet soul who is part of the community of artists and seekers that give Ts’fat its bohemian air – like Woodstock in certain ways, but where the spiritual tradition is Kabbalah, and where 400-year-old synagogues are named for the spiritual masters who once communed with the Infinite within their sanctuaries and out in the fields below the town. Avraham gave an excellent thumbnail introduction to Kabbalah: Kabbalah is the level of Judaism that sees Divine purpose in everyone and everything. From the limited perspective of each of our individual lives, this Divine purpose is mostly not apparent. But with practice we can become more adept at imagining and trusting the Divine perspective, and from that broadest (or deepest or most elevated) perspective, there is only God, animating reality at every moment. The faith and conviction of Jewish mysticism is that the infinite energy of Creation is love; God is a God of love. An inspiring piece of Avraham’s artwork will soon be hanging in our sanctuary. I’m really looking forward to having a bit of Ts’fat energy in our own synagogue.

Or am I? In addition to being a wellspring for the best of our religion, Ts’fat is also currently in the news as a source of the worst that Judaism has to offer. Ts’fat is home to the Ts’fat Academic College, a fast-growing regional college in the Galilee. The population of the Galilee is fairly evenly divided between Jewish and Arab citizens, and many Israeli Arabs travel from their villages to Ts’fat and enroll in the college, which boasts a very mixed student body. There is very little student housing at the college, so students look for apartments to rent. Recently Eli Tzvielli, an elderly Jewish man, rented a part of his house to three young Arab students. The chief rabbi of Ts’fat, Shmuel Eliyahu, happens to be Eli Tzvielli’s neighbor. In early December Rabbi Eliyahu published a religious ruling prohibiting the renting or selling of property to Arabs. His call was rapidly picked up by 47 other municipal chief rabbis who issued similar edicts in their small towns and suburbs around Israel. Not surprisingly, the religious rulings were justified by predictable expressions of racism, such as Arab men posing a “danger” to Jewish women. (Compare this, for example, to the rationale for the Jim Crow laws in the American South.) Israeli government officials’ response to this sickening course of events was tepid at best, and this lack of response predictably gave the green light for incidents of violence against Israeli Arabs around Israel, including in Ts’fat. In an encouraging response, more than 750 rabbis signed a petition circulated by Rabbis against Religious Discrimination that condemns the religious ruling. However, the ugly face of fear and racism in Israel had revealed itself, initiated from the traditionally holy city of Ts’fat. So which will it be: is our God a God of love or a God of hate? I know that it is up to us, not God, to answer that question.

On the Lebanese Border

Later that day we rode up to Kibbutz Malkiya, which hugs the hilly border with Lebanon. This is one of those scenes that will be difficult to convey in words, and why a visit to Israel is so worthwhile. The winter is quite chilly in these highlands. The fruit orchards and forested slopes of Kibbutz Malkiya extend right up to the border fence. In stark contrast the Lebanese side of the fence is a wide-open landscape, crosshatched with dormant opium fields. The drug trade is extremely strong in this weak and beleaguered country. The income from the cash crop of opium funds the various militias that vie for power in Lebanon. Among these groups is the Hezbollah, meaning the Party of God, who are sworn enemies of Israel. While the UN is theoretically in charge of the Lebanese territory adjacent to the border with Israel, the Hezbollah continues to arm itself with missiles in this region. Our group surveys the scene from next to an army pillbox that sits on a rise, from which we can see most of northern Israel, as well as a modest distance into southern Lebanon. We stand in full view of a concrete watchtower on the facing hilltop in Lebanon; the border is quiet these days, but always tense*.

We are here to meet some young Israeli soldiers who patrol the border. They roar up in their armored Humvees and are proud and eager to give us a demonstration. Removing their ammunition clips from their rifles, the soldiers act out an “action”, running, taking cover, and “firing” on the enemy. The entire scene makes me immediately queasy. I have never served in the army or even handled a rifle, and my entire life has been lived outside of any conflict zone. If I am to be honest with myself, I don’t even want to see this. Of course I understand and fully support Israel’s need for these boys to be ready to fight, and furthermore, we came to Israel to learn about the entire picture here, not just the feel-good moments. But that does not change my emotional reaction to the war game I just witnessed.

Fortunately, we now get to meet the unit. And fortunately, we have in our group our ambassador of good will, Faye Pittelman. Faye is 94, and is known to all as Toots. Toots is the oldest person I have ever traveled with, and the most consistently upbeat person I have ever met. Toots has no ambivalence about praising these soldiers. She thanks them eloquently, and they hug and kiss her. Toots explains that she has been working for the upbuilding of Eretz Yisrael for 80 years. 80 years! And now she sees her dream of a Jewish homeland realized, and she has brought her son Steve and daughter-in-law Elise, and her great granddaughter Rachel to see the dream come true. I say a prayer: Thank God for Toots.

I ask the soldiers to introduce themselves, and tell us from which countries their families originated: Latvia, France, Morocco, Kurdistan, Russia, Iraq… Israel truly is an ingathering of the exiles. There is also a Druze in the group. The Druze are a sect of Arabs who live in the region and practice their own religion. Druze who live in Israel regularly choose to serve in the armed forces. We then get to deliver our gifts, great quantities of chocolate and junk food, along with gloves and hats and t-shirts that our travelers had prepared for the soldiers. As night falls we are all mingling animatedly; I especially note the interest being paid by the soldiers to our wonderful contingent of teenage girls. Some things will never change.

*Lebanon’s recent history is extremely complex; just this week Hezbollah ministers abandoned the shaky governing coalition and brought down the Lebanese government. Israel has played a major role in some of Lebanon’s upheavals. It would require a detailed essay even to begin to do justice to the subject of Lebanon and Israel, and so I have chosen not to address the topic in this essay.

Masada

Sunrise prayers on Masada (Photo by Steve Pittelman)

Dear Friends,

Wow. I am traveling with such a beautiful group of people, and we are having an extraordinary time together, even life changing for some of the participants. I hope some of you (all of you!) reading this missive will be able to join me on a future trip to Israel. I will describe some more of our experiences for you.

Yesterday was an exquisite marathon. We arose long before sunrise and rode the bus to the base of Masada. Masada is a flat-topped mountain on the edge of the Judean wilderness that overlooks the Dead Sea. The mighty and tyrannical King Herod built a magnificent desert refuge for himself on Masada (which means “fortress”) sometime towards the very end of the 1st century B.C.E. In the year 70 C.E. about 900 Jews from Jerusalem took refuge there. They were fleeing Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Roman armies as they smashed the Jewish revolt. The fighters and refugees on Masada were the last holdouts in the revolt against Roma, and a Roman legion besieged the mountain for three years before finally breaching its defenses. According to the contemporaneous account of the writer Josephus, when the Romans gained the mountaintop they found that the Jewish zealots had committed mass suicide rather than have themselves and their children slaughtered or forced into slavery. The story of Masada was made famous by Yigal Yadin’s famous archaeological excavation in the early 1960’s. Because Masada is so inaccessible, and its climate so dry, much remained untouched from 2000 years ago, waiting to be discovered and reconstructed. Frescoes and bathhouses, massive water cisterns and grain storehouses, coins, weapons and written scrolls and clay shards all told a story that could be aligned with Josephus’ ancient account. Masada became a potent symbol for the young nation of Israel: never again would the Jewish People allow a Holocaust to be perpetrated against them. The Jewish People would fight.

We climbed to the top of a citadel and watched the sky brighten. At that early hour we had the place to ourselves, except for the fearless birds looking for crumbs of food. (I remember a few years ago on Masada one of those birds actually took a sandwich out of one of our traveler’s hands and flew off with it!) The view is spectacular: sandstone canyons all around, the Dead Sea below us, and beyond the water the mountains of Jordan. We did our Shacharit service at its intended time of dawn, and just as we completed the Shma Yisrael the sun burst forth on the eastern horizon. We watched in joy and awe, and each whispered his or her silent prayers.

By now, more groups had ascended, especially Bar and Bat Mitzvah groups. There is an ancient synagogue on Masada that has been partially reconstructed but left uncovered in this rain-free environment. Many families, especially from the United States, make the arduous trip to Israel and then to this desert fortress so that their child can be called up to the Torah on this site. We heard the sweet voices of 13 year olds chanting as our masterful guide Aliza guided us around the ruins. As we pondered the mass martyrdom of the Jews in the year 73 C.E., we reflected on the essential question of how the Jewish people have survived over the millennia. How do we decide when it is time to fight to the death, and when it is time to accommodate, to flee, to bend our heads and capitulate? We prayed for ourselves and for Israel to have the wisdom to be able to discern when it is time to swim against the current, and when it is time to let the current take us.

We descended Masada and visited the ancient oasis of Ein Gedi, a canyon of incredible beauty where fresh water springs bound down waterfalls and pools on their way to the Dead Sea. Then, of course, it was time to take a float in the Dead Sea. By now we were exhausted, and many slept as the bus took us all the way north to the mountaintop town of Tzfat.

Today we toured the Northern Galilee. Instead of sandstone canyons and salt seas, the mountains are rolling and green and the fresh water Sea of Galilee can be seen far below. Tzfat is one the most important centers of Jewish spiritual teachings in the world. In the 16th century Jewish refugees who had been forced out of Spain by the Inquisition made their way to this town, as they spread out through the Ottoman Empire. The great spiritual master Rabbi Isaac Luria settled in Tzfat and a circle of disciples gathered around him. Here Kabbalah blossomed, and Isaac Luria’s mystical teachings and practices spread throughout the Jewish world. Here Rabbi Joseph Karo composed the Shulchan Aruch, the guide to Jewish conduct that has ever since been the standard for traditional Jewish practice. The stones of Tzfat hold their energy.

Of course there is much more to report, but my free time is very limited on this exciting and packed trip. I want to tell you about our moving and complicated visit with young Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border, but that will have to wait for my next little window of time. Until then, I send you all my very best,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

Heading South

"Dig For a Day" (Photo by Steve Pittelman)

Dear Friends,

I write this evening from my hotel room in the desert town of Arad. We will be rising at 4:15 in the morning tomorrow in order to ride the bus down to Masada, and plan to climb to the top in time to witness the sunrise.

This has been a magnificent and moving trip thus far. Our guide Aliza Avshalom is thoughtful, sensitive, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of both the ancient and the modern history of the region. Each of the participants in our group is having his or her own unique and profound experiences, and it is very moving to listen to them. We spent our first 4 days in Jerusalem, getting a crash course in the history and politics of that incomparable city. I will attempt to write more soon, but because I must get some sleep tonight I’ll just give an account of today’s activities.

We began with a briefing by an Israeli expert on security issues in the region. (At this late hour his name escapes me.) His report was grim: Iran’s growing influence and nuclear capabilities represent an existential threat to Israel, while the United States diminished influence in the region also contributes to growing instability. His assessment of the tribal and grudge-based politics of the Middle East rang true. He recommended that anyone interested in understanding the behind-the-scenes machinations of international relations in the Middle East read the Wikileaks documents pertaining to the Middle East.

By and large I trusted his assessment and agreed with most of it. The problem was that many of us felt bullied by his manner of presentation, and we felt frustrated by the lack of time for the promised question and answer period. We climbed onto the bus with a bad taste in our mouths, but to this group’s credit we discussed our thoughts and feelings on the bus in a measured and honest way, and were able to turn both our positive and negative reactions into good grist for the mill we are turning to process our experience of Israel.

The next stop provided the perfect antidote to the heaviness of the morning. We arrived at Bet Guvrin National Park, and participated in Dig For A Day, an opportunity to participate in an ongoing archaeological dig. Our guide was a young man who may be missing his calling as a stand-up comedian. We followed him down into one of the large, manmade limestone caves of this area, caves that are filled with artifacts from Tel Maresha, a large city that once flourished in the 2nd century. Everyone received buckets and digging tools, and we began sifting the earth for treasures. The best finds were two beautifully glazed pieces of pottery that fit together, revealing a delicate handle of what once was a decorative bowl.

Our guide shared with us the greatest find yet made by one of their volunteer diggers. An inscribed stone tablet was uncovered that contains names that can be corroborated from the ancient Book of Maccabees: Antiochus IV and his tax collector Heliodes. This is the first external corroboration we have of the story of Chanukah, history brought to life by a volunteer digging in the dirt! As we left we were invited to grab a few pottery shards from a pile that were not of use to the archaeologists, and our guide suggested that next Chanukah we place these shards by our lighted menorahs and remember that we ourselves had dug up relics from the time of the Maccabees.

Following lunch we headed for our final activity of the day, a Bedouin “ranch” called Kfar Hanokdim. I have been here with WJC groups several times, including one memorable sleepover that doesn’t count as sleepover, since no one managed to sleep in the dusty, hot and well-lit tent in which we were supposed to spend the night. So this evening we only participated in the camel rides and Bedouin presentation and dinner, and then repaired to our comfy hotel. Our host was a Bedouin man with a Masters degree in ethnomusicology – not the “primitive” you might expect. I was particularly struck by our host’s description of traditional Bedouin life. They maintained wells that they dug throughout their very arid grazing territories, and they prize hospitality as a chief trait of their culture. They might as well have been describing the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca. Abraham runs out to greet his visitors during the heat of day; Isaac digs anew the wells his father had dug, and Isaac’s shepherds get into disputes with neighboring clans over water rights. Truly, many of the customs of these indigenous shepherding nomads have not changed for thousand of years. Only now, with the advent of border fences, oil wells, and burgeoning populations across the Middle East the Bedouin are being forced to settle down, and their ancient nomadic lifestyle is approaching extinction.

I hear there is a snowstorm back home in the Hudson Valley – I hope all of you stay warm and safe, and enjoy the snow!

Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

Shabbat in Jerusalem


A Shabbat Nap (Photo by Steve Pittelman)

(The following series of posts are a partial account of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation's most recent trip to Israel, December 21-31, 2010)

Having spent 3 intense days immersed in a crash course of Jerusalem’s past and present, I knew that Shabbat would be a special joy for our group. We gathered in the beautiful garden of our hotel as the sky darkened and we welcomed Shabbat with melodies and stillness. A long, cascading peal of church bells coming from the abbey on Mount Zion overwhelmed our silence: it was Christmas Eve! Then the muezzin’s call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque. This is Jerusalem. We pulled our coats close around us; the increasing chill was worth enduring as we watched the stars emerge above us. I asked if anyone wished to reflect on his or her experience thus far. One by one people spoke about how moved they had felt since arriving in Israel, and tears would spring up and surprise the speaker: “I had no idea how deeply this place would touch me”; “I have never understood why being Jewish was so important to my mother until now”; “I’m so grateful to be here”. Shabbat had arrived at the perfect moment for our reflections, and we entered her gates gratefully.

The next morning I walked a good distance to Kehillat Mevakshei Derech, the original – and only – Reconstructionist synagogue in Israel. I was attending because Rabbi Jack Cohen was offering the D’var Torah (the sermon), and I wanted to pay my respects. Jack Cohen is 92 and slowing down after a hip fracture. He is a disciple of Mordechai Kaplan, colleague of Ira Eisenstein, and friend to many, including my parents. In 1960 Jack left his pulpit in New York and made aliyah to Jerusalem. For many years he led the Hillel at Hebrew University, and did groundbreaking work bringing Arab and Jewish students together. He also founded this congregation, which drew many academics and intellectuals into its ranks with its modern and intellectually rigorous approach to Judaism. For many years Mevakshei Derech was the only congregation in Jerusalem in which women and men participated equally, and most Israelis thought of it as simply bizarre. Today Mevakshei Derech belongs to the small but growing Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel, and has some company.

I knew Jack was speaking because – and here is one of the reasons that being in Israel is so enjoyable for me – our youth guide on the tour was an enchanting young Israeli named Tamar Cohen, and she is Rabbi Jack Cohen’s granddaughter. Tamar’s close cousins are also dear old friends of mine. At the Kiddush I met Tamar’s mother who explained to me that she was a good friend of my sister-in-law Roberta, having been in the same class at Brandeis University. I like to say that I can’t even get to 6 degrees of separation in Israel – usually by the first or second degree we are already connected!

I walked back to the hotel to lead some Torah study with our group. We sat in the garden again, and we basked in the warm winter sunshine and in our good fortune to be able to enjoy it. The Torah portion was Sh’mot, the very beginning of the Book of Exodus. I explained that the Hebrew name of the Book, “Sh’mot”, means “Names”. The book begins with a listing of the names of the children of Jacob/Israel who had gone down to Egypt. And then a new Pharaoh arose who stripped them of their names, seeing them only as a teeming mass of potential danger and a swarm of potential forced labor. One’s name represents one’s irreducible and unique humanity, and by treating the Israelites as a nameless mass Pharaoh could in his own eyes strip them of that priceless value, and view them as mere utilities for his own gain. This is quite simply the dynamic of oppression. On Friday our group had visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s extraordinarily powerful national Holocaust memorial and museum. The Nazis had literally reduced the Jews to numbers, tattooed on their arms. Yad Vashem is on a quest to restore the names of the murdered dead; researchers have now identified 4,000,000 of the victims, and their records encircle the heartbreaking memorial room that one enters at the end of the museum. It is unlikely that every one of the six million will ever be identified, but the noble effort to restore each victim’s name continues. Here in Israel (along with everywhere in the world) the forces of fear and racism encourage Pharaoh-like behavior in all of us. Other groups get subsumed into mass identities: “Death to the Arabs” is now heard in extremist Israeli rhetoric, while “Death to the Jews” has long flourished in much of the Arab media and halls of power. I explained that in my opinion democracy, however flawed, is the best system we have created to insure that each person retains a name and is endowed with inalienable human rights. Democracy is designed to fulfill the Torah’s commandment that everyone be treated as a child of God, with dignity and respect. We Jews are not immune from becoming like Pharaoh. Israel’s democracy acts as a check against tyranny, insisting against great pressure that every citizen, Jew, Christian, or Moslem, must be treated as a full human being. And if you think that’s not hard enough, try doing it in the Middle East, where Israel is the only nation functioning as a democracy. (Remember the church bells and mosque call that I described the evening before? Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects religious expression.) Now that the Jewish People have regained political power in Israel, we need to wield it wisely, so that we neither allow ourselves to ever again be reduced to nameless victims, nor ever become a Pharaoh to those under our control.

In the afternoon I went jogging. I jogged out to the Haas Promenade, a long ambling walkway with stunning views of the Old City of Jerusalem and its surrounding hills. Here I encountered another festival of impressions that make Jerusalem so fascinating. At the end of the Promenade I came to a beautiful overlook, and found myself catching my breath among an Israeli tour group. They were from a left-wing kibbutz near Be’er Sheva. Their guide was a very well spoken young Israeli man who is working for a solution to divide Jerusalem in an eventual two-state settlement. He laid out some of the well-known and reasonable proposals for sharing the city – but reasonableness has not been much in vogue for some time. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the interlude.

As I trotted back I came across several busloads of Nigerian tourists, Christians on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They were enjoying a picnic at another overlook. And then I passed three young women whose native country I could not guess. One of the women had a guitar, another was holding out a cell phone, and they were singing “Silent Night” into the cell phone at the top of their lungs. That made me smile.

I thought about all the Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, following the footsteps of Jesus. And the Jewish pilgrims like our selves, tracking our sacred history among the ancient stones and walls of the Old City. And the Moslem worshippers, entering their holy mosques on the ancient Temple Mount, known to them as the Haram-al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Each of us walking in a different Jerusalem, our holy maps superimposed upon each other, crisscrossing and intersecting but never quite meeting. Earlier in the week our guide Aliza had taken us up a metal staircase to the rooftops of the old city, above the bustle of the shuk (market) below. From there we could see the highest spires, minarets and domes of the Old City, holy places all, crowded together in the one square kilometer contained within the ancient walls of Jerusalem. All those competing prayers rising up to the same heaven. The ancient Psalmist sings, and I still sing with him:

“I rejoiced when they said to me, let us journey to the house of YHVH!

Our feet would stand inside your gates, O Jerusalem,

Jerusalem, a city where all things converge…

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and may all who love you be at peace.

May there be peace within your ramparts, tranquility in your citadels.” (Ps. 122)

After sundown our group gathered one last time in the hotel garden to make Havdalah, and usher in the new week. Israel comes alive on Saturday night, and folks scattered to various restaurants and other activities. I went back to Mevakshei Derech; as it happens, that night they were having the 12th annual Ezri Uval memorial lecture on Jewish Music. Ezri and his late wife Beth, who sadly just passed away, were dear friends of mine. I was hoping to see the 4 adult Uval children, whom I have known since they were little, and offer my condolences on their mother’s untimely death. The Uvals were there, as I had hoped, and my mission was complete. But now I would have to sit through an academic talk in Hebrew on the history of synagogue chant in Germany! To my unexpected delight, the lecture was brilliant, punctuated with musical examples, and I even understood the jokes.

Now that was a Shabbat.

Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler