Friday, February 22, 2013

Purim Sameach

In the JPS Esther Commentary, Adele Berlin explains that the holiday of Purim most likely came before the book of Esther. Many peoples celebrate the spring equinox with some kind of festival that includes parties and masquerading. Jews likely took part as well. At some point, a Jewish story was written to justify the celebration. So, most of the time, there is an event and then a holiday to commemorate it. In the case of Purim, we first have the celebration and then the creation of the event. The perfect roots for this topsy turvy time of year.

Purim in Israel is a lot like what I imagine Mardis Gras is in New Orleans, only without the beads and all that entails. It isn't a one day thing, it is a week long celebration. And not just for kids. Adult Jerusalemites have been sporting crowns and funny hats all week. A big trend among teenage males is to shave words, pictures or designs into their heads and to actually dye their hair, not just temporarily spray paint it, all different colors.

 Our oldest took part in the Purim hair trend

The costumes are lavish and elaborate and it is clear that everyone takes a lot of care to choose the right costume and make the most out of it. And all communities participate. Our Haredi scribal arts teacher explained that in his community, it is common for people to dress up in the clothing typical of a different ultra-Orthodox sect. Or, they wear their summer coats though it is technically still winter. Or they wear huge hats, poking fun at themselves. Everyone finds their own way of turning their world upside down for this one week of the year.

Now, when we were packing for six months and reweighing our suitcases after the addition of every t-shirt and pair of socks, we weren't thinking about Purim. We didn't think that choosing a few of the costumes out of the literally dozens we have acquired over the years could save us a lot of time and money once we got here. Three weeks ago, you can imagine how we were kicking ourselves. Needless to say, we wound up spending a few hours in the costume shop.

Similar to the Holloween stores that crop up all over as we get close to the end of October, costume shops seem to have appeared out of nowhere. The major difference is the lack of haunted houses and the gruesome costumes we have at home. Otherwise, there is every kind of costume, mask and prop that you might want. It is hard to narrow it down actually. In the end, we settled on a Broadway dancer for our oldest, a weird guy for child #2, Princess Esther for #3 ("It just doesn't feel right to be called Queen") and a blue ninja turtle for the youngest.

Though it may not be immediately obvious to you, the first two costumes apparently require canes as props. As a matter of fact, those canes, one wooden and the other one that squeaks, turned out to be the sun around which all other possibilities must orbit. The youngest was the same, only his central artifact was a plastic blue samurai sword. As we contemplated what to get, those three items in particular gave me pause. Every school to which my kids have ever gone have had a strict rule against weapons or things that could be used as weapons. I clearly explained to the kids that it was possible that they would not be able to take their canes and sword to school because there may be a rule against such things. Though they understood, they had their hearts and imaginations set and we brought them home.

As we walked to school today, all of my concerns were allayed. We ran into literally dozens of swords, nun-chucks, plastic hand guns and even a plastic Uzi. One of the preschool teachers said, very sweetly, to our youngest that it was great that he, the other ninja turtle and the young knight in the class all had swords so that they could help defend the class today. Apparently, I had nothing to worry about.

The irony, of course, is that in Jerusalem, where guns, fake and real, are everywhere, violent crime is relatively low. On the other hand, in Oakland, where all costume weapons are expressly forbidden...well, you know. A reminder that it isn't just the accessibility of weapons that produces off the charts rates of violent crime.

But I digress.

In most places in the world, the actual day of Purim is Sunday February 24th, the 14th of Adar. However, since the fighting continued in the walled city of Shushan, all ancient walled cities, like Jerusalem, celebrate on the 15th of Adar. However, in practice, on both the 14th and the 15th there will be some serious celebrating here in Jerusalem. We have two spiels, two megillah readings and a party to attend on Sunday, our third carnival on Monday morning and then a big party in Kikar Safra, the Civic Center Square. Something tells me that, by the end of this week, we will have had the Purim experience of a lifetime.

Chag Purim Sameach.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Praying with Women of the Wall

Praying with the Women of the Wall is a very unique experience. On Rosh Chodesh Adar, Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg and I joined 200 other people packed into the very back part of the women's section. A dozen or so men stood on chairs on the men's side in order to participate in the service. Most of it was done silently with a few prayers sung all together. During Hallel, the part of the service where we sing special praises on Rosh Chodesh and other holidays, half of the woman joined in a circle and started to dance.

A little unusual, maybe, but one might just think it was a slightly different ritual than one to which we are accustomed. The really unique part was the constant feeling that I had no idea what might happen next. An Orthodox woman behind us started yelling and walked away clearly annoyed. There were reporters and photographers everywhere. Police officers were wandering through the crowd. At one point, the male officer tapped three women on the shoulder, all of whom were wearing tallitot, and asked them to come with him. They promptly sat down where they were and wouldn't budge. He and the female officer who was filming the whole thing walked away. Reporters from above would yell Anat Hoffman's name so they could capture her face for a picture. I kept losing my place in the service because, quite frankly, the prayer piece was entirely secondary to everything else that was going on.

At the end of the service, everyone moved toward Robinson's Arch, the Southern Wall (less well known but equally as significant), to commence the Torah service. Multiple people remarked to me that it was the first time in over a year that no one was arrested. On our way out, Elaya and I heard singing in the far corner of the plaza and saw a few of the women, including Anat Hoffman, linked arm and arm with a number of police escorts. It turns out, they were being detained, the police had just decided not to interrupt the service.

It was strange, really. I had imagined that the power of the arrests was to do it in full view of everyone, but this was almost on the sly. The service was over. No riot to contain. Ten women in all were detained. Six were released when they signed a document that said they were barred from coming to the wall for fifteen days. Two weeks short of the next Rosh Chodesh when the Women of the Wall will be back praying with tallitot once again. The other four refused to sign and insisted on talking to a judge. The police refused their request and then, apparently, simply let them go.

That it all is a little ridiculous is, to me, a good sign. It is still illegal to go against the ruling of the rabbi who has dominion over the wall, thus, the police need to make their arrests. But, they were caught on record saying some pretty ridiculous things, like, they are only going to arrest the women in masculine tallitot, the big ones with the blue or black stripes, not the ones that just wrap around the shoulders and are colorful and clearly feminine tallitot. Never mind that Anat Hoffman was on the front page of the paper in her purple and pink tallit, being detained. The reasons for having to arrest  women are becoming harder and harder to find.  And, the fact that it has such good press suggests that Israelis are starting to find the story more and more interesting. In fact, the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel, some of whom are in the famous picture from 1967, joined the Women of the Wall yesterday to protest the ultra-orthodox stronghold.

Bit by bit, the Women of the Wall are pecking away at this ongoing injustice, and I think it is working. 200 people gathered in support, the front page of multiple newspapers, Jews irate all over the world. Sounds like the makings for change.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Looking Destiny in the Face

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel around Israel with other members of the Northern California Rabbis. I got a glimpse of aspects of the country I wouldn't have otherwise seen. As are so many things in Israel, it was at times difficult and upsetting, and other times, uplifting and inspirational.

We visited Bina, an organization geared toward social action grounded in Jewish text; a wonderful alternative for text study that is not Orthodox. After study with them, they took us on a tour of their neighborhood.  Bina is located right next to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, which is a neighborhood inhabited by the largest illegal worker and asylum seeker population in Israel. Like every democratic nation in the world, Israel struggles with whether and how these people can be incorporated into Israeli society. And, just like every other democratic nation, there are those that have an issue with the fact that they are here, and there are those who have an issue with how they are treated and the conditions under which they live now that they are here. Organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, whose executive director also met with us, are working to improve their situation and address other basic civil rights issues in Israel as well.

We heard from a field director at "Iggy", a Gay Youth Organization in Tel Aviv. He is a gay Orthodox Jew. He told us his story of growing up in a settlement in Sumeria, of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation, of coming out during his army service, and of five years ago, helping to found "The Proud Minyan", a halachic egalitarian minyan at the Gay Center in Gan Meir.

In Haifa, we went to the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, which is a part of MASHAV-Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, a branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have led hundreds of training courses to promote women's leadership, poverty eradication and socio-economic development throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Mediteranean.

We went to the Beit Hagafen Center, and heard from leaders from the Jewish and Arab communities on ways in which the communities in Haifa are leading the way toward peaceful coexistence.

We had dinner with a member of the Jerusalem City Council; an Orthodox woman who has been instrumental in enforcing the illegality of gender segregation on public buses. As she explains it, when the country was being formed, the secular Jews gave in to the religious Jews figuring that they wouldn't last very long in Israel, and the religious Jews gave into the secular Jews figuring they wouldn't last very long in Israel.  Now, as the country is about to turn 65, everyone is realizing that they are stuck with each other. Israel is still a young country, she said, struggling with who it is going to be.

She relayed one story to us that I must share. In her work on gender segregation on buses, she said she spoke with a woman who belongs to a very conservative Haredi sect. The woman told her that sometimes, she thinks that God created non-Orthodox women to help protect the Orthodox ones.

We had a political briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They gave us a detailed overview of the situation here in the Middle East.  However, the one question that was really on everyone's mind at that time, whether or not Israel had actually bombed Syria, they could not answer.

We went to Hebron and heard from settlers about their dedication and commitment to keeping a Jewish presence there, as it has been a home for Jews since the days of Abraham. While in Hebron, we went to the cave of Machpelah, the burial place for six of the seven matriarchs and patriarchs. For hundreds of thousands of Jews who make pilgrimage there every year, it is one of holiest sites in all of Israel.

Me at the outer wall of the shrine above the Cave of Machpelah. 
These walls were built at the same time as the Kotel.

We heard from the IDF commander for the region who, when asked if the Jewish presence in Hebron comes at too high a price, said absolutely not. He said that this is a piece of our history as a people and Jews must be able to live there.

We were also supposed to hear from a local Sheikh but the army insisted we cancel, explaining that protecting him as he speaks with more and more groups has become increasingly difficult.

We had a tour of East Jerusalem with an organization called Ir Amim.  They are concerned with the continued building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and of the discrepancies between the standard of living in Jewish versus Arab neighborhoods.  They showed us how parts of the security fence had cut neighborhoods in half and made life in those areas extremely difficult. As you might imagine, Ir Amim is a controversial organization.  This tour juxtaposed with our visit to Hebron made for a very powerful day.

We heard a talk by a sociologist who explained that Israel is moving into a post ideological phase. Today, people are more concerned with values. What is the distinction? He gave, for example, the recent elections. Yesh Atid, the party that said almost nothing about the peace process and focused almost entirely on domestic issues of socieo-economics, civil rights, and engaging the entire population in societal participation was far more popular than was expected. Whereas Labor, whose roots are in socialism and who would have dramatically changed the course of the government on many levels had they been in the position to do so, was less popular. People are working within the societal structure, not looking to revamp it according to a specific ideology.

We learned Chassidic teachings from a Chabad scholar.

And lastly, our trip wrapped up with a conversation with Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall. She reported that IRAC has made some huge strides recently on issues dealing with gender equality, though of course there are more battles to be won. However, she expressed concern that they have yet to really make a dent in the growing racism, particularly when it comes to rabbis making racist comments about Arabs. Such comments are entirely illegal, she explained, as Israeli law is quite sophisticated when it comes to this kind of thing. The struggle is in getting everyone to enforce the law.

We saw Israel from all different perspectives: religious, secular, secular traditional, liberal religious, Jewish, Arab, diplomatic, political, legal and scholarly. We got an in depth understanding of the multiple ways people are trying wrestle with what Israel is, who Israel is, and how Israel should move forward.

There was at least some merit to what every single person had to say to us.  And nearly everyone recognized that theirs was not the only perspective.  For the most part, they were clear that their perspective was not absolute, but they had to address the issues from where they stood and through the values they hold. I was struck by the honesty and humility of so many of the people here.

We all know that Israel is complicated, but this trip was provided an insight for me as to how vast those complexities are. However, I also left the week feeling optimistic about the future of the State of Israel, and the future for the Jewish people.  True, we have profound issues.  Yet every where we look, people are jumping right into the fray, addressing the problems, seeking out solutions, and working with others.  They are taking hold of the future, and making it something of which they can be proud.

As a people, we haven't always been like this.  When Moses lead the Israelites into the desert, they stood at the foot of the mountain and God spoke the ten commandments to each one of them.  They reacted with fear, asking Moses to go up the mountain and receive the law for them.  Everything that had happened in our people's history had led to this moment, and when they got there, they couldn't handle it.  They needed a buffer, a go between to protect them from their own potential and their own capabilities. What we see in Israel today is evidence of how far we have come from that fear. We, too, have waited a long time to be a sovereign nation, and now that the time has come, no one is shying away. While everyone knows what lies ahead will be difficult, we are looking destiny in the face and creating a future for ourselves.