Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rak b'Yisrael (only in Israel) and a return to Milot HaYom

The intersection of Rav Ashi and Ravina, in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv. These two Babylonia Amoraim are traditionally attributed as the editors of the Babylonian Talmud.

And now back to  our Milot HaYom portion of the program:

אֻמְדָּנָה, umdena: assessment, evaluation. 
I am the only American in the class where we read this word in an article (as well as the only male, providing a particularly unique perspective) and the teacher still chose to translate it into simpler Hebrew. That was encouraging.

מַשְׁכַּנְתָּא, mashkanta: mortgage.
Ari thinks that this word sounds like an expletive when said quickly and sometimes uses it as such.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When you are not a mourner — Thoughts on Yom HaZikkaron 5770

Last night the Peaceful Lion and I headed to Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv  for the city’s commemoration of Yom HaZikkaron, the National Memorial Day for Fallen Soliders and Victims of Terror. Over the years, Israel has built a canon of poetry and music devoted to the memories of those that have died. The songs are slow, they invite the crowd to sing along. They often allude to other canonical texts from throughout the course of Jewish civilization. Sure there are the classics, but there are also enough to fill the radio waves for an entire day with very few repeats.

Sunday night’s tekes (ceremony) featured the best of Israel’s rock stars singing said classics in front of a standing-room only crowd in what equates to the town square. In between, the MC said a poem, the jumbo-tron played a clip of a family telling the story of their loved one who died. We heard the narrative from the sources, related to the intangible through poetry.

This morning, I went to the tekes of HaGymnasia HaIvrit, a high school in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem dating back to 1909. The school remembered 138 people this year. The MC formally welcomed us to the event, we again heard narratives, interspersed with music. And heard each of the 138 names.

Over the past two days, I’ve felt tugged in multiple directions, an outsider who does not have Israeli family, who thankfully does not have a personal connection to one of the narratives that play on television on every 4 Iyyar (I am aware of the calendar differences from year to year). But I am continually drawn to the importance and imperative of this communal narrative, of educating about it, as I relate personally to the civil religion of Israel through music, though stories of the common human, stories that have evolved to become a part of the National religion of the Jewish nation.

While sitting in the school courtyard this morning, I thought about what it means to force a nation to mourn. What it means to force individuals to mourn. Is this possible when people are personally connected to the event, whether family or otherwise? All the more so, is it possible when people are there without a personal story of their own that they are remembering?

The gemarra in Masechet Sukkah explicates the Mishnah’s statement “Shluhei Mitzvah peturin m’hamitzvah” (those who are on the way to do a commandment are exempt from performing [another] commandment). It assumes the general rule that “haosek bamitzvah, patur min hamitzvah,” one who is performing a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah (Sukkah 25a).

In the course of this discussion, we learn that a person who is tarid, worried or obsessed with something, is exempt from a mitzvah in the same way that someone who is physically performing a mitzvah. From here, we learn that the groom is exempt from Shema on his wedding night.

We also learn specifically that someone who is in mourning is not exempt from mitzvot, because as the gemarra describes, this mourning is tirda dirshut, voluntary distress.

I don’t think it’s only a post-modern reading to say that on the face of it, saying that a mourner “voluntarily” emotes, where the groom cannot help himself, is morally problematic.

But Rashi's (11th c. Northern France) commentary emphasizes why this is the case: despite the fact that the mourner is required to perform the physical mourning acts, he is not required to emote. (טירדא דרשות - שאף על פי שהוא חייב לנהוג אבילות של נעילה רחיצה וסיכה להראות כבוד מתו - אינו חייב להצטער.)

Perhaps this is because it is impossible to mandate someone to mourn emotionally. One can mandate physical action, which might lead to an emotional outpouring in turn. But not emotions. 

Thankfully, I am not a mourner today in the technical sense of the word, halakhically or more abstractly. But on a day when the fabric of the world is shakier than normal, I greatly appreciate the foundational character of the tekesim across the country. 

On a day when I certainly cannot force myself to mourn, the civil religion of Israel, the National religion of the Jewish people provides a structure which can allow for the necessarily different mourning of each individual.

The Israeli radio station Galgalatz is currently playing in my living room and soon I will head to the tekes maavar, the bridge ceremony between Yom HaZikkaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). There will be more music tonight and tomorrow of a decidedly different character.

Below is a video assembled from last year’s tekes in Kikar Rabin:


Sunday, April 18, 2010

An open letter to a new GREEN card holder

Dear David Meir,

While Canada still has better universal health care and the Canadian dollar is giving the US dollar a few sucker punches in the corner, on behalf of the 300 million people living in the 50 states, I would like formally to welcome you to my great country.

Don't hand in your Canadian passport or anything rash like that. But here are some things that are great about this country that you should embrace:

1. American national holidays are now known almost exclusively by the main food of the day. It's really quite remarkable. See: Turkey on Thanksgiving, BBQ on July 4 (perhaps this in itself is a reason that Jews have thrived here more than anywhere else)

2. America was the set for Borat. We owe a debt of gratitude for that. Very nice!

3. We don't have a great national food, but that's okay, because other ethnicities have brought their scrumptiousness to us. The General (General Tsao's chicken, as you know it, perhaps) tastes much better than the Colonel, after all.

4. We have a collective ideal of achieving an "American dream" for each person. It's important to dream.

5. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will gain a new poignancy in your life now.

6. The American dollar has had better days, but the bill itself is the unit of currency on the streets of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Let's face it, that's pretty convenient. Can't say that about Canada.

7. We have George Washington on the dollar bill. Canada has a duck.

8. As entertaining as the Grey Cup may be, American sports have much more cache than Candian ones.

9. The ideals of American democracy seem to me to be the way that governments should be structured. Sometimes, I'd just like Jeb Bartlet of the West Wing to run the system.

10. Safam has a song written about the immigrant experience to America. Jewish groups don't sing about the immigrant experience to Canada. Your life is a Safam song right now (OK, not really) — relish in it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A West Wing post: Reaching for the stars


I take the second half of the subhead of this blog directly from my favorite episode of the West Wing, the Season Four premiere, “20 Hours in America.” During a campaign stop, President Bartlet gets word of a terrorist attack at a swim meet at Kennison State University. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne writes the following speech in the car, which Bartlet then gives to the black tie crowd:

…More than any time in recent history, America's destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people's strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. 44 people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men's team were killed and two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United State of America. Thank you.

We can all agree that this is stunning oratory, fiction or not.

During the 2007 Oscars, there was a medley of past Best Actor award recipients’ speeches. After getting to 1993, I immediately got a phone call from Jacob, a gchat several others. See here for his speech:

Did Aaron Sorkin really just plagiarize from Tom Hanks’ Best Actor speech?!

After subsequently watching the episode, I realized that the dialogue between Sam and Mallory at the end of the episode illustrates just how aware Sorkin was of what he was doing.

See the following dialogue:

"This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars."? I'm weak.

Yeah. I think I stole that from Camelot.

Let me get you home. I don't think you're going to make it.

Yeah. I don't think I'm going to make it, either.

They walk out to the COMMUNICATIONS OFFICE and continue to the HALLWAY.


Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.

To the keen eye, Sorkin alludes to the fact that this speech indeed came from Hanks! You, my friend, are a great writer.

Well played, indeed.

This coming week is Yom HaZikkaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Memorial and Independence Days), the Civil High Holidays of Israel, as some refer to them.

In the coming days I will reflect on the subhead of the blog, looking toward the stars.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why a Palestinian state is essential for Jewish nationalism

As part of our Israel education seminar yesterday, run through Makom , we heard from Israel Kimhi of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (I found it amusing that Kimhi works on Radak Street, named after the medieval Biblical commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi). We then participated in a tour along the separation fence/barrier/wall (choose your favorite narrative) with Ir Amim,  an organization which seeks "actively [to] engage in those issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.  Ir Amim seeks to render Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city, while generating and promoting a more politically sustainable future."

Kimhi provided statistics, anecdotes and long-term trends during the course of his talk. Among them, in explaining how Jerusalem is largely a taboo topic in governmental circles, he remembered how Yitzhak Rabin z"l once ate an entire plate of biscuits because he was nervous that people would hear that they were talking about the future of Jerusalem. 

Kimhi also illustrated the demographic trends of Arabs and Jews in the city:

In 1967, there was a 74/26 Jewish/Arab majority in Jerusalem.
Today, it is a 65/35 Jewish/Arab majority.
In 2035, following these demographic trends it will be 50/50.

With these demographics in mind, our Israeli guide from Ir Amim said that the notion of a Democratic Jewish State is gravely in danger if there are not negotiations which lead to a Palestinian state.

If there is not a Jewish majority within the Israeli borders, then the country will either not be Jewish or it will not be a democracy.

Taking that a step further, one can posit that ensuring the reality of a Palestinian state is one of the most pro-Zionist acts one can take: Without a Palestinian state, Jewish Autonomous Democracy dies.

I certainly had never considered this perspective before. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Haik U Glenn Beck

Recently Glenn Beck said : "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice are code words [for Communism and Nazism]. Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Jewish Funds for Justice decided to respond to the attack on religion and social justice by initiating the following website dedicated to responding to Beck through haikus.

I'm a fan of this — respond in positive and emphatic terms. Acknowledging total insanity as such and elevate the discourse, in turn. Plus spark some creativity in the process.

A crack at my own:

Love neighbor as self
Some say it is golden rule
Thus Jews support it