Sunday, September 17, 2017
Friday, September 15, 2017
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
Fresh oil, fresh wine. Old recipes. The bread remains salt free. The tripe looks ancient. The streets forever too narrow.
Monday, November 7, 2016
I don't know if I should feel guilty for what I am about to say, but being here now, five decades later, is a remarkable experience. We have seen a photographic exhibition and a multimedia presentation of the flood and its aftermath. We attended a midnight opening of the just restored Last Supper painted by Vasari. The mud covered work was saved with essentially glued on paper that took 50 years to safely remove and then restore. Judas in pink, stunning! It now hangs with a pulley system to raise it high in a matter of seconds.
A couple of days ago, I was reading about Paolo Uccello's painting. Uccello, was the master of mathematical perspective that gave the Renaissance much of its greatness. After learning what I previously missed understanding, we returned to the Ufizi to see again his Battle of San Romano with its hobby horse calvary and empty armored dead soldiers. This guy was wonderfully weird. His name is actually a nickname. Uccello means bird, as the artist drew birds by the score and was apparently more comfortable with them than with people.
Then, today we went to see his green frescos. The book in which I was reading about Uccello, The Stones of Florence, by Mary McCarthy, was written in 1959. The flood was in 1966. And although restored, the frescos retain only a remembrance of their glory. Luckily, the most amazing, Noah's ark docked just as the waters are receding, the viewer inside the boat looking down the gang plank, is the best restored. But even it is a ghost of its past. I felt a bit like Noah, living just on the other side of a moment that can never be recaptured.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Today, we visited the old Foundling Hospital, by which I mean the early 14th century Foundling hospital, though it served its mission, to save abandoned babies, well into the 19th century. The building is one of the very first buildings to reflect Renaissance architecture. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ospedale_degli_Innocenti)
Over the centuries, the hospital collected art. Early on, for example, it commissioned Andrea della Robbia to decorate the facade with blue terra-cotta circles of babies. Now, there are a great deal of blue della Robbia terra-cottas in Florence. The della Robbia family invented the process and were well known for their art. But this large collection is just babies. And the rest of the hospital's art, now displayed in a museum setting in the original building, is mostly baby focused. All the same basic themes, Annunciations, Coronations and such, but with babies in each art work.
The hospital/museum also has an exhibit of the building's history and their dedication to abandoned children. And opportunities to see "behind" the original architecture which is pretty amazing. And a roof top terrace with, just maybe, the single best view of the city.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Two meals have stood apart from the museum-ish food personality of Florence. We ate both this week. The first was simple in the best sense. The food spoke for itself. We were invited to a "new season of eating" dinner. And because the meal was going to be vegetarian, the menu relied almost solely on what was fresh and grown. Yes, there was the traditional meatless bread and bean soup, Ribollita. It may have been the best we have eaten, unashamedly using largish hunks of bread to replace flesh. As well, we enjoyed a positively delicious pumpkin soup and another delicious bean and kale creation. Yet, the meal's real stars were uncooked. We enjoyed sliced raw onions, and sliced raw fennel and sliced raw tomatoes and so on. The brightest star of the feast was sliced raw! artichoke. All of the above we dipped in real first press olive oil from the family grove of one of the guests, washed down with Vino Novello, Italy's version of a fresh wine, similar to the better known Beaujolais nouveau.
Dessert was part of the shared Tuscan fare and yet very much exceptional. The tiramisu, served plain out of a large baking dish, was just spectacular. Then I helped hand whip lots and lots of heavy cream to top a modest layer of fresh chestnuts cooked and transformed into a sweet base layer to make Monte Bianco, white mountain. This was a meal of the ingredients.
Then the next night we went by ourselves to a vegetarian restaurant. I was a little skeptical for two reasons. First, outside of a few "traditional" meatless foods like ribollita, this is meat eating region with its own breed of beef and its own breed of pig and its love of tripe. Second, I often find vegetarian restaurants to be shrines to the idea of vegetarianism. Their palette of spices is so predictable, they often smell the same. Not so this past evening. This meal was the best prepared food we had eaten in over a month. We loved the hand made fresh spaghetti, with a breadcrumb, sun-dried cherry tomato, chili pepper sauce. I could have eaten bowls of the stuff, but we had ordered a "unico" special that put three dishes on our single plates. I also needed to eat our way through an extremely tasty, perfectly dressed fennel and orange salad and a delicious potato filled soft flat bread roll-up. We were eating real creative cooking. And loving every bite.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
We purchased, in advance, at a premium, tickets to the Uffizi, the greatest of Florence's many museums. 8:15 was our appointed time. I grumbled a bit, still we got up at "double a quarter to seven" aka 6:30. We arrived promptly on time, only to find that a staff meeting (or perhaps a strike too) meant that the museum would not open till 10:30 and all tickets till that time would enter together. Or rather a line would form for all those scores of ticket holders to wait for over two hours in the hope that the 10:30 promise was kept. After a quick coffee and pastry (why waste the opportunity) we were about number 70 in line, a line that stretched for quite a distance by the time (at 10:30!) when the museum did indeed open.
Worth the wait.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
That's when Jo received a calendar message on her phone that I had sent some time ago and forgot about. It said Hidden Treasures Masterpieces and no more. We scrambled through the web to find the exhibition of several newly restored works by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio Rudolf being held at Villa la Quiete, a house quietly tucked away, a bit on the uphill from regular (tourist) Florence.
And the last morning train, the 10:22, to the station nearest the exhibition was leaving in 15 minutes. Luckily, we live just 5 minutes from our train station, so off we went. Two stops on the train and we were deposited in a lonely section of town. We and our friend, Google Maps, walked up some mostly deserted city streets and then some sidewalk-less roads. Inside an unlikely looking building was a guard who let us pass into a stunningly designed space modestly filled with well lit (not always the case), up close and personal masterpieces in perfect condition. And it was free, and that is certainly a rarity. A day well spent.
Of course, it was now still before noon and we once again had no plans. Outside the villa we noticed a sign with a map outlining two walks into the hills. Off we went. Mostly uphill on roads that were often barely one car (and no people) wide, guided by the many map stations and Google, past small houses and then farms with picked vines and olives turning from green to black. Then near the top we began to pass today's villas. Great views. Great adventure.
The journey down led us to the next train station on a line out of Florence. Returning home, we hung laundry, bought a few groceries, noshed on a bakery lunch with Coke Light and took a glorious nap. Such a sweet day.
Florence, btw, is down in that middle dip.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
The title of this post is a bit ominous. Sorry, but with Citizen Trump playing fear cards against women, Judaism and Islam, immigration, veterans and now our democracy, he holds a dark and bloody full house. But as Monty Python might have said, "Why be glum?'
The Florentines and other Italian communities have been going after each other for centuries. Throughout Florence there are fortified towers that were built for family defense. (Pisa, a city with a similar history, supposedly had 180 of these towers at some point in its own violent past.) After an episode of inter-family violence, when perhaps one family murdered a member of another family after that family had murdered one of theirs . . . the offending family would flee to their tower to wait out the storm. And if during the attempt to overwhelm the defenses, a few "blue collar" houses (made of wood) burned down, ah well, such is the cost of politics.
Florence is a city consumed with its past: the towers and other architecture, the sculpture, and paintings. There is a general preoccupation with its glorious past, which rests on violent political strife. The present in Florence is muted. There is a beloved soccer team and I will attend a match soon. But most restaurants pride themselves and advertise themselves as homes of traditional Tuscan and Florentine cooking. Tripe a big deal here. The city's thousand year old symbol, the Giglio, a sort of fancy Fleur de Lis, is everywhere: the soccer team, the buildings, the napkins, the tablecloths, the manhole covers, everywhere. And so what you see as a tourist is not that different than what a resident experiences. Yet, the hyper-violent past on which all the preserved and respected glory rests is treated as the small cost of giving birth to the Renaissance.
As temporary residents, with a lean toward being tourists, we have seen a lot of art in just a month. Spectacular does not begin to describe the treasure housed and strewed about throughout the city. Yesterday, however, we attended an exhibition of art by the modern Chinese artist Ai Wewei. I thought, mistakenly, that the show was to be a single instillation. Instead there were several rooms of his art including a piece built out of 900 bicycles. The core theme of the exhibition was the violent, corrupt, and anti-democratic nature of the present Chinese government. A repeated trope dealt with the destruction of the artist's large studio and workshop. He was asked to build it by the government who then tore it down, removing all trace of its presence, just as it was finished. Ai Weiwei hosted a single opening and closing party, to which he was prevented from attending by house arrest.
In America, in the free world, we are so very fortunate to live with the blessings of democracy. But we take them for granted sometimes. Alternative forms of governance exist and have existed. These alternatives can achieve greatness, but at a cost. A cost I do not wish to pay and fortunately, will not be required to pay, despite the efforts of some to place making America great again before American democracy. Democracy is the American greatness.
Friday, October 14, 2016
There are no signs marking the sculpture. Or any of the 14 sculptures that line the outside of the church. And the street is most ordinary, a touristy shopping street. We were on our way to another sight, soon to be described, when our daughter drew our attention to the sculpture. Called Christ and St. Thomas by Andrea del Vercocchio, it actually replaced a Donatello!, when the merchants' guild wanted to make their "statement gift" to the church and city. Notice how the right foot of the saint hangs outside the frame of the niche. Like breaking the "4th wall" in theater, the outside foot serves to invite us in, as Thomas is asked by Jesus to believe without factual evidence that he has died and is now again alive. We too are being asked to believe.
Well, as I was saying, we were on our way to another sight, actually a private walkway, built by the 1%'res who made Florence, in their day, the center of western civilization. The Medici family were rich merchants who ruled Florence off and on for generations. They married their way into nobility, becoming dukes, and also managed to become many a cardinal and handful of Popes. And in a sweet story, when the last of the Medici line (she and her brothers did not have children) considered the fate of the family, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici created the "Family Pact," which insured that generations of Medici artistic treasures would remain forever in Florence, thus creating a tourist destination in perpetuity.
The sight for which we were headed, is the private elevated, sealed passageway built by Cosmino I de' Medici at the time of his son's wedding. It goes from their new house, the Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio, their old house. The Vasari Corridor, is a quarter mile (remember Florence is small) of art filled corridor. We entered the corridor just next to its final destination in the Palazzo Vecchio, today a spectacular art museum. From there the corridor passes over the Arno River, piggy backing on the Ponte Vecchio, goes around a large tower, the owner of which would not allow the Duke to remove, passes by the family's secluded church balcony and ends up at the Palazzo Pitti, home sweet home and today a spectacular museum.
The corridor provided safety and privacy that only few can afford. Sadly, the effort to make the corridor open to the public, which began in the 1970's, was hampered by several difficulties including a mafia attack in 1993 outside the Palazzo Vecchio. It is open now for a brief time and we had the pleasure of walking it, seeing its treasures and pretending to be far above our station. As was reported to us by our guide, Cosimo I once said about the corridor, "I wanted to walk on the heads of the people."
Saturday, October 8, 2016
We live really close to the "other" train station in Florence and so we are fortunate. We could take a train from this neighborhood station to the Central Station and there transfer to the Pisa train. We had a ten minute window for the change. "Oh, that's good, No that's bad." Our train came in on track 17, the last track, and never really came fully into the station, stopping only at the beginning of the length of the platform. The train to Pisa left on track 1a, beyond the other side. We ran.
We also arrived very early in Pisa, thanks to incorrectly reserved tickets. "Oh, that's bad, no that's good." We had plenty of time to wander the streets and shops. I found a book I had been looking for and a much needed pencil sharpener. We enjoyed a quiet lunch in the university area, all good, and then we entered tourist land. The quaint and historic street leading to the main church square, like Main Street in Disneyland, was packed with tourist shops, multiple restaurants and, well, tourists.
Weaving our way through the crowd was so worth it. The tower, the baptistry and the Duomo (cathedral) all sit in a grassy area surrounded in part by a defensive wall, which is then surrounded by the city. Pisa was a powerful, wealthy merchant, maritime and warrior community. The tower is the bell tower of the Duomo. Most such bell towers are attached to the church but in Pisa a separate and magnificent structure was built. And, of course, it has the additional distinction of leaning.
First, the bottom third was build, but as the leaning began in the rather wet soil, the construction stopped. That's bad. Then, the middle section was added to balance out the lean, so the tower actually curves. It did not really help. That's also bad. Then the top was added. Then, Pisa became a small university town, instead of a world power, with a first class tourist attraction. And that is very good.
And soon after climbing we discovered that our return train tickets were for two different trains. It all worked out. It was all such a good day.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
And then we began seeing it everywhere we looked. So we looked it up and discovered this Fall only treat: a sign of the harvest.
Then, last night we were invited out for a shabbat meal by a member of the Florence Reform congregation, Shir Hadash, where I will be assisting in High Holy Day services and staying on till mid-November. We enjoyed a typical Italian meal, based around pasta, wine and salad. For dessert we were served Apple Crisp, the American Fall sweet treat! Our host grew up in the states and though she has lived in Florence many years, and raised a family here, she had gone apple picking, I assume with her family, and created this most American creation. Besides being delicious in its own right, it gave us a moment of home.
This a posting of "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Harvest requires acknowledgement. People require treats. Let the baking continue.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Friday, February 26, 2016
I joined a group for an all day study with leaders and members of the LGBTQ community in Israel, hearing of its successes and challenges. We began in Jerusalem with a group involved at the Jerusalem Open House, a center, a refuge, for the LGBTQ and the organizers of the Jerusalem Pride March.
Israel is a complex environment. Progress has been made surrounding issues of LGBTQ rights, as Israel is part of the Western world where the understanding that people regardless of gender or sexual identity are people, just people endowed by their creator . . . But Israel can also be a hostile place for the LGBTQ community. Last year at the Jerusalem Pride March six participants were stabbed, one fatally. And despite government's claims to being the one gay friendly place in the Middle East, it is far from a safe place.
And that brings me to the issue of pink-washing, the exaggerated use of benefits gained by the LGBTQ community in Israel to mask the real dangers the community still faces in Israeli society and law and to present Israel as a gay friendly place.
Indeed the rest of the day was shared with some very seriously brave and out people, including three transitioning individuals and four lesbian rabbis. As the pink-washing claims, an open meeting with these two panels, held first in a Tel Aviv LGBTQ center and then outside! in the adjoining park, would be more than impossible in nations that surround Israel.
Yet, the stories we heard were not ones of safety and security. Rather they were of small progress and larger apprehension.
And something else. It seems to me, a straight ally of a limitedly raised consciousness, that the LGBTQI struggle for liberation in the United States is a transnational, universal liberation movement at its core. People everywhere just got to be free. But in Israel there is a national dynamic, a Zionist dynamic overlay. Creating equality will build the nation. State building is the essence of Israeli self understanding. The people we met want a better Israel not only for themselves and not only for a better world but also because they want a better Jewish State. The Zionist dream still lives.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Why I Love the French and Struggle with Israelis
Friday, October 3, 2014
On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the possibilities ahead of us at Temple Beth Emeth, after successfully navigating the narrow passage created by the great recession. We created a smooth transition wishing well to two key staff members and at the same time graciously welcoming two new contributors. We are taking on the challenge of the new dynamics of synagogue engagement with younger Jews. And we are continually committed to programs, activities and services that are ever fresh and deeply rooted.
Yet, in all that I said last week, I made no reference to Genesis, our cooperative engagement with Saint Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church. That happened, in part, because Genesis needs no inclusion. Genesis is who we are. For 40 years we have lived in Genesis and been sustained by its vision of interfaith cooperation. And if you are sitting here, saying to yourself (or your neighbor), “What’s Genesis?,” I would reply that its invisibility is a strength. Together, with Saint Clare’s, we have built a home that successfully houses both of us. And moreover, provides a platform for interfaith activities like the Back Door Food Pantry. And moreover, provides opportunities like the erev Thanksgiving service that brings our members into honest conversation with St Clarians. And yet moreover, moreover, Genesis is one of the very few places in the world where Jews and Christians can casually live out their separate faiths in close proximity. The real beauty of Genesis is transforming the “other” into the friend, the stranger into the fellow seeker. Not by mixing but by deepest regard and mutual respect.
When I came to Beth Emeth, Genesis was still young and fragile. Part of my vetting for this position involved making what felt like loyalty statements to our partnership. I was grilled on the issue. Anything that I might say that seemed to some folks to miss the mark of absolute loyalty was sharply brought into question. Understandable. Genesis, when founded, was hotly debated in both the church and the synagogue. Doug Evett, the founding minister, told me that some of his members quit the church when Genesis was created. They did not want to be that intimate with Jews. But before you get too riled up, many Jews told us that they would never join a synagogue so tied to Christians. Both our organizations needed members, and we had taken this bold cooperative step that would actually limit our reach. A worthy sacrifice. Genesis is where we do our totally Jewish thing while others do their Christian thing in each other’s company. Pretty terrific.
But all is not as it might be. Life is never stagnant. And today Genesis is troubled. If this is news to you it is because our leadership has done everything possible to meet the challenges with the least amount of noise. Nothing has been secret but nothing has been alarmist. But there are issues. And you, all of you, need to hear of them. The church has chosen to request the Interfaith Resolutions committee to meet. This committee is the place to bring unresolvable problems from the congregations when all else fails. If this were congress, we would call it the nuclear option. In 40 years this committee has never met. We use to laugh about this at Genesis Annual meetings. Now it’s not funny. Saint Clares has also asked us to put on the back burner the planning process for a hoped for 40th anniversary celebration. There are issues.
I believe that the path to our present began several years ago when the minister or Rector of Saint Clare’s and I met about space issues in our building. For several previous years we, TBE, had grown and began to use more space, like Sunday night Religious School, while the church, suffering from an internal crisis was contracting. However, Saint Clare’s had hired an exciting innovative minister to be their rector and he needed space to grow his new program. The philosophy we had previously used was to work together, he and I and our staffs, to make sure everyone’s space needs were met. But the minister wanted a committee to discuss the issue outside of Genesis, with an eye toward guaranteed Church times and spaces and guaranteed Temple times and spaces whether or not they were used. We could request from each other permission to borrow the time, but it was a shift from from partnership to neighborliness.
Soon afterwards came the request to alter our financial arrangement so that we, TBE, would pay more than Saint Clare’s. We actually had, on several previous occasions, offered this to Saint Clare’s in the interest of fairness and we had been rebuffed. When we rebuilt the building in the mid 90’s we did succeed in working with Saint Clare’s to use our unequal annual budgets as the basis of our contributions to the project, but we were clearly told, by Saint Clare’s, that all upkeep costs, that is the Genesis annual budget, would be split equally. Then a few years ago, Saint Clare’s had a change of heart, and we worked with them to devise a new formula. We worked this out.
Then this year came most challenging test. Saint Clare’s proposed 30 some odd amendments to the Genesis by-laws. Saint Clare’s claims that the 40 year old by-laws, that we thought to have served us well, actually are and have been for 40 years, in violation of Episcopal regulations. This despite the fact that the then Bishop signed the original Genesis agreement that clearly states agreement with the by-laws. This new position, that the by-laws are impossible for the church to abide, first caused the church to request a by-laws revision committee. And when that failed to create something new, they requested, that the TBE Board work directly with Saint Clare’s and rewrite the by-laws. When that did not succeed, the church requested, as I said, the nuclear option, the Interfaith Resolutions committee, a last resort standing committee that has never met.
And what is wrong with the by-laws? The church seeks to make Genesis, which has always operated as a lay-driven cooperative, a representative body charged with managing our facility, into a weaker group that would need to respond to any demands given by either the church or the temple. No more discussion or thoughtful compromise, just absolute agreement to the demands of either of us. This is not at all what was envisioned at the beginning.
Ma la-asot? I really don’t know what to do. I don’t even know with whom to speak. So I decided to share this with you and to speak clearly. I will get, metaphorically and perhaps actually yelled at, for this sermon and it will also be open for comments on our web site. The fate of our synagogue is in question. Not its survival but its very nature. The church has held at least two general meetings, well attended, to share and discuss with all its members, this issue. You deserve no less.
But I chose Yom Kippur for this conversation starter because this day asks us to show chesid v’emet, true compassion. We say, “How can I ask God to forgive my sins, if I don’t forgive those who have wronged me?” We say this not in hope of Divine forgiveness, but in passion for human forgiveness. We seek compassion today. Saint Clare’s is our partner in a relationship that is so much more like a marriage than a business. And they are apparently in pain. They have not embarked on this path out of cruelty toward us. Rather they are deeply committed to Genesis and to us and deeply unhappy. And yes to some large extent we are committed to helping them achieve happiness as they are to us. Perhaps there are now sparks of anger in the room? Toward me, toward the church, toward their leaders, toward our leaders. I ask you to put such energies aside. I ask you to display compassion.
When I came to TBE, as I said, I was vetted for my loyalty to Genesis. I was even interviewed by the then rector, and in that moment we became friends. And, in truth, I became a loyal disciple of Genesis. I believe in its power and message, that two congregations can grow individually in each other’s company and be better for it. Genesis is not about money saved, nor is Genesis about environmental issues, inasmuch as one building can serve us both. No, Genesis, at its heart, is the precious notion that we will be better people because we value the journey of others different than ourselves. In a very small piece of the human landscape we say, loud and proud, that there is room for everyone. Genesis is why we, that is TBE, has such a profound commitment to social justice. Genesis is why we are an inclusive congregation. Genesis is why we are good to each other within Beth Emeth. Sure we might have been just as good without Genesis as our teacher. But I doubt it. 31 years and no one has tried to fire me. What kind of synagogue are we? Jews don’t act this way. But we live a lesson of acceptance. Genesis permeates the synagogue whether you know it or not.
We have reason to love Genesis and seek its success. And we have reason to seek a resolution that will preserve the love and the cooperative spirit that have sustained us for four decades. And if we can’t, then I will grieve, deeply, for something so precious and transformative. I hope that in conversation we will find the path we all can comfortably walk. I don’t know where we will end up, and I pray we are led by compassion.
Help me to be strong in our commitment to our friends in Saint Clare’s Church. May we continue to build a strong union together. May we respect their journey, their hopes and aspirations to live lives infused with your presence. Wherever we find ourselves, may we be grateful for time we spend together and hopeful for continued engagement. Genesis was a gift You bestowed upon us; that we created in partnership not only with Saint Clares but with You, the God of the universe. Genesis strengthens us and we hope brings others to see both the humanity we all share and the one God behind us all. May we go forward with open hearts.
To watch this sermon, click here.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
We Jews claim that we and God value life above all. If, for example, next week on Yom Kippur, if there is any health related reason not to fast, determined either by a physician or by the patient, then the person must eat. Not may eat but must eat. The value of life is a touchstone of what it means to be a Jew. And in those moments, when we look beyond ourselves, we yield to the universality of the value of life among all peoples. Life is the great value. Yes, there are exceptions. Yet we understand them as aberrations. Isis, Hamas, Boko Haram, terrorists in general, wanton murderers--these are those who do not value life. For the rest of us, and certainly for Jews, life is precious beyond precious.
Let’s talk about Hamas for a moment. They don’t value life or at least value it the way we do. As Benyamin Netanyahu said, speaking of the great loss of life in Gaza, “We use rockets to defend people, while they use people to defend rockets.” Over a six week period, Hamas, the government, the elected government of Gaza, fired 4,500 rockets at Israel, essentially all of them at civilians. And the tunnels they dug into Israel did not end at military installations. No, they opened up on to people’s homes and schools. There is much to be said to defend the rights of the Palestinian people including their right of self-determination, but they lack good leadership. A Hamas victory, as they would define it, would include the murder of all six million Israelis and then Hamas would want to come after us. This is how they value life.
Yet, I want to reverse myself. Hamas, or Isis or Boko Haram or any other “they” you want to point to, don’t seem to value life as we do. But I think that actually instead of proving our superiority, these groups, despite their evil, point to a deeper truth. Despite our righteous stance, no one, including ourselves, really values life. We are not aggressive killers, but so often we, the good people, act without regard for life. How many times is there an injustice committed in which a person loses his or her life? And how many, many times is this injustice followed by riots that kill scores more? Ferguson is but the most recent example here at home. And why would police officers, who also lay honest claim to the value of life and a willingness to defend life at often the ultimate sacrifice, want militarize themselves? Did 9/11, thirteen years ago, make the world so dangerous that Missouri needs to be armed against foreign invasion?
The value we claim for life, does not match our actions and never did. We don’t value life, we value our lives and we value our lives above the lives of other people. The United States has consistently taken a hard stance against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Through treaty and sanctions it has been a rock of our foreign policy for 70 years. It was the convincing selling point of our invasion of Iraq, even if that was a lie. Americans agree that we can’t allow anyone else, anyone dangerous to possess nuclear weapons. We are so convinced of this. We are the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon. And we did it twice, even after we obliterated the civilian population of Hiroshima with the first bomb. There were reasons, good reasons, all of which come down to valuing our lives more than our enemy’s.
We value life. We value our lives. As do all people. So perhaps the only way to survive is to stay on top. I feel badly that Palestinian civilians died, essentially defending their elected government’s rockets and tunnels. I do not feel badly that Israel built an infrastructure that decades later built Iron Dome that defended its people against those very rockets. Kol hakavod. Bravo.
That’s part of the core identity of Zionism. To rebuild the Jewish people from the bottom up. In Europe, in the early part of the 20th century, we were weaker than the Palestinians are today. Expulsions, discrimination, pogroms and the pogrom to end all pogroms, the Holocaust. The Russian ambassador in the United States, Count Cassini, at the time of the horrific Kishinev Pogrom and strangely the maternal grandfather of fashion designer Oleg Cassini, said, "There is in Russia, as in Germany and Austria, a feeling against certain of the Jews. The reason for this unfriendly attitude is found in the fact that the Jews will not work in the field or engage in agriculture.” We were not permitted to engage in agriculture and so we needed to be raped and murdered in Kishinev. Zionists were farsighted and determined to end the cycle, not by killing their enemies, but by rebuilding the Jewish people literally from the ground up. We would farm, drive trucks, build buildings, create labor unions and systems of national healthcare. Iron Dome is simply one of Zionism’s many successes.
I wish the Palestinian people equal success. But truth be told, Palestinian aspirations and Zionist aspirations are in conflict. We both claim the same land. And it is not about 1947 borders designed by the United Nations and accepted only by Israel or ‘48 borders defined by the War of Independence or the much expanded borders of 1967, again defined by war. It is about the whole place. And to my personal frustration, sharing is not high on anyone’s agenda. Just the opposite. Everyone wants peace but only on their own terms.
Truth: Maybe one you share with me. I support one side in this conflict even as I support human dignity for all. I would love to live long enough to see two states living in peace side by side. But even with all the flaws I might find in aspects of Zionism and all the weaknesses I see in the present Israeli government, I would rather see Israel win than Hamas. No, that is not quite right. It is not a case of rather. I just want Israel to win. To be secure, Jewish, and to prosper. Besides which, if Hamas wins, by their definition half of world Jewry would be murdered immediately and the other half, us, later. That is their stated goal. Maybe Israel and their elected government and perhaps even Zionism, as a historic movement, lack the necessary concern for Palestinians, but the asymmetry of hatred is astounding.
The rabbis of old taught that if you and I are in the desert with one bottle of water and we both know that the bottle is just enough to sustain one person, and only one person, on the journey to safety, then the person holding the water gets to keep it. You can’t be a lover of life unless you love your own life. Suicidal sacrifice is permitted but not demanded. And as groups, we always chose our lives over the lives of others. We want to live as free people in Israel even if others have to die. Better we should live in peace, but better we should live. That is the value of life.
Two months ago, I was flying to Tel Aviv through the very organized Frankfurt airport. Pre-boarding was announced for our flight. You know, for those needing assistance etc., etc. Every Israeli just charged the gate. Israelis can be so wonderfully annoying. The next day I was sitting, eating shawarma, at an outdoor restaurant on Bazel Street. The eatery "Bazel Congress" and the street commemorate the first Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl gathered in 1897 to unite a very diverse Jewish Europe in the quest for Jewish statehood. He herded the Katz, spelled K-a-t-z. A large sign over the restaurant framing the rounded entrance said, “The customer is always wrong.” Israelis today can be so wonderfully annoying.
A few of the staff had pinned 3x5 cards to their shirts that said, "nigmar???" or, "is it over?" They were marking the news that Israel had begun to pull back from their forward positions in Gaza. This was a war Israel did not want. Israelis want peace. They are not annoying at all. But until some real accommodation to legitimate Palestinian aspirations is found, wars will continue. The Jewish West Bank settlers’ vision, that seems very appealing to the present government, that given enough time the Palestinians will just leave, is pathetic. No mutual compromise, no peace, less life. Nigmar, is it over? Not for some time, but in that time I will choose a side, my side.
After lunch, a friend and I walked over to the park on the banks of the Yarkon river. A lush spot indeed considering it, like all of Tel Aviv, is built on sand. Sitting on a park bench, enjoying the world, the dreaded air raid sirens went off. I watched parents and children scurry for cover. Then, after some seemingly long passage of time, the sound of two Iron Dome missiles blasting Hamas rockets. The afternoon was a mix of politics, hopes and military strength. I walked home in the late afternoon, put on a swimsuit and rode Mediterranean waves into the dusk. The water was beyond delightful but even this was tinged with politics, playing in the face of danger, with no shelter in sight. But this is the life I value, my life, even when I put it at risk.
Last week, I officiated at a memorial service for a beloved aunt who died in her sleep at 104. One of those few times when passing is not a euphemism for death but a description of the event. She passed, in her sleep, at 104. Among the memories recalled at the service was her dedication to Zionism that began long before Israel became a nation. However, what moved me the most, what really shook my emotions, was hearing that among her papers lay a certificate for trees bought to be planted in Palestine with the JNF, the Jewish National Fund, in honor of her birth in 1910. We have been at this project a long time. My first tree was bought 10 cents a week in Hebrew school. A dime bought one of 10 leaf sticker to be licked and glued to a to a picture of a tree. When I wrote this last week, I could not find the cent symbol, the half circle with the line, on my keyboard. We have been at this a long time. Zionism is the Jewish national liberation struggle. Winning success was not easy and continued survival is not easy, but it is our lot.
How’d we do it? How’d we succeed? Some luck. Some sympathy. Enormous determination. And real work. As the Arab proverb puts it so well, “Luck belongs to the skillful.” JNF took that money and reforested the barren land. That’s a lie, well a half truth. What JNF did was buy land, build the electrical grid, and the sewage and water system, build roads and encourage settlement where it would do the most good. Oh, yeah, they also reforested the land. Meanwhile, the workers unionized, the producers of dairy and farm products created cooperatives to bring their product efficiently to market. National health care was developed and an army created. All before 1948, way before.
I lived in Israel for a year on a kibbutz close to Gaza founded on erev Yom Kippur as part of the successful plan to establish Jewish settlements in the empty Negev region. On many a Shabbat morning, a group of us would ride through Gaza, past refugee camps built in 1948 to house Palestinians temporarily until Israel could be destroyed. We were headed to the beach. I know beaches, I grew up on Long Island. I spend summers riding wave crashing on spectacular white sand beaches. Gaza has great beaches. So when Israel withdrew from Gaza, there was an opportunity to build a tourist industry based on those beaches. Europeans would have flocked to those resorts as they came in droves to Eilat, which has rocky, not so spectacular beaches, after the Oslo accords made peace look close. Sadly, in Gaza, the building supplies, the cement and such, were needed elsewhere to build hardened tunnels from Gaza to kill Jews and to deliver rockets through Egypt to kill Jews. Our Zionist leaders built the infrastructure of a state. That is valuing life. Their leaders, not the people, but the leaders of Gaza, sought and seek our death. What a waste. The Palestinian people deserve a state. Unfortunately, their leadership has failed them.
And so has ours. The future of Zionism and Israel will not be secured without compromise. The value of our own lives requires compromise. I went to a web site of a rabbi I follow for his lectures that I often recommend to others. He had an article about the three boys murdered by Hamas that, along with the subsequent revenge killing, touched off this war. He used a phrase after mentioning the three boys. When recalling those killed in such a manner, you can say either, may the memory of our martyrs be a blessing or you can say May God avenge their blood. I was saddened to see the second. Even if I value my life first, I must value other lives as well. I must or my own life is diminished. Today the water bottle can be shared and still, we both can get out of the desert.
Look at Abraham. So confused. He values his life with God. He values Isaac’s life. Only one will survive he is told. Unsure Abraham, whose knife must have lingered above the boy long enough for God to observe this most terrible of human conflicts, the choice between right and right, between life and life. And God must admit the shame of asking the question, of giving the test. The real test is if we can preserve ourselves in a way that preserves the human dignity of everyone.
To watch this sermon, click here
Friday, August 8, 2014
Yesterday ended our tour, and perhaps the cease fire, but I don't know. I'm in the blank world of transit.
Yesterday was a day of much talking and meeting with everyone jockeying for position. Our one outing took us to Har Hertzl, Israel's military cemetery.
Our guide put his heart into the visit, which he based on the army's role. Israel has a citizen army so every story of sacrifice is perceived as the loss of intimate member of society. Of course, this is true in much of the free world, yet it has a outsized dynamic power in Israel. Among the graves we visited was one of a new immigrant to Israel who served in the army without a local family. Each Friday his best army buddy comes to the cemetery and brews coffee for the two to share, just as they used to do on the buddy's apartment porch each week.
Finally, we came to the new graves of a few of the fallen in this most recent war. It's powerful to stand next to a grave of someone so recently alive and well who died in your defense.
The graves were being prepared for the built up grave makers used at Har Hertzl. A worker was actually removing a few inches of dirt to allow the stones to be set. I watched for a while moving lightly in thought. The smell of something pulled me back. It was the smell of the dirt being removed.
Dirt is wonderful, both dead and alive, both dust and rebirth. As in all things, it is what we do with it and how we live our precious lives in its company.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Tonight we joined in a post 9th of Av celebration and concert in Modi'in. It began with songs of prayer for the soldiers of Israel, and the wounded on both sides, and the dead.
The leaders of the evening said at one point that our prayers and hearts needed to extend to other side of the battle. This was a sentiment shared in the room. Then a woman shouted out, "but not Hamas." Under normal circumstances in such an Israeli gathering an argument might have ensued. Tonight, the combination of shared pain and shared opinion lead to reflective silence. Then we said Kaddish with our hearts.
I feel justified with my analysis of what happened because of events earlier in the day. We met with an Israeli general, a recent immigrant from Long Island working in a food rescue program, the Rabbi and a few congregants of a Reform congregation and finally the former Deputy Mayor of Ashkelon. Four very different people with one clear shared message.
They said: The war was necessary. The loss of life is shocking. The rockets and tunnels needed to be stopped. Hamas is evil but is a player. Thank God for Iron Dome. But now perhaps there is hope. I [they all separately said] am optimistic. We can do better.
Here is the real complxity. There is a terrible feeling of real necessity in regard to this war. And a real feeling of loss for the soldiers dead and wounded. And a real feeling of shame for the great loss and suffering of the people of Gaza. And a real sense of gratitude for the Iron Dome that saved Israel from outrageous attacks on her cities. And real hatred for Hamas. And real hope.
Monday, August 4, 2014
Today I joined my group of rabbis, a cantor and assorted lay leaders. Out of some desire for separation I walked, a suitcase in tow, from the North Port to the deep south end of Tel Aviv in the mid-day sun. Like in a steamroom, which Tel Aviv resembles, I sweated out the past to ready myself for this solidarity mission.
A good plan, as it turned out. Yesterday, I was enjoying sitting in a park despite the rocket fire. Today, the talk is of the wounded and the orphan, of the struggle and the larger realities. Then we were off to Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv's leading Reform synagogue, for the reading of the very sad Book of Lamintations. Tonight begins the 9th of Av, saddest day of the year, as it marks the sacking of Jerusalem. Lamintations is the poetry observing the event.
The mood is set for us and perhaps the nation as well. Most Israelis care little for the 9th of Av. But this year, the calloused brutality of Hamas, has a bit of the feel of destruction of Jerusalem 2,500 years ago.
The Rabbi tonight called for a time when silence will speak. From her mouth to the ear that always understands the silent prayer.
Yesterday I was sitting, eating shwarma, at an outdoor restaurant on Bazel Street. The street food eatery "Bazel Congress" and the street itself cememorate the first Zionist Congress that united a very diverse Jewish Europe in the quest for Jewish statehood. But the restaurant and street were less about politics than an acknowledgement of history.
A couple of the staff had pinned 3 by 5 cards to their shirts that said, "nigmar???" or loosely translated, "is it over?" They were marking the news that Israel had begun to pull back from their forward positions in Gaza. This too was less politics than the hope that the battle might be ending.
After lunch, a friend and I walked over to the Yarkon park on the banks of the Yarkon river. A lush spot indeed considering it, like all of Tel Aviv, is built on sand. Sitting on a park bench, enjoying the world, the dreaded siren went off. I watched parents and children scurry for cover. Then, after some seemingly long passage of time, the sound of a fired Iron Dome rocket and a short time later the boom of rocket on rocket explosion. This was an even mix of politics and military strength.
I walked home in the late afternoon. Put on a swimsuit, decidedly not Israeli in style, as in not a speedo, and rode Mediterranean waves into the dusk. The water was delightful but even this was tinged with politics.
Sunday, August 3, 2014
I borrowed a bicycle from the hotel this morning and road north on a lovely bike bath toward Herzliya and beyond. Then I ran into, or rather over, a collection of thorns, sharper and bigger than whatever. Both tires went flat and I and the bicycle walked home.
When Moses sent in scouts to explore Israel, they reported that it was a place of giant vegetation. But giant thorns with bases to aim the points up from the ground? The spies said that the land is good but eats its Inhabitants. And their tires.
The inhabitants. The war has been quiet here in Tel Aviv since I arrived. But the people are also quiet. When I arrived the main highway into town had traffic but it should have jammed. The beach had people but should have been crowded. Brave face or not, the situation is taking its toll. No taste for a party and a grim resolve that Hamas needs to be destroyed or at least set back.
A consensus has been reached, it seems to me, that Hamas is not anyone's partner; that their only goal is Jewish death even at the cost of Palestinian suffering. And when someone wants that badly to kill you your choices are limited to a return of force.
The latest news, later corrected, that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped, only grimmed the grim. This is not a skermish, someone told me, but a war against someone whose hate is boundless. People smile and do their work, but patience is thin and tempers are short.
On the other hand, I had dinner last night with a young congregant who is living here in Tel Aviv this year. She is finding her place in this land. This is our place, our land. It will not consume us.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
My traveling companion from Detroit to Frankfurt was my daughter who was on her way to Ethiopia for a year of research after college. I felt like the dad of a young school girl walking her half way to school on the first day, pointing her in the right direction and watching her make her way into a new adventure. She is a child of great sweetness.
Then I went to the special security gate designed for the Tel Aviv flight. When they announced the order of boarding, families with young children followed by first class and so on, everyone simply got up, regardless of special status, and pushed toward the gate.
Then we had an incident when a passenger went to the toilet, while we were moving down the runway for takeoff.
It feels like home. The Israel adventure begins.
[Just landed. OK, I was a bit nervous.]
Friday, August 1, 2014
Friday, August 1, 11:00 am
I am sitting at my messy desk. In five hours I fly, via Frankfurt, to Tel Aviv. And I am starting to get a bit nervous. The news sounded better last night with a 72 hour cease fire declared. It lasted four hours and ended in part with the dreaded kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. I still want and intend to go, but would not be surprised if those with higher level decision power, the trip organizers and the airline managers, altered my plans. Or maybe this is just my nerves speaking.
On the other hand, Amir, a dear friend and cycling buddy, is coming, with his family, to Ben Gurion to pick me up. And later in the day I have dinner plans with a young congregant. Half of me expects to find a veneer of normality over the obvious crisis and half of me expects to see the crisis, plain.
Like World War I, only on a smaller scale, the common understanding among Israelis was that the war would be short with normality quickly restored. Having uncovered the web of tunnels and the vast array of missiles, Israel is in no position to stop. Yet, death is the final truth of life and as the causalities mount the call to stop needs to be heeded. A no win situation has become a nobody wins tragedy.
And I guess that is, in part, why I am going. I want to experience the cruel sadness, not the bravado that distance lends. How do we balance the needs of Zionist survival against the deaths of Zionists and the deaths of those whom Zionists kill. I am a Zionist and I don't know.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
I'm not into pets. I admit the weakness. But I've noticed a difference between Americans and the French about dogs. Both have lots and enjoy them, but in America there is pressure for everyone else to enjoy them as well. One is supposed to admire and pet and be nozzled by other people's pets, even the pets of strangers. Which dog does not enjoy and deserve a scratch behind the ear? "Down fiddo." says the owner. "Sorry, he's just friendly."
In a week, I've crossed paths with maybe 100 dogs, only half on leash. Not one has chosen to be my friend. Strange, a animal behavior I assumed to be driven by the animal seems to be human culturally informed. Live and learn.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
That giant clock pictured is in a former transportation station (therfore the clock) that now houses perhaps the greatest collection of impressionist art outside of the Barnes in Philadelphia. Today is Sunday and museums are free. A forty minute wait with people politely lined up on their own and a packed museum. Heaven with a few "pardons" mixed in.
And then steak and fries. And some chocolate.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Today I feel that I won both the initial showcase and the big deal of the day. I'm on my way home from the post storm (Katrina) Gulf Coast, by plane, having shipped ahead my bicycle. Today I will see my beloved.
And then, winning the final showcase, we are going on vacation, for my wife's Spring break, as they say, toooooo Paris France!!! Today I feel like a winner.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
I've come to New Orleans for the reform rabbis convention. I attend this annual event regularly once a decade. It's a scary thought to be in the company of so many rabbis. Amazingly the convention this year was directly on my cycling path both in place and time. A good and overdue chance to see friends.
And the food's been amazing. Last night I went to a place owned by the Brennan family, the local food bigwigs, but this particular place a cab ride distant from downtown and the French Quarter. (And btw the French Quarter is seedy and back.)
What food. Sauced, of course. Let's just say that my appetizer was BBQ lamb spare ribs. Did I say amazing?
The same storm hit here as in Gulfport, yet here seems much more back to normal. But perhaps this reflects my becoming a conventioneer instead of a cyclist. There are damaged buildings, but the atmosphere of sadness is not present.
Still when I wandered into the Quarter "cycling style" to find a laundromat, I made the acquaintance of the owner of the "launDRYmat." She did not want her picture taken, but soon she was sharing her life's story and pictures of the storm, including one labeled, a 40 foot wall of water. The food is amazing and the memories are stunning.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
We also talked fishing for flounder with a spear and fishing for trout in cold weather with a jig line. And we sat outside on a damp warm March night, on the Bayou Denice, a bayou that flooded during the storm pushing water from the rear like a fifth columnist.
But tonight all was peaceful. And beautiful. And inviting. And the waitress called me hon.
I filled up the white wall tires and headed out into a stiff head wind that guaranteed a tail wind on the way home. Cycling is the best way to see so much. I was in the rich part of town, the less than rich and the less than that. Bridges with views and strip malls. And an amazing BBQ place where my helmet initiated conversation among the staff and patrons. A very sweet 15 miles. Oh, and I almost forgot, the lovely azaleas.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Downtown Gulfport and downtown Biloxi are rehabs, new construction, and vacant lots. Though much is rebuilt the emptiness is still profound. From Bay St. Louis to Gulfport to Biloxi houses, essentially all the houses, on the beach front block are simply gone. The next block half and the next block 1/3.
I stopped someone to ask directions to a coffee house. He said that I was looking for a "before the storm" establishment. His house, he told me in our conversation, was on the beach, was being a transitive verb.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Can look closely at the picture? It shows the graphic engraved on the marker. There is a hand holding a water pitcher. The man was a Levite. In the Bible, Levites, among other jobs, washed the hands of the sons of Aaron. In traditional synagogues the custom is maintained today.
Then on the way to lunch we passes President Jefferson Davis's house.
I pulled off the freeway, headed for the airport, but stopping to buy gas. Still dark, I pre-paid for my fuel at the rarest of places, a non-corporate gas station. The man sold the gas while the woman sold Honduran breakfast and lunch items to airport workers of Central American origin, and fellow travelers such as myself. Air travel may not be the luxury of the past, but it is still about "haves" going somewhere with the help of others.
My phone's Google Maps recommended a 3 mile route to the airport by some side streets. 4th street to 34th to fuel blvd. to terminal blvd. with lots of forced turns. At one point a plane flew really overhead. I could smell it. And then up a short and steep ramp and I was there, terminal A on my left. A shortcut of wonder.
Sadly the way of the world is elsewhere. Since I came in so perfectly, I needed to round the entire four terminal complex to get back to the rental car return. Yet the pleasure of returning my land yacht, another glorious human artifact, in the early morning was enough compensation.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
So I'm cooling my heels and arches and toes and pedals in south Florida. Yet today I felt the rush of the road as I "sold" my summer teen cycling trip, Tour La'agam, to two young men and their families. One on the phone who lives in NYC and one in person visiting their grandparents. Not quite cycling, but good to talk about it. (And anyway I'm a bit of a sales person. Selling is a trip on its own.)
So for the rest of us, Tour La'Agam: A thousand miles in 3 weeks, a traveling community, study, prayer, environmentalism, garage sales, cooking, camping and fun. Oh yeah, smoked fish and ice cream.
Check it out: http://osrui.urjcamps.org/about/programs/tourlaagam/
Sunday, March 20, 2011
We talked about our trips to South Florida, we laughed about life, we shared a this and a that. Almost three hours passed in a comfortable breeze. Who says women have a lock on intimate friendships.