Some Things I Learned (Update from Israel, 12/14/14)

On the last night of Sukkot, I went to an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.  There was the standard collection of black hats atop white faces, black kippahs darting around the room two feet off the ground, and wigged women looking down on us from above.  And there were also three Chinese men in khakis with kippahs.  Only one of them spoke English, and he translated for the others.  I asked them where they were from and what they were doing here.  None of them were born Jewish, and the one with the well-book marked Chinese Bible was converting to Judaism.  For him, Israel was sacred space.  I asked him what Judaism meant to him, and he answered with a smile, “Responsibility and happiness.”

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a bus in Jerusalem with Nathan.  An Orthodox woman in her 60’s struck up a conversation with us.  She asked where we were from, what we were doing, etc.  We asked her the same questions.  She is an American from Philadelphia, made Aliyah a few decades ago, and is now an ER doctor at Hadassah.  She asked us if we knew Rabbi Jill Jacobs.  Neither Nathan nor I know her personally, and I am only slightly aware of her work.  She is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, and her goal seems to be working toward peace.  The woman at the bus stop was furious with Rabbi Jacobs: “Doesn’t she understand that they are all murderers?  Doesn’t she understand that on the other side of that valley they would all kill us if they could?  Doesn’t she understand that they all hate us?”  As we got onto the bus together, I said, “There sure is a lot of hate in the world.”  She replied, “There sure is.  They really hate us.”  I sighed, and the conversation eventually turned to her excitement about the upcoming English language performances of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies in Jerusalem.

All my Israeli classmates laughed at me the day after the second terrorist attack involving cars and light rail stations.  That Thursday morning, the Rosh Yeshiva asked us how we liked the classes, the schedule, etc.  I misunderstood the question, and thought he was asking how we felt about the recent terrorist attacks.  I answered that question, and the Israelis laughed.  I told the class how people in the United States were worried about me, and I asked them what they thought about what was happening.  They claimed that they had not thought about it.  That they could not think about it and do what they needed to do to live.  They expected these attacks and, as they say, ze’hu, that’s that.

At a Shabbat dinner in the Arab port city of Jaffa last Friday night, I met a man my age who made Aliyah, served along the Syrian border, and now studies in the secular yeshiva in Jerusalem.  He was active in J Street before making Aliyah and now thinks peace will not happen.  On the Syrian border, his unit’s job was to take in wounded Syrians who crossed the border and provide them with medical care.  Every day, he watched the Syrian war and helped its casualties.  I asked him why his opinion around peace has changed.  He said that survival is the first priority.  We are in a dangerous neighborhood and need to save ourselves even if that means hurting others.  I asked him if it is possible to survive in a dangerous neighborhood while hurting others.  He said it’s the only way.  I asked him what happens to a country that is divided within and assaulted from the outside because of its own moral actions.  His friend said, “Perpetual siege.”  We then talked about whether or not the Palestinian’s problems are our problems.  We concluded that they are.  We sighed and then played a game of chess with shot glasses of Arak as pieces.

I spent Simchat Torah in the Old City in Jerusalem.  Around midday, I went to the Western Wall to dance with the Torah scroll.  I saw a tall, thin man in his 50’s sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of the men’s prayer section by the wall.  He was wearing hiking clothes and had a big backpack.  He was not wearing a kippah or a talis.  I asked him where he was from, he said Germany.  I asked him what he did, he said he is a Catholic Priest.  I asked him what he was doing in Israel.  He said that he was making a walking pilgrimage from Lod to Jerusalem, and then from Jerusalem to Nazareth.  I asked why.  He said that it was penance for the holocaust, he needed to take responsibility for his people’s actions.  I asked him the question I ask all my clergy colleagues, what have you done recently that has gotten you in trouble?  He told me how he is teaching his congregants how to pray.  Some parents are angry with him because between soccer practice and school and the yearbook, there is no time.  I asked him if he stopped trying because of the pressure.  He smiled and said of course not, that is his responsibility to his people.