Part 1. A little ‘rachmones’ for a little guy far from home
It turned out to be a rather interesting weekend in many respects. First of all, our friends from Har Halutz came down for three day filled with music and food. The itinerary started Thursday night with a trip to Kibbutz Tzorah (right outside Beit Shemesh) for a concert of American ‘country’ music by two groups, The Hazel Hill String Band and ‘Judi ‘n’ Lynn Lewis with Dvir Cafri,’ all of whom I am told are, like us, American ex-pats who brought their musical preferences along with them on their lift. The original plan was for the four of us to stop at a Chinese restaurant in Beit Shemesh before the concert, but the place was closed for a private party. So dinner wound up being schwarma for the three of them. Alas, I was suffering some light effects of my morning’s flu shot and didn’t make the trip. But at least I didn’t miss the Chinese food that nobody else had either.
I had to get a flu shot anyway. I could have walked the ten minutes to our local clinic and got a free shot any morning, but, believe it or not, I had a better offer. There is a study being conducted at Hadassah Hospital to validate an improved vaccine, for which they were looking for healthy alte cockers, over sixty five. So I volunteered. Here’s the deal: I have to go to the hospital four times (I am picked up and brought back by a taxi each time), the first time for a physical exam to see if I qualify, the second time for the shot itself, the third and fourth time for a follow-up check-up. I have to take my temperature each day (using a digital thermometer provided by the hospital) and spend about ten seconds each day filling out a form. For this they are giving me a thousand shekels (about $250). (You can buy a lot of Hot and Sour soup and kosher ribs for that – assuming we can get back to the restaurant in Beit Shemesh! And I discovered later that Barbara’s mother, the world’s greatest mother-in-law, is participating in a similar study in Florida, AND she is only getting $100.) Anyway, I was still a little tired and dizzy, so I opted out of the jaunt to Kibbutz Tzora. It gave me the time to do a good part of my Shabbat cooking, which is just as well, because it enabled me to go out with my wife and our friends Friday morning to one of our favorite places in Jerusalem, Beit Ticho.
Without a question, this little house, part of the Israel Museum is one of the lesser known gems of Jerusalem. It was the residence of Doctor Albert Ticho, the first eye doctor in the area in the early twentieth century (at a time when medical professionals of any kind were scarcer than the proverbial hens’ teeth), and his wife Anna, who began to create drawings and watercolors of a sublime intensity. The building with its beautiful garden, located a few blocks off Rehov Yaffa (next to a large hole in the ground and a series of billboards showing an idealized version of the giant structure soon to be erected there, another opulent residence for wealthy foreigners who can afford to spend a million dollars for a place they may reside in for one month a year) is now a museum to showcase Anna Ticho’s work and house temporary exhibits which range from great to awful. And on Friday mornings in the upstairs gallery, they present Concerticho, a series of chamber music concerts which showcase the talents of local performers, mostly the myriad of former-Soviet-Unioners and their children who keep classical music alive in The Land. For more than an hour, starting at 11AM, the pianist Lubov Barsky (later joined by Igor Braslavsky, violist) performed works by Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Prokofieff. Well done, although it’s hard to make the soft passages pianissimo in a room this small. And then it was time for lunch in the little restaurant on the first floor. During the concert, I had looked out one of the windows and noticed the trees swaying more than is normal for that time of the day. When we went downstairs later, we realized that there was a genuine downpour – part of the first really heavy rain that has fallen in the Jerusalem area, and we could see the drops dripping through the leaves. Israelis, in general, have no patience, but their vegetation does. These trees, and all the plants scattered throughout the city had waited stoically for over six months to get a bath, and the dustiness in Jerusalem was suddenly replaced with the aroma of the freshly falling rain – which we could smell from our table in the little side room in which we had been seated. On any day of the year, the lunch we had we have gotten rave reviews, but it was made more special by the fact that it was early Friday afternoon and the four of us could prepare for Shabbat by relaxing instead of being caught up in the normal frantic erev Shabbat pace. All I needed to do was take out my cell phone and call up our daughter Natania, “We’re still at the Ticho house; would you mind making another vegetable dish (or two)?”
Saturday night, after Shabbat, we were back in Rich’s car, heading to the Bible Lands Museum for concert number three, devoted to the music of George (and Ira) Gershwin, performed by Robert Binder (vocals) and Paul Salter (keyboard), the two men who put on the series of Gilbert and Sullivan and musical comedy productions which we have been going to since we arrived here. The concert started at 8:30, and because we got there at 7:35, we were able wile away the better part of an hour, sitting in the little restaurant on the museum’s lowest level, nibbling cheese and crackers and sipping wine (all at no extra charge). The concert itself was delightful, a cornucopia of familiar Gershwin tunes (‘Swonderful! Smarvelous!/That you should care for me!/”Sawful nice! ‘Sparadise!/’Swat I love to see!.......) that almost everybody in the audience (a selection of Anglos, most of whom would have qualified for the flu shot study) could have joined in singing even without the song sheets that were distributed as we entered the auditorium. The only thing that was missing was a screen with the words projected on it and the bouncing ball (although I think you have to be of a certain age to understand this reference. When was the last time you were at a sing-along?) Let me add one musical comment. The scoring of the accompaniment for solo piano had been made by George Gershwin himself and, listening to Paul Salter work his way through these sophisticated arrangements, I was reminded of the comment by Irving Berlin that the rest of them wrote good songs, but that the Gershwin was a composer. These piano accompaniments by themselves are better than most of the music written in the twentieth century.
The only downer to the evening occurred as we were leaving. Some guy, who must have reloaded his wine glass even more than I did, button-holed us – even following me into the men’s room – with a long explanation as to why the most important thing we could do with our lives in the next twenty four hours was to register for the Likud Party so that we could vote in the next primary to oust Netanyahu – having no idea who we were and what our politics might be, or whether local politics were uppermost on our minds (the answer is ‘no’). The guy’s wife was mortified – although I have to assume this was not the first time he was drunk and rowdy in public. Once we were back in the car, I decided to give my three companions a ‘pop quiz’ which I hoped would return our focus to the music of the evening. You can try your hand at it to, if you want; the answer is below.In 1930, the Gershwins created a Broadway musical “Girl Crazy,” in which Ethel Merman made her debut, and which was later made into a film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. In the song “Could You Use Me,” which in the film, Mickey sings to Judy – who of course is initially unimpressed with everything about him – Ira Gershwin had to scramble for something to rhyme with “easterner.” What did he come up with?
Back to Maale Adumim, because our friends had to leave for work the next morning even before the dawn was considering cracking, before the traffic from Modiin and the south started to jam the roads going to Tel Aviv. Natania had to leave by 7:30 to get back to her base on time. Barbara and I have to be presentable for a plumber who was supposed to be at our house at 9:15. Unfortunately he never showed up, but that’s another story……….
(Have some pity on an Easterner,Show a little sympathy,No one possibly could be sternerThan you have been with me.There’s a job that I’m applying forLet me put it to you thus:It’s a partnership I’m vying for,Mr. and Mrs. Us.)
Everything is easy……if you know how.
Part 2. Advice given and ignored
Lest you think that life for us here in The Land revolves primarily around our interest in food and various forms of Western music, this Shabbat was the one on which we read the Torah portion entitled “Lech Lecha.”(G-d said to Avram, “take yourself out of the land of your birth and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.) For obvious reasons, this is designated as the Shabbat for Olim at our beit knesset, Musar Avicha, when we welcome anyone in the community who has arrived within the last year. Any such adult mail gets called to the Torah, there is a special kiddush for all such families, and we arrange that everyone gets invited to someone’s home for Shabbat lunch. So there were eight of us in our dining salon: the three of us, a neighbor who often winds up with us, our friends from Har Halutz, and a new couple in town.
Back in the beginning of September when we had just moved to our new apartment, we were in one of the stores in Kikar Yahalom, the old shopping center in town, looking for a few things we needed, when Barbara and I spied this couple. They didn’t have to open their mouths to let us hear their Mid-western accent; we knew immediately from their expressions that they were just off one of the latest Nefesh B’Nefesh flights. There is unquestionably a New Olim look, as unmistakable as if they were wearing the NBN caps one is given on the flight over. With this singular look, one can convey all of the following degrees of panic: am I in the right store; do I know what I need and do they have that here in Israel; what do they call it; what does it cost in this Monopoly money they gave me; will they realize that we’re just off the boat and rip us off; does anybody here speak English? Now we, of course, are seasoned veterans. There is a reasonable chance that we, well at least Barbara, will know what something is called in Ivrit, or at least how to describe it so that they can figure out what we need. So we sauntered up to this couple, in our best we’ve-been-here-for-two-years-and-we-know-it-all saunter and posed the question, “How long you guys been here?” And then, “Where you guys living?” They had arrived a week or two before, and it turns out that they are living at 3 Hamitsadim. “You’re living where the Tehilla and Michael used to live!” (You see, we do know everything.) Well, one thing led to another, and, as neither we nor they had workable kitchens, the four of us walked over to the food court at the mall for dinner (there we go, eating again). We see them every Shabbat at Musar Avicha, but with all the work going on in our apartment, we hadn’t had a chance to have them over. So Olim Shabbat would be a great opportunity. It’s called in the vernacular, killing two birds with one stone.
When we were in the middle of the meal, I asked if I could read something to the group, not something I usually do, but I wanted to get some response to something I found troubling – to say the least – and which in an abridged form you see below:
“Suppose they (Jews who had been humiliated and murdered in former times [FC]) arose now from their graves after three quarters of a millennium have (sic) have passed….(T)hey would see how much of that mania has already vanished, how much of that barbarism had disappeared. They would discover that a much more humane civilization, a much more enlightened culture has surfaced……….But most of all they would seek their own descendants in this bright, better era. They would seek their ghettos that have disappeared. The yellow badges that are no more….”
I explained to my family and friends that I had come across this rather painful passage in a book of essays in the small English section of the Musar Avicha ‘library’ on Simchat Torah when I joined the group of men who consider jumping up and down with a Torah scroll an excessive use of energy and insufficiently interesting as a spectator sport, and who instead use the time to try and learn something. Only then did I tell my audience that this passage was from an essay entitled “The 67th Psalm and the Centuries of the Crusades---Should we Delete the Sefirah Prayers?” Doling out information bit by bit, I said that this was written towards the end of the nineteenth century…. in Germany………by a very prominent rabbi……….a leader of German Jewry…………named (as some of you have already figured out) Samson Rafael Hirsch. I also admitted that I did not understand the article, at least as it related to the sefirah (counting the forty nine days from the second day of Pesach to Shavuot). You would get the sense from the author that the greatest danger then facing world Jewry was the Reform movement.
Ms. J, just off the plane and still feeling the euphoria of her aliyah, drew a conclusion from the article that others have voiced: even when things seem to be going well for the Jews in a particular country, catastrophe is just around the corner, and Jews in America should take heed. I told her that she was free to infer whatever she liked from the excerpt I read, but I was not necessarily pushing in that direction, or any direction. Although I wasn’t up to articulating it at the time, I was in the process of developing an image in my fertile and sometimes overheated brain, which could perhaps be described as something from a movie: First you see a (fictional) rabbi sitting at his desk writing about the wonders of Jewish life in Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, Paris…..The scene shifts to an large ship docked in a harbor, say in Hamburg, waiting to set sail for New York. Back to the rabbi, still writing. Back to the port where people are gathering to board the ship. Back to the rabbi. Back to the ship, where more and more people are gathering. The rabbi keeps writing, how we need to remain in our cities of residence in Europe where a ‘new world’ is opening up for the Jewish people and we are becoming a Light Unto the Nations. Back to the docks, where for the first time we see the faces of the now throngs of passengers boarding the ship and their families there to say good-bye. Why many of them are unmistakably Jews!, fleeing a life of oppression, of poverty, running away from conscription in the Czarist army, thousands of people, thousands of reasons. Close-ups of faces, a mixture of elation at fleeing to a New World and the sadness of knowing that they may never see again those they are leaving behind. Back to the rabbi, still writing………
I know something about this topic because all four of my grandparents were on one of those boats.
The editors of the his Collected Writings, The Jewish Year, volume 1, published by Feldheim Publishers, do not indicate when this particular essay was written, although it had to be before 1888 when R. Hirsch died. That was also the year when a great blizzard unexpectedly blanketed the New York area in March and shut down the city; from their cold-water flats on the Lower East Side and the South Bronx, my grandparents were there to witness this meteorological phenomenon for themselves, which they remembered, I am told, long after. But I have no idea whether my grandparents were aware of R. Hirsch’s death that year, or if they had ever heard of him. Suffice to say, they, like hundreds of thousands of their landsmen, had, knowingly or otherwise, ignored his advice. Generally speaking, the Jews who came to America were poorly educated and poorly situated, unlike Samson Raphael Hirsch, a brilliant and honorable man and the unquestioned leader of the German Jewish religious community. I am reminded of one of my iron principles of life: Being smart does not necessarily make you right.
Part 3 A Nasal Passage
Many of my readers, I realize, have characterized my articles as an ‘aliyah blog,’ similar to with the other five hundred or so other blogs whose main purpose is encouraging friends and family to get on a plane ASAP and join us in The Land. So it may come as a surprise to some that I have an entirely difference purpose in mind. I simply want to keep in touch with people back in The States; and for the first time in my life I have the time and the energy to write something on a sustained basis. I enjoy describing my fascination with our ancestral homeland, and enough people have encouraged me to continue my efforts to make me feel that it’s all worthwhile. But suggesting that all of you become Israeli citizens? That’s more than I can aspire to. My readership, at least those whom I know about, is a rather eclectic group of people: ranging from some of whom are actually planning or considering making coming here all the way to those for whom that’s not even remotely on the radar screen. So what kind of useful advice could I provide to such a diverse group? And what could I say that hasn’t been said, poorly or well, a hundred, a thousand times before? Should I take the approach of Ms. J., and warn about the great physical danger facing Jews in Exile? First of all, I have no substantive evidence to support that proposition – at least in the States (England, France, South Africa, that’s another story). And there’s the thing about crying wolf: people were predicting imminent disaster for the residents of Boro Park thirty years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. And if not physical danger, what about spiritual danger? At the latest count, there are exactly five Jews world-wide who believe that they personally are in spiritual danger….. more than ten minutes after Yom Kippur has ended. Assimilation, the destruction of a Jewish community from within? Not ‘my’ problem; my shul is packed every Shabbos.
One of my friends, who every Friday sends a short piece back to kith and kin in America, recently devoted one article to reminding everyone that it remains a mitzvah to live in The Land, citing the positions, stated and implicit, of two Torah giants, the Rambam and the Ramban. First of all, I do not ‘poskin shaylas,’ i.e., provide answers to questions of Jewish law. Second, if there is something I hate wasting almost as much as food, it’s my time. Why should I tell another Jew that it is incumbent upon him to live in The Land – if at all possible, when his real ‘rebbe,’ the guy who gets paid to answer his halachic questions is living down the block from him? And the rebbe’s rebbe is living in the next town, and that rebbe’s rebbe……… You get my point.
And then there are those who let you know how easy it is today to make aliyah and how much easier it is to live here these days than ever before. You know what? The easiest thing for most of us always….ALWAYS….is to do nothing. To stay put. That’s why people continue to live in flood plains year after year, bailing out their basements when the riverbanks invariably overflow. That’s probably why my late Aunt Gussie remained in her apartment on the Grand Concourse when no other un-armed person would have ventured into the lobby of the William Morris residence. I understand why talking about the level of creature comforts in The Land is not causing a run on suitcases at Kohl’s department stores.
There is one point, however, I can make which is believe is factual. It’s at least reasonable, by which I mean that it can be quantified and therefore discussed rationally. It has to do with what I believe is a very obvious transformation, demographically, politically, and spiritually, of the Jewish world going on in front of our eyes. Of course, as George Orwell said somewhere, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”When my grandparents and the thousands of other immigrants were sailing towards New York harbor, no one was there to ask them what they were thinking. There were no college students preparing term papers, no professors writing learned theses, no Gallop, Roper, Rasmussen, or Zogby polls, no reporters with cameras or microphones asking “How does it feel to be landing in America,” or “Do you think you’ll have a better life here.” Provocative questions like that. I never even got to ask my grandparents. Three of them were dead by the time I was four years old. The fourth, my mother’s mother, known as Tante Mashe, lived until I was in my twenties. But I never sat down and asked her, not only what was it like to leave Europe in the dead of the night and arrive here with something like the shirt on your back, but what was going through your mind at the time? What were you trying to accomplish, if anything? But I would be mightily surprised if any of the Jews coming to the harbor in New York, or Baltimore, or Galveston had a Grand Idea stuffed into their meager belongings, their clothing and their pots and pans: “We realize that we are the first wave of a massive migration that will ultimately move the center of world Jewry across the Atlantic.” Not too likely. But whether my grandparents and the other Jewish immigrants on the boat understood what they were going to accomplish by their actions, the cosmic implications of their decision to leave their fathers’ homes; or whether they created something by just going about their business, the end result was the same: millions of Jews got to live and thrive in America. As far as I’m concerned, they certainly did the right thing. Looking at things from the parochial perspective of my own family, by the time the gates of entry to America were shut tight in the 1920’s and the window of opportunity to emigrate was closed, my father had already graduated law school in New York, and all of his and my mother’s sibling were grown and ‘out of the house.’ Later, when the “yellow badges that are no more” became ‘more,’ unlike a lot of other unfortunate people, we were safe and sound far away in the New World, which for a brief instant in World History had become, almost by default, the center of Jewish life.
The ‘problem’ is that there are some who are under the impression that this momentary blip is an eternal verity: that the center of Jewish life will remain in America for the next thousand years, rather than rather rapidly shifting back to where it all started for us thousands of years ago. For most of us making aliyah these days from The West, being part of that migration is paramount in our minds. We may be rejoining family already here or taking advantage of certain benefits that accrue to new Olim, but we are all aware of the enormity of the enterprise: that every one getting off a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight is bringing us closer to the day when a majority of the Jewish people will be living in the Land which G-d promised to Avraham a long time ago, and which hasn’t been the case since the days of the first Temple. We realize that we are Johnny-come-lately’s. Jews were coming here to settle The Land when the Turks were in charge – even before that. Jews came here to build a nation when our population here was less than the Grand Concourse and environs. Every day, I run into Anglos who have been here twenty, twenty five, thirty, forty years and who seem none the worse for wear. We know a couple who won a lottery for an apartment and were among the first hundred families to come to Ma’ale Adumim in 1983; others who were here when there still were no sidewalks in town, and the Arab bus left you off a mile down the road. For me, this adventure is big, and I don’t want to miss out on the story – even if I have missed a whole bunch of chapters. And what’s more, my family has the merit of being characters in that story – even if we remain minor players. That is one of the reasons why we came to Israel, and that is the main point of my articles. Pure and simple. Anyone is free to disagree with my scenario or the importance I attach to it. You can say that we as a People have no future, in which case, we are all wasting our time. You can say that the subject is unimportant, in which case, we have nothing to discuss. You can tell me that we will continue in majority wandering all over the planet, living among hostile neighbors, but that is a thought too depressing to contemplate. Or you can suggest that Jews should remain en masse in The States – even though the Jewish population there is becoming less of a masse every day. But you know what? Even if you agree with my thesis and its implications, you’re not required to do anything about it. I operate under the fairly safe assumption that no one is going to come here to live because of anything I say or write. And believe it or not, I’m reasonably comfortable with that. You are free to root from the sidelines, kibbitz from the bleachers, watch events on your TV – before and after the big game. Or turn off the TV and go antiquing or fishing or whatever else floats your boat.
And I certainly don’t want to sound too triumphant. Just because the majority of world Jewry, and its institutions, and ultimately its money will be in Israel in the next generation or two, doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory here between the Mediterranean and the Western Wall. In addition to the formidable set of enemies lining up at our borders, we have within our midst two enormous obstacles to our physical and spiritual growth: the government (not just the knaves who sit in the Knesset, but the whole system we are burdened with) and The Rabbinate (not the many extraordinary rabbis who reside here, but the Officialdom, who are doing us no favors by their existence). Every day when the sun rises over the Hills of Moab (Jordan) to our east, we as a nation can either take one step closer to our creating our own Gan Eden, or one step closer to becoming a necessary evil (being in control of our destiny – as much as any human beings are ever in charge – gives you the chance to mess up big time); many days the country splits the difference and takes a step in both directions at the same time. What happens is that most people here – like Jews everywhere; in fact, like most people everywhere – get up and go about their business, giving them a never-ending series of opportunities to be as holy as possible or as big a pain-in- the-you-know-where as can be. Being here gives you the opportunity to see the possibilities both ways and some conceivable scenarios by which things can get better or worse. Either way, it will be people who will make the difference, people who are willing to see what is in front of their nasal passages.