Saturday, August 16, 2008
This is the text that should have appeared here some days ago, being the first one that I wrote:
It is amazing how so much seems to be packed into such a small amount of time. Already now I have so many new impression to tell you about.
On Friday after Hebrew class I rushed back t my apartment to drop off my heavy bag, get some water and a little lunch in order to meet the other students for a tour of the old city that the Ulpan (the Hebrew language program) had arranged. We were herded onto a tourist bus that drove us don Mt. Scopus into the center city. Our guide was called Efrat and she gave us a very informative introduction to the old city. Most of her presentation focused on the campaign to secure Jerusalem in in 1948 and how 19 years later (in the six day war) the Israelis won territory up to the old wall of what used to be, ca. 2000 years ago, the temple. I was impressed by Efrat's way of telling the story. Her presentation was factual but also included personal stories, poems and excerpts from articles, essays and once an excerpt form the Bible. Today is Tisha B'Av or the 9th of Av which is the day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temple and Efrat focused on this day of remembrance in her presentation. Since the Holocaust, Tisha B'Av has expanded to include other calamities that have befallen the Jews and it is generally a day of mourning that many Jews mark by fasting. Efrat's premise was that mourning the loss of the temple and longing for it to be rebuilt is, for her, not a literal wish but a metaphorical one. One often refers to the rebuilding of the temple as synonymous with the arrival of the Messiah and for some, therefore, of salvation. In Efrat's metaphorical way of interpreting this idea, the temple symbolizes the condition of the Jewish people, or even mankind. Just as the building is a ruin, a remnant of what it once was, similarly humankind is in need of some serious renovation work and rebuilding itself. Her theory was that when people manage to put themselves in others' shoes, to understand the others' suffering as if it were their own,, then the human collective soul, the metaphorical temple, will be "rebuilt" and whole again. I was impressed by her courage and candidness, offering such personal (though her ideas are certainly shared by other scholars) perspectives. She told the story of how the Jews of Jerusalem would climb up onto the roofs in order to catch a glimpse of the Temple wall during those 19 years when it was inaccessible to them (that part of town was Muslim). She told us how the Jews longed to touch the wall and pray at the wall which is said to be imbued with the spirit of the Shechina (the female spirit of God).
I was surprised though by the slant that she gave to the rest of the story. During the six-day war (1967), the Israelis pushed forward to the temple wall in Jerusalem, bulldozing an Arab residential area, in order to clear their way to the Temple Mount. Since then, this day has been a day of celebration for the Jews, the day when their longing and praying for contact with the old Temple wall and Temple Mount was answered, Efrat explained. I understood that a wish had been realized and it is understandable that this will give rise to celebration. But reaching the Temple Mount had not just consequences for the Jews but also for the Muslims. The people who lived just west of the wall, lost their homes. Additionally, the Dome of the Rock is a holy place for both Jews and Muslims, for Muslims this being the place where Muhammad prayed before he ascended to God to receive the Qu'ran. It is also said to be the place where Abraham supposedly nearly sacrificed Isaac. The Dome of the Rock (in the background of the picture posted) is also said to be the center or starting point of the world, in both Jewish and Muslim tradition. after Efrat's seemingly egalitarian comments regarding understanding others' suffering, I was surprised that she did not point out that this day of celebration for the Jews at having reached the Temple Mount was also a day of loss and suffering for the Muslims. To one of my fellow classmates who is a devout Muslim, I feared that Efrat's comments must have felt callous and cynical. Indeed my colleague who was moved to tears to see, also for her, this holy place, was disappointed by Efrat's one-sided explanation. It is not that Efrat's narrative was false, it just seemed discordant with her earlier comments about empathy.
For me, seeing the western wall, approaching it and finally laying my hands on it, was strong experience. I have no religious ambition regarding the rebuilding of the temple, but it is powerful to touch the stones of what use to be the place of worship for the people how laid the foundations for what I believe today. I recited the Shehechianu, a blessing which is said upon experiencing the joy of having reached a new season in life. Translated, it goes like this: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ling of the Universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.
So there was the power of being at the wall itself, but the hubbub around me evoked strong feelings too. there were women (the wall is separated by a partition so that men and women are segregated) rocking, swaying, mumbling their prayers, with looks of anguish and /or joy, tears streaming down their faces. At the same time there were small children wriggling to get free of their mothers' embrace, eager to get down to play. prayer books were scattered at different tables on the periphery, worn with years of use. A woman at the entrance checked that we were sufficiently covered, clicking her tongue at me when a shock of skin on my back was revealed. The sweater that I had brought along to wear for the occasion in the 30+ degree heat, had crept up to my shoulders.
After that the our broke up and most everyone was heading back to campus. The school had arranged for a group Shabbat celebration and dinner. I hadn't managed to get myself signed up in time and it was booked out. So instead of heading back up to Mt. Scopus for a Shabbat dinner alone, I decided that I would try to find a progressive synagogue where I could celebrate my first Shabbat in Israel. I asked of the counselors to point me in the right direction. he told me there was a progressive synagogue in the German colony, about a half-hour walk form the old city. He had heard that it was nice there, so off I marched. It took me a while to navigate out of the old city and I had to ask for directions several times. People were helpful, though a bit in pre-Shabbat frenzy. It was about 5:30 PM when I set out. The half-hour walk ended up being about a 7K hike down the valley to the Sultan's Pool, back up the mountain overlooking the entire area to a final, but slow descent along Emek Ref'aim, a boulevard in the German Colony. he synagogue was supposed to be at the end of this boulevard. I had no street address though, no house number and it was clear that Shabbat was approached, to which the flapping tzitzit of the men running to get to schul on time, gave witness. I heard two men speaking English on the street and I asked them where the synagogue was. it turned out that they were on their way there an I could go with them. I arrived at the synagogue which was packed with people, the temperature steamy inside. The congregation was segregated by a curtain down the middle, he Torah placed in the middle of the two halves, in the front. The whole service was in Hebrew, the congregation sang, both men and women, in unison, in parts and sometimes polyphonic, little extra melodies trailing off after a sung phrase, like personal afterthought. Afterwards there were announcements, luckily also in English and before you can say Bob's your uncle I found myself invited to one of the congregant's homes for Shabbat dinner. Michelle, a rabbinical student fro Philadelphia, invited all together five people for Shabbat dinner. None of us knew each other previously, though some of them went to the same conservative yeshiva and recognized each other. It turns out that Isaac from Norway and I have some common acquaintances from Shir hatzafon in Copenhagen! I couldn't believe how welcoming and generous these people were. I was moved by the openness and kindness with which I was received. When I arrive at Shir Chadasha (the name of the synagogue), i was exhausted by my hike, parched probably looked like a vagabond with the dirtiest feet this side of the Jordan, and they took care of me. Wow.
Ok. I know this is very long but you'll have to bear with me a little longer. Yesterday was my birthday and I had a lovely day. I went into the old city again with a fellow student who had agreed to spend the day with me. This time we approached the city on foot, walking from Mt. Scopus through East Jerusalem, entering the city at Damascus Gate, accessing the Muslim part of the old city. After our long hike down the mountain, nature called and when I entered the public ladies room, I was greeted by women and children washing their feet i the sinks, lifting their skirts out of the dirty puddles of water on the floor and re-arranging their head scarves in the mirror. Smiling, curious faces made it clear that I was not the usual patron of these facilities. One woman asked me shyly where I was from and told me that she had relatives in Denmark. It turns out that they were all preparing to enter the mosque/Dome of the Rock (as described above - the entrance for Muslims is on the east side of the wall).
Afterwards we wandered around through the narrow alleys, crammed with an impossible amount of people, wares, smells and sounds. We hoofed our way through all four quarters of the city and saw more sights than you want to read about here, and ended up at damascus gate again with the friendly help of a tour guide on his way home from work. He pointed out sights as we hurried to keep up with him, "here is the seventh station of jesus' path to Golgatha on your right, you see it? Watch your step. You know, people are people, no matter what. Muslims, jews, Christians, it doesn't matter. See everything while you're here. everywhere is beautiful in israel. i go to the Golan when I go on vacation. It's quiet there, not so much noise, like here. Take a taxi home, don't walk home alone. You'll found me at Mount Zion if you want a tour. It was nice to meet you." he shook our hands and disappeared into the crowd.
And so we were spat out of the labyrinth that is the suq at Damascus gate at dusk, hungry and eager to find the restaurant that was recommended in my guide book. It was easy to find once some soldiers helped us figure out that we were indeed on Nablus Road. We had a nice dinner, talked and talked and got a cab back up the hill, which we shared with an Italian couple that had just arrived and needed to get to their hotel at the Mount of Olives.
I sat in the front and peppered the poor taxi driver with questions. By the time dropped us off at the dormitory, where my colleague lives, I had found out that he lives in the old city, loves it there, has a wife and two girl, 1 and 4 years old, that it's hard making a living because it's so expensive, gas costs 7 skekel/liter. He has a second job, painting cars near Tel Aviv. the shop is owned by a Jew, he said, and he and his friends car pool to work together from Jerusalem. he knew why Jews were fasting at Tisha B'Av and told me a funny story about a girl he drove once who said she didn't know why she had to fast at Tisha B'Av and so this time when wasn't going to. his English was excellent, having been a tour guide. He was mild-mannered and you had to listen closely to hear his soft spoken words.
Have a good week.
written on August 10th
This past week has been dominated by Hebrew classes. For those of you who have spoken Hebrew all your life, the language might not seem particularly difficult. This is a major misconception. My fellow Aleph inmates will tell you otherwise. Hebrew is hard.
I was speculating on what precisely is hard. I speak three languages and must admit that although I certainly have had my linguistic frustrations along the way, I think I've been blessed with a good ear for languages. Perhaps the "ear" can give us a hint. When most of us learned to read and write our mother tongue, we already had the benefit of a sizeable spoken vocabulary. So once we began arranging random letters into words, sounding them out as we went along, we already had an idea of what sounds we should hear. We draw on these experiences when we learn foreign languages too. We know how to sound out words, and even if there are specific pronunciation rules to the new language, they are quickly learned. The learning technique is the same, although the specific rules differ. For example, badminton and tennis require similar skills and the set up for the game, a ball, a racket, a net and a point system, are the same. Specific rules must be learned but the point of departure is quite similar.
Not so with Hebrew. First of all, most of us Aleph students don't have any spoken vocabulary to base our learning on, so we don't recognize the sounds we put together as words. They might be real words - and they might not be. You ask, can't you just sound it out? Well, that's another little Hebrew challenge. Vowels as such are not part of the written words. Those of you who have made a stab at learning Hebrew or speak Hebrew already, know that there are some consonants that can double as vowels, but never exclusively. So if we take the word "dog" for example and apply some Hebrew shinnanigans to it, it could be written like this: "dg". The options for how this word should actually be pronounced, were we to apply Hebrew rules to it, are multiple: dag, dog, dig, dug etc. On top of that the letters that function as vowels and consonants, depending on their mood, can change how many syllables are in the word. So taking the word "girl" as our guinea pig, we could end up with garal, grol, grel etc. Or grevel - the "v" can be an "o" or "u" in addition to being a "v"... Hebrew letters should have taken Oscar Wilde's advice: "be yourself, everybody else is taken".
Besides being maddening this is also very interesting. First of all, it means that children growing up with Hebrew have been solving brain teasers since they were about five years old. Secondly, it opens up an interesting elaboration on what Talal Asad (From "An Idea of an Anthropology of Islam" 1986) refers to as "discursive tradition". Discursive tradition is about what is accepted as correct and right practice in a social group. Asad was specifically writing about Muslim practices, but I think his idea can be expanded to other social groups. In his argumentation, "apt practice" (I think that's how he referred to it) is determined by the person or institution who has been given status and power by the group. This can be in the form of academic degrees, appointment to leadership position or simply by being a respected elder in the community. This could be the local Imam, for others it could be their teacher or parent that instructed them. So, where for example the orthodox beit din (Jewish religious court) says this or that is correct Jewish practice, a reform beit din may decide differently. But if they didn't have a group behind them to say "You are our expert", their opinions and rulings would be insignificant.
So, what does all this have to do with Hebrew? I wonder who decided what vowels were to be accepted as the "right" ones in biblical writings in Hebrew. In class, we ask our teachers daily questions like, how do we know this word is "salt" and not "king": m-l-ch? It has the same spelling. They tell us it depends on the context. Well, context can be a very personal thing. So, my point is that interpretation of biblical texts must have happened on a very basic level. They were not just discussing what the scribes of the Torah meant by this or that, but scholars must have also have wondered, "what words are written here?" The slightest change in vowel can lead to a dramatically different word and thereby meaning. I don't know how much educated guess work the scholars did. Maybe there weren't so many uncertainties. In theory though,the demand for many view points - all of them potentially right - are incorporated into these writings
With that I will return to my studying and will try and keep this philosophical frame of mind, rather than....well, in the name of free interpretation, I'll let you fill in the blank.