Archive for November, 2009

About the settlement freeze

Last week, the Cap’n informed me (after returning with his Friday morning shopping) that the Associated Press was in the shopping center of Efrat interviewing settlers about the 10-month settlement freeze proclaimed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

I suspect most people opposed it, and for good reason.  Settlements are not now, nor ever have been, an impediment to peace here.  Economically speaking, settlement building is good for everyone: it provides jobs for Arabs over the Green Line, gets the PA out of having to build a sustainable economy, and provides badly-needed housing in housing-strapped Israel.

Settlements in Gaza were not an impediment to giving away that land.  When Jews were forced out of their homes, the buildings were simply bulldozed, and philanthropists who hoped to help the Palestinian Arabs jump-start their new economy purchased the greenhouses left behind by the Jews (which were subsequently destroyed or dismantled and sold to Egyptians during the “impromptu” Rafa border crossing opening).

There is, of course, a second reason why settlements should not be considered an obstacle to peace: Many Arabs (including the PA and Hamas) consider Tel Aviv a settlement.  What do I mean by this?  Friends of mine, in conversations with Arabs, have been told that peace in the Middle East is simple, and merely requires dismantling the State of Israel, making the entire area including Israel, Gaza, Judea and Samaria a Palestinian Arab state.  Or, when asked about his feelings about the settlements, another Arab scoffed, “I don’t want to live in Gush Etzion.  I want to live in Tel Aviv.  I want to live in Ra’anana.  I want to live in Herzliya Pituach.”  If these and other Arabs (including those governing the West Bank and Gaza) hold out hope of getting the Whole Enchilada, what’s the big deal about settlements like Efrat, Ma’aleh Adumim, and Karnei Shomron?

But I digress.  Netanyahu, I believe, is dealing with the Great World Delusion (that settlements are a stumbling block to peace) by calling everyone’s bluff.  He’s saying, “You’re idiots, but rather than telling you you are, I’m going to show you that settlements are just an excuse on the part of the Arabs not to make peace.”

So what will happen?  New housing permits are frozen in the West Bank.  Infrastructure (schools, shopping centers, health clinics, parks) can still be built in the settlements.  Previously approved housing permits will be honored.  And not included in the freeze is united Jerusalem.

But won’t that be a problem?  Indubitably.  But not because “East Jerusalem” belongs to the Arabs.  It does not.  Arabs are permitted to build legally in any part of Jerusalem, Old City or New City.  Jerusalem is united under Israeli governance.  Peace-loving people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds are welcome to enter it and see its wonders, or worship where they please.  Jerusalem no longer belongs to Jordan, or the Ottomans, or any other Arab colonialists before them.  United Jerusalem is Israeli, and (at least under this government) is not negotiable.  Arabs will not be transferred out of the city in the event of peace (unlike what Arabs expect will happen to Jews in an eventual Palestinian Arab state).  But Arabs lost their sovereignty over Jerusalem—and the Hebrew University, the City of David, and the Mount of Olives cemetery—when Jordan lost them in the Six-Day War (1967).  It’s time to move on.

I would like for this freeze to do what it’s supposed to do, i.e. call the bluff of the Arabs who will just come up with another excuse for why they can’t establish a state of their own and blame Israel for it; show the rest of the world the whiners and incompetents that the Arabs are; and provide a relatively low-cost way for Israel to demonstrate cooperation without risking as much as it did by withdrawing from Southern Lebanon and Gaza, both of which led to increased terrorism, kidnappings, daily mortar and rocket attacks, and war.  The freeze, unlike a withdrawal, can be called off at any time (and will be, says Netanyahu, if the Arabs don’t belly up to the bar and order their pint of peace within the allotted time frame).

Will the freeze work?  Most likely not.  The Arabs will assuredly come up with another excuse (already have, in fact), another hand-out they demand from the Israelis before returning to negotiations.  The world will refuse to recognize Arab intransigence or criticize their foot-dragging, instead putting more pressure on Israel to sacrifice  more land, security, or basic needs to try to coax the Arabs (which in turn will not work either).  And in the meantime, housing construction will be slowed, raising housing prices and rents to far above their actual value.  The main consolation is that within 10 months, we should be back to business—and intractability—as usual.


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Regular readers of my blog are pretty familiar with my version of Israeli politics–center-right in Israel, far to the right on an American scale, and way off the deep end in most of the rest of the world.  What may be slightly more surprising is that my politics have at last managed to make their way into my dreams.

I was curled up with Bill, taking a nap the other day, when I had a dream that I was back in high school.  (Not mine, but one similar to one I taught in eons ago.)  The entire student body, with the exception of the seniors, was off campus for some event and to entertain the seniors, the administration had conjured up a plan to treat them to a day-long presentation of “conflict resolution” activities, a la the Middle East.  We seniors were to convene in a large conference-style room, and the “conflict resolution” team were to lead us through various activities and discussions during the day.  What actually ensued, however, was that a small team of a dozen or so Hamas operatives arrived, set up their computers, faxes, and telephone lines, and proceeded to ignore us seniors, instead carrying out a typical day of organizing, fund-raising, and pigua (attack)-planning.  Not only didn’t they talk to us, their conversations among themselves and the people on the other end of the phone were in Arabic.

When I realized what was happening, I got irritated.  (This is a dream, after all, and emotions are often mellower than in real life, at least for me.)  I went to the office of the vice principal, the highest authority in the building, and saw him editing a family video at his office computer.  (He was clearly enjoying his day off.)  When I told him what was happening, he shrugged his shoulders, still staring at the computer screen.  Either he didn’t believe what I was telling him or, more likely, he was too lost in his own thoughts to act on the information.  And if what I said was true, what did it matter?  Surely I had homework to do, papers to write, or poker to play with my fellow students.  Why get upset about a day lost here or there?

Why indeed.

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Praise to HODS

Years ago, while living in the US, flyers from the Halachic Organ Donor Society appeared at our shul giving information and a pitch for traditional Jews to consider donating organs.

Many traditional Jews (and not-so-traditional ones) believe that because Judaism embraces the value of kavod ha’adam (respect for the human body), does not generally support the performance of autopsies, and has very strict guidelines for burial, that organ donation must be out of the question.  This is not true.

The HODS website includes the transcript of an interview with Rav Yehudah Meshi-Zahav, founder of ZAKA, a volunteer organization whose members go to scenes of murders, road accidents, suicides, and terror attacks to ensure that every casualty is as intact as possible in preparation for burial.  (This sometimes involves locating body parts that have been dislocated, or mopping up blood.  Rarely a pretty task.)  In the interview, Rav Meshi-Zahav states that “A person who was killed, or deceased, needs to be brought complete to burial. This is the correct tradition. One the other hand, any chance you have to save a life, this mitzvah is no less important than the mitzvah of respecting the dead. If a person can do chessed [donate organs]…and it’s the same chessed, no less than what we do with the dead…the same chessed, perhaps the last one a person can do after he enters the other world…is saving another person’s life.  There is no mitzvah greater than that!  …The phrase, “One who saves one life, is as if he saved the world” exists in organ donation, as well…Because saving another person’s life is beyond the elevation of one’s soul.  After the person who donated dies, the people [who received the organs] continue to do great things.”

Not all rabbis are in agreement about how to define death; some accept brain death, others do not.  HODS acknowledges that there are different ways halachic authorities rule on this issue, and their donor card allows donors to specify the definition of death for the purposes of donation.  The HODS website has an entire page dedicated to videos of rabbis around the world and their positions on organ donation, as well as personal testimonials.

Uninformed people may believe that they cannot be donors if they are sick or elderly.  This is not necessarily the case.  The website has a page which includes a diagram of all of the organs, tissues, and bone that can be donated, and includes two pages of FAQs for more information (here and here).

I am on HODS’s email list, and occasionally receive emails with news about the organization, updates, and success stories.  In the most recent email, I read that a 24-year-old expectant father in Teaneck, NJ, recently received a liver and is doing well; Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz has recently accepted brain death and supports organ donation; the HODS website is now readable in Spanish and German; and November is Organ Donor Sabbath Month, in which congregations are encouraged to educate themselves about organ donation, conduct donor drives, discuss organ donation as families, and invite speakers (experts, donor and recipient families) to address the congregation.

HODS encourages Jews to become donors by signing up for donor cards, and accepts donations for their very worthy work, which has saved over 100 Jewish and non-Jewish lives.

Just think–a mitzvah one can perform when one can no longer perform mitzvot.

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Those who forget history…

There are days when, as a Jew and an Israeli, I just cannot bear to read the news.  It’s just too awful.  Yesterday was one such day.

Two headlines I read yesterday read as follows: “Germany attacks Israel settlement plan before visit” and “‘Why Israel’ film canceled after violent German leftist protest.” The first was a totally predictable leftist European claim that the peace process is being stalled because of continued building in united Jerusalem.  The notion that Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem are already part of a (non-existent) Palestinian state is but one example of the fantasy that fills the heads of ultra-liberal thinkers, leaving no room for reality.

The second, however, was far more disturbing.  Claude Lanzmann, a French Jewish filmmaker, made a film about how Jews found a refuge in Israel after the Shoah.  The movie house in Hamburg scheduled to screen the film had to cancel it after being “threatened with violence.”  Protesters ranged in age from 16 to 70, and screamed “Jewish pigs” and “faggots” at would-be moviegoers.  A Hamburg radio host was struck in the face by a protester.  The Left Party, which originally associated itself with the “protesters,” is the fourth-largest represented in the Bundestag, and is well-known for its anti-Israel stance.  (A Left Party MP has been seen at pro-Hizbullah and Hamas rallies “where Israel was compared with Nazi Germany and the Jewish State’s right to exist was rejected.”)  The report says that two police officers, called in to stop the protests, declined to do so.  Whether this is because they were concerned for their safety at being outnumbered, or because they do not take seriously this sort of violence in modern-day Germany, I do not know.

The pièce de résistance?  “Andreas Benl, a veteran observer of the leftist scene in Hamburg and a member of the political group Hamburger Studienbibliothek, told the Post that ‘anti-Semitic attacks are not taken seriously in Germany. Only when they become an international problem for Germany’s reputation.’”  While pro-Israel blogs and an Israel-friendly alternative weekly reported the incident extensively, mainstream German media ignored it.  Only three weeks after the incident did Der Spiegel Online venture to report it as news.

All I know is that when this sort of behavior in Germany hits the international press, it is Germany—not Israel—that should be compared to Nazi Germany.  When my grandmother was studying in Berlin in 1929, she reported anti-Semitic incidents as small as Jews being denied participation on field trips with other students, and as large as Jewish students being thrown from the university’s second-story windows.  Germans rioting over a Jewish film being screened?  Police turning the other way?  The press ignoring it?  Sounds like the sun is setting on the Weimar Republic modern-day Germany.

Here we have not right-wing nationalists but, paradoxically, pro-terrorist left-wingers harassing Jews, creating exactly the same conditions that forced those Israelis depicted in the contested film to take refuge in Israel.  Let me get this straight: It’s the bedraggled, traumatized victims of the Third Reich who sought refuge in Israel who are like the Nazis, and not the hate-mongering, violence-loving, freedom-denying, vitriol-spluttering, jack-booted goons who robbed, tortured, and terrorized them, murdered their families, and gave them nightmares for the rest of their lives.  Got it!

It’s quite a gift the Germans have—to contribute the lion’s share of hatred and violence to the worst century civilization has ever known, and after suffering crushing defeat, paying reparations, and going down in history as the biggest murderers of modern times, beginning all over again a few short decades later. 

So Germany, from where is your next Hitler to rise?  Will you borrow another Austrian, or will you nurture one yourself this time?

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On Jewish writers and writing

Last Wednesday, author Tova Mirvis spoke at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute on the subject, “Writing Between Worlds: On being a Jewish writer.”  She set out to answer the two questions most often addressed to Jewish writers: Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?  And, Is this a Jewish book?

I am fascinated by these questions with respect to writing too, and was naturally disappointed at not being able to attend her talk.  In the hope of discovering if she has addressed these questions in writing elsewhere, I emailed her to ask.  She responded, “I wrote an essay on this subject in a really interesting anthology that came out a number of hears ago called Who We Are: On being and not being a Jewish American writer.  Some of what I talked about came from that essay.”

Has anyone read this essay, or seen the questions addressed by other writing Jews?  Or, since some of you are published writers yourselves, addressed the topic in your own writing or speaking?

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I hate growth charts

The Cap’n took Bill for his regular well-child visit last week to Tipat Chalav, the children’s clinic where they do weight checks, observe the child’s development, and offer dietary advice.

Back in the US, I used to find these regular well-child visits to the pediatrician’s office pleasant.  Our children were usually healthy, thank God, and doing okay developmentally.  They have always been small (around the 25th percentile) though, and around the nine-month mark they all begin to dip down on the growth charts (usually down to the 3rd percentile). We would usually leave the office with words of praise and encouragement from our children’s pediatrician, who knew our children well and knew to expect these dips as one child after another passed through her office.

Why the dips?  The Crunch children are all breastfed long-term–Beans and Banana for over 2 years, Peach for 15 months, and Bill ongoing.  Growth charts are based on the growth patterns of children who, by and large, are formula-fed.  These children, in addition to lacking the Crunch family’s genetically small frames, tend to beef up faster than breastfed children.  And while healthcare professionals should understand the limited value of growth charts in evaluating breastfed children, they tend nonetheless to use the charts as a measure of where ALL children should be.  (Do they also register the same alarm at finding not all adults of exactly the same average height and weight?  I thought not.)

Nurses and doctors over the years have told us that it’s fine for our children to be small; they just get concerned when the kids dip down in their trajectory, suggesting that their growth has slowed.  And yet there is nothing to suggest that there is anything wrong with our kids.  They aren’t sick.  They haven’t stopped growing.  They’ve just stopped blowing up at the astonishing rate they once did.  And are they not still getting what the public health world claims is Nature’s Perfect Food?  If it REALLY is Nature’s Perfect Food, aren’t the kids getting what they need in the way of sufficient fluids, fats, and balanced nutrition?  Or did Hashem cock this one up, and it’s up to humans (and Better Life Through Chemistry) to fill in the gaps with things like formula, vitamin and iron supplements, and appetite stimulants?

Like a number of mothers I know, I have dropped out of taking my kids to Tipat Chalav.  I am still supportive of immunizations, and there is nowhere else to get them.  But I am truly sick of being badgered every time I have a 9-month-old about how my healthy, typically developing child isn’t measuring up to an arbitrary instrument based on statistics from Norwegian immigrants in Kansas City.  (This last observation is from a friend who trained as a pediatrician.)  So for the foreseeable future, it’s up to the Cap’n (who has smiling, nodding, and totally ignoring nagging females down to a fine art) to take the kids.

N.B. We were warned soon after making aliyah to take what Tipat Chalav nurses say with a very large grain of salt.  Our family doctor in Beit Shemesh went to so far as to encourage us to contact her anytime Tipat Chalav said anything that alarmed or concerned us.  We don’t panic when they harass us about putting Bill on his tummy more, or about giving him more solids and less breastmilk.  But it’s still hard for a mother not to get teary or ticked off at a stranger making free to be so bossy and judgmental.

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Lessons from twenty years ago

I’ve been thinking these past few months about what I was doing 20 years ago.  Following my college graduation, I traveled for six months in Asia and Europe on my own, and saw wonders and learned things that I would never have seen or learned otherwise.

I had dutifully ordered my life according to expectations: going to school, getting good grades, staying out of trouble, going to college.  But as my college graduation approached, I became increasingly disillusioned with the well-traveled road I was on.  I was sick to death of school and could not bring myself to face an entry-level job right after graduation.  Fortunately, I had saved my allowance from the time I was a second-grader, and had a nice little nest egg.  I had always wanted to travel, and decided that this would be the perfect time.  My parents, though, were apprehensive (and just a smidge disapproving) of my plans and, from February on, began asking me what my plans were post-graduation.  I told them that I was going to travel, but they clearly hoped I would change my mind, because they kept asking.  And asking.  And asking.

My mind was made up, however, and while my college classmates were planning their weddings, buying cars, going to law school, and taking entry-level jobs at Dewey Cheetham & Howe, I was buying a backpack, a round-the-world air ticket, a Eurail pass, and a passport.  I was a little nervous about setting out on my own, especially since I had only been to Canada and Mexico, each time as one of a group.  But with a little Valium (thanks, Dad!) and a healthy dose of faith in humankind, I took the plunge.

My itinerary included four stops in Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Nepal), and then on to Europe, where I visited Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and then spent the latter half of my time abroad in England.  I visited friends, or friends of friends, when I had any on my route, but most of the time I was on my own and made friends along the way.

It would be impossible for me to relate everything that happened to me—my journals and letters are extensive during this period—but some of my experiences were memorable enough that they’re worth sharing.

In Taiwan, my friend and I did our shopping in the outdoor market in Taichung (the city where she was living that summer).  Live fish were flipping on wet tables, whole ducks lay in rows, their limp heads hanging off the edge, fruits and vegetables were covered in flies, and I don’t even want to imagine what that brownish gelatinous mass was (similarly covered in flies).  As I walked past the stalls, surrounded by the summer heat and elevator music, I begged my friend not to buy anything.  She insisted this was the freshest, cheapest food available, but I had a hard time letting go of my image of brightly-lit, air-conditioned American grocery stores as the only place to buy food.  She had purchased the Fu Pei Mei Cookbook (written by mainland China’s Julia Child) and was eager to try out some of the recipes.  Suffice it to say, we did our shopping at the market and despite my doubts, I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in in the kitchen that night and the several following, where my friend and her housemate created some of the most delectable dishes I’d ever tasted.  (And far and away the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.)  The lesson here: Food does not have to be beautiful to taste good.

Outside Hong Kong I visited a Buddhist temple (the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery), and after I’d wandered around, taking in the many groupings of Buddha statues, large and small, a group of Buddhist monks began chanting a service.  The sound was wonderful—like nothing I’d ever heard before.  I decided that next time I went traveling, I would make a point of taking along not just a camera, but also a tape recorder, to capture the sounds as well as the sights.

Most people are fascinating, and everyone has stories to tell about their lives—especially fellow travelers.  I had been with friends, touring, cooking, teaching English, and eating with my friends’ friends up until the time I flew to Bangkok.  This stop, I was on my own.  But looking back, I was never on my own for very long.  I made friends in Bangkok, with whom I went out shopping, eating, to watch Thai dancing, and seeing the sights.  When I went north to trek through the Golden Triangle, I was with friends I’d met in Bangkok, and along the way.  When I went south to Koh Phi Phi, I met up with friends as well.  And every time I returned to the guest house in Bangkok, I returned with a new friend.  Traveling seems to wake people up, open their eyes and ears, and predisposes them to meeting other people.  I was never without someone to talk to or take in the sights with.

In Nepal, I planned a trip for a few days to Pokhara, at the foot of the Annapurna Mountains.  The morning I was due to leave, I went for breakfast to a restaurant across from the bus stop.  Backpackers were required to leave their packs outside the restaurant (to make it possible for the wait staff and patrons to walk between the tables), so I set mine down next to several others lined up outside, and went in to eat.  When I finished and went out to claim my backpack, it was gone.  Once I absorbed that my things were gone, I realized there was nothing for it but to get on the bus for Pokhara anyway, and deal with my loss later.  (I still had my glasses, passport, money, airline ticket, and Eurail pass in a pouch around my neck.)  In Pokhara I purchased some clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a towel and shampoo, all of which fit into a plastic bag.  For the next week or so, those were my worldly possessions and do you know, it wasn’t half bad.  Yes, I’d lost my camera, my gifts, my clothing, my digital watch (that I’d had since I was 12) toiletries, and other stuff.  But it was just stuff.  In the end, against any odds I could have imagined, the backpack  (sans camera and watch) found its way from the Himalayan trek it had been taken on by accident to the American Embassy, where a Peace Corps volunteer returning to the US a few months later checked it with her baggage, and it was returned to my parents’ house in my absence.  This was one of many instances were the advice to travelers to halve the clothes and double the money gained relevance.

Copenhagen was one of the loveliest cities I’d ever seen: beautiful buildings, canals, Tivoli Gardens, cobblestone streets, well-mannered people, impeccably dressed old ladies and, after being surrounded by palm trees for months, I got my first glimpse of barberry bushes—so like home.  I knew the Jews owe a debt of gratitude to the Danes for ferrying them to Sweden to escape the Nazis, and indeed, their moral compass still seemed intact: To this day, I’ve never seen people stand so patiently at a “Don’t Walk” sign with no vehicles in sight.  The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) at Tivoli while I was there.  I was enthralled throughout the performance, and stood and applauded with everyone else at the end.  When the orchestra resumed their seats for the encore, they played a piece I’d never heard before, with a distinctly European sound and a bouncy tempo.  From the delight of the audience, I realized it must be a piece by a Danish composer.  The Chicago Symphony Orchestra knew what its patrons had come to hear, but they also knew what they’d be delighted to hear—an excellent lesson in hakarat hatov (showing gratitude).

After four years of studying German in college, I was delighted at last to have the opportunity to speak it.  Germany was filled with too many wonders for me to list—visiting Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, the Cologne Cathedral (and the museum of Roman ruins underneath it), seeing friends in Konstanz am Bodensee—but at the same time, it was the autumn, and large groups of schoolchildren seemed to be traveling the same routes tourists had taken during the summer, filling up youth hostels and causing the off-season youth tourists to be cast out to look for other accommodation.  I and my meager possessions had been turned away from the youth hostel in Konstanz one morning and with my small budget, it occurred to me that I may have to find a sheltered place outside somewhere to spend the night.  I had a newfound sympathy for the homeless, and it was only by sheer accident that I met up with a friend (whose address had disappeared along with my backpack back in Nepal) in the local department store later that day, and went home with her to stay.  This time, as so many others, I learned not to despair, and that I would eventually find what I needed if I waited for it.  Good things often happened at unexpected times and in unexpected places.

In Vienna, there were more things to see and do than I could have done in a month.  A city packed with beautiful architecture, unrivaled bakeries, cultural activities galore, and out-of-this-world shopping, I nonetheless managed to have a miserable few days there.  The youth hostels were full, the inexpensive hotels in my Let’s Go book were filled, and the only place I could find to stay was a seedy hotel with dodgy staff and clientele, a common shower with a clogged drain, and a bed where half the springs were broken.  (I discovered that there are worse things than cockroaches, which I sometimes had in my quiet, private rooms in Nepal.)  It was the worst night of my life, and I spent all the next morning finding a more suitable place to stay.  Oy Vienna—everywhere I went, people were rude, gave me wrong directions (usually sending me in the opposite direction from where I needed to go), and were appallingly behaved (I’ll never forget the sight of two women crouched behind a tombstone in the Jewish section of the Central Cemetery, peeing).  The only two people I met whom I really liked at the hostel where I ended up staying were…German.  I realized that sometimes it is actually possible to go for days without meeting a friendly face.  (I look forward someday to returning to Vienna and having a better experience.)

I was in England for the last three months of my journey, during most of which I worked in a pub in Cambridge, roomed in a house on Chesterton Road, and sang once a week in the Trinity College Choir (where the graduate student conducting the Verdi Requiem said he didn’t mind having a townie in the choir in the least).  The bar staff at the pub was international: an American, a Pole, a Brazilian, a Nigerian, a South African, two Irishmen, a Scot, and the usual assortment of Englishmen and -women.  The Brazilian and I had the closest friendship, not only because we were women (and not English), but because there was something about being from the New World that set us apart from the others.  I loved buying fruits and vegetables in the outdoor market in Cambridge, passing the colleges and the Round Church, and shopping at the Spoils Kitchen Reject Shop.  But my favorite thing, which I only discovered shortly before I left to return to the US, was the Fitzwilliam Museum.  I knew it was there, but I only had one evening and one morning off per week at the pub, so shortly before Christmas I made the time to go.  It was a treasure trove of art and history, but the thing that struck me most about it was that unlike American museums, it didn’t cost a fortune to get in: it was free.  (Donations accepted, of course.)  This, and the other free museums in Britain made me understand the importance of nations preserving their culture and making it available to everyone, free of charge.  Whether Britain has the politicized and controversial equivalent of the American National Endowment for the Arts, I don’t know, but the message sent by all the fights and cuts to the NEA’s budget is that American culture is for the elite, not for everyone.  I couldn’t disagree more.

Returning to the US after six months away was a shock.  I wasn’t in college anymore, and I wasn’t traveling; I had to get down to the business of living.  But that year, and the ones that followed it, I vowed to do whatever I could to make my life as much like vacation as I could.  I would travel whenever possible, spend more time outdoors, explore where I lived (the state of Oregon, at the time), and always think of how the people I met in the wonderful places on my trip lived.  I would never take a working toilet for granted again, I would learn to cook so I could make some of the wonderful foods I’d eaten, and I would always remember that you don’t need more than you can carry.

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After my recent post about bleeding hearts, a lively debate took place in the comments section.  A card-carrying bleeding heart stepped forward and offered all the tired, worn arguments those of his ilk use, employing slogans and buzzwords, and accusing me and others of being unable to see the other side, reality, the truth.  Among his warnings was the following:

One must also be aware that any occupation brings a resistance and sometimes terrorism. In one word – violence.

Weeellll, sometimes.  I don’t see any Tibetans engaging in terrorism.  There wasn’t any violence in the Sudetenland before World War II.  And no one ever tried to liberate the American Southwest after the Mexican War ended in 1848.

But this commenter’s point went well beyond pointing out what he saw as a political fact.  In discussing the Middle East, his comment was tantamount to approval.

This brings me to one further point about bleeding hearts: Whereas interpersonal violence (rape, assault and battery, stabbing) is unjustified, the slaughter of innocents for political purposes is acceptable.  At least by some people, and against some others.

Here’s how it is: Arabs killing Jews is okay.  The slaughter of men, women, children, and the elderly is all right, whether they be shopping in the shuk, riding a bus, learning in yeshiva, on a school trip, or sitting in their cars at an intersection.  Because those Arabs want a country, have a right to a country, and it’s every Israeli’s fault they don’t have one.  It’s not the fault of the Arabs themselves who have refused numerous offers of a state from 1948 to the present day.  It’s not the fault of Israel’s Arab neighbors who went to war in 1948, 1967, and 1973 in the hope of grabbing what little land Israel was able to salvage for its own state and annihilating the Jews in the process.  It’s not the fault of the UN which has funded and maintained the Arab refugee camps rather than resettling the refugees permanently, making it the longest unresolved refugee situation in world history.  No, it’s Israel’s fault merely for existing, and for holding onto land that no one else will take.

And here is how it also is:  Jews may not kill anyone.  They may not kill terrorists, because terrorists are freedom fighters.  They may not kill civilians, because that is barbaric and a violation of “international law” (whatever that means).  They may kill convicted Nazis, but we all know what a rare breed that is these days.  And the poor things are in such ill health, they can’t make the journey to stand trial anyway.

Still don’t get it?  Let me sum up: The Jews deserve to die.  Period.

Don’t believe me?  Try this one out: Talk to a bleeding heart and present him or her with the following scenarios: If peace could only be achieved by either all the Jews or all the Palestinian Arabs being transferred, whom do you think should be transferred?  Or this one: If peace could only be achieved by all the Jews or all the Palestinian Arabs committing mass suicide, who do you think should do it?

I’ll bet you a pound to a penny that in either situation, it’s the Jews who should cave.  Why?  You got me.  Because we succeeded here, and they did not?  Because we have built a thriving state while they’re still stuck in refugee camps and refuse to get on with their lives and build a state?  Because we have an economy, industry, and a government that (sometimes) serves our interests while they still subsist on Israel’s economy, Israel’s power grid, foreign donations, and still scream for more?  Because we are a tiny minority, in the Middle East and in the world, and it’s just not worth the trouble of taking our side since the rest of the world faces unabating oil dependency, fear of terrorism, and the expansion of Islam (including fundamentalist Islam) in their own countries, and they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t pander to their own Muslim populations?


Guess what, Mr. Commenter.  September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with occupation.  Neither did Madrid, or London, or Bali, or Mumbai.  Terrorism is not only “resistance.”  Sometimes it’s religious fanaticism, and the insistence that everyone share your twisted view of God.  Sometimes it’s jealousy of the success of non-Muslims.  And sometimes it’s the sheer pleasure of the sight of blood, the terrified screams, and the rush you get when you end other people’s lives in an instant.

Now, what’s the difference between terrorism and that person-to-person crime you dislike so much?

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Shiva and redemption

I’ve been to a number of shiva houses since “getting religion.”  While a few have been grueling—families mourning mothers of young children, a 4-month-old baby—most are for adults who have lost parents.  The mourners in these houses are sometimes surprised, even shocked, by their parent’s sudden death, but in most cases, the mourners are resigned, philosophical, accepting of their loss.  By the time we see them at the shiva, they have dealt with the death and made it through the funeral, and are settled down for a week of praying, sitting and talking to visiting friends, family, and community members about their loved one.

The Cap’n and I recently paid a shiva call to a neighbor of ours in Efrat who lost her mother.  She was sitting shiva with siblings, her father, and aunts and uncles in her parents’ house in Geula, an old neighborhood in Jerusalem’s New City, north of the shuk.  We made our way through tiny streets, many too narrow for car traffic, lined with old buildings (some of them crumbling), and the sound of schoolchildren shrieking at play in the grounds of a school.  When we finally reached the shiva house, we stepped into a courtyard filled with flowers, fruit trees, herb bushes, and mourners and callers seated on chairs.  Visiting a large family of mourners often means bypassing clusters of callers gathered around listening to bereaved family members you don’t know, and it was a minute or two before we found the woman we had come to see.  We sat in the sun on a bright autumn morning, the last morning crispness being warmed out of the air, and the walls of the courtyard hemming in the quiet, shutting out the bustle of life’s daily routine.

Our neighbor told us how her mother had never been healthy, but how it had been a stroke that had taken her suddenly.  She told us how her children were coping with their loss, who had attended the funeral (the older ones) and who had chosen not to attend (the younger ones).  She told us how her grandfather had bought the original house (built ca. 1905), a high-ceilinged stone edifice, and how as the family grew they had built the other smaller house and extra room around the courtyard, Mediterranean-style.  She told us how the home was really the family compound, and how every week after Shabbat went out, her extended family would gather for a meal together in the large building, spreading out a table for the 50 grandchildren, and how each child had a job at the meal (bring pita and hummus, clean-up duty, etc.).

Leaving the house, I felt something I occasionally experience after paying a shiva call: I felt uplifted.  Of course I felt sad for the family that had just lost its matriarch, someone who had meant a great deal to her family.  But I also felt like I had received a wonderful lesson in Jewish life.  Our conversation with our neighbor had been a combination of condolence call, Jewish and family history lesson, and lesson in what is important.  The neighborhood, which is a crowded haredi enclave now, was once an area of more moderately religious Jews.  There had once been trees and orchards there.  Where there are busy streets and dilapidated buildings, children had once played.  Despite all the changes to the neighborhood, our neighbor’s extended family had continued to use the family compound as a regular meeting place, where the children grew up with their cousins, saw their aunts and uncles regularly, and built a close relationship with their grandparents.  It was clear that change and loss would occur throughout life, but that the family’s closeness and regular contact with one another were a mainstay of their lives.

That Cap’n and I don’t have those things ourselves.  We made aliyah, leaving our immediate and extended families in the U.S.  I email my mother regularly, and we Skype on the computer occasionally to get a glimpse of each other.  But what our neighbor’s family had, we have never had.  My family always lived spread out all over the country, and now we’re spread out over the world.  But my hope is for the next generation of our family—our children and b”h our grandchildren—to build something like our neighbor’s family had in Geula (aptly translated as “redemption”).

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The Cap’n and I spent Thanksgiving of 1996 on a program in Arad where we and a group of fellow students managed to cobble together a quite respectable dinner.  We were joined by a few British and Australian friends who enjoyed the repast, but were hard pressed to discover the meaning behind the holiday feast.  What did Americans typically do on Thanksgiving Day?  Our friend Dory answered, “Eat until you’re sick.  Then watch football.  Then eat some more.”

I’m not sure the Pilgrims would have agreed with Dory’s summary, but nowadays that’s a pretty accurate description of the holiday.  The holiday of Thanksgiving was established in 1863 (in the middle of the Civil War) by President Abraham Lincoln, creating what Nathaniel Philbrick (author of Mayflower) describes as “a cathartic celebration of nationhood that would have baffled and probably appalled the godly Pilgrims.”  (Oy, what would they have thought of us scarfing turkey in Israel all these centuries later?)

What did the Pilgrims themselves eat for their first major harvest feast in the New World?  Philbrick says the crops that would have been harvested shortly before the feast would have included corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas.  Since barley had been harvested, it is possible that they were able to brew beer.  There would have been no pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce—those delicacies came later—but a wealth of fish and game were possible.  Striped bass, bluefish, and cod were in plentiful supply, and ducks, geese, wild turkeys and deer were likely roasted on spits and stewed in pottages with vegetables.  (Massasoit and other Indians brought 5 freshly killed deer to the meal.)  Interestingly, while we romanticize the turkey as being a New World bird at the time, Philbrick states that

[t]urkeys were by no means a novelty to the Pilgrims.  When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they discovered that the Indians of Central America possessed domesticated turkeys as well as gold.  The birds were imported to Spain as early as the 1520s, and by the 1540s turkey had become a fixture at English Christmases.  The wild turkeys of New England were bigger and much faster than the birds the Pilgrims had known in Europe and were often pursued in winter when they could be tracked in the snow.

My mother, living in Vermont, often reports on the progress of the wild turkeys across their vast lawn, and the appearance of the poults (or chicks) in late spring joining the parade.  So New England.

In high school and college, I discovered that Americans do not all have the same menu at the festive dinner.  While turkey may be a staple at most tables, side dishes are determined by the family’s ethnicity.  A Chinese-American friend of mine and I once made a joint Thanksgiving dinner (while we were both in England) with turkey (basted with soy sauce), stuffing, cranberry sauce, and stir-fried vegetables.  Italian-American friends of ours in California told us about their niece who had married a Mexican-American man, and how the two families had combined forces for Thanksgiving, roasting a turkey and accompanying it with homemade ravioli and handmade tamales.

Thanks to my New England mother, my family’s Thanksgivings growing up were pretty traditional: roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, cranberry-orange relish.  We had two kinds of stuffing (never cooked inside the bird, but in casserole dishes to avoid slowing the turkey’s cooking time down): apple-celery-onion, and a strange but surprisingly tasty dish invented by my Jewish great-grandmother, made with Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, grated potato and carrot.  Despite my fondness for the latter stuffing, I’ve found the apple-celery-onion stuffing has more staying power with me, and I make it with cubes of fresh, delicious multi-grain bread, rosemary sourdough, or whatever looks aromatic and flavorful.  I’ve ditched the molded gelatin salad my mother used to make; never liked that.  The Cap’n doesn’t like peas, so I usually make green beans.  Last year I made a chocolate pumpkin tart, but found that the chocolate completely shouted down the taste of the pumpkin, from which I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes two great tastes do NOT taste great together.  (This year I’m sticking to tradition.)  And when I was very young, my mother put hot rolls on the table with the meal, but after a few years she stopped, since there was quite enough starch on the table already.

A friend asked how Americans in Israel celebrate the holiday.  There is a spectrum of observance.  Some never got into it that much in America, and don’t observe it at all now.  Some keep to a turkey-and-stuffing meal at the end of November, but aren’t particular about which day exactly, most moving it to a Shabbat meal, either Friday night or Saturday lunch.  And a handful, I’ve heard, keep to a strictly fourth-Thursday-of-November plan.  The Crunch family follows the middle road, getting together with other American (or partially American) families and loosely commemorating the day.  Because we combine Thanksgiving with Shabbat, I have returned bread to the table, and we make Kiddush.  Beans once suggested I say the candle blessing thus: “Lehadlik ner shel Thanksgiving,” but I haven’t gone that far.

This year we’ll be joining forces with friends for a Friday night Thanksgiving.  I plan to make my children nap that afternoon, as the meal will be lavish and leisurely.  We will have turkey, gravy, stuffing, the works.  I find the white, thin-skinned potatoes in Israel don’t boil well, so I bake them first rather than boil, then skin and mash them.  I may add roasted garlic and olive oil to give them an Israeli flavor and avoid excess margarine at the meal.  I have cranberries in the freezer which I will chop in the food processor with an apple, an orange, and half a lemon to make my mother’s relish (sweetening with sugar to taste).  And I plan to make a pumpkin pie, but since one of our guests is British, and they generally do not have the chops for that kind of dessert, I’ll be making my What a tart!® tart for his benefit.

What is on YOUR family’s Thanksgiving menu?

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I’ve struggled for much  of my life to find a pasta sauce I liked that wasn’t prohibitively priced.  In the US, our family liked Barilla sauce (to match our Barilla pasta, of course).  But here in Israel, we find, the pasta is still affordable, but the sauce is not.  (It comes in jars half the size of the ones in the States, at twice the price.)  We’ve tried a number of jarred sauces here, and they range from just okay to disgusting.

Of course, my children like the absolutely worst-tasting sauces on the market, and until recently I have been willing to buy them for them (while also buying the more expensive, better-tasting stuff for the Cap’n and me).  But then we have two jars of sauce sitting in the refrigerator, growing mold since I’ve cut down on the amount of pasta we eat.

I was grousing recently about the poor pasta sauce situation to Ilana Epstein, my friend and cooking guru, and she offered me a simple solution: Make it myself.  (Now why didn’t I think of that?)  She says she makes pasta sauce every week, and has found a balance of flavors and acidity that pleases her picky children as well as herself and her husband.  Below is her recipe:

2 large onions, chopped

Olive oil

6 garlic cloves, sliced

1 lg can (28 oz or 800 g) whole peeled tomatoes

1 lg can (28 oz or 800 g) chopped tomatoes

1 handful basil leaves (more, to taste)

A sprinkle of fresh or dried oregano

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté onions in a little olive oil.  Add garlic, then both cans of tomatoes.  (Be sure onions are completely softened and cooked before adding tomatoes, as the acid from the tomatoes will stop the onions from cooking.)  Using a knife, break up the whole tomatoes while they simmer in the pot.  Season with herbs, and add brown sugar and lemon juice.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 10 minutes.

This sauce makes a chunky sauce.  For those who like chunky sauces, you’re done!  If you prefer a smoother sauce, run it through a food mill for a more even texture, or whiz it in a blender for super-smooth sauce.

One can vary the recipe.  Ilana recommends including roasted garlic instead of fresh, or adding chopped celery and carrots to the onions for a nice Napolitana sauce.  Tinker with the acidity to get it to taste, either adding lemon juice to add acidity or sugar to decrease.

This recipe makes 1.5 liters, enough for one dinner’s worth of lasagna or baked ziti, and some left over for the children to have with pasta for lunches.

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On bleeding hearts

Disclaimer: This is a combination rant/analysis of a problematic type of person in the world today.  I acknowledge that the majority of the readers of this blog do not fit this description.  Therefore, if you do not see yourself in the post following this disclaimer, do not be offended.  If you do see yourself, you might give some thought to how you formulate and express your political views.

I occasionally find myself debating with bloggers and commenters in the blogosphere.  Most recently, I mixed it up a bit with someone on Westbankmama’s blog.

I am not the most eloquent spokesperson for Israel, and I am also not naïve enough to think that what I write changes anyone’s mind.  Someone who thinks that Israel was the aggressor in Operation Cast Lead, who thinks that the Goldstone Report is a valid document, or who bleats incessantly about Israel’s “occupation” of “Palestinian land,” is someone whose mind is made up, and the facts are unlikely to change that.

I should point out that I am not a critic of liberal politics in general.  I think it is no accident that, as Matt Santos on “The West Wing” points out, “Liberals got women the right to vote.  Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote.  Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty.  Liberals ended segregation.  Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act.  Liberals created Medicare.  Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.”  Why did liberals effect all of these social and environmental changes?  Because they care about people.  I think that’s laudable, and I agree with it.

In the policy changes listed above, liberal politicians and activists identified the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the oppressed—in short, the underdog—and sought to change the social equation to give that underdog an advantage.  That habit of identifying the underdog and championing those who appear to be weak or put-upon has continued.  But something I have found disturbing in recent years is the fact that while liberals claim to care about people, they don’t always care about facts.  Well, not all of the facts.  And only about SOME people.

If I’m a liberal thinker, my first job is to find the underdog.  And these days, quite frankly, it’s hard to pick out the underdog in a line-up.  The guy who appears to be the underdog may not be right.  He may be immoral, or devious, or hateful, or oppressive, or just plain wrong.  Sometimes the guy who looks like the underdog is not really the underdog at all.  It takes a well-informed person with a critical eye and the ability to ask questions and scrutinize the situation to spot when this is the case.

I don’t believe that liberal-minded people are unintelligent.  Most of them are very bright, thoughtful people.  But I have noticed that there are some liberal-minded people who have serious blind spots in the way they view the world.  They are underinformed.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t know which questions to ask, or even how to ask questions.  They assume that the people they think are underdogs are all truthful and sincere.  They assume that those who have any power over the underdogs are heartless, self-serving, and bloodthirsty.  In short, they are as ignorant and prejudiced as they accuse others of being.

At the conclusion of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was the darling of Planet Earth.  The world had just seen a tiny country with very limited resources go head to head with its much better-supplied, better-trained neighbors intent on destroying it utterly, and crush them in less than a week.  What happened between 1967 and 2009, when Israel is without question the pariah of Planet Earth?  Has Israel’s essential nature changed in the intervening years?  Has the Arab world’s?  No, and no.  But in the last 42 years, Israel has grown from a small developing nation to a world leader in science, technology, and agriculture.  Even in its worst years, with buses blowing up, tourists staying away, and high unemployment, it has had the capital to continue to build its cities, its roads and railway system, and its industry.  Meanwhile, the Arab world has changed very little from the cluster of “monarchies” and despotic regimes, where the haves live in palaces and the have-nots live in squalor; where non-Muslims have few (if any) rights; where women cannot drive or vote or walk out of their homes unaccompanied; where gays and adulterers are stoned in public; where peaceful protesters are gunned down in the streets by lawless thugs hired by the government to keep the “peace.”

So why doesn’t the world’s liberal-minded populace still champion Israel?  Because they cannot.  In their view, economic success precludes “underdog” status.  Rooting for Israel would be like rooting for Microsoft (in the Cap’n’s words)—an impossibility for someone who can only see the underdog as poor, third-world, non-White.  The worldview of many liberal-minded people has become very simple.  Too simple, in fact.

I’ve given considerable thought to what would actually transform such well-meaning people from champions of terrorists and despots to champions of the actual underdog.  Here are some of my conclusions:

-Refrain from automatically romanticizing the underdog.  Love of the disenfranchised has traditionally been a strength of liberal activism.  It worked many times in the past few hundred years and allowed Western civilization to advance in fairness and equality, but the world has changed, and things are not always what they appear to be anymore.  Some wealthy, successful white people use their money and influence for great good in the world, while some non-Western poor people spout hatred and relish spilling the blood of innocents.

-Let your values be your guide.  When judging other societies, take a look at what their core values are.  If you value freedom, civil rights, tolerance, rule of law, and democracy, look at how the people you sympathize with view these same values.  Do they share them?  Do they embrace them?  Do they treat each other and their neighboring societies the way you believe human beings ought to treat one another?  And if they don’t share your core values, ask yourself why you support them.

-Let your opinions and positions be determined by ALL the facts.  In arguing with someone on Westbankmama’s blog, I argued that Palestinian Arab leadership has turned down three very generous offers of a state in the last 10 years.  My opponent ignored that, and blathered on and on about Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land and “aggression” against its people.  He either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about how the Palestinian Arabs ended up without a state in the first place, and which countries are actually responsible for their statelessness (Jordan, Egypt, Syria) and who is responsible for the failure to resolve their refugee status (the UN).  Buzzwords like “occupation” and “aggression” and “war crimes” trump the facts with such people every time.

-Learn the facts.  When I stop to reflect, I remember that when I first came to Israel in 1996 I had a very left-wing view of politics in Israel.  I believed that they had been harsh in their dealings with the Palestinians.  I believed that the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin z”l and Yassir Arafat y”s would put both peoples firmly on the road to peace.  When I heard someone on NPR read a news story in which the Israelis had demanded that the PLO renounce their goal to destroy Israel as part of the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process, I was angry that the reader added, “The PLO is not expected to agree to this.”  Why not?  I believed the Arabs wanted a peaceful conclusion to what I viewed as a simple turf war as much as the Israelis.  Then I set out to learn the facts.  In reading books about the history and background of the conflict by many different authors (journalists, diplomats, popular writers), I realized that the conflict is much more complicated than newspaper stories, radio and television segments make it out to be.  And those newspapers and other media outlets are often limited in their access to the events and facts, rely on not-always-reliable witnesses, don’t always check their facts carefully, and are naturally limited by deadlines and the ignorance and prejudices of their reporters.  In other words, those sources often present half-truths and cockeyed stories to the public, and don’t always print their retractions on the front page.

To gather the facts takes time, and many people find themselves pressed for time these days.  Nonetheless, if one feels strongly enough about a subject, one should do it the justice it merits to find out all they can about the history of the conflict or region, and weigh different perspectives in figuring out where their sympathies lie.  If I were sitting in my comfortable chair on the other side of the world from where the events are happening, I would make damned sure I’d done my homework before I started leaving comments on people’s blogs, defending a people about whom I know nothing against people about whom I know even less.

Since my debates tend most often to be about the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, I will take the liberty of listing some recommended reading about the issue from different points of view, from insiders and outsiders, eyewitnesses, journalists, and academics, who look at the issue from many different angles.

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Siege

Hands down, best book I’ve read about the conflict.  Irishman O’Brien cannot be accused of belonging to either camp, and I am amazed at how well he “gets” both sides of the issue, and explains their motivations and actions.

Daniel Gordis’s Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End

The most up-to-date of these books, having been published just last year.  It describes the toll on the psyche of Jews both in Israel and abroad of the wars and terrorism, but also why those should not define Israel’s character or its sense of purpose.  Beautifully written.

Mitchell G. Bard and Joel Himelfarb’s Myths and Facts: A Concise Record of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

This small volume covers the history of Israel from shortly before the War of Independence to current events.  It lays out commonly held beliefs about the conflict—e.g. “Palestine was always an Arab country,” “The West’s support of Israel allowed the Jews to conquer Palestine,” and “Israel is militarily superior to its Arab neighbors in every area and has the means to maintain its qualitative edge without outside help”—and then debunks them with the facts.  (My volume extends to shortly after the Gulf War in 1992; I believe there is an updated version.  And Mitchell Bard has a less concise volume which may provide even greater depth.)

Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem

Friedman’s account of his stints as New York Times bureau chief first in Beirut during the First Lebanon War, then in Jerusalem during the Intifada.  Gives some dated, but valuable, background on the first direct conflict between the IDF and the PLO, as well as a look at what one might view as the turning point in how modern wars are fought (particularly between national and terrorist entities).

Larry Collins and Dominic LaPierre’s O Jerusalem

A thorough, slightly romanticized view of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, particularly the siege of the city and the role of the British who tacitly supported the Arabs during the war.  The reported massacre at Deir Yassin is presented here as fact; it has been hotly disputed through the years, and has been discredited by those who investigated it.

Ze’ev Chafets’s Heroes and Hustlers, Hardhats and Holy Men

A down-to-earth account of Israeli society in the wake of the Yom Kippur War (1973) and how it changed the Israeli government, its people, and ultimately, the Middle East.

Rav Meir Kahane’s They Must Go

Contrary to the accusations that Rav Kahane was a racist and a terrorist, I have never read anything by him that suggested he was either.  This book includes the most sympathetic analysis I’ve read of how Arab Muslims and Christians cannot be expected to take joy or wish to participate in the Zionist adventure that is the Jewish State, and what the options are.  It also includes a house-to-house description (very difficult to read) of the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929.  Kahane had no love for Arabs, but I believe he understood them better than most people, and did not shrink from turning a critical eye to their TRUE plight in Israel.

Solomon Grayzel’s A History of the Jews

A sparsely-written, yet somehow elegant history of the Jews, and one that takes as its starting thesis that when Hashem closed a door on the Jews in Jewish history, He opened another somewhere else.  A Jewish history with a decidedly Jewish perspective.

In addition to these books, I have found articles by others with expertise in various areas to be helpful:

J.H.H. Weiler is an expert on “international law” and its limitations.

Shmuel Katz z”l wrote incisive articles about Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the peace process.

Khaled Abu-Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is one of the best journalists on the Jerusalem Post staff, and is an eloquent critic of the Palestinian Authority.

Brigitte Gabriel and Nonie Darwish, two Arab women, have riveting stories to tell about their lives in Arab society, and the demonization of Israelis they witnessed firsthand.

Sarah Honig’s biting critiques of Israel in the Jerusalem Post don’t sound like those of most of the rest of the world, but they are nearly always valid, in my opinion.

Daniel Gordis’s essays, available on his website, detail his family’s struggles with the politics and realities of living in Israel, with discussions of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the unresolved hostage situation of Gilad Shalit, the waning interest in Israel by Diaspora Jews, and the need in Israel for a new leadership training institute.

I have been grieved to see the European Union, the United Nations, and even many in the United States lose their moral compass.  Whether the excuse lies in political correctness, a natural antipathy toward Jews (i.e. anti-Semitism), fear of their own growing Arab/Muslim populations, or a hope of winning those populations over to them through appeasement, I don’t know.  But failure to tell the truth, look the facts in the eye, and stick to what they know is right cannot lead civilization to any good.

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The science of fall foliage

While this is not a Mayflower-specific fact, it is one that I gleaned from reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, and that interests me greatly:

Neither Bradford nor Winslow[two governors of Plymouth Colony] mention it, but the First Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the Pilgrims, a new and startling phenomenon: the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds, and purples of a New England autumn.  With the shortening of the days comes a diminishment in the amount of green chlorophyll in the tree leaves, which allows the other pigments contained within the leaves to emerge.  In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster.  In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny fall days and cool but not freezing nights unleashes the colors latent within the tree leaves, with oaks turning red, brown, and russet; hickories golden brown; birches yellow; red maples scarlet; sugar maples orange; and black maples glowing yellow.  It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which the Pilgrims later wrote of the festivities that fall.

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I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction in the past few months.  At the end of October, I decided at last to pick up a book I purchased a couple of years ago, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Philbrick, a Nantucket resident, became curious about the Pilgrim story while researching the Wampanoag Indians native to his island.  He divides his book into three sections, reflected in the subtitle: the story of the small group of Separatists who left England (where their religious practices were outlawed) for Leiden, then sailed for America; the careful diplomacy with which the English and the Indian sachem, Massasoit, forged an alliance and partnership in Plymouth Colony; and the unraveling of that relationship as the next two generations of English grew and required more land, and Indian society found itself undergoing change, both internal (with the many Indian sachems in the region jockeying for supremacy) and external (with some Indians maintaining their alliance with the English, while others believed the English had outstayed their welcome and should be sent packing).  This latter conflict became known as King Philip’s War (June 1675 to August 1676).

The author has created an impressive work, thoroughly researched and documented in fascinating detail.  Some historical narratives that pack a large amount of information are dry and dull to read; this is not so.  (At least not for me.)  He attempts to understand the inner workings and motivations of both the English and the Indian communities, and does not take sides.  He himself makes the observation that

When violence and fear grip a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy.  Given the unprecedented level of suffering and death during King Philip’s War, the temptations were especially great, and it is not surprising that both Indians and English began to view their former neighbors as subhuman and evil.  What is surprising is that even in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in American history, there were Englishmen who believed the Indians were not inherently malevolent and there were Indians who believed the same about the English.  They were the ones whose rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity finally brought the war to an end, and they are the heroes of this story.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing in this story (besides the fact that it’s the first thorough account of King Philip’s War I’ve ever seen) is the focus in the last section of the account on Benjamin Church, perhaps one of America’s first true frontiersmen.  While his maternal grandfather had arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower, Church was a true American: of Separatist Christian stock, but independent in the way he chose to live.  He settled himself on the edge of Indian country, befriended both Indian and English, and played a crucial role in the war that erupted between the Indians and the English, communicating with both sides, and relying on friendships and trusted individuals (both Indian and English) to lead him to success.

My mother tells me she did not care for the book.  Her interest lies in the story of the Pilgrims (from whom she’s descended), but I don’t believe it extends as far as the hostilities.  This is also not a very romanticized account of the English.  Philbrick acknowledges the Pilgrims’ place in the American pantheon of religious freedom-seekers, but insists that the history of the Plymouth Colony extends far beyond the First Thanksgiving.  He writes, “When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex.  Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know.”

As a former U.S. history teacher, I found this book incredibly relevant.  It seems very little attention is paid in history books to the time period between the landing of the Pilgrims and Puritans (in Boston) in 1620 and 1630, respectively, and the end of the French and Indian War, when England began a program of taxation on the American colonists.  Mayflower provides a detailed account of the delicate relations which existed between English and Indians, and the many events that both strengthened those relations and tore them apart.   European/Native relations in the U.S. are poorly understood by Americans, whose education exposes them to little more complexity in this area than Hollywood’s portrayals of cowboys and Indians shooting at each other, and (if they’re book-readers) Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.  Philbrick’s refusal to demonize either side makes this book a great source of light, and (mercifully) less a source of heat.

Having covered the main substance of the book, I want to add a few very interesting things I learned from the book:

At least 1000 Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s War, with ships—in direct contrast to how they would travel in the 18th and 19th centuries—carrying their human cargo from America to the Caribbean.  The English colonists did this not for profit, but out of fear of having Indians from rebellious tribes living among them.

While nineteenth-century Indians in southern New England regarded King Philip’s War as a conflict between the English and the Indians, earlier generations who had experienced the war first-hand (or knew those who had) remembered it not as an “us versus them” question, but “more like being part of a family that had been destroyed by the frightening, inexplicable actions of a once trusted and beloved father [King Philip].”

And while many Americans take great pride in the knowledge that they are descended from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Philbrick writes, “In 2002 it was estimated that there were approximately 35 million descendents of the Mayflower passengers in the United States, which represents roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. population.”  Perhaps it’s not so uncommon after all.

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The memorial that wasn’t

Like most bloggers, I occasionally get spam comments on my posts.  I usually don’t mind, and once I’ve ascertained their irrelevance and self-serving nature, I simply delete them.  But the subject line of the spam comment I received in my inbox this morning after yesterday’s Tragical History Tour post caught my eye: “Memorial to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”  This was one of the stops we made in Warsaw on our tour, so I was curious to see what this commenter had to say about it.

It turned out to be a link to an article he wrote 14 years ago about New York City’s failure to build a memorial to the heroes of the uprising.  It was exhaustively reported and rather tedious, especially for a non-New Yorker like myself.  But my eye always enjoys a good picture, and there was a photograph at the top of the article of the cornerstone laid in 1947 in Riverside Park.  The inscription engraved on the cornerstone read thus: “This is the site for the American memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Battle April-May 1943 and to the six million Jews of Europe martyred in the cause of human liberty.”

“Martyred”?  “Cause of human liberty?”  No wonder that memorial never got built.  In the communal yizkor, the slaughtered six million are called martyrs, having died l’kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name).  But this doesn’t mean they died for a reason.  They were not political organizers, social activists, or freedom fighters.  They were men, women, and children with ordinary lives who happened to belong to Am Yisrael and, through no fault of their own, ran afoul of a people with a hatred murderous enough to attempt to eradicate them.  Their deaths did not result is greater freedom for anyone else.  No one’s life was improved because Jews were gassed and cremated.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Their deaths have helped to illustrate why the human race, according to T.H. White, deserves to be called not homo sapiens, but homo ferox.

Anyone stupid enough to misunderstand what REALLY happened in the Shoah has no business trying to build a memorial commemorating it.  A memorial whose message is reflected in the inscription above would lead future generations unschooled in history to believe that the Shoah was a good thing, and that the world was a better place for it.

Thank God for small mercies.

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I exchanged pleasantries with a friend on Shabbat.  He told me that he and his wife were to spend that evening with a friend who had recently returned from a trip to Poland.  Since most Jews don’t visit Poland just to sample the borsht and visit the church where Chopin’s heart rests (his body lies in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris), I asked if their friend had made a Tragical History Tour, a well-beaten path of ghetto remains, cemeteries, and crematoria.  He had.

This leads me to consider one of the knottier issues of bringing up children in Israel.

We are a tiny country.  We can’t visit our neighboring countries on vacation.  It’s difficult enough to travel to friendly countries, given the issues of kashrut and Shabbat.  Our kids traverse nearly every square meter of this country on foot through family and school trips to the North, the Negev, and everything in between.  But when they leave the country, it’s usually to see grandparents and relatives in whatever quiet part of the world we come from, and by the time they graduate from high school, they’ve only seen the outside world maybe half a dozen times (if their families don’t have the means to spend every summer on Long Island).

During a typical senior year (at least in the religious schools in Israel; I’m less aware of what happens in secular schools), kids are offered the chance to participate in school-sponsored trips to Poland.  The itinerary of these trips generally covers Warsaw (ghetto remnants, Mila 18, the main shul and cemetery), Lublin (including the old yeshiva and Majdanek), and Krakow (again, ghetto remnants, Ram”a shul, main shul, and Aushwitz-Birkenau).  Side trips can include Wiszkow (where a large monument was erected to the destroyed community and includes a cemetery with a special walk allowing Kohanim to perambulate around the edges), Treblinka, and any of a number of tiny villages with memorials or vestiges of Jewish life (e.g. Ger, Sandomiersz, Gura Kalwarya, Kielce).  When the Cap’n and I joined a group from the program we’d done here in Israel, we found ourselves meeting up with the same girls’ school group every day or two as we all trudged our way through this dolorous chapter in Jewish history.

Parents in Israel are faced with a difficult decision as this trip looms.  Do we send our kids on it, and let them see with their own eyes the hatred that the rest of the world feels for Jews, and the outer limits of the violence the world has been capable of visiting on the Jews?  Do we allow our kids to confront the shock, horror, and raw emotion that such sights cause?  Do we send our kids, who are still so young and immature, on a trip to visit Death rather than take them skiing at a nice kosher resort in the Swiss Alps?

Or do we decide to send them, preparing them in advance by discussing anti-Semitism and other events in Jewish history that were motivated by similar hatred (though not on the industrial scale of the Shoah)?  We were once at the house of some friends, enjoying a Yom HaAtzma’ut barbeque, when the subject of the ma’apilim (illegal immigrants to British Mandatory Palestine, most of them refugees from the ovens of Europe) came up.  One of our hosts’ daughters asked, “But didn’t the world care about the Jews?  Didn’t they want to see them settled safely?”  Through Herculean effort, I didn’t gasp and splutter at her naiveté.  Clearly she hadn’t yet been on her school’s Tragical History Tour.

When the time comes, the Cap’n and I are agreed that our children should go.  It’s a fact that seeing those sights gives kids (and adults, as we discovered) a feeling of overwhelming anger—so much anger sometimes that we have no place to put it all.  But in time, the anger becomes more focused and gives us purpose.  The Cap’n said that especially since most Israeli kids go into the army when they get back, it is essential for them to know what they’re fighting against.

The world has changed so little.  A French diplomat can call Israel a “shitty little country” and know that he will not be reprimanded, nor even disagreed with.  A Swedish newspaper can print a blood libel against Israel and the world will not cry “foul.”  The president of Iran can turn up annually at the UN and make speeches calling for the murder of six MORE million Jews (i.e. the destruction of the entire Jewish State), and end his speech with people still in the room.  Violence and vandalism against Jews and Jewish property increase steadily around the world.

Hatred of Jews may never result in anything that looks just like the Shoah again, but it’s clear that that hatred hasn’t disappeared, nor the will to act on it lost.  If our children want to live as Jews in the world (and especially in Israel), they need to understand this.

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Missing out

Yesterday, while enjoying a very pleasant Shabbat lunch with neighbors, the subject of becoming religious, conversion, and intermarriage came up.  My neighbor told me about a family she knew where a grown child married someone very religious, came to live in Israel, and hasn’t seen her parents since.  But not because she herself is too frum for her parents; it’s because her parents are still too resentful, decades after her marriage, to see her again.  As a result, they didn’t attend her wedding and have never been to Israel or met their grandchildren.  I remember hearing about the bad ol’ days when Jewish families would sit shiva for children who married non-Jews, but to carry on as though their daughter is dead because she’s TOO JEWISH?  How messed up is that?

My neighbor then made a similarly astute observation about children who grow up and intermarry, and it got me thinking.  I don’t advocate or encourage intermarriage; it is accompanied by complications and frequent lapses in communication between marriage partners, and often results in identity-confused children.  But I also do not believe intermarried children should be shunned by their families.  Many years ago, the Cap’n and I attended a reunion of our respective (affiliated) yeshivot, during which the rabbis held an open question-and-answer session on any topic the attendees chose to discuss.  One young man stood up and said that his brother was planning to marry a non-Jewish woman, and what should he do?  The head of the yeshiva immediately seized on the question and told the young man that he should cut off his brother immediately: not speak to him, not attend his wedding, not engage in any further communication.  I began to prickle with sweat, and could feel myself reddening with rage.  After a moment, though, the yeshiva head changed tack, and said, “Well, maybe you should still keep up contact.  After all, she might convert some day.”

At the time I couldn’t focus on anything more than what I perceived as the bigotry and hypocrisy of this rabbi.  His first recommendation was straight out of a Polish shtetl.  His second was only slightly better.  The fact is, this yeshiva’s programs were designed for ba’alei teshuvah who, by definition, grew up with weak Jewish backgrounds.  Did no one stop to think that perhaps the young man’s brother had had as weak a Jewish upbringing as he himself had?  And that his brother may have been part of that large percentage of Jews with weak backgrounds who don’t see the point of marrying Jewish, and that what was done was done?  Do those from weak Jewish backgrounds who “get religion” have the right to act like sanctimonious asses to their siblings?

But there is a third, very remote, possibility no one brought up in that conversation.  That is, think about the good that can come of 1) living as a Jew should, i.e. treating others with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness, and 2) letting the non-Jewish spouse AND CHILDREN see that.  My father’s Jewish family wasn’t pleased when he chose to marry my non-Jewish mother, but because they accepted that this was reality, they were warm, loving, and attentive to my mother and us children the whole time I was growing up.  (Much more so than my mother’s family, as it happened.)  That feeling of belonging with my Jewish family was one of several factors that I believe contributed to my decision to choose Judaism for myself when I grew up.

Intermarriage, while not ideal, is not necessarily a permanent state with inevitable consequences.  I occasionally hear of non-Jewish spouses who, after decades of marriage to a Jew, finally decide to convert.  It is no less possible for the halachically non-Jewish children (or even grandchildren) of those marriages to convert.  The statistics are not high for this, but it should be obvious that the more included those parents and children are in their extended Jewish family, the more likely they are to see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people, and the more natural it would be for them, if they desire the stamp of halachah on their Jewish identity, to convert.

Everyone’s life is “their turn.”  Our parents had their turn to choose how they would identify themselves, whom they would marry, how they would run their household, how many children they would have, and how they would chart their upbringing.  We have our turn, and our children will have theirs.  None of us has the right to judge the previous generation for their choices, and they do not have the right to impose on us for ours.  While we can influence the next generation through education and modeling of our own choices, the decision to be religious (a la us), haredi, secular, or intermarry is theirs to make.

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