Archive for October, 2010

Baruch Dayan HaEmet: RivkA

As many who follow the Jewish blogosphere are aware, RivkA, authoress of the blog Coffee and Chemo, passed away.  Her funeral is underway in Jerusalem as I write this.

I first became aware of RivkA at the first Jewish bloggers’ conference two years ago.  While most of the bloggers present had Israel advocacy as one of the central concerns of their blogs, RivkA actually had much more in common with the world at large in her fight against cancer and her struggle to maintain a normal life with her husband and children while living with her illness.  A few months ago, I had a dream after reading one of her blog posts in which she debated when to tell her children that the cancer had spread to her brain.  (Should she tell them as soon as possible, or should she wait until they had attended some activities they had been looking forward to?  How would she be able to tell some at one time, and others later?  How to put off giving them bad or frightening news as long as possible, without withholding from them news they had a right to hear?)  In my dream, I was diagnosed with cancer and was faced not only with the daunting task of treatment, major life changes, and a likely shortened time on earth, but the even more devastating job of informing my young children and living with all of our feelings for the rest of my life.

My nightmare was RivkA’s reality.  Reading her blog could be difficult, but in addition to the concern I felt for what she was living with, I also found profound wisdom there.  She once wrote in a post (my paraphrase), “I used to think there were two types of people: those with easy lives, where everything is pleasant and goes smoothly, and those whose lives are difficult and a day-to-day struggle.  Now I know there are two types of people: those with difficult lives, and those we don’t know very well.”

This is my first experience in my short blogging life of losing one of our own, and one of our finest.  To RivkA’s family and friends: HaMakom yinachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. May RivkA’s memory be blessed.

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I received the following by email.  For those unfamiliar with the Herodion, it is the site of a pleasure palace/spa built by King Herod circa 40 BCE atop a man-made mountain in eastern Gush Etzion.  The mountain underneath the palace is a veritable rabbit warren of tunnels, some used by Jews fighting the Romans until 73 CE, others dating later to the Bar Kochba rebellion (around 135 CE).  Dr. Netzer was a national treasure.

With great sadness the Gush Etzion Foundation announces  the untimely passing of Professor Ehud Netzer (Hebrew University), excavator of the Herodion and most famous archeologist. He suffered from a serious and tragic fall during a dig at the Herodion archeological site.

Netzer was reportedly leaning against a wooden railing on Monday when it gave way. He fell nearly 10 feet before landing – only to roll and fall an additional 10 feet. He was rushed to
Hadassah in critical condition.

The 76-year-old archeologist is one of the foremost experts on Herodion, a man-made mountain built by King Herod near the community of Tekoa, in Gush Etzion. Netzer has carried out digs at the site for more than three decades; three years ago, he found the site of Herod’s grave – a discovery that was considered the pinnacle of his career.

Digs he performed in 1968 in Jericho unearthed a Hasmonean winter palace that sported bathing pools and gardens, widely considered the most significant archeological site dealing with that period in Jewish history. The digs also unearthed the Jericho synagogue, considered the largest Jewish house of worship ever discovered.

In 1978, Netzer finished his doctoral dissertation at Hebrew University, which focused on Herod’s palaces at Herodion and Jericho. He became a senior lecturer at the university in 1981, where he has taught ever since.

Today we lost a great man who dedicated his life to the preservation of Jewish history.

The funeral will take place tomorrow, Friday, October 29, at 10 am, in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim outside of Jerusalem.

May his memory be blessed.

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This is the fourth in a series of interviews with some of my favorite home cooks.  (Read my previous interviews with Mimi, Leora, and Batya.)  Ilana-Davita has been one of my favorite bloggers for some time.  She and I share a profession as well as a love of gardening (though her garden is far lovelier than mine), of good home cooking, and blogging, of course.  I also admire her photography and enjoy following her travels around Europe, to her beloved Sweden, and to the Far East.

Please introduce yourself in a few sentences.

I am a French English teacher and have been so for over twenty years; after teaching in a middle school for seven years, I now teach in a high school. I live in a middle-sized town in the North of France. Religiously I consider myself a traditional Jew and attend a Conservative shul when I am in Paris and a small Orthodox one in my town.

From whom did you learn to cook?  (If not from a person, how?)
I learnt to cook from my mother. She is a wonderful and creative cook who always comes up with new recipes and ideas. I learnt by observing her and when I left for college I really started to cook my own food and attempted to find my own style.

In what style do you cook predominantly (e.g. Mediterranean, Jewish, Asian)?
My style tends to vary according to whims and seasons. In the summer, it is more Mediterranean while in the winter it is more traditional. My recipes are also influenced by the places where I have lived (England and Scotland) and by my trips, mostly those to Hong Kong and Sweden. My love for curries certainly dates back to eating lamb curry in an Indian restaurant in England more than twenty years ago (in my pre-kosher years).

Finally I  try to cook healthily – with emphasis on vegetables – and try to avoid buying processed food. Besides I don’t like my food to be bland and always welcome tasty recipes.

What dietary guidelines do you observe (kashrut, vegetarian, vegan, Paleolithic diet)?
I keep kosher and don’t cook meat more than a couple of times a week. I now tend to eat more fish and my meals are often vegetarian in the evenings.  I had never heard about the Paleolithic diet before this interview.

What are your favorite foods?  What food aversions do you have?
I like to eat fish and curries. I do have one food aversion: fat! Food swimming in fat makes my stomach churn.

What is your relationship to your kitchen, to food, to cooking?
I enjoy cooking especially when I have the time to do it, and also to shop beforehand. I love cookbooks and reading recipes. When at the hairdresser’s I browse magazines for new recipes.  I also love to read and adapt the recipes I find on the Internet. Your previous interviewees (Mimi and Leora) are probably those whose recipes inspire me the most.

What do you think cooking and food say about identity?
I’d say that my cooking reflects what is important for me at different stages of my life. Thus at present it probably reflects my concern with health even though I can easily be tempted by less healthy stuff; pizza comes to mind.  I am also fascinated by the influence of history on Jewish cooking and how much it has contributed to forging specific and diverse Jewish identities.

Please share one of your favorite recipes, either from a blog post or from your own repertoire.
Can I suggest a few rather than one?  Since winter is round the corner here is an easy and wonderful soup from Sweden, a carrot soup which is always a success and a recipe for salmon which echoes my taste for Asian food.

Thank you for this series of interviews.

You’re welcome!

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I’m not sure there’s a soul in the Jewish world who doesn’t know who Alan Dershowitz is.  Made a full professor at Harvard Law School at age 28, one of America’s premier defense attorneys, a stalwart defender of Israel (though not of the settlements), and prolific author of books about the American legal system, Judaism, and Israel, Dershowitz was recently offered (and turned down) the job of Israel’s ambassador to the UN.

I’ve had The Best Defense on my bookshelf for ages.  After spending years accumulating books, I’ve given myself the task, in recent months, of eschewing bookstores, book sales, and the library, and instead pulling out books that have been gathering dust on my shelves and reading them.  (In the course of this exercise, I am evaluating which books I like enough to replace on my bookshelf to reread, lend, or recommend to the Cap’n, and which get tossed onto the pile for my next book swap.  This, of course, makes more room for new books when I go back to collecting them.)  I’ve been on a nonfiction reading streak, and The Best Defense appealed.

I have always found Dershowitz very readable.  His intelligence and sense of humor come through no matter what he writes, and this book shows not only his great legal acuity but also a larger degree of humility than I’ve seen in many of his other books.  (Published in 1982, it is one of his earlier books; perhaps the humility wore off over time as fame and fortune accompanied his career success.)  This book is Dershowitz’s examination of some of the problems that exist in “American blind justice,” i.e. its lack of blindness.  While he observes that the American judicial system is one of the better ones in the world, he has often come up against police perjury, prosecutors who withhold evidence and collaborate with witnesses who lie on the stand, and judges who are either activist or have a personal stake in the outcome of a trial which influences their decisions.  The limitations of defense attorneys are not ignored, but Dershowitz makes a case for their necessity in our society, despite how their clients’ crimes and sleaziness are often projected onto them by the media and the public.

To illustrate his observations about the court system, Dershowitz draws on his colorful experiences as a trial lawyer defending JDL terrorists, a man tried for murder for shooting a corpse, First Amendment issues including pornography and a nude beach on Cape Cod, providing legal defense for Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet court system, and the case of the Tison brothers who were tried for murders their father committed, and among a few other cases.  Some of the cases are more gripping than others (the Tison case had me riveted), and some were still unresolved at the time of publication, but all of them served as excellent examples of some of the flaws in the American judicial system.

It is ironic, but while I found myself very left-leaning in my youth (college and for many years after), I—as much as anyone else—criticized defense attorneys like Dershowitz for defending slimy characters like Leona Helmsley and O.J. Simpson: flashy, loud, aggressive defenders who seemed to revel in the limelight they themselves enjoyed while the media followed every motion and witness in the course of the trials.  I say “ironic” because it should be the liberal thinkers in a society who should be the greatest proponents of the right of even the shadiest, most unsavory—and yes, guiltiest—characters in society to a quality defense.  It is only since I’ve backed off from my unquestioningly liberal views that I have begun to see things differently, and Dershowitz’s critique of the seamier side of the judicial system, his vivid descriptions of the ways in which people accused of crimes are not dealt with fairly (or legally), and the reasons why a defense attorney must focus all his or her energy on providing a forceful, even aggressive, defense resonated with me.  Dershowitz does not spare trial lawyers from his critique; he takes to task trial lawyers who compromise their clients’ interests through serving their own desire for fame, for a cozy relationship with prosecutors and judges, for laziness, for activism (when dedication to a cause is greater than that to a client), or for excessive integrity (when a “general reputation may be built on the imprisoned lives of those defendants whose short-term interest in freedom may have been sacrificed to the lawyer’s own long-term interest in developing a reputation for integrity”).

I’ve often wondered how defense attorneys sleep at night, having as they do the job of trying to get their clients (who are almost always guilty of the crimes they’re accused of) freed.  Dershowitz answers this by writing, “I do not apologize for (or feel guilty about) helping to let a murderer go free—even though I realize that someday one of my clients may go out and kill again.  Since nothing like this has ever happened, I cannot know for sure how I would react.  I know that I would feel terrible for the victim.  But I hope I would not regret what I had done—any more than a surgeon should regret saving the life of a patient who recovers and later kills an innocent victim.”  This is an interesting analogy.  The difference of course is that the surgeon who saves a life is keeping someone from dying, not from doing jail time (which is what most murderers get).  And in this scenario, Dershowitz also doesn’t mention the surgeon knowing that his patient is a murderer, whereas the defense attorney seeks to keep a known murderer from being punished.  In my view this is not a fair comparison.  But I digress.  I take Dershowitz’s point about a defense attorney’s job being that of helping his client go free.  If I were accused of a crime (one that I’d done, or one that I’d not done), a zealous, savvy, highly skilled lawyer dedicated to nothing but securing my freedom would be exactly what I would want.  In each of the cases he discusses having taken on, Dershowitz describes the tactics and strategies he and his legal team employed, from drawing on precedent-setting cases to prevent his clients from being sent to the electric chair, to rushing out to a barber for a conservative shave and haircut before defending clients before a court known to scorn “bearded, long-haired-hippies.”

Dershowitz is most persuasive when he discusses the freedoms that underlie even the very imperfect justice system in America.  He writes, “Part of the reason why we are as free as we are, and why our criminal justice system retains a modicum of rough justice despite its corruption and unfairness, is our adversary process: the process by which every defendant may challenge the government. …I believe that defending the guilty and the despised—even freeing some of them—is a small price to pay for our liberties.”  This is a compelling point: when justice systems are dismantled, or have no appeals process (the Cap’n reminded me of the Cardassian justice system, where the verdict is decided before the trial begins, and the trial is held merely to stir up the public and serve the government’s ends), then freedom is seriously compromised.  Defense attorneys are “the final barrier between an overreaching government and its citizens,” words which would seem more predictable coming out of the mouth of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican than an active member of the ACLU.  When Dershowitz traveled to China in 1980 to advise the People’s Republic on its criminal justice system, he was asked, “Why should our government pay someone to stand in the way of socialist justice?”  His response is that “[s]ince not all defendants are created equal in their ability to speak effectively, think logically, and argue forcefully, the role of a defense attorney—trained in these and other skills—is to perform those functions for the defendant.  The process of determining whether a defendant should be deemed guilty and punished requires that the government be put to its proof and that the accused have a fair opportunity to defend.”

Over the years I have become more suspicious of government power.  It’s not because of any run-ins with the law, and it’s not because I’ve become rich.  Rather, I believe I understand human nature better, and all of its temptations to stray from the proper path.  (Sadly, this book confirms some of my darkest suspicions of human nature.)  And as a Jew and an Israeli, I have also seen, both in history and in the present, the zealousness of the media, governments, and public opinion to convict a people and a nation of unspeakable crimes without proof or even a proper hearing.  The court of world opinion is strikingly similar to the Cardassian courts, where nowadays Israel is guaranteed to lose its case, no matter what it is, before the trial even opens.  Justice can, at times, seem to be as elusive as, well, peace in the Middle East.

In the end, I don’t know whether my liberal credentials have been enhanced or diminished by my views, which have been further shaped by reading Dershowitz’s book.  On the one hand, my belief that everyone deserves a spirited defense in the court system would seem to argue in favor of my liberalism.  On the other hand, my belief in that creed stems from a conviction that people are NOT basically good or trustworthy, and must be checked and balanced in an adversarial court system, which suggests a more cynical, conservative view.  At the end of the day, I don’t suppose a label on my political views much matters.  What matters is one of the statements Dershowitz closes the book with: “To me the most persuasive argument for defending the guilty and the despised is to consider the alternative.  Those governments that forbid or discourage such representation have little to teach us about justice.  Their systems are far more corrupt, less fair, and generally even less efficient than ours..”

Hear, hear.

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Life as vacation

I did a lot of traveling after college.  I spent six months traveling through Asia and Europe soon after graduation (and blogged about it 20 years later here), and another entire summer in southern Europe a few years later.  I knew exactly what I was doing at the time: taking advantage of my youth, my lack of attachments, and my ability to withstand the daily grind of sightseeing, youth hostel lockout hours, summer (and tropical) heat, and the eerie phenomenon of midnight waking where I wasn’t even sure what country I was in.  Too, though I didn’t know it yet, I was enjoying some pretty fabulous cuisine that would be off-limits once I decided to become Orthodox.

I had all that in mind the other day when I took the morning off from laundry, cleaning, my half-hearted employment search, and other daily cares and drove into Jerusalem to spend a few hours with my cousin who was just ending a 10-day, whirlwind tour of Israel.  We had breakfast out on the shaded patio of the David Citadel Hotel dining room, then browsed through the Mamilla outdoor shopping mall.  It was a construction site when the Cap’n and I stayed in the nearby Dan Pearl Hotel on our honeymoon in 2001, but the last time my cousin was here, in 1959, it was right on the 1949 Armistice Line, i.e. No Man’s Land.  When we reached the end of the mall near the Jaffa Gate, I asked her if she would like to continue, and meander through the Old City.  She readily assented.

Her tour had taken in the Kotel Plaza and the Western Wall tunnel tour, but that was the extent of their time in the Old City.  So I was honored and delighted to be the one to show her the Tower of David (onetime home of King Herod), the Golden Menorah, the excavated section of the First Temple Period wall, the Cardo, the rebuilt Hurva Synagogue, and a view of the Mount of Olives and Robinson’s Arch.  One can spend days exploring the wondrous things in the Old City—the Burnt House, the Old Yishuv Court Museum, the Tower of David Museum, the Davidson Museum (which includes the Southern Wall excavations, including the Hulda Gate to the Holy Temple), the Wohl Archeological Museum (where one can walk through the excavated neighborhood of the Temple priests, see their bathtubs, get a glimpse of how the Roman-era sewage system worked, and see scorch-marks on some of the walls, left from the burning of the city during the destruction of 73 CE) and dozens more amazing sights.

As we walked through this amazing city, I told her how I had loved traveling years ago, and how I decided early on that I would try to make my life as much like a vacation as possible.  I still expected to work and I wanted a family, but I also wanted to live somewhere exotic, beautiful, and fascinating.  I once lived in San Luis Obispo, California, a small town on the central coast that during the school year was fairly quiet, but which came alive with swarms of tourists in the summer, flocking to the quaint main street, the mission (built in 1770, one of a string of missions built by Spanish priests as they tooled up the California coastline), the annual Mozart Music Festival and Jazz Festival, the Hearst Castle (about an hour up the coast), and the nearby beach towns which boasted fresh seafood, bromeliads, a rare nesting pair of endangered California condors, and dozens of little inns, restaurants, and craft fairs.  I loved living in such a quaint, beautiful place and the tourists, rather than annoying me with their crowding, chattering, and shutter-clicking, made me proud to be a resident.

How much more so do I feel that living in Israel.  To be able to take a morning and spend it with family or friends, in a restaurant overlooking the Temple Mount, walking through the streets of a 3000 year old city, visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also a short drive away), or flying a kite in the Judean Hills with the Dead Sea and the mountains of Edom (Jordan) in the background is more than living a vacation.  It’s living in history.  It’s living five lives at once.  It’s living a dream.

It just doesn’t get better than this.

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“Sixty Minutes” recently did a spot on Ir David (“The City of David”), the archeological site located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, home to a few hundred Jews and a majority Arab population.  Here’s the video of the segment, hosted by Lesley Stahl:

I was eager to watch it, thinking it was going to be an exciting look at some incredible ancient ruins being uncovered, but instead Stahl focused almost entirely on the political ramifications of the dig.  By the time the 14 minutes and change were over, I wasn’t sure which she thought was the bigger obstacle to peace in the Middle East: Jews digging in united Jerusalem to uncover their glorious past, or Jews living in united Jerusalem near where Jews are digging up their glorious past.

Here are a few of her observations in the segment, which need no elaboration or response from me:

  • Regarding Clinton’s Simple Plan for divvying up Jerusalem according to population distribution: “It’s not so simple anymore.”
  • “It’s controversial that the City of David uses discoveries to try to confirm what’s in the Bible, particularly from the time of David, the king who made Jerusalem his capital.”
  • “There’s an implicit message that because David conquered the city for the Jews back then, Jerusalem belongs to the Jews today.”
  • Regarding the tours of the site provided for soldiers in the IDF: “Archeology is being used as a political tool.  Maybe—I hate to use the word, but—‘indoctrination’ almost.”

I worked for a while on a long post addressing some of the inanities in her presentation of the facts, but decided it just wasn’t worth it.  Hameveen meveen.

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The independent Michael Totten

A couple of years ago, my friend Michael A. Burstein (a science fiction writer; here’s his website) steered me toward independent journalist Michael Totten’s blog.  I was pleased to find Totten’s reporting thorough, thoughtful, and unprejudiced.  He takes a keen interest in the Middle East, visiting Lebanon and Israel frequently.  With Israel in most journalists’ sights, I was pleased to find someone reporting on my adopted country who clearly has no hidden agenda. (I was also pleased to discover he’s a fellow Portlander.  Ah, that rainy, rosy city in the beautiful Northwest.)  He writes in a clear, unassuming prose, and his longer pieces are always accompanied by photographs that lend another dimension to his stories and interviews.

Totten was in Israel in August, and two of his pieces resulting from that trip pleased me in particular.  The first is an observation on the kindness of Israelis (not, I would guess, the first thing one thinks of after reading the news these days).  In this piece, published in the online Commentary magazine, Totten writes,

A few days ago, I announced that I’m leaving for Israel this week now that I’ve finished and sold my book, and the same thing happened that always does when I mention in public that I’m on my way over there. My in-box filled with offers of generous assistance from Israelis whom I’ve never met or even heard of. Most offered to buy me dinner. Some said I could sleep on their couch or in a spare bedroom. A few even offered to show me around, introduce me to people, and set up appointments for me. …

This rarely happens when I go anywhere else in the world. It happens every time I’ve announced a trip to Israel, though, in times of peace and during war, and it has been happening to me for years.

I get these sorts of offers from the entire range of Israeli society, from people affiliated with Peace Now to the settler movement. I can always count on kind and generous people in Arab countries to help me out once I’ve arrived, but only Israelis reach out so extensively, so consistently, and in such large numbers before I even get off the plane.

The second piece is an interview with David Hazony, an American-born Israeli writer and former editor-in-chief of Azure magazine.  While they mostly discussed Israeli politics and society, Totten also includes a video about Hazony’s new book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, published last month, and recently added to my Amazon wish list.

I highly recommend Totten as a source of news and perspective.  He has done some fascinating interviews, and because he publishes many of them on his own blog, he does not have to cut them to fit space in print.  This allows for tangents and thoroughness which it’s rare to find anywhere else.  I don’t always have time to read his long pieces, but I was rewarded by his interview with a former Iranian Revolutionary Guardsman, and on my list to read are his interview with Michael Young about Lebanon (viewed from the inside) and with Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli Middle Eastern analyst who specializes in Lebanon and has visited that country undercover, both with and without a passport.

Journalists who are independent, both in the financial and in the mental sense, are a rare find these days, and Totten is too good not to read.  Please join me in supporting Totten by making a contribution to his efforts, and by enjoying his high quality reporting.

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