Friday, February 22, 2013

The Courage to Stand Up

Yesterday we commemorated the fast of Esther. The Persian queen made Jewish history when she risked her own personal safety to approach the king and advocate for her people. We have many important lessons to draw upon in this story, but one in particular stands out for me today.

Yesterday's Jerusalem Post boasts a front page photo and story following up on the saga of the Women of the Wall. For those of you who ignore the news, for ten years a group of women has gathered at the Wailing Wall, or as we call it here, the Kotel, on the first of the lunar month to pray. The women gather in a public space, and conduct themselves with grace and modesty as is required of all visitors to this most sacred space. They read from the Torah and sing hymns of praise. They dance joyfully and lift their voices to the Heavens. Some wear prayer shawls, some do not. Some of the prayer shawls are of a design traditionally worn by men.

 If you're still not up to speed, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a number of these acts are illegal, including dancing, singing and wearing of certain prayer shawls. What?? Yeah,  I know. In the flagship democratic state of Israel. In a place where we enjoy paid maternity leave, socialized medicine, free day care, and a rigorous protection of the accessibility of all holy places to one and all. Unless you're a Jewish woman and want to pray in a prayer shawl at the Kotel.

The Women of the Wall have been gaining publicity recently, and the winds of change are in the air. Hallel Silverman, daughter of Rabbi Susan Silverman and Yossi Abramovitz (with whom I was a camp  counselor in 1982 at Camp Sprout Lake) has been all over the news following her arrest. Her latest gem:

"The Jewish state that asks us to proudly wear its uniform should never ask us to remove our prayer shawls. Or to give in to the extremist demands of the ultra-Orthodox who proudly wear their prayer shawls but refuse to don the Jewish state’s uniform."

It is, indeed, a shocking fact. And I could not be more proud of this poised, articulate and courageous young woman for standing up for the cause. Now back to Queen Esther.

What happened when Esther learned of the Royal Declaration of war on the Jews of Persia? At first, nothing. She probably believed two things:

1) that she was powerless to change the situation, and
2) that it would not directly affect her

Her cousin Mordechai reminded her that neither of these assumptions were true. And this is what we need to learn from the story of Queen Esther.

While we sit and quietly applaud Hallel Silverman and the brave women and a few men who gather once a month to pray in an act of civil disobedience worthy of MLK, this is not enough. It is time for all of us to stand up to religious tyranny for two reasons: Because we CAN and because it AFFECTS US. The fact of this injustice affects the core of our national identity. It is inconsistent with how we view ourselves as Israelis, and therefore must change.

So, I'll see you all at 9:45 am on Monday morning for Women of the Wall's reading of Megilat Esther. We will follow in the footsteps of those who fought for our rights and our freedom. And in the words of our sages,
"Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dear America, time to shut up.

     I've tried, really I have. I've tried to stay quiet about the war, but the time has come; I'm going to talk, and you are going to, well, not.

     I read with great interest the public argument between two very vocal community leaders, Dr. Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, a vibrant spiritual community in Los Angeles. I understand that they are friends, and they both showed due respect in their disagreement. The essence is simple; Dr. Gordis says we are allowed, even obligated to love our own children more than our neighbor's children. It's human and acceptable to protect our loved ones before protecting others. Rabbi Brous disagrees, asks us to reach, stretch our humanness beyond conventional thought and feeling, into a place where we can create a new, lasting peace on the planet.
     I agree with them both; but I agree with Dr. Gordis more.
     For me, there is a line; turns out this line is a geographic one, and only one of them lives on this side of it.
     I was born and raised in one of the most politically correct places on earth. I know what is means to be a leftist in America. I know people who are so far to the left they can't see the center. Israel is often referred to as an Apartheid state (what?), an occupation (huh?), an oppressive regime (whatever!). This knee-jerk attitude is simply part and parcel of the agenda of the Left. Most people don't really think too much about it.

     I have a close friend who is a professor at one of America's elite colleges. She once thought like this too, then she spent some time here in Jerusalem. Within a few months she realized all was not as had been presented to her. It's just not that simple. Here in Israel, the right and the left coexist; what that means is that, due to the size of the living space we all share, no one is so far away from anyone else that they are incapable of understanding their perspective. We may not agree, but we are around the same table, lovingly and respectfully (and often loudly) disagreeing. There is a saying in Israel that the right secretly hopes the left is right, and the left secretly fears the right is right.

     Essentially, we are capable of understanding the entirety of the political spectrum because we share the same experience. We all want the same thing. We all want to live; and not just live, thrive; and not just thrive, but create a lasting, thriving, peaceful culture for our children. How? On that point we may disagree. Seriously, it's not that simple.

     So, I'm going to simplify it for you. I've spent my life opening my heart. I have become capable of loving just about anyone. I have friends who are Israeli Arab, Palestinian, right, left, and center. I ache for the people of Gaza who have no hope, who are oppressed and manipulated and starved by corrupt and tyrannical leaders. I believe that most people want what I want, to live a normal life.

     But here, life is not normal. My kids are scared and stressed out. Our friends are somewhere in uniforms doing things they can't talk about. We are under fire. So to me, it's simple. As a friend once said, "Zionism is not a spectator sport." Unless you live this life, unless you are willing to run to a bomb shelter with your kids at night, then stand in line with your Arab neighbors at the supermarket the next day, I'm sorry, I just don't care about what you have to say on the subject. So please, do us all a favor and just shut up. And if you really can't shut up, it doesn't matter. I can't hear you very well from inside the bomb shelter.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Torah of the Zorba

I sit completely still, my attention focused on the radiant, charismatic teacher who is demystifying ancient mystic symbols for the large group of students.
"And Rav Kook says..."
I do a double-take. Did I just hear him say "Rav Kook?"
Were I sitting in one of the many classrooms of Torah study in my sacred Jerusalem, the name "Rav Kook" would not raise an eyebrow. But I am not.
I am, in fact, sitting in a large open tent in a lush oasis in the middle of the Arava desert. In an ashram. The teacher before me is an Israeli Jew with long salt and pepper hair. He is wearing the traditional white robe of the Sufi, describing the symbols of the spinning dance. He is a magnificent teacher, patient and centered. Once I get over my momentary shock at the Rav Kook comment, I realize it is completely fitting.
The bi-annual gathering of teachers and students of meditation and mystical practices at Ashram-in-the-Desert, called "Festival of Zorba the Buddha" is not for everyone, but it is definitely powerful. Hundreds of tents cram under shade covers to house hundreds of Israelis, travellers, families and singles young and old. No drugs, meat or fire allowed. For three days there are classes in yoga, meditation, nutrition, dance, rebirthing and more.
"We turn our Third Eye toward Gan Eden so that we may know the derech (path)," says the Chi Gong teacher. He is young and smiling, his rather buff arm sporting an elaborate tattoo I recognize, a ring of barbed wire with the word "zachor," remember, the trend among grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors.
"Smile!" He says. "Just be happy for your life!"
Click click click, the pieces fall into place in my mind.
Young Israelis, and in fact young Jews everywhere have been attracted to Eastern spiritual practices for decades. I was once one of those Jews in the Lotus and I understand the attraction. But I am in the minority of practicing Jews who think this is actually a good thing. Good for Judaism, that is. I even think Hollywood's current fascination with kabbalah is a good thing.
Judaism is an EASTERN religion; when we pray, we face EAST. Ritual and prayer are spiritual practices. So where did we go wrong, and why doesn't it feel spiritual enough to attract the young and searching?
For a long time I thought the problem was a serious lack of joy. Rav Shomo Carlebach z"l said the Jewish people needed to grieve for the Holocaust for a generation, then we needed to bring joy back into our practices. That was his goal in infusing our prayer with music and chanting and dancing. And it has definitely helped, and has brought many of us back to the fold.
But it's not enough.
We have just completed the holiday of Sukkot, also called "season of our joy." We are now without holidays until Chanukah, the holiday of light. During this time we create a spiritual bridge to carry us from one season to the next. I believe that herein lies the answer to my question.
While we look to the east, we collect insight, wisdom and awareness from our neighboring religions; we fill ourselves with joy and learn to see goodness and unity in all things. This makes us peaceful and happy. But it is not enough. Now we need to bring the sparks of joy back to our own place and integrate them into our own context, culture, religion, language. That is happening too, as in the Jew in the Ashram.
Now, the next step is to take all that we have learned and share it. Lose the fear that separates us from one another. Look at others and see what is common, not what is different. The amount of joy we can contain is commensurate with the amount of gratitude we feel and express. The bridge that will take us from joy to light is SHARING IT.
And that is what I learned in an ashram on sukkot. As we kissed the hands of those on either side of us in our Sufi circle as a symbol of gratitude, my heart burst with joy. It is more than enough to get me through the winter.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My new diet

I confess; I have no idea what to eat.
This is not new. I have now endured four decades of dieting madness and confusion, and I am not alone. Look back with me, on diet wisdom through the ages, circa 1970 to the present.

My first diet memory is of skim milk. This must have been an invention of the 60s, since the doctor recommended to my mother that I be switched from formula to skim milk as an infant. That was in 1963. I don't ever remember seeing whole milk in our house growing up. We also did not eat butter, only margarine. We ate chicken and fish, vegetables and fruit, lean meats, eggs, milk and cereal, pretty normal stuff. We had some junk food, some ice cream, some cookies, and of course, the rare but revered TV dinner.

When in 1972 it was determined on my behalf that I needed to lose weight, I remember the diet plans going into effect: the first was Weight Watchers. WW and I have been in a love-hate relationship ever since. Seriously, it's complicated. Weight Watchers is based on an ever-changing plan that results in the same platitude; eat less. Calorie deprivation is the backbone, though it has grown to reflect current diet wisdom to some extent. At the time, however, it was based on the revolutionary concept of low fat, low calorie, near-starvation living. If you're trying to lose weight, this works. But fast-forward a few weeks/months/years and we know that 95% of those losers will gain the weight back, and then some.

My next childhood diet memory is avoiding sweets. I was not allowed soda, or cookies, or chocolate pudding, or any of the treats my thin sibs (I hate you all) were allowed. This method did not affect my weight, however, so more drastic measures were necessary. It did seem to affect my mood. But that did not seem to be as important as my jeans.

The 70s gave birth to the liquid protein diets. By now I was a teenager and well-versed in deprivation dieting. I don't remember losing weight on those diets, but I do remember they were GROSS.
I spent half my teen years eating almost nothing but salad. Some chicken with no skin, some white, tasteless fish, lots of bean sprouts. Again, there was some concept of "diet food," meaning potatoes were fattening, as were butter and beer, but the overall wisdom was that calorie deprivation was the road to weight loss.

The other staple of my teen years was diet soda. Tab, to be precise. In the pursuit of thinness, there was not a lot of talk about health. Thin was healthy, fat was unhealthy. Tab and other toxic substances that supposedly contributed to thinness were good.

Now, welcome to the 80s. Goobye low carb and hello high carb! Low fat, high carb. That's right, folks: the brown rice diet and the grapefruit diet and more liquid stuff. My mom went off to Pritikin and came back with the Absolutely Nothing diet. Now we're on low protein as well. Oh, and vegetarianism. In 1985 I went to northern California for my graduate degree. News flash! Vegans! So, now I'm eating no meat, no fish, no dairy, no white rice or flour or sugar. My cholesterol tested on the high side, so that meant being more extreme: no fat, no eggs. Cereal boxes started printing "no cholesterol!" on the package. Gee, wouldn't have guessed that.

In 1989 I spent a number of months in third world countries. Didn't eat much of anything other than rice, bananas and tea. There wasn't much food but everyone seemed pretty happy. I seem to remember  losing weight on that diet. I should keep that in mind.

 In the 90s I had three babies, and a fourth in 2001. My priorities shifted from my diet to theirs, so I amped up my calories and nutrition to keep the milk flowing, and you know what? That worked! I wasn't thin, but my babies were well-fed and healthy. At one doctor's appointment I complained about not being able to lose my pregnancy weight, and he actually said, "if you were in a concentration camp, you wouldn't be fat." So that made perfect sense. I was, according to the doctor, to try consuming under 500 calories a day. That seemed reasonable. And sensitive, too.

The years rolled on and still the diet crazes kept coming. By the first decade of the millenium I had tried Atkins (hey, I remember this one!) and South Beach (gained weight on both of those, and nearly lost my gall bladder), more liquid stuff like Herbalife (has anyone noticed it tastes like snot? Oh, and I'm starving) and about five more tries at WW.

I've recently been getting a fitness blog in my email box every week, and the hot, buff trainer who writes it says I should be eating grass-fed meat and whole fat dairy products and whole eggs and his outrageously expensive supplements. Did this guy miss the 80s? Oh, right, he was a toddler.

My neighbor gave me a book this week that says essentially the whole history of cardiology got it all wrong. Not low fat, high fat. Carbs are bad, protein and fat are good. Sugar is very bad. Eat butter.
And what about soy? Is it good or bad? I hear wine is on the chopping block now. Two weeks ago it prevented heart disease. But yes, I know, alcohol is a carb. Damn. How about coffee? Good? Bad? And chocolate? Yes? No?

Are you as confused as I am?
If so, try this; I've invented my own diet regimen; joy. I'm going to eat food that I like. Food that tastes good, has as few ingredients as possible and remembers where it came from. I'm going to eat food that makes me happy, because I think happiness makes us healthy. Mae West once said, "Irish coffee has all the food groups: fat, alcohol, sugar and caffeine." I'm thinking of making that my next diet.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Missing Benjy

My childhood sweetheart is fighting for his life. While it is true that we have not spoken in many years, I have thought of him countless times, silently and sincerely wishing him success, love and joy in his life. Benjy and I were once in love... at age 12. For those of you who may not have been lucky enough to experience a young love such as this, let me tell you, there is nothing that compares to it. The innocence of that love, the intensity of feeling and the absolute absence of a future rarely survives the transition into adulthood, even into adolescence. And though we did date a bit on and off in high school and college, our relationship never lost the foothold that was firmly rooted in childhood.

Fast forward about 37 years, I have my life in Jerusalem and four children, he has his in Florida and three children. I learned a few days ago that he, like his sisters and mother, suffers from a genetic immunosuppressive disease that makes him vulnerable to infection and certain cancers. Benjy will turn 50 in December. He has already outlived his mother and sisters.

I feel a great deal of sadness and grief for this family I grew up with. When I contemplate the likelihood that the world will lose this great man, scientist, teacher, and damn good tennis player it is no less than tragic. But here, in this city on the edge I call my home, I live in a world where eternity is a given.

I learned from friends and parents of victims of terror that the loss of a child can result in the healing of thousands, and that the world of the spirit is a hair's breadth away. I learned from a trip to Poland that the modern state of Israel is a phoenix, born out of ashes to live again in splendor. I learn every day that death is not a choice, but fear - that is a choice. 

Two weeks ago I stumbled upon a magnificent book, "Many Lives, Many Masters," by Dr. Brian Weiss. Published in 1988, this was a groundbreaking work by a reputable psychiatrist who, while treating a patient for an anxiety disorder with hypnosis, accidentally regressed her to a past life. The book relates Weiss's treatment spanning several months and about 12 of the 86 lifetimes Catherine had lived. Unbeknownst to Dr. Weiss, the transmigration of souls is actually a mainstream Jewish belief; we are, after all, the only religion based on national, not individual revelation. The Kabbalistic notion that we were all at Mount Sinai has become so mainstream that there is a popular dating site called So, do I believe that souls are eternal? Absolutely. Do I believe that every lifetime provides us with myriad opportunities for spiritual lessons and growth? Yes. I also have come to understand that death is not final, but temporary; by allowing ourselves to have an ongoing relationship with the spiritual dimension, we gain access to limitless tools for managing loss and grief.

I am also certain that, just as "Catherine" recognized people from her current lifetime in every other life she revisited, so too are those I have connected to most deeply the souls I have cycled with before.

So, Benjy, do not be afraid. Those of us who have loved you in this lifetime, those of us who have benefited from your kindness and wisdom and still have so much more to learn from you, we will see you again very soon.  I will pray for you that the next time be a little easier.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I think I am, therefore I am

There is a thread going around Facebook today commenting that, in a drop-down menu showing a list of countries, Facebook excludes Israel but includes Palestine. I've certainly encountered the conspicuous absence of Israel on lists such as this one, but I've never actually seen this combination. While the deletion of Israel, my current country of residence is indeed disturbing for many obvious reasons, I am no less disturbed by the commentary this post generated.
The theme? "Palestine does not exist!"
Says who?
If I'm not mistaken, Palestine in fact existed only a half a century ago. It was then, in the UN vote to partition, divided into Israel and Transjordan. Obviously the proponants of the "Palestine does not exist" campaign do not mean exactly that. In fact I believe they mean something far more disturbing; that a people does not have the right to self-determination.
Now, hold your horses. Let me say this clearly: no one has the right to ask ME to self-destruct on their way to selfhood. I am not going to give away my homeland, not going to compromise the security of my borders, not going to knowingly arm my enemies against me. I do not believe this is an "us" or "them" situation. You may say that's exactly what "they" believe. Well, maybe so. But that can not affect my core belief system.
At the very center of my existence as an Israeli Jew is this very act of self-determination. One may present a series of proofs for Israel's right to exist, including Biblical ownership, the age-old right of conquer, political consensus, blah blah blah. Ultimately what makes me Israeli is my decision to be one. As a Jew, it's apparently my birthright. Says who? Says me. My people carry with us a narrative describing our arrival to and settlement of this Land. We've been banished, we've returned, a few times over. We have not always had a sovereign government. We have not always had a population majority. We have not always had a foothold. And yet, the longing to return has never budged from our liturgy, the soundtrack of our historical and cultural narrative.
So, when another people, albeit living not-so-peacefully beside me have a similar narrative, who are we to deny it? They can call themselves whatever they like. They can call their land whatever they want to. They can write their own narrative on their way to self-determination. The only issue that concerns me at all is that NONE OF THIS CAN BE AT MY EXPENSE. And this is where Facebook and I have a problem. "Israel" and "Palestine" should BOTH be on the list. The Palestinian narrative can not include my destruction, just as my narrative can not be predicated on denying another's right to self-determination. I know how I feel when I see "Israel" deleted from the map or excluded from a list of countries. Anyone who advocates for that exact behavior toward another people can only have one name: hypocrite.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What is the IMPACT?

This post may be a little overdue, but in the year and a half since I completed an "IMPACT" self-defense course for women, there have been some interesting developments. IMPACT is a phenomenon in itself; developed in the US in the 1970s, this short and intensive rape-prevention course is designed to teach women the basic skills they need to fend off sexual assault. There are many things that make the method unique, the most obvious of which is the presence of real live attackers in the classroom. Of course, they aren't real rapists, they are burly young men dressed up in protective gear, men who believe in teaching women to help prevent rape. Women learn to yell "NO!" kick the groin, gouge the eyes, disable the attacker and call for help. The attackers let the women know if they have hit hard enough. If not, try again. The attacker won't fall until the impact is forceful enough.
And there we have it, folks, the metaphor I've been reaching for.
This week, El Halev martial arts' center, IMPACT's only provider in Israel opened a new course in Wadi Joz, one of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. This is not the first course El Halev has provided to Wadi Joz, but it is the first IMPACT course in Wadi Joz in which my daughter, writer and blogger Liora Sophie is assisting.
After I completed IMPACT, both of my daughters signed up for courses. One has gone on to become an assistant and is on her way to becoming an instructor. The other daughter has sent many of her friends to take the course. I can see how it has affected them; they have a clearer sense of boundaries, more body awareness, are more sensitive to language or situations in which they feel uncomfortable or threatened. And of course, they feel they have more tools to deal with these situations.
At the mall buying rain boots, we saw a man, woman and child having a public scene. It was not immediately obvious what the relationship was among them, but all the onlookers, store employees and customers alike were uncomfortable. My daughter was all over it, ready to intervene. She had the words "Is this man bothering you?" on her lips when the situation was diffused.
This is an example of the extended reach of IMPACT; not only is she, a young, single woman empowered with tools to defend herself, she is also a vigilant, aware and powerful tool for the defense of others. The more women we empower, the safer the larger society becomes until rape and sexual harrassment become impossible.
According to Jill Baker Shames, director of IMPACT in Israel, this is what we are doing in Wadi Joz and other Arab communities:
"Granted, the statistics are vague due to lack of reporting, but, what we have heard from service providers inside these communities, sexual harrassment and rape are serious issues affecting a large percentage of women in the Arab world."
So I am proud of my daughter and the rest of the IMPACT staff who go to Wadi Joz and other Arab neighborhoods for the sole purpose of strengthening a society. I have no doubt that when the impact is forceful enough, the attacker will fall.
Oh, and one more thing. When a van full of Israeli men and women arrived in Wadi Joz to teach Arab women self-defense, WHERE WAS CNN?