Just a quick note that my short story, The Olive Harvest, published in Reckoning in December, is now available to read online here. The editor described it as “a parable about otherness and coming together, as told by an olive tree.” It’s a quick read, only 900 words, and I expect a full literary analysis from you by next Thursday.
I kid, I kid.
The editor interviewed me about the story, and I think a lot of what I wrote there is highly relevant to this blog. (Which is why this is an “on-blog” rather than an “off-blog” note!) We covered the Biblical references in the story; writing about the Middle East conflict; environmentalism in Israel; the symbolism of the slow growth of the olive tree; and my childhood tree-hugging habits. 🙂
Michael: I want to ask what sources you were drawing from. I think immediately of Genesis 1:26, where God grants us dominion over all the earth, that phrase so hotly contested between capitalists and conservationists. But I come from an American Catholic background, and I feel like my grasp of the religious lore is very limited. Are there other references you’re making I’m not getting? What about more recent influences on your style and voice?
Daniella: Yes, this story actually draws on quite a number of sources.
The most recent one, the one that really influenced the rhythm and cadence of the story, is a famous folktale of unknown origin, about a pair of brothers who work on a field together and split the portions evenly at the end of every workday. Each brother is concerned that his brother needs more than he does, so in the middle of the night, each of them takes from his own portion and transfers it to the other’s. Every morning they are both mystified as to how the piles are even again. This goes on day after day, until one night, their paths meet in the field, and they understand what has been happening, and they embrace and weep together. Jewish legend teaches that the Holy Temple was built on the spot where those two brothers embraced.
Obviously, there is reference to the story of the Noah and the Ark in chapter 8 of Genesis. It’s a story about a global disaster brought about by human cruelty, and the image of the dove with the olive branch, signaling to Noah that the Flood is receding and that they will soon come upon dry land, has become a universal symbol of peace.
“Between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal” is a direct reference to a mysterious ceremony mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) and the book of Joshua (chapter 8). It took place just after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, on these two mountains, which rise up around the Biblical city of Shekhem, known now as Nablus in Arabic–a hotly contested area in our times.
The purpose of the ceremony was to demonstrate that if the Israelites followed God’s word and carried out His commandments, they would inherit the land and prosper, but if they ignored His commandments, they would experience famine and hardship, and may eventually be expelled from the land. “I call upon the heaven and the earth today as witnesses: I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every time I read those words I get a tingle down my spine.
Finally, there is a less obvious, but more fundamental reference to Deuteronomy 20:19. At the end of a chapter about the rules of waging holy war, a rather peculiar, out-of-place commandment pops up. God forbids the Israelites to destroy trees that bear fruit in the process of laying siege upon an enemy city. “For you may eat from it,” He explains. “Is a tree of the field a man, to go into siege before you?”
In Jewish tradition, we believe that the Torah (the Jewish Bible) is centered around the experiences and actions of man. That is its focus. But I see this passage as a little peek into God’s relationship with the rest of His creation. “You go ahead and wage your wars and cleanse the world of human evil as necessary,” He seems to be saying. “Just… leave My trees out of it, okay?”
So… I’ve got a few “something-versaries” either recently past or coming up. You and I had our tenth “friendversary” two months ago; next week is LtJ’s 2nd “blogiversary” (frankly I can’t believe it’s only been two years!!! So much has happened!!!); and tomorrow is my 20th “aliyaversery.”
It’s hard for me to believe I’ve done anything for 20 years, except be alive. Maybe. 😛
But it’s true: on December 16th, 1996, I stepped out of a plane and descended a mobile staircase onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Some people around me knelt and kissed the ground. I did not feel like kissing anything.
I was nine years old at the time and had just left behind the only life I’d known to immigrate to Israel with my parents, older sister, and two younger brothers. “Aliyah” literally means “rising up,” referring to the elevated spiritual status we achieve by being in the Holy Land. But I think you already know that. 🙂
It’s a story I usually only refer to in passing. I don’t talk about it much. I mean… it was a long time ago. I’ve spent 2/3rds of my life in this country, and if you were to ask me if I feel more American or more Israeli, I’d say I feel more Israeli.
The truth is, though, that the experience of immigrating from the USA to Israel was the formative event of my life. The story of my aliyah is basically the story of how I became who I am today.
I don’t regret a thing, and I am very grateful to my parents for bringing me here. I don’t think I ever would have had the courage and stamina to make this choice as a parent. We had a comfortable life in Pittsburgh. My parents owned a two-story house with a big basement and a huge front and back yard. We were part of a close-knit community of religious Jews in Squirrel Hill; we had a religious Jewish day school, Hillel Academy, just a ten-minute walk away. My dad was a physiatrist (rehabilitative medicine physician) making a very comfortable living, and my mom taught karate to women and children in the community. There was no reason in the world to leave–except Zionism. My parents believed all Jews should live in Israel and planned to make aliyah long before I was born. So I grew up knowing that it was something that would probably happen in the distant future, and when it finally started to materialize, it didn’t come as a shock.
I remember our first few months in Israel in kind of a haze. I had been taught to read and pray in Hebrew at my school in Pittsburgh, and some extremely basic conversational skills, but it was not enough to understand what was going on in the classroom or to have meaningful conversations with my peers.
Even harder than the language barrier was the culture shock. Introversion is… not tolerated very well in Israeli culture. It’s a very social culture, everybody all up in each other’s business. And my classmates interpreted my shyness as snobbery. I made a few English-speaking friends, but most of my classmates either ignored or actively teased me in the first few years. I remember feeling “other,” and intensely lonely. I went from easily the top of my class in Pittsburgh to doing literally nothing in the classroom. Most days I brought along a book in English and read instead of even trying to understand what the teacher was saying.
It was really, really tough. I cried often. I missed my friends and my old life terribly. I fought with my parents and siblings regularly. There was a period I spent 15 minutes every morning throwing a tantrum and screaming at my mother that there was no point in going to school and I didn’t want to go.
This is why I don’t talk about it much. It makes me very emotional to remember how hard it was. (I neither confirm nor deny that I cried several times while putting together this post.)
It didn’t help that I’m highly sensitive, which meant that relative to other children my age, I experienced emotions and relationships very intensely… and that I had already had a history of depression and anxiety. I was seeing a psychotherapist regularly from second grade up until I made aliyah. About a year after aliyah, my family went to a “family therapist” for a few sessions, but other than that, I didn’t have professional emotional support. When I look back on that period, I see that I developed some creative coping mechanisms, using fantasy and creativity as an outlet for my loneliness and sense of helplessness.
As you’ve probably guessed, one coping mechanism I developed was writing. I kept a daily journal of my thoughts and experiences, starting a few weeks before the aliyah and ending in the summer of 1997. Six months later, I started another diary, which I wrote in every day all through 1998. I also received a hardcover notebook for my birthday that year which I started to use as a poetry book. I still have all three of these, and they are among my most treasured possessions.
At age ten, just a few months after making aliyah, I wrote my first chapter book. It was called “To Keep the Peace” and recounted the adventures of yours truly and my real-life British friend Shareen, who, upon learning that the USA and the UK were about to go to war with each other, flew to London and Washington D.C. to convince the Queen of England and then-President Clinton not to fight. It was ridiculous and beyond adorable. And looking at it from a psychological perspective–how awesome was I? I gave myself agency and freedom and the power to cross oceans and change the world through fantasy and creative expression. What a wonderful coping skill!
After writing that book, I had a definitive answer when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up: an author.
With the gift money I received for my bat mitzvah, I purchased a computer, which was a pretty standard thing to do with bat mitzvah gift money, but the thing I was looking forward to most about it was fairly non-standard: I wanted to start writing my first novel. And that’s exactly what I did. At age 14 I completed it, and a few months later, completed another novel I had started writing in the meantime. When you and I met four years later, I had already penned five full-length novels. By Light of Hidden Candles is my sixth.
Over time, my grasp of Hebrew improved, and I learned to find my place within Israeli society.
…Usually off in a corner, having deep philosophical conversations or geeking out over books with my little group of friends while everybody else giggled about movie stars and boys. (Somehow I suspect you will relate, Hamlet. 😛 😛 😛 )
I was in eighth grade when the Second Intifada broke out, and was volunteering for OneFamily, an organization that assists terror victims, as it was tapering off. So my entire experience of high school was on the backdrop of some very grim and scary things going on. For my part, it had the effect of strengthening my connection to Israel. That sense of solidarity I write about, the way Israelis cope with terror, helped me feel a part of something, and helped me understand very deeply why my parents had brought me here. This is my people, this is our land, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
By ninth grade I was fully functional in school, and did very well on my matriculation exams despite the fact that I received no accommodations whatsoever on account of my status as an immigrant. (Back then we were expected to be completely functional in Hebrew 5 years after making aliyah. The law has since changed–had I come just a few years later, I would have been eligible for all kinds of accommodations–and I am super pissed off about it. 😛 ) (It makes literally no difference to my life. My scores were excellent and I never needed them anyhow. BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!!!) (Okay I’m done)
Basically… I grew up with one foot in each world, struggling to make the transition to the new one while clinging nostalgically to the old one. Reading my writings from that period is kind of heartwrenching: there’s this girl, on the seamline between childhood and adolescence, facing an upheaval in her life that was too big for her to fully comprehend, simultaneously finding relief in her rich imagination and criticizing herself for having her head in the clouds.
Story of my life in a nutshell.
A couple quick announcements before I go:
1) Today is the last day you can download Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism for free! Don’t miss out!
2) *ahem* Speaking of my novels… if you’re subscribed to my newsletter or you follow my other blog, you already know this, but I haven’t announced it here yet: my debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is scheduled for publication by Kasva Press this coming fall! It’s about an American Jew of Sephardic-Moroccan descent and a Catholic Spaniard who team up to research their families’ respective histories… only to discover that their pasts are inextricably linked. Woven into their narrative is the story of their ancestors in late 15th-century Spain: a Jewish family that runs into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, and the Christian family that comes to their aid. For more information and updates, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter.
As I’ve elaborated in the past, the two national days of solemn remembrance in Israel are one week apart; Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day (officially called, in rough translation, “the Day of Remembrance for Those Slain in the Wars of Israel and the Victims of Acts of Terror”). As a recent olah (immigrant to Israel), I noticed that my fellow students and teachers seemed to feel a lot more strongly about Memorial Day, and I found that odd. The Holocaust was, objectively, a far more tragic event. How can you even compare the image of millions of Jews–men, women, and children–being herded into gas chambers and gunned down over mass graves, with the image of Jewish soldiers on the battlefield, dying while fighting for their country?
Of course, over the years, the reason Israelis connect more to Memorial Day became very, very clear to me.
During the evening memorial siren last night, there were two names, two images, I couldn’t get out of my head: Dafna Meir, and Naama Henkin. Both of them were killed in the recent wave of terror, and I believe I mentioned both of them in previous letters. Both were religious mothers of small children like I am.
We tend to identify most strongly with tragedies we have some kind of personal connection to. More than just having friends or acquaintances in common, that connection could be in identity (they were Jewish; women; similar lifestyle to mine), or geography (they both lived relatively close to here), or in time (they were killed recently, and the memory is very fresh). Remember how I mentioned that when teaching small children about the Holocaust, we are supposed to emphasize for them that the Holocaust happened a very long time ago and very far away? That gives them a sense of security.
Israel’s wars, however, are not a thing of the past. They cannot be placed far away over space and time. We don’t need to promise to remember. We are painfully reminded, every single day. Just yesterday morning two little old ladies were stabbed while taking a stroll along the promenade at Armon HaNatziv in Jerusalem. My children have clear memories of taking cover during the air raid sirens two years ago, and of the lockdown in our town a few months ago when a terrorist was on the loose. And the border with Gaza has been heating up again, as befits the two-year cycle of Operation-Protective-Pillar-of-Cast-Lead-Whatever-the-Hell-They’re-Calling-the-Ongoing-War-with-Hamas-These-Days.
I attended elementary school in the post-Oslo lull of the late 90’s, when things felt pretty safe. But even then–I had classmates with uncles and cousins who were killed in wars and terror attacks. The Holocaust was an unfathomable calamity, but it only directly affected European Jewry. More than half of Israelis are not even of European origin. The majority of my classmates were of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
Memorial Day is so much more intense because it is not commemorating a thing of the past. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we honor an unfathomable six million Jewish victims. On Memorial Day, the number of slain that we honor is much smaller, but it grows every year. This year it stands at 23,447. That’s 68 more than last year.
When I was thinking about what I might like to write about for “Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week,” I thought about sharing some of the music that is an integral part of Israeli culture around this time of year. On Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, the radio stations all play soft, sad music, mostly nostalgic Hebrew songs from the 60’s and 70’s about war, loss, peace, and patriotism. I learned a few of them in school in the USA before making aliyah, but when I moved here I realized it was a whole genre, enough to fill entire radio stations for 24 hours.
I could probably write an entire book about Israeli war music, and it was very hard to decide which to write about. But when I decided to focus on one, I knew it had to be this one.
Here is my translation of the lyrics, written by Ehud Manor in memory of his brother, who was killed during the War of Attrition.
I have no other land
Even if that land is burning
Only one word in Hebrew
Penetrates my veins,
Into my soul
With an aching body
With a hungry heart
This is my home
I will not be silent, For my land has changed her face I won’t let go, I’ll remind her And I’ll whisper to her, in her ears, Until she opens her eyes
The melody was written by Corinne Alel, who performs this version. There is something so chilling and poignant about the a capella opening in her gritty, soulful voice.
The song captures something that I think is at the very core of our current conflict with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian narrative is that we, the Jewish Israelis, are colonialists. Europeans who came from foreign lands to impose sovereignty on the local population, just like the French in Algeria, or the British and Dutch in South Africa. And the way the local population dealt with the colonialists then, was to make living conditions so miserable for them, that they would be scared back to their homelands. That is the goal of Palestinian terrorism.
What they don’t understand is that we have nowhere to go back to.
We have no other land.
Even if that land is burning.
And we are not foreigners. We are indigenous to this land. We have an ancient story about every hill, every valley, every rock. We have been saying “Next year in Jerusalem!” for two thousand years.
This is our home.
The juxtaposition of Memorial Day to Israeli Independence Day further underscores our connection to that truth. We know how much we have sacrificed to stay here. And that fact only makes us more determined than ever to stay and to celebrate the miracle of our return to our historic homeland.
In the Rinat Israel prayer book, it states that we greet one another on Independence Day with the following blessing: “Mo’adim l’simcha, l’ge’ulah shleima”–“happy holidays, to full redemption!”
May we all experience full redemption–a lasting, prosperous peace–in our lifetime.
Before this week’s post I just want to take a moment to thank you all for your support following the release of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism! I’ve sold almost 40 copies in less than a week, which, considering the fact that it’s self-published and I haven’t done a single thing to advertise or promote it yet, is pretty amazing. Y’all are incredible. Keep it up! And don’t forget to leave a review when you’re done reading–the book doesn’t have any reviews to its name yet, and they are very important.
A couple years ago when you visited here for the first time, as we were driving past the checkpoint, I said, “Welcome to Judea! Which, I believe, is Latin for ‘Jew-land.'”
“Really?” you said.
“Well, yes, sort of…” I responded.
I don’t remember how much of the historical background I explained to you, or how much you already know, but it occurs to me that it is pretty confusing–why were our ancestors referred to as “Hebrews” in the Bible? What about “Israelites”? When were we called “Jews,” and why?
The use of this term in the Bible–ivri in Hebrew–is complex and somewhat confusing. Abraham was called a “Hebrew” even before he came to the Promised Land, and Joseph refers to the land of his origin as the “Land of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew root ע.ב.ר. (e.v/b.r.) indicates movement or passage, so the theory is that this term means, roughly, “that guy from way over there across the desert.” But the term was not only applied to the descendants of Jacob. If Abraham was an “ivri,” and Ishmael was his son, his descendants would be “ivrim” too. Same goes for the descendants of Abraham’s cousin Lot–Ammon and Moab–and of Isaac’s other son Esau, the Edomites.
Over time, however, the term Hebrew became associated specifically with Israelites. My (completely unprofessional) theory is that this is because of their status as strangers in Egypt. No one would call you Josep the Catalan in Catalonia; they would call you that if you lived in Castile, or France, or Italy. So while Ammon and Moab and Edom settled down in their own land and ceased to be known as “Hebrews,” a.k.a. “those guys from across the desert”… the Egyptians still referred to the descendants of Jacob that way.
The Children of Israel/Israelites
In Genesis 32, there is a strange story about Jacob meeting an angel and wrestling with him until dawn. When Jacob prevails, he asks the angel to bless him, and the angel gives him a new name: Israel.
So, the nation born from his lineage were called the Children of Israel or the Israelites.
But Jacob had twelve sons, and each was the patriarch of an individual tribe: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Each of these tribes received their own portion of the Promised Land–with one exception: the Levites were given a special spiritual role, so they did not have land of their own. There were designated cities in each of the other tribes where Levites lived. Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each inherited their own portion of land, so the land of Israel was still divided into twelve portions.
Levites and Cohanim
So what was the spiritual role the Levites were given, and why? First of all, tradition has it that the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not enslaved, because they did not fall into Pharoah’s trap and refused to work for him. Whether or not that’s the case, Moses was from the tribe of Levi, and furthermore, the Sages teach that the Levites did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. On this merit, they were granted the privilege of being in charge of the holy work at the Temple.
The Cohanim–the priests–are a group within the tribe of Levi. They are descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, who was the first High Priest. They performed the sacrifices that were the crux of the Temple service. The non-Cohen Levites were primarily gatekeepers for the Temple, and musicians who played hymns accompanying the services.
Now, the Levites and Cohanim did not inherit any of the land, which, in an agricultural Biblical society, meant no livelihood. So those who did own land, the Israelites, were required to give contributions from their produce and livestock to the Levites and Cohanim. That constitutes a major part of the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, the mitzvot pertaining to working the land in Israel. Though we no longer have the Temple and cannot really observe these rituals, we still make symbolic gestures on their account. For example, when I bake bread, I take a little piece of the dough, wrap it in foil, and throw it in the oven to burn. (This, by the way, is one of those weird rituals that turn up in converso families. 😉 ) It’s in memory of the challah contribution that was supposed to be made to the Cohanim.
The lineages of the Cohanim and Levites were actually preserved through much of Jewish history, up until today, because even after the Temple was destroyed, they received certain special roles in the synagogue. That’s why, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods when people started adopting surnames, so many Jews became some version of “Cohen” or “Levi.” While Judaism is passed only through the mother, the tribal lineage always passed through the father, and in all European cultures, so does the surname. (Eventually, nu. Don’t get me started on your inordinately confusing naming customs in Iberia!) So while a Cohanic or Levite surname does not necessarily indicate those lineages, it very often does. Believe it or not, genetic research identified a particular pattern on the Y chromosome that is common to most Jews with a tradition of a Cohanic lineage. They call it the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
(And yes, to answer your next question, Eitan’s family does have a tradition of being descended from Levites.)
The Kingdom Splits
So… Joshua conquers the land, everybody settles in their portion, and all is well and good. (Okay, no, actually, it totally isn’t, but I’m not going to recount the entire first section of Prophets here!) Fast forward to King Solomon’s death. There is a dispute over who is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and at that point, the kingdom splits in two. It is now divided into the Kingdom of Judah–which includes the portions of Judah and Benjamin–and the Kingdom of Israel, which includes all the other tribes.
The capital of the new Kingdom of Israel, as you may have noted, is a city called Samaria. As you can see, the vast majority of the land that was actually a part of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah are what is now Judea & Samaria (also known as the West Bank).
So. Towards the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The ten tribes who lived in that kingdom were scattered throughout the vast empire–and were lost to history. In the ancient world, conquered peoples were often scattered like that with the purpose of disconnecting them from their homelands and assimilating them, and in the case of the ten tribes, it mostly worked. Here and there, there are stories of communities in Asia and Africa that maintained some semblance of Jewish practice, who may be descendants of the ten lost tribes.
Yehudim (Judans, Judeans… Jews)
So then we were left with the Kingdom of Judah. Its citizens were descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The Babylonians conquered it, destroyed the first Temple, and tried to do the with the Judans what the Assyrians did with the other ten tribes. But somehow, by some miracle that no historian or anthropologist can quite explain, we resisted assimilation, and maintained a strong core of identity that eventually led to the establishment of the Second Commonwealth under the Persians. But the majority of Judans stayed in Persia and Babylonia even when the second Temple was rebuilt.
The first time we are collectively referred to as yehudim is in the Scroll of Esther. In Chapter 1, it says, “There was an ish yehudi (a man of Judah) and his name was Mordekhai the son of Kish, an ish yemini (a man of the tribe of Benjamin).” This sentence effectively shows that the tribes of Judah (Yehuda) and Benjamin had become one, and were now both referred to as “Yehudim.”
Jew, jueu, juif, Jude, judío, yahud, yid (as in Yiddish)–all these terms are derived from the Hebrew name Yehuda.
Zionists, Israel, and Israelis
As you know, the term “Zionist” is not synonymous with “Jew” at all. (Unless, of course, you are an antisemite under the guise of an Israel-hater, but let’s not get into that.) In fact–you are a Zionist. A Zionist is simply a person who believes that the Jews have the right to self-determination in our historic homeland. The word comes from Zion, one of the names of the city of Jerusalem.
After the UN presented the Partition Plan in 1947, and it seemed like the establishment of a Jewish State was something that might actually happen in the near future, a question arose: what should the state be called?
The answer was not obvious.
In the course of writing this letter it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know the background for why the name “Israel” was chosen. So I Googled it, and found a letter that Aaron Reuveni, a writer and translator, sent to Haaretz in 1965. Reuveni claims that he is the one who suggested the name, and gave a description of his deliberation regarding the question. (Hebrew speakers can read it here.)
For two millennia we were identified as Jews–former citizens of the ancient kingdom of Judah. And the last time Jews had autonomy in the Holy Land, it was in a Roman province called Judea. So it would make sense to call it by one of those names.
But. The vast majority of the historic region of Judea was not included in the land designated for the Jews under the Partition Plan. “How can we call a country Judea when Jerusalem and Hebron are not inside it, and the Judean Mountains lie beyond its borders?” writes Reuveni. “Zion” was also considered and rejected, because Jerusalem was not going to be the exclusive capital of the Jewish state, and there can’t be a “Zion” without Jerusalem.
Another reason not to go with Judea, or with “the Jewish State” as an official name, was that that identity came to define our people when we were already in exile. The establishment of the State was a return to our roots. Reuveni writes that the numismatic evidence from throughout history indicates, “without a doubt: the Kingdom of Judah falls, but am yisrael chai (the Nation of Israel lives on).” He explains that while the use of “Judea” continued to appear on the coinage from the Hasmonean period, once the Romans took over, the use of the term disappeared; but during the Great Revolt (the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73 CE), the very first coin minted used the name “Israel” to refer to the land. This indicates that that name had returned to use.
Reuveni further argues: “An individual is a Jew, perhaps, but the collective is Israel.” It’s true; even when we were referring to ourselves as Jews, the term “Israel” was and still is often applied to communities or to the entire Jewish people as a collective. In Yiddish, for example, kehillos yisroel (the communities of Israel) referred to Jewish communities; klal yisroel and am yisroel were used to refer to the entire Jewish people.
So the name Israel was chosen, and became a modern national identity. In his letter, Reuveni addresses the question of non-Jewish residents of the land: “Won’t the non-Jews protest that the name ‘Israeli’ is being imposed upon them?” he writes. “What right and reason do they have to protest? The Jews who live in Syria are called Syrian Jews; the Arabs who will live in the State of Israel will be called Israeli Arabs.”
And so it was. 🙂
I think the whole discussion emphasizes how much of an anomaly Judaism is as an identity. The Israeli identity is a lot easier to explain: it’s a national identity, like French, German, Chilean, Malaysian. Judaism remains ambiguous and hard to pin down; it means very different things to different people. It can be a national identity, an ethnic identity, a racial identity, a cultural identity, and/or a religious identity. For me, it is all of the above.
Remember how last year in January I posted a letter to Josep in which I described how Israelis are completely obsessed with nature? I wrote, “Over the years I have acquired bits and pieces of that fundamental education in Israeli flora. I now know, for instance, that these lovely bright red flowers blooming in a field across the street from us now, are called kalanit (anemone), and not pereg (poppy), which is the red spring flower that grows closer to the coast, where I grew up; or nurit (buttercup). Telling these three flowers apart is elementary knowledge in local botany for Israelis. (Here’s the secret, which you can’t really see in my picture: anemones have a white circle around the flower’s center, and the other two don’t. Buttercups have five petals, anemones have six, and poppies usually have four.) (You’re welcome.)”
Well, the kalaniyot are blooming in that field again, and sure enough, H (who is in first grade) came home with this today:
On Friday afternoon we were driving to my parents’ house to spend Shabbat there. It’s about an hour’s ride from here–out of the Judean Desert, into the Jerusalem Hills, and down into the coastal plain. We like to listen to music as we drive, and as we were driving, the first song from the movie The Prince of Egypt came on.
You’ve seen The Prince of Egypt, right? The opening sequence shows the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. We see Jochebed, Moses’s mother, slipping past the Egyptian soldiers down to the Nile River, where she places baby Moses in a basket and sets him afloat. His sister Miriam watches his progress from the reeds on the riverbank, until the basket floats into to the palace of Pharoah and Moses is taken in by Pharoah’s wife. (In the Bible, it is Pharoah’s daughter who finds him, but given how true the movie stays to the Biblical narrative most of the time, I forgive them.) Here’s a video of the whole sequence with the lyrics in English.
So I was sitting there in the car, listening to the lyrics:
Hear our call
Lord of all
Here in this burning sand
There’s a land You promised us
To the promised land
And I looked out the window of the car, and there it was.
The Promised Land.
And all these people driving the cars on this road? The vast majority of them are the descendants, genetic and/or spiritual, of those slaves.
I am one of them.
I’ve lived here for 19 years now, and most of the time I don’t really think about it. But every once in a while it hits me how completely absurd it is that I am here.
How totally ridiculous it is that the Jewish people still exist at all.
How entirely outrageous it is that a tiny minority such as us has impacted global history the way we have.
How utterly insane it is that we returned from a 2,000-year exile to establish a sovereign state–despite the constant efforts of our neighbors to destroy us–and resurrect our ancient language to become our vernacular.
I grew up with these stories as fact, so it doesn’t sound all that strange to me until I realize that this stuff has never happened before. Ever. In the history of humankind. To anybody.
Even if you don’t believe a single word of the Biblical narrative… the story of my people is truly astonishing.
It reminds me of an article I read recently about how science is increasingly making the case for “intelligent design.” Scientists are starting to realize that the odds of any planet in the universe supporting life are less than zero… including this one. In other words, knowing what we know now about the overwhelmingly improbable conditions necessary for a planet to support life, the claim that it happened by chance is now starting to sound crazier than the claim that it happened by design. Like the famous example given by Rabbi Bahya ibn Piquda in 11th century Spain: “If a man were to bring before us a page of orderly script, which could not have been written without a quill, and he says ‘Ink spilled on the page and the script arranged itself,’ we would be quick to declare his words false…” (“Duties of the Heart,” 1:6)
That awkward moment when science says that being an atheist takes a greater leap of faith than being a theist.
But for me, this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about those moments when you look around you and you see God everywhere and in everything. Sweet moments that have become a lot rarer as I’ve grown older and my view of the world has become more complex. I still have so many questions why, and they can be suffocating and overwhelming and distancing. But every once in a while He’ll find a way to remind me that there is a preponderance of evidence of His love for me.
I swear I was in the middle of writing a post about the terrorist attack yesterday–the murder of Daphna Meir in her home in Otniel, south of Hebron–and how it shattered my sense of security, when a text from our town council told us that we were in lockdown.
Soon the news came through that someone had been injured in a stabbing attack within Tekoa and the terrorist had been shot.
The first thing you do is check with the preschools and schools where your kids are that everyone there is okay. After establishing that, the news slowly started to come through: pregnant woman. Seriously injured. Near the industrial zone. Holy crap, I think. That’s like a 2 minute walk from my house. I can practically see it from my kitchen window. Right next to my kid’s school. The terrorist was shot near the horse farm. Holy crap. That’s right next to my other sons’ preschool. One of them is home sick today… but the other. Did he hear the gunshot?
The next thing you do is start to panic about all the pregnant women you know who might have been there. My downstairs neighbor is in her 30s, pregnant, and works at the second-hand clothing store at the industrial zone sometimes. The woman who teaches my bridal counselor course fits those criteria too.
Text messages. E-mails. Facebook. A lot of nail biting. Refreshing news websites. Trembling hands.
And then, as more details emerge, it becomes clear that I do know her. Michal Froman, daughter-in-law of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, the famous and controversial rabbi of Tekoa who was a peace activist. I attended a few of her yoga classes. I did translation jobs for her husband. I see her around every now and then and we exchange hellos.
Talk about a shattered sense of security.
Later reports changed the status of Michal’s injury from “serious” to “moderate.” She underwent successful surgery and is stable, and so is her fetus. Thank God. Another, bigger sigh of relief. She’s going to be okay.
This is all on the backdrop of yesterday’s incident, that I mentioned at the top of the post. Daphna Meir, 38, mother of six (two of whom were foster children), fought off a terrorist who broke into her home and stabbed her. He ran away without harming anyone else, but Daphna died of her wounds. The army is still hunting for the terrorist.
I made the mistake of reading a more detailed account of what happened in the incident. I will spare you the details of what I read. No parent should ever have to hear these things. It’s horrible and heartbreaking and it made me nauseated and weak and short of breath.
It’s not that these incidents are “worse” than what’s been going on for the past few months. They did strike particularly close to home, and this terrorist-breaking-into-your-house-and-murdering-you-in-front-of-your-children thing is truly a whole different level of nightmare. But you know… with these things happening so often, you can’t really feel how awful it is all the time. So you block it out. You numb yourself.
I was 15 during the worst of the second intifada. I remember a period when the word “pigua” (“terror attack”) would sweep my school in an urgent whisper. The first question you asked was, “Where?” And then, “How many killed?” If it was more than five, you clutched your chest and reached for your book of Psalms. If it was less than five, you shook your head and clucked your tongue. If it was “none, only injuries”–you shrugged and went on with your day. It’s awful, but it’s the only way to keep going. You have to step back and look at the situation with cold objectivity. It’s the only way to be okay.
But sometimes, something will happen that will snap the situation back into grim focus. It’ll be something that hits particularly close to home–either someone you know, or somewhere close to where you were, or some situation that is chillingly familiar. And you feel everything. Anger. Fear. Disgust. Desperation. You realize that there are people out there, people who live just over there on the next hill, who want you and your children dead simply because you are Jews daring to live in your historic homeland. And you realize that some of those people are willing to hunt you down and stab you for that reason and that reason alone.
And you are not okay. You are not okay at all.
But eventually the funerals end and the injured come home from the hospital and things start to become routine again. And there is still bad stuff on the news, but slowly you start to breathe a little easier, and you stop checking over your shoulder every time you walk outside your door. And you are okay again. For the time being.
People keep asking me if I’m okay. I feel a need to answer “Yes.” Technically I am. As Eitan wryly jokes, I have all the right holes in all the right places. My family and I are safe… as safe as we could be under the circumstances, at least. And there’s a part of me that wants to show how defiant and strong we are. Sure, I’m okay. I’m fine. Screw the terrorists, they won’t break me.
I’d been debating with myself about whether to post here about current events in Israel. I generally prefer to keep our political discussions to our private correspondence, and I’ve updated you on the situation, but the blog is about life in Israel too, and this, unfortunately, is part of life here.
So let me explain for our blog readers who haven’t been following the news from Israel: “this” is a fresh wave of violence and terror. The claim is that the Palestinians are upset because of a rumor that the Israeli government plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount–as in, allow Jews to pray there. Yes, you understood that right: Palestinians are stabbing Jews all over Israel over the [false!] allegation that the Israeli government will grant religious freedom to Jews. At the holiest site to Judaism.
You can’t make this stuff up.
But we all know it’s not really about that. It’s about the same things as always.
Now, because our security forces have thwarting large terror attacks down to an art, thankfully, we are not seeing the kinds of horrible suicide bombings that characterized the Second Intifada. They have mostly been stabbings, usually single terrorists, sometimes trying to seize weapons from soldiers or civilians. The scary thing, though, is that it’s been happening multiple times a day all over the country–from Tel Aviv to Afula to Kiryat Gat to Petah Tikva to Raanana, not only the Old City in Jerusalem or the West Bank. And of course, along the roads in Judea and Samaria, there has been a marked increase of rock attacks and Molotov cocktails thrown at Israeli cars.
So… what is it like to have all this going on around us?
A friend of mine from high school, the phenomenally talented artist and animator Reut Bortz, drew this cartoon, which expresses so well what it feels like:
It’s like navigating a game of Snakes and Ladders. You try to live your life normally, praying you will land on a “safe space.” You try to make the choices that will keep you and your family safe, but ultimately you feel helpless to protect yourself and your family. This is how terror works. While statistically we are much more likely to be killed in a car accident, the high profile of these incidents keeps us afraid. Eventually, the terrorists believe, it will wear us down and weaken us, to a point where we will just give up and leave.
…Apparently they don’t know who they’re dealing with here.
They call us the Eternal Nation for a reason. We don’t get weak when we are threatened; we get stronger. Palestinian terror is just one unpleasant–and fairly unimpressive–blip in the centuries-long timeline of horrors we have survived.
When I gave you a “security briefing” during another rough time last year, you said, “I wonder how you live like that!” I responded, “A lot of dark humor.” While that is an important (and my personal favorite) coping mechanism Israelis tend to employ, there are others, and I want to tell you about them today. But let’s start with that one:
1) Dark Humor
Yup. I’ve written about this typically Jewish coping mechanism before, but I really think it’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon. Israelis make a point of laughing about tough situations. I told you about how during the war last year, Hamas tried its hand at using social media to intimidate Israelis, and how that backfired, big time. Their efforts were met with an onslaught of mockery–from the popular parodies of their propaganda music video to the hilarious responses to their hacking of a Domino’s Pizza page. This period is no different. No matter what you do to us, we will never stop laughing.
Humor helps us in a few ways:
It helps create some distance between us and the threat, which makes it feel less scary and threatening. It’s hard to be afraid of something ridiculous.
It brings us together, increasing solidarity (see item #3).
Laughter is an excellent medicine. It oxygenates the blood, increases endorphin and dopamine levels, decreases stress hormones, and burns calories to boot!
Here are a few of the jokes getting tossed around on social media:
–“I hate this kind of weather, where you don’t know whether to wear long sleeves or a bulletproof vest” (Yotam Zimri, Israeli comedian)
–“Apparently terrorist groups are paying Palestinian kids $30 to throw rocks at soldiers. They don’t realize we’re so underpaid that we’d throw rocks at ourselves for half the price.” (Anonymous Israeli soldier)
–(Background: one of the attacks yesterday was carried out by an Arab employee of Bezeq, a large telecommunications company)
“Me: Your employee just stabbed me.
Bezeq: Have you tried taking out the knife and reinserting it?” (Michael Butir)
As per item #2, which we will get to in a moment, there were a bunch of videos going around demonstrating knife defense techniques, some more helpful than others. Well, this one is a little different.
2) Fighting Spirit
On the night two Israelis were stabbed to death in Jerusalem a week and a half ago, Bon Jovi performed in Tel Aviv. He dedicated a new song of his, “We Don’t Run,” to Israel, saying that it should be Tel Aviv’s fight song. Eitan and I have been listening to it on repeat ever since.
We don’t run I’m standing my ground We don’t run And we don’t back down There’s fire in the sky There’s thunder on the mountain Bless each tear And this dirt I was born in Run We don’t run
Nailed it, Jon.
One of the most remarkable things about the attacks in the past week or so is that the terrorists have been neutralized within minutes, not only by the police or security, but by ordinary passersby–with ingenuity that does me proud as a self-defense instructor. Yesterday a terrorist stabbed a guy in Ra’anana, only to be pounced upon by several bystanders and beaten to a pulp. Another guy fought off a terrorist with his umbrella; one used a selfie stick; one martial artist happened to be carrying his nunchaku in his bag and jumped on a bus where a terrorist was being subdued, using his weapon to help neutralize him.
…As per item #1, you can imagine we had a ball with this. Benji Lovitt, Anglo Israeli comedian, wrote: “I can’t believe we wasted billions of dollars on the Iron Dome. Do you know how many umbrellas, nunchucks, and selfie sticks we could have bought?” Eretz Nehederet, an Israeli satire show, put out a cartoon of an army insignia for the “Neutralizing Brigade,” featuring those three “weapons.”
David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, is quoted as saying, “The entire nation is the army, the entire country is the front.” Still true 70 years later.
3) Solidarity and Unity
I wrote about this during the war, too. Nothing brings us together like an external threat. From sending gifts to the families of victims or food to the soldiers to wishing strangers “b’sorot tovot” (“good news”), there is a strong sense that we are in this together and we are here for each other.
Solidarity from outside Israel helps a lot too. Jewish communities praying for our welfare, and friends checking in on us, make us feel that we are not alone, and give us a lot of strength. If you are reading about the situation in Israel and feeling angry and helpless, there is one simple and highly effective thing you can do: just write a quick note saying you are thinking of us, or asking how we are. It helps more than you can imagine.
Footage from one of the recent attacks showed an Israeli soldier pointing her gun at a knife-wielding terrorist while still holding an ice cream bar she had been eating. (This of course triggered a parody video of a guy doing all kinds of things while holding on to an ice cream bar…) “I’m not throwing away perfectly good ice cream just ’cause I need to neutralize a terrorist!” If that doesn’t illustrate quintessential Israeli defiance in the face of terror, I don’t know what does.
One of the responses to the violence in the Old City of Jerusalem was a group of young men gathering at the Damascus Gate to study Torah. This is also a quintessential Jewish response. “You want to scare away the Jews? We’re coming, and we’re bringing our Torah with us.” They have been studying there regularly since the violence escalated.
Like I said, the goal of terror is to weaken us, to disrupt our daily lives. We therefore go out of our way to show the terrorists that they have not succeeded, by davka celebrating life and going about our regular activities with stubborn defiance.
God called us a “stiff-necked people” in the book of Exodus. It was not a compliment at the time, but that same trait has served us pretty well in this context!
5) Faith (Seeing the Big Picture)
It was during the Second Intifada that I became intimately acquainted with the book of Psalms. Every time there was a serious terror attack, our teachers would hand out booklets of Psalms for us to read. And there were, unfortunately, many opportunities to do so. Prayer, and specifically the book of Psalms, has been our go-to response to bad situations for centuries. To me, that book is the symbol of Jewish spiritual resistance.
Faith in God doesn’t mean I think that if I just believe and pray enough, nothing bad will ever happen to me. Faith in God means that no matter what happens, I trust that He is on my side, and that even if something bad happens, it’s for the ultimate good. It means trusting Him to be with me and give me the strength to handle whatever comes. Reading the book of Psalms helps me because it reminds me that I am not alone in my fear, anger, and yearning for a better world–that Jews have been feeling these things for centuries, and we have overcome.
Faith as a coping mechanism also means seeing the Big Picture. The Big Picture is that this wave of violence is truly nothing compared to the bloodshed we have survived in the past–and it could be so, so much worse. Faith means seeing that each day is full of honest-to-goodness miracles. The fact that more Israelis have not been killed, despite the best efforts of the hateful hordes, is a revealedmiracle–what we religious people call it when God’s hand is very clear. It can be hard to think this way when you’re in the depths of pain and despair, especially when someone has been injured or killed. That’s fine too. Sometimes we are meant to focus in on our little part of the picture and do what we can to improve it. But when we can pan out and take the long view, we can take heart. Because to the person of faith flipping through the many pages of Jewish history, it is undeniable that Someone is running the show–Someone who is on our side.
That’s the Jewish people for you. Afraid, but courageous; broken, but defiant; constantly arguing, but united; questioning, but keeping faith; crying, laughing, praying, mourning death and most of all–stubbornly, audaciously celebrating life. And it is just that that carries us through. During the war in 2014, Hamas MP Fathi Hammad said, “We desire death like you desire life.” You betcha, Hammad. And may God grant us both what we desire.
I awoke to the sound of a thunderclap this morning, followed shortly thereafter by the drumming of hail and the shouts of the neighbors frantically trying to bring their furniture back in from their succah so they wouldn’t get ruined by the rain. I couldn’t help but smile.
Yesterday was Shmini Atzeret, and one of the special things that happens on Shmini Atzeret is that we begin to mention rain in our daily prayers. We will continue to pray for rain until the second day of Passover, in the spring. You might be wondering, why bother changing the wording of the prayer twice a year? Why not just pray for rain all year? The answer has to do with the unique climate in Israel.
During the dry, brutal heat of a Middle Eastern August, many among us (especially those of us who grew up in cooler climates) begin to ask ourselves why God had to promise us this land of all places, and not, say, Switzerland.
Or if it’s gotta be in the middle of a godforsaken desert, couldn’t it be one with some oil?
In all seriousness, though, the question of the location of the Promised Land is a good one, and has been discussed and debated by the Sages. One suggestion is that Israel is located right smack in the center of the map, on the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe.
One of the reasons it’s such a war-torn piece of real estate is that it’s an important point along all the trade routes between those continents.
Why is this important?
Because, the Sages say, God wanted us located somewhere where we would come in contact with all these civilizations, influencing them with our culture. We have discussed (including in my previous post) how Jews have impacted the world astronomically out of proportion to our numbers, and the central location of our land may have something to do with that.
Another reason given for God having chosen this spot, is that at least up until a very few years ago, the area was completely, 100% dependent on rainfall for successful agriculture. We don’t have major rivers like the Nile, the Tigris or the Euphrates, and the only major freshwater lake is the Sea of Galilee. “What about the Jordan River?” you may ask. You didn’t get a chance to see it when you were here, did you?
We get most of our water from underground springs or from the Sea of Galilee. So droughts due to little rainfall were a constant concern for thousands of years. I remember observing a public fast day while I was in middle school because of a severe drought we were having, and growing up always fretting about saving water and “red lines” in the levels of the Sea of Galilee.
Why would God purposely give us a land where our survival, until only very recently, was so dependent on the whims of nature?
Well, it’s not really the “whims of nature” we are dependent on; it is Him, and His will. And being dependent on rain makes us turn to Him constantly for sustenance. It’s the difference between someone leaving a coffee machine on the counter so you can make yourself a cup, and someone you love bringing you a cup of coffee because you asked for it. It facilitates the kind of intimacy God wanted to have with us. “The Egyptians can have the Nile,” He said. “I want you to talk to Me about your needs.”
In recent years, the government finally solved the problem once and for all by building desalination plants along the Mediterranean and through wide-scale water recycling programs. We no longer live under the constant threat of water shortage. (Here is an article in the Times of Israel from February 2013 called “How Israel Beat the Drought.”) I am, of course, very happy and grateful about this, but there is something in me that laments the loss of that particular aspect of the relationship, and the sense of hope and blessing that would come with a year of good rainfall.
The climate in Israel is characterized by hot, dry summers with no rainfall at all–from around May until September–and cool, rainy winters (well, rainy by Middle Eastern standards…), from around December until March. The months in between are the transitional seasons, which are usually characterized by temperate weather interspersed with dramatic ups-and-downs–heat waves and sandstorms that last a few days and then “break,” often with a cool wind and some rainfall.
So the reason we only pray for rain from around September to around April is because, as we read in Ecclesiastes this past Shabbat, “for everything there is a season.” Rain in its time is a great blessing. Unusual weather–even rain in the summer–can damage crops and upset the delicate balance of Israel’s ecosystem. I should note that this does not only apply to Jewish prayers in Israel; Jews all over the world follow this same prayer pattern. We have been praying for the fertility of the Land of Israel for thousands of years, even on the rare occasion when not a single Jew lived in the Holy Land.
The lack of rain from May to September makes it that much more precious when it returns. There is nothing quite like the first rain of the season here in Israel, and Israelis celebrate it with the same childlike delight you see around the first snowfall in colder countries. I am no exception. 😉
I began to really appreciate rain around the time of the first rainfall in the year 2001. Yes, this was shortly after September 11th, and a particularly meaningful and “cleansing” Yom Kippur I experienced as a 14-year-old. It was around that time that I began to develop a close and personal relationship with God, and as I opened my window and breathed in the scent of the soil drinking in the rain for the first time in months, I looked up at the sky and felt that each raindrop was sent directly to me as a gift from Him. I would go outside barefoot, laughing in pure pleasure and welcoming the shower as I waded through the puddles. I would sit in my parents’ car outside, listening to the rain drum on the roof and watching it drip down the windows all around, feeling safe and warm and loved. Each raindrop felt like a kiss from God… and, well, I would kiss Him back. To this day, I instinctively kiss every raindrop that falls on my lips.
I wrote in a previous entry that I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I most often find Him in the rain.
I will leave you with a song I love by Yonatan Razel (brother of Aaron Razel, of Krembo Song fame, and the more celebrated of the two for his appeal to a general audience and not just a religious one). It’s the first song on his latest album, “Bein HaTzlilim” (“Between the Sounds”), called “Tikun HaGeshem,” the “Prayer for Rain.” It is adapted from the traditional prayer for rain recited in Sephardi synagogues on Shmini Atzeret. Something about what Razel does with the music really captures the magic of the beginning of the rainy season here.
This is my translation of the lyrics:
Prayer for Rain
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
With the rains of Your will, bless the nation Trapped like a bird in the snares of despair In the merit of the Father of Many, who prepared a feast And said, “Please let a little water be taken”2
Remember Your mercy, Creator of the celestial lights Command Your clouds to scatter light In the merit of the Sweet Singer King Who said, “Oh, if one would give me water to drink”3
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
With the rains of blessing, bless the earth With the rains of song, prune the earth
With the rains of life With the rains of blessing With the rains of redemption…
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
Wishing us all a year of abundance and many, many God-kisses. 🙂
1. That’s the skyline of Dubai, a city in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where Josep has spent more time than anyone should ever have to.↩
2. This is a reference to Genesis 18:4, when Abraham was visited by three “strangers” (who turned out to be angels), and offered them “a little water” and “a morsel of bread,” and when they agreed, prepared a whole feast for them. From this story, we learn about Abraham’s exemplary hospitality, and the principle of “say little, do much.”↩
3. A reference to Samuel II 23:15, the story about when King David was doing battle with the Philistines near Bethlehem, and expressed a desire to drink from the well of Bethlehem. Three “mighty men” went and broke through the Philistine camp to fetch the water for their king, but when they brought it, he refused to drink it and spilled it on the ground as an offering to God, in regret over having his men risk their lives to get it for him.↩
You may recall that the drive from Jerusalem to my home in Judea involves driving past a number of Palestinian villages. A section of the road coming from the other direction goes directly through one of the villages.
Now, for the most part, this area of Judea is pretty quiet. Some of the storefronts along the roads of this village display signs in Hebrew alongside the Arabic, and it’s because there is a lot of commercial interaction between the Israelis and the Palestinians around here. A majority of the construction workers who build the homes in our town come from that area, and the contractors get a lot of their building material from Bethlehem and Hebron. Palestinians are employed alongside Israelis at local businesses and farms, with equal pay and benefits. Our local supermarket is an oasis of coexistence, where Israelis and Palestinians shop side by side; it is Israeli owned, but most of the employees are Christian Palestinians from the local villages. The guy at the cheese counter gives out Arabic lessons as he wishes a “Gutt Shabbos” (“good Sabbath” in Yiddish) to the American-Israeli settler. It’s a whole different Middle East than the one on the news.
Sometimes, however, especially during periods of general heightened tensions, there are problems. Problems in the form of rock or Molotov cocktail attacks on Israeli cars, for the most part. It generally comes from the teenagers and kids. The hour or so between noon and one o’clock in the afternoon becomes notorious in these periods for rock attacks, because that’s when the kids are walking up the sides of the street to get home, restless after a day of sitting around in school. On one such occasion, a couple years ago, a teenager threw a rock at me. It made contact with the windshield, cracking it on a direct path to my face. Mere minutes beforehand, I had stopped for one of his neighbors shepherding his sheep across the road. I had waved at him, and he had waved back.
We live in such a paradoxical place.
At the time, I felt so helpless. They’re just kids, what are you going to do, run them over? Threaten them? On the other hand, rocks thrown at cars have killed Israelis on numerous occasions; it’s nothing to sneeze at. So I started thinking about creative ways to make myself a less obvious or desirable target. One idea I had was to keep an extra scarf in the glove compartment, and wrap it around my face like a hijab when driving through.
I entertained the idea of finding someone to write a message in Arabic to hang in the window, like “Hi there! Please don’t throw rocks at me!” 😛 Or maybe finding a way to inscribe the letters TV, or UN, on the car.
The hijab idea made me kind of uncomfortable–you know I have a thing about honesty on principle–and the others seemed fairly impractical. But then I had an idea that was so simple, it was almost ridiculous.
Maybe when driving past the villagers, I could wave hello to them.
I figured that it could “humanize” me, appealing to the better nature of a potential attacker and making him think twice about throwing a rock at my car; and even if not, at least it could confuse him long enough for me to drive past before he realizes that yes, that woman did just wave hello to him, and no, he doesn’t actually know her, and yes, she is Jewish.
But as I contemplated trying it out, every time I had an opportunity to initiate a friendly gesture, I found myself paralyzed with fear. What if I needlessly draw attention to myself? What if that makes me more of an inviting target? What if it makes them think I’m mocking them? I think on a deeper level, I was afraid because waving is reaching out to them; it’s making myself vulnerable, and even if their rejection did not come in the form of violence, it felt like taking some level of risk. A wave hello means, “I acknowledge you, you are a person, I respect your right to be here,” and though I certainly believe these things about my Palestinian neighbors… you know. It’s complicated.
So… a couple months ago I was driving home and realized that I was going to be driving through the village at a time when school was letting out. I thought to myself, this time I have to try it. But I was still scared. And as I drove up and saw a group of teenage boys–the most likely demographic for would-be terrorists–walking up the road, and felt my stomach clench, I thought, am I really going to have the guts to do it this time?
And then, out of the blue, something happened that had never happened to me before.
One of the teenage boys raised his hand, completely unprovoked–and waved at me.
Delighted, I waved back with a big smile, and then proceeded to wave at every single person I saw on the way down the hill. I got some waves, some smiles, some nods, and a few blank stares. But it felt amazing. That village has become a completely different place for me since that day.
And now when I’m driving along these roads, sometimes I’ll catch someone’s eye and feel paralyzed by fear. But sometimes, I’ll lift my hand and give a wave… and I’d say three out of five times, when I do that, they wave back.
A few friendly gestures are not going to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict or bring peace to the Middle East. But the only thing that will bring peace is for both societies to learn to acknowledge each other’s humanity. The Talmud teaches, “Who is respected? He who respects others.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1) And I’d like to think that maybe someday, a wave of my hand might start to change the way somebody thinks about Jews or Israelis.
Well, in the meantime, I’ll settle for preventing cracks in my windshield.