Sunday, April 18, 2010

One Minute

Last year, when the siren went off for one minute in the evening to mark the beginning of Yom HaZikaron יום הזכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל ולנפגעי פעולות האיבה‎ (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror), a time when everyone stops what they are doing and stands in silence, Morey and I were home alone. The following day when the siren went off for a full two minutes (again, standing in silence), we were in Ulpan, Hebrew class. For the majority of us, this was our first Yom HaZikaron as Israelis. There was a sense of solidarity of being a people together on this day, but there was also a distinct separateness. We'd only been in the country, most of us, for a few months. We understood the loss this day memorializes, but we couldn't really feel it.

That was really driven home when we went to the ceremony at the school that hosted the Ulpan class. The students and faculty memorialized their former students and classmates, along with the brothers, fathers, uncles, sons and friends they had lost. To see these normally boisterious teenage boys crumbling into the arms of their teachers, tears shamelessly pouring down their young faces, really made us appreciate the difference between the new kids and the "real" Israelis.

This year, thank God, I'm still a new kid. But this year, because I'm in hospital (that's a different post altogether), when the siren went off in the evening, I was standing with a very mixed group of people. I knew no one, and no one knew me. We were all Israelis standing together in a moment of silence for our fallen soldiers, for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their countrymates, and for the families who now have a gaping hole where a loved one once stood. An entirely different feeling.

The interesting part of experiencing the siren at the hospital, is that everyone is welcome at this hospital, as in every hospital within Israel. That means, standing outside with us were Arabs. Arab Israelis are exempt from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, yet some choose to. Most are Druze or Bedouin, but some Arab Israeli do serve. For the most part, there's no way to tell if someone is Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, Druze, modernized Bedouin and there's no way to tell if that person is anti-Israel or supportive of Israel.

So here we are, all of us standing together, when the siren goes off that memorializes Israeli soldiers who have died mainly in wars and situations fighting Arab armies and terrorists. The Arabs around me kept talking and ignored the siren, but I noticed they talked quietly. Were they ignoring something they felt didn't apply to them, but being respectful at the same time? Or was it just the environment of being at a hospital? I'll never know, but as I go back to my room and say hello to my lovely Arab nurse, and think about the Arab doctor who was the one who finally figured out what was wrong with me, and the Arab man in the room next to me whose family is gathered around him, never leaving him alone, I realize it's yet another beautiful, crazy dichotomy of living in Israel.

May Hashem bless the souls of the fallen, the families who live with the loss daily, may their memories be for a blessing upon all of us and may the day come when we no longer add any names to the list of those to remember.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Just another day in The Land

One of the facts of life of living in Israel is that a lot of our neighbours want to get rid of us. Not very hospitable, I know, but there you have it. No need to recap the terrorist history; every knows about pizza places, cafes, buses and hotels being bombed, and the people who have been killed. I learn at a womens' seminary, Nishmat, in Jerusalem in a program named in honor of Alisa Flatow, a victim of one such attack.

As a result, Israelis have to live with lots of security. Everytime you go into a mall, you show your bags for inspection and go through a metal detector. If you park in a public garage, keep your trunk unlocked for security to check. Nearly every restaurant in Jerusalem has a guard you have to get by. When you go into the train or bus station, your bags will go through an x-ray machine and you will go through yet another metal detector. Just to get into the airport complex, never mind the actual building, you have to go through security. Even when you drop your child off at nursery school, you will pass and say good morning to the armed security guard standing outside his or her booth.

We learn to live with it; we learn to accept seeing armed guards protecting us while we shop for milk and eggs.

Still, it gets our attention when, while driving to one our local shopping centres to go to lunch with Morey's visiting mother on her last day here, we get waved away from the main entrance. Idle curiousity makes us wonder why there are more-armed-than-usual police officers in the street, while we sit in the restaurant watching, speculating on what's going on. We guess that it's a חפץ חשוד - suspicious object - and we continue to watch as the police block off the road, and the Moked (I don't know how to translate that - they're city staff) arrive. It's all an interesting distraction, until the police come into the restaurant and evacuate us.

Until that point, everything was kind of casual. "Oh neat, they'll bring in the sappers. I want to see the robot." Once you get evacuated, it kind of occurs to you that there's a chance this one might be more than someone's forgotten backpack.

It's interesting to note that we all were quite lackadaisical about clearing out. We did it, but there was no panic, no rush. The people next to us took the time to pay their bill, rather than come back afterwards. Most of us went to the back of the centre and started browsing in the stores there, or made phone calls. But still, everyone who was close enough, watched. It may be a fact of life, but we still want to know for sure.

After two controlled explosions and some gunfire, we were given the all-clear. We went back to the restaurant, got our food, drank our now-cold coffee, and went on with our day as if nothing happened.

Just another day in the Land. For the reasons why we have to blow up every carelessly left-behind suitcase, backpack, cardboard box or package, and why we have to have guards at malls, grocery stores, restaurants and schools, please read this beautiful tribute by Paul Stern.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Don't Passover the details

The Seventh Plague, John Martin, 1823

There are many aspects of the Biblical record that are disturbing. But, Torah is not a simple collection of sweet children's stories and morality plays; it's a record of a people's relationship with their G-d, and as such, both good and bad are depicted. In other words, the nasty stuff could have been excised to make us look better, but morally, it made more sense to leave in abhorrent behaviour so that later generations could discuss and learn. These discussions make up the Talmud, and other texts.

The depiction of the Exodus includes a number of actions that depict both G-d and the Hebrews in a disturbing light. Why did G-d harden Pharaoh's heart so that more plagues could be unleashed? Why did the Hebrews need to liberate a fortune in silver and gold from the emotionally-broken Egyptians when they fled?

And why celebrate a festival in which multitudes of innocent Egyptians perished so that we could be free?

The answer is, we don't. During the seder, we dip wine in remembrance of the plagues and the Egyptians killed. As well, there's a significant Midrash (interpretive teaching) which is often discussed during the Passover season, in which the angels are chastised by G-d for celebrating the deaths of Egyptians:

"The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: 'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'" (Sanhedrin 39a)

It would be a mistake to deny ourselves an opportunity to celebrate on the grounds that others suffered. This is generally the outcome of any conflict. We can both celebrate and memorialize at the same time; they're not mutually exclusive conditions. It would also be a mistake to whitewash history - even religious history - when we can learn from the past. Passover is not an exercise in self-congratulations; it's an annual reminder of human suffering, an opportunity for improvement on a spiritual level, and a catalyst for action in a world in which man-made adversity continues.