Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Thursday, 3 March 2011
Imagine you live in a country where most things are new, and if they are not new they are very old.
Imagine you live in a country where you labour to build the institutions you need to live a life – your daughter’s high school, a center for child development, the local pizza store, a new system for emergency medicine, a software company.
Imagine that when you buy a house the land around it has never been planted, so you yourself lay the grass, and plant orange trees, lemon trees, olive trees, and passion fruit. And twenty one vines of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Imagine living on a hill top and seeing the first supermarket open in your town, the first baby clinic, the first hairdresser, the first falafel store.
Imagine praying in an air raid shelter for twelve years, because it takes you twelve years to build a synagogue in your community. Imagine the first Friday night prayers in the synagogue when it has been built: the women crying, the men crying, the hugging and the laughing, the sense of something achieved that beats anything you have ever done before.
Imagine commuting into Jerusalem every day from Bet Shemesh, up the back road past the Soreq stream, into the hills and out by the Hadassah hospital with its helicopter landing pad on the roof. Imagine the turquoise skies on winter mornings, the yellow acacia, the pine, the wild cyclamen, and almond blossoms in the winter chill. On your way you will pass the stalagmite caves, the Nataf ancient farming community, with its terraced agriculture channels hundreds of years old, and a monastery tucked into the hillside. As you commute over the years a brand new wing of Hadassah will be built, springing up in front of your eyes.
Imagine walking up the Jaffa Road into the center of town, the pavements torn up, the shouts of the builders, construction engineers in their hard hats, the hollow cement pipes being laid into place, the traffic jams, the bus delays, the potholes in the ground, the trailing wires and then – brand new paving laid along the entire length of the street, tree saplings trees with the red mounds of “humra” laid carefully at the base of each.
And when you have lived here 25 years, when you think you probably could not experience any more building and growing and newness, the new electric trains begin to glide up and down the Jaffa Road, silent, sleek and slender on their trial journeys past the new shops and new hotels and new office buildings. Twenty children with cancer are given the first ride, because they may not make it for the grand opening later this year.
Imagine your son going to law school at the Hebrew University, where he studies Turkish law and British law and Israeli law in a building where the cornerstone was laid in 1918, while he lives in a student village built in 2008. Imagine your daughter studying Talmud in a girl’s seminary on a Kibbutz in the Jordan valley, imagine her riding her bicycle every day along neatly planed kibbutz paths to the Bet Midrash, where she will study for a year, then enter the army to work in Intellgence.
At the end of a day’s work you come home to sit on your balcony and look out at the garden you have planted, the palm trees and the bougainvillea and the rosemary and lavender and jasmine, and you sip on the Cabernet Sauvignon wine you have made from your vines, and you watch the hoopoe birds with their yellow tails, the green parakeets and turquoise kingfishers who have come to live in your garden. Somewhere a child practices on the piano, and two cats get into a fight, and you realize you had better go in and get dinner started. Strawberries have just come into season, so you might have those for desert.
Imagine there’s no countries, wrote John Lennon, but he was wrong. What are our lives without our love for the countries we live in? Especially if the country we live in lets us know, a thousand times a day, that the work we do and the children we bear and the people we befriend is something miraculous, something being carved into the universe that goes way beyond our own small, human life. No religion too, wrote John Lennon, but what are our lives if we cannot thank God every day for the newness and the oldness, the hardhats and the traffic jams, the kingfishers and the electric trains, a synagogue so ancient that only its mosaic floors remain, a synagogue so new that a wild white rabbit, displaced from its home, is still living under the cement foundations holding up the banquet hall.
Imagine life in a region where nothing is certain and nothing is promised, nothing except the passion and the commitment and the sacrifice of the people around you, their children almost as precious to you as your own. Imagine a country at war where every second of peace is treasured and loved, where every soldier in uniform dreams of the student village at Hebrew University, where every winter downpour is prayed for and celebrated.
This is your country and there is no need for you to imagine. Your grandmother had to imagine, and her mother before her and her mother too. For centuries only the imagining was possible, but now you can step out beyond imagining into the future of a Jewish country, molding it with your own hands, bringing your voice to its government and media and culture, painting your face into its landscape. Nothing you ever do – buying a new kind of cheese in the supermarket, chatting with the bus driver on your way to work, or planting a tree in your garden will feel like it is nothing. You will feel like it is everything, and you will be right.
A few hundred words ago I asked you to imagine, but I take it back.
Sunday, 11 July 2010
DISSONANCE or TWO FAT BOYS An evening with Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer at Mishkenot Shaananim in Jerusalem.
Last week I had the privilege of attending an event at Mishkenot Shaananim in Jerusalem. Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” presented an evening together with Israel's well known author Etgar Keret.
Safran Foyer opened by reading a story he had recently written called “Here We Aren't, So Quickly" (The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010). I've tried to download this breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful piece on the internet, but no luck, you have to be a subscriber. I'm thinking of subscribing to the New Yorker just so I can get hold of this story. When hearing Safran Foer read it, I felt I was in the presence of something bizarre, something al-tivi (above nature) as we say in Hebrew. I don’t mean the standard cliché of being wowed by a Great Writer. I mean being in the presence of the creative force itself, an absolute gift of God. Actually I’m thinking that this kind of writing is not a gift of God, it is God, God as God presumably would like to be revealed in the astonishing things that humans can do.
In the story, which really isn’t a story in the conventional sense, Foer dispenses with characters people care about, the narrative arc, logical sequence, and even the ends of sentences having anything to do with their beginnings. Actually he dispenses with sentences entirely. Foer stands at the podium, he’s reading the story, and the audience has collectively stopped breathing. How does he do it? After all the writing that’s been written, all the books and essays and articles and poems, how can someone write something that's not like anything that's been written before?
Foer, all of 33 years old and apparently devoid of the usual arrogance and pomposity so common in successful people, wrote “Here We Aren't, So Quickly" after a long period of not writing fiction. He describes this return to fiction as “definitely not getting back on a bicycle”. With humility he depicts for us the unpredictability and fickleness of the creative force in humans. He captures a scene for us: he's sitting at an empty computer screen, unable to write a word. This is after “Everything is Illuminated” and “Incredibly Loud” have been published to world acclaim. Sometimes writing comes to the writer, and sometimes it most definitely does not come.
Foer himself appears to be not at all sure how the whole being-able-to-write thing works, but he attempts to delve into it together with Etgar Keret, making for some very interesting debate. Surprisingly, he never saw himself as a writer when he was younger. He was most moved and inspired by the visual arts and only after he experimented with these did he turn to the written word to try and achieve in writing what others had achieved in photography and painting. He explains that he doesn’t use words as a vehicle to articulate something else. The words can be a vehicle but they must also end in themselves. Preferably in a resounding crash. Sentences need to “smash themselves against a wall”, Foer explains, and Keret agrees.
Foer is intrigued by dissonance, and the way it can reveal the heart of things. Children are great at dissonance, mainly because the world is not a very coherent place for them. Foer describes how, earlier that day, he has visited the Western Wall with his four year old son. The child wants to place two separate scraps of paper into the crevices of the wall. One says, “God, you are a wonderful guy”, and the other says, “A big Mac, with cheese”.
Etgar Karat reads “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door”to us, the first story in his new book. An author sits on his couch while an armed intruder demands he produce a story at gunpoint. The author tries to explain, with the cold metal of the pistol up against his face, that this is perhaps not the best way to illicit results from an artist. Not only does the intruder disregard this, but two more knocks at the door bring a survey-taker and a pizza delivery boy into the room, both of whom add their clamourous demands to those of the first intruder. A story must be created. Now. They express no shock that the author is being held at gunpoint, on the contrary, they acquiese to the violence, they collaborate.
It doesn’t take long to work out that the story satirizes the inherent aggression in Israeli society, that everything from judicial process to social advancement must be produced at gunpoint or not at all. The audience collectively stirs nervously in its chair. Please don’t remind us about all that stuff, it beseeches Keret silently. All day we deal with this, can’t you help us to think about something else? The laughter in the audience is almost too loud, too relieved (the piece is, apart from anything else, incredibly funny).
Etgar says the force of his writing comes from his conviction that we humans are beautiful pieces of machinery created for something and that we have no idea what that something is. So we’re using ourselves as tin openers or other things, because we’ve lost the user’s Manual of what we are for. On the day that aliens finally arrive here in a space ship to try and find out what our redeeming features are, Keret says, he hopes they won’t be asking him for an opinion. “I’ll send them over to you”, he says to Foer with a wink.
Keret describes how his Holocaust survivor parents imbued in each of their three children a desire to get out into the world, to challenge it and to change it. His parents had spent their youth trying to grab the next piece of food or the next night’s shelter, he explains. This is why there was a brick wall between them and the futures they would like to have had. “My parents could only get us far as the wall,” says Keret. “but they knew that we, the children, could jump over it.” And the three of them did. Etgar’s brother became a left wing social activist, his sister became ultra orthodox and had eleven children. Etgar became a world famous author (my description). “We were all, in our different ways, doing exactly what our parents had imagined for us”, says Keret.
Hilarously, Keret describes a tour of Israeli authors through some foreign country on a bus. The authors behave no differently then a gaggle of schoolboys jostling for importance. Each describes the structure of their working day, the alarm clock at six am, the hours at the computer to complete chapter six or chapter ten. When Keret is asked about his method and his work schedule, he admits he has neither. The authors are scandalized. Keret instantly becomes, he says, “the fat boy” on the bus. He is jeered at, then ignored. “I would have been the other Fat Boy”, responds Foer.
The two fat boys, Etgar Karat and Jonathan Saffran Foer sit next to each other on the small stage and discuss their writing. Periodically, they each sip at the standard glass of water on the table in front of them. Two successful Jewish authors whose books have been translated into many languages, who share a wicked sense of humour, who dabble in nonsense and dissonance and who use sentences which smash themselves against a wall. They appear to have much in common and indeed the fond back and forth between them, the excellent chemistry in the room, confirm that they do. But their stories reflect what we have known all along, that Foer’s American-ness frees him of Israeli angst. In “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” Foer can afford to muse about a marriage of many years, because he assumes longevity and the coupling of a life time. Karat is concerned with the cold metal touch of the pistol at our heads – produce now, live now, have children now, before we all get blown to pieces. Karat‘s parents took him to a wall so that he could jump over it. Foer’s parents had already jumped. Foer went to Princeton. (I can’t find out where Karat went to college, if at all, but I don’t think it was Princeton.) To Foer’s credit, in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” he does craft the story of a family almost destroyed by the events of nine-eleven with extraordinary sensitivity. Not many Princeton boys would have been able to do that.
Yet Foer, on this stage and in this setting, cannot help but be that old cliché, the incredibly relaxed American Jew. There’s no mistaking him, especially when he’s sitting next to Etgar Keret. Life is good. There's no religion, no being Israeli, and no IDF. There is the intoxicating mix of Thanksgiving and Hannuka, Seder night and the Superbowl, the house in Brooklyn and the writer’s fellowship in Mishkennot Shaananim. There is Jewish identity.
If you think I am saying this bitterly, and with envy, you would be wrong and also right. I’m not bitter, because I’ve accepted in the last five years or so, that there will always be the Jews who do and the Jews who don’t. Live here, I mean. I felt bitter only when I felt the need to cross that bridge, back and forth and back and forth, trying to engage, persuade, create empathy, feel empathy, get respect, give respect, work out the relationship. Today I can no longer cross the bridge, nor do I want to. Don’t get me wrong, all my beloved diaspora friends and family - my arms are open wide. The guest room is waiting, here at our home in Bet Shemesh for anyone who wants to come stay. But I can’t go across the bridge to you where you guys are any more, out there. I have Gilad Shalit, the flotilla(s), the last Gaza war and the next Lebanon war, Obama and Iran, the hatred of Israel in every crevice of academic and political life in Europe, and J street, on my mind right now. I’m not bitter at all, but I have done what people do in times of crisis, turned inwards to take care of my own. And by my own I mean all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. Because they at least do. Live here, I mean.
You would be right about the envy. On my first and only walk through Central Park a few years ago I decided that in my next life I would like to be a Jew in New York. I’m not sure that there is anywhere really better and happier to be Jewish. Just put me in a Brownstone house in Brooklyn, I ask God, when it comes to my rebirth. Preferably with a good bookshop and a Macy’s round the corner, and a credit card of course. I could attend Yeshiva University or Stern College. I could celebrate the end of my exams around a table in Starbucks, drinking extra large mocha vanilla almond chocolate frappe lattes with my friends. I could crunch my feet on golden autumn leaves in November, watch the snowflakes fall and the tinsel hang in every storefront at Christmas time. I could go look at the statue of liberty whenever I wanted, and I could put my phone to my ear just to hear, over and over, a very polite woman saying “Thank you for using AT&T”. Why would I want any other life? I’d have to be mad, right?
Unless there was an Israel. Israel in flight with her broken wings, Israel with her fabulous successes and gut clenching mistakes, Israel with her acute water shortage and her drip irrigation, her Nobel prizes, her tire-burning Haredim, her sex crazed presidents, her Ethiopian kids in tenements, her Ethiopian kids getting their paratrooper’s wings. Israel of the Western Wall (not the Wailing Wall as Safran Foer so engagingly calls it), the Security Wall and the Holocaust Wall with Etgar Keret and his siblings jumping over it. Israel with her first Intifada and her second Intifada and the third one that’s probably just around the corner. Israel engaged and disengaged, Israel on CNN and the BBC, Israel at the UN and Israel in Haiti. Israel holding on and holding on.
Holding on for dear life.
With such an Israel to be embraced and loved and supported and built, with such an Israel for stomach ulcers and migraines and nodules on my vocal cords, with such an Israel for my children and their children and their children too, there’s no way that Brooklyn could tempt me with her siren call. And I'm glad that I opted for Israel in this life, because by the time my next life rolls around, Israel may not be around.
That’s why, looking out at the stage where these two wonderful men are sitting, I’m with Etgar all the way. He’s got Israel under his cracked fingernails, and so do I. He hasn’t been buffed and polished by that accomplished manicurist, Brooklyn New York. Of course, Etgar might be longing for Brooklyn, you never know. Perhaps he and Jonathan have already arranged a house swap.
Not that I don’t appreciate Jonathan, I really do. I hope this post has shown how much I do. Not only does he write fantastic books, but he’s also so likeable that I’d like to kiss the top of his head and say “Bubeleh, you did good”. And yet (as his wife Nicole Krauss would say). He’s a world away from me, and I from him. He's never had to pull a gas mask over the head of that lovely four year old he took to the Western Wall this morning. In Israel you do get to appreciate dissonance, but not from books.
Etgar and Jonathan sit on a stage talking about writing at Mishkenot Shaananim, and they both make you glad to be human. I say get rid of all the politicians, and let’s get ourselves some real people to lead the world. Jonathan could take over from Obama, and Etgar could replace Bibi. That way, we might have something nice to say about ourselves when those aliens finally arrive.
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
I've lived in Israel for 25 years and peace has never, ever seemed further away. Today, on the radio, I heard a statement by American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which he said that Hizballah, armed by Syria and Iran, now has more rockets than most governments. The next war is coming, it seems. As an Israeli, I am trying to imagine how it will be. Will Hizballah from the North and Hamas from the South both attack at the same time? Since Operaton Cast Lead a little over a year ago, Hamas has been smuggling arms into Gaza through the the networks of hundreds of tunnels it has built between Egypt and Gaza. Do we have enough soldiers and technology to defend ourselves if we get attacked on both borders simultaheously, God Forbid? Will both my older kids, aged 22and 20, be called up if they do? (Yes, they will).
Well, I have two "comforting" thoughts. One: if we try to destroy any of the tunnels smuggling rockets into Gaza, we will always have some young woman like Rachel Corrie to stand on our bulldozers and get killed trying prevent us from doing it. And then people in the US and the UK can write plays about what a heroine she was, and even have a ship named after her. Two: If Hizballah should decide to start a war and use all those rockets it has been stockpiling to target Israeli towns, we will have thousands of people marching through Trafalgar Square in London shouting "We are all Hizballah!". Such a fabulous world we live in.
And still I am longing for peace. I am going to keep in my mind, the picture of those two little Arab girls walking to school. I am trying to imagine such a life in this part of the world - Arabs and Jews going peacefully about their daily lives together without fear or animosity. I was glad to feel that feeling of longing in my heart again this morning.
It's nice to know it hasn't been burnt out of me completely.
Monday, 12 April 2010
It's ten in the morning here, and we're all busy at work. As the siren begins, the chatter stops, and each of the seven of us at our different desks stand to attention.
What goes through my head during that time? The answer is, everything. Everything I have ever seen, ever heard and ever read about the Holocaust. The stench of it, the crowding of it, the starvation of it, the death of it, the sadism of it, the endless, endless tears shed by it, all wrapped around by the deep hatred which caused it; -all these compete for a space, for a visual image in my head. All this while the siren sounds.
This year, the siren for me is a warning, too. The depth of this hatred surrounds Israel now, threatening to engulf her. The hatred is back, dressed in new clothes. The six million this time is the six million Jews of Israel, a thorn, an anathema, an incovenience, an obstrucution and a provocation to the nations of the world.
But there's a difference this time. Israel is the end place. From here we do not run, and we do not hide. From here we are not powerless, we are not surprised, we are not silent, we do not beg. From here, the place where we've built everything from nothing, had our children taken by vicious enemies, grown our fruits and vegetables and flowers, made some of the most famous medical advances of the 20th century, and prayed at the Western Wall, from here we face that old, old hatred face to face. Whether or not we will prevail is in God's hands. But the starting point is different.
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Scandar Copti aggravated plenty of Israeli Jews and even some Israeli Arabs by his remarks about not representing Israel when his film was nominated for an Oscar.
"I am a citizen of
My first response to Copti's remarks was the same as that of many Israelis – Funny that it didn't stop you from taking all that lovely Israeli money to make the film, hun. But on second thoughts I've decided that it's fine with me that Copti feels that way.
The money, by the way, is a BIG deal in
Hundreds of filmmakers, scriptwriters and producers submit their projects every year, without success. Even successful directors, who have won prizes and made excellent films in the past, have a great deal of difficulty getting a second project funded.
"Ajami", funded by Israeli government money, meaning funded by income tax deducted from my own salary, was undoubtedly awarded the necessary foundation grants because of its outstanding script and because of the years of painstaking research that went into its creation. However, since none of these decisions are ever apolitical, we can assume that "Ajami" also got a million dollars of Israeli tax payers' money because Copti's voice, indeed the city of
But for our purposes, none of this is relevant. Copti is entitled to feel that he doesn't represent
Why didn't I? Two main reasons:
One – I worked quite hard at not belonging. I practiced a religion not practiced by the British majority (my choice), I was passionately and idealistically devoted to Israel’s growth and development, not Britain's, (my choice), and as a result I felt somewhat separated from many normal aspects of ordinary British life (my choice).
Minorities often feel they do not belong to the country where they live. Often but not always. The
Now we could say that
Similarly, if Scandar was born and raised in
But the other side of the argument also applies. Scandar Copti has probably worked quite hard at his Palestinian-Christian identity in Palestinian-Christian Jaffa in the predominantly Jewish state of Israel, just as in the nineteen seventies I worked hard at being an orthodox Jewish Zionist in a predominantly Christian UK. The question is whether Copti ever wanted to feel Israeli or be Israeli, and whether if he did, he was actively prevented from doing so. He certainly got $1,000,000 to make his film, in a circumstance where hundreds of Jewish Israeli directors were turned away.
We all make choices about how much we will melt into the majority, and how much we will keep ourselves apart, and what sacrifices must be made in each case. For myself, I got tired of being in the minority, of being different, of not being part of the mainstream of anything. I did the multi-cultural bit, living in an apartment with a Moslem, a Christian and a Hindu at university, and it was wonderful. I loved those women and I still love them today. But in the end, it was too hard for me. I wanted and needed belonging, and I moved to
However, belonging brings with it a new kind of responsibility- I'm part of the majority culture now. And that means that I have to take care of my minorities. I have to be noticing them and listening to them. I have to be working towards a certain level of comfort for them. It's probable that I can never give them belonging. Perhaps Palestinian Christians would only feel a sense of total belonging in a Palestinian Christian country. But as an Israeli citizen I need at least to be concerned about their rights, their education, and their standard of living.
As for Scandar, he too has some choices to make. He can stay in
Meanwhile, we can celebrate that Copti was given Israeli money to make his film. And if it's important to us that Copti will feel, next time around, that he "represents" Israel, then we will all have to work a lot harder at noticing, and feeling, the lives of Palestinian Christians in our country. Conversely, if Copti himself wants to represent