Archive for December, 2010

Stitches in time: The softer side of the sultans’ world

December 29, 2010

Galleys and boats sail the Bosporus on both sides of this embroidered luxury towel, an important part of a young woman's dowry. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art)


A brightly colored wall hanging; embroidered textiles could be found in homes and harems throughout the Ottoman Empire. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art)

Imagine a towel that is a work of art. Galleys and boats sailing across the Bosporus, gardens with gazebos, mosques and houses, and flowers and garlands—all these images appear on embroidered luxury towels created in the Ottoman Empire.

Using shimmering silk, gold, and silver threads, highly skilled needleworkers created these towels that were prized as gifts and could be found in homes and harems. Often, they were made by girls who wanted a luxury item for their dowry.

These towels are part of an exhibition of Ottoman embroidery titled Embroidered Dreams, on display through the summer of 2011 at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem. The museum is just five minutes’ walk from my home and a true bridge across cultures. The day I visited this must-see exhibition, class after class of Arabic-speaking children toured the entire museum, learning about their culture from its multilingual guides.

If the towels on display were embroidered just on one side, they would still be astonishingly beautiful. But what is so striking is that both the front and the back have identical embroidered images. There are no visible knots or loose threads and there is no room for error. Anyone who has ever tried to embroider—and I admit that I never got beyond the simple cross-stitch—can appreciate the skill involved. Some of the designs are reproduced in striking place mats on sale in the museum.

The urban Ottoman aristocracy, which was familiar with the ornamentation of Chinese porcelain and Persian and Italian silks and velvets, initiated the use of embroidered textiles in the empire. Embroidered fabrics were used to cover bridal beds or as wall hangings and their popularity spread from the court to all levels of Ottoman society.

Until the middle of the seventeenth century, the sultans were avid patrons of the arts and architecture and employed gifted artisans. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red offers a glimpse into this world with his detailed description of the painting of miniatures.

The empire, at its peak, stretched from Iraq in the east to Vienna in the west, and to North Africa in the south. Every local culture contributed to the rich mix of patterns and colors in the embroideries. Tulips and carnations are among the flowers that appear often, and all colors of the palette are represented.

How long did it take to create these wonderful textiles, which are on loan from a family in Germany that asked to remain anonymous? Rachel Hasson, the museum’s artistic director and curator, could only guess.

“A towel could take a month or two, and a large piece could probably take about a year,” she surmised. “But we don’t really know.”

And although embroidery spread to the lower classes, Hasson said it was unlikely that a young woman in a poor family could have produced anything as skillful as the items on display.

“The materials—silk, gold, and silver threads—are expensive,” she said. These towels probably represent items made by or for the middle and upper classes, she added.

So there went my fantasy of a poor girl, bent over her needlework in the sooty light of a cheap candle, embroidering her dreams in a work of art that would one day find its way into a museum.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

In Germany the tunes sounded brighter

December 26, 2010

A cantor in a Detroit synagogue once admitted that through all the years he’d been chanting Kol Nidre, the most dramatic and moving part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, he’d never felt he was giving it his best. Then he heard that the melody had originated with Jews persecuted in fifteenth-century Spain, who had sung it in the dank cellars where they worshiped in secret. From that year, the cantor said, he was able to chant Kol Nidre with all the emotional and spiritual richness it deserved.

It’s a lovely story, but what inspired the cantor was a myth, according to Eliyahu Schleifer, professor emeritus of sacred music and former director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem. The myth is widespread, but the truth is that the chant—which originated in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century or the beginning of the sixteenth—incorporates German-Jewish Torah cantillation and medieval German melodies, Schleifer said in a public lecture in Jerusalem titled “A Branch Rescued from the Fire: The Synagogue Chants of the Jews of Germany.”

Jews first arrived with the Roman army in what is today Germany and France, settling on both sides of the Rhine and later moving to the cities: Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, and then Regensburg, Cologne, and Frankfurt. They developed a unique culture and were the first to be known as Ashkenazi Jews.

During the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews fled to Poland, Bohemia, and elsewhere, and their musical tradition overtook the local traditions. Now there were two kinds of Ashkenazi Jews, those in Germany and those in Eastern Europe.

German Jews are known, and often laughed at, for being too punctilious, and this trait apparently has a long history. According to Schleifer, they were punctilious in everything, from observance of Jewish law to musical standardization of their local liturgy.

But at the end of the sixteenth century, they started incorporating Italian-influenced Baroque melodies. Later, the Enlightenment brought with it other new melodies, including minuets and other dances.

For the most part, German-Jewish liturgy—though built on ancient scales—tended to be sung in major keys, while in Eastern Europe minor keys prevailed. Schleifer, who has a beautiful voice and an uncanny ability to mimic every tradition of Jewish liturgy, from German to Moroccan, provided musical illustrations of his points.

In the reforms that followed the emancipation of German Jews in the nineteenth century, choirs and organs were introduced in the large, cathedral-like synagogues. At the same time, Jews from Eastern Europe and especially from Poland, were moving to Germany, bringing their melodic traditions with them.

But it was the Holocaust that dealt the severest blow to German Jewry’s musical traditions. On November 9 and 10, 1938, the infamous night and day known as Kristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht, the Nazis carried out a massive, coordinated pogrom in Germany and German-controlled lands that included the destruction of more than 1,000 synagogues and the deportation of more than 200,000 people to concentration camps.

In Israel a few congregations used the German-Jewish liturgy, but most have disappeared or have succumbed to the dominance of Eastern European liturgy. Among the few places it survives are Alsace, Switzerland, and the Great Synagogue of Munich.

Schleifer’s talk on December 25 was this year’s annual lecture on behalf of the Ezri Uval Center for Jewish Music, at Kehillat Mevakshei Derech.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Ashkelon: 4 things your guidebook won’t tell you

December 23, 2010

1. It’s the place where one word is worth a thousand pictures

Okay, I lied. It isn’t one word but four. And maybe it’s not a thousand pictures but only 999. Still, that’s nearly 250 pictures per word.

“Was before in Boston.” Those four little words nearly knocked me off my feet. The Hebrew is even funnier. It means, “Resided formerly in Boston.”

The last time I saw a man wearing a toga, he was very definitely not residing in Boston.

What was that sign maker smoking?

2. Samson couldn’t keep his hands off the Philistine chickies

Bus No. 437, which is scheduled to take 93 minutes from Jerusalem to Ashkelon and which carries mainly soldiers, passes between Zorah and Eshtaol. That’s where the Dan tribe (to which Samson belonged) was encamped, where the spirit of the Lord first moved him (Judges 13:25), and where he was buried (Judges 16:31).

It’s a beautiful route, passing through wooded hills and then through fields and orchards—a reminder that, thankfully, not every square inch of the country has been paved over in concrete.

Samson ended up in Ashkelon because he had a thing for Philistine women, and not just Delilah. First there was the woman of Timnah, whom he married and who betrayed him, and then there was a nameless prostitute. Only after those two did Delilah come along.

The angel who told Samson’s mother to stay away from liquor should also have warned Samson about those Philistine temptresses.

What's your cup size, dearie?

3. You can buy a bra in the open-air market

Why not? And how about some matching undies?

But this is nothing compared to the open-air market I visited in Tanzania, where the woman selling bras walked around with dozens of them suspended from her arms.

4. Some folks take a dim view of New Year’s Eve

There was much clucking of tongues today in a liquor store near Ashkelon’s open-air market when the subject of New Year’s Eve came up. In Israel, the holiday is called Sylvester, as it is in Europe, and that makes it even more problematic, because Sylvester was the pope who, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., is said to have passed anti-Semitic legislation.

That doesn’t stop thousands of Israelis from going out to restaurants on New Year’s Eve for a festive meal or having a bang-up party.

“People don’t understand how serious it is,” tst-tsked one middle-aged man in the shop.

“Yes, this is Israel,” said Tamir Levi, a much younger man, sounding very concerned.

And then he asked to have his picture taken with a bottle of vodka.

Tamir Levi with the bottle of vodka he won't be drinking on New Year's Eve.

Nebuchadnezzar and Shadrach, King David and Jesus: Taking off on a musical tour

December 21, 2010

“Shadrach! Shadrach! Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego!” the singers intoned rhythmically, as they told the story of the three Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar ordered to be thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to his golden idol. “Shadrach! Shadrach!” they sang, telling how the three emerged unharmed, causing Nebuchadnezzar to recognize the might of the trio’s deity (Daniel 3: 1–30).

The singers were the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, members of kibbutzim founded by the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. From Kibbutz Baram on the Lebanese border in the north to Kibbutz Paran on the Jordanian border in the south they came to Jerusalem. Forty men and women dressed in black, the women with turquoise scarves and the men with aqua ties, mounted the stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium yesterday afternoon to take the audience on a musical tour of religious and folk traditions from four continents.

They began their performance with two psalms, 42 and 29, set to music by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun. The second of these,  includes the words, “The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.” It is the very psalm of David sung when the Torah is carried in a procession around the synagogue on Shabbat before it is read.

Hearing this psalm sung by members of kibbutzim whose founders broke away from religious observance was no odder than hearing their rendition of the gospel song “Shadrach” in Hebrew-accented English. It was a reminder that music crosses all borders—national, religious, and cultural.

Only one song on the program, “Shir Am Naki” (A Clean Folk Song; or, the Song of a Clean Nation), came straight out of the kibbutz tradition. It describes one of the main preparations for the Sabbath: bathing in the communal showers and coming down the path in a veritable parade of freshly washed and combed heads, some with a part in the middle and some with a part on the side. What other constellation of human experience could have produced such a song?

My favorite part of the program was the cantata Navidad Nuestra (Our Nativity), by Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez. The composer, who died earlier this year, is best known for his Misa Criolla (Creole mass), which he once said he had written in response to a visit to post-Holocaust Germany.

“I felt that I had to compose something deep and religious that would revere life and involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin,” he is reported to have told The Jerusalem Post.

Like the Misa Criolla, Navidad Nuestro incorporates Latin American folk instruments, tunes, and rhythms. Israel’s Latino America ensemble, founded in 1998, accompanied the choir with various instruments, including a bandoneon (a type of concertina) and a charango (a small stringed instrument of the lute family).

The performance—conducted by Yuval Ben-Ozer and with soloist Tal Koch—was a foot-tapper, though I’ve never heard one as good as that of Los Fronterizos, whose recording of the mass and the cantata for Philips I’ve listened to dozens of times.

The concert was part of the Etnachta series, free weekly chamber music concerts, every Monday at 5, produced and edited by Hayuta Devir. The series is an endangered species that Devir has been fighting tooth and nail to keep alive.

And the freedom to sing the most beautiful musical offerings of all religions in Jerusalem—will we have to fight for that too? Or will we overcome the madness of the city and always be able to “involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin”?

For more on religion and the power of music see my post “From Kol Nidre to yoga nidra,” on September 24.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Easy rider: Breaking through the language barrier

December 19, 2010

When it comes to English words, Israel’s borders are wide open. I was reminded of that again this morning as I was reading a snide TV review in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz. I stumbled over a word and had to sound it out mentally several times before I realized what it was: le-hit’absess. The reviewer, basing himself on Wikipedia and The Rain Man, was expounding on characteristics of Asperger syndrome, particularly the tendency to obsess over a very narrow field of interest.

Every new learner of Hebrew (and even much more experienced ones) knows that the hardest words to read are those that have leapt the language barrier and become part of Hebrew. That’s because foreign imports don’t follow the Hebrew pattern of having a three-letter root, which a reader can pick out and thus get some ballpark idea of the meaning.

Nevertheless, we’ve been importing words by the barrel, especially in connection with computers and other newfangled technology. No matter what some people think, computers were not part of the Creation, and the Hebrew Bible has no words for the parts, processes, and actions connected with them. So we’ve had to make them up as we go along, which is what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was doing when he became the father of modern Hebrew more than a century ago.

Thus, it should be no surprise that Israelis will tell you lehaklik (to click) on a link or that you need lefarmet (to format) your hard disk. In connection with other modern gadgets, you may be asked lefaxess (to fax) a document or lesamess (to send an SMS [text] message) from your cell phone. And before you start gyrating on the dance floor, you will need someone ledajeh (to act as a DJ).

And all this follows the long list of words for car parts, which my colleagues have already written about at length, including silbim (for sealed beam) beck-ex (for rear axle), and front beck-ex (for front axle).

Sure, there are plenty of folks who bemoan the bastardization of Hebrew. They’re the same people who will tell you from morning to night what’s wrong with the world. But even in the good old days (when we were living in tents and riding on camels) Hebrew, like its brothers and cousins, had parents and grandparents, not to mention all the foreigners who married into the family.

The Hebrew words we use for stadium, shelf, and pine cone are from Greek. Others are from Accadian, Ugaritic, Persian, and a host of other languages, including Arabic. And don’t get me going on the names for the Supreme Deity. We’ve been giving and taking words for as long as we’ve had language. It’s a global economy of words that preceded today’s globalization by thousands of years.

For me, the fact that we can take a foreign word and make it our own is a sign not of the weakness of Hebrew but rather of its robustness. True, in Israel today foreign words have more cachet than they merit, as a recent incident involving Tel Aviv communications students showed. They were asked to invent a name for a deodorant and then ask shoppers in a mall which of several proposed names they prefer. The English names won hands down over the Hebrew.

But see what we do with foreign words, and especially verbs. We embrace them and make them our own, in an atypical display of loving the stranger in our midst. We conjugate them in all tenses. A guy would say, Ani maklik (I click); heklakti (I clicked); aklik (I will click). A gal, in the present, would say, Ani maklika.

It’s a local form of veni, vidi, vici. What could be more Hebrew than that?

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Border crossings: Reasons for despair and for hope

December 17, 2010

Everyone knows the Middle East is a crazy place, but sometimes people forget that Israel is part of it. At least, that’s how it would appear from a news item this week in The National, an English-language paper owned by the Abu Dhabi Media company, announcing the establishment of the Middle East chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“The Middle East group, founded two months ago, is only the fifth AIA chapter outside the US,” the item said. “In addition to the UAE, it covers Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.”

Before I read the list I’d thought, “Here’s an area of endeavor where borders and political conflicts can be laid aside.” But I shouldn’t have been surprised. For most official bodies, Israel is not part of the Middle East. Its soccer teams compete in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and its Maccabi Electra basketball team is hoping to win the Eurocup.

But borders and boundaries are not always what they seem. Right now Israel is competing in the FINA (short course) World Swimming Championships, held in the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex in Dubai. It’s just 11 months since the assassination in Dubai of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, an act attributed by many to Israel’s Mossad, and Israelis are not so welcome there these days.

According to Israel’s Ha’aretz, Dubai issued visas to the Israelis at the very last moment and tried to play down their presence at the opening ceremony by referring to the team’s country of origin by the abbreviation ISR.

But Noam Zwi, chairman of the Israeli Swimming Association, said that local people had received the team with traditionally warm Arab hospitality, that relations with the Palestinian team were excellent, and that the Israeli swimmers had done well, reaching the finals.

Earlier in the week, however, border crossings were more difficult. The Palestinian Authority had sent 13 firefighters to help extinguish the blaze on Mount Carmel that claimed 43 lives and consumed 12,500 acres of forest, nature reserves, residential areas, and tourist sites. But on Tuesday this week, Israel canceled a ceremony planned to honor the Palestinian firefighters, after some of them were refused permits to cross the border. The Israel Defense Forces attributed the snafu to a “bureaucratic mistake.”

A cross-border story that evokes more hope is that of Dr. Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli translator, and her efforts on behalf of Saja Hamamre, an 18-year-old Palestinian honors student in need of a liver transplant. Hammerman got to know the family when she looked for someone to teach her conversational Arabic; Saja’s mother became the teacher and then a close friend.

Both Saja’s parents were willing to be donors, but the operation would cost $250,000 in Rabin (Beilinson) Hospital, the only medical center in Israel specializing in this type of transplant. Hammerman turned to everyone she knew and asked for help.

Impressed by the response to Hammerman’s efforts, the hospital obtained funds to cover the cost of the operation, and the money that Hammerman had raised was put aside for the medical care Saja would need later on.

This story does not have an end yet. Before the transplant could take place, it turned out that Saja was also suffering from hepatitis C, and everything had to be delayed while she was treated for that disease.

But according to her doctor, Prof. Eytan Mor, there is a 90 percent chance that the transplant will be successful. That, and the way in which her plight drew together ordinary people on both sides of the so-called separation barrier, is cause for some hope in the crazy Middle East.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

The ministry mystery tour: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

December 14, 2010

Anyone who doubts that the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot should have been in Israel this week. As if latter-day prophets were lining up their chariots to be whisked heavenward, the wind roared and whistled, churned and twisted, and flung in our faces purple, brown, and yellow sand carried from distant deserts.

The 50-year-old cypresses outside my kitchen window in Jerusalem swayed and gyrated like drunken Hassidim on Purim. The newborn cypresses on Road 1 looked too young to be exposed to such violence as the wind forced them to bow low to its power.

But all that was as nothing compared to what happened on the coast, where torrential rains flooded homes in Tel Aviv and the wind sent 25-foot waves crashing against the ancient port of Caesarea, tore up the boardwalk in the Tel Aviv Port entertainment area, and sank a Moldovan freighter (whose crew managed to escape alive).

The wind, the rain, and the snow that fell late Sunday night on the approach to Jerusalem almost made the horrendous Mount Carmel fire—which claimed 43 lives and consumed 12,500 acres of forest, nature reserves, residential areas, and tourist sites—seem ancient history. But just a few days had passed since the collaborative work of planes from many countries and fire engines from the Palestinian Authority backed up efforts by Israeli firefighters to finally extinguish the flames.

It was not too soon for a journalist to seek an official tally of the fire’s damage. All I asked for was a list of the villages and towns affected by the fire, and, if possible, the number of houses in each that were totally or partially destroyed.

I started with the Government Press Office, which had sent out a barrage of press releases daily about the fire. Andy Luterman of the GPO said the Prime Minister’s Office is in charge of dealing with the fire and should know. The Prime Minister’s Office did not know, but was certain that the Internal Security Ministry should know.

The Internal Security Ministry did not have a clue, but said that since firefighting was the Interior Ministry’s responsibility, it should know. Maybe it should, but the Interior Ministry insisted it had no idea and sent me to the Defense Ministry.

Chava at the Defense Ministry responded with “Why us? Who in the Interior Ministry sent you to us? It’s their responsibility.” Back to the Interior Ministry, where Osnat kindly referred me to the Construction and Housing Ministry (it was houses I was asking about, right?).

Racheli at the Construction and Housing Ministry asked me to put my query in writing. I did. By that time it was Sunday, and the storm was in full progress. And now it is Tuesday, and the Construction and Housing Ministry is still silent.

I came away from my tour of the ministries with my question unanswered. Clearly, they were all so busy dealing with the storm that they couldn’t answer a simple question about the fire. Or perhaps they were being honest when they said they just didn’t know. Ignorance on the part of a government ministry would hardly be surprising.

And that made me wonder how much credence one could give to the prime minister’s promises that everyone affected would be helped, and quickly. How could any government ministry provide help if no ministry knew who needed it?

And perhaps it was this know-nothing attitude that had enabled the fire to cause such damage in the first place. I was ready to hop in Elijah’s chariot and allow myself to be carried away by the wind.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

From Santa Fe to Ashkelon: It’s almost like falling in love

December 11, 2010

Between interviews with rabbis I found a quiet moment to explore the meditation garden at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe.

I’m on my way from Santa Fe to Ashkelon, but I have no idea how long the trip will take. It’s not because I don’t know the geographical distance (about 7,000 miles as the crow flies), but because the path also passes through my brain, and there are lots of byways where I may stop for a while en route.

Some people say that the best part of a trip is the planning. I agree, to the extent that I savor the exhilaration of setting out on an adventure, the initial exploration, and the search for information and reliable sources. It’s almost like falling in love. The hard work of writing will come later.

Many people think that being a travel writer is the best job in the world and that the stories spring fully formed from my brain—like Minerva, goddess of poetry, from the brain of Jupiter.

But travel is one thing and travel writing is another. A travel writer can’t just breeze into a place for two or three days and then, in a trice, write a detailed account of the history, demographics, and sights, especially if the focus is on what might be of interest to a Jewish traveler.

My trip to Santa Fe started long before I actually got there at the end of September. Just to sell the idea I had to do several days’ research to convince my client that the city had enough to interest a Jewish traveler. Once that was settled, I started contacts with the local tourism authorities and research on the history, community, synagogues, and artists.

When I finally got to Santa Fe, a big chunk of my time went into interviewing rabbis and Jewish community leaders and attending religious services, in addition to checking out museums, galleries, cemeteries, and places of natural beauty.

While in Santa Fe I stumbled on stories I knew would not fit in the commissioned article; one of the reasons I started this blog was to find a home for them. Even so, when I finally got home a month later and was able to sit down to do additional research and write, I found I had enough material for half a dozen articles, but room for only 2,500 words.

It was time to write and whittle, whittle and write. It’s no wonder I have pinned to my bulletin board the anonymous aphorism I picked up from my former colleague Matt Nesvisky:

“Writing’s simple. It’s just a matter of sitting at the keyboard and sweating blood.”

Now Santa Fe is working its way through the editorial pipeline and I am free to set out on my next journey, this time to Ashkelon. So get ready. Coming soon to a magazine in your neighborhood: Ashkelon, historic seaport and city of the Philistines.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Katamon: A swamp or an egg?

December 8, 2010

While most of our politicians were busy last week considering the fallout from the Wikileaks revelations, and before the catastrophic fire on Mount Carmel temporarily distracted the entire country, a few Knesset members found time to discuss a matter of great urgency: the fact that young Orthodox men and women are marrying much later than their parents did.

Oddly, men are the worse offenders. There are 31,000 unmarried Orthodox men in the 25 to 40 age range, but only 21,000 such women. One of the explanations given in today’s report in Ha’aretz is that the women have already completed their first academic degree by the age of 23, and thus are miles ahead intellectually and professionally of their male compeers, who at that age are just completing their combined army service and yeshiva study, known by the Hebrew word for “arrangement,” hesder. The phenomenon even became the topic of a TV series called Srugim (referring to the crocheted kippot the men wear).

Because of the high concentration of unmarried Orthodox men and women in my Jerusalem neighborhood, Katamon (or Old Katamon, as the snobs and the real estate agents prefer to call it), it has come to be known in religious circles as the “big swamp.” Nahlaot, a string of tiny neighborhoods closer to the city center, is the “little swamp.”

I took a mental walk around Katamon to try to get a grasp of what it means to be living in a swamp, rather than in the overpriced neighborhood I thought I inhabited. A block to the west, where the Misgav Ladach maternity hospital once stood, is the popular Yakar Synagogue, also known as “the meat market.” After services the intersection is always blocked with young worshipers cruising in the only way that is not forbidden on Shabbat or festivals.

A few blocks to the southeast is Shira Hadasha, a relatively young and liberal congregation where women are allowed a role in the service. And there are other more or less egalitarian Orthodox congregations.

But I guess I hadn’t noticed how many swamp denizens I shared the neighborhood with, especially since a candidate for community council just last week said that the largest population sector in our neighborhood is young families.

Now, just as some commentators insist that Elijah was fed by Arabs, rather than by ravens, when he hid in a cave in the Judean Desert, because the original Hebrew has no vocalizations and the same consonants can be read as either ravens or Arabs, I saw the Hebrew letters in the newspaper that presumably mean “swamp” and read “egg,” because without vocalizations the two words look exactly the same. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my reading makes more sense.

“Swamp” makes sense only if you are interested in denouncing the phenomenon rather than understanding it. But “egg” helps explain it. An egg has all the nutrients an embryo needs to develop. The young Orthodox people in our neighborhood have everything they need to live meaningful lives. They are studying or working, have a circle of like-minded friends, have a religious framework, and are protected from prying relatives and Knesset members. They even have sex (and the women go to the mikveh), because sex between unmarried men and women is not one of the categories of relations forbidden in the Bible.

They’re no more willing than my own children were to get married just because someone says they should. They want the right partner, at the right time, in the right place. I don’t see that as a problem requiring parliamentary intervention, and I wish them luck.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Flights of fancy before the rain—the Elijah story in reverse

December 6, 2010

Monday rain came to Mount Carmel. It didn’t come Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, four days during which a devastating fire claimed 41 lives and consumed 12,500 acres of forest, nature reserves, residential areas, and tourist sites.

The rain came only on Monday, after a collaborative effort of planes from many countries—including Turkey, from which Israel had been estranged for months—and fire engines from the Palestinian Authority backed up efforts by Israeli firefighters and succeeded in extinguishing the flames.

Israel has been suffering a protracted drought; Monday’s rain came after more than a month of unseasonably warm and dry weather that made the Carmel forest a tinderbox. Rabbis decreed days of fasting and prayer to open the heavens.

It was almost the Elijah story in reverse. The biblical prophet had prophesied a life-threatening drought that would last as long as King Ahab continued to allow the worship of Baal, that his queen, Jezebel, had introduced (I Kings 17:1–7). Then, after three-and-a-half years of drought-induced famine, Elijah had his fateful showdown with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel.

The priests of Baal offered their sacrifices. Nothing happened. But when Elijah set out his offering, fire immediately descended from heaven, consuming the sacrifice, and the people of Israel fell on their faces chanting, “Jehovah is God.”

And Elijah prostrated himself and prayed for rain, (I Kings 18:44) “and it came to pass … that the heaven was black with clouds, and wind, and there was a great rain.”

But this week, as if in mockery of the rabbis’ pious entreaties and blasts of the shofar at the Western Wall, the sun continued to shine day after day. It was as if some Moloch controlled the rain, waiting for a human burnt offering to unlock the floodgates. And indeed, only after the sacrifice of 41 men and women from all over the country, both Jews and non-Jews, who had come to help, did the skies turn cloudy and rain begin to fall.

Now the politicians will wrangle and continue to blame each other for Israel’s being so woefully unprepared to deal with this catastrophe. And predictably, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is responsible for the country’s firefighting services, has reportedly said he’s being lynched because he is “Mizrahi [non-Ashkenazi], ultra-Orthodox, and right-wing.”

Lost in all this noise is the sorrow of the families whose dear ones died so horribly and the pain of those whose homes were damaged or destroyed and will undoubtedly have to fight the usual bureaucracy to get even a morsel of the promised compensation.

Yet there is a bright side. While the fire was still raging, I received a message from my nephew in Los Angeles, a lapsed pilot, saying that he had been to a Shabbat dinner with some friends, two of whom are pilots, and that there had been talk of finding some wealthy Jews to bankroll bringing in a Super-Scooper, an amphibious firefighting airplane, to help douse the fire. He and his friends were very serious, and I was impressed at their initiative, even though it proved unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Jewish fundraising organizations, which had been in the doldrums because for so long time they’d had no crisis to rally around, started new campaigns to help the victims of the Mount Carmel fire. And very soon, I predict, my granddaughter in Boston will be bringing dimes to Hebrew school, as I did when I was a kid, to plant a tree in Israel.

So perhaps it wasn’t Moloch after all, but a deity whose ways are often inscrutable, who was creating a new bridge over Israeli blood, from Israel to the world and especially to the Jewish Diaspora.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.