Archive for December, 2011

Ending the year on a note of hope and love

December 31, 2011

A volunteer reads to a boy at the Lewinsky Park library.

This year ends with a little hope, courtesy of Tel Aviv street artist Know Hope and about two dozen of his artist friends. They all donated works for a sale that would benefit a tiny, but crucial, library in southern Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park. The library, with books in 16 languages, serves both children and adults of the country’s large population of labor migrants.

“It’s a library that creates contact between people,” volunteer Alma Igra said when I visited early last year, soon after the library opened. Both children and adults are asked to rate the books they read, and colored stickers are attached to the covers to indicate the ratings.

“We arrange books by stickers, that is, by ratings, even if it mixes up the languages, so you leave your experience for the next person,” Igra explained.

The library was designed and planned by architect and social activist Yoav Meiri. It consists of two cases on a small brick plaza. The larger case, for adults, has lift-up metal grates that create a sun shade. The smaller case, for children, has drop-down, wood-lined doors that create a floor on which children can sit and read.

The day I visited, two children were helping to mop the brick plaza. As soon as the cases were opened, they eagerly chose books and sat down to read. Adults, too, came by to borrow books; one man said he’d come from Jerusalem to borrow a book in Nepalese.

“The Nepalese read a lot,” said Igra, a literature major. Filipinos also rank high among the book borrowers, another volunteer said.

The library was founded by ARTEAM, a group of artists committed to helping meet the needs of the neighborhood’s diverse communities. The founders say the library is much more than a place to borrow books; it also serves as a community center and a cultural center and that some 30 to 40 children come to the library daily.

It is run mostly by volunteers and has an annual budget of only about $80,000, but now there is no money even to pay the director or to cover insurance costs, according to the daily Ha’aretz. Tel Aviv Municipality has allocated a small sum from its libraries budget, but that will cover only a part of the expenses and has not yet been received, Ha’aretz reported.

That is why Know Hope’s initiative was so welcome, although it, too, is only a partial solution. Keeping the library open in the coming year would be a fitting partial fulfillment of the vision of the 19th century Russian-Jewish Hebrew writer Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, for whom the park containing the library is named. His 1892 book Voyage to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800 [2040] was a utopian tale of a visit to a perfect future Jewish state.

To read more about the library and to donate, visit

Archaeologists digging in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City have discovered a mouthpiece of a clay pipe dating to the Ottoman period (16th to 19th centuries CE). The mouthpiece has an Arabic inscription that translates approximately as “Love is the language of lovers.”

According to Shahar Puni of the Israel Antiquities Authority, under whose auspices the dig was conducted, clay pipes of this kind and hookahs were very common in the Ottoman period and were used by both men and women for smoking tobacco or hashish. Pipes were also used as jewelry that could be worn on a garment.

“This pipe was probably given as a gift to a lover,” Puni said.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht, unless otherwise indicated. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

When a 5-year-old boy calls a grown woman a ‘prietzeh’

December 28, 2011

My younger son once had a girlfriend who almost never spoke in public. She would sit through one Friday night meal after another at our house (where the conversation was always lively and loud) opening her lips only to insert a mouthful of food.

We liked her and didn’t think her silence was an act of hostility, but we were curious. When asked, she said—in a voice so low she could barely be heard—that there was already enough talk in the world and that she had no interest in adding to it.
I could use a similar explanation for my recent silence on the blog, but that would just be an excuse. One of my New Year’s resolutions (my only one, so far, and one I’m adopting a few days early) is to resume writing for my blog.

For the past few months the Israeli media have been filled with news reports, editorials, and op-eds about the exclusion of women in Israel. Recently, there was a hubbub because Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where women sang. The supposed prohibition on men listening to a woman’s voice comes from talmudic discussion that includes the statement, “A woman’s voice is nakedness [or vagina, depending on your interpretation of the Hebrew].” (For a relatively liberal interpretation of the prohibition see a responsum by Rabbi David Bigman).

The media have also reported an incident in which a nonreligious woman refused to move to the back of the bus on one of the so-called mehadrin (super-kosher) sex-segregated routes of the government-subsidized Egged bus company, and a similar incident in which an ultra-Orthodox woman refused to move.
The latest flurry, which brought protestors last night to the streets of Beit Shemesh (a town about 25 miles west of Jerusalem), involved an eight-year-old girl Orthodox girl who was spat upon on her way to school by an ultra-Orthodox man who claimed she was not dressed modestly enough.

None of these issues is new. The mehadrin buses have been running for years, and they continue to operate despite a ruling by the High Court of Justice. Tension in Beit Shemesh between ultra-Orthodox and less religious and secular residents has been high for years; in the past there have been flare-ups, for example, over the sale of nonkosher meat.

And for many decades signs have hung on houses lining the main streets of Mea She’arim—an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem—adjuring Jewish women to dress modestly. Nearly 20 years ago I had to be in Mea She’arim on business and wore a dress (my only one) that came down below my knees and had sleeves down to the elbow; but it was pink, a color not frequently seen in those parts. A little boy who could not have been more than five years old ran by and yelled “Prietzeh” (whore) at me.

There are many explanations for the current festival. One is that it is convenient to have a rallying cry that cuts across political lines, so that we can forget the discrimination against various groups in Israel (including labor migrants who are usually designated by a name that suggests they are idol worshipers). Another is that politicians, especially the prime minister, are delighted to be able to be seen leaping to the defense of the beleaguered half of the population. And yet another is that by having a clear culprit (ultra-orthodox Jews—some of whom are distancing themselves from the extremist 1% they say are responsible for the trouble) we can go on ignoring the discrimination against women at every level of Israeli society (and on this see the incisive op-ed by Merav Michaeli).

Despite our Declaration of Independence that promises to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, and despite our laws, including a progressive one on sexual harassment, we still live in a patriarchal society. Compared with European countries (with which we like to compare ourselves), we have miserably poor representation of women in our Knesset. Women earn lower wages than men for equal work. Men decide which sections of the Israel Defense Forces women will be allowed to participate in. And on and on.
In response to the Orthodox pots that like to call the ultra-Orthodox kettles black (as in Beit Shemesh), I say that the moment the piety (and honor) of a family, clan, or community inheres in the modesty and chastity of women (as it still does in Judaism and Islam and did in Christianity in the past), it is but a tiny step to spitting on, or stoning, women who do not conform to the rules made by men.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

A new way to walk in the footsteps of Jesus

December 1, 2011

A hiker passes near sheaves of wheat, some of the many elements of nature in New Testament parables. (Photo courtesy of Israel Tourism Ministry)

Jesus Christ has been big business in the Holy Land for centuries, ever since Saint Jerome and Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, made pilgrimages de rigueur for the faithful.

Today pilgrimages are even bigger business. The promise of a life-changing experience while walking where Jesus walked, preached, died, and was resurrected attracted more than a million Christian pilgrims in 2010, according to Uri Sharon, of the religious tourism desk in Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

In the hope of increasing that number, this week Israel launched a new tourism “product”: the Gospel Trail. It consists of more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) of footpaths and roads between Nazareth and Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his public ministry. It was in Capernaum that he taught in the synagogue, found his first disciples, and performed miracles of healing.

No one knows the exact path Jesus took, but “this is the most likely route that Jesus could have used,” Sharon said. The ministry and the Jewish National Fund invested nearly $800,000 in creating the trail; the ministry is also encouraging entrepreneurs who will provide services along the trail, including accommodations.

Pilgrims can walk the route in about three days, ride it on a bicycle or on horseback, or traverse it in groups by car. The trail is clearly marked by cairns on which the topmost stone bears a mosaic-like image of an anchor—one of two kinds that were in use in the first century CE.

“It’s a trail you can walk with a Bible in your hand,” Sharon said. “And you can encounter landscape, flowers, and animals that Jesus encountered.”

This is particularly helpful in understanding the language of the New Testament and the parables Jesus told, which are filled with elements of nature, such as wheat and tares, a fig tree, a mustard seed, a vineyard, good fruit and evil fruit, and sheep and goats. The short stretch of the trail (parts of it rocky and bumpy) that I rode on a bicycle passed through olive groves of olive and citrus orchards, where a multitude of birds could be heard singing. It was a warm, sunny day that followed heavy rains, so the fields were green and the leaves on the trees glistened.

Tour guide Yossi Granit explained the relevance of the olive tree to the life of Jesus. “An olive tree never dies,” he said. “It keeps growing shoots, and a shoot in Hebrew is netzer.” According to the Hebrew Bible, the Messiah will be a shoot (netzer) from the root of Jesse (the father of David). One can easily see the connection between “netzer” and Nazareth.

One stop on the trail is the Nun Spring, where a rectangular pool of clear water is shaded by tall trees. The spring is near the town of Migdal (ancient Magdala), home of Mary Magdalene. The 1,500 present-day inhabitants live mostly on tourism, and the trail is expected to bring further development to the town.

One of the side routes leads to the Mt. of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Parts of the route overlap with the Jesus Trail, a private venture that begins at the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, and with the Israel Trail, a 1,000 km. path that leads from the Lebanese border in the north to the Red Sea in the south.

The last stretch of the Gospel Trail is wheelchair accessible. The route’s end is marked by a large stone on which a map and a verse from the New Testament are inscribed:
“He…withdrew to Galilee and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali…”
Matthew: 4:12-13

At that spot one can board a traditional wooden boat or a larger ferry to cross the Sea of Galilee, the only sweet-water lake in the Middle East. On the day the trail was launched, the guests on the ferry included Boutros Pierre Mouallem, archbishop emeritus of Acre, Haifa, and Galilee of the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church, the largest church in the Holy Land.

Also on board were seminarians at Domus Galilaeae, a Catholic center where they learn about their Hebrew roots, “to understand the meaning of prayer, of feasts, and Hebrew liturgies, which were the daily food of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” as the Web site puts it. It was thus fitting that as the sun set on the waters where Jesus walked, the seminarians sang “Shema Yisrael,” the most important Jewish declaration of faith.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. No part of the photograph may be used without written permission of the Israel Tourism Ministry.