Monday, October 06, 2008

Take me out to the ballgame

Soccer is probably the most popular sport in Israel. Beitar Yerushalaim, the primary Jerusalem-based soccer team, has possibly the largest and most fervid fan base in the country. The Beitar website taunts viewers with the banner 'Welcome to Hell.' Indeed, Beitar fans have dubbed Teddy Stadium, where games are played, "Hell" because of the atmosphere they create for rival fans in the stadium.

The team was formed in 1936 by David Horn, the local chief of Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement. The youth movement was named after Joseph Trumpledor; it is an acronym for Brit Trumpledor (Covenant of Trumpledor). Joseph Trumpledor became a symbol of heroic Jewish self-defense when he died defending the Galilean village of Tel Hai. He famously uttered "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" in his last breath. This fighting spirit pervades Teddy Stadium during Beitar Yerushalaim soccer games.

On game days one is alerted by afternoon time that Beitar will be playing that evening as the streets and buses become increasingly crowded with fans sporting the team's yellow and black scarves. Earlier this year, I boarded a bus at Hebrew University and sat with a friend of mine, clad in black and yellow, who was en route to a Beitar game. As we wound our way through Jerusalem's streets I asked him about his loyalty to the Jerusalem soccer team, given the fact that he is from Haifa. My secular Haifa friend who is a member of the left-wing Meretz party told me that when he was a teenager he decided to be a Beitar Yerushalaim fan, despite its distance from his home and its reputation as being politically right-wing, because of his love for Jerusalem. I was moved by his devotion to our capital city, which defies logical explanation.

Last week I finally attended my first Beitar Yerushalaim game. I joined a friend and a colleague of mine who took his "Sports and Zionism" class to view the Zionist athletes in action. We chose to buy tickets in the section where the crazy fans sit, akin to the bleachers section at Yankee Stadium. It was an enlivening and wild experience. One of the most popular Beitar Yerushalaim chants calls upon G-d: "We are believers, the sons of believers. We have no one to rely on, except for our Father in Heaven." After watching the fans shout this tune with such fervor, one gets the sense that soccer, Beitar Yerushalaim soccer, has become their religion.

(Beitar fans waving the team scarf)
("We are believers, sons of believers...")
(Johnny- my student, me, crazy Beitar fans)
(Yael, me, Joanna- my student)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Partying with the President

Over the last two days, there have been grumblings throughout Jerusalem because of the disruption in traffic. Several main roads have been all but closed due to President Bush's presence in the city for the President's Conference, hosted by Shimon Peres. Friends of mine have sat in their cars for double the amount of time it should take them to get to work. Thankfully, I left my house early enough each morning to avoid the re-routing. I even enjoyed a surreal jog the other night down the middle of Keren HaYesod, one of the busiest roads in Jerusalem, as the street was closed to automobiles.

I watched the President's speech at the Knesset on television this afternoon. I am often amazed by a seeming dichotomy between the president's statements on "good" and "evil"- dealing with terrorist states- on the one hand, and his actions in attempting to broker a peace accord with the Palestinians, on the other. His speech today shone with a sense of moral and political clarity. The President said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before," referring to the Nazi's. And yet, President Bush has said that he hopes, during his current stay, to "shore up the faltering negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Six days ago, I received an e-mail from a good friend, Yehuda, who lives in Boston. I knew he would be coming to Israel for a visit this week, as he was to participate in the President's Conference. In the e-mail, Yehuda informed me that he had been invited by the White House to an exclusive party at the Israel Museum Thursday night and would be bringing me as his guest. I was obviously delighted; and immediately amused by Yehuda's inimitable way with words: "get out your sunday finest," he instructed me, "we'll be throwing back a few beers with the prez."

Indeed, I put on my "sunday finest" and got myself gussied up for what I was hoping would be a tete-a-tete with the president. Security was so thick that all of the guests had to first undergo a security check at a parking lot several minutes away, before boarding a shuttle to the Israel Museum. I met up with Yehuda and his father, the former United States ambassador to Israel. We boarded the shuttle bus, sitting a few rows behind Rupert Murdoch, and a few rows in front of MK Ophir Pines-Paz.

The party took place on the veranda overlooking Jerusalem. The views were magnificent and the party was elegant, although the brisk Jerusalem night air sent shivers down my spine. The food was definitely the most delicious food I have eaten in this country. Waiters streamed out of the kitchen with platters of fillet steak, short ribs, seviche, carpaccio, spring chicken, mushroom cigars, and other fine delicacies. Yehuda and I spent most of the first hour and a half stuffing our bellies with food while people-watching, as the party was attended by the who's-who of the Jewish world. At one point, I helped Ron Silver with his tea cup. Occasionally we found Yehuda's father, and were introduced to someone interesting.

After about an hour and a half, the President and several Israeli and American dignitaries and diplomats entered the veranda. I stood next to Tzipi Livni as President Bush addressed the crowd. Following his brief remarks, the President slowly made his way toward his awaiting limousine. There was a barrier, and Secret Service men, blocking me from the front, VIP group of people whom the President was greeting personally on his way out.

I tried once to edge my way into the front section, but was physically turned back by the Secret Service guard. Finally, when the guard was distracted, a few moments before the President had departed, I sneaked forward and squeezed through the gaggle of VIP's. I thrust my hand forward and shook the President's hand. The people who had greeted the President before me congratulated him on his speech and remarked about his trip to Israel. As the President shook my hand, I said: "Mr. President, mazal tov on Jenna's wedding!" Tickled, he looked me in the eye and responded: "Thank you! It was such a wonderful day!"

Traffic annoyances and policy differences aside, it was truly exciting to meet the President. While I didn't get to "throw back a few beers with the prez," I am grateful to my friend Yehuda, and his sweet and generous father for inviting me to an unforgettable party with the president.

(President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush)
(Fmr U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Jerusalem Mayor Lupolianski, my friend, Yehuda)
(The President)

(President Bush shaking my hand)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agadah

Theodore Herzl, credited with being the father of the modern Jewish state of Israel, ended his 1902 utopian novel about the Jewish state ("Altneuland") with the following line: "If you will it, it is not a dream." This axiomatic statement has become part and parcel of the Jewish people. Indeed, following Herzl's extraordinary efforts -though he did not live to see its realization- the Jewish state was established, the dream realized.

With the arrival of my parents and sister looming before the Pesach holiday, I couldn't contain my excitement. It had been several months since I'd seen my family and whenever we are together, we manage to seek out adventure and share many laughs.

During the week of Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days), we visited sites we had never seen. We traveled to the Judean desert, climbed Herodian and descended into the caves later used by those who participated in the Bar Kochba rebellion. We learned a great deal from (what turned out to be) a private tour hosted by Ir David of sites along the path from the top of Har HaZeitim (Mt. of Olives), descending to the Old City walls. We took in the excellent exhibit at the Israel Museum on Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust. We visited the vast Tzidkiyahu's Cave near the Damascus Gate. We traveled around the northern Galilee, stopping in Tiberias, Rosh Pina, Tzfat, the Dalton Winery, and Haifa. My father and I even managed to take an accidental tour of Ras al-Amud (an Arab neighborhood deep in East Jerusalem).

The highlight of the trip, however, was definitely our annual visit to Hebron. As I described in last year's post below, we truly enjoyed the unique opportunity to tour the kasbah, which is not open to Jews during the year. We wanted to give my sister the chance to see and learn what we had learned during our previous visit.

This year, we chose to visit Hebron on the second day of the annual two-day festival. The second day is always busier because many big-name Jewish-Israeli bands perform in front of the Ma'arat HaMachpela. The tour was called for 12:30pm, which left us plenty of time to tour the various booths.

At 12:20pm, I heard a voice over the loudspeaker announce: "Unfortunately, the army has informed us that they are only able to take a small group on the tour due to security concerns. As a result, we will now be giving out tickets. You must have a ticket in order to join the tour." Before I could finish translating the announcement, a large and unruly crowd gathered around the announcer's booth, pushing, shoving and elbowing, in order to obtain tickets. My mother, father, sister and I decided to split up in the hope that we'd be able to penetrate the mob of at least 100 people.

After a few moments, I dejectedly gave up. It quickly became clear that the announcer would hand out a paltry 25 tickets to a clamoring crowd quadruple the size. I was disappointed with the behavior of those around me, and could not contend with the bigger men who neglected to notice my presence. I made my way to the back of the crowd, only to discover my mother busily fussing with something.

"Mom, I just can't get in there. What are you doing?" I asked. Almost too intent on what she was doing to look up, she briefly raised her eyes and responded in a hushed and mysterious voice, "I'm making tickets." Fairly confused, I asked again, "What are you doing?" Once again, my mother responded, "I'm making tickets," and continued to fold and tear thin slivers of paper.

The sight of my Mom, with eager and precise attention, crafting counterfeit tickets for a tour of the Hebron kasbah threw me into a fit of giggles. My sister, after a few minutes, also gave up and joined us in the back of the crowd. Similarly confused, she queried, "What's Mom doing?" Barely controlling my laughter, I informed her that our Mom was making tickets. Soon after, my Dad rejoined us and received the same explanation.

Moments later, those who had tickets set out for the tour. My Mom hurried us along and we joined the group, sticking toward the front. No longer laughing, I worried aloud to my mother, "What if the army discovers we have counterfeit tickets and arrests us?" My mother dismissed my unfounded fear and we carried on with the group.

At the entrance to the area of Hebron in which the kasba is located, there is a huge metal fence. An entire unit of Israeli soldiers, present to accompany and protect the tour, stood by the opening of the fence, letting one person at a time through the opening after taking their tickets. Somehow, my sister and mother managed to enter with their tickets, which resembled everyone else's. A few more people passed by, and then it was my turn. As my heart palpitated, I handed the captain my "ticket" and he waved me through. My father followed.

My family looked at one another with sheer astonishment. My mother, drawing upon her seemingly endless resource of ingenuity, had managed to get us in to the tour. We, once again, were moved by what we saw and learned in the kasbah- the homes that still betray evidence of Jewish ownership, the attempt by several European countries to invest millions of dollars in order to entice Arabs to settle in the kasbah, and so on. My sister particularly appreciated being there as she had not been present during the previous trip.

Herzl applied his bold dictum to founding a Jewish state. Pluck, persistence and a dash of ingenuity. For my family, on a much less grandiose level, "If you will it, it is not a dream" is now synonymous with my mother's concise response: "I'm making tickets."

(IDF soliders accompanying us through the Hebron kasbah)
(The commanding officer of the platoon of soldiers and me)
(Sarah, Mom, and I at the Israel Museum exhibit in Jerusalem)
(Dad and I at our hotel in Tiberias, overlooking the Kinneret)
(Dad, Mom and I at the Dalton winery in northern galilee)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Of Celestial Slopes

two weeks ago, following the snowfall in jerusalem, my friend from school, assaf, sent me a text message saying: "snow up north. we're going skiing on tuesday." not having a blackberry, or even the more traditional calendar, i made a mental 'save the date.' by the next monday i had forgotten that i was meant to be going skiing the following day. thankfully, assaf reminded me on monday, which sent me into a tizzy, scrambling for ski clothes and gear. he added a critical detail: "we're leaving at 3:30am."
since i had plans for monday night, i didn't have time to nap before the early morning departure time. it took all the energy i could muster to leave my warm apartment and brave the chilly night. i hopped into assaf's car at 3:30am. i had to stay awake until we got to tel aviv, where we picked up assaf's friend. from tel aviv to the kinneret, i slept for about an hour and a half. somehow, i suddenly woke up right when we hit the kinneret, only to witness the most magnificent sunrise. i made the boys pull over so that i could capture it on film. from the kinneret until we reached the hermon the scenery was too beautiful to miss and i forced myself to eschew sleep in favor of the gorgeous views.

finally, around 8am, we arrived at the hermon. the highest summit of the hermon is on the border between lebanon and syria, and under syrian control. the southern slopes have been in israeli control since 1967.
when we hit the slopes the conditions were optimal. it had snowed just a few days prior, it wasn't very crowded, the weather was pristine, and the views were simply spectacular. skiing is a frightful sport; for the relative novice, at least, it can engender feelings of utter recklessness and sheer exhiliration all at once. i hadn't been skiing in several years and didn't have high expectations for my skills or performance. shockingly, after a few practice runs i managed to improve markedly, hitting up even the black diamond slopes. the views were glorious and breathtaking. i'm pretty sure i now understand the etymology of the phrase "on top of the world" (-- some wise israeli, skiing on the highest slopes of the hermon--).
we ended the day by skiing down a slope nestled in the 'other' side of the mountain, two chairlifts away from the main slopes. it was quiet, isolated and all of my senses were alert. i couldn't help feeling there was something ethereal about the experience. we returned to the car feeling exhausted, but buoyed by our incredible day. we retraced our path down the loopy roads of the golan, witnessing a gorgeous sunset, to match the sunrise we saw on our way up.
(overlooking the golan, with miscellaneous snow gear)

(becky, tal, assaf on top of mt. hermon)

(view of the golan)

(tal, becky, assaf in one piece at the end of the day)

(sunset in the golan)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Hazy Shade of Winter

All week the country has been abuzz with talk of an impending 'blizzard.' The implications of said blizzard are rather large here in Israel...

Last night snow began falling around midnight and continued through the night. This morning Jerusalem looked beautiful, but there was little more than an inch or two of snow on the ground. Nevertheless, the city pretty much shut down. Apparently, we are not equipped to deal with snow in the Middle East. All schools and universities in Jerusalem closed down and the newcaster on the radio urged Jerusalemites to stay off the road.

My roomate and I ventured out of our cozy apartment this morning looking for adventure. We discovered that aside from a few restaurants and the grocery store, everything in our neighborhood was closed. The streets were mostly empty. At 3pm today there was a snowman-building competition in the park, with the mayor of the city serving as judge. All this served as a (minor) distraction to the announcement this evening of the final findings of the Winograd commision.

Here's hoping for more snow tomorrow!

(view from my bedroom window this morning)
(pedestrian braving the streets beneath my balcony)
(around the corner from my apartment, in full snow/slush gear)
...look around, leaves are brown now, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

If I forget thee O Jerusalem...

On Tuesday afternoon, as clouds gathered over Jerusalem, I grabbed my camera and headed to the Old City. In anticipation of President Bush's visit to Israel, a group called One Jerusalem organized a rally to oppose Olmert's declaration that Jerusalem should be divided. The rally called upon Israelis to come to Jerusalem and form a human chain around the Old City as an expression of our firm support for a united Jerusalem. It was hoped that this would send a message to President Bush: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people, and must therefore not be divided.

By the time I arrived at the Jaffa Gate, the human chain went on for as far as the eye could see. From what I observed, the chain was made up of mostly high school and yeshiva students. Many of the participants were singing songs, arm in arm, about Yerushalaim. It was heartening to see that the youth, far from being apathetic, are actually involved, aware and active.

The reasons to keep Jerusalem united are numerous and compelling. Almost immediately, upon liberating Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government enacted the Protection of Holy Places law, protecting all holy sites “from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them...” Every religion is entitled to worship freely under Israeli rule in Jerusalem. Holy sites are protected. This in stark contrast to the period from 1948 until 1967, when Jerusalem was under Arab control and Jerusalemites were subject to religious persecution and holy sites were desecrated and destroyed. (When Arab forces stormed Jerusalem in 1948 they blew up 58 synagogues, rabbinical schools, and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter. Remaining synagogues and other holy sites were used as stables and garbage dumps.)

Dividing Jerusalem would serve to strengthen radical Islam and its proponents, who call for the liberation of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque. Arabs living in Jerusalem have come to appreciate, albeit begrudgingly, living under Israeli sovereignty. In an article in US News published this past June, the author wrote that Jerusalem's Arabs recognize that "a Palestinian bystander in Gaza is liable to be killed by a Fatah gunman, a Hamas gunman or an Israeli-fired missile; a Palestinian bystander in Jerusalem is extremely unlikely to be killed by anyone. Notes the local attorney: "The saying you hear [from Arabs] in the city now is 'Give me hell in Jerusalem over paradise in the PA.'" Olmert seems to refuse to respond to what even the local Arab population feels on the issue.

Perhaps most significantly, Jerusalem is of supreme importance to the Jewish people from a religious and Biblical perpspective. The Bible refers to Jerusalem by name over 700 times. Additionally, Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Midrash, are brimming with references to Jerusalem. The Midrash tells us that the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) was built in Jerusalem on the very site where Abraham bound Isaac. Yet another midrash locates the site of the Temple as the place where Hevel (Abel) built his mizbeiach (altar) to G-d. This was the first time a human attempted to connect with G-d following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. King David declared Jerusalem the capital during his reign as monarch of the Jewish people. King Solomon took the political centralization of Jerusalem one step further by building the Temple and creating the spiritual-religious center for the Jewish people. To this day, wherever in the world a Jew may be, he turns in prayer toward Jerusalem.

The rabbis explain that there is a heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalaim shel ma'alah) perched over the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalaim shel matah). This idea is anchored in both Isaiah's, as well as Micha's, prophecy. In masechet Taanit 5a, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted as saying: "The Holy One blessed be He declared, ‘I shall not enter the heavenly Jerusalem until I can enter the earthly Jerusalem.'" The relationship between the 'upper' Jerusalem and the 'lower' Jerusalem is clear. We must constantly strive to make the Jerusalem in which we live, Yerushalaim shel Matah, worthy of G-d's presence in order to merit the union between the two Yerushalaim's, for the two are inextricably connected.

As the skies opened up on Tuesday, these thoughts invaded my mind. I gazed at the human chain hugging the towering Old City walls. I stood near Natan Sharansky as he was interviewed by several different news outlets. To stand next to such a hero, as he exercised his freedom of speech at the entrance to the Old City, was quite inspiring. Sharansky criticized President Bush for failing to implement the ideology he has repeatedly outlined regarding terrorist states, such as Hamas. Similar views were echoed by MK Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat, opposition leader in the Jerusalem City Council, and Yechiel Leiter (former chief of staff to Netanyahu), who called Olmert to task for forgetting that eight years earlier- to the date- Olmert had pleaded with then President Clinton to keep Jerusalem united.

During the rally itself I stood next to a woman in her mid-sixties from Ma'aleh Adumim. Not a religious woman, she told me she had emigrated from Argentina as a teenage girl. When I asked her why, she responded: "Simply, Zionism." Zionism, she explained, guided her then, and is still the primary signpost for her to this day.

Walking home in the rain, through Yemin Moshe, I couldn't help but think of King David's relevant and poetic words from the book of Psalms: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." (Psalms 137)

(at the rally: a man blows a shofar)

(Natan Sharansky, MK Yisrael Katz, Yechiel Leiter)

(top picture: human chain wrapping around the Old City walls)