We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.
But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.
“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”
“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.
“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”
He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam? [Read more →]
From Tel Aviv, so the usual map sites say, you could drive to Damascus in three hours and 20 minutes, if only there were no borders, barbed wire or war in the way. From vacation cottages in the Upper Galilee, where city people go to find some quiet, you can look across the Jordan to the ridge that barely blocks a view of the Syrian capital. Just past the horizon, impossibly close to us, people are killing their countrymen. Cities are being crushed into rubble.
Israel is a place with very little agreement on anything. Perhaps the closest thing to a national emotional consensus is horror at what’s happening in Syria. But there’s also unusually wide agreement, especially among policy and strategic experts, that Israel can do pretty much nothing to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict. [Read more →]
I bought a pair of tickets to Dudu Tassa and the Andalusia Orchestra performing the works of Tassa’s grandfather and great-uncle, the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, the forgotten Jewish maestros of Baghdad. The tickets set me back two Yitzhak Ben-Tzvis, the equivalent of one Zalman Shazar, which is to say two 100-shekel bills or one 200-shekel bill. By next year, when Israel’s new banknotes are in circulation, that will be two Leah Goldbergs or one Nathan Alterman. Poets are replacing politicians on our money.
The concert cost considerably less than classical European music does at the same Jerusalem hall. Marginalized culture comes at a discount, and its icons don’t appear on cash. The chances that portraits of Daud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti will ever adorn a 200-shekel bill seem slim. But you never know. After much controversy, Jerusalem has named a street after dissident philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The gates of commemoration are forever open.
The Leibowitz fuss had barely ended when the shouting about the banknotes began. Last week, at the Bank of Israel’s request, the cabinet voted to approve the new bills. [Read more →]
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. The street was named by Menachem Ussishkin himself. An early Zionist leader, prideful, pugnacious, Ussishkin headed the Jewish National Fund for nearly 20 years. In 1931 he built an imposing house on what was then Yehudah Halevi Street, named for the 12th century philosopher-bard. All the streets in the new neighborhood of Rehaviah were named for poets and philosophers of the Spanish Golden Age. For his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided to honor himself. He ordered JNF workers to remove all the signs saying “Yehudah Halevi” and replace them with ones that bore his own name. And so the name of the street is Ussishkin unto this day.
You can’t imagine Yeshayahu Leibowitz doing this. If Leibowitz knew that city council members would one day propose naming a street after him and that the proposal would cause so much loud opposition that the mayor would have to drop it from the agenda, as happened last week, he would have felt honored by the controversy: The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Memorial Upheaval.
The last time I visited Leibowitz was 19 years ago, on Israeli Memorial Day, 1994. I came to his home to pick up a handwritten article [Read more →]
I’m pleased to announce that Company C and A Crack in the Earth are now available as e-books in all major formats as well as new print-on-demand paperback editions, all with new covers designed by my talented daughter, the animator Mizmor Watzman.
It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”
Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me. [Read more →]
God knows how Eliezer’s mind works. It goes off into other dimensions every time I try to have a serious conversation with him. That’s what happened on Purim this year. I waited through the entire reading of the megillah, the Book of Esther, to point out to him Chapter 4, verse 14, which I’d never really thought about before.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
“Ki ‘im taharishi ba-‘et ha-zot’ revah ve-hatzalah ya‘amod le-yehudim mi-makom aher,” Eliezer reads as my finger traces the word. He translates: “‘But if you remain silent at this time, reprieve and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.’ So?”
“So this is what Mordecai says to Esther when he tells her about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews,” I point out. “That she really doesn’t have to do anything, because the Jews are going to be saved anyway.”
“Well, if that’s God’s plan,” says Eliezer, “then I guess he’s right. What’s the big deal?” [Read more →]
“Have a biscuit,” I offered, pushing a plate of petit beurres toward him. “Sorry I don’t have anything better.”
He giggled. I took a sip of syrupy Turkish coffee and a bite out of one of the flat and fluted cookies, cardboard with a whiff of artificial vanilla. I picked up my pen, and waited. He made no move toward the plate of biscuits nor toward his own small and steaming glass. I adjusted my olive-green parka and ran my hand over my shoulder to make sure that my first lieutenant’s stripes were clearly visible. Like the sun straining to heat Neptune, a double-coiled space heater glowed forlornly. A naked bulb overhead cast barely enough light for me to make out the lettering on the form in front of me. Not much more managed to make its way through the grime-streaked small window at my back.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
He rocked in the metal chair with the uneven legs that I’d grabbed from the deputy brigade commander’s office, his rifle on his lap, his arms at his sides, his back straight, one side of his shirt tucked firmly into his baggy fatigue pants and the other side nearly hanging out. Some fine and curly chest hair [Read more →]
“I think you should wear white this winter,” Amir says to Tziporah. He rummages through the box of dress-up clothes and dons a homburg and a brown clip-on tie that matches his hair.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Tziporah is decked out in an orange paisley number with spaghetti straps, over which she’s draped a long, trailing, and somewhat ratty purple boa. “I think I am beautifulest this way,” she says, walking over to the child-high mirror on our living room wall and primping her curls.
Amir frowns and turns to me. “Haim, don’t you think she should wear white?”
Ilana has a doctor’s appointment, so I’ve come up from my basement office for half an hour to take charge of the mishpahton, the small pre-school for three-year-olds that Ilana runs in our living room.
“It’ll be easy,” she says at the door before she leaves. “Just give them a game, or read them a story.”
“I have something in mind,” I say.
Ilana takes her hand off the door handle and turns back to me. “Just let them play.”
And now, from somewhere else. My new article on Australia’s controversy over boat people is up at The American Prospect:
Hikmat wore small frameless glasses and a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, and the dark waves of his hair were combed perfectly. He looked as if he might have just stepped out of the office of his export firm in Karachi. In fact, it’s been nearly three years since he fled Pakistan. His uncle, a Taliban supporter, had been trying to extort money from him for the organization, and saw him and his wife as “infidels”: Hikmat was clean-shaven; his wife wore no hijab. Twice, gunmen ambushed him on the street. The first time, bullets ripped his intestines; he spent two years in the hospital. After surviving a second shooting, he left his homeland.
Hikmat met me at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. The nonprofit works out of a converted house in Surry Hills, a gentrifying neighborhood of bike paths, cafés, and spreading eucalyptus trees. He came to Australia, Hikmat said, because he could to get a short-term business visa quickly and bring his wife and three children with him. Afterward they applied for asylum. They live in housing provided by a church-funded group. He’s 44 years old, beginning to gray. Starting over in business requires money he doesn’t have. On and off, he works as a security guard.
Avigdor Lieberman quit last Friday as foreign minister a few moments before Shabbat began, the preferred timing for Israeli politicians to do something uncomfortable and hold news coverage to a minimum. Lieberman’s goal was to keep his resignation a non-issue. It was a gambit entirely in keeping with the surrealistically issueless non-campaign that he and his senior partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are conducting on the way to the January 22 election.
The day before, Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein announced that after an investigation so long that no one agrees when it began, prosecutors had too weak a case to indict Lieberman for laundering millions of dollars allegedly received from foreign millionaires while he held public office. (One witness has had a stroke, another committed suicide, a third recanted…) But Weinstein did say he would indict Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust in a cover-up of one small piece of the larger case. A legal battle before the Supreme Court on whether the alleged crimes were weighty enough to obligate Lieberman to leave office would have focused public attention on the indictment and on corruption as a national problem. The standard speculation is that the Lieberman wants a quick plea bargain, but he may assume that the courts will get around to trying him “after the holidays,” as Israeli bureaucrats like to say without specifying which holidays in which year. [Read more →]
Is there a dictionary of smiles? I need one. I know what my own smiles mean. I think of my face as a simple platform. It exhibits a range of smiles that clearly convey a certain range of messages, from “that’s nice” to “go away.” The male face has evolved so many layers of meaning that you need to be a master linguist to comprehend them all. That I am not.
One example is the smile on this boy sitting in the seat across from me on Atlanta’s MARTA train. We both got on at the airport. I wheeled in the small carry-on that I’d taken on a two-day business trip, a matter regarding software validation that I won’t bore you with. I have a meeting at the office at eleven and I should get in just in time to run to the bathroom beforehand. In a rush, and with this annoying and ugly eye patch, I am unsteady on my feet and stumbled as I board the train. Someone catches my elbow from behind, and I mutter an automatic but not very nice thank you.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
I take the aisle facing seat by the door, stowing the wheelie bag underneath. Extracting my Kindle from my purse, I intend to get back into my book club’s latest selection, Homer’s Odyssey. It’s one of those books that must have become a classic simply because back then there was nothing else around to read.
It’s only then that I glace at the seat across from me and see the guy who, apparently, is the one who steadied me. Dressed in a dirty ski jacket with a wool hat sticking out of one pocket, he’s unshouldering a large backpack. He has tousled light brown hair and a beard maybe a week old of a slightly lighter color. He peers at the map behind the side-facing seat next to the door, sits down, and smiles at me. [Read more →]
Updated: Gershom will be making a lecture trip to North America in November 2013. He will be in the U.S. as a visiting professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism from mid-January through May 2014. If your organization, congregation or campus would like arrange a lecture, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Haim will be visiting the U.S. in November 2012, and is currently scheduled to visit New York City, Denver, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Other venues are possible. See his Speaking and Performance page for lecture topics.
Please contact him at email@example.com.
The Unmaking of Israel: How It Broke. How to Fix It.
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