Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gimme Shelter

As recently as two weeks ago, I was trying to design a national Flash Mob that would bring to the public's attention what is was like for Israeli civilians to go about their normal lives, only to be forced to dash into shelters at the sound of a siren warning of an approaching rocket from Hamas.

Entitled Gimme Shelter, the purpose of this endeavor was consciousness-raising. As Israel was being rebuked publicly for its military actions in Gaza -- where the attacks originated -- I wanted to convey the threat it was facing in a creative and attention-getting manner. The anti-Israel counterpart to this idea was the Die-Ins that were being staged to simulate the Gaza civilians who killed by Israel's retaliatory fire, the tragic consequence of combatting an enemy who hides its arsenal in civilian locations.

For Gimme Shelter, I envisioned organizing groups of participants in major U.S. cities to gather casually in pre-selected public locations, milling about in faux leisure, only to be made to stand at stark attention at the planned public sounding of a shofar blast -- a tekiah gedolah -- in simulation of a siren's wail.

After the first shocked seconds, the participants would scurry to a safe location. Seconds afterwards, flyers would be distributed to onlookers and a statement would be read, identifying the exercise as a public action designed to alert Americans what Israelis face several times a day at the hands of Hamas.

Dramatic and disruptive, the purpose of Gimme Shelter was to simulate terror locally; to permit Americans to experience, for even a millisecond, the threat of attack in their very cities, the shock of needing to protect oneself in the course of daily life.

In New York, I envisioned such an event unfolding at Lincoln Center, with Flash Mobbers dashing into the 66th Street subway station's various entrances. Because of the wideness of the plaza, I planned on at least two shofar blowers. Stunning tourists and locals alike, captured by media which would have been alerted ahead of time, Gimme Shelter would be hasbara in action, building empathy and understanding for Israel's campaign against Hamas.

This idea appealed to me as recently as fourteen days ago, when we/I thought that the falling rockets were the chief threat against Israel.

But Gimme Shelter was a concept with an exceedingly brief shelf life. 

My idea was based on a delusion that the threat was coming from above. Now we have learned about the tunnels, a network of carefully executed passageways from Gaza into Israel, designed with one purpose, to visit death upon Israelis.  Now we have learned of a nearly science-fiction-like scenario -- a subterranean threat -- and the very concept of shelter has changed.

Hamas is the deadly threat we could see as well as the deadly threat that was invisible...until very, very recently.

There is a horror in the revelation of the terror tunnels, not only a horror at what was planned, but a horror that the building of this network was, quite literally, beneath the radar screen of Israeli intelligence and the world at large.

According to reports, a large scale threat against Israelis was in the planning, scheduled for Rosh Hashana.

This was a valuable, critical finding, an inadvertent discovery.

But this revelation has been very expensive, costing Israel dozens of lives and the Palestinians hundreds more because of their leadership's cynical disregard for their safety.

Compounding the shock of the existence of terror tunnels -- built with funds that were intended to provide a new infrastructure for Palestinian life -- is the fact that the discovery of these underground portals of destruction have had little impact on a public whose favorite pastimes is condemning Israel, and Jews everywhere.

There is a sickening metaphorical appropriateness in the construction of these tunnels.

Jews are not supposed to believe in the concept of Hell...and yet Hell has come to Israel in the form of the terror tunnels.

Gimme Shelter was a great idea for about two weeks. Now it is irrelevant -- quaint and naive.

Now, an appropriate public action might feature armed terrorists emerging from subway stations to shoot at civilians. The role of onlookers would be to skip over the bodies of the slain, sidestepping the horror, ignoring the threat to themselves, voicing support for the shooters.

Naturally it is insane to stage such a happening. Insane and irresponsible and yet irresistible.

I sit in my Manhattan apartment, trying to conceive of a public action that illuminates the new, horrifying reality in Israel and around the world... and come up empty.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Anti-Semitism Diet

While I’ve lately gotten compliments on my svelte shape, I would like to credit Hamas and anti-Semites around the world for helping me to lose those stubborn ten pounds I have been carrying around since the onset of menopause. Due to my near-constant state of sadness, shock and fear, I have lost my appetite and find myself capable of consuming only the following items, not necessarily in this order: sharp cheddar cheese, salted almonds, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Chobani yogurt, coffee, Pinot Grigio and tequila.

Just yesterday, I bought a pair of Gap Sexy Boyfriend jeans TWO sizes smaller from what I normally wear. In fact, the Sexy Boyfriend jean shorts I bought at the beginning of the summer – long before we knew that there were terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel and that anti-Zionism really was the same as anti-Semitism and Israel was going to be condemned for the fact that Hamas was using innocent Palestinians as human shields and the media would decide to cover the story in a manner that defies the basic journalistic ethic of being fair and even-handed – were practically falling off my hips when I attended the New York Stands With Israel rally at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza in the middle of the day.

(The solidarity I experienced at yesterday’s rally calmed me enough to be able to eat a salad from Amish Market afterwards. Surrounded by ten thousand supporters of Israel’s right to exist, including politicians, I felt hopeful for the first time in several weeks.)

Let’s be honest -- the weight loss is welcome as in one month from yesterday, my beautiful, smart, industrious, kind, funny and otherwise fabulous daughter, Emma, will be getting married. Losing weight prior to a wedding is a goal of brides and mothers of the bride alike. In its service, personal trainers are procured, gym memberships hastily bought, masochistic regimes are adapted, extreme diets adhered to.

Yes, Emma and I have gasped our way through several sadistic spin classes – the upscale type with low lights, pounding music and fellow cyclists who have more in common with Lance Armstrong than us – and I continue to go to the gym regularly and hike for miles.

Still, it has been my inability to eat in the face of extreme stress that has done the trick for me. Realizing the potential of this revelation, in the manner of entrepreneurs everywhere, I have begun to write the book that I am sure will become a blockbuster.

I call it The Anti-Semitism Diet.

Like many weight loss programs that are bad for you, The Anti-Semitism Diet offers a successful way to knock off pounds, virtually overnight.  Instead of planning carb-rich meals, The Anti-Semitism Diet recommends that readers plan safe places where they might escape to if violence against Jews comes to their hometown. Instead of reading pages of recipes, The Anti-Semitism Diet advocates reading the news. Headlines announcing North Korea’s offer to fund Hamas, the rising numbers of Israeli soldiers killed, the German synagogue that was firebombed, the Jews in Paris who were hunted down through Facebook and beaten, and signs at rallies throughout the world featuring swastikas and such slogans as “Death to the Jews” are all proven methods of successfully suppressing one’s appetite.

If one is a Jew or person of conscience.

The fine print in the book’s introduction does indicate that, as a complete loss of peace of mind is necessary for this diet to work, the dieter should be aware that the weight loss will also likely be accompanied by crying, inability to sleep, continual shock, a sense of betrayal, panic, horror, foreboding, exhaustion and general jitteriness.

Which is why The Anti-Semitism Diet wisely includes wine and tequila and permits the ingestion of other calming substances, which have little or no calories.

The Anti-Semitism Diet does have a special section on the importance of exercise and core strengthening as it recognizes that being able to escape missiles (if one is in Israel) or hate-fueled attackers (if one is anywhere else) is dependant, in part, upon physical fitness. You will have a far better chance of making it into a bomb shelter or outrunning the angry mob that thinks that Hitler had the right idea if you are in top cardio-vascular shape.

A disclaimer in the book states that regrettably, The Anti-Semitism Diet cannot help with feelings of grief if you happen to be a family or friend of a fallen Israeli soldier. But it helpfully states that the Palestinians in Gaza, who are also victims of Hamas’s apocalyptic anti-Semitism, might wish to adapt The Anti-Semitism Diet for themselves if they have a special event looming, or just always wanted to lose some weight.

Or if any of them survive being used as human shields by Hamas.

The reason I am so confident that The Anti-Semitism Diet will be a bestseller is based on three reasons:

A – It has a built-in global audience
B – It is extremely topical, written for this very moment
C – It is really short

Indeed, to appropriate a well-known Jewish joke (what is a Jewish telegram?), The Anti-Semitism Diet can be summed up as follows:

Stop eating. Start worrying. Details to follow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cataclysm from Left Field

I have heard it said that when cataclysmic change comes, it arrives from left field.

Despite the pronouncements of pundits and predictors, the events that change the course of history are often unheralded, flagged mostly by madmen and prophets.

Something is shifting in our universe. I felt it at the mid-point of this past winter. The earth has slipped from her axis and a hateful spirit has taken hold.

The cold of this past winter felt spiteful.

Spring felt far too slim, skimpy, evasive.

And this summer -- so long-awaited -- is not the summer of years past. It is filled with angst and what is increasingly referred to as "extreme weather" -- rain that is aggressive, heat that feels nuclear, a malicious void where cosmic benevolence used to be.

I am up, sleepless, unable to rest, keeping vigil, reading news, headlines, posts on Facebook, statements that arrive via email, analyses, Op-Eds, blogs, Breaking News alerts, Red Alert warnings of Hamas missiles launched and a steady stream of images coming out of the place that is at the epicenter of my soul: Israel.

And its heart of hearts: Jerusalem.

There is a malevolence afoot now -- not only in the murderous intent of Hamas -- but in the complicity of countries filled with Jew-haters who are all-too-eager to use this so-called "conflict" to give voice to their evil passions, which have evidently been simmering beneath the surface of their civility all along.

We knew/I knew, that the golden age of our security had to end. We knew/I knew that the ability for a Jew to be a heedless, careless, fancy-free citizen of the world had an expiration date stamped on it.

I don't mean that I am imperiled in New York City today, right here, right now but I do know that a tide has turned.

The genie of European anti-Semitism has been released and there is no stuffing it back into the bottle; no way to pretend we hadn't seen it. Of course, Europe is not the only new/old Ground Zero of hatred and hostility to Jews, but -- soaked with Jewish blood -- it does it deserves special mention.

The violent rallies with bloodthirsty proclamations -- Death to the Jews! and similar slogans -- stun us in their profusion, in their magnitude, in their suddenness.

It is as if we have been drugged for decades, sleeping through the dress rehearsal for this world-wide scene shift.

It is late and I am tired. I am terrified. I am heartbroken. I cannot bear the photographs of the slain Israeli soldiers, in numbers too high to accept. They are my loss, members of my family and I cannot pretend that the grief I feel for them is equivalent to the sorrow I feel for the innocent Palestinian victims of the hellbent Hamas fighters.

I bemoan -- as do all people of conscience -- the senseless loss of life, their suffering and the mess of the awful, so old, so eternal. I understand their cruel fate; how their leaders chose to make them sacrifices out of spite.

But personal loss is always different. It has to be. That is the way the human animal is built. Why should we pretend otherwise?

I scream into the abyss of the conscience of the world:

What do you not understand? How can you fail to see the evil unfolding before you?

At this time, the force of my fears, my love and the entirety of my vigilance is focused on my family, my people, my tribe -- the historic Children of Israel who have somehow made it into the second millennium. At this time, the dangerous winds of the new/old extreme weather threaten us and we run for shelter. How, O Lord, do we stay safe in this new time and space? What have we learned through persecution and pogrom, through death camps and deportations, through hateful rhetoric and harmful legislation? What gifts has modernity given us in our existential battle? What is our special status as American Jews? Or is that an illusion that is about to be shattered?

It is late.  It is late in New York but a new day is dawning in Israel. I split my attention between computer screens, reading frightening new reports, alarming predictions, protestations over yesterday's disturbing ban on air travel to and from Israel.

Guardian of Israel, do not sleep. Stay awake. Keep vigil. Protect us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Thinking/Writing Cure

At 1:30 a.m. I was wrested from my dreams by an insistently barking Pomeranian who just turned 14, which makes him quite an elderly canine.

Alfie, a master communicator, had something to tell me relating to business that was not completed during his failed late night walk with HOBB.

There had been a torrential downpour and Alfie is a bit of a prima donna, so he stubbornly sat in the lobby of the Urban Bungalow, not wishing to sully his perfect blond coat.

In the middle of the night he realized the error of his ways and improvised in the bathroom. A neat freak, he needed me to know.

That is how I found myself wide away shortly after midnight, though I spent a futile hour trying to will myself back to sleep. I should not have even bothered. With a resolute tossing back of the blankets, I bounded out of bed and began my workday around 3 a.m.

Through I did grouse and call Alfie some choice names, though I even felt sorry for myself initially, the minute I sat down in front of my computer, I was reminded of the advantages of working in the middle of the night, when the distractions of the world fall away.

And of something else: the easy flow of ideas when sleep has allowed my mind to loosen its familiar bonds.

So I've been up and working for hours. Seeing me online, Big Babe in Berlin sent me a Skype invitation and we had a lovely chat. A few clients were up as well and emails were exchanged. I took care of wedding details and of last-minute arrangements for Middle Babe's Bridal Shower this weekend. I got a jumpstart on the news from Israel, the latest chapter in an ongoing existential saga, as old as the Bible.

And I've been thinking of this time before the marriage of my middle child, of what such a union means, of the idea of a lifelong love relationship, of her beautiful bond with her Gentleman Caller -- soon to be my son-in-law.

I've been thinking of what it means to have raised a child who now believes in marriage, against statistical evidence that we are in a post-marital era, or at least a marriage-optional era.

I've been thinking of what it means to be a modern mother of the bride, of my role in supporting my daughter as she plans her wedding in an admirable hands-on way, of the hard work that happened -- during the day as well as the middle of the night -- to enable this wedding.

There is pride in being able to provide for one's child.

And I know that Middle Babe feels proud of the hard work she has done, just as I gaze at her efforts with admiration and wonder. My daughter is no one's diva, no Disney Princess for a day. She has approached her wedding with the same determined focus with which she regards her challenging work at a non-profit organization.

She has inspired me throughout this year of planning, which had its difficult moments. With six weeks to go, we have drawn closer, united in purpose.

Wedding guests are correct to be touched by the fresh, hopeful love and dreams of a bride and groom.

Beyond the details of the day -- flowers, food, the choice of music, the venue, the colors of the bridal party -- there is the fact of an important new venture being launched, two people pledging their love and loyalty for life, forming a fortress for one another in an often-inhospitable world.

As the sun rises over Morningside Heights, it strikes me that the most enduring monument one can build in this world is a home which is a sanctuary with gates that open to the great outdoors and a private footpath for the master and mistress of the manor which leads to their inner sanctum, their holy of holies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recovery of Writings Past

While searching online today for something I had written a couple of years ago, I inadvertently found an essay/book review of Simone Zelitch's work, Louisa that I had entirely forgotten about. I read it with shameless glee, sobered only by two terrible details: the rabbi I refer to as metaphysical has since been revealed to be a sexual predator, and the host of the sumptuous breakfast at the King David Hotel was revealed to have been a crook, his generosity funded by white collar crime. Still, finding this essay now is a gift. In the midst of an unusually stressful time in my personal life as well as that of the Jewish people, reading about my magical midnight foray in Jerusalem on a summer night in 1998 provided a much-welcome window into a simpler time. The timing also seems unusually apt as I just published my novella, The Jerusalem Lover, yesterday morning. This essay brings me back to that era before 9/11, which provides one of the frames for The Jerusalem Lover. We were careless. We were clueless. I linger in the memory of that moment and share it with you, here:

At four in the morning, a solemn breeze wafted through the ancient Hurva synagogue, raising the tarpaulin-like roof, ruffling the hair and garments of the hundreds who were gathered inside, sitting cross-legged on the cold, stone floor. It was Shavuot night, 1998, the setting was Jerusalem, and I was on the third leg of my night-long tikkun, the traditional learning marathon held on the first night of the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

The evening had begun at a friend's house in Baka and moved on to Yakar, the spirited, soulful synagogue located in the Old Katamon neighborhood. Now I had come to the Hurva, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, to hear the metaphysical rabbi, Mordechai Gafni.

As Gafni spoke, the sun rose over the ancient city of Jerusalem As the sky lightened at five, I rose and left the Hurva, making my way through winding streets until I met the members of my davening group, N'shei Ha-Kotel, the Women of the Wall. Gathering together, we commenced our recitation of shacharit, the morning prayers.

While we davened, streams of Jews poured onto the Kotel plaza, black-hat and bohemian alike. This parade of people had come from every corner of Jerusalem–and beyond–in commemoration of the pilgrimages made in the time of the ancient Temple.
As the hour approached seven, I made my way out of the Old City and towards the King David Hotel. It was on the hotel's capacious lawn that I concluded mytikkun leil Shavuot–tired yet exhilarated–at a reception thrown by family friends, feasting on traditional holiday fare: cheesecake, blintzes, rice pudding with raisins, pie, custard and all manner of dairy treats.

There is an otherworldly magic to staying up all night, studying Jewish texts. There is a surprising sense of revelation to studying–once again, the Ten Commandments, and finding new insights and commentaries. And there is the profound beauty of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of the righteous Moabite woman Ruth, one of history's best known Jews-by-choice, great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of the Messiah.
Widowed as a young woman, Ruth "cleaves" to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, pledging complete loyalty to her tradition and people. Though Naomi urges her to return to her Moabite kinsmen, Ruth refuses, stating her now-immortal vow:

Entreat me not to leave you, and do not tell me to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These oft-quoted words have inspired humankind over the course of centuries. Evidently, they took up residence within the literary imagination of Simone Zelitch. The result is her remarkable novel, Louisa , which offers a modern retelling of the story of Ruth, set in post-World War II Palestine, with ample flashbacks to Szeged and Budapest, Hungary.

Louisa offers us the story of the relationship between Nora and Louisa, a latter-day Naomi and Ruth. Louisa is a young German Christian woman who falls in love with Gabor Gratz, an inscrutable and restless young Jewish composer. Finding herself pregnant by him, they marry, at the insistence of Gabor's mother, Nora. The pregnancy does not survive; neither does Gabor. As the Jews are hunted throughout Budapest, Nora seeks refuge in the cellar of Louisa's home and there waits out the end of the war before being transported to Palestine.

The problem is, Louisa refuses to leave her bitter and grief-stricken mother-in-law and gains passage with Nora to Palestine. Landing at a kibbutz, she endures hatred and suspicion (some refugees swear they saw her working as a Nazi guard at a concentration camp), works in the fruit orchard, studies Hebrew and begins studying for conversion with the kibbutz rabbi.

She also does some covert work, tracking down Nora's beloved cousin Bela (now known as Jonah), with whom Nora grew up in Hungary. Bela immigrated to Palestine prior to the war and had tried to convince Nora to do likewise. His mother and sister were killed in the course of the war. Arabs murdered Leah, his young French-Israeli wife, outside of their kibbutz.

Bela/Jonah represents the Boaz character in the Ruth story, the older kinsman of Naomi whom Ruth marries to carry on the family legacy. Claiming to work in the orchards well beyond the harvesting season, Louisa finds Bela/Jonah, works for him and eventually falls in love with him. They marry, bear a child named Tamar who carries on Bela's bloodline and Louisa keeps her pledge to Nora to redeem Gabor's death by having children, bringing new life into the Jewish people.

Zelitch's Nora is hardly an endearing character. She is bitter, similar to the biblical Naomi who asked that her name be changed to Mara, bitter one. She is frequently unkind to Louisa. She misses out on love and its fulfillment. She makes Louisa all the more heroic.

Yet Zelitch allows us to see Louisa's devotion to her mother-in-law in a different vein. Louisa somehow intuits that becoming a Jew and going to Palestine are her destiny. She means the words "Your people are my people" quite literally. Her motivating force is not altruism, but a realist grasp of her fate.

The skillful weaving of the Ruth and Naomi theme into Louisa is a testament to Zelitch's keen understanding of the text. The work is a literary tour de force, jumping continents, cultures and chronological boundaries. It raises the interesting question of the Messiah's ancestry and the process ofteshuva, repentance. It asks us to accept the German-Christian Louisa's conversion and active role in perpetuating a Jewish bloodline, as an act of tikkun(restoration) for the sins of her kinsmen during the Shoah.

Louisa and Shavuot share many themes: the power of forgiveness and good deeds, and their potential for repairing the world. The Book of Ruth, however, has an additional twist, for it hints at an instruction manual for repairing the world. The instruction manual of course, is Jewish Law, which is the axis upon which the Ruth narrative turns. One of the many fascinating aspects of the Book of Ruth is we get to see the Torah's laws in action. 

One example of this is when Boaz observes the laws of Tzedekah and instructs his workers to let ample grain fall through their hands so that the poor (in this case Ruth) may glean in the fields. In these instances and others it becomes apparent that what appears to be coincidence is really God's handiwork in the form of Jewish law. Which makes Louisa and the Book of Ruth perfect reading on Shavuot; a holiday which celebrates the giving of the Torah and looks forward to a world redeemed. 

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.