Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Unforgettable Shabbat

The girls and I are back from our two weeks in Israel.  I spent most of those two weeks at the office, relishing my limited time to work face-to-face with a team that I am mostly relegated to engaging over Skype and email.  There is no substitute for time spent in the same room.  Anyone who has worked with a team overseas will relate to the precious value of eye contact... even when those eyes are bleary with jetlag.

Meanwhile, my mother was busy orchestrating a kid-centric itinerary that only a Virgo could pull off.  You have to understand that my mother is not your average grandma.  At 65, she owns multiple businesses, was serving on four different boards at last count, and has more stamps in her passport from 2012 than most people will accrue in a lifetime.  She has been coming to Israel since she was a teenager.  She carries an iPhone, a Kindle, and a laptop.  She can sniff a trail to the closest source of espresso from anywhere on earth.  For 43 years, she has been making me look like a total slacker (something most would say is not easy to do).

So the kids had an incredible trip.  They boogie boarded and made castles in the sand, dug up bones and pottery shards at the Archaeological Seminars Institute in Beit Guvrin, pet kangaroos at Gan Garoo, took a drive-through safari among lions and hippos at the Ramat Gan zoo, shopped at the bustling open-air Carmel Market, wandered among the ruins of Caesarea, and had ice cream an average of twice a day.  (Their favorite: Anita Gelato on Shabazi in Neve Tzedek.)  In short, they experienced Israel as kids.  I was able to join them for a remarkable evening at the Children's Museum in Holon, where Rebecca and I participated in the Dialogue in the Dark while Leah and Grandma went paddleboating.  Suffice to say that it is revealing to experience the world without sight for 75 minutes, even if it is in the safest and most guided way.  (I almost said it was eye-opening...but caught myself.) 

In the middle of the trip, all of us took off for a three-day weekend.  We left Thursday night for Jerusalem, then drove out to the desert Saturday morning and spent the weekend at the Ein Gedi hotel.  We took the cable car up to the ancient remains of Herod's temples at Masada, slathered mud on each other at the Dead Sea, and swam under the waterfalls of the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, with ibex staring at us from their posts along the cliffs.  It was hot enough to make you wonder why anyone ever decided the area was fit for human habitation - but despite a lot of dramatic groaning as we wove in and out of the maze of structures atop Masada, the collective experience was unforgettable and wonderful.

For me, the highlight of the trip came just before we headed for the desert.  We had dragged the kids unwillingly through the old city of Jerusalem on Friday, where they were unmoved by the remarkable history around them and spent most of the time complaining of boredom and blistering heat.  (But even they were swept into a moment of reverence at the Western Wall, where Rebecca added her prayer to the millions already lodged in the cracks.) We retreated to the air conditioning and stunning sculpture garden of the Israel Museum before relenting and hitting the pool in the middle of the afternoon.

That evening, we drove to a suburb of Jerusalem to join my mother's friend Dalia Landau for Shabbat dinner.  I was unprepared for what an exceptional evening this would be.  Dalia has a remarkable story, one that is only remarkable because of who she is.  It is documented in Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.  The Levantine Cultural Center's site includes this brief:

The protagonists are Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi {Landau}, each embodying the hopes, dreams and disappointments of the Palestinian and Israeli people. Tolan recounts how the Khairi family was forced, in July 1948, to flee to Ramallah, because the fighting in al-Ramla endangered Ahmad and Zakia Khairi and their children. They expected to stay only a few days until things quieted down, before returning to the beautiful home Ahmad had built in al-Ramla in 1936. Meanwhile, Bulgarian immigrants Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi arrived as refugees off the coast of the newly-forming state of Israel, their nine-month-old daughter Dalia in tow. They were instructed to walk through al-Ramla, which had been freshly cleared of its Arab inhabitants, and choose a place to live. They came upon the seemingly abandoned Khairi home and settled there. 

Al-Ramla before the conflictAl-Ramla before the conflictTwenty years later, Bashir Khairi and two of his cousins knock on the door of Bashir’s former home, and meet Dalia Eshkenazi. Thus begins a life-long relationship, filled with curiosity, affection and ambivalence, for Bashir and Dalia each embrace their right to the land that has been the source of dispute since 1948.

Dalia later went on to establish Open House, a community center dedicated to fostering better relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews.  It is housed in her and the Khairi's shared former home.

In the course of our evening, Dalia treated us to a ceremonious, uplifting and reverent welcoming of the Shabbat bride, replete with song, colorful stories from the bible that held the children captive (including an explanation of the double portion of challah traditionally served on Shabbat), ritual hand-washing, and candle-lighting.  It was impossible not to feel the beauty of Shabbat, to want it as part of our lives, as re-gifted to us that night by Dalia.

Joining us as her guests were two American teachers visiting Israel on a research grant.  One of them teaches The Lemon Tree in his Middle East Studies class.  Over dinner, the two teachers, who had met earlier that day with several leaders of the Palestinian community, expressed optimism for a one-state solution and the economic benefits it would bring.  For the next hour, Dalia led us through a narrow passageway into her experience of Israel - a complex, emotional, difficult story that left us all silent in renewed awareness of our own ignorance.  In her mind, there is no single-state solution that would be accepted by the majority of Israelis because it would, flatly, mean the end of a Jewish state - an affirmative action that has meant refuge for so many persecuted communities.  There are deeply-rooted histories of pain and suffering on both sides of the fence, and there is no simple way to heal them.  And there are acts of terror being committed in both Arab and Jewish communities.  The latter was hard to swallow.  It is much easier to sit on this side of the pond and believe that the Jewish people are uniformly noble, making their lives into blessings and living out the values of gratitude and Tikkun Olam. But to do so would be foolish and ignorant.

I came away from that evening aware that spending time in the startup nation of Tel Aviv, with its global cuisine, stunning shoreline and world-class gay pride parade, is like visiting San Francisco and claiming that you've seen the United States.  In the past year, I've spent six weeks in Israel.  With the exception of a stop to have my girls photographed on a camel, and a quick lemonade fix in the Arab Quarter, I have had no interactions with an Arab Israeli.  Conversations with my colleagues center more on the threat of Jewish extremism within Israel, and the threat of the Arab world beyond its borders.  There is so much I have yet to understand, and so much that I never will.

In January 1988, during the early days of the first Palestinian intifada, Dalia (who was in a maternity hospital awaiting the birth of her son) learned that Bashir was facing deportation by the Israeli authorities.  With no other way to contact him, she wrote an open letter that was published in the Jerusalem Post and brought international attention to her story.  I hope you'll read the full Letter to a Deportee.  In it, she describes the complicated origin of their friendship, denounces his deportation as a counterproductive violation of civil rights, and makes an open plea to him as a leader in his community:

It is a natural reaction to hate those who have made us suffer. It is also a natural reaction to inflict pain because one has suffered pain, and to justify it ideologically. In this small land, both our peoples are stuck in a fateful embrace. I believe that our finding each other here is potentially for the greater unfolding of life. In order to fulfill this potential, we all need to become more fully human, which to me, means activating our capacity to understand the suffering of others through our own, and to transform pain into healing...

It seems to me, Bashir, that you will now have a new opportunity to assume a leadership role. By its intention to deport you, Israel is actually empowering you. I appeal to you to demonstrate the kind of leadership that uses nonviolent means of struggle for your rights;a leadership based on education for the recognition of your enemy and his relative justice.

I appeal to both Palestinians and Israelis to understand that the use of force will not resolve this conflict on its fundamental level. This is the kind of war that no one can win, and either both peoples will achieve liberation or neither will.

Our childhood memories, yours and mine, are intertwined in a tragic way. If we can not find means to transform that tragedy into a shared blessing, our clinging to the past will destroy our future. We will then rob another generation of a joy-filled childhood and turn them into martyrs for an unholy cause. I pray that with your cooperation and God's help, our children will delight in the beauty and bounties of this holy land.

Allah ma'ak - May God be with you.

And also with you, Dalia.  May your radiance inspire us all.