Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shabbat in Jerusalem

When I was just on the edge of adulthood (it's hard to believe how long ago that was!), I became involved with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism. Chabad is one of the largest of the 'ultra-Orthodox' Jewish groups, and the most accessible for people not
raised in that world. The movement puts tremendous effort into reaching out to Jews who are not traditionally observant, and the outreach rabbis speak the language of their country of residence, rather than Yiddish, as do many of the more inward-looking ultra-Orthodox groups. For many people, including myself (and particularly at that time), the Chabad movement has tremendous appeal. They offer extraordinarily close and supportive communities, a sense of moral certainty (or close approximation), and mindful living via a framework of ritually and ethically informed behavior that infuses life's mundane details with spirituality and religious significance. This is all my take, of course, and not an official description, but I
think it captures the essence.

While many people find traditionally observant Judaism to be inordinately restrictive, I did not, and will paraphrase another author's simile from a different context: traditional Judaism is like
a sonnet, there is a rigid order and structure that must be followed, but within that structure there is room to create a life of great beauty. I ultimately decided to leave Chabad, primarily because the intimate sense of spiritual community that I loved seemed to come at
the price of widespread (though by no means universal) negative attitudes and outright bigotry directed towards non-Jews. For me, this was a deal-breaker, but the positive aspects of Hasidut maintain
their strong appeal for me, and there are many elements that I still miss, all these years later. Foremost among these are the wonderful
Shabbatot I experienced: evenings and days of prayer, song, study, and warm candlelight.

So, while the following can not really be considered an insider account, neither is it simply the report of a disinterested or hostile outsider. My present tale is not a pleasant one, but I hope that readers unfamiliar with the subject matter will not take this to be
the whole story regarding traditionally observant Judaism, in general, or Chabad-Lubavitch, in particular. The struggle that we, as Jews, face today is as much for the soul of these movements, and of our
people in them, as it is for the fundamental rights and dignity of Palestinians in the refugee camps, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.


On several occasions, when I've made my trips to Israel/Palestine, I've taken advantage of the opportunity to recapture a bit of my old Chabad experience by having Shabbat dinner with an observant family. If you go near the Western Wall on any Friday evening, looking Jewish and preferably a bit lost and/or American, you will almost certainly
be approached with invitations to dinner. There's often a 'match-maker' involved; one of several observant folks who do this regularly as a religious 'mitzvah', or divinely sanctioned good deed.
I've had good luck with a few past attempts, dining with a traditionally observant couple or family, and perhaps another guest or two. The discussion is apolitical, as befits Shabbat, so I can take a break from the near war-zone of Palestinian advocacy within the Jewish community. Last Friday, when I was introduced to a kindly, grey-bearded Hasid as my host for the night, and particularly when I was told that he was a well-respected teacher of Torah, I figured I
was in excellent shape for the evening.

My heart sank a bit when my prospective host asked me what brought me to Israel, but when I replied that I was involved in Palestinian human rights work, he was unexpectedly complimentary. A young American man who already knew the way to our host's house was also joining us, and we headed off while our host waited to meet a third guest...or so I thought. It turned out that our host family was particularly
committed to Shabbat hospitality, and wound up with some twenty people at dinner. I'm not much for large groups, even in situations less fraught with potential tension, but it was too late to reconsider without being quite rude, so I settled in for the duration. Here is the cast of our dining party:

1) My initial companion, an young American from the US who volunteered for a 14-month enlistment in the Israeli army (now almost complete) without even taking Israeli citizenship.
2) Another young American IDF volunteer in the same program, serving in a sniper unit.
3) Two Israeli soldiers: one an Israeli-born conscript, and the other a foreign-born 'only son' (normally exempt from combat duty) who volunteered for a combat role. Both are serving in a search and rescue
unit that provided humanitarian assistance after earthquakes in Kenya and elsewhere {all four of the soldiers present served in the recent, apparently war-crime plagued, invasion of Gaza}.
4) A North American couple who have been in Israel for several years.
5) A small family who I never really got to meet.
6) An older woman from North America studying Torah in Jerusalem.
7) Two young men and two young women, all from North America, all
studying Torah in Jerusalem.
8) Two young men from Australia, also studying Torah in Jerusalem.
9) Our host and hostess and their young daughter.
10) {the invisible other}

Most of us were already seated and chatting when the soldiers arrived, carrying their automatic weapons. One of the Australians almost immediately asked a soldier, "Hey, can I use your gun to kill an Arab?
After Shabbat, of course." I don't remember the exact response, but the soldier certainly didn't chastise him, and neither did anyone else. A few minutes later, I turned to the speaker and told him that I didn't find his joke remotely funny. His only response was to say, "I wasn't joking", at which point I told him that the joke wouldn't have been funny coming from an Arab who was speaking about a Jew, it would be even less funny if the Arab were serious, and so it was in his
case. I think the speaker looked at least a little abashed, though that might be wishful thinking on my part. {Slightly off-topic, I've noticed that pro-settler Australians visiting Hebron seem to be particularly racist and aggressive, even relative to the high pro-settler norms in those areas. I've wondered whether this is due to Australian anti-aboriginal racism that translates easily to Palestinians, which theory came up in a discussion with a Kiwi couple a couple of nights ago. They thought my theory seemed pretty
plausible, and told me that Australian aborigines were still classified under the Flora and Fauna Act(!), and could be legally hunted(!!), until passage of a 1967 Referendum(!!!).} A bit later, our host asked the soldiers to set their guns aside during dinner;
while deciding where to put them, the American sniper joked that maybe we shouldn't trust the Australian with them, which drew a hearty laugh
from the assembled diners (myself excluded, as you might imagine); apparently, race-based murder was seen as a risible subject. Somewhere around this time, there's a go-round of the table, in which everyone
says something about what they're thankful for this Shabbat. Our hostess leads off, and is the first of five consecutive diners who wax eloquent in their admiration of the soldiers at the table, with
additional appreciation of being in Israel/Jerusalem, and some for other topics. There is no tempering, much less criticism, included in the soldier love-fest, and even the soldiers look a bit uncomfortable
with the adulation. The next several speakers also fete the soldiers, though in lesser proportion to the rest of the universe; I'm the first speaker for whom neither Israeli soldiers nor the wonder of being in Israel arise. Everyone, including myself, thanks our hosts for their
hospitality, etc.

At some point, all the diners go to wash their hands in the kitchen, where a very petite, dark-skinned, "foreign worker" (maybe Thai, or possibly Filipino) is washing dishes. I actually caught a glimpse of this woman earlier in the evening, but her presence has been so completely ignored by everyone else that I thought I might be mistaken. Presumably, hiring a foreign worker is better than employing a potentially 'uppity' Palestinian who might feel she has
actually has rights in her homeland. I find it extraordinary that, in our round of thanksgiving, nobody (notably our hostess) has even mentioned this woman. I thank her, now, and it takes some time and a second attempt for her to even recognize that she's being addressed, though she has a great smile when she does realize I'm expressing my appreciation for her work.

As dinner progresses, the soldiers actually turn the table to a discussion of sniping techniques, the relative merits of different automatic weapons, and whether the IDF should issue bayonets to its troops. I'm a bit flabbergasted by this content at a Shabbat dinner, and wait for our host to redirect the conversation, but no such luck. After a considerable period, and to my relief, he does invite explications of the week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha: Abram and Sarah go to Egypt, Abram rescues Lot from Sodom, Sarah gives birth to Ishmael) from a couple of the students in attendance. The first 'vort' (a 'word', or short lesson on Torah) is by one of the young American students, and involves Lot's curiosity and overconfidence in his own righteousness, which lead him to reside in sinful Sodom, where he is ultimately dragged down by the corruption surrounding him. It's not a bad lesson, but I'm listening to this and getting more and more incredulous that the speaker sees no applicability to one's company at Shabbat dinner. The next vort is given by the older American woman, who tells how the Ba'al Shem Tov (a uniquely influential Jewish mystic and teacher) and his companions see a man stealing a bridle. The Ba'al Shem Tov tells his companions not to say anything, because the man
obviously needs money for Shabbat; he also says that a Jew should not accuse another Jew of a crime, because, after death, Satan will call the accuser as a witness against the accused before G-d's judgment.
Our host speaks up at this point, quietly pointing out that one isn't permitted to use stolen money or property for a mitzvah (such as honoring the Shabbat), and the story is rather suspect. Again, it's a
good lesson, but all I can think is that the espousal of cold-blooded murder didn't warrant even a similarly mild correction.

A bit later, my original companion asks me privately to explain something I mentioned to him about mapping work I was doing in the the village of Lifta. At this point, I am fervently wishing that I had never come, swearing to myself that I never will again, and the last thing in the world I want is to be subjected to a gang-bang on the supposed evils of Palestinians. Hoping I can still salvage some small positive from the dinner, however, I present my case: Basically, I
say, I have come to perceive Israeli Jews/Zionists as seeing no inherent human value in 'the other' (in this case, non-Jews, and primarily Palestinians), but viewing them basically as a contaminant of the Zionist ideal, a 'demographic time-bomb', or what have you.
They are hated and persecuted by some, 'tolerated' by others, but viewed as a vital and desirable piece of the tapestry by almost no one. This kind of world view led to the ethnic cleansing of Lifta, a large Palestinian village west of Jerusalem, in 1948. It is also, in
my mind, the same thinking that lay at the core of Nazi atrocities against the Jews, and all the other persecutions of our people over the centuries. My hope is to show the beauty and history of the
village, its life and its people, and use that beauty to remind Israelis/Jews of the humanity and inherent value of its inhabitants. This is largely because I find it intolerable that the mindset of our persecutors has so thoroughly infiltrated Jewish life, not only because these things were done to our people, this point, I pause to search for words, and my interlocutor actually finishes my sentence for me: "it's just not a good way to be!". He then tells me that he completely agrees with everything I've said, and he thinks what I'm doing in Lifta is amazing and important work. I'm absolutely delighted, of course, but also utterly amazed, and ask this guy how in
the world he wound up volunteering for the IDF. He tells me it was due to "first year in Israel-itis"; he was super idealistic and caught up in the romance of the 'Jewish state'. Now, he says, he's still idealistic, but his experience in the Army has shifted his views and
the nature of his idealism 180 degrees. He's obviously about to go into more detail when he visibly stops himself with an upward hand gesture, which I take to mean that he is worried about violating the Shabbat, or starting a firestorm with the other diners, or both, but I can't be sure. I give him a brief description of Zochrot, and urge him to seek out the group before he leaves Israel, and that's pretty much the end of my evening.


Several days ago, a dear friend asked me if, in an earlier post, I meant to compare present-day Israel to Nazi Germany, which she would find very offensive. Both the question, and the answer, are too important for evasion or self-deceit, no matter how difficult and
painful an honest appraisal may be. I will give a more complete, and less pleasant, answer in a later post, but for now, here is a partial response. Please bear in mind while you're reading this that Chabad in no way represents the far right, or racist extreme, of the Israeli political spectrum. Our host for the evening, who complimented my work on human rights issues, was almost certainly on the 'left' of the Chabad continuum, and my army companion's views on Lifta were unique for this group, at least in my experience. We are not even close to talking about the worst of the worst, but only a relatively positive instance of a moderately negative demographic.

So, close your eyes, and imagine a scene in 1930's Germany. It is, let's say, mid-1938, after the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but before the war in Europe began in earnest. Anti-semitism is state policy, and the persecutory Nuremberg Laws are in force, but Kristallnacht is yet to come, and the death camps are
not even under discussion.
A group of Germans are gathered around for lunch after Sunday services at the German Christian Church. There's a reasonably good-hearted
pastor at the head of the table, joined by a number of civilian congregants and a few soldiers...not SS or Gestapo, just regular army with widely varying levels of commitment to the Nazi Party. One of the civilians, more enamored of the Nazis than some, takes a good swig of Pils beer, and calls out to one of the soldiers: "Hey, can I use that gun to kill a Jew? Not on Sunday, of course!" The soldier only smiles a bit, neither joining in the joke, nor expressing any disapproval. An anomalous bleeding-heart says, in an aside, that the joke isn't funny, but the joker says he wasn't kidding in the first place; beyond the initial chuckles, nobody else responds. The pastor, in particular,
doesn't want to spoil the festive mood, and certainly not over the Jews! A few minutes later, most of the lunch group starts fawning over the soldiers, listening closely as they discuss the more technical aspects of killing Jews and other enemies. The pastor encourages the soldiers to put down their guns and relax for a while. One of the soldiers jokes that they shouldn't put them too near the Jew-killing joker, who seems a bit *too* eager; his jest is met with hearty laughter (almost) all around.

So, does my Shabbat dinner sound like an echo of Nazi Germany? You tell me, or, more important, tell yourself.


Shortly after the exchange about Lifta, I said my goodbyes and left for the night. My host and hostess saw me to the door, and warmly issued a standing invitation to return, and I may well do so. Because the point of this post is not that these are 'bad people', like the Nazis or Cossacks, separated by a safe and reassuring moral space from 'good people', such as myself. It is, rather, that the distance between any of us is so small, and that eternal vigilance is required of all of us, both for ourselves and for each other, Jew or Muslim, man or woman, North or South, East or West, capitalist or communist, to avert the short, easy slide into evil.


Blogger Rebecca Vilkomerson said...

hi aaron--you'll be happy to know your blog is getting around, without knowing it was yours i followed a couple of twitter/FB links and suddenly here i was.

much to say about this story. looking forward to seeing you when you're back.

rebecca vilkomerson
(your new JVP comrade)

10:50 PM  
Blogger badlysocialized said...

Hi Aaron,

You know me peripherally, but the only account I can comment with here is one I don't particularly want to link with that.

First, I want to say that I read your blog with interest. I've always been impressed with the extent of your knowledge and thoughtfulness on these issues, and appreciate the opportunity to read your thoughts.

I say all that to make it clear that the rest of my comment is a mere nitpick by comparison; I didn't want it to be the overall tenor of what I said!

The story that your Kiwi friend told you seems to be inaccurate. I repeated it to someone else a few nights ago over some drinks, but today I thought that it was a claim that needed substantiation. When I went to do online research, I found many stories of pre-1967 white folks charged (rarely convicted, but not never) with killing Aboriginal folks.

The 1967 law in question appears to be this:,_1967_%28Aboriginals%29

1:11 PM  
Blogger Aaron Levitt said...

Hi badlysocialized,

Thanks for your time, your kind words, your correction, and your intriguing and mysterious lead-in. I'm very glad to hear that my new friend was wrong about this! It seemed particularly horrible, even relative to the depressing subject(s) of my blog.

When I include statements of fact by third parties in my posts, I don't mean to imply that they're necessarily correct (although I won't use anything I specifically distrust or have solid reason to disbelieve). The exception is when I describe information as a 'credible report', or from a 'person in whose integrity I have complete confidence', etc. In these cases I do intend to vouch for the information, with the degree of confidence is implied. Even then, of course, I can still be wrong.

1:54 PM  
Blogger ameriki1 said...


10:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home