Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rosh Hashana

The warnings began on Sunday morning at the university. First, a colleague stopped by to give me a heads up. A couple of hours later, a friend, Benny Pinkas sent me an email tip. By the afternoon, Sharon Geva had weighed in sounding the alarm, and we woke up Monday morning at code red status. Putting off grocery shopping any longer would be at your own peril. Israel was about to shut down for almost four days, and you do not want to be last in line when Jews are stocking up on food.

Stores started closing at midday on Wednesday and would not re-open until late Saturday evening. Even in Tel Aviv, which is likely the most secular place in Israel, you could feel the electricity in the air. As Ann and I combed the grocery store isles on Monday to stock up our bunker, I could not think of a comparable experience in the US. The upcoming holiday hung in the air with a weight that I had never experienced before; anticipation was everywhere. It was part of every observation, every movement for the entire week. For some, Rosh Hashanah means a few days off of work and a couple of extra beach days. For others it is a meaningful religious experience. But in all cases, this week is a big deal. The country celebrates, each person in his own way, and without the commercialism that accompanies major holidays in the US. In the supermarket, it seemed people were shopping to feed an army, and given that this is Israel, in many cases they actually were. In offices that we visited, women were handing out candy bars and wishing people a happy new year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the buses went still, shops closed and the streets were eerily quiet, as ovens across the country lit up, and people prepared for the first of three dinner feasts in a row. Wednesday and Thursday nights were the Rosh Hashanah holiday dinners, and Friday night, of course, Erev Shabbat. We were invited to three different houses. If gastronomy were an Olympic event, Israel would have its share of gold medals, as each meal outdid the next in quantity, variety and quality of food.

On Wednesday night, we went to dinner at Zvi Geva's parent's house. They live just outside Rehovot in a beautiful house with a fantastic garden in back where the table was set up for about 20 people. Zvi's mom called for 7:30 p.m. (or 19:30 as it is known here), but Sharon advised us that start times here are "open to interpretation". In fact, on a couple of occasion we arrived somewhere at the announced time, and people were not ready for us yet. Israel is clearly the origination point for Jewish Standard Time (JST). We left home at 6:30 and hit the kind of bumper to bumper traffic that I remember from my days in New Jersey when I needed to get to New York City during rush hour. Although under normal circumstances there is little in the world that I despise more than being stuck in traffic, on that evening, I felt it was a meaningful experience, as millions of Jews were all heading to Rosh Hashana dinner at the same time, and most of them appeared to be in my lane. It was a shared moment that made the 5 mph drive a bit more tolerable (not really). We arrived about half an hour late, which meant that we were one of the first ones to show up.

The dinner was an absolute feast, and at midnight we rolled over to our car to head home - and once again hit complete gridlock. While my sensibility was telling me how wonderful it was to share the road with so many celebrating Jews returning from their holiday dinner, I would be lying if I said I was thrilled, and we got home well after 1:00 in the morning.

The next morning, we woke up the kids so that we could get to shul in time for services. The congregation is led by an American Rabbi named Jeff Cymet, whose brother coincidentally lives in Owings Mills and belongs to our synagogue there. The Rabbi had perviously reached out to us when we arrived in Israel and invited us to dinner at his house, and we got to know his lovely Australian-born wife and three kids, two of whom are close in age to ours. Benny who had been playing with their children all evening, commented when we left that he had forgotten he wasn't in America that evening, the ultimate compliment. Rosh Hashana services were very familiar. The only difference from the typical conservative service was that the sermon was in Hebrew, and I did my best to whisper a simultaneous translation to Ann, hoping not to get shushed by anyone.

After services, lack of sleep from the previous night took its toll, and we took afternoon naps to recharge our batteries as another major holiday meal awaited us that evening at Rabbi Cymet's house. We managed to force ourselves to show up a little late, and still felt like we arrived early. There were several families in attendance, one of whom actually arrived almost 2 hours late, during the middle of the meal. I think I need to buy a watch that uses JST to be more socially accepted here. I'll just set it back an hour and a half. The meal was completely out of control. There were at least four main meat dishes, a couple of vegetarian dishes, two types of soup, salad, gefilte fish, several side dishes, and many different desserts and fruit at the end. Luckily, my stomach had stretched out the night before, and I was able to consume about twice my previous record. We were 2/3 of the way through our holiday dinners, and I did not think I had the stamina to go all the way. Friday night, we had another feast at Sharon and Zvi's house, with many of Zvi's relatives, and while only two days into the new year, we had eaten about a third of our typical annual consumption by the end of that dinner.

During several of our holiday meals, and in the course of other visits here, politics were often discussed. Israelis have strong political views, and they are not afraid to share. This past week, the Israeli prime minister was in the States meeting with Obama and the Palestinian leader Abbas for peace talks, and it was interesting to observe the reactions of Israelis first-hand. It is hard to generalize the Israeli point of view for several reasons. First, we only came in contact with a limited set of people, and most of them are academics, coming from similar socio-economic and religious/secular backgrounds, and sharing similar world views. Second, in several instances my discussions were in Hebrew, and while conversationally, I get by pretty well, heated political discussions (i.e. political discussions in Israel) represent a challenge to my comprehension. That worked out okay because I noticed that the Israelis in my sample set were much more interested in telling me their political opinions than in hearing mine. Nodding and smiling worked great.

I'll summarize the Israeli points of view that I heard about the peace talks, but keep in mind that I've spoken with a relatively small, statistically insignificant number of people. The predominant opinion that I heard is that Israelis are jaded. They've seen this all before, and they don't expect anything to come of it. They feel that unsuccessful peace talks are worse than no peace talks, and that the worst outcome is a peace treaty that ends up meaningless. Several people expressed that they did not feel Abbas has enough power or control to live up to any kind of treaty anyway, and I heard a number of people state that they thought the talks were a setup to make Israel look bad. One person in a heated discussion expressed the opinion that the only outcome from peace talks is that more Jews will get shot as Arabs try to derail the process. I did meet a couple of people here who were more optimistic and who think that this time it is different, and that real progress will be made. Most people believe that some agreement will be signed, but that it will not amount to anything significant and will not change the situation.

What surprises me is the extent to which I sense polarity in Israel. I knew about the tension among the religious and the secular Jews, and I was aware that left and right were further apart than even in the US, but being here has brought home that the divisions here are much worse than I realized. I cannot tell if it is because I am older and more politically aware, because my Hebrew is getting better, or due to the fact that things really have deteriorated, but I am observing a political situation that is worse than anything I have seen here in the past. The religious right is growing in population and gaining control in the government. Many on the left see this as a threat to the nation and even to its security. One Israeli commented to me, "Who is going to protect our country in 20 years when the religious have full control of the country? They don't serve in the army; they don't pay taxes, and they don't contribute to society in any meaningful way." Another Israeli described to me how the ultra religious avoid army duty by studying Torah until the age of 26, and by then, they have several children, no practical education or skills, and they cannot hold a decent job. Yet another Israeli told me he can't stand Jerusalem anymore because "there are too many Arabs and religious Jews there." And finally, I also heard the opinion that Israel should return all the territories because that would "get rid of all the Arabs there, and they would no longer vote in Israel anymore and would have less representation in parliament". Several Israelis expressed to me that the difficulties that Ann had proving she was Jewish when obtaining her visa, and in fact the very need for her to provide this proof are evidence of the control that the religious right maintains in the ministry of the interior.

I have no doubt that the ultra-religious Jews harbor feelings for the secular Jews and the Arabs that are at best equally antagonistic and likely worse. My observation is that the Arabi-Israeli problem is perhaps no longer the biggest problem in Israel. The Israeli-Israeli and Jew-Jew problems are VERY serious. They are perhaps not as violent, but the long-term threats from this conflict may be just as dangerous to the future of this country. I am shocked at how negative some people are about prospects for inter-faith peace, and how unwilling they are to entertain possible solutions. In Ramat Aviv Gimel, we are living at the epicenter of the brewing conflict, as an international spotlight is shining directly on Ramat Aviv, adjacent to our town. The Chabad, a very religious orthodox sect of Judaism, is moving into the neighborhood in large numbers. I observed them on street corners on Fridays offering me and other passers by to put on tfillin and to say a few prayers. I've discussed this with incensed secular Jews who feel threatened by the Chabad who wait outside the middle school and try to walk with their children and preach religious faith to them. Before leaving Baltimore, I listened to an NPR segment about these tensions in Ramat Aviv, and now I've witnessed them first hand. If you let them, the politics can really get to you, and I've left several of these discussions pretty depressed.

Back to happier things, I'll summarize the holiday experience we had in Israel. They keywords are food, togetherness, more food, exhaustion, blowing of the shofar, political discussions, food, traffic, whole country celebrates, food, and little sleep.

My previous blog entry about obtaining Ann's immigration visa generated the most feedback to date. Some compliments, several personal war stories, and one comment that the Israeli immigration system is a utopian dream compared to the process for foreigners in the US. I have had enough exposure to the US green card system to concur. If adversity is what inspired me, then this posting will disappoint, as our Rosh Hashanah experience in Israel was uplifting and justified the effort of bringing the family to Israel for a year. A truly unique experience.