Monday, December 13, 2010
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Sometimes we get lucky. A dear friend working in the diplomatic community invited me and my girl to the grand opening of the Portuguese film festival in Tel Aviv. We didn’t even know what movie was to be screened, but enjoyed the port served in small glasses and the company of dignitaries wearing neckties. Israeli society is extremely informal and the attire common at events of the international community make one feel pleasantly “abroad.” Then we stepped into the theatre, the lights were dimmed and suddenly we were back home.
The film was named “Amália,” and told the story of Fado legend Amália Rodrigues. Its first scene showed a 1974 concert Rodrigues gave in Lisbon, only a few days after the Carnation Revolution was completed and the totalitarian Nova Estado regime toppled. As the singer joins her musicians onstage, the crowd erupts in protest. Someone yells: “Fascist!” another: “Your beloved Salazar is gone! What will you do now?”
Rodrigues, portrayed by the talented Sandra Barata, began singing, and I began thinking of the West Bank settlement of Ariel. In recent weeks the arts scene here gushed over the opening of the first center for the performing arts across the Green Line. Major Israeli theatres, among them the national theatre “Habima,” are scheduled to send their productions there in the coming year.
About 50 members of the Israeli theatre scene signed a letter stating that they would refuse to perform in the occupied territories. This won them plenty of disdain from the Israeli public and reprimands from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture. Quickly, this exceedingly rare act of protest by Israeli performing artists began to fall apart. Several of the signatories demanded that their names be removed from the letter, citing a “misunderstanding.”
Who's misunderstanding what? Amália Rodrigues misunderstood history. She refused to be the people’s voice against a corrupt and violent regieme. Historians now tell us that she did support dissidents in secret, and in the film she is shown bribing an official in order to free a poet friend who was taken a political prisoner. Still, in public she never said a word against Salazar and his murderous PIDE policing force. She drank chapmagne with him while others were tortured by his thugs. She could not see past the present moment to a future in which Salazar would be seen worldwide as Portugal’s greatest historical enemy. Her reputation survived (with a voice like hers, how could it not?), but it suffered as well.
The artists who agree to perform in Ariel, and those who fear voicing an opinion against the use of Israeli culture in reinforcing the occupation, see only the present and only the narrow local perspective. Around here, the occupation is taken with a shrug. Most Israelis accept Ariel as being “Israel proper” depite the fact it’s built in the very heart of the West Bank, designed so as to render direct transportation between Ramallah and Nablus impossible. We’ve been taught not to care that its sewage is polluting the water of nearby Palestinian town Salfit, or that it was built largely on land stolen from local farmers, or that its existence forces hundreds of thousands to go through humiliating checkpoints, or that its very existence is a huge obstacle on the way to the peace we all say we want.
The artists who accept such notions and embrace the settlements may one day find themselves facing a hostile audience (as they already would – abroad). Times change, regimes fall, occupations end. I would advise every Israeli artist to think about Amália Rodrigues, then think about singers who took the cause of human rights and liberty even when those were unpopular or unsanctioned: Mercedes Sosa in Argentina, Victor Jarra and Violetta Parra in Chile, Vladimir Vysotsky in the Soviet Union, Fela Kuti in Nigeria and more, and more. Think about all of them, dear artists, and ask yourselves who would you rather be.
(this post also appears on +972, the new joint initiative of English-blogging Israelis.)
Monday, September 13, 2010
Sorry, I will not go into the history of the Israeli summer-time dispute. No time for it. I went to sleep one hour ahead of everyone else here and left some work undone which I should get to as soon as this rant is through.
I do remember there being some fuss over the time question when growing up in the eighties. The religious parties were altogether opposed to the implementing of a summer-time. My parents explained their worry that it would interfere with prayer schedules. I sided with them instantly. The whole concept of “moving the clock” seemed ridiculous.
It doesn’t seem ridiculous anymore. This year, when the government decided to end summer-time two months before the rest of the world, in order to ease the Yom-Kippur fast, which ends at sundown, I found myself confused. First of all, if you care so much for fasters, why not end summer-time early in August and be kind to fasting Muslims? Besides, people fast on Yom-Kippur in order to suffer, fulfilling the commendment “and ye shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23,27), so easing it up sort of defeats the purpose.
Even if we accept the merits of such move, assuming that the lives of several particularly pious older fasters may be saved, the Day of Atonement is only a single day. Could we not switch the clock only for that day? Even minister of Interior Eli Yishai proposed this as a compromise, when the debate heated up an the Knesset.
It died down since, all compromises were rejected and Israeli winter-time clocked in on the night of Saturday, September 11th. The religious parties hold Israeli coalition by the dials and I suspect that the entire summer-time fiasco is simply meant to prove this. I myself accepted the verdict with a grumble, as secular Israelis often do in such cases, as when we’re deprived of public transport on Saturdays or the right to import pork (a restriction that did wonders to the local pork industry).
Then this evening, when the suns last rays bid me farewell over the foam of nucturnal waves at 18:00, when that gloom of winter began settling into my heart still enveloped by a sweat-moistened shirt, I decided that I will not bow. My time will be that of our proper local time zone. I’ll arrive early to meetings, I’ll probably miss a few, never mind. I deserve to be a member of humanity and live according to its timeline. If I last on Yom-Kippur, the achievement will be greater and my bonding with the almighty firmer. It’s worth it.
My cellphone was resistant at first, but then I simply changed my timezone to Cairo (our proper time zone, from which we swayed!) My girlfriend, who actually deserves credit for this idea, having brought it up when hope for national sanity was still in the air, soon joined me. We are now autonomous of the rest of the country, which is pretty odd. We went to watch the late show last night and it was really screened rather late.
Upon returning home we learned that we are not alone. The city of Givatayim, a suburb of Tel-Aviv, is contemplating turning itself into a time zone. There’s a majority for it at the city council and it would take two weeks to pass the municipal law. That would still provide the mostly secular people of Givatayim with a month and a half of acceptable light management. It would also make Givatayim an environmental spearhead: the skewed time structure forces Israelis to waste one hour more of electricity each night than they would otherwise.
Do our legislators care for the environment? It doesn’t seem so. Do they like playing power games that cause damage to all communities (the secular one for obvious reasons, the religious – for being now the target of great animousity)? I’d say – yup. If only they could switch their clocks as I did and turn into earlybirds, that would benefit to us all. Such, after all, is the schedule that makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, and they’re a tad short on the last count.
(This was also posted on +972, a new local web initiative. Visit it!)
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
To be fair, we really wouldn't know it's autumn by the weather until October. Tomorrow is new years' eve, and I'm sitting here with both fan and AC in full blast, sweating nonetheless, but there was a small breeze here and there over the last few days, instilling hope in a sunburned heart. I pray for such breeze tomorrow evening, when we'll walk down to the synagogue to receive the new year and sing the most beautiful air I know, the one that is hummed by the congregation on that night just before it exclaims “Barchu et Adonai Hamevorach”, bless Hashem, the blessed one.
I don't believe in Hashem the blessed one, but I believe in beautiful airs. That's perfectly fine in Judaism. Even my religious grandfather, who used to take me along with him to his schul in Rehovoth on Rosh Hashana, could never commit to me that he actually believed in God. He believed in Judaism, he believed in the tradition, in the poetry of it and in what it did to family and community.
Maybe on this New Years eve I should look into that paradigm more carefully. Living in Israel demands a lot of faith. Peace talks have begun again. Do we believe they will lead to anything? 400 children of work immigrants, born in this country, are due to be deported tomorrow. Do we believe we can possibly still reverse the decision? Wages are low and the cost of living high. Could we ever get out of debt? On all three counts I would say my faith is rather low.
So here's my New Years' resolution: I'll put faith aside. Faith matters not. What matters is action. We have to keep doing, to keep trying to better this place even though it may not be improvable. A Jewish life consists of action: you perform the Mitzvot, you sing the beautiful air. You work to better this world, work for “tikkun olam”, though you know how stubborn it is. A solution to our troubled situation may never be found, but working to reduce harm on the day to day level is crucial. I will make it a tradition just as my grandfather made going the the Synagogue a daily habit, regardless of whether anyone was listening to his prayers.
In this world heating up gradually, we can't even trust in the weather cooling down. In “Three Men in a boat” J. K. Jerome describes an English summer in which "the good weather never came". This could be one such year for us. We've known a few: years of drought, of inadequate winter which didn't suffice to refresh us and soon was followed by another punishing summer. We'll celebrate New Years regardless and experience an authentic sense of renewal even at 34 degrees. I wish for all of you, whether Jewish or not, to feel such a sense of renewal and to have a year of little faith and many deeds. Shana Tova.
(Image: Snow in Tel-Aviv, 1950)
Monday, August 16, 2010
In recent months the term came to be used otherwise. It now represents the mainsteam, bourgeois Israeli, as compared to the offbeat urbanite. On the "sakhim" blog, the sakhi is described as "the typical, politically correct Israeli, bereft of self awareness."
The anonnymous authors add that: "Sakhism can be percieved by the sakhi as something cool or just. The sakhi is mistaken. while innovative forces always seek to advance and broaden the barriers of the possible, sakhism will forever draw backwards and inwards, to the mainstream, to the common, to the avarage. Sakhism is not dependant on social status or ethnic origin and it appears in the 2010 Israeli sphere in various forms."
The sakhim blog, mainly showing Israelis making fools of themselves in weddings and other social gatherings, gathered some interest, especially from Tel-Aviv newspaper "Ha'ir" which dedicated two front page stories to what it perceived as a new social divide in the city, that between sakhim and "hipsterim", who seek more experimental lifestyles.
The attempt to paint sakhim as the ultimate conformists and the hipsters as their opposites failed, mainly because hipsters tend to be equally conformist, albeit within their narrower communities, as well as miserable fashion victims.
"Ha'ir" hoped to depict a contemporary version of the split which existed in 1960's Israeli society among the "salonim" and the "tnua". At the time, the salonim, who took on a rockn'roll lifestlye represented western influence on Israeli society, while the tnua kids stuck to the values and dress codes of the Zionist youth movements. Today, foreign influences are everywhere. Both sakhim and hipsterim are westernized, not to say Americanized. They're really not all that different.
Having realized this, I stopped reading the Sakhim blog and went back to concentrate on other things, until today this blog carried the following photo gallery, taken from the Facebook page of a young soldier girl, which was and still is open to the public. The caption on top runs: "Sakhim, the army service is the happiest time of their lives."
This is indeed the girl's heading for her photos: "My military service: The happiest time of my life :)". in two of the photos she is seen mocking blindfolded Palestinians. Such photos are nothing new, we've seen blindfolded Palestinians fed Matzas before and made to play other games. It's that innocence, that Sakhi spirit in which the photos are presented, that draws my attention.
Are hipsterim less prone to be cruel towards helpless individuals when given the chance? Are they more prone to make a big deal out of someone doing so? I wouldn't bet on it.
There are rare people, like the ones who author the sakhim blog, who are appaled by the state of our society and put the time into crying rage, and even they do so in a sardonic manner that signals an acceptance of the dark reality rather than a desire to change it. In action, we're all sakhim in one way or another. We are all of us children of the occupation.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Today Yishai proposed paying 1000$ US to any family of work immigrants who would just pack up and leave the Jewish homeland (to which his parents arrived as North African Jewish immigrants in the 50s). 1000$ arent enough to buy a decent sofa these days. Yishai's attempt to buy people's lives at such a sum shows what he thinks these lives are worth. Foreskin-crowned Goyim are to him no more than filth that can be bought out.
Funny thing is, Yishai has a point. If we are to follow Zionist logic, then slanted-eyed and black-skinned children really should be deported and the rest of the lot encouraged to leave. Zionism states that this land belongs to the Jews, not to the Chinks. Niggers - out! there is no black in our blue and white flag (except insofar as Ethiopian Jews are concerned, and we treat them with appropriate prejudice). This is the land of the Jews and we deserve it because of the great racism to which we were subjected.
It baffles me how short-sighted Zionism is. It really did start off as a way to escape the pogroms, to dodge violent and dark racism. The early Zionists saw only the murderous Russians and themselves, it didn't occur to them that Filipinos existed in this world and that one day they'll figure into the equation. Hell, they didn't even notice the Arabs. Theirs was "a people without a land going to a land without a people".
Today it's concept of a Jewish state ends up making Tel-Aviv the only modern, westernized city in the world where foreigners are unwanted by law by virtue of their ethnicity rather than citizenship status. A friend of mine sojourning in Berlin writes about the beauty of a Mongolian waitress who served him at a restaurant. This land will be thankfully clean of Mongolian waitresses as soon as they bite the 1000$ bait.
It's time to admit it. Our short-sighted forefathers have created a monster, and we've nourished it and helped it grow. Ours is a country where police will be soon searching for children in attics due to their ethnicity. Today a public debate over the fate of these children is raging, tomorrow the public may internalize the full meaning of the "Jewish state".
Our only hope is to ditch the whole Jewish state concept and replace it with something else, perhaps an "Israeli State", where little Yuval, whose parents speak Tagalog can feel at home. We could also search for some other term, one that would even allow Little Ramzi from Jaffa to feel that his native land embraces him lovingly.
(Artwork: "Roots", an iron sculpture by my mother, Orna Ben-Ami. Photo: A. Hay)
Sunday, August 8, 2010
The drying up.
The 5:00 AM streetcorner.
The morning traffic.
The passing under a bridge the most difficult way conceivable because it was Anna's bright idea.
The raspberry juice served by complete strangers.
The right direction.
The field where they grow milk containers.
The marshes of despair.
The legs that have just traversed the marshes of despair.
The evening walk.
The haystacks of a new day.
The flower I picked and brought home to Itka.
The laughing Catholic volunteer from Hong Kong named Ting Ting.
The mysterious home by the roadside.
The highway at Bab Al-Wad seen from above.
The yummy grapes.
The ditch I had to walk in.
The cupious amount of trash.
The twighlight in which I found myself again in the ditch.
The only road going into the city that didn't involve walking in a ditch.
The real gate of Jerusalem.
The first image of me in Jerusalem, taken by a little girl named Shoshana.
The arrival of the pilgrim at the temple (the Uganda bar and bookstore) and handing of the offering (Dakka 6 poetry journal).
BTW, while the title advice stands true. It's also advisable to bring a good friend along. I'm deeply indebted to Anna Wexler who sacrificed the wellbeing of her legs for this.
The story of the pilgrimage will appear in full in the Succot holiday edition of Israel Hayom. For more about the duck and its legendary creator Dudu Geva, read here.
Saturday, July 31, 2010
The performance was splendid. Rinat Shaham was both intense and precise in the title role. It was as though the open air inspired her to be a more powerful, charismatic Carmen that the one she was at the Tel-Aviv Opera House. Mayor Ron Huldai acted as the evening's MC. While sets were replaced between acts, he filled the audience up on the plot, some which became a little blurry due to cuts and omissions.
Huldai also gave some background on the opera but did not go into analysis and criticism. Thus a very crucial aspect of Carmen did not come up that evening in the park: the fact that it's a work full of ethnic prejudice.
Carmen is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. In the prose text, Don Jose is recounting his misadventures to a prison cell-mate. "I should never have gone with such a woman," he tells him. "After all, we all know her kind."
"Is she Jewish?" asks the cell mate.
"Worse," says Don Jose, "She's a Gypsy."
For me as a Jew, it's almost calming to hear that the Roma were considered "worse" than us in Mérimée's 19th century Europe. They certainly are considered "worse" these days. In contemporary Scandinavia, for example, I found that disdain toward the Roma is largely acceptable and may be voiced freely, while antisemitism certainly isn't. Why is that so? Both ethnicities burned shoulder to shoulder in Auschwitz, did they not?
They did, but the Romani historical foundations and political lobbies were never very effective or efficient. This is partially how come French President Nicolas Sarkozy could this week announce his plan to deport all Romas without proper French documents.
Sarkozy, his Minister of the interior, Brice Hortefeux, and the Secretary of State of European Affairs, Pierre Lellouche, claim that French is swamped by Roma who moved in from the most recent EU members in the Balkans, that this had caused a culmination in theft and drug trade.
I don't doubt that Roma culture tolerates petty crime far more than mainstream European culture does, but Sarkozy has far greater thieves to worry about: corporate thieves who steal in a day more that what a Roma settlement would steal in a decade. Besides, even if the Roma are involved in crime, there is no greater crime than to reinforce a damaging stigma placed on a community and deem this community unwanted.
It's sad to see this taking place in France. French Roma are known for being progressive and open. Traveling in rural France I often received lifts from Gypsies, pitched my tent among their trailers in Sts. Maries de la Mer, spoke to them and learned of their world.
Of all Roma societies, this is the one most welcoming to the non-ethnic Roma traveler, providing an alternative for those who couldn't take the burdon of mainstream French life. It's also open to the world - French Manouche Gypsies were the first to integrate western pop music into their musical repertoire. Modern Jazz would be unthinkable without the blessed influence of Django Reinhardt, pictured above.
French Roma had a modernizing influence on their Spanish neighbors and would doubtlessly have a similar effect on Balkan newcomers. By singling those newcomers out, Sarkouzy is causing great damage to their French brethren. He is identifying Gypsies in general as thieves, drug dealers and a burden on society. Worse than Jews? Much worse.
Is it any surprise that this is happening in the one European country where the Roma have become most integrated? The Jewish community of Weimar Germany was more modern and culturally assimilated than any other in Europe. Rather than embrace this, the Germans perceived the Jews as a threat and acted accordingly.
Europeans have portrayed the Roma as a treacherous woman who would pick your wallet or your heart, whichever she gets her hands on first. Gypsies have always been taken for a threat, so legislation against them is almost inevitable, but it is tragic and disgusting nonetheless.
I can't really conclude this without a word about the semi-nomadic people of this land. This passing week. 1,300 Israeli policemen arrived at dawn to the Bedouine village of Al-Arakib, evacuated its hundreds of residents and demolished it entirely. Al -Arakib, a shanty town north of Beer-Sheva, had existed since before the founding of the state of Israel, but it's located within a ring of land around the city which the state wishes to preserve as "Bedouine free".
45 houses were demolished in the village, which means hundreds of homeless souls. The Israeli press paid minimal attention to the event. In the two largest newspapers it recieved no mention at all. In place of Al-Arakib, the Jewish national fund intends to plant a grove of pine.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
So I walked out of the airport and into a nearby suburb of Frankfurt. It turned out to be an historical town, with quaint streets winding twixt medieval houses. Evening was falling and lights were coming on in the houses. One door was open, letting warm yellow light pour out onto the narrow sidewalk. From within I heard the chatter of young people and the shuffle of kitchenware. I walked in and up a steep staircase, an uninvited guest.
atop the stairs was a corridor running between many doors. Evidently, this was a students' apartment. Several young men and women from around the world walked here and there, speaking English to each other. Some on their way to the kitchen, some to see friends outside. The place seemed to be accustomed to strangers since no one paid me much mind.
Still, I felt uneasy being there. After stopping in the kitchen and chatting with some petite latino girl who was cooking lentils inside a great pot, I left the flat and returned to the street. I walked downhill, searching for river Main and for a glimpse of Frankfurt's famous skyline. The suburb had a modernist center with modest glass highrises and a waterfront cycle lane. at some point the river and the lane separated, the river disappeared among the rushes, and across the dark asphalt of the lane appeared home.
Home: a barren hill of chalk, topped with the separation wall. Mediterranean bushes grew on the slope, climbing over old stone ruins on their way to the concrete crest. The side of the bike lane closer to home was dustier. I was almost tempted to step over it and climb the hill but then stalled and looked back to the suburb of Frankfurt, which was there alright, and looked back to the Jerusalemite hill, which was there alright, and woke up.
(artwork: "Germany and Poland" by Joshua Neustein, taken from the Moonriver's fantastic treasury.)
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Haifa is a three tiered one: Atop Mt. Carmel are the posh quarters, complete with pretty parks and a cinematheque. Halfway down is Haddar, the city's first "modern hub", mixing urban grit with pleasent residential streets. All the way down is the "Lower City", and that's where the heart is, the rugged, blue collar heart.
Each time I visit this neglected bit of cityscape, I go through something dramatic. My first true venture here was for an article in the Hebrew edition of National Geographic. The editor sent me and Eddy the photographer to seek out the seamen haunts. Is Haifa still a port city in the days of nearly unmanned, mechanized ships, that linger in the harbor for no longer than a day or so? Did it still have taverns? prostitutes? Tattoed nights? We took the train up and descended at the shadow of cranes.
It took us a little while to come up with a positive answer. The bars are hidden, but when you're in them, there's no mistaking them. Old timer Israeli sailors drink arrack and eat salami at the "Habanera", American musclemen, fresh off a cargo ship, gozzled it down at "the anchor", and there was "the Godfather", where Eddy took the sexiest photo ever of a woman smoking. Haifa was drenched with salt water alright.
On my second sojourn here I came with a broken heart. a girl dumped me in Tel-Aviv and I escaped north to ease the pain. I took a bed at the "Port Inn", truly a sweet little hostel, but through an unfortunate fluke got stung by some mysterious insect and spent the night awake, scratching myself, walking the empty, shabby streets and trying to write a love poem that would bring her back.
All I ended up coming with was a blog post about another city and another girl. When morning came, I straddled into old fashioned cafe "Shani" on the main drag, and got served good coffee with the words "good morning" sprinkled on it in cocoa powder, through some kind of a friendly stencil. That made my day. I swore to love Haifa forever, more than any girl, ever!
This weekend, though, I came to Haifa with a girl, so I had to balance my effections out somehow. You see her here standing on the atypically elegant Ben-gurion avenue, with its old houses built by German evangelists in the 19th century.
Never worry. She herself has a romantic history with the city. She and her legendary ex-boyfriend used to frequent a Romanian restaurant called "The fountain of Beer" and feast on its "Kostitza": some sort of a smoked, garlicky concoction of pork that is simply too amazing to describe.
A band was playing old favorites, pleasing the multitude of non-kosher Haifa-ites who croud this place on a Friday.
Since I hummed along, I got to sing into the microphone. You'll notice that I am literally pregnant with the Kostitza. Please don't show this picture to anyone.
This was a great little kickoff to the weekend, and I forgave Itka her nostalgia to the ex-boyfriend, but the streets were beginning to empty and we got worrying that the lower city was not really that great a place in which to pass a shabbat.
I mean, these days even the golden dome of the Baha'i shrine, the ornament of the city, is undergoing renovations.
So we went into the Anchor bar to drink the afternoon away, and met the mayor. Seriously, this is Yona Yahav, the Mayor of Haifa, in a bar.
It's not that romantic actually. You know that I don't have money for vacations. The weekend in Haifa was a work trip, an invitation extended by the municipality in honor of a new play in Haifa's municipal theatre. Mr. Yahav came to greet the culture correspondants. He has an agenda to promote with the press and the Lower City is at the heart of this agenda. There has been a huge investment in trying to beautify this area and bring fresh blood - particularly students, to live here. Yahav showed us a newly paved area between the Anchor bar and the port, and led us into a bustling, if mild-mannered, street party.
It starred the mild-mannered yet legendary trio of Shem-tov Levi, Shlomo Yidov and Yitzhak Klepter.
Yahav's plans for the lower city, which include moving the commercial port east and planting a marina in the current basin, are likable. then again, he should be careful not to over-gentrify this very unique cityscape, which is, in its horizontal way, as multi-tiered as the city itself. It certainly isn't all grit. It's a lovely place to feast, working class style, of course.
It's full of creativity: the graduates' show at the Wizo design academy was mind blowing
and expressed healthy liberalism.
To top it all, relationships between Jews and Arabs here are, if not impeccable, at least better than elsewhere in the country. Haifa knew the pain of the Naqba, but was also always the hotbed of cooperation between the societies, with the internationalist values of the working class helping build bridges. This poster uses the smile of an Arab real estate agent as a "seller" to a Hebrew-reading public. Such things aren't to be taken for granted around these parts.
The Lower City, shyly identified as "Downtown" on the signs, has no reason to feel inferior to the other boroughs and to look up to them. It thrilled me when I sought a thrill, It lifted my spirit when I was down. It's as good as they come. Not every city can be the celestial Jerusalem. I like my terrestrial Haifas served with garlic sauce.