Monday, May 31, 2010

Massada Maritima

Note on June 2nd: following many debates, I decided to accept one point of my critics and soften the terminology of this post. I do not want to be anything like the Israeli government and media that carelessly throw around hard words like "lynch". this is not a propaganda piece, these words are meant to provoke thought.

Tonight at 7:00 PM, Jews, Arabs and foreigners will gather in front of the Ministery of Defence in Tel-Aviv to protest the killing of activists in international waters.

Even if there were weapons on the boats, The IDF should have prepared for such scenario and made plans to avoid a bloodbath. When a group of people tries to break through a border (and this isn't even our border, remember? We no longer "occupy" Gaza) it is the police that usually arrests them. In this case Israel sent commando units, trained to be trigger happy.

The result is so painful and dangerous that the Israeli public and media are desperately seeking ways to avoid looking them in the eye: "It was an honest mistake", "they were terrorists who wanted to lynch our soldiers". The word "lynch" is everywhere in the Hebrew media. In the name of anyone ever hung from a tree in South Carolina due to his or her skin color, I'm outraged.

Though certainly outraged enough to go out and protest (hell, I'm outraged enough to give up my citizenship right here and now), I won't be at the demonstration tonight. Duty calls: I am sent as a journalist to review the grandest and what may prove to be the tackiest cultural event in this country's history: Verdi's Nabucco, produced at the foot of Massada.

Up until this morning I didn't pay much mind to the cheesy, nationalistic aspects of staging an opera about enslaved Jews at Massada. I was even interviewed on television and said there's no harm in taking opera to the desert and throwing a couple of fireworks around. Now, however, I feel distraught, sick to my stomach. I tried to escape the assignment and failed. I'm doomed to this four-act masterpiece.

Massada, the mythical stronghold, the place Roman soldiers beseiged and then broke into by force, thus completing their assault against the Judean liberation brigades. What an exciting place to be tonight! Siege of course is a contemporary concept. This morning the Israeli air force bombed and demolished what was left of Gaza's small airport already defunct for nearly a decade. No one will leave the strip in the foreseeable future. As for braking in by force... hell, we make good Romans, don't we? Had the legion of Titus possessed helicopters, the two actions would have been nearly identical.

And opera, O opera! I love it so, but is this really a good time for the conductor to raise his baton? The Jewish Midrash Describes God as showing anger at the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea. The Egyptians were drowned by the waves and the Hebrews sang songs of praise. "My creations are destroyed at sea, and you are singing?" he asked.

Several creations of the good lord were destroyed at sea this morning, and the soloists of the Opera will sing nonetheless. The bad timing is none of their fault, the tragedy belongs to all of us.

What will they be singing? an opera about imprisonment and tyranny, written only seemingly about Jews and Babylonians, it in fact meant to protest Austria's reign in Lombardy and other Italian regions. I'll take it as that and concentrate on Verdi's courage and genius. In the year 2010, Nabucco is an opera about Palestinians. Let its music ring out and be another voice of protest.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Why am I dreaming about Switzerland, night after night?

Is it because I want my county “cantonized”? I certainly wouldn't object to it. Imagine the territory between the Jordan and the sea split into cantons based on Arab or Jewish majorities, imagine referendums, a loose centrist government... something could come of this place after all.

Is it because I'm yearning for a Wilhelm Tell? Perhaps. A man must have a myth or two to hang on to, a healthy national symbol to call his own. We have the legendary amputee Joseph Trumpeldor, but he's famed for saying: "It is good to die for one's country" on his dying breath. I don't subscribe to this phrase. Poet Wilfrid Owen rightly noted that upon knowing the horrors of war -

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Knowing something of these horrors, I prefer to dream of Switzerland's pastures than the thorns of upper Galilee. The Swiss manage to keep Wilhelm Tell as a symbol. That's enviable. In this country, a man stopped at a roadblock and forced by soldiers of an occupying army a to endanger his son's life can only be a hero of the other side.

Why am I dreaming of Switzerland? Maybe simply because I miss it. I miss the days of adventure that led me like the through its valleys like the föhn, the warm wind.

Hitchhiking in the Bernese highlands, a driver warned me of the föhn. "It's an old wind that's trapped between the mountains" he said. "It comes into the valley and everything heats up, then everything looks very clear, the colors are sharpened, and afterwards people experience headaches."

This wind caught up with me in Interlaken, brightening everything. I felt no headache, I felt elated. The mountains sloped seductive, unattainable and just plain outragously gorgeous directly into the water. The chubby warden at the hostel invited me and an American girl for a fondue dinner at her home. We will buy the Gruyère, she'll take care of the rest.

A week later, near Lucerne, I discovered the wonders of raclette in the farm of complete strangers who were just a spontaneously hospitable. Who said the Swiss were cold and arrogant? I would like to introduce them to my kind hosts in Watwil, in Bern, in Fribourg, in Winterthur... Switzerland lavished its franks on a traveling street musician and was the easiest country in Europe to hitchhike.

One of the more memorable lift I cought there left St. Gallen in the middle of the night. I couldn't find much to do in the town and headed for the road. Two girls were already there, sticking their thumbs out by the side of eastbound road. I joined them.

One of the girls was Swiss, the other - a Bosnian Refugee. they were headed for the shores of lake Constance, to a Bosnian club that turned out to be a dump complete with vinyl curtains befitting a cheap bordello and an awful singer accompanying himself on a keyboard.

We went outside and built a fire on the waterfront. I played some songs for them on the guitar, then tried to get the Bosnian to tell me about her fresh war memories.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,

She preferred not to tell. "I've seen everything," she said, "that's all I can really say."

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Before dawn we ran out of firewood. Chill crept in. We walked back into the town of Rorschach, found an unlocked door and entered. We were in the hallway of a small apartment building, protected from the wind. There, on the stairs, we fell asleep like dogs, until some tennant of the building went down for the newspaper, bumped into us and invited us up for a cup of hot chocolate and a shower.

You may call this laughable. You may say, as many cynical Israelis would, that in real time Switzerland was not so keen on offering breakfast to refugees and to Jews. That's as may be, but we don't treat our refugees very well either. I don't see many Israelis volunteering to drive them inland from the Egyptian border, as Swiss activists did during the Holocaust (refugees who reached Cantons not bordering reich territory were not deported). You may mention stolen assets that were kept for decades in safes underneath Geneva's pavements. You may speak of arrogant Europeans who come here and take sides out of self righteousness. I'm no expert on such things. All I know is that I've been to the land of peace and that it treated me well, well enough that I would dream of it every night and wake up inspired.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Last Outpost

You really need to know the right Admiral to visit the fortress at Atlit. It's a closed military zone.

I'm a bit lucky with knowing those who hold keys to forbidden places. Knowing the right German journalist, I got to join her as translator to the village of Rajar, north of Israel's fenced border with Lebanon. Knowing the right creative taxi driver lets me go in and out of Ramallah, where I'm not legally allowed.

Now I've met the right admiral too. As part of a non-military-related joint project he actually requested me to visit the unreachable coastal gem, 70 kilometers north of Tel-Aviv. I'm grateful to him for the oppurtunity and for the base's sweet and knowledgable education officer for walking us through.

Atlit is even further off limits than the other two locations. It's only open to several elite units of the Israeli navy. The ancient fortress, dating back to 1217 AD, is situated on a narrow peninsula securing a quiet bay and keeping it hidden. This provides the navy's commando and other units with discreet conditions ideal for secret operations and training. Naturally, I was allowed to take no photos. The one above is from Google, taken from outside the base's fences.

Even deprivation has its advantages. Yes, the public is banned from this ancient paradise, but thus it remains paradise. Tall thistles were in purple bloom on the ruins that I haven't seen in coastal Israel since my childhood. They are extinct mostly everywhere here. Walking on a barely beaten path among enormous bushes of prickly pear, the fantastic stone walls, the blue skies and gushing sea, was an intensely sensual experience.

Putting a railing along the path or carving stairs unto the ragged rocks would doubtlessly kill the place in a way, not to mention opening a branch of some cafe chain nearby. The soldiers seem to be treating the ruins with utter respect. I saw no signs of vandalism, trash or recent damage. If only the Israeli army treated certain people this way.

Underground, in caverns dug by the fabled Templar knights, bats were screaming. At times more than 1000 knights resided in this Middle Eastern Mont St. Michel, under the spire of an octagonal Gothic church of which little remains. Octagonal it was indeed. Those were the knights who received the Temple Mount to live on. Al-Aqsa was their headquarters. The octagonal dome of the rock was their church and all their other churches were designed in its spirit.

Atlit's fortress, with its exceedingly tall towers and walls, was never conquered. King Friedrich II of the Holy Roman Empire tried to overtake it from within while staying as a guest. He ended up imprisoned in its dungeons. Muslims who attacked it from the mainland, leaving still visible scars on the forbidding walls, finally burned the fort's fields in anguish and retreated. At the fall of the crusader kingdom, Château Pèlerin on the Carmel coast remained its last outpost.

The knights, seeing no way to recover control of the Holy Land on their own, left to sea. Later came an earthquake and demolished their extraordinary town, leaving in its wake a few strange relics: the carved faces of a man and a woman on a pillar, a moat overgrown with wild coastal weeds and one huge tower, clearly seen from the Haifa-Tel-Aviv highway, awaiting days of peace when it will receive all who are hungry for ancient beauty.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Itka and I are experiencing an apartment move that's lasting for nearly a month. It seems we're moving in with Murphy, of Murphy's law fame. First the couple that's vacating the new place got held up and stayed two weeks longer. We spent those weeks on friends' spare mattresses and couches.

When we finally moved in a week ago, we found the walls too badly damaged for us to paint them. The painters could only start working today. We're staying on a matress on the floor till they finish.

As a result, we're still transitory, even though we're home. We haven't unpacked the kitchen utensils yet and only eat what can be cooked in our one pot and scooped with our two spoons (like toothless elders we thus subsist mostly on oat meal). I've been wearing the same shorts for a while and she found scores of ways to refresh the look of her basic black dress. We bought the bare basics: toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste. All else takes care of itself.

Guess what, it does take care of itself. We could easily keep living like this, simply and happily, with no need for our electric coffee-maker. I made coffee in the big pot today for the painters using one of the two spoons, hot black Arab stuff, pretty damn fine.

While stirring, I thought of my friend Efros, a black coffee efficionada who've been living on people's couches not for fiteen days but for fifteen years. Efros's story can be summed thus: she left Israel after her army service, a very young poet and playwright who recieved plenty of appreciation. She went to Paris and fell for a 39 years old French carpenter with a teenage daughter and lived with him in Belleville, where she discovered the world of Indian dance.

When the love affair fell through, she went on to India, then to England, gradually forsaking writng and all things modern and stable for the love of folk art. She went back to the carpenter in France, till that ended again, discovered the Gypsies and their music, chased them around Europe for a while, came back to Israel to herd goats and then discovered Cairo.

She learned how to Belly Dance and made a huge career of it, then abandoned that and went picking Kiwi fruit and flowers with the Bedouins in the Galilee and herding camels with the Bedouins in the Judean desert. She stays with us sometimes when hitting town, as well as with many others. At other times she stayed in tents or on rooftops. She has no address. This beautifully dressed, ever young gorgeous woman is a homeless person.

It's not easy. The politics of being a guest are demanding, even when you're as pleasent, attentive and generous a guest as she is. Sometimes the weight of the reambling life gets to the heart and she's hit with very somber blues, but more often than not she's a model of happiness, of freedom and of being oneself in the face of society's many demands.

If life Efrosized us for this month, it can only be a blessing, one to contemplate joyfully at night, in the empty room that's somehow perfectly full. I'll conclude with a song written for my birdlike friend. It was filmed at the Sde Boker boarding school during "Desert Poetry Days", at a performance that turned into an event against the Gaza war and got us all kicked off the scene, free to roam further.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Crying for Krung Thep

I spent the day in Hebron, with its soldiers in full combat gear, barbed wire fences and tense atmosphere. Often, despite the dry clime and complete lack of seafood, my mind wandered to another city with its own soldiers, fences and tension, Bangkok.

It's not exactly ironic or surprising that Bangkok is in flames. I was there about ten months ago for a short spell and constanly thought to myself: this place is explosive. What will it look like when it combusts? I got the answer this morning. The front page of Yedioth Aharonot presented a startling image: the Central World Plaza shopping center on fire. Formarly this enormous mall was known as the "World Trade Center", another one bites the dust.

I don't really care much for all the luxury goods that were burned, but the sheer magnitude of the mall and its location at the very bustling heart of the city both give an idea of how really violent the situation in Bangkok is. I can't help but weep for it, pray for its recovery and nostaligcally post a few of the photos I took there on better days.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Welcome to Nowhere

Welcome to Dahmash. Please have a seat.

People will say that my blog is all about gloomy Palestinian slums (my previous post was about Silwan). let them say so. There are certain things about gloomy Palestinian slums that make them interesting:

1. They are right in our backyard, though we almost never go there (My walk through Silwan was my first time visiting the neighborhood, and I was born in Jerusalem.)

2. We are very much responsible for how gloomy they are.

3. They are an endangered species worth seeing now, before Israel manages to demolish them entirely.

Take the "village" of Dahmash, in a fact a neighborhood of the city of Ramla, fifteen minutes southeast Tel-Aviv. It's not even "Palestinian" per-se, since its residents are citizens of Israel. Then again, they are Arabs, and therefore have somewhat limited rights. Let us observe: what rights do I have as a Jewish Israeli that the people of Dahmash don't?

1. My town appears on the maps. The state agrees that it exists. Dahmash does not officially exist, despite having been there since before the founding of the State of Israel.

2. I get my mail delivered.

3. my garbage gets collected. (points 2 and 3 are only fully true now, once I moved to Tel-Aviv from an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa.

4. I don't have to acquire electricity by improvised wire from my neighbor.

5. I don't have a huge auto-dump-site placed right next to my house, polluting the land and air for the children of the neighborhood. Needless to say, Dahmash was there before the dump's location was chosen, but again, it was there physically, not officially.

7. No walls are built around my community, protecting other communities from the "thieving nature" of me and my neighbors.

6. I can walk down the street directly to my house. Currently the people of Dahmash can as well: A gravel road winds by the dump site and leads them to the main road, but the municipal authorities surrounding the village are planning to block the road and force the 600 residents to make their way through the orange groves.

8. The police do not come daily to inspect my deeds.

9. No one is threatening to demolish my home.

Currently 13 Dahmash houses are set to be demolished for "illegal construction". Something is of course to be said for town planning and building ordinances, but not when those are dictated by racism. Dahmash's people can't possibly get a building permit, while residents of the surrounding Jewish-Israeli communities, the "Moshavim", can build freely. Those Moshavim are younger than the village and were founded with the blessing of the state.

A few years ago five homes in Dahmash were demolished. The people of the village tell of the Israeli demolition team and how they emptied the houses of the families' belongings. "They found the children's schoolbooks and threw them out with the trash." Tells Arafat, "The children ran over to them, confused, in tears."

which brings me to the final right I have which the people of Dahmash are denied:

10. I am being treated as a human being.

The final hearing over the demolition is to take place tomorrow. The people of the village have no real hope.

On Thursday we came there as activists of "Culture Guerrilla". We listened to their stories.

and then held a poetry event in Hebrew and Arabic.

The Culture Guerilla strategy is to later use the poems and the documentation of the event to try and stir media buzz around the issue. These activities bore fruit in the past, especially in matters of labor disputes. Most recently, a judge quoted one of the poems while ruling in favor of the Eckerstein factory laborers, who sought to organize.

However, when it comes to the right of Arabs we don't expect much of an effect. The state of Israel is full of "unrecognized villages" most of them Bedouin communities, some of considerable size. Under the Zionist ethos, there's no chance for them to change status.

The best we can do is be good neighbors and try and give a good show. The people of the village were extremely hospitable to us. they made us feel completely at home at their home, which is hardly a home and may soon no longer be there at all.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Home on the Range

Sloping steeply directly across from the walls of Temple Mount, Silwan is dramatic.

It's dramatically ancient too. The western part of Silwan has been inhabited since Neolithic times. It is here that the residential heart of the city stood from the second millennium BC to Hellenist times. When the Ommayads arrived in the 7th century, they found the hills inhabited with cave dwellers. A thousand years later, during the 19th century, Yemenite Jews came up from the desert and lived in the same caves.

The days of caves are over. Silwan today is about houses. Since conquering East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has been incredibly stingy about giving building licenses to the Arab population.

According to the Betzelem human-rights organization, 46,978 housing units have been built over the years on open land in East Jerusalem (designated as "municipal" since the occupation). All were built for the Jewish population. Not a single unit was built by or for the Arabs, who make up 33% of the city's population. Consequently, most Arab construction is deemed "illegal", and is designated for demolition.

The arab population grows naturally without anywhere to expend. the houses of Silwan are adorned with endless artificial add-ons, not all of which are fully sturdy. Silwan today is a dramatic mess, completely neglected by the authorities who would prefer to see it vanish.

Since the eighties, Israeli governments have been working to get houses here demolished. One excuse for the demolitions are the unavoidable illegal constructions, another is the need to expose archaeological remains "from the days of King David." The dead King David, whether real or mythical, counts for much more than do 45,000 living residents of the neighborhood.

Did I say neighborhood? We call Silwan a "village" as we refer to any Arab community. "Tamra" in the Galilee is a village, despite being twice the size of the "city" of Katzrin, a Jewish-Israeli community on the Golan heights. If Silwan were a village, its troubles could be considered smallish, but they aren't. They are dramatic.

Most dramatic of all is the problem of the settlements. The ElAd organization is using donations money to Judaise the neighborhood. I'm Jewish, I think any neighborhood in the world should be open to Jews, but I also read the Mishna. In the tome of Avot, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai asks his deciples what would be a true righteous quality in a person. Rabi Yossei replies: "A good neighbor".

If you go as an Israeli to live in Silwan, in an absentee property from which the tennents were kicked out by force, you're not there to be a good neighbor. Silwan attracts right-wing activists who don't believe in the right of Palestinians to live where they were born. Thanks to the 50 families living there today, life in the neighborhood is highly controlled by the military.

Indeed, thanks to them, to the humanist minded ElAd organization and to the generous municipality of Jerusalem, distrust is abundant. I've never taken a walk anywhere where my camera evoked so much suspicion. Most were convinced that I am working for the house demolition authorities, but I came to shoot Silwan's beautifully painted walls, welcoming the Haj pilgrims upon return

and its Esheresque staircases

and its abundant style.

I didn't at all intend to write an angry post, but it's enough to walk around with open eyes and anger appears: raw anger, frustrating anger, anger that is as intense as the topography and as grey as the concrete, anger as dramatic as this place is.

Monday, May 10, 2010

La Ville S'endormait

I am sitting in an empty Jerusalem "sherut" van at 1:00 AM, waiting for it to fill up and take me to Tel-Aviv. It doesn't fill up, not even partially. I am the only one there, the last man in the city. The driver is smoking outside when I decide to leave on foot. Naturally, he begins yelling at me.

"Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say nothing, it's nothing, just sad dreams, or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them." I've quoted these words of Martin Amis once before, blogging from an internet cafe in West Berlin. I'm crazy about daylight, make no mistake, but there's something about being stranded too late at night in a moody city with nowhere to sleep. You get a free, precious lesson in the blues, and what could be more precious?

Jerusalem by night. The "Bass" is closed. The "Uganda" is melancholic. The green neon lights of a mosque over Silwan distinguish a finger pointing to God from the darkness about it. At dawn the song will rise from its tip to mix with others in the brightening sky, but dawn is far.

Someone lets me into the old Ron Hotel, today the "Jerusalem Hostel". The staircase over reception is still stately and lavishly carpeted as in the glory days. Reception itself is closed. In the lobby sits a silvery-bearded American, clearly a religious eccentric, across from an attractive girl in her early twenties. She's his daughter. They couldn't get a bed and decided to sit the night out.

I remember doing the same at the Genoa railway station, talking to a crazy Canadian neurologist in a bright red nylon rainproof jacket about some scary research he was conducting. What was scary about it? Can't remember, but the old unease follows me outside to the silent roadwork barriers on Jaffa road.

This is only the beginning. The ghosts of other nocturnal towns will haunt me as I walk. Where was I? climbing up the silent hallway of Bulgakov's Moscow home with Vola, whom I had just met at a club, her pointing out the passages inscribed on them by his fans: a black painted cat, a love letter... Scaling the walls of the Foro Romano at 3:00 AM and bumping into two slum rascals who did the same, a drunken boy and girl. We wandered into a garden where huge roses grew. I picked one and presented it to the girl. She laughed and warned me not to approach a certain fallen pillar. "This is a cursed place" she said, "people who go by it later die in strange accidents."

And there was the cold night in Frankfurt, watching television through a shop window on the Zeil and shivering. I could not afford a hotel, having spent my last pfenning on airfare, but at sunrise the airplane was to take me Utah, where the most dramatic love story of my life was to begin in earnest.

This is how it works. The loneliest, awful wee hours sometimes remind us how rich life is, and if they don't, dawn would, and if dawn won't, maybe the morning's first coffee, in my friend Keren's kitchen, with Glenn Gould playing on the old boom box.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Erotic Activism

The nation of Lithuania was due to hold its first gay pride parade in a few days. Yesterday Lithuanian judges banned the event, citing "concern for public safety".

It's calming to see other countries dealing with issues that we have somewhat resolved. In Israel, three pride parades are held each year. The one in Jerusalem is always the focus of conflict, drawing murder threats from the ultraorthodox community, yet was never canceled. The Tel-Aviv parade is simply enormous. This year it is scheduled for June 11th. Its theme is "social change".

Please do not deduce that Israeli gays live in a shangri-la painted by Tom of Finland. Gay bashing is rampant and last year a massacre of gay youths took place at a Tel-Aviv community center.

Yes, the mass media placed several gay men and even a transsexual woman inside the "big-brother" house and changed the public's perspective a bit, but there's still work to be done. At the moment there is a single openly gay member of Knesset in office (Nitzan Horowitz of the Meretz party). Note that according to statistics, there should be about eleven more closeted gay individuals in the house.

But the problem isn't only a gay one. Israel's heterosexuals aren't free either. I can't think of a single member of Knesset who seems sexually liberated, and there should ideally be 120 of them. Our society is becoming more and more repressed, and we don't even notice it, confusing commercial sexual media content and tawdry fashion trends in girls attire for honest liberalism.

Sexual liberation should come from the bed of the layman. Thus I feel great pride in my own few actions of the recent times. Two weeks ago, I supported the right to gender ambiguity by narrating an experimental poetry event in full drag:

But this is softcore. For a year now Itka and I have supported alternative lifestyles by having an open relationship. It's a worthwhile challenge, but a challenge indeed, as we described in an article published a few weeks into the experiment.

You won't even believe how much criticism we recieved for living lovingly yet outside of typical monogamy. Thankfully, potential partners are not always so critical. After recovering from the initial shock and clarifying that they themselves could never maintain such relationship, they usually open up to the adventure.

Itka is an advanced activist in the field of sexual politics, currently running an internet campaign promoting more freedom of choice in matters of bodily hair and always on the battlefield for women's rights. Some of the campaigns are not so humorous and her activities have been known to cost her friendships. Not everyone understands the broader values and humanism for which she's fighting.

Now comes an opportunity to challenge another form of social oppression: clothes! Photographer Spencer Tunick, who paves the cityscapes of the world with naked bodies, is arriving to Tel-Aviv this summer and plans to shoot a naked scene in Tel-Aviv. Itka got both of us registered to appear among the multitudes and found herself interviewed to a local newspaper about nudism and art.

It was interesting to read the online comments beneath the short news item. Most of them were attacks on "leftists" who are destroying this country's moral core.

Leftists? If anything, I'd expect to be attacked for not being leftist enough. Gaza is under siege, The West Bank is a tightly-controlled, futureless territory. Human rights are of no concern to the state, freedom of speech is a diminishing commodity, and we indulge in erotic activism? Who gives a toss about our sexual emancipation when people are rotting in our prisons without due trial?

Then again, I see the connection. Our sexuality is political. It's no accident that the Israeli LGBT community is overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian cause, even though Palestinian society is deeply homophobic. The experience of freeing ourselves strongly enhances our capacity to care for the freedom of others.

Lithuania's judges are being reasonable. They seek to maintain conservative order. They know that nothing threatens the hyrarchical power structure more than a community of free, confident human beings. Our sexuality is power. Liberalism is a doorway to mutual support and political progress, especially in a land where religious zealots are constantly gaining more and more control. Breaking ground on issues of sexual liberty also advances this coutry's hard faught feminist struggle and the dignity of every person here. Let's punch bigotry and racism, intolerance and prejudice in one blow, and let's make it a sexy blow.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Six years ago, while I was living in Boston, my dad sent me two books as a birthday present. One was "Dancing Arabs" by Sayed Kashua. The other was "Life on Sandpaper" by Yoram Kaniuk.

I went through the Kashua book in two days and found it rather agreeable. Then came the Kaniuk. I knew him to be an experimental Hebrew author, a challenging one. His novel "Adam Resurrected", a peculiar tale touching on both the Holocaust and the gravel of Israeli deserts, whisky and sexuality, was turned into a theatre piece performed in an authentic circus tent. Another novel "His Daughter" was the darkest bestseller of Israel's 80s.

"Life on Sandpaper" turned out to be autobiographical in the wider, literary sense of the word. It opens with the words: "There was a war and I was wounded." The war was that of 1948. The teenage Kaniuk, who lied about his age in order to join the Palmach units, got shot in the leg on the slope on Jerusalem's Mt. Zion. Confused and somewhat shell shocked, he left the country as a sailor on a merchant fleet and wound up in New York. Here he spent nearly his entire 20s, working as a painter and living the Jazz scene. He was a close friend of Charley Parker and, having married a Broadway dancer, a familiar face in the glittier circles.

Stories of Sinatra, Brando and Dean aside, what made "Life on Sandpaper" sensational were the travel tales. Kaniuk and his friends found their way to Guatemala, to Newfoundland and to the further reaches of the American West. Everything in the book was written manically, rhythmically. I didn't realize that such writing could exist. Having swallowed it all, I went directly ahead and wrote a tale of my own travels in Eastern France to a similar beat. My life as an author was changed.

Two years later, while living again in Israel, I got a phone call. Ilana Shahaf of the Sde Boker educational center, an outpost of Hebrew intelligentsia in the Negev desert, asked a favor of me. She invited Kaniuk to speak of the desert in his works. He was freshly out of the hospital following a severe illness and needed a chaperon. Would I mind accompanying him?

I wasn't really into it. Kaniuk's writing was so good as to convince me he'd be an intolerable character. Ilana insisted and I found myself spending a whole day with my literary idol. on the long way south I learned more about him: his life through the bohemian 60s and 70s, running a theatre, drinking heavily and composing "The Last Jew", perhaps modern Hebrew's richest and most original masterpiece. I learned of the house north of Tel-Aviv which he shared in those times with his second, graceful wife Miranda, two daughters and a whole menagerie of animals, of his current life in the city, of the illness that very nearly killed him, of his astonishing sweetness and sense of humour.

In the desert, on a cliff top overlooking the Tzin valley, Kaniuk said: "People say the desert is beautiful, this isn't beautiful. This is awe inspiring. Paris is beautiful." Since then I was fortunate enough to visit Paris with him. He has become my most special and admired friend. Over the years I saw him go through at least one more serious illness and emerge victorious, publish two new books, have his work turned into a Hollywood film as well as into one of the finest television dramas produced here, make many other new friends and fortify his status as one of this country's true cultural treasures.

This week he is 80 years old, and completely in his prime. I can't remember myself being so glad at anyone's birthday, nor so greatful.