Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Amália Lesson

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

How I Became a Time Zone

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

Wishes for a Year of Little Faith

The Jewish new year begins as the cruel Middle Eastern summer draws to an end. My Non-Jewish ex-wife used to say: “Your New Years' makes sense. Something is actually beginning. Nothing is tangibly beginning on the first of January. Of course the days are getting longer but you really wouldn't notice that until late February.”

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)