by Simon Jacobson
OLD CITY JERUSALEM, Monday, August 13, 2001
Dont tell me how to do my job
are the first words I hear yelled at us by our Israeli cab driver
when asked how long we will have to wait before we get going.
After a bumpy ride on the 'sheirut' (shuttle) from the airport
to Jerusalem, I meet my son, Menachem Mendel, in the Jewish
Quarter parking lot. -- Am unsure whether the abrasive driver
was in a bad mood or had developed a distaste for us passengers,
as he made sure to speed up whenever we passed over a bump in
the road. Oh well, rude on the outside but I'm sure soft on
the inside. Classic Israeli. You gotta love them. Right off
the plane and I feel right at home.
Enter the guest house of my good friends Ronnie
and Chaya Vance on Rechov Maamodot Yisroel in the Old City,
who so graciously hosted me. I met Ronny 15 years ago when he
came to my class in New York. He was a music publishing honcho
living in Bel Air, California, and now 15 years and many more
experiences later is living with his lovely wife in the Old
City... (more on this later).
Must say hello to The Wall The Wall
plain and simple is the only name that resonates. Descend the
many steps and enter the haunting and eternal square, with The
Wall staring down, silently waiting for me and so many others
Tuesday, August 14
I take a stroll through Jerusalem. From the Old
City to Meah Shearim. Dressed like a tourist in casual dress,
I easily eavesdrop on a conversation on the main street of Meah
Shearim (this main street, mind you, is about 10 feet narrow).
In fluent Yiddish of my mother tongue two chareidishe Yidden
(aka Ultra-orthodox, right wing extremists in New York Times
lingo) are discussing the virtues of Avrohom Avinu (our Patriarch
Abraham). Briefly (without capturing the power of the Yiddish
nuances) one of them is passionately explaining to his friend
that the uniqueness of Abraham was his non-conformity; he stood
alone in his search for G-d, and committed to it despite the
socials pressures around him; he went against the entire trend
of the times.
"We must be proud of our heritage, and never
conform to the secular standards around us," the bearded
man exclaimed, with his colleague nodding in agreement.
Something bothered me. So, me in my tee-shirt,
startle them with my question in their Yiddish: Aren't you conformists
embracing the standards of Yiddishkeit you were brought
up with? Why are you not learning from Avrohom to do "lech
lecho," leave your comfort zones and spread Yiddishkeit
to the world around you?
They remained standing, wondering where this infidel
comes from, utterly convinced that only their approach was right
(and they are correct from a certain perspective: they are uncompromising
in maintaining the timeless Jewish tradition), and I sauntered
off to my next stop: Breakfast with my son in Geulah (just bordering
west of Meah Sheorim), another ultra-orthodox enclave, not quite
so ancient, more cell phones and ATM's, wider streets.
I shouldn't neglect to mention my brief walk-in
into a bank in Meah Sheorim, which I could not resist: Seeing
Jews clad in centuries-old garb withdrawing funds, filling in
deposit slips, standing in line without bullet-proof windows
seeing this convergence of the archaic and the modern
was simply a remarkable bridge to witness. Well, I guess
Abraham's message is beginning to infiltrate at least
in the banking world of Meah Sheorim.
Breakfast at the kosher bagel shop was unmemorable.
Could have been in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Onto my next destination.
Crossing over Rechov Yaffo (Yaffo Street) from
Geulah into Ben Yehudah is a trip from the religious to the
secular. Faces and dress slowly change, each block changing
the balance from all black hats to partial ones. Entering Ben
Yehudah there is a 50/50 mix. Further along, the balance becomes
primarily secular, with occasional kipot.
I stop to speak with a two teenagers, in jeans,
pierced bodies with dangling rings, shaved heads. We speak in
Hebrew. "Why do you live here?" I ask Roni and Sharon.
"Because we were born here." "Will you stay here
after you settle down?" "Not sure," they answer.
"Why would you stay in a country where your children will
be drafted into the army, with a high casualty rate, 50% of
the budget goes to defense; why not live in NY, LA, Sydney or
Bangkok," I inquire.
"It's true," Roni tells me, "I
am an aspiring musician, and I am sure that I can do better
in the States." "Is there anything that draws you
to this land of Israel, the Promised Land?" "Not really,
not really -- except that we do feel very Jewish..."
I began to cry, sincerely. Here in a five minute
conversation in Ben Yehudah, in front of Cafe Remon, an entire
history was captured. Both the tragedy and the ecstasy of the
Jewish people hovered before my eyes.
I had no real agenda coming to Israel. Actually,
for the first time in my life, I came here without any plans.
And when you don't make your own plans that get in the way,
G-d's true plan for you appears. I saw Israel for the first
time with much purer eyes, breathed its air, smelt its
scents experienced Israel from its perspective
rather than my own.
And then -- with lingering thoughts of my conversation
with the Israeli teens -- I walk over to the fateful corner
of Sbarros', at the intersection of Yaffo and King George. Lit
candles commemorating the fatalities reflect wildly in the aluminum
sheets boarding the entire storefront. A man is saying Kaddish
for the lost ones. Withered flowers lay scattered on the ground.
Eerie indifference as people walked by doing their business,
feigning obliviousness to the danger around. "We have no
choice but to treat this as another crime in our neighborhood.
We cannot afford to live as if we are under siege of war,"
was the way one Jerusalem resident put it.
What bizarre distortions result from a 'war' that
no one acknowledges is war. In some ways I understood the need
to 'declare war,' at least it offers the clarity of a distinct
and visible enemy. What psychologically warped demons are created
when you live in a state of war deceiving yourself as if there
is no war?
Standing and staring at this corner, juxtaposed
to my conversation with the Israeli teens just moments ago,
framed an image in my mind that I cannot easily forget:
No Israeli, no Jew in Israel or abroad, no Israeli
official can state Israel's position regarding its land, borders
and attitude to the Arab population. How is it that intelligent
Jews, Jews who have opinions about anything from A to Z, should
not have a clear-cut position on such a life and death matter?!
And the answer came to me in the voice of the
earringed teenagers: We do not know why we belong here in this
country! The Arabs know (or think they know) why they are here,
and thus have a position that they want it all. The Jews --
many of them -- don't really know why they are living here.
How can they be expected to have a position. Lack of surety
must lead to ambiguity.
I asked the teens, "Tell me what would make
you want to really stay here in Israel?" Zionism gave them
a language, a culture, even a country, but it failed to give
them the single and only vital ingredient to connection: A SOUL.
They have no conscious soul connection to the land.
Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen said it pointedly:
"Tov lomus b'ad atzmenu," (its good to die for
our selves), twisting the noble national motto "tov lomus
b'ad artzenu." (its good to die for our country).
He expressed the mood of thousands: we have no allegiance to
And then I walked back slowly, deliberately to
the Old City. To The Wall. Where it all plays itself out. As
you walk down the steps from the Jewish Quarter you see the
two looming mosque domes, one golden one dark gray, receding,
disappearing as you descend into the arms and bosom of The Wall
for some momentary solace.
But then you walk back up and see the entire panorama,
all the elements, Jewish, Arab, Christian. And then you think
again, and have no choice but to look with Rabbi Akiva's eyes
as he laughed...
You can only cry over Jewish divisiveness. What
a bizarre combination of characters on the Israeli scene
in Meah Shearim Jews are preoccupied with non-conformity, teenagers
by contrast have no clue what they are doing in Israel, in between
you have persuasions of every sort and shape. Each group has
no relationship with the other. Is it possible that a divisive
people can have a unified position regarding the land?
The sheer divisiveness of the people in Israel
reflects the soul disconnection we are experiencing. How else
can you explain a nation so divided. Without recognizing our
essential neshomo connection as ONE unique nation we lose our
relationship with this unique land. As another enemy of Israel
once said about the Jewish people: There is one singular
nation spread and dispersed between all the other nations, and
their faith is different than all other nations. One nation
one soul, one country. One force with diverse expressions.
But when we are not one but many, disconnected from our singular
soul, we inevitably dont feel our integral soul connection
Jews in America and other countries can perhaps
delude themselves into feeling prosperous and comfortable even
with no distinct spiritual identity. However in Israel, physical
survival is linked with Jewishness; not knowing what you are
doing there as a Jew, is a matter of life and death
Perhaps this present crisis in Israel is a wake
up call to us all both living in Israel and abroad
forcing us to ask the question: what does it mean to be Jewish,
and how is it essential to our very survival.
People everywhere have begun asking this very
And the wise question is half an answer. Perhaps
that is good enough reason to begin laughing, together with
Rabbi Akiva: the laughter of seeing the answer within the question