Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Four/Five: Auschwitz-Birkenau

There is no way for me to talk about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would only say that if one is able, it is important to travel and be there to bear witness. Nothing can replace walking these sacred grounds, no book, no movie, no conversation.

All I can do, I feel, is try and articulate some of my personal reflections with regards to being in Auschwitz-Birkenau. First, I am not sure how anyone can be at Auschwitz-Birkenau and still hold a “God-out-there” understanding of the Divine. If this God didn’t die before the shoah, it certainly died when Meir Heller a one year old Jewish baby from Romania was murdered in Auschwitz. I couldn’t pray at Auschwitz; not to a God as traditionally understood. I tried. I simply couldn’t. The God of my understanding, the God that manifests as both the perpetrators and the victims, the God that manifests in me as the potential Nazi and the innocent human prey; this God is met in reverential silence, consequence of the awareness that there is very little, if anything, I can truly grasp or have control over. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a place that puts one face to face with the ungraspable. It is a place that tears apart what one thought they knew about how the world works. Suddenly, the overwhelming nature of the space reveals to the self its smallness, its limitedness, its irrelevance. All that is left is a silence within.

Second, it speaks in chilling ways of the dangers of psychological manipulation/warfare of the masses by the state or, in our day and age, any source of great power be it economic, political, media-based etc… Concentration and death camps where masterminded for peak productivity. Birkenau especially, was organized with great minutiae, to ensure the best output at every level of the camp. The arrival in the camp, the selection process, the walk to the registration offices for new inmates or immediately to the Gas Chamber if you weren’t fit to work, wasn’t the chaotic dog-barking, Nazis yelling experience that Hollywood often portrays for better effect. That would be counterproductive, stress the newly arrived, waste copious amounts of time and human resources. Nothing the German perfectionist mind could stomach. Instead, the whole process was done in great calm, methodically and with clinical precision to lull the disembarking into believing that the worst of the journey was now behind them (surviving days of inhumane conditions during “transport” in cattle cars,) and that they would now be assigned to work in this camp that, though it didn’t look appealing, might have just been one little step down from living in the ghetto in the first place. In other words: survivable. Just follow the orders. And so, hundreds of thousands went to their death in the gas chambers ignorant until the Ziklon B was dropped from the ceiling that anything bad was going to happen. At peak “production” times, once the Nazis truly perfected their psychological warfare technique, the life-expectancy of a newly arrived deportee selected for immediate murder was two-and-a-half hours. We stayed longer than that touring around the camp today.

The other, more insidious psychological manipulation the Nazis mastered was regarding the dynamics of hope. Because the Jewish people has survived so much over the millennia and in every continent we’ve been, we have built up great resilience, great tolerance to suffering and an indomitable sense of hope. The Nazis understood that, and used it to manipulate us into perfect inmates. One example. While, unbeknownst to you, the rest of your family was being murdered and turned into ashes a few hundred yards away; you were selected to work in the camp and walked to the inmate registration building I mentioned earlier. As you entered, you were ordered to strip naked, and as you were quickly moved from room to room, your head was shaved, your arm tattooed, your body showered, and you were given a striped uniform that more often than not didn’t fit you. People who had entered together with a cousin or another relative, often didn’t recognize each other by the time they were done was the transformation so radical and dehumanizing. But then, just as you began to mentally spiral down into shock, the Nazi officer gave you back your own belt and handkerchief if you were a man, or your head scarf if you were a woman. Just a little something for you to cling to what gave you just enough of a sense of personhood still, as tenuous as it may be. He gave you hope. Hope was critical to keep the slaves enslaved; the hope of surviving today, this afternoon, this hour, now. Why keep dangling this razor thin possibility of hope (taking it away, giving it back, taking it away…)? Because a hopeful inmate, with even one lousy dimming spark of hope in him or her, is an inmate that does not revolt. Only those who have nothing left to lose, those who know the certainty of their death, those who are beyond despair, can rise to fight their oppressor. Those who still cling to that thin thread of hope, still have something to lose. Our millennia-old hope was the cord we gave the Nazis to hang us with.

Which begs the question in our times about the manipulation of public opinion and the forces that prey on our predilections , manufacture our desires, keep us asleep, divided, distracted, and altogether apathetic. Right where they want us.

Lastly one of the points our amazing guide, Tomasz Cebulski, hinted at time and again, was the financial aspect of the camp life. Everything that was brought by anyone arriving in a concentration or death camp, every possession they managed to pack (being made to hope they were simply being “relocated,”) was stolen from them on arrival. It was cleaned up repackaged and sent to be sold again in the stores of Germany and Austria. The hair that was cut, the gold teeth that were pulled out of people’s mouths just before they entered the gas chambers, and all the cash, gold, bonds etc… people brought was immediately recycled into the Nazi economy. And then there is the exploitation of the human beings themselves as labor, or lab rats. Mengele sought to make new medical discoveries by using children for experiments. The German corporation, Siemens, had its own designated barrack in the camp of Birkenau where they tested x-ray technology on inmates. And then, of course, there is the slave labor that the inmates provided not just in running the camp but for all the factories and corporations that were more than happy to have them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is Capitalism run amok. Today, our corporations set shop in places in the world where labor is cheapest, labor laws inexistent or not enforced, and they can work their quasi-slave employees long hours while housing them in the worst conditions. We are not talking about the completely free slave labor of Auschwitz of worthless lives over which one had life-and-death power, but we might not be too far from it if we are not paying attention. And, mostly, we aren’t really paying attention, thrilled as we are to be able to save a few bucks on buying a lot of stuff we don’t even need.

Tomorrow we’ll do our best to shift gears (if that is possible) and take in the sights in Krakow where we are tonight already. We are turning our gaze toward celebrating the Jewish life that was thriving here for 1000 years, and connecting again with those who are working to revive Jewish communities in Poland. One thing for sure, we cannot let Auschwitz reduce all Jewish life in Poland to its name. To honor the memories of those who perished we must speak about their lives much more than about their death. The last week of our journey will be focused on that very purpose.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Three: Terezin

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for a while now, starting and erasing, starting and erasing whatever I begin to write. How can one summarize visiting a place like Terezin, a concentration camp where thousands of Jews died and from which tens of thousands were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps or even to execution sites to be shot and dumped into mass graves?

All I might be able to do, I believe, is share some of my own experiences. First, I was shocked by the proximity of Terezin to the nearest village of Bohusovice, barely a mile and a half from the gates of the ghetto. How could people living in so close proximity ignore the thousands upon thousands of people arriving day after day, week after week, year after year between 1942 and 1945 to the train station of their village only to walk old and young, infants and pregnant women, that last mile and a half, partly through the streets of the village, to the entrance of Terezin. How did they not wonder about the fate of these people? The military garrison that was Terezin initially, was built to host about 5,000 people; the soldiers and their families. How could they not wonder what was happening within these walls when 10, then 20, and eventually 60,000 Jews—at its peak—came to “live” in Terezin? How could they remain indifferent? Sylvie, our amazing guide, made a point to tell us that the Danish government (with Denmark occupied by the Nazis at the time,) upon hearing of the internment of 400 Danish Jews in Terezin, stood up to their occupiers, sent buses there all the way from Denmark, and got their Jewish citizens out and back to Denmark. She mentioned, as another example of resistance, that when in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse police station the Nazis detained interfaith-married Jews to be deported (most likely to Terezin,) their non-Jewish spouses protested for days on the street in front of the station and forced the Nazi authorities to release them. Why didn’t the local Czech population rise in demonstration in front of the gates of the ghetto to demand the liberation of their compatriots?

The second powerful moment was when we stood in one of the barracks that housed women in Terezin, with bunk beds three levels high, and 80 women packed into one tiny room. The story Sylvie told was of a friend of hers, imprisoned in a similarly crowded room in Terezin during the war. She was about 14 at the time but was allowed to stay with the women and not be separated from her mother to join the youth quarters, after her mother convinced the Nazis that her daughter was older than 15. Sylvie called her friend’s mother a “righteous liar.” She mentioned how, at 14, she took every opportunity to live her life with as much joy as possible in Terezin, even when her “joyful” life was more imaginary than real. She mentioned convincing herself, for example, that beets baked with a little flower and water was, in fact, a strawberry cake. First, that story brought me back to the heartbreaking movie “Life is Beautiful;” and second, I couldn’t help but imagine my own 14 year old, Amalya, and her mother in this situation. Her mother, the righteous liar, lied again to save hers and her daughter’s life once more, on the selection platform at Auschwitz when she declared her girl younger than she was this time, and was able to get them both assigned to the line that was not destined for the gas chambers. They both, mother and daughter, survived the war.

And speaking of Auschwitz, I learned today that a Jewish man named Fredy Hirsch convinced Mengele in the death camp to create a children block out of one of the barracks; and, together with another detainee named Pavel Stransky—a life-long friend of Sylvie, and a holocaust survivor interned first in Terezin—became the clandestine teacher to these children of the Czech Family Camp. There too, by creating a make-believe world and providing an escape for these kids to stay inside “learning” during the harsh weather conditions of the winter months in Auschwitz, the two men probably contributed to saving 80% of these children from the gas chambers. Sylvie told us Pavel’s story through her tears as he had just died weeks before our group arrived and both she and Gerardo (who had known him previously) were looking forward to having us spend today with him.

Lastly, the most terribly moving experience of our day in Terezin was, for me, the visit of the crematorium. Terezin was not an extermination camp, but living in such deplorable conditions with so many people confined to such tiny quarters, exposed to diseases and suffering from malnutrion, the weakest ones, the elderly, didn’t survive long within its walls. 33,000 people died in Terezin between January 1942 and May 17, 1945 (today was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp just as we visited.) Something needed to be done with the bodies. At first, they tried to bury them. But as soon as the spring melted the snow from the nearby mountains the earth became so engorged with water that the corpses floated up from their grave. Cremating was the most humane solution in this case, and the solution that would prevent the further spread of diseases. To avoid disturbing the nearby selectively blind, deaf and mute Czech village of Bohusovice with 24 hours-a-day fumes from high crematorium chimneys, the Nazis built four state-of-the-art ovens with low brick chimneys layered with filters that eliminated most of the escaping smoke, and housed them in a building that looked inconspicuously like a famous Bohemian Glass factory. To stand in this building, surrounded by these four original intact crematorium ovens was more than I could handle at the end of an emotionally trying day.

Tomorrow we travel to Auschwitz. We symbolically follow the path of the Terezin detainees, most of whom were forced onto a “transport” to their death from Terezin to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We will stay there a couple of days. These may be our most difficult days yet.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Two: Prague

We took a lovely walk to a nearby park mid-morning in sunny Prague for our meditation today. Some sat on benches others on the grass near a gorgeous fountain. There is something to be said about meditating outdoors, feeling into the sensations of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the noise of the cars driving by and the people walking around having conversations in Czech. You would think that with all this noise it would be more difficult to go deeper, but the opposite happened. It became easier to focus and to remain as the simple observer of all that was arising within and without. Of course we ended the meditation with a stroll around the park.

Our guided tour began in the afternoon with the delightful Sylvie (our beloved guide in the Czech Republic.) Today we visited Golden Prague, including different neighborhoods, a fabulous little outdoors market that also had music and people dancing on the grass. On a day as hot as this was, picnicking in the middle of the city in this gorgeous little park was the thing to do. And the local food they sampled at this market was incredible. It was hard to get back on the bus, I can tell you that.

But as beautiful and picturesque as the neighborhoods of the “new” city of Prague (as opposed to walking the old-city and the Jewish Quarters yesterday,) I couldn’t help but noting how, each time we turned one corner, Sylvie kept mentioning all the Jewish businesses, schools, offices, and homes that used to be on this street or on that street. How such and such Jewish family owned this apartment building, how the Kosher market used to be at this address, how there used to be a Synagogue there but now it’s a public school. Then we went to the old Jewish cemetery in the “Wine Hill” neighborhood (they tried to grow wine there before the city expanded and the hills saw their vines make room for more lucrative real estate.) What was left of the cemetery was barely a quarter of what it once was, and that quarter only survived because the main leaders and famous families of Prague were buried there. The three other quarters were desecrated and bulldozed out by the communist regime to make room for an ugly radio tower that never worked as such but is so massive that it came to host an observation deck and restaurant on top of it (a la Space Needle,) and mostly serves now as a cell phone tower. And beside it a large parking lot. Underneath? The bones of hundreds or thousands of Jews.

Between this afternoon’s revelations, and the fact that all the synagogues still standing in Prague have more or less all become museums six days a week and are only used as synagogues for the few hundred Jews that attend them once a week on Shabbat and twice a year for the High Holy Days; I have found myself reflecting on the nature of the Jewish community of Prague in 2015. Sylvie told us that, in her estimation, between 5 and 6,000 Jews remain in Prague. There were about 92,000 Jews living in Prague pre-WWII (20% of the total population). To put things in perspective, the Jewish population in Seattle today is about 64,000; and that’s after a 70% jump over the past decade or so. Not every Prague Jew was exterminated by the Nazis during the war. Some 20,000 survived. Most escaped, left Czechoslovakia. Many emigrated to Palestine or the US.

Now there are 5 or 6, 000 Jews left with very fragile roots. Few of them are descendants of old Prague families. Most of them are emerging still from decades of Communist Regime, and have remained either atheists, self-proclaimed agnostics, or are trying to find their way between Reform or Orthodox versions of this very tentative re-birthing of Judaism. They live among the ghosts of empty Jewish Prague, and go to synagogues (where they can barely get a minyan together) that are now museum sites. It feels to me as if these 6,000 Jews live, themselves, in a Jewish museum that tourists from around the world tread through by the thousands day after day after day. How do you create community in this context? How do you create identity in this context?

There is a Hebrew expression that says: “Hazman Katzar, v’ham’lacha merubah – The time is short, and the work is great.” Such is the work facing this fledgling community. Perhaps, we too, could lend a hand. After all, we share many of the same challenges and, personally, I felt a deep resonance with their struggle.

Though our group only has one more day left in the Czech Republic, something is telling me that I might find myself back here sooner than I thought. I hope, next time, that you will be on that plane with us.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day One: Prague

What a magical day! I am always pleased when I talked to the people in the group and at the end of the first day and they tell me that it feels like we’ve been here for a week, so much has happened. And yes, so much has. I can’t believe myself it’s only been one day.

We started with giving people space in the morning to sleep and recoup from jet-lag, so we had a late start. We gathered in the hotel lobby at 10AM heading toward our meditation spot that our friend Kate suggested at dinner the evening before: The Jerusalem Synagogue. This, to me, is the magic of these trips. Yes we plan as much as we can, make reservations, book group tours etc… but there is a part of this where we get to practice our spiritual values in real-time. When an opportunity makes itself known, when the Universe opens a door, we are to make ourselves available for a spontaneous change of plan. The Universe never stops talking and inviting us to greater discoveries, greater learning, broader openings; but if we keep ourselves stuck on our pre-delineated life tracks we will forever miss the gorgeous magic of a detour.

We thought the meditation would be in the hotel but here we were, walking the 20 minutes it took to find ourselves in front of the Jerusalem Synagogue which got its name from the name of the street it is on. As I drew closer to the Synagogue entrance, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the façade of this incredible place. It took my breath away. Though the pictures you can find on line won’t do it justice (as nothing replaces being in the presence of such a piece of architectural art,) do yourself a favor and Google it. It is beyond stunning. But then we walked inside when its doors opened (it is no longer used as a house of worship these days but is one of the few synagogues transformed into museums downtown Prague,) what we found within was a jewel of Moorish-style design. Now I am already running out of superlatives. Our group found a couple a pews to sit together and I led us into a meditation with the Sh’ma that simply felt right in that moment. After half an hour of silence we closed singing our community’s Sh’ma together. Magical.

Our tour began in earnest in the afternoon. From 2 to 6PM we walked the streets of the Jewish Quarter of Prague with our fabulous guide, Sylvie. We stopped at every street corner where she told story after incredible story, we entered into four different synagogues and traversed the old Jewish cemetery. One of the highlights for me was the walls of names at the Pinkas Synagogue. 80 thousand names of the Czech Jewish dead, representing the annihilation of 153 towns and villages communities victim of the Shoah. And there, on one of the heartbreaking walls, the names of Kate’s late husband’s parents, murdered during the war. She broke into a beautiful chant in their honor and we all started to cry with her. The other highlights was for me to be able to place a stone atop the grave of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel; one of the greatest Jewish mystics and rabbi that ever lived, and who is forever associated with the mythical creature of the Golem. I felt great love rising within me in that moment that I cannot explain (and why should I?).

At 7PM we stood in front of the Spanish Synagogue where our group had been invited by the local rabbi to join in their Kabbalat Shabbat service. I even had the honor to be asked to give the talk that evening, which I did. I led the 100+ people that were there into a brief meditation starting with a Shalom Chant. I was reminded how much what we do is unique and foreign to most Jews everywhere. The words “Jewish” and “Meditation” somehow are concepts that have come to be dissociated in the Jewish psyche, where only a couple hundred years ago these regions of Central Europe were the centers of early Chasidism which promoted not only meditative practices but ecstatic prayer, chanting and dancing. It was obvious to me that a few people were deeply uncomfortable with our practice, squirming in their chair, burying their head in their hands or even laughing. But, overwhelmingly, what I shared was well received and many people made a point to talking to me and thank me at the end of services. The Rabbi couldn’t stop thanking me and shared how much he was moved by what I shared.

And then there was Vladimir. As our group was last leaving the Spanish Synagogue (Google it too, it is absolutely gorgeous,) Vladimir was waiting for us on the sidewalk. And Vladimir (about 65) wanted to know everything I could possibly tell him about Jewish Meditation as he believed Meditation one of the basic needs of any human life. A Jew from Slovakia (and a transplant to Prague) himself, he had never heard about Meditation as a Jewish practice and wanted to know more. Again, when the Universe sends Vladimir into your life you just don’t give him your business card and tell him to e-mail you in two weeks when you’re back home. You listen to the Universe and say: “Sure Vladimir, I’d love to talk about the Jewish Meditative path, let’s go have a beer and chat.” Nothing like a local to find you the best pub in Prague and take the 10 of us there away from where the tourists hang out. We had a blast. And since you won’t find great pictures of the pub we went to on Google, I am posting them on my Facebook page for your viewing pleasure. Vladimir is the guy in the white shirt. When did we get back to the hotel? I think it was 11:30PM.
What a rich, profound, surprising, amazing day! No wonder we all though it felt like we’d been there a week.

Wish you were here.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Our Last Shabbat

Our last Friday in Israel might have been the cherry on top of our traveling cake. That morning, a few of us made our way to the Hebrew University atop Mount Scopus where I studied for a few years in the early 90’s. Our little group went to the Hecht Synagogue on campus which is one of my favorite places there. The Synagogue itself isn’t anything special; but the view from it is unbelievable. Instead of a bimah and an Ark, in front of the sanctuary is a very large window. The Ark itself is to the left side of that window. The view is that of the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rocks mosque, and the old city. We prayed there, we meditated (with our eyes wide open); mostly we remained silent in the face of such incredible vista.

We then made our way to the Western Wall in the old city to join another group for a global peace ceremony. Our friend, Rabbi Eliyahu McLain and the Jerusalem Peacemakers had organized a worldwide moment of interfaith prayer for that day. As we, at 1PM Jerusalem time, held a circle at the Wall and prayed and chanted for Shalom, a group of Muslims by the Mosque atop the Temple Mount and of Christians inside the Holy Sepulcher did the same. Nearly half a million people, the world over, had signed up on the Peacemakers’ website in solidarity with the event and joined our prayers at that time. It was a true blessing, for all of us, to take part of this circle; the perfect way to usher-in Shabbat.

And what a Shabbat this was! After dinning in a Druze village a few days earlier, being invited for lunch in a Bedouin home after that, Jana re-connected with Rabbi Yehoshua—whom she had met on another Israel trip years ago—who invited us in his home for Shabbat dinner. Rabbi Yehoshuah and his family live in Efrat, a huge (mostly) religious Jewish settlement in the West Bank, minutes from downtown Jerusalem. It was an incredible opportunity for us to experience the other side of the political conflict.

And experience we did! Because Jews stop working early Friday morning to prepare for Shabbat, our three cab drivers were Muslims from the nearby Arab villages. Fully present to my own discomfort in having a Palestinian man drive us to what I could only assume was, for him, the symbol of Israeli occupation, I opted to openly share with him my feelings and started a conversation. More than the settlement itself, what he most resented was the security barrier that Israel had built to, supposedly, protect itself from Palestinian terrorist intrusions and suicide bombers. To him, the barrier broke down the Israeli-Arab relationships on the ground that common people enjoyed prior to the peace process. He reminisced about how, up until a couple of decades ago, Jews and Arabs could visit and knew each other. Non-religious Jews would travel on Shabbat to Arab villages to eat at the local restaurants and to shop, and Arabs would work in Israel and be friends with Israeli families. Nowadays he lamented, the only Israelis most Palestinian children ever meet are the soldiers at the checkpoints or worse. Not a healthy basis to build relationships and work toward peace and mutual understanding.

Rabbi Yehoshuah met us at the entrance of his synagogue. His is an orthodox Chasidic synagogue where men and women are separated, and everyone dances and sings with incredible soul energy, love, and joy. The guys in our group who had never been in a Chasidic synagogue before and knew none of the prayers, were enthralled, and eagerly joined in the dances and the ya-dai-dai parts of the Shabbat songs. The mechizah/separating fence between men and women, drew some mixed reactions on the women side, causing our group to wrestle—with an open mind—with their own feelings about this foreign way of worshipping. After services was a short walk to Rabbi Yehoshuah’s orthodox kosher home. There, we met his religious wife Anette and four of his five children (one being in the army). Dinner was absolutely delicious and the many beautiful personal sharings were only interrupted by more beautiful singing and teachings from Yehoshuah. A member in our group later noted that he had never been to a dinner where you eat a little, stop, sing, talk and study, then eat some more, and repeat this four or five times until the final blessings. It was an amazing experience! I was thrilled that our group could live Shabbat the way I lived it being in Israel, and see that there are other ways of celebrating just as beautiful and powerful as what they know from Bet Alef. My favorite part of the evening remains, nonetheless, the moment when—completely unannounced and without even knocking on the door—one of their neighbors waltzed into their home, said “Shabbat Shalom” and sat down with us for dinner. I thanked him for doing that from across the table for he, in that moment, exemplified what I love and miss the most about Israel; this open-door way of life where people are like family and your home is their home as much as theirs is yours.

We loved Yehosuah, we loved his family, and we loved dancing and singing at his synagogue. Imagine how much more torn we were, at the end of the night, when our Palestinian cab drivers came to pick us up to drive us back to the hotel. But this is the reality of Israel; this is the complexity and multidimensionality of this little country. You pray in the morning facing the Temple Mount. By lunch you participate in a global interfaith Peace event at the Western Wall. Your Shabbat dinner is with a Chasidic community in a West Bank settlement. And, finally, you are driven back to your hotel at night by Palestinian drivers. Dizzy yet? If anything else, our group got to experience the many faces of Israel first-hand. And that is priceless.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – A Bedouin Living Room

Do you know why Jana called her tour company “Kesem”? That’s because Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew, and she wanted to set the Kavanah—the intention—for the trips to Israel to be magical. This has been my third trip to Israel with Jana, and each one has been more magical than the other.

There is one major reason why these trips are magical though: Jana herself. And here is why. Midway through our travels we had to change our bus driver. Moti, our Jewish driver, was called south to a different group but arranged for another driver to replace him. He arranged for someone he trusted deeply, a Bedouin Muslim driver named Nasour. Our first day with Nasour was wonderful. The group immediately befriended him. Jana told us that she had learned his father had an accident and was undergoing surgery the very evening he spent with us touring the Druze village. All of us offered prayers of healing to him and his father, chanting “El Na Refa Na La” at dinner, and Nasour was deeply touched by our gesture. But this couldn’t have taken place without Jana. In just a couple of hours of meeting Nasour, Jana had worked her magic and had made him part of our group, one of us. Even if you didn’t understand Hebrew to know what she and him were talking about as the bus took us from one spot to the next, the laughter and the joy that you could witness between them in the front seats told you the whole story.

This immediate connection and bonding that Jana facilitated between us all and Nasour, led to the most magical event—and probably one of the greatest highlights of the trip: Nasour invited us all for lunch in his village the next day. Now you might not “get” how amazing this is. Let’s put it this way; there is no organized tour of Israel that would ever include something like this. Furthermore, there is no Jewish Israeli citizen, that I know of, that ever gets to do something like this either. That a Jew in Israel could befriend a Muslim Bedouin is almost unheard of. But for anyone to be invited to the home of a Bedouin for lunch, that’s near impossible. At least it was until Jana. He didn’t just invite Jana or Marla (our guide) or me; he invited all 12 of us in the home of his cousin, in his village of upper Galilee. I am not telling you how fabulous the food was—it would be unfair—so I am just going to mention the baklava and other honey pastries we had for desert with the most delicious mint tea you’ve ever had.

This whole village of now sedentary Bedouins of several thousand residents, Nasour explained, is one large family, one large clan dating back thousands of years. We got to meet his wife and two grown boys, his cousin in who’s living room we were hosted, and his cousin’s daughter (soon to be married to Nasour’s son), as well as Nasour’s brother the dentist. The inhabitants of their village are completely integrated in Israel. They serve in the Israeli army, many of them are policemen, and if they are not working the beautiful land around their village, they have jobs in the many industries of Israel. Many are highly educated and work as doctors, dentists, teachers or other liberal professions. Besides having near-perfect teeth (we wondered how they did that after eating so many sweet deserts) many of them also had blue eyes, which caused us to ask of their tribal origins. Their nomadic clan, we learned, originated in Eastern Europe (perhaps as far as Russia) and traveled south several thousand years ago to the Arabic peninsula (today’s Saudi Arabia). How incredible is that!!

Like I wrote earlier, you cannot put a price tag on this experience, on this gift that our group was gifted. As I sit in my hotel room in Jerusalem, watching the rain fall outside my window on this Friday morning, December 21st, 2012, I am praying. I am praying that if today is the end of the world, that the world that is ending be the one that keeps us separated from one another; and that in the world about to be, in the world to come, we may find each other invited for lunch in each other’s living rooms. For on that day, like we say in the Aleynu, I believe with all my soul that “the Unity of Being shall be celebrated by all.”

Journey Through Israel 2012 – The Last Jew of Peki’in

Our plan was simple. We were going to stop in the Druze village of Peki’in mostly because it is connected to Kabbalistic mythology and because Jana had arranged for our group to experience Druze hospitality at a dinner that evening. Peki’in is connected to Kabbalah because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the first century CE, hid there from the Romans in a cave with his son for 13 years. As the myth goes, during this 13 year forced meditation retreat, Bar Yochai wrote the Book of the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah.

Before walking down the steep slope in Peki’in to find the cave, our group stopped for a little chumus at Rayah’s, a local hole-in-the-wall little eatery. You can see that we have our priorities straight. Once restored a few of us began our descent. Beyond the cave itself our guide, Marla, mentioned that this Druze village also harbored and ancient synagogue—renovated many times over the centuries—that was still in use. We decided to pay it a visit.

When we finally got there, the door was locked. Undeterred, Marla walked into a little house next door to ask if the people there knew the person who could open the synagogue to us. Two Druze women sitting around an office desk by their computer told her that the woman caretaker of the synagogue had the key, but wasn’t there at this time. As we regrouped to decide our next move a little old lady, four feet tall, wearing rags from the last world-war, looking like she was a thousand years old and carrying a couple of full plastic bags, walked right by us, muttering to herself. Jana asked out loud if, by any chance, she knew the synagogue’s caretaker. And the women, in an angry and short tone, mumbled back to her very fast: “Yes, of course! It’s me, but I’m not ready for you!!” In shock, and thinking this old woman no longer had all her mental capacities, we followed her to this office space Marla had just emerged back from.

This little office space was no place to bring tourists into. It was old and decrepit, with the paint peeling off the walls. Waiting for the old woman to open the synagogue, a few of us ventured into the two adjacent rooms only to discover a series of ancient objects which, at best, belonged to a flea market. The old lady ignored us altogether for a good 15 minutes casually drinking a glass of Sprite with her two Druze buddies. Eventually, after I pressed her again to please open the synagogue for us, she yelled at me saying that we should first see all the artifacts in the other rooms and only after that would she open the synagogue.

As she walked us through the other two rooms she uncovered for us the most incredible treasure-trove. These artifacts we originally dismissed as the refuse of a hoarding old lady, who was no longer coherent, were actually historical articles she had saved and organized in a way, as her version of a little museum. Her name was Margalit. She was 81 years old. On the walls were pictures of her father and grandfather from early 20th century, although her family had been in Peki’in for over 2000 years and the time of the Second Temple, way before there even was a Druze people. There, on the wall, her grandfather pausing with Yitzchak Ben Zvi, one of the founders of the Jewish state many years before the declaration of independence. Next to it, a photo of the Jewish kids of the 1936-37 school year, with their teacher and their little school behind them. On the side another photo of the attendance record with the name of each kid in the picture written in Hebrew. Walk a little further into the room and in front of you, the old Torah reading table of the old synagogue she had saved, the decorated curtain that covered the old Ark and a few other ritual objects of the very ancient synagogue she was able to salvage from the last few remodelings. I kept asking questions about all these objects, she kept yelling at me each time she answered, as if I should have already known and all my questions were truly idiotic. I was totally in love with her. As we were almost done, she pointed to a book that was open behind a glass case. On the first page a few words were hand written, dedicated to her grandfather: “To the oldest family in our native land; thank you for…” I couldn’t read the rest. Signed: David Ben Gurion. Amazing!! Next to the display case, a large picture of her receiving state honors from Shimon Perez, Israel’s president. Unbelievable!! We clearly had stumbled upon Israel’s grandmother.

After a good half hour of touring her two-room museum, I reminded Margalit that we really wanted to see the synagogue. “Wait!” she angrily muttered, “You have to eat something before and have a little drink!” Of course! We wouldn’t dare crossing the street to visit the synagogue on an empty stomach. I told her we had just eaten a little chumus at the shop on top of the hill. She yelled at me, again, hoping we had eaten at Rayah’s place and not anywhere else. As a matter of fact, I said, that’s exactly where we had eaten and asked why that mattered so much to her? She proceeded to tell us that Rayah’s father saved her father from a handful of terrorists that were about to burn him alive during an attack in the years before the creation of the State of Israel. Sometimes the Universe sends you to eat your chumus in the right hole-in-the-wall place.

It had now been a good 45 minutes Margalit had managed to spend with us and we hadn’t gotten anywhere near the synagogue yet. Finally, now that we had all eaten and drunk a little Sprite, we qualified for a synagogue tour. It took her a few minutes to open the gate of the courtyard and another few minutes to find the key to the synagogue’s front door. I asked her how many Jewish families still lived in Peki’in and used the synagogue? She barked back at me saying she was the only one left in the village. Everyone else was either dead or had moved away. But because Peki’in is a holy place for many Jews (mostly because of Shimon Bar Yochai’s cave), Bar Mitzvahs often still take place at the synagogue. Just before we could enter she grabbed a few twigs put together in the shape of a broom to clear the entry way from all the leaves that had fallen from the magnificent mulberry tree that shaded the courtyard. I graciously told her that she certainly didn’t have to clean on our behalf; that we would be happy to just walk into the synagogue without the front door being leaf-free. What did I just say?!? Here she went again, yelling at me that she wasn’t clearing the front door for us! Was I kidding?!? She was clearing the dead leaves away so that we wouldn’t bring them into the synagogue as we stepped in!! I knew then that she had a thing for me. Why else would she keep on responding so indignantly at everything I asked? She gave us the most incredible tour of this little synagogue, always muttering and mumbling, always angrily responding to all our questions. We all totally fell in love with her. When the tour was over and we reluctantly started to walk toward our next destination, Margalit ordered us back into the courtyard. And as we all sheepishly complied and gathered in front of her, she began to bless us with words from the Torah, words that rabbis pray for healing and success; she blessed us with health and wealth, she blessed our families and our children’s children. Our hearts melted. Then and only then, were we allowed to leave, to get back to our lives. But there is no way for us to do that Margalit. You have changed us forever. Life will never be the same now that we have spent this couple of hours with you. We have truly been blessed by your presence. You are the last Jew of Peki’in and the most incredible person I have ever met. You are a being of light and you will shine in our hearts for the rest of our days. Thank you for teaching us patience, thank you for teaching us to stay open to life’s surprises. Had we not, we would have missed you; and that would have been unbearably sad.

PS: Learn more about Margalit in this article published in HaAretz, Israel’s major newspaper.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Falling in Love With What Is

We spent part of the day at the beach in Tel Aviv today. It was good, on this second day, to be able to bathe in the sun, get our feet buried in the sand and dip our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. To me, these moments are a doorway to a deeper presence, to a relaxed place in my body.

But just before we walked the beach, Jana brought us to this little corner of the Tel Aviv beachfront promenade, where every Saturday, early afternoon, Israelis come together to dance what is called here: “Rikudei Am,” or traditional “People Dances” in English. A DJ sets up in that little square and people just show up to dance together. Most of us think of the “Hora” when we think of traditional Jewish dance, but there is so much more to it than that. Traditional Israeli music includes influences from the Yemenite, Middle Eastern, Spanish and African traditions as much as—and, in fact, much more than—the Klezmer and Eastern European musical styles that we mostly encounter in North America. For close to two hours we watched Israelis from all walks of life, young and old, men and women, dance and sing together around that little square by the beach. It was incredible!

It was incredible because most of us see Israel through the prism of the news media. We create in our minds a certain image of the Israelis. We generalize. But here, we were confronted with the disarming simple reality of a people that is deeply united by a powerful sense of a shared experience, a people that loves to dance in the streets of its cities, very much alive and vibrant. Watching this group dance helped me remember the human side of Israel, with all its flaws and all its problems, still clinging to a semblance of normalcy, still wanting to celebrate the light of its being. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful.

We closed the day driving back up to Jerusalem to witness the kindling of the eighth candle of Chanukah. We walked the streets of Nachlaot, an old neighborhood right at the center of the city just as people began to light their Chanukiot. A few orthodox guys suddenly appeared at the window of their street level apartment, and as they were pouring olive oil in their eight little cups, not just our group but perhaps 30 Israelis wandering the streets with us, stopped to watch them too. They lit their Chanukiah while all 40 of us in the street joined them in chanting the blessings and singing the traditional Chanukah songs. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful too.

Israel has that power; the power to remind us to stop running and pause to pay attention to this life as it is fast unfolding in front of our eyes. People are beautiful if we only take the time to look at them without letting our vision be blurred by the stories we have made up about who they are. Israel teaches us to let ourselves be surprised, to approach each moment with a sense of awe, an eagerness to discover, and to be comfortable with not knowing what’s next. It is a state of being that is very freeing even if scary for some of us who like to live more predictable lives; but it holds the keys to falling deeply in love with what is, and that is priceless.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – The Measure of Time

How do you measure time? Is it by watching your kids growing up, your parents growing old, or the wrinkles on your face growing deep? Our tradition measures time from one Shabbat to the next and from one Torah reading cycle to the next. Some measure time by following the agricultural seasons, others the geological periods. This, to us, is really “time.” The time that our watches and digital clocks measure is not as real. The hours and the minutes only exist because we have appointments and deadlines. Without appointments we wouldn’t need them. The cab I took from the airport to Jerusalem doesn’t need a clock for example. It doesn’t leave the airport at the top of the hour or the bottom of the hour. Each cab can take ten passengers at a time and only leaves the airport when it is full. Don’t ask the cab driver at what time he will be leaving. You sit in the cab and you wait. Imagine doing that to catch a plane. You go to the airport when you need to fly, get on the plane that will eventually fly to where you want to go and wait for every seat to be filled so that the plane can take off. Running an airline might become a profitable business again and, we, we would be able to throw away our watches. No appointments, no clocks. That’s why we like vacations so much.

I became deeply aware of this construct, this idea, this concept we call “time,” walking through the Avshalom Caves this morning in Israel. The sheer beauty of the stalactite and stalagmite structures there was in and of itself breathtaking, but to be faced with trying to grasp the time it took for these incredible structures to take shape remains beyond our understanding. When a stalactite protruding from the ceiling 30 feet about you meets a stalagmite rising from the ground, their two-ness becoming one creates a pillar or a column within the cave. One such enormous pillar was dated by scientists to be 5 million years old. When one knows that both stalagmites and stalactites are formed one slow-dripping rain drop splashing at a time, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed in front of that pillar trying to contemplate what its existence entails in terms of time. Through the eyes of this pillar time feels very different. If the pillar could see us, we would appear to him as blurry figures traveling at lightning fast speed. Our own life span would be measured by the pillar as an expression of a few hundred rain drops and then we would be gone.

This pillar was an inspiration. It taught me to slow down, to appreciate time differently; to place what seems so important to me in the context of a few hundred rain drops falling in this cave. It helped me gain perspective as it expanded my heart and mind. I remembered that time is completely subjective and needs not be our master. Perhaps these Israeli cab drivers understand something we don’t after all. Perhaps we would be better off taking a page out of their book and use our “real” time more wisely. It is one of the most precious commodities we possess.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Hineini

Could you pinch me please? I am having a hard time believing it, but we are here—we are all here—in Israel, ready to embark on a new journey of self-discovery through the landscape and the people of this magical land.

I took a taxi from the airport to Jerusalem on Tuesday just as the sun was setting. It was one of these minibus cabs that sit 10 people. It’s cheaper to take those because all 10 passengers are sharing the costs, but it also means that, unless you are the first one on the route to be dropped off, you could be in for a long ride. I was the seventh. I could easily have been upset—exhausted as I was after a 20 hour flight—about the fact that it took me another two hours to get to my friends’ place instead of the normal 45 minutes it would have usually taken. But how could I be when I was treated to the most gorgeous lightshow. Dropping off one passenger at a time, the cab crisscrossed the many neighborhoods of North Jerusalem and I got to witness the thousands of Chanukah menorahs (or chanukiot) lit in the countless windows of hundreds of apartment buildings one street after another. What a sight! And if you missed the ones in the apartments’ windows, you could see the giant electric chanukiot at every street corner, every city square, every park, and on the roofs of government buildings and hotels, as well as in every little store on the street, from the wine shop to the mini mart, from the hairdresser to the falafel stand. Flickering candles everywhere.

Ahl ha-nisim v’al ha-nifla’ot” they sing here; dedicating their candles “for the miracles and the awe filled times.” And so our trip begins, with the keen awareness of the miracle of this and every moment, the miracle that Israel even exists, the miracle that we are here, the miracle of each day we wake up to no matter where we are on the planet. It begins with a sense of awe; a sense of gratitude and deep appreciation.

The very first stop of our trip, tomorrow morning, comes from a response to an invitation that came through Jana of a woodworker who builds the most amazing Arks, Torah reading tables and other religious artifacts out of wood. I shared with our group how perfect I thought it was that we get to start our journey here visiting with a Jewish carpenter!

Ahl ha-nisim v’al ha-nifla’ot… Hineini – I am here.