Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Flawed and Fearful on the Turn of the Year

Every year as Elul begins, i think that I'm going to prepare for Rosh Hashanah in advance this time. That this time I will actually do some introspection before the new year. That this time I will not just pray properly each day, but do it with focus, at least for the month of Elul. That I will reach out to others and connect with them for the good this time. 

You probably already know that each year, I get to the morning of Rosh Hashanah and realise that once again I have focused more on the menu than on inner growth. 

Every year, so far, God has given me another chance. Every year I feel scared to ask for yet another one, because I messed up on this one. I honestly wish I could cower in bed instead of having to face my Creator with the nakedness of my soul. I wish I could wave a sign that says 'I'm not here, don't look at me'. But, of course, for God I am here. I am always here, because He is always here. 

On Rosh Hashanah we accept God as our King. That doesn't mean soul searching and saying sorry. I think it means being present. It means that instead of hiding from God like the first Adam on the first Rosh Hashanah, I stand up straight and scared and answer 'Hineni - Here I am' like Abraham. No fancy prayers or pleas for forgiveness (that comes later). Simply 'I am here', because if I hide myself then I am also hiding an aspect of God. 

I have lost too many friends to not be fearful of what a year can bring. But I force myself each Rosh Hashanah to face what it could bring. I remind myself that the talmud teaches 'ein melech bli am - there is no King without a people', meaning that somehow God is King only insofar as we, His people, are His people. I stand with fear and trembling because to be noticed by the King is to be singled out for dangerous attention, but I stand anyway. 

I think sometimes that this is the big challenge of Rosh Hashanah. Not to make it all through that long morning of prayer with focus (or at all). Simply to find the courage to stand up before God and acknowledge that I am here, flawed and fearful. 

The Kotzke Rebbe once famously asked a young man 'Where is God?'
The young man felt a little smug and answered 'God is everywhere'. 
The Kotzke replied 'No. He is wherever you let Him in'. 

I am here. and if I am here, then God is too. I pray for the courage to be here and for the gift of another year. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Yom Hazikaron: Day of Past and Future Grief

As my oldest son gets older, I feel the tentacles of Yom Hazikaron wrapping themselves more firmly around me. Every year since we made aliyah, I feel the impact of this day more deeply. It rocks me that much further before I right myself again. 

Partly this is the nature of living in Israel. I cannot help but feel the sadness and the solemnity of this day when I wake up each morning to hills that once were bloodstained but now are national parks, thanks to the boys whose blood once covered them. I can't help but feel the loss of men young and old when I just have to look at people in my neighbourhood to see the gaps in their families which gape open more widely on this day. 

And partly, the longer I live here and the older my oldest son gets, the more I feel Yom Hazikaron, this day of memory, leeching into the future as well. 

Every year, my son gets one day closer to receiving his tzav giyus - his first call-up papers. Every year we ratchet one notch closer to his friends receiving theirs. Every year, I fear, takes me one step closer to feeling this day far more intensely than I ever wish to feel it. 

Perhaps I am morbid, but on this day of all days when I see my son's beautiful friends at a tekes yom hazikaron, shining with potential and excitement for the years ahead of them, I cannot avoid the knowledge that the chances of one of them being killed in battle are very high. I cannot help but look at my new-minted teenage son and see the shadow creeping towards him. One day, he will have to grapple with the burning pain of losing a friend, if not an old friend then a new friend, someone he has known since elementary school or someone he hasn't yet met. On Yom Hazikaron, I feel the pain of the past and the pain of the future.

I know that I am not the only mother who feels the pain of this day creeping forwards each year. I know that every year there will be new losses on this day, 
families with new holes in them, friendships newly sundered. 

Those young men and women who we have already lost are also not just lost in the past. They are lost in the future too. The children they would have born have been killed. The people they would have taught and changed live on untaught and unchanged and all unknowing of what they could have experienced. The inventions they would have developed, the art they would have created, the music they would have made and the worlds they would have changed are all lost to us. We will never know what futures might have been. 

This is the saddest aspect to Yom Hazikaron. If it was just a day of memory - we are a nation that is sadly accustomed to mourning. But it's not just a day of grieving for the past, but a day of grieving for the present and future too. 

I read once that what makes men saddest is when their sons join the army. Because they fought and they lost friends and they felt that pain of loss for one reason - so that their sons wouldn't have to. But time moves on and their sons do have to. Time moves on, and life moves on, but one day a year we stop to acknowledge past, present, and future pain. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

Friendly Fire: Why Do Some Fellow Jews Scorn The Ultra-Orthodox?

Dear Rabbi Shafran, 

I read your recent articles in the the Forward and the response written by Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll with great interest. You see, I live in Ramat Beit Shemesh. As I am about to disagree with you, I cannot think how to prove that I am not a chareidi-hater but simply a semi-chareidi Jew who sees the actions of those extremist chareidim who live near me. I hear my fellow moderate chareidim (the ones who made aliyah from America and are vocal on local Facebook groups) defend the freedom of speech and right to protest of these extremists who dress in chareidi clothing.

I have previously read what you've written with respect for the position you hold, but your recent response to Shoshanna's response in the Forward showed that, like many American chareidim, you are out of touch with the reality in Israel and naively believe that Israeli chareidim are just like you and that it behoves us to be tolerant of their difference of opinions.

Sadly, this is not a case for tolerance. I am tolerant of their decision not to join the army. I am tolerant of their choice of dress and speech and even of their dislike of the army and the state in which we all live. But I am not tolerant of their violence, their attacking me and women like me, nor of their invading my neighbourhood in order to loudly shout insults and death threats at a dati leumi man who works for the army. You and many moderate chareidim think I should be tolerant. I think that your call for tolerance of this sort is exactly what Shoshanna correctly labelled abetting extremist chareidim.

Let me share some information with you to correct a few of the points you made:
"Anecdotes, no matter how compelling, are not evidence. Let’s assume that the claim of “hundreds” of radicals in Ramat Beit Shemesh is not an exaggeration. And let’s add a similar number in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim. Let’s even round the number out to an even 1000 – though there is no real evidence of that many prone-to-violence haredim.
According to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale institute, an independent, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee /Israeli government effort, there were 911,000 haredim in Israel in 2014. 1000 hooligans represent 0.1097695% of haredim. Barely one-tenth of one percent"
There were over 10,000 men at the Peleg Yerushalmi rally on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, when Rav Shmuel Auerbach asserted that they will fight to avoid having to have anything to do with the army. Considerably more than a tenth of a percent. Granted, they might not all be violent, but they did all choose to attend a rally promoting violence, which should be taken as an indication of their tendencies. Note these are only men: I assume that their families share their views.

In Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (where many of the most extrerme chareidi fanatics live), there were pashkeveilim up along the main street calling for every shul to daven from the amud for the destruction of Yaacov Rashi, giving his hebrew name and his mother's name, and his entire family. 

(If you do not know who Yaacov Rashi is, then you should really know before you pontificate about the real level of violence in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Yaacov Rashi lives in the apartment building opposite mine. He works for the Lishkat Hagiyus, in the unit that drafts Yeshiva boys. Note that he does not force, pressure or in any way encourage yeshiva boys to sign up. He merely processes their draft papers when they do choose to, such as to enter the Nahal HaChareidi unit set up by Rav Aharon Leib Steinman. Because he works in this role, however, chareidi extremists have elected him as public enemy number one.) 

Flyers have been scattered outside my building against Yaacov Rashi, calling him a rasha, a rodef, a threat to all of am yisrael, yemach shmo v'zichro (yes, those very words. I am happy to send you photos of the flyers if you remain unconvinced as to the truth of my words). They promised destruction for him and his whole family.

Groups of extremist chareidim regularly come to protest outside his building, shout insults such as calling for him to die, calling him a rodef and an eater of Jewish souls, and have tried to break into his home. They come sometimes at 3am to disturb the whole neighbourhood shouting insults and death threats.

In response, Rashi and his wife turned to the mayor of Beit Shemesh, a 'moderate chareidi', and asked him for his support in encouraging the local police force to squash the protesters. They asked him to use his influence to make it clear that this behavior is not acceptable in our town. His response: ‘This is not my problem’. That is the response of a moderate chareidi in a position to do something about extremist chareidi violence.

In the days before the giant Peleg Yerushalmi rally of Rosh Chodesh Nissan, pashkeveilim were put up all around Ramat Beit Shemesh aleph and bet, calling on all Jews to attend and promising to fight ‘to the last drop of blood’.

Shoshanna is quite right about the children of Ramat Beit shemesh bet throwing garbage and shouting insults at dati leumi girls who walk through their neighbourhood on a shabbat. Dressed modestly, I might add, in skirts to the knee and sleeves to the elbow, although without tights and in bright colors. Teenage girls walking through RBS Bet on a Shabbat afternoon really were set upon by a group of over 100 children throwing garbage and shouting insults. When I walked through that neighbourhood on that same Shabbat, it was only about 50 children who shouted 'shiksa' at me, an adult woman in long skirt, long sleeves and a headscarf, walking together with my bearded, black-hatted and –suited husband, which should have been some deterrent. I presume that that number is ok with you? 

And granted, these are only children. Where did they learn this behaviour? How is it that my children know not to shout ‘parasite’ at a chasid walking down our street, even though there are some dati leumi Jews who call chassidim ‘parasites’, and yet chareidi children do not know not to shout ‘shiksa’ at a modestly-dressed girl who does not look like their sisters?

And as for the absence of media reports being ‘proof’ that Shoshanna’s comments about the state of violence in Beit Shemesh is just an exaggeration - those of us who live here are tired of being fodder for the media circus. We chose not to call in the media this time because it doesn't work. Media attention brings not one jot of pressure to bear upon the chareidi extremists of our town, and not one jot of pressure to bear on ‘moderate chareidim’ like those who make up our municipal board, who have made it clear that they do not care to stand up against extremist chareidim who harass their moderate chareidi or dati leumi neighbours. And one more thing – the American chareidi facebook commenters who I referred to above, the ones who share your belief that everyone who criticises extremist chareidi behaviour is a knee-jerk chareidi-hater, they think that calling in the media shows that all that the ‘chareidi-haters’ want is media attention. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And are you right that there are moderate chareidim who have condemned such extremist behaviour? Yes, absolutely. There are chareidi rabbis and ordinary chareidim who stand up against extremist chareidi behaviour in word and deed. But there is no mass feeling amongst moderate chareidim that the behaviour of extremist chareidim is wrong. There is no automatic response to stand up for what is right rather than for what is right-wing. Instead, there is an automatic reaction to close ranks and support those Jews who also wear black and white, because the non-chareidim must be the enemy.

When a horde (almost 100) of extremist charieidi members of the Peleg Yerushalmi descended on Rashi's building three days before the Rosh Chodesh Nisan rally, it took 40 minutes for the police to arrive. In that time, the only people preventing them from breaking into his building were the regular residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh aleph, such as myself and my neighbours. There are many many moderate chareidim who live here, as I'm sure you know, but the vast majority of those who came down to stand against the protesters (peacefully, may I add, without violence) were what you might call dati leumi or chardal. We – myself and other adult women – were pushed, kicked, and spat upon by the extremist chareidi protesters who bussed into our street ready to attack Yaacov Rashi. And no, we gave no provocation other than standing opposite them. And yes, these extremist chareidim came to physically rip Rashi apart if he had stepped outside his front door.

Two days later, we (the Rashi’s neighbours) tried to prepare for the expected return of the extremist protesters by organising a system for notifying as many people as possible as quickly as possible of the beginning of a protest, so that they could come to peacefully oppose the protesters and make it clear that such behaviour is not acceptable in our town. Most of all, we wanted to gather as many adult chareidi men as possible, so as to show that chareidim do not condone this behaviour and to take the rug out from under the extremists’ feet by showing that they do not speak for the majority of chareidim.
We gathered almost 150 names on our ‘quick-response list’, out of which only about 20 were American chareidi olim. In a neighbourhood mostly populated by American chareidi olim, in response to request shared by English speakers on forums frequented by American chareidim, this is pathetic. Probably most of them also think that it’s not their responsibility to stand up for ahavat yisrael, or even just for not calling for a man to be killed, against their fellow chareidim.

If you complain about knee-jerk chareidi haters, then I think you must consider the possibility of knee-jerk chareidi defenders, who assume that a man who wears black and white must be believed over a woman who wears a mitpachat and sandals.

I do not think that you deliberately set out to disparage and belittle the sense of siege that is felt by those of us who live in the midst of extremist chareidi protests. I think that you are unaware of the reality of the situation. Please let me know, or Shoshanna, or my husband if you would prefer, when you next come to Israel, and we will be happy to show you around our neighbourhood so that you can learn the reality.

Best wishes, 

Amanda Bradley

Ps. I did not address you ignoring of the issue of erasing women's presence from maagazines, adverts and periodicals, but suffice to say this topic has been much discussed and it is absolutely clear that this was not the norm in yeshivish chareidi circles, not in magazines, not in the Hamodia, not in the Jewish observer and not in advertisements in free advertisers until the last few years. Talk to any woman over the age of 60 and you will get a clearer understanding.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

War-weariness and war readiness

In the second decade of a new century, people were post-war and war-weary. A great war had just been fought which had been more catastrophic than any war that ever went before. Civilians had been targeted in a way which transcended belief and broke all the previous rules of warfare. A war which had to be fought had been waged and won - but at a terrible cost. Thousands of young people lost their lives fighting, but they believed that it was worth it. The war, they believed, was a just war. It had to be fought in order to protect innocent people from death, and to stop a tyrant from overrunning neighbouring countries.

Over the next three decades, the men and women who gave their futures to stop the spread of tyranny found their dreams were shattered. They had fought for the sake of a more just world. They had sacrificed their lovers and their lives in order to bring in a new world order. The dream of a world where people wouldn't live in poverty, where countries would trade with and help one another amicably seemed quiver on the threshold of actualisation. The men in power would be replaced with a fairer society, where the poor were helped to independence and the powerful chose to give of their power to the greater good. Communism and socialism were not yet seen as impossible ideologies used to keep a dictator in power. They were so popular precisely because of their promise of a fairer, more peaceful society.

They were also convinced that there would never be another war of the like of the one they had just endured. An unprecedented level of international cooperation grew up following the war, to replace international fighting with international discussion. They were sure that the immense, superhuman sacrifice of their generation was justified only because of the new world order that was beginning. There was no way, they were sure, that a world which had just been sickened by bloodshed would plunge itself back to torture and the creative discovery of new ways to kill people.

The generation which survived the war was committed to peace and to fairness, at almost any cost, They hated war, but more than they hated war they feared it. Most of all, the world's superpower, the mightiest country of all, feared war. They feared war talk and war tools and war thoughts. They relied on the new levels of international cooperation to keep international peace. They were so tired of intervening in the petty squabbles that sprang up between different countries.

They were betrayed.

Their leaders didn't change. Post-war promises didn't materialise. Nothing in society was altered to make it more fair or more just or to protect the most vulnerable. Gradually, all that endured was a fear of war, one could almost say a self-taught nausea in response to any kind of military action. Like Alex in The Clockwork Orange, the post-war generation felt physically sick at the contemplation of any kind of violence. Even violence in self-defense and for self-survival.

Their very belief in a new world order which would justify the shock and awe of the previous war would lead them directly to the next war. Intervening in a petty squabble between two nations had caused a deep-seated trauma in the collective consciousness which they were determined to avoid ever repeating. Next time, the nation chose a leader who would not repeat their earlier mistakes, and that leader came home from Munich with a triumph.

Less than a year later, the world was at war again.

Yes, I am talking about the second decade of the previous century. What we refer to as the 'interwar' period seems to us like a blip between two huge conflagrations. Often the two wars are run together, using the power of hindsight to categorise them as one conflict that had to be re-fought a second time. In many ways this is true, but to view the second world war as an inevitable coda is to shove the inter-war years under the carpet of history. It's extremely difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine the hope and sense of promise that filled the world after the end of the First World War. The young soldiers who survived carried the burden of their comrades who did not. The young women who died single because the men they would have married died at the Front lived their lives driven by the need to make a better world that justified their loved ones' sacrifice. I've recently been reading fiction that was written about the Great War, shortly after it ended. It is full of hope and belief in a new, just society around the world.

We are so full of the certainty that Chamberlain was wrong and weak when he signed the Munich agreement that we forget that the British public responded to his announcement with cheers and rejoicing at the successful evasion of another devastating war. Schoolchildren in England write history essays that dissect the ways that the Munich agreement paved the way to the Second World War, an approach which only pushes the reality of public opinion furhter into the bushes. We are so used to Winston Churchill as the war hero that we forget that in 1938 he was a crackpot trouble-maker who had been preaching war for decades to a country that was still convalescent from the last one.

In 2017, it is blatantly obvious that Hitler had to be fought and defeated. But in 1938, war-weariness and war-phobia created a fog of opposition to even the most necessary military campaign.

In 2017, we can confidently point out the seeds of the Second World War where they were planted in the aftermath of the Great War. Another popular high-school history essay topic is 'Was The Second World War Inevitable?'. As historians, we know that nothing is inevitable until it happens, but that doesn't change the opinion seared into our minds that the mishandling of the armistice in 1918 led directly to the declaration of war in 1939. It's so difficult, even for historians, to look back at yesterday without the burden of today's knowledge. In 1918 there were lone voices which sounded alarm at the terms of the Armistice. There are recorded opinions that Germany could rise again and that the continent could be plunged into war all over again if changes weren't made. Those voices were silenced, ridiculed, and ignored by a generation which couldn't bear to consider such a possibility.

In 2017, there are many ways that we are back in the inter-war period. Global mood today reflects that global mood then. We are tired of war and want to believe our leaders when they insist that global cooperation has removed all need for armed conflict. I suspect that the world is ripe for the resurrection of Chamberlain's reputation (see this article in Slate, telling you why Chamberlain was right). We are war-weary. America in particular, the world's superpower, is scared of war. We are scared of the cost of war, and still clinging desperately to the belief that we have changed the world and war is no longer necessary. We trumpet 'Never Again' as if it were our security blanket, but don't notice that it has quietly evolved into 'Never Again will we get involved in the petty troubles between two countries far away from us'.

If we learn anything from the inter-war years, it's that when flawed but free, democratic and progressive societies refuse to wield the tools of war, they will be picked up by those who are not restricted by such ethical niceties. Over the years from 1918-1938, the generation that fought and died in Flanders died once more as they lost all hope in their dream of a new world order. Shriveled and despondent, they concluded that war is pointless and changes nothing. The dictators of 1930s Europe came to the opposite conclusion.

It's not a coincidence that the UK's great war leader was of the generation before them, the generation that was accustomed to training for conflict. I doubt that anyone who came of age in the Great War could stomach leading a repeat of it.

Winston Churchill once said 'He who doesn't learn from history is doomed to repeat it'. I wish to see us learn quickly, because we are already living in a era of remakes.

The Hope Of The Inter War Years - And The Consequences Of Losing It

Sunday, 15 January 2017

My Daughter Losing a Best Friend Means I’m Losing a Daughter, Too

My daughter's best friend's family is moving to a different town, and I am going to miss her. 

My daughter is 10 years old, and she has a best friend. Every day they walk home together from school. Almost every day, M comes home with Y alongside her, and they do their homework together, sit side by side on the couch reading for hours on end or at the table playing cards. They splash together in our little pool and play silly games. Each of them is the others go-to person if they are bored. Y is used to my daughter’s occasional tempers and waits patiently for her to snap out of them if they happen while she's around, while my daughter knows when Y will feel shy and how to make her feel comfortable. They share secret words and funny nicknames.

But this is the thing: Y is more than 'just' my daughter's best friend. We recognise her schoolbag in the hallway and her shoes on the stairs. We know which foods she likes and what games she likes to play. My younger son treats Y like another older sister; she helps him with his homework, and he shouts at her not to tell him the answers just like with his real older sister. Once I was coming in from picking up Son from school, and we passed M with Y just walking home. The girls said goodbye to each other and separated to their own homes, and Son said 'Where's Y going?" 

“She’s going home,” M answered.
“Why?” wondered my son.
But now, Y’s family is moving away.
This is going to be hard for us in many ways. This family has always been very involved in our community, and by moving, there will be a huge gap in our midst. Y’s mother is my friend, and I will miss her. My husband and I know that we will have to support our daughter with “losing” her best friend.
When you are 10, having your best friend move away is a catastrophe, and a real loss. We tell M that she can call and talk to Y all the time, and they can email, and visit for sleepovers, but all of the adults know that at this age, a friendship is not the same when the kids can’t see each other every day. We know (and they know) that they are each losing their best friend.

And Y won’t be our bat bayit any more, either. I have to talk about it in terms of my daughter missing her friend and that I will miss mine, but the truth is that there is more than the one loss going on. bat bayit is one of those phrases which is somewhat untranslatable in English. Literally, it means “a daughter of the house.” But in Israel, it’s an expression that’s used to define a different kind of family member. It’s not the same as an adopted child, because Y has her own family who love her very much (and won’t let us kidnap her and keep her when they move away). Bat bayit also doesn’t quite have the same connotations as “surrogate child,” either. The nearest I can come to defining it is to say that Y has become something of an extra daughter and sister in our family, in a way which is separate from my friendship with her mother. We are used to having her around. My sons are used to having her around. We all treat her as one of the family.
We've had our fair share of bnei bayit, it has to be said. Special individuals who have come into our lives and made themselves at home here. They build their own relationships with our children and with us, and learn their way around our kitchen. Sooner or later they leave for university, get married, or in some way or another move on or move away. Each time, we know that we have no claim on our bnei bayit like we have on our real children. They are part of our family because they chose to be, and unlike with our own children, when they leave us they can move entirely out of our lives. Each time, it is a little bit of a loss. Each time, we wave them off knowing that they may never really be in touch and the relationship will probably fizzle out, even though they think that it isn't likely. But we - and our children - gain so much from these bnei bayit that it is worth the sadness. 

I don’t think I realized until now how much our children bring new special people into our lives. Only now that our children are old enough to have friends who spend long periods of time in our home, do I really see it, and possibly only because we’re losing one of them.
It’s often said that your friends are the family that you choose for yourself. There needs to be another line in that saying; perhaps, “your children’s friends are the family that your children choose for you.”

Now on Kveller