About Me

Friday, August 28, 2009

Close to Home

The picture I posted is of my father, Morris, taken sometime between 1941-1945, while serving overseas in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. He rarely spoke of the war, and all we have now are a few old photographs. He did his duty for his country then as he would later do for his family - without bravado or pretense.

If he was still alive, my dad would be celebrating his 86th birthday today. I'm living in Jerusalem now, a citizen of Israel, 5700 miles away from the Greater Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where my brother, sister, and me were raised. And, though I have been guilty, at times, of focusing too heavily on my parents' imperfections - and while my often caustic critiques of the homogenous and quite staid culture of my old 'hood has become part of my M.O. - the older I get the more and more I appreciate that, despite the profound changes in my life since I left my old neighborhood, the values I bring to this old-new land were shaped by the "great'' Northeast'' community where I lived and, especially, by the steady moral example of my parents' lives.

For both of my parents, raised in one of the many rowhomes in the mostly Jewish neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion - moving to a single-split level - albeit modest - home in the newly developed Far Northeast, was a clear step up, and represented a commitment to giving their children a better life than they had. Indeed, neither of my parents had the opportunity to go beyond high school, and it took me a long time to understand what an achievement it was for them to see all of their children graduate college. For my father especially, who grew up during the Great Depression - and whose family at times literally didn't have enough to eat - owning a home in the NE was "making it'', and the $20,000 they spent on the house on Dumont Rd., right by the traintracks, in 1970 seemed like a huge sum of money, especially considering how modest his income was as a debit man with the United Insurance Company of America.

I must have heard the story of my parents' first apartment (in 1955) a thousand times, told by my mother each time as if it was the first - a 5th floor walk-up apartment which was all they could afford on dad's $80 a month initial salary. Indeed, they sacrificed to eventually buy and keep our NE home in ways I wasn't fully aware of at the time.

You see, dad's job represented the abandonment of years spent playing semi-pro baseball as a young adult in pursuit of his childhood dream to play in the Pros. Baseball was his life - a passion for the game that was passed on to me and my brother - and, though he loved, and was committed to, his family, each day of work was a reminder that he would never fulfill his dreams, that a Debit Man was all he would ever be.

His work also required him to carry relatively large sums of cash in the more dangerous neighborhoods in Philly - a fact that soon became known among the more disreputable elements in these communities - resulting in him being robbed (often at gunpoint) over a dozen times throughout the years. I learned only recently that, on one such occasion, while being held-up by two teens, he heard the one tell the other to "off-him'', to which the other one replied, ''nah, let's just take his money and get out of here.''

I remember as a child being solemnly informed by my mom, at times, that my dad was ''held up'', and though I understood literally what she meant, I wasn't able, at that age, to appreciate the profound injustice he had just suffered, nor could I appreciate the strength he showed by dutifully returning home to his family and going back to work the next day - presumably hiding whatever fear he had deep inside. Nor was his passionate and principled opposition to racism - ahead of his time in many ways for his generation - in any way altered by what he saw. Derogatory comments about African Americans simply wasn't acceptable discourse in our family.

While I have no doubt that he would have supported my decision to move to Israel, I often wonder how he - a committed New Deal Liberal till the end - would have felt about my gradual move to the Right politically. Interestingly though, in many ways, I attribute my increasing identification with mildly conservative politics to the inspiration of my father's moral example - the quietly dignified way in which he lived his life, and the thrift, moral restraint, loyalty, and work ethic he displayed day after day.

You see, dad had almost no advantages in life by way of money, connections, or supportive nurturing parents, yet he and my mother dutifuly raised their children (including caring for my sister Randi, who died of a heart defect at age 2), and sacrificed to give us the opportunities in life they never had. While dad may have hoped for a few more breaks - and a system that distributed advantges a bit more fairly - he didn't wait around for such a world to be created, and knew instinctively what I think is the most empowering message anyone can learn, that the decisions he made each and every day of his life determined, more than anything, his family's success or failure.

He new that life is lived from the inside out...that strong individuals, families, and communities make for a strong nation, not the other way around....that the greatest thing my brother, sister, and I - as well as my friends in the neighborhood - were given was a community with parents (the only ''role-models'' that truly matter) who delayed gratification, and modeled work, responsibility, and decency. Though his life wasn't at all what he had hoped it would be as a younger man, he was quietly determined to do what he could in order for his children to have a greater chance of realizing their dreams - a moral sobriety shared by generations of American parents who, usually unknowingly, contributed, in ways impossible to measure, to the strength, character, and progress of our nation. My father never pontificated about the virtues of personal responsibility - he simply lived it.

Dad died on April 6, 1996, of a Diabetes related infection, at the age of 73. He handled his long bout with the disease - which included kidney failure, impaired vision, amputation, coutless operations, and at times crippling pain, as he did most things: quietly, stoically. My mother - always the committed and loyal wife and mother - cared for him with love, mercy, and competence till the end.

I know now that I owe most of who I am to who they were.

Friday, August 21, 2009

On writing in Israel

''I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.'' - Gordon Lish (on writing well)
The Tmol-Shilshom bookstore-cafe restaurant (picture on the left) just off of ben Yehuda, opened in 1994, and was named after Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s novel. Their claim to fame is that they quickly became a well known establishment where Israel’s best known writers read from their works. The first one was Yehuda Amichai, who read from his poetry at the opening of Tmol-Shilshom in June 1994. Since then they`ve had Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and many others.

It is at this location where I recently attended a new Jerusalem writers group - where a dozen or so writers, and bloggers, will regularly meet to hopefully provide support, advice, community, and a bit of constructive criticism to one another.

Though I have always been quite political - and had contributed a couple essays to my college paper as an undergradudate - my writing only really began with a letter to the editor published in one of Philly's local "alternative'' weeklies in 2006. My increasing identification with what I would call center-right political thought, which ran in opposition to what I perceived as consistently predictable ''progressive'' tropes about issues such as race, poverty, terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - inspired me to continue such letters. And, the frequency of my submissions and publications - to both the local alternative press, Philly's major daily paper, as well as, on occasion, papers outside the Philly region - began to increase, owed to my realization that I had a very minor talent for communiticating my ''alternative view'' in an informed yet pithy manner which seemed to suit the needs of the editors.

As my letters began to feel a bit less satisfying, and wishing to expand my thoughts beyond what I could express in the mere two or three paragraphs typically allotted for such entries, I took a crack at full-length essays, and had the good fortune of having a submission published in Philly's Jewish weekly, The Jewish Exponent, on the anti-Israel movement in Philadelphia. I then was asked to write another essay on my decision to make Aliyah, published a week or so before my deaparture to Israel.

My blog began quite modestly at first, meant merely to chronicle my experiences in my new country (an online travel journal of sorts) but has turned into something much more. Adam's Zionist Journey has become an opportunity to describe my life as such, but informed by what I see as the big picture, the historical and political context of my new citizenship in the modern Jewish polity - a state which faces the challenges that all such nations face, but which also must deal with multiple existential threats, threats to the Jewish body politic which often stem from the same ideological origins as those threats individual Jews have faced throughout history - what has been referred to as Israel as the Jew writ large.

And, though I'm quite comfortable expounding on such ideas, I am not, by any means, a gifted or prolific writer, and the words needed to give shape and form to my broad themes often struggle to burst free, a challenge especially apparent in my initial story-telling...the linear trajectory of the initital ''who'', ''what'', and ''when'' of the post.

So, in addition to welcoming comments on the political content of my posts, I encourage my new community of writers in Jerusalem, and all friends of this blog, to provide constructive feedback on the quality of the stories themselves. I have absolutely no illusions that I'll ever become a great writer, but would simply be content - through perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will and desire - to become better than I am.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mourners of Zion

The traditional words of consolation said to mourners, in the Jewish tradition, are, "may the almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." This was explained, by Rabbi Aron Moss, to convey: "You're not alone. Although the destruction of Jerusalem would have directly affected those who lived there the most, nevertheless it was a national tragedy. All Jews, including those who lived far from Jerusalem, were deeply pained at the loss of their holy city. It gave strength and courage to the Jerusalemites to know that the entire people was feeling their pain. So too, although it is the family that is mourning for their loss, the entire Jewish people share in their sorrow at the passing of one of our own. This is comfort in knowing that your sorrow is being shared by your people.''

As I entered Har Herzl Military Cemetary to attend the memorial (the 3rd Yartzeit) for Michael Levin, an American Oleh from the Philadelphia area killed in action during the Lebanon War in 2006, I saw Sally Mitlas, the director of the documentary about Michael, A Hero in Heaven. Or, rather, she saw me. I was standing alone, wearing a Hebrew Philadelphia Phillies t-shirt, when Mitlas commented on my shirt, (Michael was a big Phillies fan, and Mitlas herself is a Philly native) struck up a conversation and introduced herself. As she led me to michael's memorial, past hundreds of other tombs of Israeli soldiers killed in battle in its 61 year history, and past land reserved for the tombs of future such casualties, Sally saw someone she recognized who was heading our way.

The deeply tanned, sturdy and robust, middle-aged man in green military fatigues - who, I gathered, also knew Michael - greeted Sally warmly. After a brief exchange, Sally mention to him that I was an Oleh Chadash (a new immigrant). His expression upon hearing the news changed ever so slightly. And, though he didn't turn to me, he acknowledged me, and what my immigration to Israel represented to his strong, yet eternally embattled, nation with a few hearty and purposeful pats on my shoulder as we began to walk to our destination. I felt in those few pats, in his warm yet slightly detached manner towards me so much... conveying so much of what he, and his comrades, has seen and endured....that, though we were not equals, I was now, and will now always be, part of the Jewish nation.

Though I didn't personally know Michael Levin or his parents, there was always something about his life, and death, that touched me, in ways that was only hightened by my Aliyah and my presence at Mt. Herzl witnessing the profound grief of his family, friends, and fellow soldiers on that warm July afternoon. When the Mourner's Kaddish was recited, when Michael's father spoke, when Michael's oldest and closest friend spoke...seeing and hearing their pain as they tried to hold back tears, and carry-on as they all must, was...a lot to bear.

At the conclusion of the memorial we all sang Hatikvah with Michael's family, as one family.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tisha B'Av and Jewish Power

Last week, Israel and Jews around the world observed Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which coincidentally have occurred on the same date in the Hebrew calendar. Tisha B'Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av (the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.), but on this day we reflect on the many other tragedies of the Jewish people, many of which occurred on this day, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Like many in Jerusalem, I spent some time on that evening at the Kotel (Western Wall) reflecting on these tragedies but also found myself thinking of these catastrophies in the context of the Jewish community's often ambivalent relationship with power and my new citizenship in the modern Jewish state, a nation who has been forced to exercise power in order to prevent additional tragedies from befalling the Jewish community in Israel and the diaspora.

Indeed, Israel's creation, and their role as the guardian of the Jews, can be seen as a direct response to the tragedies that have befallen us, an attempt to turn history around, to act instead of always being acted upon. Whether Israel was defending itself in war, or aiding/rescuing endangered Jewish communities around the world, the Jewish collective has had at its disposal, for the first time in over 2000 years, a state apparatus with the means - logistically, politically, diplomatically, and militarily - to protect its interests, just as other people organized in nation-states have had through the ages.

However, with this organized exercise of power comes a price, a burden that many Jews seem unwilling or unable to bear - as any exertion of power, any control over your own fate, inevitably carries with it a burden, the loss of an innocence of sorts, the innocence that is often projected upon people perceived to be powerless.

Israeli military power (exercised against terrorism and small scale regional threats, and in actual wars against state actors, and its territorial repercussions), and the relative success of Jewish communities in the West (and the subsequent political power that such success invariably brings), seems to instill in many Jews an uneasiness that sometimes translates into a loss of identification with their fellow Jews and a need to identify in a way uniquely separate from such power, or even in outright opposition. Many Jews today find it more comforting, and certainly easier to stomach, identifying with non-Jewish "progressive causes than with having to continually defend a state in all the complexities and compromises associated with even the most progressive national enterprises.

This recurring tendency of Jews, both as individuals and as communities, to pay greater attention to their own moral performance than to the necessities of survival is a tendency that writer Ruth Wisse characterizes - in her book aptly named "Jews and Power" - as “moral solipsism.” Wisse further argues that in displaying the resilience necessary to survive in exile, and not burdened by the weight of a military, many Jews believed they could pursue their mission as a “light unto the nations” on a purely moral plane. Wisse demonstrates how their political weakness increased Jewish vulnerability to scapegoating and violence, as it unwittingly goaded power-seeking nations to cast them as perpetual targets.

Indeed some such Jews I have known express their disapproval for the acts of Israel or the Jewish community at large by lamenting this newly acquired capacity to exert power and exclaiming that (with a tone that almost approaches longing) "Jews have always been the underdog...the victim...the weak...never the powerful", confirming for me at least that some Jews almost seem to fetishize weakness and, in so doing, fail to see the role that such weakness has played in the suffering that has befallen Jews through the ages.

Yes, with national sovereignty there is a price that has to be paid in terms of the occasional infliction of human suffering (even if unintentional) that invariably occurs as the result of even the most responsible and restrained use of national power. But in the lives of individual adults, as in the lives of responsible nations, rarely is there the luxury of making choices that will lead to perfect justice for all concerned. Rather, with every serious decision in front of her, Israel - the guardian of the Jews - must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various possible acts, and try to make the decision that will most likely result in the most positive outcomes not only in the present, but taking into account the safety and well-being of future generations of Jews as well - a profound responsibility that can not be taken lightly, and a responsibility we all should take seriously as a community as we lament the suffering of so many throughout our history on Tisha B'Av.