The sounds of Melbourne and Jerusalem

When I was a young kid, I would climb onto the toilet seat and peer out toward our backyard from behind the fly-screen, mesmerized and captivated by the sounds of Shabbat wafting over from our neighbours next door. It was Friday night in Caulfield, and my now unfamiliar backyard was illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, transforming it into a shadowy Siberian winter-land punctuated by grey-silver grass and leaves. I could see nothing beyond the fence, but the sounds enchanted me — the harmonies of ancient Jewish melodies imbibed me with wonder. The words, strange and exotic, seemed to take me like a bird to distant Arabian deserts to sit in the company of wise, bearded sages.

I was just a kid. Maybe 9 or 10. My family’s Friday night dinners were dysfunctional — a leitmotif of screaming, arguments and agitated kids. The family dynamic was incorrigible, I thought, every Shabbat dinner ended in tears. And so, after the screaming, the kicking and the fighting, with everybody separated and locked away safely in their rooms with the lights turned off, I would quietly tiptoe across the hallway and into the bathroom, lock the door, and climb onto the vantage point to receive my dose of Shabbat.

As the shadows danced across my face, momentarily hiding the tears in my eyes, I would wistfully stand transfixed by the harmonies, like a diver emerging to the surface to receive his first breath of fresh air. The sounds were beautiful. The tunes arcane. They touched a chord deep inside me; they seemed to nourish my soul. I felt that I needed to keep my ears open, to let in this constant stream of medication, this panacea, before the tunes, so ephemeral, would die down, and the family would start eating their Shabbat evening meal.

I was envious, I wanted that too. I wanted to sit at the table of brotherhood and sing to the heavens. I wanted to feel elevated. I wanted to feel closer.

It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

Now fast forward some 10, 12 years, and that same boy, now corrupted by the cynicism of life, the travails of army service and the daily reality of living in Israel, sits on his rented balcony in Jerusalem on a summery Shabbat afternoon. Another breathtaking hilltop sunset flashes warm orange colours onto the cirrus clouds that punctuate the endless, dark blue sky, creating a vertiginous effect.

And then, as if from the echoes of a memory, a stream of melodies from Se’udah Shlishit from a nearby home disperses the twitter of birds and momentarily captures my attention. Like a little kid prodding me with a stick, the harmonies rise and fall in a spiritual climax that immediately strike my very core, and send me back to Friday night all of those years ago. The tunes are heart-wrenching — they come from the depths of despair and longing. They encapsulate the human experience. It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

They seem to rebuke me gently. Never forget who you are. The sounds percolate deeper and deeper into my being. Never forget. Perhaps I have indeed strayed, Father? I stand defenseless as the beautiful niggunim filter in, take me once more like a bird and pluck me back into shul on Yom Kippur, swaying, concentrated on the prayers, begging for forgiveness.

The Friday night discos at ulpan. The insouciant teenager playing with his phone on base Saturday morning. Once in awe of rabbis and religious teachers, now supplanted by a contemporary Israeli suspicion of anything dati. How far had I treaded off the path?

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp

And suddenly, much like the beautiful tunes that had me entranced — far off in the east, a new sound abruptly assails me. The distant thunder of tortured voices, the muezzin of a million mosques. First a whisper, and then an endless feedback loop of the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, the howls pull me out of my trance and back into reality. The strange and foreign melodies of the clash of civilizations, reverberating off the walls of my apartment built from Jerusalem stone.

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp, weighed down by a heavy helmet and a bulletproof vest, besieged by the pre-dawn muezzin that uncovers me and exposes my location. We’re coming for you, they seem to say, at once haunting and enticing — like the pied piper luring me away from my squad and into the dark, narrow alleyways filled with the posters of dead Palestinian shahids toting their AK-47s before of an image of al-Aqsa.

Amid the booms of stun grenades and fire crackers, Shemah Koleinu becomes increasingly drowned out and sinks further and further into sub-conscious like an irritating headache or a daydream. I am now surrounded an all sides by the incessant cries of Suleiman’s Ayyubid hordes encamped beyond the walls of the Old City, like Joshua bombarding the terrified inhabitants with the ghostly warnings and the trumpets of a foreign land.

Never forget, never forget. Forget what? The innocuous call to prayer from the furthest mosque, reigning in the city’s faithful from a tall minaret illuminated by Mordor green? The pitiful sounds of wailing of Lodz and Theresienstadt that captivated me in my childhood?

But I have strayed too far now, I thought, as the adhan wailed louder and louder like a beating drum demanding clear-cut answers to my ambivalence. My inner disconnect was quite apparent: Never forget had become never more; my talking mouth feigning erudition in scholarly matters such as politics and philosophy, but in reality masking an empty, hollow core, devoid of spirituality, thirsty for a lifeline. A fleeting glance of thoughts — reigned in by the newly audible church bells joining the cacophony of piety like an uninvited guest to a party.

As I listened, bewildered on my porch, to the noise of the three great monotheistic religions — taking in the fresh, cool Judean mountain air — I felt this sudden inner tug-and-pull, lasting no more than a blink of an eye. A brief, transient yearning that all but disappeared as I returned my glance from the sky to the trees, from the idealistic dream-world that I had once inhabited, to the harsh reality of life.

I was no longer a child — but a denuded, featherless bird, savagely soaked by a bucket of ice-cold water, scolded and shivering in the breeze.

This 10-year old boy would not get his chance to fly to distant Arabian deserts, and bask in the company of wise, bearded sages.

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The rebirth of the Jewish People

The rebirth of the Jewish people didn’t occur in the dour, moist halls of the UN buildings amid eager lobbyists and budding ambassadors in NY in 1947.

It didn’t occur either in the cramped salon of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, where all the esteemed dignitaries of the pre-state Yishuv had gathered in 1948 to hear Ben-Gurion’s ominous announcement.

It didn’t occur during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and it didn’t occur in ’67, or in ’73 or in ’82.

No, the rebirth of the Jewish people occurred on the streets of Jerusalem, on a Friday afternoon in early 2015, amid the sounds of heavy psychedelic trance music, dancers, onlookers, shoppers, screaming vendors and the long expected winter snow – acquiescing to the pleas of the holy city’s hopeful kids and falling around like confetti at a rock concert.

The rebirth of the Jewish people wasn’t an auspicious occasion. Perhaps it was never destined to be. Amid a long, onerous history of pogroms and exile, major events and specific dates – be it 522 BCE, 70 AD, 1492, Sep 1, 1939 – this ancient people’s rebirth seemed to crawl upon them slowly and completely unnoticed. No brouhaha or announcement, in fact, there wasn’t even a news story, and suffice to say that the moment – like the crowd of onlookers that quickly dissipated as the music died down – will be quickly forgotten, as if it passed by like the blink of an eye.

But I noticed.

I noticed the group of American Birthright kids dressed head to toe in leather jackets and North Face gear starting their impromptu dance beside a wine shop in the market that was blasting agitated trance beats.

I noticed the hippies – recently returned from their post army trip in India – joining in and grooving to the unrelenting bass – their long, wavy dreadlocks and colourful wrist bands accumulating snow like mosquitoes attracted to a light.

I noticed the security guard, still on duty, jumping in to the middle of the circle to show off his skills – his concealed pistol all but invisible to the untrained eye.

I saw the old rabbi – a shtetl caricature straight out of a Bashevis-Singer novel – look on with a hearty smile – seemingly escaping, but for a fleeting moment, ponderous and pious thoughts that still weighed him down; the burden of mitzvoth and heavy bags of chicken breast and challah rolls.

I noticed the swelling crowd of bystanders – some locals, some tourists, some out-of-towners, some shop-keepers and some other kids from the birthright group – too self conscious to join in the festivities, but happy to document it from the side with their I-phones.

I noticed the two giggling teenage girls dressed in long, tight jeans and not-quite-high heels, tentatively ‘throwing themselves out there’ in the centre of the circle to do a few twirls.

I noticed an old couple, grey hair and woollen scarves, grooving along with a child – neither of them sticking to the beat, but still looking as if they were having a lot of fun.

I noticed a young couple, 25 at most, throwing a little toddler – wrapped in layers and layers of pink – into the air like a defiant sign to the gods; or to destiny; or to whoever happened to witness the scene unfold: ‘Look, we are here. We’re alive. We’re not going anywhere. And we’re having a great time!’

And, as I was noticing the revival of the Jewish people, in Jerusalem’s ‘Mahane Yehuda Market’ – by now covered in a layer of white snow to grace the tranquillity of the oncoming Shabbat – I asked myself: Could the half-dead skeletons of Buchenwald imagine such a scene, as they were being liberated by Allied troops – or was it beyond their wildest dreams?

What about the mothers who cowered underneath their beds, smothering the mouths of their newborn babies so as to stifle any sounds, while Chmielnicki and his men raped, pillaged and murdered on the streets outside; could they believe such a scene was possible?

How about the Jewish community of York as they sought refuge from their fellow Britons in the royal castle above the city in 1190. As they barricaded themselves in the keep from the bloodthirsty mob outside, could they have believed that one day Jews will walk around without fear and dance in the markets?

What about the Jews of Babylon, who after months of forced marches collapsed by the banks of the Euphrates to weep over their beloved city’s former splendour: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.’ Could they believe in such a future?

Or even the Jews of Hebron, who lived in an uneasy peace with their neighbours, until their community was decimated in the riots of 1929. Could they have imagined such a genuine, simple, impromptu outburst of joy – predicated upon nothing at all?

The cries, anguish and torment of the past seemed to melt away with the pit-patter of snowflakes obscuring the dirt on the street below with a blanket of cleanliness, together with the harsh, lurid juxtaposition of random shoppers coming together and breaking out into spontaneous dance.

The rebirth of the Jewish People will not be recorded in the books of history.
It was not a seminal event.

But it did not go by unnoticed.

Yom Kippur 5775

The smell of sweat, bad breath, dancing, grey beards, ironed shirts, dust and siddurim (prayer books). The “aye-aye-aye’s,” the cries, the pondering of the Oneness of God, the introspection, sunset over Har Meron (Mt. Meron), raucous children screaming in the stairwell. A bed too short, a Machzor (special prayer book for Yom Kippur) too heavy, the honey-cake used to break the fast too sweet, the thought of drinking water too tempting.

The Israelis, the Americans, the rabbis, the Ba’alei Teshuva (newly religious), the secular, the curious, Chabad, Hasidic, Haredi, the French, the ‘Tel-Avivim’, the kids-with-peyos (sidelocks), the kids without, the teenagers in tank-tops, the Mizrachim (Sephardic Jews), the lone-soldiers, the Shabbos-goy.

2 days in Tzfat, a 25 hour fast, 12 hours of sleep, 5-and-a-half hours of Shacharit (morning prayers), 5 hours of thinking about things other than Shacharit, 30 minutes of enjoying the scenery, 32 times getting up, 31 times sitting down. 12 introductions, 4 interesting conversations, 5 meals, 7 new people met, 2 breathtaking sunsets, 1 coffee spill, 11 handshakes, 4 impromptu line-dances breaking out in the synagogue, 3 phone numbers exchanged.

Yom Kippur 5775. The box ticked. The respects paid, the prayers offered, and presence noted. Every year, once a year, I find myself in this same position, resolving to take on the same new-years resolutions as last time. Perhaps, as another Yom Kippur passes me by, I can resolve to bring myself next year to a different place, spiritually and emotionally? Perhaps a place where the sweat, bad breath and dancing will be my own as well …?

Rain over the Negev

Inspired by a bus ride in the Negev desert.

The first thing I feel is the heat. Heat that reverberates off the windows as the sun beats down on all things unlucky enough to catch it’s glare. The cars before us kick up the dust that innocently lies along the windy road, leaving a thin pane of brown residue on the window along with a misty haze. I stare out to the water-starved fields, but all I gather is my own reflection. Hues of yellow and orange as far as the eye can see are occasionally punctured by the withering carcasses of trees, seemingly outstretched in pain and begging for mollification. Sleep-deprived soldiers nod along with every bump in the road, basking in the warm glow that surrounds them – their ‘plasticized’ ears blasting all manners of ungodly music – or perhaps not. The sky offers nothing but ocean-blue.

But dark, heavy clouds in the distance engorged with millions of tiny rain droplets loom over the tiny bus, overwhelming it with their sheer mass and size. We move ever closer to this inevitable storm, marking the end of the summer season. A big grey one blocks off the sun, so that it shall not bear witness to the fury and wrath that we invite upon ourselves by tempting this monster. The lone trees and desert weeds humbly bow to this higher force, helplessly obsequious with nobody to come to their aid. The bus awakens like a tingling sixth-sense visualizing an impending doom. And we move closer and closer…

The first one is faint, like a whimper, a Trojan-horse sent before the entire army. It splashes onto the window beside me, sending tiny-water droplets streaming down like comets drawn to a star. The next one comes in harder and quicker – a foreboding messenger of what awaits us. Startled passengers awaken from their slumber, look around in awe and shift their bodies for a better view. A light crack of thunder, perhaps a figment of my imagination, sounds in the distance. The low hum of the engine slowly fades out; just four wheels lightly gliding along the bitumen. And then nothing…

The conductor readies his orchestra of the sky; the clouds await their orders and move into position. The bus continues unhindered into this ‘ambush,’ its movements drowned out by a deafening quiet, a majestic silence – the calm before the storm. I take a breath. The ‘plasticized’ soldier setting beside me turns in his sleep.

And then it comes. The rain. Not just rain. But the rain. Rain that is the cry of an old, wrinkled Arab fellah, squinting at the sun and cursing the heavens. Rain that is the sweat and tears of Thai labourers tilling the harsh soil beneath the unforgiving sun, with their torn gloves and balaclavas, whilst dreaming of a better life for their children. These first drops are not just rain, but a sudden shriek of horror, the high pierced shrill of murder. Rain that dilutes and unsettles the farmland that has been drenched and soaked with Jewish and Arab blood. Farmland etched with the imprints of tank tracks and mortar holes, fragments of Qassam rockets and bullet casings. Unpicked grapefruits withering and rotting in the dust, a shovel discarded and waiting to be picked up by an owner that will never return. An echo of gunfire, a cry, a body falls to the dirt.

The rain keeps coming, and the sheer volume of it quickly overwhelms all the grief, injustice and despair – bringing with it another winter that cares not for different types of blood or hardship – because they are all the same to it. The mangled leper retrieves his deformed, arthritic hand in indignation. It is now soaked only with water and will not heal his wounds.

The initial rain quickly gives way to normal rain. Regular, voluptuous droplets that irrigate the fields and enrich the farmlands. Gaza in the distance and before it, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, politely tip their hats to the grey sky in appreciation for next summer’s food. It’s all business as usual, another well-timed performance. The bus driver turns on the windscreen wipers, somebody returns their attention to a novel they stopped reading mid-sentence, a phone rings and is promptly answered. I sit mesmerized, listening intently, hoping to receive another clue. But all I hear is simply the sound of rain, beautifully conjoining and falling like millions of tears unshed, lightly tapping on the window as I look out – my reflection now clearer than ever.

Leaving Melbourne

I’m sitting at the terminal at Melbourne airport, awaiting to board a flight to LA, listening to some forgettable, B-grade remix of a song whose name I don’t remember. I’ve got no wi-fi and no phone connection. My wired-up, unnaturally short attention span has not been trained to deal with empty moments like these. I look to the landing strip for inspiration. Melbourne’s ubiquitous cloudy sky drools past the grey, ceiling-high windows – punctuated by a shimmer of cloud-shine, and the occasional take off…

I stoically scan the runway, imagining myself in earlier years when I would lend such a quasi-significant moment some forced sense of higher meaning. The people surrounding me – dull, gadgeted-up and in various stages of alleviated their boredom – blend in with the bland, un-inspired architecture of the boarding gate.

One woman tends to her wrapped-up baby, whilst searching the room with bird-like glances – perhaps for a tissue? Others immerse themselves in their phones – taking short breaks to stare around – as if suddenly reminded that they are still located in the terminal. An elderly couple sit side-by-side, gazing into oblivion whilst engulfed by years of silence – a heavy, tense silence that can be seen but not understood.

The boarding call has been announced; predictably late and kindly explained away by the staff at the counter. The passengers leave their seats and march to the boarding gate with a quaint air of entitlement – as if claiming an inheritance or a birthright. Each of them finds themselves in different stages of life: The impatient businessman flying to some important job conference. The apathetic student lazily rolling her thumb across her ‘Facebook news feed.’ A surly father lecturing his seemingly annoyed 20-something son – doubtless dispensing some unwarranted travel advice. Two tanned surfer girls on their way to catch some California sun, dreadlocks and blonde hair. All random strangers united by a common need to get somewhere …

My number is called. I look to the dwindling line and get up to join the chorus – my earphone cable nonchalantly dangling from one ear like a fashion statement. As I shuffle toward the flight attendant with the red-lipsticked plastic grin, I realize uncannily that I too, blend in with the architecture. Am I any different?

“Welcome aboard flight 840 sir. Have a pleasant journey.” I robotically nod a polite ‘thank-you’ and quickly disappear into the passageway.

I board the half-empty plane and recline into my economy-class aisle seat. I check to see if the complimentary magazine and laminated safety instructions are safely tucked away into their seat-pouch. They are. They will remain unopened and unread for the remainder of the flight. My tray however will be opened and closed no less than 14 times. The person sitting beside me affirms that he wants nothing to do with anybody and feigns sleep. His headphones convincingly mask his ear-drums, even though they are currently disconnected from his mp3 player. Across the aisle within reaching space, sits the nervous mother with her no longer wrapped-up-baby – a lucky baby who is given permission to take in whiffs of fresh airplane air and the sight of me – curiously staring back.

The pre-flight safety demonstration begins at the far end of the aisle. I sink further into my seat and play with the currently-inert remote control. Why can’t I fast forward myself ‘till after take-off, like I do with boring bits in a movie?

After a brief interlude I find myself soaring above the clouds. A wealth of rhetorical flourishes race through my mind and invite me to partake in this visual feast.

Goodbye Melbourne. The sun winks back at me.

Intertwined fingers

For Liya

Inspired by the Negev desert at night

Intertwined fingers painted in the sky,

A perfection constellation of stars floating by.

The pale moon now holds its ghostly gaze,

As the lifeless as the desert terrain denuded in the haze.

 

I breathe in the icy-invisible air that extends into space,

My heart skips a beat and then increases pace.

The stars seem to realign with my fingers as I trace,

Into the night sky your kind and familiar face

 

You may not be here, but I feel you close,

Another beating heart, the one I feel for most,

A soft hum, I imagine you roll over to your side

The quiet panter of your sleeping breath throws me into a glide

 

Distant snow-capped mountains bring an abrupt end to the moonlight plateau

As I observe the beauty of the night, my only wish is to be here with you.

The sound of footsteps returns me to reality – to this place

But when I return my eyes to the twinkling stars,

I only feel your warm embrace

Coping and succeeding in high pressure situations

Note: The following piece was written over a year-and-a-half ago and may or may not reflect the author’s current view

So I have a problem, probably the longest lasting most serious personality related problem that affects me in the army. When I find myself in a high-pressure or stressful situation, everything seems to break down. I lose control of my ‘excitement/anxiety gauge’. I become reckless. My mind races at a million miles an hour, and I find it difficult to focus. I become irrational. The initial excitement turns into dread, as I come to the realization the ‘this is real’, I’m to blame, and its only up to me to salvage the situation.

My mind speeds and works overtime. My body slow down, my responses less-sharp. I broadcast stress and anxiety, and give off the feeling that ‘everything is lost’, the situation is doomed and other extreme and unhelpful comments. Time seems to fly – indeed loses all meaning – and I feel stuck in motion like a swimmer battling against the stream without progress.

So why am I like this and what can I do to improve?

First of all, most of the time I do feel as if I’m calm, in control and rational. Indeed I try, in public, to give off a cool, suave impression – as if playing some James-bond style alter ego. But in truth I’m anything but, and that all has to change.

I think my problem stems from lack of “personal-framework,” a clear order in my mind of what needs to be done, and an inability to see the bigger picture. I find that many times I find myself in these situations when I’m in a leadership position, or when others are dependent on the performance and ultimate success of my actions. Exhibited emotions include anxiety, stress, a feeling of being overwhelmed and hyper-excitement. It’s as if a valve shuts off in my brain and prevents me from thinking rationally. The worst part is that most of the time I am unaware that I’ve descend into this self-destructive cycle, and as a result it only worsens – with the beating tick of the seconds handle.

So what practical steps do I take to alleviate and prevent such situations in the future? What do I do to minimize and even eradicate this flaw in my personality?

The first step of course, is awareness of the problem, and acknowledgment that it is harming me in the army, and even in the long term. If I do not battle this problem now with all my might, who knows how it will develop in the future?

The next step is to realize that during the ‘high-pressure situation’ that I’m in a ‘high-pressure situation.’ When I find that things are getting out of control, I need to mentally tell myself that now of all times I have to slow down a notch and acquire clarity. This is the most difficult of all, because it requires me – under severe constrains – to stop everything, whilst the clock is ticking and make sense of it all in my head.

Even if it holds everybody up.

Even if there is ‘no time.’

Even if stopping now means that I broadcast that I have lost control of the situation.

This is the most critical stage. I must learn to stop everything – pause time. Ignore the chaos around me, and take a breath.

Ask myself gently like a father asks his young son:

“What’s the problem my dear boy?”

“Well is it really such a big problem, or are you blowing it out of proportion?”

“Can you fix it? Or is there another way?”

“What about the importance of the issue> i.e. the biiger picture?

Problem -> solution(s) -> course of action.

It’s simple really. And it makes a lot of sense. All I have to do is to force myself to stop, and to analyse the situation rationally from the outside.

And of course, as mentioned earlier – to take, a, breath……