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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J’accuse! – I Accuse!

Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse...!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. (Photo credit: Public domain/Wikipedia
Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse…!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. (Photo credit: Public domain/Wikipedia)

In 1898, as French-Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus languished behind bars in solitary confinement after a botched misrepresentation of justice that saw him court-martialed for treason on account of his Jewish background – preeminent novelist and playwright, Emile Zola sprung to his defense with his seminal and jarring letter of accusation, splashed on the front pages of influential Paris daily, L’Aurore.

J’accuse! – I Accuse!

Simple yet powerful, Zola laid bare the gross miscarriage of justice and incessant antisemitism sweeping the Republic that endangered the very tenets and democratic values that post-Napoleon France claimed to epitomize.

And now, mere days after terrorists, French citizens purporting to act in the name of Islam, killed 12 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and then an additional 4 at a Jewish supermarket, the durability of French, nay European democracy is once more coming into question.

But this was not an isolated event. The pressure cooker was boiling for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it burst:

Europe’s fast growing Muslim minority has alarmed politicians and laypeople across the continent; for their rigid and conspicuous refusal to integrate into society, for importing Islamic antisemitism and for exporting young and healthy men and women to man the Islamic State’s front lines in Syria and Iraq, among other things.

 Therefore, in the spirit of the times and less than a day after the end of last week’s terror spree, J’accuse – I accuse.

I accuse the the French government of completely failing its Jews.

Instead of beefing up security in heavily Jewish neighborhoods (especially in the wake of the 2012 Toulouse attack) and taking an effective hardline stance against extremist imams and suspected Islamist terrorists, France, like most of Europe, is paralyzed by overt political correctness and does not dare offend the religious sensibilities of its increasingly radicalized Muslim minority, even at the expense of the security of it’s own citizens.

If and when France’s 400,000 strong Jewish community dwindles to a handful in the coming years, the blame will rest first and foremost with the France’s leaders.

I accuse the media of shallow, populist reporting, pandering to soapified political correctness and a strikingly oblivious misrepresentations of the facts.

We have another 4 dead Jews whose blood is being wiped as we speak from the floor of the supermarket where they went to do pre-shabbat shopping. Killed of course, because they were Jews, and not because they drew an offensive picture of the prophet Muhammad.

Judging by the coverage of the attack, hidden behind titles such ‘kosher supermarket raid’ and ‘second siege’ one could assume that the perpetrators only had beef with the kosher food on sale at store – and not the Jews inside.

And indeed, Jewish blood could not be cheaper, when a slew of opinion articles posted in FP, US media outlets and the Guardian quickly rush to paint France’s 5 million strong Muslim ‘minority’ as the real victims in the entire story with pre-programmed knee-jerk condemnations of any perceived Islamaphobia that might result in the future.

Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators?

I accuse France’s Muslim community, of not doing enough to distance themselves from the fundamentalists within their fold, and not doing enough to prevent the radicalization of their youth.

Of course, there does exist a hostile atmosphere against Europe’s Muslims. Some of it is unwarranted, and castigating individual Muslims for the actions of their co-coreligionists is wrong and hypocritical.

However it’s no coincidence that after attacking the Charlie Hebdo offices – a symbol of Western ideals and free speech – the terrorists went straight for a Jewish deli during its busiest hour.

As a community, Muslim laymen, leaders and figureheads must come out en-masse to condemn the actions of those who they claim have ‘hijacked’ the Islamic faith and those who kill in their name and in the name of their prophet.

For if they don’t, not only will their silence be deafening.

No, such silence can only be interpreted as tacit approval and thus, indirect culpability for the actions that we witness today – actions which will probably become more violent and spectacular in the coming years.

I accuse for all those whose blood cries out from the violence of the past few days, and for all those whose blood is yet to spilled in the name of radical Islam.

J’accuse.

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.

A day at university – U of T

The hustle and bustle of young minds are dwarfed by vampire-ish Edwardian architecture – in itself super-imposed before a modern city skyline.
The statue of some great 19th century thinker sits forever doomed to ponder life’s great ideas in some busy cafeteria courtyard.
The echo of history rustles through the vines that scale gothic arches and towers, playfully winking at the unsuspecting students below. Perhaps one of them too will forever be enshrined and immortalized as a statue at the entrance to the student-services building?

Tomorrow’s scientists and engineers delve into their laptops – a coffee in hand for added concentration. Only a curious observer will note that Zuckerburg’s theorem and not Einstein’s occupy their screens.
A labyrinth of halls, courtyards and classrooms seem to entrap all who venture into this realm of study..

The students pour into an elaborate lecture hall like a swarm of ants escaping the oncoming storm. The professor gazes toward rows and rows of faces several stories tall. Illuminated half-eaten apples stare back at him from hundreds of laptop covers. He clears his throat into the microphone, drowning out the chorus of whispers, typing, and shuffling paper.
Class has begun.