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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Fantasies and growing up

“How’s the army?”

“That’s so amazing”

“That’s intense”

“So how’d you do it?

“Can you give me some tips?”

Not for the first time in recent months, I found myself once again in the position of ‘the guy who’s gone through it’, or the ‘chayal-boded in the army’.  A young, new garin from Miami had just arrived on my kibbutz to begin their journey of making Aliyah and joining the Israeli army, and I found myself mingling with them at the kibbutz pub in a ‘big brother’ position of sorts, answering questions about the enlistment process and deflecting unwanted admiration. Whilst they were very sweet and ‘full of life’ – by talking to them, I felt as if I had been transported back in time – giving advice to my 18-year-old self a couple of years earlier. I saw myself in them – exuberant and giddy, resolving to learn Hebrew and to live my life according to the routine of a Rocky-style train-every-day ‘no-pain-no-game’ cliché.  So what more of a good cliché can I ask for, than to peruse my inner thoughts with a little sarcasm and come to some inexorable life-changing conclusion?

It’s interesting how drastically our life goals and dreams can change in a short period of time. For some, ambitions and desires take a change of turn due to an unexpected life event. For others, motivation simply withers with time as part of the ageing process. In other words, as I see it, changes in destiny are simply an inevitable part of growing up. The more you gather life experiences, the more mature you become, and consequentially, the less naïve and innocent you are. As a result, 18-year-old wet dreams of ‘changing the world’, ‘becoming an astronaut’ and fairytale endings, take fateful, irreversible knocks to their believability (believable in the sense that we cease to believe in them.)

I’d like to illustrate this with an analogy: Until recently, history has always been written by the victors, and the populist myths that accompany it have remained accepted and unquestioned for centuries – nicely fitting in with our story-book, Band-Aid world-view of how things were. With the onset of revisionism, many histories have been repackaged – politically or rightly so – to suit the context of the historian or the vanquished. Coupled with today’s internet, conspiracy-soaked, doubt-everything society – where the veracity of events that happen live, before-your-eyes are questioned – it’s easy to see where all the skepticism comes from. How can one believe history to be genuine, if one can’t even trust the facts coming out of today’s real-life dramas and war-zones? Much as our perception of history and it’s stories and legends have undergone a reframing process over the past generation, so too our worldview and desires undergo massive changes as a result of ‘growing up’.

For me, this change has been potently felt over the past 2 and a half years. I made Aliyah and arrived in Israel at 18 –young and idealistic –with a vigour that effused: “I’m ready to change the world”. Now at 20, and after 2 years of serving in the IDF, I look back on those first months with a nostalgic smile. Back then I lived in a world where history was accepted, and there was only one truth. Everything seemed harmonious and even if it didn’t – it probably had an explanation. I fitted in neatly with my worldview. The grass was greener back then. People smiled more often, and everybody went about their daily lives with a sense of purpose, as part of a bigger project ‘bigger than they’ – or ‘Zionism’ as I called it. You know? That word that once expressed the hopes of the Jewish people to establish their state in Israel – that has today been reframed as a loaded, controversial and even racist term.

But was the grass really greener? Were the people really friendlier? Or was that just my naïve, hopeful perception of things? If I ask myself today, then the answer is obvious – 18 and fresh out of high school. What does he possibly know? But then again – back then I was so sure (so sure!), and the excitement was so palpable. Today, this 20-year-old post-revisionist diplomatically-correct writer is so skeptical that he is sure of nothing. (Ok perhaps that’s a little exaggeration, but it’s there to bring my point across).

Nothing seems noteworthy to me anymore – expect what I feel – and even then, after months of rigorous, emotionally exhausting training, my feelings are like an empty bottle of wine: you can smell the residue, but there’s nothing left to taste. If my commanders tried to shape me into an unsentimental and unfazed soldier, then they’ve nearly succeeded.

So where do my ambitions and fantasies lie with this realization? They’re still there – and my motivation to succeed is still stronger than ever. But my goals and dreams have simply become more opaque – more ‘realistic’ have you will, in our “revisionist-history” scheme-of-things.

More than once, I have come across the analogy of “life as a novel” – with chapters and paragraphs. When I was 18, I could read my imaginary book and skip freely between the chapters – with everything so clearly laid out before me: High school-Aliyah-Ulpan-army-Uni-career-marriage-save-the-world. Today as I read my book, I don’t progress pass the current chapter, as all the rest are hidden from view. In some ways it’s comforting to be 18 and sure of where you’re taking your life, because the uncertainty of not being able to read the next chapter can be frustrating. On the other hand, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m not supposed to know, and with hard work and motivation – my goals – whatever they may be – will fall into place, one way or another. Isn’t that exciting? Not being able to know what awaits you – today, tomorrow, in a year or 10?

For now though, I can only wax poetic and describe the majesty of the rising sun outside my kibbutz window – heralding the entrance of a beautiful new summer day. Oh wait! I’ve been through so many of these in the army, that every spectacular sunrise happens to be just as ubiquitous as the last. Oh well…