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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Israel and Kibbutz life: first impressions

Arriving in Israel

The view

So here I am, two weeks in since I arrived in Israel, with the Carmel mountains stretching out beside my window, and the cool, blue Mediterranean humming in the distance.  There is definitely something special about the land here. It carries with it a depth of history that seems to echo from soil and relive itself out again with different characters facing the same dillemas as those that preceded them. The landscape here remains motionlessness, inviolable, bearing witness to us – playing the same foolish game of life, making mistakes, feeling, living , breathing and fighting. Countless people must’ve traversed the ancient roads that are now paved with bitumen, traffic lights and railroad tracks. New houses with Mezuzot are built beside ancient quarries that were appropriated by the Romans to build the outposts of their empire – that today only extends outward into museums and history textbooks. That is what makes Israel special. Past, present and future converge as one, here in the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. And I feel like I’m in the middle of it, together with everyone else. This is truly history in the making.

Before I arrived in Israel, I always imagined that upon landing, I would suddenly feel something special – like a rush of exctacy to the brain, dilating my pupils with fundamentalist fervour. Needless to say, as I stepped into the terminal I felt numb and sleep deprived – the advertisements in English for McDonalds and Coca Cola seemed to give me the impression that I was in some strange suburb of Melbourne rather than the Holy Land. Western Culture is far-reaching, and fails to discriminate between countries, I thought to myself.

The delayed culture shock only hit me whilst I sat in the taxi from the airport – during the drive northward from Tel Aviv. On face value, the scene was no different from what you would expect in New York or London. There is little difference in the range and quality of cars on the road. Road sings and traffic lights bear resemblance to their counterparts in Oz. The fact that the driver spoke Hebrew didn’t phase me either. What hit me was more subtle: there was a large minority of drivers that completely disregarded the road rules. If changing lanes without indicating was to be the worst offence that I spotted, then I would definitely still be in Melbourne. The perpetual ‘road stress’ that I witness on a daily basis here stems from the ongoing tension of protracted war and conflict. When surrounded by a sea of enemies eagerly waiting for their opportunity to drive you into the sea, every minor formality and road rule pales in comparison. No wonder then, that more people are killed in Israel (during peace time) from traffic accidents, rather than suicide bombings. This is by no means a critique of Israeli society – but merely an observation of a people tired of war and hungry for peace.

This constant need to push and ‘be first’ is indeed, a double edged sword. On the one hand, Israelis may come off as too pushy or arrogant (when in fact the opposite is true) , but on the other hand this unique brand of ‘Chutzpah’ breeds innovation and diligence that is only heightened by the inexorable existential threat. For example, Israel’s high tech sector is the envy of the Middle East (“nicknamed “The Silicon Wadi”), and her economy rivals that of all the surrounding countries, despite having no oil and a minuscule population of only 7 million.

Kibbutz life:

Some of my pre-conceived notions about Kibbutz life in Israel have been both shattered and reinforced. I always imagined the Kibbutz to be a nuclear hub of staunch, sun-tanned idealists, plowing the fields by day, and recounting tales of heroism around a bonfire by night. Needless to say, this is the 21st century, and a life of pure agriculture and neo-socialism is economically unsustainable in the real world. This particular Kibbutz is comparatively wealthy – mostly due to the large plastics factory that exports materials around Israel and abroad (in fact it makes up 80% of the Kibbutz’s income). The old days in which children lived separated from their parents are over. Many sectors of the Kibbutz are privatised, Kibbutz members and their families have their own houses, and the food costs money (although workers and members receive a monthly budget from the Kibbutz to spend in the dining room.)

In many senses, the traditional Kibbutz movement – just like the Romans – is confined to the history books. Today, it is simply an attractive place to live and work. Yes, everybody receives the same monthly allowance in the dining room, and Kibbutz members still vote on matters of importance. However I believe that humans are by nature, acquisitive: we want to own, to have more, to aspire to lead and to buy low and sell high. We are naturally competitive – so it was only a matter of time before human nature trumped over ideology.

From the first day, I was assigned to work in the cowshed. My job consists of collecting cows, trudging through hills of cow feaces and urine, milking the cows, returning them to their barns and then washing away piles of excrement with a high pressured hose. Once I got used to the smell (I would describe it as spending time in an airtight room with an un-flushed toilet, with the smell of hay seeping in from under the door)  the work became more enjoyable. The cows are scared-‘shitless’ (pun intended) of us, and their entire social hierarchy within the barn collapses once a human approaches. Some cows are more eager to be milked. Others take some cajoling. A small minority are purely phlegmatic, and resist milking attempts quite violently. Perhaps once they realize their strength, they might band together like in ‘Animal Farm’ and mutiny against our tyrannical rule. But seriously though, they need to be milked. Otherwise their udders might explode like a blended milkshake.

As I write this, two scenes from the cowshed come to mind:

"The carousel"

1. The cows are milked on a large automated carousel, with tube-like sucking machines that we attach to the udder. The milk is then collected into a large vat, and shipped off for packaging so that people all over the country can enjoy cereal, cheese and coffee. One particular morning, at around 4:30am in the heat of work, the song ‘Aint no sunshine when she’s gone‘ by Bill Withers played through the loudspeakers. The cows remained at their stations cluelessly staring at each other from both ends of carousel, as they slowly rotated around the centre, as the sucking machines emptied their udders. This scene seemed to come straight from a horrible nightmare – the cows placidly bobbing to the music like kids on a merry-go-round in first gear. For some unexplained reason I found this situation quite comical, and I just felt the need to record this moment here for future reference.

2. Washing away the large, clumpy piles of cow-shit from the floor with the hose is a long and tedious experience. In the long stretches of time during this activity, I often become mesmerized by the rivers of “chocolate” and “caramel” foam that stream past my feet and into the drain. When the high-pressured water hits a large build-up, the cow-poo is thrown into the air like a mini-meteor shower, and then gracefully floats down the gooey river upon returning to earth. I once had the unpleasant experience of opening up the hose onto the adjacent wall, and immediately thereafter, the cow-remains ricocheted backward into my face. If I can endure this, then every slimy, sticky or disgusting thing that I will ever encounter will probably pale in comparison. Taking out the garbage isn’t so hard after all, mum!