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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Journey to Hebron

When I first arrived in Israel, I believed that I had the entire conflict figured out and neatly wrapped within a few inviolable facts and slogans that validated my worldview of what it meant to be Jewish, Israeli and Zionist: “A Land without a people and a people without a land” I could quote without apprehension – referring to the early Zionist belief that Palestine was empty of inhabitants. Argue “Deir Yassin” and I would respond with Gush Etzion and the Haddasah medical convoy massacre. Discuss the 1948 Arab Palestinian refugees, and I would counter with the massive (forced?) exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Tell me that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the west bank), and I would tense up emotionally and become completely immune to any logical persuasion. In other words, I was like a slave to my own ironclad opinions – almost unwilling to accept the other side of the argument or to see any basic humanity in the Arab/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, the moment that the basic tenets that I had come to believe regarding Israel and her history were criticized, I always tended to dismiss them as irrelevant, untrue or even anti-zionist.

This was the worldview that – due to my voracious reading habits and to a large degree, my emotional ties to the Jewish narrative – I had come to accept; a scrawny, bespectacled Aussie kid growing up within the Jewish bubble and dreaming of the Holy Land. Perhaps ironically, as I enter my fifth month in Israel and actually live and observe the Arab-Israeli conflict from within, I have come to the tentative realization that conflict is so complex and intricate – that by mentally summarizing the situation into a few historical flashpoints and soundbytes, I have been not only untruthful to myself, but to all the victims on both sides of the border.

The Melbourne Jewish community is by and large one built by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Ties with Israel are incredibly strong, with large numbers of Jewish high school graduates spending their ‘gap year’ in Israel, and quite a few even staying on to make Aliyah and join the IDF (myself included). Another by-product of this environment, and one that I only begin to notice now, is that the picture we have of Israel is painted with bright colours – one that ignores the Palestinian side or masks over the entire Arab world as bloodthirsty Jihadi terrorists preparing to drive us into the sea. I must admit, that I had even dabbled in literature denying the existence of a distinct Palestinian people altogether: “After all there has never been a Palestinian state or people in history” I convinced myself. Little do I realize that such an argument is inherently foolish, as all identities – regardless of their historicity – are essentially self-conceived. The entire argument would become one of who has stronger links to the Holy land – whilst ignoring the realities and facts on the ground: That the Jewish people and Arab Palestinians have both made their home between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

The more time I spend here, the more opinions and stories I hear and the more I see, I realize that in their own way, everybody here is very right, and very wrong at the same time. Left wing, right wing, religious, secular, Zionist, Jewish, Arab, Palestinian – this is the crazy concoction of everything that has been thought of and conceived to explain the violence, the anger, the baseless hatred and the unboundless kindness that I have come across in this blood-drenched land during my short stay. I have gone from consuming hours of news and media reports, scouring opinion forums and talkbacks – to becoming completely apathetic toward the political situation altogether – and reading almost nothing; for so many things that I observe here, openly contradict the media reports that I rely on for information and history. My solid opinions and the “I know everything” attitude that I arrived here with have crumbled impressively to the point that I am entirely confused as to who is right and who is wrong; what is true and what is fake. Everybody here is correct, and everybody has their facts (or emotions more-so) to back it up. And who am I really, to question somebody who has lived here their entire life? Who am I to deny to the right of an Arab farmer to till his lands in the seam zone, or for the Israeli victims of Arab terror to call for harsher retribution against terrorists and their sympathizers? I’m just some kid piggybacking this conflict and getting a ride through history. Yesterday I set out to convince the world what needed to be done. Today I keep my mouth shut, listen silently and ask inquisitive questions; powerless to prevent the events spiralling out of control around me.

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I realize that this conflict at it’s core is not so much about religion, nationality or land, but rather it’s about people. Regular people – most of whom don’t get involved in politics or ideology, who prefer to live a quite life, like the life I had in Australia. “We’re not angels or demons,” a local Arab from Hevron told me as I visited the ancient city, “we were born into this crazy situation, and now we just want to live our life normally.” The massive cave of the patriarchs compound loomed before us, cut in half by a wall to separate Muslim and Jewish worshippers for fear of a repeat of the 1994 massacre, perpetrated by a militant Jewish-American that left nearly 30 Muslims dead. The reason I bring this up, is to show that Jews and Israelis are capable of evil as well, the same kind of evil that we vilify Palestinian terrorists for. At least this attack was unequivocally and wholly condemned by Israeli society, whilst similar attacks on the Arab side are usually praised and glorified.

The Casbah in Hevron

Indeed, visiting Hevron was an eye-opening experience for me: a strange journey into a different world of tight alleyways, ancient stones and a tense feeling so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The Casbah – which once housed the ancient Jewish community of Hevron, is now a modern battlefield of ideologies that illustrates this conflict better than another. A populated, dense area – the former principle Arab market of the city spirals through the narrow alleyways, manned by ageing Palestinian caricatures – wearing traditional white-black Kaffiyehs, sitting quietly by embroidered carpets and ‘made-in-china’ souvenirs, smoking tobacco from a pipe, and staring blankly into a bygone era when this market was bustling full of people. In the floors above the market, Israeli-Jews have moved in, reclaiming the houses their parents had been dispossessed from, following their massacre and expulsion in 1929. An Israeli flag flies from the edge of one of the windows.

The Israeli flag from inside the market

Below it, a net has been erected by the Arab shopkeepers to prevent the settlers from dropping stones down below. It was such a strange feeling, standing in the market, looking upwards at the Israeli flag. Up there are my people. Down here are the people I sympathize with. Both sides have claims to this city. Both sides have a right to live here, to pray here. Both sides have ruined this place – a city built by the love of our forefathers, now consumed entirely by hatred.

I returned to Jerusalem, dazed and confused – from the heat, from the conflict, from this swimming pool of intensity that I jumped into when I got off the plane. Relieved to be back in Israel proper, I strolled through Yafo st – a lively boardwalk lined with shops – just as the warm Judean sun began casting her shadow over trendy rooftops and balconies. The place was packed with people in every direction, as an impromptu band sang over-played Israeli rock’n’roll from the 80s. I sat down and observed quietly: Middle-aged women sipping late at a nearby cafe. A gaggle of teenagers in summer clothes organizing a sleepover. An elderly couple walking past the band, receiving a nod of recognition from the guitarist and then staying on to listen a little more. A Rabbi hurriedly walking past to make afternoon prayers, followed closely by a religious Muslim woman, inspecting some of the latest fashion at the adjacent boutique. It felt so hard for me to believe that Hevron – a virtual warzone compared to this – was just a cool 30 minutes drive from here.

Israel's graffiti covered separation barrier

That night I stayed at my uncle Ran’s place in Jerusalem, and we began discussing the separation barrier that I had visited that afternoon – built to prevent suicide bombings from the Palestinian territories. At the edge of Bethlehem, the walled, concrete section of the barrier (that makes up 10% of the entire fence) dominates the road in front of it. On my return from Hevron, I stopped by the graffiti covered barrier, that has almost become a post-Berlin symbol for anti-nationalists and anarchists everywhere. Every single message and artwork has turned the wall into a figurative monument: spraying a profound quote is like tagging your name in history books. “‘Alaskans for Palestine’; ‘UCLA ’09 against the occupation!’ – who do these people think they are, coming to this part of the world and getting themselves involved in the conflict?” I muttered openly with a touch of annoyance. “Perhaps they also have a stake in it?” Ran prodded, while concentrating on the dishes. “All the people perpetuating the violence seem to be from outside Israel! Most people here just want to live their lives peacefully. What the fuck do Alaskans have to do with Palestine??” I shuffled uncomfortably on the couch. A brief silence ensued, and then Ran unloaded the big one: “You’re one of them too, aren’t you?” he asked, in a wise, yet humorous way. And as much as I’d like to deny it, he’s basically right. My emotional, historical, religious and family connections have pulled me to this land – an intense yearning unexplained by logic. My desire to enlist in the IDF stems from my ideological perceptions and my belief in Jewish self-determination – a self determination that I believe should not come at the expense of another people’s. Indeed, at my base, I’m still a Jew born in Australia. Maybe a Palestinian born in Alaska, attending UCLA feels the same way?

Overcome by immense tiredness, I shuffled around on the mattress, trying to forget about the collapsing situation around me, and everything that I have gotten myself into. Ran turned off the light, as the sounds of distant traffic and flickering street lights poured in through the fly screen. I dozed off perhaps for a minute, and suddenly I found myself once more in Hevron. The terrible heat of the sun beat down on my face, as I slowly made my way through an abandoned street between an Arab and Jewish neighbourhood: Every door had bolted shut, and every window had been shattered by rocks. Garbage lay strewn beside dust that had been collecting there for years, and the blue sky seemed much paler than usual. My mouth was parched from the heat and the thirst, as I came across half-ripped Arab posters immortalizing Palestinian suicide bombers, right next to Jewish signs proclaiming the message of Rabbi Kahane. Unawares, the muezzin – the Muslims call to prayer – began sounding off throughout the city. First a distant whisper from the furthest mosque, and then closer and closer, until it vibrated in my ears, as if each new voice was a louder echo of the first. It sounded like a proclamation to besiege the Jewish quarter that I now found myself in –  a quarter filled with bumper stickers calling for the forced expulsion of the Arabs in Israel. The Muezzin echoed defiantly loud and clear – beating down on my face like the heat of the sun, whilst the stickers radiated an equally overwhelming political message that seemed too much to bear. There I stood awkwardly not quite part of it, not quite taking sides – the thirst killing me and driving me into a delirious trance, the oppressive heat of the sun frying my thought process. I was stuck in the middle, on the fence, not quite sure where I belong.