Category Archives: Peoplehood

The Jewish Peoplehood Project 2011-2013. Thoughts on what it means to be a member of the tribe, here and in Israel. Travelogue including Israel, Ukraine and hosting our counterparts here.

Peoplehood: Just Metal

A prelude in two parts.

1. Nathan Rapoport’s Scroll of Fire sculpture was the first sight I visited on my first trip to Israel in 1989. The part of the sculpture that resonated with me was the menorah representing the reunification of Jerusalem, the converse of the Arch of Titus in which Roman soldiers are carrying the same precious (in every sense) metal menorah away from the Second Temple (in the year 70) as a spoil of war. The long-standing history of the Jewish people in a piece of metal, carried out and symbolically returned.

2. Fast forward a few days – we had many discussions with local political leaders, those establishing new development towns, and homeowners who were required by law to build bomb-proof safe rooms, about “security.” It’s a term we toss around quite loosely in the States: we have home alarm systems, we lock our cars, we park in well-lit spaces and we affix “safely” to our wishes for driving, flying or even participating in weekend sports, all to build a sense of security from some well-understood threats of theft or recklessness. The Negev counterpoint: five or six times a month, a Qassam rocket carrying 20 to 40 pounds of explosives is fired from Gaza.

A rocket-proof bus shelter, donated through Operation Lifeshield.

Ten inches of solid concrete, or a two-layer steel roof with blast deflection is the bare minimum to sustain a nearby impact. There are warning sirens that sound as soon as a rocket launch is detected, and if you’re in Ofaqim or a nearby town, you have fifteen seconds to get to shelter – about as long as it takes to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a clear voice. You wait for the ground-shaking boom that serves as a metallic “all clear”.

And now the story….

While we were walking around the Turkish fort in Ofaqim park, we heard a rocket launch siren. Without a single syllable of raised voice, with a calm and collected demeanor that has to be experienced to be believed, our Israeli group member walked us around a fort wall so we’d be facing away from Gaza – the safest aspect without an appropriate shelter. He said quite simply “We have a few seconds, let’s go.” My body reacted in the way it does when you experience severe pain – first the adrenaline rush, my limbs moved in roughly the right way, and then my brain began to process the potential for danger and my heart was racing. It was a false alarm; we hopped back in our car and continued on our way within a few minutes.

The propulsion end of a small rocket that landed near Kibbutz Erez, now used to hold a tiki torch

Now extrapolate my adult reactions to the children who live in Ofaqim, Beer Sheva and the towns and moshavim (farming communities) in between: they develop fears, they won’t go to the bathroom at night, they won’t sleep alone. This is a fact of life in southern Israel, where you wish for winter rain and get metal from the sky instead.

One of our group introduced us to Yaron Bob, an Israeli artist who collects rockets that have fallen in the Negev and turns them into pieces of art. His business, Rockets Into Roses, returns half of its gross to the local communities to invest in shelters. Once a rocket has detonated, we were told, “it’s just metal.” That statement took on a new meaning after personally hearing a rocket warning siren. Yaron’s work has an intense, visceral feel to it – his flowers and candlesticks are beautiful objects that are equally heavy and dark. Each flower is a single piece of metal, cut, twisted, bent and rolled into art. Yaron turns attempted destruction into an intricate scroll forged with fire.

It’s more than just metal – the Hanukah menorah I purchased from Yaron reminds me of courage, strength, bravery and of my newest friends who stand tall on a daily basis.

Peoplehood: Carmel

It was windy on the mountain, windy enough that a small scrap of black plastic tarp was blown through the air, into my field of view, and over the top of the memorial. What a shame, I thought to myself, that the quiet, simple scene intended by the memorial’s artist was intruded on by construction leftovers. It didn’t shock me, though, as we had passed a chained-off gate holding a sign probably scolding us for entering the memorial before it was completed, although it was hard to get a definite read on the warning beause (a) it was in Hebrew and (b) was covered in mud from the many other pairs of feet that had the same idea. How very Israeli of us, I thought. No apologies or permission, just action.

Wind-swept trash and I do not agree very well. Between wearing glasses and having previous experiences with cameras meeting rocks that didn’t end well for the cameras, I wanted to get away from more lens-scratching, dust-carrying objects. I looked around for the source of the floating trash and as often happens in Israel, I found what I wasn’t looking for: the “plastic tarp” wasn’t man-made trash.

It was a rectangle of scorched bark.

We were at the site of the Carmel Fire Victims Memorial, a tribute to the 44 people killed last December: 36 Israeli prison service officer cadets, their commander, a 16-year old volunteer, their bus driver and two firemen. The tragedy started when the cadets’ bus was engulfed in flames by a fast-moving forest fire.

Carmel Fire Victims Memorial

The cadets’ mission: help evacuate prisoners incarcerated in a facility further up the mountain. Only three of the cadets in that class survived; the names of all of the victims are set at the foot of the sweeping, oxidized, natural steel arch that commemorates their service and bravery. You see a cross-section of modern Israel in the names: Biblical and modern Hebrew, Russian, Ethiopian (Amhari).

"Kiril", in Hebrew, one of the cadets killed in the Carmel Mountain fire

Prisoners in the Carmel Mountain facility are primarily “security prisoners,” a euphemism for those who have had direct involvement in the murder of civilians. Why did the Israel Prison Service strive, so hard, to rescue people who clearly placed no value on the lives of others? Walking through the memorial, I was reminded of the prayer we recite on Yom Kippur, “who shall live and who shall perish, who by fire and who by water?” It’s not for us, and not for those charged as guardians of other humans, prisoners or not, to decide through action or inaction. As difficult and emotional as it is to deal with a relationship in which there’s clearly unequal respect, that is the Jewish, and the very Israeli, lesson for the American visitors. To do otherwise is to emulate Pharoah in the story of the Exodus, hardening his heart to his treatment of the Jewish people. Marv Ross has probably never been quoted in Torah commentary before, but a lyric from his 1980 semi-hit “Harden My Heart” seems appropriate: if you go down that path, you “turn and leave you [them] here.” Israel Prison Services, the Israel Police, the Israel Firefighters and their families are to be commended for not turning away. The story we recite each spring reminds us what it’s like to be on the other side of such unethical treatment.

Peoplehood III: Long Tail

Part of our pre-reading for the Peoplehood Project is Erica Brown and Misha Galperin’s Case For Jewish Peoplehood. While it reads at times like the condensed reading room syllabus for a survey course in sociology and religion, the authors make several forays into topics that remind me of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail view of disperse populations.

Anderson uses the long tail to describe distributions of goods that have a “head” – a few blockbuster, high sales volume but low margin products – and a longer “tail” comprising orders of magnitude fewer units of a correspondingly larger cardinality of product. Think amazon.com, where the Top 100 Book (or Electronics, or Toys) bestsellers represent the head, and the next two million books are the long tail. You can buy from either end of the curve with the same simplicity, and if you take the net profit returned (margin per item times the number of items sold), there’s a lot of money sitting under the long tail. Hard problem: how do you move demand from the head of the curve down the tail? It’s about recommendations, networked relationships, and establishing micro-niches.

There are the large, head of the curve things that define our Jewish context: Israel, holidays, bar and bat mitzvahs, the laws of keeping Kosher, even references to food like bagels. Peoplehood, however, comes from those contextual items much further down the curve. It’s nigh impossible to get people to agree on how to observe holidays, how, when and where to attend synagogue, and the degree to which you agree with the myriad policies and positions of Israel. Much easier is identifying ten or fifty much smaller, specific things around which we cluster our interests: Jewish basketball players or rock musicians, proper Yemenite schug, a particular liturgical melody. Peoplehood means utilizes the long tail in reverse. Rather than working from the big items down to the disperse population, the diaspora finds common ground and establishes a way to talk about the larger, harder problems.

Peoplehood II: Alliteration

Anglicization does strange things to non-English alphabets. My father’s family name (in the Ukraine) was “Shtechter”, probably with a hard “ch” in the middle (like Bach), but it turned into both “Stern” and “Shtier” when the two halves of the family arrived on Ellis Island. Hailing from a rural town – a “mudhole”, in the words of my aunt – that part of the Ukraine was then within the boundaries of the Austria-Hungary empire, otherwise known as Galacia. It’s entirely possible that “Schtechter” derived from something Czech or Magyar in origin, and the name migrated east decades before the family came west. I don’t know too much of the family history before the mid-19th century, and sadly, there’s nobody who remembers left to ask.

Independently of the family name, everyone’s given name went through transmogrification. Aunts and uncles interchanged Jack, Joel, and Julius with remarkable ease considering that none of their native tongues had a “J”-sounding consonant. My second bit of peoplehood backstory stems from a conversation with author Cory Doctorow in which he shared the personal reference point for the alliterative character names in his novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Everybody descended from the Russian side of his family had half a dozen names, dimunitives, family nicknames and chosen preferred first names joined only by initial and context. Doctorow captures the out-of-place experience when you are a true greenhorn, new to culture, language and custom, but simultaneously pinpoints where community spackles over the gaps. It’s easily one of the strangest books I’ve read, but no more confusing than following my family tree or immigration history, and piecing together its stories.

Peoplehood I: Red Sector A

My wife and I have been accepted into the Jewish Federation’s “Peoplehood Project” of MetroWest NJ for 2012-2013. With our 50th birthdays and 25th wedding anniversary coming up, we thought this would be an appropriate way to celebrate (the trip back to Italy for the prosciutto visit is another story, and decidedly along a different axis of peoplehood). We’ll be traveling to Israel to explore what it means to be a member of the Jewish people, and how we can be better ambassadors between, and within, our countries. In 2013 we’ll visit the Ukraine, from where most of my family emigrated in the early 20th century, and something that will force me to learn Russian beyond “Uncle Ivan lives in Brighton” (as far as I got with the cassette tape Teach Yourself Russian). I’m most eager to see how our collective viewpoint rotates from the Jewish American to the American who is also a Jew, and to experience as many points as possible along that curve.

For me, the “peoplehood” question stems from discovering new lights who identify as Stars of David, whether it’s musicians, athletes, or business executives. I adore Geddy Lee (bass player for Rush, son of Holocaust survivors, and Canadian to boot) and know that “Geddy” is his proper name “Gary” passed through his grandmother’s Eastern European Yiddishkeit filter. Recently Geddy commented that the Rush song Red Sector A was based on a story of concentration camp liberation. Trivia like this is one more level of detail below Adam Sandler’s “Hankuah Song.” It certainly makes me listen to the album differently, changing the relative word order of “Jewish,” “prog rock” and “fan.” Internalizing culture is a foundation of peoplehood. That and falafel, I think.

In our last few trips to Israel and when hosting Israeli students in NJ, I’ve been struck by the contrast between Israelis and Americans when it comes to how we identify with popular culture. What I found among Israelis is an attraction to the facets of our American lives that resemble pop culture, rather than the Jewish aspects that put us in a small American minority. Being Jewish is just table stakes for Israelis – doing something that they’ve seen in a slice-of-American life movie is interesting. They don’t need Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” to remind them of Jewish celebrities; but they will gladly go to a local, non-celebrated football game to sample a different kind of Friday Night lights.

One of the themes I expect to come up is that of sustainability – how do we ensure that our diverse, geographically and culturally distant communities pay attention to and look out for each other? The prospective downside – failure to create diverse but thriving communities – makes Neal Peart’s Red Sector A haunting lyrics a rallyng cry.