Meatballs, Blood and Torah

3 Mar

by Yael Brygel

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Where in the world can you attend a Hassidic-inspired tea house followed by a Buddhist mindfulness workshop? “Eh… Brooklyn,” I hear you say. Yep, I won’t argue with that. I haven’t been to Brooklyn but from my vast academic exploration of the city (The Cosby Show, Sex and the City, Girls, my friend Elissa and a girl I met at a lunch last week) I would have to concur. These events, however, take place in Jerusalem, a Brooklyn in the Middle East minus the brownstones, mung beans, lemongrass, counter-culture, progressive politics, dog funerals and peace with our neighbors – the ones in the apartment above us and the ones across the “border.” (But who needs peace anyway?) Like Brooklyn though, we have the most special characters that the world has to offer. And, fortunately for me, I have acquired a unique knack for drawing the wackiest people in Jerusalem into my personal (but seemingly malfunctioning) “ring of fire.” These magical individuals traverse all sorts of boundaries, both physical and emotional; who indeed needs a therapist, a hug from a loved one or advice from a good friend when a stranger on the bus can breathe down your neck and offer unsolicited advice on how to live you life while standing on one leg and reading Masechet Niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation)?

There is an upside, of course, to this insanity: Sometimes I get to interact with really good people and hear interesting stories because the boundaries between individuals in this city – and perhaps in this country – tend to not be very absolute (that’s an understatement!) Recently I had the opportunity to exchange meatball recipes and hear divrei torah (words of Torah) from my local phlebotomist (medical term for vampire!) while a needle was entrenched in my arm and blood was oozing out of it during a routine blood test. I had recognized the woman from last time and remembered that she was a grandmother who gets up every morning at around 5am and listens to her favorite Torah program on the radio while making meatballs for her family. I asked her about it and she told me a nice parable she had heard that morning about how when God wanted to bring the Torah to the Jewish people, the angels above cried and begged him not to take it away from them. This woman comes to work enthusiastic and inspired each morning, and loves to share what she has learnt with the people she treats. Her own happiness raises the spirits of her patients (a real lesson in the power of giving and the contagiousness of attitude!) Ordinarily, the two of us would never cross paths or interact. She lives in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. But there was something so nice about this interaction, which transcended political and religious beliefs, and represents the often positive encounters I get to have with other Yerushalmim when I am willing, or when they find me.

This post is dedicated to my auntie Sonia who loved to meet new people and continues to inspire.

.Yael Brygel is a Jerusalem-based writer

Thoughts on the matzav

26 Nov

by Ilan Bloch

Marina Maxamilian opens the night

Marina Maximilian opens the night

Eleven years ago, I made Aliyah to Jerusalem – at the tail end of the Second Intifada. I can count the number of terror attacks in the city which occurred during my first year or two of Aliyah on the one hand.

Last week, I went to the International Exposure to Rock and Indie opening night at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine. It was a strange experience; on the one hand, it was only a day after the heinous terror attack in the Har Nof shule which claimed five lives and, on the other, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Culture Department spokesperson who talked at the event made clear – Jerusalemites are actually really glad when international visitors and tourists don’t cancel their plans because of terrible incidents such as this one. As a Jerusalemite, I was so happy to be at a musical showcase with performers from three continents at one of Jerusalem’s top night spots but I was also terribly troubled; my mind was racing with questions.

Could I enjoy myself during a night out in Jerusalem after what happened the morning before?

Is it really enough just to acknowledge the tragedy and then move on with the night as planned?

If I had changed my plans would I “be letting terror win?”

Is it sometimes appropriate to change plans in the face of mourning? If the answer is so clear on a personal level, why is it not on a national level?

Why hadn’t I felt this way in relation to the previous terror attacks? Did this one hit home because as much as I don’t see my reasons for being in Israel as relating to Jewish power and self-rule, there was something so Diasporic/Exilic about Jews dying al Kiddush hashem (as martyrs), butchered in the middle of tefilah? The proposal which I have heard discussed of guards being placed outside synagogues during services is so disturbing because at the end of the day perhaps one of the reasons I came here was to no longer be in such a security predicament. I didn’t “escape” from Australia yet still, the idea of Israel as a “safe haven” was/is so ingrained in me from my Zionist upbringing that it is difficult not to be shocked by the fact that this particular attack took place in Jerusalem under Israeli rule. (Of course, we shouldn’t lose perspective; the security forces who put a stop to the nefarious act were Israelis and they were defending Jews, not sponsoring the murder like in Tsarist Russia.)

I wonder if Jerusalemites who left the city for places like Modiin, or people born and raised in Tel Aviv, have these thoughts? If they don’t does that allow them to find more meaning in their lives because they don’t need to deal with all of this, or does the ideological self-reflection which perhaps takes place more easily and richly in Jerusalem bring meaning to its residents (or perhaps disrupt the ability of its residents to find meaning on a most basic level?)

And then I wonder, even though I am not at all scared in regard to my personal security, as a tour guide, who wants more tourists to come to Israel (including to Jerusalem), should I even be writing this post? Does talking about it facilitate necessary processing (for Jerusalemites, Israelis, Diaspora Jews and others) or by discussing it continuously does it not only pay due honor to the victims’ memory but also enhance the evil perpetrators’ aim of terrorizing?

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

4 am Perspectives

29 Jul

by Yael Brygel 

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

You could be a mother watching your child sleep… Gaza, Sderot or anywhere
You could be an 81-year-old man who hasn’t had a breath of fresh air in weeks
You could be a father anxiously awaiting news
You could be the victim of gang violence
You could be a child desperate for a few minutes of sunshine
You could be a 90-year-old woman who believes she will see peace in her lifetime… Gaza, Sderot or anywhere
You could be her 16-year-old grandson who has given up on hope altogether
You could be scared to step foot outside your home or even go to work
You are scared… even if mainly for others
You ponder what will happen to your country
You wonder what will happen to your society… when the war ends
You think for hours about communities around the world
You cry when you read hateful words
You know things could be better
You are human…

Yael Brygel is the Media and Communications Division Coordinator of Teaching Israel

ללא כותרת/Untitled

22 Jul

English translation follows the Hebrew original.

מאת נעמי רוט

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

.פתאום לאוכל שאתה הכי אוהב אין טעם
.ואלוהים מרגיש רחוק כ״כ וקרוב מאוד בו זמנית
,והכל בזום אאוט מטורף
.וחם נורא ושניה אחר כך קר נורא
.ובעיקר נורא
,ולרגע רק בא לך להעלם ולא להיות פה
.אבל פתאום לקיום שלך יש כל כך הרבה משמעות
,ורק בא לך לצרוח כמו משוגע
.אבל אתה יושב ושותק
.וכל הריבים הקטנים מתגמדים
.וכל האהבות הגדולות מתעצמות
,והכאב דוקר בכל נקודה בגוף
.אבל אתה לא מרגיש כלום
.ובחוץ שמש של דם שוקעת על ים כחול
.אתה מכיר בעצמך כאדם בוגר עכשיו שמתמודד עם הכל
…ועדיין יודע שיש דברים שגם בגיל מאה לא תדע איך להתמודד איתם
ותודה לאל על המשפחה שלך וכל החברים
?אבל למען השם למה? למה לקחת אותם

by Neomy Rott

(translated by Ilan Bloch)

Suddenly your favorite food has no taste.

And God feels so close yet so far at the same time.

And everything is experienced in a crazy zoom out,

And it’s terribly hot and, a second later, it’s terribly cold.

But mainly it’s just terrible.

And for a brief moment you want to disappear and not be here,

But suddenly your very existence is so meaningful.

And you just want to scream like a crazy person.

But you sit in silence.

And all the little arguments are dwarfed,

And all your great loves are reinforced and strengthened.

And the pain penetrates every point in your body,

Yet you feel nothing inside.

And outside, a blood-red sun sets over a blue sea.

You recognize that you are now an adult who can deal with anything.

Yet you realize that even at the age of one hundred there will still be things that you won’t know how to deal with…

And thank God for your family and friends.

But in God’s name, why did you have to take them?


There is something sick going on

7 Jul

by Ilan Bloch

Last night in Zion Square.

Last night in Zion Square

Seventy years ago an absolutely powerless nation suffered the archetypal horror of millions of its members being burned in the ovens of Auschwitz. The revolution of Zionism transformed Jewish Exilic life beyond recognition. Jews, who had previously occupied the moral high ground as a default, because we had no other option, now had to cope with the challenge of wielding Jewish power for the first time in almost two millennia. Would (Could) we be an ohr lagoyim (a light unto the nations) or would we be like every other nation in the world? We love to spew hasbara (Israel advocacy) sound bites like “We’re the only democracy in the Middle East” and “We have the most moral army in the world.” But, for years, tag mechir (price tag) attacks have gone almost completely unanswered, with these Jewish terrorists escaping prosecution; meanwhile, incitement continues on a regular basis. Even apparently “enlightened,” educated Israelis, who are familiar with Western democracy spew prejudice, intolerance and bigotry without thinking twice.

This is not about left- or right-wing. This is about hatred, racism and xenophobia. It is about recognizing and protecting the civil rights of minorities. Jabotinsky z”l and Begin z”l are turning in their graves. There is something absolutely sick about what is going on in Israeli society right now. I am ashamed. I am also scared.

I was never scared as a Jew in the Diaspora. To tell you the truth, in my more than a decade living in Israel, I also have not been scared. Until last night. Last night I was scared for my very life. At a rally in downtown Jerusalem condemning calls for blood lust and vengeance I encountered shouts of “Whores!” “Death to leftists,” “Death to the Arabs” and “Arabs are SOBs; Jews have souls.” This included calls by an armed soldier in uniform, as well as counter-protesters continuously giving us the finger, as well as one pointing to us and making a sign with his finger across his own throat, threatening us with murder. Several protesters lunged at the security forces protecting us, which led to one arrest. Perhaps most worrying was the announcement at the end of the rally stressing police calls not to return to our cars or bus stops alone but only in groups. The calls were reminiscent of the Melbourne Community Security Group’s instructions for the end of High Holy Day services. Here, in the Jewish democratic state, the Israeli police are issuing the same instructions. Here, in the capital city, I apparently need to fear for threats to my security at the hands of Jewish fascists in the same way that I needed to fear for threats to my security at the hands of anti-Semites in Australia.

Every night in downtown Jerusalem, Jewish Jerusalemites don black shirts (both literally and figuratively), roaming the streets and, as the self-declared guardians of Jewish honor, try and promote the “purity” of Jerusalem and its Jews. Tens of thousands, including the head of B’nei Akiva, have called for vengeance. Seventy years after the remnants of our people emerged from the ovens of Auschwitz, we burned an Arab teenager alive. And, instead of true cheshbon hanefesh (moral self-reckoning), we issue lip-service condemnation before immediately stressing that we are better and more moral than the Palestinians because we do not hand out candies to celebrate. I am ashamed.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

Kids 4 Peace

23 Jun

by Meredith Rothbart


Israeli and Palestinian kids enjoying camp together

Kids4Peace is a community of more than 400 Israeli and Palestinian families that come together for meetings, weekends, trips, events and summer camps out of the belief that together, peace is possible. Kids4Peace’s 8th grade program “Roots” focuses on identity and responsibility. This summer the group will travel to the Negev for an outdoor desert experience, utilizing the natural environment as a springboard to facilitate discussions on topics such as personal responsibility, identity, connection to land and peaceful coexistence.

The entire cost of this camp is only $6000. Last year, for the camp’s first year of operation, we were able to raise nearly all the funds locally just before the camp began through online campaigns, small fundraising events and kind donations from local supporters. Due to the tense situation in Israel right now we are at a loss, as supporters stand in the sidelines, angry with the other side and skeptical of the prospects for peace. This is especially sad because we believe that now, more than ever, educating kids towards respect and tolerance is the only hope we have for a more peaceful future.

If you are interested in supporting Israeli and Palestinian teenagers spending the summer together learning to become peace leaders in their communities back home, please consider donating to Roots Camp 2014 and supporting this important cause.

Please visit here for more details.

Meredith Rothbart is the Director of Public Relations of Kids4Peace Jerusalem

My Promised Land – A Review

8 Apr
by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Image courtesy of

Ari Shavit, a Haaretz columnist and television commentator, is clearly an accomplished journalist and a very good writer. He also identifies himself as an upper middle class secular Ashkenazi, a former Peace Now activist, and a leftist who spent many years promoting a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the course of this absorbing history of Zionism and the State of Israel, and his personal story, Shavit describes successes and failures on all three fronts.

Along the way, he recounts interviews with a wide range of individuals who reveal – indeed represent – the different directions which that history took. From the man called Bulldozer who conquered Lydda to Aryeh Deri who brought mizrahim some power in Israel, only to become mired in a corruption scandal, from the sex-and-drugs leaders of modern Tel Aviv’s hedonistic night life to the bitter Arab landowners in the Galilee who reject any two-state solution, and from the leaders of the West Bank settler movement to the kibbutznik who was a top gun in the Air Force, helping Israel win the Six Day War, and later becoming a brilliant hi-tech billionaire, Shavit presents a fascinating spectrum of the Israeli experience. However, among his interviewees, we somehow find no strictly Orthodox rabbis (he calls them “Ultra”) or, in fact, any representative of religious Judaism at all. He condemns “occupation,” calling it a disaster. Yet he points out that the left was naïve about peace: “It counted on a peace partner that was not really there.”

While he states that the Arabs who lived in what is now Israel never had a national movement like those that existed in other parts of the Middle East, he writes as if this is their land. The word “Palestinian” – a designation many of us remember as a fiction circulated by Arafat – appears in almost every other line. Even those Arabs who are now citizens of Israel are called Israeli Palestinians. Clearly, Shavit has real sympathy for their losses. He also recognizes, however, that they have no sympathy for Jewish losses. Holocaust survivors might live next door, but the Arabs still deny the Holocaust took place.

Asking what went wrong, Shavit identifies seven internal revolts that produced “the disintegration of the Israeli republic.”  Each one caused fatal infighting. He also discusses three alien threats, from different parts of the Arab/Muslim world. He predicts no peace, “not in this generation… What this nation has to offer,” he concludes, “is the intensity of life on the edge. The adrenaline rush of living dangerously.”

This book is definitely worth the read for anybody who wants to know more about the effect of key historical events on a typical Israeli. Looking at such events from west of the Atlantic, this reviewer misses the effect they had on world opinion. In the early 1960’s it was “in” to be Jewish. Broadway shows like “Milk and Honey” and “Fiddler on the Roof” dramatized the joys of Jewish life. The prevailing attitude was “Look at those plucky Jews. They nearly got wiped out and now they are building a new country.” But, once Israel won a war against four enemies in six days, world attitudes began to change. It was as if the West could accept Jews as victims, but not as victors. Israel became a target for criticism, then for condemnation.

Subtitles of books can often tell us more than their titles. This book’s subtitle is “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” It first deals with the achievement of independence in 1948 and a spectacular military victory in 1967. It then moves on to the tragedy of various splits in the polity, and errors of the Israeli state. If it were written 45 years ago, it might be subtitled “The Tragedy and Triumph,” referring to the tragedy of the Holocaust, followed by the success of re-establishing the old-new homeland. I hope a capable chronicler like Shavit will one day tell the story that will also reverse the subtitle, telling our story from the tragedy of constant infighting to the triumph of a unified nation. I hope it will not take another 45 years.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon is an ordained Rabbi and Cantor. 


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