Thursday, February 19, 2009


Yesterday I walked to the nearby used book store, having recently finished the last of the books in my 'to read' pile. I pored over the shelves for an hour, picking books up and putting them down, reading back covers and wiping the dust onto my khaki pants. I left with four books: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Ambassadors by Henry James, and The Wise Men of Chelm , in Yiddish, which I think is anonymous. I came home and opened a book straight away. This morning, I finished The History of Love. I had only meant to read for a few minutes but as soon as I opened the book everything else vanished and it was me and these words so exquisitely revealing their secrets in pauses and spaces and letters snuggling up against one another and pushing from syllable to syllable in a forward-moving-dance to the very last page. It was beautiful, the characters so real in their struggles to be ordinary and extraordinary, to understand their own lives and reach out from their loneliness to one another, to be alone but be connected, to be seen and not to be seen, to live, love, and die. They are quirky, longwinded and terse, imaginative and hopeless, stuck and moving, receding and progressing. They speak in their own nuanced voices and yet the novel holds together. It isn't perfect, and there were moments of which I was less fond, but I think it might be one of the most close to perfect novels I've read in a long time. I think I may have found a new favorite book.

Politics update.

.עידכון פוליטיקה

Announced this morning:

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman announced Thursday that his party would back Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's next prime minister.

But Lieberman conditioned his support for Netanyahu on the Likud leader forging a broad coalition.

Looks like #3 is where we're headed. Unfortunately, Lieberman looks to be extremely influential in the next government:

Two days after Kadima responded positively to all of Israel Beiteinu's demands except for the initiation of a loyalty oath, Likud followed suit, agreeing to its requests to topple Hamas, change the electoral system, fund immigrants and find solutions for converts seeking an easier path into Judaism and couples seeking recognition for civil unions without a religious ceremony.

Kadima and Likud each mocked the commitments of the other for not being specific enough, but the head of Israel Beiteinu's negotiating team, MK Stas Meseznikov, said they were satisfied with the responses of both parties.

"Neither of their responses were perfect, but from the seriousness of what they wrote, we are confident that our five requests will be in the coalition guidelines, and that's what really matters to us," Meseznikov said.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yes we can?

?כן, אנחנו יכולים

The past month has been an interesting one, and there certainly could have been a lot to write about. My apologies for being silent. I want to write a bit about the Israeli political scene on the eve of the period of transition in this country.

This year, 33 parties ran for the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. Only parties that achieve 2% of the national vote (there's no regional representation in Israel) receive seats in the Knesset, so 12 of the 33 parties will actually receive some of the Parliament's 120 seats. Here are the election results:

Kadima (centrist) 28
Likud (center-right) 27
Yisrael Beitenu (right) 15
Labor (center-left) 13
Shas (Sephardic ultra-orthodox) 11
United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox) 5
Hadash (Jewish/Arab far left) 4
United Arab List-Ta'al (Arab) 4
National Union (Religious Zionist) 4
Meretz (left) 3
Habayit Hayehudi (Religious Zionist) 3
Balad (Arab) 3

Voter turnout: 65.2%
(low for Israel but still high for comparable democracies)

So what happens now? Today and tomorrow, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, will be in consultation with the heads of these twelve parties. Based on that consultation, and possibly drawing on his own prerogative, the President will ask one of the party heads to form a government. Historically, the leader of the party with the highest number of seats is charged with forming the government.

What does it mean to form a government? A majority of the Knesset (61 seats) has to agree to be the "government;" the remaining Members of Knesset (MKs) make up the "opposition." Every party in the government agrees to support everything that the government does. So, for example, if there's a Prime Minister from the Likud party who is heading the government, and you're the Defense Minister from the Labor party, if the government decides to go to war with Gaza, you have to go along with it. Similarly, if you're a non-cabinet MK and an issue comes to a vote, you are contractually obligated to vote yea. This means that so long as the government stands, what it agrees to do is what gets done.

It's not as monolithic as it sounds, of course. The Prime Minister can't order that the government act in a certain way, and agreements are made in advance that dictate the direction of the governing of the state. So, if you're in the Labor party, and you agree to join a government with Shas (an ultra-orthodox party), both parties will agree in advance to support, for example, increased child support payments as well as an increased budget for secular education.

So, what does the opposition do? Well, not very much. They make speeches to show how the government is failing to live up to the best interests of the State in hopes that, next time there are elections, their party will fare better as the "told you so" party.

Of course, a party can join the government if it agrees to abide by its policy directions, and a party can leave the government and join the opposition. Thus, if you're Shas and part of your agreement to be in the government is the maintenance of the power of the rabbinical court, and the government puts up for a vote a change in the marriage laws that make civil marriage legal, you're likely to leave the government rather than support that initiative.

This happens relatively frequently. So, although elections are scheduled to happen every four years in Israel, only twice in its history has a government lasted a full four years. Usually, a party will leave the government, making the government drop below 61 seats and forcing new elections. That's exactly what happened last year: Ehud Olmert (Kadima) resigned as Prime Minister, and Tzipi Livni (Kadima) was charged with forming a government. She couldn't convince Shas to stay in the government (or, alternately, Shas couldn't convince Livni to keep them in the government), so new elections were called.

Which brings us to the possibilities of the current results. Let's review:

Kadima (Tzipi Livni) 28
Likud (Benjamin Netanyahu) 27
Yisrael Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman) 15
Labor (Ehud Barak) 13
Shas 11
United Torah Judaism 5
Hadash 4
United Arab List-Ta'al 4
National Union 4
Meretz 3
Habayit Hayehudi 3
Balad 3

As you can see, Kadima and Likud are very close in seats, but neither of them is anywhere close to the 61 seat majority. So, if either Livni or Netanyahu (nicknamed Bibi) are charged with making the government, they'll have some serious work to do. Theoretically, either could be asked by Peres to form the government, though it's more likely that, due to the large number of right-oriented parties (65 seats), Bibi will get the offer. Here are some possibilities about where the government could end up:

1. Netanyahu at the head of a right-wing government

This would be the simplest solution. Bibi could probably fairly easily form a coalition of:

Photo: Vadim Daniel

Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Rabbi Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan)National Union Chairman Yaakov Katz (Photo: Osnat Rom)
Photo: Ofer AmramPhoto: Gil Yohanan

Likud 27
Yisrael Beitenu 15
Shas 11
United Torah Judaism 5
National Union 4
Habayit Hayehudi 3

This arrangement would result in a very right-wing government in Israel. Likud has already come out against the two-state solution, and although Yisrael Beiteinu is strongly in favor of the two-state solution, its peace process involves the forcible relocation of Jews and Arabs to their "new homes" and the administration of loyalty tests to all Arabs who already have Israeli citizenship. The path to peace seems rather grim in this scenario if you ask me.

Now, Netanyahu himself isn't extremely right-wing, and I don't think he wants to lead the most liberal segment of a very right-wing government. For one thing, it would simply be difficult to advance his own agenda. For another, such a right-wing government would look very bad internationally, especially with America. After a war in Lebanon two years ago and a war in Gaza less than two months ago, a reactionary government bordering on having racist elements is not what Israel needs internationally.

And on top of all that, the parties listed above would not get along with one another easily. Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu is extremely secular and wants to significantly decrease the power of the rabbinical court and to make civil marriage legal in Israel. The spiritual advisor of Shas, Ovadia Yosef, has called Lieberman Satan, so an alliance between them would be shaky at best.

All in all, if this government is formed, it will (in my opinion) do harm to Israel and won't last more than a year.

2. Tzipi Livni at the head of a center-left government

If Livni gets pegged to form the government, she could theoretically put something like this together (bearing in mind that no Arab party, even the more moderate Hadash, is at all likely to join a government now or in the near future):

Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan) Photo: Niv Calderon

Meretz-Yahad Chairman MK Chaim Oron (Photo: Meir Partush)
Photo: Gil Yohanan
Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Photo: Vadim Daniel

Kadima 28
Yisrael Beitenu 15
Labor 13
Shas 11
United Torah Judaism 5
Meretz 3

Shas and UTJ have already agreed to work together as a team during this coalition process, so if you need one, you need them both. But without Yisrael Beiteinu, Livni can't make it to 61, so once again, this government would pit bitter enemies against one another. On top of all that, Labor, which has historically been the most dominant party in Israeli politics, had a poor showing this year and has more or less already decided to join the opposition in order to regroup and refocus its message for the next election cycle.

So, this government, though theoretically possible, is extremely unlikely and wouldn't last very long anyway. Thus, there's virtually no way to keep Likud out of the government. I think the best we (read: I) can hope for is something like this:

3. Netanyahu at the head of a centrist national unity government

If Bibi doesn't want a right-wing government, he could put together (assuming Labor stays in the opposition, which I'm assuming it will if Likud forms the coalition):

Photo: Ofer AmramKadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

Likud 27
Kadima 28
Yisrael Beitenu 15
TOTAL 70 (+ other parties that want to tag along)


Photo: Ofer AmramKadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Photo: Vadim DanielPhoto: Gil Yohanan

Likud 27
Kadima 28
Shas 11
United Torah Judaism 5
TOTAL 71 (+ other parties that want to tag along)


Photo: Ofer AmramKadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan)Photo: Vadim DanielPhoto: Gil Yohanan

Likud 27
Kadima 28
Yisrael Beitenu 15
Shas 11
United Torah Judaism 5
TOTAL 86 (+ other parties that want to tag along)

In any of these governments, Kadima would be given significant ministerial portfolios (Foreign Minister, e.g.), but probably so would Yisrael Beiteinu (Defense or Education, e.g.). I'm very wary about Lieberman as Defense OR Education minister, and I hope it doesn't come to that. On the other hand, I'm not very comfortable with Shas and UTJ being the primary coalition partners either.

Regardless of the details, this government would be mildly more stable than the previous ones because of the large number of total seats. It would be more centrist than Option #1, but the government would probably fall if it tried to make a peace deal (as Yisrael Beiteinu would likely bail) ... not that it would if Bibi is Prime Minister anyway. This government could probably continue with a hard-line foreign policy and fairly conservative domestic policy for a couple years but probably won't last the full four-year term. Unfortunately, I think that the government we get will look something like this.

However, there's always a chance for:

4. Livni at the head of a centrist national unity government

If Lieberman throws his support behind Livni at the outset and encourages Peres to charge her with forming the government (which is the only way she can get the nod), it's possible she could build a government that looks like this:

Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Photo: Ofer AmramYisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

Kadima 28
Likud 27
Yisrael Beitenu 15
TOTAL 70 (+ other parties that want to tag along)

OR (even better)

Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Photo: Ofer AmramYisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan) Photo: Niv Calderon

Kadima 28
Likud 27
Yisrael Beitenu 15
Labor 13
TOTAL 83 (+ other parties that want to tag along)

OR (much less likely but my favored future)

Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Photo: Alex Kolomoysky)Photo: Ofer Amram Photo: Niv Calderon

Kadima 28
Likud 27
Labor 13
TOTAL 68 (+ other parties that want to tag along)

Any of these scenarios would have more or less the same outlook as #3; however, with Tzipi Livni as Prime Minister, I'm much more optimistic about progress with the peace process (especially if Labor can be coaxed into the government). Lieberman is a scary man to give power to, but I'd be much more comfortable with Livni keeping him in check than Bibi. Again, I think #1 and #3 are the most likely scenarios, but crazy things can always happen in this country. We'll just have to see.

The government won't actually be formed for 3 weeks at the very least, so we all have some waiting to do. At school, we engaged in a coalition exercise based on these election results, and I got a good first-hand taste of what coalition-building is like - it's really very complex. I'll be following the results with somewhat disappointed fascination, most likely, and I hope that things will be all right in the end. Peace is in our future--I know it is--it's only a matter of how much time and how many lives we go through to get there.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Vacation, so far...

Being on vacation has allowed me to spend time on all manner of occupations, interesting and boring. I've spent hours listening to poetry at, reading about kabbalah, klezmer, and other things that don't start with k, cleaning the apartment in anticipation of my parents' arrival, etc, etc, etc.

On Friday, I made good use of my free time by accompanying my friends Jessica and Nikki (both Rabbinical students) to Tel Aviv, where they wanted to visit a crafts market and look for talitot. The weather was gorgeous, and we took our time strolling among the hair ties, gadgets, hand-knit finger puppets, and Judaica before we visited an artist who does exquisite hand-painted silk table runners, challah covers, and talitot. Jessica and Nikki each ordered a custom designed tallit that I'm sure will be absolutely stunning. After lunch, we went for a stroll on the beach. Amazing. I ended the day with a table full of Shabbat dinner guests, where the food was flavorful and the conversation diverse, and together with these friends I watched evening stretch into night.

I'm not much of a believer in Valentines Day - it reminds me of high school when how loved you were was judged by the number of times the student council interrupted your classes to bring you balloons with heart shaped notes attached, or how many bouquets of flowers you hauled around with you from homeroom to gym to math class. But Daniel and I managed a magnificent Valentines Day, conveniently timed to coincide with Shabbat. We went to services, played several rounds of Spit (Daniel, of course, was the winner), ate baked apples, drew funny creatures with crayons, and spelled "Happy Valentines Day" out while playing hangman. We spent the afternoon getting our pictures taken by a photographer friend - it was terrific fun walking around the city posing in front of walls, bushes, and graffiti. We've only seen a few of the end products, but they are quite lovely.

We arrived home in just enough time to call our families and wish them happy V-days before we went out to dinner with friends and invited them back to our apartment for Settlers of Catan. My evening ended with a phone call to a dear friend in America, and I crawled into bed long after Daniel was already sound asleep. All of this makes me rethink my dislike for a day set aside to remind us how much love we are so blessed to enjoy - wholly, unabashedly, and (unlike the high school memories above) uncompetitively.

Yesterday I joined Daniel's class on a history-centered field trip to Tzippori. Tzippori, also known by the Greek Sepphoris, is about an hour and a half away from Jerusalem, is in the central Galilee region. I am excited to tell you all about it but please bear with me as I don't remember everything and this is, after all, a description of Daniel's history class and not mine, so my knowledge of the time period is quite lacking.

A brief history: The town, now mostly ruins, dates back to the Hellenistic era, and was the administrative capital of the Galilee region under the Roman Empire in the mid-first century BCE. Earlier names for the city include Eirnopolis (city of peace) and Diocaesarea (The Emperor is G-d). By the second century, Tzippori (Like a bird - probably because it is at the top of a hill) was a center of Jewish life. The Sanhedrin (legal body) headed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was located in Tzippori at the beginning of the third century, during which time Jews made up a majority of the population. A Roman pagan population existed alongside the Jewish population of Tzippori, and because of this Tzippori is often used in the Talmud when examples are needed of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the public sphere. In 363 Tzippori was destroyed by an earthquake, but it was rebuild soon thereafter. Under Byzantine rule, the Christain community of Tzippori grew, and under Arab rule, the city declined in importance. Arab and Islamic dynasties continued to control the city, with a brief interlude during the Crusades, up until its conquest by Israel in the war of 1948. Throughout this period of time, the city was known by the Arabicized name of the Greek original: Saffuriya. During the 1948 war, Israel captured Tzippori and most settlers fled toward Lebanon. Those who remained or returned from refugee camps were later expelled, and many settled in nearby Nazareth. In 1949 immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, later joined by Rumanian immigrants, formed a moshav at Tzippori.

Our first stop in Tzippori was the acropolis, which had been the center of town - the marketplace. From there, we walked to the theater, where we discussed the character of theater and how it is represented in rabbinic sources. Theater in the late Roman period in Tzippori was not a presentation of the classics: Sophocles, Aristophones, etc., but was instead a place where accessible commentaries on life in Tzippori were staged: largely mimes and satires. This allowed for an airing of tensions and in particular a representation of stereotypes and discomforts with Jewish practices, particularly as theatergoers were more often Roman than Jewish. Aphitheaters, such as the Coloseum in Rome or the performance space at Caesarea were the site of more large-scale and much more violent activities: here the gladiators would fight large animals or one another for their lives. The Talmud views this as morally repugnant, but nevertheless permits Jews to go to the amphitheaters. Famously, when the gladiators faught, the emporer would signal whether the gladiator would be allowed to live or die, and he would make that assessment based on the cheers of the crowd. Thus, a Jew was allowed to go to the amphitheater in order that, by his cheers, he might be able to save a life. In addition, a Jew could go to the amphitheater to witness the death of another Jew, in order that his wife would not be bound in her marraige and would be able to remarry.

We visited a Roman villa which contains a beautiful mosaic floor, dating from the 3rd century and depicting Roman cults. In one part of the frame is the face of a woman who has been dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee." The seats would have been arranged in a u-shape around the mosaic, and people would have eaten, drank, and reclined in front of the mosaic which pictures Dionysus, Pan, and other figures drinking. Following the Roman villa, we visited the site of another mosaic, located in a building that was erected at the beginning of the 5th century over the ruins of buildings from the Roman period and was in use until the end of the Byzantine period. Inside the building is an almost-intact mosaic depiction of celebration for the rise of the water level of the Nile river. Although Egypt was far away from Tzipori, the Nile, a constant source of water for a desert nation, was legendary as a symbol of wealth, prosperity, and plenty. Also in the building are mosaic depictions of a variety of hunting scenes, including one of Amazon women hunting.

It was at this point that we broke into partners for a text study (I studied with Daniel). We studied the following text, found in the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 16b,17a:

The rabbis have taught: When Rabbi Eleazor was about to be imprisoned on account of sectarianism, he was brought to the [Roman] court to be tried. The judge said to him, "Does a man of your age busy yourself with such things?" He answered, "The j/Judge is just towards me." The judge thought that Eleazor was speaking of him [the judge]; but he thought upon his Father in heaven. Then the judge said to him, "Since you think I am just, then you are acquitted." Now when Eleazor came home his disciples presented themselves to him to console him, but he would not be consoled. Then Rabbi Akiva said to him, "Permit me to tell you something of what you have taught me." He answered, "Say on." Then said Rabbi Akiva, "Perchance you have once given an ear to heresy, which pleased you, and for that account you have been arrested for heresy." Eleazor replied, "Akiva, you have reminded me! I was once walking in the upper streets of Sepphoris; there I met with one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene, Jacob of Kfar Sechanya, who said to me, 'It is found in your Law (Duet. 23:19), Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore. . . into the house of. . . thy God. What may be done with it? May a latrine for the High Priest be built out of such gifts?' And I answered him nothing. He said to me, 'Thus has Jesus the Nazarene taught me, For the hire of a whore has she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot they shall return.' (Micah 1:7) From the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go.' This explanation pleased me, and on this account I have been arrested for heresy, since I transgressed the scripture, Remove your way far from her (i.e., heresy). (Proverbs 5:8)

What we saw as happening here was that Rabbi Eliezar asked his followers what he could have done to displease G-d such that G-d would allow him to have been accused of sectarianism. Rabbi Akiva answers him that perhaps he had once been pleased by an interpretation that came from a non-Jewish source, and this explains his arrest, which Rabbi Eliezar confirms to be the case. Thus, even appreciating and enjoying the interpretations of a non-Jewish source, whether one practices them or not, is enough of a problem for G-d to allow Rabbi Eliezar to be arrested. Moreover, the interpretation that Rabbi Eliezar enjoys parallels his own story: according to Jesus, money earned through prostitution can be used to build the latrine of the high priest, because it comes from filth and so it can be used, if in a demeaning way. Although the source of the money is tainted, the end product is not tainted. Rabbi Eliezar comes to realize that if the source of something (an interpretation, money, etc) is improper (whether by prostitution or by sectarianism), the ending result (the interpretation, the latrine, etc) cannot be good, even if the same interpretation or latrine could have been produced in the exact same way by a proper source. The source of things matters. This story shows the extent to which the Rabbis were afraid of neighboring cultures, in part because they were so similar to one another - both drawing from the same sources and interpreting them in similar ways - that it was hard to maintain boundaries and not to be influenced by the other. In this sense, although Tsippori was a fairly diverse society, home to Romans, Christians, and Jews, the Rabbis were very concerned about the idea that their followers could value the intellectual products of other cultures, and in this passage they solidify Rabbinic authority by declaring that even if the Rabbis and the Christians were to arrive at the same idea, nevertheless adopting the idea from a Christian source would be inappropriate. We had to assume that the Rabbis would only be so fearful if this kind of exchange of ideas between Jews and non-Jews was actually happening, and often.

Our final stop in Tzippori was a synagogue. It is believed that there were once about 18 synagogues in Tzippori, but only one has thus far been excavated. It is a long, narrow building measuring 8x21 meters, and, curiously, not directed toward Jerusalem. We spent some time studying the mosaic on the floor of the synagogue, which contains depictions of the binding of Isaac, lions, Temple objects, and at the center a Zodiac wheel surrounded by representations of the four seasons. This is an interesting juxtaposition of traditional Jewish and Roman symbols, and was a fitting end to our discussion about Jewish fears about and practices of incorporating non-Jewish ideas into their lives and worldviews. We prayed mincha together in the synagogue before returning to the bus to head back to Jerusalem.

On the way to Jerusalem we stopped in Beit Shemesh, a small city just outside Jerusalem, where we had dinner at a terrific restaurant called Tavlin (Spice). It's a vegetarian restaurant with flavorful food made with locally grown spices. Adjacent to the restaurant is a giant spice store with every type and combination of spice imaginable. Daniel and I bought two kinds of granola, two blends of spices for rice, and one blend of spices for soup. We are very excited to get cooking!

In a few days Mom and Dad will be here and I can't wait! I'm sure I'll be writing about my adventures with them soon.
In the meantime, for those who don't know, my exciting news is that I have been accepted to the Jewish Theological Seminary's PhD program in Jewish Literature. I'm still waiting to hear from other schols before I decide if this is where I want to go, but I am terrifically excited and relieved to know that there's a school out there who is willing to admit me.