“Come for the Falafel”
Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, Yom Kippur 5768 / 2007
I am clearly striving for the “Bad Rabbi” award. On a day of fasting from food, drink, and intimate touch, I want to talk about falafel, art, and sex. Eros.
I want to talk about Israel.
Many of you may have heard me joke that my real reason for traveling to Israel is the falafel.
After an extraordinarily full and beautiful 11 days of travel there with 15 members and friends of the JCA, this summer not only do I no longer mean it as a joke, but I mean it passionately and sincerely. I mean it as a powerful advertisement to everyone in the community for travel to Israel as soon and as often as possible.
Falafel, if done right, comes in a pita bread that is so crammed full of things that it can’t close, most likely tears, and leaks tehina down the front of your shirt. In the pita are the falafel balls themselves, but also cucumber and tomato salad, hummus, hot sauce, pickles, slaw, and french fries. There is a combination of hot, cold, crisp, creamy, soothing, piquant, pungent, and fiery. They all sort of slop together, but each element retains some measure of its unique texture, taste, or heat. As you munch your way further into it, there is always an opportunity to add more of almost any spicy, sour, or creamy condiment on top, potentially doubling the volume and nutritional content of your original sandwich, and exponentially increasing the likelihood of tehina stains down the front of your shirt.
Ok. I’ll stop.
That actually for me is a fine metaphor for being in Israel.
My first encounters with Israel were familially and professionally motivated, with absolutely no religious motivation or intention on my part at all. My first trip there was for my uncle Rolf’s funeral. I met many members of my entirely secular Israeli family over a funeral conducted by an Orthodox rabbi whom nobody knew, but the event was led mostly by my uncle’s military comrades. Then we went back to the house and ate.
Later when I started my two years with the Israeli opera, I worked, I saw family, I listened to the language (which I could neither speak nor read), I dated, I went to the beach, I wandered the Old City of Jerusalem, I absorbed the sights, sounds, and smells, and I ate. Israel was a sensory, sensual, sensational experience, for me, neither religious nor political.
I was not oblivious to religious and political expression in Israeli life. Of course they registered with me, but they registered as sensations, like the spices in the market. The voices from Jerusalem Shabbat tables, like the sound of the muezzin calling the Muslims to prayer, the harsh and aggressive political posters pasted on the walls were all part of the atmosphere.
Despite my lack of Jewish kavvanah — I went for no reason related to my Jewishness — Israel nonetheless drew me deeper into Jewish consciousness and awareness. Judaism, like Israel itself, is for me a very sensual experience. I respond to the rough texture of the Hebrew Bible, the gutteral sounds of the language, the high-flying rhetoric of the prayers, the shaukeling style of prayers which is not doing wonders for my knees, the unguarded references to the human body that permeate the liturgy. I love the American Jewish linguistic mishmash of Hebrew and Yiddish — I wish someone would teach me a useful and catchy Ladino idiom to add to the mix.
This sensory awareness or appreciation of Israel preceded any strong political awareness of Israel somehow. I was born into a non-practicing, to some degree alienated, Jewish family that despite having close Israeli relatives, didn’t have the slightest Zionist inclination. I knew about Israel as many Americans of my generation did, with some pictures, some songs (“Dona Dona?”)some stories, some Golda-Meir-vs.-Henry-Kissinger jokes. Nothing three-dimensional. Nothing even two-dimensional worth noting. Possibly nothing even accurate.
Sensory awareness or appreciation of Israel preceded any strong political awareness, and I think I lucked out.
Israel now looms so large on the political screen of American and especially American Jewish politics that we cannot see the falafel for the chickpeas. I think we see Israel too often as half a troubled hyphenate (“Israel-Palestine”), or one component of a regional crisis (“Israel and the Middle East”), that we forget there is theatre, haute cuisine, music, an opera company, a beach, a night life, an internal politics, growth, struggle, slang, poetry, gardening, garbage, cats, skiing, camels, bedouins, hasids, and falafel. There is culture there. There’s a life there that appeals to every one of our five senses, with Jewdar being a potential sixth.
I believe our politics of whatever kind too frequently obscures our view of a place and a people, any place and any people. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to our take on Israel. Not just us, not just our view of Israel. It also works directed back towards us.
After my trip to Israel this summer, I visited my aunt and many friends in Germany. The people I know in Germany are very much like the people I know here: smart, educated, traveled, broad-minded, politically astute. I stayed one day in Duesseldorf, visiting one such friend and his partner. My friend is German, his partner is Dutch, and that man’s father had been a target of Nazi persecution for political reasons.
I remarked that I hadn’t seen many of my German friends in the States recently, which given the weak dollar against the Euro, I found surprising. I’d have thought we were a vacationer’s bargain. So I joked, “Was this some kind of protest against George Bush?” The Dutch guy’s response was, “Well, after the Americans marched into Afghanistan, I vowed never to set foot again on American soil. America knows nothing about Democracy. Never did.”
So, I spent the rest of breakfast trying to defend the States, trying to distance myself from the policies and actions I abhor of the Bush administration, trying to be a good guest, and trying not to cry.
I explained that I knew better than he what has been disastrous, criminal, incompetent, monstrous, and embarrassing in America’s military exploits over the last six years, and I have probably grieved more. I didn’t understand though why someone would not visit me, though. I said, “I live in Massachusetts, for crying out loud, not Texas! You don’t have to go to Texas!” Then my German friend asked me, what I would say to a politically liberal friend of mine from Texas who had overheard that remark.
And I said, “Uh…uh…uhhhhh….”
Eventually I said, “I guess the first thing I would do is apologize. And then I would ask what it had been like for them to live as a liberal in Texas. And we would talk.” And I would have to remember, it’s about the people, stupid.
I don’t think of visiting me as “visiting America.” I think it’s about coming to Amherst, going to dinner, meeting my friends, coming to synagogue and meeting people here, going to Tanglewood or Marlboro, hiking in the woods. Life is not lived on political principles, life is lived on line at the grocery store. Hanging out in cafes. Walking in nature. Being at work, in community. The kind of political schematics that we see at a distance, when the camera pans up and we no longer see people and trees but see larger geographic outlines, that is a distortion of life.
I liken it somewhat to the vulgar and embarrassingly anti-semitic boycott of Israeli scholars by the British academic community. What happens when you stop seeing people as people, but reduce them to a political concept? A concept about which you may just be wrong? A concept potentially rooted in bigotry? You get more bigotry and alienation and injury.
At that distance, there’s not much eros. And let’s face it, no eros, no interest. Nu?
Ok, back to the Eros of Israel.
Some of it is the Eros of Lability (Webster’s says, “labile – readily or continually undergoing chemical, physical, or biological change or breakdown : UNSTABLE <a labile mineral>2 : readily open to change”).
Rivka Myriam, a major poet in Israel, who work is read by everyone, all classes, ages, genders (Israel is still a country where people read poetry, how erotic is that?!) invited members of our tour in for a visit in her house to talk about poetry and art and life.
Rivka also spent a decade and a half as the rosh beit hamidrash at Elul — one of the pioneering egalitarian houses of Jewish religious study in Jerusalem. Her spirit is deeply steeped in Jewish religious thought. She’s a passionate Israeli nationalist, the mother of (I think) three children, all in the army, and her politics is so far to the right of mine, she and I might well show up at the same demonstration but we would probably be on opposite sides of the street waving signs at each other. But while we were talking about art and poetry and Jewish eros, that didn’t matter.
Let me explain the Jewish eros part. I’ve said before in describing Rivka’s house that the walls were covered in her really extraordinary paintings. Lots of angels, lots of winged people. What I didn’t mention before is that most of them were engaged in either embraces of tragedy and comfort or embraces of passion. It was pretty wild.
And we had six poems in front of us, many of them, quite frankly erotic.
We spent time talking about the poem “I and a Circumcised Man,” because although it is clearly on some level about sex, for Rivka it was about Jews and Judaism and Israel. Think about just the title – how Jewish it is. It is a Jewish poem in which the eros of the body became the erotic pulse of the land. Her and her partner become manifestations of an eternal secret of Jewish identity.
“We are a continuing secret. The Jewish story. The same and yet brand new. Every cell in our bodies is new every seven years, but we are the same person. It is like Moshe Rabbeinu in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Akiba. Where Moses sits in the back of Rabbi Akiba’s classroom and recognizes nothing of the Torah that is being taught. He asks ‘Where did you get all this?’ Akiba says, ‘It is the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu!’”
“All religion is erotic,” Rivka said very casually, “It’s all about yearning.”
Looking around Jerusalem after that teaching was very, very different.
Take a look at this picture by Josef Bau. If you saw the movie Schindler’s list, Josef Bau was the engraver. He survived with his wife, also depicted in the movie, and made it to Israel where he became one of the country’s first cinema animators and a very popular artist and illustrator.
He has died, but we met his daughters at his old studio in Tel Aviv, now a small museum (that is in desperate need for funding, by the way) and had a tour of his workshop and of his art. This picture is from a witty lexicon he created called Brit Milah — which is a great pun. Brit Milah of course is Jewish ritual circumcision (see Rivka’s poem), but brit as a I talked about last night, means “covenant.” Milah means “word.”
This particular drawing highlights a very poignant connection between two Hebrew words: Nesheq, meaning “weapon,” and Neshiqah, meaning “kiss.” We can see the tension between the two ideas – the romantic and the violent – in the resemblance of bullets to lipstick. Is it a lipstick in the woman’s hand or a bullet? Is that a necklace or a bandoleer?
That picture really hit home for us on the tour, because only the day before we had visited the Ayalon Institute and saw where, during the Israeli war for Independence, in an unbelievable underground factory beneath a laundry, bullets had been made for the fight against the British. Bullet shells do look like lipstick cases.
We can look at this very witty picture and smile; but the tension is real, and tension, we all know, is very erotic.
The Eros of Tension. You read about it in interviews with Israeli young people all the time. The Israeli film director Eytan Fox (whose film “The Bubble” about the love affair between an Israeli soldier from Tel Aviv and a Palestinian man screened here in Amherst recently and is coming back for a run in a few weeks — a must see) said recently in an interview: “Tel Aviv tries to be very fashionable, with amazing nightlife - bars open until 4 a.m. and all these new restaurants. It’s a clear reaction - let’s live and party, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Rivka Myriam sees it studying Torah in Jerusalem. Eytan Fox sees it making movies in Tel Aviv. You can feel it at a falafel stand, buying falafel from a Palestinian-Israeli man and licking the tehina off your hand.
If you don’t believe me, will you at least believe the Michelin Guide?
In addition to all the helpful maps and historical information, the Michelin Guide to Jerusalem says one of the most surprising things I’ve ever read in a guidebook. Check this out.
Sabras (native Israelis) come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, both Ashkenazi (North European) and Sephardi…a catch-all term , encompassing Oriental Jews from North Africa, Yemen, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean….It is estimated that one-third of all Sabras are in fact a marriage of Ashkenazi and Sephardi, which often makes for a fascinating hybrid of national characteristics, social background and physical features. Young Sabras, of both sexes, are some of the most beautiful people on earth. You can spot them almost anywhere in West Jerusalem, particularly around the cafes and bars of the Midrahov in the New City. [p.20]
I don’t know what they say that about New York or Paris. Come to Israel and stare at the sexy people.
I don’t think I have anything more better than that to say.
That’s actually what I would say. Beyond the fact that one half the world’s Jewish population lives there. Beyond the study of Torah that happens around the country. Beyond the thousands of years of Jewish history that you can see and touch. Beyond the living proof of the power and passion of Jewish pioneers of the past century to create a new Jewish state. Beyond all that. Come to Israel. It’s sexy.
“I and a Circumcised Man”
by Rivka Miryam (translated by Linda Zisquit)
A handsome circumcised man grabs my shoulders,
he’s feeling what’s left of my wings.
– Both of us are remnants – I tell him –
I and my wings, you and your organ.
– Both of us are remnants – I tell him –
and everything in us is but beginnings or endings
we have no middle.
– O handsome man – I tell him –
we are middle, we have no beginning or end.
The man grabs my loins.
We know in there lies our continuation.
My loins are always expanding, my loins that are a vast land.