January 21, 2016

In Tel Aviv: Beit Bialik, home of Israel's National Poet

Selfie with painting of Israel's national poet (r.)
Hayim Nahman Bialik (b. Odessa 1873, d. Vienna 1934) is Israel's national poet. Bialik helped revive the ancient Hebrew language from one reserved for prayer, sacred text study, and scholarship to a robust modern language. I grew up on his poems, songs, and stories for children, and since have been singing his songs and studying his poetry and the classic Sefer Ha-Aggadah — compilations (with Yehoshua Ravnitzky) of thousands of stories and legends scattered through the Talmud and rabbinic literature, from the creation of the world to the world to come. 

On his 60th birthday, in 1933, all the schoolchildren of Tel Aviv were taken to meet him at his home on Bialik Street that has been converted into Beit Bialik, a museum and center for literary events and the Bialik Archive. Last night, Shmuel Avneri, director of the archive and an important Bialik scholar, treated me and two friends to a private tour. 

This selfie cannot hide my shock and awe standing behind Bialik's desk and in front of a painting of the poet (right) and Ravnitzky. Imagine standing behind the desks of USA national poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Maya Angelou. Or behind the desk of any national poet of any culture you love.

December 22, 2015

December 06, 2015

Hanukkah: first victory for freedom of worship

Hanukkiot at Judith and Jeff Green's home
in Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood
Placing Hanukkiot by a window or door fulfills
the commandment to "publicize the miracle."

I first published this post on Hanukkah 2007. Here, I changed only the Hanukkah dates in 2015.

Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights" begins with the lighting of the first candle at sundown on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, also called the Jewish calendar. Each year, the corresponding day on the Gregorian [civil] calendar changes; in 2015, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Sunday, December 6, and at sundown on Monday, December 14.

No matter how the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה is transliterated into English (Hanukkah, Hanukka, Chanukka, Chanukkah, [fill in your own]), no matter the era or place people celebrate it —
What is most inspiring about Hanukkah is that it memorializes the first clear victory in history for freedom of worship, a celebration that, as contemporary rabbis point out, belongs to all religious people.
— From the Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Hanukkah Q&A

What is the difference between a traditional Menorah and a Hanukkah Menorah (Hebrew: Hanukkiah)?
The seven-branched Menorah is a candelabrum of Jewish historical and ritual meaning that appears on ancient coins, gravestones, and synagogue decorations, and is today the seal and emblem of the State of Israel.

The nine-branched Hanukkah Menorah (Hebrew: Hanukkiah) is a candelabrum with eight branches of equal size and height (one for each night of the Hanukkah festival) and a separate (ninth) candleholder for the "Shamash" (Hebrew: attendant). We use the Shamash to light the other eight candles, in observance of the ruling to view the Hanukkah lights, not to use them.

What's the story?
The Hanukkah festival commemorates the (second century BCE) Jewish Maccabees' military victory over the Greek-Syrian army and the rededication of the Second Temple to the worship of God.

Why the lights?
The Temple purification began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the year 165 BCE. According to the Talmud, the single-days-worth of pure oil found in the Temple miraculously burned eight days, until more pure oil could be brought.

Victory's message?
"Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit." לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי (Zachariah 4:6, whom we read this Shabbat following the Torah portion).

Where is the history recorded?
The First Book of Maccabees tells how, in response to religious persecution and oppression, Judah Maccabee and his four brothers organized a group of resistance fighters who succeeded to drive the far larger Greek-Syrian army out of Judea.

How do we celebrate this fun festival?
Lighting the Hanukkiah is the central observance. Whereas once all lights were oil lamps, using candles is a lot simpler. The first night, a single candle (or oil-dipped wick) is lit, with an additional one lit each successive night.

While lighting the candles, we recite blessings, chant the ancient Hanerot Hallalu, and play dreidel games. We (over)eat oil-rich foods featuring potato pancakes and Hanukkah donuts called sufganiyot (shown on the right), commemorating the miracle of the oil that burned eight days.

What about gifts?
The custom of giving Hanukkah gelt (money) in the form of gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins to children once brought pure bliss to me and my older sister and to previous generations. (Shiny pennies, won playing dreidel games, were acceptable, too.) I recall the year we got pink gloves! Mine were angora, marking not only graduation from mittens but equally from practical plain wool! My sister's, on the minus side, were wool, while on the plus side, featured black velvet ribbon threaded through each wristband. Whose was the prettier gift? I still wonder.

Who am I remembering this year as I kindle the Hanukkah lights?
My childhood family: my mother and my father, my maternal grandparents, and my sister. My Israeli family.

And I am remembering children everywhere who desperately need light to shine on them. Children whose spirits are darkened by ignorant adults, unemployed or underemployed parents, poor diets, insufficient shelters, shabby clothing, inadequate health care, disinterested leaders, and misguided politicians. Children whose birthright is light daily, and who require comprehensive support and services steadily.

And I ask myself: What am I doing to help shine the light?

November 14, 2015

Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; Beirut; Paris (11-15)

Tel Aviv city hall lit up in the colors of the French flag
 during a solidarity vigil, Rabin Square (photo credit:REUTERS)

Mr. Rogers would say what his mother said, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." And, Mr. Rogers probably would have added, "You, too, be a helper." Vive la France! Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité!

November 09, 2015

Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass"

 German bystanders viewing smashed windows
Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938

November 9−10, 2014, marks the 76th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of Hitler's Final Solution — the systematic slaughter of six million Jews and millions of other innocent victims. Kristallnacht in German means the “night of broken glass” or crystal (Kristall) nacht (night).

On November 9–10, 1938, Nazi stormtroopers and non-Jewish civilians launched pogroms around Germany and parts of Austria— state-sanctioned organized anti-Jewish persecution and riots. During the two-day attack, 91 Jews were beaten to death, and about 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The plundering and destroying of thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, community centers, schools, hospitals, and homes shattered windows, carpeting the grounds with broken glass. Hence, the euphemism, “night of broken glass” or "crystal night," Kristallnacht.

Poet, professor, and diarist Karen Alkalay-Gut's parents caught the last bus out of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) the night Hitler invaded Poland on August 31, 1939. She dedicates Night Travel to them.

Night Travel
for my parents

On that night in Danzig the trains did not run
You sat in the bus station till almost dawn
knowing that if you could not get out,
the invaders would find you, grind you among the first
under their heels.

Toward morning an announcement came of a bus,
and without knowing where it would go
you raced to the stop.
But the Nazis were there first, and you watched
as they finished their search -
checking each traveler for papers,
jewelry, a Jewish nose.

Among the passengers you recognized
a familiar face - a German woman - sitting
with someone else you'd seen
in the neighborhood.
They winked a greeting,
waited for the soldiers to leave,
and jumped out -
pushing you up in their place.

Thus you escaped to Berlin, remaining alive
by keeping silent through the long train ride
from Berlin to Cologne in a car filled with
staring German soldiers -

And arrived the next day in Holland,
black with fear and transportation.

— from Ignorant Armies by Karen Alkalay-Gut
Merrick, N.Y: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1994