When I started learning Hebrew at age 29, one year before moving to Israel, it seemed daunting. Until then, English was the only language I knew; now, at a relatively late age, I was setting out to learn another one that had a different alphabet, belonged to a different language family, and was overall distant and exotic from the standpoint of English.
Some of the ways in which Hebrew differs from English were indeed hard to get used to, others not so much. What was fascinating was to find how there are different modes of human speech. While the content of what gets expressed is basically the same, the mechanisms for doing so are not. It would be all the more intriguing to learn a third language; I wish I had the time.
In 2014, the year before the murder rampages at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris, about seven thousand French Jews (out of a community of about half a million) emigrated to Israel.
With Muslim and other antisemitic harassment and violence constantly intensifying in France, that was twice the number of the previous year, and a record high.
Even before this month’s terror attacks, a higher number of French Jewish immigrants to Israel was expected for 2015. Now, after the attacks, a higher number yet is expected, possibly fifteen thousand. There is even talk of the Jews leaving France—mainly for Israel—altogether.
Meanwhile it’s reported that:
An unprecedented 15,000 soldiers and police officers have been mobilized in France to protect potential sites from terrorist attacks, of whom one third have been stationed at Jewish schools and synagogues for 24-hour-a-day supervision.
Five thousand police officers will guard 717 Jewish institutions, in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks that killed 17 people, including four Jews at a Paris kosher supermarket.
And in a speech after the attacks, French prime minister Manuel Valls said:
How is it possible to accept that France…how can it be accepted that we hear on our streets “Death to the Jews”?… How can one accept that French people be murdered simply because they are Jewish?
…We must say to the world: without the Jews of France, France would no longer be France. And that message is one that we all have to deliver strongly and loudly. We did not say it in the past. We did not show our indignation in the past.
On the one hand, one can ask whether sending one’s children to a school that has to be guarded round-the-clock by seven or eight soldiers and police officers is much of a way to live. On the other hand, one could ask, in light of the protective measures and Valls’s words: should France be given another chance, before Jews give up on it?
As I noted in the first article in this series, “In the Diaspora, Hebrew was retained primarily as a holy tongue, a language of prayer and sacred study.” But with the onset of Zionist settlement of the Land of Israel in the late 19th century, Hebrew gradually became the official language of the Yishuv, the prestate Jewish community, and then of the state of Israel itself.
That, however, required a good deal of modernization and adaptation of classical Hebrew. The driving force behind that project was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1921), a Lithuanian-born Jew who moved to Palestine in 1881 and—among much other activity on Hebrew’s behalf—produced a 17-volume lexicon of ancient and modern Hebrew, sometimes working on it 18 hours a day.
If Eliezer Ben-Yehuda could see today’s Israel, he would know that his labors were crowned with great success. Hebrew now permeates all dimensions of Israeli life, from scientific studies to street slang.
And yet, with all the modern coinages—many of which originated with Ben-Yehuda himself—Hebrew’s biblical core remains vibrant. It pops up, for instance, in colorful phrases and sayings that are part of today’s Israeli Hebrew.
An Israeli year is usually tumultuous. It has to do with the hostile Middle Eastern environment, with Israel’s problematic parliamentary system that often produces rickety, short-lived coalitions, and with the dynamism of a young society undergoing dramatic economic and demographic growth.
This wasn’t one of Israel’s most tumultuous years but also definitely not one of its quietest. The Gaza war and a wave of terrorism broke five years of relative calm since the 2008-2009 Gaza war. The Obama administration kept lambasting Israel publicly, while in Israel a governing coalition collapsed after less than two years in office. Outside the media limelight, though, Israel kept making diplomatic and economic gains, and the immigrants kept coming.
I decided to move to Israel (make aliyah) when I was 28, and came to live here with my family when I was 30. At the age of 28, I knew zero Hebrew; by the time we made aliyah I had learned just a little from a cassette-tape course. (Yes, there were things called cassette tapes back then.)
Our first residence in Israel was an absorption center in the town of Hadera on the coastal plain. There we had to take an intensive Hebrew course—meaning I immediately started learning this difficult language more seriously. And right away, even with only a few words and phrases at my disposal, I started to feel connected to my new environment in ways I couldn’t have if English had still been the only language residing in my brain.
The main factor that redeemed the Jewish people in our time is the state of Israel. It made them an active, generative people again, not merely scattered minorities contending with the Scylla and Charybdis of antisemitism and assimilation.
But a close handmaiden of the Jewish state in effecting this transformation was the Hebrew language. Along with the magnetic pull of the Land of Israel itself, it was Hebrew that enabled the Zionist endeavor to coalesce and take on a distinctive, organic character.
Hebrew—that is, the revival of the Hebrew language in the context of the return to Zion—achieved that in four main ways.
Author and journalist Judy Bachrach started volunteering in a hospice in the late 1980s, and her real motive was to try to overcome her fear of death. About two decades later, when her mother came down with Alzheimer’s, Bachrach decided to look into the subject of near-death experiences.
So she delved into the literature, and journeyed around the United States and the world to interview near-death experiencers (NDErs or, as she calls them, “death travelers”) and leading researchers in the field. The result is her book Glimpsing Heaven. Her conclusion from her inquiries: “there are simply, as some of the doctors and scientists I’ve interviewed point out, too many experiencers and too many experiences to discount.”
How many? Dutch cardiologist and NDE researcher Pim van Lommel says that in the last 50 years over 25 million people worldwide have reported NDEs. A 1982 Gallup poll found eight million Americans reporting them. As Bachrach comments: “Not every self-proclaimed death traveler could be an arrant liar or deeply unbalanced or both.” If you want to hear accounts by “travelers” who are evidently balanced, mature, and intelligent, you can easily find them on YouTube.
But were these people really “dead”? Aren’t these experiences just hallucinations caused by oxygen deprivation? Having looked into the NDE subject myself for a few years, I believe one can only hold that view if one is ill-informed or determined.
Israel is becoming a more and more popular place for Jews to live. When I made aliyah (a word that means “ascent” or “Jewish immigration to Israel”) from the U.S. in 1984, the Jewish population stood at around three million; today it has doubled to over six million and is the largest Jewish community in the world. The huge rise comes from both natural growth and immigration. Jews who are already here vote “yes” by having the Western world’s highest fertility rates; many Jews who were living elsewhere have been coming here.
And now it turns out that the rate of yerida (a word that means “descent” or “Jewish emigration from Israel”) is at an all-time low—yes, even in this era of globalization, and with some Israelis loudly complaining about high prices here. The Jerusalem Post reports:
In 2012…the number of émigrés—people who left Israel and stayed abroad for over a year—went down to 15,900, the lowest since the establishment of the state….
Nearly a quarter of them had returned to the country or reported a planned return date as of April 2014.
Most of those who left the country were not born in Israel, and 25 percent of them are not Jewish. Many had moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since 1990.
And the New York Times adds that
Sergio DellaPergola, a leading [Israeli] demographer, said emigration was actually lower now than at any time in Israel’s 66-year history, and also lower than in comparably developed countries. Far more people left Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation skyrocketed….
Even so, if you’re considering making aliyah, it’s natural to have fears about taking such a big plunge. I had some of them too; but by now they’re a thing of the distant past.
PJ Media contributor David Solway, an award-winning Canadian poet and author, has revealed another side of his multiple talents. Solway the songster is now available on his new CD Blood Guitar and Other Tales (individual tracks available for download at CDBaby.com). It’s a stunning musical debut.
Blood Guitar offers thirteen gems with lyrics and music entirely created by Solway. Ably rendering his own compositions on voice and guitar, Solway is expertly backed up by Canadian musicians Ted Paull and Margaret Armstrong. I cannot too strongly recommend this musical stroll through essential issues of life.
In the extraordinarily poignant “So It Goes” Solway sings of “the silence in between the tick and tock….” Time is one of the main concerns of this set of songs. The other is love. How does one embark on new love when one has long been scarred by time and knows that it keeps “ticking in the heart” (“The Most of It”)? Taken together these songs are a vote in favor of love, of taking the leap of faith even if it means being “half-demented” (“Speaking Eyes”).
The eight-day Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) holiday, which begins on Wednesday evening, commemorates the Israelites’ 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. As God commands (Lev. 23:42-43):
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days….
That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt….
Today, many generations later, sukkot—makeshift, decorated huts—sprout all over Israel for the holiday, recalling the ancient Israelites’ rude, temporary dwellings in the desert.
But Sukkot is also an autumn harvest festival, and very much tied to the Land of Israel itself. It occurs in early fall, a wonderfully warm-cool time of year with clear nights, perfect for gazing up at the stars through the thatched roof of a sukkah.
Sukkot is, then, a good occasion to look back at some of the archaeological finds from the Land of Israel over the past year (on the Jewish calendar, running from September to September). I’ve only chosen some of the most striking, since in any given year there is intensive archaeological activity throughout the land and numerous finds. These discoveries link the ancient past to the present and reinforce Israelis’ rootedness in an archetypal landscape.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, falls this year on Wednesday, September 24. The year that just ended—5774 on the Jewish calendar—was not an easy one.
There was the war against Hamas in July and August, which Israel won overwhelmingly while losing 64 soldiers and seven civilians. In June there was Hamas’s kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys. (The murderers have now met their just fate.) And Israel’s overall security environment in the Middle East seems more and more precarious. Among other things, jihadis are battling the Syrian army just across Israel’s Golan Heights border; Jordan’s moderate regime could be in danger; Islamic State has set up its “caliphate” of atrocity in Iraq and Syria; while Iran keeps being allowed to progress along the nuclear path by Western powers playing feckless diplomatic games. (Another update: Israel has shot down a Syrian plane over the Golan.)
Where, then, does a “bright future” come into all this? Looking ahead to 5775, Israel has a track record of overcoming security challenges, and in other ways keeps thriving.
These days I’m approaching the six-decade mark in rather odd circumstances. The Gaza War has reignited, and last night we in Beersheva were woken up twice by rocket alarms, meaning we had to rush out to the stairwell and hear the big booms of Iron Dome interceptors knocking Hamas rockets out of the sky. In other words, not the ideal environment for stocktaking and peaceful reflection.
Even so, the onset of my 60th gives rise to thoughts, so I’ll try, amid the commotion, to summarize some of what I see as life’s lessons.
1. I put my money where my mouth is.
In my twenties in the U.S., I became intensely “pro-Israel.” I avidly followed its affairs, wrote letters to the editor, even got on the phone to solicit funds for it. I spoke of “the Israelis” as a race of ideal people, heroes; but that was guilt talking. I had to be honest with myself: what I was doing was not enough.
Now I’m here; I’m not just an observer or a fan from afar, but a player. Whatever happens here, for good or bad, happens to me. I walk the walk. I’m morally at peace with myself.
Last week I explained that I was in the dating game from 1996 to 2007, and described four mistakes I made (of course, there were others, too) that kept me in the game by taking me on detours that led nowhere.
As I also mentioned, one day in 2007 (it was July) I had a truly successful date, creating a situation that lasts till today. I’m now thinking about what, in the early days of this partnership, were some of the signs that it was promising and headed in the right direction, and what made it different from those other attempts that were ill-starred.
I divorced in 1996, and in 2007 I blessedly struck it rich on a blind date and have been in a stable situation ever since.
Looking back at the eleven years I spent in the dating game (or more accurately, in and out of it), I’m struck by how many pitfalls there are and how many of them I did not manage to avoid. A retrospective review might shed light on how to arrive at a good place without taking all sorts of detours that just lead you right back to the dating game.
One of the most handy, readable, informative books about near-death experiences (NDEs) is Jeffrey Long’s Evidence of the Afterlife. In it Long, a radiation oncologist, offers nine lines of evidence for why NDEs are real and not just dreams or hallucinations.
Among those nine lines of evidence, Long considers one of the strongest and most dramatic to be the fact that, during NDEs, blind people can see—including people blind from birth. People with that unfortunate condition do not see even in dreams. They know that vision exists, but can’t imagine what it is—as if someone had told you about some additional, unimaginable sense.
Yet, in NDEs, even blind-from-birth people see—in full, vivid detail. Long calls it “medically inexplicable.”
Probably the best-known case is that of Vicki Umipeg-Noratuk. Her story was first told in a 1998 study of blind people’s NDEs (and OBEs, out-of-body experiences) by Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper of the University of Connecticut. Ring, a professor of psychology, and Cooper went on to publish Mindsight, a book based on their study.
Are you just a physical entity, ultimately reducible to the physical entity known as your brain? Is that organ—a bundle of neurons weighing about three pounds—the source of all your thoughts, feelings, and any illusion you may have of a “soul” or a “spirit”?
I recently finished reading a 600-plus-page book by a group of academic psychiatrists, psychologists, and philosophers, called Irreducible Mind, that argues exactly the opposite. The book presents a huge body of evidence from scientific studies of psychokinesis, split personalities, psychic healing, near-death experiences, and other phenomena that seems to constitute powerful proof that, while the mind and the brain obviously interact, the former is not reducible to the latter and there are circumstances where consciousness clearly exists and functions independently of the brain.
Irreducible Mind is a subversive endeavor, swimming against the tide of about a century of scientific reductionism (though not, it should be stressed, in quantum physics) that says all phenomena, including your most delicate or exalted sentiments, are ultimately physical. The book has definitely had some impact; googling the title gets almost two million results, and though published back in 2007 it keeps selling well on Amazon.
One of the coauthors is Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia and leading researcher of near-death experiences. A few months ago a video surfaced of a lecture Greyson gave in India in 2011. It’s about an hour long, fascinating, and seems to point to even more dramatic findings since Irreducible Mind was published seven years ago.
Greyson presents four lines of evidence for the mind as an independent entity, which I’ve taken the trouble to summarize, and they could be an eye-opener. First he gives this caveat:
The evidence that I’m going to discuss…is derived entirely from scientific research. But I do not want to give you the impression that this evidence is…accepted by Western scientists. In fact, most Western scientists are completely unaware that this evidence even exists.
On Monday evening and Tuesday, Israel marks its 66th Independence Day. Each year this day is preceded by Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers. The one holiday segues into the other, a few minutes after sundown, with the raising of the national flag on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem from half-staff to full height.
That moment, one of the most defining and resonant in Israeli life, signifies that the country owes its existence to those who have been willing to sacrifice for it. And with Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers coming only a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day, it also represents a subtle, profound shift from mourning to celebration.
Getting to sleep at night has never been one of my talents. As a kid, fears kept me awake. As a teenager, I found the night the most intense time and didn’t understand why one was supposed to sleep during it. As an adult… if it wasn’t one thing that kept me awake at night, it was another.
Just recently I’ve been on a new regimen, and it’s actually working. There are three things I’ve been doing differently, and I’ve been sleeping with little or no trouble most nights. As for why I made these three changes, it did not come from any conscious decision but, apparently, from something on a subconscious level, some push for greater purity, a byproduct of which has been successful sleep.
I should add that if exercise is not one of the three things, it’s not because I don’t practice it but because I’ve already been practicing it for decades. I find it indispensable to decent mental and physical functioning. No, by itself it did not solve my sleep problem; but without it I wouldn’t have slept at all.
Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day fell this year on yesterday evening and today. Yom HaShoah (literally “Day the-Holocaust” in Hebrew) was declared a national memorial day in Israel in 1953, five years after the state’s establishment, and is now observed throughout the Jewish world.
Unlike much older Jewish holidays, Yom HaShoah has had to be improvised. By now, in Israel (where I’ve been living for almost 30 years), the day has a structure and contents that rather effectively convey somberness and an intense identification with the Holocaust’s victims.
Yom HaShoah begins in Israel (at sundown) with a ceremony in a square beside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I’ve been watching it on TV now for years and generally find it tactful, authentic, and moving. It includes speeches by the prime minister and the president before an honor guard, the lighting of six torches (symbolizing six million victims) by Holocaust survivors, musical presentations, and most of all the heart-wrenching singing of the prayer “El Malei Rahamim” by the chief army cantor.
Yom HaShoah is a regular workday, but with places of entertainment closed and all TV and radio programs devoted to Holocaust-related themes. At 11 a.m. sirens blare throughout the country and all traffic and motion stops. Drivers exit their cars and, like the surrounding pedestrians, stand for the two-minute duration of the siren in silent commemoration. These are moments of eerie, slightly frightening power.
The first three months of 2014 saw a rise in aliyah—Jewish immigration to Israel. A 312% increase from France, 70% increase from Ukraine, 100% increase from Brazil. The absolute numbers are not huge; if the current rate continues, the total for this year will be about 20,000—compared to, for instance, much higher numbers of former-Soviet Union Jews who came to Israel in the 1990s.
The present uptick, though, appears likely to continue and could accelerate. Amid rising antisemitism, about two-thirds of French Jews are considering emigrating, and half of those are considering Israel. Similar, if somewhat less dramatic, numbers are reported among Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe.
I read such reports with elation, as if reading that I personally had won some prize or had some other good fortune coming my way. This is rather interesting in light of the fact that I’ll soon have been living in Israel for 30 years. More than enough time, of course, to get over romantic visions, to be inducted into the many dimensions of ordinary, flawed human reality that constitute Israel as they do other societies.
And yet, after almost 30 years, nothing—essentially—has changed the feeling I had when I came to live here on September 6, 1984. That this is the true home, that no other place where Jews live can come close to it.
Editor’s Note: Please check out the previous installments of this ongoing series.
Songs have played a huge role in Israeli nation-building. With Jews immigrating to the land from all over the world, an incredibly diverse mix of influences had to be sifted into the musical melting pot. And yet, even in pioneering days well before the declaration of statehood in 1948, songs of distinct, unmistakable Israeli (or what came to be called Israeli) character started emerging.
The Zionist enterprise was not an easy one, beset with economic hardship and violent attacks, and songs were a huge morale-booster. Public sing-a-longs, often with dancing, were a staple of life in the rural settlements and also became part of the general culture. Songs ran the gamut of human experience, but love for the restored land, and heroism and mourning connected to wars and battles, were common themes especially on the collective level. Songs using biblical motifs and passages were also very popular.
Women have been among Israel’s greatest creators and performers of songs. Here I can only offer a few examples from dozens of worthy cases.
Passover, which began Monday at sundown and lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days in the Diaspora, is one of the major, constitutive holidays of the Jewish people. It commemorates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt 3300 years ago, which led to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and an arduous 40-year trek to the Promised Land.
The basic instructions for Passover are laid down by God in Exodus 12:
And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever….
And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
The “feast” is the Passover seder practiced by Jews all over the world to this day; the “unleavened bread” is the matza eaten at the seder and all throughout Passover by observant Jews. Passover is a joyous holiday, and in our era it has the added spice of the return to the Promised Land and the rise of a free and independent Jewish state.
Passover coincides this year with a dramatic political event—the crisis and possible demise of yet another Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” this one shepherded earnestly, passionately, and futilely by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. We are now at a juncture that offers two options: to remain enslaved to the same flawed assumptions that lead again and again to failure; or to finally get liberated from them and reach a Promised Land of understanding and rational policy.
Golda Meir was Israel’s fourth prime minister, serving from 1969 to 1974, and the world’s third female head of government. In her seventies at the time, she charmed much of the world with her “Jewish grandmother” image—especially as juxtaposed with her defense minister Moshe Dayan, a tough sabra (native-born Israeli) with an eye-patch.
Unlike Dayan, Meir was not a sabra; she was born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1898. Her first memory was of her father boarding up the front door because of rumors of a pogrom. In 1905 her father moved to Milwaukee by himself in search of work; a year later, having found a job in a railroad yard, he brought the rest of the family over.
Golda showed leadership qualities early, forming something called the American Young Sisters Society. She was also drawn to socialist Zionism, then an energetic enterprise devoted to creating pioneering settlements in the Land of Israel. She joined a socialist-Zionist youth movement, and in that context she met Morris Meyerson. They got married in 1917, and in 1921 they left to join the fledgling Jewish community in Palestine. (Golda later Hebraicized the name Meyerson to Meir.)
Golda Meir’s story stirs a certain nostalgia. The current Israeli Labor Party—a descendant of socialist Zionism or, as it came to be called, Labor Zionism—is a pallid, even ludicrous remnant. It hardly has the spunk and grit that Golda Meir embodied. True, the decline of socialism left a void for this ideological trend; but it’s not only that.