Monday, June 18, 2007

Sherut/im: various services

Summertime begins within a few days - in fact, locally we have already entered the Kaytz/end of time heat for quite a while. People have a summer look with sunglasses, light dress, relaxed, comfy. Indeed - this is absolutely not known abroad - there is a strong feeling of security due to a lot of checking, and preventive actions, intelligence connections.

Still, we are in a society in war and there are moments when some inhabitants feel afraid to go out of their quarter. This is not the basic Israeli reaction. Individuals are less prudent than they used to be, but we feel relaxed and secure. Of course this is not the case at the moment in Sderot, as it happened for years in Kiryat Shmona. Kibbutz Netivah, that officially became Israeli in 1952, is located on the Lebanese border. It was normal until very recently for the Lebanese shepherds to enter the place in and out, hello and bye.

This relaxing or easygoing atmosphere is not known abroad where the media give a very poor description of how a society evolves. There are points of fragility and it is evident that constant exposure to danger develops anxiety, in particular among the youth. But let’s say that trust is trust. Nonetheless, this rather full relaxed atmosphere under self-control is, on some significant occasions, submitted to restricting phenomena. For instance, the poor number of free and open accessible places to restrooms and toilets, i.e. sherutim.
The matter is definitely relevant, even if would not sound very spiritual to begin with. The Oriental civilizations are often very raw, rough and hard-nosed. As stated in the Talmud: “Those who mock the words of the Sages are like boiling excrements” (Gittin 56a). We are humans and we want to keep Jerusalem (and all other cities, towns…) clean. In any shop, any place, not only restaurants and coffee-shops, people are shaking the cleaning product bottle. They wash and wash again and again. There might be some defects still persistent in many places, or a sort of strange combination between cleanness and dirt. The Arabs are definitely very clean and can spend their days washing their cars, table, walls, whatever. It may be due to the climate and sand and an usual attitude.

So let’s go out of the closet. It is sometimes very funny to see the reaction of people looking for some restroom, bathroom, 00. Local workers may have concluded a deal or gotten to some kind of agreement with the security to let them go into malls where they are known. But the thing is intriguing in some areas. There is one restaurant – the only one, well who knows? – where half the street, mainly women, enters the place and, without a word or anything , not even hello, go directly to have a rest. Having relaxed, the bizarre aspect is that many of these individuals leave the restaurant with a cup of kafe hafuch / cappuccino. In the meantime, the clientele is panicked at the idea to go to the toilets and almost ask the permission of the manager and waiters. We can wear the last model of sunglasses on our foreheads; still we are very shy with privacy, normal stuff what! And there is also the water to wash the hands before meal.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, there is always a sort of wild rush to some restrooms. This is also quite fascinating. The whole country comes to the Old City. Workers, local tourists, i.e. Israelis of all origins, Arabs, foreigners come and tour to visit the various historical and religious quarters and their specific traditions. East Jerusalem is special and the Old City is peculiar. There is the way to the Kotel, or to the Shuk/bazaar, the Holy Sepulcher or the Mosques. Restrooms can be found everywhere as public spaces, from Damascus Gate or Lions’ Gate down to the Wall, or on the way to the Jewish Quarter, inside the shuk as on the way to the First Temple walls.

On the other hand, the major entrance to the Old City, Jaffa Gate, has one place on the way to the fortification walls that is rather unknown. So people enter, as a permanent march, the unique restaurant that seems likely to welcome them and looks nice. The restaurant only serves food and does not sell any typical souvenirs. The owner is Christian Orthodox Arab. The stream is incredible. Say, a good day (end of the week-Sunday) 30 people per hour… Not clients, passersby with arrogance, what a cheek! Interestingly, the owner will never rebuke pious Jewish schoolgirls in emergency or similar cases, thus not usual.
In fact, sherutim in Hebrew implies that the restrooms are a place of services, given to the public at their convenience. It is usual for many people to spit in the street. Physical decency requires special treatments and care. In this respect, the Jewish tradition can be driven to obscenity and crude words. On the contrary, it can be very prude and restrained.

“Sherut – service” designates the service of the Temple as the function to “to sing the Name of the Lord while attending the sacrifices” (Arakhin 11a). This is even why, curiously, Modern Hebrew is the only language that directly connects the “sherut leumi – national (military) service” with a deeply religious-rooted tradition, tracking back the Temple. This may sound a bit peculiar, but it is often considered as a possible and non-aggressive participation in the collectivity.
The root “sharah” has different meanings: “to dissolve, soak”. “Man is made out of earth, when you put a drop of water on it, it is at once dissolved, but women is made of a bone which is not dissolved, even if you let it tie in water for many days” (Taanit 1,64b). A second radical “sharah, shara in Aramaic” means “to loosen, untie”. In the Jewish tradition it is rather connected to the presence of the Shechinah that rested upon the Tabernacle (Sanhedrin 11a). It also means that there is a move of transition from outside to inside and then back again from inside to outside; this deals with spiritual connections but mainly with food. It happens quite often in the Talmud that latrine quarrels show up as regards the service in the Temple. How, why, is it permitted for a high priest to build his own latrine.

Yiddish makes use of a lot of crude or obscene words, just as Aramaic in the Talmud. Hebrew is firstly rather “innocent.” “Oto makom – this place” is a very neutral expression to speak of female genitals and traces back to the Temple. This is far from being evident in daily speech. Now, this has nothing to do with colloquial modern slang and obscene words.
Our body is some dwelling of the Shechinah which is stated in the Mishna and by Paul of Tarsus (1 Corinthians 3:16). “Eat up to the third of the capacity of your stomach, drink also a third measure and let another third “empty” (Gittin 70a) or “Eat till you are hungry, drink till you are thirsty” (Berachot 62b) also show the importance of feeding, that in ancient times, could be rather frugal for the poor: “bread and salt”(Berachot 2b). This means that we swallow or eat up food and have to reject them. It is meaningful that, in Russian “zhivot = stomach, belly” means “life” (Church Slavonic).

The Book of Eycha (Lamentations), read on the Ninth of Av in commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples, has violent phrases showing the suffering of the people. The same is expressed in Prophet Isaiah and the final redemption of the nation.
Each time Jerusalem was besieged, life conditions became inhuman, with mothers eating their babies (Lam. 2:20), filth is on the city’s skirt (Lam. 1:9), excrements profaning the place that should be dedicated to bridge holiness and purity with the inhabitants. The deportation to Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem and the various persecutions strongly imprinted the Jewish memory about the absence of physical respect to the body. This is a general stand that also proves how far torture used as a tool for “intelligence” or to exercise might. And thus ordinary and honest people can change to brainless beasts. We see at the present – but it seems it has always existed – how armies using the most sophisticated weapons (soon you will be able to just nuke up your best enemy with a disposable self-destroyable mini-lighter).

At the same time, abject tortures are committed dealing with obscenity, utilizing feces inter alia. It is in tragic memory of the concentration camp social life where there was no privacy and the point was for the inmates to remain human in their attitude to each other. Psalm 22 is rather special in the series of these first psalms. It states: “Veanochi tola’at velo ish / but I am a worm, less than a man – cherpat adam uvzuy am / scorned by men, despised by people” (v.7-8). The point is that he is mocked because he believes in the Lord. But the heart of verse is the description of despise, “being less than a man” and the subsequent feelings: “My life pours like water, all my bones are disjointed / my heart is like wax melting within me, my vigor dries up like a shard” (Ps. 22:15-16).
Such can be the feelings of many people: either because of humiliation imposed in jail by a role game of power between the police and the prisoners. This is also very frequent in hospitals after heavy operations when individuals are totally dependent on the constant (often remarkable) assistance of nurses and helpers. This can be worse in elderly homes: strange there, people are sitting or laying in bed moaning-groaning as if they never had existed: their actions, personal lives, emotions seem to have vanished in speechless hours and days and permanent pampering.

Psalm 22 is famous because of the first verse: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me” uttered by Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross. It is even quoted in Aramaic in the Gospel (Matthew 27:46). The Christian tradition considers that Jesus’ cry is not limited to that verse. It presupposes that all the verses of the psalm should be read, thus also the above-mentioned ones showing the absence of respect toward human nature.
It is rather curious indeed that we might measure a society at the level of its attitude toward human dignity… and its “latrine system”. It is not possible to pretend to glorify the living God Who created us in His likeness and let people in filth and dirt. Or there is something wrong. Quoting the Sages, Jesus said: “Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine. But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly” (Mark 7:19-20).

From latrine gossip to elevation of the thoughts and proper reflection, it is strange how some thrones bring us back to good old ethics and sometime real places of meditation.

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