Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kever: perpetual leave or vacations on hold?

You know, summer is hot, a bit dehydrating and, right now, it is so cute to be tanned. We are expecting tourists but they seem to be shy. On the other hand we have a lot of "teyarim mekomim - local, interior citizenship tourists". They love to travel through the country and discover the Old-New Land = Israel. Some tours are obviously organized by Northern bus or tour agencies. They are not that many in the South, but the Negev is Ben Gurion 's envisioning prophecies for the future of Israel. And numerous citizens are not so sure that Israel will survive over decades and centuries. Is it a Zodiacal reading of some recurrent end of time anxiety that fits so well to the Jewish soul? Or, is this rather the consequence of a miracle that is so great and unexplainable, undecipherable. It continues to grow and show benefits. So, let's go through landscapes and towns, areas without true borders but changeable inhabitants.

Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Thais, Baltic Sea immigrants; oh! and these numerous Anglos that arrive by full waves of planes to visit Israel, try Israel, test Israel and feel they are so Jewish when they are back home. The Filipinos? Some days they show up with their Israeli husbands and kids in the Old City of Jerusalem for lunch in an Arab restaurant. We are in summer, the only period of the year - you can just feel it is summer because of that - when touring foreigners stubbornly want to wear a kippah while eating a sandwich with ham in a Christian beyt-kafeh (coffee shop) or eat meat skewers and drink a cafe latte.

Among the "mekomim” (local) Israeli visitors, there are the God-seeking ones. Well, it actually depends. A few days ago, Jaffa Gate got a rush of North American Russian-speaking youths. These Eastern Orthodox young people were so impressive: they hurried to the Holy Sepulcher and then cleaned out the table of the bagel-bread seller. A few minutes before this rush, came the Israeli-acculturated former Soviet tourists, en route to the "svyatye mesta” (the Holy Places). New cameras with huge zooms, sunglasses, red hair-brushing, nude shoulders, short pants and sandals, they were also heading to the Holy Sepulcher with a long visit to the shuk (market) to buy some typical souvenir of their sanctifying journey in the heart of the monotheistic life and livelihood. They might go back home to Afulah, Petach Tikva Ashkelon and Beersheva with crosses, incense and icons. They will also buy the Peruvian bow, sometimes with some adequate arrows, if any.

Then, you have the standard tourists, from abroad. This year is marked by the arrival of Poles, new Russians that can also be new Christian Orthodox believers. The guided tours are not the same as they used to be; that is before the matzav (situation) started six years ago. One warning is common to all small or bigger groups: “Be careful-zehirut": do not speak to the Arabs, do not open your purses, bags, "be suspicious".

Frankly, this is not fair. Decades ago, pious Jews would have never walked through the shuk (Arab market) to get quicker to the Western Wall. At the present, Stetsons-covered males, i.e. men also wearing the arba'a kanfot (4 sides = small Tallits showing the fringes) normally go through the Christian quarter with wives and babies in prams. They would buy items at non-kosher grocery stores and discuss the price of anything with all sorts of shopkeepers. There is an interesting trend: just enter the Old City through Jaffa Gate and get into the shuk directly; or go around through the left. Jews and Arabs would start interacting with some sort of tolerance. Say, there is certainly some kind of business to develop and this simply belongs to the basic and spontaneous heritage of our Middle-East culture.

Who is afraid? People who never speak to foreigners and can hardly can get in touch with their neighbors in the present. Ten years ago, all members of any denominations would have greeted each other warmly. This warm wink decreased to some cold hello by the time the matzav deteriorated in 2000. At this point, people would barely greet but look at each other as chimpanzees in a zoo and whisper some odd comments. Twenty years ago, I used to have groups of foreign students (Roots and prospects of Judaism and Christianity) who were attending my “lectures”. The tour operator told me then that the groups were special: we were not focusing on silent thus “living stones”, i.e. on encounters with different people in their various work or community activities. He told me that most groups were trying to avoid meeting people and having to share opinions or ideas. This implied a lot of explanations and discussions.

The Holy sites are very convenient: every guide has his own historical point of view or school of reference and therefore specific “experts” who would meet the groups. But there is something that increased and now reaches the top of self-hedonism: each individual has a guidebook. No need to speak with anybody. Just speak with yourself and then explain the environment to your friends. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition considers that “interior speech” is a sin, because it shows a lack of communication with God and with other humans, if any.

Tourism here is also the best way to develop a sound dating system. “Shiduchim” are a true mitzvah and a good action. But this is the same as with the stones. Dating can turn to be ‘stones drinking coffee with stones’, not compulsorily salt stones like Lot’s wife. It is seemingly easier to avoid speaking with the others, or to mock them. A book cannot replace the richness of human beings and encounters. A book may give the impression that written things are evidently exact.

It may not encourage thinking and searching for new ways of reflection. Let’s call that ‘a dubious situation’. Eyn safek (there is no doubt) shows that there might be a problem. The Hebrew root safak = to divide, strike, clap (hands), attach, engraft. Sefek = sufficiency. “Wait until you arrive at a condition of doubt, i.e. till you are in doubt about your own state of sin or maybe you did not commit any sin” (Keritot 4,3 (25b). German “Zweifel”, Dutch “twijfel” refer to a twofold possibility of choice. Doubts can be strongly efficient. This is definitely true when we cannot avoid taking clear decisions. Thus, it corresponds to some sort of jumping into real actions and commitments. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the dubious question of a mentally sick character who cannot relate to himself. We often speak of our contemporary society as being full of uncertainty. The Semitic and Talmudic root would presuppose that “things can be divided in order to attach in a new and more creative way, or to engraft, like trees”.

This is why speech and encounters have such an inestimable value. The more they raise questions and even positive disputes, the better our collectivity can be challenged; and it is enabled to cross-examine its ‘seeds of life’. We do face a real issue in a State that must assume such extravagant multi-faceted backgrounds. Indeed, there are numerous variables that propose all kinds of orientations. But we may get lost just because some sort of vacuum. Most pocket prayer books that are published at the moment in Hebrew include a lot of prayers to be said when visiting the tombs of the tzaddikim (righteous). From the cave of Machpelah to the tomb of Josef, Rachel, Eretz Israel is dug out with kevarot (tombs). It has been an ancient Jerusalemite tradition for some inhabitants to reside in cemeteries (Mark 5:3). “When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place”, said Yaakov-Israel (Bereishit 47:30). This is why stones are so important to us: they are the only proof we have through the Scripture that our Avot (ancestors) were buried here. In the time of great suffering that we recall during the present months of Tammuz and Av, the prophet stated: “Because man did not kill me before birth so that my mother might be my grave/vatehi li immi kivri” (Jeremiah 20:17). Kavar = to cave out, to arch, to bury. But the meaning is special and can be said in Yiddish e.g.: “’kh vel lign in a keyver – I would like to lie in a grave” but the answer immediately echoes: “ver hot gezogt az ikh zol shtarbn? Who said I should die?” The Jewish experience is much similar to this interrogation: “Nice, give me a break, but still, I shall not die”.

In this country we are fascinated by caves, excavations, graves, tombs, even empty ones. They are the memorizing force of days when God gave to our ancestors their full identity. Have a real look please at our co-citizens and the inhabitants of this land: they often look like babes that just hardly can stand to be outside of their moms’ wombs and wonder how they can still be alive without the umbilical cord. “They differ as to whether the uterus can open to pass the embryo” (Niddah 21a). “When a womb gets open – petichat kever- you ought to violate the Shabbat for the sake of life” (Shabbat 129b). There is a kind of similarity that makes things parallel from birth to burial: “The Lord buried the dead, so you too you must bury them” (Sota 14a).

The whole of the Jewish history is a question of ‘housing’: mom’s womb or ‘makom’ or Beyt (Temple). The dead are not born to die but to revive. In between, the experience of Jewishness is to avoid framing itself into silence, strict righteousness or ignorance of others. The big challenge consists of overcoming all these fears. This is why it is such a key element to develop our capacities to meet others without reluctance and to enable all possible ways of dialogues.

The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem may often give the impression of full distortions among the six Churches that have some praying spaces inside of the building in the present. No. Any person, of any belief and origin is totally free to enter the place provided they allow themselves to go there. Thus, it maybe the unique place in the world that encompasses to that extent the mystery of human souls. The Tomb is empty. It is called Anastasis in Greek: “Place of Resurrection”.

Jesus said strange words to a man who wanted to bury his father: “Let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22). This is in contradiction with all the Mitzvot (good deeds). This seemingly relates to the fact that those who don’t confess to the Living God – thus through their speech and talking capacities – are like dead or tombs. Mechayeh metim = resurrecting/reinvigorating the dead is at the core of the Jewish reality, as also of the Christian one however estrangement happened along the ages. A society can tour around its past, there is a moment when encounters allow to get excavated for the best of life.

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