Montgomery, AL (Day 3)

Today was our final day of this short and intense deep dive  into the racial history and legacy of our country.

Rabbi Bernard Mehlman (emeritus of Temple Israel in Boston where I was teaching when I applied to rabbinical school), opened our morning. Rabbi Mehlman was himself involved in civil rights while a student at HUC in Cincinnati in the late ’50’s, helping to integrate lunch counters and the segregated pools. But he wanted to speak about three rabbis who were working in the south and how they responded to the civil rights movement:

  • Rabbi Charles Mantinband, Hattiesburg, MS, a friend of Medgar Evers’ who vowed that he would never sit in the presence of bigotry and took an active role against segregation in education. When his temple president told him “you’re scaring us” with his activism, “You know that they could burn houses down..they could put us out of business, and I wish you would curtail your activities.”, Rabbi Mantinband responded, “I will not be muzzled.”
  • Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, Jackson MS who raised money to help rebuild black churches, visiting imprisoned Freedom Riders in the Parchman Penitentiary, and had his own home bombed.
  • and Rabbi Milton Grafman, Birmingham, AL, who was one of the clergy people to whom Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed his famed “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and who, after the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four African-American girls just before Rosh Hashanah in 1963, ditched his prepared High Holy Day sermon, spoke about why he attended the funerals, and named the girls before the recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish prayer (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair).

What Rabbi Mehlman tried to get across in his presentation were the nuances of the rabbis’ activism and why they each chose to do it, some more radically, some more pragmatically. I think it gave each of us food for thought as we considered how to take this work home and apply it in our own unique communities.

309 S. Jackson St, Montgomery, the parsonage where the Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. lived with his family in the 1950’s. It was bombed in 1956 in retaliation for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

After this presentation, we proceeded to the parsonage where Dr. King lived with his family beginning in 1954, when he was pastor of the Dexter Street Church in Montgomery. There we met Dr. Shirley Cherry, wearing a button that said “No child is born a racist.” Dr. Cherry, the tour director for the Dexter Parsonage Museum, began by sharing the fact that her mother worked 16-hour days in a dry-cleaner’s and put her through college by ironing the robes for Ku Klux Klan members. We all gasped. Dr. Cherry introduced us to Nelson Malden who had been Dr. King’s barber (and who shared some funny stories about him and who co-wrote a book The Colored Waiting Room: Empowering the Original and the New Civil Rights Movements) and then she guided us through the house. She told us that after Emmett Till’s death, her parents warned her never to look a white person in the eyes. She said she was so scared until she met Dr. King who taught her not to be afraid. She said she is now only afraid of two things: God and ignorance.

She shared much wisdom and humor: “You must have some things you’re willing to die for or you’re not fit to live;” “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you have no sense;” “Let things break your heart but not your spirit;” “I used to have a photographic memory, but now it’s just graphic.” She also quoted Dr. King’s teacher from BU, Howard Thurman, on love: “To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved,” in addition to reminding us of some of Dr. King’s wonderful ideas (though they may not be exact quotes): “Nobody can ride your back unless it’s bent;” “The truth shall set you free;” his definition of character as being where someone stands in times of discomfort or conflict; “Everybody is significant on God’s keyboard — from a white key to a black key.” She also shared MLK’s three lessons that she wanted us to leave with:

  1. love
  2. character
  3. ordinary people can do extraordinary things

The dining room table where the idea for the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was born. Reverend Robert Gratz recalls being in important meetings there and if a beggar came to the door, Dr. King was never too busy to respond.

MLK’s desk in his library.

After this home was bombed, Dr. King apparently had a revelation while praying at his kitchen table about standing up no matter what. The artificial red carnations on the table were sent to Coretta before he died in Memphis. She knew that this was an indication that he was about to die. His note said something about them being everlasting.

Valda Harris-Montgomery in front of her mother Vera’s home at 333 S. Jackson St., where she had welcomed and housed freedom riders. Since Vera is currently in hospice care, we offered up a mi she-berakh prayer for her healing in front of the house with her daughter.

When we had our closing ceremony in the peace garden next door to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry told us that Patrick Kennedy had been criticized for his privilege as a way of undermining his run for Congress in Rhode Island (where she lived for many years). Kennedy’s reply was to the effect of “I know I’m privileged, but I can use it to help somebody.” At the formal conclusion of our program, that was the message I wanted to take home: how do I-how can I-how should I use my privilege and my white privilege in service to what is broken?

Our concluding ceremony took place in this garden.

Listening to Dr. Shirley Cherry as we concluded our visit and program.

Though the program officially ended at noon, some of us had time before our flights to visit either the Rosa Parks or the Freedom Riders Museum. Having heard that the Rosa Parks museum did not offer the full and accurate history of her role in the civil rights movement as described in the new feminist history of the civil rights movement, At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle MacGuire (which was required — and eye-opening, revelatory — reading for this trip), I went to the Freedom Riders Museum instead. On the way, we found some other important Montgomery landmarks.

This plaque marks the spot where Rosa Parks boarded that infamous bus. If you don’t know — and want to know –the “true” history, let me know. As an aside, Dr. Cherry said she met one of the men responsible for arresting Rosa Parks when he was 84. She interviewed him at the MLK dining room table pictured above. He said he was happy he arrested her because of all that resulted.

This plaque marks the corner where one (of several) slave markets in Montgomery was located.

Paula in front of the Freedom Riders Museum, appropriately housed in the old Greyhound station.

At the Freedom Riders Museum, appropriately housed in the old Greyhound bus station, I could again honor one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis, as I had yesterday when walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — and be inspired by the stories of so many young people, both black and white, who put their lives at risk to integrate busses in the south. But there was much earlier history to the integration of the busses, and the cases brought by Irene Morgan (Morgan v. Virginia, 1946), Sarah Louise Keyes, and Bruce Carver Boynton (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960) which was on display, as well. 

One of the ironic pieces of information I found in the museum was the story of Reverend James Lawson, who, along with (the seemingly ubiquitous) John Lewis and others, desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville, TN. As a result of his activism, he was expelled from Vanderbilt University. Ironically, he has been a visiting professor there since 2006!

Though I had read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy a couple of years ago, I re-read it for this trip, as it was another of our required readings, along with reports on lynchings and segregation published by his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson and EJI are responsible for both the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial) that we visited on Monday.

The information in this extensive quote from the end of his book is essential American history that I don’t believe we all have learned:

I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood. The first, of course, is slavery. This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II. Older people of color in the South would occasionally come up to me after speeches to complain about how antagonized they feel when they hear news commentators talking about how we were dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. 

An older African American man once said to me, “You make them stop saying that! We grew up with terrorism all the time…”

The racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price…

The third institution, “Jim Crow,” is the legalized racial segregation and suppression of basic rights that defined the American apartheid era…

The fourth institution is mass incarceration. Going into any prison is deeply confusing if you know anything about the racial demographics of America. The extreme overrepresentation of people of color, the disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, the targeted prosecution of drug crimes in poor communities, the criminalization of new immigrants and undocumented people, the collateral consequences of voter disenfranchisement, and the barriers to re-entry can only be fully understood through the lens of our racial history.

I am so grateful that I had this opportunity to participate in this journey with rabbinic colleagues, in which we were able to be vulnerable and reflective about our rabbinates, our personal pain around the deep-rooted issues of racism, and the challenges to making inroads within our communities and  in society at large around these issues. It was a painful trip, but it was also a prayerful trip.

I was thrilled to share this journey with three of my dearest friends (who were last all together at one place at my wedding in 2003!): Rabbis Peter Schaktman, Paula Marcus, and Zari Weiss (I am wearing my new “Just Mercy” t-shirt purchased at the Legacy Museum.)


Montgomery and Selma, AL (Day 2)

Today was another impactful day that has left me raw. We began with text study with Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva (daughter of the famed Judge Abner Mikva), Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Who knew that texts from the Mishna and Talmud could shed so much light on issues having to do with anti-racism work and the argument for reparations? Rachel reminded us that the first documented ship that carried slaves landed in Virginia 400 years ago today. The New York Times has created the 1619 Project to shed light on this history and anniversary.

Rachel showed a short film that reduced me to a puddle of tears and shame for continuing to traumatize our youth of color. Watch this film (and weep) entitled “Dear Child: When Black Parents Have to Give the Talk.”

We could have spent all day — really our entire lives — studying and discussing the amazing texts that Rachel pulled together for us, but we had a packed day yet ahead of us, so we got on our bus to visit the POWER House (People Organizing for Women’s Empowerment and Rights). Located just next door to one of three abortion clinics still operating in Alabama, this advocacy and support institution escorts women to the clinic, watches their children (who are not allowed in the clinic), houses women coming from out-of-state (due to Alabama’s 48-hour waiting period), offers educational workshops, and serves as a safe space for all human rights organizations. How could the Reform movement sponsor a trip to Alabama and NOT have us confront the very real threat to reproductive freedom that is happening here?

But of course, reproductive justice work is intrinsically related to racial justice work. Those most impacted by abortion restrictions and criminalization related to abortion are poor women, particularly women of color.

Travis is former military who sees escorting women through the war zone of protestors to the clinic as his current service to the nation. He wears this t-shirt “Real Men Support Women’s Rights.”

Our bus then took us to Selma, 50 miles from Montgomery. There we met activist Joanne Bland who was 8 years old when she became active in the civil rights movement and was the youngest person to have been jailed for civil disobedience during that era. (She says she was in jail 13 times by the time she was 11!) She was, of course, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She gave us a comprehensive civil rights history tour of Selma, starting at Brown Chapel AME Church which was the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, as well as the meeting place for the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).

This monument outside the Brown Chapel AME Church not only honors Dr. Martin Luther King, but it is also a memorial to three people who died in the cause for racial justice: Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, and the Reverend James Reeb. Jimmy Lee was an African-American veteran who was killed for participating in a peaceful voting rights march. Viola was a white civil rights activist from Michigan who came to Selma after Bloody Sunday and was killed by the KKK. Reeb was a white UU Minister who was murdered by segregationists for his participation in the civil rights movement. Joanne asked us to notice who was listed last on the monument (Jimmy Lee), despite the fact that both alphabetically and chronologically, he should have been listed first.

We, too, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, two-by-two, as the activists had then, both on Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) and again when they successfully crossed on their 50-mile, three-day trek from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery (March 21, 1965).

Approaching the bridge.

With Paula Marcus on the other side (bridge in background over Paula’s right shoulder).

On the other side of the bridge (BTW, Edmund Pettus was a grand wizard of the KKK) is a lovely Civil Rights Memorial Park with a number of art installations.

Honoring John Lewis.

Tomb of the Unknown Slave/Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This stone commemorates the following martyrs: Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Rev. James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Sammy Young, Jr.

One of the most troubling aspects of our day was actually our visit to the beautiful synagogue in Selma, Mishkan Israel. Here, we met with the president of the synagogue, where there are a total of 4 surviving members. Sadly, he confirmed that the congregation was uninvolved in the civil rights movement that was swirling around them. Though there were some congregants who apparently housed white northerners who came down to volunteer with the movement, the rabbi wanted them to stay neutral. Not only were there confirmed segregationists in the congregation, but 50% of Selma’s businesses were Jewish-owned, and they were afraid of repurcussions and “didn’t want to be involved.”

Selma synagogue, Mishkan Israel.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “One must not only preach a sermon with one’s voice but also with one’s life.” And as rabbis, we are are each grappling with what that means for us. What the Selma rabbi proposed, and what the president (who was a boy then) sheepishly admitted, was that they were complicit in their silence.

If the response of Southern Jews was complex and fraught, our subsequent conversation as a group revealed how complicated the issue is for us still, as well. One of our rabbi participants shared how she has nurtured her relationships with her local small-town police department post-Pittsburgh and how her congregation cannot afford to pay for police protection if they do not have this support. Yet she wants to be able to be present for her African-American colleagues on the front-lines when necessary. “Show up for us” is what her  African-American colleagues expect of her is this time of heightened risk. Is she willing to compromise her relationship with the police (and the safety of her congregation) to do so?

Our evening concluded with reflections from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, about where the Reform movement is now in regard to its racial justice work and where it is headed. Recognizing that there are more and more Jews of color with huge personal stakes in the issue is a noteworthy change in the dynamic of black-Jewish relations today. He is probably correct that talking about systemic racism or white privilege is more possible today in our congregations than it was even five years ago, but we still have a long way to go. At the next Biennial there will apparently be a resolution to support reparations! (If you haven’t already read it, it’s worth reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations.”)

Our trip concludes tomorrow, but the work goes on.

Montgomery, AL!

Through a lot of reading and some travel, I have been trying to get my head around the legacy of slavery in the United States, issues of racial justice, how mass incarceration is, indeed, the new Jim Crow, and my own white privilege. I have begun to confront my own ignorance about this brutal history and its lasting impact on the African-American community, as well as my own complicity in maintaining the status quo of such disparity in our country. I have the ability to “pass” as white though my experience as a Jew means that I, too, am “other,” even more evident now post-Charlottesville and post-Pittsburgh. Martin Niemoller’s well-known “first they came for” quote from the Holocaust is so relevant today as white supremacists are increasingly emboldened to spread their hatred against all “others.”

At my workplace, a social service agency, we have convened Undoing Racism workshops for staff and explored our implicit bias and micro-aggressions against people of color, and learned that merely living in the United States as a person of color can be a contributing factor to psychological trauma. Though I’m getting more “woke” each day, I am not always sure how to be an ally.

Some of the important books I’ve read have included White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle McGuire, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myriads of novels and memoirs that illuminate the African-American experience.

A few years ago I went to Atlanta to learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. by visiting his childhood home and church, the MLK National Historical Park, the King Center, as well as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. (Here is one blogpost from that trip particularly about Dr. King. Here’s another about my experience at the Human Rights museum.) I have also visited The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and the plantations of Presidents Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and James Madison (Montpelier), all three of which present hard truths about slavery through their exhibits and, in the case of the plantations, special tours.

And now here I am with 50 other Reform rabbis in Montgomery, Alabama (and Selma tomorrow) for a pre-High Holy Day seminar entitled “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation.” In addition to a lot of reading, part of the preparation for this trip was to meet with an African-American clergy colleague to build relationship around the issue of racial justice. I had the good fortune to meet with a Baptist colleague in White Plains whose church had participated in an interfaith civil rights trip to Alabama with a White Plains synagogue, and I look forward to deepening my relationship with him when I return.

Today’s theme was truth and truth-telling. We visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both created under the auspices of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that is run by Bryan Stevenson and which I’ve supported for a number of years now.) The museum displays the history of slavery (and Montgomery’s particular role in it) and its legacy: lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. One display of a full-page ad in the Selma Times-Journal in 1963 said “Ask Yourself This Important Question: What Have I Personally Done to Maintain Segregation?” I thought that this was an invitation for me to look at my own racism, my own white privilege, how I have unwittingly contributed to the perpetuation of segregation. In fact, it was an ad inviting readers to join a whites-only citizens’ council to help fight integration — and a reprimand if we are not doing so. Ouch.

Great quote: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” (Bryan Stevenson) In Legacy Museum Bookstore.

From the museum, we headed to the new memorial which commemorates those African-Americans who have died by lynching. (On the way, we passed the bus-stop where Rosa Parks got on the bus that resulted in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and other historic sites, such as the route that the marchers from Selma to Montgomery took in 1965.)

Here are some of my photographs of this sacred place.

There are 3 known lynchings that took place in Nicholas County in Kentucky. This is the pillar dedicated to their memory.





Each of these metal pillars is inscribed with the name of a county and state in which lynchings have occurred, and list the names of the victim(s) and dates of death.

When you begin walking through the memorial, the pillars are on the ground, but as you continue, they become suspended, as the bodies would have been.

Each pillar has a doppelganger laid out in a “memorial park,” in hopes that the named county will one day claim it, take it home for display, and in so doing, reckon with its history.

Slavery sculpture

The museum and the memorial both feature these jars of soil (what is called the Community Remembrance Project) from lynching sites around the country.

Wall of jars

In the evening we met with three local African-American ministers who spoke their uncensored and unvarnished truths to us. What they shared was heavy and painful and inspirational, but all three made it clear that this trip cannot just be a nice “field trip” for us but a catalyst to our speaking truth as Jews to the reality of racism.

The evening concluded with a service. Included was a powerful poem by Marge Piercy, “The Low Road” and a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he spoke at a conference on religion and race in 1963 and first met Dr. King:

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?”

What have you done today?

ART: Our Last Day in Haifa

We filled our last day in Haifa with art. First we went to the Haifa Museum of Art to see “Dangerous Art,” a profound, powerful, painful, and provocative exhibit (with several sub-exhibits) representing the struggles of oppressed populations and addressing issues including those of sexuality, poverty, race, and displacement, including the current African refugee situation — the room of work that was most painful for me to witness. (By the way, last night’s rally in Tel Aviv in support of the African refugees was 20,000 strong and got good press.)

I learned a new term, “artivism,” referring to the intersection of art and social activism.

Note: It will be impossible to do justice to this vast collection of work with a handful of photos, so let me know if you are interested in more, and maybe I’ll put together a slideshow or something. The section on refugees was vast and particularly evocative and challenging.

Highlights of this panel: “I can’t breathe,” a reference to Eric Garner’s death in NYC (Chaim and I attended a big demonstration about that act of police brutality in 2014) and Women’s March with pussy hats (I had my very own to wear at this year’s march.)

One part of the exhibit was devoted to masks and headgear — police in riot gear or protestors hiding their identities by wearing masks. These paper masks were for the taking — just in time for Purim.

This art is by Dede, one of the street artists we’d seen on our street art tour in Tel Aviv three days ago. His giant birds, yearning to fly, are drawn symbolically with wood scraps and found objects, representing the transient shelters that homeless people constructed in Tel Aviv from furniture scraps. Bringing Dede off the street and into the museum the curator explained was “an act of protest against the art world’s conservative attitude toward the urban neighborhood.”

Women from the Kuchinate Collective — Eritrean asylum seekers and rape survivors living in Tel Aviv — earn a living by making traditional crafts like these bean bags. They are pictured on the back wall with their corresponding creations.

“First Day in Israel” from the series “Darfur/Maror,” 2009, color print by Asaf Kliger

“We Refugees,” the title of this section of work, “challenges the demographic self-perception of Israel as the Jewish state” by contributing “to a pluralistic view of the Israeli population as a diverse, multicultural society.” The contemporary  pieces were paired with older pieces of art depicting refugees, including one by one of my favorite artists, Samuel Bak.

Samuel Bak, “Journey, ca. Second half of the 20th century”

“Lampedusa” — artist Vik Muniz himself came to the US in 1982 as an undocumented immigrant from Brazil. The image of a paper boat is playful and optimistic, but in this case, the floating installation highlighted the deaths of 360 immigrants who died during their journey from Libya to Italy. The 14-meter-long boat was coated with a giant reproduction of the Italian newspaper that reported the tragedy. This is a photo of the installation (Venice).

Benjamin Reich (originally from Bnei Brak!), “Tefillin shel Yad,” photo. There was a whole room devoted to portrayals of gay sexuality.

Untitled painting by Ethiopian painter Nirit Takele depicts the beating of an Ethiopian Jewish man, most likely the 2015 event that led to a huge protest against racism and police brutality.

As if that weren’t enough art for one day, Chaim and I then (after lunch) went to the studio/gallery of Tamar Messer, a friend of our dear artist friends Nancy Katz and Mark Liebowitz. What a repertoire of media Tamar works in! From mixed media creations and furniture to painting to illustrated biblical books, originally done in silkscreen, to gorgeous b’nai mitzvah invitations tailored to the specific Torah portion.  I couldn’t resist and bought a set of her beautifully illustrated megillot, each one uniquely reflective of the book it represents (Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes).

Tamar with Chaim in her gallery

Sample bar/bat mitzvah invitation representing Parashat Vayetze and Jacob’s dream.

This is Tamar’s breath-taking depiction of Akedat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac), in which his body IS the wood.

Have a seat! (These are chairs.)

Now it is time to pack as we have to be up by 4 AM to get to the airport. I imagine I will have one or two more posts when I get back to the US, to tie up some loose ends and add some more photos!


Shuk ha-Pishpeshim and the 2 Wadis

Before we departed for our morning adventure to Haifa’s famed Shuk haPishpeshim (flea market), we read up about Wadi Salib, the neighborhood where it is located, now mostly deserted and in ruins. Before the “Nakba,” Wadi Salib used to be an Arab neighborhood. (“Nakba,” literally “catastrophe,” is the Palestinian/Israeli Arab term for the exodus in 1948 in which more than 700,000 Arabs were either expelled or fled from their homes throughout the country during the Israeli War for Independence.) After 1948, the neighborhood was home to Moroccan Jews. Chaim and I located a couple of Moroccan synagogues that remain in that neighborhood.

In 1959, David Ben Haroush, one of the Moroccan Jewish residents there, started a protest movement of Jews from Arab countries against the white European (Ashkenazi) establishment that discriminated against them. The civil disobedience and protests that started in Haifa soon spread to the rest of the country. This was an important historical moment in Israeli history vis-a-vis relations between Jews from Europe and Jews from Middle Eastern countries (who often grew up speaking Arabic at home). The buildings in that neighborhood are still beautiful, but sadly abandoned.

We were delighted to spot a “David Ben Haroush Street” named after this protest leader. The biography reads “A resident of Wadi Salib, he was a social activist who organized the residents of the neighborhood in the Wadi Salib events of the ‘50’s. (1924-1999).” You have to love Israeli street signs — history at every corner!

Abandoned building, Wadi Salib. The modern building behind is my favorite building in all of Haifa. I’ve taken lots of photos of it from different angles. (Each time I take another, Chaim asks, “What would Dr. Freud say?)

Shuk haPishpeshim is Haifa’s vast flea and antique market comprising multiple streets, most active on Saturdays and Sundays. It was safe (financially speaking) for us to go on Shabbat since we wouldn’t spend any money, but it also meant that Chaim wouldn’t take any pictures of me, so I had to resort to a selfie.

There was a great playground/ropes course just outside the market that I had fun climbing.

View of the busy market with my favorite building (again) in the background.

If you want an antique Chanukah menorah, seder plate, or kiddish cup, this flea market is definitely the place to come.

Wares were laid out on the ground on this street

On our way home we passed a secular school whose logo is taken from the prophet Micah’s exhortation to “walk humbly” (hatznea lechet). I love finding Biblical quotes all over the place.

A poster in a cafe window quotes from Deuteronomy 10:19, “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers” and then says, “This business opposes the deportation of those seeking refuge.” As I’ve mentioned before, such signs in support of the African asylum seekers are everywhere, and a big demonstration will take place in Tel Aviv tonight.

At the front seat of every bus, Torah is also quoted: “Stand before the aged” (Leviticus 19:32)

We were also taken by seeing these Gerer Hasidim (recognizable by their garb) in such a secular city as Haifa.

After returning home to eat Shabbat lunch and taking the requisite Shabbat shluf (nap), we went out for another walk. This time we visited the Gan haZikaron/Memorial Garden, honoring Israel’s fallen soldiers. At the stone in honor of the Sinai Campaign of 1956, Chaim reminisced about his memories of that time, when his father was drafted (his job was to keep watch for Egyptian planes), and at home they weren’t allowed to keep lights on at night.

We meandered home (it does feel like home!)  through the now-familiar Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood, filled with public art at nearly every turn. This time we discovered Poetry Lane with four poems by Hanna Abu Hanna written in Arabic, with both Hebrew and English translations.

Here is one, entitled “Fear,” that seems appropriate in this week following the horrendous events in Parkland, FL:


When fear prevails,
woes follow in rapid succession.
To lose the sense of shock,
the horror of horror,
to become sedated
and indifferent to suffering
to become immune to the spilling of blood,
the killing of a fellow human!

Woe to the target of the gun,
and woe to him who aims the gun.
Because with the sacrificed whose blood flows in the squares,
the sniper murders his conscience,
the very conscience of humanity.

Art installation in Wadi Nisnas

We also noticed xeroxes plastered everywhere notifying the neighborhood about deaths that had taken place.

Death notices posted in Wadi Nisnas

We wanted to be in Haifa because of the relative integration between Arabs and Jews and the spirit of coexistence that Haifa is known for. For instance, there is an Arab-Jewish pre-school downstairs in our very apartment building. And comparatively, I think the situation in Haifa probably is rosier than it is elsewhere in Israel. But my reading of what happened in Haifa after 1948 is rather sobering. The Arab population in Haifa was reduced to 3500 from 75,000, homes and neighborhoods destroyed, defenders killed, and those remaining urged to move to Wadi Nisnas. Remaining Palestinian homes elsewhere were confiscated and street names changed. Since most of the land is Jewish-owned, Arabs can generally only rent, not buy property. Legal discrimination in housing, at least, therefore remains even here.

In the words of Hanna Abu Hanna, I refuse “to become sedated and indifferent to suffering.” It breaks my heart that the world is filled with such injustice.

Tomorrow will be our last full day in Haifa, before we fly back to the U.S. on Monday morning. Two weeks has not been enough time to explore this city and its environs, but we are already talking about our next trip and our intention to be based in the south (Beersheba) for that extended visit, so that we can take day trips into the Negev.

Shavua tov!

Will the real cartoon character please stand up?

Eliyahu haNavi

We welcome Elijah the Prophet at three unique Jewish rituals: annually at our Passover seders, every Saturday night during havdalah when we conclude Shabbat, as well as at every briss/brit milah when a son is welcomed into the covenant. As the harbinger of the messianic age, Elijah infuses each of these three Jewish rituals with hope for that future time of peace.

Just as Passover speaks to a historic past of exodus and redemption, so do we hope for such a future. Just as we experience a mini-Eden each Shabbat, so do we conclude it with hopes — to be heralded by Elijah — that every day may feel so blessed and filled with shalom for body and soul. As for the briss, why settle for a  Jewish doctor when you can aim for the Messiah him/herself? Each baby has that potential, and Elijah is there to welcome him. (We will need to infuse further feminist spirit into the tradition and invite Elijah to the babynamings for daughters, as well.)

In Jewish folklore, Elijah is the prophet who comes to earth in various guises, performing miracles for communities and individuals in need.

In the Bible, Elijah was a miracle worker and healer. He was also a curmudgeon, derisive of the Israelites and their faithlessness.

Joseph Telushkin teaches (in the name of his grandfather, as I recall) that Elijah visits each Passover, havdalah, and briss as a punishment for his doubt in the future of the Jewish people. In other words, God is forcing him to do teshuvah (repentance) every single day for his own faithlessness. Brilliant Torah! (I wrote more about Elijah earlier in the month — February 6, “Meeting the Other” — during my visit to a different Carmelite monastery on Mount Carmel dedicated to Elijah and his murderous tendencies.)

But there is another Biblical story (1 Kings 18) about Elijah that is beloved: that of his hiding in the cave to escape the wrath of Ahab and hearing “the small, still voice” of God. That cave is believed to be a grotto on Mount Carmel that is sacred to Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. After dropping off our rental car, Chaim and I took a cab to the top of a trail that would lead us to that cave (starting at the monastery Stella Maris and ending at the Bat Galim beach). The cave was certainly the holiest place I’ve experienced thus far in Israel this trip. The devotion I witnessed there reminded me of what I’d seen in the Western Wall tunnels five years ago in Jerusalem.

Looking down from the top of the trail to our destination at the beach. You can see the cable cars for those who leave their cars at the top and need a return trip. (Or as Chaim joked, perhaps Elijah ascended heaven in this cable car and not the chariot that the Bible described.)

On the trail

Through forest

Outside Elijah’s cave there are places to light candles in his memory.

Inside the cave. The women’s section is on the left, the men’s on the right. They were praying very devotedly. It was quite moving to witness.

The women’s side of the cave contained 2 large bookcases of prayerbooks and other holy books, and the wall was hung with prayers of all kinds: for health, livelihood, for finding your soulmate, for miracles, for old age, and even for finding or purchasing an apartment! Elijah is clearly considered the kind of intermediary who can make good things happen!

Lying on a stone lounge chair at the beautiful beach.

Gorgeous, clean, warm water and beach.

From the beach we took a bus to our Talpiot shuk to replenish our food supply, came home to cook for Shabbat, and are sadly too exhausted to walk the hour (uphill) to Reform synagogue Ohel Avraham at Leo Baeck for Shabbat services, though we loved them last Friday night.

Shabbat shalom!

L’havdil: B’nai Brak and Tel Aviv

We began our day in the very insulated ultra-Orthodox community of B’nai Brak in order to visit Chaim’s brother. We then walked to the cemetery to visit Chaim’s mother’s (and grandmother’s) gravesites. Chaim and I were both pleasantly surprised that, except for one child who stared at me, no one in that community seemed bothered by the fact that I was wearing pants rather than a skirt. (I had braced myself for rude comments, sneers, and my own righteous indignation in response!)

Chaim with his brother Tzvi. It was an emotional reunion.

A collection of tzedakah boxes on the wall outside the cemetery (euphemistically called a Beit Chayim, a House of Life). Tzedakah boxes were also planted all over town like skinny mailboxes with slots  (like the tall yellow one in the photo).

I was excited to see a street named for Rav Eliyahu Dessler, author of the Mussar text Michtav Eliyahu. Among other teachings, Dessler is the one who brings the idea of bechira (choice) points to Mussar practice.

We travelled from the world of B’nai Brak to the very different world of South Tel Aviv (Florentine) to take a tour of street art/graffiti with Guy Sharett of TLV1’s fun and informative “Streetwise Hebrew” podcast (for those who want to improve their spoken and slang Hebrew skills). He advertises this tour on the podcast, and we were very excited to take part! We learned about street art, architecture, Hebrew slang, linguistics, and contemporary Israeli culture. We also learned about the acceptance (or not) of street art. While some landlords enforce its removal as an illegal act of vandalism, others welcome it. We also saw examples of different artists responding to each other, or collaborating, on the same walls.

Here’s Guy pointing out a tactile “petting zoo” on the corner of a building, with different textures one can touch.

Theodor Herzl as hipster.

Portrayal of Rabin’s assassination, based on a photograph. The middle arrow points at Rabin, and the one at the right to his murderer Igal Amir. The community fought against the removal of this piece of street art.

We learned the names of some of the regular street artists and how to identify them: They tend to sign in English so they can be easily found on Instagram or Facebook and gain a following: Frenemy, Murielle Street Art, Dedes, Sened, #Miss-Question-Mark, and so many others. Some are playful, some political.  269Life posts PETA-type graffiti, like a picture of a cow that said “I died for your sins” and another that read “Shoes are murder.”

Another one I liked was “If I forget you, Jerusalem, it will be because of Tel Aviv” (in Hebrew), a linguistic piece of street art that plays on the Biblical text from Psalm 137. But in this particular case, a disgruntled Jerusalemite perhaps (or someone disturbed by changing the traditional text) took umbrage, because the second, non-Biblical, clause was blotted out.

“Without fear, without regret, know that it’s in your power to change the world.”

This artist who calls himself “Ometz” (Courage) is an ultra-Orthodox father living a double life as a middle-of-the-night street artist. Notice the narrow and tenuous bridge he walks in this piece of art.

Street art which is mocking our street art tour. This foreign woman (“Berlin” is written on her purse) is either taking a selfie of herself as art or photographing the street art on the other side of the window (not pictured because I couldn’t get a big enough view.)

A wall containing pieces by multiple artists, including Bob Dylan’s song lyric transliterated into Hebrew: “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s doors” with devils, above which is a work by an artist who “contemporizes” classical pieces. In this one, the little girl is frustrated that she hasn’t received any Facebook messages.

It’s been difficult to decide which photos to actually post in this blog as there are so many wonderful examples to choose from. You should know that I have chosen G-rated images only, though I could have added some X-rated possibilities.

Not street art, per se, but all over Tel Aviv, as well as in Haifa and everywhere else we’ve travelled, we have seen loads of signs protesting the proposed deportation of the African asylum seekers from Israel. There will be a big rally in Tel Aviv Saturday night against the deportations, and as I wrote about previously, my friend Rabbi Susan Silverman started an organization to help hide refugees in danger of being deported.

This one says “Help: This deportation kills.” We saw one earlier that said “Deportation is a sin.”

This is a neighborhood of small businesses and workshops. For all I knew this cutie is on the wall of a plumbing business.

Back in Haifa, I saw this on the side of a garbage can. (I could do a post just on painted garbage cans!)

My Chevruta, My Kibbutz, My Poem

Several months ago, Chaim and I signed up to take an online course in Psalms, sponsored by our local Jewish Federation of the Berkshires through an organization called Project Zug. Though we asked to be paired together as study partners, we were told that we were each to be matched with someone from the Afula/Gilboa area in Israel, that this was part of a relationship-building venture, which includes art projects and other cultural exchanges, to strengthen ties between Israelis and American Jews.

I received contact information for Keren, my chevruta (study partner), and my first online course material shortly before I left for Israel, but I did nothing about it. Then lessons 2 and 3 arrived, and I still did nothing. Chaim had already studied with his chevruta (a local, and not someone in Israel, as it turns out) and was impressed by the materials, being taught by Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar. But having already fallen behind, I wondered how I could — and even why I would — spend my time in Israel with this project. Besides, my chevruta seemed no more interested than I was, since I hadn’t heard from her.

But then while I was in week 1 of my Israel trip, Keren emailed me, apologizing for not contacting me sooner, explaining that she had just published a book and things were quite crazy. When could we speak? Well, I’m in Israel on a tour, I replied. I won’t be available until I get to Haifa and my husband and I settle into our apartment there.

And so it was that Keren and I spent an hour and a half on the phone last week studying Psalm 19 and getting to know one another. We had a lot in common, and after I got off the phone with her, I was inspired to write a story-poem and a prayer dedicated to her and our study together. When I sent them to her, she was so moved, she insisted that we meet, saying that she had written a story that had begun the same way as mine! It was bashert (destined) that we had been paired.

Today was the day. She met us at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek (halfway between Haifa and her home in Afula) where I had spent five months in 1981 (spring semester of my junior year of college), splitting my day between learning Hebrew in the Ulpan program and working on the kibbutz. I was very excited to return to this place that was so formative to my understanding of my Jewish identity and my relationship to Israel. I was particularly anxious to see the view of the Jezreel Valley that had occupied my dreams, been the source of such joy during my forest runs on the kibbutz, and spoiled me so that I actually never ran again.

And Keren would be joining us for this reunion!

On Kibbutz Mishmar haEmek

Sculpture in the kibbutz cemetery

Chaim and Keren reading the gravestones along one of the beautiful pathways in the cemetery

It wasn’t clear we would have a view of the valley from the cemetery, and we weren’t sure where the trail I used to run even was, though I remembered it went past the cemetery. Then Keren showed me that we did have a view, and I cried with joy, nostalgia, pain, overwhelm! We found a bench, and I read Keren and Chaim the poem I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks (below). I started it at the Kinneret Cemetery with my rabbis’ tour; we had been asked to write a poem inspired by the poet Rachel’s poem about Mount Nevo, while sitting by her grave.

I was truly overwhelmed with emotion to have this view again. So grateful for Keren for helping to make it happen.

What a view this “Tomi” has for eternity.

From the kibbutz, we travelled to Keren’s home in Afula for a lovely lunch, where we met two of her three sons (aged 7 and 11; the oldest is 15 but wasn’t home) and saw her artwork (both paintings and sculpture), some of her mother’s sculpture, and received an inscribed copy of her hot-off-the-presses book, part memoir/part fiction about her brother’s death by a Hezbollah sharpshooter during a military exercise thirteen years ago and her healing.

I am so blessed to have this new friend in my life! Part of the Psalms project will include making art together. We don’t yet know how this will play out, but are thrilled to be on the journey together.

Keren posing in her home with her just-published book El haOlam Shelach/To Your World. Three of her paintings are on the walls behind her.

With Keren on her penthouse balcony in Afula where she served us a beautiful lunch. My newest friend!

My Israeli Brigadoon
@ by Pamela Wax, February 2018

In former days, bayamim ha-heim,
I would run through the forest past the kibbutz cemetery,
then further up
until a summit and a view
grabbed my eyes and yanked my heart

It was not yet my Mount Nevo,
a placeholder for unrequited dreams of the past.

Rather it was a screen upon which I watched
my future dreams unfold before me
in the Jezreel Valley

where I would take my place as an olah,
connected to the land,
a language,
a people,
an opportunity
to belong to something larger than myself.

But if what goes up must come down,
that idealistic aliyah to the summit
culminated in a descent.

It was not inevitable
but a choice made of fear
to run from that high place
to make a life
in relative safety
and unconventional convention

Yes, I belong at times
to something larger than myself.

But, if you ask, I will tell you:
I never again laced up my sneakers and ran anywhere.
Even when I lived half a block from a California beach
or Manhattan’s Central Park
amongst the rolling hills of the Berkshires
or near the park in the Bronx
where cross-country runners from Africa come to train,
I would not join them.
Could not.

I was caught ever after in the thicket of Mount Nevo,
for a place I had been
and a dream yet to be.


* Mount Nevo was where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land but told that he himself could not enter there.

Ancient Sites: Bet Shearim and Tzippori

Both archaeological sites we visited today, Bet Shearim (a UNESCO world heritage site) and Tzippori (Sepphoris), have rich and unique histories. What connects the two is the personage of Rabbi Yehuda haNassi (Judah the Patriarch). He was head of the Sanhedrin (which was headquartered in Bet Shearim after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt — and before it moved to Tzippori), key leader of the Jewish community during the Roman occupation of Judea, and compiler of the Mishnah (3rd century, CE). Bet Shearim became renowned as a great center of Torah study after Yehuda haNassi (or just “Rabbi” in the Talmud) resided there. Though he spent the last 17 years of his life and died in Tzippori, the Talmud (Ketubot 103b) says: “Rabbi was lying on his sickbed at Tzippori but a burial place was reserved for him at Bet Shearim.”

Burial cave of Rabbi Judah HaNassi in Bet Shearim.

The well-known story of his death is one of my favorite teaching stories for end-of-life work with families who may have differing opinions about keeping their loved one alive “to the end” (Talmud Ketubot 104a). Rabbi Yehuda haNassi was basically being kept alive by life support, which were the prayers of his disciples. His maidservant, realizing how he was suffering, threw an urn on the ground to interrupt the prayers and put Rabbi out of his misery. He died in that split second when his “life support” was momentarily suspended.

Because he was buried in Bet Shearim and because the Roman authorities had prohibited Jewish burial in Jerusalem, the cemetery in Bet Shearim became the “in” place of burial grounds both for those living in the land of Israel as well as for those in surrounding areas like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon, Phoenicia, and Yemen. We only entered one burial cave, but there were about 135 sarcophagi there! And there are many other burial caves that we not only didn’t visit but that haven’t even been excavated yet.

This burial cave contains about 135 sarcophagi

Well-preserved sarcophagus featuring two lions.

Ancient synagogue site in Bet Shearim. Today’s most faithful congregant is a cat. Can you spot him?

I was so happy to carry on my friend Billy’s hobby of photographing wildflowers. Red anemones.

From Bet Shearim, we travelled about 13 miles to Tzippori National Park, with remains of an ancient city and gorgeous mosaic floors. There were ruins from Roman and Byzantine periods, as well as a fortress from the Crusader period. Yehuda haNassi’s grandson is buried in Tzippori. The Sanhedrin (and Yehuda haNassi) moved there from Bet Shearim at the beginning of the 3rd century CE and the Mishna was compiled in Tzippori.

Entrance to Tzippori (Sephoris), harbinger of magnificent mosaics to come.

“The Mona Lisa of the Galilee”

Coincidentally wearing my Women’s March t-shirt and posing (my best Amazon imitation) with one of the two mosaics we saw depicting Amazon women.

Portion of the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue in Tzippori. Can you see the menorah?

This photo captures only a part of this vast archeological site.

A beautiful view from Tzippori.

Our day concluded with a drive to the top of Mount Carmel to try the touted hummus at Hummus Berdichev (worth it!) and to catch the nighttime view from on top.

A magnificent night view from the Louis Promenade on top of Mt. Carmel. The Baha’i shrine is bottom far left, and the rotunda-topped building on the bottom right is the Baha’i archives (where over 100 different translations of the Baha’i holy book are kept). The line of lights at the very top of the photo on the other side of the (black) bay from Haifa are in Akko!