Education,Israeliness,Life

The “mechinistim”

On the road to mechina

School officially started a week ago, and along with it the beginning of the “mechina” year. As our daughter is one of the new mechinistim, I thought this might be a good time to talk about what is a mechina, in large part also because our friends and family overseas have never heard of the concept.

Basically, it’s possible to defer one’s army induction date by a year to participate in mechina, a program that combines study, volunteering, hiking and getting to know who you are as a person. Up to seventy 18-year-olds live together, cook together and play together, becoming better citizens and hopefully more sensitive human beings. They also do a lot of pre-army physical preparation. The army likes the mechina system because it delivers more mature and motivated new recruits.

There are tens of mechinot in Israel, with more sprouting up every year. There are several types: all religious, all secular, boys only, girls only, and mixed boys and girls / religious and not religious. Our daughter chose the latter.

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post quoted Shmaryahu Ben-Pazi, the director at Aderet (that’s the name of the mechina our daughter is attending), as explaining that these “programs teach young people to leave behind indifference and deepen their Jewish and democratic principles and values.”

Aderet’s educational director Assaf Perry added that his mechina aims to mend the rifts present in modern day Israel. He defines those as “the rift between the religious and secular, between rich and poor, between the center of the country and the periphery.”

Studying starts early in the morning and discussions go late into the night. This is not learning for a grade; it’s what you’d call in yeshiva “Torah l’Shma” – studying for its own sake. The same is true at the mechinot, as they debate provocative questions like “is it a Jewish value to die for your country.”

As excited as I am for our daughter, saying goodbye was another matter entirely. My wife and I both drove her to the drop off point last week – we only really needed one parent in the car, but we wanted to get a chance to see what the other mechnistim looked like when they were still raw individuals, before they jelled (or didn’t) into a tight group.

At the parking lot next to a McDonald’s in Beit Shemesh, I felt like I was sending my child off to college in the States (she’ll be 18 later this week and she’ll no longer be living at home, so the comparison is apt, even though she won’t be out of the army for another three years).

I also hoped to give her a big hug as she was swept away into the crowd of other eager 18-year-olds. But she wasn’t having any of that, as she instructed us to leave her a good 100 feet from the other kids.

It’s often hard (it certainly is for me) to let your kids fly away after spending so many years carefully raising them with all the right values and extra-curricular opportunities. But if we have to set them free, sending them off to a mechina might be the best thing we’ve done yet.

The agony and the ecstasy in Jerusalem’s excavations
History and Culture,Holidays

The agony and the ecstasy in Jerusalem’s excavations

by Yossi Yeinan, Keshet

Stairs to the Second Temple

Ancient stairs uncovered in City of David

It’s been 50 years since Irving Stone wrote his popular biography of Michelangelo, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”. If not for copyright restrictions, The Agony and the Ecstasy might be the title for a new history of Jerusalem.

Life here is like that – exciting and intense – and every so often there is a news story or a new discovery that captures that intensity perfectly and encapsulates what life in Jerusalem is all about.

I experienced a moment like that just recently when I toured not-yet opened areas of the City of David National Park. Over the last five years, archeologists have uncovered a monumental staircase nearly half a mile long that ran – in Second Temple times – from the Shiloach (or Siloam) Pool at the southern end of ancient Jerusalem up to the Temple.

A drainage channel lined with beautifully dressed stone runs directly underneath the staircase along its entire length and will be opened to the public later this year.

Flavius Josephus and the rabbis of the Talmud describe these stairs in Temple times at Succot – the harvest festival. Imagine the scene: the granaries and storehouses were overflowing with the bounty of the summer harvest and tens of thousands of pilgrims – men, women, and children – would come to Jerusalem and ascend these stairs festooned with bright torches and jugglers for the festive occasion. The Jewish people would give thanks and pray for the fall rains before returning home to plant the winter crops.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzdyKlmTzEk[/youtube]

The unity of temple times gave way to infighting (will we ever learn?), the Romans destroyed the Temple, and some of the surviving Jews hid in the drainage tunnel underneath the stairs – only to be smoked out and murdered by the Roman conquerors.

We know the story because Josephus recorded it, and because in the last few years we’ve found the cooking vessels and household items left behind by the Jews who lived and died here more than 1,900 years ago.

Life

Darkness at the edge of town

As the darkness settled over us, I felt an unanticipated sense of panic. I had been expecting to be unsettled, startled, certainly disoriented; I didn’t realize it would bring up so many deep and hidden emotions.

To set the stage: my wife Jody and I were dining in the Black Out Restaurant at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa. Nalaga’at calls itself a “cultural, entertainment and training center” for deaf, blind and deaf-blind Israelis. A troupe of a dozen actors puts on a play each evening that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming as it illustrates what it’s like to live with their particular disabilities.

Many theatergoers choose to start their night with a meal at the Black Out, a restaurant where blind and seeing impaired waiters guide their guests through a meal in total darkness. Not just “dark,” but total – not a speck of light seeped through the heavy curtains. We were even instructed to check our cell phones before entering, to prevent any light if they flashed from swarming through the room like Internet-savvy fireflies.

Our waitress Ma’ayan introduced herself to us and then led us to our table by placing hands on shoulders. We had to feel for our chairs, locate our water and glasses and silverware as if we were blind – which for the next two hours we essentially were.

There are two meal options at the Black Out – dairy and fish; we opted for the former. Within each option, there are three entrees and a “surprise me” choice, where the chef picks the dish and the diners try to discern what they’ve been served (mine was some sort or ravioli with sweet potato and peas – unusual but good).

First, though, we were brought a basket of fresh baked bread, pre-buttered with garlic and dried tomatoes. Perhaps (or probably) because one of our senses had been taken away, the taste of the bread was astonishing.

Jody and I also used the breadbasket to navigate the table, and to find each other’s hands to hold as the volume from the other diners in the small space cranked up towards metal head level, threatening to sonically overwhelm us. Ma’ayan explained that when you can’t see someone and you’re not used to that, you naturally tend to shout. The ears also compensate for the lack of sight, amplifying everything.

Which is when I started to panic. The sound level, which I am loathe to call deafening for abuse of a cliché, although it might nevertheless be the most appropriate, became oppressive, much like the humidity we’d earlier slogged through outside on the Jaffa beach.

I became silent. Jody tried to engage me in conversation. I couldn’t respond. It was then Jody’s turn to panic – had I left the table without telling her? Where was her usually unstoppably chatty husband?

Upon hearing Jody’s concern, I snapped out of my momentary melancholy fairly quickly, but my words were forced, uttered more for the sake of compassion than ordinary discourse.

Once the main meal came, my alarm was mitigated somewhat. I tried my best to eat with a fork, but lapsed too often into using my hands – after all, no one could see me, right?

Everyone will react differently to the temporary deprivation of one or more of their senses. Jody was calm but couldn’t keep her eyes open. My response to the sounds around me (made worse by the presence of a particularly boisterous group of un chaperoned teenagers) was not entirely surprising: I have always been sensitive to noise and the Black Out restaurant magnified that susceptibility a hundredfold. I can’t imagine how it must be to live like this all the time. I am thankful I don’t have to. And saddened that others do not have that choice.

Music,Religion

New CD captures Kabbalat Shabbat in Tel Aviv

The new CD from Tel Aviv's Beit Tefilah

It’s Friday in Israel and, as sun begins to set later this afternoon, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Tel Aviv Port to welcome the Sabbath Bride. It’s the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service, run by the Tel Aviv-based Beit Tefilah Israel (“House of Israeli Prayer”), an organization which has set for itself the task of building ” an active Jewish community which speaks to the breadth of the secular public.”

Now, the egalitarian, pluralistic Beit Tefilah has released its first CD with music from their popular Friday service by the beach. The CD has 17 songs which are performed by the Beit Tefilah Ensemble, led by Atalya Lavi who participated as a contestant on the ninth season of “Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of American Idol.

The CD – called “A Tel Aviv Prayer” – includes both classic Kabbalat Shabbat liturgical works (such as Lecha Dodi and Adon Olam) and music composed to Israeli poetry (for example Haim Bialik’s Shabat HaMalka). There is even a Hebrew version of the Louis Armstrong song “What a Wonderful World” that substitutes for one of the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Beit Tefilah isn’t the first Israeli congregation to release an album of its music. Jerusalem’s Jewish Renewal community Nava Tehila did that already a few years back and has started work on a second CD.

The new Beit Tefilah CD is for sale online at http://www.btfila.bandcamp.com. If you want to try before you buy, every song is available to stream from the site too.

Israeliness,War

Sweating the small stuff too

Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival

While it’s the big news that gets all the headlines, sometimes it’s the small stuff that’s the hardest to sweat. Last week, terrorists attacked along the Israel-Egypt border just north of Eilat. The ensuing days have been filled with IDF strikes and Gazan counterattacks. More people have died.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the seminal rap-rock band HaDag Nahash was playing a concert at Sultan’s Pool as part of the annual Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival. Our 17-year-old daughter Merav had a plan to dance up a storm with her friends at the show. She got all dolled up, then received a phone call.

“There’s a terror alert in Mamila (the mall that is adjacent to Sultan’s Pool). Everyone’s been ordered to get off the street and hide in the stores. There are police everywhere. It’s really serious,” her friend on the phone said.

“What should I do?” Merav asked us. “I want to go…”

“…but you don’t want to die,” I finished her sentence.

“Right,” she responded.

We checked the news. There was indeed a “high alert” going on in Jerusalem, but it was mostly along the highways entering the city from the north and west – Highway 443 was reported to have back-ups for up to 10 km coming towards the checkpost from Modi’in. But nothing written about trouble in town.

“If they’re locking down the mall, they must have some good lead,” I speculated.

“Maybe I could get to the concert from the other side,” Merav offered.

“No, they’ll have closed everything,” I said.

“And the other way is kind of dark,” Merav remembered. “Oof, this sucks! I really like HaDag Nahash.”

“And I really like you…alive,” I replied. I wish I were trying to be ironic.

Merav sat in the kitchen, now with two of her friends. While we’d tried to leave the decision up to Merav (with some strongly worded parental advice), one of her friends had much stricter marching orders.

“My mom says I can’t even leave your house,” she said gloomily.

The truth is, this kind of terror lock down has been pretty rare in recent years. During the early 2000s, it was a nearly daily occurrence, but nowadays we take for granted that we can sit at a Café Aroma and sip an iced limon-nana on a warm Jerusalem night with carefree abandon.

But an arts and crafts festival with tens of thousands of nightly attendees makes a pretty good spot for an attack. It’s a reminder that, despite our protestations and blogs to the contrary, Israel is not quite yet that “normal” nation we proffer it to be.

And yet the contrary is just as true: we say (and we mean it) that we won’t let the bad guys stop us from living our lives. If Merav had received a call just then saying the threat had passed, she would have been on the next bus to town, with our blessing.

The girls wound up reluctantly taking a pass on the show. We watched a family movie instead: “The Invention of Lying.” It was an amusing distraction.

Later, Merav talked to a friend of hers who had made it to the show. It was amazing, Merav quoted. “But he said everyone was terrified. They spent the whole concert looking around, trying to spot if there was a terrorist in the crowd.” She added, almost parenthetically, that she was, in fact, glad she hadn’t gone in the end.

There was no terror attack and the threat level was lifted by morning. My wife and I are scheduled to attend the festival and show on Tuesday (Ehud Banai is playing live). And unless the roads are closed, we’ll be there, defiant, proud and enjoying a warm Jerusalem evening.