Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advice for Our Leaders

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders rather than the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks this very same question. He suggests the law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make—most especially if you are a leader.”

I would like to suggest a different reason.

Soon we will mark Tisha B’Av, the day in which we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. This fast day marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own demise. They more often than not suggest that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our destruction were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.

Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Give the Keys Away

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”

Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sailing on Dreams

Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.

First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.

It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.

For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.

Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Disagreements and Likes

There is a disturbing trend that is becoming ever more prevalent. It centers on disagreement. We have forgotten how to debate.

We surround ourselves with like-minded people. With the click of a mouse we can unfriend those with whom we disagree. We find it unwelcome to challenge ourselves with divergent opinions or when friends offer us critique. The measure of friendship today is twofold: loyalty and laudation. We only wish to hear the nodding of agreement.

Loving critique is banished from our screens. Honest disagreement is deleted from our inboxes.

Take but two recent examples. At last week’s LGBTQ pride parade in Chicago, several Jewish women who carried a rainbow colored flag with a Jewish star in its center were asked to leave. Why? Organizers told the women that the flag made people feel unsafe. The march is unabashedly anti-Zionist. The Jewish Star of David, they were told, is associated with the State of Israel. The official statement makes the Dyke March’s ideology even more clear: “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.”

To say this is disturbing and offensive does not adequately characterize my feelings....

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soccer, Torah and Life

The Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, writes:
I love soccer because it is so painfully similar to life: slow, unjust, fairly random, usually boring, but always holding out the hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning. There’s no getting away from it—life isn’t about limber athletes sinking hoops from the three-point arc; life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we’re lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kaká, or some other dribbling magician. And then, for one split second, that whole damp 90-minute mishmash will turn into something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile. And, when that moment and its endless playbacks fade, we will all return to our same drab reality of wasted time, pointless fouls, unreceived passes, and wild kicks that miss the goal by kilometers, only to wait with infinite patience and boundless hope for that next moment of grace.
I do not share Keret's observation that most of life is boring (or his talent for spinning humor out of the ordinary), but I do share the sentiment that life, like soccer, is punctuated with flashes of brilliance and grace when everything seems to work and everyone seems in sync.

Such is not the story in this week's Torah portion, Korah. Our portion is about the greatest rebellion against Moses and the authority God placed in him. In fact one can read much of the Torah, especially the Book of Numbers, as a record of how bad things can really go and how telling Keret's observation may be. Very little goes according to plan. God frees the people from Egypt, gives them the Torah and prepares them to entire the Promised Land. They in turn whine and complain. They gripe about Moses and his leadership.

Korah screams, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (Numbers 16: 3) In the end Korah's rebellion is violently crushed. God does not easily forgive those who question Moses' authority.

The Israelites move on to the next episode. Again they complain; this time about a lack of water. In this episode it is Moses who questions God's authority and is punished.

Where are the flashes of brilliance? Where are the models to emulate? My teacher used to quip, "There is no one in the Bible you would want your son or daughter to grow up to be like."

Then why read the Torah? If it is not to provide us with models to emulate and characters to which we aspire, why read it at all?

It is because the Torah mirrors life. It is filled with ordinary people who occasionally do extraordinary things and more often than not do embarrassing things. We can see ourselves in its characters. We can find ourselves in its pages. How often do we discover the soccer-like quality of present reality in the words of Torah?

There is a little bit of Korah in each of us. There is a measure of Moses in all.

Loving the Torah does not always mean imitating it. Loving the Torah and Bible does not mean saying, "It must be right if David did it. It must be true if Moses said it." Torah means instead learning and growing from its words.

There are times when you can appreciate Keret's observation. It was not so long ago that I stood on the sidelines watching my son slide to make a save or leap to knock the unexpected shot out of bounds. Most of the time it was spent kibbitzing with fellow parents, talking about schools, parenting, the news and weather. To be honest I sometimes had to be told about the slide or leap because the kibbitzing so distracted me. You have to remain attentive. You have to be patient. The moments do arrive.

The hours of driving and watching are redeemed by those brief moments of beauty and grace.

We travel from moment to moment, through ordinariness to such grandeur. We are sustained by the moments of illumination and brilliance. We pray that they might be more frequent. We recognize that they are elusive—and infrequent.

Such is life. Such is soccer. Such is Torah.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Selfies and Spies

“Don’t tag me in that photo; I look fat,” a friend once said. In this social media age, we are especially cognizant of how we appear to others.

Perhaps that is Snapchat’s appeal. The image is fleeting. It is shared with only a select group of friends. On Facebook the image can outlive the individual. After death a community of mourners is born on a page. Facebook thinks friendship is eternal. It continues to suggest that I post on a friend’s wall even though he died several years ago.

We coif our image. We hold our selfie stick in the air. We smile. Then we review the photos to be sure we look good. We post. We await the likes and comments. How much of our time is now spent reviewing photos to be sure we look good to others? How many hours do we spend fashioning our digital self-image?

How many selfies are to be found in your iPhone’s camera roll?

The spies scout the land of Israel. Ten return with a negative report. They say: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

How did they know how they appeared to the inhabitants of the land? Such knowledge is impossible to gain. In fact the Haftarah contradicts their impression. The Book of Joshua records that the citizens of Jericho are afraid of the Israelites and terrified to confront them.

It is clear that the Israelites’ self-image is negative. It is obvious that they see themselves as a weak people. This negative impression colors how they view the world. They run away from the Promised Land.

Success begins with what one sees in the mirror. Is it beauty one sees? Is it confidence that shines through? If you look in the mirror and see beauty and confidence then the world appears conquerable. If you see yourself as a little grasshopper then that is how you imagine everyone sees you. Then the world makes you cower in fear.

Can a Facebook photo change your world?

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, imagines God saying to the Israelites: “Why are you so concerned with how you look in the eyes of the Canaanites? Such concern distracts you from your sacred task.”

Spending too much time worrying about how you appear to others can very well divert you from the sacred work God intended for you to shoulder.

Years ago I read a story about a musician who played the violin in a subway station. In the 45 minutes he played, only six people stopped and stayed for a while. About twenty gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing no one noticed it. No one applauded. There was no recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He had played one of the most intricate pieces ever written and with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the station, Joshua Bell sold out a Boston theater. The average price of a ticket was $100.

People just thought he was a street musician and not a famous violinist. That did not deter him. He played as masterfully as ever. He did not allow how others viewed him to effect his self-perception. He did not allow the lack of recognition or the absence of the usual applause and standing ovations to divert him from his God-given talent of bringing music to people’s hearts.

The world must be conquered each and every day. It must be bettered each and every day. That is what God calls us to do. The strength to do so begins with how we view ourselves.

It does not matter how others see us. What matters is how we see ourselves.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shira, She-Ra and Wonder Woman

Some twenty-four years ago when my daughter Shira was born my mother announced her new granddaughter’s name to her high school English class. One of the students said, “You mean like She-Ra, princess of power.” My mother responded, “No. As in the Hebrew word shira, meaning song.” Her students returned baffled looks. The class clown raised his fist and shouted, “She-Ra, princess of power, twin sister of He-Man!” The students laughed. A young girl said, “Congratulations, Mrs. Moskowitz.” “Enough class. Open your books. We are reading The Canterbury Tales today.”

She-Ra was developed by the toy company Mattel to appeal to young girls. If boys could have the powerful He-Man then girls could buy the protective She-Ra. He-Man carried the sword of power and She-Ra the sword of protection.



She-Ra was portrayed as extraordinarily powerful. She was able to lift not only buildings and mountains but men. Her powers were supernatural. Girls could discover in her a positive role model because she, like her male counterpart, made the best use of her God-given talents. She saved the day, and of course the world, in each and every episode.

I just saw the new “Wonder Woman” movie. I felt compelled to go. I grew up watching Lynda Carter transforming into Wonder Woman. Cue the music. “Wonder Woman!”


Time marches forward. Shira joined me.

In this year’s movie, the lead actress is Israeli and the villain German. Like She-Ra, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers. She fights alongside the United States against its enemies. In the 1970’s TV series she fought against the Nazis. In the movie the enemies are WWI Germans. I wish the scriptwriters kept the villains of the original TV series. WWI Germany was not the evil Nazis.

Why choose enemies that history deems more benign? It is because the 2017 battle is against war. It is not against a specific enemy. Have we forgotten the message of the TV series? We continue to face specific enemies. To name but one example, Lebanon banned the showing of “Wonder Woman” because Gal Gadot is Israeli. There are far too many who declare our way of life their enemy. While we might pray for peace and an end to war we recognize that war is a sad feature of humanity.

How else do we explain the Torah’s discussions of war? When the Ark was carried into battle, and to this day in traditional synagogues when the Torah is taken from the Ark, we say: “Vayihi b’nsoa ha’aron… Advance, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered. And may Your foes flee before You!” (Numbers 10:35) We can remove these words from our prayer books, as our Reform Siddur does, but the reality is sadly here to stay. War continues. We have self-described enemies.

Today’s Wonder Woman fights to end war.



Towards the end of the movie she kills the man who she believes to be Ares, the ancient Greek god of war. (Sorry if you have not seen the movie yet.) But the war continues. The killing does not end. Wonder Woman is baffled. That would have been a fitting conclusion to the film. End on a question mark.

Surgical strikes will not end today’s war. Larger bombs will not decide the battles. They might make us feel safer and they might event prevent another attack. But the war against terror is won by banishing fear, by going about our everyday lives, by embracing the pluralistic society that is the greatness of our country (and Britain’s, France’s and Israel’s) and the most powerful sword we can wield against our enemies.

But Hollywood has to tidy up the conclusion. Its films cannot end on a question mark. Ares appears. War can indeed be defeated. And then Wonder Woman, after gaining renewed strength because of her love for Steve, kills the god of war. Killing Ares vanquishes war. The Americans and Germans embrace. War is banished from their hearts.

I prefer questions. Does Wonder Woman represent progress? Yes and no.

Yes because Wonder Woman and the Amazon women successfully defend their island against German invaders. As many reviewers have noted, they do so without any assistance from men. They are extraordinary fighters. Never is Wonder Woman portrayed as a damsel in distress. Moreover she leads the charge through no man’s land and against impossible odds. She does so not to regain a few feet of territory but to rescue a town and save its inhabitants. Her cause is noble.

No. War cannot be erased from men’s hearts. Our Torah in contrast offers realism. It affirms questions. It rejects fantasy. Only in comic books is history so tidy and neat. While war cannot be eradicated, people are indeed capable of unimaginable good. Still it is nice to have a two-hour respite from the news of war. And it is not all bad to have superheroes.

When Shira was born familial priorities were reordered. We were now parents. And my parents were now grandparents. Shira’s grandparents (and of course later Ari’s) became the most esteemed of titles.

It is wonderful, and really not all that mysterious, how one woman can reorder a world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sparks of Holiness

The Levites were divided into three clans: Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites. They were charged with the priestly duties. Some of these tasks apparently required some heavy lifting. So Moses gave the Gershonites two carts and four oxen and to the Merarites he gave four carts and eight oxen. But to the Kohathites he gave nothing. They had to do everything with their own arms and legs.

“But to the Kohathites Moses did not give any carts or oxen; since their duties were to the most sacred objects. They had to carry these on their shoulders.” (Numbers 7) Was it because the Kohathites were particularly strong? Or instead because these objects were not very heavy? It appears not. They were charged with carrying the ark, lampstand, altars and sacred utensils.

It was instead because their responsibilities were most sacred. They therefore had to do everything with their own hands. No matter how heavy these were, the Torah’s intention appears to be that when it comes to these particular objects, an ox or cart will not do. Only one’s own hands could carry these.

I once read that the Hasidic rabbis would sweep the floor of their sanctuaries themselves. They left this to no else. I suspect that it was because their synagogues could not afford a custodian. In impoverished Eastern Europe they could not afford much. And yet this is not how these rabbis chose to understand their task.

They saw instead the mundane and every day care of the synagogue, from cleaning up after services to turning on the lights, as holy work.

They decided that no task was beneath them. No job was beneath any person. When it comes to the religious life of the synagogue no one should see any duty as beneath them. Lifting a heavy load must be done with one’s own hands. Carrying the sacred objects must be done on one’s own back.

The Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk comments: "All work for any holy cause requires extra effort. One must harness all one’s powers to do this work. One does not acquire a spark of holiness without effort."

Holiness is not a divine gift. Sparks of the divine must be gathered up and carried. They are the result of hard work. They are the result of even the most seemingly mundane and menial tasks.

Gather them up. Carry them. They are everywhere and anywhere.

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Relationship with a Tree

It was many, many years ago that I read the line, “I consider a tree.” In Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And it was as well not until many, many years later that I understand its import, if only partially.

Buber, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, argues that relations are the foundation of life, that we are most human in relation to others. There are encounters with others when all that exists is the relationship. “All real living is meeting,” he states. It is in our meetings with others that we most experience life and even sense a glimmer of the divine.

In an “I-Thou” encounter the “I” does not exist and the “Thou” does not exist. All that exists is the “I-Thou,” the relationship. Anyone who has experienced the love between one spouse and another or the bond of parents with children can appreciate Buber’s insight. Yet the perfect relationship, where all that exists is care and concern for each other, is fleeting. We cannot sustain this perfect moment.

We strive for perfection. We hope and pray that the knowledge of these perfect, fleeting, moments, when all that appears to exist is the relationship, forces us to reach out to others. I continue to marvel at the insight. It marks a breakthrough. I came to believe that the “I-Thou” commands us to treat others with respect and concern.

Then I read Buber’s insights about a tree....

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jerusalem, Manchester and Concertgoers

Our hearts are again saddened and sickened, and terror stricken, by yet another murderous attack. This time against children, and youth, enjoying a concert in Manchester England. We stand in solidarity with the people of Manchester. We pray for healing for those injured. We pray for solace for those whose lives have been taken. We pray for justice!

Lost among this week’s news was the word that 34 people, again mostly children, drowned in the Mediterranean. These refugees were attempting to reach Italy when their overcrowded boat capsized. They were fleeing Libya. The same murderous hatred that propels these refugees to flee their homes targets concertgoers. And yet the victims of the Arianna Grande attack find our sympathy. They could be us. We have taken our children to concerts. We have attended shows at the Garden, Jones Beach and Met Life Stadium.

We are separated from these refugees by two or three generations. They could have been my grandparents. Is our compassion only a matter of generations? I am called to have sympathy for all human beings. All of life is sacred. A murderous hatred, wrapped in the guise of Islam, seeks to engulf the world. It drowns and murders children. It targets the freedom to gather, to revel in music and speak our mind. We must be vigilant. We must be compassionate. I pray for peace.

Yesterday's Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marks the 50th anniversary of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. It is a complicated day. While it commemorates Israel’s victory, it also marks the stalemate that has existed for the past fifty years. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a distant dream. I hope and pray that President Trump’s efforts prove successful. Will moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, for example, advance the peace process?

Today, I do not wish to focus on such questions. Instead I wish to dwell on the following. I have never known a Jewish world without the State of Israel. I have been privileged to witness, and celebrate, many of its milestones. I have been privileged as well to debate many of its controversies and even swim in its contradictions. I have also been fortunate enough to travel there frequently.

I have only known a Jerusalem since 1967. I have read about Jerusalem’s no man’s land that separated Jordanian forces from Israel’s, and that now is home to Mamilla Mall. Many have walked through this corridor of shops and restaurants as they make their way to the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. No area of Jerusalem has ever been no man’s land to me.

Years ago I attended a concert in this very area. I then attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in this very spot. Here is that story from the summer of 2007. It illustrates what modern day Jerusalem represents. It tells a story that we will not read about in our newspapers.

We sat in Jerusalem’s outdoor amphitheater, Sultan’s Pool. Now Sultan’s Pool is no ordinary theatre. It was constructed by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman, nearly 500 years ago, who also rebuilt the Old City’s walls. It is a magnificent amphitheater that sits outside the Old City. Prior to 1967 it marked what was once the heart of no man’s land. The theatre sits in the valley of Hinnom, a valley referred to by the prophets of old, a valley whose ancient practice of child sacrifice gave rise to the Jewish image of hell, Gei-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom. The prophet Jeremiah’s harsh words and Amichai’s lyrical poems swam through my heart.

Yehuda Amichai writes: 
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine. 
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying. 
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.
It was a cool evening and blankets were given away to help keep out the chill of Jerusalem’s desert evening. The Old City’s walls were awash with lights. I remembered sitting in this very spot some twenty years prior with my then girlfriend Susie (Susie and I met in Jerusalem) and watching Santana perform. There were no seats then, only the ancient stones of the pool—and Santana jamming and talking about peace. “I say to these walls, man, let there be peace.”

The film festival began with a few speeches. First a petite 90-year-old woman, Lia Van Leer, chair of the festival spoke about her passion for Jerusalem and film and how especially proud she was that next year the festival will mark its 25th anniversary. An achievement award was presented to Avi Lerner and Danny Dimborf, Israeli born producers who have made it big in Hollywood. Their company has produced such classics as “Delta Force—1, 2, 3 and 4.”

The final speech was delivered in broken English by the chair of the Berlin Film Festival, Dieter Kosslick. He spoke about his long time friendship with Mrs. Van Leer, making some embarrassing slips because of his command of English, telling the crowd of nearly 10,000 how he looks forward to sleeping with Lia when they both attend Cannes. (I presume it sounds more appropriate in German.) He laughed when he realized his gaffe and then told this story.

When he was a young boy he witnessed the rise of Nazism and the devastation this ideology brought to the world and his country. He spoke about how the Nazis once burned Jewish books in his native Berlin. Because his birthplace saw the destruction of Jewish books he vowed to rectify this wrong. Every year Mrs. Van Leer brings him a gift. It is a book written before 1933 and written by a German Jewish author, a book that is tattered and worn, a book that seems beyond repair and that can no longer be read. Every year he lovingly takes this book and has it restored by a bookbinder in his native home. Every year books that would have been burned by the Nazis return to their native home and are there restored and I imagine thereby restore a piece of this man’s tattered soul. There was silence and then a standing ovation.

He declared the festival open and we watched the opening film, “Ratatouille.” Yes that’s right. Only in Israel would the Jerusalem Film Festival open in an ancient Turkish pool with speeches by an elderly Jewish woman and a repentant German and culminate with a Disney movie. In Israel one of the greatest compliments you can offer is: “This is American.” Israelis’ love of everything American is proof that an important part of Zionism is: “Let’s just fit in.”

On the other hand, unlike any other nation, Israelis feel that their everyday actions redeem the atrocities of a former century. On that cool desert evening I participated in redemption. I witnessed a German man publicly offer atonement. I watched a Disney film in an ancient pool and declared, along with 10,000 other Jews: “We can laugh and play just like you.”

Yes indeed, we can still laugh and play.

Perhaps that is the justice we seek. Perhaps that is the peace that so eludes us.