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Co-Existence in Haifa; Spirituality in Tzefat

Monday, January 28, 2008 – 2:40 a.m. Tel Aviv time

Too much excitement sometimes leads to too little sleep. Luckily we travel today for two hours by bus to the Dead Sea so I can use that time for some (eventually) much needed shut eye.

I spent the past hour racing through the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea, a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin about “one man’s mission to promote peace… one school at a time.” A gift of my brother-in-law Jeff who made two motivating comments about it – that it inspired him, and that the purchase sent money to a charity – the book is about selfless Tikun Olam (fixing of the world). The author Mortensen, a mountaineer who turned the aftermath of a failed experience trying to climb Pakistan’s K2 mountain into a mission that built fifty-five schools in the forbidding terrain of Pakistan’s boarder areas, is just that … inspiring. So fitting too, since today’s touring in Israel’s north opened our eyes to many non-Jewish members of Israel’s population and highlighted some poignant projects dedicated to coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

We found ourselves at Haifa’s Bajai Temple, home to a newer religion (few hundred years old). At once imposing yet serene, the Temple, surrounded by terraces of lush gardens, towers over the heights of Haifa. Where one might have expected a certain intolerance of yet another religious group claiming a sizable parcel within the Holy Land, we find instead an appreciation for the serenity of the site and a pride of hospitality. Haifa, a city with which I am only partially familiar, finds great meaning in its mostly successful quest to retain a certain healthy co-existence between its residents.

We met with Shaul ??, leader of Project TRIUMPH, which brings together teenagers – Jews, Muslims and Christians – for open discussion, leadership training, and development (by the teens) of co-existence projects. Or Ami congregant (and my executive coach) Steve Keleman became involved with this project, offering his volunteer services to teach the teens during their trip to California last year. Steve said “go and learn” so we did. Project TRIUMPH website features a poignant video about their work. It is exciting and important work. Shaul’s comment that they have learned to use music to begin connecting the teenagers’ parents up with one another resonated with many of our Or Ami group (we who believe that “music speaks louder than words”). We adults, so caught up in our own stories about rights and wrongs, sometimes miss opportunities to bring about coexistence. If “music can tame the heart of the beast,” Shaul and his partners are domesticating the wild hurt and anger to bring about a meeting of the hearts (and hopefully, minds).

Our exploration of Haifa continued with a walking tour of the work of Beit Hagefen, a coexistence organization that brings together Haifa’s various populations to create art. We walked down Derech HaShirim, a Walk of Songs, along which hung the lyrics of poems by Arab and Jewish teams. We marveled at the thought-provoking sculptures, paintings and installations integrated into the very walls of the walkways of Haifa’s neighborhoods. Most poignant were two works by a single author. The first consisted of a wall-sized picture of two boys, ensconced in a warm, flower-adorned frame. We later learn that the boy on the left was the Arab artist’s son by her first marriage to a Jewish man. We learn that this first husband tragically died. The boy on the right was the same artist’s second child, from her subsequent marriage to an Arab man. The artist’s two children, apparently happy siblings, offer a touching lesson on multiple levels: that Jews and Arabs are brothers, that if her children can co-exist then Jews and Arabs can also, that political barriers break down when binding relationships are formed.

Her second installation was equally affecting. Imagine a gated doorway, locked and seemingly abandoned. Graffiti spray-painted alongside it declares mishehu gar sham pa’am, someone once lived here. An enlarged key by the door suggests that the owner who left intended to return. The installation is located in an Arab neighborhood. Is the author raising questions about the plight of the people, probably Arab, who once lived in this house? Is her intent to declare her concern for their current well-being or to invite (force) us to confront the reality that even in the city of coexistence, all is not perfect? Perhaps she is wading into the recent ongoing skirmishes for historical memory being waged over the last decade between multiple narratives about the birth of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugees. The anonymity of its former occupants – mishehu – simultaneously shields us from the voyeuristic nature of “victim stories” even as it plunges us into gut-wrenching speculation about the “anonymous other”. Combined with Project TRIUMPH’s recent appreciation for the power of music, the work of Beit Hagefen reminds us that through art, we can burrow under the barriers we all have to inspire openness and truth telling.

A final note. Each year, Beit Hagafen directs its artist participants to focus on a certain theme. One year, they picked coffee. Like breaking bread, sharing a cup of coffee with someone else (or tea, for those who like me to imbibe the brown elixir) invites a sharing of much more – background, stories, family, hopes and dreams. Looking up at the oversized cup of steaming hot Joe adorning a busy thoroughfare, I realized just how brilliant these co-existence projects can be.

I should write about the lunch we had in the home of a Druze man. Heaping plates of spiced chicken, sweet rice with lamb, mini grape leaves, rolled cabbage, and the Mideast mainstay of humus and pita covered some folding tables. Following his family’s warm hospitality (and seconds on the lunch), we listened as he described the essence of his Druze life and their connection to the lands in which they live.

I should tell you about our experience in Tzefat (a.k.a. Tzfat, Tsfat or Safed), visiting the synagogue of the AR”I (Rabbi Isaac Lurie, one of the great Kabbalists), marveling at the craft of candlemaking at the Safed Candle store, meandering through the artist colony… It was calmer than I last remembered (perhaps because we had three tired but shopping-focused children with us on the previous visit). But also, the choosh, the atmosphere or flavor, of the town was open, light and airy. Of special joy was the opportunity, with the help of my sneaky shopping substitute Patti Jo Wolfson, to surprise Michelle with a gift of a chamsa (which Michelle favored but couldn’t decide whether to buy). I love Northern Israel, with its wide open spaces, lush greenery, mystical quality. Learning Tzefat boasts nice hotel and a plethora of bed and breakfasts, I made a note to make an extended visit during my next sabbatical. Mental note #2: it is time for Or Ami to bring in a significant, serious teacher of Kabbalah to educate and inspire about this growing Jewish mystical movement.

I should describe the delicious dinner we shared in Beit Hayeker (?), a winery in Rishon Letziyon. In our side room, long wooden butcher block tables were adorned with plates of salads, fresh greens, and refreshing orange and lemonade juices. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the wine was tasty, the food delicious (Michelle and I raved over shared dishes of grilled salmon and the pesto ravioli, each served with divine sauces). We enjoyed relaxing conversation with our tablemates the Ellis’, Krasnoffs, Susan Gould and Bella Kaplan. Between courses, Michelle and I snuck off for a private wine-tasting where we enjoyed the reserve Cabernet Savignon and played with the sweet muscat. While departing, I noticed a map of Israel’s wine country (the Golan purportedly boasts a collection of boutique wineries. Mental note #3 (during sabbatical 2009): wine tasting our way through Israel’s northern wineries is a must.

Well, its 4:07 am. Tomorrow is going to be brutal if I don’t get any sleep. A peak out our eighth floor window at the Tel Aviv coastline and the road that lines it shows that few are awake in this part of Israel’s city that never sleeps. If only I was among the many who slumber. I suppose that since Michelle unintentionally kept watch over the wee hours of the morning yesterday, chivalry dictated that I take my turn. I only hope I can be as gracious under exhaustion as she! Laila tov (goodnight) for the next two hours…

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