Route 443 to Boogie

October 12, 2015

After morning prayers I plugged in on-line. My eye was caught by an invitation from a Jewish activist friend of mine to attend a demonstration organized by the mixed-ethnic, but predominantly Arab-member Israel Communist party regarding the recent violence. I read the title which contained the phrase [in Hebrew, and I suppose its equivalent in Arabic], ‘until there is a peace agreement there will not be a stop to the violence.’ Not clear what was intended by that, I wrote the friend who’d invited me, expressing my concern over such language, but online chatting isn’t the best forum for friends to talk of such things. We’ve agreed to meet in person and talk.

Later that evening I met up with a friend in the posh European-esque Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Tzedek. Strolling on smooth brick streets, world languages dribbled over chic art galleries and gelato. Our plan was to drive to Jerusalem, an hour away, to go to ‘Boogie.’

News of the recent events have hit close to home, as the tensions of the perpetual bifurcation of society here usually relegated to the experience of Jerusalemites, Gaza and its surroundings, and residents of the West Bank had visited the streets of Tel Aviv that day. In my neighborhood, a mixed Muslim, Christian, and Jewish part of Jaffa, motor bikes had been spotted, parading Hamas flags and youthful voices that cruised the roads on their scooters shouting ‘Allah Whoa Akhbar.’ A night in the rumored youthful vibrance of barefoot Jewish boogieing sounded like just what my friends and I wanted.

(Since originally writing this, the mayor of Tel Aviv has come to Jaffa to eat Hummus as a gesture to the Jaffa business community, many of whom are Arab, and whom have stated their desire not to have threatening actions, let alone violence, carried out in the community. It is bad for business.)

On the way we stopped in Shoham, a small village nestled between Tel Aviv and the Yehudah Mountains, which form the bulk of the West Bank, to pick up a friend of my friend. We naively followed our native Israeli passenger friend’s directions out of his village until I observed that he was directing us to drive to Jerusalem on route 443.

Route 443 is a contentious highway, built largely on the ‘other’ side of the green line, as an alternative way to connect commuter cities situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as a fast route up to the capital. It is often surrounded by barbed wire, concrete walls, and bound on both ends by checkpoints. For most commuters, on most days, these checkpoints feel little different than highway toll booths, save for the presence of heavily armed, body-armored teenagers in uniform scanning each passing vehicle.

My friend was discernibly nervous, but our native Israeli friend laughed it off, declaring low statistical probabilities and faster driving time than the regular Route 1 as reasons to proceed without concern. As the Israeli developed navigation app, Waze, showed us the purple line to our destination and updated us about traffic jams and police presence, I quipped, ‘Does Waze have an ‘intifada’ symbol so people can know when there are terrorists up ahead?’

We sped up into the mountains on the six-lane highway and got to the final checkpoint of the road. We stopped 10 cars back from the gate, and didn’t budge. Impatient drivers zoomed around us into closed checkpoint lanes, only to be stopped as well. Our Israeli friend began to joke that he really needed to piss and eventually unabashedly hopped out to relieve himself. Everyone, now getting out their vehicles, seemed to assume that our friend knew what was happening. Someone, still in their car, inquired, to which our friend replied, ‘There was a bombing.’ After a gasp of concern and an awkward silence, our friend added the Hebrew word for ‘I’m only pulling your leg,’ ‘stam.’ More people approached, all penguin suited orthodox, and asked to which our Israeli-born friend informed them through a grin, ‘There is a minyan [a quorum of ten men required for prayer] being organized for evening prayers.’

Later that same man who had inquired from his car, dressed in a black and white uniform, pulled out his smartphone and declared, ‘no there really was an attack! A stone throwing.’ He had fresh pictures of broken glass and a dented car chassis.

The nervous energy had an almost a festive, communal atmosphere based in our shared curiosity and concern, which our friend picked up on and suggested we start dancing in the streets to the tune of ‘Am Yisrael Chai, The People of Israel Live!’ Suddenly the ‘toll’ gates lifted, we rushed back into the car, and were set free to stream up the remaining inclines and synclines to Jerusalem of Gold. A small military cadre of border patrol and regular police units were gathered near the site of the incident that had taken place for a car that had been just minutes ahead of us. Other than their cammo green and flashing blue lights, the scene was empty of anything to be seen or felt.

We stepped out into the refreshing early Fall chill of Jerusalem’s hipster-artist-religious neighborhood of Nachlaot and proceeded, as planned, to Boogie. A cold beer later, I was jostling with a mixed crowd of beautiful, sweaty, all Jewish Israelis, free noodling to a marching band and the selection of a DJ willing to play anything from dubstep to Israeli pop to Irish jigs. Maybe it was just my own perception, but one of the songs that got people the most hyped, to my surprise, was Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name Of.’ We thrashed with full force as Zach De La Rocha’s artistic screaming belted out the rhythmic angry punk mantra ‘Fuck You, I Wont Do What You Tell Me!’

At some point in the evening, late and getting tired of the frenetic energy needed to feel I was a participant on the dance floor, I stepped out to the concessions area. My mind had begun to wander back to the general situation, and I wondered what security measures were in place for this crowd of beautiful, isolated revelers. Was there someone who had heeded the call of the Jerusalem mayor for licensed gun owners to carry in the streets?

I noticed a scraggly bearded man with a wild mane of hair behind the concessions counter, taking repeated shots of arak [anise liquor] with sweat soaked clientele. In his back pocket, a gun tucked into his trousers, playing peek-a-boo under a loose Indian style shirt that was adorned with a necklace with a gold peace sign dangling from it. In my mind I played out the scenario: this inebriated gun-totting hippie suddenly hit with a rush of adrenaline that stews in his alcohol saturated mind, trying to shoot straight in a crowd of panicked youths just trying to get away from it all.

Viktor Frankel’s message to the world from his experiences in the concentration camps is about the power of our ability to make meaning, to utilize belief, to rise above the most horrendous moments of human experience. Our histories of trauma can make us particularly sensitive when we are exposed to new traumas. Yet, let us not get are drunk on fear or hatred. Nothing good can happen from a panicked crowed, no matter how much reason there is to panick. The violence will stop when we choose for it to. It is not an inevitable byproduct. Whether it is in response to the occupation, or whether it is in response to terror, who is thinking clearly enough for our adrenaline soaked brains to rise above the limiting belief that the only way to respond to injustice is with lethal force or shooting wildly into a crowd just trying to escape their situation?

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“Righteousness/Justice, Righteousness/Justice Shall You Pursue” (Deut: 16:19)

July 1, 2014

Anger, sadness, pain, hatred. These are the things we list in our feelings. This is what courses through our veins. Not all of those feelings are felt by everyone, but everyone can identify with at least one of them.

These feelings are completely justified, even the hatred. I hate the people who did this and anyone of their ilk who conspire to take our children as bargaining chips in a sick poker game and then snuff them out when it becomes too dangerous for them to handle their own voluntary participation in these abominable acts.

While our feelings are completely justifiable, they are not the same as justice, and for good reason.

Justice cannot be principled upon our individual or even our group’s feelings about things. Justice is not a thing we feel, it is a practice we carry out.

The loss of our boys highlights a deep emotion in us: fear. This incident and the subsequent search and its results have highlighted for us just how little we really control of much of the territories and their terrorists. That fear makes us want to act, now! We fear that if we don’t, the threat will only increase.

First, I’ll briefly point out that, with the exception of suicide bombings in Israel, the existential threats to the State have increased despite our having maintained massively superior military capabilities. But what I am advocating for also stands on its own.

There is time: things aren’t going to get any worse in the meantime with this. Hamas will continue to send out its disruptive and terrorizing but relatively ineffective rockets. We’ll have to maintain heightened security in the West Bank. But we have time to pursue justice on this one. This isn’t Iran. Please, I wish that you would believe me on this one. We have time to really learn the truth.

Humanity is still in a dialog about where to obtain sources of objective methodology and perspective about what justice looks or doesn’t look like. It is hard for me to cite passages from the Jewish narrative on this because while there are many in defense of peace, the fact is that our spiritual source texts are also filled with bloody acts of retribution and violent religious zealotry. It is clear to me though that Jewish sources would support the statement that justice and truth are not based simply in what we feel as individuals or as a group.

This is what I see as justice in its basic, universal sense, for our situation. I don’t know if what I say is believable to people, but I would like to advocate its cause here and now.

There will be a collective pause, a time to grieve, a time to mourn for ‘our boys.’ We will capture the individuals directly involved with this crime. They will be brought to a court of law in Israel; evidence presented as well as shared with the Israeli public. We will be told exactly what evidence connects or doesn’t connect this to which terrorist group. The court of law will then weigh the evidence and, if convicted, pronounce a sentence.

This issue of true, objective justice, the Torah implores us to pursue even at the cost of personal loss (or at least denial of personal gain). Having an informed public, who had taken the time to pursue justice, would make the truest, most righteous decisions. If we can take the time for Eichmann, we can take the time now. We are told by Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that there is indeed a time for war and a time for peace. Having taken the time to pursue truth and justice we could either take the literal biblical path and take an eye for an eye, a life for a life, or we could follow the teaching of Tevye who said that if we took an eye for an eye literally, ‘the world would be blind and toothless.’

 

 

A Night of Poignant Irony

June 19, 2014

“It could have been one of our children/family members/friends” is a line we often hear after tragic events here in Israel. This time, if you are reading my words and you consider me your child, your family member, or your friend, that statement could have been true for you.

“It’s an easy tremp (hitchhike),’ my friend and teacher, Rabbi Judelman, had encouraged me about the location of the meeting, and I knew that to be true. I had hitchhiked on that road to reach a solidarity action a few weeks prior when a Jewish ‘Price Tag’ attack of an Arab family’s olive grove destroyed 1/3 of their trees. That experience connected me to a meeting group of Arabs and Jews from the ‘Etzion Bloc’ of the West Bank, with a handful of Jews coming from across ‘The Green Line’ to participate. Rabbi Judelman, a leader in the group, invited me to participate in one of the group’s acts of unity, this time a small meal hosted in the heart of the Gush Etzion by one of the Arab leaders of the group.

So early Thursday evening I stuck out my index finger sideways at the beginning of the snaking road that meanders up from the lowland hills and valleys where I live, a region called Emek Haelah, up across ‘The Green Line’ at a small, un-busy checkpoint, and into the Judean Mountains. In English they are called ‘hills,’ but these ‘hills’ are equivalent in elevation gain and overall height to much of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

The small meeting group of about 35 had been funded and assisted by a church engaged in social justice projects from Virginia led by Pastor John. The meeting took place on the boyhood land of an Arab man who had returned after being released from prison for terror crimes to encounter a destroyed plot of land. This was the standard punishment for those convicted of terrorism: their home would be flattened and rebuilding forbidden. I now find myself wondering, ‘I wonder how the current crackdown is impacting him?’

There we sat, a mix of Israeli and American born Jews, American Christians, and Muslim Arabs, in a rock wall enclosed, somewhat barren property that members of the group had been bringing to life with permaculture techniques.

The whole experience impressed me as feeling very awkward. Much of this was facilitated by a massive language barrier. Only the Arab group leaders spoke English and/or Hebrew. Not a single Jew, Israeli-born or not, could speak any form of passible Arabic. My own fumbling attempts at the few Arabic phrases I know (‘thank you, sir,’ ‘no thank you, sir.’ ‘Excuse me, where is the water?’, ‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in…)’ were met with smiles and giggles, and then an attempt to speak with me in Arabic, to which I only could shake my head and shrug my shoulders and smile in response. Even the subject of where I live felt strained: I am from a world the Arab population of the West Bank has little access to even though it is only a 40 minute drive down the road. When I tried to use the Hebrew name of the valley I live in, I received blank stares, tongue clicks, and a nod of the head from side to side. So I said the name of a near by village that, while entirely Jewish, still retains the Arabic pronunciation of its name, ‘Zakqharia.’ They immediately recognized the name of that village and I wondered what images it conjured up for them but I didn’t feel comfortable or even capable of asking.

More than anything, that avoidance, which I take for a discomfort with uncomfortable subjects, was what felt really strained. There were some grand verbal gestures of noble sentiment, sincere in their sweeping emotionality to be sure, but fundamentally, no one was really talking or even really getting to know each other. We were all milling about, grinning sheepishly, trying to do a delicate dance of being a generous host or a gracious guest. Anglo-phones were expressing their sentiments to each other about peace. Meanwhile, a group of Arabs chuckled around in a circle of couches about a subject no one but themselves could understand.

It could be true that one of the Arab Leaders who offered some of the most salient words that evening is rounded up in the recent crackdown for his background: he offered us a small biographical, personal vision monologue where he talked about his youth, in which his mother would instill fear in him for misbehavior by ‘threatening to bring him a Jew.’ He grew up to be a “fighter/terrorist,” but realized that ‘the state is more capable of violence than me.’ He spent unmentioned years in jail for his crimes, and exited committed to non-violent action and determined to seek understanding of a people he realized had been limited to a fictional boogeyman.

In my experience often with left-wing (read also predominantly secular) action in Israel, there has often been a frustrating one-sidedness to the sense of empathy in the room. We, the Jews, smile and nod in solidarity with out fellow human, the Palestinian man, or child, or woman whose family is still in a refugee camp after feeling forced to leave from their homes by the war for Israeli’s independence. However there is almost never any reciprocation of acknowledgement for the Jewish narrative and its history of displacement and suffering, by the hand of Arab peoples as well. It is almost as if we are expected to hang our humanity on the shelf because our government does terrible things to these people. I think that puts both parties in a position of weakness: the Jewish listener is stripped of the dialog our own narrative can dovetial to create empathy. And the Arab person is relegated to this helpless, pleading position where he becomes merely a mouthpiece of grievances leveled at the first sympathetic listener as if we Jews were all somehow equally powerful with regards to the Palestinian’s situation.

Yet this man, while he didn’t go into such full detail, acknowledged that there was another group that has an important human history to understand. Neither of our troubled histories should be used to legitimize many of the simply unethical types of violent acts carried out by both sides in this conflict. However, to sit in this group and hear the legitimation of us as a people by ‘the other side’ was refreshing and, much like Abbas’ recent acknowledgement of the reality of the Holocaust, I believe it is a good sign. .

I milled about as the sky darkened: Arab girls were selling embroidery to a Christian woman debating whether she needed to bargain over the price or not, “Of course, its the Middle East!” I jested. The sister of a friend of mine from Humboldt was there, leading a group of ethical tourists. As I sat on a couch, a lovely, eco-groovy, Jewish-Israeli woman from Britain pointed out to me the intense degree of flirting going on between the young Arab women and the budding Christian peace church’s lads. Hormones are an oft overlooked Esperanto. We had a laugh, and I looked at the darkening evening sky and began to consider my options for going home. I asked several people (read Jews) what direction they were going, but none of the answers were helpful. The bus of ‘ethical tourists’ from North America and Europe drove off as I walked down a dirt road to Tzomet HaGush, the main junction of Gush Eztion.

Partly due to its long modern history of Jewish settlement, more so than other parts of the West Bank, Gush Etzion has a status as de facto Israel. There are some noticeable differences: there are more military personnel and there are cars with green ‘West Bank’ license plates. Yet it is a bustling, free flowing place where Jews live scattered along the small, rounded, summit knobs of the range, while Arab villages are usually located on the flanks of the mountains. Within ‘The Gush,’ very few checkpoints exist, and only a few signs warn Israeli Jewish residents not to enter certain Arab villages in accordance with the regions of autonomy granted the Palestinians in the Oslo Peace agreements. Ever since Oslo the Jews and Arabs have only been more and more divided.

A few people were standing at Tzomet HaGush, looking for rides as darkness fell. A young woman, from Jersey, hitchhiking alone, was there who had heard me speaking on my phone in English and we struck up a conversation. We got in the same car, its destination Kfar Eztion. I was dropped off at the far western exit of Alon Shvut as the last evening’s rays of electric blue light disappeared on the horizon.

That evening a steady, chilling wind blew as the warm, humid sea breeze rose up the flanks of the Judean Mountains and cooled and condensed into foggy clouds which streaked over the rounded summits of this mini-mountain range. I stood and shivered around 9pm as I awaited another hitchhike further down the road, not more than 1km and possibly only a few minutes separating me from where our boys are rumored to be have been abducted.

A few more people descended to where I was trying to hitchhike from. The three of us piled in the car of an American speaking fluent but accented Hebrew on his way to Petach Tiqva, a middle-upper class commuter hub of Tel Aviv.

It could have been me who was kidnapped that night as I came back from a peace gathering with former Arab terrorists and Jewish settlers. Whenever these events happen, in the activist communities, and discussion of politics in Israel in general, it seems hard not to fall into equivocation: ‘well, do you know how many Palestinian youths are kept in Israeli prisons?” I’m not writing this story to argue with Red Herring arguments. There is no justification for the random seizure of private citizens of any country, no matter their age, or their political beliefs, their prior or impending military service, or their country’s moral compass.

I came to Israel inspired by my Jewish connection to this land that has been established through the contact my people have had with ‘The Land of Zion’ for millennia. My Zionism is spiritually motived, not politically. I believe in my fundamental historical and human right to live in freedom in the land of Israel. It is the only place where the Jewish people can fully be themselves.

We keep on missing each other in the night. We don’t understand each other and we don’t know how to talk with each other. Despite the awkwardness of the meeting, I plan to continue to meet with this group of Jews and Arabs that seek peace just to try and see if we can find a way to talk with someone about something that connects us as human beings. I believe in their vision and approach. The vision of the unity group in the Gush is one inspired by their shared monotheism, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We are all praying to the Master of the Universe. While hard to say the Jewish participants are ‘followers’ of Rabbi Froman in the traditional sense, he is the Jewish leader who inspired and expressed the foundation of values of this group most notably. One peace organization claims he is the man who ‘proved that religion can be a bridge to peace and coexistence.’ He claimed it didn’t matter under whose flag he was living, what mattered was the holiness of the land he felt he had a G-d given right to live on. “Let’s give God the honor to do what He wants,” Rabbi Froman said in a 1996 interview. “In the meantime, the reality is to live in peace with each other.”

 

 

 

 

Breaking Open Into Independence

April 15, 2013

I read once a statement from a man from a southeast Asian country, I no longer remember which. He was talking about houses which burn down. He observed that in the USA, and generally in Western society, if our house burns down, we get a police investigation, file an insurance claim, and start rebuilding. In his culture, he observed that they sit in the ashes for a week, trying to understand the symbolic significance of the event in their lives.

Today is Yom Hatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which also marks exactly one year since I landed here to live as a citizen.

I arrived into the embrace of the woman who I thought was a soul-mate, with whom I had begun the quest to seek to answer if she was the one I wanted to marry. Since that day one-year ago, nothing resembles what it was that oh-so -long-ago recent yesteryear day. The vessel that arrived here then has been shattered and I am still rebuilding a new one, still unsure what fragments from the past can be incorporated into the new form which is to dance with my soul in this land. Two weeks after ‘she’ made it clear she was leaving me, I experienced a terrible bike crash, fracturing my leg in three places, requiring surgery, and a long road to physical independence; a difficult trial for a world traveling outdoor enthusiast like me. Sitting in the hospital bed it was clear: my connection to the ground in this new land had to be re-formed. My way of walking will never be the same.

It feels a little strange to talk so personally on a day of national significance. Despite having my ‘war cherry popped’ as an Israeli friend called it, by the mini-war that broke out in November, my political beliefs are something that have changed little since my arrival. I still question the viability of the political foundation of this state (Ethnic Nationalism) and am disturbed by what I perceive as its inevitable outcome (violence against and xenophobia of any minority which does not belong to that group). At the same time, the fundamental ability to live in this physical place is guaranteed, in part, by the nation’s military complex because there really are those who do not wish me to live here.

There is something that has changed in all of that for me. I am hesitant to even write such a paragraph such as the one above. Not out of a lack of confidence in the value of what I observe, but out of an understanding that the situation here is vastly complex, whose complexity is magnified by the scope of emotions which range across the spectra of possible perspectives on the issue. No matter what I say here, someone will no doubt be offended, find my description lacking in depth, scope, breadth, or some other dimension. In this visceral place, feelings are always at the surface.

This way of thinking has begun to extend to all things. I’ve realized that there is a tremendous amount of my life based merely in speculation. I haven’t lost faith, faith for me meaning a twofold belief in the incorporeal and my ability to in some fashion perceive and interact with that which is incorporeal. At the same time there is also this understanding that much of this is just a process of creating a narrative that can hopefully inspire, or at least encourage one to persevere. I don’t know if my leg breaking was through a conscious force that sought to teach me the lesson I have gleaned from it, yet the narrative of it is rich and enriches my life and my quest to unfold into a becoming. In that way, the meaning of this day connects the personal and the national. In that way, I relate to this idea of the State of Israel. And while there is much to burden the conscience here, I look around and am fully amazed by the unfolding and the desire of the Jewish people and what so many of us wish to become in so many ways. In that way, we are not so different, you and I, my brothers and sisters of Israel.

While there is much that can provoke anxiety and while there is much that troubles me here, I perceive I have become much more calm, or at least emotionally more disciplined, than when I arrived here. At first, I think I took on a generalization of the Israeli and it feels awful to look back. I was pushy, inconsiderate, unnecessarily loud. I thought I needed to be like that in order to survive here. Not all Israelis are like this, though you can certainly find those that are. But it didn’t serve me or those with whom I interacted in any way to be that way. Its not that I’m less opinionated now than I was before. I just try harder to contemplate the value of sharing what I think about things and how they might be received. Its not that I don’t wish to fulfill my wants, needs, and even desires, but I believe I’m better at seeing that greater complexity of how those wants, needs, and desires intermesh with people around me. At least I’d like to think that. I’m still prone to failure in that regard. With G-d’s help, I’ll improve, I promise.

While my mind and heart intertwine with greater synaptic connectivity to the teeming mass of life to which I belong, moving here has also been to embark upon my first fledgling attempt at adult (read financial) independence. I’m still supported to some extent through the generosity of some beloved family, but even that is no longer just being used to cater to my whims, or fund the somewhat aimlessness of a liberal arts degree, but is the bedrock from which I piece together the life I’ve envisioned. I’m now engaged in two inspiring sustainable business endeavors, an aquaponics venture, my local project, and a solar technology firm for rural regions of developing nations, my attempt at international, global-scale action. The global citizenry status I’ve always claimed I hope will merge with the collective charge of the Jewish people to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ the global and the local blurring as the feedback loops from action begin to dialog.

What I see when I move through the local land is exactly what brought me here. I have still not lost the vision of this place I had in 2005, an ancient vision given over to my ancestors who’ve walked this land through the millenia: A ‘good’ land, a beautiful land, ‘a land of milk and honey.’ Pastoral and tamed as it is, it has the same quaint loveability that provokes a tingling akin to what I imagine most people get with miniatures, of whatever variety piques one’s fancy. The region where I work building the aquaponics farm is no bigger than 15 square miles, but it hums with the same simmering golden beauty of dotted woodland hillsides as the Napa Valley of California, just in a smaller scale. And recently a walk on a northern forested hillside in an approaching rainstorm reminded me and my traveling companion of our mutual homes in the Pacific Northwest.

In recent months, this place has begun to simply feel like home. Yes, my family is thousands of miles away. This can be hard. Having lost my grandfather not long ago highlighted this for me, as I heard of his passing two days posthumous. To look out the window, however, is no longer to look out at a foreign landscape.

Inside my apartment very little stirs; only the clicking of my keyboard breaks the silence. My roommates are away: one guarding the Gazan border on ‘milluim,’ mandatory annual ‘National Service’ or ‘sitting around bored in a Jeep for a while’ as he put it. While the specific task may not thrill him, I suspect at least a small corner of his heart is glad to be serving our country on such a day. My other roommate is off celebrating with family, including the recent news of his sister’s engagement. The emptiness of my apartment is just the vacuum left from the aliveness of everything around me here. Outside my window fireworks explode and people cheer and dance and sing in the streets. When I first arrived to Israel, I got into an argument about how I perceived the method of celebration with explosives in a country marred by war as bizarre and ironic. Eventually my friend got past his anger and attempts to ridicule me to share with me his own interpretation: Israeli’s can separate between the two: those explosives used to kill, and those used to celebrate, and it is our resilience of mind and character that in a certain way we are championing by illuminating the sky and rippling it with tremulous sound waves.

If there is anything that I hope to say I have learned from this year, my first in this new land, it is that lesson. A fellow Californian-Israeli, who came here to carry out his dream in the exact opposite way I have, taught me to see this. He shared it with me a year ago, and now, a broken heart, a broken body, and oft tormented mind later, I can say my spirit has only become more resilient, alive, and ready to embrace the contradiction that is the idea: that which kills, maims, and destroys can be transformed into that which we use for jubilation.

A Brief Bank Encounter

July 26, 2012

I was told by the receptionist at Bank Leumi, Jaffa, to sit and wait for the next personal banker. I’m an Oleh Chadash (new immigrant) and was expecting my first Israeli credit card. Sitting there an odor of urine washed over my nostrils: ‘is that me?’ I looked around, and saw that near me a gnarled old Jewish man, malignant tumors on his hands and arms, was also waiting for a personal banker and the odor was emanating from him. A young Ethiopian man, waiting for his friend at the personal banker one cubicle over, didn’t seem to mind.

The old man asked me if I was next. I replied with a Hebrew phrase that essentially would translate as, ‘to your eminence, my lord,’ meaning loosely, ‘after you, sir.’ He wobbled to his feet, pungent waves of urine radiating throughout the bank branch. He arrived at the personal banker and refused the offer to sit for fear of having to stand up again. As he fumbled with his bank information, his cane fell and he almost fell over too, but grabbed a chair and stabilized himself. I looked at the Ethiopian guy, who was unmoved, and so I got to my feet swiftly and picked up his cane and hung it on the chair next to him, ‘Please, my lord (sir).’

After I sat back down an Arab woman, dressed with hijab and long dress, came over holding an adorable young boy. She moved and stood in front of me, her buttocks in my face, shifting from leg to leg impatiently anticipating the next personal banker.

As she got closer to the bankers she caught a whiff of the man’s scent and made a face, looking at all of us sitting there, waving the smell away with her banking information, and then covering her baby’s face with a sheet of financial papers.

The old man moved like an ancient tortoise away from the personal banker, meanwhile, the Arab woman and her child had moved further away, and I moved up to the personal banker. The Arab woman clicked her tongue, ‘Excuse me, I was here first.’

Understand, my Hebrew is limited, my Arabic next to non-existent. I am now translating our dialog literally.

‘What? No, I arrived here first,’ I replied with a pained tone.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I was just in line for the teller, and now I have to go here.’

‘Well, I was here first.’

‘But I was in line over there before you arrived.’

Finally I just said, ‘Why is that my problem?’ I immediately wished I could have said something more articulate.

She responded, ‘Well, it is not your problem, but…’

I was already seated at the personal banker while behind me the Arab woman waited impatiently, fanning her baby, for the next banking assistant.

Untitled First Writing in Paris

September 20, 2010

“My people, let Pharaoh go!”- Saul Williams

Walking along the Seine this evening, I looked up and saw the waxing moon rising above l’Tour Eiffel and remembered, as if reflecting on a dream, what it meant to be connected to nature.

As a child my head was filled with fantasy landscapes superimposed onto my surroundings. All mountains were 10,000 ft. higher, all fields a jungle wilderness, the forest uncharted. Later, as I began to travel, I would carry on an imaginative narrative with some relevant historical figure: on a plane flight I had the privilege to introduce the Wright brothers to the Boeing 747.

In Brooklyn, last year, the narratives were simply that of a relationship to my surroundings, the immensity of the city serving as a fantasy landscape of my white boy urban dreams. I spoke of nooks and crannies, of hip-hop, and pizza, things I had only dreamed of through movies, song lyrics, and books. Suddenly, last year, I found myself in Bangkok, a place so wildly different from anywhere I had experienced that there was no need for outside narratives and there was no frame of reference for my stories, not enough background knowledge to bring along a character. So, in ultimately a very Buddhist sense, I had nothing to do but be present or be distracted by the things which troubled my life.

Now I find myself in Paris almost as unexpectedly as I did with Bangkok. What narratives are there for me to tell here in Paris? This is a city often associated with romance, but I’m not here for that. I made sure of that before coming here. I had to. Right?

My academic program, while intellectually stimulating, is hardly one to stimulate the imagination. Analyzing case studies of failed electronic testing manufacturing corporations do little to create a sense of wonder. So, once again, I find myself walking along the Seine, ignoring with an acute lack of wonder the glimmering night strobe of the Eiffel Tower that is now a daily visage from the street nearby my septième arrondissement chambre de bonne. I remember just a month ago driving across the Bay Bridge and remarking to myself how the steel truss work was almost identical to that of the Eiffel Tower with one important difference: it serves a tremendous function, much more so at least than emitting radio signals and garnering millions in tourist cash. One afternoon I told Sophie, “I probably shouldn’t tell any other Parisians this, but I don’t really think the Eiffel Tower is that amazing.” We connected in that moment out of our mutual dislike of the thing.

So instead of looking up I stare down at the iridescent glow reflecting on the choppy surface of the river from the light of the tourist boats on their night cruises  from the Point d’l’Alma bridge, the one where Princess Diana was killed. I think of art films while imagining how the reflected glowing light must be cast on my face with varying intensity as the Bateaux Mouches glide by.

The disconnect between dreams and their manifestation in reality is ever growing. This topic comes up everywhere. There was a rainy sarcastic stroll on the second eve of Rosh Hashana with a young Jewish mathematician from whom I failed to comprehend how his recently acquired Master’s in number theory applied to anything tangible other than the pursuit of knowledge itself. My classmates struggle, as I do, with how to take this hope of creating a better world and make it into a reality when so many of the world’s most inspiring people have ultimately failed to make much of a lasting change. Is South Africa free from racism, or are African-Americans fully emancipated from mental slavery? Are NGO’s, despite trillions of dollars invested in them, really making an impact on world poverty? Did Ataturk’s attempt to modernize Turkey outlast the forces of Islamic fundamentalism? Has Truth and Reconciliation really helped Rwanda heal the rift between Hutu and Tutsi?

It is strange how history so well known to us can seem so intangible. Walking down the modern Champs-de-Elysees the old cobble streets are thinly veiled by applications of tar worn down by the daily traffic. It is difficult to imagine the Nazi forces marching through the Arch de Triomph, the very same one that still stands proudly in the distance at the far end of the chic boulevard. And what about the street to which I have moved, just across the Seine? Would a cloudy frocked SS officer have ducked off from an off-duty stroll on the near by Place des Invalides and delighted in the sweet smell of baguette wafting from the same boulangerie that is just a short jaunt from my new home on the whimsically named Rue de la Comète? If history repeats then despite the difficulty in imagining it will this too happen again? Is the paranoia of the Jewish culture to which I belong fantasy, or should my people really be afraid here in France?

Even stranger is this ever-present desire to imagine divisions of advancing tanks whenever I travel out into the countryside. I can’t help it. French countryside and advancing armies are inseparable to me! While the obvious causes are apparent, to this I personally blame Charles Shultz for having created his addictively eerie scenes of Snoopy crawling across a decimated French landscape in his Charlie Brown Halloween special. What is my obsession with war?

The one place of solace from all of these questions is my new home. It is a place of ultimate presence. After an evening stroll of contemplation, after a day of running around, I enter my 12 meter square ground floor room, close the blinds, and smile. There is my bike which I brought all the way from California. There is my organized chaos of papers and other study materials on my desk. There is my neat little kitchen. And my old Persian rug, which I can lay down on, with my head resting on a Thai meditation pillow and just let my back fall into the hardness of the tile floor beneath feeling my spine straightened and supported. It is in a quiet private courtyard, with a small garden outside my window. Only the occasional classic echo of high-heels and hard-soled dress shoes of Parisians on old cobble creates an interruption in the quiet.

Many are certainly aware of the experiment done by the Washington Post with the great violinist Joshua Bell anonymously playing in a busy central train station at rush hour. He played for 45 minutes and was virtually ignored. The only ones who truly tried to stop and listen were children.

What happened to that sense of wonder in all of us? What happened to the ability to dream of the waxing moon, of romance, and of a better world? Is my mathematician friend more in touch with his inner-child? For, rather than becoming wrapped up in the tangible, he just dreams: of theories, imaginary numbers, and the space in between numbers. It’s application is irrelevant to the stimulation of the pursuit for its own sake.

Bridging the Gap

May 4, 2010

-Note: All bold faced type is raw journal entry. Thanks Joel for the journal!

It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.” – Hagakure

Having fortuitously bumped into Khun Pak in the supermarket just as I was expressing interest in Buddhism to my mother she said,

“I’m going to a farang wat next week, if you want to come.” The information was misleading and yet it sounded too perfect to pass up the opportunity so I agreed. The following are brief excerpts from that adventure. Bold faced type is from my journal.

Journey to Si Sa Ket

A stewardess in a 1930’s flight uniform, hair in bun, small and tan upturned brimmed roaring 40’s style hat, distributed multiple snacks and a full dinner. I shied away from the dinner, but was thirsty and attacked the small juice box, draining it in seconds. The taste was awful and I made the mistake of looking at the ingredients. I can’t recall exactly what they were, but I do remember that the percentages of the ingredients only added up to 48%. I was afraid to know what the other 52% were.

It turned out to be a long sleepless night, one in which I tried desperately to find a comfortable spot in my seat that was designed for a more average Asian body dimension than I posses. I was sad to not be traveling in the day, where at least I could look out the window and enjoy the sights of a countryside that was totally foreign to me. I asked Khun Pak at the beginning of the trip what made her prefer night travel.

It is just such a waste of time, traveling in the day. At least at night you can sleep through the experience,” she said in a very affirmative tone. I was immediately irked at what I felt was her inability to think about it from my point of view, but I reminded myself that I was her guest and she was my generous host and that I had only  recently asked to tag along on a trip she had planned a month ago. So I sat with the feeling, hoping it would pass.

The lack of sleep, however, did not allow for a feeling of clarity or calm, and arriving in the Si Sa Ket bus terminal at 4 a.m. I was dazed and in a funk.

“It was cold on there,” I said to Khun Pak, hoping to find some equal footing.

“I wasn’t cold,” she replied.

I looked around, but there was not much to see: a few mangy dogs, some taxi drivers lurking eagerly, and various Thai people in plain clothes and monks robes. It was a typical Thai scene that in my sleepiness did not particularly stir me.

“Ari-eh!” came the demanding high, nasal, half yell that became a common sound whenever I was in the presence of Khun Pak. Apparently I had not been rapid enough to offer my assistance in unloading the large packages she had brought to her relatives. I quickly ran and took a few belongings from to place them next to a seat in the waiting area. I was zoning out, thinking about how the pious in Thailand are treated with so much more respect than I had witnessed in other countries, especially intrigued by the contrast in dynamic with secular and religious Israeli society and the larger sociological implications that evaded me. Then the same shrill voice cut through my space-out. “Ari-eh!” I had forgotten that there were more packages.

Once everything was piled together, Khun Pak approached and said with unflinching directness, “You are going to stay in a hotel tonight and me and everyone else will go to my sister’s. We will call you and pick you up in the morning. You will be more comfortable this way.”

I was too tired to try and think in any perspective, even my own, and only felt the tension in my chest and knew that it was best not to react to it outwardly. “Ok, thank you,” became my common reply throughout the trip.

Exhausted, I collapsed on the hotel bed expecting an industriously early Thai start in a mere few hours. Having developed a fairly dependable internal clock, even on the tail ends of jet lag at unfamiliar latitudes, I was awake at 8 a.m.: three solid hours of sleep under my belt.

Hotel: Eating my complimentary breakfast I noticed a healthy array of Americans with slender Thai companions. I wasn’t sure of their relationship status, but the box of strawberry flavored Durex prominently displayed on top of the mini-fridge right along side the soda pop and chips that could be added to the room fee, coupled with intense morning tensions of my own that took me by surprise, certainly gave me cause for speculation. I have always felt very tuned in to sexual energies, and the hotel’s status, despite its glamorous façade, was not lost to me in my base 4 a.m. state of mind.

As I chewed mealy cantaloupe the thought of these slight framed women pressed under the weight of a sweaty creatine pumped ex-pat thankfully dampened my morning frustrations. They were not feelings I was very interested in engaging at the moment.

Waiting until 11:30, my emotional frustrations were growing. I had sufficient time to reflect on their origin: most Westerners love independence, and I am certainly no exception to that rule. And yet here I was, entirely dependant on the decision making process of someone I barely even knew. I knew that I had to try and bridge the cultural gap somehow, otherwise it would be likely that I would not be able to contain myself at some pivotal moment and would show disrespect to my generous host and only shoot myself in the foot as a result. I settled on the notion that I could approach it as a matter of wanting to be more of a participant in the experience. But it was this kind of directness of manner that I had noticed could also be problematic. How could I phrase my concern in a way that did not leave Khun Pak cornered and defensive or feeling embarrassed? I decided it obviously needed to come in the form of a question.

I called her to tell her I was going for a walk. She replied with a laundry list of why she was running late, but no explanation for having not called, although I supposed the list was her way of apologizing. The list was somewhat ironic: she had not slept well on the bus because of the motion of the bus and had arrived and cleaned her sister’s house before going to sleep. She had told me before that her sister was ‘sick,’ but what ailed her remained a mystery.

Khun Pak arrived that afternoon with her brother, a local police chief and she said, “I couldn’t sleep on the bus. Will it be okay if we go on the train?” Although I soon found that it was a rhetorical question, I hesitated to give an answer. I wanted to come to a solution. As we stepped out of the car, I mentioned my preformed question as she rushed to the ticket counter, hoping to delay any quick decisions and perhaps convince her to travel by day to allow me to see the countryside.

“Other than going to the monastery, I’d just like to know how you see me as a participant in the next couple days?”

“Ok,” she said, still walking toward the ticket counter. The question didn’t seem to affect her much. Perhaps it was the circumstances, perhaps it was the nature of asking a question, either way, I was feeling a little panicky.

“An example of what I am trying to say is that I would like to stay with your family if it is not too much of a problem for them. I can stay in a hotel anywhere in the world.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said and then rushed to the ticket counter.

As she did I asked, “What are the trains like?” I was not looking forward to any more cramped minimalist Asian sleeping experiences.  She bought the tickets and then turned back to me.

“So, tell me again what it was that you were saying?” she asked.“Oh, I just want to know how I can participate more in the experiences of the next few days? I don’t need to be in control of everything that happens, I just want to be a part of what ever you are doing.”“It is part of my culture to make sure the guest is comfortable. My sister does not have a bed or hot water and I thought you would be uncomfortable.”

“I understand and appreciate that. I hear where you are coming from, and that is why I speak with you calmly. I am not mad. I am saying these now so that we can understand each other better. I would only say that you can ask me anything you want to know, and that is what I mean by being a participant. If you think I might be uncomfortable, ask me if I will be rather than assuming I will. I am an adventurous boy: I climb mountains, my father did not have hot water at his house for a long time. I like to share in experiences.”

“Ok,” Khun Pak nodded. “I don’t know you, so I want to make sure you feel comfortable.”

“Yes, I understand, and I appreciate that.” I paused so that my conflicts didn’t become overbearing.

“The other thing is that I just like to know what is happening. Again, I don’t need to be in control of what is happening, just informed. So I expected a phone call this morning, but instead I had to call you to find out that you were not coming for another few hours.”

“Ok,” she said simply, and then her brother-in law got in the car and began speaking rapidly.

Life Is Suffering

Her brother-in law intrigued me. He has a long mouth that, with the wiry small moustache on his lip, reminded me of a catfish. It curved in the corners into a smile that was chopped off on the sides by frowning jowls. His mouth, his brown face, and his glossy multi-colored eyes told me I was in the presence of a very unique man who had a hard life.

We rocketed down the narrow country roads in his police pick-up truck, a newer Asia specific Toyota, blasting the classic rock and folk channel. The lanes of the road in Thailand are used more as guidelines for proximity to the road’s center or side ditches than they are meant to regulate the course of the vehicles traveling on them. If one encounters a small, slow-moving 4-cylinder farm truck burdened with a recent onion harvest or hay bales, the common method is to flash a right-hand blinker indicating you intended to venture to the other side of the road, smoothly move over, and honk at anything small enough to move out of your way: pedestrians, dogs, and scooters being the most common counter-directional impediment. Defensive driving does not appear to be common practice here.

We arrived at his house in the heat of mid-day. It was very tidy, but otherwise squalid. There was nothing to cover up the concrete frame of the house: no carpets, no wallpaper, barely even any paint. I clambered up stairs to meet Khun Pak’s sister.

Lying immobile on her side, she was very large, with friendly eyes. “Sawateekhup,” I said, and bowed.

“She has studied in Indiana and Chicago,” Khun Pak informed me, to indicate that her sister spoke English. Immediately I wondered what a police chief and a foreign educated woman were doing in such stark living conditions?

At dusk we drove off into the forest and parked at a beautiful shining Teak wood temple surrounded by some of the denser woodlands I had seen so far in my trip. There the police chief got the attention of a young wiry monk, who I later learned had been fasting for 10 days. We were soon sitting underneath the temple, listening to an older, similarly narrow fleshed monk give what could only be likened to a sermon to Khun Pak and her brother in-law. The general translation was that he was talking about suffering and experiencing and enduring suffering.

Personally not understanding a word, I listened intently to the sound of the language and the face of the monk. The monk’s eyes rarely blinked from within their deep-set sockets, and it was apparent that he enjoyed using a very articulate manner of speech. It was honestly quite pleasant to listen to how the language rolled of his tongue. I have so far been generally neutral about the tonal appeal of Thai language.

That evening over dinner I asked Khun Pak about her sister. She had apparently forgotten to put the emergency brake on an incline and tried to use her body to stop the rolling car containing her four-year-old child inside. I never heard what happened with the car, the child is currently finishing her final year in university, but her sister is now paralyzed from the waist down. I dwelt on the information for much of the rest of my trip. Life is suffering in many different ways for many different people.

That night I decided to learn a bit more about my generous host, Khun Pak. We meandered from topic to topic, and I hoped my questions were not too blunt. I asked her about her deceased husband, about her work at the International school, and then she began recounting other jobs she had. She talked about her work during the Indo-Chinese War aiding child refugees.

“I’m sorry for my ignorance, but what is the Indo-Chinese War?”

“The war where many, many Americans died in Vietnam.”

“Oh, the Vietnam War,” I said in a certain tone trying to cover-up any possibility that I would be that ignorant. I paused for quite a while after that. I was intellectually aware of my proximity to Vietnam, and had even contemplated the idea that perhaps I could go there and learn a bit about the war from the people and the land itself, but I had never contemplated the impact it had on its neighboring countries. I expressed my shock out loud to Khun Pak at how limited American education had been in its exploration of the subject.

Wat Pah Nanachat

Bindi Bhat (Alms Gathering): At 5 a.m. the meditative work of sweeping leaves from the paths began.

“Here, a nice and long broom, for a tall guy,” said Taylor.

With the extended bamboo and palm frond brush the leaves to the entrance of the temple grounds were swept aside. The piles were high, like snow banks after plowing, the accumulation of many pervious mornings. What is the meaning of forcing such order when new leaves fall dead on the ground shortly after their predecessors are brushed into a pile on the side?

With the world still shrouded in darkness, punctured only by the bright florescent lamps of the driveway, a monk approached and the trek to a nearby village for Bindi Bhat, the collection of alms, began.

With no eyes to see backwards, the earliest pastel hues commenced the dawn almost unnoticed.

“So, I understand you have some questions,” the monk asked.

“Sure, but at this point they are hard to articulate,” so there was a pause to allow the thoughts to gather.

“Taylor relayed a story of a murderer in the time of the Buddha who encountered the Buddha and was able to attain Enlightenment shortly thereafter. However, one day as he traveled through a village they recognized him as the murderer and stoned him to death. That was his Khamma.”

“Yes.”

Another pause to allow articulation to come more precisely.

“Where does Kamma come from?”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Why does Khamma exist? Is it just ‘is?’ If so, what set ‘is’ in motion?”

“The Buddha teaches that these things are irrelevant to following the path and will only drive one mad because they cannot truly be answered.”

Soon another monk joined and a small steel archway with a picture of the King marked the entrance to the village and the official start of the Bindhi Baht.

Lagging behind with two maroon bags containing plastic bags to collect the food in, the advice “like a caddy” drifted in and out.

Trailing dogs, rooster caws and scrambling chickens, villagers on their knees offering rice, curries, sweets and sours: one old woman rushed out of her tin shack and overcoming pain insisted the joints to bend the body to kneel in offering, clasping hands into temple form of respect. Perhaps this is similar to how the Kohanim were treated in the time of the Temple. The people of Thailand, especially it seems the people of the small farm village, give generously everyday to support those who seek to overcoming suffering and live the holy life.

The road turned south and the village become more dense, an agrarian Thai chalet of sorts, the clustered dark wooden structures reminiscent of a classic Alpine Village save for the absence of insulate layers, the occasional tin roof, and the date palms and banana trees frequenting front yards.

Heading into the Sunrise, the growing red semi-circle blazed evermore brightly to wash away the gentle purples, oranges, pinks, and reds a tropical hazy daybreak. At the edge of the village two enormous deciduous trees with far-reaching tentacle-like branches were back-lit by the growing light of the ever impending day.

“What kind of trees are those?”

“I don’t know, but my understanding is that Thailand used to be covered in forests of them. Most people in Thailand don’t know it, but ninety years ago most of the forests were destroyed. It’s actually the Forest Monks who have preserved much of the remaining forests.”

As the last softness of early morning gave way to yet another sharp day, the thought came more clearly.

“In monotheistic traditions, God is supernatural, is beyond the forces of nature and can suspend and intervene in those laws. This is why it matters what propels Khamma. Can, with prayer or repentance, unskillful deed be overcome by Divine intervention? Or is all unskillful act inevitably, simply because of the laws of nature, going to be visited upon the person who committed them at some point in some lifetime and the only truth is to accept that inevitability?”

“There are deities in Buddhist tradition, but even the most high is subject to impermanence.”

The words from the song of a long dead friend came to mind: “All the gods and demi-gods, all the myth, all the illusion, everything you’re clinging to, all of it will die with you.”

“It’s also deeply a matter of intention, too,” the monk went on. “If you and I are having a conversation and I don’t know that there is an ant in the road and I step on it and kill it, then there is no accumulation of bad Khamma. But if I walk over and squish it, then I have violated a precept of non-harm.”

There was a pause to let it sink in.

“What is it that you are looking for?” he eventually asked.

“The ability to understand what aspects of self can be overcome versus what aspects need to be accepted.”

“What don’t you accept about yourself?”

“A myriad of cultural and environmental influences.”

“Can you give me examples?”

“The two most important are anger and the unhealthy relationship that American society has with sexuality and the objectification of women. Those sorts of influences.”

“Well, not just America has that second problem.”

“Fair enough.”

“The Buddhist way is that there is no self. All definitions of self are an illusion and rooted in attachment. Everything within self should be overcome until one is totally at peace in a state of being desireless. There one can see ultimate truth.“

A stream of alms workers poured into the temple to place that morning’s collections into large bowls to be sorted and prepared for the day’s only meal. It was 7:30 a.m.

Letting Go

There is not much to talk about regarding Ubon as a city. It is just another moderate sized Thai crypto-biotic soil crust. One feature that was quite amusing to me was that the river that went through town was called Moon River, causing the voice of Audrey Hepburn stuck in my head for most of the remainder of the trip. The lyrics to the song in many ways are all too relevant to my fading hopes regarding own relationships of the past.

A few nights later Khun Pak, her family, and I caught the train, which much to my delight, looked like it had sizeable enough beds. .

Khun Pak, her friend, and her daughter sat together on a bed.

“Ari-eh, sit down!”

I stood for a second, trying to figure out how to approach the situation.

“It think it’d like to explore the train,” I said and turned on my heels, giddy to be on a train. Trains tap into two aspects of my being: my inner child and my wanderlust. I mumbled the words of Tom Wait’s song-poem “9th and Hennepin,” especially the part about “spilling out over the side to anyone who’ll listen” and the “clang and the thunder of” train travel.

Meandering through the 30-year-old China discard train cars was like a jungle of human activity and space. Jackets shaded passengers in the lower class sections, belongings generally were strewn about, and it felt like a person could swing on the metal bars that propped up as much compacted sleeping and seating space that could be conceived of by some Far East engineer.

In the dining car I decided I wanted a beer, if anything to just let go into myself because I had been restraining my inclinations for so long; a week! I saw a white guy, who had made eye contact with me as I walked in and the eye contact was enough to know that he was harmless, perhaps even friendly and worth talking with.

He was from Stuttgart, Germany, an environmental engineer and landscape architect who imported tropical fish and built aquariums on the side to assist his finances. He was traveling back from Ubon with his new wife after having met her family. Being very German, he was a perfect drinking companion, and was freely willing to foot the bill for the nine 630mL bottles we shared with a silent Thai companion on the other side of the table. The conversation meandered enjoyably between world languages and cultural expression, to environmental passions and childhood fascinations with the animal world.

“All men have a young boy in them that comes out sometimes, often for me when I’m drunk,” he said. “It’s not healthy if you cannot have that.”

We parted ways in high spirits and contact information and I went back to my bunk and scrawled in my journal.

Train To Bangkok: There is nothing more liberating than a good intoxicating head shift accompanied by good company. The moment called now would not have been made so fully possibly had many rounds of beer not been present to lubricate the language barriers. A sorry excuse to some, but I can only retort with the words of my great-grandfather: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

An Example of My Narrowness

April 26, 2010

We were just about to leave the Buddhist temple compound, having seen the newest shining glass temple encasing an idol of a dead King for the faithful to pay homage to. At that moment the black right angles on the girl’s shirt came strolling toward me, bordered by red. The plump young Thai and her friends with their curly mops of hair, tight pants, and Buddy Holly glasses looked better suited to South Berkeley, CA or Bushwick, Brooklyn than the temple grounds in Ayutthya, the old capital of Thailand. I passed by the girl and her swastika emblazoned shirt and turned to my mother and said, “As much as I am trying to overcome anger in my life, that stuff really pisses me off.”

“Me too,” she replied. After a few more steps she said, “I kind of want to take her picture.“
I immediately approved of such a subversively vindictive action and encouraged my mother to follow the girl, figuring the contrast between her and the compound of the temple would provide a perfect image of irony. I couldn’t imagine that she and her friends had any interest in going into the temple.
She had disappeared from immediate view, however, and I frantically looked on the other side of the temple. Then I looked inside, and there, prostrating and pressing her hands together in the form of a temple, was the girl, muttering prayers silently on her lips. I strode in, overcome by my own furious desire to point her location out to my mother. In my fury in that moment I transgressed an essential temple practice: I was unaware of my mistake until I looked up to make eye contact with my mother, who was silently but frantically mouthing ‘no’ and waving me back out. Suddenly I realized I had my shoes on inside the temple. I turned on my heels and ran out, embarrassed, looking back to see if anyone had noticed my cultural faux pa. It seemed that no one had, or if they had, they were too polite to tell me.
When I met up with my mother on the other side I asked if she had been able to capture any images. She showed me, and told me that she had asked the girl why she was wearing the shirt.

“Fashion,” the girl had replied. “I told her, ‘bad fashion,’” my mother recounted.
As we strode away, and my mother reminded me that shoes were a ‘big deal’ in this country, I changed the course of thought to the emotion that I was fully allowing myself to experience. I felt my anger was justified.

“This is strange: feeling this anger is the most inside of my own skin that I have felt in quite a long time. Why does this anger feel so comforting?”

“Well, what makes you angry about it?” my mother asked. “Are you angry about her ignorance, because it is apparent she doesn’t understand the meaning of her shirt.”
“Well, that is the problem. Ignorance is evil.”
“Ignorance isn’t evil. It can breed evil, but the people who are ignorant are not evil themselves.”
“How then can we best educate?”
“Well, hopefully she will remember that someone confronted her and she will remember the phrase ‘bad fashion’ and think about it the rest of her life and it will inspire her to find out why someone would say that.”

In retrospect it was just as much my own ignorance and the imposition of my cultural biases as a Jew that created that moment. There is a movement in Thailand amongst the youth that seeks to take back the emblem that has been a part of their culture for more than a millenium and deconstruct its symbolism as being owned by the destructive histories of fascism and Nazism. It is quite probable that I missed out on a tremendous opportunity to be educated out of my own ignorance. Due to my emotion and how I let it affect me through its narrowness I will never know.

Our Inner Pharaoh

March 28, 2010

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is among those famous Bible tales for which almost everyone can provide some sort of synopsis. For the Jewish people, it is a central theme of our tradition. We have an entire ritual meal and week-long holiday devoted to the symbolic reenactment and remembrance of these events and we are fulfilling a commanded mitzvah by remembering what happened. Traditionally, however, this is meant to remember the affirmation of G-d’s supreme power and devotion to the Jewish people by taking us out of Egypt.

Is there another dimension, a way to look out side of remembering what “G-d did for us” that might serve another function of self-improvement? Can we remove the story from the focus on ourselves and look at our perceived enemy and see something that is a reflection about our very own natures?

Most of us see Pharaoh as the epitome of the iron-fisted dictator, unwilling to bend his will. He is the ruler of Egypt, the most powerful empire of its day, and he exploits a worker force to ensure and fortify his power. When he is in jeopardy of loosing that power he stubbornly ‘hardens his heart,” or more precisely according to the passage, G-d hardens his heart.

With each successive plague, the symbolic gods of the Egyptian culture are destroyed. Pharaoh summons his necromancers to prove that they are just as powerful, but with each plague, they are left more and more impotent. Pharaoh. his people, and their resources suffer tremendously and yet with the passing of each plague, Pharaoh rethinks his initial willingness to free the Israelites. Only when death strikes does he finally relent and ultimately still decides to chase after the Israelites.

But can we really judge Pharaoh for this?

How many of us, when faced with the need to reevaluate our lifestyle, our perspective, our actions, have found reasons to put off that change? We say, ‘oh, it was only a temporary discomfort, but it won’t hurt anybody.’ How many of us, when we are honest with ourselves, can look in our lives and see that our resolve to change, or our new found change of heart, thought, or action, is only temporary, motivated only by the difficulty of our circumstance? And when the difficulty of the circumstance is removed, when what has plagued us is no longer blatantly in our faces or threatening our resources, how many of us return to our old habits, thinking that perhaps we don’t really need to change after all?  How many times have we seen old modes of thinking held onto steadfast until the brink of death, physically, spiritually, or emotionally, until the livelihood of our very own loved ones is threatened by our unwillingness to give up our certitude, our power, our comfortable lifestyle, or to go beyond what is familiar?

Whether applied to the self, or society, the mistakes of Pharaoh are all too universally human, all too readily seen. Yes, readily seen amongst B’nai Yisrael as well. We will do ourselves a tremendous service to look at our enemy and see ourselves in the actions of Pharaoh: environmental degradation that we carry out as a species, social degradation that we carry out as a culture, emotional degradation that we carry out in our relationships, and the ways that all of these are products of the spiritual, physical, and emotional degradation with which we treat ourselves. It is imperative to find within ourselves the urgency of Moses to confront these issues before there is not even a narrow place for us to live, the waters permanently polluted with the blood of living creatures and industry, unable to sustain any new born life.

May we be granted with the strength, courage, and wisdom to see the modes that perpetuate negative cycles in our lives, and may we break free of them speedily in our days to bring the era of bountiful peace and harmony.

Chag Sameach

Experiential Maimonides In Cambodia

March 18, 2010

I

There is a hardness of character in Cambodia that reverberates through the air like the sound of skulls being thrown into a pile of bones. Behind each action was a malleable purpose that was occasionally told in direct ways, on occasion was told in pseudo-direct ways, and in other occasions was not told at all. It was often hard to know which occasion it was and this made it difficult to believe people or trust their intentions.

This was a contrast to living and working in Thailand. My trip to Cambodia was a necessary visa run after living several months there and it was easy to assume Cambodia would have a similar culture and economic standing to the eastern countryside of its neighbor. I expected people to be very indirect and hospitable and while economically poor by international standards it would be a well-sustained subsistence living. While three days is a brief time to claim any true knowledge about another nation, it only took that long to see past that assumption through a series of circumstances.

My destination was Siem Reap, the main town serving the World Hertiage Site of ancient Angkor. These are the ruins of the Khmer people’s most powerful and influential kingdom. The town’s entire economy floats on tourism money and is filled with a large international backpacker crowd that blends with affluent tourists most frequently from East Asian countries. A totally unregulated throng of various services have sprung up to vie for every cent of this foreign influx which quite intriguingly is exchanged for as fluidly in Riel as it is in U.S. dollars. Tuk tuk and motorcycle drivers crowd the streets. Hotels line the streets where there aren’t bars or restaurants that recreate familiar European scenes with outdoor dining, wine, mood lighting, and pizza. “Uno, dos, tres, quarto, I know you want me, I know I want cha…” pounded the beat of the hit song by Pitbull while a young boy on crutches struggled to hold out his hand for some change from a passing young American backpacker while balancing on the leg spared from the landmine he’d stepped on.

Leviticus 25:35 states that, “”You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him.” The 12th century Jewish philosopher Miamonides derived his definition for the highest level of charity from this Torah passage, rendering it “to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people.” (Mishna Torah, Hilchot Matan’ot Ani’im 10:7) There is nothing in the Biblical prescription to limit such action to a Jew, nor are any of the other levels of charity that Maimonides describes so Judeo-centric.

II

There are two middle levels of charity according to Maimonides. There is “one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor,” and “one who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor.”

One day, taking a stroll along the Siem Reap River promenade, I encountered a man standing next to the newly cobbled walk way. Standing under a Khmer-Hindu stylized street lamp in the broad daylight, it was sure he wanted to sell something.

“Where you from?” he asked as I passed by.
“California.”
“Can I talk with you?”
“Ok, but I don’t want to buy anything.”
“I am an English teacher and I would just very much like to talk with you.”

We sat on a bench overlooking the nearly stagnant looking brown river meandering along the denuded riparian corridor and I watched the face of the man closely to pick up clues about his intentions. When he asked me about something he’d cut me off if my answer became too long and changed topics. After about 10 minutes he pulled out of his briefcase a sheet of signatures and a faded laminated brochure. It was for an orphanage and had faux-U.N. emblems on the top.

“Can you help my children?” he asked, pointing to the faded photographs of young boys and girls with a monk who he claimed was his brother. He clutched the photos in his ring bejeweled brown hand, extending them to me with an arm clothed in a well-kempt sweater jacket. The list of names pledging money was long, and all were within the last month. At least $200 could be accounted for.

“I am sorry, but I am not carrying any money on me,” I replied, emptying my pockets to verify my claim. “But I would like to help, so I am happy to sign and give you my e-mail and your brother can e-mail me how to donate.”

We parted ways, me with his phone number, him with my e-mail address and knowledge of which hotel I was staying which he had gained before disclosing his intentions. I continued my stroll and just as I crossed the small dusty bridge back over to my hotel he pulled up beside me on his motorbike.

“Now can we go to the hotel and you can get your money?”
“I was thinking, how do I know that if I give you the money it will go to the children?”
“I am not corruption,” he said with a smile, “and you promised. You sign your name.”
“Ok, here is what I would like to do. We go back to my hotel and you show me the orphanage’s website.”

As I hopped on to the computer he chimed in, “maybe my brother does not have the webpage working. I will call my friend to bring more pictures.”
“I don’t want to see pictures. I want proof that you work for this organization,” I said as the webpage loaded from my Google search.
The orphanage was there, and I clicked on the sub-result that said “Donate.” The orphanage was linked in through Paypal.
“Do you make a commission if I give you money?” I asked. He didn’t understand the meaning of commission, which surprised me, so I had to try a simpler route. “If I give you five dollars, does three dollars go to the orphanage and two dollars go to you?”
“No, all money goes to the orphanage.”
I tried one more time. “It is okay if you take some of the money. I understand. I just want you to prove that you work for the orphanage.”
“My friend is coming with more pictures now.”
“I don’t want to see more pictures.”

I had to follow my hunch. I did not want to deny this man his living if he made commission, but I also wanted to ensure that this money really was going for charity. “If my signature is my promise, then I promise you when I get back home to Thailand I will take my credit card and make a donation to this orphanage on the Internet, but I am not going to give you money.”

We shook hands politely and he walked away.

III

The third lowest donation of charity according to the Rambam is “one who gives to the poor person after being asked.” My last night in Siem Reap I was walking back from the convenience mart from a run for some comfort food: ice cream. Crossing the street a woman with matted hair approached me and I began my usual polite refrain by touching my chest in a gesture I had learned in Turkey to mean ‘no thank you.’ Combined with a verbalized ‘no thank you,’ I experienced minimal harassment from the various sellers and hawkers as compared to many of the tourists I witnessed who tried other techniques. Then I noticed she had a baby in a dirty swaddle over her shoulder.

“Please, sir, please, food. Baby have no food. Please, mister.”

At first I was skeptical. Could it be that this was just another scam? Yet my skepticism seemed totally implausible: the woman’s dirty clothes, her matted hair, her thin body, and then I looked down, and saw her bare feet. Hurriedly I walked her to the convenience mart and followed her to an aisle. She knew exactly what she wanted and pulled it off the shelf immediately and placed it in my hand. It was immune boosting infant formula.

“Is your baby sick?” I asked, simulating a small cough incase she didn’t understand.
“Yes, baby sick. Very sick.”

As I placed the item on the counter I noticed the price tag. $16.79. For a second my mind panicked in flurry of questions. Was this really just a scam after all? Why did she need that much infant formula? Can I back out now? I had been concerned I was running out of money of my own and would not be able to pay my hotel bill. I realized I was being ridiculous: she was obviously poor, and I probably had the money. I pulled out my secret stash of reserve money. The woman behind the counter gasped at the wad of bills. I handed the can to the woman with her child. “Akon,” she said, and hurriedly disappeared out the door. At the door looking at me through the glass was another woman with a baby.

“Of course,” I said before pushing the door open
“Please, sir, baby have no food. Baby have no father. Father ‘boom, boom’ from land mine. Father dead. Please, mister.”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“Sorry mean nothing! Please mister. Father dead. Baby have no food!” she shook the empty baby bottle in my face.
“Please don’t get angry at me. I want to help every mother, but I can’t. I don’t have the money.”
“Yes you have. I see you have. Please mister. Just food. Small food.”

We walked down the street into a dimly lit area. I stopped because it was clear she was going to follow me as far as she could. Her face had turned hard, her eyes pierced through my peripheral vision. I turned to look at her.

“I cannot pay another $16 dollars. Can I give you one or two dollars and you get food for your baby?”

Immediately I realized I was bargaining with her over my charity. She began to cry and she screamed, “Please mister! Baby have no father! Baby have no food!”

I pulled out 20,000 Riel, five dollars, and handed it to her. She hissed in disgust, perhaps at having had to beg me for so long, then clicked her tongue and turned her face away from me in violent reaction to the exchange. I turned quickly down the street to hide my tears at my own callousness.

When I returned to the hotel I asked the proprietor, “Those women with babies begging for money, who say their husbands are blown up by landmines, is that all real?”

He looked me straight in the face. “Those people are fucking poor. They live in the dirt. They are happy if you give them one dollar they are so fucking poor.”

The lowest level of charity according to Maimonides “is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.”

IV

Earlier that night I had my only experience with hiring a driver to take me to see the temples. I had been riding my bike up to that point but the chain fell off the hunk of junk I’d rented, causing me to crash and severely injure my finger and lacerate my knee, leg, and elbow.

I walked to a street corner crowded with drivers and made eye contact with one.

“Hello, you look for motorcycle?”
“Yes, I want to go the temples in the east, I cannot remember the name.”
“Oh, yes, Preah Ko.”
“Yes, how much?
“Thirty dollars.”
“No, ten dollars.”
He laughed. “Preah Ko very far.”
“No, it’s 15 kilometers.”
He laughed again. “No, 40 kilometers!”
I turned and walked away.

This went on for several different drivers, climaxing in one driver’s claim that the temples were really 400 km way. I laughed at him, which caused the other drivers to laugh. Walking away from them a young man with a motorcycle helmet approached me.

“You want a driver to Preah Ko, half-day?”
“Yes.”
“Yes, the Rolous group of temples are very old. Pre-Angkor. Very beautiful. And you want to go for ten dollars?”
His English and his knowledge impressed me. “Yes.”
“Ok. What time tomorrow?”
“6:30.”
“Ok. My name is Tom. 6:30 tomorrow.”
We shook hands to seal the deal.

The next morning I walked past the barren dirt shoulder where throngs of marijuana sellers had been crowded at night. There was a single motorcycle driver, but he wasn’t Tom. He approached me, and immediately I put my hand to my chest and said no thank you.

“You talk to Tom last night?”
“Yes.”
“I am Tom’s brother. Mother is sick. He has to go help her. I take you to Rolous today.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear your mother is sick. I hope she is healthy soon.”
“Thank you,” he said with surprised sincerity.
“Ok. So, it is still ten dollars for half the day?”
“Yes.”

I hopped on the back of the over-glorified two wheeled Honda lawnmower and we rallied out of town in the opposite direction of the morning commute: a mass of bicyclists riding in from the countryside on a glowing orange road in the smoky sunrise. We chatted as we rode to the temples.

When I had finished visiting the last ruin, a girl approached me and said, “Your driver is at my restaurant. Would you like some coconut?”
“No thank you.”

It was clear that the expectation was that I was going to sit down to eat something. I looked at the menu and it was very cheap for breakfast. I ordered eggs and toast.

“Would you like some breakfast?” I asked my driver. He looked at me for a second with a furrowed brow, and then sauntered over to the table and sat opposite me. We chatted about menial things, and then he asked, “Will you come back to Cambodia? Please, you must. Come for Khmer New Year. Big party. Very happy.”
“I would like to,” I said, which was true even though impossible because of my visa restrictions.

We ate in silence, the driver not even looking at me once as he devoured his plate of vegetables and noodles.

When the check came, the girl asked, “You pay for both?”
“Yes.”

When we arrived back in town I went to shake the driver’s hand. He looked at me with brown eyes set deep in the socket of his skull and then smiled broadly in a sincere grin of rotten teeth, the corners of his mouth stretched as wide as they could go into the dimples beneath his high bony cheekbones. Our hands still clasped in a handshake, he pulled me in and hugged me, saying “thank you, thank you.” Four months in Asia where physical contact is abnormal had left me unaccustomed to something so simple as a hug. The electricity in his eyes showed that he had done so simply as an attempt to cross the cultural divide to express his sincere gratitude. “Please, come back to Cambodia.”