Sunday, September 24, 2017

Jerusalem of Iron, Jerusalem of Gold (2nd day Rosh HaShanah 2017 / 5778)

Much of the first part of this sermon is adapted from the account in Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterful book about the Six Day War, Like Dreamers, which devotes significant attention to the life and work of Meir Ariel, and from a video interview with Israeli composer Gil Aldema, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7KZO-jMdck. Many thanks to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Choir for singing so beautifully during this sermon!


Plenty of songwriters start out with the intention of writing a truly iconic song, but few actually succeed. And no songwriter can count on writing a true classic. But let me tell you the story of one of the most well-known Hebrew songs of all time, an instant classic, and how it came to be written.  

It was early 1967.  The state of Israel was 19 years old, and life in Israel felt as precarious as it ever had. Whatever hopes that the new State of Israel would be welcomed into the middle east had not been realized.  Both Syria and Egypt were using increasingly disturbing rhetoric to describe their goal of eliminating the state of Israel.  There were border skirmishes with increasing regularity.  The question was not if war would come, but when.


At that time, a very large percentage of Israel’s population were Holocaust survivors and their families. Another large segment of the population were Jewish refugees from Arab countries who had fled from the lands where they had been living for generations.  The memory of Israel’s War of Independence less than 20 years before was palpable, as was the tragedy of the catastrophic military losses of that conflict that ushered the Jewish state into being. Israel was a place of hopefulness, but also a place of significant challenge. And this was to be the setting for Israel’s National Song Contest, to take place on Israel’s Independence Day in early May in Jerusalem. The various songs that would be entered in this contest had been written and submitted, but the contest organizers were concerned that there needed to be additional music to be played while the results of the judges were tabulated.  (We could call this a “pre-computer-age problem.”)

Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek suggested to Israeli composer Gil Aldema, who was coordinating the concert: Maybe, considering that the concert is taking place in Jerusalem, maybe there can be a performance of songs of Jerusalem?  Aldema responded:  I don’t think there are enough songs of Jerusalem.  

(That took me aback when I first heard this story.  I know of  hundreds of Hebrew songs of Jerusalem.  But that is today.  More than 50 years ago,  Jerusalem was for Jews not quite the celebratory place it is today.  Jerusalem was a reminder of past glory, but of present difficulty and struggle.  Of course, there are beautiful words about Jerusalem in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, including the remarkable words about the return to Jerusalem in the Haftarah from the book of Jeremiah that was read today, but there few contemporary songs about Jerusalem.)
Aldema was told: if we don’t have modern songs of Jerusalem, we’ll have to commission them.  And he decides to approach five prominent israeli songwriters to ask them to write a song about Jerusalem.
The first four songwriters turn him down.  He asks songwriter #5 -- Naomi Shemer - to compose a song about Jerusalem, for use in this festival.
She is not very enthusiastic.  In fact, the next week she calls back and says:  “I've been thinking about it and I don't think I can do it.”
He responds: “Please! We really need you!”
She says: “I can’t write a song when the topic is dictated to me. That’s not how songwriting works.”
He says:  “I'll tell you what: If it makes it easier for you, just write a song about anything.  It doesn’t have to be about Jerusalem.”  
Upon hanging up the phone, he said to himself, “Now I KNOW she will write about Jerusalem.”

And in fact, she says, that very night, a new song just flowed out of her.  With Naomi Shemer’s strong classical Jewish education, her song played on a Talmudic expression.  The Talmud refers to how in ancient times, a beautiful object of jewelry that a groom might present to his wife on their wedding day was a golden diadem with an image of the Jerusalem skyline -- a Jerusalem of Gold -- Yerushalayim shel Zahav.  (BT Ketubot 62b)  This detail reflected that to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was not merely a city.   It was a symbol of home, of the vitality of the Jewish people, and of hopefulness.  And then echoing the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi in his poem “Ode to Zion,” -  she wrote:  “Behold, I am like a lute for all of your songs.   הלא לכל שירייך אני כינור  


The verses of the song expressed both the physical and spiritual beauty of the city of Jerusalem, especially as evening approaches, while also alluding to the
sad juxtaposition of Jerusalem’s proud past, and what she understood from a Jewish point of view to be Jerusalem’s disappointing present, with Jewish holy sites under control of the Jordanians,  and Jews not allowed to go there.  Among the most special sites of Jewish history effectively barren.


The day of the festival had come, in May 1967, and the region was even more tense than it had been previously. Syrian and Egyptian forces had started to amass on Israel’s borders. War seemed so perilously close -- and to the festival crowd in the Binyanei Ha-Umah building in Jerusalem, the holy sites of Jerusalem and the Western wall and the Old City seemed so distant, eve though they were only a couple of miles away.  And something about Naomi Shemer’s song captured the imagination of the crowd.  Though they had never heard the song before, by the time the singer Shuly Natan was done singing it, the entire crowd was singing along to the words printed in the program.  The song had truly become an instant classic.




Not everyone was enamored of this song.   Israeli writer Amos Oz took exception to Naomi Shemer’s depiction of Jerusalem as an empty city - a ghost town. It’s not a ghost town, he said; it’s full of people  - it’s just that those people are not Jews.  Jerusalem is full of vibrant life, just not a vibrant Jewish life - and we ought not render those people invisible, just as we don’t appreciate it when others render US invisible.


And another to critique the song was a young soldier and Kibbutz member, Meir Ariel. Just a few short weeks later, Israel would in fact be at war, and Israeli paratrooper Meir Ariel, who enjoyed strumming a guitar from time to time, was serving in the unit that captured the Old City of Jerusalem.  
Ariel knew that from the perspective of Jewish history this was a historic moment, and that the words of Naomi Shemer’s song were reverberating in people’s ears.  And at the same time - how could there be anything beautiful or elegant or elevated about his experience - as a soldier,  amid the smoke and the blood and the ammunition and the dead and the abject ugliness of war - regardless that it was a war that was regarded as a sad necessity, as an act of self-defense, by the full spectrum of Israeli leaders on left and right.


The day after the old city of Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands, Naomi Shemer was performing a concert, and of course she was planning to sing the song ‘Yerushalayim shel Zahav.’   But it was also clear that the song needed emendation. Instead of singing ככר השוק ריקה ‘The market square is empty, ‘ she sang חזרנו…  לשוק ולככר - ‘We have returned … to the market square.’  Instead of singing אין פוקד את הר הבית בעיר העתיקה ‘No one is visiting the Temple Mount in the Old City,’ she sang ‘שופר קורא בהר הבית בעיר העתיקה  ‘The sound of the shofar can be heard on the Temple Mount in the Old City.’
And for paratrooper Meir Ariel, this was the last straw.  Who does Naomi Shemer think she is, writing a beautiful song about our relationship with the city, and alluding to its capture, without making any reference to the smoke, the stench of death, the horrors of war, the fallen friends, that made it possible?  So  even before the war was over - Meir Ariel was sitting in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem where his unit was based, and he sketched out lyrics to a parody of sorts to Yerushalayim Shel Zahav  - which he called ‘yerushalayim shel barzel’ - jerusalem of iron and steel,של עופרת ושל שחור  of lead and darkness, of mortars and blood.’   It made reference to the tragic losses of war:  ובאו אמא אחר אמא בקהל השכולות.  ‘And one mother after another after another joined the community of the bereaved.’


When just a week after the war was over, there was to be a celebratory concert on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Meir Ariel’s unit mates encouraged him to sing the song - which he did, and surprisingly enough it became a minor hit and launched his music career.  Throughout Israel there were those who were furious at him  for trampling on this iconic song - - and Naomi Shemer apparently wasn’t so thrilled either and even threatened to sue him for copyright infringement.  They eventually settled their disagreement, and Meir Ariel agreed to give Naomi Shemer half of the proceeds from the sale of Yerushalayim shel Barzel.  (As a kibbutz member, he wasn’t going to see the money anyway.)


1967 in Israel was the year of these 2 Yerushalayim songs:  the original and the parody, the sentimental and the realistic.  The song motivated by religious and national striving, and the song that did not shrink from describing the literal sacrifices necessitated by such striving.  Jerusalem is golden, and Jerusalem is full of smoke.   Jerusalem is a city of light, and jerusalem is a city of injury and blood and death.   Jerusalem is a city that brings the heavenly to earth, and jerusalem is a city that is no less earthly than any other.


I share this story about this iconic song of 50 years ago because, though so much has changed for Israel, for the world, and for the Jewish community worldwide, we who seek to have a relationship with Israel may continue to find ourselves caught right in between these two visions.  Right in between the ideal and the real.


Already thousands of years ago in the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan says that there are actually two cities of Jerusalem - -  ירושלים של מעלה וירושלים של מטה -  an upper Jerusalem and a lower Jerusalem, or a heavenly Jerusalem and an earthly Jerusalem.  Redemption will only come to the heavenly Jerusalem if it first comes to the earthly Jerusalem. Redemption can come to Jerusalem the ethereal holy city, if redemption first comes to Jerusalem the actual, messy, real life city.


There are numerous reasons why American Jews and Jews around the world are likely to feel connected to Israel.  This synagogue, like almost all synagogues over the centuries, is oriented towards Jerusalem, both to honor the place that has been so sacred to our people and to acknowledge the historic pull that it has for us.  It is the place where our people was born.
Throughout the centuries it was the only place around the world that Jews consistently could call home.  And during the tumultuous 20th century, Israel was, for hundreds of thousands of Jews, the place that literally saved their lives.  If you are an American Jew and you are of Jewish ancestry, you have relatives in Israel.  It’s a question about how close these relatives are and if you are in touch with them, but that you have relatives in Israel is a certainty.  And if you are of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, like most American Jews, then chances are good that at some point about 100 years ago, give or take, there were some difficult conversations in your family as some decided to come to this country and others stayed put, and others joined the group of Jews endeavoring to establish a new Jewish homeland in Palestine -- and who survived the Shoah and who did not, and who lives here and who lives in Israel, are a product of those decisions that could just as easily have gone the other way.  Israel is the only place in the world where Jewish culture is normative,  where the society can credibly claim to have a goal of putting Jewish values into action in the world on a national scale.  And even if all these things were not true, Israel is quickly becoming the world’s largest Jewish community, which means that as time goes on, Israel will be much more the center stage for the Jewish people than the American jewish community will, or anywhere else.


I say all this because the sense of connection between the American Jewish community and Israel used to be absolutely automatic, and the paragraph above did not even need to be stated because it was well known to everyone.  But for a lot of American Jews, this connection between the American and Israeli Jewish communities is NOT automatic, and it’s necessary to be reminded of why ANYONE would think that Israel should play a significant role in an American Jewish life, why visiting Israel is important, why the welfare of Israel matters or should matter to every American Jew, and why I take such great delight in writing letters of reference for those from our synagogue community who are making aliyah and moving to Israel (as I had the great pleasure to write three such letters during the past year).

And yet - at the same time, for Jews around the world and for Israelis, Israel can be a place of iron rather than a place of gold.  It is a nation-state in a world where nation-states are usually not very admirable, to put it mildly.  So I am glad that 50 years ago, Jews sang of both Jerusalem of gold and Jerusalem of iron. Some of the tension in the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel can be explained as the dissonance between Israel as a holy place and as a real life nation state.  


So often there is an expectation that Israel will conform perfectly to a vision of what a holy place will be like - and there is a sense of disillusionment when it does not achieve that ideal.  But we have to ask:  when is the last time that a nation-state DID achieve a dream-like state of perfection? That cannot be what one expects from a nation-state, whether it’s the US, Canada, or Israel, or any other.  Those who only know of Jerusalem of gold, who think of Israel as like a sentimental Jewish Disneyworld, are bound to be disappointed.  But those who only know of jerusalem of iron, who learn about Israel only from the headlines without a deeper understanding of Israel’s challenges, are bound to be cut off from all the beauty and triumph that characterizes Israel.  


The Israeli writer Amos Oz wrote: “[ Israel is a dream come true. As such, it is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to try to fulfill it. This is true of an initial vision for a novel, for a family, for a sexual encounter, or for planting a garden, and indeed for building a nation. Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true” (In the Land of Israel, 259).


You may know that we are heading into a year of numerous major Israel-related anniversaries.   This coming May, of course, will be Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence.  But that’s not all.  Back in 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the First ZIonist Congress, during which he predicted that the Jewish people would succeed in re-establishing a state -- and this year we mark the 120th anniversary of that gathering. 100 years ago this November was the Balfour Declaration, in November 1917, in which the British government announced that it ‘looked with favor’ upon the establishment of  a Jewish national home in Palestine, which was the beginning of the Zionist movement’s effort to find legitimacy in the eyes of the nations of the world.  Then, in 1947 - exactly 70 years ago, also in November - the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state,  setting the stage for Israeli independence to be declared in Spring 1948, and also setting the stage for the very difficult War of Independence that resulted in Israel’s presence on the world map.


Then, a little over 50 years ago, was the Six Day War, in June 1967, that demonstrated that Israel’s presence in the Middle East is indelible, that Israel was strong enough to defend itself, and that gave Israel access to the holy sites including the Western Wall, Mt Moriah (subject of today’s Torah reading), and Rachel’s Tomb (subject of today’s haftarah).


And also: in 1967 Israel began to occupy the population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in one of the more intractable geo-political problems of the world.   Anyone who tells you that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easy to figure out doesn’t know what they are talking about.   But anyone who tells you that the status quo is working just fine, with over a million Palestinians living under Israeli sovereignty but without equal rights - also doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  Even if this problem does not appear solvable at the moment, every year that passes without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fills me with ever greater concern for Israel’s future.


We had the extraordinary opportunity this past April to host two special visitors to our community:  my cousin, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, and his colleague Antwan Saca, who is a Palestinian Christian living in nearby Bethlehem. Together they are among the leaders of the organization called Roots/Shorashim/Judur, which works to establish peaceful interpersonal relationships between Jews and Arabs living in the West Bank.  When we brought them here, some people said to me, “I can’t believe you are bringing a Palestinian to speak at our synagogue!”  And some people said, “I can’t believe you are bringing a West Bank Settler to speak at our synagogue!”  (What can I say?  I strive to be an equal opportunity offender.) And we have a powerful audio recording of Hanan and Antwan’s presentation that is available upon request for those who missed this event.


Are they going to succeed in getting peace to break out tomorrow?  Well, probably not.   Opinion polls consistently show that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians express that they want to live together in peace but are skeptical that that’s what the other side wants.  At the moment, the best thing we can hope for, in the shared opinion of right and left, is probably for a rebuilding of trust to even get to the point of negotiations. But whatever the future of that region is going to be, one thing we know for certain:  it will be a better future when people - neighbors - from different sides in the conflict will be able to come together and see each other and listen to each other and to recognize each other’s humanity and to jointly commit to rejecting violence together.  That is necessarily part of the process of creating a better future.


And then, of course, there is the conflict between Jews and Jews in Israel - in which also Jerusalem plays a central role.  Does it both me that the Israeli government that had promised to create an opportunity for egalitarian prayer at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, went back on its promise because of pressure from the ultra-orthodox political parties?  Yes, it bothers me terribly.   Does it bother me that Israel is alone among countries of the world where my rights to serve as a non-Orthodox rabbi are limited?  Yes, it bothers me terribly.  But as a Jew, I remain bound to Israel at the golden moments but also at the iron moments.  And that is not a statement of approval.  It is a statement of connection, of relationship.


Truly there are decisions that Israel makes that make me fear for its future and for its soul.  And yet I am bound to Israel, her land, her people, and the vision that she represents.


There are some who would say that someone only loves Israel if they support particular political positions or a particular political party. But I take my cues from the spectrum of debate in the Israel itself, which is often wider than the spectrum of debate about Israel in the American Jewish community - and that’s what I recommend for others as well.


But it is not only Jerusalem that is an amalgam of zahav and barzel, gold and iron, of the ideal and the real.  We, too, have idealized and sometimes even sentimentalized versions of ourselves at our best, and most of us are experts at retaining those visions of ourselves at our best, even when we act at our worst.  During these high holidays, each of us has the goal and the task of confronting both the ideal and the real of ourselves, and taking the steps to move the real  towards the ideal. Just as Israel is a dream come true, and is flawed as a result, so is that true of each of us.


The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai noted that the grammatical form of the word Yerushalayim , meaning Jerusalem, resembles that of items that exist in pairs - עיניים - eyes - אזניים - ears; ידיים - hands.  And so he writes:
לָמָּה יְרוּשָלַיִם תָּמִיד שְתַּיִם, שֶל מַעְלָה וְשֶל מַטָּה
Why is Jerusalem always in twos, one of Above and one of Below?
וַאֲנִי רוֹצֶה לִחְיוֹת בִּירוּשָלַיִם שֶל אֶמְצַע
I want to live in a Jerusalem of the middle
בְּלִי לַחְבֹּט אֶת רֹאשִי לְמַעְלָה
וּבְלִי לִפְצוֹע אֶת רַגְלַי לְמַטָּה.
Without bumping my head above or injuring my feet below.  
וְלָמָּה יְרוּשָלַיִם בְּלָשוֹן זוּגִית כְּמוֹ יָדַיִם וְרַגְלַיִם,
And why do we speak of Jerusalem as if it is a pair, like hands and legs?
אֲנִי רוֹצֶה לִחְיוֹת רַק בִּירוּשָל אַחַת,
כִּי אֲנִי רַק אֲנִי אֶחָד וְלֹא שֲנַיםִ
I want to live in just one Jerusalem
Because there is only one of me, not two.  


In this year of anniversaries in the place that has been more a home to the Jewish people than any other,
May the words of the psalms be fulfilled -
ירושלים הבנויה - כעיר שחוברה לה יחדו.
Rebuilt Jerusalem is a city that has been knit together.
יהי שלום בחיליך  - שלווה בארמנותיך
May there be peace in her towers and tranquility in her fortresses.
למען אחי ורעי
For the sake of my brothers and sisters, for the sake of my friends.

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