Sunday, February 27, 2011

When The Shark And The Fish First Met

I really love the evenings when getting the kids to bed is going smoothly, while our 9 year-old Revital is reading to herself in bed, I’m reading a book to our 6 year-old Limor.

Tonight was such a night. And when Revital was settled in with her book, Limor brought out for me a book entitled (in Hebrew) “When the Shark and The Fish First Met”. The story was very cute – about a shark and a small fish that met, and the shark wanted to eat the fish. The fish swam away as fast as he could, with the shark chasing him. When the shark was just about to eat the fish, the fish yelled “Wait! Why do you want to eat me? Why don’t we play together instead?” and the shark agreed.

They spent the entire day playing together, and when the shark went home that night, his mother asked “How many fish did you eat today?”, and he answered “None. I made friends with a fish and we played.” Of course, mother shark was very upset, and told her son that fish are for eating – not playing with.

The little fish had a similar reaction at home. When he told mother fish that he spent the day playing with a shark, she was very angry and told him that sharks are not friends – they ate your father and your brother, and you are never to play with one again.

Neither of them went out to play the next day, and several months passed before they saw one another again. When they did, they both swam away as fast as they could.

After several more months, they met for the third time, the shark said “You’re my enemy, but maybe can make up?” so they did.

After several months of playing together, one day they went together to speak with the mother fish and then with the mother shark. The book ends with “And from that day, sharks and fish live in peace. The end”.

It’s a very sweet book – nothing too heavy, deep or sophisticated. Perfect for a 6 year old to hear about the dream of two very different species deciding that it’s nicer to live together in peace than in fear and hatred of one another. And I was all ready to send Limor on to bed with that nice message of hope, when she asked me, as she occasionally does, to read what’s written on the back cover of the book.

I often don't pay attention to the name of the author when I read to Limor. This time, I wouldn’t have noticed who it was had I not read the back cover. The book was written by Gilad Shalit.

For those who don’t know, Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas terrorists in June 2006, 2 months before his twentieth birthday. He has spent the past 56 months - nearly 6 years - in captivity, despite all efforts and calls to secure his release.

Gilad wrote the story “When the Shark and The Fish First Met” when he was in the fifth grade, 9 years before his abduction. While I was reading the book, I had no idea that he wrote this. Afterwards, reading the back cover to Limor, I was almost too choked up to finish it.

The significance about what is written in the back cover was not lost on Limor, even if she didn’t understand all of it. She looked at me and asked if Gilad is still alive. I told her that none of us really know, but we hope so. She asked what happened to him, and I told her that he was kidnapped by very bad people who won’t let him go.

Most of my Israeli friends whose political views are left of center make every effort to empathize with the plight and the situation of the Palestinians. They express understanding, and extend a hand in friendship, a willingness to let the past be in the past and to look ahead, together, to a brighter future. Part of me truly respects this approach and outlook. It is a beautiful thought.

Yet another part of me cannot help but to see the irony of it all. For those in Hamas dedicated to the destruction of Israel, any Israelis whom they are able to kill or capture represent a victory. It makes no difference if that Israeli is a right-wing settler who hates any and all Arabs sight unseen, or if he is a left-winger who "feels the pain" of the Palestinian people.

I should emphasize here what I have also mentioned in previous blogs – on the Palestinian side of the conflict, I hold the leadership (or what passes for such) responsible, and not the average “joe in the street”.
I know the counter argument to that view only too well. Many people look at the polls taken of the Palestinian populace which show an overwhelming support for the terrorist actions, the mass rallies and celebrations when Israeli civilians are killed (very much like what we also saw after the 9-11 attacks).

I have my own take on what we see from those rallies and polls. I wrote in this blog that I personally believe that the Palestinian has spent the last 40 years brainwashing the average "man in the street" by providing very limited (and directed) access to news, and a very skewed view of the complexity of the current situation. I honestly believe that the Palestinian leadership has broken the hopes and dreams of their own people while depicting Israel as responsible for their reality. With that happening, it's no wonder that the average Palestinian who doesn’t really know the bigger picture of the regional geo-politics will express views against Israel, and of course he’ll rally and celebrate victories over those who he has been convinced are the source of his hopeless existence.

Which brings me back to Gilad Shalit. Here is a young man who grew up believing, as is shown by the book he wrote at the age of about 10, that people can put aside their differences, and what they have been taught is supposed to be in their “nature” and find a common ground – no matter how different they are on the outside. If the story he wrote as a child was any indication, he would have been more than happy to sit down with the Palestinian people and say “Why do we have to kill one another? Why can’t we just play?”

Whether he was right or wrong, how can anybody not love, and even wish for the sentiment?

Yet, his five and a half years of captivity have been a period in which we have seen not only celebrations but even re-enactments of the “victorious” abduction of this supposed “enemy” of the Palestinian people.

We have been given “conditions” for his release – over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands in exchange for this one Israeli soldier.

This is an extremely sensitive issue for all Israelis. On the one hand, the idea of negotiating with terrorists and giving in to their demands turns the stomach of every one of us. We know without any doubt that each time Israel agrees to a deal such as these (and we have done so in the past), it sends the message that we will do so again and guarantees that more Israelis will be taken in the future.

On the other hand, for all of the mistakes and shortcomings of current and previous Israeli governments, I love the fact that each and every Israeli life is so valuable to us that we have made such concessions in the past. This is a testament to how we deeply cherish our soldiers and our civilians – as individuals, as people.

The one justification that I can see in exchanging Gilad Shalit for 1,000 murderers is that this one soldier of ours, who wrote in the 5th grade about peace and understanding, is easily worth 1,000 terrorists who celebrate in killing civilians solely because they are Jews and Israelis.

Let me hear the so-called Palestinian "leadership" publically acknowledge that, and maybe the price will have been worth paying.

Here’s to praying that we can all see Gilad return safely to his family. And soon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

It's A Kid's Life

I was in a coffee shop this morning waiting for a friend, and I saw a young guy who looked to be about 15 years old. He was short, maybe 5’6, and sort of reminded me of the stereotype 98-pound weakling that we used to see depicted on the old Archie comic books getting sand kicked in his face before doing the Charles Atlas body-building program and kicking the bully’s ass.

I looked at his face, with its remnants of obvious pubescent acne, and wondered why, at 9:30am, wasn’t he in school? Then I noticed his IDF uniform. I figured, OK, I misjudged his age and he’s probably 18 and a recent recruit. But no, even then I was mistaken, because on his shoulder, rather than wearing the colored strip of electrical tape signifying a private in basic training, he wore the shoulder bar insignia of a Second Lieutenant.

So for the second time I re-assessed the age of this baby-faced officer as being at the very least 19, and probably closer to his next birthday than his last one.

I understand and accept the reality that in Israel kids are forced to grow up so much faster than in most Western countries, but this morning it really hit me looking at this kid. Actually, it would be more appropriate for me to refer to him as a young man, and if I had known him during my regular IDF service, I would have called him “Sir”.

One of my very favorite things about life in Israel is also one of my least favorites. Young men and women enlist in the army at the age of 18 – men for 3 years and women for 2. Most of the polls that I have seen show that the vast majority of Israelis are very motivated to serve in the IDF, and that many would do so even if it were not mandatory. I love that Israeli youth feel such a connection to and a responsibility for the State of Israel, and I honestly believe that the time spent in military service will most of the time help mold these young people into more responsible adults.

{I know – here is where we could easily insert a very long blog-within-a-blog about many typical (and negative) Israeli behavioral patterns which make us both laugh and cringe, and they would pretty much be on the money. That being said, I stand by my above statement regarding the positive aspects of Israelis serving in the IDF because, even if the “good” Israelis are not the ones we typically see – and hear – in the street, I believe that they do make up a higher percentage of Israelis than the ones we have all come to know and avoid.}

On the other hand, it tears me up how much young adulthood is being taken away from these fine young men and women while they are trained for an art that none of us really want. There is no question in my mind that these kids would prefer never knowing a thing about weapons and attack maneuvers. They would just as soon not know how to fight. Just about every one of them would choose going to college, or the beach, and hanging out with their friends over being in the position where they have to either kill or be killed.

But considering the reality with which are dealing with by living here, these kids do what they have to do. They still manage to find the time for the hanging out, going to the beach, and so on. And from the age of 21 or 22 many of them do get moving on whatever their career track is – whether via university or jumping into the job market.

I served in the IDF for one year when I was 26, which was both lucky, and horrendous.

It was lucky because I had already gone through the period of being 18 in the way that American society had taught us to be 18 – the college experience (although mine was not a successful one), the parties, the various and sundry part-time and summer jobs. Most importantly, I had the time to get to know myself a little bit – I had lived on my own for 8 years, and I had moved halfway around the world to Israel. I basically had experienced much of the young adulthood which I see Israelis being denied.

But the experience was also horrible. Even though I was 26 and had been living as an alleged “adult” for 8 years by that point, I was in a “regular” call-up and serving with 18 year-old Israeli kids, all of whom were living away from home for the first time in their lives.

Some of these guys thought that it was very cool that I was there – I had left America to live in Israel and I was serving in the IDF, in a combat unit no less, going through all of the rigors and pains and crap that they were going through just to be a part of this country and society. The others thought that this made me the biggest idiot they had ever met and they couldn’t even begin to understand me.

Physically the experience was hell, because let’s face it – a 26 year old body, even one in reasonably good shape is not the same as an 18 year-old body. I managed to do everything these kids did, but it usually took me several more hours to recover afterwards than it took them.

But no matter how difficult a time I had physically in the army, socially it was even worse. I was simply not in the same “place” as these other guys. I was never really accepted by them as “one of them” – not even by those with whom I was friendly. But in the eyes of the drill sergeants and commanding officers – I was one of these guys. Just because I was 8 years older than them didn’t make me any different in terms of my role as a soldier in the unit.

But the truth is, that no matter how terrible a time I had during that year, if I had the chance to go back – and knowing what I now know in retrospect choose between doing what I did or doing the shortened service usually served by immigrants (one month of basic training and 2-3 months of reserve duty), I would still do the one-year service with the 18 year-old kids. I would be miserable the entire time all over again, and I would do so willingly.

My one year of serving in a unit with 18 year-old Israelis was probably equivalent (or sure as hell felt like it) to the 3 years that these guys had to do as well. And I cannot think of any better way for me to have learned Hebrew to the level that I speak it, to learn Israeli culture and Israeli mentality as well as I get them, and I would not have gained the feeling that I have given of myself for this country.

I feel as though I have earned the right to feel a certain “ownership” of Israel, that I have paid my dues and earned my rights of citizenship. And I did it for the very reasonable price of giving one year of my adult-life when I had nothing else pressing at the time, and I paid with a few months of awkward social interactions and jokes about my age and excessive body hair. All in all, not a bad deal for me (although I realy hope that I never again hear the stupid joke about wearing my sweater in the shower).

Then I look at the young baby-faced officer who I saw this morning, and I can truly appreciate what he’s doing and what he is sacrificing for the State of Israel. He is giving so much more than I did, and if he has already passed the officer’s training course, then most likely he has signed on for additional time beyond his mandatory 3 years.

The pride I feel when I see young men and women like this is overpowered only by my hope and prayer that one day, we will be in a position that we don’t need to expect this of them. When these kids will have the opportunity to be 18 year-old kids as I was able to be a lifetime and a half ago.

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Role Model For Life In Israel

This blog has been updated and moved to a new location:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gay Marriage and You

So, apparently, the fabric of our society is in grave danger. Marriage, the institution upon which our family-oriented society is based is being threatened. The threat is coming from the fact that there are people who want to show their love and commitment to members of the same sex as they are.

I have to admit that this came as a real shock to me. I mean, I have been hoping for years to hear exactly how the sanctity of marriage is lessened by gay marriages and still have no clue. But it’s what I keep hearing, so it must be true, right?

In my ignorance, I would have thought that the institution of marriage was being threatened by the fact that so damn many of them end in divorce. In the United States over 50% of marriages end in divorce and the average first marriage lasts about 8 years. Doesn’t that undermine the holy institution?

Now, it really isn’t fair that we look just at the divorce rate, because, to be honest, there are marriages that really should end – for the good of everybody involved.

So an even more telling stat from a recent poll that I saw is that 57% of married men and 54% of married women admitted to having extra-marital affairs. Worse – 74% of men surveyed and 68% of women said that they would have an affair if they were sure that they would never be caught.

But not even the obscenely high rate of marriage infidelity is as big of a threat to marriages as Gay Marriage is.

In my naiveté, I might have even blamed Hollywood for the threat to the sanctity of marriage.

It’s confession time.

I have a “guilty pleasure” which I occasionally partake when the family is either out of the house or asleep. I like to close the windows and shades, turn the lights down, the TV on, and watch E-TV (Entertainment network). So that you don’t think that I’m a completely immoral sleaze-bucket, I will say that I don’t watch most of the shows on that station and none of the really stupid ones (at least not by my very high standards), but there are several shows on the channel that I enjoy. I especially like some of their “countdown” series (recently I watched the 5-part series “101 Reasons The 90s Ruled”, which was an absolutely wonderful re-cap of the decade).

A few nights ago they had a show about the “10 Most Shocking Hollywood Divorces”. Now I’m really confused. What exactly is shocking about celebrity marriages that don’t make it? Once in a very long while we hear about a celebrity that does stay married, and faithful for a serious period of time, and that’s a real shocker. But most of us can count on one hand the number of Hollywood couples that have stayed together for more than a few years.

Nevertheless we're being told by so many religious fundamentalists (and othewise ignorant homophobes) that it’s gay marriage undermining our society and the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

Seriously? It’s the gays that destroying the institute of marriage? Not Larry Kind or Elizabeth Taylor with either of their nearly double-digit number of trips down the aisle? Not Brittany Spears with one of her marriages that lasted barely over 2 days (55 hours, to be exact)? How about Kelsey Grammar – who recently announced his upcoming fourth marriage while still officially married to his third wife?

The list of celebrities who can only count their anniversaries in months rather than years is amazing. The list of celebrities married 2, 3 and 5 times is even more so. And we won’t even go near the celebrities screwing around with anything and anyone they can find within arm’s reach!

And the reality is that what we see going in Hollywood marriages and relationships is nothing more than a microcosm of what we see in society as a whole.

So what exactly is it about same-sex marriage that bothers so many people?

I know – there are many people who are not comfortable with homosexuality in our society. I understand that – things to which we cannot relate are often threatening to us – they force us to see a reality which we cannot understand. So, for many, the natural reaction is to attack, belittle and delegitimize it. After all, once we convince ourselves of the invalidity of something, then we we’re off the proverbial hook for understanding it, let alone accepting it.

One of the popular arguments against homosexuality is that the Bible forbids it. Specifically, in the book of Leviticus it says that “A man may not lie with another man as he lies with a woman” (18:22) and that the penalty for doing so is death (20:13).

The sages of the Talmud taught that actually putting a person to death – for any crime listed in the Bible was almost impossible to do for all of the conditions necessary to actually bring about a death sentence, and it is even written that a Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court of ancient times) that puts one person to death in a 70-year period is a “blood-thirsty Sanhedrin”.

So, the Bible does in fact take a stand against homosexual relationships. It also takes a stand against violating the Sabbath, against adultery, against a plethora of other things that are so common-place in our society, yet I have yet to see a rally, demonstration, or a hate crime against people who watch television on the Sabbath. Have you?

Yet even people who are not religiously observant like to quote the Bible in “proving” that homosexuality is wrong, even un-natural – as though they, in their one instance of Biblical scholarship, are the advocates for what God wants and expects of us (Pot, meet kettle…)

Personally, I am a firm believer that what goes on behind a person’s closed bedroom door is very much my business – from the moment that they invite me to participate. Until then - not even a little bit.

Until then, it has absolutely nothing to do with me. A person’s private life is exactly that – their private life, and it’s not up to me in any way, shape or form to “agree” or “approve” of any of it.

As a religiously observant person who does believe in God, making sure I’m being OK in His eyes, and that I’m living my life in the best way possible is already a full-time job – and one with which I’m struggling. How can I take it upon myself to tell others what they should or shouldn‘t be doing?

That’s what we have celebrities for….

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Choice To Be Chosen

Those who are not Jewish probably aren’t aware of how much pressure we Jews have on us. I won’t even go into all of the political stuff going on and the world examining Israel through a microscope and holding us responsible for all of the hardships being experienced by the Palestinians (a subject for a full blog in and of itself). Rather I’m talking about the additional pressure that the Jews have taken upon themselves of Chosen-ness and being a leader among peoples in the world.

To be fair, this wasn’t really our own initiative or idea – after all, God Himself told us in the Torah that Israel would be His Chosen people (Deuteronomy 14:2) and in the Book of Isaiah, Israel is told that they are to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

I can’t help but to wonder, though, if we’ve either missed the point of what that was meant to be.

In the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye asks God “I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can't you choose someone else?” This is a great line, but in a way, I think that it emphasizes the manner in which “Chosen-ness” has been misunderstood.

For many people, the natural interpretation of it is that God “chose” us to be His people – the “favorite” son, as it were. A brief glance at Jewish history would seem to indicate that we apparently have not been granted some special “Stay Away From Troubles” free card, or an overly forgiving proverbial pat on the head and chuckling in amusement when we’ve acted badly.

While all people in the world have an obligation to meet a particular code of morals and behavior, the Children of Israel have been chosen to be obligated to the rules, regs and expectations specifically spelled out in the Torah.

But even that’s not quite so clear-cut, because in most places the laws given to us in the Torah are extremely vague, and it took hundreds of years of the greatest Jewish scholars exegeting in the Talmud to bring us to the specific laws and how they relate to our daily lives. And once they set us on the right path, scholars in every generation since have kept the laws relevant to that generation.

But too many of us – Jews and Gentiles alike – have taken this “chosen-ness” to think that we’re special in some way – that we have extra privileges, bonus points, whatever. Even worse, many anti-Semites throughout history have used it as an excuse to turn up the heat of their hatred – either because they saw many Jews acting as though they were especially “entitled” in some way for being the “Chosen People”, or because they saw the Jewish people as receiving special treatment that they would have wanted for themselves. Whatever the reason, whatever the impetus, the whole concept of “Chosen-ness” didn’t help.

The “chosen-ness” is a responsibility, not a privilege. If we indeed meet that obligation, if we conduct ourselves in a manner conducive to what the Torah teaches us, then we won’t have time to think of ourselves as “special”, nor would we have the inclination to do so.

Given current political happenings in the Middle East, this could be especially relevant. Recently we have seen one government overthrown in Tunisia, another one on very shaky legs right now in Egypt, and the government in Lebanon brought down from within itself by Hezbollah factions in the government. Several other Muslim countries have seen the beginnings of similar demonstrations within their own lands, and have demonstrated a readiness to deal with the revolutions that their fellow states have been experiencing.

The response of the Egyptian government has resulted in hundreds of people killed and thousands wounded by the military trying to suppress the demonstrations. The government has closed off access to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

In Syria, a pre-emptive response before demonstrations have even started, the government has also shut down these international social outlets to their people.

Israel is the only true democracy in the region, the only country here in which a violent demonstration would never be (and has never been) the means to replace a government, and the only country in the in the area which always does and always will allow full access to all international news reports and world-wide web social networks.

Nevertheless, Israel is all too often cast in the role of the “bad guy” in the Middle East. We, and our policies are apparently the stumbling block of regional peace and stability.

Now, more than ever before is the time for us to truly fulfill our chosen-ness. That means that the policies we pursue have to encompass both Israel’s best interests, as well as a morally right way to be. Not because we owe the Palestinians or our Arab neighbors anything, but because we have an obligation to act and to treat all peoples in a particular manner.

We will still be the villain in the eyes of much of the world and the world media. Probably because no matter what the facts and the realities are, the media has a tendency to always pull for the underdog - no matter why they’re the underdog and how they got to that place.

But our responsibility is to ourselves, and to our relationship with God. It’s time for us to choose the right way to be. Eventually people may be able to recognize that for what it is and we can truly be a Light Unto The Nations.