Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Facing East (Jewish Week)


Facing East
Joshua Hammerman

This past month has been dubbed Israel Education Month by The Jewish Agency, hoping “to re-ignite the spark and yearning for meaningful engagements with Israel” among diaspora Jews.

Truthfully, the main goal is to feed us all the necessary information, so that we can become active advocates for Israel in the public square.

A Hollywood producer could not have picked a better time to focus our sights on Israel, much as the medieval Spanish-Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi did, when he wrote: “My heart is in the east and I in the far off west.”

Halevy died in Egypt, on his way to the Land of Israel, heading eastward, in 1141.

Israel Education Month began at my synagogue, as at many others, with an uneasy tap on the shoulders on the morning of Feb. 1 that shattered the Shabbat. The devastating news about Columbia went far beyond the Israeli connection, to be sure; the flight had been a needed diversion for weary earthbound Americans and Israelis alike. But the loss of the seven astronauts, including Ilan Ramon, was a crushing blow.

I grew up during the space race, a starry-eyed devotee of anything that wore a helmet and drank Tang. Never did I imagine that I’d see in my lifetime an Israeli up there, one who recited an intergalactic Kiddush, yet, and drank kosher Tang. Ilan Ramon was on his way to becoming a living legend when over the skies of Texas, this real-life Ari Ben Canaan become yet another star-crossed victim of our tragic Jewish destiny.

A few days later I downloaded a video clip of Israel made by the Columbia astronauts on the 11th day of their journey. The view is spectacular, a pulsating map. Even the Dead Sea is brimming with blueness, and you can see so clearly how Jerusalem forms the boundary between desert, mountain and coastal plain. Ramon commented often on how peaceful it all looked from there. He was the first Israeli truly to see the “big picture,” the global view, from this distance.

The Columbia was flying over Egypt when this video was taken, a couple of hundred miles straight up from the spot where Judah Halevy died centuries before. The poet and the pioneer both perished on heartbreaking journeys that left them so close to home; each died with his heart facing east.

A few months ago I tapped into Israeli television via satellite and since then I’ve been hooked.

Now my heart — and dish — can face east 24/7, and for a mere 20 bucks a month. Even those not fluent in Hebrew can discover much about Israel from this network. You can learn, for instance, that Israelis love especially to do two things when times are bad: 1, skewer their politicians, and 2, sing. One program that I’ve especially enjoyed is a weekly Friday night sing-along session, where several generations gather to sing all the old standards, a combination Shabbat-table songfest and national group therapy.

Since tuning into the satellite, I’ve found myself living more and more on Israeli time and seeing the world through Israeli eyes.

Mid-afternoon has become the time to tune in the “nightly” Mabat news. I chose to watch the memorial to the astronauts on Israeli TV rather than CNN, and could hear how moved Israelis were when this all-American ceremony began with Hebrew verses from Bialik.

Israeli TV has also enabled me to relate to Israel’s leaders in a completely different manner.

When Shimon Peres speaks in English, the way he pronounces “peace process” makes me think he’s discussing the urinary tract. In Hebrew he comes across with more passion, though his professorial cadence is still easy fodder for parody.

Natan Sharansky, a giant in my own personal pantheon, comes across on Israeli TV as being smaller than life. I wonder if the same thing would have happened eventually to Ilan Ramon.

Yehuda Halevy wrote:

“How shall I render my vows and my bonds

while Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom?”

As the elections and Columbia have now yielded the stage to the war clouds gathering over Iraq, it is getting harder for me to sleep. Even my nightmares are facing east. Colin Powell’s chilling revelations at the United Nations drove home what we knew already about Saddam’s capacity to deliver destruction. We have no idea what will happen over the coming weeks, but each anticipated scenario is more frightening than the last. Over the past few months, whenever a terror attack has occurred in Israel, I’ve tuned in to see the unedited coverage, right from the source. I’ll do the same if and when the “Mother of All Wars: the Sequel” begins.

But in the meantime, my heart faces east, where the satellite is, and beyond it, we can find the Jerusalem on high, that pristine locus of sanctity that Ilan Ramon saw, however briefly, that quiet place where the Kiddush cup floats and the Dead Sea looks alive.

Israel Education Month has less to do with the propaganda in our brains than with the direction of our hearts.

All we need is an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. n

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., can be reached at His new book, “ Seeking God in Cyberspace” can be previewed on-line at

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