Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Monday, October 23, 2023
In This Moment II: "Never Again" ...again
In This Moment
IMPORTANT: We will be doing another Zoom Israel Meet-Up for TBE's extended family, on Wednesday at 7 PM. We'll be using a DIFFERENT Zoom link, so please contact Mindy in our office (firstname.lastname@example.org) or me directly and we will send to you. As with last week's there is no set agenda. It's just a chance to lend support and exchange ideas.
The Most Difficult Video You'll Ever Watch
In his newsletter today, Daniel Gordis shared two videos, one of them harmonious and uplifting, the other perhaps the most devastating video I've ever seen. I want you watch that one. Both, actually, but especially that one. Here's how he describes it:
The video is an attempt on Israel’s part to address the Muslim world, to insist that the horrors that Hamas perpetrated are entirely anathema to what Islam stands for. I’ll let religious scholars debate whether that is true—for I know scholars on both sides of that divide. What matters here is not an analysis of Islam, but rather, Israel’s attempt to reach decent Muslims world-over and to convince them that to support Hamas is not to support what Islam stands for.
The video is well done, but again, it is hard.
My own view is that those of us who can, need to force ourselves to watch the scenes, because only then can one understand the rage and furor at the core of Israel’s decision-makers, and of its citizens. But you decide what is right for you.
This was not a terrorist attack. Even the word Pogrom may not suffice. What this was, was … there are no words. Which is why Israel is sharing the images.
I forced myself to watch this. And you have to understand, I never go to horror movies. i was the only person in my high school who never saw The Exorcist. Or even Jaws. (I did see Carrie, but it's a long story). As I watched it, I thought back to all those grainy Holocaust films, like Night and Fog and Let My People Go, that they showed me in Hebrew School. and when I was old enough to run a Hebrew School, I swore that I would never again inflict such traumatic footage on Jewish children again.
But 16 days ago, what's in these videos actually happened. Not only that, but these crimes against humanity were filmed and celebrated by the perpetrators. Even the Nazis tried to erase evidence of what they had done. Not so with Hamas, although unbelievably, there are already "Oct. 7 deniers" within Hamas and among their allies. This recording is more unbearable to watch than the Holocaust films. But we need to watch this and send it to anyone who does not understand why the crimes of Oct. 7 stand alone in the annals of infamy. This is what we are now left with. "Never again" has happened again, on our watch. Click below and scroll down to the video.
And for the record, this is not representative of mainstream Islam. All great religions can be and have been fatally distorted by extremist "believers." Hamas is no exception to that rule.
After watching that, cleanse your soul with some lovely music from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, also featured in Gordis'a post. They did a special performance reminiscent of the IPO's performance on Mount Scopus just after the Six Day War. The hall was empty because of security concerns, but the names of each of the hostages was pasted onto the empty seats.
Each day for the past two weeks, Israeli newspapers and TV channels have been running photos of the victims of the Oct. 7 pogrom. This is a practice that is all too familiar for Israelis, from prior terror attacks and wars, along with the Holocaust.
To those, we now add the photos of the captives, those ripped from their families by terrorists with no regard for human decency, much less for international standards of warfare.
I am haunted by these photos.
Back in the not-so-olden days, Israelis used to make fun of the so-called "ugly American" tourist, caricatured as obnoxious, overweight and tacky, with the telltale camera dangling from the neck. Yehuda Amichai's classic poem Tourists expressed that disdain:
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.
"But he's moving, he's moving!" I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.
Amichai was right about the need to focus on the real, living person rather than the ancient artifact. I have stood near those very same steps a thousand times, and each time I have been captivated by the person holding the vegetables, not the old dusty stones. I’ve taken thousands of photos of people, in Israel and elsewhere, and especially of children.For in those faces I see the image of God.
One of the most dramatic moments of any visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is when entering the Hall of Names, where the visitor stands suspended between two cones. If you look up, you’ll see a display featuring 600 photographs of Holocaust victims, and their faces are reflected in the waters below. And from there the visitor goes immediately right to one of the brightest and most photogenic sights imaginable, a vista of the bustling hills of modern Jerusalem. But it is the faces of the victims that are indelibly burnt into our souls. Yad Vashem’s Shoah online database now has accumulated more than four million eight hundred thousand names.
And now to those millions we must add the 1,400 from the war that began on October 7, a conflict that will soon have its own database, it’s own memorial - and quite likely its own Yad Vashem. Tourists will flock there some day, to see the bucolic kibbutzim, the peaceful small towns, and the blood-stained monuments to courage and inhumanity. And we’ll see displays with hundreds of photos of faces, all depicting the image of God. We should upload these faces to our synagogue websites and project them on a loop onto our arks and JCC facades and our cell phones and on billboards in Times Square. A moment shouldn’t pass when we don’t have those faces before our eyes.
The word "to photograph," I'tzalem, contains within it the Hebrew word for image, tzelem. And the first chapter of Genesis informs us that all human beings are created b'tzelem elohim, "in God's image."
In Israel, the ugly American has been replaced by the hug-ly American - led by the gentle octogenarian from the White House who can’t stop hugging everyone in sight. American tourists are no longer mocked but welcomed with gratitude, and even that dangling camera has become an instrument of salvation.
I came to realize the redemptive power of the photographed face several years back when visiting an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants at Kibbutz Merhavia, near Afula in the Jezreel Valley. As soon as my group arrived, the children began clustering in front of us, begging “Titzalem oti!” "Photograph me!" The kids loved seeing their images instantly on the back of digital cameras, so when I took their pictures with my ancient Instamatic and told them there was nothing to see until the film was developed, they walked away.
A couple of weeks later, I visited Yad L'Kashish, an artist's workshop in Jerusalem for the elderly and infirmed. It's called “Lifeline for the Old,” but it's really a lifeline for the rest of us, reminding us of the light that can shine from any human face no matter what the age, when people are able to live out their years in dignity.
After a brief introduction, the guide escorted us into one of the workshops. There, an elderly woman sat knitting by the door. She was demonstrating some of the secrets of her craft when I walked up, having snapped a few photos of the room, when suddenly she turned to me, gestured to my camera and said, "Titzalem oti."
I took her picture, which is amazing, because I was in a state of utter shock. Whose voice was I hearing? Was it the old Russian woman or the tiny Ethiopian child? I could understand why the kids wanted to be photographed because it's exciting to see yourself in this magic technological mirror, because it's cool. But why this woman, who at the other end of the lifecycle would ostensibly have had little reason to want to be photographed by a stranger? But she said it again: "Titzalem oti."
And in that request I heard:
Remember me! Let my life be made meaningful through your camera's eye; my years of enslavement to the communists, my long journey of exodus; the miracle of my return, to a faith I never knew, to a land I'd never seen -- and to a people who never forgot me.
That entire trip to Israel had been framed now, at the beginning and at its end, with the lingering mantra, at first playful and now haunting: Titzalem oti.
When we are asking “Titzalem oti," we're not merely asking to be photographed. We're saying: Imbue me with 'tzelem'.
See my face for what it really is -- a reflection of the divine image. See what is eternal in me. Love me, with a Godlike love. Look at me rather than at the Roman arch to the right of my head.
And those photos of victims from October 7 are screaming out:
Redeem me from a wasted life and meaningless death!
God looks like the faces of all the victims. In each smiling visage there is a spark of eternity that was so cruelly snuffed out. God looks like their faces but acts with our hands. And now, we are saying kaddish, not merely for all these beautiful human souls, but for a little bit of God, too.
Below, tomorrow's front page from Yediot Achronot. Up top it covers the release of two more hostages, with the headline, Hamas's Game: Two More Liberated. And such a cruel game it is. On the lower left, with the photo of the dog, the headline reads, "He waits for him by the grave." The dog's name is Radar (or Ryder - not sure). His owner, 30 year old Dror Bahat, was murdered at a party in Re'im on October 7. "The dog waited for two weeks for his owner, who will not return. When Dror's parents ascended to his fresh grave, Radar went up with them." See more in this Instagram posting. If you look at those women and realise that they were taken hostage?! And seeing the dog. There are no words.
Tweet du jour: Ha'aretz's Anshel Pfeffer on the blame game.
NYTimes: Hamas Fails to Make Case That Israel Struck Hospital:Days after Hamas accused Israel of bombing a hospital in Gaza City and killing hundreds of people, the armed Palestinian group has yet to produce or describe any evidence linking Israel to the strike, says it cannot find the munition that hit the site and has declined to provide detail to support its count of the casualties.
Who will we be when we rise from the ashes? (novelist David Grossman) - Are we capable of shaking off the well-worn formulas and understanding that what has occurred here is too immense and too terrible to be viewed through stale paradigms? Even Israel’s conduct and its crimes in the occupied territories for 56 years cannot justify or soften what has been laid bare: the depth of hatred towards Israel, the painful understanding that we Israelis will always have to live here in heightened alertness and constant preparedness for war. In an unceasing effort to be both Athens and Sparta at once. And a fundamental doubt that we might ever be able to lead a normal, free life, unfettered by threats and anxieties. A stable, secure life. A life that is home.
The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, founded by an American Jew who hoped to prove that music could build bridges between feuding peoples, postponed its American tour this month on account of war. But the chorus managed to perform for a U.S. audience anyway on Sunday, when The Kennedy Center, a stop on the planned tour, presented the group in a virtual concert. Arab Israeli singer and actress Mira Awad, a longtime supporter of the chorus, hosted the Zoom event, and interviewed Israeli singer Noa, who said she has been singing at the funerals of victims of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. “These days, when I cry, I cry for both of us,” saidNoa, referring to Israelis and Palestinians. A recorded version of her song“There Must Be Another Way” played for viewers, as did the chorus’ “Reason to Love,”which calls for peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English.