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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mekimi, by Noa Yaron-Dayan

I hesitated before buying and reading this book. After all, I am not a big fan of Breslover Hasidim, especially the born-again, light-in-their-eyes, street-dancing, Uman-going kind. And that's an understatement. After having finished reading the book, my ambivalence persists.

Noa Yaron was a radio and TV celebrity in Israel in the early 90s. She was exposed, like many in her circle, to the teachings and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th-century founder of the Brelover movement. Today, at the age of 35, she has six children and spends her time disseminating the teachings of R. Nachman to any woman who will listen. Everybody in Israel is aware of the Breslover Hasidim, as their ill-founded mantra (Na-Nach-Nachma-Nachman-MiUman) is plastered on walls, stickers, kippot, t-shirts, etc. This quasi-messianic sect of Judaism works particularly well for those seeking a Judaism that is somewhat "new-age", an alternative to seeking the truth in a remote Ashram in India.

In this book, Yaron-Dayan describes her path to the light. Mekimi in Hebrew means "the one who lifts me" and is derived from a verse in Psalm 113 - "He who raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts up the needy out of the dunghill" - an appropriate metaphor for how she sees her journey. Although Yaron-Dayan describes the book only as "semi-autobiographical", for example she names the woman Alma and her boyfriend-husband Ben (her husband's name is Yuval), it is based on diaries she wrote during the years and is therefore a good account of the processes she went through.

The book opens with an account of the secular world, the world Yaron-Dayan knew well, a world that made a star out of her. The description is, as expected, quite glum: materialism is the only religion, drugs are being smoked on a daily basis, relationships come and go and there is this huge void in everyone's stomach, a void that cannot be filled by anything or anyone. The process begins halfway through the book, when Ben, at the behest of a good friend, agrees to listen to a lecture by an ultra-orthodox person, a lecture that transforms him completely. He begins his own journey towards Judaism and Alma, his partner, joins. The last part of the book is a shameless praise (propaganda) for R. Nachman.

So why am I ambivalent about this book? It is well written. Yaron-Dayan has not lost her sense of humour and the book is interspersed with witty remarks, some of it refreshingsly self-defecating. But more importantly, it is genuine. Her passion and her ardent belief in her newly-found way are palpably present in every page of this book. Yaron-Dayan does not embellish the process she went through (and is still undergoing). She makes it plainly clear that becoming, and staying, religious is a continuous struggle. One does not "see the light" and change his/her ways overnight. There are endless obstacles along the way. It does not feel like a path but rather like a roller-coaster ride, where every high point is inevitably followed by a fall. The trick, as Yaron-Dayan vividly demonstrates through her own experiences, is how to make it up the next slope, to the next high point.

And yet I cannot completely identify with what this book is about. Yaron-Dayan is trying to convince us (that is, the secular among us) that if we become religious we will be happier. The recurring theme in this book is: Judaism is the key to personal happiness. If you feel a void in your life, Judaism will fill it. I do not believe this to be true, neither in practice nor on a theological level. In practice, this is a dangerous approach; although for some people finding Judaism may mean finding happiness, this feeling might be temporary and then the question is, what happens next? If Judaism loses its initial lustre, does that mean we go back, or try a new approach?

More importantly, defining religion in an anthopocentric way is theologically wrong. Judaism is first and foremost a theocentric religion; God is in the centre and man's purpose is to worship Him. We are commanded by God and the mitsvot we are to fulfill are a yoke. Promising happiness to people is dangerously close to subjugating God to our purposes, in other words, close to avodah zarah. While I identify with Yaron-Dayan's focus on the quest rather than on the target - she understands the target is unattainable and the best we can do is strive constantly to reach it, even though we know it is impossible - I cannot identify with the proposition that our happiness is the main purpose of this exercise. This is the source of my criticism of the Breslover way (and, indeed, Hasidim in general).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Terrorist in New York

Surprisingly, with all the noise around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting New York and making speeches at the UN and at Columbia University, one obvious question has somehow completely slipped my mind.

Last night my wife, who does not usually follow the news as avidly as I do, turned around from her laptop and asked me: "Are you telling me Ahmadinejad is in the US and is going to leave back for Iran unharmed?"

When you think about it, it is indeed a good question. We have all come to accept the fact that terrorists and heads of state who support terrorism can walk about freely in our countries, whereas we do not even dare think about the possibility of visiting their countries. Think about it: Palestinians can walk about Tel Aviv, have coffee on the beach and shop in the malls, and return home safely to their homes. An Israeli would never dream of setting foot in Gaza City or Ramallah for fear of lynching.

The US has missed a chance to grab one of the world's biggest terrorists. What a shame.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cars on Yom Kippur

Yesterday morning, Yom Kippur, around 7:30am, on my way to the synagogue, I saw two cars on the road. They were driving slowly, but they were definitely cars and they were definitely moving. On the road.

Why is this so unusual? Because in Israel on Yom Kippur, there are no cars on the road. And when I write "no cars", I mean NO cars. In every city and on most inter-city roads, the roads are completely empty for 25 hours. For kids in Israel, Yom Kippur has become "bicycle day", as they can roam the streets freely with their bikes undisturbed by other vehicles. Obviously in non-religious and non-Jewish towns people drive their cars, but if you live in a big city the likelihood of seeing a car driving on Yom Kippur is close to zero (aside to emergency services).

The most interesting part about this phenomenon is that there is no law that prohibits driving on Yom Kippur in Israel. It is a custom that developed out of respect for the holiest day in the year and Israelis have been keeping this custom for decades. As in most other areas concerning religion in Israel - shabbat, kashrut, marriages, etc. - there has been a steady erosion in recent years. I guess this erosion has now reached Yom Kippur as well. This is why seeing the two cars yesterday morning was both surprising and sad.

I am for separation of religion and state in Israel, so I cannot object to people driving on Yom Kippur. It is not the act of driving on this day that bothers me. After all, most people drive on shabbat. It is the fact that there was this island of consensus between religious and non-religious in Israel, and island that was not created artificially (or coercively) through legislation. And now even this small island is slowly disappearing.

I still believe such islands of agreement can be reached in order to maintain some public vestige of "Jewishness" in the Jewish state, but these cannot be had through the means of legislation. Unfortunately what most religious people (and political parties) do not understand is that the more religious legislation they enact, the less chance there is for a consensual modus vivendi that will do good not only to Israeli society as a whole but mostly to religion itself. Judaism free of state legistlation has flourished for 2,000 years; it gave us the core corpus of Jewish law and thought and kept Jews together through good times and bad. Somewhat paradoxically, a mere half-century of the "Jewish state" have reduced Judaism's standing and power amongst most Israelis. Time is running out if we wish to reverse this trend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Belgian Table Manners

There has been talk recently about the possibility of Belgium breaking up as a country, because the two main groups - the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Dutch - seem unable to get along. The Economist recently carried a leader about this, entitled "Time to call it a day". Rather blunt.

I'm not going to enter into the fray. After all, who am I to say whether Belgium is a viable country. But all this talk about Belgium reminded me of the excellent sketch from "Not the Nine O'clock News" about eating habits in Belgium. I have it on DVD at home, but found it also on YouTube (starts from about 1 minute into the following video). What a pleasure it was to watch it again after all these years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Do We Deserve Gaydamak?

Those who lived in Israel in the 1980s will remember a popular car sticker that proclaimed: "Maxwell: Buy Me!". The sticker referred to the late British media mogul Robert Maxwell who at the time was busy buying up Israeli companies, including a leading newspaper. "Buy Me!" was a semi-ironic cry of desperation that symbolised a general feeling of discomfort with the economy and the way the government was running it.

Maxwell is long dead now, buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But his spirit lives on, having been miraculously reincarnated in Arcadi Gaydamak. This Russian-born billionaire rose to local fame after some particularly distasteful publicity stints: offering free "fun days" for the residents of the southern city of Sderot who are suffering from daily rocket attacks from Gaza; erecting a "tent city" in Tel Aviv for people who fled south from northern Israel during last year's Second Lebanon War; showing up as a visitor to the Knesset and at the same time telling the press that most parliamentarians were there solely for their salary; and the list goes on. One of his first moves here was to buy Beitar Yerushalayim, a legendary soccer team whose vocal, and sometimes violent, fans have made a semi-God out of him. His latest unsavoury move is an advertising campaign by one of the cellular companies featuring Gaydamak as... himself, the man who can buy anything.

All of this would have been nothing but a distraction, another indicator of the poor taste of some Israelis, who will worship anyone willing to offer them a free gift. But Gaydamak has expressed his intentions to establish a political party and to run for the mayorship of Jerusalem (a post formerly occupied by the current Prime Minister). He has also announced his support for Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and a notorious populist himself. The man clearly has aspirations that go beyond buying up faltering Israeli enterprises.

Gaydamak's background is questionable at best. He is wanted in France for an arms deal in Africa; he travels with an Angolan diplomatic passport to avoid arrest; there are stories circulating about money laundering in Russia and of the unorthodox ways he made his fortune; Israeli police advised the Jewish Agency to reject a $50M donation from him so as to avoid "problematic money" entering a government agency. Although he served in the military here, he spent most of his life outside Israel. His command of Hebrew is minimal. Despite his economic involvement in Israel and all the fanfare around his so-called "good deeds", he is still viewed by many as an outsider. And yet this man stands a real chance to become a member of the Knesset, perhaps even the mayor of the capital city. His ability to influence the outcome of the next election is not in doubt.

I know we Israelis have done a poor job in electing our politicians in the past, but could we be as bad as to deserve Gaydamak? If this is the case, we have some serious repenting to do this coming weekend...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Musings on the Eve of 5768

Another year ends. Time for reflection, for making resolutions, for doing away with last year's curses and looking forward to next year's blessings.

But who has time for reflection, let alone making new resolutions? I personally have had such a busy time at work lately and I'm currently losing my mind trying to balance my business travel over the next month (with most holidays being "stuck" in the middle of the week), that taking time off for reflections is a luxury I can ill afford. I am embarassed to say how many times I've attended selichot this past month (I belong to those who started repenting on the 2nd of Elul, not two days ago). It looks like Rosh HaShana itself will have to do for my selichot.

But, patur belo klum i efshar, so here are some thoughts as we approach 5768:

  • First, let's not go into the number 5768. With the dinosaur bones and all those fossils it's not a good idea. Best to recommend the book Bereshit Bara, by Prof. Nathan Aviezer, for some peace of mind on the subject of reconciliating creationism chronology with science.
  • Next year will be shnat shemitah, the seventh year, where one is supposed to let the land rest and the debts disappear. Alas, all that is left from a beautiful social, economic and environmental idea is the ritual bickering between rabbis about who to give money to to bypass the prohibition of eating fruits and vegetables grown in Israel. That, and a plethora of booklets detailing ad nauseam what one should do with one's shrubberies in the back garden.
  • A year ago Israel was licking its wounds from the botched war in Lebanon. And as a present for the New Year we got this week a whiff of renewed winds of war. So far it looks like all sides are happy with turning a blind eye to the nightly excursion of our brave pilots over the Syrian sky, but these incidents are exactly how wars get started.
  • A-propos war. After the missile attack last night on an IDF trainee camp near Gaza, what are the headlines on the internet? Get this: "Parents complain: why were soldiers sleeping in non-protected tents?" One has to read this twice to believe it's not a joke. Does anyone need more proof Israelis have lost the will to fight?
  • Perhaps 5768 will be the year I will finally take that (expensive) speed reading course I've read about? I am constantly frustrated at the number of books in my library waiting patiently their turn.
  • No resolutions for the new year. Old age brings with it realism about resolutions that look promisingly achievable when made but then leave nothing but a sour taste of disappointment a year later. Except maybe one: I will try to keep a steady schedule of working out, despite all the travelling. I really will try harder.

Shana Tova to all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Scientific Proof: We Are Smarter

Several newspapers today are carrying a story about a study published in Nature Neuroscience. The headlines vary, but the basic theme is "the brain of left-wing people is different from the brain of right-wing people".

Here is the abstract of the study:

Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.

At long last there is scientific proof that we back-stabbing, self-hating, left-wing liberals are smarter. We seem to react better to complex information and adapt faster to changing circumstances. We also have better "neurocognitive sensitivity"; I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds like a good thing to have!

In other words, I was right all along. In recent years I have mostly refrained from entering into arguments with right-wing people, something I enjoyed doing in the past. After all, why bother arguing with someone if you've been scientifically certified to be much smarter than he/she is?