An Open Letter to The Mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Nir Barkat, Concerning the Establishment of Sabbath Peace in the City of Peace

Dear Mr. Mayor,

On the lovely spring afternoon of Shabbat Tazriya-Mezora, April 25, 2015, at exactly 5:30 PM, I desecrated the Holy Sabbath by entering my partner’s car in Moshav Beit Zayit, where we live, and drove to the corner of Street of the Prophets and HaRav Kook Street in downtown Jerusalem. As you probably know, this is the only corner in the city on the Day of Rest where you can find a cab to Tel Aviv, on the Sabbath.

Until I reached Street of the Prophets, the idea that I was desecrating the Sabbath was a low-grade thought simmering on the back burner of my consciousness. Anyone who has lived in Jerusalem for thirty-eight years, as I did until 2005, cannot help but be conscious of the Holy Sabbath. But my personal desecration morphed into a full-fledged public affair when I reached the cab, for surrounding the yellow ten-seater van were fifteen middle-aged men in long coats, their high furry hats miraculously balanced on their heads as they stretched their vocal chords to the extreme roaring, like lions, SHABBES, SHABBES.

Roaring Lion

Fear spurred me to counter their unpleasant screaming, so I belted out a song I learned at my Reform Sunday school in Cleveland, Ohio, where the love of Zion first took root.

Shabbat Shalom, hey, Shabbat Shalom, hey, Shabbat Shabbat shalom, Shabbat Shalom.

When I saw this had no effect, I raised my voice to a roar.


A police officer stood nearby and smiled. Behind him a police woman adjusted the rifle strapped over her shoulder. Several cadets standing around gave each other confused looks, wondering, no doubt, what this crazy old woman was doing. It was not clear to me what these men and woman of the law were doing there. Were they there to protect the screaming ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, the passengers trying to get into the van headed for Tel Aviv, or the unfortunate drivers.

Once I was seated inside the van, the men with fur hats inched up to the window next to my seat and repeated their cries SHABBES, SHABBES. I did not want to look at their ugly, hateful faces, so I slid the curtain on the window closed. This did not prevent their Hebrew words from registering, however: “The punishment for desecrating Shabbes is Death.”

I am sure you will agree with me, Mr. Mayor, that those are strong words, especially when screamed into your ear with only a glass window separating you from the screamer. Fortunately, half the passengers in the now full van did not understand them. They were tourists, foreign workers and African refugees, but we Hebrew-speaking, Sabbath-desecrating Jews, we understood.

I had left home with love and joy in my heart, with great expectations for seeing my new grandson whose brit was the next day. Yes, in less than twenty-four hours my grandson would enter the covenant. Now it was with a heavy heart that I sat in the van that drove to Tel Aviv, not fast enough, I might add. As the van climbed the Castel, I thought of that Friday afternoon in August 1966 when I first wandered the narrow streets of Mea Shearim. Such holiness I saw in their filth. Men in long coats carried plastic bags under their arms, their damp towels sticking out. They were running home from the mikvah to greet the Holy Sabbath Queen. The smell of cooked chicken emanated from each apartment, or so I imagined. I was moved to tears by a world filled with meaning and beauty. Now, in 2015, that feeling was dead.

Sure, I rationalized, these men have a right to protest. After all, they live in a democratic state. It is important for them to get their message out, because they believe that if every Jew keeps the laws of the Sabbath, the Messiah will come. I defend their right to protest, but why can’t they do it from the other side of Street of the Prophets, standing behind a police barricade? Do I not have a right to enjoy a peaceful Shabbat on the streets of Jerusalem? Must I be harassed by a crowd of what the tourists termed “lunatics?” All I wanted, Mr. Mayor, was to see my grandson in the profane city of Tel Aviv. For this my punishment is death?

By the time we passed Ben-Gurion Airport, I had calmed down enough to weigh my options. My first instinct was to sue the Municipality of Jerusalem for not keeping the City of Peace peaceful on the Day of Peace. Granted, no stone was thrown and no spit was fired. No rubber bullets were released towards the lower half of anyone’s body. I endured no physical harm. But the soul, Mr. Mayor, the soul. My own was ripped, torn, wounded, like the small penis that would be cut in less than twenty-four hours in Tel Aviv. Does the soul have no value in Jerusalem? Are there no bylaws that define the distance between protestor and object of protest? This was not a one-time incident, I learned from the driver. “It happens every week,” he said with disgust and resignation.

I refuse to be resigned. I do not care if these men belonged to a small group from some minority sect, as some of the Jews in the van claimed. They were disturbing the peace and physically intimidating. Did they have a permit to protest? Do they have a weekly permit to protest? If not, why doesn’t the Jerusalem police force tell them to go home and copulate with their wives, a mitzvah on Shabbes, or study, rather than degrade Torah.

It hurts me to blemish the name of Jerusalem in public, Mr. Mayor, but it hurts me even more to see how screaming hooligans can ruin the quiet atmosphere in Jerusalem on the Holy Sabbath and threaten the tenuous status quo.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I took a cab to my destination. On Shderot Chen the atmosphere was peaceful. Young parents played with their children in the shaded parks along the boulevard. Old people sat on the benches with their foreign caregivers. Middle-aged couples strolled in the shade of the enormous sycomore trees and couples, both gay and heterosexual, kissed in public. Peace and quiet reigned, undisturbed by the few cars that drove by.

As the sun set and the holy light of Shabbat faded, I walked along King George Street. Groups of twenty and thirty-year-olds gathered in outdoor cafes and restaurants. They talked softly, looking cheerful and happy to be spending time  with friends at the end of their day of rest in their beloved Tel Aviv. Many were desecrating the Sabbath in more ways than one, but nobody screamed that they deserved Death. In fact, nobody screamed anything. All was peaceful.

Need I describe my confusion, Mr. Mayor? I felt a strong desire to forget Jerusalem. I know my tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget her and my right hand will wither. This is a steep price, but after what happened on the corner of Street of the Prophets and HaRav Kook Street, forgetting Jerusalem was exactly what I wanted to do.

I look forward to your reply and advice. I need to know how the city can help me stay within its realm. How can I strengthen my attachment to a city I once loved, when Sabbath peace beckons only forty-five minutes away in a saner place?

Yours sincerely,

Judy Labensohn

Citizen of Jerusalem, 1967-2005

Posted in Jerusalem, Protest | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

How Blogging 101 Heightened the Boycotting Issue

Yesterday was the final day of Blogging 101, a free course offered by the happiness team at WordPressU. I think it’s fair to say I failed. The course is wonderful if you have four-six hours/day for blogging business. That includes reading lots of other peoples’ blogs, responding politely to the blogs of fellow students in Blogging 101, managing widgets, writing your own blog posts that inspire conversations and attending at least one blogging event.

After my initial enthusiasm for Blogging 101, I began to cringe whenever I saw an email from Professor Michelle in my inbox, knowing it would nudge me towards another task and assignment that would take me deeper into the blogosphere, that colorful universe of hard workers, over-crowded like an ant hill. By day five my signs of resistance emerged: I read the assignments, but didn’t do them. By the second week, I didn’t even open the emails. This was ironic, because when I signed up for the course, my first thought was that the group might boycott me: I’m Judy over here in sunny Israel!


Sunny Israel


Instead, I boycotted the group.

I’ve adjusted too well to my isolation in sunny Israel to relate to thousands of bloggers from all the ten corners of the known world. Blogging 101 tired me out. If I’m not asleep by 10:30 PM, my next day has fewer hours of sunshine and I get depressed. Staying online  until 12:30 AM, kindly suggesting to other bloggers that they learn English before writing a blog post, caused severe exhaustion. If I learned anything in Blogging 101, it’s the same lesson I learn each time I try something new: Moderation in all things. Seek Balance.

An isolationist does not a successful blogger make. Try a Vipassana retreat. The blogosphere, where everyone is equal, demands your full attention and involvement. You must link to others (Sue over there at FoundMyFork dot com thinks green beans and onions are the cat’s pajamas!), respond to others (Great post, Chris, but why do you spell tribute with a y?), roll (whatever that means) and link yet again (Tanya in Prague YouCanDoIt dot com has overcome anorexia and she wants to help you now!)

A Carmelite convent might be more appropriate if you are a simple lover of sentences and voice, persona and punctuation.

Maybe I’m a cynic at heart, or I use cynicism to defend myself against the myriad active claws of the blogosphere. I’m certainly not upbeat enough for this busy new digital space. I prefer black and white TV from 1952, where it’s just me sprawled on the living room floor, thumb in my mouth, and I Remember Mama.

Maybe I became more edgy during the  last days of Blogging 101 due to the election results over here in sunny Israel, where a Bibi manipulated his return to the prime minister’s office. He used racial fear tactics: The Arabs (read Other, read Terrorists, read Enemy) are flocking to the ballot box. By appealing to mythic tribal affiliations (Them against Us), he blasted us back to the Stone Age.

This Bibi scares me deeply. He is a brilliant manipulator and therefore dangerous. He will bring ruin to Israel. Need I qualify that sentence?

Occupation Kills Us All

The Occupation Kills Us All

I may have to leave my monthly blogging here at WriteInIsrael dot com to become politically active, in order to remain living here. Maybe I will start a new blog and name it “The Fall of Hava Nagila” or “Armageddon Lunch.”

Maybe I’ll use the new blog as a vehicle to topple the Bibi. Do you think that’s a good idea?

We Have Not Yet Lost Our Hope

We Have Not Yet Lost Our Hope


Have you ever toppled anyone? And while I’m asking questions to further this conversation, do you think my own personal choice of isolation, symbolized by boycotting Blogging 101, is a by-product of the cultural milieu in which I live over here in sunny Israel? Or does my own isolationist temperament contribute to creating this cultural milieu?

I look forward to hearing your response, as Professor Michelle, might say.


Posted in Blogroll, Identity, Israel | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

The Writer Kvetches about Place

I am a city mouse living the life of a country mouse. David and I live in Beit Zayit, a moshav west of Jerusalem. This place was our compromise because David does not like cities and I did not want to move far away from Jerusalem. It took me five years to get used to living in the country. Country living is highly over-rated, in my opinion. Where is the Me who used to love Nature, who lay on her back watching clouds? Now I need more stimulation, people, action. The writing life is quiet enough. I want to go outside and see people of all ages and colors walking to and fro, vegetable vendors and bakeries, pharmacies and post offices, all within walking neighbors
On today’s Morning Walk  in Beit Zayit,  I saw three other humans. One was running with a dog. One was walking with a grandchild who held the leash of a dog and the third drove  a Jaguar. The only other stimulation, other than the trees leaning into spring, were painted water pipes and decaying errata.
How did I get here? Why do city folk romanticize country living?
 empty frame
Beit Zayit used to be a farming community, ten minutes west of Jerusalem. Now it’s twenty minutes west of Jerusalem because there’s so much traffic. The Jewish Agency settled Egyptian and Yugoslavian Jews here on rocky terraces in 1949, built each family a chicken coop, gave them a few dunams for plum trees and said Good Luck.
 Sixty-five years later, wealthy Jewish businessmen from Israel, England, France and America are buying up the 3-dunam plots and building mansions. These are hubris houses that show no respect for the lay of the land. Beit Zayit is becoming Jerusalem’s Bel Air.
David and I are involved in a group of people aged 50-70 who want to create a co-housing community for active aging somewhere in Israel. I hope we’ll find an appropriate site in a city, soon, before I deteriorate from lack of local stimulation. Though city air may be more polluted, living with people is healthier for writers who close themselves up in rooms for hours on end. This writer needs a vibrant environment for stimulation and human contact, not more isolation.
But that’s just my opinion today at 10:45. What are your thoughts about this matter of isolation vs. engagement, city mouse vs. country mouse, a place full of people or empty streets?
 empty street
Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Bring Out the Cocoa

Once I realized that my nose surgery was not going to deform me forever and that I didn’t care if I had an unseemly blackish-brown scab the size of a shekel on the side of my nose, I buckled down to finish my memoir. In November 2014 I had sent An End to Mourning to an editor who put in comments using Track Changes. She sent it back in December. For the last three months, like an ant carrying one seed at a time from one side of a field to the other, I have been plodding (and plotting) through the text. I have been uncharacteristically ambitious and determined to get the thing done, out of the way, off my desk and my desktop. This morning it happened, I sent the manuscript back to the editor!!! She will now put in my corrections and rewrites and send me back a clean copy, I hope.

Recently, I read a quote by someone who said there is a difference between writing a memoir and having written a memoir. I am pleased to be in that second category. I wrote a memoir. Amen. Halleluiah. Pass the brandy. Bring out the cocoa.Room 4 Marshm

For me having written a memoir means I have a usable past. I have a story that works. I can connect the dots between Cleveland, Ohio and Jerusalem, Israel. What my unconscious has known all along for the past five decades now makes sense for my conscious mind as well. The dots are on the page. It is out of my body.

Having the plastic surgeon scrape that cancerous glob out of my nose provided the perfect metaphor for what I had been doing for more than thirty years. It took the doctor no more than ten minutes to clean out the stubborn, tenacious cancer, which had probably been growing in my beautiful, straight nose since 1959 when I had radiation treatments for acne. (This was not an uncommon method of treatment in 1959.) Or maybe the cancer started in the summer of 1953 when, as a child of eight, I swam in the pool at the country club for hours on end, the sun burning my fair skin red.

The cancer in my psyche took more time to locate and extract—thirty-five years, give or take.

Now I am free. Even as I sit here in my house with all my heaters on full force, I feel excitement and anticipation towards the coming Spring. I want to do something new and outrageous, after so many years of obsession. Now the obsession has a home in a book and I am free, free, free. Whether or not An End to Mourning finds a publisher, writing it has achieved its goal. It has given me a life, a past, a story. The rest, if it happens, will be the marshmallow in the cocoa.cocoa

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A Day in the Slice of a Writer

It’s 12:22 PM and I still haven’t been able to sit down to work on my memoir. I did my morning stretches, drank hot water with lemon, followed by black coffee, ate my morning oatmeal and millet with date, walnuts and chia, (Forgot to throw in the ground flax seeds.) read the morning newspaper cover to cover, both national and international news and now rather than sit down and work on my memoir-nearing-completion, (It’s been nearing completion for thirty years.) I prefer to write this slice of life. Then, maybe I will take a walk in the wadi,  read a few stories in Alice Munro’s Dear Life for the book club and call to make an appointment for an eye examination  for my driver’s license, having arrived at the age when annual eye tests are a prereq for renewing the license, and then and then . . . there are the black beans that need cooking in the pressure cooker which demands my standing nearby, lest the cooker explode, the continuous attempt to get my electric space heaters to work in sync so I won’t freeze or sweat during the five remaining hours of daylight, the coughing up of phlegm and blowing my left nostril with silk Kleenex dipped in aloe lotion—winter rituals especially prevalent during a slight cold—and mainly, mainly, the effort exerted to not think about the minor procedure on my right nostril two days ago.

As far as procedures go, mine was a best case scenario: outpatient, local anesthetic, a cut here, a slice there, no big deal compared to invasive intestinal procedures that can take ten hours under the knife. So why this anxiety, this unease, this avoidance of focus on work?

“It looks like a crater,” said the plastic surgeon as he sliced a hole on the side of my right nostril. His tone was comforting and matter of fact.  I didn’t digest the content. The local anesthetic may have seeped into my brain. He was an expert on the Mohs procedure,  using it to take out a morpheaform basal cell carcinoma. Later, when I got home, crater sounded melodramatic. I needed a more modest metaphor and found it in the shallow bowl in which I serve home-made tehina. crater

At home I thought I’d reread Gogol’s “The Nose,” but all I could  think about were my options after the doctor would take off the bandage next week. I came up with three: 1. Join a freak show; 2. Become a poster woman for the Israel Cancer Association; 3. Lobby for lowering the price of sunscreen in Israel.

David, my wise partner, suggested I wait to see what the nose would look like without the bandage. Of course this made sense, but I was already determined to turn my scar into a PR ploy. I would glue fake diamonds, rubies or emeralds inside the oval bowl on my nose. I would draw attention to it, create a fashion statement with glitter. I would tell everyone who stared at me, “Use sunscreen! Wear hats with wide rims!”

My own skin doctor, who did the original biopsy that came up with “morpheaform basal cell carcinoma,”  does not believe in sunscreen and thinks it may cause more problems than it solves, but this plastic surgeon, the Mohs expert, believes in sunscreen with over 30 SPF. Once I’m fully recovered from this current slice, I plan to use both sunscreen and hat and possibly my  parasol. And I want to talk to students at Shenkar College of Engineering,  Design and Art in Ramat Gan. I want to ask them to design head gear that covers the nose and whole face.

Why should only Bedouin and Muslim women protect their skin from the sun, wear the niqab? I, being the blonde child of Ashkenazi parents, will wholeheartedly cover my secular face, as long as the covering has some pizzazz.

Many people I know believe in keeping medical issues private, but I am not one of them. I believe we get support from each other and our own experiences can help others. I also have this need to put myself into the world via the page, to turn myself inside out, to make the hidden known, reveal that which is concealed. Why else write? Why else did I run to the skin doctor when I felt a lump inside my nose?

One needs a lot of strength and courage to stand up against the Beautiful-Skin industry, the anti-aging industry, the anti-human industry. But stand up I will, at least on the page. I have earned my wrinkles and I have earned my crater/tehina bowl. A close-up photo, non-photo-chopped, may not make the cover of Vogue, or even Mad Magazine, but it reveals the truth of that face, with all its historical landmarks, scars, sun spots and forced smile.Nose&Graft

So why the anxiety? Even though the excision is an out-patient procedure, when it happens on your own nose, the nose that has found comfort in the middle of your face for nearly seventy years, the nose that remembers your thumb sucking and nosebleeds, your blackheads and glasses, the nose that channels every breath of life, then, by God, it is a big deal.

Now, hopefully, after getting my sliced nose off my chest and into your face, I will be able to sit down and write my book.


Posted in Not writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

Why I’ve Changed My Attitude towards Engineers

My inner curious George has been hyper-active over the past few months. The engineering feat developing opposite my kitchen window pulls me and my iPhone camera out of the house on Saturday afternoons.Yellow helix I’m documenting the building of the new Highway One at the Motza curve for my grandchildren, who still love steam shovels and other large vehicles the names of which I know not, neither in English nor  Hebrew. Visiting the building site is like a trip to the zoo and the museum all in one. The machines, with a little imagination, resemble dinosaurs; the colorful use of triangles, circles and squares would feel comfortable in any pavilion of modern art.

As a young woman I thought engineers were square. They stubbornly kept their hair short in the mid-sixties, when guys in Eng. Lit. and art history boasted shoulder-length locks. They wore ivy-league shirts, when poets and artists wore dirty t-shirts that said Make Love Not War. I looked down upon the clean-shaven engineering students, but not anymore. Today I have nothing but respect for engineers. They have concrete dreams and know how to make those dreams come true. How else can you explain the amazing work being done at the Motza interchange, where a road is being built high in the air to avoid a curve in the damp landscape below?Orange Bug

Maybe engineers had this reputation of being square because they spent too much time drawing geometric shapes. But what does it matter? They learned how to design and build bridges and roads, structures that, hopefully, will pass the test of time, missiles, earthquakes and whatever other disasters await us here in the valley west of Jerusalem.

The designers of the new Highway One  have ignited my curiosity with their colorful equiptment, knowledge of rock and wind, daring and diagrams.  All I can diagram is a sentence. I salute the engineers  building this project, right in my front yard, to the delight of thousands of drivers who  curse the current road leading up to Jerusalem and to the dismay of deer and jackals who are losing a foothold in the valley of concrete. I hope some professional  film maker is producing a movie  to document  the construction of  the new road.  All I can offer are a few amateur shots from an iPhone.

Fantastic shapesYellow trianglesDinosaur4 ropesBlue X'sForkMay we all dream big colorful dreams in 2015 and, like engineers,  figure out how to achieve them.

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TCB, Taking Care of Business in Bully Land

Let’s imagine Jerusalem as a total institution, controlled and constrained as a mental hospital. Such institutions, delineated by strict borders, socialize their inmates into specific roles. Because Jerusalem is a city of hills, a metaphor for understanding the social relationships inside the borders might be the children’s jingle common in England and America from as far back as the 1850’s: ” I’m the King of the Castle and you’re the dirty rascal.”


Since June 1967 when Israel conquered or liberated East Jerusalem from the Jordanians, we Jewish Israelis have become the victors. We are King of the Castle. Our prime ministers and mayors assume this role gives us Jewish Israelis the right to live wherever we want, even though the city had clearly-defined neighborhoods before we took over.

“Mine, mine, mine,” sing the conquerors as they march into Arab neighborhoods, couches, tables and armed security guards at the rear, for which the Israeli taxpayer foots the bill. “Ours, ours ours,” goes the refrain as we take over a house in the Muslim Quarter, a few more in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and Ras al Amud. We Israeli Jews can live wherever we want, because we own the city. It is ours. We have texts to prove it. Screw the dirty rascals who live here and everyone else who gets in our way.

We behave this way under the guise of a “united city.” This nomenclature, used by the king of the castle, insults all those who live in Jerusalem. Those who defile language assume we are passive inmate-citizens, having no eyes and no brains. Such misuse of language and its accompanying behavior is called “bullying.” Jerusalem is the capital of Bully Land.

In English “bully” refers to the common tough guy met worldwide on playgrounds, in high school lunchrooms and often enough in boardrooms and governments. In Israeli Hebrew, bully (or buli) is also the slang for penis, derived from bulbul, also slang. A bully, or bully-bully, as used frequently by new admiring parents of boys, is a cute little penis.

Bully Land is the place where groups of men fight for male dominance. This became clear to me when I stood at French Square near the Prime Minister’s house in West Jerusalem years ago with ten other middle-aged and older women dressed in black. We held small black signs shaped like a hamsa, the hand of Fatima, that read “End the Occupation!” A few cars beeped their horns in support, but all the male drivers who bothered to slow down to share their political stance expressed their rage in sexual terms: “Go f—k the enemy!” one screamed. “You screw Arabs,” growled one. “You should screw Arabs,” yelled another. “Go f-k yourself,” a man cried, as his 4-wheel drive limped towards Ramban Blvd.

Our signs obviously touched a sensitive spot on these drivers’ anatomy. Beneath their anger, I sensed fear. These men, who others might call hot heads, actually seemed to think with their bullys. Was it we women—dowdy, menopausal and dressed in a-sexual black—who aroused their fear? I think not. Their reaction was so exaggerated that I could only assume it was the Palestinian men, whose liberation we sought, along with their Palestinian wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, who aroused their fear.

Maybe their illogic went like this: Any woman against the Occupation must prefer having sex with a Palestinian Arab rather than me (an Israeli Jew.) This is the fear of an insecure man and possibly the fear of all conquerors who live in constant terror that the conquered sex organ will become more alluring to the conquerors’ women than that of the conquerors. The “power” of the bully is really an expression of his fear of powerlessness, otherwise called impotence.(A similar dynamic existed among blacks and whites in America, as described by Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice.) Israeli women in black, the illogic continues, undermine my violent and forceful occupation.

Forty-seven years of occupation and the only things growing in Jerusalem these days are hatred, fear, violence and revenge. Jerusalem is not a nurturing place. It is neither open, united, nor shared. It resembles a closed mental institution more than a democratic, pluralistic, tolerant mixed city. For almost fifty years Israeli Jews have failed Jerusalem. All we are good at is bullying. Bullying leads to unending cycles of repression, rebellion, hatred, violence and revenge.

What is a sane person to do in the presence of this festival of hatred, blood, power and fear?

I suggest inviting a former mayor from Vancouver or San Francisco or some other multi-cultural city built on hills, to come serve as Mayor of Jerusalem for six years. Let this person bring the experience needed to teach Jerusalemites the art of listening and respect, the art of sharing and compromise.

Let one long multi-cultural debka encircle the walls of the Old City.

After this mayor leaves, another such former mayor will come for another six years. This will go on for sixty years until the hatreds subside,  blood pressures fall,  knives return to their proper places in kitchens, and stones will be used for building. Experience has shown that on our own, we Israeli Jews cannot build up Jerusalem as a city of pluralism and peace.

We need help from the goyim. There is no shame in admitting this.

In addition to male insecurity, another serious block to rebuilding a sane city is the fact that in Jerusalem, the hills are alive, not with music, but with conflicting stories. Hill and people are locked in symbiotic knots. Rather than stories embellishing, enlivening or imbuing each other with deeper meanings, we get stuck in our own narratives. They hold us like straight jackets, making Jerusalem feel even more like a closed institution.

I would hope that one of the ten visiting mayors would build The Museum of Narratives, in which each version of each community’s story will be enshrined in a pavilion of the Museum. In this way, citizens and visitors will be able to walk through the conflicts, reading the various narratives of each hill. The stories, finally, will be separated from the rocky hills; each story will command the respect it deserves. Differences will be explored inside the Museum of Narratives with words, rather than outside with sticks and stones.

All municipal council meetings in the rebuilt Jerusalem will begin with the singing of the refrain from that glorious song made famous in 1967, not by Naomi Shemer, but by Aretha Franklin, who spelled out her dream as clear as gold:


Find out what it means to me


Take Care. . . TCB



Posted in Jerusalem, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Kaddish with Rembrandt

Even I cried when I just read my last blog post about my late mother. It made me want to document the year of mourning, or at least the first three months. Here goes. After the shloshim I vowed to go to synagogue once a week to say Kaddish for my mother. A noble vow, but making vows isn’t what it used to be. Once, in August 1966 during a visit to a cave on Mount Zion, I vowed to return to Israel, not just for a five-week summer adventure, but for a whole year. I wanted to learn Hebrew and figured it would be easier in Jerusalem than Cleveland. I kept that vow, returned to Jerusalem on August 1, 1967, but instead of staying one year, I stayed forty-seven. Oy. That sounds like such a long time. You would think that anyone who lived in Israel for forty-seven years would not only be able to read Hebrew fluently, but also write it. Instead, I became a promoter of  English writing  in Israel. But I digress. The point is The Vow.

One drizzly morning at 6:30 I checked out a Sephardic minyan on the moshav where I live. A woman stood near the door  cutting sprigs of hyssop. Must have been a Friday and she was preparing the strong-scented herbs for the havdalah service. Or maybe she put them in a cheese spread. I don’t know; I didn’t ask. Rather, I walked to stand behind the mehitza and tried to find my place in the prayer book. On the other side of the latticed barrier stood  twelve men of assorted head coverings and shirt sizes praying in different accents. Turns out the Ashkenazim on this moshav go to the Sephardic shul during the week. Yes, Messiah. Are you listening? They pray together! In fact one of the Ashkenazim got up and gave a talk about how the Israel Defense Forces should be run according to Torah law. This riled me, so I muttered the mourner’s Kaddish, not necessarily at the appropriate moment, and rushed home to my left-wing newspaper.

The next Kaddish I got in on Yom Kippur, since I was already there in the Ashkenazi shul.  Ever since my bat mitzvah, when I was 65, I’ve lost interest in organized prayer. Nonetheless, I still believed A vow is a vow, though the thought also occurred to me that my mother probably wouldn’t care one way or the other if I said Kaddish, stayed in bed or played golf, as long as I was healthy. The next attempt at Kaddish was Simchat Torah at a Reform synagogue in Mevasseret, but I arrived too late, so only managed a small paper cup of grape juice. The Reform synagogue in Jerusalem where I had my bat mitzvah—the shul I don’t go to on a regular basis—is a 25-minute drive from the moshav. It seems a shame to sit in a car for 50 minutes in order to say a 90-second prayer.

So you see, it was very easy for me to talk myself out of saying Kaddish for my mother on a regular basis, be it an Orthodox or Reform setting, vow or no vow. What I did do last week was visit London. I haven’t done anything this normal in fourteen years, ever since my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over those years, every time I left Israel I sat on a crowded, uncomfortable airplane for twelve hours, followed by a plastic chair at Newark Airport for  three hours and then a narrow seat for a  ninety minute  flight to Cleveland. Last week, in four and a half hours I was in London! map A trip to the Biblical Zoo could not have been easier. My British girlfriend held my hand as she fed my Oyster card some quid for the tube. By Day Two in London I was buzzing around all by myself underground and even above on the Docklands Light Railway.  I went to Saddler Wells for a modern ballet and a Methodist church with a wooden dome that serves as a culture venue during the week for an evening of British folk music, but it was only in the National Gallery’s exhibit  “Rembrandt: The Late Works”  that I thought of my mother.

Standing in a dark room, first cousin to the cave on Mount Zion, I saw an old man blessing a young boy: Rembrandt’s “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.” All this darkness—a dark gallery totally inconducive to iPhone photography, a painted scene framed by dark, heavy curtains, the only light coming from Jacob’s white pj’s and pillow, a dying patriarch in his bed under a dark red blanket—put me in a dark mood. Jacob got it wrong. He blessed the younger son, Ephraim, with his right hand, a gesture usually reserved for the elder son. Joseph looks on with understanding and tenderness. Whatever, he seems to be saying to himself. My father is old and dying.

And that’s when I said Kaddish in my head, because in almost all of Rembrandt’s late works, he has hands, many hands, hands reaching, hands touching, hands caressing and pointing and all these hands reminded me of the day in June when I put my hands on my mother’s head, frail as a baby bird, and she put her hands on my head as I knelt at her  feet, she sitting bent over in her wheelchair like a failed scarecrow, oblivious to the activity around us  in the living room of the Alzheimer’s ward, both of us speechless,


tears sitting in the dark corners of our eyes, like the darkness in the  Rembrandt gallery of the  National Gallery and I was overcome with tenderness from the idea of Generations and gratefulness for Rembrandt’s Late Works and acceptance, too, of God’s strange and glorious Ways.

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Crossing the Jordan

My mother died the same day all the international airlines cancelled their flights to and from Israel. To get to the funeral in Cleveland, I imagined swimming across the Jordan River, hailing a cab to Amman, flying to Istanbul with Royal Jordanian, then to New York with Turkish Air. It would take less than three days. But before packing my swimsuit for crossing the Jordan, I took the advice of Sherri, my loyal travel agent at Ophir Tours, and drove to Ben-Gurion Airport to stand in line at the only airline still flying to and from Israel: El Al. Never did the national airline look so good. I used my pushy skills honed over the past forty-seven years and in no time reached the front of the line. The conscientious clerk went into emergency mode when she heard me say, “My mother died.” She stood up, raced to the back room and initiated Protocol 077 or whatever code they use for Mourner. I got the last seat on the El Al flight to JFK the next afternoon.

In Hebrew the time between death and burial—that liminal zone when everyday life is suspended for mourners—is called anninut. According to the laws of Jewish mourning one starts to mourn after the funeral.    But the psyche has its own laws. According to these laws, as I experienced them between July 22nd and 25th , I reciprocated any act of kindness towards me with tears. This is why, when the lovely welcoming stewardess on El Al told me I had a seat by the door with enough leg room for a person six feet tall, I cried. And when a fatherly steward, who looked like Santa Claus on vacation, brought me a warm fuzzy blanket to counter the freezing air conditioning, I again shed tears. I dared tell yet another beautiful Jewess that I was a vegan and she brought me a fruit salad from first class. Was that not worthy of a cry? By the time we flew over Rhodes, I felt guilty for having deserted El Al years ago, choosing Continental, because of its Cleveland hub. Guilt  seemed appropriate on a Jewish airline.

The morning after arriving at JFK, I waited for four hours at La Guardia for a flight to Cleveland. Nobody knew or cared that my mother had died. I tried to make the most of this situation by talking Death to the gentleman sitting next to me. Fortunately, he had flown from Cleveland to his own mother’s funeral in Jamaica several months earlier. We compared  mourning customs and concluded there is no one way to mourn. Not only is it individual, as I once learned from Prof. Gerald Kaplan when he came to Israel in 1973 to train us social workers caring for bereaved families from the Yom Kippur War, but it is also determined by culture, geography and religion.

During my week in Cleveland all I wanted to read were obituaries, so it came as no surprise that on my way to the airport on the last day, when my loving son from California and I visited Loganberry Used Bookstore on Larchmere Road, I bought The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice On Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying by Helen Fitzgerald. Firzgerald

Given the working title of my (in progress) hybrid memoir, The Mourning After, it’s amazing I had never heard of Fitzgerald’s 1995 book. Timing is everything, to simplify Ecclesiastes. I bought the book on the exact day I needed it. Here was the whole galaxy of mourning in one easily scrunchable paperback that fit into my purse and that would enable me to survive five hours at JFK, ten more on El Al and a year of mourning.

Now, I have been home for a month. Having buried my mother and sat Shiva in Cleveland and observed the Shloshim in Jerusalem, in my periodic visions of grandeur, I morph into a grief entrepreneur. I imagine leading workshops on Unresolved Childhood Grief (Fitzgerald, p. 217), starting at The Writing Pad in Beit Zayit and then taking the show on the road. I now see The Mourning After as a hybrid collection of writings that helped me deal with unresolved childhood grief.WritingPad

There is nothing like a Death in the family—throwing a shovelful of dirt on your mother’s open grave—to transport you from Fantasy Land to Reality. The dramatic transition feels like crossing the chilly Jordan . . . or some Jordan.

Though ritually I have left anninut and am planted firmly in the mourning year, the psyche still hovers in some liminal, transitional zone. Call it Elul. Call it Orphan-hood. Or Maturity. Whatever it’s called, I want to thank El Al for carrying me in my hour of need from one side to the other and I want to thank Helen Fitzgerald for giving my obsession a name and I especially want to thank my late Mother, Mom, Rita Faye (nee Grossman) Stonehill, a beautiful Jewess who carried me in this world with milk and honey, even as she told me to get the hair out of my eyes and the thumb out of my mouth, and whose memory is . . . and will forever be . . . a blessing.

Rita Stonehill z"l 1920 - 2014

Rita Stonehill z”l
1920 – 2014


Posted in Grief and Mourning, Unresolved Childhood Grief | 32 Comments

A Protected Room of Our Own

Only yesterday during the siren did I realize my room of my own is not protected: no metal shutters on the bathroom window, no metal doors on the  sliding glass doors. The room of my own was so open to the surrounding Judean hills over which missiles were flying on their way to Jerusalem that I felt uncomfortably vulnerable.  The Home Front  Command had instructed citizens in a building with neither a protected room, a stairwell nor a bomb shelter, to lie on the floor, face down, arms covering the head.

When the siren sounded I looked at the smooth white pseudo-marble tiles on the floor. I was happy they were not dotted with ants, spiders or dirt from the plant nursery below. Only a  film of dust. Though the tiles did not  beckon me to rest my anxious cheek, I gave in to the force of gravity and stretched out on the cool floor, grateful this war was not transpiring in winter, when the floor is freezing and damp. Nose into the floor, arms over the head and expecting the worst,  I soon realized there was no way I would maintain this position for the recommended ten minutes.

To my right was the fridge, empty but buzzing.  If the rocket fell nearby and caused large objects  to move, I reasoned, waiting for the faraway boom to indicate I was still alive, the fridge might fall on me. I did not want to be squished by a fridge, so without waiting for any more signals from outside, I took my fate into my own hands and crawled backwards on my stomach, a militant civilian. My clean white shirt and white slacks enabled me to imagine I was in camouflage. Surely no sniper nor  missile with eyes would see me on the white floor.

Now my prone body “hid”  opposite the  sliding glass doors. Even though I’ve never served in the army, I knew this was not a safe position.  Flying glass could easily cut my face. glassdoors I turned towards the wall. But as soon as my hands were covering my brain, I realized this too was not safe. Shrapnel from the missile could easily enter my unprotected writing room of my own and lodge in my back. Didn’t Yossi carry shrapnel in his head from the Battle of Jerusalem in ’48, causing him headaches until his death three years ago?  At various times during my long life, the beginning of which I am “celebrating” today,  I have  suffered from low back, upper back, hip and neck pain. I had no desire to incur any injury to  any part of my back, especially the day before my birthday, granted not a big one, but a birthday nonetheless.

It was at this moment that I started thinking about the man, the Hamas man in Gaza, who was pulling the string or pushing the button or covering his ears while another crony was pushing the button or pulling the string. This man, I understood while lying on the pseudo marble floor, vulnerable as the  geraniums below me in the plant nursery, would be very happy to see me dead. Why else was he firing these missiles and rockets all the way from Gaza to the Judaean hills?

I was angry at this man, his organization, ideology, his state of terror that he was spreading like a virus into Israel.  I wanted the Israeli army to fire back and hoped one of  Israel’s  missiles would hit him on the run and neutralize him from  trying to kill me.

And then I thought of Virgina Woolf, the woman writer who in 1928 verbalized a woman’s   need for freedom, peace and a room of one’s own in order to write.  She was addressing the women at Newnham and Girton Colleges at the University of Cambridge and probably could not have imagined that some woman in the maniacal Middle East would take her seriously eighty-six years later. And then I wondered if some woman in Gaza who was crouching under a table or next to a glass door, totally vulnerable, also felt from an early age the need to write. How could there not be such a woman there?  Or many? And how much more difficult was it for her to achieve her dream.

The boom came indicating the missile had been downed by Iron Dome and in those few seconds after the boom  when I stood up and took deep breaths I realized that only when we both inhabited a secure and safe space would we have the freedom and the peace to write. We both needed, not only a protected room of our own, but a protected land.

Upright, I was still angry, but now not only at Hamas who fired the missile. Now I was angry at the stiff, pompous, self-righteous, over-weight,  macho Israeli male leaders and all the men on both sides whose imaginations were so narrow, fixed and frozen that they hadn’t been able to come up with a better solution to this conflict over a shared piece of land that demanded we live like neighbors, not enemies, no better solution than this tiresome old game they had been playing for generations like little boys who never grew up, never learned how to respect the other and to share their common ground.

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