The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

I’m running for Congress!

January 14, 2015

I’m running for Congress!

The World Zionist Congress, that is.

“Huh?” you may ask. “What World Zionist Congress? I never heard of such a thing. And how the heck is Ilana involved with it?” 

Patience. All will be explained.

The WZC, for starters.

The World Zionist Congress

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the WZC started out as a global gathering of Jews devoted to creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It met every few years to elect officers of the World Zionist Organization, which functioned as a kind of state-in-formation during the years of the British Mandate.

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

After creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the WZO’s focus shifted to promoting immigration to Israel and connecting Jews around the world – particularly young people – with Israel. Today it oversees a budget of about $30 million, and has joint authority over the $475 million budget of the Jewish Agency.

Leadership and focus of the WZO is decided every few years at a World Zionist Congress, with the next Congress scheduled for Jerusalem in October 2015.

Participation in the Congress is divided up by country, based on the size of the Jewish population in each country. So Israel gets 38 percent of the seats, the U.S. gets 29 percent, and other Diaspora countries get 33 percent. We’re a Big Kahuna!

The U.S. delegation in turn is determined by elections, with different movements within American Judaism fielding slates of candidates.

American Slates in the WZC

The slate that won the most votes in the last WZC in 2008 was from ARZA, representing Reform Judaism. This makes sense since, numerically, more American Jews are affiliated with Reform synagogues than any other set of institutions.

The overall breakdown of the American delegation in 2006 was:

  • ARZA (Reform Judaism) – 55
  • Religious Zionist Slate (Orthodox Judaism) – 35
  • Mercaz (Conservative Judaism) – 32
  • Zionist Organization of America (right of center) – 5
  • Hatikvah (left-of-center coalition supporting the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties) – 5
  • Likud (right of center)– 3
  • Green Zionist Alliance – 2
  • Herut USA (right of center) – 2
  • Reconstructionist Judaism – 2
  • Other – 4

So what about Ilana?

All very interesting, but you are probably still wondering what I’m doing in the middle of this.

I was approached in late 2014 by by an old friend from Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that was such a key part of my teenage years and formed the base for much of my Jewish and political identity.

At Hashomer Hatzair's Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, third from right. Photo by Yonit Brownstein.

At Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, second from right. Photo by Maria Kontos Barrett.

She asked if I would serve as a delegate for Hatikvah – the Progressive Zionist slate.

Hatikvah represents folks who support the left-of-center Labor and Meretz parties in Israel. It also includes alumni of Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, the kibbutz-related youth movements. And this year it has added leaders of the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

In short, it’s the central gathering spot for American Jews who share a vision of Israel as a socially just, democratic Jewish state that is committed to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The name “Hatikvah” (hope) is fitting. We carry on the founders’ hope that Israel will be a just and ethical light among the nations. We persist in our own hope – despite more setbacks than anyone can count — that Israel can reach a negotiated peace agreement with security for its own residents and self-determination for the Palestinians.

How could I say no?

Not quite like student council

I haven’t run in any kind of election since 6th grade student council, when I campaigned via “win with Wendy” posters in magic marker. And these days people spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected to the U.S. Congress.

Hatikvah

I was a little worried about what might be involved in being on the Hatikvah slate.

In reality, though, I don’t have to do much. (Except spread the word like I’m doing here!) The slate is headed by big names like folk singer Theodor Bikel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, New Israel Fund Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. There are about a hundred people on the slate in total. I am WAAAAY down at the bottom.

So unless the slate goes as viral as a stupid-cat-tricks video, there is no way it will win enough spots for me to be seated. It’s not likely I will have to go to Jerusalem to take part in the Congress next October.

My role is less like Hillary Clinton than like a neighborhood precinct captain trying to get out the vote.

So… I’m asking you to vote!

Why vote?

Yes, you can probably vote, even if you never heard of the WZC before this blog post. Here’s what’s required:

  • You need to be Jewish.
  • You need to pay $10 to cover the cost of the election, or $5 if you are under age 30.
  • You need to be at least 18 years old and a citizen or resident of the US.
  • You need to support the Jerusalem Program, a basic set of principles about Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. You can read the principles here.

In the last set of elections, only 80,000 American Jews voted. So in fact, this is a situation where a relatively small number of votes can have a big impact. YOUR vote can have an impact.

American Jews – especially those of us on the left side of the spectrum – complain a lot about Israeli policies. We complain about the Israeli government not listening to us.

Here is a chance where we are being invited to make our opinions heard!

Granted, the WZC is not going to determine the future of the Middle East. The upcoming Israeli elections will determine who runs Israel for the next few years — much more important than the WZC. But the WZC does have a say over those $400-500 million that are spent on education and settlement.

And the composition of the WZC sends an important message to Israeli policymakers about what American Jews think.

Do you believe that funds for new housing should go to needy areas inside Israel proper, rather than to settlements on the West Bank? 

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Do you believe that Israel should remain a democratic society that respects the civil rights of its minority populations? 

Do you believe that the Israeli government should provide equal status to all streams of religious Judaism, and not treat Orthodox Judaism as the one “official” Judaism? 

Do you believe that Israeli women should have equal rights to travel, dress, work, and pray as they want? 

Do you believe that Israeli should do more to provide economic opportunity and a safety net for its poorest citizens? 

Do you believe that Israel needs a two-state solution for its survival as a Jewish and democratic state? And that it desperately needs leaders with the courage to pursue that goal? 

The Hatikvah slate in the WZC election is a way to make your voice heard on all these points.

I’d love it if you choose to vote for Hatikvah – the slate representing the values of historic Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, the legacy of the kibbutz movement, the energy of progressive American Jews.

But it’s also fine if, as a Reform Jew, you prefer to support the ARZA slate. (Our rabbi at Temple Sinai, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, is a delegate with ARZA.)

ARZA and Hatikvah share a commitment to religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, and to a two-state solution. In fact, Hatikvah formed a working coalition with the Reform and Conservative slates during the 2006 Congress.

Here’s how I personally might decide between those two slates: If my primary concern were religious pluralism within Israel, I would vote for ARZA. If my primary concern were reaching a secure two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, I would vote for Hatikvah.

How to vote

Voting takes place online. It starts on January 14, 2014 and goes through April 30.

Still not convinced? Here’s a column by Sue Fishkoff, editor of the J newspaper, talking about why you should vote in the WZC election. It’s got the great title, “Time to stop whining and start voting.”

Click here to register, view a list of the various slates, and then vote.

Click here to learn about the Hatikvah slate and its platform.

Click here to read about ARZA, the Reform Zionist slate.

I know, our lives our very busy. Take five minutes and vote right now before you forget!

Then please share this post – or the slate of your choice – with your friends.

In Conversation: Rabbi Yoni Regev

December 28, 2014

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.

At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!


Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?

A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.

A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.

Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!

A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.

Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?

A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.

He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.

I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.

Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.

A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.

Q: What was it that appealed to you?

A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.

At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.

What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.

A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.

Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?

A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].

One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.

The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.

Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.

A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.

Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?

A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.

Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.

So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.

Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?

A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.

The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.

If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.

Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?

A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.

Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.

In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.

I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.

In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?

A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.

There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.

Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?

A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.

At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.

As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.

Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.

In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.

This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.

Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?

A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.

There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.

Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?

A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.

Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”

I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?

A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.

That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.

Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.

Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.

A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.

The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.

Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.

Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?

A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”

Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.

Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?

A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.


This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew StrausRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

Reading (and writing) apocalyptic fiction

November 11, 2014

When I was a kid, I read a ton of DC Comics. I started with Batman because of the 1960s TV show, moved on to Superman and other superheroes, and along the way read a short-lived comic book series called The Atomic Knights about a band of post-nuclear-holocaust survivors.

Atomic_Knights_h3

That was my first taste of post-apocalyptic fiction. I occasionally read other end-of-the-world novels like On The Beach and even wrote my own nuclear-survivor short story in junior high in which a research crew in Antarctica return and discover that all of New York City has been levelled except for the rotating animal chimes in the Central Park Zoo. Of course two of the researchers realize amidst the debris that they are in love and vow to create a new better, civilization together.

Shut up. I was in junior high, okay?

Several years ago I read The Road and its uncompromising bleak vision blew me away. Probably among my top five favorite books of all time.

stationeleven

This fall I’ve read a string of new dystopian novels, spurred by a New York Times story about the genre. The Times contended that The Road opened the door for “literary” apocalyptic fiction.

(Background: The publishing world has its own self-constructed silos where novels are slotted into marketing categories such as romance, crime, chick-lit, fantasy, literary fiction, and so on. The Road’s success meant that well-written novels with an apocalyptic theme didn’t get automatically locked into the “science fiction” silo. They could be marketed both to science fiction readers and to people who like thoughtful, character-driven general fiction.)

I’ve read three of the books mentioned in the Time story – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, and most recently, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.

I was regretfully disappointed by the first two. They were well-written, with fully drawn characters and nuanced relationships. But…

Station Eleven seemed weirdly bland for a post-apocalyptic book. It mostly takes place more than 15 years after a super-contagious virus has devastated the world’s populations, and the few survivors seem pretty happy and well adjusted amidst the ruins. Many don’t even remember the details of the cataclysm. There is one power-hungry madman but he kind of fades away and there is never a real confrontation with evil. Everyone lives happily ever after in a suburban airport that has been turned into a refuge.

Station Eleven’s author is Canadian, and (sorry, Canadian friends!) I couldn’t help thinking: Take out the unrelenting evil, the hopelessness, the cannibalism on which Cormac McCarthy built The Road… this is a Canadian view of the apocalypse.  ;-)

california

California follows one young couple who leave L.A. to homestead in the wilderness in the wake of societal breakdown. They eventually encounter a utopian-type settlement nearby, and get enmeshed in drama with the leaders of the settlement. Again, this was unsatisfying for me. At times, the whole apocalyptic setting seemed merely a vehicle for Lepucki to write about the challenges of two people alone in a marriage. And then the machinations of the the settlement got tedious. The stakes seemed low and boring. I didn’t care about power struggles in the settlement – I wanted to know what had happened in imploding L.A.!

Which brings me to The Book of Strange New Things, which I have just finished.

I LOVED it.

Like Lepucki’s book, it centers on a marriage. Peter, a former addict turned committed Christian, has signed on to be pastor to the alien residents of a distant planet where a mysterious global corporation has set up a human colony. His equally devout wife Bea stays at home, where it turns out that natural disasters and social disruption are starting to doom the earth.

It is SO well done. I love that Peter and Bea are thoughtful, intellectual Christians whose faith you can respect, something you rarely see in contemporary fiction. There is tension and drama on multiple levels – Will the aliens be friendly? Will the mysterious corporation turn out to have an evil agenda? What happened to the previous pastor who mysteriously disappeared? What will happen to Peter and Bea’s relationship with all those billions of miles between them? What will happen to Peter’s faith and his sobriety?

strangenewthings

And it is all realistic, consistent, and believable within the universe that Faber has created. There are no unexpected monsters lurching out of volcanoes on the planet, no cataclysmic rocket explosions, none of that Hollywood-type stuff.

This is all of particular interest to me right now because the novel I’m currently working on is also a work of speculative fiction. It’s not apocalyptic, but it does something similar. It takes parts of our culture and uses them as the base for a completely different reality – a world that is not our world, but has recognizable elements of our world. It’s a novel that starts with the premise, “what if such-and-such were to happen…

So I ask myself: What is it that succeeds in books like The Book of Strange New Things, The Road, and The Time-Traveller’s Wife (another favorite of mine that bridges the divide between science fiction and literary fiction)?

Some thoughts:

  • Internal logic. These created worlds and scenarios have rules and logic. They may be completely different from the science and logic of our world, but they are consistent within themselves. Once you accept the premise of the book, the things that happen all make sense. No deus ex machina resolutions where friendly aliens suddenly descend and make everything right, no unbelievable coincidences where the man in the mask turns out to be the hero’s long-lost brother.
  • Character development. They center on characters – people’s relationships to each other, their existential choices. There is nuance, ambiguity. Unlike a Hollywood sci-fi movie, the question isn’t “will the hero save the universe” but “will the hero understand herself, how will she respond when her belief system crumbles etc.”
  • Larger issues. They raise provocative larger issues about our future as a society, how we relate to each other, the purpose of our lives, and human morality. They leave us thinking about our current world in a new way. Why bother creating an alternate universe if you’re not going to use it to explore large issues and look at our world differently?
  • Unflinching. For me, at least, these books need to go to a dark place to be fulfilling. They need to confront our worst selves – our mortality, evil, the limits of human love — and see what happens. No sugar-coating things.
  • High stakes. These books convey high stakes and urgency. That needs to happen on an individual level; it can happen on a societal level too but the individual level is paramount. As readers, we have to really care that something important is at stake here. With The Book of Strange New Things, I felt that so much was at stake – Peter’s entire life as a recovered addict, his faith, his marriage, his ability to go on living with some sense of purpose and integrity.

Right now, with my own manuscript, I am struggling to keep things character-driven and consistent and not slip into action-movie melodrama. There’s a kind of gravitational pull to the action movie, like driving a car where the wheels are out of alignment and it keeps veering to one side.

It would be very easy to add lots of hustle and bustle and battle and magic. But that’s not what I need to do. I need to keep hold of the steering wheel and stay with the characters and with the internal consistency of the world I’m creating.

What do you think? Those of you who are writers? Those of you who are readers?

A century since the last Passenger Pigeon

August 27, 2014

Note: I wrote this post for the Golden Gate Audubon blog.

This Monday September 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of the death in captivity of the last Passenger Pigeon.

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Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon in the Royal Ontario Museum

Several months ago, I read Richard Rhodes’ fascinating biography of John James Audubon and was struck by Audubon’s description of the arrival and slaughter of a massive Passenger Pigeon flock in the midwest around 1816:

“The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea…. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in…. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading….

The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in there number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night…. Towards the approach of the day, the noise in some measure [having] subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off… and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, ands the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears…

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder….”

 

Such massive flocks were not unusual: The largest known nesting site was documented in 1871 in Wisconsin with 136 million birds covering 850 square miles.

Their large flocks and communal behavior made the pigeons easy prey for hunters. Faced with massive commercial hunting and loss of habitat, their numbers dwindled. Then, a century ago, they were gone.

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

The Passenger Pigeon’s story is particularly cautionary for us these days because, with climate change, we may be on the verge of witnessing a tidal wave of similar extinctions.

In September — by coincidence about a week after the sad anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s loss — National Audubon will release a very comprehensive scientific report on North American birds and climate change that has been years in preparation.

Which species will face significant habitat loss? Which ones are likely to adapt and survive? Which are at risk of extinction?

We’ll share the news here with you as soon as we get it, along with steps we can take to protect the Northern California species most at risk due to climate change.

Meanwhile, please consider doing one small thing on Monday to mark the death of Martha, that last lone pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Talk to one non-birder friend about why you care about preserving species…

Write a letter to one elected official in Washington…

Take a young person out to a park and help them spot an egret in the marsh…

Post a Passenger Pigeon image on your Facebook page, and ask your friends to share it…  

Replace the energy-hogging incandescent bulbs in your house with LEDs or compact fluorescents, and think of Martha while you do it….

In 2114, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be writing blog posts commemorating the anniversary of the death of the last Tricolored Blackbird? Ashy Storm-Petrel? Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Burrowing Owl? Snowy Plover?

Or might there be so many losses that they won’t even know where to start?

Visiting Auschwitz

August 4, 2014

We took an overnight train with a first-class sleeper compartment from Prague to Krakow. Starched white sheets on the bunk beds; bottles of water by our private sink; the conductor promising a wake-up call and our choice of coffee or tea before we arrived.

I lay in my cozy bunk, feeling the rhythmic rocking of the car, and I kept thinking:

We are Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

Oswiecim – the Polish town that predated the camp and gave the camp its infamous German name – was one of the stops around 4 a.m. on our very-local train route. Of course the contrast couldn’t have been greater. We were American tourists, buoyed by our almighty credit cards, free to move where we chose within the borderless EU, free to fly home to California when we were done.

We were also Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

With help from the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, we had arranged a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps for our third day in Krakow. The camps are about a 90-minute drive from the beautiful medieval city center. On our way, we stopped in the town of Oswiecim to visit its fairly new Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and education center that preserves the only remaining synagogue in the area.

This was new to me. Like most American Jews, when I hear “Auschwitz,” I think of the death camp that killed over a million Jews from all corners of Europe. What I didn’t know was that before this, there had been a thriving Jewish community within the small town of Oswiecim itself.

Jews arrived in Oswiecim in the 1500s, fleeing persecution in nearby Bohemia and Moravia. They flourished during Poland’s brief window of independence after World War I: By 1939, Jews made up an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Oswiecim’s population of 14,000. There were 20 synagogues in the town!

Like elsewhere, Orthodox and more modern Jews jockeyed for influence. Jews served on the town council, which provided food and other relief to both poor Jews and poor Catholics. The Jews were careful never to court ill-will by serving as mayor, even though they were a numerical majority: They typically served as vice mayor, under a Catholic mayor. Some Jews were successful industrialists. Among the museum items on display that fascinated me were glass bottles and marketing brochures from businessman Jakob Haberfeld’s very successful vodka and liquor factory.

 

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Museum/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Center/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Museum

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Center

But on to the camp.

In retrospect, I realize that I approached our visit with trepidation. Like most American Jews, I’d heard about the death camps from a young age. I’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a teenager; bought Art Spieglelman’s Maus for my own daughter; visited Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC; seen Schindler’s List and The Pianist and so on. Although my family came to America in the mid-1800s and I lost no known relatives to the Nazis, the Holocaust was always more real to me than much of American history. Even today, I can name more concentration camps than Civil War battlefields. Many times over the years I had played the mind-game with myself: Of all my non-Jewish friends and co-workers, who are the ones I could truly trust to protect me if something like the Holocaust happened again? 

And Auschwitz represented the dark core of all this to me for 40 years – symbol of what Europe did to Jews, what it would have done to me, the worst that human beings can do to other human beings.

I was worried about what it would be like to visit.

I wasn’t worried that I would be overcome by anguish, but that I would not be overcome enough.

I feared that it would seem mundane. That I would not experience an epiphany worthy of the place. That I would not be changed.

Wouldn’t that be the individual equivalent of the world looking aside as Jews were gassed? To visit Auschwitz and not be changed?

How could the actual Auschwitz live up to everything I’d read and thought about it?

But I wasn’t conscious of this at the time. I only felt a vague nervousness. Thus the dark jokes about Jews on trains.

We met our guide in the parking lot. (Already it felt surreal. I could imagine a short story titled “The Parking Lot at the Death Camp.”)

Our guide was terrific – a youthful non-Jewish Pole in his 40s named Wojtek. He knew the history of the camp inside out. He understood Jewish culture and history. He explained things, but not too much: It would have been horrible to have someone chattering non-stop through the visit, but he knew to leave a lot of silent space.

I asked him what motivated him to choose work as a death camp museum tour guide, and he answered that his parents had both worked at the camp museum since it opened shortly after World War 2, so he grew up around it. I imagined them as nearby residents looking for a paycheck, maybe staffing the ticket booth or maintaining the grounds. Only later did someone tell me that Wojtek’s father had been a prisoner in the camp for five years, and was the first director of the camp museum.

There are two parts to the preserved camp – Auschwitz and Birkenau. We started in Auschwitz, which began its life as a Polish army base and was the earlier and smaller section, where Polish political prisoners were placed after the Nazi invasion. It’s a series of very neat, very rectangular two-story red brick buildings lined by rows of poplar trees. If you disregarded the barbed wire and electric fences, it looked from the outside like a cheery colonial-Williamsburg-style restoration – imagine a 19th century New England textile mill turned into a historical park.

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Inside, the buildings contained some very low-key historical displays. No touch-screens or videos or holographic projections; it was more like a museum presentation from the 1950s. There were historical photos as well as opportunities to walk through cells, barracks, and the camp’s early gas chamber and crematoria. Here’s what struck me the most:

The Relics

One of the brick buildings held a series of large glass display cases, like you might see holding a diorama of stuffed zebras at a natural history museum, only much bigger. They were filled with relics of the dead. One display case was filled with two tons of hair shorn from gassed women, and sold to German industry for 50 Pfennig per kilo.

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Another case was filled with tallitot (prayer shawls), and another with eyeglass frames. There was a displaycase the size of a swimming pool filled with metal pitchers and platters – people’s prized household possessions, which they had brought on the train with them to their “new home.”

There was a case filled with crutches and prosthetic limbs. A case filled with women’s shoes. A case filled with baby shoes.

There was a room-sized case filled with suitcases – brown leather mid-century suitcases – all carefully labelled with their owners’ names and addresses so they could reclaim them after their “delousing.”

There were thousands upon thousands of these items. And these were just the remnants that had been recovered after the camp was liberated – the bits that had not been shipped to Germany or destroyed in the bombing. The tip of the iceberg.

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children's shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children’s shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The Photos

Another brick building had a long corridor lined with ID photos of prisoners, from the early days before they started tattooing numbers on arms for identification. Most of the prisoners before 1942 were non-Jewish Poles.

Our guide told us that the photographer was a non-Jewish Pole of Austrian descent. When the Nazis invaded, they offered him German citizenship due to his background. He refused and was imprisoned, where he had to take all the ID pictures. He survived the war but never took photos again.

What struck me were the dates alongside each photo – the date each person entered the camp, and the date s/he died. Three weeks. Five weeks. Two months….. I kept looking at one face after another, and realized that most were dead within three months.

Most of us have learned about the camps from stories and memoirs by survivors – Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel etc. Those memoirs are essential and powerful. But they are by necessity the stories of people who survived. Even if they describe friends, relatives and barrack-mates who died, the focus remains inevitably on the writer, who lived.

The photos and their dates in this corridor brought home to me the reality that most, most, most, most people didn’t survive. They didn’t live a year. They didn’t even live a half year. They arrived, they starved, they sickened, and a few weeks later they were dead.

Photo of twin sisters who died in Auschwitz / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo of 15-year-old twin sisters who died in Auschwitz. They entered the camp on Feb. 5, 1943. Maria died on May 23, and Czeslawa died on July 23.

Practicing for mass extermination

One of the brick barracks included rooms in the basement where the Nazis practiced for mass extermination. They experimented there with Zyklon B to see how much gas, for how long, it would take to kill a room full of people. They tried different doses and different time intervals until they got it right.

That was another of the takeaways from Auschwitz for me – it brought home how methodically, scientifically, the Germans approached their Final Solution. To me, this does set the Holocaust apart from other genocides of the past 150 years. It’s of course terrible to massacre any “other” in a frenzy of religious intolerance, a pogrom, a riot. But there is something worse about the rational, deliberate approach that the Nazis took. No one in Rwanda or Serbia or Turkey/Armenia spent years doing scientific studies of the most efficient way to kill their targets.

 ———————————————–

We finished with the brick barracks of the main Auschwitz camp. All three of us felt a little disoriented – it hadn’t looked like we imagined. The barracks were too well-built, too tall, too landscaped, too…. normal. Even the “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the main gate seemed thinner and flimsier than what I had imagined.

It was also a gorgeous summer day outside – grass green, sky blue, jackdaws pecking for snack crumbs in the parking lot.

“People think it’s always winter here,” our guide said. “They see the black and white photos, they think the sun never shined. Of course the sun shined.  I had a survivor on one of my tours who said, ‘You can die in a place of beauty.’ ”

We took the short drive over to Birkenau. This was the larger camp – the one built explicitly for extermination, with gas chambers and crematoria that could kill 525,000 people per year, and barracks that could hold 100,000 people.

This looked more like what we had imagined. Long low buildings, mostly wooden on a treeless field, filled with wooden shelves that slept four people each. This was where the famous photos of emaciated prisoners had been taken upon liberation.

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Birkenau was sprawling and massive. We started at the back of the camp, with an abstract stone memorial erected in the 1950s or 60s – 22 plaques, one for each of the languages spoken by people killed here. We passed the site of the crematoria and gas chambers, but they had been blown up or bombed toward the end of the war and today are just fields of rubble.

People’s ashes were often sold as fertilizer. Our guide told us that local farmers still find little unburnt body pieces in their fields.

We walked to the debarcation area – where the trains unloaded their passengers, and people were lined up and sorted for immediate death or imprisonment. There was no waiting around, no bureaucratic delays, no grace period. Those chosen for death were taken to the gas within minutes.

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp – train track on right, front entrance to Birkenau in the distance / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In retrospect, I wish we had stayed at the unloading site longer. We saw it, we took photos, we lingered a little, we moved on. It was hard to think at that point in the afternoon. We were all somewhat numb. In retrospect, I’d like to have sat on the grass and reflected quietly or sketched or written poetry or said Kaddish. Something slow and reflective, something that in my non-religious way would acknowledge the sacredness of all those lost lives.

Instead I took notes. Throughout the tour, I jotted notes in my little spiral book. After twenty-plus years of being a reporter, taking notes is like breathing for me. I take notes in meetings even if I’m not the organization’s secretary. And I sort of had a reason, in that I’d been toying with the idea of writing a travel article about our trip to Poland. I asked our guide lots of factual questions and wrote down lots of factual answers.

But really it was a displacement activity. It was a way to keep myself busy in the face of this terrible place. I could take something unmanageable and manage it, treat it like a routine City Council meeting. I processed it into notes. I locked it down on the page, like Harry Potter locking a boggart back into its cupboard.

It’s taken me three weeks to feel ready to write something about visiting Auschwitz. I wasn’t sure what I had to say. All the important things have been said already – the banality of evil, the importance of bearing witness, the systematized, industrial character of Nazi anti-Semitism, etc. And honestly, I’ve learned much more about the Holocaust and the death camps from years of reading than from this three-hour visit.

Auschwitz – together with the rest of our trip to Poland – did spur me to revisit the uncomfortable question of what would have happened to me during the Holocaust. We all like to imagine ourselves as the rare survivor – the one who finagles false papers, who joins the resistance in the woods, who has the luck to survive and even help others.

In reality, I would most likely be dead. I’m not particularly cunning. I’m not particularly strong. I tend to follow rules. I would have ridden the train and, if not sent directly to the gas, would have starved and gotten typhus and died.

And if I’d been a non-Jewish Pole? Would I have risked automatic death for myself and my entire family – the official penalty – for helping a Jew? I don’t know. I hope I would. I fear I wouldn’t.

So…. no great epiphany. No piercing new insights to give the world. Yet I’m glad I was there.

Auschwitz is important as a pilgrimage site, a place to go to honor those who died and to try to take in the sheer scope of their murder.

I do believe that is one of our moral obligations – to try to take in the scope of the Holocaust, to make it as real to ourselves as possible.

And of course to prevent it from happening again.

As strange as it sounds, I would actually like to go back sometime. This initial visit allowed me to see the physical structures, the size, the layout. Now I know what it looks like, I know what is there. I don’t have to get those questions answered.

On the next visit, I would go and reflect. I would skip the tour and just go sit in the field where people disembarked and were sorted, the green summer field where over a million people died in a place of beauty.

Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

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My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.

A shaggy owl story

May 16, 2014

Why do we (well, some of us) feel compelled to air our most embarrassing moments on the public square of the Internet?

It was dusk on a Friday evening, and my husband and I were winding our way down Panoramic Highway towards Stinson Beach. The western sky was still light, but the woods along the road were in shadow. Fidgeting in the passenger seat and trying not to feel carsick, I suddenly saw two faces flash past in a tree – round faces, big forward-facing eyes, one large dark face and one smaller light face.

If I were an eight-year-old boy in my Star Wars phase, I would have thought: Ewoks. 

But I’m a 50-something-year-old woman who works for Golden Gate Audubon, so I thought: Owls. 

Maybe it was because it was that owlish time of day. Or maybe I was subconsciously thinking of a great photo I’d seen that day by Glenn Nevill of the huge-eyed, white Peregrine Falcon chicks on the PG&E building.

“Stop! I saw something!” I shouted at to my husband. To his spousely credit, he actually stopped, without getting us killed, and did a u-turn onto an area of shoulder.

I dug my binoculars out of the overnight bag in the back seat and peered through the increasing darkness. There was a big mess of sticks in the crook of a tree, and sitting in it, a large bird. “I think it’s an owl.”

My husband took a turn with the binoculars. “Great Horned Owl. In profile. Great job spotting it! But that’s kind of a weird place for an owl, so low down and close to the road.”

We watched for a while. It wasn’t moving much. I couldn’t see the second face that had flashed past. But how amazing would it be to see a nestling? This called for a better look. We drove back up the hill, did another u-turn, and parked about 20 yards away from the tree, now with a direct frontal view of the nest.

Yes, there was that second small white shape. Fluffy, kind of gumdrop-shaped, no pointy ears. “A chick!” I exclaimed quietly.

We watched. Neither bird moved. I started to have a bad feeling about this.

A car passed us, travelling fast downhill past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

Two bicyclists struggled up the steep slope past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

“Okay, I’m going closer,” I said. I crawled out of the car, closing the door gently and taking just a few steps so I could get a better view without spooking the birds. It was getting seriously dark now.

And yes, that bad feeling I’d had was justified.

The two shapes in the tree were… stuffed toys. 

Aak!

I wondered if whoever had placed them there had also installed a hidden camera. Of all the drivers who passed by, how many others actually stopped their cars? Were there any other suckers who got out and stood there staring through binoculars?  I wondered if I’d end up in some viral video of “America’s Dumbest Birders.”

“Well,” my husband said generously as he revved up the car and I slouched as low into the passenger seat as a human body could slouch, “it was still good that you could notice something in the dark when we were driving past so fast.”

Thanks, Sam.

But really, why do we (well, some of us) post our most embarrassing moments on the web for all the world to see?

I don’t think it’s masochism. Picture a dog or cat, facing a clearly alpha animal. It doesn’t want a fight. It wants to be friends. It rolls over on its back, paws in the air, tender belly exposed.

Present your vulnerability and you won’t be attacked. Make fun of yourself and people will laugh with you, not at you.

On the other hand, maybe some of us just can’t resist telling a good story. Even when we are the punch line.

Losing a magical lagoon

February 11, 2014

Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.

The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.

Photos of Pure Adventure, Fajardo

The bioluminescent bay at sunset / Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:

Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.

Here’s what it is, experientially:

Magic.

You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.

You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch.  It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.

biobay

Bioluminescence as a foot touches the water in Fajardo

Waving hands through the water produces light -- b8t these photos don't do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Waving hands through the water produces light — b8t these photos don’t do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Then I learned last week on NPR’s Science Friday that the Fajardo lagoon had gone dark.

This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.

No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????

This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.

It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.

It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.

What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to  pictures in natural history books?

Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”

I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought:  The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

But how relieved should I be?

Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.

And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.

The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?

And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?

WTS Birding Trip – Postponed

February 8, 2014

If you were planning to come on the Women of Temple Sinai beginning birdwatching outing on Sunday Feb. 8th, it has been cancelled since the latest forecast is for 100% chance of rain.

We are rescheduling for Sunday February 23 (two weeks from now), 9:30 to 11:30 am. Hope you can make it!

I’d say I’m sorry for the cancellation… but we need the rain so badly that it’s hard to be sorry! :-)

Meanwhile, if you’re one of my blog readers and have no idea what I’m talking about… this was a bird walk I was co-leading for our temple. I hope to have a “real” post for you soon!

Anna's Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Anna’s Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

 


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