Friday, February 25, 2011

Aesthetics of Amplification

It's that time of the semester, when upper-level students are starting to pull together the arguments they'll be making in their research papers (and I realize that I need to finally give some time to my own wee ideas for upcoming papers and conferences). In asking them to map out and amplify their arguments (my favorite is the student whose central space simply asked "Why?"), I realized that it was high time that I engaged with the aesthetics of amplification witnessed in Israel.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher completely unnerved the students.  Almost 1700 years of accretion on a holy site can do that to most anyone, I suppose, but their reaction was vehement: this is wrong, not as Christ intended (?!?), this can't possibly be right, this isn't how it was, how can this be? It was crowded, it was hot, there were competing incense burners from the competing chapels of the competing Christianities (six in total) there, it was loud, it was shiny. It's not at all that I wanted them to accept that this really truly was the site where Christ was crucified, buried and whence he resurrected, it's that I hoped that they would marvel at the continuity, at the accretion itself, at the multiple amplifications of the human voice as it seeks the divine.  Every candle, ever incense burner, every chant amplifies that searching voice, makes it noticeable to God. But for the American aesthetic of my students, it was just crowded and tacky.  Their seeking was for authenticity (an authenticity, I would argue, honed by Hollywood, which deserves its own exploration).

The Unction Stone of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher is probably one of the messiest archaeological sites one can ever hope to map or understand. The British tried during their mandate, of course, but even they were crowded out by the continuous (non-stop, never-ending, every day, every way) flow of pilgrims who come.  It is a tense and intense place, and the seriousness of purpose is almost crushing. That seriousness, that intense intent doesn't allow for a careful separation of the layers of history - for a leisurely contemplation of building campaigns (begun in 330 by the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena), destructions (1009 by al-Hakim; the Muslims of Jerusalem thought he had gone mad), constructions (during a lull in the fighting in the late 1140s, the Crusaders gave it a memorable portal), and fires (the latest in 1810).  Here, now, always, the amplification muffles out history.   

The Unction Stone
There's too much to do to worry about history!  I stood fascinated by these men who were somehow all business, and all fervor at the same time. They had dozens and dozens of candles, which they methodically took out of one set of bags, rolled across the unction stone (where Christ was annointed for burial by Joseph of Arimethaea), and then, once sanctified, put into another set of bags. An incredible (and efficient) example of touch relics - portable holiness.  Never mind that the unction stone was placed there only after the 1810 fire. It had been somewhere in the church for a very long time.  It was on a site revered since 330 A.D. - 1681 years of continuous reverence for this place!  But it was hard to get my students away from some empirical proof of the divine, no matter how oxymoronic "divine proof" may be.

doorway capitals of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher contains many lasting surprises.  For me, to be in the presence of Crusader building project was key.  To see, to look so closely at these capitals carved in the late 1140s - capitals fairly writhing with Corinthian leafage, marking the entrance into the Holy Sepulcher.  What were they trying to amplify? The Holy Sepulcher was a quieter site in the 1140s - not quite the stiff competition for ownership of the site as reigns today between Syrian Orthodox, Copts, Greek Orthodox and more.  That battle had been won in 1099 when the Crusaders bloodily took over Jerusalem.  These are pretty standard Romanesque capitals, for being so wondrous - it's their place that makes them so.

Lintel of the Holy Sepulcher
That, and this: the lintel of the Holy Sepulcher.  The Rockerfeller Museum has it now - took it right off of the church!  The left lintel had scenes from the Passion of Christ, but it's the right one that makes me wonder about why they took it down: interlaced throughout thick, sinewy vine scrolls are naked men pointing to their genitalia - they struggle, they writhe, the vines tighten; there's a wild visual logic here. And it's relentless, stretching out across the entire width of the lintel.  Pictures are strictly forbidden at the Rockerfeller Museum (an oddly beleaguered place), and so I was grateful for the students' distraction of the guards as I took as many pictures as I could (these are never published - now I know why!).  The glare is making me nuts, but you can still the details really very well.  There are centaurs and sirens and other monsters in the vine scroll next to this one. Why this amplification? Why this muscular unfurling just enough to hold the monsters and the maligned? These creatures struggle and sway on the threshold of the holiest site in Christendom - what are they proclaiming?

Crusader facade of the Al-Aqsa Mosque
 While we're on the subject of liminal amplifications (and we could think more about all the things we do to thresholds to make them more noticeable, to make the passage from outside to inside more remarkable), we can look upon the façade that the Crusaders put upon the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif, after they took it over, and made it the Templars' living quarters (and the space below the stables for their horses).  There are tropes of colonialization (they adopt the broken arch of the Middle East, the decorations mimic the stucco work of Islamic art) and of globalization (it's a tripartite doorway, just like at home in the West).  And an amplification big enough to be preserved.

Dome of the Rock
Which is really pretty amazing when you consider what else is housed on the Haram al-Sharif.  The Dome of the Rock amplifies the human desire for the divine purely through geometry, multiplied and divided out until it is amplified in color, shape, form itself (the Dome of the Rock is an octagon).  There is no content here but beauty itself - it's the frames that are complicated.

Dome of the Rock

The arches whose capitals are from the Herodian construction of the Temple Mount, which the Muslims had taken over in the 680s for the construction of the Dome of the Rock to be completed in 691.  The unbelievable politics of this site during the Six Day War in 1967 (Jewish forces were on the Temple Mount, had it, possessed it, and gave it back to Muslim control). Many frames. But the Dome of the Rock amplifies itself - you see from almost anywhere in Jerusalem, it makes whatever shot you're taking, whatever view you're trying to remember, instantly iconic.

Dome with Suleiman's Fountain

The entire site is ringed with smaller sites of proximity and devotion - smaller voices who wanted to be close.  The Dome of the Rock is so magnificent that even Suleiman the Magnificent (son of the Ottoman ruler who conquered Jerusalem in 1517) represented himself only with a fountain.  The amplifications here don't encroach upon the object of devotion - it's too solid and unchangeable in its geometric form, in its relative centrality. Pity the Holy Sepulcher's messy architectural lay-out and urban setting - its amplifications accrete.

Church of the Dormition

There were smaller sites of amplification, too.  The Church of the Dormition (Mary went to sleep at the end of her life, she didn't die) has the requisite incense holders and candles and altars (and the requisite Greek Orthodox monk hurrying my students past their fleeting authentic moments, clearing the way for the next batch of pilgrims).  The Crusaders built a wonderful staircase here. But the addition I stood before for a long time was a mihrab on the northern wall - the niche in the wall that faces Mecca towards which Muslims pray.  It was dark and partially covered by a board and so there is no picture.  But you have to think of a place amplified by another religion as pretty special.

Stone of the Ascension

Amplification isn't about knowing, or truth, or authenticity. It's about flux, and extrapolation, and reaching.  The benefit is that you're unbounded - you go as far as imagination (yours or someone else's) takes you.  The church of the Ascension, also a mosque, has preserved the indentation of Christ's foot onto stone, his right foot specifically, as he alighted into heaven.  The one thing, in a strange way now that I think about, that amplification isn't about is intimacy.  Students expecting to feel a closely to Christ by gazing upon his footprint were shaken - it wasn't there. Amplification alights over the empirical.

Saint Anne's
This last amplification, I present sheepishly.  Not at first: at first, we revel in the 19th century French take-over of the decrepit Crusader church, which itself had been built atop an older church, which itself had been built atop healing springs of use in antiquity.  They cleaned up the site, made it into an archaeological wonderful of cisterns and foundations, and then completely restored the church itself.  It's right inside the city wall, in the Muslim quarter, at the very beginning of the Via Dolorosa.  And it is unspeakably beautiful.  I was there with Rebecca and Simon and Oliver only (this was the students' one day on their own), and we had been joined by the marvelous Shani, of the adventurous life in Tel Aviv, of the wondrous voice, of the glad heart.  We couldn't resist: the acoustics in there are so tremendous that we sang the one song that called for harmony that we both knew, "Dona Nobis Pacem." Rebecca recorded the last few seconds on her iPhone, and even on that little hand-held machine, the sound is amazing.   I have lots of caveats about what a complete dork I am (keeping time?!?!) and how totally goofy I look, but here goes. Please close your eyes when listening to it - way better!  Here, the amplification has been purified to just sound - there are almost no visuals, just this deep-reaching emptiness. More peaceful, yes, in all its French modernity.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Written Word (Hamila Haketuva)

Qumran cave 4 (of 11)
When? When was the first written word? What was that moment like? Was there a thunderous quickening of realization? A mundane interruption? Was there a new sense of the real? A revolutionary possibility of memory beyond oral tradition? Was the written word to be touched, kissed, admired, seen?  And wasn't Thus Spoke Zarathustra playing in the background? It couldn't have been one moment (could it?), but it takes my breath away to think of the change in the course of human events when writing became an act. Pictographic writing, non-pictographic writing, images as writing, writing as images - the debates of origins run thick and fast, and in our ever more rapid dematerialization of the written word (in which this very writing participates!), might we just stop, I wonder, and savor the materiality of the written word.  It's one of the stranger things we do, is write (the strangest thing we do is keep secrets, but that's another post), and every once in a while, the material reality of a text reveals the presence of a written word and its scribe or author, seeking to be remembered, and somehow, against many many odds, succeeding. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, survivor of fire, keeper of monsters, comes to mind. But in Israel, it was thinking through the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran that did this work, that made me remember that the written word is so powerful in its ability to convey human presence, that you can almost think it has a will of its own.

Qumran, Cave 4
Here's a slightly closer view of Cave 4 at Qumran, my favorite cave because it contained a fragment of the Book of Enoch, a swell apocryphal book of the Hebrew Bible that revels in monsters and that medieval Christian monster-thinkers (as early as Augustine) used quite a bit.  It's one of 972 scrolls and fragments found in the 11 caves of Qumran, starting in 1946.  Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible available for worship and scholarship was from around the year 1000 C.E. (A.D.).  The Dead Sea Scrolls are a full 1000 years older than that - they catapulted the manuscript timetable back one thousand years to between 150 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.  As the Romans swept through the land of Israel in their crushing fury, destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem (which had been there since 516 B.C.E.), the small really strange sect of Essenes Jews who lived at Qumran hid their texts in jars (Hebrew Bible texts, and texts since deemed apocryphal, and texts about their really strange community - so strict, only men, bent on purity and writing, writing all the time) and ran up into the hills which lumbered up from the shores of the Dead Sea to hide their jars in caves. The Romans crushed the settlement, but didn't bother with the caves. It was a sheep (or a goat) that found them again in 1946, by falling into one, and its herdsmen that found the jars.  Eventually, scholars found them, too, through the networks and vicissitudes of the antiquities market - and now they have been dematerialized, and rematerialized, and are in every otherwise very important indeed to (among other things) witnessing a love of text, of words and all that they carry, so profound as to pull off this crazy scheme of rescue. I don't know how many jars it takes to contain 972 scrolls and fragments, but I think of the multiple trips up into the hills, down into the caves, slipping on sandy rock, cradling jars themselves now protecting sacred, precious texts. Was there weeping? A sense of ecstatic relief when the transfer was over? Were they ready for the Romans to come?

The Synagogue at Capernaum
It was at Capernaum that the students had their first group conversation about the materiality of words. Sitting in one of the oldest synagogues extant (4/5th century C.E.) (and not even having seen Qumran yet), they were feeling the effects of the materiality of stones and places where this miracle occurred or that event happened (Christ preached at the synagogue in Capernaum, and performed an exorcism there as well).  Two students had well-worn Christian Bibles, and our guide had his well-worn Hebrew Bible, and in the calm of a beautiful day, they began to wonder at the survival of these texts.  Several confessed that they had never actually read the Bible, just knew the "basic ideas." Others wondered about truth (Truth) in the midst of all these copies and transmissions and historical accidents.  Indeed.  I'm sitting in on a dear friend's Hebrew Bible class (REL141 - it's going to make a big difference the next time I teach "Monsters and Marvels" as the references are almost all Hebrew Bible) and it's a daily struggle, the absolute reality of Biblical text (this is Truth, this is God), and its unfathomable fragility (what editor decided when to combine the J and the P source and create the hybrid Genesis we struggle with today?).  We've just entered Exodus, and so now Moses has to bring the Word of God down from the mountain - I hear it's going to be heavy.  But are words any lighter now? I think of Theodore Herzl publishing The Jewish State in 1896 and well, things happened very quickly after that. I think of Tunisia, and Egypt, and Bahrain, and Yemen, and Morocco, and Libya and revolution skimming along on digital texts that will settle into published histories.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Edges of Empire

Ruins of port at Acre (Akko
Are the edges of empire the weakest or most promising places to be?  Are they where is manifested the greatest distortion of the center, or its greatest ambition and innovation?  I like this taunt, stretching place, full of problems and scrambles for meaning.  Seemingly, I have been there (at the edge, not on the edge, I swear) for the past few weeks - far from the center of this writing which has come to mean so much to me.  The ice storm cameth, an article was almost completely rewritten, classes became good and complicated, my graduate school advisor was honored (a love letter to New York itself awaits), Big Things are afoot in about five different projects all at the same time, and here it is, I think almost two weeks without writing.  I've missed it. I've missed the center whence I could travel and return. And so tonight, deem it necessary. I want to pick up with Israel, whose presence at the edge of empire (Roman, Crusader, other?) makes it as hard as ever to be pithy and focused about.  And then also to write about the here and now, those moments of pith and focus that I can treasure out here.

Street of Sephorris (Tzippori)
So let's think about Israel as the edges of the Roman Empire. And a city like Sephorris (modern name Tzippori) and its bustling cardo (the center, or "heart" of any Roman city) and its covered colonnades, and its mixed Jewish and Roman population.  It seems to have been a pragmatic city, and we find both a Roman temple and a magnificent synagogue.  The legend goes that the Virgin Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, were from here; that Christ did most of his business here as a carpenter.  We're in the region of the Galilee - far from Rome, but framed by Roman tastes and aesthetics, two everlasting forms of Roman conquest: live as we do, it's just so nice.

The Mona Lisa of the Galilee (Sephorris)
And so you find the exquisite presence on the floor mosaic of a house, of a woman whose enigmatic grace and absolute belonging in a strange world has had her dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee."  Her demeanor is so utterly self-possessed as to unnerve the viewer - she is beautiful and certain, and we are left to wonder at her presence "out here" so that this edge of empire all of a sudden feels not at the edge at all, but very familiar indeed.  The insistent pull of the West on Israel has been felt for a long, long time.

Zodiac in the Synagogue at Sepphoris
 I wonder if by the time the spectacular zodiac of the synagogue of Sepphoris was made, its origins in Babylonian astrology were still remembered. Or if it was already by then so thoroughly Greco-Roman that it was another look West instead of East.  Animals abound, there are stories of the Hebrew Bible all around - the 2nd commandment against graven images was put aside for a bit here, and the Roman love of visibility prevailed.

Street in Sepphoris

How can Israel be at the center of civilizations (Roman and Babylonian, Crusader and Ottoman) and at the edges at the same time?  How can a land command so much attention from so far away? The Romans were here so often and so long that the wheels of their carts wore the grooves that you can see here in the cardo of the city. 

Crusader-Ottoman fortress above Sephorris
The Crusaders were so insistent on building a fortress up here whence to command their ever-retreating empire, that they used whatever materials they could find, including sarcophagi, which result in those beautiful stretches of decorated marble at the wall's corner.  Anthropologists have given us the phrase "the center out there" to signify (I would argue) a desire for possession so strong as to make the unfamiliar intimate.  As to make Israel recognizably Roman, as to make it make sense to European Crusaders.

OK - mundane departure: we saw The Eagle last night with dear friends, and I'll confess that I came for the over-the-top Roman historical action (enhanced greatly by two beautiful young male actors involved in their own complex dynamics of desire, unfamiliarity and intimacy), but I stayed for the British nostalgia for empire as expressed by the woman, Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote the book the film was based on in 1954.  To this day, as we found out dashing to a bookstore after the film, her books are listed under "Teen Fantasy" (decode that!) and were written, it seems to us, to remind good British boys of what It (Empire, or the rapidly fading memory of Empire) was all about: honor, certainly; freedom, for some; glory, tons.  The story of The Eagle also takes place at the edges of empire: in the wilds of Britain north of Hadrian's Wall.  Master becomes slave, slave becomes master, and the eagle standard of Rome is recaptured from Briton Barbarians to save Fathers' honors.  The stuff of imperial fantasy, not just teens.  I'll be speaking about the morality of pushes for empire (and other frameworks of Orientalism) at a Really Big Honor lecture in mid-April - I feel like I'm thinking all the time about these moral strategies for empire (without reading or writing nearly enough) - even when I'm out at the movies where I really should just be enjoying a bunch of guys huddled together in one of the best testudo scenes I've ever witnessed.

Iced Columns at DePauw
In one of the thinnest segues ever, I turn to a short reminiscence of this ice storm that threw us off so much and has left so many of us still digging out from under its spell.  Everything was completely iced over, including these lone strange columns, a distant displaced echo of Roman grandeur, totally absurdly configured as part of a so-called "Covenant" that students are supposed to abide by.  I really can't decode that moral program right now (good lord), but I do love their look, completely sheathed in ice. Everything, everything was like this: every single surface slick and unforgiving and tricky and beautiful.  You couldn't walk without falling, you couldn't touch anything without feeling that strange ice burn, and then, there was that incredible moment in the night of the second day of the ice storm: the trees had borne as much of the ice that the steadily falling freezing rain had become as they possibly could, and they all starting cracking.  We stood on the front stoop and listened as all over town, these horrendous long cracks tore through the night followed by the crystal sound of tremendous showers of tons and tons of ice.  I was thinking of Tolkein's Ents, because it is sad to lose a tree, to see it mauled and damaged, to know it will die - especially by the "hand" of this icy cold ice storm grip. It's only now, two weeks and a thaw later, that people are able to make their enormous piles of branches available to be taken away.

Calvin and Hobbes snowman
It was sad, but the kids were undeterred in their jollity at so many missed school days.  Oliver busied himself with a "Calvin and Hobbes" snowman, a comic strip that he thinks is absolute genius (which it is). Impish Calvin constantly makes snowman in unspeakably horrid poses, departing from the classic standing pose of most snowmen. Here, the snowman has been felled by several arrows, including one to the head. If you know Oliver, you know that he is without malice - but our front yard bespoke way more dastardly thoughts.

Cool straw from (where else?) MOMA
New York gives and gives - the rather big event we organized for my graduate school advisor, Linda Seidel, was just tremendous: the minute she spoke I was back in a graduate seminar, rethinking everything, feeling that conviction that only she could give us.  We're all a good ten years over, but as convinced as ever, that somehow this is All Really Good Work.  The bonus was that I was able to reconnect with a friend of mine from college - we hadn't seen each other in twenty years (she: Japan, me: grad school etc.) and there we were in her cozy West Village apartment one minute, and seeing a super smart show of Picasso's guitar constructions from 1912-1914 the next, and eating in the swank restaurant of the MOMA, imaginatively called The Modern after that (yes, scallops seared in pomegranate juice are delicious).  Iris scored the build-your-own-straw set from the MOMA gift shop and here (classic Iris) has designed a straw so that she may share her drink with another. Eleanor then inverted it so as to drink from two drinks in one straw.

Josselin Castle
Picasso and Eleanor together let me see how all roads lead to France, too.  I think about Jerusalem and feel myself there, but I'm also in France, in Josselin specifically - definitely my center out there.  We were deeply there a year ago at this time - two marvelous friends had given us warmth and kindness and belonging, we'd been to the wilds of Brittany north of the megaliths of Monteneuf, the kids were speaking French and we were home.  Eleanor tonight, my little hybrid of a speaker, in trying to express her stunned state at the fact that bean thread noodles are also called "glass noodles" (dinner) said "What the quoi?" - she made it sound so natural!!! The kids then spent the rest of the meal saying "What the quoi?" in various voices of surprise, outrage, and goofiness.  My favorite: Oliver proclaiming it in a "blabbering cretin voice."  What the quoi?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

7 Species of Deutoronomy (Shivat Hominim)

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land - a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.     -- Deuteronomy 8:7-8

Anyone know what this fruit is?  I'm thinking it's a fruit because it was near oranges. And its pink: the brightest, most inventive pink I've ever seen on something natural.  Its interior is a deep, beet-like red, and seems thick and pulpy - luscious cousin of the persimmon?  Beets have a gorgeous color, but their exteriors are so cruddy.  This one shines inside and out.  All the food in Israel is glorious.  All of it.  Didn't matter if we were eating in the food court of a mall in the Goland Heights (that's as bleak as the dining atmosphere got - no complaints), or in the lap of luxury at a Moroccan restaurant, or picnicking at Meggiddo (which you might know better as Armageddon, which makes it a funny place to picnic).  It was all glorious.

The secret is many bowls of nibbly things.  This was the spread in a little hole in the wall of the shuk in Acre (and of course now I want to read more closely for what the Crusaders, or Jean Thenaud (my current 16th century pilgrim of interest) thought of the food).  De rigeur: olives, tomatoes, pickled things (pickles, peppers). Pretty much required is the hummus.  There were several days when I was able to have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and Oliver still refers to my "daily intake of hummus."  A dear friend has offered up a recipe and this could make all the difference.  I went shopping this afternoon for foodstuff with which to feed our 25 fellow-travellers students who are coming to dinner tomorrow and tried to be upbeat about my ersatz Israeli options.  Good thing the snow/icestorm of the century is making us feel grateful for everything.  OK - so the hummus won't be homemade, but I can do the multiple bowls of nibbly things.  And one can always warm the pita bread.  What I love about the habit, the arrangement, is that it invites conversation. You settle into a meal as a space - you pass plates, you spill things, you compare and comment.  The whole table is an ever-changing image of color and sounds - and then you taste things.

One of the grand things about traveling with Oliver is his love of food.  Here you see him reacting to the exquisite stuffed sardine that he ordered at Darna, the phenomenal Moroccan restaurant in Jerusalem (the lap of luxury one) that Rebecca and I decided would be our Grand Treat on this trip.  You can see a much more artistic shot of Oliver's sardines on the swank website of the restaurant.  If you're back from the website: See how here, too, last night's post pervades: Yitzhak Rabin was to eat there on the restaurant's inaugural night.  He was assassinated the day before.  This is a phenomenon I was unable to articulate last night: this tremendous pain beneath beauty; a kind of invisibility that is shocking every time it is revealed. So night after night Darna welcomes guests who haven't read their website (like ourselves at the time) oblivious to its almost-history, to its ultimate mission.  Maybe phenomenon is too strong a word: maybe people just have to eat, to keep on being human.

Which is easy to do when the beautiful platter of savories comes.  We ordered a fine bottle of Yarden wine (which I think I can get in the kosher section at the Marsh in Avon, so hoorah there), which is from the Golan Heights region and feasted slowly and delightfully.  There were spices and peppers and every last one of Oliver's sardines disappeared.  I restrained myself from photographing every course (which has been known to happen), but can still remember the lamb shank tagine that Rebecca and I shared and the exquisite crêpes with a kind of heavenly soy milk/evaporated milk (which is or isn't really milk? I never know) combined with honey for dessert.  We were there for three hours and reconstructed the entire mission of the liberal arts, I do believe.

That Deuteronomy quote kept playing through my head as I became aware of the pomegranate motifs on so many things.  Plus, the pomegranate juice sellers in all the markets (would it be so hard to do that on campus?).  Making this land give of its fruits and spices, its vegetables and grains - how triumphant that feels here.  There is a sense of plenty to markets in any case: the displays, the colors, the surprises.  But there's nothing like Mahane Yehuda - the enormous outdoor market that we made sure to visit the first time before Friday afternoon.  Interestingly, that's where the trip went after Yad Vashem - a boisterous affirmation of life; or, as Rebecca put it "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!"  And so before Shabbat begins, there is an ecstatic flurry of people choosing last cuts and morsels, kilos and special orders.  And eggplants the likes of which I've never seen.

Fleur de lys chocolates!  Will that Crusader presence never fade?

And dates and figs and more dates and every kind of nougat and the things it turns out you can do with sesame paste! 

And our new best friend who sold us spice mixes that I now dole out preciously to make our rice prompt stories of markets and eating and plenty.  Deuteronomy is in the Torah (in the Protestant/Catholic Pentateuch) which became codified around the 1st century B.C.E. and I wonder about the promise of that quote from Chapter 8 then - and possibly hundreds of years before then.  Is it the vision that anybody would have after wandering in the desert for 40 years?  Filled with desire and gratitude for this "good land" - for its water which will bring forth its 7 species.  Chapter 8 itself is filled with belonging and memory. It begins with an entreaty to follow the commandments so that "you may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors."  It asks "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."  What would it mean to have eaten and be satisfied in 300 B.C.E.? in 700 B.C.E.? When I see this market, I want to say that it would not have been so different from today.  I can see how this idea of land and God and food could be transported to America in the 17th century.  I see it today in the Amish farmers that we buy our produce from in the summer - there are quotes from the Bible about work and land nailed to all the beams of the house.

Food history is really taking off as a discipline - with many warm and loving jokes about its practitioners.  It's an interesting field to think about in terms of its negotiations of universality and specificity.  We all eat, we all like to gather - here, in a Bedouin tent around a dish comprised of an enormous flatbread cupping a mound of rice surrounded by lamb, chicken, and tomatoes itself surrounded by the satellite dishes of nibbly savories (look at Oliver contemplating the feast that awaits!).  Growing, sharing, eating food is a great universal human trait.  And yet nothing distinguishes us more than what we eat.  Nothing floods us with gladness and belonging like a favorite dish.  Just ask Proust.

Bulgarian Cheese
What connects all of this is, of course, kashrut, and the fine art of keeping kosher.  Memory, ritual, specificity, it's all there.  I learned to love food logic after being scolded in Germany for wanting warm potatoes with herring (the logic is that the potatoes should be cold, I was sternly told).  Kids have no such logic, as Eleanor's curiosity about what "beef with fish sauce" might taste like reveals (ugh!).  Food logic, what makes sense to eat, specifically what combinations make sense to eat, is fascinating because, well, there's actually very little logic involved, and yet the conviction that foods should be eaten just so is absolute. I say bread and cheese and water, you think: aw, how sad. I say bread and cheese and a really good red wine, you think: aah, what time?  Within just a few days in Israel, it no longer made sense to eat dairy with meat - and in fact, I have yet to cook that combination here since being back (which is totally ridiculous considering the Swiss ancestry and the growing up next to Calvin's Auditory in Geneva). Kashrut is an art: it is a consciousness, probably excruciating at times, but it seems to reconnect (a great French word here: "renouer" - re-knot) the eater to that God-land-7 species-gratitude dynamic.  It's not just Genesis and being caretakers of the land, it's Deuteronomy and being caretakers of the food of the land.  It slows you down, it makes you think (sometimes in meticulous detail), perhaps it makes you savor.  Actually, following that link is really worth it (and did you see the author offers a kashrut tour of Mahane Yehuda? sign me up!): it makes you realize the intricacies and the concerns, the fragility and care of the covenant with God being practised in this way.  Why did the early Christians give up on this?  At what point and with what motivation?  Why break this manifestation of a relationship with the divine?  Eucharistic bread and wine seem but a pale echo - but a resonant one.

I have an image of tubs of Bulgarian cheese as my last image for a reason.  It's everywhere in Israel: on menus, at every buffet, on tables.  It's an immediate reminder of Sephardic history and presence, of the earlier modern Israel.  What I didn't know, and yes now savor is the word, is even a little bit of the story of Dimitar Peshev, Bishop Kiril, the Bulgarian Communist Party, and countless other Bulgarians and how they stopped the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews - all of them.  Tragically not the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia - they were sacrificed for Boris III's Axis politics. That I learned from The Lemon Tree by Tolan, but now I want to read Beyond Hitler's Grasp by Michael Bar-Zohar.  Does every ethnic group that emigrated here leave its mark on Israeli cuisine? Probably, if you know how to look and taste.  But there was something I learned about the emigration of Bulgarian Jews, for whom life was only much harder after WWII and so Israel that much more desirable, that makes the innocuous but omnipresent reality of something as simple as cheese stunning: by 1949, there were 52,000 Bulgarian Jews in Israel. And 5,000 in Bulgaria.  That is why there is Bulgarian cheese everywhere.  Because so many came into a good land and lacked for nothing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Walls - Eretz Israel/Arde Falastin (Land of Israel/Land of Palestine)

Ok, let's talk about the difficult stuff.  Somehow, as I thought about writing, I envisioned this post coming towards the end, after a lush and leisurely remembrance of the beauty and wonder of Israel.  But that is not to be. Reading those student journals that questioned the very existence of Israel, and thinking through my appalled response make me realize that I need to at least try to set down some frameworks within which to think through (specifically and in these terms) the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.  Even as I resolutely write the phrase, I falter because (to put it as nakedly as possible) I don't want the bad to outweigh the good.  I don't want all the lushness and beauty and wonder of Israel to be hollowed out by the human rights abuses of Israel.  And immediately, I know that the challenge is one of discernment, of careful but honest separations, of subtle distinction.  It's not black and white. There is no root of the problem. (No matter how badly I want to blame the British.)  There is an immediate wrong (the oppression of Palestinians) and an immediate right (lessening violence). Everything that follows from that, everything that is not immediate, needs to be kept complicated to be understood. Someone who does this thoroughly and brilliantly is Sandy Tolan in The Lemon Tree (Bloomsbury, 2006). The Israeli protest of Israeli action needs to be hard to categorize should one start to criticize Israel as a whole for human rights abuses. Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives must be acknowledged before the battle lines are drawn yet again.  There are incredible thinkers like David Shulman and Sari Nusseibeh who write amazing book reviews about amazing books and devastating books.  At the same time, subtlety and complexity, despite being sustained by many organizations, seem to be ill-equipped to take on the 709+km concrete stretch of wall that has become the simultaneous allegory and reality of the Palestinians' oppression. Another naqba. Another asbolute. 

Wow.  That's a lot of links.  What is it I want to do here? Keep learning, clearly.  As my research starts to take final shape within the rubric of "Orientalism and Moral Education in Late Medieval French Visual Culture," there's a pressing necessity to keep thinking through modern articulations of the moral quandries of the Middle East. The necessity would be there without the research - we should all know these things - the research needs to be accountable to the present, too. But I also want to show you, briefly now as the hour gets later and later and I'm thinking more than writing, three walls that delimit boundaries made permeable by history.  The first is the image above taken from the bus as we were leaving Bethlehem (the PDF map of the Separation Barrier - available for download in the right-hand column- can situate you). We had all brought our passports to come to Bethlehem for the afternoon and were ready to show them as we approached the checkpoint to leave.  The bus was unusually quiet, for me from the choking sadness of the city: closed in, economically doomed, hunted.  I'll be writing about the Church of the Nativity and its insane Crusader columns another day, but that site, too, was sad, tired - that's a strange term, but it was there: this fatigue, this exhaustion. The wall is quickly visible as you leave the city, and stretches bleakly, seemingly in both directions, in its relentless concrete gray. And then as the bus slowed down in the traffic accumulating near the checkpoint, the graffiti appeared and the students stirred and got up and walked over to see, and started talking and you could feel this tremulous ripple of excitement and curiosity go through us.  I took my first picture ever of seasonal graffiti - we were there in the afterglow of Armenian Christmas which had just begun on the 6th of January.  Its palimpsest quality, and wondering if there would be an Easter message coming in a few weeks, made the wall's surface (not existence, no) more negotiable.  The Berlin Wall resonated within students' comments "And that one came down, remember?" said one student.  There is protest graffiti on both sides of the wall.  This one marked its protest in cyclical time and made me see the wall as impossible for too many Christmases.

Suleiman the Magnificent gave Jerusalem new walls in the 1530s.  He lined them with ramparts that you can walk from the Jaffa Gate to St. Stephen's gate (from roughly 7 p.m. to 3 p.m. if Jerusalem were a clockface).  There are Arabic inscriptions atop many of the gates, the Jaffa Gate being absolutely grand, the Damascus gate (where we lingered on rooftops as we took our ramparts walk), too.  Were these walls defensive? Yes.  Jaffa Gate turns at a right angle, making it impossible to storm directly even if you did break in; and there are towers all around.  But the walls also create a kind of frame, an image, of Jerusalem - as a place that can be bounded, that could be defined. If you will it so.

As spectacular as the ramparts are, it's the Western Wall (of Herod's Temple Mount) that actually makes Suleiman's Jerusalem Walls campaign memorable to me.  Because it was Suleiman, the Muslim Ottoman ruler, who cleared a small area at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and reserved it for Jewish worship. It was much smaller than today, pressed in by buildings all around to create really just a narrow passageway before the wall, and it had restrictions to its use.  But it was there.  And now that small cleared area has grown into the Western Wall Plaza, and to the right you can walk down to the end of the Western Wall, and to the left, Israeli archaeology (and all the controversies therein) has uncovered the full reach of Herod's wall.  This wall was devastated by history, and permeated by a moment of Islamic good will to Jewish worship.  It is a witness if there ever was one.  When we walked by on our way into the Western Wall tunnel, it framed the initiation ceremony of a latest group of IDF soldiers.

Ultra-Orthodox, and some Orthodox, Jews don't serve in the military in Israel, and I fervently wanted to know this man's mind as he looked on at the ceremony below.  We could speak until the early morning and beyond about what exactly it is that the Israeli Defense Forces are defending.

But instead, I'll end with a Crusader wall from Caesarea.  They loved Herod's demolished port in the 12th century: there were columns, sarcophagi and statuary strewn all about.  And so, scrappy pragmatists that the Crusaders sometimes were, they reinforced their defense walls with the ruined columns of the Roman Empire.  Beautiful, marbled columns silently, invisibly embedded into much poorer stone construction until time and the sea took their toll and revealed the reason for the wall's staying power: it was an illusion, propped up from the past.

A trick of history that just has to keep playing itself out on today's walls.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Founders and Firsts (Chalutzim and Sabras)

We believe that salvation is to be found in wholesome work in a beloved land.  -- Theodor Herzl

Where to start? In 1948 when Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel in Independence Hall? In 1909 when the first 66 families had a lottery for plots of land which would become the enormous thriving city of Tel Aviv? In 1896 when Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State? To the First Aliyah of the 1880s? Or do we go back to 1200 B.C.E. and the lands allotted to the descendants of Jacob who made up the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Where do we begin to talk of loving and owning the land of Israel?  We, jetlagged Americans from Indiana, started at Independence Hall at 8 p.m. the evening of our arrival.  I can look back now and see a narrative arc that ended with a visit to Yad Vashem on our penultimate day there, one that interweaves love for the natural beauty of the land of Israel, and determination for the political necessity of a nation-state for Jews. Herzl saw this after the rancid Anti-Semitism voiced in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust sickeningly, permanently proved him right.  Reading the students' journals these past few days and realizing to my as-yet helpless dismay that no, they don't really understand the proportions of the Holocaust, and no, the necessity of a Jewish state still "doesn't make sense" to many of them, I wonder about how one prepares to understand the necessity for everyone to have a nation-state in the modern world. And yes, that includes Palestinians. And yes, there are human rights abuses against Palestinians in modern Israel. But no, dear students, that does not throw any doubt on the necessity of Israel as a nation. You want to question a political decision, question the British Mandate already. We'll see if I can keep this post pre-1948 - that's the goal, as those years, let's say 1896-1948, saw incredible bravery and vision that I want to celebrate.

Independence Hall itself is an pioneering architecture.  Before it became a museum commemorating the declaration of the State of Israel in 1978, it was an art museum (an art museum! that explains the paintings you see all around the podium).  Before that, it was the home of Meir and Zina Dizengoff.  And before that, it was lot #43 in the 1909 lottery.  Throughout Tel Aviv there are thousands (over 3,000, the most anywhere in the world) of Bauhaus buildings, built in the 1930s mostly by émigrés from Europe, bringing with them this avnat-garde architectural style - and visions of a new world - and plans for living.

"It's a nice socialist way of living."  This is what our guide said after our 7:30 a.m. tour of Kibbutz Lavi.  This is the view from our room in the fancy hotel that is one of the kibbutz's two industries; the other is a furniture factory that's become incredibly successful - a few years ago they started making pews for American churches so if you go to church, you may be sitting on Kibbutz Lavi pews!  The first kibbutzniks came from Russia in the shock-waves of late 19th-century pogroms (yes, a medieval "tradition" that carried into the modern age), and came to the land of Palestine to farm it.  I am naïvely and continually amazed by kibbutzim - that they exist, function, thrive (well, there are fewer and fewer of them now, but Lavi has figured something out). The communal living, the property in common, the children living communally too (ok, that pretty much stopped in the 1970s).  A key nuance for me is that the early kibbutzniks, in being Communists, shared Marx's disdain for specific nation-states.  As necessary as the State of Israel it, it wasn't always obvious.

So here is one of the houses at Kibbutz Lavi - echoes of Bauhaus maybe.  It's an easy winding walk through all of the parts of the kibbutz - the school, the wedding park, the rose garden, the factory, the dairy (oh man, the cheeses at breakfast!), the library. There is a sense of respite from struggle in the toil of work.  Memories, wounded and haunting, have their place, too.  Many of the early members of this kibbutz were part of the Kindertransport, the 10,000 children rescued from the Holocaust by asylum in England.  Many of them never stopped missing their parents who died in concentration camps - no matter how beautiful and simple kibbutz life could be.

I can't remember the date of this mosaic showing emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel, but I think that it's from the 1970s. The iconography is much much older, though. Save for everything east of the Jordan River now belonging to Jordan, you can make out the vague outline of modern-day Israel from this long-ago division of land.  The myths, the legends, the conspiracies of missing tribes and wanderings fill dozens of wacky web pages - no need to go there (there are medieval traditions here, too).

Instead, let's go to Jerusalem and sit with Oliver in the recreation of the First Zionist Congress in Basel (Switzerland!) in the Herzl Museum.  It's four interactive rooms (The Dreyfus Affair, the First Zionist Congress, Herzl's study, and film intersecting quotes from Altneuland with images of modern-day Israel).  This is where we heard Herzl's vision for the Chalutzim (the pioneers who first worked the land of Israel, men and women like the kibbutzniks).  This is where Oliver and I spoke of the Sabra - the native-born Israeli: the dream, the reality of Jews being born in Israel in the modern world: valiant, adventurous, bold and amazing, and named allegorically for the prickly pear cactus: tough on the outside, sweet on the inside.  You can find the ethos now through the post-colonial, post-modern wonder of globalized hummus production.  We have it at the Kroger in Greencastle - hoorah!

There is so much more to write, but the Great Ice Storm of 2011 is about to unleash and we're sure to lose power, so I have to prepare some things. I'll be doing it to Israeli folk music - still seeking ways and means of understanding and listening to those 1930s pioneer songs.  Music-much to consider there-interwoven as it is in memory and festival. Oliver and I stayed to listen to this klezmer band playing on Ben Yehuda street during Tu Bishvat on our way back from the Herzl Museum. To think of melodies heard many thens ago and now.