White Smoke

Last Thursday Israel's most popular Hebrew newspaper appeared with a simple headline of two words "White Smoke!" Jerusalem took forty days (and nights) and finally managed to form a workable  coalition government. In Rome the cardinals took just two days to choose their new Bishop! The whimsical headline indicated that both very different establishments concluded their business of governance at the same time.


The flags of Israel and America are now fluttering up and down "our" street. Not only that and far.  more important. The City Council has actually repainted the white lines on the pedestrian crossing in front of the Hebrew Union College. And truck loads of workers have repaired the pavement in front of the busy Mamillah Mall. The presidential shoes will obviously not touch the pavement or our own pedestrian crossing or visit the Mall but nothing is being left to chance. As we walked out the front gate to go shopping this morning we encountered dozens of impressive looking men and women in dark suits wearing special red lapel buttons and hearing aids on their way to the King David Hotel. History is clearly in the making. Strangely, the excruciating hours of bargaining over the creation of a new Israel government had hurriedly concluded in time to greet the arrival of hundreds of officials and the CIA.

A new Israel political world has obviously been born.    

Apart from a brief period under Arik Sharon, the Haredim, the Ultra Orthodox, have been part of every Israeli Government in living memory. The price they extracted for their votes has been painful as their numbers inexorably increased. Suddenly the electorate rebelled. Sadly, it appeared Bibi was still prepared to pay the price for their parliamentary support but his rivals, who are now his partners, were not. The dashing Yair Lapid simply refused to sit at the same table as the racist members of the Shas faction. Together with the kipah wearing Naphtali Bennet, he demanded that yeshivah students be obliged to fulfil their obligation to serve their nation. More significantly both men have demanded that the ultra orthodox schools teach English and Mathematics so that their young people will be able to enter the modern world.

What will be the status of Progressive Jews and non-Orthodox rabbis now that the Ultra  Orthodox members of the Knesset sit on the Opposition benches? Will Reform and Conservative  Judaism be recognised as legitimate Jewish expressions of religious identity?  Frankly, I don't know but, at least, the Lapid children celebrated their bar mitzvah ceremonies at our Tel Aviv synagogue. It is eighteen months since the High Court ruled that Rabbi Miri Gold of the kibbutz of Gezer be paid by the State. A few weeks ago I asked her whether that ruling had been implemented. Guess what? Not yet!

The very sad story of Ben Zygier and the Mossad has not disappeared from the pages of the newspapers. The Israeli public are obviously very concerned about his tragic death and about the  serious legal implications of being able to imprison a citizen known simply as "Mr X" for so long.

As, I am sure you have read, the Women of the Wall have been active. They thwarted the police at Purim by dressing up as men and caused considerable confusion. Last week three female members of the Knesset joined in the morning prayers wearing the "forbidden" prayer shawls.  The police were again unable to interfere. My impression is that the general public has been moved by the persistence and courage of these stalwart women.  

We have been happily busy.We spent another day sifting buckets of debris thrown off the Temple Mount by the Moslem authorities in order to create a vast underground mosque. We saw the new sensitive Israeli film "Filling the Void" that is set within an orthodox Tel Aviv family. We have been to many excellent concerts but the most outstanding was undoubtedly hearing the renowned Israeli born violinist Pinchas Zuckerman and the Israel Symphony Orchestra play Mozart and Schubert. We were lucky enough to attend a folk concert that combined Israeli musicians and Ethiopian soloists. The audience literally danced in the aisles. Every Sunday night I attend a preview of the following Shabbat's Torah portion. Two weeks ago the lecture was given by a genial and amusing elderly man who turned out to be Israel's most recent Nobel Prize winner for Economics.

We have been to the Israel Museum twice to see the stunning exhibition based on the discovery of the grave of King Herod in the Judean Desert. In this country science and tradition frequently meet.

Two weeks ago Israel successfully launched an advanced anti-ballistic space vehicle to join the dozen or so which already circle the earth or are poised over the Middle East. Because of this space technology rumour has it that we will soon be able to watch the news in Australia from Israel via our own satellite dish.    

To return to earth. We have visited Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee and spent some days in Tel Aviv. "Old" Tel Aviv is undergoing a gentrification process while the Bauhaus architecture of the early German refugees has come into its own. Dazzling new skyscrapers dot the skyline in a tribute to this country's dynamic growth.  

Despite politics and a booming economy  Jerusalem's life revolves around a familiar calendar. Hanukkah of course meant a long winter break from school. Purim in Jerusalem was celebrated for four days. Tu B'shvat coincided beautifully with the first almond tree blossoms. It is now the season of wild flowers and bursts of summer heat that leads to Pesach. But then, we knew it was coming anyway because kosher l'Pesach cornflakes suddenly appeared on the supermarket shelves!.

The new moon of Nissan was also duly greeted at the morning services at the Hebrew Union College. Festival services at the College will not be held because most of the student rabbis and cantors are about to leave Israel to conduct sedarim in the cities of the former Soviet Union. Israel is only three hours flying time from Moscow and those of us in Jerusalem (and elsewhere)  wish them luck.

A final thought. Two weeks ago the five star hotels in this part of Jerusalem were all rendered kosher l'Pesach in a massive operation. The temporary arrival of the Americans has thrown their status into confusion. What will happen to the King David Hotel if President Obama asks for toast with his coffee in the morning? I hate to think about it!

Hag Sameach

Rabbi John Levi.





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