Thursday, October 16, 2014

Don't Miss Yuval Ben-Ami's New Series at +972

Yuval Ben-Ami is an Israeli writer who contributes to the Israeli version of National Geographic, various newspapers, and the +972 group blog. He is starting a series meditating on Israeli tourist sites. 

Here is the introductory post.

Here is an excerpt from part one on the Kotel:
The religion of longing 
...  I love Judaism for the same reason I love the blues. Picture the cliché of an old timer blues musician, taken to an extreme. He’s poor, he’s blind and he’s the victim of a severly racist system. His girl left him and his drinking habit won’t. What does he do with all that? He makes art, beautiful art. Here is what Judaism has been for over two millennia: a creative response to a being extremely unlucky. 
There once was a religion that centered on a temple, where sacrifices were performed by priests. The last and finest of those temples was destroyed in 70 AD and left the people irrecoverably scarred. Rather than die out, the Jewish nation reinvented its practices, moving them into the synagogue and the home. The new Jewish religion focused on the very sense of grief and longing, as well as the hope for a mystical undoing of the disaster. It expressed this by poetry and prayer, and a broken glass at each wedding. 
The sole and humble ruin left of the temple became an important symbol. ... It is the very modesty of the wall that made it what it is. A good blues tune has four verses and is accompanied by a single guitar. 
Enter the red berets 
It’s still there, and is mind blowing. The enormous stones tower over the pavement. Doves flock among bushes that have taken root among the cracks. Still, something is missing, something crucial: that modesty. 
... Since June 1967 and Israel’s conquest of the city, the Wall has become an Israeli national symbol, and by extension, a military symbol. ... A symbol of tender emotions was turned into a symbol of might. To many Jews, this is the fulfillment of an aspiration. Zionism saved the Jewish people, some would argue — but there is a cost. 
The postcard project 
For 2,000 years the Jewish people longed for the temple. Today I find myself longing for the longing. No ceremony is held before me in the plaza, yet nearly everyone present is in uniform. Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem appears to be taking an inter-holiday break; the tourists are elsewhere and no bar mitzvah drums are beating at the moment. I have arrived at the parade grounds of a military base.  
... The soldiers themselves are all members of the artillery corps, here on an educational excursion. A few are training to become guides themselves and take other soldiers on tours. This is only the second site they visit, the first being Independence Park in the heart of West Jerusalem. ... A few feet away, a tourist is shooting a group photo of about 20 soldiers, all of whom are holding up postcards. The soldiers tell me that the tourist is named Sara or Sarah, and that she presented the cards as a gift. I follow her to the next group of soldiers. She explains to them that she is a long time European traveler who is deeply fond of Israel, and particularly of the IDF. 
“I asked people around the world to send me postcards addressed to you, to Israeli soldiers,” she explains. “People around the world don’t know what you are going through. They know nothing about the kind of love and mutual support that you share. You are beautiful in the heart, so don’t believe the blah blah blah the politicians say. Stand strong and be proud,” she says as she hands the postcards around. 
I wait to speak to Sara and learn more about her and the project but there’s no shade and it’s getting too hot to bear. She is too engaged with the soldiers to be disturbed. I sense that she is close to tears. She is having a religious experience, and as I wait, I realize that I have just witnessed the Wall go full circle: from a place where god is worshipped to a place where the military is worshipped. 
Of course, Sara is not the first to arrive here with letters. The most well-known tradition attached to the wall is that of sticking notes with prayers and wishes among the stones. Many people send notes with friends or family who are traveling here, to be folded and placed in the cracks on their behalf. There’s a certain beauty in seeing letters delivered here into human hands instead of into stone cracks, and I can’t help but ask myself: has the wall, that powerful symbol of the Jewish nation’s unrequited love for god, indeed become unnecessary? Should we stop longing? Have we arrived? 
Is our destiny truly war?
Roland Nikles photo, April 2014


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