The weekend before last was the retreat Shabbaton for Self, Soul, and Text class at Kibbutz Hanaton, our teacher James’ home, in the Galil. The schedules Friday and Saturday were nearly identical, each day going like: 9-9:45: Sit. 9:45-10:30: Walk. 10:30-11:15: Sit. 11:15-12:30: Lunch. 12:30-1:15-Sit. It was brutal, and that’s no joke, since “Sit” didn’t mean “Lay on a couch, go on your computer, and schmooze,” it meant, “Sit upright in the big white tent like the kind we use in Pittsburgh as the Game Day Live Tent at Heinz Field for 45 minutes, focus on your breathing, or, if your nose is too stuffy to make that even remotely relaxing, then on the feeling of your butt in the cushion and try to meditate without thinking of scenes from The Simpsons.” and “Walk” didn’t mean “Go for a stroll on the beautiful grounds of the Kibbutz,” it meant “Slowly pace back-and-forth over the same 10 feet of ground, trying to focus on your steps and breathing without humming the Red Hot Chili Peppers song in your head. The hardest part of this was that we couldn’t hike: Hanaton is a gorgeous place, with birds singing everywhere, that kibbutz smell (read: cow dung) in the air, rolling green hills and farmland, a huge clear sky showing Omnimax sunrises and sunsets twice-daily, and a Druze village in the distance, and the nearest source of water was the reservoir in the distance sealed-off with barbed-wire; all we could do, however, is see everything from a distance. Meals offered no escape either, since this was a “silent” retreat, and by “silent,” they mean “lonely:” there was no talking, touching, looking, or even smiling at your friends from Thursday night until Saturday night. As I said, it was absolutely unforgiving. When we weren’t Sitting or Walking or praying, we were usually either listening to an excellent class by James, meeting with him privately, or singing niggunim with him. Friday afternoon, we all went to the mikveh.
5. The entryway symbolizes the transition from the mundane to the sacred
Entrances are a big part of life in Israel as much as liminal states that a person moves through from one part of his life to another. The liminality begins when you duck your head to board the El Al plane unless you happen to be flying on Shabbat; Haredim surround you as you fly through the sky. And holy sites like the Kotel always have a checkpoint to pass through, checking for weapons and more existentially to remind you that you are moving from one part of life to another.
My apartment, for that matter, is a basement apartment (as I mentioned before.) As I emerge from it, through the doorway (with my head at the level of the feet of people walking by), I feel the passage from subterranean sleep and repose to the world of sun and action. When I leave Jerusalem, and pass the cemetery on the outskirts, again I have the impression of passing through a boundary. And where is there a more famous border in the world than the Green Line, fiercely and persistently contested. (Yet are there not more arbitrary boundaries separating Arabs from one another since 1917?)
A world of arrivals and departures, many of them only imagined.
4. The entrance to the Shrine’s underground level, similar to entrances to ancient sanctuaries.
It’s not only the confluence (conflation, overlap and confusion) of ritual and secular life that makes life in Jerusalem out of the ordinary. Another aspect of life in Israel in general (b’gadol as Israelis say) are the layers of history piled one on the top of the next.
I worked on an urban economics project right out of college that looked at the role of Jerusalem in the peace negotiations. One reading of the city’s history was – and remains – that every street has a precious – and political – significance. This reaches an absurd degree in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is like a drop of history that has become putrid over time through sectarian squabbles about which part of Jesus’ life happened where, and to whom that spot belongs. Supposedly, there are specific tiles on which one sect (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), and only that sect, is allowed to walk.
3. The stairs connecting the upper plaza to the shrine’s entrance resemble those in a mikveh excavated at Qumran.
Ritual life in Jerusalem is like nothing I have experienced elsewhere. The mikveh on the front of this card is only one part of life here that is enveloped in symbolic acts. The food in Jerusalem almost entirely is kosher; although my cousins (mother Ruthie’s side) eat pork. They live in Haifa, a town much more prose than poetry.
On Shabbat, Jerusalem quiets down, the buses return to the central parking yard for a 25 hour reprieve and the great big glass windows of the shopping stores – the unblinking eyes of Mammon – close shut.
2. The fountain on the Shrine’s dome – a symbol of purity and life.
Without question, the living standard is lower here. “Ahhh,” you say, “who sets the standards and what, or whom – do those standards serve?” A very good question! I could say the standard by which Israel would be ranked lower serves the interest of CPG (consumer packaged goods) manufacturers.
My apartment is a converted cistern from 100 years ago, The “top” floor is ground level; no, it’s below ground level. And my bedroom is 14 feet underground. The walls are plastered white. The living room kitchen and study are all one room; the bathroom is so small that I could shower, brush my teeth in the sink and take care of my body functions simultaneously. Not that I care to try. I mention this because the water sprayed on the shrine is a rare example of largesse. Indeed, water is a good analogy for the scarcity of material resources here.
1: General view of the Shrine of the Book – the white dome representing the Sons of Light, the black wall representing the Sons of Dark.
One of the interesting aspects of Israel has been, and continues to be, the ineducable element of tragedy and conflict here, meaning the Shoah and the tension of ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. The Shoah is our dark past, the Palestinians are the darkness of the present. I’m not equating the two except in the sense of tragedy. What distinguishes Israel from the US is that the US has mostly buried its tragedy (slavery) or ships its tragedies (exploitative labor practices, environmental desecration) overseas to third world countries from whom it imports mass consumer products or to whom it exports its garbage. Israel stares its tragedy in the face, or at the very least, stares at the wall which obscures it. And here, even at the Shrine of the Book, the forces of Light and Dark both appear.
You can read the first post of this series here.
The week I arrived here, I knew I would have to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Book (Heykhal HaSefer). To me, it is more moving than is the Kotel, and more inspiring. After all, what other nation has a shrine to a book in the heart of its capitol? Of course, libraries do exist – and they are becoming like shrines unless they have been digitalized… But the Heykahl is so different – a tribute to a technology long superseded but still powerful. What does it say about Israel that the artifact of the book is consecrated as well as the content?
I also knew that when I did go, I would have to write to the man who was my childhood guardian, Robert Darnton; he studied the history of publishing and printing in France during the Enlightenment. To whom else would it be more appropriate to send a series of postcards about a shrine to books? This is the first of six entries written on the back of postcards from the Heykhal HaSefer.