Yovav Kalifon

Bits of my life and thinking

A taste of live music on the streets of Jerusalem.

Experience the styles, views, scenes and seasons.

I took these videos over the last 18 months at random.

I might make more such compilations so please provide feedback.

Finding “compromise” in Arabic

It started when a friend of mine quoted JFK on her Facebook page:

"Compromise does not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents." An apposite JFK quote Israelis & Palestinians should reflect upon… She wrote.

I commented that as far as I knew, there isn’t a word for “compromise” in the Arabic language, hinting that both she and JFK did not take into account how different cultures perceive the concept of compromise, and that this added complication needs to be recognized.

As you might imagine, that Facebook post developed into quite an interesting thread where dictionaries were thrown around (electronically) along with the occasional insult.

Here’s a quick summary of the words that were suggested to me, which offer a window into the culture:

وَسَاطَة

Wasata

- Mediation, as in the process of mediation, but mere mediation between rivals does not imply advocating any “compromise”.

صُلْح

Sulh (Sul7)

- Reconciliation, repair, as in fixing damaged relations, but two sides forgiving each other does not imply they made any “compromise”.

حَسْم

Hasm (7asm)

- To settle a dispute, in the sense that it is brought to conclusion, it’s a sealed deal, a closed issue, but does not imply “compromise”.

رخص في

Rakhs fi

- Give a discount…

تنازل 

Tanazil

- Capitulation, condescend, stoop…

تعويض

Ta’awid (Ta3wid)

- Compensation, amendment, apologizing…

To me, none of these words capture the essence of making a compromise, which is when both sides of a dispute lower their demands in such a way that they are sufficiently satisfied with what each of them get in return for what each of them agree to give.

You might find it offensive, but I wonder why an exact translation for the concept of “compromise” is so hard to find and what implications it has on the idea of conflict resolution in the Middle-East (not only in relation to Israel, but in general).

I found it especially interesting when many native Arabic speakers I turned to for assistance asked me for clarifications such as asking me to use the word in a sentence.

On a more positive note, there was one suggestion that just about fits the bill. It was offered by many people, including one etymologist whose sensitivity to subtleties in translating words is usually astonishing:

حل وسط

Hal Wasat (7al wasat)

- “middle solution”

Pressing the issue further, I asked my etymologist friend for a verb in Arabic which means “to compromise”, as opposed to “a compromise”, to which he answered:

وصول على حل وسط

Wusul ala hal wasat

- to reach a “middle solution”

So, though it’s not exactly a simple verb but rather a compilation of four terms, it provides the concept of reaching a compromise in Arabic, which is what I set out to find.

I leave it to you to discover how frequently this term, “to reach a middle solution”, is currently being used, in the context of political conflicts, in public statements, in Arab media, in public discourse etc.

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Jordanian Autostrad in Israel

I was late for their show in the Muslim quarter but I later caught up with the band in a Jerusalem bar called Uganda.

Their FaceBook page reads: “AUTOSTRAD is a Jordanian Indie band formed in 2007… Rated as one of the top 5 bands in the region, Autostrad invests in the diversity of its members and the regions richness to produce music that goes beyond language, identity, and barriers.

Indeed, their appearance in Israel went beyond barriers, as the latest controversy surrounding their tour shows. Obviously, many of their fans didn’t appreciate the fact that the band decided to get visas issued through the Israeli consulate in Amman, a process which gives recognition to the official state of Israel.

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From talking to some of the band members and managerial staff I learnt something about their reasoning. For some of them, music is their life’s cause, no matter the audience. For others, bringing Arab culture to Arabs in Israel and the West-Bank is more important than not recognizing Israel in the visa application process. From the managerial point of view, they won more and better fans than the ones they lost.

As it turns out, the band has played in Israel 3-4 times in the past, visiting various mixed cities such as Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, as well as predominantly Arab towns and cities such as Nazareth and Magdel-Shams. It appears, however, that growing attention is given nowadays to the issue of normalization with Israel, hence the controversy.

From our conversations it became apparent that no recognition of Israel was given by the band. Land conquered in 1967 was considered occupied, naturally, but so was land held by Israel since 1948!

Why should ‘48 Arabs, citizens of Israel, not get to see Autostrad on stage while ‘67 Palestinians can attend a performance by them in major West-Bank cities, they ask.

So, while they were obviously careful not to recognize Israel in any way, they did express support of the idea of having cultural exchange between international groups and Arabs within the ‘48 borders. They would also not keep non-Palestinians out of their concert halls. Thus, Arab culture may spread and develop, without having to recognize Israel in the process. The visa thing, if you ask them, can be regarded as a nasty technical necessity. In fact, they violated the conditions of their visas when they played multiple West-Bank cities on a visa that allows them access to Israel only.

So much for recognition of Israel’s authority…

Putting the emotional aspect aside, I must say I was pleased. With their line of thought, more bands, artists and academics from across the Arab and Muslim world could enter Israel. More cultural and intellectual exchange would benefit Israeli-Arabs and any non-Palestinian who may be interested in the event. All of this could go on without having to give recognition to the state, or without addressing the issue.

Whether this cultural and intellectual exchange will be good or bad for Israel, time will tell. It is sufficient to say it will benefit those who take part in it, local and international Arabs and Muslims. Further cultural development might draw non-Palestinians towards them, further influencing the exchange, making the eventual outcome even harder to predict. I am all for it. Everyone has something to gain from any exchange, especially if it is self-driven and conducted freely.

At some point a Haredi friend of mine joined the conversation. He was performing at a Klezmer concert in Me’a She’arim (Haredi part of town) so he also missed their show (Muslim part of town). Fortunately, he could converse in basic Arabic with them so they were able to bridge the Haredi-Muslim divide rather quickly.

Interestingly, my Haredi friend started explaining the connection between Klezmer music and Druze melodies, singing a few tunes for Autostrad for illustration purposes. As it turns out, Eastern European Jews used to visit the grave of Rabi Shimon Bar-Yohai at Mount Meron in the Galillee on their annual Lag Ba’omer festivities. There they would meet local Arabs and Druze who also held the site to be holy. They would all play their instruments and sing together. Thus the Nigunim (tunes) of Mount Meiron carry within its repertoire some resemblance to Druze music, and even preserves the Arabic names of some tunes (Mustafa, Yazin).

One of the band players took it very seriously and promised to look up Klezmer music. He asked me to write down and translate the meaning of Klezmer for him. “Kle” - “Zemer” means “tools” (of) “song and music”. He was quick to point out that “Zimr” in Arabic was the same as “Zemer” in Hebrew.

So there you go. Without giving recognition to the state of Israel, the band Autostrad was able to fulfill its mission of spreading current Arab culture to “occupied Palestinians” across the country. Me and other Israelis were exposed to them along the process. We had ourselves a bit of cultural and linguistic exchange, uncovering some of the common grounds of our musical roots and vocabulary.

And though I am less than thrilled about the whole issue of not giving recognition to Israel and the whole anti-normalization trend, I am happy to know some people can go beyond that, for the sake of promoting culture, knowledge and understanding.

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Thank you Shira Rubin and Mutasem for introducing me to the band and their story.

Irony in Kosovo

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Meet Votim Demiri, president of the Jewish community of Kosovo. That’s his daughter Ines and grandchild Leah.

This picture was taken at their house in Prizren.

The neighboring house behind us is a Tekke, a small mosque without a minaret. This particular Tekke belongs to a Shia sect sponsored by Iran. It represents an influx of various sects into Kosovo.

To the left of the picture is a regular mosque with a minaret and loud speakers.

Just down the road is are more churches and mosques.

 Votim calls Prizren a small Jerusalem for this reason.

 There are 56 Jews in the local Jewish community. They are small but well connected to other Balkan communities, Israeli embassies (none in Kosovo), and relatives in Israel.

Kosovo Jews are XV century Sephardim. 258 of them were expelled to Bergen Belsen in 1943. German NATO forces currently secure Prizren. Votim finds it ironic.

Recently, they unveiled a plaque in the capital city of Prishtina, commemorating the 258 that were expelled and the 92 who died. The plaque stands where a synagogue used to be. Today it’s the parliament ground. Ironic once again, says Votim.

Serbian forces held the city in the last war. NATO was bombing all around. For 78 days people stayed in their houses. Immediately after liberation, the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) showed up with humanitarian relief. The Joint invested in Prizren during 2000-2005. Among other things, the Joint funded repairs to one of the city mosques.

Ironic?

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Campus life in Israel and South Africa

At MJC we discussed the difficult situation on South Africa’s university campuses, trying to suggest ideas to help Muslim Jewish relations there.
In Israel, exactly 11 years ago, the Hebrew university cafeteria was hit by Hamas terrorists, killing and injuring many:
 
And yet, on Israeli university campuses, where Jews and Muslims obviously live closer to the pain and fear, they manage their relations better than in South Africa:
Here Muslim and Jewish students sit together in class, make research together in the lab, run student organizations together, and provoke (and tolerate) each other in their demonstrations.
Here’s one of the most extreme, unbelievable examples of “how well” we manage to get along in this conflicted place:
 
My only advice to SA students is to put things back in perspective, and maybe draw inspiration from Israeli campus life.
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The typical Israeli dilemma

Shameful nauseating list of 104 Palestinian prisoners, on Jpost.

Demonstration today against releasing those 104 prisoners, here.

Demonstration today in support of resuming peace negotiations, here.

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What I want to know is how Palestinians feel about those bloody prisoners, and about peace talks with Israel.

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Any enthusiasm for peace over there?

Is it the same enthusiasm as in Israel?

Muslim Jewish Conference, Sarajevo 2013

The Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) is an NGO which holds annual conferences. This July I was one of 100 Muslims and Jews from 39 countries to take part in it.

I went to Sarajevo with no particular expectations, in fact I passed on the opportunity to be at MJC 2012 in Bratislava when I decided not to apply. I had an issue with the name of the NGO…

The name MJC hints that Jews and Muslims are equivalent. On their website, MJC talks about providing an interfaith platform. Well, I frequently argue that Jews are not a religious group comparable to Muslims. I felt that any conference that ignores this difference sets itself in the wrong direction from the get go.

Then, some people I respect came back from Bratislava and told me to get a grip on myself, that it’s a chance to meet Jews and Muslims from all over the world, that I should just apply, so I did.

The first thing I noticed at MJC was that I couldn’t tell who was Jewish and who was Muslim. In Israel it’s much more easy, but in Sarajevo I came face to face with people from societies I usually don’t have contact with so my instincts didn’t apply so well.

The second thing to notice was that Muslims from different countries and cultural backgrounds think very differently about various issues, related or unrelated to religion. My experience with Muslim Arab Palestinians is different. Here I usually find that people hold on to similar notions, and rarely break lines with the rest.

The immediate question which comes to mind, recalling that people’s attitudes differ from country to country, was whether or not there was a conflict between Muslims and Jews at all.

Creating an NGO called MJC hints that there is a conflict, and including a committee for “Conflict Transformation" at MJC hints the same, but organizers and participants found it difficult to point to any obvious conflict between Jews and Muslims per se.

If there is a conflict to treat, we should be able to point it out. Here’s how I see the conflict:

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Here we are together at the site of the Srebrenica massacre

First, it’s very important to point out that Jews are not a religious group, because if other people don’t get that, then they won’t address Jews, or interpret Jews, or interact with Jews properly.

For example, at MJC so many Muslims asked me so many questions about Judaism that I just had to tell them I was atheist. The Bible doesn’t define my Jewish identity nor the way I live my life. Their whole approach to me was misguided. I felt we had to go back to basics just to continue talking.

Second, it’s important to understand that Judaism as a “religion” differs from Islam as a religion in that Judaism is for the Jews and Islam is for everyone… Islam is a religion and it aims to spread to all nations. Judaism is not a religion and it aims to stay particular to the Jewish people.

The result is what you’d expect with 23% of the world’s population being Muslim and 0.23% Jewish. That’s about 1.6 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews, give or take.

So, if Jews are so few, and if their “religion” is only for them, is there a conflict from the Muslim perspective?

I read many parts of the Quran, and I recommend you do the same. Some parts view Jews favorably, some parts don’t. On the whole I found it disturbing, but see for yourself. Gladly, I found that many Muslims at MJC were more familiar with the positive quotes in the Quran and less familiar with the negative ones (which apprehensive Jews like myself are better familiar with).

This relates back to how people from different societies behave differently, as mentioned above. I don’t suppose it is religion itself which dictates social norms and attitudes, because then more Muslims would think more along the same lines. I suppose it is the society which shapes its own social norms and attitudes, as it is the same society which later interprets religious texts according to its taste and needs.

The most important lesson I derive from this is that the Bible and the Quran are misleading. They are misleading because people assume these texts guide us, when in fact they don’t. The Muslims and Jews I met at MJC resembled their home communities more than they resembled each other. It was easier to place them based on their country of origin rather than on the basis of their faith (or lack of faith).

So, if there is a conflict between some Jews and some Muslims, I would suggest not to tag it as a religious conflict right away. Perhaps the conflict is between their societies, and religion just covers that up.

It is an important distinction to make, because if the conflict is not based on religion, then interfaith dialogue is not the cure for it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with dialogue…

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Picture from Bosniak President Bakir Izetbegovic’s FB page

His finger on the pain, Jordanian tells Israelis how it is

I heard about a Jordanian on CouchSurfing who was inviting Israelis to meet over a cup of coffee. I didn’t make it to that meeting a year ago, but last week I ended up hosting him in Jerusalem!

Yahya (Yan) Barakat Ababneh is a freelance journalist, Arabic tutor, tourist guide and stage actor. He covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Libya. His stories appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere.

Arriving on a Friday evening meant I had the chance to expose Yan to some Jewish traditions. I took Yan over to where my not-so-religious friends were having a shabbat meal. We performed some Shabbat rituals, extra nicely I should say, blessing over the wine, the bread, the washing of the hands, and finally eating!

Conversation went from Jewish traditions to secularism and religion in Israeli society. We discussed Islam in comparison with Judaism, Israeli society versus Arab society, the disappearance of Hebrew tribes and the persistence of Arab tribalism, modernity and how it fits together with these social structures, where democracy and liberties fit in the picture, how Jews and Arabs see each-other, the meaning of peace treaties during an Arab Spring and the likelihood that anything will hold…

Having so many observations to share, Yan happily agreed to let me organize a living-room conference for more Q&A with Israelis.

On a one-day’s notice, my living-room filled up with over 20 guests: left and right-wingers, secular and religious, journalists, activists, lawyers, educators, social leaders, interns, students, sabras, new immigrants, and some folks I don’t really know.

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Yan was introducing us to “[his] Jordanian street”. He was trying to paint a picture that was hard for some Israelis in the room to accept:

"If he is right about what he says, it is terrible!" one said in Hebrew to the person sitting next to him. Indeed, the Israelis’ reactions was no less interesting than the main speaker…

Putting the finger on the pain, honesty despite embarrassment

Yan came for a serious discussion, and that meant being honest about embarrassing issues. In Arabic they say you should put your finger on the pain.

Starting with indicators of danger, Yan explained how Jordan border control will change your license plates as you drive your car in from Israel. If you stand out too much as Jewish or Israeli, you might be escorted around. These security measures imply danger for Israelis visiting Jordan.

In theater, where Yan has much experience, the villain usually carries Jewish markers, particularly the Payot (sidelocks). Such symbols are associated with evil, as the villain is not necessarily Jewish. The same goes for caricatures in mainstream newspapers.

In police records, you may find numerous cases of people who call each-other “a Jew” in an argument, which will often result in violence.

Q: Antisemitism, and hatred towards Israel, does it stem more from Islam or from the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians? Will hatred go away once we strike a peace deal or is it more culturally ingrained?

In the Quran, Yan says, there are convenient quotes which are used to show Islam as a religion of peace. They  pertain to calmer times when Mohammad was in Mecca. There are many more nasty quotes pertaining to later times when Mohammad was in Medina. Both are part of Islam. Both should not be ignored.

Distancing himself from religion, Yan recited some of the things you might hear a Jordanian Imam say to worshipers. These are not easy things for Jews to hear, stuff about earthquakes under their feet, rocks and trees turning on them, women becoming widows, children becoming orphans, “amen amen amen” chant the worshipers.

This sort of antisemitism stems more from religion and general society. People are less concerned with the conflict and more concerned with the economy. This sort of hatred is based on ignorance, and can be treated with education.

Q: What about people who are not religious? Can they break away from such negative sentiments towards Jews?

In the schools, Yan says, again you’ll find that Jews are blamed for killing prophets, robing lands, spreading evil.

Also in the family home, there is a lot of pressure to align with the tribe. This, in addition to rigidity in schools and mosques, makes open-minded flexibility all the more difficult to exercise, and the sort of ignorance that results from it is prevailing.

Before coming to Israel, some of Yan’s relatives were furious with him. One was urging him to talk to the intelligence service first, another told him to hide the fact he was Jordanian, yet some took it rather well despite them being Islamist!

Q: I’ve been a tour guide for Israelis in Jordan for 16 years. What you are telling us cannot be. I have not witnessed any of it.

There are weekly protests in front of the Israeli embassy in Jordan. 20 out of 32 journalists left the conference room just before the Israeli president addressed those present, recently in Amman. A visit by an Israeli professor sparked a spontaneous student protest within minutes of his arrival.

These are daily events which you might miss if you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the Imams, don’t read the news, don’t bother to visit East Amman, and don’t deal with people outside the tourism industry, says Yan.

I spent 3 weeks traveling in Jordan (Feb 2011). Most people were taken aback when I mentioned my nationality. Most then quickly recovered and said "It’s OK, don’t worry, we have peace now… but don’t tell others what you just told me!".

Q: We know to expect this sentiment from Palestinians in Jordan (which constitute the majority), but you are telling us this is a general trend. What’s the king’s role in all of this?

This is certainly not unique to Palestinians, or to Jordanians, Yan promises. In Middle-East politics, anyone can accuse anyone else of associating with Jews, being a Mosad agent, or being of Jewish descent. Syrian president Assad, for example, accuses the rebels, and they accuse him, of exactly that. Politicians who disagrees with some decision often come out and say it was promoted by Israel, as if Israel is puling all the strings around the Arab world and everywhere else.

King Abdallah of Jordan does not speak Arabic well, did not grow up in Jordan, does not understand the religion and does not consult with the tribes like his father Hussein did before him. Support for Abdallah depends mostly on which tribe you belong to, same as your other political views and religion depend on your tribal identity. There can be no democracy when all vote according to which tribe they belong to. Tribe leaders have this much influence over the parliament. The king has to consider this when he appoints officials, and he cannot navigate well if he doesn’t have “Arab smarts”, as Yan puts it.

Q: If there is peace on paper only and a king who threatens to resign, should Israelis be more concerned with what Arab politicians do or how the Arab street reacts?

There is no democracy in Jordan or anywhere in the Arab world, but the street still rules, not the politicians. A politician, a king, or a president will find it extremely difficult to break lines with how the public thinks. With so much influence in the hands of religious leaders and tribal leaders, there is only so much you can do.

Peace treaties with Egyptian president Sa’adat and Jordanian King Hussein immediately spring to mind, but the whole purpose of Yan’s visit to Israel was to tell Israelis it wasn’t so. Peace on paper is not good enough, Yan says. You Israelis are not safe in Cairo and Amman. We should be looking for something entirely different.

Q: How do you find Israel so far?

Sure, you may have radicals here too, but in a bar in Jerusalem (Uganda) I could talked with a Haredi Jew and East Jerusalem Arabs at the same time, I met with Arab students and professors in Israeli universities, all had their own criticism yet all live together, without being separated, and without killing each other.

So what can we do to improve the situation, and avoid catastrophe in the future?

This was Yan’s original question for Israelis on his visit to Israel. Should we organize soccer matches? Yan doesn’t like soccer at all but he believes this will draw the sort of criticism that will eventually die out. As people get used to these soccer matches, new doors will be open to them.

My own experience in peace activism has made me somewhat skeptical. I don’t presume that deeply rooted issues can be so easily washed away. Social change should be driven with the same intensity as others promote ignorance and hatred. In-fact, more intensity is necessary since building trust and understanding takes much more energy than killing it.

Here is what I suggest

Lets take some inspiration from Yan. Here is a man who was not afraid to report from Syria, and got beaten up both by Assad supporters and by rebels, each side accusing him of supporting the other camp.

By coming to Israel to talk to Israelis Yan was again taking risks. His career in journalism, theater connections, respect from family and friends, even his personal safety may be at risk after publishing his reports.

This is inspiring to me, because here we have a situation where two societies obviously suffer from ignorance and lack of trust. With one visit, Yan showed us what can be done to remove these two elements.

Project Tiyul-Rihla as an example

In project Tiyul-Rihla we do the same. With a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians we discuss history to discover our own ignorance towards each-other. Embarrassing as it is, it allows us to put our finger on the pain.

And it takes guts. Both sides feel they abandon safety when they cross the 1967 lines on the trip. Some of our participants indicate they anticipate harsh criticism from their own communities. Some even choose to lie to their family about where they are going.

We take these risks because we are trying to promote change. I am afraid risk is necessary, due to prevailing ignorance and fear between Israelis and Palestinians.

I am happy, and proud to say I see this guts in my Israeli and Palestinian partners on Tiyul-Rihla. By now we also have partners with guts in Jordan!

We do it. Yan is doing it. You are welcome to do it too.

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Today Yan’s report of his visit to Israel was published on Jpost.

"The last train to Auschwitz"

I wouldn’t have been writing this post if it wasn’t for a remarkable coincidence.

While hiking in the Galilee recently, in the Northern part of Israel, a girl in my group mentioned her wish to write the story of her grandmother, a Dutch holocaust survivor. Strangely enough, her grandmother and my late grandmother shared a very similar, and very special story.

My grandmother, Hana Fischhendler, was born in Germany to a Polish family. When Hitler came to power the family moved to the Netherlands, illegally, and found shelter with the Jewish community there. Hana became a nurse, a dietitian. She also worked in the orphanage, where she looked after the man who would later become my grandfather, Shlomo.

Shlomo Nuñes-Nabarro was born to a family of Anusim, Spanish Jews who were pushed out and forced to convert to Catholicism in Portugal during the inquisition. The Anusim kept their Jewish traditions in secret, which is why their children were also forced to convert. Some 200 years later, some of these Anusim left Portugal and moved to the Netherlands where they went back to being openly Jewish. Shlomo belonged to this Spanish-Portuguese community.

In 1940, Shlomo the soldier was released from German captivity and returned to the occupied Netherlands. He married Hana during the Nazi occupation. The yellow star on their clothes is clearly visible in their wedding picture.

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My Opa and Oma (Dutch for grandfather, grandmother)

Luckily for the both of them, Shlomo was holding on to documents indicating his father was born in England. With the help of the neutral Swiss embassy in the occupied Netherlands both Shlomo and Hana obtained British documents. This made them more valuable to the Nazis, who sometimes exchanged foreign nationals in return for German captives. Hana’s four sisters, in comparison, had no such documents, and were sent to death in Sobibor straight away.

In 1943 Shlomo and Hana were sent to Westerbork, a transit camp close to the German border, from which trains were leaving for Auschwitz weekly. Instead of death, Shlomo and Hana were sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp where other “privileged” foreign nationals were held, in northern Germany.

One day, while Shlomo was lying in the clinic of the camp suffering from Polio and Typhus, and with Hana nursing him there, those “privileged” prisoners disappeared from the camp, sent away to death camps in the east.

Shortly after that, only a few days before Bergen-Belsen was liberated, Shlomo and Hana were put on the train east, headed for Auschwitz*.

Moving east through Germany, the train would occasionally come dangerously close to the Russian front. In areas of heavy shelling, the train would turn back west, and then try pushing east again. Going back and forth between two closing fronts lasted some 12 days before the driver finally stopped receiving regular commands and abandoned the train in Tröbitz, in the eastern part of Germany.

On the morning of April 22, almost exactly sixty-eight years ago, Russian soldiers opened the doors of the train and found an estimated 2,500 Jews inside, minus 600 who died in transit.

The German residents of Tröbitz were evacuated by the Russians and Jews from the train were allowed to use their houses. They found much food stocked in the various cellars, but malnourished as they were, many of them could not digest the foods they consumed and died a horribly painful death. My grandmother, Hana, who was a dietitian, probably knew better, and was able to nurse herself and my grandfather back to health.

My new friend from the hike in the Galilee had a Dutch grandmother, also with British documents, and she went through the same sequence of camps as my grandmother did. Her grandmother, who was only ten years old at the time, tells a remarkable story of a very long train ride that never reached its destination, but was intercepted by Russians.

The thought of freely enjoying the green Galilee, walking alongside the granddaughter of a little girl who somehow survived the same camps and the same train that I associate with my grandparents is moving to me.

After the war, Hana and Shlomo returned to Amsterdam. Shlomo, who knew the Sepharadi community traditions well and the special Hebrew intonation of it’s prayer became the Hazan (cantor) of the famous Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam. They had three children, Devorah, Rivka (my mother) and David.

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*While writing this post I was corresponding with my mom in the kibbutz and my uncle in Amsterdam, checking some of the details above. I noticed that Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945 while the train left Bergen-Belsen later in April. It could not have been going to Auschwitz.

This link on The Lost Train: Bergen-Belsen to Tröbitz tells the same story as above but mentions Theresienstadt as the train’s destination. This makes much better sense.

I assume people on the train were either not aware that Auschwitz was already liberated, or maybe they didn’t care where they were going. They realized they were being sent to their death, and “Auschwitz” was synonymous with “death”. In that sense, they were on “the last train to Auschwitz”.

Observing Passover

I made a few observations this Passover.

A few of us were hiking overnight the day before Passover, from Arad to Masada, with the idea of returning home exhausted and then napping before the traditional family dinner, which is typically very heavy and very long.

One of the usual topics of conversation just before the holiday is “are you going home for the Seder?” (the Passover ceremonial meal). Us secular Jews, it seems, also feel the need to be home with the family. New immigrants to Israel would fly across the ocean to reunite with their parents. You might say it’s the same reaction people have before Christmas, but the question is why Passover, as opposed to other big Jewish holidays.

A Jew might say that Passover is just the biggest, but why is it the biggest?

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Another observation that came up in conversation and may lend us a clue is the observance of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting in the Hebrew calendar. It is my impression that secular Jews often turn religious just for this one day of the year. Why?

Well, I visited the Samaritan community a few times in recent years, including on Passover Eve. They are super religious about this day, and in general. One of the things they say about Passover is that if you are Samaritan, you simply cannot miss it. That is why they stayed by their temple in Nablus over the millennia while Jews were making all sorts of adjustments to their religious observance as a scattered nation in diaspora.

My theory is that Jews used to be more like the Samaritans. You simply had to be there for the animal sacrifice of Passover. After the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed the sacrifice ceased but you still had to be there!

The question remains, what purpose does the Seder maintain today?

Taking a closer look at the Hagada, which we read during the Seder meal on Passover Eve, we see it emphasizes, repeatedly, the defining moments of the Jewish story (not to say history). On top of that, the Hagada emphasizes, repeatedly, the importance of passing this story on to the next generation. The Hagada itself is the vessel which encapsulates the code that keeps Jews holding on to their identity and their family (community).

As for you Kippur, the fast relates to an important religious concept of atonement of sins. If you think of the popularity of Jesus you’ll see why Yom Kippur is so central to Judaism; your sins are erased, in a way.

OK, but why should secular Jews care?

Well, Yom Kippur is so central in the Jewish calendar that it became a marker. You are expected to take part in it, much like you are expected home for Passover. If you don’t, then you crossed the marker, and people will notice. On Yom Kippur, if you don’t fast and you do it in public, you’d feel out of place. If you drive your car, you might feel weird doing it, since you’ll find yourself alone on the highway (I’m talking about Israel now). So even though you are secular, you’ll be more inclined to play along and respect the tradition, in public, and some secular people will take it a step further and actually fast.

Why do I call it a marker? Because it marks you as Jewish. Don’t do it and you might feel “out” of the tribe. It’s silly, I know, and you won’t feel it everywhere you go, but the observation still stands - there are traditions we keep because they helps us feel our Jewish connection, to our family, to our community and to our history (add faith if you are religious).

The main idea presented here is that costumes and rituals can assist in maintaining an identity, and in this case, the costumes bind you to stick with your folk, physically. Built into these holidays is the idea of finding a Jewish community to observe the rituals with. And please don’t get me wrong; being Jewish is not about keeping those rituals or what’s left of them if you happen to be secular. Being Jewish is more about the essence, which is to stick with your folk and remember who you are.

The other values and ideas which are promoted vis a vis these rituals and texts, I feel, may help to characterize Jewish thought and way of life, but they are of secondary importance. You can take them, if you are religious or if you find them humanistic or universal, and you can leave them, if you are secular and you have better ideas of your own, but at least you are there, with your folk, during the Seder, to go over them once more. This alone already makes you Jewish, and you are free to do whatever you want with it.