Book Chat: Like Dreamers

By Hannah Lee

The miracle of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 united a nation, and Jews all over the world celebrated its victory.  That members of the 55th Brigade of paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem then led lives that split its small nation politically as well as religiously is the heartbreaking saga on how we have not merited the Messianic age of global peace, Olam HaBa.

After 11 years of interviews and research on seven of these paratroopers, Yossi Klein Halevi has brought forth his newest book, Like Dreamers, to justified acclaim.  Born in Brooklyn, he first visited Israel that June of 1967 with his Holocaust-survivor father (who finally forgave God and re-gained his faith with Israel’s success) and he has lived in Israel for over 30 years.  The book’s title comes from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.”

While writing this labor of love, Halevi was troubled by the singular lack of voice; he thought it meant the book wasn’t speaking to him.  Then in an epiphany, he realized that the cacophony of voices from his interview subjects was what defined himself as an Israeli Jew, one with conflicting views.  He then constructed his book with alternating voices, allowing each central character to express his thoughts and views as they evolved over time.  He spoke on Sunday before a standing-room audience at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.

His cast of characters include the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers.  They served together and they exhibited a tremendous level of tolerance and cooperation.  One protagonist, the secular commander Arik Achmon, noted how the religious reservists, whom he’d ridiculed as dosim (religious nerds), were keen on proving their worth and how they rose a half hour earlier each day to pray.  Once when his soldiers were sent on leave but it was close to sundown that Friday, they chose to stay in camp rather than risk traveling on Shabbat.  He noticed approvingly that they didn’t ask to be let out early.  He then showed his respect by enforcing the kosher laws in the army kitchens (despite the paratroopers’ sense of being a law unto themselves), so that any soldier under his command would not feel uncomfortable.

The love was reciprocated: when a friend spoke about “religious paratroopers,” another central character, Yoel Bin-Nun, who taught Bible as a way to understand contemporary Israel, rebuked him, saying, “There are no religious paratroopers or secular paratroopers.  Only Israeli paratroopers.”  In another incident, when he was challenged by a kibbutznik, that if Bin-Nun could convince him that God exists and that there is a divine hand guiding the world, he was ready to become religious.   But if he succeeded in convincing the rabbi that it’s all nonsense, the rabbi would become secular.  “You’re asking me to give up my deepest beliefs,” Bin-Nun replied, with a smile.  “Let each person observe and interpret in his way, but the Torah belongs to every Jew.  Shabbat belongs as much to you as it does to me.”

The disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was caught ill-prepared and lost over 2,500 men and over 7,000 were wounded, sobered the nation.  Some realized that Israel’s survival required moral renewal.  Two divergent paths emerged formed by those for whom annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria (captured from Jordan in 1967) was a part of the redemption process and those for whom withdrawing from the territories, termed by them the West Bank, was the hope for peace.  The liberators of Jerusalem were amongst the founders of the settler movement and the Peace Now movement.  Another of them, Udi Adiv, became so disenchanted with Zionism that he traveled to Damacus in 1972 to create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground.  He served 12 years in an Israeli prison.  Their narratives will in time coalesce into hardened political positions.

On Sunday, Halevi spoke of the two promises of Zionism: normalcy to end anti-Semitism and transcendence to serve as a light unto the world.  He sees the most interesting divide as the one from normalcy to utopia.  Thus, both the kibbutzniks and the settlers (who wish to populate the whole of Judea and Samaria) are in the same camp as utopians.

He then addressed the three failed dreams of Israel: the kibbutz movement, the settler movement, and the Oslo peace accords. Now Israel is bereft of a utopian dream.  Can it sustain itself without one?  My rabbi recently spoke about the Torah portion of parshat Vayeshev, in which Joseph is asked to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the baker and the wine steward.  The wine steward whose crime was a fly in the wine being served to the pharaoh was reinstated to his post, while the baker whose bread had a small stone was executed.  While a fly might be disgusting, it is not life-threatening, but a pebble would prove a choking hazard.  The lesson was that a threat from within could be greater than without.  A great challenge for Israelis now is to build unity from amongst their brethren.  When they respected each other and were united in their goals in 1967, they achieved miraculous results.  May Am Israel re-gain its sense of purpose and harmony and see peace in our times.

Chag Urim sameach.

Also published at http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3624/book-chat-like-dreamers.

 

Film Chat: One of the Lamed Vav

By Hannah Lee

With much difficulty and the necessity of a personal courier to hunt for it in Israel, my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, was able to screen the documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, about the life of Rav Aryeh Levin, whose biography was titled, A Tzaddik In Our Time. (Lamed Vav refers to the 36 righteous people hidden in our midst, according to mystical lore.) Our Rabbi Emeritus, Abraham Levene, then spoke about his esteemed grandfather to an audience of seniors. I took privilege in attending, although I was not a member of the target audience.

I’d read the 1976 biography A Tzaddik In Our Time but the new documentary filled in for me the early years of Rav Aryeh’s life and how he became known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem” and one of modern Israel’s most beloved icons, known for his great acts of chesed (loving kindness) for prisoners, lepers, and the poor. He died in 1969, but people still tell stories about Rav Aryeh.  Israel used his image on postage stamps in 1982.

Aryeh Levin was born on March 22, 1885 near the village of Urla, near Bialystok, in northern Lithuania. He was tutored by local teachers until the age of 12, and then left home to attend the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe in Slonim, Slutsk, and Volozhin.  His passion for Eretz Yisrael led him to study with Abraham Isaac Kook, later the Chief Rabbi of Palestine.

In one of his most renown roles, Rav Aryeh was the unofficial chaplain (he refused to be paid) for the Jewish political prisoners– members of the Palmach, Haganah, Irgun or Lehi who were fighting for Israeli independence– held during the British Mandate in the 1930′s. As these individuals dared not implicate their families, they had no means of communication with their loved ones. Walking long distances, Rav Aryeh would walk from his home in the Nachlaot neighborhood to the Central Prison in the Russian compound, then deliver messages to the prisoners’ families all over Jerusalem, offering words of comfort and hope. The former prisoners who were interviewed for the documentary were effusive in their praise of a man who was so gentle and loving; he inspired them all to become better people with his mere presence and kind words.

The documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, has interviews with two grandsons, Rabbi David Levin and his cousin, Rabbi Benjamin (Benji) Levene as well as others, both in prominent positions as well as elderly folks interviewed on the streets. The two grandsons spoke about how their grandfather helped them find their niche in life– the former as chaplain in the Israeli Defense Forces, the latter for work bridging secular and religious Jews through his work with Gesher– as well as a continued source of inspiration and chizuk (strength), such as managing one’s anger in the face of verbal attacks.

Simcha Raz, the author of A Tzaddik In Our Time, was interviewed on the documentary and he recalled that on one of his last visits with Rav Aryeh, he asked if Rav Aryeh thought of himself as one of the Lamed Vavniks.  Sometimes, said the latter, because it’s not a permanent role and one could fulfill a necessary task and revert to being an ordinary person.  How inspiring is that for all of us?  We, too, could have our moment of divine mission and rise to the occasion!

Spiritual leader of Lower Merion Synagogue for 40 years, Rabbi Avraham Levene told me how his family’s name got changed: They were visiting his maternal grandparents in England when World War II broke out. He was traveling on his mother’s visa (being so young) and her name was spelled Levene.  His father’s name was Anglicized Lewen (in Hebrew, Lamed Vav or Lev), so to avoid the confusion of multiple names, his family adopted the spelling of Levene. After the war, they moved to the United States where his father had a pulpit position and there they stayed until the father retired back in his beloved Israel. Abraham Yitzhak was 15 when he traveled by himself to visit his grandfather, Rav Aryeh, who cried when they met– Abraham Yitzhak being the eldest grandchild of his eldest surviving son. The stories that my Rabbi Levene tell are of the time spent living with his grandfather, in a simple one-room home, where love and faith were the guiding principles.

Rabbi Benji Levene, younger brother of my Rabbi, has published a story about their grandfather, “The Escort,” in the 2011 book Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, edited by Philadelphia Jewish Voice Religion Editor, Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel with Peninnah Schram.

The biography of Rav Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik In Our Time, by Simcha Raz is now out-of-print but it can still be ordered through Amazon; the DVD is not yet available for distribution in the United States.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2516/film-chat-one-of-the-lamed-vav