Sunday, December 4, 2016

Getting Closer

More last minute details:

Well, it wasn't just the dryer (see last email), the microwave died as well and needed to be replaced. Not serious, but just needed to be dealt with...

After some unexplained delays and beginnings of panic on our part, our India visas arrived. This was a much more complicated process than we would ever have imagined. We've done this before; the visa to China was much easier.

We are pleased that Cheryl and Lee, old friends will be moving in for the duration of our adventure. They keep kosher and know our kitchen, but we of course need to get everything ready for a smooth transition. Cheryl works from home and Lee, like me, is retired. They are between homes and house sitting works out terrifically for them and for us. Thank you Cheryl and Lee. We hope nothing else breaks down in our absence.

Two pieces of recent news from India raise new concerns. We fly into New Delhi, Indira Gandhi Airport, and will remain in Delhi, new and old, for four days. Yes, there is an Old Delhi. Air pollution is evidently at an all time high. The government closed schools for a few days and took other steps, but it doesn't diminish so quickly. Carol is asthmatic. We will see whether this will affect us and to what extent.

What concerns me more and perhaps a more serious issue is the government's effort to transform the cash supply of rupees. India, we have come to learn, runs almost entirely as a cash economy. Most transactions are not by credit cards and many even avoid banks, resulting in few records on transactions and large parts of the economy that simply avoid paying taxes. To get this under control the government has simply canceled the largest denomination 500 and 1000 rupee currency, allowing people limited ability to cash these bills for smaller denominations. With 68 rupees to the dollar, that is comparable to cancelling all currency larger than a $5 bill! As a consequence American banks from which all international currencies can be purchased, will not deal in rupees! Though India has ATMs, with the run on small bills and change, I am concerned the ATMs may be temporarily out of cash. In addition another strange phenomenon we learned when visiting Mianmar is the same in India: though it is possible in many instances to use dollars, people will only accept new bills...uncreased, unfolded, no ink marks. Luckily these are available especially before Christmas, since people like to give brand new bills as gifts.

India is also a country where malaria is prevalent. Two precautionary drugs are recommended, either Malarone or Doxycyclene. We chose the latter, because the former was five times the price. That's a pill every day beginning two days before arrival and continuing for a month after our return. Thankfully our shots from our former journeys were all up to date.

As we begin the packing the prospect of this adventure is becoming ever more exciting.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

India on My Mind

Putting the New York Times on a vacation hold; see to it that the post office holds mail until further notice; apply for our requisite visas (a complicated task in this case);make sure all accounts are on automatic payment; buy and have new clothes dryer installed (doesn't something always break down just when you need everything in perfect order). These are just a few of the zillion matters to take care of before our trip.

This time we're going to India. When Ted told me about organizing a tour to SE India last year, I told him that he should keep us in mind if he ever decided to do it again. This past spring he asked if we were interested, because he was organizing another journey. I didn't even have to consult with Carol. I knew she'd be up for this adventure.

Ted is an instructor at Concordia University, one of several Lutheran ministers teaching a required course for all undergraduates in World Religions. For the past few years I have been invited to the classes to give a single class session on Judaism, otherwise known as Judaism while standing on one foot. In addition to reading a chapter on Judaism the students come to a Friday night service at Neveh Shalom. While it's not much, I am nevertheless impressed. Here is a school created by the religiously conservative Missouri Lutheran synod that requires all their students to be exposed not just to their brand of traditional Protestantism, but to broaden their exposure to Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions as well as other forms of religious expression.

Ted Engelbrecht speaks Tamil, the most common language of SE India, because as the son of a missionary, he grew up there. Having spent years living in several SE Asian countries, in a recent conversation he confided that he really feels no sense of particular allegiance to any particular nationality. I would suspect it is more his religious faith that grounds him rather than attachment to a particular place.

The tour will be for 13 days with only 10 participants. We are restricted to no more than a carry on each since we will travel together in a small vehicle. That will be challenge and a learning experience for us, because we normally travel with too much. Carol and I are leaving a week before the tour begins and we will stay for somewhat over two weeks after, because it's not every day that you get a chance to go to India.

India is a very big and diverse country. We know even with 5+ weeks, we will only see a piece, but we are very excited. And believe it or not, India has Jews and Jewish history. There is a synagogue in Delhi, Jewish history in Chennai, history and a lone remaining synagogue in Cochin and Jews in Mumbai. Unbelievable!

Please come along vicariously. We depart December 6. My hope is to blog at least every few days.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Has President Obama Been a Friend to Israel?

Since returning home from our adventure in Spain and Morocco I have neglected to post items of interest on my blog. Below you will see the first of more to come.

Often President Obama has been accused of not demonstrating appropriate friendship toward Israel. This was especially true during the debate over whether to approve the internationally negotiated deal with Iran in which the U.S. was lead negotiator. We all remember that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation offered by Congressional Republicans to address a joint session in which he made his case. The clear purpose of the invitation and the acceptance was to publicly embarrass the American president. Repeatedly in the recent Republican candidates' debates for president, Obama was taken to task for not sufficiently supporting Israel, our lone democratic ally in the Middle East.

I find that accusation very troubling and not in accord with the facts. Many security experts in Israel publicly disagreed with the Israeli prime minister, claiming that the negotiated deal with Iran while not perfect would prevent Iran from putting together a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. This was most unusual since Israeli experts at this level rarely take public issue with their prime minister. Though possessing no expertise I personally found the arguments of these experts more compelling than that of Netanyahu.

Then this week in an op-ed criticizing the "no nothings" (the author's designation) who support presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, Roger Cohen included the following which I think more accurately summarizes Obama's relationship to Israel and the lack of appropriate gratitude from the Israeli administration over the last eight years:

"Speaking of Israel, Trump says, “President Obama has not been a friend to Israel.” Right, he has not been a friend to the tune of over $20.5 billion in foreign military financing since 2009. He has not been a friend by providing over $1.3 billion for the Iron Dome defense system alone since 2011. He has not been a friend by, in 2014, opposing 18 resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly that were biased against Israel; by helping to organize in 2015 the first U.N. General Assembly session on anti-Semitism in the history of the body; and by working tirelessly on a two-state peace, not least on the security arrangements for Israel that are among its preconditions. He has not been a friend by turning the other cheek in the face of what Nancy Pelosi once called “the insult to the intelligence of the United States” from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu."

President Obama has demonstrated enormous patience with an intransigent Israeli administration. He will be remembered as a great friend and ally to the State of Israel.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hamishi in Fez!

We arrived in the historic town of Fez on Thursday after two days in Meknes. Meknes was founded by a Berber tribe in the 10th century. While there we took a day trip to the fabulous archeological sight at Volubilis, a Roman city where among the ruins archeologists found evidence of early Jewish settlement. (It appears that the first Jews who came to Morocco may have been slaves carted off by the Romans in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70!)

Both Meknes and Fez went through a series of various tribal rulers, alternating between those welcoming Jews for their crafts and commercial acumen and those bent on persecution. Jews fled during Almohad rule and returned in the 13th century with the Merinid take over. Meknes became the capital under Moulay Ismail with Jewish support in the 17th century. Jews were appointed to high office in the royal palace with others in charge of diplomacy. They paid high taxes receiving protection. (This seems to be a recurring Moroccan theme.)

The Jews were allotted a strip of land close to the palace, close to the Sultan's storehouse of salt, that became known as the Melakh (Arabic and Hebrew for salt, one of several explanations for the name of the area designated for Jewish settlement in all towns where Jews lived.) Though otherwise a cruel and sadistic ruler, Jews thrived under Ismail. By the time his grandson became ruler, resentment at special privileges granted to Jews caused resentment and upon his death, the Melakh was attacked and looted. With ongoing instability, the capital was moved to Fez. The great grandson angered at being refused a loan from the Jews had the former courtiers hung by their feet until death brought them relief. Into the modern period Jews built a new Melakh, creating synagogues and community associations.

During the French occupation Jews became intermediaries and interpreters between themselves and the greater Muslim population, making them military officers, creating additional tensions. In 1937 Muslim rioters stormed the Melakh, destroying buildings while the French turned a blind eye. Again two years later an attack left three Jews dead. Thus the added tensions with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War caused some Jews to emigrate to Israel. The bulk however left in the mid 60s. Carol and I visited the Jewish cemetery where the enormous number of graves gave us insight into the size of the community that was. It is but one of two Jewish cemeteries, the older of which goes back 600 years.

Fez is the most ancient of the imperial cities founded by Idris II in 789c.e. (Idris I was a direct descendant of Mohammed coming to Morocco to escape Abbasid tyrrany. However the Baghdad rulers pursued and had him assassinated, sending his surviving son fleeing. Fez became known as "the Jewish city" when 8000 Jewish families arrived from Spain fleeing a Muslim tyrant in Cordoba in 817 c.e. Fez became the spiritual and intellectual center for both Muslims and Jews. It's reputation was what attracted Maimonides family when they fled the Almohads in Cordoba in the 12th century. However he left for Egypt after just 6 years because of Almohad pressure to convert to Islam in Fez.

By the 13th century the more favorable Merinids aware of the Jews' skills in running the economy and engaging in foreign trade became the authorities and granted them preferential treatment and various concessions. Resentment eventually led to anti-Jewish riots here too. When Jews fled Spain in 1492 Fez was a favored destination. The communities of original Jewish residents and Spanish newcomers led largely separate existences. But the area was plunged into periods of political turmoil. Jewish support brought strong leadership in 1660 and the situation of the Jews largely stablized. The French moved the Moroccan capital from Fez to to Rabat where it remains to this day.

Through the 50s and 60s the Jewish community of Fez departed for Israel, France and Canada. Today only about 100 mostly elderly Jews remain. King Mohammed VI who is universally beloved ordered the rehabbing of Jewish synagogues which have deteriorated. Of the original 38 synagogues in the Melakh, only two have undergone work. We visited one, but the other was closed.

The only functioning synagogue is in the newer part of the city. There is also a Community Center. We went to services this morning, Shabbat haHodesh. About 25 men and one local woman attended. It's actually quite beautiful and a testimony to the community that once was. A man who looked familiar asked where I was from. I also looked familiar to him. When I told him Portland, he couldn't believe it. He taught in our Hebrew School when he lived in Portland about 8 years ago. I was called up to hold one of the three Torah scrolls we read from today and I was honored to receive the fifth Aliyah to the Torah. I really felt part of a long and distinguished history as I stood at the Torah. Unfortunately this history appears inevitably to be coming to a sad end in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Moroccan Jewish Remnants

Tangiers was our first stop in Morocco. It is less than an hour by ferry from the southern coast of Spain. We checked into our hotel in the Medinah (old city inside the walls) and began exploring. A short distance from the hotel we walked into a shop with jewelry and what appeared to be old things, perhaps antiques even.

We thought of ourselves as fairly savvy about the ways of bargaining...don't indicate right away what you are interested in, be casual, be prepared to walk away, no offer is too low, etc. But there staring us in the face were what appeared to be very old amulets with defiantly Hebrew writing on them, Wow! Had we hit upon hidden Judaism that had to be rescued for posterity? As we explored further in the same store we found more: a hamsah, in fact many of them in various sizes with stars of David, a yad, a silver container that might have been used for a manuscript like a scroll of Esther, etc. We tried to keep our cool. We asked about other things first, but even before we got to the Judaica, the shop owner picked us out as Jews. Was it something we said that blew our cover? Do we somehow look so Jewish that we are a dead give away. We are Ashkenazi after all, not the more familiar Sephardim which would be more familiar in these parts. In the end we did the best thing. We didn't buy anything. Since our hotel was so close, we knew we could easily return.

But that experience was now to repeat again and again. Store after store had Judaica on display and ready for sale. Not only merchants, but all kinds of people we met along the way talked rather lovingly longingly and nostalgically about the Jews who were an integral part of Moroccan society. Somehow we started to feel like we had the letters JEW on our foreheads. It was certainly nothing we wanted to hide; quite the contrary, we were anxious to uncover remnants of what was a thriving and dynamic long standing Jewish community that with very few exceptions is no more. But we still were puzzled as to how both Arab and Berber knew instinctively that we were Jewish.

Nevertheless we began to find Judaica in many stores, some of it obvious, much of it kind of obscure. I wanted to buy it all of course. We entered what appeared to be a shop with fine and expensive antiques. There in the large display case were exclusively Judaica items and in the very center a Sefer Torah. Again I had the instinct to rescue. Where would I even get the money? These items had price tags in the thousands.

And then I began to think, how did these many shops come to contain these items. Did individual Jews sell these things before they departed for Israel, France, Canada and the US, or were these items abandoned by the Jews and the Jewish community in their rush to leave? In purchasing a piece of Judaica, was this rescue, or was it really buying back what already actually belonged to the Jews? I do not know the answer to this question. However the question continued to haunt me.

I have not totally resisted however. I purchased a silver Yad. It's a bit unusual. And yesterday I bought a silver Hanukiah. I really tried to resist. The initial price quoted was $700. I said no way. The merchant after working me over wanted to know how much I would pay. I finally told him $100. He didn't want to listen and asked me twice more to which I repeated my low offer, which was coaxed out of me. They are very good at this. Alright, he finally said, would I buy it for $150? I agreed and the sale was completed.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Salam Alaikum,

Salam Alaikum to which the appropriate response in Alaikum Salam, just as the appropriate response when someone greets you with Shalom Aleichem is Aleichem Shalom. We continue our fascinating adventure in Morocco.

This country, for its relatively small size, has more than its share of world renowned cities: Rabat and Casablanca, Tangiers and Fez, Marakesh, Meknes and Agadir. Since this is my first exposure to Morocco, these were nothing more than famous names. As we travel I am gaining an appreciation for why they are names known around the world and what distinguishes them one from another.

Being embarrassing ignorant of Moroccan history in general and Moroccan Jewish history in particular, I am learning a great deal. Morocco has endured many varied administrations, both foreign and domestic: Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Berbers, Almohads, Portuguese and French among others. The Moroccan capital has moved several times as well.

Morocco became home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Jews were among the earliest of inhabitants, arriving long before the Arabs came storming across North Africa in the 7th century. Life for Jews was not always without persecution, but Jews lived with more protection in Morocco than they did in other Arab lands. In most cities and towns Jews were confined until modern times in an specified area known as the Melakh. Though the source of the name is a matter of some controversy, a prominent opinion has it that it comes from the Hebrew/Arabic word for salt, a commodity which Jews imported. Salt, of couse, is not only important for taste, but as a preservative, especially prior to the availability of refrigeration. The Melakh was invariably located next to the palace, at once an indication of Jewish influence and the designation of Jews for special protection. But it also served to separate the Jews, at least for housing from the rest of society. The Melakh in some areas at least was closed at night.

Although the famous story that the King of Denmark wore a Jewish star when the Nazis demanded that the Jews wear them is not true, evidently it is true that when the Vichy government called on Moroccan King Mohammed V to identify the Jews, he is said to have declared, "We have no Jews here, only Moroccans!" He also told the Vichy authorities that they should make an additional 50 Jewish badges for his family. The Jews of Morocco never wore distinguishing stars.

Jews functioned for centuries as traders and craftsmen, in government and even as fishermen. That Jews were settled in big cities is of couse no surprise. What is surprising is that Jews lived in communities throughout Morocco. They were part and parcel of this society, very much like we Jews are in the U.S. Surely there are higher concentrations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but we are in Salem, Corvallas abd Ashland as well. Thus Carol and I came to the Atlantic port town is Essaouria without any expectations. I had never even heard of the place. There we found no Jews, but three synagogues, two in the old Melakh, even here and one in the very center of town. As a result of the declaration of the current king, these synagogues, as are synagogues in all communities, are undergoing renovation. The craftsman who had restored the glorious ark at one synagogue was there and was clearly proud of his work. There had in fact been more than three synagogues in this small town, but the others no longer existed. Some Jews return each September to the Jewish cemetery in which are buried beloved rabbis. We then took the bus through Safi to El Jadida. (You can look these places up on a map.) Both also had Jewish communities. Today I saw where two as yet unrestored grand synagogues stood in a section of town built by the Portugese, overlooking a Jewish cemetery with over 500 graves and I was told where the synagogue in the newer area of town was. Amazing.

But now the grand history of Moroccan Jews is no more. Shabat before last I attended services at the only functioning synagogue in Tangiers. Only five Jews attended, two of them being the rabbi and his son. There are larger remaining communities of Jews, primarily businesspeople in Rabat abd Casablanca, but otherwise few Jews remain.

In the 1950s and 60s most Moroccan Jews immigrated primarily to Israel, but also to France, Canada and the US. Unlike the other Arab countries, there was no official pressure to leave though some Jews may have been made to feel uncomfortable in Morocco after the creation of Israel in 1948. Rather the Moroccan Jewish community was largely a religious community. The creation of Israel stirred traditional Zionist longings. As well the new government of Israel put strong pressure on Moroccan Jews who were seen as a needed labor force to make Aliyah. The trickle soon became a flood. Some sold there holdings. Many others unable to sell simply abandoned their holdings here. The king has urged Moroccan Jews to return. A few have. We will see what the future holds for any of the others.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Synagogue Is Not a Museum

Though some synagogues include a museum, a synagogue is not itself and ought not be treated as a museum.

Some years ago someone described to me the difference between a Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land and a Jew coming to visit Israel. A Christian pilgrim sees the Holy Land as a museum. S/he comes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. A Christian pilgrim's itinerary includes Bethlehem, Nazareth, the sights aound the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached and conducted miracles, and Jerusalem,scenes of the last days of Jesus' life.

Jews, on the other hand, view few if any Biblical scenes. Yes, Jerusalem is certainly a highlight, but it is as much to wander in the Jewish quarter as it is to offer a prayer at the Western Wall. It is as much to shop in Downtown Jerusalem as it is to visit the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. Jewish tourists might want to visit a public school, see how Ethiopian Jews are being integrated into Israeli society, observe first han how Israel is monitoring the Lebanese border, visit a kibbutz, meet young Israeli soldiers, learn about Israeli agricultural and technological innovations, talk to government officials, swim in the Dead Sea. Surely we want to visit archeological sights, but Beit Shean, is fascinating not because of particular events that happened there, because it was an ancient Roman town where ordinary people lived, worked and raised families. We connect with Israel not simply because things happened there long ago, but because Israel is a living, breathing society with people to whom we are connected for better or for worse at the hip. We take pride in its accomplishments and feel strongly about its policies and direction.

For Jews Israel is not a museum.

The last few days Carol and I spent in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. It is a complex city, that once was the Moroccan capital. The old Medinah is a twist of roads and alleys with all kinds of unusual traffic and it is easy to lose one's sense of direction and not know which way to turn.

And like every city in Morocco, Marrakesh has a long and illustrious Jewish history. And although few Jews remain, virtually all having immigrated to Israel, France, Canada and the US, five synagogues remain in the Melah, the area in most towns where Jews lived. Of the five, two continue to function, one only on Shabbat and holidays, the other open year round with a daily Minyan.

I found my visit to the synagogue in Merakesh quite emotional: the synagogue, the photos, the zedakah box to maintain the shul. Only a couple of Jews still live in the Melah, but a few others have shops there. The name Corcus appeared as a prominent community family name. For years Joe and Lilian Corcus, who migrated in the 1960s when most Moroccan Jews left, were members of our Portland Jewish community.

As we visited a large Israeli tour group came by. They were interested in seeing the synagogue as well, but I had the strong sense that they were visiting a museum, not a living institution of Jewish life. Minyan each morning was listed to begin at 7:30. I was excited by the idea that I could participate in a Minyan in a historic synagogue in Marakesh. Unfortunately we only had five men the next morning (Wednesday) even though they assured me that Mondays and Thursdays they always get a Minyan in addition to Shabbat.

Nevertheless I thought about the difference. Synagogues are not museums, even though sometimes they have outlived their communities.