Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Swasticas, Six Pointed Stars and more

Swasticas and Six Pointed Stars
One of the most disconcerting sights for a Jew in India is the prevalence of swasticas. Not just swasticas, but often as decorations on buildings frequently next to what we generally call the six-pointed Star of David. When I asked about the star I was surprised to hear someone call it the Star of India! That was a new one for me. The swastica, symbol that Hitler employed for his National Socialists or Nazis is in fact: "In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, swastica means 'well-being'. The symbol has been used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains for millenia. Early Western travelers to Asia were inspired by its positive and ancient associations and started using it back home. By the beginning of the 20th century there was a huge fad for the swastica as a benign good luck symbol." Nevertheless however benign, it grabs my attention every time.

Indian States, languages, history and culture
India consists of 29 states. Though differences exist between our 50 US states, I have been told that India's states are almost like different countries one from the other. "Historians consider India's modern age to have begun sometime between 1848 and 1885." Prior to that India was not a united country and during much of its history different regions were ruled by various foreign and domestic powers. Therefore even today significant differences prevail. The most obvious one is language. English is taught in the schools as a vestige of British rule, but relatively few Indians speak fluent English (and among those who do, their accent is so thick, they are difficult to understand by American English speakers). The most common language is probably Hindi. However we have spent most of our trip thus far in the South East state of Tamil-Nadu where everyone speaks Tamil. Passing over to South West India we enter the state of Kerala where they speak Malayalam! India has 22 languages which have been given the grade of national languages. These include: Urdu, Punjabi and Nepali. Many of these languages are not related to each other and to add to the confusion they use different orthographies, so that one cannot even read the other, much less speak it.

In addition since these states have different histories, they have different heroes and villains, different musical and dance traditions, different cuisines. I wonder how they can simply share movies and other uniting cultural phenomena. Writing on the computer in their own language must be confusing.

Though the caste system is technically illegal, it is evidently alive and well throughout India. I was surprised to be told that the Sanskrit term for caste is color and that originally and to this day caste is largely related to skin color, the darker the skin the lower the caste. Historians claim that the caste system originated when in the second and third centuries BCE, India was invaded by light skin people known as Aryans.

Though as tourists modern day caste discrimination is imperceptible, again I am told that all you have to do is look at who is sweeping and cleaning up and you are seeing the caste system in action.

Many have fought caste throughout Indian history, among them Buddha and his teachings. Christianity's attraction to a certain segment of Indian society also held out the promise of rejecting the very notion of caste.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Religion and Traffic

When Carol and I traveled in Mianmar a couple of years ago, I wrote extensively about our perception of religion and faith in that country. The people of Mianmar are the most religious people we had ever encountered. Every aspect of society and culture was infused with the Buddhist faith, a Buddhism quite different than the much more laid back Buddhism we experienced in either Japan or China. True there are also Muslims, the Rohingas, who are a terribly persecuted minority in Mianmar, as well as Christian minority groups, but overwhelmingly we encountered Buddhists. We saw them in celebrations and in everyday life.

India, by contrast, is overwhelmingly a Hindu country, though interestingly Buddhism began here. India has also the second largest Muslim population in the world, second only to Indonesia. (We often think of the Middle East as the center of Islam when clearly population-wise the center is much further East.) Additionally India is also home to Jains, Christians of various religious orientations, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and even some Jews. Here too every aspect of life is governed by religious traditions, clothing, foods, language...even how people greet and acknowledge one another. Visiting the US, no one would highlight our religious sights. In New York you might highlight the Empire State Building or Ellis Island, or the Metropolitan Museum. In San Francisco you would take tourists to Chinatown or Fishermans' Wharf or Muir Woods. In India you visit temples: Hindu temples, or Sikh or Jain temples or a Muslim Mosque, but primarily large, mostly historic Hindu temples. (Even the Taj Mahal which we will visit at the end of our trip is a Moghul (Muslim) shrine. And if you visit museums, what you find is religious relics. Because of various dietary traditions all restaurants are listed as veg or non-veg. Due to Hindu sensitivities, cows roam the streets at will often standing in the middle of the street with traffic doing its best to wind their way around them. Hindu priests (Brahmens) where special clothes and wear no shirt. Some Muslim women are totally covered with only slits allowing them to see. Shops carry all sorts of religious trinkets and paraphenalia. I suspect it would be very difficult to be a "devout" atheist in this country and ignore the religious piece. Everyone identifies as belonging to one or anther religious community.

India tries very hard to present itself as a diverse and tolerant society and in many ways it probably is. However knowing even minimally the historic struggles which led to bloody population transfers creating Pakistan and Bangladesh, the roots of animosity are clearly there. In applying for our visa, we had to answer whether we had ever been to Pakistan, had family there, etc. also indicating ongoing tensions. And the Prime Minister Modi represents a Hindu first political party. So exactly how the religious diversity is worked out is not clear. And where everyone wears their religious identity on his/her sleeve, the concept of a Melting Pot or even a Goulash as we celebrate in America is no where in evidence here.

Getting around anywhere seemingly in India is a challenge to say the least, some would describe it as a nightmare. First of all with a population of 1.3 billion, there are people everywhere, lots of them. Some get around walking, others on bikes, still others on rickshaws (small three wheeled put-put vehicles), others take the bus. Some have cars. Groups like ours travel in vans. Then there are all kinds of trucks and agricultural vehicles. Let's not forget the cows. Each travels at different speeds, but all are on the same roads at the same time. Where traffic has two lanes in either direction, vehicles of all sorts drive down the middle, rather than in either lane, until they must move either right or left. Every vehicle is subject to being overtaken by any other vehicle traveling at a greater speed or thinks it should pass the vehicle in front of it. On roads with one lane in either direction, passing constitutes nothing short of a constant game of chicken with vehicles heading straight for a head on, missing often by inches. When there are three lanes in any direction, Indians easily turn it into five or even six. If it's not convenient to travels on your side of the street (remember this was a British colony, so driving is on the left rather than on the right), travel on the other facing oncoming traffic. If you have missed your turn don't try to go around the block...instead stop all traffic and make a u-turn.

And that's during the day. Now try the same trick at night. Remember: pedestrians, cows and bicycles are still on the road and have no warning lights! Now try being a pedestrian who just wants to cross the street. Yikes! But somehow it works. No police giving speeding tickets. People parking every which way, stopping in the middle of traffic to ask for directions. It's amazing. I wonder what happens when an Indian driver moves to the U.S.? How do they get used to our much more orderly patterns?


Monday, December 19, 2016


Please note: Last Monday as previously reported the city of Chennai was struck by a cyclone. Our flight from Delhi was cancelled and we flew the following day. We checked into the Taj Country Hotel, which had power and internet. Thursday we engaged a driver to take us to Mahabalapurim, a beach community south of Chennai. It was there that we would await the arrival on Saturday of the group from Portland's Concordia University with whom we would travel for the next 13 days. All took place as planned, except that the beach community had no power or internet connection due to the cyclone. The Ideal Beach Resort ran its facility on generators, but the internet connection never returned. This afternoon (Monday) our group of 10 arrived at another beach resort further south in the town of Pondicherry. Completely out of the cyclone area, we are reconnected with the outside world.

We are aware of the snowy and icy weather back home in Portland, though our weather here in southern India is quite toasty and humid during the day. We are certainly also aware and seriously concerned as to the imponderables of the impending Trump administration, knowing that the electors will meet today and make the inevitable a reality.

Sans the internet, here are notes I made in Mahabalapurim about our stay in Chennai:

National Museum:
Museums in India do not meet American museum standards: the lighting is rather poor, the descriptions leave much to be desired, especially for foreigners who know little about the history or ancient culture/religion. The National Museum is housed in a campus of five somewhat overgrown and run down buildings that have seen better days. Note: at all national monuments Indians pay a minimal fee of less than a dollar; foreigners pay anywhere from $5-10. The first building contained stone statuary of Hindu gods taken from ancient temples. Other rooms contained flora and fauna, and coins, etc. far less interesting to us. We then wandered through the fallen trees and branches following sometimes misleading signs to bronzes in another of the five buildings. The lights were out. The guard told us there was no electricity after the storm. Carol expressed her disappointment, because it was the bronzes she was most curious about. The guard said he would see if the generator worked and low and behold, the building lit up with spectacular pieces. We stayed until we were told that they had to shut down. It turned out to be a most worthwhile visit that almost didn't happen.

Coral Merchant Street:
I learned on the internet that Coral Merchant Street was the center of Jewish life in the port city of Chennai, arriving in the 16th century after the Spanish Inquisition. Chennai on the Indian south east coast was a hub of international trade, attracting Jewish diamond merchants. The last of them apparently departed in the 19th century though a Jewish cemetery apparently remains. I was able to locate Coral Merchant Street with the map app on my phone, and after visiting Fort St. George, the British government outpost prior to independence not to far away, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Georgetown. Our driver had to ask directions several times, but we finally got there. It’s a somewhat sketchy neighborhood today to which tourists have clearly never come, but it remains an import-export area. We walked the street looking for signs: perhaps a remaining mezuzah or indentation where a mezuzah once was affixed as we found in Fez, Morocco, perhaps a Magen David in the outside decoration, perhaps a Jewish name on a building. Nothing, except an old building of quite unusual architecture that Carol was convinced must have been built by Jews.

Some might call our effort a failure. But for us walking the street in southern India that at one time had Jewish life was still amazing.

Indian Prime Minister Modi is engaged in a fascinating, if not often irritating, experiment. India functions almost exclusively as a cash economy. That is people have not converted to plastic, nor do most people use banks. Therefore there is no way to track commerce and as a result most people especially the wealthiest pay no income taxes. They keep their wealth in cash. So without prior announcement, Modi declared within weeks the largest monetary denominations would be null and void and in the interim only a small amount of those bills could be converted each day leaving much untaxed money valueless. Long lines gather in front of every bank, because the general public is cash starved. ATMs are empty.

Some in the government denounce Modi for this outrageous experiment, but cab drivers and others we have asked seem willing to endure the inconveniences in order to improve the economy. And it seems to be working. Desperate people are charging purchases on credit cards. People are using banks. People are adopting a new system that allows payments electronically similar to new payment products in the US. Articles in the paper champion the move to a cashless society, much like ours.

But there are glitches. Modi got rid of the 500 and 1000 rupee bill (equivalent to $7.50 and $15) and printed new 2000 rupee bills ($30) . So, the only way to break a 2000 rupee bill is to get 20 100s and most merchants do not have that many 100s available. It’s temporary, but irritating nevertheless. Lines at banks remain long, but people seem prepared to deal with the inconveniences. The jury remains out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Best Laid Plans...

We planned to get to the shul in Delhi Friday evening. New Delhi is not one of the places of ancient Jewish settlement like Cochin. Nevertheless New Delhi does have a synagogue, in fact a synagogue that identifies itself as Conservative, serving a small number of local families and tourists that visit India's capital and want a place to observe Shabbat or simply seek to check out what a synagogue in India looks like. Judah Hyam synagogue is led by Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, who serves as honorary secretary and unpaid unordained rabbi for over 30 years. The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery were gifted to Delhi's Jews by the Indian government in 1956. Struggling to gather a Minyan, services take place only on Friday evening, but on the High Holy Days the congregation grows with the attendance of Israeli diplomats and other expats. The only other formal Jewish presence evidently is that of Chabad set up in Paharganj, an area attracting backpackers and Israeli tourists.

Well, the day just got away from us and we were continuing to adjust to the time change and before we knew it, much to our disappointment it was too late to make our way to the shul. Hopefully the shul will still be here when we return to India at some time in the future.

Our plans to depart Delhi altogether was also met with adversity. On Monday we had reservations to fly to the city on Chennai, formerly known as Madras (perhaps the source of the name of the town of the same name in Oregon) on the east coust of India's south. Although we heard on the news of a cyclone heading toward the town, it appeared that all was go for our flight. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, made it through very tight security (a topic for a future blog), and headed to the gate only to see on the announcement board listing all the flights that our flight had been cancelled. In Chennai itself the city itself was being pummeled by an actual cyclone. We joined the other passengers for a seemingly endless process of rebooking. There were two seats for us on a 6:50am flight Tuesday morning. As we all know in Portland, a 6:50 flight means arriving at the airport by 4:50am and getting up in time to get dressed, grab luggage and transport to the airport. Then we also had to find a place to stay the night. We discovered that there is a Holiday Inn in the airport. How convenient. Upon calling to make a reservation I was surprised to be told that they rented rooms by the hour! and that they only had a room available until midnight. Well, that would never do. So we took a combination of subway and tuktuk (you can use your imagination) to the closest hotel where we had a quite delightful and entertaining Indian tasting dinner of 16 small courses of appetizers, main course and desserts. I called the hotel in Chennai to explain that we wouldn't make it that evening. Now I will have to wait and see if our traveler's insurance will cover the difference in price and additional expenses.

Despite our uncertainty as to whether the flight would take off the following morning, we made it. Already from the air we could see considerable flooding. As the cab took us to our hotel we could see the devastation from the cyclone close up: trees down everywhere twisted off their trunks, street signs bent, plate glass shattered. It was pretty amazing. Traffic employees must have worked through the night just to get the large limbs off the street so that traffic could flow on this workday. Electricity was out in certain places; air conditioning in this humid city needing work; internet hit or miss. It's quite a sight and experience.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Old Delhi

We know the capital of India to be New Delhi. But if there is a New Delhi, there must be or must have been an Old Delhi (and in fact except for wine, the new...has usually come to replace/improve the old). (I often use this logic in explaining to Christian groups why Jews prefer not to use the term New Testament, because the terminology assumes an Old Testament that has bee replaced and improved by the New. This is of course what Christian theology assumes, namely the improvement and replacement of the Old by the New, but a notion which we Jews reject. Instead we prefer to use the term Christian Scriptures as opposed to the Hebrew Scriptures.)

And sure enough there is an Old Delhi. And on this third day of our adventure the part of Delhi in which we are staying. Prior to departure I told Leah Conley, our Foundation School director, who had spent a month with her husband exploring India that we would spend a few days in Old Delhi. Familiar with the area, she was surprised there was a decent place to stay in Old Delhi. Well, I can confirm that there is, a hotel that was even recently highlighted in the NY Times travel section (®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=45&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0 Notice also the spice shop mentioned in the article. We were there and met the owner.). This is a renovation of an old family estate that had fallen into ruin, rehabilitated by a member of the Indian government that took 6 years. If you are coming to Delhi, I recommend this place highly for its location and for its chef and outstanding Indian cuisine.

I can't share much about New Delhi except for the very good National Museum that we visited on our first day, but Old Delhi is an assault of sights, smells, tastes and bustle. Tiny narrow streets with car, bus, truck and animal traffic in both directions and in the alleyways with motor scooters with huge numbers of pedestrians doing their best not to get hit. The buildings are old, falling apart in some cases, but functioning. We walked through the extensive jewelry district--it's clear that Indians really like gold. There's an entire section of stores devoted to weddings: fancy saries, jewelry for every part of the anatomy (arms, legs, head, ears), bricabrac, etc. and each one has brides and mothers and mother-in-laws. (It's also strange to wander through a jewelry area and find no Jews involved!) But there are parts of the market devoted to clothing, household goods, toys, plumbing supplies, produce. It's a maze of human activity. Carol is taking photos of the the tangle of power lines, strange goat-like animals called a bakra (from whose wool the softest scarves are made), construction workers on bamboo scaffolding, raptures (the bird), unusual places and scenes that only Carol can love sometimes attracting attention of people wondering what in heaven's name she is finding worthy of focusing her camera.

Food: Everyone at home terrorized us about food since it is common for tourists to get sick, sometimes very sick. Only drink bottled water, brush teeth and clean tooth brush with bottled water. Only eat cooked vegetables. Only eat fruit that you can peel. No street food (and it looks so appetizing...) And since Carol doesn't like spicy food, she left home believing she would live for our entire trip on rice. So thus far we have been eating at our hotel. And the food has been fantastic: wonderful flavors, imaginative variety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have complimented the chef on more than one occasion. And though we are still at the beginning, our stomachs are doing ok.

More later and I will see if I can somehow figure out how to put photos on this blog.

Friday, December 9, 2016


We are waiting in Vancouver, BC, for our eventual direct flight Vancouver to Delhi non-stop. This is a fairly new addition to the Air Canada schedule, what I would imagine to be a testament to the growing Indian population in Western Canada. It will be a 14 hour flight port-to-port, similar to the non-stop ElAl flights from LA to Tel Aviv.

We didn't know if it could be done, but we did it. We checked no bags, flying with a carry-on each and a personal item. Previously we traveled with suitcases and carry-on. We admired those who made do with less, but never accomplished it ourselves. This time we were challenged. Ted Engelbrecht, organizer of the Concordia University part of our tour was emphatic. The vehicle we would be traveling in could accommodate no more than a carry-on and a personal item for each participant. I suspect we may never travel with a suitcase again.

Traveling this way means that we could not take the library of guide books we always shlep along. However I did grab a book on Hinduism, one volume from a well-known 1960s religion series. My prior reading revealed ancient and important aspects of Indian history to which I had been oblivious, that in the second pre-Christian century, India was invaded from the north by peoples known as Aryans who came from Central Asia. (Remember Hitler fancied himself an Aryan, what he claimed to be the authentic original inhabitants of Germany as distinguished from Jews who were somehow alien.) The more I read the more this early invasion seems to be vitally important in comprehending much about India.

For now let me speculate on language, particularly the language of Sanskrit. When I studied linguistics in college I remember that scholars claimed that Sankrit was an Indo-European language, related to Latin, ancient Greek and modern European languages. Wow! how did that happen? Especially when you consider that all of the important Hindu texts, the Upanishads, the Bhagavid-gita, the Vedas, etc. were all written in Sanskrit. Though there are varying theories, the most common is that Indo-European Sankrit was brought by the Aryans! Thus that which becomes the religion and culture of the Indian subcontinent and beyond was either imported or at least transcribed not by the native population, but by the invaders. Amazing... More later on the Aryan source of the Indian caste system.

What a difference being able to fly a long flight in business class becomes? After eating dinner, the plane was dark (we were flying through the night), our seats decline fully so that with blanket and pillow we could really sleep. We were flying on a brand new Boeing Dreamliner, the smoothest flight we have ever experienced, the windows darkened automatically, requiring no shades, and no pressure issues upon landing.

The Indira Gandhi Airport must be enormous, because we seemed to walk from the gate to passport control forever. Not needing to locate luggage solved one problem, but we suspected that we would have to face another, namely converting dollars into rupees. Yes, there were ATM machines, but they were all inoperative. Instead there were people in long lines waiting to be served by one of two banks. We couldn't even see the front of the line when someone told us that the bank had run out of rupees and the agent had gone somewhere to get more. Everyone waited patiently, even though it was 2 in the morning! And it wasn't just foreigners in line. Indians too needed to procure their own currency. It was nearly two hours before we got to the front of the line. We were only permitted to transfer a maximum of $70 per customer. So Carol and I each went separately, each collecting the equivalent of $70 in Indian money. It's about 68 rupees to the dollar, translating into some 4400 rupees each after fees.

Then amidst crowds (after all this is India) we had to figure out how to get to our hotel. We had been warned not to go with just any taxi, but then which one. The answer was right there. A sign for prepaid taxis. Tell them where you are going, pay and hop in the next cab. What a relief to walk into our reserved room. It was about 5am, but that bed felt good. Mission accomplished. We made it. Lights out.

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.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Holy Week

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar.  In several languages Easter is known as Pascha, a name derived from Pesach.  Most years Holy Week concluding with Easter coincides with Passover.  That is not accidental, but scheduling by design.  According to three of the Gospels,  Jesus' Last Supper took place at a Passover Seder.    On the agenda at several of the earliest Christian Councils was when to schedule the Easter observance.  One seriously considered proposal was to use the Jewish calendar, thereby assuring that Easter would fall during Passover.  Though that suggestion was rejected, the solution that the Western Church uses gets the desired results most years.  It fails however during Jewish leap years, such as this one, when we add a thirteenth month to our calendar.

This past Thursday Carol and I boarded a ferry that took us from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangiers, Morocco.  In making that transition in less than one hour, we crossed over from an overwhelmingly Catholic country to a predominantly Muslim one.  What an amazing change, particularly during this Holy Week.  All of Spain was on vacation, crowds from the countryside have come for observances into the main urban areas.  Though Morocco is not devoid of Christians, there is no sense of special religious goings on.  In Spain we experienced traditions both amazing and indeed hair raising from both an American and Jewish mindset.

Very early on Palm Sunday we flew from Valencia, where we observed and enjoyed the strange Las Fallas festival I described in a previous blog, to Seville.  Seville is the capital of the province of Andalusia and as such the center of unique Holy Week observances, or so we have been led to understand.  Seville teems with the thousands of people filling hotels and restaurants for this week.

Following Palm Sunday mass children and teens of all ages accompanied by their parents and grandparents poured out of churches.  Though most of the adults were dressed in their Sunday best, this younger contingent along with some adults were dressed in white cloaks with tall pointy hoods that covered their faces revealing only their eyes through cut holes.  We couldn't help associating the dress with Ku Klux Klan uniforms!  It took our breath away.  Of course we were bringing our frightful American associations.  It was explained to us that these clothes were instead a sign of ultimate contrition, that only God could see the real human being.  Thankfully we observed this in the midst of a celebratory atmosphere, and we did our best to understand what we were bringing to the situation.

However that night the scene changed once again.  Now thousands, probably tens of thousands, of older teens and adults paraded in solemn assemblies through the blocked off streets of Seville near the Cathedral wearing mostly black robes with the same large pointy hats as we saw in the morning, but in black, again with only eyes visible.  Interspersed with these solemn assemblies were enormous floats in gold and silver depicting aspects of the final week of Jesus' life, followed by large bands playing mournful dirges.  We learned that the floats weighed thousands of pounds and were being lifted by teams of men under the floats that could only travel several feet before setting the float down.  It was a great honor to be chosen for such a team and periodically substitutes were incorporated.

The combination of darkness, the soulful hooded paraders, many of them in stocking feet or barefoot, the doleful music, the floats themselves, the large crowd of spectators who clapped and cheered each time a float was lifted was eerie and troubling to say the least.  It was also not far from our consciousness that it was in Seville in 1391 that anti-Jewish riots broke out spreading to every major city in Spain with a Jewish community.  These communities never recovered. Those Jewish areas of town continue to exist to this day as the former Jewish areas of town htough no Jews have lived there since the Jews were exiled in 1492!  Jews had lived in these cities often since the Roman period.  It was not difficult to imagine what in other circumstances high religious fervor could lead to given the proper temperament and fanatical leadership.  Given the contemporaneous American presidential race, the atmosphere around Donald Trump also had its affect on us.  We had a hard time sleeping that night.

What we did not expect was that the same ritual would take place each and every night of Holy Week...and not just in Seville.  Later that week we drove to Granada.  Though not as large as in Seville, here too observant participants marched anonymously in hoods, often in black, but also in red and green with floats and bands from the individual churches to the Cathedral and back again to the churches.  Such events we understand occur in every city large and small throughout the province.  It was eye-opening, somewhat frightening and gave us plenty to think about. 

Easter had historically been frightening times for Jews throughout the centuries in Europe.  Blood libels accusing Jews of slaughtering a Christian child whose blood was claimed to be necessary in order to bake matza took place in cities throughout Europe.  Easter was a time of Passion Plays in which it was the Jews who were portrayed as calling for the death of Jesus and were accused of being Christ killers.  We saw first hand how that in former times could easily become reality.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

I guess I never thought much about Christopher Columbus.  We used to get a day off from school for Columbus Day.  We learned that Columbus sailed for Spain, and his first voyage included the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.  Though his origins were obscure, he was likely Italian.  Long ago we were taught that before Columbus, people thought the earth was flat and that if you sailed too far, you would probably fall off.  However sometime later we were assured that even in Columbus' day, people already knew the earth was round. At a certain point when it was emphasized that Columbus exploited the native population on his several journeys, a struggle occurred between the Italian and Native American communities as to whether to celebrate Columbus as a hero altogether.

A theory was expounded at one point claiming that Columbus might well have been Jewish.  After all 1492 was when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jewish community from Spain. We know for a fact that some of Columbus' sailors were Jewish.  That obscure origin mentioned earlier fits well with Jews who might have hidden their origin and if you wanted to hide that you were Jewish, why not claim Christopher as your first name.   However that theory has been largely debunked.  (More recently I learned that the maps that Columbus used came from Majorca, a center of Jewish cartographers.)

However here in Spain Columbus is celebrated as a great hero.  That is because the exploitation of the New World initiated by Columbus' mission and subsequent explorers made Spain fabulously wealthy.  In many ways it made Spain the center of the world, until three generations later under Philip II, Spain's overreach bankrupted the country.

Columbus is buried in the cathedral in Seville, or was he?  His tomb is quite large and stunning.  He died in 1506 in Spain a the age of 54. His remains were moved several times between the old world and the new, back and forth across the Atlantic.  His wishes were to be buried in the new world, and thus Santa Domingo claims to have his remains, but Spain claims they were finally repatriated to Seville.  Our guide told us that DNA tests were done in Spain, but not in Santo Domingo.  It was Columbus' son who wrote a biography of his father, the text of which remains in the Seville archives.

In fact Colon, as he is known in Spain, made his first appeal for money to the king and queen in Seville in 1487 and was turned down.  It was only some years later almost immediately after Grenada fell, the last Muslim holdout in Spain, that Isabella, we are told, granted Columbus' request against the advice of her scientists who claimed correctly that Columbus' calculations were wrong, because the globe must be far larger than Columbus claimed.  Even after reaching what later became known as America, Columbus believed he had reached the Orient.  In the main square in downtown Grenada at the base of Colon Street stands a giant image of Isabella granting Columbus the money for his voyage.  The image contains a scroll listing the voyage's numerous conditions, one of which was granting Columbus one-eighth of any riches he brought back with him to Spain. I can only assume that she reneged on this promise, because it seems that Columbus died impoverished.

Such is life....

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Las Fallas and Shabbat in Valencia

With a few unexpected missteps and gaffs our travels proceed largely as planned.   However finding opportunities to write have surprisingly been few and far between. It's been up early most mornings and quite late to bed most evenings.  Carol and I are not really the beachcomber types.

In our research we discovered the description of what sounded like a wild and crazy celebration that takes place in Valencia for a week every year ending on March 19. We found a reasonable airfare and decided to include the last three days of La Fallas in our itinerary.

Although undoubtedly pagan in origin, it also contains the trappings of Catholicism, probably as a latter day addition.  Crowds of half a million people pour into Valencia as both participants and observers, coming for the spectacle.  Preparations must go on over the entire year.  The participants are made up of 450 "fraternities", associations of various kinds: clubs, neighborhòods, workers groups, etc.  Many of them prepare "Fallas": enormous displays sometimes 30 or 40 feet high, made up largely of cartoonish characters often representing known local personalities in humorous, compromising or suggestive positions, with short written commentary which was over our heads since we neither know the cast of characters or the Spanish/Castilian slang that it is written in.  Some are large enough to walk through and they are displayed in public squares throughout the city.  During the day the fraternities parade through the streets, the women in elegant gowns with hoop petticoats underneath  made of spectacular fabrics and the men often dressed in what looked like pirate attire: men, women, children of all ages, including handicapped and seniors with walkers or wheel chairs, each group followed by a band from the fraternity.  The women carry bouquets of flowers which are deposited at the cathedral and then placed in a 60 foot high arrangement of Mary and the infant Jesus (that's the religious part). There must be hundreds of thousands of carnations.

Finally on the last night, beginning at 10 and continuing until 2am, each Fallas display in turn is set on fire and burned to the ground, preceded by extensive fire works at each of the various locations.  The crowds watching the burning are so heavy and thick with people that there is literally no room to move.

Since we would be in Valencia over Shabbat, I researched possibilities with little expectation of finding another Jew.  To my surprise I discovered that there are actually four small Jewish affiliations, one even connected with the Conservative Movement. The others, I was told, are a small group of Moroccans who mostly do business together; a group of Jewish women married to Spaniards; and the last a Chabad rabbi who arrived with three children and now has 7.

Alba Toscano, whose last name reflects her father's Italian Jewish heritage, who created the Conservative group, invited us to services which take place in her small apartment. Carol and I made our way through the celebrating crowds to find Alba and two other women sitting at a table with homemade Siddurim in Hebrew, Spanish and transliteration.  On a neighboring chest was a computer with six others Skyped in, from various far flung regions of Spain and one man participating from the Isle of Wight, England!

There are usually more participants Alba assured us, but since this was vacation time several people were away. I have never seen anything like this, the extremes we Jews go to in order to connect with other Jews and our faith.  We all participated in turn, Carol and I in Hebrew and English, everyone else in Spanish.  We read through the entire week's Parashah and Alba gave a drash comparing the rules of the Torah to Roberts Rules of Order.  Then the Siddurim and a Humashim were put aside and we in the apartment and the others wherever they were, recited kiddush and hamotzi together.  The entire hour and a half experience was really quite moving.  After the Skype turned off, Alba served the five of us dinner. Amazing.

Alba we discovered overlapped with me at Berkeley, having earned her PhD in chemistry.  She moved to Valencia 27 years ago and never left, earning her way partly as a scientific translator.  She is a bundle of energy.  She created this group which she runs apparently on a shoestring and sees this as her Jewish community.

Saturday morning I met with her for an early morning tour around Valencia, before the revelers bestirred themselves.

We will never forget our experiences in Valencia.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Needing to Get Something Off My Chest

I need to get something off my chest before proceeding further.  And it has nothing to do with my broken ribs which seem to be healing nicely, thank you.

Spain is a very Catholic country. And though many middle aged and younger Spaniards claim not to be religious, Catholicism infuses the entire culture, even, perhaps especially, where people are not aware of it.

Now it's OK that Spain is so very Catholic, though to get that way, the Spaniards engaged in ugly and horrifying acts.  They conquered a society that with noticeable exceptions (yes, Maimonides, honored in Cordoba as a native son, fled with his family at the age of 13 because of Almohad oppression) was tolerant of its Jewish and Christian minorities.  Arab rule encouraged the expansion of science and medicine, nurtured poets and linguists, built architectural masterpieces such as the Alhambra in Grenada and the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba that remain to this day. As the Spanish rulers reconqueried Spain over a period that lasted literally hundreds of years, they engaged Jews to translate the Arab societal advances into Castilian to take advantage of that which the former culture left behind. And for a considerable time under the protection of Spanish monarchs and church authorities, Jews lived well.

But with the passage of years Catholic religious fanaticism captured control of society and the imagination of the people. Though it ebbs and flows and is a complex story that often varies from locale to locale, efforts were made to isolate Jews through distinctive garb and housing.  They could avoid these discriminatory distinctions by converting which some did.  But those who converted were not trusted as genuine Catholics, assumed to be secretly practicing Judaism which some undoubtedly were; they associated with their relatives who remained Jewish, and were referred to as Marranos, which means pigs.

These "former Jews" retained their trusted positions in government, in medicine and elsewhere which only engendered more jealosy...after all the demand to become Catholics was at least in part to deny them their authority and influence and riches. Now those who "converted" maintained all that they had before and now might also be considered respected members of Catholic society as well...  So 100 years before Ferdinand and Isabella captured Grenada the last Muslim holdout, in a moment of political vacuum in 1391, devastating pogrom-like raids on Jewish communities throughout Spain took place: killing, looting and pillage, forcing Jews who had lived in these communities for hundreds of years to either flee the country or seek refuge in smaller locales.  Then years later the Inquisition, endorsed by the Pope, gave religious nuts power to put on trial hundreds if not thousands of conversos, accusing them of putting on nicer clothes on Shabbat, or not eating bread during Passover, or consorting with those who remained Jewish.  The usual punishments for such suspicious Jewish-like behavior included torture and burning at the stake.  Thus my fury to learn that Torquemada remained buried as a dignitary in a church.  However Allen Abravanel, forwarded research that others had taken care of him years ago. His resting place was apparently ransacked in 1832.  (I would like to think it was one of my ancestors who took care of the dastardly deed.) And finally when desperate to separate Jew from Converso, those remaining Jews were expelled in 1492.  These Sephardi Jews found their way to Turkey, Amsterdam, Palestine, Rhodes, Italy and North Africa in search of security, freedom and a place to practice their faith.

Today of course nothing Jewish lives (other than tiny pockets like the Jews in Madrid, whose history here is recent).  It's eerie and weird.  Each of the towns we are visiting: Segovia, Avila, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville and dozens of others have recognized Jewish quarters, areas where Jews once lived and thrived.  But religious fanaticism snuffed it all out.

All that is over 500 years ago.  It's hard to remember that this Jewish presence precedes Christopher Columbus.  But it is history that they (Spaniards) and we (Jews) have to live with and come to terms with.

Before I could go on, I had to get that off my chest.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Broken Bones: Yey, Socialized Medicine/ Fourth Posting 2016 Travel

It was the kind of unexpected and unanticipated event that most certainly could have brought our trip to a sudden and disappointing end. 

We picked up our rental car that would take us first from Madrid to Segovia.  From Segovia we planned a day trip to the town of Avila (more on both later).  Segovia and Avila are hilltop walled ancient cities: extremely narrow streets not made for cars, but which the automobile negotiates perilously over mostly cobblestone passageways.  Among other tidbits we learned that the Grand Inquisitor Torquemata was buried in a church in Avila where he died.  I was incredulous.  How could someone responsible for so much innocent blood on his hands retain the honor of church burial?  I had half a mind to spit on his grave.  I took some minor comfort in the fact that he wasn't buried in the cathedral. (very minor)

It was getting late and we wanted to get back to Segovia before dark, so we headed back in the direction of our parked car.  Just then I saw what I thought was a church at the end of an alley.  Perhaps that's the one.  I turned down the cobblestone lane only to discover that my suspicions were incorrect.

That's when it happened.  I turned back heading to the main road.  One unnoticed cobblestone was raised and inch or so above the rest and I went down face planting on the road. Suddenly I was a bloody mess with blood pouring from my nose and forehead and pain shooting from my right chest, knee and wrist.  Two passersby and Carol helped me to my shaky feet, doing all they could to stanch the blood.  Together they accompanied me a couple of blocks to a local pharmacy.  There the pharmacist and his assistant did their best to clean me up a bit.

Unsure of my real condition we decided to head to a local hospital. (That in itself was an adventure.)  I was immediately taken for x-rays: nose and chest.  Though the radiologist gave us the good and bad news, we met then with Dr. Omar Guillermo, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who was on the night shift.  He confirmed no broken nose, but three, perhaps four broken ribs. Ouch.  Yes, it hurt.  Protocol, the doctor said, for three broken bones was to admit me to the hospital.  I could go, but I would have to sign a release.  Although we had our room and luggage in Segovia, we (rather Carol, since I was in no condition to make decisions beyond not wanting to be admitted) decided to spend the night in Avila.  Dr. Guillermo encouraged us to return to the hospital at 8:30am the next morning for him to check my vital signs, because his overnight shift ended at 9am.  The next 24-48 hours would be critical.  He instructed me to be very careful, because there were serious potential consequences. He typed out prescriptions for three medications: two for pain and one for stomach distress.  The doctor was a delight, taking as much time as we needed and although he spoke very limited English, he communicated mostly via computer, writing diagnosis and directions in Spanish and having the computer translate for us into English.

Then came the real surprises: because I am a foreigner they handed me a bill for $163 euros, considerably less than $200.  Yes, the decimal point is in the right place.  If I had been a Spanish citizen, I would have paid less!!  That included the fees for the radiologist, the x-rays, doctor's fee and hospital.  Then we walked down the street to the pharmacy.  Three medications and the charge was under 10 euros!  Take that Mr. Trump all all of you idiot Republicans, who promise as soon as they enter office to rescind Obama care, which provides access to health insurance to millions who can't get it anywhere else.  Are you kidding me????  As Dr. Guillermo told us when we commented on the fee:  "Medical care shouldn't be a business."

Well, this episode certainly could have ended our trip right then and there.  But thankfully it hasn't.  I took pain pills when needed.  I slept on my back, any other way was too painful.  I have been reasonably careful.  Five days have passed and we will carry on as planned.

Now I just need someone else to spit on Torquemada's grave for me.  I still can't believe  this horrible fanatic (it is even said that he himself was the son a converso...if so, he also had Jewish blood) retains to this day a place of honor in Spain.  Unbelievable.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Correction: Thank You Allen Abravanel

Let me chalk it up to jet lag.  In my first blog post from Madrid, I reported that Carol and I raced off to the Prado Museum as soon as we checked into our hotel.  (Each evening the Prado allows visitors to enter without entrance fee.)  The Prado is surely one of the great art museums of the world. In wandering aimlessly from one room to the next we came across one painting titled "The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain".  How the Spanish deal with the period of the Inquisition and the Expulsion of its Jewish population is of particular interest to me and therefore this painting stood out in my mind.  However I gave some incorrect information and neglected to include some of the most interesting aspects of the content of the painting.

Our good friend Allen Abravanel to the rescue.  One of the preeminent names in Spanish Jewish history is that of Abravanel, Allen's ancestors.  As you will note from Allen's comments to me, it may well have been Abravanel who is actually depicted in the painting.  Though some attribute the scene to fable, others claim that in fact when Ferdinand and Isabella issued the expulsion, Abravanel, whose position gave him access, came to offer a large sum of money in exchange for rescinding the order.  As the offer was being considered the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada entered angrily throwing a cross onto the floor to undermine the request.  The request was summarily denied.

Thank you Allen for setting the record straight.  Here is the full text of Allen's note.  I encourage all to open the web site in order to see the dramatic scene as portrayed by Emilio Sala:

It is great to get your reports of Madrid!  When we visited the city a few years ago, we also went to the Prado and saw The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  It is not a 17th century work, but a late 19th century portrait (in fact, most of the works in that section of the Museum are 19th century Spanish art with historical events depicted, as I remember).  Here is a link to the Prado’s explanation of the piece:

And see:

Since he painted the work in 1889, he must have been thinking about the upcoming 400th anniversary of the expulsion as the inspiration for an historical work of art. 

A few points:

a.       This is a painting of the famous scene in which Torquemada runs in to stop the negotiations to stave off the expulsion.  It seems to me that the artist painted Isabella with her eyes closed, but Ferdinand with his eyes open – she was probably opposed to the financial deal from the beginning, but he was watching his negotiations disintegrate (note the horrifying look on the face of one of his courtiers).

b.      Who is the Jew in the foreground dressed in the garb of an Israelite (note the use of russet colors in his clothing, and the kippah he is wearing)?  Some say Abravanel, while others say Senior.  The scene seems to fit the events described by Abravanel, however.

c.       And what do the words “Tanto Monta” mean in the background?  See:,_monta_tanto,_Isabel_como_Fernando

Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando (pronounced: [ˈtanto ˈmonta, ˈmonta ˈtanto, isaˈβel ˈkomo ferˈnando]; "They amount to the same", or "Equal opposites in balance") was the alleged motto of a prenuptial agreement made by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. During their joint reign they did in fact support each other effectively in accordance with their motto of equality. Still, the wording "Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando" is actually a popular saying invented many centuries later, not the real motto. Besides, and contrary to popular belief, it was only the motto of King Ferdinand of Aragon, and never used by Isabella.[1] Both the full version of the slogan and the unsourced idea that it referred to the two monarchs was a Romantic myth, aimed at fostering the idea that Isabella and Ferdinand ruled over a unified monarchy. In truth, both realms remained separate during their lives.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Madrid: Second Post 2016 Travel

Nothing of Jewish interest remains in Madrid was what I read in searching the web. Well, no wonder, Madrid, Spain's modern capital, began as one of a chain of Muslim outposts to defend against Christian invaders.  Madrid's name derives from an Arabic word meaning water channel.  Medieval Madrid remained a small and poor town through the 15th century, probably not attracting much if any Jewish interest or inhabitants.  King Felipe II chose Madrid as his capital in 1561, despite the fact that it was still a fortified encampment built on mud designed more to impress than to provide a meaningful defense.  Not until the 17th century did Madrid begin to take on the aspect of a capital.  That they did devoid of Jews.

Prior to departing Portland I discovered that Madrid was home to both an Orthodox and Conservative synagogue, a kosher restaurant and a few shops that sell kosher products.  The Conservative synagogue which meets only on Friday nights and holidays was particularly secretive about their whereabouts. They requested scans of our passports, clearly for security before revealing their address.

We have one Portland Jewish contact currently living in Madrid.  Hank Langfus' son, Josh, is teaching English in a Spanish public high school on a Fullbright.  Josh celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in our sanctuary and completed our high school program as well.   Quite an impressive young man.  We invited Josh to come with us to the Conservative service Friday night and for dinner.  He agreed enthusiastically interested in the Jewish connection, adding that he never turned down an invitation to dinner....

In the interim I was determined to use Friday afternoon to check out the Orthodox synagogue and eat lunch in the kosher restaurant around the corner.  I was not at all surprised to find a police van standing on the corner.  However the police there obviously to keep an eye on the synagogue paid no attention to my or anyone else's presence.  The name of the synagogue was nowhere in sight though there was a modernistic shape of a menorah as part of the design on the side of the building. Obviously security again.  Having located the shul I headed for lunch.  It was 1:30pm and two men were speaking outside the restaurant address.  They looked at me curiously.  When I said I was interested in lunch, the owner claimed I was too early. No one eats lunch before 2:30...come back in an hour.  I returned after surveying the small stores, picking up a challah, Shabbat candles and a few other things.  It was a great meat lunch, but more expensive than any other meal so far I have eaten.  In conversation the owner estimated that there were 7000 Jews in Madrid, all but 1000 of whom were Sephardi Jews from North Africa.  He was from Morocco.

Later we found Josh's insights about his experiences and integration into Spanish young culture fascinating.  He did expect to be of some curiosity as an American, but was surprised to be the first Jew anyone had met, teachers as well as students.  They plied him with questions.  He told us he would soon go to a gathering of Fulbright recipients in Germany and would make a presentation on being Jewish in Catholic Spain.  Carol and I agreed we couldn't think of a finer representative of our people than Josh Langfus.

At the Conservative synagogue we were prepared for tight security and came as requested with passport in hand.  No one was interested.  They greeted us warmly. About 50 people gathered, 20 of whom were on a Spanish tour with their rabbi from Boston. The service and most melodies were very familiar.  The synagogue's rabbi was from Argentina and trained there.  Because of the guests he gave his sermon alternating in Spanish and English.  I found that very impressive.  A light Kiddush followed. It turned out to be a productive evening for Josh: he was invited for Seder!

The next morning I headed off to the Orthodox shul, actually walking distance from our hotel.  Here the attendees were less welcoming, largely I guess because they were uncomfortable trying to engage me in English.  Often I look forward to being offered an Aliyah.  I have been called to the Torah in Istanbul, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo.  However just prior to the Torah service, small chips were handed out with numbers on them...I was #19.  They then picked numbers out of a box.  19 wasn't called.  After services the 40 men and 10 women gathered downstairs for a very light repast.  I wouldn' call it lunch.  I met a young couple living temporarily in Israel who were on vacation.  She was British and he American.

Well, it was an eventful Shabbat.  Now on to our next stops: Segovia, Avilla and Toledo.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Madrid: First Post 2016 Travel

 Our arrival in Madrid came at the conclusion of a 23-hour journey that took us from Portland to Chicago, and on to London prior to the final leg.  Thankfully we had accumulated a sufficient number of miles to travel business class, providing not only additional space, the opportunity to lie completely flat during the overseas flight, but also access to the airline lounge during layovers between flights.  Still 23 hours is a long time in transit; nevertheless these amenities helped to mitigate much of the tedium and discomfort.

As Carol expressed it to our museum guide yesterday, there is something very peculiar about touring a country with such a long and protracted history of anti-Semitism.  Sure, very few countries do not contain chapters of hatred of Jews, some more venal than others, yet Spain’s experience is arguably longer and more continuous than any other.  It begins long before the well-known final expulsion in 1492.  Although there were periods of tranquility and eras of security and enormous Jewish productivity, antipathy to Jews fostered by Catholic fanatics appears throughout the centuries of the Christian conquest of Spain from the Moors, the most devastating outbreak occurring in 1391.  Jews never returned to Spain  until sometime after the First World War, only to experience anti-Semitism again under the brutal rule of Francisco Franco, who lumped Jews in with the Communists.  Yet even during that period, Franco seemed to look the other way as some Jews found safe passage through Spain in their effort to escape Hitler.  My mother at the age of 16 was among them.

Despite the foregoing Madrid is a beautiful, uplifting and exciting city, aided by the wonderful unseasonably warm weather that greeted us on our arrival.  (I think Madrid’s weather at this time of year is not too dissimilar to that of Portland’s though it sits as a lower latitude.  The architecture is eye candy and the people pulsate filling the streets and in coffee shops and restaurants into the wee hours of the night.  We have been reading for some time about the Spanish economy facing challenges similar to those of Greece and Italy.  There is no sign of that from the viewpoint of an arriving tourist. The people are well dressed, driving newish cars and seem to eat out a lot.

Madrid is famous for its museums, most particularly the 1)Prado, followed by the 2)Reina Sofia, which houses among other famous pieces, Picasso’s Guernica, named for the Basque town decimated during the Spanish civil war and the 3)Thyssen-Bornemisza.   The first two offer free evening hours.  So almost immediately after setting our suitcases down in our hotel we made our way to the Prada, a mammoth museum, home to paintings by Titian, Bosch, Rubens, Duerer, El Greco, Valesquez, and Goya among others.  I have the great advantage of bringing my own art expert and experienced museum docent as we tour.  What a help!

On our walk to the Prado, we passed the very ornate municipal building, the hub of a major Madrid intersection.  There prominently hung a huge banner declaring “Refugees Welcome”.  Now that’s surely a clear message.  We have all been reading about the rivers of refugees flooding into Germany and France, often to mixed reviews, as well as Donald Trumps’ racist anti-Muslim refugee pronouncements.  But here on an important civic building the community is declaring its public attitude.  For me it was unexpected, but I was delighted. I wonder though how popular among the general populace this statement of welcome is.  Nevertheless there it is.

Finally, as we wandered the Prado that first evening with no particular ground game, with many paintings on various Catholic religious themes, I was very struck by one piece, there being only one, painted, I think in the 17th century, titled “The Expulsion of the Jews”.    Throughout our wanderings in Spain over the next weeks, I will be very curious as to what if anything the Inquisition and the expulsion has meant and continues to mean to Spaniards.  Are they aware of this history?  Is it taught in school?  How is it presented?  Does it taint in any way thoughts about Ferdinand and Isabella who must be thought of as heroes responsible for the beginning of a new era of Spanish history.  And what was it that prompted this painter in the 17th century to choose this theme as the subject of this painting?  Even though there was only one, I was pleased to run across it our first evening in Madrid.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Meaning of Monotheism???

23 years ago shortly after arriving in Portland I attended my first Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting.  There Lois Shenker reported on the first evaluation by the students of the Introduction to Judaism course of which she had only the previous year become its first administrator.  Among the accolades for the course overall, several students reported disappointment that the subjects of God and dietary laws were conspicuously missing.  I looked around the room for comments.  Dietary laws is one thing, but 18 weeks as an introduction to Judaism and not one presentation of the Jewish view of God!!??  Only Rabbi Stampfer opined that in truth all 18 classes were about God.  Nice try, but that was a cop out.

The solution? A 19th class would be added to the curriculum devoted exclusively to the subject of God and Theology.  Since I was the newest addition to the group, that became my class and over the next 23 years I have taught that session almost every semester.

Each God and Theology class I ask an obvious question, namely "what makes monotheism different?"  How might one explain what the difference in outlook is between a monotheist and someone whose belief system includes many gods?  It sounds like a simple question, but rarely do I get a courageous student to venture an idea.

Truly the question can be answered in several ways, and I offer but one.  I tell the students that when I explore the subject with elementary age children, I ask them, "If you want to stay up late one night, do you know which parent to ask?"  They all do.  They all know which parent is more likely to say yes.  Thus having two parents is a recipe for potential chaos.  They might answer differently.  Imagine not two parents, but hundreds of authority figures...That's why often one parent (often the father) will say, "Go ask your mother". I ask the students why in the Iliad do all the combatants pray to different gods, hoping that their god will bring victory?

A polytheistic outlook is one that conceives of the world as basically a chaotic place, a capricious place, while a monotheistic view is one of perceived order, some would add even if that order is illusive to us.  A single God reigns supreme.  That God as conceived by the Torah and Jewish thought has no myth, i.e. that God has no life similar to human beings as we find in mythological traditions.  The Hebrew God does not fall in love, nor carry out vendettas against other divine beings, etc.

But are all monotheisms the same?  When Jews, Christians and Muslims proclaim that they are monotheists, do they all mean the same or similar ideas.  The answer is both yes and no.  There are certainly large areas of similarity between the three faiths as well as differences.  And certainly there are not only difference between the faiths, but within each of the faith traditions.

That became the central issue prompting/forcing Larycia Hawkins to resign her post as assistant professorship at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near Chicago. In taking a courageous stance against Islamophobia, Ms. Hawkins had posted a photograph of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab with the caption: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims, because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."  That posting led to an uproar prompting a negotiated withdrawal.

This controversy became the subject of this week's religion article that appears each week in Saturday's New York Times: Are all monotheisms equal?   Several theologians were asked their opinion.  The most erudite, I thought, was that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Britain.  He asked, do we worship the same god, but in different ways, or does the fact that we worship god in different ways mean that we worship different gods?  Even the conception of the same Abraham is thought of differently by Jews, Christians and Muslims. So yes, and no.

A few years ago it was reported that the government of Malaysia outlawed the use of the name Allah by Christians to refer to their God.  However in Malaysia and many other predominantly Muslim countries Allah is the generic term for God employed not only by Muslims, but by Christians and Jews as well.  For Muslims Allah is the proper name of their God.  For other monotheists, Allah had become the term used when speaking of their own God.

What an interesting world!