Good Books about Modern Israel

Image: A modern Israeli highway runs beside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. (Public Domain)

Some general histories of Modern Israel:

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Nation and Its History by Rich Cohen

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert

My People: The Story of the Jews by Abba Eban

Some books about particular parts of Israeli history:

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World by Seth M. Seigel

O, Jerusalem! by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Primary Sources:

The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl

Memoirs by David Ben Gurion

The Jews in their Land by David Ben Gurion

Abba Eban, an Autobiography by Abba Eban

So, regular readers, what books have I neglected to mention that would help a beginner understand Israel? What histories do you like? What books give the reader the flavor of contemporary Israel? What memoirs and primary sources are particularly good?

I look forward to your additions in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Oh, Jerusalem!

Image: The City of Jerusalem. (walterssk/Pixabay)

There’s a faded poster in my living room. It was a campaign poster for Shinui [“Change”] a secular Israeli political party that ran in the 2002 elections. It reads, in Hebrew:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

It is a play on Psalm 137:5:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

Psalm 137, perhaps more than any other, expresses the Jewish longing for the much-contested real estate we call Jerusalem. I love that poster because it expresses to me the complexity of Israeli society, the layers of history and tradition and modernity.

Ever since the beginning of the Iron Age, and maybe even before that, people have been fighting over the place called Uru-shalim (the Amarna texts, 1330 BCE,) Beth-Shalem, Yerushalaim (ירושלם‎), and Ierousalēm (Ιερουσαλήμ, in the Greek New Testament.)

Genesis calls it Shalem, the city of King Melchizedek (based on Genesis 14:18) and Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son in Genesis 22. Psalm 76 refers to it as Salem, a name which the Puritans borrowed when they founded a certain infamous town in Massachusetts. Some texts refer to it as Zion, after Har Tziyyon, the hill upon which the Temple Mount stands.

The locals called it Jebus until King David captured it and made it his capital, so sometimes people refer to it even today as the City of David.

After the Romans flattened it in the 2nd century CE, they renamed it Aelia Capitolina after the family of Herod (Aelia) and they built a temple to Jupiter to replace the Jewish Temple. They were certain that would be the last anyone would hear of the Jews.

The modern Arabic name of the city is القدس al-Quds, which derives from the Semitic root Q-D-S, meaning “Holy,” because for Muslims, too, it is a holy city. Mohammed is believed to have visited in the year 610, and to have made a journey to heaven from the al-masjid-Al-Aqsa, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, atop the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The Ottomans called the city al-Quds aš-Šarīf, and it was in their possession for centuries.

Then there are the Christians, for whom Jerusalem was the scene for the theophany of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre encompasses several of the sites in the drama. Some Christians believe that in years to come Jerusalem will be the stage for the Second Coming. Many Christians live in the city today, and like the Jews and the Muslims, there are many holy sites, many sacred markers there for them.

Make no mistake, with the exception of the Romans, who probably loathed the place and everyone in it, the city is a holy and a beloved place. It is the most-contested scrap of real estate in the world.

I lived there for a year, the best and worst year of my life.

Jerusalem wrings the heart. It tests the soul. It drives some people crazy: there is an actual diagnosis called “Jerusalem syndrome” in which perfectly sane people come to visit the city and then suffer from delusions of being a Biblical character or of having some special destiny. I know that I lived there only 12 months and I was changed forever by it. It will never release its hold on me.

So when I heard about the pronouncement by President Trump that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I trembled. So many people are so invested in that place, and his pronouncement only spoke to the Israelis. It was bound to cause trouble, because for many years now, there has been an assumption that West Jerusalem will be the capital of a Jewish state (in fact, it functions as such already) and that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state. What Trump seems to have been saying, whether he realized it or not, is that he is giving up on the two-state solution, and that the fate of the Palestinian residents is of no concern to him.

I tell my students that anyone who talks about the Middle East and begins, “It’s very simple” should be disregarded out of hand. There is nothing simple about that place — and that goes double and triple for Jerusalem. I care very much for the Jerusalemites I know, both Israeli and Palestinian, and I hate to think of them in the midst of violence.

I worry that the President doesn’t understand that the situation is complex and delicate. I worry that he thinks he can be a broker between the two sides but only speak to one. I worry that he fails to realize that there are not just two sides, but dozens of different stakeholders in the city of Jerusalem, and that they could easily be at each others’ throats, because that holy city, that dear place, has a tendency to bring out extremes.

In the meantime, I will pray Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for[a] Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

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If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

Women’s Rabbinic Network Reacts to Strip Searches at Kotel

Image: Women’s Rabbinic Network Logo

The Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) is a professional organization of Reform women rabbis. It is a constituent group of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). I am proud to be a member of the WRN.

For more about the incident in question, here is the story as reported in the Times of Israel.

Women’s Rabbinic Network Reacts to Strip Searches at Kotel

The Women’s Rabbinic Network, representing over 700 Reform women rabbis, strongly condemns the invasive body searches of female students of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at the Western Wall yesterday morning. These students, our future colleagues, were violated and disrespected, and we join our colleagues of the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis and the Jews of the greater Reform Movement in calling for an immediate apology and the appropriate discipline of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz who ordered these searches and the security personnel who carried out them. This is just the latest incident in an ongoing battle for egalitarian rights at the Kotel and the right of all Jewish women to pray freely at this holy site. As women rabbis, and as Jews who identify with the Reform movement, we are acutely aware of our second-class status in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Month after month, Women of the Wall gather to celebrate Rosh Chodesh and are subjected to mistreatment, verbal and sometimes physical assault. With the latest position of the Israeli government in abdicating the agreement to create a fully egalitarian space, it is not surprising that the mistreatment of women and Women of the Wall members is escalating even further. The WRN stands firmly in support of Women of the Wall, with all the women cantors, rabbis, and students, as well as all who fight for equal status and treatment at the Kotel in the face of increasing violence and disrespect.

For Comments Contact:

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, Executive Director

WRN cell: 908-962-4659

Our Biblical Cousins?

Some of the excavated ruins of Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Photo by Loris Romito, via Italian Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

I have a word to tell you, a message to recount to you: the word of the tree and the whisper of the stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, of the seas to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that people do not know, and earth’s masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it. – Ras Shamra inscription

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit sat on the coast in northern Syria. The citizens of that city left an enormous library of clay tablets inscribed in Ugaritic, a Semitic language. From those writings, we know that they worshiped El, Asherah, and Baal, Canaanite deities mentioned in our Bible. Some of their poetry has close parallels in our Book of Psalms. As you can see from the example above, the writings were vivid and very beautiful.

The “golden age” of Ugarit came to an end about 1200 BCE, at a time of great upheaval in the ancient Near East. The invasions of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) coincided with the destruction of the city. This corresponds to the period described in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. — Judges 21:25

Causeless Hatred and the Jewish State: Have We Learned Our Lesson?

Re-blogging this to CoffeeshopRabbi.com – Rabbi Micah Streiffer is a colleague and former classmate and I love what he has written.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

What, I’m not good enough to be blacklisted??

Those were the words with which I jokingly feigned righteous indignation last month when the Israeli rabbinate released its “blacklist” of rabbis from whom they will refuse letters of Jewishness for new immigrants. Others of my colleagues had similar amused responses: congratulating those who did make the list, creating multi-step plans for getting onto the next one.

But the truth is, that list ought to horrify us. Especially today.

Tonight bKotel.jpgegins Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, we mark the traditional anniversary of the  destruction of the ancient Temple by Rome in the year 70. This is a seminal event in Jewish history: the beginning of a 2000-year exile; the loss of sovereignty that left us wandering around the world and vulnerable to antisemitism and persecution for centuries.

Like any event…

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Losing God in Jerusalem

Image: A human shadow against a wall of Jerusalem stone. This image appears with Rabbi Nafshi’s article in Lilith.

Every now and then I read something and all I can think is, “Darn, I wish I’d written that.”

My colleague Rabbi Robin Nafshi has published an exquisite essay on the Lilith blog, Losing God in Jerusalem.

I encourage you to click the link and read it. I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying more.

Is Wonder Woman Jewish?

Image: Directors Patty Jenkins and actors Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Connie Neilsen talk about Wonder Woman at San Diego Comic Con, 2016 (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

I’ve waited for this movie for 50 years.

When Linda and I sat down yesterday in the theater, I was wary. I’ve had my heart broken in movie theaters before. The first time I was nine, when Walt Disney tarted up Mary Poppins (1964) beyond all recognition, drenched her in sugar, and perverted P.L. Travers’ books. I felt I’d been robbed, and I left the theater sobbing.

I feel strongly about certain characters in literature.

So when there has been talk about a Wonder Woman film, I’ve perked up my ears, but I’ve not let myself hope too much. Hollywood has a way of messing up good stories, especially good stories with female protagonists. I was encouraged to hear that Patty Jenkins was directing; her writing and direction of Monster (2004) were miraculous.

I was even more encouraged when I heard that Gal Gadot had been cast as the lead. She is beautiful, she is strong, she can be very funny, and I liked the idea of the world hearing an Israeli accent in that role. A Jewish woman as a super hero? Oh, yeah!

I saw the poster and dared to hope. WonderWoman

As sexualized as the comic book figure was, as campy as the TV show, the image in the poster is that of a warrior. She is kneeling on a beach, at the edge of her world.  The sun behind her is either rising or setting, with no clues as to which it is. Is she at the beginning of a journey, or recovering from battle? Is her grave expression sadness or something else?

I won’t spoil the film for you. I spent quite a bit of it in tears, watching a brave woman do terrifying things in defense of innocents. Some of those tears were that I was finally seeing the movie I’d wanted to see ever since I first found a Wonder Woman comic book discarded on a sidewalk in Nashville 50 years ago and recognized her as mine. Some of those tears were the tears of a graying feminist who finally got to see a great movie about a wonderful woman, directed by a woman. Some of them were because the movie is genuinely moving, and occasionally pretty scary (take that PG-13 rating seriously, please.)

Does the film have Jewish content? You bet. It stars a Israeli woman. Wonder Woman may have a Greek name but she learns a very Jewish lesson: humanity was born good, with a terrible capacity for evil. The fight is to free that which is good while curbing that which is evil. It is not a simple task.

Go. See the movie. Let me know what you think in the comments.