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Israel boycott rejected by co-op in Port Townsend, Washington

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–Last month when I was visiting Seattle, I had the opportunity to take part in a “hearing” of the Olympia Food Co-op whose board had voted to boycott Israeli products. The 15,000 Co-op membership had not been consulted and some of them were upset–not that they were pro-Israel, they were ticked off that the Board had not consulted the members before they launched the Co-op into progressive history by becoming the first co-op in the nation to boycott Israel.

More of that later. In another part of Washington state–the charming, quiet community of Port Townsend–another Israel boycott was brewing. This time however, saner voices prevailed and Jewish activists from all over the state, led by the Seattle StandWithUs group, together with a flurry of letters and op eds in the local paper, resulted in a “no” vote on the boycott last night. Read more…

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16 ways Jerusalemites know Sukkot is coming

September 20, 2010 1 comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM — Sixteen ways Jerusalemites know Sukkot is coming:

1. The clang of metal poles and the sounds of hammering are practically constant as Jerusalem’s apartment dwellers hurry to erect their sukkot and squeeze them into small balconies, odd-shaped gardens and otherwise derelict rooftops.

2. The tourists have landed! Overwhelmingly religious, English and French speaking, they jam the city’s take-out places and restaurants, and may be seen in packs wandering up and down Emek Refaim Street and through the glitzy Mamilla Mall talking to their friends at top volume on their cell phones.

3. Almost every non-profit group worth tits salt has scheduled a fund-raising and/or familiarization event for the intermediate days of Sukkot, aimed at capturing the attention of the wealthy temporary Jerusalem residents. Read more…

Jerusalem spends a day without traffic lights

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM — I know most Jews call Yom Kippur by other names, but here in Jerusalem, it’s the Day of No Traffic Lights. There are no traffic lights because there’s no traffic on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. The city just turns off the lights for 25 hours. Imagine—an entire country without any motor vehicle traffic apart from emergency vehicles and security patrols. The quiet is absolutely stunning. Starting from sundown on erev Yom Kippur, 25 hours of blissful peace and quiet. Think of the negative carbon footprint impact! No traffic; radio and TV stations are silent; no phones ringing; no home appliances whirring; no airplanes overhead—you can actually hear the wind in the trees and the song of the birds.

Pedestrians share the road with bicycles ridden by hundreds of secular Israelis who savor the day as a safe opportunity to try out their biking skills with no annoying traffic lights or crazy Israeli drivers. But the overwhelming sense is of a people taking a complete day to evaluate and perhaps change their lives.

Walking to Kol Nidre, the streets are thronged with people clad in white, to signify purity and a withdrawal for one day from the vanities of our usual fancy clothing.

Every synagogue is packed to overflowing, and several hundred community centers around the country also offer Yom Kippur services with emphasis on discussion and openness for those who might never before stepped foot in a synagogue. Read more…

As Yom Kippur approaches in Jerusalem…

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–In the days before Yom Kippur, thousands of Torah observant Israelis rush to finish the ritual of kapparot, where human sins are symbolically transferred to a fowl–generally a chicken. It’s a custom that does not appear anywhere in the Talmud, but whose origin seems to come courtesy of several 9th century rabbis.

In a parking lot near Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market, dozens of live chickens are whirled above the heads of men, women and children while a pronouncement is made declaring: “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement: This chicken will meet its fate while I will proceed to a good, long life of peace.” [See my Kapparot photos from Machane Yehuda at www.Demotix.com] The chickens are then donated to the needy or redeemed with money that goes to the poor.

Meanwhile, curious secular Israelis by the hundreds take part in pre-dawn Selichot tours, where they look in on dozens of congregations where the faithful are immersed in penitential prayers chanted to ancient melodies.

Members of the Kurdish Bashari Synagogue in Nahlaot dance to selichot tunes.

In the streets later in the day, men hurry along with towels to the nearest mikveh (ritual bath). Many have already started building their sukkot (booths) in readiness for Sukkot, the one-week festival that starts the week after Yom Kippur. Sukkot structures of all kinds have sprung up on balconies, street corners and in front of cafes. The final decorations and the schach covering will be added right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.  Read more…

Sights and sounds of Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–Anyone venturing into the shuk or even a local supermarket in Israel this week could be forgiven for thinking that a famine was imminent in the land.

Shoppers laden with huge nylon bags bulging with every kind of produce, fish, meat and bread may be seen staggering under the weight of their purchases, secure in the knowledge that they have sufficient provisions for the three days when stores are closed for the holiday and Shabbat.

Certain foods are traditional to eat on Rosh Hashana, and the markets are full of the most beautiful pomegranates, succulent dates and crisp apples. All the produce is local—pomegranate trees grow everywhere, even in private gardens; dates are from the Jordan Valley and apples from the Golan.

For some, the three-day Jerusalem shutdown of entertainment and shopping is a little much. One of my more secular neighbors informed me she’s running off to a hotel in Tel Aviv for the duration. Tel Aviv’s beaches are generally packed on every holy day.

Other secular Israelis, however, are intrigued by the pre-Rosh Hashana traditions, and join 3 a.m. tours of the selichot (forgiveness) services at Jerusalem synagogues in the old neighborhoods. It’s mostly the Sephardic congregations that host the melodic recitation of penitential prayers in the month before Yom Kippur. Late at night, the Old City is jammed with visitors making their way down to the Kotel for selichot, and taking a walking tour of the back alleys along the way. At 11:30 p.m in the square in front of the renovated Hurva Synagogue, industrious groups of young yeshiva guys feverishly unload panel after panel of plywood and 2 by 4 poles to construct the sukka there.

[See the You Tube video ]

Newspaper polls report that only 47 percent of Israelis plan on attending synagogue services to pray during Rosh Hashana, but hotels all over the country report 95 percent occupancy rates. The traffic jams generated by all that coming and going are truly monumental. In the hours leading up to the leyl Rosh Hashana family dinner, it seems as if the entire country is on the road. Roads anywhere near shopping centers have been packed for days now, so we should be used to it.

A uniquely Israeli tradition is the “haramat cosit” literally, “lifting of the glass”, in honor of the New Year. Government ministries, corporations and municipal offices all host toasts where wine and good cheer flow. The fleet of diplomatic vehicles double-parked outside the official presidential residence in Jerusalem is an indication that President Shimon Peres is hosting the diplomatic corps for the traditional New Year bash.

No doubt, the foreign emissaries were discussing the tensions of the day, which this year, once again include the Iranian nuclear threat and the current direct peace talks.

So as we prepare to sign off for a few days of introspection and stocktaking, we take this opportunity to wish Jewish readers and their families a year of health, fulfillment and success—oh yes, and peace and quiet.

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Judy Lash Balint is a freelance writer whose posts may be found regularly on the blog: Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times

Poetry abounds in Jerusalem as Rosh Hashanah approaches

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–One of the great things about living in Israel is how easy it is to really “feel” any upcoming holiday. Just take a walk through the shuk and the stacks of honey jars, piles of perfectly ripe pomegranates and barrels of shiny Golan apples all make it easy to anticipate the High Holydays. Radio & TV ads are full of New Year wishes and mailboxes full of heart-wrenching holiday appeals. But paradoxically, all that can be a downside, because it’s just too darn easy to take it all for granted.

In the old country, where you had to finagle time off from classes or work and explain the intricacies of why you were living in a booth for eight days in the chilly autumn rain, getting ready for the high holidays was a more deliberate and serious endeavor. Here in Israel, it’s too easy to take things for granted and can sometimes become just a matter of anticipating a week off work and deciding which trips to take during chol hamoed–the intermediate Sukkot days.

That’s why events like the Festival HaPiyut are just the right antidote.

It’s hard to explain piyutim. Essentially they’re the poetry that adorns various prayers throughout the year. The pre-High Holyday piyutim are the verses Jews recite at this time of year to butter up God. They’ve evolved over the centuries and are generally sung as a community, not by the individual, and for some reason Sephardim have a more finely developed sense of using piyutim than Ashkenazim.

Piyutim are experiencing a revival here in Israel with young paytanim (singers of piyutim) commanding large audiences; a website devoted to the genre as well as a wealth of scholarly research and concert halls filled with devotees.

In the delightful walled courtyard of the Beit Avichai Center on King George Street, several hundred mostly religious people gathered for the opening of last year’s Festival.The event was billed as encompassing three generations of paytanim from Nachlaot, the old Jerusalem neighborhood not more than 7 minutes walk away.

Indeed, the all-male performers range in age from 10 to 80, each one chanting one of the soulful but lively piyutim to the accompaniment of an outstanding group of musicians.

Many of the piyutim are from the 19th and early 20th century–mostly originating in Tunis or Egypt. The music is amazingly complex with changing rhythms and odd beats with darbuka drums, the oud and violins all playing major roles.

The two hour concert draws to a close after two veteran paytanim were honored. One, Rabbi David Raichi, who immigrated from Tunis in 1956, was a long-time piyut practitioner at the renowned Ades synagogue in nearby Nachlaot.

As Rav Raichi drew out his final notes, I couldn’t help thinking of Rev. Samuel Benaroya the late chazan of Sephardic Bikur Holim, my congregation in Seattle, who was a world-renowned expert in every kind of Sephardic makam, and whose personality and ability to pass on those traditions is legendary. His special knowledge of the Ottoman style maftirim would have been a worthy addition to the evening.

Walking home with the melodies and the poetry of the piyutim still in my head, I realize that the journey toward the High Holydays will no longer be so easy to take for granted.

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Balint is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.  This is reprinted from her website, Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times

Completion of Torah Scroll in Old City prompts celebration

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Scribe completes a Torah scroll

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–The Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem’s Old City celebrated the completion of a new Torah scroll Wednesday night, July 28, in a lively celebration of Jews from around the world.

A scribe dips his quill pen into special ink and puts the finishing touches to a new Torah scroll before sewing up the parchment with special thread and dancing with the Torah through the streets of the Jewish Quarter.

Dozens of people from all over the world took part in the dedication of the scroll that was donated by families from Morocco and the United States.

A delegation of Sephardic leaders from Los Angeles and New York took part in the festive event, with many men putting their hand over the hand of the scribe as he finished the last letters of the scroll that contains the Five Books of Moses.

Scribes who are trained in the art of writing a Torah must undergo rigorous training. It takes about one year to complete the writing of the quarter million letters that make up the scroll.

The parchment must come from a kosher animal–usually a goat, bull or deer and generally takes about 80 skins for one Torah scroll.

A special feather quill and ink are used and the scribe must not write anything from memory. After checking the scroll with another scribe, the ceremonial completion is scheduled. It’s considered a great honor to take part in the writing of a letter of the Torah.

The last part of the scroll was sewn together, a cover and silver bells placed on it, and the entire congregation accompanied the Torah under a wedding canopy, dancing through the streets of the Jewish Quarter.

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Balint is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.  This is reprinted from her website, Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times