A Place of Contrasts

Dispatch from Akko, Israel, Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Who ever said life had to be consistent?  We live in a world so striking in diversity, that it is sometimes mind boggling to consider the different rules by which people live.

On the Hebrew calendar, this is the month of Elul.  Elul is a special month because it precedes the High Holy Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Part of the preparation of the “Days of Awe” is the daily sounding of the Shofar at the Shacharit (morning) minyan (prayers).  Once upon a time, I was a Ba’al Tekiah in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  My expertise in this area came from playing the trumpet starting when I was in fourth grade.  I loved the job and sounded what looked like a bullhorn that my parents had brought to me from Israel.  In truth, the Shofar that I utilized was from the Yemenite Jewish tradition, one of the oldest of Jewish settlements outside the Holy Land.

Jews in Yemen are hanging on by a thread today.  The Jews who were once populous in Arab countries have all been driven out, turned into refugees and scorned.  Nevertheless, those magnificent groups of Sephardic Jews, as they are typically called, have enriched the culture of Judaism in a remarkable way.  Most of my mother’s family who were fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust and make it to Israel married into Yemenite families.  It was a shock to my family to see their red-haired, blue-eyed members marrying the dark-skinned Yemenite Jews.  It was something of a culture shock, to say the least.  A couple of generations later, everyone seems quite happy and satisfied living in Rishon LeZion.

How does the arrival of Elul relate to a pleasant day sailing in the easternmost Mediterranean Sea, arriving at the Israeli-Arab town of Akko? No doubt we sailed the most modest boat in the Mediterranean fleet that day. 21 feet is not very big to navigate the eastern Mediterranean with a pleasant but strong westerly wind and swells of perhaps 1-1/2 meters capped by white foam.  Nevertheless, that is the Rieders family at its best:  taking on a challenge that few would accept.

Sailing into the ancient port of Akko was like turning a page into the 12th Century.  The old city of Akko doubtless has not changed in many centuries.  The blare of Arabic music could be clearly heard, and it was clear that some sort of festival or celebration was going on in and around the port city.  Brightly colored mosque domes of green and blue dotted the port skyline. Minarets reached for the azure sky above and the sun shone at its brightest intensity in the afternoon warmth of the Middle Eastern day.

We were a little bit unsure as to how to enter the harbor, but we followed in what looked like a police boat.  When we got to the dock, we tied up next to a work skiff, bow first, as is the European custom.  We were comforted to see two Israeli policemen standing next to their small outboard speedboat.

We walked through the crowded streets and bazaars, eventually making our way to a nearby bed and breakfast run by some Israelis.  There, we were greeted with cool air conditioning, water, and offers of help if we needed any.  “You came by boat?”, our surprised hosts asked.  “Yes, on a small boat at that.”

Kim and Kaila decided to wander through the town a bit more looking for provisions, especially water and perhaps some food.  I decided it was best to go back and keep watch over the boat.  On the way back, I passed a sight that will be burned into my memory.

Near the center square of the ancient town was a tent.  In the tent, an improvised shooting range had been set up.  I looked in and saw some young kids, probably 8-12 years old, shooting colorful guns:  red, pink, blue and black.  Some looked like assault weapons and others simply large handguns, perhaps the size of a .45.  I could not get close enough to see what caliber these weapons were, but I could clearly see that the youngsters were shooting at paper targets in the shape of adult human beings.  The young people, essentially children, were supervised by young Arab men perhaps in their early 20s.  I could not hear what they were saying, and I do not understand enough Arabic to know; but as an American, a parent and a supporter of the Second Amendment, I was shocked to see children being entertained by a system of morality that stresses the utility of encouraging young people to shoot at human targets.

The entire town was “guarded” by these two policemen, who seemed either unarmed or minimally armed, standing around their speedboat and talking with local citizens in a friendly and courteous manner.

Four of the Arab boys who were swimming around our boat decided to disconnect our stern line from the skiff which was helping to hold our boat in place.  I tried to engage the boys, and while they spoke no English, and I spoke no Arabic, we tried to converse a little bit in Hebrew.  The boys became friendlier and friendlier, eventually moving right onto our boat and sitting next to me.  I gave them my candy bars and a bottle of water, which seemed to make them my friends.  Perhaps world peace is at hand!  We “talked” to the extent that we could, and I learned that the older boy’s name was Mohammad.  I gave him my Hebrew name, Chaim, and I had the feeling that they were not anxious to leave.

At that moment, Kim and Kaila returned from their journey and the boys looked at them with horror, immediately scrambling and jumping overboard to swim away.  I wondered what the cultural significance was of the fact that these boys had no problem sidling up to me and being most friendly and chatty, while immediately fleeing upon the appearance of two lovely women?

What does the month of Elul and sounding of the Shofar have to do with young Arab boys being encouraged to use weapons as a sign of male dominance?  The purpose of sounding the Shofar is not only to herald the arrival of an important spiritual time, but also in the view of Jewish spiritualists, it is intended to wake up the souls to their duty of devotion, love and peace.  This great effort on the part of Israelis and Jews worldwide cannot completely overcome the hatred and derision that exists throughout the world for those who are different or are viewed as the infidel.  However, perhaps if the Western world shows intolerance for extremism while encouraging a more spiritual approach to life, we all could make a difference.  As is written in the Talmud, none of us can complete the work of perfecting the world, but neither are we permitted to refrain from trying.

Happy Elul!

Cliff Rieders is a Board-Certified Trial Advocate in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority.  None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.

About the Author
Cliff Rieders is a Board Certified Trial Advocate in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority.
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