Behind the Screaming Headlines…

When my wife and I planned to be in Israel over the last week of December, I never imagined that our trip would coincide with one of the most tumultuous weeks in the stormy history of the Israeli-American relationship. The fact that our time away coincided completely with Hanukkah made it strange enough not to be home, with the congregation I serve as a rabbi. But not being around while Israel and America were “going at it” in such a public and dramatic way made it additionally surreal.

The flip side of that, of course, is that though I wasn’t in Forest Hills with my synagogue, I was in Israel, with the other major player in the disagreement —  and in my other home. That was a fascinating if not always easy experience. Though my conversational Hebrew is excellent, once Israelis that I was talking to or dealing with heard my unmistakable American accent, I was treated to an unfiltered, unasked for commentary on the American abstention on the Security Council resolution on the settlements. From cabdrivers who rarely missed the chance to remind me that Barack HUSSEIN Obama was finally out in the open as being anti-Israel, to a man sitting in front of me at a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service who relentlessly tried to show me point by point me how wrong America was — no one was reticent. For the record, I didn’t say a word in that synagogue conversation- I was actually trying to daven –– other than at one point to mention to the aforementioned gentleman that he might be confusing me with John Kerry, and that I don’t make American foreign policy. To be in Israel last week was to be in a seemingly endless conversation that was destined to produce a headache.

There is a lot to say about the American abstention, and I hope, now that I’m back, to address it this coming Shabbat morning during services. I choose not to write about it until after I have. For now, I’d rather focus in on the reality that, before the vote was taken in the UN, I was determined to show my daughter’s boyfriend, who was traveling with us on this trip (with our daughter) and had never been in Israel before: namely, that Israel is not la-la land. It is a real country with real people, living real lives in real time with real problems and real accomplishments. Having lived in Israel for two years as a college and then rabbinical student, learning enough about the country to blend into the reality that lies behind the headlines had always been important to me. Living in Israel is so very different from visiting; visiting is a series of episodic experiences, but living there is experiencing the times in between. To this day, I try hard when I visit to “take the pulse” of average Israelis, to talk with local merchants and storekeepers. I try to see the world through their eyes, and get a sense of what their lives are like behind and beyond the headlines.

And so it was that on this particular trip, for the time that we would be in Jerusalem, my wife and I rented an apartment on Rechov HaPalmach, not far from the center of town. One of the wonderful things about this apartment was that directly underneath the building it was in were a branch of the wonderful Angel Bakery, a take-out store with Shabbat-type foods, a cafe, a laundromat, and a supermarket just a block away. No hotel breakfasts, but with all of these conveniences and a full kitchen in our apartment, who needed it?

Our days, which were full, started early every morning. But a job for which I happily volunteered was to go downstairs VERY early each morning and bring back the Cafe Hafuch (what Israelis call Latte) and freshly made burekas and rolls that would be breakfast.

So every morning, I would be among the first people in the bakery, before any of the foods were even out of the oven, and I’d have a chance to schmooze with the manager of the store. Besides wanting to know (of course) why America abstained in the Security Council, and what it means to be a “congregational rabbi” in New York and what is Conservative Judaism anyway (oy), he talked about his family, what it’s like trying to make a living as a small businessman in Jerusalem right now, and how much he enjoys his too-rare opportunities to travel and see more of the world. And while I was waiting, he would usually make me an Espresso on the house, which is all for the good at six or so in the morning.

One day, the delivery person who was bringing an assortment of breads form Angel’s main factory bakery (in Talpiyot, I think) was late in coming, and the manager was getting concerned. After all, without all those rolls and loaves of bread, he would have a lot of unhappy customers. Finally, the truck pulled up, and the delivery person sauntered in with “the product.” “Nu,” said the manager. “So how are you?”

The delivery person paused for a moment, gently shrugged his shoulders, and replied ,”Kamti,”  he said. “Well, I got up.”

His sardonic comment took me back immediately to a similar encounter I had with an Israeli neighbor more than thirty years ago, at the elevator in the apartment house in which I then lived in my very earliest days in Forest Hills. The neighbor asked me how I was- in Hebrew, of course- and I replied “Hayyim,” which basically means “Living.” The neighbor looked at me and said “Habibi, zeh ha-minimum.” “Buddy, that’s the minimum.” All these years later, I’ve never forgotten that little snippet of conversation.

Far away from the chamber of the Security Council and from anything remotely resembling a “settlement,” in residential West Jerusalem, the delivery man’s comment was a reminder of the fact that as the world turns in its occasionally unpredictable manner, often in ways negatively impacting Israel, most Israelis are just trying to live their lives, put food on their tables, get out of bed in the morning, and avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even while cabdrivers and perfect strangers felt perfectly free, and arguably obligated to hold me accountable for the UN abstention, life went on in its myriad day-to-day ways. Yes, many Israelis were upset by what had happened. But when all was said and done, life went on. And it still does.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.