Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Eviction (part 4 of 6): Homeless

Shamasna eviction, photo credit: Free Jerusalem

Following years of dedicated work, the Israel Land Fund, succeeded in evicting a three-generation Palestinian family from its East Jerusalem home of more than 50 years. Other evictions are in the works.

Almost exactly ten years ago, my husband, Peter Lipton z”l, died of a heart attack. He’d recently turned 53, and seemed to be in excellent health – young, in fact, for his age.

I was with Peter when he died. He’d fainted at the end of a squash game, and someone called me from the courts to come and pick him up; he shouldn’t ride his bike home, she said. When I got there, Peter walked towards me, white and sweaty. Are you OK to get into the car, I asked? I’m fine, he replied, and slumped to the ground. The ambulance came quickly, and for half an hour the crew worked to resuscitate him. But it was too late.

An hour or two later, I was unlocking the front door of our big Victorian house. What I saw there was shocking. I’d left a home bursting with the lively accumulations of 23 years of marriage, 16 of them within its walls, and returned to a kind of Tenement Museum for Jewish, middle-class, academic family life.

18 Lyndewode Road
18 Lyndewode Road, Cambridge

This is the kitchen table where the family ate on weeknights. On Friday nights they lit candles in these candlesticks, drank grape juice from these cups, and ate with lots of friends at this table. The mother cooked with these utensils; the father washed dishes in this sink, and loaded this dish washer. This is the bed where the parents slept. The children slept in these rooms. These are the books the family read. Here are their computers. Their tortoise divided her year between the walled garden and this wooden box in the attic.

I’d entered a museum of the life that, two hours earlier, I’d been living. I wanted nothing more than to lock the door, check into an anonymous, minimalist hotel room, and never, ever, ever come back to 18 Lyndewode Road.

Instead, the house filled up. Jacob and Jonah came home from college, Peter’s mother arrived from New York, and people came from all over. Neighbors and friends brought food. Hundreds of people passed through the house for shiva, the seven days of mourning. But as comforting as all that was – and it really was – and as hard as I engaged in the magical thinking described so powerfully by Joan Didion in her book about her own year of bereavement, neither Peter nor our home came back to life.

A year or so later, I started renting a small (anonymous, minimalist) flat in London, a short tube ride from my job at King’s College London, and a few minutes’ walk from Lauderdale Road, the synagogue I chose because I thought I’d feel at home there (and I did).

Lauderdale Road Synagogue (S&P website)

I went to Cambridge less and less, and nine months later we sold the house.  Everything without sentimental value, we gave away, and we put the rest into storage. We went to the storage facility once; I wanted some paintings for my new apartment, and Jacob wanted his clarinet. It was a cavernous warehouse, stacked from floor to ceiling with truck-sized containers, each one full of someone else’s  worldly possessions. As we were driving away in a taxi, we passed London’s largest Hindu temple. Since I don’t know that part of the city, the temple is my only point of reference for the two containers of our worldly possessions that, ideally, I would never see again.

Neasden Hindu Temple (credit: BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha website)

For many people who’ve lost a husband or wife, the family home becomes a metzuda, fortress. For a host of reasons, our house became in my case a matzeva, gravestone. It wasn’t just easy to walk away from it, it was a matter of survival. For me, the intense feelings of belonging, security and continuity that bereaved people often invest in their family homes, were invested in our sukkah, the temporary shelter we built each year for the week-long Festival of Sukkot.

Our sukkah was a shared enterprise with another family, the Goldhills. It was based in our garden, but we ate almost all our meals there together during the Festival.  The day after Sukkot, it looked as if it had blown in from a shanty town, but during the festival, it seemed – to us, at least – exquisitely beautiful. Fruits and vegetables hung from the bamboo roof, the trellised walls were interlaced with leafy branches and decorated with silk from Damascus (via Jerusalem) and India, and laminated ushpizin (traditional sukkah visitors) posters from the Israel Museum. The ‘sukkah’ lights –  they appeared on sale in the supermarkets in early January – got flashier every year.

My first Sukkot in London, I went to Lauderdale Road for the evening service.  When I saw the synagogue’s sukkah – very different from ours, but still a sukkah – I started to cry. I was often tearful in synagogue, especially at the end of the Torah service when we sang, hadesh yameinu k’kedem, renew our days as of old. But this time it was as if the primordial deeps had opened and I was their conduit.

Our house was a millstone around my neck, a mausoleum in which I might imminently be buried; I couldn’t mourn for it. But I could mourn for our sukkah, our ‘temporary shelter’, the paradigm of the Jewish home we’d never be able to build quite like that again.

The book of Ezekiel makes a powerful connection between the death of a spouse and the loss of a home. God tells Ezekiel, I’m going to take away the apple of your eye (his wife), so that you and the Israelites will understand how I’ll feel when my home (the Temple) is destroyed.

Ezekiel 24:  14 I the Lord have spoken; the time is coming, I will act. I will not refrain, I will not spare, I will not relent. According to your ways and your doings I will judge you, says the Lord God.  15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17 Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners.18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And in the [next] morning, I did as I was commanded.

19 Then the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting this way?” 20 Then I said to them: The word of the Lord came to me: 21 Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire; and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. 22 And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. 23 Your turbans shall be on your heads and your sandals on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall pine away in your iniquities and groan to one another. 24 Thus Ezekiel shall be a sign to you; you shall do just as he has done. When this comes, then you shall know that I am the Lord God.

Since much of the book of Ezekiel is impenetrable, we aren’t inclined to lose sleep over this episode.  But, as traditionally interpreted, and as translated above, it makes no sense. (Click here for a more detailed version of the argument below — I wrote it the year before Peter died.)

First, the usual biblical reasons to limit mourning – that the death in question was a punishment from God and therefore mourning it could be construed as questioning divine justice – don’t apply here. There’s no hint that Ezekiel’s wife deserved to die – on the contrary.

Second, why does Ezekiel need to tell the people in advance what’s going to happen?  This isn’t the first time he’s done something bizarre (see for example Ezekiel 4), but it’s the first time he’s announced it beforehand.  Until now, his ‘prophetic dramas’ have spoken for themselves. Indeed, if Ezekiel’s wife died in the night and he got up the next morning as if nothing had happened, that too would speak for itself. People would be perturbed and ask questions.

The Hebrew word order of verse 18 is difficult (click here for Hebrew).

18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And in the [next] morning, I did as I was commanded. 19 Then the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting this way?”

Most translators attempt to make sense of the whole episode by adapting this verse, for example by adding the word ‘next’, as above. These translators see the events described as spanning two days: God spoke to me in the morning, my wife died that evening, and the next morning I did as I was commanded.  But the Hebrew suggests another reading.

Most plausibly, I think, everything mentioned in verse 18 takes place on the same day. In the morning, God told Ezekiel that his wife would die that evening. In what I read as a confusing flash-forward (as perhaps did the translators of the Septuagint since they omitted it), Ezekiel confirms that indeed this did occur. That same morning, Ezekiel tells the people that his wife is about to die, and immediately, as anyone would, they ask why he’s acting normally.

God is not prohibiting the kind of mourning that’s familiar to us, the kind that occurs after death or destruction. He’s prohibiting the kind of mourning that occurs when a catastrophe is imminent, and we are mourning partly because we are already experiencing its emotional effects, and partly because we want to stave it off.  Scholars call this petitionary mourning.

The biblical source of many Jewish laws and customs relating to mourning is 2 Samuel 12. Bathsheba has given birth to the child fathered by David when her husband Uriah was still alive. A severe punishment is in store:

2 Samuel 12:15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, “While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ 23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

The seven days of mourning, shiva, during which David cuts himself off from ordinary life and lies on the ground, take place before his son dies, not afterwards. Once the baby is dead, David sees no reason to continue to mourn. What’s the point – nothing will change?  In other words, David’s mourning was not the kind of mourning that occurs after a death, but the kind that comes before and seeks to reverse the divine decree. This, I think, is precisely the kind of ‘pre-death’, petitionary mourning that God prohibits in Ezekiel’s case.

God’s analogy between the death of Ezekiel’s wife and the destruction of the Temple makes it even less likely that he had in mind post-death mourning.  Ritual mourning was a standard ancient Near Eastern response to catastrophe, and the Bible has many examples of it (Jeremiah 9:16-21 and Ezekiel 27:30-32). Lamentations is full of accounts of classic mourning, precisely in relation to the fall of Jerusalem (see Lamentations 2:5, 10, 8-18).  If God prohibited Ezekiel from mourning his wife to discourage Jews from mourning the destruction of the Temple, his strategy failed; we’ve been mourning it ever since.

Lamentations 2:10 The elders of daughter Zion
    sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
    and put on sackcloth;
the young girls of Jerusalem
    have bowed their heads to the ground.

Again, more plausibly, God was prohibiting Ezekiel and the people from engaging in the kind of mourning rituals calculated to make God change his mind about destroying the Temple, that is, weeping and wailing, tearing garments, self-abasement, fasting and so forth. This makes sense of the verse immediately preceding God’s dreadful announcement:

Ezekiel 14 I the Lord have spoken; the time is coming, I will act. I will not refrain, I will not spare, I will not relent. According to your ways and your doings I will judge you, says the Lord God.  15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…

This time, God warns Ezekiel, I really mean it. I won’t allow you to talk me out of it.

It speaks volumes that God used the analogy of the imminent death of a spouse to convey his feelings about the imminent destruction of the Temple. The emotions generated by losing a home add up to far more than the sum of their parts.

And it gets worse. The Temple doesn’t collapse in an earthquake – devastating as that would be – it’s overrun by marauding enemies:

Lamentations 1: Enemies have stretched out their hands
    over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
    invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

To continue with the husband/wife analogy, it’s as if Ezekiel had to watch his wife being raped before she was killed.

I thought of Ezekiel and Lamentations when I saw photographs of the eviction of the Shamasneh family from their home of 50 years in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The Shamasnehs are an ordinary family – not terrorists, not even trouble-makers. They’re being driven out as part of a private initiative to remove Arabs from East Jerusalem and repopulate it with Jews.

The Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah have plenty of time to mourn the loss of their homes before it happens – the legal disputes are complex and protracted. Before and after their eviction, the Shamasneh family sat (and continue to sit) ‘shiva’ outside their house; my husband, Chaim, and I sat with them one night before Rosh Hashana. But, in the present political climate, their chances of reversing the evil decree are almost zero.

Shamasna eviction, 2017, photo credit: Free Jerusalem

The Israel Land Fund, the private organization – run by Arieh King, who happens to be a Jerusalem city councilor – that’s responsible for evicting the Shamasnehs, implies that the pre-1948 Jewish owners were unhappy with their tenants and wanted to move back home.  That sounds like a run of the mill property dispute, but the Shamasneh family’s eviction looked like this:

Shamasna eviction, 2017, photo credit: Free Jerusalem

And see HERE for  photos and a video of what looks like a military operation to evict a three generation family from their home of 50 years.

The residents who moved in are not the original Jewish owners or their heirs, nor even the respectable-looking young men in white shirts who came with the police – presumably for the benefit of press photographers – on the day the Shamasnehs were evicted:

The Shamasneh family home is now occupied by members of the extremist hate group, Lehava, who patrol Jerusalem’s city center on Thursday evenings, trying to dissuade restaurants from employing Arabs and residents from using Arab-owned taxis.

It’s hard to imagine worse neighbors (and indeed there’s been a lot of tension in the neighborhood since they moved in).

God could have chosen to tell Ezekiel that he’d be evicted from his home if he wanted the prophet to understand how God would feel when his home, the Temple, was demolished. But that wouldn’t have done justice to the depth of despair brought on by the loss of a home. The analogy with the loss of a spouse is, paradoxically, a better fit.

Just as it’s difficult, almost impossible, to put ourselves into the position of people who’ve lost a spouse (we find it too destabilizing), so it’s difficult, almost impossible, to empathize with people who’ve lost, or are at risk of losing their homes (we feel too vulnerable). But we need to try harder to confront what’s happening in East Jerusalem. We’re in grave danger of becoming inhumane.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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