Sharansky, Tevye, Ohio and the Status Quo
Since the Israeli Cabinet declared that the Jewish People are undertaking a “building project” of historic dimensions, much has been written, pro and con, about the “Kotel Enlargement Plan.” As I drove from New York to northeast Ohio yesterday, I thought about what I could add to the conversation that would be helpful as We, the Jewish People move forward. Natan Sharansky is going to need all the help he can get from those of us who understand what is at stake here. And what is at stake is nothing short of a renovation of spiritual space that changes that status quo for the better. How ironic it is that it is exactly that fear, the fear that the Israelis are “changing the status quo” on the Temple Mount, that is fueling this latest horrific wave of violence. Perhaps within this irony there is a path toward a different future; a future that begins at exactly that space which is holy to both Jew and Muslim.
Before returning to Cleveland, Bill and I took his young son Hayato to a matinee of the highly-acclaimed revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” For those of us who grew up knowing the story of Tevye, his wife Goldie and their five daughters through the iconic songs written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, this is a must see Broadway show. Watching Danny Burstein embody Tevye, the shtetl “everyman”, I was struck by how far We had come since Tevye first came to the stage in 1964. While American Jewry was flourishing, Israel was living within her insecure pre-1967 borders and the Soviet Jewry movement was just being born. In the more than five decades since Hodel and Perchik broke down the mechitza at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, Israel has become a nuclear power, so grossly misunderstood by the world that it is beyond comprehension. The vast majority of Tevye’s landsmen who weren’t expelled from their Anatevkas moved en masse to Israel, changing not just the demography but the face of the country. The descendants of those who remained have reclaimed their Judaism. I will never forget the moment on a Federation mission in Misnk, Belarus in the 1990’s when a college age Jewish choir performed for us, singing a song entitled “The Violin Player on the Roof.” Not only did I feel a sense of great pride and Jewish empowerment, I also marveled at how the line between art and life had blurred in that moment of Jewish history. Now, at another moment in Jewish history, a Jew with his roots in Russia is playing a role, not on Broadway but on the world stage.
It is snowing in Cleveland tonight – the kind of snow that reminds one of a “snow globe.” It feels very good to be home where I raised my children and where I learned how to be the artist/activist I am. Those who know Cleveland are aware of the very strong and influential Jewish community that exists in the space between New York and Los Angeles. Major leaders and philanthropists, people who have changed the face of the Jewish world and have impacted Jewish history, have hailed from Cleveland. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who advocated for the establishment of the Jewish State in front of the United Nations, was from Cleveland. The Soviet Jewry Movement was born in Cleveland, actually on the west side amongst a community of Jewish scientists at NASA. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland, under the sage leadership of Steve Hoffman, continues to be on the forefront of every major step in the march of the Jewish history. It is no surprise to me that right now, both the lay head of the national Federation movement, Michael Siegal and the lay head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, (i.e. Sharansky’s volunteer “boss”) Chuck Ratner, are both Clevelanders. The Ratner family has deep Zionist roots, and has shared the largess of the family building business, in the project of building the Jewish State. Again, no surprise to me that in a sense, my friend Chuck is now overseeing a building project of historic proportions for the Jewish people. He is a good man and the right person to be behind this epic endeavor. While I love my life in New York and I am navigate my life in Jerusalem, I am very proud to call Cleveland, Ohio my home. I am who I am today because of the people who lead this community.
As for the snow globe, as I walked Maccabee through the snow in our peaceful suburban neighborhood, I saw the moment encased in a snow globe. I then imagined another snow globe and within it the new Sacred Space that Sharansky is charged with building. I then thought again, about the obstacles ahead for those charged with enlarging our Sacred Space. There is no doubt in my mind that our plans will have some impact on the Mugabri bridge, the covered ramp that leads Muslim worshippers to the Temple Mount. Or some structural need will impact some infrastructure on the Temple Mount. And if not, we can rest assured that those who want to accuse Israel “of changing the status quo” on the Temple Mount will find something to object to. In my snow globe, there are Muslims of goodwill who see what is at stake here. A new, improved, secure access to the Temple Mount for Muslim worshippers. An expansion of Jewish Sacred Space that brings to the area Jews of a liberal, progressive frame of mind who desperately still want to believe that peace can come between our two peoples. Since June 1967, somehow, someway, Jews and Muslims, through the Islamic Waqf, have been able to work together. The world, having decided that Israel can withstand the threat posed by an Iran that is bound by recent nuclear accords, now needs to fully engage with this project. What player can be the next convener, bringing these parties together to discuss what this change to the status quo truly means? In my snow globe, can I imagine a moderate Palestinian leader listening to the call for courage and honesty? A leader willing to say stop this senseless violence in the name of a change that is for the better?
Six years ago, when I began to speak and sing about what I was witnessing at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, many people in my beloved Cleveland that I was a bit crazy. Today, I know that artist/activists are viewed as a bit intense, by some. I also know that artists/activists are willing to see beyond the current reality to what could be, if the world could just be a bit different. My mother Arlene, “zl, used to quip, “the only thing that is constant, is change.” As Tevye experienced, the traditions that once defined his Jewish life were changing as his daughters encountered a new world. As Natan Sharansky’s story exemplifies, change is possible if one believes that the cause is right, just and moral. If done right, our sacred renovation project could also begin to rebuild broken relationships, changing the status quo and maybe being the first step to making peace in the world. As we pray, “Oseh shalom bimramav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru Amen. May these prayers, lead to actions in the days, months and years ahead. Amen.