Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Building in Beit El

"How did this place get started?" Chaim, my fellow student and Shabbat (Sabbath) guest asks Yehuda. Both are immigrants from South Africa, Yehuda having arrived over twenty years ago, Chaim two weeks ago, so there's already a natural rappor.
"In 1977. It was originally two settlements, Beit El Aleph and Beit El Bet. In 1997 they merged and we officcially became a town."
"How many people live here now?"
"About 5,000. On religious settlements, people don't usually talk about numbers of people because it's going up too fast. Everyone's having babies all the time, so we prefer to count families. Right now we're at 1,000 families and growing."
Workshops and Trailers in an industrial area.

"Is there a process to become a resident?"
"We used to have a committe to screen people who wanted to move here. But since Gush Katif, we've been taking pretty much anyone who wants to move in, to boost our numbers. We're a strong National Religious community, so it's assumed that anyone who moves here will probably be National Religious too."
A street in Beit El
"But I don't see any building. There are houses, and there are trailers, but nobody is building anything."
"It depends on which side of the bed [Prime Minister] Olmert wakes up on. We've lived through left wing and right wing governments from day one, and it doesn't matter what their ideology is. Everyone is afraid of the Americans, that if we build a house here the Americans might sneeze. But every now and then, we get permission to build. So we build when we can. Sometimes we wait for authorization, which can take years. Sometimes we just build and wait for retroactive authorization."
"Are you afraid of the danger?"

A Trailer Neighborhood
"We've all had incidents. I remember during the first intifada I was driving the family home through Ramallah. I heard a ping on the glass and noticed a nick. Then I saw that the passenger in the next car us was pointing a pistol at us. He had shot us! Because of the oblique angle it had hit us, the bullet had ricocheted off our windsheild. It was a miracle we weren't hurt. We also took a rock through the windsheild. I'll tell you, the rock is much more terrifying than the bullet.
"When our next door neighbor moved to Israel, is mother told him to promise her not to move to the West Bank. Anywhere but the West Bank. So he told her, 'No mum, I'm moving to Beit El. It's fine here.' Of course, she had no idea where we are. So then his mother comes to Israel to visit the family, and he brings her out to the settlement. She was very impressed. There were no locks on the doors! Four year old children walked to school by themselves! It wasn't until four days later that he let her in on the secret, 'Uh, mum, you know you're in the middle of the West Bank.'"

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Beit El Animal Corner

I was walking through Beit El, heading for the huge water tank I saw up on the next hilltop, I stopped to snap some photos of people playing with their children at the park when I was approached by a group of teenage yeshiva kids.
"What are you taking pictures of?"
"Just the people, the things I see here."
"You want to come with us? We'll show you some good pictures."
So off I went trailing behind the yeshivah boys, and before I knew it I was eye to eye with an Iguana at the Beit El Animal Corner.

The park has a trailer full of caged reptiles and birds. Outside, there's an aviary with peacocks and what looked like some sort of quail. It gave me the opportunity for a crash course in Hebrew animal names.

טווס - Tavas - Peacock






Another Tavas.


The larger animals are housed in modest stone shelters. The nicer ones are available for petting. On my visit, a couple of ewes had just been born the previous night.
The Animal Corner is centered around a modest stone duck pond with a waterfall, flanked by olive trees.

More photos on the way...
What I learned in Yeshivah today:
It is agreed by almost all poskim (legal authorities in Jewish law) that the use of electricity is forbidden on Shabbat. The question is whether it is a "D'oraita," a direct Torah commandment, or if it "D'Rabannan", an extra stringiency enacted by the Rabbis to prevent one from committing a Torah violation. Rav Kook Z"L, the founder of the National Religious movement, believed that it was D'oraita in that it was considered "Boneh," building, one of the 39 melachot (prohibited shabbat activities.) I.e., completing the electric circuit constitutes "building" the circuit. This is questioned because the circuit was already built before Shabbat, and the person using the electricity is merely closing it. It's similar to closing a window. To place a board over a hole in the wall would be considered building on Shabbat. But to close a window which was already built would not be considered building.
The Cozzon Ish, who was a leader of Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism, held that it was considered "Tikkun Kli," performing the finishing touch to an object, which is also one of the 39 melachot. I.e., adding electricity "completes" the fan, making it functon. His ruling is also questioned, because most wouldn't consider an unplugged fan to be "broken," and therefore turning it on would not be a melachah.
However, all rabinnic authorities hold that turning on or off an electric circuit is a "D'oraita" melachah because many actions which one does with electricity, whether turning on a light (generating heat and light and therefore being considered "fire,") or cooking in an electric grill, are activities prohibited D'Oraita, by the Torah, and therefore one should not use electricity in order to avoid accidentally violating one of these prohibitons.
So either way you look at it, don't turn out the lights.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Orange Revolution

Beginning my hike through the streets of Beit El, the first thing that stands out are the orange ribbons dangling from every mirror.

It began with the destruction of Gush Katif (the Jewish community of Gaza) in 2005. Just a few months before, the world had watched the "Orange Revolution," where the people of Ukraine rose up and peacefully overthrew a government which had been accused of corruption, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud. Dubbed the "Orange Revolution" due to the 0range garb of the protestors, the idea spread to Israel. The Sharon government, which had been elected on a platform of preserving the Gaza settlements at all costs, and had now reversed course without consulting the electorate, might be overthrown or at least stopped by a popular grass-roots oppostion movement. Naturally, the government outlawed the color orange, which led to some humorous instances of foreign dignitaries being hauled out of the Knesset building for having unwittingly dressed in the forbidden color.
Of course, the movement failed, and the rest is history. But today, the "official" color of the National Religious movement is orange. Hearing an explanation of the origins of the color leads to some uncomfortable explanations. After all, the Ukranians have a long record as history's more vicious antisemites. Back during the Second World War, when the Nazis arrived in some Ukranian cities, they found that the local Ukranians had taken initiative and had already exterminated the local Jewish population before the Germans had the chance. So there are now other explanations. "Well," Sasha tells me, "the Tanach describes King David's hair color as orange."
Whatever the explanation, orange ribbons now cling to every backpack, stroller, and bicycle.

A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and an orange ribbon on every car.

Walking through the settlement, one feels the Shabbat (sabbath) vibe welling up from the ground, coupled with the wholesome atmosphere of a religious community.

The mens' mikveh (ritual bath)

Kids play basketball in the park.

Future Beit El basketball stars

The town has a much "looser" feel than some other settlements.

The main synagogue

Between clumps of houses, ramshakle goat pens and orchards spring up.

The place has a more open country feeling, rather than the regimented city life. If you want a manicured garden, or a productive orchard on your land, you can have that. Or if you want a burned out station wagon in your front yard that you're really planning on fixing some day when you have the time, you can have that too. Nobody is going to say anything either way. Some settlers work in the city and others work the land. Numerous cottage industries have sprung up, and some telecommute from home.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Road To Beit El

"In the good old days, before the peace process," Baruch, sitting on the bus next to me, tells me, "I could stop for coffee in Ein Yabrud."

It's a sentiment I hear every time I visit a settlement, and it always starts with, "Before the peace process..." There were no checkpoints or suicide bombings. We did business with the Arabs. We went to eachothers weddings. We were neigbors, not enemies.

Today, on our way to the Jewish community of Beit Elwe roll along in the armored bus. Bus window photography is a lot harder when it's through half-inch thick bullet proof glass.

On the Bus: The usual settler crowd

Proceeding from the bus station, back through my neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev, and down the hillside, we pass through the Hizma checkpoint and out into Injun country. Heading north, we pass the turnoff for Kochav Ya'akov and reach the Beit El intersection.
The Main Turnoff

"We used to drive from Jerusalem straight through Ramallah to Beit El. We could be here in fifteen minutes." Today a twisting, looping road carefully weaves away from Arab villages through the gullies and across the hillsides, finally bringing Jewish travellers to their final destination in forty minutes.

Beit El was first mentioned in the Bible in the book of Bereishit (Genesis.) While fleeing his brother Esav (Esau) after taking his blessing, Yaakov (Jacob) stopped in this location, placed his head on a large stone, and fell into a prophetic sleep. In his dream, he was blessed by God with the inheritance of the land of Israel, then commanded to continue on his way, to leave Eretz Yisrael and go into exile for a time, there to meet his wives and begin building the first Jewish family.

The modern Jewish community of Beit El lies northeast of the Arab city of Ramallah.
Beit El and environs
Ninety years ago, when the British Empire took control of this area, Beit El was used as a military base to maintain control of the Arab population here. Later, when the British left and the Jordanians occupied the area, they used it for the same purpose. When the Israelis, in the process of repelling Jordan's attack in 1967, ended up in posession of this area, they put it to use for the same purpose. Today, the area sill boasts a sizeable arms depot and training area.
Older army storage depots
Driving from stop to stop in the settlement, looking at the various clusters of trailers, army structures, and built up areas gives Beit El the feel of a loosely confederated archipellageo of neighborhoods.
Some newer, isolated trailers at the intersection with the bypass road.
Like most settlements in the area, Beit El includes a half-hearted security fence. There are the rolls of barbed wire and fences, but nothing a good wire cutter couldn't make short work of. Like any isolated town, the best defence is considered surveilence, guard duty, and, of course, a good offense.
There's a motorized gate, but I could probably jump the fence.
After five or six stops, with soldiers dropping off at the army base, and others leaving at various trailer clusters or small neighborhoods, we finally arrive at the built up area. Rows of neat, red-roofed villas, parks, and gardens. Most yards are strewn with the sunbleached plastic toys and decaying bicycles typical of the settler families with so many children they don't know what to do. Outside the houses stand rows of olive groves and terraced vineyards. A very productive and reproductive town.
Meanwhile, I meet up with the rest of the guys from the yeshivah at Rabbi Listman's house.
The Rabbi directs people to the families they will be staying with for Shabbat.
Some of the guys have flowers for the families they will be visiting.
There are a few hours before Shabbat, so I drop off my bag and head out for some photography.

More from Beit El soon, so stay tuned...

Yours truly, Bir Zeit in the background.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Time for Tanach

Four months ago I chose to spend my mornings in yeshivah instead of ulpan (intensive Hebrew.) I may have chosen to focus on Torah over modern Hebrew knowledge for the time being, but I decided to try to at least improve my language skills while I’m at it. The Hebrew one encounters in religious texts is quite different from that found in, say, the Israeli National Geographic. For millennia Hebrew was much like Latin, a dead language, used only for religious texts. When Theodore Herzl first dreamed of a Jewish country in his essay, “Der Judenstaadt,” the State of Jews, he envisioned the colloquial language being the language of true culture and civilization, his own native German. Meanwhile, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, a yeshivah-raised youth, and later a European intellectual infected with Zionism, made it his task in life to revive the Hebrew language as a modern, spoken tongue. Moving from Paris to Jerusalem, he upgraded verb forms, tenses, and conjegations from the Hebrew found in Tanach, the Hebrew bible including the prophets and writings chronicling Jewish history through ancient times. Later, he founded the Hebrew Language Institute to continue his work, and raised his son, Ben Tzion (son of Zion), exclusively and completely in Hebrew, producing the first native Hebrew speaker. It’s been said that, “Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.”

I’ve spent an hour or two before classes sitting with the yeshiva’s weekly newsletter, written in Modern Hebrew, pocket dictionary in hand, painstakingly translating articles one at a time. The first problem is that, when I struggle with a particularly long sentence, by the time I get to the end of the sentence I’ve already forgotten what the subject was. Also, a lot of the people writing these articles aren’t native Hebrew speakers, so the writing comes out a bit warped. It’s hard work.
I went up French Hill to pay cousins Amnon and Leah, a visit, and, while they corrected my halting Hebrew, I explained my problems to them.
“I just sit there, and I don’t feel like I’m learning much any more. I’m getting frustrated.””Well, what are you learning? Gemarrah? Mishnah?” Amnon asks me (Gemarrah and Mishnah are the basis of the Talmud).
“No, that’s way over my head. I don’t even have Hebrew down. Mostly just reading articles in the newsletter. I make lists of the words I didn’t know and then try to memorize them. It’s great for learning sentence forms and encountering new vocabulary, but the material is getting pretty boring.
“Your Hebrew is really improving.””I’m not so sure.”
“Then you should start out with the Tanach.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting.
“But I thought that Tanach was old Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew was completely different.”
“No, no, no. The Tanach is the basis of modern Hebrew. All of the prepositions [that come after verbs] of modern Hebrew were based on the Tanach. All of the three-letter roots that make up modern Hebrew are Tanachic.”

It’s starting to sound less and less archaic. I open a copy of the Tanach, and I can almost read it through, except for getting snagged on a few words. Then I remember that Shmuel and Zehava, friends who live across the street from Amnon and Leah, gave me a set of Tanach with a glossary at the bottom of each page providing modern Hebrew translations of confusing the archaic Hebrew words. And I start to understand what’s happening:

Sisera (the defeated Philistine general) fled (the battle) on foot toward the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for King Jabin had a peace treaty with the house of Heber the Kenite.
Jael came out to meet Sisera and said, "Come, my lord, and rest here. Do not be afraid."
He said to her, "Please give me some water to drink." And Jael gave him some milk.
Sisera said, 'Stand at the tent door. If anyone comes and asks you, "Is there a man here?", say "No."'
Yael, wife of Chever took a tent peg, placed a hammer in her hand, came to him stealthily, and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground, while he was sleeping deeply and exhausted, and he died.
Barak (the Jewish general) was pursuing Sisera, and Yael went out toward him and told him, “Come and I will show you the man whom you seek!”
He came to her and behold, Sisera was dead, with the peg in his temple.”

Hey, this is great stuff! Or course, without the commentary, there is no way to truly understand the significance of this paragraph, but I can at least absorb the pshat, the simple understanding.

I remember when I first started becoming religiously involved, I was constantly hearing lessons and derivations of Halachah (Jewish religious law) which drew on the Chumash (the five books of Moses.) I would hear something about Joseph in prison, or Jacob working for Laban, but I didn’t know enough to connect the dots. So I read the Chumash straight through, with no commentaries or explanations, just to get the pshat and connect the dots. Later, I began learning in more depth, which I continue to do to this day.

And now I’ll do the same with the Tanach. I often hear of King David, or the battle of Ai, or Ezekiel the prophet, but I don’t know how they fit together, or anything about who they really were, their families, or the world they lived in. So I’m going through he pshat, first in English on the bus ride downtown, then in Hebrew at the comfort of my table at the Yeshivah, to try to put the pieces together. Given that all of the places these events occurred are within a one hour drive from where I’m sitting, it’s as good a time as any to get started.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Testing Testing 123...

I just uploaded a random video to, and now I'm checking to see if I can integrate it with my blog. We'll see if this works... please note, the subject matter of the video is just random life junk, nothing special.


Well, the video messed up the rest of the site, so I took it off. I'll try again later.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And the Learning Continues

So, as usual, I started a small post which I became engrossed in writing, and now I've been writing for over an hour and a half, and I still can't finish it, so I'll have to leave it for tomorrow.

In the meantime, just let it be said that I am now starting to be able to understand Chumash (the Torah) and Nevi'im (the Prophets) in the original Hebrew, though I still need a dictionary handy, so it feels good to be making progress.

What I learned in Yeshivah today:
There is a concept in Judaism of Morit Ayin, of not setting a sumbling block before a blind man, (yes, it sounds like a mean thing to do.) Our relationships with our fellow human beings are as important as those with God. For example, there is an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat (Sabbath) called "Dash", which is threshing. Threshing involves taking an inner essence, the wheat kernel, from the outer essence, the shell. Therefore, most forms of taking an inner essence from an outer essence are not permissible. Hanging out laundry is actually, in a roundabout way, not forbidden because of Morit Ayin. The act of taking stains or hummus blobs out of your shirt is considered extracting one essence (the nasty food) out of another essence (your shirt.) After you've washed a shirt, you would typically hang it on the clothes line to dry. Therefore the rabbis enacted a stringency that we shouldn't hang laundry to dry on Shabbat, even if it got wet accidentally, and even though it breaks no direct melachah (prohibited productive activity on Shabbat,) because people might see it, and come to think that you did laundry. Then, they might say, "Hey, that guy studies in Yeshivah and he's doing laundry on Shabbat, so it must be okay," and then they would come to do it themselves, including the washing part, and then they might, God forbid, come to transgress the real prohibition of Dash while cleaning their shirts.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Atzmona Forever

The people of Atzmona, taken from their homes in Gush Katif (Jewish Gaza) over a year ago, finally have a place they can call home. After being dumped in the desert of Netivot with nothing, they first built a small tent city.

“We were in dry trailers at first,” their spokesman tells me. “They had no running water, and solid roofs, so we couldn’t take a shower, but at least we stayed dry.” After a few months, they graduated to wet trailers, “Running water, and holes in the roof, so we could take a shower whenever we wanted to, or whenever it rained.”

Atzmona Spokesman

It wasn’t the first time they had experienced an uprooting. Atzmona was originally the name of a settlement in Sinai. When Israel surrendered Sinai to Egypt in the 1980’s, Ariel Sharon, then still an army general, destroyed the settlement of Atzmona as fulfillment of the final stages of the treaty. General Sharon then moved the original refugees from Atzmona to Gaza, there to replace ailing secular kibbutzim. Over twenty years later Sharon, then Prime Minister, decreed the destruction of all Gaza settlements.

Atzmona, in Gaza

“Eventually, we came to these hills west of Hebron. Atzmona was always an agricultural settlement. We believe in the mitzvah of working the Land of Israel. But nobody here wanted farmers, and we couldn’t get land or water rights.”

The settlers tried moving to several hilltops, but every time they tried to set down roots, they discovered ancient ruins. In fact, none of the Jewish villages in the area are built on hilltops because every time a ruined village is unearthed, it immediately becomes a protected archaeological site.
“Two and a half thousand years ago, this area was what Gush Dan is today,” he says, referring to the crowded suburbs of Tel Aviv. “Between these hills and Jerusalem, over 1.5 million Jews made their homes.” Today, the land is largely grassy fields, forest, and a few farms.
“When we moved into the neighborhood, we set up near Kibbutz Shomeriyah. Most of the kibbutzniks had moved on, and the agricultural development was experiencing extreme financial difficulty. When we religious fanatics moved in next door, that was the final straw; the kibbutz closed up for good.”

Welcome to Kibbutz Shomeriyah

The settlers of Atzmona were stuck. Unemployed, living in trailers, far from the nearest city, with no prospect of returning to working the land, the situation looked bleak.

“But then, we had an idea. We joined the kibbutz.” Kibbutz Shomeriyah, though now defunct and bankrupt, was still legally a corporate entity. As such, it had extensive water rights and owned large swathes of the surrounding land.

The streets of Kibbutz Atzmonah

“We felt it was the perfect shidduch. The historical surroundings, the fulfillment of working the land, and the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel, made it perfect.”

Cactus farming

The last action of the kibbutz, before disbanding, had been to begin construction of a sports and recreation center. The Atzmonah settlers found the incomplete structure and turned it into the community synagogue.

The Synagogue (on the banner is a photo of the destroyed synagogue of Atzmona.) "Atzmonaim Forever."

Today, jackhammers, drills, and welding torches echo over the hilltop; the sounds of new construction to accommodate their rapidly growing families.

New construction in Shomeriyah

“We’re going to settle and rebuild this entire area. Then, we’re going back home to Gaza.”

Vintage agricultural equipment

What I learned in Yeshivah Today:

The ninth plague, that of darkness, suffered by the Egyptians wasn't just the inability to see. For three days, a thick cloud of darkness settled over the land, such that the Egyptians couldn't even move. The Jewish slaves, who were not afflicted by the darkness, brought their Egyptian neighbors food and water. This explains why the Egyptians later willingly handed over their gold and treasure to the departing Jews, out of gratitude.

When the Jews came to ask the Egyptians for their gold, the Torah uses the word, "Lish'ol." Ramban translates this as "requesting as a gift." I.e., it was understood that they were taking it and leaving the country for good. Rashi, however, holds that the word "Lish'ol" means "requesting to borrow." This would explain why the Egyptians, who were so docile and friendly moments before, were willing to be marshalled to chase after the departing Jews once they realized that the Jews weren't coming back. They wanted their gold. It should be noted that the Egyptians owed the Jews back wages for 210 years of unpaid slavery, so the laws of stealing/property ownership don't enter into it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Few More Photos

I still have some photos from the Chanukkah tiyul floating around, so here they are. Actually, since these posts were in no sequential order, I suppose it doesn't matter.

Took this shot of Hizmah and Adom behind it from the bus stop in Pisgat Ze'ev the night before leaving. Twilight, long exposure.

Jews don't do anything in the morning before talking to God (well, you can use the restroom, shower, and get dressed, but not much else,) so the madrichim (more experienced yeshivah guides) woke us up at 4 AM.

Yossi and Jeff, bright and shining faces in the morning.

Why? Well, we wanted to get an early start, and the sun wasn't up yet, so it in the eyes of Halachah (Jewish law) it was still the night of the previous day, secular clocks notwithstanding. Rav Bigon (the head of the yeshivah) had a surprize for us. We boarded the bus and were moving by 5:30 AM.

Yehoshua, the madrich. Notice the time on clock behind him. "Oh no, Ephraim, are you one of those guys who never stops taking pictures?"

We drove south, south, and further south. Most of the guys fell asleep again, but I can never sleep on a bus, so I just sat there taking pictures.

Southbound sunrise over the hills of Hebron

Eventually, we made an eastward turn near Lachish, only about 30 minutes north of Be'er Sheva (by the way all of these cities are mentioned extensively in the Tanach, so go read it.)

We came close to the security fence, hung a north turn, and came to Kibbutz Shomeriyah. The guys, stirring from their unconsciousness, were a bit confused. Nobody had told us what was going on. A kibbutz? most kibbutzes are arch-secular, except for a couple of religious ones that everybody knows about. But nobody had ever heard of Shomeriyah.

The mean streets of Kibbutz Shomeriyah

So we got off the bus and started putting on tefillin.

What I learned in Yeshivah:
The town we passed by called Lachish was one of the Canaanite cities which fought the Jews in the Battle of Givon. It is in the region allocated to the tribe of Judah, and due to it's extreme southern location, was one of the last cities destroyed by the Romans during their attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Today it's a thriving Jewish village, and the Romans are dust and bones. So HA HA!
To be continued...