It was a sunny autumnal Sunday, with exhilarating clear yellow light, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains both visible with their dusting of snow, and Mt. Rainier casting a dark silhouette, crisp and looming.
A day for two memorable experiences.
With my husband spending the day on an airplane, good friends offered to take me with them to a concert of an ensemble of musicians from the Israel Defense Forces, given at a local Reform Temple. An annual event, it raises awareness of Friends of the IDF, a volunteer group that provides non-combat-related support for the men and women protecting Israel.
I wasn't prepared for the reception we received. Lining the street in front of the Temple were several clusters of protesters, wielding signs denouncing the "occupation" of Palestinian lands. One held a sign reading "Stop Israeli State Terrorism." A fifty-foot-long banner blared "Stop the Siege on Gaza." Perhaps 35 people hovered near the entrance to the program, menacingly glaring at all who walked toward the door. Each one, without exception, hoisting some placard or sash. Some announced their bearers as Jews. Several police cars were parked nearby.
Sponsors of the event stood on the Temple front patio welcoming concert-goers. "Thank you for coming," they smiled. "Come right in." They were well aware that the protesters' aim was to intimidate. One man entering the venue spit on the ground in front of one of the picketers, and called another who advertised he was Jewish "anti-Semitic." He received no response.
Inside, six musicians and three talented singers in khaki uniforms accented in red performed modern standards and Jewish favorites, encouraging the audience to clap the rhythm and sing familiar lyrics. The second woman fighter pilot, diminutive 24-year-old Lieut. Naami, described her path to the cockpit. The local volunteers who raise money to help families of fallen soldiers, provide recreational and supplementary support in the field, contribute college scholarships to veterans and purchase mobile clubs, gyms and synagogues spoke of their work. Finally, the ensemble's lively harmonies roused many in the audience to traditional dance.
Not a very threatening gathering. But very ominous if you believe Israel should not exist. Israel is the only democracy in its region, where Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the electorate, have a say in the government. I found it ironic that those who would remove such liberty from the mid-east's one free enclave would use that very freedom to heckle people walking to a charity concert.
Later, we attended a screening of the film "Lonely Man of Faith," a biography of Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik, considered the founder of Jewish "Modern Orthodoxy" in America. The film, a first effort by Ethan Isenberg, a 31-year-old former computer programmer who, after absorbing much of the Rabbi's approach at Yeshiva University and in Israel, spent years "on spec" gathering the biographical information and interviews that are movingly combined in this film.
What we see is the melding of old and new worlds--how a genius from a distinguished rabbinical family from White Russia who fled to Poland and finally the United States, evolved an outlook that could combine a rigorous, academic approach to scriptures with the challenges of a fast-paced, assimilationist culture. In the film, he is presented as an enigma, one who tried to lift standards of his community in Boston while at the same time overlaying a flexibility and plasticity demanded by American life.
For his efforts, he was baselessly accused of sinister motives and theft, completely cleared only after stressful years of conflict. His insistence that women receive top-flight education, and his creation of Orthodox day schools where boys and girls learned together, was controversial among the traditional, and subversive among the assimilationists who were the vast majority of Jews in America.
Finally, he gained not only respect but reverence. Considered among the most eminent Torah scholars and teachers in America, he led Yeshiva University in New York, as well as its women's branch, Stern College, to prominence as the premier centers of Jewish philosophical and halachic (law) study. Yet after four decades of teaching, which included his significant The Lonely Man of Faith essay, Rav Soloveichik (1903-1993) is still unknown by almost all Jews in America and elsewhere.
The film does not really explain The Rav's philosophies, which, given their complexity and depth, would be impossible. But it hints at his torment and difficulty carrying Torah through the pivot of revolutionary world events--escape from persecution, pre-war Poland, struggles in America, the scourge of the holocaust, the birth of Israel, and the advent of the technological age intersecting with the Age of Aquarius.
Witnessing today the anger of the protesters at the FIDF concert, and the challenges of Rav Soloveichik, I feel very small. I look at the insignificant decisions of our privileged lives--even as we watch our savings shrivel in the current financial squeeze--and see both how much more I could learn and how blessed we all are to have so many paths already forged for us.
This is the week of Thanksgiving. I'm planning to cook the traditional turkey (the only time of the year my oven contains real meat) but today's events remind me that the holiday is not about the food in our stomachs, but about the intellectual and spiritual sustenance of the friends and teachers we are so fortunate to know, and the environment in which we are free to enjoy them.