Saturday, July 6, 2019

Letters from Israel

So many lament that with the advent of the internet and things like Twitter and Instagram, the art of letter writing is in serious trouble. We won't even talk about the lack of thank you letters, which is fertile ground for an entire tirade. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, for those who love the written word, a letter is a form of it that can be filled with news, or chatty banter, or serious reflection, or expressions of love, sympathy or support. So even in the age of email, when I see something in my inbox from a certain friend with the subject "Catching Up," I am excited to find out what is going on in her part of the world and her opinions about everything from music to books to politics. 

There were noted pen pals like Catherine the Great and Voltaire and Edith Wharton and Henry James, and Brain Pickings offers five books of famous correspondence "that shed new light on the hearts and minds of cultural icons" like Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. 

Maria Popova says it so well:
What is it about letters that speaks to us so powerfully, intrigues us so seductively? Letters in general have a way of revealing as much about the subject matter as they do about the author and the recipient, but when they offer slivers of the lives, loves, and longings of those we hold in high regard, they hold a whole different kind of appeal. 

Especially pertinent at this time of the year, some of the most famous "Letters from Israel" are those written by Yoni Netanyahu (brother of Bibi), who lead the Entebbe operation and was killed during its execution on July 4, 1976. Published by Gefen in 2001, the book is "a collection of personal letters penned by Netanyahu over a period of thirteen years, from high school in Philadelphia to the raid at Entebbe." It includes a forward by Herman Wouk, who asserts that the letters are "A remarkable work of literature, possibly one of the great documents of our time."

This month, we look at some more recent publications:

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Yossi Klein Halevi is "an American-born writer living in Israel." Perhaps that it part of the affinity for his writing, but moreover, it is because it is so good. Already a huge fan of Like Dreamers (Harper Perennial, 2014), I knew I would want to read whatever else he published. His latest book (Harper Perennial, 2019) "endeavors to untangle the ideological and emotional knot that has define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly a century," which is just a monster tangle to untangle.

In many ways I enjoyed the book. His writing style is so simple and clear, but so intelligent. He makes his points about Jewish history and commitment to Israel respectfully and without being preachy or accusatory: "We're trapped in what may be called a 'cycle of denial.' Your side denies my people's legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, age, despair. This is the cycle we can only break together." As a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, "a leader center of Jewish thought and education," Yossi spends much of his time in dialog and interacting with other thinkers and educators. Don't get me wrong; this is a good thing. It will take a long time to change the hearts and mind of those on both sides, and it is a tremendous start.

The newly released paperback edition includes an epilogue of "Palestinian responses." Klein Halevi received many letters, quite a few not fit for publication, and the ones at the back of the book are interesting and informative.

If I were to write Yossi a letter, I would say in focusing on what can be done in the present and not lingering on the past,  you do not reflect on a big contributor to the current situation: British (and European) colonialism, which after World War I chopped up the Ottoman Empire into pieces. On the one hand issuing the Balfour Declaration and on the other the 1939 White Paper, trying to placate both Jews and Arabs and failing miserably. (The Kurds are not so happy with that slicing and dicing, either.) I would point out while Israel has made the painful concessions of continuing negotiations despite terror attacks (which were allegedly renounced in the 1993 Letters of Mutual Recognition) and disengaging from Gaza, what are the painful concessions the other side has made? If they indeed "love this land in it wholeness," why are they currently sending incendiary balloons that are destroying the land? It's also interesting that Israel and Jerusalem and the Temple are mentioned so many times in Jewish texts and prayers, while the Palestinians have kept the keys to the houses in which they once lived. 

Armed with Spirit

The subtitle of this recent book (Gefen Publishing, 2019) is "A Father's Advice to His Son in the Israeli Army Based on the Weekly Torah Portions." Rabbi Shalom Hammer is a senior lecturer for Machane Meshutaf and the Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF and the founder of Makom Meshutaf, "offering nondenominational Jewish programming for secular kibbutzim and moshavim throughout Israel."

When Yakov was drafted as a combat soldier into a brigade of mostly nonobservant young people, Rabbi Hammer knew his son would face religious challenges, so every single day, Rabbi Hammer WhatsApped his son an inspirational dvar Torah based on the weekly Torah reading.  First of all, I love parsha books. I enjoy a quick read that focuses on a verse or theme in the weekly Torah reading. Second, if you are writing letters or charting a correspondence over a period of time, it's important to have dates to put the information in context. Third, if you are quoting from Jewish texts, especially the Midrash, include references. 

Obviously if a father is texting is son, there will be plenty of advice and quite a few "I love you and I'm proud of you"s.  But what comes through is the mutual respect between father and son, and some great Torah thoughts, from both Rabbi Hammer and his son. I particularly enjoyed the entry for Purim that talked about clothing - the Kohain's garments, Queen Esther's royal garments and the uniform an Israeli soldier wears. 

And finally, Real Cats of Israel Toxy and JoJo are doing what they do best:

Happy Reading!