Friday, March 26, 2010

A Passover Poem for Jerusalem

We enter Passover week here in Israel. I’ll spend Passover Eve, Monday night, at my in-laws in Jerusalem where Shmuel, my father-in-law, will recite the entire “Agada” in Hebrew. Meanwhile, I’ll be feeding my gefilte fish to the dog. The reading of the Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) story, which recites how Moses led the Jews out of Egyptian slavery and to freedom, is a beautiful ritual, one I look forward to even though I am not Jewish. Of course, Moses’ story is also a Christian story, but I enjoy the ritual more for its continuity than for its content, the sense that we are saying the same words said thousands of times before. It makes me feel more human, not Jewish.

Jerusalem is in my mind a great deal, primarily because of the continuing controversy over the building of new Jewish apartments in the predominantly Arab eastern portion of Jerusalem. As most people know, this part of Jerusalem lies inside what the Palestinians hope will be the future capital of a Palestinian country. Most secular Israelis who I know also believe in a shared Jerusalem. But in order to appease right-wing and primarily ultra-orthodox coalition members, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government continues to approve new construction. It is appalling. I am happy that the US government appears to also find it appalling and is vocally letting the Israeli know its displeasure. Despite Netanyahu’s words, Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv.

I don’t want to turn this into a political piece. Here is a short lovely poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Passover,” which at the end sums up what I think the Israeli government must take as its commandment: “Thou must surely change.”

My father was a god and did not know it. He gave me
The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in furry; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody and he pleaded and
cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,
“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain,
I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head wit the Yom Kippur blessing.
“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.” And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

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