My journey to Israel
Jerusalem. In the beginning of the evening of the second of July, after
a favourable flight - of course with some delay - , I arrived at Ben
Gurion airport in the company of my good friend and comrade Renee Sanders,
with whom I was to stay in a Jerusalem apartment for the first week
of my three week stay.
Let me introduce Renee with a few words. Renee Sanders, 41, is a journalist
and documentary film maker from Amsterdam. She is Jewish and orthodox
in a moderate and traditional way.A few years
ago she and our mutual friend Nico Keizer wrote a one act play about
a Jewish mother and her son. They both played the parts and I directed
it. Three years ago we made a tour with this play in Israel for Dutch
Recently she made a documentary about old Jewish ladies from German
stock, who fled in the thirties to Amsterdam, presently still living
there, very special personalities, now almost extinct. It is a very
fine and sensitive film and she sent it in for the Jerusalem film festival,
which she was going to attend.
Later she found out, that the film was not chosen for presentation,
to her frustration and my amazement, because it has real quality and
got a nomination in a Dutch film contest and a very favourable jury
At the airport a friend of Renee waited for us and drove us to Jerusalem.
This friend, Daan Krakau, now in his forties, was born and raised in
Terneuzen in the Dutch part of Flanders (of all places) and immigrated
(made "alijah") to Israel some 12 years ago. He works as a male nurse
in the depression ward of a psychiatric hospital. In Jerusalem we ate
a snack together with Daan and his wife to be (chatunah in September)
Sara (who has also her story, but I must confine myself!) and then we
lodged ourselves in the apartment, a flat in the affluent and tranquil
neighbourhood called Talbiyeh.
Renee had swopped apartments with an Israeli woman, she met a few years
ago and who was now going to stay in her Amsterdam apartment. The name
of this woman, a paediatrician, is …. Renee Sanders, a namesake!
The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors, small alley's, little stairs,
cubicles, a larger dining room and several balconies. It's cosy and
cool, which is important: during our stay the temperature in day time
never went under 32 degrees Celsius, 5 degrees above average! Thank
goodness I could stand the heat pretty well.
Jerusalem no need to say is fascinating city. Here come together all
the extremes you can think of in the social, cultural and religious
The energy of the city has a light vibration of high frequency; it harbours
a enormous spirituality and creativity and sometimes crosses the borders
Go sit on a café terrace and within two minutes all kinds of characters
will have passed you by: pious old men with black coats and hats and
side curls, sexy young girls with bare bellies, beggars, fashionable
ladies, bronzed macho's with fitness trained muscles, parmantige (how
do you say this in English?) old ladies, wigged orthodox mothers with
a bunch of kids in their trail. They have one thing in common: they
have almost all a portable telephone (called "pellefon") glued to their
Jerusalem, of course, is a divided city: the old
city with its medieval wall, a square kilometre divided in itself in
the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, the Armenian quarter and
the Jewish quarter and on top of it the Temple Mount with its Wailing
Wall and the Muslim sanctuaries; then you have East Jerusalem with its
Arab inhabitants, West Jerusalem with its distinct religious quarters
(not only the well known Me'a Shearim, but also more modern parts of
the city, exclusively inhabited by ultra-orthodox Jews) and more mundane
In the centre of West Jerusalem all this mixes on Jaffa street, King
George street and in the huge Machane Yehuda market, where especially
on Friday morning everybody is hurrying to cater in time for the Friday
evening shabbat dinner.
The whole city is dotted with churches, mosques, synagogues from small
and scant to huge and pompous (often with plaquettes in remembrance
of their rich American donators), cloisters, and a host of institutes
with all kinds of noble, educational or research objectives in the field
of Christian or Judaic studies.
synagogues I visited
During my stay I went to three different synagogues.
On Friday July 7th I visited the Iakar schul just behind Palmach street.
Iakar is a moderate orthodox institute open to all kinds of spiritual
sources. In their schul, a rather small and sober hall pack-jammed with
men and women, my fellow Jews were singing with ardent dedication the
psalms of the kabbalat-shabbat ("receiving the shabbat") service. I
tried to sing or hum with them as good as it went. Behind a simple curtain
in the back of us the women were sitting. I must say, it had an atmosphere
of we fellows together. Then one of the men, the rabbi, held a fiery
derasha (speech) in Ivrit, the subject of which I could only guess (about
humility or so).
Twice I went to the Kol Ha-Neshama (Voice of the Soul) shul in the Asher
street, also for the kabbalat-shabbat service. The shul is in a fine,
spacious building and has a liberal (reform) low threshold formula.
Men and women are not separated. One uses a simplified prayer book and
the melodies of the liturgy are easy to follow and some of them are
based on the catchy tunes of the famous singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
The service has a New Age touch. The singing is slower and lures the
inspired into mixing in a beautiful second voice or even a personal
The service is beginning with the chazzan summoning everyone to catch
some deep breaths and to reflect in silence on the past week. The schul
is very popular with Americans and its progressive stand may be concluded
from many women wearing a kipah (or keppel, the Jewish head wear usually
reserved for men).
I got an invitation from my very far relative Mr. David Cassuto (later
on more about him) to accompany him to the shabbat morning service of
the Italian schul ("Templo Italiano") on Hillel street. This shul is
in the museum dedicated to the history of Italian Jewry. It is a very
fine, sumptuously decorated hall with high wooden wainscots and a richly
ornamented "aron ha-kodesh" (cupboard for the Torah-scrolls). The service
was hard to follow, with special sephardic melodies and the chazzan
singing and reading with top speed. Nonetheless a very special experience,
a shabbat service along the lines and customs of my ancestors. Afterwards
the people gathered outside in the little square to eat some snacks
and drink a sip, bursting into merry Italian conversation.
Different though these services may be, they all share the common features
of Adon Olam, the Aleinu prayer, the Kaddish, the various berachot and
of course the Amidah and the Shema Israel (the central prayers of Judaism)
and more. How absurd even to realise, that those participants in the
often spiteful dispute between the different denominations in Judaism
are all praying the same prayers!
The Shalom Hartman Institute
During my first week I took it easy. I strolled about in Jerusalem,
almost bought with Renee a beautiful little apartment in the picturesque
neighbourhood of Nachla'ot (later this plan was cancelled) and visited
the Israel Museum with its archaeological and historic department, its
art gallery of old and contemporary paintings and the special domelike
building with the dead sea scrolls and other findings from the dead
Friday evening was the beginning of my course at
Hartman Institute. Let me first say something about this institute.
The founder is David Hartman, originally a well known baseball player
in the USA, who turned to intensive Judaic studies and became a Rabbi,
wrote some well appreciated books, made alijah (immigrated to Israel)
and became concerned with Judaic education from a broad minded, tolerant
and pluralistic perspective. (Read his essay "Religious Diversity and
the Millennium" concluding with the sentence: We must learn to celebrate
the millennium by saying "Amen" to the fact that God created a symphony
of different voices and melodies).
Though his institute may be described as moderate
orthodox, its attitude towards the participants in its courses is non-denominational.
Hartman attracted a fine corps of erudite teachers, all well versed
in judaica and talmudica. One of the main concerns is education of the
secular part of Israel.
To my astonishment they told me, that Judaic education in secular schools
is very poor. The average pupil knows less about Judaism than the average
pupil in the States. So the dangerous gap between the religious part
and the secular part of Israel is ever widening and the indifference
of secular Jews about their religious and spiritual heritage, or even
their antipathy against it, only is growing. So the institute has set
up an ambitious program, governmentally supported, of training school
teachers in giving Judaic education. This program - to be followed in
leisure time! - is much sought after. One of its main tenets is not
to recruit the pupils in any denomination but only to incite interest
and to transfer knowledge.
I think this is an important enterprise. It touches
upon the problematic question of how to bring together in a new and
creative relationship Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship (of course
it is also important for the Diaspora); but I can't go into this any
further for the moment.
The study group convened for the first time at
the house of one of the teachers, Donniel Hartman, the son of David,
at the shabbat dinner, offered by him. I came late, so I missed his
opening words. Soon it appeared, that the group solely consisted of
Americans, mainly from New York; I was the only European participant!
Most of the other sessions were at the institute, an agreeable and spacious
building at the Gedaljahu Allonstreet. In a birds view I'll give a picture
of the program.
Saturday was one of the two lessons about Tzedakah (justice
and charity) by R. Levi Lauer. He stressed, that "lernen" is a dialectical
process, not done in order to generate comfort. A degree of discomfort
is natural and a sign an important issue is at hand. Furthermore: in
essence we own nothing, G'd is everything and we're mere custodians.
Basic passages in the Torah were reviewed, amongst them Leviticus 19
(don't reap the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your
harvest, leave this to the poor), and their many elaborations in the
Mishna, the Talmud and other writings (f.e. the chapters about gifts
to the poor in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah).
Saturday evening we had a working dinner with David Hartman, who spoke
about Ethics of love and human dignity. The main point
I remember is his passionate stressing, that the divine seeks relationship
with the human. G'd has created mankind in His image, therefore he created
creatures in the possession of rationality, freedom and will, with whom
he seeks collaboration. The story of Exodus is a story of a people who
turned from slaves of the pharaoh to servants of G'd.
On Sunday R. Moshe Halbertal was supposed to teach about Law and
Morality. In fact he taught about the different ideal types
in Greek and Jewish philosophy.
His main source was Mozes Maimonides (R. Moshe ben Maimon), the great
Medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian, and his endeavour to integrate
some of the Greek principles in Jewish thinking.
The Aristotelian ideal type is the nobleman; he is aiming for a well
balanced life and realises this through cultivating different virtues.
Not his actions in the first place, but his mental disposition, emanating
through his body, his posture, even his way of walking, is the focus.
The Jewish ideal types are the Saint (very rare),
the chasid, who seeks radical excess and stands more or less outside
of daily reality, the tzadik, who is a virtuoso in performance, following
the rules according to their spirit. Maimonides adopts Aristotle's receipt:
the way of the golden mean, ha-shvil ha-zahav. Where there is excess,
better lean over to the other side to reach the mean. So he sees the
chasid in their sometimes extreme practices (f.e. of abstinence, asceticism,
isolation) as "in therapy", not to be copied blindly.
(my addition:) There is a deep rift between the
fundamental Greek influence and the Jewish basic attitude in the psycho-physical
field. The Greek glorified the perfect virtuous mental attitude in a
perfect body. The Christians saw the body as a source of seduction and
sin. The Jews didn't see the body as a source of sin, but didn't glorify
it either. They saw the body as a means to realise an ethical life in
relation to the community. It seems no accident, that the Jews Freud
and Adler tried to liberate the body from Christian denial and put it
back in a realistic relation to the surrounding world. I think this
revaluation of the body is still in process and takes a longer period
then we supposed it would take in the roaring seventies!
Sunday evening David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report,
lectured about the political prospects of the Camp David deliberations.
His avalanche of words can be resumed in one sentence: no one can predict
anything about anything concerning the future of Israel.
The lecture was in the beautiful auditorium of
the institute. Afterwards I spoke with Alvin Segal, one of the participants
to the course, a Jew from Montreal in his sixties, a bit schlemiel looking,
who often came to me after a session, saying with a puzzled frown about
the sometimes indeed intricate rabbinical arguments: "did you understand
anything from what he said?". He pointed to a plaquette at the entrance
of the auditorium, reading: donation from Alvin Segal and his wife.
So he must be a multimillionaire at least! Later he told me that after
this course he was going to Kiev together with his wife. His wife is
presiding over the tzedaka-committee of the Jewish community of Montreal.
This committee has 17 million dollars at its disposal for grants all
over the world; in Kiev she was going to survey Jewish projects to be
considered for a part of this money.
Monday R. Noam Zion gave a lesson about "tochachah". About
the same subject David Hartman spoke during a working lunch on Tuesday.
What is tochachah? Maybe the best modern translation is: confrontation,
or speaking out (Zion says: moral critique). The central passage in
the torah is Leviticus 19, 17-18: You shall not hate your kinfolk in
your heart. Reprove your kinfolk but incur no guilt because of him.
You shall not take vengeance or bear grudge against your countrymen.
Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.
Of course many commentaries have been made about
these famous words (not in the least by Jesus). The most illuminating
insight for me was the notion that the statement "Love your fellow/neighbour
as yourself" has to be read in its context: it is only possible to love
your fellow when at the same time you are honest to him, when you speak
out to him about deeds or sayings by which you are hurt, when you are
not keeping silent, bearing a grudge (sometimes lifelong) or even taking
vengeance. So confrontation is in the same dimension as love.
When you love your fellow, you confront him, when necessary, in order
to repair the integrity of a loving relationship. The passage has a
beautiful order: it starts with hate. When there is hate in your heart,
look for what is bothering you. Then speak out, don't burden your fellow
with guilt, but make him mend his ways (t'shuvah). So don't keep silent
or act out with vengeful actions. Then there is the possibility of loving
him, realising he is like yourself. (Buber translates "ahavta lere'acha
kamocha" as: love your fellow, because he is like yourself)
At the same time this dictum is the conclusion of the recommended actions
in this passage as well as the source of them. It still is a foremost
and valuable receipt, not to say moral mission, for communication between
humans. And what is therapy else then dealing with the blocks of fear,
hate, guilt, resentment, that stand in the way of a loving relationship
with self, partners or parents?
Well known stories in the bible: the grudge of Avshalom against Amnon
about Tamar with its fateful consequence and the confrontation of the
prophet Nathan towards king David about his affair with Batsheva.
Monday and Tuesday R. David Ellenson spoke about the prevention and
restoration of damages and R. Devora Steinmetz taught
about property and responsibility. Those lessons didn't
appeal to me so much; they were as it were juridical discussions, dealing
with all kinds of finesse in Talmudic elaboration about lost oxen and
so on. Most of those rules, so it seems to me, are integrated in our
national legislation. There is a certain moral surplus value, which
keep busy the Talmudic discussions, interesting for lawyers.
The lesson about responsibility for moral renewal, given
by R. Chaim Seidler-Feller, dealt especially with Jonah, the prophet
whose mission was to summon the people of Nineveh to mend their wicked
ways. This book is read during Jom Kippur. It has a rich metaphoric
meaning (one of my teachers Hans Korteweg has written beautifully about
it). I will not go into it now. The curious fact about the book of Jonah
is, that is one of the rare occasions in the bible of G'd (Hashem) caring
about another people then the Jewish people. Jonah is so to say a forerunner
The Ethics of speech - communication - was the subject
of R. Jim Ponet on Wednesday. Of course he pointed to the power of words,
in the positive aspect and the negative aspect. Not only created G'd
by words, "let there be light", also the snake used his tempting words
Speech creates and destroys. It can reveal the truth and it can create
curtains around it. The Hebrew words Lashon HaRa are often used, literally
meaning "evil tongue", sometimes translated as gossip, but actually
it has a wider sense.
Leviticus 19 contains many prescriptions concerning communication. Among
them the explicit rule against gossip: don't go about as a talebearer
among your countrymen (though the translation is uncertain). Attention
was paid to Maimonides' elaboration in his Mishne Tora.
Two other items I want to mention from the discussions
in the lesson of Jim Ponet. The meaning of the word Jew = Jehoedi: problably
it is related to the verb hoda= to thank. So Jew means something as
Another topic was the fact, that Judaism has not one conception of the
hereafter. Frequently used is the term Olam HaBa = the world to come.
According to some opinions this refers to this world in its future manifestation
of a world of peace and justice (after the coming of the messiah). According
to others it is the hereafter, where the souls of the deceased go. And
some believe in reincarnation, some not. So also on this subject Judaism
is a framework leaving room for differing interpretations.
In this and other lessons - especially the next by R. Marc Hirshman
about the protection and preservation of human life -
it appeared that Jewish tradition in Talmud and many medieval commentaries
make a distinction between different kind of strangers.
There is the "Ger", the stranger who has converted
to judaism, the proselyte, and is in almost all matters equal to a born
Then there is the stranger in the sense of a non-Jew, but the "most
stranger" is the non-Jew who is an idolater, a word often referring
Many discussions are dedicated to what is permitted and what not in
communicating, doing business with or asking help from or giving help
to idolaters or "minim".
One (often amusing) example to give a taste of Talmudic discussions
(Talmud, Mas. Avodah Zarah, 27 and 28): the question is put forward,
is it allowed to ask medical help from "Minim", even when life is in
An elaborate (here very abbreviated) discussion follows; in it the story
of Ben Dama is mentioned: he sought help, when bitten by a snake, of
a christian healer, but his uncle R. Ishmael forbade it, whereupon Ben
Dama said he would cite a verse from Tora, proving it should be allowed,
but in the midst of citing his soul departed and left R. Ishmael praising
his soul for not having transgressed. What Tora passage Ben Dama was
about to cite? "He shall live by them (i.e. the commandments) but not
die by them".
Then the Talmudic sages begin to discuss which kind of sores may be
healed by a heathen.
Some sages say: any internal sore should not be healed by them. But
which are internal sores. Are sores on the gums of teeth internal sores
or external sores?
So they go on, some of the sages are pro, others are contra and in the
meantime some receipts against sores on the gums are given (R. Aha the
son of Raba: Leaven water with olive oil and salt. Mar son of R. Ashi
said: Geese-fat smeared with goose-quill. Said Abbaye, seeds of an olive
not one third ripe, burnt on a new spade, and the ashes thereof spread
on the gums).
Another example (Baba Metzia): in the Tora (Lev.
25,36) it is forbidden to take interest from a loan to your brother
in need, "that thy brother may live with thee". R. Johanan uses this
phrase for the case of two men in the desert with one pitcher of water
only sufficient for one to survive. What to do? He says: let both drink
and die, rather that one should behold his companion's death. But R.
Akiva says: the phrase means, the life of the owner of the pitcher has
precedence over the life of the other.
As often is the case in the Talmud the case remains unresolved, no final
decision is made. Hirshman mentions the three interpretation levels:
What are the statements in the Tora. What are other scriptures saying.
What logic says.
Recently I read in a Jewish internet site something about the Talmud
(by R. Menken): the Talmud - this huge compilation of discussions from
the first centuries of the Christian Era by numerous sages with its
many unresolved disputes, erratic reasonings about matters since long
obsolete, its many confusing side-tracks - is not the first reading
to recommend to one who tries to find out about the Jewish way of life.
But one is filled with wonder about the love and the accuracy with which
all matters are considered from all possible viewpoints and one is moved
by admiration for the meticulous endeavour to reflect all opinions and
to do justice to all participants, leaving it to the reader to form
his own opinion. Here is no absolutist ex cathedra, no dogma, no absolute
reign of clerical dignitaries, but respect for the power of discussion
and of exchange of visions.
The last lecture was by Donniel Hartman, the son of David. Under the
title "obligation towards the other" several items were
touched upon. I will mention some.
I fully agreed with his stand, that the people
of Israel (in the widest sense) are not superior to other people; every
people has its own mission and if you will every people has been elected
by G'd with a purpose (I would say has to create its purpose); Israel
has been chosen for its special mission, but is therefore not placed
on another level (D.H. therefore doesn't say at Kiddush " ki wanu waharta
we 'otanu kidashta mikol ha'amim", thou chose us and hallowed us from
all other nations).
Furthermore he pointed to a passage in Deuteronomy
(20), where G'd manifests Himself as a very cruel Person, prescribing
the rotting out of every living thing in besieged cities. Donniel summoned
us to form an opinion about this passage.
I responded by saying, that G'd speaks in varying kinds of clarity,
determined by the culture, traditions, conditions of the time and also
that His voice in varying degrees is encrusted by the pain and resentments
of the era of its being written down. Something of the sort I also once
read in the book "Jewish Renewal" by
I remember he didn't quite agree; it is a liberal view, that the Tora
has come to us by fallible human intervention. And Donniel is an orthodox,
though an enlightened one. But I can't remember him giving a satisfying
Later on I discussed this with Michael Kagan,
a friend of mine, who is an orthodox Jew on the side of placing Judaism
in a contemporary spiritual perspective.
He proposed, that the essential message of this part of Deuteronomy
for our times, is that when you are fighting for a just cause, you should
do it thoroughly and make no compromise.
DH pointed to a famous passage from the Mishna
(Sanhedrin 38, 39): "for this reason was man created alone, to teach
thee that whosoever destroys a single soul (of Israel), scripture imputes
to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves
a single soul (of Israel), scripture ascribes to him as though he had
preserved a complete world." ( The words "of Israel" have been added
later, old manuscripts don't have them). It is a mainstay for Jewish
It reminds me of a midrash I once heard by the mouth of R. Friedrichs
from Antwerp: Why was Adam created alone, whereas all other creatures
were created in multitude? Because the whole universe in its entirety
is meant for each individual human.
And in the Chassidic Tales by Martin Buber R. Bunam says: each of you
should have two pockets in your coat to feel inside according to your
need; in one you find the word "For me the whole universe has been created"
(Sanhedrin 37) and in the other pocket you find the word: "Dust and
ashes you are" (Genesis 18, 27).
Other passages in Talmud and Maimonides were discussed:
they show a progressive development from prescriptions to keep relations
within the community and with strangers peaceful to interpretations
for the values of honesty, respect and love in itself.
my study group
Well, so far for the content of this study retreat at the Shalom Hartman
Institute. As I mentioned before all my companions were Americans, except
one from Montreal. The others were all from New York, Manhattan, East
Side. There were a rather closed group and not very outgoing to me.
After a few days I mentioned this impression to
the woman, Debbie, who appeared to be their representative and she recommended
to have dinner with some of them and so I did. I got to know them better.
Most of them were lawyers and investment boys and women and were member
of a Jewish community centre in Manhattan, which was meant to offer
a pluralistic low threshold platform for all kinds of New York Jews.
I joined some of my fellows in a visit to an Arab
community centre in east Jerusalem, which they planned to support by
giving funds. We met some very sympathetic Arab group leaders and saw
a host of beautiful children at play; when you meet each other on this
level, how absurd seems then the hostility between Arabs and Jews on
the level of politics!
On the spot Debbie, the director of the Manhattan
community centre, promised funding for the holiday camp of the Arab
children. We also visited that afternoon a Jewish community centre in
one of the poorer new neighbourhoods in west Jerusalem. There we saw
part of a theatre piece by Jewish adolescents, brought together from
secular and religious families with the intention: bridge the gap by
getting to know each other in creative activities.
Debbie promised to help the group in coming to the U.S. in order to
show their piece and their message of tolerance and reconciliation for
the Jewish American audience.
So we got to like each other better, my companions and me, and developed
more appreciation for each other, though I can't help having the impression
of those New York Jews emanating something of: the world turns around
Some of them used to come late at the sessions and often their portable
telephones rung during the lectures; they then went to the corridor
to do business, I suppose. One of the last days I requested to shut
down the portable telephones, which earned me some applause and a nasty
glance from one or two. I wondered why the teachers didn't demand more
discipline and respect. I mentioned this in the evaluation talk, I had
later on with the organiser of the course and more or less he agreed
this could be better.
I didn't want to be wise, but I couldn't help making some suggestions.
So I said, that to my impression the course would benefit from more
focus on group dynamics. In particular it could be fruitful to see how
all those ethical standards and guidelines play in the group situation
in the here and now; also the discussions about them could grow more
lively and less theoretical, when participants are invited to share
relevant experiences from everyday life.
A course like this is of course no group therapy or personal growth
workshop, but more opportunity for bringing in a personal dimension
would enrich the impact of the lessons. I also asked advice about how
to organise my subsequent Jewish education; he said: study two hours
a day, one in the early morning and one in the evening. Spend this time
for one third to Tenach (the bible), one third to Rabbinic text and
one third to Jewish philosophy (also the moderns like Hermann Cohen,
Rosenzweig, Buber and Levinas).
Look for a matching teacher and come together once a week for an hour,
whatever may happen and wherever you are, telephone may do as well when
you are abroad. Well, that's something ….
my last week
my last week in Israel Friday 14 July we had organised a wonderful Shabbat
dinner at the Disraeli appartment, with Renee, Daan, Sara, Eva van Sonderen
(a journalist living in Jerusalem and friend of Renee), Henny van het
Hoofd, Marguerite Berreklauw (also friends of Renee) and Kaatje. Kaatje
is a friend of mine from Nijmegen.
I will tell something more about her in a some sketchy words, which
will do no right to her curious experiences. We saw each other regularly
in the eighties, but then we lost contact. She became an actress and
lived in Antwerp. A few months ago she phoned me and told, that she
had met an Israeli, Shimon, they fell in love and now she wanted to
convert to Judaism; she wanted my advice. We talked a lot about this
unexpected and resolute turn in her life. She would give up her job,
her apartment and go to Israel with a one way ticket to join her lover.
It appeared she would go to Israel in the same time as I intended, so
we planned to meet. So on Thursday the thirteenth we sat together in
a Jerusalem café and she told, that having lived now together with Shimon
for a week, he appeared an impossible man, so she left him. The relation
had ended, but nevertheless she wanted to pursue on the path of conversion.
Judaism had touched something in her soul, something she had always
I raised all kind of objections, pointing out
the necessity of coming to terms with her relationship, the difficulty
of this enterprise of conversion and the harshness of life in Israel,
but she stayed determined in starting her education in September in
Kibbutz Jafne, where there is provided for an intensive year long education
for conversion candidates.
In the meantime she would go to a lovely village, called Amirim, in
the hills of Galilea, where maybe she could find work as a waitress
in a restaurant. Perhaps no coincidence I too had already plans to go
there! Amirim, a moshav, based on vegetarian principles, with many holiday
apartments and a marvellous view over the lake of Galilea, was recommended
to me by one of the Hartman Institute teachers.
So I hired one of those apartments and spent three relaxing days there
with Kaatje. We talked a lot about all kinds of personal things and
Kaatje found a job there. She still is in Israel and E-mailed me lately
she is well and will start her education soon. May she be blessed in
Friday 21st of July I was back in Jerusalem and I was invited by Rachel
Atmon for the shabbat dinner at her house. Rachel, a firm and sturdy
woman, fifty years old, social worker, is also a friend of Renee and
her son was to become Bar Mitzvah next day. Though religious she has
not married and brought up her son Yair on her own. No need to tell
how proud she was of her son doing the shabbat blessings. I have to
tell something about her background.
She is the daughter of a Dutch Jew, who emigrated to Israel before the
second world war and married a German Jewess, Else. This Dutchman came
to Holland after the war to teach a group of young Dutch jewish youngsters,
teenagers, who survived the war and wanted to immigrate to Israel. He
prepared them for the so called hachshara (return) in '46 or '47 and
taught them - in a place called 's-Graveland - among other things agriculture.
All those youngsters went then to Israel to the same religious Kibbutz
called Ein HaKatziv, near Beth Shean, south of Lake Kinneret. There
they still work and live. Renee made a beautiful documentary film about
them. The Dutchman has deceased but Else, his wife and mother of Rachel,
still lives and was present at the shabbat dinner as was one of the
former hachshara boys, Itzik van Dijk, now a man in his seventies, working
at the Kibbutz only in the morning and teaching torah to the children
in the afternoon.
Saturday morning I went to the Italian synagogue with David Cassuto,
as I told in the beginning of this story. I visited him the Sunday before,
when he invited me to accompany him next Saturday morning. So I did
and we went to his house after Schul to have lunch with his wife and
some of his children.
Also David, a gentle and hospitable man , well in his sixties, has a
stirring background. He was born before the war in Italy as the son
of Nathan Cassuto, a popular and charismatic Rabbi in Florence. Nathan
was the son of Umberto Cassuto, who immigrated to Israel in the thirties
and was professor in Judaica at the Hebrew University; he was a famous
biblical scholar, still quoted many times in all kinds of theological
During the war Nathan and his wife went into hiding, but they were discovered
by the Germans and deported to the camps. Nathan didn't return, but
his wife survived and returned after the war. David was in hiding somewhere
else and was reunited with his mother. She took him to Israel. In 1947
a bus with more then seventy nurses and doctors on its way to Hadassah
Hospital in Jerusalem fell into an Arab ambush and all were murdered.
Among them was David's mother.
David was then brought up by his grandfather Umberto,
who deceased in '53 or '54. At fourteen David stood on his own. Later
he became an architect and had a substantial part in the rebuilding
of the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. He married Naomi
and had six children, three sons: Oded, Chanoch and another one whose
name has eluded me, and three daughters: Milka, Noa and Merav.
In the nineties he was "wethouder" (how do you say this in English?
commisioner?) of town planning in the administration of the municipality
of Jerusalem and vice mayor. A stirring biography in a mini-nutshell!
Of course we had discussions about the Palestine-Israeli
conflict (Barak was at the time negotiating with Arafat at Camp David).
Walking from the synagogue in the centre of the city to his spacious
apartment in the neighbourhood of Talpiot David vented his viewpoint.
He appeared to be pessimistic, as many Israeli are, I found out. He
expected a violent outburst in the near future; a compromise would only
postpone such a development. He said, the Arabs couldn't be trusted.
They have no democratic tradition and their culture and values differ
too much. They have other opinions about honour and life and death,
sacrificing your life for the prophet earns you eternal merit.
Their hidden feeling of inferiority hardens their hearts and induce
a impenetrable pride. His opinion, so David stressed, is based on many
contacts with the Arab side. It would be best both parties should live
separate of each other, especially in Jerusalem. He thought, that a
strong and uncompromising position of Israel, even not shunning military
measures, would have the best effect. David is a real Likudnik (adept
of the right wing Likud party).
Only his daughter Noa, who was present at the
lunch with Dutch boy friend Norbert, her sister Milka and her brother
Chanoch with his wife Debby, appeared to be on the side of Barak and
the Labor party. At lunch the talk was more social, most in Hebrew,
with much laughter and excitement, David sitting as a real proud pater
familias in the center of his family, two grandchildren being present
It felt as a privilege to be a part of the family life of a Cassuto
family in Jerusalem for a few hours! I also felt a pang of sadness,
a kind of longing for a large, lively, happy family surrounding me and
looking at David, despite the hardships of his childhood so solidly
rooted in his Jewish tradition, I felt myself longing for a wise, calm,
friendly, solid father!
The next day I flew back to Holland and Nijmegen, such a tranquil place,
an oasis of orderliness and peace compared to the Holy City. It was
a rich and fulfilling holiday.
august 2000/menachem-av 5760