new moon, new kindergarten, two fathers’ hope: farewell Jerusalem, for now.

Amichai Lau-Lavie

July 28 2014

On Thursday morning they planted trees, painted handicap parking spots and installed the address signs. The brand new kindergarten complex, built on what was an empty lot for many years – is ready for business: Complete with a carefully marked bomb shelter.

Behold: a new daycare center for Jewish kids, built by Arab men, under the sizzling sun and the occasional sirens of Jerusalem, the city that has seen more of these ironies over the centuries than can be counted.

Seven months ago, when our family moved into a rented house in the Baka neighborhood this was still an empty lot, right in front of the house, very convenient for parking.

Two weeks later the construction began, and with amazing speed, shocking by Israeli standards, is complete just in time for the new school year.

And just in time for my departure back to NYC, made so much harder this time with the war going on.  I took one last walk around the block last night and noted the final touches: so much hope in the gadgetry of education to do good, to make life better. I remembered the talk I had here with one of the constructions workers, Marwaan, last week – more about that later – packing in my heart the prayer we both shared – the prayer of the parents.

Somehow the new kindergarten stands out for me as a perfect symbol of this moment – for all that’s right and all that’s wrong and all that one can still believe in and hope for.

(I’m sitting on the plane writing this , somewhere over the ocean, not getting ‘red paint’ alerts on my phone for falling missiles, looking up with each screeching sires in the distance, nor able to check constant news updates, both relieved and anxious by this eerie respite – making this a time to reflect on these past months back home in Israel and esp. this mad month of escalation.

To my right an Ultra Orthodox young woman from Brooklyn, reciting psalms non-stop. Across the aisle an elderly French gentleman really into the Lego Movie.

I try not to judge.  )

Muslim prayer rug on the slide set: Kindergarten under construction in Jerusalem.

Muslim prayer rug on the slide set: Kindergarten under construction in Jerusalem.

The kindergarten was built by a crew of about 8 construction workers, Arabic men and young men – some still mid-teen boys, mostly from East Jerusalem, supervised by a Jewish contractor.

I’d walk by them every day, several times a day, sometimes taking the kids to their own school and kindergartens in the morning, bringing them back in the afternoon, whizzing by with groceries, busy on phone calls, nodding greeting with my head, sometimes stopping to greet in Arabic or Hebrew. Occasionally there’s be a short conversation, small talk, just a few words.

 I don’t often talk to construction workers in NYC. It’s a class thing – and, besides, I’m not the super outgoing type. Here in Jerusalem, the same weird invisible rules apply – only more so. I’m the Israeli, Jew, Occupier, Boss. We could usually get past it with a sincere smile and words of respect, but the past month, as temperatures were rising, along with Ramadan and the winds of war blowing into a full on storm – the smiles grew smaller until we all just looked away.

I had one real conversation last week, with Marwaan, a man around my age, who lives in Silwan, has 5 children, got a engineering degree and has worked in construction for the past 9 years to support his family. He was standing under the shade of the pomegranate tree in the alley leading to our home behind the future parking lot of the kindergarten, half way through the morning, reading something on his phone, shaking his head, looking worried. I stopped near him.

“Marhaba” – hello.

“Any news? what’s happening?”

I apologized for my lousy Arabic. We both laugh. He speaks good Hebrew.

He tells me of another bombing where an entire family is wiped out, and adds that also two Israeli soldiers died this morning.

Where do you get your news from? I ask him, we compare sources.

This is bad for all of us, he says. It’s killing all of us. It’s killing our spirit. My kids learn to hate – what can I tell them to make it less?

You have family in Gaza? I ask him – friends?

We are a big family, he says, and shrugs, my kids have never met their cousins, and their cousins never met their grandmother. One day, inshallah, we will all go the beach together.

I wish him easy fast, Eid Mubarak, and better news. He hopes my kids not forget Jerusalem when we go back to NY – he’d seen them walk by every day. We shake hands. It’s a tiny tiny gesture of two tired people but enough to make us smile a bit bigger. for a bit. We share a prayer together, the prayer of fathers, for our children to see better days. This may just need another generation to be solved. Or can it be built as fast as a kindergarten when the will is strong for change??

Muslim Construction Workers pray at the Kindergarten Construction site. Jerusalem, July 2014

Muslim Construction Workers pray at the Kindergarten Construction site. Jerusalem, July 2014

Marwaan and his colleagues built every brick of this kindergarten and the kids will never know. I’ve watched him and some of the other men pray in the yard in the afternoon, putting down a prayer rug on the sand,which later became concrete slabs, then a patch grass where the swings were placed –  bowing down to Mecca, to Allah.

Marwaan and I, two fathers, with hopes and dreams and little smiles, asymmetrical in our destinies but in this together, somehow. I am aware, with gratitude and some level of unease that at this moment in history I belong to the lucky ones. But at what price and for how long? What reality will my kids know and shape years from now. What will his?

This past round of living in Jerusalem gave me the parenting perspective. Learning the route of morning drop off – where the speed bumps are and what time is best to avoid traffic, who to say hello to every morning on the corner of the street, where’s the best ice cream and playground, and when its safe to leave the car and dash in to drop or pick up kids and not get a traffic ticket.

I learned how to talk to my kids about sirens, and bomb shelters and about death and about war.

What will they remember days and months and years from now?

What will the kids in this new kindergarten know about what happened here as their playground came together to nourish their wildest dreams?

What will their parents teach them? What will Marwaan and his friends tell their children about me, my kids, this place they built here, what is yet to come? Will there by pity, compassion, rage, patience, hope – for them, for us?

Yehuda Amichai, who lived just nearby, wrote this poem that is now buzzing in my head:

God has pity on kindergarten children,

He pities school children — less.

But adults he pities not at all.

He abandons them,

And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours

In the scorching sand

To reach the dressing station,

Streaming with blood.

But perhaps

He will have pity on those who love truly

And take care of them

And shade them

Like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench.

Perhaps even we will spend on them

Our last pennies of kindness

Inherited from mother,

So that their own happiness will protect us

Now and on other days.

On this day and on this night – there’s a new tiny smile –  a crescent moon in the sky.

Today is the first day of the tenth month on the Jewish calendar – the month of Av.  The nine days of sorrow begin today, leading to the remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, the death of so many over so many years,leading to the fast and to what comes after – hope.

Today is  Eid -ul -Fitr  – the festive last day of Ramadan, the first day of  Shawwal, the tenth month on the Muslim Calendar. It is a day of unity and prayer. The hope that comes after the fast.

We are so similar in so many ways.

In Hebrew  Av means Father. Shawaal, I’m told, alluded to the way she camels carry their young – the act of carrying and caring.

We are so similar in so many ways.

So today I want to invite us to think and to feel like fathers and like mothers again, to have pity on our selves and on all children. To do more to stop the cycle of hate.

I will stand in New York today, supporting my homeland’s right to resist death, protesting racism and hate, mourning with my neighbors the terrible cost of innocent lives, calling for the fire to cease, for the peace to be seized, and for the gardens of the children to be built with and for lasting kindness and courage and love.


Let Peace Prevail. With Parents’ help. For pity’s sake.

Chodesh Tov, Eid Mubarak

Paratroopers, Pope, and Hope: pausing to pray for Jerusalem

Paratroopers, Pope & Hope: Pausing to pray for Jerusalem
Amichai Lau-Lavie
Jerusalem Day –  which falls this year on May 27, was designated by Israel to mark its reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. It’s a day of celebration for many and of reflection for many others. I used to be among the celebrants, marching up to the Western Wall early in the morning, along with other Yeshiva boys in white shirts. These days – I pause to praise the privilege, honor the dream, and reflect on the greater vision  of real peace.
This year, an added note of thanks to the Pope for three important reminders.
The iconic image of that historical moment in ’67 is that of the paratroopers at the Western Wall.
This week, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at yet another famous wall, another image is going viral and possibly iconic:  Pope Francis praying at the Separation Wall between Israel and Palestine.
Two walls, two photos, one more chance? So many stories.

When I was 14 years old, living in Manhattan, I hung up the photo of the paratroopers at the Wall on my own wall,  over my bed. I was religious, Zionist, homesick for Israel, and who knows, they were handsome and I was just beginning to come out.

4 years later I too joined the paratroopers, wanting to prove that I’m a man, get that red beret, be a hero, defend my country.
The paratroopers swearing-in ceremony was at the  Wall. Along with my brothers in arms I vowed to die for our ancestral land. We all received an IDF issue Bible.
That night I took a sharpie and added a mystical incantation to my gun strap- ‘All for the holy glory of God.’
Then the first intifada started. Our  platoon was sent to keep a  curfew in a Palestinian village.
This is not, never was, never will be, black or white, and there are at least two sides to each conflict – I know now more than I knew back then – but the experiences during those first few weeks of the intifada shattered many of my views, beliefs and convictions.  I began doubting: Was the vision of a Greater Israel that I grew up to believe in worth this terrible price of attrition to our sense of worth, compassion, justice?
One night, back home on leave, I heard Amos Oz speak on TV. We have dreams, he said, big dreams about a big land as always promised to our parents. It’s a good dream. But we are not the only ones dreaming here. The Arabs dream big too. And somehow we all have to wake up and make a compromise. This land can not contain the dreams. It needs us to wake up. Something like that. He quoted the verse from psalms that I knew so well from the prayer after meals, echoing the desire to return to Zion, to come home: ” We were like dreamers“.
25 years later, so many big dreams and rude awakenings later, I, along with so many of us, still struggle to make sense of the ways with which to make peace possible. And not just between Palestine and Israel. I try to reconcile  the dreams I was raised to believe in with  the realities that challenge us to wake up to what’s at stake, and wake us up to our role in co-creating a better reality.
I’ve been on the line between Jerusalem and New York for the last 15 years, living and loving in both places, privileged to have this often complicated dual perspective. When in Jerusalem I don’t visit the Western Wall often. It’s too loaded for me. In recent years I got more involved with  Women of the Wall‘s brave movement to make the Wall – and the Israeli public sphere – more welcoming to all of us. I’m glad for the progress in making – but the Western Wall is not where my hearts yearns to pray Too many human walls of conflict have grown up along this ancient sacred fence. The faith that guided that 18 year old paratrooper has in some ways deepened, and in other ways faded.
I’m trying, still trying, to come from love, and to make sense of letting all narratives be heard and honored so that progress can be made, together. I try to keep learning more and come from knowledge, not just feelings. I try meeting with people from all sides of this story, hearing all versions, respecting the differences, looking beyond them when possible. But there are so many walls.
This book really helped me make some sense of the bigger story: Yossi Klein Halevi’s page-turner   Like Dreamers.  On the cover is that photo I hung on my wall all those years ago. The book is the story of the paratroopers who were there in 1967 –  ‘reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation’.  I  finished reading it and posted a note  a few week ago. I keep thinking and talking about this book.
Klein Halevi followed the lives of six of these men, representing right and left, religious and secular, business and art, settlements and kibbutzim. Their stories are the story of my homeland, in many ways, my story. Yet he spins the bigger story  – human hope and despair and betrayal and second chances – not just as Israelis, or paratroopers – but just as people, with different dreams, shared hope, and a few decades worth of  perspective on the pursuit and price of dreams.
 I read it in Jerusalem, and in NY and on flights in between, on the fence between wanting to give up and refusing to have faith in the possibility of noble co-existence on the road to real peace.  Another great book I read this year is Jerusalem, the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore – an epic journey that tells in rich detail how and why Jerusalem became so sacred for so many pilgrims and builders- and why all those narratives matter equally – together. That’s the only way to make it work.
This week, another pilgrim, Pope Francis, reminded the world about the role of religious leaders as builders of bridges, not walls. And he reminded us to pause, and to pray, and to believe that we can help make change.
He paused and prayed,  silently, for several minutes, hand on a wall on which was spray painted: “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.” 
During his brief visit he paused to pray at national and sacred sites to all religions – including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and the Monument to Terror Victims. But,  political manipulation or  spontaneous gesture, his prayer at that wall is what will be remembered. A powerful, almost prophetic icon of terrible despair – and incredible hope.
The Pope’s invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come pray with him in Rome for peace is an extension of that prayer moment. Political and/or Religious –  he reminds us to blur those walls and labels as well, and wake up, together, to the bigger shared dream that transcends religions and nations and lands. Powerful and simple reminders. The gift of a pilgrim who comes with truth to honor the sacred.
On this Jerusalem Day, in gratitude and honor to all who love, live in and for Jerusalem and her many names, all who suffered and suffer on her walls, and all dreamers whose hands and hearts reach out for her real peace: I pause to whistle and pray another psalm:
Yehi Shalom : “Let there be peace within you, serenity in all your homes.”

Late Night Crave 2 Early Grave? How to feed or not a hungry Soul. Word 33

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It’s 1am and I’m driving back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv after a 4 hour Tantric Meditation Workshop for men in which I was both teacher and participant and I’m really hungry. For meat.
There’s not that much open at this hour on a weekday and although I have some fruits at home, and some decent cheese, I know that the late night shwarma joints are still open for a bit on Agrippas St. and the thought of one of those right now, with their salad bar of exotic types of pickles keeps me going through the drive. I didn’t have dinner. But what of my mostly vegetrian vows, and what of the recent urproar about what’s really going on in slaughter houses all through Israel?
I make a note of these objections, hesitate, but a louder voice, of which I’m neither proud nor totally ashamed, insists of hunger, not just for food but also for the consolation that it sometimes brings. Comfort food, some call it. Or frustaration food, a compensation, clearly noted, for the fact that here I was in a room with 15 amazing men, all breathing together and talking about erotic selves, and even though it’s the noble and right thing to do – here I am driving home alone, again. And hungry. Hm.
The link between the flesh and  meat, all the colors of desire, and of craving, and the human need for more. How often it gets us into trouble in sex and in food and from crave to grave. Dealing with this tension is exactly what the Tantric training is about.
So yes, the wrapped up meat sandwich, with parsley, pickled radishes, garlic spread, fresh finely cut salad and just the right amount of spice is warm and deeply satisfying as I sit there at Sami’s, surrounded by taxi drivers and an religious couple on a date. I am in bed by 2am, both satified and mortified, a restless sleep ensues. I think I dream of deserts, vast and empty, with only wisps of smoke in faraway horizons forever eluding my grasp.
In the morning I open the book to look deeper at this week’s text and there is the meat, and there is the craving, and there are the graves of lust. Numbers Chapter 11,  this week’s Torah text, B’halotecha, is a weird mix of protests for meat and prophetic visions. The people are tired of Manna, claiming that ‘our soul is dry’ and Moses yells and people begin to claim prophecies and visions, and from up above the qualis are sent, as they migrate each year, and the people hunt and binge and die in droves, the meat still in their teeth. The graves of lust are mass graves of desire, a warning forever etched in our collective soul.
What’s there to learn of this horrendous story? The simple lesson of ‘less is more’, of less craving, of more presence, of being satisfied with what you got. But who are we kidding? the desire for more flesh, sex, intimacy, meat, plenty, power is what drives us to distraction from those days in the desert to right here and now.
There are times for real needs to be met. Oliver’s ‘please sir, I want some more’ comes from an honest place of hunger. My yearning for that wrapped up flesh earlier this week comes from a hunger deeper yet, and more or maybe less complicated. I judge it and perhaps I ought to be more stern and disciplined – but I give it room, compassion and a sigh, and a hug.
Perhaps the story in this chapter of the wanderings of our ancestores is about greed that is based on nostalgia, on desires not for what is here and now, but for anything but. This is a hard lesson to learn, to remember, to put into use. Comfort food, after all, is about what we know from home, from Egypt, from childhood, even though it may be what our adult selves know to be ethically questionable and nutrioun wise – wrong. Part of growing up is about taking a stand on difficult choices, away from the past wrongs, towards a better next. Giving up on meat is def. one of those battles that we human must, i think, take on.
I try.
There is a fine line between excessive desire and ascetic withdrawl. Not every crave leads to an early grave. But many do.
We each must find that fine line and stick to it as often as possible.
Warning heeded, thank you Torah. But everything in moderation, including moderation. Every once in a while, like that other night, going to sleep with meat between your teeth (even though I flossed and brushed) is just what makes one really happy, and that, forgive me cows, and sorry Moses, is as good as it sometimes get. And yet it’s good to aspire higher.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

What the Prez is Passing Over: Obama’s Public Rituals. Word 24

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



Loudspeaker carrying police cars woke me up on Wed. morning with instructions about our roads closing for the 48 hours. Who  thought it’s a good idea for Obama to visit Jerusalem 4 days before Seder? The city has already been semi blocked off for two days, and with all the holiday prep in high gear-  – complex driving arrangements are not adding to the passover pressure. How the hell am I supposed to go get the fish meat  etc.  from machne yehuda market downtown on Friday morning with a motorcade crossing through town twice in each direction?? Not to mention that the West Bank is virtually cut off.
Ok. relax. we’re used to this. This is no Pharaoh. It’s the President. And besides. Holiday stress is as part of the ritual as the holiday feast, with no Jewish holiday more OCD than this one. Chametz/spring cleaning, Seder cooking, who’s coming or not to Seder situations and dramas, precursors to the big night, are, to quote a friend, “like birth pangs”, necessary pressures towards the release ritual which is that night about the privileges of freedom. Some bigger bangs, grander goals, are worth the efforts, and so is, let’s hope  this Presidential state visit. Means can sometimes justify the ends.
Mainly to figure out where not to drive this week, and when and how to pick up my mother’s extensive Seder shopping lists, I carefully scanned the presidential itinerary . It’s on every Israel news homepage, (tweets from the White House on ha’aretz masthead along with a official vid featuring Ben Rhodes explaining the trip’s goals.). Helpful. And a fascinating study in the art and price of public ritual.
Much has already been noted about the fact that the only (so-called) religious site that Obama will visit is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No Western Wall or Golden Dome. Handshakes, photo-ops, wreaths, speeches: The rituals of this visit are carefully orchestrated to be mainly political, cultural, and civic. perhaps deemed safer to leave hard core religious ritual out of it. At least the Arab-Jewish ones, I guess. His only prayer will be private, all his own. sort of.
There’s enough religious zeal in the air as is. cinder box, anyone? Very American separation of church and state.
Because rituals really do matter. All of them.
Presidential gestures or religious rites – they really do mean something when we actually focus on what they represent even when we’re cynical or jaded. What flower will be placed, and where; Who will recite the four questions, and how. Rituals magnify the meaning of our most sacred, simple values , and we screech, sometimes not even knowing it, when they go off the rails of our expectations and familiar frames. its always very specific.
The risk of rituals is that at best they’re very real. and real can be dangerously honest and raw.
Which is why we sometimes opt for not so real – auto pilot, refined, safer rites. Which is why, perhaps, Obama won’t visit the religious sites or speak his mind, and why so many of us will not really talk about freedom at our Seders, and won’t  say the real things we want to really say to each around the table at the political or pascal feast, and avoid the real and fake the rituals by route- but know it, and play along, and yearn, if we remember to, for when it’s real and juicy and felt and alive with tissues and all no matter how messy. You know – we know when ritual really works to move us closer to the truth.
At best it does and I hope it will these days ahead. Even just a little bit. and hopefully more.  When they really work- rituals change reality.
I trust there will be moments of magnificent meaning, wows,  within these upcoming different but somehow similar rituals, because of and despite of, the  carefully planned and choregprahed, top security, kosher for passover detail oriented ritualism up ahead. Not always when we expect them.
That’s where  Torah comes in.  Torah not as law – but as ritual. This  week’s text, Tzav, like so much of Leviticus, is about the many minute details of the Hebraic ritual machine. The laws of uniform, construction, sacrifice and constant burning on the altar (ego) is a perpetual sacred system – every detail matters to the very success of the human enterprise – the constant connection to the mystery. Without this connection the world goes unplugged. All this Torah OCD ritual minutia makes sense when we get this ancient mindset. The word that is used to describe this overall legal system is ‘Torah’. Usually Torah means ‘Law’ or ‘The Law’ – but in the context of the temple service the NJPS translation always chooses to translate it as ‘Ritual’, such as: “Command Aaron and his sons: This is the ritual (Torah) of the burnt offering…”  Lev 6:2

Rituals matter because they connect us to the bigger picture, symbols of the mystery we sometimes need to be reminded of, reconnected to. The pope in Rome, the president in Jerusalem and Ramallah, each of us around a Seder table, making gestures that, like simple sacred sacrifices, break or make the world.  Hopefully all the details are worth it, adding up to a much needed recharged reality, new and improved.
Anyway. welcome Mr president. We’re glad you’re here.
Next Year in Jerusalem? Maybe.
Shabbat Shalom – and a meaningful, delicious Passover. Let Freedom ring.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

They stole my car but not my faith in people! yet.. Word #17

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



My car was stolen yesterday. Right in front of my apartment building in Jerusalem – in the middle of the night, under the blanket of heavy rains.

I’m taking it personally though I know I’m not alone. Every 25 minutes a car is stolen in Israel, with higher numbers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Over 23,000 cars stolen in 2012 (just a little less than SF). I’m now supporting the grassroots economic initiatives of the borderline Palestinian Israeli economy – whatever chop shop Bernard ends up in. But I’m grateful for the complete insurance that should take care of most of it, and impressed by the efficient and speedy process handled by the Jerusalem police.
But it’s a shake up. It will still end up being an expense, and I had some good cd’s in the glove compartment, and mostly – the  theft leaves me with  a sense of violation, somewhat vulnerable and unsafe, looking over my shoulder with suspicion. It shakes my trust, and reminds me of some sad basic realities that refuse to go away even if most of the time we pretend not to notice. And it’s not really about the car – it’s about the breach of boundaries, the blurring of private and public, the blunt and blatant truths of crime and chaos erupting through the fragile web of laws and systems that regulate our lives – most of the time.  Once anything is stolen – a book, pencil, car, worse – the delicate balance of co-existence is ruptured and the cracks in the semblance of order threaten the very foundations of what is – toss up faith in gravity, human kindness, justice, law.
And that’s why, I guess, the anti theft law in one of the The Ten Commandments that appear in this week Torah text, Yitro. It’s so basic a rule that can even be found  among the seven Laws of Noah.
It’s right up there with murder and lust and the fences that make for good neighbors and a civil society. It’s just too bad that it’s still a major problem. The fact that this command is as old and sacred as it is only reminds us that it was always there because there’s always been this problem  and so little has changed. In all societies, among all races.
There are some rabbinic texts that suggest that God offered the Torah to some other nations first but they all declined precisely because of the prohibitions on theft and murder. The Hebrews, however, said yes to the whole package and got all ten.
Well, whatever. Everybody I spoke to in the last 48 hours about the theft suggested that it was a local Arab gang that stole my car, but there’s no proof or evidence. Jews steal too, and the many senior Israeli government officials on trial in recent years for any number of thefts are but one example. It’s a bigger system. People steal for many reasons – need or greed or both. One way or another there’s always a victim and it always hurts.  What would it take to have a society with less theft? How can we all have more respect for each other and for what we own and who we are? Regardless of what and how much we have?
There’s this Sufi saying ‘Trust in Allah but tie up your donkey’, which I usually translate as ‘Have faith and lock your car.’
And when that fails? Try and try again…lock it better, and hope for the best, and drive on.  You can steal my stuff – but not my spirit.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.