Passover is nearly here, only days away.  The continued paralysis in the peace process in Israel-Palestine makes preparation for the holiday just that  more difficult this year.  Raised in the Reform tradition in the 1960s and ’70s by non-observant parents, my experience of the holiday was limited to a single, simple (and incomplete) seder.  Over the years, I’ve searched for the traditions, for meaning in traditions that can be expressed by my own family’s efforts to observe the holiday.

Last year’s Knitted Seder was an opportunity for learning well beyond the simple explanations contained the array of Reform haggadahs we’ve collected, and well beyond my expectations.  This year I’ve made an effort to continue my knitter-ly study of Pesach traditions by exploring the tradition of Bedikat Chametz, cleaning out the chametz (prohibited leavened or fermented foods) from the home.

Jewish families world-wide are preparing for the arrival of Passover.  For “traditional” Jews, the preparations begin with rigorous spring cleaning of the home, culminating in the family’s ritual search for chametz throughout the house, a search conducted with a wooden spoon and feather, illuminated by the light of a single candle, and concluded by burning the collected remaining crumbs.

Spring cleaning happens in my home, and the commitment we make to a week of matzoh has always served to keep us free of chametz.  But this year’s study suggests something new to consider:  to my amazement, I’ve just learned that the search for chametz also symbolizes metaphorically a spiritual house-cleaning, the opportunity to discard the unwanted in ourselves and our communities.  Traditional Jews describe spiritual chametz as the yetzer ha’ra, or “evil impulse;” these are the desires, and fears, that can enslave us emotionally and spiritually.  In my effort to understand this teaching, I’ve found Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s description especially helpful:  chametz is “what lifts us up throughout the year – leads to our working harder, searching deeper, loving more. It is the yetzer, or swelling-impulse, of the soul. But allowed to swell and grow without restraint, it becomes yetzer ha’ra, the evil impulse. It impels us not only to productivity, but to possessiveness; not only to creativity, but to competitiveness; not only to love, but to jealousy and lust. So once a year we must clean out even the uplifting impulse; we must eat the flat bread of a pressed-down people’. (Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p. 144, cited here).

I incline towards the creativity Rabbi Waskow describes as a search for spiritual chametz.  I’d like to direct it toward an expansiveness that will bring the values of the holiday for Jews into closer contact with issues of oppression and liberation beyond Jewish narratives (real or mythological) of  persecution and redemption, to make the most of the reflection (I know know) my tradition proposes I pursue at least twice a year (Passover and the High Holiday period).  In spite of the shortage of time, I’ll explore some of the supplementary or alternative haggadot  out there – it’s time to work out the chametz that impedes progress toward a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine.  I can start with the Shalom Center’s
Passover of Peace: A Seder for the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, and I’ll also have a look at the Passover Haggadah
Haggadah Supplement for Etically Oriented Jews and our non-Jewish Allies
(Michael Lerner, Tikkun Magazine).

Or maybe, since there won’t be any small children at my family’s table this year, we’ll cut to the chase and spend time exploring how we can reconcile spiritual chametz with  Cherie Brown’s “Seven Principles about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Beyond the blame game”.

1. Every situation, including the current conflict in Gaza, can provide us with new opportunities to think, take leadership, and move the conflict forward, if we are able to act outside of hopelessness and discouragement. Even as the violence continues, new opportunities arise for us to mobilize others, put out correct information, and gain allies for good policies.

2. A just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking longer than any of us want, and we need to grieve about the horrible loss of lives on all sides. In particular, we need to grieve about the current setbacks, which are real. But even with these setbacks, there are also important new opportunities for increased dialogue, leadership, mobilization of others, and action.

3. No one group or country deserves to be targeted as the sole perpetrator of the current conflict. Not the Israelis who feel threatened by continued rockets landing in Israel and then seek safety and security by striking back. And not the Palestinians who send the rockets when they feel besieged by an occupation that has lasted way too long.

4. Even if no one side is totally to blame, it is still each side’s responsibility-and obligation-to stop wrong actions and to reach for rational policies and solutions that take everyone’s long-term needs into account.

5. It is not helpful for Diaspora Jews to attack Israelis for the difficulties they have in being able to think clearly under conditions of hopelessness and terror. It is not helpful for Israelis to attack Diaspora Jews when they seek to find their own independent voice and articulate the role that the U.S. government can and should play in moving the current situation forward.

6. Any solution that is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will need to take all historic injustices into account but not be bound by them. Both peoples (and their allies) put out narratives about the current situation that have correct information in them-but these narratives also contain distortions that are a result of a history of mistreatment and painful emotion. One narrative says Israel is being besieged: Hamas is primarily a terrorist organization, and there is no choice now but to engage in a long protracted war in Gaza until Hamas is totally defeated. Another narrative says Hamas is primarily a liberation organization, working to free the Palestinian people from occupation by Israel, and therefore should not be blamed for sending rockets into Israel. Any narrative that portrays one side only as a victim and the other side as worthy of all or most of the blame for the conflict does not have the full picture. Any narrative that describes the current situation needs to take into account the history of mistreatment of both peoples; both sides’ hunger for peace, justice, and security; and the need to prevent outside forces from pitting one side against the other for purposes of greed and exploitation.

7. There are no military solutions to this conflict that will achieve lasting peace and justice for Israelis or for Palestinians. Any solution will require the engagement of all Israelis and all Palestinians, including Hamas, in dialogue and negotiations. No people in the current situation can ultimately be destroyed, expelled, or beaten into submission. Attempts to do so will, in the long term, only engender further violence and retaliation, as well as increase the length of time it will take to reach a negotiated settlement.

Cherie Brown is the executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, an international leadership training organization dealing with anti-oppression issues, and she has been involved in Jewish Middle East peace groups for 35 years. She is currently on the board of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom.

More information about the Bedikat Chametz tradition is available here.

As with all my tikkunknitting projects, the patterns will be available for a contribution in support of peace-building efforts in Israel-Palestine.  Try my Patterns for Peacebuilders page if you are interested in making your own set of “Chametz Patrol” tools.


from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
like a buttercup upon its branching stem-
save that it’s green and wooden-
I come, my sweet, to sing to you.
We lived long together a life filled,
if you will, with flowers. So that
I was cheered when I came first to know
that there were flowers also in hell.
Today I’m filled with the fading memory of those flowers
that we both loved, even to this poor colorless thing-
I saw it when I was a child-
little prized among the living but the dead see,
asking among themselves:
What do I remember that was shaped
as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill with tears.
Of love, abiding love it will be telling
though too weak a wash of crimson
colors it to make it wholly credible.
There is something
something urgent I have to say to you
and you alone
but it must wait while I drink in
the joy of your approach,
perhaps for the last time.
And so with fear in my heart
I drag it out and keep on talking
for I dare not stop.
Listen while I talk on against time.
It will not be for long.
I have forgot and yet I see clearly enough
something central to the sky which ranges round it.
An odor springs from it!
A sweetest odor!
Honeysuckle! And now there comes the buzzing of a bee!
and a whole flood of sister memories!
Only give me time,
time to recall them before I shall speak out.
Give me time, time.
When I was a boy I kept a book to which,
from time to time,
I added pressed flowers until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
The asphodel, forebodingly, among them.
I bring you, reawakened, a memory of those flowers.
They were sweet when I pressed them
and retained something of their sweetness
a long time.
It is a curious odor, a moral odor,
that brings me near to you.
The color was the first to go.
There had come to me a challenge,
your dear self, mortal as I was,
the lily’s throat to the hummingbird!
Endless wealth, I thought, held out its arms to me.
A thousand tropics in an apple blossom.
The generous earth itself gave us lief.
The whole world became my garden!
But the sea which no one tends
is also a garden when the sun strikes it
and the waves are wakened.
I have seen it and so have you
when it puts all flowers to shame.
Too, there are the starfish stiffened by the sun
and other sea wrack and weeds.
We knew that along with the rest of it
for we were born by the sea,
knew its rose hedges to the very water’s brink.
There the pink mallow grows
and in their season strawberries
and there, later, we went to gather the wild plum.
I cannot say that I have gone to hell for your love
but often found myself there in your pursuit.
I do not like it and wanted to be in heaven.
Hear me out. Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life from books
and out of them about love.
Death is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
which can be attained, I think, in its service.
Its guerdon is a fairy flower; a cat of twenty lives.
If no one came to try it the world would be the loser.
It has been for you and me
as one who watches a storm come in over the water.
We have stood from year to year
before the spectacle of our lives with joined hands.
The storm unfolds.
Lightning plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north is placid, blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up. It is a flower
that will soon reach the apex of its bloom.
We danced, in our minds, and read a book together.
You remember? It was a serious book.
And so books entered our lives.
The sea! The sea!
Always when I think of the sea
there comes to mind the Iliad
and Helen’s public fault that bred it.
Were it not for that there would have been no poem
but the world if we had remembered,
those crimson petals spilled among the stones,
would have called it simply murder.
The sexual orchid that bloomed then
sending so many disinterested men to their graves
has left its memory to a race of fools or heroes
if silence is a virtue.
The sea alone with its multiplicity holds any hope.
The storm has proven abortive
but we remain after the thoughts it roused
to re-cement our lives.
It is the mind
the mind that must be cured short of death’s intervention,
and the will becomes again a garden.
The poem is complex
and the place made in our lives for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
but you do not get far with silence.
Begin again.
It is like Homer’s catalogue of ships:
it fills up the time.
I speak in figures, well enough,
the dresses you wear are figures also,
we could not meet otherwise.
When I speak of flowers it is to recall
that at one time we were young.
All women are not Helen, I know that,
but have Helen in their hearts.
My sweet, you have it also, therefore I love you
and could not love you otherwise.
Imagine you saw a field made up of women all silver-white.
What should you do but love them?
The storm bursts or fades!
it is not the end of the world.
Love is something else, or so I thought it,
a garden which expands,
though I knew you as a woman and never thought otherwise, until the whole sea has been taken up and all its gardens.
It was the love of love,
the love that swallows up all else,
a grateful love, a love of nature, of people, of animals,
a love engendering gentleness and goodness
that moved me and that I saw in you.
I should have known, though I did not,
that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill who whiff it.
We had our children, rivals in the general onslaught.
I put them aside though I cared for them.
as well as any man could care for his children
according to my lights.
You understand I had to meet you after the event
and have still to meet you.
Love to which you too shall bow along with me-
a flower a weakest flower shall be our trust and not because we are too feeble to do otherwise
but because at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
therefore to prove that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
that I could not cry to you in the act.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
I come, my sweet, to sing to you!
My heart rouses thinking to bring you news
of something that concerns you and concerns many men.
Look at what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in despised poems.
It is difficult to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.
Hear me out for I too am concerned
and every man
who wants to die
at peace in his bed

William Carlos Williams

If you haven’t seen Bob Simon’s recent 60 Minutes report on Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and the ways in which settlers intend to prevent a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s time to do so.

The complete report in a single video is available on CBS’ site, or in two parts below:

Part 1

Part 2

Then scoot over to JStreet and join other rational progressive Jews in sending a message of support to Bob Simon for his accurate, thorough, thoughtful and fair coverage of this critical issue.  Now.  And point others to the report.  It’s about time we advocate the un-settling truth of the West Bank settlements and the dangers they pose to a just and sustainable peace.

Israel’s use of white phosphorus on Gazan civilians is thoroughly documented.  It is beyond question.  It is nauseating.  So now it’s time to process the facts.  It’s time for unequivocal and undiluted public criticism.

I’m turning to Henry Siegman (director of the US Middle East Project in New York, currently a visiting research professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America) and two of his recent essays:

  1. Israel’s Lies (London Review of Books, January 2009), and
  2. The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam (London Review of Books, August 2007)

If a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine is to be achieved, it can only follow from universal acknowledgment of the truth of the awful tragedy of Gaza and the realities of official Israeli policies regarding Palestinian autonomy.  The last time I checked, American Jews were still part of the universe.  We simply cannot publicly claim to want peace but support Israel’s avoidance of it.  It’s time to put up or shut up.

Until then, how dare we sing “Lo yissa goy” in a place of worship, or anywhere else for that matter.

If you aren’t sickened by the evidence, you should be. If you aren’t ashamed, you should be.  If you haven’t spoken out, then speak out!

Then sing for peace.

Lo yissa goy el goy cherev, Lo yilm’du od milchama
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

The shelling has stopped.  There’s ceasefire, or ceasefires.  After the nauseating devastation of the past few weeks, I want to do something in response to ceasefire.  To preserve seven fragile days’ quiet.  There’s so little to contribute from one pair of hands, one computer, one home, on this side of the world.  Except more art.  And another vigil.

I return to the hand.  My hands.  The Chamsa / Hamsa / Khamsa hand, hand of Miriam, Marjam or Fatima, shared icon of fortune.  For me, the hand is a symbol of peace and friendship.

One hand outstretched each day, ready for relationship.  Eight days a week, this week, for peace.

(left to right):  1.  Susan Hajjar’s crochet Chamsa pattern; 2. my own double-knitted Hamsa leaf pattern (both on their way to the TikkunTree); 3. transparent (glue) Hamsa; 4-8. copper and alloy foil Hamsas.
(additional images of the Hamsa Vigil here).

A meditation on the seven days’ ceasefire.

The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun and the light of the sun will be intensified sevenfold like the light of seven days on the day when the Lord heals His people… (Isaiah 30:26)

(Chagall, Prophecy of Isaiah)

“Why is the war so beautiful? Why can’t I take my eyes off it? These fireworks! It’s so entralling mama, I’m kneeling, wide awake, at the wide open window, enraptured by the horror! Oh, it’s so hard to keep my eyes closed!”
Nelly in Wajdi Mouawad’s Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons

Studying war

Yesterday morning, after weeks of violence in Gaza, I attended a Torah study session that included (finally!) discussion about Israel’s war in Gaza.  The biblical narrative was Parshah Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1),  the origin of communal displacement and subjugation of a tribe, since the memory of the leader Joseph – so cherished by Israelites and Egyptians alike – has faded beyond all recall in Egypt.  The business of memory and tribalism set me thinking.

The rabbi offered a two-pronged approach … first, a set of readings addressing “How Palestinians and Jews see each other”:  excerpts from the Hamas Charter (calling for perpetual Jihad against Israel and the Islamification of Palestine) and from the Greater Israel Movement‘s expansionist doctrine, the autobiography of Abba Eban (remarking that Jews in Israel cannot be accepted by Arabs without a transformation of Arab conceptions of mid-east reality), as well as recent reports from Egyptian officials of internal disagreement within the ranks of Hamas, and that the Syria-based leadership has taken a harder line on ceasefire than the Gazan-based leaders (International Herald Tribune, 1.16.09).  And so we were led through a discussion of the challenge of extremism on both sides, the challenge of overcoming Arab world-views, and the challenge of diaspora – of judging the situation from outside it (whether the distant vantagepoint be occupied by Hamas leaders in Syria, or a small bunch of Jews in Philadelphia).

Then, a set of readings on the ethics of war; and discussion … on the ways in which Torah and Talmud address the use of violence:  That Judaism authorizes killing in self-defense (“If he comes to kill you, arise and kill him,” Sanhedrin 72a); that war may thus be waged so long as one offers peace before attack (“When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace,” Deuteronomy 20:10), and even so, all violence undertaken will have to be accounted for to God (“Whoever sheds the blood of a human being by a human being shall his blood be shed, for in the divine image did God make humanity,” Genesis 9:6).

And the “discussion”?  Little more than excuses for Israel’s decision to initiate war in Gaza …. rockets fired on Israeli civilians nearby, Israel’s efforts to warn Gazan civilians to leave areas under attack (I’m still dumbfounded that this was uttered in my presence), and lame confirmation that just war is tallied fairly.  A safe, generalized, benign apologetics for war –  rather than confronting the realities of the particular warfare Israel has been waging or an exploration of strategies for achieving peace.

No one was able to explain how Israel’s phosphorus shelling  of congested urban areas is remotely “justified” under the texts in hand.  No one replied to my local analogy – the destruction of an entire city block following the firebombing of a single nuisance home – MOVE house in West Philadelphia.  No one could explain how Israel’s use of white phosphorus  – whether as smokescreens or illumination for targeted assaults  (as claimed) can – in light of the anticipated injuries to all civilians in the vicinity – be compared to anything other than Napalm strafing in Vietnam, and any other chemical warfare abhorrent to civilized men and women.


Chemiluminescence (sometimes “chemoluminescence”) is the emission of light with limited emission of heat (luminescence), as the result of a chemical reaction (source).

So I want to know more about white phosphorus. How is it that even my unschooled imagination is alarmed by even the vaguest descriptions of the stuff, yet most of my fellow congregregants – and the rabbi – remained sanguine.

I’ve googled, read news accounts and UN reports.  What do I know?  Well, it looks harmless enough – like a piece of white fudge, or a bar of oatmeal soap (source; and information about white phosphorus as weapon).  Glows in the dark … (like Moses’ face after receiving The Law?) .

Anyone can read about it’s general chemical properties, but seeing the stuff subjected to simple experiment is a much more effective way to understand UN criticism of Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza.

And when white phosphorus takes to the airspace over Gaza’s congested cities … what does that look like?  Like this – captured in still images, or  in motion.

Looks like billowing smoke, kite tails, Chinese streamers in the air … but when it falls unspent to the ground – or worse, on anyone nearby ...

Illuminating Thinking Cap

So what about those readings the rabbi provided to us for study?  Unfortunately, the issue is not whether Israel is justified in defending itself, but whether the particular means it uses are legitimate.  How it defends itself is the question.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged Israel to exercise “extreme caution” in using “incendiary agents”) to illuminate targets at night or create a smoke screen for day attacks.  According to the Red Cross, phosphorus devices should be treated as chemical weapons because they cause severe chemical burns.  111 nations, including most NATO allies, have signed a treaty banning the stockpiling and use of white phosphorus devices; neither the US nor Israel agreed to sign the document.  Although cluster bombs and similar devices (like white phosporus munitions) are not explicitly forbidden by the Geneva Law, the rules of war prohibit the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons or weapons that are incapable of being used in a manner that complies with the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Those who use them in civilian areas (including Israeli Jews) therefore open themselves to charges of war crimes.

Well, I’ve devised another kippah for The Minyan, to be used as a thinking cap during reflection.  A beautiful kippah, covered with billowing white and silver bursts of white phosphorus.

Try it on and see how it feels.  It won’t hurt; it’s not Hercules’ cloak.  It’s luminous.  Would that it illuminated the difference between right and wrong.  Without contrived apologetics for Israel’s outrageous abuse of its right of self-defense, and without contrived excuses for our inexcusable denial of the humanity of those Gazans, who – scorched beyond recognition by munitions launched by Israeli Jews – also reflect my idea of the image of the divine.

1.22.09 Update:

It’s always  a challenge to know where to find reliable information, in order to judge the conflicting claims (Israel denies using white phosphorus innappropriately in Gaza) and reports.  Additional information about evidence of Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza can be found at Res ipsa loquitur (”The thing itself speaks”) legal blog, here, here and here.