Sunday, June 18, 2017

Helmut Kohl Visits Yad Vashem – June 6th 1995 (German original - below)

Helmut Kohl, former (and important) Chancellor of Germany, died yesterday. I met him once, for 70 minutes, when he came to visit Yad Vashem on June 6th 1995. I was the highest-ranking official at Yad Vashem who spoke fluent German, so I used to accompany German-speaking VIPs when they came to visit. That evening I wrote a letter to some German friends, describing my interaction with their fellow. Looking back, I had some ambiguous thoughts about the experience and about the man. This afternoon I dug up the old file and translated it into English, and here it is: 22 years old and never published.

Helmut Kohl at Yad Vashem

The Germans bury their dead for a limited period. 10, 20, perhaps 25 years, depending upon the plans of the local officials, the ability or willingness of the family to pay, and the amount of land which can be allocated to cemeteries. Now and then a bulldozer comes by and pushes the old dead aside so as to make room for their children, until someday place will be needed for their grandchildren. Some Germans prefer to be cremated so as to spare their children the effort – or, perhaps unconsciously? – to spare themselves the embarrassment. Is it really merely a coincidence that back in the days when they wanted to dispose of millions of dead, they used cremation?

Only a few are allowed to rest forever. Important folks such as bishops, knights, prominent politicians, fallen soldiers even if they fell in the wrong sort of war… and Jews. It's ironic. Almost all the truly old cemeteries in Germany are Jewish cemeteries. Travelers might be forgiven for thinking the Jews were the only ones who lived in Germany for centuries. If you know where to look you'll find an old Jewish cemetery in practically every county in Germany; almost always, the newest gravestones in these cemeteries are older than the oldest ones in the regular places.

Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to visit us at Yad Vashem this morning. I accompanied him throughout his 70 minute visit. We began in the Valley of the Destroyed Communities, a sort of cemetery of cemeteries. Once the Jews were gone, their cemeteries began to die, so they've been symbolically transplanted to Jerusalem where the Jews still live. I had intended to suggest some of these ideas to him, but he wasn’t interested. "Yes yes, I understand", he said, and moved on. Not that he didn't observe his surroundings. The gigantic stone blocks of the Valley reminded him of his beloved Rhineland, and he told me about the beautiful cathedral in Speyer, and how the setting sun makes it glow.

That's how it went the entire time. He never saw Yad Vashem, and even less what it means. I told him a thing or two that could have made him reflect, but he didn't. Mostly he saw similarities to his own story, or to the story of Germany – his grandfather had had a similar experience, you know? At one point we came upon a group of German tourists. He spotted them immediately, and went over to shake hands. "It's good that you're here", they told him. "They also are Germany" he remarked to me afterwards. I concurred.

As a professional politician, he cultivates the people around him. He wanted to know who I am, and where my German comes from. (Should I have told him I learned German to understand you people? No, I shouldn't have – and didn't). Then, as he stood before the TV cameras, his entire demeanor abruptly changed. He seemed somehow smaller, and he spoke about shame, memory, and the future… but you saw him on the evening news, no doubt. A minute later it was over, and he carried on his friendly chatter with me. Is this important? The millions of viewers saw his shame and remorse, and only I know that right in the middle of his visit to Yad Vashem he found the opportunity to tell me that he had thinner hair than his father (or was it the other way around?)

Yet the millions probably aren't that stupid, either. I suspect he consistently wins elections precisely because he's the sort of person who can walk through Yad Vashem as if he's strolling through Central Park: intelligent, charming, and untouched. Ah, and ever thinking about his homeland. In Central park or in Yad Vashem, the things he'll take note of are the things that remind him of the beauty of home. I have no doubt that Herr Kohl loves his country, most likely without needing to hate anyone else – and with no need to trouble himself with things that are past and gone.


*      *      *

Late in the afternoon I took the kids to an open air music performance. It was a group of locals singing the canonical Israeli songs, shirim ivri'im: about birds, mountains, about the very act of singing. Patriotism of the best sort; not directed against anyone. A way of thinking (or feeling) that forges community out of many individuals and creates identity. It was a fine experience, and a piece of culture which Israelis don't have in common with most Germans, certainly not those who relate well to Yad Vashem.

I expect Herr Kohl would have empathized fully.


Yaacov Lozowick
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Following the publication of this post a number of German-speaking readers asked for the original version. So here it is.



Kanzler Helmut Kohl besucht Yad Vashem, 6. Juni 1995

In Deutschland wird man beerdigt fuer eine begrenzte Zeit. 10 Jahre, oder 20, oder 25, je nach Entscheidung der Beamten, Faehigkeit oder Wille der Verwandten zu bezahlen, und die Grosse der Flaeche die die Verwaltung bereit ist fuer Toten zu bezeichnen. Ab und zu kommt ein Bagger und schafft all die Alten ab, um Platz fuer deren Kinder zu haben, bis die Enkel alt werden. Manche bevorziehen die Einaescherung, um der Gebliebenen die Muehe zu sparen - oder, vielleicht unbewusst? - sich die Schmach zu ersparren. Sollen wir uns so wundern, dass als man damals Toten millionenweise bei sich hatte, hat man sie verbrannt?

Nur Wenige duerfen in Ruhe liegen. Ehrenbuerger - Bischoefe, Ritter, Politiker - gefallene Soldaten, auch wenn sie einen falschen Kreig gefuehrt haben, und Juden. Ironisch: die einzige alte Friedhoefe die es in Deutschland gibt, sind Juedische. Beinahe konnte man glauben, allein die Juden sind schon jahrhunderte da. Wenn man nur sucht, findet man so einen Friedhof in fast jeden Kreis Deutschlands. Fast immer sind die juengste Grabsteine aelter, als die aelteste Steine bei den Friedhoefen der Deutschen.

Heute war Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl bei uns in Yad Vashem. Ich habe ihn begleitet waehrend der 70 Minuten seines Besuches. Es fing an im Tal der zerstoerten Gemeinden: eine Art 'Friedhof der Friedhoefe'. Nachdem man die Juden verbrannt hat, sterben nun ihre fruehere Friedhoefe, und sie werden symbolisch weitergepflegt in Jerusalem, wo die Juden noch leben. Ich wollte einen Bruchteil der obigen Ueberlegungen vorstellen, aber er hatte keine Interesse daran. "Ja ja, ich verstehe schon", sagte er, und wir gingen weiter. Wobei er doch was gesehen hat. Die Steine haben ihn erinnert an das Rheinland, seine Heimat, und er erzaehlte mir wie wunderschoen der Dom in Speyer um Sonnenuntergang ist.

Es ging so die ganze Zeit. Er hat Yad Vahem nicht gesehen, schon gar nicht das was Yad Vashem beduetet. Ich habe ihn Einiges gezeigt die einem nachdenklich machen koennte, er wuerde es aber nicht. Meistens sah er irgend eine Verbindung zu seiner eigenen Geschichte, oder zu Deutschland: bei seinem Grossvater sei es auch so gewesen, usw. Unterwegs traffen wir einige Deutsche Touristen, die zufaelllig zur selben Zeit in Yad Vashem waren. Er merkte sie sofort, und ging hin. "Gut, dass Sie hier sind", haben sie ihm gesagt; danach merkte er mir, stolz auf seine Landesleute: "Das ist auch Deutschland". Ich habe bestaetigt.

Wie ein guter Politiker, der die Leute kultiviert, wollte er ueber mich wissen, und woher ich mein Deutsch habe. (Haette ich ihm die Wahrheit sagen sollen: ich habe es gelernt als Versuch Euch Deutsche zu verstehen? Nein, ich haette es lieber nicht sagen sollen, und tat es tatsaechlich nicht). Als er vor die Kameras stand, aenderte sich ploetzlich seine Koerpersprache, er wuerde irgendwie kleiner, sprach ueber Scham, Erinnerung und Zukunft - aber das habt Ihr ja gesehen, bei den Nachrichten. Eine Minute spaeter war es erledigt und vorbei, und er erzaehlte mir freundlich weiter. Ist das wichtig? Die Millionen haben gesehen, dass er sich schaemt, und nur ich weiss, dass er mitten in Yad Vashem Gelegenheit gefunden hat zu erzaehlen, dass er noch weniger Haare habe als sein Vater sie hatte (oder war es umgekehrt?).

Aber die Millionen sind wahrscheinlich auch nicht so dumm. Ich vermute, er wird immer wieder gewaehlt, gerade wiel er so Jemand ist, der durch Yad Vashem gehen kann genau wie er durch Central Park gehen wuerde: intelligent, nett, unberuehrt. Na ja, und sich an seine Heimat denkend. In Central Park, oder in Yad Vashem, er wird die Sachen merken, die sich an das Schoene seiner Heimat erinnern. Ich bin ueberzeugt, Herr Kohl liebt sein Land, wahrscheinlich sogar ohne Andere zu hassen - und ohne sich stoeren zu lassen durch den was vorbei ist.

*      *      *

Am Abend ging ich mit den Kinder in die Stadt. Es gab so ein Open Air Concert, von einer Gruppe die Israelische Lieder singt. Patriotische Lieder, Shirim Ivri'im, ueber die Voegel, die Berge, ueber das Singen selbst. Nationalismus der besten Art, gegen Niemanden gerichtet; eine Denkart die aus vielen Einzelne eine Gemeinde schafft, eine Identitaet hervorrufft. Es war ein schoenes Erlebnis. Und ein Stueck Kultur wo die Israelis mit den Deutschen nichts gemeinsames haben.

Moeglicherweise, haette gerade Herr Kohl es verstehen koennen.


Yaacov Lozowick

Monday, March 13, 2017

Is the $15BN sale of Mobileye to Intel anything to celebrate?



Earlier today we were told that technology giant Intel is about to purchase one of Israel's largest tech firms, Jerusalem-based Mobileye. The initial reaction in Israel was one of glee. During the afternoon I had the opportunity to talk with a fellow who understands more about the matter than most of us, and he didn't seem unequivocally exuberant. Here's the gist of what he had to say.

The Sale of Mobileye is a Good Thing:
1. Great for the tax man. If you assume balancing the budget is good for everyone, injecting a billion $ into the treasury coffers from somewhere else is fine.
2. Great for the ego. Somebody just forked out $15,000,000,000 for the brainchild of some of our neighbors, what's not to like?
3. A whole bunch of locals are going to get dollops of dollars in their bank accounts.

The sale of Mobileye may not be such a Good Thing.
4. Until this morning, Mobileye was a Jerusalem-based company with hundreds of employees, most of them probably reasonably well-paid. Selling to a foreign firm could mean that down the road the new owners pull out whatever they can, knowledge and talent, and Jerusalem will have one less successful employer.
5. The buyer, Intel, used to be one of the world's top 2-3 tech giants. Then it missed a couple of important developments, such as the rise and spread of smartphones, and nowadays it's still very large but not very-top-tier.
6. More worrisome, Intel does not have a good track record of moving into new fields beyond its original core business; driver-less cars look a lot like a new field beyond its original core business.
7. Most regrettable: until this morning Mobileye was one of the very few Israeli tech firms which was bucking the Israeli tradition of inventing something Really Cool and selling to a larger, non-Israeli firm which then makes long-term profit off the original idea. Many of us think it's time some of these brilliant Israeli start-ups should stick around and become a successful Israeli giant. Mobileye was on our short-list; and now it's off.

The sale of Mobileye is a bit odd:
7. Since 2014 the company has been on the NASDAQ. Moreover, many of the worlds` leading car companies have been beating tracks to its doorstep. Why buy back the stock and sell to some other company? The valuation of the present sale is higher than the NASDAQ value, but still?

So, my interlocutor hazarded the following explanation.
8. The industry of driver-less cars is heating up, and looks like it's on its way to being a multi-trillion $ field; as such it's going to attract everyone and their cousins. Mobileye is well placed at the moment, but with everyone else pouring in, it could be forgiven for being a wee bit apprehensive. Intel is way bigger, and perhaps it's more likely to survive among the giants if it's part of a giant itself.

Which brings us back to the original question: seen from the perspective of Jerusalem and Israel, how good is this transaction. Having rained on my parade for a few minutes, The Fellow then drew an optimistic scenario:
9. Intel already has a large presence in Israel, including one block away from the Mobileye offices. It knows how to make the best of what Israeli tech has to offer. So it won't have any particular incentive to extract what it can and go elsewhere. If acquiring Mobileye proves to be part of a successful strategy to migrate into a new field, and a gigantic one at that, of driver-less cars, Jerusalem may end up a very important center of development for that field. Now that would be something to kvell about!

Postscript: those of us Israelis old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter can tell that Israel once had a car industry of its own - well, sort of. There was a factory which produced local cars called Susita; their defining character was that they were made of cardboard. Honestly. Well, if not cardboard, maybe fiberglass. They were light, cheap, came in two colors (Yellow-ish tan, and dirty yellow-ish tan), they crumpled upon impact with anything sterner than a cat, and they weren't exactly proof of our global industrial significance. We also remember, and will swear to the truth of the legend about the bored camel who once ate one of them in a parking lot in Beer Sheva. Here you can see an article in Hebrew with lots of pictures of the last few specimens, which have survived into the 1980s and beyond because they have crazy owners who feed them chicken soup every evening. The article, from 2013, includes pictures of a camel who was brought to the annual meeting of Odd-Owners-of-Susitas, and the contention is that since the 2013 camel refused to eat any of them, the original story must be false. Hmmpf, I say.

Seen in this context, today's story about Mobileye is science fiction, no less.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Matti Friedman's Pumpkin Flowers

Matti Friedman's haunting description of his time in Southern Lebanon, and ours, begins with the daily transformation of night to day, the hour before the world wakes. Armies know this to be a time of grogginess, so they purposefully enact procedures to ensure alertness; in Friedman's day it was called konenut im shachar, which he translates as Readiness with Dawn. Correctly, he opens his memoir by describing how the days began - and how his days, almost 20 years later, are still formed by them:
Sometime first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin would feel like an island fortress in a sea of mist - like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it although other parts know better....
Readiness with dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I'm there now.
So the first compelling thing about this book is the report about a strange and almost forgotten time in our history and how it's still present for the men who were there. I read somewhere that war novels or memoirs have a standard format. Innocent young men go to war, kill and watch friends be killed, conquer demons and collect scars that will remain with them forever, and return home wiser. Not long ago I read Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, about Vietnam, which is a fine specimen of the genre. Then I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which fits the template less and was noted by many reviewers for its departure from it. One reviewer of Pumkin Flowers describes it as the Israeli version of Things They Carried. Yes, perhaps.

The second thing about the book is its claim that the odd little war between Israel and Hezbullah in the 1990s, repressed as it was at the time, mostly forgotten ever since, and always unnamed, was actually the harbinger of the larger war which has since overrun the region and sent tentacles across the globe. The IDF generals at the time, he remembers, were still preparing for the big wars with the tank divisions; the civilians were focused on the big peace which was certain soon to arrive.
So civilians in Israel were thinking about the new Middle East, and the army about the real war, but nothing came of either - it turned out that what was happening in Lebanon was both the new Middle East and the real war. Something important was afoot while everyone looked elsewhere, and marginal events turned out to be of the most significance. This is often the case.
Then there's another paradox, which he describes well but never fully spells out. Israel's war in the Security Zone in the 1990s was a stupid war, but the political and military leaderships were committed to it so it took a major effort of sections of civil society to convince the voters to convince Ehud Barak to run in the 1999 elections on the promise to leave, which he and we did in May 2000. By the end that year the pervasive Israeli expectation of peace was destroyed. So the war of the Security Zone ended because Israeli society had had enough of futilely spilling blood, but the stage was now set for what looks to be decades of off-and-on violence and further rounds of war. A dialectic result if ever there was one, compounded, to be honest, by the uncertainty of the wisdom of allowing Hezbullah to assume it had won. If the coming 40-50 years see no further wars between Israel and Hezbullah, we'll be able to say the war of 2006 corrected the false message sent in 2000; if there are, the withdrawal of 2000 will look less justified. Historical perspective takes time.

Until then, Friedman's book is a moving guide to those confusing days, and a poignant memorial to the soldiers that survived it and to those that didn't.

Matti Friedman, Pumpkin Flowers, a soldier's story.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Michael Herzog dissects John Kerry having a go at Israel-Palestine peacemaking

Michael Herzog is a serious fellow. A retired brigadier general in the IDF intelligence corps. The son of Chaim Herzog, commander of the IDF intelligence corps and eventually President of Israel; nephew of Yakov Herzog, a top-tier official in the 1960s who died young after besting Arnold Toynbee in a discussion about Jews and their place in history; also a nephew of Abba Eban, Israel's legendary foreign minster in the 1960s. He's the older brother of Yitzchak Herzog, the current leader of the Labor Party. He's been involved in just about all the rounds of Israeli-Arab negotiations over the past 20 years or so, in one capacity or another. So when he describes the most recent failed attempt to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of which he was part in an advisory role, he's worth listening to. He knows Israel from its center to its edge; he's been observing Israel's Arab neighbors for 50 years; and he has as much experience of dealing with putative American peace-makers as any Israeli.

John Kerry's chapter of the decades-old off-on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations garnered much less attention than some of its predecessors, such as the Camp David negotiations run by Bill Clinton in 2000 or their Hail-Mary-pass edition in December 2000, or even the Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2008. Most observers on all sides seem to have resigned themselves, some more and others less, to the futility of such attempts, and anyway the minutiae involved doesn't easily lend itself to Twitter-style reporting. Yet in Herzog's telling, Kerry's chapter was as serious as its forerunners, and its failure is as instructive.

Herzog doesn't tell us who offered exactly what and what was extracted in return. Rather, he tells about the dynamics. They're not that surprising to seasoned observers of the genre, but they're instructive; I think they're important.

The Palestinians first. It's well known they regard their acceptance of Israel in its borders of 1967 to be their final offer; they've made all the compromises required for peace, and the purpose of negotiations is to bring them sovereignty in the entire West Bank,Gaza, East Jerusalem, along with a resolution to their Right of Return, and Historical Justice. It's the historical justice which you've got to keep in mind, as according to Herzog, in the Kerry negotiations as in all earlier attempts the Palestinians put immense weight on being accorded justice as they define it.

The demand for justice is unusual in the annals of international peace negotiations, which usually focus on more concrete issues; also, negotiations generally involve give-and-take; when one side insists it has finished giving and is at the table only to take, negotiations won't succeed.

The story Herzog tells about Netanyahu is a bit surprising, though not earth-shattering. As he tells it, Netanyahu actually demonstrated seriousness and eventually also flexibility towards reaching an agreement. Herzog quotes him once as telling Kerry that a compromise must hurt both sides, and he was willing to accept hurt. The Palestinians, not: see above. Herzog cites American negotiators who agree that Netanyahu eventually showed significant flexibility.

Which raises an interesting question. The Netanyahu and Obama governments didn't get along so well, as we all noticed, even up until the final days of Obama's administration. If Netanyahu had actually moved significantly towards where Kerry wanted him, what was that final bitter speech in the State Department in January 2017 all about? I pose this question for future investigation. Something doesn't add up.

The pattern of end-run Israeli flexibility and Palestinian recalcitrance is not new ; it has actually been the norm for at least 16 years. Which makes the American part of the story so odd. Herzog credits Kerry with investing endless time in the negotiations, including daily conference calls from whatever country he might be in. Man, was he serious about this! Serious, but inept. He missed details of major destructive power, such as not noticing the distinction between an Israeli willingness to free convicted Palestinian murders from prison, to the Palestinian insistence they be sent back to their hometowns, where the Israelis expected them to stir up trouble. He also missed things that weren't details at all, such as being in constant touch with Netanyahu to ensure he didn't backtrack, while not being in similar touch with Abbas, not realizing he wasn't on board, and eventually watching him jettison the process for yet another empty agreement with Hamas. Most damning, in my reading, was the apparent American assumption that it was Netanyahu whose positoins needed eroding, while Abbas was taken for granted: if we deliver Netanyahu Abbas will make the deal and won't need cajoling of his own. Or, as Herzog puts it: Kerry felt his positions were closer to those of Abbas.

Except, of course, the Palestinian positions were never what Kerry thought they were, which is why irrespective of how much Netanyahu grudgingly moved, no agreement was within reach at any moment. If you read too much of the New York Times and not enough of the Palestinian sources, you'll end up believing in a reality which doesn't exist.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Here we are - Hinenu

I mostly don't write about books I dislike. Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Here I Am, will be an exception, for reasons which actually have to do with some of the themes of this (mostly dormant) blog.

The late Jacques Barzun taught me, in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, that the task of literature is to enlighten us about the complex lives of people. Well, Foer's book didn't do it for me. None of the protagonists were appealing to me as people, nor, even at the end of almost 600 pages, were any of them particularly familiar. Though I don't read much literature, so maybe the fault is mine.

I wonder whether the book will age well. Portions of it take place in an online game called Other Life, which may have millions of players, and may be forgotten in ten years. There is a section written as a text-exchange - a form of communication which may gone by the end of the decade for all anyone knows. A pivotal event hinges upon breaking the code of a cell-phone, which may seem a quaint curiosity five years from now, when we all use DNA-related wave-length to secure our phones, assuming phones don't go the way of the fax machine. Great literature takes the particular and demonstrates its universality; I'm not certain particular technology does that.

The book is overtly Jewish - in an American way. It's extremely verbal. Its Jews are talkative, virtuoso and compulsive players of sophisticated word-games; it's exhausting. Not long ago I read John William's Stoner - a short, taciturn novel that hits Barzun's target fully - which couldn't remotely be about Jews. Foer's Jews aren't taciturn. But what are they? Part of the story is that none of the children see any sense in Judaism; I didn't find much in the stories of their elders to change their mind. Thus begging the question: what's Jewish?

And then there's the Israel Thing. May I please request of American Jewish writers that they desist from describing Israel with stuff about Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Jerusalem of Gold? How credible would it be to describe early 21st century America by mentioning President Hoover, General Marshall or square dancing? If Foer's American characters were shallow and unconvincing, his portrayal of Israelis is beyond silly; it's offensive.

But that's not the worst of it. The book presents itself as the story of an American Jewish father whose family is disintegrating until a cataclysm in Israel forces him to find himself (Here I am) in relation to something larger. The title of the cataclysm is "the destruction of Israel". Now I'm not one to say that Israel is indestructible, but if you're going to use that as the conceptual framework for a 600-page novel, common courtesy to the real Israeli's would be to flesh out some remotely plausible scenario, one that somehow addresses Israel's real flaws or vulnerabilities. Foer can't be bothered enough even to flesh out any sort of scenario at all. The destruction of Israel is mentioned, from time to time, as a minor distraction on the TV screens that flicker in the background of the more important events at the front of the stage.

Unless I missed the true point of the book, which is that for American Jewish parents who can't think of any compelling reason their children should care about being Jewish (the best they come up with is "this is what we do"), the destruction of Israel is no more interesting than the real-life destruction of Syria has been these past six years: not at all.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Political discourse in perspective

There's this e-mail list I'm on, made up of gray-haired Israeli men who all served together in the Armored Corp in the 1970s, then served together as reservists for twenty-some years, and now get together only rarely as a full group to swap stale tall tales about times long past. (There's a Whatsapp list too: we're technically competent. No Snapchat, tho. There has to be a line somewhere.)

Anyway, one of the fellows has taken to broadcasting his hard-core Right-wing political opinions. Earlier today one of the other fellows responded thusly:

Dear Y,
I love you dearly, as you well know. We've been like brothers for more than 40 years. But please, take me off the mailing list of your idiotic screeds. As you well know, I'm a bleeding heart Lefty, and at my age, there's nothing you might say to make me change my mind. On the contrary, if you and your God Almighty have to keep on sending your silly arguments, all that says to me is that you're both insecure. So from now on, stop bothering me with the spam.
R.
PS. Next Friday at the usual place, obviously.
I recommend these sentiments to those of my occasional readers who are losing the ability to talk to their political rivals. Chill.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tusheti - a beautiful place you've never heard of

We recently returned from a hiking trip to Georgia (the country, not the state). We had gone expecting great mountain hikes; we found the closest thing I've yet seen to Shangri La. This post, quite unlike the rest of the blog around it, tells about the remote and fascinating Tusheti area in north east Georgia, and why you want to go there.
Tusheti is the green corner north-north-east of Tbilisi.

To reach Tusheti you travel to Tbilisi, the center of which is a jumble of churches, castles, ultra-modern structures, and communist era monstrosities. The overall feeling is post-communist, even though it's been 25 years since Georgia achieved independence from the Soviet Union. I didn't see many traffic lights, nor drivers who seemed to miss them, but there was WiFi.

The next morning it was off to the mountains. For about two hours we traveled on reasonably paved roads through rural areas that looked even more post-communist than Tbilisi. Then the road petered out, and we were on gravel. Then the gravel became narrow, and then there was a rapid river beneath us, and then even the river disappeared, to be replaced by treetops in the gorge below us. Quite a way below us. It dawned on us there was a reason our guide had mentioned a full day travel – not that it was so far but that the road was for inching along. Many hours of inching along.



Mostly without a security railing.

 Eventually we reached the pass at the top of the road.


 And then we went down the other side, then up again. 72 km of unpaved mountain road, alongside a chasm almost the whole time, and no sign of human settlement anywhere. Until eventually we arrived in Tusheti.




So the first thing you need to know about Tusheti is that it's beautiful, but the second is that there's only one single road into it (and back out), and it's not one you want to drive. The locals have been going up and down that pass for centuries, and they start driving it after a childhood of riding it, sometimes in big six-wheeled trucks. They know what they're doing and they don't fall off the cliff. Others sometimes do. So have a local take you up, and don't even think of doing it yourself.

Beauty is actually not the only reason to be up there, but it is a compelling one.
 







What makes Tusheti different from other beautiful mountain ranges are its people. The Tushetis. There are a few thousand of them, and they've been there for at least 1,600 years. They've got their own dialect. They're spread over the slopes of four valleys, surrounded by 5,000 meter mountains. The winters are ferocious, so they spend them in the lowlands, migrating up for the warm half of the year with their cattle, horses, and many sheep. They also raise crops, though with the advent of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks they've been focusing more on livestock and cheese-making, importing the rest from below. 

The rest of Georgia has been changing political overlords incessantly for as long back as memory goes; Tusheti, secure behind that rampart of mountains, only twice, once by Tamarlane. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, present everywhere else in the country, had a hard time making it up the pass, and to a surprising degree never fully made it: the Tushetis till this very day, are polytheistic. They're Orthodox and also pagans, simultaneously. There are more than 50 small villages and hamlets in Tusheti; only three have churches, and even they are built alongside the sacrificial altar that most of the villages have. Both are active.


Only in one village - Dartlo - was the church constructed on the site of the altar, rather than alongside it. A few decades later there was an earthquake and the church was destroyed. This is a fact, make of it what you will.

The gods, by the way, are apparently two sets of dieties, one benign and the other malicious, and the Tushetis appeal to the benign ones for protection.

Today's Tushetis all come together for their annual holiday in August, where they offer sacrifices and celebrate, then they break up into subgroups by valley, and continue with local sacrifices and celebrations. Even those who no longer make their living from the land and don't spend the whole summer in the mountains, come up for the month of celebrations. Thus, the slight ghost town sensation visitors can have in some of these villages must be greatly reduced in August.

Not fully however. If a family ever runs out of male descendants, the family home will be abandoned; it is now accursed, not to be used ever again. Each village has a few "dead' homes, slowly disintegrating. Another ancient tradition is that woman may not approach the altars, nor the stills where ritual beer is prepared. If you wish to respect the locals, when entering a new village you'll ask where not to go; the locals will appreciate your sign of respect.


On the way up that pass I'd noticed a few rusty pylons.


What are those about, I asked our guide, as we walked between villages unadorned by any electric poles? The Soviets, she said. The Soviets were against the Tusheti way of life. So they forbade families to come up each summer, but insisted the menfolk do; each one was assigned a production quota of livestock or cheese. This was so important that even during WW2, when the Soviet Union was in a state of total war, the Tusheti men were left alone to fill their quotas. They were administered from Omalo, the "big city" (population 812, if you ask me), near the entrance from the road over the pass. The administrators got electricity. And then, I asked? As soon as the Soviets left, she said, some locals stole the lines and sold the metal. And yes, the other locals saw this happening, and no, no one dared stop them in the lawlessness of the time.

So the Soviets had threatened the very existence of the Tusheti way of life, but they'd left behind a (somewhat) improved road and the memory of electricity. A few years ago a Czech NGO began installing a limited number of solar panels in some of the villages, so that the guesthouses offer hot water showers early in the evening, and you can recharge your cellphone batteries – though in many cases you won't be able to make calls with them. The solar panels are 21st century progress over the long-gone electric cables of the 20th century; cellphone connectivity is a 21st century scourge, thankfully limited up in the mountains.

While the Soviet Union is gone, Russia is very close. When hiking along the Alazani River, which we did for parts of three days, it's right there, at the top of the snowy mountain ridge. To be precise, Chechnya is to the north and Dagestan to the east. During the first round of the Russian-Chechnyan war in the 1990s, Tusheti served as the back base for the Chechnyan  rebels. (There's no road across the steep ridge, but if you're in good physical shape and don't suffer from altitude sickness you can climb across it). Nowadays, so we were told, the Russians are at the top of the ridge and will shoot if anyone comes too close. Elsewhere along the border, where there's no natural line such as the top of a ridge, Russia is apparently constantly moving the border deeper into Georgian territory – not that this is anything that gets reported in the Western media.

One morning we encountered a horseman trotting along who, unlike all the other locals I met, refused my request to take his picture. Our guide explained that he's Chechen, not Tusheti; a religious Muslim. Apparently there's a handful them who have remained permanently on the gentler side of the mountain ridge.

Upon probing a bit deeper, I got the impression that spending a thousand years over the hill from the Chechans and other rough Caucasus tribes has involved a degree of friction. Cattle rustling, say, and perhaps the random clash. This would explain the impressive defense towers each and every hamlet offers. They wouldn't be much use against a Tamerlane intent on destruction, nor against Soviets intent on re-inventing society, but for offering sanctuary until the cattle rustler moved on, they were fine. For tourists with cameras they're great.





Don't let the towers fool you, however. These are not the castles of the aristocrats, built by the serfs. Throughout its many centuries, even as the Europeans to the west had rule by the few over the many, the Tushetis lived in a mostly egalitarian society. Success at farming was important, but each tribe or village demanded of each family that they work hard enough to succeed, with no allowances for slackers. Some wise old men were consulted for being wise, and in the village of Diklo we saw the remains of an ancient court of peers which resolved local disagreements. No one was truly rich, so no-one was poor, either. Sounds as close to being free as most of history had to offer, and you had to come all the way to this remote corner of the Caucasus to find it.

One of the major products of the area is Tusheti cheese, famous, apparently, throughout the country and beyond. One day we asked to see the process close up. Of course, said the cheese-maker; by all means.








On Shabbat we didn't do any hiking; yet simply sitting in the small village of Girevi was instructive: the villagers were busy. Laundry is done by hand. Wood is chopped by hand. Cows are milked by hand. Goats are slaughtered on the track next to the hut, then quartered and processed, all by hand. Three men down the lane spent the whole day putting a new roof above a veranda, apparently preparing a new guest house. The horses need tending.

The houses the Tushetis live in are rough hewn (a stronger word than 'rustic'). Sometimes there's a solar panel; every now and then we saw satellite TV receptors, almost always disconnected. There are no paved roads. I assume they've got running water since that's easy to have, simply by running a pipe from a nearby stream. They often own a battered second-hand van or pickup truck, but quite a few travel by horse, often bareback. Riding at night, our guide assured us, was never dangerous, unless one be lulled by a local evil spirit to leave the track; it wasn't entirely clear how serious she was.




They are hospitable. One day the most elder member of our party was tired, and the first vehicle that passed immediately took him and his daughter a few miles down the track to the next village. When we arrived it turned out that two young mothers with small children, whose husbands were afield, had taken them into their living room/dining room/kitchen; when we came by they welcomed us in too, so that we could have our lunch in the shade (it was a hot day). Who ever heard of such behavior in our modern world?

The most striking thing about their life style, so far as I could see, was the joy with which they gather together each evening and sit around talking and laughing. It's a hard life, physically, and a meager one financially; yet again and again, in different villages, I was impressed how they'd sit and laugh.

They're probably at a historic crossroads. In past centuries when they felt a mountainside was overgrazed they'd dedicate it to the local spirit of the mountain, so it became forbidden for grazing, and Nature would retrieve it. Hunters asked for the blessing of the Goddess of Hunting, but were careful not to anger her by harming young females and their offspring, thus ensuring sustainability. Hunting is no longer essential, and even grazing is slowly declining; more Tushetis come up for the month of August than for the entire season. What is rising, slowly and tentatively, is tourism. Being the sparely inhabited land it is, tourists inevitably have an impact, and leave a footprint. In the most remote villages we reached, at least one or two families had put up a primitive sign declaring their guest house or restaurant (fare: meat, cheese, simple vegetables, local bread, Georgian beer brought up from the lowlands in large jars, and Chacha, the national (very) alcoholic liquor. This young man and his wife and infant live in a hut and graze their flock; and they've put up a sign declaring it to be a café.


Given the remoteness, that challenging road, the rusticity and the appeal of such a land only to tourists who're into roughing it in magnificent places, the locals are unlikely to be overrun anytime soon by air-conditioned busses and tourists who insist on Starbucks. Yet change is afoot, and a degree of commercialism may be inevitable. So don't wait too long.

Logistics: Our guide, Tiko Ididze, is the best you could wish for. Her English (and apparently her Spanish) is flawless, her guiding ability is high, she's knowledgeable, she's young enough to be quite free of the mannerisms communism inculcated in its citizens. Living in Tbilisi she's just what you'd expect a young Western urban professional to be… except that she's Tusheti herself. Which means she knows all of them either personally or to the second degree, knows all of their history and is generally a trove of information. I don't generally do advertising on this blog, but if this post has done anything to convince you, talk to Tiko. Tinikoididze at Gmail.

Finally, a word about our group: we were organized by Yedidya and Susan of Koshertreks. If you're into hardworking treks in fantastic remote places, and you care deeply or at least don't mind kosher food while being there, Koshertreks is an outfit you should know about.


Friday, October 14, 2016

A Hassidic athiest Chabad socialist folk song

One of the notable sections of the service on the evening of Yom Kippur is Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer, Like clay in the hands of a creator. After the service this week our Rabbi, Rav Benny Lau, told us the startling tale of the melody and its second career. Anyone who knows Israeli culture and has gone to an Ashkenazi synagogue on Yom Kippur ought to have noticed it; but I don't know many folks who have. I certainly hadn't.

Kachomer seems to have been written - words and melody - by Shalom Charitonow, a Chabbadnik in the early 19th century. Or not. I've seen different versions (the Internet can be a confusing place) as to whether Charitonow wrote the words, or perhaps merely the melody, and then the two were connected only in the 20th century in Israel. In any case, they've been connected for decades, if not centuries.

Charitonow lived in Nikolayev, a shtetel in what today is the Ukraine. Many years later another young Jew from Nikolayev, Emanuel Novograbelski, was about to be sent to exile in Siberia for his Zionist leanings, but instead was exchanged with the British for some Russians who'd been arrested in Manadtory Palestine; so in the mid 1920s he arrived here and joined the pioneers. He even joined the Labor Brigades for a while until his health forced him to be a city-dweller. Even then, however, he joined the Haganah, and the events of Summer 1929 found him serving with his unit in Tel Aviv. And that's where he was when news of the birth of his first son reached him.

Flushed with the personal excitement of being a new father, and the national tension of the first major round of Jewish-Palestinian violence, Emanuel, who by now was mostly known by his pen name Emanuel the Russian (because he wasn't one?) wrote a lullaby for his son: Sleep son, your mother is with you, tomorrow there's lots of work to be done, the fields at Beit Alpha are burning, one must never never succumb to despair, sleep son sleep son sleep. Lacking the time to compose a melody, he borrowed a niggun from the Old Country.

And ever since the tune has had two separate lives. If you're aware of the Israeli cannon of songs, Shirim Ivri'im, you'll know Shchav bni - rest, my son, as an early part of the culture. If you've ever gone to an Ashkenasi shul for Kol Nidrei evening, irrespective of Hassidic or Misnagdic, you'll know Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer. And if you're both (some of us are), you'll recognize both, but never both at the same time. Or rather, both as being the same thing.

Here's the melody:



Here's Arik Lavie, an important performer of cannonical songs, demonstrating how basic this one is:

 Here's a band of chabadnicks doing it the Chabad way:

Here's Aya Corem, demonstrating that young contemporary singers still hold the early parts of the cannon to be their own.



 Finally, here's someone who definitely knows the whole story: secular, cannonic, creative, and deeply connected Chava Alberstein, tying it all together.