“Pomegranate Wine” A Personal Reflection on Israel (Liberal Judaism Thought for the Week)

This week is my Thought for the Week at Liberal Judaism. The link will change so I’ve posted it below.

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I recently returned from spending a year in Israel, living in Haifa, where I began the research for my PhD. My wife and I were reminiscing today about the street party that took place at this time last year for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Music blaring out, we worried that our daughter’s hearing would be affected, but could not resist the wonderful atmosphere with families of all ages celebrating after the sombre mood of Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day).

I share, like all of you, a grave concern about the prospects for the future; whether peace will one day be realised between the Israelis and Palestinians. And, at the same time, the lack of peace is only one part of how I relate to Israel. Israel for me is an expression of the Jewish people’s yearning for sovereignty – to shape their destiny in cultural, spiritual and religious terms. Israel is a land in which the sacred texts of our tradition were brought to life from the imaginations and intellectual endeavours of our ancestors. Israel is a place where the potential for democracy and Jewish values can become embedded within the fabric of society. Israel is a place of huge complexity and challenge, a land in which many communities and peoples live, work, love and pray.

Allow me to take you back to the first time I lived in Israel, in Jerusalem; a time when I was studying for the rabbinate. After that year I promised myself I would speak regularly not just of the politics of Israel but of the human experience of living in such a complex part of the world…

Within the first day of arriving in Jerusalem I had to find a flat.  So I set off with my intrepid future housemate (a friend from England) to search through lists of flats for rent. We paid a small fee to an agent for their accommodation lists and within minutes we identified a suitable flat in the right location and promptly telephone the landlord.

Shalom
Shalom
Errr efshar l’daber im Avraham Chovav b’vakesha
Ken, m’daber Chovav
Err, yesh lekha dera l’haskir?

The stilted Hebrew must have been painful even for a kindergarten child, but as we were to discover our landlord did not speak a word of English (at least that’s what he made out to us). Having seen the flat and decided it was suitable we telephoned Avraham again to arrange contract signing.

Avraham, we were soon to learn, was a sweet septuagenarian who I think really loved the fact that we had come to Israel to study.   He duly invited us to his apartment to sign contracts and meet his wife Margelit.  He picked us up in his old red car and after a few moments panic, that he could be taking us anywhere, we settled in for the journey – full of painful conversations and rapid attempts to decipher the magical language he spoke.

With the contract out of the way he offered us drinks and food in the true style of the hospitality you might expect in the Mediterranean.  “Sit, eat, my wife made the cakes.”  She spoke much better English – apparently she once taught English in a primary school.  It was then that he brought out the wine.

Just as Moses in the book of Deuteronomy describes the land as bountiful with the seven species (wheat, barley, vines, fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey) so were we entering the land and sitting down with our landlord to…homemade pomegranate wine.

Now this was a little more than we expected and though reluctant to drink alcohol in the middle of the day we felt obliged.  Only it wasn’t just wine it was fortified wine and very sweet – like a sherry. If you can imagine kiddush wine – stronger and sweeter – that is how it tasted.  My housemate wanted to describe it as having a certain sharpness – but we couldn’t find the right word in the dictionary.

His wife then brought us some delightful herbs from the garden.  One of them smelt slightly lemony and she insisted we take it back with us to our flat. It was called Melisa and retained its scent all the way through to Pesach.

Just before we left his home, Avraham showed us his photos of army service.  It transpired that he believed that as long as any Israeli was capable he should fulfil his duty to protect the land.  Imagine the seventy-year-old sitting in an armoured vehicle surrounded by 19-20 year olds.  Avraham and his wife were born in Israel before the state was founded and the family had been there at least for two generations prior to them.

It was whilst applying for a reduction in the council tax (we were students) in the city municipality that Avraham revealed to us a treasure of a story.  He was trying to ask us if we had been scared that morning – a suicide bombing on a bus had occurred metres from our flat as we waited for him to turn up.  The windows had shaken with the blast and seconds later the sirens began wailing.  Scared – how could I not be?

He then, spontaneously, began to recount a scary moment in his life.  He told us that he was a member of ETzeL – one of the radical groups campaigning for the foundation of the State of Israel in opposition to the British mandate.  He wasn’t really a radical – he was around 10 or 11 years old and used to fly post around Jerusalem; putting up propaganda posters.  But on this occasion he and his friend (also fly posting) were unlucky – a British officer caught them.  They were taken back to the police station and interrogated.

Of course his parents were not called he told us, incredulous that we would ask such a foolish question.  It was then Avraham pointed behind us through the windows of the municipal offices to a low building across the road.  “That was the prison where we thought we were going to be taken (it’s now a museum),” he commented. Avraham said he was so petrified he started crying.  He thought the British were going to hang him.  Actually he was given a serious warning and sent home.  They didn’t fly post again – at least they didn’t get caught anyway.

As we left Jerusalem, on my last day in Israel, Avraham, our landlord, drove us to the airport.  He had offered to give us a lift – as if we were his extended family.  His last words before we took our bags to the departure lounge were:

D’ash lahorim shelachem. – Send good wishes to your parents and if you ever come back and visit give me a call.

I never did give him a call when I was living in Israel last year, I don’t even think I have his number any more, but I’ll never forget his pomegranate wine, made from fresh pomegranates grown in his front garden. As we yearn for a time in which we only need think of such things as friendship, eating and sharing the stories of our past and the aspirations of our future, I am reminded of the words of Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper. Let there be peace within your walls, safety within your borders. For the sake of my people, my friends, I say: let there be peace within you.”

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