Israel and the Palestinians: in a letter to a younger French friend

September 20, 2020

Dear Brune:

Thanks for the article you sent me about Sheldon Adelson and his purchase of the former American embassy residence in Tel Aviv (le monde.fr). 

Your note pushes me to clarify my own view of this situation, as many others have done.  But writing this is important for me. 

As a Jew, I am fearful of the effects of current struggles on my fellows in Israel and of its  humanitarian impacts on the Palestinians and others. However,  I live within the safety (until now) and affluence of the United States and have no business dictating a solution to the parties involved.  To the degree that I have any direct influence (which I do not),  it should be with my own government.

I do not agree with the goals of the settler movement in the West Bank;  to me they and their supporters in Israel and the United States are extremist.  The notion that God gave us Israel, within its present, or at times larger ancient borders, is self-justifying and self-deluding, except in the general sense, which is that God gives and takes away everything and everybody.

The living conditions of the refugee Palestinians and their lack of prospects are untenable and unacceptable. These circumstances may continue for a very long time, but it is wrong that they should. 

That said, if I must choose between defining myself as a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, then I define myself as the former.  I must, although not a religious man, since I believe that Judaism plays an important role in human affairs, and its survival, and that of its adherents, is important to me.   

It has become common on the left to view Zionism as a European colonial enterprise and the Palestinians as victims of the Israelis.  This was actually from good luck or skill born of desperation, since the Israelis might instead have lost their independence or later wars with the surrounding Arab states, and the present narrative of exploiter/victim would now have been very different.  There is also some truth in it, since Zionism in its origins, is a European movement, and most of the early Jewish settlers were European.  Or perhaps more precisely, we had lived in Europe, after leaving ancient Israel, for approximately 2,000 years and intermixed, genetically and culturally, with European populations. 

But Zionism is the necessity of European antisemitism.  However much I love and am fascinated by Europe, our history there was untenable.  The refusal of our ancestors to convert to Christianity, and our refusal/and eventual efforts to assimilate, were not acceptable in Europe.  The Holocaust was simply the last chapter of 2,000 years of non-acceptance. In the context of 19th century European nationalism, Zionism was survival for a people who no longer had a geographic base.

Our mother and her family escape Europe on the Hamburg-Amerika Line
January 1939

Following the Holocaust and the Second World War, it was arguably the only solution, and since we had been largely eradicated in Europe, staying there was no longer safe or plausible, and entry to the United States and other countries was effectively closed. 

So many of the survivors came to Israel, and with great difficulty, joining the earlier settlers. The Palestinians feared our arrival in large numbers, eventually resisting the founding of Israel with the support of surrounding Arab states, but they failed.  And they failed again.  And the victims of this failure, in addition to the Israelis who have died, or who now live in a constantly-militarized state,  are the many descendant Palestinians now living in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, whose living circumstances are the current focus of attention. 

But whose victims really are the Palestinians?  Are they the victims of the Jews?  Most certainly, since we decided, after centuries of passivity, to protect and secure ourselves, and arguably joined the ranks of the oppressors. Are they the victims of the Arab states, many of whom admitted the most talented and successful Palestinians, but did comparatively little for the remaining refugees (while Israel, post-independence, absorbed approximately 600,000 Jews who were forced out of Islamic countries)?  Are they the victims of their own leadership, fragmented, and unable to negotiate realistically, unable to yield?  Or are they the also the victims of European antisemitism, and frankly European unwillingness to pay the price of its antisemitism?  (Just as we in America refuse to pay for what was done to our native American and black populations.) 

When I hear or read criticism of Israel, I am embarrassed.  Embarrassed and distressed that after two thousand years of reading and thinking and praying in Diaspora, we still define ourselves as Jews by control of a “holy land”, unable to yield or share any of it.  That the Israelis have been unable and or unwilling to invest in Palestinians and integrate them more fully, and at a higher level, into mutual economic (if not political) interdependence.  That we view the Palestinians as inferior or irremediable, instead of simply affirming that we do not wish to be controlled or subjected to them (or anybody else). 


Ein Gedi, Israel

But I am also puzzled at those who cannot understand the satisfaction of a Jewish country in our place of origin, who cannot understand the relief of not having to accommodate a Christian or Muslim majority, and who cannot see the necessity of a safe refuge from those who despise, tolerate or fear us.  And who do not accept that we are no longer willing to be their victims. 

Europe, and not exclusively Germany, has an enormous debt to pay for what has happened in the Middle East.  (And of course, Europe and the United States, and generally the West, have other debts to pay.)  To every anti-Zionist, may I suggest, as partial solutions, a million dollars–preferably taxed from the rich, but not entirely so–a residence visa and free education for every Palestinian family who would like to resettle in Europe and a serious economic and educational investment in the Palestinian refugee camps.  And from the Arab countries, some of whom are very rich, a greater engagement, not only with Israel, which is economically advantageous, but with the Palestinians, to whom they owe a greater interest and a greater obligation. 

The plight of the Palestinians is arguably imperialist and colonialist.  But let us place the responsibility where it lies, in the context of a history that is still very recent and where there is plenty of blame to share.  As both the descendant of victims and the beneficiary of a privileged life in the United States,  I am willing to welcome a Palestinian neighbor and pay a Palestinian investment tax right now.  Are you?

Larry Sicular

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Sitting in my Garden (fixing the world)

June 1, 2020

At this later time in my life, I have a few favored ways to spend leisure time.  One of them is sitting in my garden, or on my porch, looking at it.  Sometimes,  I do nothing but stare.   At other times, I share it with friends, over drinks or with long conversations.  People visit me at this house, and in the summer the evening light is late.  Sitting in the garden is like having another room, or another series of rooms.

I get up, and first thing in the morning, when I come downstairs, I walk outside to look at the plants; the huge purple lilacs, at least 12’ tall, that were here when I moved in; the other lilacs that I added; nine apple trees which we pruned this winter and that flowered last week. 

Many afternoons, I spend an hour or so pruning overgrown shrubs.  This morning, before breakfast, I worked on restoring an overgrown hedge.  The gardener and I cut it back sharply before winter, but it was still filled with dead branches.  It doesn’t look good yet, and I am learning my way forward, but it now has sunlight in its center, and there is already new growth from the ground up.  

Would it be such a limitation to spend my life visiting friends, reading books, and taking care of this garden?  Is it the need for money or the need for something else that takes me out of here?   Why isn’t this enough?   Why can’t this be enough for all of us?

The answers are obvious.  Not everyone gets to have a garden.  Not everyone respects other people’s gardens.  Everyone who has one wants to keep it;  not everyone is satisfied with the garden they have. 

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GEORGE SICULAR

Our father was a very strong man.  He was built like a bull,  a very good athlete, a boxer, swimmer, and I think a football player in his youth–an excellent and competitive tennis player his entire adult life. 

But when I write that he was the strongest person I have ever met, it means that he said what he thought and argued and fought for what he believed.  I wonder if he ever yielded to anyone other than his wife.  Authority, or presumed authority did not impress or intimidate him.  He was a strong believer in the rights of the underdog and working people and spent a lot of his time and energy defending them. 

He was an engineer and teacher, with an excellent memory,  and a great reader, particularly of history and politics, which he studied closely and cited frequently.  He valued the exchange of information and a good debate. 

Dad was intensely loyal.  We knew that he had our backs, that we could always count on him.  Any crisis brought out the best in him. 

He was born in 1921 and so would be nearly 100 now. 

Happy Fathers’ Day from your son and daughter.

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COVID 19 AND RECONSIDERING AMERICAN CITIES

May 16, 2020

To the Editors of the New York Times

Dear Sir/Madam:

I am writing in response to two articles in your paper by different writers, both dated May 12.

Both discuss/report on the impacts of Covid 19 on city real estate markets, yet they contradict one another.   

Carol Galante, in “Now is the Time to Embrace Density”, (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/opinion/sunday/urban-density-inequality-coronavirus.html) argues that the economic recovery will favor the same cities that prospered before the pandemic, including New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston, all driven by innovation, technology and biotech.  She refers to a “short-term” reactionary impulse to blame density for the spread of the coronavirus . . . “   And she advocates for less restrictive zoning and less complex and arbitrary building approval processes,  permitting and encouraging higher density and more affordable housing. 

Matthew Haag’s reporting in “Manhattan Faces a Reckoning if Working from Home Becomes the Norm” questions Ms. Galante’s premise.  (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/nyregion/coronavirus-work-from-home.html) He states that several of the city’s largest and most prominent employers, including Barclays, JP Morgan,  Morgan Stanley, Nielson,  Facebook, Google and Twitter are now operating with employees at home.  The first four have decided that this change may be long-term or permanent.  All are reacting to Covid 19, the negative consequences of density, and the realization that they may no longer need corporate offices in order to operate.  “Entire economies were molded around the vast flow of people to and from offices . . . “ he writes, yet these economies may no longer be there. 

Mr. Haag’s reporting certainly does not support the near-term revival of downtowns in cities like New York (or San Francisco or Seattle).  Yet the relative demise of our densest cities, if it does become long term or permanent, can be viewed as an opportunity to affordable housing advocates like Ms. Galante.

The appeal of our international, gateway cities has been understood as a given over the past generation.  The revival of some of our downtowns, including New York since the 1980’s, has been attributed to their architecture, cultural offerings, walkability and mass transit, their appeal to the young “creative class” and thus to their employers.  But the revival of these cities has evolved past effectiveness and efficiency because so few of our cities have profited from it.   Alongside New York, Boston and San Francisco, which have become unreasonably expensive,  are cities such as New Haven, Baltimore, Hartford and Detroit and Providence, that have not profited, or could profit even more.  These cities, more specifically their inner cities, now symbolize emptiness,  poverty and neglect,  which affluent Americans are determined to avoid, but they were once vibrant, and they offer urbanity and density—with affordable historic housing stock, potential development, cultural infrastructure and existing train lines–all at much more reasonable cost than Boston or New York. 

Interior view of the Wadworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut by Daderot, January 2016, Wikimedia Commons

The price of expensive housing is not only a burden on the poor, but also on everyone but the very rich.  Middle income and even affluent households accept tight, often unattractive apartments, even for millions of dollars in places like Manhattan, as the price of access to good jobs and an interesting city, and in order to avoid a long commute.  I know this—I sell and appraise them.    

There must be a better way,  in a world where urbanity is valued,  but where technology makes it functionally unnecessary.  I’m not yet sure how, but I am hoping that younger people will look beyond the few favored cities, suburbs, the exurbs, and the countryside, to our older, neglected

George Street, on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, February 2017, by Kenneth C. Zirkel, Wikimedia Commons
My house in Stamford, New York

cities and even to small towns such as Stamford, New York (where I am presently sheltering from the pandemic, and where large, formerly desirable houses still sell for less than $200,000).  

Hopefully employers will take the initiative or follow them.  Even public investments, if we can ever afford these again, may occur.  It is much cheaper to bring education, jobs, development, affordable housing, and culture to Newburgh, New Haven and Hartford, if Americans are ever willing to do that, than it is to find and develop, buy or rent, additional affordable housing in New York City.  Ours is still a large country, with enormous untapped space.  Life in many of our neglected, older towns and cities is potentially interesting and humane, and can avoid the very expensive, and at-present, unhealthy, densities of San Francisco and New York. 

Larry Sicular

NYC and Stamford, New York

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Thoughts on the pandemic and its effects on the Manhattan housing market

Sunday, March 22, 2020

How will the Manhattan housing market be affected by the Covid 19 pandemic?  What are the short and the longer-term effects?  This is an attempt to address these questions.  Let us begin with the belief that we have the tools and the will with which to manage this crisis, however awkwardly and imperfectly.  

Short term: what is happening now?

Right now, there are no statistics on transactions.  If this crisis is like the last one, deals that were pending are concluding, being renegotiated or aborted, but it is likely that the volume of new deals has collapsed.  Indeed, on Friday, March 20, the governor ordered a city-wide lock down.  Showing real estate is not an essential service.

Many, both buyers and sellers can choose when to act, and until circumstances normalize, relatively few will choose to do so.  Most owners do not want or need to sell in a crisis, and excepting the opportunistic, most are too distracted or terrified to buy.

Does this means that prices are lower?  In a circumstance where there is no market, which is now the case for most properties, there is no answer.  If I had to sell my cooperative apartment today, sight unseen, on-line, I would likely have to accept a severe discount.  Temporarily, my most cherished asset is worth very little. 

Social distance at home in Manhattan, March 22

The Manhattan housing market does not react to crises in the same way as the stock market.  It is much less liquid; prices do not measurably change on a daily basis—indeed it is sometimes difficult to discern trends in the quarterly data.  Some sellers will drop their prices, anticipating a difficult environment for a very long time, but in a wealthy market, where few are under duress, there may be relatively few “good deals” in the near term, and a lower asking price may be no more than acceptance of last year’s market reality.

Sellers, like the rest of us, have read that a vaccine will be found in the next year-to-18 months.  Most/many of them will decide to wait, or stay in place, until the market revives.  Until a new “normal” is achieved, either by the success of our current social-distance and “lock-down” protocols, a medical breakthrough (or series of them), or an acceptance of some  frequency of illness and death, there may be no significant revival in sales volume.

The coming months

As this crisis persists, even at a less panicked level, sellers will begin to adjust to a “new normal”. Some, perhaps few at first, will start dropping their prices, choosing to “move-on”, for reasons practical or financial, in an attempt to attract the few buyers who are in in the market.  These buyers will step in as they see real opportunities, and this will lead the market “down”, restoring liquidity. Prices may drop in increments, that is not all at once. Our market may not see significantly lower prices for some weeks or months, or even a year, but, eventually, the rest of the market will follow until the crisis abates and sale volume is restored.  

Something like this happened during the financial crisis of 2008, of which the bellwether was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September.  At the end of this post is a table of Manhattan cooperative and condominium price averages beginning in 2005. These indicate that:

-Average and median prices peaked in the first and second quarters of 2008 and began to fall in the 3rd quarter.  

-But prices, on average, did not hit bottom until the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2009, and a sustained recovery did not begin until the 3rd quarter of 2010.  (Regarding sale volume, the quarterly peak was earlier, in the second and third quarters of 2007; it dropped to its lowest levels in the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2009.)

-Average prices did not recover to early 2008 levels until the beginning of 2014.   

As I remember it, from the observation of individual transactions, these averages hid varying and sometimes substantial value declines for certain types of apartments.  There was a shift to more desirable apartments, to “quality”, in the weaker market.  Less desirable apartments—unrenovated,  poorly located, without daylight, or with high monthly maintenance charges—became more difficult to sell. 

Some version of this scenario may happen in this crisis.  Covid 19 is much more dramatic and personal; many people are suddenly without work, and there may be many deaths. But there will be medicines and a vaccine, so the worst effects will have a much-too-long, but limited, time frame.  The market may snap back quickly, once a reliable vaccine is available. 

For now the market may slow substantially.  In some weeks, we will be back to work and back on the streets, but the medical crisis will still not have been fully resolved.  Prices and sale volume are likely to suffer, until a lasting medical solution is found and the economy revives.

Looking back and to the longer term

When the market does revive, and it will, it may not immediately return to its earlier prices and habits. By earlier prices, I mean those that prevailed in late 2019 and the first eight or ten weeks of 2020.  Habits are a bit different; they are the pattern of preferences that dictate how the market determines relative value.

Most of the time, we think about prices—are they going up or down?  But there are equally interesting changes in the pattern of preferences. 

Over the past forty years the major changes in this market have been a function of increased wealth and its dispersion within Manhattan. 

Manhattan is a much richer place than it was when I first moved here, after college in 1975.  There is a lot more wealth, and wealthy buyers now choose different locations and different types of housing.  Whereas in the suburban era, following the Second World War, wealthy New Yorkers retreated primarily to the Upper East Side, or to smaller enclaves on the East River or in Greenwich Village, an expansion began in the 1980’s—to the Upper West Side, to brownstone Brooklyn, and perhaps most significantly, to Downtown.  This trend has continued with the revival of Harlem, the recent new towers in the financial district and north of Madison Square Park, and most prominently with the “super-talls” along Central Park South and West 57th Street.  

Central Park South, January 1, 2019, by Rhododentrites, Wikimedia Commons

With the geographic expansion came new types of housing: the loft and the condominium.

At first the lofts were taken over by artists, and the condominium units were smaller and architecturally banal, often pied-a-terre.  Now these housing types have expanded in size, in height, in design, and in luxury.  Virtually everything new or converted is a condominium; the most expensive new apartments are in the newest high-rise condominium towers.  The Upper East Side and pre-war cooperatives, while still very fine, have lost relative value and prestige. 

Will Covid 19 change these trends?   There have been articles on social distancing as the new “normal”, on the possibly increased frequency of viruses and, consequently, the relatively lesser desirability of high-density living.  I believe that these changes are temporary, once a cure has been found.  Note the very temporary impact of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, even Downtown which was attacked and the most prone to flooding. People will go back to work; they will want to be together, and the economy will revive, whatever the damage.  Prices will go down, perhaps substantially, and then they will go back up.

I am 66 years old.  Among those who are important to me, a number are at risk.  So I  brace myself against  possible illness or loss.  At this time of life, dying is acceptable, but losing someone who matters—a hurt that would heal but not recover.      

My great-grandmother, and one of her children, died in New York during the great flu epidemic of 1918.  My father never knew her and never spoke about her, although he did speak about her husband and her successful, wealthy brothers and the support they continued to give his family. (They clearly did not forget her.)  I have only her name, Clara Picker, and a photograph of her with her family, dated 1899.  Like my father then, most of the world is younger now and fortunately will move-on and recover. 

Clara Picker with her husband Solomon Sicular
and older children, Odessa 1899

It is interesting to contrast our reactions to Covid 19 with our reactions to the climate crisis. Climate is a  longer term issue and much more likely to impact our habits.  We will face enormous costs as we face more frequent storms, coastal flooding and fires; and these costs may require much higher taxes, in order to protect ourselves from worse.  Eventually, our coast lines will be abandoned.  Some centuries from now, there will be no Manhattan housing market.  Consider the impact that a reduction in tax-deduction benefits has had on our housing market, before this crisis, and then consider the much greater impact of this issue, over the longer term. 

Covid 19 is a short-term crisis, and better protecting ourselves against pandemics is a relatively modest investment.  I believe that we will finally have the will to make that investment.  Perhaps we will even now find the will to better protect ourselves against the climate crisis.  For now, the pandemic need not fundamentally alter our housing market.

Quarterly Average and Median Cooperative and Condominium Closed Prices for Manhattan as of February 29, 2020 Source: Brown Harris Stevens Analytics

QuarterSalesAverage PriceMedian Price
1Q054,085$1,002,412$611,020
2Q055,063$1,065,594$639,706
3Q054,454$1,045,120$660,310
4Q053,474$994,414$650,350
1Q064,018$1,068,926$659,028
2Q064,901$1,105,784$704,125
3Q064,594$1,056,386$719,136
4Q064,030$1,089,872$735,420
1Q074,555$1,157,155$755,602
2Q075,643$1,251,087$812,304
3Q075,293$1,302,835$819,452
4Q073,858$1,401,417$843,572
1Q084,033$1,644,561$893,178
2Q084,473$1,554,369$936,660
3Q084,511$1,361,652$862,965
4Q082,985$1,441,317$885,126
1Q091,678$1,437,961$876,691
2Q092,129$1,269,034$782,444
3Q093,237$1,241,250$762,464
4Q093,546$1,300,029$766,910
1Q103,145$1,301,359$777,853
2Q103,959$1,282,673$763,384
3Q103,350$1,349,585$840,141
4Q102,907$1,414,235$825,094
1Q112,691$1,339,395$781,355
2Q113,616$1,333,702$808,975
3Q113,401$1,376,471$828,749
4Q112,664$1,305,342$743,161
1Q122,728$1,394,611$780,746
2Q123,703$1,399,519$831,961
3Q123,883$1,313,019$825,670
4Q123,751$1,532,943$829,375
1Q132,816$1,287,682$774,961
2Q134,338$1,381,696$835,332
3Q134,787$1,386,628$849,923
4Q133,911$1,551,722$844,354
1Q143,257$1,654,217$874,364
2Q143,937$1,613,734$877,930
3Q144,240$1,609,840$873,874
4Q143,498$1,698,899$933,223
1Q153,115$1,782,724$926,130
2Q153,825$1,736,065$949,503
3Q154,368$1,647,370$948,792
4Q153,678$1,883,615$1,058,615
1Q163,429$2,029,220$1,083,307
2Q163,646$1,981,731$1,066,549
3Q163,643$1,981,249$998,540
4Q163,059$1,978,913$994,300
1Q173,158$2,076,993$1,056,228
2Q173,685$2,100,282$1,163,360
3Q173,663$1,900,175$1,138,388
4Q173,059$1,907,094$1,080,570
1Q182,677$1,902,772$1,098,399
2Q183,157$2,042,621$1,092,376
3Q183,204$1,904,114$1,096,944
4Q182,722$2,063,797$1,047,295
1Q192,508$2,044,137$1,116,118
2Q193,668$2,434,159$1,360,167
3Q192,927$1,705,845$998,961
4Q192,703$1,898,000$1,028,052
1Q201,604$1,854,341$1,132,750

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CHOOSING GREEN: Deciding Where to Live in Manhattan

January 2020

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NOT IN THE NEWS: HEALTHY MARKET ACTIVITY ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE

July 2019

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I am a Jew

(A series of 7 articles)

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Tel Aviv

January 31, 2019

I am no longer in Tel Aviv or in Israel, but Tel Aviv was “home” in a country that is an unsettling combination of foreign and intimately familiar.  I was guided by knowing that many, of my ancestry, settled there and that only timing,  fortuitous decisions and the chance of US entry visas (rarely given in the 1930’s) separated us from death or an alternative path to refuge in Israel.

Tel Aviv

For three weeks, I visited and interacted with cousins or other descendants of central and eastern European Jews, a marked contrast to a life lived largely, and at times almost exclusively, among Christians.  For two generations in my family, we have been with others, learned to be like others, shared intimacy with others, deeply loved others, partnered and married others—such that they are no longer others but dear and close to us—and yet we have not lost our Jewish identity,  and there is something deeply familiar about Israelis.

Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

In Israel, it was as though my entire adolescence and adult life had been stripped away.  California, Asia, Europe, and even New York felt like temporary influences.  What I had with Israelis seems to precede these places—I had returned to the home of my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents.

And yet, as my cousin Miriam said:  we are the stories we tell ourselves . . .

I visited with Miriam, her sister Laura, and two other cousins in Israel.  These cousins share the same great-grandparents or are descended from siblings of the same great-grandmother.  The family moved from what became Poland to Vienna, sometime around World War I; one branch then moved to Antwerp and the rest to New York and New Jersey.  These cousins still know each other, or of each other.  So I was led from those I knew, to two whom I had never heard of or met.  None of them were born in Israel.  They were Zionists who chose Israel.

My cousins have many years and strong bonds in Israel.  One, a retired Belgian journalist, covered the Middle East for Belgian newspapers.  She is disappointed that the path to peace has been so difficult and might have left,  but has nevertheless been there since 1971.   The others are married, or divorced with spouses or partners, friends and children, and one with grandchildren.  One is married to another American Jew, another to an anglo-Canadian.  One does business with the U.S., another is in a close circle of American émigré friends.  They switch back and forth easily between Hebrew and English, and their Israeli children have served in its army.

In Israel, I also had my first close-up view of a world that precedes me, that of Orthodox Jewry.  One Polish great-grandfather was a progressive orthodox rabbi, according to Miriam, and on the lecture circuit in Europe and later in the United States.  Yet I do not know the ultra-orthodox or even many orthodox Jews.  There are many in New York, but generally, like other assimilated Jews, my preferences and geography have separated me from them.  The traditionally religious are often viewed as backwards, insular, clannish, and likely to judge us as non-Jewish. . . and yet these views are based on very little.  I have no knowledge of them, and so Israel was my chance to listen, ask questions and challenge my prejudices.

First in Jerusalem to the tour guide at the Western Wall, a traditionally dressed American woman, who led the English speaking tour of the excavations.  Using a model, she explained the ancient configuration of the Temple Mount and the location of the Holy of Holies, the prayer and celebratory activities now possible in the tunnels, and the prohibition to entering the Mount until the arrival of the Messiah.  Among the tour visitors were a few American rabbinical students, one of whom is the son of the Orthodox rabbi in London, Ontario, where my sister lives.

At the Dead Sea, I initiated a conversation with two more American students, who explained (while floating) that many young Orthodox students come to Israel for a year or two of rabbinical studies, but not necessarily to become rabbis.  The studies are part of an education which encourages them to practice whatever profession they choose, while keeping their minds on the Torah.  They briefly explained the differences between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds—the latter offering a more varied, subtle, less clearly directive commentary, a more interesting text to study.  They have been reading it, in the original Aramaic, since the fifth grade.

In Israel we also have old friends, and with them too I found the warmth of the familiar.  A brother Ilan (in Jerusalem) and sister Efrat (in the Galilee), whom we knew at school in Singapore and whose parents were friends of our parents.  Both are married, with children, and now their first grandchildren.  I had last seen Ilan, in about 1983, when he recognized me at the Marina Safeway in San Francisco; he then spent a couple of nights sleeping on the floor of my studio.  It was easy to feel the similarity in their liberal education, warmth,  directness, and in the strength of the women.

But there were differences.  Our friends and their children have served in the army—no one in my world has ever been in the military.  They both married Jews—I’m single, gay, my sister married to a Scots-Irish Canadian.  They seem more closely engaged in the building of their country—in a larger, older country like the United States, fewer of us are able to do this.  They see their children frequently and are often with them for Friday evening Shabbat.  My niece is far away in Liverpool studying theatre.  Seder dinners yes, Chanukah or Rosh Hashanah dinners at my parents in California (years ago) or more recently at my cousin’s in New York, but I cannot think of a sabbath dinner in recent memory.  I was at three in Israel, and the candles were lit.

Tel Aviv has a lot of high-rises, but mostly it is still a city of 4 to 6 story buildings, dating from the 1930’s and later in the 20th century,  with surprisingly shabby facades, but beautiful tree-lined streets and gardens.  The avenues are filled with stores, and with bakery cafés, seemingly on every block.  The city is relaxed and urbane with wonderful weather and a beautiful, endless, beach, like Los Angeles, but much smaller and more intimate.

The men, or some of the men, in Israel are intense and uniquely handsome.  Some are almost biblical, thin, with darkish skin and black hair, fit from the army and with no other pretense.  Israel, for the older gay man, appeared to offer a paradise–lacking the ageist prejudices of New York.

Since I have relatives there, and the weather is better than in New York, a cab driver asked, why I was not living in Tel Aviv?   The welcome is automatic.   I did not have to blend-in or change myself in any way.  I do not have to be observant (most Israelis are not).  I don’t even have to speak Hebrew.  I was welcomed, my right to be there understood, a unique and wonderful feeling, a sense of belonging (as my pool friend M. described it when I returned).  All of this was wonderful, a refuge, and a kind of liberation, although it does not include the Palestinians.

Independence Hall, Tel Aviv

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Visiting the Wall

January 16, 2019

Israel is a complex country, not simply because of the contrast and friction between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also because of the richness of its historical and contemporary Judaism.

Israel’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem, in 1967, was an extraordinary event, since the Old City is majority Arab and the site of important Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites.  For Israel, it is for the first time the repossession of the remains of its ancient capital and of its Temple, from which the Jews were expelled by the Romans in 70 AD.

the Western Wall, courtesy Dan Lundberg and Wikimedia Commons

While I believe that religion has or should have evolved beyond its origins in time and place, this is not what others believe.  There is an extraordinary triumph in taking back a place to which access has been denied, or severely limited, for two thousand years, and the triumph is both religious and nationalistic. The formerly-limited praying area in front of the Temple’s Western Wall was enlarged after the 1967 war, by demolishing houses and relocating their Muslim occupants.  Now there is a large plaza busy with visitors and worshippers. What is known as the Old City’s Jewish quarter has been rebuilt and expanded, including several religious institutions and the reconstruction of the city’s most significant synagogue which was destroyed by Jordanians.  And while Israeli security carefully protects the integrity and security of the Moslem mosques on the Temple Mount, excavations around its base are uncovering layers of history, including ancient Jewish history, providing religious Jews with additional opportunities to worship in close proximity to the identified location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

a new sanctuary, created in excavations adjacent to the Wall

Alone on this second visit, I covered my head, walked onto the plaza and touched the wall.  Even for the liberal, ignorant, Diaspora Jew, it was impossible to feel nothing.

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