Thursday, May 25, 2006

'מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל ה

"מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקב"ה מטהר את ישראל:"
"Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so God purifies Israel." -Rabbi Akiva, Yoma 85b

You let go.
Of the rail
and the past,
and volition.
and submerge,
by the sublime.

You dip beneath
and release
for an embryonic peace.
and unchained.

No gravity,
no barriers,
no walls,
no definitions
or conditions.

You breathe and inhale
the dripping dew,
the rushing stream,
from the pure
unbroken well.

and extended.

Touching nothing,
holding nothing,
asking nothing.
Hands empty,
filled with water.

Then rising up
into nation,


Welcome חפציבה הודיה בתציון, daughter of Avraham Avinu. My newest sister.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Adam's Rib

I feel as if I have been far too mushy-gushy recently, so I have carefully preserved a feeling of rage for almost an hour so as to be able to deliver it intact to you, the blogging audience. No, don't thank me. Honestly. And the applause was totally unnecessary too.

So for my Humanities class on humor, we watched a movie entitled Adam's Rib. The plot summary for imdb reads as follows: When a woman attempts to kill her uncaring husband, prosecutor Adam Bonner gets the case. Unfortunately for him his wife Amanda (who happens to be a lawyer too) decides to defend the woman in court. Amanda uses everything she can to win the case and Adam gets mad about it. As a result, their perfect marriage is disturbed by everyday quarrels...

Let's leave aside the ridiculous feminism with which the movie is riddled. Let us focus only on the trial that forms the center of the movie. The movie opens with a woman following her husband, through a train station and into a strange apartment building. She takes out a gun, fires a shot through the door, and then bursts in upon her husband locked in an embrace with some strange woman. She fires several other shots, hitting her husband more than once and scarcely missing the woman.

Everybody got the facts? Seem pretty clear? Right. Now, can somebody explain to me why the shooter would not be culpable for attempted manslaughter or at least assault? Anyone? Ah, but if only you were Katherine Hepburn. Then you could transform the entire thing into a crusade for women's rights. That's right, women's rights. Specifically, the right of women to shoot philandering husbands. Just as, she argues, men seem to have the right to shoot their unfaithful wives.

What the blinking heck? Excuse me? That is a legal argument? And that's not just the justificatio that she uses to take on the case, even though she knows her husband is the prosecuter and this is bound to cause all sorts of conflicts in their marriage, not to mention jeopardizing the integrity of the trial. Oh, no. That's the argument she gives to the blinking jury. That they should imagine that all the players in the sordid little crime were of the opposite gender and they should reach the verdict in that way. That- get this- that the woman shot her husband in defense of her home, which is just like self-defense really. The fact that this would allow wives to shoot anyone that might attract their husbands' affections does not seem to occur to her.

Along the way to this ludicrous closing argument, she brings in a series of entirely random women to come in and testify. Not women that have anything to do with the case, of course, but simply women who can tell the court how darn cool it is to be female. Because the entire crux of the case rests on gender equality, doncha know? 'Cuz equal protection under the law is all about the right to haul off and shoot people who get on your nerves.

And, of course, the criminal is acquitted. I say of course because the movie was all shaping up that way, with the wife getting off the best in every court room battle, with the husband stuttering and stumbling over his words, and in his closing arguments throwing a temper tantrum about the defendant's hat and ripping it off her head. (It's a long story. It made some sense in the context of the movie, I suppose.)

To be fair, the movie did allow the husband to have some licks back at the end. There's no point in going through the whole mess, but he did prove that she didn't think that people ought to go around shooting unfaithful spouses. Hurrah!

But the shooter still got off. And you knew that the movie wanted you to cheer for this blow for gender equality instead of booing the obvious affront to simple justice.

The Beaurocrat- A Flash Fiction

His handwriting is neat.

His handwriting is neat and his columns are straight like long queues of people, waiting patiently for their turn to step forward to be totaled up by his slim, precise figures and then step across the neat black line that he has drawn at the bottom of his list.

In a few minutes, maybe, he will go make another cup of coffee.

In March, 8239 pairs of shoes.
In April, 7985
In May, 8132
In June, 8089

Carry the 2.…He turns a page, laying the finished sheet neatly at the top of his desk, next the framed photograph of his children. They smile up at him, as if approving his precision, blond, chubby, perfect. It is Peter’s birthday tomorrow and if he works quickly, then maybe he can take off early. But his columns remain commendably neat.

25 trains in March.
27 in April
19 in May

He turns on the radio. Beethoven's Fifth. The joyous, martial clamor seems out of place in the quiet office. Still, he is doing his part, too, as best he can.

And carry the four…that makes twelve…I wonder if we have enough sugar rations left for a decent cake…I hope that Peter won’t be disappointed…It upsets Clara so much when she can’t make things like they were before….And carry the five…do you think I ought to invite Max’s children? Peter and Anna really don’t get along so well, but I do think that one ought to be neighborly…and that makes 124…

He goes and gets a cup of coffee, nodding to people in the hallways. The halls are smooth, orderly. You would hardly know that somewhere out there, there is a war.

In March, 45,218 incoming
In April, 49,512
In May, 39,485
In June, 47,594

What he really wants to do is knock off for the day. Finish the book that he’s been trying to read all week. Go to the pub and have a pint or two, listen to the piano player. But of course, he won’t. He has a job to do. All part of the cause.

His job is to keep his columns straight and his addition accurate.

In March, 42,000 to the gas chambers
In April, 47,000
In May, 38,000
In June, 45,000

He draws a neat line across the bottom of his figures, straight, unwavering, inexorable, then dips his pen back into the inkwell. He blots it twice, each time leaving behind Rorschach smudges that are entirely black.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Talented People

Oooooh...I have an idea. Why don't I take advantage of the imaginary anonymity of a blog to tear the veil from all those nasty secrets that I prefer to ignore and make the whole thing into a full-fledged confessional? That sounds cool. Right, nobody here but me, and my friends, and my family, and all the random strangers that may wander in? Excellent. Here goes.

I can't stand talented people. Which is bad because many of my closest friends are talented.
But I try to ignore that fact. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I can't stand talent. Or rather, I can't stand other people's talent.

Yep, that's about it. Right out there. Funny, I always thought that pride was my deadly sin. Maybe a dash of sloth, but mostly pride. And here it turns out that it was envy all along. Whoddathunkit?

Only really it is pride, deep down. Waaaaaaaaay deep down, where there's a little nasty demon just made out of pride. And everytime she sees other people with talents that she doesn't have, or hears other people being praised, she starts whining and scampering and gnawing like a Hawthorne bosom serpent.

And to be honest, she really, really gets on my nerves. I mean, who exactly does she think that she is, demanding to be the center of attention all the time? Or getting annoyed that other people can do things that she can't? But unfortunately, you can not hit metaphorical anthromorphisations over the head with shovels. But I wish you could.

And do you know what drives her the craziest? The fact that I don't really have any of these talents at all. I played piano, briefly, until I realized that a)I would never be much past mediocre, b) the whole thing was rather boring and c) it took a lot of time and energy. There was a time in the past when I thought that I could write, but I daily become more and more realistic about the exact scopes of my talent. I am, I will admit, good at school and writing papers and things like that, but it is hardly the stuff of a well-rounded personality.

Ah, well. And no, I'm not writing to be provided with encouragement and love and compliments. Nor to be given strategies on overcoming my negative traits. Nor yet to be told to get a life, although that is what I most evidently need. And no, I do not sit about moping every time somebody does something talented, nor do I secretly hate you if you are talented. And no, I was probably not sitting there silently fuming if you have ever displayed talent in my presence. I'm not that bad. Not sure why I did write this, actually.

Probably just to help me wield the shovel.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Iran and the Yellow Star

I don't quite know how to respond to this story. I mean, on one hand, it's disgusting, it's frightening, and it's apalling. On the other hand- it should come as a surprise? Before, we were under the impression that Iran is sweet and cuddly? What this does say is that Iran is no longer interested in faking it- something like this is so clearly resonant that they have to have calculated it specifically to draw the parallel. Have to wonder why. Do they feel that their impending nuclear program grants them immunity to international pressure? Or is it their oil? I really don't have any clever thoughts on the subject.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rational Debate

Meanwhile, there's this craziness going on in the comments section of DovBear's illustrious blog. Gosh, I wish that people could express themselves rationally and inoffensively. In my dream world, the conversation would have gone like this. (I have labeled the characters LY for Lakewood Yid and EE for Everyone Else)

EE: This is shocking!
LY: Yes, such behavior surely is heinous. I hope that the man, if guilty, is punished severely. I also express my utmost sympathy for the victims. However, I was offended by UOJ"s tactic of attacking people widely regarded as moral authorities based on unproven allegations. These gedolim, as religious leaders, deserve more respect and trust than such vitriol.
EE: In general, of course, we would agreec. But in this case, it seems that relying on the normal respectful tone of discourse was not enough to prevent these horrors. In such a case, severe disrespect is justified. In addition, should these allegations prove to be true, the gedol involved would no longer be worthy of our respect.
LY: There, I must disagree. Even if the gedolim may have been in error in this case- an allegation not yet proved- it surely was a one time mistake, rather than a widespread pattern of behavior or conspiracy. There is no need to drag their names and that of the Jewish community through the mud when this could have been resolved through other means. Of course, if the allegations were proven once and for all, and no mitigating factors existed, a fact which I consider extraordinarily unlikely considering the caliber of people involved, I would cease to respect the gedol involved, but even so, I think that this should be resolved with the minimal chillul Hashem possible, which would mean not publicizing these things any more than necessary.
EE: Of course, but I think that in this case, there was no other way of achieving the necessary results.
LY: I disagree.

See? Calm, logical, no attacks or misunderstanding. Sigh. Well, at least I can dream.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Do unto Others

The movie version of The DaVinci Code is coming out soon, and I must admit that I'm conflicted. I read the book and found it amusing, despite the many times that it was completely off-base. It was fiction. It was entertaining. After all, I could afford to laugh. It didn't attack the basis of my religion.

In the big wide world out there, Christians are starting to get up in arms about the movie. And sho can really blame them? The movie is aimed at attacking the very foundations of their religion and one can hardly blame them for being annoyed. (I remember my own response to one off-hand misrepresentation of Judaism) Although I have little sympathy for anyone who calls for bans or boycotts, I would not blame any Christian who refused to watch the movie.

Which raises the question- will I go to see it? On one hand, it promises to entertaining and fast-paced, with witty dialogue and so forth. (Actually, once you know the ending, it may not even be so good. But let's put that to the side.) On the other hand, maybe, just this once, it might behoove me to take offense at something aimed at someone else.

Remember the Passion furor? Forget whether or not you agreed that the movie was offense- I remember how everyone seemed to feel that for anyone to watch it was offensive to our community. I don't feel that way about this, but maybe there's something to be said for coming to somebody else's aid, for refusing to give money to something aimed at another group.

And maybe the whole issue seems silly to me. The book is, after all, fiction. But if it were fiction that was so virulently offensive to me, I don't think that I would face the issue with the same equanimity. Everyone takes offense at different things, and this is not my battle. But maybe it's a battle that I should respect?

I don't know what I'm going to do. Or rather, I doubt that I will see the movie, but this is more a product of the rarity with which I watch movies than a moral stance. But then again, I wasn't particularly shocked by the Passion either. (I was slightly tempted to see it for the Aramaic- how many times will that skill have any practical applications?) But all those of you out there who may have been shocked that anyone would have gone to see a movie that affronted them- how can we justify not having the same sensitivity towards others?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hating for Fun

If there's one thing I can't stand about the blogosphere (and there is), it's the charedi bashing that seems to abound on so many of the sites out there. I would prefer not to pick any specific targets, but there are blogs and commenters out there that daily take delight in mocking not only the religious opinions, but also the morals, intellects, appearances, etc. of the charedi gedolim and that community at large. While I don't agree with almost anything that poor Lakewood Yid may say, and usually just feel bad for him trying to fence with a typhoon blind-folded, I was struck by the same points that he brought up in this "guest-post" on DovBear:
LakewoodYid writes:


Just look at these comments;

*Chasidim are notorious welfare cheats.
*The hasidic version is horse crap and excuse making.
*Haisdut is a historical error like Kariasm
*I just realized that the Rebbe seems to prefer gay men to serve him than women
*The big tzadik has spent his whole life immersed in Torah and he can't stop thinking about girls?
*And why is Ger a worthy charity anyway? So the Rebbe can have a Rolls Royce?
*Hasidic Rabbis wouldnt have lasted ten seconds in the time of Moshe, or Dovid, or the Tannaim.

Comments which bash Gedolim, Charedim and Chassidim.

No one says a word.

What is it about us that makes us take such joy in attacking others? And how is it that the worst of this hateful bigotry seems to frequently come from the same people would (rightfully) take umbrage at any comment insulting a minority or another sect of Judaism?

And I'm not saying that I like Chai Rotel, or the internet bans, or anything else of that kind. But I have to wonder why we feel the need to attack it. You don't see us jumping up every time the Reform movement makes a decision that we feel is wrong, or leaping on every rumor of corruption in, say, the Catholic Church.

And even worse is the feeling of self-satisfied self-righteousness that you can hear radiating out of people's comments, that sense of glee at exposing other people's failings and simultaneously confirming their own superiority. "We," scream the comments, "We are not like them. We are clever and moral and tolerant, not like those retrograde morons." I exaggerate for effect. But only slightly.

This is one reason that I'm grateful to my high school education. By being placed in an environment full of people more right-wing than myself, I was forced to defend my positions to myself intellectually, but equally much forced to love those with whom I disagreed. I saw that my teachers were good, devout, often intelligent people. I saw that my classmates were fun, spiritual, curious, and earnest.

I learned that they aren't evil and they aren't idiots. Which means that no issue that you're arguing is as simple and one-sided as you like to pat yourselves on your backs and pretend. And even if you don't like the points on the other side, do yourself the intellectual courtesty of acknowledging them.

But more basically, sometimes I have to wonder what it is that motivates this sort of vitriol. Is there some basic human trait that makes us want to have somebody to hate? Is it a sense of insecurity in the correctness of our own positions? Is it just simple ego massaging? Is it an attempt to disassociate ourselves with positions we find abhorrent to avoid any guilt by association, which implies that we feel a sort of responsibility for any craziness that other Jews may come up with?

And, for that matter, why is this kind of hatred more accepted than other forms of bigotry? Do we feel that religiosity is in some way a threat to us? Do we suppose ourselves merely to be reflecting hatred that others have for us? Do we feel as if we have some sort of proprietary right to any group that claims the title of Orthodox, so that its decisions theoretically reflect us and must be warded off?

And sometimes I wonder, are the Charedim our "Jews"? Our offensively overly-religious, crazy outsiders? Our scapegoat, our stranger, our "other", our danger? Our tolerated fringe minority? Is this what anti-Semitism feels like from the inside?

I can't say that I know the answer to any of these questions. But I know that it makes me sick at heart. Because there's no more excuse for this kind of hating than for any other version. I would advise us to try to apply the maxim "live and let live" to those who are further right than us, as we do to those on our left. For both, I would advocate vigorous intellectual discourse among ourselves to figure out whether or not we, personally, agree or disagree with a position. But there's a world of difference between that and self-satisfied insults to a community that dares to endorse views with which we disagree.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

English and Torah

Throughout my high school career, discussions of Tora U'Mada always centered around the sciences. When I say discussions, of course, I mean arguments between students and teachers regarding the importance of learning secular subjects. Science was always trotted out as a sure-fire way to win an easy concession, or to illustrate a point. "I mean, like, it's really important, because, when you learn stuff like biology, you can recognize the Nifla'os of Hashem," or, if the student was more learned or innovative "You can use science to understand things in the Torah, or to help medicine, and things like that." And the teacher, of course, was forced to agree that studying science was a good thing, it was just a question of priorities. Or context, or point of view, or whatever we happened to be arguing about.

The point that was never raised was the importance of studying the soft sciences, or things like English. Of course, we had a class in the subject, and often very good teachers, but I don't ever recall somebody making the argument that studying English was important to properly understandng and appreciating the Torah. And of course, there are plenty of reasons for that- the vague whisperings about Bible Criticism that managed to insinuate themselves into our protected consciousnesses, the faith in the styles of criticism used by classical Meforshim and Rishonim, the general distaste with the idea that anything secular could add to Torah, 'hefach ba v'hefach ba, d'kula ba', and so forth.

The first author that I really came across to contradict these ideas was R' Aharon Lichtenstein, who had a Harvard degree in English literature and whose writings often focus on the usefulness of applying literary tactics to analyzing the Torah or the Gemara. But what really brought this home to me was taking my first hard-core English class in University this quarter.

The tactics that we have used in our English class- things like close readings, looking for themes or repetitions, unpacking metaphors, noticing ironies, focusing on ambiguities inherent in word choice, even inspecting punctuation- all can be applied to analyzing the Gemara or Tanach as well, but what I found even more interesting was in the questions raised by our analysis of different styles of criticism or analysis that we read. The class, entitled "Critical Perspectives" focuses not only on trying to unpack the texts ourselves, but also on analyzing various styles with which others have done so.

I was struck by the similarities between the styles and the questions raised, and debates and interests that seem to arise constantly in a Chumash or Gemara class. Thus far, we have touched on some of the following questions: how much can be read into ambiguities before you're just stretching; how important is it what the author may or may not have intended (less a question in Tanach, but surprisingly similar to the p'shat/midrash debate); how seriously should we take variant readings that the author chose to include (for us, Dickinson; for Torah, kri/k'tiv); how important it is to focus on the original meaning of the words versus studying the historical progression of interpretations; how legitimate it is to read a certain ideological concept into a text; reading out of a text versus reading into it; how the internet and hyper-text versions of text are changing the process of interpretation (I almost raised my hand to comment about the Bar Ilan CD before realizing that they'd have no clue what I was talking about); how much to attribute to the author's particular historical context; how to counter-read the text to analyze the author rather than his message; how important it may be to study original manuscripts; how broad of a context to view a work- the rest of the author's writings, the rest of the book, no context at all; how important is it that an author chose to include various things in proximity or in the same work.

There are probably more, but these are simply the ones that occur to me off-hand. I have not had a class go by without thinking of a meforash that might raise the same questions, and every day I leave with new perspectives on the answers, as well as practice at trying out different answers and different modes of taking apart poems or stories. It's a subject that we grapple with daily, and it seems a shame to ignore all the really useful things that English has to say.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I don't normally post about blogs but...

A couple of fun new blogs from my friends and relations: by Miri

and by Mike

Both, frankly, a heck of a lot more fun than this blog.

Friday, May 05, 2006


I once again find myself unable to listen to the radio. Not because of the inanity of the rhetoric of all involved, as was previously the case, but because of the ignorance of the most basic grammar that the advertisements display. I know I sound elitist here, but I'm not looking for anything complicated like attention to prepostions or split infinitives. How can somebody who has completed a minimal amount of education hear a sentence like "Just by picking up the phone, proof will be on its way" without wincing? It's not even a conscious decision for me- it's something that goes down to the bone.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Targeted Readings

I must admit that I was a bit disconcerted by this article, not so much for the conclusions that it reached, but for the way that it went about its thinking. Specifically, it pretended to be engaging a text when in fact there was only one interpretation that it would accept as legitimate. I think that it is somewhat intellectually dishonest to pretend to be discovering nuances in a text when you know how hard you are looking to find them. This is not an objection that I have only to Torah; I find it coming up continually in my English classes as well, where critics seem to pick a thesis before they bother reading the piece. The view was summed up in the title given to theis article on another site: "Reinterpreting What Hurts". How dare we reinterpret something simply because it hurts? How dare we twist the text to "make it more palatable to the liberal sensibility"? If we value the text enough to care what it says, shouldn't we value it enough to care about what it means?

That was all my first reaction. And if I had written this post just after reading the article, it might have been my only one. Thank goodness for homework. Because, when I thought about this more, I realized that I was lacking a bit of intellectual honesty myself. After all, how is this really different from the thinking that I, myself, went through with regards to the Amalek issue? As I admitted there, I refused to accept my teacher's explanations because I felt that they were so evil as to be impossible, so that I kept looking until I found a reading that conformed to my preconceived notions of morality. What lines can I presume to draw about what is or is not intellectually legitimate?

But there must be some lines. And I think that my actions differed from the ones in this article in a few small but significant ways. First of all, the reading that I chose was one based off of questions on the text, presented as a way to explain the p'shat. Had it been offered merely as apologetics, I doubt I would have trusted it as much. More importantly, I didn't just decide that the old interpretation had to be false. I left the matter up for question, ready to be resolved when and if I found a good answer, to be left as a question if nothing did occur to me. This is a luxury that I had because the question is not relevant today. Unfortunately, we do not have the same luxury with regards to homosexuality. We are forced to decide between loyalty to our morals and loyalty to the text. But I think that intellectual honesty demands that we admit that we are making a choice and not to pretend that there is no conflict.

And none of the readings that they offered really maintained any loyalty to the text. They struck me as desperate, grasping for straws, and ignoring one very simply, very obvious interpretation. Something like this fails to impress me:
Jewish law and tradition is big on separation. In fact, separating, differentiating, is a holy act. Creation was one big act of separation — night from dark, sky from earth, land from sea… So, what I’ve always taken from Leviticus 18:22 is simply the importance of differentiation.

…In my mind, it would be an abomination for a man to sleep with a man in the same way that he slept with a woman. It would be an affront to any sexual partner to not recognize him or her as unique and differentiated. Since sex is the most intimate and vulnerable of all acts, mistaking your partner for someone else is callous and cruel. It would evidence a complete disregard for that person’s holiness and spirit.

I'm sorry, but that does not strike me as anything like a realistic reading of the verse. It is, at best, a nice vort, but we do not make decisions based on nice vorts. And certainly not mediocre ones. The article described what they were doing as looking for facets within the law. Granted, but when you look for facets, it seems wrong to ignore the one that stares you in the face, especially when you have no textual excuse to do so. There may be layers in the law, but the surface layer ought to be one of the most important ones.

The article compares this to what the Talmud does to law. And I would agree that the Talmud often seems to offer equally radical interpretations. But I do not personally think that we have any right to be the Talmud now, and it is important to remember that the Talmud was formulated in the course of rigorous intellectual debate and true allegience to whatever truth that they thought that they found. Of course, they had biases and so does every rabbi in every responsa he writes, but these biases are and must be balanced by a healthy dose of loyalty to the text itself. And that, I felt, was missing in this article, as evidenced by the fact that they offered the suggestion that the verse did disagree with them, but so what?

In other words, I disagreed with the article's main claim that it is our duty to wrestle with the text until it yields a reading that we can accept. Texts are malleable things, and wills are powerful ones; we can bully any text into agreeing with anything we like. It is our duty, rather, to pound both the text and our opinions, allow ourselves to be tugged back and forth until we reach a place, suspended between the two. If that place is still close enough to touch both our opinions and an honest reading of the text, then let us accept it. If it does not matter which we hold, because the issue is moot, let us continue to hang there suspended. But if we find ourselves in the middle, the two poles still too far apart to stretch without bending one or the other beyond its natural shape, then let us have the courage to release one or the other, or at least to admit that we can hear the creak as we struggle to bridge the gap. And I don't pretend to know how much of a stretch is going to be too much, and how we can excuse ourselves for letting go of either of these. But at least I don't pretend not to be tugged.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


This is for you and the way you make me
want to write you love songs, even when I know it’s all been said,
and the way you grab my hand and make me love you,
with your velvet kisses made of light and stone

This is for you and your sunlight off the roof-tops
and your thousand golden alleys that will twist and climb to heaven,
and the way that you can lure me to see beauty
in shopping malls and old construction sites.

This is for you and the music of your cities,
Woven into magic from the chorus of your cabbies,
with harmonies of horn and children’s laugh,
and the way that all your people know my name.

This is for you and your lonely red sand deserts
and your canyons and your mountains with their unexpected flowers,
and the way your landscapes echo with any tune I throw them
and your beaches painted blue and white with waves.

This is for you.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Yom HaZikkaron

Written last year, just after I got back from the ceremony on Har Herzl.

We walk up Herzl in a big, blue-and-white, seminary girl crowd, talking about diets and the chilly weather. In front of me, three girls are punching each other in the arm, first punch-baby-bug and then ‘punch you for no reason, just because I feel like it.’ One of them whines, “Sto-op. I got a shot there- like eight years ago,” and they all giggle. We pass a soldier standing at the bus stop and I want to go over to him and thank him or something weird like that, but instead I grin vaguely at his back and keep on walking.

There are flags everywhere- on houses, on cars, and tiny flag toothpicks in everyone’s hair. One girl wears an IDF t-shirt with little sleeves sneaking out from underneath to cover her elbows and whines that she doesn't match. At the top of the hill there are a couple of soldiers chatting with one another, and the urge to talk to them is quickly replaced by the urge to take pictures. The more shy girls hand their cameras to friends, and the whole group is held up for a couple of minutes on the corner. The soldiers don’t look directly at us, but it’s pretty obvious they notice us standing there like Paparazzi. I wonder with a friend whether they find it annoying or funny to be photographed by random giggling Americans.

As we move into Har Herzl, the crowd gets thicker and motion slows to the traffic jam shuffle. There is a table by the entrance covered in flowers. We are debating whether or not to buy any when we discover that they’re being given away, so everyone takes a bunch of flowers, and later a candle and a bottle of water from the smiling teenaged girls who are handing them out. Todah raba I say, self-conscious of my accent, but I shuffle onwards too soon for their lo davar.

We stop at the first security check, waiting for our group to re-coalesce, and I use the opportunity to check out the crowds. About three quarters of the people are wearing blue and white, so that the soldiers stand out in their uniforms and bright berets. Other than the disproportionate number of soldiers, the crowd is a wide but biased sampling of the general population- chareidim and Arabs entirely missing. Seminary girls in pony-tails, short women with their hair dyed bright red being loud on cell-phones, slim Israeli boys in jeans and t-shirts with English slogans. A soldier in a knitted kippa hails another one just in front of us and they shake hands into a one-pat hug.

Now we’re moving again and we slowly realize that we have just entered the grave-yard. It’s set up in rows and rows of raised dirt beds marked by matching headstones and is somehow eerier than a regular cemetery, where everything is neat and underground. I’m too busy watching people to remember the flowers that I’m still carrying and anyway, it seems wrong to just drop them on a grave as I walk by. There are little stools among the graves, with people sitting on them and crying, or just sitting. On the other side of the path are benches, filled and over-filled with families or soldiers in matching berets.

Already, I find myself composing it in my head like a story and this is the sentence that forms: “You realize that everyone here is just the same people that you meet on the street. That bereaved father over there is the taxi driver who ran up the meter on the way back from the tachana, or the man who does the dry cleaning. That girl putting down the flowers (a brother’s grave? A boyfriend’s?) is the one who you saw in the makolet, talking on her cell phone while buying milk. Those soldiers gathered silently before the grave are the ones you walk by just a little faster when you see them at the mall because you’re afraid they’ll try to hit on you.” I can’t tell if it adds reality to the scene or the opposite.

I read the names off gravestones as we go by, trying to imagine them- Roni Cohen, 24, and beyond him another Cohen. Yitzchak something, 20. Shoshi, 20. I keep saying to myself “These people were my age, this is me, this is my brother,” but I have no real hope of bringing it home. I try to match them to faces that I know, but I am a little too superstitious or weirded out to finish the thoughts. Past the graves is another security check, and before it, another unruly, pushing sort of line. I think of my father’s observation- Israelis will never cut in a line, but often there just won’t be a line to begin with. The madrichot push to the front to negotiate for the rest of us.

We stand around and look at the crowd. We are still holding our flowers and wonder if we should have put them down somewhere. Eventually, they get left in a heap by the side of the path because we are too shy to hand them to passing strangers.

Girls start meeting friends from other schools and the whole thing degenerates into a social scene before we are called through. I carefully thank the guards at the checkpoint, but they aren’t really paying enough attention to notice. The crowd stops again- another checkpoint, this one for our bags. I have caught up or wandered into my friend who is asking the madrichot about the exact meanings of different beret colors, and the madricha tells her about the aptitude tests that everyone takes in twelfth grade to determine their unit. Twelfth grade? I think. I should be in the army by now. I wonder what score I would have gotten. We go through the last security check, handing over cell phones and solemnly answering Lo to the guards’ Yesh lach neshek?

I thank the guard, hurrying to rejoin the group by the rows of chairs facing the podium. The Master of Ceremonies asks everyone to turn off their cell phones, both in Hebrew and English, but there are still several more minutes of shuffling and trying to find seats not blocked by trees. The ceremony starts with a minute of silence and ends with Hatikva. I am surrounded by Americans, but a few seats away are some Israeli girls, crying freely. The speeches are short and it is hard to concentrate without being able to see the speakers. Cell phones ring throughout. I feel bad for the girls who don’t understand Hebrew, but am still annoyed at their restlessness and must suppress the urge to shush them.

There is a unit of soldiers on the stage, presenting arms, standing at ease and firing a salute at the end. There is just enough of a gap between the people in front of me to see six of their faces and I struggle to make them human, imagine how they feel and their nervousness and how their feet hurt and who they think of during the siren. After the ceremony, some of them pass me on the way out, now moving and talking among themselves, identifiable by their white marine-style hats.

We make our way out to Nachshon Waxman’s grave, and Meechal Madricha tells us what it was like when he was kidnapped and his father’s famous line 'Sometimes G-d says no.' I am surprised to find myself crying. For a few minutes, we wander around and I am finally able to imagine faces on the graves or at least imagine that they have faces. And I realize how young these people all really were.

Another thought forms: these weren’t special people, and probably I would have done whatever they did had I been called upon to do so. But I was not called upon and the people in these slim dirt boxes (I can’t understand how a real full-sized person could possibly fit in a box so small)- these people were called upon and that changes them, makes them heroes. I cry a bit and someone hands me a couple of tissues, and then we all head back to school.