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Death to internet users

September 27th, 2012 by Ari

Although there’s no shortage of Haredi anti-Internet propaganda, this one is particularly funny.

Ads posted in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods include illustration of graveyard for Internet users. Tombstone inscriptions read: ‘Here lies our mommy who surfed to death,’ ‘Dear father, we lost you on Facebook’


The graves of tzaddikim

September 26th, 2012 by Ari
kever rav aryeh by bachrach44
kever rav aryeh, a photo by bachrach44 on Flickr.

Two days before Yom Kippur, I found myself in the Sanhedria Cemetery (sorry about the Hebrew page – I can’t find any good info on the cemetery in English). The cemetery is one of the more famous ones in Israel, and many famous rabbis are buried there. There is a tradition to go to the graves of relatives and great rabbis in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Sanhedria cemetery has more than a few signs taped to trees pointing visitors to the graves of various great rabbis, some of which I’d heard of and some of which I hadn’t. There were also a few graves which had signs attached to long poles next to them, marking them to make them easier for visitors to find. I stopped by most of these “famous” graves. Some people I’d heard of, some I hadn’t. There was one grave in particular I was looking for though – Rav Aryeh Levin, known simply as “Rav Aryeh” or “The Tzaddik of Jerusalem” after the similarly named book about him.

Rav Aryeh (whose wikipedia page is woefully inadequate, forcing me to try and present a brief explanation here), is the only non-relative whose grave I can imagine visiting before Yom Kippur. To this day he is one of the most beloved rabbinic figures in Jerusalem, and in this fractured city with endless infighting, he is probably the last rabbinic figure to be universally respected and loved by everyone – the haredim, the zionists, the secular, and the hasidim. In a field where many are known for their harsh words and condemnations, Rav Aryeh was known for his love. If he saw something he disapproved of, he tried to affect change not by chastising, but through compassion and setting a good example. Rav Aryeh did not have a congregation – he sought out those who needed him. He went to leper colonies and hospitals. He was known as the “father of the prisoners” because he visited the Jewish resistance fighters in British prisons. He gave them hope and passed messages. On several occasions he tried to intercede with the British authorities to ask for leniency. He secretly arranged for poor people’s bills to be paid. His front door was always open and he received everyone who visited him. The most famous story about though is certainly the goral hagra. Before the 48 war 35 members of a supply convoy had been massacred and their bodies mutilated by the Arabs who found them. After the 48 war their bodies needed to be moved to the Israeli side of the ceasefire line. 12 of the bodies were so mutilated that their relatives could not identify them. He performed a mystical ceremony known as the goral ha-gra (the only time that I know of that it has been performed) through which he was able to divine the identities of the 12 bodies. Rav Kook once said of rav Aryeh, that if there were three others like him in the world, mashiach would come.

Unlike the aforementioned graves which had flags or signs, Rav Aryeh’s grave had nothing of the sort on it. This did make it very hard to find, but with some googling on my phone and a lot patience, I did manage to find it. It was, without a doubt, the most visited grave the the cemetery. Jews have a tradition of putting a small stone on a grave marker when they visit. While all of the other marked graves had stone on them, Rav Aryeh’s gravestone was overflowing. I had to (reluctantly) move some aside just to read the name to make sure i had the right place. Somehow I think that is how Rav Aryeh would have wanted it – no signs, no ostentatious markers, no extra attention. Yet somehow, everyone knows who he is.


September 23rd, 2012 by Ari

When Naomi was born we anticipated that we’d have to go to the US embassy to make sure she was registered as a US citizen, apply for a US passport, birth certificate, and social security number. What we didn’t anticipate was that Israel would consider her a citizen too. On our second trip to Misrad Hapnim (ministry of the interior) I got into a long “discussion” with a lady there about this. I tried to insist that she shouldn’t be a citizen – neither Rebecca nor I are citizens (we’re the equivalent of resident aliens), and it doesn’t make sense for us to have a child who is a citizen when we’re leaving in about a month. The lady insisted that the law of Israel was that as long as the parents had national ID numbers (mispar zehut), then the child is automatically a citizen. Eventually I gave up that line of reasoning and admitted the fact that she was a citizen but we wanted to renounce it. Despite the fact that there are multiple forms on the ministry’s own website for renouncing citizenship, the woman there denied that such a process even exists. We weren’t trying to have an anchor baby, but it appears for now that we have done so.

After talking to some people and doing more reading online, it looks like it may actually be easier to renounce citizenship when we’re not on Israeli soil. We got Naomi both an Israeli and an American passport, and she will probably remain a dual citizen until we go to the Israeli embassy in DC to renounce it. (Which will probably happen earlier rather than later if I end up needing a security clearance).

Who’s buried in David’s tomb?

September 16th, 2012 by Ari

When I was younger (by which I mean like last week :-)), I held historical truth to be supreme. If someone told me they were going to go to see the graves of the Maccabees in Chashmonian, I would have immediately informed them of their error and that the Maccabees are not buried there. Israel is filled with these sorts of places – graves of famous people where it is a near certainty that the famous person in question is not buried there. Most of them fit under what Richard Freund would call relics – places that have gained a spiritual significance due to legend, even if the underlying legend itself is not historically true. In Israel, many relics were established during the Byzantine era by monks (or Constantine’s mother) trying to create connections between the land of Israel and Christianity. Many tombs were originally the graves of someone with the same name as a famous person (for example the tomb of Joseph was originally the tomb of a 7th century Arab merchant named Joseph), and later the identities are blurred.

Probably The most famous of these relics is King David’s tomb on Mt. Zion. The odds of this location being the burial site of king David are as close to zero as you can get. It was labelled as such by crusaders in the middle ages and the identity stuck. According to the bible David is buried inside the city of David – the borders of Jerusalem in his time which did not include Mt. Zion. There’s no reason for David to have been buried outside the city wall, and both rabbinic and non-rabbinic records indicate that the tomb was in a well known location and inside the city walls. However, Muslims, Jews, and Christians still flock to the tomb and it is one of the few places in the world where members of all three Abrahamic faiths pray openly and freely in the same space.

I went to the tomb earlier this week on a self guided tour. Even if there is no one buried there, it was still a fun experience. When I entered the room which contains the “tomb” I was alone. I noticed there was a prayer someone had composed calling for the coming of the messiah (who is traditionally a descendant of David). Since Jews do not pray to people but only to god, the truth is anyone could say this prayer from anywhere, even though the connection to David was obvious. (The prayer began with “arise of son of David”). When I completed the prayer I turned to leave and nearly tripped over a Muslim man who was prostrating himself on the floor (I hadn’t heard him come in). The Muslim man was clearly part of a group as he was quickly joined by about a dozen other identically dressed men, all of whom began prostrating themselves towards the tomb. (Incidentally the tomb was not in the same direction as Meccah – I don’t know what the rules are for praying in other directions in Islam, but suffice it to say they clearly believed there was something holy about this place). I really wanted to know where they were from and I tried to engage a few of them in conversation in the hallway after they finished praying, but we spoke no languages in common.

The piece of my attitude that’s changed is that I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if there is no one buried in David’s tomb. God can hear our prayers no matter where we are. Special locations are not for god’s benefit, but for ours. If going to a place we believe to be imbued with holiness can increase our spirituality or enhance our experience or relationship with god, then something positive has been accomplished and it doesn’t matter if the legend underlying the place is true. Rambam says to  face the wall when you pray. Do you think this is because god can hear your better through a wall? These relics have been created by man for the benefit of man.

The conclusion (assuming anyone is still reading after this long and rambling post), is that we are now approaching the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The main focuses of these days is repentance. We can of course repent any time, but having a special day set aside for them helps us focus and helps us connect. These days were given to us by god for our benefit, not for god’s benefit. As we will say in Hallel on each of these days “זה היום עשה ה‘ נגילה ונשמחה בו”.


New Host

September 4th, 2012 by Ari

The massive undertaking of moving over all my data from godaddy (way to slow) to nickhost.com is finally done. Well, for this domain at any rate – still one more to go before I can actually cancel godaddy. Hopefully everything went flawlessly, but if you see something that suddenly looks broken, let me know.

Hello World Version 3.0

August 19th, 2012 by Ari
Hello world! by bachrach44
Hello world!, a photo by bachrach44 on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
Naomi Elias-Bachrach, Aug 18 2012
נעמי הלל אליאס-בכרך, ל באב תשע״ב

I went to Hell

August 8th, 2012 by Ari

Hell never looked so good

A few days ago, for no real reason, I took Maya to the valley of Hinom after school. Located a short distance outside the old city, it is one of the valleys which surrounded the ancient city in biblical times. Known as גי בן הנם (Guy Ben-Hinom), it is first mentioned in Joshua as the border between Judah and Benjamin. We don’t know anything about this person Guy other than that he had a father names Hinom, and apparently owned this valley at one time. It was later used as a location for the cult to Molech. Child sacrifices took place here, and this is where children were made to “pass through the fire“.

Maya with pomegranate

After the Jews returned from Babylon (6th century BC), they turned the valley into a garbage pit. The bodies of executed criminals were also sent there, and a fire was kept burning 24 hours a day to incinerate the garbage and other unclean things that were dumped there. Being sent to Guy Ben-Hinom then was quote the rebuke. The Septaugint shortened the name to Gahenna, which is the Hebrew word Jews use to refer to our version of Hell to this day. Both the King James Bible and the NIV then translate that as Hell.

In case anyone would like to make the obvious joke, it was about 95 that day, clear skies, fairly dry. No brimstone, although Maya did find a fig and pomegranate trees (see image of her holding a pomegranate to the right). As far as she’s concerned, that makes it the best place ever.

Jerusalem light festival

August 8th, 2012 by Ari

Jerusalem light festival a video by bachrach44 on Flickr.

I’ve been behind in my posting, so this is actually an old event. In June the old city of Jerusalem had a light festival. Artists from around the world set up displays in the old city, often times using parts of the old city itself in their displays. The whole thing was at night (of course), and there were three paths which wound through the city. I forgot to bring my camera so all I could take were mediocre cell phone images, but local photoblog Real Jerusalem Streets managed to capture some better images if you’re curious.

Jerusalem light festivalThe event was far cooler than I imagined. I’m not one for art (my own mother even calls me a cultureless Philistine), but many of the displays were very imaginative and incorporated lots of elements (video, sound, music, light, user interaction, etc.). I also just really liked seeing the way historic features were incorporated into a modern art display. There were installations that used things like the walls of the city themselves, the crusader’s arrow slits, and the old Lutheran church in their displays. Definitely not part of the usual tourist agenda, but very very cool.

My first Philly (cheese) steak

July 31st, 2012 by Ari

Via Flickr:
Even though I grew up in Philly, this is the first time I’ve had a Philadelphia cheese steak, in part because this is the first time I’ve ever found it kosher. The secret? No cheese.

The Aleppo Codex

July 26th, 2012 by Ari

Next to the dead sea scrolls, the Aleppo Codex, or keter Aram Sova is probably the single most historically important Jewish text in existence. Originally written and housed in Aleppo Syria it is the oldest surviving written copies of the torah. It was considered so authoritative that scholars and rabbis from around Europe traveled to Aleppo to view it. Rabbi Joseph Caro (the shulkhan aruch) is said to have sent a copy to Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema) so the later could use it to make a torah scroll. The basic story that I’ve always heard about the codex, that it was largely destroyed in anti-Jewish riots in Syria in 1948, and parts were saved and smuggled to Israel where it now lies, is apparently only partly true. Ronen Bergman has an article in the NY Times Magazine and has done some digging. The Codex was not given over willingly, and it appears to have arrived in Israel whole. It was not fire damaged, and the missing piece appears to have been sold to someone in London, who obviously isn’t saying anything. Read the whole article, it is fascinating.

Buses from the kotel

July 8th, 2012 by Ari

Chalk another one up for “this place is awesome”.

For the last month or so, I’ve been walking to the kotel for maariv on shabbat. (The concluding prayers that end the Jewish Sabbath). The girls go to bed at 7:30, and it’s a 45 minute walk, givingme just enough time to get there in the summer with shabbat ending around 8:15~8:30. Then, I have to make the 45 minute walk home. For the last few weeks though I’ve noticed something – there are always a ton of Haredim standing by the bus stop, ostensibly waiting for the bus (line 1 goes from mea shearim, a haredi neighborhood, straight to the kotel). How could they do this? On shabbat Jews can’t carry money or a bus pass, and the Haredim aren’t the types to try and bend the rules. Do they have a place to leave their bus passes before shabbat near the kotel and then grab them after finishing the concluding prayers? Do they set up some sort of credit system with the bus driver? Can I get in on this? This week I finally got up the courage to ask someone. It turns out, the buses are free (sort of). Egged, the bus company, allows people getting on at (or near) the kotel to ride for free right after shabbat, knowing that they have no way of carrying money. You’re supposed to pay them back the next time you take the bus during the week (just ask the driver to charge you twice), and the whole thing is on the honor system.

Temple mount

July 5th, 2012 by Ari

This morning, for the second time in my life, I went into a mikvah. Then, for the first time in my life, I ascended to the temple mount. I’m going to have to write more about it later, but for I’ll just say this: it wasn’t at all what I expected. I’ve read plenty on the history and archaeology of the temple mount (including Leen Ritmeyer’s excellent Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount), so I was better prepared than most first time visitors. However I wasn’t expecting to find so much stuff up there. The ancient temple was built on a large flat platform, and was the center of attention. There were a few other things on the mount, usually at the edges (like solomon’s stables and the Antonia fortress), but other than that I’ve always seen it depicted as fairly empty. I expected that the Muslims would have done something similar with only a small number of buildings (mainly the al-aqsa mosque and the dome of the rock), that served as the focal points for the area. What I found instead was that you could barely tell you were on the mount. There were buildings, benches, olive trees, kids playing soccer, fountains, broken columns, open areas, and lots of minarets and domes of all sorts. A far cry from the open area I expected. Except for the lack of streets, we could have been wandering through any of the Arab villages in Israel.

Also I have to put in a plug for the tour guide. I’ve been on a few guided tours in Israel, and so far I haven’t been impressed with any of the guides I’ve had. Most have relied only on one category of source (either only religious sources, or only archaeological sources, etc.), and have been woefully inadequate when it comes to explaining anything outside that scope. I even had a guide in one of Israel’s top museums tell us several facts which I knew to be incorrect. (And not do to a conflicting view from another source – he clearly made things up when he didn’t know). My guide for the temple mount was Nachman Kupietzky, and he was fantastic. He actually knew what he was talking about, and was clearly knowledgeable in the archaeology, the history, the legends, and the current events of the temple mount. Can’t recommend him enough. Best of all, he was doesn’t charge anything – he does this as a side job, and at the end he collects money for local Jerusalem based charities (hospitals, soup kitchens, shelters, etc.) in a very low pressure fashion.