Another Year Has Passed
In a paper published last week in the journal Science, three psychologists describe their recent research. They found that while people accurately recall how they, their personalities and their tastes changed over the previous decade, they are unable to predict how they will change during the next ten years. Most people somehow expect their current attitudes will largely remain static, tied to the present, which they view as the "watershed moment when they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives". The researchers call this phenomenon by the somewhat ominous name, "the end of history illusion", though they did not find it to be age-related.
Interviewing nearly 20,000 people to produce a result that to me at least is rather intuitive, seems, in my humble opinion, a waste of academic resources. I often wonder how much research is carried out because an interested party needs a certain result to justify their ivory tower existence, or to tout an ideological line, and there is someone willing to put up the funding. Man-made climate change is certainly one topic where the results are being "fudged" to meet the expectations of funders -- or rather the funders are selective on who to finance. And this isn't just me talking; it's James Lovelock, Al Gore's [former] climate guru. He currently questions the whole concept of humans being the cause of global warming, especially as it appears we are entering a new ice age. Lovelock now says we may want to increase our green house gas emissions as a countermeasure to the oncoming freeze.
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A year has elapsed since I last wrote an article for this site. I think I wasted too much of my writing energy preaching to largely deaf ears on Facebook. This realisation has lead to one of the things I am changing in my life -- all the more since I was unceremoniously dropped from a Facebook-based photography group by a dictatorial moderator who is unable to handle criticism and appears to have a hidden agenda.
For a while now I have intended to return to writing, but somehow I haven't found myself in the appropriate mood. I commenced a number of pieces over the last few months, but they haven't taken a direction that pleased me, nor one that I feel would satisfy you, my vast and faithful readership.
There are times in one's life referred to as milestones. In past years I have used my birthday as a springboard, an opportunity for reflection and introspection, an attempt to unravel "the answer to life, the universe and everything".
Here I am again this week, on my sixtieth birthday, sitting in front of my faithful machine, ruminating over what was an eventful year, a year which took me to the East, to places I had not yet visited, and which exposed me to ideas and ideologies until then somewhat foreign to me. I read a lot -- rarely fiction -- but being on location, seeing, hearing, smelling and touching provide alternate perspectives.
Day to day I don't feel a great deal has changed in my life. But I know I have learnt a tremendous amount and many of my attitudes have changed as a result. I am studying with a new rabbi, who has opened up undreamed of vistas in my journey traversing the sea of the Talmud. Partially as a result of this exposure, my understanding on subjects learnt from old mentors also has expanded. This year I joined those leaning Daf Yomi, a daily page of the Babylonian Talmud. Please God, in seven years time I will complete the whole work -- and then start it over again.
The consequences of my visit to Uganda and Kenya in mid-2011 continue to effect my thinking and that which I am doing today. Prior to that trip, I would have described myself as a typical Ashkenazi racist. Thirty years in Israel have taught me that Sephardic, or eastern Jewish culture, is not, as my parents' and rabbis' generation in Europe was convinced, inferior to "ours". In fact it is unlikely my forebears ever met a Sephardi Jew. Perhaps they harboured a fear of something unknown, something culturally different. After all could there be another "real" stream within Judaism?
And by osmosis, I adopted their non-accepting attitude to Sephardim, and to converts as well. In my eyes, conversions were driven by ulterior motives -- I always bore suspicions regarding converts' sincerity. I even argued with my rabbis, based on various texts we were learning, that we should not be accepting converts in our time.
It is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who changed my understanding re what is the task of the Jewish people in this world. According to the Rambam, Moshe Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars, one of the tasks of the Messiah, the future King of Israel, is to return the world to "the true faith". Emphasis on the word "return".
An oft forgotten fact is that prior to issuing of the Hadrianic decrees of the second century, following the Bar Kokhva revolt, we Jews were a proselytising nation. We were very much open to new members. This is not missionising in the Christian sense, such as what happened to our Ugandan friend Semei Kakungulu, but it was his conversion to Christianity that ultimately led to his discovering Judaism, in total isolation from the Jewish world. And he is not the only one I have met, of a similar background, that came to the same realisation.
Hadrian totally surceased our proselytising activities, punishing conversion to Judaism by death. His decrees were not terminated with the fall of the Roman Empire. They were carried through to the twentieth century by the new "Rome", the catholic church. While even before the decrees we never actively sought out people to convert, we are taught to be accepting and accommodating to those who seek us or seek God via Judaism.
There are people around the world seeking the God of Abraham. Many of these are arriving on this path in a seeming vacuum, far from Jewish influence and population centres. It was this phenomenon that brought us to East Africa last year, to meet with the "local" people regularly attending the Nairobi Synagogue each shabat. And it was for this purpose we visited Kakungulu's offspring and followers, the Abayudaya living in Putti village, Uganda. For me, this visit was my watershed.
While we have yet to achieve a positive result for the fine people we met in Nairobi, in Uganda we were able to begin what I pray will become a snowball. Rabbi Riskin invited two boys from Putti to his yeshiva in Efrat with a view for them to learn and experience Israeli Judaism first hand, officially join the Jewish people, and return to their tribal lands to teach their compatriots what they learnt. Jill and I became very attached to Moshe and Tarphon, who spent many shabatoth and festivals with us. Through them we also made contact with others from their area.
A necessary trip to Australia is always an excuse and an incentive to spend time somewhere on route. In the past this has included Hong Kong, Singapore and/or Thailand. Since my first trip to Israel via Singapore 1973, I have visited these places multiple times, each time endeavouring to see and learn something novel. This year, as the East continues to open more of its treasures, I sought something different. I was overdue for a little time in China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
My China leg introduced me to four regions: Sichuan, Kaifeng, Xi'an and Beijing. I spent the first week in China proper with traditional Chinese medical practitioners, an international group, all students of Dr Yaron Seidman, my good friend Eyal's brother. Other than me, everyone in the muster had been practising medicine for at least ten years, most before they came to know Yaron. Two native practitioners also joined us for the week.
Our trip started in Chengdu -- a city of some twenty million residents. Chengdu is a modern city, where the residents don't find it necessary to save their money. All well known brand name clothes and cars are on sale here. We spent three days in the nearby mountains, one of the most beautiful locations in China.
We commenced each day learning a Tai Chi form. There are two principle schools of Tai Chi, Chen and Yang. I have been daily practising a Yang form for nearly ten years. It had taken me a full year to learn this form, and that was with a weekly two hour meeting, plus an additional thirty minute revision session. Admittedly then we did other things other than the form, including a long warm up, some Qigong, and a few other related activities. Learning a new form in just one week seemed a little daunting. And for me at least, it was.
Other than Tai Chi, we had an interesting and varied programme, which included a day of lectures by Master Liu Bai Gu, outlining the philosophy of his school of Confucianism, a concert and lectures at the Szechuan Conservatorium of Music learning about the traditional Chinese string instrument, the Guqin, visits to Buddhist temples and to Chinese teahouses. On the return drive from Mount Emei, we stopped for a few hours in Leshan, to see the world's largest stone Buddha. This Buddha, facing Mount Emei, is located at the turbulent confluence of three rivers. The Buddha was erected to guard the boatmen from shipwreck. Sadly we could not see the Buddha, even though we were just across the river -- the smog was too heavy.
From Chengdu, I flew to Kaifeng. While only a two hour aeroplane ride away, it is a very different city. Though the Kaifeng people are not poor, their consumerism is not out in the open as it is in spendthrift Chengdu. People here live more modestly.
Kaifeng is the location of what may be the oldest continuous Jewish community outside of Israel. It was my interest in the Abayudaya which lead me to a concern for the ancient Jews of China, specifically their descendants still living in Kaifeng. Jews arrived here as a group during the seventh century, travelling the Silk Road from Persia. Some claim that they arrived earlier, members of the Lost Ten Tribes who passed here on an eastward trek, hoping to return to Israel via Spain after their hopes for a quick, short route return home were physically blocked by the Assyrians. The latter scenario puts their arrival some thousand years earlier, though there is no hard archaeological evidence to back this claim.
And we know these Jews were not alone in China. Their compatriots settled in other parts of eastern China, all the way down to Canton. They were welcomed by various emperors, who treasured their contribution to China, both in business, the sciences and medicine. However it is only in Kaifeng that we can still meet these Jews. Some time during the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century, Jewish men were forced by imperial edict to marry Han Chinese ladies. In those days, when their grand synagogue stood, and they had rabbinic leadership, these women converted according to halakha. Unfortunately as it is now a hundred years that the community has had neither a synagogue nor a rabbi, there is no-one to supervise conversions.
Marrying someone from your clan is frowned upon in China, based on Confucius's pronouncement that marriage is "the union of two surnames, in friendship and in love". For the remnants of Kaifeng Jewry, this perspective has resulted in a reluctance to intermarry within their small group.
Thus their Jewish DNA is being continuously diluted. But the miracle in our times is that today there is an unbelievable resurgence of interest in Judaism. While they see themselves as Jews, and part of the Jewish world, they reluctantly understand a need for their formal conversion. They await recognition as being among the remnants of Israel by any recognised Jewish group. Unfortunately, as with the Abayudaya, there is an element of racism involved. Almost as if someone is saying that we already did our bit for racial equality by returning home the Jews of Ethiopia.
While there is no open anti-Semitism by the national government, it does exist at the city, and to a lesser extent, at the provincial level. Until ten years ago, the Kaifeng Jews had their Jewishness recorded in their internal passports. This entry is inconsistent with the Chinese government's refusal to accept the Jews as a recognised minority and the granting of the benefits that flow from this status. But that's just one of the many anomalies I observed in China.
Members of seven of the eight original clans still live in Kaifeng. Until the cultural revolution in the seventies, each clan held details of their pedigrees. They were forced to burn these family trees when Mao, who, in order to hold onto power with the support of radicalised students, taught that the old culture was bad. Each clan also maintained its own cemetery, a family tree hewn from stone. Sadly, just one of these cemeteries outlasted the revolution.
A minuscule few Kaifeng Jews have undergone conversion and live in Israel. Currently seven Kaifeng young men are studying in the yeshiva here, in preparation for conversion. Unfortunately they have been here for close to three years and the rabbinate and the Interior Ministry continue to drag their feet on finalising the process. These men are ready to take full part in Israeli society, including serving their country in the army . . . when the rabbis finally allow them to join us formally.
In Kaifeng I met with a number of community members of different ages, both at their workplaces and at home. I also had the opportunity to meet them as a group. They had many questions about aspects of Israel and Judaism from their welcome visitor.
It is worth noting that as far as the Chinese authorities are concerned there is no barrier to leaving China -- and returning at will. I met two girls who spoke a good Hebrew. They had spent their four high school years here in Israel at a school near Haifa. But as soon as they completed their matriculation exams, the Israel Interior Ministry returned them to China rather than allowing them, or assisting them, to convert and become full and productive Israeli citizens. To paraphrase Yehuda haLevi in the Kuzari, "their hearts are in the West, but they are at the ends of the East".
From Kaifeng I rode the bullet train to Xi'an some 500 kilometres away. The train station was a veritable bustle of humanity, thousands moving every which way between the many platforms. Not a word of English in the entire complex. Had I not been accompanied by a Chinese-speaker, I fear I would still be at the station, or worse, nowhere in the middle of China.
The train ride is an exciting experience; the train reached a speed of 248 k.p.h. in a far smoother ride than Sydney's Eastern Suburbs Railway. The trip took two and half hours, including five transit stops. I met up that evening with Jill, who flew in from Israel.
Xi'an is a modern city, though part is located within ancient walls. The city is best known as the home of the Terra Cotta warriors. These soldiers were modelled on the living soldiers of Emperor Qin (the only emperor of the Qin dynasty) who died in the year 210 B.C.E. Qin built himself an enormous mausoleum that has yet to be excavated. He wanted his ornate grave to be guarded from the east by life size models of his soldiers, to protect him in the afterlife as they had during his sojourn in this world. Each soldier has unique features, and was painted in great detail.
The infantrymen are arranged in eleven corridors separated by earth-rammed partition walls on which wooden ceilings were placed. There is a separate location for the officers. In 1974 three peasants were digging a well when they came across a buried warrior. The result was the world's best known archaeological site. What was the reward for these farmers, who had to cease working their land? They take turns sitting in the site tourist shop, signing books of photographs of the museum. We met one of them; poor fellow didn't seem too excited to meet us, nor anyone else for that matter. But he has a paying job for life. And we have an autographed book.
In keeping with Chinese emperors' burial tradition, the first Han Emperor, Liu Qi, who reigned a few years after Qin's demise, also desired an impressive memorial to himself in the Xi'an region. To commence the process, rubbing his predecessor's nose into the dirt, Liu Qi burnt the wooden rooves above the Qin Terra Cotta Warriors. The resultant falling timbers smashed the statues beneath. This is the condition in which they were found 2,200 years later. They have been painstakingly reconstructed, piece by piece, in a task far more tedious than their original manufacture.
Liu Qi then set about building his own mausoleum. And of course soldiers to protect him. He built his clay soldiers using moulds, so, unlike the Qin combatants, these figurines all have identical facial features, though they do come in male, female and eunuch forms. They are a third life size. Their arms and legs were made of wood, and each statue was clothed in a silk uniform. The wood and silk rotted over the intervening 2,000 years, and today only the heads and torsos remain. Unlike the Qin warriors, where soldiers, officers and horses were found, the Han figures include many domesticated animals. For some reason this museum is not on the tourist map, and most people to whom we have mentioned it, including Chinese, have never heard of it. And there are far more soldiers here at what is today called the Museum of the Naked Warriors.
What was the Chinese obsession in building clay models of their populace? According to their tradition, death is a beginning of another life, the dead to be cared for as if they remain alive. Like the ancient Egyptians, Chinese emperors were buried with food, jade, pottery, weapons, implements and sometimes, even human beings, to provide them with a prosperous afterlife. But human sacrifice has always been considered a cruel option in this part of the world. Creating figurines of real people was considered an acceptable alternative.
The ancient walls of Xi'an, as well as their guard towers and garrison dormitories, remain today in excellent condition, not like similar walls which surrounded Beijing. Mao maliciously destroyed these as there was no room for this in a modern city. As a reminder of what once was, one lonely gate stands alongside the Second Ring Road.
Unlike the city walls we know here in Israel, in Xi'an you can rent bicycles and ride the wide ramparts with ease and not fear bumping into anybody.
Another Xi'an site which interested me is the Grand Mosque. This series of buildings is completely Chinese in its architecture, building layout and construction. The only features identifying it as a mosque are some Arabic lettering, decorations and clocks indicating prayer times -- there are no domes nor traditionally styled minarets to call the faithful to prayer.
Most of the Chinese Buddhist temples I visited are also laid out as a series of buildings, each with a forecourt where incense is burnt. These compounds are generally located on a hillside, each building higher than the previous. Generally each edifice houses a large Buddha, surrounded by many other, smaller idols. As you rise from courtyard to courtyard, from building to building, the holiness increases.
The "holiest" point in this mosque complex, the building where prayers take place, is the structure farthest from the entrance. Unlike the temple complexes, the buildings along the way serve as offices, classrooms, hand and foot washing areas and other ancillary functions.
Why was I so interested to visit this mosque? It is of the same vintage, with a size and layout similar to the Grand Synagogue in Kaifeng. We know the plan of the synagogue compound from sketches made by visiting European Jesuits during the seventeenth century.
The ancillary synagogue buildings housed a study hall, a heder (classrooms for educating children), a mikveh (ritual bath), a communal kitchen, a kosher butcher and a suka. As with the mosque, the actual house of worship was the last building, a multi-storied structure.
Unfortunately the magnificent Jewish structures were destroyed soon after the sketch was made. The Yellow River flows some twenty metres higher than the city of Kaifeng. In the event of a war on the city, an attacker's first target is to breach the river banks, thus flooding the city. In 1664, such an act of aggression led to the destruction of most of the city including the synagogue.
While new synagogues were erected on the same site more than one time subsequent to the flooding, they were never on anywhere near the same scale. The slow decline of Kaifeng Jewry had commenced.
From Xi'an, Jill and I flew to Beijing, where we spent a week site-seeing. We spent shabat with Habad. The next day I started writing an article -- and I will finish it and link it here -- entitled The Fine Line Between Business and Charity. I may exchange the word "charity" with the Lubavitch term, shliches!
Please do not take this as a general criticism of Habad. While overall I do have my problems with Habad -- my history with them goes back over forty years -- there are many good people involved, though many also may be suffering from some self-delusion. Last week a pair of former Israeli backpackers, who today run a centre in the north of India, visited our house. I found them very charming and I am sure they are doing a great job, even though our conversation revealed their talmudic knowledge a little lacking. But our Beijing experience was on a totally different level.
We spent the other days in Beijing visiting the usual tourist locations: Summer Palace, Hutong, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Olympic city, the Great Wall, Tibetan Buddhist Temple, the Temple of Heaven, the Spirit Way and more too. Unfortunately Beijing's perennial, "unofficial", smog, interfered with our view of many sites, especially the Wall, where we could barely see one tower forward, just eighty metres away.
From Beijing, I flew to Sydney while Jill returned to Efrat. Some people in Sydney were upset when I intimated that I may not return to Australia again. "The world is a big place", I explained, "and there are many places I really want to visit".
The reason for this visit was for my brother and I to finalise our late mother's affairs. While there, considering this may have been my last visit, I decided to do some of the things I had not done before, but had always wanted to.
I spent one afternoon whale chasing off the coast of Sydney. We spotted a few, one of whom put on a spectacular show for us, continually leaping fully out of the water by the side of our boat. These huge animals make you realise the power and diversity of the Creator.
I visited Australia's Red Centre for the first time, spending a day at Alice Springs and three more at Uluru, a landmark I grew up calling Ayers Rock. The scenery here, the Rock and the Olgas, is nothing short of spectacular -- almost as beautiful as the natural aspects of Petra. Listening to Aboriginal legends first hand alongside the Rock, was very absorbing. Each of their stories is tied to a specific location, namely the narrative is told in the place where the events related took place. There are legends explaining each and every crack and crevice on the surface of Ayers Rock. The characters in these narratives are semi supernatural beings who wandered the land during the prehistoric "Dreamtime". Judging by the height of some of these markings above the ground, and depth of the scars in the rock, these characters were humongous.
For example, we were related a story of a feud between a couple of these beings. Things ended badly, with in the heroine's nephew being killed by her archenemy who himself soon met his demise. After the mourning period, the remaining prehistoric characters all headed off down south to seek revenge.
"And what happened to them down there?", we asked.
"Oh if you want to know that, you have to go there and ask the local people. Each story is only known and related in the space in which it took place."
I found this explanation a little strange for a nomadic people.
I had planned to spend the two weeks after leaving Australia travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia. I wanted Jill to return east to join me. I suppose I was stung with a bigger bite from the travel bug than she. We compromised on me spending four days in Bangkok and she staying in Israel.
On this trip I elected to stay at a boutique hotel on the banks of the Chaopraya River flowing through the capital. While I didn't stay in a riverside room -- I intend to on my next visit -- I took breakfast each morning a few feet from the river, watching the long barge trains being tugged along the water. And to reach any destination other than Kao San Road, where much of Bangkok's action, especially late afternoon and evening, takes place, I caught a ferry from outside the hotel down to the Skytrain station.
As is my custom, I wanted to do something I had not done before. Having been to Thailand multiple times, I wasn't sure where I would end up. I left planning each day's program to the previous evening. The first day was spent shopping: some clothes, watches, trinkets, a suitcase and some electronics at the famed Pantip Plaza, home to everything photographic, electronic and computer related, or as one tourist site calls it, "the mother of all IT shops in Thailand". Always fascinating.
The next day I drove to the Bang Pa In Summer Palace of the kings of Thailand, an hour or so outside of Bangkok. The palace buildings, surrounding an artificial lake, are largely European in style, though represent different regions and historic periods. And there is one traditional Thai style pavilion on an island in the lake.
I also visited the nearby Wat Mahathat [a wat is a monastery temple in Thailand, Cambodia or Laos; the word can also mean 'school' -- a little like the word shule in Yiddish], a complex of largely ruined temple buildings at a place called Ayutthaya, an historic Thai capital. All the statues in the complex are headless. This is what happens in this region when you lose a war. Burmese victors took the heads home after their victory in the war of 1767. Now that's rubbing your enemy's collective noses into the ground.
And now for something completely different: on my third day I enrolled in a Thai vegan cooking course. Really one of the highlights of my trip. A random group of ten people gathered in May Kaidee's kitchen, where we cooked and consumed, a dozen different recipes from soup and entrée to desserts. May also took us on an outing to a real -- read no tourists nor westerners -- Thai market where we bought traditional Thai vegetables, herbs and spices -- many things I have yet to see in Machane Yehuda .
And of course, as is custom in Thailand, I enjoyed a massage each evening, and had my tailor fashion a suit, trousers and shirts.
I arrived back home after just over six weeks on the road . . . and started planning my next adventure.
Great Wall of China
Nearly three months elapsed before I was again at Ben Gurion airport. After Sukkot Jill accompanied her mother on a Mediterranean cruise. I didn't like the idea of being left "home alone". So I travelled to Japan with a nice group of English-speaking Israelis lead by my neighbour, Menahem Fogel, or "C-less" as I affectionately call him. As neither El Al, nor any other airline, operates non-stop scheduled flights from Israel to Japan, I chose to fly via Beijing . . . which chalked up three Chinese visas within five months.
On our July trip, we visited the Great Wall of China at Badaling, the most popular site in the Beijing area. This section is usually very crowded, especially as far as the second tower. On the day we were there, the weather was not user-friendly to sightseers; it was a cold, wet and very smoggy July day. Jill reached the first tower, I most of the way to the third. The climb is not easy, some sections being quite steep, as they following the mountain contours. The steps are of unequal height and depth.
On this second visit I arranged to climb an alternate location, at Mutianyu, a little further from Beijing. The Wall here is high up in the mountains. You can climb to it from the road below. I chose to preserve my strength for climbing the Wall itself and rode up and down in the cable car.
It was drizzling during our drive to the site -- that was worrying. That morning, and the day before on my arrival to Beijing, visibility was much better than the previous time. This was encouraging. In the event I was treated a view of the Wall some twenty towers forward up the mountain; the weather overall was pleasant for climbing. Incidentally, the next day it poured incessantly, so I was quite lucky.
You are greeted to this entrance of the Wall by a large sign informing you that the kind people of Dusseldorf contributed to the reconstruction of this section of the Wall. I thought it a little odd that this structure, reportedly the only human creation visible from our Moon, needed the large scale reconstruction that this ornate sign intimated. I was surprised to have my answer a couple of hours later.
The Wall was far, far less crowded here than on my previous visit, when we were continuously moving out of people's way. I reached at least a dozen guard towers. One section was so steep that I hesitated to climb it. But of course I did -- after all, it was there! On reaching the top, my heart must have been beating at a 100 miles an hour. I wondered if I had been over-adventurous. But, after a short break, I continued further up the mountain, knowing that once I did turn around, whenever that would be, it would just be a downhill stroll. Along the path I passed vendors selling drinks and trinkets, and offering to photograph you with your camera -- always with a requisite red flag flapping in the background. I asked one seller if he came up here daily, with all his goods and chattels on his back -- there was no other way in or out of here, unless you were lowered by a helicopter.
I carry on . . . I arrive at a sign at the bottom of another steep section: "Tourists are not permitted past this point". Me? A tourist? Off I go, passing through another three or four towers, meeting foreigners along the way. Eventually another vendor. By now there were very few climbers. I wondered how he made a living this far up. I chatted with him for a while, and continued on my way. Well I thought I was continuing. Suddenly the walls paralleling the sides of the path were gone, the stone floor became dirt, the trace of the Wall ahead was hard to follow. I realised that this is where the good people of Dusseldorf's contribution had run out, and the Chinese government didn't want me to know.
I spent twelve days in Japan, starting on my own in Osaka before my group arrived. Following two nights in there, we sped across the main island of Honshu from west to east in the Shinkansen, the bullet train, to Tokyo, Japan's "eastern capital", where we stayed for four nights including Shabat. We then worked our way back to Osaka by bus, by way of the Alps, Toyota, Kyoto (the "western capital"), Nara, Kobe and many interesting and picturesque locations in between.
Having read a lot about the country and its people, I was looking forward to now experiencing Japan. To my surprise, my reactions are mixed. When I think about it however, this view does corroborate with my reading.
My reaction has much to do with the enduring question, "Who are the modern Japanese people?" Most of the theories floated are rejected by the Japanese, for the obvious reason that they subtract from their long-claimed uniqueness. What they do in fact accept as their tradition is, in my humble opinion, akin to a Japanese version of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, with early generations dominated by divine figures adventuring across the land.
Two chronicles describe the arrival of the gods to Japanese shores, the Kojiki, the Record of Ancient Matters, and the Nihon Shoki, The Chronicles of Japan. They were both only written in the eighth century, though they describe events that date as far back as 2,500 years ago. The Kojiki is written in a combination of Chinese and phonetic transcription of Japanese (primarily for names and songs) and the Nihon Shoki is completely written in classical Chinese.
And herein lies the enigma. Japan exhibits a very strong Chinese influence covering many aspects. In essence, my impression based on the places and museums I visited, is that modern Japanese history does not really go back much before the mid sixteenth century. And a large part of this history can be summed up as, and I don't at all mean to be disgracious, infighting between various warring clans, one clan dominating over the other under a tough leader, resulting in a [somewhat] united Japan, whose army then goes off to pillage Korea, with an attempt to reach into China. This scenario repeats itself, even into the twentieth century, with a few aberrations along the way like the Sakoku policy, in which Japan largely closed itself off from the most of the world community, and destroyed its guns.
Today, three alphabets are used in parallel by the Japanese. The first is Kanji, which uses classical Chinese logograms but with a different pronunciation. The second alphabet is Katakana, which, while phonographic, started as an attempt by a Shinto priest to simplify Kanji. The third is Hiragana which is used to write native words for which there are no Kanji symbols. It too is a phonetic alphabet. In today's Japan these writing systems are used interchangedly. A single newpaper article may contain all three, often starting with a Kanji headline and main paragraph, then switching to Katakana. And the by the end of the article you can be back to Kanji -- and no-one bats an eyelid.
There are aspects other than language that the Japanese borrowed from China. Architecture for example, especially temples. While the layout of the buildings and courtyards differ, the individual buildings are very similar in design and construction. Most were not constructed with nails. The Japanese and the Chinese both surround their temples and other grand buildings with gardens, though design and landscape vary between the two countries. Japanese Buddhism is similar to the Chinese form and practice, and very different from that in Thailand and Cambodia.
The Japanese come across as very regimented people, where the whole is more important than its component parts, namely the individual. There is little tolerance for individuality. Generally no-one sticks out of the crowd, nor desires to do so. Tokyo businessmen wear black suits with white shirts, the only space for self-expression being an option to wear a grey rather than black tie. The streets are clean and petty crime is almost non-existent; no-one would stoop so low. People automatically form orderly queues well before the train pulls into the station. And if the train stops with its doors unaligned with the queues, somehow everyone adjusts themselves accordingly, and the front person in each queue boards first . . . only after everyone has alighted of course.
They are certainly a warring people, proven over and over throughout history, and especially during the twentieth century. Admittedly western racism, leading exclusionism in the aftermath of World War I, helped push the Japanese into carving out their own empire and joining the Axis nations. Their cruelty in war is legendary, especially to prisoners of war, most of whom suffered greatly in Singapore, Thailand and other places in which they were incarcerated and forced to work as slaves. To the Japanese psyche, being captured in war is a sign of failure, a massive insult; one is supposed to fight to the end. Thus their low esteem for captured foreigners.
The Japanese High Command, even after the dropping of the second atom bomb on Nagasaki, with its resultant destruction and loss of life, desired to battle on. It was only Emperor Hirohito's acceptance of an unconditional surrender, including the eventual the repudiation of the traditional quasi-divine status of Japan's emperors, that allowed the Pacific war to end and the massive task of reconstruction to begin.
The Japanese did surrender but have they repented? Today they take part in all international fora, are an economic powerhouse improving and redeveloping the inferior technologies of the rest of the world, and selling it back to them. Perhaps their aggression and desire to dominate the world has now been channelled into the economic realm.
But they do not seem to relate to, let alone speak about, their participation in World War II. The museums that do exist, such as the memorial to Righteous Among the Nations, Chiune Sugihara, who saved about 6,000 Jews by issuing them Japanese travel visas as the consul in 1939 to Kovno, the then capital of neutral Lithuania, or the museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the devastation caused by the atom bomb, are largely ignored by the locals. Various temples and visitors' sites make mention of recent reconstruction as the result of war, but never relate to the question of why this was necessary, simply implying it as a by-product of some unknown or unrecognised military action.
On the other hand Japan is a very beautiful country, blessed with an abundant rainfall, mountain vistas, long picturesque coastline, lakes and forests, and castles, temples, shrines and gardens. The Japanese are largely an areligious society. Most take their children to a Shinto priest at birth and at age six, but almost everyone seeks Buddhist funeral rites. For their wedding, a Japanese couple may choose Shinto, Christian and even mock-Christian rites, or perhaps some interesting combination of different ceremonies. On the other hand we visited a Shinto Shrine in Tokyo which is dedicated to convicted war criminals. The day before we were there, during a political crisis with China, which seemed like it may lead to war over an uninhabited fishing island, government ministers paid homage at this shrine, a blatantly anti-Chinese act. And the Chinese did not miss the intimation.
I want to end my Japanese exposé on a positive note. Though Japan was an Axis power, aligned with Nazi Germany during the war, neither the Japanese government nor its military, ever gave in to determined and repeated Nazi requests and recommendations that extermination programs be undertaken against its Jews. In fact, Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka Yosuke, told a group of Jewish businessmen in December 1940, a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, "I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world."
A postscript to Japan. There are a number of researchers, e.g Avigdor Achan in In the Footsteps of the Ten Lost Tribes, who try and tie Japan and the Jews, specifically the Ten Tribes, to a common ancestry. They point to various common features, such as the similarities in language, mythology and custom, e.g. Shinto priests wear a four cornered white garment with ribbons tied on each corner, the similarity between the mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine, and the Aron haBrith carried on long staves by the Levites in the desert by, similar linguistic forms, and more. We saw similar phenomena at the Beijing Temple to Heaven, where there are parallels between the annual ceremonies there conducted by the emperors and those carried out by the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple on Yom Kipur. But apparent ritual similarities are to be found all around the world. For example the ban on any Inca drinking cocoa from the new crop before the king has had his first cup parallels the biblical ban on eating new Israeli produce before the annual sacrifice of the Omer during the Passover. I'm afraid that I for one, need more direct evidence to be convinced of a real historic connection.
On my return trip home from Japan I spent three days in Shanghai. I found this city, which I had not visited before, very different from Beijing. The city's location on the Yangtze River Delta enhances its natural beauty as does the influence of the British architecture in the Bund area. This has been further embellished by the modern, sleek buildings, in many architectural styles, which now dominate the skyline.
I started my tour of the city at the Shanghai Museum of Art and History. I felt at home as the security people put my things through an x-ray machine. I was carrying a bottle of water. Unlike at airports, the guards would let me bring this into the building on condition that I had a slurp in their presence.fferent galleries. I could easily have spent most of the day there, but was limited to just ninety minutes.
From there I visited the City God Temple, and its surrounding old commercial district. I asked my guide if we could visit a nearby Confucian shrine, as I had not yet had such an opportunity to visit such a site. Chinese guides are very organised. Just like in Xi'an when we requested to visit the Museum of the Naked Warriors, I had to pay the small entrance fee myself as it "was not included in my predetermined package". Fortunately guides are admitted free of charge.
To end a busy half day -- I had only landed in Shanghai at 11 a.m. -- I watched the sunset from a boat cruising along the Huangpu River, passing all the new, tall buildings on the Lujiazui peninsular.
I must note here that the hotel in which I stayed was magnificent. The room was enormous, larger than our lounge-dining room. And the breakfast was a mammoth banquet. The say Israeli breakfasts are a veritable feast, but compared to the Shanghai Marriot, they are a small snack. And I paid for the two nights less than a single night at the King David in Yerushalayim would cost.
The next day I spent outside of the city, in an area called the Water Towns. These are a number of farms and villages built in series of canals. Chinese gondolas ply the waterways. The area contains a number of lakes, with canals and irrigation ditches leading off them. There are locks on some of these canals, reminiscent of Van Gogh. On the return drive, I asked to stop a couple of times, in order to photograph these scenes. I felt that this wasn't totally acceptable behaviour, but my driver and guide agreed, though they seemed worried that I may be run over by passing tractors, and seemed to be trying to shield me with the car or their bodies. But I think in the end the guide warmed to the idea of extra stops, as it gave her the opportunity (she asked if I didn't mind) to stop by some crab growers.
"Fresh crabs here are a third the price they are in the city", she told me.
I was only too happy to meet some crab farmers, see how they live and work lakeside, and photograph their wares.
On our return to Shanghai, we spent some time strolling the Bund, with its colonial architecture, and a recently renovated and gentrified area nearby which is full of restaurants serving Chinese and other cuisine to a largely Chinese market. In this area hotels are indeed more expensive than the top hotels in Israel.
Interestingly many of the eateries we passed displayed pumpkin masks, and many waiters wore orange. The previous day had been Halloween. I also saw this in Japan on my last night there, Halloween eve. The Japanese kids so looked cute in their black and orange fancy dress, eating out with their families.
My last day in Shanghai was in the former Jewish ghetto. I had heard many stories of this period and place, and its sadistic Japanese administrator, from my friend Reb Moshe Hayim of blessed memory who, like many Jews in Shanghai during the war, had arrived here as a refugee with a visa from Sugihara. I was surprised to learn that the Chinese also had a Righteous Gentile, Dr Ho Fengshun, the Chinese Consul General to Vienna. He issued many visas over the two years following the Anschluss.
The synagogue has been beautifully restored. Upstairs is a small, but tasteful and informative, Holocaust museum. There are large photographs of both Sugihara and Dr Ho. There is also a computer with a listing of all the refugees who had passed through Shanghai. Here I was pleased to find Moshe Hayim's details. While the shule is a museum today, prayer services are held there a couple of times a year.
From the synagogue we walked around the ghetto. This was again an unscheduled extra, but my guide had gotten to know me by now. As I didn't want to eat lunch, and she and the driver ate while I was touring the museum, she was quite happy to feed my inquisitive indulgence.
I don't think the tenements have been renovated since Moshe Hayim moved out. The only thing that appears to have changed are the residents. A plaque in the park at the end of the street informs visitors that the Jewish refugees used to congregate there on their sabbath. The park too is probably largely unchanged, except for the astroturf running track around its perimeter.
Kenya and Uganda Revisited
In two weeks time, I will be returning to East Africa. Jill and I will be attending Tarphon and Ruthy's wedding in Putti, Uganda. There will be quite a delegation from Israel and elsewhere, travelling there to celebrate the first orthodox Jewish wedding amongst the Abayudaya.
After the wedding Jill and I will spend shabat in Nairobi. I was a little reticent of going to Nairobi again and meeting the local Kenyans who come each shabat to pray in the synagogue together with the Jewish congregation. These people, with a burning desire to convert, have rejected Christianity in favour of Judaism. They have been attending synagogue prayer services for years. Interestingly, each has arrived to this realisation individually; each lives in a different part of this huge city, they having only met each other on shabatoth. Each has come to the same conclusion Kakungulu did, nearly a century ago, as has another group practising orthodox Judaism in Cameroon. With them I too am in touch, but that's for another story . . . .
Unfortunately there is resistance to the Nairobi locals from the small established community, which holds regular prayer meetings on shabat and the festivals. In my opinion, the congregation lacks the structure that can only come from them having a permanent rabbi. Although we spoke to most of the local people on our previous visit, until there is a permanent rabbi, it seems unfair to these locals to convert them into what is largely a vacuum. And while changing their situation is out of my control, I do strongly feel for their plight.
After Shabat, Jill and I will spend a few days on safari at the Masai Mara.
My beloved father-in-law, Sam Fisher, passed away this year. He is sorely missed for his many exemplary qualities, both by his family and his community. You can read a little about his life, including some autobiographic material on this site: My late father-in-law, Shalom Baruch, Sam Fisher and Letter by my late father-in-law, Shalom Baruch, Sam Fisher from Palestine Israel to his grandfather in Warsaw, Poland.
After ten years of running our "pizza for soldiers" project, PizzaIDF.org, I handed over the reigns to Elisha. I found the time during which I ran the project to have been very satisfying. First, the recipients were always thrilled to receive some extra food items, especially out of hours and off the base, and they were excited knowing that people, Jew and gentile alike, from all around the world, were interested in their welfare and appreciated their travails. The senders were happy to be able to communicate directly with combat soldiers around Israel.
And second I met and made friends with some really wonderful people via the website.
I received two presents for my birthday. All the kids put together and bought me a wine fridge, perhaps the last thing on the list of things I would buy for myself. Which is what makes receiving gifts like this so nice -- it's something you wouldn't go and buy, but which you are pleased to own and use.
It was a big surprise. Suddenly I see them pushing a huge nondescript box into the room and at the same time yelling out "Happy Birthday Aba!" And I'm going, "What the hell is in this?"
But I suppose the "nicest" present of all was from Tanya and Elisha who brought me a new grandson. He was born on the day after my birthday (which apropos was a few minutes before the fridge came into my life), but we'll be sharing a barmitsva parsha, and while I hope I don't forget the others grandchildren's birthdates, I certainly won't forget this one. And I think that may be part of the gift.
As both Tanya and Elisha each lost a grandfather this year, they wanted to remember them both in their new son's name. They also desired to tie the past generation to the future one. They are calling him Yehuda Ya'ir. Elisha explained at the brith -- and I hope I get this right, as it is not my narrative -- we have been reading over the last few weeks of the biblical Yehuda's leadership qualities. Thus Yehuda reminds them of my father-in-law's many years of leadership in the Sydney Jewish community, including school, synagogue, burial society and kashruth (I think the Hevra Kadisha is the only one in which he was not the chairman, but he was vice-chairman for many years) followed by a subsequent leadership career in the Nasi synagogue in Yerushalayim. Tanya's grandfather's name was Me'ir Leib. To show their forward-lookingness, they modified Me'ir, which is in the present tense, to Ya'ir, which is future, "he will light".
And as this year closes, I again have to ask myself, and you, my readers, am I any nearer to answering that perennial question, "And what are you going to do when you grow up?"
Perhaps this year, for the first time, I am closer to an answer. I am fully cognisant that I cannot possibly predict where I will be on my seventieth birthday, nor what I will be thinking, nor what will motivate me. But perhaps unlike many others, I am now aware, based on my experience over the last couple of years, that it won't be what I am thinking nor doing today as I turn sixty. Hopefully it will be even more meaningful, helpful and interesting.
12th January, 2013
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