This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
I haven’t attended a religious service at Rabbi Brant Rosen’s synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, which was initially housed in a church, and worse, in of all places, a Lutheran church. Luther was a Jew-hater, and though Lutherans are now thoroughly reformed, I still can’t abide worshiping in a Lutheran space. Chalk it up to a historical consciousness that is intense and, sometimes, unforgiving.
When his congregation isn’t in their church space, they’re found in a variety of protest venues. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation are wonderfully active and the new Trump administration has only upped their activism. It goes without saying that many Jews are agnostic on matters of religious activism. The reason is simple, though perhaps counter-intuitive. Though unintended, religious activism tends to rev-up disdain for religious hypocrisy.
But here’s the deal. Rabbi Rosen’s poetic take on scripture and the holy days in the Jewish calendar, especially now in a time of Jewish empowerment, is unsettling. Taken together his poems are a devastating critique of contemporary Jewish life.
Fortunately, Rabbi Rosen avoids the New Ageism the Jewish Renewal movement took on to its detriment. If you want to dance with the Torah in your arms, go for it. But when some Jews look at the Torah, they see instead Star of David Helicopter Gunships and Israeli settler colonies. What you live, you worship. These same Jews would be remiss if they didn’t give a shout-out to the one rabbi, who at least in his poetry, approaches the difficult threshold of Jewish fidelity during the darkest time in Jewish history.
Rabbi Rosen’s latest poetic take is on Tu B’shvat, the Jewish celebration of the New Year for Trees. Most Jews know little if anything about this holiday, and to my mind, that’s okay. With the sacred intoning of the Holocaust and Israel on the wane, though, Tu B’shvat may gain a new relevance. Here’s one traditional description of the holiday:
Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of Shvat on the Jewish calendar—celebrated this year on Saturday, February 11, 2017—is the day that marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. We mark the day of Tu B’Shvat by eating fruit, particularly from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. On this day we remember that “man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), and reflect on the lessons we can derive from our botanical analogue.
Rabbi Rosen has another take on Tu B’Shevat’s “botanical analogue.” Instead of praise, it involves the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Rabbi Rosen doesn’t hold back. As his poem is read note the inversion that lies at the heart of contemporary Jewish history. Jews are no longer innocent; Israel is not our redemption. The trees planted in Israel, financed with donations from Jews around the world, are part of this inversion as their beauty helps disguise the ethnic cleansing Palestinians underwent during and after the birth of the Jewish state of Israel. As Jews celebrate the New Year for Trees in the coming days, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians continues.
Beneath these trees, often set off as parks for Jewish Israelis to enjoy, and all around them, the remnants of Palestinian life remain. So at the heart of Israel, in the very trees planted, the destruction of Palestine is found. Found, too, is the culpability of Jews around the world.
Rabbi Rosen’s Tu’ B’shvat poem is unforgiving. He raises the disturbing question of whether atrocity lay at the very heart of Israel and contemporary Jewish life:
The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz
Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.
Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.
Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.
This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.
Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:
This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.
Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.
According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.
So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.
Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.
“Whispering to future generations,” Rabbi Rosen writes. Whispering heard by Palestinians that one day they will return? By Jews? By Jews and Palestinians in solidarity with each other? By Jews, Palestinians and the world who seek freedom for the Palestinian people?
Perhaps the whispering will become an inheritance that the trees, through us, bequeath as a gift of justice and reconciliation to future generations. That is, if future generations inherit and further Rabbi Brant’s poetic prophetic voice.
More than a month into our human New Year, it is difficult to envision that future.