Diaries From Wartime: One or Two Degrees of Separation

Image by Gidon Pico from Pixabay

Anchoring Truths is proud to bring you Jana Paley’s Diaries from Wartime, a multipart account of her experience in Israel in the wake of the attacks by Hamas in October 2023. Anchoring Truths Co-Founder Hadley Arkes, Paley’s one-time professor at Amherst College, provides a preface to this multipart series here.

December 29, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

Twenty months ago, the world lost a man who may have been diminutive of stature, but who was a tower of compassion and intellect, Rabbi Everett Gendler. He was 93 years-old and over the four and half decades that I had known him, he became ethereal to me, almost mystically ubiquitous, and though I know in my head that life comes to an end, in my heart, I never believed he could leave us. When he passed away, I believed that I would never refer to anyone as “My Rabbi” ever again; frankly, I am a betting person and I would have made that bet. As my Mommoms, my grandmother, always said, “Erasers are on pencils,” and I am thrilled to acknowledge that I would have made a bad bet as here in Jerusalem, thanks to my Amherst friend Dawn Behr-Ventura, I have not only found one person to call “My Rabbi. “ I have found two incredible people — My Rabbis Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj.

I believe in old, tested friendships and most of you know that I do not make new friends easily, but when I met Analia and Mario, I knew Dawn had made a special “shidduch,” a match. The word for family in Hebrew, “mishpacha,” takes on a particular meaning in Israel. Over 25% of Israelis are immigrants, so when people come from all over the globe and build a new home, they choose a new family. I am adopting the tradition and choosing Analia and Mario as my Israeli siblings! They are visiting Florida soon and I cannot wait for them to meet my mom.

Before Shabbat, Analia treated me to a fabulous experience by touring me up and down, around, and through the Tower of David in the Old City, where there was a small festival complete with local singers, local crafts, and even local craft beer. As we walked through history, we discussed what will become history: Should Netanyahu remain in power or will he eventually go to jail? Will the Palestinian people return to the rubble of Gaza after the IDF destroys Hamas or will they make a new home in a place like the Sinai? When will the IDF launch a concerted offensive in the North and try to annihilate Hezbollah? Should the religious sects in Jerusalem pay taxes or at least contribute to the local economy? And, by the way, what is Jerusalem’s best restaurant and why is airline travel so hard?

The Tower of David, the iconic symbol of Jerusalem, is the Citadel of the Old City and it just reopened after undergoing a $50 million renovation. Located next to the Jaffa Gate, the ToD now serves as the true gateway to ancient Jerusalem. Archeological excavations at the ToD reveal the 5,000 year evolution of Jerusalem. Yes, according to scholars, Jerusalem was established during the Early Bronze Age, about 3000 years before the Common Era. Approximately 1000 years before the Common Era, King David conquered the Canaanites and made Jerusalem the Capital City for the Israelites. The fortress and tower that we walked through today was built in the 2nd Century BCE and it has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than I can count. You must add the ToD to your bucket list and step into history!

Like me, Analia is a devoted walker, so we walked while Mario swam, but I got to spend a little time with Mario before they set out to visit cousins about an hour and half away. I look forward to dinner with them on Tuesday. Speaking of dinner, I must digress and tell you about last night’s dinner at one of Jerusalem’s hot spots, Machneyuda, which is on the World’s 50 Best List. I scored a seat at the bar where I met an octogenarian from South Africa who made Aliya in 1959. She knows from Apartheid and has words to describe Americans who refer to Israel as an Apartheid state, and I am not going to repeat them. She was thrilled that I had come to volunteer and we had a great talk. She left a little before me and when I asked for my check, all I got was a big “Thank You” from Bella — she had picked up my tab. I have no way to thank her, but I promise to pay her generosity forward and make a special donation for her kindness. I feel so lucky that we snapped a selfie together and I will remember her. Jerusalem is now shut tight as China during Covid. Going for my walk and then Shabbat dinner.

December 30, 2023

Jerusalem Israel

85 Days Since Hamas Brutally Attacked Israel

Fedoras and Kolpics and Shtreimels, Oy Vey! Today, I walked the streets of Mea She’arim, Jerusalem’s Orthodox neighborhood. I am certain that I saw more black hats than if I were in the audience of a graduation ceremony for a huge state university, gazing at a horizon of mortar boards. Though I have not spent much time in Eastern Europe, I felt as if I had been transported there and perhaps also funneled through a time machine. In many respects, time has stood still in the Mea She’arim. The narrow and cobbled streets were filled with the ultra-orthodox returning from the many synagogues which dot the landscape. Most of the men wore black suits and white shirts, though some sported the bekishe, a silk frock, which is worn over pants cuffed at the calf with visible white stockings and black shoes. Most men have beards grown to a variety of lengths and many of the boys and men shave their napes and have sidelocks of hair called “payot.” The women dress modestly, wearing dark sweaters or jackets with skirts that drift down below the middle of their calves. And you see baby carriages, lots of baby carriages. The major sport in Mea She’arim, I think, is having children. 

It was a bit of a lonesome walk as I was the only person dressed in Western garb for the several hours that I strolled through the neighborhood. There were signs everywhere warning me not to use my smartphone. In fact, big banners instructed the secular that there were guards ready to confiscate phones, but I took my chances and I listened to music with earbuds and snapped some photos along my route. A few men gave me snide looks and one even wildly shook his index finger at me, but I kept walking. I did realize that some of the children looked at me as if I were an alien from a strange land or another planet.  This seems somewhat hard to believe since tourists walk through Mea She’Arim, which means “Hundred Gates,” all the time.

Jerusalem is a 5,000 year old city that grew modern overnight. Israel was born 75 years ago and I have seen many photos of what Palestine looked like prior to the birth of the Israeli nation. A new State meant new neighborhoods and infrastructure, and now modern buildings are everywhere and you see plenty of cranes erecting even bigger and better projects. Yet, Mea She’Arim is a throwback and is only slowly modernizing. On the surface, it looks poor, but I am told this ghetto has plenty of funding from the Western Jewish community and even from the State of Israel. The area is densely populated, and many of the residential buildings are old and even decrepit. Trash is strewn through the streets, which was difficult for me to fathom since the Kosher laws are as much about sanitary conditions as they are about what food you can consume. And there are cats — feral cats, which are a problem throughout Israel and especially common in Mea She’arim. Several cats surround each open dumpster and there seems to be a major congregation on every corner. Someone should start a cat adoption drive. 

There are new and elegant buildings in Mea She’Arim and I bet you can guess what they are — there are new synagogues, new yeshivas, and new apartment and condo buildings. They cater to well-off American and European Orthodox Jews who come for extended visits. Small shops line the larger avenues and if you are looking for hair extensions, you should make a trip. Jewish law requires married women to cover their heads, and the Orthodox wear “sheitels,” which is the Yiddish word for wigs. There is at least one wigmaker on every commercial block. Hat stores are also prevalent, as are shops filled with Judaica that mainly serve tourists. As for clothing stores, well, black is the new black. I truly felt like I had walked through a time warp.

Back in the modern world, I had a great visit from special friends of Linda and Bob Rosenbluth, Ronen and Smadar Dromy, who drove in from Tel Mond to spend part of the afternoon with me. They had just dropped off their son at his army base where he works in an intelligence unit. If they told me his duties, they would have to silence me by a method that goes way further than taking my phone. We got well acquainted and I look forward to visiting them Wednesday in Netanya where Smadar is the director of a Jewish Community Center. Thanks Aunt Linda!

December 31, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

                                   Happy New Year!

Late in the day on October 7, 2023, Master Sargent Eliahou Binyamin Elmakayes, known to all as Ben, kissed his fiancé, Yoanna Jordo, goodbye and left for his IDF base instead of making the final preparations for his wedding which was set for November 5th. Ben made Aliyah from his comfortable home in Paris six years prior with the goal of joining the IDF and making a life in Jerusalem. According to two of his brothers, this 29 year-old member of the Combat Engineering Corp’s 8219th Battalion had almost achieved his main objectives when Hamas brutally attacked Israel. Ben and Yoanna postponed their wedding ceremony which was to be attended by friends and family from all over the the globe, so he could do his duty. Instead of gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate nuptials, his loved ones had to face his funeral. Ben died in combat in Gaza on November 8th.

And so how do I know the story? Well, if you are in Israel for more than a few hours, you are bound to meet people who lost loved ones over the last 86 days. Last night, after spending a lovely Shabbat touring myself through the streets of Jerusalem and logging 15 miles, I sat next to Ben’s older brothers at dinner and noticed how sullen they looked. A congenial young bartender, Avichai, poured them shots and as they made a toast to life, “L’Chaim,” I asked Avichai what was wrong. He told me that these young men had just suffered a tragedy. As I leaned in to offer my condolences, suddenly a shot glass was before me and we were toasting to Ben and making a prayer for Yoanna to somehow move forward into a fulfilling life.

“Six Degrees of Separation,” a concept me and my Andover classmates know all too well. John Guare’s play is of the same name, and is about the parents of my classmates who were duped by a conman posing as a friend to those in the PA classes of 1980 and 1981. This does not apply in Israel. In this country of just over 9 million, it is closer to one or two degrees of separation, rather than six degrees. Everywhere I go in Israel, I learn the story of someone who just lost someone very close — a sibling, a cousin, a best friend, or a close classmate. So last night after hearing all about a promising young man cut down at the age of 29 in response to an act of pure evil, I did the only thing I could think of doing: I walked to the Western Wall and said a prayer for Ben and for Yoanna — two people I will never know, but to whom I am now and forever somehow inextricably connected.

With the stories of Ben swirling in my head, it was difficult to sleep, so I made it over to the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center quite early this morning. I then left work early as my real plan for the day was to drive north to Tzfat, sometimes spelled “Safed” or “Zefat,” to visit my old Andover pal, Jamie Lebowitz. I have not seen him in about 15 years, but we have kept in touch through the wonders of social media. It is quite amazing to get together with old PA friends — it is like we have seen each other with constancy…we fell right back into step.

Jamie’s home is more than 300 years-old and he teaches in a building that might be even older. Walking through his city, which sits at the highest elevation of any Israeli settlement, you walk into an era pre-dating the Crusades. Safed has remnants of buildings constructed by the Knights Templar. It is a mystical place now filled with artisans and students. This is perfect for Jamie as he traded his real estate chops for teaching Kabalah, which is best described as a discipline which hopes to explain the relationship between a ubiquitous G-d and the mortal, finite universe. You might think of Jamie as teaching something from centuries gone by, but his approach is progressive. In fact, most of Jamie’s students are women rather than young men!

As we toured the city which is home to many small synagogues and yeshivas as well as a secular university, Jamie explained his basic philosophy to me, which I need more time to digest, but the one thing I understood is that Jamie loves his four boys, his teaching, and his life in Israel. And, Jamie loves to learn more about Jewish law and its applications every day! 

January 1, 2024

Jerusalem, Israel

In sharp contrast to watching fit young people navigate the steep landscape and winding, ancient roads of Tzefat, when I returned back to the hotel last night, a group known as The Next Step was gathering in the lobby to finish its several day conference. The Next Step, provides high-tech prosthetics as well as rehabilitation, training, and emotional support for Israeli amputees. Their motto is extraordinarily fitting: They Never Walk Alone.

Over the past few days, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the people and to hear their stories. Those with whom I became acquainted endured what they describe as complex amputations. As you can imagine, I spoke with several people who were in tragic car accidents and one who was run over by a motor boat. They have devoted themselves to helping others through their respective journeys. Now they are preparing for a new mission. According to one of the group’s leaders, in the 87 days that Israel has been at war, they have brought 35 new members into their club — a club that no one would ever want to join. Members of The Next Step are ready to reach out to these new amputees and offer them comfort, advice, and both medical and emotional expertise. 

Israel offers some of the best medical care in the world and the amputees I spoke with assured me that surgical care in Israel is absolutely top notch; however, state of the art prosthetic care is not yet available here for those who have withstood the most complex injuries resulting in limb loss. The United States actually leads the way in fitting those who have undergone the most complicated amputations with the best prosthetic devices and now, more than ever, this group wants to be sure that those wounded in the war receive the latest and greatest the medical world has to offer. The Next Step’s primary aim is to provide financial support for complex amputees to travel to the United States where they can be fitted with the most technically superior prosthetic devices.

In concert with the start of the war, The Next Step also launched what can best be described as a  Volunteer Physical Therapy Brigade to work with the critically injured and help them return to their lives.  From the bottom of their hearts, the few members with whom I spoke completely understand that both soldiers and civilians, with grave injuries that required amputation, will require years of emotional support and physical therapy to regain their lives. They recognize that the families of the severely wounded will also need assistance from people who have been in a place where they lost much of what they believed they were entitled to, but who learned to reclaim their lives. These people know first hand that knowledge is power and by teaching the new amputees and their families what to expect on the road ahead, they can prepare them to boldly pave a way to full recovery. The groups newest mission is to act as mentors to amputees and their families, and to foster long-lasting relationships.

Speaking with members of The Next Step might not sound like a great way to spend part of New Year’s Eve, but just like Christmas was canceled, the New Year is not being celebrated in Israel. Most of you know that Israel’s official calendar is the Hebrew calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, but Israelis usually celebrate what they refer to as “Silvester.” Okay, I never heard of Silvester until two or three days ago. Though January 1 is not the official New Year for Israel, since the official New Year is whatever day Rosh Hashana falls upon, I learned that Silvester Night has become increasingly popular over the last decade or two. Essentially, Israel’s young people have not wanted to be left out of the New Year’s bandwagon.

So, what does Silvester refer to? I had to look it up! Silvester, a 4th century Pope who converted the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, died or was buried on December 31. Israel calls New Year’s Eve “Silvester Night” to distinguish the date from Rosh Hashana. Strange…Weird…but it is what it is!

Jana Paley has become a leading figure in business as the CEO of Ark Properties, building “affordable work-force multi-family housing,” and Ark Ventures, becoming a “foundational investor” in such companies as PM Pediatrics, a chain for pediatric urgent care. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but even before that she was a student of Prof. Arkes at Amherst College.

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