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July 3, 2009

Day Two: A Meeting and a Funeral

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/day_two_a_meeting_and_a_funeral_20090703/

Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.

“Free in Israel.”

That is the theme of a campaign to promote Israel that I will be presenting today to Danny Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.  Since I’ve hardly slept in two days, I’m hoping I’ll find a thermos of Turkish coffee somewhere to get me through the day.

Before heading off to the Knesset, where I will meet Ayalon and MK Danny Danon (a distant cousin who arranged the visit), I have a decision to make: Opening night at Hartman or funeral in Zichron Yacov?

It never occurred to me that I could miss the beginning of my Hartman program. But I’d never imagine that my trip would coincide with the funeral of Moshe Sevak, a friend from my old days in Venice Beach, when a group of us hung out at Young Israel of Santa Monica. In our little corner of the world, Moshe was our beloved bohemian who had the keys to our tiny shul, an unending flow of good stories and the best herring in town for the Shabbat kiddush.

Moshe passed away the night before I left LA, after a long illness, and a few of us chipped in to fly his body to Israel, where he wanted to be buried.

As I approached the Knesset fortress for my appointment, ex-pats from LA who knew Moshe were calling me to arrange travel from Jerusalem to Zichron Yacov, where our friends Tzvi and Daphna Small lived, and where Moshe would be buried.

With the thought of Moshe’s funeral crowding my mind, I went through the labyrinth of security checks at the Knesset.  After they screened me, I had to walk about the length of a football field to the actual entrance.

With my security badge now on me, I was pretty much free to roam the Knesset halls. I think I wanted to get lost on purpose, just to soak up the place. My roaming paid off when I bumped into Shaul Mofaz, the #2 man in Kadima and former head of the IDF. I knew he was close to my friend Parviz Nazarian in LA, so that bought me about 5 minutes of good schmoozing. The shmoozing ended, though, when I asked him about the rumors of him trying to join the ruling coalition.

With the help of Danon, I got into the balcony of the Knesset chamber—that symbol of Zionist leadership that Jews waited 19 centuries to see. When I was there, speakers were saying goodbye to Haim Ramon, who was retiring after a long career in Israeli politics.

Two things in particular caught my eye: An Arab MK (who kept picking his nose) was sitting right next to an MK from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party not known for its love of Arabs.

And two, it’s totally cool in the Israeli Knesset to not listen to the main speaker when he or she is speaking. While MK Amir Peretz was bellowing words of praise for the departing Ramon, two bearded members of Shas were caught up in a passionate and noisy debate about…something. Even the Prime Minister, who sat at the head of a large oval table right in front of the speakers’ podium, was doing some occasional schmoozing with aides.

I wish I could have stayed, but I had to meet Ayalon. As I was receiving text messages with details of Moshe’s funeral and travel arrangements, I quickly walked over with Danon to the cafeteria, where we were all scheduled to meet.

I explained to Ayalon that I wasn’t doing this in any official capacity but as a private supporter of Israel. In other words, I was there to raise enthusiasm, not money.

The idea of the campaign was to gather testimonials from the multicultural kaleidoscope of Israeli society (Darfurians, Taiwanese, Philipinos, muslims, Buddhists, artists, gays, Christians, women, etc.) and feature their “freedom in Israel” in ads and a website.

Headlines would read: “I’m from Darfur and I’m Free in Israel”, “I’m Gay and I’m Free in Israel”, and so on. 

Ayalon loved the idea (maybe it’s because I didn’t ask for money) and he mentioned that he’d be interested in coming out to LA in the Fall to help launch it.

Since I hadn’t had any Turkish coffee for at least two hours, his reaction was like a welcome shot of caffeine.

A couple of hours later, a cab driver named Eliahu was singing Kurdish Shabbat songs for a group of us as we headed up north to our friend Moshe Sevak’s funeral.

Zichron Yacov is a pretty city on a hill, twenty minutes from Haifa and the ocean. About a dozen “friends of Moshe” had gathered from the U.S. and different parts of Israel. I hadn’t seen some of them in over a decade. As the hours passed and we reminisced about Moshe, sometimes laughing despite ourselves, the whole scene took on the feel of a Big Chill reunion.

But it was the funeral that blew me away.

Tzvi had arranged for a local rabbi to bring about 40 young orphan boys, most of them Sephardic, to chant tehillim as we carried the casket to its burial place. The cemetery itself was small and cozy, right in the heart of town. The 40 boys, all dressed in black pants and white shirts, followed the casket and chanted in unison.

I was with the casket, and I turned around briefly to look at the scene: the 40 chanting boys, the rabbis, the friends of Moshe, all marching along a narrow path behind the casket, with the sun quietly setting.

An old man who looked like he could have been at Sinai led the actual burial. Off to the corner, Michelle Katz, who made aliyah from LA many years ago with her young children and her well-known musician husband, prayed and cried quietly. (An hour earlier, we were cracking up about a Moshe story.)

The rabbi who had brought the young orphan boys took a look at my face, and probably saw a combination of sadness and exhaustion. In broken English, he said a few words to comfort me, something about the importance of the mitzvah of burial.

As we all headed back to Tzvi and Daphna’s house to say our goodbyes, the Knesset and the Hartman Institute were far from my mind. Until, that is, Daphna served me a thick Turkish coffee, and our Kurdish driver, Eliahu, sang a few more songs as we drove back into the Jerusalem night.

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