Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tusheti - a beautiful place you've never heard of

We recently returned from a hiking trip to Georgia (the country, not the state). We had gone expecting great mountain hikes; we found the closest thing I've yet seen to Shangri La. This post, quite unlike the rest of the blog around it, tells about the remote and fascinating Tusheti area in north east Georgia, and why you want to go there.
Tusheti is the green corner north-north-east of Tbilisi.

To reach Tusheti you travel to Tbilisi, the center of which is a jumble of churches, castles, ultra-modern structures, and communist era monstrosities. The overall feeling is post-communist, even though it's been 25 years since Georgia achieved independence from the Soviet Union. I didn't see many traffic lights, nor drivers who seemed to miss them, but there was WiFi.

The next morning it was off to the mountains. For about two hours we traveled on reasonably paved roads through rural areas that looked even more post-communist than Tbilisi. Then the road petered out, and we were on gravel. Then the gravel became narrow, and then there was a rapid river beneath us, and then even the river disappeared, to be replaced by treetops in the gorge below us. Quite a way below us. It dawned on us there was a reason our guide had mentioned a full day travel – not that it was so far but that the road was for inching along. Many hours of inching along.

Mostly without a security railing.

 Eventually we reached the pass at the top of the road.

 And then we went down the other side, then up again. 72 km of unpaved mountain road, alongside a chasm almost the whole time, and no sign of human settlement anywhere. Until eventually we arrived in Tusheti.

So the first thing you need to know about Tusheti is that it's beautiful, but the second is that there's only one single road into it (and back out), and it's not one you want to drive. The locals have been going up and down that pass for centuries, and they start driving it after a childhood of riding it, sometimes in big six-wheeled trucks. They know what they're doing and they don't fall off the cliff. Others sometimes do. So have a local take you up, and don't even think of doing it yourself.

Beauty is actually not the only reason to be up there, but it is a compelling one.

What makes Tusheti different from other beautiful mountain ranges are its people. The Tushetis. There are a few thousand of them, and they've been there for at least 1,600 years. They've got their own dialect. They're spread over the slopes of four valleys, surrounded by 5,000 meter mountains. The winters are ferocious, so they spend them in the lowlands, migrating up for the warm half of the year with their cattle, horses, and many sheep. They also raise crops, though with the advent of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks they've been focusing more on livestock and cheese-making, importing the rest from below. 

The rest of Georgia has been changing political overlords incessantly for as long back as memory goes; Tusheti, secure behind that rampart of mountains, only twice, once by Tamarlane. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, present everywhere else in the country, had a hard time making it up the pass, and to a surprising degree never fully made it: the Tushetis till this very day, are polytheistic. They're Orthodox and also pagans, simultaneously. There are more than 50 small villages and hamlets in Tusheti; only three have churches, and even they are built alongside the sacrificial altar that most of the villages have. Both are active.

Only in one village - Dartlo - was the church constructed on the site of the altar, rather than alongside it. A few decades later there was an earthquake and the church was destroyed. This is a fact, make of it what you will.

The gods, by the way, are apparently two sets of dieties, one benign and the other malicious, and the Tushetis appeal to the benign ones for protection.

Today's Tushetis all come together for their annual holiday in August, where they offer sacrifices and celebrate, then they break up into subgroups by valley, and continue with local sacrifices and celebrations. Even those who no longer make their living from the land and don't spend the whole summer in the mountains, come up for the month of celebrations. Thus, the slight ghost town sensation visitors can have in some of these villages must be greatly reduced in August.

Not fully however. If a family ever runs out of male descendants, the family home will be abandoned; it is now accursed, not to be used ever again. Each village has a few "dead' homes, slowly disintegrating. Another ancient tradition is that woman may not approach the altars, nor the stills where ritual beer is prepared. If you wish to respect the locals, when entering a new village you'll ask where not to go; the locals will appreciate your sign of respect.

On the way up that pass I'd noticed a few rusty pylons.

What are those about, I asked our guide, as we walked between villages unadorned by any electric poles? The Soviets, she said. The Soviets were against the Tusheti way of life. So they forbade families to come up each summer, but insisted the menfolk do; each one was assigned a production quota of livestock or cheese. This was so important that even during WW2, when the Soviet Union was in a state of total war, the Tusheti men were left alone to fill their quotas. They were administered from Omalo, the "big city" (population 812, if you ask me), near the entrance from the road over the pass. The administrators got electricity. And then, I asked? As soon as the Soviets left, she said, some locals stole the lines and sold the metal. And yes, the other locals saw this happening, and no, no one dared stop them in the lawlessness of the time.

So the Soviets had threatened the very existence of the Tusheti way of life, but they'd left behind a (somewhat) improved road and the memory of electricity. A few years ago a Czech NGO began installing a limited number of solar panels in some of the villages, so that the guesthouses offer hot water showers early in the evening, and you can recharge your cellphone batteries – though in many cases you won't be able to make calls with them. The solar panels are 21st century progress over the long-gone electric cables of the 20th century; cellphone connectivity is a 21st century scourge, thankfully limited up in the mountains.

While the Soviet Union is gone, Russia is very close. When hiking along the Alazani River, which we did for parts of three days, it's right there, at the top of the snowy mountain ridge. To be precise, Chechnya is to the north and Dagestan to the east. During the first round of the Russian-Chechnyan war in the 1990s, Tusheti served as the back base for the Chechnyan  rebels. (There's no road across the steep ridge, but if you're in good physical shape and don't suffer from altitude sickness you can climb across it). Nowadays, so we were told, the Russians are at the top of the ridge and will shoot if anyone comes too close. Elsewhere along the border, where there's no natural line such as the top of a ridge, Russia is apparently constantly moving the border deeper into Georgian territory – not that this is anything that gets reported in the Western media.

One morning we encountered a horseman trotting along who, unlike all the other locals I met, refused my request to take his picture. Our guide explained that he's Chechen, not Tusheti; a religious Muslim. Apparently there's a handful them who have remained permanently on the gentler side of the mountain ridge.

Upon probing a bit deeper, I got the impression that spending a thousand years over the hill from the Chechans and other rough Caucasus tribes has involved a degree of friction. Cattle rustling, say, and perhaps the random clash. This would explain the impressive defense towers each and every hamlet offers. They wouldn't be much use against a Tamerlane intent on destruction, nor against Soviets intent on re-inventing society, but for offering sanctuary until the cattle rustler moved on, they were fine. For tourists with cameras they're great.

Don't let the towers fool you, however. These are not the castles of the aristocrats, built by the serfs. Throughout its many centuries, even as the Europeans to the west had rule by the few over the many, the Tushetis lived in a mostly egalitarian society. Success at farming was important, but each tribe or village demanded of each family that they work hard enough to succeed, with no allowances for slackers. Some wise old men were consulted for being wise, and in the village of Diklo we saw the remains of an ancient court of peers which resolved local disagreements. No one was truly rich, so no-one was poor, either. Sounds as close to being free as most of history had to offer, and you had to come all the way to this remote corner of the Caucasus to find it.

One of the major products of the area is Tusheti cheese, famous, apparently, throughout the country and beyond. One day we asked to see the process close up. Of course, said the cheese-maker; by all means.

On Shabbat we didn't do any hiking; yet simply sitting in the small village of Girevi was instructive: the villagers were busy. Laundry is done by hand. Wood is chopped by hand. Cows are milked by hand. Goats are slaughtered on the track next to the hut, then quartered and processed, all by hand. Three men down the lane spent the whole day putting a new roof above a veranda, apparently preparing a new guest house. The horses need tending.

The houses the Tushetis live in are rough hewn (a stronger word than 'rustic'). Sometimes there's a solar panel; every now and then we saw satellite TV receptors, almost always disconnected. There are no paved roads. I assume they've got running water since that's easy to have, simply by running a pipe from a nearby stream. They often own a battered second-hand van or pickup truck, but quite a few travel by horse, often bareback. Riding at night, our guide assured us, was never dangerous, unless one be lulled by a local evil spirit to leave the track; it wasn't entirely clear how serious she was.

They are hospitable. One day the most elder member of our party was tired, and the first vehicle that passed immediately took him and his daughter a few miles down the track to the next village. When we arrived it turned out that two young mothers with small children, whose husbands were afield, had taken them into their living room/dining room/kitchen; when we came by they welcomed us in too, so that we could have our lunch in the shade (it was a hot day). Who ever heard of such behavior in our modern world?

The most striking thing about their life style, so far as I could see, was the joy with which they gather together each evening and sit around talking and laughing. It's a hard life, physically, and a meager one financially; yet again and again, in different villages, I was impressed how they'd sit and laugh.

They're probably at a historic crossroads. In past centuries when they felt a mountainside was overgrazed they'd dedicate it to the local spirit of the mountain, so it became forbidden for grazing, and Nature would retrieve it. Hunters asked for the blessing of the Goddess of Hunting, but were careful not to anger her by harming young females and their offspring, thus ensuring sustainability. Hunting is no longer essential, and even grazing is slowly declining; more Tushetis come up for the month of August than for the entire season. What is rising, slowly and tentatively, is tourism. Being the sparely inhabited land it is, tourists inevitably have an impact, and leave a footprint. In the most remote villages we reached, at least one or two families had put up a primitive sign declaring their guest house or restaurant (fare: meat, cheese, simple vegetables, local bread, Georgian beer brought up from the lowlands in large jars, and Chacha, the national (very) alcoholic liquor. This young man and his wife and infant live in a hut and graze their flock; and they've put up a sign declaring it to be a café.

Given the remoteness, that challenging road, the rusticity and the appeal of such a land only to tourists who're into roughing it in magnificent places, the locals are unlikely to be overrun anytime soon by air-conditioned busses and tourists who insist on Starbucks. Yet change is afoot, and a degree of commercialism may be inevitable. So don't wait too long.

Logistics: Our guide, Tiko Ididze, is the best you could wish for. Her English (and apparently her Spanish) is flawless, her guiding ability is high, she's knowledgeable, she's young enough to be quite free of the mannerisms communism inculcated in its citizens. Living in Tbilisi she's just what you'd expect a young Western urban professional to be… except that she's Tusheti herself. Which means she knows all of them either personally or to the second degree, knows all of their history and is generally a trove of information. I don't generally do advertising on this blog, but if this post has done anything to convince you, talk to Tiko. Tinikoididze at Gmail.

Finally, a word about our group: we were organized by Yedidya and Susan of Koshertreks. If you're into hardworking treks in fantastic remote places, and you care deeply or at least don't mind kosher food while being there, Koshertreks is an outfit you should know about.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Hassidic athiest Chabad socialist folk song

One of the notable sections of the service on the evening of Yom Kippur is Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer, Like clay in the hands of a creator. After the service this week our Rabbi, Rav Benny Lau, told us the startling tale of the melody and its second career. Anyone who knows Israeli culture and has gone to an Ashkenazi synagogue on Yom Kippur ought to have noticed it; but I don't know many folks who have. I certainly hadn't.

Kachomer seems to have been written - words and melody - by Shalom Charitonow, a Chabbadnik in the early 19th century. Or not. I've seen different versions (the Internet can be a confusing place) as to whether Charitonow wrote the words, or perhaps merely the melody, and then the two were connected only in the 20th century in Israel. In any case, they've been connected for decades, if not centuries.

Charitonow lived in Nikolayev, a shtetel in what today is the Ukraine. Many years later another young Jew from Nikolayev, Emanuel Novograbelski, was about to be sent to exile in Siberia for his Zionist leanings, but instead was exchanged with the British for some Russians who'd been arrested in Manadtory Palestine; so in the mid 1920s he arrived here and joined the pioneers. He even joined the Labor Brigades for a while until his health forced him to be a city-dweller. Even then, however, he joined the Haganah, and the events of Summer 1929 found him serving with his unit in Tel Aviv. And that's where he was when news of the birth of his first son reached him.

Flushed with the personal excitement of being a new father, and the national tension of the first major round of Jewish-Palestinian violence, Emanuel, who by now was mostly known by his pen name Emanuel the Russian (because he wasn't one?) wrote a lullaby for his son: Sleep son, your mother is with you, tomorrow there's lots of work to be done, the fields at Beit Alpha are burning, one must never never succumb to despair, sleep son sleep son sleep. Lacking the time to compose a melody, he borrowed a niggun from the Old Country.

And ever since the tune has had two separate lives. If you're aware of the Israeli cannon of songs, Shirim Ivri'im, you'll know Shchav bni - rest, my son, as an early part of the culture. If you've ever gone to an Ashkenasi shul for Kol Nidrei evening, irrespective of Hassidic or Misnagdic, you'll know Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer. And if you're both (some of us are), you'll recognize both, but never both at the same time. Or rather, both as being the same thing.

Here's the melody:

Here's Arik Lavie, an important performer of cannonical songs, demonstrating how basic this one is:

 Here's a band of chabadnicks doing it the Chabad way:

Here's Aya Corem, demonstrating that young contemporary singers still hold the early parts of the cannon to be their own.

 Finally, here's someone who definitely knows the whole story: secular, cannonic, creative, and deeply connected Chava Alberstein, tying it all together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Anita Shapira on David Ben Gurion

Anita Shapira, perhaps the single most important historian of modern Israel, has a short, new-ish biography: Ben Gurion, Father of Modern Israel, which I recently read. It's a fine way to get an overlook of his life without delving into the endless minutiae of political infighting in Mandatory Palestine, 20th century Zionism and the first few decades of the State of Israel. I came away from it with a number of new insights.

First, while Ben Gurion is the towering figure of 20-century Jewry (neither Sigmund Freud nor Albert Einstein contributed much to the history of the Jews), he wasn't clearly destined for greatness. Yes, he belonged to the near mythical generation of the 2nd-Aliya immigrants who came to Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the 20th century and formed the wellspring and leadership of Zionism for decades - but no, he played no significant role at the time. Actually, he remained mostly unknown or at least unremarkable even to most Zionists until as late as 1942, when he became a major proponent of the Biltmore Program which explicitly strove to create a sovereign Jewish State.

Second, his greatness expressed itself mainly in the decade between 1942 and 1953, when he repeatedly saw better than others both the dangers and potentials of the situation, and mostly succeeded in wrenching events in the direction he felt was best. This included wresting leadership of the Zionist movement from Chaim Weitzman, in a profound change from a political movement which sought political and diplomatic progress, to a national movement which focused mainly of facts on the ground. He recognized that the real enemies were the Arabs, not the British, and facing them would require a modern army, not a militia. He understood the need for arms to be acquired and prepared so as to arrive in Israel immediately after the British departure. He saw the historic significance of bringing close to a million Jews into Israel, even though the majority were Mizrachi Jews from the Arab world, and not the familiar Yiddish speakers from Europe, most of whom had been murdered in the Shoah, and even though the effort required of Israel's citizenry were gigantic and prolonged. And sundry other achievements.

Third, as he grew older (he was 62 when Israel was founded) he became a bit of a bore or a crank, and while he remained at the helm until 1963 (with one year off in 1953), the heroic ability to forge reality was gone. Indeed, from 1960 onward, until the end of his political career towards the end of the 1960s, he seems to have been quite an oddball, furiously feuding with his party and many others over a series of issues in which, according to Shapira, he was probably right, but who cared and why was it worth all the arguments? He reverted to a father of the nation figure only in his final, post-politics years (when we all referred to him as Hazaken, the Old Man, a moniker no-one ever thought to apply to Shimon Peres, say, who died at 93 compared to BG's 87).

Only after he left politics, and since his death, has memory of those final bitter years dissipated. Who today remembers Pinchas Lavon, say, or the Rafi party? No one under the age of 55, I'd hazard to guess, and not even most of them.

A great yarn, a fascinating story, and a wonderful opportunity for some enterprising young biographer who's willing to spend a decade or two writing a full-blown biography.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Carmit Feintuch: A Rabbanit in Jerusalem

Just the other day Yair Rosenberg and Yedidya Schwartz published a list of interesting Israeli rabbis. One, Rabbi Benny Lau, is the Rav of the congregation to which we belong (tho I admit I go to other synagogues in the neighborhood, too). For whatever reason they omitted to mention the biggest story about him this year, the fact that he brought about the appointment of a woman as his colleague.

The Ramban congregation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon prides itself on being a mainstream orthodox synagogue with a difference. Unlike some of the congregations in its vicinity which have an agenda above orthodoxy, most famously the egalitarian Shira Hadasha, say; and unlike the many "regular" orthodox places in its neighborhood which simply do their thing with little intention to make any statements (Ohel Nechama, say, or Nitzanim, to mention two of the larger ones); and quite unlike the Erloi Yeshiva around the corner, which is solidly Ultra-orthodox - Ramban under Rav Benny thinks hard (and publicly) about what it's doing. About a decade ago we had a three-year discussion about the role of women on Simchat Torah. We never moved as far on Bat Mitzvas as some progressive orthodox shuls have. We like to tell ourselves that since we're not revolutionaries, when we do decide on some change it's because that's where the mainstream is moving to.

This year we decided to hire a woman as the Assistant Rabbi, or perhaps the Spiritual Leader, or maybe something else. There was a long complex and multi-layered process in which anyone who cared to voice an opinion was encouraged to do so, with considerable disagreement as you'd expect from any group of opinionated Jews. Till this day there is still disagreement about what the job is meant to be and how we got here; but since last month we've got Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch on the job.

Here's an interview with a fellow about the appointment;  here's Rav Benny writing about it; here's the Jerusalem Post reporting on it.

I'm here today to report on some personal initial impressions of my own, a month or so later.

First, there's the irrefutable fact that Ms. Feintuch represents something new in Jewish history: an orthodox talmida chachama. True, over the centuries there have been rare Jewish women who knew as much about the ever-growing library of thousands of books which made up the full repository of Jewish culture up until the modern era. But they were always alone in their society, if not alone in their century. Carmit Feintuch, probably 40-ish, I'd guess, is of the first generation where there's an entire cohort of highly educated women fully conversant in that library. I'm an old codger, true, but as recently as when I was younger, they didn't have those sort of women, nor the institutions where they could learn and then teach. Now we do. Young girls as eager to study all the traditional texts as their brothers, and men and woman scholars to teach them. Since books and learning are totally central to traditional Judaism, this is probably the single most important development in contemporary Judaism, a change which will reverberate for many centuries and one to be pinpointed as beginning towards the end of the 20th century.

(Well, perhaps not the single most important development: that would be the return to Israel and the creation of sovereignty. But those two were essential for this one, and all three are closely tied together).

Second, Rabbanit Carmit truly is a scholar. For lack of precedents I don't know if she's called a talmidat chachamim, or a talmida chachama; we'll have to wait and see how the language deals with the new reality. Just this afternoon I found myself arguing with a fellow congregant about the lecture she gave this morning, as to how learned she is - the mere fact of the discussion proving my point, as my interlocutor wasn't saying she's not learned, but rather he was kvetching that she wasn't using her knowledge to best effect. I decided not to plea for his patience by saying that she's only been at it for, what, 20 years, and her entire group not more than 30, while the menfolk have been at it for 2,000 - because that would have weakened my position. As recently as 15 years ago it would have been inconceivable for me to have a discussion with a rather conservative-minded orthodox man critical of a woman scholar for not being as totally in control of her Torah materials as any other rabbi.

Finally, the most interesting thing about Rabbanit Carmit's talks before the congregation are not that she knows so much, but the way in which being a woman and a mother (of six) seem to give her a different perspective on the same texts. The other day she took a refrain often used in the Rosh Hashana service - Hayom Harat Olam - and built her talk around the obvious but often-overlooked fact that the words mean, literally, this is the day of the conception of the world. Though she never said as much, conception is a thing women can talk about better than men. She simply demonstrated it, by talking about theological aspects of conception. This morning both she and Rav Benny, in two separate talks, took note of a rather minor aspect of Yom Kippur, a miracle whereby a red cord in the Temple used to turn white at the climax of the day's service. He used this to talk about social matters; she used it to talk about the personal ability to reach for communication with God.

Perhaps the novelty will wear off. Perhaps it's not a woman thing at all, merely a Carmit thing. It's early days, and I don't know how all this will appear a year later, or three. Yet no matter how things play out at the Ramban synagogue in Katamon, there's some major change afoot. The traditional Jewish conversation in those 30,000 books has been going on for more than 2,000 years; bringing into it the half of the community which wasn't part of it cannot but change its tone and content in unpredictable but significant ways. At the very least, it will be a richer conversation.