Stop the Violins, Visualize Whirled Peas

whirled peas

I always liked that bumper sticker.  It sounds right, but the definitions don’t fit – and sometimes that is exactly what the problem is.

So let’s talk about peace.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has a lot of definitions for peace including: a state of tranquility or quiet, harmony in personal relations, a state or period of mutual concord between governments, an agreement to end a war.  I think when English-speakers contemplate peace, they tend to think that all is well with the world and it is good.

Semitic languages work on a 3-or-4-letter root system.  When new immigrants learn Hebrew in Israel, we’re taught that words with the same roots may not exactly have the same meaning, but once we know the root we can figure out the meaning based on context.

IMG_20170324_172412s l m
Pages from the Hebrew book of roots.

In Hebrew, peace is shalom based on the root Shin-Lamed-Mem (שלם).  Other words with שלם include: l’shalem to pay a bill, mushlam complete or perfect, hishtalmut advanced training, shalem whole.

So here’s a philosophical question:  Does the English definition of peace match any of the definitions in the family of meanings for Shin-Lamed-Mem?

Let me add another quote.  Israel has often been criticized for the “cold peace” with Egypt.  The common wisdom in Israel is “better a cold peace than a hot war.”

Harmony, tranquility, and agreement don’t pay bills, complete anything, or provide advanced training.  However, if you see peace as a state of balance, then it all fits together.  Balance doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is happily floating around on clouds playing harps, but it does mean that what you put in, you will get in return.  Everyone is at the same level.

And what about that advanced training?  When you learn more, you become more whole as a person.

To continue the philosophical conversation, let’s turn to Arabic, another Semitic language.  I should say at the outset that in several places I read that words with the same Arabic root are not meant to be understood as being part of the same family of meanings.  Also, being a Semitic language doesn’t mean that all words with similar roots have similar meanings.  However, I’m not a linguist; I’m just positing a few ideas about language in a philosophical way.

Peace in Arabic is salaam, with an S-L-M root.  Other words with a similar root include:

Wiki graph

The article is careful to note that Islam – while appearing with the same root – is not to be equated with peace, but rather submission (to Allah).  But as I said above, this is a philosophical musing.

In the family of words with the S-L-M root, many of them relate to submission and surrender.  Merriam-Webster tells us that submission can be an act of humility and surrender can be to giving yourself over to the power of another.  Tanning leather could fit because the animal skin needs to be shaped into the form chosen by the tanner.  The other meaning is to be saved from danger.  And if you look from the point of view of the snake, it is saving itself from danger by attacking.

Now let’s bring our English speakers, Hebrew speakers, and Arabic speakers into the same room and talk about peace, shalom, and salaam.  Or perhaps we should try to be more accurate:  the English speakers are talking about harmony and agreement, the Hebrew speakers are talking about balance and equality, and the Arabic speakers are talking about submission and safety.

It’s really no wonder that all the talking and not understanding results in more violins and less whirled peas.

Spring in the North

On Friday, I missed the Jerusalem Marathon – on of my favorite days of the year – because I was travelling in the north of Israel.  Now I’m back and happy to share with you the glory of spring in the north.

One hill, many blooms


Atlit Detention Camp, carving in one of the huts – When Jews were trying to enter Israel illegally before Israel was a state, the British arrested them and put them in a detention camp just south of Haifa.  Even though it was a camp, which had scary connotations for many, the people were just so happy to finally be out of Europe and in Israel.  I have to say, my aliyah was a lot easier.


Haifa from my hotel

Bet She’arim – details from sarcophagi dating from the first to the fourth century CE.  The fourth picture is a detail of the evidence of how they must have shaped the burial caves.

And everywhere you look, flowers!

Baha’i Gardens, Haifa – springtime with the Baha’is in the upper garden (accessible only with a guide!)  From the top to the middle where the shrine is, it’s about 700 steps.


Hidden in Plain Sight?

Purim = costumes, parties, alcohol, triangular cookies, candies

Well, yes and no.  It’s easy to forget that there might be a deeper meaning to Purim.

For more on Purim in Israel, you can read last year’s post.

Things that make you go hmm

One of the (many) interesting things about Purim is that the story is one of the books of the Bible, but God isn’t mentioned anywhere.  Traditionally, Jews read the story of Esther aloud in community events, loudly boo when the villain is mentioned, and yet somehow God got left out of the manuscript.

Here’s a 5-minute video review of the story:

Skeptics might say that the story is just a well-written, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction about a girl who becomes queen and it puts her in a position to save the Jews.  Like any good book, movie, or drama, plot points occur at just the right time to have a dramatic payoff later.

Some people would say that this story is a recounting of Jewish history in Persia.  In this group, you might have your atheists and agnostics who will write the story off as a series of coincidences.  In the chaos that is our real life, coincidences happen all the time and we don’t even notice them.

Accepting that there are some things in the world that are unexplainable might allow another group of people to look at the Purim story as “synchronicity” – a series of meaningful coincidences that link events together.  Mordechai annoyed Haman and it just so happened that the night before Haman was going to talk to the king about this pest Mordechai, the king couldn’t sleep and just so happened to open his history book to the time when Mordechai just so happened to hear about a plot to kill the king and saved him.


And then there is the third group who see the hidden hand of God in history, nudging events to put people in particular places, but still allowing them to use their free will.  This is a different God than the God of Genesis who’s in everyone’s business all the time.


I think the message of Purim reaches out to all three groups.

To our skeptical atheists and agnostics: Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time.  It doesn’t matter how you got there, choose to do something.

To our people who accept the unexplainable: A complicated series of events drew you to a particular place and time.  Choose to act and follow the path.

To our believers: Even when it seems like He’s hidden, God is everywhere.  You were chosen to be in a certain place at a certain time.  Choose to accept your role and fulfill your destiny.

Whichever group you belong to,

Happy Purim!

To Remember

Hebrew is a very logical, systematic language.  Once you know a root, you have a whole vocabulary arena open to you.  This week’s root is זכר (z.k.r), which is the root for “to remember.”

The Yiddish word for the annual remembrance of the death of a loved one is called a yahrzeit, the time of the year. In Hebrew it is more often called an azkara, a memorial. I like that one better.  I want to remember my dad, not just mark time. The prayer that is said is called yizkor.

This week completed the year of firsts without my dad.  Living so far away from him, our relationship was built on phone calls, so even though he wasn’t actually here, he was as close as a phone call.  Now if I want to share something with him, I have to remind myself that he’s in a place without cell service.

Dad loved to eat at diners, so my brothers in the US took time off and went to a diner.  I was so glad that they called me so I could join them virtually.  It was good for us to share memories and tell funny stories about Dad.

Now we begin the year of seconds without Dad.  But no matter how many years pass, we have our memories, we remember, and usually we laugh.  May his memory always be a blessing to us.

Those were the days!

David J. Brown z”l
Aug. 15, 1941 – Mar. 1, 2016

A nudnik in the backyard

One of my favorite things about Jerusalem is that everywhere you go you find layers upon layers of human history.  It’s a lot like geological layering, but in human history each layer has a story.  I liked writing the Michener history of The Hill of Evil Council and was planning to do that this week, but I’m going to come at it from a slightly different angle.

My office has what might be called a backyard.  It’s an archaeological site, but still it’s a space between us and St. Andrew’s Scottish Church.  Even now, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would look like someone had carved into the rock and made a few flat surfaces and cleared some space in the middle.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of it, but that’s not really what this post is about anyway.

800px-st_andrews_jerusalemJust below the domes of the church – upper right of the image – is the archaeological site. (Postcard from 1930 when the church was completed.)

In short, it’s a First Temple Period burial cave.  In 1979, Gabriel Barkay excavated the site and found evidence of a burial cave, Roman coins to suggest that the 10th Legion had been there during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and mosaics from a Byzantine-era church.  The cave had collapsed because it had been used as a weapons cache during the Ottoman period and most likely something exploded accidentally causing the cave to fall in.  In Jerusalem, that’s a pretty typical backyard.

Once the archaeological team decided they had cleared the site, they brought kids in for field trips to do some amateur archaeological digging.  They brought in a group of 12-13-year-old boys and among them was one nudnik.  A nudnik is a Yiddish word meaning an annoying pest of a person.  I don’t think it’s quite as harsh as it sounds in English.

Anyway, the nudnik is aggravating Barkay and he sends the kid down into a hole and tells him to brush the floor and make it as clean as possible.  The kid, being a nudnik and a boy, gets bored and finds a hammer.  Rather than brush the floor, he starts hammering it.

Our nudnik comes back to Barkay and tells him that he found something.  Barkay is completely incredulous.  They go down and realize that the “floor” was a false floor – or possibly the ceiling fell in and created the illusion of a floor.  Barkay gathers his team and they dig and find one of the biggest and most significant archaeological hauls in Israel.  Lots of jewelry, bones, trinkets, pottery, and most significantly, two tiny scrolls of silver that have verses from the Bible written on them in script that dates from the late First Temple Period (650 BCE – 587 BCE).  On the silver scrolls were written what is known as The Priestly Blessing (“May the Lord bless you and keep you…”).

These scrolls are the oldest artifacts ever found with biblical text on them and they are 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  (Don’t worry.  They are in the Israel Museum now.)

MORAL OF THE STORY 1:  Don’t underestimate a nudnik!  Imagine that one of the greatest archaeological finds in Israel stood undisturbed for 2,500 years.  None of the thousands of people who built on that hill ever found this treasure.  No soldiers, no tomb raiders, no shepherds, no archaeologists.  It was a nudnik kid!

MORAL OF THE STORY 2:  Looks can be deceiving.  A rocky hillside that functions as a backyard is actually the site of one of the greatest treasure troves found in Israel!

It’s my pleasure to be the messenger

As I was walking to the Western Wall this morning it occurred to me that I live in one of the most special places on earth.  The Old City of Jerusalem is just part of my neighborhood, so I often forget to take a moment and enjoy my surroundings.

After a rainy and cold week, the sun was shining this morning.  It was the perfect day to deliver a small note to the Western Wall on behalf of a friend and take the opportunity to say a few words of gratitude for all the blessing I have in my life.


A note for a friend (the blue-green one)


Looking up




Recent excavation at the Western Wall Plaza of a Roman era street


Tower of David, Jaffa Gate


On the day I arrived in Israel 15 years ago, February 8, 2002, I planted an almond tree in my aunt’s garden.


There were some hard days for that tree and it seemed like it died.  But it didn’t.  It was busy digging into the land and strengthening its root system.

It rejuvenated itself, grew again, and began to thrive.

And now this tall, strong tree bears delicious fruit.


*This story is brought to you by Metaphors-R-Us.