My Word: ‘Avatar,’ the Jews and the blues

In Jewish communities in the Diaspora, Tisha Be’av is marked, but it is not felt in the same way that it is felt in Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem.

July 4, 2013 20:36
JEWISH MEN read Lamentations on Tisha Be’av, sitting on the ground as mourners, at the Western Wall

tisha beav reading 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Life might be easier around here if we were not only Jewish but blue-ish. This was my conclusion as I tried recently to explain the significance of Tisha Be’av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples, some 655 years apart, and a whole host of other calamities that struck the Jewish People on the same date, including the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

In Jewish communities in the Diaspora, Tisha Be’av is marked, but it is not felt in the same way that it is felt in Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem.

It is hard for Jews abroad to explain to their non-Jewish friends, bosses and colleagues that they are fasting and refraining from wearing leather shoes – and not even washing or shaving – as a sign of mourning for the Temples that were destroyed more than 2,000 years ago. That the Orthodox refrain from eating meat or enjoying music and other forms of entertainment for up to three weeks before the sad day is not so immediately evident, although I surprised a diplomatic delegation a week ago when I turned down a working lunch because it had accidentally been scheduled for the 17th of Tamuz, a fast day marking the date Jerusalem’s walls were breached by the Romans.

Many foreign diplomats find it difficult to understand the complexities of what they refer to as the “current conflict” in the Middle East, failing to realize that events millennia ago still have an impact. That’s one reason why there is not going to be a magic, instant solution no matter how many times they threaten that “time is running out.”

In Israel, there is a slew of activities surrounding Tisha Be’av, including lectures and introspective gatherings, and shoe stores are doing a brisk business selling plastic and canvas footwear. Only in Israel are Crocs marketed this time of year as perfect for Tisha Be’av.

Something former US president Bill Clinton said in his address at the 90th birthday celebrations for Shimon Peres last month took me temporarily out of this world. Peres, by the way, seems to be aiming to be around to personally witness the next 2,000 years of Jewish history – and to make it a happier era.

Clinton referred to the greeting he had heard in Rwanda, “I see you.”

The words didn’t take me to Rwanda, where the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village based on the Israeli model provides a home and school for genocide orphans. They transported me to the mythical world of Pandora as depicted in the James Cameron movie Avatar where this is the common greeting of the bluecolored, humanoid Na’vi people.

Ever since the film was released in 2009, commentators have noted apparent similarities between the Na’vi and the Jews.

In an article titled “Avatar & the Jews,” on the website, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, for example, wrote: “The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like planet of Pandora is Na’vi. I’ve had people tell me this couldn’t have anything to do with the Hebrew word navi that means prophet. After all there is no suggestion that these primitives were able to predict the future. But the truth is – and it seems Cameron knew this – the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others.

And that is exactly the point of the story.

“With all of the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see what the far simpler and ‘less civilized’ inhabitants recognized so clearly. The Na’vis worshiped not themselves or their achievements but a higher supreme power. And could it be mere coincidence that the name of the God they revered, eywa, is but the re-arranged letters of the Tetragrammaton, the holy four-letter name for the Almighty that Jews do not even dare to pronounce as written?” In the movie, paraplegic former Marine Jake Sully is part of a corporate mission that conquers Pandora and drives the natives out of their woodland habitat to mine it for a precious metal. In a wrenching scene, they even destroy the Omaticaya people’s sacred Tree of Souls.

As one reviewer summed up, incredibly, by the end of screenings in movie houses in places like Texas, the audience was shouting support for the imaginary, blue, 10-foot figures in their battle against invading American ex-Marines.

For as the scientist Dr. Grace Augustine put it in the film: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine...

“I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something REAL and measurable in the biology of the forest... It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.”

Trying to describe the utter centrality of the Temples today is challenging.

But in the same way that the Hometree is more than “just a goddamn tree” – as corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge describes it in the movie – so were the Temples more than just stones.

We’ll probably never know the true nature of the Temples, but they housed a force so powerful that even their destruction two millennia ago could not eradicate it.

The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE, beginning 48 years of Exile, but were not able to sever the Jews’ connection to Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, killing about one million Jews during the siege of Jerusalem alone.

In a warning we would do well to recall today, it is believed that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat hinam,” “causeless hatred,” among the Jewish communities of the time.

After an all-too-brief, three-year period of restored Jewish sovereignty during the Shimon Bar-Kochba Revolt, the Romans again conquered Jerusalem and Judea, renaming the former Aelia Capitolina and the latter Syria Palaestina.

The Romans were replaced by Byzantines, who were ousted by Persians and Greeks, who were overtaken by Crusaders, before the Mamelukes turned it into a provincial backwater ruled from Damascus in the Middle Ages. In more recent history, it was the turn of the Ottoman Turks, for four centuries, and the British for some 30 years.

For a mere 19 years, between 1948 – when the Old City of Jerusalem was lost to Arab forces – and 1967, when Israel reunited the city after Jordan joined in the Six Day War in an attempt to annihilate the young reborn Jewish state, the Hashemite Kingdom held the city.

None of these rulers made it their capital, let alone the absolute center of their world.

Only the Jews did that.

The miracle is not that we survived the calamities that befell us generation after generation, it’s that for more than 2,000 years we never ceased mourning the destruction and praying for a speedily rebuilt Jerusalem.

Planning an overseas radio interview that happens to fall on Tisha Be’av, I was asked this week if I’d like to discuss Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Peres’s birthday celebrations. I found myself replying that Hawking’s boycott, like Clinton’s appearance, were old news by Israeli standards – unlike the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

If it sounds strange – and desperately politically incorrect – imagine that instead of the Jews yearning for their lost Sanctuaries, it were some figure of a filmmaker’s imagination who didn’t stop dreaming of longuprooted sacred sites.

This is not Disney World. This is real life. It’s much more powerful than the movies.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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