My Word: Happiness, holiness, battles and horn blowing

The secret of our satisfaction seems to be our social cohesion and generosity. We come together in good times and in bad.

Man blowing the shofar at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Man blowing the shofar at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A conversation with someone on the other side of the world this week brought home just how special this period in the Jewish calendar is. In Israel, it is hard to escape the fact that the Jewish New Year and the religious holiday season are upon us. Time takes on its own peculiar rhythm that absorbs Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the weeklong Sukkot festival. And there is that incredibly Israeli tendency to postpone everything until “aharei hahagim,” after the holidays.
Television and radio programs and commercials address the holidays in various ways: with advice to prevent overeating on the New Year, dehydration during the Yom Kippur fast, and hosting meals in tabernacles during Sukkot. Only in Israel do Christmas decorations go on sale in September, to decorate the booths which commemorate the 40-year journey of the Children of Israel through the desert after the Exodus.
Prayers-turned-songs flood the airwaves, from Barbra Streisand’s “Avinu Malkenu” (Our Father, Our King) to the penitential “Adon Haslihot,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Who by fire?” based on the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer.
Composer Yair Rosenblum’s version of the prayer, as a tribute to the 11 members of Kibbutz Beit Hashita who fell in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, often makes me weep in sympathy and trepidation:
“On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed,
“And on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
“How many shall pass away and how many shall be born
“Who shall live and who shall die.”
It’s hard to convey the atmosphere, particularly in Jerusalem. The holidays are a time of joy but they are also a time of introspection and soul-searching. Not for us celebrating the New Year with fireworks and parties.
Slihot tours, trips around different synagogues to hear their penitential prayers, often ending at the Western Wall in the early hours of the morning, are popular to the point of being a phenomenon.
And everywhere you go, greetings for the New Year can be heard.
This week, in that intense period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I spoke on Radio New Zealand’s Nights show. Wellington seemed to be a world away. Jews everywhere say the Prayer for Rain on Shmini Atzeret, at the end of Sukkot. In Israel, as we leave our tabernacles at the start of the fleeting autumn, it makes sense to ask for rain. The prayers and the seasons are in tune.
At the start of our conversation, the ever-pleasant interviewer, Bryan Crump, mentioned that earlier in the show he had been discussing “happiness” with an environmental economist, George MacKerron. MacKerron devised an iPhone research app called Mappiness that measures levels of well-being of users around the world, taking into account variables such as what their environment is (indoors/outdoors; at work, at leisure; rural vs urban surroundings) and the weather (predictably, the better the weather, the happier people are).
Israelis aren’t happy because of the holiday season (which comes gift-wrapped with pressure), but nevertheless, the majority are satisfied with their lives, I noted.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics figures released last week ahead of Rosh Hashana, Israel’s population today stands at 8.743 million, and 88% of Israelis aged 20 and above said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their lives. This high level of contentment is consistently found also in the UN World Happiness Index, where Israel is ranked 11th, three places below New Zealand but above the US (14th) and UK (19th), for example.
The secret of our satisfaction seems to be our social cohesion and generosity.
We come together in good times and in bad (like this week’s terrorist attack at Har Adar that took the lives of three Israelis).
Examples, big and small, of this togetherness aren’t hard to find. On Rosh Hashana, for instance, a man walked the streets of Jerusalem blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn, so that even the house-bound had a chance to hear it and fulfill an essential commandment of the New Year. It’s literally a wake-up call.
DESPITE LIMITED time, our conversation in the live broadcast took an abrupt change of direction. October 31 marks the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, when British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers captured the city in the Negev desert from the Ottomans.
The bravery of the Australian and New Zealand mounted infantry in the battle is legendary and will be commemorated with centennial events next month.
The breakthrough allowed General Allenby’s forces to progress to Jerusalem, putting an end to four centuries of Turkish rule. Not coincidentally, it is also the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration promising the establishment of the national home for the Jewish people. The battle can be seen as a stepping stone to the creation of the modern State of Israel, both fulfilling a biblical prophecy and providing Britain with a future ally in this strategic area.
The Jews are not strangers here. Even the name of the city Beersheba is associated with the biblical stories of both Abraham and Isaac. The ram’s horn, of course, also appears in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son.
Jewish Legion soldiers also fought with the British forces against the Turks, hoping that British rule would advance the Zionist cause and end Turkish oppression.
The mass deportation of thousands of Jews from Tel Aviv-Jaffa by the Turks is an often overlooked atrocity during the period toward the end of Ottoman rule.
Most Israelis, however, grow up with the stories of the Nili spy ring, which provided the British with essential information in the fight against the Turks. The suicide of Sarah Aaronsohn following her capture retains its poignancy.
It is striking how today’s wars are fought so differently.
A hundred years ago, the soldiers of the British Empire charged the Turks on horseback, and Nili’s espionage operations came to a tragic end when a homing pigeon carrying a coded message betrayed them by landing on the house of the Turkish governor.
The British and ANZAC victory at Beersheba helped changed the face of the Middle East, not all of it for the better. The effects of the arbitrary division of lands between the French and British empires can be felt today. The fate of the Kurds, in a week in which they overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence from Iraq, is evidence of that. In 1918, at the end of the First World War, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds could have been granted the independence they already craved. Instead, they have remained one people under the control of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Sympathy for the Kurdish cause runs high in Israel (although whether this support helps or hinders them is a matter of debate). Similarly, the Kurds, with their own history, culture and language, see the Israeli state-building, despite being surrounded by enemies, as a model and inspiration.
British rule was a mixed blessing for the Palestinian Jews (as they were known in the Mandate era).
As the Arabs rioted and carried out massacres of the Jews, the British responded with cruel measures against the Jewish population in an attempt to appease the Arabs. Among the most infamous measure was halting Jewish immigration (but not Muslim arrivals), even when it could have prevented the loss of the lives of millions who had nowhere to escape from the Nazi extermination campaign.
Older Israelis also recall the British ban on blowing the shofar at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur – a ban some brave Jews were imprisoned for defying.
Under the circumstances, this time of year we can be forgiven for feeling proud as a free people to blow our own horn – the ram’s horn: The shofar.