(School Hopping in Jerusalem)
This wonderful story of ironies, “Tikkun Olam,” is from Dr. Grauer's book "Fearless Teaching". We have copies right here at the school - email us for one.
“Art thou a teacher of Israel, and yet understandest not these things!”
We planned a sort of peacemaking mission. Our students would visit schools in the Holy Land, pretty much any school that was willing, and I felt an old stirring. I was trying out my new Canon Eos Xsi with image stabilization that week so that I might approach things as a dispassionate observer, as though anyone could be dispassionate on that land. We would penetrate this conflict, make friends and share art.
Growing up, in the hallways and athletic fields throughout high school, my identification with one religion or another ranged from neglect to ambivalence, except at times when I heard Jews mocked or scorned—which they were regularly in my hometown of Manhasset. Though I was of mixed ethic background, only then, I became a Jew. As a result, given my flawed ambivalence, a vague religious identity was assigned to me in high school like a cross to bear, and I got to experience various forms of anti-Semitism and prejudice. This is an experience I consider to be indispensable to anyone studying peacemaking with some passion.
After college, in the fog of hybrid identity, I began tinkering with Buddhist thought, which practically became a branch of Judaism for Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers anyway. (For millennials, hybrid seems the norm.) I liked that it was not really a religion but a way of peace, supposedly, and through the teachings of the Buddha I could focus the peacekeeping on my own mind.
I’m making a point here and it is simply that I was born treading on borderlines, the path tread on incongruity has been a lifelong friend and lure, and so, as I prepared for travels in Israel I could feel an old stirring.
So, at last we are touching down and there is extra security everywhere, since President George W. Bush announced he would be there.
We are supposed to meet with one of the Combatants for Peace, first thing. Combatants for Peace is the ironic name of an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian fighters who have been imprisoned. But we learn that our assigned combatant is stuck on the other side of the wall, east of Jerusalem. The Israelis have closed the checkpoint because of the Bush visit, so now we have extra time at the Western Wall. The wailing wall, made of Jerusalem stone blocks, has been a site for Jewish prayer for centuries and was a great starting point. I got a fist-pumpingly ironic photo of a soldier in his olive drabs with a Galil semi-automatic assault rifle strapped to his back while putting on a disposable, paper yarmulke as he approached the Wall to pray. Afterwards, we headed to our accommodations on a kibbutz, set on rolling, pastoral fields and the students got to look out upon the ancient lands of milk and honey. Day 1. I wish things would have stayed that simple.
Bright and early the next morning, we head over to the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem. Hand in Hand is a program for mixed ethnicities featuring dual language immersion: Hebrew half the day, Arabic half the day. Our students dive in and give English lessons and make art with the little ones. In the photo I got, a blissfully grinning middle school boy has a classmate in a headlock variant we always used to call “the Egyptian,” while the teacher wrings her hands before the whiteboard. Suddenly we learn that the President’s wife, Laura Bush, will be here the next day to make a State visit, at this very school! We all need to quickly learn a folk dance. The school development officer and the Bush handlers, who are running all over the school with efficiency, have decided on this dance to celebrate the 60th-year anniversary of modern Israel, a great celebration across the country. Then we all play some basketball together and hang out. I got a great photo of the older students, ours and theirs, gathered around one another, staring into their cellphone screens and text messaging one another.
After lunch, we entered old, walled Jerusalem along the Avenue Dolorosa, walking the same steps where Jesus carried his cross. A shopkeeper with deep black eyes tries to bait me: “Bush is here” (“Booshe is heere”), he smiles broadly, sweeping his hand across nuts, rugs and crowns of thorns. Some kind of curving horns. We get out of there early, though—the traffic is backing up because of Bush.
The next day the plan is to cross over to the West Bank (of the Jordan), a.k.a. Palestine or the Palestinian territories, a.k.a. “Occupied Territory.” A.k.a., “the Disputed Territory.” What to call this dusty stretch of earth is a classic lesson in multiple perspectives for our students. We are visiting Dar al Kalima School, in Bethlehem, a few blocks from where they believe Jesus was born.
Some of the Jewish people in our party choose not to go, for safety reasons, but at the checkpoint no one asks us what our religion is. Still, the security is intense. I feel weirdly exposed at the border, and I actually start pondering if maybe they can somehow see through me. Do they have intelligence reports? Do they know that I am half Jewish? I photograph the jumble of fencing, radio towers and spotlights of the checkpoint, then a giant sign reading “Peace be with you,” before the landscape becomes shabby with rubble, dust, and older cars.
About half of our students say they feel perfectly safe here across the west bank (of the Jordan River). I feel safe, too, but experience a mixing of indiscriminate feelings that I recognize. I had felt stirred and exposed like this just the year before, visiting the Lakota Indian schools. I had come from a place of American privilege but related secretly far better to the disenfranchised. The Lakota never particularly wanted to be Americans, but recognized success in “white” society as a signifier of success, and they were committing suicide at record levels. It was a pattern long known by minorities.
Now, crossing into the disputed ruins of my very own ancient traditions, I felt both conflicted and inspired. Who would deny the fulfilled nation set up for my people after the terrible war? But then, who would deny the oppressed people on the other side? Which side was the oppressed? And as for me: Am I oppressed or privileged, a Jew or an American? And what is this irrational feeling of identifying with the oppressed on any side of any border?
Across the border, once inside the Dar al Kalima School, the principal greets us by a wall of kids’ artwork. It looks so typical of little kid art until we look closely. One depicts a machine gun under a heart. Another is of tanks and bombs, all in primary colors. Many of these students have scholarships because their fathers are dead, we are told.
Like the school in Jerusalem just the day before, these students are celebrating. It is the day of Nakba. In Arabic, it means “catastrophe.” 60 years ago, today, they are taught, their sacred land was invaded. And like the kids on “the other side,” the Palestinian kids are happy to see us and they don’t appear to presume anything at all about us. Don’t they know we are Americans! How can they appear so innocent and create these horrible drawings of bombs and broken hearts? I get an out of bounds photo of a Palestinian high schooler in blue jeans, checking out my own daughter, who I think is too young for him. I love how the camera lens can freeze wildly ironical moments like this and turn them into simple aesthetics.
In music class, a drum circle is starting up and some of us join in. It is an old Lebanese folk song, round and slow, and we become hypnotized to the mysterious, droning sound of long ago:
The girl over a grinding stone
Imagines the old days, so beautiful they were,
Green fields like a lullaby,
Memories of grandfather working the grinding stone.
How beautiful the old days,
Walking around the road, singing. Old times.
My students and I are mesmerized as we are drawn into the unity of the circle. Afterwards, the teacher writes out the music for me so that, back home, we can form this same drum circle at holiday time, feel this same, ancient stirring.
Now it is time to celebrate Nakba. We all amble out back behind the school and scale the hill. In the photo, we are marching, carrying kites with colorful plastic sails under little puffy cumulous clouds in a baby blue sky looking out over a craggy, dirt hillside. We are on-mission.
Everyone starts setting up their peace kites. Students are to inscribe their own peace messages and fly their kites high on this hill, which overlooks Jerusalem. The student I am paired with writes, “No occupation,” on his paper, rolls it up, and slips it into the tail of a yellow and orange plastic kite. “What is your peace wish,” I ask him, through the translator.
“I hope they will stop killing my family,” he replies, and I look him over, into his child face, his dark eyes, and he looks unknowable to me. It’s terrible. We thrust his kite into the wind and upward. Off to the side, the concrete back wall of the school is dented and pockmarked and I think, bullet holes. Everything seems dusty and worn. Kites of all colors shift and flap above us in the wind.
At this very time, back in Jerusalem, Bush is addressing the Israeli Knesset: “We have been deeply moved by the celebrations of the past two days,” he is saying, but we are stuck at the border in two hours of Bush high security, gridlock traffic, while a grim Israeli guard carrying an automatic weapon enters the bus, mumbles something in Hebrew to our driver, and I dared not take the photo. The students remain upright and perfect, with flat affect, like they look in those senseless teacher training videos I saw in grad school about best student behavior.
The next day, we visit the Sufi Abdul Aziz Bukhari, Sheikh of Uzbekistan. The Sheik’s family came to Jerusalem in 1616. For 20 years, the sheikh lived in Southern California running a Dunkin’ Donuts shop not far from Disneyland, a candy colored neo-Jerusalem with its four magical, fairy-tale quarters and city walls. They called him “Fast Eddy.” Then he returned to Jerusalem to take up his family’s ancient prerogative. Once, the Sheik’s group, Jerusalem Peacemakers, surrounded the entire walled city and gave it a big hug. He was a child of the 60s. The Sufi poet Rumi is said to have whirled and chanted:
Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
We have visited two schools filled with the children of Abraham. We are all children of Abraham, the sheikh says. The sheikh is a beautiful man with moist eyes who speaks to our students of peace and gratitude. There in the photograph, garbed in embroidered mantle and cap, up in his loft right in the middle of the old walled city, surrounded by relics from long ago, we look out upon all four quarters of the ancient city like a dream, unified. My students and the Sheikh of Uzbekistan, peacemaking. I heard he died last year. Jerusalem, its quadrants portioned out like mystic lands that make it possible, up there from the Sheikh’s loft, to stand above the strife and bitter conflict, fill our small, small world with mystery and treasure like a great school should do. Could there be another sheikh like this, or an actual career peacemaker? When I heard the news it felt like the history of something ended, like the end of printed books, or like some kind of tipping point where it is shown that, henceforth, no individual human can be statistically significant, somehow.
Before leaving Israel, we visit The Mount of Beatitudes. There at the bidding of Pastor Bill Harmon I read the Sermon on the Mount to my students, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, right where they believe Jesus gave his great sermon. Who do I think I am? Who can say they know God outside of their own heart, but Jesus was probably the wisest rabbi I could ever imagine. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” I read. Can you beat that?
When you translate the word rabbi from Hebrew, which is what Jesus’s followers called him, it just means teacher. “Art thou a teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things?” he asks the other rabbis. Looking back on that photo taken that day, it seems overwhelming to imagine Socrates, Rumi, Gilgamesh, and Jesus all in a long line of teachers, my invisible companions up there on the Mount. It felt great, just then, to be a teacher, and also confusing. How could anyone get out of this country without being one kind of an anti-Semite or another, without writing off humans as a bunch of holy fanatics. And who am I? In the context of the Holy Land, I feel exposed and identity-less, my first name, Stuart, a tribute to a Gaelic, DAR heritage; Grauer, my last name a relic from the Austrian Jewish ghetto of my paternal grandparents.
I can only imagine today’s American kids, my students, descended from two or three continents, as they attempt to establish an identity. My main wish in bringing them to the Holy Land was to help them see our common roots, our shared humanity, but those roots seem disconnected. At the time, I blamed Bush for at least some of this, and for all the traffic, but I’m over that now.
Our students learned how Jerusalem, translation, “City of Peace,” has been ravaged by thirty centuries of warfare and strife. No wonder Israeli and Palestinian 13-year olds are diametrically opposed on political events. It was all I could do in Jerusalem not to be diametrically opposed to my own self, and I thought the Sheikh, Fast Eddy, must have felt this way. Stuart. Grauer. Where’s the connect? Where’s Rumi’s open field?
Not in the schools. For their part, Israeli and Palestinian textbook writers each depict the other side mainly as refugees, farmers and terrorists. Not too long ago, the Georg Eckert Institute for International Schoolbook Research developed a textbook of recent Israeli and Palestinian history for use by schools on both sides of the border. Identical events are described on facing pages from each of the two cultural/political perspectives. The textbook provides a wide-open space in the center for students to write their own impressions of the conflicting stories. According to The Economist, no school on either side ever adopted the book. Too bad. Isn’t the whole point of peacemaking, the whole point of this life, to find wide-open spaces like that?
Of course, history is never what is in a text, anyway.
On our last afternoon, we load up the bus to go get some shawarma, and I wondered: are these students seeing anything close to what I am seeing? I’m so preoccupied now that I let the bus take off with all our students except my daughter, Audrey. I have left my own daughter alone behind the lines in occupied territory, and she will have this treasure her whole life. Beat that. I order her shawarma and head back.
In the classroom, I can manage and manipulate the situation, but not here. Normally when I visit other cultures with my students, the ending is a simple empathy for whatever group we visit. But here in Israel, what was the group? We were having process sessions with our students every night, but the history and present state of Israel was so indefinable, so complex, so confusing—in short, so lifelike—that I hardly knew how to conclude. What, after all, was the lesson I was teaching? How can I feel so lost and so at home?
Maybe that was the message. Maybe the questions are the only real teaching. "Live the questions now”, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. “Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
“The trouble is our kids are too uncomfortable with uncertainty,” As our physics teacher Morgan Brown is fond of saying. Except Morgan is wrong. It's not our kids who are too uncomfortable with uncertainty. It's most of us.
In schools, we tell our students that answers are things you put into fill-in questions and final exams, that science experiments have prescribed findings, and that lessons end with a bell. Meanwhile, the universe and our “real world” alike speak in paradox and open-ended questions, and these are where we experience not only growth, but joy, not to mention suffering. The rides just keep on going, and if we get off of one we’re already on another. Can we reclaim open space in our classrooms?
My last photo is from surfing some small, choppy waves of Haifa, mainly to say I did, and we headed straight from there to the airport. Surfers are something like a global tribe. We paddle into almost any break anywhere in the world as though it were evidence of a unified world. We surf for something like Tikkun Olam. 
After a long red-eye flight, thin cool airplane air making my throat and ears raw, we all arrive back in Southern California and, before even showering off the Haifa salt, I go straight into the waves of my home break, as a sort of symbolic thing, a Talmudic wisdom: all things connect through water. My closing line of the story. The waves are steep, pitchy and unpredictable that morning and the water is cold and biting, not at all like you think of California. Unfortunately, I lose hold of my surfboard and it washes in to shore while I am held under the churning water like a rag doll.
When a hold-down happens you cannot fight, the force of a wave is too great. There is no up or down. You can only quiet your mind, even smile a little and just surrender to it, a tiny force of nature in an infinite uncertainty, your insignificance is your significance--surely this is what Rumi described--until you begin to see light in one direction, even just a vague shaft, and at last you know which way is up, and you will survive.
When I at last burst through the water’s surface, greedily gasping and back into the world of air, I am so jet-lagged and sick that another surfer has to help me in. I want badly to explain my story to the savior, or let’s call it rescuer, explain to him that I am a worthy surfer, and a legitimate salt who’s travelled far and made ironic photos on a peace mission, but I’m sure I will die before he ever knows it. He is from my home break, but from another tribe. Just then, the whole idea that we can take forces of nature and control them and make them conform to our will seems ridiculous. I rack up my board and head home.
Since returning from Israel, I have less faith than ever that there will ever be peace among us, except in the occasional big and wondrous questions we might pass along if we are lucky, the absolute uncertainty, the open space we might help create, but at least I know what I have to do now as a teacher.
 The Economist, “It ain’t necessarily so.” P. 29-32, October 13, 2012.
 Tikkun Olam - A Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings.
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