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What's Going on Here?
Rabbi Avraham Feder signing his new book
by Judy Lash Balint
May 13, 2008

Just when it's difficult to conceive of things getting any more intense or diverse than they were last week when we experienced the swift transition from the sadness and solemnity of Memorial Day to the joyfulness and celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary, along comes an evening where disparate events are juxtaposed in such close physical proximity that it's hard to assimilate it all.

At the same moment that another Jewish woman was killed by a terrorist missile in southern Israel, several thousand Jerusalemites formed themselves into a human chain in front of the U.S Consulate two days ahead of the visit of President George W. Bush, to urge the American president to "free your captive--Jonathan Pollard."

The crowd spilled over to the square around the corner from Prime Minister Olmert's residence where a long list of speakers berated the Israeli government's lack of action as well as the intransigence of the American defense establishment in refusing to allow Pollard out of jail after 22 years punishment.

Amongst the crowd I spotted Mayer and Regina Mansdorf, a couple who are almost 90 years old, who both survived the Holocaust, emigrated once to America and then to Israel in the 1980s. They live close by and never miss the opportunity to speak out against injustice. Standing close to the spry elderly couple are a gaggle of teenage girls who lead the shouts of "Free Pollard, Free Pollard" that are quickly taken up by the large, mostly religious crowd.

Human rights lawyer Nitsana Darshan Leitner addresses the demonstrators, as does former Prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevich, who spent 11 years in a Soviet prison camp back in the 1970s.

Police photographers discreetly take photos of participants as a throng of border patrol and police officers ring the square.

About four blocks away at the beautiful Mishkenot Shaananim conference center, the evening session of the first Writers Festival gets underway. It takes no more than 10 minutes to walk between the rally and the festival, but the atmosphere and the crowd couldn't be more different. Several hundred fashionably dressed and largely secular types have gathered in the marquee overlooking Sultan's Pool and the walls of the Old City to listen in on a discussion between Israeli author Eshkol Nevo and American writer Jonathan Safran Foer, moderated by Israeli literary critic Noa Menheim. The audience is overwhelmingly female and surprisingly, not all made up of native English speakers.

The conversation focuses on Jewish identity and the nature of the conflict in Israel. Both authors are disarmingly frank and good-natured, even while they disagree over their perceptions of the major conflicts in Israeli society. Foer, an avowed secular Jew living in New York with an identity he says is shaped by eastern Europe, sees the crux of the matter here as the great divide between ultra-orthodox Jews and the rest of Israel. Nevo, Jerusalem-born and now living in Raanana, tells Foer the Haredim aren't a factor in his ife, but ensuring a safe drive between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is. "On the scale of conflicts that's number one," he states.

Nevo somehow weaves in the thought that Israelis aren't being taught the "Arab narrative" in high school, and I decide it's time to leave. There's a book launch at the Conservative synagogue on Agron Street that I don't want to miss. The synagogue is just across the street from the Pollard protest, and as I walk by, Esther Pollard, Jonathan's wife is exhorting the remaining demonstrators to keep up their activities during the Bush visit.

The Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue is almost full as I slip into one of the few remaining seats at the back of the sanctuary. The evening is to mark the publication of the latest book by one of the congregation's emeritus rabbis, Avraham Feder. Rabbi Feder is a prolific author, lecturer and chazan and husband of my friend Tzipora.

After a learned introduction by Rabbi Yosef Green, Rabbi Feder's predecessor at Moreshet Yisrael, Rabbi Feder launches into a passionate, accessible and inspiring talk about the art of the darshan--one who gives a drasha. Rabbi Feder's new two-volume book is entitled Torah Through a Zionist Vision, and he tells us,"The Torah's Zionist call jumps out on every page." Last month when I spent Seder with the Feders, he told me with a sweet smile that there wasn't a single Shabbat when he didn't mention aliya or Zionism in his drashot to his congregation in Toronto.

Tonight, Rabbi Feder, a powerful and extraordinarily effective communicator, closes his talk by noting the difference between delivering a drasha and writing a book. "In a drash you're dramatic, passionate--you yell a lot," he explains. "In a two volume book things are calmer, steadier, there's time to be more philosophical, it's a serene passion," he says.

The rabbi leaves us with the main point he says he's tried to get across by writing this book. There are no footnotes in his book--"I don't pretend to be a Biblical scholar." Rabbi Feder says he's taken a more literary approach inspired by a Bialik essay and focusing more on the revelatory aspects of Torah. "I hope this modern perush will help us realize what a precious gift we have," he concludes.

Three events within a half mile radius over a three hour period that draw hundreds of participants representing a panoply of perspectives and providing serious food for thought. Sign of a vibrant society or a fractured people??

Photos of all three events are at