Monday, 13 May 2019

Yom Haatzmaut - David Sagiv

This week we commemorate a BM, and life and death and several sacred occasions.

The BM – of course, George, is yours – the heartiest of Mazal Tov wishes.

The life – of course, is of the State of Israel, 71 years this week. That’s one of the sacred occasions, for Jews – Yom Haatzmaut.

The deaths – of course, are those who died in the Wars defending the Jewish state, and the victims of terror. That another of the sacred occasions – Yom HaZikaron.

But I want to talk about another death, a death that tells us something about the past 71 years of Israel, and might prove a marker to a way ahead.

David Sagiv passed away this week, aged 91, from natural causes. May his memory be a blessing. Sagiv was born in Basra Iraq – and went for the first 23 years of his life by the name Daud Sagawi.

As a teenager he was appointed Secretary of a Jewish Youth Group in Basra called a-Shabiba al-Yisrailiya. In his 60s he wrote of the life of Jews of the place of his birth – in a memoir called Yahudaut BMifgas HaNaharaim – Judaism at the meeting place of the rivers – he wrote that the Jews and the Shiite Muslims of Basra, even the religious leaders – were perfectly civil, occasionally even warm.

He wrote that the local friendships even survived the death of the first King Faisal, for Faisal’s son became a Nazi sympathiser and life for the Jews of Iran became much more difficult at that point.

Then came the declaration of Independence and being the Secretary of a club called a-Shabiba al-Yisrailiya no longer signified that you were a Jew – for Yisrailiya is the word the Koran uses to refer to Jews, but instead suggests some kind of anti-Iraqi intent. And for this, young Daud Sagawi was arrested twice. So he fled to Israel, aged 23 in 1951.

Once in Israel Sagawi, now known as Sagiv, found work in the Arabic Spoken section of the Voice of Israel Network, and eventually became head of the division. He found that even native Israeli Arabic speakers would struggle with the right word to use on many occasions, so he started collecting words, filing away words, looking out for the earliest appearance of known Arabic words, and the first appearance of new words. He met and married. His wife – also an Arabic speaking Jew – was a diplomat, posted to Cairo as Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979. The Sagivs went back and forth between the two countries. And all the while Sagiv filed away more and more words in what became in his mind the mammoth project of creating for the first time a dictionary translating modern Hebrew into modern Arabic, and modern Arabic into modern Hebrew.

It took 60 years. And finally, at the age of 80, it was published – Milon Aravi Ivri / Ivri – Aravi Bat Zemameinu – the Hebrew Arabic / Arabic Hebrew Dictionary of Our Time. 1160 pages, more than 60,000 carefully tracked down, analysed, etymologically broken down, with the earliest appearances, whether it be Torah or Koran, Talmud or Haddith carefully recorded. It’s a gargantuan achievement. And it's known, wherever it's used, as the Sagiv.

In the intro to the dictionary Sagiv wrote;
For many generations Jews and Arabs lived side by side and the daily life of the two cultures was intertwined with Arabic as the mutual language of communication.

Sagiv was saddened to see the Arabic hatred of the State of Israel, and saddened also to see the contempt so many of the Ashkenazi founding fathers of the State of Israel had for the Jewish Arabic speaking diaspora.

Of course, the Jewish Arabic diaspora has been the home to many of the greatest achievements of our people. Maimonides, perhaps the most important Jewish thinker of all time, spoke Arabic as his day to day language. His most famous book, without question the single most important book in all of Jewish theology  – the Guide to the Perplexed was written in Arabic. Perhaps, more importantly, he studied the great Arabic scholars of his day, and his works are massively influenced by Arabic culture.

So many of the great songs of our liturgy are also massively influenced by the modes and metres of Arabic poetry, written by poets steeped in their Arabic speaking Jewish culture.

Lecha Dodi Likrat Kalah
Adon Olam Asher Malach

That’s an Arabic poetic rhythm, or to give it its proper Arabic name – Maqam.

It’s actually a rather simple Maqam – a more typical Makan goes like this

Anim Zemirot V’Shrim E’erog

But something got lost in the years of the founding of the State of Israel. Israel was founded by Jews from German-speaking and Yiddish speaking, and even English speaking Europe. And they – we – I’m one of them, tended to look down on the Arab speaking Jews. Some were poorer than the Yiddish and German-speaking founders and some were less well educated. But not all. More than the sociology, there was something about this language – Arabic – seems to have been held as a sort of treason. Even when spoken by Israeli Jews.

I spent a year in Israel on a gap year, and taught English in a secondary school. The saddest teacher in the place was the woman teaching Arabic. Every class her students would throw around paper darts, chewing gum, even chairs. It wasn’t she was a bad teacher, just they had no interest in learning Arabic – even if their parents and grandparents had spoken the language.

One of Israel’s leading contemporary writers, and poets, Elmog Behar, wrote the poem, My Arabic is Mute. It tells the story of what it means for him, as a Jewish Israeli to grow up unable to speak the language his Jewish Arab-speaking ancestors spoke so fluently.

My Arabic is Mute
My Arabic is Mute
Strangled in the throat
Cursing itself
Without uttering a word
Sleeping in the suffocating air
Of the shelters of my soul
From family members
Behind the shutters of the Hebrew.

My Arabic is scared
quietly impersonates Hebrew
Whispering to friends
With every knock on her gates:
“Ahalan, ahalan, welcome”.
And in front of every passing policeman
And she pulls out her ID card
for every cop on the street
pointing out the protective clause:
“Ana min al-yahud, ana min al-yahud,
I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew”.
And my Hebrew is deaf
Sometimes so very deaf.

But the real reason to mourn the death of David Sagiv isn’t just that he could help poets like Behar find ways to connect to the language of their ancestors, but that he could help Jews speak to today’s Arab speakers.

By the time the Sagiv Dictionary was published the Sagivs were back in Israel, the had left Egypt – where Sagiv had been friends with the cultural luminaries of the City – he translated the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naggid Mahfouz into Hebrew. But relations between the countries deteriorated.
"Today we are less in touch with our friends in Egypt," he said, several years ago. "There is a serious process of deterioration in ties. Perhaps it is their fault, perhaps it is ours, but it is not a good thing. One needs someone crazy, like me, who will swim against the stream and publish a dictionary with the aim of getting the two cultures closer."

The Sagiv Dictionary was not just an attempt to allow a people to talk itself, it was an attempt to allow one people to speak with another.

One of the extraordinary things that happened this week – this week that recognises those fallen in the Wars and victims of terror in Israel, is that, for the fourteenth time a group of came together to mourn not only the Jews who died defending Israel, but also Arabs who died too; not only the heroes and the innocent passers-by but even, and this is where the event gets contentious, terrorists. The Bereaved Families Forum is a group of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones – even loved ones of those who have behaved murderously. They come together to talk together to find a way beyond the violence. And for the fourteenth time they held a joint Jewish Arab, Israeli Palestinian commemoration on Yom HaZikaron. 7,000 people participated. The High Court insisted that 181 Palestinian mourners be allowed to travel from the West Bank to the commemoration. Robi Damelin, a spokesperson for the Parents Circle, who has spoken at this Synagogue, whose son David was killed at age 28 performing military reserve duty in the West Bank in 2002 said “These would usually, be the least likely people on earth to have any contact whatsoever, but yet they feel this absolute need to continue with the work of peacemaking.”

At the commemoration in Hayarkon Park Jews spoke of their losses, and Arab Palestinians spoke of their losses. And in that moment of courage … well who knows what happened, or what might still happen.

Addressing criticism of the event voiced by other bereaved Israeli families, Robi Damelin says, “I don’t have any right to criticize another parent, but they too should respect our decision.”

I do respect that decision, more than that I believe that there is no other way for Israel to have a future than to understand better how to speak Arabic and actually how to listen to Arabic. You can’t detach the Land of Israel from the other language spoken there. You don’t need a law to officially demote Arabic from being a national language. You need laws encouraging all children to learn Arabic so that one day some of them can have the strength and courage to sit before an Arabic speaker and hear what makes them scared and what makes them pained. And hope that just as we all pray to one God our shared humanity will allow them to find the ability to hear us.

And there was one other sacred occasion commemorated this week. This is also the first week of Ramadan. If there is anyone here observing Ramadan, and we would be a better Synagogue if there was, Ramadan Mubarak. Mubarak, of course, coming from the same etymological root as the Hebrew – Barukh. MuBarak. A blessing. How typical that the word for blessing is one of the words Hebrew speakers and Arabic speakers don’t need a dictionary to decode in each others wishes for the other.

Barukh, Mubarak, a blessing.
May it come to both our people. Speedily and in our times.
Shabbat Shalom

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