Inside the Whale

January 18, 2007

What is Inside the Whale?

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 5:22 pm

Inside the Whale is a blog that I created for a project in Israel in Sept 2006. For more recent work of mine go to

If you would like to read more about the Israel project, a description of the project is in a page (see link to the right) entitled “The Israel-Palestine Project”


October 10, 2006

Israel 8 – Afterword

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 8:57 pm


After Word

What is the significance of these experiences in Israel for me and for my work – as a Jew? As an American? And as an artist? There is an intense relationship between the current conflicts between the US and Europe and the Middle East and the issues confronting Palestinians and Israelis. This is part of our post 9/11 reality but it also grows out of centuries of western involvement in the region.

This became clear to me as I stood in New York watching the twin towers burn. Throughout that day I had flashbacks to a night in 1994 when 3 Palestinian gunmen sprayed gunfire down the very street that I was walking. It wasn’t the fear or the chaos that was similar; it was the moment after, as the streets suddenly become empty of traffic, as people wandered aimlessly trying to make sense of this break with what we perceive to be normal reality.

Just raising these experiences and their connection feels like a kind of right wing gambit – an attempt to lump together “the Arabs” the “Islamicists” or any other generalization now common in US and Israeli parlance. I’m not interested in these generalities or calls for revenge. But I do think that the rift in our sense of normalcy that these moments created allows us to see the intersection of histories and ideologies that we might under normal circumstances believe to be separate.

One has only to walk through parts of Israel to see this. The landscape is littered with the residue of history. Structures left by the crusaders are all over, and each time that I passed one, I couldn’t help but think of Christian Zionists right here in Texas who have become so involved in the region, not to mention Bush’s own flirtation with the language of European religious imperialism.

In the end, this project is about identity, the stories that make up the lives of people living at the crossroads of ideologies. It is about the way that our identities exist in terms of place, as architecture, religion and nationalism. The stories that people told me about their lives confirmed that both their lives and the places that they called home were not fixed with clear boundaries. Rather, home and a sense of self were ever evolving things arrived at through an intermingling of multiple trajectories.

The stories that each person told me had to do with religion – being Jewish, Christian, Muslim – or its opposite, reacting against any or all of these. They had to do with history, of families running from wars, oppression, hatred and violence. They had to do with lives under construction or under the process of deconstruction. For many, their stories intersected with Israel as a land based in agriculture. This took the form of biblical right, secular Zionist belief in the labor of the land or the simplicity of a Palestinian’s relationship to his family’s olive trees.

Their identities cross with the memory of the holocaust, reconciliation with the Zionist ideal, memories of the crusades, the effect of American Christian Zionist interest in Israel and Palestine, and the Islamic world’s belief in Jerusalem as a holy city.



I set out to Israel in the wake of the most recent war with Lebanon and an upsurge of violence in Gaza, after one main question – what is the relationship between home and physical space for people who live in a place so divided over ownership? What is this relationship in Israel? In Palestine? But obviously a host of other questions rose to the surface. Home evokes questions of family, of history, memory and exile.


Many of the people that I spoke with were immigrants in some sense. Parents, grandparents and great grandparents had left one place for another.

Some Jews left homelands (Or were they adopted homelands? Is there a difference?) because of anti-Semitism. This included Russian Pogroms, the Holocaust and Arab Nationalism that began to turn against the Jews who had lived in Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq for centuries once the state of Israel was established.

The Palestinians had left much smaller distances, leaving one village for another, displaced by the Israeli state. But these small distances might have been continents apart. I found this to be true for Israeli Arabs (Palestinians who are citizens of Israel), Bedouin, and Palestinians who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

These complex notions of status, of naming and the rights accorded to each sub-group, are increasingly being overwhelmed by the unity that many Arabs feel under the banner of Palestinian nationalism. Obviously Palestinian identity is also very complex. The current rift between Fattah and Hamas as well as the increasing factions that grow in the Palestinian authority are examples of this. But there seems to be an increasing resistance to separate Palestinian identity into groups based on rights that the Israeli government gives them.

In this sense, human rights, the very issue that propelled so many Jews toward a new life in Israel, has replaced the details of exile as the primary grievance of many Arabs living under Israeli occupation.



Some Jews also came to Israel in search of something. Zionism propelled some to leave easier lives in search of some kind of Utopia. For Jews this ideal space (or state of being) was contained in the land of Israel as both a symbol of an ancient past and a future of new beginnings. Daoud Kuttab also spoke of this imaginary absolute but said that for Palestinians it exists as an idealized memory of the past – a past which has now become the identity that propels the very being of a nation.

These visions of utopia weren’t uniquely Jewish concoctions. In fact, the secular German immigrants brought with them European ideas such as socialism and aesthetic formalism. Bauhaus architecture is almost the norm in Tel Aviv and it surrounding towns.

I’m interested in Israel as a model of utopian aspirations. Kibbutzim are one extreme, but everything from architecture and design to the way that the whole country mediates public and private space, are examples of a society (other than the Soviet Union) experimenting with socialism. The unique aspect of Zionism is that it also combined a more explicit religious undertone to the typically secular ideas of utopia.

But in many ways Israel is a model of the failure of utopian aspirations. Most kibbutzim have failed economically because they were based on agriculture or industry, both economic models that are giving way to a service economy in Israel. The very idea of competing religious and nationalist claims to one space as having objective transcendent value also contributes to the problems with the universalisms of utopia.


Hybrid existence was paramount in these conversations. Between East and West, new and old, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. There are Arab Jews from Yemen, Morocco, and Iraq who exist as an underclass within Israeli society. There are Christian Palestinians who feel the reverse sense of otherness that many Jewish immigrants from the US feel. Many Americans that I spoke with were running away from a country where Christmas and Easter made them feel different and strange. Christians in Israel are a minority not only to the Jewish Israeli state but also to the growth of Islam within Palestinian culture.

Israel is made up of immigrants who were too ethnic – too much of the east for Europe and too much of the west for the mid-east. It is a society where German, Russian and North African food are mixed up into Israeli cuisine.

It is a place that is between places, between times. It is too cosmopolitan to seem like a westerner’s idea of the east and yet it is too steeped in religion and tribal organization to meet any western idea of modern culture.



The architecture of Israel is loaded with ideology, both political and religious. Settlements in the West bank are seen as both as benign real estate development and as symbols of imperialism.

Holy sites such as the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in East Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, The Al Aksa Mosque, all are defended by the military and often the setting for riots. Indeed, it was Arik Sharon who helped spark what is now called the Al Aksa Intifada by merely setting foot on a place that is held to be holy by Jews and Muslims.

In Gaza and the West Bank as well as in East Jerusalem building permits are like gold. They are routinely given to Jews and denied to Palestinians. Thus the demolition of houses is so common, not only to punish the family of a suicide bomber or some other enemy of the state but also for the beaurocratic sin of building without a permit.

On a tour of the new separation barrier I noticed that across the street from a new Jewish building in East Jerusalem was an archeological site with workers patiently sifting through dirt and sand to reveal the structures of the past. Both architecture and archeology are about structures of identity on contested land.


Often these structures, both new and old are meant to function symbolically, to exist not so much in terms of their actual function but more so as a sign of an action, a moment in time.

This project is about identity built by structures in space but it is also about the means by which these ideas were explored – conversations and relationships with people. There is often a lot of talk in the peace camps about the vague of talk – about anything. As I sat for hours with one person after another simply asking them about their lives this became very clear.

I made a drawing for each person that I spoke with and am sending these drawings as a gift in thanks for the time and stories that they gave me. The drawings above that punctuate this post are examples of that group. I plan to show a copy of each drawing as a record of this symbolic exchange.

September 28, 2006

Israel 7

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 5:10 pm


My final 2 days were spent in Jerusalem. First, I went back to speak with Adva Rodogovsky, Public Outreach Coordinator at Ir Amim, the organization that runs the tours of the wall (See Israel 4).

Adva was born in Haifa but grew up in Kfar Kish, a tiny farming village in the north of Israel. Both of her parents were born in Poland to families that survived the holocaust and tried to stay in the newly communist country. But in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a series of anti-Semitic riots broke out and forced them to leave. They moved to Israel not so much out of Zionist ideology but more for mere survival.

When I asked about Adva’s Zionism, she said that she is in a process of “questioning that notion.” Obviously her work with Ir Amim, an organization that explicitly advocates for Palestinian rights, is a sign of this attitude. But it also stems from her attitudes towards religion and its relationship to nationalism.

Like many secular Israelis, Adva says that she does not want to live in a Jewish state. She is a Buddhist and after spending some time living in London and New York, wants Israel to become a more diverse and cosmopolitan democracy. She cares for “this piece of land” but doesn’t believe that she or anyone else has any kind of transcendent religious right to it.

On a personal level, she feels that Israelis must reach out to Palestinians. She works with Palestinians and has many Palestinian friends. She has even dated Palestinian guys – a huge taboo in Israeli society. But despite her seeming idealism, she is losing hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict. After the election of Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and will not negotiate, and the recent bombings of Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, she wonders if either side is ready to be a partner in negotiation.

Later that day I spoke with my cousin, Leiba Chaya David and her husband Yonah. They come from a very different place on the ideological spectrum. Both grew up in the U.S. and moved to Israel in the past 10 years. They live on a Moshav ( not far from Jerusalem. The route to get there was interesting. I had to go via the new tunnel roads that head toward the West Bank. These roads have been used by Jews traveling between Jerusalem and the settlements of Gush Etzion, including Alon Shvut where my friend Zvi lives (see previous post – Israel 5). I crossed through a checkpoint and then passed the settlements and then crossed another checkpoint back over the green line.

Anyway, after this circuitous route, we got to talking. Leiba Chaya is a Baal Tshuva (some one who becomes religious). She changed her name from Jennifer as a part of this process. Jennifer grew up in suburban Atlanta, went to a liberal arts college and became very invested in progressive politics, especially environmentalism. Now in Israel, she has found a way to combine this interest with her (relatively) newfound religious life. She teaches courses about the links between biblical descriptions of plant and animal life in the “land of Israel” and more secular ideas about the environment.

Her politics have followed along. Like many Jews, once there is a belief that the Jews have not only an historical but also a God given relationship to Israel, it makes it very difficult to acknowledge or understand Palestinian claims to the same land. Both Adva and Leiba Chaya have moved away from the mainstream secular Zionism that founded the country. This polarization between secular cosmopolitanism and religious Zionism became more and more pronounced the more people that I talked to.

I then spoke with was Pnina Gday, An Ethiopian immigrant who now works at the Hillel (a Jewish outreach organization) at Hebrew University. Pnina immigrated to Israel with her mother as a part of Operation Moses when she was a small girl. Her mother was a Zionist, a rare thing in Ethiopia, and according to Pnina, came for ideological reasons before it became unsafe for Jews during the war with Eritrea in the early 1990’s.


(this is not Pnina but you get an image of another mother and child during the Operation Moses)

I spoke with Pnina about the difficulties of growing up as a kind of outsider within Israeli society. She agreed that there was racism but that she experienced very little compared with some others. She explained that the mass immigration that followed her own, Operation Solomon brought many Ethiopian Jews that were more rural and lost in the Western society of Israel.

She talked about her work with some of these youth and the ways that they have adopted African American Hip-Hop culture as a way to talk about their sense of Otherness. She however is very assimilated and when she recently went back to Ethiopia to visit her father, she felt like a tourist. This complicated her sense of home, going back to Ethiopia was a relatively alienating experience while her mother brought them to Israel, a place that neither of them had ever been as a kind of homecoming.

As she talked, I thought of an earlier conversation that I had with Micha Odenheimer, who talked about his own work with Ethiopians as a part of his NGO that helps them integrate more fully into Israeli society. He claimed that there is no racism in Israel toward Ethiopians. There is a disparity, he said but it has more to do with class. He talked about how most Ethiopians were brought to development towns on the periphery of Israeli society where poor Sephardic Jews (who had come to Israel on similar airlifts from Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq) lived. The Sephardim worried that the Ethiopians would dilute the educational system and take away their social service benefits. I brought this up to Pnina and she understood where it was coming from but still talked about getting job interviews and walking in the door to see complete surprise on the faces of everyone in the room – no one would expect a black woman in Israel to be as well educated and articulate as her.

Finally, just hours before getting on the plane, I talked with Dov Berkowitz, an American who moved to Israel in 1970 who currently lives in Shilo, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. I asked Dov about his beginnings in Israel and he told me about his experiences as a settler. He said that he began on the political left but after many experiences involving violence, he is now solidly on the right. He spoke about feeling alienated when he drives through secular Israel, a feeling on moving from one reality to another. He said that often he feels like much of the anger between secular leftists and religious Zionists like himself begins with the secular Jews. This is deeply in conflict with his ideas about a Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel (in a biblical sense).

This is a map of where Shilo is – see blue and green icon if you don’t read Hebrew.


He said that they often don’t realize the intense sense of community that settlers like him have. For instance, a woman in their community was carjacked. The community all chipped in to buy her a new car. He was very proud of this story as an example of how a community cares for its own.

But as a Jewish educator, he was much more interested in talking about some more symbolic and philosophical ideas about home and its relationship to physical space. First, he spoke about the bible as a narrative from the Garden of Eden through Egypt and finally arriving at the Land of Israel. Eden is a place of harmony and wholeness but one that breeds exile. While Israel grows out of exile and has the potential to defeat exile and create an experience of home that is related to the experience of spiritual growth.

That was home in Jewish thought on a mythic macro scale. On the micro scale he believes that home is often dealt with through Jewish law (Halachah). For instance, on the holiday of sukkot coming up in a week, Jews are supposed to live outside their homes in a shack often made with cloth walls and a ceiling made of palm leaves, spread out enough to see the stars. This is supposed to make sure that Jews feel the sense of impermanence to their sense of home, and instead see it defined by the relationships of family and community.

A second and interesting example was the idea of the “Eruv.” On the Sabbath, Jewish law prohibits Jews from carrying things from private to public space. In order to get around this the Rabbinic law invented the idea of converting public space into private space so that in a community of houses around a central square, they would all exist as one family.

One final issue of physical space that he brought up was the issue of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The Western Wall is a remnant of eth Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Many Jews believe that the temple will be rebuilt when the messiah comes and see the Western Wall as the holiest place in the world. Dov believes that Jerusalem and the Western Wall are “holding us back” because it is to reductive to tread any one place with such priority. The most important thing for him is the future, not a messianic future defined by building but one in which we pay attention to our relationships to each other, between the nation of Israel and its border nations, and between ourselves and God.

September 26, 2006

Israel 6

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 3:40 pm


The next couple of days were spent in the Negev desert, in the south of Israel. My good friend Charles Herman (the founder and director of The Nesiya Institute – also see description in last post) took me to spend a couple of days with Muhammad, a Bedouin friend of his.

We found Muhammad by the side of the road, not far from Beer Sheva, behind a set of abandoned chicken coops. He was squatting on this land, owned by the state, and letting his 50 camels graze. We sat under an Acacia tree and had some tea. In typical Bedouin fashion, he pulled out a carpet from his beat up jeep, rolled it out and invited us to sit. He then went looking for firewood and quickly prepared a “finjan” (pot) of sticky sweet tea.

We got to talking about boundaries in a few different senses. He seemed to talk about rules (of the desert and the state) and physical boundaries in a similar way. For instance, the Israeli government via the local regional council has been trying to get him to move to a parcel of land across the road from a toxic waste disposal unit and keep his camels in a fenced in area. He refused and has been in a tug of war with them ever since.

This goes back a long way. Before the state of Israel, under both British mandate and before that, the Ottoman Empire, Bedouin tribal claims to land were respected, or at least not overtly challenged. The Israeli government felt that the nomadic way of life of Bedouins was too much of a challenge for modern ideas like borders, environmental regulations, and land ownership. The government also wanted to protect restricted areas used for military training. For instance, we passed a tank training facility, used for target practice, just a few miles up the road.

When I asked him about where his home is he said, “let’s say that I call my home 30 meters in radius from this tree.” He continued to talk about home as a way of life – making tea, taking in visitors, caring for his camels. The hypothetical relationship to the specifics of physical space was not accidental. On the other hand, his tribe has been in the Negev for generations and it is in the Negev in general that he feels at home.


We went hiking for a while and he showed us plants that you could make soap with if you crushed them up and added water; plants that you could make tea with to soothe medical ailments; and the tracks of hyenas, wild donkeys and birds. For him, an essential relationship to the land in a sustainable way is what his life is about. He feels that western thinking has brought capitalism to his people and he struggles against the idea of work for a clear purpose of profit.

Muhammad keeps his camels as a way of life as opposed to a project that he referred to in the neighboring village of Lakia. There a woman named Roz Alsana runs a weaving factory for Bedouin women. The idea behind this project is to help Bedouin women become financially self sufficient – a rare thing in Bedouin society. But Muhammed’s problem with this project is the fact that the tradition of carpet weaving is being taken away from its roots which are linked to its direct function and instead their production on a mass scale is at the service of business.


There is an obvious tension between the rights of women in a patriarchal society and the preservation of tradition in an increasingly assimilated capitalist world. I’m not one to believe in a retrograde back to the land mythology, nor do I buy into some kind of shamanic transcendence that Bedouin culture could promise our alienated western existence. But when I saw Muhammad make tea and bread with such concentration, I felt that there was something to his grievances. He is not a purist either. He had a cell phone that rang through the whole conversation and wore a tee shirt advertising a new-age center of some kind. I left there thinking about the catch-22 that defines his life and implicitly all of our lives – the tension between the past and the future, between tradition and modernity and the search for meaning in a society that defines home in terms of ownership of personal and national land.

We had camped in the Ramon crater. On the way out of the crater, we saw some 1st century Nabataean ( structures for which no one quite knows their use other than as a kind of marking of space. We also saw a wild donkey which looks much more like a zebra without stripes.


Israel 5

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 2:57 pm


Monday morning began at 3:30am. I went to Nachlaot to hear Slichot (see last entry for explanation). At first it was very strange, to see that I was not the only one there to just listen. The first small synagogue that I stopped at had a group form the army listening also. It was all women and they were there for educational purposes. It’s funny, this is a major part of the Israeli military – they frequently have seminars, lectures and tours about various facets of Israeli and Jewish existence. Far from the typical image of the military. I wonder what it is like for the few Bedouin, Druze or Arabs that are in the army to experience this kowtowing to Jewish mythology.

In any case, the sounds were beautiful. Prayers poured out from open windows of Iraqi, Persian, and Greek congregations. One synagogue was almost empty, populated by only old men. They were fervent as ever but I felt like I was witnessing something dying, a tradition that has not dealt with contemporary realities. What does it mean for Israeli Jews to wake up in the middle of the night and beat their chests and ask for forgiveness? What does it mean for there to be a culture where this act has also become a performance to which many including myself have taken seats in the audience?

Later, I talked to Rivka Lehman, who works for the Nesiya Institute, an art program for Israeli and American high school and college students. Like many Israelis, she has an interesting background. Israel is a country of many recent immigrants (that is from the past 100 years, most within the last 50) that include both European and North African roots.

Rivka’s father emigrated from Paris. His parents were French, going back for generations. In WWII, his father was in the French military and was taken prisoner along with a group of Jewish officers and spent most of the war in confinement. It is in captivity that he became much more invested in his Jewish identity. I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this but I can’t help thinking of many Palestinian stories in which their nationalism is born and developed in Israeli prisons. His mother was in the resistance, taking Jewish kids from the Vichy side to the non-Vichy side of France. After the war they decided to stay in Paris, believing that France was ultimately their home. Rivka says that she is aware that this is an “easy” holocaust story, compared to many others that she has heard growing up in Israel.

Rivka’s mother came from a Moroccan family that came to Israel early on as “halutzim” (pioneers). This is unusual because most Moroccan Jews came to Israel in the 1950’s escaping from the anti-Semitism of growing Arab nationalism. Her mother’s father worked for the Mossad and brought the family to Paris for a while as he worked covertly in North Africa to prepare the groundwork for the airlifts of Jews to Israel.

Her parents now live in Gilo, the neighborhood that I discussed in the last post. A few years ago, in conjunction with the second intifada, snipers were firing into Gilo from Arab neighborhoods across the valley. I talked to Riva at the time and she seemed unnerved but today she said that they never thought much of it.

Later I talked to Zvi Hirschfeld, an American immigrant to Israel who teaches at a religious Jewish school called Pardes. He lives in Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement just over the green line, as a part of Gush Etzion. He described himself as a Jewish Nationalist, that is that for historical and religious reasons he believes that the Jewish people should develop a majority culture in Israel and that he moved there to be a part of it.

Our conversation very quickly became quite contentious. “It hasn’t been safe to be Jewish for…ever,” he said. So moving to Israel, even though it is an unsafe environment is a kind of explicit acknowledgement of Jewish vulnerability. But he moved there from Cleveland with his family in order to feel a part of a majority Jewish culture, a culture which he believes has been given a task by God to create a just society that can be a model for the world. He acknowledges that aside from the difficulties of war, issues like prostitution, slave labor, tax evasion, and money laundering have plagued Israeli society.

He moved to Israel during the Olso years, before the second intifada. Since then, he has been shot at on the road to his house, had two students killed in a suicide bombing and just three weeks ago had rocks thrown at his car that broke his mirrors. They didn’t shatter the glass because he has plastic windows to protect against such incidents. In his words he was simply driving to a swimming pool but needed to pass through some Arab villages and as a result got stoned.

The issue of how innocent people are targeted, both Jews and Arabs came up. This has most recently been discussed internationally regarding the war in Lebanon. Zvi said that if Hezbollah or Hamas are going to shoot at his children from a schoolyard, they have put their own children at risk and he has a right to shoot back, regardless of the consequences. Zvi said, “I don’t have the same gut feelings of empathy that I used to have because I’m too pissed.”

This was a difficult conversation for me. Mostly because it cut to the heart of the most pressing moral questions of this past war, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the question of Jewish alienation and victimhood, and the questions of Israeli and Arab culpability in a conflict in which no one can simply sit on the sidelines.

September 22, 2006

Israel 4

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 12:09 pm


On Friday I went to “Museum on the Seam,” an exhibition space on the green line between east and west Jerusalem that is committed to exhibitions on human rights ( Their current show deals with foreign workers and wider issues of labor. I actually think that this was some of the best art that I saw here. It had a clear curatorial vision and combined video, painting, and photography from both in and out of Israel and Palestine.


On Saturday I went to Zichron Yaakov to talk with some old friends, Tamar and Oded Fuhrman. I met Oded in 1995 when I was living in Jerusalem. He had just quit a PhD program in theoretical mathematics. He was taking a sculpture class with me and we became friends. He went back to school for architecture and then got another degree in computer science focusing on digital 3-D imaging programs like the ones commonly used for architecture. He now works for a kind of think tank for IBM in Haifa.

We had lunch in an Arab Village called Faradis (I kept calling it “Paradise”) just down the road from Zichron. It was in a restaurant called “The house.” It started in a house in the village and now is in its own building next to the original house. It is run by one family and there is no menu. They simply keep bringing more and more food.


Talking to Tamar and Oded was different than some of the people that are more explicitly involved with the religious or political dimensions of life in Israel. They are both secular and not particularly ideological in any way. But they both served in the army and know that their children will also. They live in the range of missiles from Lebanon and spent a good portion of the war in their “safe room” a kind of bomb shelter built into their house. I asked how they felt about this experience. Oded was at first dismissive, joking that he was called to reserves but they didn’t need him so he went swimming in the Kinneret.

But it soon became clear that they were both unnerved not only by this war but the state of the political situation since the last intifada. Oded spoke of two experiences that changed his feelings about the peace process. He was very much on the left and protested in the West Bank before the second intifada but there was a moment when he saw Hanan Ashrawi (a member of the Palestinian negotiating team) on TV talking about the failures of the Camp David negotiations between Barak and Arafat. (This is when Barak famously offered almost all of the West Bank and Gaza and Arafat rejected it.) He said that he felt like she and the Palestinian people as a whole were like sharks that smelled blood and wanted more and more until there was nothing left.

The second experience that he spoke about was a friend from the army who was killed in a terrorist attack. A Palestinian snuck into a kibbutz and shot a mother, father and daughter point blank. This off duty soldier heard something and tried to help but was also killed. Oded went to the funeral and there were many Israeli Arabs from a nearby village who had also been friends with him there. But Oded could not forgive the brutality of this killing and ascribed it to a wider ideology beyond one person one group – “the Arabs” as Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Israeli citizens in the north are all the same, Tamar said, as are Hezbollah and the Lebanese – to him and to Tamar they have merged into one Other.

Just before I left, after I turned off the mic. Tamar said, “and by the way, do you know that we are both the children of Holocaust survivors? I still make sure I sleep on the side of the bed closest to the door so that I can get out quickly if someone comes for us.”


On Sunday, I went on a tour of the Separation fence (a.k.a. the security wall or “the wall” in short – see arrow in photo above) with an organization called Ir Amim ( We were invited to join a group of Germans. We started in a neighborhood called Gilo, a neighborhood that is in the south of Jerusalem and just over the green line. It has been around for a while but it is perceived to be a settlement and thus an act of implicit aggression against the Palestinians. This has been one issue that has been very controversial. Israel has been involved in the peace process in one form or another for about 18 years which has involved a compromise of land for peace – but through this process it has continued to build settlements within the West Bank. Gilo doesn’t seem to most Jerusalemites to be a settlement. In fact, when I lived in Israel in 1994, I used to work in Gilo for an American woman whose politics were definitely on the right, but I didn’t think much of it. I’ll also talk later about my friend Rivka Lehman who grew up in Gilo. A few years ago, snipers began shooting from the Arab neighborhoods across the valley into Gilo. The Israeli army first placed tanks on the edges and shot mortars back into the Arab villages. They eventually put up a concrete barrier to protect the outer edges of the neighborhood.


It’s odd to see this concrete barrier painted to replicate the landscape behind it. It’s like an odd attempt to normalize a very precarious situation. The Ir Amim tour had us stand at the spot where the tanks were stationed. We could see across to the Arab village but we could also see a new tunnel road that was built as a direct route to some more controversial settlements called Gush Etzion ( My good friend Zvi Hirshfeld lives in one of these towns called Alon Shvut. I’ll talk about my conversation with him later. This road was also subject to sniper attacks at this time – at the start of the second intifada – and there is now a concrete barrier to protect this road. Just a little bit to the left of this road is the Tomb of Rachel, the biblical figure who was one of the four mothers, the second and favorite wife of Jacob and the mother of Benjamin and Joseph. The “wall” encircles this tomb even though it originally existed on the side of the West bank.

Adva, the Ir Amim guide pointed out that this an example of mixed messages about the wall. The original public arguments for the wall had only to do with security and not ideology. That is that the route of the wall was decided only to protect Israeli citizens but when Rachel’s tomb was encircled also by the wall, the Israeli government admitted in court that it had built the wall to include the Jewish site on the side of the state of Israel for religious reasons. I’ll talk more later about my conversation with Adva at the Ir Amim offices.


Later, I went to the “Shuk” or the market in Jerusalem with my friend Sivan, not far from a neighborhood called Nachlaot where I lived in 1994-95. The sounds and smells are as overpowering as ever. But the security is much tighter since there was a bombing there a few years ago.


Fruits and vegetables are local and only in season. That’s not to say that they are organic. But they are connected to a now dying Zionist belief in a connection to the land of Israel.


We also checked on the hours of some small Sephardic synagogues to find out when slichot prayers (the Jewish prayers for forgiveness were. They traditionally start before sunrise and at about 4 in the morning in the narrow alleyways, orthodox Jews knock on the doors at 4am to let people know that the prayers are beginning. I’m hoping to wake up early one morning soon to record these prayers…

September 17, 2006

Israel 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 11:49 am

Thursday began with a meeting with Micha Odenheimer, a Jewish American immigrant who is a freelance journalist and the founder of an organization that does advocacy work for Ethiopian immigrants.

I then met with Shlomo Fox, a Conservative Rabbi and Jewish Educator who grew up in Israel, though his parents came from the US. He was quoted in a recent article in the “Jerusalem Report” about morality in the Israeli military.

I then met with Raneen Geries, a Palestinian woman who lives in Haifa. She is also an Israeli citizen and Christian. The terms of identity in her case are very complicated and delicate. For many Israelis, Israeli Palestinians are called Israeli Arabs. She grew up in Kufar Yassif, a village in the north of Israel. She grew up with an Israeli identity, though she rarely saw any Jews. Her village was composed of Christian and Muslim Arabs, many of whom had been expelled from their homes in 1948. Her parents and grandparents rarely talked about this history and it has only been recently, at the age of 29 that she has begun to discover her past.

She went to Tel Aviv University and as she learned more about her Palestinian identity, she has become more and more angry at the state of Israel. Her work for Zochrot, an organization that I talked about in the last post, has helped to educate her and to help her find an outlet for her sense of identity. She is educating herself about a lost history because even in a village school with Arab students and Arab teachers, the curriculum was carefully constructed to reflect a Zionist history, eliminating any violence or human rights abuses against Palestinians.

She told me a story that was very interesting. As a young girl her family was driving past a car of Jewish Israelis on Israeli Independence Day. They had Israeli flags with the Jewish star flying in the wind and she asked her father if they could have one also. He said no but wouldn’t say why. It is illegal for her to display a Palestinian flag in Israel. If she were to fly an Israeli flag it wouldn’t reflect her own sense of identity but she can’t fly a Palestinian flag. She said that if she could she probably wouldn’t bother but because of this symbolic lack, she feels a need to subvert the Israeli symbolic paradigm and keeps one in her room. As she told me this, a flash of mischief crossed her face.

Later that night I went out with Danny Yahav Brown and some friends of his to openings in Tel Aviv. The galleries were OK. Mostly pretty ordinary. But it was interesting to talk to Danny about the art scene in Tel Aviv. Here are some pictures,



The best was a show at a new museum in Petah Tikva. A group show, “Disruptions: Life in a Threatened Space” was up. It was about the political tensions of life in Israel and had some good pieces like the photographs by Guy Raz which showed a bus passing by at the same spot where one had been blown up by a suicide bomber


and a video by Sharon Paz about the new wall being built between Israel and the West Bank,


and an installation by Tali Ben Basat.


September 15, 2006

Israel 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 7:09 am

Blog 3


Thursday began with an interview in Tel Aviv with Eitan Bronstein, the founder and director of Zochrot ( Then I met with Danny Yahav Brown, an artists who spent 8 years in the US and just returned to Israel. We walked to a couple of galleries and made an appointment for later.

Israeli Poet Yehudah Amichai at Tmol Shilshom

At the end of the day, I met my friend David Ehrlich who runs a café called “Tmol Shilshom.” The café hosts readings in Hebrew and English regularly by some of the greatest Israeli authors like Yehudah Amichai, David Grossman, and Amos Oz. He invited me to hear a talk that he was going to give to a small group from the American organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

David Ehrlich on left, Amos Oz on right

David talked about the relationship that writers in Israel have to politics. He began by talking about his friend David Grossman, who lost his son in the last war a month ago. David Grossman is typical of authors of his generation in that he writes political commentary as well as fiction. His books “The Yellow Wind” and “Death as a Way of Life” are examples of writing that he has done for newspapers and magazines.

There was a member of this group that took issue with the idea that novelists write about politics. His problem was the lack of qualifications. “Should a writer then perform heart surgery?” he asked, “what makes political writing so easy?” A huge conversation blew up about the issue of the role of the artist in a democracy. Behind this was also a larger conversation about the function of art – is it expression? Description or mimesis? Or a kind of craft at the service of beauty but uncomplicated with the difficulties of the “real world?”

It also raised the issue of how a democracy accounts for the wide range of not only opinion but also education. This conversation is obviously close to what I’m doing here and past projects like “Inside/Outside the Whale.” But it also reminded me that these questions have a different significance here in Israel/Palestine, where politics affect everyone’s life. The example of Grossman’s son, not only as a cultural loss but a human and personal loss reminds us of this.

At the same time, David Ehrlich was talking about the difference between younger authors like Etgar Keret who tend toward surrealism and abandon a literal relationship to the political that older writers like Grossman or Oz have used. This was similar to what Danny, a young, secular Israeli said was characteristic of his generation – now sick of an obsession with politics – eager to simply get the peace process started and finished and get on with his life.

September 12, 2006

Israel 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 1:43 pm


This photo was taken just inside the muslim quarter, at the entrance to the Western Wall. It strikes me as odd that there is a need to mark a space with Jewish stars that is already within the power of the Jewish Democratic state of Israel.

I’ve been in Israel since late Sunday night. The first day was mostly spent seeing old friends and gathering contacts, making appointments, etc.

I started this morning in the Old City of Jerusalem making audio recordings. I heard the Mouazin, church bells from the Christian quarter and the muffled prayers heard at the periphery of the western wall. One highlight was a stop in a storefront that sought to educate the public about the rebuilding of the third temple. In Jewish tradition the third temple replaces the last temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. An orthodox Jew with a faint British accent who didn’t want to give his name or have his picture taken gave me an account of how the third temple would hasten the coming of the messiah and can only be built if built by man. “It is only once the temple is built, that the Messiah will come.” he argued.

The Temple Mount (, the site of the destruction of the last two Jewish temples, is currently run by a Muslim Council because it is also the site of the Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the rock where by Muslim tradition, Muhammed ascended to heaven. This place was at the center of my recordings.

Later in the day I met with Daoud Kuttab (, a Christian Palestinian journalist. He talked about Palestinian identity as being defined by absence. Their sense of home, he said, had to do with an empty space. This is symbolized by the keys that many Palestinians still hold from the doors of their houses that they locked in 1948 or 1967 when the Israeli army invaded. He said that Palestinian houses have art, lik ethe keys, that looks symbolically toward this lost home. At the same time, he spoke of how Palestinians are defined by Jews, by the Israelis. He talked about how many Palestinians are like the anti-Jew, it reminded me of a kind of doppelganger.

Then I spoke to Stuart Schnee a Jewish American immigrant to Israel, who is religious and supportive of the conservative Likud policies overall. He lives in Jerusalem and is very articulate and spoke about His sense of homeland in religious Zionist terms. But he was careful to show a certain degree of skepticism for his own beliefs. He told me a story of going toa protest against the peace process and then walking home to the car and talking with his friends that maybe they were wrong, not enough to change their minds but at least to consider the possibility that the “peace process” might actually work.

I then talked to Rami Elchanan, a seventh generation Jerusalemite who lost his teenaged daughter to a terrorist attack in 1997. He works with The Parent’s Circle (, an organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the Israeli Arab conflict. He spoke about the profound change in his life that the loss of his daughter began. He now lectures in schools and does advocacy work on behalf of dialogue between Israelis and Arabs.

A long and full day…

September 10, 2006


Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 10:15 am


I had a 7-hour layover in Paris so I decided to go to the Pompidou to get a quick art fix before heading off to Tel Aviv. The show there right now is Le Mouvement des images.


It’s broken up into thematic sections like PROJECTION, MONTAGE, DEFILEMENT, SERIALITY, TEMPORAILY, etc. Right off the bat, after a room of Judd, Warhol, and the Beckers was a beautiful slide show by Nan Goldin.


With a mournful score by Bjork that approaches prayer, images of couples – gay, straight, some with children, some without – some younger, some older, in moments of intimacy. Close shots of sex, bathing, a sense of home and the everyday…But Goldin is not a voyeur here, and by implication, seeing them as she does, neither are we.

Each subject’s gaze switches from interiority to exterior confrontation or blank acceptance of our look. We are given first names and are brought in as if we know them, as if we have walked through their door a thousand times. Nakedness is treated casually but with respect – a respect defined by the intimacy that each individual accords to themselves, their lover, their child.

One could think that images of sex and nakedness could be intended to shock or challenge. But these images are factual, not as cold scientific records, nor as over-Romanticized schlock – they are real in their warmth and in their humor.

There were other great pieces by Richard Serra, Stan Brackhage, and Bruce Nauman. Nauman’s “Mapping the Studio” was installed – a version of the same piece that I’d seen in DIA Chelsea and then DIA Beacon. I was taken by the contrast between his conceptualism and Goldin’s piece. They are both striving toward some sense of the real, But for Nauman, a mouse crossing the floor or a moth flitting by after 3 minutes of silence and stillness provide the drama of this other intimate space – the artist’s studio.

Anyway, there was much more to talk about from the inclusion of paintings, drawings and sculpture in relation to film and video, the participation of non-Blue Chip artists as compared with the Guggenheim show “Moving Pictures” a few years back. For myself, I left thinking about Nauman’s video “Walking in an exaggerated manor around a square.” Some oblique connection to my relationship to the cube, to measurement, and the messy realities of politics, religion and personal histories that flood its boundaries.

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