There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me O God for one.
(“The House Of The Rising Sun”)
This was the unforgettable tune of our Israeli adolescence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The music was captivating. The opportunity for a slow dance was highly appreciated but what really captured our minds were the magical words of this song: New Orleans was for us a place that wasn’t for real. It was a mystical city that stood behind the “mountains of darkness,” both geographically and conceptually. The “House of the Rising Sun” sounded like an evil shrine, a temple for sins and immoralities.
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun.
The truth is that we were too naive to understand or even imagine what exactly it was all about. We knew that wicked things were going on in the House of the Rising Sun. However, most of us innocent Israeli kids were too embarrassed to explore or even talk about it among ourselves. So, like always in such situations, we escaped into humor. The most popular joke was to compare the House of the Rising Sun with…the city of Beit Shemesh.
In retrospect, it took me a while to recall what was so funny about that? OK, so the name Beit Shemesh translates into the “House of the Sun” but other than that, there was no comparison whatsoever between those two most different entities. But then I realized that this was the point exactly: Our small Israeli town of Beit Shemesh and the evil New Orleans House of the Rising Sun were so different from each other, representing extremely varied cultures. They were such totally separate worlds that it became funny to compare and laugh out loud about them.
So what was Beit Shemesh for Israelis? A pure, vivid symbol of Zionism, idealism, and Jewish renewal. This town on the foothills of the Judean mountains and its surroundings was the home of many heroic biblical and modern stories. This is where the Ark of the Covenant was stored on route to Jerusalem; this is where Samson demonstrated his mighty strength against the Philistines. This is where little David was able to overcome giant Goliath. And later, when the State of Israel was reborn, this was where some of the most epic War of Independence battles took place.
It was where many olim (immigrants) settled, where multicultural ethnic communities were living together, where Orthodox, secular, and traditional Jews from North Africa to North America built a community of mutual respect, tolerance, and harmony. It was on these Beit Shemesh hills where my peers and I, during high school on site classes, heard all these heroic stories of securing and settling the land. It was on these Judean hills where we would hike at night, exercising maps navigation, during our IDF military service. In a strange, funny way, the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” always played in my head whenever I was near Beit Shemesh.
Last year I was in New Orleans for the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly and I took few hours to tour the French Quarter, trying to capture the unique spirit of the old days. I guess that my impressions are good news to many, but personally, I was highly disappointed because my ideal image was broken. I didn’t find any authentic “sin and misery,” any real darkness, evil or injustice. What I did see was a sleazy cheap imitation of what New Orleans probably used to be. And yes, I have to admit, fine cuisine and worthy music.
I didn’t pay too much attention to this until recently, when suddenly, I should also say horrifyingly, I realized that my mirror image of Beit Shemesh had shattered as well. It has turned into the “House of the Rising Sun.” Innocent Beit Shemesh became the symbol of what I thought New Orleans was supposed to look like in its dark ages. Some ultra-Orthodox zealots brought anti-democratic values, rude behavior, and an atmosphere of sin and immorality to Beit Shemesh.
It was shocking for many Israelis and Diaspora Jews to find out from the media that the pure, vivid symbol of biblical stories, Zionism, idealism, moderation, and Jewish renewal turned out to be such an evil place. Unexpectedly, the joke of my childhood, in a weird twist of history, became a frightening reality and this reality is no joke at all.
A lot was said and written about the unfortunate recent series of events in Beit Shemesh and the dismaying demonstration in Jerusalem where images of the Holocaust were used manipulatively. I can proudly say that United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ has been working tirelessly over the last 15 years and has invested a lot in trying to protect Israel from attempts from within to brutally destroy the values of human equality, religious pluralism, acceptance, and tolerance.
We believe that the different Jewish streams, including the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), will eventually have to integrate into the mix of the Israeli society. We think that maintaining the democratic nature of the Jewish state is not less important to its existence than its security needs. We suggest that the American Jewish community needs to work proactively, jointly and together with Israelis, in order to integrate these precious values into our Israeli towns and cities.
Beit Shemesh, with its deep roots in the base of the mountain, can return to being a symbol of continuity and coexistence. It might take time, but like the ancient stones of the Judea hills, the different Jewish groups that are rooted in our ancient people will find a common ground on our land and earth.
Since I started with an American song, I’ll finish with an Israeli one. Yehuda Amichai, a Jerusalem native and well-known poet, wrote a love poem but was talking exactly about our people and the groups of Beit Shemesh — “We Are Two Stones.” (Translation by Robert Friend)
We are two stones resting at the mountain’s foot.
We rolled till here. And here we shall take root.
Seeing the winters, summers rolling by,
a year or two or maybe more, we’ll lie
with roughened bodies that have all face grown,
feeling cloud-shadow and the sun.
Beneath us, even in summer, we
shall keep the moist spring earth dizzily
stirring with dark life — earth that is ours alone,
whose secret, too, is ours, beneath the stone.