Sunday, March 30, 2008

Developing God's Image

The Jewish Week, November 11, 2005

Back in the not-so-olden days, Israelis used to make fun of the so-called "ugly American" tourist, caricatured as obnoxious, overweight and tacky, with the telltale camera dangling from the neck. Yehuda Amichai's classic poem "Tourists" expressed that disdain:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head."

"But he's moving, he's moving!" I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.

But times have changed, tourists are now welcomed with gratitide, and even that dangling camera has become an instrument of redemption.

I came to realize that on my most recent trip at an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants at Kibbutz Merhavia, near Afula. As soon as we arrived, the children began clustering in front of us, begging Titzalem oti, "Photograph me!" The kids especially loved seeing their images instantly on the back of digital cameras, so when I took their pictures with my ancient Instamatic and told them there was nothing to see until the film was developed, they walked away.

A couple of weeks later, I visited Yad L'Kashish, an artist's workshop in Jerusalem for the elderly and infirmed. It's called Lifeline for the Old, but it's really a lifeline for the rest of us, reminding us of the light that can shine from any human face no matter what the age -- even without Botox -- when people are able to live out their years in dignity.

After a brief introduction, the guide escorted us into one of the workshops. There an elderly woman sat knitting by the door. She was demonstrating some of the secrets of her craft when I walked up, having snapped a few photos of the room, when suddenly she turned to me, gestured to my camera and said, "Titzalem oti."

I took her picture, which is amazing, because I was in a state of utter shock. Whose voice was I hearing? Was it the old Russian woman or the tiny Ethiopian child? I could understand why the kids wanted to be photographed because it's exciting to see yourself in this magic technological mirror, because it's cool. But why this woman, who at the other end of the lifecycle would ostensibly have had little reason to want to be photographed by a stranger? But she said it again: "Titzalem oti."

And in that request I heard: Remember me. Let my life be made meaningful through your camera's eye; my years of enslavement to the communists, my long journey of exodus; the miracle of my return, to a faith I never knew, to a land I'd never seen -- and to a people who never forgot me.

My entire trip to Israel had been framed now, at the beginning and at its end, with the lingering mantra, at first playful and now haunting: "Titzalem oti."

And what was going on in Gaza all that time? "Titzalem oti." For all the real emotion that was on display there, much of what went on in Gaza was a grand photo op.

And back home, when the press made it into New Orleans, there was one constant refrain from the Katrina survivors, everywhere there were the missing and missed: "Take my picture. Please!" Photos of the missing people, and their pets, suddenly turned up on news shows and Web sites. It was similar to the way the photos were posted downtown in New York after 9/11, or at DP camps following the Holocaust. "Titzalem oti."

This year Yad Vashem opened a new museum and a massive online database. A highlight of the museum is the Hall of Names, where the visitor stands suspended between two cones. Above is a display featuring 600 photographs of Holocaust victims, and their faces are reflected in the waters below. It is most moving to go from there right to the brightest and most photogenic
sight in the entire world, a vista of the bustling hills of modern Jerusalem. The city itself appears to be crying out "Titzalem oti."

Three million names are now on the Yad Vashem online database, many of them with pictures. You can get lost in this site, name after name, photo after photo. On the home page is a quote from a young man named David Berger, who was shot in Vilna in July 1941 at the age of 19. Two years earlier his friend Elsa had made her way safely to Palestine. Berger corresponded with her, and in his last card he wrote, "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger."

The word "to photograph," I'tzalem, contains within it the Hebrew word for image, tzelem. And the first chapter of Genesis, which we read this week, informs us that all human beings are created b'tzelem elohim, "in God's image."

So when we are asking "Titzalem oti," we're not merely asking to be photographed. We're saying, "Imbue me with 'tzelem'. See my face for what it really is -- a reflection of the divine image. See what is eternal in me. Love me, with a Godlike love."

In Psalm 118 we read Anani b'Merhavia, "God answered me in Merhavia."


For those Ethiopian children in Merhavia helped me to understand that that image in the tourist's lens, the one just to the right of the Roman arch, is what we've been seeking all along. And if we focus on that face, and listen closely enough, we can hear God whispering: "Titzalem oti."

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