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Monday, November 22, 2004

Swords and plowshares in unexpected places

One of my hard and fast rules here at treppenwitz is that I don't discuss work-related matters. 

Part of that comes from my desire to clearly segregate work from play (treppenwitz being firmly entrenched in the 'playtime' part of my life). 

The other part of my decision stems from the fact that I work for a defense company and I don't want to go anywhere near the possibility of discussing things that might turn out to be classified.

However, having said all that, I'm going to bend my rule a little bit and share an interesting experience that is only peripherally related to my work.

As I've mentioned a few times, the Israeli work week runs Sunday through Thursday for most folks here... myself included.  So while many of you were lounging around in pajamas and bathrobes ('dressing gowns' for you Brits)... casually sifting through the thick Sunday newspapers... eating casual brunches with friends and family... I was hard at work.

Well, sort of.

One of the many products that my company manufactures is a Fast Patrol Craft which is in use by Navies and Coast guards around the world... including Israel's Navy.  As part of my job I have been privileged to be somewhat involved in the ongoing support of the vessels we've delivered to the IDF.

A small perk of my position is that I occasionally get the opportunity to go to sea on one of these fast boats to get a first hand look at what these vessels can really do. 

It's a really nice feeling to know that my company turns out a high quality product... but it is also a private thrill for an old sailor like myself to be able to once again feel the salt spray on my face... if only for a little while.

I won't go into the details of my time aboard other than to relate a pleasant surprise that awaited me yesterday on the bridge of the vessel. 

As I stowed my knapsack in a corner of the pilothouse, I noticed a small book wedged between the gyro-compass and one of the other instruments.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a well thumbed copy of Sefer Tehilim (Book of Psalms). 

This small discovery was surprising to me on a couple of levels. 

First, it seemed strange because I've gotten to know the small crew fairly well over the past few months, and not one of them is outwardly 'Dati' (religiously observant).  Mind you, I didn't get the sense that any of them were particularly anti-religious, but I also knew from things I've picked up here and there that the Navy is not the typical destination for observant kids doing their national service.

Don't get me wrong, I've seen kippot (yarmulkes) and the occasional long skirt on the Navy bases I've visited, but not nearly as high a ratio as one might find on an Israeli Air Force or Infantry base.  This phenomenon might be slowly changing... but it really doesn't change the fact that none of this particular boat's crew was openly observant.

So what's the explanation behind the book of Pslams?

While the crew loaded up supplies, I strolled down the pier and glanced into the bridge/pilothouse of some of the other patrol boats that were in port.  Not all of them were positioned in such a way as to allow a good look at the instrument panel... but I could see that several of them also had battered copies of the Psalms in plain sight.

I have learned from experience that religious observance and tradition are murky waters for many Israelis, and things in this realm are rarely what they seem on the surface.  I have also noted that, strong 'pro' or 'anti' religious sentiments aside, an Israeli's personal observance is a place where a stranger is rarely welcome to intrude. 

As an American immigrant, I know I have to unlearn most of what I know about religious observance and tradition.  Many Israelis may seem completely secular while in fact living deeply religious lives... and (unfortunately) many openly religious Israelis fail even the shallowest 'scratch test' of religious observance and integrity in their day-to-day lives.

Yes indeed... murky waters everywhere you look.

Anyway, I may never find out the real story behind these dog-eared copies of Psalms, but I suspect from their condition that they are more than the Israeli version of Gideon's Bibles. 

If these volumes were of a standard format or in pristine condition, I could accept that some religious organization or military chaplain's office had simply dropped off a copy with each crew and they were kept on the bridge as a sort of good luck charm.  But each copy I saw  had a unique cover design/color... and they shared only one quality in common; obvious signs of having been well used.

One day I may have the opportunity to take one of the crew members out for a beer.  I don't know if it will ever happen, or if that hypothetical meeting will provide an opportunity for a small breach of etiquette. 

But if that day arrives... in an unguarded moment of friendly camaraderie... I hope I'll get to ask one of these Israeli sailors about the book of psalms that sits wedged between dials on his ship's bridge... how it came to be there... what the crew thinks of its presence... and if (and under what circumstances) it is ever picked up and read.

Until that day comes (if it ever does), I take simple comfort in knowing that at least some of our warships go to sea with 'inspired poetry' about swords and plowshares within easy reach of the hand that has the power to figuratively wield either.

[update:  Yes, all you budding Biblical scholars... I am aware that the 'Swords into Plowsares' bit is from Isaiah.  Work with me here... I was trying to communicate an idea!

OK, you need a reference from Psalms?:

In verse 1 of Psalm 144, King David discusses the need to be prepared to go on the offensive: "Blessed be the Lord... who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle".  And in the very next verse he talks about the importance of taking a more defensive posture: "My lovingkindness and my fortress... my shield and the one in whom I take refuge."

I'd like to think that at least a few Israeli soldiers and sailors might be familiar with the logic behind these seemingly contradictory phrases.]


Posted by David Bogner on November 22, 2004 | Permalink


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I have a dear friend who is a Tank Commander. He went into Beirut with Sharon and company to root out the PLO.

He doesn't speak often or at length about this experience, but he has mentioned reciting Tefilat Ha-Derech on the way in.

I almost always say it before my plane takes off, but since I heard that story it has held new meaning for me.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 22, 2004 6:13:05 PM

"seemingly contradictory phrases" -- saying that it 'lies in the eye of the beholder' would be a bit pale and a mere whiff on the surface of things.
I rather hope that a lot of people are aware of the fact that what is written was read different from how we'd read it now (okay, with reference to latest ongoings on that other continent, I fear too many are not aware at all).

Is it really so unusual to see a Sefer Tehilim in a most secular place, in times where miniature versions are sold at virtually every kiosk? People who don't keep kosher (in whatever regard) use to give such a copy to their children upon joining zahal. I think in many cases, it has become a tradition and rite more than a conscious act of having sefer tehilim nearby.

On another thought - is there any significant rite when the ships are let to sea for the first time? Maybe a zahal rabbi would hand a copy to each of the crew? (sounds interesting...'zahal rabbi')

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 22, 2004 6:14:11 PM

I tried googling it and found a very vague reference to a Chief Petty Officer of the Israeli Navy having something to do with finding the piece of Psalms excavated at Masada. Could it be related to that? (If it was an Irish guy, that'd definitely be the reason, but I think we're a much more superstitious lot.)

Posted by: Tanya | Nov 22, 2004 7:40:12 PM

Jack... I say it every day when I leave Efrat.

Mademoiselle a. ... Like I said, if they were from the IDF Rabbinate (yes, there is such a thing), they would all be the same (and be stamped with the IDF logo) which these were not.

Tanya... Nice try. :-) I got an e-mail which theorized that it was likely one of the Sephardic crew members on each boat was responsible for the books since it is quite common for secular Sephardim to be traditional... even superstitious... about things like having a book of Psalms close at hand. The e-mail pointed out that most Israeli taxis also have a Sefer Tehilim on the dashboard and the overwhelming majority of drivers are secular Sephardim. Being an Ashkanaz from outside the country, I'll have to wait until more expereinced voices chime in on this one.

Posted by: David | Nov 22, 2004 9:01:39 PM

I also knew from things I've picked up here and there that the Navy is not the typical destination for observant kids doing their national service.

This may be out of date, but -- isn't the Navy the one IDF service without kosher food?

Posted by: Otter | Nov 22, 2004 9:27:14 PM

Otter... No, All the food in the IDF is kosher, and the base dining rooms are under the supervision of the IDF Rabbinate.

However, in the field and out at sea, the level of kashrut is pretty much up to the soldiers and sailors to maintain (or not). All the food that is supplied to the Sailors on the ship is technically kosher, but if nobody on the ship is observant, there is nothing to stop them from cooking meat and milk products together or using the same dishes/pots and pans for both.

Posted by: David | Nov 22, 2004 9:48:25 PM

A teeny tiny correction offered to someone who (by the look of his bookshelf last photo Friday) is much more Jewishly literate than I am:
Beating swords to plowshares is from the Prophet Isaiah, not Psalms. It's a supreme irony that his quote about beating swords into plowshares and nations not learning war anymore is engraved on the UN building! The people that gave the world the quote are the most reviled people in that building.

In any case, the Sefer on all the boats is curious...

When the political/military situation in the Middle East gets especially bad, I read Psalm 83. It reads like it was written now.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Nov 22, 2004 10:37:25 PM

"which theorized that it was likely one of the Sephardic crew members on each boat was responsible for the books since it is quite common for secular Sephardim to be traditional... even superstitious... about things like having a book of Psalms close at hand."

ouch. i'm ultimately outed.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 23, 2004 12:15:52 AM

[i didn't write the email!]

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 23, 2004 12:16:46 AM

David, I tend to think that this particular ship might have some drill or ritual where the book is read? Just hazarding a guess ... either way I do hope you get the chance to ask. I'm sure the answer *must* be interesting.

Posted by: Jim | Nov 23, 2004 2:26:18 AM

Doctor Bean... A teeny tiny bit of advice: Read all the way to the end before leaving a comment! :-)

Mademoiselle a. ... I figured you'd have something to say about that one (that's why I shared it). Care to elaborate about the secular sephardi approach to things like this?

I have been on board several times both in port and at sea. I haven't seen any evidence of an organized use of the book. I really think one or two of the crew members must pick it up privately before getting underway and say a few psalms.

Posted by: David | Nov 23, 2004 8:46:08 AM

The regular issue M16 has a space in the butt for stowing a cleaning kit - many of my army friends, not just the religious ones, used to keep a small sefer tehillim in it for good luck.

Posted by: Gil Ben Mori | Nov 23, 2004 12:00:33 PM

David: I'm sorry. I swear the addendum wasn't there when I read your post. I don't remember now if I came back to the computer to finish the comment later....?. Yikes. First I get into a fight with Carol, now this. Next thing you know I'll be sending psychotic emails... :-(

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Nov 24, 2004 12:30:52 AM

Gil... I'll keep an eye out for that one.

Doctor Bean... No problem. When I wrote the post I was sorely tempted to change the title and closing so as not to confuse people, but instead I decided to just add a note at the end. Of course it was only a couple of hours after posting it that I remembered that I had not added the note.

In short, I believe you.

Posted by: David | Nov 24, 2004 4:09:11 PM

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