How would you protect yourself if a crazy person attacked you with a knife?
It’s a question many of us have never needed to consider. But it was a question Moshe Feldenkrais had to answer when, as an early settler in what was then Palestine, Arabs frequently attacked Jews, who were forbidden by the British Mandate from carrying weapons. Moshe Feldenkrais learned Jujitsu, developed other techniques and taught his cohorts self defense. He published a book that illustrated how to disarm an assailant. Later, when he lived in Paris, he had the opportunity to show his techniques to Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo. That martial art became one of several influences on what is now known as the Feldenkrais Method which, as many readers know, I’m studying.
In recent weeks, a spate of violence, including knife attacks, has terrorized Israel. The news brought me into a familiar, crazy place of despair and helplessness, even though years before I had decided to try to unhook myself from events in the Jewish state. Growing up in the first generation after the Holocaust, many conversations if not debates between my father, a survivor, and older brother, centered on Israel and global politics. Without an aptitude for mastering the details, or a temperament to interject in rapid, heated exchanges, I couldn’t easily participate. I sat silently while they carried on, as if analyzing world events trumped connecting as a family. While I did not resent Israel’s right to exist, I begrudged its intrusion into domestic life. Israel was like an unstable relative who barges in periodically, diverting energy, consuming attention and disrupting the flow. I wished that by the time I grew up, Israel and its neighbors would peacefully co-exist, and it would cease being the subject of so many conversations. Heartbreakingly, peace seems even more elusive now than ever.
Still, I visited Israel in 2007 for two months to see if a longer stay, on my own, not under the aegis of any agenda-carrying group, would deepen my connection to it. I kept a blog of that trip and, privately, came to the terribly inconvenient conclusion for a Jew that, while I loved the land, I couldn’t imagine living in the tumultuous culture, nor did I harbor a desire to return (although I attended one niece’s Bat Mitzvah there). I also didn’t want to keep up with the news. To follow Middle East turbulence and the American media’s often disappointing if not distorting portrayal of it, would be like riding a very steep and unpredictable emotional roller coaster on a regular basis. To put my highly sensitive nervous system through such ordeals felt unkind to me. To preserve my equanimity if not sanity, I decided I would not hear about Israel, see coverage about Israel, or speak about Israel more than necessary. Other Jews could take on that responsibility. I would turn my attention toward what nurtured me, and towards people and conversations that lit me up rather than dragged me down or stirred up helplessness and rage. If that made me a lousy and wimpy member of the tribe, I was too old to care. For the most part, I’d exiled Israel from my idea of self and I didn’t think Israel missed me, either.
Since beginning my Feldenkrais Training, I’ve been observing what changes have arisen organically in myself while also consciously challenging old beliefs: am I still who I thought I was? When knife attacks and other violence flared up in Israel, and with the failure of mainstream media to report it accurately, if at all, one of my Facebook friends, the bold blogger Elad Nehorai, decided to crowdsource a full page New York Times ad to bring attention to the situation. He had a wild goal, to raise $118,000 in just over a week from regular people, not the old guard Jewish establishment or large donors.
Crazy, I thought. It will never work.
Then I remembered the words of Moshe Feldenkrais, a survivor of hand to hand combat, about how his method “makes the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant.” I asked myself, and not for the first time:
Did I want to be on the side of the possible, or listen to the familiar voices of skepticism? Could I remain silent in the face of the world’s indifference and live with that?
No. Participating felt necessary. I made a small donation and privately asked family members to give. I followed the campaign online. Money dribbled in, with many donations less than $20.
Longshot, I thought.
Within a few days, enough people had donated to convince StandWithUs, a non-profit, to partner with Mr. Nehorai, allowing him to use their advertising rate. Suddenly, he needed to raise “only” $33,000. The impossible was becoming more possible. I shared the campaign on Facebook, where I usually don’t post content on Israel. I kept peeking at donations, which steadily rose. I read the proposed ad and reactions to it. Several thought it wasn’t sufficiently strong. I agreed, but hesitated to get involved. Wasn’t donating enough? Still, I had become invested in the process and knew the text could be more powerful. I left a comment, too, echoing other viewpoints, but did not offer to help edit. Elad has tons of writer friends, people he’d already met (unlike me) whom he could ask for input. I feared being presumptuous and working on a charged topic. I said nothing, unsure I was up for the roller coaster ride.
A day or so later, Elad messaged me on Facebook. He had a new version of the ad and wondered about my thoughts. Sure, I said, delighted that he reached out. Deep down, I was secretly glad I’d have a chance to participate, in a quiet, non-confrontational, introverted way, in a conversation I’d either felt excluded from or chosen to avoid much of my life. I made some changes and explained why, reminding myself to not get too attached. The ad was his baby, not mine. He not only accepted my suggestions but also thanked me publicly for my assistance, which I hadn’t expected. The acknowledgement touched me more profoundly than I thought it would. It was as if he had given my soul a special kind of aliyah, one that meant more than being called to the Torah, one that brought part of me home from exile.
The day before the ad ran in the New York Times, I met my older brother for coffee. I chuckled as I told him that helping to write such text was not something I ever would have imagined doing. Israel had been his territory, not mine.
“You mean doing Israel advocacy work?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t call it that,” I said, aware others would probably use that label. I’m not sure I would have given money if the person or organization asking had been someone other than Elad, a soulful visionary whom I trust. I’m an advocate of accuracy and truth, of making the impossible possible, and of dreamers who keep dreaming, even when voices of “reason” say it can’t be done. People close to Moshe Feldenkrais thought he was crazy to develop his method rather than pursuing a more conventional or prestigious career. At times he doubted his own sanity since he couldn’t understand why no one else had already figured out what he was discovering. When you’re ahead of your time, there is a risk people will think you’re a crackpot.
Most people reading this post will hopefully never have to answer the question posed at the beginning. So I’ll ask another: How do you react when a person approaches you with a crazy idea? Do you let that idea penetrate and get under your skin, imagine how it would feel if it actually came to pass, or do you block and deflect it, dismissing it as impossible? Perhaps if we could learn to discern the good kind of crazy and nurture visionary crackpots, we might be astonished by what we could create.