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Monday, October 09, 2006

Truncated: A fitting symbol

We Jews are big tree planters.  This is especially true since the early 20th century when, for the first time in almost 2000 years, it looked like we might actually have a shot at having our own country again. 

Since then, we have admittedly become a bit obsessed with planting trees.

Long before the state was actually established, the little blue JNF (Jewish National Fund) 'pushkes' had already become the symbol of our longing to replant the roots of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel.


[Photo: © Jewish National Fund]

In the 30s and 40s, school kids would go door to door and even stand on street corners with these JNF boxes collecting funds to plant trees in every corner of what was then referred to as Palestine. 

And as the forests spread, the act of planting a tree continued to be associated with building the state.  There was even a time when the JNF certificate ("A tree has been planted in Israel in your name...") was almost as ubiquitous a Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift as the fountain pen.

Yet this obsession with trees isn't new. 

Trees have always featured in Jewish symbolism and theology.  Take for example the Tree of Knowledge ("... of good and evil.") in the Garden of Eden.  There is also the Tree of Life... a common euphemism for the Torah (Eitz Haim He L'Machazikim Bah - "It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it....").

But in my opinion, there are few uses of the tree in Jewish symbolism more poignant than Jewish gravestones hewn in the shape of (or featuring the image of) a tree trunk with it's branches cut off.  This expresses the very essence of 'being cut down' in the prime of life... of having one's life truncated.

Those of you who've been reading me for a bit know that this line of thought is leading somewhere.  I may ramble... but I rarely do so without a destination in mind.

Every morning I drive to work through the south Hevron hills.  Many of my friends consider this a bit foolhardy considering the route takes me through many Arab villages and past areas where countless attacks have taken place. 

I don't really have an answer for them other than to point out that even after having taken the same college-level statistics course a record three times before passing (with an abysmally low grade, I might add), I still know enough to recognize that I am no more likely to be involved in a terror attack than a shopper in a Natanya mall or someone sipping coffee in a Tel Aviv cafe.   

You see, statistically, terror attacks are as random as they are rare.  To say to oneself "I won't go there (or there or there), and am therefore safe from attack" is a fool's game which, if taken to it's logical conclusion, ends with Israel as a nation of house-bound agoraphobes.  Many people who have made a study of terrorism as a tool believe that this is actually one of its primary goals.

Coming abruptly back to my original point... trees are sometimes used to mark the site of terror attacks, and there are several such monuments to terror victims along my commute. 

About a year and a half ago I wrote a post describing one of these monuments at the site of an ambush where several Israelis - most of them members of the same family - were gunned down just a few hours before Shabbat.  The picture I took was cropped, but near the stone marker is a small stand of trees planted by the survivors of the attack and lovingly tended by them throughout the year.

Just before Hanukkah last year an Israeli man... Yossi Shok, a husband and father of five children (ranging in age from one month to nine years old)... was driving home with two sisters (hitchhikers) along the same road I travel to work.  Terrorists in a passing car sprayed his vehicle with bullets fatally injuring him in front of his passengers.

When I heard about this tragedy, I knew that before long a monument to Yossi Shok would appear near the site of the shooting... and I didn't have long to wait.  It is a large, rough-hewn block of Jerusalem stone surrounded by a small area of colored gravel sitting on the shoulder of the road where his car came to rest after the attack. 

And of course, a couple of trees were planted nearby as well. 

However, almost immediately the new saplings were uprooted... presumably by local villagers.  So the family had a couple of mature trees brought to the site and planted near the monument... and they set a schedule to come to water them and tend to the memorial.

Within a few weeks another act of vandalism had taken place at the memorial and both of the mature trees had been cut down to small stumps:


Notice the ground around the trunk shows signs of having been recently watered.  As I stopped to take these pictures the Arab women (who can be seen just to the right of the monument in the second photo) started pointing at me and screaming something over and over.  The Arabic word for 'Jew'  ('Yahud') featured prominently in the chant:


As I stood there looking at this memorial a few thoughts crossed my mind.  First came the more obvious observation: 'But for the grace of G-d (or luck, statistics, karma, etc.) that could easily have been my name on the stone'.

But then I began to look closely at the trees with their sawed branches drying in the mud nearby... and I realized that the Arab vandals had inadvertently evoked an even more powerful image for the memorial.  As I mentioned earlier, few things symbolize a life cut short more aptly than a tree trunk with it's branches removed.

As I walked back to my car in the early morning chill, I had to smile just a bit thinking how Yossi Shok's family and friends could have easily prevented these acts of vandalism had they only made clear to the Arabs the appropriateness of the result.

The irony is that in their ignorance and blind hatred of Jews, the Arabs who cut down these trees unwittingly created the perfect Jewish symbol of a truncated life.


Posted by David Bogner on October 9, 2006 | Permalink


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holy cow trepp...what a strong post...i love trees and never thought of that...won't forget it now...thanks

Posted by: marallyn | Oct 9, 2006 1:46:13 PM

Until I tasted a guava growing on an old grave site I couldn’t understand why I was warned not to eat from that tree, the fruits seemed very ripe, and until I satisfied my boyish greed, only then did I realize that the fruit strangely didn’t taste that well, it was tasteless. There’s a lot that can’t be seen by any terrorist before they kill, but afterwards, it might be for a couple virgins or their lifetime, they finally realize how it was all in vain.

(Caveat: I am not a spook, that was then and no nostalgia there either, David) :-)

Posted by: pk | Oct 9, 2006 3:07:16 PM

Nice post and pics - a cut down tree more aptly symobolizes the tragedy in a really stark and more impacting way.

Posted by: val | Oct 9, 2006 3:12:30 PM

the tree is such an amazing symbol. ive never really seen a tomb shaped like a tree trunk though, it would be interesting to see.

its always sort of fitting when vandalism only serves to strengthen a monument or area.

Posted by: SF Lisa | Oct 9, 2006 3:40:09 PM

It may be interesting to note that the Old Testament has beautiful stories with evocative images. Anyone that has read the Quran already knows that there are no beautiful stories but only instructions on military conquest. You are what you read.

Posted by: bernie | Oct 9, 2006 7:46:26 PM

What a strong, strong image. However, the lack of respect for the graves of the terror victims is an issue of separate concern for me. Is there any way to prevent such acts of vandalism without having to put someone to guard every monument? (which is obviously impossible)

Posted by: Irina | Oct 9, 2006 11:25:41 PM

Is there any way to prevent such acts of vandalism without having to put someone to guard every monument? (which is obviously impossible)

Hire a couple of Ents to watch over them.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 9, 2006 11:41:49 PM

What a powerful image, and ironic twist. But may I suggest that whatever tree is planted next to a gravestone from now on include a hidden container of pepper spray inside the trunk. The first vandal who cuts up that baby will think twice before messing with the Jews again!!

Posted by: Chantyshira | Oct 9, 2006 11:44:55 PM

But I keep reading on YNET, Haaretz, Peace Now, and Rabbis for Human rights that it is the settlers that are cutting down all the trees.

I don't understand!

Posted by: JoeSettler | Oct 10, 2006 10:18:37 AM

Marallyn... Good to hear. Thanks.

pk... Every time I think you can't possibly surprise me any more... you do. Yikes!

Val... My thoughts exactly. But shhhhh, don't tell the Arabs.

SF Lisa... Take a stroll around any Jewish cemetary in the states (I know there aren't any in SF proper, but maybe in the 'burbs like Santa Clara) and you are bound to see plenty of headstones carved like tree trunks.

Bernie... That may well be, but this is just plain old ignorance and hate at work. I don't think we need to look up Koranic sources in order to assign blame.

Irina... First off, it is important to clarify that this is not the man's grave but rather a memorial to him at the site where he was killed. But it obviously still deserves respect.

Jack... Ents???

Chantyshira... As I mentioned to Irina, this was not his grave but rather a memorial marker at the spot where he was killed. But I like your idea anyway.

Joe Settler... I was waiting for the first comment about settlers allegedly cutting down olive trees. Obviously I didn't expect it from you! :-) I have a few draft posts written (that will probably never see the light of day) about this particular blood libel describing evil settlers cutting down Arab trees and harassing Arabs during the harvest. There have been some well documented cases of Arabs cutting down their own trees to assign blame on 'settlers' and of them calling the press after routine pruning (done by Arabs) to show the press how the Jews cut down their trees. Unfortunately there have been a tiny number of settlers who have acted badly (cutting down trees or attacked Arabs during the harvest) so all subsequent complaints are treated by the army and police as valid until proven otherwise.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 10, 2006 12:02:58 PM

Ents: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ents

If you saw Lord of the Rings, they were the big, tree like creatures who you would NOT want to mess with. They are shepherds of trees, and do not appreciate people cutting them down.

Posted by: Nighthawk700 | Oct 10, 2006 3:02:37 PM

Hi Nighthawk,

Thank you. I knew that someone would understand.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 10, 2006 4:59:26 PM

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Israeli-Arab struggle. It's a conflict between a culture of life - a culture that plants trees and builds greenhouses - and a culture of death that cuts down trees and razes greenhouses.

In my heart of hearts, I must believe that life will have ultimate victory over death.

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 10, 2006 6:42:20 PM

Of course they would do that. They will kill anything that expresses the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisroel.

But I would think that a judiciously placed movement-triggered camera that would record their destructive visits might enable a nocturnal visit by interested Jews to the malefactors as they sleep in their beds, or whatever they sleep on, perhaps their camels or their younger siblings.

Posted by: Barzilai | Oct 12, 2006 8:02:40 PM

Of course they would do that. They will kill anything that expresses the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisroel.

But I would think that a judiciously placed movement-triggered camera that would record their destructive visits might enable a nocturnal visit by interested Jews to the malefactors as they sleep in their beds, or whatever they sleep on, perhaps their camels or their younger siblings.

Posted by: Barzilai | Oct 12, 2006 8:02:45 PM

Wonderful post.

The Kennedy Memorial in the Jerusalem Forest is a good example of the imagery David is talking about.


Posted by: Lynn B. | Oct 13, 2006 1:17:34 AM

Santa Clara is not a suburb of San Francisco...and the Jews of the City bury our dead at Colma, just like everyone else. Wyatt Earp is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Colma.

Many years ago, when I worked briefly for the JNF, I ran across a man who vividly described his experiences collecting money for JNF as a child in the thirties. Apparently the kids would go out carolling on the subway at Christmas--good money to be collected there--and if you went out after dinner and launched into the right medley of Irish tunes, the Irishmen coming home from the pub would turn out their pockets for land in Palestine. Irish Litvak that I am, I love the notion that there are little patches of Israel bought by Flanagans and Murphys for the sake of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling".

Posted by: Balabusta in Blue Jeans | Oct 14, 2006 9:29:48 PM

Interesting that they did not deface the monument itself...I hope the families in question take the same view of the tree stumps as you, and do not feel the pain of loss anew...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 5, 2006 6:22:24 AM

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