I have WHAT? Coda: Mastectomy

Breast cancer cellThis week I posted the last of three posts about my diagnosis with breast cancer at the end of 2003. Now it seems appropriate to post about my mastectomy. This post, originally called “Valentine’s Day 2004 or… I left my breast on the Mount of Olives” first ran on February 14, 2012. To recap: Part 1 (discovery), Part 2 (biopsy), Part 3 (diagnosis).

Fourteenth of February, 2004. There was a heavy snowfall. In Jerusalem that is almost as rare as it is in Los Angeles. Many streets were closed, and many people were afraid to drive on the streets that were open because, after all, Who knows how to drive in the snow in Jerusalem?

I was in my bed in the hospital and prepped for surgery. The orderly came to take me up to the operating room and I freaked out. No, don’t want! Stop – there must be a mistake – no, no, no! But all that was mostly on the inside. On the outside I appeared anxious (who wouldn’t be?) but rational.

In pre-surgery a male nurse came over to take report on me and check me over. He introduced himself and asked all the questions. He took a marking pen and made a huge mark on my left breast. Goodbye left breast. I made some feeble joke about not getting the wrong one, and he kindly and seriously told me that he would make sure of that. He stayed with me until I went under the anesthesia.

They wheeled me into operating room. People were bustling around doing their jobs. The nurse stayed with me. I heard two other nurses talking about the snow and wondering aloud if the surgeon would make it in. What? He’s not here yet? Please don’t tell me I’ll have to go through this again.

A surgery tech brought out the instrument tray. I looked at it with what I hoped was an interested expression on my face. It was probably more like sheer terror, because my nurse asked another one to set up the screen in front of my chin. “But isn’t she having a general?” “Please, I’m asking you. She’s looking at the tray.” So they set the screen up. But now I can’t see! How can I be sure you’ll do everything right? I can’t see! 

All of a sudden I felt a bustling, a purposefulness in the room. “Is the surgeon here?” “Yes.” Terror. Oh dear Lord! God, my God, bless his hands. Bless the work of this team. Bless me and give me strength to get through whatever comes next. Dear God, I am so afraid! Be with me now.

The anesthesiologist came up next to me and uttered the canonical phrase, “You’re going to feel a little prick now.” Excellent! The pleasantly heavy calmness settled over me, and…

* * * * *

Pain! I started panting like a woman in labor. Hoo hoo hoo hoo. My friend Jeannie, also a nurse, was standing next to me. She signaled the Recovery nurse who came over with an injection. I slept again.

The next time I awoke, still in Recovery, I was in pain again but aware of my surroundings, aware of Jeannie. Aware of the bulky dressing and the surgical drains where my breast used to be. Aware of the drain under my left arm. Aware that the surgery was over. Aware that pain could be controlled.

Aware that my life had forever changed.

My friend Aliza wrote about this day from her point of view. Please read her guest post here

Let them eat… garbage?

Just as there is more to me than simply being a person living with cancer, this blog is about more than cancer. It’s about my life: my joys, things that concern me. One of the things that is concerning me very much these days is poverty.

According to a recent report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the poverty rate in Israel has risen to almost 21% of the population, making it the most impoverished of the 34 countries considered “economically developed”, having overtaken (“undertaken”?) Mexico in that regard. It ranks fifth in income inequality (the gap between the richest people and the poorest), after the United States, Mexico, Chile and Turkey.

Reading the reports and thinking about different people I knew during my working life, I remembered one of the first posts in this blog, originally published on October 31st, 2011. I thought I’d repost it today.

The photos are from the road in front of my house in central Jerusalem.
There is a summary in English of the OECD findings about Israel at the HaAretz newspaper English site, here

Oh! God! That bread should be so dear,

And flesh and blood so cheap!  

(Thomas Hood in The Song of the Shirt)


Sack of bread (and trash) tied outside a rubbish bin.

There is a Jewish tradition that it is virtually a sin to throw away bread. Many people in Israel, at least here in Jerusalem, are very careful about putting leftover bread out in public instead of throwing it away.  There is good reason to believe that the underlying reason has to do with providing for the community’s poor, but no one I’ve asked has ever been able to find me a definitive source for this. Some people say they leave bread out “for the poor”, and others “to feed the birds”. I imagine that there are quite a few people who put their leftover bread outside because “that’s what we do”.

Josa Bivin talks about the custom in her article “Lechem – Bread” on the En Gedi Resource Center site. She writes:

The importance of sharing one’s bread with the poor has remained in the Jewish consciousness until today. Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, they save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections on the sides of the carts. That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.

She goes on to say that once she saw “a young, poorly dressed man” take some bread that had been left out this way. I’ve never seen anyone take it, and a person would have to be in desperate straits indeed to dig the bread out of the trash bag I saw on my street this afternoon.

If you really wanted to feed the poor, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to use the day-old bread for toast or croutons or bread pudding? Then you could give the money you save by not buying bread the next day to the local soup kitchen that provides nourishing meals free of charge to anyone who needs them.

Even if someone is desperate enough to dig a piece of bread out of that rubbish, what is the cost to their dignity? What does it say about a society that puts food for the poor in a bag tied to the rubbish bin? Not only is the poor person who has to feed himself or his family debased, but so is the giver. There is no dignity in this transaction for anyone.

At least it doesn’t go completely to waste.

Wednesday Video: Had Gadya

Today’s video features Shirana, the women’s choir of the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, Israel sing Had Gadya.

Had Gadya (חד גדייא) is a folk song traditionally sung in Aramaic at the end of the Passover Seder (the liturgical meal that opens the week-long holiday). The lyrics are in Aramaic and are a kind of Middle Eastern “This is the House that Jack Built”.

In this video the choir sing a version of the song by Israeli singer-songwriter and cultural icon Chava Alberstein, with lyrics in Aramaic and Hebrew. The song was banned from Israeli radio during the 1980s. (You can read more about Alberstein in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Archive, including reference to  the political songs on her controversial twenty-eighth album Mehagrim (Immigrants).

This is the last verse of the traditional song:

Then came the Holy One
Blessed be G-d
And destroyed the Angel of Death
That killed the butcher
That slew the ox
That drank the water
That quenched the fire
That burned the sticks
That beat the dog
That bit the cat
That ate the little goat
My father bought for two zuzim

In Alberstein’s version, in addition to having a different melody the song is sung in both Aramaic and Hebrew. Alberstein also added a final verse  in Hebrew and this is what led to the song’s banning from radio broadcast:

I questioned only four
Tonight I have one more:
How much longer will the circle of horror persist
Striker and stricken, beater and beaten,
When will this madness, when will it end,
And what is different for you, what is different?
I am different this year
I used to be a lamb and a peaceful goat
Today I am a tiger and a preying coyote
I was a dove already, and a ram
Today I dont know who I am
(My father bought for 2 zuzim)
And once more, we start from the beginning

I am pleased to present Shirana singing Had Gadya.

Wednesday Video: Conservatory of Music – Laboratory of Peace

Today’s video is a presentation of one of my favorite coexistance and dialogue projects in Jerusalem: the Magnificat Institute of Jerusalem, a music conservatory where young Christians, Muslims and Jews study, play and perform together under the guidance of Christian, Muslim and Jewish teachers. The pupils have the possibility of earning a European Union-recognized diploma, as well. The Institute also participates in and hosts a number of international music competitions.

This video is a “medley” of promotional videos that introduce the Institute and some of its programs. I hope you enjoy it.

Added 18.04.2013: Comments on this post are now closed.

Birthday Week 2013 – Take 2

This is wonderful. Two days ago, students from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance created a “flashwaltz” in the lobby of the new inpatient tower on Hadassah Hospital’s Ein Karem campus. This is the campus where the Sharett Institute of Oncology is located, where I receive treatment. I haven’t seen the new Davidson Tower yet, and am not especially anxious to sample its many amenities for inpatients!

With thanks to @ElaineSchattner, who tweeted the link yesterday, please enjoy Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers.

Guest Post by Aliza Bat-Ami: Another View of the BDS Campaign

A couple of weeks ago, on Wednesday, the 16th of January, I posted a controversial video called “Israel & Palestine: a very short introduction“. At that time, a very dear, longtime friend of mine who writes under the name Aliza Bat-Ami left a detailed comment, disagreeing with the message of that video. You can read her comment here

In the interest of respectful and open dialogue even (especially!) when people strongly disagree on important matters, I invited Aliza to write a guest post of rebuttal. I am honored to present it here. You are welcome to leave your comments here, or to email Aliza directly by clicking on her name below the title.

Thank you, Aliza, for allowing me to publish your response.

Another view of the B.D.S. campaign.

 Aliza Bat-Ami

The video “Israel and Palestine – a very short introduction.” starts by stating that  Jews fled Europe after “harsh persecution” and  that they were encourage by “the Zionists”  to came the Land “where the Jews had an age-old connection“(my emphasis).

We have indeed:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
…. How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

These words, written over two and a half millennia ago, written at the time of the first forced dispersion from the Land of Israel to Babylon, sum up our connection to this place.

But, after many years and much pain and difficulties, in 1948 the modern State of Israel was declared.   The video makes it very clear that the Arabs rejected the proposed two-state solution presented them by the British (and have consistently rejected every offer since.)

Much happened thereafter, events which were presented in the video in a biased, simplistic way, ending up with the supposed “land-grab” of the West Bank.
[Use these links for accurate information on the formation of Israel, about Israel and the West Bank , the peace process, and the Palestinian refugee problem.]

The video concludes by a call to boycott, disinvest and sanction

Israel (B.D.S) for her deeds, as this will lead to a (non-specified) just peace.

This isn’t going to happen, for the following reasons.

First and foremost it is clear that the underlying aim of much of the anti-Israel B.D.S. movement (and certainly as presented in this video), is the destruction of Israel.  Even Norman Finkelstein, no friend of Israel, makes this point (see video).  The threat of extinction is no inducement to change, rather it encourages protective strategies. So why expect Israel to respond to such threats by national suicide?

Secondly, the video runs together the unsettled issue of Israel and the Palestinians, and the situation of Arab citizens of Israel. These are not the same issue at all.
Yes, things could be better but the video also makes no mention of the equality afforded to Israeli Arab, nor the fact that prominent and outspoken Arab critics of Israel like Ahmed Tibi and Haneen Zoabi sit in the Knesset, nor to the presence of Arab Israelis in all parts of society, including the High Court and universities. It also ignores the issue of obligations of all citizens in a democracy (Article 29 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Yes, things could be better in the administered territories too, but B.D.S.  campaigns do nothing to help the Palestinians improve their lives, begin state building, or develop democratic institutions. They do not advance peace but only make the parties more inflexible.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not black and white. Arguments supporting boycotts ignore the context of Israel’s actions in order to justify penalizing only Israel.

Those behind the boycott efforts never mention the on-going terrorism that Israelis have suffered from, and they never mention groups like the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Have you actually read these documents?  In case you think I am exaggerating, here they are in plain English: The Palestinian National Charter: 1968 ; the Hamas Covenant 1988The Hezbollah Manifesto  (from the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the aim of the  ‘Cedar revolution’ site; or  from a pro-Hezbollah site, here).

The world should really pay all the Arab leaders the courtesy of listening to what they say, believing them and taking them at their word. What is meant in effect is the dismantling of the State of Israel and the dispersion (or elimination) of the Jewish population.

The video also mentions the USA as a “terrible friend” to Israel, supporting and enabling all “crimes”. At least in that the B.D.S. supporters might be encouraged by the commencement of President Barack Hussein Obama’s second term. He might well prove to be a “friend” to Israel more to their taste. If that happens, I hope that the Jews will turn to a different Friend, the God of Israel, who has a longer track-record of commitment and involvement with events here.

What do I hope for our future?  Peace and health and the possibility of happiness.  And yes, righteousness and justice at all levels in my society.
I would like to live in a society without want and conflict, where all members take equal part and also give back equally.

If you want to do something for peace, then come and visit with an open mind, and take part in some constructive joint program (e.g. Abraham Fund,) to help all the different people here.

The position that Israel is the cause of the sad situation in the Middle East ( at the very least)  has become the unexamined and – mostly – unchallenged dogma of current world opinion, especially in my own native land of BritainBut does that make it factual and true?
The truth of these allegations can easily be checked online by consulting source documents, or summaries such as these links (the formation of Israel Israel and the West Bank , the peace process, and the Palestinian refugee problem.)

Wednesday Video: Peace in the Middle East

This video is unabashedly political. It takes sides. From where I sit on the ground, it presents an accurate picture of the history and current state of affairs in Israel and Palestine. (“Where I sit” is precisely on the “Green Line“.)

This video will make some people, including some people I love, angry. I am sorry, deeply sorry. At the same time, I cannot live the life I have left without testifying to truth.

The video is from the Facebook page Israel Loves Palestine. There is also a page called Palestine Loves IsraelPeace is important. Peace does not come easily. Often, peace can only be attained through pain and sacrifice. 

Have you done anything for peace today?

Mamilla Cemetery

A little sight-seeing today.

Mamilla Cemetery is located just west of the Old City of Jerusalem. The space has been the site of places of worship, shrines and cemeteries since the Byzantine period (IV to VI centuries) and early Islamic period. Thousands of Christians were buried there in the pre-Islamic period, and a church stood on the site. It has been an Islamic cemetery at least since the Rashidun Caliphate (VII century), except during the Crusader period. In 1927 the Supreme Muslim Council, which was the high authority for the Muslim community under the British mandate, decreed an end to burials at Mamilla and declared it a historic site.

When the cemetery came under Israeli control in 1948, it was declared an abandoned property and as such came under the authority of the Guardianship of Absentee Property. By 1967, both vandalism and official building schemes had brought much of the cemetery to a derelict condition. There is still a great deal of controversy surrounding Israeli actions and plans with regard to the site.

I went through a corner of Mamilla Cemetery on a walk with my friend S this week, and took a few pictures with my telephone.

Mamilla Cemetery seen from the street. Note the one completely restored tomb among the many ruins.

Marker in Hebrew and Arabic, reading:
State of Israel
Protected Site
Keep this place clean.
Please do not introduce animals or alcoholic beverages.

A shrine (I believe) in the cemetery grounds. There are a number of Sufi shrines here, as well as the tombs of other mystics, emirs, muftis, and Jerusalem notables, as it was the largest Muslim cemetery in the area.

The door to the shrine.

The inside of the structure, taken with flash between the bars of the window. The presence of plastic jugs and bags of cement seem to indicate that it is under repair and renovation.

Live Tweeting a Rocket Attack Alarm

From my Twitter account (@knotellin) less than an hour ago:

14:15     Air raid sirens in Jerusalem RIGHT NOW.

                Sitting on the floor, back to windows, under a stone archway. Waiting for boom or all clear.

                I hear military aircraft, presume they are Israeli.

14:19     Israel GPO tweeted explosion was heard. I didn’t hear anything and I’m not moving until I hear it’s okay.

14:23 Israeli police say no rockets struck within Jerusalem city limits.

14:29 Calming down, slowing breathing, getting up to drink some water and go back to what I was doing. Welcome to my life.

The first three tweets were pretty much one right after the other, as fast as I could type, hunched over the iPad while I sat on the floor between the kitchen and main room, back against the natural stone wall. I’ve corrected the speed-and-stress-induced typos in all of them.

It was over very quickly for us here. According to the army spokesman, the rocket fell south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in an unnamed Palestinian village. (Precise locations are not given so as not to assist the rocket launch crews in perfecting their aim.)

I’m calm now, but it will take a while to get rid of the tension headache.

It was surreal, sitting there and reading tweets about being cheerful and booksales and medical confidentiality issues with email while I tweeted the rocket alert and waited for an explosion. It was kind of good, though. A good, grounding reminder that normal life goes on and all this is just a little blip. Okay, a big blip, but still just a blip.

I don’t really know why I’m posting this, other than that it seem like a real good post for my “Scenes from my life” category.

Cancer and War

“Israel and the Palestinian Territories Today” from news.bbc.co.uk.

Today is, I think, the sixth day of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. It did not come out of the blue, but many people believe that it is aggressive and disproportional. Some see it as a cynical political exercise at the expense of human lives, and still others believe it is a simple case of self-defense. I don’t intend to talk explicit politics in this blog, but I’d like to talk about how the situation affects me.

I live in Jerusalem, a city that is holy to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, so my area is a low priority for organized hostilities. My neighborhood, however is right on the Green Line, so it is a focus of what I call “street-level nationalistic violence” – violent attacks on individuals or small groups by a person who may or may not be part of a larger organization. These include bus bombings, stabbings, shootings and attacks with heavy machinery, as well as acts of nationalistically motivated criminal vandalism ranging from uprooting entire olive groves to spray painting racist graffiti at sensitive locations.

I have experienced being shot at and life under rocket attack, and I’ve blogged a little bit about my own experience in a bus bombing. Immediately following that experience I was virulently racist and radically right-wing. I’m not proud of that any more than I can take credit for the change that has occurred in me. However, having been such a person, I feel that I am well-situated to understand, at least on an emotional level, the more radical points of view in this conflict.

One thing that strikes me is the extent of “otherization” by both sides. With exaggerated and often false statements, people separate the opponent from their own daily experience by such a huge divide that the opponent almost stops being seen as a person. This is usually coupled with demonization, adding up to disgusting statements that serve only to increase feelings of anger and self-righteousness.

It isn’t unusual in such a situation to hear the word “cancer” bandied about. They are a cancer in the land. We have to cut out this cancer surgically. They are spreading and taking over like a pernicious cancer. I have heard all these statements by people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was thinking about that in terms of my own cancer. As you know, I don’t like the bellicose vocabulary of oncology, terms like “fighting cancer”. In “Have I survived yet? Part I” I wrote:

I don’t use the vocabulary of war in talking about cancer because war has a winner and a loser and no one knows which side is which until the dust clears. I prefer the language of coexistence: living with. The cancer and I share space. That doesn’t mean I don’t treat the disease, and I’d have infinitely preferred not to have to share, but it does mean that I do not invest my mental, emotional and spiritual energy in battle and thoughts of destruction. 

Is it surprising that I approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same way? Neither group is going anywhere and it is just not possible for one to destroy the other without being itself destroyed, so wouldn’t it be better (saner, more logical, easier) to find a way to coexist? Coexistence is not easy and it is not without pain, but I have found it infinitely less draining than spending my energy in hatred and struggle. (And there I am talking about cancer and war, both.)

One of the things we know about cancer is that it is a terrible drain on the body’s resources, physically and emotionally. Cachexia, fatigue and depression associated with cancer can be seen as evidence of this. We also know that war is terribly costly to a nation, in both economic and social terms. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is not “the other” who is the cancer on the land; the real cancer is war and aggression.

Okay. I know I sound like the love child of a peacenik and a bliss ninny. Even so, I think I’m on to something here. Wouldn’t it be cool to relate to war and armed conflict as a disease that needs a cure? Would that kind of paradigm shift lead to better results?