Human capacity for learning is truly astounding.  One has only to look at my nephew, Arbel, to see just how incredible the brain is.  Of course, I am a little biased and likely to think that everything my nephew does is a work of genius, including his capacity to soil himself in such a manner that the only way to clean him off is to bathe him in the bathroom sink.

However, watching a baby learn something new is magical.

I’m fresh back from my annual three-week pilgrimage to Israel, where for the most part my days were spent hanging out exclusively with Arbel, who is now 10 months old.  Three full weeks of rolling around on the floor, shoveling food into a tiny yet bottomless pit, and baby talk (the entire family has regressed to a non-verbal stage where we coo at each other instead of forming sentences).  And yet in only three weeks, my brilliant nephew has sprinted forward on that path of child development.

Arbel likes to be carried around.  A lot!  Why crawl when you can be shepherded hither and yon with a much better view of the world?  And boy is this kid interested in the world around him, clambering all over you to get the best view of what the dog is doing, what’s in the mirror, or that leaf fluttering in the wind.  To facilitate this inexhaustible exploration of the world he has finally learned how to point.  At first it was a little like the queen of England holding out her hand to be kissed, but he has quickly figured out how to raise that oh so important index finger.  Of course now we’re all pointing that way too.

He’s also learned how to wave bye-bye, pull himself up into a standing position, and throw a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.  Surely this is a boy out outstanding ability, right?

Yes, yes, I know I’m getting carried away going on about how fantastic my nephew is.  Yes, I know you think I’m overdoing it, thinking the sun must shine out of his arse (it doesn’t for several good fecal reasons).  But what’s a doting uncle to do?  Change the subject?  Ok.

Other than my nephew, my trip did have a few other highlights.  One of those was participating in the Gilad Shalit march.  For those of you who don’t know, Gilad Shalit (www.gilad.org) is the soldier who was abducted from within Israeli territory by the Hamas over 4 years ago and is still being held hostage.  He has been refused visits by the International Red Cross to determine his condition, and only a few signs of life have been received since his capture.

Over a period of 12 days in late June, early July (11 of those on the march), his parents, joined by thousands of supporters, marched from their home in Mitzpe Hila in the western Galilee to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.  There his parents are camping out until the government does something to bring Gilad home.

I joined the march (along with my brother-in-law Idan, and my friend Jens who was visiting from Berlin) on day 10, and we marched from Modi’in up the main Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem highway to Latrun.

Sure, the opinions on how Gilad’s release should be orchestrated are varied, with much disagreement on all sides.  That is as it should be.  However, this march was not about agreeing on a solution.  It was simply a massive outpouring of support for a distraught family, with thousands marching peacefully under the relentless Israeli sun.  There was something unifying about the whole thing, much needed at a time when Israeli society is more fractious and despondent than ever before.  And it felt good to be a part of it, although I suspect that the march got far less attention in the world media than it deserves.  Far be it from the BBCs and CNNs of the world to report on anything as tedious as something peaceful coming out of Israel.

To be fair, I myself have grown weary of the constant lambasting that Israel has received lately.  I am not arguing that Israeli politicians haven’t made a total mess of things.  They certainly have, and I find it deeply and profoundly upsetting.  Actually, upsetting isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel.  It feels more like mourning.  But it is wearisome to live in the Diaspora and never hear another side to the ever-complicated story that is Israeli society.  I might even venture that the rich diversity of Israeli society and opinion is disregarded in favor of that juicy (and all too easy) news segment on the latest government screw up.

I wonder now if you, as you read this, are raising a finger and pointing, the word “but…” forming in your mind.

We could all learn a thing or two from Arbel.  When he points his finger it is simply to go investigate something new without prejudice.  He still has the capacity to look at a situation with fresh eyes.  And his appetite for investigation is tireless.  Because let’s face it, that fluttering leaf really does change depending on the angle you view it from.