Saturday, December 22, 2012

thoughts from London

I'm writing this from the lounge at the Central London Youth Hostel (a lovely place, by the way - would definitely recommend!) - there's a football match on tv (ATH vs. ZAR - side note, turns out ATH stands for Athletic Club Bilbao, which...aren't they all athletic? Is this one team particularly MORE athletic than the rest? If so, shouldn't they have won enough games that I would have heard about them? I'm just saying...), I'm drinking a Samuel Smith, and snacking on a piece of Cadbury chocolate. Yay, London!

I climbed to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral yesterday - 528 steps from the ground floor, all the way up to the Golden Gallery. I almost didn't do it - I had climbed to the Stone Gallery, which is 376 steps up - and I was feeling pretty tired. If you decide to go up to the Golden Gallery you don't get to change your mind - the staircase is too narrow to accommodate people going in both directions, so you have to go all the way up to access the down stairs. About a third of the way up to the Golden Gallery I began to seriously regret my decision when the nice stone steps turned into a very narrow, very winding, very see through wrought iron staircase. I will never understand why people do that - stairs should not be see-through, especially when you are 250 feet up in the air. Anyways, it was exhausting and a little terrifying and absolutely, totally, completely worthwhile. Which is probably the best way to describe this entire trip.

Wednesday night when I was taking a jet-lagged shower at the hostel, I kept thinking about how strange it was for me to get on a plane to London without any real idea of what I was going to do when I got here. It’s hard for me to believe – a few years ago, I'm not sure I would have come on this trip – I think instead I would have decided that it was too expensive, or the timing was too complicated, and let that be an excuse not to do something that might be a little scary. Granted, London isn't exactly a difficult place to travel to - I speak the language and can read all of the menus, which makes things way more comfortable. And I booked a hostel and bought a guidebook before I got on the plane. But I got on the plane without an itinerary worked out, and that's a big step for me.

I should mention, by the way, that the reason I'm here at all is because of the Limmud NY\Limmud UK Exchange. It happens every year - a few of our volunteers come to Limmud UK and a few of their volunteers come to Limmud NY, and we all have a chance to be a part of a broader international community and learn from each other. Or something like that. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Limmud NY for sending me here -I very much appreciate it!

I have done a huge amount of things since I got here on Thursday morning - the Tower of London + the Crown Jewels, Westminster Cathedral + Abbey, a walk through Westminster from Big Ben and Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square, fish and chips at a pub, a huge walk through the City (everything from the Savoy Hotel to St Paul's Cathedral to the London Bridge), afternoon tea at the Tate Modern plus several hours perusing the collection, the British Museum, the British Library, a walk through the West End, and tea at Fortum & Mason [thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me the means to treat myself to a fancy tea!]). My feet are sore, I am exhausted, I think I may never dry out completely, and I have loved every single moment of it. Except for the steps - I could've done without those.

So, given the extensive list of stuff I've done, I just want to share a few recurring thoughts I've been having while I've been wandering the city.

  • I keep finding myself staring at hugely expensive things and thinking, “how many people could they feed if they sold this?” I ask myself this question on a regular basis - I remember having particularly strong feelings about it when I was in the Vatican Museum a few years ago with Jesse. It's the churches that I find especially difficult to reconcile. They are so incredibly gorgeous, and holy - and I appreciate the aesthetic and historical importance of places like Westminster and St. Paul's - but its difficult not to wonder. And the Crown Jewels - that stuff is incredible - it's beautiful, it's historical, it's occasionally even functional - but I have a feeling that the Queen would be able to feed a lot of people with all those diamonds.
  • I have been noticing how much differently I feel about cities after living in NYC for two and a half years. I've been riding the Underground without fear; I even took a city bus yesterday so that I could sit on the second level. I navigate crowds with ease - London walkers have nothing on the tourists near the Pardes office in Midtown, or the visiting students at NYU. I don't know when I turned into the kind of person who could just...wander around a city alone for three days - but I am glad that it happened.
  • And I have been thinking about how incredibly grateful I am to all of the people who supported me through the last few weeks – phone calls, encouraging words and emails and texts, baked goods – I have such an amazing group of people in the world, and I have no idea how I got so lucky. Seriously. I love you.
So. That's that! It's time for me to get some sleep, so that I can get up bright and early tomorrow and head to Limmud for four-and-a-half intensive days of Jewish learning.

Monday, October 15, 2012

D'var Torah: Bereishit

This is the d'var torah I gave last Friday night at Shir HaMa'alot, a minyan here in Brooklyn. If you've read other things I've written, you might think that some of this sounds familiar - and you would be right, because I completely, unashamedly stole from myself.

Every year, I’m a little surprised by the number of people I see celebrating the end of the chagim. It’s a very specific type of celebration – the closest analogue I have is the way that people celebrate at the end of a session of summer camp. The idea is that Jewish time is over, and now we can get back to the real world and our regularly scheduled lives.

I think I find it surprising because I don't feel like anything is over. When Simchat Torah ends, it’s not like Judaism is over - we just go back to the beginning of the cycle and start all over again with Parsha Bereishit. And it’s not even a new beginning – we’ve heard it all before. “Bereishit bara elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz;" “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." and on and on, etc., etc.

To live in the Jewish community is to operate at a heightened awareness of time – we are living in the middle of four concentric circles – the daily rhythm of prayer surrounded by the weekly rhythm of Shabbat, the monthly cycle of Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly cycle of the holidays. I sometimes find that it can be exhausting and overwhelming to contemplate the idea of starting this cycle over yet again. After all, how am I supposed to pay attention to the words of Bereishit, when I’ve heard them at least 25 times before?

There’s a fantastic scene in The Muppet Movie, when all of the Muppets are gathered around a campfire in the desert and Gonzo sings one of my favorite songs of all time: 

     This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.
     Almost unreal,'s too soon to feel yet.
     Close to my soul and yet so far away;
     I'm going to go back there someday.

Clearly Gonzo isn’t singing about Jewish time or the Torah – in fact, he’s an alien singing about an experience of flight – but nevertheless, the words resonate. "This looks familiar, vaguely familiar" - we’ve been here before.

In this week’s parsha, God literally creates time by creating the stars and the sun and the moon, separating between day and night, and dictating that the seventh day will be a day of rest. In this conception, time is a very regular and linear progression. Day by day, week by week, year by year, time passes. But there are other ways for us to conceive of time.

Over the summer, I read an essay from Contents magazine called “10 Timeframes” by Paul Ford. You might have heard me talk about it before, because I completely fell in love with it. The piece covers a number of different topics – but my favorite by far is Ford’s conception of the measurement and value of time. “The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats,” he writes.

“Even if the world were totally silent, even in a dark room covered in five layers of foam, you’d be able to count your own heartbeats. …There is an immense opportunity to look at our temporal world and think about calendars and clocks and human behavior, to think about each interaction as a specific unit, to take careful note of how we parcel out moments.”
It would be reasonable, right now, for me to talk about how important it is for you to value your time, and to use it wisely. But the truth is that I’m not particularly concerned with how you spend your personal time. You are people with gifts – you are skilled and talented and young and bright - and you’re going to make smart decisions. I don’t need to tell you to spend your heartbeats wisely, because I’m pretty sure that you already do.

What I want us to think about instead is, what does it mean that an entire year's worth of time can pass and yet we find ourselves exactly where we started out, at the beginning of Bereishit yet again?

I know that my life looks nothing like it did the last time I heard these words. In the past six months alone I quit my job, attempted to bike from Chicago to D.C., got clipped by a bus in Pittsburgh, and started graduate school. I made new friends, gained new family members, mourned the loss of dear ones, and felt those wounds begin to heal. I feel, in many ways, like an entirely different person.

My point is this: it’s true – the text of B’reishit isn’t any different than it was a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that – and it’s not going to be any different a year in the future. But maybe the point of reading the same things year after year after year is that they don’t change – but we do. What we’re doing when we revisit the parsha for the umpteenth time isn’t reading the words of the Torah, but rather, we’re reading ourselves.

My challenge to you, then, is not to celebrate the end of the chagim, leaving Jewish time and returning to the real world. It’s to embrace Jewish time, and let it guide the real world. Whether we’re counting the stars in the sky to calculate the end of Shabbat, or counting our heartbeats as we interact with friends and family - let’s spend the next year eagerly anticipating the return of the chagim, embracing the weekly encounter with a familiar story as a chance to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

Shabbat shalom.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

labour of love

Then a ploughman said, "Speak to us of Work."
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
Work is love made visible.
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Well, friends, this week has certainly not been what I thought it would be.

When I last checked in, I had been very recently hit by a bus - a sentence that still sounds crazy to me. It's been almost a week, and while most of the swelling has gone away and the scabs have started to peel, my bruises are still colorful and my hand is still in pain. It's incredibly frustrating to be limited by what feels like such a minor injury; my legs are strong and ready to cycle but my hand simply can't bear the weight and constant bumps provided by our routes this week. I'm hoping to take a symbolic final ride into D.C. tomorrow, and then celebrate the accomplishments of my friends at the Hazon celebration at the D.C. JCC on Wednesday night.

As I haven't ridden since last Wednesday, I've been given ample opportunity to experience an entirely different side of life on the Cross-USA Ride. One of the interesting things about this trip has been the sense that we are very much engaged in a learning process; though Hazon did this same ride in 2000, almost all institutional memory of how it was planned has been lost and so our ride started from scratch. This has resulted in some wonderful things, and has also resulted in some challenges. Figuring out the balance of things like nights spent camping vs. nights on various floors or which days are too short, too long, or somewhere in between all require an ability to adjust based on the group attempting the ride. Some pieces have been set in place for months, while others seem to be determined at a whim. It gives everything a bit of a "fly by the seat of our pants" thrill that is both exciting and exhausting.

Still, there's no doubt that whether or not things are running smoothly, our staff is doing a tremendous amount of work. The logistics of a trip like this are very complicated, and Garth, Adrienne, and Steven have been doing their best to make it run efficiently. I've spent the last several riding days in the U-Haul with Garth, accompanying him on grocery shopping trips, setting up temporary offices in coffee shops along the route, and getting to campsites early to start the process of making camp and cooking dinner. I've shifted into a murky territory between rider and staff member where I have more information than the rest of the riders but don't necessarily have the authority to make any decisions or act on that info. It's not always the easiest place to be, but it's giving me a lot to think about in terms of effective leadership, planning, and facilitating group dynamics.

Being in this in-between space has also given me a chance to give back to the group. So many people have assisted me over the past week - helping me carry my bags, set up my tent, wash my dishes - often before I can even ask. So I've done my best to repay that love and kindness with little acts of my own - making sure that everyone has all of the information that they need on their way into camp every night, making sure that there are snacks available for the riders, finding things like sunscreen and detergent on the U-Haul, etc. It's the tedious stuff that falls through the cracks towards the end of a big trip - but I'm happy to do it because I know it helps.

I have a lot of complex feelings heading into the last day of riding. I'm disappointed that things have ended this way, but also proud of myself for diving headfirst into this adventure. I trying not to let an accident ruin the months of enjoyment I've gotten in the planning and training (and shopping!) for this trip. I did things I never thought I could do, including bike 88 miles in one day. I've made some amazing friends, biked some beautiful stretches of the country, and taken a much needed vacation. Though my body is tired, I feel mentally refreshed and re-energized. As I transition from Hazon Cross-USA Rider to Wexner Fellow and then NYU graduate student, I hope I'm able to maintain that feeling of energy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

a story for the grandkids

I'm okay.

It looks and sounds much worse than it actually is.

Yesterday I was hit by a bus:

There's so much else I want to share, though, that this has to take the back seat for a moment.

My week started off with a difficult but amazing day - because we got a little lost heading out of Dayton, I wound up biking 88 miles, the first twenty-five of which were in the rain. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying - it's been a long time since I've played in the rain, and it was certainly nice not to be sweating in the heat, but it is definitely a little scary to bike in the rain. The redeeming factor of this extra-long ride was our stay at the Columbus JCC - after the Graeters ice cream welcoming us and a little time in the hot tub with my fellow lady riders, I felt like a whole new person.

Columbus to Zanesville was another great ride - I never thought I'd think of 66 miles as short, but after Sunday's ride, it felt like a piece of cake. I stopped with several riders at a cafe along the way for a latte (my first cup of coffee on the ride - what a luxury!) and what may have been the best cream puff I have ever eaten. We camped out in Zanesville at an RV campground, and because it was a clear night I was able to sleep in my tent without the rain fly, and fell asleep watching the stars.

Tuesday we rode from Zanesville, OH to Wheeling, WV. This was without a doubt the most difficult day of riding - over 86 miles, we climbed more than 6,000 feet - that is a huge quantity of hills, in case you weren't sure. By the time we got to the synagogue, I thought my legs might have turned to jelly. Our amazing burrito dinner and air-conditioned sleeping room did a lot to make up for the tough day.

Ride days are like camp days - each one seems to last for a week - so I feel like I've been here for months already, and am undergoing big changes. In the twelve days I've been here, I think my entire relationship to food has shifted. I eat so much more than I ever have before - we eat five or six times each day, depending on the length of the ride - and my cravings seem to change as the day goes on, letting me know when I need more salt, sugar, or protein. The best part, though, is the moment when I get what I need - taking a bite of egg salad or avocado, it feels like my whole body is happy to get the fuel that it wants.

Sleep is also an increasingly precious commodity. I get around seven hours per night, but can easily sleep for eleven or twelve given the opportunity. Carpeted floors seem infinitely more luxurious than hardwood, beds with real pillows are an occasional dream. I'm constantly reminding hosts that my standards are fairly low - no need to apologize for the freshly cooked eggs and fruit salad for breakfast; yesterday I ate cold cereal out of a mug with a fork while standing around waiting for the sun to rise (to be fair, this has only happened once).

Then there's the question of quality of roads and paths. I've become a little bit of a connoisseur - paved, shady paths through the woods are the best, followed by pavement in the sun. Freshly paved roads are an indulgence; crushed gravel paths are to be tolerated. And then there are the cities - which brings us to yesterday, and the aforementioned bus incident. Empty suburban streets are the best, but we can't always ride through them. And sometimes our directions to the bike paths are a little unclear, and we get hopelessly lost on our way into a city like Pittsburgh.

I was riding with Shira yesterday - we had made it safely through about 60 miles of trail riding, when we lost our way in Pittsburgh. After a few back and forths, we finally crossed over the Birmingham Bridge into Oakland, and started biking up Forbes avenue towards the JCC. We were somewhere between 2-4 miles away when we hit a red light. I stopped at an intersection in front of a bus. The light turned green, the bus and I both started moving forward. I noticed the bus trying to speed past me, and moved over to the right to get out of the way - unfortunately for me, the bus driver misjudged the distance between the side of his vehicle and the sidewalk. I could see my options disappearing in front of me; and then boom! The side of the bus hit the side of my hand and my upper arm, and that was that.

I can't lie, it hurt quite a lot. A Good Samaritan grabbed some ice; an EMT stopped to check me out, and then the emergency vehicles started arriving. Four police cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance later, I declined an ambulance ride and had Garth, my friend and Hazon staffer, drive me to the closest hospital to get checked out. 6 x-rays show almost no damage - there's a possible fracture at the base of my left ring finger, but the probability of that is very low. I've got a pretty big bruise\road rash combo on my upper arm, as pictured above. I'm on a regimen of ice and ibuprofen for both, and instructions to wait it out for a few days and see how I feel. I'm taking tomorrow off from riding, and will hopefully be able to get back on my bike on Sunday or Monday. 

I don't really know what the lesson is here. I was riding safely, and I seem to have come out of things in pretty good shape. Pittsburgh may have fallen off of my list of places to live, but that's not such a tragedy. I already knew that I had an incredible community here, but it has been proven to me yet again how lovely they are.

So I think I'll end the way I began:

I'm okay.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

marking boundaries

"Do you all come here from different places?"
"There are some here from Siberia, some from Lapland, and I can see one or two from Iceland."
"But don't they fight each other for the pasture?"
"Dear me, you are a silly," she said. "There are no boundaries among the geese. How can you have boundaries, if you fly? You humans would have to stop fighting, in the end, if you really took to the air."
—T.H. White, The Once and Future King
I'm sitting in bed in my host family's house in Dayton, Ohio after a wonderful Shabbat of rest and relaxation. The bed was comfortable, the food was amazing, and the company was excellent. Thank you to the Green family for being such great hosts!

I almost don't know where to start this post. So many things have happened over the last few days that it feels like a blog post can't even begin to describe them all.

The last time I wrote, I was sitting on the floor in JFK airport, waiting out a flight delay due to a massive system of thunderstorms. Tonight, I'm waiting with my fellow house guests waiting to hear whether our start tomorrow will be delayed due to weather. It's easy to feel frustrated by the rain - it can be very inconvenient when traveling by bicycle - but after spending several hot, dry days in the drought-ridden cornfields of Indiana, my perspective is starting to shift. I'd much prefer an inconvenient rainstorm if it means that the farmers I've seen will have an easier time of it.

On my second day of riding, I stopped for a break with Joel, one of my fellow riders, to grab a drink of water in the shade. In rural Indiana, shade can only be found in one place - a tree in someone's front yard. Despite the fact that we'd ridden almost 100 miles completely undetected, we managed to pick a yard with people in it, and wound up engaging in a twenty minute conversation about everything from the economics of wind farming to backyard gardening.

What struck me the most about the conversation was how much we had in common. On the surface, we were incredibly different - to them I must have seemed a privileged, naive Yankee while to me they looked like fairy stereotypical country farmers. It became quickly evident, however, that we share a belief that it's important to know where your food comes from and how it's been grown. For them, this means raising five cows every year which they transport to Lafayette, IN to slaughter, and then distribute the meat to various family members to eat during the year. Clearly I don't raise my own cows in Brooklyn, but I do my best to learn how my food is being grown and where it comes from. 

We didn't talk about politics or religion - not polite conversations to begin on the side of the road with strangers - but I feel relatively certain that our opinions on these things were different. Regardless, we were able to share a really lovely interaction because of our shared interests. I wonder if our politicians would be able to create more good in the world if only they could focus the conversation on our common values rather than our differences.

Other ride highlights include a home stay with Philip "Skippy" Schlossberg (Purdue Hillel Director and Camp Judaea staff member from my youth), a dip in the pool at the marvelous BJE\JCC complex in Indianapolis, and an afternoon spent riding from Indianapolis to Muncie with Rabbi Steve Greenberg. This week we'll be crossing through Ohio into West Virginia and then on into Pennsylvania - you can follow the ride on Tumblr for photo updates from the road!

Friday, July 27, 2012

counting heartbeats

Hands down, the most common response to the sentence “I’m biking from Chicago to D.C. with Hazon” has been “You’re doing WHAT?!” It’s often followed by a “that sounds amazing,” but that initial moment of incredulity stands. Trust me, I get it – I often ask myself the same question. I’ve given a variety of answers to the “why” of it, but until I sat down to write this I don’t think I realized how unsatisfactory they all were. So I’m trying again, but this time in writing. Hopefully the drafting process will help.

I recently read an essay from Contents magazine called “10 Timeframes” by Paul Ford. You may have heard me talk about it before, because I completely fell in love. The piece covers a number of different topics – but my favorite by far is Ford’s conception of the value of time. “There are 200 of you in this auditorium,” he writes. “So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.” If only we could all think of our lives this way – how infinitely more valuable every moment could become. A minute can be worth so much more than sixty seconds.

Within the Jewish community we’re already operating at a heightened awareness of time – our rituals create their own time-frame. To live a Jewish life is to live inside of four concentric circles of time – the daily rhythm of prayer surrounded by the weekly rhythm of Shabbat, the monthly cycle of Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly cycle of the holidays. Halacha is often incredibly specific about timing, and our lunar calendar is a complex system of leap months and precise counting. But knowing precisely when a task is supposed to happen or how long it’s supposed to take has little to do with whether or not you know how to value the experience.

I’ve found myself struggling with these calendars over the last year. Going to synagogue on a Friday night used to be such a pleasure for me, but recently has come to feel like a chore. The time I used to spend reading d’vrei torah and engaging in the study of Jewish texts has slowly been replaced with a Netflix queue and the vast universe of social media (I have, at last count, a Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook account along with three separate email addresses). While I place real value on working in a Jewish context and living a Jewish life, recently I’ve struggled to live up to that value.

Some of it can be attributed to professional burnout – when your Jewish life and your professional life are one and the same, Jewish experiences become work experiences and finding time for personal reflection can be a challenge. This is a common enough experience among my peers; it’s definitely a topic I’ve discussed before. A part of it can certainly be attributed to the shifting nature of my Jewish identity. The more I have learned and practiced, the harder it has become for me to find a place to pray that meets all of my needs spiritually and mentally. And a piece of it is simply due to social anxieties – sometimes navigating the community piece of a Jewish community is even more challenging than the Jewish piece. 

When I was twelve years old, my parents flew Jesse and I to Albuquerque, rented an R.V., and drove us around the national parks of the south-west for three weeks (we didn’t banish Ari from the family that summer, he just happened to be in Israel). I remember that particular vacation well, and not just because in typical Naomi fashion I came down with Strep throat and vomited on the side of a hiking path in Bryce Canyon (or was it Canyonlands?). I’m not sure I would have been able to articulate this at the time, but looking back on that vacation I feel nothing but awe over the sheer quantity of natural beauty we saw. I hope that while I was standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon I was able to appreciate the vastness of the experience and not just complain about being tired, hungry, or bored.

If you ask me why I’m biking from Chicago to D.C., I’ll probably talk about raising awareness for sustainable agriculture. I will talk about the physical and mental challenge of cycling at least sixty miles a day for three weeks straight. I will probably say something about wanting to go on an adventure. All of these things are true, but the truest truth of all comes back to Paul Ford, who wraps things up in his piece by saying this:
The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats. Even if the world were totally silent, even in a dark room covered in five layers of foam, you’d be able to count your own heartbeats.… If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?
In the last few months, I have lost perspective on how to spend my heartbeats wisely, and I think the best way I can get it back is to put myself somewhere that I can hear them.

What does that mean in practical terms? I'm not entirely certain. I don't think I can comfortably turn off everything with an off switch and ignore the world for the next three weeks - but I can change the way I interact. As of Sunday, I'm planning on disconnecting from everything beyond my email and this blog. I'm going to surround myself with natural beauty, and I'm going to figure out how many heartbeats a minute and a mile and a day of biking is worth. I look forward to letting you know how it goes.

It's not too late to donate to my fundraising campaign - Hazon and I appreciate the support!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

thank you, fred phelps?

It's been a long time, but a few experiences I've had recently are starting to synthesize in my head, and I think writing about them might be useful.

I had a difficult time living in Israel. I don't think anyone finds that surprising. I felt challenged every day, by a multitude of things - the fact that I couldn't buy the cheese I wanted in the grocery store, the frustration of being unable to explain what I wanted to the bank, and things far more serious, like my inability to pray at the Kotel with a tallit and the way the Israeli government treats minorities. I felt angry, all of the time. I wanted to scream at people in the street - how can you live like this? Why don't you do something about it? Can't you see how absurd this all is?

For the past four weeks, I've been reading A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I read part of it my first year at Brandeis, and though it was recommended that I read the whole thing I never did (for those of you reading this who paid for my college education, don't worry - it was an extra assignment, not actual homework). It's fascinating, and I think I appreciate it much more now then I would have then, given the life experiences I've had, and the greater intellectual understanding I have of issues surrounding poverty and the treatment of minorities in the States. As I read about the treatment of Native Americans in the Revolutionary period, and the treatment of African Americans in the post-Civil War period, and the government's treatment of unions and minorities and women and preferential treatment to the rich and to industry, I started to feel a familiar anger. How does something like this happen? How do we let it get so bad?

It all came to a head on Saturday afternoon, outside the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans, also known as the current home of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. I had a short break from programming for the day, and so I had gone on a walk to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and coffee (never having been to New Orleans before, I felt I had to go straight to the source). The walk was beautiful - the French Quarter is lovely, and the sun was shining. I was feeling incredibly relaxed and happy as I strolled back to the hotel, and then I saw them - the protesters.

A small group - maybe 5-10 people. Men and women, old and young. They all carried signs - "God hates fags," "Jews killed Jesus," "God hates you," "You're going to Hell" - it seemed the Westboro Baptist Church had decided to grace us with their presence.

It was a shock to my system. Thankfully, other than one incident of verbal harassment from an ass on the streets of Manhattan and one unfortunate soul on the El in Chicago, I have had an incredibly easy transition back to life in the States. Everything was exactly as I remembered it when I was feeling so homesick in Jerusalem. But this - this was personal in a way that nothing else has been since I came back. This was very clearly a protest of a positive thing - a gathering of the Jewish community - and it hurt to witness.

When I was living in Israel, I didn't know how to love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I wasn't mentally comfortable with living that dichotomy. But standing outside of the Sheraton, witnessing the Westboro Baptist Church protest and feeling totally blindsided, I remembered the last time I felt that hatred - it was at the Kotel, on Rosh Chodesh, trying to pray while being verbally harassed by Haredim. Yet I do, and have always, loved America - despite our history, despite our faults and missteps and years of uncorrectable wrongs. I am an American, through and through - I love American culture and history and food. And I am completely capable of holding that duality in my head - of hating American manipulation of foreign governments, and our system of capitalism that values workers over families, and our history of oppression of both our own and other peoples - while also loving the Grand Canyon and bluegrass and college basketball. It's okay to do the same thing with Israel.

It's okay.

I can love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I know how. I do it every single day I walk down the street in New York and see homeless men and women sitting on the streets begging for spare change because society has abandoned them.

No one is asking me to accept every action of the Israeli government. I hope that my criticism can be welcomed and used in a constructive way. But I don't have to be 100% unhappy with Israel to do that. I am allowed to think fondly of eating hummus and pita at Hummus talpiot, and of enjoying the beauty of the Mediterranean beaches, and of hiking through the Golan and swimming in waterfalls. It doesn't mean I don't also see the negative. It just means I know how to balance the two.

I don't anticipate an immediate future where I want to pick up everything and move to Jerusalem. There would need to be some major changes on all sides of the equation. But I also know that the self-righteousness I was feeling (and that's clearly what it was, in retrospect) is almost as dangerous as the blind hatred of people like the Haredim who regularly throw chairs at my friends while they're davening and that of the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Nobody's right and nobody's wrong. We're all just trying to figure it out, one day at a time.
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