Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 148: Jordan

Let me start by saying this - I found out yesterday that my apartment has heated floors. A lot of other awesome and important things happened this week, and I plan to write about a lot of them, but I feel that if you learn nothing else about what I've been up to lately, you should know that my apartment has heated floors. My apartment in Jerusalem, where most buildings don't even have central heating, has heated floors. This is a geeky reference, but I feel like my apartment is a bit of a TARDIS - it's not necessarily bigger on the inside, but I feel like I'm surprised that I live here every time I open the front door.

My trip to Jordan with Sara was really, really great. We left last Sunday on a bus to Eilat, where we walked through the border crossing (did you know it costs 90.5 NIS to leave Israel if you go through the Rabin crossing?) and caught a cab to what turned out to be a pretty sketchy hostel in Aqaba. We spent Sunday evening wandering around downtown Aqaba, ate dinner at a falafel place and had some of what is now my second favorite dessert food, kanafeh (my favorite dessert is and will always be tiramisu). Kanafeh is two layers of phyllo dough around a filling of sweet cheese, topped with chopped pistachios and drenched in a simple sugar syrup. It sounds a little strange but it tastes amazing, and I plan to learn how to make it sometime this winter.

Monday we broke my only vacation rule (something that happened several times this past week) and woke up early so that we could get a cab out to Wadi Rum, where we were meeting up with our Bedouin guide Radi. Our cab driver, feeling the early hour, decided to stop for coffee before we left Aqaba, and he must have noticed how sleepy we looked because he kept offering us coffee and tea and despite the fact that we both said no several times, he still came back to the car with a cup of tea for each of us.

We met up with Radi at the entrance to Wadi Rum, and he drove us first to his sister's house in Wadi Rum village, where we were served more tea (this became a theme very quickly), and then we headed out into the wadi. Wadi is basically the Arabic word for valley, though it often implies that the valley contains some sort of dried out riverbed. Wadi Rum is the largest wadi in Jordan, and consists mainly of red sandstone mountains that have been carved into beautiful shapes by the wind. We spent the morning hiking and scrambling up to the Burdah Rock Bridge, which looks pretty much exactly like the arches in Arches National Park, but sturdier.

Monday night Radi's cousin joined us for dinner - he brought his oud, and the two of them played and sang for a while. Sara and I also took the opportunity to spend some time stargazing, which was incredibly beautiful - there is zero ambient light in Wadi Rum, so you can see what looks like a million stars. There were a ton of shooting stars, which I now realize was the end of the Geminid meteor shower, and we were in the perfect place to see them. We spent the night in a Bedouin tent in the dessert, curled up under some of the best blankets I've ever used, and then got up early on Tuesday for another climb - this time, we climbed Jabal Umm ad Dami, which is the highest mountain in Jordan. This sounds really impressive, until you learn that it only took an hour to climb, and it's only 1854 meters tall (compare that with the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley, at 6194 meters). Still, it was a beautiful view and well worth the climb.

Tuesday afternoon saw us heading back to Aqaba, where we met up with Sara's friend Sandra, and checked in to the Bedouin Moon Village on the south beach of Aqaba, where we stayed for the rest of our vacation. Tuesday and Wednesday consisted mainly of lounging - in bed, on the beach, by the pool... As Sara puts it, we were growing freckles, and it was wonderful.

Wednesday afternoon contained an attempt at snorkeling. Sandra decided not to go in the water at all - this should have been my first clue that things weren't going to work out well. We walked to the end of a pier, looked out over the water, and our guide told us to jump in. It turns out that diving right in really isn't a good strategy for snorkeling, because my body was not having it - I, having never been snorkeling before, was not really able to adjust to the limited quantity of oxygen I was getting in conjunction with the waves that kept crashing over my head. Sara, being much braver than I, actually swam out to the shipwreck with our guide, only to find that the wind had stirred up the water which had stirred up the dirt which meant that they couldn't actually see anything. All in all, not really a success, but a good attempt.

Thursday was pretty uneventful - we crossed back over the border into Israel, Sara managed to get another three-month tourist visa, and we spent most of the day on the bus from Eilat back to Jerusalem, where it was cold and rainy. Friday morning we returned to Women of the Wall, but I'm saving that for another post, because as always I am processing.

So that's that. Hannukah is over, Rosh Chodesh is over, and tomorrow I am headed back to school. We have four weeks of class left before the semester break, and only one day off, which is pretty strange for us... I guess my time here can't all be spent wandering around the desert. :)

Stay warm!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Day 135: Hebron (well, H2, at any rate), Tel Aviv, and Jordan

The Friday before yesterday, I went on a Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron. I've been trying to write this pretty much since then, but it hasn't gone very well. I had a lot of thoughts about being in Hebron, most of which went something like "this sucks. Israel is doing bad things to people in order to protect a population of 500 extremists and that sucks." Wash, rinse, and repeat. I don't know enough about Hebron to give an explanation of the situation - it's complex, like most things in Israel, and it's bloody and I just don't want to get it wrong. So instead, I will quote Encounter Point
"People on the left and the right see it all clearly. Everything's obvious to them. They have slogans, which they write on stickers and place on cars. But if, like me, your position is a full page, how can you make it fit on a sticker? Who will read it?"
I went to Tel Aviv yesterday for a human rights rally sponsored by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) with Sara, Sharon and Yonatan. Sharon works for HaMoked (The Center for the Defense of the Individual) so that was the group we marched with, but the options seemed limitless - there were feminists, vegetarians, anti-fascists, Arab rights organizations, LGBT groups, and on and on. Ironically, the anarchists had the best organized chants of anyone we ran into - I couldn't tell you what they were saying, but they did it loudly and with conviction. It was a beautiful day to be outside, and was a great way to spend the first day of vacation.

I'm leaving tomorrow for a trip to Jordan with Sara - we're heading to Aqaba and Wadi Rum, where we will do some hiking and some lying on the beach and some star-gazing. I'm really excited to go on a vacation, and to leave Israel, and to spend a few days outside in the sun. I will come back with some new pictures and stories and things to say - but for now, I'm going to make some latkes and enjoy the second night of hanukkah with Miriam and Sara.

Have a wonderful week!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day 122: taking some time to be less serious

November is almost over, and I for one could not be more excited. This weekend I was reading back over old journal entries from the past year, and I think it's safe to say that in a year full of difficult months, this has been one of the toughest. One of my friends jokingly suggested that I celebrate the arrival of December with a secular Rosh Chodesh celebration, but I think I'm actually going to do it. I'll buy a fancy coffee and take a shower with some nice shower gel and enjoy the fact that in 31 days 2009 will be over and I will never have to live through this year again.

For all of the difficulty, this year has also brought with it a tremendous amount of growth on my part, as well as an amazing group of friends and my current life in Israel, so all things considered it's turned out fairly well. It's taught me how to celebrate the little victories, like successfully baking a Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving, or reading through an entire Rashi commentary on a verse without using a dictionary (both of these things happened last week and deserve to be commemorated!), or even just celebrating that it's still warm enough that I can sit outside and eat my lunch, as long as I'm wearing a sweatshirt and socks.

I celebrated Thanksgiving last week at the apartment of my friends Amy, Esther, and Jessica. Miriam was there, as well as nine other people, most of whom are Pardes students and all of whom are lovely. It was a wonderful, wonderful dinner - Esther organized the whole thing and orchestrated the production of a massive quantity of food (including chocolate pecan pie - and I know it might be a betrayal of my plain pecan pie upbringing to say this, but that pie was really good). I was supposed to go to a protest on Saturday night, but I sat it out because of a really bad headache that wound up being the precursor to a rather nasty cold. I stayed home from school yesterday, and went in today for my morning classes. Tomorrow is a half day (as Tuesdays always are) and hopefully by Wednesday I will have fully recovered!

On a different note, I've gotten this question a few times over the last few weeks, and hopefully my answer doesn't come too late. If you were planning to send me things from the States (not that you should or need to, but if you happen to be doing it and would like to be well informed about what I desire), here are a couple of things I would enjoy:
  • Good tea - I can buy Wissotzky everywhere, and it's fine, but I wouldn't mind something special.
  • Burt's Bees Lip Balm
  • Lush Rub Rub Rub shower scrub
  • Books. Books in English. Books in English that have nothing to do with Jews, Judaism, or the Torah. Or Israel.
  • A pair of these. Cute and comfy.
If I think of anything else, I will let you know.

Lots of love,

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

this is a post about walls

I originally wrote this post for the Pardes student blog - it covers some of what I talked about in my last post, as well as discussing my trip to Bethlehem last weekend.

Two weeks ago, my grandfather passed away. He had been ill for a long time, and it was not a sudden death, but it has been nonetheless a difficult experience. At his funeral, my uncle shared a story about my grandfather that has become something of a mantra for me in the last few weeks:

“My last conversation with him was two weeks ago. I went to him and he gave me a kiss and hug and a brilliant smile. And then he said to me, “Bob, I have to talk to you about the garbage.” I said, “Dad, the garbage??” And he said, “Yes, the garbage!” Then he raised his hands, and got a rueful expression on his face, with a little smile. “It is not our garbage, but it has fallen upon us to take care of it…” and he pointed to himself, “so I am going to send your mother out for the supplies, and later, we will take care of it.”

This was my father, Max Singer. He knew there was garbage in the world. It did not matter to him that it was someone else’s garbage. He felt a responsibility anyway, and willingly took on the obligation to heal the world without complaint, without objection, with equanimity and grace. He wanted to help without fanfare, and he did the right thing because it needed to be done.”

I want to share two stories about powerful experiences that I have had in the last week. Both stories are moving, in very different ways. Both stories involve experiences I shared with multiple other Pardes students, who I know have their own opinions and reactions about what happened. Both stories touch on difficult political and religious issues. And, most importantly, both of these stories involve walls.

By now, hopefully all of you have heard about what happened with the Women of the Wall at the Kotel last Wednesday (in case you haven’t, I wrote a blog post about it here). The short version of the story is that a woman named Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a tallit and holding a sefer Torah, and is now under investigation, with criminal charges pending. If convicted, she faces up to six months in prison and a 10,000 NIS fine, as well as serious repercussions to her future medical career.

The (slightly) longer version is this. On Wednesday morning, I woke up early and got into a cab with several other Pardes students. We arrived at the Kotel bright and early to join the Women of the Wall in their Rosh Chodesh prayers. After twenty years of fighting for equality at the Kotel, the Women of the Wall have been granted the right to gather for one hour each month to pray in a group, as long as they adhere to the “customs” of the wall. I arrived at the Wall with my friends expecting verbal abuse and potential physical abuse, however, we prayed our morning service completely under the radar of the people around us.

Because of this success, we decided to attempt to read Torah at the Wall, rather than to relocate to Robinson’s Arch, as is the usual Women of the Wall practice. What seemed like a beautiful, successful morning quickly soured and was desecrated by shouting and threats from assorted officers, culminating in the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel, our shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), who also happened to be visibly wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah when we were joined by a police officer.

There are several articles discussing these events, my own blog included, and each one of them talks about a different thing. Some of them focus on the history, others focus on whether Nofrat was practicing her religion or making a political statement. There are articles that talk about Robinson’s Arch as a perfect substitute for the Kotel, and articles that quote the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel as saying that “They behaved like [biblical] Korach and his assembly.”

What I struggle with is what comes next. With December will come another Rosh Chodesh, and another meeting of the Women of the Wall. What will we find, when we arrive at the Kotel on December 18th? Will I be brave enough this time to wrap my tallit outside of my jacket, as opposed to under it, as I was instructed to do last Wednesday? Will I, too, be brave enough to stand up in the face of angry, powerful men and respond to questions about my tallit by saying “I wear it because it’s a mitzvah. Where is yours?”

My second story starts in a similar fashion – I woke up (considerably later, this time around), and met two of my friends on the corner of Derech Hevron and Ein Gedi, where we got on the 21 bus to Bethlehem. We had been invited to spend Shabbat with another friend of mine, and I for one had leapt at the chance to visit. It was my first trip to the West Bank, and therefore my first trip through a checkpoint, and my first chance to examine Israel’s second famous wall.

In my head and when I speak, the security barrier is always referred to as The Wall – capitalized and bolded for emphasis. I remember learning about the fence as a teenager in a Young Judaea program, when construction had first begun in earnest, and spending two hours arguing about why it was being constructed and what we should call it. The terminology seemed incredibly important to me at the time, and it still does – you’ll notice I’ve called it three different things in two sentences, and each title carries a different weight and connotation.

You can read and talk about life in the West Bank until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never understand what it’s actually like until you travel there yourself, and even then you will only understand a fraction of what there is to understand. The same goes for seeing the wall – it’s easy to sit in my comfortable Jerusalem apartment and argue about the benefits of a security barrier vs. the flaws of a security system that creates and maintains human rights violations every day, and an entirely different one to see the benefit of a physical wall that separates families from their land, cities from civilization, and human beings from control over their own lives.

The first thing I noticed about the wall was the graffiti – it’s difficult to notice anything else, because it’s so bountiful and beautiful and powerful. Some of it is professional, some of it is casual, but all of it means something. I took picture after picture; if I could capture the entire thing I would, and I hope that someone in the world is taking on the project of documenting the artwork. This is the first picture I took, of a tic-tac-toe board and the words “this is not a game.” The image brings to mind a lot of things – the futility of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, the recognition that the wall has a serious impact on the people on either side, and in one of the more petty parts of my brain, the movie War Games.

I saw another section of wall graffitied with the following words – “here is a wall at which to weep” – and it was at this point that the connection I had been making in my head between the wall in Bethlehem and the Kotel that I visited last week snapped in to focus.

These are walls with multiple meanings. On the one hand, they are about safety and protection – safeguarding a people, protecting a religion. But on the other hand, they are about power – they are about showing the world who is in charge, and who holds the upper hand. And it is that part – the usage of these walls as methods of control – that I simply cannot stand for. How can I live in a country that does not support my right to pray the way that I choose, in what many consider the holiest part of the holiest city in the world? And how can I love a country where the government is allowed to illegally seize land by building an impenetrable barrier between itself and some of its citizens?

I live here because this is where Jews are meant to live. For all of my doubts about whether or not the Kotel is a place I want to pray, and for all of my frustrations with the actions of the Israeli government, I live here in this place because it is the land of my family and my people and my ancestors. But I refuse to simply live here and accept the status quo. This Israel, that protects men who verbally and physically abuse women who simply wish to pray in the holiest fashion they know, can never be my Israel. This Israel, which builds walls to protect itself and in the process commits human rights violations, is not a country I am proud of.

It would be easy to simply leave. To make a phone call and change my plane ticket and go back to a part of the world where things make relative amounts of sense, and the problems that need to be dealt with are problems that I feel I have at least a chance of solving. But Israel means too much to me to do that. And so, next Friday, I will travel to Hebron on a Breaking the Silence trip, to learn about the culture of silence surrounding military corruption in Israel. And on December 18th, Rosh Chodesh Tevet, I will go back to the Kotel with the Women of the Wall, and I will pray wrapped in a tallit as I believe I am commanded to do. It’s time. I am cleaning up the garbage.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 110: the Kotel

This is not the post I intended to write today.

I planned to write about the tiyul I went on to the Negev last week. I planned to write about my volunteer experience singing at Beit Reuven yesterday. I planned to write about how things are going in classes, and the trip I have planned to Bethlehem this weekend.

And then something happened. I woke up early this morning to attend a Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel, run by a group of women who call themselves Women of the Wall, and everything changed.

Women of the Wall is a woman's prayer group that meets at the Kotel once a month for Rosh Chodesh services. Ostensibly they are just a prayer group, however in reality they're something much larger than that - they are a group of women working for women to have the right to hold organized prayer services at the Western Wall. They've been fighting this fight for twenty years, and in that time, they have been granted almost nothing - they are allowed to gather for one hour a month at the Kotel, however they are not allowed to wear tallitot or to hold a sefer Torah, let alone read a sefer Torah - for this, they must relocate to Robinson's Arch, a nearby plaza.

The group chooses not to identify itself as a minyan, instead identifying as a woman's prayer group - a choice that is well within their right to make, but one that I find degrading in the same way that I find praying with a mechitza degrading - being told that my presence and intention to pray isn't enough to make me count as a part of a minyan is incredibly frustrating. Logistically, what this means is that there are certain prayers that we could not recite this morning - like the Barchu, and more importantly to me, the Kaddish. I think it undermines most of what they're fighting for - if we don't think that we have a right to count ourselves as a minyan, than what are we doing here?

Let me make one thing clear right now - I appreciate the work that Women of the Wall is doing. I understand that as an outsider coming from a different society and culture, where I have never had to worry about being arrested for my religious practices that it is unfair of me to hold Women of the Wall to my standards of prayer. What they have achieved is amazing - to go from being beaten and abused by police every month to receiving at least some level of governmental recognition and protection is amazing.

However. As I stood at the Kotel this morning, the frustration began to rise. It started when I arrived - "Put your tallit on under your jacket," I was told, "so you don't get arrested." Inside my jacket? At the "holiest" place in Jerusalem, I am not allowed to wrap myself in a sacred garment to make my prayer even holier? This is something I will never understand about Israel (like the fact that it is illegal to immerse in a mikveh in Israel if you're not married - why on earth would you make it more difficult for people to have a sacred experience?).

It continued as we began to pray - we huddled together in a group at the back of the women's section of the Kotel, being as unobtrusive as possible. At times I could barely hear the service that was being conducted. I prayed quietly along with the group, but inside my heart was shouting out the words of the shema - "hear, o Israel," a prayer that is meant to be joyfully declared, not mumbled under one's breath.

No one spoke to us. No one shouted at us, or threw rocks at us, or gave us dirty looks (at least that I saw) - all things that I had come prepared to deal with. We were ignored. And so, as it came time to read Torah, we had a quick conversation - "It's quiet today. Can we just read here?" Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and member of the board of Women of the Wall, took a quick poll of other board members, and consensus was quickly reached. I began to feel excitement building among the group - an energy that I felt was lacking up to that point suddenly began to hum through the assembled women. "We have a new Torah!" Anat declared, "that was given to us by the Women of Reform Judaism at the Biennial in Toronto. It only weighs four kilos!"

Nofrat, a fourth-year medical student in Beer Sheva, who wakes up every month at 4am to get to Jerusalem in time for the service, was to read. She wrapped herself in her tallit (outside of her jacket), and we began the Torah service. And then everything started to go haywire. At first, there was just one police officer - a woman who looked Ethiopian to me, but might not have been. She loudly and abruptly asked us what we were doing, and demanded that we return the table we were using for the Torah. She disappeared, and we gathered two smaller stands and joined them together to use as a makeshift table. We began the Torah service again - Nofrat carried the Torah around our group in a hakafah, and then placed it on our new table in preparation for the reading. And then the men appeared - three or four male officers demanding to know what we were doing. Things escalated rather quickly - one of the men began moving the tables we were using, so quickly that Nofrat barely had time to gather up the Torah before it fell to the ground.

Another officer appeared, this one in body armor. He demanded to see Nofrat's i.d., and then proceeded to escort her away from the wall. "Follow the Torah," Anat commanded us, and so we followed as quickly as we could. Nofrat didn't even have time to gather her jacket or her bag - we carried her things with us, in hopes that she would be released quickly.

At first, we were informed that she had been detained but not arrested, and that we would have to wait to see what happened. Anat asked the group to stay and sing in support of Nofrat - we stood for nearly an hour, singing Hebrew songs and talking with each other - the group consisted of ten Pardes students, 15 women from Bnai Jeshurun in New York, and a group of teenage participants in Netzer, as well as several Israeli women. Finally, we recieved news - Nofrat had been officially arrested, and was being charged as a criminal with wearing a tallit and holding a sefer Torah at the Kotel. What world do we live in where this is a criminal charge?

We followed Nofrat as she was moved to the closest police station, where we were informed that she was being investigated on criminal charges. "Investigated?" we said, "what investigation? Why haven't they questioned any of us? We were all there." Anat called a lawyer, and by 9:30, Nofrat had been let go. We joyfully sang "btzeit Yisrael m'mitzrayim" (when Israel came out of Egypt) as she walked out of the police station - she's still being charged, and who knows what will happen to her.

I feel so many things about what happened this morning that I don't even know where to start. I am angry. I am hurt. I am energized. I am worried.

The Kotel is a place I have a lot of difficulty connecting to. It bothers me because as Jews we are told not to pray to idols, and I think in some ways the Wall has turned into an idol. I dislike the misogyny practiced there. I appreciate the holiness of the place because of the quantity of prayer that has happened there, but I don't think that holiness is inherent in the structure of the wall. And yet, I am angry that I am not allowed to pray there. I am angry that I watched someone get arrested for daring to hold a Torah - not even to read it, simply to hold it in her arms. I am hurt that the country I am supposed to consider my own land doesn't recognize my right to practice my Judaism the way that I choose. I am energized - before Nofrat was arrested, I had decided in my head not to return to Women of the Wall. Now, however, I think I owe it to her to be there - because if she is willing to be arrested for this cause, then how can I ask any less of myself? And I am worried, because I do not know what will happen to her. I don't know her, but I feel connected to her, and I think in some ways the future of Women of the Wall is now tied to her future.

I know the situation is complex, and I haven't addressed all of those complexities here. Maybe next week, when I've had more time to think about it and process what happened, I'll be able to do a better analysis of what happened today. For now, I'm going to take a shower, drink some tea, and eat my lunch.

If you want another look at the situation, several articles have been written today:

"The rav stated the women cause a chilul Hashem, and a chilul to the Kosel, comparing them to Korach and his followers."

"Rabbi Ovadia also said about the groups' custom to pray at the Western Wall that "there are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray," and added that they should be condemned."

"This is a prayer meant to bring strife and disagreement," he said on Army Radio. "Even if it is allowed according to Jewish law, the Kotel should remain out of disputes."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day 99: Not All Weeks Are Created Equal

This is another long one - mostly because this week has had some amazing ups and some distressing lows and it's hard to talk about either one briefly. Bear with me.

I have always enjoyed cooking and baking - when I was younger, I remember loving when I got to pull out the step stool in the kitchen so that I could see the counter tops and help cook dinner. I learned how to make all sorts of good food standing at that counter next to my mom - meatballs, spaghetti sauce, snickerdoodles, macaroni and cheese, steamed artichokes, a good grilled cheese and a great egg in a raft. And I distinctly remember when my father decided he wanted to learn how to bake - I learned right along with him, acting as sous chef and getting to do all of the fun things like crack eggs and dump flour into the mixer.

In the last two years, cooking and baking have become something of a stress-relief activity for me. I enjoy the process of finding a recipe, shopping for ingredients, preparing and assembling a great meal or a wonderful dessert. It's something concrete - the steps don't change, no matter what you're putting together. I also get a lot of joy out of providing food for others - it's such an easy way to make people happy, and I've found that my friends are always grateful when presented with a cookie or a cupcake or a really well made salad.

It makes me so happy to learn that this year at Pardes I'm gaining a little bit of a reputation as a baker - it's not something I purposefully attempted to do, but knowing that the things I've been putting effort into have been making people happy is a really great feeling. I love that in the past few weeks I've brought two different people over who wanted baking lessons (once for challah and once for cupcakes) and that both times, they've left with new knowledge, a good memory or two, and some delicious baked goods.

Another thing that I've always gotten a lot of joy out of is sewing and making clothing, a talent which has been a little underutilized since I came to Jerusalem because I left my sewing machine behind in Chicago. A few weeks ago, however, I was approached by a friend looking for some assistance with a clothing related project. In Numbers 15:38-40, God commands the Israelites to bind a fringe to the corners of their garments; this fringe is called tzitzit, and it's found on the corners of tallitot. In many observant communities, it is a custom for men to wear not just a tallit, but also a tallit katan (basically an undershirt with four distinct corners and tzitzit tied to each corner). It is becoming more and more common for women to take on this mitzvah as well, however, it isn't something that has hit the mainstream and so it is difficult for women to find tallitot katanot that fit them well.

My friend asked me for assistance in converting some of her form fitting tank tops into tallitot katanot - a process that involved opening up the side seams to create four distinct corners and sewing a buttonhole into each corner so that the tzitzit would have a finished hole to be tied through. We spent a really lovely evening together figuring out the logistics of completing this project, both in terms of the halacha involved and the construction steps necessary. I was really glad to be able to help her take this step on her Jewish journey, and also really enjoyed getting back into the simple rhythm of using a needle and thread.

And now for the not so great stuff. On Tuesday of this past week, I woke up to the news that my maternal grandfather had gone off of dialysis. In conjunction with this came the realization that my mother had a major surgery scheduled for Wednesday which could not be rescheduled. My grandfather passed away on Friday, and the funeral will be tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.

It's really difficult to be away from my family during this time. I want to be there for my mom, and my grandmother, and to be with my dad and my brothers and my extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins. We're taking great advantage of Skype and cell phones and gchats but it's not the same as getting and giving a real life hug or being able to hold someone's hand.

My friends here have been amazing - calling to check up on me, offering hugs and condolences and prayers. So many people have asked if I needed anything, and simply been present when I've needed a shoulder to lean on or a friendly face. The same goes for my friends in the States - offering up words of wisdom and listening to me talk about my Grandpa Max.

I have a lot of really complicated thoughts about everything that's going on with my family. Suffice it to say, this has been a very difficult year, and while I appreciate the lessons I've learned in stress management, resiliency, and grieving, I would also really appreciate a few months where nothing crazy happens in my life. I wish that I were able to go home, and I struggle with the fact that I was pretty sure I was going to face this situation before I left the States. Mostly, though, I'm just really sad, and while I know it will get better in the long run, it's not so easy right now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day 88: Israel is a very small place

It's been a little while since I've updated - all sorts of things have been happening here! A few quick highlights include:
  • Ulpan classes are in full swing and are going very well! Hebrew is flooding back into my brain, which is a great feeling.
  • I've started writing for the new Pardes student blog (along with seven or so other students), which you can read here.
  • Tofu! Pardes has a tofu co-op which I am currently organizing (taking orders from students, placing the order with Simcha-the-tofu-lady and dealing with sorting out the delivery). I get a free kilo of tofu with every order, so it's pretty worthwhile for me.
  • Vegetables! Miriam and Sarah and I joined a CSA called ח'ביזה עלי (alay chubeza - I don't actually know what it means) and now a lovely box of vegetables gets delivered to my apartment every week. It's fantastic. Last week there were eggplants, sweet potatoes, a big piece of squash, corn, lettuce, rocket greens, scallions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes. And cilantro. I'm in vegetable heaven.
I have a lot of stories from the last two weeks, but here are two particularly good ones. The first one starts on the Friday night before Simchat Torah (October 9th, for those playing the home game). Miriam and Sara (Gunning) and I all went to our friend Jessica and Amy's apartment for Shabbat dinner. We had a really wonderful evening - one of the other guests was actually someone that Sara taught with at Beth Emet, which was a nice surprise. While we were there, Amy asked us if we had met her friend Jeremy yet - he works for Btselem, a human rights organization here in Israel. The answer was no - or at least, not yet.

The next day, Sara and I went to Nava Tehila for Simchat Torah services - Nava Tehila is a Renewal minyan here in Jerusalem, which mostly means that there's a lot of really beautiful singing. The service was very spiritual and joyful, and at one point we unrolled the whole Torah scroll and held it up in a circle with our tallitot. Sara was standing on one side of me, and there was a gentleman I'd never met before on my right, so I introduced myself and started chatting. His name is Jeremy, and it turns out that he works for Btselem, and knows Amy and Jessica... Small world, right?

Jeremy is also a central figure in the second story, because it's actually mostly his story. Jeremy's father is Israeli by birth, but his family moved out of Israel when Jeremy's father was two years old. Jeremy came to Jerusalem to work for Btselem, which is a great human rights organization that doesn't have the best relationship with the Israeli government, for a lot of reasons. Anyway, after Jeremy got here, he went to apply for a work visa, and was asked where his parents were born. Upon mentioning that his father was born in Israel, Jeremy was informed that he couldn't apply for a work visa because he's actually an Israeli citizen, and so what he needed to do was make aliyah.

For a lot of complicated reasons, and also some pretty simple and obvious ones, Jeremy didn't actually want to make aliyah, but it wound up being his only feasible option for the time being. And so on Friday I found myself hanging out on the Tayelet with Miriam, Sara, Jeremy, and Jeremy's friend Avital having a little mock-aliyah party, celebrating the insanity that is the Israeli government. And in another example of the world being small, it turns out that Avital, who went to Berkeley, knows Kelly (one of my AVODAH roommates and current good friend). Crazy!

Beyond the fact that the world is fairly small, I think Jeremy's story is really interesting because it highlights a weird part of being in Israel. I get the sense sometimes, both from Israelis and Americans, that in order to be a good Jew I have to want to live in Israel forever. Which, frankly, isn't something I think I'll ever want. I have far too much of a life in the United States to ever really be comfortable with the idea of moving to Israel, and that doesn't even begin to address the ideological problems I have with making aliyah. Anyway, talking with Jeremy about his situation has just reminded me how complicated living here actually is, and how far from home I really am. It's easy to forget you're living in a foreign country when you spend most of your time with other Americans, but it turns out that things are really different here! Who knew? :)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Day 72: a new month is here

The last time I posted, I was planning to take a trip to Tel Aviv for the Nachalat Binyamin craft fair and some quality time at the beach. I wound up going with Lauren and Shira, and had an absolutely fantastic day. First of all, the Nachalat Binyamin craft fair is amazing - it's all Israeli artists, and while (as at any street fair) some of the stuff is less than stellar, there's also a large quantity of really beautiful work. Jewelry, Judaica, toys, wall hangings, scarves, paintings... Lauren and Shira and I walked through the fair for almost two hours, and had a really good time. I didn't wind up purchasing anything, because I just couldn't make a decision about what I wanted, but I will certainly be going back there in the future.

That afternoon, we went to the beach where I put my feet into the Mediterranean for the first time in my life. Lauren, in all her rabbinical student glory, even knew the blessing to say upon seeing the Mediterranean for the first time, so we had a nice moment when we put our feet in the water.

As I lay on my blanket in the sun, I came to the realization that I am a little bit of a beach addict. I have always thought of myself as a mountain girl - mostly because of my love for the beautiful, beautiful Appalachian mountains, but also because I love hiking, and camping, and being surrounded by trees. However, as I lay on the beach soaking up the sun and swimming in the warm water, it occurred to me that I felt more relaxed than I have felt the entire time I've been in Israel. There's something about being next to a large body of water that's so soothing - the sun, and the smell, and the sound all combine to make one happy Naomi. In Chicago, I made a point in the summer of spending my Sunday afternoons at the lake for a lot of the same reasons (the water is not quite so warm in Chicago, even in July and August...). I guess it's just something to keep in mind when I work my way back to the States in the spring.

Since that afternoon, I've been thinking a lot about how to bring that level of calm into the rest of my life here in Jerusalem. I'm not absurdly stressed out, but getting through the holidays in Jerusalem is a bit of a long haul, and I feel like I'm only just able to really start settling into life here.

One of the big issues I'm currently tackling is my relationship to the Hebrew language - I am, for the first time that I can remember, nervous about speaking to people in stores. As a child, I was taught all of the same lessons my friends were taught - don't speak to strangers! Don't approach people you don't know! But in the South, there's a sense of familiarity that we all grow up with - when you're in a grocery store, it's alright to chat with the person next to you looking at cantaloupes, or the person in front of you in the check-out line. Commenting on a museum exhibit to the person standing next to you is totally socially acceptable, whether you know them or not. When I was at Brandeis, I often had strange interactions with people in public spaces, because I would talk to everyone, and they had no idea how to react to that. But here, in Jerusalem, I find it genuinely difficult to open my mouth in public.

Mostly it has to do with the language barrier. I'm scared of making a mistake, and having people know that I'm *gasp* American. I don't have a lot of confidence in my Hebrew fluency, so I don't speak, so I don't get better, so I don't have confidence... It's difficult for me to reconcile feeling so comfortable with the neighborhood I live in in terms of knowing how to get from Point A to Point B, and not knowing how to ask for directions if I wander off of my path. I don't really have that much of a problem looking silly in public, but when checking out in the grocery store involves me answering questions by looking bewildered and shrugging, it starts to feel a little uncomfortable.

I'm definitely getting better - not necessarily at speaking, but at learning the right words so that I can understand when people speak to me. Also, I just started an ulpan (modern Hebrew class) that meets twice a week in the evenings at Pardes, so I'm getting in a lot of practice in a safe space. My first ulpan class was so much fun - it was such a relief to be sitting in a classroom where the only thing I had to think about was speaking modern Hebrew, as opposed to biblical Hebrew and the Torah, or struggling through Aramaic in the mishna. I found that I remember a lot more than I think I do - I just need some practice accessing that part of my brain again. And then I need to start speaking in public, but that's definitely a future step in the process.

The next two days are Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan, Cheshvan being either the second or the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar (it depends on who you're asking...). Cheshvan is often referred to as Mar Cheshvan (in Hebrew, Mar means bitter) because it is a month without any Jewish festivals, and therefore a month without rejoicing. I went to a Rosh Hodesh group tonight, where we talked a lot about the positive aspects of Cheshvan - for example, the fact that there are no chagim in Cheshvan means that you can actually settle into a routine, and begin living up to all of your Rosh Hashannah resolutions. And with that, I think I'll get started on one of my Rosh Hashannah resolutions, which is to get more sleep!

Hodesh tov! Enjoy the new moon!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Day 59: this might get long

"The real problem with Israel isn't the Arabs - it's the Israelis."
I came out of the woods with this written on my arm - it's a quote from Dan, the hostel owner's son who helped us out while we were staying up north. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, Miriam told me that she and a few of her friends were planning a trip up to Haifa, or maybe to the Galilee. Cool, I said. Let me know if it's actually going to happen, because I'd love to come with you. I had no idea what I was signing myself up for. Last Tuesday afternoon, after our Sukkot Yom Iyun (day of learning), Miriam found me and let me know that she and Laura, Lauren, and Evelyn were sitting down to plan their trip leaving the next day and coming back Friday morning, and would I like to join them?

The plan was to rent a car, leave Jerusalem early Wednesday morning and drive to Moshav Almagor, home of the Sea of Galilee Guest House where we stayed Wednesday night and Thursday night, and then leave Almagor early on Friday so we would get back to Jerusalem in time for Shabbat.

Things started off a little rocky - we planned to leave at 9, but it wound up taking about two and a half hours just to pick up the rental car, so we didn't actually leave until 11:30ish. And then, about fifteen minutes into our exodus from Jerusalem, we got in a fender bender. Not our fault - the person behind us wasn't paying attention and rear-ended us. There was almost no damage, and we were paying an arm and a leg for insurance, so it wound up not being that big of a deal, just a little dramatic.

We got to the moshav in the mid-afternoon, with just enough time to run over to the moshave grocery store to pick up some supplies. The hostel was absolutely gorgeous - orange trees and flowering bushes and multiple hammocks for lounging. We stayed in their dormitory, which was both cheaper and more convenient for us, because there was no reason to split up - you can see pictures here.

On Wednesday night we drove up to Rosh Pinna for dinner at a restaurant called Indigo. There were figs and mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese and shakshuka and stuffed artichokes, and Lauren and I shared a fantastic chocolate cake for dessert. Reasons this restaurant is awesome include: amazing food, a sukkah!, a waitress who spoke to us in Hebrew even though we used English menus, and excellent placement near a mall so that Laura could buy herself some shoes for our hike the next day.

Thursday morning we got up and called Dan, the son of the hostel owner who had checked us in the day before. On Wednesday he had mentioned that if we needed help finding a hiking trail, we should feel free to call him and he would come by to help us out. Dan was a pretty stereotypical Israeli farmer - long hair, very tan, very laid back... We asked him for a water hike, and he directed us to a trail that runs through\near some of his fields (he farms pomegranates and mangoes). It was an adventure from top to bottom. A majority of the trail was actually in the water, generally somewhere around mid-calf, but occasionally getting up to mid torso. It was fairly well marked, and we managed not to get lost (some people I was hiking with might tell you a different story, but I'm pretty sure I knew we were on the trail the whole time...), but it was definitely a commitment. We wound up not finishing, mostly because we got to yet another section involving almost-swimming, and the majority of the group was too tired to go on.

We called Dan for a rescue - he came to pick us up in his truck, along with his two employees (both migrant laborers, probably Thai, potentially undocumented) and some freshly picked pomegranates that he cracked open for us on the spot. He was polite enough not to laugh at us for not finishing, and to give us a tour of his fields on our way back to our car. And that's when the opening quote was uttered, because we drove through the campgrounds on the moshav only to find them totally trashed by the previous weekend's campers. There was garbage everywhere - and not just a few empty bottles, but a broken chair, half empty bags of charcoal, and bits and pieces of tents strewn about. It was a little shocking to see nature that had been so thoroughly destroyed after spending four beautiful hours in the Jordan river.

Rather than go back to the hostel and change, we drove straight to the Golan Heights Winery for a wine tasting. Dad, this is for you - we tasted a Sauvingon Blanc (I liked it) a Cabernet Sauvingon (I didn't like it) and a Muscat (I liked it in small quantities) - and yes, I swirled and sniffed all three. It was pretty funny to be sitting in the middle of a winery dressed in all of my damp hiking clothes, but we were pretty much the only people there because it was pretty late in the day, so it didn't really matter.

We drove back to the hostel to clean up and do a little journaling\resting, and then we drove to Tiberias for dinner. If you come to Israel, don't go to Tiberias. I'm sure it has redeeming qualities, but I haven't found any of them yet. The part of Tiberias we were in is pretty much a giant tourist trap, and it was unpleasant. We decided to go there in search of good fish and chips, and while we found fish and chips, it wasn't the best I've ever had. They did serve us whole fish, which I wasn't really expecting - generally when I've had fish and chips the fish has been a little more processed... My photos from the trip are up here - none of me, because I don't take pictures of myself, but you can in fact see the whole fish both before and after I ate. :)

Friday brought its own set of surprises - in the car on the way back from the Galilee, I got a phone call from a woman named Judith, inviting me to come to lunch on Saturday. Judith who? I said, and then told her I would call her back later. It turns out that Judith and I are related, distantly. Her daughter Rivka is my father's second cousin, and I think if you had to diagram my relationship to Judith it would be my paternal grandfather's first cousin's wife, making her my grand-cousin-in-law. Or something like that.

Anyway, Judith lives in Holon and Rivka lives in Tel Aviv, and they were gathering the family for a big Shabbat\Sukkot lunch and wanted me to join them. So on Saturday morning I took a cab to Yaffo street and hopped in a sherut to Tel Aviv, where Rivka picked me up at the central bus station and drove me to Judith's house. There were probably 25 people at lunch, all of whom I was related to in one way or another. I spent the most time talking to Adi, Rivka's daughter, and my (I think) third cousin. Adi is starting school in Beer Sheva in a week or two, and is a little nervous about moving away from home, but I think she'll do well. I'm certainly looking forward to developing more of a relationship with her (hopefully, eventually in Hebrew!). Lunch was a great experience, and everyone was very welcoming to me. I hope to see them again some time while I'm here in Israel.

Tomorrow I'm heading back to Tel Aviv for the Nachalat Benyamin craft fair, and potentially some time hanging out on the beach, and other than that, I have no plans for the week! It's nice to have some fluidity in terms of where I need to be and what I need to be doing

And that's more than enough recapping for one blog post - moadim l'simcha, and chag sameach to everyone!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Day 52

Yom Kippur in Jerusalem is an incredibly unique experience. All of the things that people will tell you are true - almost everyone in the city dresses in white (except for me, because I'm a rebel\didn't realize that was a trend until it was too late to do anything about it), there are next to no cars on the road (there were, however, a ton of police cars) and the television stations shut down for the holiday. Miriam and Sara (Gunning) and I took ample advantage of the lack of cars and walked in the middle of the road whenever we could throughout the day.

We went to Kol Nidre services at a minyan called Kehilat Kedem - "an independent egalitarian minyan committed to spiritual traditional prayer" - that I would describe in laymen's terms as "more Conservative than anything else I've been to for Kol Nidre." The Kol Nidre service was led by Leora Perkins, a Brandeis friend, who did a beautiful, beautiful job. I had my first surprising experience of the night when we left services, only to find Emek Refaim crowded with people out enjoying the evening. It seems that secular families use Kol Nidre as a chance to go rollerblading\skateboarding\biking around the city. We saw groups of teenagers sitting and playing cards in the middle of major intersections, families out walking their dogs, and lots and lots and lots of people making their way home from services.

This morning we went back to services at Kedem which was, to be frank, disappointing for me. I know enough Hebrew and enough traditional prayer to be comfortable in a Shabbat or weekday service, but Yom Kippur is apparently a little beyond me. I found the service to be isolating in an unexpected way; yes, there were times the whole group sang or chanted together, but it was almost always in Hebrew that I didn't really understand, to tunes that I don't really know. I also don't really feel comfortable with parts of the service such as the recreation of the Temple Service, or the act known as duchaning (any Kohanim present are called up to bless the congregation), or the occasions when the congregation would prostrate itself on the floor. These are things that just aren't a part of my Jewish practice, and I know that some of my discomfort comes from a lack of education about the rituals, but some of it is about beliefs. I don't feel the need to be blessed by my peers - the notion of the priesthood doesn't carry a lot of weight with me.

I did really appreciate the beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings, and the excellent job my new Pardes friend Mark did of leading Mussaf (the service after the Torah service). Also, there's a lot to be said for praying in a community where so many of the faces are familiar - I feel very comfortable with the people present at Kedem services, and I look forward to getting to know them better.

After services at Kedem ended we walked to HUC for the afternoon services at Beit Shmuel (this is Beit Shmuel). Services were in a beautiful auditorium with one wall made entirely of glass, looking out over the Old City. I hope that watching sunsets in Jerusalem never gets old. I really appreciated being in a Reform service this afternoon - I'm trying to be open-minded and adventurous with my prayer options this year, because I know that there are a lot of communities here that don't have parallels in the States, but sometimes all I want is something comfortable and familiar. HUC was definitely both of those things. The sermon this afternoon was really powerful - the rabbi, whose name I don't know - talked about transitive and intransitive verbs (not transient and intransient, as I reported to Will and Sarah earlier this evening!), and how it's important to be an ambi-transitive verb. So in English what that means is, there are verbs that need objects (I eat food) and verbs that don't (I fast), and it's important to be both. One thing he said that really stuck out to me was "I grow isn't enough - if growth isn't directed towards something, it's not growth, it's just self-indulgence." There was a greater message about the importance of acting upon the world as opposed to simply letting the world act on you, which is a sentiment that I really believe in and loved hearing expressed so eloquently.

The Yizkor service was difficult, as expected. Saying goodbye to people is hard. Miriam and I both forgot to bring tissues, and had a moment where we looked at each other and said "our mothers would not approve of this!" It made me think about going through Grandma Marilyn's belongings after her funeral, and finding a hand mirror and a package of tissues in every single purse in her closet.

Tomorrow is a special day at Pardes - we're having lectures instead of our normal class schedule, and it's only a half day, and then we have vacation until the 12th! I still haven't figured out the details of what I'm doing over this break, but the longer I wait to make any choices, the more and more it looks like I'll be taking a few day trips around the country, which I think is a perfectly acceptable way to spend a vacation. I might also borrow Sharon's sewing machine while she's in Argentina, and spend a little time being creative.

Other major things that have happened here include a trip to the Jerusalem Forest for an afternoon with my Self, Soul, and Text class to practice hitbodedut (solitude). We spent an hour talking to God, which was a very powerful experience for me, and something I've been thinking about a lot since then. I don't know what we're going to be studying next, but I'm looking forward to it! I'm signed up for an ulpan that starts after Sukkot, so I'll be able to get some more practice and teaching with Hebrew - I'm finding it pretty difficult to study on my own, so I'm really looking forward to having the chance to be in a group setting.

I hope that everyone had an easy and meaningful fast.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Day 43: East Jerusalem

For those of you wondering, this is my apartment. Notice, if you will, the little dotted line to the left of my apartment that runs along Beitar street, reading 1949 Armistice Agreement Line. That's right, folks - I live over the Green Line.

Let me back up a few steps to tell the whole story. Today is the second day of Rosh Hashana, and Miriam and Sarah and I decided to celebrate by hosting a lunch in our apartment. We invited some of our friends - a few Brandeis people, Sara Gunning (a representative of Team Chicago), Jessica Simon (another Pardes girl) and Miriam's friend Ben from life in general. It was a really lovely meal - we had way too much food, some excellent rugelach from the Marzipan bakery, and a few miscellaneous Israeli "juices."

We started talking about a variety of things - people we knew from school, the weather (it rained today!), etc. At one point, and I'm not sure how this came up, Sarah made a comment about a weird section in our lease that declares that as far as we know, no one owned this land before 1968:
1. The Tenant declares that he knows that on the 20th day of August, 1968 no tenant was entitled to possession of the apartment and/or that the apartment was duly vacated after that date by any tenant who may have been entitled to possession thereof and has since not been let for key money and/or that the construction of the apartment building was completed after August 20th, 1968 and the apartment was first let subsequent to that date (without payment of any key money). The Tenant further declares that he has not paid the Lessor or any other person any key money or other payment for the consent of the Lessor or such other person to let him the apartment, other than as set out in this Agreement, and he agrees that the provisions of the Tenants' Protection Law (Consolidated Version), 5732-1972, or any subsequent or future Tenants' Protection Legislation, will not apply to his tenancy of the apartment under this Agreement nor to any extension thereof.

I didn't think much of it at the time that I signed it - I just assumed it was a weird Israeli thing, and moved right past it. Turns out, the reason I'm vowing that no one ever owned this apartment is because they don't want me to refuse to move out at the end of the year by declaring that this land is ancestrally my home. So then I looked it up on a map, because I was curious, and also a little concerned that I had moved into occupied territory. Apparently every single time I leave my apartment, I am crossing the Green Line.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this - first of all, it's entirely unclear to me based on the map whether the little pocket of land I live in is on the Israel or the Jordan side of the Green Line - I'm hoping for Israel because it's a lot less morally complicated for me that way, but there's also a high potential for Jordan. Unfortunately, the map isn't very clear (and this is obviously an area where we'd like as much uncertainty as possible). According to wikipedia, Talpiot (my neighborhood [the picture in that wikipedia article, by the way, is the mall directly across the street from Pardes]) has always belonged to Israel, though for a while it was surrounded by Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. Other articles talk about the area as a "no man's land" that was created to place a barrier between the Israeli and Jordanian armies. Either way, it's clear that as of the Six Day War, this territory has belonged to Israel.

If nothing else, it's led to all sorts of entertaining statements in my apartment such as "remember that time we lived in Palestine?" or "remember that time we needed passports to get to school every day?" My personal favorite is "remember that time we talked about whether we would accept invitations to eat at the houses of our teachers who lived in settlements, and then realized that we lived in a settlement ourselves?" In some ways, where we live is obviously not a settlement - we didn't move here with the intention of reclaiming land for Israel. And yet, I have a sense that that argument doesn't matter - that the intention isn't enough to make it okay. So this is the current piece of news I'm absorbing and dealing with. It's certainly something to wrap my head around.

Rosh Hashana here in Jerusalem was beautiful - I had some excellent meals with people throughout the holiday, and some good prayer experiences. I'm looking forward to the year when I've lived in the same place for two years in a row, and don't have to go anywhere new for the holidays. It's always a little unsettling, and there's no way to guarantee a good experience. Rosh Hashana is a good practice run for Yom Kippur, though, because now I know that if I go to services at Kol Haneshama, the entire thing will be in Hebrew and I'll have to sit on a plastic chair.

We have class tomorrow morning but not tomorrow afternoon, because of the Fast of Gedalia (google it, it's not that interesting), and then on Tuesday we're back to a normal schedule for three days, and then I have a four day weekend (Friday and Saturday for Shabbat, Sunday and Monday for Yom Kippur). We have class next Tuesday but it's not a normal day, and then I have a vacation until the 11th of October. I'm definitely planning to do some traveling during that week, but I'm not sure where I'll be going yet - probably places in the country like Haifa, and maybe Tsfat. I'm hoping eventually to travel to Petra, and possibly Sinai, but those are both big trips with a lot of complicating factors, so I'm saving them until I feel a little more comfortable outside of Jerusalem.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Day 36: Jerusalem

Lots of wonderful things have been happening here in Jerusalem over the past week. I opened an Israeli bank account with the aide of a lovely woman named Batsheva (for a more in-depth account, read Miriam's blog here), I went to two yoga classes at Pardes, had an amazing conversation about the mikveh with Will, went to a delicious dinner at Caffit with Miriam (Kelly - you were right, the salads are amazing!), ate falafel, studied the story of the casting out of Ishmael (did you know that Hagar actually fits the archetype of a patriarch rather than a matriarch? she talks directly to God [really an angel, but whatever] and finds a wife for her son), and had two great lessons on Martin Buber. Also, I went to Pomerantz, which is a great religious bookstore downtown and purchased some books for class and also a new siddur.

This past weekend was the first Pardes Shabbaton of the year. We left Pardes Thursday afternoon, and spent Shabbat at what used to be the home of Young Judaea YearCourse (not Beit Riklis - the new place) until Hadassah lost all of their money and had to sell their fancy new building, and is now the Judaea Youth Hostel. It was a beautiful Shabbat, full of singing and dancing and rest and relaxation. And, because it's Pardes, text study and shiurim (lessons). Lots and lots of text study and shiurim. We talked about teshuva, we talked about Jewish journeys, we talked about dealing with the diversity of the Pardes community, etc., etc. I had a really good time, which seems like an understatement to describe the weekend, because it's much more complex than that, but I'm tired and a little sick, and all I can think of right now is I had a really good time.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about teshuva lately - much of that is because of Pardes, and the fact that almost all of my classes are studying things related to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but a lot of it is just because of me. I've had several conversations recently about what teshuva actually is - is it just repentance, or is it something more? I think the definition I've settled on for myself is that doing teshuva means taking stock of where I am and what I've done during the past year. It's not just reflecting on those things, though, because I think teshuva is also about taking action; it's about deciding what I'm happy and unhappy with about my life, and making changes based on those decisions. And definitely not treating my repentance in a superficial way, like when all of my friends posted Facebook status last year declaring "If I've done anything to hurt or offend you in the past year, I'm sorry," which I actually found very offensive, but that's another story...

One of the many text studies I did this weekend was about how to begin teshuva - that is, how it can seem overwhelming at the start, because it's a big task to ask that we repent for every little thing we've done wrong since last Yom Kippur. Yaffa Epstein, the teacher leading the shiur, brought us a text that told a story (which I'm paraphrasing) about a king and his son. The son had traveled far from home, and the king was asking him to return. The son says "It's too far - I am a hundred days distance from home." And the king replies "Go as far as you can, and I will meet you there." In case you weren't sure, in this story we are the son, and God is the king. I think it's an incredibly powerful statement - that during this time of teshuva, we should do as much work as we can, but we don't have to finish. God expects of us only what we are capable of doing and nothing more - we have to take the first step, but if that's the only step we can take than God will understand, and meet us there.

It's a philosophy that I think I want to apply to all of my religious life, and not just to teshuva - because there are times when I want to take on more mitzvot and there are times when the only mitzvot I can think about doing are the basic ones, like "don't steal" and "don't kill people." But God understands - God knows that I am tired, or frustrated, or overwhelmed by the things that have happened during this past year, and doesn't need me to do any more than that. It's a comforting thought.

The other thing I took away from the Shabbaton was a greater sense of belonging within the Pardes community. We needed some quality outside of class time together to get past some of the social awkwardness of meeting a new group of people, and it definitely worked. Yay for making new friends! And with that, I wish you all a lovely Monday.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Day 27: Jerusalem (my apartment!!)

I am here. It is official. Miriam, Sarah, and I have been living in our apartment for several days now, and I can safely say that this is the nicest apartment I have lived in and will live in for the next foreseeable future. Pretty much all of our furniture is from Ikea (miscellaneous blankets included) and the walls are all very, very white, which makes it look a little like a hospital, but we're working on bringing in some color and decorations to make it look a little more homey.

The best thing about it by far is the little balcony off of the main room, which looks out over a beautiful little landscaped area (too small to be a park, but lots of grass and a few trees). Also, the kitchen is really beautiful, though all of the appliances are complicated. We're working on it.

Classes started on the 1st, and life has been a bit of a whirlwind since then. It doesn't seem like sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day would be tiring, but it really, really is. My classes are going very well - I placed into Level 2 (out of seven) which is pretty much exactly where I thought I would be and where I wanted to be - I know enough that I'm not an absolute beginner, but the things I'm studying are all new and challenging.

Two things I'm particularly excited for are a class called Modern Jewish Thought, which is a survey of, well, modern Jewish thinkers, and the Self, Soul, and Text track, which is a look at different spiritual practices in Judaism. The first is giving me a chance to learn about a lot of big names in Jewish philosophy that I've never formally studies, and the latter is giving me a chance to try out a lot of things I haven't done before, like meditation. This class particularly is really interesting to me, and also very challenging in a lot of ways - it turns out I have quite a few opinions about things like meditation, some of which aren't very positive.

Settling in to life in Israel is definitely an experience - it's easy to see how I could get into the habit of going to class, coming straight home, and going to sleep, wash, rinse, and repeat. I'm trying very hard not to let that happen while also remembering that I've only been here for a week, and it's alright to be tired! Moving to a new country, starting school, and setting up an apartment are individually very exhausting things - doing all three at once is challenging. It's nice to have Shabbat to sleep in and relax a little, and not feel rushed or like I have to be anywhere or do anything specific.

Shabbat shalom!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Day 21: Jerusalem (Nachlaot)

The rest of my trip to Israel went fairly smoothly - Miriam got to JFK around 3:30 in the afternoon, so from that point on I was pretty entertained. She was staffing the flight for a group of NFTY kids going on EIE, which meant that we were traveling with 26 teenagers, most of whom assumed that I was also working for NFTY. I did the best I could to help out without having any actual authority or desire to control the group, so mostly I just answered questions and looked reassuring. One of the teens managed to misplace his passport (it was in his carry-on, which the flight attendants took from him at the gate and checked) and I stuck with him through the process of recovering it while Miriam took the rest of the kids through passport control and baggage claim. Once she turned them over to the NFTY in Israel staff we were free to go, so I hopped into a sherut (a shared van service), and was off on my way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

I'm sure the drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is pretty, but I slept through the whole thing, so I actually have no idea. Maybe next time...

Sharon had e-mailed me directions to her apartment, so I knew generally where I was going, but not entirely. I had just paid the sherut driver and gotten all of my stuff together when I heard some of the best words I've heard in a while - "Excuse me, are you Naomi?" Yonatan (Sharon's boyfriend, who was meeting me at her apartment) had actually just arrived, and happened to see me on the sidewalk with all of my luggage and took a wild guess. I have never been so happy to be recognized by another human being.

Thursday afternoon is a bit of a blur - I spent time relaxing with Sharon and Yonatan in her apartment in Nachlaot, and then we went to spend some time with friends of theirs who happen to be leaving Israel tomorrow.

On Friday I had a beautiful first-real-day-in-Jerusalem experience. Sharon and I slept in a little, and then spent our morning doing some shopping at the shuk. We bought all sorts of lovely things - fruits and vegetables, bread, cheese, and some of the best ice cream I've eaten in a while. We also picked up some herbs at a flower shop down the street from Sharon's apartment, so now she has mint, basil, thyme, and zatar for tea and cooking and eventually for pesto.

Today has been a lovely, relaxing day - we slept in (I'm still catching up on rest from the journey!), and cooked breakfast, and then watched an episode of Top Chef. I have no idea what we'll be up to this evening, or what I'll be up to tomorrow, but I know tomorrow night I'll be going to a Pardes meet-the-students event, which should be really nice!

I don't think the reality of the situation has caught up with me yet - the fact that I live here now, and that I'll be staying for ten months. It all feels a little surreal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day 18: JFK

I woke up very, very early this morning to get to RDU so that I could fly to JFK, where I am currently sitting. And waiting. And waiting. My flight to Tel Aviv is at 7:35 and it is currently 12:55, and I have been here since 9:30. It's been a bit of a day.

This week went by in a bit of a haze of packing. Narrowing down all of your earthly possessions to just what will fit in two suitcases that can't weigh more than 50 pounds each is a bit of a challenge, especially when you consider that I'm moving somewhere with four very distinct seasons.

So. Tomorrow I land in Tel Aviv at 1ish, and then I have to get myself to Jerusalem where I'll be meeting up with Sharon for a few days. I'll move into my new apartment on the 30th or the 31st, and start getting settled. Orientation starts on the 1st, and we pretty much dive right in! I'm very excited for the next few weeks - I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Day 11: North Carolina

I've been home for a few days now, and they've been some of the most productive days I've had in a while! I've basically been sorting through all of my belongings, trying to get rid of clothes and belongings that I don't wear or use anymore, and unpacking everything I brought home from Chicago. I've done a ton of other stuff as well - went to see Julie and Julia with Mom, got a new carry-on suitcase for the flight to Israel, set up a new bank account that I can use abroad, picked up some fair trade tea for Sharon, etc.

It's definitely taking time to adjust to being out of Chicago - I'm doing a really big thing right now, and it's difficult to do it when my friends are all so far away, but it's also really nice to be home with my parents. Also, I'd forgotten how nice it can be to have a car! Don't get me wrong - I love public transit. I really, really do - I love taking the train to get places, and knowing how the bus system works. On the other hand, being able to walk out my front door and get into a car that's waiting for me and drive anywhere I want at my own pace, with my own soundtrack and control over the air-conditioning is amazing.

I'm starting to get really excited about Israel - Pardes posted the class schedule for the upcoming year, and I spent some time looking at that yesterday - I wanted to start highlighting things, but I've decided to hold off on making any major decisions about classes until I'm actually in Israel. I don't really need to worry about any of it right now, and I have other things to focus on! Look at me, taking things one step at a time. :)

Still on my to-do list are things like buying health insurance and an Israeli cell phone, both of which will probably happen this evening. Or tomorrow. Or maybe on Friday...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Day 3: Boston

Leaving Chicago has been difficult, as expected. I miss my friends. I miss my apartment. I miss the way Chicago feels and smells and sounds. The water here tastes funny.

Coming back to Boston has been a little strange for me - I was here briefly last November, but other than that I haven't really been in the area since graduation. I used to think that I could live here forever, but now I don't think I could live here at all. It's hard to explain, beyond a general sense that Boston doesn't fit right - something about being here feels itchy to my brain. Mostly, I think it's the constant refrain of "not Chicago, not Chicago," running through my head, but I also think it's the realization that I don't actually know that much about this city.

Staying with Jen has been really great, if a little awkward. She just moved into her apartment, and it was a little strange to be around for the first few days of her meeting her roommates - I think it's good that I'll be away for a few days, so that they can spend some time together. They have a lot of conversations ahead of them!

Yesterday was Brandeis day - Jen and I dropped by Student Activities and Hillel to say hello to our old bosses\advisers. I miss talking to those people every day - both of those organizations had a huge impact on my Brandeis life, and it's weird to me that I don't see them all of the time the way I used to. Last night we hung out in Waltham at the Floyd St. House - I got to see some old friends, and we watched a creepy movie called The Mist, which totally freaked me out. Giant insects are scary!!

Plans for the afternoon include hanging out with Miriam, and then dinner at with my aunt and uncle. Anne has graciously offered to drive me to New Jersey and back, for which I am incredibly grateful. Not having to take the bus and the train there and back will certainly make the trip less stressful.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Day 1: Chicago to New York to Boston

I left Chicago today.

I am sitting on the floor in JFK, having just devoured some incredibly overpriced sushi, trying to comprehend everything that has happened to me in the last week. Namely: I packed up my entire life to ship home, said goodbye to some of the best friends I've ever made, left my job, left my clients, left my city, and embarked on a crazy whirlwind tour of part of the east coast.

Leaving is always exhausting, and this move has been particularly tough - I found myself another family here in Chicago, and choosing to walk away from it is scary. I know that they support me in this adventure, and I'm excited for it too, but it's hard to leave, and it's sad to know that I won't see some of them again for at least a year.

I'm on my way to Boston right now, to visit some friends and family, and then next Saturday I head home for ten days before leaving for Israel. It's a little scary to think that in seventeen days I'll be on a plane bound for Tel Aviv.
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