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!
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