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.
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