Shabbos Blessing- Week 37

In 2 weeks at this time, barring delays or whatnot, I’ll be on a plane from Paris to Iceland, a little less than halfway through my very long journey from Tel Aviv to San Francisco.

I wish I could say that the proximity of that departure date, that very, very long Friday in 4 countries, has brought me to a place of pre-emptive nostalgia– of urgency to do all the things I haven’t yet done here or to repeat the experiences that I’ve most enjoyed. That’s kinda what I anticipated when I imagined hitting the 2-week mark a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. I wish my departure was 1 week away. I wish it was 3 days. I have had a multitude of experiences this year, and I am ready for it to end, and it keeps going.

To be fair, I know that much of the academic world is in its “Oh God, why isn’t it over yet?” state of being. That’s what May brings. I’m used to it. And this is such an incredibly chill May compared to most that I can remember. There are no finals. There is no crazy summer job to prep for. I’m teaching a class on Tuesday evening that I need to put more time into, but generally speaking I have more spaciousness in the next few weeks than I’m likely to have at any point… maybe ever… once I get back to school next fall.

This week was significant, as I said goodbye to a number of my classmates from other institutions whom I’ve studied with this year. We had our final Rabbinical School Consortium gathering yesterday. Many students will leave before next shabbat, and I don’t anticipate making it back down to Jerusalem again before they go. It felt very strange to give hugs and talk of future potential visits to Philly and LA and NYC. And, unlike with many other sorts of goodbyes, none of these felt permanent. We’re all going to be rabbinic colleagues one day, and even if we don’t see one another often, the connections will remain. It felt different than graduation from high school or college, when lives can diverge into such vastly different directions. There’s a comfort there, even as it’s sad to say goodbye for now.


I also bade farewell to my kittens-who-are-no-longer-kittens

Spaciousness for me means time for creative projects. I decided when I hit the 18-days-left-in-Israel mark that it would be a great idea to set one verse from a psalm (using psalms 18-1, just for fun) to music every day. This was pretty easy for psalms 18, 17, and 16. Then, yesterday, I gave the guitar I’ve been using all year back to RRC. I feel confident that I can write without a guitar, but it does complicate things slightly.

I’m also going to be working on a creative midrash project. Some folks think that you can’t write new midrash today, and maybe they’re correct. But reading last week’s Torah portion, and then discussing it with my spiritual director, brought me to a place of realization: I gotta talk to some folks in these texts, and, as a writer, I wanna do it through writing. So, aptly or not, I’m gonna call it midrash and see what I get.

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Finally, I’m going to begin preparations for the project I’ll be embarking upon this summer. I got lucky enough to be given a micro-grant for a podcast focusing upon the positive influences of non-Jewish family members and loved ones in Jews’ lives. I’ll be crafting 4 episodes as a pilot and I really can’t wait. While I’m eager to have this summer as a time to relax and process this year, it’s, well, me. I’m not very good at doing nothing.


At least now when I’m bad at doing nothing I make things like double-knit potholders to use up leftover yarn.

This week’s blessing comes from a Jesuit mentor. He saw my post expressing similar wistfulness for home a couple of weeks ago and sent along this poem, along with an explanation of its author:

“Chardin was a Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher and theologian. His thinking got him in trouble. But now he is revered.”


Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”

― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I need those words this week. It does feel as though there’s something of a new spirit forming within me. I feel ready to begin my final year of rabbinical school. I feel ready to put myself into the world more fully than I ever have since childhood. For now, I am impatient of being on the way to something. This shabbat, I wish patience for myself and, really, considering the week the world has had, for us all.






Showing Fear the Door

One of the most incredible gifts RRC offers its students is “Spiritual Direction.” It’s a little difficult to describe. It’s therapy-like, in the sense that you meet one-on-one with a “spiritual director” (someone, often a rabbi, who went through a specific training program to be certified as a director), and the conversation is focused around your needs and experiences. The sessions can be more emotion-based or more steeped in Jewish text and practice. They can focus on pieces of religious and spiritual life (“I want to deepen my prayer practice”) or on non-explicitly religious and spiritual elements of life meeting spiritual existence (“I’m so busy with school/work/family that it’s hard for me to feel centered in anything God-like”). Some students choose to switch directors during their time in school, and others continue with the same person throughout their time at RRC (and sometimes even arrange to continue privately once they graduate). RRC covers 10 sessions a year for each student. I gobble them up.

I got really lucky my first year, in that the director I tried out ended up being a great fit for me. It’s amazing to have worked with someone for going on five years now. She met me when I was barely a month into rabbinical school and has been accompanying my journey ever since, including during my time here in Israel. During my phone session with her today, our long history made itself known.

I had a sort of plan for our session. We were going to continue a conversation around a particular issue that impacts my religious and spiritual life a lot. But I barely got into our call before my director figured out that something was up. I ended up telling her what was going on. And so, instead of talking about what I thought we were going to talk about, we talked about anxiety and uncertainty.

Spiritual Direction can be a little like yoga, in that sometimes learning and growth set in immediately, and other times the poses have to percolate a little before you know what to do with them. Today, maybe because I followed up my session with yoga, things set pretty quickly.

All this to say, I think that my emotions are really basically a cat.


Everyone, meet Pico. Pico is my cat. He’s living in Philly this year with a lovely classmate while I do this Israel thing. I miss him something fierce.

So here’s the thing about Pico: he’s kinda, well, wacky.


Pico and a buddy of mine having a ball.

I love the little guy so much. I love watching him chase toys all over, bound down the stairs like a dog to greet me at the door, and hide out in Trader Joe’s bags.


I love watching him sleep.


And sleepIMG_5396.jpg

And sleep (he is a cat, after all).


I love carrying him around and dressing him up.


One of these things is not like the other.

I love it when he makes me laugh.


And I love it when he wants to hide out in bed as much as I do. IMG_3401.jpg

But here’s the thing about Pico: Sometimes, he can get really annoying. Those are the things I don’t have many adorable pictures of. I don’t have pictures of him tracking litter out of his box or spilling his food because he never learned to be particularly dainty. I don’t have pictures of him nipping at my roommates’ feet and ankles because she was wearing brightly colored socks. I don’t have pictures of him scratching and biting my arms, or my friends’ arms. I don’t have pictures of him standing in front of any door he wants to enter or leave meowing and scratching pitifully for what feels like hours on end. I certainly don’t have a picture of the time when I was doing yoga and he (accidentally– he really was trying to play) cut my eyelid badly enough that I had to go to urgent care and almost needed stitches.


I do have a picture of him mutilating this would-be knitting project.

Pico is a cat. He’s a great cat. Sometimes, he and my life don’t mesh perfectly and he’s more annoying than lovable.  I don’t have to love every impact Pico has on my existence to love him. I just have to know that they’re all a part of the package. Usually, he’s welcome. Now, when I do yoga, I have to close the door and keep him out to keep myself safe, even if he scratches and meows pitifully.

Emotions are tough. They contain the best and worst of human experiences. They are this totally chill and wonderful cat:


And this slightly perturbed cat: IMG_5233.jpg

And this “nothing is safe so long as I can get it between my teeth” cat.


That cat is the closest to what my emotional state has been for the last few days. It’s been chaotic. It’s been meowing outside my door and messing with my concentration on everything else I’m working on. I’ve felt compelled to open the door and let it take over my space.

But here’s the thing: I shut the cat out while I do yoga for a reason. I know it’s safer for me to limit his access when his style of play makes it impossible for me to hang out in pyramid or cobra. It’s not that I’m never willing to play with him, or even that I’m not willing to get a little scratched up from time to time. But having him with me when he could really hurt me isn’t good for either of us.

So it is with my fear. It’s not that there’s no reason for fear. It’s a piece of the emotional bundle just as much as Pico’s occasionally overzealous play is a part of his personality. I love my emotions. I love my cat. They both add value to my life. Sometimes I even cuddle them. And sometimes, my cat and my fear have to go hang out by themselves so I can live normally. My work is to get better at acknowledging the meows without always opening the door.


Shabbos Blessing- Week 23

It’s my first shabbat in Jaffa. I couldn’t be happier, really. Yesterday, I booked it down to Jerusalem first thing in the morning for a class I take with rabbinical students from my school and three others. It was nice to see friends for sure, and when it comes down to it Jerusalem and Tel Aviv aren’t that far apart. Still, it took about 2 hours door to door for a 2 hour class, and then I had to get back up here, and, frankly, by the time I did I was more than ready to relax and do nothing for a bit. I’ve had a busy week. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but I’m the type that needs downtime, or, well, if not complete downtime at least personal creative time. I need to be able to write (both this and fiction), play music, and get involved in elaborate kitchen projects.

Luckily, until Sunday I’ve got that time. Oh I have homework, and tonight (shockingly enough for a Friday), shabbat begins. But at this very moment, the sun is shining, I’m stocked up on groceries (except for ice cream, which I may make a run for before things close this afternoon), and I am writing this… in my hammock. Which I have strung up slightly haphazardly on my balcony. Next week I hear that it will rain like crazy, but that is a future Emily problem. Present Emily is as happy as a clam who won’t be eaten because everybody nearby keeps kosher.


I still haven’t had time to go through my photos from Europe, so I’ll save my reflections on that for another post. For now, I’ll bring in this week’s blessing. This timing on this one is beautiful, because it’s almost a year ago to the day that I committed to doing a summer unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at Stanford Hospital. One of my colleagues, a protestant seminarian, sent me a card a while back, with a simple but potent message:

Go you go you! Blessings on your year in Israel with all the cats!

The accompanying card now lives, as all disco cats ought to, on my desk here in Yafo.


Sure enough, there are cats here just as there are in Jerusalem. Yesterday, when I went down to my Jerusalem class, I came across two of my “kittens” who are now getting big enough to really be called cats!


Hillary and Kaplan, soaking up some sun.

And at BINA, where I study here in Tel Aviv, there are a number of resident cats. I am starting to name them and shall continue to over the course of the semester.


Everybody, meet Boba. You can decide whether he’s named for the tapioca pearls or the bounty hunter.

Tonight isn’t only shabbat. It’s also Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which is known as the New Year for the Trees. This is a relatively minor holiday, one of the three Jewish new year’s celebrations that gets less air time than Rosh Hashanah. Still, I love that it exists, that there is a religious holiday (as opposed to the US’s secular Arbor Day) to celebrate the natural world. There aren’t a whole lot of traditions, but a lot of people here plant trees and have seders (special meals) with different sorts of grape juice, dried fruit, and nuts. Tomorrow night BINA is having a party of some sort to celebrate, and I may go check it out. Most things outdoors entice me, and BINA’s campus is gorgeous and largely outdoors.


In the meantime, I will be getting ready to enjoy shabbat lounging on my balcony, working on some musical pursuits, and perhaps getting in a trip to the beach…10 minutes walk from here. Because I am in Tel Aviv now. The Ark is soaking up sun in between bouts of rain. And everything is just a little bit brighter.


Hakol B’seder(?)

I know these streets so well now.

I haven’t been here that long, really. I’ve lived in many places for longer. But in Jerusalem, my feet are my primary form of transportation. In fact, with the exception of school-sponsored trips that require getting on a bus with my classmates, and very, very occasional cab rides, my feet are my only form of transportation.

My “commute” all semester was short but slow. The few blocks between my home and the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied became a nearly daily part of my life. I came to know each cafe, each corner store (most of them, it turns out, not on corners), each apartment building, each piece of graffiti, and, yes, each cat.

A lot has happened in four and a half months. The kittens in the Yeshiva Courtyard have grown from this:


To this:


I’ve learned some Hebrew– not nearly as much as I would have liked, but enough to at least be able to do more than point and grunt at the different salatim (toppings) when I order a falafel. My written Hebrew is ok. My spoken is pretty bad. It’s a work in progress.


I’ve grown from barely being able to keep up with a traditional morning prayer service to leading one at the Egalitarian Kotel last week.


I came here knowing almost no one, and I’ve made friends. Earlier today, I got lunch with a buddy to celebrate her move across town and my submission of my last paper of the semester. I texted another friend to ask if he and his family could store a suitcase for me for a couple of weeks, and when I went over to drop it off I ended up chatting with him and his family (and giving them a small gift to pass along to a classmate). This evening, I texted another friend to ask if I could sleep on her couch for a night, just before I move to Tel Aviv, when I get back from Europe.

I am so grateful for the people I have come to know, for the organic connections that I have formed with them as classmates and as friends who, one day, God willing, will be colleagues of mine.

Some of the people whom I have come to know have gone home. It feels very strange. I knew, entering into this year, that a number of students were only staying for a semester (or even part of a semester). I also knew that life happens, and that there could be other students whose plans changed and who left sooner than they anticipated, or who ended up not coming at all. Still, it’s strange to walk on the streets that I know so well and to remember that the places where I am used to finding some people no longer host them.

Soon, the apartment in which I am sitting will no longer host me. This is my last night as a resident of Jerusalem. I am mostly packed. This room, which has been mine for the better part of four months, is feeling less and less so as more and more of my things find their way into suitcases. Tomorrow, I’ll go to Tel Aviv and stay overnight at a random AirBnb near the train. On Friday, I’ll fly to Spain. When I return to Israel on February 1st, I’ll spend a night in Jerusalem (on my friend’s couch, as you now all know), and then I’ll move into my new apartment in Jaffa the next day. Jerusalem won’t be far away, and I’ll be down here a lot, but it will no longer be my base. It feels very strange.

One of the local graffiti tags in Jerusalem is a simple Hebrew phrase: “הכל בסדר- hakol b’seder” It means: “Everything’s ok.” I’ve seen the words stenciled onto construction walls, stones, and all other manner of surfaces. On my walk to and from school, on one of the blocks I know so well, there are two versions of this tag, both, in Israeli style, commented upon. The first says: “הכל לא בסדר” (Everything is not ok). img_9729

The second says: “הכל בסדר? טוב,תודה” (Is everything ok? Yes, thank you.) img_9722

At this moment, both of these speak to me. I am in a place of feeling that everything is not ok and at the same time of assuring myself that they are and being grateful for that. It has been a semester, and the semester is over. I have settled into something of a routine on the ark, but now it must shift. The lions are bored with their food. The squirrels have decided to become nocturnal. The corgis want to frolic more than their allotted recreation time allows. The wind has shifted and the ark is floating off in a different direction and I have to adjust to it.

Change does not come easy for me. It never has. I have gotten better, as is the nature (one would hope) of facing the same sorts of struggles again and again, but change remains hard. I made a good choice to go to Tel Aviv but I am still nervous about it, worried about what I am leaving behind knowingly and what struggles, both known and unknown, will come up in my new home.

And I am also excited, eager to experience a new city, to live in my own apartment, to buy a membership to the Tel Aviv-Yafo bike share program and enjoy a slightly longer (and faster) commute to class. I am excited to come to know other streets and to know the people who walk them.







Shabbos Blessing- Week 9

(New to shabbos blessings? Learn more here!)

Boy oh boy oh boy has it been a week. I, along with rabbinical students from RRC and 3 other institutions, just got back from an overnight trip down south. Yesterday at this time I was prepping for a float in the Dead Sea. Today at this time I am currently triple-tasking as I write this blogpost, think in the back of my brain about tomorrow’s d’var that I’m giving at a Reconstructionist service I’ll be co-leading with the other RRC students here, and cooking a dish to bring to a shabbat lunch potluck tomorrow after said service. And all this before shabbat comes in crazy early because we moved to daylight savings last weekend. Boy oh boy oh boy I will be happy when it is tomorrow afternoon.

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Here– have a picture of the Old City, taken Wednesday morning, which I will most definitely write about sometime very soon.

This week’s blessing comes from my very first college friend. We met at a pre-orientation trip in the Minnesota Boundary Waters and have been buddies ever since. His blessing came in the form of a JPEG with commentary, and it surprises me not at all.

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“As you go, know that your ancestors are watching your steps and smiling. When you reach out your hand in a strange place, may it be nuzzled by a friendly cat. As you go, know that you have made this journey before, and that you will make it again. May there be moments of peace and clarity along the way. As you go, know that you will return. When you have gone, we will be waiting to welcome you back. May our songs come faintly to your ears as you wander. Here, now, we send you on your way: as you journey, so we all journey with you.”—Pelakuwe departure blessing (traditionally chanted with flute and drum accompaniment at the end of the departure feast)


Today, for the first time since arriving in Israel, I succeeded in picking up a cat. This one happened to be Bedouin. We only got to cuddle for 10 seconds before she protested and I put her down, but nonetheless, I’m pretty pleased. And I get to hang with these friendly kittens every day at school:


Ok. The shabbat warning siren just went. I got words to prep, torah reading to memorize, food to cook, and a service to get to in the next 40 minutes. Gotta go. Shabbat Shalom. Go Cubs. More later.

Shabbos Blessing- Week 5

(New to weekly blessings? Learn more here.)

One month and one day ago, I stood nervously in line at Immigration at Ben Gurion airport. I lugged my suitcases out into the dry desert air, searching for these “sheirut” shared taxis I had heard so much about. I rode into Jerusalem at sunset. I got to my AirBnb. I found the wifi password. I iMessaged, WhatsApped, and emailed a few people. I took melatonin. I slept. The ark floated. Or, as one dear RRC classmate put it in an email shortly after I arrived (and I quote): “Dude you are fucking DOING this thing.”

As it happens, I’ve done quite a lot in the past month. I’ve started at a new school. I’ve learned at least a bit about a new neighborhood in a new city in a new country. I’ve scoured the internet for non-Airbnb housing (and found it and paid for it and moved into it). I’ve checked out 5 different synagogues. I’ve experienced Rosh Hashanah. I’ve met bunches of people. I’ve learned how to buy some things. I’ve wandered about some parts of the city. I’ve wandered about some places outside of the city.

As it happens, I feel as though I’ve done almost nothing. I think a month from now things will be a little different because I will at least have started all of my classes (a couple don’t begin until after sukkot), and I may have had the opportunity to travel around the country a little more. I’ll also have (finally) started learning modern Hebrew. We’ll have to see. November 7th seems a long time away. I shall be on eggshells that day, as I imagine most of us will, because it’s the day before elections. But I digress.


This week’s blessing, which now hangs over my bed in Jerusalem, is the second one handed to me in person during my Minneapolis jaunt. This is from a college friend who happened to be my next door neighbor freshman year.


The rainbow cranes themselves would have been blessing enough, but she also wrote messages on the cranes. Since they’re hard to read I’ll write them out: “Explore, Connect, Love, Laugh, Advocate, Be Strong, Kill Zombies, Come Home Safe!

With the potential exception of zombie-killing (although, you never know), I am hoping to do each of these things with my time here. I really appreciate the visual of each of these charges being interconnected but separate. Even as they each influence my life, I don’t have to hold them all at once. Sometimes exploring and connecting will mean setting the things that I advocate for aside temporarily, and sometimes advocating will mean not being able to connect with particular people and places. I seek to explore, but remembering that it’s my goal to come (go) home safe will put acceptable limits on how much I explore in particular areas. And there is so much to explore here. Jerusalem, after all,  is a city where time meets itself.


The meeting of old and new by Jaffa Gate

For now, it’s time for a relatively mellow day. I’ve got homework, I need to make some flashcards, I need to walk to the store and pick up a few things before the city gets insanely busy with shabbat preparations, and, perhaps most importantly, I need to chill out.

Also, I put this on facebook but I’ll say it here too: If you’d like mail from me or you’d like my address to send me mail, let me know! I’d love to send some postcards. There’s something about snail mail that’s especially special for me when I’m far from home.

Shabbat Shalom, folks.


(from front to back) Hillary, Tekia, and Kaplan say “Shabbat Shalom!” too. 

Shabbos Blessing- Week 2

This week’s blessing (see the link for an explanation if you’re new!)  comes from a dear coworker-turned-friend. He claimed that “blessings weren’t really [his] thing,” but I think he deserves more credit.

May you have the knowledge that you are not alone. Even in moments of loneliness. May you have the ability to recognize and appreciate each moment for what it is and what it offers and be able to live in the moment. May you have fulfilling and enriching studies, both in and out of the classroom. And last but not least, may you have smiles and laughter in your life.

When I asked for these blessings, I said I would love both ones that affirm and ones that challenge. This does both. It is hard to remember that I am not alone when I feel lonely. It is hard to live in the moment when the moment is sweaty, or embarrassing, or stressful. It is hard to engage in studies in and out of the classroom when those studies are likely to involve situations that are sweaty, or embarrassing, or stressful, or all of the above.

Yet, these are all beautiful affirmations. I am not alone. I don’t have a huge network of known friends and family here with me, but I have a few folks from RRC on this journey in Jerusalem, and I am deepening connections every day with new teachers and with new classmates who will one day be my rabbinic colleagues. Although most of the journeyers in this ark with me are still near strangers, the quarters are tight enough that that’s bound to change. I am grateful that we all smell less than the elephants and skunks Noah had to deal with.

Each moment has value and is worth living.  I can value the fact that, for now, my life here is itself a study in every moment. I have only been here for 10 days, the length of a Birthright trip. I went on Birthright almost 5 years ago. Prior to last week it was my first and only time in Israel. I am so eager to learn so much more than I possibly could in any 10-day venture. 


(Emily and Casper Cohen the Camel, January 2012. Everybody knows that unless you have a picture of yourself with a camel, your Birthright trip absolutely did not happen.)

Finally, it’s worth remembering that I can smile at any number of circumstances, and I can laugh at myself when I feel my heart race unnecessarily. One way I’m going to be smiling and laughing more is through a project I’ve taken on– a spoof of sorts of “Humans of New York.”  See, there are so so so so SO many stray cats here in Jerusalem. And some non-strays as well, of course. I see them every day and they make me happy and sad at once. I really want to adopt one, but, with that not being particularly feasible, I’m going to content myself with taking their pictures and making up hopefully hilarious commentary. I call it “Cats of Jerusalem” (#COJ). If you’re not following me on instagram (em.cohen), and you like cats or #HONY or both, you might want to change that.


Shabbat shalom. See ya Sunday.