37-From Yom Kippur to Sukkot

It’s Sukkot! The Festival of Booths! The Time of our Rejoicing! The Holiday of the Ingathering!

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Sukkot is meant to be marked by outdoor living, by celebrating our ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness and our [slightly less early but still early] ancestors’ agriculturally-bounded days, by appreciating the harvest.

Here in Philly, it’s 80 degrees, which makes it tough to even think of it being a harvest season, but the trees are slowly beginning to brighten into yellow at their tips and soon enough, the chill will come.

In Woodstock, the trees are already turning. Last week at this time, I was about to head  up there to mark Yom Kippur with my community. I had an incredible experience. I am, and will continue to be, I’m sure, immensely grateful for being a part of this community of vulnerable spiritual seekers. I don’t take such a place for granted.

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The rabbi at Woodstock, the amazing Jonathan Kligler, picked some phrases from holy text that matched the gematria (Jewish numerology) of our new year of 5778. One was from Pirkei Avot: “ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש–Uvmakom she’ayn anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish— In a place where there are no people, seek to be a person,” or, in more yiddishy terms, a mensch. Rabbi Jonathan encouraged our community to take on the mantle of menschiness, and the community was eager to comply.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past week, and yesterday a song found me. One of my goals for this year of 5778 (in addition to obvious ones, like “finish rabbinical school”) is to really push myself to create music. I don’t know what my style is yet or even if I’ll like everything I’m writing a week or a month down the line, but my goal is to create. So here I am creating.

I wrote the lyrics (which you can find below the movie). Not sure how I feel about myself as a (non-Hamilton parody) lyricist yet.

A lil background: Rabban Gamliel is an important sage. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) is a book of early rabbinic literature studied by many Jews. The Hebrew chorus is the line about being a person quoted above. The other Hebrew bits are:”zeh asu”– do this, “shamanu” — we heard, and “aleinu”– it is upon us. Those aren’t in Pirkei Avot; I just liked them.

Gamliel said in Pirkei Avot:

“If there are no humans of note,

You know what you must do,

Be the best human you can be.”

Zeh Asu!

 

Uv’makom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish.

 

We know the path we must tread,

Yes, there will be challenges ahead

In this world that cries with pain undo,

We’ll be a tribe of mensches.

Shamanu

 

Uv’makom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish.

 

In God’s image each of us was made.

We will rise up; we are not afraid.

In this place there’s justice to pursue

We’ll be a tribe of mensches

Aleinu

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38- Rosh Hashanah

Hi friends. It’s…been a while. That 40th shabbat is long come and gone. In fact, 38 shabbats from this Friday ought to be, if all goes smoothly, my first as a rabbi. The final year of school is well underway. I’m juggling class and jobs and my podcast and life in a new neighborhood in Philly.

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I live 2 blocks from Clark Park now! I love it.

Here’s what I’m thinking: I’d still like to write this year. I find writing helpful to my well-being, and some of y’all enjoy reading what I post! So I’m planning on picking the blog back up. This year’s posts won’t be as exciting as last year’s, I imagine, but if the goings-on of an American Rabbinical Student in America interest you, do read on.

My goal is to post once a week, counting “down” from 38 to ordination. Realistically, I’ll miss some weeks. But it’s good to have goals, and the new year of 5778 seems like a good time to make them.

I may at some point write about last summer, but, in the meantime, I’m happy to focus on the present, and that means sharing with y’all the Rosh Hashanah d’var torah (sermon) I offered in Woodstock, NY (where I’ll be interning this year). On the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, it’s traditional to read the Binding of Isaac, the episode in Genesis 22 where Abraham, on God’s command, almost sacrifices his son. There is so much to say about these verses, but the wonderful rabbi I’m working with this year helpfully advised: “Just focus on one thing.” I took that to heart and settled in on one angle of interpretation. We read this passage every year, so I anticipate being able to pick out many more angles throughout my career.

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The “Tent” where services are High Holiday services are held at the Woodstock Jewish Center. 

I don’t usually write my divrei torah word for word, but I was nervous that I would get nervous and babble on the bima, so for this d’var I made an exception. Without further ado, here is:

Abraham, Isaac, and the Inheritance of Wrestling

וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃

וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶֽל־הַמָּקוֹם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־ל֣וֹ הָאֱלֹהִים֒ וַיִּ֨בֶן שָׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַֽיַּעֲרֹ֖ךְ אֶת־הָעֵצִ֑ים וַֽיַּעֲקֹד֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֤שֶׂם אֹתוֹ֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ מִמַּ֖עַל לָעֵצִֽים׃

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃

And the two of them walked on together. They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  And Abraham sent out his hand and took up the knife to slay his son.

If you aren’t deeply uncomfortable right now, you aren’t listening. It doesn’t matter that we know how this story ends, that we can look down a few verses and see Isaac emerge from this encounter without physical blemish, that we can read a few chapters later and see Isaac marry and have children of his own, live a long life and die an old man.

None of that changes these verses. Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, and thousands of years later we live with his choice.

For those of us who grew up steeped in stories from the Torah, our early experiences with this story may have been much like our early experiences with the narrative of Noah– a survivor of a tragedy whose trauma we initially learned through peppy songs about animals. My first exposure to the story of the akeda, to the binding of Isaac, did not include a song, but the horror was swept under the rug all the same with the arrival of the ram. “See,” my earliest teachers told me, “Isaac was ok. Abraham proved that he loved God more than anything, so he didn’t have to harm his son.” As a child, I took such words at face value. I didn’t think of Abraham as a bad man, or even as a good man who made a bad choice. Abraham obeyed God, and that was right.

But, then I grew up, and I looked at the story of Abraham and Isaac with increasing upset. How could the patriarch whom I’d been told my whole life was this amazing man be willing to take on such an act? How could he deliver his son almost to the point of death and then not even apologize?

We know how much Abraham and Sarah wanted this son. They wanted a child so much that Sarah forced her servant, Hagar, to be a concubine so that Abraham might have a child even if it could not be her own. Isaac was deeply desired, and we experienced Abraham and Sarah’s joy in yesterday’s Torah portion as he was at last delivered.

But Isaac the child, as a character, scarcely exists. We know that he was born, that he was circumcised, that a feast was held when he was weaned. But the boy never spoke. We are given no indication as to whether he was bright or creative or athletic, whether he was obedient or rebellious, whether he had friends or was a loner.

The first time Isaac acts in Torah, it is to go with his father to Mt. Moriah, the site of his near sacrifice. The second time he acts, it is to carry the wood and walk together with his father to the top of the mountain. The first and only time he speaks to Abraham, it is to take note of the wood and the flint and knife and ask, as any child accustomed to animal sacrifices might, “But where is the lamb for the offering?”

אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לּ֥וֹ הַשֶּׂ֛ה לְעֹלָ֖ה בְּנִ֑י “God will see to the lamb for the offering, my son,” Abraham replies.

The French medieval commentator known as the RaDaK tells us that Abraham’s answer is open to two interpretations. In the first, Abraham says that God will provide a lamb for offering, my son. In the second, Abraham says that God will provide the lamb for the offering: my son. At that moment, he tells Isaac that he is to be the sacrificial offering.

We know what happens next. We’re left with relief, of course. Isaac lives. He disappears for a few chapters and comes back into the Torah as an adult ready to meet his wife Rebecca. But Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Isaac’s next and only remaining interaction with his father is Abraham’s burial, when Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael reunite to do their duty as their father’s sons.

On these holiest of days in the Jewish Calendar, we speak of teshuvah- returning to the best versions of ourselves by reflecting upon the past, having tough conversations both internally and externally, and committing to do better in the future. Abraham never made teshuvah — never made atonement– with Isaac.

When Abraham died he left all that was his to Isaac, and Isaac passed it along to his sons, and Jacob passed it along to his sons, and it came down the generations, proverbial or literal, to our own families.

Abraham left a blessing to Isaac, and some amount of wealth, but that’s not the inheritance I’m speaking of. Rather, I’m speaking of the inheritance that remained unnamed for a generation: the inheritance of wrestling. When we don’t make teshuva, we are left with wrestling. We are left rerunning the same moments again and again, grasping at them with sweaty, tiring hands that can’t get a proper grip. We are pinned by our loose ends.

There are many stories about where Isaac went between his near sacrifice and his meeting Rebecca. Some rabbis believe that he spent his young adulthood learning in a great yeshiva. Others believe that he reunited with his brother Ishmael. Still others believe that he accompanied his father home and remained with him. We don’t know, and whatever midrash we have written to fill in the gaps, it is all speculation. From Torah, we know only that Abraham and Isaac never spoke of the incident. Abraham died without making teshuvah, leaving Isaac wrestling with his father’s decisions, with Abraham’s answer to the one question Isaac posed: “Where is the lamb for the offering?” Did Abraham, in his only codified words to his beloved son, lie to him or alert him to his impending end? And how could he have done either of these things? In dying before offering a proper answer to these questions, Abraham flung his son and all who came after him to the mat with no referee to call time.

It seems little wonder that when Isaac had his own children, Jacob and Esau, they were twins who wrestled in their mother’s womb, who were always at odds in their youth. Similarly, it seems no wonder that, when Jacob grew up, ran from Esau, and then returned to make peace with him decades later, he found himself wrestling all night. And that, after those exhausting hours, the name Jacob received from his wrestling partner was Yisrael–Israel– one who wrestles with God. He inherited his father’s loose ends, his lack of teshuvah. He passed them along to his 12 sons, who passed them along to an entire people. That people, of course, is us.

We are Yisraelites. We carry the name of Jacob the God Wrestler, because we, like Jacob, are the descendants of a parent who never made teshuvah. Abraham’s silence travels alongside his blessing l’dor vador — from generation to generation.

Yet we, Abraham’s descendents, have something that he does not: life. We have this time, these precious 10 Days of Awe, to make right what we have wronged, to open those silences that have scabbed over but never truly healed, to dress and clean the wounds we have inflicted as best we can. Such action isn’t easy, but it is necessary.

Soon, this morning’s service will come to an end. We will go our separate ways — to homes near or far, to connect with family and friends over a festive lunch, to dip apples in honey and celebrate the sweetness of this time. And I wish us all much sweetness today and in the year ahead. But I also wish us courage– courage to do what Abraham did not: to acknowledge our mis-steps, to make amends, to seek out the best in ourselves and offer it to those we have wronged. May none of us waste these days before Yom Kippur. May we all begin this year as our best selves and in so doing clear the way for all who come after us to be their best selves. For this too is our inheritance– to look at the year that has passed, to atone, and to walk forward, renewed.

I wish you all a Shanah Tovah Umetukah V’amitzah — a Good and Sweet and Courageous new year.

Yom Hashoah

I got onto a train.

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It was morning. Rush hour was done. The car was still. Across from my red seat was a row of red seats, all empty.

I thought. Who are the people who could have filled these spots? 

I saw my reflection rippling in the glass. I saw other trains, not with eyes but with gut–stories told of boxcars, of standing for days, of terror, of rushing, of ending. Of a people that was mine. I looked through my reflection rippling in the glass and saw a shade of a world without my family in it. I saw myself as an empty seat.

I sat comfortably. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center. I stood for my stop.

I got off of a train and stepped into Warsaw.

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I got onto a train with my father.

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We sat in plush seats. We ate Polish donuts. We drank Polish coffee. We spoke quietly and freely in English. We watched the country whisk by.

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“If things had gone differently, before,” I said to him, “You could have been Polish. I couldn’t have existed because you and Mom wouldn’t have met. But you could have been Polish.”

Before. I looked out and saw a shade of a country with my family in it, before.

A conductor came by. My ticket was wrong. I was not a Polish student. My international student ID meant nothing here. I had to buy a new ticket.

I fished out my wallet and fished out bills. I solved a problem with money. I thought of a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

I sat back. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center.

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Mostly, I did not think about trains in Poland. Mostly, I enjoyed myself. My father and I ate pierogis and drank good coffee. We wandered the streets.

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We entered old synagogues and new museums.

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We paused by memorials. IMG_1282.jpg

We saw signs of a reviving Jewish community.

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The Krakow JCC

We walked through cemeteries. (Perhaps, if we had never left Poland, we would have believed that, as Cohens, we shouldn’t set foot in a cemetery. But then, if we had never left Poland, we would not be us.)

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We traveled as strangers in a country that had once been home, in a city where my Great Grandfather attended high school, in a country where much of his family later perished. It had been home. It was not any longer. My father flew to our home– to America. I flew to Tel Aviv.

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I missed a train in Tel Aviv.

The train came only once an hour. I missed it by a minute. I would have to wait. I grumbled to myself. I thought about my sore neck and long day and lack of sleep. I thought about the homework I had yet to complete. I did not think about a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who has made me so free that I can forget what it would be to be anything else.

I got onto the next train. Across from me, the seats were full. I remembered the empty red row in Warsaw. I remembered my doctor in Jerusalem last fall, asking me my birth date to figure out which of the two “Emily Cohens” in his system was me.

I told him my birthdate. “There are a lot of Emily Cohens in the world,” I added with a smile and a shrug.

My doctor looked at me and did not smile. “Thank God,” he said. “Thank God.”

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who gives humanity the wisdom to learn and to remember and to be grateful. IMG_1193.jpg

Shabbos Blessing- Week 33

It’s beginning to feel a lot like summer.

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Perhaps it’s because I haven’t had class for almost two weeks. Perhaps it’s because the temperature keeps climbing (it’s 85°F right now!). Perhaps it’s because I live in a beach town and in the last week especially everyone in the world seems to have remembered that.

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All I know is, it feels like summer.

I still have more than a month of class left. I’ve got some busy weeks and weekends coming up. I’ve got summer plans to figure out and fall jobs and housing to begin to find. I have homework and reading to do (perhaps, y’know, at the beach). IMG_1661.jpg

Despite feeling like summer, it’s not. I just have to remember that long enough to get to Shavuot.

So here’s a cool thing about the Jewish calendar from now until just a couple of days before I go home: ya count days. Between the second night of Passover and Shavuot, there are exactly 7 weeks– 49 days. On the 50th day, we celebrate Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Every night of those 7 weeks, it’s traditional to count the omer. Back in the day, the omer was a measurement that Jews were expected to offer in barley to the Temple. Today, we don’t have a Temple, and most of us don’t grow barley, but we count all the same.

So, every night from now until Shavuot (the night of May 30th), I’ll count up. Every morning from now until June 2nd, I’ll count down. Two civilizations. The enlightened will understand. (I think I just tried to make two kinds of jokes at once and the cross section of people who will get both is very, very small, but I’m entertained, so there.)

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So, we come to this week’s blessing, which comes from a wonderful friend from college. She sent me a package way back in December that took like a month to get here, beaten up and held by the post office and chock full of holiday goodies. It also included a card and, within the card, a blessing!

“The harder the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.” Remembering this on the hard days and remember that you’re stronger and more powerful than you know. 

I’ve been really lucky lately. I haven’t had a lot of hard days in recent weeks. I’m sure that more will come between now and the finish, and I am so grateful to have people both here and in America in my corner.

IMG_1689.jpgFinally, last Sunday was Easter, and last Monday, I found myself sitting in my apartment when I suddenly heard what sounded like a drum line. Naturally I went to investigate. A couple of blocks from me I stumbled upon the “Jaffa Easter Parade,” in which Palestinian Christians from all over gathered. It was delightful. So many dressed up people, so many adorable children, and did I mention…bagpipes?!

 

It was very exciting. I was very happy. I hope you are too. Shabbat Shalom, my friends.

Whoopsie-daisy (Belated Shabbos Blessings- Weeks 31 and 32)

Hi y’all. Been a while. My apologies.

See, about two weeks ago, my classes stopped for passover break. Around the same time, my best friend in the world showed up. Around the same time, my classmate Jake and I published the 2017 Hamilton Haggadah, and it got a pretty awesome reception. So, well, life didn’t feel the least bit normal, and before I knew it two shabbats had come and gone, and nary a word from me.

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The good news is, life is good. So let’s start out with blessings from week 31 and 32.

For week 31, I leave you with 3 consecutive sunrises and sunsets. I’ve seen a lot of amazing sunsets here. I’m not usually up early enough to witness sunrise, but two weeks ago, shortly after we moved to daylight savings time, I had occasion to be up at 6:30. There are a number of things I won’t miss about living in Israel, and truth be told I find my thoughts on the States quite a lot these days. But this place is stunningly beautiful. I will miss these sunsets (and occasional sunrises) and the ability to be by the sea at a moment’s notice. 

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Week 32, this last week, included much of Passover. Here in Israel, the holiday will end just before 8 PM tonight. I’ll be honest in saying that it’s felt a good deal less intense than in years past. Part of that is because it’s a day shorter. In the United States, I celebrate Passover for 8 nights. In Israel, I celebrate for 7 (most holidays are a day shorter here than in the diaspora). The main reason, though, is that Passover’s food restrictions here are different than in the states. Most Ashkenazi Jews (people whose ancestry is Germanic and Eastern European) avoid two categories of food during Passover: chametz (grain) and kitniyot (things that are/were historically stored near grains– like legumes, corn, and rice– and therefore could get grains mixed into them). That’s been my practice for years, which means that Passover usually means trying to find adequate nutrition and sources of protein that aren’t legumes. Most Jews in Israel don’t avoid kitniyot, however, and in the interests of experiencing an Israeli-style holiday, I opted this year to avoid kitniyot at home but to eat them at seder and while out and about. What this meant was that suddenly the trickiest foods to avoid, corn and soy, ceased being a problem and eating became much easier. So, while I’ll be happy to be able to go back to a non-Passover diet tonight, it’s less of a relief than normal.

This week’s blessing was the fulfillment of the last words Jews say at the conclusion of the Passover seder: לשנה הבאה בירושלים–l’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim-– next year in Jerusalem. Based though I am in Tel Aviv now, I made it to Jerusalem for seder with friends from last semester. Generally, I take the “next year in Jerusalem” bit more symbolically than geographically, but there was something cool about spending a seder in that city.  

I have a lot more to share, and I have a few more days before heading back to class, so expect more regular posts coming your way, but I want to get these up now before I end up with 3 weeks of shabbat blessings to post all at once!

If you are celebrating Passover, I wish you the best in the next day or two before its end. If you just celebrated Easter, I hope it was wonderful. And, if you are simply celebrating spring, may you continue to do so. Despite the world’s rough patches, there’s a lot to appreciate out there right now.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 17

It’s Hanukkah. That alone would make this week special.

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Night 1 in Tzion Square

Hanukkah means amazing donuts.

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Thank you, Roladin!

It means lovely dinners with friends and their hanukkiot.

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It means giant outdoor candle lightings.

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It means breaking in my little Jerusalem-bought hanukkiah.

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But most importantly, it means time with my family, who flew halfway across the world to spend the end of Hanukkah with me.

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It is almost shabbat, and it is Hanukkah, and I get to share both with these people I love so much. This week’s blessing doesn’t require words. It’s right here.

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Mom, Dad, and Marzipan rugelach

Shabbos Blessing- Week 16

(New to shabbos blessings? Learn more here. And don’t forget that I’m trying to get 8 more for the 8 nights of Hanukkah! Happy to accept via comment/facebook/email/text/smoke signal)

I gotta say, these days I’m grateful for my (self-imposed) weekly post. Life gets so busy and having time to write can definitely be a challenge. Still, I haven’t missed a Friday yet and I hope to keep that up! And hopefully to get a chance to actually finish one of the 4 or 5 posts I’ve started and had to abandon over the last few weeks.

Of course, a lot of what’s been keeping me busy is really fun stuff. Last night, I went with a bunch of folks to see Rogue One (no, people who know me well, I don’t know how I managed to wait a week after opening day either).

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future JTS rabbi + future RRC rabbi (matching entirely unintentional)

It was my first time at an Israeli movie theater, and I had a blast. Not least because watching a movie about x-wings in 3D IMAX is guaranteed to be fun. img_9168

In the meantime, Hanukkah is coming. Soon! Like, tomorrow night soon! Like, Christmas Eve/Hanukkah Night 1 extravaganza! Here, one gets a little more attention than the other. Since the movie theaters are not decked out with Christmas trees, they get dreidels instead. Very exciting stuff. And outside, we get giant menorahs.

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But don’t worry, Christmas! I did find a Christmas tree…at the YMCA.

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But most of the decorations up these days look a bit more like this:

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Totally pretty, right? Just not what this American-raised kid is used to in mid-December. I’m really excited for Hanukkah here. We’ve got awesome lights and giant menorahs and fun selection of sufganiyot.

This coming week, on Wednesday night, my parents are arriving from California. My dad hasn’t been here since high school, and it will be my mom’s first trip. I’m so excited to show them around and spend time together. It’s crazy to think that this part of my time in Israel is already here. It felt quite far off when I got on the plane in September. Now, I’ve got less than a month left living in Jerusalem.

This week’s blessing relates to time. It comes from one of my first friends in college, a neighbor of mine my first year with whom I shared many a choir tour, music class, and meal at Cafe Mac. I was so delighted to see what she shared, because I find Kahlil Gibran’s writing to be deliciously vibrant and soul-filled. She shared his poem, “On Time:”

 

You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.

Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.
Who among you does not feel that his power to love is boundless?
And yet who does not feel that very love, though boundless, encompassed within the centre of his being, and moving not from love thought to love thought, nor from love deeds to other love deeds?
And is not time even as love is, undivided and spaceless?

But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.

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That which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.

The words give me chills. I think back to a class most of my friends and I took in college, basically a “Physics for Poets” course. On the last day of the class, our professor, an old Korean man who was on his “last semester before retirement” for at least 5 years, gave a lecture in which he reminded each of us that we were made of star stuff. When I feel the world seeming too closed off or too pained or too terrible, I try to remember that. The makings of everything that once was are in everything that is. We are all tied to one another. As we look forward to throwing more light into the world beginning tomorrow night, I hope we can illuminate the star stuff within each of us.

Today, I’ve got an hour or so before heading off to synagogue where I’ll be helping to do some musical shabbat leading with classmates from Ziegler. For now, I’m admiring the little baby hanukkiah that I bought at the crazy-packed-with-shabbat-shoppers-and-birthright-kids shuk this morning. Come at me, Hanukkah!

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 12

Twelve is an important number for me when it comes to rabbinical school, because if all goes well I’ll have 12 semesters total of it. During my first semester at RRC, I decided that each of the 12 should correspond to one of Jacob’s (and Leah’s and Rachel’s and Zilpah’s and Billha’s) 12 sons. So far I’ve been through Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Napthali, Gad, and Asher. This semester is Issachar. Next semester will be Zebulon. Then it’ll be onto the babies: Joseph and Benjamin. Dinah, as the only daughter, will accompany me post-ordination. Anyway, twelve. Twelve tribes of Israel, twelve weeks in Israel. I’m well over the quarter-mark now, for which I’m grateful.

And gratefulness seems appropriate, considering the season. Last night, I had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with a number of other American rabbinical-student-orphans (and a few British and Israeli tagalongs). It felt very homey, from the stuffing to the pumpkin pie to the football game on in the living room. At the request of one of our British guests, we even did the “go around the table and share what you’re thankful for” game. I also managed to trick my computer into thinking that it was in America so that I could stream part of the parade.

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The funniest thing about Thanksgiving for me was that my brain didn’t seem to understand what to do with it. I kept mentally batting it around, trying to impose all manner of inapplicable norms. Thanksgiving, you may be astonished to learn, is neither an Israeli holiday nor a Jewish holiday. Yesterday, around noon, I had yet to buy the ingredients for the stuffing I would be bringing to dinner. My brain leapt around in panic: Would any stores still be open? Would they still have mushrooms? Would it take me over an hour to navigate the crazy busy aisles and check out?

My brain checked itself: “Wait, Emily. This is Israel. This is a normal Thursday. There are a lot of American ex-pats here, yes, but the stores are open and they will not be crazy crowded. You’re good.” I bought the things I needed easily and headed home.

In my kitchen, I set to preparing the stuffing. It’s not an old family recipe, per se, but it is the recipe that we use every year. It’s the best. Don’t argue. The last time I was abroad for Thanksgiving, I made it in a wok. It’s supposed to be baked. Here in Jerusalem, not only could I get all of the ingredients (including sourdough!), but I had an oven to bake it in. As I chopped celery and pre-heated the oven, my brain leapt around in panic: How soon was sunset? Would the stuffing be done in time to be kosher?

My brain checked itself: “Wait, Emily. This is Thanksgiving. This is a secular holiday, not shabbat or chag. You can bring things cooked after dark to dinner. You’re good.”

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My Thanksgiving experience fits rather beautifully into this week’s blessing, which comes from one of my rabbi teachers at RRC. I think that this is the first clergy blessing I’ve shared so far, but don’t worry–there are more coming (and if you’re still considering sending one along, please do! I’m not at 40 yet!). She wrote:

I definitely have a blessing for you dear Ereleh: May you experience many moments of belonging and feel what it feels like to be an insider, and may you have many insights available to you as an outsider.

A lot of people here think I’m Israeli until I open my mouth. I don’t know if it’s my looks or how I dress or if it’s just the culture or what, but I get asked for directions a lot. At first glance, people think that I belong here and know what’s up.

I don’t. I am still an outsider here and expect to remain so throughout my 40 weeks. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I’m an American. My future is bound up in that land much more than in this one, particularly in wake of the elections. I want to have a good, growthful experience here. I want to develop a deeper cultural and historical understanding of this place. After I’m home, I want to continue to engage in activism related to this place, because this place claims to speak for American Jews as well as Israeli Jews and I therefore feel at least some measure of responsibility to be engaged. But I have no intention of making aliyah. This is not home. I am an outsider.

Yet, I have had many moments of belonging and feeling like an insider. When we shared what we were grateful for last night, I said that I was grateful to have seen that the future of liberal Judaism was so much bigger than just RRC. I have no regrets about choosing Reconstructionism, but being in Philly– even though it’s actually less than 2 hours from NYC– has kept me from feeling tied into the rabbinical school worlds of NYC (and LA on the West Coast). Here, I study regularly with colleagues from JTS, Hebrew College, and Ziegler, and I’ve gotten to know HUC students as well. People have really welcomed me in. Before September, I only knew one of the perhaps 20 people (mostly rabbinical students) I celebrated Thanksgiving with last night. Almost every Friday night or Saturday afternoon (or both!) I am invited to a shabbat meal. I am so grateful to be forming connections with people whom I may one day share close professional ties. I’m eager, when we all return to the States, to stay in contact. We’re going to have so much work to do together.

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Look how big they’ve gotten! Big kittens! Hillary is consoling Kaplan. 

Shabbos Blessing- Week 8

(New to shabbos blessings? Learn more here!)

I’m going off book this week.

See, this week included the last holiday for what feels like a very, very long time. Hanukkah isn’t actually so far away– it starts a little before Christmas this year, I think– but after the slew of holidays that have peppered the last month, the notion of a 2-month normal stretch seems pretty crazy.

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After Christmas in the US, people put out their Christmas trees. After Sukkot in Israel, people put out their scakh (the sukkah roofs!)

Simchat Torah means “Joy of Torah,” which is a pretty apt title for a holiday that’s all about saying: “We just finished reading the whole 5 Books of Moses! Let’s start over! Wahoo!” Celebration typically involves dancing about, singing, carrying Torahs around the congregation (and, often, out into the streets), and, naturally, rolling the Torah back from the end of D’varim (Deuteronomy) to the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis). It can be quite the party, and I was excited to experience it here.

At Nava Tehila, we once again prayed outside, and it was beautiful. We circled from Moses’s death at the end of the five books to “in the beginning” at, well, y’know. Anybody in the congregation who wanted to come up was welcomed for an aliyah. We celebrated people in all stages of their lives. Then, with the children seated on blankets in the middle of the congregation, we moved the chairs back and unrolled the entire Torah, each adult holding a small section up, tenderly circling the children with holy words. It was stunning. I’ve been lucky enough to see the entire Torah unrolled on a number of occasions, but it was something else to be part of it in this space outside, under a perfect autumn blue sky that lapped up the golden tan of the parchment, and early afternoon sunlight that nestled the dark ink so that it seemed to shine brighter than ever.

To unroll the Torah in that space and to sing would have been enough. Instead, a member of the congregation walked around from beginning to end and gave more or less a synopsis, lovingly summing up the goings on column by column. At the end of each book, we joined together in chanting the traditional words “Hazak hazak v’nithazak– be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” That would have been enough.

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Instead, more members of the community entered the middle of the circle and walked around, offering blessings to each and every person who wanted one. To get a blessing, all one needed to do was point to a random verse of Torah. That’s the amazing thing about holding the unrolled Torah. You can maybe, depending on how good your eyes are, read the columns across from your column. You can’t read your own. The angle is all wrong. I had a basic idea of where I was in the Torah (somewhere in Numbers around the priestly blessing), but I didn’t know exactly which verses my own hands were cradling. So, I pointed and hoped.

The blessing-offering woman, who luckily for me happened to be American, looked at the verse for a few moments and then smiled. “This is beautiful,” she said. “Do you know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was?”

Did I know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was? Yes. Yes, I did. For one thing, he shows up pretty dramatically in this Hamilton Haggadah song, so I think of him as being more-or-less Hercules Mulligan. For another thing, at RRC they call my class the “Nachshons.” The RRC curriculum is undergoing a pretty major shift, and my class has been the one to beta most of the new stuff. I could talk about that more, but it’s almost shabbat and I’m trying to think happy thoughts. In any case, I’m used to being the first into things.

So who was Nachshon? Well, according to Torah (Numbers 7:12) he was the first man to bring his offerings to the Tabernacle. But, like many things in Torah, that wasn’t enough information for the rabbis, so we have a great story about him. Nachshon, we say, walked into the Red Sea up to his neck, and only then did the waters part. He took the leap of faith that allowed the Israelites to be freed from Pharaoh.

I could have been holding any column of the Torah and happened to be holding that one. I could have pointed to any verse of the column and pointed there. It’s sorta like what happened at the kotel with the caper berry. I don’t believe in a God that made my finger point to that verse, but I do believe in a God that endowed creation with wisdom to draw connections and feel inspiration when it’s needed. And it was needed.

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The woman giving me the blessing offered me what has carried me through this week, so, like I said, I’m going a little off-book and making this week’s Shabbos Blessing her blessing to me. I don’t know her exact words, but she said something along the lines of:

I don’t know you at all, but this makes me think that you’re like Nachshon. This verse is about a person who is very brave and takes risks for the good of the community. I want to bless you with courage as you take leaps and do things before others as a leader. They might be difficult. May your leaps be for the good and may you feel brave and supported. 

I feel like my entire time in Jerusalem so far has been about deciding when and how to leap and when and how not to. I identify incredibly strongly with Nachshon as a figure in my faith, and he doesn’t show up all that often in Torah, and so it feels like such a gift that I found him on Simchat Torah.

It’s been quite the week and I’ve got more to say, but shabbat is coming earlier and earlier these days, so I think I’ll save some of my other experiences for another time. Shabbat Shalom everyone. Here’s a pile of sleepy kittens to get you in the spirit.

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