Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah

כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה

Let all that has breath praise Yah, Halleluyah!

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Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel.

When a Jewish man goes to the kotel he can go to the men’s section. He can wear a kippah, tallit, and tefillin if he chooses. If he does not have these things, other men will likely offer them to him for his time at the wall. He may pray on his own or he may pray in a minyan, a group of Jews. These minyanim pray aloud, with men leading different sections of the service, and read from Torah. There are approximately 300 Torah scrolls on the men’s side of the wall, which means that it’s pretty easy to snag one if you’re a man wanting to read Torah.

The women, who have much less space allocated than than the men do, have 0 Torah scrolls. Women are not permitted to pray loudly. They are not permitted to read Torah. They are not permitted to wear tallitot or tefillin. They are not even allowed to pray aloud in organized minyanim.

Last Wednesday morning, I went to the Kotel wearing my tallis. Last Wednesday morning was Rosh Hodesh. For over 25 years, the Women of the Wall have been fighting against Orthodox control of the Western Wall, asserting that all Jews have the right to pray at the Kotel. Once a month, on the first or second day of the Hebrew month, they hold a protest at the wall and try to have a service. Their members have been arrested countless times and subjected to intense counter protests.

Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, multiple Torah scrolls were brought into the women’s section. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I saw Jews attack a Torah. I saw men with black hats shove a man without one to the ground. He fell so that the holy book his Jewish brothers sought to rip from him was cushioned against his chest.

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Last Wednesday morning, I prayed over the sounds of small boys running around the women’s section with piercing whistles because their rabbis told them to. I prayed over the shouts of men and women who thought that what we were doing was wrong. I formed a barrier with my body to keep women who didn’t believe in the rights of other women from taking our Torahs away from us. I scolded a child who tried to rip my tallis away from me and tried to rip tefillin off of a female classmate. I bent to his level and calmly asked him to tell me what I was doing wrong. He screamed “מספיק נאצי!– enough, nazi!” in my face and ran off.

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Last Wednesday morning, I helped other women who won’t pray with a mechitza– a gender binary-based barrier– to form a mechitza so that women who couldn’t pray without one still felt safe, as male photographers and counter protestors came to the women’s side of the wall. Last Wednesday morning, I saw men standing on chairs on the men’s side of the wall, holding prayerbooks, lending their support through their own prayers.

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Last Wednesday morning, I used my body as a block, locking elbows with fellow rabbinical students to keep counter protestors from taking or defacing holy words. I felt immediate threat to my body as people were shoved into me and tried to shove through me, as they screamed at me for daring to pray. I felt my heart pound with life and with commitment to equal treatment. I felt my voice soar.

Last Wednesday morning, I heard the line “כל הנשמה תהלל יה, הלליויה- Kol Haneshama T’halel Yah!- Let everything that has breath praise God!” louder than I ever have. Last Wednesday morning, for the first time, I felt like a full person at the Kotel.

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(This Wednesday, I had damn well better find out that being a full person while female is still possible back home.)

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 7

“Hi. I’d like to buy beans,” I told the barista, letting my coffee-snob self out of the box. In accented but clearly fluent English he chatted with me for several minutes about acidity levels, brewing methods, and sourcing. I decided to try out relatively small amounts of two kinds of beans. He ground them for me (slightly courser than espresso but finer than drip, if you’re curious), and I paid with a credit card. Then I walked with a classmate of mine to sit on a bench alongside a pedestrian highway. People walked, jogged, biked, and roller-skated on by as we chatted. IMG_7577.jpgIf the coffee was cheaper (I paid over $20 for less than a pound. Oy.), this could have been anytown America. Instead, it was the German Colony in Jerusalem, about a 20 minute walk from where I live.

That was Wednesday. On Tuesday, I walked with some classmates about 30 minutes from where I live and ended up… well, a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?

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If you are of one of the three Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), there is within this tiny city at least one immensely holy site.

If you’re Jewish (or probably also if you’re not), this is bound to look familiar:

IMG_8001.jpg We visited the Western Wall plaza, although none of us felt the need at the time to go up to the Wall itself. That’s a pretty crazy thing about living here. The Wall isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime (or once-every-time-one-visits-Jerusalem) event. I could go right now if I wanted. One fun thing about going the other day was seeing the plaza’s sukkah, which, I gotta say, has some serious wall art bling going on.

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Check out that silvery bling.

Among the reasons we walked to the Kotel that day was that we had already been to another faith’s holy site, and one of my classmates pointed out that it felt weird to visit that one without also dropping in on one of our own. I suppose she had a point.

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is absolutely a sacred space, even if it’s not my sacred space. When we entered the church, pilgrims were prostrated, their heads against a long flat stone where they believe the body of Christ to have been prepared for burial. We climbed the steep stairs to Calvary chapel, built on the site where Christ is said to have been crucified. Back on the ground floor, a long line of people waited patiently to visit Christ’s (vacated) tomb in the Church’s center. I felt soaked in devotion and awe– not because I hold the same beliefs as Christians, but because there were so many Christians experiencing so much in a relatively small space. I felt glad for them and honored to be there with them.

Exploring the Christian Quarter of the Old City in general was very cool, as I’ve really only spent time poking around the Jewish Quarter (y’know, the one they take you to on Birthright).  I look forward to more adventures there, and in other parts of the Old City. IMG_7974.jpg

Back in the modern city, I went to a street fair which reminded me very much of American street fairs in a lot of ways except that I don’t know of many street fairs in the states where you could find fresh-pressed pomegranate juice. IMG_8019.jpg

The next night, only a few blocks from my apartment, I came across a huge peace protest outside of the Prime Minister’s residence. Israelis, Palestinians, and international supporters of many political persuasions had marched to Jerusalem together, and this rally was the culmination. There was power in the crowd in the same way as there had been in the church. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, but the feeling of hope and need for change was real. I got choked up as the mixed multitude cheered and sang. I felt lucky to be a part of it.

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I’ll admit that my plan for this week was to travel. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be in Jerusalem for shabbat, much less all week. It’s sukkot–the only substantial break (aside from my unauthorized trip to Prague next month) that I’ll get until January. I knew that this would be a great time to poke around other parts of the country. But, well, I didn’t. At first I felt kinda bad, like I was squandering away my time. Then I realized that, while I have had a lot of downtime this week, I’ve also done a lot of exploring within this city, and that’s worthwhile. I’ve walked in the Old City and around the new. I’ve been on plenty of streets and in plenty of neighborhoods that I had not yet visited. I connected and reconnected with classmates from different rabbinical schools. I do intend to travel throughout this year as I can, and as I can find buddies to accompany me, but in spending my break here I had experiences that were simple and significant. The blessing for this week fits right in with that. This comes from a classmate at RRC who has already studied in Israel. She says:

Sending blessings for safe, wonderful, growth-full time!

I’d like to think that I’m cradling that balance point between growth and safety. I’d like to think that I am acquiring some wonderful memories. I think that I am. I think that this is still just the beginning.

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Rugelach at the shuk

Tonight I’ll bring dessert (babka from Marzipan, if you must know) to a shabbat dinner in the sukkah at my Yeshiva. I’ll spend the evening eating and enjoying the company of people whom I’d not met seven shabbats ago but who are likely to be my rabbinic colleagues in a few years. I’ll walk to dinner along a road that was completely foreign to me in September and that now feels like the center of my neighborhood. There’s growth. It’s good. Shabbat Shalom.

Messages at the Wall

Thwack! 

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I almost jumped. Caper berries, it turns out, can make quite a noise when they fall over a dozen feet and hit a single sheet of paper.

We were in the midst of selikhot, a set of penitential prayers that form part of the morning service just before Rosh Hashanah and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Within selikhot, we were in the midst of takhanun.

When I started rabbinical school, I couldn’t have told you what selikhot or takhanun were. Like many elements of traditional Judaism, they weren’t a part of the Reform tradition that I grew up in, and I never came to explore them as a (very) young adult. To be perfectly honest, I still wouldn’t call takhanun an integrated part of my Jewish experience, because it’s not part of the “typical” davenning at RRC. I’m becoming familiar with the words now as I’m becoming familiar with the way that folks at the Conservative Yeshiva daven in general, and I’m learning that takhanun strums a deep chord in the Jewish narrative. As we pray, our foreheads tucked onto our forearms, we admit exhaustion, and we more-or-less beg for God to remember us. I would call this part of the service less a supplication than a heartfelt plea born from centuries of often painful exile. There is a brutal humanity to the words, and although I don’t agree with all of them, I feel power in them.

Yesterday, when I davenned takhanun, I was quite tired. I had arrived home at 11:30 the night before after a choir rehearsal (conducted by a Hebrew-speaking Frenchman to a room of largely British and American Hebrew-speaking-except-for-me expats, where we sang in Latin and Italian). I had slept for a few hours and woken up at 4 to watch the first presidential debate.

Why, you might ask? Because I really wanted to see it live before all of the spin. Because I wanted to feel connected to home. Because I only had class the following day until noon and knew that I’d be able to relax and nap, if needed, after that. Because #imwithher, and if you’re not we should talk.

I finished watching and thought to myself: “I’m glad I get to pray soon.”

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At the Kotel, we davenned at the egalitarian section. It’s probably not what you think of when you think of the Western Wall, but right now it’s the only part of the wall where people of all genders can publicly pray together. The Conservative Yeshiva davens there one morning a week. As we davenned selikhot, I tried to think about a world full of communal transgressions and accountability and tried not to think about the (fill-in-the-blank-however-you-like) mansplainer who had filled my wee hours.

Thwack. 

The caper berry hit my sheet. I was startled from the words of prayer. A purple smudge marked the word צדיקים– tzadikim– righteous ones–pursuers of justice.

I don’t believe in an intervening God, at least not to the degree of a God who would drop a caper berry onto my selikhot supplement. But I do believe in a God that:

חונן לאדם דעת, ומלמד לאנוש בינה-  a God who “graces humans with knowledge and teaches humans wisdom,” as we say in the amidah. So, I guess you could say that although I don’t believe in a God who made the caper berry hit a word that reminded me to pursue justice, I do believe in a God who endowed an interconnected universe with the smarts to see a smudge as a symbol.

It’s going to be a tough season. Tzadikim are going to be important. Let’s chase justice together.

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