Sunset in Jaffa

In Jerusalem, I felt like I lived with Jews.

Sure, there were Palestinians around. I would see them walking and driving occasionally in my neighborhood and often when I went into the Old City. I came to know a few in my ulpan, which is known to be among the most diverse offered in Jerusalem. But they were not everywhere. They were not a majority. Most women I saw wearing head coverings were Orthodox Jews. Most men I saw wearing long, robe-like garments were Orthodox Jews. It got to the point, over the course of the semester, where I often stopped noticing who had on a kippah and who was wearing tzitzit, because both were so commonplace. I expected to hear Hebrew rather than Arabic almost everywhere I went. I expected to hear the siren announcing Shabbat every Friday night. The neighborhoods in Jerusalem where I might have developed different expectations were largely barred to me. img_9182

In Jaffa, I feel like I live with Palestinians– some Christian, others Muslim. There are Jews here too, of course, but in my neighborhood I haven’t seen many. Jaffa has always been a little more mixed than some other areas, and it has gotten more-so recently as hipster Jews have moved into town. (Case in point: my marvelous apartment here came with a record player and a nice collection of albums.) Some Palestinians are upset about that (the Jewish influx, not the record players), while others view it as a potential for positive relationship building between two often-fraught communities. I have mixed feelings about living here. On one hand, I’m glad to be in a more diverse (and beautiful) environment. On the other hand, I feel a little bit like a gentrifying yuppie.

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Three days ago, I got out of the cab and, with the help of a new neighbor, lugged my suitcases up the three-and-a-half floors to my new apartment. I started to unpack, and then, suddenly, heard two people begin chanting over loudspeakers.

I recognized the chant at once. It was the adhan- the Muslim Call to Prayer– emanating from the minaret straight ahead off of my balcony and from others nearby. “God is Greatest,” the muezzin sang. Allahhu akbar.

In the second blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish daily services, we speak of Ha’El Ha’Gadol (האל הגדול)- God who is Great (and mighty and awesome etc…).

“I acknowledge that there is no God but Allah,” the muezzin sang. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh.

In the sh’ma, the closest thing we as Jews have to a credo, we acknowledge that Adonai- God- is our God, and Adonai is one.

Not every line of the adhan tracks onto Jewish prayer and practice, and nor should it. But it is beautiful and it is a reminder, I think not only to the Muslim community, but to all of us who are nearby, to be present to something beyond ourselves. I am so sorry, that to some people, this beautiful sound evokes fear and distrust.

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Yesterday, as shabbat came to an end, I walked along the small streets from my home to the sea, perhaps 10 minutes away. I passed by Palestinian children– screaming, laughing, arguing, cooperating children– kicking a soccer ball in the alleyway right outside my apartment. I passed by hijab-wearing women having picnics and pushing their little ones on swings in the park next to the water. I passed by Palestinian couples holding hands as they walked. I passed by Palestinian elders sitting on benches and looking out as the sun descended into the luscious, vibrant waves. I passed by Palestinian fishermen trying to catch a last bite before darkness settled over the shore.

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I can’t help wondering how the newly-inaugurated American President would react to being in the neighborhood where I live. Could he see the beauty here, the normalcy, or would he only see fear and the potential for violence? I don’t pretend that there are no Palestinians who wish Israeli Jews, and perhaps Americans, harm. But they are not a majority.

In the US, the president is able to look at our Christian community and ignore the percentage that would act to harm others. He won’t do the same for our Muslim community. Thank God for lawyers and judges and for the tenacity of protesters.

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I walked along last night, watching Palestinians in restaurants, Palestinians complaining as they climbed long flights of stairs from the sea to the park above, Palestinians stopping at crosswalks so that Palestinians and Jews and anybody else could continue safely. And I heard the call once again as I looked out over the sea. And I thought, I wish I could share this peaceful moment with everyone who is afraid of Islam. I wish I could make the centering, settling nature of the adhan into a balm to rub onto their hearts. But, for now, I am glad to be able to keep listening.

(*Travel post/fuller moving to Jaffa post coming soon. But this was on my heart and I have 700+ pictures to sort through, so for now, there’s this.)

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

On the side of the road, painted onto a crumbling cement wall, were three well-known images. A star with six points, a Magen David, was rendered in sloppy black spray point next to an equals sign. On the other side of that sign were two interconnected lines, a hooked cross, ripped from peaceful sanskrit origins to become a symbol of hate. Our bus passed by too quickly for me to pull my phone out and snap a picture, but in my mind I can still see the symbols quite clearly. Star of David=Swastika. Israel=Nazi Germany.

This idea was not entirely new to me. I’ve heard people compare Israel to the Nazi regime. I’ve heard people compare Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank to South African Apartheid. But it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see such symbols splashed before my eyes. My heart tightened. My eyes froze open. We kept driving.

Soon, we passed by a huge red sign with a message rendered in three languages. I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, and I couldn’t even read the Arabic, so I was grateful for the English. IMG_9045.jpg

This Road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.

As part of the Oslo Accords in 1995, The West Bank was divided into three official zones. In the simplest of terms, Area “A” was given directly to Palestinian control, Area “B” was designated for shared control between Israeli and Palestinian powers, and Area “C” retained Israeli control.

In 1995, I was just a kid. I knew that Israel was a country because people at my synagogue told me about it. I knew that it was a young country, which seemed strange to me because the Torah was so old and it talked about Israel all the time. I knew that there were people called Palestinians who had something to do with Israel, but I didn’t know anything about them except that sometimes they hurt Israel.

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The first Palestinian I remember meeting was during my sophomore year of high school. I had just moved from Virginia to New Jersey, and my new school was much larger and much more diverse than any I had attended in Richmond. Many of my classmates were either immigrants or the children of immigrants from all over the world. Sometime during that year, there was a “UN Day,” and students were encouraged to pin a map of their home country up in one of the main hallways.

I saw a girl I didn’t know hanging up a map of what looked like Israel, only, where I expected it to say “Israel,” it said “Palestine.” I looked at it and then at her, puzzled.

“Palestine isn’t a country,” I said.

She whipped around and looked right at me. “Palestine is a country,” she said. She turned back to the map, finished pinning it up, and walked on down the hallway. I noticed the Palestinian flag emblem pinned to her backpack. I didn’t follow. I didn’t ask any questions.

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The barrier wall between Area C (Rachel’s Tomb) and Area A (Bethlehem)

My first trip into the West Bank was to Susya back in September. I’ve crossed over the Green Line a few times since. Sometimes I couldn’t tell that I had crossed over anything of the sort. Sometimes the checkpoints, when our yellow-plated buses drove through them, felt like little more than toll plazas for a car with an EZPass.

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Earlier this month, in the city of Bethlehem, I got into a car with white plates and green writing for the first time. This car would not be permitted through the checkpoint we had breezed through earlier in the day. The Palestinian woman who owned it wasn’t allowed to pass through checkpoints in a car at all. She drove me and another rabbinical student to her home just outside of Bethlehem, where we would stay the night. Her apartment looked out over the Shepherd’s Field where, supposedly, shepherds watched their flocks by night and the angel Gabriel from heaven came (you see what I did there?).

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The Shepherd’s Field

Our Palestinian host was a Christian. In the early morning, the sounds of Eastern Orthodox priests chanting benedictions sounded from her TV. She laid out a breakfast for us of pita, hummus, a thick yogurt dip, olive oil, za’atar, jam, chopped tomatoes, and cheese. I’ve eaten the same in Jerusalem on countless mornings. It felt very normal. It felt safe.

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Two embroideries by our host. The Arabic one is The Lord’s Prayer.

The night before, sitting with my fellow rabbinical student and our 60-year-old host, I had a moment of feeling unsafe. She asked us about Trump. When we told her about some of the specific groups we were concerned for back home, she made a homophobic comment. Instantly, I was reminded of how much of a bubble I exist in much of the time. My classmate and I gently but firmly spoke with her about it, sharing experiences of our dear ones and their partners as a counter to her narrative of suspicion, hoping to open her up to understanding, knowing that it would likely not be possible to fully shift her views in the course of a single conversation. I asked her questions about her experiences with people who were not heterosexual. She didn’t have many. She asked us questions. She seemed curious. Perhaps she believed what we had to say, even if she couldn’t believe it about everyone who fit a particular label. It was a start. It wasn’t enough.

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“You see the wall under the road there?” our guide asked, pointing beneath what we had just learned to be a road for Israeli vehicles, mostly headed to the settlements in the hills around Bethlehem. “There’s a house there, and when they built the wall it cut through the property. The people that live there have their own gate so they can get to the Bethlehem side.”

On one side of the wall was downtown Bethlehem, the Palestinian City– Area “A”. On the other side were partially developed hills, olive trees dotting each ridge, settlements looking down from above. The trees, our guides said, had been cultivated by Palestinian farmers for generations, but Palestinians were no longer allowed to go there. Some of the trees had been chopped down. Others remained, surviving either from luck without tending or through the illegal efforts of their caretakers. img_9020

In the Palestinian village of Batir, a short drive from Bethlehem, farming is still a primary way of life. Eight families tend land with terraces that date back to Canaanite times. Generations are buried in caves.img_9023 Many young people leave Batir these days. They cannot legally build new homes without permits, which Israel will not grant. When they marry they either build illegally, risking demolition, or they move to Bethlehem. The family members who remain in Batir take turns watering their lands, each family getting one of eight days in the winter and sharing half a portion every four days in the summer, when fields are parched and water hard to come by.

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On our walking tour of the village, our facilitators reminded us that we were in public space. It would be unwise to show outward expressions of Judaism. Tzitzit and Star of David necklaces were tucked, kippot hidden beneath baseball caps, Hebrew writing on T-shirts and water bottles covered. We were welcome as Jews to those who knew who we were. We were not welcome as Jews by everyone in the city and villages. I thought about my curly hair. Should I have braided it so that it wasn’t as obvious? Did I look too Jewish? Was I safe?

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In a Bethlehem hotel, the curtains of our meeting room drawn so that those who wanted to wear a kippa or tzitzit could do so without concern, we listened to a panel of Palestinians discussing their lives and their takes on the conflict. One woman said that she wished an earthquake would come and destroy all of the holy sites in Israel. Then, she said, “we can rebuild together.” Then, she said, “nobody will care about Palestine anymore.”

Next to her, a man, shocking the facilitators of our visit, declared that he saw no difference between violent resistance and non-violent resistance. He spoke about the Holocaust, his conversational but far from perfect English carrying an unclear message that caused my eyes to prick with upset. What did he mean, we tried to ask. Was he really saying what it sounded like he was saying? When the panel ended, we still didn’t know.

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At our final session, just before our short bus ride back to Jerusalem, we listened to the narrative of a Palestinian-American man who moved from the midwest to Ramallah in the 1990s. At first, he was treated by Israel as an American, his passport allowing him an Israeli car and free access to Jerusalem and Ben Gurion airport. When he received a Palestinian identity card, that ended. To get to Bethlehem, instead of driving straight up from Ramallah, he had to take the circuitous route in areas that, as a Palestinian, he is permitted to. Outside of Israel, he is treated as an American, with all of the privileges and limitations that come with such a status. Within Israel and the West Bank, he is not.

Towards the end of his talk, a participant asked him what he thought American Jews could do about the conflict. He looked around the room and said: “What I’m asking for from Jews in the diaspora and Jews in general is just to be Jewish. What I understand is that social justice is a core pillar of your religion. I have to question that when those credentials are checked when you arrive at Ben Gurion. All I’m asking is that you apply the same frame of social justice to what is happening here.”

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A school/municipal building in a Palestinian village outside Bethlehem surrounded by settlements on all sides. The building has had a demolition order since its construction.

We got back onto the bus. We drove home, breezing through a checkpoint with our yellow plates. It was Friday afternoon, shabbat only an hour or so away. At services, I sang my heart out. I joined friends for dinner, sipping wine late into the evening. I walked home, to the apartment in Jerusalem that I was entitled to by virtue of being a student from America. I thought about my passport. I thought about my lineage and faith and their ability to get me citizenship to this country, if I want it. I thought about a life spent singing in choirs and the words of a song of this season:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem every day. They are met in Jerusalem every day. Hope and fear are in every brick of this land, on both sides of the wall. Would that fear could crumble while hope holds us up for all the years to come.

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 15

(New to Shabbos Blessings? Learn more here. ALSO, Hanukkah update/request: I’m still operating with a blessing deficit to get me through all 40 weeks. There are 8 nights of Hanukkah, and it would be super cool if I could get 8 blessings before it’s over– which is New Years Eve, for those playing along at home. So, if you’re so inclined, send me a blessing in the next couple of weeks! Thanks!)

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10 years ago at this time I was coming out of a terrible sophomore slump at Macalester College. The beginning of my second year there was awful. I felt disconnected socially and confused academically. My family was going through a difficult stretch, and being in Minnesota while they were in New Jersey was tough to say the least. To be honest, I don’t remember many specifics about that time. What I do remember is that, during Thanksgiving break, which I spent with dear friends in Minnesota rather than flying home, I suddenly realized that everything was ok. I remembered that I was cared for. I remembered that I had value. That was when Mac, and the Twin Cities, became a second home.

On the whole, I loved my experience at Macalester, and I think it’s safe to say that I would not have decided to become a rabbi without the influence of the chaplains I worked with there. My four years there opened me up to so many possibilities of what it could mean to be spiritual and religious and liberal and social justice-oriented. I worked for the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life for two years. I served on the Multifaith Council for three. I was involved in the pluralistic Macalester Jewish Organization for all four. Today, my dream job would be to be a Jewish Chaplain or Hillel Rabbi at a small liberal arts school like Mac. I think I would never leave.

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The Chapel/Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at Macalester, appropriately blocked by snowy trees. 

Why am I thinking about Mac today? Because, incredibly, the chaplains who worked there when I was a student are still in my life. I’m so grateful for that. The rabbi there, the one I call “my rabbi” to this day, has been a source of support for me since I was 20. He’s even helped me begin to build a rabbinic bookshelf with volumes from his own collection. The minister who was dean of religious and spiritual life when I was a student has since moved on to another university, but we’ve stayed in touch and I continue to look to her as a model of how to be a pastoral presence to people from many faiths. I also still connect with the Jesuit Priest who served at Macalester while I was there, and I have him to thank for today’s blessing:

“Knowing more surely who you are in God’s eyes and ever growing in gratitude, may you continue to trust God’s invitation to give of yourself in ways that bring healing and hope to all of creation.” God bless you Emily.

It seems fitting that this blessing comes up now, just after my health scare, when gratitude is flowing more than ever. In a lot of ways, this week has felt like a border between one chapter of my time here and another. Although fear is no longer pinning me down, I’ve had to actively remind myself of my health, to reset my mind, to remember that everything is ok. I’m glad to be going into shabbat tonight, and next week I intend to resettle fully into my normal self, with creative projects and academic motivation galore.

For now, I leave you with a picture of this donut. It’s sufganiyot season in Israel now, and while any old jelly donut will technically do, most bakeries here take the charge of donut crafting very seriously (think of it as the closest we get to Christmas cookies). This one has its own jelly syringe so as not to mess with the integrity of the pastry before consumption.

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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.