Shabbos Blessing- Week 36

This post is late again. I ended up traveling up until nearly the moment shabbat began, and yesterday I was thinking too hard to actually write. Here’s why:


Friday began for me in downtown Bethlehem. It was my second time there, almost exactly 6 months after my first time visiting in December. Much of this trip was the same as my first. I was traveling with the same organization. I visited some of the same sites. I ate some of the same foods.

Yet, it had been 6 months. Not everything had remained constant.

Prickly thistles that were hidden beneath the earth in December were blooming. IMG_1972.jpg

Surrounding the Arab village of Kefar Zecharia, the fields were green instead of grey with cold. IMG_1985.jpg

Along a part of Bethlehem’s border, where 6 months ago had been just a road, was a shiny grey fence– one more piece of the ever-expanding Israeli security barrier. IMG_1974.jpg

My role in this visit was also different, as I shifted from being a participant to being a peer facilitator, preparing and guiding other Jewish-American participants through processing conversations as they encountered Palestinian narratives.

I paid the same amount of attention. I asked more questions. I took far fewer pictures (though, it being me, “far fewer” is relative, as this mule will attest).


In the last 6 months, I also moved from West Jerusalem, where my environment was almost entirely Jewish, to Jaffa, where my environment is far more mixed. I hear the adhan– the Muslim call to prayer– 4 times a day (fortunately for me, the mosque doesn’t broadcast the 4 AM call), and I hear bells from the nearby churches more often. I volunteer in a preschool with Jewish and Palestinian children. I go to beaches frequented by women in hijab, men with peyes, and secular tourists in shorts. Certain elements of my life here remind me of Bethlehem, but Jaffa is certainly not the West Bank.


In Bethlehem, I met a young Palestinian woman named Emilie. I have met so many Emilys and Emilies in my life, and here in Israel I have met countless Cohens. But I had never met an Israeli or a Palestinian who shared my first name. She was named for her grandmother. When I was a baby, before “Emily” surged in the US, people commented to my parents that “Emily” was a name from their grandmothers’ generation.

In nearly perfect English (“English doesn’t count,” Emilie said, when I complemented her language ability), she spoke about her experiences growing up in Bethlehem and her luck in getting a job “just because I speak French. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.”


Bethlehem was not a city filled with hope 6 months ago, and it was not a city filled with hope on Friday; if anything, as the security barrier grew taller these last months, hope sank deeper beneath the earth.

Our Palestinian speakers spoke their truth, and their truth was vicious and their anger was righteous, and I felt their words carve a line through hope and shatter it to pieces, and I knew that I could not piece it all back together, and in that moment it felt like hope itself was a privilege that I had not merited.

But I also know that I can’t exist without hope. Their truth is vicious and their anger is righteous and the privilege that I merited was to hear it and to hold it and to share it.

This week’s Torah portion was Emor. 17 years ago to the day, in both the English and Hebrew calendars, I read a section of this portion for my Bat Mitzvah. The section I read was what might be called the “kid-freindly” part, in which the calendar of holidays is laid out in detail for the first time in the pentateuch. I read about when to mark Pesach and Rosh Hashanah and about leaving the corners of one’s fields for those in need. I did not read the section of the parsha about how Kohanim (priests) with “blemishes” could not serve in the Tabernacle. I did not read the section about the man born to an Israelite mother and Egyptian father who blasphemed God and was stoned to death as punishment (and trust me– I’ve got a lot more to say about that particular story).

No. When I read at my Bat Mitzvah, I was 12. I was celebrating the rite of becoming a Jewish woman. I chanted beautiful, inclusive words about our holiday practices. I engaged in ahavat yisrael: the love of  the people Israel and the traditions passed down through the generations from the Torah to the year 2000.

But it has been 17 years. I am nearly 30. Yesterday, I sat in my apartment and chanted the entire portion of Emor aloud, from the laws regarding Kohanic marriage to the laying out of the calendar to the stoning of the blasphemer according to God’s command. I let the justice and injustice in the holy words wash over me, and I let myself be angry, and in that anger I found the pieces of hope that had eluded me in Bethlehem.

I reminded myself that ahavat yisrael can be a foundation not for oppression but for grounded love as we work for a better world for all. I reminded myself that the holy words in our texts that ring of injustice today remind of us of our mandate to seek justice always.


On Friday afternoon, I left Bethlehem. I got on a bus to Jerusalem, and I got into a shared taxi to Tel Aviv, and I walked the streets of this city where I live to Jaffa. I bought pita and vegetables at a corner store run by Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and I came inside, and I heard the adhan ring out from the minaret, and I lit my own candles for shabbat.


17 years ago, in the 3rd verse of Torah that I ever read, I chanted the words:

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ מִקְרָא־קֹ֔דֶשׁ

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. (Leviticus 23:3) 

On this shabbat, I lit the candles, breathing into the weekly sacred occasion, letting myself rest, and that was blessing enough.


A Jaunt to Prague

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melekh haolam, hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are you adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

To most Jews, that prayer will probably look quite familiar. It’s said around shabbat tables, before meals at camp, and, for many, before every meal that includes bread. It’s one of the very first prayers I recall learning as a child, or, rather, that I don’t recall learning because I internalized when I was so young.

On Friday night, I heard a young girl recite this prayer. She stood holding two small challahs between her palms, while the young rabbi at her side, his tallis wrapped around his thin body, shook salt onto a platter. We said “amen” and she tore the challahs into pieces, passing a tray so that all could take a small piece. The group was small– perhaps 15 or 20 people– and it was intergenerational. There were children, parents, grandparents. They gathered around a table, eating challah and small tomatoes and baguette toasts spread with cheese. A tray of small glass cups, emptied of wine, sat off to one side, remnants of the kiddush from moments before. We were in a basement of a beautiful building, a small space for a small community celebrating a very full shabbat.

On Friday night, I attended Shabbat Services at Bejt Simcha, the only Reform community in Prague. Like most Jewish communities in Europe, Prague’s Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, pulled from their homes and lives to ghettos, concentration camps, and gas chambers. However, Prague’s Jewish quarter remained intact. You might think that was luck, as, indeed, much of Prague remained intact. Instead, Hitler left the buildings and cemetery of the Jewish quarter untouched so that, after the Final Solution was complete, they could be made into museums for “extinct races.”


Among the most chilling things I saw in Prague was this Holocaust memorial– a box filled with tefillin, each set a reminder of a life lost. 

Today, the non-active Pinkas Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is a Holocaust Memorial, the walls of its sanctuary lined with the names of those Czech Jews who did not survive, its top floor a gallery for the artwork of children killed in the camps.


The wall is not textured– those are all names.

But despite these names and these deaths and this tragedy, the Jews of Prague, and of the world, didn’t go extinct. Today, there are multiple active Orthodox synagogues in Prague, along with one Conservative and one Reform.


Including this synagogue– the Old New — which may or may not have a golem in the attic. 

Bejt Simcha may be the smallest of these synagogues, but it is still a powerful force. It is a message to the fascists then and to the fascists now that, however much they might try to snuff out my people, we will always find a way to rise and to thrive and to act from simcha– from joy.

On Friday night, we concluded our service with what I think of as the “slow, dreary” tune for adon olam. Here, however, in the midst of central Europe, in a small basement with a small group of Jews, it sprang to life. For this community there was nothing slow or dreary about it. It was authentic and it spoke to a future more than to a past. Being present for it was such a gift; I will never think of this tune as anything but hopeful again.


Hey, you’re a pretty cool astronomical clock, clock.

Music was a significant part of my weekend in Prague. The arts there are government-subsidized, which means that cheap seats are actually cheap, not $35 or more! I paid less than $10 for nosebleed seats for the opera (Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute) and for the ballet (Krabat).

Prague has loads and loads of classical concerts, and I went to one at St. Nicholas Church my first night. The venue was gorgeous and the musicians were super talented, but they also seemed to get that they were playing for tourists who knew very little about classical music and were thus kinda disengaged. The program should have been my first clue, but I reserved judgement until I heard folks start to clap between movements and had to suppress an urge to go up to the musicians and profusely apologize on behalf of all Americans (just for clapping between movements, because it’s not like we’ve recently done anything else we owe the world an apology for. Right? Oh wait…).

Die Zauberflöte was performed at the Estates Theater, which was where Don Giovanni had its premier back in the day. I had a standing room ticket, which I’ll admit felt rather dashingly Bohemian, as did nipping down a few rows to grab a seat after intermission.


The ballet was a tad more spontaneous. My last night in Prague I’d thought of going to another classical concert but decided not to after the first one, so I went to the box office of the National Theater to ask if anything other than Czech-language plays was being performed that evening. The ballet was the only option, so I went for it and went in totally blind. I’d never heard of Krabat but I really enjoyed it! I kept thinking during the ballet that it reminded me of fantasia and the sorcerer’s apprentice…only to learn after the fact that the ballet and the fantasia segment were both based on the same Sorbian myth.


Another amazing element of the opera and the ballet was the number of children I saw there! I have no idea how much is cultural versus affordability versus these particular events being more child-friendly than your average opera and/or ballet might be, but it was very notable. At the ballet I was sitting two rows up from a gaggle of boys who all looked to be about 8-11 years old and were totally quiet and respectful and seemingly interested the whole time. It was awesome.


Look at all of these swans! So many swans! What is your secret, Prague??

Mostly I experienced Prague through walking. There was so much to see and the buildings and streets were totally enchanting. One thing that made that easy was free walking tours. Well, not exactly free– you were expected to tip– but free enough. I took a couple while I was there and found them to be a nice way to meet people, get oriented, and learn some history.


I also walked around a bunch on my own. The nice thing about staying in a hostel was that I had an easy way to interact with people, but I also had the ability to set my own schedule. I sort of flitted in and out of the hostel crowd, joining a large group for a dinner and a pub crawl but often striking out on my own.


Like my first morning in Prague when I got this apple cake and this gorgeous (and delicious) americano at a local espresso bar. 

I haven’t spent a lot of time traveling solo, and there are things I don’t enjoy about it (mostly, eating, since I feel super shy/awkward about going anywhere with table service alone– although on the other hand getting cheaper, more casual food saves me a lot of money), but on the whole I had a really fantastic trip. I felt like I had a very busy three days, and yet there was so so much that I didn’t get to! I will just have to go back someday.


John Lennon wall

If you’d like to see more pictures from the trip, I put up an album here!


I lift my eyes to the hills

“Yes, I grew up here,” the man replied, nodding vehemently in response to the question, gesturing towards a far-off, fenced-in settlement in the south Hebron Hills.


He had been standing with our group, and, until he started to speak, I hadn’t known that he wasn’t a part of it. Our morning had been spent mostly on the bus. This was our first stop, on a hilltop where we could note the invisible green line in one direction and dotted Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages in the other. I knew a few of the group participants but not the majority, so his face didn’t stick out. But this man wasn’t a rabbinical student or one of our Israeli facilitators. This man was a resident of an unauthorized Israeli outpost that could not possibly seem unauthorized to him.

“What he’s been telling you,” he said, referring to our Israeli guide, who had been explaining differing law enforcement practices for Israeli and Palestinian communities. “It’s not true. I’m afraid for my life, afraid to go out. We have to live behind fences to stay safe. They throw stones. I have friends who have died. Stones are not a joke.”

The man’s eyes spoke worry and concern for his future on the land he knew as his own. He was in his mid-20s at least. He had parents and sisters, friends. He grew up there. He knew no other life. How could home be unauthorized?

We thanked him for sharing his story and got back onto the bus.

Down the road in Susya, life was split. On one side, an Israeli settlement, this one authorized, rose up with houses, paved roads, a yeshiva. On the other side, there were tents. Not cute camping tents. The sort of tent that you set up when it’s your only living option, because in return for the army not demolishing your tents, you’ve agreed not to apply for building permits.

A car with yellow plates– an Israeli car– drove up as we were getting off of the bus. Two young men rolled down the windows and called out jovially: “ברוכים הבאים לסוסיא! Welcome to Susya! מה נשמע? How are you?” They drove on to the settlement. We walked towards the tents.

IMG_7703 copy.jpg

Children were the first to notice. A few small boys and one very small girl came running towards us with calls of “hello.” We walked along the dirt paths and were ushered into a crumbling cement-walled structure with a canvas roof, where a man named Nasser Nawaja (you can read his NYT op-ed from last summer here) told us his story. While he spoke in Hebrew, and our guide translated, the children stuck their heads in through windows and the open door. One particularly rambunctious boy clambered up the side of the building and stuck his head in between the top of the concrete wall and the roof, grinning broadly.

Later that afternoon, as we planted olive trees donated by Tru’ah, that same boy ran around with a pick ax, wanting to dig every hole himself. He was 10 years old– just big enough to be at the top of the kids’ pack without being so big as to be at the bottom of the adult pile. He was at his height of confidence, his handshake close to a high five, his eyes bright with knowledge and void of fear. It was easy to imagine this child one day hefting a stone to defend the land he knew as his own. I feared for him.


We sat in the sun in hevruta–study pairs–looking at the week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). The Torah is nearly over. After 40 years of wandering the desert, after the turning over of a generation, the Israelites are about to “come to the land that Adonai [their] God has given [them] as an inheritance, that [they] will possess it and settle in it” (Deuteronomy 26:1).  The land flowing with milk and honey. The land that the Israelites would come to know as their own. The land that established native peoples, whom the Torah instructs the Israelites to dispossess, knew as their own.

I read the holy words of our holy book and looked out at a 10-year-old Palestinian boy riding a donkey over the dusty ground. I read the holy words of our holy book and looked across the road to homes where Jews were doubtless busying themselves preparing for shabbat.

We got back onto the bus.


I found a pair for last week’s donkey! Git on the ark, you two!

“I have a question for you,” our guide said as we wound our way back towards the main road. “What can we do to help this conversation in America? Why don’t people talk about it?”

How can people talk about it? I’m afraid to write even this much, even though I’m writing only about what I experienced, even though I’m not assigning blame, even though I’m not saying what I think should or should not happen. Anything regarding this tiny slice of so-sacred land is steeped in emotion and history and, too often, blood. As a future rabbi, a person who wants to be able to serve Jews wherever they might fall on the religious/political spectrum of belief about this place, any form of writing about this land is terrifying. And yet, these stories deserve to be told, and so I will tell them.

We came to a quick stop when army vehicles blocked the road. An Israeli soldier in tactical gear, an M-16 slung across his chest, stepped up to the door of the bus. Our guide’s perfect native Hebrew accent got him answers. There had been a stabbing in a nearby settlement. The assumption was that a Palestinian had stabbed an Israeli settler, but the soldier didn’t tell us that much. He looked too warm in his uniform, tired, ready to do anything other than stand in the middle of this road. Where were we headed, he wanted to know. ירושלים– Jerusalem–our guide told him. He nodded and stepped away. A moment later, other soldiers waved our bus, with its yellow plates, on through the block.


In Jerusalem, I celebrated a vibrant, soulful shabbat service at Nava Tehila and then headed home, overhearing other shuls at prayer and shabbos tables in full swing. There was a magic to it, to the Jewish community in all its variety marking, through open doors and windows, the holiness of the moment. I felt safe as I walked the streets, fearing neither stones nor soldiers. I pray that, soon and in my lifetime, such peacefulness will be possible for all who know this land as their own.

Choppy Waves

Sometimes on the ark things get wet.

I was trying to be responsible. I was trying to pack the night before so that I would have less to do in the morning. The Conservative Yeshiva was heading off to a shabbaton first thing Friday, and the packing list was complicated to cram into my backpack. I managed to fit a dress for services, a swim suit, a towel, a hat, toiletries, a siddur, a tallis, and a book. I also filled my 3-liter camelback, because the desert is hot and dehydration was not on my list of shabbat goals.  All I left for the morning was putting together a lunch and fitting my PJs somewhere. Then morning came. I worked on my last minute packing pieces and then went off to make coffee. Clearly, that was the wrong order of operations.


Qumran- aka Dead Sea Scrolls land! We went on our way to the shabbaton.

When I came back into my room, coffee in hand, I noticed that something was not right. Not at all. My bag was wet.

I moved fast, moving the tube for my camelback from beneath the bag, where there had been enough pressure to cause the leak. I got everything out as quickly as I could, checking to see what was going to be too wet to bring. I griped as I realized I’d need to bring a different dress that would take up more space. I sighed as I set my hat out to dry. Then I opened up my tallis bag, saw the water stains, and almost burst into tears.


See, my tallis is special. My best friend and her mom made it for me right before I started rabbinical school. The atarah, the band around the neck, is inscribed with a verse from Esther, because I found out that I was accepted to rabbinical school on Purim. The four corners nod to my study of Mandarin and my time in China and are embroidered with the Chinese characters for love, faith, courage, and wisdom. I learned to tie tzitzit, the fringes hanging from each of the four corners, the day I arrived in Philadelphia, and I tied them myself. The prayer for putting on a tallis is as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’heetataf batzitzit.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves in fringes.

When I put on any tallis, I feel wrapped in the faith that I hold and the history that I inherit. When I put on my tallis, kitchy as this may sound, I also feel wrapped in love, held by the many people who have supported me on my journey towards the rabbinate.


I don’t know if I’ll be able to fix my tallis. Maybe I’ll manage to get the stains out. Maybe they’ll become, as my best friend’s mom said, a part of my tallis’s story. Either way, I’m glad I got to it as quickly as I did, and that the tzitzit remained untouched. A shabbos miracle, perhaps.


I found this donkey in the lowest nature preserve in the world, right by the dead sea. I’d have taken him on the ark, but I don’t know where his mate is. I’ll have to keep looking. 

Sometimes on the ark, people get sea sick.

I have gotten food poisoning exactly twice in my life. The first time was in rural China, (chronicled here) and was understandably miserable. That was 6 years ago, and I hadn’t thrown up since. The second time was yesterday. I’ll spare y’all the details, but suffice it to say that it’s been pretty awful. I’m not in class today, opting instead to sit on my couch, drinking the sprite that I managed to very slowly and meekly acquire from the nearest corner store. I tried to find gatorade, but there wasn’t any. Getting food poisoning sucks, and getting it in a different country where you don’t have your normal resources available sucks more. On the other hand, at least I’m not trying to take care of a bunch of animals who may, themselves, be sea sick. Props to you, Noah.

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.


Shabbos Blessing- Week 1

Today is my first Friday morning in Israel. That’s not saying too much, considering that I’ve been here for all of 3 mornings, but it still feels significant. For one thing, I slept for over 10 hours straight last night. Oops.

Tonight is shabbat. Tomorrow is shabbat. Sunday morning, school begins in earnest. Here in Jerusalem, the weekend is really Friday/Saturday. Sunday is יום רישון – Yom Rishon- First Day. It’s a rhythm I’ll need to get used to, a rhythm that lines up wonderfully with Torah’s view of the days of the week and that lines up completely differently from the USA’s view of the days of the week. To be fair, I have a little practice, because rabbinical school is sometimes in the middle. My first year at RRC, I had Fridays off but taught Hebrew School on Sunday mornings. I lived in two calendars, in that sense, melding weekend vibes with the workday grind and vice versa. Here in Jerusalem, however, shabbat is most definitely shabbat. I’m excited to experience it.


During my last week in the states, I put out a call for 40 blessings, one for each week that I would be spending here in Israel. It seems like I confused some folks, who thought that I meant a religious, deep, personal prayer. While those are certainly welcome, I really meant any kind of blessing at all– a well-wish of sorts, a reminder of home, whatever! Something like “Eat lots of falafel!” would suffice. 🙂 In any case, I have not gotten 40 blessings yet, but I have received some, and they are lovely. I’ve decided to make Friday morning blessing time, and, just for fun, I’m going to post the blessings in the order in which I received them.

This first one comes from a classmate at RRC, and it does seem entirely appropriate for this first week here:

May you find yourself lost in a country of awe and wonder and may you soak up the generosity of those who help you on your path.

I have already had opportunity to soak up this blessing. Tonight I’ll be going to a classmate’s home for shabbat dinner. I’m pretty shy around new people and places, and as of yesterday I had no shabbat plans whatsoever except to try to work up the nerve to go to services somewhere on my own. At the end of the day, a classmate I had known for all of 30 hours stood up and announced that he and his partner would be happy to host anybody who didn’t have plans for shabbat dinner. I walked over to him, along with a few others, and said I’d love to come. To be honest, I’m still a little nervous, because most of the guests know each other already, but I am attempting to soak up the generosity that is offered and to take advantage of being in this place.

On the flip side of this experience is one that I had my second night here, when I ventured into a grocery store for the first time. I felt more or less illiterate as I wandered the aisles searching for some basics. Some labels had English but many did not, and my food vocabulary is not the best. As I managed to find what I needed, sort of, an older man came up to me and asked in a clearly American accent if I spoke English. It turned out that he and his family were visiting and needed to purchase parve or dairy soup. Like I said, my food vocabulary is not the best, but as I studied the various soup options with them, I realized that they were all labeled “meat” or “parve” in Hebrew. I was able to help them pick out a few parve options and remind myself that, even though there is so very, very much that I do not know, I am not entirely helpless. Perhaps the American visitors thought that I was being generous with my time, but their generosity in allowing me to recognize the (tiny though it is) amount of knowledge that I possess was an incredible gift of its own.

Shabbat Shalom. Thanks for journeying with me.