Thoughts from the Homestretch

10 days. This should feel like nothing. I have been here for so long. I have experienced so much. I am leaving so soon. I’m down to the amount of time of a Birthright trip. Still, 10 days doesn’t feel like nothing.

Here’s how these 10 days look from here:

  • 10 more days in Israel.
  • 9 more verses from psalms to set to music.
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The musical “Emily, you like to write stuff, remember?” countdown is on. Will I share all of these someday? Maybe. 

  • 8 more walks to the beach (I try to get there every day, but realistically I’ll miss a day or two)

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  • 7 more days of counting the omer.
  • 6 more ends of balls of yarn to try and knit something out of since it won’t be worth schlepping them home and I hate wasting yarn.
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Like this charmingly-useful double pointed needle holder. It rolls right up. 🙂 

  • 5 more showers (I’m an every other dayer unless I get sweaty. What can I say?)
  • 4 more ounces of coffee before I run out and start buying a cup every morning instead of buying a new bag of beans.
  • 3 more ounces of bourbon to find a use for (luckily, mint and lemon are both in ready supply these days).
  • 2 more days of class at BINA
  • 1 more BINA overnight tiyyul (trip)– this time to the dead sea for some hiking and swimming and camping, and then to East Jerusalem for a tour focusing on the conflict.
  • 1 more Tuesday of volunteering at the preschool
  • 1 class to teach to English-speaking Tel Avivians.
  • 1 more load of laundry? Probably?
  • 1 more shabbat in Jaffa.
  • 1 probable day-trip to Acre, a couple hours north from here, just for fun.
  • 1 all-night celebration/study session for Shavuot.
  • Several goodbyes.
  • Many hours of organizing and packing.
  • As much walking about as I can manage.
  • 1 cab ride to the airport (or, if I’m feeling truly ambitious, to the train station, followed by 1 train ride to the airport).

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Hakol B’seder(?)

I know these streets so well now.

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

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

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

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To this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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John Lennon wall

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

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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.

A Jew in the Pew

You know what I’ve learned over the past two days? It can be awfully nice to experience Rosh Hashanah as a civilian.

When I started rabbinical school, I immediately started working on high holidays, which meant that I was lucky to get a single holiday meal that wasn’t dominated by anxiety around upcoming service leading. During this Rosh Hashanah, I went to three holiday meals: a delightful dinner after services on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and two lovely (late) lunches after morning services on both days. By late lunches I mean starting around 2 and ending around 5. I mean, get there and have a seat and eat some dips and some mains and some dessert and drink some wine while you’re at it, because you have nowhere that you need to be. I mean, stroll back on home along with all of the other lunch-goers about the city and have a relaxing evening, because you don’t, in fact, need to review the nusakh for the next day or go over your d’var one more time. I mean, this is kinda awesome, isn’t it?

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Awesome like these flowers in my neighborhood.

At the same time, it’s probably a good thing I’m becoming a rabbi, because as happy as I was to be a civilian, I sort of missed leading services. When the hazzanim (cantors) sang the parts of the liturgy that only the service leaders typically sing, I found myself wanting to join in. I wanted to carry the Torah around. I wanted to blow shofar. And, y’know, it feels pretty great to simultaneously love this time of non-leading and look forward to getting back in the saddle next year.

I don’t have pictures from Rosh Hashanah, but I wish that I did. The three places where I attended services (because I was a civilian who got to pick where to go!) were different and wonderful in their own ways, and I wish that I could show you each of them. Instead, I’ll just tell those of y’all who are interested about them.

At Kol Haneshama, a reform congregation, I enjoyed a short and simple Erev Rosh Hashanah service. The rabbi was an American man who spoke largely in Hebrew but also threw out some translations from time to time for us English-speaking folk. We started out with a Joey Weisenberg niggun that brought me right back to the two unbelievably awesome classes that I took with him at RRC. The man is a master of melody, and hearing a tune of his that I knew so well in a place that was brand new made me feel an instant happiness and a deep sense of connectivity. Walking home, I folded in with all manner of Jewish folk traveling from their various shuls to their various dinners. While I didn’t get lost walking to and from Kol Haneshama, I did get lost walking everywhere else I went during Rosh Hashanah, and for the most part I enjoined the ensuing wanderings.

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For First Day, I went to Tzion, a  very egalitarian Conservative community that does this amazing blend of ashkenazi and sefardi melodies and has a very nice flow of leadership shared amongst the (female) rabbi, the (male) hazzan, and congregants. Services were held in a basement of a community center, and they were long. I got there at 10, about an hour after they started, and was just in time for barchu. I took a break at 1, when they started musaf. For comparison, the synagogue across the way finished around 1. I don’t think that having long services is a good or bad thing, as different folks like different length services, and I imagine I’ll be back for a shabbat sometime soon.

This morning, I went to Nava Tehila, and, well, it was pretty much perfect for me. Nava Tehila isn’t a permanent institution, so they hold prayer in different locations. Today was in the yard of the Natural History museum, which meant that our “synagogue” comprised a collection of chairs under a canopy of colored cloths. The instrumentalists sat in the middle, with the congregation fanning out. For me, it was a perfect mix of traditional prayer and contemporary song. The prayers included feminist language that I so love and that is often left out here in Jerusalem. The shifting of leadership was beautiful and fairly seamless. The Torah service was especially moving. For one thing, my view of the Torah was partially blocked…by a tree. One eitz hayyim (Tree of Life) connected to another. When the hazzanit paraded the Torah around the congregation, the sun glinted off of it with incredible beauty, and, nature girl that I am, I felt completely whole.

Then came the group aliyot. Since coming to Israel, I’ve written a lot about being here, in this place. The first aliyah today was for everybody who wanted to echo Abraham’s saying to God “הנני– Hineni- Here I am.” I’m often shy about going up for aliyot, but I went up for this one without hesitating. It fit so perfectly into what I want for this year. A number of others came up with me, and since many did not have their own talitot, my tallis was hoisted up to cover several heads so that we could all bless together. I thought of the stains that I still need to try and remove and how, at that moment, they truly didn’t matter– that the tallis was still whole and so was I.

During the shofar service, I felt a similar wholeness. I’ve always found the shofar to be powerful, but during this morning’s service, sounding the shofar outside under the trees, there was something transcendent. I got chills as I thought about the history of the instrument, of how ancient the tradition that we were enacting, of how soul-piercing it remains. I looked around at the congregation– people of all ages, some with eyes shut, some staring rapt, some just contentedly. Even the dogs (yes, there were dogs davening with us) perked up. I was filled with immense gratitude that the shofar hasn’t been lost to time, that it is something I will be able to pass along to my future communities.

We finished the service with Nava Tehila’s rendition of oseh shalom, which is one of my favorites. Everybody sang openly. Smiles were real. It was amazing. I was so very happy. My New Year was sweet as honey. I hope yours was too.

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 3

(New to weekly blessings? Here’s more about them.)

It’s been a rough week. I don’t want to bore anybody with all the details at the moment, but let’s just say that the metaphorical rain is getting to me. In short, I’m still not 100% better from the food poisoning or whatever that was, I’m feeling a more general loneliness, and even though I’ve only actually been here for a little over two weeks, it feels far longer. Patience and self-compassion aren’t in the greatest supply on the ark. And I’m not even dealing with big cats.

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It is clear from looking at his face that if this cat were as big as a lion, he would eat me, and then it would be very difficult to have any patience at all. 

I feel really fortunate to have a blessing to bring me out of this week and into the next one. This week’s blessing comes from another former-colleague-turned-friend. She was a marvelous mentor for me in a job I held in the first half of rabbinical school, and I’m so grateful for what she has to say:

May your studies and experiences bring blessings to you, all in your circle, and radiate out into our world, inspiring all of us to seek the spark of the Divine in ourselves and each other.

To be honest, this blessing is a tall order, especially this week. I’m at that point where my studies don’t feel full of blessings. Right now they just feel hard, and I feel incompetent. That will change with time, but maybe not in the next week.

Experiences are different. I know I can find the blessings, however small, in those.

Here’s one: today, I bought bulgerit cheese. Somebody told me that it was more like American-style feta than the Israeli-style feta I got last week, and so I figured I would give it a shot. I like it! It’s not feta, but it’s yummy and it made my pasta yummy and I had the blessing of a good meal. I also had the blessing of a good walk today. I didn’t go very far at all from school, but putting my feet on new streets felt calming and exciting at once. These things are small, but they are essential, because they are so very normal.

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Seeking the spark of the Divine in myself is a constant struggle for me– more-so, most of the time, than seeking the spark of the Divine in others. I’m glad for the reminder to look for it.

Shabbat shalom. I’m headed to Nava Tehila tonight for the first time. I’m pretty excited. May your shabbat (or your Friday night, if you prefer!) be marvelous.