Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Here I am!

!אני פה

Well, I made it to Jerusalem ... but it wasn't easy! My itinerary was as follows: Fly from National airport in DC to JFK airport in New York at 3:05 pm on Monday, July 6; 10-hour layover during which my friend Israel would come to the airport to visit; fly from JFK to Tel Aviv at 2:20 am on Sunday, July 7; arrive in Israel at 7:35 pm and take a sheirut (shared taxi) to Jerusalem, arriving home no later than 10:00; Skype-call home at 11:00.

Here's what actually happened: My plane was canceled, so I had to switch to a 6:15 pm flight out of Baltimore. That plane was delayed, so I ended up talking to Israel on the phone for an hour rather than having him visit me at the airport. The strap of my backpack broke after I checked it planeside, and I ended up on a near-empty sheirut that charged us extra to take us to Jerusalem after an hour of waiting for more non-existent customers. I got to the house at 11:15 pm, hastily set up the computer to let everyone at home know I was okay, and then I got to survey my surroundings. Impressions below.

Despite the balagan (craziness) of the trip, I had a very interesting and pleasant flight. I sat with two women, Nachami and Iris (pronounced the Israeli way: Eeriss), and before we took off, we were asked to switch to the emergency exit row right behind us ... giving us plenty of extra room but confusion as to who was supposed to get which meals (leaving me with a somewhat hastily thrown-together salad + bread/hummus for dinner). So, I was in pretty good shape legroom-wise, and I came to find Nachami and Iris to be perfectly pleasant traveling companions.

Iris is Israeli and "religious" (which is a general term usually used to refer to traditional or "orthodox" Jews). Nachami is also fairly observant and lives in New York. When I told them right at the beginning of the flight that I was going to be a Reform rabbi, Iris felt that she had to tell me how many Israelis (including herself) view Reform Judaism as illegitimate (my word, not hers) and a source of pain to her traditional community. During the flight, I told her that, in some ways, some Reform Jews are just as she sees them (totally unobservant of the mitzvot (commandments), occasionally defiant in the face of tradition, and condemnatory of certain practices) and yet some Reform Jews keep many mitzvot and find deep beauty and meaning in a tradition that they feel a natural part of. Iris stressed that she knows I am and always will be a "100%" Jew, and she hopes that I'll have an opportunity to learn more about traditional Judaism while I'm in Israel.

I agree that being in Jerusalem is a wonderful way to learn more about traditional Judaism, and I will strive to expand my perspective while I'm here. I must admit, though, that many aspects of traditional Judaism make me uncomfortable, the most poignant being the separation of genders, condemnation of queerness, and absolute reliance on the answers of the past. My challenge will be to try to find the truth in those practices, to understand why I am repulsed by them, and to see how I can incorporate that perspective with my liberal ideas in order to improve intra-Jewish (and inter-personal) relations.

Nachami also shared her thoughts about mitzvot, largely echoing Iris. However, she said there was room for pluralism in her theology, and Iris flatly told me that there is not room for pluralism in hers. Nevertheless, I found Iris entirely charming and Nachami an interesting representative of "American orthodox Judaism" (though she would never want me to label her, and I refrain from committing to a label here).

To contrast the in-depth conversations I had with Iris and Nachami, I'll share the experience I had with a Lubavitcher/Chabad rabbi. He approached me on the plane and asked me if I had wrapped tefillin yet that morning. I told him no, and he told me I would wrap with him, and the two women next to me would say "amen." I felt uncomfortable at being approached so forcefully and doubly so at participating in the marginalization of women, so I declined. He persisted, telling me we could go in private so no one would see. I refused and at this point had no interest in wrapping tefillin with him at all. He continued to pressure me, and I continued politely to refuse. Finally, he leaned forward to put a large black kippah on my head, and I forcefully said, "Hey. I said no." He backed up and told me to have a good day.

Iris and Nachami were silent, and I soon found that they both shared my discomfort at his behavior. Iris assured me that the Chabad community she tangentially participates in is much more friendly, much less pressuring than that rabbi. Nachami suggested that his approach was quintessentially Israeli and that Israelis respond to it and don't take offense to it. We returned to normal conversation after he departed.

Perhaps an hour later, the rabbi was back. He decided to use the space in front of the emergency exit as a davening position and would ask men as they walked by if they had yet wrapped tefillin. The only person who didn't pray with the rabbi was an older gentleman who had already done so earlier in the flight.

The rabbi at this point started to engage me in his wrapping of tefillin on the other men, strangely conversing with me rather than them most of the time. He asked me to say the amen for the blessings, and I did. He told me I had a special soul, that God loved me, that God sent him to me to give me a blessing (that I have a Jewish wife, family, and life), and that I was his special friend. In building up a relationship with him, strange though it was, I agreed to wrap tefillin with him, and I enjoyed the experience (though he read the prayers rather slowly, assuming that I wouldn't be able to follow him in the Hebrew). The rabbi gave me his card (that's how I know he's a rabbi) and told me he always has time for me and that I am invited to every Shabbat dinner he has. He taught me some interesting traditions regarding tefillin, and I felt good about the strange experience.

When another man, perhaps an acquaintance of the rabbi, stopped by, it came out in conversation that I was going to Reform rabbinical school. This man found that interesting (he's family friends with the authors of the new Reform prayerbook) ... and the rabbi also found that interesting. Having gained a new ally (i.e., me), he told me with glee that I would go to HUC as his shaliach (representative) with the goal, and I quote, "to take all of them out of there." There was no disambiguation necessary: He wanted me to learn how to be observant with him, and he wanted me to teach others. Now, naturally, I felt very uncomfortable about that, and when he next offered the blessing that I should have a Jewish life, I failed to say amen (though the women beside me supplied the word). Shortly after that, he went to take care of business elsewhere.

Iris rightfully noted that this man was "very brave" and direct and again reiterated that this was not average behavior for a Chabadnik. Nachami and she continued to stress how good his intentions were, and though I recognize that, it's hard to respect somebody who disregards my entire philosophy and theology without even discussing it with me. (Incidentally, I never shared any of my beliefs with Nachami or Iris, though they were probably evident with some of my questions. I was happy to hear their perspective, and they were more than happy to share it without asking for reciprocation.)

Overall, I thought the flight was enormously interesting, beneficial, and enjoyable - and I even got to see most of the movie 21, about which the Kirzners and I had been discussing at our beach vacation in May (I very much enjoyed it!). I believe that I'll close the post here; while certain interesting things have happened during my first day in Israel, they're best saved for another time (especially as I'm about to head out to a dinner where I will meet some of my 41 future classmates for the first time!). My best to you - until next time!


Jessica said...

D - hope the dinner went swimmingly. I enjoyed reading the post and think you should probably give up the rabbinical career and become a novelist. or, you can just do both.
I love you.

Jeff H. said...

Thanks, Daniel. When Marcia and I flew to Israel last year with Kathy, Chen Greenberg, and other members of the Roanoke Jewish community, we flew Delta/El Al, and I don't recall any Chabadniks. (Had a wonderful conversation on the way home, though, with members of a church group who described their fulfillment of a life's dream, walking in the footsteps of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee.) What I remember from the flight to Tel Aviv was a mixup in seat assignments that separated husbands from wives, and a mostly nonfunctional video screen. Since I don't/can't sleep on planes, I spent much of that flight with the iPod on shuffle play, and was delighted when I stumbled across a song by Leonard Cohen, an artist I hadn't listened to in a long time. That first jet-lagged night in Tel Aviv, at a hotel restaurant, the first tune the cocktail pianist played was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"! Have a wonderful time ... and hi to Jessica, too ... Jeff (+ Marcia) Horn

Josh said...

Daniel, it sounds like your adventure is off to an interesting start. I'm glad you made it in safely, and that you'll be using this blog to communicate your experiences with all of us at home.

Take care of yourself.