Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interesting E-mails

A translation of an e-mail I received yesterday:

Dear Students,

We are a number of days before the opening of the new academic school year - but to our great dismay the year once again won't begin.

Not only won't the school year begin, also because of the situation, in the upcoming days there will be no choice but to close the entire university: there won't be administrative workers, there won't be researchers, the classes will have disappeared!

The school year won't begin because the government of Israel scorns the system of higher education, and because of this nothing is standing, for the best six years the government has cut the amount of money requested by hundreds of millions of shekels.

The system of higher education today stands on the side of one leg to attack! (clearly I had trouble translating this sentence...maybe it is idiomatic...)

We, representatives of the student body, heads of the student associations, call together wit the heads of the research universities to the Israeli prime minister, to minister Livni and to the minister of finance and ? the labor party, to the minister of education, the government and the Kinesset to save higher education, to restore to research universities the budged that was cut and to allow the academic year to begin once more.

It is up to us to stress that we are against the school year's not opening. The student body has suffered from the disruption of the school year for each of the past three years. Given this, it is clear that if they don't flow in a speedy fashion to restore the system of higher education, universities won't be able to continue their shared activities and to supply higher education at the level that existed in Israel in the past.

In this letter we have compiled a collection of e-mail addresses of the prime minister, the minister of finance, minister of education, and members of the committee of finance and committee of education in the Kinesset. We ask each of you to forward personal mail ? the struggle and call upon them to act to save higher education and open the academic year at the university in an orderly manner.


The head of the student association
The president of Hebrew University
the head of the national student organization??

And another:

As a result of the decision and (something?) that they won't begin the upcoming school year, tens of students obstructed the rode together with the president of the university. The demonstrators called with one voice to guard to turn the struggles over the budget for higher education and to end the crisis in order that the academic year can begin in an orderly manner.

As a result, the demonstration of the students will begin the negotiations and they don't intend to stop demonstrating

Tomorrow, Wednesday 10/29/08 the demonstration will begin
For the sake of higher education and to save the academic year
5:00 pm in front of the ministry of finance

I don't know if this effects the Rothberg School (though my Yiddish classes are outside Rothberg so one way or another it will affect me). As you can tell from these e-mails, higher education in Israel has been in turmoil for the past few years. If you're interested, I'll send you some newspaper articles about it - just leave a note.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Church in Hebrew

A long time ago Paola invited us to join her at church, and we finally decided to take her up on the offer. Together with Corinna, a William and Mary graduate who is getting her masters at Rothberg, we went to a church service held in the former Italian embassy. From the street, you wouldn't be able to tell that a religious service was going on there at all - it is a peaceful, quiet looking building, a whitewashed, two-story establishment set back from the street with a stone driveway in front, and protected by a decorative iron gate. Inside, the room where services were held was very modest - white walls, rows of chairs, a small wooden cross hanging on the far wall. The priests walked in, clothed in white robes, and filed into rows and bowed together gracefully, like a dance. Then, the service began. It sounded uncannily like a Jewish service - because it was in Hebrew. Some of it was entirely the same as a Jewish service, except with different tunes - the psalms, the parsha. And some of it (the New Testament in Hebrew) for instance, was not. It was strange to hear liturgical Hebrew and to realize that it wasn't Jewish. I think it forced me to think about what makes a service Jewish to me. Is Hebrew really necessary to make the service Jewish? It is, after all, just a language and can be used for secular purposes (as in Modern Israel) and even for Christian liturgical purposes (as in the services we attended this evening), so why do Jews pray in Hebrew? It also highlited how similar Catholicism and Judaism really are to each other, at least in a practical if not in a theological way. The service felt very much like a Jewish one - the formality of it, the treating of holy objects like royalty, the singing, and, of course, the Hebrew. At the same time, it also pointed out that some differences between Catholicism and Judaism are so huge that even translating the Catholic ceremony into the Jewish language could not make it seem Jewish - for instance transubstantiation, which I find to be absolutely beautiful and powerful, did not feel any more Jewish for its being in Hebrew. Though I do have to say that something about the transformative power of the prayers, and the participatory way that congregants held up their hands, reminded me a little of Havdalah. We witnessed a pre-baptism ceremony, and I found myself strangely uncomfortable during it. The woman in the process of conversion seemed to be a Jewish Israeli, and there was something symbolically powerful to me to see a Jew in Israel converting to Catholicism - after hundreds of years of Jews converting in order to save their own lives, it seemed shocking and disappointing to see someone do it by choice - I can't explain why I felt that way and I know that it was wrong to feel that way, rather than to be joyful for someone who has discovered the life path that suits them, but honestly I did feel strange about the whole thing. And I felt a little stranger when I saw the tears in Paola's eyes, and knew that she found the woman's conversion to be such a cause for joy. Irrationally and uncontrollably, I felt a sense of loss. I didn't feel any more comfortable when a woman who I was talking to afterward said to me, "wouldn't it be funny if you came to Jerusalem, and converted to Catholicism after all" - no, I don't think it would be funny. I think Catholicism is rich and beautiful and I have so much respect for it, but for me, personally, it would be tragic to convert.
After services we went out to a terrific dinner and had a fun and cheerful conversation. It was good to see Paola after what feels like an eternity, and I am getting increasingly excited about going back to class. Paola taught me the Italian word for 'nerd' - "seciona," and she called me a "seciona" for my excitement about classes, but in reality I know that she shares the feeling. Just one more week!


Unfortunately for everyone, I've decided to resume these stupid poems because the test is coming up soon. So, a Spenserian on Halloween costumes. This is the stanza Spenser created for The Faerie Queen, reduced to a simplistic and stupid rhyme about finding a Halloween costume. It is a nine-line stanza. The first eight lines are in iambic pendameter, and the final line is in iambic hexameter, which is called an alexandrine. The stanza's rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc

On Thinking of a Halloween Costume
The contents of my closet are not vast
But soon October will be at it’s end
So I must think of something, and think fast
A costume for which I won’t have to spend
A lot, but others still can comprehend
The character that I purport to be
And no polite soul need to just pretend
Smile and nod awkwardly at me
I must think of a few disguises, two or three

A lamp: dress in clothes that are all brown
And thread a cord so it hangs behind your shirt
Wear a lampshade on your head as though a crown
And clip a chain to your ear, though it might hurt
A flashlight goes inside the shade and squirt
Some yellow facepaint all over your face
You can paint pictures all over your skirt
Of flowers, rainbows, even outer space
If you have it you can even use some lace.

To be a box of popcorn is quite neat
First you need a box that’s big and tall

With holes for legs, and stockings for your feet
Paint stripes of red and white over it all
And when this work seems to be complete
Write “popcorn” at the place where the stripes meet
Glue popcorn on the box and everywhere
A lot, you’ll lose some as you walk the streets
So put some in your pockets just to spare
And if you are so brave, string popcorn in your hair!

There are many more ideas but I don’t know
How to make them work in Israel
Where to buy supplies, or where to go
For cheap clothing you don’t want to wear for real
To celebrate a day that no one knows
Or cares to know about at all, and so
I don’t know what I’ll wear but I do think
That Halloween requires a good show
So I’ll come up with something, if it stinks
At least I will have tried, and will have earned a drink.

Friday, October 24, 2008

G-dcast: The Coolest Way to Learn about the Weekly Parsha

In my relentless time-wasting internet activities, I have discovered the absolute coolest way to learn about the weekly parsha:

This is a short animated video about the parsha that will feature a different guest each week. This week's guest is Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A New Friend

Yesterday, I met with someone to IEA to discuss some secretarial work I'll be helping out with in my volunteering. We put the documents on my computer, and then began to talk a bit. I asked her how long she'd been working for IEA, she asked me what I'm doing here aside from the volunteering, and we proceeded have a short, lovely, friendly conversation where we learn much more about each other than I imagine either of us generally volunteer upon a first meeting. She is tall, and was dressed in western-looking clothing, but with a head scarf. She has a bright and friendly face, and was eager to talk to me - she is close to my age but our lives are very dissimilar. She told me that she has been engaged for three months and will marry in May. When I asked how long she has known her fiancee, she told me, "Three months." Then she described how he came to her family through the recommendation of a friend and for three months he would visit her home with his parents, and they would sit together and talk. Then, she went on a short vacation to Egypt and when she came back he asked her to marry him, and told her she had to decide right away. She wanted to wait a week to think about it, and he told her she could wait for one day. The next day her parents called his parents to make the arrangements. She told me that she was scared at first, but now that they are engaged and she has more opportunities to get to know him (they are allowed to call each other on the cell phone now, for instance), she feels more and more confident about it and she loves him. They are looking into a house in Jerusalem, in the Old City, where she has lived all her life.
She then told me that his grandmother passed away today, and she will go to the funeral. She described funeral rites which sound like sitting shiva, but for three days. She told me that it is a sad year for her family as well - a few months ago her cousin, who was 28, committed suicide. His brother found him hanging by a rope. He had recently been released from a Jewish prison where he had been since the age of 16. Her grandfather died a month later, and they think it was due to grief. She said that they go on living because they believe that G-d is good, and they believe that death is sad but is also good. She said she is looking forward to the joy of the wedding but hopes that no one else dies in the meantime because it will push the wedding date back, and because it is so sad.
She also asked a lot of questions about me. I told her about Daniel and she said that in Islam it is forbidden for men and women to live together, and it is shameful. But she didn't seem judgemental at all, which surprised me. I expected to feel somehow embarassed or ashamed at living with my boyfriend, but she seemed open and curious, recognizing that there are cultural differences between us and that my lifestyle is valid to me and to my frame of reference. She wanted to know why we lived together and if we liked it. She asked how long I'd known Daniel, and how we'd met. She asked if I knew his family. She asked if I loved Daniel, and if he was the first man I ever loved. She asked if I thought we would ever get married. And I answered all of her questions frankly and truthfully, because I appreciated her own willingness to share with me. We parted smilingly and with promises of getting together soon - I think we will become friends, which will perhaps be hard but will also be deeply good.
In a lot of ways I feel that I am missing out on a lot of opportunities to explore Israel because Daniel and I both mostly surround ourselves with other foreign students, and often in English-language social situations. However, even if we aren't exploring every opportunity that ever existed, I think we are still learning, and that more and more learning is to come in the upcoming year.

Death is a Cop-Out

I just finished reading George Elliot's The Mill on The Floss, and I enjoyed it very much. I appreciated the morally ambiguous situations in which the main character, Maggie, found herself, and her struggles to do what she believed to be good and right while she was unsure that she was acting in the most virtuous way. I didn't like, however, that at moments when she was acting in a way contrary to her own morals, she also seemed to give up any will power or lay claim to her own actions - she becomes entirely passive and allows others to do the work of being interesting, disobedient, or transgressive for her. Thus, she is not only subject to the sexist opinions of her brother, his schoolmaster, and the entire society in which she lives, but she goes along with them in particular when she is tempted to do something that is in the wrong. Maggie is generally an independent-minded woman, though she does thrive on the love and respect of others, but she becomes entirely dependent upon the actions of others when she is in a situation where she is tempted to carry out something that is morally ambigious, such as continue a connection with someone she is forbidden to see. She relinquishes her sense of independance in order that she can be convinced by others to do what she wishes, and then when she changes her mind, she is able to say that she had no part in the actions that came before, and that she regrets and denounces them, placing the blame entirely on someone else. She is present in the situation, but the author is convinced that whatever happens in these situations, it is not Maggie's fault. This frustrates me to no end.
Most frustratingly, I want to express my opinion that death, at the end of a long and rich narrative, is a cop-out. Maggie gets out of making a decision, and the sense that there is a correct decision to make is entirely lost, because at the point when she must make a decision and face up to the consequences of it, catastrophe strikes, and she dies. I understand that the author is trying to make a point about the ultimate triumph of Maggie's notions of love over Tom's obsession over control, property, and social capital, and yet I think the point could be more subtly made without the total destruction of a flood, and death. Death can be meaningful at the end of some stories, but when death comes in the place of a character making real and difficult choices, the novel is left unfinished, in my opinion.
That shouldn't stop you from reading it. I liked it pretty much up until the very last few pages. It is rich in description, offers many different ways of understanding what it means to love, to sacrifice, and to be a part of a family. It also explores both a child's and an adult's perspective with competence and empathy. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'll be reading it again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Israel Seminar Journal

.יומן סמינר ישראל

Today, our Israel Seminar class went to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. Although I don't have the time to write tonight about our full experience, I can share the journal entry that I composed for class. Enjoy!

There are many American Jews who find themselves in dialogue with two extreme relationships with Israel. On the one hand, their Jewish identity can be completely separate from Israel, based instead on the thriving American Jewish community. On the other hand, it can be difficult to discount Israel as the Jewish State and Homeland as well as the self-identified representative of world Jewry. Yad Vashem, an Israeli memorial to a world Jewish event that occurred in the Diaspora, is a symbol of the interplay between the undeniable reality of valid Jewish experience outside the land of Israel and the Israelocentric model of Jewish identity.

The primary association I had while visiting Yad Vashem today was of personal stories. In nearly every room, several televisions showed witnesses recounting their experiences - some were composed and some were crying; some were speaking Hebrew and some English. Personal profiles were found throughout the galleries, highlighting individual survivors and victims of the Shoah. A house of a wealthy German Jew was reconstructed to give visitors a sense of pre-war Jewish life in Germany, and people’s clothes, books, and personal effects were placed throughout the museum. More than anything else, to me, this museum was a mosaic of personal stories woven together against the backdrop of world events and passions.

Of interest, though not surprising, is that nowhere did I hear a non-Jewish voice telling her story. While non-Jewish narratives were briefly represented, and while the Righteous of the Nations were honored with their own gallery, personal stories were reserved for Jews. Moreover, one can interpret the final steps of the museum as a continuation of that story through the visitor. The final gallery is comprised of a display of witnesses’ quotes with contemplative music and a hypothetical visitor can refocus his attention on him and his own relation to the stories just explored. As the visitor walks out into the clear, green Jerusalem air, he hardly needs the seven David Ben Gurions or the singing of Hatikva to remember that he is currently standing in the free State of Israel, the one place on earth where a second Shoah is guaranteed not to occur. The implicit assumption made in the case of this hypothetical visitor is that he is Jewish and that his story includes a visit to his Jewish Homeland. Although the museum also targets non-Jews, this final experience, after so many hours hearing about the personal stories of the Shoah, enables a Jew to imagine herself as the personal legacy of those terrible events and as secure in her Jewish home.

For these reasons, Yad Vashem has a strong claim as the Jewish Shoah memorial. Other Holocaust museums may focus on righteous gentiles, historical context, etc., but the museum in Israel focuses on Jews and their perspectives. To better understand the context in which Israel can make this claim, we can turn to the fourth chapter of Charles Liebman’s and Eliezer Don-yehiya’s Civil Religion in Israel (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1983): The Civil Religion of Statism.

The Statists who worked to build a civic religion in Israel, including most prominently David Ben Gurion, saw Jewish life in Israel as naturally superior to Jewish life anywhere else. Ben Gurion is seen as a proponent of “Israelocentrism, which [is defined] to mean, ‘that all which is done by Jews in Israel is central, vital, critical for the Jewish people and for Jewish history … [and] what is done by Jews in the Diaspora is … secondary’” (87). Having built a Jewish state from the ground up, Ben Gurion and his allies would not tolerate the focus of Judaism being anywhere else. This centrality of the State of Israel was based on an assertion that only among Jews could Jews be safe. In 1945, Ben Gurion stated baldly that the place of Jews is in a Jewish land and that their presence anywhere else is an invitation to disaster: “The cause of our troubles and the anti-Semitism of which we complain result from our peculiar status that does not accord with the established framework of the nations of the world. It is not the result of the wickedness or folly of the Gentiles which we call anti-Semitism” (104). Although Ben Gurion recognized the tragedy of the Shoah, he nonetheless saw it as a curable symptom of being exiled from the Land of Israel. To him, Israel is the true final solution to the Jews’ problems: “The one suitable monument to the memory of European Jewry … is the State of Israel” (106). These founders, then, saw Israel as the ultimate sanctuary and home of all Jews and worked tirelessly to create a Jewish society that would unite Jews as Israelis in a new country of progress and security.

In the face of such a deliberate and fervent insistence on Israel’s centrality to world Judaism, one can hardly be surprised at Yad Vashem’s unspoken assertion that it is the Jewish Holocaust museum. As a Diaspora Jew who disagrees with Ben Gurion’s association of the period of the creation with the State of Israel with “the days of the Messiah” (86), however, I feel a responsibility to challenge the claimed ultimacy of Yad Vashem. Certainly I recognize the power and validity of the stories shared within its walls, and I find the museum to be a moving, brilliant, and effective memorial to the Shoah; nevertheless, I also believe that Jews can find meaning in other Holocaust museums around the world. While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, might be considered to highlight a “human rights” perspective as compared to Yad Vashem’s “Jewish narratives” perspective, this nevertheless is a true and valid perspective with which Jews can build a meaningful connection to the events and people of the Shoah. If I should ever find myself leading Jews to Yad Vashem, I would want to make clear the history and context of the Israelocentrism inherent in the creation of the museum. I do not believe that this context takes away from the stories being told in the museum, but a fuller appreciation of the Israel experience would be enriched by a nuanced understanding of Israel’s historical relationship to the problems of Diasporic Judaism.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dancing with the Torah, and Hearing the Voices from Behind the Curtain

Simchat Torah. It's probably my favorite Jewish holiday - a holiday devoted to the great joy and love our community has for its central holy text, a rollicking physical tribute to the joys of literacy, and the deep and urgent love our tradition has for the Torah, such that we cannot do without reading it and must start from the beginning as soon as we end it. Also, an acknowledgment of the liminal space between finishing the book and beginning it - in those moments between the readings of Deuteronomy and Genesis, who are we? The people who read Torah - and we are done with the Torah? It's scary, terrifying really, this crisis of identity, this moment of the unknown, when we are faced with the reality of our own times without the guidance of the wisdom of the past. I love it because of its recognition of the Torah as a finite book with a beginning and an end, along with its simultaneous assertion that Torah has no boundaries and is not like other books - it continues even when it ends and we don't need to start a new book, because everything is in this one text. I love it because usually we treat the Torah like royalty - turning toward it as it processes across the sanctuary, rising as it enters, etc., but on Simchat Torah we let our guard down and dance with the Torah like an old friend, and everyone can take turns holding the Torah and sharing the intimate physical experience of dancing with the holiest of objects in their tradition. I love it because it is fun - a different kind of fun from many Jewish rituals, not the fun of reading an interesting text or eating a good meal but the fun of movement and energy of beauty and silliness, of togetherness and individual expression. There's a really good explanation of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah at the Shalom Center's website, and if you want to read more about, I recommend starting there.

For our Simchat Torah celebration, Daniel and I joined a large group of HUC students to go to Kibbutz Gezer, a kibbutz that was founded in 1974 by a group of olim (immigrants) from Habonim-Dror, a Zionist youth organization. It fosters liberal Judaism and social justice projects, including bringing in new immigrants from Peru each week to celebrate Shabbat in a liberal Jewish way, leading educational programs for Israeli and American groups, and holding educational and spiritual activities for inmates of Ramle prison. We arrived shortly before the services which were to be held in their outdoor synagogue, and were given a brief tour of Pinat Shorashim, their educational park. We walked around a bit and appreciated the educational tools at the park, which were perhaps not meant for students of our age but are interesting and effective ideas for the teaching some of us might be doing some day whether as Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, or simply Jewish parents. We made our way back to the prayer space, which was overflowing with guests - small children nestled in their parents' arms, nuns and priests, a contingent from an American Reform youth group, people speaking Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and English. After the service which was led by a charming but somewhat long-winded Rabbi, a klezmer-style band started playing for the seven hakkafot. Frankly, we felt that not enough people danced, and that the dancing didn't last nearly long enough, but for what it was, we managed to have a good time, and to experience the joy of the holiday. We were all quite hungry afterwards as we didn't realize that there wouldn't be dinner at the celebration, so we went out to eat at Spaghettim, a restaurant near our apartment, with a large group from HUC.

This morning, we went to services at Har El, the Reform synagogue around the corner from our apartment, which is an unendingly warm and welcoming congregation. The services were quite full, and after prayer led jointly by the chazzan from Har El and a cantorial professor from HUC, we went out into their front garden to dance with the Torahs to music played by HUC students. The songs were short and the dancing mostly consisted of walking slowly in a circle, but the mood was joyous and the weather was lovely. I carried the Torah for a bit, and found it to be a powerful moment - holding something so holy, and that was for so long not accessible to women, the physicality of my closeness and access to the Torah so that I could feel the stiffness of the parchment through the decorative mantle just as though I were embracing a loved one and feeling his flesh and bones through the fabric of their clothing. After a short while we returned indoors for the Torah reading, the Haftorah reading, the prayer for the rain, and so forth. (SIDE NOTE: It looks, incidentally, like the rain will start soon, just on schedule. This is extremely important, as last year the Kinneret reached its lowest level in five years. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is Israel's main source of drinking water, and Israel is dependent on the rainy season to produce the water that the country needs. Israel currently has two desalinization plants, and will have a third by 2013, and they do make a big difference, but nevertheless, prayers for rain are certainly prayed with urgency.) In the middle of the Torah reading I looked up to find an Orthodox man in the doorway, his dark brown peyot perfectly curled and reaching the tops of his shoulders. I'll admit, his presence scared me a little: was he here to interrupt our service by yelling at us and telling us we were profaning the Torah? Or worse? Would he steal the Torah? Throw something? In retrospect I am ashamed of these fears - he stood in the doorway for about a minute, and when a woman began to read the Torah, he walked away, presumably because he believes that it is forbidden for a man to listen to a woman singing. Perhaps he was just curious, like we are when we visit Orthodox shuls. I should have felt only excitement and joy to have someone else share in our prayes, and I felt fear. For this, I am ashamed. The service went on into the early afternoon, and so after chatting a bit after services, we returned home to eat lunch and then to write about our experiences.


Simchat Torah wasn't the only interesting thing we've done lately. On Saturday night, Lauren (a cantorial student and friend) and I went to see a show produced by the BaMatMaBat Theater Company and the Professional Women's Theater, titled "Voices from Our Side of the Curtain." (You can read the blog version of the production here) It was an English language production, and all of the participants seemed to be American Jews, living in Israel, many of them about my age. The performance was by and for only women, the idea being that in Orthodox Judaism, many people feel that it is inappropriate for a man to hear a woman's voice, citing a Talmudic prohibition called Kol Isha. The Orthodox women in this production are concerned with issues of modesty but nevertheless feel that they deserve a forum to share there talents and their own stories.
The play was modeled off of the Vagina Monologues - a series of monologues in which women shared their personal stories. Each story helped me to better understand the American Orthodox world, which is in some ways (though not all) very different from the American Reform world, and helped me to respect and understand choices that women make to participate in a society in which they have differing roles from men. I think sometimes I lose sight of the fact that for many Orthodox women, they don't feel that they are being forced to wear "modest" clothing, sit in a separate section, etc. but are actually acting out of their own will and for their own reasons. In my own discomfort that these expectations might be forced upon me, I project this sense that these strictures are a hateful burden onto those who willingly participate in the system of which they are a part.
The first monologue, titled "Bald in the Land of Covered Hair" was an extremely evocative piece about a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer and has to undergo chemotherapy and have a mastectomy. She is horrified at the notion of losing her hair and her breast, despite the fact that she already wears a wig and clothing that does not emphasize her body. Despite her modest clothing, she has always associated these parts of her body with her femininity. She comes to learn, with the help of an extremely supportive and loving husband, that femininity is something that is within her, and that her body parts are not what make her a woman, or a beautiful person. I suppose that an argument for modest dress is that by de-emphasizing the body, it allows the woman to be more than just her body parts - an argument that I can definately understand, especially having just graduated from university, where many women feel compelled to dress scantily when they are in social settings, as though their body is what they need to emphasize in order to make men interested in them. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the notion that clothes - tight, short, loose, or long - should be important in establishing that a woman is more than her body. And I don't think the clothing solves the problem - is a woman seen less as a womb, a pair of breasts, or smooth legs, whether or not she covers them up? But I'm not writing this post to disagree or to agree with the atitudes in the play - I knew that I was attending a performance about a lifestyle very different from my own, and I was pleased to feel that I understood it as well as I did, and emphasized as well as I did. Although I don't wear clothes that are modest according to an Orthodox definition, I don't tend to wear tight, short clothing or emphasize my body, and yet if I were to lose that part of my body I think I too would undergo a crisis about whether I felt like a whole and complete woman.

The second piece, "Mourning Lullabies," was about an Orthodox couple that is infertile. Initially the woman thinks that it is her own fault, but eventually her husband gets tested and finds out that he is infertile. He offers his wife a divorce, but she tells him that she loves him and that even though it had been both of their dreams to build a family together, she wants to be with him even if it means being childless. This story would have been very different, I think, in a different cultural context - where having children is less at the center of the culture, where artificial insemination by a donated sperm was an option, etc. I wonder if adoption is an option in Orthodox communities - I assume it is, but I'm not sure. In any case, it was very moving to hear a woman speak about giving up her life's dream, to have children, because of her love for her husband.

I won't go through all the pieces in detail, because it occurs to me that this post will then go on for waaay too long and you will stop reading. So briefly, they included a piece about an abusive husband who refused to give his wife a divorce, a piece about a girl who didn't want to be part of the Orthodox world, a piece about a woman who feels that the Orthodox community is failing to retain its children, a piece about a girl who wants to be the perfect Jew but finds this impossible, a piece about an abused wife who doesn't want to leave her husband, a piece about a girl who is attracted to women but cannot act on it because of her Orthodoxy and resolves to be alone for life, a stunning piece about the transformative and communal power of the mikvah, a piece on feminism and it's role for Orthodox women, and a group dance piece about dancing for the sake of loving yourself, and not to attract or please someone else. They were all very beautiful and powerful, and the acting was quite good as well. I hope I'll have a chance to see more of their work this year.


In the meantime, I continue to study for the GRE and work on grad school applications. The semester starts pretty soon and in the meantime I am working hard, and making a lot of progress. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

High times in Haifa.

.טובות חיי חיפה

Happy Sukkot! After Yom Kippur, we had one day of "class," which comprised a trip to Tel Aviv with my Israel seminar group. Our primary points of interest were Independence Hall and the Palmach Museum as we explored the "New Jew" through the hundred-year history of Tel Aviv. Then, we were ripe for Sukkot break!

Many of my classmates have done extensive traveling during this break, exploring the Middle East and parts of Europe. Jessica and I, however, decided to stay in Israel and do some touring in Israel. Our destination of choice: Haifa. (For photographs from our trip, visit Jessica's Google album.)

We got a somewhat later start than we anticipated on Tuesday morning, but as we didn't have any particular plans for the trip (very unlike me!), we weren't too concerned. Since this was the first day of Sukkot, the buses weren't running - so we had to take a sheirut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv and then another to Haifa. On our way to the place near Jaffa St. where the sheiruts congregate, a taxi driver asked us if we were traveling to Tel Aviv. We said we were, and he offered to drive us for 30 shekels apiece (roughly the same as a 10-person sheirut ride). We agreed as we figured it would be much faster to find two more people going to Tel Aviv than to wait for one of the vans to show up. After about twenty minutes, our taxi was full, and we tore out of Jerusalem. Our driver was apparently very anxious to arrive, as he was traveling at times twice the posted speed limit. We tried not to get too nervous and waited out the (rather short) ride.

The sheirut ride to Haifa from Tel Aviv was (thankfully) uneventful, and when we arrived in the city, we asked for directions to Jaffa St. (where our hostel was located). Twenty minutes and several more sets of directions later, we had found a guide to walk us to Jaffa St. and to point us in the direction of our hostel.

The Port Inn was a clean, professionally-run hostel that served a hearty breakfast and was home to a great deal of diverse travelers. It has a small kitchen, a TV room, and an outdoor patio for people who want just to relax at their home base for a while, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. We were warmly welcomed and given a terrific map of Haifa that we were to use extensively for the next 48 hours as well as a coupon book that we tried unsuccessfully to use at dinner. Overall, we were quite pleased with the hostel and would recommend it to visitors on a budget (~$27.00/night including breakfast).

Our first order of business was to visit Jessica's second cousin twice-removed, Shlomo, who made aliyah some thirty years ago from the U.S. Shlomo is very much into geneaology and has a personal family tree containing over 4,100 names ... including Jessica's! Shlomo contacted Jessica over a year ago looking for information about her family, and he mentioned that if we were ever in Haifa, we should look him up. So we did just that!

Our plan was to go straight to his house after we arrived. So, armed with our map, we set out. We passed run-down apartment buildings, empty streets, and abandoned shops. Turns out we were walking through one of Haifa's slums. After about an hour, we reached a busy intersection and, as we weren't exactly sure if our map was going to be able to show us how to get to Shlomo's house, we decided to take a taxi. It drove us up a big mountain (with which we were to become intimately familiar) and dropped us off at Shlomo's house. Good thing we taxied!

The door to the building was locked, and we knew that Shlomo kept the chag, so we didn't know what to do. Rather than shouting at the building and hoping he would hear, we decided to buzz him - what else could we do? He shouted down from the window, and we told him the door was locked. He came down, and the visit began!

We had a very lovely time with the Rapoports. They served us lunch in their sukkah (which, due to the high winds, was actually a somewhat dangerous place to sit!), and we chatted at length about family, Israel, Jewish history, etc. We met Shlomo's wife and their two sons and had the opportunity to see what a chag is like in a modern Orthodox Israeli household. After a couple hours, we bid farewell to Jessica's "new" family members and caught a taxi back to the German Colony (near our hostel).

Our friends Nikki, Rachel, Jessica, and Chad were also traveling in Haifa at the time, so we called them and plans to meet them in the German Colony for dinner. We walked around a bit, took some pictures, explored the one street of the Germany Colony, and were glad when our friends arrived. We had a great dinner and then made the same rounds that Jessica and I had made once or twice before deciding to ride the Carmelit, which is Haifa's version of a subway train, to the center of the Carmel region of town. We walked through the dark and not particularly friendly streets of north coastal Haifa to the southernmost station only to find that the Carmelit was closed. We sadly bid our friends farewell and made our way back to the hostel for some quiet reading and chatting before bed.

On Wednesday, we got an extremely good feel for Haifa. We started by walking an hour to the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, which focused on the story of Jews trying to move to Israel despite Britain's blockade on immigration. We saw a movie about the Af Al Pi Chen and other ships like it that helped to smuggle Jews into mandatory Palestine, and we explored an exhibit about the internment camps in Cyprus, where Jews who were turned away from Palestine waited (unknowingly) for the establishment of an independent, welcoming, and needy State of Israel. Although the museum wasn't great, it definitely provided more information than Exodus, and it serves as a memorial to a crucial part of the formation of the Israeli identity.

After the museum, Jessica and I sat on the shoreline for a while and then had a large and delicious lunch. We rode a sky cab to the top of a mountain, took some pictures, and then decided to walk down the mountain. We had a lovely walk, and we saw how buildings facing out from the mountain have long bridges built toward the slope so that the straight buildings can be entered from the side of the mountain. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we once again found ourselves in the German Colony - only this time, we were able to enter the bottom level of the beatiful Bahá'í Gardens. (I don't want to go into great detail about the Bahá'í Faith and the significance of the Shrine of the Báb here, but I recommend following up on the links - the history and religion are fascinating!) We had tried to book a tour of the Gardens and the Shrine but were unsuccessful. Still, being in only the bottom part of the Gardens gave us a taste of the intricate and brilliant beauty supported by Bahá'ís all the world over.

As we had plans to meet Shlomo for dinner and still had some time to spend, we decided to walk through another part of town, check out a pedestrian mall, and see a different perspective of Haifa. We found ourselves in a "downtown"-like area and ended up in a park full of Russian men playing Chess, young boys having fun with dogs, and gaggles of Orthodox girls walking together. Then, still having more time, we decided to walk to the Carmel area we had missed last night. And that involved going up the mountain we had just recently walked down.

Our map showed several stairways that let us avoid long, winding roads, and Jessica and I set off on our trek. With each level of altitude, we took better and better pictures, and as the sun set and the wind blew, we knew we had made the right decision. By the time we had reached the top of the Bahá'í Gardens (which include 500-700 stairs), we were tired but familiar with parts of Haifa we otherwise would never have been able to see. It was a terrific walk!

Shlomo picked us up and drove us through the Carmel area. We did some geneaology work at his house (mostly Jessica and Shlomo talked about their family), and then we went to a great restaurant around the corner from Shlomo's house. I had "blintches," which are different from "blintzes" insofar as they're rolled (somewhat like manicotti) with different fillings, and Jessica had a delicious "hot salad," the likes of which we haven't come across in Jerusalem. We also had an enormous piece of chocolate cake ... because after all, we were on vacation! After tea at Shlomo's he drove us back to our hostel, and we crashed after a bit of "debriefing" on the patio.

On Thursday, we ate our breakfast with two
Bahá'í pilgrims from Canada. Although they were very reticent during the entire meal, I wanted to learn as much as I could from them, so I tried to ask questions without being impolite. They shared when directly asked about their experiences that they had booked their pilgrimage five years ago and that they would be in Haifa for nine days. The nine day-long pilgrimage would involve about 100 people from all over the world and serves as a crowning experience in the religious life of Bahá'ís. I'd love to speak with people who have already gone - as they had just arrived, they didn't know precisely what they would be in store for. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be so close to such a central religious experience, and I'm thankful I had the opportunity!

After breakfast, Jessica and I took to the train to the beach. It was cloudy and windy, so we decided just to walk along the shore instead of to sun and swim. There were thousands of beautifully polished rocks, and we collected about a dozen of them on our walk. After about an hour, we crossed the street to the bus station and headed back to Jerusalem.

So, our trip to Haifa didn't involve a tremendous amount of "tourism," but between our conversations with Shlomo and our walking (and a little driving) through a significant percentage of the city, we feel that we had an informative and enjoyable vacation. We have a history of doing a lot of walking in new places, but this sealed the deal: We officially love to explore places by foot! And though I was slightly sore on the bus ride back, I appreciate the opportunity to get so "up close and personal" with one of Israel's most important and well-known ports.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rolling around Jerusalem.

.גילגול מסביב לירשלים

First, an authorial note. Jessica and Daniel will be co-authoring this post for maximum recollection and enjoyment.

Although a number of things have happened to us in the past few days including a dinner with friends, a lovely walk to the shuk to see all of the lulav vendors, and classes (Daniel) and studying/working on grad school applications (Jessica), what we really wanted to write about was this amazing adventure we had thanks to our friendly and generous across the hall neighbors. You may recall that we invited Mr. and Mrs. Katz over for dinner several weeks ago, and we were delighted that they accepted our invitation. A couple weeks ago, they invited us on a tiyul (trip) and asked us where we wanted to go. We put the ball back in their court, telling them that we'd be excited to see anything they wanted us to see. So, this past Friday afternoon, Mr. Katz invited us over to discuss the plan he had created for us.

We traversed the long distance between our apartments and were warmly welcomed into their beautiful living room, decorated in deep reds, with dark wooden furniture and many paintings on the wall that we later learned were created by Mrs. Katz's late brother. To explain where we would be traveling, Mr. Katz picked up his Tanach (Bible) and asked us, "Do you know the Book of Samuel?" He then proceeded to recount some stories from Samuel's life, Tanach in hand, in order to set the stage for our upcoming trip. Daniel couldn't believe it: This entirely secular man was detailing "history" from the bible and preparing us to explore the sites he described! He told us about the Philistines' capture of the ark, the birth and passing of Samuel, and a few tales about Samson. He concluded by saying that we'd be exploring some of the locations mentioned in these stories along with, hopefully, some of their children and grandchildren. "We'll be ready by 10:00," we assured them and went back to our apartment, excited about the next day's adventures.

Although Jessica suspected that the actual time of departure was to be 9:30, Daniel assured her that she was absolutely mistaken, and at 9:30, when Mr. Katz rang the doorbell, Jessica ran to the door in her pajamas and embarassedly asked for ten minutes to get ready. Daniel and Jessica hurriedly threw on some clothes, grabbed a camera, and knocked on the Katzes' door. When Mr. Katz opened the door, he gave what can only be described as a grandfatherly chuckle before ushering us into the elevator to descend to our journey.

Apparently, Mr. Katz had already parked the car out front and loaded it with our lunch supplies (stay tuned...). The four of us started driving, and shortly we were outside of the city. We chatted, hesitantly at first, in Hebrew about a variety of topics, and this banter became freer as the trip progressed and became one of the highlights of the entire day. Before long, Mr. Katz pointed to an old spire on top of a high hill and identified it as Nebi Samuel. And less than ten minutes after that, we had arrived at that very spot which had seemed to distant only a few minutes earlier.

From the parking lot, Nebi Samuel didn't seem like such an exciting place. There were no touristy things like gift shops or signs in English, and the whole area seemed a little run down - a tiny Yeshiva building to one side, and no guests aside from ourselves. Daniel approached a sign that described the history of the building, and Mr. Katz read it to us, though frankly it was hard for me to understand all of the Hebrew.

Just after Mr. Katz finished reading the sign to us, we were joined by Noam, their youngest son, and Noam's daughter Talia, along with Noam's friend and former boss. The seven of us walked up to the building on the hill and that's when we realized why the Katzes had brought us here. From 900 meters above sea level, we could see everything in the Judean hills and beyond. From the West Bank to the Mediterranean Sea, Israel lay before us like a picture book waiting to be pored over. Borrowing Noam's professional binoculars, we were able to make out villages, towns, and cities miles away. We climbed to the top of the crusader-era building and found ourselves higher than anything else in the area. Noam's intimate knowledge of the countryside gave a deeper understanding to what we were seeing as he was able to point out Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and the locations of certain historical events (like a key battle in the Maccabean revolt). It was truly an incredible vantage point!

We walked around the building slowly, as Mr. Katz pointed out features of the building itself - below us a stone house with a roof that had fallen in, and above us a tower (which we would later climb). We made our way into the belly of the building, which is today a synagogue, and which contains what is believed to be the grave of Samuel. Jessica descended by herself into the women's section, which was about the size of a closet, while Daniel explored the much more interesting men's section. Jessica later joined him in the men's section, as there was no one present to tell her otherwise. In the men's section, we saw not only the alleged tomb of Samuel but also several books and tables that would normally be found in a synagogue and beit midrash. Perhaps a bit more startling was the sign that read (roughly), "Anyone who talks during the Shmoneh Esrei or the Kaddish will never get out of hell." This, in addition to the bumper sticker we had seen on the ground level warning against boys and girls touching each other, gave a distinct impression as to what group of people considered this their place.

From the top of the tower we gazed out at Israel, admiring its hills that jutted up like waves on a stormy sea. The Katzes' other son, Yair, and his son, whose name we can't recall, had joined us by this point, and we really felt like we were part of a family outing. It wasn't too long before we climbed down from the tower and returned to the car to continue to our next location.

Mr. Katz was following his children, and as we drove, he pointed out to us notable locations while describing the history of the roads, the trees, even the very countryside. For example, the Katzes explained to us that in first few months of their military service as young adults (they met in the army), their role was to plant trees - the very trees we drove past. It was fascinating to hear his long view of the history of the place - unfortunately, his story-telling distracted from his driving, and we got slightly off course. After calling one of his sons, Mr. Katz believed himself to be on track, but when we pulled in front of the fish store, it seemed at least plausible that we had gotten ourselves a little lost. Regardless, we walked around the fish store, which was itself an adventure - tropical fish of all sizes swam in a multitude of tanks, and we poked around, smiling broadly at the brightly striped and oddly marked varieties. Once Mr. Katz had reconnected via cell phone with his kids, we continued on our way.

Our next stop was a French monastery, which was surrounded by gorgeous trees and beautiful flowers. We learned that the sisters spend much of their time studying, baking, and making ceramic pottery and figures (though it wasn't clear what the brothers' schedules include). We looked through the wine and cheese shops (it was, after all, a French monastery!) and continued to the chapel. The walls were covered with beautiful scenes from Christian history, and the books included the New Testament in several languages as well as other volumes about Israel and Christianity. All the wile, we chatted with Yair, who is a computer programmer, and admired what Jessica's dad would call the foil-age.

We continued down the road a bit to a spot that Noam recommended for our picnic - the British Park. Mr. Katz drove his car practically into the picnic area itself, to the chagrin of his sons, and began unpacking shopping bag after shopping bag full of food. It was a laughable amount of food - he offered us whole peppers, carrots, and cucumbers, pitas, different vegetable-filled pastries, cookies, honey cake, hummus, tehina, crackers, dried fruit... Each time he opened something new his sons protested that they'd had enough and he responded "What do you care if I open it? You don't have to eat it." Whole cans and bags of food remained uneaten and our bellies were satisfyingly round as we sat around the table enjoying the beautiful day. Noam, who apparently goes for a walk and a picnic every Shabbat, was equipped with a portable gas stove, on which he prepared a sweet tea-like drink that he called "Louisa," which he apparently grows fresh in his garden. Later, he also prepared and served strong, sweet coffee. The kids used the fire from the stove to light a small campfire nearby and all of the adults watched as they kindled dry leaves and sticks.

We very much enjoyed conversing with the Katzes and their sons, and before we called it a day, Noam wanted to hike up the hill a bit with his daughter. We accompanied them and talked to Noam (in English!) about his life as the former ambassador to Nigeria. Turns out he's lived for many years in Nigera, Ghana, Rwanda, and a few other African countries - his three children, he says, are "more African than Israeli." He's moved back to Israel to give his youngest daughter an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Israel and Israeli culture, but he doesn't expect to remain here long. His wife wants to go to Europe, so he may serve there next, but soon he wants to head to central Asia (Uzbekistan) to start a new chapter of diplomacy. It was so interesting hearing this diplomat describe life in northern Africa and to hear ever so briefly his perspective on international relations there.

By the time we returned with Noam and Talia, Yair and his son had already left. We bid farewell to Noam and piled back into the Katzes' car, which Mr. Katz extracted from the park and drove away. On our way back, our conversations continued. We drove through Beit Shemesh, which had been built from nothing over the past fifty years. Mr. Katz pointed to a newer area that had once been home to new immigrants from Middle Eastern countries - Mr. Katz was involved in teaching them and helping them to adjust to life in Israel. We stopped at an overlook, where Mr. Katz showed us that we were at the site where the story of Samson had occurred. We took pictures of him and Daniel, Jessica and Mrs. Katz, and we continued on our way, down the beautiful narrow hilly roads. Every few minutes Mr. Katz would sigh "how beautiful!"

The drive back to Jerusalem was gorgeous and took us through parts of the city that we had never visited before. For the first time, we were able to see "regular" parts of Israel (even Jerusalem), where people go out on Shabbat and lead lives that aren't regulated by religion. We drove through the suburbs, where people have actual houses, and were able to imagine living in Jerusalem without the congestion of King George Street. Not only was the drive beautiful, but it was also educational and eye-opening.

Once we were heading back into town, it took us a surprisingly short amount of time to get back to our neck of the woods. The Katzes continued to point out items of interest even though we may have passed them a hunded times since moving in. We parked the car behind our apartment building, helped unload the several bags of leftover food, and walked back to the apartment with the Katzes.

When we were back on our comfortable fifth floor, we wished the Katzes good-bye from inside their apartment. They told us they had had a wonderful time and were glad that we had come with them - they even hinted at a next time! Mr. Katz had bought each of us a small jar of honey (for a sweet new year!) from the French monastery, and he also showed us the small ceramic sheep he had bought himself - apparently, he collects them. We finally bid our last good-bye and returned to our apartment.

Overall, the entire trip was absolutely lovely. It was wonderful to join this family, to spend Shabbat in a meaningful secular manner with kind and generous people who were interested in sharing their life stories with us. We ate delicious food, shared good jokes, and saw some breath-taking sights. We learned, taught, and explored together, making this definitely one of the richest, most unique Shabbats we've had since we've arrived. We both very much look forward to the "next time" that Mr. Katz alluded to, and we hope that we've made some good friends in these elderly neighbors whom we just thought it would be fun to invite to dinner. See what a good quiche can accomplish?

PS If you'd like to see pictures from this trip, as well as other experiences we've had here in Israel, check out our new online album here!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sabbath of Sabbaths and Rhyme Royal

Services were exquisite. They were an emotional journey after which I truly feel cleansed and renewed. They were a conversation between me and the community, the community and the infinite, the choir and the soloist, the tradition and the future, sleep and wakefulness, strength and weakness, life and death, joy and sorrow. I felt as though I was guided by strong and knowing hands through a fearsome and draining path toward deeper knowledge of self and a deeper sense of meaning, and then brought back again gently to a place of joy and relief. I am left in awe and bewilderment at the rainbow of my experiences over the holiday - the joy and grief, the longing and hope, the fear, faith, skepticism, desire, thankfulness.
Often I find the final moments of Yom Kippur the most moving, those moments when I want so badly for it all to be over, but want so badly for it to last forever, when I feel so holy and so desperate for holiness, my body weak and dizzy, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, even between life and death. It is then that I believe in the infinite most, when I can feel the presence of infinity leaving and prodding me back into myself. It is such a bittersweet marraige when my soul cleaves to my body and the community scatters into separate individuals and I am myself once more - how glad I am to return, and how sorry I am to leave. I often don't consider myself a spiritual person and it is often hard for me to reach a state of spirituality but on Yom Kippur I am taken there, and especially this year I feel that, accross a vast chasm, I glimpsed the divine.
So, of course, I wrote you a GRE review poem about it. It's in rhyme royal, which means that it's in seven-line iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming ababbcc. Rhyme royal was first used by Chaucer, but probably got its name because James I of Scotland also wrote using this verse form. It hasn't really been used since the Restoration.

We stand as one, an army afraid of the fight
Our voices joined, we breathe out our souls in song
The spirit drains as day fades into night
And we yearn for a home where our bodies don’t belong
The end grows near, and still the wait is long
Our words are fervent and yet the chasm grows wide
Our deaths and and lives grasp hands across the divide

We fear we may fall in the swelling rift – unsure,
Dizzy, and week, we step forward toward the abyss
And cry forgive us pardon us make us pure
Together in song but separate in thought we kiss
The edge of the tallis that wraps the world and this
Is the day of atonement, this is the time
When we return to ourselves and so doing become sublime

The clouds are tufts of pink in the evening sky
Our eyes turn to royal blue heavens that deepen toward night
It soon will be over, in these last moments we try
To promise to change, to grow to be good and upright
Transforming our conscience, absorbing these last shards of light
Through parched lips swallowing promise of hope and peace
And begging that in days to come our joys will increase

The iron gates slowly fold closed to shut out our pleas
To prod us back to our lives from this brush with the end
But surely, couldn’t I reach in my hand and squeeze
Out just a piece of that magic so I can extend
This teary-eyed, awe-filled prayer and transcend
My life all the days of the year? The shofar sounds
I let go of sublime as the harsh- holy call resounds

After Kol Nidre, we went on a walk to Emek Refaim, where the whole neighborhood wandered the streets, greeting friends and neighbors to apologize for the wrongdoing of the year. It was a sight to see, like a street fair without the bouncy castles or loud music. Swarms of people gathered in the road, children riding bicycles, clusters of friends chatting, strolling, people watching. We ran into someone who worked for UVA Hillel two years ago, and were excited to chat with her a little. She's living in Jerusalem and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to see her again before the year is through.

I hope you all had an easy and meaningful fast, and are looking forward to Sukkot, the season of our joy.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ottava Rima

For this, I really must apologize - this poetry writing is pretty hard and I know the following is ridiculous. This is another poem written to help me study for the GRE literature in English exam.
Ottava Rima consists of 8 line stanzas usually in iambic pentameter rhyming abababcc. Originally used for heroic themes, it also became popular in the mock epic form. I have written a very short, poor quality, mock epic about a reverse mechitsa, which is supposed to be making fun of the idea that it is better for men and women to be separated - not sure if this was successful at all so I thought I'd summarize what I was trying to do up front.
Separation: A Mock Epic

Once upon an evil time that’s past
There was a sanctuary made of stone
Together there the folks would pray and fast
Although the women could not pray alone
A problem which to them seemed large and vast
For their sweet voices sounded like foul groans
When joined with prayer that came from mouths of men
A sound they never have to hear again

The women cried that they were quite concerned
They felt as though in prayer they were distracted
Because instead of heaven their thoughts turned
To the strong tall men to whom they were attracted
And wondered if their advances would be spurned
They desired to see a change, reform enacted
They wished to solve this problem and they prayed
This soul-deep longing heavy on them weighed

But lo! There was a woman young and pure
With muscles taut as wire round her bones
Who cried that co-ed prayer she’d not endure
She did not wish to hear the manly moans
By members of a sex that was impure
By virtue of their cruel Y chromosomes
Who were anchored to the world of everyday
Who could not their spirits lift and fly away

She built a wall between them strong and wide
Of quite strong cardboard sealed with Elmer’s glue
Stepped back from her work and said with pride
Girls, I think we’ve got some prayer to do!
The women laughed with smiles that spread wide
While praying, swaying, chanting Torah too
They sang and read and prayed and taught and learned
Together the other sex they scoffed and spurned

A separation keeps the deep-voiced and the low
Still today in that far of sainted land
Where women are in charge, as well you know
From mingling with the high-voiced and the grand
The men must ask and women must bestow
Permission to eat, pray, or sit, or stand
The land is just its ways are all of peace
The righteous live and joy will never cease

Monday, October 6, 2008

In Memorium A. H. H.

The following poem is written with the same structure as Tennyson's "In Memorium A.H.H." - each stanza is four lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming abba. It's about nighttime in Jerusalem, as heard through our apartment window. Once again, I apologize for the amateur poetry, and you can skip this post if you like.

Alone I watch the evening fall
Like ink that spills across the sky
Some small mistake from G-d on high
Who wishes to erase it all

So darkness reigns throughout the land
Until the dawn, dark conquers us
A ruler that is merciless
Yet we ignore its stern command

Despite decrees that it be night
And silent darkness must now be
The darkness permits revelry
Despite the absence of the light

And so I hear the streets alive
Though darkness spreads across the sky
I hear the people passing by
The walkers walk, the drivers drive

Across the street the silver clinks
As diners laugh while downing wine
Music that I can’t divine
Blares from cars before they slink

To other streets or to their homes
And I can hear the wind blow by
A car horn honk, a baby cry
Friends meeting with the word “shalom”

The night is lively and it’s young
I listen gladly from my room
The city wakes yet fairly soon
I’ll be asleep, but hold your tongue

For I enjoy the sounds of eve
Though I’m alone in my bedroom
And in the morning I’ll resume
To love the life that I perceive

For me it is enough this time
To hear the sounds and know they’re here
And close my eyes to evening dear
Resuming life when the sun climbs

The ladder of the morning sky
And takes its place among the clouds
So birds begin to sing out loud
Announcing that it’s time to fly

Folk Ballad

Hi everyone,

So I've been thinking a lot about the word Israel, and the way that while it has so many meanings - Jacob of the Bible, the Jewish people (ancient, past, and present), the current modern state of Israel, and a hope of peace, to name a few - so many times the conflation of all of these meanings can be confusing, especially in prayer. Are we praying for peace in Israel - as in this Israel in the Middle East? No, I think it is something much bigger and more universal than this one country, and I think it always has been, but it is hard to remember that when I say the word Israel in prayer, hard to separate prayer Israel from the state of Israel in which I am living. I was going to post extensively and coherently on this, but instead decided to study for the Literature in English GRE subject test. Suddenly, I had a not-very-brilliant idea, for which I beg your forgiveness. I have decided to study poetic forms by writing poems of my own for this blog, using these forms, to express the ideas, experiences, or emotions I might otherwise convey in a much-more-pleasant-to-read way that is in many ways dissimilar from amateur poetry and cheap study tools. So, with my apologies, an attempt at a poem about the use of the word Israel in prayer, in the form of a Folk Ballad. The typical stanza of the folk ballad is called the ballad (go figure) and the length of the line isdetermined by the number of stressed syllables only (rather than all syllables) - in this way it is more similar to Old English poetry or to sprung rhythm than it is to, say, a sonnet (some of those will be coming your way soon if I keep up with this nonsense). The rhyme scheme is abcb.

With pride pouring from our lips
We speak of holy land
The words are words we all enjoy
Set to soulful tunes, and grand

And suddenly, although I wish
These solemn lines to pray
I feel as though they are a lie
I hesitate to say

Aligning past with present times
Our now with then and there
Conflating, confusing, entrapped in a maze
Of politics and prayer

Israel – what is this word
An ancient hope for peace?
The magic of which angels sing?
The goal that will not cease?

A people joined in blood or pride
A nation or a creed?
A promise made to Abraham?
An ever budding seed?

Or are our words directed toward
A Middle Eastern place
Imperfect as all nations are
With problems we all must face

Not holy, not perfect, not awesome, not pure
Not more righteous, noble, or just
Not above corruption or hate
Homelessness, hatred, or lust

Hear O Israel the Lord is One
I say with all my might
While children learn in religion-based schools
Before joining the army to fight

And I, an American living abroad
Who is this G-d I can’t see
Have I also been instructed to hear
Is Israel also me?

I am lost and confused in Israel
With no map for finding my way
Between the desire and reality
The ancient hope, the present day

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prayer, leadership, and music.

.תפילה, מנהיגות, ומוזיקה

Yesterday morning, Jessica and I attended Reconstructionist services held in the student lounge of HUC. During the services, I had one of those periodic waves of anticipation and excitement about being a rabbi some day, and I was actively engaged in thinking about prayer and leadership. Add to that the several conversations I've had with Jessica and HUC colleagues about our Rosh Hashanah services here--and Jewish prayer services in general--and it turns out I've been thinking about this topic a lot. So, here are some of my thoughts (many of which are inspired and tempered by others).

Let's start with the Reconstructionist service. The leadership style of the service was fairly laissez-faire, with the leader announcing page numbers, starting a song, and then getting quiet. In some communities, that leadership style can be quite effective. I understand that a number of Reconstructionist congregations are comprised largely of Jews who want to take an active role in prayer and therefore, a strong central leader would detract from their prayer experience. This results in a more organic, ground-up form of prayer service.

Now, in the environment that we had yesterday, I didn't find this leadership style particularly conducive to my own prayer. We weren't in a "Reconstructionist community" as such but rather a somewhat hodgepodge collection of Jews, at least some of whom were quite new to Reconstructionism. This resulted in not only a quiet leader but also a quite congregation. The service was slow, perhaps contemplative, and though it may have been beautiful and meaningful for some or most of the participants, it wasn't for me.

Now, this presents a troubling question: Am I dependent on someone else to facilitate my prayer experience? That is, how much should I be able to pray in any circumstance? The goal of my liturgy teacher is to familiarize us enough with Jewish prayer that we will be able to pray in any Jewish environment, and I would love that. One of my goals for the year is to be able to better understand, and indeed be better at, prayer. The more Hebrew I learn, the more meaningful Jewish prayer becomes to me. Also helpful are learning more about the structure, history, and composition of Jewish prayer as well as the context within which a particular prayer service is conducted. I hope that sooner than later, I'll be able to find myself able to pray in any setting.

But I know that it's rare for a person to be able to pray anywhere (and I know it will require a lot of work on my part). For most people, the community and the service leader are integral parts of the prayer experience, and that will always be true for me as well. Being able to pray on my own, after all, is only a part of the picture: Jewish prayer is also communal, and without connecting to my prayer community, my prayer will be incomplete. (This, by the way, is why it will be difficult for me to pray fully in an orthodox congregation - the segregation of men and women will, I believe, pose a significant barrier to my being able to fully connect to that prayer community.)

So, what should I, as a future professional prayer leader (possibly), be aware of in prayer leadership? Personally, I like a leader who exhibits confidence and control. Even though I can't sing well, if I'm singing first and loudly, I hope to be able to inspire intentional and meaningful singing from the congregation as well. Although I might be speaking a Hebrew that some congregants don't understand, I hope to read with sufficient conviction to convey the heart of the prayer even if the specific words are lost.

Because to me, understanding a prayer is crucial to its beauty. Some Hebrew songs are just beautiful, period, regardless of their meaning. But, I've found that the more I know about what I'm saying, the more meaningful my prayer experience. (Duh.) So, I feel it will be important to convey meaning and not just words during prayer. If that requires English or explanations or whatever, I hope to be able to find it.

And then there's the question of music. For me, I don't have to say every word to feel prayerful. I can listen to a song like Avinu Malkeinu and not say a word and have it be meaningful. (I think I wrote about that here earlier.) Even more "everyday" songs can inspire me if I don't sing along. I am in the process of exploring the relationship between my self and my prayer community, and I believe that my own prayers can be uttered by others and vice versa. By saying amen, I am affirming my place in the Jewish community, and the tenet of Jewish prayer that at least ten people are required before a full service can take place further supports the idea that a community is necessary for an individual to pray.

Yet there are others who feel differently. I've heard from people who say that if they're not participating in the prayer, they're generally unable to have a prayerful experience. So for them, beautiful and intricate music is just that: music. Not prayer. And many people don't want to attend concerts in place of services.

Obviously, there's a compromise position of a cantor being able to switch between "cantorial" music and "congregational" music effectively. But the High Holy Days can be a problem because they're the Days of Awe. For many, perhaps the majority, "accessible" music is not what's expected or enjoyed during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So, do we wash our hands of the Jews who don't like that kind of music?

I was hearing about a congregation back in the States that's actively engaged in this question of being able to provide meaningful prayer experiences to all of its congregants. The congregation offers different kinds of services, but the trade off is a further separation of the community. And that brings us back to the original question: How important is the individual in Jewish prayer, which is by nature communal?

Take, for example, our dilemma at UVA Hillel. For my last couple years at school, we had significant difficulty getting a minyan at both Reform and Conservative prayer services. The question before us was: Do we focus on the individual needs of the different groups, or do we sacrifice particular desires in order to bring the community together as a whole. I think I would have handled the situation differently now, especially as an outsider to the community, but we had so much difficulty understanding the question that I don't think we ever came up with a really satisfying solution.

It's one thing to say what I find most conducive to a positive prayer experience: A strong leader, beautiful music, and meaningful words in a language I understand. The challenge lies in finding what's most conducive to a positive prayer experience for a community.

Tomorrow, I will co-lead the first of the weekly student-led prayer services at HUC, and I'm fairly nervous about our ability to have accurately gauged the needs of our prayer community. I'm sure that we'll get some things wrong, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how other prayer leaders interpret the needs of our community. Hopefully by the end of the year, I'll have a better idea of how to assess those needs because I think that's going to be a vital skill to my future.

Ultimately, I'm just grateful and excited that I don't have to be a rabbi yet. Five years is a long time, and we're only just beginning. Hearing my colleagues discuss prayer in such a serious way for the past week has given me a lot of optimism about the degree to which we're going to be able to delve seriously into this business of Jewish professional life once we graduate from HUC. Let's hope we don't disappoint!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Book Recommendation

Moments ago I finished reading For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway. I didn't anticipate liking it at all and found it shockingly good - so good that for the past few days it has been hard for me to convince myself to do anything other than read. The novel portrays the horror of war in tangible and straightforward language, not withholding a single stark detail. The novel takes place over three days and yet it doesn't feel drawn out. It is replete with personal insights of characters, with a depth of emotion and of detail. The most famous and most powerful scene in the novel, which takes place during the Spanish Civil War, is when one character recounts witnessing the brutal mob murder of fascists in a town taken over by revolutionaries. One by one the narrator tells of each fascist's reactions to the mob that is waiting with agricultural implements to beat him to death and then throw him into a gorge. With these simple and concrete images you can see their faces and truly hear their screams. I am not exaggerating to say that I cried while reading this chapter, and that it will haunt me for a long, long, time. Despite the horrors of the novel, it also portrays perhaps some of the most equisite love scenes I've ever read, also simple and straightforward, but passionate and pure, and full of longing and desire. I feel so surprisingly moved by this novel - I read it quickly and approached it with an expectation that I would dislike it and here I am unsure of how I will move out of the realm of the novel and back into my life - how I can possibly do something as mundane as study Hebrew when I have left the main character lying in pain, awaiting death. If you have the time and the energy, read this novel - and I look forward to talking about it with you.