Wednesday, December 31, 2008

News Coverage

We've been reading a lot of news coverage about the conflict. Here are some articles we think are good, from a variety of different and differing perspectives:,7340,L-3646558,00.html,7340,L-3646363,00.html

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Quick Preschool Moment

I'm sitting in the middle of a group of 2 and 3 year olds playing with oversized legos when one kid marches up to me holding a lego tower horizontally and, with a giant grin, announces, "I'm playing the guitar." I quickly fashion myself a tower of similar proportions and say, "I'm playing the guitar too!" One of the teachers smiles at me and suggests, "Maybe you two can sing us a song." Before I know it, little Tal and I are standing in front of a group of five or six wide eyed children singing "Hiney Ma Tov" and pretending to strum our guitars. Soon, other kids join in, and each hands me his or her guitar for me to play it for a while before they have the courage to play it on their own. Eventually we start on other instruments - trumpets, flutes, drums, violins, harmonicas... We're jamming together to "Hiney Ma Tov" and the other teacher watches, shakes her head, and laughs.

A Night at the Theater

Last night, Daniel and I went to see a show called Ahavat HaDracon (the love of the dragon) at the Khan Theater.
The Khan Theater performs in a building that dates back to the Ottoman period (19th C) built on the ruins of an ancient building, and it once served as an inn for travelers to the city. It is spacious and antique - looking, full of arches, old stone, etc.
The performance was terrific, and Daniel and I were pleased to understand so much of it. The basic gist of the plot was that a man is pulled out of the audience and asked to tell the performers about his life, so that they can perform it. He insists that they are not accurately representing his life, but he comes to discover the truth in their performance, in which they represent his fear of death and time, and his rejection of his wife because her growing old reminds him that he, too, one day will die. Tehy made use of Greek mythology and a kind of Greek chorus that sang songs that were comical interludes and interesting devices. On the way home, Daniel and I discussed how much we enjoyed the acting, thought the play was very well woven together, and appreciated the metatheatricality of the production. I was a bit concerned by the representation of women as sex objects and the blatant homophobia of the play, but I did think the production was terrific. If you speak Hebrew and are in town, the show is definately worth seeing. We have a student subscription to the theater, and are thinking of going to see the show a second time!

Thank You for Your Concern About Our Safety

A number of people have written to us expressing concerns about our safety in light of the crisis in Gaza. Thank you for your concern - we appreciate your thinking of us. It is a little scary to know that we are so close to the violence, but mostly very sad to read the news and learn about the escalating conflict. Daniel and I have both spent hours poring over blogs, news sites, etc. and we both feel sympathy for both sides of the conflict and are very saddened by the increasing numbers of casualties. We wish there was something we could do to make the situation improve.

We are talking about it a lot. We talk about it in synagogue when we pray for peace, we talk about it with over-anxious students who have become irrationally concerned for their safety when doing activities that are clearly not threatening, and perhaps most enlightening, I've been talking about it with some of my Israeli classmates, some of whom view the Israeli military activity with cynicism and believe that it will only worsen the situation, and some of whom are strongly behind the actions of the military and believe that the violence is the only option. I hate the violence, and I don't agree that Israel should have taken this action, but I think I can understand it.

In terms of our personal safety, for the time being we are not at risk. Although Gaza is only a few hours away, notions of space and distance are very different in Israel. Life goes on here as normal, and we are being told by some very frank people at both of our schools, who are in contact with Israeli security and government agencies, that safety in Jerusalem, at least for now, is not a concern. I know that if there was any suspicion of a change in the security situation, Daniel and I would be informed very early, especially as Daniel's school in particular is very concerned with safety and alert us often top even the smallest activity of which they think we need to be aware. So, basically, we're more worried than we were before this happened, but we're not really that worried about our own safety.

While we may ourselves be safe, we are praying for the families both in Gaza and in Sderot and other nearby communities, and hoping for an end to the violence...

A Great Miracle Happened Here

In the days before Hannukah began, I scrambled around the city in search of gifts for Daniel, wandering into the nooks and crannies of the city center to find just the right doodads and treasures - small enough that they can be taken in a suitcase back to the land of the free and the home of the brave, but fun, exciting, and useful nonetheless. I found myself in pottery stores, clothing stores, art stores, and Judaica stores, and the only department store in the city center, browsing through the Channukah sales and noting the disquieting lack of Christmas music in late December. My purchases made, I squirreled them away in the corner of the apartment, ready for the holiday to begin.

Daniel and I didn't expect much from Channukah in Israel, figuring that it wouldn't be a big to-do without the counterpart of Christmas as a motivator for families who didn't want their children to be left out. And, in fact, the 'holiday season' was considerably less pronounced here than it is in the States. Nevertheless it was charming and meaningful in surprising ways.

My only really Israeli experiences of Channukah included eating sufganiot that were being sold at every corner, enjoying the Hannukah decorations at Hebrew University, and attending a preschool Channukah party where kids wore hats with candles on them and danced for their grinning parents. I enjoyed much of the holiday in the warmth of our apartment.The above picture is of the preschool Hannukah party. No, those aren't Indian hats, they are candle hats.

The above picture is of a Channukah decoration at Hebrew University.

The week that Channukah began, winter cold also began in earnest. Rainy days were followed by sunless days with puddles remaining on the slippery Jerusalem stone. We're trying not to use too much energy, so without the space heaters on, we were roaming about our apartment in layer upon layer of sweatshirts and blankets, sipping tea for warmth. Daniel is in finals season and has been scrambling to reasearch for papers and study for tests. And what a relief that in the midst of all of this, we were able to light candles together every night, singing the prayers with our arms about each other, and watching the candles dance before the misted window pane. Each evening we gave each other a different present, and now we are both enjoying our gifts: warm winter gear, candy, clothing, games, Judaica, etc. For the eighth night of Channukah Daniel bought me a little statuette of a whippet, which has been sitting in the window of the Judaica store around the corner and which I have been waving to every day as I come home from school. He wished that the storekeeper spoke English so that he could have inquired, "How much is that doggie in the window?" Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity.

Two pictures of Channukah gifts: left: the doggie formerly in the window; right: pictionary and candy

On Friday, Daniel and I went to the apartment of some friends of mine from Hebrew University for a post-Christmas (I suppose Boxing Day) brunch. We baked a lemon poppyseed cake to bring to the apartment, and we ate terrific food - homemade biscuits, apple crumble, fritata, etc. The conversation was intense and informative, as we spent most of the time talking about religion to these students from all over the world who had converged in Jerusalem to study that very topic. We learned about the significance of place in Christianity (asking about whether Bethlehem was significant religiously to those who had traveled there for the holiday), about relics in the Catholic church, and a number of other interesting topics. The atmosphere was warm and the company was good. It's nice to spend time with non-HUC friends for a change.

That evening, on the Channukah evening that coincinded with Shabbat, we were welcomed into the apartment of some HUC students for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Sprawled out on couches, chairs, and pillows, Daniel's class prayed together, sang together, and demonstrated how close they have grown to each other this semester. It felt like a strong and loving community, and when we shared instances of light and darkness in our lives, in keeping with the theme of Channukah, I was impressed by the willingness of these students to open up to one another. I think it is terrific that these future Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators are becoming such fast friends, and I think that will be a strong asset to the Reform community for years to come.

On Shabbat afternoon, Daniel and I hosted his Hebrew class for lunch. We baked bagels, challah, and more lemon poppyseed cake, and in honor of the occasion, on Friday afternoon we went to a restaurant around the corner from our apartment that, on Fridays, turns into a place to buy Shabbat food. Trays and trays of prepared meals were spread throughout the room, and people would simply point and order the food, which was sold at a remarkably low price in order that families will have good food for the holiday. We bought a few salads and a mixed vegetable dish, and were very pleased. We'll probably go there again.

Having Daniel's class over was great. For one of his Channukah presents, Daniel had received Pictionary in Hebrew, and so we played a round with Daniel's class, searching through our Hebrew English dictionaries when we didn't know what the words meant. It was a great vocabulary building excercise, and a lot of fun!

My Channukah Miracle, I suppose, was that I discovered that a teacher at Daniel's school used to be my cantor when I was 11 years old. She has since changed her name and so I assumed that she was not the same person, but I recently learned that she was the selfsame cantor that I so admired as a young girl. This was a very emotional discovery for me, largely because I am a very emotional person, but also because this cantor was very important to me as a child - she really inspired me to become interested in Judaism and I think about her and her influence on me all of the time, so it was a tremendous surprise to learn that all this time I've been interacting with her, playing with her son at the preschool, etc., only now to find out that she is the cantor of my youth. It was an enthusiastic 'reunion' when I told her!

We're sad that the holiday was over, but we have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming week- HUC's New Years prom, our New Year's Day pot-luck dinner, a visit from Daniel's home synagogue, seeing people on the UVA Birthright trip, etc. We'll be busy for the next few days!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the world of Haredim.

.בעולם חרדים

Yesterday, the men of our class went on a guided tour of Meah Shearim, an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Our guide was an ex-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) who leads a group of HUC students every year through the neighborhood. I've been in Haredi areas before, but I'd never been into the heart of Meah Shearim. It was intense!

The buildings were close together, and the streets were narrow. The two hundred year old neighborhood is home to a number of different Haredi communities whose differences run deep and heavy, yet to an outsider, all Haredim look the "same." Some are easier to spot than others, but the differences between the groups seem so arbitrary and minor (as they often stem simply from which rabbi the community follows) that lumping all ultra-orthodox Jews into a single group is tempting.

Despite the presence of a multitude of different prayer spaces, one large synagogue sits at the heart of the neighborhood next to the community mikveh (ritual bath). Men (and a few women) were walking around, and none of them gave us a hard time, though all of them visibly noticed our unusual presence. As we passed a heder (school), I heard the call and response teaching of classical texts in Hebrew and Yiddish that I've only seen in a movie before - it was incredible to witness instruction like that actually going on.

Posters in Hebrew were displayed everywhere. One that says "Modest dress required" had been scribbled out, though others declaiming that association with the modern world is forbidden were left untouched.

When we left Meah Shearim and moved into the Yeminite orthodox neighborhood, our guide was visibly relieved. He knew that there wouldn't be any danger of being harrassed in this more moderate neighborhood. We got a chance to see the actual street Meah Shearim (which is not part of the neighborhood), which serves as a kind of main street in this orthodox part of town. Shops carrying stacks of black kipot, portraits of famous rabbis, and tchochkes for tourists sat next to jewlery stores, groceries, and restaurants. This was orthodox life, and I was a visitor.

I composed a journal entry for my Israel seminar class about the experience - that entry is copied below. I've been learning a lot about orthodoxy recently, and I wish I could repeat all the information I've absorbed, but there just isn't room for that on this blog or in my schedule. Suffice it to say that I understand the Jewish spectrum much better now, and I am sure I'll be a better rabbi for it.

To the modern Jew, one’s Jewish identity is formed in the context of the surrounding world. Of course, this process is not new to Judaism, but before competing (i.e., non-religious) models of identity came into being during the Enlightenment, being Jewish was a relatively binary enterprise. In today’s world, Jews take into account history, society, politics, economy, etc. when framing self-identities, and Jewish communities are built with all of these factors in mind. Although contemporary ultra-orthodox (Haredi) communities do not entirely avoid every aspect of modern life, these communities are built on the foundations of non-integration. Thus, stepping into Meah Shearim was like moving into a different world.

At first, I felt that the buildings and people surrounding us were like any other Haredi homes and people in Jerusalem that I pass every day. Yet, our guide, Avraham, assured us that the rules were different here. His edginess betrayed a significant discomfort with leading us through the Haredi neighborhood, and he shared with us that there was a possibility that we would be harassed. If we appeared disrespectful or if we had had women in our group of men, Avraham indicated that the chances of our being disturbed would have been much higher. However, their disturbing us would come as a result of our disturbing them.

This particular notion is what captured my attention more than any other during the tour. Meah Shearim is not a standard example of self-segregation; rather, the neighborhood represents boundaries wherein the very rules of identity are changed. The modern world is an intruder here, and non-Haredi people who live here are by no means part of the community. Differences between individual communities are vast, yet a shared house of assembly, a shared mikveh, shared soup kitchens, etc. reflect a sense of defined community. Though not everyone in a state agrees, they share a capital and all use the same buses; here, too, individuals from different sub-sects of the community share space within their world while maintaining individual differences.

At the heart of this community is a particular and exclusive model of Jewish identity. Within Meah Shearim, there is no such thing as tradition. There is no such thing as orthodoxy. There is no such thing as religious creativity. Judaism is and the residents’ lives are Jewish. Whereas “traditionalists live in a situation of modernity, surrounded by competing alternatives in life,” there are no competing alternatives here. Residents of Meah Shearim refer to themselves as Yidn, Jews - aside from them and people like them, there are no other Jews: “Jews who [live] like the goyim [are] also goyim.” Although Haredi Jews outside of these physical boundaries are obligated “to be set apart from mainstream culture and remain steeped in Jewish texts and ways,” inside the neighborhood, life simply goes on. Men study, many of them work, friendships and competing ideologies play out, and life progresses--as they see it--normally.

In the early months of my living in Israel, I came to notice within myself a striking aversion to those who represented themselves as Haredi. I felt automatically judged, excluded, and belittled. In recent months, I’ve made a concerted effort to try to overcome my prejudices about Haredi people, though I remain a long way from success. However, while walking through Meah Shearim, I was extremely surprised not to find similar feelings of alienation and accused inferiority. Although Avraham’s presence represented an obvious crossover between the worlds, my relationship with this new Haredi “land” was as of visiting a foreign country. These Haredim were not judging me - they were entirely dismissing me.

My reaction to that philosophy is, naturally, complex. On the one hand, I felt less angry about the rifts between our communities than I often feel with regard to Haredi Jews. Yet on the other, I was made to feel that these rifts don’t exist because the communities in no way whatsoever overlap. Martin Buber teaches that to hate someone is to come close to an I-Thou relationship and to be unable to enter it and is therefore better than complete apathy and dismissal, from which there is no proximity whatsoever to an I-Thou relationship. Following from this, it’s better to argue with a Haredi person about Jewish identity than to be entirely dismissed by one. In the latter case, the overall community is entirely shattered, and to pick up the pieces requires a commitment to see one another from both sides. Since the inhabitants of Meah Shearim for the most part refuse to see the outside world, their community will remain entirely separate.

A part of me feels a sadness about this separation, while a part of me recognizes that it is the natural outgrowth of a particular model of understanding Jewish identity. These Jews, unlike others who deliberately spit directly in the face of the modern world, live their lives as anyone else, with different but recognizable problems and successes. Would I bring a tour group to Meah Shearim? Certainly not. Would I include it in a list of Jewish communities? Probably. Would I seek out the opportunity to dialogue with a Haredi person about Jewish identity? Absolutely. Our worlds may appear separated, but in physical reality, the proximity cannot be denied, and I believe that over time, this community will have to work out a way to understand and relate to the rest of the world without having to shut it out entirely. When they do, I hope that other Jewish communities, though perhaps not easily or peacefully, will be prepared to engage Haredim and challenge their notions of Jewish identity so that we can continue the struggle towards building a multifaceted yet unified Jewish community.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Observe and remember.

.שמור וזכור

[Originally written for my HUC blog but appearing here first!]
[Also published on the Reform Movement's blog!]

Chag urim sameach - happy Festival of Lights!

For the past two months, four classmates and I have been participating in Rav Siach, an interdenominational discussion group for rabbinical students through a pluralistic education center in Jerusalem. We meet every Tuesday night for two and a half hours, and we discuss and debate issues like commandedness, the role of the rabbi, and denominational distinctions. There are about a dozen participants with three facilitators, and participants come from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, “orthodox,” and non-denominational backgrounds.

One of the most intense components of Rav Siach has been our recent Shabbaton, which began when we departed from Jerusalem at 7:15 am on Friday morning for the Arbel. The Arbel is a plateau overlooking Lake Kinneret, Sfat, Tiberias, and the coastal plain. From so high up, one can see for miles in any direction, and the views were simply stunning.

Rav Siach participants at the Arbel.

The wife of one of our facilitators is a tour guide in the Arbel, and she led us through paths down the side of the Arbel and around the face of the cliff. We rested in the abandoned caves that had been inhabited by the last remnants of the Hasmonean Dynasty that had gained control of the land of Israel following the events commemorated by Hanukkah, and we read the historical account of their eventual defeat in these very hills. Afterward, we climbed back up the cliff, gripping iron handholds and stealing final glimpses of the plains and hills laid out before us. When we reached the top, we ate our packed lunches and headed to the hostel/conference center where we’d be spending the night.

The actual hours of Shabbat were fascinating on many levels. First of all, there were a number of interesting lessons offered by our peers. Some of the topics included a comparison of the parsha with a selection from Homer’s Odyssey, Reform Responsa (religious/legal decisions in the Reform movement), and the recent ruling in the Conservative movement to allow for the ordination of openly gay rabbis. We walked on Saturday afternoon to the Kinneret Cemetery, where several influential figures in early Israeli history, including the poet Rachel, the songwriter Naomi Shemer, and the Zionist labor leader Berl Katznelson are buried. And, of course, the food was plentiful and terrific!

Two particular events especially defined the scope and depth of the Shabbaton for me. The first occurred on Friday night, when we walked to our assigned room to pray together. Upon arrival, we discovered that the light was off, and to turn it on would be a violation of the rules of Shabbat in the eyes of our observant participants. As this value isn’t part of my own Shabbat practice, I thought I could fix the situation by simply turning on the light in the room. I knew that it was unacceptable to ask someone to turn a light on for you, so I quickly walked to the room and flipped the switch on without saying a word. What followed was a wholly unique experience.

Immediately, the group had transformed. Everyone was in shock. What had I done? Although I didn’t know this at the time, it’s additionally not allowed for one who observes strict laws of Shabbat to make use of the result of a fellow Jew’s breaking those laws. In other words, though I had tried to make the room suitable for our use, I had actually made it entirely unkosher.

I’ve come head-to-head with halacha before, but this was the first time that I had really affected people that I cared about. Words were exchanged, apologies were made, and discussion ensued. This certainly serves of an example of the principle that being told something doesn’t make up for experiencing it firsthand. Never before had I felt so much access to the world of halacha as when I entered that world and shattered it for others. It was a painful lesson but an important one, and certainly the most important to me over the course of the Shabbaton.

On the other side of the spectrum, the spiritual high for me came on Shabbat morning. Our non-denominational rabbinical student led us in meditative morning blessings, and the combination of singing and silence launched me into a spiritual experience. While our voices had been in debate and discussion, not until this moment were they in harmony. I felt our small community coalesce into a praying body, and I was proud and delighted to be a part of it.

In my eyes, the Shabbaton was a terrific success and showed that pluralistic Shabbat experiences may not be easy but they can absolutely be transformative. Many of the Rav Siach participants felt a renewed interest in such programs, and I believe that we’re all better equipped to lead and learn in such environments in the future. While I’m disappointed that our official group will be coming to a close in a few weeks, I look forward to continuing my relationship with these future colleagues and continuing to learn from them for years to come.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Birthday Party: Gan Pshushim Style

What a day at the preschool! It started when I entered the playroom and a kid asked me to look at a book with her. Sure, I could read it, but I'd have to read it slowly and probably couldn't do it very dramatically on the first run-through. So, instead, I turned the pages and looked at the pictures with her, and said "what's this?" and "very good!" whether or not I knew if she'd said the right answer.
The kids were getting ready for their Hannukah party next week, where they will do some dances for their parents. One of the teachers led the kids in the dancing, which involved spinning around like dreidels and dancing in a circle. One dance also involves a candle made out of tissue paper, a toilet paper roll, and aluminum foil. Some kids decided to destroy their candles rather than dance with them, which made the teachers pretty upset. One teacher in particular is quite strict - when kids are following her instructions she provides a lot of positive reinforcement, but when they are not, she is quick to anger, telling them to leave the room because they can't particpate in the activity, or, in this case, even that their parents will be sad because they don't know the dances. I felt like maybe that was a bit extreme...
In any case, in one of the dances, the kids were supposed to choose partners, and I have to say that I felt a bit like the kid at the sixth grade square dancing segment of phys ed, who is deeply nervous that no one will ask her to be his partner. Fortunately, one little girl went straight up to me, and grabbed both of my hands emphatically. This girl, whose name I still have yet to learn, was attached to me most of the morning.
The absolute highlite of the morning, and the real reason I'm writing this post, was the birthday party. I am in love with what they do here for birthdays. It was so special and so celebratory that, I'm embarassed to admit, it made my eyes water a little bit. The birthday boy's parents, grandparents, and aunt all came to the classroom for the party. The teachers had the kids sit in a semicircle, and had the birthday boy, Tal, sit behind a decorated table at the front of his room. They put a gold seat cover over his little chair, and a crown on his head, and they called him the Groom of the day. In fact, the whole ceremony reminded me a bit of a wedding, with everyone entertaining the Groom. Everyone sang several songs to him, and then while the very long-lasting candles burned, Tal danced in the center of the circle with his grandfather, and then all the kids joined in the dancing. When the dancing was through, Tal's teacher set out three hula hoops (because Tal is turning three) and had him jump through all three. They played a few other simple games with him, and then he blew out the candles. His mother took out some puppets who entertained the kids for a while, and then the teachers gave Tal a present - a toy guitar because he is very enthusaistic about toy guitars and apparently already has five of them at home. Then, he sat in the middle of the room, and each kid took a turn giving him a hug or kiss, or saying mazal tov to him. Then, a teacher and his mother lifted him up four times on his chair - three for his age and one for next year. Then, all the kids ate a delicious cake (I had a piece too!)
After the birthday party, we went outside to play, and I found myself in a group of kids baking cakes out of sand. We had a chocolate cake (pronounced sho-co-lad, but the kid who was baking it, who can't speak very well yet, called it coo-coo-lad), a banana cake, and a glass of milk with olives in it (only in Israel...). We later played the very fun game where I pretend to be asleep and the kids pretend to wake me up. Over, and over, and over again, until it was time for me to leave.
So it was a pretty fun morning. Now I have to do some Hebrew homework before I go to Yiddish class this afternoon. Daniel has a mid-day break, and Tuesdays are fun because we get to see each other in the middle of the day, as he has enough time to come home, cook lunch with me, and do a little homework. He has Rav Siach (a dialogue group between Rabbinical students from a variety of schools and denominations) until late into the night.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mendele the Bookseller

Sholem Yankev Abramovich (1836-1917) was a Hebrew and Yiddish writer, seen as one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature. He was born in Kopyl, Lithuania, and spent his childhood studying traditional Jewish texts. He became involved in the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) and wrote in Hebrew about politics and natural science. He became most famous, however, for his fictional Yiddish writing, which he published through the mediation of a complex literary devide he called "Mendele the Bookseller." Mendele's role shifted over the course of Abramovich's literary career, and he was sometimes a protaganist, sometimes a co-author or a publisher, sometimes a narrator, and sometimes an editor. His character, who was inside the culture of the small Jewish town and at an equal standing with its residents, but was worldly because he was well read and traveled widely, allowed Abramovich to successfully bridge the gap between his own Enlightened world and the small town world about which he wrote. Mendele was able to criticize both the Englightened world and the small town world, and to make each of these world accessible to the other. The writing had a sharp humor and was critical, and affectionate toward traditional Jewish life, the Jewish upper and lower classes, and history. Sholem Abramovich is often conflated with his literary creation Mendele, though they are by no means the same person.

In my class on Mendele, we are reading a selection in which Mendele Mocher Seforim (Mendele the Bookseller) introduces himself to the reading public. I couldn't find an English translation, and left with th option of reading the selection in Hebrew or Yiddish, I chose Yiddish. What follows is my rough translation, which I am posting because I am inordinately proud of it. The parts in parentheses were bits that I'm not sure I understood:

"What's your name?" This is the first wuestion that a Jew asks another complete stranger, as soon as he meets him and greets him with a handshake. (No one goes out at a bisy time entirely with his thoughts directed upwards, as they must call out in this manner), "What are you, sir, in order that you want to know what m name is? We want to become connected via marragie? I am called what people call me, and leave me alone!" No, of course not, the question "What's your name" is a completely naturl thing, it's found in nature, exactly like pulling on someone's new kaftan with a question, "What's the price? How much does 28 inches cost?" or like asking for a cigarette a the time when someone opens up their tobacco pouch, or like sticking your finger in someone's tobacco pouch and taking a pinch of snuff, like dipping your feet into someone's bath, immersing your grimy kerchief in it and rubbing it on your body, (like looking around for something in the prayerbook and revising it in a respectfut way, and turning the page when someone had not properly spoken the words of the prayer), like interrupting a conversation between two people to stick your ear in to overhear their conversation, or like asking if the cracks in someone's light skin are concerning, outlining some advice for him, although no one had ever thought of this with any urgency, and they could go on not knowing, and also he could not know, very well. The same and similar more of these things are, for us Jews, all common. Such is the order of the world from eternal times and to say otherwise would seem completely, really, clearly crazy, something strange and absurd, entirely unnatural...and not just in this world, but here in our world an angel first asked "What's your name, sir", the angel, who had wresteled with Jacobm wasn't different from the order of the world, and he soon really, as it goes, gave a question, what was his name. So is an angel, even today is a simple even a sinning man, of flesh and blood. I know very well, as in my first departure into Jewish literature, as they call it, with my stories, what the first question will be, "What's your name, uncle?"

Mendele is my name! This, gentlemen, is the name they gave me from my old grandfather from my mother's side Reb Mendele from Moscow, may his memory be for a blessing. Moscover was the name of his side because people said that he once was really in Moscow to sell there Russian wares and (safely found luck/happiness) and before he had looked around he moved out from there. A pity as I've never been there - silliness! But in Moscow, by the Russians, he was, and so he was called. Thus he procured in that shred a name of honor. Everyone thought him to be a gentleman, worldly man, who has been all over the world, and without ever a care, (a very honerable man) they used to ask his advice...But that's beside the point.

(Therefore we are done with that now) After this first question Jews continue to pose all kinds of other questions, like a father-in-law: where is this Jew from? Is he married? Does he have kids? What is he selling Where is he heading? So on and so forth, all kinds of questions, which are asked like this by every Jew of the Jewish people, so if you are going to meet with people, you should heretofore know, that I am, Thank G-d, a person, a worn down one, no (bank squeezer) and what one must even so answer, just like saying "A Gut Yor" after someone's "Gut Shabbes" or "Gut yuntif" I will not pick a quarrel with the world and I will answer these same questions quickly and succinctly, if I still may.

I am only a (?) from Tvuetsitz, a small town, a little city, Keyn ain hore, in the province of Teterivk, filled with goodness and religiosity, like Glupsk's father-in-law, with it's wisdom, Kabtzansk with its wealth, and Tuneiodevke with its factories - beautiful places - with such merits, Thank G-d, which impacted and continue to impact the Jewish condition in our corner here in the Diasopora...but that's beside the point.

In my passport my birth year is written clearly but thruth be told, I, like many a Jew, don't know my age and can't determine it. My parents, peace be with them, differed greatly in their reckoning of my age. According to both of them, I was born to the first light during the great fire of the store, which isn't remembered today. So according to my father's calculations this was during the great chill that came to our corner, exactly in the time when his parents, may their memory be for a blessing, passed away. And my mother used to say that it was really two years after the first turmoil (refers to the time when Jewish children were being taken away to the Russian army) which Jewish children don't remember anymore. An omen even, the red cow clung to us, and that Hanukah she produced for cheese-filled dumplings fpor half the town, for which one licked one's fingers, and the taste stays with a few of the old Jews to this day. One must have time and be quite skillful to prime themselves for such kidns of calculations of Jews from Tunieodevke, wise men...But tht is beside the point.

What's written in my passport is thus: average size, hair- brown and gray, eyes - brown, the nose, the mouth - middling, the beard - gray, the face - clean, (primitive??) personage, particularities - none. This means that I am entirely ordinary, nothing special, a man like many and most people, no beast, G-d forbid. You may ask, if there is a question uneventful as a passport which without these factoids would also be the same information, that a person is a person! Then where do animals get their passports? The justification is, though, that asking questions has no rationale. You know, the whole reason is just this, here are my factoids and you still don't know what kind of face I have...and really though, let's not fool ourselves, that when I come around you will still know, a father-in-law, that my forehead is high with a lot of wrinkles, that my nostirls are very big, and a bit unusual, that my face at first sight looks a bit sinister, that I look, I think, a bit nearsighted because of my small eyes, and as I tighten my lips, it seems there hovers on them a small, mild, sharp, pointy-lipped smile, sillyness, my goodness! My wife even for our wedding was not interested in such little details. She was attracted to me like a blind etrog, not looking at my face and - so-so! They told her: Mazel Tov, bride, you have a groom. And enough. What concern is it then that he has such a nose, such a face? What's the big deal and why does it matter? Pity, I know better now, my friends, that I am married and from my children I have nothing to boast. So you understand that I have, no evil eye, many children. What else does a Jew have?...I'm just like the rest.

I sell my wares, as you can tell, I sell books. I've had, in my life, all kinds of jobs. It (throws me, like a father-in-law is, for Jews, on all sides, to the end I make a living with my hands, in the whole earth allof these Jews!) And I was drawn to the books, and from that do I continue to make my living today.

You know, from my face you could think that books ar a really wild occupation. I will become rich! And from that basis will Jews - who yearn foolishlky for a job to support themselves and do one thing or another - scramble to the books like a swarm of locusts. Believe me Jewish children, that I am a Jew, a (? and to boot?) these are what I sell: chumashim, siddurim, machzorim, apologees, lamentations, supplications, bentschers, and the like, are as necessary, as they say, as water on buckwheat groats. And I must bring with me talit - ktanim from Herset, Talitot from Dobnav, tzitzit, leather phylactory straps, shofars, mezuzahs, wolf teeth, seashells, childish shoes, yarmulkes, and sometiems brass and copperware. How such brass and copperware goes with books I have no idea. But that is still our custom, just like Jewish writers must somettimes also be matchmakers, a Polish beadle in a small synagogue must have a small tavern there, a (community-man?) must sometimes during the celebration of fine skilled people cook fish an serve it, like a rabbi in a small town must be drawn to make a living as a midwife. An afer all thse things it's hard for me, I have no money to call my own. A miracle, to trade in books like mine when you need not rend a stockroom with the (?) Enough, moreover, whithout such a road I wouldn't have such a horse to ride on. My horse is old and weary, limps a little when he plants his feet, unassumingly, he is tolerable. One doesn't need to race arolund when carrying potash. So one carries all this stuff on his way, covered, as it were a booth, and one carries oneself healthily. (A bell rings excessively, one gets away with a squeak from the talkers??? Standing at inns in a separate number travel together with pomp and one doesn't need anything else, turn quickly into the shady horse.) These always stay in the synagogue. The unhitched horse stands, eats (shitskse) bu it didn't have any more, from (?) spread between the high, erect shafts of the cart. (You may ask what young boys sneak and quietly tear him from the strings?) That is also no accident, that it seems entirely without a tail, (with the fashion) you may ask what, an unfortulate animal? By all means! My shlimazel of a horse stands completely still and calm, it doesn't begin to bother him. He would sometiems therefore drop his lower lip, drooling, and furthermore he laughs with his teeth, completely like by comparison a person. He did this once, he had nothing to eat, he stood comtemplatively with perked ears, lookign around the booth at the boos, I could have sworn that he understood very well with his horsey brain and reacted with might and main, something just like a secular scholar, really...but that's bside the poing.

Never mind, the horse is supplied with the school yeard, and alone one finds a place in the study house. By day, in front of the community, one sprawls all of the books on a long dirty table which is by the entrance next to the oven and at night one lays on a bench there like a faher in a wine-house, and one sleps on that which the rest of the world stands. And this very whole piece of the world, poor and poor, gives this for fre and with great honor.

(If so, but yes like this, but sleeping wandering around and ? therefore is the question), why did I decide to go into book selling? And what do I think, no evil eye, is this kidn of work? It is hard to answer that question, it still isn't clear to me...

Friends, I confess! I have a kind of (exquisite weakness from a small distance), Heaven preserve us, which in their language they call: love for nature, this means for everything which grows, which sprouts, which lives, which is found in the world. (It makes me tremble, if only this were to become true.) Oce something crawled into my head, a pretty face, an image, a shape - a blade of grass, a tree, a ?, a bird. How come, how come, men will say, how is a Jew with a beard not ashamed of this, a Jew ?, a married one, a father of children, why does he need to talk of the way of nature...think, contemplate prayer things, and even aside from them, how is one not ashamed purely and simply as a Jew to be up to stupidity, nature, watching ? things? I know this very, very well, that this isn't fitting for a Jew, but what will I do, as this si for me, and not you, an inborn weakness, an evil impulse, which draws me forth like a magnet. And what then? I should do something in spite of this with an employer, something serious, important, as with Jewishness, a father - in- law, and with a way to support myself. (In there with the holy moon I put myself up whereas in properly speaking shaking beween the world/community - I stretch toward the beautiful starry sky wiuth my thoughts to the melancholy moon, charming, I think, G-d knows what, some light troubles, beautiful, burning, thoughtful eyes, a sigh, a poetic, two-embroidered, gentle tree. And ask me, I don't have the slightest idea - what my mouth mumbles about htis. Someone says to me "Sholom Aleychem" and I say to him "Lecha dodi likrat kalah" this is equal with the etrog, with the lulav, with the willow twig (for Hashanah Rabbah) and forget the mitzvahs, the oneness of G-d, which indoors,) the holy one belssed be G-d with the Shkhine at his side, gives us pleasure from beauty, freshness, with the smells an enjoyment. The point of going to Tashlich, a serious Jewish thing, releasing us from our sins, is for me a beautiful walk, as I say. I look with my eyes at the river, the green muck which shivers on one side far away. And it seems to me a wind murmers on the water, proudly swimming as though an animal, it blows in a corner, it whispers among high-growing berries, it rinses itself, it plays in a willow tree, beding with the twigs in the water. Pure is the sky, the wind is fresh, a divine silence in the valley, hills, and fields, around and around. It shivers a little in the soul, it loings, desires, oh Master of the Universe, (alone not to know what)... I go for walks in my life. In fields, in forests, (I am still not this, which in a town, I am free.) I shed years, what care have I for wife, children, Judaism, worries. I derive pride from the overflowing creation, I give myself over to my senses, as anyone who drinks in G-d's beautiful world!...

This evil impuls,m Heven prserve us, Jewish children, grumbled inside of me, Mendl! Your trade of books is fitting for you. Make a pledge, sell your wife's little jewlery and buy a (fourth-and-trail), pack it with books and go out into the world. Whether you earn money or not, it's all the same, the point is to travel around, (you must not envy what you get from conspicuousness), hear a lot of nice things along the way. (Blame the way that you are located) lay out like a king on the wagon to look around at each little shred of G-d's stunning beautiful work and his creations, in hills and valleys, in fields and forests. This horse will carry you slwoly, slowly, and you will look and look. This way - on the way, and coming to towns and cities, will you see many different kinds of Jews, beautiful despairs, fine skil;ls, strange mean things, all kinds of souls, twisted backs, haughty noses, long hands, shrew fingers, different faces of old and new varieties. You will get them to tell stories, to sing and to talk.

Now do you understand me better, Jews?

At present, for a considerable time I've traveled in the world, and my evil impulse continues to grumble within me - so it goes - it grumbles - go print the stories that you have heard Jews tell for the whole time you (have wandered between them)!

Go! - I thought to myself - alright, let it be so.

It seems that everything says that I should do it. Incidentally, I am more like a person. Maybe I have forgotten something. I will, remembering it, say it, though I'm not promising anything, in one of my books that are being published. And furthermore, if someone really wants to know something that I haven't said, may he take the trouble to write me and he will soon get an answer from me.

My address is: Mendlo Yudelvitzcho the book seller. And the following: Garodi, Tvietschizsi. The title Gosponido Verrio you don't need to write. No matter - who neds to know.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Who commands you?

?מי מצווה אותך

In response to some guiding questions for my upcoming reflection group, I've put down some thoughts in my usual stream-of-consciousness fashion. As usual, these aren't polished ideologies, and I look forward to hearing the reactions of others as well as my own thoughts in the upcoming days, months, and years.

There are two ways to think of any given law, negative and positive. Negative: don’t steal, don’t run a red light, don’t defraud the government. Positive: pay for things you take, drive only on a green light, pay your taxes. But what about a law like don’t kill? What’s the positive side of that?

I believe that the positive side of that negative commandment is where morality comes into play. Insofar as existence is good, life is good, and therefore so too preserving life is good. Just as animals and plants live out their goodness in a natural way, so do we live out our goodness by staying alive. Ending life truncates (not negates) this goodness, though even death can’t be considered non-good.

But back to the original question. Are there acts which we can elect not to do that fulfill the opposite of “don’t kill?” For example, if a person is starving, is one legally bound to feed her? If someone is dying of an illness you can cure, are you legally bound to cure her? My moral sensibilities say yes. But what is the source of this “law?”

I do not feel commanded. I believe that one can create a self-reality wherein one is commanded, but that reality would not have an external source (just as no reality can have an external source). But I do not believe that I have created such a reality for myself. While many Jews throughout history have viewed mitzvot as commandments, I do not hold the same theology. Of course, this doesn’t discount their own theologies, but nor do their understandings invalidate my own.

So, if God isn’t commanding me to feed the starving, why do I feel obliged to do it? This is a hard question that I haven’t spent sufficient time trying to answer. This is my first rough draft…

A fundament of this universe is existence. I’m sure that existence as I know it is only a tiny shard of “reality,” but my humanity is based on existence. And as I know that my existence here isn’t meaningless, I can only conclude that it is good to be alive. And insofar as others exist, it’s good for them to be alive, too.

Now, I can’t negate that goodness, as I mentioned before. But I can enrich it, increase it, and nurture it. I can interact and co-operate with others so that we may all deepen our experiences of this world. I don’t know precisely why we’re here, but my best guess so far is that it has something to do with experience, and the only conceivable value of experience I can think of is change. That is, with every experience, I change. As perceived time is a relative construct, I can’t say that I change over time, but I do recognize that waves of experience surge at different intensities, and I believe that such changes can only occur via interactions with other consciousnesses. (Such interactions, of course, are impossible to avoid as every existence in existence is founded on consciousness.)

Therefore, while there will be no “punishment” for not feeding the hungry, I won’t be living up to my potential. As I realize this, I can’t turn my back on that. Call it a responsibility, call it a self-acceptance of the yoke of existence, call it ethics. Whatever you call it, I do believe in it, and I do believe in it as a universal constant.

Who commands me? Existence. Insofar as God is existence, I can say that God commands me, but not in a conscious, external, imposing fashion. What am I commanded to do? To live and to learn; to enrich others’ lives and to teach. This is the center of my reality right now - at least, I try for it to be. And how do I teach this to others? Ay, there’s the rub!

There are a few people who I believe will really feel me on all of this and know where I’m coming from. Most of the rest are going to be left with a great number of questions. I feel prepared to talk through those questions (learn and teach…) with each of those people, but such an endeavor takes a great deal of time. Thus, to really live according to the focus I see in my life, I have to donate my life to learning and teaching according to these principles.

And that’s what I’m doing in rabbinical school. Each of us has a voice; mine is largely accented by Judaism. The messages I feel commanded to teach are easily found in Jewish language, so devoting myself to Judaism (which has all kinds of associated personal, communal, familial, spiritual, and experiential benefits) allows me to find an appropriate mode of learning and teaching. I believe I will fit into the role of the rabbi, and I expect it to fit me, and from that harmony, I hope that I’ll be able to enrich my own life and the lives of others.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Today at the Preschool

I think my day at the preschool was even better than my experiences last week. Some of the kids recognized me and were excited to see me, and I felt much more comfortable and felt that I could take more initiative. One thing that I noticed about this preschool is that they don't read books to the kids all together - they take them in separate groups, which I think has its benefits because the kids are closer to the book and can feel the pages, see the pictures, etc. The discipline is stricter here than I am used to, or at least the way of expressing it. It varies between teachers, but one teacher in particular is given to stern reprimands and harsh threats and declarations such as "If Yael doesn't tidy the room she won't be able to play with dolls for the rest of the week" - which, I'm guessing, is an empty threat. The teachers also seem a bit more distant from their students than I am used to - when the puppet lady comes in to tell a story, the teachers sit in chairs to the side and the kids sit on the floor. I sat on the floor with a kid in my lap, and no one seemed uncomfortable or upset, but my behavior did seem to be unusual. Also, when we were playing outside, the adults were all sitting together and watching the kids, rather than playing with them. This has its advantages, as I think it is important for the kids to learn to play together, but I think it is also important for them to learn that adults are excited about what they are doing and want to be part of it.
There are a lot of things that I really like about this preschool though - in some ways it is more informal than I am used to. They have a lot of space and kids can wander between rooms as they please, which means that the play is less structured. Rather than having several stations at which kids can play, they basicallyhave the run of the place and can do whatever they want, within certain guidelines. They take turns eating, there's always one craft going on that they can choose to take part in, and otherwise there are dolls, a kitchen area, a big room with foam toys and a climbing frame, and legos. The teachers encourage creative play, and the kids are learning to sing, to rhyme, and to imagine. One major difference is bathroom etiquette - which is very much related to space. Rather than the bathrooms being a separate place down the hall, the bathrooms are located right off of the playroom, and diaper changing happens in the playroom itself. The bathroom has two tiny toilets and no stalls - kids wander in and out and see their friends going to the bathroom, which encourages them to try it even if they aren't yet potty trained. There is no gender separation in the preschool bathrooms, and no self-consciousness about it at all. Teachers go to the bathroom in a no-kid area. One last interesting thing: all the teachers are women, and the two head teachers wear aprons, which seems somewhat old-fashioned. I don't know what the apron is for, but I can guess, as a boy wet his pants today and then promptly sat in my lap, so I can imagine why a preschool teacher would like to have a little protection.
Speaking of gender, it's worth noting that both Daniel and I have only male professors and only female Hebrew instructors. Is this a coincidence? We have no idea, but it seems worth noting.
Preschool was very fun today. I played with dolls with two girls while two boys chased me around the room and pretended to be lions. I baked cookies in the sandbox with the help of ten little sets of hands. One student in particular grew quite attached to me and held my hand for about an hour, following me wherever I went. I was sorry to see that he started to cry when I had to go home...
Today at the preschool the puppet lady told a long story about a girl making sufganiot, so when Daniel and I went to the shuk during his long Tuesday lunch break, we bought our first sufganiot (jelly donuts) of the season. I'm actually not big on donuts, but I was excited about the idea of them being all around in place of candy canes and Christmas lights...

Monday, December 8, 2008

On Missing My Grandmother's Yortzheit

The great scandal of the universe
Is that all boundaries are mutable
Even the concrete becomes abstract
A person becomes only an idea
and I can't touch:
faith, joy, love, Grandma

The shake of your shoulders
Quivering of your smiling painted lips
As I tickled you - the last time
It all now has the rhythm of a story book
And I am a still cartoon little girl, nestling in your lap

Last week I was meant to remember you
But I forgot.

If death is the greatest boundary
It grows wider every day
Once I thought I could still smell your perfume
Now the scent is gone.

Today I remembered that I forgot to
Remember. And in the remembrance you seem like
A glacier melting under a gleaming sun
Though your skin was soft and warm
And your voice was smooth and sweet.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Interfaith Encounter in the West Bank.

.מפגש בין-דתים בגדה המערבית

On Thursday-Friday, Jessica and I participated in a large retreat sponsored by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School. There were approximately thirty participants: in addition to Jessica and I there were two Arab Christians, two overseas Christians, five Jewish students in the Hebrew University Middle Eastern Studies program, five other Jewish Israelis, and about fifteen Palestinians (I don't think there were any Israeli Arabs at this event although IEA also facilitates encounters between Jewish and Arab Israelis). The theme was The Binding of the Son of Abraham.

Our experience started on Thursday afternoon. Jessica's bus was delayed in getting her home, so shortly after she made it back from school, we left the apartment and hailed a cab, which would take us to the meeting location for the organized transportation. A road was cut off, so we were stuck in traffic and ended up having to walk. During the weekend, we heard two explanations for the traffic: The first was that a חפץ חשוד (chafetz chashud, "suspicious package") was in the road so traffic was stopped and the other that the army's forceful removal of settlers from their houses in Hebron had backed traffic up all the way to Jerusalem. Regardless, we were late arriving at the meeting point, but we still got there before the van did, and we didn't end up leaving for another half hour as we waited for the arrival of one more participant who was also delayed because of the closed road.

We rode in the van with the five Hebrew University students, a local Israeli woman, and an Arab IEA coordinator. We drove through East Jerusalem and ended up just outside the boundaries of the city, not far from Bethlehem and on the way to Gush Etzion, between Gilo and Beit Jala. When we got the old, sparse Everest Hotel, we entered a large dining room that also served as lounge and that had a large green tarp serving as the "walls" of a small conference room. We stood awkwardly in this dining room, not knowing what to do. In addition to the nine of us from the van there were also a dozen or so Palestinians already there - smoking hookah, playing music, watching TV, and talking. No one seemed like they were in charge, and most of the people milling around were already formed into groups. But we were here for the weekend, so we tried to settle ourselves in.

We made our way over to Bob, an Orthodox Rabbi who volunteers with IEA and with whom Jessica has done some work in her internship. He was speaking to a Palestinian--let's call him Sahib--and we joined them. Sahib and Bob discovered that they both had a passing interest in geology, and Sahib invited Bob to look at a special stone that he had with him.

Shortly after being left alone, a hotel worker started assigning rooms to our group, and we were taken up to our room. It had two small beds, a desk, a closet, a window with a view of the roof, and a medium-sized bathroom. Not too shabby. We dropped off our things and made our way back downstairs.

Still there was nothing happening downstairs, so Jessica and I sat down at one of the tables. Shortly thereafter, Bob, Sahib, and a friend of Sahib's from engineering courses at university--let's call him Rabi--joined us at our table. Sahib and Rabi were both very friendly and were telling us about their hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There's no need for violence, they said; most people on both sides want peace. In their opinion, the problem is almost entirely with the politicians (on both sides though moreso on the Israeli side), who don't adequately represent the majority of their constituents. Of course, Hamas and the extremist terrorists are a problem as well. However, in their opinion, most Palestinians want peace. It should be simple: Give the Palestinians their own country with Jerusalem as its capital (and not Israel's), and let the peoples go on their ways. When I pressed Rabi about why Jerusalem couldn't be the capital of both countries, he said that one city can't belong to two countries. "Maybe with a name change..." suggested Sahib, and Rabi grudgingly agreed that it probably wasn't so important that West Jerusalem not be the capital of Israel if East Jerusalem were the capital of Palestine. At least, that's how I interpreted their position.

Additionally, Sahib told us the story of his and his brother's imprisonment for a year and a half. He recounted that he had left his hometown with papers to go into Israel and was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to produce identity. He didn't have any ID, and a Shin Bet soldier gave him an option: Work for him on the Sabbath or go to jail. "Would you betray your people? There are some things that I will never do." Rather than subject himself to the arbitrary demands of the soldier, Sahib and his brother agreed to go to jail.

There, Sahib put his life on hold but underwent a significant personal blossoming. He learned how to make stones into small pieces of art using just a screw. He wrote poetry, drew pictures, and crafted all sorts of items for personal use and for his friends. I asked him, "If you were put into prison for a year and a half just for not having ID, why aren't you angry at Israel?" Sahib said that such a position isn't healthy for the individual. His time in jail gave him ample time to think, to learn, and to be creative, and he's grateful for the time he had to explore himself. I'm sure that contributors to The Sun have had similar experiences, but I was certainly surprised to meet a Palestinian with that mentality here in the West Bank.

We were encouraged to move into the "conference room" for the first session, and Bob pulled us aside. "I don't deny that Sahib's story could be entirely true; there are absolutely soldiers, especially Shin Bet agents, who would act exactly like that. But the chances of him and his brother being jailed for a year and a half just for not having ID are extremely low." Bob volunteers as part of border security and has a lot of first-hand experience with illegal border crossings. "There just isn't enough room in the jails for guys like him. We don't have enough room for the real criminals, so every day we round up literally truckloads of guys just like him and ship them back to the West Bank. It seems to me very unlikely that he would be locked up for no good reason; that just doesn't make sense to me. Maybe he was totally innocent--I'm not saying it's not a possibility--but maybe not, or maybe they were after his brother. His story could be entirely true, and I have no reason to believe that he's lying, but it's hard to believe that those are all the facts."

Jessica and I appreciated Bob's sobering perspective on Sahib's story and were faced immediately with a real, complex issue in this society. What happens and what he thinks happened and what they think happened and what "we" think happened are all incredibly varied and variable. Bob's probably right - there probably is more to the story than just the fact that Sahib and his brother didn't have ID (though Sahib is the proud owner of a new ID card). On the other hand, what's important to focus on is that Sahib doesn't hate all Israelis, that he wants peace, and that even being in an Israeli prison didn't sour him to life. I'm sure his story is very complex, but ultimately he seems committed to wanting to just live his life in Palestine free of foreign oversight as well as domestic disturbances.

We sat down in a circle of chairs for the opening remarks. Yehuda Stolov, who founded and runs IEA, introduced the program, and the representative from the Hope Flowers School introduced herself and translated Yehuda's English into Arabic. Yehudah emphasized that all participants were to feel that they can share honestly with one another and that they should keep an open mind throughout the proceedings. Also, politics was completely off the table. This was going to be a cultural and religious exchange; politics was not up for discussion.

We had a round of names and then we were challenged to line ourselves up in order according to birthday - classic icebreaker! Having completed the simple task, we arranged ourselves into groups of four and then were told to introduce ourselves to the group. After everyone started talking, Yehuda added that it would be good to answer a question based on the weekend's theme: "When was there a time that someone else sacrificed for you?"

If the leaderless, aimless wandering before the opening session hadn't been clue enough, we were now to have the first real taste of the laissez-faire leadership style that Yehuda adopts. Many groups stood around, uninspired to move, including ours. One of our Palestinian group members was talking to someone else, and I and an Israeli student stood awkwardly waiting for him to finish. When he did, he followed another group out of the conference room, and the second Palestinian quietly followed him. The Israeli and I followed suit and we saw that he had joined with a second group, which we also joined, forming a group of seven. Jessica and I weren't in the same discussion group for the entire weekend, but that probably turned out for the best.

Although the official language of this encounter was supposed to be English, we learned quite quickly that most of the Palestinian participants were only comfortable speaking Arabic. Luckily for us, there was a member of our group fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew with a fair amount of English as well. He helped us facilitate introductions. We had an Israeli student (Tomer), an orthodox rabbi (Bob), a Palestinian musician, and three Palestinian coworkers in government jobs. Our group definitely wasn't interested in answering the sacrifice question, and about halfway through the allotted time, our organized discussion broke up.

Although I had been included in the conversation up to a certain point, once it became clear that the group was no longer on topic, most of the participants began conversing in Arabic together. I sat and listened for several minutes before Tomer asked me a question about living in Israel. I moved over to sit nearer to him, and two Palestinians joined in our conversation. We talked about Middle East studies at Hebrew University and in Israel in general - Tomer doesn't have a single Arab teacher (not even for Arabic language), and he thinks it's a big problem. I was later to learn that Tomer believes that Arabic language should be mandatory in all Israeli schools (officially it is, but it's not enforced at all) and that he might be interested in trying to institute such a change.

Our conversation was going well, but before long we were pulled into dinner. There was a natural separation of ethnicities at the dinner tables (not entire but sufficient), and we were served standard Middle Eastern fare (pita, hummus, babaganoush, peppers/tomatoes/cucumbers, onions in tomato-y sauce, cauliflower/pickles/carrots, etc.). The "vegetarian option" was a scoop of brown rice with a pea or two stuck inside, but the veggies on the table were good enough for a regular meal.

After dinner, we had our first "social activity." In addition to the religion-based discussion groups planned for the following day, general time to be and talk with one another was also deemed of high importance, and this first evening activity was intended to help people get to know one another. The musician from our group (as well as a couple other people) took turns playing the oud, a pear-shaped fret-less lute that reminds one of a guitar. According to Jessica, the instrumentalists were playing individual notes--rather than chords--on the strings (which were grouped in pairs), which would be significantly more difficult than playing the guitar. The music was interesting and soothing, and Jessica and I were fairly tired by this point, so we called it a night.

Although we hadn't specifically noticed that no one had taken their coats off during the entire retreat so far, it became extremely and painfully evident that there was no heat in this building and that our room was pitifully poor at retaining heat. Layers of clothes and multiple blankets couldn't keep the chill out, and the night passed slowly and uncomfortably. Sadly, the next day would also be plagued by the everpresent cold that had set in overnight.

Jessica and I went to breakfast the next morning at about 8:30. Believe it or not, I had a hard-boiled egg and pita, hummus, and falafel for breakfast (no veggies). Low budget but fairly tasty. There was nothing to drink, though luckily I had a water bottle in my backpack. During breakfast, Jessica and I sat with an Israeli Conservative Jew (and were later joined by Bob). This Jewish woman gave Jessica and me a primer of what different kippot/clothes signify in Israel and what you can learn from someone by looking at what they dress. From what I recall:
  • black, velvet kippah = ultra-orthodox (with the clothes to boot)
  • non-black knit kippah = (modern) orthodox
  • big kippah that fits entirely over the head = modern religious (goes for men or women)
  • small knit kippah = raised religious but might not fully participate in those circles anymore
  • no kippah = secular OR "kippah in the back pocket" (the latter even more of an option if you have a beard)
  • a mixture of any of these categories = "outsider" to a specific group
There are, of course, multiple variations but this was, as I said, a primer.

After breakfast, we went to the conference room for "The Jewish Perspective" on the Binding of Isaac. A rabbi from a nearby community (black beard, Sephardic accent, non-black knit kippah) made the following points about the story without running through the basic plot or characters of the story but more or less just jumped right in. (He was speaking in Hebrew, so while I believe that I got everything, I may have missed a few points.)

1. A believer is willing to sacrifice himself if there's a need. Similarly, he would rather die than go against his most basic principles (which would entail killing, engaging in illicit sexual acts, or committing idolatry). But, what if he's asked (by God) to sacrifice someone else to preserve these basic values, especially if that person is his son who represents the entire Jewish future? Of course, the sacrifice itself would both support and contradict the basic values: while remaining true to God, one would be mimicking the idolaters who practiced human sacrifice.

2. Abraham was promised that he would be the founder of a strong nation. Going through with the sacrifice of his future would be working against God's previous word. There seems to be a choice between valid options here, and any normal person would therefore choose what was easier and more comfortable for himself.

3. God doesn't want Isaac to be sacrificed; rather he just wants to see Abraham's willingness to sacrifice all that's dear to him. We see this because in the text, Abraham is told to "offer up" his son rather than to "sacrifice" him.

Upon completion of this third, somewhat unrelated or significantly supported claim, the rabbi ended his short presentation. Yehudah announced that we should combine our discussion groups from yesterday with a second discussion group and ... discuss. As I said: laissez-faire.

When we finally got our large group together, we sat and talked for a little while. We reiterated that there are several similarities to the Quranic version of the text and reaffirmed everyone's commitment to keep lines of communication open. However, the conversation didn't get very deep. Every once in a while, I'd try to get a more personal question in, but by the time it was translated into Arabic, no one wanted to answer. Once or twice, Bob answered my question, and that seemed to satisfy everyone. In-depth conversation was very difficult in this group setting.

Someone suggested we go outside into the sun (remember the deep-seated cold), and we did that. However, as soon as we got outside, our "translator" started taking various pictures of our group until one of the Israeli students insisted we sit down and continue the conversation. Once we were outside we had a bit more luck. Bob brought up some thoughts about sacrifice being a metaphor for getting in touch with our deeper selves, but no one wanted to reflect on this. There were several side conversations in Arabic or Hebrew, and while normally this would have frustrated me, I kept reminding myself that the point of this encounter is not to discover the hidden meanings of the Akeidah (which I think was a poorly-chosen topic) but rather to get Israelis and Palestinians talking to one another and getting to know one another as human beings. This was definitely happening despite the derailment of conversation, and when we broke for coffee, I was much less dissatisfied than I otherwise might have been.

Jessica and I checked out of our room during the coffee break, and when we came back, it was time for "the Muslim perspective" on the Binding. The speaker they had arranged for "the Muslim perspective" couldn't make it, so one of the Muslim participants had to pinch hit. This is what she reported (as translated into English by the Hope Flowers School representative):

1. Abraham's trials were harder than other prophets'.
2. Abraham didn't have children for 100 years and then Hagar gave him Ishmael.
3. Abraham had a vision to sacrifice his son.
4. Abraham told Ishmael and asked him what he thought. Ishmael told Abraham to do what he had to do.
5. Abraham was about to sacrifice Ishmael, but his knife stopped. God spoke through the angels and told Abraham that he had passed the test.
6. God sent a sheep for the sacrifice instead of Ishmael.
7. As a reward for God's faithfulness, God granted him the birth of Isaac.
8. To this day, a sheep is slaughtered on Eid al-Adha (which is this Tuesday!), the holiday remembering Abraham's faithfulness. (1/3 of the sheep is retained by the slaughterer, 1/3 goes to the family, and 1/3 goes to the needy.)

Upon coming home, I've done some extra research. Here are the relevant verses from the 37th surah of the Quran:

"37.100": My Lord! grant me of the doers of good deeds.

"37.101": So We gave him the good news of a boy, possessing forbearance.

"37.102": And when he attained to working with him, he said: O my son! surely I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you; consider then what you see. He said: O my father! do what you are commanded; if Allah please, you will find me of the patient ones.

"37.103": So when they both submitted and he threw him down upon his forehead,

"37.104": And We called out to him saying: O Ibrahim!

"37.105": You have indeed shown the truth of the vision; surely thus do We reward the doers of good:

"37.106": Most surely this is a manifest trial.

"37.107": And We ransomed him with a Feat sacrifice.

"37.108": And We perpetuated (praise) to him among the later generations.

"37.109": Peace be on Ibrahim.

"37.110": Thus do We reward the doers of good.

"37.111": Surely he was one of Our believing servants.

"37.112": And We gave him the good news of Ishaq, a prophet among the good ones.

"37.113": And We showered Our blessings on him and on Ishaq; and of their offspring are the doers of good, and (also) those who are clearly unjust to their own souls.

Although it's not explicitly stated in the Quran, Muslim tradition holds that the "boy" in verse 101 is Ishmael. I'm not sure where the "midrashic" additions of the vision, the angels, and the sheep come in (but the sheep obviously holds as a strong tradition as evidenced in the holiday).

I was very interested in this version of the story, especially the gift of Isaac as the reward for Abraham's faithfulness. Unfortunately, all the Muslims in my discussion group seemed satisfied with the story as told with no need to further elaborate. I tried even harder to spark some in-depth religious conversation but was thwarted at every turn. People were chatting, sitting outside, and taking pictures so again, I wasn't entirely frustrated, but from a personal perspective, I feel I definitely could have learned more.

After I sat and listened to Arabic conversations for about five or ten minutes, Tomer moved over next to me and engaged me (in English!) in a conversation about Reform Judaism. We talked a lot about Reform Judaism, Israel, and Israeli education. Our conversation was terrific and shows that I was able to learn not only from Palestinians during this retreat!

Before lunch, I made my way to the conference room where Jessica's group had broken into smaller discussions. Jessica was talking one-on-one with a Palestinian history professor, and I joined them. She told him that she was studying Yiddish, and he perked up. He knew about Yiddish! Yiddish, he said, began in 1881 as a response to pogroms in Russia; since the Jews needed a way to communicate among themselves without being understood by the Russians and since they had been forced to live together in remote locations, they had and were able to create a language for use only among the Jews. When Jessica told the professor that Yiddish dates back to 1200, he was confused. He said that he'd read in a history of Judaism (or Zionism) that the language was created to confound the Russians. We insisted that that wasn't the case and pondered aloud the perspective of the book he'd read - was it a pro-Hebrew account denigrating the history of Yiddish? A loss in translation? (My thought is that he simply misunderstood what he had read.) After this slightly disorienting conversation, Jessica and I went to lunch.

There, we sat with one of the Christians who had been in Jessica's group. Apparently, they had been discussing the question of why bad things happen to good people - some in their group had said that such events are punishments (including Hurricane Katrina), and that made Jessica and this American Mennonite very uncomfortable. We talked about the issue and about the conference throughout lunch, and we had the pleasure of talking with Amy, a student from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College whom we had met while visiting Alanna and Rebecca in Philadelphia.

Following lunch was a drumming circle that was interesting and engaging. About a dozen drums had been rented, and the conference participants were encouraged to play them. As soon as I walked into the room, the drum-master pulled me into the center of the drums and got me to start dancing. I had no idea what do to, so I kind of clapped my hands and walked in a circle. A tall Palestinian joined me in the center, and I followed his lead for a minute (he was doing a kind of male form of belly dance without the belly) before exiting the circle. I wasn't nearly as embarrassed as I would have expected.

This tall thin Palestinian seemed to feel comfortable taking charge of the situation. He danced a lot in the middle of the drums (at one point joined by a female Israeli student who was able to dance as well as he), and when he was done dancing, he took over the lead drum. Certain Palestinians tried to lead songs with the drums, and while that worked for a little bit of time, it eventually died out. Jessica was loving the drum, and I got into it a little, too. While the music wasn't great and people didn't exactly feel like they were creating rhythm together, we were all in the same situation together, and no one stopped smiling for the hour that we were drumming. People were taking pictures and movies all over the place, and in general, everyone seemed excited to have this inter-cultural opportunity.

The drum circle came to a close, and several Palestinians left. The musician who had been in my discussion group shook my hand and gave me four kisses - a remarkable and touching gesture! A fair number of Israelis and other Palestinians had already left as well, so we were down to about half our original number by this point. There was still about an hour before the next part of the retreat, so Jess and I found a corner to work on some crossword puzzles. At one point, the Conservative woman who had given us the kippah lesson told us that there were Shabbat candles we could light if we were so inclined, and we did so on our own. After finishing our second crossword, we went back into the conference room for prayers.

We started with Kabbalat Shabbat, led by a Hebrew University student. Several Muslims watched us pray with hushed voices and minimal spirit; I was somewhat embarrassed, but then I recalled that this is the Judaism that most of their neighbors experience. The silent prayer, the songs that people half-heartedly join in on - that kind of prayer is far from foreign in Israeli synagogues. I wish we could have shown them terrific religious leadership and real, meaningful prayer, but it wasn't to be - and this perhaps was more educational.

Then, six Muslim men prayed and we were allowed to witness. It was explained to us that before any of the five daily prayers, a Muslim must wash his hands, arms, feet, face, hair, behind his ears, and his hands again unless there's been nothing to break his cleanliness (going to the bathroom, sleeping, etc.) since his last prayer. Women prayer as men do but standing behind the men. One of the men stood in front and led the prayers, which lasted about ten minutes. Afterwards, I spoke briefly with the prayer leader and learned that anyone can lead prayers, but he has to have the relevant passages of the Quran memorized. Generally, among a group of Muslims, the most knowledgeable leads the prayers.

Our conversation was interrupted by Yehudah inviting everyone to participate in or witness the Ma'ariv service, which again was fairly lackluster. All this aside, though, I think that sharing a prayer space was incredibly important on a theoretical level, especially as this was the first time many of the participants had seen prayer of the others. As prayer in itself can be very intimate, I was glad that we were able to open up to one another even if the prayer itself wasn't that meaningful for the individual participants. (And really, who am I to determine whether the prayer was meaningful for anyone else? I could be the only one who wasn't satisfied with the prayer experience!)

After prayers, we had closing remarks wherein everyone shared a few sentences about their experience. Everyone had very positive things to share, and my strongest sentiment was joy at seeing everyone's smiles, especially during the drum circle. A Jewish Israeli shared that the entire retreat could be summed up by the four-kiss farewell given to him by our Palestinian musician, and in many ways, I agree with him. We were asked to brainstorm about the next retreat (this is, apparently, the first in a series of four), and several of the Palestinians strongly advocated to meet in Jerusalem to further explore the prayer spaces of each of the religions. Yehudah said he'd look into it, and personally, I think it would be incredible.

During dinner, Jessica and I made sure to sit with some Palestinians. I'd been trying to have mixed seating for every meal, but self-segregation was a powerful force. I saw a few Palestinians eyeing our chairs at the "Palestinian table," but we held our ground - and it was a good thing we did! One of them spoke very good English and engaged us in a lot of conversation.

We learned that this woman--let's call her Manab--volunteers at a cultural center where handicapped women make hand-crafts to sell. She studies social work or something like that and works very hard in school, though she wishes she had more time to devote to the handicapped women. Sahib shared more artwork and poetry with us, and they were each interested to hear about our hobbies. I told them that I loved to act, and they asked for a sample. Put on the spot, I could only think to recite a few stanzas of The Raven, which I'm sure they didn't understand (though I know they could see that I was definitely playing a character of some sort). Jessica said that she likes to sing, and they asked her to demonstrate. She began singing Autumn Leaves and immediately the entire table got silent and applauded when she was finished. She was an instant hit! They asked her to sing again, and she obliged them - though this time she was recorded by two cell phones! Manab told her she could make a career out of her singing, and everyone, of course, agreed.

We told jokes (I told a joke that Rabi had heard in Hebron) and laughed a lot, shared pictures, and entirely enjoyed one another's company. The same Israeli who had shared his reaction to the kiss-farewell played the harmonica and led some bodily-healing exercises - everyone was bouncing around and massaging their faces. Sahib showed me some magic tricks, and I showed him one. It was a terrific time! This was by far the best part of the entire conference. Sadly, all of the Hebrew U. students and most of the other Israelis were still talking at the "Jewish table," totally missing out. But, I don't think the effect was lost on the Palestinians.

Jessica and I were asked if we knew how to play the cardgame Tricks, and sadly we didn't. We were, however, invited to watch four of the Palestinian men play, and we gladly accepted. Having watched the game for about twenty minutes, I can tell you the very basic gist, but I have no idea what the individual rules are. The game seemed extraordinarily complicated, but the men played with carefree ease and lots of laughs. Jessica and I watched until our ride arrived to take us home. We said good-bye to the Israelis and to the Palestinians, shook many hands, grabbed a cookie for the road, and headed out.

The ride home was fairly uneventful except for our being asked to pull over at the checkpoint into the Jerusalem area. Jessica and I had thought to bring our passports, and I was extremely relieved that we had them (it's illegal not to carry ID in Israel), though thankfully we didn't need them. The glove box and trunk of our car were inspected, though of course nothing was discovered. The driver was supposed to take us to the original meeting point from which we had departed, but since the other two people who were supposed to be in the car had arranged to leave earlier, we were able to work out paying him 20 shekels to drive us to our apartment (which worked out incredibly well for us). We got home at about 10:45 pm on Friday and immediately put on sweatshirts - we'd been cold for the previous 30 hours!

All in all, I think the retreat was an excellent opportunity. It could have been much more smoothly organized and operated without sacrificing any of the social opportunities, but for the most part, I think that the primary goal in my eyes (getting Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy one another's company so that they can extrapolate this feeling of acceptance to other members of the appropriate group) was met. I came in contact with some very interesting people, I learned some significant lessons about life in Palestine, and I became much more comfortable with Arab culture. Hopefully there will be follow-up opportunities that Jessica and I can attend. In the meantime, I'll file away all those Palestinian smiles in my memory and try to share them with those who need to hear about them in the months and years ahead.