Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Trip to the Negev, etc.

First of all, the big news of the week is that I have decided to attend Columbia's Yiddish Studies PhD program next year - and I am very excited about it! I don't want to write much about it because the purpose if this post is to write about the tiyyul but please feel free to ask me questions about it as I'd love to describe the program to you if you are interested.

OK, so we arrived home on Saturday night from a terrific tiyyul and it's been a very busy week as we're scrambling to finish homework between social engagements and preparation for our trip to Moscow. Today I was at the preschool, where we talked about Passover, made charoset, tasted some matzah, and danced to "avadim hayyinu". Yesterday in Hebrew class we had a long and heated discussion about Pat Oliphant's political cartoon about Gaza that appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday- we discussed whether it was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, or both (and if it's possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic), what the symbols used in the cartoon could mean, whether American Jews should have denounced it, if it should have been published at all, and we eventually got into a debate over whether American Jews should feel connected to Israel's political decisions and how they should express that connection. The conversation was particularly interesting because I was the only American Jew who took part in it - it was Europeans, some Jewish and some non-Jewish, an Israeli, several American Christians, two Koreans, etc. Some people were very certain that the cartoon was not anti-Semitic and some felt even more strongly than I do that it presented dangerously anti-Semitic images. My feeling is that I have no problem with the message of discomfort with Israel's actions in Gaza nor do I believe that a newspaper should not be allowed to publish such a thing, as I believe in freedom of the press, but I do think that the images in the cartoon were inappropriate, dangerous, and, yes, anti-Semitic. I think by equating Israel with Nazis, the cartoonist ignores the historical specificity of both the Holocaust and Israel's actions in Gaza and does both a disservice, and that by turning the Star of David into a symbol of destruction he suggsts more than that the state misused its powerful military presence, but that Judaism itself is a violent force in the world. By drawing the soldier without a head, Oliphant reverses traditional anti-Semitic cartoons of the Jew who controls the world through the power of his intellect, but that the Janus-faced opposite view of Israel as pure unthinking brute force is equally scary. And I also think that representing Gaza as a little old lady and a baby exaggeratedly unfair, even for a political cartoon. But I'm interested in hearing what you have to say. A political cartoon, after all, is supposed to be an exxagerated version of reality... Yesterday I also went to my two Yiddish classes - in one class we read a story about Jews in Eastern Europe moving to America, and in the other we discussed Tevye the Dairyman. On Sunday I had an interesting anthropology class in which we discussed the Religious Zionist singles scene and the pressures and forces that create the scene, the impact of the scene on the people within it, etc. In my literature class we discussed a story by Brenner titled "Nerves" which was not my favorite that we've read thus far but had some interesting points.

That brings me to Saturday, and to the tiyyul. Rather than going backwards in time in a disorganized fashion, I'll take it from the top, from Thursday morning when we loaded ourselves into the bus and left from HUC. We drove for several hours until we arrived at Ben Gurion's tomb, where we discussed Ben Gurion's leadership and vision, and the centrality of the dessert to an understanding of Israel. The Negev desert is 66% of Israel's area - over 6,700 square miles, and has an arid and semi-arid climate, defined according to average rainfall (2 - 6 inches), type of soil and natural vegetation.

After our initial discussion, we hopped on the bus and went to the Ben Gurion National Solar Energy Center, a research center to explore methods of collecting solar energy efficiently. A small soft-spoken man dressed in a thick sweater led us in the desert sun as he proudly described his facility. The testing center was established in 1985 to compare various alternative solar teachnologies, including one that uses solar energy to heat oil, which then creates electricity, a system of large parabolic mirror troughs used to heat water into steam, photovoltaic sysetems. In 1991 the center became a research facility that investigates new materials, the impact of solar energy usages on the enviroment, etc. The research facility also docuuments solar radiation in the negev in order to identify promising locations for new solar power stations. The speaker provided us with a lot of statistics that I have since forgotten with regard to how much energy different devices produce in comparison to the average energy used per household, etc. The Ben Gurion research facility also has the world's largest solar tracking dish, which is 400 sq.m. in area and capable of concentrating the sun's rays up to 10,000 times.

After a lunch break, we drove to Makhtesh Ramon for a hike. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Negev desert was covered by an ocean. At the bottom was sand, followed by a layer of limestone formed from the bones of sea creatures. Slowly, the sea started receding, leaving behind a hill which was slowly flattened by water and wind. Approximately five million years ago, during the earthquake known as the Syrian-African rift, rivers changed their courses and began carving out the inside of the crater known as mackhtesh ramon. Once the layer of limestone eroded, the sandstone, which was softer, fell away at a much faster rate than the surrounding limestone walls, which gradually grew taller. At the bottom of the crater, more ancient rock was exposed - the oldest exposed rock in the crater is 200 million years old. Our guide showed us fossils of ammonites, an extinct group of marine animals that once lived in the makhtesh. The hike we went on was short but quite challenging, and the view was terrific.

After the hike, we drove to the Bedouin tent where we spent the night. We listened as a performer played Bedouin instruments and told us stories, had a filling dinner of salads, rice, and potatoes, and sang songs and played games around a campfire. We slept in sleeping bags on the tent floor and rose early to go on another hike.

One group went to Har Shlomo for a more difficult hike, but we decided to go to the easier hike at Timna Valley Park. We watched a high-tech video chronicling the history of the national park, which is located about 30 km north of Eilat. The park includes what are believed to be the oldest copper mines in the world. Archaologists once belived that they were mined by King Solomon, but they are now knoen to have been worked by Egyptians and Mideans, as well as Romans, Nabateans, and Ummayids. The park is also noted for its natural sandstone formations, including "mushrooms" - protruding rocks in which the bottom area has been worn away by particles lifted by the wind, to create a mushroom-like appearance (hence the name). We were amused by large signs pointing to "mushroom and a half" and other silly names. The hike was relatively easy, the weather was mild, and we had a great time walking, chatting, and enjoying lunch by a man-made lake.

Our next stop was Kibbutz Yahel, a Reform Kibbutz in the Aravah Valley, where we stayed for the next several nights. The kibbutz was founded in 1976 by young people from the US, Israel and around the world who identified with progressive Judaism. They make decisions based on religious knowledge and communal ideals. In the harsh desert climate they have created profitable agricultural operations - they grow their own dates, pomelos, peppers, and other produce, and they also have a flourishing dairy farm. We drove to the pamelo fields where we heard stories about cooperation and friendships that the kibbutz has formed accross the Jordan-Israel border (which the pomelo field is directly next to) over the years. We picked our own pomelos and returned to the visitors area of the kibbutz (they have a desert tourism branch were we stayed in very pleasant suites separated by grassy fields).

The next day we took a tour of Kibbutz Lotan, a Reform Kibbutz that was founded in 1983 by 20 Israeli and 20 American youths. It espouses values of sustainable living and creative ecology, and sees itself as an educator and leader in areas such as permaculture, sustainable architecture, and recycling. We went on a tour of the facilities and made seed balls that we are meant to take with us and throw (Johnny-appleseed fashion) in places that we think could use a little more plant life. We also listened to a talk about Israel's need for progressive Jews to make aliyah - the talk provided heated discussion on the bus ride that followed.

At the Coral Reef in Eilat several people went snorkeling, though the water was a bit too cold for me and we sat on the beach, read, and chatted with friends. The Eilat coral reef is the northern part of the Red Sea's 4500 km of coral reefs, and the most northern one in the world.

We returned to Kibbutz Yahel in time for Shabbat, and after we heard a short talk about the role of the Israeli rabbinical student who serves Kibbutz Yahel, several HUC students led a beautiful, music-filled service. After dinner, one of the HUC teachers led a small group in singing zmirot (songs) with gusto. One song after the other, we went through most of our shared repetoire until the head of the dining hall told us that we had to leave the building and we milled around the picnic tables as we continued to sing. We ended the evening playing board games with friends.

On Shabbat morning we walked to a nachal (Hebrew)/wadi (Arabic) - a dry riverbed that contains rain once or twice a year during heavy rains. We held services under a tree in the middle of the desert, and during the time when there might usually be a sermon we were given time to wander off on our own and explore the surroundings. Following the service, some of us chose to go the long way home, climbing up into the hills before spotting the kibbutz and making our way back down.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the kibbutz's dairy farm. Although Israel is known as the land of milk and honey, those terms originally referred to goat milk and date honey. Nevertheless, Israel is a leader in the modern dairy industry. They produce milk from a cow that is a cross between the German Holstein and a cow native to the Middle East, allowing the cow to withstand the high temperatures. Apparently the cows produce more milk because they are milked three times a day rather than twice, the food is brought to them so they don't waste energy finding it, they eat alfalfa (Arabic for the best food for cows) rather than grass, as well as because of the low altitude. Israeli companies have developed manufactured “high-tech” computer based management systems and dairy equipment, which are sold worldwide. These include pedometers that track the activity of the cows so that on the one day in the month when they are jittery the farmer knows that the cow is in heat, and on days when they are less active the farmer knows that they might be sick. We learned, actually, quite a lot about cows as one of the teachers in Daniel's program holds a masters in dairy farming (from Rutgers!) which he obtained for a previous career as a kibbutznik.

After a quick snack with some members of the kibbutz, we set off on the road for home. It was a terrific, relaxing, warm, and pleasant trip, and we can hardly believe that in a week from today we'll be flying away for another adventure - this time to Moscow!

PS: I posted pictures from the trip online, and you can see them here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Getting Excited for Passover, and an Update on my Classes

Getting Excited for the FSU Trip!

Passover seems to be galloping toward us, and soon we will be in the Former Soviet Union, sharing in seders with members of liberal Jewish communities in the Moscow region. It's hard to believe the holiday is arriving so soon - I always forget how close Purim and Pesach are to each other! In the preschool we're already teaching a bit of the story of Moses every day. I suppose it isn't surprising that the 3 year olds identify most with the story of Moses as a baby and are most excited to hear it retold, but I am looking forward to hearing their reactions to the burning bush, the crossing of the sea, etc. It is kind of strange to hear the language slippages that allow remembering that "we" were slaves in Egypt to happen more naturally - the teachers talk about the Israelites or the Children of Israel, but the students very quickly start referring to the characters as Israelis.
On Thursday night, Daniel and I met with Rabbi Leonid Bimbat, who is currently serving the Moscow region, and who was visiting Jerusalem for the World Union of Progressive Judaism conference. What we had expected to be a brief conversation during the reception following a WUPJ event turned into a stroll to the center of Jerusalem, where we sat in a bar called "Putin" which was filled with Russian speaking patrons. Leonid seemed disapoointed when we didn't order drinks, but it was late at night and we were hoping for a quick meeting before going home to bed, and not a night out on the town. We asked him a few questions about the communities in Moscow, where we'll be going for Passover, and about what we would be expected to do during our stay. It seems that we will be traveling between three communities: one is a comunity of Anglo- expats, one is a communtiy of mostly older participants, and one a community of families with children. At each place, we will be expected to lead all or part of seders, and perhaps also conduct other community programs, though the extent of this is unclear - we should have a better sense of it once we receive a more detailed schedule. There will also be plenty of time built in for sight seeing. The rabbi warned us that even when we are not with the communities we should consider ourselves on display and be careful not to eat something that isn't kosher for Passover or do anything else out of line with out positions as spiritual leaders. We're wondering, though, how kosher for Passover these communities will be, as we've heard rumors that some students in the past have seen grain-based alcoholic drinks or even bread products at the seder table. We are also worried about the possibility of social barriers and discomforts arising from our vegetarianism and the fact that we don't drink very much...
I've been trying to prepare for the visit by using it as an opportunity to engage with outside-of-class learning, but I am becoming increasingly aware that experiential learning and book-learning are entirely different beasts. I've been reading articles, some of them terrifically interesting, about the way that Russian Jews today see and define themselves, but I wonder if any of this will make my trip easier, or allow me to be more useful to these communities when I am there. We've had workshops on seder leading, on East European Jewish history, and even a brief tutorial on how to read Cyrillic characters, but I think I'll still be a bit bewildered when I get there. Nevertheless, I am very much enjoying the additional reading that I've assigned myself. If you want to join in the fun and read along with me, so far the best piece I've read has been a chapter out of New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv. I've also been trying to give myself a crash course on Russian culture (about which I know very little) and have begun the rather intimidating task of reading Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. It is a smooth read, but rather a large volume, and I doubt that I'll finish it before we land in Moscow.

Some Thoughts About my Classes

So, this semester I am taking: Yiddish, Sholom Aleichem (the author, not the greeting), Anthropology and Sociology of Israel, Masculinity and Nationhood in Hebrew Literature, and Hebrew.

Yiddish: This is a continuation of the same Yiddish class I took last semester. I love the class - the readings we do are very interesting and the grammatical concepts are reinforced by the texts. However, I am frustrated that we never speak or write in Yiddish, we only read texts and translate them into Hebrew orally. I am concerned for next year, when I will probably be in a Yiddish PhD program...without being able, really, to speak Yiddish at all. Even though I can read most Yiddish texts pretty capably, given time and the aid of a dictionary, I think I'm going to have to ask my instructors to begin with me at square one when it comes to speaking or writing, and this is quite frustrating. Nevertheless, for what it is, I have a lot of fun in Yiddish class, am being exposed to a wide variety of texts, and am also learning a bit of Hebrew along the way.

Sholom Aleichem: This is also a continuation of a class I took last semester, which was on Mendele Mocher Seforim. The professor and students are all the same, but the material is different as we have moved on to a new author. I think I prefer Sholom Aleichem - he gets a bit closer to his characters than Mendele. So far, we are reading and discussing Tevye the Dairyman, which is the book upon which Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based. I've read Tevye before several times, but each time I find it very moving. I look forward to the other readings we'll do in the class, as I've never read anything else by Sholem Aleichem, which is a pretty embarrasing hole in my knowledge.

Anthropology and Sociology of Israel: This class looks really cool. Each week, a different sociology PhD student from Hebrew University will come to the class and present on the work that they are doing for their dissertation. Then, they will leave and we will discuss their work as a class. The topics cover a wide range, from the mixed-ethnicity identity of people of both Askenazic and Sephardic origin to the postmodern lifestyle of Israeli flight attendants. So far we've only had one class, during which the professor told us about his work on the sociology of Israeli sociology, to give us a background for the presentations we are going to see in the upcoming weeks. He told us that as Israel was engaged in building the state, sociology was mainly concerned with practical answers to local questions - they applied theories from outside Israel to problems within Israel and used sociology as a tool to aid the government. They did not come up with new theories because they were concerned that theories coming from Israel would be too locally specific and would be uninteresting to the rest of the world. Instead, they understood Israel as a labratory for theories coming from the rest of the world, and they applied these theories to Israeli examples to test their boundaries and usefulness. In particular, they focused on kibbutzim and later on Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Israeli socioliogy does not have a high status because they have no theories of their own and the world is losing interest in looking at Israel as a testing ground for outside theories. Israeli sociology has, as a result, become less comparative, less concerned with being relevant for the rest of the Western world, and uninterested in the more written about topics such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the influx of Russian immigrants. The topics being presented in our class are sort of far from the mainstream, and are not 'useful' to the government for applications to practical problem solving questions. Nevertheless, I think they will be an interesting way to look at and better understand Israeli society, and I am excited for the class, which at the very least seems like a lot of fun!

Masculinity and Nationality in Hebrew Literature: This class has also only met once thus far, but seems like it will be very good. We are reading from a variety of texts, beginning with Enlightenment texts written before the formation of the state and moving on through Israeli history, looking at expectations for masculinity in Israeli culture and how that has been connected to the building of the state, and how these expectations have changed over time. So far we've onky read one text, which is Feierberg's "Whither?", a novella structured similarly to The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in whcih a young boy begins to question his father's religious philosophy and as he grows up he comes to reject the Jewish religion entirely and tries to discover what new direction Jewishness should take, if not in prayer toward G-d. His solution to the question "whither?" seems to be Zionism, but the conclusion is much more weak than other parts of the text about the loss of innocence and faith, so that the solution he derives seems almost untenable. We haven't yet discussed the text in class, but I am very much looking forward to how the teacher will relate masculinity to secular/enlightened thought or rejection of prayer as a solution to Jewish suffering. Does this naturally lead into a Zionist interpretation of masculinity, or will we have to read more works before we really get there?

Hebrew: I take Hebrew five days a week, and it is taught by two different teachers, who alternate teaching days - this is the same arrangement as last semester. Because I spend so much time in Hebrew, the teachers can really make or break the semester. My teachers last semester were not very good, and this was a major disappointment. The teachers this semester are terrific. They speak and read fast, they ask us to answer many questions, they bring in interesting and varied materials, they assign lots of homework and quizzes and really push us to learn - I think I've learned more in the past week and a half than I did for most of last semester in Hebrew!

You should look forward to hearing from us again with more interesting news soon, as we leave next week for a trip with Daniel's class to the Negev. Hope all is well with everyone at home!

Sabbath joy.

.עונג שבת

Friday-Saturday is the best part of our week here in Israel. Jessica and I always try to do something special on Shabbat, usually with friends. Today, we decided to spend the whole day in the house (like a non-sick sick day!), and it's been delightful so far. Last night, though, was so much more eventful - a real Shabbat experience!

A program at my school has connected me with one of the Israeli rabbinical students, and though it's taken a long time, we finally managed to find a Shabbat to spend together. She lives in Tzur Hadassah, a "sleeper" town most of whose residents work in surrounding cities. Once a month, members of her community travel to an Elwyn community, which cares for Israeli special needs adults. We agreed to travel with my classmates to meet her at Elwyn and then return with them to Tzur Hadassah for services in their small Reform congregation and dinner.

Jessica and I met Leslie and Ari at 3:30 on Friday afternoon to start this journey. Right away, we met Asher, who is a cab driver that Leslie has befriended (and apparently the only cab driver the pair of them has taken to Elwyn that doesn't consistently get lost). Of course he didn't turn the meter on, and a price wasn't discussed until we arrived at our destination. During the time between leaving and arriving, we became acquainted with this rather eccentric Israeli man. He likes singing, Jerusalem, and Leslie. ;-) Although Leslie insisted that we didn't have time, Asher pulled over to buy her some water, and he insisted that next month, he would shave and join Ari and Leslie for their song-leading at Elwyn. He was very friendly and funny, but his flirtation with crossing boundaries was a bit off-putting.

When we arrived at Elwyn, Leslie told us that she had simply met Asher when she really needed a cab once, and he's been a great resource ever since. She's called him to pick friends up from the airport, and he's their standard transportation to Elwyn. She's even met his family as a Shabbat guest. So, he may have been a bit overmuch in some ways, but he seems to be just a jokester and overall, a pleasant fellow.

Waiting for us at Elwyn were Myra (the Israeli HUC student) and another member of the Tzur Hadassah community. They took us inside, and Jessica and I were surprised to be greeted enthusiastically by a room full of special needs adults. As the six of us visitors walked in, several of the residents darted to the door to shake our hands and wish us a Shabbat shalom. We made our way upstairs to the main room, which was apparently more full than usual. As Leslie and Ari set up, Jessica and I stayed by the main entrance to the room, and from there, we greeted residents as they arrived (most in wheelchairs).

Each resident wished us a Shabbat shalom and wanted to know who we were. Many were immediately insistent on hearing our names, and after we told them who they were, they went about their business. It was obvious that today was a very special day - not only was it Shabbat, but it was the Shabbat with the special visitors.

After waiting for everyone to arrive, Myra introduced Shabbat by saying that this was a special week with special guests (including Jessica and myself). We then spent the next half-hour singing Shabbat songs. The residents knew all the songs and sang and danced with enormous smiles. Never have I seen so much unabashed joy in one place - these men and women were openly ecstatic, and Jessica and I couldn't stop from smiling. A few residents near us engaged us in brief conversations and seemed excited to have visitors nearby. Myra invited Jessica and me to lead the Kiddush, so we went into the center of the room for the last five minutes or so. We were surrounded by the joy of these special needs adults, and it was a radiant experience.

Of course, it was also a difficult one. While I had a very positive experience there, I'm sure that continuing to work or volunteer at such a place would be very draining, especially since most of the time is not so specially wonderful as our short Shabbat visit. I don't know what life is like there all of the time, but I can only assume that the ecstasy of our Shabbat visit was fairly special. Still, witnessing the potential happiness that can manifest un-self-consciously on an adults face was an impactful experience, and I'm blessed to have been able to be present for that.

After leaving Elwyn, we rode in Myra's car to Tzur Hadassah. The view was beautiful as we traveled through secondary roads in the Judean Hills. When we arrived, I noticed that people here live in houses (not apartments) and that the community is mostly residential. There are elementary schools but not junior or senior high schools, and I didn't see any businesses or stores. The view was beautiful, though I came to learn that Tzur Hadassah, which is entirely walled-in, is 300 meters from the Green Line - so Shabbat walks are always to the north or west.

The Reform congregation of Tzur Hadassah meets in the Reform preschool trailer (which is part of a collection of preschool trailers). Although the congregation has recently been one of a handful of Reform congregations to receive a building from the government (where such buildings are relatively easy for new Orthodox congregations to attain), many months and thousands of dollars are still required to connect it to electricity and sewage. So, for the time being, Shabbat services are conducted on folding chairs among pictures of bible stories and spring festivals.

The service was "standard Israeli Reform" for the most part. Ari and Leslie led the songs, and the rabbi of the congregation, Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, gave a d'var Torah about contributing to the empty Pesach seder tables of needy members of the Tzur Hadassah community. Although the congregation was small, the service was full, and the several children there (including a young woman who goes to the Army this Wednesday) proved that there is definitely a future for Reform Judaism in the town.

After services, we traveled back to Myra's house for a delicious vegetarian Shabbat dinner. We met her husband, Gilad, as well as Ofer's wife, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and two visitors from Holland. We met Ofer's and Rachel's daughter Tehillah and Myra's and Gilad's two sons and two daughters. It was a full dinner table, and Jessica and I immensely enjoyed the entire evening. I had a conversation with Myra's oldest daughter, Yael, about school, Progressive Judaism, and the weather in Israel, and I played Ratatouille War with 5-year-old Tehillah. I learned about Jewish life in Holland and Reform life in Tzur Hadassah. Rachel and I had a great conversation wherein I found that she's friends with some of our professors from UVA and is usually a teacher (on maternity leave) at HUC. It was really a very lovely evening, and Jessica and I hope to be able to go back before the end of the year.

Ofer (can't even call him Rabbi Beit-Halachmi because that applies to him and his wife!) drove Jessica and me home, and we heard his perspective on living in cities vs. the country, issues of race in Israel, and the touching story of how he met his wife. And when we got home, it was still just after 10:00, so we had had a full night and could still watch an episode of The West Wing before bed!

Although this was a unique Shabbat experience, it represents the specialness that Shabbat holds in our week during this year in Israel. I've really come to treasure our one day of rest, and I absolutely intend to keep the spirit alive when we move to New York next year.

And speaking of next year, it's really sneaking up on us! Next week, Jessica is joining my class on a Wed-Sat trip to the Negev desert, which I'm really looking forward to. A week and a half after we return, Jessica and I fly to Moscow to participate in the FSU Pesach Project! After Passover break, I have four weeks of class, a week of exams, a weekend of packing, and then I head back to the States. I'm not trying to rush the end of the year by any stretch of the imagination - on the contrary, I'm startled by how quickly it seems like it will be over, and I'm trying to appreciate each day for what it can bring! Still, I'm excited about the summer - I've accepted the position of Community Educator at Genesis, a program run through Brandeis University in Boston. And, of course, I'm looking forward to moving to New York and starting a new adventure.

All in good time, though. For now, I'm going to enjoy the rest of Shabbat ... before celebrating a friend's birthday with Contra Dancing! Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Purim in a walled city.

.פורים בעיר בחומה

I've had fun on Purim before, but celebrating in Jerusalem has been an entirely different experience. The fact that most of the people I encounter are celebrating the same Jewish holiday I am has made commemorating this most recent holiday--like others before and to come--particularly acute and memorable.

You could tell it was getting close to Purim even at the beginning of this week as children were walking to school in costume. Although the holiday was still several days off, the Purim spirit was alive in the air: hamentaschen (אוזני המן) have been in the bakeries for about two weeks, candies and gifts have been on sale, and even the liturgical calendar has been special for the Shabbatot preceding Purim. Anticipation was high for the annual fun-fest that is Purim.

In Jerusalem, as in other ancient walled cities (just a handful of cities in Israel), Purim is celebrated a day later than in the rest of the Jewish world. So, although "Shushan Purim" (as the delayed commemoration is known) began on Tuesday night, when I and my fellow volunteers traveled outside to Jerusalem to be with our families at the absorption center in Mivasseret Tzion, we entered into a Purim Zone and were allowed to have a Purim party for the kids of the neighborhood. We had sweets as well as art stations to make masks and noise-makers for the holiday. We played music and sang a Purim song. Though most of the kids who came weren't part of the families we work with, it was great to see a large room full of kids coloring clowns and wearing paper masks in celebration of Purim.

On Tuesday night, HUC had its own Purim celebration. I was one of the six primary planners and actors in our Purim service/play, and we had a terrific time. I got to stretch my creative muscles by writing six songs that fit the themes of the evening service and that could also fit into our pop music-style version of the Purim story. This was my favorite:

The Promised Land (an adaptation of Mi Chamocha sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Kokomo)

Samaria, Judea – ooo I wanna take ya
Through Moab, through Amon – come on, pretty mama.
Akko, Megido – Baby, why don’t we go?

’Cross these mountains of sand,
There’s a place called “the Promised Land.”
That’s where God’s always planned
To make a home for us all.

Now we’ve crossed the sea;
Our God has taken us from slavery.
We’ll be swimming in milk
Tasting trees dripping with fig honey
Down in the Promised Land.

Samaria, Judea – ooo I wanna take ya
Through Moab, through Amon – come on, pretty mama.
Akko, Megido – Baby, why don’t we go?
Ooo I wanna take you to the Promised Land.

We’ll get there fast
Under our God’s command.
With a mighty arm and an outstretched hand:
Straight to the Promised Land.

Yes we can: from Be’er Sheva to Dan!

Now we’ve crossed the sea;
We dance with drum and tambourine.
I will sing to the Lord
For You have triumphed glor(i)ously!

Who is like You, o God,
Among the other gods?
The Lord will reign forever,
Doing wonders, awesome in splendor.
Down in the Promised Land…

Samaria, Judea – ooo I wanna take ya
Through Moab, through Amon – come on, pretty mama.
Akko, Megido – Baby, why don’t we go?
Ooo I wanna take you to the Promised Land.

We’ll get there fast
Under our God’s command.
With a mighty arm and an outstretched hand:
Straight to the Promised Land.

From Mount Nebo, we can see Jericho!

Singing at the service/spiel

The service got a lot of acclaim, and my co-authors/actors and I were very proud of the work we created. And, of course, we had a ton of fun! The megillah-reading in the middle of the service was also fantastic. All the cantorial students as well as some rabbinical students participated in reading the entire megillah (which is rare), and many of them read with strong expression and intent in order to convey the meaning behind the words. The chanting was beautiful and the text came alive - really terrific!

Megillah reading in costume

After the service and megillah reading, we had dinner at HUC, followed by a beit cafe (the Israeli version of a talent show), during which the highlight was Shacharit the Musical, which poked fun at Reform and HUC music and prayer traditions. Really delightful!

The following day (Wednesday) was a second day off of school, and Jessica and I had the opportunity to get out into the beautiful weather. We went to the shuk (market) to do our usually grocery shopping, but unusually, many customers and shoptenders were in costume or at least wearing funny hats. It was amazing to see so many adults going about their regular business in costume. If we had known, we would have brought our camera!

As we neared our apartment after shopping, we heard some loud music and decided to investigate. We dropped off our bags, grabbed the camera, and went to the pedestrian mall area near our apartment. There, we found a street fair with performers, cotton candy, and tons of people in costumes!

Superman on Hillel Street.

We ran into a pair of HUC faculty, and they told us that if we liked what we saw here, we should go to Mamilla Mall (near the Old City) where there was an even larger street fair. Of course we did, and we found there children's games, actors on stilts, and more Israelis than I've ever seen in this Anglo-friendly shopping center. It was terrific!

Queen Esther and admirers

Purim performer

Mordechai and Haman on stilts

Drummers' circle

After the street fair, we had a lovely walk through the warm and blossoming hills of Yemin Moshe, caught a glimpse of some Bratslavers celebrating off of Keren Ha-Yesod St., and were approached by a Yiddish-speaking man who managed to communicate to Jessica (to no avail) that he needed help finding his "friends."

Given that this was mid-March in the middle of the week, our Wednesday was certainly as topsy-turvey as one could hope on Purim. I certainly hope this isn't the last chance I have to celebrate in Jerusalem!

A Sunny New Semester

It is a time of beginnings. At the preschool, the first student to wear a t-shirt to school this spring was called to the front of the classroom during circle time. "This is a very good sign," the teacher said, "now the days will get much much longer and the sun will shine and it will be hot and we can put our coats way up in the closet and start wearing sandals and t-shirts to school."
The beautiful weather feels more to me like the end of the school year, and more and more I find myself searching online for interesting things to do in New York next year (for instance, did you know that at Wednesdays at noon to 4pm there are free tours of the pre-Revolutionary African graveyard at 290 Broadway at Duane Street?) and thinking less and less about being here in Jerusalem. And yet we still have months left!
Classes began this week, but were interrupted by Purim (about which Daniel plans on posting this afternoon, I think, so I won't step on his toes). I am taking: Yiddish, Sholom Aleichem, Masculinity and Nationhood in Hebrew Literature, Anthropology of Israel, and possibly a course on Collective Memory in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, as well as Hebrew. I have not yet had all of these classes because of Purim-related cancellations, but those that I have had are terrific. It was so nice to go back to class and know people in every class I was in - a bit like high school really - with high fives and reunions of friends, and sarcastic comments about how bored we are already when clearly everyone is actually happy to be back. My Hebrew teachers seem much better than last semester, and I think this is going to be a good few months.
My parents' visit was amazing. I don't want to bore them by writing all about it when they, in fact, were there, but I will tell you just a few snippets: they arrived in the pouring rain and cold of Israeli winter and were unpleasantly surprised to be stuck in our apartment to avoid wind and hail for the first day or so. As things calmed down, we left for the Negev, stopping at a Bedouin Museum that was all but deserted, Ben Gurion's Negev home - the very modest dwelling where he spent the last years of his life living out his Zionist vision on a kibbutz, and Makhtesh Ramon, the world's largest crater formed by erosion. There we hiked past beautiful multicolored stones and enjoyed incredible vistas. We traveled to Eilat to relax on a beach not unlike the Jersey shore, save that we could see the Jordanian flag waving in the distance. We ventured into Jordan to visit Petra, an archeological site carved in a crack in rocks of the valley of Arabah. It was the capitol city to the Naboteans, who intricately carved dwellings and truly stunnung burial sites out of the rock. We returned from the South to spend a week in Jerusalem, taking walking tours of the Old City, going to Yemin Moshe, Har Hertzl, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Hebrew University, the Museum of the Seam, and more. We even spent a day in Tel Aviv, walking and shopping, and I purchased a dress to wear at Rebecca's wedding. I can't believe we did so much in the two weeks they were here, and it was so terrific to spend time with my parents and to share my life here with them (and show off my Hebrew!)
It promises to be busy for the rest of Daniel's stay here as we're trying to fit in as many opportunities as possible to spend time with friends, see Israel, enjoy the weather, etc. on top of fulfilling our academic obligations. I do intend, though, to be more on top of blogging than I've been these past few weeks, and apologise for my absence from the "blogosphere"
Hope all is well with all of you faithful readers!