Where are Profound Prayer Experiences Found? … Not Where We Might Expect

One might expect that living in Jerusalem (as opposed to, say, Columbus, Ohio) offers ready access to robust Jewish prayer experiences.  That is certainly what I hoped. I was so looking forward to the myriad meaningful communal experiences that would be available to me while living in the city at the heart of Jewish liturgical prayer, psalms, and Torah. In the Jerusalem of Gold that has inspired Jewish hearts and minds across the centuries ~ from kings and prophets to modern poets, philosophers, and musicians ~ I imagined living amongst such a vast array of shuls and synagogues that my appetite for varied prayer adventures would finally be readily sated. I would be inspired and engaged and challenged and energized.

And perhaps, if I were a man ~ permitted unfettered access and physical proximity to the words and tools (Torah, tallit, tefillin, ark/aron kodesh) of communal prayer, to the floorboards and benches inhabited by generations of daveners (pray-ers) ~ I would have a wildly different story to tell, one that would affirm the assumption that Jerusalem is alive with a plethora of passionate Jewish prayer. But profoundly meaningful prayer has been disappointingly absent from my time in Jerusalem. Its potency as a city pulsing with spiritual vibrations notwithstanding, too many of Jerusalem’s settings for prayer are impotent … at least for this spiritual fertile and receptive woman. And this dearth, though not completely surprising to me, is a source of deep sadness and heartache, far more than frustration or anger. Even inside the walls of my beloved and progressive yeshiva ~ Pardes ~ the egalitarian minyan feels like a “second class citizen” to the traditional mechitza minyan, and when we travelled, tefilla is always managed by the heavy hand of halakha.

I have had meaningful prayer experiences here; just not in the places I had hoped or in the ways I yearn to encounter prayer in Jerusalem. Instead, I have found the most nourishing experiences in other venues, which is strikingly similar to how I would describe my experience with prayer in the United States.  The catalyst in each setting? Intimacy and Connection with Sacred Energy.  

My most profound prayer experiences in Jerusalem have been achieved ~

  • in an a cluttered classroom with the accompaniment of ambient street noise during the brief and consistent daily mincha (afternoon) service with my Pardes classmates;
  • in a private home welcoming Shabbat or kissing it farewell (Havdalah);  
  • in the chanting of ancient or new melodies in harmony and in unison;
  • on a morning walk as I find the rhythm of the city beating with my body’s cadence.

Tonight, I find prayer enveloping me on the rooftop of a school in a mixed neighborhood (Arab and Jewish) overlooking the southern edge of the Old City and surrounding Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. I have walked to this rooftop lookout in Abu Tor (at the far western edge of the city) with a friend. The only other people here are a young woman with headphones piping music into her ears (at a decibel that makes it quite audible to me), and the old woman next to her on a bench whom I am guessing is her grandmother. After a while, the young woman answers a phone call and begins speaking loudly, unaware or unfazed that her conversation is now a part of our collective experience of the exquisite view and the sacred moment that is forming …

Of the four of us, two and two, I sense that I am the only one who has noticed the energy pulsating all around us in anticipation of the rhythm of prayer being called forth by the hour. Even with my easily distracted nature, I am not capable of inattention to the holiness present in this moment, pregnant with the sanctity that accompanies the two liminal times of each day when the light of the sun and the darkness of night touch gently. And, on cue, the sounds of my cousins, Christian and Muslim, reach out to me across the valley to affirm that attention is indeed warranted. 

I marvel at the confluence of the particular sensations that envelop me:

  • this view:  the Old City and its surroundings and the sky above as the setting sun allows me to count three stars (signifying the separation between Shabbat v’chol, distinguishing between the Sabbath and the rest of the week);
  • these sounds: the Muslim call to worship echoing across the valley, church bells pealing in the Christian quarter of the Old City, and my soul chanting the opening prayer for Havdalah;
  • these fragrances: the pear blossoms, lavender, and rosemary of springtime in Jerusalem perfuming the Presence of the Source of Blessing;
  • this taste: the delectable figs and orange slices I have with me reminding me that no fruit or vegetable tastes better than the fresh produce of Israel.

It is an absolutely exquisite symphony of seamless spiritual sensation and I gently weep with gratitude that I am inside this moment of prayer. In the moment, I am not at all bothered by the solitary nature of this encounter. [In hindsight, I realize how often I feel lonely in my witness of the sacred … how deeply I long for a partner with whom to share this ecstatic energy, one with his own spiritual radar who will enthusiastically alert me to that which I might otherwise miss.* I yearn to be surrounded by a community with whom to connect this sense of the sacred in daily experience and to share and renew the ancient prayer technology of Judaism.  

For now, my “companions” are in their own worlds. My friend told me, as we walked here, that he used to live in this neighborhood. He spends a lot of time in his past, in the Jerusalem he remembers with great fondness and speaks about often with a wistfulness bordering on melancholy. He is in that past as we stand on the rooftop. The young woman with the loud music was somewhere else entirely, and now, on the cell phone, I imagine she is in the future, perhaps making plans to meet up with friends. The elderly woman seems to be sitting in the present but her posture gives no hint … I am in all of those places too – past, future, present – creating my sanctuary in time and in space** – as the mixture of light and dark, darkness rolling into light*** calls me to prayer in Jerusalem. It is all so palpable on this rooftop with its timeless view.  

And I can’t help but wonder why this level of intimacy and connection is not the goal of those who create prayer experience in every shul, every synagogue in Jerusalem … 

* Just before leaving Israel, I travel with a friend to the Negev, and her attention to these moments, especially around food and bird-watching, is such a joy-filled gift of holy-witness companionship. Thank you, Eliana Willis!

** Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote so beautifully about the Jewish emphasis on the sanctity of time and the Sabbath as a sanctuary in time.

*** Reference to one of my favorite phrases in Jewish liturgy found within Ma’ariv Aravim, from the evening prayer service. In this prayer about the Sacred in nature, we say … Borei yom valailah, goleil or mipnei choshekh, v’choshekh mipnei or; Uma’avir yom u’meivi lailah, u’mavdil bein yom uvein lailah … Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light, transforming day into night and distinguishing between day and night …

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Psalms and Piyyutim (from Kabbalat Shabbat to Bakashot Shabbat)

There is something truly magical and otherworldly about Shabbat b’Yerushalayim … one can literally feel the presence of the extra souls and the vibration of profound peace, the gentle, full, restorative peace of our prayers – Oseh Shalom bimromav; Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu … May the One who makes peace in the high places, the One will manifest peace upon all of us … In this city, so well known for the tensions between Peoples in the name of religion, as the sun descends toward the western horizon and throughout the night and morning, I am deeply moved by the layers of peace.

Jewish wisdom lore tells us that we receive an additional soul – neshama yetira – on Shabbat. Reb Zalman, z”l, in a collection of shiurim (teachings) published by ALEPH as “Renewal is Judaism Now,” talks about Shabbat as a place/time of expanded consciousness and transformation and our extra soul and observance of this day of rest as vessel and modality for mirroring the Divine’s rest.  As we recite on Friday night, “u’vayom hash’vi’i shavat vayinafash” ~ “and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed,” we recite ancient words that call this state into being and we spend the following hours until the setting sun and appearance of three stars moves us back into the weekly rhythms. 

 I think my body, far more intuitive than any other part of me,  must have known that I would need an extra level of energy to match the neshama yetira that I would receive on Shabbat. I had planned to spend my first “free day” in Jerusalem touring the city – visiting the large shuk/market, Machane Yehuda, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire, but my body suggested more sleep was necessary in the morning and with Shabbat arriving so early in the winter, I deferred this experience for another day. Instead, I did some work at home and began preparing for Shabbat by 15:00. [A 24 hour clock makes so much more sense to me … why don’t we use this in the US?]

In keeping with my experience of charmed travels, I hit the Shabbes jackpot in that my first Shabbat in Jerusalem happens also to be the one Shabbat in January that Nava Tehila hosts their monthly musical Kabbalat Shabbat service. It is unfortunate that this extraordinary davenen opportunity is only once a month as it draws an overflowing roomful of people thirsty for the type of experience that Jewish Renewal provides … soul-nourishing, heart-opening, movement-inspiring, joy-enlivening, toe-tapping prayer. Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan and the uber-talented and engaging band of musicians led by musical enchantress and composer, Daphne Rosenberg, sit in the center of concentric circles of humanity of all ages and levels of observance – Jewish and otherwise (I spotted a nun in habit). The music rises and falls exactly the way Reb Zalman would encourage … I remember one Seudah Shlishit at the Ohalah Shabbaton when he lovingly coaxed just one more, even slower and sweeter, round of a chant from the beautifully shaped “landing” of one of R’ Aura Ahuvia’s offerings. 

We move through the poetry and Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat with perfectly timed hefsekot (pauses) for words of wisdom and inspiration from Reb Ruth. First in Hebrew (which I, delightfully, understand … she speaks slowly and deliberately to the gathered kehilla), then in English with a bit less explanation so as to deliberately minimize talking. She asks us to resist the urge to speak to one another … there will be plenty of time to speak when we leave … inviting us to fully immerse in the mostly musical prayer experience. As a participant rather than a prayer leader, I am reminded how very effective it is when one carefully selects minimal spoken word between the already lush and meaningful imagery of the liturgy. 

Reb Ruth draws on a teaching of the Bal Shem Tov (BeShT) about the parsha haShavua (the weekly Torah portion) which leads us into musical settings of the first few Psalms that emphasize the importance of praise from a place of challenge rather than only when we are feeling the gratitude that flows from joy and prosperity. Thanks to the internet, here is a good offering of the teaching so I do not need to reassemble it in my own words. I have emphasized phrases from this text borrowed from a blog entitled “Hasidism for the Rest of Us”:

A teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, as recorded by Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye in Toldos Yaakov Yosef and Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Vayigash.

And Judah drew near to him

I heard from my teacher (the Baal Shem Tov) an explanation of this verse: As our sages teach, you should always arrange your praise of the Omnipresent One and afterwards pray [that is, first praise God and then make your requests] (1). As the Ramban wrote, “The power of the Maker is in that which is made,” and the Midrash says the created world is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of the inner creature (2). So in every type of hardship there is a holy spark from God, albeit heavily disguised in its worldly garb…but when you strive to understand that here too God is with you, then the disguise is removed and revealed and the hardship ceases to be.

Thus, “to arrange one’s praise of the Omnipresent One” means to recognize that God is in everything, for it is the praise of God that His glory fills all the earth. [This includes even the hardships of life], as in the verse “In all their troubles He was troubled” — which can also be read “all their troubles are no trouble,” for if God is truly in the hardship, then it is not a hardship at all! (3) So a wise and discerning person will understand that the suffering that befalls a person is actually the suffering of the Shekhinah, of God in the world (4). Then he is ready to pray…

This is how we should understand And Judah drew near — with thanks (hoda’ah) and praise for God — “and he said Bi Adonai,” God is in me, so there is no hardship (5)…

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1) See Masechet Berachot 31a and Avodah Zarah 7b   2) Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Girondi, aka Nahmanides (Gerona 1194 – Land of Israel 1270), was a philosopher, kabbalist, and Torah commentator. Here he is quoting a well-known mystical term, koach hapoel benifal. The strange image of the snail comes from Bereishit Rabbah 21:5, which raises the question of how the angel of Ezekiel 10:2 could be “clothed in linen,” since it is an entirely spritual being. The midrash answers that the angel is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of its inner self. The Baal Shem Tov applies the same concept to the Omnipresent God, so that the universe is at once God’s clothes and God’s self.   3) Isaiah 63:9  In Sotah 31a, the rabbis point out that b’chol tzaratam lo tzar is written with a vav in the lo (meaning “He was troubled”), but it is read with an alef (meaning “it is no trouble”).  4) The Shekhinah, literally “in-dwelling,” or “presence” of God, is the immanent (and usually feminine) aspect of God. Tradition holds that when the Temple was destroyed and Israel exiled, the Shekhinah, which had until then dwelt with Israel in the Temple, chose to go into exile with the people rather than return to Her home with the transcendent aspect of G!d. This is one of the fundamental “breaks” in the world and, according to Jewish mystical tradition, it is the mission of every Jew to reunite the “wife” and “husband” through holy deeds.   5) The Baal Shem tov is reading YeHuDaH as a form of HoDa’aH, “thanks” (which it is — see Genesis 29:35)” and Adoni, “my lord,” as Adonai, “my LORD,” a reading that is supported by the unvocalized text, if not the context. The word, bi, literally “in me,” seems superfluous in the text, pointing to this deeper meaning.

There are moments of the service that are so gorgeous that my heart breaks open and my eyes overflow. There are little children happily crawling and engaging with their parents on the floor near me and in my line of sight and I am struck by how different my relationship is with my boys now vs. when they were small. In addition, this week’s Torah portion, like many of the parshiyot in Genesis and Exodus, speaks to the complexities of family relationships and the ways we hurt one another – intentionally and otherwise. I ride the emotional waves ~ sadness, tenderness, delight, gratitude, love, awe … 

Kabbalat Shabbat ends and a majority of the people in the room depart for Shabbat dinner while a healthy number of us remain for the evening service – Ma’ariv. We are lead by a young man with a lovely voice and a humble capability and the room of daveners follow along through the service in a quick and comfortable cadence. I am so grateful for the growing number of years of ALEPH davenen and my own study and dedication that allow me, now, to be truly at home and warmed by this liturgy which has become my p1040772friend ~ beginning with liturgical appreciation of the natural transitions of the evening sky ~ and has brought me closer to the Sacred and to the generations of Jews that have preceded me and those who presently pray these words all around the world.

As I write this, I vividly remember my first “non-Reform” (i.e. full service structure, primarily in Hebrew) evening service experience. It was late summer, 2010, the first night of DLTI-6 at Isabella Freedman. I was totally lost in my now-dogeared ArtScroll siddur, and dear Daniel Sheff, noticing my increasing anxiety, kept coming by to turn pages for me and point to where we were in the service as I splattered the pages of the prayerbook with tears of embarrassment and frustration at how foreign the liturgy of my own religion was to me.  These six and a half years have been very long ones, filled with growth and challenge and so much learning – both book-learning and self-exploration. I feel, here in Israel, so much of what I can only think to call the strengthening of my essence – my core singing her song with confidence.

When I rise for the Amidah, I feel an explosion of sheer delight. As I breath deeply into my belly, my heart-center rises, my shoulders are drawn back, and I am taller and lighter in that moment. I am aware of the energy that seems to emanate from the eastern wall of the room as we all stand and face the direction in which all Jews all over the world pray and have prayed for millenia —> East … toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple. I am facing east and I am barely 3 kilometers from HaKotel/the Wall, walking distance from the epicenter of my People’s prayer ritual. Now the tears flow freely mixing with the keva (the fixed structure) of the Amidah prayers which I am grateful to have passing through my lips even as my mind and soul are overwhelmed with emotion.

******Later on Shabbat evening/morning*****

One of the items high on my list of “must-do spiritual adventures” in Jerusalem is to visit the Ades Synagogue in the middle of the night – the wee hours of Shabbat morning – to experience their custom of singing Baqashot.  Now I know why my body suggested I sleep in on Friday morning …

My Renewal rabbinic and cantorial education has made me an enormous fan of Piyyutim (liturgical poetry set to music). My affinity for this style of singing prayer began in 2010 when I took my one of my very first ALEPH classes with Reb Elliot and learned Yah Eksof. My delight in piyyutim continued to grow as I learn new melodies and study the paytanim (the 6th – 16th Century composers of piyyutim who designed them to enhance the service and also “slip in” messages and teachings to the congregation (according to Hazzan Saul Wachs).  Ades Synagogue maintains the customs and maqamot (harmonic modalities) of Aleppo, Syria, a place very much in need of our fervent prayers and attention these days. The practice of singing Baqashot, however, arose out of pre-expulsion (before 1490) Spain, migrated to Tsfat, grew in significance, and was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean with Lurianic Kabbalah from the 16th to 20th Centuries.

Intrigued by my spiritual curiosity and a very adventurous soul herself, my delightful and hearty new friend and host, Dvora, chooses to accompany me on the 3.5 km. walk from Mkor Chayim to the Synagogue, just off of Betzalel in Nachla’ot, and we headed out a bit before 2 a.m. We walked through quiet img_0733and beautiful residential neighborhoods and barely encountered a soul … the calm of the streets and the brightness from the streetlights on the Jerusalem stone buildings reminded me of walking in the snow late at night when all is quiet and bright and beautiful.

We arrived at Ades Synagogue early (2:40) and surprised the rebbitzin (Rachel), reading in the women’s section. She was a bit unsure what to make of us, but Dvora warmed her up and within 5 minutes she was running to get us hot tea and sugar from downstairs. The men continued to arrive until, by 3:30, the men’s section was full and the baqashot were being volleyed from the left to the right side of the gorgeously restored synagogue. Different men took turns singing and often they all sang together, all of us following in a white book of Shabbat Baqashot from 3 to 7 a.m. The do this each Shabbat ades-3from the end of Sukkot until Pesach (the winter half of the Jewish yearly cycle). 

It was pleasant, if quite cramped, in the women’s section; the wooden padded benches were comfortable, especially in comparison to the plastic chairs in Tsfat. The wooden mechitzah was easy to see through and standing up to see over it wasn’t frowned upon. The walls all around us were stunning as they are throughout the recently restored synagogue. However, there was no question where the fun was going on and it was NOT in the tiny women’s section.

I was again hit by the difference in experience that one of my male colleagues would have if he followed his spiritual curiosity to spend four early morning hours here. He would be sitting in style and comfort, with plenty of leg room, where the tea was flowing and the candies were being showered on young boys who raised their voices with a solo in the throaty Syrian style of singing praises to God, appreciation of Shabbat, and noting the mystical unity of the divine masculine and the indwelling feminine on yom hashvi’i (the seventh day). He would be welcomed to sit and bathe directly in the midst of this symphonic sea of strong and sweet and joyous voices and feel the waves of musical energy up close.  

As more women arrive, after 5 a.m., they do what women must have learned to do over generations of being relegated to balconies ~ they talked to one another about non-spiritual matters and make it increasingly difficult to fully appreciate the baqashot or follow the liturgy, which often doubles back or skips a section.  This truly unique and delightful experience continues to be diminished by the chatter mixed with my own fatigue, and by the time I leave, the spiritual saturation I felt several hours ago has been pretty much wrung from the sacred poetry of the little white book.

The chill of the morning air is refreshing as I walk home. The streets are still quiet (nearly devoid of cars as so many do not drive on Shabbat) and there are a growing number of men and boys walking to synagogue for morning prayers.  I am moved by how many of the men walking alone have their tallitot over their heads, already, deep in morning tefillah/prayer or meditation, or so it appears. The only women I encounter are a single religious mother walking with a gaggle of children, and several secular joggers. At this hour, it appears no women are headed to pray. I can see why so many Israeli women whom I know and respect have turned away from the religious practices that I find so meaningful. What they have experienced is not what I have been offered.

Today, after a morning nap, Dvora and I sit on the back patio in the sunshine and talk at length about liturgy.  I share many of the ideas that I have img_0697absorbed through my studies and experiences as a service leader, student, and member of the Renewal movement. She is delighted by the egalitarian language of the siddur I have brought … merely the inclusion of the ima’hot (the mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel) is novel to her. Rabbi Laura Geller, the third woman ordained in the US, wrote an article published this week about her 40 years in the rabbinate. I realize how very far we have come and how very far we have to go to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to more Jews, especially women who have been sidelined or marginalized by practices that do not really have much of anything to do with the words of Torah. I am reminded, once again, what a blessing it is that I had the courage to hear and listen to the calling to pursue this path to my rabbinate, and I allow the peace of Shabbat to banish all thoughts of inadequacy. 

Transportation and Tuesday

Hinei rakevet, she’mistovevet, al galgalim, al galgalim, al galgalim.  Toot toot!
(Here comes the train, going around and around on its wheels!)

I couldn’t get this children’s song out of my head all afternoon! It’s no surprise, of course; my afternoon began with a chilly, mostly-cloudy jaunt (initially in fullsizeoutput_2a0the wrong direction and downhill ~ bummer) along Jerusalem’s old train tracks within in the relatively new Hamesila (Railway) Park.  This park, with its repurposed track, is just beyond the back fence of the house where I am staying (the childhood and present home of my charming host, Dvora). This is my first day of 51, living in Yerushalayim. I didn’t notice until I arrived that my age and the length of my time here match. If I were a “tweeter” I’d have a handy hashtag!

When I arrived last night around 21:00 to settle into D’vora’s lovely home, my day had already been full of happiness and a sense of accomplishment. I had: 

  • awakened in Haifa,
  • eaten breakfast with Ruthie in the Shima’s extraordinary home,  
  • been dropped at the Hof haCarmel (closest train station) by Tal,
  • spent 10 splendid moments listening to the sea at the beach,
  • successfully purchased a ticket (even less expensive than the buses and much nicer) and found the correct platform to travel by train to Tel Aviv – Savidor Center,
  • hailed a taxi to drop me at my initial “home” to have lunch with Shaula and Ami, and repack my gear for my extended stay in Jerusalem,
  • shopped and conversed with wonderful artists at the Shuk haCarmel (pop-up arts festival on Tuesdays and Fridays) during the remaining daylight,
  • enjoyed a few more hugs and a very generous lift (courtesy of my malachim/ministering angels, Shaula and Ami) to the bus station,
  • located the correct bus to travel to Jerusalem with ALL of my luggage including books, and
  • caught a taxi to 16א M’kor Chayim, my “home” for the coming 51 days!

M’kor Chayim is a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem, walking distance from both the ulpan (Ulpan-Or) where I begin my studies this week, and the yeshiva (Pardes) where I begin my final weeks of study on January 19th. AND, “m’kor chayim” מקור חיים  means fount/spring/source of Life … this feels like no coincidence, nor an insignificant fact, from the moment I meet Dvora.  We greet one another with a big hug, both of us sure we have known each other for years, notwithstanding the fact that we met through Airbnb just a few weeks ago when I committed to spend 50 nights in her perfectly situated home (a luxury I could actually afford in this expensive city).  Little did I know that I was also arranging what I expect will be a life-long friendship. AND, the house we are now sharing for the next seven weeks is miraculous!  I am acutely aware of the blessings surrounding me as I travel and I am trying not to be so caught up in the activities of each day that I miss opportunities to truly rejoice and find expressions for my deep gratitude.  

So, back to the rakevet … in the delightful way that 99% of my trip is turning out to be PERFECTLY designed to meet my needs despite nearly complete lack of planning on my part, the Park is visible from the kitchen window as I img_0697do the dishes. Dvora, a fascinating woman born in Transylvania the year Israel became a State, and a citizen of Israel since 1949, is a life-long learner and in classes several days a week.

I walked out the front door, around the corner of the house, through a sweet playground with that cushy, not-concrete material, and right onto the repurposed track!  People are walking, riding bikes, jogging, sitting, and exercising at various “stops” along the way. Up ahead and all around, I see buildings that have that unmistakable “Jerusalem” look. I am intrigued by the history of this track …

A single track was laid along 88 kilometers, and the train passed over 176 bridges on its way from Jaffa to Jerusalem. On September 26, 1882, sheep were slaughtered on the track for good luck and the first engine chugged out of Jaffa toward Jerusalem, pulling coaches adorned with Imperial Ottoman flags. The laying of the track shortened the journey between the two cities considerably – from 12 hours by horse-drawn coach to only four hours.

With the conquest of Palestine by the British in 1920, the railway was improved. The British linked the track to the Cairo-Beirut track and the track of the Jezreel Valley train, all of them operated by Palestine Railways.
Under the Mandate, the Jerusalem station site was enlarged, and warehouses were added alongside it. The station operated almost without interruption until the establishment of the state, when traffic on the line ceased due to the War of Independence in 1948. The first official Israeli train, which traveled to Jerusalem on August 7, 1949, hauled a symbolic freight of flour, cement from the Nesher quarry and Torah scrolls. 
As time passed, the number of passengers on the train to and from Jerusalem declined sharply, and for many years the train ran only once a day. In 1998, Israel Railways decided to shut down the Jerusalem station. [read more

fullsizeoutput_29fThere are many things that catch my attention as I walk. This colorful patch is very close to a odd-looking duck that appears lost – alone – and is rather franticly trying to bathe in a tiny puddle. Perhaps he was drawn here by the two yellow-headed birds on the cinderblock side of a building. Israel is a country with a lot of graffiti. Sometimes the scrawl is merely a defacing of property, like we see in the States, but often it is extremely artistic. In Tel Aviv, they even offer a graffiti art tour.

As I walk along the former railway, I see a number of things worthy of photographing but instead, today, I really just want to be a woman living in the heart of a big city with a briefcase and a destination (or two) and business to accomplish. I am a bit disappointed that the purely fun and carefree part of my trip is over, and I am also feeling an urgency around my language studies in particular. I want to be able to speak this language I hear all around me and to be able to answer shopkeepers in Hebrew, order food, and ask about my surroundings in the language of the country where I am feeling more and more at home. I am aware of just how significantly language makes one feel on the inside or on the outside.

Traveling alone makes this even more acute an experience, which is good because it is very motivating. I think about all of the people who, for reasons beyond their control, have been forced from their homes and have come here – first because of the Shoah (Holocaust) and subsequently, as a result of persecution in a variety of different locations around the globe. I thought I was less interested in conversational Hebrew, wanting mostly to feel more of the language in my mouth for purposes of studying Torah, Talmud, liturgical and mystical texts. Now, the desire is morphing and I want it all!

I see so many undergraduate-age students and feel that familiar frustration that I “wasted” so much time when I “could have” done this years ago in college when my brain was more facile and there was more time to allow it to sink in through decades of use. Recognizing that foolish self-defeating language, I force myself back into the present and head toward Ulpan-Or where the motto we are to tell ourselves 12 times per day is:

I enjoy studying Hebrew. I understand and speak Hebrew easily and fluently. I progress rapidly in Hebrew

I have spent the past two weeks with very little thought of the past or the future, living almost entirely in the present (which feels very Israeli and SO good, especially given the nature of the past 18 months of my life) . As if in answer to my need, once again, I am snapped into the present by the pure delight of coming upon a “reading station” תחנת קריאה   It’s like the sweet neighborhood boxes we see in the States, but on steroids!  Foreshadowing the weeks to come, here is another sign that learning is fun and essential at every station in life!

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Above and Below

As my activity has increased, my time for writing, of course, has dramatically declined and fatigue has overcome the desire to write each evening. I have been carrying in my mind, for the past four days, a photo I took as I left Shaula and Ami’s apartment in Tel Aviv.  There, just hanging along Idelson Street, as if it were an art gallery designed to wish me nessiya tova (a good journey) to Tsfat, hangs this painting on glass with the simple and deeply meaningful Kabbalist phrase “…as above so below.”  As Shabbat exits here in Tsfat, it feels supremely appropriate to unite that photo with my experience of Shabbat in Tsfat and then go back, I hope, to pick up the other days in between. 

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The Old City of Tsfat is build into a mountain in the Galilee (northern region of Israel) and is Israel’s highest city at an elevation of just under 3,000 feet.  It is ancient and even in the 21st century, one can walk through alleyways and be certain one has stepped back many centuries. Even many of the residents of Tsfat seem to have stepped out of the 17th or 18th centuries, with their black trousers and coats, white shirts, peyot (sidelocks that follow the Levitical prescription – 19:27 – against rounding off the hair at the corners which the Talmud – Makkot 20b – interprets to be the hair between the ears and the temples), and a variety of head coverings from black kippot to large shtreimels. More than anything else, save art nowadays, Tsfat is associated with Kabbalah for it was the home of Rabbi Isaac Luria, “inventor” of Kabbalat Shabbat and a master of Kabbalah.  

One of my very favorite moments in our Renewal-flavored welcoming of Shabbat on Friday evening is a passage from Zohar that Rabbi Marcia Prager expertly placed in the siddur we use when we gather. “כְּגַוְנָא/K’gavna,” we begin, often with an evocative tune (I can hear the chant offered by R’ Eva Sax-Bolder when we led Kabbalat Shabbat at OHALAH several years ago with erev Chazzan Jessi Roemer and R’ Cherina Eisenberg).  With these words, we share with one another the secret of Shabbat/רָזָא דְשַׁבָּת/raza d’Shabat, as written in Zohar Terumah, 163-166:

Just as they (the six sefirot: ḥesed gevurah, netzaḥ, hod and yesod) unite above in Oneness, so She (malkhut/Shekhinah) unites below in the mystery of Oneness, to become One with those above: One receiving One. The Holy One Blessed Be He, who is One “above,” does not sit upon His Throne of Glory until She too is transformed in the mystery of Oneness, that they become One within One. This is the secret of “God is One and God’s Name is One: יהוה (the six sefirot above) Eḥad, u’Shemo (malkhut/Shekhinah) Eḥad.

As I write, I consider whether it is audacious to share these sacred words with such a wide audience and I err on the side of offering this ta’am/taste of the sacred text of Zohar (Hebrew for splendor or radiance), so complex one studies it late in rabbinical school (I will study Zohar this semester with Reb Elliot Ginsburg).  Zohar is intriguingly lush with mystical descriptions of the many aspects of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, the process of redemption, and the relationship between “universal energy” and humanity, to name only a few of its mystical pearls.  The teachings of the Zohar are designed to support Shekhinah (the Divine Indwelling Presence) in our physical realm by providing humanity with the knowledge and understanding and the metaphysical channels to keep the Light flowing into the physical realm, despite all of the brokenness and darkness, thus, sustaining us until the time of Redemption.  It is truly juicy stuff, born in Spain/ספרד (attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), raised up and advanced by R’ Issac Luria, HaAri haKodesh/the Holy Ari, the father of Lurianic Kabbalah, who resided in Tsfat in the mid-1700s and is buried here, and studied continuously for centuries. 

All that I know of Zohar (which is, admittedly, very little still) is in the background of my mind as I entered the courtyard of the Ashkenaki HaAri Synagogue and placed tzedakah in the box at the gate. A man in the courtyard is playing a Shlomo Carlebach tune as I duck into the synagogue. And with a feeling of being suspended in time, I sit for quite a while in the corner of this very old house of

worship and study in the center of the Old City of Tsfat. I pick up two books from the shelf next to me and read Tehillim/Psalms and peruse the siddur (prayerbook), finding a different arrangement of my favorite morning blessings, and appreciate the shtender (the wooden stand at perfect reading height just in front of my seat. As I let myimg_0454self sink into the Hebrew letters (otiyot), bits and pieces of conversations and explanations from tour guides in English, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew wash over me. Frequently, I glance up and am drawn into the colors emanating from the large sunlit window right in front of me simply and resplendently adorned with the ancient s’firot of Kabbalah. I am struck by a keen sense of appreciation and awe with each and every look at this magnificent window, the sun’s rays dancing through each of the s’firot ~ vessels representing the many Divine attributes that are manifest above and below.

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I find myself perpetually astonished by my proximity to the source of so much of what I have studied for the past many years. Sitting amongst the books in comfortable wooden chairs that would not be available to me (a woman) if this were a time of prayer, I feel at home, as if I am welcome and belong here. A far cry from how I will feel on Friday night when I attend Kabbalat Shabbat and am relegated to the cheap plastic chairs in the balcony, the stuffy air and the whirr of the heat increasing the sense of distance from the heart of the service. I watching the privileged men and boys (unaware, most likely, of this privilege) in the beautiful wooden seats with velvet cushions and wooden stands to hold their prayerbooks. I think of my male colleagues who come to Israel and are able to access all of the places from which I am banned and I feel angry for the first time since I arrived.  I cannot see very well through the thick lace fabric (that is the point – that the men not be mechitzah-lace-fabric-flowers-1distracted by me and the other women).  I am even more aware of the difficulty of seeing and hearing when the d’var Torah is delivered and I struggle to hear and understand, handicapped by language, distance from the speaker, the ambient noise, and my inability to capture all of his gestures through the thick lace. He has said something about the mitzvot illuminated by each letter of the shoresh (the Hebrew root) of the weekly Torah portion, Miketz, Mem-koof -tzadi. There are only 4 of us in the balcony. Presumably, all of the other women are home preparing dinner and I am distracted by my sense of indignation that now is blocking my ability to pray with any authenticity.

I am once again struck by the complexity of my spiritual journey in Israel. Tsfat is the first place where it is painfully clear that there is much that calls to me only to hold up a hand to rebuff me – telling me I do not have permission to participate. I will have to spend more time cultivating the proper kavanah (intention) to allow my spiritual energy to flow with authentic delight and purity and not be blocked by indignation.

Geshem (Rain), Greatness and Gratitude

On Sunday, just after lighting my Chanukiyah, I realized that I was notimg_0140 nearly as tired as I had thought.  Trying to keep my expenditures in check, I had made myself scrambled eggs for dinner and had changed into sweats for a quiet evening, but now I was feeling energized and the conversation on the bus had me wondering, what was the possibility that I could go to a concert tonight?  I looked at the website for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, saw that the night’s concert was at 19:30, included piano concerti of both Bartok and Beethoven, and that the soloist was Yefim Bronfman and Zubin Mehta was conducting.  With a little state-side encouragement from my friend Shaula that I could walk there in 10 minutes, I threw my clothes back on, brushed my hair, and ignored the tired-looking face that stared back from the mirror while I brushed my teeth. 

Umbrella in hand, I left the apartment with the directions on my phone sending me back to Zalman, through Meir Park toward Dizengoff, but this time, up the hill on a much darker and clearly beautiful, residential couple of blocks of Dizengoff. I trusted my memory of the directions and made haste across crosswalks with green walk signs as the rain started to become heavy and then I was in the complex – walking between the Helena Rubinstein Pavillion and the Charles Bronfman Auditorium.  I quickened my step as it was now 7:22 and I still needed to buy a ticket. 

I asked for the least expensive ticket (no there are not student discounts said the young man behind the glass) – 240 shekels for nose-bleed seats … Yes. I’ll take it. I’m at one of the world’s most amazing concert halls with one of the world’s best orchestras, a legendary conductor, and extraordinary pianist … I bounce up the steps to the balcony and am let in just as a sweet-throated young boy sings the brachot (blessings) and lights the Chanukiyah and then, accompanied by the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Mehta, leads us all in Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Agimg_0142es).  

The first piece on the program is Strauss ~ Till Eulenspiegel.  They don’t turn the house lights down and the man several rows behind me insists on continuously snorting in a most disgusting fashion and I am seriously tempted to offer him a tissue.  I am distracted and will myself into the Strauss, admittedly not one of my favorites. The orchestra is enormous in its configuration on stage and the concert hall is gorgeously laid out. The acoustics are magnificent and two enormous screens allow the audience to see close up shots of the musicians as small solos are passed around in this piece depicting the pranks of the German peasant folk hero, Till.  The concertmaster grew up in Columbus, Shaula told me, and the orchestra appears to be a lovely mix of ages and nationalities.  

After the Strauss, the piano rises up from below as the stage is reset for the Bartok Piano Concerto #2.  Zubin Mehta, who has a stature and grace that belies his 80 years of age, began his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) four years after I was born! He is so integrally linked with Israel and the IPO in my mind, that I was fascinated to learn the following from an article in the Times of Israel today about Mehta announcing his October 2019 retirement from the IPO:

Despite having led the Israel Philharmonic for almost half a century, Mehta does not speak Hebrew, though he speaks fluent German and can get by in Yiddish. Nor is he Jewish, though speaking of his Persian background he told the New York Times in 1998 that “We are the Jews of India.” 

Mehta returns to stage with Yefim Bronfman ~ one of my favorite pianists for his ability to play the softest of notes as if his enormous fingers (they really are anything but delicate-looking) are gently slicing into a keyboard made of butter.  The second movement of the Bartok begins so quietly with lush strings and a slow and powerful piano solo and rumblings from the timpani.

And then, just like that, it was raining! Inside!! In this gorgeous concert hall … the back of the balcony of the hall to be precise.  At first there were angry glances – we couldn’t figure out what and who was making all of the noise and why it wasn’t stopping.  But as the water continued to loudly pound on what looked like long plastic tablecloths that had been used to cover a large swath of the rear balcony seats, it became disturbingly clear that the IPO had sold many balcony seats for over $60 fully aware that there was a serious leak in the roof and, so it appeared, hoping that it wouldn’t begin to rain again during the concert???

All through the 2nd and 3rd movements of the Bartok, people continued to migrate away from the leaking roof in Section ּב into Section א where I sat in row 33.  Two young women in their 30s, I’d guess, sat next to me and at intermission we joined forces to approach the ticket office.  The ticket office was closed, but I found an usher/security person and eventually the growing group was told in Hebrew (which I did understand and translated into English for my new friends, both musicians from Berlin, one German, one Chinese) that they were sorry but they couldn’t do anything for us. We would need to contact the box office the next day.  

At this point, already well into intermission, I was ready to take matters into my own hands. I remembered seeing a number of empty seats in the front of the auditorium, keyboard side, and marched my tentative posse into the majestic concert hall.  “I am not comfortable with this,” said my quiet and reserved German friend, but she followed me as did a number of others. By the time we’d walked the length of the flower-covered stage and settled into our new seats, I had a new family of incredulous foreigners – English, Welsh, French, German, and Australian – all of us shocked that the rain seemed to be such an unexpected visitor, catching our stalwart Israeli hosts so unprepared.  The young women thanked me for what they called my bravery.  I explained that I used to be able to pay for such seats, but as a mid-life student I had learned the trick of moving to empty seats at intermission.  Why should empty seats be deprived of music lovers?  img_0153

The Beethoven Piano Concerto #3 was exquisite and from the second row, the visual as well as the auditory experience was truly divine!  The familiarity and brightness of Beethoven feel like dear friends who have been with me since childhood (records played at home and concerts attended with my parents) and have grown with me as an adult concert-goer and classical music listener.  My years of piano lessons and singing with the CSO only deepened my appreciation for the level of commitment one must have to play music like this with such seeming effortlessness.  I cannot contain my smile even as I weep through the beginning of the 2nd movement, so sweet and loving the theme that is played by the strings and then passed to the piano.  And the joy of watching Bronfman’s perfectly arched fingers on the screen right in front of me when I am able to tear my gaze from the actual view of the full stage. He is truly tickling the ivories and the results are pure delight. When I notice that the violins are on the last page of the score I wish I could push the reset button and listen to the entire concert again sitting right here.

Bronfman treats us to an encore which Mehta watches from the seat of one of the cellists. The appreciation is visible on his face sitting amongst his musicians and enjoys the opportunity to “take a load off” and just be a spectator in this spectacular hall.  

 

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I nearly float back to the apartment.  I don’t want the night to be over and I’ve been awake for so long now that I am past feeling tired. After my Friday excursion, a combination of fatigue and jet lagged caused me to sleep until Shabbat evening and then, I couldn’t fall asleep even as the nighttime entered the wee hours of the morning. By 5 a.m., it didn’t make any sense to go to sleep. Thus, this day of exploration and exhilaration had actually begun more than 27 hours before I exited the concert.

It is hard to describe the rollercoaster ride that has been my emotional, psycho-spiritual, and physical experience of the past 7 days. Exactly a week ago, I was frantically making last minute arrangements, doing laundry, packing up books, clothing, and other items essential to my journey to Israel for 2 weeks of travel followed by 2 weeks of intensive language study (ulpan) followed by 5 weeks of yeshiva-style study at Pardes. Over the past six days, I have been forced to release the expectations I have of my ability to squeeze in as much as possible to “make the most” of my travel time. I have relied heavily on the encouragement and love of good friends half way across the world to be kind and gentle and compassionate with myself and have worked to minimize the voices that insist I “push myself ” in ways that feel unnatural to me.

I have also learned that you can step out of your life and shake things up considerably and that your delights and your demons are still there.  I have been reminded that I am a clinical extrovert – energized by my interactions with humanity – and that I also need substantial quiet time. I have also noticed that my depth of feel, emotional exposure, and romantic notions of life’s vibrancy take a toll while also allowing me to soar. I’ve been keenly aware that even an extrovert can feel shy and that no matter how much I feel “at home” in Israel, it is still a “foreign country” to me where I don’t speak the language or know the customs or even the currency well enough to walk about without expending a great deal of energy.  And, I have been reminded, every other day, when I’ve been too tired to leave the apartment, that being on an extraordinary journey without a partner is very lonely and that loneliness has its own energy tax. Nonetheless, I am profoundly grateful ~ grateful for the journey, grateful for the freedom, and grateful for the capacity to feel so deeply.  

Exploration and Exhilaration

Sunday morning’s angel, no kidding, was Exploration.  At the time, I noticed only the word, abundantly appropriate in and of itself.  As I begin to write, however, I notice, as if I were making this all up to conveniently fit my experience, that it shows my angel on the bow of a ship, spyglass in hand, a small island in the distance.  If you could have seen the street as I made my way down Idelson to Ben Yehuda to catch the bus, you would immediately get the reference.  The river of water was so high it threatened to cascade over the tops of my boots.  The poor woman coming toward me with packages was waterlogged up to her knees.  So, I took the least deep cross-walks and decided to wait out the deluge in a small coffee shop where they actually spoke French – which, crazy enough, comes out of my mouth much more fluently than modern Hebrew.  As the brioche the menu promised was non-existent, I went with the sufganiyah. I have been dreaming of sufganiyot the way I imagine the phrase “visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Sadly, this sufganiyah was, I hope, as poor as they come; however, the folks at the next table were just lovely – she from St. Petersburg originally, they live in Helsinki and are visiting family in Israel.  As we chatted, the rain began to subside enough to pay the bill and catch the 10:30 bus (#13) toward Tel Aviv University and the Beit Hatfusot – The Museum of the Jewish People.  It turns out that many of the museums in Tel Aviv are open on Shabbat and closed on Sunday, so my first choices were closed … and this turns out to have been a good thing because of all of the delightful things that happened because of the buses I took, the people I met, and the things that I saw today.

img_0130This was my first exploration (to use the day’s angel) of using a bus in Israel and it was quite simple and pleasant, not to mention, it would be a ridiculous walk to the University and the bus was dry, fast, comfortable, clean, and cheap. I went through security to get onto campus, which just meant showing my passport at the gate to a guard. The museum is near the art school and large sculptures, Mediterranean vegetation, and bird songs greet its visitors.  A big green, happy fellow covered with butterflies greeted me with joy despite the ominous clouds and the myriad puddles, and the hours in the museum were pleasant, predominantly because of an exhibit that spoke directly to the liturgy and prayer enthusiast in me, entitled Hallelujah! Assemble, Pray, Study: Synagogues Past and Present.  

In this exhibit I found a mishkan (a sanctuary) for my liturgy-loving, rain-sogged, jet-lagged, over-sugared, highly-caffeinated self. (Yes, friends, that morning stop to avoid the flood was a health hazard of epic proportions to my recently gluten-avoiding, desperately-striving-not-to-indulge-my-caffeine-and-sugar-craving body.)  I allowed myself the extended opportunity to just marinate for a while in an exhibit that felt as if it had been planted there just for my delight ~ models of synagogues including the Elkins Park synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, ritual objects, siddurim (prayerbooks), including Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructionist siddur we use most often at The Little Minyan Kehilla.  

I also luxuriated in the sensual pleasure – visual and auditory – of four films on continuous loop and large screens, the most interesting, artistically, showing the activity (or inactivity) within synagogues all around the world and throughout all hours of the day – large and small, urban and not, and (a bit disappointingly) all traditional (whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform).  The other three clips were of liturgical music of different varieties and pieties linked by a visually delightful, mystical flow of important prayer fragments that eventually broke up into individual Hebrew letters which floated toward you, a la Star Trek, and then eventual re-constellated into another prayer fragment. I posted to Facebook as this site doesn’t allow videos.

Ordering lunch at the museum cafeteria was a bit daunting even when I finally was handed a menu in English … I am so bashful about my Hebrew and the man taking my order was NOT going to indulge my English.  I made it through ordering my salad and water but failed the simple test of being asked my name – seriously!  He caught me off guard as I didn’t realize until after the face-warming repetition of the prompt that people were being called up to get their orders as they came out of the kitchen.  “Jessica,” I finally offer, and step aside to comfort my little girl self who has emerged despite the grey hairs that give away my advancing age.  I look at my receipt and see this: גסיקה – gimmel – samech – yud – koof – hey, and I recognize my name and smile.  Biblical Hebrew does not have a “J” sound – gimmel is only a hard G like gadol – big or goy – nation.  I keenly remember another time of deep embarrassment when we listened to some audio reel of the Merchant of Venice in Miss Briss’ 7th grade English class.  Every time Shylock said the name of his daughter, he said “Yeeeeh-ssika!”  For a long time thereafter, some of my classmates would call “Yeeeeh-ssika.”  As a woman calls my name over the microphone – Jessica with a soft g/J, I smile and step forward for my salad.

When I leave the museum complex, I am struck by the clean smell of the Mediterranean air and notice the very tall palm trees.  Perhaps as a result of the rain and the many puddles, the birds are singing with what sounds like wild abandon and sheer delight (or shir delight – “shir” meaning song in Hebrew).  Around the campus there is signage about the birds and between that and the palm trees I feel a bit closer to my parents’ home on Sanibel Island where I know my family is congregated for the holiday and birthday celebrations.img_0133-2

Feeling accomplished and a bit tired, I head for the bus and am struck by the way the municipality of Teimg_0136l Aviv (and, I suspect, Israel in general) encourages plastic recycling with enormous metal “crates.”  I have yet to see how these get emptied, but I suspect it is infrequent only because of the enormity of the container.  The second thing that captures
my attention after finding my bus stop is that advertising is, for the first time in my life, geared to my holiday observance and NOT to Christmas-observes.  I am still new enough to being of the majority culture vs. being the perpetual “other” to be totally tickled by seeing Chanukah EVERYWHERE … must be all of those years growing up in and living in a country where Christmas is EVERYWHERE and where, still, the switch to “Happy Holidays” is treated by too many as “robbing” people of Christmas.

On my way back to the heart of the city I speak at length with a lovely woman (definitely one of my Women of Valor) who initially helps ensure I take the correct bus back to Tel Aviv but quickly becomes a friend.  We talk about museums, art, dance, music, city planning, politics, and the rain. She grew up on a kibbutz and came to Tel Aviv in her early 20’s “for a few years.” She has lived here ever since and is coming from her home near the University to help out with her grandchildren for the evening.  As we chat, she mentions that I should look into the special concerts going on right now to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic.  The EXHILARATION that results when I take up the challenge of adding this EXPLORATION to my day is deserving of it’s own post.

 

Light and Freedom

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On the Wings of Walls I find Light and Freedom 

Months of unhealthy sleep patterns had worn a groove that was impervious to relaxation meditations, essential oils, herbal teas, and altered eating habits. I was feeling significantly older each day in ways that I could not hide, even with good make-up and a genuine smile. I was certain that the serious snow-globe shaking of total extraction from my “daily grind” by way of a flight nearly half-way across the world to the Land of my People – a land completely familiar and totally foreign at the same time – would be sure to do the trick.

On Wednesday, I was deposited by a truly kind and honest taxi driver at the empty apartment of a dear friend, in the enormous city of Tel Aviv. Initially exhilarated from my first foray for dinner on Wednesday evening, and anticipating days of sight-seeing, I went to sleep with big plans for the next day (Thursday).

I awoke Friday morning so refreshed I was almost able to forgive myself for the “gluttony” of more than 24 hours of deep and restorative sleep. With the help of my dear friend R’ Eva Sax-Bolder, I made it to complete forgiveness before 7 a.m. (her midnight) and spent the next few hours taking care of left over business.

For me, there is nothing more life-giving and uplifting than waking just before sunrise and watching the skies brighten.  Thus, it has always puzzled me that I, who SO loves this liminal time of day, wouldn’t be inspired by the sheer pleasure of it to awake daily to it’s glory.  Those who don’t live inside me find it even more puzzling and always have such sound and well-intentioned advice for getting up with the dawn.  And yet, most days, getting out of bed is the most difficult thing I do and seeing dawn is a rare occurrence.   

What I have come to accept (even as I don’t fully understand it) is that some of us are designed to feel heaviness with the same intensity as we feel delight.  I am grateful for the lightness of being that I am able to feel with even the smallest of provocation, so I must also embrace that part of me that feels the weight and darkness.

Friday was filled with exercise, exploration, and exhilaration. I walked from the center of Tel Aviv toward Old Yafo/יפו (or Jaffa for the the English speakers). I am so delighted by the names of the streets that I nearly giggle as I walk … from Hess, I am on Yona haNavi (Jonah the Prophet), I take a turn south on HaKovshim explicitly so that I can walk west again but on Ge’ula/גאולה‎‎. Ge’ula means redemption in Hebrew and although walking on a street called redemption in the US might not even phase me, the Hebrew word has such potent liturgical, psycho-spiritual energy that I walk differently as I traverse this street to the beach. I don’t notice as I am now on the Promenade all the way to Old Jaffa, but the street delight could have continued ~ Ezra haSofer (the Scribe), Nechemiah, Daniel … the bible is coming to life all around me and we aren’t even at the archeological sites, we’re just talking street names.

To my keen olfactory sense (which, trust me, is not always a blessing) the sea air smells fabulous and I enjoy watching the myriad surfers defying the signage indicating that no one is to be in the water when there is no life guard on duty (there is not a life guard to be seen).

The Three Wise Men - Surfers prepare to join those in the waves
Three Wise Men stretching on the beach

As we descended into Tel Aviv on Tuesday, I drew an angel card to accompany me – Light. No surprise, I thought. Our northern hemisphere is approaching the darkest day and the holiday season of light is nearly upon us with Chanukah and Christmas arriving on the same night this year – December 24th.  In addition, bringing light to the darkness is becoming an important theme for so many of us who fear the political darkness that is feeding on fear and anger.

Friday morning’s angel was Freedom which makes sense when you see that this angel is standing naked on the beach in the sunshine.  Had I drawn this in Columbus, it would have been all about finding meaning in the word; here, it had clear (naked, one could say) meaning.

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Though I had no plan of getting naked, it is warm enough that I quickly begin to remove layers and ended up in only my short-sleeved dress by the time I arrive in Yafo. I pass all kinds of people – tourist and natives – and I am beginning to suspect that people pass one another here on the opposite side than we pass one another in the states when I realize I must quicken my steps to meet my tour.

Sandeman’s is a company that offers free tours in cities around the world and my first experience with this was absolutely outstanding! Our tour guide was knowledgeable and img_0065extremely pleasant and, for two hours, showed us all around Old Jaffa with much historical information about the many populations that had occupied this city over the centuries. I was particularly taken with the mythology (biblical, Greek, European, and modern Israeli) woven throughout his sharing the history and archeology of this ancient port city and its buildings, and loved that he showed us “evidence” of the Hellenist tale of the beautiful princess with the over-prideful mother who ended up tied to the rock that now has an Israeli flag rising from it in the harbor.  He pulls out a map of the constellations and we all giggle. We chat with one another and enjoy the beautiful day.

Among the storied buildings we pass in Yafo are a brothel that now is one of the priciest locations at which to host a wedding reception, an Armenian monastery made of a type of sandstone found only in Israel and California, and the storied St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan church built during the Ottoman empire over the remains of a church built during the Crusades. We are told that the alter faces west and this is related to Peter’s famousimg_0091 dream of the vessel containing non-kosher animals that he, as a Jew, would not have eaten, but in which he was told, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). Peter interpreted this divine vision as permission to forgo Jewish law and preach Christianity to Jews as well as pagans. After this event, we are told, Christianity evolved from a small sect to the world religion it is today. I will let my Christian clergy friends tell me how close I have gotten to correctly telling the story, but we also walked by the home of Simon the Tanner, where Peter is said to have stayed when he had this vision.

Near the end of our tour, our guide tells us he has something special to show us as if everywhere we looked was somehow ordinary. We walk back to a location in between the narrow streets of the old city and the enormous luxury condominium construction project to find this artistic homage to the end of the Jaffa orange orchards. The tree and it’s fruit are suspended above the ground in a giant stone piece resembling an avocado pit. It very effectively depicts how the trees were severed from the earth.  You can still get a Jaffa orange, our guide tells us, but it will have been grown in Spain.

I am in this ancient land, so old it vibrates with layers and layers of stories about life and determination, and yet some, like this one about how we “pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” are stories we have not yet learned from no matter how often we hear them.

Before beginning my walk back to Tel Aviv, I stop into a Yemenite Museum – a small museum which is more of the backstory to the workshop and gallery of artist Ben Zion David.  I walked through the doorway from the street and that olfactory sense brought me much joy. My first conversation was with a young man who poured me a cup of Yemenite coffee (infused with a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger – think chai coffee).  We spoke about learning a new language and the frustration that he insisted I must release. You must embrace imperfection, he said, with a knowing that seemed far beyond his years. He shared that he was an actor in his native Bulgaria and coming to Israel, he realized his most precious skill ~ communication ~ was going to be tested. (Note to self ~ this is the same thing that Joanie mentions in a subsequent conversation about losing the thing you are really good at ~ making conversation. This is very disorienting and painful to a conversationalist like me I am realizing quickly.)

“Embrace imperfection,” he encourages me before turning me over to a video about the history of Yemenite Jews and their migration to Israel both before and after Israel became a state. The film also shares the history of the family of Ben Zion David, this electrical engineer turned artist, who could not resist the calling to his family’s lineage as filigree artists and his jewelry and sacred objects are glorious. (A familiar story to this lawyer who couldn’t resist the calling to serve as a Judaic ritual artist.)

I go into the gallery and spend an incredible hour or so with a woman named Dina who quickly becomes one of my Women of Valor. We talk about many things and she shares with me the extraordinary pastries that keep arriving from the incredibly talented pastry artist around the corner, apparently preparing for a large party and sharing the overflow.  There is a very festive pre-Shabbat feeling buzzing around as people come in and out – shoppers and friends.  Even though it is my first real day of exploring and I am well aware of my weakness for jewelry and delightful people, and the significant limit of my bank account, I know that I must take one of the rimonim with me.  Rimonim (pomegranates) j110are VERY special in Judaism … the numerous sweet seeds symbolic of the study of Torah. The artist has exquisite rimonim for placing on Torah handles and other gorgeous judaica, ladden with rimonim, but even the smallest are beyond my purse. The necklaces, however … I find a silver one with a small red stone which is almost right, but not quite.  Dina finds another one with only silver, but that one, too, isn’t mine.  Then, she pulls out one with my birthstone – a tiny round opal with luminous blue hues, and it is settled!  Dina didn’t know this is my birthstone, but she, like me, “believes in these things.”   She invites me for a Yemini feast on Shabbat afternoon with her whole family, but I don’t have a car and the buses don’t run on Shabbat and we agree to stay in touch.  I hope we do …

My return to Tel Aviv feels like a much longer walk than the walk down to Yafo.  My feet are tired and I am hungry. I hoof it up to the Shuk HaCarmel, arriving just in time to take advantage of the fresh vegetables (one has NEVER tasted cucumber until one tastes an Israeli cucumber I discovered today, wishing I had purchased many more!) and dried fruit and nuts as the stalls begin to close for Shabbat.  I stop at a stall to buy felafel in pita, with tasty humus, tihini, Israeli salad (cucumber, onion and tomato), and delicious pickled veg and cabbage. The atmosphere is festive and one of the men in the stall begins offering everyone a little paper cup of Finlandia vodka. The warmth in my throat and cheeks feels good.  We are heading into my first Shabbat in Israel and I am filled with the light and freedom of the day.

I buy a few groceries and Chanukah candles on my way back to the apartment.  When I arrive, I cannot find my friend’s Shabbes candles or candlesticks (I considered bringing my own candlesticks and Chanukiah to Israel but that seemed so silly at the time).  So I improvise with the Chanukah candles, blessing the Sabbath light, the fruit of the vine, and the sanctity of the day and my freedom to observe it.

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Shabbat Shalom!! שבת שלים

Balance and Flexibility

When I saw this “canned” photo at the top of my newly created blog site, I knew, immediately, that it would have to stay, regardless of how many photos I would take to populate subsequent posts.  It speaks so vividly to me ~ the tiny speck of womanhood against the immense spectacle of nature’s glory, grounded and balanced and reaching up in tree pose.  In just one photo, I saw nearly all of my primary sources of well-being:

  • AWARENESS of the AWEsome glory of our Earth-mother, 
  • GROUNDING myself through yoga and other somatic awareness practices (especially Warrior 2 – strength with heart-openness, and Tree pose)
  • RITUAL, which (as I describe on my website) “allows us to gather and raise up the threads we weave, honor the sacred transitions within our life’s unfolding, as we invite others to bear witness. Both a process and a vista along life’s journey, ritual provides a lens through which to view and unite past, present, and future with magnificent clarity.” 
  • JOURNEY – treating life as a process (rather than a product) we participate in daily as we work to enhance our ability to be our best, most authentic and evolved selves within the interconnectedness of all and in partnership with the Source of Blessing.

The photo also clearly connects to two cards from two different decks of spiritual energy, which I drew forth to help me prepare for two+ months in Israel ~ my first visit to the Land that is so foundational to my People, my wisdom tradition, and my calling. The cards read “Balance” and “Flexibility” and drawing them as new “dance partners” from separate energies to mingle with my own felt both magical and b’shert (meant to be). 

The first deck, Kavvanah Cards, was created by Betsy Teutsch, a talented Judaic artist and author, community organizer and eco-activist. The second, The Original Angel Cards (Tyler/Drake), was a recent gift from my mashpi’ah (spiritual guide), Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, an extraordinarily gifted, deeply soulful rabbi, poet, mystic, musician, song-writer, artist and spiritual midwife.

I take the time to share the source of these cards and how they came to my hands because I am perpetually aware of and profoundly grateful for the encouragement and support I’ve received from women who are a decade or more older than I.  There are countless women upon whose metaphorical shoulders I stand, and I am deeply appreciative of all they have done to pave the way for those of us who follow them, chronologically.  

And then, there is a subcategory of these women who have done so much more for me and others. They have opened doors (and windows and skylights) without hesitation or expectation of anything in return. Women whose courage and composure and confidence and compassion have drawn me forth to pursue my soul’s calling, have welcomed me with open arms and pushed me forward.  They saw in me something they were willing to nourish and nurture, even in the face of my self-doubt.  Women who clearly and honestly identified beauty and strength in me, reflecting it back to me with affection and enthusiasm to embolden me to take my place among them. 

It is to these extraordinary inspirational and kind women of valor ~ my guides, teachers, colleagues, and friends, that I dedicate this blog which I intend to serve as a way of capturing my time in Israel and throughout the coming year leading toward my smicha (ordination).  And in their honor, I intend to focus my writing over the next few months on my somatic and spiritual experience of my journey rather than creating a travel journal, though it will likely be a combination of both.

Today, I landed in Israel, Ben Gurion airport, with light in my heart and heaviness in my body.  Nearly 10 hours on a plane and 18 hours of travel combined with poor sleep patterns in the weeks leading up to this trip are being felt by my body – neck and back absorbing the brunt, as always.  As I lifted my bag out of the overhead compartment, I smiled at the young man watching me struggle. “I know I don’t look quite 90, but my back often tells me otherwise.” He smiled but didn’t offer to help and I didn’t ask.

I was prepared for the man davenen (praying) behind me (my row was the last in my section) on the plane, but was struck with such delight by the mezuzot on the doors in the airport – even the sliding doors had a mezuzah affixed to the doorframe.  And in the casual restaurant where I ventured for delicious falafel, salad, hummus, tihini, and pickled veggies on pita (akin to our local Chipotle or Piada) there was not only a mezuzah on the doorpost, but a small sink in the corner equipped with a hand-washing vessel (for the ritual pre-meal washing) and just as some laughed and talked and viewed cell phones after eating, other’s “bentched” (said grace after meal) quietly in the restaurant before moving on with their evening.

I am grateful for my good sense of direction which allows me to find my way back “home” without issue. I smile as I turn onto Zalman on my way to Hess. Of course this is Rabbi Schneur Zalman, not our beloved Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, of blessed memory, but I see it as no coincidence that Reb Zalman guides my way home.  For a moment I worry, in the dark, that I have made a mistake and am not on Hess. There was no visible street sign when I turned. But, it is garbage night in this part of Tel Aviv and just as I start to doubt myself, I notice that each garbage can is marked הס – Hess … I am home.