When I was in Berlin, alone and free, I spoke to this nice man on the phone.
My 12 hours in berlin didn’t belong to any world in particular. It was as if I existed outside all my normal realities- away form everyone and everything I knew. The city was familiar, but felt quite distant, like a scene in my dreams.
I needed money and my ATM card wasn’t working. I wandered for a while, but finally gave in and called my bank.
I explained my situation to the man on the phone- he sounded young. He said he would fix the problem but urged me to stay on the line until I knew for certain I could take out cash.
So I went in search of an ATM machine. On the way, we spoke. At first, I apologized for taking so long and he calmed me, saying he was in no rush he had all the time in the world.
He told me about the last time he was in Berlin. He saw a few churches, he said. He began to describe the architecture to me.
He asked what I was studying, only to find that he too had studied religion. American religion. We spoke a bit about civil religion and about the beauty of European cathedrals. We talked about the rise of evangelicalism in millenials and what we thought might be causing this trend.
I had my money, the ATM worked. I told him, excited to share the news with a friend.
Then I realized this was to be the end of our conversation. He paused, wished me the best time in Berlin, urged me to go to the church, to get some currywurst.
I paused, wondering when we would speak next.
We wished one another farewell and I hung up, wondering where he was sitting. Was he in a crowded office somewhere? Working from home?
Dreaming of currywurst and gothic spirals.
I think of him sometimes. I wonder what his name is and how a religious studies major wound up working customer service at a bank.
God in Jackson
This past week Jews around the world celebrated Shavuout. Crammed into libraries and yeshivot to study until the early morning hours. Embracing and learning the holy works that we accepted (or were pressured into accepting) by God.
It was my first holiday in Jackson. My mom left town half an hour before the holiday began.
After spending about a week in the car driving across the not-so-memorable parts of the SouthWestern United States, then moving in, taking multiple trips to Target and the like, she was ready to leave Jackson behind. The moment I returned to the US, I was surrounded by family and friends. Now I was truly on my own.
When she walked into the tiny terminal that is the Jackson airport, a feeling of emptiness overwhelmed me.
I looked at the clock. I was 15 minutes late to a Tikun Leil at the local synagogue.
I felt rushed.
I wanted to be surrounded by a community.
I speeded away from the airport, driving through the large forestland that surrounds the place.
I couldn’t believe I was late for the first thing I would attend at the shul. I was anxious to be there already, but it was a good 25 minute drive.
Driving down this one lane road, in the distance I saw some animals walking. I slowed down. A swarm (flock?) of geese sauntered onto the road, making their way to the small lake on the other side.
I stopped the car.
They weren’t moving. Okay, they were moving but taking their sweet time.
I breathed deeply. And took in the scene: alone on a country road, geese merrily blocking my way, the sky lit up with the sunset. A storm had just passed and the majestic clouds led rays of sun through, as if to announce the presence of the divine (the stock photo we all imagine when we think of God in nature).
The scene was surreal, it had to be a joke.
I looked up at the sky and reminded myself that Torah is all around us. I hear often that we are constantly receiving the Torah, we just need to be present to see it in our lives.
Here I was, a conservative/ reconstructionist/ egalitarian (not sure what to call myself) Jew in Mississippi. Racing the clock to make it to shul before shavuout began. Forced to slow down, take a breathe, and acknowledge God around me.
I wasn’t as alone as I felt.
This year, I’m working as the community engagement fellow at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life. I work to connect Southern communities with meaningful service projects. I work to keep our own community tapped into service.
I work to bring universal values to Jews, and non-Jews, to serve the community that will be my home for the next two years.
I work to share my Torah with those around me.
Shavuout reminded me of this, and sustains my connection to Torah. I am reminded that in moments of discomfort, we grow and learn about ourselves.
Goin’ to Jackson
I’m goin’ to Jackson. Well actually, I’m not just going, I’m moving.
It’s been about a week since I got back from Israel and my head is reeling.
I hit the ground running and set out on a road trip through a riveting part of this country: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Texas, Texas, Louisiana, and finally Mississippi. From Jerusalem to Jackson. From questioning my relationship with Israel to meeting strangers in the supermarket who, upon hearing I’m Jewish, proudly shout “we stand with Israel!” Yep, happened this morning.
Driving through miles upon miles of desert and barren land didn’t help things.
Once we made it through Texas (finally) we hit a huge storm, a monsoon of sorts. Coming through the rain the skies opened up. I felt as if I could breathe. A vast expanse of green stood before us on the road.
We entered Mississippi, crossing the mighty river that is it’s namesake.
Today is my Hebrew birthday, I thought as I breathed deeply and looked up at the majestic sky, flanked full of light, airy clouds catching the sun just right.
As we drove into Mississippi, the sun began to set and the dew in the air caught the light in the perfect manner. I see the sublime in this place.
This year, I’ve been struggling with my conceptions of God. Throughout my life, My rational brain has fought to subdue the emotional side, the part of me open to divinity and mystery in this world. I’ve learned that although I may not be able to make sense of both sides of my thought at once, that doesn’t mean I can pretend don’t believe.
Driving into Jackson, seeing the sun in the sky, making it to the house in time to light candles for Shabbat was an experience of God in my life.
Like someone was reminding me and letting me know this is where I’m meant to be these next two years.
Here’s to many more struggles and experiences of the divine in the mundane.
I’m leaving Israel today.
I hurry to catch my plane, held up before security for sentimental reasons. Rushed goodbyes and confusion.
I enter the plane with a crowd full of men in black jackets, fur hats, and peyos. I walk inside to find the aisles crowded full of these men, pushing and shoving, frantically fitting bags overhead. As I make my way to my seat, the flight attendents urge everyone to sit down.
No one is sitting down.
Again, they ask everyone to sit so we can take off.
More movement. More pushing.
After several more announcements and personal urges, the plane quiets for a few minutes and we lift off the ground.
I welcome the distraction of this chaos; otherwise my mind would be full of melancholy thoughts of what I’m leaving behind.
Rude, loud, frantic, pushy. The flight is consumed with these adjectives. The flight attendants look harried and sad by the end. They make comments about how “they don’t listen, they aren’t respectful.” They see a kippah and they cringe, reminded of this image of a plane stuffed full of Jews. They don’t see the nuance in dress, in behavior, in language.
I want to shout at the top of my lungs “I’m a Jew, too.” But they just see me as the sweet, quiet girl who thanks them for their hard work. They offer my whiskey for my kindness.
I am ashamed of the image of Jews that this flight portrays.
I start talking to the couple next to me. From the South, on pilgrimage to Israel, shocked by the men on this flight. I jump at the opportunity to tell them what I’ve been doing for the year. I want them to see me as a religious Jew also, someone invested in learning and ritual.
Then the woman asks me the question I’ve been trying not to answer all year, “What’s the hardest part about living in Jerusalem?”
I stop. Should I tell her the truth? Or something superficial, something that doesn’t create controversy or portray my feelings.
I take a deep breath, ”witnessing the realities of occupation, and admitting that my country is doing this to another people.”
She stares at me with a knowing smile. “We had no idea what was going on here, how many Arabs live in Israel! And how they are treated!”
I shouldn’t have brought it up.
"But we love all the Jews so much, we think y’all are great. We love Israel."
"I love Israel too, that’s the hardest part. I see the faults yet I can’t stop loving it. That’s a love that isn’t superficial, it’s one that can stand the challenge of years."
She smiles, “sounds like you’re talking about home.”
I’m glad I brought it up.
In Phoenix, I disappear into a crowd of cowboys.
I miss the men in black hats and black coats.
With the Romans
As we entered the Colosseum, my jaw dropped. The size of it was unbelievable. I tried to imagine walking into a stadium similar to this to see a basketball game, or even a football. Nothing could compare.
Then I looked up. In the spaces before the bleachers, where one would expect vendor stalls, there was metal grating overhead. I know it was meant to keep out the birds (as witnessed by all the feathers left behind) but immediately I thought of Hebron. The shuk. The grates meant to keep out insult and injury. Images of used tea bags stuck in my mind. Men peeing over the roof onto those below. Could you imagine such an image at the Colosseum? I certainly couldn’t.
I walked away and left the memory behind. We explored the Roman forum and the amazing structures left behind.
Titus’ arch brought me back to Jerusalem. There it was, carved into the stone, the golden Menorah from the temple that the Roman army supposedly took and brought back to Rome after destroying all in their wake. On the other side of the arc is a triumphant image of the army returning from war in Jerusalem. A display of power and ownership, leaving the community devastated.
Around the same time, the first Romano Jews are said to have arrived in Rome. It wasn’t until the mid 1500s that they were forced to live in a ghetto. There were strict laws governing every aspect of life- what jobs they could have, what clothes they could wear, how many shuls there could be (to get around the one shul rule, they built 5 separate synagogues in one building).
I visited the great synagogue and was reminded of our history of perseverance across the globe. We are persecuted, yet we maintain our identity and we survive, and thrive.
I saw a man on a crowded street yesterday wearing a kippah and I was reminded how much I take for granted being Jewish in Israel.
Walking out of the synagogue today, an older nun stopped in the street to sneer an insult and my family. Again, I was transported back to Hebron.
We are the victims, over and over again. We will always be the targets of insult and injury. Shouldn’t we, best of all, keep such traumas from happening to others? Shouldn’t we be the ones putting the grates up, not the ones from which the grates protect?
I’m at a loss. I don’t identify with those persecutors, yet try as I might I cannot escape them.
New tunes amisdt the old
A few nights ago I went to a music and light festival in the old city.
Earlier that day, I signed a contract for my job next year- working with Jewish communities in the South, based in Jackson Mississippi.
I’ve become aware of what little time I have left in Israel, and the huge shift that will take place with this next move in my life.
As we entered the Jaffa gate, we were greeted by a Tom Jones-esque man, singing to a crowd of young, hip Israelis.
The next band was a family of Mizrahi Jews, playing varied instruments and jamming out to liturgical tunes.
This was followed up with some gypsy music, and a violinist playing on the street corner.
In the Jewish quarter, A hasidic reggae band played on a massive stage inside the cardo. Halfway through one song, the lead singer pulled out a shofar and began calling out to the crowd reminders of tekiah.
Looking down upon the crowd, I thought “This is more Jews than I will see in the next two years of my life combined.”
As we journeyed into the Muslim quarter, another gypsy band greeted us at the corner of a narrow street.
The next band was the only non-Jewish one. Singing beautifully in Arabic, this band caught the attention of two yeshiva boys, who stopped, sang along and shouted with joy at something the lead singer said in Arabic.
Just when I think I have dynamics in Jerusalem figured out, people surprise me.
Next we stopped to listen to black Hebrews from Dimona singing on a huge stage in the Christian quarter. Along the via delarosa, a man with a fiddle played upon a roof.
The night ended with Red Band, an Israeli cover band that did an amazing Western rendition of Paper Planes, accompanied by puppets.
The night left me feeling high on culture and religion. I walked away proud to live in such a city, and devastated by my future away from it. I am forever surprised by the interactions between peoples, both good and bad. I was embarrassed by the lack of stages and music in the Muslim quarter, compared to the incredible presence in the Jewish quarter. That being said, I’m reminded that the festival spanned all four quarters and sent tourists down winding alleyways they would probably otherwise avoid in the night. I’m one of those tourists. I was struck by the beauty of the city at night, the vibrance. I’m blessed to be here, and i’ll spend my last moments in this city constantly reminding myself.
I will again be a minority in Jackson, but I will bring with me memories from the holy land. Next year in Jackson.
This one time…
A nun saved my life.
I was walking near the old city and about to cross the street when she stuck out her hand and grabbed me by the arm to stop me from walking in front of a speeding car.
I, frazzled and grateful, said “thank you so much.”
She, humble and quiet, continued on as if nothing had happened.
I am often reminded of the compassion and good that religion brings to our world.
Two Days in Bethlehem
One week ago I spent two days in Bethlehem with a group of 15 American Jews, on a trip run by Encounter (http://www.encounterprograms.org/).
Immediately after the trip, I knew I had to write about it. I won’t pretend that I can accurately convey my experience in words, or share everything with you. I must highlight that my experience is my own- I can not speak to the feelings or thoughts of the other participants. I will say I want to try and share how I felt, what I thought, and how the experience has impacted me. I want to share with you. I hope my experience inspires something inside you; after going on Encounter, I think it is one of the most important things a person can do while visiting or living in Israel. I urge you to leave my words behind and experience for yourself.
Over the course of two days, we heard from a host of speakers. The first speaker set the tone for powerful stories of pain, violence, and perseverance. Ali spoke to us about being raised educated by a system that taught him to be angry. He admitted to taking part in the first intifada, to being angry and hurt and wanting everyone else to know. In prison, he entered an education system in which he learned Hebrew and English, and studied non-violence. Ali was eventually released an continued to practice non-violence. After being shot in the leg by a settler, and learning that his brother was shot in the head at a checkpoint, without reason, a group of bereaved Israeli families reached out to him. Though Ali’s story is quite moving, his compassion took my breath away. He spoke of learning about the vast history of victimization that has come to define the Jewish narrative, that Jewish fear is the biggest threat to Palestinians. Fear is what drives victimization of the other, and the way to fight fear is not with violence.
Ali’s words really struck me because I know that fear intimately. That fear told me from a young age that when we say “never again,” the hidden message is that there will be those that try again, but we have to be strong enough to stop it. My narrative, my history, teaches me never to trust the other. But without trust, our future is filled with pain and with fear and with uncertainty. Without trust, we become the oppressors.
A few different speakers touched upon this fear, they noted that the Jewish people want a place to feel the majority, to be in control of life. I struggle with this. It’s a meaningful desire and a beautiful one, but at its core this want excludes everyone else, it creates something insular and untrusting. I’m not sure where to go from here, but I think admitting fear and opening up is an important first step.
Later that day, we heard from a panel that consisted of a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, a student living in Hebron, and a social worker from Gaza. These three speakers shed light on the complexities of issues at play in each person’s life, regardless of place. All the speakers touched upon the limits to every day life: movement is severely restricted by checkpoints all throughout the territory, and “floating checkpoints” can show up at any moment. Permits are needed to go anywhere outside the West Bank, and are not easy to secure. The wall, the fence, whatever it is, separates Palestinians from Palestinians and severely restricts movement throughout the West Bank. Water rations haven’t changed since 1967, and new wells can’t be dug. I won’t attempt to factually depict life, or all the limits placed on it. The very point is that there are limits. And the people living with these limits live ten minutes away from me, in land controlled by the state of Israel.
Later that night, we were joined by Palestinian youth leaders and our host families to play some games. After the games, we went into small group sessions.
I heard from young girls, who described their experience of seeing any solder as feeling as if their lives was in danger, of being terrified. I was struck by the contrast between their association with Israeli solders and my own: I see a uniform and I feel safe, I feel proud. How can the same person, wearing the same uniform mean such different things for us?
We went around the circle and I shared that I live and study in Jerusalem and immediately, the man sitting next to me asked me:
"Do you have any Palestinian friends?
Do you interact with anyone in east Jerusalem?”
I wasn’t sure what to respond. I was a bit embarrassed. When I said no, that I don’t interact with Palestinians in my world, he turned to me and said:
“Now you have Palestinian friends.”
I think this interaction sums up my journey: frustration at myself for totally naivety and isolation from the narratives of Palestinians, disillusionment of the reality of these populations, and hope for a future inextricably bound together.
There’s so much more I can share with you, but for now, I think I’ll stop here. Immediately after my experience on Encounter, I felt as if the air had been sucked out of me. I was angry and my anger drove me to tell myself I could never actively choose to become a citizen of a state that behaved this way, I could never make Aliyah. The truth is, I think that’s the easy way out. I think it’s okay to be angry but turning my back because something hurts too much helps no one, including myself. We should feel the freedom to be critical of our own, to be guiding of our own, not just accept and justify what takes place.
From the moment I was born, Israeli citizenship was waiting for me. I hate this fact. I hate that without even wanting it, I can have an Israeli passport while millions of Palestinians, born in this land, do not know that right. I hate that I can move freely as I please all throughout the country, without a second thought.
I love that I am profoundly aware of my status in this place. My privilege causes me guilt, and pain, but it’s something extraordinary that I never want to take for granted.
I also love that from the moment I was born, there was an Israeli passport waiting for me. I love that this is my Jewish state. But I’m ashamed and deeply saddened by the way my Jewish state acts towards the other. There is a startling disconnect between Jewish morals and the very real actions of a Jewish state.
My hope for the future is that fear ceases to be a catalyst of action.
Yes and No.
Last week, in Self Soul & Text with Rav James, we talked about concepts of generosity and opening oneself up to giving. We were given the assignment to “just say yes” for one week, and then to “say no” for half a week. This practice just so happened to coincide with Thanksgiving, with Hannukah, and with my one-week trip to Greece. I decided to take the plunge and push myself to say lots of yes(es).
This has been done before, many times. Movies have been made about it. But I would never think of actually committing to something so foolish as saying yes to everything (that isn’t dangerous). Truth is, it’s just not in my nature. It’s much easier for me to say yes to a few social things per week and spend the rest of the time saying no and retreating happily to time spent alone.
I want to share some of these moments with you:
Day One: I instinctively said no to something I thought I didn’t have time for. As I was walking away, I took a moment to pause and reconsider and realized that my plans later that night were flexible. I turned back around and said “yes.” I spent that afternoon delivering Hannukah gifts (books) to unsuspecting homes associated with Pardes. I drove around neighborhoods of Jerusalem with four other students, stopping to knowck on doors and literally spread some holiday cheer. The reactions were remarkable, ranging from “what a special Hannukah gift!” to, “you’ve made my week.” Though I wound up rushing to dinner, I made it with plenty of time to get multiple servings of Thanksgiving food and saying yes was my favorite thing that day.
Day Two: I said yes to meeting my madrich from my gap year program, his wife, and new born baby for a walk. Along the way, I said yes to a deaf man selling slips of how-to-do hebrew sign language. This was my first yes to charity for the week. I realized that I have become so accustomed to instantly saying no to inquisitions for money on the street; I’m not quite sure why.
Day Three: Today, I flew to Greece. My flight left at 6 am so we wound up staying awake all night and arrived in Crete around noon. After landing, we grabbed our bags and headed to pick up the rental car. We were given a choice of three cars, and I wound up saying yes to the salesmen’s favorite car. Hello little red toyota Yaris. Once we made it to our hotel, the hotel owner offered us a tour of the area in his car. We hopped in, stopped for coffee along the way, and were invited to visit a private art museum the following day and go out for one drink in the city center that night.
Typically, I would say no to drinks with a strange Greek man (not because I felt unsafe in this situation, but because my introverted self would very much prefer walking around the beach alone at night to a crowded bar full of strangers).
One drink became three drinks, some Raki, and an assortment of food at three separate bars. The first bar was tucked away in an alleyway, packed full of people and an in-house dj. I had some sort of hip vodka, beetroot-infused, coriander concoction here. The second was a well-established rock bar that played 80s classics, and the third was an alley cafe bursting with late night dinner crowds. Greek hospitality is remarkable- our host pretended he would let me pay but managed to grab the waiter before I could every time.
Day Four: On a day full of driving, I decided to say yes a bit figuratively. Greeks don’t really listen to driving laws; it seems lights and stop signs are suggestions and lines on the road are merely decoration. When a car would attempt to pass me, today I moved over to easily to let them in, and decided to say yes to all of the traffic laws. I even went the speed limit while other drivers angrily sped past me. I stopped for a red light with no cars coming the opposite direction, and listened gleefully to the sound of ringing horns behind me.
For the record, I think I’m going to say yes to this behavior for the rest of my life.
Day Five: Yet again, I said yes to meeting my hotel owner for drinks. This time, we hung out with the college student and her 5 other friends at a laid back bar on the pier for hours. I said yes to shots of raki and traditional Greek beer. The final yes of the evening came to free ice cream. Why not?
Day Six: Day six, it stormed tumultuously all day long. We were staying in an old town, right on the coast. Gusts of wind burst through the streets and waves splashed onto the peer, making it impossible to walk on the main street. Today, I said yes to staying in all day and taking some time to relax. This is something I have trouble being okay with . Even when I am sick and know I need to be sleeping, I won’t fully accept that fate. Being okay with taking time for rest and saying yes to me taking care of myself made this one of my favorite days.
Day Seven: This last day involved, among other things, going in search of a botanical park tucked into the hills. The park itself was closed but we said yes to exploring the trails anyway and, of course, having some raki with the owner afterward.
The half week of no that followed felt like a shock to my system. After working so hard to open myself, what’s the value is closing to the world around?
I found it extremely difficult to say no to hospitality, and somewhat rude. After practicing this once or twice I realized that is those situations, yes is much more meaningful and warm than no.
I realized a lot in this contrast between yes and no. These reactions have a texture to them. Yes is something easy, lightweight, opening while no tends to be heavy and suffocating. As someone that says no a lot, this was something especially difficult for me to realize. This practice made me much more aware of those instances when my gut reaction is to just say no. When I notice myself saying no, I stopped to ask “why am I closing myself to these opportunities, and truth be told, I’m not sure I ever really had a good reason.”
I don’t think I’ll ever really be a yes woman, but I do think this practice helped me cultivate the intention to stop and consider a situation before I react one way or the other. I welcome the choice.
A recent lunchtime discussion about the ceremony of Brit Shalom caused me to question a tradition I found meaningful and quite honestly, took for granted.
Brit Shalom is a naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys that does not involve circumcision. A family can choose to create their own ceremony, or look to templates that already exist. There are currently 50 Rabbis who offer Brit Shalom ceremonies in the United States.
Brit Milah is a powerful ritual, one that connects the Jewish people to God and to the Covenant. Brit Milah marks Jews as separate, as chosen. Circumcision is a powerful identity marker. Until recently, I saw Brit Milah in its origins as just that- a means of marking Israelites as different from their idolatrous neighbors. The truth is that ritual circumcision is not a uniquely Jewish custom, and dates back to early times in Ancient Greece and Egypt. So if Brit Milah did not directly mark Israelites as separate, what did it do?
In later times, circumcision was cited as a method for limiting sexual activity between husband and wife, when said activity was thought to be dangerous and devious.
(This post is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Brit Milah- quite the opposite. I simply mean to raise the issues I struggle with in relation to this ritual.)
Since first learning about Brit Shalom, I’ve asked a good deal of my friends how they feel about Brit Milah. For the most part, the men were happy their parents went through with the tradition, or they didn’t care much. But one friend told me he wished his parents had waited. At first, I was a bit shocked to hear this. He continued to explain that although he feels a strong connection to Judaism and is a practicing Jew, he feels as if his parents didn’t honor his future ability to choose for himself what religion he wanted to be a part of. By giving him a Brit Milah, they assumed he would follow in their footsteps. The fact he did is besides the point- on some level, they didn’t acknowledge his ability to choose.
This friend got me thinking. When I one day raise children, of course I want to raise them Jewish, and of course I hope that they find meaning and fulfillment in Judaism. But what if they don’t?
Should we give our sons the opportunity to choose for themselves? I acknowledge that adult circumcision is a terribly painful process but its also one that gives its participant pride of choice and memory of that choice.
Is this mitzvah more for the parents or the children?
When does a ritual makes us uncomfortable enough that it becomes time to adapt it to our current world context?
I know that if the day ever comes when I bring a baby boy into this world, I will have to take some time and sit with the decision.