If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem

13 Jun

I’m 25% of the way through Moby Dick, so you know summer’s on. You also know I’m on a Kindle because I can’t tell you the page number. An actual snippet from this e-reader’s digest:

Friend: So, what page are you on?

Jess: Twelve percent.

Back in the States: Jess and Dad!

I love me some early June. School is over, work hasn’t started. Each day of rest and exercise and family unfolds another flap of academic origami until you are left with a piece of paper as wide and open as summer. Unfortunately, courses end a solid week or two before due dates. Reminds me of grilling burgers when you’re hungry. The meat browns on the outside and you so want to believe they’re cooked through. You flip that poor dizzy patty over and over again in an attempt to coax it into done-ness, you poke it with your slotted metal spatula, you even cut into it a bit to reveal – sniffle – this season’s hottest shade! Inedible Red. I always do eat that first burger a little rare. Such is the flavor of early June. But don’t worry, my last paper’s almost done… and while I stake no claims for my meat, I would never turn in an undercooked paper.

Rest those doubts! I am officially studious.

So I’m back in the States and missing Israel. How do I miss Israel, and why? It’s a love story, really, one full of passion and drama, devotion and distress. We went days, even weeks, without speaking to each other only to make up on the most tender and loving terms. We faced tremendous criticism from those who challenged our commitment to one another, from those who at times seemed to willfully undermine our relationship in an attempt to turn our story into a stylized soap opera. This isn’t daytime TV folks! Spotlights might burn bright, but they also burn out. I’m not looking for a flash in the pan, I’m looking for a Ner Tamid. So Israel and I, we worked on it.

At Ben Gurion's Grave

We realized that in order to make this partnership last, we have to grow together, accept that the other perhaps is not exactly who we want them to be. I know I’m not perfect. Israel isn’t either. And it’s ok to say that. Is your partner perfect? Is your spouse or best friend or parent or child or colleague or mentor or student perfect? No. It’s ok to want them to be better, to continue to work with them as they strive to reach their potential, just as we constantly seek to better ourselves and achieve or personal goals. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Israel. In fact, it means quite the opposite. It means that I love Israel enough to want to be for this State that all-too-rare partner, one who listens as well as she talks. Because Israel… Israel has a lot to say.

Israel tells stories from her soil to her ceilings, from her roots to her roofs. My last six weeks in Israel were weeks of travel and exploration, a time to remember what it feels like to love, and why we fell in love in the first place. It began, as so many good love stories do, with a grandma.

Jess and Goobie - Sunset in the Golan Heights

My Goobie came during Pesach, we rented a car, and spent the whole of Chol HaMoed crossing the country from the limestone grottoes of Rosh HaNikra at the Lebanese border and the dazzling vistas of Machtesh Ramon in the Negev to the tiny artist’s colony Ein Hod in the Carmel forest and a swampy beach on the eastern edge of the Galilee where Jews and Arabs camped side by side. The following weekend, I headed back up north with Matt and Ariel Russo, Megan Goldman, and David Minkus to hike the legendary Nahal Yehudia, one of the best and most challenging hikes in the country – and current home to David’s glasses, our only casualty as we swam across one of the frigid natural pools that make up the trail. Finally, the entire class along with the Rabbinical School students from American Jewish University in Los Angeles spent a Shabbat weekend together at Kibbutz Hanaton in the northern Galilee. There, we went on one of the muckiest, muddiest, and most fun hikes of my life. The sight of twenty or so future rabbis and their spouses, soaking wet, trudging through the rain, ankle-deep in dirt and knee-deep in happiness is one I won’t soon forget.

David and Matt grilling for Yom Ha'Atzma'ut - Israeli Independence Day

Along the way Israel told me about her past, her childhood, her joy and her pain. Israel showed me her most beautiful side, and, because I love her, she also let me see her flaws. Israel shared some of her secrets, even some of her hopes and dreams. Israel also let me hear her anger, her sadness, and her fear.

Always reach for the stars... here in Machtesh Ramon.

She introduced me to many of her children – brilliant, fun-loving Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Druze – the men and women who hope and dream alongside her. I am changed because of this relationship, because of this love. I like to think that in some small way, Israel is changed to, and will continue to be.

We often talk about reflecting on “The Rabbinical School Year in Israel,” but to reflect implies that the experience has passed, that we are looking back at something that was. As a Jew, I am rooted in the extraordinary power of the past, the power of tradition, history, and a shared narrative. I am equally bound to the future, to a vision of possibility that includes a rabbinate that embraces both the universalism of my progressive outlook and the particularism that frames my Jewish life. But what is most important to me now, in this moment, is this moment. Today is a gift – that’s why they call it the present. Israel taught me that, and that’s how I hope to honor our relationship – not as a memory upon which to reflect, but as a framework in which to live.

 

Golan Sunset

Thank you for letting me share my year with you. A special thanks to Rabbi Nevins, Rabbi Gelber, Rabbi Levy, Jeremy Willinger, and everyone at JTS who puts up with me even though a timely blogger I am not. I am also indebted to Rav Shlomo and Rav Moshe at Machon Schechter, Ada for sticking with my mucky, muddy Hebrew, Anat for being Anat and therefore being amazing, and dear dear Moti for making what must have been a difficult year for him nevertheless an amazing year for us. Rabbi Matt Berkowitz is a saint and should have his sneakers dipped in bronze and preserved in a special room in Schocken. Lastly, I must thank my classmates. Thank you for being my chevrutot, my confidantes, my celebrants, my critics, my teachers, my gym partners, and my friends. And (last thing, promise!) thanks for inviting this single gal to Shabbat meals every week. It really meant a lot to me to be a part of your families.

Ten measures of beauty descended to the world -- nine were taken by Jerusalem. - Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 49b

From Purim to Passover…

16 Apr

Megan, David, Jess: future rabbis hiking

Purim and Passover, the bookends of spring in Israel. It’s easy to scoff at the jokes about people who come home from the Megillah reading and kasher their kitchen for Pesach… until you wake up one morning and Purim, which seems like it was yesterday, was actually four weeks ago, and Passover, which seems like it should be at least a month away, begins Monday night. Oops. There has never been a better time to live in a studio apartment. My entire home took about an hour to clean. Yes, there was some grumbling about Pesach being an excuse to institutionalize spring cleaning, but the grumbling mostly took place at Matt and Ariel Russo’s house. It was there that I scaled the heights of Mt. Kitchen Counter to reach the uppermost peak of their cabinets, which are now hametz-free and basking in the orange glow of Astonish! (I have a weakness for cleaning products that include an exclamation point).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before there was bedikat hametz, there was Purim, and before Purim, there was… making my Purim costume! I spend way too much time on costumes, promise. This year, I decided to be the Megillah. Ok, I decided to be the Megillah back in the fall of 2009. I went running into Megan’s room one night jumping up and down with excitement. The exchange went a little something like this:

Jess: I have the best idea for a Purim costume! I have the best idea for a Purim costume!

Megan: That’s great. But I really can’t talk about Purim right now. It’s after midnight… and it’s October.

Indeed.

When you think about the Megillah, obviously the first thing that comes to mind is linens.

So let’s take a moment and talk about linens in the Promised Land. First, you have to understand that the concept of a top sheet does not exist in this country. There are fitted sheets and duvet covers. Since you never actually touch the blanket that you sleep under, you don’t need a top sheet, you just wash the duvet cover. Before having this realization, I spent about a week scouring Jerusalem, from the textile stalls at the shuk to the home goods section of the Mashbir (department store), for a top sheet. How do you say top sheet in Hebrew? You can’t because there’s no such thing. So please, for your enjoyment, imagine me playing an endless game of Top Sheet Charades with exasperated Israeli salesclerks. Eventually, I acquiesced and bought a fitted sheet, which means I had to cut off the fitted part, which means I had to take a ruler and mark straight lines down the sides of the sheet because I can’t cut in a straight line to save my life. Told you I spend too much time on costumes.

I then cut the sheet into two long columns and painted (black tempra) the text of Megillat Esther onto the sheet. My big bubbly writing meant I could fit only about half of the first perek (chapter) on the sheet, but so it goes. It was enough. I safety pinned (never travel without safety pins!) the two columns together, wore brown pants and a brown shirt to represent the top and bottom of the scroll, safety pinned the bottom end of the sheet to my shirt, wrapped the “Megillah” around me, and secured it with a gold chain belt. Voila! Megillat Jess!

The only problem with this costume is that you can’t really tell how cool it is unless it’s unrolled, which requires a helper – thanks Shira.

Jess and Bracha Leah, i.e. Margaux

After the Megillah reading at Schechter (I sat next to Margaux for a full five minutes before realizing it was her – the mark of a truly great costume) we enjoyed a Purim seudah (festive meal) and a spiel featuring a hilarious skit penned by our very own Ravid Tilles. I then reworked the scroll into a Megillah dress to wear for the rest of the afternoon, which included another seudah, a street fair in Nachlaot, and drinks with Hillary and Daniel. I managed not to spill one single bean about the fact that Daniel, after several years of courtship, was planning to propose to Hillary at the end of the month, which he did – at minyan! – in the Beit Midrash! – at Schechter! It was pretty exciting. There were bagels.

Daniel and Hillary being cute and happy on Purim

Also of note: in the weeks between Purim and Pesach, thanks to the pedagogical wonder that is my Hebrew teacher, Ada Spitzer, I wrote an essay in Hebrew. Me. Essay. Hebrew. Just sayin’. And… I gave my first-ever Dvar Torah (a teaching about the week’s Torah portion) in Hebrew. Is someone writing this down???

An essay written in Hebrew. By me. Yeah, that happened.

I can also officially understand most of what I hear in everyday conversation, and – this one is the big deal – I understand the snippets of other people’s conversations that I overhear on the street. I don’t know if I can emphasize enough what a change that makes in the way you experience another culture. Instead of nonsensical chatter featuring a recognizable word every now and then, I hear life happening in all its mundane glory.

Unfortunately, part of life happening in Jerusalem this past month included a pigua, a terrorist attack. I was home in my apartment when I heard a loud explosion. At first, I thought maybe it was someone with leftover fireworks – thanks to Purim, the past few days had been full of crashing and booming and banging. But it was loud, a loud almost bowl-shaped sound, a sound with depth, a sound that held something… scary. And then the sirens. When I heard the sirens, I knew that it wasn’t anything other than something serious. I went outside, across the street to the supermarket. People were coming out onto the street, everyone was on their cell phone, and I kept hearing the word – pigua, pigua, pigua.

Since 1998, I have spent a total of two years and four months in Israel. I have never, in all that time, been near a terrorist attack. So I am not embarrassed to admit that I did not know the word pigua. I am glad I didn’t know it. I am blessed I didn’t know it. The first thing that happens after a pigua is the sirens, then the cell phones, and then the phones go down because too many people are trying to make calls at the same time. I went back inside. The internet was still working, so I sat and alternated between news sites where I watched the events unfold in real time, and Facebook, where I waited as my friends one by one updated their status – all safe. I called my parents. I allowed myself to entertain – very briefly – what would have happened if – if – if – and then I stopped, because I couldn’t continue. There was a bomb in a bag near the central bus station. It has happened before and it will likely happen again. That is the reality of this place. But the next day, everything continued as if nothing had happened. That is the other reality of this place. I feel safe. Israel is as safe as it can possibly be given its situation. The truly remarkable thing is that the “if –” doesn’t stop Israelis. They go on living their everyday lives in a society that has a word for terrorist attack, a word that means that and only that. I want to imagine an Israel without the word pigua. I want to imagine an Israel without the “if –”?

There is no better time than the days before Pesach to imagine something different for ourselves. My beloved Talmud teacher, Moti Arad, reminded us of something on Wednesday, before sending us home to clean and shop and prepare for Seder. How many generations were the Israelites in Egypt? Many. They went to Egypt at the end of the Joseph narrative, and remained there for hundreds of years. And how were they treated? The Torah tells us they were treated very well. “The land of Egypt is before you,” said the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day. “In the best of the land make your father and your brothers settle, in the land of Goshen let them dwell” (Genesis 47:6). Yet what do we think about when we remember Egypt? Bitterness. Slavery. Death. The Israelites were not enslaved until the generation of Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Aaron and Miriam and Moses. As we are commanded, we should remember the bitterness of that generation, the suffering, the slavery. We should remember the wonder of the Exodus, the incredible gift of our redemption. We should remember, but also we should not forget. Do not forget that our enemies were not always our enemies. Do not forget that there may yet be a day when our enemies are our enemies no more.

Tonight, my grandmother (you can call her Goobie – we all do) arrived from the States to spend the week with me. She’s 79, but she’s spry, just ask the folks who saw us at the Ice Bar when she visited me in Stockholm. I can think of no better way to celebrate my freedom than to spend a week road tripping in Israel with my grandma! For those of you hosting a Seder, or for those who want to learn more about Passover and the Seder tradition, I urge you to check out the resources provided by JTS. http://www.jtsa.edu/x11698.xml

Jess and Goobie: This year in Jerusalem!!!

Chag kasher v’sameach!

For Everything a Season

28 Feb

On the way to school!

They say there are only two seasons in Israel: winter and summer. Winters are cold – not a bitter, frosty cold, but a permeating, damp cold. The wind is often unsparing, carrying the chill into your home, into your bones. The weather is predictable yet always unexpected; after months soaked in sweat, you are suddenly and perpetually the temperature of a frigid slab of Jerusalem stone.

View of the Valley of the Cross from the top of the hill.

Happily, spring comes early in Jerusalem. Spring is not a season, but a sliver of time, only a few weeks really, when the weather is bright and crisp by day, cool and brisk by night. The hallmark of these liminal February weeks is the calanit, a star of Israeli flora.

Poppy-like in its appearance, the calanit is a member of the species Anemone, and is known in English as a red anemone (or, confusingly, a poppy anemone). Its Hebrew name, Calanit (כלנית) is a diminutive form of the word כלה, or bride.

Little red brides in bloom...

Surveying the fields of blossoming calaniyot (plural: כלניות) as I walk to school through the Valley of the Cross, it is easy to imagine them as little brides flocking towards the monastery in the center of the valley. Who wouldn’t want a spring wedding?

Since moving to Rechavia, I have treasured this new and incredibly beautiful route to school. Even on wrong side of the bed days, the path astounds me. As I walk down Rabman Street and enter the Valley of the Cross, I always feel an intense sense of gratitude. After all, how many students trek to school through a place that was consecrated in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine? Oh, the joys of Jerusalem.

The Monastery of the Cross

Georgia was one of the first countries to convert to Christianity, and in 327 CE, Constantine gifted the valley to its king. Eight centuries later, King Bagrat IV of Georgia commissioned the monastery on the site where, according to Christian legend, the tree that was used for Christ’s crucifix once grew. Today, the flag of Greece flies over the monastery, and the site is administered by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The landscape lopes towards the stark stones of the monastery in a race of lush vegetation and budding color. The trees and plants are every shade of green from the winter rains, and in addition to the calaniyot, yellow and purple blossoms dot the terrain. In the morning sun, the hillside sparkles with ruby, amethyst, and citrine in an emerald setting. The branches teem with birds, and the chorus of their chirping overwhelms the nearby traffic. Oblivious to everything but a feast of pollen, bees move stealthily from one bloom to the next, their weight enough to tickle the petals downward so each flower looks like it’s laughing in the breeze.

Only a few steps away from the city, nature engulfs me. Confronted by history, I feel timeless. This is both Jerusalem and the absence of Jerusalem. It is a center of peace in a city of strife. For the first time in a long time, I felt compelled to write, not a blog or a journal entry or an article or a paper, but to write as art.

Calanit

Spring comes early in Jerusalem.

Already the heart of February has burst

Spattering red anemones across the valley.

Blossoms vie like belles

To court the last Georgian in town.

Bees gather to groom –

A swarm, a congregation.

Each bloom opens to their meddling

And the birds feast.

 

Little brides, do you remember

The perennial story about this place?

According to legend, the monastery

Stands where a tree once grew.

Christ’s cross was hewn from its wood.

Today the hills are pews –

Stems witness, petals bless:

This is where the day begins

And where the world will end.


 

All of the Above

2 Feb

When any reasonably responsible student disappears from her blog for eight straight weeks, you can assume one or more of the following things has happened:

a.) life

b.) a cold, the flu, food poisoning

c.) a mold infestation in the writer’s apartment

d.) final exams

e.) all of the above

As someone who has an excellent track record with standardized tests, I can promise you the answer is E, all of the above. So I thank you for your patience, and, as we backtrack all the way to Chanukah 2010, promise not to let another fortnight pass without word from the Holy Land.

First, life. It definitely happens, and December was no exception.

Early winter is one of the best times to be in Israel. The weather cools, and in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the tourist load lightens considerably. This winter has been unseasonably dry and warm, and although I have diligently prayed for rain every day, there is a part of me that must admit to enjoying the mild temperatures and pristine blue skies. Were it not for the ubiquity of sufganiyot (soof-ga-knee-‘yot), it would have been easy to forget that Chanukah was just around the corner.

Simply stated, a sufganiya (singular) is a jelly doughnut. But to call it such is to demean the complex amalgamation of history, etymology, symbolism, and crystalline carbohydrates that form this delicious holiday waist-expander.

The holiday of Chanukah, the festival of lights, celebrates two events: the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greek army and subsequent rededication of the Temple, and the miracle that followed when the oil for the Temple’s menorah, which was only enough to last for one day, lasted for eight. The name Chanukah means dedication; it is from the rededication of the Temple that the holiday takes its name. The oil and the light that comprise the miracle have, along with the dreidel, become the primary symbolic expressions of the festival for Jews around the world.

A holiday that celebrates oil translates gastrointestinally into a lot of fried food. In the States, that means latkes, crispy fried potato pancakes, best served with sour cream and apple sauce. In Israel, it means sufganiyot, a sponge-like ball of dough filled with jelly, deep fried, and coated with sugar. The word sufganiya comes from the Hebrew word for sponge, but the consistency is decidedly more Krispy Kreme than Scotch Brite.

While I’ve spent more time cooking in Israel than I ever do in the States, thanks to the proximity of the shuk and the high quality of the produce, making sufganiyot is well beyond my meager culinary prowess. So mine were store-bought. A 100 gram sufganiyot has somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 calories, which is pretty impressive, and enough to make me celebrate the miracle that Chanukah comes only once a year. I did, however, try my hand at latkes.

I actually made these. Snap.

I was in Turkey for the bulk of Chanukah visiting my best friend Liz, a writer and soon-to-be PhD student who is living in the tiny town of Burdur as a Fulbright Fellow. Turkey is 97% Muslim, and Burdur was probably 100% Muslim before Liz (who is Jewish) and her roommate (who is Christian) moved in. It was a treat to lug pounds of potatoes home from the bazaar knowing that we were probably the first Jews to make latkes in Burdur – ever. Several kilos of potatoes and a liter of oil later, Burdur (and Liz’s roommate) got their first latkes, and Chanukah was celebrated in Turkey in all its deep fried glory.

I returned to Israel to burn another kind of oil – the midnight kind. The weeks between Chanukah and winter break had to be rationed cautiously in order to properly prepare for final exams. I do what I always do when preparing my nose for the grindstone. I made a list. It was a chart, actually, and it not only detailed how many miles I needed to run each day to stay on track with my marathon training, but laid out exactly how much work needed to get done when in order to make life livable during finals. Do I ever love charts! There’s something very comforting about seeing life organized into rows and columns.

We plan, God laughs.

I know better than this, really I do, but every year I plan, and every year I expect things to go accordingly. I can count on no hands the times they actually have. Having already had a bad flu, I caught an equally vicious cold that stopped me (sorry) cold. The infection culminated in what was either food poisoning or a stomach bug – either way, things were pretty fluid for a couple days and I quickly discovered how easy it is to love apple sauce when it’s the only thing you can keep down. It was around this time that I first noticed the mold.

This was Stage I. You don't want to see Stage II. Promise.

You might wonder how it is possible that I missed it before. Well. The weather had turned cold. I was rarely home during the day, and when I was it was because I was sick, so I kept my shades drawn. One day, I parted the drapes, and – oh. It was as if a science experiment exploded all over my walls and windows. From black to a deep blueish-green, spores congregated in corners and every day reached further up the walls. Soon, I found mold on other walls, behind my door, behind my bureau. I was living in a petri dish. I sent photo documentation to my landlord. I expected the worst, but they were very apologetic and friendly. They were probably thrilled that I hadn’t called the health department. (Lucky for them I can’t remember how to say mold in Hebrew.) They sent someone to check out the growth spurt, and soon after suggested that it was time to move out.

Thus began everyone’s favorite pastime… looking for apartments in Jerusalem! It eats away hours of time – finding the apartments, contacting the agents, arranging visits. I had just about given up when I found Ramban 23. It was perfect – a centrally located studio in my price range – but another woman got there first. Drama! I was devastated. The next day the agent called to tell me the woman had to return to the States unexpectedly and the apartment was mine if I still wanted it. Me want, me want.

Ramban 23 before moving in. It's not this sterile (or this neat) anymore.

As much as I loved living in Nachlaot, I l-o-v-e my new apartment. That’s just the way of things, a few dark clouds followed by a few rays of sunshine. Get out your sunglasses. I happened to have a dear friend in town – with a car – that very week, and we were able to do the whole move in one easy trip.

Ramban 23 is a 4th floor studio apartment (with a balcony!) in an elevator building on the corner of Ramban and Arlosorov in the heart of Rechavia. Another thing to love about Jerusalem are the street names. Every one means something, or, in most cases, someone. I moved from Yosef Haim, named for Yosef Haim Brenner, a pioneer of Hebrew Literature, who was born in Russia in 1881 and killed during the anti-Jewish riots in Jaffa in 1921. I now live on Ramban, named for the great 13th century rabbi and poet Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, or Nahmanides, who was born in Spain and died in Israel in 1270. From my balcony I overlook Arlosorov, named for Haim Arlosoroff (English spelling), a Ukrainian-born, German-raised Zionist leader during the British Mandate period. He was assassinated while walking on the beach in Tel Aviv in 1933. Every street name has a reason, a history. When you move, you don’t just move streets, you move stories. I moved during the last week of class and spent one finals-laden week at Ramban 23 before coming home for winter break to be with family and celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday.

I’m human – finals make me nervous. I always say that if you never question your decision to become a rabbi, you should probably reconsider your decision to become a rabbi.

This is the first daf of Talmud Brachot. Not my tractate, but you get the idea.

The night before an oral exam in Talmud is a great time to question. Eventually, you have to put the text away and just trust that you know it as well as you’re gonna know it. So I set aside the dapim (a page of Talmud is called a daf, plural dapim) of tractates Pesachim and Shabbat, watched an old episode of Party of Five (I don’t get very many English channels), and sent a letter to my rabbis at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, thanking them for being part of the reason why I keep doing what I do. Sometimes just knowing that they went through this too is enough. Twenty-four hours later I was on a plane, my exams successfully completed, leaving one home to return to another.

Life happens, and through it all – cold, flus, vomit, mold, stress, moving, stress, finals, stress – there are two constants, friends and family.

Dad, Me, Poppa, David, and Goobie playing Settlers of Catan. Well, sort of playing, sort of just harassing David. Good times.

Eight weeks have passed in a blur, but looking back, not a moment passed without their influence, their love, their support. I share sufganiyot with them, visit them in Turkey, ask their advice about various strains of fungus, call them when I’m anxious about exams, and come home to celebrate their birthdays. So thanks for sticking by me during this adventure. Your next update will come sooner than your last!

Best stepdaughter: Jess. Best stepdad: Chuck. Best supporting arm: Mom's, between our faces. Love it!

 

In Sickness and in Health

9 Dec

First came the headache. Then came the tiredness. The exhaustion emanated from within, an internal betrayal to everything scheduled and intended. Finally, the fever and body aches arrived. I gave in, stayed home from school, rescheduled my work commitments, and subsisted for three days on a diet of sleep, hot tea, and episodes of True Blood.

Living abroad, it is not uncommon to miss one’s family, but it is an abstract sort of longing, an attraction to the idea of parental comfort rather than to parental comfort itself. When you have the flu, homesickness is not abstract. It is real, it has a voice, and the voice says I Want My Mommy.

Erev Shabbat with the girls... before getting sick

 

Four days of convalescence later, I returned to life, mostly vertical and mostly prepared to face the fog of the First Day Back. You know how it is when you’re out of school for a few days. In your absence, everyone continues their to and fro, and you return a foreigner in a crowded train station – wrong schedule, no ticket, lost luggage. All aboard! Happily, the train was joy bound, first stop Thanksgiving en route to Aviva’s wedding.

Credit where credit is due: Hillary Blank organized a Thanksgiving dinner for the JTS and Ziegler Rabbinical School students. A list of potential potluck goodies circulated among us for weeks. Yet, doubt lingered like a half-mast Mayflower sail over the ballast of our best intentions. How good could Thanksgiving in Jerusalem be? Can rabbinical students be counted on to cook not merely edible but objectively appetizing turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, squash, and pie? We gathered at the storied (trust me, it’s a long story) apartment of Jeremy Weisblatt and Josh Dorsch to find out.

Hillary’s turkey was juicy perfection, Daniel Chorny’s mashed potatoes – even without butter – tasted like home. Shira Wallach’s pumpkin casserole (made with baby food!) was the first to go as we made our way through pot after pan of the best the Future Rabbis of America have to offer. Phillisa Cramer’s chocolate cake was made from scratch with real cocoa powder; Megan Goldman’s Cranberry Crunch arrived late, but didn’t last long. As my postprandial somnolence set in, it was easy to look around the room at my friends and be as full of gratitude as I was of food.

Notably absent from our soiree was Aviva, who gets a pass, but only because she got married the following day. On a crackling blue Jerusalem morning, we all headed to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel for the wedding. Aviva Kremer is a Fourth Year student who met Ari Fellman last year and, love being love, fell in it.

Under the Chuppah

 

It’s a pretty romantic story all told, and it was incredibly kind of her and Ari to invite the JTS posse. We repaid her kindness by dancing like unhinged rock stars for two and a half hours straight. (Shout out to the incendiary Shira Wallach, Ariel Russo, and Alex Freedman.) It was, in a word, epic. The Fellmans get mad props for the gorgeous ceremony, excellent food, stunning locale, and a DJ who managed to play just the right mix of music – American and Israeli, top forty and classics. It occurred to me as the sweat dripped down my back during an especially raucous “Cotton Eyed Joe” that this was the first time I’d danced, I mean really danced, since arriving in Israel, and it felt G-O-O-D. The sheer number of Israeli dances also reminded me that Israeli culture has been expressed through dance since the inception of the State; the sight of so many people, not a professional dancer among them, moving as a whole seemed to revive a fleeting Zionist ideal, a hope fluent in joy.

So you think you can dance? Yup, we do. Especially that girl in the purple dress...

 

Then came the headache, and soon after the tiredness. By Sunday I was once again a feverish mess, and on Monday I found myself at the clinic being diagnosed with strep throat. I spent the next few days in a daze of soup and popsicles, sleep and antibiotics. Things got worse before they got better. On Tuesday I actually cried on a mitzvah-doing neighbor who came over for some bikur cholim and whose sweater sopped up a fair share of I Want My Mommy tears. Thank God for Amoxicillin. By Thursday night I was vertical enough to light Chanukah candles and call a sherut to take me to Ben Gurion – I had a flight to catch.

Next stop… Turkey!

The Eight Week Mark

17 Nov

I have been fortunate enough to live abroad several times in my life; each time I have noted an imaginary line in the temporal sand. It is a line that separates what was from what is, a moment when one ceases visiting and starts staying. It is the Eight Week Mark.

View of my neighborhood, Nachlaot, from the top of Gan Sacher.

This coming Monday will mark my eighth week since leaving the States, but I passed through the liminal Eight Week Mark at the start of November, earlier than usual I think because Israel is a place I have lived before, and because this is my third year, albeit not consecutively, living abroad.

Welcome Home! Walking east up Betzalel, you run into this sign, announcing the best place to live in Jerusalem.

How do I know I hit the Eight Week Mark even though it hasn’t been eight weeks? The Mark is about settling in… and I am settled.

I know my schedule without checking. I have friends outside of school. I have a regular makolet (corner market) and regular stands at the shuk (open air market) where I shop.

One of my regular produce stands at the shuk. Mmm... produce.

I study at my coffee shops: Nocturno on Betzalel – sorry Jason, it’s mine – and Shosh Cafe, the one in Rechavia not the one in Katamon. I buy bread at my bakery. I know that the best sweet challah in Jerusalem can be found at Ugat Chen, second bakery on the left in the uncovered section of the shuk,

My bakery, Ugat Chen. Waistline beware!

 

and I know that the best savory challah comes from a nameless, dark, not-so-friendly-looking bakery you would never wander into if you didn’t live in this neighborhood. It’s on Agrippas, near the shuk, but not in the shuk proper. This challah literally melts in your mouth.

Nachlaot is my neighborhood, Micha is my mailman, Machane Yehudah is my post office. (Thanks for the care packages Mom & Chuck, Dad & Bonnie!)

Slighty scary Nameless Bakery - fear not, the best savory challah in town hails from this dim shop.

 

 

If I didn’t do my laundry in my sink, I’m sure I would have my laundromat. I definitely have my park and my running routes.

I registered for the Jerusalem Marathon (March 25, 2011!!!) and spend enough time pounding pavement to know the other runners in the park, including Salt Lake City Fire Department Guy, whose name turns out to be Joe and who works at the American Consulate.

 

He has a cruel pace, but slows down every time he laps me to tell one of his seemingly inexhaustible store of Biblical jokes. I try to laugh but I’m, you know,

r   u   n   n   i   n   g

so my laugh comes out as a honking wheeze-heave –

seriously,

I sound like an asthmatic goose

– which I find embarrassing and he seems to find funnier than the joke.

 

In the world of Professional Judaism, we often talk about empowered ownership, about being stakeholders in our faith. How often to we take time to assess whether or not we our empowered owners of our daily lives?

A view of Gan Sacher from its northern edge - a Jerusalem runner's sanctuary.

 

To reach the Eight Week Mark is to become a stakeholder. I care about when the garbage gets picked up, who delivers my mail, where I buy my groceries, and how often the throbbing spin cycle of my upstairs neighbor’s washing machine pounds against my ceiling at 10 o’clock at night.

 

The little street, Beit Tzur, leading to my apartment from Nisim Bahar.

If Shabbat separates the sacred from the secular, the Eight Week Mark separates the special from the mundane. Whether it’s New York, Paris, Stockholm, or Jerusalem, after eight weeks, the place ceases to be the Big Apple, the City of Lights, the Capital of Scandinavia, or the Holy Land, and becomes, quite simply, the place where you live. What is remarkable about this process is that I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything, rather I’ve gained something – a sense of belonging, a sense of home, a sense of ownership.

This is my street, Yosef Haim. You can see my door, the gated arch on the left side, and one of Nachlaot's trademark blue doors wide open up the street.

 

 

And with these things, I am beginning to develop in this new, now not-so-new, place, a sense of what was lacking:

a sense of my self.

 

View of Point

31 Oct

Last week, I noticed a tiny fly in my bathroom. After a few attempts to hasten his journey to Olam Haba, one of which ended with me slapping the mirror so hard it came off the wall, I decided to let him be. By the end of the week, I looked forward to seeing him. He would often land on the mirror, and sit patiently as I preened. I imagined he was preening too. I thought about our different perspectives, and about the swat-to-sweet shift in my attitude towards him.

Adopting a different point of view has never been easier, thanks to the arrival of my Xootr. Laugh all you want – this thing is amazing. It is, according to Time magazine, “the Rolls Royce of scooters.”

The first thing I did on the Xootr was wipe out.

I was riding down Keren HaYesod on my way to attend a lecture at the Conservative Yeshiva.  A guy going the opposite direction on his bike passed by. I’m not saying he was good-looking or anything, and I’m certainly not saying that I stopped looking at the road to look at this guy. Let’s just say I somehow missed the curb and landed – splat! – on the pavement in front of the Avi Chai Foundation.

One bruised ego later, I sat listening to Ran Melamed’s lecture, contemplating the tear in my pants and the gash on my knee. Melamed is the Deputy Director of Social Policy and Communication for Yedid, an organization that works to promote social and economic justice in Israel through a national network of centers in underprivileged and marginalized communities. I realized that whether by foot, bus, taxi, or Xootr, my perspective is limited. Do I see the tens of thousands of Israelis who, according to recent statistics, joined the hundreds of thousands now living below the poverty line? Are they the beggars at the entrance to the Shuk, or the Ultra-Orthodox with ten children and no income? Or are they middle-class Israelis who recently lost their jobs, and suddenly can’t pay their mortgage?

Melamed’s lecture was the opening program for a fantastic weekend tiyul designed to provoke these questions. Together, students from JTS and the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles traveled south to the Negev. We spent Thursday learning with Atid Bamidbar, a non-profit community organization working to create opportunities for education, employment, tourism, and culture in the Negev region. We focused on what it means to be in Israel’s periphery when the majority of the population lives (and the majority of the economic opportunities exist) in the center. We discussed the concept of desert in Jewish text, Jewish thought, and Jewish life. Is the desert a place of solitude or community? Desperation or revelation? Vacuousness or vitality? Depending on your perspective, the desert is all of these things.

From Yerucham, we continued on to Sde Boker, famous for being David Ben-Gurion’s home and burial site. With a full moon as our flashlight, we hiked through a river valley cut through the desert rock by winter flash floods. Everything was a shade of moonlit gray – the shadows appeared closer underfoot than the rock. On Friday, we woke and prayed in the pink-blue morning before touring the area’s historical and cultural sites. Our program concluded near Ben-Gurion’s grave, overlooking desert and canyon, a startling relief of sepia against cloudless blue. We prepared for Shabbat, and spent an amazing twenty-five hours learning, praying, eating, and laughing together before piling back on the bus and returning to Jerusalem Saturday night.

Even though the desert towns we visited are only a few hours south of Jerusalem, they feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. I spent the weekend trying to recenter myself, imagining that I could, if I only changed my point of view, let south be center, and Jerusalem its periphery.

But the week’s most dramatic shift of perspective was still to come.

On Monday afternoon, our class went to the Temple Mount. I have been to the Old City and the Western Wall more times than I can count. I have seen, from various angles and locations in Jerusalem, the stunning panorama of the city center. In each case, the vista is either centered around or dominated by the glittering gold hemisphere of the Dome of the Rock.  That the significance of the Dome of the Rock depends entirely upon a particular point of view is nothing new. But standing at the foot of the Dome of the Rock after so many years of viewing it from afar made me realize that I need to reconsider how I see this city, and where I see myself in it. The Temple Mount is peaceful, and the plateau of stone surrounding the Dome invites visitors to contemplate the whole of Jerusalem, east and west, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Walls of blue and white mosaic rise from the stone as if they were planted there, vines of tile blossoming into gold. I felt small, but I did not feel shallow. I felt full and calm, and serene in a way one rarely feels in Jerusalem. And I felt an overwhelming sense of possibility. At the epicenter of so much controversy and strife, I stood in the shadow of the dome and believed with my whole self that anything is possible because God dwells here still, in this place, among all of us.

It is Sunday now. My 29th birthday.  I know another week has passed in Jerusalem because I feel entirely different. In Jerusalem, on your birthday, if you are lucky, you realize you have received a great gift – and it all starts with smacking a mirror. The mirror falls, your perspective shifts, and you realize you don’t want to kill that fly after all. You see things as they were, as they are, and maybe, just maybe, as they could be.

The Hospitality Room

20 Oct

One morning, a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, my doorbell rang. I peered through the peephole and saw two kindly-looking older gentlemen standing at my door with a package. Well, I thought, if anything goes awry, I can take ‘em. So I opened the door.

The men identified themselves as Rav Shlomo and Rav Moshe, the Roshei Yeshivah of Machon Schechter. I immediately felt like I needed to explain why I was still in my pajamas – “morning,” after all, is a relative term – it was 1:30 in the afternoon. Hi! Oh! I’ve been working! And I haven’t had time to get dressed! Would you like to come in for coffee? They politely declined, handed me a freshly-baked challah, and welcomed me to Israel, and to Schechter. They had to go, they said, because they were on a mission to deliver challot to all of the incoming JTS students.

I was shocked. Can you imagine the headmaster of your school or the CEO of your company coming to your home in person to welcome you? Can you imagine them then continuing on their way, not to go home to their own lives and families, but to hand-deliver baked goods to the other new students or employees?

I have been mulling over hospitality a lot this week. Monday morning, I saw the landlord of a neighboring building carrying a new fridge (on his back!) into an apartment, and without a second thought, I asked if he wanted a glass of cold water. Unfortunately, my efforts to be hospitable ended with him saying, “You so beautiful – I ask you – you don’t get mad – your breasts – they real or silicone?”

Sigh.

The rich culture of hospitality here is like freshly brewed coffee – a mixture of the warmth you want, and the grounds you hope to strain out.

This afternoon, as I sat outside in my trusty camping chair sipping coffee, the mailman passed by. He asked if I live here, and I told him yes, and he told me his name is Micha, and he has delivered mail in this neighborhood for twenty years. I know everybody, he said, and everything. Other than accidentally referring to him with feminine pronouns, I used some relatively intelligible Hebrew to tell him that I am new here, and my landlord has yet to give me my mailbox key. This is ok, he said, I will put your mail at your door. I smiled. I asked him if he would like a glass of cold water. He smiled. I have water, he said, but thank you.

What does it mean to be hospitable? When should we let people in, and when should we fortify our boundaries?

This week, we took a class tiyul to Ir David, the ancient City of David, located between the Old City and the Arab village of Silwan. We were able to see the excavation site, but were unable to trek through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an aqueduct built around 700 BCE, due to recent tension between the residents of Silwan (part of Arab East Jerusalem) and the Ir David Foundation, also called the Elad Association. In addition to facilitating tourism, education, and archaeological excavation in the area, the Elad Association hopes to strengthen the Jewish community in the City of David through the construction of settlements. Without delving too much into the obvious political implications of the Elad Association’s aims, I will say that development in East Jerusalem is an incredibly sensitive issue for those who feel that settlements might not be the best way to achieve lasting peace in Israel.

Instead, we walked through the Caananite Tunnel. No rushing water, but it dates back to the 18th Century BCE. When you touch stone that old, and think of all the people who have walked the path before you, then think about Jerusalem and think about Silwan, you can’t help but smile. Four thousand years ago, man managed to access a spring hidden deep underground and channel the water so that families could live, plant crops, drink, survive. Four thousand years later, with all of our knowledge and all of our technology, I wonder how much progress we can claim to have made if we can’t successfully be hospitable, if we can’t, at the end of the day, successfully and respectfully live together. We are all at our core hewers of stone, whether that stone belongs to the fortifications of ancient Jerusalem, a corner shop in Silwan, or a little apartment in Nachlaot, where I will follow the example of Rav Shlomo and Rav Moshe, and keep on trying to be hospitable, one glass of cold water at a time.

Hebrew Crash Course

14 Oct

I really didn’t want to run the fourth lap. Each lap around the northern section of Gan Sacher is about a mile; having run three already, I felt like I’d made a decent enough showing. But the evening was cool, and as Wednesdays are my lightest day schedule-wise, I had enough energy. As I curved around the bend to begin my last mile, I noticed a girl of about 19 or 20 on rollerblades up ahead. She wasn’t so much rollerblading as wobbling. She clearly had skates on her feet for the first time ever, and things didn’t look like they were going to end well. As I passed her, an extreme wave of respect overtook my initial judgment – when I was 19 or 20, I never would have had the guts to rollerblade in public. I still have a hard time doing things for the first time, and here she was, clearly rollerblading for the first time, and doing so in front of the crowds that congregate in the park at dusk.

 

Not two minutes later, she crashed into me.

 

We were on the western side of the park, where the path slopes downhill. She lost control and hit me from behind with tremendous force. She wrapped her arms around me instinctively, and my mind flashed to those drowning people who, in their panic, drown their rescuers. But I was firmly rooted to the ground on feet, not skates. So I wrapped my arms around her and said, “It’s ok, I’ve got you!” I had enough of her to stop her, and we came to a halt just before we collided with a tree. She was shaking. For the first minute she just said, “Thank God.” I too felt overwhelming gratitude, and thanked God for the energy to run that fourth lap. She could have seriously hurt herself if I hadn’t been there to break her fall. She never let go of my hand, and since I wasn’t about to let her continue alone, we ran/bladed together the rest of the way around the park. As if it couldn’t get more amazing, she lives on the very same street as me in Nachlaot. She is #2 and I am #15.

 

As the saying goes, “If you pray for patience, you will get stuck in traffic.” Well… If you pray for friends, one will crash into you in the park! God works in our lives, sometimes with frustrating subtlety, and sometimes with awesome clarity.

 

I have been praying to make connections, praying for the strength to build a life for myself here. Jerusalem – an ancient city, a city that resonates with permanence – can be a very transient place. Many of the programs here, like our year at Schechter, are short term. How do you reach out to make friends when you know you are leaving in June? Adding to the frustration, at least for me, is the weakness of my conversational Hebrew. Although I have noted a dramatic improvement after only a few weeks, I can’t make jokes, I can’t tell rollerblading stories, I can’t talk about my teaching position, I can’t… be Jess… in Hebrew. If I can’t be Jess in Hebrew, how can I be Jess in Israel?

 

It turns out that Hebrew is a lot like rollerblading. And it turns out that I had more to learn from the girl in the park than how to properly brace for impact. She knew she looked silly, but she didn’t care because she wanted to rollerblade. She knew she wasn’t an expert, but she didn’t care because she wanted to learn. Three times each day, I pray for God to open my lips. But it took a collision in the park to knock some sense into me. I need to speak Hebrew in public, on the street, at the store. Things will probably be a bit wobbly. I am certain I will make mistakes. And when I do, my friends, old and new, will be there to break my fall.

 

My Welcome to Israel

4 Oct

When you move, even when it’s to a place you know and love, it is difficult to start being there. To be in a new place, you must, in some ways subtle and in others dramatic, shift your sense of self, and your perception of self in the world. Instead of being a first year Rabbinical School student in New York, you are suddenly – for it is sudden no matter how many months you have prepared – a second year Rabbinical School student in Jerusalem.

There are around 30 students from JTS learning at Machon Schechter this year – the majority of the second year class, and about half of the third year class. Already, we have reached out to one another, shared meals, information, and support. To give you a sense of the spirited generosity demonstrated by my chevre: I arrived in Jerusalem towards the end of Chol HaMoed Sukkot with no plans for chag. By Shmini Atzeret, I was set for meals through the following Shabbat! And it’s not only JTS students who have reached out. Barely here a week, I have befriended many of my neighbors here in Nachlaot – students from Ziegler, Hebrew College, and RRC, as well as olim both new and old. We have shared hospitality and Torah, and I feel embraced, a part of something greater than myself.

It is easy to lose yourself in the narrow stone alleys of Nachlaot, the neighborhood where I live, situated just south of the shuk and north of Rehavia. Gan Sacher, the Central Park of Jerusalem, borders us to the southwest, the city centers bustles a mere ten minute walk east. Nachlaot is a diverse mix of Anglo olim and students, Haredim, Breslovers, and secular Israelis. I feel simultaneously out of place and more at home than I have ever been. Perhaps that is the crux of being an American Jew in Israel, that sense of comfortable discomfort.

For example…

Working on one’s Hebrew, especially at the shuk, will occasionally lead to the inadvertent purchase of 5lbs. of bananas. Such an incident might also lead to the Great Fruit Fly Debacle of 5771, which can be remedied only by the removal of said bananas long before their inevitable demise.

Three of the smaller laps around the northern section of Gan Sacher is about 5k, a perfect weekday run. However, 10am is too late in the morning to run in Gan Sacher without experiencing an unpleasant roasting sensation as the temperature bounds into the 90s.

Having no plans on Motzei Shabbat, and too full from Seudah Shlishit to join friends for sushi on Emek Refaim, I discovered that Daniel Gordis was speaking at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Perfect. The lecture was packed; I was among the youngest attendees by 30 years at least. Gordis spoke eloquently about the dangers of the two most prevalent mythologies in the narrative of the modern State of Israel – first, the nihilist belief that destruction is inevitable, that we might lose Israel as a Jewish State, and second, that we are destined to be here, that Israel is a guarantee backed by God, and that we will successfully meet any challenge in order to maintain the Jewish State. Why are these mythologies dangerous? Because in the first, Gordis argued, there is nothing we can do, and in the second, there’s nothing we need to do. The bulk of the lecture went on to discuss the textual and historical roots of these mythologies. He ended by stating that we need to develop a new mythology, one of “responsibility and action,” in which we “train ourselves to be wise enough to see real danger, but also to see real privilege, and to be brave enough to do whatever it takes…”

I left the lecture mired again in that sense of comfortable discomfort, wondering what “whatever it takes” entails. The nights are cool in Jerusalem, and as I walked home, my sense of gratitude was overwhelming. Welcome to Israel! There is no other welcome like it.

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