Archive | October, 2010

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?”


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.