Sunday, April 6, 2014


Last week I woke up and realised, with a start, that it was the end of March. Even more surprising to me was the sense of nostalgia that filled me at the thought; in a little over a month I'll be leaving Israel after spending eleven months here. This nostalgia was promptly followed by a whole host of other emotions: excitement at going home, boredom because I'm burnt out from the program this year, regret for all the things I thought I'd have time to do while I was here and didn't, nervousness at the prospect of going home. I told myself firmly that a month is still a month and I have to make it count.

The transition seems like it should be simple; I give away the clothes that I don't want to take with me, pack up what's left, give my room the most thorough cleaning that it will ever have gotten this year, and leave. But that doesn't account for all the good-byes, acknowledging that I will miss the friends I've found here, and coming to grips with the notion that even though I struggled so bitterly with living in Jerusalem and the requirements of this program, maybe I did get something good out of this year. As much as an outsider as I have felt here in Jerusalem culture (despite my Hebrew skills), I still managed to put down some roots in the short time I was here.

I doubt very much that I will miss Jerusalem -the atmosphere here is far too intense for me here. Yet there are things that I love about Israel that I will certainly miss, and that will bring me back here again and again in the years to come. I had some inkling moving here that I was embarking on a grand journey, but then I got caught up in the minutia of life, the shock of being immersed in Israeli culture, and the illusions we spin for ourselves in our day-to-day grind, so I didn't give it much more thought. Now though, coming out of my first year, the path seems much clearer. Even stranger still, I have the eerie feeling that I have been on this path ever since the moment I first set foot on the soil of Israel three years ago -I just didn't realise it until now.

It's very strange to me to find myself caught between the excitement of going home and the unexpected nostalgia at having to leave. That, combined with the my spring fever, makes me stare off into space when I should be focusing in class, thinking about parallel realities, destiny, and free will vs. God's will. I never, in all of my life, imagined that I would be going into a career as a Jewish professional or a clergy member, but this path somehow feels right to me (and, after all, I did choose to come here). I also made my own choices while I was getting here, but I can't help feeling that -despite those choices -it was God's will all along pushing me toward this path. My modern sensibilities find it altogether unsettling to acknowledge that there was a power greater than myself working in my life, guiding me even when I was lost, but I'm a Kabbalist at heart, so taking something on faith isn't beyond me in the end.

Speaking of parallel realities, I have to admit that what disquiets me the most about going home is the fear that I have been too far removed from what I once found familiar. Like a puzzle piece, I once fit into the context of my home perfectly. But a year is a long time to be away, and it's inevitable in travel that things get worn, broken, and lost. Though I don't like admitting it, I'm afraid that the edges of my puzzle piece have become rounded, and my curves have become sharp angles. That means that I won't fit into the same place in the puzzle that I used to, and that is truly unnerving to me. Sometimes this makes me even more nervous than my initial move to Israel made me.

It seems to me now that I will have to reconcile the person I was with the person I've become in order to move on with my life. The possibilities of the future shimmer and flicker through my sleep late at night when I should be resting, despite how I try to stay in the present. I wake up with an odd, fluttery feeling in my chest and, with a sigh, resign myself to the liquid uncertainty of transition.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel

For a friend III

The doves outside my window are singing,
Reminding me that it’s spring.
I open the window, but I don’t really want to listen;
I am restless and unhappy,
 Remembering promises –unspoken and unlikely
To be kept.
We haven’t spoken in a year, but I know
What you would say. I know what I would say.
So how can I still blame you?
The memory of us is like a shiny stone:
Precious and breathtaking in its beauty;
Small and too easy to loose.
On days like this,
When I miss your eyes,
How you made me laugh,
The feeling of being close to you,
I take it out and admire it,
Trying to shut out the dawn
And the infernal little messengers that disturb it into the world.
It makes me cry, my dreams filled with strange rooms
And the teeth that fall out of my mouth instead of words;
I turn the stone over in my fingers
And wonder why I’m so afraid to talk to you.
I loved you so much,
Despite remembering what I was told to forget.
I am too afraid to call you, and much too afraid to loose you,
Silent and resentful in the shrine of memory.
The stone sits heavy on my fingers;
Small though it is, I won’t ever loose it.
Out side the birds are incessant.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lecha Dodi: Part Two

That night I slept downstairs in what's called a nidah apartment. This is a special room or apartment for a woman to reside in during her menstrual cycle in order to observe the ritual laws of purity that pertain specifically to women. This nidah apartment happened to be underground, so there was no natural light. Conveniently, I was provided with a Shabbat lamp -a lamp that, instead of an on/off switch has a little sliding door in the frame to expose or cover a light that shines throughout the duration of Shabbat. This is in order to avoid violating the rabbinic declaration that using electricity is considered 'making fire' which is strictly forbidden in the rules of Shabbat observance outlined in the Torah.

I went to sleep feeling serene and full. I slept longer that Saturday morning than I had intended to, and woke feeling refreshed. I dressed as quickly as I could and headed up stairs to the main apartment, hoping that I wasn't too late to experience Shabbat morning davening at the schul. To my surprise, Allan was still at home, talking with Rivka over coffee at the kitchen table.

I greeted them both with the customary "Good Shabbos" -which is really the only salutation one is supposed to give on Shabbat, since it's not an ordinary day of the week. Rivka smiled warmly at me, and I found myself smiling back. I wanted to hug her as I would have my own mother. She asked me if I wanted anything to drink but I politely declined -I wanted to experience the davening as I had not gone the night before.

A few minutes later, Allan and I were headed out the door to walk the short distance to the synagogue. As we left Allan leaned over to me and muttered "I was delaying going to schul as long as possible."

"Oh! Why?" I laughed. Allan shrugged.

"I dunno," he said. "It's just not really what I'm used to. It's very loud and I have trouble following along. Is that a Zebra?" He asked suddenly. I giggled, thinking he was referring to the man that had just stepped out of the schul wrapped in his long, white tallit with the traditional black stripes on either end. Turns out Allan was referring to an actual toy that had been dropped on the ground by some poor, now Zebra-less child. We agreed that, un-PC as it might be, that would be our joke.

Stepping into the synagogue in Giv'at Ze'ev was like stepping through a time warp. Even though I'd never been there before everything felt familiar. The synagogue is totally innocuous. This is probably in accordance with a long standing Ashkenazi tradition that sprung out of a time when Jews were under persecution unusual even for anti-Semitic Europe. There are no signs, no steepled roofs, no indicators whatsoever that it's there. If Allan hadn't known where to go, I would have mistaken it for just another apartment building, or maybe a school. It really wasn't until Judaism came out of the ghetto in the nineteenth century that synagogues became their own buildings -much in the fashion of churches at the time. Whereas before synagogues had to blend in with their ghettos, synagogues now had to blend in with the churches of Europe.

The schul was small, divided between the men's section down below and the women's section above. There was little decoration inside; the walls were plain white and the most ornate thing in the room was the aron hakodesh (the tabernacle where the Torah is kept). Interestingly, (according to Allan who was down in the men's section) the women's section was sealed off by a one-way mirror. I'd thought it was plain glass.

I arrived in the women's section in the middle of the Torah reading and squeezed onto a bench with a woman who kindly pointed out the chanter's place in her humash (a bound, transportable copy of the Torah) for me. I followed along with utter fascination as I read the trope of the Hebrew and listened to how the chanter's trope differentiated or was the same as the trope I learned in school. (As a side note, for those who are unfamiliar, the word "trope" in this case refers to a codified lexicon of symbols that denote very specifically how the Torah is to be chanted in different books and for different holidays throughout the year).

After some verses the chanter finished, and they began the service to return the Torah to the ark. I was pleased that, despite the heavily accented Ashkenazi Hebrew, I still followed the service quite well. I looked on in astonishment as two men drew back the curtain covering the aron hakodesh to reveal what looked like the door of an armored safe. Wow, they really take the commandment of keeping the Torah seriously, I thought to myself. Then I remembered that I was in a settlement, and that Palestinian villages were probably not too far away. Despite personal issues with settlements in the West Bank, I hoped fervently that the people here hadn't been victims of violence and bloodshed.

They kept the ark open while they recited the aleinu (a credo of sorts and one of the concluding prayers of the service). In a Reform synagogue, everyone (not just the men) sings the aleinu in unison; here, however, that was not the case. All the fine hairs on my arms and neck stood on end as all the men burst out into passionate recitation -each at his own pace and volume. A cacophony of prayer rose up from the men's section, and I swayed where I stood looking down from the women's section. No matter how many times I hear men daven in the Ultra Orthodox style, it still sounds utterly surreal and other worldly to me.

Outside, I waited a few minutes before Allan emerged from the shul. We began to talk as we walked back to Rivka and Ben Boruch's apartment; about Reform theology, how alien it is for us to pray in a service where everyone seems to do everything at his own pace, and I told Allan how surreal it was being here after reading so much about shtetl life. Our conversation was cut somewhat short though, and as Ben Boruch found us sitting just outside the building's entrance, delaying.

"Good Shabbos," he said, smiling serenely at us as he approached.

"Good Shabbos," we replied.

"Are you coming up? There's a good meal waiting," Ben Boruch said. Allan and I exchanged glances.

"Yeah, we're coming," Allan said. He promised me we would continue our discussion later.

The meal was delicious, replete with leftover salads from the night before, fresh pate, sliced turkey and tomatoes, and more challah. As we ate, we discussed more similarities and differences between the Reform and Ultra Orthodox movements, if it would be halahically acceptable to use AI on Shabbat (that is, acceptable according to the kosher laws). Soon our discussion drifted to Talmud. We talked about what is considered self-defense in Talmudic law, and how it differs depending on the situation. I mostly listened during this discussion, since I've never studied Talmud, occasionally asking questions or translating phrases of the original Hebrew. At one point, after I translated a particular passage, I caught Ben Boruch's gaze from across the table, and he smiled at me. He didn't say, but I think he was pleased with my knowledge and enthusiasm for the Hebrew. It made me feel so proud and satisfied.

It was such a joy (and a change from my normal routine) to be able to sit at a real table, savoring the food I was eating instead of trying to inhale an entire meal in fifteen minutes because my class got out late and I had lunch meetings and rehearsals. Nearly three hours went by and I barely noticed.

Finally, we got up from the table and I adjourned downstairs. Before I went though, Rivka lent me two books that I had expressed interest in the previous night. Alone in my room, I surrendered to a deep food coma, curled up in my bed, and soon fell asleep. I dreamed of many things, sometimes half waking and unsure of where I was. In one of my waking dreams I saw a woman standing before me, tall and radiantly beautiful with long auburn hair. When she smiled at me I remembered that I knew her, but not from where. With the knowledge of many lifetimes, our hearts spoke directly to each other without the words ever needing to pass from our lips.

I've missed you so much, I said to her, and began to weep. Where have you gone?

I've always been here, came her reply. She cupped my face in her hands sweetly, and, as we bow to the left, to the right and to the center when we sanctify the name of the One in prayer, she kissed my left cheek, my right, and then drew me into her embrace as she kissed me on the mouth.

Please, stay, don't leave me. How will I survive without you? 

Her answer wasn't so much in words as in thoughts and images. I shuddered and put my arms around her, wanting to dwell in the comfort of her presence until I passed silently, like leaves that flutter and fall from trees, from the threshold of death into another life.

I awoke in darkness, disoriented but content; still feeling her arms around me, tears on my cheeks.

I began to feel a bit lonely after I awoke, so I took a book and went back up to the main apartment. I knocked on the door to Allan's room, but he didn't answer, so I figured he hadn't yet arisen from his food-coma. I passed the next few hours curled up in a chair, reading.

Eventually though, I started to feel lonely again, and since no one seemed to be awake, I decided to go for a walk. It must have been fairly late in the afternoon, because the sun was already past it's peak. I didn't go too far, so as not to loose my way, and stood leaning over railing of a fence at the side of the road, looking over the sheer drop into the valley below. I could easily see across the valley to the other side, where more houses were nestled into the hills. Instinctively, I knew that these were not part of Giv'at Ze'ev, but not because anyone had explained the geography of the area to me. Looking out onto the valley and hillsides surround it, it was as if what divided this settlement from the surrounding villages was not roads or signs or even the valley itself, but the sparkling aura of Shabbat that surrounded to Giv'at Ze'ev like a cloud. Across the valley, my eye suddenly caught movement and I saw two people walking a dog.

We're in two completely different worlds, I thought to myself. It was the notion of occupying the same place without being on the same plane of existence. In fact, I was sure that, had the couple looked across the valley, they would not have seen me. I suddenly understood why Shabbat is perhaps the most important holiday in all of Judaism. Judaism teaches that when the Messiah arrives our world will no longer be broken or imperfect, and we will no longer feel so separated from God. Shabbat is a small taste of that Messianic age, a hint of what could be. Though I don't believe in the Messiah as a physical person, I now understand in a way I never did before why Shabbat is so cherished and special.

I don't know how much time passed, but I stood there at the railing, feeling that sense of separation, knowing that Shabbat would end -as it always does -and I would have to return to the world of the mundane. Papers, school work, Hebrew tests, late busses, sleepless nights. I knew when I moved to Israel for this year that I would come back a different person, and it slowly began to dawn on me that I couldn't even escape this Shabbat without being fundamentally changed. Wistfully, I saw faces of friends that I had loved swim before my eyes like ghosts. I stood silently, tears rolling down my cheeks, wondering how to find the line between fighting to save a good relationship and realizing that continuing is a waste of energy.

Blinking, I realized that it was late. The sun had somehow gotten low on the horizon while I had stood deep in thought. Shaking myself, I left my post on the railing and went back to the Goldberger's apartment.

Allan was up by now, and it wasn't until I saw him that I realized the depths of loneliness I had gone to in my mental wanderings. I almost hugged him in my relief, then remembered that men and women in the Haredi world don't touch. We passed the rest of Shabbat with seudah shlishit (a small meal before the end of Shabbat) and havdallah (a ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the Jewish week).

I was a bit sad when I packed up the few things I had brought with me; sad to be leaving my new friends, the Goldbergers, sad that Shabbat was over, and sad that it would be hard for me to recreate that experience of Shabbat when I was back in Jerusalem. I promised that I would come back to visit them before I leave Israel, and I hope to keep that promise. Something valuable happened for me in this visit, because I realized that even the Haredi world isn't quite as black and white as I'd thought. Within the lines of black and white you still find diversity, and the Goldbergers are proof of that, I think. Perhaps most importantly, I realized that dialogue between Reform and Ultra Orthodox Jews is maybe not as impossible as I'd thought. It will never be perfect, but this visit gave me hope that at least I can find ways to bridge our differences. I hoped (though I never said it to them) that meeting me and Allan helped them to realize that, though the Reform movement's reputation of throwing the baby out with the bath water didn't come from nowhere, we do have values in common with them. There are many individuals (not just us) within the movement that are passionate and committed to making Reform Judaism vibrant, strong, and sustainable in our commitment to Jewish values and Torah.

Lecha Dodi: Part One

It was totally quiet. The sun had set just a few minutes ago, drenching the sky in pinks, oranges and golden yellows, and it had gotten quiet rather suddenly. No children ran through the streets, no babies cried or dogs barked, no cars drove on the roads, no televisions blared the evening news, not even the sound of phones ringing disturbed the hush that had descended on Giv'at Ze'ev (a settlement in the West Bank). I stood at the window, looking out to where the sun had set, a strange feeling rising in the back of my mind. A wave of anticipation ran through me.

"Come so we can light candles," she said kindly to me. I turned from my window-reverie and crossed to the table where my host, Rivka, and her daughter Rochle waited patiently. I grinned at Rochle; I had met the sweet, mild-mannered girl only two hours before but I already liked her. She smiled shyly and cast her gaze at the floor.

"Would you like to light them with us?" Rivka asked. My stomach lurched at this unexpected honor, and I glanced at Rivka, the epitome of mythical Jewish mother and eshet chayil (the Biblical ideal of a woman) all rolled into a five-foot-tall woman. She looked back at me, expectantly. I nodded mutely, swallowed, and took up a box of matches.

"If you don't mind," I managed, "I'd like to use a melody that my mom sang when I was a child."

Rivka nodded encouragingly. I was nervous suddenly -would I remember the words? Ridiculous! I chided myself. You could recite this blessing in your sleep and you speak Hebrew. Don't make excuses. There were no men in the house, they were all davening (praying) at the schul (synagogue) a few doors down. I could raise my voice in song and blessing without fear of being heard. Taking a deep breath I struck a match and lit two of the candles on the table in front of me. Rivka followed suit and lit the seven branched menorah beside my two candles. I covered my eyes, took another breath and began to sing: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu lehadlik ner shel shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with mitzvoth and commanded us to kindle the lights of Shabbat.

Suddenly all the fine hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel gooseflesh rise on my arms and legs. As though I had spoken the words to seal an ancient magic spell, I felt a shift in the air and my eyes filled with tears. Then I realized what the strange feeling had been: Shabbat had arrived, I could feel her presence like an embrace, and I had just sung the blessing to usher her into this home.

"That was beautiful," Rivka commented. "Your Hebrew's very good."

I blushed at her complement and thanked her. It felt too strange to even think about -I'm a born-and-raised Reform Jew and the only experience prior to this I'd ever had with Ultra Orthodox Jewry had been reading articles, a brief visit to Mea She'arim, and standing on the other side of a security barrier while they hurled insults and raw eggs at me. Yet there I was, in the home of a Haredi family lighting Shabbat candles. I couldn't deny it, there was something here that felt good and right, even familiar. It's like coming home, the thought popped into my head unbidden. I blinked back tears again.

A couple weeks ago Allan and I went to visit the Goldbergers -a Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) family that we happened to meet last semester when we did a section on Haredi Jews in our seminar class. Rivka and Ben Boruch made aliyah roughly fifteen years ago, and now Rivka is the education director of a school in Mea She'arim (the Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem) and Ben Boruch is an accomplished scholar of Torah and Talmud (the collection of Jewish laws that expound upon the Torah).

I remember the day that my class met the Goldbergers: I was exhausted from trekking all morning, slightly freaked out at finding myself in Haredim-central, and worried that I wouldn't be able to find my way to the doctor's appointment I'd had to schedule later that same day. We were supposed to meet at Rivka's school so that she and Ben Boruch could talk to us about Haredi life. After already sitting through several speakers that morning, I was distinctly grumpy at the prospect of having to sit in another room for two hours while someone talked at us.

Needless to say I was surprised to find something oddly likable, even familiar about the two of them (despite Ben Boruch's very honest proclamation that the Reform Movement has failed). When I received an email from a classmate saying that they were extending an invitation to spend Shabbat at their home to anyone who was interested I responded immediately.

In graduate school I did a lot of research about the past two-to-three hundred years of Jewish history (particularly about shtetl life in Eastern Europe), and perhaps my feeling of familiarity was due to that. Though the Goldbergers don't live in a ghetto or shtetl as such, very little has changed among Haredim since the nineteenth century (though 'Haredi' is a more recent term); Haredi life today very closely resembles shtetl life then. It's especially so on Shabbat, where the use of any technology is outlawed and time seems to stop.

As soon as we'd lit the candles that night, it was as like being transported to another dimension, and I suddenly understood why our sages talk about Shabbat as "sacred time." The feeling of profound serenity that descended upon Giv'at Ze'ev with the darkness of Friday night was truly transcendent. All my anxiety and worries that ate at me constantly during the week about job interviews for my student pulpit next year, mid terms,  learning my portion of Megillat Esther in time for Purim, purim spiel rehearsals, and the CD I had to record for my job applications were suddenly inconsequential. Like they had never existed to begin with. Shabbat was there, enfolding me in a peace that I have not known these past eight months.

Initially, I'd wanted to go to the schul to experience Shabbat evening services, but I found I was quite content to sit with Rivka and Rochle and chat instead. Rivka asked me about my family, where my Jewish ancestors came from, and struggled to understand how my parents raised a Jewish family in Hawaii. She told me a little about her family as well, her sisters, and that she'd lost an entire side of her family in the Holocaust. She told me that she's been married to Ben Boruch since she was nineteen, and I told her (albeit a very cleaned-up version) of my sojourns dating non-Jews when I lived in Colorado.

She seemed fascinated by my stories, and I felt so comfortable with her, I found myself willingly sharing my life story. She asked me lots of questions about Reform Jews, and I was honest. I told her that I think Reform Jews are very conflicted, because we live in modern society but still struggle to maintain a Jewish identity. Constructing a Jewish identity in a non-Jewish society is quite difficult. I refrained from making disparaging comments about the Reform movement though. Even though I have my own issues, I thought it better not to put myself in a position where I might have to defend the Reform movement to someone who doesn't deal with modern, Western society. I also realized that some of the issues Reform Jews face today wouldn't make sense to a Haredi woman, because she believes that the Torah is the absolute word of God -end of story. Therefore, the two of us aren't even coming from the same basis of logic when it comes to the intersection of Judaism and modernity. Rivka told me she liked my honesty.

I asked Rivka about Haredi life, and bit by bit, a clearer picture unfolded for me: gender roles are clearly defined, modesty in dress and behavior is expected from both men and women, and television strictly avoided. Haredim prefer to protect their own sensitivity and innocence, as Rivka put it, so they avoid all the sex, violence, and profanity that comes with television. Life is simple and satisfying because they follow God's law as it is written in the Torah, fulfilling God's commandments. Rivka didn't say it in so many words, but community in the Haredi world is of utmost importance. In fact, it is equally as important today in Israel as it was in Poland in the nineteenth century. The only difference is that in Poland Jews were despised and feared, so self-reliance was a necessity for survival. Here in Israel, where Jews are free to practice, Haredim depend on their communities because there is such a rift between them and secular Israelis. Sometimes it's like two different societies trying to cram into the same, tiny country. The irony is that the fear and hatred of the nineteenth century still exist, but now between Haredim and secular Israelis.

I'm getting ahead of myself here though, because the Goldbergers are not the average Haredi family -Rivka and Ben Boruch are very educated and much more open than most Haredim. In that they are the exception to the rule. Even though I have problems with ultra orthodoxy, I still consider the Goldbergers my friends.

The more Rivka and I talked, the more surprised I became. Part of me had expected to feel challenged and uncomfortable in this context before we arrived -what could I really have in common with Haredim? But the more we talked, the more I realized how many values we share - Jewish values that I was instilled with as a child. I thought back to my first months in Israel when I met secular Israelis that told me I couldn't be Jewish if I was Filipino, that there weren't any Jews in Hawaii, or that I simply wasn't a Jew because I didn't look like one. I didn't dare say it to Rivka (for fear I would sob uncontrollably) but I felt more validated then as a Jew, spending Shabbat with her and her family, than I ever felt with secular Israelis. Although I still struggle with a feeling of stinging injustice at the racism of secular Israelis, a wound I hadn't known I'd been carrying with me began to heal that night.

After a couple hours Allan returned with Ben Boruch from schul, and we sat down to dinner. A couple of visiting yeshiva boys came with them, but, perhaps needless to say, they did not talk to me. Ben Boruch blessed the wine and the challah, we all washed our hands (as is customary before the Shabbat meal), and sat down to eat. The dinner that Rivka served was like a dream -as though we were eating the very mana that fed the Israelites in the desert. First, she served chicken soup, then brought out an assortment of hummus and roasted egg plant and other little side salads. The main course was roasted chicken, roasted, sliced turkey stuffed with ground meat, potato kuggle and roasted green beans. To top everything off there was a sweet apple kuggle and chocolates for desert.

I probably ate more calories in one meal than in the two days preceding it combined, but I didn't care. I was having too much fun. Dinner lasted for three hours while we talked, argued, shared stories and asked each other questions. In typical Jewish mother style, Rivka constantly urged both me and Allan to eat more and more food. After a point I had to politely decline, but Allan continued with gusto. He laughingly told a story about how he was adopted as the 'favorite grandson' by a friend's grandmother because of his appetite.

"My goodness!" Rivka exclaimed at one point, "but you're so skinny!" (looking at Allan).

"I run," Allan replied with a small smile.

At long last, Ben Boruch stood up from the dinner table and said that he and Allan were going back to the schul for a tisch (a gathering -specific to Shabbat- centered around the rabbi that includes singing, dancing, more food, and mini-lectures on the Torah portion of the week). I asked Rivka if I could go and watch, and she agreed to show me there, but I didn't end up going. Once again, I was content just to spend time with her. Roughly three hours later (around 11:30pm), Ben Boruch and Allan finally returned, exhausted but smiling.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Conflict

The Conflict. Just two simple words, and yet pretty much everyone knows exactly which conflict is being referred to when those two words are mentioned in connection with Israel. Sometimes I feel like talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is like beating a dead horse. Whether in Israel or across the ocean in the United States you don't have to look very far to find cynicism or apathy when it comes to this topic of conversation. And I understand, to a certain degree, the eye-rolling when this topic surfaces.

We did a three-session block on the Conflict in our Israel Seminar that started with a visit to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif as it's called in Arabic). I was actually excited to be going, even though (in order to beat the flocks of tourists) this required getting up at what for any musician is an obscene hour of the morning. Even though I've been to the Kotel numerous times, I'd never before visited Haram al-Sharif.

So I rousted myself from my bed at ten minutes to six in the morning, met my friend and next door neighbor, and together we walked to the Kotel plaza to meet our class. Even despite getting there at 7:30 in the morning, we still had to wait forty minutes before security actually let us go through the gate. They checked our bags for anything that even remotely looked Jewish; one of my Cantorial classmates had music confiscated because it had words transliterated from Hebrew. I'd known already that Jewish worship of any kind is illegal on Haram al-Sharif, and I'd thought I was safe. After all, I reasoned, I only had my lunch, a notebook and my pencil case in my back pack. Nothing that could possibly be construed as an item of Jewish worship. But no, even I was forced to lighten my backpack. Turns out that they don't even allow writing implements on Haram al-Sharif because they don't want to give anyone the opportunity to do graffiti. At first I was annoyed. Did they honestly think that I, a seminary student, was going to write "God hates Muslims" on one of the holiest sites in all of Islam? And then I remembered that the Haram al-Sharif t is still hotly contested in the realm of the Conflict, and in light of that, graffiti is never simply graffiti.

I overheard one of the security guards talking on his radio in Hebrew, telling a fellow guard: "I've got a group of students here, all American, half of them are Jews and half are Christians, I think." I must have really been in a snarky mood that morning, because I came very close to turning around and shouting at him -in Hebrew -"ma pitom gever? Ani Israelit!" just to be contrary. Roughly translated, that phrase means: "What the hell man? I'm an Israeli!" I bit my tongue though, and mumbled to Allan instead about how I hate that whenever Israelis see English speakers in groups they automatically assume that no one speaks a lick of Hebrew. Allan reminded me gently that we were in a touristy area, so it's only natural for the guard to assume that we were tourists. I grumbled and followed him up the ramp that bridges the Kotel plaza with the Temple Mount.

On top, blinking in the clear sunshine, I gaped as we came out into another plaza, wide and clean. I felt transported to another world as I looked at the orderly rows of Cyprus trees, like colonnades, splitting this plaza clearly into several sections. Old men sat in twos and threes, smoking cigars, playing chess, reading passages from the Quran; women dressed in long coats and full hejab strolled together down the rows of Cyprus or chatted with the men. In one part of the plaza people knelt on rugs, obviously praying. I didn't want to admit it, but I was shocked at the feeling of serenity that permeated the air. I felt myself flooded suddenly with that particular stillness from which the voice of intuition speaks. My eyes filled with tears and I was overcome by an urge to sit under a tree and listen until the stillness gave me some glimpse of the Divine. It's just like being in the Negev, I thought to myself. There, you feel the presence of something greater than you; you don't understand it but you want desperately to connect with it. I was glad that I was wearing sunglasses; I was too ashamed to weep at seemingly nothing in front of my class, let alone in such a public place.

Thinking back, my shock was due partly to subconscious associations I had made with that place long ago. Haram el-Sharif is also where the Kotel is, and I've struggled bitterly for most of this year with the contempt I feel for the politicization of that particular historical site. It makes me uneasy at best that the Kotel is now claimed by the Ultra Orthodox Jews as the holiest site in all of Judaism, the place where we are the closest to God. They conveniently forget that the mechitza (divider between men's and women's sections) and prohibitions against the way women pray are modern developments -as in, less than one hundred years ago. It seems to me that the Ultra Orthodox have hijacked the Kotel, and, even more than the prohibitions against women, I disagree most passionately with the forcing of God into such a confined space. Why should I be closer to God at the Kotel than in my own room praying in the morning, or out at a restaurant with the friends that I love -or all alone on a mountain top in the middle of the Himalayas? After all, one of the names of God in Hebrew has the same root as the word for nature. The blatant fanaticism that Ultra Orthodox Jews have brought to the kotel rankles me. So, I choose to avoid the place as much as I can. Thus, I also chose never to go up to Haram el-Sharif until I had to for academic purposes.

Another layer to add to the confusion and complexity of the site: Haram el-Sharif is where the First and Second Temples once stood, and the Ultra Orthodox Jews believe that the site needs to be kept vacant so that when the Messiah comes the Temple will be rebuilt. Obviously, that the Temple mount is not vacant is a problem in their view. The Dome of the Rock was built during the Muslim conquest of then Palestine and Ultra Orthodox Jews -even secular Israelis to some extent -are still vexed over this affront. I can actually understand the bitterness over the Dome of the Rock being built upon the ruins of the Temple. However, as it happened roughly 1400 years ago and I don't buy into the Ultra Orthodox criterion for the Messiah, I don't believe that holding on to ancient grudges is going to help the current peace process. By that logic, the Palestinians might actually have more reason to be angry than any Israelis; the circumstances under which Israel came into statehood were terrible (to put it mildly) and in the Zionists' haste to find a solution to the Jewish Problem, errors were made that under any other circumstance would have been avoided. History shouldn't be taken as an opportunity to pass judgement on our ancestors though, and I don't mention that in order to take a side in the Conflict. I just think it bears mentioning for the sake of objectiveness and nuance.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering the plaza, posing for photos, admiring the beautiful craftsmanship of the buildings, and discussing historical events with Allan and a few other friends. As we laughed and took each other's picture, I found my thoughts wandering to Habib, our head of maintenance at the college. I thought of the conversation we had about the differences between Jews, Arabs, and Christians and I was filled with a strange feeling, not quite nostalgia. I mused on how people have always found ways throughout history to overcome religious and cultural divides when love is involved. Then I mused on the relationships we choose in our lives, and how they effect us. I mused as well, more darkly, that most Israelis believe that the Conflict will never be resolved, despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Palestinians are willing to acknowledge that Jews have a connection to this land just as they do.

We had a debriefing session after we arrived back at school from Haram el-Sharif, and I realized -in talking with my friends -that it's not necessarily the subject of the Conflict that is tired and worn out and makes me groan inwardly every time it's raised. Rather, for me it is the manner in which people approach and talk about the Conflict. I am fed up with the lack of nuance in which too many people (on any side of the conflict) approach it and seek to deal with it. Honestly, I would rather that the Muslims keep the Temple Mount for the sake of peace (security notwithstanding). In my opinion, they've done a wonderful job in creating a sacred space. It may no longer be the site of my religion, but I can recognize and respect the reverence with which they treat the site. We don't know when the Messiah will come, or even if the Messiah is a physical person. Thus, wouldn't it be better for someone to use Haram el-Sharif for spiritual purposes, rather than letting it sit empty in preparation for an event that may or may not happen?

I want to believe that the Conflict can and will be resolved -even though living in Jerusalem for the past seven months has given me a more than healthy dose of cynicism regarding human nature. It's really easy to get embroiled in all the little details of the history of the Conflict, but I'm not sure that will help in the end. I don't know that it's possible, but it seems to me that if we could somehow move on from the slights of the past (which have been suffered and perpetrated pretty evenly on both sides to date) it might bring us closer to a solution. Of course things could have been done better in 1948, but wiping Israel off the map won't solve anything either. Anyone who suggests that is ignorant. I want to believe that there is a way for both sides to co-exist without literally killing each other. It may sound overly simplistic (and thus make me sound like a hypocrite), but it seems to me that we now need to find a way for us to "agree to disagree".

Saturday, February 15, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel


I can’t speak of you in the past tense.
I’m stuck, I know; it hurts too much.
If I could somehow remember, then maybe I’d remember why I forgot.
I can’t speak of you in the past tense
Because in my mind you’ve only gone somewhere
That isn’t here. You’re still there somewhere, I just have to call you.
But I don’t know where, and the time difference is a pain. Maybe I’ll email.
In the present tense you’re still alive,
The present is where we are still together,
Where you laugh at my jokes
And I tell you all my secrets.
We talk until three in the morning, sitting outside;
“you make me happy –
I love you –
we have so much fun together”
I can’t speak of you in the past tense
Because to relegate you there forces me
Into the future. Without you.
“Ah ha!” I cry triumphantly, 
“didn’t you know that English has no real future tense? I’m staying in the present!”
Anger. Denial. Acceptance.
Past. Present. Future.
I don’t remember the day you died
Because memory will cleave you from me
And I cannot speak of you in the past tense.
In the end this charade will kill me.
Because I’m living in the present of a moment in the past.
And every time I prepare to ascend the mountain
Where covenants are sealed and broken
I tremble and I am afraid.
I can’t add you –I won’t add you to the piles of names
And the Yarhzeit lists;
Because I can’t sanctify the Name in their present

When I can’t speak your name in the past.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Knesset Visit

I've never been one to get excited about politics, Israeli or American. Though I strive not to be completely ignorant I have to admit, after a certain point I just fundamentally cannot fathom how a government actually functions. Fortunately for me, I've chosen a career in the clergy.

This semester we've been looking at Israeli politics in some depth, and last week we went to visit the Knesset to talk with a politician called Dov Lipman (from the Yesh Atid party). I was excited -despite having been to Israel twice before this year, I'd never had an opportunity to visit the Knesset.

The structure from the outside is a little too Bauhaus for my taste, though it is stunning when it's flood lit at night. Inside, however, the naturally lit lobbies with cool marble floors and potted plants are actually welcoming. It seems more like the office of an really rich lawyer or a real estate agent than a government building. The wall of one the corridors off the main lobby is lined with photos -almost like a collections you'd find of family photos in someone's house. Captured in these photos are some of the greatest moments in Knesset history -or so I imagined. There are photos of Knesset members throughout the years arguing, crying, laughing and embracing each other, deep in conversation or contemplation, and applauding enthusiastically. As we walked down the corridor I admired the photos, musing to myself that whoever took them had serious skill, and an ironic sense of humor. Then we turned the corner and I saw a security guard lounging casually at a desk with the practiced boredom of someone who could kill you at a moment's notice. Homy, welcoming atmosphere aside, the Israelis are dead serious about security -always. We all filed into a conference room and sat around a huge, round table with microphones placed at regular intervals in front of the seats.

Dov Lipman has an interesting story. He is not a native-born Israeli, hailing instead from the East Coast originally. He is what some would refer to as Modern Orthodox and studied at a yeshiva for many years before he made aliyah with his family some nine years ago. He told us quite honestly that he never expected to get involved in politics or to become a member of the Knesset -it just sort of happened because he decided to advocate for positive change in Israel. Yesh Atid is a centrist party -so they basically represent the interests of secular, middle class Israelis. We talked for about an hour and a half about the party, it's history, bills they're currently supporting and the many issues that arise when trying to follow include halakha (Jewish law) in a modern state. Afterwards I felt happy -for lack of a better word. It wasn't because I'd  suddenly discovered a love for politics, but rather because I felt a sense of hope.

Dov Lipman truly seemed like an honest, down-to-earth man who is highly educated and passionately committed to Israel; someone who is deeply religious but not a fanatic. People like him are, sadly, extremely rare in Israeli society. He is committed to helping Israel stay connected to Jewish tradition and a strong Jewish identity but he understands Israel as a state cannot ignore modernity. Neither can the Jewish people -we have to find a balance somehow. With most of the world indifferent at best to Israel's existence, she cannot afford to be left behind economically or politically. Too many Jews in Israel fail time and time again to understand this.

It was refreshing and inspiring to talk with him even for that short time. Especially after last semester-when I came face to face with the more troubling aspects of Israeli society - I left most seminar classes feeling so uncomfortable or even angry that I started to dread going to class. There is a strange dynamic here (especially in Jerusalem) when it comes to Israelis and Jews of the Diaspora. Israelis know that they depend heavily on financial support from the Diaspora (particularly in the United States), and yet they feel free to criticize us for not being "Jewish enough"whenever it suits them. God forbid you should look the least bit Asiatic, because if someone isn't Ashkenazi or at least Sabra in appearance, even secular Israelis will tell you there's no way you can be Jewish. Since they have rejected religion so completely, ethnicity is the only way the can connect with being Jewish.

I find this attitude infuriating, and struggled with it time and time again last semester. I care deeply about this country and that scornful mentality makes me feel like an outsider in the place that's supposed to be my home. Worse still, it makes me feel powerless to contribute to change here. I was hopeful though, after our visit to the Knesset, that people like Dov Lipman can help Israeli society to be less polarized.

I have no illusions -I am pragmatic enough to realize that a lot of elements of Reform Judaism are highly context dependent. For instance, many choices that American Reform Jews make as far as observance goes are predicated on the fact that American society at large is not Jewish. It stands to reason, therefore, that Reform Judaism is Israel would not look the same as it does in the States when Jews are no longer the minority. Importing an exact copy of American Reform Judaism (if you could even define what that is in the first place) is not what I would want, personally. I just want the scorning of Reform -call it Progressive if you will -Judaism to stop. Israel was created to be the home for all Jews.

While Dov Lipman did not discuss any issues that were directly related to Reform Jews in Israel, just knowing that there are people like him in the Knesset gives me hope that a more moderate form of Judaism (neither fanatically religious nor fanatically secular) can one day flourish here. It is a process though, and one that will undoubtedly take time. Yesh Atid literally means "there is a future", and our visit that day made me hopeful for Israel's future.