Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Yad

I wrote in a previous blog post about our visit to Safed and of commissioning a beautiful glass yad to be created for me.

Today was the first day I used it, and a very busy day at that. We davened at our local "Shira Hadasha style minyan" where today I had more roles than I'm used to having in a single day. I led the Torah service, leined Hamishi and told a drash as well. The Torah service I've done enough times that it doesn't take a lot of preparation, but I've been practicing the leining for weeks. I was inspired to do it that as I was eager for my first chance to use the yad. I said a shechechiyanu on it before reading.

Between the leining, davening and speech, the speech went most smoothly. (I had the leining down perfect when I left home this morning but botched it reading from an unfamiliar Torah.) I'm enclosing the text of my speech. It's a little rough. I didn't actually read the pages I held, but rather spoke whenever possible, using what I had written as a backup and as a guide.

            I hope you’re not expecting a Shabbat HaGadol speech from me. I actually volunteered to speak today because I wanted to share a personal story. Never fear. It is linked with the parsha.
            The parsha is mostly about temple service from a very very long time ago. Throughout, a few ritual objects are mentioned including the Kohen’s clothes, the vessels used for blood and so on and I want to talk today about ritual objects and how they link us to Torah, to the past and bring us to the present.
            I’ve been to Israel 3 times in my life, twice when I was a teenager, and this past winter for my first time as an adult with my family. After a weekend of jet lag with friends in Modi’in, the first touristy thing we did was The Sifting Project near the Temple Mount which is an archaeological finds activity. Without going into the entire background of the project you should know that they have buckets and buckets of dirt that need to be sifted through to see what can be found from all different eras of history. You choose a bucket, pour it into a tray that acts like a sieve and hose it down while you sort out anything you can find that is metal, bone, ceramic, rock, glass etc.
            Now my experience looking was like this. “Oh oh, I found something.”
            “Okay, that’s a rock.”
            “Oh oh, I found something else!”
            “Yes, that’s a piece of pottery, fairly recent.”
            “Here’s something!”
            “It’s a rock.”
            Finally finally I found this little piece of glass that was in a little hook shape. Now a seasoned archaeologist, I called over the guide and said, “I think I found a handle of something.”
            This time I was right.
            “Yes,” the guide said, “It’s from a vessel from the Second Temple period.”
             She showed us a photograph of what a whole vessel would look like and, sure enough, my handle would have fit like a puzzle piece. So here was this little piece of garbage that now was linking us to the people who lived long enough ago that they would have actually known something about these obscure rituals we’re reading about in today’s parsha.

            Fast forward. 24 hours later we were on our way up to Safed where we wanted to check out some art. We stayed in a beautiful artist guest house. You walk down this dank alleyway to a bright blue door at the end that opens out into a colorful courtyard with geodes and crystals, glass windows and plenty of artistic vision. The people who ran it were these lovely Carlebachy-Americans from the West Coast. While we were there I admired their beautiful glass mezuzot. It turned out they were blown by our hostess’ friend who had a glass blowing studio in the artist colony.
            So naturally we decided to check it out. Like our guest house, the studio was colorful and artistic in every corner. The couple who ran it was also formerly American and dressed colorfully in again what I can only call a Carlebachy style. The studio sold pitchers and glasses and even yads for reading Torah.

            Now time out for a second. When we began planning our Israel trip I knew I wanted to bring back some kind of ritual object. I thought about us getting a new Challah board or Kiddush set for the family, but I wanted something that I could bring back just for me. Now, during my first trips to Israel I was already moving towards wanting to be more observant, but at that time it had never occurred to me that I could 1. have leadership roles in a shul or 2. that I would take on roles that normally were only for men in the observant community. Learning to lein as an adult has brought out an excited streak in me that I haven’t had since I was young and really first enjoying being Jewish. It makes me proud how hard I have to work to prepare. In addition, I love the mixture of bringing my full self along with my flat American accent into practicing and reading these complicated phrases that I only vaguely understand. I enjoy the music of it. I enjoy the satisfaction when I’m done. So I had decided I wanted to get myself a yad.
            I was also a little confused how this acquisition would play out. Would I be walking into some silversmith shop, buying it from a bearded and traditional man with whom I couldn’t comfortably share that this yad was the one thing I wanted in all of Israel so that I could go home and use it to read Torah?
            So I saw this glass yad in the glassblowing studio and asked,
            “Do you have more of these?”
            “I can customize them,” she told me, “ and I can do inscriptions for bar mitzvahs.”
            I paused and thought for a second and then blurted out.
            “It’s for me.”
            Just then her husband walked into the room and asked,
            “You read?” he asked. “And a woman is going to make you a yad? Cool.”

            So together we picked out the glass and discussed design and finally it arrived in the mail.
            (Here I showed the yad and explained the yellow to represent straight and unbroken divine light, and the blue wrapping around it to represent me joining with that light. The clear hand was meant to not obscure the words in the Torah.)

            One last thing I’d like to share. A few years ago we went to Silver Spring, MD on Simchat Torah where they had the biggest women’s Torah reading I’ve ever seen. It took over half an hour to get through all the aliyot with four Torahs being read simultaneously.  I cried when I was there because I was so sad that I couldn’t provide something like that for my own daughter. But as I practiced for this week’s leining it was Naomi who corrected my mistakes – lots and lots of them – and she is already asking about the yad I’ll give her for her bat mitzvah.
            One thing I know we all struggle with is materialism and how not to have stuff  take over our lives, but sometimes an object can be the thing that links you very profoundly to spirituality, and to have your own is a way of declaring that you know your place within that faith. It’s also something that after the people themselves are gone, can represent the work they did in this world. I’m excited to have this yad now to symbolize the point I’ve come to in my own life, and I’m so proud that Naomi feels now that she has full access to our tradition, to observance and that she has a right to the objects themselves that link us there.
            I want to thank you today for hearing my story, but also for helping to maintain this place where opportunities are all those who want to be active in their spiritual community.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Israel, 2015 -- Part 5, End of the Journey

By Friday we were so tired that that day and Shabbat are somewhat blurred.

We packed up our hotel and prepared to meet friends of ours later in the day. Just one more restaurant, we said, and walked to one I'd read about a few days before but hadn't located. I'm so glad we did. Te'enim is the kind of restaurant we always wish we could go to when traveling, but usually can't because it isn't Kosher. It was quiet, decorative and had beautiful classical guitar music playing. We sat by an open balcony window and looked out on the old city. Opening the menu we sort of gritted our teeth because so far we had spent so much on food. The breakfast menu had a price with a long list of dishes after.

"So we have to choose one of these," we confirmed with the waiter.

This was not the whole meal. We also had buttered bread, juice and tea.
No. You got all of them for that one price. It was healthy delicious, beautiful.

This is just for decoration, a little spice swirled in the center of the plate.
Sigh. Wish we could have taken it home with us.

After that we met up with our friends, as planned. These Israeli friends of ours lived near us for three years and were our regular Shabbat park and seudah shlishit playdates. The mother of the family had relatives in Jerusalem that we would all stay with to enjoy the day together.

"Where do you want to go?" she asked.

"I'm so spent at this point," I told her, "it no longer makes much difference."

"Really, you don't want to see everything?"

I shook my head. "I've done just about all I can do."

So we just went to two places. One was the Israel Museum. It wasn't terribly child friendly. We did see the giant installation they have of ancient Jerusalem, but the real highlight was Big Bambu. This was an art installation you could climb up in, a towering bumble of bamboo. Those of us who did it enjoyed sitting at the top (holding on for fear of any sudden wind bursts) and marveling at our bravery and at how secure it actually felt.

Lunch came and we got yet one last restaurant meal. This one was in a mall and on an outdoor deck. Such a treat when we knew soon we'd be returning to snow.

By now I didn't even care what I ate anymore. We enjoyed our meal and watched as the staff hurried to close up in time for Shabbat. We rushed through our meal and headed for the family.

That Shabbat was lovely and ended with a walk on a promenade overlooking Jerusalem.

After Havdalah we had our final slice of Israeli-made pizza and followed our friends to their apartment in Shoham. There we showered and slept about 3 hours before shaking ourselves awake and driving to the airport.

We departed Israel during Sunday's early hours and stopped over in Vienna. There we exited the plane on a tarmac with snow coming down and gradually became used to being surrounded by fewer and fewer Israelis. I enjoyed speaking a few words of German with the flight attendants, but it certainly wasn't the same.

I can't say that I want to live all my life always around other Jews, for so many reasons, but there was a distinct feeling as we left Israel of leaving behind a place that really matters to us in so many ways, much more than a tourist destination.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Israel 2015, part 4 -- Rehovot

6 AM and a horrible beeping woke us up. At first we thought it a raid siren, but then I remembered the sign that had explained a siren like that would have a rising and falling sound. We pulled on shoes and jackets over our pajamas and went outside. No one was in the front office. The alarm stopped in our building then started in another. Then it did it again. Gradually we came to understand it was a malfunction and that no one really cared much about it. So much for sleeping in.

Our one reservation that day was for Leket. Leket is a nonprofit that used to be called table to table and was begun by a Bergen County ex-pat. The organization rescues unused food from restaurants, catering services etc., as well as from farms, and delivers them to Israel's hungry population. ND and I have both heard the founders speak at different venues and were eager to come glean for them.

Before we would go there though, we decided to hit one more destination in Ein Gedi, Wadi David. In fact, we didn't realize it until now, but the hostel where we were staying was actually next door to the park filled with trails. I wish we had had more time to explore, but even the easiest trail was a bit precarious in spots. Advertised as one of the easier family hikes, it climbs up to a lovely water fall. However, along the way there are a whole lot of rocks, a warning about potential falling rocks pushed down by ibexes and a few single file slippery spots where water washed over the rocky path. This was actually just about the level of adventure I like... do-able, but at least with a little feeling of risk. Signage for other trails warned to stay away unless you were a very fit hiker. So we were in and out in the hour we had budgeted and on our way to the fields in Rehovot.

There isn't a ton to tell about picking with Leket, except that we really really enjoyed it. Our volunteer coordinator was from Denver originally and had an excellent memory for people. Through a quick game of Jewish Geography we quickly identified that she was friends with our formerly Vancouver friends in Modi'in. In addition, at the end of our time, when she asked us what was next, we told how we would be staying with friends in Jerusalem. How did we know these friends? Because they had lived for about 3 years near us in Tenafly and we were looking forward to meeting their new baby who had been born since their return to Israel. Right away our guide said, "oh, I think I met her when she was very very pregnant. She came and, well, sat, while the family she was with picked. I think there was an archaeologist with them." Yep... Those friends were friends of ours too from our shul back home. Small small Jewish world.

So Leket, itself, in one word:
We picked enough beets to feed 100 families (who I hope would be eating other things too.) There was a Teaneck family there too who helped at first but ended up leaving early as the day was hot and the beets were staining. So the 100 beets were our work alone. What a proud way to end the day.

Israel 2015, part 3 -- Ein Gedi

Tuesday was, for better or worse, another very long afternoon of driving. Along the way we made a quick stop in the neighborhood where U.’s mother had been raised and found a couple of family landmarks. However, time was short and we had to keep moving. The last hour or so of our drive came during a beautiful sunset, but then we had to drive on narrows roads around hills in a black night. We couldn’t even see The Dead Sea on our left because buildings or street lights of any kind were few and far between.

At last we arrived at a hostel which, honestly, was not the friendliest place we had ever stayed, but we were relieved to have two whole nights in the place. In addition, we were grateful to find a full buffet dining hall awaiting us. 
While in the dining hall we spotted an interesting group sitting at another table. There were two women. One had dark hair like mine and a little girl with curly hair. The second woman had long red hair, a young daughter and a baby boy in a high chair. The group reminded ND and me both of ourselves and our camping friend emarcy who has a little girl and was (at the time of this encounter) very very pregnant. The group we saw was disheveled too, so like us when we go camping each summer.

We emailed emarcy about the little party and she responded that we very well may have seen our camping “doubles.” We couldn’t know for sure yet as they had not yet learned the gender of the baby, but we might know very soon because her contractions seemed to be starting!

(Sure enough, a day and a half later we finally got the announcement that she had had a baby boy!)

I had been looking forward for some time to the day we would wake up in Ein Gedi. We had an open schedule until 4:00 PM. I had planned this deliberately because I knew that 1. Visiting the Dead Sea was a top priority for ND and 2. We had been told that children often lose interest in the Dead Sea once the salts seeped into unknown cuts and made it too annoying to stay. So I had collected some other options as well. Still, it became another fully packed and exhausting day.

We realized when we looked at the map just how close Masada was. I had not originally planned to share its history with ND yet. The angst-ridden story of mass suicide seems more engaging and romantic to teenage sensibilities. I know that as a teen I had been very moved by the story and do remember the morning ascent I did during the Israel half of my March of the Living experience in 1994. However, here we were again, so close to Masada. It would be a shame to miss it.
Down the snake path

We took the tram up to save time and right away began searching for artifacts that just maybe the archaeologists had missed. Alas, finding nothing more than our imaginations, we had to depend instead on the diagrams showing how the buildings used to look to give us a vague sense of what was what. Later, when discussing our favorites of Masada we each named a bathhouse that was still filled with ancient Roman mosaic tiles. 

Not wanting to miss out on the experience of The Snake Path we took the long walk down and found the day was getting hotter. Walking down was more exhausting than expected. We made it though and hit the road for Ein Bokek.

In our family, U. was the only one who had ever been to the Dead Sea. His memory of it had been entirely about how hot and uncomfortable it was. So he was surprised to see the enormous hotels and the nice beach we found. The walk from the parking lot to beach was shorter than I have ever experienced in any beach and had little changing booths right on the beach. It was about 70 degrees Farenheit, a little chilly for a day at the beach but we certainly weren't the only ones that day. As in any beach or swimming pool it took some time to brave up to the cold. No option of dunking your head to acclimate as it's dangerous to get the Dead Sea water on your face (and tastes horrible)! U. was the first one to be brave enough to completely sit down on the water and we were all delighted when he said the water wouldn't let him touch the ground underneath. Soon I too had the nerve to lay back and let the water scoot me around and we discovered ND could sit on me like a raft.

It was sad when the time came to leave, but we were freezing cold. Shivering in the car on our way to the next adventure U. marveled,

"Wow, we've actually done it. We're driving through the desert with the heat on."

Like the night before, we took a long and winding road to Kfar Hanokdim. This is a Bedouin tourist attraction which we'd learned about when searching for camel rides. In retrospect I realize we planned it for rather an odd time as our reservation was at 4 and was meant to include a camel ride and "Bedouin Hospitality." When reserving we had chosen against the overnight stay as we didn't think we'd quite be comfortable sleeping in tents in such a new environment. (The video on the site was not available when we booked so you'll get more information from watching it than we had before we went!)
I'd really been looking forward to this activity but, since we came at an odd time, felt really anxious about how few others were there. We were in the middle of the desert with nothing much in sight except this Bedouin camp, were unclear exact what to expect, whether Bedouin kashrut was the same as our kashrut, and afraid to say or ask the wrong things to offend. I was also nervous about driving back yet again on winding mountain roads in the dark.

In any case, we started with the camel ride -- ND with me and U on his own. This mode of travel certainly felt steady but slow. Going up and down hills was a challenge as the "saddle" or whatever we sat in, became quite steep. I thought of the early matriarchs and patriarchs depending on camels for travel, especially Rachel and how uncomfortable it must have been if "the way of women" really was upon her and she wasn't just hiding Laban's idols.

After a half hour ride up and down a sand dune, we returned and were escorted to a tent where we were offered tea and coffee that had been cooked over a fire. Here a Bedouin man spoke to us about Bedouin life, the migratory existence, arranged marriages, food and so on. We were once again the only ones present so I thought hard for questions I could ask to show our interest and to be polite. We had been told that dinner would be reserved too but all I saw was tea and coffee. The silence that came after some time in the tent was awkward, so I excused us, saying we needed to leave before the sun went down completely.

We bade Salaam and headed for the car only to be followed by the woman who had made our reservation.

"We have more for you," she said, insisting we stay, and led us to an enormous tent we hadn't seen before. This tent held tables in a dining hall and we were seated in the back where the tent flap had been lifted to reveal the sunset that was dropping at that moment.

"Even if we leave now we won't be back before dark" U. said and we resolved to enjoy ourselves.

Course after course... first vegetables, then meat in beautiful arrangements. There was enough food to feed 8 comfortably and have them groan from overindulging. Clearly they prepare for larger groups most of the time and didn't downsize just because we were a smaller reservation.

ND who like me aspires to vegetarianism looked to me.

"We don't turn down hospitality like this," I said as I served myself some of the smaller and more appetizing pieces of meat.

A cat made itself at home on the floor between us and cried so pitifully that we gave in and shared with it. (Since she was so good at begging, ND named her "Beggy.")
Our waiter never asked us not to feed her.

That night we came home exhausted.

"Tomorrow" I said, "we don't have to be anywhere until 2. We're sleeping in."

Monday, February 16, 2015

Israel 2015, Part 2 -- Safed

Monday morning we awoke in our hotel and had our first delicious hotel breakfast including shakshuka (love saying that word), potatoes, salads, pastries, yogurt, cereal... yum. So much delicious Kosher food to choose from.

Then, grateful at last to not have a deadline to meet, we took a quick walk to the Artists' Colony where saw some puzzle piece shabbat/Channukah candlesticks I was really tempted to buy. Then we hit the road to Safed.

Our drive North was very very slow due to construction and we were caught behind a series of trucks carrying tanks. Funny to be a tourist and not quite know what those tanks are up to, but have that all be normal routine in a country and small and with a military as active as that in Israel.

As a result we didn’t get there until close to nightfall and gave up the opportunity to "swing by" the Kinneret which beckoned temptingly on the map.

With so many reservations in so many places, I had failed to read the details on some of the confirmation emails. So we were a little nervous when Waze took us to an alleyway. We parked the car on the street and called the Guesthouse where a very warm, American voice answered and gave us lengthy details of how to walk to the Guesthouse. “You don’t have a ton of luggage, do you?” Not knowing how to respond I just left most of my stuff in the car and we dragged a few essentials single file down a narrow curb of a sidewalk, then down a flight of steps to a garbage-ridden alleyway.
Fortunately, we were hopeful that we were in the right place and had better to look forward to with the beautiful signs that pointed our way.
Our room's domed ceiling
Sure enough, at the end of the alleyway was a richly painted blue door which opened into a beautiful courtyard with geodes, crystals, an olive tree and herb garden. Several rooms looked out into the courtyard and we found our way to the hosts’ door. The hostess, Joy, came out to greet us, hugged me as if we were old friends and said she’d been waiting for us.
Guest House courtyard, daytime

She showed us our room which was dome-shaped and very homey, explained how everything worked, walked us through a map of the area, and then left us to go see if we could fit in anything that night. Our goals for Safed were to see a few of the shuls and to see and maybe purchase some art. By this time of evening, though, it was also to find some food. Alas, almost everything was closed including a Yemenite vegetarian restaurant where we could have sat on cushions and tried new foods.

There were a few galleries still open at least. ND and U. came really close to buying a few paintings, but I was too distracted by looking at all the tree shaped necklaces and finally bargaining down for one I really liked. (I’m saving it for a shechechiyanu at Pesach.) We also gave into having pizza, not for the first time at all on this trip, but enjoyed eating it in a little hole in the wall with lovely decorations, and Safed right outside.

I started off the next morning with Joy giving me a glorious massage. Then rejoined my family in the room where we ate breakfast together in our room with enormous pancakes and a plate full of fruit.

Mezuzah made by the glass blower who is making my yad
Back to the artist quarter then where I had a beautiful and moving experience of ordering a glass yad to be made for me for reading Torah. Hopefully it will be ready before Purim in time for the the women’s megillah reading that I organize. (Stayed tuned. Later I'll be posting an article about that. Below in this blog see a video of the glassblower.)

We also bought Kiddush cups, admired paintings, ran into Naomi’s first grade teacher who was also touring Israel, visited a few of the shuls and walked up the tall staircase back to our car and on our way to the next adventure.
Glass door to our room

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Israel 2015, Part 1 -- Modi'in and Jerusalem

For Yeshiva Break this year we went to Israel. This was my first time since 1994, U.'s first time since about then and ND's first time PERIOD. Why did we go now? It was time to do so. ND felt (though not quite accurately) that she was the only one in her class who had never been. Likewise, we just wanted to go and to have a nice trip there together. Why during such a short vacation? The summer is hot and more expensive, so this is what we've been planning since last summer when we realized we just couldn't pull off a last-minute summer trip.

The last day of school was Wednesday, January 14. We left school at lunchtime. At the airport we saw two Noam families whose children I'd taught, all of us heading out on the same flight. In stereotypical Israeli fashion, instead of just calmly waiting in seats as I usually do on a flight out, we had extra security and then all crammed forwards in a mob as if it we didn't fight to the front we wouldn't get onto the plane at all.

The flight was mostly uneventful. ND and I watched Bears and then tried to go to sleep as it was already nighttime in Israel. Alas, very little luck. It was just too early to sleep. So we pretended to sleep, tried to sleep and dozed about an hour or two before arriving after 10 hours of flying at 9:25 AM on the 15th in Tel Aviv.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Welcome, 2015!

So it's the secular New Year, a time when lots of people make resolutions. I don't have any new resolutions to share right now. Rather, I find myself checking in with my intentions as of Rosh Hashanah/2014-2015 school year.

This year has been designated as a scaling-back year. The biggest part of that was taking a hiatus from my writing group and, hence, my novel as well. I've done very little volunteering and am taking stock of some questions about my work.

Instead, what I find is I'm settling into inhabiting my life. This has become a major phrase for me. It means

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

11th Remission Anniversary

A very special one this has been so far.

I didn't know how to mark it really. Last year I sort of gave myself permission to stop finding enormous meaning in it. The chagim have just finished so I barely have had time to prepare in any way, and then I got this horrendous cold Friday night, right after Simchat Torah. I thought at first it was from all of the singing, but I was short of breath during some of the dancing in a way that meant more than just overexertion. ND and I were both up much of the night. As much as I rested through the weekend, I had fever Sunday night which is so odd for me! So I missed Monday and Tuesday of work.

Here's where this starts to turn. I spoke to my meditation teacher on Tuesday at 11:30 and as we spoke I went deep deep deep into my vulnerability again. I haven't touched this place much recently as I've been trying to be calmer about feeling illness. I remembered too that I often get sick at this time. I cried a lot. We had a very special conversation that I'm going to keep mostly to myself now.

But beautifully, when I got off the phone, I felt so much more energy! So good that today when I returned to work one of my other dearest friends said I just didn't look sick and said, "Your body always remembers, doesn't it? Now you know though that you can heal."

I got so much today. So many well-wishes, sometimes in the midst of little frustrations. To have someone sincerely wish me "from strength to strength" while I'm wrestling with a copy machine makes me zoom out in perspective rapidly and forcefully.

11 years I saw the ending of a renegade part of me -- a tumor -- tried to grow so fast that it could have killed me. I loved it out of existence (I know that sounds weird, but it was a part of me) and walked into life again. And here I am.

I don't feel fear or sadness or illness, guilt or shame today. Just love.