Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Leaving Jerusalem

I wrote this while flying from Israel to New York a few weeks ago. It will most likely be my last post on this blog, which I started in order to reflect on my own experiences living in Jerusalem for two years, and to share them with all of you. Chag Shavuot Sameach!

May 20, 2011
El Al #1, TLV-JFK
Somewhere over Newfoundland… 

For the past year and a half, I have had the blessing of learning gemara with my dear chevruta, Sarah W. We started together as chumash chevrutas during our first semester at Pardes, and then began learning gemara during second semester, and continued studying together once a week this past year. This is dedicated to all of the Torah learning, laughs, and David Berman muffins when they were much needed that we shared together.

This year we have been studying Masechet Shabbat. At our final meeting as chevruta (for now), we studied a sugya, Shabbat 119a, that brought aggadot (stories) about how different rabbis celebrated Shabbat. It continued by bringing many of the well-known midrashim that are often heard and shared about Shabbat in lots of different settings. (For example, the story that two angels, a good angel and a bad angel, accompany a person home from services on Friday night to see if his house is cheerfully ready for Shabbat or not – if it is, the good angel says “May it be this way every week,” and the bad angel has to say “amen,” and vice versa).

The piece that has stuck with me all week – we studied on Sunday, 5 days before I left Israel, immediately after my final Shabbat in Jerusalem – asks how people merit or earn their riches.

רבי מר' ישמעאל ברבי יוסי עשירים שבא"י במה הן זוכין א"ל בשביל שמעשרין שנאמר (דברים יד) עשר תעשר עשר בשביל שתתעשר שבבבל במה הן זוכין א"ל בשביל שמכבדין את התורה ושבשאר ארצות במה הן זוכין א"ל בשביל שמכבדין את השבת

Rabbi asked R. Ishmael son of R. Jose: The wealthy in Eretz Yisrael, how do they merit wealth? --Because they give tithes, he replied, as it is written, "עשר תעשר" - give tithes so that you may become wealthy. 
(an agricultural mitzvah that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel)

Those in Babylon, how do they merit riches? --Because they honor the Torah.
 (Babylon was the site of a great deal of Torah learning starting in the 5th century CE, where most of the material of the Babylonian Talmud was produced).

And those in other countries, how do they merit riches? Because they honor Shabbat.

Sarah and I, while discussing this sugya, talked about why it was these particular mitzvot, in these particular places, that make a person merit riches. In the case of Shabbat, Sarah pointed out, it is a very hard mitzvah to keep fully (whatever fully might mean for you) outside of Israel. In Israel, it IS Shabbat from Friday night-Saturday. It is impossible to forget about it, especially in Jerusalem, and for me, it was very easy to cultivate a Shabbat culture for myself in Jerusalem. I didn’t have to think about whether or not to drive or take public transportation, I just walked everywhere. No plans were made for Shabbat, and no one expected me to want to go out to dinner, go shopping, see a movie, etc. the air of Shabbat permeates everything.

One of the hardest moments for me this past week was when I ran a final errand on Thursday afternoon, and the cashier said, “Shabbat shalom,” as I walked out of the store. That’s how much Shabbat permeates Israeli consciousness, that we start greeting each other with Shabbat Shalom on Thursday or even earlier. But this time, I wouldn’t be in Israel to experience that all-encompassing Shabbat atmosphere of Jerusalem that I’ve grown to love so much these past two years.

I will miss that feeling. It will be hard to cultivate a Shabbat-centered week in the US,  even though I will be spending the summer with my family, where Shabbat dinner is always of the utmost importance, and even though I am continuing my rabbinical studies, and will be immersed in Jewish communities, most likely for the rest of my life. But outside of Israel, no matter one’s intentions, other distractions slip in during those 25 hours. The mail comes; the farmer’s market is only open on Saturdays.

Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, is a place that inspires and challenges me religiously and spiritually. That may be the best way to sum up these past two years – everything I did was part of that: my beit midrash learning at Pardes, my academic studies at HUC, my involvement with Encounter, simply living in the crazy, throbbing, vibrant city of Jerusalem, where everyone seems to be wrestling with God and with their religious community every minute of every day. That in-your-face struggle won’t be there anymore, to inspire me to continue to commit myself to growing spiritually and to striving to be a better Jew and a better person.

About a year ago, I sat in an apartment of another chevruta, Ilan, singing songs at a seudah shlishit as Shabbat departed. One of the songs we sang was the familiar phrase, “לכול מקום שאני הולך, אני הולך, אני הולך לירושלים. לכול מקום שאני כהולך, אני הולך לציון" L’chol makom she’ani holech, ani holech l’Yrushalayim. L’chol makom she’ani holech, ani holech l’Zion.” Everywhere I go, I go towards Jerusalem. Everywhere I go, I go towards Zion. I decided that Shabbat afternoon, that before I left Israel “for good,” that I was going to have my own version of those words engraved on a ring. My version reads "לכול מקום שאני הולכת, אני הולכת לירושלים של מעלה l’chol makom she’ani holechet, ani holechet l’Yrushalayim shel ma’alah.” Everywhere I go, I go towards Y’rushalayim shel ma’alah – the heavenly Jerusalem. There is a teaching that there are two Jerusalems – shel matah (below, or earthly), and shel ma’alah (upper, or heavenly). There is the real, on the ground Jerusalem, the Jerusalem that sometimes smells like pee and has lots of traffic and suddenly gets quiet on Friday afternoon, and the heavenly Jerusalem we all hold in our hearts, the Jerusalem of our religious imagination and our highest aspirations for her. Jerusalem as-it-is and Jerusalem as-it-should-be. 

Wearing these words on my finger reminds me of that constant struggle and growth in Jerusalem, that I take it with me as I sit on this El Al plane, soon to disembark in cloudy and rainy New York, to jump into celebrating my brother’s college graduation (I’m so proud of you kiddo!) I don’t need to leave that behind. I can continue to grow, to continue to try and be the best person, and the best Jew I can be, to continue to work for not only Jerusalem as it should be, but for the world as it should be.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

For Zion's Sake I Will Not Be Silent

Please check out the blog post I wrote for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America in response to the recent articles (here, and here) by Daniel Gordis about rabbinical students and Israel.

And in other, related news, today I bought this poster at the Israel Museum. Better watch what pictures of it get posted on Facebook...wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong message!

One of the stories Gordis brings in his first article describes a rabbinical student celebrating his birthday at a bar in Ramallah, with a backdrop of "...posters (which they either did or didn’t understand) extolling violence against the Jewish state on the wall behind the." The poster I bought is an example of how quickly and easily things can be taken out of context - it says in big bold letters, "Come to Palestine!" Yet, it is a poster from before Israel achieved statehood, encouraging travel in the Holy Land. Similar posters have also ironically popped up in a friend's apartment in Bethlehem, aware of its original purpose, yet repurposing it nonetheless. Context, people, context.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Yom Hashoah 5771

 Today, Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day, I sat in a class at HUC on the difficult theologies that the Holocaust raises. What was God's role in the Shoah - a perpetrator or a bystander? Does the Shoah require a theological response?

How do I think about this today, on this particular Yom Hashoah? Last night on TV, I watched the state ceremony at Yad Vashem commemorating the day, remembering the 6 million deaths at the hands of the Nazis. I read an article about whether or not we should draw the Shoah’s lessons out to universal values of eliminating all intolerance. And this morning, I woke up to the news that the U.S. military had killed Osama bin Laden, that Americans were rejoicing in the streets, singing and chanting USA, USA. My first thought: the midrash from Masechet Megillah, that tells us that the angels wanted to sing as the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds. "In that hour, the ministering angels wished to utter songs of praise before the Holy One, Blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork, the Egyptians, is drowning in the sea, and you rejoice?!" We are all בני אלוהים bnei Elohim, children of God, we are all בצלם אלוהים btzelem Elohim, in the image of God, both good and evil. Hitler. Bin Laden. How can we rejoice at more death? Yes, maybe it is good, maybe it is necessary. Perhaps just as the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at ים סוף Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, was. But celebration and rejoicing? A verse from Proverbs: בנפל אויבך אל תשמח, ובכשלו אל יגל לבך Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles (Proverbs 24:17). My friend Evelyn  posted on Facebook that she had seen the same images in the days and weeks after 9-11: images of celebration coming out of the Middle East, and America railed in outrage that this was the response of the Arab world.

Yet we also pray, I pray, every day in the Amidah for the eradication of evil in the world:
וכל אויבי עמך מהרה יכרתו והזדים מהרה תעקר ותשבר ותמגר ותכניע במהרה בימינו. ברוך אתה יי שובר אויבים ומכניע זדים. 
"...May all Your people's enemies swiftly be cut down. May You swiftly uproot, crush, cast down and humble the arrogant swiftly in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant. (translation from the Koren Siddur)
Progressive liturgies have adapted the traditional text of this blessing of the Amidah, to reflect the desire to eliminate evilness and badness, rather than evil people.
ולרשעה אל תהי תקווה והתועים אליך ישובו, ומלכות זדון מהרה תשבר. ברוך אתה יי, שובר רשע מן הארץ
"And for wickedness, let there be no hope, and may all the errant return to You, and may the realm of wickedness be shattered. Blessed are You, Adonai, whose will it is that the wicked vanish from the earth." (text and translation from Mishkan T'filah)
Either way – we should rejoice and be grateful when our prayers are fulfilled, no?

As I rapidly clicked through the pictures on the front page of the New York Times this morning, pictures of the crowds in New York and Washington, pictures of President Obama giving his speech, older pictures of bin Laden, and then, unexpectedly…a photo from 10 years ago, of the smoke pouring out of the Twin Towers. And I remembered the fear, and the sadness of that day, and the atmosphere of that Rosh Hashanah.

Today the HUC community stood in silence with the rest of Israel at 10:00am, and remembered the 6 million. Yet there are still questions of how we observe, how we remember – do we focus on the 6 million killed? Do we seek revenge and vengeance against the perpetrators? Do we find רמזים remezim, hints, of those oppressors from 70 years ago in the world around us, as Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres did last night in their speeches at Yad Vashem? Several years ago, in a Hebrew class at Brandeis, we watched a music video in the days leading up to Yom Hashoah. Miri ben Ari and Subliminal angrily sing the words, at the end of the song:
אם יש חיים אחרי המוות, אנחנו נחכה להם שמה
Im yesh hayyim acharei ha’mavet, n’chakeh lahem shamah.” If there is life after death, we will be waiting for them there.

So how do we respond in the face of tragedy, the tragedies that are inflicted by humanity on ourselves? Do we call for vengeance? How do we find justice amidst this? How do we react when there is justice, yet not peace? President Obama’s speech last night, with its focus on those who were lost on 9-11, and those who have served in the ten long years since then, instead of focusing on triumphalism, reminds me of what today, in the cycle of Jewish time, is truly about. זכרונם לברכה Zichronam livracha – may the memories of all those who have died because of the evil present in our still-broken world be for a blessing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Airplanes, Taxis, Buses, Boats, Trains...and a Ferris Wheel?!

Lida, Belarus, 2nd night of Pesach:

What does the salt water represent? Jewish tears.
What does maror represent? Jewish pain all through history.

These simple answers, given by Lena, a 16-year old with an incredible voice, were not mere parroting of history lessons. The history of Jewish tears and pain is real and current in Belarus, even for a teenaged girl. But just like the story of Exodus, in its retelling at our Pesach seder, the bitterness and tears turn to freedom, redemption, and joy by the end of our story.

Over the course of 4 days, I traveled to Minsk, Grodno, and Lida, leading seders in Progressive communities under the auspices of the FSU Pesach Project, a partnership between HUC and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. My partner Rayna and I sang and danced to Yiddish songs (including a Yiddish rendition of Dayenu!) with the elderly Jews of Grodno, had a surprise motorboat ride in a lake in Lida with Igor, and watched a cantorial festival, featuring costumes slightly reminiscent of the Sound of Music. We spent hours talking with our translator, Ilona, about growing up Jewish in Belarus, paying for school, boyfriends, languages, our own hopes for the future.

By far the most powerful day was the time we spent in Lida. After arriving by bus from Grodno and eating lunch, we met Igor, a community member, for a tour of the city and its Jewish sites. We stood in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Igor gestured around us, saying, "This used to be a Jewish cemetery." Were it not for the memorial by the Jewish community, no one would know. We drove a little bit out of the city proper, to a monument on the side of a road, across from a forest. This monument, Igor told us, marked the spot where all of Lida's Jewish children were killed on the day the Nazis liquidated its ghetto in the spring of 1942. Their parents were marched into the forest across the way.

Here, we didn't need a monument to see what had happened. Mounds of earth rose unnaturally from the ground in a forest clearing, now covered in grass and wildflowers. These were the mass graves, memorialized by a Soviet-era plaque to Lida's citizens, no mention of the reason they were killed - their Jewishness.

At seder, we pair the salt water of Jewish tears with karpas, the greenery symbolizing springtime, rebirth, and renewal. The seder was our karpas. We walked into the room, bustling with preparations. Lena sang the 4 Questions beautifully. We sang, ate, prayed, told stories, and asked questions. We applauded the children's choir, recently returned from a choral competition in MInsk. They proudly sang for their parents and community, without any hesitation or embarrassment. The children of Lida needed no prodding to make the connection between the ancient story of יציאת מצריים, the Exodus from Egypt, and our people's more recent history. In organizing, we speak of the story of self, the story of us, the story of now - how does my story relate to the story of my community, to my people, to what is happening in my world? The stories of our people's pain are the story of self for so many people.

Speaking of the story of us, after spending Pesach in Belarus I have a much deeper and more complex understanding of Jewish peoplehood. It means something different outside of Israel - I appreciate the presence of other Jews more. At seder on Monday night in Grodno, we were singing Oseh Shalom, and the words ועל כל ישראל, and on all Israel, made me tear up. I was so struck by feeling part of a collective with people who I had known for barely two hours - we had nothing in common, nothing bringing us to that little room together, save for our Jewishness and the commitment to tell the story of the Exodus.

I've noticed that when I see Jews outside of Israel, like the black hat, tzittzit twirling boys who were on all of our flights, I feel a warmth and kinship towards them that I don't feel in Israel when I see haredim (even though those boys would only speak to Ricky). Only in Belarus would the 2 rabbis of Minsk, Chabad and Progressive, stand next to each other at the airport while picking up their students, coming from Israel to lead seder.

As much as I loved the experience of leading seders with the welcoming communities in Belarus, of course I missed celebrating Pesach at home with my family. The traditions, the jokes, the days that Mom spends preparing food (especially matzah ball soup, which was missing from all of the seders!)...I shared this with Ilona, and she responded, "You're lucky. I've never done a seder Pesach with my family."

In b.Pesachim 116a, it says, "The haggadah started in disgrace and ended in praise." The praise here is not only for the Religious Union for Progressive Judaism in Belarus and the communities there, but for God. In the traditional text of the 2nd blessing of the Amidah, the גבורות, it says, ברוך אתה ה' מחיה המיתים - Blessed is God, who gives life to the dead. The revival and rebirth of Judaism in Belarus, the move from children's graves to children's choirs, is a vibrant example of the potential for rebirth and renewal in our broken world.

(And that Ferris wheel? We rode one in Minsk. It was awesome.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From Israel to...Belarus?!

Last year, I got to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem, with all of its benefits - only one seder, kosher restaurants open (Italian on Pesach?! potato gnocchi!), picnics in the glorious Jerusalem spring weather...

Instead of this year in Jerusalem though, I'm heading to the cities of Grodno and Lida in Belarus, to lead seders and teach in the Progressive Jewish communities there. Along with 15 of my HUC classmates, we are traveling to communities throughout the Former Soviet Union, as part of the FSU Pesach Project.

Some fun facts:

-There are only SIX Progressive rabbis in the Former Soviet Union!
-Belarus is best known for being a Soviet time capsule.
-The springtime temperature in Lida hovers around a balmy 10 degrees Celsius!
-Grodno is the birthplace of famed Jewish Mafia member Meyer Lansky.
-About 8 years ago, the Jewish community in Belarus constructed a Holocaust memorial to honor the Lida residents who were victims of the Nazis.
-The capital of Belarus is Minsk!

For more information about the project, click here.

I'm fundraising $2,500 towards this trip - any help you can give would be appreciated! Go to this website, and be sure to designate your donation to the FSU Pesach Project and to me, Miriam Farber!

And for your viewing enjoyment...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Overheard at מסרד הפנים - the Ministry of the Interior

(standing in line in a tiny corridor not wide enough for 2 people)
young Haredi man: Is this where you come to make a visa appointment?
older Haredi man: Yes.
young Haredi man: If it's just appointments, why is it taking so long?
older Haredi man: You come here, you come to Africa.

(The Ministry of the Interior is notorious for being the worst of the worst of Israeli bureaucracy and chaos.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Overheard at HUC

At Shabbat services, December 25, 2010

small tourist child: When are we going to the church?!

Love Christmas-Shabbos in Jerusalem!