Sunday, March 6, 2011

My first Shabbat in Jerusalem (of this trip!)

Shabbat comes to Jerusalem in silence. The day dawns slower, peace flowing in waves of light over the land. Birds fly slower and sing softer, the leaves of trees dancing to a rhythm at ease in this intense land.

Of course that's not true, it is poetic license, but that is how it feels. Because Shabbat is a thing here. It is an action based on a belief that is shared by the vast majority of the population in Jerusalem. Action equaling inaction, a choice to take a day off from what we call life. Oh yes, I have learned much on this first Shabbat of my trip, and I have a feeling I will be learning more each Friday as the sun makes it's circut across the sky.

Shabbat begins as a religious expression at sundown, marked by 3 stars visible in the sky, but the affect begins at dawn on Friday.

Since most commerce shuts down with the sun on Friday evening, there is much preparation before this, so that everything is satisfied before Shabbat officially begins. You must purchase your staples and specials, you must run your errands, and mail your letters, make your plans and prepare yourself for the more than 24 hours of inaction that follows.

I woke up later this fine shabbat morning that I had yet, and in doing opened my eyes unto a peaceful plane. The light was seeping in gently, the noisome traffic was diminished, yet there was a peaceful stir to the place. I took my time, gently awakening my senses to this next new experience. Rayna and I got up and smiled all the way out. It is an intention. It is set upon deciding to dwell here and renewed every week when the day arrives. It is peace internal and mirrored by a world in agreement with this choice. To oppose, to make the choice to not observe Shabbat in at least this peaceful countenance is to run ragged against yourself, to counter peace overwhelming with grinding gears of impatience and rush. I won't find out personally what that feels like because I will be going with this. I will let it take me slowly into peace.

Rayna and I walked into the commercial center and met Marissa, one of Rayna's close new friends here in Israel. She's not an HUC student, but she is a student here, which seems to be the most common occupation in Jerusalem... like an entire city dedicated to study, and almost always study of belief in some form. What an amazing place.

Rayna, Eliana (our roommate) and I walked to the central post office to mail some stuff and pay the electric bill. You take a number then wait. Much more civilized than waiting in line. It took a spell which was great because by the time we were done we were hungry.

We ate at an awesome breakfast joint that remeinded me of a New York cafe. Incredible baked goods spilling off the counters; strudels, loafs, sweets, something delicious and cinnamon sweet called Babka... and fresh squeezed orange juice. Ok, this is something of a personal tradition. I LOVE fresh squeezed OJ, and thank goodness, it seems to follow me around when I travel. Bolivia - OJ and Grapefruit jice carts on every corner. Israel - Fresh juice everywhere, in ever restaurant, at HUC in the student area, in every shuk,everywhere. I read that Israel once bought a huge Russion compound in Jerusalem for oranges. I guess it's an important crop here.

Once i figure out the name of the breakfast spot ( It's Kodesh!) I'll put it in here because it was GOOD. Although what I ordered wasn't what I expected, it was still good. There is also excellent espresso here. This is how I am beating jet lag.

After breakfast we came home and just relaxed until it was time to go meet the rest of the HUC students going to Shabbat services at Tsur Hadassa, a small town with a Reform congregation about 1/2 an hour south of Jerusalem. The Reform Movement has just gained recognition here and is not funded the same way as orthodox congregations in Israel. Tsur Hadassa has a very modest and simple pre-fabricated building in a small town in the rolling hills of this beautiful country. I was shocked to see such a modest structure that is a synagogue. As an American I consistently and wrongly expect all houses of worship to be opulent beautiful places, but that is not the norm here. Religion is integrated into life here in a way that it is not in America. It is a common part of life, more like a community center, where people go regularly. The kids know it personally, and run about playing and exclaiming with abandon. the congregants talk to each other easily and without care. There is no feeling of this being a ritual, or a special occasion. It is part of life, and there is no pretense for being at services, it is simply the place everyone goes because there is no reason to be anywhere else.

It is beautiful and foreign, it makes my mind wander and pulse in a mockery of understanding because it is SO different from what I know. A young girl sat next to me. She speaks some english and her friend a young boy, probably a Bar Mitzvah already so hardly a boy anymore, sits benind me. They are not reserved, they are not ushered into seats or even into the synagogue, it is theirs. They help me. Their names do not fit my tongue or memory, I have trouble even hearing them amid the attempts to understand what I am experiencing. I wish i could write them here now because I remember what the boy's name means "an Island with a tree on it." Yea, that is cool. He told me quite directly "you can speak English to me" and I couldn't even count to 5 in Hebrew. Confidence, assuredness and ease emanate from these people, and welcome. Rayna sings at Tsur Hadassa as part of her program but she, as always, has become a part of these people's hearts and lives. She is a winged angel of song, landing ever peacefully, adding her notes of beauty, and giving joy and peace with her voice. I watched in amazement, feeling the casualness with which everyone participated in this ritual of thanks, of prayer, of community and I grew frustrated.

I began to ask myself why I am making these Hebrew sounds and reading along as best I could (the girl to my right helping me find my place over and over and over again) to prayers and words i don't understand! I felt some shame at trying, at pretending, and chameloning in as I know I can, but lacking the meaning. I know many of the Shabbat prayers by heart, but of sound only, not of what the words mean, not even of what the words are. Some I know of course... the Shema, the blessings over wine, bread, and light. But so many others I have no idea. It does not feel right to be joining in such beautiful company as a charlatan.

As I sat there growing more and more inwardly upset with myself, I remembered some passages from a book I had read in our down time that afternoon. It is an amazing book "The Routledge Atals of the Arab-Israeli Conflict" by Martin Gilbert. Maps showing history, and facts staring you in the face. Facts began to come to my mind, just words "Town destroyed 16 killed some tortured" and images, supplied by yours truly... I began to get hot, uncomfortable and upset. This beautiful service, my heart began to weep, the people of this region, my ancestors, strangers, arab families, foreign invaders, jews, people everywhere capable of such peaceful intentions. All at risk and on constant alert for their lives to be upheaved into chaos. This small town sitting on the rubble of a history that bears the wounds of torture and death, and me, sitting there pretending.

I can't take it any more. I decided then and there that until I know the Hebrew words I will do my praying in English. I will not affront this critical honesty and openness with the appearance of community. This place is so very real, I will return that as best I can, every day.

Shabbat brought peace into my heart through anger and frustration, it brough me to an edge from which I saw the true depths to which we humans have descended and I now take this step onto the ethereal stair that lifts us above through faith and belief. Not in something imaginary or antiquuated, but in the real true acts of living day to day by a set of standards and an established rule of self.

God is a word that describes something human. A belief in order from chaos, a belief in making that brings us out of chaos. I hope I don't sound like I am preaching in any way. This is a personal belief that shapes my understanding of what I see around me. God does not sit in a chair or live in a house. God is not offended by me typing the letter G O and D in succession. God is Universe and we are his angels and daemons. The actions and commandments passed down through history are an attempt at making this world better, safer, more peaceful and beautiful for everyone.

Shabbat services ended and our group split up and Rayna Mandy and I went to dinner with a lovely family from Tsur Hadasa. We ate a delicious meal at their house and talked about so much. I was still feeling a bit strange after such an intense week of learning, adapting and jet lag plus the emotions turmoil from services that I was perhaps quieter than normal. As the evening ended we said fond goodbyes, and hope to see their family again soon. We met the rest of the students after their home cooked meals at the bus and rode back to HUC together. weariness overcame me and I slept walked home with Rayna. We watched the first part of a movie but I could not keep my eyes open, adn I feel asleep to the confines of my own mind, dreaming through the experiences of the day. My first Shabbat back in Jerusalem, and my own emotions and insights crystalizing in hopes that they would awaken transformed as I.

Saturday Morning, Services and smiles.

Rayna was taking part in the Saturday Morning Shabbat services at HUC, chanting Torah (are you picking up on the theme here? She is INVOLVED) and invited me to do an Aliya. I was nervous as I approached the bima and chanted the blessing before and after the Torah is read. It felt good. It felt joyous in that synagogue. I read from the prayer book that provides both English and Hebrew, and as I said each prayer in Hebrew I read the English and understood for myself what I meant.

Bring us peace, bring us healing, bring us understaning of the world through stories, through strange and seemingly mundane details. Is asking for healing, for peace, for understaning the same as finding it? No, of course not, but how can you find it without first seeking?

Shabbat ended as peacefully as it began. After services we came home and relaxed until Havdallah, back at HUC. We took our time getting there, taking a route through a park across the street from our apartment which led us down stairs into a beautiful neighborhood that is an artists colony. I will go back and take pictures later to share with you. We then found our way towards HUC through a park, to a hilltop whereupon I realized I'd been there before. On my very first night in Israel back in 1994, our safri group gathered there and celebrated Shabbat with a view of the Old City, and wonder on our faces.

Havdallah is a beautiful services celebrating the joys of life and the peace granted after Shabbat. Rayna's voice again like a balm to my soul, to the world at large. I swear, she makes apples smile and doves weep with hope. She sings with the voice of her community, her breath and their voices, strumming our soules awake to the beautiful world around us.

Afterwards we walked south to Emek Refiem to a large Reform Synagogue for a community auction. It was very fun, and I won an auction on a Cuban cigar... the story is actually funnier than that... i was in a silent bidding war with a congregation member... with 30 seconds left i walked up to make a final bid, writing so slowly and carefully so that I would be last. in true Israeli fashion he reached ACROSS the table and wrote as I was writing UPSIDE down a higher bid. I hadn't even written my bid yet! But I knew he wanted them much more than I so i laughed and conceded. We shook hands, and as soon as it was confirmed he won he opened the box and gave me one of the five cigars. That's what I call winning an auction. One for free, and a friendly experience.

Rayna and I speed walked home so she could finish her Hebrew homework, and I laid in bed and feel asleep remembering... Shabbat in Israel. Peace to you all.

1 comment:

  1. It WAS such a wonderful, relaxing Shabbat with you. Looking forward to many more Shabbatot of exploring (spiritually and around the country of Israel) together. :)