Monday, October 20, 2014

Jews Gone Wild

I am dripping with sweat when the room begins to shake. Feet stomp, bodies jolt, and voices of every pitch meet in rhythmic unity. My head feels light and I nearly lose my balance. At first I’m just swaying and clapping my hands, but soon the energy of the room lifts me higher.  Suddenly my arms are around two teenage girls I just met and we are jumping up and down, our feet hitting the ground to the downbeat of a chant I know well: Am Yisrael Chai (The people of Israel live).

Well, this is the wildest party I’ve been to in Israel yet…and it’s 10 am…and I’m in synagogue.

From the balcony, I look down at the vibrating crowd of black and white. Boys take turns sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, shouting out prayers that elicit a booming response from the crowd. The men begin to circle around the Torah, singing traditional melodies for the 7 hakafot (processions) of Shmini Atzeret (aka Simchat Torah).

This was my first time truly celebrating Shmini Atzeret, and I must say, it is my new favorite holiday. I’ll tell you why.

First, some quick background:
  • Shmini Atzeret immediately follows the week-long holiday Sukkot, which is why it is called shmini (eight) atzeret (assembly). Thus, it is like the 8th day of Sukkot, though it has separate significance entirely. 
  • The number 8 represents infinity (because it is after 7, which is a full cycle of creation), reminding us that the Jewish nation, G-d, and the Torah are infinite.
  • The holiday marks the conclusion of one annual cycle of torah reading and the beginning of the next cycle.
Some fascinating facts:
  • The 7 hakafot (mentioned above) represent the 7 times Joshua led the Jewish people around the walls of Jericho before they fell. On a kabalistic, spiritual level, these hakafot symbolize the breaking down of our personal clipot (walls/shells) that prevent us from connecting with the divine.
  • There are technically no commandments for this holiday; however, it is customary to party like its 1400 B.C.E!!!
  • By that, I mean the streets are filled – both in the morning and the evening – with people who are “synagogue hopping,” which is, based on my experience, way more fun than any bar-crawl I’ve attended.
  • The first round of dancing (synagogue hopping) went from 9:30 am – 12:30 pm and then resumed later in the evening. From around 8 pm – 11:30 pm, the entire city of Ra’anana congregated in the center of town. When people imagine what the Jewish state looks like, they probably imagine the events of Shmini Atzeret in Ra’anana: one large hora—of every type of Jew—winding through the empty city streets. Everyone is smiling uncontrollably and even the most secular of Jews are proud to be Jewish.  While gripping the torah and shaking your booty simultaneously, it’s hard not to be.

 Mitzvah g’dolah lehiyot b’simcha tamid. (It is a great commandment to always be in a state of happiness).  

This is one of the songs that repeated throughout the day, and is a teaching of the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It is almost silly in its simplicity, but it really resonates with me. In fact, the song seems to be following me everywhere I go. I downloaded a version of it a while back, then heard it all throughout my magical weekend in Tzfat, and have continued to hear it ever since.

I love this teaching because the important mitzvah of rejoicing is so often overlooked in Judaism. People tend to see commandments as limiting or restrictive, which has a negative connotation. Rabbi Nachman, and many Chassidic masters before and after him, argue that when we are happy (in the deepest, least superficial sense), we are much more capable of serving G-d.

It’s a self-sustaining cycle: Yehudim (Jews) = those who thank (from the word lehodot) = gratitude --> meaningful, lasting happiness --> better able to thank/serve G-d -->  more grateful --> happier (etc.)

This is not to say we should pretend to be happy all the time—that would be destructive and insincere. Rather, Rabbi Nachman empowers us to turn our frustration and suffering into vehicles for kedusha (sanctity, holiness). Easier said than done, no doubt, but it’s a good goal to keep in mind.

Shmini Atzeret version of Matisse's classic "Dance"
Indeed, this holiday came at the perfect time for many of us in the Garin. While we held each other’s sweaty hands and jumped for hours on end, we recorded the memory in our minds and stored it in an easy-access file. We know that it will be hard to reach joy at this level during the challenging and mundane day to day army life—a reality that is soon approaching.

So as I danced with the random policeman who joined our joyful circle, my friend on my right wearing his cap and handcuffs, the absurdity of the situation dissolved into sense of rightness and belonging. I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

When I gave a presentation a few days before on Golda Meir – standing next to her grave on Har Herzl in Jerusalem – I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

When I sat with my Garin—in the middle of the Mitzpe Ramon desert crater—listening to nothing but the faint echo of our breaths, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

These fleeting moments of simcha will not fade with time because they have become a part of me. They are laying the foundation for who and what I want to become as I enter this new phase of my life as an Israeli Jew.

So now that the holidays are over, the real test begins. How can I take the joy, spirit, and sense of unity achieved during the holidays into everyday life?

Stay tuned ;)

Leading a musical end-of-Sukkot Chag service 

When the policeman joined the dancing 

A holy conga-line 

Ascending to Tzfat

Traffic jam stopped
I sigh
from my cozy bus seat 

So easy to sleep 
Let my eyelids rest 
and miss the splendor
that surrounds 

On the highway shoulder 
Cows of brown and white
Eating grass from soil tilled 
Since biblical days 

Just past trash piles 
and telephone poles 
Is a hazy purple skyline 
An awaiting ascent 

I sit mizrachi style
Sun kissing my right cheek 
Eyes squinted 
Breathing belly deep 

A lulav pokes out
Says hello 
from across two seats 
He sniffs the etrog

Kippas of velvet, knit, and white
Next to delicate wigs 
and scarf-wrapped wives 

Then theres me; 
Me in my knee-length 
beige skirt
Tank top, arms bare 
Siddur in hand 
iPhone in the other 

I smile as chassidic melodies 
stream through apple headphones
Shir hama'alot 
Gesher Tzar Meod 

Isn't it odd 
how worlds collide?
A mysterious dance
that transcends time 

I watch 
as it all stands still 
On this bus 
that winds up hill 

Through changing trees 
and scenery 
Rusty rocks
and shrubbery 

At this junction 
there's no choice but up
No choice but to raise
this overflowing cup 

And shout out l'chayim 
We've arrived at our stop
This mountainous city
This mystical Tzfat 

Though I know not
My exact 
I exhale
I'm calm 
It's almost 

Old city of Tzfat: taken from hostel balcony 
Same view circa 1996 (Mom and me)

Sun setting before Shabbat

Baking Challah with new friends 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Eat. Pray. Sleep. Repeat.

“And, when you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” – Paolo Coelo, The Alchemist

The last two weeks have been a testament to this truth.  

It began last Saturday night during ma’agal Shabbat. This is a weekly ritual where we reconvene for “circle time” and share our honest feelings with the group. (Obviously I am a big fan).

This time, we were encouraged to share things that were weighing heavy on us.

Our madricha pointed out that the “honeymoon phase” of our program is nearing an end; people are getting frustrated with one another, some of us are homesick, some are overwhelmed by the pre-army process, and others are feeling suffocated by our daily schedule.

I shared a different concern.

I told the group that I felt a spiritual void. I felt that I moved to Israel—a place that is on a higher spiritual plane—and yet I still felt disconnected.

While sharing this with the group, I came to a realization. Yes, I am leading weekly Kabbalat Shabbat singing, blessing my food when I remember, and thanking G-d throughout the day. I do feel more connected than I did in America. But I realized I was not growing my Jewish practice. I thought to myself: I need a teacher or a study group…I need to get on a path of learning.

Flash forward to Sunday morning (the next day), 8:15 a.m, Ulpan class. We are slouching drowsily in our seats, gripping onto our coffee mugs for dear life. A bearded man wearing a kippa and tzitzit enters the room. I recognize him—he’s the Rabbi who came into our meeting room a while back to offer some classes on Judaism. I wasn’t able to make the first class, and after that, I forgot he existed. He said that at 3:00 he was offering a class/discussion on Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year). I thought to myself that I should attend, but only if I finish all my errands beforehand.

It’s 2:55 p.m. and I haven’t even begun folding my clothes. The mental debate begins—what to do. I fold one shirt, and then realize how silly it would be to miss this class for something I could do literally anytime. WAKE UP, LEORA, IT’S THE NEW YEAR AND IT’S TIME TO BE JEWISH.

4:00 p.m., the class is over, and I am in deep conversation with the Rabbi who I just met. I share with him my hesitations about living a halachic life (following all the rules), my thoughts on spirituality, on gratitude, on joining the army. I pump the breaks – don’t scare this poor man.

He said that if there is enough demand, he’ll offer daily lessons during our free time. I nodded giddily, surprising myself with my desire to learn.

What’s strange is that the Rabbi wasn’t even supposed to speak to my Ulpan class that morning (or anytime in the near future). Something in his schedule opened up last minute, and he felt called to come to our class that day. Some would call this a coincidence—I call it hashgacha pratit (divine providence). My prayers were answered overnight.

Since then, I’ve been to 4 classes with the Rabbi, ate a Shabbat meal at his house, and will continue to learn with him, his wife (a yogi & Cancer star sign, like me), and my counselors Avishag and Nimrod.

I feel that now, of all times, is the perfect time to invite more Jewish practices and knowledge into my life. It’s a new year, Yom Kippur is approaching (tonight), and HELLO, I moved to the Jewish state. Although I still feel constantly torn by the opposing secular and religious forces of Israeli society, I am trying to let go of the stress and open myself to new experiences. The idea is to taste everything in order to find the path that best suits me.

Thus, my Rosh HaShana was just that—a jumble of secular, religious, and everything in between. For the first meal I went to a friend of my mothers in Herzliya (a 10 minute drive from me). I was so excited about eating real food that I filled up on salads…but alas that didn’t stop me from trying everything. 3 plates of food later, I rolled out of their home happy, full with gourmet food and good laughs, and glad to have connected with new “family.” Besides the food, having my hair done and singing Sound of Music with my new 4-and-6-year-old friends was probably the highlight. I missed playing with kids (shoutout to sista Kate) so playing babysitter that night was lovely.

The next day I went to Synagogue, as all “good Jews” do on the High Holidays. I think walking to and from Synagogue was more meaningful than the service itself. On the way, I spoke with my friends about what we wanted to change about ourselves in the coming year. We smiled at strangers on the street and wished them “shana tova.” We walked through the carless streets of Ra’anana and appreciated our blooming, beautiful home.

After a 4-hour lunch, I changed outfits and headed to the next meal at my adopted family’s house. Jewish holidays in Israel = Eat. Pray. Sleep. Repeat. Later I found time to read and sketch a drawing in bed, two things I haven’t done in so long (picture posted below). It was exactly what I needed.

Early the next day, while still recovering from my food hangover, a sound stopped me in my tracks on the way to the laundry room. I dropped my laundry bag and a huge smile spread across my face when I realized it was a Shofar blast.

Well, I thought to myself, I just fulfilled a mitzvah while doing laundry. Awesome.

While putting soap in the machine I thought about what the Shofar signifies. I learned in my class with the Rabbi that the Shofar is like the alarm clock for the Jews. While it actually is symbolic of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac, the deeper meaning is that it’s time for us to wake up, do cheshbon nefesh (soul accounting), and think about who we’ve been the past year and who we want to be in the year to come. 

I’ve been doing a lot of this soul accounting lately—what relationships am I investing in? What were my gains and losses this year? How do I measure my net worth?

They’re questions worth asking.

I have a lot more to tell you all about the past few weeks. They’ve been some of the fullest weeks of my life. But I’m headed now to a Kibbutz in the desert for Yom Kippur. I’m bringing with me a sleeping bag, a prayer book, and a book (in Hebrew) called “Letters to Talia,” which is the correspondence between a secular kibbutznikit girl and an Orthodox Yeshiva boy—a perfect read for this crazy time in my life.

Wishing my tribe members a meaningful Yom Kippur, easy fast, and gmar chatima tova – may you be inscribed (in the book of life) for Good.

My Rosh Hashana Drawing (Sid, from Ice Age)