Friday, November 20, 2015

Army Birthday

Celebrating Sukkot on Base
“Happy one-year anniversary to me,” I said to some friends as I packed all my belongings onto the bus.  It felt rather auspicious; after exactly one year in the army (my army “birthday,” as they say), I was moving bases for the fifth time in my service. We were heading back to Ramat Hagolan, the northernmost tip of Israel, just below the Syrian border. I sighed as I thought about the base to which I was retuning: the place where my toes are perpetually frozen; where my fingers turn ghost white and wrinkly from dish washing; where the bathrooms are a sight straight out of the The Shining.

It’s also the base where cows roam freely and chamomile can be found growing between the bunks; the base with a stunning view of the Hermon mountain and where natural hot springs burst from the ground just a few kilometers away; a base where first snowfall turns the view into a mountainous Swiss backdrop that just happens to be dotted with artillery vehicles.

I sit now in Modiin, mid transition. My office is packed up and we should be leaving in a few hours. I’m thinking about all I have experienced in the past 365 days—I can’t really sum it up. It’s been a roller-coaster of moments; moments of pure joy, connection, doubt, fear, betrayal, frustration, deep sadness, calm, silliness, hilarity, and humility.  This whole journey has been, so far, one big test of my motivation to serve the country with all my heart.

Any preconceptions I had about the army have been erased, that’s for sure. I now understand this system not as a young girl boasting an olive green and yellow “Tzahal” shirt, or a college girls’ “praying for the brave IDF soldiers” Facebook status or as a biased news reporter, but as an insider.

And as an insider, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and everything in between.

In some moments I can’t help but see the army as a soulless machine that doesn’t see beyond its’ mission, let alone consider the feelings or needs of the individual.

Indeed, the individual is so often lost, left begging for a new job, for mental health care, for some peace of mind.

And these aren’t just entitled people.

These aren’t just rich kids who are bored or tired of the army. These are people like my friend, who injured his back during training. He was then thrown out of combat (reasonable) and into a job that exacerbates his back problem (not reasonable). Even after tireless complaining, nagging, bugging officers, and going on harmless strikes, my friend is still in the same job. Why, might you ask?

Because a high-ranking officer doesn’t want him gone. My friend is smart and a hard worker. And in this system, it is understood that only troublemakers—those who make the most noise—get help.

It is a system where tons of untouched food overflows from big green trashcans and becomes home to all the base cats. It is a system that barely recycles, sells cigarettes at the snack-bar, and pours oil and salt on all the vegetables; a system in which the food is processed, the bread is white, the potatoes highlighter yellow, and the meat mass-produced; a system in which the underlying vibe is a recipe of stress, a pinch of anxiety, a ton of tiredness and a few dozen cups of laziness.

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to believe that I willingly put myself here.

And now, one year later, I can easily say that I’ve mopped more floors than ever before in my life. (You were expecting something else, weren’t you?).

But at the same time, I’ve learned the most about human nature. I’ve felt the most lost and the most at home. I’ve picked up more cigarette butts than flowers, slept on more busses than beds, and felt at low points a useless cog in the machine and at high points the most critical lever.

This past year I’ve found myself deep in conversation with people who I wouldn’t have met in a thousand years in civilian life—people with whom I have not one thing in common, other than the fact that we’re both human beings, wearing the same green uniform and serving in the same army.

This has been one of the most rewarding parts of my service—forging these quirky, unpredictable friendships. Through all of these encounters I have learned far more about Israel than I could have in any university course.

Certainly, before the army, I knew about crime and poverty in this country through articles and textbooks. I had learned about Aliyah from Russia and the former Soviet Union. But now, the former gang-member—who’s lost many friends not in war but in criminal attacks—is the guy cooking my eggs in the morning and bonding with me over black coffee during kitchen duty.

I cannot count how many times people have told me that their service was colored, defined, made miserable or meaningful by the people with whom they served. In fact, most people I’ve spoken to remember little about the actual job they did and more the late night heart-to-hearts and the times laughing about their crappy conditions.

Although I'm not going to lie -- I often wake up feeling blue.

It’s strange – I’m a naturally happy person, but mornings in the army can feel like trying to swim through a tub of honey: slow, sticky, and impossible. Then I put on my uniform, shine my shoes, and join my sub-division for morning formation. All it takes is a sympathetic smile from a friend, a “good morning,” or a hug to get me out of my morning mood. Then I head to the rickety trailer-synagogue, immerse myself in prayer, and I’m ready start my day.

I’ve found that Morning Prayer (shacharit) really helps me put the daily army grind in perspective. It reminds me every morning to seek the humor in illogical army decisions; to be compassionate toward my fellow soldier; to see people with a “good eye”; and to be grateful for my health and for my many blessings.


And at the end of the day, when my head is pounding from sleep deprivation and caffeine-overload, my stomach trying to digest the oily, salty food from the day, and my brain fried from working in Hebrew, I go to bed with the reassurance that these irritations are not in vain. I am reminded that at this point in my life, I’m not seeking comfort and ease. I’m seeking the challenge, seeking experiences that will test my creativity and adaptability—experiences that I will not forget in a hundred years. 

And particularly during this wave of terrorism, I am acutely aware of the army's significance. My brave friends are out guarding cities, doing arrests, standing hours at checkpoints and training in the freezing cold night so we can sleep easy at night, so parents can send their children to school by foot, so we can all live normal lives in the country we call home. 

With my Garin at the Paratrooper Beret Ceremony

Army friends :)


Having a blast on kitchen duty





Goofs
Simchat Torah Celebration


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Untamed Wind

Fingers curled ‘round my mug
Slowly sipping
Savoring
Sweet Chai
Basking in my pleasant
Melancholy
That cozy corner in my mind
Where solitude is more than enough
Company for me

Tonight
Eva Cassidy’s velvety voice
Takes me back
To Autumnal scenes

Where leaves rise and fall
Swishing, swirling smoky spirals
On brick sidewalks, dotted
Romantic Red
Burnt Umber
And Crackling Fire Yellow

Where children in knit sweaters
Skip at dusk
Through alleys
Lit only
By the faint flicker
Of streetlamp's glow

This fall dream
So crisp in my mind
It pulses through my heart
And reminds me
Of simpler days 

Of trick-or-treats and
Pumpkin pies
CVS costumes
And huge leaf piles

Of burning wood smell
That lingers on clothes
And the gloomy grey sky
Just before it snows

Of Thanksgiving meals
Filled with stuffing and grace
A dining room table 
Transformed
To a warm sacred space

Though these fine days are gone
And nostalgia rings true
I’ve given up dwelling
On joys I once knew

Now I’m busy writing pages
Of stories still untold
Turning corners to adventures
Of a life
So Bright and Bold

Eternal Rain

Rain falls on Israel
Nostalgic smell of dew
Crickets singsong
Unaware
Of the pain that we've been through

Lighting cracks 
Like glass
Piercing through the Big Black Sky 
And with a boom
We shiver, shout
A desperate wanderers' cry

What if rain
Could wash our shores
of blood spilled 
Callously 

I would pray
For eternal rain

To cleanse this land 
This sacred land 
Of hate and cruelty 



Monday, September 28, 2015

My First Trip Back

My eyes are puffy, dry and reddened from excited tears as my plane descends into JFK airport. I haven't been this anxiously awaiting a landing since I moved to Israel, just over a year ago. I am eager to hug my father, stepmother, and sister Kate, who are all waiting for me at baggage claim. Will they think I've changed? What will it feel like to be in America again? What am I going to eat first? 

These thoughts raced through my mind at the start of my 30 day vacation in America. 

This 30-day break from the army  - called a meyuchedet - is a wonderful privilege granted only to lone soldiers. Once a year, the soldiers get one month to be with their families, and once per service, the flight home is paid for by incredibly generous donors at the organization Friends of the IDF

During this meyuchedet, I was lucky to have traveled around the country; I spent nearly two weeks in New York, 1.5 days in Boston, a few days in Chicago for my stepbrothers' wedding, and then the remainder of my time in Portland, Oregon, where my mother and stepfather live (as of this May).
  
It all began with a predictably emotional airport reunion with my family, followed by immediate sushi consumption (/ inhalation). Not to be deceived by my smiling face…I was in serious reverse culture shock. I had to re-program myself into America-mode. Ok, I thought to myself, what do we do in America? We wait in line (I was so shocked at how patiently people formed a line at the airport). We say “sorry” not “slicha.” We don’t stare at people all the time. We don’t engage in deep conversations about G-d with complete strangers. We don’t say “Shabbat Shalom” to everyone walking down the street on Friday and Saturday afternoon and then get invited to eat at their homes. We remember that some people drive on Yom Kippur, and that aside from a select group of people, the day is just like any other day.

It’s not that I “forgot” how to be American. In New York, I easily returned to my usual activities: daily coffee runs, Metro North train rides, drinks with friends in Manhattan, meals at my family’s Larchmont house, visits to my grandparents Upper East Side apartment…these things felt natural. My fingertips still moved at the speed of light while purchasing my Larchmont to Grand Central train ticket. I remembered exactly what subway to take in NY to get to where I needed to go.

What had changed the most was one fundamental understanding: I no longer belong here. Of course, this feeling has nothing to do with my friends and family. Reuniting with them was one of the most soul-enriching, wonderful experiences of the past year. In fact, on my flight to the U.S, I felt this existential sadness, feeling once again the cognitive dissonance around the question - why the heck must I live so far from my family.  It’s a question I’ll probably never come to terms with. It’s a question that, with a different mindset, can turn easily into guilt.

But on this trip, I chose not to "go there"--to that dark place of guilt, that is. 

Instead, I took the 30 days of my America visit to squeeze-in every ounce of quality time with my loved ones.

Some of the trip highlights...

Weekend Ashram Getaway: I basically went straight from an army base to a Yoga class at the tucked away Ananda Ashram in upstate NY—how typical. It was my first weekend back in the states, and it all felt so surreal. Over vegetarian food, on a kayak excursion on the lake, and during a sunset walk through nature, I caught up with my family and found the rest and relaxation I so needed.

Family Meals:  They’re the best. And I had a lot of them.

A Nostalgia whirlwind: I’m not sure if this was a highlight, but it certainly was a big part of the experience. I visited a lot of my old "spots," from my go-to taco place to the Rye Town 
Park, where I learned to walk. I spent time with elementary/middle school friends and was reminded what it is like to be in the company of someone who just gets me. It’s a sense of ease, comfort, and trust that takes years to grow. And after a year of constantly meeting new people in a new language, revisiting the old was a breath of fresh air. Or rather a sigh of relief. 

Chicago Wedding: It was a quick, 3-day trip, but nonetheless jam-packed with joy! My stepfather officiated as the Rabbi for his son's wedding, so the service exuded fatherly pride and love. On the glorious campus of University of Chicago, the happy couple exchanged rings & unconventional vows, giving speeches that didn’t leave a dry eye in the Chapel.

Exploring Portland: My experiences in this city can be best described through an alliteration of F’s: food trucks, friendly people, free-spirited, fancy Goodwills, foliage, fermented tea, falls (of water), and freakin’ beautiful nature. Gotta give a shoutout to my wonderful Mother and Stepfather for making it such a lovely visit!

Yom Ki-Portland: I was apprehensive about spending the High Holidays outside of Israel. Although no huge sense of Jewish Unity descended upon me in Portland (as it does in Israel during the holidays), Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were most certainly meaningful this year. I was welcomed with open arms into the Orthodox community that my mother and stepfather joined in Portland. The praying & reflecting was deep, the meals enormous, and the fasting pretty easy, thank G-d. The strange part was seeing cars speeding away on Yom Kippur, because at the same time in Israel, parents let their kids sit in the middle of streets that are clear of cars for miles. 


There is so much more I could share. And I know this all sounds so dreamy and lovely…in many ways it was. But for every great thing there is its shadow—a darker side that lingers throughout. One of my biggest challenges was trying to explain to my American loved ones about my year in Israel. I found that most of the time, I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the words. I quite literally and figuratively couldn’t translate my army and other "Israel Experiences" to people. Aside from the fact that I don’t know army words in English, there are just so many Israeli idiosyncrasies and cultural phenomena that have no American equivalent.

It was frustrating, and a little sad. There’s this enormous part of me that most of my American people just won’t understand, and I need to accept that.

Another issue I grappled with during my stay in the U.S. was the feeling of my “home base” in the U.S changing so rapidly before me, and frankly, without me. My stepbrother got married to a woman I met only once before. My mother and stepfather moved across the country, and when I arrived in NY, I got the news that my father and stepmother decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia. My friends are working grown-up jobs at banks in NYC and living with their serious boyfriends in West Village apartments. A few friends are engaged.

Where am I? Well, I’m blogging at 3:40 a.m in the Ra’anana Absorption Center, and I’m waking up in 3 hours to get on a bus to my army base.

I’m starting to actually believe all the Israelis who told me I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing.

I like to think of crazy, in this context, as colloquial for risk-taking. And since we know what big risks bring, I’m excited to see what awaits me at the end of this windy, bumpy, road.





  Gabriel Park, Oregon 

















A Real NY Slice (Joes Pizza)

Cannon Beach, Oregon




Princess Kate and my old friend Margot (Since grade 1)
With my Mother at Multnomah Falls

Friday, July 31, 2015

Colors of the IDF

Before I joined the IDF, every green-clad, gun bearing, dashing young Israeli man or woman looked to me the same—a bad-ass soldier.

I knew, theoretically, that under each uniform is a unique person: a brother, a sister, a friend, a musician. I even knew some, personally.

But what I did not yet understand were the textures and gradients of the colorful palette that is the Israeli population. I had not met the Russian immigrant, the Ethiopian, the Druze, or the French soldier. I had not heard their stories of acclimating to Israeli society or their families’ plight from their home country. I had not yet met soldiers who wanted desperately to leave the army, to move to America, to become an officer, to master the Hebrew language, to fall in love, to give their all to the country, to become DJ’s, or to just laze through 3 years doing as little work as possible.

But now, after 8 months maneuvering the Israel Defense Forces, I’ve seen some of the shades of this palette. I will be honest – they do not always combine to create a Van Gogh painting. (Probably more akin to Jackson Pollock.) I’ve come to realize it’s a huge mess, but a beautiful one. Let me paint you a picture:

Preface: These stories are in no means representative or stereotypical of specific ethnic groups. They are accurate stories of people I’ve met thus far into my service. Names are changed for anonymity.


Alex

So what made you move to Israel, by yourself, at the age of 16?” I ask Alex from Kyrgystan, while he puffs on his hand-rolled cigarette.

“After coming a few times, I just knew I could make a better life here. My parents have never been, but they supported me coming. I moved with a program that helps Russian-speaking immigrants integrate. They are my best friends here. We live together in a cheap apartment in Haifa.”

Impressed by his early-ambition, I ask him about some low-points throughout his Aliyah Journey:

“Well, I remember once, at the end of the 30 kilometer Masa Kumta (final trek of training to receive the unit beret), when everyone’s families came to congratulate and greet them at the end-point...I saw all my friends run into their parents’ arms and I had nobody waiting for me at the end. So I just sort of stood on the side and cried a little. But that was one of the only times I cried since moving here. I don’t usually cry. I’m a man’s man, you know?”

I ask, “How does it feel to not be Jewish in a Jewish state? How’d you like course Nativ?”

(Nativ is a 2-month course for non-Jewish soldiers and/or new immigrants that teaches Judaism, Israeli society, and Zionism. The course offers, in addition, the opportunity to convert to Judaism if the soldier chooses to do so. It is an incredible opportunity because outside of the army, the process is tedious, expensive, and exhausting.)

Alex replies, “I liked the course. It was fun and I learned a lot…but you know, I signed up mainly for the cute girls.”

Alex plans on starting the conversion process in a few months, along with a few friends he made during the course.


Avi

Our voices blend together as we sing Lecha Dodi, one of the main prayers for welcoming in Shabbat. I’m strumming my guitar and Avi holds my siddur, reading the prayers with me—though he still remembers most of them by heart.

Right before the sun sets, I finish leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service for about 5 soldiers in my unit. I ask everyone to take a deep breath and on their exhale, acknowledge the new Jewish month. Then, we go around and each say one word we hope will define this Shabbat. One wishes for “quiet,” another for “jokes,” and another hopes for an easy transition to our new base. I draw the connection between the new month and the new base as opportunities to turn over a new leaf.

“The month of Av has a particular energy,” I tell the group. Avi nods his head in agreement, revealing a certain understanding of the Jewish months and their significance.

“Were you religious once?” I ask Avi the following day in the dining hall.

“Can’t you tell?” He replies with half-smile, half-guilty expression.

“So what made you change your ways?” I inquire.   

“I don’t really want to get into it now, but basically, in the army, I saw the fun in secular living, and it sort of pulled me in.”

I wanted to get even deeper into the conversation, but we were in the dining hall, and Avi explained he didn’t want to get too “heavy.” 

“The grinding daily routine is hard on us combat soldiers, so we try to joke around as much as possible. Keep things light, you know?”

Before this conversation, I never thought of my questions as being “heavy.” I’m just a naturally curious person. I thrive off conversations, soak in people’s stories, and am slightly addicted to deep connection. While I have found this connection on base (generally while washing dishes next to someone for over 2 hours), most of my exchanges with my soldiers consist of clowning around: silly handshakes, sarcastic comments, weird faces, “English lessons,” and poking fun at each other’s accents, to name a few.

Indeed, it has become clear to me that many Israelis—to whom rocket-sirens are as mundane as alarm clocks—depend on jokes and sarcasm to lighten their daily lives.


Nathalie

Though she moved to Israel from France 10 years ago with her family, Nathalie still has an accent when she speaks Hebrew. I met her on my first day in the Artillery unit. She greeted me with an enormous smile and a high-five: “No way, dude, you’re from America? All of my friends are American!”

From then on we became quite close. She worked on base as a weapon-technician and on the weekends, a partier.

It wasn’t until a few months later that she shared her story with me. I found out that she grew up in a Chabad family (Charedi, aka ultra orthodox) and after high school, decided to leave the community and join the army. Girls of this community don’t join the army (they study and get married) so she was seen as quite the rebel. As a result, she moved to the Beit Hachayal, a hostel for lone soldiers. Though her parents live in the country, she doesn’t receive support from them, and is thus considered (like me) to be a lone soldier. Nathalie was the first lone soldier I met who isn’t “alone” because of her new immigrant status. It was almost shocking to hear, because I had naively related to term “lone soldier” as an upper-middle class Jew who leaves their comfortable life to fight for the IDF—essentially, the soldier who carries-out the Zionist Dream.

But after hearing Nathalie’s story, I became attuned to the nuance of what it means to be a lone soldier. And ever since, I have met many lone soldiers who don’t live at home because of abuse, abandonment, or at best, financial problems. Often, it’s a combination of the three.

The thought has made me question my “status” entirely, because not once have I felt alone in this country. Sure, my parents are physically 7,000 miles away, and upon arriving here I had to bridge many cultural gaps, get over a significant language barrier, and deal with the feeling of being an outsider. But now, nearly one year into my Aliyah journey, I feel very at home here. I have gained a edge of assertiveness (while still retaining politeness…it’s a delicate balance), have navigated the country, become close to fluent in Hebrew, acquired a taste for Turkish coffee, and made many Israeli friends. 

Ironically and sadly, I’ve met plenty of Israelis who feel like strangers in a strange land.

One of my closest friends (from the beginning of my service) had no place to call home. She was kicked out of her house after high school and lived with her boyfriend, who couldn’t always house her. Her friends abandoned her for reasons I cannot divulge and she had no relatives in Israel. I couldn’t imagine how she felt when I—a very new immigrant—offered to house her with me one weekend at the Absorption Center.

These lone soldiers unfortunately don’t get the attention they deserve. The spotlight is on those who move to Israel to volunteer for the IDF. I’m not even sure these “other” lone soldiers know about lone soldier events, donations, or letters that are offered to them. Though they have the title, they don’t have the community or the recognition that we Garin Tzabar participants are fortunate to have.

Despite these hardships, some of these “other” lone soldiers often end up succeeding the most in the army. Because home life is complicated, they give their all in the army—where they feel most at home.

For example, I’ve met countless soldiers who dropped out of High School, attended juvenile prison, or were heavy drug-users before enlisting. Some just didn’t care to work hard in school. Suddenly, they were forced to put on a uniform. The army crushed their egos, provided them with mandatory education, discipline, and a common goal—defense of the Jewish Nation. Youth who previously had weapons taken from them were then handed an m16 and given responsibility.

Responsibility is the key word here. It’s the thing that helps straighten people out in the army. It’s a pretty simple psychological principle: when people are held accountable, they don’t want to let themselves, or others down. And in the army, they don't really have the option to not do their job. 

And so whether it’s the cook who has to ensure breakfast is ready by 7:15 am, the tech support soldier who has to fix the headquarters’ computer, or the logistic officer who organizes supplies, each soldier holds a responsibility that affects the other. Indeed, some are more passionate about their job than others (and that’s a nice way to put it); but, at the end of the day, the heavy responsibility put on these 18-year-olds matures them in a way that any other system wouldn’t.  

Some thrive in this rigid system and others less. And while I’m genuinely enjoying my service, I decided yesterday that I wouldn’t go to officers course and sign on for another year. I will finish my service in one year and 3 months and then start my civilian IsraeLife.


I’ve already started making travel plans, though everyone says it’s a bit too early for that. With all the Israeliness I’ve gained, my tendency to plan remains. There’s just so much to do in this short life—why not squeeze it all in?

Monday, June 22, 2015

28


“You don’t know your Hebrew birthday?”

A wave of Jewish guilt washed over me, like that moment you remember it’s Passover halfway into your grilled cheese. Oy vey. I knew it was sometime during the month of Sivan, but the exact date? No chance. 

The question lingered in the back of my mind, and of course, I couldn’t turn to my trusty iPhone on the Shabbat. 

I was staying at the hostel “Ascent,” in Tzfat, for Shavuot. Ascent is anything but your ordinary hostel. It is a place of “relaxation, reflection, interaction, and spiritual exploration,” (according to it’s website) and I can certainly testify to that. It is technically run through Chabad, so its doors are open to anyone. 

The last time I had been at Ascent was for the holiday of Sukkot. Upon reflection, it makes sense that my second visit was during Shavuot, because coming back to Tzfat felt like, as we say in Hebrew, sgirat ma’agal — coming full-circle. Sukkot and Shavuot are two of the three “Pilgrimage” holidays in Judaism; between them is Passover, which celebrates the exodus from Egypt. I feel like between Sukkot and Shavuot, I have experienced my own sort-of-exodus. This last Passover, I debated whether to go back to Ascent or go to Zorba, a big-time Hippie festival at an Ashram in Israel’s desert. 

Although I knew—in a deep sense—that I wanted to return to Tzfat, I had heard great things about Zorba, and it fit with the free spirit vibe I was looking for during my week off from the army.  And so I ventured (alone!) to this 5-day experience of peace, love, meditation, yoga, workshops, dancing all night, and sun. It was exactly what I had expected. I made friends, let myself be free and fluid during meditation/dance/contact workshops, and moved to music without a care in the world. 

I left feeling more open and loving, but that lasted about 3 days; soon, life resumed its natural course.  Ultimately, the “high” from Festival was fleeting, and when it ended, I felt it was all a dream. 

By contrast, I know that my Tzfat experience has forever impacted me. There, I felt in tune with my truth, and was glad to have explored it through a Jewish lens as opposed to a generic/Hindu/Hin-Jew/Bu-Jew one. This explains why at Zorba, during the Friday night “spiritual” singing circle, I craved Karlebach melodies. I missed lighting the candles; I missed Challah bread; I missed Niggunim and the prayers my lips know by heart. And though I can reach a meditative state chanting Om Namo Shivaya, it doesn’t feel as right as when I meditate on the words of the Shema prayer.

I now understand that I needed Zorba to ultimately reinforce my understanding of who I am vs. who I’m not, and various other truths.  One of these personal truths that I rediscovered is the concept of gvulot, boundaries.

Understandably, people tend correlate decreasing boundaries with increasing freedom. But in the past few years, I’ve found this to be (personally) false, as I’ve begun internalizing the notion of achieving freedom & elevation within boundaries. For instance, while keeping Shabbat means I am bound to certain laws and rules—such as not using my phone—I have begun to feel the freedom in being phoneless for 25 hours. The moment I finish my Friday phone calls and watch my iPhone screen fade to black, I am free to live Shabbat to its fullest, without the technology-induced anxiety of my generation. When I dress modestly to temple, I don’t feel restricted or repressed – rather, I feel free to focus on prayer rather than my outfit or other’s glances. But the highest reason of all is beyond practicality. It is the fact that these rules are mitzvoth—commandments—that don’t always demand a rational explanation. 

So what happens to man without these healthy boundaries? I argue that he is left trying to make sense of chaos. On the other hand, too many boundaries make a person cold, closed, and unapproachable. So understandably, the ideal is balance. Kabbalah outlines this principle in the Sefirot, the divine attribues that created the world.Accoridng to Kabbalah, the balancing trait of Chesed (loving kindness, openness) is Gevurah(strength/boundaries/restraint). When Chesed and Gevurah are balanced, the outcome is tiferet, or harmony

felt this harmony in Tzfat. At Ascent, I danced freely, openly, but I wasn’t carefree—I cared a lot, because I wasn’t just dancing for me. I was rejoicing in the glory of the holiday. I held hands with “strangers” in a circle of women, singing Jewish songs in a pure outpouring of gratitude. Unlike at Zorba (where everything was co-ed), at Ascent, I prayed and danced ecstatically with just women. I now know I prefer it that way, both for focus and for a sense of security.

Focus. Security. Harmony. These words nicely portray the themes I associate with the myriad of meaningful experiences in Tzfat…  

~  ~ ~ ~   ~

 Focus 

I turn the page of holy text delicately. It’s 4 am, and the whole building is awake, vibrating on a high frequency. I am in a study room with Chani, the program director, and a few other women. We sip our coffee and take turns reading and analyzing the text.  We begin by discussing the importance of the Jewish months, as they pertain to the holiday of Shavuot: Nissan – divine emanation; Iyar – dualism; Sivan – holy unity. Sivan is considered a “holy unity” because it is the month in which the Israelites received the Torah (Shavuot). As I begin to better understand the holiday’s context and deeper meaning, I wonder where my story fits into this ancient story. 

~  ~ ~ ~   ~

Security

On Friday night after services, Hanna (an Ascent friend) and I end up on an unintended adventure on our way to Shabbat dinner. What I expected to be a 15-minute stroll to the Goldberg’s home turns into an hour-long quest. We trek through thick gardens and wind around dark pathways of residential Tzfat, desperately seeking our host family. To our misfortune, our map (which is more of a light sketch) doesn’t help. We knock on at least 5 house doors; meanwhile, I imagine the Goldberg’s soup getting colder and the residents of Tzfat getting frustrated by these two girls disturbing the Shabbat peace. 

But to our pleasant surprise, nearly every family who’s door we knock on appear ready to take us wandering Jews in for dinner, despite the rather short notice. 

We do eventually find the Goldbergs (without even going near a smart phone I might add!) 
The rest of the evening entails hours of stories, eating, and singing. Sitting at this stranger’s house in an unfamiliar city, I am overcome with a sense of emotional and physical security. And without even noticing, it’s 2 in the morning and we are still at dinner. Hanna is asleep on the family’s couch, the other guests are nodding-off into their dessert plates, and the conversation on Kabbalastic meaning in numbers is now incomprehensible to me. Time to go “home.”

By 3 in the morning we arrive back at Ascent, plop on our beds, and exchange looks to each other that seem to say: what a night. 

~  ~ ~ ~  ~

Harmony 

My feet slide on the cobblestones while I pass ancient synagogues filled with men and women in flowing white garments. It is that special hour right before sunrise—a bit chilly, a bit dark, yet hopeful.

I notice that all around me, the monochromatic Jerusalem stone is punctuated by turquoise blue accents – a blue that can be found on every windowpane, door, and store sign. 

Out of the synagogues, I hear familiar melodies; prayers of gratitude and awe vibrate through the narrow streets, echoing the joy of generations past and those to come. 

When I finish praying, I slip out of synagogue and begin to wander the streets. I climb a staircase that leads to a rooftop, and from there, watch the sun rise.  In this mountain city, I can breathe. I am at ease. 

~  ~ ~ ~  ~

Shabbat morning I awake remembering something a friend said a few nights before: 

Friend: Oh, you don’t know your Hebrew Birthday? Do you have an Israeli identity card? In that case, you can find it there, on your tehudat – zehut.  

Me:  NO WAY. All this time and I didn’t know...

Before even brushing my teeth, I reach for my Israeli I.D card and find my Hebrew birthday: כ"ח בסיוון. Numerically, it’s number 28 of the month of Sivan.

I think, how interesting, these letters spell out “Koach” which means strength in Hebrew. I am suddenly glad to know this birthday, because it’s not just a number. The numbers are correlated to letters, which spell out words, and therefore hold a greater meaning. 

Only later that evening, after about an hour of sitting around the table singing niggunim(melodies), does everything come together. The realization dawns upon me when an Ascent Rabbi asks someone to share some wisdom they learned over the course of the weekend. Usually, I’m not the first to share share such speeches.  Perhaps I’ll think of something interesting, but my stage-fright usually triumphs. 

But this time feels different. My hand raises almost without me controlling it, and I begin to connect the dots. I remember that  the house number of my  host family for dinner was the number 28, my room number at Ascent is  28, and my newly discovered Hebrew birthday is 28. 

And so I share  a little something with the group: 

" Recently, in my prayers, I've been asking for strength - the strength to make the right decisions, the strength to know my limitations, and the strength to stay motivated, even when forces seem to be acting against me. This holiday at Ascent, I  experienced the recurrence of the number 28, Koach, or strength. I am certain that this is a positive sign - that my choice to return to ascent was the right one, and that this visit would give me a strength I need to continue on the right path. May you all continue on your own paths, and along the way, find strength in unexpected places."