Friday, October 28, 2016

Returning Home

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1. Clichés
Mural at BCI

“Every blade of grass has an angel beside it, telling it to grow grow grow; every human being has an angel beside him, telling him to trust what he already knows.

We sang this line—with mantra-like repetition—in the majestic woods of the Brandeis-Bardin campus in Southern California. I found myself at this Jewish summer camp for adults, otherwise known as Brandeis Collegiate Institute: a 26-day experience of introspection, (unofficial) group therapy and artistic expression through a pluralistic Jewish lens.

“Jewish rehab,” if you will.

The goal of the program is to help Jewish young adults own their Judaism and make it real, creative, and relevant to their lives.

For most, it was a process of introducing new Jewish rituals and new meaning. For others, it was a process of unlearning the harsh, guilt-driven Judaism with which they were raised.

On a personal level, this program came at a critical junction in my life. It was right before Aliyah—June 2014—the ideal time to reflect. My peers and I sang zmirot until we were hoarse, danced until our bare feet nearly bled, picked fruit under the hot Californian sun, laughed to no end and shared our deepest truths in front of the whole group.  

Most underwent some serious inner-spiritual growth, spurring what is sometimes referred to as a “Jewish Journey.”

It was my first time encountering such an expression.

What does that even mean, I remember thinking. It sounded cliché.

But after extensive journaling, learning Jewish philosophy, exchanging life stories, and marveling at the intersection of Judaism and art, I gained a new perspective on said journey.

I learned that it’s not necessarily a linear path, and nobody said it has to be.

I learned that it’s ok to fall down and get up and try something new just to immediately throw it away. 

And since then, I’ve been captivated by people’s paths—where they started and what choices they’ve made and why. I suppose it’s a source of comfort to know that not everyone has it all figured out—that there’s always a sliver of doubt, or a voice in their heads saying to choose the other path or to pave a new one entirely.

What I can say for certain is that I am blessed to have had many experiences that have guided and inspired me along the way. 

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2. Hatikvah

I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America…the words came out robotically from the peers of my 2nd grade class.

At Jewish day school, we started each day with “The Pledge” and immediately after, the Israeli National Anthem “Hatikvah.”

The words to Hatikvah came out naturally, as well, yet there was something different about this daily ritual.

Something deeper.

I felt it in the subtle sadness of the anthem’s melody and the way I felt singing in Hebrew – a foreign language I used primarily in morning prayers.

My 7-year-old self knew that I was singing in the language that makes up the blue-velvet Siddur I received in my 1st grade siddur ceremony. I knew it was the same language in the songs to which I swayed my small body in my favorite class of the day—Israeli dancing with Shmulik.  

I remember feeling that these songs connected me to something bigger than myself; to some faraway place I’ve visited before—a place that’s always hot and smells of flowers and Zaatar and my grandpa’s cologne.

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3. Jew-Band

My Mother, Shirona & Her Band 
I sat in the third row, my regular spot at temple Knesset Tiferet Israel. I watched my Mom, the cantor sing “hallelujah,” in awe at how the prayer so effortlessly and beautifully flowed.  

It was one of her Friday night “simcha services,” during which she and her “Jew-band” (a self-assigned name) would play joyous songs to welcome in the Sabbath.  My foot tapped to the rhythm of the psalms as I subconsciously soaked in the melodies and their words.

I did not know that these songs would help form the basis of my deep-seated soul connection to my religion. What I knew was that I was proud of my mom, and I appreciated how much she and her voice lifted the congregation to higher heights.

I spent my after school hours at this temple, waiting in the office for my mom to finish tutoring Bar-Mitzvah lessons, my sponge-like brain absorbing the sounds of the Torah tropes.

Later, this knowledge would become a source of income and connection to Judaism (as a Bar Mitzvah tutor) in the middle of a 4-year period I named, in hindsight: “Public School Exile.”

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4. Public School Exile
Rye High School in Westchester, NY

“You’ve never eaten what? But…but…it’s so delicious, just have a bite!”

Though I knew one bite wouldn’t cause the world to implode, I was apprehensive. A small voice told me not to do it.

The voice said: “Leora, it’s not only unkosher, it’s the ultimate unkosher thing to eat. Bacon.

But I was 14 and my most primal desire was to fit in.

I was new to Rye High School and to Public School in general. 13-year-old Jewish Day School Leora faced an intimidating new world of country-club-goers, Irish pubs, football teams and house parties where “cool kids” played beer pong in red cups; a world of Christmas and Easter, with a tiny minority of Hannukah and Passover; a place where someone actually asked me if I “Speak Jewish.”

In said environment, assimilation came naturally. Without even realizing it, my three new best friends were Christian and my first serious boyfriend an Irish-German-Puerto Rican Catholic. I was basically a permanent resident at his house, and jokingly called him my “goy-friend.”

In this adolescent period, I enjoyed the diversity of views, the sharing of customs, and of course, experiencing four consecutive years of Christmas.
Friday night was like any other weekend day—hangouts with friends, meals at the local Japanese restaurant, movies in Port Chester. Saturday entailed shopping in Manhattan, yoga classes, day hikes, the beach, or some other underwhelming suburban adventure.

Certainly nothing Shabbat-related.

To my High School Self, the thought of voluntarily spending my weekend at synagogue felt like some sort of strange punishment. I saw it like going to the dentist for a checkup – it’s something you must do once a year, for a “spiritual cleaning” on Yom Kippur, but other than that, it’s unnecessary and actually quite the burden.

I had this conception of a frummy “good Jew”—one who follows all the rules, is unexposed to diversity, to modernity, to the truly “fun” things that life has to offer.

I remember thinking: they’ve never tried breaded jumbo shrimp or kissed a boy by the lake at camp. They can’t go to the Beyonce concert on Friday night, nor can they drive to the beach on Saturday. They can’t even go to prom because it’s on Shabbat, and well…alcohol and boys.

Though I was not exposed to Orthodox Jews, I knew they existed, somewhere deep in the Shtetls of White Plains and Riverdale.

I “knew” that their lives were duller, their food less tasty, and that they have more kids and less fun.

And I knew that since I had the choice, of course I would choose freedom—freedom from rules and restrictions and things that dampen the joy.

Yet, despite my harsh misconceptions, I felt that my Judaism was a fundamental part of my identity.

I still remember when nearly the whole camp auditorium stood to say Kaddish (the mourners prayer) at my non-Jewish camp--after the sudden death of a counselor--and something in the fabric of my being was shaken and I joined in.

I remember feeling a sense of camaraderie with the handful of Jews marked absent at Rye High because it was the Jewish New Year and we were busy dipping apples in honey instead of fries in our ketchup at lunch.

Although I wasn’t a part of a Jewish community anymore, I always felt Jewish, though perhaps with a bigger emphasis on the ish. Jew-ish.

So when summer 2008 rolled along and I was “too old” to head back to arts camp at French Woods, my internal compass pointed east.

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5. Nesiya
Desert Hike on Nesiya

We looked out past the desert crater, swaying rhythmically, singing songs to welcome in

Shabbat. I was hand-in-hand with a group of fifty 16-year-old young adults from America and Israel. It was summertime in Israel, and the golden beams of sun glazed us like the delicious challah bread awaiting us.

Our white clothes reminded us of the purity and unity of Shabbat and a flute’s song added serenity to the already surreal setting.

I was taken afloat.

For the first time I experienced the wonderful paradox of the desert – feeling small and insignificant yet connected and empowered.   

When people talk about experiences and programs in Israel that change lives, I immediately think of Nesiya.

Volunteering at a Bedouin School
Like BCI (the program mentioned in the first essay), Nesiya is a creative journey. On this 7-week program, teenagers not only explore Israel through a creative process, but also explore and enrich themselves. The program helps break down stereotypes of the “other” and expand the definition of “I” and “us.”  Through intense community building activities and artistic workshops, these teenagers learn Israeli culture, volunteer, delve into Jewish texts and hike the land.

After 7 full weeks on Nesiya, I returned to Rye, NY changed. With a wider perspective, I took on challenges with more ease and grace, felt less pressure to fit in, and felt a stronger connection to my Jewish identity, and therefore, to myself. I carried in my back pocket memories of eating fruits of the land, of special Shabbatot, of singing on the beach, of witnessing others’ transformations, of meeting inspiring Bedouin women, and beyond all—of feeling true alignment.

At 16-years-old, I felt mature and invigorated with purpose. I decided to write my college essay on an emotionally charged experience of coexistence from this trip, and I continued to share said story throughout the school year.

I felt that I had a message to relay, and it poured out of me in song.

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6. Fruit of the Land

The first bite of a persimmon is the best.

I am always pleasantly surprised by its ripe sweetness, its tomato-like texture, and by the explosion of flavor. Together, they combine to create a full (and messy) sensory experience.

I remember walking down Ben Yair street in Arad in 2010, the August sun hitting my freshly freckled shoulders. I took my first bite of the persimmon given to me (for free!) by the friendly mustached-man at the local marketplace. A grateful smile still plastered to my face, I replayed the scene in my head, feeling a specific calmness that I had not felt before.

I hold this memory as one of my first adult “Zionist” moments, even though most wouldn’t consider it so noteworthy.

There wasn’t an unveiling of some revolutionary idea. I didn’t come up with a solution to anti-Semitism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or global assimilation.

What it was, in short: a moment of deep love for the land.

For the fruits of the land. For the people who planted the persimmon tree, for the people who harvested the fruits and to the friendly older man who handed me the Persimmon before I could hand him my 2-shekel coin.

Those transient moments of joy and gratitude in Israel are what keep me here.

It’s would be untrue to say that I’m here because I want to be a part of the most incredible national project there ever was, or that I’m here because of the Zionist dream, or even because I connect to the culture, the people, the history, the scenery, and so on.

I suppose those reasons aren’t false.  They are my cognitive, retrospective reasons—the reasons that other people can hold, weigh, and make some sense of. They are the reasons that fit into neat little schemas of the logical mind.

My deep truth, however, is far more sensory. Emotional. Subjective. Tied entirely first person experiences—moments of faith in the old city of Jerusalem, of humility in the desert, of wonder in Tzfat, of conversations with strangers on buses or park benches or even heavenly moments with freshly picked fruit.

No matter where the experience took place and no matter its objective importance, I can divide them all by one common denominator – full presence.

Through being fully present to the sweet and bitter moments of my gap year in 2010, I formed a holistic taste of Israel. Volunteering at a foster home for 3 months taught me that not all of life in Israel is sweet bus drivers and great hummus. I learned about poverty, about racism, about corruption, and in general, about all the work that needs to be done here.                                                                             
Just as Israelis run toward terror attacks and not away, my reasons for staying here are beyond logic. Here, I am inspired to run toward the problems and not away – both on a personal level and societal level. Often, this intensity feels too heavy. It isn’t easy to wake up and be confronted with a mirror of problems every single day.

But it is a way of growth, and that is the path I have chosen.

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7. Basic Training for the Soul

I cried on my third day of basic training in the IDF.

On the phone.

To my Mom.

I was 22, a college graduate, and I’d like to think fairly emotionally mature.

I wasn’t crying because the running was hard (it wasn’t), or because an 18-year-old was shouting at me to stand still all day. Those were superficial annoyances compared to the tornado of emotions wreaking havoc inside.

I was deeply frustrated.

Trapped within myself.


The words that came out – in my shaky Hebrew – were as awkward as the baggy off-grey, ripped uniform and forest green 5-shekel baseball cap I was forced to wear.

Like my sentences, like the very droopy rim of my hat, I was broken.

Or at leas my ego was.

All the external “things” that I used to define myself were stripped away – my long hair, my flowy dresses, my nose-ring, my English. My comfort zone. I couldn’t even share what I was feeling because there wasn’t time, and there wasn’t really anyone to vent to in English.

This resulted in a rich inner-world of thoughts, emotions, and ideas. I kept it all inside, in a corner of my mind where I kept my “true” identity.

I was a fly on the wall, a curious observer of the strange, slightly evil entity that is the 18-year-old Israeli girl.

And when I wasn’t observing, I was in one of those dreams in which you try to speak and nothing comes out…then you’re yelling, and it’s urgent, and finally when a sound comes out it’s gibberish and everyone just stares at you as if you have three heads.

IT’S NOT FUNNY I used to think, defensively.  

I felt that they were looking directly at my insecurity under a microscope—the part that differentiated me from others—the most obvious proof of my “Americanness.”

Only once I realized, and really internalized, that they weren’t laughing out of malintent, I was freed me from my insecurity.

And gradually, I mended this brokenness with humor and humility.

Gradually, I began to laugh along with them.

I began to heal.

Healing, for me, is the feeling that the unfinished is finished, like a small gap in a circle filled.

Once we come full circle, we can let go.

I felt this “closing of a circle” in my last leg of the army, which I spent in “Nativ,”a 7-week course for new immigrants (like myself) and for soldiers who aren’t Jewish according to the Israeli Rabbinate. 

The goal of the course is to help these soldiers better integrate into Israeli society. Many get into the course to convert (which entails a longer process after the course itself), others to take a break from the “real” army, and most because it’s considered one of the best courses the IDF has to offer.

It’s a course to which I sent many soldiers (through my job on base), most of whom hail from the former Soviet Union. I was always envious of them, and never felt my time would come.

But when July came around, a few miracles transpired to make it all possible.

I was able to “send myself” to the August course in Jerusalem, knowing that upon my return, I’d have two weeks back in the Battalion before my unofficial release.

So, I trained my replacement for a rather long period – almost three weeks – a process that felt like a small taste of parenting. I taught her everything I knew about the job and about the battalion, with hopes that she would be better prepared for the job than I was two years ago.

Thankfully, August 7th came quick, and after saying some temporary goodbyes, I left for the course wide-eyed and excited. Back in learning mode, back to books, back to classroom energies and teachers and activities. The nerd in me was so excited; I even decorated a notebook and bought expensive pens.

I got placed in a team of almost all native Israelis (as opposed to other groups of new immigrants) because I scored high on the Hebrew placement test, which was a nice re-boost to my disintegrated ego. And while I couldn’t use English as a crutch or relate socially as I would with Americans, I found other ways of connecting, and was forced to really learn in Hebrew for the first time since my post-training course.

There was something immensely satisfying about this.

People even turned to me for answers to questions, for help on the tests and even for Hebrew grammar.

And although I wasn’t the most articulate voice in the class, I was happy to have a voice—a contributing voice.

I was happy to hear and to be heard.

For 7 weeks I was surrounded by inspiring teachers (with whom I’m still in touch) and given content that made me excited to go back to class after each 15-mintue break: Torah, Jewish Thought, Holidays, Identity, Singing, Zionism, and History.

In addition, every Tuesday we traveled to a different part of Israel, each day centered on a different theme. We climbed Masada, visited the Knesset and the Supreme Court, crawled through tunnels, walked the old city of Jerusalem, hiked through forests and cried through a meaningful tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s incredible Holocaust museum.

Surprisingly, people cried a lot in this course. It may be difficult to imagine a group of IDF soldiers in uniform, sitting in a circle and sharing some of their most personal life stories, or crying in discussions on identity, self, purpose, and relationships.

But that was Course Nativ, in a nutshell: basic training for the soul.

Except this time, we cried because we touched on some sensitive truths; because the conversations sparked questions that usually remain unaddressed, dormant in our subconscious; because we encountered subjects that were meant to “break us down” – in the healthiest of ways – in order to make room for growth, for renewal, for the rebuilding of self.

So in the last week of the course, when we were asked to draw a “before and after” picture to represent the effects of the course, I drew a flame in the IDF insignia.  

The flame represented my passion for learning and for creativity, two things that often felt rather dulled by the monotony of the army.

In contrast, throughout the course, I felt inspired every day to create, to sing, to play guitar, to teach. I felt that my spark for Jewish learning was beginning to be fanned once again.

And so at the end of the course I cried, but this time, not the tears of frustration that I felt in basic training.

I cried because I was moved—because a circle felt complete.

At a Jerusalem Lookout point 

At the top of Masada
My Nativ Class - Tzevet 6

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