Wednesday, December 28, 2005

248. As promised, an incoherent post

Here it is. Writing quickly, since I'm paying for time by the minute. Over the past two days, which have felt like a week or maybe a lifetime, I have (among many other things):
--climbed Masada
--hiked in Ein Gedi, and watched the gazelles leap just like King David said they did
--cried at Yad Vashem
--cried everywhere else
--listened to the music of a master oud player
--listened to Mizrahi Jewish women (of easten descent) talk about being an underclass in Israeli society
--ate the amazing food they sell as part of an organization to empower Mizrahi women to become entrepreneurs, despite lives often marked by poverty and violence
--dipped my hands into the Dead Sea
--counted to 40 many times (I am a bus captain or, as the tour guide keeps calling me, "bus boss")
--lit Hannukah candles with 200 people each night
--and, as my very first act in this country, after lying awake all night thanks to excitement and jet lag, chanted Torah.

Tomorrow morning we we'll have services near the Wall, at the southern part where there are excavations (and where men and women are allowed to pray together). And I'll chant Torah again, in the shadow of all history.

In the evening we head to Neve Shalom, an Arab-Israeli village where people are actually managing to live in peace. We'll be in to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

I never understood before. I don't know how else to say it. This afternoon at Ein Gedi, watching a waterfall, the beauty of this place almost knocked the breath out of me. I feel like I've been here always.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

247. Until later

This past Shabbat morning a line of prayer caught my eye. I thought about it for a moment, and realized it said exactly what I felt about my coming trip. I had read the line many times before, but only now did it make sense in context of my life.

I got home, took out my siddur, and looked for the line... and couldn't find it, not even the part of the service where it fell. Oy, I thought, I need to get more sleep. Here I had a revelation, and now I have no idea what it was about. I did recall that it made me feel excited about the trip, and then calm. I walked out of the synagogue in peace. So I guess the line did its job; maybe I was only supposed to read it once.

I suspect I'll feel this way in Israel, too. Some of what I see and hear will set like concrete in my brain, and other things will stay as the shadow of a color or echo of a laugh, or some emotion I won't be able to name. I look forward to forgetting as much as I remember, and filling in the rest on future trips. There's an internet café in our hotel (and, I gather, on every block in Jerusalem), and I may post something here during the three seconds of free time listed on the itinerary. It might be coherent, or an unreadable stream-of-consciousness narrative that could forever embarrass me in the blogosphere. Most likely I'll be back after Jan. 4. Until then, in the words of a very funny colleague, have a Happy CE New Year! And may 2006 bring only good things for us all.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

246. Ne'ila, part 2


I didn't doubt that God was hamakom hazeh, in this very place. So many words had been whispered that day--so many secrets revealed, promises made, pleas beseeched--but I was frustrated because I knew I missed the important ones, those without sound that still needed to be said. I wanted assurance that God heard these, too.

I figured that the only thing I could do on behalf of everyone at this final hour was try and get God to pay attention. On either side of me at the bima were the rabbi, her voice strong and clear, and the Minha shaliach--the teacher, 30 years ago, of my chanting teacher--who would join in some of the prayers. He sang loud enough for anyone in Jerusalem to hear the music drifting by on a western wind. I had no choice but to wake up and pray.


More tomorrow, before I leave (although the end of Ne'ila might have to wait until I return from Israel)--I'm off, in few minutes, to a traditional Jewish Dec. 24 with latkes and Chinese food. My best wishes to everyone here, and especially those I know only as encouraging, kind and funny voices in this strange little blog world, for a Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa of light, hope and peace.

Friday, December 23, 2005

245. Ne'ila, part 1


The haftarah was very, very long, much longer than I remembered, probably because I had been too asleep in past years to notice. The teenagers struggled; the rabbi stood behind them and prompted gently. They finally sat, relieved, and she gave her d'var Torah, a strong, hopeful entreaty to learn from past voices in our community. She finished, and beckoned me back up on stage to lead Ne'ila.

For the past month I've been trying to figure out just what I felt at those moments, and I think I now have the words. I once had a client who refused to pay for my designs, blatantly ignoring our contract. We hired lawyers; we finally settled, after much unpleasantness, without his admission of guilt. I endured this annoying ordeal in a state of righteous indignation, gaining new understanding of the phrase "banging one's head against a wall." How, I wondered, could he look at me and not see me? How could he not grasp that I was right and he was completely, utterly wrong? I wanted to shout it to the trees, take an ad out in the Times, stop every single person walking down the street and shake them by the shoulders--Listen! Isn't it obvious? Tell him, now! Maybe he'll pay attention to you.

This was what I felt during Ne'ila, this very mundane comparison to the world of work, a connection I made tonight at services as the rabbi spoke about injustice and determination. Not that God, or man, has ever wronged me; quite the opposite. I know I'm one of the luckiest people on this planet. But that feeling of, you must pay attention now--I deserve it, I need it, where are you, where have you been?--filled me like a river as I began to sing the final set of prayers for the day. I think I expected to see some great light of revelation after all those hours of fasting and emotional exhaustion. But there was only a sense of being ordinary, and frustrated.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

244. Living room

(Minha, Yom Kippur 5766, continued.)

Trying not to trip over the many layers of white fabric draped around my body (skirt, blouse, parachute-sized tallit), I ran up the side steps to the low, deep stage. It felt, oddly, like a living room that just happened to have one wall missing, a thousand people in upholstered seats in its place. To the left were the musicians, instruments resting carefully at their sides as they waited for everyone to assemble at the bima. At my right, a row of folding chairs was filled with nervous, whispering teenagers getting ready to chant haftarah. The Minha shaliach, who had seen many dozen more services than them or myself, sat calmly off to the side; he would join us, once again, at the very end. A large Oriental rug covered the center of the grey stage floor, the Ark standing patiently at its farthest perimeter. I took my place at the bima, a podium with three microphones twisting out from its sides like strange metallic flowers. Even though it was odd to look down at everyone's faces (I imagined, for just a second, Evita about to address her minions) I felt not at all far from the thousand other people. We could have been a family up there on the stage, waiting with measured anticipation for the turkey or a favorite uncle to enter our home for the holidays.

The Torah reading began and ended. I have no recollection of who chanted, or how well; my eyes didn't leave the machzor for one second, because I was so exhausted that I knew I would never find my place again if they did. The teenagers began a tag-team version of the long haftarah, and I sat back down with the congregation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

243. Minha, part 2

(Yom Kippur 5766, continued.)

We faced east to pray the Amidah. I felt angry, and was unsure why. This past year had been difficult, but extraordinarily lucky. I had life, health, and hope; really, what more is there? Maybe I was confusing anger with frustration; I was about to talk to God very loudly, in front of a thousand people, but would be so wired and tired that I'd probably sing words and not sentences, notes and not melodies. Here I was so close to the source of answers but suddenly inarticulate, the questions I had formulated all month long in a jumble. I was annoyed at God for requiring us to follow a plan this day that diminished our ability to understand and think clearly just at that instant when, parched and spent after a long struggle, we finally reached the top of the mountain.

The Torah reading was next. The rabbi looked out from the stage and beckoned me over--why? Ne'ila wasn't for another hour. Then the other shaliach tzibur sat down and I realized she needed a gabbai sheni, which I had been that very morning, and so was now a pro. Of course, I hadn't looked at this Torah portion since last Yom Kippur. I ran up front shadowed by the massive, remonstrating finger of God now hovering like a dark cloud; a gabbai is required to be familiar with the reading, and I was about to stand there under false pretenses. On the other hand, I had been busy these past few weeks with the important tasks of learning Ne'ila and investigating every cold remedy known to mankind. I decided I had practiced enough contrition for the day, and hoped God would take a raincheck. I would study the portion later. Really.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

242. Silence

Right before Shabbat began this week, I received upsetting news from a friend. Nothing life-threatening, grave or dangerous, but very, very sad. And I was powerless to do anything but listen. I sat here at the computer and contemplated the singing and dancing that would come in a few hours; it seemed inappropriate to welcome the Shabbat bride with joy and laughter at the very moment my friend would be engaged in a difficult struggle. But neither could I stay home; I needed, for my own sanity, to publicly mark the end of a long week and the beginning of a respite, however short, from my own mundane trials.

As if the calendar could see into my future, this Friday my synagogue added an additional "contemplative Kabbalat Shabbat" service of meditation and quiet chanting. Meditation used to make me very nervous. I was, although I wouldn't admit it, afraid to sit in silence with my own thoughts for any length of time. I couldn't imagine substituting the music I anticipated all week long with the mumbling I'd spent most of my life trying to escape, and meditation seemed vaguely pagan and inappropriate. (I later learned that it was a most authentic form of Jewish prayer, a passionate discipline of the ancient, mystic rabbis--a tradition which remains, in watered-down form, as we preface each service with the recitation of psalms.)

This past spring, as I faced scary (and ultimately uneventful) surgery, I decided to take a meditation class with one of the rabbis at my synagogue. All my usual methods of remaining calm had failed, and I figured this couldn't hurt.
It didn't, and was neither scary nor weird. I could pray as well in silence as with music; as Kohelet observed, there is a season for each. On Friday night, as we sat in a circle blanketed by each other's thoughts, I felt my worry lighten as each deep breath distributed it across the room until the pieces were small and weightless. If they had sound, it would be of broken crystal connecting and then drifting apart in the sunlight just like a wind chime.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

241. Mercy

Psalm 136, sung on Shabbat morning, is one of my favorite prayers. I've heard it since childhood as part of the Passover seder, set either to a dirge-like melody or the odd, singsongy one favored by my ex's family ("who slew great kings, fa la la!"). The one we do at my synagogue is simple, repetitive--and also, somehow, encouraging, comforting, and challenging. It's upbeat and in a major key, but not so cheery and square that the triumphs it lists sound like slogans. We slow down at the long line "the moon and the stars to rule by night" as if to allow an extra second to think about the complex and more problematic proof of God's love that immediately follows: "...who smote the Egyptian firstborn." I wait each week to hear the proud swagger in the cantor's voice as he recounts the slaying of the mighty Sihon and Og. (I got to sing those lines on the High Holy Days and tried, without success, to hide the fact that I was attempting to imitate every nuance of the cantor's version.)

Every once in a while the rabbis change the refrain--"Ki leolam hasdo," "His love endures forever"--to their native language, "Su merced nunca falto." Most of the congregation doesn't understand; since the unpredictable is always interesting at my synagogue, I never minded being clueless. Today they finally let us in on the secret ("it's Yiddish by way of Buenos Aires"), and one of the rabbis prefaced the lesson with a story. Years ago, along with a student group, they visited an impoverished village in El Salvador. They held a Shabbat service, the first any of the local inhabitants had seen. The rabbis sang the refrain of Psalm 136 in Spanish, and the deeply religious native community, who had never before encountered Jewish prayer, joined in with all their hearts and souls. It didn't matter that everyone was from different religious traditions; God's mercy is a universal idea. The rabbi said he thinks often of that moment in the middle of the other side of the world when praying Psalm 136. And now, each Shabbat as I hear its melody swoop up and then perch, for an instant, on a high note, as if waiting for the questions that must follow each account of victory and praise, I'll able to leave New York for a few minutes, as well.

Friday, December 16, 2005

240. Still here

Work...and more work...and getting ready for my trip...and trying to figure out how I'll live my life in the coming week if there's a transit strike, not yet a catastrophe of biblical proportions, but which could be if it lasts too long...has kept me from thinking about chanting, or much of anything else, for the past few days. I plan to come up for air very soon. Meanwhile, we had our Israel trip orientation on Wednesday night, and I'm already overwhelmed. Every minute of every hour has been planned, and we even got little cards to hang around our necks with a name tag on one side, and the customized parts of our itinerary (did I choose a concert or walking tour from 8-10 in Tel Aviv on Dec. 31?) on the other. I've never taken a vacation where I had to make so few decisions, a welcome respite from the past few weeks. Since all 180 participants will be praying, non-stop, that by next Sunday all transportation issues in New York will have been resolved and we won't have problems getting to the airport, I'm confident that Someone will listen. (Even if it's just the president of the MTA, hearing encouraging voices in his dreams.)

At the orientation we studied Tefilat Haderekh, the prayer for travelers, traditional to say before beginning any kind of journey:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, to sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world. Bless the work of our hands. May we find grace, love and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all who see us. Hear our supplication, for You listen to prayer and supplication. Praised are You, Lord who hears prayer.

Why, we wondered, does it begin "May it be Your will...God of our ancestors," rather than appealing to the usual "Sovereign of the universe"? We are where we are because of someone who traveled before us; had God not looked with approval upon the journeys of our parents or great-great-grandparents, we could not ask for this favor, or any other. To forget those people would render our own requests hollow and selfish. I hope, when I set foot in Israel, that I can feel a connection with those ancestors, and thank them for making the journey so long ago.

Monday, December 12, 2005

239. Covenant

In my Me'ah class tonight, we met with one of the rabbis instead of our usual teacher in order to put weeks of academic learning (i.e., scholars believe the Bible was written and redacted by many people over time; archaeologists have proven that history didn't happen like the stories say, etc.) into a religious perspective.

It was very interesting. Although my synagogue has members spanning a large variety of beliefs and practices, most fall on the liberal end of the scale. This generally means that we don't take the words of the Bible literally. So I was surprised to hear that many people in the class were troubled by what we studied. How, someone asked, can I reconcile all this information with the Torah as "mi Sinai" (given at Sinai)? How can I continue to believe it's a sacred text? Why observe mitzvot if they were made up by people, not heaven?

I'm sure these were not new questions for anyone, but were brought to the fore by many weeks of reading a sacred text as history, literature, and archaeological record. I was also a little surprised to acknowledge, with complete confidence, that I'm not bothered by any of what we've studied. With each theory I read, each literary connection between authors "J" and "E" or bit of proof that a battle did not take place as written but was fabricated in a creative way by someone else, decades later, I thought--how great that God gave us the ability to spin meaningful tales out of myths that have lost their relevance, or history otherwise doomed to be forgotten. If we're really made in God's image, He must be pretty cool. The rabbi talked about an "internal sense of commandedness" borne as much from the covenant with ourselves as the one with God, of which we must be aware even when we don't subscribe to the traditional reasons for following those rules. I understood; this, I think, is why I feel both compelled, and unworthy, to chant Torah and lead services. Maybe it's my duty to both God and people--the two categories blurring, overlapping, and sharing meaning--to do these things.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

238. Countdown

Recent blogsurfing has led me to some interesting posts about the season of Advent, observance of which I was never really aware, except for noticing some really creative calendars. Counting down the days in anticipation of a spiritually significant event seems to be a shared concept for many different religions. I found mention online of parallels between the marking of daily fasts during the month of Ramadan and the Sefirat haOmer, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot. And there seems to be more than a slight relationship (to me, at least; I've not yet discovered websites to corroborate this) between Advent and Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. This from the very first hit in my Google search:

"Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing... Advent’s prayers are prayers of humble devotion and commitment, prayers of submission, prayers for deliverance, prayers from those walking in darkness who are awaiting and anticipating a great light (Isa 9)!"

The specific subjects of Advent and Elul are certainly different for Christians and Jews. And I understand that Advent is a joyous time, unlike the somber weeks of preparation for Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. But every day in Elul we read selichot, special prayers for deliverance and mercy. And at the end of that month, Jews encounter their own "great light"--within ourselves, in the form of the hope and joy that a clean slate, and the year's new Torah, will bring.

This connection has been on my mind because I've started practicing my Torah portion for the week of Hanukkah. When I learned it last year, I immediately dubbed it (with apologies offered in advance to any and all for my irreverence) "The Twelve Day of Christmas, Jewish Version":

The one to bring his offering on the first day was Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah.
His offering was as follows:
One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels by the sanctuary standard, both filled with the best grade wheat meal kneaded with olive oil for a meal offering.
One gold incense bowl weighing 10 [shekels] filled with incense.
One young bull, one ram and one yearling sheep for a burnt offering;
one goat for a sin offering;
and for the peace sacrifice, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five yearling sheep.
This was the offering of Nachshon son of Aminadav.

And so forth. There are twelve days of these bulls of pleasant odor, etc. (Only eight days to Hanukkah, so we don't read them all. I don't mind.) Like the Christmas song, it has lots of words, although they're decidedly less upbeat. And there the similarity ends.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

237. Imagine

(Interrupting Yom Kippur, once again.)

This morning at services a remarkable boy and his amazing family celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with a new tradition: dramatized commentary on the Torah portion coached by the folks at Storahtelling, who have re-invented the art of traditional ritual theater and of whom I'm a big fan. Today was Vayetze, the story of Jacob, his father-in-law, angels and ladders, and lots of weird goats. In between each of the seven aliyot, the Bar Mitzvah boy and and his cousins and grandmother spoke in the voices of Jacob, Reuben, and Dinah (all written by the boy himself) to offer their own perspectives on what was going on with this complex, troubled, and very real family.

It was mesmerizing to witness words of Torah come to life through the eyes of an extraordinarily perceptive 13-year-old. Then the Torah service ended and we started to pray the Musaf Amidah, which begins communally and concludes with many minutes of silent prayer. The tradition at my synagogue is to finish that second section with a gentle melody to bring us out of ourselves and back to the group; the cantor, as usual, played his keyboard softly, a tune that sounded familiar. I hummed along, but couldn't place it. He beckoned the Bar Mitzvah to the microphone, who began in a sweet, soulful voice:

"Imagine all the people, living life in peace..."

We all smiled and started to sing along. The words and simple, beautiful melody did not seem at all incongruous in the middle of a religious service. When we got to "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one," I thought about how well John Lennon, a direct descendant of Jacob if ever there was one, would have fit in at my synagogue.

Friday, December 09, 2005

236. Minha, part 1


The theater was large, but felt oddly intimate--maybe it was the long, low ceiling, the upholstery-muted hum of anticipatory conversation, the weariness that made us want to seek out one another for strength. Most of the seats were empty, as is usual at the start of Minha; no one wants to rush back after a full day of atonement. The rabbi with whom I led in the morning was here now, as well, praying alongside the day school principal, who had a big, sonorous voice that shook us all awake.

At first I found it difficult to concentrate in this unfamiliar space. I didn't know where to look, and felt like I was floating in a sea of disembodied voices. I tried closing my eyes, but was used to the intimate sense of presence that a crowded room will create; the distance between myself and the next person seemed even wider when I couldn't see. Then I looked around and observed that everyone else was also struggling to focus on the bima, expressions on their faces rapt and complicated with the emotion of the past year's joys and failures. We were all trying to fight our exhaustion and, in these last allotted moments of change, step over into the next place in our lives. The strange, half-empty theater suddenly felt like home, once I understood that we were all standing in exactly the same spot.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

235. Psalm

In lieu of talking about myself today, here's a beautiful poem by Avraham Ben Yitzchak, first published in 1910 in the Warsaw literary journal “Ha’Ivri Hehadash” (“The New Hebrew”). (Translation by Peter Cole.) According to the coordinator of my Israel trip, this was one of many literary works, written in Europe in a strange, dead language, that contributed directly to the blossoming of Hebrew culture that led to the creation of Israel. We'll be reading a different poem on the theme of light each evening in Jerusalem as we light Hanukah candles.


For a very few moments it happens you lift
your soul inside you like a crystal bead:
a world of sunlight and broken hues,
a colloquy of things seen and trembling;
and your eyes turn to your world
as to that bead of crystal—
though your world shudders, almost spills,
and in its fullness will not hold,
trembling into its limits…
And you’re given, it seems, to all worlds—
The edges of airy distance stream from your eyes
and the terrors of darkness deepen within them—
as things both distant and near find you,
and call for your soul.
in the stillness of nights,
At the mountains’ summit you stand
surrounded by cold and giant stars,
while the living below you sink to earth
and blackened oblivion falls
over the last flame of their grief—
and you’re awakened to terror
above the darkness.
And if a star should fall,
at the trembling flame a roar will ascend
from the straits of loss to heaven—
and the star will fall toward your soul
and die out in its abyss…
When morning comes
you’ll be hovering over the face of the void,
stretching your deepest blue across it,
the great sun in your hands—
until evening.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

234. Pouring forth

(Another time-challenged week, as all my clients attempt to get their projects done before the end of the year in order to prevent the certain fall of civilization, or something equally dire and improbable.)

A friend and reader of this blog sent me a beautiful quote today. It's from "The Soul of the Story, " by Rabbi David Zeller:

"Although you can just read the Torah on Shabbat, it is meant to be sung to a special melody. According to kabbalistic teachings from the 'Four Worlds,' melody pours forth from the highest of levels. The first level is the 'Letter,' which is like our body; second, the 'Crown' embellishing the letter corresponds to our emotions. Third, the 'Vowels' under the letter parallel our breath of life. Finally, the 'Melody' of the letter or word represents our soul. "

What a beautiful idea--chanting as music that was born with us and has always been within us, waiting for us to start singing it. Or, the sounds of chanting as another network running though our bodies, parallel to our veins and commingling with our blood, and equally as vital to our lives. Or--and as a designer and typography fanatic, I love this image--music which exists only when described by letters in the Torah and, when arranged in a specific order, conjures the soul and breath of the sounds just as an incantation might create a golem.

Monday, December 05, 2005

233. Tenth time

Should there be a heaven, and should I get to go there one day in the very, very distant future, there's no way I'll be impressed by any sounds the angels and their harps might happen to make. I've listened to, and sung with, the cantor at my synagogue. It doesn't get much better than that.

I had so much fun leading services on Friday that it felt like breaking a law. We--the rabbinic fellow, a woman with a good ear and sweet, generous voice; the cantor at his keyboard; a cellist, flutist, and singing percussionist; and myself--prayed in a way that felt like jazz improvisation, which I've never done, but imagine must generate the same kind of loving, skydiving, creative exhilaration. I hadn't led with the cantor since last year; I noticed, for the first time, how the musicians relax when he's in charge. Like a master pilot, there's no doubt that he'll steer perfectly, with a few interesting diversions along the way to make sure the trip doesn't get boring.

We were at the church, a big place where it's always harder than at the synagogue to feel the energy of the congregation. (In fact, starting in January we're going to have two successive Friday night services at the synagogue, rather than a simultaneous one at the church, to try and solve this problem.) Standing just a few feet away from the cantor, I was almost blindsided by waves of his intensity. Maybe because I was exhausted, maybe because the sound system had been changed and I could hear myself for the first time ever (who, I wondered when I first sang into the mic, is that voice right behind me? oh, it's me!), maybe because I was just having too much fun, I pretty much forgot that anyone was listening. It took a lot of concentration: do I sing harmony here, or is he trying for the greater energy of unison? What pattern of alternating voices is this (we created a few on the fly so complex that I probably couldn't follow them if they had been written down)? And, oh my goodness, is he really singing harmony under my melody? And a million other decisions I can't even articulate. It felt like we were weaving together a big, joyous fabric of praise that would have been incomplete if any one of our individual sounds had been missing.

I think the cantor was having fun, too. He started one prayer, which has alternate melodies, so slowly and quietly that even the musicians couldn't tell which version he chose. I couldn't see him from where I was standing, so this is just a guess--but I imagined him smiling, enjoying the game, waiting to see how many notes would go by before we caught on.

Wonderful experiences usually pass in the blink of an eye, but this one seemed to last forever, like I was luxuriating in a long, hot bath. I felt guilty; do I really deserve to be part of this shining thing, when everyone else has to sit way out there? Am I communicating with the congregation, or do I appear as self-centered as I feel right now? I did not (for the first time in quite a while) dwell on my doubts. I just kept listening, and singing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

232. Three weeks

Having recovered from my drastic sleep deficit of last week, as well as the intoxicating time I had leading services on Friday (more on that later), I decided to accept the invitation of the coordinator of my Israel trip and offer some thoughts for the group's weekly countdown email newsletter (only three weeks to go). People have been writing about their connections to the land, how much they've loved their many trips, etc. With some trepidation I decided to voice my ongoing confusion. It felt really good to put these words together. Here it is (edited a bit for anonymity):


Since our 20th reunion a few years ago, members of my high school graduating class have been getting together at a restaurant every year during the last week of December. This year, of course, I'll be on the Israel trip and so will be unable to attend. I RSVP'd with my regrets and soon received, to my surprise, email replies from a bunch of people with whom I had long ago dropped out of touch:

"Remember me? I'm so thrilled for you. I'll be going to my homeland (Armenia) next year for the first time and know how you must feel."
"Hey [aa.], many blessings! Please say a prayer for us at the Wall on Kwanzaa!"

These good wishes have moved me a great deal but also, to be honest, have left me feeling unworthy of the vicarious excitement. For most of my life I did not want to go to Israel. I was either wary, disinterested, angry about the political situation, or certain that as an uninvolved Jew I had no right to be there. Both sides of my family lived the American dream, arriving in New York from Eastern Europe and building new lives from scratch. The Old World--and this seemed to include Israel, where we had no relatives--was a place of pain and struggle from which we had moved on. Israel was rarely discussed at my Orthodox Hebrew school, and I grew up with little sense of her importance except as a place filled with slightly crazy idealists still fighting against evil forces not unlike those which drove my father out of Russia. Yes, we helped Israel--we dutifully sponsored trees and purchased bonds--but we had to help ourselves first. As I got older, learned the whole story, and saw other parts of the world, I understood more about the biases I had been taught. But I was not able to fully transcend them. Nor did I truly believe that Israel wanted or needed me, who had forgotten her for so long.

Since I joined [...] in 1999 and became re-involved with Jewish life, I've found a place in my heart for new and wonderful kinds of observance and expression. But I am not yet comfortable with the Israel part. When I pray in the Amidah for God's glory to be apparent in Jerusalem, I wonder why I'm supposed to yearn for this place over all others. Israel feels less like a homeland, as my Armenian friend suggested, than a distant relative who's been knocking at the door for quite some time and whom I've been unwilling to let in. I decided to go on this trip because I sensed, acutely, the hole in myself where this connection should be. I knew that in the company of friends and community I would be able to see Israel from the kind of perspective that informs everything at [...]--passionate, inclusive, fair, and grounded in love. I have no idea what I will feel when I get off that plane, but look forward to how it will change me--because I know it will, for the better.