Friday, June 29, 2007

502. In Israel (3)

Ambien is a great medical breakthrough, except when it induces unconsciousness. I slept right through the wake-up call, and opened my eyes only when one of our staff called my room as the bus was leaving, sure I was sick or dead or worse. I managed instead to take a cab to our first destination, a "secular yeshiva" where men and women in the year before their Army service spend half their time studying Torah and Talmud, and the rest walking the walk, living and working in and for the South Tel Aviv community. By Israeli standards, they are not religious--by other standards (including mine), the depth and sincerity of their spiritual commitment is the very definition of "religion."

Sitting in the lobby waiting for my friends to arrive, I wrote:

"I'm sorry I missed Shaharit. So I will pray here instead: may my day be full of new experiences, love, openness to unfamiliar ideas, companionship, learning, and the ability to see from a fresh perspective. May God protect me and watch over me this first day of adventure. From the words of my heart on this beautiful sunny, morning, Amen."

Afterwards, shopping and hummus-and-salad at Nahalat Binyamin, blocks and blocks of crafts and jewelry (I bought a beautiful hand-painted silk challah cover). Then back to the hotel and a short walk along a beach crowded with happy, sweaty, bikini-clad people, and now I'm about to get ready for services and dinner with our sister congregation. I probably won't be back online for another day or so (both because of Shabbat and also because I'll go broke otherwise--they don't seem to have discovered public access wireless around here). So, as my cab driver said this morning: Shabbat Shalom!

501. In Israel (2)

6/28 PM

16 hours, the longest I ever intend to be on a plane unless it's landing in Australia. But we're here! and from my hotel balcony I can see a crescent of Tel Aviv beach ribboned with strings of red and pink lights shielding revelers from the big fat moon. We stood barefoot in silken sand and imagined a basket of blessings to fill this week. I wished for knowing what my blessing needed to be, and the ability to allow my friends and this country and its people to help. And an opening in my soul for Torah bigger than ever before.

Hoping that tomorrow I figure out how to get various converters and plugs to work so I have enough juice to keep writing and taking pictures.

500. In Israel! (1)

(Note: I've corrected this to make it clear that I was not, in fact, on the runway for 16 hours! Only 5.)


I started getting ready to leave two weeks in advance and, as usual, finished ten minutes before the car came to take me to the airport. Traffic crawled for over an hour, but I didn't mind. Israel awaited.

Turns out she had to be patient. I write this from the plane above the edge of France, 2,000 miles east of Tel Aviv and approximately five hours behind schedule, most of it and the many hours that followed spent in lovely seat 53B watching rain and lightning pelt pitch dark tarmac. Unlike their American counterparts, El Al pilots do not offer frequent, folksy announcements about how we're 23rd on the runway and will be in the air any minute now, Rather, we are told after two hours in cramped, airless captivity that the place will leave once re-fueled, whenever that may be. We hear this again an hour later. And two hours after that. I will never, ever again complain about waiting for a subway train. On the bright side, I have great Row 53-mates, and my worst fears of having to spent the night on an airport lounge chair were unfounded. (Although an airport floor would have been more comfortable than this seat.)

But despite a balagan of crying babies and annoyed, tired people forced to eat dinner at 2:30 AM--all is well. Unlike a year anda half ago, when I sat on the plane angsting about how I'd react once I saw that first Hebrew sign at the airport in a country where I wasn't sure I was supposed to be--now I know I'm on the way to family, gong home. I am completely relaxed. I'll be a little happier after a shower and long, Ambien-assisted night in a hotel bed, but overall it doesn't get much better than this.

Swimming in the beginning of Bereshit this past month, I've been wondering about the story of light. God creates it, then divides it into light and darkness. In the paragraph that follows, the sun and moon appear as sort of divisional mangers, marshaling illumination as needed. Where did that first light come from, that once upon a time before the fourth sentence of the Torah emanated from a source other than the sun? I've come to think of it as metaphorical: a spark of understanding, wisdom, binah, fuel to flames that allow the living world to to see the fullness of God's creation. As I get ready to walk in Israel for the second time, I remember my first trip as a kind of first light, a sun-strong sliver that came and went faster than I could comprehend. This time I hope to understand even more of what the next stage of brightness can reveal.

[Note: We arrived safe and sound--after 16 hours on the plane.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

499. Honor

It was the seventh day of Pesah and we were all standing for the Musaf Amidah, the long prayer at the end of a long morning. We had just finished Yizkor, the memorial service. Yizkor on Yom Kippur makes sense; you're already contrite and somber, so a few more tears are bearable. But I dread it on happy holidays, when I'd rather not dwell upon who's missing. I guess those are the best times to remember, though, when you can mix past love with present.

Anyway, I had finished the Amidah but was still standing, deep in reverie about my parents, and also about lunch to come. All of a sudden I felt a tap on the shoulder. How odd, I thought. This is not a customary thing to do to someone while they're in the middle of praying. I felt it again, and turned around to see one of the rabbis, who had been at the bima just a minute earlier.

"Can you come talk to me after services?" he whispered. "Oh, and Hag Sameah!"

"Uh, sure," I said. And then he was gone.

I spent the next ten minutes in silent turmoil, wondering what in the world I could have done, because surely something must be very wrong to merit such an unusual summons. And this was clearly not a case of needing me for emergency service-leading, since the service was over.

I ran up front as the last notes of Kiddush reverberated, and there was the rabbi. And two other rabbis. They steered me to a spot right in front of the Ark and kind of encircled me, standing very close. Their combined rabbi wattage was practically blinding. It was very strange.

"We'd like to ask you a question," said one. My mind raced; in fact, I had a clear image of my brain on a bicycle flying through the sky past the moon just like in "E.T.," fleeing towards some unknown place of freedom. I was already leading High Holy Day services; what more could they want? No answer popped into my mind, not even a senseless one.

"We'd like you to be Kallat Bereshit at Simhat Torah," said the other rabbi. "Because you do so much! Will you accept the honor?" My synagogue isn't the kind of place where the president of the congregation sits up front at services in a fancy chair, or big donors get their names on faux gold leaves stuck to the lobby wall. Acknowledgments are plentiful, but also meaningful and in a spiritual context. Once a year two people who volunteered a great deal of their time are thanked with an aliyah (an honor) at Simhat Torah, my absolute favorite time of year, the holiday when we complete and then immediately begin the yearly cycle of Torah readings. The rabbis were letting me know that I would be one of these people, come October. Each gets to say a blessing, listens to (or chants) their respective verses for the last and first Torah portions of the year, and then dances and gets danced around for many minutes. (This after a few hours of morning dancing with the Torah scrolls, which follow three hours of dancing the night before). It's indescribably joyful, and an enormous honor. It's overwhelming.

My jaw dropped. (Literally; I stood there like a fool with my mouth open.) "OK?" said the third rabbi, smiling. I nodded. "I think I'm going to pass out," I said. No other brilliant statement of gratitude came to mind. "Please don't faint!" said the rabbi, laughing. And then they all gave me hugs and I somehow made my way, knees shaking, out the Sanctuary and over to a friend's house for lunch.

So this is one of the reasons I was speechless this past month. I had to get used to the idea that I actually deserved this honor (I do!). I had to mull over what it meant (nothing too deep or earth-shattering: that life is good and will remain so, no matter how much I might angst over the details). And I had to spend all my free time learning to chant the first chapter of Genesis, half a year in advance (because I just couldn't wait a second longer). And now I get to go to Israel in two days knowing that when I return, I can anticipate an equally spiritually rich and wonderful event just a few months later, hard to imagine.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

498. Ten years and five things

Belatedly, I'm answering the meme that Regina Clare Jane tagged me with last month. Thank you for making me think and write!

What were you doing ten years ago?
I was starting to become myself. I had recently moved to Manhattan, was knee-deep in the nightmare of selling my old apartment, was trying to find the guts to quit a slave-like job, and had just decided to learn something new: rollerblading. And my friend M. was trying to convince me to go to his synagogue, which had cool music and a reputation as a good place to meet other single New Yorkers. I was wary of religious stuff and thought it sounded cult-like, but figured I'd give it a chance one day (it took another year) because M. was a sensible guy.

What were you doing one year ago?
Pretty much the same as now, only less calm. Not a lot less, but every little bit counts.

And I'll add a new question:
What were you doing a few hours ago?
Walking in Central Park, watching white and yellow light dance in between the lace of green leaves, listening to an orchestra of birdsong, laughter, and rumbling buses. We were in The Ramble, a tamed wild forest ribboned with paths that suggest Victorian propriety about to burst its seams. Even though I rarely visited as a kid, Central Park always makes me feel like a child waiting for the wonderful unknown to peer over the next hill. I kept thinking of one of my favorite books, Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, about a boy and girl who test the limits of their dreams but always end up safe at home, tucked in bed. Or the W. Eugene Smith photo from The Family of Man, the book of the famous 1955 MoMA exhibit, of two children holding hands and walking into sunlight. In Central Park I'm always ten years old.

Five snacks you enjoy:
There's just one: Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk Frozen Yogurt. OK, two: Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Frozen Yogurt. Yes, I live right next door to a Ben & Jerry's, proof that God has a humorously evil side.

Five songs to which you know all the lyrics:
Every Beatles song ever written. Not kidding. Also "Si, ch'io vorrei morire," by Claudio Monteverdi.

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire:
Pay off my mortgage
Start a charitable foundation
Give money to a couple of friends who really need some
Take a long vacation to a tropical island where I can lie on the beach and sip mojitos as a handsome, skimpily-clad man fans me with a big ostrich feather
Go to Israel (wait! I'm doing that anyway!)

Five bad habits:
Not trusting in myself
Not exercising enough
Eating too much sugar
Did I already say not trusting in myself?

Five things you like doing:
Creating art
Enjoying the company of my friends

Five things you would never wear again:
Can't answer this one, because who knows what the winds of fashion will bring, or my own peculiar tastes will become obsessed with. After all, yesterday's platform shoe is... today's platform shoe. (OK, maybe next year's.)

Five favorite toys:
My Treo 680
My ancient but wonderful Minolta Dimage digital camera
The old Mac laptop I use just for writing
My A440 tuning fork
My two cats

497. Green light

In Hukkat, this past week's parasha, Moshe, Aaron, and Elazar, Aaron's son, are commanded by God to ascend a mountain, transfer Aaron's holy vestments to Elazar, and wait for Aaron to die. What did they talk about at that moment, wondered the rabbi in her d'var Torah? Had Aaron already spoken to his son about the responsibilities of the high priesthood, or were his words clouded by rushed tears and and regret as he awaited the hand of God? We have the gift, the rabbi reminded us, of a day set apart each week during which to have these kinds of conversations. We don't need to cram them in when time is short. On Shabbat we can replace words that fill up time with ones that define it, and mute the noise of work and worry to listen instead for sounds of nature and sky, and sing along.

All this got me thinking about this blog, and why I didn't write for a few weeks. As if crippled by the proverbial stumbling block, I just couldn't get words out of my fingers and on to the screen. The few that did manage to squeeze through were portentious and heavy. I was tripping over my own feet; life, even the good parts, just gets too crowded sometimes. But like Shabbat, this blog is here to assure that my words don't pile up like a big traffic jam and block the message instead of delivering it. Especially since I'm going to Israel three days from now (!!!), I realized I needed to start writing again or my brain might possibly explode.

More later--I'm off to a silent meditation walk in the park on this glorious, sunny day. Then back to work (cramming can also be a good thing; if I get all my projects done now, I can ponder holy words rather than websites for the next two weeks), and then, I hope, to write some more.