Saturday, October 29, 2011

ָAshalim: My First Try

These kids are loud, aggressive, impatient, and most of all, they don’t believe in themselves. They come to Ma’aleh to have a place of their own and when they leave, for the most part, they’re back on the margins of society. They’re taller than me, bigger than me, and their Hebrew is rapid-firing, admonishing, and angry. But they’re still children who need the same things that all children do: security, comfort, boundaries, routine, and someone who knows what they can accomplish even when they don’t. I was nervous when I walked in on Thursday morning for my first real day.

 I began with M. Small and covered in scabbed over bruises, M. is a spunky fast-talking kid. He’s always playing with something—a phone, the computer, running from one end of the room to the other. He does everything he can to avoid work. I noticed over the past few days of observing him that he likes clay, markers, and drawing. So I went over to the supply cabinet and took out two pieces of paper, colored pencils, and two scissors. I called him over to a secluded corner and told him that I want to show him something fun. Together, we made two origami fortune tellers and decorated them with words M. is learning in English class. Then we played a game where he had to combine the two words on the flaps of the fortune teller into a sentence in English. Then I would draw it on my paper to create a four-scene comic strip. When it was my turn, I gave him a sentence in English and he had to draw what I said. We sat together for a whole hour and made our story. When we came out, I told him that next week I expect him to retell the stories to me in complete English sentences. He said OK and ran away to sit again in the corner with his phone. Moriah walked over to me startled. She couldn’t believe I got him to sit for an entire hour and learn! He normally doesn’t stay for longer than 15 minutes.

After that, I gained more confidence. I bonded with H., a tall slinky girl with long dark curls swinging down her back and large, thick lashes around her almond shaped eyes. When she told me she loves to dance I entertained her with stories of my six-year-olds in Harlem who think that they’re Michael Jackson and my one student who performed a break-dance routine at the Apollo. We sat in the sun on a light blue bench under an olive tree and completed her English homework. When she left she gave me a quick hug and thanked me and said she’s excited to see me next week.

The day ended with N., the sweet boy who I had watched Moriah counsel the week before. Last Thursday he told me about his plans to go out for pizza and I’d asked him if he’s ever made pizza dough. So he came up to me and asked if I had the recipe yet. I told him I didn’t, but that I would be happy to cook with him every Thursday after school if he agreed to stay a bit later (he has permission to leave school early and this was the only time we had in our schedule for him to work with me). He immediately agreed and we made plans for next week’s first lesson.

I am moving slowly and don’t yet have a plan beyond forming connections. I’m going to take my time and learn each child and then by the end of November I hope to have a project outline for each of them. I’m going to give them a goal of a year-end presentation and then we’re going to get to work, highlighting whatever skills they think will be most useful to present all that they’ve learned. Moriah was excited and asked if I would be willing to work with the other volunteers and give workshops about how to use informal education to support their academics. She asked if I would be willing to do some professional development sessions for the teachers on the thematic projects approach to learning. The best part of the day was when M. and N. ran over to Moriah after only a few hours with them, asked if I would be allowed to join them on their week-long class trip. I don’t have the proper permissions, but the fact that they asked meant I am heading in the right direction.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ashalim: The Invisible Child

It is 9 o’clock in the morning and I am sitting in a room full of hope. Piles of books and stacks of games fall against one another on shelves around the room and a large, bent light green stuffed snake threatens to bite me from its perch on the cushion to my side. There are children’s pictures hanging on a bulletin board on the wall filled in by marker. Sponge Bob, Mickey, and Cinderella smile curiously at me from their spots above the schedule of the week. “Shana Tovah” greetings and Sukkot decorations line the periphery of the wall.  One intricately rendered picture stands out from the rest. It is a melting mask, a grotesque face shadowed by navy, pink, and yellow lines. “They’re middle and high school kids,” I remind myself, glancing back and forth between Mickey and the mask.

I am in a meeting with Moriah, the soft-spoken director of the Ma’aleh Room in Tichon Maakef Gilo, a place that promises the invisible child a path to be seen. For the past few weeks, Moriah has been struggling to coordinate with all of the teachers, parents, students, and volunteers to create a perfect schedule that will allow each child all of the support they need. There are 18-year-olds volunteering as their year of National Service before the army and soldiers who were assigned the school as a special job. There are math, Arabic, and history tutors who have signed up to work with individual children. Moriah is a social worker and in charge of creating an inviting atmosphere, managing all of the students cases, keeping track of individual goals, schedules, and needs. Each day I’ve seen her pulled into the hallway to mediate a problem between a student and their teacher or solve a fight between the students. She is pushed and pulled all day long and she hopes I will be able to be her right hand and keep the room running when she is dealing with a disaster.

I will be working here two days a week, providing informal educational and emotional support to a group of five middle schoolers, one-on-one. It is one small room on a sprawling campus serving hundreds of youth in the Gilo area of Jerusalem. We are discussing the backgrounds of each child I will be working with, all ages 13 to 15, all with stories of neglect and lies, constant violence and academic failure. They have spent years in the system, gaining little more than a bitter package of disappointment, ridicule, and lowered self-esteem. My main goal is to show them that there is not only someone who sees them, but someone who also believes in them. I will do this by gaining their trust and then using informal educational activities to support their academic growth. I will try to discover their talents and interests and use them to nurture a project they can succeed in and present proudly at the end of the year.

We are in deep discussion when in a sudden burst of activity the door crashes open and three of the boys in the program tumble in, one yelling at the other that he’s a homo, the other retaliating by swiping his bag and flicking him backhanded on the head. They push and holler at each other for a moment and then settle down onto the dusty couch and begin to play with some clay. Moriah looks up at me and shrugs kindly at the interruption. I tentatively make my way over to the boys, smiling shyly and sitting down next to one as he screams out that there’s nothing to learn in his math class, that his teacher is an idiot and he’s better off throwing some firecrackers at her house. I try to make conversation with the other, but he is absorbed in his game of throwing a ball he has fashioned from the clay back and forth against the wall.

“Now, N.,” Moriah calls,  “you know there is a lot you can learn in that smart head of yours,” She walks over and puts a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Come here, star of mine, I want to talk to you.”

N. shrugs. “There’s nothing to talk about, everything is nonsense.” He mumbles, pulling out an iPhone and instantly beginning to watch an adventure movie. “Whoa, did you see that crazy guy? Whoa, he just jumped across two ceilings!”

“There is plenty to talk about, nu my angel, come over here and sit with me. I want to hear about your weekend.” She ushers him over to a sunlit corner.

N. watches his video for a few more moments and then slinks over to Moriah. She pulls the phone away and slowly, he tells her why he isn’t in class. All his teachers hate him and he is very tired because he went to sleep at two in the morning. He says he doesn’t want to go to class and would rather stay here with us. I watch as Moriah goes and gets a pile of bright colored notebooks and fans them out in front of him.

“I am giving you a notebook and you can choose which one. Did you know that a young man like you needs at least eight hours of sleep to be productive? You can do so much—just think about that 80% you got on your last algebra test! That’s because you worked so hard. But you won’t be able to do it with no sleep, right?” She waits for him to nod. “So I want to make a deal with you that you give yourself enough time for sleep.”

Moriah had already explained to me that there simply isn’t anyone at home to give N. boundaries or rules or generally watch over his well-being. His mother has five other children and was on drugs when he was born. He hasn’t seen his father for three years and thinks that he’s abroad. He’s really in jail. So N. wanders the streets and does whatever he wants when he leaves school.

“I want you to write down when you go to sleep each night in this notebook I am giving you. If you go to sleep at 11pm, then write 11pN. If you go to sleep at 2am, then write 2aN. And don’t come here and lie to me that you went to sleep at 11 if you really went to sleep at 1. That doesn’t help. I’m not interested in lecturing or admonishing you. Don’t be afraid of showing me the notebook if you haven’t been sticking to 11pm, either. That’s OK; I’d rather know what is really happening. That will make me the happiest. Do you understand, my prince?”

She explained that he was to have three goals: to show up to school every day, to try to go to bed on time, and to keep track of how he is feeling each night and anything else he wants to write about when he records his bedtime. Together they would go over what has been happening to him and make new goals.

This is the work of the Ma’aleh room in a nutshell. It is a place to give a voice, comfort, and warmth to the children that only have a silent wall, anger, and cold. This past week I have been fortunate to go visit different sights around the country that JDC-Israel has created, supported, and disseminated. The Ma’aleh program represents a resource room within a school, the Moadoniyot are after-school programs that provide a hot meal, homework support, and enrichment activities, and the Pnimiyot are boarding schools that give all-inclusive care for children whose parents simply are unable to care for them. All of these institutions are headed by a group of social workers, educators, and counselors whose main purpose are to form ties with children who had never had a real family or home before, and eventually to send them back out to society whole. For my small part, I will be working with five children, two days a week. My focus will be English Language support, but through it my goal is to develop a project with each of them that will highlight their interests and strengths, and then they will hopefully learn something along the way. 

The invisible child exists in every country and every culture, regardless of its noble values or lofty goals. Despite our promise to leave no one behind, in spite of our ideas of helping thy neighbor, the invisible child is everywhere to be unseen: wandering through the streets because anywhere else is better than home, sitting in their homes yearning for the one moment their parents will acknowledge their needs, and getting into trouble wherever they go because at least then someone is reacting to what they are doing. I witnessed these realities countless times throughout my years of teaching and now, sitting in this airy happy room, in a high school surrounded by strong tall palm trees, wrapped up in winding white chalk stone, muraled from floor to ceiling with vibrant promises of bright futures—I see it again. But this time despite the insurmountable odds that grow impermeable like a twisted thicket, during my first full week of work I have learned about the picks and hammers that might push through the thorns.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Learn From Your Fathers and Mothers

"Ahh, how history continues to roll beneath our feet!"

This is what my Saba exclaimed with a shake of his head and a bewildered grin. I have just brought my laptop outside to bask in this perfectly clear, blue sky of a day after one of those incredible moments that just sometimes happen when I visit my Saba's house. I sat down on his black leather couch, leaning against the same pillows I remember from my childhood, and he just began to talk. About the book he's just finished chronicling the life of a man who was one of the founders of Degania, the first kibbutz; about the first chalutzim (pioneers who settled Palestine at the end of the 18th century); about the evolution of the settling of the State of Israel--all the way back to his story, always his incredible, unbelievable, fantastical story.

Every year of my life, we visited the kibbutz, and each time we would sit on Saba's lap to hear "the story." Each year we joked it got longer, but I think his memory just grew as we got older. Today more holes were filled when I asked if he ever read Mein Kampf. He told me this story over lunch (which I paraphrase here):

"We were liberated by black soldiers. Imagine the sight! Me, who has never seen a black man, and them who were witnessing the walking dead. After we were free I decided to return to the village we had passed the day before on the Death March. Me and a boy I had walked with the whole time went and came upon a real house. For the first time in years I walked into a real room with a real bed, with linens and pillows and a shower with soap! I threw off my rags and collapsed into the bed, only after taking my first real shower in years and eating some food. I think I slept for something like 48 hours. Then I dressed and we went back through the village. By the way," he smiled to himself with faraway eyes, "your Savta the first time she saw me asked me what are those silly pants of mine? They were from that house! I told her they were the only ones I had!" He laughed and ate another scrumptious fish pattie. "Suddenly, we saw a library! I couldn't believe my eyes! I rushed inside, as quickly as my weak legs could carry me. I ran to the bookshelf and grabbed at the first book I saw." Here his eyes grew wide and he threw back his head with an excited leap. "And it was Mein Kampf."

I stared at him in awe. "What happened after that?"

"Then at some point I think I must have fainted and someone brought me to the hospital. You know the rest of the story after that."

The rest of this remarkable story is one that I have heard several times, each time renewed. After being taken to the hospital, he lay in a bed with his eyes closed for twenty straight days. The doctor there, who happened to be a man from his own village, Shavli, Lithuania, had known him and his family. He told him he could not believe he was still alive. Then one day, my Saba heard exclamations through the window. Israeli soldiers, from Palestine had arrived in a jeep! Saba threw himself out of bed and rushed to witness this miraculous sight.  He collapsed in front of the soldiers and says that day saved his life.

Years later, my Saba was principal of the school on the kibbutz he founded. He made it a point to visit each of his students, to confer with them and check on the learning environment within the home. He says that's where the real learning starts. He was visiting the parents of one of his students when her father, Naftali, pulled out an album. "You know, " he told my Saba, "I was in a brigade of Israeli soldiers and visited Holocaust survivors in Germany." They realized they had been in the exact same place. And there in the album, was a picture of survivors kissing the soldiers, their jeep, and the flag of Israel. Naftali's daughter ended up marrying my uncle.

And now I'm here in Israel for a year with all of this history rolling beneath my tingling feet.

Me, Saba, and Ima last Pesach

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Five Fellows, Five Points of the Star

It Begins With A Chicken
My Yom Kippur officially began with the purchase of a whole chicken from the shuk. My roommate Julie and I stood there among piles of spices, olives, and halva (that got smaller and smaller the longer we stood near it) as the butcher chopped our chicken into manageable pieces. I tried to put the images of swinging chickens from kaparot out of my head when he handed me the bloody plastic package. Walking through the stands holding my prize, I felt like a real “babushka” and also realized just how much real chickens can weigh.

Later on, we found ourselves in the kitchen battling with our new friend, chopping off nails, screaming as we broke the bones, the neck. It was quite an experience, one I’m glad I had but that I NEVER want again. Luckily, the outcome—delicious chicken matzah ball soup, honey-roasted chicken with sweet potato, and sizzling roasted veggies—was well worth-it. 

Our Holiday Meal
My roommates and I sat down for a lovely, yet rushed Yom Kippur meal as the chag was fast approaching. As we were eating, we discovered that our group of five who have been sent to Israel by JDC each represent a different peg on the wide spectrum of Jewish life, like five points on the star, one left over for all the other possibilities:

Alyssa: Orthodox
Julie: Modern Orthodox
Jimmy: Conservative
Me: Reform
Ayal Reconstructionist

My holiday was to be a kaleidoscope of these different minhagim hamakom (customs of the place), halachot (laws), and shared traditions.

First Stop: My ‘Hood
We wished each other an easy fast and ventured out into the white linen-draped city.  The roads had been blocked from cars, all were walking in the middle of the streets in flowing whites, and we were part of it. Of course, I couldn’t find my white skirt so I was in mourning (yet sophisticated!) black and a colorful purple shawl. As we turned the corner at the Hebrew Union College where my Daddy had gone to rabbinical school, we already bumped into several people who Ayal, my roommate, knew from home. It was a completely Anglo crowd and the service was reminiscent of my entire childhood experience rolled into one: a little bit of Temple Beth El, a little bit of Kutz (my camp), a little bit of NFTY, a little bit of Hillel. Rabbis and Cantors-to-be led the service along with their teachers, the congregation following along in the same siddur we use at home. The Rabbis spoke of community, and yes, there was a cello playing my beloved Kol Nidre Op. 47 as I watched birds soar up through the sunset and above a dazzling view of the old city just beyond the bima.  Actually, they ended up playing three versions of Kol Nidre, and I closed my eyes and swayed happily to each interpretation of the tune. All in all, it was a small piece of home transplanted to the white walls of Jerusalem and I was content.

No cars here!
Later on, after sneaking through the winding gardens on the HUC campus and getting caught, we wandered through Emek Refaim (The German Colony), little kids zipping past on bikes, pushing through crowds of every shade of white, people huddled together smiling and laughing. As we strolled, I suddenly saw Godfrey, the incredible violinist I had met the evening before walking the other way. By the time I recognized him it was too late to catch his attention, but I smiled to myself. We met a few others that Ayal knew along the way and ended our evening with a picture of us sitting smack in the middle of the car-less intersection.

It was home away from home.

Stop Number Two: “Returning to the Answer”
The next morning, my roommate Julie came back from her Orthodox minyan to take me with her for Maariv. I put on a long flowered skirt and a white shirt with sleeves past my shoulders. We slipped down a very steep, dusty hill across the street from our apartment and stepped into a boldly painted, airy building and up the bright-lit stairs. We found me a machsur (prayer book) and I settled down behind the transparent white linen mechitzah (wall that separates women from men during prayer). Women with hats and beautiful scarves swayed back and forth around me, murmuring fervently in prayer. Some hugged their prayer books, others pushed their noses in deep, and yet others clutched onto the well-worn pages as the chazzan (cantor) chanted in a confident, singsong voice. The melodies were gorgeous and I was happily surprised to realize I didn’t even miss instruments. It was also refreshing to be surrounded by an assembly of women of one mind.

I recognized many of the words and some of the tunes but it took me a while to find where we were in the service. Unlike Reform services, while an Orthodox service is certainly community-driven, it also felt more personal and individualistic. It is up to each person to fulfill the mitzvoth of prayer for themselves and the chants, songs, and others are there more as a powerful wave to push you forward. I finally realized that I had lost my place because many of the tunes called for repeating the same words again and again. Once I unlocked the mystery I fell into a meditative daze of prayer and felt enlivened by the passionate kavanah (intention) I felt all around me. Here, no one needed anyone to tell them what to do, no “please turn to page 132” or “please be seated” with a theatrical gesture to clarify in case there was any confusion. It was instead like a peaceful, choreographed dance and I truly enjoyed it.

Then unexpectedly I heard a large boom around me as everyone fell to floor, pressing their foreheads hard to the cold tiles during the Amidah. I was completely unprepared and stumbled down with them, barely grazing my head before lifting it back up again just in time to see women passionately bowing, lips a flutter with prayer. I awkwardly stood up and resumed praying, heart knocking in my chest. A few minutes later Julie handed me a tissue and I gladly accepted and blew my nose. Thirty seconds later I realized that she had given it to me to use for the second Amidah so I wouldn’t dirty my forehead. Cheeks bright red, I took that as my cue to leave. I climbed back up the sandy hill and took a nice, comfortable nap, my stomach softly grumbling.

The prayers felt and sounded different, their interpretations did not ring true to my liberal ear. But they were still fundamentally the same. I was still home. 

Third Stop’s A Charm
Ayal and I tore ourselves from our naps and threw on some more white (this time I found my skirt). We sluggishly dragged ourselves to the grounds of the Nature Museum of Jerusalem, a twenty-minute walk away, spending it mostly in reflective silence. We walked through the gate and stepped into the tent of Congregation Nava Tehila, beautiful tapestries and pillows strewn about. There were children running around and people quietly gathering around in a circle on the periphery of the tent. I gratefully found a cushion and fell back into a seat, holding my empty stomach.

The Ne-ilah service is one that I have always found incredibly meaningful. All day long the Gates of Heaven have been open. We pray to God to forgive us for our sins, we ask forgiveness for all we may have hurt and all our wrongdoings in the past year. All the while, God is deciding who will perish and who will be blessed with another year of health, peace, and happiness. Ne-ilah signals the moment when the gates finally close. Then we do havdallah, the service that separates us between the day of chag and the normal week, sweet cinnamon passing from person to person, the light of the braided candle bouncing from our fingernails.

At home, this service is very dramatic with powerful liturgy and melodies. Under this tent of worshipers there was instead more laughter, introspection, peace, and inspiration. People danced in circles, bent over in meditation, clapped and stomped and jumped and flung their arms towards the sky in gratitude. The beats of fists and heels mirrored our growling stomachs. We sang a song about the gates. Gates of peace. Gates of prosperity. Gates of health. Gates of  unity. Then people were given a chance to insert their own interpretation of the liturgy, all the while as we moved as one, repeating the nigun (rhythmic melody for prayer) over and over again. People added gates of love, advancement, and fulfillment. Each time we paused, searching for what the next person would bring, and then celebrated their declaration with more fervent prayer.  We were then told to gather under one another’s telitot (prayer shawls) and to make sure no one is left out, as the Cohenim among us invoked the ancient prayer for our safekeeping. At the end of the service, Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) was joined by Imenu Schinateinu (Our Mother, Our Sustenance) as we prayed while the gates were about to close. Then everyone was invited to huddle into the tent, to come as close as we could to the Torah and to one another as a final tekiah split the air with its pure, full, joyful sound. We hugged each other’s shoulders, linking arms with strangers and closing our eyes as we settled in closer together for havdallah.

The Fruit of the Date Palm
The Rabbi reminded us to seek sustenance but not to forget others while doing so. We were to perform our first act of kindness of this New Year and make sure all others were wholly fed. Ayal and I shared some dates and a rice cake and gobbled down two cups of water. The sugary warmth of the dates zinged on my tongue and the quiet salt of the rice cake was just right. I don’t think I’ve ever broken a fast before with such an intense reaction. Then we walked back to Julie for our Break Fast meal just as the last of the sun’s rays was settling in below the horizon.

People praying in ecstasy, fingers reaching towards the heavens. Each and every life-choice was acknowledged and celebrated. It was unlike any prayer service I had ever been to, but the words were still there to be clutched. I was home no matter where I prayed.

Five Links on the Same Chain
I thought back to our group of five fellows and the different perspectives of Judaism that we represent.  We each believe strongly in our traditions, histories, and choices. We are all proud, honest, joyous Jews. Are we really all that different? Sure, one covers her hair and the other her knees, one would eat a cheeseburger and the other would prefer vegetarian onion soup, but not put up a fuss if there was beef broth instead. Yet we all knocked our chests as one. We all prayed for redemption. We all listened to the shofar and all dipped our apples in honey.

We are one in a kaleidoscope of light. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Search For Kol Nidre

If you haven't had the awesome experience of Kol Nidre Op. 47 then you won't know what I mean when I say that Yom Kippur seems less complete without it.  My holiday with my family was wonderful, don't get me wrong, but I found myself yearning for that special service. My Ima and I always hold hands during the wonderful interlude of the cello, swaying slowly with our eyes closed. When we open them, they are often filled with tears and we are uplifted for a sweet new year. This time I didn't have Ima or the curly haired cellist or the matzah ball soup and brisket we eat every year before fast. One week after a unique and delightful Rosh Hashanah experience with family, I was left during the Days of Awe searching for something more. I found it in Jerusalem.

A day before Yom Kippur, Jerusalem was overtaken by a special energy. Crowds and crowds piled into the Old City. Chickens were squawking everywhere, feathers flying up into the air as they were being swung over people's heads. Coins jingled into the hands of tzedakah seekers.  The curious mixture of Arab bread and popcorn wafted through the carnival-like atmosphere near the kotel. There were concerts, שנה טובה (shana tova) signs flying past on every bus, and general good humor. My friend and I were wandering through the streets when we suddenly noticed a young man standing there with a violin. We walked up and he asked if he could take a request. I said to play whatever he wanted and was instantly awed when he jumped into a thrilling classical rendition. Godfrey couldn't have been older than 18 or 19 with wavy sandy brown hair and a kind, lopsided smile. When he talked about his music a light lit up in his eyes. He told me he had recently moved to Israel to attend the Jerusalem Music Conservatory and was playing in the street for fun. As we talked, I felt an instant connection, like I was supposed to have met him. I thanked him and we walked away.

We were about a block away when an idea came to me--maybe he could play me Kol Nidre! I asked my friend if we could turn back and ran back over. He smiled and put his bow to the strings:

After that, the night continued to get even better. We wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets of Nachlaot, past ancient shudders painted turquoise, homes piled on top of one another, their Jerusalem stone decorated here and there by uplifting artwork. You could hear crickets and strings of music floating through windows. The sizzle of the sun had cooled and there was an almost damp calm to the air. Some stars peaked out beyond the balconies, with their white linens flowing in the breeze. We turned a corner and stumbled upon a group of teenagers singing beautiful songs to a guitar and clarinet. They moved back and forth in one large rhythmic circle, girls seated on one side, boys on the other. It was funny to me that the guitarist looked exactly like any song-leader at any camp or retreat I had ever gone to in the States. He was a little heavyset, curly hair stuck out above his ears, and he had a goofy laugh. There were also night tours coming all through the area, of Israelis who came during selichot to get a little taste of the rich history of these stones. We tagged along and had a ball. Later that night, we pulled the sofa onto my balcony and relaxed with tea, grapes, and the stars.

That was just an introduction to what was to come...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Different Kind of New Year

Every time I take the Greyhound back home to Suffern, I can't help but turn to marvel at the New York skyline. It's a little ritual I have, and when it's over I can close my eyes and nap those fifty minutes to home away. This Wednesday I took a similar journey home to family for the New Year. Only this time when I took in my automatic sweep of the skyline, I was greeted by a very different view. The soft, rocky hills of Jerusalem swept by me and far-eastern music twanged from the radio. I chuckled to myself as I closed my eyes for my fifty-minute journey from Jerusalem. I wasn't in Kansas anymore, or the Tri-State Area for that matter.

This year was the first Rosh Hashana in my life that I didn't go to Temple. I didn't see my Daddy walk up to the bima in his bright white robe, nodding greetings as he went. I didn't see him raise his arms in the ancient sign of the high priest, the fabric of his sleeves gently swaying in a low arc as he invoked his blessing for a sweet new year upon his congregation. Nor did I hear the pure, thrilling notes of Avinu Malkeinu as we stood before our great, high arc (I did listen to Barbara Streisand's version later on my iTunes, downloaded expressly for this occasion).

What I did do was rejoice.

Dates for peace and prosperity
Apples, honey, and pomegranate for sweetness
Fish-heads for abundance
The prayer I received
My Uncle Nahum and Aunt Dvora know how to serve a feast, but what is even more unique than their ever-delicately simmered carrots or chicken thighs dripping with juice are their delightfully clever and unique twists on minhag. It's always enlightening, always full of laughter, and always interactive. Before sitting down we were each instructed to choose a note from a tray. Each note had a cute little magnet and a symbol that corresponded with a prayer. We were all to go around and when instructed, read our prayer, and then in turn take a delicious taste of whatever bowl of food went with it. So we took our turns reading, discussing, and eating all the different wishes for this upcoming year. We had glistening pomegranate seeds and sweet onion shards sizzled to perfection. We sampled foamy and pungent fruits of the palm and downed different varieties of apples soaked in syrupy honey. As the sampling feast progressed we debated the meaning of each symbol, laughed at the answers, contemplated the implications for our year, and mostly expanded our bellies. My prayer came at the end and after a brief fit of anxiety at reading it aloud to all-native Hebrew speakers, my moment passed and we realized just how fitting it was that I happened to choose the ram's head: my blessing was that you should "think with your head, not with your tail," in other words, be a leader, not a follower. I was very touched by their assessment of my choice for this year. (Explanations taken from Beliefnet)

My Saba giving his speech
 The next day came another new beginning as I joined my Saba for a celebration on the kibbutz. Tables and chairs had been set up on the patio beneath the chader ochel, the community dining room that had been the centerpiece of kibbutz life for so long. As one of the founders of the kibbutz, he had been asked to greet the community in a short message for the new year. We sat together, my Saba and I, with Ofri, his granddaughter (my cousin) and Noam and Amit, his great-granddaughters. Four generations watched on as he spoke about his hopes for the future. After, we sat beneath towering palm trees and beside a calm pool of Japanese fish as we watched two Hassidic men, with their long fuzzy beards, black hats, and long suits complete the mitzvah of sounding the shofar. There they stood, hunched over their prayer book, checking to make sure they were reciting in exactly the correct order, exactly the right amount of sounds, surrounded by a community full of mostly atheists. In anticipation, I leaned down to my 6-year-old cousin, Amit, and whispered that a special moment is about to come: the tekiah gedola! We stood, holding hands, eyes glued to our bearded friends. Now, I am used to years of clear, pure, impressive tekiahs, especially in the form of the the "tekiah gedola" contest on the bima, which usually results in timekeeping and gasps (my brother beats them all with a record of more than a minute straight). So naturally I was disappointed when all I heard was what I could only describe as a car sputtering over and over, about to die.
To hear how it should sound, click here

That night at one in the morning, I flew across the ocean via the wonders of Skype to join my American family for their Rosh Hashanah feast.  After five minutes of technical difficulties (during which I sat through a hilarious interlude of silent movie faces waving and kissing from all directions), my cousin Leah walked me around her New Jersey living room to say hi to the family. We spun around in dizzying circles as I sent my new year's wishes through the computer screen. Then, they set me down for my most unique holiday experience yet: watching from above on a laptop computer while reciting the prayers, watching my closest relatives sip the wine, eat the round challah, dip their apples into honey so far away, yet so near. I sat on my bed in Saba's office, tucked beneath his ancient, old, crooked shelf of books, smelling my Savta's roses through the window, and thinking how lucky I am on BOTH sides of the ocean.

Joining the family for dinner in Jersey!
Talking to Imaleh
Uncle Bobby waving hello

My perch on top of the cabinet

My brother Alon making up for the horrid shofar playing we had heard by playing his rendition of Eli Eli for me and Saba. Then he played a 26 second Tekiah Gedolah!

Tale of Two Dogs


A Rosh Hashanah Message:
A small anecdote from my visit to Tel Aviv

Two dogs were resting on a beach. A shock of Israeli sun sprayed down like a force-field as they sat happily in a spot of shade, their long pink tongues spraying down drips of drool. At times a cool breeze picked up the sand and swirled it around their pointed ears. They were lying lazily on a rock that faced the shockingly bright turquoise water that was lapping quietly up ahead. All was quiet. All was good.

Then a familiar whistle made Dog One perk up. He immediately shot up and ran in circles searching for his owner, panting with excited anticipation. Dog Two sat there deciding what to do. Dog One had no patience for such time-wasting or dillydallying. He was eager to have an adventure, to find today's story.

First he rushed across the boardwalk, springing to an abrupt halt at the edge, heeding no mind to the thin shards of splinters that sometimes sprung up. When nothing turned up there, he swooped around and dove back towards the soft mound of sand he had come from. His owner came up from behind and called. "Here boys!" He slapped his thigh and waved a badly chewed magenta frisbee high up in the air. "Com'ere, Otto, Morley! Let's go play fetch. You know you wanna play fetch." he concluded in a deep, puppy-dog-growl.

Dog Two contemplated the situation. He wanted to please his owner and the water seemed fresh and inviting enough. But there were sharks out there. And slimy seaweed too. Not to mention that afterwards he would have to spend at least an hour primping and shaking out all of the flecks of sand that would inevitably get caught in every nook of fur. Maybe it was best that he just wait it out and allow the afternoon sun to lull him into a cozy sleep. He could hear from Otto how it was, and then maybe he would make a decision.

But that water did look beautiful. And that triumphant feeling of successfully plucking that plastic frisbee straight out of the thin air was incredibly intoxicating ... As Morley sat thinking, Otto sprung to attention and joyfully raced out to jump headfirst into the waves. He sprayed a whip of sand against Morley's back as he left. "Come-on, Morley!" he barked, "Last one in's a rubber chicken!"

Morley sighed. Otto was already happily paddling back and forth, bobbing up and down like a mushy black buoy on the waves. He wanted to go and have fun and please his owner too, he just had to prepare himself. He wasn't sure it was the right time of day, and he didn't know what to expect when he got there. Then there was the question of crossing the hard, burning sand. The sun was already at its peak and had had plenty of time to scorch the earth like a furnace. He also remembered the matter of getting acclimated to the water. He shook his shaggy head and laughed at himself. Here he was on one of the most pristine beaches on the globe, with a chance to play his favorite game and he was wasting it with needless worry.

So Morley hesitantly pushed himself up and clumsily made his way toward the shore, being sure to place his paws on the coolest patches of sand. Once he made it he took some time watching Otto and his owner tumble around as he waded inch by inch into the freezing water. They were having a ball: spinning around and jumping the waves. As Otto sprung his body in a graceful arch in pursuit of the frisbee, Morley finally took a deep breath and pushed his body under in one fell swoop. He instantly felt a smooth blanket of water warm his fur. Then he sprung his head back out and blinked away a sting of salt, swimming out to catch up with his family.

During this new year may we make note of Morley's careful analysis but not let us miss out on Otto's joyful celebration of life. I hope to remember to not take things too seriously and be open to the wonders that may occur when you take a chance, but at the same time make informed choices that will take those experiences to a higher level. We all need a little bit of Otto and Morley in us. Together they are the perfect combination for a year of only sweetness, accomplishment, health, knowledge, insight, and beauty. Here's to an incredible 5772!