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. 

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