Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bye for Now

After an incredible year in Jerusalem, we had a very busy, productive, and meaningful summer. We both had the opportunity to work at Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia -- Geoff worked with the rabbi, and I worked with the cantor. We were also fortunate to spend time with Geoff's family in the DC area and with my family on a trip to Missouri in July. We are now settled in our new apartment in New York, awaiting the start of classes (tomorrow!) and enjoying the altogether different experience of NYC from the 11th story!

This will be our last blog post for the foreseeable future. Thanks for reading over the past year!

Bye for now,
Katy and Geoffrey

Monday, June 20, 2005

Saying goodbye to friends and family:

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Shabbat and Yom Yerushalayim

We had a very nice final Shabbat in Jerusalem. We spent Friday night in the Old City with family, spent Saturday morning with our friends at Kehilat Kedem, and spent Saturday afternoon wandering around the western part of Jerusalem, near the Knesset. We trekked out in that direction to attend the 2nd birthday party of one of our teacher's daughters, which was held at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory; while we were in the area, we also got to spend some time wandering through the rose garden by the Knesset building, with its 400 species of roses and a large "garden of the nations" - gardens donated by representatives of countries from all over the world, displaying their nations' flora.

After Shabbat, Israel began its celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, the day commemorating the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. I spent the evening studying, but was treated to a nice fireworks display visible through our apartment window; Katy went to Yakar, one of the congregations in our neighborhood, for a rather cramped but otherwise festive singing of Hallel (the psalms of praise). This morning, I went with my Hebrew class to the Bible Lands Museum (for a Hebrew-language tour of the collections); Katy had a more Jerusalem-focused day, spending much of it with a friend on the Mount of Olives, which offers a terrific view of the Old City:

In the afternoon, we met up downtown, and passed by a huge Yom Yerushalayim parade:

Friday, June 03, 2005

Some of the things we'll miss about Israel

There are many things that we will miss about Jerusalem. We will miss the rhythm of life in Jerusalem; we will miss the intricate connection between the Jewish calendar and the agricultural cycle in Israel. We will miss being surrounded by our own ancient history. We will miss the passion that Israelis express, both for important things and everyday things. We will miss having a second bathroom, a beautiful porch overlooking the Knesset, the various unique features of Israeli apartments, the presence of cats (instead of the rats of NYC), and Gabe, our gecko. We will miss the fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables, the sunlight and the cheap flowers that they sell on the corner on Friday. And, we will of course miss our family and friends who are here and whom we hope to visit again soon.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The City of David

I went to the City of David with my friends Mark and Jen. The site features an intricate underground water system which was difficult to understand without the tour, but the views were interesting.

Here is one of the Arab village just on the other side of the ancient City of David. It made for quite a contrast with familiar West Jerusalem.

(You too should visit Jerusalem!)

We’ve had the pleasure of seeing lots of friends from elsewhere in the world who have come to visit Jerusalem over the past month – our friend Aviva came to participate in the Hazon Bike Ride, our friend Sara came to do research on genetic diseases, and our friends Ariel and Melissa came to visit family and friends.

Here are some pictures from an evening with Ariel and Melissa and our friends Mollie and Aaron:

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Thinking about the Conservative Movement

I’ve been having a lot of conversations this year about possible directions for the Conservative movement in America; I suppose that being in Israel has provided some helpful distance, and has also provided a good chance to hear other perspectives (by comparing notes with my fellow students at Schechter coming from their respective programs in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Israel). I’ve also been inspired by the work of the Shefa Network, a new network of “Conservative Jewish Activists,” which has provided an online forum for thinking about dreams and concrete visions for the movement.

Acknowledging that this is probably only of interest to a limited number of the people reading this blog, I'll do my best to keep this brief, but will go ahead and share a few of my thoughts about good things for the Conservative movement to do. Here are some preliminary suggestions regarding areas to focus on:

1. Getting over our fears of talking seriously about halakhah (Jewish law): being willing to teach about the ways in which Jewish practice is designed to influence the smallest details of daily life, rather than focusing on the practices that are easy and palatable to our congregants.

2. Being willing to distinguish between minhag and halakhah, between traditional customs and binding obligations. As I’ve learned from my teacher Moshe Benovitz this year, we should be focusing our attention on the things that we describe as divine commandents, and only worry about the additional customs when they seem to be of value. When extra-legal customs lead us in directions that bring about unnecessary and painful restrictions (for instance, in dealing with homosexuality or some of the issues connected with intermarriage), we ought to give them less weight and focus instead on the halakhic bottom line.

3. Making connections between halakhah and aggadah, between our binding obligations and the theological and ethical values of our tradition. We are pretty good at doing this, and have produced some good literature on how various aspects of ritual and prayer ought to be impacting our behavior, character, and worldview, but this is something we should really be making into one of the hallmarks of the Conservative movement. Part of the trick is defining what our “aggadic” values are; my teacher Rabbi Ira Stone has been doing some important work in that arena, and we should be paying attention.

4. Keep expanding serious adult education opportunities. I continue to think that the Conservative Yeshiva, where I studied three years ago and where Katy has been studying this year, is probably the most important institution that the Conservative movement has. We should be expanding its reach and also setting up other similar serious learning institutions (kollels) wherever we have large numbers of Conservative Jews.

5. Finding new ways to support Conservative Jewish Day Schools. Serious Jewish day-school education is undoubtedly the best way to strengthen the movement, but we don’t have the financial resources to make it possible to provide such an education to more than a small number of students. Most parents can’t afford private school tuition; even if they can, they’ve already paid their taxes, and would generally prefer to send their children to a decent public school at no extra cost rather than paying for a Jewish day school. I think that the best public policy solution for this problem is some sort of school voucher program, which the Conservative movement publicly opposes.

6. Refocusing the way we think about Bar and Bat Mitzvah training. Since parents are interested in having their children undergo some sort of training, we should take advantage of the time we have with our students to focus on things that will be more lasting than teaching them to read Torah or Haftarah. There are lots of other “mitzvahs” (commandments) that are likely to be more meaningful to students, and we should find ways to focus on whatever will create a lasting connection, even if that means ignoring Torah-reading-skills altogether. I’d like to imagine that the educational environment leading up to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs is a Beit Midrash (study hall) model, with lots of opportunity for individualized learning, rather than a classroom.

7. Reforming our approach to training cantors. This is Katy’s big issue, and one she started thinking about when she was looking at various cantorial programs. The curriculum for the training of Conservative movement cantors is a bit too focused on artistic performance, and not sufficiently focused on training cantors to be leaders who can teach and inspire humble prayer and devotion.

8. Restructuring the relationship between Conservative movement institutions. At present, the movement is filled with organizational chaos, which particularly presents problems in the realm of fundraising. We need some good consultants to help re-engineer the movement's structure so that we can more easily meet our goals.

UPDATE: An expanded version of these thoughts can be found here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Katy finished her final paper (and has now become a confirmed expert on the Kedushah [“sanctification”] prayer in its many varieties) and, although she’s still doing Hebrew classes in the morning, she’s had lots of time to be spend time with friends all around the city. I haven’t been able to join her for quite as many nights on the town, since I’m mostly spending these final days in Jerusalem studying for exams and writing papers. Fortunately, traditional Jewish studying tends to be a fairly social activity, and my study partners and I have found lots of nice places to read the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.

With my chevrutas (study partners) Meir and Risa at Cafe Atara, a cafe noted for its delicious chai tea (illustrated here)

In the Beit Midrash (Study Hall) of the Conservative Yeshiva

In the Beit Midrash of the Schechter Institute

Monday, May 30, 2005

Explorations in Communal Prayer

Nearly every Shabbat morning that we’ve been in Jerusalem, we’ve spent our morning with a terrific community, Kehilat Kedem. Kedem is the only fully egalitarian minyan (prayer group) in the section of Jerusalem in which we live; it was founded four years ago, when I first arrived in Jerusalem, to fill that need. Fully-egalitarian prayer is not exactly all the rage in Jerusalem (as opposed to semi-egalitarian prayer, which is the rage, since it’s very much on the cutting edge of Orthodoxy) and so the minyan remains small, but it has certainly attracted a solid core of Israelis in addition to a large number of students like us who are here for one or two years and are studying at Schechter, the Conservative Yeshiva, the Pardes Institute, or the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It’s been a wonderful home for us this year.

On Friday nights, we often don’t make it to shul (synagogue), although this semester we’ve been regulars at the Idan Ha-Zahav nursing home, where we go and do some singing for/with the residents there. Katy went a number of times last semester, and this semester we made this our fixed volunteer project – bringing in Shabbat with songs and visiting with the nursing home residents.

When we do make it to shul, we’ve made some effort to experience some of the diversity of synagogues here. Some of these have been less successful.

1) We went to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue one Friday night, to get a taste of what a giant synagogue with a full choir and a world-famous cantor would be like. We were not so impressed with the prayer experience; it felt a little more like a barbershop-quartet concert (although it was more of a septet, I believe).

2) In Tsefat, we went to the Ashkenazi Ari synagogue – a synagogue founded on the hillside spot where Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his disciples allegedly began the custom of welcoming in Shabbat with the series of psalms that Jewish communities all over the world use today. Our experience there was also not particularly impressive; it even featured a full-blown argument about who should lead the service. (Our Saturday morning experience, at the Conservative synagogue in Tsefat, was a much more satisfying experience, even though they didn’t get the quorum of people required for public prayer).

3) At a Reform synagogue not far from our house, we were treated to a recorder concert as part of the evening – like the Great Synagogue experience, it was aesthetically nice, I suppose, but not exactly our favorite mode of prayer.
We’ve also balanced these out, though, with a number of more positive Friday night experiences:

1) As we wrote about earlier in the year, the Italian Synagogue is an incredibly interesting place with really spirited and powerful prayer.

2) We’ve been to Shira Hadasha, a liberal Orthodox minyan right next door to Kedem, on a few occasions. It’s one of the few Orthodox congregations in the world that has taken a number of steps to allow women a high level of ritual leadership. Being there gives me a lot of hope for the rise of feminism in the Orthodox world. It’s also a place that does a particular good job of using song as a means of devotion rather than simply for the sake of aesthetics. And it's very crowded. As I mentioned above, places that are on the cutting-edge of Orthodoxy tend to generate a lot of excitement in the wider community, and attract a fair number of people who ideologically fit in well in the Conservative movement and whom I would love to see at a place like Kedem.

3) This past Friday night, we went to one of the Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Yochanan Ben Zakkai synagogue, which was built by Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. It was a prayer experience with a lot of spirit, beautiful Sephardic melodies, and a really nice interplay between the prayer leader and congregation. The Song of Songs was chanted outloud in call-and-response format to a really nice melody, giving an extremely beautiful form to one of the most important texts for welcoming in Shabbat.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Teaching Tunes

Last night we had a night of singing at our apartment with the Yeshiva community. Some of the teachers came and taught some of the songs and melodies that we'd been wanting to learn all year.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Lag B'Omer

Since the second day of Passover we have been counting the days until the next holiday, Shavuot. I don't mean that we are "counting down" the days in the sense that I counted down the days until the end of the school year last year: we actually, literally, count each day for 49 days. After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites traveled for 7 weeks until they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai (marked by the holiday of Shavuot). In the times of the Temple, there was a special sacrifice offered on each of the days of the counting of the Omer (omer literally means barley). Unfortunately the period of the Omer has known plagues and destruction for Jews over the centuries. It has therefore become associated with mourning and as such, many Jews refrain from certain things during this period such as hair cuts, listening to music and weddings.

But the tradition tells that on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deathly plagues lifted. It has thus become a day of celebration amidst a period of mourning. People cut their hair, go to concerts and have weddings. The 33rd day of the Omer is also associated with the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the rabbi attributed with writing the Zohar, the main text of the Kabbalists. Because of his associations with light, it has become the tradition to build huge bonfires everywhere.

Last night we got to celebrate the engagement (with a "Tena'im" ceremony) of two of our friends here. We sang and danced with them, and on our walk home we saw the many bonfires that people were enjoying.

As we walked by one parking lot, we saw maybe 20 bonfires with people circled around them. The scene was exactly how I imagine Jerusalem must have looked during the three pilgrimage festivals when everyone came to the Temple with their sacrifices. The group in the parking lot was quite diverse, the bonfire tradition has been taken up by both religious and secular Israelis. Unlike what would happen in the United States, all the stores were closed: joining in the fun of these bonfires is more important to most store owners than the business opportunity.

Our apartment also has a huge parking lot outside, so we got to see the festivities right outside of our window (which we had firmly closed to cut down on the smoke!)

Here are some pictures showing both the pre- and during- festivities outside of our window:

Here are some pictures taken with friends on the walk home from the engagment party:

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Talmudic Botany

The centerpiece of what I'm doing this year continues to be reading Talmud, the giant collection of ideas and instructions about how to live one's life more specifically described here as being a collection of discussions about

agriculture, astrology, biology, business, carpentry, chemistry, child-raising, cooking, cosmology, economics, engineering, finance, genetics, geology, happiness, history, kabbalah, law, linguistics, literature, marriage, mathematics, medicine, military science, music, philosophy, physics, planetology, psychology, social science, synergetics, theology, transportation and zoology.
My learning for the past month or so has been particularly focused on biology and agriculture. Most recently, we've been dealing with the question of what defines a tree, a question of some consequence in Judaism because we have a somewhat unique relationship with trees (and especially fruit-bearing trees) -- we give them special protections (both in wartime and in general), say special blessings of thanksgiving before eating their fruit and upon seeing them bloom, have a whole holiday dedicated to them, and see them as symbolic of a range of concerns. A tree is generally defined in Jewish tradition as a plant which lasts from year to year, but there are some plants whose status as a tree is slightly ambiguous; the one plant of uncertain status that my Talmud class has been particularly focused on is the caper-bush. One of the features of being in Israel today and studying texts about caper-bushes written in the land of Israel in the third century C.E. is that Israel is as full of caper-bushes today as it was then. In order to learn more about them, all my Talmud class had to do was to step outside the front doors of the Schechter building. I've enjoyed following the development of one of the caper-bushes right outside of Schechter: last week, as you can see in the first picture below, the caper buds that are a bit further developed beyond the way that we're accustomed to seeing them in jars in the supermarket; today, as shown in the second picture, the buds are opening up into flowers.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Har Herzl

Last week Katy and I went with the students from Schechter to Har Herzl (Mount Herzl). This is where Theodore Herzl was buried after the establishment of the State of Israel, and it’s a location that was chosen deliberately – rather than seeking to inter Herzl’s body in any of the locations of Jerusalem associated with religion, tradition, or Messianism, Herzl was buried on a bare hill in Western Jerusalem chosen because there was, apparently, nothing else there. The idea was to proclaim that Herzl’s vision of the founding of the state of Israel was not a continuation of Jewish history but a revolt against Jewish history – a break with everything that the past 2000 years of history had stood for. It’s a problematic idea, but one which is very important to understand in order to understand Israel’s founding vision.

Har Herzl is also where many leaders of the State have been buried: prime ministers, presidents, and speakers of the Knesset (the latter chosen not because they’re so important, but to “represent the people,” so to speak) are eligible to be buried there. One of the most widely visisted graves is, of course, that of Yitchak Rabin, a grave that is unlike all the others surrounding it. Rabin’s has no peaceful shrubs surrounding it and instead reflects the starkness of his death.

We also spent some time in the military cemetery on Har Herzl, a place where one becomes acutely aware of the huge toll that war has taken on the State of Israel; such a high percentage of Israel’s young and promising leaders have been buried there that one can only imagine how different this country could be if the price of its defense were not so high.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Beit She'an

Two weeks ago we went to Beit She'an with the Yeshiva to see its ancient ruins and spend Shabbat at the youth hostel there. It was originally a Caananite city that King David later captured. It then was taken over by Alexander the Great, and of course, the Romans. Here are a few pictures taken at the ruins.

This is us walking down the original main street of Beit She'an. Like the Cardo here in Jerusalem, it was once filled with store fronts.

Here we are trying to get out of the sun for a minute. According to the Talmud, Beit She'an was one of the few places that the rabbis permitted swimming on Shabbat - as a necessity, because of the heat. Yes, it was quite hot, even in early May! These are two of my cantorial classmates, Elana and Ayelet along with Ayelet's daughter Anatalya.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Celebrating Katy's Birthday

We spent our evening at the Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem, one of the first houses in Jerusalem to be built outside of the city walls. It was the home, painting studio, and eye clinic of the painter Anna Ticho and her ophthalmologist husband, Avraham Ticho; today it’s a restaurant and museum. We enjoyed the beautiful gardens on the property there, delicious food (and birthday cake!) and live jazz. We also spent some time at the museum looking at Anna Ticho’s watercolor landscapes of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the land of Israel (“I didn’t choose the landscape – the landscape chose me,” she said) and Avraham Ticho’s Hanukkah lamp collection (a particular passion of a doctor devoted to bringing light into people’s lives, the museum curators noted).

Katy reports that she has had a great birthday, even if she had to spend an hour of it taking her final exam for her Biblical Grammar course.

Happy Birthday!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Celebrating Yom Ha-atzma'ut

We were in downtown Jerusalem last night to celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut along with what seemed like a very high percentage of Jerusalem's residents. A very large portion of the city center was closed to auto traffic, and all the streets were quite packed with people late into the night; even small children and parents pushing baby carriages seemed to be roaming about past midnight. Lots of people were wearing Israeli flags in some way or another - generally, either as skirts or as capes. I was surprised to see even some number of seemingly Haredi ("ultra-orthodox") Jews there, which was surprising given the general Haredi disapproval of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut (and the general Haredi ambivalence about the State of Israel). Overall, it was nice to see a good cross-section of Israeli Jews coming together to celebrate, and I love being reminded of how incredibly diverse Israelis are.

Our evening featured attending David Broza concert in Zion Square (at the center of the downtown area), running into lots of familiar faces, and trying to avoid the small children wielding inflatable plastic baseball bats and hammers decorated with Israeli flags and the spray foam which, for some unfathomable reason, seem to have become popular tools for merrymaking on Yom Ha-Atzma'ut. We also enjoyed folk-dancing, juggling, and fireworks. Here are some pictures from the evening:

Today, we joined the cantorial school class for a barbecue (the most standard feature of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut here).

This evening, we joined a massive public sing-a-long ("shirah b'tzibur" - singing classic Israeli songs, mostly 1950's folk songs which we didn't really know the words to; the fact that they projected the words onto the side of a building wasn't so helpful, since the projector was not so powerful and the building not so easy to project onto). And we enjoyed some good Israeli food (falafel and pita and houmous and other salads) as well.

(Regarding "good Israeli food": yesterday's Ha'aretz featured a very interesting full-length article on the role of pita and houmous as an Israeli national symbol. Among the relevant statistics: at this very moment there is a container of houmous in more than 95 percent of the homes in Israel.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yom Ha-Zikaron/Yom Ha-Atzma’ut

This past day has been Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel's Memorial Day. Like on Yom Ha-Shoah, a memorial siren brought the country to a standstill last night and again this morning. Here's a picture from Ha'aretz of traffic at 11 AM in downtown Jerusalem:

Now we’re moving into Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Independence Day, which immediately follows Yom Ha-Zikaron. The juxtaposition of the two days drives home the message that Israel’s independence has depended on the soldiers who died defending it. We're also engaging in what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes as “the classic dialectical move of Jewish tradition from sadness to celebration, from mourning to joy, from death to life, in the wink of an eye.” We tend to fast or mourn shortly before days of great celebration (e.g. before Purim, Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot, Tu B'av); so too Yom Ha’Atzmaut is preceded by a week filled with sadness – Yom Ha-Shoah and then Yom Ha-Zikaron.

Since today's an ideal time to reflect on the State of Israel, I’ll share thoughts from a few interesting speakers whom I’ve heard at Schechter over the last few weeks:

1) Rabbi Yossi Turner shared his thoughts on the contemporary significance of Yom Ha-Atzma’ut. He argued that the Israeli public has tended to see the meaning of the state of Israel along the lines suggested by Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion: that the political establishment of the state itself is the ultimate goal of Zionism, protecting Jews from anti-Semitism and “normalizing” our existence as a people. Is this enough of a reason to inspire Israelis to celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma’ut? Turner argued that, in our era, we should be re-focusing our attention on other visions for the State of Israel that present the state as providing not just a political safe-haven but also providing for the “cultural and spiritual rejuvenation of the people” – the sorts of visions associated with Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber, and Mordecai Kaplan as opposed to Herzl and Ben Gurion.

2) Dr. Arik Carmon of the Israel Democracy Institute spoke with us about, among other topics, the instability of democracy in the State of Israel, something caused by a variety of factors: the fact that this is such a new state (of an old nation); the presence of a large Arab minority within the country that views their state as at war with their nation; the presence of so many questions about the identity of the state (hence the questions above; Israelis ask questions all the time like 'Israel is an answer to what question?'-- not the sort of question that most nation-states regularly ask themselves); the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the world without borders (because of a lack of agreement about how to define the state's identity); the fact that the Israeli public agenda is constantly overloaded, so that policymakers are constantly focused on the here and now ("in the evening, morning news is history") rather than on cultivating a long-term vision (let alone, say, a constitution for the state).

3) Rabbi Ron Kronish and Issa Jaber of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) spoke with us about the process of creating dialogue and relationships between Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, and Jewish citizens of Israel. The question of the identity of Arab citizens of Israel - "Palestinian Arabs of Israeli Citizenship" is increasingly the popular term - is one of the questions that especially surfaces at this time of the year, since the Arab portion of the population here is not terribly enthusiastic about celebrating Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, singing "Hatikvah," and parading with the Israeli flag. Creating relationships between Arab Muslim citizens and Jews has been a particular challenge. It seems like the ICCI has had some clear successes in that area, and the fact that Israeli Arab Muslims are far, far more moderate then their brethren in the Palestinian territories (or their fellow-believers in much of the Muslim world) should be a sign for some hope. On the other hand, very few Muslim leaders in the state have declared any interest in engaging in this sort of meaningful dialogue with Jews, even if (as Issa Jaber claimed) there is a silent majority that supports such dialogue.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Yom Ha-Shoah

Yom Ha-Shoah, the day of rememberance for the Holocaust (in Hebrew, the "Shoah” [destruction], a more sensible term than the word “Holocaust” [sacrifice]), began last night.

At night, we went to Moreshet Avraham, one of Jerusalem’s Masorti (Conservative) synagogues, for their reading of “The Shoah Scroll” (Megillat Ha-Shoah), a text written by Avigdor Shinan that attempts to portray some of the horror of the Shoah in a form that can be read by communities on an annual basis. It’s a fairly chilling and effective text, a portion of which incorporates the cantillation used to read the Book of Lamentations. It seems to me to be one of the most effective efforts to compose such a text, though I think that there are others that are also quite effective, and I have no doubt that the Jewish people will continue the process of creating other texts that might be equally good at preserving the memory of the Shoah.

After the reading of Megillat Ha-Shoah, we watched an incredibly powerful documentary that left both of us with tears streaming down our cheeks: “Tak for Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit,” the story of a Holocaust survivor named Judy Meisel. Even though we’ve heard these sorts of stories many times before, we were still shocked by the un-human cruelty that characterized so many Nazi soldiers. What could possibly motivate soldiers to have such glee as they made people dig their own graves, as they killed everyone too weak to keep up with forced marches, as they dashed out the brains of babies on the ground in front of their parents?

This morning, at ten o’clock, the entire country came to a standstill as it does every year on this day. An air raid siren goes off, and everyone stops moving and becomes instantly silent. Katy stood with her ulpan class on King George Street, one of the major streets in Jerusalem, and saw the cars stopping in the middle of the street, the pedestrians stopping in the middle of crosswalks, conversations abruptly coming to an end. The ritual acknowledges that, on many levels, a moment of silence – pierced by the shofar-like cry of a siren - is the only appropriate response we can have.

At noon, we spent an hour at the Conservative Yeshiva with Rabbi Pesach Schindler, a Holocaust survivor and a dear teacher of both Katy and I, contemplating the place of self-examination by the Jewish people after the Shoah.

I’ve spent the day fasting, following a practice advocated by one of my teachers, Rabbi David Golinkin. I decided to do so despite three reservations about the practice:

1) the traditional view of fasting as a practice to raise consciousness of our sins and to stimulate our repentance. Fasting on Yom Ha-Shoah could seem to suggest the false theological conviction that tragedies like the Shoah came about because of our sins, something that no one should be thinking.

2) the widely-held sense that the response to the Holocaust should be a response that affirms life, not a practice of denial like fasting

3) if indeed some sort of abstinence is an appropriate practice for the day, I agree with my teacher Rabbi Ira Stone that a ta’anit dibur (abstinence from words) is preferable to a ta’anit ochel (abstinence from food). Jewish tradition teaches that initiating speech is unacceptable in the presence of a mourner because our speech often serves to trivialize tragic events. It is important to respond to tragedy with words as well, but it is important to make space for silence. Silence on Yom Ha-Shoah might also be an appropriate way to experience God’s absence – the blotting out of God’s presence and God’s image by the perpetrators of evil. On the other hand, fasts of speech are not easy for people to carry out in the course of their daily activities.

Despite these thoughts, though, refraining from food since last night seems to have been an effective practice for me for three reasons:

1) The repentance and self-examination associated with fasting are not totally out of place in response to the Shoah. Reflecting on one’s transgressions should not be linked with an admission of guilt for being a victim; but, rather, we should emerge from experiences of tragedy by reflecting on how we can be more effective at fighting evil in the world. As Golinkin argues, “we need to repent for our criminal apathy and silence which allowed the Nazis to progress towards the Final Solution unhindered and ignored.”

2) To quote Golinkin: “It is impossible for us, who did not experience the Holocaust, to imagine what it was like. But a common motif in almost every diary and memoir about the Shoah is that of hunger. Many suffered from acute malnutrition; all experienced hunger. One of the ways in which we can attempt to identify and empathize with the victims of the Shoah is to fast. By fasting we will remind ourselves in a tangible way of the hunger and suffering of the Six Million.”

3) In Jewish tradition, fasting goes hand in hand with giving of oneself to help others. Among other things that we’re doing is giving money saved by fasting to causes working to eliminate suffering in the world, in accordance with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s assessment that

Giving tzedakah is central to this day. Giving reasserts the value of human life. Taking responsibility for others repudiates the indifference of the bystanders which made the Holocaust possible. Thus authentic Jewish memory leads to acts of loving kindness rather than to hatred or revenge.
We’ve also spent some portion of the day thinking in practical terms about what can be done to prevent widespread denial of the Holocaust (especially a problem in this part of the world), steadily-increasing anti-Semitic violence, and preventing genocide from taking place in our own day. The Jewish community around the world is, not surprisingly, especially focused on the events in the Sudan today and taking action accordingly.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Our Pesach Travels

We spent the Seder and the first day of Pesach in Jerusalem. We were joined by three friends who are living in Cairo and made their own "exodus" from Egypt to Israel for the holiday - our friend Lindsay, and her friends Liz and Derek. The five of us spent the following week travelling throughout the north of Israel. Here are some pictures from our journey:

Derek and I engaging in a bit of interfaith Torah study on the second night of Pesach, before we started travelling

Katy, Liz, and Lindsay at Megiddo ("Armageddon"), our first stop as we drove north from Jerusalem towards Haifa.

In Haifa we were graciously hosted for the evening by our friend Yehuda and his family. They provided us with a great tour of the city, fantastic food, and lots of interesting conversation about the relationship between education and democracy and the role of spirituality and a vision of the good life in schools (the topics that Yehuda's father, a philosopher of education, gets to think about professionally).

Myself, Yehuda, Lindsay, Derek and Liz in Haifa, high up on Mount Carmel looking down on the port below

Katy, Lindsay, Liz, Yehuda, and Derek in Haifa with the Bahai Gardens ascending up Mount Carmel in the background

Katy, Lindsay, and Derek at the Bahai Gardens the following morning

Katy and I near the site on believed by Catholics to be the site of Elijah's Cave

We hiked down Mount Carmel to the site accepted by Jewish and Muslim tradition to be Elijah's Cave, and, after a lunch by the shore, took these cable cars back up to our rental car.

We travelled north from Haifa to the city of Akko. The picture here is by the city's crusader-era walls.

Katy and Lindsay in the underground crusader city at Akko

We also stopped by Peki'in, a Druze village and the alleged site of the cave in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (2nd century C.E.) and his son lived for a period of thirteen years in an attempt to escape from the world, an experience from which they eventually learned the profound lesson that a Jew is obligated to bring holiness into the material world rather than retreat from it.

We spent the next few nights in Tsefat, and used it as a base for exploring the Galilee and Golan Heights regions. In this picture we're enjoying breakfast at Cafe Baghdad in Tsefat, where we enjoyed multiple good kosher-for-Passover meals.
Our five-person travelling group at our hotel in Tsefat

Overlooking the Jordan River, at Gadot, an area best known for being the area that was constantly shelled by Syrian forces before Israel's capture of the Golan Heights in 1967

We briefly stopped by the "Mei Eden" (Waters of Eden) spring-water-production plant in Katzrin

We spent much longer at the Golan Winery in Katzrin ("the city of water and wine"), which was possibly the educational highlight of our trip. We learned a tremendous amount about the process of harvesting grapes and producing wines of all sorts. The Golan area is well-suited for wine production because of its high altitude, volcanic soil, and the range of climates within a small region that allow for the production of a wide variety of wines. In addition to learning about the modern facilities for wine production, we spent some time focusing on the history of wine production in Israel, the art of treading grapes in pre-modern wine production (done barefoot, so as not to crush the seeds and impart a bitter taste to the wine), and the seasonal cycle of wine production in the land of Israel (with the grape harvest traditionally beginning in the late summer on Tu B'Av and ending around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Also at Katzrin, we visited the reconstructed site of a Jewish village from Mishnaic times. Here Katy and I are doing our best to look like Jews from the third century C.E.

Katy inside one of the reconstructed houses at Katzrin. Being at this site was also a highly educational experience, as we were able to get some insights into the realia of the texts that we're reading all the time. We also had the pleasure of seeing a short play and a fascinating movie there about the relationship between Rabbi Meir, one of the principal transmitters of Jewish oral tradition, and his excommunicated teacher Elisha Ben Abuya; the film highlighted the fact that Meir continued to learn from his teacher even after Elisha had rejected Jewish observance altogether, and held up this example as a source of hope that Haredi ("ultra-Orthodox) Jews could begin to respect and learn from the secular majority of the State of Israel.

The ruins of the ancient synagogue at Chorazin, built of black basalt like the rest of the structures in the town. This was
one of the many ancient synagogues that we visited on our trip.

By the Sea of Galilee (on the road to Tiberias)

In Tiberias, looking down towards the tomb of Rabbi Hiyya and his sons. Beyond that is the city center and the Sea of Galilee

The two of by the waterfall at Banyas, in the northern Golan
The spring at Banyas

At the Temple of Pan at Banyas (also called "Pan-yas," originally named after Pan). This site was originally dedicated to Pan by the Greeks who came to the land of Israel in the third century B.C.E. Evidence of sacrifices to Zeus, Asclepius, Athena, Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Dionysus, and other gods were also found here. It eventually became part of a larger Roman sanctuary that continued to exist into the Byzantine era.

Nearby Kiryat Shemoneh; the snow-capped Mount Hermon, on Israel's northern border, is in the background

Katy at Tzippori, one of the centers of Jewish life throughout the early centuries of the common era. We spent our time there exploring the archaeological site, which includes a large number of well-preserved mosaics such as a villa floor focusing on the cult of Dionysus and a very interesting synagogue floor featuring Biblical scenes and a zodiac.
In the background of the picture above you can see the areas to the northwest of Tzippori including Resh Lakish Forest on the left (presumably where the rabbi Resh Lakish spent his time as a bandit before repenting and becoming one of the most important rabbis of the 3rd century C.E.), and, in the distance, Mount Carmel and Haifa.

At the Mount of the Beatitudes ("Har Ha-Osher" in Hebrew). In this picture you can see two of Israel's seven species -- date palms and olive trees -- growing on the mountain.