Monday, March 17, 2014

Lecha Dodi: Part Two

That night I slept downstairs in what's called a nidah apartment. This is a special room or apartment for a woman to reside in during her menstrual cycle in order to observe the ritual laws of purity that pertain specifically to women. This nidah apartment happened to be underground, so there was no natural light. Conveniently, I was provided with a Shabbat lamp -a lamp that, instead of an on/off switch has a little sliding door in the frame to expose or cover a light that shines throughout the duration of Shabbat. This is in order to avoid violating the rabbinic declaration that using electricity is considered 'making fire' which is strictly forbidden in the rules of Shabbat observance outlined in the Torah.

I went to sleep feeling serene and full. I slept longer that Saturday morning than I had intended to, and woke feeling refreshed. I dressed as quickly as I could and headed up stairs to the main apartment, hoping that I wasn't too late to experience Shabbat morning davening at the schul. To my surprise, Allan was still at home, talking with Rivka over coffee at the kitchen table.

I greeted them both with the customary "Good Shabbos" -which is really the only salutation one is supposed to give on Shabbat, since it's not an ordinary day of the week. Rivka smiled warmly at me, and I found myself smiling back. I wanted to hug her as I would have my own mother. She asked me if I wanted anything to drink but I politely declined -I wanted to experience the davening as I had not gone the night before.

A few minutes later, Allan and I were headed out the door to walk the short distance to the synagogue. As we left Allan leaned over to me and muttered "I was delaying going to schul as long as possible."

"Oh! Why?" I laughed. Allan shrugged.

"I dunno," he said. "It's just not really what I'm used to. It's very loud and I have trouble following along. Is that a Zebra?" He asked suddenly. I giggled, thinking he was referring to the man that had just stepped out of the schul wrapped in his long, white tallit with the traditional black stripes on either end. Turns out Allan was referring to an actual toy that had been dropped on the ground by some poor, now Zebra-less child. We agreed that, un-PC as it might be, that would be our joke.

Stepping into the synagogue in Giv'at Ze'ev was like stepping through a time warp. Even though I'd never been there before everything felt familiar. The synagogue is totally innocuous. This is probably in accordance with a long standing Ashkenazi tradition that sprung out of a time when Jews were under persecution unusual even for anti-Semitic Europe. There are no signs, no steepled roofs, no indicators whatsoever that it's there. If Allan hadn't known where to go, I would have mistaken it for just another apartment building, or maybe a school. It really wasn't until Judaism came out of the ghetto in the nineteenth century that synagogues became their own buildings -much in the fashion of churches at the time. Whereas before synagogues had to blend in with their ghettos, synagogues now had to blend in with the churches of Europe.

The schul was small, divided between the men's section down below and the women's section above. There was little decoration inside; the walls were plain white and the most ornate thing in the room was the aron hakodesh (the tabernacle where the Torah is kept). Interestingly, (according to Allan who was down in the men's section) the women's section was sealed off by a one-way mirror. I'd thought it was plain glass.

I arrived in the women's section in the middle of the Torah reading and squeezed onto a bench with a woman who kindly pointed out the chanter's place in her humash (a bound, transportable copy of the Torah) for me. I followed along with utter fascination as I read the trope of the Hebrew and listened to how the chanter's trope differentiated or was the same as the trope I learned in school. (As a side note, for those who are unfamiliar, the word "trope" in this case refers to a codified lexicon of symbols that denote very specifically how the Torah is to be chanted in different books and for different holidays throughout the year).

After some verses the chanter finished, and they began the service to return the Torah to the ark. I was pleased that, despite the heavily accented Ashkenazi Hebrew, I still followed the service quite well. I looked on in astonishment as two men drew back the curtain covering the aron hakodesh to reveal what looked like the door of an armored safe. Wow, they really take the commandment of keeping the Torah seriously, I thought to myself. Then I remembered that I was in a settlement, and that Palestinian villages were probably not too far away. Despite personal issues with settlements in the West Bank, I hoped fervently that the people here hadn't been victims of violence and bloodshed.

They kept the ark open while they recited the aleinu (a credo of sorts and one of the concluding prayers of the service). In a Reform synagogue, everyone (not just the men) sings the aleinu in unison; here, however, that was not the case. All the fine hairs on my arms and neck stood on end as all the men burst out into passionate recitation -each at his own pace and volume. A cacophony of prayer rose up from the men's section, and I swayed where I stood looking down from the women's section. No matter how many times I hear men daven in the Ultra Orthodox style, it still sounds utterly surreal and other worldly to me.

When the service had concluded, I waited outside a few minutes before Allan emerged from the shul. We began to talk as we walked back to Rivka and Ben Boruch's apartment; about Reform theology, how alien it is for us to pray in a service where everyone seems to do everything at his own pace, and I told Allan how surreal it was being here after reading so much about shtetl life. Our conversation was cut somewhat short though, as Ben Boruch found us sitting just outside the building's entrance, delaying.

"Good Shabbos," he said, smiling serenely at us as he approached.

"Good Shabbos," we replied.

"Are you coming up? There's a good meal waiting," Ben Boruch said. Allan and I exchanged glances.

"Yeah, we're coming," Allan said. He promised me we would continue our discussion later.

The meal was delicious, replete with leftover salads from the night before, fresh pate, sliced turkey and tomatoes, and more challah. As we ate, we discussed more similarities and differences between the Reform and Ultra Orthodox movements, if it would be halahically acceptable to use AI on Shabbat (that is, acceptable according to the kosher laws). Soon our discussion drifted to Talmud. We talked about what is considered self-defense in Talmudic law, and how it differs depending on the situation. I mostly listened during this discussion, since I've never studied Talmud, occasionally asking questions or translating phrases of the original Hebrew. At one point, after I translated a particular passage, I caught Ben Boruch's gaze from across the table, and he smiled at me. He didn't say, but I think he was pleased with my knowledge and enthusiasm for the Hebrew. It made me feel so proud and satisfied.

It was such a joy (and a change from my normal routine) to be able to sit at a real table, savoring the food I was eating instead of trying to inhale an entire meal in fifteen minutes because my class got out late and I had lunch meetings and rehearsals. Nearly three hours went by and I barely noticed.

Finally, we got up from the table and I adjourned downstairs. Before I went though, Rivka lent me two books that I had expressed interest in the previous night. Alone in my room, I surrendered to a deep food coma, curled up in my bed, and soon fell asleep. I dreamed of many things, sometimes half waking and unsure of where I was. In one of my waking dreams I saw a woman standing before me, tall and radiantly beautiful with long auburn hair. When she smiled at me I remembered that I knew her, but not from where. With the knowledge of many lifetimes, our hearts spoke directly to each other without the words ever needing to pass from our lips.

I've missed you so much, I said to her, and began to weep. Where have you gone?

I've always been here, came her reply. She cupped my face in her hands sweetly, and, as we bow to the left, to the right and to the center when we sanctify the name of the One in prayer, she kissed my left cheek, my right, and then drew me into her embrace as she kissed me on the mouth.

Please, stay, don't leave me. How will I survive without you? 

Her answer wasn't so much in words as in thoughts and images. I shuddered and put my arms around her, wanting to dwell in the comfort of her presence until I passed silently, like leaves that flutter and fall from trees, from the threshold of death into another life.

I awoke in darkness, disoriented but content; still feeling her arms around me, tears on my cheeks.

I began to feel a bit lonely after I awoke, so I took a book and went back up to the main apartment. I knocked on the door to Allan's room, but he didn't answer, so I figured he hadn't yet arisen from his food-coma. I passed the next few hours curled up in a chair, reading.

Eventually though, I started to feel lonely again, and since no one seemed to be awake, I decided to go for a walk. It must have been fairly late in the afternoon, because the sun was already past it's peak. I didn't go too far, so as not to loose my way, and stood leaning over railing of a fence at the side of the road, looking over the sheer drop into the valley below. I could easily see across the valley to the other side, where more houses were nestled into the hills. Instinctively, I knew that these were not part of Giv'at Ze'ev, but not because anyone had explained the geography of the area to me. Looking out onto the valley and hillsides surround it, it was as if what divided this settlement from the surrounding villages was not roads or signs or even the valley itself, but the sparkling aura of Shabbat that surrounded to Giv'at Ze'ev like a cloud. Across the valley, my eye suddenly caught movement and I saw two people walking a dog.

We're in two completely different worlds, I thought to myself. It was the notion of occupying the same place without being on the same plane of existence. In fact, I was sure that, had the couple looked across the valley, they would not have seen me. I suddenly understood why Shabbat is perhaps the most important holiday in all of Judaism. Judaism teaches that when the Messiah arrives our world will no longer be broken or imperfect, and we will no longer feel so separated from God. Shabbat is a small taste of that Messianic age, a hint of what could be. Though I don't believe in the Messiah as a physical person, I now understand in a way I never did before why Shabbat is so cherished and special.

I don't know how much time passed, but I stood there at the railing, feeling that sense of separation, knowing that Shabbat would end -as it always does -and I would have to return to the world of the mundane. Papers, school work, Hebrew tests, late busses, sleepless nights. I knew when I moved to Israel for this year that I would come back a different person, and it slowly began to dawn on me that I couldn't even escape this Shabbat without being fundamentally changed. Wistfully, I saw faces of friends that I had loved swim before my eyes like ghosts. I stood silently, tears rolling down my cheeks, wondering how to find the line between fighting to save a good relationship and realizing that continuing is a waste of energy.

Blinking, I realized that it was late. The sun had somehow gotten low on the horizon while I had stood deep in thought. Shaking myself, I left my post on the railing and went back to the Goldberger's apartment.

Allan was up by now, and it wasn't until I saw him that I realized the depths of loneliness I had gone to in my mental wanderings. I almost hugged him in my relief, then remembered that men and women in the Haredi world don't touch. We passed the rest of Shabbat with seudah shlishit (a small meal before the end of Shabbat) and havdallah (a ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the Jewish week).

I was a bit sad when I packed up the few things I had brought with me; sad to be leaving my new friends, the Goldbergers, sad that Shabbat was over, and sad that it would be hard for me to recreate that experience of Shabbat when I was back in Jerusalem. I promised that I would come back to visit them before I leave Israel, and I hope to keep that promise. Something valuable happened for me in this visit, because I realized that even the Haredi world isn't quite as black and white as I'd thought. Within the lines of black and white you still find diversity, and the Goldbergers are proof of that, I think. Perhaps most importantly, I realized that dialogue between Reform and Ultra Orthodox Jews is maybe not as impossible as I'd thought. It will never be perfect, but this visit gave me hope that at least I can find ways to bridge our differences. I hoped (though I never said it to them) that meeting me and Allan helped them to realize that, though the Reform movement's reputation of throwing the baby out with the bath water didn't come from nowhere, we do have values in common with them. There are many individuals (not just us) within the movement that are passionate and committed to making Reform Judaism vibrant, strong, and sustainable in our commitment to Jewish values and Torah.

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