Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Search of Ruach and Health

I don’t know why but last Friday afternoon, Sabrina decided she was ready at that very minute to learn (well, re-learn) how to ride a bike. Jim and Elliot had plans to meet some friends for Kabbalat Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, so the task fell on my hands. As we were outside, I began to notice people trickling out of their apartment buildings, all dressed up, and clearly heading to various Kabbalat Shabbat services. I have never been one for synagogue, but for some inexplicable reason I got an overwhelming urge to go to a Kabbalat Shabbat service right then and there. I suppose the effect of seeing everyone on their way was like sitting on one’s porch and watching all the neighbors head for a big parade (or even Innauguration as in the case of our D.C. friends). Whatever it was, the feeling overcame me and I would not rest until I had gone. I was particularly excited at the prospect of going alone with no children to chase as it meant I could really just enjoy the service. Several of our neighbors were home, so I left Bennett and Sabrina in their care and headed out. I decided to go to a small synagogue around the corner from our house on Hildensheimer Street. This was my neighbor, Danny’s – the Israeli pediatric surgeon - suggestion. Danny is observant but in a very modern way. He does not wear a kippa, but he observes Shabbat and davens (prays) and studies every day. He is a very spiritual guy and he promised me a spiritual experience. I walked into the rather small, neighborhood building and noticed immediately that women were relegated to the back of the room. I must admit that it reminds me of when Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. In fact, this was even worse because not only do women have to sit at the back, the mehizah (divider) has a curtain wall so it is nearly impossible to see what is happening in the front of the room where the Rabbis, etc. were based. Rather than having a spiritual experience, I found myself feeling like the uninvited guest looking inside the window at a fabulous party. I am sure it never occurred to Danny that my experience as a woman would be any different than his as a man. But it was. Needless to say, I have decided to refrain from attending Orthodox synagogues from now on.
I decided that the next Friday night I would go to Kol Haneshama, a liberal conservative synagogue, as both Mindy and Jeff (Sosland) were confident I would love it. I told Revital and Danny (the Israeli doctor neighbors) of my plans. They tried to talk me out of it and they were confident that I would not enjoy it. I am a bit more liberal than they so I was sure they were wrong and stuck to my guns. Last Friday night came and I excitedly headed out solo to Kol Haneshama. I spent the entire service looking at my watch and wondering what was wrong with me. On paper this synagogue fit the bill – liberal, singing, friendly, etc. – in reality, it felt much like a contrived group therapy session. I spoke to a few of our American friends here and, to my surprise, they all agreed with me. Our reconstructionist Rabbi friend from Woodstock, N.Y., Jonathan, told me that even he noticed a change in the place since his last visit to Israel. The consensus seems to be that the place is lacking in ruach (spirit). It is possible that those who are members of the congregation get a different feel from the place. But for me, an outsider in search of the perfect synagogue, this is not even in the running. Another friend told me about a fairly new congregation, Kedem, which meets close to our house and was started by some Rammahniks (alumni of Camp Ramah) who made aliyah. As you might imagine, my goal for this Friday is to try that.
I was discussing my synagogue woes with my friend Annette, an Olah (someone who made aliyah) from New Zealand. She politely reminded me that synagogue is not supposed to be spiritual. It is merely a gathering place to pray. I know that this is the mentality of many synagogues. (Remember the synagogue in Ra’nana?) I however refuse to give up. I do believe that if there is a right synagogue for me, it is a synagogue that exudes spirituality. Revital (the Israeli gynecological surgeon) assures me that my search is futile. She has been in search of the perfect synagogue for the last twenty years and has yet to find it. I suspect she is right but I still plan to keep trying. I will keep you posted.
One good thing that arose from my experience at the Orthodox synagogue (where I felt like an uninvited guest), was my sudden comfort with reading the prayers in English. When I was younger and a bit more rigid (I acknowledge that I haven’t eased up that much so no comments from the peanut gallery), I felt that praying in English was a waste of time and a ridicule of the process. I could not understand why or how anyone could find meaning in that. I have come to realize that for Israelis it is natural to pray in Hebrew as that is their native tongue so they understand everything they are saying. For me, when I pray in Hebrew I do it because of the comfort I get from the familiarity – the prayers mean nothing though since 99% of the time I haven’t a clue as to what I am saying. I have finally come to the realization that it is not only ok but preferable for a non-Hebrew speaker to pray in his/her native tongue.
Aside from synagogue shopping, the last few weeks were filled with visits from the Shin Shins (the Israeli kids doing a year of service in D.C., one of whom – Maya - lived with us), homesickness and illness. We spent a wonderful day visiting first with Yossi and his family and then with Maya and her family. Yossi lives on a beautiful Moshav outside of Jerusalem. It was quite an adventure to get there as our GPS took us through the West Bank. I am not sure we would have even noticed we were there if it has not been for the prominent cement wall blocking our way. I must admit that we were a bit surprised when we came to the wall. Both Jim and I were aware of its existence but we had never had occasion to see it. Interestingly the wall is very prominent in some places along the border, but in other places there is nothing more than a wire fence. (Apparently Israel has run into issues in fully funding construction.) Nonetheless, it was fun for the kids to see at least the fringes of the area about which they hear so much. Driving from Yossi’s house to Maya’s house was also an adventure. We drove through a beautiful mountainous area of Jerusalem – Sataf. For lack of a better comparison, it is a bit like Great Falls in Washington in that it is the place where everyone goes to hike. All of the almond trees were in full bloom – white and pink flowers - and hoards and hoards of people were out hiking the mountains. The blooming of the almond trees marks the holiday of Tu B’shevat (Jewish arbor day). Seeing a mountain-side of flowering trees was a little like the splendor of cherry blossom season in DC. Israel really is a beautiful country.
I am not sure if it was seeing Maya and Yossi or if it is just the two month itch, but Bennett and Sabrina were terribly homesick the last two weeks. They both miss their friends and, yes, their school. For Bennett, I think we just pushed him too hard to get into a formal school. It became a battle of the wills between us and him. We finally decided (I think wisely) that for a kid like Bennett, as long as he has some structure (which he does) and some friends (which he does), it is ok to home school him. As soon as we made that decision, things got a lot better. We were no longer bribing him or threatening to deprive him of things to get him to go to school.
As for Sabrina, I think she really misses her friends. She was temporarily distracted by her friend Nomi (the reconstructionist Rabbi’s daughter who we met at Ulpan). Nomi left this week and I think it was really hard on Sabrina. She likes her other friends, but she has not yet bonded with them in the way she needs to. I know it will all happen in good time. Sabrina was also a bit under the weather which makes her even more homesick.
When the kids go through these bouts of homesickness, it is very hard to explain to them why we are here and why it is important to stay. As a parent, my gut instinct is to try to fix any fixable problem that my children have. In this case, it would mean taking them home if they get too miserable. But my more rationale side (Jim) tells me that they will get through this and we just need to stay the course. And so we do. Fortunately, the last week has been better. It seems that both Bennett and Sabrina have cycled a bit and are back on board. (Seems that Jim was right.) I truly believe that when July 15 comes, all five of us will be crying as we leave this magical place.
The last few weeks were also riddled with illnesses. The Bramson family has gotten the 1-2 punch! First Sabrina had strep which quickly spread to Elliot. As soon as that passed I got sick. Two days later Elliot got a nasty stomach bug which lasted 7 days! (It was Debbie’s and Mindy’s worst nightmare as he vomited every twenty minutes for ten hours!) As Elliot’s bug was ending, Jim got sick and now Bennett is sick. It is getting really old. Oh – and how could I forget? Bennett hurt his arm playing soccer so we spent a day at Haddassah hospital. Fortunately it does not appear to be broken so baseball season is not in jeopardy. (Yes – thank goodness there is little league in Israel.)
When we were in between illnesses, we were fortunate to spend a great Shabbat with my cousins from my maternal grandmother (Edith), Deena Friedman (not to be confused with Deena Scoblionko) and family. Deena lives just blocks away from where we are living in a spectacular house that I would love to own. Deena has five kids – the youngest of whom became fast friends with Elliot. We were lucky because Deena’s sister’s son, who is spending a year in Israel before college, was also at the lunch. He is a great kid and reminds me a bit of Jim. He is off to Princeton next year where I hope he will connect with more of our family – especially Anna of course.
I finally did a few things for myself these past few weeks. First, as discussed above, I went to two Kabbalat Shabbat services on my own. Second, I actually attended a shiyur (lesson) given by renowned lecturer Aviva Gottlieb-Zornberg. She is very good and I know many people think she is one of the best, but it was not my style. Her lesson deals only with the weekly Torah portion and the related commentary. I am looking for something a bit more spiritual and less structured. On a purely social note, I met Jeff Colman for coffee one morning. It was great to see a friendly familiar face! (This is my reminder to call or email if you are in town!)
Assuming everyone gets and stays healthy, we plan to travel to Beer Sheva next week and sleep in tents with the Bedouins. We are all very excited about it. I will let you know if it comes to pass. In the meantime, keep those notes coming. We love your remarks. Please go to the blog site ( to see photos. I am not sufficiently technologically advanced to include them in the email posting. Sorry.
Stay tuned to find out how my never ending quest for spirituality goes.

1 comment:

Cynthia Samuels said...

I recommend the adult classes at Pardes, which is not far from you. Rick and I have been there a couple of times and just loved it. If you can take a class with either Tova Leah Nachmani orReuben Grobner you will be thrilled. We also had the recruiter, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy while we were there last time with our shul.

And when you get home, expect to be placed on the Ohev Sholom Women's Beit Midrash listserv. It's wonderful.

This blog is a gift to us all - the details are just wonderful. Love to Jim and the kids.