Monday, February 2, 2009

Rashes and ruach (spirit)

When we left off, Sabrina and Elliot were ostensibly settled in school and Bennett was on the verge of starting. We were gearing up for the big day when all of a sudden Bennett broke out in a mysterious rash that began behind his ears (so yes of course I thought lice) but then slowly spread until it reached every corner of his body. If you remember, we have three neighbors who are doctors, so naturally we got three opinions. The Israelis (gynecological surgeon and pediatric surgeon) were concerned but not alarmed. The Canadian (opthamologist) was simply alarmed. We followed their advice and took Bennett to Terem, a walk-in medical clinic. As Jim described it, the doctor there was not all that impressed. He did a cbc and strep test, both of which came back normal, and told us not to worry. Being the neurotic American Jewish mother that I am, I promptly emailed pediatrician extraordinare, Howard Bennett, for some long distance advice. (I will note here that this was not my first email exchange with Howard. As expected, he proved yet again that he is worth more than his weight in gold.) Given my detailed description of the rash (of which I will spare you) and the test results, he agreed that we should just let it be. For all of Bennett’s neurosis, fortunately his health is not one of them so he was rather oblivious to the whole thing.

Rash and all, Bennett actually went to his first day of school! That first day was last Sunday and was a day of Ulpan. The Ulpan is run by the city and brings kids together from several schools. Bennett is in a small class of third and fourth grade boys. He just loves it. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the regular school. He made it through one day and has proclaimed that he will not return. The school is large – 36 kids in his class – and extremely chaotic (which we are told is standard for Israeli schools). And of course everything is in Hebrew so he hasn’t a clue as to what is going on. We will try again this week, but I suspect it will be mommy school for a while until he gets more proficient in Hebrew.

Interestingly, Sabrina is also struggling a bit with school. I suspect the first few days were a honeymoon of sorts, and now it is settling in that she has to spend six days a week listening to people speak a language she doesn’t totally understand. Although she is complaining, she is going to school and comes home happy. She has some wonderful new friends, all here on sabbatical. She is anxious to make some Israeli friends which I know will happen in due time.

Elliot is also balking a bit about school. He complains and cries for me, but then has a great time when he is there. As I have mentioned in previous entries, his teacher is amazing and so I am not too worried. I can already see that the kids are starting to include him. He will be an integral part of the class in no time! Now I just need to build up my strength to leave him there even if he is crying. (Where are Doris, Francis, Candy, Elaine and Devon when I need them?)

Because the kids are struggling a bit, Jim and I both spent quite a bit of time with them this week. We’ve generally succeeded in having 1 or 2 kids in school each day and they’ve kind of rotated that success rate. The highlight for Jim this week was taking Bennett and Sabrina to the Israel Museum and then on a tour of the Western Wall tunnels. The main building at the Israel Museum is under renovation, but the two main attractions – the model of King Herod’s Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls – are still open. The kids walked around the model of Jerusalem and listened to hand-held audio devices with explanations of the various structures – many of which are still visible today. Bennett was particularly intrigued and wanted to continue listening to the audio clips for each of the most obscure landmarks long after Sabrina had grown tired of this attraction. He was fascinated by the model of the Second Temple, the structures on the Temple Mount and the explanations of who was permitted to enter the various areas (e.g., non-Jews could walk on the Temple Mount but not enter the inner-gate, non-Levite Jews could enter the first inner sanctum but not the second gate, Levites could enter the second gate for sacrifices, Cohen could enter the third gate and the chief Cohen alone could enter the Holy of Holies) and where the events of Jesus’ final days are thought to have played out. He was similarly intrigued with the explanation for why both the Jews and Moslems revere the location where the Holy of Holies once stood and the Dome of the Rock currently stands. Bennett is really developing a curiosity about the three great Abrahamic religions and wrestling with understanding the differences in our beliefs. At age 9 it’s some heavy material, but Bennett has family from each of these three traditions and it’s gratifying as a parent to watch him work through this process.

The kids were only modestly interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes so they moved on quickly.

The museum has added (at least since Jim and I were last here) a room devoted to the Aleppo Codex – a copy of the Tanach (the 24 canonical books of the Jewish Bible) which for the past 1000 years was regarded as the most accurate edition of the Tanach with complete vowels, cantorial markings and scrivener’s notes. Sabrina has been obsessed these days with “mysteries” (big or small) and Jim presented the kids with the “mystery” of the Aleppo Codex. They were mesmerized trying to keep track of the various twists and turns in the life of this medieval book, which passed through at least four cities, was stolen once, was nearly destroyed another time and temporarily disappeared only to surface again with substantial portions now missing. The kids were left wondering what may have become of those missing sections.

Immediately following the Israel Museum, Jim took Bennett and Sabrina to tour the tunnels along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and under the Moslem Quarter of the Old City. The tour explained clearly why the Kotel is so important to the Jews (i.e., because the western retaining wall for the Temple Mount is the closest of the four retaining walls to the Holy of Holies, which was not centered on the Temple Mount) and took us to a location deep under the city streets, about 150 yards from the Kotel plaza, where a portion of the original Western Wall is closest to the Holy of Holies. Bennett stopped to press his lips to the wall at that spot. I don’t know how he came to do that – he had not seen others doing this. But as I previously wrote, he is clearly touched by this magical place.

Sabrina is less noticeably impressed with Jerusalem but she did enjoy walking along the ancient subterranean pathways under the city. Both Bennett and Sabrina said the tunnels were one of their favorite experiences in Israel so far.

While Jim got to experience the Israel Museum and Western Wall Tunnels, the highlight for me was an afternoon with Bennett at the Tower of David museum where we literally walked through the history of the city of Jerusalem.

This Shabbat we finally made it to Shira Chadashah, a liberal modern orthodox synagogue recommended by several of our friends. Mindy (Sosland) guaranteed that the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night would bring me to tears. Either I am very predictable or she knows me too well, but sure enough twenty minutes into the service my friend Naomi was handing me a tissue. I must admit that when I walked into the service, I was immediately turned off by the mechiza. (For my non-Jewish readers, in orthodox synagogues women and men do not sit together. The women’s section and men’s section are divided by a wall/curtain of sorts called a “mechiza”.) Before we arrived, many of our friends here told us how wonderful Shira Chadashah is in its treatment of women. While many orthodox synagogues put women at the back of the room, in this synagogue they are divided down the middle. Also, while many synagogues erect an opaque barrier between the sections, the barrier at Shira Chadashah is less of a statement. Well, when I walked in and saw the sections were divided by a floor to ceiling curtain, I was immediately turned off. While that might be construed as liberal in an Israeli orthodox synagogue, I am used to a less obvious barrier where the men and women are divided more in form than in substance. While this synagogue is self-described as egalitarian, this mechiza suggested anything other than that to me.

Nonetheless, I took my seat and tried to have an open mind. I was somewhat distracted by Sabrina and her friends who were clearly not well received by a congregation that did not want child disturbances, but I soon found myself engrossed in the singing. As I looked around and saw myself surrounded by women – old and young, glamorous and granola, religious and not – all of whom were there for the single purpose of praying in a forum where they felt acknowledged, I was overcome with emotion and began to shed tears. Sabrina noticed it immediately and asked me why I was crying. I had no real words to describe for her what I was feeling at that moment. I told her I was crying because I was happy. It is true – I was happy. It is so hard for me to understand why I get emotional at these moments because I simply am not a strong believer. Perhaps I am more of a believer than I give myself credit for. Perhaps not. Perhaps prayer is so powerful that in the right venue and atmosphere, it can touch anyone.

I should say that Jim was not touched in exactly the same way. When I left the sanctuary I found him in a large padded room across the hall (where he’d apparently been for most of the service) with the boys and a gaggle of other kids who were going wild racing, wrestling, shrieking and generally doing anything other than praying. The boys had a blast and were about the last ones to leave the building. (And remember this is all BEFORE dinner.)

Because it was clear that ordinary children such as ours (who do not sit quietly for extended periods except in front of a TV) are simply not welcome at the synagogues we’ve attended so far, we decided to sit out Saturday morning services. We met two families from Sabrina’s class (both here on a one year sabbatical) for Shabbat lunch. The host family is from Riverdale, New York. The husband/father, Mason, is a Jewish educator at a conservative synagogue in Riverdale and is here for continuing education. The wife/mother, Sarah, is a doctor/educator who is still working full time so travels back to New York with some regularity. They have two great kids – Molly who is Sabrina’s age (and is a dead ringer for Madeline Moleneaux) and Sammy who is Elliot’s age. The other family is from Louisville, Kentucky where the husband/father, Josh, is a professor of philosophy and the wife/mother, Aya, is an employment lawyer. They have FIVE kids – one matches up with Sabrina and one matches up (roughly) with Bennett. As is expected here, Sarah cooked for an army so we had great food, great conversation and an overall great time. It was another great Shabbat.


Cynthia Samuels said...

I wish I could tell you how much fun it is to read these posts! I almost feel I know you better than even living next door.
I know the mechitza is hard to get used to but I have come to love my time with the women. I think if I had begun this when my boys were little and Rick and the two of them could sit together while I sat "alone" it might have been tougher but I really look forward to it.
Shirah Chadasha was very meaningful to me; especially hearing women's voices laining and leading prayers. I'm surprised about the kid thing though; our synagogue here is so kid-friendly that I'm probably spoiled.
Keep writing Nanci - it's wonderful for those of us back here!

Jacob A. Goldberg said...

A believer in what?