Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Purim Fun With a Dash of Homesickness

Every time I send out a blog entry, I spend the next 24 to 48 hours excitedly checking email to get your responses. There is a core group of you who respond every time – thank you! I really do love to hear from you. The majority of you, however, are what I call “silent readers” - people who read my blog and may even discuss it with others but who do not respond directly to me. My last entry about my search for spirituality seems to have touched a chord in quite a few of you because I heard from a significant number of silent readers. Interestingly, most silent readers responded with almost identical comments. The gist of those comments was that if I stop searching, I will find what I am looking for. Perhaps they are right; perhaps not.

As I explained to my Uncle Ira (my mother’s younger brother who has had a love-hate relationship with religion all his life), in my very humble opinion, it all depends on how one defines spirituality. I am not a firm believer in God so my definition of spirituality is very different from someone’s definition who does believe. I believe in my Judaism – in the culture, the tradition, the community and the hope that there is in fact a God. My spirituality revolves around those concepts.

Then again, maybe what I am searching for isn’t spirituality at all. Maybe it should be called something else. The truth is I know what I am looking for and I know when I find it. I last found it at our friends’ (Adam and Melissa Wergeles) daughter’s (Maya) bat mitzvah. (You might recall Maya is now 15 and here in Israel for several months on a Camp Ramah program.) Adam and Melissa are founding members of a congregation in Southern California called Ikar. Ikar felt to me like an adult version of Camp Ramah. As I found out after the service (during which I cried the entire time), the Rabbi and several congregants are in fact Ramah alumni. I found the service inclusive, interesting, warm, serious, and yes, at least for me, spiritual. I felt a connection – not to God but to my Judaism. I do wonder whether I would get the same feeling I got on that one day if I attended services weekly. Hmm…something to ponder. Interestingly Jim thinks that I am not searching for spirituality but rather that I am searching for the memories of my youth. Like I said before, it is all in how you define spirituality.

As I look back over my experiences of the last two months here in the Holy Land, I suppose it is fair to say that many of them did evoke that feeling even though I was outside of a religious prayer service. For example, the Friday that I went shopping for Shabbat evoked that “I feel connected to being Jewish” feeling, as did every Shabbat meal we have had with friends. Every time I even catch a glimpse of the walls of the Old City, I feel a connection. Every time I hear one of the kids sing a Hebrew song or prayer, I feel a connection. So perhaps all you silent readers are right – I should stop looking because the answer is right in front of me.

Speaking of spirituality, we had the honor of attending Sabrina’s mesibat siddur – the grade wide celebration of the first graders’ receipt of their first siddur (prayer book). The entire grade – all 90 of them – performed several songs in a night time assembly. I remember Bennett’s mesibat siddur at JPDS and how moved I was. I was expecting to feel the same way this time. I didn’t. I had a moment when all the kids came walking in, down the aisle onto the stage, but it was fleeting. It was a lovely program so I am not sure why I was not moved. Jim and I tried to analyze it. I think that part of the problem was I could not understand most of the program. Another problem was that I only knew and cared about 5 of the 90 kids. At JPDS I know and care about them all and I know that the other parents (or most of them) feel the same way. Oh well. She did a wonderful job and was very proud in spite of herself. (I say that because she hated all the rehearsals over the preceding weeks.)

The best part of the night for me was the realization that in two short months, we have made some really wonderful, interesting friends who feel much like family. Like at home, we have met most of our new friends through the children. I have already told you about the Arbels (the Israeli doctors who live in the next building) and, of course, the Whitefields (Maya the shin shin’s parents), all of whom we love dearly. In addition to those families, we have our sabbatical friends (people here on sabbatical as well). We are friendly with the Potters, a family from Vancouver. These are the Canadians that live in our building and who have a nine year old son with whom Bennett is very friendly. Naomi and Michael are both incredibly smart people who we enjoy. In addition to Daniel, the nine year old, they have two older daughters, Shira and Ruth, who Sabrina and Elliot love. All of our other friends are through Sabrina’s school. There are three anglo children in her first grade class whose families are here on sabbatical and we have become friendly with all of them. Mason and Sarah Voit are here from Riverdale, NY, with their two kids Molly, age 6 and in Sabrina’s class, and Sammy, age 3.5 and buddies with Elliot. Mason is a Jewish educator and is here on a fellowship program of sorts (Melton). Sarah is a doctor/administrator who has maintained her full time job in the States by working crazy hours and going back and forth a bit. Meir and Tara Feldman, both Reform rabbis, are here with their two kids Gavi, age 7, and Adina, age 3. When they return to the States this summer they are going to share the job as head rabbi at a synagogue in Great Neck. Meir had a career as a lawyer before becoming a Rabbi (he knows David Seide from those days) and so I find him particularly fascinating. (Don’t worry Dad – I am NOT going back to school!!) Aya and Josh Golding are here from Louisville, KY, where Aya is an employment lawyer and Josh is a philosophy professor. They have FIVE kids, one of whom is friends with Sabrina (Nessa) and one of whom is buddies with Bennett (Nathaniel). It is interesting because we would be friends with all of these people anywhere we lived. In other words, we are not friends merely because we were thrown together. We all genuinely like each other (or at least Jim and I think so…). They are all really great people and have different things to offer. We hope to maintain all the friendships when this ends. (Think camp friends.)

I am also becoming friendly with a woman originally from New Zealand, Annette Livingstone. Annette has SEVEN children and is only 36! I met Annette because Bennett is friendly with one of her children, Yesherun. Annette is playing a critical role in my life – she informs me of all the interesting shiyurs (lessons) for the week and encourages me to attend. We went to a great shiyur last week by Leah Golomb. I really liked it and think I might even go again next time. We spent a day as a family with the Livingstones last week when we went to their house for a Purim meal (Seudat Purim).

Purim is the Jewish holiday which celebrates Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai who together saved the Jews in Persia from Haman and King Ahasveirosh. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther (the Megillat Esther in hebrew), by dressing in costume, by giving charity and by delivering Mishloach Manot (gift baskets) to people in your life. In the U.S., Purim is fun but the fun is somewhat limited to the one night of the Megillah reading and a carnival or two. Well, in Israel, the entire country turns into one big Purim celebration – akin to Christmas meets Halloween in the U.S. We wore costumes for so long that by the night of the actual holiday, the kids were a bit burned out. We went to parades, festivals, parties, shows and there were many more that we missed. We had two experiences worth noting. One was the Megillah reading. Back in the U.S. we always go to synagogue for the reading. In Israel, many people have private parties during which they read the Megillah. The Arbels had such a party so we went there for the authentic experience. Jim and I enjoyed it – all of the family members (parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles) participated as they simultaneously read and acted out the story of Esther. It was a bit boring for the kids though because it was all in Hebrew and they couldn’t really understand. It is a great alternative to the chaos of synagogue on Purim night though. I am seriously considering hosting such a party next year. If I do we will certainly add English to the mix for the benefit of those of us who don’t understand all the Hebrew.

The other noteworthy experience was a Purim parade in Sde Boker, a town in the Negev (south). The weekend before Purim we went on an overnight to the Negev, ostensibly to sleep with the Bedouins. We started the trip in Mitzpe Ramon, sort of the Grand Canyon of Israel. Since I have a severe, irrational fear of heights (thanks Dad), I stayed behind in the visitor center while everyone else checked out the cliffs. I am told it is very impressive. We then went to an Alpaca Farm which the kids all loved. Elliot even rode an alpaca with Bennett leading the animal! (Debbie – remember when we did that in Smuggler’s Notch?) Look for photos on the blog site which Jim will hopefully post soon (bramsonquest.blogspot.com). We then went to what we thought was going to be a Bedouin village, but it turned out to be more like a campsite with Bedouin style tents … and of course camels. There was a Bedouin style meal served in a tent on large family platters, which we ate on rugs and cushions – it felt a bit like the restaurant Marrakesh. Jim and Sabrina made it the entire night in the tent but Bennett, Elliot and I spent the night in one of the guest rooms. (Elliot started the night in the tent and slept there for several hours but when he woke in the night he came to find me. As Jim handed him off to me at 1am he very sweetly asked Jim, “Am I still a Bedouin?”) Although we were a bit disappointed, we nonetheless had fun.

The next day we headed for Sde Boker, the town which is home to Ben Gurion’s grave and kibbutz. Apparently in Sde Boker they have an annual Purim parade and carnival so we were in luck. The parade is put on by a boarding school in town. It is an ecology based high school so all the floats in the parade were hand made by the high school kids from recycled materials. This parade was GREAT!!! We highly recommend it if you ever find you ever find yourselves in Israel on the Shabbat before Purim. The parade exuded ruach (spirit) as all the high school kids were having a blast singing and dancing and displaying their floats. It was very impressive. We will post pictures of this as well.

On our drive home I had a momentary lapse in sanity and agreed to stop in Ashkelon and Ashdod. (I can see you rolling your eyes John and Ranit.) Bennett and Jim had gone on a learning tiyul (trip) last week during which they spent the day visiting areas on the ancient border between the Phillistine and Israelite kingdoms (Beit Shemesh, Lachish and Tel Gat). They read the passages from the books of the Prophets that described the protracted conflicts between these two people and then walked in the footsteps of some of the epic battles – such as the meeting of David and Goliath. During the trip, Bennett learned that the five major Phillistine cities were Gat, Lachish, Gaza, Ashdod and Ashkelon. Having visited the sites of the first two and recognizing that Gaza isn’t possible to visit, Bennett grew eager to visit the remaining sites of ancient Ashdod and Ashkelon. Jim had (wisely) cautioned Bennett that they would need to talk to me about it first and that the odds were not good that I’d go along with it. So Bennett was thrilled when I said we could stop there. Ashkelon was pleasant walking along the ruins of the original Canaanite city (the sign said this is one of the oldest sea ports in the world, Hmm….) and in Ashdod we found a massive playground that the kids enjoyed. I spent most of my time looking at the sky and jumping at every loud noise. I’d like to say it was just paranoia, but the prior week there was a rocket that struck a school in Ashkelon. Fortunately there was no one in the school at the time. In any case, we had no such excitement during our brief visit.

This past weekend we went to Yaffo for the Arbel’s third child’s bat mitzvah party. It was a lot of fun but very different than a bat mitzvah in the U.S. First of all, they did not have a religious service. They are observant and since Hallel would not read from the torah, they decided to abstain from the whole thing. Second, the party was really just that – a party – with limited speeches, and no pomp nor circumstance. Finally, most people came in jeans (which meant we were all significantly overdressed). The festivities took place at a deaf and blind association. Everyone had the opportunity to experience blindness and deafness – there was a hand-signing session and they had a “dark” room for performing various tasks without the aid of sight. Hallel is a very special girl so we were thrilled to share in her celebration.

We spent the night in Tel Aviv at a hotel I will highly recommend for families – the Isrotel. Unfortunately the weather was bad on Saturday so other than a nice walk on the beach, we did not take full advantage of the city. We will certainly go back.

Due to inclement weather, weekend tiyulim (trips) and various illnesses (yes even I have been afflicted but as of the date of this entry I am optimistic that this too shall pass), I have not attended any new religious services.

A few quick words on the family and then I will sign off: We are all anxiously awaiting the arrival of Spring (because yes as Ranit promised the rain has set in) and various visitors. In the meantime, Bennett and Jim are spending some time playing and coaching baseball. Although it is not as organized as CapCity, Bennett is really enjoying it and is making some new friends. Bennett continues to enjoy Ulpan and being homeschooled. Sabrina is generally happy but continues to miss home. Although she enjoys school when she goes, every day is a struggle to get her out the door. Elliot is the same story as Sabrina. Jim refers back to the sabbatical book he read before we came and keeps assuring me that this is all text book. I’m sure it is but that doesn’t make it easier.

Anyway, that is all for now. We hope you are all well.


Jacob A. Goldberg said...

why do you keep worrying about God? why do you have to believe? You worry about yourself and let God worry about God. it's pascal's wager: God's existence is irrelevant; if God exists, then lead a good and fulfilling life because of an eternal reward in Olam Ha'bah (not Pascal's phrase). if God does not exist, then you've still lived a good and decent life. Like I, you find spirituality in music and family. Those are sources of your emotional response and that is spirituality. It doesn't hurt to study a little because we are blessed with thousands of years of our forebearers polishing the perfect wheel so we don't have to re-invent it. so that's what your friends mean when they say, stop searching. shabbat shalom

Jennifer said...

Your observations are food for the soul and I find myself growing hungry between your entries!

I agree with others' suggestions that if you stop and look around you, the answers you seek are right before you.

At the same time, I can't help believing that there is no ultimate endpoint, no pinnacle of spirituality. In the attempt to grab for it, it slips through your grasp. It is a journey filled with moments along the way. And it comes with many names; call it G-d, Nature, Life, Love. My own experiences of profoundly spiritual moments have occurred, at times, in unexpected places and circumstances. The one commonality in each experience is being utterly present in the moment; a temporary reprieve of past or future preoccupation, devoid of worries and regrets. For a moment. And while I can help to invite such feelings, I cannot control their arrival.

Thank you for sharing your adventures, both without and within.