Nostalgia Redux

As Pesach approaches, I’ve been feeling extra nostalgic for my time in St. Louis. Just a year ago, SJ and I sat on this fire escape, washing and checking endless heads of Romaine lettuce for the seder, preparing small mountains of vegetables to be sauteed and roasted, and enjoying the sunshine. I already knew, even as I lived through it, that I would look back on this as one of the best times of my life.
Even so, I couldn’t be happier to be spending this Pesach in Jerusalem, where the grocery stores are advertising special deals for a holiday I actually celebrate, where the city arranges while-you-wait blowtorch kashering and biur chametz stations on street corners, where “chag kasher v’sameach!” has already been the standard greeting for at least three weeks. There is an indescribably comforting camaraderie in being surrounded by thousands of people who are all, at this moment, making the same preparations that Jews have made at this time of year for hundreds of generations: cleaning and purging the house of all chametz, cooking for the seder, buying wine and matzah by the crate, and then, in one mad dash to the finish line, searching the house by the light of a candle, burning the leftover bits of bread, preparing the charoses, checking pounds of lettuce (or grating pounds of horseradish), setting the table, arranging the seder plate, and, finally, with a deep breath, lighting the yom tov candles and sitting down to a night of storytelling and good food. There is nothing, but nothing, quite like Pesach.

Only in Israel

I can’t believe that in all this time, I haven’t written about a single Only in Israel moment. My roommates and I moved to a new apartment today, an experience which, if nothing else, supplied us with a wealth of classic, oddball Israeli anecdotes. But this one takes the cake: this morning, the moving crew arrived at 7 am. We showed them which things needed to be loaded up and moved, and they started hauling furniture, appliances, and boxes down to the truck. After several loads, the guy in charge finally thought to ask: “So, where exactly are we taking this stuff?”

Ups and Downs

Much has happened since I last posted here, some of it trivial, but new and exciting:

  • I learned how to tell which batch of pitot is freshest by the amount of condensation on the bag.
  • I shopped at the shuk often enough to have favorite spots for produce, dried fruit, bulk grains and spices.
  • I finished a Jane Austen novel that wasn’t Pride and Prejudice.
  • I got a haircut.
And some not-so-trivial things, as well:
  • Gilad came home.
  • A young woman I met in St. Louis – 28 years old, with a 3-year-old little girl – passed away tragically of cancer, after much suffering.
  • I celebrated my twenty-second birthday.
  • My cousin gave birth to a baby girl here in Israel.
Each deserves its own post, and I fully intend to write them soon, while I still have fresh memories of these events. But I am emotionally drained from a week of intense celebration and mourning. Soon I will go back to school, and settle into my routine, and you’ll hear about my learning and my adventures bein hazmanim. Right now, it’s about all I can do, between braiding my challahs and cooking my cholent, to wish you Shabbat Shalom and Shabbat Menucha – Sabbath peace and Sabbath rest.

Yom Kippur Post-Mortem

What can I say? It was Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. It was great. It was so, so great.

We davened at the men’s school, which is located near the women’s school but not near our apartments. On Rosh Hashana we all walked two miles from our neighborhood to the yeshiva, which was fine considering we left before the sun was up and hot, but even a pre-dawn two-mile walk on Yom Kippur is a recipe for disaster. So we slept at school. On Thursday night we borrowed mattresses from a kindly old couple and carried them – under arms, atop heads – back to our building.

Even though I was technically more prepared for Yom Kippur than I’ve ever been (having been in seminary for the past month learning about teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka), when erev YK rolled in I started feeling uneasy. So late Thursday night I sat down with the vidui, the confession that we recite ten times over the course of YK, and all my vidui-related materials from school, and thought about what I wanted to say to God over the course of the coming day.

I woke up early Friday morning feeling nervous – butterflies-in-the-stomach, something-important-is-coming kind of nervous. I davened, guzzled water, prepared several meals of complex carbohydrates and proteins. In the early afternoon, I showered, packed up my things, dressed for the holiday, and got on a bus. I davened mincha at school (vidui practice round), ate the seuda mafsekes with the other girls, lit candles, took a deep breath, and left for the yeshiva.

A magical thing was happening as I made my way to kol nidrei. Hundreds of Yerushalmim, dressed in white, were beginning to flood the streets as they headed toward shul. The last few cars were pulling into their spaces; a thick, powerful, tranquil silence was falling over the city, and I had the distinct sense that the same was true all across our tiny, wonderful country.

The nighttime davening was nice, but I wasn’t feeling well – something I’d eaten hadn’t agreed with me – so my kavana was not at its best. Nevertheless, I made it through kol nidrei and maariv and said a few perakim of Tehillim before dropping off to sleep.

I woke with my alarm at 6:00 Shabbos morning. I went to shul and found myself drifting in and out of focus, unable to connect to a powerful image and stay there. (On Rosh Hashana, I found it helpful to picture a magnificent throne, solid gold and silver, hundreds of feet tall, and to remind myself that this was only a fraction of the majesty of the Kiseh haKavod, the Throne of Glory upon which Hashem “sits”, as it were.) There were many moving moments, of course, but I wanted to feel continually inspired and I was frustrated with myself that it just wasn’t happening. I’d planned to stay at the yeshiva during the break between mussaf and mincha, saying Tehillim and reading about the avoda of the Kohen Gadol on YK. Instead I went back to school and took a nap.

I rested fitfully until my friend S. woke me for mincha. We walked back to the yeshiva and I said my shmoneh esrei. That’s when I started to feel weak from the fast. I’d been mildly hungry all morning, but the jelly legs and the shaky hands were coming full on now, and I was starting to despair. I ditched the rest of mincha and sat outside, getting some fresh air.

Then I realized I could ask for help.

God, I said, I don’t know when I’ll have another Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. I want to feel the power of this day. Please send me some inspiration. Make this last tefilla meaningful. 

Maybe the inspiration and the power and the joy were there all along, and I just wasn’t tuned in. Maybe it’s just that I’ve always loved and connected to neilah. Or maybe God answered my tefilla. Whatever the reason, neilah was . . . extraordinary.

I’ve experienced beautiful davening many times in my life: quiet, powerful, private davening; energetic, joyous, Carlebachian singing; selichos that absolutely move one to teshuva. But the experience of being in a room filled with hundreds of people whose only concern is getting as close to God as possible cannot be replicated. We stood together in the bais medrash, singing each line of Avinu Malkeinu one by one, screaming out Shma Yisrael, Baruch Shem Kevod, Hashem Hu haElokim, and everything else, everything physical – the pain of the fast, the pain of standing for hours – was completely replaced by a transcendant energy and closeness.

***

As neilah ends, as we say Hashem Hu haElokim seven times, God ascends up through the seven levels of Shamayim, ending the closeness that was available to us during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. But in Jerusalem, you can feel God’s presence close by even as Yom Kippur comes to a close, because as the stars come out, the sukkahs are going up across the city.

There are no fewer than eleven distinct sukkahs in this frame. Can you spot them all?

Wishing you a joyous chag!

קול דודי דופק

Once upon a time, there was a very great king who ruled over an enormous kingdom. He had many loyal subjects, a splendid palace, stables filled with beautiful, strong horses, miles of flower gardens, and orchards overflowing with sweet produce. The king was happy and at peace, but he wanted someone with whom he could share all of this goodness. He decided to search for a wife. 

The king searched high and low, and finally, he found her – the perfect wife, the perfect recipient of his goodness. He married her and brought her to his palace, and for a short time, their happiness was exquisite. But the new queen soon grew unhappy. She was not of royal birth, and she felt that she was not cut out for life in the palace. In the palace, she realized, the queen must always be beautiful and courteous, and she found it too difficult to live up to the king’s expectations. She loved the king, and she loved being near him, but life in the palace was simply too challenging. She decided to run away. 

Disgraced and miserable, she returned to her village and tried to resume her old life. But something had changed in her. Now that she knew how much more there was to life, she saw the villagers as coarse and simple. The villagers saw how she pitied them, and they hated her and persecuted her terribly. Now what could she do? She could not stay in the village, because she did not belong here, and she could not return to the palace, because she had betrayed the king’s love. 

As she considered her predicament, the king was searching for her. He traveled for many days to her small village and left no stone unturned. Finally, he knocked on the door of her little house late one night, but by the time she gathered the courage to open it, he was gone. 

This moment in the mashal of Shir haShirim – the moment when the King knocks on our door, searching for us – is Aseres Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. The pasuk in Isaiah tells us: “.דרשו ה’ בהמצאו; קראוהו בהיותו קרוב” Seek Hashem while He may be found; call out to Him while He is near. Do not wait too long to open the door – He will only wait there until Neilah. 

Of course, this is not the end of the story. Sof sof, the king found his queen, swept her off her feet, and brought her back to his palace. The queen protested – “How can I come back to the palace with you after I betrayed you? You gave me everything that is good and beautiful, and I threw it away it for life in the village.” The king answered her, “You have forgotten about the special provision in our kesuba that no other marriage has ever had. It says that no matter how many times you betray me, I will always take you back in the end.” May we open the door wide this Yom Kippur, and may this be the year that the King takes us back once and for all.

(Mashal heard from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.)