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.


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.)

Five Vignettes: Jerusalem

1. On the Shabbos before her wedding, a kallah has a last hurrah, of sorts, with her community of women – mother, aunts, teachers, friends. The Shabbos Kallah isn’t really a bachelorette party; rather, it’s a chance for everyone to offer blessings and advice for the bride on her impending marriage, and to calm her jitters.

An alumna of my seminary got married last night, and on Shabbos the current students prepared a shaleshudes for her. We played wedding-themed games, sang wedding songs, and exchanged brachos, blessings, for the future. This wouldn’t be so remarkable, except that most of the students have just met her this week, yet somehow it went without saying that we were all responsible for her. In our community, this is simply what one does to make a bride happy.

2. Walking home one evening after school, about a week after my arrival, I was feeling maladjusted and uneasy, and wondering when I would start to feel at home here. Right on cue, two American girls with suitcases crossed the street to ask me, in Hebrew, to direct them to a particular address. I knew where to send them.

3. The school placed me, for Shabbos lunch, with a Sefardi family who sang the most beautiful tune for “Chai Hashem.” I’ve been humming it ever since. Both husband and wife are musicians, and upon learning that I played the oboe, he told me about a Gemara which says that one of the instruments played in the Bais Mikdash was an oboe.

4. I attended last night’s aforementioned wedding, just outside the Old City. The kallah was lovely, the chasan was glowing, there was nary a dry eye at the chuppah. After dancing with the bride, my friend A. and I felt like stopping by the holiest spot in the world on our way to the bus stop. We sat at the Kotel, saying Tehillim and soaking it in, for an hour before we caught, by sheer providence, the very last bus home.

5. This, taken from my balcony:

Second-Class Citizens

I’ve always been mystified by those who maintain that Orthodox women are oppressed. (The problem seems to be, more often than not, that they’ve never actually met an Orthodox woman.) But I’ve found the solution: everyone would understand the honor accorded to women in the Orthodox community if only we could bring them all to Yerushalayim. Why? Because of the death notices.
Huh? What are those?

Guilt and Grieving

This is a time of mourning in the Jewish calendar. We mourn for the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem, and for the many other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish nation in our history. I’ve been feeling a deep and genuine sadness, but for all the wrong reasons.

I moved away from St. Louis, my home for the past four years, last Sunday. I loved living there; I miss it terribly. I miss the Southern hospitality, the absence of traffic, the delicious tap water, the friendliness of strangers, the tree-lined streets, the amazing shul that became my home and my second family. I miss Forest Park. I miss my cozy little apartment. I even feel a bit nostalgic for the thick, oppressive heat of a St. Louis summer.

At another time of year I might allow myself to wallow in missing this place I love, but not this week. I feel guilty for being sad about moving, when there are so many real tragedies to mourn. And on a deeper level, I feel guilty for being so attached to the “home” I’ve made for myself in galus. I shouldn’t accept or enjoy my life in exile. I should have this same grief, this same homesickness, all the time – but I should be missing Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land.

People often say that it’s so difficult to tap into the grief of Tisha b’Av because we no longer remember what it was like to have the Bais Mikdash – we don’t even know what we’re missing. This is true for me, not just regarding the Temple, but regarding the entire land of Israel. I’ve visited briefly, I’ve vacationed there, but I’ve never lived there, so though I miss it intellectually – because I know I should – I’ve never felt the painful, acute longing that I want to feel.

This year is a bit different. This year, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and heading back to my Homeland to learn Torah. Between leaving St. Louis and arriving in Israel (in three weeks!), I have no real home base – I’m floating around, feeling pretty unanchored. This is how it should be for a Jew in exile: we should feel unsettled, unstable, homeless, because we are. So instead of suppressing my feelings, I’m redirecting them. I’m allowing myself to feel the anxiety that comes with not having a permanent place of one’s own, because the next time I have a home – a place where I can unpack my bags and stay awhile – I’ll be in Israel.

I wish everyone a meaningful fast. May this be the last Tisha b’Av we mark with fasting.


Neder vs. Shvua

Last week’s parsha, Matos, opens with a discussion about vows, and the circumstances under which they may (or may not) be broken. The passage (Bamidbar 30:2-17) distinguishes between a neder (usually translated as “vow”) and a shvua (usually translated as “oath”). These seem like the same thing in English, but there is an important distinction between the two in halacha: a neder changes the status of some external thing, while a shvua initiates an internal change in the one who swears the oath. For example, if I swear that I will never again eat a burger, that’s a neder, because it changes the status of the burger from permitted to forbidden (but only for me, of course). But if I swear that I will learn a mishnah a day for the next year, that’s a shvua, because I’ve changed something within myself – I used to have the option of learning a mishnah a day or not, but now I’m required to learn a mishnah a day. Are you with me so far?

Now, here’s what puzzles me. I frequently hear people use the phrase “bli neder” when using language of promising – “I’ll be there at three, bli neder” or “I’ll call you after Shabbos, bli neder.” I’ve also seen people write “bli neder,” or simply b”n, after their name on Tehillim sign-up sheets and the like. Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake, that it’s proper to say something like this to avoid the possibility of making an actual, binding vow. In all these examples, shouldn’t one say “bli shvua” instead? Clearly, these kinds of promises are of the second sort – the sort that creates a new internal obligation, rather than changing the status of an external object. So why is it that the phrase “bli neder” – which is undoubtedly correct in some, but not most, circumstances – is so popular, while “bli shvua” – by far the more useful of the two – is totally neglected?