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.

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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!

Photo Essay Friday: Old City

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?