Mel’s (not-so) Quarterly Reflections – Take 2 and 3 combined

May 1st marked 9 months of living in Israel. I’m not totally sure how that happened, but it did! So, since I missed the 6 month recap, here is one that covers both my second and third quarter here.

Living:

We adapted to our small space but are looking at apartments to move closer to Pardes and the synagogues we have found we liked and others we are told we will like.

Learning:

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best thing about our Israel experience. We have both been amazed at how much we have been able to learn in these past few months and how far we have come in our skills. Needless to say, we are also aware of how much more we have to go!

We will both be Fellows at Pardes next year, so there for sure another year of solid learning in our future.

Exploring:

Ya, we still haven’t really done that. *crosses fingers* Hoooopefully while we have some down time this summer we will be able to do more of this!

Community:

We have embraced that the reality of our experience is that our learning communities are really our primary community and we have made some amazing friends. Also, the sense of community here is much different than in the US.

We have found two synagogues which we really enjoy and hope to move closer to them, as well as some others in that area which we here will help us feel more connected.

Food:

So, apparently, I do actually like hummus and tahina. Thats probably the biggest thing to share food wise. We are trying to get back to a simpler and cleaner diet, with the abundance of fresh produce its really quite silly not to!

We have also deduced that the secret to Marzipan’s deliciousness must be crack. It is the only explanation for their addictive tendencies. 😉

Safety:

Amud Annan (Operation Pillar of Defense) rocked our world for a few weeks with its tensions, sirens, and uncertainty. However, the cease fire came quickly and lasted solidly for a few months. Even now as it has been violated and the rock-throwing, stabbing, etc incidents of terror have risen in the areas near the borders, there is still a sense of calm.

As such, our largest safety concern has again become the simple act of being pedestrians.

Surprising realizations:

There are only two season in Israel: Rainy season from Sukkot to Pesach, and mosquito season from Pesach – Sukkot.

Kitniyot on Pesach is awesome. (See the post about that for details.)

The “settlements” don’t feel like settlements so much as suburbs…..

We think about being homesick much less often, but when it does come it is just as intense.

Rak b’yisrael (Only in Israel):

Rockets fall across the country and people continue on about their daily lives, but snow is imminent and the entire city shuts down.

National holidays which should fall Saturday night/Sunday get pushed back a day so that people do not begin their preparations on Shabbat.

Busses wish you happy holidays.

There is no customer service and people are rude, but in a moment of need someone is always available to help.

Do you have other things you want to know about? Feel free to ask in the comments! 🙂

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Leaping forward or left in the dust…

The Sharansky Plan features a proposed permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. This is what it would look like. (photo credit: JTA) {Post by Melissa}

I have had many questions recently about my feelings about the proposed and so-called “Sharansky Plan” to fix the issues of davening spaces at the kotel and to make it more accessible to all Jews. I’ve been hesitant to share what I think because I am very torn, but I like to share my opinions when they are requested, so I’ll do my best to pull apart my conflicting viewpoints.

To start with, I have to commend Natan Sharansky for stepping up to the plate on this one. I know it can’t be easy to be in his position, but this is a big step forward and shifting the realities of the kotel as a space for all Jews. His plan to expand Robinson’s Arch to be a continuous part of the kotel plaza and with full access to the public is brilliant. This is more than a trichitza – it is a new space for egalitarian Jewry to daven in a way which is meaningful and consistent. I think it is amazing that the plan has been endorsed by American Jewry across the spectrum and accepted by Women of the Wall. There are many logistical issues to be sorted through, but if it comes together, it will be a huge step forward for egalitarian Jews.

That said, it is a step backward for me and other women who hope for the ability to sing and dance and pray aloud at the kotel who are not egalitarian.

While it is hard to say if the kotel police will arrest women for praying aloud at the kotel when not wearing tallitot and who are not affiliated with Women of the Wall, the precedent has been set and this plan does nothing to counter that. The mechitza section of the kotel will essentially remain a Charedi synogauge, and the newly expanded egalitarian section will be governed by the Jewish Agency.

Where does that leave Modern Orthodox Jewish women who are looking for women’s tefillah? Where does that leave all the Orthodox supporters of Women of the Wall? Where does that leave seminary girls who want to sing and dance and celebrate together in the holy space? Where does that leave a non-egalitarian woman who wears a talit or wants to say kaddish for a loved one?

From what I can see, it leaves us standing in silence in the minuscule women’s section – not exactly the big win for everyone that many would like to believe.

So while I want to celebrate the (potential) leap forward for my egalitarian friends and celebrate the liberation of part of the kotel from Charedization, I can’t help but be saddened that they have left their fellow supporters of women’s tefillah at the kotel in the dust.

The women's section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. (Photo by Melissa)

The women’s section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. — And anyone who wants to claim Kol Isha as the reason, look at this photo and tell me you *must* daven close enough to the women’s section to hear us. (Photo by Melissa)

Why is this year different from all other years?

Post by Melissa

If I added a fifth question to the seder this year it would have been: Why is this year different from all other years?

The simple answer is of course – because we’re in Israel! But that is only the tip of the iceberg, it runs so much greater than that and I hope I can find the words to convey it.

(I apologize in advance, but I simply can’t translate all the Hebrew words in this post. I think those who don’t understand will likely be able to get the jist without it, and if you really get stuck, feel free to ask in the comments.)

The uniqueness of the year started before Pesach even started, actually. We got out of school a whole week before Pesach! Presumably it is so other girls in the midrasha could go home and help their families to clean, but for most of us over-seas girls it meant a week of vacation – basically spring break. I spent that week working a lot and taking some time to relax and see my husband, who also had the week off. We did run errands which we had been putting off until we had time and dealt with assorted apartment things, but we didn’t really clean our place until the last day and we were totally fine. One small benefit of living in a shoebox I suppose!

Also, having spent the past month leading up to Pesach learning about various laws and customs (including a fabulous mock seder) I was in the mindset already and excited for the chag  to start and the feel was in the air. Products in the grocery stores were abundantly heckshered for Pesach, though the kitniyot/non-kitniyot distinctions were not always so clear. Restaurants all over and shops in the shuk had up new teudot. No one could deny the impending holiday!

Then it was seder night! We were caught off guard with the davening  of Hallel out loud at aravit/maariv, but relished the unique opportunity before heading off to our hosts home. We were surprised to realize it was just his family, his in-laws from America, and two other Pardes students. Not only was it a small group, it was a very well educated group and we went through the entire hagaddah in Hebrew, reading not quickly but not slowly, moving right along, with a few questions and good discussions, and even checking in the Gemara for the language of one mishna which we weren’t sure was the original language. (A far cry from my childhood of reading the Maxwell House haggadah in English, with just my grandfather (z”l) and me reading the segments after dinner to ourselves.)

At the end of the seder we approached the famous line “l’shana haba b’Yerushalim” and rather than end there as is so often the case, we really put the emphasis on the last word: ha’bnuya. Remining ourselves that while we are in Jerusalem this year, we want to be in a “rebuilt” Jerusalem next year – one with the Beit HaMikdash standing and the return of the Korban Pesach. After that, we sang songs (again, all in Hebrew) and then we were introduced to a lovely family tradition which we are going to keep for ourselves – singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. It was a truly special moment to stand together in an apartment in Jerusalem singing Hatikva and celebrating the freedom we have today.

The next key difference was something I never expected to write here. I ate kitniyot at home. (See this post for my past views on this topic.)  I still hold strong to my familial roots and minhagim, but somehow, this year in Israel I felt it was time to test the waters. I initially pondered eating kitniyot because I have basically become a vegetarian again, with the general goal of being MOoShY again (meat only on Shabbat and Yom Tov) and hummus has become a staple source of protein for me. I knew I wanted to be functional and not make myself sick as I have in years past, so I started there. But I as thought about it more, I decided that if I was going to do it, I would do the whole thing, then I would have an experience to base my future decision off of. To paraphrase a rabbi friend: before you decide not to do something, you should do it for a year  – so this was my year of kitniyot. And I’m surprised to share that it was oddly not as weird as I expected and it still felt 100% like Pesach. I actually joked around that I was going to write a children’s book entitled: How the Rice Cake Saved Passover.*  (Let’s be honest. It could still happen, so just remember you saw it here first!) I only ate matzah at the chag/Shabbat meals and otherwise ate a lot of rice/rice cakes and veggies with hummus and tahina. It was a lovely experience and I look forward to repeating (and refining) it next year.

We relished being able to be home and not having to worry about missing work or school, and the strains that has put on us in years past. We had nowhere to be, and nothing to do but enjoy Pesach. Unfortunately between D and I, one of us was sick all week so we did not get to enjoy the country in the way we hoped to, but instead just spent a lot of time relaxing together and thinking about the fun things we can do in the summer and next year.

This year was truly a special Pesach experience. Beyond what I’ve described, there was just something in the air which made it a really amazing moment. Perhaps after next Pesach, I will be able to describe it better but for now, we will resume our chametz eating and keep praying that l’shana haba b’Yerushalyim ha’bnuya.

*Copyright Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, April 2013.

A different kind of holy water

Photo from tumblr – Post by Melissa

Being in Israel, the prayers for rain feel so much more powerful and connected than they are in the US.

They are timed here differently to perfectly coincide with the holidays (and people’s travels home from Jerusalem after Sukkot during the Temple Era when people made the great pilgrimage on foot) and the agricultural seasons in Israel.

They have a deeper meaning as everyone is aware of the water crisis here in the desert. While people may be annoyed with days of rain, they are always also very excited and recognize its critical importance. People actually discuss the water levels of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee, our largest source of water) on the street and around Shabbat tables, and it even has its own twitter account.

We noticed the first major rains came right around the start of the davening (praying) changes in the fall, and now with spring upon us, people have been debating when the rains would end. Many people said that because it had been so long since our last rain storm we were done. Others put their faith in the fact that we have another week or so to ask for rain, so we were due for one last storm.

Apparently, Hashem is paying attention to our “local calls,” because we had a nice bit of rain right before Pesach (and another surprise shower this morning) – gives a whole new meaning to holy water!

 

Living History

I am still in shock over these experience, but knew that I needed to find a moment to actually write about it, so I am going to attempt to encapsulate two of the most amazing experiences of my life in words.

1) Maccabean Mikvah!

The 8th day of Chanukah, the women of Tochnit Alisa (the English language college and beyond program at Nishmat) had a lovely tiyul. One of our instructors live in Modi’in, just down the road from a relatively recently discovered archaeological site – a Hashmonean era site for Jewish ritual life. For those of you who might not be making the connection, the Maccabean revolt was in the Hashmonean era, so visiting the site on the last day of Chanukah was a pretty amazing way of connecting to history, both religiously and physically.

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

As we approached the site, it became clear that this was a unique find. The group gravitated towards the large space that was once the Beit Knesset (area where they prayed), however I was distracted by a series of steps leading into a hole in the ground. Could it be? Was I really seeing an ancient mikvah? Our guide began to speak about the space and referenced the mikvah and as quickly as I could, I scurried away from the group and back over towards the mikvah to investigate. I walked down the steps and just stood there – soaking up the moment. Here I was, standing the space where women (and men) had immersed thousands of years ago, in an era where ritual impurity had a meaning beyond what we can imagine.

I have a personal tradition to always think about my ancestors upholding the laws of taharat hamishpacha and immersing in the mikvah around the time of my own immersion. I always take some time in the waters to reflect upon their living nature and that of the history which they inherently tie me to. Now, that will take on a whole new meaning. I can connect to this phyiscal space as well and the emotions of really feeling that connection.

2) Holy of Holies!

Last week, Tochnit Alisa again had an outing. This time, we went to the Generations Center and on a Kotel Tunnel tour. (It was a nice touch that our guide for the latter was my Nach teacher!) One of the first things we saw on the tour was another ancient mikvah! Though this one was through a piece of glass on the floor because it was so very deep compared to where the “floor” of the tunnels is, it was still an amazing thing to see.

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

As we walked along and stopped to learn about the history I kept noticing religious women bustling past. At one point, we looked at the various archways and discovered that just ahead of us was an archway, directly underneath Wilson’s Arch – which is the closest place that men can pray to the Kodesh Kodeshim, the holy of holies from the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It turns out, there is a place directly under that in the tunnels where women can also pray. However, unlike the men’s area – there are always women there and anyone who knows how to get there can go at almost any time they want. We stopped in this place and our guide/my teacher allowed us some time to daven (pray) there. I stood in place and sung my favorite meditative line to myself and was almost in tears. I felt so connected to the history of the Jewish people and the plight of the temple eras and its destruction.

While I am the first to say that living in Israel is not an idyllic thing, these moments of being a part of the living history of the Jewish people is what makes the experience so important and profound. I am not going to start saying everyone needs to move here or make aliyah, but I do think it is important to take some time to get to experience the places which connect us all on a deeper level than we can cognitively undertand or expect.

Mel’s First “Quarterly” Review…

Post (and photo) by Melissa

After three months in Israel, I find that people tend to ask about the same things, so I thought it might be nice to address the big picture of them quarterly. Both to keep you all in the know and for my own reflection on the journey.

So without further adieu, here is my first quarterly review! (Yes, its been almost an extra month, but with the lack of time I have it took longer than I anticipated to write it out. So the “quarter” may be a bit flexible as we go forward.)

Learning:

Amazing! Seriously, I cannot imagine anything more amazing to do with my time right now. Nishmat has been more enlightening and challenging (in a good way) than I ever could have imagined. With the growth in my skills already, I cannot wait to see where they are by the end of the journey. (D is also loving his learning and feels that Pardes is the right fit at this time and that it will prepare him well for the next step.)

Living:

We live in a small 1.5 room (a studio with a door to the “bedroom”) apartment in Nachlaot, which is an experience.  Luckily, we’re really never home so its not such a big deal that it is tiny and relatively sparsely furnished. We love how centrally located it is – we each are able to walk to school most mornings and take the bus home via direct routes, and have pretty much everything we could want in a close proximity. Plus we get to shop at the shuk which we have a love-hate relationship with.

Exploring:

Unfortunately, we really haven’t done much of this yet. We have such busy days of learning and had such a rough start here that we haven’t had time. We do spend a lot of time walking the streets of the city though, so thats something at least! We have done a few tiyulim (trips) in the city and hope to do some more over Chanukah when we have a few days off from classes.

Community:

While we live in Nachlaot and there is a great community here, it hasn’t really been where we’ve clicked. We find ourselves spending many Shabbatot schlepping out to Talpiyot/Baka where many of the Pardes students live to spend time with them. It is such an amazingly diverse group and it meals are always fun and engaging. We have also connected to the Spanish-Portugese community here and enjoy the one Shabbat a month we get with them (and any other stray meals we pick up along the way) As of now our favorite places to pray are Shira Hadasha, Yakar, Spanish-Portugese, and Addes (well, only D has been to Addes, but he enjoys it and at some point I’ll make it over there with him.)

As you can see, there isn’t really any strong sense of community in our experience yet, but hopefully as we continue to settle we will find it a bit more.

Food:

Our kitchen is a two burner hot plate, so we’ve had to get a bit creative, but it is a fun adventure – or so we are telling ourselves. Luckily we live close to the shuk, a grocery store, a small market and when all else fails – there is not a lack of kosher food ready for purchase. (One advantage to not being in Denver anymore, I suppose.) Oh, and many of you will be pleased to know that I now enjoy chummus!

Safety:

I said shortly after I moved here that I was more concerned about my safety as a result of the people driving in Jerusalem than any current activities of terrorists, and I still feel that way. However, the reality the number of rockets which continue to rain down in other areas of the country and the issues around our borders do not evade me. This is a constant war zone and that is scary, however it is only in the back of my mind and not something I feel that I face in my daily activities at all. I do not put myself in the regions where it is a larger concern intentionally, but my heart is with all those who make a life there for one reason or another

Surprising realizations:

Cats, clementines, and cobblestone. Seriously, I knew there were a lot of cats, produce was better, and the streets were old – but until I experienced these things first hand I could not have begun to really grasp it. Also, everything really is uphill both ways!

We are also very surprised at the level of homesickness we have going on. It has not disapated at all really since we arrived, and at times only increases. People keep telling us it will get better, but we are still waiting for that to happen.

We also really miss Sunday. We call is Israeli Monday now, and we miss it. If anyone can figure out how to get a real weekend day into the world of Israel, we’re all ears!

Rak b’yisrael (Only in Israel):

– The prevalnce of honking and fireworks never ceases to amaze me.

– Men in tight tshirts and kippot smoking while talking Torah at the bus stop.

– Busses which randomly leave one person at the bus stop when they decide they have enough people on board.

– The complete lack of structure or timeliness. Nothing happens on any sort of schedule, even if there is one.

– Religious men dressed for Shabbat and carrying around their guns.

– Soldiers everywhere, just doing normal things.

– Actually being able to find tzniut (modest) clothing in stores.

I’m sure thee are many things to be said, but there are the ones that are sticking with me now. If you have a question I haven’t answered, feel free to ask it in the comments and I will do my best to respond quickly and honestly.

{Note: I am here to learn and sharing that as a part of the journey we are on to being a rabbi and rebbetzin. I am not here to discuss the politics of this country. If you want to do that, please go elsewhere. I will not approve any comments which are political in nature. You have been warned.}

First time…

This Shabbat, I went to the Kotel for the first time.

Post by Melissa

Yes, I have been here a month and yes, this was my first trip to the Kotel.

(Not just on this trip, but ever – since this is my first trip trip Israel and all.)

A good friend of mine just arrived before starting her own year program and suggested D and I join her in going to the Kotel as Shabbat ended. We were both excited to finally have a set plan, as we had often said on Shabbat that we “should have” gone, and yet somehow – we just hadn’t yet. It was definitely for a reason, because I loved being able to share that moment with someone who has shared so much of her journey to a religious life with me. 

As we approached that walls of the Old City, I stopped on my tracks. I was so caught up in the moment that I couldn’t possibly take another step. People were talking to me and bustling about and I could only stare at the walls. I was in awe. To think that these walls once enclosed the entire city of Jerusalem was just overwhelming. To look behind me and see the busting Jerusalem that we know now, and to look ahead and see such a small space enclosed in walls where our ancestors lived. The walls which kept out wild beasts and kept in disease. The walls which were broken down and rebuilt time after time and mark now a space with quarters reflecting the diversity of the city. The juxtaposition was beautiful.

We walked through the Old City – first the Christian Quarter, then a bit of the Armenian Quarter, and finally – into and through the Jewish Quarter. Everywhere I looked I felt like I was living a piece of history. As we neared the Kotel the sun was rapidly setting and there were groups of men praying mincha (the afternoon service) in the middle of the path as the last time to say it was upon us.

Then finally, finally, we could see it. I couldn’t believe it. There before me was the Western Wall. The place where so many Jews before and after have poured out their hearts and souls to Hashem, seeking guidance, strength, health, and tenacity in the times where they or their loved ones need it the most.

The entire walk up to the wall, I was shaking with excitement and yet also the calmest I have been in a very long time. The moon was shining bright and illuminating our journey. We went to wash and then off to the women’s side to pray Maariv (the evening servie).

I have a habit of going farthest from the mechitza (seperator) wherever I pray, so I gravitated that way at the Kotel as well. There was an area where no one was standing behind the women who were currently praying, so I went there and started to pray. As one of the women finished, I stepped up into the place she had vacated at the wall and immediately reached out my hand. I was shocked at how worn and smooth the rock was. Then, I had a memory of one of great teachers from my Hebrew School days saying “Reach up!” and I did. Up higher the rocks have been less touched and they retain more of their rocky feeling. It felt more like I was touching the history of the wall when I reached up, and also somehow closer to Hashem. 

I prayed with my hand up high on the wall, feeling the entire history and future of the Jewish people in a single touch. When I finished I touched my mitpacha (scarf) – covered forehead to the wall and allowed myself to just feel the emotion of the moment. I prayed for guidance, strength, health, and tenacity for myself and my loved ones. I became a part of the chain.