Tag: Israel Trip 2008

Sitting in Cafes during the Snow in Jerusalem; Arab Writer Speaks; Kotel Tunnel Amazes

Thursday, January 31, 2008 – Jerusalem

I confess that today’s highlight for me occurred during some private time with Michelle. Taking off for lunch, we wandered up King David Street, seeking out somewhere to sit and eat. We intended to locate a comfortable café to relive our year-in-Israel experiences of sitting with friends for hours over coffee/tea. A passerby recommended the restaurant Rosemary, which turned out to be a quaint. The onion soup was heavenly; the tuna bagel toast tasty. Multiple cups of tea eem nana (tea with mint leaves) while looking out on a snow covered patio brought back so many memories and created new ones. A quick stroll hand-in-hand through Liberty Bell park, catching kids in the act of building snowmen, brought us smiles. A cup of coffee and a melting chocolate soufflé at Café Joe’s on the corner was divine. This is Israel as we remembered her!

“I’m dreaming of a white Shabbas.” The city of Jerusalem is covered with snow. Slush too, but gorgeous white snow. Buildings, churches, Citadel David, HUC, the Old City walls – all white washed with snow. It is slightly jarring for our group who did not come prepared for the wet streets, and are suffering through courageously with wet feet and sopping pants. We take plastic bags and cover our feet. They cover the outside of their shoes, wrapping it around their legs. We opt to place the plastic bags over our socks but inside our shoes, on the idea that while our shoes will definitely get wet, our feet will remain dry. Our method turns out to be prescient. In less than a half hour, most people are dealing with wet feet. I took a short photo essay on plastic bag shoe style. The experience reminds me of the different styles of kippah and black coats that differentiate the groups of Chassidim.

The snow covered city is so beautiful to Michelle and me. Neither of us has ever seen such snow in Jerusalem in any of our 14 trips. We watch families make snowmen; yeshiva bochers have snowball fights. One kippah covered man runs through the Old City carrying a sled.

We exit the hotel and walk our way to the Old City. Pictures galore at the Jaffa Gate and looking up to Citadel David. Through the Armenian Quarter into the Jewish Quarter down to the Kotel. I found the kotel underwhelming spiritually, perhaps because it has become a patriarchal, separate-but-not-equal, Orthodox synagogue. [I prefer the Southern Walls these days.] It was cool, though, to see the Kotel plaza covered with snow.

We heard from an Israeli-Arab journalist (his dad was a Jerusalem Arab; mother was a Palestinian Arab from West Bank) who writes for the Jerusalem Post (as well as USA today and Wall Street Journal). I forget his name at the moment… His thought-provoking was engaging. I was particularly taken with his point about the USA/world promoting democratic elections and then overtly subverting the results (not merely boycotting Hamas but also providing money and weapons to Abbas and the PLO. He did characterize the elections – both of Abbas and recently of Hamas – as promising since in each case the victor was elected based on promises to clean up corruption and create democratic institutions. His admission that the PA (and the PLO before) did not change the quality of life for the average Palestinian was honest; that neither offers freedom of the press was depressing. He saw the efforts by the US to undermine Hamas as playing into the hands of Hamas. It has pushed the “street” further into Hamas’ hands since they can argue that their lack of change is a result of the US/world boycott. This was a very thought-provoking presentation.

We toured the Kotel tunnels in the late afternoon. School bus size stones amazed us; figuring out how the builders put them in place was a mystery. Perhaps the most moving moment came at the end of the tunnel when we were standing on stones from the Herodian colonnade, a walkway used by our ancestors some 2,000 years ago. We were walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. Wow!

Dinner at Beit Ticho, a delicious meal. Our niece Yonina, a “chayelet bodeda, lonely soldier (one without family in Israel) got special permission to leave her base to visit with us. She arrived at the restaurant in full uniform and, “dancing for her dinner,” shared stories about her decision to make aliyah, her experience in Israel, her training as a tank instructor, and her course in officer’s training. She was confident and articulate. Of course, this comes from her experience training groups of soldiers how to shoot from tanks. This little soldier niece still inspires me!

Ein Avdat and Midbar Torah Study: Desert Spirituality

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Torah came alive in the Negev. Leaving our Dead Sea hotel early in the morning, we traveled down to Ein Avdat, a natural park/hiking reserve, encompassed within the vast Wilderness of Zin.

Alexandra read from Ezekiel, about God being found in the kol d’mama daqa, the still small voice. She recounted for us the challenges of faith. About how the Biblical Israelites drank water from the wells which followed Miriam around (or, which through her special skills, they always found), until Miriam suddenly died. Here – in the Wilderness of Zin – the Israelites kvetched from lack of water. Here, God told Moses to take his staff, touch the rock and speak to it, asking it to bring forth water. What happened next is the focus of much midrashic discussion: Moses yells at the people (calling them rebels), asks the people if “we” shall bring forth water from the rock, strikes the rock twice, and is famously excluded from the privilege of leading the people into the Promised Land.

Alexandra, our tour guide, invited us to consider what happened and why Moses was punished. Some said he lost his temper; a leader needs to set an example for the people. Others said that he claimed responsibility for the miracle (saying “shall we…” instead of “God will…”). Still others argued that Moses lost faith however temporarily and therefore could no longer lead.

Here we were, huddled together against the cold, standing within a wadi surrounded by awesome walls of rock, contemplating the most famous rock in all of Torah (rivaled only by the rock that served as Jacob’s pillow in the Ladder from Heaven dream). Far from the classrooms of our youth or the sermons of the synagogue. We were contemplating a anonymous rock and timeless teachings. Somehow, standing in the wilderness, this Torah story became real. The Torah study came alive through us. The discussion seemed to transform us from tourists to Torah scholars.

Someone asked to sing Shema and Listen. We gathered in a circle protected from the winds and intermittent drizzle, that the high walls of the wadi still let in. Eyes closed, interrupted only by a quiet whisper of the words preceding each sung verse so those new to the community could sing along, we sang about faith. We acknowledged the oneness we call YHVH, the Holy One. It was awesome; mystical even.

Like the prayer “Open Up Our Eyes”, this experience opened up our hearts to the awesomeness of Torah study and the poignancy of learning in the land of our ancestors. After a moment of quiet, we did open up our eyes to the sight of an Ibex sauntering across the mini-ledges of the wadi walls. There’s another. And another. It was like a gift from God. “Study My Torah,” says the Eternal, “And I will reveal to you all sorts of blessings.”

Hearts warmed, coats beginning to soak up the new rain, we hightailed it back to the bus before the rain way back there somewhere could translate into a flash flood here.

We did not make it back to the bulrushes and open lake in the middle of the trail as we had hoped. Which so many recalled as being among the most poignant sites on the 2006 December trip. Yet still, this year’s Ein Avdat experience had its own power – different but equivalent – to last year’s trek. About Torah we teach “Ben Bag Bag said, Hafach ba v’hafach ba, d’chola va (?) – Turn it over and over, everything is in it.” Perhaps the same can be said for the land of Israel. Each visit to each site evokes new emotions and new connections, each deeply meaningful.

[Historical Note: I’m writing this at 5:45 am on Wednesday, January 30th, the next morning. Out my window, the light begins to shine off the green-blue waters of the Dead Sea. No one is awake – at least in my hotel room and on the streets and walkways below. Peaceful. I’m wrapped in a bathrobe, contemplating putting on a sweatshirt. The breeze is just cooler than comfortable. I’m hoping that the generally good weather will allow us to venture up to Masada today, instead of bypassing it to rush to Jerusalem before the roads close from the expected snow.]

We visited David (and Paula) Ben-Gurion’s home in Kibbutz Sde Boker. Here is the father of modern Israel, its first Prime Minister, who left government early, of his own accord, and, though significantly older than the young founders, joined a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere. Believing that in the Negev Israel’s future would be found, that a people born in the wilderness needed to return regularly to the wilderness, Ben-Gurion “practiced what he preached.” We toured the archives, viewed his pictures, entered his modest home. I found myself profoundly overwhelmed by how much he inspired me (and millions of others). To make decisions not on what is possible but what could/should be. To live out a dream against hardships. To choose simplicity over opulence. To live with humility in the face of public celebrity. Juxtapose Ben Gurion with our leaders today: Olmert, Netanyahu, Bush, McCain (in his current incarnation)… Who inspires? Who is real? Ben Gurion seems so very real in contrast to them all. This could be the intentional manipulation of a “presidential library.” Or it could be just the way it was. Whichever, I thirst for leaders of this caliber.

Looking out over the graves of David and Paula BG, one sees the awesome stretches of the Negev. Too inspiring to put into words, this incredible view drudges up a vague memory that the Old Man chose this site himself, to ensure that his visitors left not with a memory of a gravestone, but with a picture postcard perspective of his great love of the desert.

[Wednesday morning note, 6:44 am: The sun is breaking through the clouds. A small pink patch among the blue-grey. A hopeful sign.]

Midbar Torah Study – there is a pluralistic, secular Torah study institution that brings together adults of all religious backgrounds for learning. They juxtapose Jewish texts (which, of course, even secular Israelis can read and have experience from High School reading), with modern Jewish thinkers like Rosenzweig, with psychologists like Maslow, with modern Israeli poets. The result is a redirection of understanding about what is Jewish learning and the opening of a pluralistic discussion about many issues. We talked about Why Was Torah Given in the Wilderness, which opened a great discussion about the how Torah is the property of all peoples, not just the Jews, yet it is also the property of all kinds of Jews, not just one tribe or one denomination. There was more, but too late to write now. Suffice it to say that the process was akin to a Reform Jewish pluralistic study. Perhaps through this secular organization, Progressive (Reform) Judaism can then find roots. Our people were very excited about the Torah study; some had never participated in this kind of deep study before.

Dinner in Yerocham happened in the home of one of the residents. A nice meal, the home hospitality sweet. Unfortunately, their ability to share their stories was not strong and the story we did hear – about someone who chose to move to a development town, was not what we expected to hear.

Incidentally, a lesson from a previous year’s Sefirah Study about contemplation in Torah Study.

Consider a coal that is not burning and the flame is hidden and closed inside. When someone blows upon it, then it spreads and flares and it continues to expand. Within this flame there are many different colors, which were not apparent initially; nevertheless, everything is coming from the coal.

So too with this Torah that is before us. Every one of her words and letters are like coal. When one sets them out as they are, they appear like coals, somewhat dim. If an individual endeavors to study her, then from each letter a great flame bursts forth, filled with many colors. These are the data that are hidden in each letter….as is explained in the Zohar…supernal lights shine on the letters. [From (KL’’CH Putchei Hochma 3) Moshe Hayyim Luzatti; From the introduction to Doorways to Wisdom cited in Marc Verman, History and Varieties of Jewish Meditation, 167.]

[My teacher Linda Thal once wrote: Torah is not studied with the mind alone. Contemplative forms of study help us encounter the text with a listening heart and a receptive soul. The goal is to enter the text and to dwell within its words, to be open and receptive to whatever sacred wisdom may come to you through the text or to the possibility of sensing God’s immediate presence within and between the words of Torah.]

What does it mean to make Aliyat Hanefesh? Why do I bring my people to Israel every year? This teaching from Hayyim Luzatti makes it clear: Just as the study of Torah allows the light to come forth from the coal of Torah, so too will every inch of Israel bring forth the passionate flame of the love of Israel from the heart of every Jew.

Underground Israel

Tuesday, January 29, 2008 – Underground Israel

Kibbutz Ayalon Bullet Making Factory – very ingenious. Michelle and I marveled that our oldest son has the kind of mind that could have figured out how to build a working factory underground that was safe, effective and hidden. (I wrote about this amazing place during our 2006 Israel trip).

Palmach Museum – had people in tears. So emotional, telling the story, in one of the best museum multimedia installations ever, about this pre-Israel defense and striking force. I have fond memories of first visiting this museum with Mark Wolfson.

Ride to Dead Sea – lots of interesting geological formations and camels too. Susan Gould regaled me with explanations of how the earth could look as it did. Apparently she knows a lot about geology!

Spa Treatments in the hotel – I thought I died and went to heaven. 90 minutes of Swedish massage.
Floating in the Dead Sea – many congregants went. Michelle and I used the hotel’s indoor saltwater pool. Was enough for us.

Co-Existence in Haifa; Spirituality in Tzefat

Monday, January 28, 2008 – 2:40 a.m. Tel Aviv time

Too much excitement sometimes leads to too little sleep. Luckily we travel today for two hours by bus to the Dead Sea so I can use that time for some (eventually) much needed shut eye.

I spent the past hour racing through the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea, a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin about “one man’s mission to promote peace… one school at a time.” A gift of my brother-in-law Jeff who made two motivating comments about it – that it inspired him, and that the purchase sent money to a charity – the book is about selfless Tikun Olam (fixing of the world). The author Mortensen, a mountaineer who turned the aftermath of a failed experience trying to climb Pakistan’s K2 mountain into a mission that built fifty-five schools in the forbidding terrain of Pakistan’s boarder areas, is just that … inspiring. So fitting too, since today’s touring in Israel’s north opened our eyes to many non-Jewish members of Israel’s population and highlighted some poignant projects dedicated to coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

We found ourselves at Haifa’s Bajai Temple, home to a newer religion (few hundred years old). At once imposing yet serene, the Temple, surrounded by terraces of lush gardens, towers over the heights of Haifa. Where one might have expected a certain intolerance of yet another religious group claiming a sizable parcel within the Holy Land, we find instead an appreciation for the serenity of the site and a pride of hospitality. Haifa, a city with which I am only partially familiar, finds great meaning in its mostly successful quest to retain a certain healthy co-existence between its residents.

We met with Shaul ??, leader of Project TRIUMPH, which brings together teenagers – Jews, Muslims and Christians – for open discussion, leadership training, and development (by the teens) of co-existence projects. Or Ami congregant (and my executive coach) Steve Keleman became involved with this project, offering his volunteer services to teach the teens during their trip to California last year. Steve said “go and learn” so we did. Project TRIUMPH website features a poignant video about their work. It is exciting and important work. Shaul’s comment that they have learned to use music to begin connecting the teenagers’ parents up with one another resonated with many of our Or Ami group (we who believe that “music speaks louder than words”). We adults, so caught up in our own stories about rights and wrongs, sometimes miss opportunities to bring about coexistence. If “music can tame the heart of the beast,” Shaul and his partners are domesticating the wild hurt and anger to bring about a meeting of the hearts (and hopefully, minds).
http://projecttriumph.org/

Our exploration of Haifa continued with a walking tour of the work of Beit Hagefen, a coexistence organization that brings together Haifa’s various populations to create art. We walked down Derech HaShirim, a Walk of Songs, along which hung the lyrics of poems by Arab and Jewish teams. We marveled at the thought-provoking sculptures, paintings and installations integrated into the very walls of the walkways of Haifa’s neighborhoods. Most poignant were two works by a single author. The first consisted of a wall-sized picture of two boys, ensconced in a warm, flower-adorned frame. We later learn that the boy on the left was the Arab artist’s son by her first marriage to a Jewish man. We learn that this first husband tragically died. The boy on the right was the same artist’s second child, from her subsequent marriage to an Arab man. The artist’s two children, apparently happy siblings, offer a touching lesson on multiple levels: that Jews and Arabs are brothers, that if her children can co-exist then Jews and Arabs can also, that political barriers break down when binding relationships are formed.

Her second installation was equally affecting. Imagine a gated doorway, locked and seemingly abandoned. Graffiti spray-painted alongside it declares mishehu gar sham pa’am, someone once lived here. An enlarged key by the door suggests that the owner who left intended to return. The installation is located in an Arab neighborhood. Is the author raising questions about the plight of the people, probably Arab, who once lived in this house? Is her intent to declare her concern for their current well-being or to invite (force) us to confront the reality that even in the city of coexistence, all is not perfect? Perhaps she is wading into the recent ongoing skirmishes for historical memory being waged over the last decade between multiple narratives about the birth of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugees. The anonymity of its former occupants – mishehu – simultaneously shields us from the voyeuristic nature of “victim stories” even as it plunges us into gut-wrenching speculation about the “anonymous other”. Combined with Project TRIUMPH’s recent appreciation for the power of music, the work of Beit Hagefen reminds us that through art, we can burrow under the barriers we all have to inspire openness and truth telling.

A final note. Each year, Beit Hagafen directs its artist participants to focus on a certain theme. One year, they picked coffee. Like breaking bread, sharing a cup of coffee with someone else (or tea, for those who like me to imbibe the brown elixir) invites a sharing of much more – background, stories, family, hopes and dreams. Looking up at the oversized cup of steaming hot Joe adorning a busy thoroughfare, I realized just how brilliant these co-existence projects can be.

I should write about the lunch we had in the home of a Druze man. Heaping plates of spiced chicken, sweet rice with lamb, mini grape leaves, rolled cabbage, and the Mideast mainstay of humus and pita covered some folding tables. Following his family’s warm hospitality (and seconds on the lunch), we listened as he described the essence of his Druze life and their connection to the lands in which they live.

I should tell you about our experience in Tzefat (a.k.a. Tzfat, Tsfat or Safed), visiting the synagogue of the AR”I (Rabbi Isaac Lurie, one of the great Kabbalists), marveling at the craft of candlemaking at the Safed Candle store, meandering through the artist colony… It was calmer than I last remembered (perhaps because we had three tired but shopping-focused children with us on the previous visit). But also, the choosh, the atmosphere or flavor, of the town was open, light and airy. Of special joy was the opportunity, with the help of my sneaky shopping substitute Patti Jo Wolfson, to surprise Michelle with a gift of a chamsa (which Michelle favored but couldn’t decide whether to buy). I love Northern Israel, with its wide open spaces, lush greenery, mystical quality. Learning Tzefat boasts nice hotel and a plethora of bed and breakfasts, I made a note to make an extended visit during my next sabbatical. Mental note #2: it is time for Or Ami to bring in a significant, serious teacher of Kabbalah to educate and inspire about this growing Jewish mystical movement.

I should describe the delicious dinner we shared in Beit Hayeker (?), a winery in Rishon Letziyon. In our side room, long wooden butcher block tables were adorned with plates of salads, fresh greens, and refreshing orange and lemonade juices. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the wine was tasty, the food delicious (Michelle and I raved over shared dishes of grilled salmon and the pesto ravioli, each served with divine sauces). We enjoyed relaxing conversation with our tablemates the Ellis’, Krasnoffs, Susan Gould and Bella Kaplan. Between courses, Michelle and I snuck off for a private wine-tasting where we enjoyed the reserve Cabernet Savignon and played with the sweet muscat. While departing, I noticed a map of Israel’s wine country (the Golan purportedly boasts a collection of boutique wineries. Mental note #3 (during sabbatical 2009): wine tasting our way through Israel’s northern wineries is a must.

Well, its 4:07 am. Tomorrow is going to be brutal if I don’t get any sleep. A peak out our eighth floor window at the Tel Aviv coastline and the road that lines it shows that few are awake in this part of Israel’s city that never sleeps. If only I was among the many who slumber. I suppose that since Michelle unintentionally kept watch over the wee hours of the morning yesterday, chivalry dictated that I take my turn. I only hope I can be as gracious under exhaustion as she! Laila tov (goodnight) for the next two hours…

Co-Existence in Haifa; Spirituality in Tzefat

Monday, January 28, 2008 – 2:40 a.m. Tel Aviv time

Too much excitement sometimes leads to too little sleep. Luckily we travel today for two hours by bus to the Dead Sea so I can use that time for some (eventually) much needed shut eye.

I spent the past hour racing through the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea, a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin about “one man’s mission to promote peace… one school at a time.” A gift of my brother-in-law Jeff who made two motivating comments about it – that it inspired him, and that the purchase sent money to a charity – the book is about selfless Tikun Olam (fixing of the world). The author Mortensen, a mountaineer who turned the aftermath of a failed experience trying to climb Pakistan’s K2 mountain into a mission that built fifty-five schools in the forbidding terrain of Pakistan’s boarder areas, is just that … inspiring. So fitting too, since today’s touring in Israel’s north opened our eyes to many non-Jewish members of Israel’s population and highlighted some poignant projects dedicated to coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

We found ourselves at Haifa’s Bajai Temple, home to a newer religion (few hundred years old). At once imposing yet serene, the Temple, surrounded by terraces of lush gardens, towers over the heights of Haifa. Where one might have expected a certain intolerance of yet another religious group claiming a sizable parcel within the Holy Land, we find instead an appreciation for the serenity of the site and a pride of hospitality. Haifa, a city with which I am only partially familiar, finds great meaning in its mostly successful quest to retain a certain healthy co-existence between its residents.

We met with Shaul ??, leader of Project TRIUMPH, which brings together teenagers – Jews, Muslims and Christians – for open discussion, leadership training, and development (by the teens) of co-existence projects. Or Ami congregant (and my executive coach) Steve Keleman became involved with this project, offering his volunteer services to teach the teens during their trip to California last year. Steve said “go and learn” so we did. Project TRIUMPH website features a poignant video about their work. It is exciting and important work. Shaul’s comment that they have learned to use music to begin connecting the teenagers’ parents up with one another resonated with many of our Or Ami group (we who believe that “music speaks louder than words”). We adults, so caught up in our own stories about rights and wrongs, sometimes miss opportunities to bring about coexistence. If “music can tame the heart of the beast,” Shaul and his partners are domesticating the wild hurt and anger to bring about a meeting of the hearts (and hopefully, minds).
http://projecttriumph.org/

Our exploration of Haifa continued with a walking tour of the work of Beit Hagefen, a coexistence organization that brings together Haifa’s various populations to create art. We walked down Derech HaShirim, a Walk of Songs, along which hung the lyrics of poems by Arab and Jewish teams. We marveled at the thought-provoking sculptures, paintings and installations integrated into the very walls of the walkways of Haifa’s neighborhoods. Most poignant were two works by a single author. The first consisted of a wall-sized picture of two boys, ensconced in a warm, flower-adorned frame. We later learn that the boy on the left was the Arab artist’s son by her first marriage to a Jewish man. We learn that this first husband tragically died. The boy on the right was the same artist’s second child, from her subsequent marriage to an Arab man. The artist’s two children, apparently happy siblings, offer a touching lesson on multiple levels: that Jews and Arabs are brothers, that if her children can co-exist then Jews and Arabs can also, that political barriers break down when binding relationships are formed.

Her second installation was equally affecting. Imagine a gated doorway, locked and seemingly abandoned. Graffiti spray-painted alongside it declares mishehu gar sham pa’am, someone once lived here. An enlarged key by the door suggests that the owner who left intended to return. The installation is located in an Arab neighborhood. Is the author raising questions about the plight of the people, probably Arab, who once lived in this house? Is her intent to declare her concern for their current well-being or to invite (force) us to confront the reality that even in the city of coexistence, all is not perfect? Perhaps she is wading into the recent ongoing skirmishes for historical memory being waged over the last decade between multiple narratives about the birth of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugees. The anonymity of its former occupants – mishehu – simultaneously shields us from the voyeuristic nature of “victim stories” even as it plunges us into gut-wrenching speculation about the “anonymous other”. Combined with Project TRIUMPH’s recent appreciation for the power of music, the work of Beit Hagefen reminds us that through art, we can burrow under the barriers we all have to inspire openness and truth telling.

A final note. Each year, Beit Hagafen directs its artist participants to focus on a certain theme. One year, they picked coffee. Like breaking bread, sharing a cup of coffee with someone else (or tea, for those who like me to imbibe the brown elixir) invites a sharing of much more – background, stories, family, hopes and dreams. Looking up at the oversized cup of steaming hot Joe adorning a busy thoroughfare, I realized just how brilliant these co-existence projects can be.

I should write about the lunch we had in the home of a Druze man. Heaping plates of spiced chicken, sweet rice with lamb, mini grape leaves, rolled cabbage, and the Mideast mainstay of humus and pita covered some folding tables. Following his family’s warm hospitality (and seconds on the lunch), we listened as he described the essence of his Druze life and their connection to the lands in which they live.

I should tell you about our experience in Tzefat (a.k.a. Tzfat, Tsfat or Safed), visiting the synagogue of the AR”I (Rabbi Isaac Lurie, one of the great Kabbalists), marveling at the craft of candlemaking at the Safed Candle store, meandering through the artist colony… It was calmer than I last remembered (perhaps because we had three tired but shopping-focused children with us on the previous visit). But also, the choosh, the atmosphere or flavor, of the town was open, light and airy. Of special joy was the opportunity, with the help of my sneaky shopping substitute Patti Jo Wolfson, to surprise Michelle with a gift of a chamsa (which Michelle favored but couldn’t decide whether to buy). I love Northern Israel, with its wide open spaces, lush greenery, mystical quality. Learning Tzefat boasts nice hotel and a plethora of bed and breakfasts, I made a note to make an extended visit during my next sabbatical. Mental note #2: it is time for Or Ami to bring in a significant, serious teacher of Kabbalah to educate and inspire about this growing Jewish mystical movement.

I should describe the delicious dinner we shared in Beit Hayeker (?), a winery in Rishon Letziyon. In our side room, long wooden butcher block tables were adorned with plates of salads, fresh greens, and refreshing orange and lemonade juices. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the wine was tasty, the food delicious (Michelle and I raved over shared dishes of grilled salmon and the pesto ravioli, each served with divine sauces). We enjoyed relaxing conversation with our tablemates the Ellis’, Krasnoffs, Susan Gould and Bella Kaplan. Between courses, Michelle and I snuck off for a private wine-tasting where we enjoyed the reserve Cabernet Savignon and played with the sweet muscat. While departing, I noticed a map of Israel’s wine country (the Golan purportedly boasts a collection of boutique wineries. Mental note #3 (during sabbatical 2009): wine tasting our way through Israel’s northern wineries is a must.

Well, its 4:07 am. Tomorrow is going to be brutal if I don’t get any sleep. A peak out our eighth floor window at the Tel Aviv coastline and the road that lines it shows that few are awake in this part of Israel’s city that never sleeps. If only I was among the many who slumber. I suppose that since Michelle unintentionally kept watch over the wee hours of the morning yesterday, chivalry dictated that I take my turn. I only hope I can be as gracious under exhaustion as she! Laila tov (goodnight) for the next two hours…

Shabbat in Tel Aviv: January 26, 2008

We have arrived… again. In the words of the rabbi of my youth, Stanley M. Davids, we have made aliyat hanefesh, a spiritual ascent to Israel, our holy land. Our group of 24 includes wife Michelle November, our Cantor Doug Cotler and his wife Gail Pettler, our Melitz Tour Guide Alexandra Benjamin, and 19 other adults.

This is my eighth trip to Israel since birth. A pause to recollect:
1. A family trip connected to my sister Lori becoming a Bat Mitzvah
2. The NFTY Leadership Machon Year in Israel, between high school and college, living at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem
3. Rabbinical Studies Year in Israel study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, living off Rechov HaPalmach, near the President’s house
4. A post-ordination trip, with Michelle and our then 9 month old daughter, to see travel and visit family and friends
5. The Rabbinical CCAR convention in Jerusalem, a mini-trip I shared with my father-in-law Murray. Fun, energizing, but shortened by the death of our beloved grandmother Ruby Gilner.
6. Or Ami’s first official Mission to Israel, a two person trek with congregant Mark Wolfson. Two men, showing up in the Holy Land during the Intifada, proof for a frightened American Jewish community that it was safe to travel to Israel. It was my wife’s 40th birthday present to me.
7. Or Ami’s first Family Trip to Israel, rescheduled from the summer of Lebanon 2 War to December 2006. In addition to introducing my children to Israel for what I hope will be the first of their many visits, we led a delegation of 40 people total. A wonderful multigenerational experience.
8. Now this trip: Or Ami’s first Adult’s only trip, 23 Or Ami members, our guide Alexandra and our driver Avi.

The flight was easier than expected. Linda Fingleson had arranged for purchase some really wonderful pillows which provided a “bed to lay upon” in our seats. Michelle and I somehow were blessed with an empty seat between us, which alleviated the “shoehorned-in” feeling that accompanies most flying these days. EL AL (thankfully) has streaming video and music at each seat, so I fell asleep watching Catwoman, and then hours later, ate breakfast to Catwoman. Never saw the ending – not that the movie was really worth watching – but it helped pass the time.

Tips for Making It through the Flight
Lower your expectations so they can only be exceeded
Walk around a lot. (Although everyone has a story about the Chassidim who gather at the back of the plane to daven morning services, there were so many Or Ami travelers hanging out back there that I half expected Cantor Cotler to pull out his guitar and begin playing “Listen” and “Shema”.)
Have activities to keep you busy. For me, doing Sudoku and other logic puzzles sufficed.
Although I miss my kids so much, traveling without children makes it a lot easier. (Still, I cannot wait for the next trip to Israel in summer of 2009, a multigenerational one.)

Opening Ceremonies at the Tel Aviv Beach
Michelle and I have an affinity for the beach. Let us take a long walk on the beach, or enjoy a meal overlooking the ocean or a harbor, and we are in heaven. Similarly Or Ami observes Tashlich at the Beach at Malibu’s Paradise Cove every Rosh Hashana afternoon. Hundreds come by to cast their sins into the ocean, asking the Holy One to allow our sins to be cast away as easily as this bread floats off.

Fitting then that our Israel trip officially began on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Standing in a circle, we began our opening ceremony as Andy Krasnoff, Larry Ellis, Patti Jo Wolfson, Alan Kaye and Susan Gould read words from the Ancient Greeks, Napolean, Theodore Herzl and significant others who like us entered the Holy Land through the Port of Jaffa. Their words helped us locate ourselves in time and space, joining the ever-arriving boatloads and planeloads of people who on a mission to touch holy ground.

The sun glowed orange and gold as it set over the Mediterranean. Shabbat was upon us. We began Kabbalat Shabbat, a service to welcome the Sabbath bride. Cantor Cotler pulled out his new Voyage-aire Guitar, an amazing full-size guitar which literally folds in half, allowing its owner to store the guitar and backpack in the overhead compartment of an airplane. [A gift of my Camp Newman buddy (and Gail Pettler’s cousin) Rabbi Rick Winer, this Voyage-aire Guitar is an ingenious piece of engineering to behold.] Snuggling close in a circle, we sang ancient Shabbat prayers to contemporary Or Ami tunes while standing on the beach in Tel Aviv. Remarked Or Ami past president Alice Goldsobel, “This is what I waited for, to sing Listen and Shema while standing in Israel.”

Through our prayers, we turned northward, imagining ourselves the ancient Kabbalists, who dressed in white to climb the hills outside Tzefat 100 miles north in order to greet the Shabbat bride. We turned inward as, arm and arm, we sang Sh’ma, sensing here that we truly were part of Adonai Echad, God’s oneness. Then we turned our hearts eastward still (kee-vayn et leebo, turn your heart toward Jerusalem, teaches the texts) as we chanted the Amida.

For me, the most poignant moment was the recitation of Daniel Siegel’s poem, Hebrew:

I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew:
Read me anything Genesis,
or an ad in an Israeli paper, and watch my face.
I will make halfsounds
of ecstasy,
and my smile will be so enormously sweet
you would think some angels were singing Psalms
or God alone was reciting to me.
I am crazy for her Holiness
and each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim or Bialik poem
gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe could give.
I have heard Iliads of poetry, Omar Khayyam in Farsi,
and Virgil sung as if the poet himself were coaching the reader.
And they move me but
not like the train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv
or a choppy unsyntaxed note from a student
who got half the grammar I taught him all wrong
but remembered to write with Alefs and Zayins and Shins.
That’s the way I am.
I’d rather hear the weather report on Kol Yisrael
than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.

For some, this poem captures the significance of a language, once dead, that lives anew. For me, it reveals the inner workings of my heart. That even the mundane in Israel – the Hebrew speaking bank tellers and multilingual police, the street signs and bus stop signs, the fresh bread and falafel stands, the trees ablowing in the wind – each has a claim to my heart and soul. As part of my sabbatical studies, I have engaged a Hebrew tutor. Meeting every few days at a Conejo Valley coffee shop, we shall speak Hebrew for an hour or so, strengthening my vocabulary, exercising my grammar, deepening my collection to the Alefs, Bets and Shins that make up mundane life in a transcendent land.

The night went on. I should tell you about the elegant Shabbat dinner we enjoyed in a private room at the hotel. About Cantor Cotler’s impromptu Israel quiz that forced us to venture back to our Religious School learning to answer questions about Israel’s past and present. About the wonderful getting to know you conversations I heard shared around the table. About my teaching the group to sing Brich Rachamana, a Talmudic after-meal blessing recited when one is unable to chant the complete Birkat HaMazon (although we laughed that as long as this rabbi leads singing every so often, the Cantor’s job is secure, Michelle assured me that my singing was pleasant). About walking around the hotel for hours holding the hand of my beloved Michelle, as we fought against the pull of exhaustion to try to force our bodies onto Israel time. (Since I began writing this at 5:15 am Israel time, you can surmise that we were only partially successful).

The sky over the Mediterranean is still dark; the thunder and lightning have ceased (for now). I’m exhausted. I’m hungry. But I’m in Israel. As my internal iPod plays Rick Recht’s “My Heart is in the East”, I smile. Because my body is here too! Shabbat Shalom.