shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

mechitza

I spent this weekend at a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat on “Spirituality, Social Justice, and the Rabbinate.” Students from several different schools gathered at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, Md.: Besides Hebrew College, there were contingents from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School, HUC Los Angeles and Cincinnati campuses, Jewish Theological Seminary, Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, Academy of Jewish Religion, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. (Update: I very unfortunately forgot to note the fabulous representation from ALEPH – Alliance for Jewish Renewal – Smicha Program *and* International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism — which I regret. It was an unintentional mechitza.)

One of these things is not like the other.

YCT is a new-ish school training men to become Modern Orthodox rabbis “who are open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic, and eager to transform Orthodoxy into a movement that meaningfully and respectfully interacts with all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, or background.” The idea is to change Orthodoxy from the inside, as one of the students explained.

The impact of their participation that I felt the most was in the davennen. Their school policy requires, in accordance with Orthodox principles, that the YCT students not daven alongside women. The way this is generally achieved in the Orthodox world is via a mechitza, a partition to separate those participating in tefila.

This presented a challenge for the prayer services, since all of the other schools practice egalitarianism, not least in that they admit both women and men. The tefila committee, which met before the retreat (and of which I was not a part), decided on separation via what was dubbed a “tri-chitza“: spaces reserved for men, for women, and for mixed seating. The configuration was used for four of the five services we davenned together; the fifth, lead by the YCT students, was set up in a more traditional way, with seating for men and seating for women.

pearlstone center in reisterstown, md.

the farm at the pearlstone center in reisterstown, md.; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As one of the retreat faculty members (who is a huge fan of mechitza) explained, the idea developed as a result of an evening of joyful, raucous, downright Dionysian prayer, after which the rabbis reflected that if women had been present, it might have turned into an orgy. Thenceforth, women and men prayed separately.

On a visceral level, I find mechitza loathsome. Historically it has been a tool for silencing and disempowering women by marginalizing their prayer and limiting their participation: Women are not counted as part of the minyan (the quorum of 10 adults needed for prayer). In many spaces, women are also not allowed to lead tefila, to read Torah, to have aliyot. What’s more, the service often only takes place in front of the men’s side. In extreme cases, women are relegated to a balcony where it might be difficult to see or hear anything at all.

In the Modern Orthodox world, these latter elements are generally not found, but the purpose of a mechitza is still to ensure that people daven with those of the same gender. Which is problematic. It’s heteronormative; it’s based on the false assumption of a gender binary; it creates potentially unsafe situations for genderqueer folks. Ultimately, it is a space created entirely on the terms of and for the needs of cisgendered men.

I go to a pluralistic school, so I am used to experiencing all different kinds of davennen. Hebrew College was founded to challenge the conventional wisdom that the Jewish world can be pluralistic in all settings except for prayer. And we still struggle with community tefila — which, to be honest, usually means that no one is completely satisfied with services. But egalitarianism is our bright line. Everything else goes. This weekend was meant to be about pluralism, too. It is so important, especially for movement-based students, to talk to one another, learn from our differences, and experience other ways of doing Judaism. This weekend suggested that my pluralism might have limits.

To be fair, everyone was pushed out of their comfort zones this weekend. When I walked into the prayer space on Friday morning, I thought, “What? You call this a mechitza?” It was just a table with chairs on either side. Mechitzot can take many forms, to be sure, but they are usually solid partitions, or at least a line of person-high potted plants (as in the case of a Chabad minyan I went to a few times when I was in D.C.). The point is to obscure the sides from one another. This mechitza did not in any way do that, so it was largely symbolic. And I am not denigrating it by so calling it, as much of what is important in Judaism is symbolic, or might seem within the mere letter of the law and not the spirit. Indeed, the symbolic nature of the mechitza made it hurt more, as it seemed to be separation just for separation’s sake. I think that it was probably not the mechitza to which the YCT students are accustomed. Nor was the davennen. For me, the pain stemmed from the fact that because of the mechitza, the space felt like it belonged to just one contingent. I became an outsider, praying on their terms. Most uncomfortable of all, I felt like I was condoning the mechitza with my presence.

But I don’t consider my discomfort and the potential discomfort of the YCT guys to be morally equivalent. Their discomfort is because of an incursion on their male privilege; mine is the result of oppression.

I do feel that it is important to point out that my painful experience had to do with the issue of mechitza and not with YCT students themselves. Their hands are tied, to a certain extent: a condition of their continued enrollment is adherence to the tents of Orthodoxy as laid out by their school. And these are good guys, and I think they are fully aware of the difficulty mechitza presents. But their project is to struggle within Orthodoxy, and that is not my fight.

my favorite (problematic) cloth bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

(Sidebar: The first time I encountered YCT was in Washington, D.C., in 2009, at the Jewish Federation’s annual General Assembly, where the institution had a booth. I was just beginning to think about rabbinical school and hadn’t heard of this one. I stopped and spoke with them for at least 20 minutes before they told me that, unfortunately, I was not able to attend their school. “But we hold women in high regard and believe that there is a special place for women in Judaism!” Completely annoyed, I left abruptly, but not without the tote bag they had given me. But as much as I feel a twinge of irritation every time I see it, I continue to own it because it is, hands down, the best cloth bag I’ve ever used. Roomy, more square than rectangular, sturdy, and with wide shoulder straps. It asks, “The Rabbinate. Is it in you?” To which I answer, “Yes! Just not with you.”)

I’ll admit that I took a perverse pleasure in the fact that the men’s section was small, at the edge of the room, and not in front of the tefila leaders or Torah readers. In other words, their experience approximated that of women in Orthodox settings (with the important difference that the separation had been effected at their own request). But I hated that I thought that. And it didn’t alleviate my own hurt. And none of these feelings were conducive to my being in a prayerful space.

I would love to see Orthodox Judaism become a more welcoming space for all Jews. And I don’t know whether I can be any part of it.

things i ate in texas that i loved

migas

migas from Goode Company Taqueria; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

When I go back to Texas, which I am usually able to do about three times a year, I have two priorities: seeing my family (parents; brother, sister-in-law, and nephew; cousin and her husband; aunt and uncle; and grandmother) and eating Tex-Mex — which is often just called “Mexican food” by locals. Inspired by Mexican food, Tex-Mex is actually not Mexican food proper but its own type of cuisine.

I haven’t lived in Texas in more than 10 years, and there is no good Tex-Mex anywhere on the East Coast — and anyone who says differently is (a) wrong or (b) selling something. Even the restaurants that look promising aren’t: When my husband and I first arrived in Boston, we found a Tex-Mex joint run by a man from Houston: It was awful.

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So when I’m in Texas, I make my family eat Tex-Mex at just about every meal. During my most successful trip, I managed to eat at Pappasito’s, Chuy’s, Ninfa’s, Lupe’s, Berryhill, and Goode Company Taqueria (my favorites). My New Jersey-native husband usually cries uncle after about two days, and of course my own family doesn’t normally eat that much. (They often refrain for a few weeks before I arrive to prepare themselves.) I’m like a Tex-Mex chipmunk: I have to store it all away until my next visit.

frozen

frozen margarita with salt from Pappasito’s; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

My favorite breakfast is migas (without chorizo) from Goode Company Taqueria (above), which come with refried beans, rice, and flour tortillas. I ate them three times last week. The breakfast menu is extensive, and I’m told other items on the menu are also great. On our last day my husband got huevos con napolitos (eggs with cactus), a favorite of my brother’s. This trip my mom did manage to convince me one morning to try breakfast tacos from Maria’s Tacos near their house in the Heights: They were indeed excellent.

shipley's chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar donuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

shipley’s chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar do-nuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

For dinners, we did Chuy’s and Ninfa’s on Navigation, at the latter of which we saw a family whose daughters went to school with me and my brother. The oldest daughter also lives in Boston with her husband and two daughters and during her visit was also doing the Tex-Mex tour of Houston. (See, I’m not the only one!) And I had Pappasito’s at Hobby airport on the way out of town.

This trip I also managed to work in a few non-Tex-Mex local Texas food. One afternoon we got stuck in some traffic on what should have been a quick detour to get a doughnut at Shipley; my husband griped that it had better be worth it — and he later confirmed that it was. I ate Blue Bell (new-to-me flavor Butter Crunch) in Brenham, Texas, the home of the Texas-made ice cream. My parents and brother and sister-in-law and I drove there one day to meet my aunt, uncle, and grandmother, since the town is about halfway between Houston and Austin, where the latter live. We ate lunch at the Brenham institution Must Be Heaven, known for its homemade pies (I had a slice of the peach praline).

Now we’re back in Boston, and my husband has declared that he needs to fast for the next five days to make up for the excess of Texas. I, on the other hand, could eat more Tex-Mex.

the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

becoming van gogh

van gogh’s basket with six oranges

At the end of October, my husband attended a nerd conference in Denver, so I tagged along for a bit of a vacation and to see my family that lives in the area. While there I went to see the awesome Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

“Becoming Van Gogh” is really well done. The special exhibit, featuring more than 70 pieces from 60 different public and private collections, traces Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist during his 10-year career. I didn’t realize quite how brief of a time Van Gogh was active: He only decided to become an artist at age 27, after an unsatisfying start as a pastor and missionary to a working class mining community in rural Belgium. At 37, he died under mysterious circumstances, returning from painting in a wheat field with a gunshot wound. Though the internets claim that it’s “widely accepted” that he killed himself (despite the fact that a gun was never found), the exhibit suggested only that it might have been murder.

The exhibit included many of Van Gogh’s famous works — but alas not Starry Night. Since it’s probably Van Gogh’s iconic work and almost everyone recognizes it, I at first wasn’t that disappointed not to see it. However, I realized (and perhaps this should have been obvious) that there is nothing like seeing a painting in real life, especially Van Gogh’s. The picture of the painting above, for example, barely does justice to the overwhelming brightness of the whites, blues, and oranges in the painting itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

landscape under a stormy sky

van gogh’s landscape under a stormy sky

And now I know that what’s odd about this is that Van Gogh, early in his apprenticeship, did not employ color much at all; his early works can only be described as drab — the palette related to his choice of subject, everyday working folk, whom he desired both to realistically portray and to ennoble as sufferers of the human condition. The Potato Eaters, which was included in the exhibit, is a good example of this early work. It was only after he studied color theory and became obsessed with Japanese woodcuts that his paintings began to evidence the bright hues that would later become his signature. One of my favorites from the exhibit (besides Basket with Six Oranges above) was Landscape Under a Stormy Sky.

I started this post almost two months ago and only just have been able to finish it — and now the exhibit closes in less than a month, and it’s apparently not traveling (not that very many people would/would be able to travel just to see an art exhibit). However, if you can, it’s certainly worth the trip. (And buy your tickets ahead of time! I wasn’t sure what my schedule would be, so I didn’t do so, and visits were sold out through my stay: I had to wheedle my way in, and I was only barely able.)

return

empty road sign; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I opened the front passenger-side door and sat down, glancing at the three other people waiting for me in the car as I shut the door. He smiled at me: “You miss home. Not just your family. You must if you’re taking pictures of a sign by the side of an empty road.”

I felt the tears begin to form. “I do miss home. Sometimes so much I can’t allow myself to think about it.”

I’ve never been to this particular place before, but I instinctively feel it as familiar.

I’m at a rest stop in Ellinger, Texas, on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. I stand at the edge of the small parking lot, on a curb that gives way to a shallow ditch that runs alongside that empty road that passes by green fields and that seems to end at the horizon a couple hundred feet away. Even in mid-September, the heat rises from the road in shimmery waves, the exhaust from cars on the highway and in the parking lot adding to the 90-degree air temperature.

The empty road dead ends into the highway, and across the intersection the arrows of two black-and-white signs, both with “71” inside an outline of the shape of Texas, point in opposite directions: north and south. A few abandoned tin-walled structures sit behind the wooden fence that separates highway from field.

Back on my side of the highway, three signs give the distances to the local Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, down the empty road that must become fuller past the horizon. Another sign advertises pecans for sale beyond the furthest church.

Peh-CANHS, I think. That’s how we say it here. Not PEE-cans, as they do elsewhere.

Walking across the empty road to take my photograph, I see an enormous white canvas that the church signs have obscured. “Romney-Ryan 2012” is backwards, since the logo faces the highway. I wonder whether it sits on public land at the same time that I know that few will care. This stretch of highway and this empty road is red.

Small white clouds only intermittently dot the expansive blue sky, which I always think seems bigger in Texas. Or was I just taught to think it so? Would I really recognize this landscape as Texas if the outline of the state were removed from the road sign?

I am a Texan, but I haven’t lived in Texas in 12 years. And there’s a chance that I might not again. When my nephew was born, the hospital gave his parents a discharge sheet congratulating them on “the birth of your new little Texan.” Will my children be so-called? What does it mean that he is a “Texan”? What does it mean that I am?

I love my family and Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock and Longhorn football and Astros baseball and bluebonnets and mesquite trees and the hill country and the car ride from Houston to Austin on a hot day.

I don’t love the death penalty and retrograde politics and homegrown presidential candidates and heat and humidity and traffic and suburban sprawl. I’ve become an East Coast urban Jew, like my husband, and so much of my former home has become an anathema to me. And perhaps I have become an anathema to it.

Molly Ivins said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She knows the mixed feelings that come with loyalty to a state that is often easy to deride as buffoonish. How can I be homesick and horrified at the same time?

In his memoir of his life under the ayatollah’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie writes about his and others’ dilemma as Indian writers but expats in the United Kingdom:

Who were they, and to what and whom did they belong? Or was the idea of belonging itself a trap, a cage from which they had been lucky enough to escape? He had concluded that the questions needed to be rephrased. The questions he knew how to answer were not about place or roots, but about love. Who do you love? What can you leave behind, and what do you need to hold on to? Where does your heart feel full?

He is surprised when a writer still living in India explains that his writing, that of a native son, is “highly problematic” in the country.

I claim Texas, but would Texas claim me?

As I fly back to Boston, it doesn’t feel like home. I like it, and I may one day grow to love it, as I did D.C. I think that home is Texas, and I always leave a part of me there. It’s a part that wouldn’t know what to do in Boston.

Rushdie calls this migrant consciousness. I moved because I couldn’t do what I want to do there. So I’m here now, and I am grateful and blessed. But the move required the construct of a new identity. You can’t ever go home again.

My parents have lived in Texas for more than 40 years. My grandparents were born and went to school in Texas – and moved back in retirement; my aunt and uncle did the same. My cousin moved to Madison after college for graduate school and then work and moved back several years later. My brother never left.

Re-entry into my “real life” has been very hard this time around. Enrollment in rabbinical school has amplified the differences between who I was and who I am. Will I ever feel whole in either place?

interview the first

Optimized-HiRes.jpg

Earlier this week, I took a trip for my interview and testing at the first rabbinical school to which I applied. (As I’ve said before, it’s easy to figure out which school it is, but it’s not that important for this post.)

Joe came with me so that he could get a feel for the school and the surrounding area. We stayed with a new friend that I met on my visit to the school; he and his fiancée were nice enough to offer us their queen-sized guest bed. The home hospitality offered during all of these rabbinical school visits certainly has made the trips more affordable — not to mention has afforded the opportunity to get to know potential schoolmates and further perspectives on the schools.

The testing was a mixed bag. I can say with some confidence that the best thing about it was at the end, when I got up to turn in the last test and I fell out of my chair (in front of two other prospective students, I might add). In my concentration and/or fear, I hadn’t noticed that one of my legs had fallen asleep. It was very Liz Lemon.

The three hours of Hebrew wasn’t as bad as I expected; it was the one-hour “Jewish Traditions” exam that was heartbreaking. This reality was made worse by the fact that I really thought it was going to be the opposite. I was wholly unprepared for how badly I would feel at the end.

I think I did well enough on the basic modern and Biblical Hebrew sections and middling on the Rabbinic. I didn’t even attempt the advanced modern — or the composition. (I am sorely lacking in Hebrew writing skills. As I am in Hebrew conversational skills, a part of the test that I also bombed.) I did well reading aloud from the siddur and Torah — although I was chagrined at the feedback that I confused my sins and shins.

The “Jewish Traditions” exam made my heart sink into my stomach: two pages of Hebrew terms to define and explain the significance of, and I only knew about three at first glance. And with this kind of exam, further reflection doesn’t yield more answers. I either knew them or I didn’t — and I didn’t. So I spent the rest of the time writing the terms down, so that I could look them up and learn them later. (Joe said he thought this was as much evidence of my readiness for rabbinical school as actually knowing the terms. I hope he’s right. Either way, I won’t soon be forgetting what hatafat dam brit is.)

The next day, the interview went considerably better than the testing. Though I faced seven people, I’m generally good at interviews, so I wasn’t fazed. And they all asked thoughtful questions, which I really appreciate. That experience did much to buoy my spirits after the previous day.

Unsurprisingly, I was asked how I would decide which school to attend if I were accepted at all the ones I’ve applied to. I answered honestly: I’ve gathered all the information that I can, so I’m thinking that it’s going to come down to a feeling. Joe liked the school and the area, as do I, but I’m honestly not sure what my feeling about the school is.

I’ve been exhausted and starving since I returned. I think the combination of anticipation, stress, frustration, disappointment, enjoyment, and being around new people just ran me down. And I’ve got to do this at least twice more . . .

the first night (and day)

I’ve just turned 18 years old, and I am on my first trip abroad. (Or perhaps my second, if you count the spring break seven months earlier that I spent in Cancún, which I don’t, because back then you didn’t need a passport to go to Mexico, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish either at the resort pool or at the local bars, the only places I went the entire week.)

I’ve just gotten off the plane in San José, Costa Rica. I should be at college, but six months earlier I had collapsed, a sobbing mess, on the floor of my bedroom when my mom told me that she and my dad couldn’t afford my dream of Brown University. Through my tears, I cursed the college counselor who had gotten me excited about Brown but had never warned me that the financial aid package might fall short — even after my mom’s negotiations with the admissions office.

I had earned a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where both my parents and my maternal grandparents had matriculated, and I had been accepted to its prestigious Plan II Honors Program. The award covered tuition and fees for four years. But I was 17 and wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible — not to mention not do anything remotely like what they had done.

Declaring it “unfair” that they were unwilling to pay $20,000 a year for my education, I announced that I wasn’t going to college after all — at least not right away. I deferred acceptance to UT and Plan II and arranged for my scholarship to go into effect the next fall. Then I used the earnings from my summer job as as administrative assistant at an oil and gas company — at a rate of $7.50 an hour, which I remember seemed like a fortune at the time — to sign up with a program called Interim.

Interim was a fairly unsophisticated, family-run program when I got involved, led still by its founder and his daughter. They connected me with the Centro de Educación Creativa, which accepted me as a volunteer for three months. The Centro was then a bilingual elementary school (it now goes up to grade 11) in Monteverde, a small mountain town in the country’s famed cloud forest. Upon arriving in San José, I was make my way to the Hotel Aranjuez. The next day, I would take the twice-daily bus to Monteverde, where a man named Chris, the school’s executive director, would meet the bus and take me to my new home.

But I’m still in the airport, paralyzed by the tasks that lay before me: I have to exchange money, and find a cab, and communicate my destination to the cab, and then spend the night by myself in a hotel. My mom later told me that putting me on the plane to San José was the hardest thing she had ever done. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of her concerns. Hell, I didn’t even know enough to be concerned myself. I was too excited about leaving Houston, about doing something different. It was only as the plane began to descend in Central America, a place I had never been and where I knew no one, that I began to wonder what exactly I was doing.

I don’t remember exchanging money and only vaguely recall the cab ride, which seemed to take forever (and to wind through some sketchy neighborhoods). Since I had no idea where the hotel was, I could only fervently hope that the cab driver was actually making his way to it.

I checked in — that Chris fellow made good on his word and had made a reservation in my name, as promised! — and was shown to my room. I remember the feeling of utter terror that I felt when the door closed and I was all alone in a foreign room in a foreign country. What had I been thinking?

I called my mom with her credit card and tried to hold back my tears — and my desire to beg her to let me come home again that night. I fell asleep crying into my pillow.

My bus wasn’t until 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon, and I spent the entire morning in the hotel. I tried to talk myself into at least walking around the neighborhood, but I was too scared. (It was a sketchy neighborhood!) I ate breakfast in the lobby/dining area and read until it seemed reasonable to call a taxi to take me to the bus station. I arrived an hour before the bus was scheduled to depart, and I waited, still terrified. (Did San José have nothing but sketchy neighborhoods?) The time of departure came and went, and there wasn’t even a sign of the bus. I began to panic. What if I had missed the bus? What if Chris had gotten the time wrong? What if everyone in Costa Rica was having a laugh at my expense and there was no bus to Monteverde?

At about 3, a taxi deposited at the station what was obviously another American student, and he seemed to be waiting for the bus to Monteverde, too. He had with him only small duffel bag and a guitar, and he sat down and began to pluck at its strings, totally unconcerned with a) the fact that he was late to the bus and b) the fact that there was no bus! His cool, collected calm grated on me in my disquiet. He noticed me and introduced himself. “You going to Monteverde?” Relieved, despite myself, to be able to talk to someone about my bus concerns, I opened the flood gates, confiding in him my theory that in all likelihood, the bus to Monteverde didn’t even exist!

He stared at me for a long second before snorting and bending back over his guitar. “We’re in a different time zone now,” he said drily. “It’s only 2 o’clock.”