the wall(s) of Jerusalem

Last Sunday, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got dressed in preparation to walk to the Old City to participate in that morning’s shacharit service. By all accounts I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping at all that evening, since it was Shavuot, and traditionally on this holiday Jews stay up all night learning Torah and then go to morning davvening. But I’m a morning person (generally of no use to anyone after 9:00 p.m.), so Shavuot’s marathon study sessions have always been challenging for me. I prefer just to eat cheesecake in celebration of the revelation at Sinai.

Along with my mom and my roommate, I headed towards the Western Wall, walking in darkness with many dozen others from the neighborhood. We reached the Dung Gate and entered Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian praying space at the Wall. Well, not exactly at the Wall — or not at the Wall’s main plaza, the one that is always shown in photographs of the prayer and pilgrimage site. Instead, we walked down a long set of wooden steps and across a wooden bridge to a temporary platform erected near the remains of what is known as Robinson’s Arch, which once supported a massive staircase that led up to the Second Temple.

The schatz had just begun birkot hashahar when we arrived. As I settled into the space, I looked around at the attendees: lots of Americans (I ran into someone I knew from D.C. on the way down the stairs), lots of what seemed like secular Israelis. Everyone looked tired, resulting in pretty quiet and lackluster singing — especially in comparison to the very loud davvening a little up and over on the main plaza. The sound of men’s voices threatened to drown out our service.

To my surprise, occasionally walking through the service, to get closer to the wall accessible from a staircase at the far end of the platform, were a number of Orthodox Jews — men, women, and children. They just passed by, prayed at the lower platform, and then passed back by again. The logical extension of an egalitarian space, I guess: everyone is welcome. 

view of the walls of jerusalem from the ramparts walk; photo by salem pearce

By the time the Torah service started, I had moved to the front of the platform, partly to see what the davvening crashers were doing. I also turned around in a circle to really see where I was, continuing to sing the prelude to taking out the scroll.  As we got to the line tivneh chomot Yerushalayim, “build the walls of Jerusalem” — our plea to Gd each time we read Torah on Shabbat or holidays — I happened to be looking at the sun rise over the actual walls of Jerusalem. In spite myself, I was moved.

I say “in spite of myself” because I don’t feel particularly invested in prayer services at the Western Wall. For one, I’m actually glad the temple cult in Jerusalem of the 1st century CE became the current diasporic system of symbolic remembrances of the temple. I question the holiness ascribed to the remnants of the ancient sacrificial site. What’s more, many of those who revere the Wall actually want the temple to be rebuilt, on the Temple Mount, where currently stand the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred Muslim sites. The Third Temple can’t exist without starting the Third World War. This fact doesn’t stop various Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from making provocative statements to that effect from time to time. And even more, when the Israeli army captured Jerusalem in 1967, a Palestinian village was razed to widen the plaza for increased access to the Wall — for Jews only. But the folks fighting for the right to hold egalitarian prayer on the Wall’s main plaza, in the name of justice, don’t talk about that.

The Torah service was followed by the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Or at least traditional for Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardim don’t read Ruth, so as a compromise we read just the first and fourth chapter of the book. As a convert, I love the book of Ruth. I say the famous line from the first chapter when I put on my tefillin in the morning: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people, my people; your Gd, my Gd. My friend Rachel was leyning the book that morning, and she has a beautiful voice. I stood mesmorized as she sang, all the way to the end of the book, which traces the lineage from Ruth’s child to King David, whose son Solomon . . . built the First Temple.

All right, Western Wall, you got me this time.

one of them

I step back into my hotel room from the balcony and turn around to put away my tallit and tefillin. I’ve just davenned Shacharit, the morning service, and ended my prayers with the traditional refrain: oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, alienu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teveyl, “may the one who makes peace above make peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I turn I catch a glance of myself in the mirror, the thought flashes through my head: “I look like one of them.”

I’m in East Jerusalem, traveling with Interfaith Peace-Builders on a delegation to the West Bank, with a special focus on the effects of incarceration and detention on Palestinian society. This hotel is our home base for the 10 days we’ll spend learning about the occupation. There are 27 of us, mostly non-Jews from the States (with a Scot thrown in for good measure), plus a handful of Jews. 

For me the difficulty started as soon as our bus drove out of the airport: “This is the Jewish neighborhood of [x],” the guide intoned, “built on the Palestinian town of [y]. It was called [a], but now it’s called [b].” This has been a constant refrain over the past three days.

“One of them,” of course, has become Jewish Israelis, and specifically religious Jewish Israelis, whose racist government continues to systematically oppress the native Palestinian population. As has been said more than once, the Nakba, the Palestinians’ word for what Israelis call Independence Day — May 15, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established — is ongoing.

photo by Asher Emmanuel


I identify as a religious Jew. But what really brought me into my Jewish practice was social justice. I understand Judaism as requiring that I act in pursuit of the liberation of all people. All of my social justice work is rooted in Jewish values. And those values are antithetical to destruction of homes, and building of walls, and detention of children, and forcible removal of peoples, and use of Biblical names as a signal of colonization. To witness the devastation that religious Judaism has wreaked in this land has been . . . well, devastating. For the first time in my life, I have felt ashamed of being Jewish.

Yesterday, we visited the Palestinian town of Yaffa, now annexed to the city of Tel Aviv. (The latter is officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.) Our guide told us about the private construction of an apartment building on municipal land: The religious Jew who won the bid declined to rent units to non-Jews, with the excuse that they would not “respect Shabbat.” When asked whether apartments would be let to secular Jewish Israelis who would respect Shabbat, the answer was affirmative. Just not to Palestinians — even if they agreed to “respect Shabbat.” The extensive litigation process by a Palestinian activist group was unsuccessful in preventing this discrimination.

Shabbat is sacred to me, essential to my survival as a Jewish seeker of peace and justice in this painful world. As Heschel said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” To hear about the use of Shabbat as a tool of racism is heartbreaking. More than once I’ve felt like I literally cannot hear anymore the onslaught of the catalogue of Israeli crimes. And then I feel guilty, because Palestinians live this reality every day, and they cannot opt out of it.

I know this is part of my process of learning and of integregrating that new knowledge into my identity: What does it mean that these human rights violations are perpetrated in my name, as a Jew, and what is my responsibility in responding? How do I deal with the internalized anti-Semitism that I’ve been experiencing? I feel confident that I’ll eventually work it out. It’s been hugely helpful to have two Jewish leaders who have gone through this process — as well as being able to get and give support to and from the other Jewish participants on the trip.

I will note that this is just part of my experience. I have criticisms of this delegation and its speakers as well. There are things that aren’t being talked about (as there are in a Zionist narrative), but I also think this is not the trip for me to point that out. My job here is to listen to what Palestinian civil society has to say.

a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.

birkot hashachar

ברקת השחר collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽנוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם

. . . אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְֽלָה.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי בְּצַלְמוֹ.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי בַּתּ חוֹרִין.

. . . פּוֹקֵֽחַ עִוְרִים.

. . . מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרֻמִּים.

. . . מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים.

. . . זוֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים.

. . . רוֹקַע הָאָֽרֶץ עַל הַמָּֽיִם.

. . . שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִּי כָּל צָרְכִּי.

. . . הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גָֽבֶר.

. . . אוֹזֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּגְבוּרָה.

. . . עוֹטֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתִפְאָרָה.

. . . הַנּוֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כֹּֽחַ.

Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, sovereign of the universe: who gave to the rooster ability to distinguish between night and day; who made me in G-d’s image; who made me a Jew; who made me a child of freedom. G-d gives sight to the blind, clothes the naked, releases the bound, raises the downtrodden, treads the earth upon the water. G-d provided me my every need has made me everything I need, has made ready a person’s steps. G-d girds Israel with might, crowns Israel with glory. G-d is the one who gives to the weary strength.

This week my tefila group focused on Birkot HaShachar (“blessings of the dawn”), a series recited at the beginning of the morning service. The blessings focus on praising G-d for the renewal of the day and mirror the order of activities upon rising. Like elohai neshama, the liturgy speaks directly to G-d, but here as “our G-d” instead of “my G-d.” Some of the reflections are personal; others, more communal.

As part of our commitment to considering the transitions between prayers, we began our session with elohai neshama, singing it a few times through to an arrangement by a classmate. We then went outside for stretching and birkot, and then came back inside for korbanot (next up in the liturgy), a series of blessings that reference temple sacrifice.

As with last week, the form and content of our principal prayer meshed perfectly. It was a great choice to go outside for birkot hashachar; by doing so we were able to see the more literal side of some of the blessings. It was a beautiful, crisp morning, and I looked up at the sun beginning to shine through the trees, and I felt like I could fly as my tallit billowed around me.

We sang birkot hashachar to an arrangement of yet another classmate (so much musical talent in the Hebrew College community!), set to the song “One Voice” by The Wailin’ Jennys. My classmate leading the prayer shared a kavanah from yet another classmate: Over its duration, “One Voice” progresses from “[t]his is the sound of one voice,” to “[t]his is the sound of voices two,” to “[t]his is the sound of voices three” and ends with “[t]his is the sound of all of us.” In a similar way to birkot hashachar, it mirrors what happens as we move through our day. At first it’s just us, and then voice after voice adds to our experience.

I often feel this way about my morning. I get up alone, and when I get to school I begin greeting people, and we begin davenning. Usually at some point in the service, we have one voice in prayer — and it’s an amazing experience. I sometimes stop singing myself and just listen to all the voices.

Before Tuesday I actually hadn’t heard “One Voice.” I did have the sense while we were singing that I wish we could have gotten progressively louder. But there are only six of us in the group. So when I access my memory of our singing birkot hashachar, I imagine us as we were, standing outside, looking at G-d’s creation, singing in “One Voice.” And I imagine that we resound.

one voice – the wailin’ jennys

* Thanks to a classmate, whose translation of the phrase שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִּי כָּל צָרְכִּי I prefer to my original.
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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

morning

File this under “things I worry about when I think about rabbinical school.” I imagine this post to be a first in a series. The issue today is prayer and exercise.

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

I think about prayer a lot these days, more than I used to, which was generally on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. There are several reasons for this. My year-long b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I began by exploring some philosophy of prayer: We read Reuven Hammer’s Entering Jewish Prayer and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God. We then moved on to learning the parts of the different services (Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma’ariv) — and talking about the differences between the services on weekdays and on Shabbat. We learned how to put on tallit and lay tefillin. And we’ve been encouraged by the rabbi to at least begin saying the Birchot HaShachar, the thirteen morning blessings — perhaps as practice towards expanded morning prayer.

And in the Talmud class I’ve been attending once a week, we’ve been reading the tractate Berakhot, which deals with the logistics and requirements of prayer, especially the Sh’ma and the Amidah.

Finally, my applications to rabbinical school have asked me to reflect on my relationship with G-d, of which prayer is certainly a part. And at every school that I visited, I had the chance to attend at least morning prayers. I’ve already realized that davening at rabbinical school is likely to be a unique experience: The minyan is most likely more committed than average, as you might expect from a roomful of aspiring rabbis, leading to perhaps a more spirited and spiritual experience. The students run the services and are oftentimes encouraged to experiment and innovate with the liturgy. Plus, in the institutions with cantorial schools, the services can make use of unbelievably beautiful music.

That’s prayer. On to exercise: It’s taken me a fair amount of my adult life to realize that consistent, almost daily exercise is key to my mental health. And for me, that exercise needs to happen first thing in the morning. It makes my whole day better. Plus, if I’m going to exercise, I’m more likely to do so in the morning: At the end of the day, I just don’t have energy to work out.

And the conflict: At all the schools I visited, Shacharit starts before 8:00 a.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m. This doesn’t preclude morning exercise, but it certainly makes it trickier than it has been here in D.C., when I’ve started work at 9:00 a.m. or later. (Plus, my current morning commute is just 15 minutes of walking. My commute in school could be 30 minutes or more on public transportation, further shrinking the morning exercise window.)

I want to have a meaningful prayer life in rabbinical school and participate in communal prayer services. I also want to practice self care through morning exercise. So, I’ve got some thinking to do. And maybe some afternoon exercising to get used to.