Between

“Through a historical catastrophe – the destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor of Rome – I was born in one of the cities of the diaspora. But I always deemed myself a child of Jerusalem, one who is in reality a native Jerusalem.”  Shai Agnon, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966


 

Some things will never change. Like how I feel instantly and deeply at home in the crisp fall weather of coastal New England, where the painted leaves line the sky and the smells of wood burning and salt water bring a deep calm to my soul. Like how when I read a street sign here, no matter how many years I’ve read Hebrew, my eyes will always fall upon the English instinctually, following the path of least resistance.

We’ve chosen otherwise. Living a life full of difficulties we never would have faced if we had continued the lives we were born into in America. We have good reasons, which I’ve written about before. It often feels easier to speak of our ideals and hopes rather than our struggles yet when I push myself to write, this topic is always resting just below the surface. Sometimes, more often than I like to admit, our ideological values don’t feel strong enough to withstand the weight of my yearning to feel at home, among the familiar.

I wonder how long it will take my children to notice the longing in me, a result of the two personalities I’ve cultivated. The American Jenna is developed, strong, independent, educated and passionate about big issues. Confident enough to speak about them freely and devote her life to them. The Israeli Jenna, on the other hand, is newly born, shy, reserved, embarrassed to speak a restaurant order in the native language let alone share her views on an important topic. How is it that in my foreign home, my historically accidental home of America, I feel more like me? And yet in my ancestral homeland, where a much deeper part of me has ached to return for generations, I feel foreign and meek, hoping to go unnoticed by shuk vendors and street walkers. It feels like I must be missing some part of the story. I wonder when and if this will ever change.

It hasn’t been long that my family has called America home. A grandchild of immigrants myself, I am part of the first generation that grew up feeling fully American without the weight of my parents or grandparents’ past lives in far away places haunting me daily. Rather, it was a truth I could easily place aside and access when conjured. It is almost poetic that I would complete the cycle, uprooting and returning to the land we came from so many years ago. Almost.

The fact that lingers with me on the days my longing to be near my family wells up and almost overflows is this: Now that I have been opened to this land and my ancestry, to our place in the bigger story, if I were to go back, I would long for Israel and the effortless holiness that lives in her stones. I cannot imagine raising children who don’t start off with Israel feeling like home, like their deeply familiar place no matter where they choose to travel. For now, it seems, I will remain stuck in between worlds. The transitional generation. It is fitting, I think now, that I was born on the water and instilled with a love for the desert, always intended to be missing something fundamental.

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My Biggest Fear

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I’m just going to say it. I am terrified of speaking Hebrew. Actually, more accurately, I am terrified of sounding dumb, uneducated, foreign, unconfident, shaky, unsure, un-me. For me, this is scarier than the sound of rockets that wake me in the night and the constant threat of war we live with. I’m not exactly sure what it is that paralyzes me when a nice old man tries to make conversation with me in the waiting room or a construction worker/shop owner/secretary comments on how I should be doing something different with Maor (Dress him warmer! He’s boiling in there! He needs more air! Less sun!) or asks me how I like the carrier I’m using/can I believe how hot is is?/does the amber teething necklace actually work? I actually feel frozen, stuck, forgetting all language and social capabilities that I have in those moments (I promise, I actually do have some. Somewhere.) I’ve never spoken to our downstairs neighbors and I’m sure they think I am the most unfriendly tenant whenever I smile and avoid eye contact as we pass by each other on our shared walkway. When an old woman chastises me for making too much noise with my shuk cart early in the morning by simply wheeling it down the street (true story), the comebacks and retorts well up inside me and the poisonous outrage is stuck inside, lacking the necessary vessels to transport them out my mouth and into the world.

The ironic thing is that I am starving for more human interaction (outside of my amazing, english speaking community). In general, it is what feeds me and makes me who I am. In my past life, as I like to call my life up until moving here, I thrived in communication. I had intended to make my career around speaking with and connecting to people, studying the various nuanced ways to do just that. Here, I feel victorious when I successfully make an appointment or buy my groceries with the most minimal amount of questioning.

I even feel embarrassed just writing these feelings into existence (which is why it felt crucial do so), as if it makes them more real or permanent, as if it changes my situation in the least.

Please – resist the urge to give me advice. I’ve heard it all and actually have come up with all the obvious answers on my own. I actually can’t believe when a well meaning person suggests, as if it is a novel concept to me, that I just need to speak in order to feel more comfortable. That once I can speak Hebrew more confidently, I will feel more at home in all areas of my life. And therein lies the problem. This knowledge, the pressure of knowing exactly what I need to do and feeling unable to do it is building in me at every single possible moment of speaking and each time I shy away, give a one word answer, smile and nod, I feel as though I’m getting farther and farther away from ever being able to successfully speak and therefore exist here. As if I can reach a point of no return where I’ve passed up on enough chances and the doors will close. My language privileges will be revoked and I will be doomed to be silenced for the rest of eternity. Sounds a little crazy, I know. But really, if you see me on the street speaking (or not, as it may be) to someone in Hebrew, it’s all happening. The snowball effect of my self-doubt.

And what is the best-case scenario, really? That I get over my ridiculous fear and speak more freely, become relatively fluent but always with an accent, with a clear sign to all around me that I am a foreigner in my homeland (more on that soon). I am different. I will never be from here, understand all the subtleties of language and interaction, comedic timing, puns, and the like. My kids will forever be embarrassed by my attempts. It is a blow to the ego, let me tell you!

I think this is really what it comes down to. Accepting this ideal fate as different than how I’d pictured myself but ideal nonetheless. I don’t need to elaborate now on how strongly I feel about making aliyah (moving to Israel) and our part in history by doing so. And when I think about previous generations and how hard they had it, or people who are actually fleeing their birth places and cannot return, I think, “Toughen up, Jenna. You’ve got it easy! You’ll be fine.” But it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is where I am, at this moment in time (and hopefully not too many future moments) and it is real and hard and some days I’m motivated and make progress but sometimes I feel hopeless and homesick and bitter that I need to work so hard. But I do, and I will. And someday I hope, in my old age, I will meet a new, unsteady immigrant, wondering what they’ve just done and why the littlest things in life seem impossible when all the big things finally make sense and I will smile and reassure them, as I, and all those who have done this before me, are reassuring me now. Baby steps.

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The Edge

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Three years ago today, I boarded a plane to Israel with a four-month ticket and no plans to speak of. I was terrified, standing on the edge of something so much bigger than I could have imagined. Yet something was pulling me here. It pulled me out my comfort, directly into my fear. I thought I must be crazy. But I jumped right in.

Three years later, I am waking up to these shining faces. I can’t believe I almost didn’t know them.

There are times, I’ve learned, when we approach our edge and need to decide whether to back away or step over it. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription, no mantra that works in every situation. The best we can do is tune into ourselves, that tiny voice of wisdom within who always knows what’s right.

Some days (probably too many days), I think I might have been crazy to get on that plane. I picture the life I could have been leading and fantasize about all the people I could have become, places I could have lived. Sometimes I yearn for things much simpler that aren’t possible here – living down the street from my family, eating blueberries, watching the leaves turn colors in the fall.

I can go on for hours with these games, fill in a million “what ifs.” When all is said and done, however, when I’m honest with myself and that still, small voice inside, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Here’s to you, crazy and brave Jenna from three years ago. Thanks for stepping over the edge.

What Keeps Me

Sometimes, I am struck by moments of clear and pure gratitude for the place in which we live.

Where women gather, encircle each other to support each one’s learning, growing, mothering, being. Instead of wedding and baby showers, we rain down blessings and shared wisdom before moments of transformation.

Where among my sons first heard sounds are chassidic melodies and the words of ancient prayers offered up on high as he joins a legacy, a family, of spiritual warriors and scholarly soldiers.

Where it is difficult to leave the house and remain anonymous and alone for even a supposed stranger will strike up a conversation, share unsolicited advice and even ask to hold my baby.

Where our weekends consist of sitting around abundantly delicious tables with each other, speaking about everything from mysticism to policy, inviting in strangers and family alike, sharing all that we have, which always miraculously is just enough.

Where we share and hold both joy and mourning so fully, often simultaneously. Our songs and dance come from places of emptiness and yearning just as much as jubilance.

Where our prayers hold more meaning when said together, stemming from a deeply ingrained message, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Where our shared aching for our first homes across oceans blends with our awe of returning to a much older, yet less immediately familiar home.

Where I fumble and blush through Hebrew interactions, stumble through the disorientedness of feeling foreign and then look around me realize we are all coming back here from somewhere.

Where the weight of responsibility, the threat of missiles and the burden of the unknown leads to an inexplicable feeling of safety felt no where else in the world.

Nothing is accidental or meaningless. Our commitment to being must be reinstated daily, sometimes hourly. Conscious community keeps us going.

We share in living – from birth to death – together. Those of us with family far away are adopted by and responsible for each other.

We are seen, held accountable, challenged to go further, providing a safety net when we inevitably fall and a celebration when we reach new heights.

Nothing is simple or rational, few things are comfortable, yet a deeper, invisible magnetized pull keeps us all here.

A glimpse of the biblical landscape from atop a tall city building leaves me immediately speechless and present. The soft breeze I feel sweeping over us from the nearby desert whispers a timeless secret. To live and cry and birth and die and dance through the tears of yearning and mourning together is why we’re here.

I am a witness, a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a humble mother to the holy next generation of the children of Israel.

I am because we all are, both near and far.

The fullest expression of what I can be, even in those moments where all of this escapes me.

Jerusalem, 1844 Photographer: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey

Jerusalem, 1844
Photographer: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey

Liminality and Purim

The holiday of Purim is almost here and so I feel that it is fitting for me to take some time to really connect to what that means. While taking a photography course a few months ago, designed for new olim (people who had made aliyah to Israel), we often discussed the concept of Liminality and how it relates to our lives in transition. I very much identified with the concept then but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. When this month rolled around, however, it seemed like the perfect time to embrace it.

“In anthropologyliminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes… More recently, usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rituals.[3] During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.[4] The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” – Definition from Wikipedia

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ink into water

The cycle of the Jewish calendar is meant to guide us through the year and connect us to various  tikkunim (fixings) that we need to make in ourselves and our intentions as well as allow us to draw down the energies that are available to us in a given month.  As one of my rabbis said, the energies of the month are always surrounding us just like radio waves – the choice is ours whether we want to tune in to them or not.

In this month of Adar, the tikkun and overall theme is happiness. It is said, “When Adar arrives, we increase our joy (Talmud – Taanit 29a).” Why is happiness so important in this month? Because it is when we are truly joyful, especially when doing the most mundane tasks, that we can connect most to G!d. For some people, the moment they enter the month of Adar, the delight is completely felt and embraced. I, on the other hand, do a much better job of connecting to months like Av, a month of decreased joy and lots of mourning. For some reason, this is much more natural to me. I tend to write off the times of year when I am “supposed” to be happy and just say they aren’t for me. But is this really true? Maybe this month is especially important for me because I need to transform my natural disposition, turn it upside down, cultivate folly and embrace the liminality in order to achieve the highest state of Purim. To be able to see the potential for good in everyone.

The story of Purim is one of a battle between good and evil, of overcoming enemies (both internal and external) through hidden miracles (hidden meaning that there is no mention of G!d in the entire Megilat Esther, the story of Purim.) To commemorate this victory, we dress up in costumes, retell this story, and drink wine until we don’t know the difference between good and evil. [Interesting note – the word for “to dress up (in costumes)” in hebrew is להתחפש which comes from the same root as freedom (חופש) and to search (לחפש). Clearly there is a connection!]

I tend to run in the opposite direction of hoards of drunk people (in fact, last year I pretty much hid inside the whole day) but I think in doing this, I miss the point of this deeply holy holiday. Sure, there are people who exploit the chance to party all day but what would it mean if we could truly connect to what is in the air on Purim? The chance to shed our masks (by wearing fake masks) and let our inner light out? The possibilities are endless when we stand at the threshold and let hierarchies dissolve! The real goal of Purim is to flip our routine, our inhibitions, our egos, our judgements on their heads. And maybe, just maybe, when we are all upside down, the illusions of barriers that separate us will fall away and what is usually hidden – our truest, deepest selves – will come forth and we will be able to see the hidden sparks of light  in every one.

May we all be able to connect to the deepest truths of Purim and see the oneness that exists around us every day. Purim Sameach!

If you want to learn more about some of the  Kabbalistic underpinnings of Purim, check out the brilliant Sarah Yehudit Schneider’s teachings here.

In the meantime, enjoy some silly Jerusalem Purim images:

Returning, again.

This is my first attempt to publish a blog posting since the beginning of my journeys in Israel in 2011. (For some history, check out these old postings: http://jennagoestoisrael.blogspot.co.il). I came to this land oblivious as to what was ahead of me. A wide-eyed, single girl traveling the world before settling into the coming five years of doctoral work. The world, this land, was my oyster…or should I say matzah ball? My mind, my heart, my eyes were open. I was completely ready to absorb it all, have a traveling experience, and then go right back to my neat and orderly planned out life. So what happened? Everything.

I fell in love, for starters. With the land of Israel, the history of the Jewish people, my own heritage and rich tradition, my (at the time) new boyfriend and now husband. Within a little over a year, I came to this country with no plans, fell deeply into seminary learning ancient Jewish wisdom, met an incredible man with a similar journey, decided to uproot my life in America and settle in Israel, and then had a fairy tale, outdoor, organic spring wedding in the hills of Jerusalem (Thanks Yehoshua Sigala for the amazing pictures!) Today, we are both working, learning, and planting our roots here, in The Holy Land. Happily ever after, right?

Almost. When I look back at the whirlwind of my last few months, I am overcome with more emotions than I know how to verbalize. Gratitude, first of all. Awe, excitement, a longing for the past – the moments before waking that now seem much simpler, the satisfaction of listening to my intuition through adversity, missing my family. Today I am faced with challenges in every-day tasks I never thought I’d find difficult. Striving to maintain my connections to family and friends across the ocean while becoming a part of and embracing society here. I am an immigrant. I am learning more and more Hebrew every day yet it never seems to be enough. I am building a life from scratch, rather than continuing on in a life of privilege. I am humbled by this process every day (some days more gracefully than others). I am a constant student (and now teacher) of yoga – a practice that keeps me grounded and lets me fly. I am an orthodox, married woman. A homemaker. An administrative assistant for an organization doing incredible work in the field of Jewish Personal Growth (shameless promotion for The Shalev Center – check them out). A happy baker and improving cook. I am choosing to connect to and plant new roots in Israel because I believe in this land, in our people’s dream of coming back to our land. Despite all I have seemingly given up in my American life, I am comforted and reinvigorated by the idea that we are investing in our children and grandchildren in hopes that if they choose to follow a similar lifestyle, connecting to Torah and this holy land, it will not be so alien and difficult for them. A jarring, jumble of translations that fall short, foreign land and new culture. This will be their home base, Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) will be their family, no matter where they choose to go.

So this is my journey through Israel, Yoga, Judaism, making Aliyah, marriage and hopefully someday kids that I am inviting you to witness. The concept in yoga that I have come to love so much and relate to in my daily life is what has inspired this blog. Just as when we root deeply into the ground, into the earth, we are able to rise to much greater heights than we even thought possible, I hope that in my return to this land (in hebrew called making “aliyah” – literally “going up”) I am able to raise up my life and the life of my future children to new heights – both spiritually and physically. No matter what each of our life’s journey holds in store, may this concept always help to take you to exactly where you are supposed to be.

You only see when you hear.

“July, 1967…I have discovered a new land. Israel is not the same as before. There is great astonishment in the souls. It is as if the prophets had risen from their graves. Their words ring in a new way. Jerusalem is everywhere, she hovers over the whole country. There is a new radiance, a new awe.
The great quality of a miracle is not in its being an unexpected, unbelieved event in which the presence of the holy bursts forth, but in its happening to human beings who are profoundly astonished at such an outburst. My astonishment is mixed with anxiety. Am I worthy? Am I able to appreciate the marvel?

I did not enter on my own the city of Jerusalem. Streams of endless craving, clinging, dreaming, flowing day and night, mights, years, decades, centuries, millennia, streams of tears, pledging, waiting = from all over the world, from all corners of the earth – carried us of this generation to The Wall. My ancestors could only dream of you – to my people in Auschwitz you were more remote than the moon, and I can touch your stones! Am I worthy? How shall I ever repay for these moments?
The martyrs of all ages are sitting at the gates of heaven, having refused to enter the world to come lest they forget Israel’s pledge given in and for this world:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem
let my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joys.
                                                                                                     Psalm 137
They would rather be without heaven than forget the glory of Jerusalem. From time to time their souls would leave the gates of heaven to go on a pilgrimage to the souls of the Jewish people, reminding them that God himself is in exile, that He will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until his people Israel will enter Jerusalem here.
Jerusalem! I always try to see the inner force that emanates from you, enveloping and transcending all the weariness and travail. I try to use my eyes, and there is a cloud. Is Jerusalem higher than the road I walk on? Does she hover in the air above me? No, in Jerusalem past is present, and heaven is almost here. For an instant I am near to Hillel, who is close by. All of our history is within reach. 
Jerusalem, you only see her when you hear. 
She has been an ear when no one else heard, and ear open to prophets denunciations, to prophets consolations, to the lamentations of ages, to the hopes of countless sages and saints; and ear to prayer flowing from distant places. And she is more than an ear.
Jerusalem is a witness. An echo of eternity. Stand still and listen. We know Isaiah’s voice from hearsay, yet these stones heard him when he said… (2 : 2-4)

It shall come to pass in the latter days…
For out of Zion shall go forth Torah,
and the word of The Lord from Jerusalem…
And he shall judge between nations,
and shall decide for many peoples…
Nation shall not lift of sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Jerusalem was stopped in the middle of her speech. She is a voice interrupted. Let Jerusalem speak again to our people, to all people…
What is the secret of Jerusalem? Her past is a prelude.
Her power is in reviving. Here silence is prediction, the walls are in suspense…
This is a city never indifferent to the sky. The evenings often feel like Kol Nidre nights. Unheard music, transfiguring thoughts. Prayers are vibrant. The Sabbath finds it hard to go away… 
Jerusalem has the look of a place that is looked at… “The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12). Psalms inhabit the hills, the air is hallelujah. Hidden harps. Dormant songs. “



[Excerpt from Israel: An Echo of Eternity, A.J. Heschel]