Thursday, August 20, 2009

Time flies...

... or just exists in a completely different continuum here. It feels like it has been no time and forever since my last post. I ended up spending a few more days in Tsfat, taking in a very peaceful shabbat full of amazing conversations with new chevre, a lot of solitary study and mediation time, and, simply, peace. It is amazing how grounding shabbat can be; I always seem to find new truths, new inner strength, new wisdom (from within and from outside).

Saturday evening, my roommate and I were on Livnot's roof balcony, sharing songs, sharing conversation, when we heard music coming from the streets. We first found some former Livnot-ers playing banjo and guitar to a small crowd in an alley. We stayed for a few minutes and continued on, discovering a powerful scene in the Kikar, the square. Two guys with guitars and one with a flute, all in Tsfat studying for a few months, had started to play and sing. A huge crowd of men and boys in uniform black and white surrounded them, all soulfully singing Hebrew songs. It was honestly better than any of the concerts from the Klezmer festival just a few days before. The spontaneity, the joy... it was magnetic. We sat for hours until they finished, sometime after 1am, then headed to bed. For me, that meant the roof, where I'd been sleeping under the stars all week. There is nothing better.

Well, maybe there is... sleeping under the stars out in nature. I set out on a multi-day string of water hikes on Monday. I hitched to a Druze village about an hour from Tsfat to meet my friends (two chevre from Birthright, and one new, and instantly good, friend from another Livnot program), and start our hike. We hiked [what seemed like] straight up a mountain, only to head back down to some springs, circled around the mountain, then headed to our camping spot of the night. We made a fire -- once we located dry enough wood -- and roasted vegetables, shared quotes, and tried to sleep. Tried. Mosquitoes and barking dogs that thought it was cool to sit on sleeping humans' heads made for difficult sleeping conditions. The following day, we hiked along a river from Abbirim to near Naharia, camped on a beautiful overlook in a place called Achziv, sharing wine and watermelon on the beach. We headed to Rosh Hanikra the next day, spending our afternoon viewing beautiful grottoes and bodysurfing at the beach until sunset. We did a fair amount of hitching between places that were either un-hike-able, or just really unenjoyable hikes (along roads, through banana farms...), sometimes dancing on the side of the road to entice potential drivers. Yeah, that didn't work. But having an actor along for the ride definitely brought out my suppressed inner musical theatre self in a way that hasn't happened in a LONG time. It was fun to revisit, if only for a few days

That gets us to today. Tel Aviv. I wasn't too excited to come back here, but it's been lovely. I've gotten to catch up with some friends and spend time with new chevre. Nothing to complain about there! Tomorrow I will head to Modi'in to spend shabbat with my friend Shira, a bat sherut from Livnot, and her family. From there? Jerusalem... It's under two weeks until I leave, a thought that saddens me quite a lot, and I cannot think of anywhere else I'd rather spend my last few days in Israel. Well, last few days of this trip, anyway.

"The way of Jerusalem is a way of exaltation. She is so much more than what you see." Abraham Joshua Heschel

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Up on the Roof

I started writing this post a couple days ago and, well, life in Tsfat took over and I never had a chance to finish. The brief summary: showed up Sunday to surprise my leader from Birthright and go on a hike he was leading --- and how wonderful it was to hike with him, having an hours-long conversation that was so nourishing to the soul, we ended up being surprised by chevre from the trip waiting at the bottom of the trail, it was wonderful; three days of the klezmer festival here in Tsfat, evenings of a ton of beautiful music ranging from traditional klezmer to all sorts of off-shoots, spending days at Livnot making music, reading, writing, hanging with the chevre; went on a beautiful hike yesterday with friends old and new. Now sitting here debating what the next step will be.

Next week, I will most likely be heading on a 4-5 day hike with some friends, the first chunk of the Israel trail. It is an amazing way to see the land, to really connect with people, to push myself beyond what I've done. Another new experience to savor. A long hike, pushing myself physically, mentally, spiritually beyond what I have experienced before... a long walking meditation, gratitude for every step, every moment I have, moments here, moments anywhere. I am continually reminded of how fleeting everything is, how quickly lives can change, do change.

I was reading a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel the other day and came across a quote that really resonated with me: "Living truth is the blending of the universal and the individual, of idea and understanding, of distance and intimacy, the ineffable and the expressible, the timeless and the temporal, body and soul, time and space."

This truth, whatever it is, is what I have been trying to find within myself here, what I've luckily started to see clearly again. It's an endeavor, taking this thread and adding the layers to grow it to a string, a rope, my entire being. It's probably the most important endeavor one can take on, and it should never end. Well, at least I don't think it should.

I continually offer my gratitude for this time, coming so quickly to an end. For the beautiful people I have met, and that I continue to meet. This country is, more than anything else, about the people. I will take them with me more than anything else. The land is a close second, but the people... Grateful for this time to reflect, to refind my truths, to discover new truths, to be in the moment every moment. To find intention, to move with intention, always. To experience wonder and amazement at every turn.

So grateful. So overwhelmingly grateful.

Kol tuv, everyone.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I have two songs that have been a constant accompaniment to my time here.

Kol ha'olam kulo
Gesher tzar me'od
Veha'ikar lo lefached klal.

This song is learned by Israelis when they are young; everyone knows it. They are words of wisdom from the famous kabbalist Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, set to a haunting melody. The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all. It is a message I am trying to carry with me, to keep reminding myself of as I grapple with some important life decisions, to find peace amidst the pain of closing the doors to some important players -- people and paths -- in my life (important closure, good closure, but, needless to say, not easy goodbyes).

This weight is tempered by a weight of a different kind.

There is so much magnificence in the ocean.
The waves keep coming in.

The ocean is life. The waves everything that life throws our way, sometimes gentle, sometimes rough, big, small, and in beautiful rare moments, stillness. But they never stop. I spent a good part of this afternoon sitting on a deserted stretch of the beach in Haifa, this song repeating itself in my mind.

I was having a long discussion with a friend about, well, that magnificence. Finding true self in the face of everything society says you must be, living the life you want, the raw blows, the great gifts, going inside rather than outside one's self for wisdom and knowledge, how to give back, to be a part of the magnificence. I think of the freedom, its weight, its power, that I wrote about in my first post. I think about how everything I have needed has been here for me, the synchronicities I've experienced, all of the little pieces that keep falling into place. I think of the people who have come into my life and the amazing lessons I have learned from all of them, the ways they've challenged me to grow and change, whether or not they know it. I look out over the Mediterranean Sea from a different vantage point, a hill high atop Haifa, the sun about to pass the horizon and begin shabbat, and think of that on a macro scale, all of the pieces of this world, this universe, that work together allowing us to exist at all. (And think of how odd it is that, when I logged in to write this post, I saw that a friend had written some beautiful words about this song too. Pshhhhh.)

Everything is magnificent. The good, the bad, the peaceful, the painful. It is easy to be distracted by these overwhelmingly beautiful sites, to lose sight of the magnificent small moments, too. There is this beautiful sunset behind me... but I don't need it. I can close my eyes and feel a bit of the cool evening breeze, and that's enough.

A wise man I met in Sinai said that he gets up every morning with one simple thought: being thankful for this day. It is all we have. The past is over, the future does not yet exist. All we have is this moment. How grateful I am for this moment, for every step of my journey here, whether seemingly easy or incredibly difficult. This moment. This magnificence. The balance to stay on the narrow bridge.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Up North

Spent the morning yesterday wandering the Old City. Again. I wanted to visit the 4 Sephardi Synagogues that I'd passed a number of times, as well as revisit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a few others sites in the Christian quarter, and then attempt to go up to the Dome of the Rock. The latter did not happen since I received conflicting sets of directions for how to get there. Meh. I'd never been in a Sephardi synagogue before, did not know what to expect, but I had a sense that seeing the four in the Old City would be a more powerful experience than it was. They are 4 synagogues built between the 16th-18th centuries, all of which were connected at some point along the way. There are powerful traditions associated with them: Qahal Qadosh Gadol (the Great Congregation) kept a shofar and oil jug, which the prophet Elijah would use to announce and then anoint the Messiah; the Eliahu Hanavi congregation, first of the temples to be built, had a time when they had one too few men for a minyan, a particular problem for Yom Kippur. As the story goes, an old man, unknown to the congregants, showed up one year and completed the minyan, vanished after prayers and was never seen again... Elijah?; another synagogue, the Istanbuli, kept a geniza, a place where ruined holy books were stored, and periodically brought in public procession to be buried (they are not supposed to be thrown away) in the Sephardic cemetery at the foot of Mt. Zion.

Ok, history lesson complete. These temples were plundered following the War of Independence/Catastrophe in 1948; one Torah survived, saved by Christians, as did the external walls. So, what exists now is basically a whitewashed... exhibit. It truly felt like an exhibit, and that took away from the experience. Powerful in its own way, but a bit shocking in its sterility. (And yes, of course I recognize that the reasons for said sterility are part of a powerful, multi-faceted set of events; nothing is cut and dry.) It was interesting to notice, though, since I have written about the power of the Old City, the overwhelming sense of history, and so forth. I forgot until looking back at my journal, though, that my first impression of the Old City was that it felt like a Disneyland of sorts. Honestly? There seem to be so many universes there existing on top of each other, next to each other, sometimes overlapping, sometimes completely disparate entities. It's a show. It's history. It's religiosity. It's tourism. It's tradition. It's...

But I digress. After some other explorations, including a walk down to the Garden and Basilica of Gesthemene (famous for being the place where Jesus's disciples prayed before his crucifixion, home to some of the oldest olive trees I have ever seen, their years physically manifested in their knotted trunks) and back up to the Old City for a bus to the central bus station. Time to head north...

I got a bit sick of so many people here telling me not to hitchhike (it's a pretty common mode of travel here). You know, the whole live for myself and not for others thing? So, having been contacted by a seemingly great person from Couchsurfing (and he definitely was, as was his girlfriend) who said I could crash at his place in Haifa, I decided to grow a pair and I hitchhiked here from Jerusalem. It took awhile to find a ride, but a lady stopped and she just happened to live a few km from the city; I got a ride all the way here.

It was serendipitous, really. I had given myself just five more minutes before I was going to head to the bus station and get a ticket. What a gift... she's a professional tour guide (specializes in Christian sites and actually trains other tour guides on that history; she spent about 15 years as a born again Christian --- long story --- and has a connection to those places that is unlike most people here), and has been since the army, and lives on a kibbutz just outside Haifa. She had a ton of interesting stories, recommendations for some beautiful hikes, and a warm, warm heart. Definitely one of those Israeli characters everyone seems to pick up along the way in their travels here.

So... I am in Haifa. There is something really nice about this place in that many religions coexist here --- peacefully, for the most part. The surroundings, though, are a bit depressing, run-down, at least where I am now. I'll be staying in a more gentrified neighborhood tonight, for what it's worth, but that's also kind of depressing. There are a few sites to see here, but I have been told that Haifa is more about the people. Ok, and some amazing food, too! And we all know me and food... But, we'll see. I'm not feeling too tied to this place. I'll probably spend another day or so, maybe go to Nazareth, then head to Tsfat for a klezmer music festival (!) and some time with chevre. Well, those are tentative plans, anyway; nothing is set in stone.

For now, off to see what Haifa has to offer to this traveler. We shall see, we shall see.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pictures speak louder than words

It's been a great few days, seeing old friends, new friends, randomly running into people on the street, making some good music, organizing a birthday picnic, finding out that I will likely be recording a song before leaving Israel. (Crazy!) Tomorrow I will head north to points unknown... likely Haifa, then Nazareth, then on to Tsfat. Hopefully I will get to camp at the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), hike with some friends, then head back to Jerusalem. Here's to hoping. But for now, some more pictures:

Post-volunteering in Tsfat

Orthodox man in the Old City... check out the ear buds

Heading to the Bar Kochba caves

Eli and BJ inside the Kennedy memorial

Har Herzl Memorial

Ben atop Masada

Waterfall at Yehudiya

Laundry at Ein Gedi Field School

Natan's and Jane's morning priorities

Bonfire in Tsfat

Children in an Arab village

Girl in Arab village

Reason 2048 not to sleep on a bus: Eli attacks

Israeli dancing at Kibbutz Machanayim

Monday, August 3, 2009

Some musings...

I'm sitting in Jerusalem, in the apartment of a guy I found on Couchsurfing, who just happens to be mutual friends with one of the people who sublet my apartment in NYC for June and July, dating the cousin of the person who housed me in Jerusalem my first night after Taglit, and whose girlfriend's sister almost sublet my apartment for August. (These sorts of situations have occurred quite frequently here.) I've been up since 6 --- cannot seem to sleep in this country, my mind is constantly going a mile a minute, and there is so much to see and do --- trying to get some photo editing done before heading out to face the day with my host. Well, for a few hours anyway. Seeing a friend from New York, who is here for a year studying in seminary, and then meeting up with the remaining Livnot chevre to celebrate the birthdays of two of our bnot sherut (our national service ladies... hope I spelled that correctly!). It promises to be a beautiful day.

I thought I might write another post trying to cover events between Livnot and now. Seeing how long the previous post became, and knowing how, um, verbose I can be and how many adventures have filled the time between then and now, I will have to save those recaps for another time. For the curious, though, the post-Livnot path has been as such: Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Cairo-Dahab, Sinai-near Nuweiba, Sinai-Cairo-Luxor-Cairo-near Nuweiba, Sinai-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Tsfat-Kibbutz Yizre'el-Netanya-Tel Aviv... and back to Jerusalem, where I sit now. Anyway, all in good time, all in good time. 

Besides, most of the previous post was about physical journeys, and there have been some pretty big mental ones as well. I came here with no expectations... without expectations, you cannot be disappointed. However, I was a bit disappointed at first. I felt emotionally... numb. Frustrated that I was not feeling connected to much of what we were seeing and doing. But I realized, too, that I had been feeling like that in life in general for awhile. Once so connected to my inner life, I had been simply going through the motions for awhile. A year? More? I'd had a tumultuous few months before leaving on this journey, so that certainly fed into my disconnectedness here. They are events I don't really need to discuss here --- many of you know them, and they are not what I need pervading my present existence, so far away. They are events that I kept to myself until sharing with a few people at the very end of Livnot, not wanting them to pervade everyone else's experiences either. 

Numb. Tense. But at some point I started to feel again, "slowly, slowly." I started to feel alive, feel full, feel like me again. I was free, I AM free, from whatever preconceived notions others might have of me, from roles I somehow fell into playing for others. What was I doing? I do not have to live for anyone but myself, nor should I ever. Somehow I had lost sight of me, that true, unwavering sense of self. I was a shell... but I am slowly filling back up. What a wonder to be able to feel again, though. 

And here everything is felt so much deeper. Connections are deeper (hence the name of the blog), which is something I realized pretty quickly. What you see is what you get. The real thing. People do not walk around with facades. (Well, some do... but I digress.) People open their homes,  their hearts, their wallets (ok, the latter is perhaps a bit rare compared to the others) without a second thought. So many people have come into my life here for whom I feel such a deep sense of love and gratitude. Some of these people I knew before, but that connection changed here. It was unavoidable. Some of these individuals were part of my time with Livnot, so we have those experiences that unite us, but continued time here has deepened whatever connections formed over those two weeks. Being here has, for me anyway, deepened the connection to the chevre back home with whom I've been in contact. So many of the new people I've met since Livnot --- in Sinai, in Egypt, all over Israel --- nearly instantly became friends that I know I will remain in contact with for a long while. The main thing that always drew me to Judaism was community, and I have been constantly in awe of the communities that form here, quickly and intensely and so heartfelt. The people... they make this place. 

I do not feel like I am very clearly imparting what it is that I want to impart... I am not sure how, honestly. The depth of experience here escapes description. But it has been filling me up, slowly, slowly. (Slowly, slowly... it's a phrase common here, and one we heard quite a bit in Egypt and Sinai as well.) Changing me. Or maybe not changing me, but leading me back to myself. It certainly has created a strong magnetism between two poles: me and this country. Landing here and feeling so little, this has obviously surprised me. I have been forced to face so many opinions I had before getting here (some of which I still hold, some of which are melting into others), to really question my beliefs, to try and reconcile the contradictions between what I thought before, what I've seen before me, and what I have yet to see. This will remain an ongoing process; if a liberal arts education taught me anything, it's that nothing can be taken for granted... one must question. It also taught me that, in the scheme of things, we truly know nothing. There is so much to learn. And I'm trying... I came here feeling very unprepared because I'd spent the prior few months mired in my thesis, whereas I would have liked to spend time reading whatever I could related to Israel, the Middle East, Judaism, the conflict(s) here (wow... that's overly-simplistic...), and so forth. Instead of feeling like I could confidently and intelligently engage in any sort of discourse, I found myself learning from listening to others' conversations, and being very grateful for their willingness to allow me to sit in. 

It's a neverending conversation here. Everyone you meet has an opinion ("Hey! We're Jewish!"), and most are willing to debate and discuss. Right, left, moderate, impossible-to-categorize... I've spoken to people with all sorts of beliefs over the past few weeks as I've become more comfortable engaging in the conversation. It's a struggle, though, to be faced with opinions so different than my own, but so well-supported that they are still convincing on a lot of levels. Hence that reconciling... or not... but I never dismiss anything immediately. 

Anyway, Jerusalem is saying that I need to get out the door. 

Until next post... 

Saturday, August 1, 2009

There is so much magnificence...

Livnot U’Lehibanot. To build and to be built. This is an organization based in Tsfat, a magical, mystical city in Northern Israel. Livnot was one of many trip providers under the umbrella of Birthright Israel, which is how I made my way here in the first place. I feel incredibly lucky to have been on this trip with Livnot because, at least for now, they will no longer be associated with Birthright. My group, Livnot 236, was the last group to experience Israel through the lens of Livnot. The nitty-gritty: unlike most Birthright trips, which are for ages 18-26, Livnot’s trip was only offered to 21-26 year olds, and specifically those of us with little Jewish background. Instead of going out partying late into almost every night, we got up early and did community service and went hiking through this beautiful country. We had five soldiers with us for the first five days of the trip, as all Birthright trips do, but also had three ladies who were doing their national service with Livnot, three of the most beautiful souls I have ever had the opportunity to spend time with, and who I feel so lucky to be able to call my chevre. Chevre, for those who are unfamiliar, is a term that does not really have an English translation. (Chevre are friends who are beyond friends, like family, but it’s not exactly family either. Think of the deepest connection you have ever had with others: those are chevre.) Further, our group was given the gift of an amazing leader, Michael, a man who made aliyah many years ago, who has so much knowledge of this country’s history, of Jewish history, of the land. He is an amazing storyteller, a master of relating ancient history to our confusing present. His love for this nation runs so deep that it is impossible to not take at least a little of it for one’s self. A better leader could not have been found. Truly.

Michael in the Old City

Shira S. in the Old City

And then there was our group. Forty-three (unless my counting is off!) amazing individuals, so varied, so inspiring in their life stories and paths. Somehow, community formed instantly; it always amazes me when that happens. I spent more time with some people than with others, as one would expect in a group so large, but each and every person is chevre. This community --- us, our service girls, the soldiers, Michael... Oh! And we cannot leave out Menachem, our masterful bus driver, and Shachar, our medic who was with us at all times with laughs, bandaids, and yes, his gun --- was what made the trip. As someone who likes a lot of alone time, it was challenging at times; I missed out on a lot of late-night hanging out because I needed to recharge. But, I wouldn’t trade any of it. To any of you reading this right now, know that I am full of so much gratitude for all you, for all that we shared collectively and on smaller scales. I send so much love to all.

I think trying to summarize all that we did and saw during two packed weeks would be tedious for all of us, but I will share some of my most powerful moments:

- After settling into our first hotel, we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem. This remains one of my favorite places to spend time in that holy city… so full of energy, tangible history, so many stories. It buzzes. It’s heavy. When we landed in Israel, I did not have any sort of instant connection to the land, to being here. I just… was… it confused me. I was pretty certain that I would feel… something! Well, the shift happened in the Old City. One of our group members ran into a friend of his, so I was told. “That doesn’t happen. You’re full of it,” I replied. No more than three seconds later, I heard my name. What?! I turned around. A dear friend from New York, here for a year for seminary. I had been in the country only for a few hours… didn’t I just say that those things just don’t happen? Well, they do here. They have to me, a lot. Synchronicity has been a constant presence.

Dome of the Rock and the Kotel, Old City

Young girl in the Old City, Jerusalem

- We went deep into caves that Jews hid in 2,000 years ago during the Bar Kochba revolts. The specific cave we visited was discovered by a team including our guide, Michael, making it that much more special. We crawled deeper and deeper, through constantly shrinking tunnels, past trick turns meant to confuse Romans. Each little crevice created by the hands of our ancestors. We finally made it to a large --- well, large compared to those tunnels --- cavern, where men, women, children, and babies, hid in absolute silence and darkness (I have never seen such darkness) for always-unknown lengths of time. Silence. Even a whisper could lead to everyone’s demise, not to mention a child’s cry. We coughed, cleared our throats, turned off our flashlights. We sat for just a minute, though it could have been a second or an eternity. “Ose shalom bim romav.” Michael started singing this melody, one I have loved since childhood. Those of us who knew it softly joined, many of us in tears, eventually splitting into a simple harmony. It was the most powerful experience I have ever had singing Jewish music, and perhaps any music. One of the richest moments of my trip.

Getting ready to enter the caves

Tehila, David, and Sarah C. in the cavern

Joshua H. making his way in

Josh G., wiped out by the caves

- And then there was the MEGA event. “Tel Aviv! Tel Aviv!” No, actually… um, maybe not.

- Shabbat in the Old City. We started at Mt. Zion. We all lit candles, accompanying each other with a joyous niggun, standing arm and arm, singing and dancing until everyone had their chance to bring some light to Shabbat. We sang our way up to the rooftop of a building with many layers; it is believed to the site King David’s tomb, the location for The Last Supper, and at some point had significance to Muslims, although I cannot seem to remember the specifics. Up we went, to views of a beautiful church, and of the Old City --- the Dome of the Rock, the Kotel (Western wall). Here we had a kabbalat Shabbat ceremony as only Livnot can do it, with songs and dance and an amazing sense of connectedness to each other and to that place, that moment. Joy. Yearning. At some point a synagogue choir could be heard on the wind, cello-like male voices in perfect harmony. We departed for the Kotel, passing a synagogue along the way. I heard the organ, and the cantor started singing. It was magic. I was glued to the spot, could not move until I absolutely had to, with Shachar passing by, the end of our group. (It is probably no surprise that so many powerful moments for me involve music… and it’s also a pattern I am not taking lightly.) All of this before we even got to the Kotel. That’s a whole ‘nother power… this holy site where, on Shabbat, Jews come to mourn the destruction of the Temple, but also to welcome in the Sabbath. The guys’ side was raucous; Chabad was leading some singing and dancing to be envied. After making our way to the wall, leaving our notes, expressing what needed to be expressed, the group of Livnot chevre circled up and sang some of our own songs. Quietly, together, periodically slipping apart to let another of us in. A beautiful beginning to a beautiful Shabbat.

- We had so many hikes squeezed into so few days.

Masada: Pushed my limits beyond anything I’d ever done before. (Well, until a few weeks later…) Not that it was long, not that it’s that difficult of a hike. But we hiked in a heat wave, something like 44 degrees C! We’re talking around 115 degrees, people. I drank six liters of water. I went slowly. I made it. And how worth it. It is one of those places --- like the Old City, like the caves, like most of this country --- where the history is tangible, palpable. Masada was fortified by Herod over 2,000 years ago in case of a revolt, and was settled by Jewish rebels who fled Jerusalem in about 66 CE in the face of the first Jewish-Roman War. Masada was eventually sieged, but the rebels committed mass suicide, rather than face capture. We heard stories recorded by the ancient historian Josephus, filtered through Michael. We sat in an ancient synagogue, saw ancient bathhouses, mikvehs, and the remnants of an old church. We went deep into a massive cistern, and were entertained by a skit put on by two of our ladies. And yes, music here too, but of a more humorous sort: some chevre were pulled away while the rest of us explored the Masada ruins. They put together a “Masada rap,” inevitably accompanied by our laughter. The beautiful music of laughter.

A view from the top of Masada

Masada Rap

Ein-Gedi: Kum-kum-lei-lei-lei-lei-lei-kum-kum-lei-lei. Actually, I missed this one. I was one of a few unlucky souls who got hit with a stomach bug the evening after hiking Masada. Getting up at 3am to start a hike… was not happening… But the blog wouldn’t be complete without some kum-kum!

Yehudiya: Our most beautiful hike, up in the Golan Heights. It was a hike into paradise, waterfalls filling a large, freshwater swimming hole where we got to spend a few hours, do some chevruta, have lunch, soak in the wonder of our surroundings. More than once, I locked eyes with a friend, wordlessly sharing an “Is this for real?” moment. Amazement was our theme that day, and it was not hard to feel. What is more challenging, of course, is finding this sense of amazement in all of our day-to-day life, in the otherwise mundane, something I have been trying to do ever since. Well, it’s something I’ve tried to do for a long time, but that I do with renewed effort now.


Gamla: Our final hike, our smallest group of chevre. Gamla was once the capital of the Golan, an ancient Jewish city conquered by the Romans. We hiked to the fort, out to a rock ledge that held the group of us suspended in space. More Josephus. The wind. The sun. Palpable history.

View of Gamla, and beyond

Shira W. on Gamla's peak

- Tsfat. How does one explain this place? It is a city that, as we were told anyway, has been Jewish for hundreds and hundreds of years. One of the only places in Israel, if not the only, that has been Jewish its entire history. And for Livnot chevre, it is home, a place to which we are always welcome to return. The Livnot campus is built on top of ruins (currently being excavated) in the Old City of Tsfat. Tsfat is a largely kabbalist; many artists there are heavily influenced by the world of Kabbalah. I guess I should mention that there is a large artist’s quarter that Tsfat is known for --- potters, painters, jewelers, leather workers, candle makers… you name it, they have it. It’s comprised of narrow roads and tinier alleyways, which lured me many times to wander whichever way my heart desired, to get lost knowing that I would always find my way back home… somewhow… It is a magical, mystical place. We had a second Shabbat here, the last couple days of our program. This time our kabbalat service was on Livnot’s balcony, where we sang and danced and watched the sun set behind the mountains, magnificent colors fading to deep blue and black. We ventured to various local synagogues to get a taste of the services; I went to a shul influenced by Carlebach, who has a famous, well, in certain circles, synagogue on the Upper West Side that I plan to visit upon my return to the states. Walking through the streets of Tsfat on Shabbat is even more powerful than at any other time, the silence, the peace, the sense of being a part of something so much larger than the individual. A group of us slept on the roof on Shabbat, sharing conversation and shooting stars (mine and another’s first), waking with the sun.

Building in Tsfat

Yemenite child outside of Livnot's campus

I have been back just once since our four days (and what wonderful days) there during Birthright, and unfortunately only for a few hours. Tears came to my eyes when I walked back in. I heard echoes of songs and laughter from our group, but knew noone was there. I had a powerful sense of arrival, of feeling home. I felt… full…

Sunset from Livnot's balcony

Tsfat closed our trip. Some chevre stayed up north, the rest of us took a bus to the airport. Most headed to the States, but a few of us continued on from there. Of course there is plenty more to say, but I could write thousands of words and still not be able to satisfactorily impart the magic, the change, the power I have felt being here. I promise to try.

Kol tuv, until the next post...

A beginning, looking back...

It is hard to know where to begin. I am two months into travels that are beyond words, really. But a few: inspiring, challenging --- physically, emotionally, spiritually, beautiful, full of adventures, shocking, unsettling, grounding, life-changing. I did not start a blog early on because I chose to travel without my computer. I thought I would be far more disconnected than I actually have been. I have been keeping a journal, but it has its limits, especially as many of you have begun to pose questions about my time over here. Of course I want to tell all of you about my travels in person when I return, but I know at some point I also will have to simply keep moving forward.

So, with a month of traveling left, I am starting this blog. I hope it answers questions. I hope it makes you question. I hope, through it, that you get to live a bit vicariously through me. I feel so incredibly lucky to have this time. If anything here, I have become so grateful for all of the freedom I have been given in my life --- to be myself, to make my own path over and over again, to set out and travel to points unknown. But deeper freedoms, too: the freedom to live where I want, to observe whatever spiritual practices I choose without any negative recourse, or to not observe at all, to get an education, to be here, in this country so full of contradictions. Freedom carries so much weight, especially when one is at a point in her life where all doors are open, so many paths are possible. What does one do with this invaluable gift? It is one I am, and we are, lucky to have, and it is not something to be wasted… This question is constantly spinning in my mind right now, whether I am awake or asleep, does not matter. It can be overwhelming at times. What repercussions, conscious or not, does it have on my life? What repercussions should it have? I do not have many answers… I do not know that I ever will, or if the answers will remain the same for long. They likely won’t. I keep reminding myself to be open to those changes. Moving through life with any sort of ease would be impossible otherwise.

What a weighty beginning, but it’s been a weighty trip. If you did not catch that before, it was just bashed over your (collective) heads, I think! I am going to backtrack a bit from here, though. Start at the beginning, try to give you an idea of where I have been, both in body and in mind. I cannot promise absolute clarity; some events are already a bit fuzzy, and beyond that, I am still processing. I think I always will be…