Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When Women Pray Out Loud

Three years ago this month, I wrote about a powerful spiritual experience I had with a group of Jewish women I had never met.

It was early one morning in Medzibuz, Ukraine. I walked to the tziyun of the Baal Shem Tov to pray.

As I walked alone down the path, I heard women singing. It was very loud. I opened the door and I saw, right away, that it was overheated and packed beyond reason. There must have been a hundred women in a room that's about 400 square feet, standing wherever they could, amidst six large kevarim.

I was about to turn away to leave when the arms of a stranger pulled me in. And I entered something unworldly. A hundred women were chanting.

Twenty-four times they sang this verse from Tehillim.

Hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha orem v'naseim ad haolam.
Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance. Tend them and raise them up forever. (Ps. 28:9) 

Over and over, louder and louder, hands raised to the heavens.

Beside me, an old woman put her hands on the head of a young woman. A bracha that the young woman should find her zivug flowed from the old woman's lips.

After the 24th repetition, the prayer leader signaled the end.

Absolute silence.

Tears sprang up in my eyes. I heard weeping all around me, saw the precious faces of women I didn't know, wet with tears.

The collective prayer of these women raised me to transcendence. I was no longer in rural Ukraine. I was somewhere else, somewhere higher.

This is the power of women at prayer, when we are free to pray out loud. The lack of this has been a painful deficit for me for a very long time. I came to Ukraine and found it there.

Last night, almost exactly three years later, I found it again.

My husband and I traveled to Tiveria with one of my Torah teachers. She and I were hoping for a brief, private meeting with Rabbanit Leah Kook. Rabbanit Kook is married to the mekubal Rabbi Dov Kook and is the granddaughter of Rebbetzin Batsheva and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.

We were told that the Rabbanit has kabbalat kahal, where she meets the public, from 6-7 PM. We arrived in Tiveria just before 6 PM and located the address we were given. We walked through a gate, down a dark path to a locked door.

There was one other woman already there waiting. Within a few minutes, two other women had arrived, including one older woman completely covered, except for her face and hands, in a shimmery grey cloth.

At 6 PM, Rabbanit Kook herself, wearing a purple snap-on vest cum apron embroidered with the words l'kavod Hashem Yitbarach (to the honor of God, the Blessed One), unlocked the door and, with a huge smile and good spirits, welcomed the five of us in. Up a short flight of stairs, we entered a small, simple room with a table, about 15 chairs and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, filled with sefarim.

More women came in while the Rabbanit stood by an interior door, held onto the doorpost, and prayed.  I was in that small room for about 35 minutes and I was completely, utterly and uncomfortably out of my element.

It didn't become clear until just before we left that we weren't going to be able to see her privately. Instead, we got a window into the power of what Jewish women's prayer can be when there are no men around.

It seemed to me that most of the women were regulars who knew exactly what to expect. I, however, was nothing if not dumbfounded. I felt like the most ignorant Jewish woman in the history of the universe. While the 15 or so women recited some text in a distinctive, unified cadence, patting their thighs to keep rhythm, I struggled to figure out what they were saying. Eventually,  nafal li ha'asimon (the penny dropped) and I realized they were reciting Tehillim.

The Rabbanit screamed Toda Abba! (Thank You Father!) a dozen times. She shouted Anachnu ohavim otach! (We love You!) over and over. And when she closed her eyes and screamed Moshiach! thirty times or more, I knew I had never seen anyone pray this way.

One woman brought a small vial of scented oil, which was passed around. Each woman said the bracha borei minei b'samim, blessing God for being the Creator of different types of fragrances, to which everyone else answered amen, before breathing in the scent. Brachot said out loud seemed to be a big thing, because the Rabbanit gave out cups of water and each woman who took one made a shehakol out loud, again with everyone answering amen.

The Rabbanit went back into the kitchen and brought out a large metal bowl, dinged from much use, filled with dough. In keeping with the mood of the room, she made the bracha for taking challah loudly. Then she did something (okay, yet another thing) I never saw before.

She took the bag with the challah that she had broken off and rubbed it on her knees and on her eyes and said, lo ko'ev (it doesn't hurt/it shouldn't hurt). Then she passed it around and everyone had the chance to rub the bag of dough on the part of her body that needs healing.

Everything I saw was so otherworldly that I'm sure I don't remember the exact sequence. I do remember that Tehillim 20 (Lamnatzeach Mizmor L'David) was recited at least 12 times, over and over, with the same cadence, the same specific emphasis on the final words Hashem hoshea haMelech.

When I agreed to go to Tiveria, I had no clue about any of this. Today, I have a completely different awareness of how one's relationship with Hashem, and with tefillah, can be.

Even if one is a woman.

Monday, March 30, 2015

We Don't Have Any Idea What Jerusalem Really Is

When my nephew, who is now in his early 30s, attended  Reform Hebrew school, he learned the story of Purim. He told me his teacher informed the class that if Mordechai was too hard for them to pronounce, they could just refer to him as Uncle Mordy.

I've often considered that story emblematic of what's so sad about certain forms of American Judaism. It's so watered down as to be tasteless pabulum, completely lacking the ability to engage the soul. Most Jews, I venture, have no clue about the depth, richness and vibrancy of authentic Judaism.

The other evening, after working at home for too many days in a row, I needed to air myself out. My husband and I went out to dinner. The meal over, I wasn't ready to return home, so we drove into Jerusalem to see if a certain Jewish bookstore was still open. It was after 10 PM when we arrived. Happily, the lights were on, the doors were open, the shelves were fully stocked and the cash register was humming.

Since we've made aliyah, I like to joke about the old days, referring to them as "back when we had money". Back when we had money, we would go into New York for a few days in June and go on a Jewish book buying spree. It's been years since I went into a Jewish bookstore with nothing specific in mind, just to see what's new that might catch my attention. My favorite thing to do in a bookstore is to scan the shelves and wait to see which books sing to me.

So we're in this Jewish book warehouse store in Jerusalem and everything I see is in Hebrew. Surely they must have some English books somewhere. I ask in Hebrew ?איפה הספרים באנגלית - where are the books in English? The clerk grunts, points and says something basically unintelligible to my ear. But he pointed, so I have a clue in which direction I ought to move.

Behold, there's a gorgeous wall full of Jewish books in English. Because I'm such a book fiend, many of the titles are familiar to me, but there are a few gems I long to own. A book titled The Soul of Jerusalem calls my name. It's the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on Jerusalem, complied by Rabbi Shlomo Katz.

I'll be honest. I don't usually understand Shlomo Carlebach. His words sound magical and his distinctive phrasing - "Open your heart to the deepest of the deep, my sweet friends, my holy brothers and sisters" - are poetic and engaging, but I never feel like I've grasped the essence of anything he said. That fact notwithstanding, Jerusalem has its own magic.

I bought the book.

And it drew me in almost immediately. Late Friday night, I was reading and enjoying, if not the specific learning, the feeling, the spirit of the book.

Then, a passage stopped me in my tracks.
Sometimes, you take a Yiddele and you tell him, "You have to keep Shabbos, put on tefillin, do a few tricks here and a few tricks there and that's all there is to it. That is all there is to Yiddishkeit." - p. 65
And with this brief passage, it hit me. We have no idea. We don't know. We have been living without the Beit HaMikdash, without the Holy Temple, for 2,000 years. At best, we have a diluted practice of Judaism. We're in the same boat as my nephew's Hebrew school classmates. Even those of us who live religious lives. Even those of us who live religious lives in Israel, we only have an inkling. We don't know the true power of living in the Presence of the Divine. We don't know what it's like to live with the Beit HaMikdash at the center of Jerusalem and at the center of our Jewish lives.

We have stumbled along for 2,000 years, doing our best to preserve what we can preserve. We have bent to the will of our host countries. We have clung to what we can. But we've lost the heart of our heritage. We've lost the supremacy of being able to visit God in His palace. We don't have any idea what Jerusalem really is, what Judaism really is.

My soul bleeds over the distortions that people call Judaism today. I'm especially sensitive to the "hadrat nashim" indignities that are increasingly foisted upon women in the name of the Torah. In my weaker moments, they enrage me. But ultimately, they are lint on a satin dress. They are meaningless perversions. They are gnats, easily flicked away. They are not the ikkar, the essence, of Jewish life.

Pesach, which is just days away, is the celebration of an important geula, of a redemption, of the Jewish people. Pesach is a placeholder for the geula shalayma, for the full, complete and eternal redemption of the Jewish people. The coming of Moshaich and the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash will restore us to a true understanding of what Jerusalem really means, of what Judaism truly is.

Until then, we are engaged in a kind of playacting. We are holding a place until the real thing shows up. It's not meaningless, but it's not the whole story. No matter how strong our commitment to Jewish law, Jewish practice, Jewish life is, we need to remember that, without the Beit HaMikdash, without the presence of God in Jerusalem, we do not know, we cannot experience, Judaism in its fullest expression.

My we each be blessed to personally experience the restoration of the soul of Jerusalem, to which Reb Shlomo hints in this magnificent volume.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Relentless Way History Repeats

When I was in graduate school, studying Jewish history, we learned about the lacrimonious theory of Jewish history - the idea that Jewish history is basically a millennia-long tradition of persecution.

This perspective, most closely associated with Kevin MacDonald, a controversial professor of psychology at California State University, ignores the miracles, the achievements and the glories of Jewish history in favor of the oppressions, expulsions and massacres of Jews throughout the ages.

I mention this because I have been thinking about Jewish history quite a lot lately. I've been thinking about it because I feel very much like I'm living through it. Of course, in a very real sense, we are always living through history. What we consider our daily lives today will someday be taught as history to the generations that follow us.

But the burden of history today is much heavier today. The sense that we are reliving the history of European Jewry in the 1930s is much stronger, more palpable.

In the early 1930s, when the Nazis took over in Germany, approximately 38,000 German Jews (about 7% of the Jewish population) emigrated, primarily to neighboring European countries. Sadly, many of them were later rounded up when the Nazis took over those countries as well.

Today, we watch antisemitic acts, acts of terror and death, on a very frequent basis. In January, four Jews were killed in a kosher grocery store in Paris. This morning, there is news of an attack in a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark. These are just two incidents in a swirl of deadly antisemitism rising in Europe. The echo of the 1930s reverberates loudly.

It's an eerie feeling, living my daily life - writing for clients, buying groceries, having dinner with friends, doing laundry, making food for Shabbat - and knowing that the Jews are, once again, being targeted for death, just because we are Jews.

Most of my life, at least in this lifetime, I lived in a protected sphere of relatively mild antisemitism. Decades ago, a friend from middle school accused me of being "such a Jew" because I reminded her about money she owed me. That's probably the worst incident of antisemitism I experienced personally.

Now, Jewish families in Europe (and in other parts of the world) are reassessing their lives and are considering the wisdom of staying put versus up and leaving. I'm grateful that I am already in Israel. I'm grateful that I don't have to agonize over whether to stay and fight or cut my losses and split.

I am profoundly aware that we are living in times when Jews are once again being forced to ask themselves difficult questions. The conversations that happened around kitchen tables in Berlin and in Frankfurt am Main, in Hamburg, in Breslau and in small towns throughout Germany in 1933 are happening again, this time in Paris and in London and in Baltimore and in New York.

Has the time come, yet again, to leave?

For those brave Jews who collect their worldly possessions and leave with dignity before things get much worse, and for the Jews who refuse to leave, and for the Jews who deny that there is anything to be overly concerned about, and for the Jews who have already left and resettled in the Holy Land... for all of us, may this be, finally, the very last time Jews have to leave anywhere.

May this be the final shifting of the Jewish population as we await geula together in Israel.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Courage of Olim

In case you don't read the Times of Israel, click here to read my latest post. I discuss how humbling it is to be an immigrant lacking the skills necessary to communicate in Hebrew.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 3 (of 3?)

This is Part 3 of a blog-based conversation between me and dear friend and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman who challenged me to articulate what I think a Jewish woman's spiritual path looks like. You know, if it isn't going to include shul and all that.

I'd like to acknowledge at the outset that there are Torah-observant Jewish women who are happy with their roles. Not subjugated happy. Genuinely happy. That may even be the majority of Jewish women.

But I'll be honest. I'm tired of hearing all about a woman's spiritual path being defined primarily by her family and her home. I'm not tired of hearing about it because it's unimportant. I'm tired of hearing about it because it's incomplete.

Because here's the rub.

Not all Torah-observant Jewish women have husbands. Or children. Or even homes of their own. Or they did at some point but don't anymore. Or they don't yet, but hope to some day. How is a woman supposed to express herself as a soul if she lacks a husband, a child, a kitchen, a home?

My personal situation is blessed. I have a husband (a rabbi even) and, thank God, a healthy marriage. Though empty-nesters now, I have raised children. I have had my own home (and my own kitchen) for at least 30 years. I don't love my family and my home any less than other Torah-observant Jewish women do. But a marriage, a family and a home, as much as I love these precious things, was never enough for me. Not when I was building a career, not when I pursue intellectual goals and definitely not when I want to grow closer to Hashem.

Does that make me so out of the ordinary? I know so many women like me that I forget that not everyone's itch is so difficult to scratch.

During the course of this blog conversation, I've begun to articulate a paradigm, a new way of amplifying Judaism. This paradigm explicitly articulates multiple ways a Torah-observant woman can reach toward the Infinite, throughout all the stages of her lifetime.

First, some underlying assumptions: The most well-known, the most widely recognized Jewish rituals are generally in the male domain. What women do is often internal. Even our rituals in the physical world are often done privately. So it may seem like we're not doing much at all.

It occurs to me that defining the Jewish woman's role is tricky in the same way that defining what ought to happen at a Bat Mitzvah is tricky. For boys, the Bar Mitzvah, for the most part, is fairly well scripted. But a Bat Mitzvah can be recognized with a very wide array of events. Even for our own daughters, we did very different things because they are different people. We had leeway with daughters that I believe we would not have had with sons.

Hineni moochanah u'm'zumenet. Now I'm ready. I'm proposing this conceptual model as a way of illuminating the spiritual path of a Jewish woman, of answering the question, "What does a Jewish woman actually do?"

You might recognize it as a variation of bein adam lechavero and bein adam lamakom with one major difference. Beneath each category are some of the spiritual activities open to Jewish women. The lists are meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive.

(Acknowledging that this path is not open to all women at all times.)
  • Number One is definitely giving birth. Granted it's not exclusively Jewish. And my soul wishes that Judaism offered some kind of ritual for a woman to honor the moment of birth, the moment when one body becomes two (or more). Nevertheless, there is no denying the raw spiritual power of conceiving, nurturing and bringing forth life.
  • Raising children and teaching them about Hashem
  • Teaching Torah to your children
  • Making/taking challah
  • Lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles
  • Taharat HaMishpacha
  • Shalom Bayit - growing and working on self in order to contribute to a peaceful marriage
  • Carrying responsibility for shaping the individual family members into a unit 
  • Chesed - general neighborly kindnesses as well as contributing time and/or money to organizations that specialize in acts of chesed
  • Derech eretz - the requirement to treat other people with respect and honor
  • Hachnasat orchim - bringing guests into the home
  • Bikur cholim - visiting the ill
  • Praying for the welfare of others
  • Giving tzedaka (charity)
  • Avoiding lashon hara (gossip and hurtful speech)
  • Facilitating the spiritual growth of others, bringing them closer to Hashem
  • Building community
  • Learning Torah 
  • Hitbodedut - ongoing, private conversation with Hashem
  • Emunah - strengthening her belief that everything comes from Hashem
  • Anticipating geula - actively, not passively, waiting for Redemption
  • Hakarat HaTov - the absolute discipline of noticing and acknowledging Hashem's many kindnesses throughout the day 
  • Loving Hashem
  • Tefillah - in whatever form prayer works for the individual woman
  • Singing and dancing to Jewish music
  • Simcha - serving God with happiness
This model is a paradigm in development. I share it with the belief that we could strengthen a lot of Jewish women and bring them closer to God and to Torah if we spoke more openly about, if we placed more value, as a community, on the many ways that a Jewish woman can actively express the spiritual power of her soul.

How I wish someone had explained Judaism to me like this when I was a newbie.