Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shabbat in Jerusalem

My companions and I separated for Shabbat. Steven was interested in going to the Kotel for services, I was not. And then I had all the problems of the day, particularly the wet phone. So I decided to go to a nearby synagogue—one I could walk to. It is Yedidya, and is similar to Beth Israel in Berkeley in terms of being Orthodox, but verging on egalitarian. The building was simple—white stone or concrete, two stories with the synagogue on top; the social hall below. In the social hall was a separate ark for a women’s minyan. Girls become Bat Mitzvah there with great regularity and men attend—although they may choose to then go to a regular service (the point is—there is choice). I got there right on time, always a mistake, and there were only a few women scattered through the women’s section, and about three times as many men. However, by the service’s end, both sides were close to full (men’s perhaps a bit more crowded). The books were entirely in Hebrew—the most amusing thing was the translation of the one Aramaic prayer into Hebrew, a very nice touch—and I could follow pretty well.

There was no rabbi and the service was led by a young man whose suffered from a common problem of youth—mumbling and speed. And yet, I found I could follow and the congregation took up melodies or silence in a comfortable rhythm that was incredibly moving and powerful. Unlike in Berlin and in Tzfat, there was nothing forced about the service; unlike the service in Haifa, this did not feel imported (although it had been initially). It was exactly what my soul needed.

After services, I headed back to the apartment. I was a bit disappointed that no one had asked me for dinner, but there hadn’t really been a way to communicate my desire. And, as it turned out, I was happy to be alone and quiet.

The next morning, with a phone still only working intermittently, I decided that I should take my cue and not try to go into the city by cab. Besides, I wanted to see what a Torah reading at Yedidya would be like. Services in Jerusalem begin early—which is very nice, they end early, too. I enjoyed the morning service as well, although the young man reading Torah went so quickly that even though I knew the words and melody, I could hardly keep up. On the other hand, he read the whole parsha, so speed may have had its virtues. The d’var Torah was given by a woman—in American-accented Hebrew, which is always easier to understand. And, as they passed the Torah around, when it came to the women’s side, a man passed it to a woman, who then carried it around. I have no trouble with men and women being separated—having separate spaces for each allows a different kind of fellowship to emerge than when families sit together—it is the prohibitions that bother me. Here, some women wore tallits, women led parts of the service, and they have made compromises with Torah reading.

During announcements, one woman said that if we wanted to be hosted for Kiddush lunch, we should see her following the service. There was ample food below, but I wanted company, and so talked with her. Her name was Linda and she knew the Bay Area and Stuart Kelman, who had hosted her. And she found me a couple who were looking to fill their lunch table, a short, round couple (Esther and Steven) a bit older than me, who were as gracious as could be. Esther went off to set the table; I found people to converse with. When Linda came back, I asked for her full name to pass onto Stuart. “Linda Gradstein” she said. My expression must have shown that I was trying to remember why the name was familiar, so she added “from NPR, but that’s my other life.” Yeah, so I had a long conversation with the Israel correspondent from NPR. What a place! The conversation, by the way, was entirely about the nature of the synagogue and about religion in Israel. Much of what she told me is woven into my description—although I will stress that the lack of a rabbi is a philosophical decision and one that has mixed results (which I understood absolutely completely—much more than she knew!). She was someone I would like to know better—down-to-earth, engaged in community life, and (as you might expect) articulate.

Lunch was amazing—Esther and Steven had been married only five years, second marriage for both and they were a pleasant, contented couple. Along with me, there were two young women from Birthright, and a man who lived in Jerusalem, but was kind of a waif (that is, currently single and socially clueless, although with a decent job and an odd hobby (codes in the Bible)). Esther had lived in Berkeley and knew the Rosens. It’s a funny thing—Stuart Kelman and Daniel Boyarin are names that keep coming back; that I know these people gives me credibility, oddly enough, and now the Rosens. It’s a very small Jewish world indeed. Esther served about five courses for Shabbat lunch: appetizers, soup, chicken with grape leaves, vegetables, and stuffed cabbage, and some kind of dairy-free ice cream cake for dessert. I’m taking notes—Shabbat afternoon meal is an custom I could get used to.

Towards evening, I went to tea with a Servas family. While that was nice, there is little more to say about the day—I went, we talked, and I returned to get ready to leave for Tel Aviv the next day.

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