Posted on: July 27, 2016
I’m sitting in the lunch room at Pardes. Chavruta partners have all dispatched back to their classrooms, as the last twenty minutes of classes for the day wind down. I skipped my afternoon class today to get some last minute shopping done; spices and olive oil, and to pack up my room and belongings to make my way to the airport and back home.
I’ve done a fair bit of crying. It still feels like my heart is breaking a bit. The heart break is to do with the people that I’ve met, to be sure, but it’s also to do with the unbelievable feeling of taking these three weeks for myself. To explore and meet parts of me that I never knew, parts of me that I barely recognize, and parts of me I hoped were there, but needed to look for.
There will be follow up blogs about the actual texts that I’ve learned, texts I want to explore further and the sexy things about Torah I’ve discovered (yes, Torah is sexy), but for now I just want to bask in the glory and gratitude that has been these three weeks.
Posted on: July 25, 2016
As much as I consider myself to be a kind, loving, caring, giving person, I have a tendency to push people away. This usually happens when I know something they don’t know that may or may not be good or bad for them, when a hard decision needs to be made, or when I come to the end of something or have to leave someone. I turn inward in a reflective and defensive way. As much as I love to cry, and do so freely, I also have a hard time making myself really vulnerable to people, especially when it feels like my heart is breaking.
Over the last three weeks I have fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love with the exhilarating, dizzying, mystifying, frustrating Torah (and all that goes along with it). I’ve fallen in deep and tortured love with the city of Jerusalem. I’ve fallen in love with Judaism all over again. And I’ve fallen in love with people who seem to have the ability to see into the most spiritual, sacred inner most parts of my soul. People who I share so much in common with, people I didn’t expect to meet and people I didn’t know were missing parts of my life. It was one of these soul friends who saw me, like they always do, tonight pulling away.
I have learned many things during my time at Pardes and I’ve grown to know several truths. And the truth of the matter is that nothing can or will come close to the magic that has happened here. I may come back to this city, I may come back to this city with these same people, but what we’ve shared can’t be replicated. It exists in this space and time and that time is coming to an end.
In just two days I will board a plane and return to my life. These days filled with study and wonder and frustration and awe and love and spirit will be replaced with life. And while I’m equally so excited to return to my wife and our life, I’m just as heartbroken and sad to be losing this intangible thing that’s happened to me here. My neshama is so full. And I am so grateful.
Posted on: July 23, 2016
I’m not sure if it’s purposeful, but after two weeks of study it’s nice to see ways in which the classes that I’m taking overlap with one another. Scribal Arts, a sort of elective, is only given twice a week and I had to pay extra money to take it.
Taking a step back and looking at some halacha (of which I am not an expert) and it can seem to some that it’s halachically wrong that a female-bodied Jew pick up a pen and write, say, a sefer Torah. If one would do such a thing it (the Holy Torah scroll) would be considered posul, or unfit/unkosher. While other text point to the fact that women can, in fact, write a Torah scroll. In fact women have! There are other rules that apply as well; one must be an observant Jew, one most go into writing with the best of intentions, one must be knowledgeable in Torah. Simply put, it’s not something that one does for fun.
And it is fun!
I’ve been taking this class and it’s done a number of things for my mind and spirit at Pardes. It’s allowed me to stop using my brain in a demanding way and allows the more creative spaces of my brain to take over. It allows me to become more familiar with the Hebrew Alef Bet as well. And it’s inspired me to write a mezuzah for our home. Which is, as the gentleman at the Sofer store informed me, is a really big deal.
With much trepidation I joined a friend on an adventure to the Sofer store in the Jerusalem shuk on Friday before Shabbat. When we arrived we noticed a note taped to the door and a phone number. I had my friend make the call-her Hebrew is better than mine. When the shopkeeper heard her voice he said, “Ah! Dov (our instructor at Pardes) sent you! The store was magical, like Ollivander’s in Harry Potter, but Jewish and no wands. It serves as both a supply store for Soferim (and apparently the only one that willingly accepts female-bodied would-be soferim) but is also piled high with second hand kiddush cups, hanukiah, mezuzah covers, candle sticks, wall hangings and other Judaica. And while he didn’t select the perfect writing pen for us, we did get the dig through a box of goose feathers to find something to do the job.
All the while Chaim, the shopkeeper, was incredibly gracious and kind to us. He even gave us a quick history lesson on the tools of a sofer. While we have been learning with the plastic-tipped kulmous (I have zero idea how to spell this word in English), Chaim told us that, traditionally, Sepharidic soferim used bamboo. He stepped away from the sales desk to fetch one and gave us a quick tutorial on how to use the bamboo kulmous. We were both amazed and shocked and honored when he demanded that we try as well. And I’m pretty sure he was amazed and shocked by how good our letters were. As we both navigated this new writing instrument, and he watched us make our letters like a sweet grandparent he would, every once in a while, say, “Good! Very Good!” or encourage us to wipe our kulmous or add more ink.
After our lesson he asked what we wanted to write and when I told him a mezuzah he was very firm.
“It is important,” he told us seriously, “That you do not write Gd’s Holy name until you are an expert soferim.”
“So what should I write instead?” I asked.
“Maybe you start with Megillah. And then maybe you write another Megillah. And maybe after third Megillah you are ready to write mezuzah.”
Just to put it into context, while the book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the Bible, and the only without Gd’s name, it’s still an ENTIRE BOOK OF TORAH. Not to mention that the klaf to write it on is 600 shekl – about $150.
I bought two mezuzah-sized klafs and a clear case and promised Chaim that I wouldn’t attempt to write it until I was very good. I don’t know how long that is, but I’ll obviously keep ya’ll posted.
The thing that was amazing about the interaction, besides getting a tutorial from a sofer, in Jerusalem, as a female-bodied human was the fact that being a female-bodied human didn’t seem to matter to him. The only thing that mattered was my intention and how seriously I took my relationship to the letters and to Gd. I think that’s the whole of Judaism that Chaim gifted me, and he doesn’t even know it.
Posted on: July 21, 2016
***WARNING: BABBLING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS AHEAD!!***
I’m in a really weird, intense, intimate, mentally, spiritually, physically exhausted place.
Learning Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Gemara, Halacha for 7 hours a day 5 days a week is beyond. The first week at Pardes I found myself on the brink of tears on many occasions. And now, at the end of the second week, I am in awe of the magnitude of Jewish study (with the realization that I have barely scratched the surface.) In these two weeks I’ve contemplated the connection of our matriarchs and patriarchs in connection with Islam (More on Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar later-also 100% not the point of the class), I’ve grappled with the complexities of women’s roles in Judaism (and how it fits into my life as a lesbian Jew looking for avenues into a more observant life), I’ve been baffled by how binary and incredibly patriarchal the Jewish faith is, I’ve been memorized by the beauty of Shabbat … and then twenty seconds later furious at the ways in which it’s prohibitive to spiritual growth, I’ve turned over the idea of faith in Gd in a world where such faith makes you “crazy”, and I’ve found a deep appreciation of Hebrew calligraphy. And this is just inside of the classroom. Outside of the classrooms I’ve forged incredibly deep, intimate, and in ways emotionally fragile friendships that I know after I will retain after this wonderful bubble that is Pardes learning bursts in a week (unless you wanna help me stay and Go Fund Me!).
This week, Pride Week in Jerusalem, culminated with a Pride Parade through the streets of Jerusalem. It was my first and only Pride event of the year and I had a lot of trepidation about attending. Last year, a 16 year old girl was stabbed during the Jerusalem Pride Parade and later died. Her name was Shira. She was sixteen. On Tuesday I joined my fabulous Women in Judaism rabbi and several students (including the small and mighty queer contingency) for Meeting Place-a series of informal/formal dialogues around Jerusalem about LGBTQ rights, views and tolerance. I snuggled close to my dearest friends while sharing my truths as a black, lesbian Jew in Israel during Pride. I listened to other LGBTQ American Jews share their truths as we all sat on woven mats in Zion Square. Around our circle sat other groups, speaking in Hebrew and beyond us a metal police barrier holding us in. I wanted to be there, to be present in a space that was so sacred and pure in the work of honoring Shira’s memory through dialogue, but I couldn’t help but feel unsafe. Which is a huge difference from how I was feeling when I first arrived. Crowds gathered around Zion Square. Some of them members and allies of the LGBTQ community joined us. Others were just Israelis enjoying the cool evening off of Ben Yehuda (a bustling area) and would stop to watch. I noticed a woman walking around the square clapping loudly. Was she trying to drown out our conversation? Israelis of varying observance and dress paused and sometimes stopped to watch for extended periods of time. As the night progressed I couldn’t help but notice a man dressed in a white shirt, black pants with long tzit tzit and a velvet black kippah approach the barrier with a couple other men dressed as he was following close behind. They engaged in heated dialogue with some Hebrew speakers and while I couldn’t tell what they were saying, the body language of both the folks inside the barriers and outside the barriers was … on guard.
Was it really irresponsible of me to be doing such an openly gay thing in a city so wrought with friction over LGBTQ acceptance? And on the anniversary of a horrific murder? Ultimately the answer was yes, I should be there (and I’m happy that I was). But what is this Judaism that drives a “religious” man to murder a girl simply because she participated in a Pride celebration? Sure, I can call him crazy (which is what many of the folks in the circle said), but it’s much more than that. Yes, he was a mentally disturbed man. And his drive was and is backed by Torah and commentary.
It was amusing, at times, to read the commentary on the possible consequences of “cross dressing” and while I chuckled at the absurdity, my sages tell me that who I am is wrong. The way that I celebrate Shabbat is wrong. The way I related to Gd is wrong (I don’t think Gd created the earth or wrote the Torah). Don’t misunderstand, there is so much more that I do that is right. And I’m not convinced that a Judaism that thinks I’m doing it wrong is actually Judaism. And/But these are the things that I think about, read about, talk, analyze, ponder, contemplate, debate, argue and turn over (and over and over) every single day.
Judaism doesn’t ask us to blindly follow the 613 mitzvot simply for the sake of following mitzvot. But it does ask us to follow them. Judaism doesn’t tell me that I can’t lay tefillin or wrap tzit tzit but if I do it doesn’t “really count.” Judaism doesn’t say that I can’t write a kosher mezzuzah or megilla or tefillin … but if I do it’s only for me. Judaism doesn’t say a lot in what it says. And what it says, well, is really hard to really fully understand as a modern, feminist, lesbian Jew.
So my head hurts.
My heart hurts.
My head is spinning as though I’m drunk because my heart is full at the vastness of knowledge.
So what do I do with it all? And how to I make it fit?
Posted on: July 15, 2016
WARNING: RAMBLING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS AHEAD
I posted on FB earlier this week that Jerusalem has been a much welcomed (albeit slightly guilt-ridden) respite from the continuous killing of black bodies in the U.S. And while I would’ve loved to join friends across the States in protest, marches and demonstrations, the realities of the white “progressiveness” of the PNW would’ve inevitably irritated me. Just as many well-meaning posts on FB have irritated me this past week, the past months, the past three years of BLM (and frankly, longer). So, it was a sigh of relief to be here in Israel away from all of the drama.
And yet, I’m not.
I’m studying in a land and place that has been steeped with racial and ethnic drama since Torah times (as I’m learning by pouring over the first few chapters of בְּרֵאשִׁית and שְׁמוֹת at Pardes). We could say that the Jewish people have always been on the receiving end of hatred. And here I am. A black Jew studying about my Jewish history in a land where I can honestly walk around quite invisibly.
I do not pretend to know or comprehend the amount of racial discrimination that black Israelis face in this land. I am also not so naive to presume that there is no racism here. I’m only speaking of how I feel in this space in my skin. Right now. And that feeling is one of safety. Sure I feel overtly sexualized by Israeli men on the streets; never before have I received so many sexual advances, offers of marriage, “compliments” on my physical form. Let’s just put it this way, dudes in NYC have nothing on Israelis and I am thankful for the language barrier. And still I feel safer here in my black skin than I do back home.
When I am a black person walking the streets of Israel I am spoken to in Arabic in Muslim/Arabic neighborhoods and in Hebrew elsewhere because why would folks assume I’m anything other than what they want me to be? I found this to be striking the last time I visited and a sense of false safety this time around.
As the world spins violently out of control and terrorist attacks continue to make headline news and hundreds of thousands of the innocent die at the hands of terrorists, it feels to me in this land so filled with religious struggle, tension and hatred that for once in my life my skin isn’t seen as a threat. I blend in in the most neutral way.
Last night I was walking around the Jerusalem shuk with a friend and she was talking about the time when the shuk was a frequent target for terrorist attacks. I could hear in her voice the echos of worry from my mother and her urge for me to be safe. Could I be safe with a white Jew walking around a city often separated by skin color? Does her white skin make me in my brown skin unsafe?
This has been on my mind since being here.
The fact is that I have no greater risk of being killed here then I do back home or in France or in Belgium or in Baton Rouge. My skin color, my gender presentation, my religion, simply being in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time, or walking down a street or playing on a playground could all result in death. The only thing that my sister’s untimely death has taught me is to live. So I do. I live my life as fully as possible and I do not set my mind to what “could” happen because it’s all out of my control.
But there is … something about being an anonymous black Jew in Jerusalem. I wonder if this is unique to me or do other JOCs feel this way in this land. So of course I will be conducting a super scientific study on Facebook. Results motzei Shabbes.
Posted on: July 9, 2016
I attended a Minyan at the recommendation of a friend. The room was packed – standing room only. I felt a bit out of place and the Hebrew in the siddur and around me was overwhelming and intimidating. But the רוח ruach, the spirit, of the room helped to slough off my anxiety and I allowed the melodies to penetrate my ear and stir an awakening I’ve been craving for so long in my soul.
I blinked back tears of … happiness? sadness? longing? spirit? joy? pain ?
I needed this Shabbat alone to take in and absorb it all.
I posted this Facebook entry and photo last night after returning from Kabbalat Shabbat Service at Tzion last night. To say that the service was good is to put it lightly. It was spiritually overwhelming and just what I needed.
I’m in a country whose language confounds me. Granted, I never did put much effort into learning it, which I hope to change in the coming weeks, months, years. I attended a service that was entirely in Hebrew with a siddur entirely in Hebrew (thank goodness I brought my own). But I didn’t need the transliterations or the translations for the niggun to have its effect on me and my spirit. And by the time we got to Yedid Nefesh (chanted in the melody of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen) I literally had to fight back tears.
This Holy place is so overwhelming in it’s beauty and spirit and joy.
The first time I went to the Kotel, five years ago, our tour guide said something that’s always stuck with me. Three times a day Jews around the world face towards to Kotel to pray so that when we stand before the Wall to pray we are not just present in the Holiness, but that the eyes of all of the Jews praying around the world are fixed towards you as well. I feel that weight when I’m there, those prayers, those people all davening with all of their hearts and souls. And I guess I have to same sort of visceral reaction to being here. It’s not that every single person here is a spiritual or religious person, but that the space we live in, the streets we walk, the geographical place the land holds is filled with such an ancient, yet alive spirit.
I feel my Christian roots here, I feel my Jewishness and I feel the spirit of my Muslim brothers and sisters. I feel this pulling of my spirit from the people who are here and the people that have come before and the people who will come and it’s just overwhelming.
So I’ve spent a lot of time crying. Not heaving ugly cries, but an unexplained and unexpected wetness on my cheeks. The tears just spill out of my eyes and I rarely know when it’s going to happen. I allowed tears to fall from my eyes and didn’t wipe them from my face as I walked home in the cool night after service. I was greeted with Shabbat Shalom from everyone that I passed on the street and when I came home to my simple meal and the welcoming silence the apartment afforded it was enough.
And then I woke up on Shabbat morning, helped set the Shabbat table and engaged in what I would call a very typical Shabbat lunch. There were twelve of us of varying ages and backgrounds; some Israeli, many Americans like myself in Jerusalem for the summer. The conversations overlapped and happened both as the larger group and in smaller individual conversations. We were loud, we interrupted one another, we debated the idea of compassion through mitzvot, shared desert stories, talked about how and why we were named, and pondered the why some Jews find so much spiritual inspiration in other faiths when some Jews (like myself) can seek and find the spirit in our own faith.
The food was delicious and filling and by the time Shabbat Nap came along (my favorite non-religious part of Shabbat) I happily collapsed into bed.
And I slept fretfully, as I have been since arriving in Jerusalem.
Orientation at Pardes begins tomorrow and I’m excited that I’ve had 3 days here to get my barrings, even if those barrings are overwhelming.
Posted on: July 7, 2016
I’ve been staying in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem with a friend I met when I worked in the Jewish non-profit sector. We’re sharing an apartment with three lovely cats, one who is a teeny kitten named Oreo who loves to play with my braids (and everything else, because kittens).
Yesterday I woke up fairly early, turned down an invitation from my friend to join her at the Kotel with Women of the Wall (I promised my wife and mother I’d stay out of mischief), and set out to explore. Starting with food.
When I settled into Tmol Shilshom Cafe a wave of familiarity washed over me, I’d been here before – Five years ago when I was in Israel! Instead of eating inside the small and friendly cafe, I ate outdoors shaded from the hot morning sun by an awning. An Israeli group of friends smoked and drank coffee behind me, students from the UK were across from me and a man wearing a kippah sporting long payot smoked cigarettes while working on his laptop. The service was long and it allowed me to just sit and enjoy the accents around me, the sound of the street below and start to settle myself in the pace of Jerusalem life.
And then the shakshuka came. Served in a stainless steel bowl situated on a wooden plate with a side of bulgar salad. The eggs were firm (by my request) a tahini sauce was drizzled on top and the aromas of stewed tomato, eggplant and red peppers set my mouth watering. But since I burnt the roof of my mouth a few days ago and the server warned me that the dish was hot I waited. And it was worth the wait.
After breakfast I took the tram to the Shuk and explored the various stalls and vendors and all of their delicious wares. And fended off about a half dozen proposals of marriage, kisses, one night stands and green card requests. I only purchased a bag of granola, trying to keep in mind that I will be here for three weeks and that the spices can be purchased towards the end of my trip.
The remainder of the day was spent in the Old City. I entered through Damascus Gate and wandered down the slick stone streets of the Muslim Quarter. Paid my respects to my Christian heritage at the Church of the Holy Seplechure and davened through streaming tears at the Kotel. I purchased a volume of Tehillim and got my Hebrew named embossed on it and intend to spend a lot of time reciting Psalms and Kotel praying over the next three weeks.
I spent nearly 5 hours lost in the streets of the Old City, feeling the dualing sensations of being at both at home and a stranger in this Holy Land.
Posted on: July 5, 2016
Welcome to my Travel bLog!
It seems crazy to think that I’m on the first leg of my trip to Israel. I barely slept last night between the street fire works, the dog, anxious nerves I’d say that I probably got in a solid two hours of sleep. Thank G-d I do my best sleeping on airplanes.
I’m headed to JFK for a short layover and then to Helsinki for an 11 hour lay over, which I’m super jazzed about. I found this website (thanks, Google) and while it’s not a perfect itinerary, it’s not a bad one either and it allows me to see several aspects of Helsinki in the most amount of time.
If you’ve been to Helsinki and have a place that I absolutely must visit, please let me know!
Posted on: June 30, 2016
In FIVE DAYS I will be boarding a flight to Israel to spend three weeks at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies for their Summer Learning Intensive.
I cannot begin to explain to ya’ll how excited I am about this endeavor. I’m thrilled to be doing some serious Jewish learning. I’m excited about living in the Holy Land for three weeks. I’m excited about representing Jews of Color. And I’m excited about bringing everything that I’ll glean back to my work as a Jewish Diversity activist and advocate.
Throughout my Go Fund Me campaign I’ve been using the word “investment” rather than “donation” and it’s for a specific reason. There are many amazing and worthy causes on the Go Fund Me platform. And asking for money of friends and strangers is often awkward. I thought long and hard about if it was the right thing to do and in the end, I knew that it was because my friends, my family, my community believes in me and the work that I do. Therefore, they, you, weren’t making a donation, you’re investing in me. Saying that you believe in me, in the work I do, and that the work I do in the Jewish community is important.
So while the trip is a personal one; I will be traveling to Israel, I will be studying at Pardes, I will be elbow deep in Torah learning, it’s also a public trip because I’m going on it with the help, with the investment in the people who have given to this campaign.
As a reminder, I was raising money for the flight to Israel and for tuition. I’ve had to change the campaign goal from $2000 to $2300 to adjust for travel insurance and other unexpected travel expenses that came up.
So I’m sending one final message (for real) asking if anyone who wanted to invest in Jewish Diversity Education and Leadership but hadn’t done so yet can do so.
Any amount helps.
I’m looking forward to sharing photos, thoughts, and lessons learned over on my blog while I’m away.
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart!