26 Cheshvan 5776 – Covenant

MOSES DISTANCES himself from the throngs of Hebrews gathering on the shore while he begins an uncertain conversation in the Holy Presence.

During the wait, the Chieftan of Judah feels the shifty waters of the intimidating Sea of Reeds on his feet. His tribe gathers behind him, vulnerable, mortal, panicked; his spiritual and martial commander arguing with G-d even at this vital moment, the faint contour of Moses’ staff angrily waving in the air toward a rageful sky, from where in the distance a stanchion of flames stretches downward; the uncomfortably close thin line epitomizing the nearness of a vengeful Egyptian cavalry to nomadic, fragile life.

I choose You to choose me.

The Chieftan silently, impulsively, hurls his body into the waters. The motherly screams of women on the shore, the silence of disbelief overtaking a once boisterous, stormy crowd, and the shouts of a few indecisive men erupt. The dark waves of the Sea of Reeds pulls at the Chieftan’s robes as he sinks lower beneath the burning salt lido churning around him. The deep, black indigo bathes his chest, his neck, his nose and ears, until he is gone.

I reach out my hands along the Mikvah’s walls to keep my naked body submerged. Resurface. Too hasty I think to myself while the Beit Din, the House of Judgement consisting of my Rabbi, my synagogue’s cantor, and its director, stands waiting for me to immerse again.

The warm water softly beckons on my shoulders and breasts. Going under again, flare of the nostrils, assault on the eyes, the lifting pressure in my head, and… peace. The change. The transformation, the will actualized by the commitment of my heart.

Years of desire and shouting out, I choose You to choose me.

Resurface.

“One more time” I hear my Rabbi softly speak.

I remember the long road that has led upward to this moment. The questioning, the depression, the confusion, the anger, the tears… the silent glimpses of joy like sunlight grinning through cloud shade.

I remember asking myself who the fuck am I, walking dozens of miles from my parents’ home in the middle of night, feet soaked in slush and snow, wondering about the state of my soul after a shouting match with my parents in which I had cursed them with colorful insults and slammed my boots on the floor.

I remember the comfort of a woman holding my hand with a glass of wine in the other, asking me why, then warning me, warning me until my eyes could no longer comfortably look at hers, and finally, not surrendering, not breaking, she began to console me with intoxicating words of how she has not opted from the faith, that we are a tribe, that I am taking on an ancient and heavy commitment, that I cannot opt out either.

I remember the shame of pulling out my active phone during a communal gathering of singing during a Shabbat service in a soldiers’ hostel in Tel Aviv, a gross violation of the Shabbat laws, that caught the attention of a young reservist with leathery skin and a knitted kippah. He eyed me with a sort of stare nixing a brief shock and disdain with an understanding that whispered it is okay, he will get there one day.

I remember forgetting how to pray, and learning again, because of my primitive understanding of Hebrew, and having always prayed to Jesus, until the revelation came one night in 2011 while gazing into the maze of Chicago’s skyscrapers from a hotel room, going through a messy breakup, that I need to stop worshipping a man and my crumbling relationship; that evening I found a sliver of G-d, reaching down into the cold ruins of my consciousness from the starry lights of the many windows, like glimpses of warmth in the sea of black concrete during a chilly downtown night:

Shema Israel Ad-nai Eloheinu, Ad-nai Echad.

was the first prayer I had prayed, battling a massive headache, strangling loneliness, questioning my future and my willingness to stay alive for it.

“Stretch out your hand, Moishe.”

The words penetrate the chosen leader’s focus as the clouds grow darker, a harbinger for night.

Wood smacks stone. The waters flee in furor, light obliterating darkness. Two majestic curtains of sea stretch into the brewing clouds, opening a passage for the Hebrews. The nearly-drowned Chieftan is regaining composure, having been swept under his feet by the power of the parting.

The Hebrews start forward, abandoning carts and deadweight, led by an astonished Moses and Aaron. Trembling with fear, awed in the Presence.

The Chieftan is named Nachshon, son of Aminadav and directly descended from Judah, son of Jacob. His namesake, allusive to the Hebrew word nachshol, “waves”, is the name I am taking on as a Jew.

Reading from a framed prayer, in Hebrew, at the poolside, wet hair covering my eyes from the third immersion in the mikvah, I begin:

Blessed are You, Ad-nai
Ruler of the Universe
Who has sanctified us with the mitzvot
and has commanded us concerning immersion.

My Rabbi begins a beautiful Hebrew prayer, the most beautiful prayer, and I hear him speak my name as though it were written in a book. My identity rose out of the water that day. My desire, my current life, and my future, family, children, home, I will go with G-d and mend the world in an everlasting covenant; I will speak of these words to my children, speak of these words while I sit at home, when I walk along the way, and when I lie down and rise up. I will bind these as a sign upon my hands, between my eyes. I will hang them on my doorposts and upon my gates.

The waters are open, blown back by a strong Eastern wind; my life’s Egypt behind. I am free. I belong. And the journey has only begun… although I am still imperfect, although I still, like a child, continue to learn from misunderstandings and petty mistakes, I am untouched by regret, rather, yolked by delight that I am going where I am meant to go.

And it has not been effortless, this choice will not be without complication. My identity was once scarred by a controlling, aggressive darkness, unconfident and insecure. Difficulties in the road ahead are surely waiting for me. The future is uncertain for all of us, no matter where we are in life.

Stretch out your hand, Moishe, take a breath, go with faith.

Go.

14 Tishrei 5776 – Atonement

All I remember from that day was walking into the deep end; all other pigmented fragments surrounding that blue memory is a lost haze, burned long ago like some forgotten nitrate film cache.

I remember watching the roundel of the glowing bulb closely, attentively.  The burning sensation in my nostrils; the hard buoyancy in my head fighting upward, my tiny body dragging it down.  My feet kept moving, toward the light.  Wavy tails of brown hair quivered against the current of my steps toward the pool’s furthest trench.  Calm, curious initiative.

I lost consciousness.

I next remember being stood up with cotton swabs stabbing my ears, bleeding with chlorine water.  Coughing tremors that made my eyes burn, belching up water from nauseous lungs.  I remember being blind; was it my eyes refusing to open, or some temporary reaction?  I made out the wet, shifting shadows of people standing around me on the rugged stone floor.  My mother continued to wrench the swabs deeper into my ears as I rubbed my eyes dry with a towel coating my cold, wet body like a blanket.  A strange menagerie of sensations that resembled salvation played themselves within and around me.

This girl saved you, they told me.

According to my family, she was the only one who saw me, who pulled me out of the pool in time after I silently slipped below the water.

The waves are hard, warm, good. I see Daniel swimming meters away, shouting as each new emerald curl rises for its final smash toward the populated shoreline.

Did you see that! he would shout too often, in a thick, amused Australian twang.

His wild crop of black hair, which reminds me of a burning bush, disappears beneath the currents, and torpedoes far away toward the Mediterranean horizon. Less experienced, but high on confidence, I determinedly dash beneath the frothy blue, tasting the vindicating sensation of sea salt in my mouth and nose, scissoring through the hard tides, and following the slipstream like wings through air.

The magnificent lido of Tel Aviv-Yafo is an emotional, invigorating way to spend a weekend resting and connecting to the land.

These currents are where Jonah was swallowed by the whale. It was these waters that have seen thousands of years of trade and fishing in the levant. Near this coastline a civil war among Jews was being ignited, the Irgun’s ship Altalena being the flint, and the newly formed Israel Defense Forces the steel.

My eyes follow the white monoliths of luxury hotels, the distant sapphire parhelion of the Azrieli district’s business skyscrapers, to the near olive-skinned bodies that are the blood of this city. My white flesh is my fading identity; fresh from the diaspora, waiting to be minted by the sun toward true physical Israeli personhood.

Do I feel self-conscious as my friends remark with curses and jeers how pale I am? Perhaps a little, but I laugh with them. It is truly a funny sight.

I swim to a stop, and cry out in joy as the hot rays of light bathe my friends and I like myrrh; heart full of passion, each summer breath full of the life I’ve prayed on, the spent nights curled and destroyed in the diaspora of my once ruined life, waiting, mumbling petitions between hoarse breaths of deluded hopes for this salvation that is now real, vivid, green like the lush foliage on shore, and dulcet, flowing, like the natural mikvah us Jews freely roam.

We end the evening smoking hookah on a street café, and converse with women soldiers we have our hearts locked on. I walk into the bunk room of my hostel, shirtless. I have passed the burn stage, a nice tan coat runs down my chest and midriff; Daniel and Yair are marked by crimson streaks down their faces and back.

Did you see that? I shout, unable to quench my laughter.

Yom Kippur was difficult to stand through. Not because of the hunger and thirst of fasting, not because of the repentant state we are in during those twenty-five hours, but because of the affliction we bring upon our souls as we mourn our sins and petition to G-d and people in our lives, who we have wronged, for forgiveness.

I had gone through multiple stages of mourning throughout the day, at one point, getting into my car, I remember shouting in a brief fury, have I not afflicted my soul enough for the past five years!

I drive on a bleak highway 35W to my Minneapolis apartment and creep lifelessly into the thick cool duvet of my bed, with iron-weight thoughts, praying a little to G-d, a little to myself, stifle my soliloquy with a self-doubting thought, this is vacuous, be a mensch, stop being so down on yourself, live like any other day, continue on with your life, commit to your dreams, kfotze! [jump!]

I arrived in the contrite halls of a darkened Temple of Aaron to join my community for a Ma’ariv and prayer. I was disconnected from the depths of the holy day as various congregants ascended to the podium to recite prayers while the community read responsively, yet I didn’t feel it; standing in the furthest seats away from the altar, I couldn’t connect, stubborn and destroyed, I tried to gain my strength back to fight the haunting dreariness of my unbearable past.

I was tired of afflicting myself. I asked G-d for something new, as I continue to. A revelation I had in my mind was that G-d gives us the tools to make our lives what our hearts desire for them to be, and, knowing that I will have my mikvah in a month, and having chosen my Hebrew name which I have yet to reveal, and, applying for the Ulpan kibbutz classes somehow confirmed that G-d was giving me something not just new, but completely transformative. And it was because of my initiative.

My Rabbi calls out the final shofar call, and incorporeally, with hairs rising on my neck and eyes welling up with tears, I find myself standing at the base of Mount Sinai, every generation of Jewish man and woman standing with me; King David, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Golda Meir, Maimonides, my Rabbi Fine, Channah Shenesh, all repentant, all afflicted, all crying out in their souls for something new, something good, final, and freeing; a chance to escape the past, to walk on salvation’s shores, to repair the world, be a mensch, and kfotze!

I cannot examine this hole in my heart no more than I can examine the absence of a person, a place nor a calling. This is more of a deep emotional absence and I know it can only be filled by the G-d I chose to embrace after several years of wandering, committing, and fall out. This G-d of mine, the G-d of Ruth and David and Abraham, is missing. And His covenant I am failing to understand. And His people I am not with, His plans, far misunderstood and abused, I am not accepting out of failure to see.

I am choosing my own path, hoping one day to look at my reflection some-decades on, sit on the foot of my bed to speak my nightly reminder (“G-d is One”), and see a man made in His image rather than a man discouraged. That this hole may be filled with self-forgiveness, forgiving others, and not worrying about things past nor coming, but focusing on committing to an oath bigger than myself in this present. This practice cannot begin now, or then, but continues, even by revenant mistakes we all make and of all of the times we fail ourselves and others.

Unless I quit focusing on myself, and the more I come to terms with what love and life are truly about, I will be just as empty tomorrow as I am now. This is not a depression I have to climb out of, but a bank on the sea, waters parted, a restless cavalry behind; we all must cross.

I experienced my first case of Israeli stubbornness. Contacting the Ulpan kibbutz proved more challenging than I thought; it required a greater effort than I initially expected, but one I am willing to give.

I had sent out a few emails inquiring for information regarding the program; no response. I found a few members of the kibbutz on facebook, sending kind messages asking for more details; no response. I then found phone numbers belonging to the kibbutz.

After listening to a series of long Israeli drones contrast to American rings, I ended the call, aggravated. I tried back another day, when miraculously, a man answered.

“Allo?
“Shalom, Iftach?”
“…Allo?”
Shit, don’t hang up…
“Allo, atah m’daber anglit?”
“…ken.”
Relief.

I spoke with an animated man, half-expecting to hear some native English speaker, but to my pleasant surprise, found a man whose English was difficult to understand. As though surprised at the lengths I went through to reach him, Iftach enthusiastically laid out the basic syllabus of the course and asked me for a few contact details to forward an application.

I could feel my cheeks flushed with excitement as I wished the man Shalom, anticipating yet another advance toward my dream.

As Sukkot begins, marked by a crimson lunar eclipse, I am beginning to feel a deep connectivity to my future, as well as my people, and this holiday, this harvest season and resounding Atonement; a divine forgiveness that states all will be well with my soul; cleared obstacles past and mountains on the horizon, brambles, thistles; more challenges that I live for, and less the emotional traumas that once convinced me that my life was meaningless, retrograde; taking two marches forward and years of steps in regression; not anymore.

I walk with confidence, the fire of the 6th of Sivan still burning, eternally, enticingly, deep down.

12 Nisan 5775

A few months ago I had attended a film with one of my close friends from high school, someone whose interests remained in the realm of my own as I gradually made a split from my younger identity into what I am passionate for today.  The film was a more rational, somewhat inaccurate take of the story of Pesach, and as two with a heart for ancient near-Eastern study and history, we critiqued and marveled at Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.

My friend was, within a few days, bound to study internationally in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and I hastily wrote a brief prayer on a wastingly large piece of paper (a plea, really) for him to tuck into the Western Wall during his time in the Old City in Jerusalem, a tradition among its visitors for belief that the Holy Presence rests on top of the wall, answering prayers.

And I wonder when the plea will be answered, or realized.

A person will often ask me, “what do you do?”  I will always feel a quick hesitant restraint, a glimpse into the dark shame I have wrestled with that I have no viable education nor an adult’s job…
“I’m trying to leave” I’ll say.
“Oh yeah?  Where’s that?”
“Israel.”  The plea.  Take me.

And I will always receive mixed reactions.  Most will respond with a distant awe, as if trying to remember where Israel is on a map.  Some nod and continue, while a few will respond more negatively.  One man has called me “crazy” with a hostile tone of discouragement, another girl refused to carry on the conversation; as though I was wearing a Magen David armband on a field of crimson, a silver skull on my cap.  I understand the negative perception toward Israel, I am aware of her criticizers; I am tired of the passive, armchair-born resentment toward Zionism in our age of passive-aggression.  A schlepper generation, what are they doing to help?

And lately I have been assimilating myself with this behavior; I am no man.  Not yet.  I haven’t proven my worth in dirt as I flip the pages of a biography on the new Jewish dream; the fighters, the paratroopers and kibbutzniks who would throw themselves over an Arab marauder’s grenade to save their wives and countrymen, only to muster the strength to shoot back.  The Tsabra generation; the strong, initiating, native Israeli who I will never be… but for whom I want my children to be.

So my boiling motivation has taken a plunge forward.  My drugging thoughts have disappeared behind the scenes; I need to begin answering my own prayers.  I need to start giving my objective my all.

I will be applying for the Sar-El program, a volunteering opportunity to serve alongside Israeli soldiers to help ease their burden.  I have a contact and the chance is an optimistic one, I have an interview planned with a local community center regarding the position.

Perhaps with the push of hard work augmented by the trust I had written on paper, in the ink of my very heart’s blood, which my friend had placed in that Wall… maybe this is the answer I’ve always needed.

Symmetry

I know that my depression is flaring again, and it is the dismal, irresolute nature of this mental illness that causes a trademark sense of hopelessness within the many ordinary people who struggle with it. This takes a toll on my productivity, and to my humiliation, my moods, but being familiar with these clinical swings for quite some time, I have fortunately been able to mature my tactics to keep me over the “black cloud” that affects others and I so greatly.

Along with these expected highs and lows, I have been receiving more migraine headaches than I can recall, to the uneasy point of nausea and stone-heavy eyelids. These monthly headaches have become so tolling that I am unable to work, unable to talk, and unable to even sleep unless accompanied by much water and medication.

This worries me, but again, I am learning to remain three steps ahead of my struggles; I am learning to gain symmetry and control of my life and my physical and mental setbacks; parity between my yearning heart and restless mind.

Accompanying these mental roadblocks, I am unable to read and write as much as I am able to, nor attend Temple and study on my conversion.

Shalosh Sha’at has even been put on hiatus (albeit a work in progress) as I begin to question the voice that is telling the story, whether to demonize or humanize the Jews and the Arabs, becoming horrified of the war and the Suez milieu, and feeling a desire to simply light a candle and kindle warm thoughts with someone to take in my words; to hear comforting, honest, affectionate responses.

But in the dark of these thoughts, I am taking great strides out of my oubliette and toward a place where my thoughts, creativity, and focus can flourish.

I am stepping out of my introverted boundaries and befriending many new people from different walks of life, even beyond other Jews.

I am going to sign a lease for a new apartment which will bring me closer to the cities, and I look forward to having a personal, private study overlooking the Minnesota River.

I have been amassing a research library to aid in my conversion, I have begun to pray with confidence again, and my internal fires are growing hotter for my identity is becoming solidified with a passion to see the world through loving eyes; my hope in humanity is gone, but my love for it is rich and growing.

Headaches and loneliness do not measure up against HaTikvah, the Hope, that roots itself deep in my heart. It is all just one of many anticipated roadblocks I will be pulled through as I sift my focus from hopelessness to hopefulness, from dreamer to believer.

_____

What struggles do you face, and how are you faring against them? What passions, dreams, and commitments do you incessantly reach for, but feel powerless to pursue and achieve? If you need an ear to listen, and warm encouragement, do not hesitate in emailing me at brstieren@gmail.com.

“Plans are ruined without counsel, but they are established with many advisors.”

Proverbs of Solomon/Mishlei 15:22

Hiatus

With chapters outlined, I am now designing the final resolutions to my novel Männer der Hölle and beginning to write. I am going to focus all of my energy on this commitment, so I will be taking a seasonal hiatus from working on this site and its sister THE RESPONSE.

A current issue I want to address that requires attention is the grim situation unfolding in Syria, with a bloody revolution looming on their horizon. President Al Assad’s regime has continued a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters demanding his resignation since the early summer of last year.

Reminiscent of Libya’s uprising and civil war yesteryear, Syria’s military is much stronger and intrepid in their oppression, receiving outside support from Iran. This month, the Arab League has sent investigators to assess the situation in deciding whether or not to intervene, and due to attacks on inspectors, several nations have recalled their agents, and are at a stalemate as to deciding what actions to take.

In a hesitant process, several regime Army members have since defected and joined the protests, taking refuge in the neighborhoods of major cities, such as Damascus, where heavier actions are being taken by regime forces (namely shelling of neighborhoods where both peaceful protesters and innocents reside).

This is a sick situation and action must be taken. Pray for the tactile minds of those who love justice to access the approval of our politician’s right to take wartime measures.  Pray for the innocents who face loss every day by the dozens.  Pray for the righteous hearts who love their people and are choosing to boldly stand against this oppression.

Pray for Syria.

Boker Tov v’Shalom

Contrails

2012 has been a progressively wonderful and liberating time.  Applying the mind and guarding the heart with HaShem’s will is a promising odyssey that is making me a stronger, wiser person.

I filed a restraining order on an unstable ex-girlfriend (dare I say ex-acquaintance?) whose harassing and inane stalking was putting me, my family and friends in harm’s way, and I do not regret it in the slightest bit. I am proud of myself and I am more than willing to take such action for the ones I love, including myself. I have learned that to be humble is to be strong in certain circumstances, no matter how harsh our actions convey; the enemy reaps what they sow.

My friend from high school, Nick, is currently on tour with the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire’s Jazz Band in the Mediterranean, and took a breathtaking photograph of the sunrise in Ashdod, Israel:

I know I say this over and over, but I cannot wait until this becomes a daily sight for me, my future family and friends to come.

Let Yisrael say:
“His love endures forever.”
Let the house of Aharon say:
“His love endures forever.”
Let those who fear the L-RD say:
“His love endures forever.”

118:2-4 תהלים (Tehillim/Psalms)

I have dreams of driving through the Golan Heights and the streets of Tel Aviv. Every so often I have visions of my partner and her bistre beauty. I feel my wrists wrapped in tefillin as I recite my Shema to HaShem in the morning’s alabaster streams. I cannot say how valid these are, I am skeptical of these feelings and sights, but they are beautiful.

They say that in order to receive G-D’s love we are called to change; but it is G-D’s love that changes us.

Laila Tov

רגע; סבלנות

Justice is served in absolute.

There will come a time when an enemy who does not relent in their transgression will receive the blunt end of their twisted offense. Always forgive, always traverse. We ought not waste time in hoping for vengeance. This feeling of vengeance is a corruption of the righteous hope every human being has originally harbored for a peaceful, good outcome; instead we are prone to obsess over being okay, that we develop unrighteous attitudes to preserve it, no matter what we show or serve.

This is unnecessary; unlike bitter abhorrence, patience will always be necessary, and with patience, our hopes manifest. When we play with fire, we are burned. Do not be tempted by conflict’s invigorating light. The power we seek in cathartic victory is but an immature fraudulence of our instilled calling to peace and glory-giving.

Allow HaShem to be a shield in times of tribulation; how petty are conscious trials when they are relinquished in affinity with the L-RD. This is the first step in taming the fiery mien of our G-D-made image when the father of lies cleverly hacks our heart; wait on HaShem and you will receive.

The Name is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Name is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.

One thing I ask from the L-RD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the L-RD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the L-RD
and to seek Him in His temple.
For in the day of trouble
He will keep me safe in His dwelling;
He will hide me in the shelter of His sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at His sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of tehillim;
I will sing and make music to the Name!

Hear my voice when I call, L-RD;
be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of You, “Seek His face!”
Your face, HaShem, I will seek.
Do not hide Your face from me,
do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
G-D my Savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
the L-RD will receive me.
Teach me Your way, L-RD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Name
in the land of the living.
Wait for the L-RD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the L-RD.

27 תהלים (Tehillim/Psalms)

Justice will be served in absolute, though do not mind it.  Keep your eyes focused on what is truly Important; how could then the face of suffering still grimace in the presence of its demise?  Tribulation feels like an eternity, wasting away your life and earthly conscious; but I cannot tell you how sweet it feels after pulling muscle after muscle and spraining your feet to the point of doubt when you are embraced by your father and come home to rest and heed a new life.  All will fade, and do not be afraid of change or be protective of this gentle strife.  

With Abba Avinu there is nothing to concern but His glory.

Boker Tov

Calling to Faith: Isaiah 45:2-7

I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I AM the LORD,
the G-d of Israel, Who summons you by name.
For the sake of Ya’kov My servant,
of Israel My chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge Me.
I AM the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from Me there is no god.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged Me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides Me.
I AM the LORD, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.

Yeshayahu/Isaiah 45:2-7