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.

25 Tishrei 5776 – Defense, Deterrence, Depravity

SHOMRON 18 TISHREI 5776 – SAMARIA, 1 OCTOBER 2015

A white Subaru hatchback drives over the pacifying sound of gravel as it slows to a stop, making a turn onto another winding road to reach Highway 60, toward the Neria settlement in the west. The driver and the front passenger, Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, are returning from a class reunion as their four children in the backseats begin to quietly wink off to the scenery of somnolent hills in Samaria, from where the sun had cast its final honeyed light hours earlier.

Another vehicle suddenly unsheathes itself from the camouflaging dark, driving into the lit intersection, blocking the passage of the Henkins. Two men jump out from the doors, masked in balaclavas, and fire their small arms into the front windows of the Subaru.

The children’s silence is likely what spares them from further gunfire; the eldest, nine year-old Matan Henkin, takes control and urges his younger siblings to be silent as he watches his parents’ bodies rip apart by the sudden hail of bullets. Just as quickly as the attack began, it was over; the critical silence and quiet murmuring of confused children grotesquely steals away the normalcy of a family returning home, on holiday, with no expectation of what violent execution has just taken place.

Minutes later, the children now flashing brights and honking on the horn for attention, an off-duty medic and soldier arrives at the strange scene. The soldier immediately whips out his M-16 and checks the shadowed hills for any signs of terrorists. The medic, Tzvi Goren, is horrified to find that behind the blood-stained doors, two limp bodies sit placid while children scream and panic in the backseats; the youngest, a four month-old, cries unconsolably while bound in a carrier.

Tzvi’s worst fears, while examining and comforting the children, realizes they are now orphans; he brokenly attempts to follow procedure, averting the traumatized youth’s attention from their parents, while waiting for the army to come.

A day later, Matan reads mourner’s Kaddish for his parents over the wailing of friends and family, an intrepid voice among a sea of people with no comfort, wounds raw, still searching for the faintest glimmer of hope in a stifling valley of shadows. The two well-known, well-loved parents, who made Aliyah from the United States, are escorted to their final resting place before Shabbat begins, thousands of mourners in attendance. The attacks that orphaned the four children are but the beginning of a wave of attacks that will claim the lives of two more Israelis, and injure dozens more, with no end in immediate sight.

HA’IR HA’ATIKAH 20 TISHREI 5776 – THE OLD CITY, 3 OCTOBER 2015

Among the crowds inside the Lion’s Gate, a Palestinian law student makes his way through the throngs of prayer gatherers and tourists on this often-troubled road in the Old City, locked between the Arab quarter and Temple Mount.

In recent weeks, this site has been a nest of trouble between Arab dwellers on the Temple Mount and Jewish worshippers observing Rosh HaShanah; the local Arabs, carrying the perception that the Mount from where sits their Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques, are under threat by the recent large pilgrimage of Jews. Because of this, the Arab masses have been actively rioting from the Mount by use of lethal stones and firebombs, even a failed grenade, on the unarmed worshippers.

Due to this escalation, the Israeli border patrol division of the IDF, unique for their grey uniforms and black combat equipment contrary to standard olive green dress, have been deployed on high alert.

The nineteen year-old Arab law student, Al Bireh, weaves in between the crowds of worshippers sauntering their way to the Western Wall as he lays eyes on his target: a married orthodox couple carrying with them an infant. With a few quick swings, he fatally stabs the father, Rabbi Nehemia Lavie, while severely injuring the Rabbi’s wife and daughter. The crowds of people begin to flee through the narrow streets as the fourth victim, IDF reservist Aharon Benita, is mortally wounded and his rifle confiscated. The terrorist then begins to fire wildly, vainly, into the fleeing crowd before he is almost immediately neutralized by a Border Patrol officer.

Damascus_Gate

All of these acts occurring in unusual unison surround the bold announcement last Wednesday of President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in front of a cheering United Nations General Assembly, that the Palestinian people “will no longer continue to be bound” to the 1993 Oslo Accords, a failed attempt at mutual recognition by Israel and Palestine, laying grounds for Palestinian statehood, and peace.

I remember watching the televised speech, in shock, followed by the raising of the Palestinian flag at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I was not in shock because of the lack of desire for a consolidated peace between Israel and Palestine, not because I do not believe that Palestinians have the very basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor because I do not believe that Palestinians should have access to the founding of their own sovereign state.

But under these threats? These conditions?

The chilling voice of a woman buzzes on my phone, tzeva adom, tzeva adom, tzeva adom… “code red, code red, code red”… At that moment, an untamed rocket was screaming into the night sky, bound to strike down on Israeli soil.

This warning system, found on smartphones, is designed for Israelis in the event of these frequent, often unpredictable launches. If a rocket is tracked in the airspace over a specific town, its residents will receive a personal alert; being abroad, I can receive alerts for any region under fire.

The weight of the situation has prompted a lot of personal thoughts, especially as I plan to make this beautiful, complex country my home in the next year. What can prevent further attacks on my people? What measures do we need to take as a collective, as a fighting force? My motto breathes deep, interminable, defend life. Defend the life of my people, defend their rights, their happiness, defend the youth until they are ready to live under the helmet and carry the flame of that mantra.

But when will defense become depravity? Deterrence, the long-embraced strategy of the IDF, is condemned by the world. I have always believed that it is necessary to discourage terrorism, by means of the home demolitions, the night arrests, the brutally long prison sentences for convicted terrorists… who can complain about demolished homes, an active, violent convict being stolen away in the night, and living in custody, when we have to bury our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters? These strategies, in spite of repeated acts of terror and inevitably uncontrollable violence, has been effective in keeping Israel safe. But is deterrence effective in solving the Palestinian problem?

The stabbing sprees are becoming wildfire. From last weekend, a mounting figure of incidents are spreading from the West Bank, to Jerusalem; whose mayor, Nir Barkat, has just urged its citizens to carry firearms; and in the last day, to Tel Aviv and Yaffa.

Today in Israel, a list of incidents grow:

05:00 Men throw stones at a bus near Um al-Fahm
11:56 Rocks are thrown at a car driving past Afula
12:19 A Haredi man is stabbed and seriously injured in Jerusalem, his assailant shot and killed
13:02 Palestinians throw stones at vehicles passing Gush Etzion
13:22 Palestinians throw rocks at non-governmental organization vehicles near Halhul
15:00 A terrorist stabs five people with a screwdriver in Tel Aviv, and is killed
15:28 A glass bottle is thrown at a passerby in Jerusalem
15:54 A young man is seriously injured in a stabbing near Hebron
17:15 A soldier is lightly wounded by stones during a protest in Halamish
17:20 A Palestinian minister is wounded after stones are thrown at a vehicle passing Nablus
18:20 A Palestinian is killed and 9 police officers are wounded in clashes at Shuafat refugee camp
19:06 A soldier is critically wounded in a stabbing in Afula

The situation’s urgency mirrors a minor Intifada, a Shaking, an uprising, and various newspapers and journalists are assessing the beginning of the third such uprising.

As these acts unfold, six-thousand miles away, I urgently watch and wish I were not so helpless. I want to be there now, protecting my country and my people.

But this time is also a reflection, a spiritual question I need to mold into an answer; Defense, Deterrence, Depravity. I cannot stoop to savagery; I need to guard my heart. And at the same time, lives are being lost, and I need to defend life, a priority I hold over my conflict and muse.

The gray skies of this Minnesota autumn are quiet, soothing, maddening; life here in Minneapolis passes with a simple fury and joy, making infant steps toward its true manifestation in the gloriously bright Tel Aviv, where people appreciated life with every step, every waking breath, because we had no choice, because the present day could be our last, because we have a history that did not have to spare us, because we don’t have to be here, and we are; I wonder how I could not only preserve this deep appreciation for free Jews in our Holy Land, but for our Palestinian neighbors, who, despite their negative and often hostile perception of us, are facing a crisis deeper than any act of knife-wielding viciousness could bring about; with our army on the high-guard, it is inevitable that they should act when enough is finally enough, and no one really wants to acknowledge what will happen next.

I ask you, reader, to pray for the Peace of Yerushalayim, for its precious namesake, for those who are dying in her, and for those who endanger their own people from within her.

I refuse to believe that this is how it will end.

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.