Like silence but not really silent

I’ve been meaning to write about last Shabbat (and the previous one…whoops), but I’ve had trouble coming up with something because I don’t want to repeat things from my previous Shabbat posts. Rather than come up with a listing of my Shabbat activities, I thought I’d write about what it feels like to really experience the holiday here.  

My preparations start midday Friday and have evolved into a multi-hour long meditative process of preparing myself for Shabbat. I do laundry and tidy up my room as the afternoon sun pours through the windows. I walk across the street to the shuk to get groceries for the weekend, taking in the Friday afternoon commotion. The shops are packed with people trying to get their last minute items before everything shuts down. The usual smell of cigarettes and cat urine is covered up by fresh baked bread and chocolate rugelach. The shopkeepers call out their prices in a shout even louder than usual. I find a cheap clothing store and get a new dress to wear to shul. Shabbat here is communal-everyone celebrates in their own way, but the entire city shares a common sense of urgency to get home and get things done before the sunlight goes out. That’s what I really love about Shabbat here-I know that everyone around me is preparing to sit around the table and enjoy their day of rest. 

Late Friday afternoon is my favorite time of the whole week. I come home from shopping and paint my nails, humming the songs I’ll hear at night in the synagogue. My ‘Shabbos Shower’ allows me to transition from the stress and long days of the week into Shabbat. I scrub off all the dirt and sweat of the week (I do shower during the week, I just get extra clean on Friday) and use my most favorite rose jam soap. After showering, I feel that my mind has also been cleansed and I am at my most peaceful. As I slip on my new dress, I say shehecheyanu, the blessing said the first time one does or uses something. I tie up my hair into a tight braid, just like the braided challah I’ll eat later tonight. My final preparation is to fasten my kippah to my head. I have a kippah that I wear only on Shabbat-I bought it here during my first week and I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It looks like how Shabbat feels.


Every Friday night I attend services at Kehilat Zion. It’s a fairly long walk, about 45 minutes, but I enjoy this part of my routine. As I take to the streets, I enter a completely different scene than I did earlier in the day. The streets that were only a few hours ago packed with people and activity are now completely empty. As the sun begins to set, Shabbat begins and the city of Jerusalem drifts off into sleep. I arrive at Zion ready for Shabbat. The weekday feels far away and unimportant as I prepare to enter another world. I walk in and take my seat as the music begins. I imagine that I’m in a cloud drifting higher and higher as the prayer builds and I keep rising up until I’m floating and surrounded by light. This is the only time in the week where I feel truly quiet and still. At the same time, I’m not quiet or still because I’m swaying back and forth and singing. 

I leave shul and head to dinner with songs in my heart and the faint remnants of my perfume on my skin. I feel like I’m one with this city and I have slipped in to its rhythm. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem at night is a spiritual experience in of itself. After walking down the main roads, I enter the maze of residential streets that connect to mine. As I pass by each home, I listen to the sounds of conversation and prayer that pour out of the windows. There’s something magical about knowing that each house I pass by is a small sanctuary where another family is resting and celebrating Shabbat.

I get up early on Saturday morning to attend shul again. I love walking down the street with my tallis bag-it’s my own quiet rebellion. I try to actually rest a bit after I get home in the afternoon, but it’s time for havdalah before I know it. With the lighting of another candle, it’s time for Shabbat to end as the sun sets. Unlike the Shabbat candles on Friday night which are left to burn, the havdalah candle is extinguished forcefully by plunging it into wine. It’s said that the louder the sound this makes, the better your week will be. I don’t know if I believe that, but I do know that as yet another Shabbat slips away and a new week begins, I feel that I am renewed and ready for what the following days may bring.

 Shabbat represents quiet to me. I don’t have a lot of quiet moments during the week. I have significant trouble sitting still and my brain is always running far too fast. I will my body to be still and my mind quiet but it doesn’t work. In shul on Shabbat is the only time that I feel this calm-time stands still but also moves far too fast and the service is always over before I know it. I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of quiet, and I find that the (aptly titled) song Quiet from the musical Matilda describes it pretty well:

Quiet-like silence, but not really silent.

Just that nice kind of quiet.

Like the sound when you lie upside down in your bed.

Just the sound of your heart in your head.

And it is quiet.

And I am warm.

Like I’ve sailed.

Into the eye of the storm.

-Emily 

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Maybe I’ll be an okay rabbi 

I meant to write a post about this past Shabbat, and while I do intend to get that out within the next day, I feel that I must write about today first.

I guess a lot has happened within the past 24 hours.  Yesterday after class, I made the decision to buy my own set of tefillin. I had initially planned on waiting until later in the summer to see if I really wanted them (considering the price of tefillin, it’s not exactly a decision to be made lightly) but I really wanted to be able to wear a set tomorrow morning when I will be at the Kotel with Women of the Wall. Overcome with the feeling that having my own set would mean that I would suddenly feel connected to davening, I set out to HaSofer on a mission. This was the store that was recommended to me because despite being located in Mea Shearim, they are one of the few stores that will sell tefillin to women here. I joined my friends for drinks after this, and was eagerly greeted with “nu, let’s see them” regarding my new possession.

At the beginning of shacharit today, I took my brand new tefillin out of their boxes for the first time and carefully unwound the straps as if I were opening a present. The leather is shiny and new and beautiful but the straps cut into my skin like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.  Hoping for a magical davening experience aided by my very own tefillin, I was left feeling disappointed when the service felt mostly the same as it has every day before. Rather than focus on the beautiful singing happening around me, I was distracted by the strap on my hand that kept slipping off. If one is to believe that the purpose of tefillin is to be constantly aware of their presence, I guess they did their job.  However, I do not see this as the reason for laying tefillin and I ended the service on less of a high note than I would have liked. 

Throughout the day, doubts about being a rabbi began to creep their way back in. Surrounded by so many brilliant people who are also pursuing rabbinic ordination, it’s easy to feel that you are not good enough and could never possibly be a good rabbi.  This isn’t a new feeling, but my continued frustration with prayer is not helping.  Close to the end of the day, I noticed a flyer on the board for a talk that would take place tonight at Machon Schechter by Rabbi Sharon Brous. The topic was to be “re-imaging the synagogue”, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  I decided to attend, and I made my way over from the CY after my last class. 

I sat in stunned amazement the entire time. As Rabbi Sharon talked about her story, I felt as if someone were repeating my story to me. Listening to her talk about how she felt the same things at my age that I am currently feeling, I held on to her every word. I laughed when she mentioned how when she was in college she didn’t know not to talk after ritual hand washing, because I’ve done exactly the same thing. She described how she would spend her summers in Jerusalem feeling alive and connected in an entirely new way, and would return home not knowing how to maintain any of those experiences.  The struggle of how to pray like you’re in Jerusalem when you’re not is something that’s been weighing on my mind every day. The story of her community, Ikar, is incredible. Started in a tiny room with folding chairs, it’s grown to a major gathering space for people who have not always felt at home in traditional synagogues. Her story and community give me so much hope that things will change and that I might be the one to change them. 

I’ve had a lot to think about over the past few weeks, and a lot of room for self-doubt. I know that I want to be a rabbi and bring people to the Jewish community who struggle in traditional religious spaces, but this sometimes feels like an impossible task that I’ll never be inspirational or smart enough to accomplish. I have so many ideas and things that I want to do, but I have even more questions.  I’ve been blessed to have met people here that I greatly admire and take in their stories, but it’s easy to feel intimidated by those who have already done so much more than I could ever imagine being able to do. There has been one thing in common with everyone I’ve talked to that has given me hope that I’m not as lost as I sometimes think I am: none of them had any clue what they were doing when they were 21. 

Although doubt and confusing religious practice have clouded some of my days, I smile when I remind myself that the leaders I admire so much were equally clueless and unsure at my age. I’ll probably never be the next great world leader or best rabbi in the universe, but I think I’ll do okay. 

-Emily 

Shabbat is home

I’m finally getting around to writing about last Shabbat, less than 24 hours before the next begins.

I was excited to spend my first real Shabbat of the trip at Kehilat Zion, which I had been to and wrote about last year, describing it as the best service of my life. Led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, Zion is a synagogue unlike any other-it’s officially affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) movement, but the community is made up of both secular and religious people, as well as both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In addition to their unique prayer and music, they are heavily involved with interfaith work. (On a side note, I emailed Rabbi Tamar earlier this week to ask if we could meet to discuss Judaism and community. I received a reply this morning and I’ve floated all day).

I was joined with some fellow CY students, and we made our way to my former neighborhood of Baka, where Zion is located. Everything felt familiar-the JCC the community is located in, the collection of plastic chairs, and of course the ruach. Although I couldn’t remember every tune from last year and there were some new ones, it felt like home and I couldn’t have been happier to return. The room that the service is held in was packed by the end, with people having to stand because there were no more chairs. During one of the songs, the sun burst into the room accompanied by a swift breeze, which made it feel as if I were in a different world.

After the service, I went back home to Nachlaot to go with Tracey to dinner at the house of her friend Rivki,  who teaches the Torah study class I went to last Saturday. They are Haredi, a type of Judaism very foreign to my own, but they were warm and welcoming, and it didn’t hurt that the food was delicious (isn’t it amazing what Jews can do without dairy?).

I spent Saturday morning at Shira Hadasha, the shul I had meant to go to last week. Apart from the Western Wall (which is not a synagogue, something I wish the government understood…), I have never davened with a mechitza before. A mechitza is some type of partition used to separate men and women in synagogues. I disagree with the premise of this concept, but I will still go to a shul that uses one (as long as it’s left-right and not front-back.  I won’t sit behind the men where I can’t see anything). Overall, I did not so much mind the presence of the mechitza, but I did find myself often distracted by trying to see what was happening on the men’s side rather than focusing on the service. The service was lovely, if a bit long.

Afterwards, I had Shabbat lunch at the home of a fellow student. I didn’t realize how far away from my neighborhood he lived, so I was in for a 2 mile walk home, all uphill and in direct sunlight. An hour later I made it home, albeit with some new blisters.

I’m going to try to catch up and blog about classes and what I’ve been up to in the evenings, so hopefully I’ll work on that over Shabbat (no, this trip hasn’t turned me shomer Shabbos).

-Emily