3 weeks at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel

Nance in Jerusalem 2007

Shalom. It is my final hours here in Jerusalem and I am filling time until my sherut (shuttle bus) comes to pick me up and take me to the airport. My friend Rachel and I are hoping to get on the same sherut despite living a bit of a ways apart. We ordered them for the same time and are keeping our fingers crossed. Either way we will try to meet up at the airport. I am technically checked out of my room and it has been cleaned but he said I could keep my luggage here and have access until the sherut comes. He has the key out for another person already but I hope that they are not coming until tomorrow or very late tonight. I feel as if I am invading another person’s space despite the fact that it has been my space for almost a month!

I promised that I would write about the tiyul (walk) that my Ulpan class took last Monday. It was a lot of fun though tiring and very hot. We were each assigned a place to research and be prepared to talk about in Hebrew as we went along our way. We started out at Jaffa and King George, a very busy intersection in the heart of Jerusalem. We walked to the Offices of the Municipality and Safra Square. There is a display of “Unity Bears for Tolerance” there. This is a collection of 6’ tall bears decorated by all (many) countries of the world – an idea similar to the pigs in Seattle, dinos in Pittsburgh and other animals other places. Many were beautiful, some were funny, and I took many pictures, which should be up next week along with the others. We talked about the square and the buildings there. These offices are for Jerusalem as the Capital City not the regular city government. We then saw the beit rishon – first house – of Jerusalem which is battle scarred from various wars. It is a beautiful stone building facing the Old City and has many big chunks of rock missing from its front. We then walked by a beautiful building that has been a church, a hospital, a lookout for a variety of armies and is today part of the Ministry of Culture complex. The same Italian architect who designed the square in Firenze built it. We then went to the Russian Compound and saw the church there and an old hotel that is now the offices of the Society to Preserve Nature in Israel. There is a beautiful garden there with ancient artifacts that once belonged to Moshe Dayan. After that, we walked to the Ethiopian Church. Across from the church was a house and Mihal, our teacher, asked us what was unusual about the house. We all made random guesses until one person realized that there had obviously been a plaque by the door and it was missing. She then told us that this was the house of Eliezer Ben Yehuda – the Father of Modern Hebrew. His house is right down the street and on a popular thoroughfare for residents of Me'ah Sha'arim – the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood. People who live in Me'ah Sha'arim are most likely speakers of Yiddish and would have much preferred that Yiddish had been chosen as the language for the new Jewish state. To show their displeasure with Eliezer, they have ripped down the sign multiple times and the city has just quit putting up new ones! The church was very beautiful as well. We went in, after taking off our shoes as that is their custom, and walked around. It is arranged in a circle around a central room that is closed off. There are paintings of saints and of Jesus all around with carpets to pray on. Someone asked a priest there what was in the middle room and he said “Our Torah”. Not sure what that means, as they aren’t Jews ,but that was the answer.  We then went to see two interesting and older homes - Beit Tabor and Beit Ticho. Beit Tabor was built by a wealthy man and is gated.  It even has a window from which, according to Mihal, boiling oil could be poured on unwanted guests! Today it houses the Swedish Theological Institute. We were allowed to go in and look around the gardens. It was quite lovely. Beit Ticho was owned by Dr. Ticho and his wife Anna. She was an artist and he was an eye doctor. Today it is a museum and a restaurant. It is quite lovely with beautiful gardens. It was interesting to visit some of these places as I had read about them in my Hebrew textbooks.  While we did not visit Montefiore’s Windmill on this tiyul, I did pass it every day and I was assigned to talk about him on our tiyul. Montefiore built neighborhoods outside the Old City in the late 1800’s and tried to entice people to move into them. The Old City was overcrowded and there was a Cholera epidemic. The new neighborhoods had to be gated and guarded and were made as appealing as could be. There are two windmills in Jerusalem close to the Yeshiva that were part of these neighborhoods.

After our tiyul was a Legacy Heritage lunch with Rabbi Barry Schlesinger as the speaker. He is the head of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement of Judaism in Israel. He spoke quite passionately about the things that Masorti are doing here despite not being officially recognized due to the hegemony of the Orthodox in all things religious.  He marries and performs conversions despite the fact he could be arrested for doing so! The couples will need to have a civil ceremony elsewhere to subsequently register as married in Israel but despite that the Movement does about 20 weddings a year he said. He really exhorted us to find out about and spread the word of Masorti to our friends at home and to urge them to visit Masorti shuls when in Israel and to support the movement. I actually ran into him today and told him I had gone this past Shabbat to the Masorti shul by the Yeshiva. I have to say that the service is just like at home – the sermon is even in English – but it was nice. The woman who led Mussaf was amazing. The old man sitting behind me said “She is really talking to God and God damn well better be listening”! Her full body delivery of the repetition of Mussaf was a bit distracting but she was really doing her job as the congregation’s messenger to God.  That said, it was a bit too much like home to really want to go there while visiting Israel when there are so many other congregations to see. Friday night we went to Yakar, which was ok, but Shira Hadasha remains my favorite Friday night service so far.

In addition, this past week there has been an Arts Festival at the Sultan’s Pool area below the Old City. We went on the first night and had a great time. At first it was Rachel, Marla and I and then Natan and Elhanan joined us. There were amazing arts from all around the world and then a completely separate larger area of artists from Israel that were amazing as well. There was food and then as show at 9:00 pm. The show was very kitschy but fun. There were about 150 young dancers ranging in age from early teens through early 20’s who did a variety of dances and then a couple of singing groups including one young woman who must be Israel’s answer to Britney Spears because the teenage girls around us went nuts when she came on stage. I have to say that I enjoyed her far more than anything I have ever heard from Brit (which isn’t much). There were about 5 versions of Yerushalyim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) done from an electro pop/operatic one by a women doing a good Kate Bush imitation to more traditional ones. There was also a comic who came out dressed as Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and one other politician whose name I can’t recall.  He was quite good as all three.  The taste of the presenters was called into question during the “Dancing Hasids” routine and the “Meshiach Oy Oy Oy” routine. I guess if we can’t laugh at ourselves who can we laugh at. I figure that the insult to the religious of the men dancing in tallisim and headdresses was balanced by the inclusion of an ode to the Meshiach – tasteless as it might have been! Natan was sitting next to me saying his own “Oys” during both routines!

There has also been music and a street fair in Ben Yehuda several evenings lately. We were there for one sponsored by the Jewish Agency which was nice.  The nightlife here is very nice and we have eaten out and enjoyed the various activities most nights. I don’t know how people get up and go to work in the morning as they are out quite late most nights.

Friday Rachel and I made it to the Burnt House Museum finally. There is not a lot to see but they have a film that is about 30 minutes long and is very educational if a bit cheesy.  After the film, we looked at the ruins and Rachel had lots of questions. As I studied this very place in one of my classes, I was able to answer them. We talked about the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans as being a punishment for “baseless hatred”. She thought it was the hatred of the Romans – a reasonable conclusion to make since they did the destroying, but it was actually the hatred of various factions of Jews. This is dealt with in the film but isn’t entirely clear. The film is done as a reenactment of the last days of Jerusalem in the house that stood here. It is believed that the house belonged to the family of a Priest in the Temple due to a stamp found there with a family name on it that is mentioned in the Talmud. It is interesting to think about the past destruction of this city due to the inability of Jews to get along in light of things going on here now – the intolerance of Ultra- Orthodox for other religious Jews let alone secular Jews and the intolerance of the secular of the religious, the inability to agree about the settlements and how to make peace and the unwillingness of the government to break the stranglehold of the Orthodox on all matters religious that so inflames things.   It really is so jarring to see the dichotomy of lives here in Jerusalem. Walking down the street, you can see an Orthodox woman dressed very modestly, wearing a head-covering and then a young woman showing more skin than you often see at the beach. I see the Orthodox men and wonder what is going through their minds when they see these women. I have seen those who turn their eyes away from all women and those I respect. I am sure there are many who also enjoy the forbidden. In fact, when Rachel and I were in the Old City on Friday we saw 3 Yeshiva Bokers (young male Orthodox students) talking to a woman. This was strange enough (though the circumstances, as I will explain below, were extenuating) but when she turned around to walk away Rachel and I both did a double take. She was wearing a tank top that was quite revealing. The boys did not seem eager to end their conversation with her as you might imagine!

The other area of tension and hatred that threatens as always to destroy this city is that between the different peoples and religions that reside here. On Friday while Rachel and I were in the Old City there was a violent incident. I had thought I was going to make it home without any violence happening while I was here but was not so lucky.  Steve has not found anything in the paper about this incident so I don’t know how many people have heard about it. A young Arab man was walking with a friend past an Orthodox Yeshiva that is in the Christian Quarter. The Arab wrestled a gun from one of the guards in front of the Yeshiva and shot him in the shoulder. He then took off and the other guard gave chase. The Arab was finally shot and killed but not before ricocheting bullets injured 9 others. This all happened in an area where Rachel and I had been the previous Friday and close to where we had been just a few hours before. The woman Rachel is staying with called to see if we were ok just as we were leaving the Old City and nearing Jaffa Gate. This is where it had happened and there were ambulances and police everywhere. They must have already taken away all the injured as we did not see anyone. There were many people standing around talking, including the above-mentioned boys and woman. They had not closed off the Arab Shuk, which is near where this happened, and people were continuing to go about their business. I did a bit of reading in the Ha'aretz site and it appears that this incident might have been the result of ongoing harassment by the guards of the Arabs and Christians near the Yeshiva.  Not that that excuses the act, but it does help to explain another wise inexplicable and violent act.

After leaving the Old City, Rachel and I met Elhanan and Natan in Mahane Yehuda – the Jewish Shuk – to shop for Shabbat. That was a lot of fun. Mahane Yehuda is like Pike Place Market on major steroids – imagine multiple Pike Place Markets strung together with little side streets as well, a bit less room between the two sides and everyone yelling in Hebrew and on a Friday afternoon when the whole city is there shopping for Shabbat dinner. It was really amazing. The food here is all so fresh and you get what is available by season. We bought food for dinner and lunch and had to great meals from it.

I should close now and get ready to leave. I can’t believe that this amazing experience is coming to an end. I am so grateful for having been able to be here. Even if the study wasn’t all that I had wanted, the experiences and people have made this an unforgettable and life changing experience.  I can’t wait to return but hope to bring Steve with me next time so that I can share this city that I have come to know and love and together discover more of this land. L’hitraot – see you soon!

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Rachel, Natan, Elhanan and I on our last night together in Jerusalem

Israel’s Unity Bear