Sunday, February 29, 2004

Late on Saturday afternoon, as the sun was cooler and the minutes seemed to stretch out for longer, I found the solitude I'd been craving to go to the edge of the massive crater that is Mitzpe Ramon. I climbed over the low wall and found what amounted to a natural bench in the small plateau.

What is it about the desert?

First of all, it's the silence. In most of our lives, noise is so constant we don't even realise it. On my lonely perch I could hear only the tiny, infrequent cheep of a distant sparrow. After a few minutes I could hear two or three kids playing somewhere high behind me. But it was as if the silence was always there, and the sounds were just inessential contingencies, flitting across the peace and leaving no trace.

Of course it's also the landscape. There was a ridge about 300 metres below me but beyond that I cannot begin to estimate for how far I could see across the crater valley. I can only say that mountains and more mountains and dips and plains rose and fell and stretched to the horizon.

What do you do in the face of ineffable, ungraspable beauty? I tried to rid my mind of all its obstructing, distracting comments and thoughts. But then I was too busy asking myself if I was being fully present to be fully present.

Still, despite that self-consciousness, through it, I was able to perceive gorgeous details, constantly revealing themselves to me. The geometry of the hill formations; the layers of colour - browns, greys, creams - in the mountainsides; the wavy ribbon of a road, miles away; the way the light was flooding in from my right, gathering in an ever hazier mist across the flattest part of the valley floor. And for a few moments it was so beautiful it hurt. Mixed up in the moment were thoughts of the future, anticipation of the Indian vistas I don't yet know. But these few instants were excruciating almost to the point that I had to cry out.

What could I do?

Nothing. Only get up, turn around, hop over the wall and rejoin the group in the dining room for the late-afternoon meal.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Ugh - been at the computer for hours, thinking up questions for a quiz I'm co-planning and leading in Mitzpe Ramon this Shabbat. I have literature, film, bible and personalities coming out of my ears.

Sunday night I went out for drinks, organised by and for Mini, an old friend from RSY who now lives out here and is about to go off for his army service. It felt refreshingly normal to go to a bar and have a beer. Going to yeshiva all day, Hebrew lessons in the evenings and back here at the end of the day does not feel normal.

But it's been a busy week. Monday I went to a Biblical Landscape Park (!) in the morning, a brit milah (circumcision ceremony) in the afternoon and Hebrew lessons in the evening.

Jerusalem is a strange place. Religion is everywhere: the norm, visible and accepted. This is undoubtedly the best place for me to explore my Judaism, because here it's not just a case of one, two or three sizes fit all. Instead, against the backdrop of general Jewishness, you end up noticing the details of your personal practice.

Off to the desert early Friday morning, the whole yeshiva away together for a shabbat break.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Political soapbox time. Because it's midnight and because I've been trying to get up for shacharit every morning and because he's said it well, I'm going to let Alex do the talking. A disingenuous disclaimer: the following paragraphs are purely the opinion of their author.

"Notice that this morning's suicide bomb, which killed eight people, took place the day before the International Court of Justice in the Hague begins its deliberations into the legality of the 'separation / terror prevention / apartheid' (take your pick) fence. It shows why placing a suicide-bomb simply in the context of a 'despair' scenario is absurd (it takes only a tiny modicum of political insight to realise how much damage this bomb will do to the Palestinians). It also shows why the anti-fence movement, whether abroad or in Israel, has failed massively. The reasons for this relate to the reasons why I have not been able to support the campaign.

"Put simply, a separation fence between the Israelis and the Palestinians is an absolutely fantastic idea. It is what all sane people have been calling for over the last 36 years. The problem with this particular fence, then, is not in the concept, but in the location - it de facto annexes huge swathes of land to Israel while leaving the Palestinians who happen to live near it in an appalling situation. Unfortunately, opponents of the fence have attacked the concept and the route together. This seems to me to stem from the unwillingness to accept Israel's existence, and more significantly, the fact that more efforts are put into demonising Israel than helping the Palestinians. So it is worth repeating - the fence must go up, in the right place. Because there is no denying the accuracy of Yosef Lapid's (interestingly, Lapid has been the biggest opponent within the cabinet of the route of the fence) words after this morning's attack - "If there was a fence around Jerusalem there would not have been an attack today."

"It is sad and uninspiring, but the reality is that Israelis and Palestinians need a fence, a fair fence on 1967 borders, to protect themselves from each-other. The exploded bus and the shattered lives on the streets of Jerusalem today are evidence of that."

Sunday, February 22, 2004

There was a bomb this morning, not far from either my flat or the yeshiva. I'm fine, as are all the students and faculty where I study. I'd gone in early for shacharit (the morning prayer service) but I wouldn't have walked that way anyway and I'm not taking any buses in the city. I heard the dull thud and then the cacophany of sirens. Everyone's a little jumpy but in Jerusalem life goes on & the buses are full as usual.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

This week's been intense. So much learning. Nearly everyday I feel I have to take a break through part of one lesson or another, I'm so tired. Like today, I left after the chevruta (study in pairs) section of the Parshat Hashavua session, in which we take a look at the bit of the Torah read out in synagogues this weekend. Now I have to go out again for 3 hours of Hebrew lessons. I've joined an extra evening class to try to improve my woeful language skills. We met for the first time on Monday night. It's an interesting group, from all over, not just the yeshiva. An Australian who works at the Christian Embassy, a couple Americans, a Polish guy, four or five Israeli Arabs who have moved back to Jerusalem from abroad. We're supposed to be just further than beginner level but really it's quite a mix of abilities. I'm somewhere in the middle.

After class I'm going to Rehovot to stay with my very religious uncle and his family for Shabbat. Planning on doing very little. A much needed break I hope.

I feel like the last few days I've become so immersed in my thoughts about religion that I've seen the world around me a little less. Yesterday I walked home early and the sun was gleaming strands of light through the branches of the trees, just slightly blinding me from the view of south Jerusalem below. Yet I felt unable to be there and there alone, so tangled and involved were my thoughts, twisting themselves into theological knots.

I don't like feeling less in the world.

This afternoon I had the dubious pleasure of studying the beautiful poetry of Psalm 92 to the slightly less beautiful sounds of defiant settler songs, coming from the huge protest around the corner. When I left to walk home at 6.30, the protesters were still there in their hundreds, demonstrating against the proposed evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip. Two weeks ago I'm sure I would have felt more present. Sure, the protest would still have offended my politics, but at least I would have felt the energy & the colour and maybe smiled my bemusement. Hell, even anger would have been a reaction to being there.

Two weeks ago I'd have been happy to speculate that religion is supposed to bring us closer to reality as it is. Now I'm more wary of saying religion is supposed to do this or do that, especially when the sentence construction I come out with can so easily be seen as selfish or self-projecting.

But surely, surely, religion isn't supposed to take us away from the world?

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

OK I admit this page has been pretty serious recently. No bad thing - I've been doing a lot of thinking. And there's more where that came from. Credit to Alex for introducing me to a thinker who within ten pages can get inside my head.

But alright already, some respite. By the way, you know Talmud actually reads best with the stereotypical Jewish inflection?

It seems like I've been here for much longer than a week. Here at the flat, at the computer, flatmates Donny and Noam around, I feel very much at home.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Yeshiva was cancelled this morning, the dregs of yesterday's snow enough to mean we didn't have to be in until afternoon Hebrew lessons. I really need to get a sturdy pair of boots to supplement the sole pair of trainers I have here. This afternoon in Midrash, my feet turned purple.

More thoughts on Leibowitz. He says every time you do anything associated with religion and aim to derive spiritual, social, moral or indeed any other benefit, for either you, society or the world at large, you are not really engaging in a religious act. Rather you're using religion for essentially non-religious ends. Spiritual, social and moral concerns are by nature secular. Interesting, perhaps, but secular. You could just as well use self-help books, Shakespeare or therapy.

That's all very well. But what if I deny that those things are secular? What if I deny that anything is separate from God? Leibowitz depends on the idea of a God who is entirely detatched from the world, one who is in fact so much holier than anything here that when we call something in this world inherently sacred or divine we tarnish His name or become idolaters. But if I believe that God is immanent and omnipresent, that in fact nothing exists but God ("ein od" - there is nothing else - as the Jewish liturgy puts it) then everything is holy. Shakespeare, art, therapy, self-help, the lot.

So we ask instead - why call some things holy but not others? Why treat religious texts as any more sacred than King Lear, Hamlet or, for that matter, Jilly Cooper? I think it comes down to the way we approach these things, to our explicit purpose as regards the text or activity. And at the end of the day, yes, it's about whether we want to use these things for our own ends, looking at them for their utilitarian value, or rather see them for what they really are, instances of God, looking through them towards the One.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

My first Shabbat in Jerusalem, two meals at friends'. Last night at Randy's (no sniggering ... it's a bit of an old joke for him now) 3 of the 8 at dinner were cantorial students. I have never heard a shalom aleichem like it. Today I've spent round at Alex's. He continued his campaign to foist on me the works of his current philosophical darling, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Leibowitz basically says that whenever you do something religious because you hope to benefit from it, you're desecrating the religious act. That means claims that following halacha (Jewish law) makes you a better or happier person entirely miss the point. That doesn't sound so radical, but I find it quite troubling a) because it makes sense and b) because I'm constantly evaluating my religious engagement in terms of benefit and experience - spiritual, moral, social. Anyway, I've just started reading his essays, so I'll continue to think about it.

Jason Collin and I just walked from Alex's to mine. While we'd been inside all day it had snowed and settled. It's not very thick but they don't grit the roads or the pavements here, and the 5 minute walk took us at least 15 as we slid around and complained about the snow filling our shoes. I've been in Jerusalem 5 days. We've had an earthquake and it's snowed.

Thanks to everyone who signed my guestbook, I really appreciate it.
Emma - I taught them the niggun. Cantorial students!
Clare - give me time! Not sure how much possibility there is here actually :o(
Jon - mmm that sticky barbecued chicken. Almost made me consider coming back to DfES. Actually ... no.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Today was great again. It's Thursday, so no classes tomorrow & it felt like the weekend was arriving. We have Talmud every morning, 2 hours learning in chevruta (i.e with Alex) then back together as a group so our teacher Esther Israel can give a shiur (lead a discussion) on the stuff we've covered. We're making our way through one tractate (volume), from start to finish (although I've arrived in the middle). The section we're on right now has been about two concepts, rov and karov - or majority and proximity - ways of working out where a found object has come from (in order to tell if it's kosher or if you can claim it for your own). Sounds irrelevant and boring but it's good as language practice and it tells you interesting things about the way the Talmudic Rabbis thought and the way Judaism functioned then.

Every Thursday we finish Talmud slightly early, and Reb Shmuel, the head Yeshiva, speaks for half an hour on an issue of living Judaism. He was talking about prayer today, in particular the prayers one says when one gets up in the morning, starting with Modeh Ani. Modeh Ani is usually seen as thanks, thanks to God for restoring to you your faculties. But Rev Shmuel put forward a different understanding of hoda'ah: more like acknowledgement. And he did so because, to use his words, "It is easy to evade full realisation of how (good) things really are, by moving too quickly into the mindset of thanks."

After yeshiva I went with a few of the other students to see Apocalypse Now Redux at the Cinematech. Heavy, long, absorbing and bewildering.

I just picked up a big kosher burger on the way home and now noone's at the flat. Just me, the widescreen TV and the computer. Going to a couple people's houses for shabbat dinner and lunch this weekend.

Oh - there's a guestbook here, so someone sign it, please! Apologies for the bad joke, especially if you've heard it before.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

But a few minutes to write before I meet Alex to go to the cinema and see Dirty Pretty Things.

Today, my first full day at the Yeshiva, there was an earthquake. In Israel.

Richter scale 5 at its epicentre in the Dead Sea. There we were, studying Talmud with our chevrutas and then everyone feels it, the building is shaking. Everybody goes silent. Someone says, "that was an earthquake." "That is an earthquake," corrects another. It's still going. We all gathered outside afterwards (taking our Talmuds with us of course) while someone checked the rickety old building.

Talmud was good. A bit of an exercise in logic, but good, interesting as an insight into the way the Rabbis learnt and thought. Kabbalah this afternoon was excellent, the teaching just the right sensitivity, pitch and complexity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Arrived. One, maybe two hours' sleep on the plane, but feeling surprisingly OK. Got a bonus tour of Jerusalem in the shirut taxi service. Of course I'd have to be the last of seven drop-offs. Most of the neighbourhoods we stopped in were cosy ultra-orthodox suburbs, with lots of speed-bumps and kids. Drove right through East Jerusalem too, which I don't think I'd ever actually been to. Sure, gazed over it countless times ... But isn't that terrible? been here on so many occasions and only now... Not that we got out the car or anything. Amazing the way you go from Arab to Palestinian neighbourhood in like one street. You're one place and everybody's Muslim and all the signs are in Arabic, then you turn the corner and everybody's Jewish again.

Finally got here, in Katamon, about 8am Jerusalem time. So now I'm in the flat, my new home. My room's a little grimy, but nothing a few posters and a sweep of the floor won't fix. I've just spent an hour or two with Danny, who was showing me the ropes. He seems very cool, very likeable. So he's just gone to work (he teaches at the new Kosher Culinary Academy), inviting me to make use of his computer and broadband internet connection. He's from New Jersey but has managed to get Peterboro to a European final in Championship Manager. An American who likes football. Result. He won't mind my watching Premiership matches on his all-singing, all-dancing cable set-up!

To the yeshiva shortly, where I will at least put in a preliminary appearance.

Monday, February 09, 2004

I've had the flu the last few days and I blame Spurs. Being there on Wednesday, as Tottenham surrendered a 3-0 halftime lead to a depleted Manchester City, losing to a soft goal in the final minute of injury time, sent my adrenaline through the roof then left me down on the floor. I went into something akin to shock. Ben and I tried to walk off the pain on the way back to the tube station. I joined him and Ilana for a bit of a postmortem in Primrose Hill. I appreciated it - much better than just going home and being alone with the humiliation. But when I got into bed around 1 in the morning I was shaking and had a high temperature. With just two days left to sort out my remaining work and clear out of my desk space, I had no choice but to go into work on Thursday and Friday. So I sort of grumped my way through, avoided all work-related send-offs and found everything very mundane and anticlimactic when I finally packed up and walked out at 6 on Friday evening.

I've found that most people lose sympathy when I say I got the flu because my football team lost. I'm still glad I went. I can say I was there, that night, at that game. And you have to embrace the pain and see the humour. Afterwards, something in me wanted to pile on the misery. There's something sadomasochistic in being a football fan, especially when it's Spurs. I imagine Man City are the same way. I'm pleased Ben and I spoke to a couple of their supporters on the tube home. They were happy and good for them; we all want the same thing really.

Unfortunately I was left with this bug, which by Saturday night (when 30 or so people turned up to my goodbye drinks at the Salmon and Compass) had up and moved south to my stomach. Hence I had to abandon the beers and switch to water half way through the night. Still, I was made to feel pampered: I sat there on the leather sofa as one solicitous friend after another came over to look after me.

My plane leaves in 6 hours and I haven't packed yet. I'm not yet with it. Today feels less like the start of a break than like part of a long, loose expanse of time. It seemed weird this morning to think of my old colleagues, continuing the work I was doing, only without me. It all goes on and now I'm not there.

But I am excited. By Wednesday I'll be studying. This blog enters its Jerusalem phase, just as soon as I get the necessary hardware out there to connect up to Israeli internet.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

I was going to write a long and considered post today, on just what happened last night when I went to the most amazing football match I have ever seen.

But I feel like shit and I can't shake the shakes so it's just going to have to wait. I have loads to say but absolutely no wherewithal to say it. Now there's a good word.

Comments feature has come off by the way, because it was stopping the entire blog from loading properly.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

This Sunday afternoon I attended the last session of Atid, the Masorti Judaism leadership / personal development course I've been on for the last year. We decided to end by going round and talking about what we'd each got from the programme before taking personal feedback from Cheryl, who runs it all.

I've no doubt the programme's been very postive for me. I started much more sceptical about Masorti and unclear about my direction. I end the course on the brink of finally leaving the country for a while to do something different, which is what I've longed for ever since the end of summer 2002. I know myself better and feel more confident about returning to find work that suits me. I'm more active in the Masorti community. A little scepticism is a good thing, but at a certain point you're going to benefit more from committing to play a fuller, fulfilling role in a community. And of course my friendships with the other people on the course - Debby, Zavy, Richard and Josie - are all stronger.

When it came to taking feedback from Cheryl I felt I got quite a hard time. She'd struggled to find things for almost all the others. Most of their improvement points were pretty mild. But she had little hesitation identifying something about me which can be offputting - little non-verbal signals I sometimes give off when someone's talking which come across as dismissive. In other words, I need to work on my body language.

I know criticism like this is a gift. We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves and it's only by someone telling you that you can become aware of certain aspects of your behaviour. Still I found the comments quite hard to take. They made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Only by asking afterwards for specific examples to watch out for did I realise that these were things I can change ... When I'm listening to someone my brow perhaps furrows in the middle of their sentence. Or maybe I begin to shake my head ever so slightly. I know I do this sometimes. Inwardly, I'm not disagreeing with the other person - I'm only thinking hard about what they're saying. Cheryl pointed out that it's difficult to be fully present, listening, when you're already thinking hard. She's right. As it's important to me that I keep that contemplative side of my nature, I should probably try to wait until the other person is done before I really mull over or critique their words. It's about being more humble, more patient and more mindful.

Still, she wasn't done. After we'd all eaten a final meal together at a nearby restaurant, Cheryl reminded me I'd "work on myself". That she'd chosen to leave me with this admonition again made me feel inadequate. She must have sensed as much and as she tried to explain and I turned to listen she pointed out I should lift my features, not lower them as I was doing right then.

I realised all I was doing was giving her my concentration, my intense concentration. I'm aware that some people find my intensity difficult. Since I was a teenager, people have told me I can be very serious. So it really is hard to know whether this is something I should try to change or whether there are certain things I have to accept as inevitably and indelibly me. There's a Taoist idea, a commonplace in our Western culture too, that you should 'know yourself', and that it's by accepting your weaknesses that you can turn them into strengths.

Maybe the question to ask myself is, was it just concentration? Mixed up in that, isn't there an aspect of defensiveness? Maybe I'm frowning not just because I'm giving someone the honour of taking them seriously, but also because I'm on-guard, steeled against an idea or a point I'm scared I won't like. Maybe that's why I tend to turn inward to my thoughts before the other person's finished. Working on waiting and listening can help me to be a more open person.