Friday, April 30, 2004

There's been almost constant rain since my first night - relentless, heavy rain, with lightning that seems somehow to cause power cuts. As I just overheard someone say in one of the cafes, it's like monsoon two months early.

This morning went well. Suddenly, hot water! I saw the light on my boiler and was out of my clothes in seconds. Then, after my shower, I found a clothes shop next door to the guesthouse. When I left the UK friends advised me to pack next to nothing and then buy new stuff in India. How was I to know all the Tibetan stores would be closed for a couple days out of respect to the hunger strikers outside the UN? So finally, I could buy an umbrella and some waterproofish trousers and save my trusty grey pair yet another day out and about. Yes, this morning was a good morning. Even managed breakfast before my 9.30 start.

Pema showed me around to various appointments in the area around the library, where the offices of the government in exile are. I met with someone from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, who told me about all their research; someone working at the Environment and Development desk in the government, so I saw what a govenment in exile actually do (by necessity, not much - mainly monitoring and pressuring); and a public relations guy from the Tibetan Medicine and Astrology Institute. Also saw the monastery and the library. Pema's a bit of a joker, fun to be around. But the whole morning felt official and again I got much more of an insight into community life via their institutions.

Now Shabbat is coming in here in McLeod Ganj, this upper part of Dharamshala, and I have to make some last minute preparations. Hannah, Rob and I are planning on going to Beit Chabad where they lay on a traditional service and meal. But the rain just keeps on coming down.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

The Longsho workers, Namsay and Phantok, are helping me to settle in before I sit down with them to plan the 'Running a Movement Office' seminar. My induction into Dharamshala life started today. Namsay and Phantok took me and Hannah Freedman to the museum and the Tibetan Youth Congress. The museum gave me some background on the Tibetan exile. There was a good quote there, perhaps something TJYE could use, from a member of the Tibetan government. In order for Tibet to survive in the face of Chinese attempts on its culture, he calls for a Tibetan cultural revival, in the communities both inside and outside occupied Tibet.

Tomorrow, Pema, who works at the Tibetan Welfare Office, is going to show me round the library and human rights organisations. Monday I lead a session at the leaders' meeting, helping all the leaders to write programmes for the camp they're running for teenagers, starting in June.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I cannot believe I only arrived in India about 36 hours ago. I was met by a Tibetan travel agent, a friend of one of the Longsho (Tibetan youth movement) leaders, and he took care of everything: transport from the airport, guesthouse in Delhi, bus to Dharamshala. I spent one hot day in ugly Delhi (although the red fort, the enormous former seat of Moghul power, was very impressive) and one uncomfortable night on the bus and now here I am, in this strange town in the hills. On the one hand there are Tibetan monks and cows wandering the streets and Tibetan prayer wheels spinning by the road-side. On the other, it's crawling with travellers and lined with restaurants, chai-shops, ethnic clothing stalls, notices for yoga courses and cinemas - all designed purely for the tourist. It has a very unreal feel, as if they copied it off Boombamela or something. Actually, Boombamela is probably bigger than Macleod Ganj, as this upper part of Dharamshala is really called. First building I entered after my guesthouse was a restaurant in which I bumped into Hannah Freedman, Jon's sister. So I've been hanging out with her and her boyfriend all day... the Longsho offices, cups of chai on the hillside, a movie. My Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange induction to Longsho begins tomorrow morning. I have lost all concept of time and have not fully registered that I've arrived.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

It's testimony to life in London that I've written not a word on being back. At first I rested, voluntarily bound by the double yom tov (holy days for the end of Passover). Then I was relaxed - maybe overly so - and while I was happy to see friends and hang out with Naomi (a welcome addition to my life these two weeks, a spark that kindled in my final week in Jerusalem), I went leisurely about my India-preparation, putting off any serious planning. Then it came in a torrent at the end of my second week. Meetings and the pressure of having to produce, only I was still meeting with friends. By Thursday I felt like I was chasing myself, perpetually running behind, always rushing. I was ending up half an hour late for meetings in which I was discussing the time-management sessions I'll be running for the Tibetans!

Friday though I met with Cheryl Sklan, a professional trainer and consultant and a friend of Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange (TJYE), and she put things in perspective. I don't need to take the entire seminar on my shoulders. I don't have to be the expert on everything. I will be in Dharamshala to design and oversee the programme. The outgoing workers, Namsay and Phantok, can work with me as the seminar leaders. I should make as many contacts in the community as possible, and not be afraid to draw people in as facilitators. Basic, obvious stuff, but really useful.

So what is it I will be doing in India? Briefly, there is a Tibetan, Buddhist youth movement there - Lonsgho - which runs clubs and camps for teenagers, empowering and educating them in their culture through informal education. I benefited from something similar in UK Jewish circles. TJYE allows people like me, with a little experience in youth movements, to help the leadership over there to establish Longsho and make it more self-sufficient. As I've come from the Civil Service and their needs lie in specific areas, I'll be leading a seminar on project management, organisation, how to run an office and how to make the most of communications - things like that. I've set up a second blog, simply to monitor TJYE volunteer work (starting with my own).

If all goes well, the seminar will start in Dharamshala in mid-May and be finished by the end of June. As I fly tomorrow morning and don't fly back until the end of July, I have a couple weeks to travel before the seminar and a good month afterwards. Yesterday I flicked through my Lonely lanet guide to India, and salivated at the prospect of barren Himalayan hikes, mountain-top monasteries calved into the rock, the Taj Mahal, the Indus valley, the Manali-Ley highway... I know that people make plans and God laughs, so maybe I shouldn't anticipate so much. But it's hard not to - when before it's sunk in I'll be on a plane propelling me into the unknown.

I have security for when I come back. I interviewed and got the job as Masorti young adults projects coordinator, running educational, cultural, social and community programmes for Masorti Jews in their 20s and 30s. I take over from Clare Hedwat, who did a fantastic job and will be a very tough act to follow. India, I reckon, can only help.

Updates when I can. Keep reading.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Now my guestbook has got really obscure.

But, without knowing a lot, I kind of like what Hamish said. I think Zoros is another term for followers of Zoroastrianism. I'm assuming Hamish is someone who just happened to stumble across my site, and not the nice lank-haired Oasis-obsessee I went to school with.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

What dust is to Burning Man, sand is to Boombamela.

We camped out on the edge of the beach, away from the hordes of Israeli sixteen-year-olds. The size of our camp changed from day to day, as people arrived late and left early, but there were four of us from the yeshiva who were there for the whole event - me, Randy, Uri and Ezra. Every day we'd get up around 10, take our time over breakfast (invariably involving matza) and then head into the festival. I like to wander these things alone. That way I'm free to respond to whatever comes up, to meet people, to take in the full range of festival sights and sounds.

It was wandering alone that I met Moish Geller. Sat by the festival entrance, dressed in orange robes, with a purple sparkly throw wrapped around his shoulders and a big rainbow-coloured kippa on his head, he waved to me as I passed. It must have been because I was wearing my own deep blue kippa, knitted large enough to make me look like I was one of the very frum (ritually observant), mystical collective of Jews that Moish so clearly belonged to himself. I took the opportunity to sit and chat with him. He had a croaky American voice - he was struggling with a bad throat and smoked enough weed to almost finish it off - but he oozed charisma. Later he stood by our camp and spoke to my friends; whatever they thought of him, as suspicious as they might have been, he held them all in rapt attention.

He was as seriously a hippy as he was a Jew. In some ways he was nuts. "If every Jew woke up tomorrow and said the shema," he told me, "even without any thought or intention, amazing things would happen. If every Jew woke up tomorrow and noone said the shema, there would be disasters, earthquakes, floods..."

I've heard this before. Some hassidic groups (the Breslavers and the Lubavitch Hassids for example) think that Jews' obeying Jewish law has global, even cosmic effect. Where they get this from I do not know.

Moish was what I can only call a Carlebach hassid, a member of one of the Moshav Modiin - Yeshivat Bat Ayin - Nachlaot communities who revere the late Shlomo Carlebach. Moish assured me that very few people really knew Shlomo - very few when he was alive and even less now (certainly not the majority of the innumerable 'Carlebach-lite' Friday night services that now use his melodies). Moish welled up when he spoke about Shlomo and I believe his emotion was real.

But speaking with Moish wasn't straightforward, because I had the impression he was constantly trying to 'convert' me. Maybe I was a likely candidate. So I don't think that Jews keeping Jewish law is what sustains the universe (a claim that verges on the racist), but other things he said sounded OK. "Everything starts from an initial point and whatever results thereof continues to replicate that initial paradigm, even if it seems completely different on a surface level." This is perhaps the basic premise of mysticism.

It wasn't just about what he said; it was more how he said it. And of course the moment - the pink sky over the sea, the infinite folds, ripples and waves on the water's surface. But all of this is why I was suspicious, why I told myself not to trust either this man or my feelings at the time. I don't like keeping my own natural reactions in check. It feels repressive. But what choice do you have if you feel someone is trying actively to change you? I believe Moish was authentic and earnest, but he wanted me to be more like him. And until I am allowed to come to these things - indeed anything - on my own accord, reliable evaluation will remain almost impossible.

He invited my friends for a smoke later that night. They went, I didn't. I didn't think I could handle more of his intensity. They got into an argument with him about Truth. Figures.

Thankfully, I didn't see too much of Moish for the rest of the festival. I was going to spend Shabbat with the hippy Jews in Kfar Tfillah v'Ahavah (Prayer and Love Village) but spent it instead in the nude section of the beach. First naked lunch I've ever had. All we had to deal with there were the 'peepers', the Israeli kids who would peer over the barrier, fascinated and titillated by all these naked people so unselfconscious about their bodies.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Honestly, my guestbook has become more and more obscure recently. No idea what anyone is talking about, especially that last post, Anna.

Incidentally, Anna, I'm sitting right now in the flat with a few friends, in front of the TV. Just saw something really beautiful. Actually, maybe you were watching too?

Finished at Yeshiva, enjoyed a couple of lavish Passover meals, off to my hippy fest tomorrow. God is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

Wonder who's in the Champions League semi-finals...

See you all next week!

Friday, April 02, 2004

Latest reply from Jay:

> "I mean to study a little bit of Talmud with the Chabadniks there."
>
> i would question whether that's worthwhile. go to dharamsala and learn
> tibetan buddhism. sit and practice.
>
> "I meant the core of Judaism as seen by Judaism itself. I'm aware of
> the circularity in talking about "Judaism itself" and therefore implying
> a specific centre. It may be a product of being in the yeshiva
> environment, but I find it difficult not to think of certain textual
> forms - Tanach, Mishnah, Gemarah, Tshuvot and Halachah - as somehow
> the most 'essentially Jewish'. Learning Talmud Torah in a yeshiva
> environment is a good example of a 'normative' Jewish ideal."
>
> sure, as seen by those texts. the act of learning is an act of
> intellectual stimulation and godwrestling. great. i guess i would
> take a step back. why do it? why go learn? come up with the answers,
> and then i think the priorities are in order. systems and ideologies are
> developed by humans. period. humans are in touch with God, yes,
> and so it ok with me to say "God wrote the Torah." but this idea of God
> commanding and me obeying - i'm sorry, but that is so dualistic as to
> become almost incoherent. i'm happy to accept binding halacha, i guess,
> as a construct. but i am not willing to sacrifice any part of myself or more
> importantly the part of me that loves god and truth. therefore i am just
> not willing to posit something which isn't true, which includes a conventional
> understanding of obligation, which in its conventional form i think is
> only a translation of what is hard to express for some people.
> i think once you get behind the curtain, in yeshiva, in philosophy,
> in mystical practice - once you do that, you begin to see the strings and the
> levers and the pulleys. this can be very disappointing if you didn't think
> there were any of those things, but not if you know that that's all
> they are and not more than that.
>
> if "commandment" helps you articulate the mitzvot, great. however, the
> mitzvot are the mitzvot. that is it. they cannot be reduced to something
> else. if they could, they could be replaced with something else. that
> statement may well be functionally identical, and even conceptually
> akin, to "commandment" and i'm fine with that. but i find the narrative of
> commandment to be a source of error and frustration. why do we need to
> say "mitzvot _means_" anything, except to explain them to other people?
> the mitzvot are practices. that's really about all we can say.
> commandment implies "practices with the reason being obedience" or
> something. just as saying mitzvot are connecting-tools to God implies
> "practices with the reason being connection to God." i think the
> practices are the practices. the reasons are the reasons. they should
> not be confused one with the other.
>
> "As Leibowitz points out, even the original Kabbalists and Chassids saw
> Mitzvot as binding commandments. I know there are other ways of relating
> to halacha, but doesn't obligation come first, in the knowledge that the
> system is strong and intransient enough to take the many interpretations
> of different ages, groups and individuals? It may be that a sense of obligation
> is the only way a system of mitzvot is sustainable in society."
>
> not to most people who don't believe in the commander. in fact, i think
> this idea of obligation has way outlived its pedagogical usefulness. in fact,
> i think people who want to obey - i doubt that is where a whole lot
> of creativity resides. some, definitely. but think about it!
>
> "I think Leibowitz has a point when he identifies the 'halachic enterprise' as
> the central linking thread."
>
> well, that may be true from 200-1800, but that is only a minority % of
> jewish history.

> "Granted, the self may be an illusion. And yet more often than not we
> experience life as individuals. It as a self that I observe, think and
> act as an agent in the world. I can directly experience nonduality
> through meditation, prayer and other such practices. And I can keep
> some of this awareness with me as I return to my habitual sense of acting
> as a distinct self. But surely I have no choice but to return. Thus I
> can be obligated, even to a system which ultimately leads me to an
> awareness that the self who is obligated is only an illusion. There is no
> conflict between the concept of individual obligation and your
> interpretation of halacha as "a set of practices which both inculcate right
> understanding and respond to the reality of God with right action"."
>
> the self is an illusion. the separate obligator is an illusion. the
> practices are the practices. period. the practices are multi-meaninged
> and multi-significant. that is the great virtue of judaism. read
> moses mendelssohn's "jerusalem" - it's easy and you'll find it very
> useful to this thread. the point is, it's the practices, not the reason.
> in that i agree quite a lot with leibowitz. i would just like to go one
> step further and even dispense with the term "obligation" since it
> connotes a debt, or a requirement, or something else that isn't free.
> we are free human beings, free to do anything in the world. to take on
> certain practices, great. but to imagine that we are not free is pure cowardice.
>
> "If we accept that most of the time we inevitably function as selves,
> obligation may play another function"
>
> i think we fuck up ourselves and our world by functioning as selves.
> when i'm not associated with this self - it's still there, i just don't
> identify with it - i tend to be happier, more compassionate, more open.
>
> "If I always obey my will as an autonomous individual then I make myself
> my master. In fact, I might say I am both master and slave. If I
> perceive a de facto obligation and assert its divine nature, I
> acknowledge God as my master. (We were just studying a part of
> Masechet Rosh Hashanah which defines the correct kavanah for Kriat
> Shema as an intention to 'seat God on his throne'.) Leibowitz is very
> wary of any utilitarian interpretation of mitzvot - as it makes God the
> servant of the individual, when really it should be the other way round.
> Personally, I think this makes sense, but as a starting point. It
> falls short in so far as it fails to acknowledge that ultimately there is
> no distinction between God and everything else, including the
> individual."
>
> now you're getting there. take the self off the throne and put god
> there. that's it, that's it, add the non-dualism piece and you're just
> about enlightened. got it? ditch the self, ditch the will, ditch the yetzer
> hara, the force of separation. celebrate all these things when you get
> "back" from the path, but on the path, ditch them. put god on the
> throne of yourself. but not god as separate from yourself, the god
> which you ultimately are. the real you. not the mind, not the self,
> but your true nature. seat god on the throne is 100% right, as long
> as you don't think you're some guy kneeling before another guy on the
> throne. it's an internal metaphor. let god drive the car. let god read
> the next sentence. let god awaken and let "joel" and "jay" drop away.
>
> you'll come back, and put the joel mask back on, and it'll still be there,
> good as new. you'll still have sex and listen to music and drink wine
> and all the other great things about being a self in a body. but who is
> _driving_ who is on the "throne" - i think the driver's seat is a more
> useful contemporary metaphor. believe me, when i'm driving, it's hell.
> when god's driving, it's heaven.

Shabbat Shalom - have a great weekend everyone.