Most people have never even heard the word shtender. They think I am making up a pretend word, though to my knowledge it is Yiddish. I said it recently to an Israeli friend and the closest word I could use to explain it was the word מעמד, which means a stand, but that isn’t even really what it is. It’s more than that.
At the beginning of the year, I noticed that a few people had shtenders. A shtender, (for those of you who actually don’t know what I’m talking about), is a small wooden frame that opens up into a stand on which Judaic books and texts are placed on so that one can study them at eye level rather than leaning over them on a table. Many shtenders are decorated and people often write their names or a biblical verse on them. I first saw and got to know shtenders in camp, when I saw people making them in a workshop in Woodmaking. I never saw them again until I got to Pardes. I thought they were cool and it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to get one. I didn’t get a chance to go on the adventure to get one until a few weeks ago. I was under the weather and decided to take the morning off to rest up. I felt better, and before going in for my afternoon class, I decided to take a trip downtown to go and get my shtender.
Now I’ll tell you the real reason besides lack of free time that I hesitated going to go get a shtender. The store where everyone at Pardes gets their shtender is located in Me’ah Shaarim. I had never set foot in Me’ah Shaarim and I was terrified to, especially alone. I’ve only seen it on the 4 or 4Aleph bus going to Har Hatzofim where Hebrew University is located. I’ve heard the terrible stories about what they do to people who are outsiders, even if they are modestly dressed. I thought I would never have reason and never wanted to set foot in that neighborhood. I would sit on the 4 or 4Aleph bus riding through Me’ah Shaarim and get incredibly angry about how they treated other Jews who weren’t like them. I never understood that and I don’t think I ever will. For some reason though, I decided to go to the store in Me’ah Shaarim to get my shtender.
I was extremely careful in my planning of going to Me’ah Shaarim. I got extremely specific instructions about what bus to take, where to get off, what street I had to walk down, what the name of the store was and what it looked like. I wore a skirt that went down past the top of my boots. I wore a jacket and a scarf to cover my neck. I prepared myself as much as I possibly could. You would think I was going on some sort of expedition to the mountains. I wasn’t, I was just going to Me’ah Shaarim. But I was scared.
I got off the 72 bus at Kikar HaShabbat and turned right onto Me’ah Shaarim Street. I walked down the street looking carefully for the store, which I was told would be on my right hand side. I dodged Haredi men as I walked down the street and did that awkward dance you do when you and the person opposite you are trying to pass each other but you keep walking in the same direction as the other person. I had been walking down the street for awhile and I still hand’t found the store. I began to get nervous that I had missed the store entirely or worse that I had somehow turned onto the wrong street. I began to panic at the thought of having to ask someone directions and how they would respond. Would they help me, or would they curse at me or spit at me? Finally though, I found the store and climbed down the stairs into the shop where the smell of olive wood was prevalent and many different judaic items made of olive wood were for sale. I found the pile of shtenders and began looking through them to find a design that I liked. All the shtenders were decorated with varied Jerusalem motifs on the sides of the frame (see photograph). I wanted to find one that would allow me to fit both the verse I wanted at the top and my name in the middle. After picking the one I wanted, I brought it over to the lady who was sitting and drawing designs on various olive wood works. I told her what pasuk I wanted and what my Hebrew name was. The funny thing was, in the middle of Me’ah Shaarim, this lady was a secular chain smoking Israeli. After paying for my shtender, it was handed over to me in a plastic bag. I immediately took it out to inspect it. I felt so cool that I had my very own shtender. I walked down the street back to the bus stop without a worry in my head.
The pasuk I had chosen to be written on my shtender comes from Eishet Chayil, the song a husband sings to his wife at the Shabbat table on friday night. The line I chose goes as follows:
פיה פתחה בחכמה ותורת חסד על לשונה, meaning, Her mouth opened in wisdom and the lovingkindness of Torah is on her tongue. In the middle of the shtender is my Hebrew (and English) name, Leah Rahel. At first glance the pasuk is slightly strange. It seems a bit erotic of the writer of this poem to use a part of a woman’s body to describe her valor as a Jewish wife. But to me, it makes total sense. The tongue is a communication tool. Its how one communicates with others. Conversation, prayer, instruction, request. The list is endless. In my eyes, the tongue is essential in the process of learning Torah, especially with a chevruta. You have to think carefully about the ideas you want to express. You often pour your heart and soul into your learning and that love comes out through speech. The tongue helps you form the important words you want to share with your chevruta. Without the tongue, perhaps we would not be able to transmit and learn Torah with others at all.
To me, sitting in the Beit Midrash is a labor of love. I study the text, looking at it carefully, sometimes struggling to understand the Hebrew and the Aramaic. But ultimately, I overcome and open my mouth to speak the love of Torah and the love of Judaism. The shtender isn’t only a stand on which to put my Gemara or Tanach. It is a way of reminding myself why I came to Pardes this year and what I want to ultimately reach through my learning. My shtender tells so much about who I am and who I want to be. Ultimately, I hope my love for Jerusalem and Israel, my love of Judaism, and my love of learning will be able to help me speak words of חסד, loving kindness, to others and to help create a world in which, God willing, one day words of lovingkindness will replace words of hatred.
I understand now why I decided to make that seemingly scary journey into Me’ah Shaarim. I wanted to prove that my love of Torah was greater than my fear of others who would put me down because I am not the type of Jew that they want me to be. I wanted to stand proud and tall, to show them that to speak words of loving kindness trumps hatred. I wanted to show that one day, ultimately when Jews accept other Jews, though their practice and observance of Judaism may be different than others, that we will truly be one nation and will be able to conquer whatever obstacles are put in our path. I hope that through my work this year, I can take the loving kindness out of my learning and go out into the world and help repair what has been broken.