Posted on September 13, 2011 by Derek Kwait
(First published on my blog for “The Jewish Chronicle” of Pittsburgh, Yinzer in Yerushalayim, 9 September 2011)
Sunday was orientation at Pardes. The getting-to-know-you introductions at the beginning made one thing clear straight-away—this is a place of diversity. The students at Pardes range from future Open Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, to a dude who’s a few weeks away from becoming a Reconstructionist rebbetzin (and with all due respect to Dave Barry, “The Reconstructionist Rebbetzins,” would be an excellent name for a rock band), to middle-aged people, to camp councilors, to current and future Jewish day school teachers, to people like me. The ideological diversity is matched by the geographic—we have students from Canada, Australia, Russia, Argentina, New Zealand, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, all-over America (including another Pittsburgher), and new olahs. The teachers stress that Jewish texts are the inheritance of every Jew regardless of personal belief—more important than observance is literacy: Read the texts and draw your own conclusions. Also strongly emphasized is the importance of learning in chevruta, or pairs. And it only took one chevruta session to experience how right they were: Learning a text through a respectful but honest back-and-forth with someone else lets you better express, accept, reject and invent ideas and textual interpretations, and it’s a great way to form intimate relationships, not only with your chevruta, but with the text. One person alone cannot handle the Rambam. Two can’t either, but it’s still twice as good as learning alone.
Classes at Pardes are nearly all based around chevruta. In my thrice-weekly Tanakh class, and twice-weekly Mishna, Social Justice, and Rambam classes, we come to class, get introduced to the texts and ideas for the day, then get assigned texts, go to the Beit Midrash, and learn them in chevruta for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Then we come back to the classroom and have deep discussions of them. I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you my schedule: Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday, I have Tanakh level Bet, where we will be spending the year studying the Book of Exodus in Hebrew. Sunday and Tuesday afternoons, I have Social Justice, where we learn and discuss how Jewish texts from all eras relate to various social justice issues. This class also includes lots of guest speakers and field trips. Monday and Wednesday mornings I have Mishna, where, until after the holidays, we will be learning Tractate Rosh Hashana. After Mishna I have Turning Points in Modern Jewish History, the one class without chevruta. Monday and Wednesday afternoons I have Rambam, where we’re learning the laws of teshuva. It’s wearing, but rewarding. Tuesdays before lunch we have a school-wide speaker, Thursday afternoons (but not this week) we volunteer in Jerusalem. This week it felt like more chevruta time was spent looking up Hebrew words in the dictionary than anything else, but after class, damn if my chevruta and I didn’t feel like we accomplished something. The teachers are amazing: They are all knowledgeable, open, challenging, fun, and above all else, passionate and that passion rubs off on us even when lack of Hebrew skills gets frustrating.
The Pardes Beit Midrash seems so much like a dream of Jewish unity, it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s real: where else do guys in kippot and tzitzit and girls in tank-tops and shorts learn in chevruta as equals? You would expect there to be some kind of animosity between the various factions, but, at least in the first week, there honestly doesn’t appear to be any. Personally, I like everyone, and that’s saying a lot. I am a very peevish person: In almost any group of any size, there is bound to be someone who annoys me, but not here. I think the reason for the unity is mutual respect: You may believe differently than I do, but you obviously respect the text and the tradition otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen to be here, and how can I not respect that? Plus everyone’s just so damn nice, helpful, honest, polite, and friendly it’s impossible not to like them.
This became emphasized in a big way during our tiyyul or field trip Thursday. We had the option of going one of three places, and I chose the City of David. It was incredible: We saw places straight from the Bible, sloshed through Hezekiah’s Tunnel and walked part of the way up the steps leading from the communal well to the Temple. This was especially jarring: These steps were just rediscovered and just three months ago weren’t even open to the public. To walk on the exact same steps my ancestors walked on over 2,000 years ago on the way to the Temple Mount is an experience I can’t easily describe. It’s so hard to fathom that Jerusalem is a real place, that I’m actually standing in that place I constantly read about in prayers and psalms, that when a teacher says “right over there in the Temple” they actually mean right over there.
I’ve been trying to go to the Kotel as much as possible since I’m in the Old City anyway for another week. Since I was so tired and out of it on my way down to the Kotel Wednesday night, I decided to read some psalms from my siddur on the walk down to help restore my concentration. As it turns out, that night, and Thursday night too, induction ceremonies for new members of different brigades in the IDF were being held in the plaza before the Wall, making it absolutely swamped with people—newly minted soldiers and their kvelling families and friends. As it happens, after I pushed my way past all the people and made it to the Wall, I got to this psalm: Psalm 124. I will never read it the same way again.
This brings up something important I’ve noticed after only one week: There is no past and present here. William Faulkner’s epigraph to our Turning Points in Modern Jewish History syllabus, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” is absurdly true in Jerusalem. Most of the Psalms of Ascent are so relevant, they could have been written yesterday. A 2,000 year old road to the Temple is brand new and exciting. Liberal-minded, moderns spend hours wrestling with ancient texts (as one of my peers put it, “Will anything we write still be discussed 2,000 years from now?”) Most of the ancient-looking Jewish Quarter was built after 1967. Yesterday, I stopped by my apartment to ask the guy who owns the apartment something. After he answered my question, he asked if I was going back to the Arona (Jewish Quarter). I said I was and he asked if I could be a witness to his wedding at the Kotel. I said sure, so we took a taxi to the Wall, found a yeshiva bochur to be the second witness, and signed a paper certifying that his second marriage, to a recent convert from Korea, was valid under Jewish law, then drank some grape juice and ate some rugela to celebrate. Israel.
Speaking of which, my feet are so blistered from walking to and from class everyday that when I passed a Crocs store on the way home from class Wednesday, I stopped to consider buying some. Then I figured that if I was going to buy Crocs, I might as well make aliya while I was at it so kept moving.
Hebrew word of the week: לפגוש (“leefgohsh”) – To meet