These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 5: Days of Awe

Posted on October 7, 2011 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted to my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim,)

Rosh HaShana was amazing. The services at Yedidya (which is a lot like YPS except much bigger, and, frankly, younger) were filled with singing and soul, and I got to attend lots of fantastic meals– in terms of both food and company–at the homes of a Pardes board member, a teacher, and several friends.

But the most memorable and most moving event happened on Shabbat afternoon after the Pardes potluck picnic in the park, filled with great food, and friends and frisbee, and brought to you by the letters P and F (they’re the same in Hebrew). It was filled with so much frisbee that once it was over, all I wanted to do was go back to my apartment and sleep until Havdala. Once I got to by apartment, it became clear that my key had fallen out of my pocket while playing and it was now somewhere in the park, and no amount of checking and feeling my pockets then checking and feeling my pockets again was going to bring it back, though I did have a hunch that checking and feeling my pockets a sixth time might. (It didn’t.) Fortunately, the park is only a minute from where I live, so I dashed back there and started searching around. I felt so awkward wandering around the park in the middle of playing children staring intensely at the ground, and I can’t imagine how creepy I must have looked. I found at least 3 kipa clips, a comb, and lots of candy wrappers, but no key. After maybe five unsuccessful minutes of stalking about the park, I raced back to my apartment to check the staircase and under the doormat, but with no luck. Since I have a reputation for being a somewhat oblivious person, I knew it was at least possible it was still at the park and I just overlooked it, so I ran back to the park to search some more, praying that a.) A little kid didn’t steal it, or at least that b.) A new one wouldn’t be too too expensive. After maybe five more minutes of suspicious behavior around the park, I had finally given up hope and began to mope home with my head down when I did a double-take–there, on the ledge of the stone entrance into the park, was my key! Apparently, someone must have noticed it laying in the grass and placed it there, thinking it would be easier to for me to find in a different location from where I lost it. I snatched it, kissed it, skipped back to my apartment, and understood for the first time why people make aliya.

The next day I had to go to the Center of Town to give my security deposit to my landlord. While leaning against the wall of the bus shelter waiting for the bus, a woman sitting on the bench tried to get my attention. She started saying something in Hebrew, and when it became obvious I didn’t understand, said in English that part of my check was sticking out of my pocket, and I should put it deeper in or else someone might steal it. I thanked her and took her advise. It was fortunately a blank check, but her point was very well taken. Sociologically, I know my amazement at these incidents stems from going to a collectively-minded society after being spending my whole life in an individually-minded one, but they made me confront a stark truth: I am too self-reliant. Without getting in to specific examples, so many times this and every year I wait until situations get out of hand before asking someone else for help, and, once I finally do, time and again I discover that the advice or solution I needed was there waiting for me all-along in the heart of someone close to me, all I had to do was swallow my pride and ask. I need to learn that I am not in this (whatever “this” is) alone, and if I was, I couldn’t survive. Jews and Israelis know this all too well. So comparatively minor as these two incidents are, I’m glad they graphically pointed out to me much wider nagging issues in my life that I need to be paying attention to. ‘Tis the season.

I got another great opportunity for self-reflection Wednesday at Pardes’ voluntary, extra-circular Non-Judgmental Garbage Collection activity. The workshop consisted of two-parts: in the first, we discussed two Jewish sources on when and how to pass judgement on others then in the second, the roughly 7 of us got bright-orange garbage bags, put on plastic gloves, and walked around outside the Pardes building in silence at twilight, picking up trash while trying as hard as we possibly could not to pass judgement on the people who dropped it. I thought that since we were specifically told not to pass judgement on them, passing judgement on the litters would be all I would be able to think about, but thankfully, it wasn’t; in fact, it ended up being quite therapeutic. After about a half-hour of picking up cigarette butts, Styrofoam, and random little pieces of metal and plastic and (definately not self-judgmentally) having this song stuck in my head, we reconvened inside and reflected on the experience. Here are some of the insights I had while meditatively, non-judgmentally, picking up trash:

  • Determining what is and is not trash is in itself an act of judgement.
  • How many anonymous people have been picking up my after my physical and emotional trash over the years?
  • Thank God there are almost certainly fewer cigarette butts now than there would have been even 5 years ago.
  • Why am I looking at how much other people have in their bags? I’m turning this into a contest, how insecure am I??
  • As time wore on, I became less and less concerned whether passersby were looking at me. Sorry, but I’m too busy being non judgmental to care what you think of me.

In all seriousness, I’m very glad I did the workshop. As much as I learned from it, I learned even more from the revelations of my classmates during the discussion afterwards.

Thursday afternoon, we went on tiyyulim around Jerusalem. I signed up for the S.Y. Agnon tour. I admit I have read very little Agnon and spent most of the tour regretting that fact. Israel loves its only Nobel laureate in literature so much he is the theme of the 50 shekel bill, and it is not hard to understand why–even what little of him I have read is so beautiful and poetic even in translation, I can only imagine how much more profound it is in Hebrew. The most inspiring part of the tour, though was learning that from the publication of his first novel, Agunot, in 1908 until his death in 1970, he was supported by a stipend from the publisher Zalman Schocken that enabled him to work exclusively at writing for 60 years. I think this is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. Israel is very proud of having a disproportionately large number of Nobel laureates (including the latest one we’re all kvelling over, Dan Shechtman for Chemistry) for a country of its age and size, yet they are not satisfied: our tour guide said they really expect Amos Oz to win one of these years and sounded legitimately disappointed that Israel has only had but 1 literature laureate. If you ask me, the reason for this is lack of investment in writers. If they gave even 1% of the money they throw around to Diaspora kids so they can come here for 10 days or a year then leave to struggling writers like me–who God knows don’t need much to get by–to move here and write for 60 years, they would have Nobel Prizes in literature coming out the Agnon. I know I have been adamant that I have no plans of making aliya, but for the good of the Jewish state, I would be man it up and be willing to make that kind of a sacrifice. Even in the worst-case scenario, this plan would still give the Israeli government a much higher ROI then all the millions of shekels they give away to neighborhoods full of cheredim to learn no marketable skills and not serve in the army.

Now I have to start getting ready for tonight.

Hebrew word of the week: לחשוב (“L’khashohv”) – To think