These and Those

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

Week 24: More Leftovers

Posted on February 19, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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

* For Tuesday’s group lecture, Robby Berman, head of the Halakhic Organ Donor Society came to give a riveting, inspiring, infuriating talk. I’ll sum it up in brief: There is no valid Jewish (or non-Jewish) reason to not save lives by being an organ donor. If you are reading this, you will die someday, and if you are not an organ donor, you are only contributing to the needless deaths of 6,000 other Americans or 100 other Israelis each year. Click here to sign up and get more information.


* It used to be that sometimes, especially at night, I would be walking in Jerusalem or even just sitting in school, when it would just hit me: Dude! There’s a Hebrew-speaking Jewish State in the Holy Land after 2,000 years. That’s nuts! This would usually be followed with: And I’m currently living there, in Jerusalem, studying Torah. That’s insane! I would then experience a rush of awe and gratitude and recommit myself to making the absolute most of every remaining second here.

I admit, however, that sometime around when the weather started getting colder and I started getting other things on my mind, I found myself experiencing less and less of these epiphanies. I’m ashamed to admit that I became guilty of that cardinal Jewish sin of taking Jerusalem for granted.

Then about two weeks ago I was at a Shabbat dinner at a family’s house through a new monthly program called Shabbat Connections that pairs foreign students from local study programs up with families in Jerusalem for Shabbat meals. The family hosting me and some other students also invited their upstairs neighbor over for the meal. No sooner did this neighbor introduce herself then did she ask if any of us were considering making Aliya. She then raved to us about how much she loves living in Israel generally and Jerusalem specifically. It’s not like she was some shiny-eyed new oleh, either, she has been here over 10 years but still speaks about Israel like someone who just got back from Birthright. When the host suggested we go around the table saying our names, where we’re from, and what program we’re in, she jumped in and added that we should also say our impressions of living in Jerusalem. When the circle came to me I said sometimes being here feels like living in Jerusalem, sometimes it feels like living in any other city. When the circle got to her, she said she was a professor at Hebrew U and an author. I acted surprised and said I thought she was a plant from Nefesh B’ Nefesh, the organization that helps Jews make aliya. I had to say it, her gung-hoedness was getting on my nerves. Of course I love Jerusalem, too, but…but…


Her stories of teaching Arab kids made it clear that she knew well all the problems this place has, yet it hasn’t tarnished at all her simple joy for just having the unbelievable privilege of being a Jew in Jerusalem. By the time I vented my annoyance at her, I was well-aware that it wasn’t really annoyance, it was jealousy—how could I have lost that spark after only a few months while hers was still going strong after so many years and terror attacks and wars and visits to the shuk on Fridays? As others shared their experiences, my jealous insecurity grew, until I released it through the Nefesh B’Nefesh remark. After I said it my heart skipped a beat, but she and everyone else laughed. This made me laugh, too, and as we laughed, I felt a pressure-valve release somewhere around my gut and all the anxiety and self-absorption inside my chest fly away, making room for something new to take its place. As we said good-bye at the end of the meal, I thanked her for reminding me of how special it is to be in Jerusalem.


Later that week, I was walking to school on a cold, windy morning, watching cats climb out of a dumpster, when I smiled and thought: Whoa! There’s a Hebrew-speaking Jewish State in the Holy Land after 2,000 years, and I’m currently living there, in Jerusalem, studying Torah. That’s insane! and a new, deeper sense of awe and gratitude soon followed. Thank God, this has happened many more times since, and I’m determined to make sure it will continue to happen until I leave.


* There is nothing in the world like Shabbat in Jerusalem. The entire city shuts down. One day in every seven there are no busses, few cars, and every store except Dominos Pizza and that convenience store on Derekh Hevron is closed. They are replaced by the sound of song echoing through the streets from every shul and dinner table all Friday night and by people walking at a relaxed pace—be they young families all dressed in their best clothes, pushing strollers and carrying tallit bags, the father’s bright white kippa with blue trimming bobbing up and down as the family’s personal flag bringing up the rear; groups of students huddling close together, laughing amongst themselves; or couples out on a walk holding hands—Saturday afternoon.

There is a wide-variety of shuls on every block, ranging from shuls where they sing a lot and you can understand what they’re saying, to shuls where they sing a lot and you can never be sure when they’re singing a niggun and when they’re singing the actual prayer, to shuls where they sing a lot, and clap and pound their siddurs, chairs, the wall, whatever they can get their hands on, even more. The shul I go to most Friday nights, Mizmor LeDavid is the latter kind of shul. I know I wrote about the experience there before, but what I didn’t mention is the diversity—if there really is to be a World to Come, it couldn’t be much different than Mizmor on a Friday night. The place is literally crammed with Jews—on both sides of the mechitza, there are Chasidic Jews in full garb sitting next to Religious Zionists, sitting next to secular Jews, sitting next to overwhelmed-looking tourists, sitting next to native Israelis, sitting next to Conservative rabbis, sitting next to Chabadniks, sitting next to Pardesniks, sitting next to flaming Ba’al Teshuvas, sitting next to vegans, sitting next to meat-eaters, sitting next to Reform rabbis, sitting next to soldiers—all singing, dancing, and praising together as one to welcome the Sabbath Queen to Jerusalem. I can’t imagine how this city could have prayed before the advent of Shlomo Carlebach.


* [WARNING: Do not read this section, it will cause you pain. You have been warned.] It is a fact universally acknowledged that the more Torah you study, the more prone you become to making really horrible puns. This phenomenon is why the best rabbis can clear a room with a single joke. Since coming to the “Pundes Institute,” my classmates and I have discovered that, after having studied enough Torah, even people who ordinarily have at least some shred of self-respect start making the worst puns then hating themselves for it, but it’s like they just can’t help it. Even I, who was already punny enough before getting here, have found myself getting so bad I Pharisee that I may never be able to fully reenter society. Even the people who aren’t so traditionally religious, it’s Sadducee what’s become of them. One day, some friends and I started trying to come up with reasons for why this could be, perhaps something about spending so much time analyzing the meanings and nuances of words and language, when my friend, JTS rabbinical student Jonah Rank, came up with the answer, citing the Rabbinic dictum, “יש שבעים פנים בתורה” (I would translate this, but it wouldn’t work.) There can be no doubt Jonah will make one “whale” of a rabbi someday!!!!!!!!!


* I never thought it would be possible that the name “Yehoshua” could be easier for someone than “Derek.” Yet, when I first got here and tried to order food using “Derek,” I had to repeat it several times, enunciate clearly, and spell it before Israeli cashiers, even ones who spoke English, had any idea what I was saying. Worse, nearly every Israeli I know pronounces it “Dewek” in spite of the fact that there’s not even a “W” sound in Hebrew. But when I use my Hebrew name “Yehoshua,” which is double the amount of syllables, and, I think (and since I am an American, all my prejudices are correct), just much harder to pronounce in general, all I have to do is just mumble it and they automatically get it. In America, I only heard my Hebrew name when I got called up to the Torah; in Israel I hear it when I get called to the Torah and when I get called to pick up a sandwich. This is why we call this the Holy Land.


*Speaking of puns and my name, if I hear one more person riffing on my name and its similarity to the Hebrew word דרך (“derekh”) meaning “way”…I’ll still be no less powerless to do anything about it.


* Since Week 14: Things I Love about Israel, I have thought of some more important similarities between Jerusalem and Pittsburgh:

  • Both cities are defined by being made up of multiple and idiosyncratic neighborhoods. Just like how in Pittsburgh each neighborhood has its own characteristic feel and types of people, so too in Jerusalem: German Colony where I live is upscale and filled with tourists; Baka and North Talpiot where most Pardesians live are filled with wealthier Anglo and French olim; Nachalot is filled with mystics; the Jewish Quarter of the Old City is filled with English-speaking yeshiva students and their American-born rabbis; as anyone who’s seen the popular (and excellent) Israeli show Srugimknows, Katamon is filled with desperate Orthodox singles; Mea Shearim and Har Nof are filled with Cheredim; Abu-Tor is filled with tension, as it is a mix of Jews and Arabs; and the list could go on.
  • Both cites are famous for denizens who refuse to believe it’s not still the ’70’s—in Jerusalem it’s the 1870’s, in Pittsburgh the 1970’s.
  • The colors of Jerusalem’s most popular team, Beitar Yerushalayim, are black and yellow gold, and I think this explains all the rest.


*For those of you who keep asking what a Yinzer is, this video provides a fairly good tutorial.


Quote of the Week:

FIRST ETHIOPIAN CHILD IN THE ELEVATOR [To a friend and I]: Shabbat shalom!



Hebrew Word of the Week: כספומט (“kaspomat”) – ATM