These and Those

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

Week 39:

Posted on June 3, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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

So this is it. The end. It’s over. After Shabbat, I’m going to see everyone again in the fall at best, never at worst. Still, this is ultimately what I signed up for, to become a Pardes Alum.

I’m almost positive that from the moment I touch down in Pittsburgh and for the entire rest of my life, I’ll have to really try hard to convince myself that this whole year wasn’t a dream—usually a good dream, sometimes a bad dream, but always a dream nonetheless, certainly when compared to the reality I used to know. I don’t know how long it will take to readjust to reality (i.e. America), but even if I do readjust, I’m not the same person I was when I left, I’m much tanner now. I’m also wiser, know tons more Torah and can’t wait to live and teach it to whomever I can however I can, know much more Hebrew and Aramaic, have a wider circle of friends, can cook more things. I am more independent and more dependent, more optimistic and more jaded than I was ten months ago. I will have to get used to the weekend being Saturday and Sunday, to being able to understand people on the street, to being able to plug my stuff in without an adapter, to knowing exactly what signs are saying, to supermarkets not having sales related to my holidays, to being a minority, to shoving and being shoved not being acceptable means of getting where you need to go (I am so not ready for Wisconsin), to knowing what the hell is going on around me.

All week I’ve been searching in vain for an apt metaphor to describe this week’s calumniation of the year:

Saturday night and Sunday was Shavuot. After Shabbat, I went over some friends’ house for a big dairy potluck then to Pardes for some fantastic lectures. Then, at around 1:30 AM a group of us set off for the Old City to hear another lecture then hang around the Kotel until the sun came up and we could join thousands of other Jews for Shacharit there. There was something indescribably special about celebrating the day everyone was supposed to bring their first-fruits to the Temple until it was destroyed 2,000 years ago at the Kotel with as many Jews as I’ve ever seen in one place before. At first, it seemed fitting to mark the end of a year of Torah study with Shavuot, which traditionally also commemorates the giving of the Torah, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed kind-of anti-climatic. I mean, sure it’s humbling to toil in the text all year and only then receive the Ten Commandments, but at the same time, if we’re just getting the Torah now then what have I been doing the past 10 months? So Shavuot in Jerusalem was amazing, but it wasn’t the symbol I was looking for.

Tuesday, Rabbi Michael Hattin had a special session to mark the debut of his first book, Passages: Text and Transformation in the Parasha. “Passages” not only as in Biblical passages, and not only as in the rough passage from slavery to freedom told through many of them, but also as in the personal journey of transformation the reader goes on when studying them, particularly when studying them with the book Passages. It’s nice, but Michael Hattin already thought of it.

Thursday afternoon during the year-end banquet, when we had a big meal, heard some students speak, sang, remembered and cried (I came prepared with snorkel equipment so that I wouldn’t drown in the river of tears that I knew would be shed. Pardes is also ready for this every year, having worked out a deal with the State to redirect this flow to help replenish the Jordan in an effort to help solve the country’s continuing water-woes), a student about to graduate the Educators Program spoke about how one of her rabbis once told her that when you see this infinite sea of Torah in front of you, all you can do is jump in and swim. She said that after 3 years at Pardes, she feels that she can now tread water (in comparison, I’m still learning how to kick). So maybe this week, this year, was like learning how to swim in the ocean. But what kind of ocean? Is it high-tide or low-tide? Is the shore rocky or smooth? Is it a public beach, like the one in Tel Aviv a bunch of us went to Monday during our day off (ironically named Jerusalem Beach) or a private beach like the one we went to on the Shabbaton? Are there jellyfish in the water? If so, what are these, the yetzer hara (evil impulse)? Nah, too complicated.

After everyone else finished speaking, our Dean, Dr. Bernstein, got up and gave a beautiful speech to wrap-up the year that included the following Chasidic tale:

Once, a poor Jew from Kazimierz, near Krakow named Isaac had a dream about a treasure hidden in Prague, near the Charles Bridge. He immediately went to the city, where he found the bridge filled with soldiers.

One of the soldiers approached Isaac and asked him his business there. When Isaac explained about his dream and search for treasure, the soldier laughed at him and said,

“Only a naive fool would come so far for a dream! I myself keep having this dream that in a house of a Krakovian Jew named Isaac, son of Jacob, there is a treasure hidden under the furnace. But I’m not so foolish as to go to Krakow and look for it. After all, every second Jew is named Isaac, and every third, Jacob!”

Isaac thanked him, returned home to Krakow, dismantled the furnace, and found a great treasure. He became one of the wealthiest citizens of Kazimierz and founded the famous Isaak Synagogue in Krakow that stands to this day.

While this may have been little more than a ploy to get us to contribute our future wealth towards building the long-anticipated new Pardes building, the story nonetheless spoke to me—as he commented upon finishing the story, all of us here are treasure seekers: We came from all over the world to get the treasures of Torah and now the time has come to take it back home and build rich communities with it. This makes me the most successful Pittsburgh pirate in 20 years. But the comparison doesn’t work because it’s really too selfish—unlike gold, there is enough Torah for everyone, and the more you give, the more you have.

That night, I went to two farewell parties. The first was at a sushi restaurant, the second on the railroad tracks-turned-walking-and-biking-path that cuts through our part of the city. As the night went on and more goodbyes were said and more alcohol was drunk, I found myself standing on the tracks comforting a friend depressed about the prospect of having to leave Jerusalem to spend the summer in Hell (sometimes also called “Medford, Oregon”). “We’re on the tracks,” I told her. “We just keep moving. Now you’re going to Medford, but soon you’ll be back here, and then who knows where you’ll end up?” It seemed like a good metaphor at the time, but now I realize I was just tipsy and sleep-deprived. Still, she said it reminded her of a Tom Waits song, so it couldn’t have been too bad.

So by the time to write this blog post came, I was left with nothing but depression over leaving, alleviated only by the knowledge that I’m going to see my family and friends soon, that I have an amazing summer job experience to look forward to, and that not only am I coming back next year, but many of my friends are, too. The year’s still over, though, and that’s depressing. But maybe it’s for the best that I can’t find a metaphor. Looking for a symbol cheapens the experience, tries to put it in one neat box so that I can understand it and categorize it more neatly, and also gives me a convenient excuse to not have to write or think too hard about the stuff that doesn’t fit into it. Like a certain Pardes teacher says, symbolic meanings always come later, after the fact. A symbol won’t work for me now, because I’m still facing the fact, I still have this experience, so radically different from anything I’ve ever done before staring me in the face begging to be made sense of, but I can’t because it’s comparable to nothing else I know. That’s why I don’t, can’t, have an answer for it now, how can I build a house to the specifications of my child’s family while he’s still being born, to use a metaphor to describe the insufficiency of metaphor. But that’s the point: Only a metaphor will do, but a metaphor is impossible right now so I’m left with nothing.

So maybe I’ll wait one, five, ten, one hundred years until I can see the full lasting impact this year has had on me and write this post again then and make it filthy with brilliant metaphors. Until then, as I face this major point of transition in my life, I’m reminded of what the sages Semisonic said, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” No, wait I mean…

Quote of the Week: “Pardes: Where ‘Israel immersion’ means being surrounded with English speakers all day, and ‘Torah study’ means attending anti-prostitution rallies.” – The outgoing Educators

Hebrew Word of the Week: חלום (“khalohm”) – Dream