These and Those

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

Rabbinic Israel Seminar 2021 – Galil Tiyul Reflection

Posted on October 17, 2021 by Claire Abramovitz

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Claire Abramovitz is a second-year Fellow and Talmudic Literature Fellow at the Pardes Institute for Jewish studies. When she’s not steeping herself in Torah, she is most likely working on a play, poem, story, painting, a batch of fresh pasta dough, and of course many, many soups.

I sit in the water and I wait for Jamie’s inevitable call that we’ll be leaving the maayan – the water that would be so lovely anyway made nothing short of Eden on a sweltering day.

It’s a beautiful spot, in the shadow of the Gilboa range, the slope of the mountainside cutting across the sky and falling down to the edge of the stream past the trees. My best friend studied on that mountaintop all of last year. And I miss him terribly.

It’s hard not to feel the presence of the past everywhere. It’s pretty easy when it’s staring you in the face as Roman tilework and the hollow ruins of a once-bustling city. Sometimes the mosaics have eyes and the eyes follow yours. Sometimes they look right past you as if still searching for the long-dead tiler who first laid them down.

I stare at the floor of the ancient synagogue in Tzippori. I’m calling it a synagogue here in writing, but it’s a shul. There was even some sort of simcha going on right on the premises. There was a sign outside that greeted us all with a mazal tov. It’s a shul. It’s a shul and I joked with my friends that in a past life I lived in Tzippori and this was undoubtedly my shul and that undoubtedly I would never set foot in it. Why would I go to shul in a past life either?

It’s funny, I think. This is now my second year as a Yeshiva student – I even have a t-shirt that tells me that’s what I am and what I look like (many people in the Miami International Airport laughed at it thinking I wouldn’t notice). I eat, sleep, and breathe Torah at this point. I just bought a tallit and cried for a good 20 minutes when I first really put it on. And yet, so much of me wants to distance myself from the religious. So much of me wants to distinguish, say no, no, I’d be the one with the mosaics of Roman gods on my floor. I’d be the one desperate to melt into a marketplace crowd, stay far away from any underground Rabbis, anyone clinging on to Torah like a twig in a landslide.

But the distinctions get blurred. Jamie calls it the Tel Aviv of ancient Israel, Tzippori, and it’s a good laugh. But it makes me think what it is to be a Jew. Is it the physical trappings, the days you go to davening, the brachot you make, the way you look and act, and whether there’s a painting of a bunch of rabbis on your wall as opposed to Dionysus on your floor?

I mean the answer isn’t no. But I stare at the tilework on the floor and wonder if there was a daughter of the house who was as troubled as me about the whole thing. Some young person wondering at a far more tenuous time than my own what really makes her a Jew.

Look, I’m comfortable where I’m at. I’ve come to like the way I practice (or don’t). If the tiling, the Dionysus mosaic is just fan art, then let he who is free of sin cast the first stone, right?

I sit in the stream and I let the water come up to my chin. The current is strong, surprisingly strong, and it pushes me backward. I struggle to move forwards. Well, well, there’s a metaphor there. I’m pushed back and I’m pushed back and I’m wondering if there was ever a person alive who didn’t feel caught between worlds.

But the water is cool. Right now in the present, it’s cool. My friends and I joke about a swim-in protest; they can’t kick us out of the spring if we all stay in the water. If you take away the picnic tables and the boomboxes, I think it must have looked this beautiful always, this stream at the foot of the mountain. You never step in the same river twice, but maybe once upon a time the daughter of some tiled house, some family that paid their dues but never went to services, sat and pondered, felt the current pushing her back, wondered for a moment what it all meant, and then let the water, cool and gentle, guide her on its way.

The Pardes Year Program 2021-22 Rabbinic Israel Seminar and Shabbaton was generously sponsored by Rebecca and Michael Gordon, alum of Pardes Learning Seminars and member of the Pardes Board of Directors, North America.