Holidays and Jerusalem

Yom Kippur has come and gone and Sukkot is fast approaching. It’s a really fun time to be in Jerusalem. Everyone here is busy buying and building their sukkot and purchasing their four species. My teachers at Pardes told us that Mea She’arim and Geula are the places to go during this time because there are tons of little stalls selling the Lulav, Etrog, Myrtle and Willow leaves. I’ll probably just go around the block to the Shtiblach to purchase mine. (The Shtiblach by the way is a building in my neighborhood where services take place in 4 separate rooms at staggered times. In the morning during the regular work week, for example, there is a service approx every 15 minutes.)  Tomorrow or the day after I will write a little about the different rules that I learned at Pardes today about building a sukkah and buying the four species.

On Erev Yom Kippur, Eric and I walked around the neighborhood from shul to shul listening to all the different types of melodies from all the different types of shuls–Ashkenaz, Sephardi, Mizrachi…Egyptian even? Big shuls, little shuls, mechitza down the middle, shul with balcony for women. Everywhere was packed. 

Meanwhile, all of the roads in Jerusalem were devoid of cars, and you could walk in the middle of the street and not get run over for one day out of the year. It was quite a sight to see the little ones careening down the roads on their bikes and rollerblades and walking around with their little companions–and usually without much parent supervision.

I saw chiloni parents walking alongisde their children who were riding bikes, young sephardic men with their black kippot, button down shirts and blue jeans, Ethiopian families pushing buggies, boys with peot lying down in the middle of the street playing games, religious women standing in the middle of the street chatting with their friends. Yom Kippur seemed as much of a time of inner reflection and somberness as well as time for joyful, communal gathering.

On Yom Kippur day I went to a modern Orthodox, Ashkenaz shul called Shir Hadash where Musaf services were beautifully led by the chazzan. While I was interested in trying out different shuls, I also wanted a Yom Kippur service that had the familiar Azhkenazi tunes that I grew up with, and Shir Hadash was pretty good at sticking to that template while adding some Carlebach tunes as well.

A friend of mine complained that the minyan where she went for services used ‘new’ tunes for Unetaneh Tokef and other prayers. Indeed, one place I went to for Rosh Hashanah sang Unetaneh Tokef in what sounded like major key and breezed through this tumultuous, mind-boggling liturgy. While I still have trouble grasping and relating to the meaning of this prayer, I also missed the older melody which always felt awe inspiring and profound to me.

It’s funny how familiarity engenders a sense of comfort and a feeling that things are right with the world. When we are raised with a certain way of doing things we often come to think of this particular way of doing things as the right way–regardless of whether it’s halachically correct. That’s often how tradition gets created, right?

Mind you, Yom Kippur is not supposed to be all doom and gloom, and many of the prayers are quite uplifting in their praising of G-d. After all, this holiday is supposed to be one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar. Isn’t that interesting?

While the holiday is supposed to be a joyful moment in that we are getting the chance to have a fresh start, I still find Yom Kippur experience difficult in many respects. I have a tough time getting into a spiritual mode and have to really work on focusing. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I haven’t eaten.

I also think that the number of prayers that we say on this day and on Rosh Hashanah overwhelms me. A lot of these prayers I haven’t seen since the year before. Each one has it’s own significance and historical background that I am not completely aware of, although certain prayers such as Vidui and Unetaneh Tokef stand out in my mind. I would like to get better at  internalizing the prayers–i.e.  finding my own meaning in them even though I may have some intellectual problems with some of them. I also have to work on focusing on the moment in time that we are saying this particular prayer rather than thinking about what’s on the next page.

There is also a part of me that resists the whole process of reflecting over my actions from the past year. It’s pretty painful to think of all the bad stuff that you did! And you know that you’re going to do some of that bad stuff again next year, so is your Teshuvah empty? What I got out of a Pardes shiur at our retreat is that this is a process and that while we have the potential to progress in leaps and bounds, we often regress into unhelpful behaviors and thought processes. G-d knows that we’re going to mess up again, but that’s what Teshuvah is there for. To give us another shot, eh?

I hope that all of you who were celebrating the High Holidays had a spiritually uplifting and meaningful experience.

My next blog entry wil be about some more mundane life matters in Jerusalem.



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