French Israel

Monday, March 29, 2004

It's warm today -- 28 degrees (82 F), which is a bit of a shock since the last couple of weeks have been, in a word, perfect. Homes have all their windows open, and people are in their t-shirts, because they are indoors doing spring cleaning. We're all at it, and have been since last week, because Pessa'h [Passover] is on it's way.

And the z'man [study period] is over at the yeshiva. As of Friday mid-morning, when the gemara shiour ended, my friends and I have been free. Most of the yeshiva world shut down for the beginning of the new month of Nissan last Tuesday, and will resume a week or so after Pessa'h. This is probably the biggest break we will get until the end of the summer.

And this is just as good a time as any to take my dishpan hands away from the apartment scouring for a short while and describe my first full day in Israel, last summer. We're getting to some juicy stuff, the stuff that has ultimately gotten me into trouble, including the story of The Girl. Not to mention first my impressions of the country.

First steps in the Land
Tuesday 10 June 2003. My hosts, the Sheans, were a young American couple in their last few days of living in Israel. The husband, Gary, was studying in a yeshiva there in Har Nof. The wife was a sister-in-law of one of my guy friends at my synagogue in Atlanta, Moshe. Moshe had also studied in Har Nof, and it was he in the first place who had sold me on the idea of coming to Israel for Jewish studies, before trying to jump into the world of career, dating, marriage, etc.

The Sheans had generously offered me their guest room and gave me many pointers for getting started in Israel. They mercifully spared me the game of Jewish Geography, so I shall spare you. But I do have to mention that the wives' younger brother was in one of my French classes back in Athens. Small world? Keep that observation in mind for the juicy part of the story.

Despite my jetlag, and a late evening, I slept till just after sunrise. Now, you have to understand that it was summer in Israel: the break of dawn is something like 3:00a.m. For those who do not believe me, check a lua'h for Yerushalayim on this date, and you will see that Aloth HaSha'har for this date is 2:41a.m. The sunrise was at 4:30. So I "overslept", rolling out of bed at the hedonistic hour of 5:45, and was thus too late for the first minyan. Not to worry. Gary had told me the night before that I would be able to find minyanim at any time, even (inexplicably, because it's against Jewish law) at noon. "I don't know how they do it, and I don't agree with it, but you'll find a minyan even at that time."

But I kind of wanted to find a Sepharadi synagogue, not just a minyan. The hunt lasted a short while. First of all, there was a yeshiva just across the street from the Sheans' apartment, its name clearly French: "Yechivat Ner Schmouel". Why French, you may ask? Because an English speaker would have spelled the name "Yeshivat [or Yeshivas] Ner Shmuel". It's a subtle variation, but it makes a world of difference. That was a good start, but unfortunately the doors were locked.

Later in the day, when I tried to check it out, I was greeted by a surly guard who didn't want to open the door for me. "Mata rotseh?!" he snarled ["What do you want?!"]. I asked if he spoke French. Negative. English? Negative. I asked if he knew what time was sha'harith. Negative. And he wasn't about to let me in to find out. After all, I was wearing a blue shirt, khakis, and a tweed jacket, and was carrying an attaché case -- nothing could be more suspicious. So, exiled to the street, I got the attention of some bakhourim [yeshiva boys] on smoking break. They didn't speak French, but they fetched one of their friends who did. He spoke poorly, with a native accent but with little vocabulary. And he didn't exactly know at what time sha'harith started, or he didn't know how to say the time. Okay, so this blind alley had finished at a dead end.

Back to the morning. Further down the street, I next found a synagogue with Spanish wording outside. Something told me to keep looking, though. And the feeling paid off. At the end of the street I found the Yehavé Da'ath synagogue. Bingo. Now, Yehavé Da'ath is the name of a popular siddour, which was the one I preferred at the time. But once inside, it got better. I discovered it was Rav Ovadia Yossef's synagogue. Rav Ovadia Yossef, mind you, is the Gadol HaDor sepharadi, the greatest Sepharadi Rav of this generation, and I am more than a big fan of his. I arrived there at sometime around 6:15. The sun was already scorching.

"If you have the time", said the kind man I asked (who I now realise was the gabbai), in careful and repeated Hebrew, "You can come back for the 7:00 minyan." So I decided to roam around the neighbourhood a bit.

This was my first view of Jerusalem at daytime. And I was overwhelmed. As I said last week, those of us from 'houts le-arets [outside of Israel] are often fed the "beautiful" sights of Jerusalem, all photos and paintings taken from inside the Old City. The thinking of someone seeing a map of modern Jerusalem without having seen the place itself could be, as mine was, that there was nothing noteworthy outside those Turkish, Renaissance-era walls. (Another impression might be that those walls date back to the Second-Temple era. And both impressions are highly incorrect.)

"Har Nof" means "hill with a view", and that's an understatement.

Not only does it have an impressive view of the Judaen hills to the west of Jerusalem, but in another part of the neighbourhood you get a gorgeous view of the city itself. Between every apartment building on Kablan street, which is where I was, there is the backdrop of a landscape that is... well, quite a sight to awaken to when you had spent the previous day in the cabin of a jet.

Another equally surprising finding: just as beautiful as the scenery is, and as nicely as the neighbourhood is built, the landscape is trashed. Litter and garbage are strewn everywhere. Some cognitive dissonance set in. Are we in a Palestinian neighbourhood? I thought the people living here were in love with Erets Yisrael. So why would they allow this to happen? Later when asking the Shean's about it, I was told that the residents here "just don't get it". It's not uncommon to see a child get an ice cream (or more accurately, a frozen bar of sugar water and food colouring on a stick), peel off the wrapper, and drop the wrapper right there on the ground.

They obviously have a great deal of faith in the biodegradation process.

Having missed the opportunity to kiss the tarmac at Ben Gurion the previous evening, I remembered the custom now. I'd have to get off the street. So I climbing to the top of a hill. I was attempting to find something looking clean, but it was pointless. Litter and dirt are strewn everywhere.

Back to the synagogue. Rav Ovadia wasn't there, but the service was beautiful. Now, in America I had often had a problem keeping up with the man who reads the Psalms and tefilloth [prayers] for the congregation, known as the shlia'h tsibbour. I originally assumed it was because I had the Hebrew skills of a young child, but even when I knew the prayers well, I still couldn't manage to read the words as quickly as those in charge.

Of course, in this religion, we are not just supposed to read the words, but also think about them, or at least let them register on a slightly conscious level. I couldn't know how the others could do it, even if they were masters of the Hebrew language. And if I would ask, they would tell me, "This is nothing; in Israel things go much faster." So of course, I didn't have much hope.

But nothing could be further from the truth in Yehavé Da'ath synagogue. Not only were the prayers read at a comprehensible pace, there was a pause between the Ta'hanoun and Ashrei, so those who wanted to put on Rabbeinou Tam tefillin could do so (or in my case, finish ta'hanoun). It was great. Nothing like in America.

Several weeks later, in yeshivah, I was recounting this incident to some friends at lunch, including one who himself was a proud shalia'h tsibbour. "Bad example!" he objected. "Bad example! Go to a balabos synagogue, and then you'll see how fast they can go." By "balabos" synagogue, he meant one that was frequented by husbands and fathers, those with little time to waste, and whose prayers are therefore dispensed with as rapidly as possible.

No, my friend. They are the bad examples.

Next step: find a mikvé

You can tell me my priorities were out of order. Usually one goes to the mikvé (if one ever does) before prayers. Well, I didn't know where to find one, but I knew that it would be good to do so during my first day here, before getting any further. I headed out again after breakfast.

The search was funny. The first one I found was in rich part of the neighbourhood, at the Vizhnits complex. But it was coin operated, and I still only had American money in my pocket. There was no one to bargain with. So I kept searching.

Trying to ask directions here and there, I had short and cheerful conversations with 'harédim, who were intrigued at seeing this guy, out of uniform and with bad Hebrew, looking for a ritual bath and declaring that this is his first day in the country. They enthusiastically wished me a welcome. One 'hassidic rabbi gave me his number and told me to call him if he ever needed anything.

My search eventually ended, sometime around 11:30, at what was apparently a yeshiva. It shall remain unnamed in order to avoid lashon hara. I walked in the front door to find a group of guys standing in a hallway, wearing tefillin. One, without speaking, urgently signaled to me to put mine on, by making a winding motion around arm. I dismissed the suggestion and looked for someone who looked in charge. "Mata rotseh?!" was again the question. When I told him, he pointed me to the money box and yelled that he wanted "kessef, kessef!", and made a few more observations that were lost on me. He asked the man inside, who was apparently in charge of the mikvé, if he would unlock the door so I could use it. They let me in.

As I undressed, the man inside if asked me if I speak Yiddish. No, I told him, asking him about French, Spanish, English... nope. I continued. "Yehoudi," he said, "I am very happy."

And why shouldn't he be? He is helping out a fellow Jew, his first day in the Arets, to approach the land with a bit less spiritual crud than before. "Toda raba", I answered [thank you very much].

"Mah toda raba? I am very hurry, hurry!"

So I got in and out, and got on my way. But the joke's on them. The kessef I left was a dollar.

Into the big city

During the day I walked into Jerusalem proper on an industrial highway (Kanfei Nesharim), finding my way but making the mistake of not taking water with me. Your body dries off quickly in the summer heat here, and there's a nice breeze, so the heat doesn't feel too bad. But dehydration sets in quickly, and before you know it you have a headache. What a hangover.

Whenever I needed help, as I said, I would stop 'harédi men and explain in my bad Hebrew that I was new here, and that I needed help finding something. Despite their austere appearance, they were more than helpful and friendly. I certainly did not look the part. But they did not seem to mind. One man even lent me his portable phone when I asked him where to find pay phones.

I needed not just water, but also coffee, and found a café called Mokafé in what appeared to be a major intersection (the Binyan Klal). The barista said he didn't know how to make filter coffee, but attempted something close to Caffé Americano with Turkish coffee grounds. Okay, at least he tried.

And last night I dragged myself wearily into the Yahavé Da'at synagogue again, guessing when Arvith [the nighttime prayers] might be. I was a bit early, by something like 45 minutes. But they had a guest speaker: none other than Rav Ovadia Yossef. I don't know quite what he said, except that he was speaking on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that "All of Yisrael has a share in the world to come". Besides the poverty of my Hebrew, the fatigue was finally catching up to me, and I was struggling to keep away. When he left he was surrounded by a cortège, and it was impossible to approach him. Never mind. I felt about as lucky as a guy could be in his first full day here.
PinḼas Ivri 22:47


Post a Comment