French Israel

Thursday, July 01, 2004

It could happen to anyone. You have arrived in Israel for the first time in your life. And you are about to spend your first day in a yeshivah.

You have spent a week in Yeroushalayim with friends and family of friends -- people who had never seen you before, but who are part of the network of kindness and hospitality that comes naturally in our religion. That makes you proud and grateful to be part of the clan yehoudi. You vow silently that you, someday, will be in the position to welcome pilgrims from afar into the holy land. (And you make a mental note that "Clan Yehoudi" would be a good name for a fine single-malt scotch-type liquor, which could be distilled right here in the Holy Land.)

You have spent almost a week adjusting to jetlag and seeing the sights. You've been not just around the capital but also in the Galil. You've prayed for the first time in your life beside kivrei tsaddikim [gravesites of righteous persons from past generations], such as those of Rabbi Méïr Ba'al HaNess, Rabbi Moshe ben Maïmon, and various Tanyaïm. Funny, they didn't have kivrei tsaddikim where I come from, you think.

You have taken a slightly dangerous motorboat excursion in the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret), and an armoured bus line through the craggly desert of the West Bank. You have seen the Kotel and the Old City for the first time in person, after so many hundreds of times in photographs and paintings. And you've even dirtied your dress shoes in the Guéoulah / Meah Sha'arim neighbourhood (more photos here).

By the end of the week, though, you are getting tired of just being a tourist, and are ready to get into shiourim (classes) -- after all, learning to study Torah is one of the principal reasons for your coming to Israel now, even if a host of tangential interests are in the back of your mind. Although the rabbanim of the yeshivah shouldn't be expecting you till the following week (since you did not want to let them in on your week of free-lance exploration), you decide to find the place now and get started as much as possible. At the office, you are informed by the secretary that no rabbanim are around -- it's Friday, after all, but you fill out some paperwork to get yourself on file. Those whom you need to speak with are not around, and no one can tell you where exactly to bring your luggage when you come back on Sunday to plunge into study. The living quarters for your programme are in an apartment far away from the main campus. Thinking back to when you had asked Rav Shaked on the telephone, how to find the place, he had told you, "I'll take you there when you get here".

Back to first hosts, moving your luggage to second hosts, where you will be spending Shabbat. That's it: first Shabbat in the Holy Land. There is special meaning when you say, in the moussaf prayer on Shabbat morning, "Yehi ratson... sheta`aleinou besim'hah le-artseinou..." (May it be your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that you bring us up with joy into our land...). You're on a roll: berakhoth (blessings) are making much more sense this week.

When you arrive at the front gate in a taxi on Sunday morning, you dump your luggage on the front steps. An older gentleman helps you carry your stuff up and past the security gate, and welcomes you to the yeshivah.

When you proceed back to the office, a rabbi is there chatting with people, and he looks at you askance a few times. When you mention which programme you are in, he lights up. He is Rav Shaked. "I knew for some reason I should stick around and see what you were here for!"

He says the place is just a few blocks away. You don't want to leave your luggage on the main campus, so your throw your heavy luggage over your shoulders, revealing instantly to any onlookers that you are probably not Frum-From-Birth. But then again, that's why you are now in a ba'alei-teshouvah yeshivah for reindoctrination.

The whole institution is mostly English-speaking, and is populated largely by American, South African, and British guys. In your particular programme, Americans are definitely outnumbered. But you find that atmosphere pleasant -- it's civil and surprisingly low on ego. As you set up in your bedroom and find your way around, you find guys here are unbelievable welcoming and accepting. They don't know you from Adam's housecat, but since you're with Rav Shaked they assume you're alright. Or maybe because their post-British-Empire manners are highly polished. Or maybe because the Rosh Yeshivah gave a speech to them at the beginning of the year encouraging such warm, welcoming behaviour. Or maybe because they can see you are happy to be there, and you are projecting it onto them. And the idealism of studying Torah full-time is lighting you all up.

You cannot jump into shiourim yet, curiously, because they knew you were coming this week, so they didn't expect you for a couple more days. Thus there is no class you can join, and you have no 'havrouta (study partner). "There's a guy coming in a couple of weeks..." You'll hear that a lot in the coming year as guys come and go.

Rav Shaked takes you to his office. He is a vivacious man who seems to have fifteen things going on at once. Physically, he reminds you of the English actor Simon Callow (photo here), except that he has a heavy New York accent. He tells you what this programme is all about -- "a one- to two-year course in self-sufficiency in Torah learning" -- and muses about their success or lack thereof in recruiting in different locations. Where you come from, for example, they almost get no one. But since you were referred there by a friend, they figured you must be alright.

He talks about the importance of individualism. You discuss with him the subject of white vs. coloured shirts, and take it as a good sign that the shirt he is wearing under his suit jacket is light blue. He waxes ecstatic about a shiny greenish shirt that he has, which he can only wear on Fridays because he's home that day with the children, not at the yeshivah. You're Sepharadi, you tell him, and he waves his hands almost in protest of an objection never brought up, "That's great! We don't want to `ashkenize' anyone here. Not at all!" And you breath a sigh of relief when he makes the comment, "This is the kind of yeshivah where we want a guy to feel comfortable if he's still wearing a kippah serougah when he leaves, for example." Obviously he glanced at your head and saw the large, knit black kippah sitting atop. He wants you to feel okay being who you are. But he just brought up the Mystical Underpinnings of Orthodox Philosophy, so you decide to go for the money question: what's the status of the black hat here? "The truth is," he muses, "We don't let a guy put on a black hat until at least his second year." Interesting. It's a relief. No pressure to conform to the of haberdashery of the yeshivish world for at least a year.

He opens up a volume of the Talmud, one that you picked, and you show him what you've learned already. It's an easy sougiya, and he knows it ba'al peh (by heart). He asks you a few questions on it as you go along, and since you've studied this already, you answer with fluency. The placement test is quickly over; he shuts the volume. He casually tells you that you are below the level of most guys when they come in here, but that's alright. You'll catch up quickly, and by next year it will be immaterial.

You take a walk with into the Beith Midrash (central study room) where he introduces you to a few guys, and gives you a little 'houmash lesson on this week's Torah portion, parshath Shla'h. He gives you advice to read Rashi's commentary with translation, and then to try to read the same commentary in a standard volume with the special script. He gives you a few questions to work on over the next few days. Then the two of you take a walk back to the main campus of the yeshivah. There's some paperwork to finish up.

Lucky timing: tomorrow the guys are going to take a bus trip with Rav Beryl Wein to Tsippori. If you had flown in today, as they expected, you would have completely missed it.

So the next day, you start your yeshivah career being pampered by yet another voyage through Israel, and a tour through the region for which people would turn green with envy. You bring a 'houmash (book of the Torah) along in the bus with the intention of reading this week's portion with Rashi. It's a lot more than what you've been reading, which is why you bring it with you on the bus, but that's the intensity you're expecting in this education, by golly. A few other guys have brought along sefarim, too. You get to meet a few more on the bus.

The Torah portion, incidentally, is about the twelve explorers who were sent to scout out the land of Israel before the people as a whole entered. A verse says (13.21),
"So they went up, and spied out the land from the wilderness of Tsin until Re'hov, and the entrance to 'Hamath..."

On this, Rashi comments,
"They went along its boundaries along the length and the breadth, like [the Greek letter] gamma; they went in the direction of the southern boundary, from the eastern extreme until the western extreme, as Moshe had commanded, 'Go up into the South', by way of the southeastern border until the [Mediterranean] Sea -- for the sea is the western boundary. And from there they turned and went all along the western boundary along the edge of the Sea, until the entrance to 'Hamath which is near Mount Hor, in the northwestern corner..."

While reading this, you realise that the route the bus is taking is passing along the west coast of Israel, rather than the east side that had you traversed last week. You and the other guys are thrilled when you see the Mediterranean Sea, and scramble to the siddour (prayer book) to look for the berakhah that one says. A rabbi is consulted. He gives the disappointing news that "we're not sure anymore whether to say the berakhah on the Mediterranean", and he gives you a general-purpose blessing to say instead. Bummer.

The whole experience is nevertheless a bit overwhelming. The tragic outcome of the story in the parashah is now in sharp contrast with the enthusiasm you experience, along with the other guys, both at the sight of the Sea and of the beauty of the Land. Tsippori was, among other things, the residence of Rabbi Yéhoudah HaNassi, the revered compiler of the Mishnah. It was also an outpost of the Roman Empire, where they had the government seat for their "Palestina" province. Floors and streets decorated with mosaics rich in classical mythology coexist with synagogues and in-house mikvaoth (immersion pools for ritual purity).

"But Rabbi!" some guys protest to Rav Wein. "These couldn't have been frum Jewish people if they had these [mythologically themed] designs in their living rooms!" Yet they have their own mikveh...

Rav Wein explains, sure, you can imagine that religious people were perfect if you want to, but the reality is much more complex. People at that time thought nothing wrong with having what is basically pagan illustrations decorating their homes, just as today in America, Orthodox Jewish families may have gnomes sitting around their home, and think nothing of it.

The day is full of such surprises. Later, at Beith Shéarim, where several gravesites are located (including that of Rabbi Yéhoudah HaNassi), Rav Wein explains that bodies were put into stone graves, and the bones were collected many months later and put into ossuaries. "But Rabbi...!" Conventional thinking is that Jewish burial practices require the body to be placed in dirt, but the Rav explains that stone has the same din (legal status) as earth. Oh.

An outdoor barbecue (or braai, according to the South Africans) is set up, using the traditional flat-bottomed mangal. (A mangal is an ersatz grill with no side or bottom ventilation holes that cooks food only at great effort. Grilling food on a mangal is an opportunity for Israelis to be active participants in the cooking of their food. What one American guy can do in twenty minutes with a real grill, a beer, and a stogie, ten Israelis can do in 45 minutes and a mangal.) Your prey is partially frozen meat, which guys are jabbing at with disposable plastic flatware. But you get a good dose of chicken in the end, and then you take the bus trip home. It's been a full day, and it could have happened to... no one else in the world.

P.S. Hey! Still around? Did you check out any of those links? I put some real zingers in there. Rav Shaked's look-alike Simon Callow goes interviewing musicians and psychologists to find out why his favourite music makes his spine tingle. And what is his personal favourite? Why, it's Beethoven's Piano Sonata! You know, that one.

And is that gnome website for real?

I think a good website could be titled, "But Rabbi...!" In it, a team of Jewish scholars could answer the questions raised by the reality of archaeological finds, secular literature contemporary with sacred Jewish texts, the differences between Jews of different nationalities, etc.

And if I could tell you how many times I had said "Clan MacGregor" aloud, with a Scots accent, every time I saw the stuff, ... well, it would be a high number.
PinḼas Ivri 00:54


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