Monthly Archives: June 2015

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Shavua Tov

Funny thing about Shabbat; it comes every week. And this one came quickly (and is over just about as fast). The first week of classes blazed by. Four and a half hours of instruction every day, a quiz every day, and homework and review that takes hours. Time flies when you’re having fun.

A few observations from when last I wrote before the weekly Shabbat report. (Careful readers will have noticed the switch from Shabbos to Shabbat as I abandon (temporarily) Yiddish to embrace my mission. That said, my young classmate from Florida who is in the process of making Aliyah hilariously (and to our teachers’ consternation) insists upon interjecting Yiddish into class. It is much appreciated.)

First is my classmates. I continue to be so very happy to have them here with me. We span generations and we span the globe. But the level of talent, humanity, and just plain decency is palpable. Now, there is one thing that makes this all quite special, and I’m not sure my gentile readers will quite get it (although perhaps you will). Many of my classmates are not Jewish (as I might have mentioned). Some are theologians studying Biblical Hebrew. But others are just here because they’re interested in learning the language and learning the people.

So here’s the thing. Sure, I grew up in the heavily Jewish New York area. We were still a minority. I remember throughout elementary school being accused of killing Christ. Puzzling, because I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed anybody. I remember not so long ago encountering my first overt anti-Semitism at the White Shoe Wall Street Law Firm with which I had improvidently associated myself, despite better offers. Yes, WSWSLF had a few token Jewish partners and some Jewish associates. That didn’t stop several of the partners from saying things to me that might have been grounds for a lawsuit today.

I’m not going to rehash American anti-Semitism, or world anti-Semitism, then or now. The reason I mention this is to set up my puzzlement. The non-Jews who are here actually respect us. They value our stubborn beliefs. They are attracted to our strange customs. They actually appreciate us – for who we are, not for the “model minority” appreciation we get at home. These are people who have studied us, who have gone out of their ways back in their own lands to seek us out, to embrace us for all of the characteristics that make us so stubborn and peculiar. And they know far more about us than most American Jews I know.

Perhaps you cannot imagine how profoundly wonderful this realization is. To be accepted and embraced by gentiles on our own terms, for the first time in my life. But it has also led me to deeper thinking. The wonderful Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, has spoken movingly and compellingly about how we can gain the most respect. And that simply is to be ourselves. It is not to attempt to assimilate, not to be embarrassed by the peculiar things we do, not to shrink away from embracing our own traditions. It is to proudly and unblinkingly be who we are.

The proof is right here – in Jerusalem, at the Rothberg International School. The many gentiles who have spent their money and are spending their (quite intensive) time better to understand us as we are, is testimony to the absolute rightness of Sack’s point. I’ll need to buy a fashionable yarmulke to wear on the streets of New York.

So I still haven’t approached Shabbat. I’m getting there. For the first time in my life, I experienced Shabbat anxiety. This is the fear of not being adequately prepared when life (and you) shuts down for the holiday. In this particular case, my anxiety was brought on both by the fact that we (atypically) had class Friday morning, and that I had invited three of my favorite people here to Shabbat dinner (and since none of them are Jewish I wanted desperately to do it nicely). So I had to run from class, finish shopping, and get the cooking done with my rather rudimentary dorm apartment batterie de’ cuisine.   Even as I felt the diminished capabilities founded in poor equipment though, I reminded myself: Who am I kidding? My grandmother used to make multi-course meals for 30 people in a kitchen the size of a shoebox, going uphill both ways and barefoot in the snow. I could do it. But my grandmother, z”l, wasn’t shomer Shabbos. And the stores in Brooklyn (at least in her neighborhood) stayed open.

In any event, dinner was prepared, all was set, and Norwegian Girl, Charming Swede, and astonishingly talented Austrian arrived. I’m going to refrain from writing how much I really like these people in case they read this posting and – in classic Scandinavian/Aryan fashion – are embarrassed. Suffice it to say that they departed at 1:30 after a tisch that made me feel rabbinical, and that only because we had to get up for shul. And I am so glad we did.

I wrote last week of the Sephardic shul up the hill. This week we went to its twin Ashekanzi synagogue. I worried that my friends might be bored (and, in the case of NG, offended by the michitza.) I needn’t have been. Beyond respect, they really seemed deeply warmed – even though the service was entirely in Hebrew and unfamiliar (I had given them a road map before dinner, and NG had my Artscroll Siddur which at least has English translations. I’m not going to mention how stupidly surprised I was last week that the Siddur was—umm – entirely in Hebrew without translation.)

I was thrilled. The Sephardim were perfectly nice. The Ashkenazim are mishpuchah. Relatively early in the service, the rabbi acknowledged us. But that was only the start of the fun. The tisch was set in the back of the synagogue on the way out. The rabbi thanked us for coming and invited us back. But better – behind the tisch stood a man singing. He was singing. “Oyfn Pripetchek, brent a fayerl, un in shtub is hays.” A beautiful, charming song I hadn’t heard in years. I stopped, and across the assembled congregants, looked at him and started singing along. He looked at me – startled – without missing a beat. He broke into a huge smile, began singing louder, and so did I.

One of the congregants- in Hebrew – asked me if I spoke Hebrew. I answered – in Hebrew. I told him we were studying Hebrew. He replied there was no need to study, our Hebrew was so good. (Right – tell our teacher!) He invited us to stay – I replied that I had to get outside to meet NG who was coming down the stairs. He invited us back. All in Hebrew. No way could I have done that a week ago.

We will go back. But next week in the Great Synagogue. Class tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: Anachnu Avadim – We are Slaves

So, you know all that cheer and good will I had writing two days ago. Gone with the wind! Twelve hours of Hebrew instruction (with breaks) in two days. Mrs. Horowitz likely would have been left in the dust within an hour. Because . . . .

I have never taken a class like this. And it is utterly fantastic. Nonstop raid-fire Hebrew from the moment our teacher opens her mouth until we walk out the door. I am simply amazed by our teachers. Ateret and Michal not only are unflappably cheerful and pleasant, but they teach with an energy and enthusiasm I simply couldn’t imagine. I mean, I’ve been on their side of the podium. And I thought I was high energy – for an hour or two. They teach several hours each, acting, singing, game-playing, reading, with no letup whatsoever in energy and enthusiasm. I already consider them – 12 hours into two days of classes – as among the very best teachers I’ve ever had.

Yesterday was tough. I have learned all the Hebrew I know pretty much on my own (at least since Mrs. Horowitz). That means that I have had nobody with whom to speak, and nobody to listen to. So while my reading comprehension is just fine, following along and speaking when spoken to were a challenge. But who am I to complain? My classmates from Spain, Italy, South America, Sweden, etc., are doing all of the same things I’m doing but in their second (and third) language. I think that applies as well to the Australian.

But there is something to this madness. Today – the second day of class – I had no trouble following everything. Even more surprising, my brain stopped simul-translating and just rolled with the Hebrew. And really – I understood everything. So much so that I put in for a promotion after class. I’m not at all sure I will get it (and perhaps even less sure that I should get it) but I am here, after all, to learn as much Hebrew as possible in the course of a summer, so challenge myself , I will.

I have been bravely using only Hebrew to engage in interactions throughout campus. I’ve probably spent a few shekels I didn’t need to because of mistaken translation, but I would rather do that than admit that I don’t understand. I think my native pride fits quite well with Israeli culture. Of course they get to keep the shekels.

Another phenomenon. I feel like I have known my classmates for a long time, feel like I have been here forever. I suppose some of that is the intensity of our interactions so far. But it’s quite wonderful, and quite comfortable. And my initial impressions of how special these people are has not even come remotely close to fading.

I’ve been trying to get my homework done tonight because tomorrow morning we have Israeli breakfast in the magnificent botanical garden. I have been eating relatively little since I’ve been here – simply not hungry –but I love shakshuka, so want to be sure I am prepared for class before fressing.

Finally – I have asked the madrichim to extend an invitation to my classmates to guest blog. While I certainly am having my own experience, I suspect that others can enrich what I write with their own. So stay tuned.

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Hebrew School Redux

The day began with a tour of Jerusalem’s commercial and social life by our Madrichim.  (Gil’s pride in Jerusalem’s two Pizza Huts was a thing of beauty.) Following that, I remained downtown for the rest of the day with the most delightful companion, wandering from the Wall to the “weird but cool” rail bridge which I correctly identified as Santiago Calatrava. (I liked it rather more than Delightful Companion did – it was I who added the “cool” to the “weird.”) Then back to campus and off to the gym. The breadth of Jewish philanthropy is palpable in this city, and I enjoyed enrolling at the Theodore and Annette Lerner Indoor Sports Center, the very same-named gym to which I belonged at GW (and in which same named building – a different one — I taught for years.)

Tomorrow classes begin. And that got me thinking about the irony of my situation. I was, as any good Jewish boy, enrolled in Hebrew school at my synagogue when I was young. And I hated it. Instruction was poor, teachers not proficient in the language and, perhaps the worst offense, Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings utterly destroyed. I was not alone. My friends felt the same way, although I – being the one of us who consistently acted out his displeasure (solely for the comedic value) – was the one who suffered by punishment. Until Mrs. Horowitz.

I see her now, in my mind’s eye. Tall and tan and young and lovely. Raven hair. Dazzling smile. Oozing charm. Bending over my desk.  Bending over my desk.  She seemed to understand me. She was kind to me. And I was in love for the very first time. (OK, that’s not quite accurate. I was simultaneously in love with Shelly Roepe, the little red-haired girl in my third grade class, for whom I acted out daily and was sent to sit in the hall with the same frequency. Alas, neither were attainable.) I named my pet rabbit Mrs. Horowitz, only to be devastated when my parents came to visiting day at sailing camp and informed me – coldly, matter-of-factly, with neither compassion nor understanding– that the neighbors’ dog had eaten Mrs. Horowitz!  My love for the survivor only deepened. But I still hated Hebrew school.

And so, like my friends, I dropped it the moment I stepped down from the bima at my bar mitzvah. Not to be Freudean about it, but I studied German in high school. And so it goes. It simply didn’t matter. And when I resumed some level of observance after college, I read the prayers without comprehension, but deemed that sufficient at the time.

And here it is, some . . .well . . . some years later. I have felt my ignorance for not having Hebrew. I have felt the inadequacy of not understanding my prayers. I have felt a desire to be closer to my people in Israel. For reasons simple and complex, I have felt compelled to learn Hebrew.

And here I am. Six thousand miles from home. Paying for a privilege that once was free (for me, that is). And absolutely thrilled with the whole enterprise.

Things might have been different. At least I might have placed higher in the program. Had only I loved Mrs. Horowitz wisely, not too well.

Six hours of class tomorrow. I will be inspired by the thought of Mrs. H.


If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Shachris

My first Shabbos in Jerusalem.About as perfect as it can get. Despite a minor mishap.

It began last evening with Kabbalat Shabbat, led by one of the lovely Madrichim whose job it is to guide us. The evening was cool and comforting. And when we settled down in the Bet Knesset, Ira asked for how many people this was their first Shabbat service. A substantial majority. And then I realized: Toto, we’re not on the Upper West Side anymore.

Israel is a wonderfully diverse country. And the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University is, well, wonderfully diverse. Theologians from around the world studying Biblical Hebrew.  Spiritual seekers from everywhere, contemplating conversion. And others drawn just by interest. In any event, Ira chanted in an uplifting Carlebach nusach, leading some to wonder who came first: Rabbi Shlomo or the Beatles!

After shul we walked to dinner. Where we waited for – the mostly Jewish — students who had elected not to attend shul. And I became increasingly impressed with, and far more excited about, the program for which I came. I enjoyed the company of a lovely Norwegian economist, two engaging Dutch theologians (and one thoughtful Viennese), a gracious student from Iowa contemplating conversion, a Jerusalem native advocating a visit to a brewery on the West Bank and, on the way home, a charming Swedish medical student contemplating conversion. Needless to say, our conversation was stimulating and wide-ranging, and as the designated Jew in the group, I’m embarrassed to say that I rather pedantically held forth on deep questions of spirituality and theology. And they were still talking with me at the end, so maybe I wasn’t all that bad. Given this week’s parsha, I was relieved not to have been swallowed up by the earth.

I was so tired when we returned that I fell asleep promptly with an open book. And then awoke early. Ira (our Madrich Gadol; Rosh shel Madrichim?) had recommended a Conservative Congregation just up the road on Bar Kochva Street. I showered, ate my hummus, grabbed my trusty tallis,  and was off. The map was clear. The address unambiguous. I exited the North Gate of Kfar Studentim to the Shabbos silence of the commercial strip. And began looking for the shul. I couldn’t find it. I kept walking. No good. I came upon an elderly man, tallis bag in hand. I asked: Eyfo Bet Knesset Ramat Zion? He looked at me blankly for a second. Then he asked: “Ashkenazi or Sephardi?’ I replied: “Ashkenazi.” He pointed – sham.”  So I followed him in and I walked toward the Ashkenazic entrance as he went toward Sephardic.

Interesting. The Sephardic synagogue he entered was an attractive structure of Jerusalem stone. I entered a shtibele reminiscent of 19th century rural Poland. It was small, dark, windowless, and messy. Two tables flanked the room. Men ranging from seven to seventy (or more) sat at the tables, redolent of herring. I found a siddur, wrapped my tallis, and waited. After a time, the apparent leader came to me with a bottle of Chivas Regal. I protested for a moment (it was 8:15 am) but he insisted on pouring me a l’chaim, and who was I to refuse? And I sat and waited.   A boy brought me a tray of rugelach but, not having gone to the gym (I’m so Hellenistic), I passed. And I waited. And slowly, one by one, each got up and left. I was deeply puzzled. It was obvious this wasn’t the conservative shul. But what was going on? Was Shachris over? If so, they would have to have started at the absolute break of dawn.

Disappointed, I set out again, looking for Ramat Zion. Almost immediately did I realize Google maps had lied. I wasn’t on Bar Kokhva. But soon I found it. And began walking quickly in the direction of number 68. It was a long way. 63, 69, 85. Where was 68? I walked down the hill. Different street. I peered around buildings. Nothing. It was now about 9. Shachris was well under way. Good enough, I thought, back to the Sephardic shul. And so I went.

When last I had left it, I heard the distinctive sounds of davening. I entered the sanctuary. The rabbi was on the bima, facing the congregation. But something was off. It sounded like an evening at Sothebys. (OK, I’ve actually never attended an evening at Sothebys but I’ve read about it. Work with me here.) I found a siddur and chumash and sat down. Listening. He said a number. A congregant responded. A different number. Another congregant. And then something dawned on me. He was auctioning off aliyahs! And my Hebrew is good enough to have confirmed it. I had read of this practice. I had never seen it in action. Fascinating. So I had arrived just in time for the Torah Service (which Childhood Friend tells me is good enough but I like to be there at the beginning).

And once the auction was completed, the action began. A young man chanted about two-thirds of the parsha. I realized he was bar mitzvah. Then an older man came up. I didn’t know the Sephardim did this, and I don’t know what they call it, but it was – in Ashkenaz – an oyfruf. This is when, the Shabbat before a wedding, the groom is called to an aliyah. In the Ashkenazic tradition, it is followed by congregants throwing candy at the groom (which always makes me nervous about the safety of the Torah). In this congregation, the rabbi threw candy at the congregants. Torah protected. And then – another oyfruf (or whatever it is in Ladino or Hebrew). The warmth was simply delightful. That said, while the liturgy is the same, the nusach and customs are different enough that I frequently was lost. I was enjoying the experience thoroughly, but was in no position to channel my own kavanah.  

The windows were open. I looked out to see the courtyard of the shtibele where I began. I looked – with comfort – at my Ashkenaz brethren. And then I noticed something. Immediately in front of the courtyard was a structure – externally identical with the one in which I sat – and from their open windows came the comfortably familiar sounds of an Ashkenazic Torah service! At least I know where to go next week.

I came home. Changed my clothes. Took a book and went out into the still early morning and sat on a bench in the sun. The day was magnificent. The high of mid-70s was still hours away and I was chilled, a refreshing blue breeze blew across the mountain, I lay down and rested – and got sunburned. I was going to return to the dorm, at least for a hat, when two of my new friends from the previous night approached. They were off for a walk around campus. We started talking. They sat down. After a time, two others joined us. It was shortly after 12.

We broke up around 5:30. So much for their campus walk. So much for my hat (I am deeply red). From Talmud to quantum physics, to quantum physics and Talmud, from genetics to feminist bible reading, from epidemiology to international affairs, from Talmud and back again, from Luther to Buber to Strindberg and Bergmann, from Krugman to Trump to Bibi (and Tinkers to Evers to Chance.) I don’t think any of us wanted to leave, but it was getting late, cold, and nobody had eaten. For this was no “bull session.” My classmates are incredibly intelligent, extremely well-read, worldly, sophisticated, and deep. They ranged from a college freshman to a mature theologian. And over the course of our conversation, my optimism for the world in which such people exist just grew and grew.

A world with these people is a world of promise. A world of hope. And a summer of delights – b’Anglit o’ Ivrit   – that has just begun.  I know that with these people I will learn so much more than Hebrew.  Not least of all, I will learn my self — and my Jewish self. S

habbat was about as perfect as can be. For this is exactly what it is all about. Next Shabbos I am leading my new friends on a field trip – directly to the Ashkenazi shul. I may turn down the rugelach – but not the l’chaim.

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Davening at the Kotel; Mechane Yehuda

I can’t imagine a more intense Jewish experience than praying at the Western Wall. For me, having just intensified my practice to include laying tefillin, it was magic. And my shopping trip to Mechana Yehuda on the day before Shabbos just amplified my joy.

I awoke early but, blissfully given the preceding two days of travel and no sleep, not terribly early. I seem to have beaten jet lag for once. I wanted to daven Shachris at the Wall anyway, and since the city shuts down for Shabbos by mid-afternoon, I decided to take advantage of the hour and head downtown. A brilliant morning, with lovely cool breezes as I walked out the door (although the sun never fails to remind you of its own intensity). Out the north gate and down to the light rail station – -the rockhevet (Hebrew for train). This mode of transportation is new in Jerusalem, only a couple of years old. And despite being marred a bit in the news as sites of a couple of terrorist attacks, it is lovely and quite democratic in its ridership. The windows are huge, providing great views up and down the line. It took me a moment to figure out how to buy a ticket, but then off we went.

It was still before 8 when I disembarked at the Yafo station, a bit further from my destination than I needed to be, but I wanted to have coffee before heading into the Old City and wanted to make sure that I would pass an open shop. Coffee and a bureka later, I walked down the hill to the Yafo Gate.

What an experience. When last I visited Jerusalem, I toured the Old City during the middle of the day. Crowds blocking up the narrow winding streets. Arab merchants in the souk almost body-blocking you to get you to come into their shops. Tourists, tourists, tourists (like me). Early in the morning, what a difference.

I don’t know how much of that difference is attributable to the fact that it is Ramadan and perhaps people were a bit slower than usual to open their shops. And perhaps not. What I do know is that I was almost alone in the Old City. Shops were shuttered, the souk was empty. The silence was almost palpable. I could see everything, unblocked and uncrowded. From time to time an Arab would pass by. Or a religious Jew, tallis and tefillin still on, obviously returning from prayer. And the occasional bird that swooped through the tunnel-like streets. I was able not only to see the Old City, but to absorb it as well.

Coming out of the Cardo into the Jewish Quarter. It is very different from the Christian and Muslim Quarters. There, as I described, the streets seem almost covered, the passages quite narrow, the shops cheek to jowl. One knows one is in the Jewish Quarter by the light, by the openness of the small plazas, by the sun blindingly reflecting from the stone of the streets. And by the residential rather than commercial character of the quarter, residential that is except for the synagogues and schools. I heard the laughing, chanting voices of little children as I passed a yeshiva with open windows. One turn, another, some stairs down, and then. The Wall.

I guess I hadn’t been thinking, because I was surprised. I had come for Shachris, but foolishly hadn’t figured on everybody else coming for Shachris too. A sea of people – well, men – rolling back from the face of the Wall. I put my bag through security, and down I went. It was wonderful. Groups of Chasids gathered in one place; Haredim in another. Settler-Orthodox in yet another. I heard familiar prayers being chanted with a lovely trope in a beautiful voice and sat for a while next to the Sephardim.   And it was time.

I felt conspicuous laying my tefillin because I do it so artlessly. But on they went and I looked like everybody else. Far more important was the deepening emotions I felt. Slowly I wound through the crowds, and was lucky to find a place right at the Wall. I prayed with one hand touching, and my tallis drawn over my head, forming a tent with the Wall as one side. I have never felt a more intense, more personal, connection with Ha’Shem, never before felt my praying as a personal conversation, as I did today.

Tefillin are, of course, reminders. They are worn following the dictate in Deuteronomy that the words of Ha’ Shem are to be bound upon your hands and as frontlets between your eyes. They are reminders that we are to conduct ourselves with kiddusha, with holiness. Reminders of the rules by which we are to attain that holiness. Words that tell us in our behavior to obey Ha’Shem by imitating him, at least insofar as is humanly possible.

I have discovered a wonderful thing about these reminders. When I take them off, I still feel them on –especially the Rosh – for quite some time thereafter. It’s hard to explain the reason. The Rosh (the forehead tefillin) is snug, but not at all tight, not nearly so much as would leave a sensation. And trust me, I’m not overthinking this, because it was only ten minutes or so after removing it that I felt it still there. A reminder? A very effective reminder. And now that I am conscious of it, all I have to do is think of it – no matter when – and the sensation returns. So that you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your G-d.

 Business was picking up in the Old City as I wandered aimlessly back to the Yafo Gate, through the Jewish Quarter and Christian Quarter with forays into the Muslim Quarter. But I was alone, alone except for the Spirit that walked with me.

I emerged from the Yafo Gate into brilliant sunshine. And I needed water. (Funny how thirsty you get in the desert.) And so I broke the spell – seriously—by ridiculously overpaying for a bottle of water that tasted as if it had been (poorly) desalinated from the Dead Sea at a shop just outside the gate. (And I thought I had been smart to avoid buying in the old city.) But no matter. I was off to observe a different kind of sacrament – the beauty of food – at Machane Yehuda market about a mile up the street. I knew it would be crowded. It is Friday, and Shabbos closes things here early. (As I sit writing this at 2:30 pm in the cool shade and breeze in the Student Village, it already sounds and feels as if Shabbos has begun.) But I was downtown anyway, needed food and some cooking supplies, and where better to get them?

Despite its riot of shops and stalls (and did I mention the crowds?), Mechane Yehuda is surprisingly airy and open. To walk among those stalls is to be reminded that you indeed are in a land flowing with milk and honey. It is also to take almost ridiculous pride in the way that we (no, I didn’t do the work but still it is we) transformed a land that was stripped of its flora and laid waste for centuries, until my once agricultural people returned to the land from the ghettos of Europe (and the Mizrach) and produced some of the most beautiful fruits and vegetables imaginable. I walked along, regretting deeply that I am obsessively thin and therefore knowing that I would forego the purchase of all that I wanted. But I also marveled at what I saw. Nothing that Whole Foods sells looks like what I saw today. After negotiating the purchase of some pots and pans, I wandered around the food stalls, eventually acquiring a huge, magnificent, still hot pita, several different types of eggplant salad (nobody does salad quite like the Israelis do – although nobody calls some of the things salad that the Israelis do, too), too many beautiful, juicy fresh figs, and the fattest sweetest dates I’ve ever seen. I sighed as I walked laden to the train station, but happy knowing I would return on Sunday. I may return to New York not quite so thin.

Back to the dorm and then, unladen, to the supermarket for more prosaic items. And tonight we have a Shabbos dinner with the Ulpan after Kabbalat Shabbat. Even as it approaches, I am reminded of the glorious gift that Shabbos is, the mandatory time-out, time for gratitude, for reflection, for family and friends, time for peace. Sim Shalom, tovah u’vracha, chain, v’chesed, v rachamim. I am finally – for the first time in my life – blessed with the joyfulness with which we are meant to welcome Shabbat. I am so grateful to be here.


If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Arrival

It is night in the holy city. My first night. I have come to Jerusalem finally (properly) to learn the language of my people and to develop my religious practice as well. Where better to do it than here? I shall be writing regularly about this journey.

The adventure (proximately) began this morning in New York. Rabbi Lipskier pulled a rabbit out of his shtremel and delivered – just in the nick of time – the beautiful tefillin I was meant to have several days back. (Unlike the rabbit, the tefillin are kosher.) His lovely brother-in-law, Z’eev, who lives in my building (along with his klayne shayne tochter) stayed to show me how to lay them. I had done my research, but it’s really harder than it looks. So much so that while I had no problem davening Mincha in the waiting area at JFK in my Panama hat, flowery scarf and Native American bracelet along with the rather differently clad Chasids and Haredim, I didn’t have the confidence to don tefillin for Shachris in the back aisle over England.

I had never before flown El Al. It is a crash course (if one needs it – and sorry about the word “crash”) in Jewish culture at its best (without the deracination so common of “acceptable” Jews in most of the US. Of course it helped that there was a healthy population of Israelis along with American Jews).

Start with the airport. The plane was delayed for two hours, extending to three. Of course! I realized, only when arriving at the airport. The departure time was JEWISH time. Nobody would have dreamed that a 2:30 departure was for real. (Yes, I know that there had been a problem at Ben Gurion that caused the world’s safest airline to have to delay, but I’m sticking with my story.) The waiting area was chaos. Calling passengers to board by rows? Forget it. They started lining up an hour before boarding without regard to any procedure, were completely a-linear 15 minutes before boarding, and got on the plane when they damn well wanted. I love my people.

And the flight. Trans-continental flights usually operate in a manner that gives the flight crew some rest. Even sleep. The El Al crew got not one second of peace. Not one. Their equanimity in the face of it was heroic. Let’s start with the galleys. Bubbe’s kitchen, anyone? Who waited to be served? Who didn’t get up and return the meal if they didn’t like it? Who brought dirty trays back during meal service because they didn’t want to sit with them? Who didn’t go in and take whatever was visible simply because they wanted it? One might have seen this as disruptive and annoying. I viewed it as Heimish (and I had a full view of the galley from where I was sitting). And everybody was perfectly pleasant about it. Bubbe might have tolerated it. The El Al flight crew was gracious. They didn’t even complain when trying to serve breakfast with aisles crowded with late-Shachris daveners. It was beautiful.

Leaving aside all this, I have never taken a flight with more constant motion. Everybody was moving at one time or another. Nobody sat quietly. Hardly anybody slept—and it wasn’t all because of the baby squalling from Greenland to Greece. They couldn’t stop moving. And why would they? They were going to the Promised Land. ”Lekh Lekha.”

I also can’t remember the last time I heard a plane – a 747 no less – burst into united applause at an excellent landing. But why not? We were home.

And then . . . passport control was slow, but I do not care at all if that is the case. No country ver needed vigilance at its borders more than Israel.   More of a problem was the 90 minute wait for my luggage. That clearly was not a security issue, and I was already late to write the essay I needed for class placement. I’ll skip that part of the story. Suffice it to say that I arrived in time, if a bit frazzled.

The Har HaZofim campus of Hebrew University is magnificent. Botanical gardens, lush desert landscaping, and an amphitheater that looks across the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea and Jordan, beyond. The weather is delightful.   Constant sunshine. And while it is hot, the constant breezes are cooling (no hamsin yet) and as soon as the sun begins to drop, a delightful chill fills the air. But the most remarkable natural thing about Jerusalem, as all who have been here know, is the light. Pure, crystal, and revealing. It makes the colors intense, from the deep pinks and purples of the flowers, to the warm golden glow of Jerusalem stone.It will be interesting to be here for so many reasons. One among them is location. Har HaZofim is really in East Jerusalem, isolated on a mountain top that left it inaccessible (because surrounded by the Jordanian army) from 1948 to 1967, and now largely surrounded by Arab neighborhoods here on the literal border of the West Bank. I have no fears at all, but we have already been cautioned about where we should (very few places) and shouldn’t (far more) walk. The light rail and buses essentially stop on campus, so getting downtown isn’t an issue. But as somebody who loves to walk everywhere, I feel a bit hampered by the restrictions.

Enough for today. Suffice it to say that I’m not the only old person (and not even the oldest) in my Ulpan or even other programs here. That said, we remain a small minority. I’m hoping the other kids won’t make fun of me for being old.

Tomorrow I will daven Shachris at the Kotel, and do my Shabbos shopping at the wonderful Mechane Yehuda market. “Til then.