Jewish rhythms of life

I didn’t go.  I admit it.

Fourteen years in Jerusalem and almost every year I witnessed the sunrise on Shavuot at the Kotel.  And this year, I didn’t go.  I just wasn’t feeling it.

Here is an amazing picture from 2008.  I can promise you it looks more or less like this every year.

Shavuot 2008 018

The first time I went to the Kotel on Shavuot to witness religious Jews sing sunrise prayers after a night of Torah study, I felt my heart expand with pride and a wave of joy washed over me hearing all the voices raised in song.  The singing was not coordinated among the groups and yet it wasn’t a cacophony.  It represented the full spectrum of diversity in the Jewish community – each group sang the same prayer, but in their own rhythm, in their own time.  It was beautiful!

Not every year was so awe-inspiring, but on the whole, I enjoyed either staying up all night or waking up at 4:30am to witness the morning prayers welcoming the new day.

But I didn’t do it this year and I feel okay about it (even if it sounds like the lady doth protest too much).

One of the things I appreciate about living in Israel is that I’ll always have Shavuot off.  This is a holiday I knew nothing about when I lived in the US.  I would have only known about it if I was religious in some way and connected to a synagogue.  It is possible in the US to connect to being Jewish without attending synagogue, but it is a lot harder.

Besides a lack of knowledge, if I wanted to recognize Shavuot in some way in the US, I would have to take a vacation day or a personal day from work.  When I was working at the University of Washington many years ago, I requested Yom Kippur off.  My boss asked if I was going to synagogue and fasting.  I said that I wasn’t planning to.  She was confused and questioned my taking a personal day for it.  In Israel, I never have to have that kind of conversation ever again.

Living in Israel, I know that Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Sinai.  Since Passover, people have been counting up to this day – seven weeks (shavuot means weeks).

All dairy products are on sale because Jews traditionally don’t eat meat on this holiday.  No one is actually entirely clear about why this is, but there are a few explanations.

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays.  In the olden days, Jews came to Jerusalem to make various kinds of offerings at the Temple on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Today, Jews go to what’s left of the Temple, the Kotel, and pray at sunrise on Shavuot.

I didn’t go to special classes to learn this stuff.  I still don’t go to synagogue.  I asked my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, and they told me.  Here in Israel it is common, cultural knowledge.

Living in a Jewish state, all the Jewish holidays are national holidays, so I get the day off.  I can or I may study all night or go to the Kotel at sunrise, but I am not obligated to.  I don’t have to answer to anyone about how I connect to being Jewish.  It’s an odd paradox, I suppose, but being Jewish to me is my culture, my heritage, my history, my people.  The mantle of religious Judaism doesn’t fit me comfortably.  In short, it’s easier for me to feel Jewish in Israel because I don’t have to be religious.

So, not going to the Kotel on Shavuot?  No big deal.  I ate cheesecake.  Isn’t that enough?

“It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness”

JD east of edenMy favorite James Dean movie is East of Eden.  The story moved me so much that I decided to read the book by John Steinbeck.  I had the pleasure of visiting the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA, where I learned that Steinbeck considered East of Eden the culmination of his life’s work.  He struggled with it all his life because he wanted to truly understand the fundamental ability to choose light or darkness.


God said to Cain, “If you do well, shall you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)  Steinbeck’s East of Eden tells us that no matter what happens, you always have a choice.

The power to choose

There’s so much awful news: Tel Aviv, Orlando, the Stanford rape case, a British MP gunned down, and plenty more that I don’t know about.  In each case someone made a choice to do evil; they chose darkness.

Debates are raging right now about why these tragedies happened. I’m not qualified to give an opinion about changes that need to be made in society and I’m not going to try.  This post is about the power to choose.

Choosing compassion

The family of a police officer saw someone running from the scene of the Tel Aviv terror attack.  He was badly shaken and could hardly speak.  They brought him in and gave him water.  The officer ran to the scene and when he saw that the detained shooter was dressed exactly like the man in his house, he rushed back, fearing the worst.  Indeed, the family had sheltered the second shooter.  The officer arrested him in the living room.

This family chose to help someone who looked to be in shock.  Without a doubt, the situation could have ended tragically, but instead we have an example of what compassion to one’s neighbors looks like.

Unsung heroes

At Stanford, two Swedish graduate students pulled the rapist off of his victim and held him down until police arrived.  The victim was completely unconscious, could not defend herself, and likely would not have been able to remember the events of what happened in order to bring her attacker to justice.

It was late at night.  The two students could have passed by and done nothing.  Instead, they chose to protect a young woman in a horrible situation.

Choosing to stand together

Sometimes you can’t save the person in danger, but you can stand beside the mourners.  Two stories I came across – and surely there are many more – remind us that it’s fine to “Je suis …” and change your profile pictures, but actions are so much more powerful.

A rabbi brought members of his congregation to grieve with mourners of the Orlando terror attack.  Just showing up was enough.

A flight crew found out that a passenger was on her way to her grandson’s funeral.  He was one of the victims in Orlando.  All the passengers wrote notes and when they deplaned, every person stopped to personally give their condolences.

Shavuot in Israel – Standing together

This week also marked Shavuot in Israel.  Shavuot is the fiftieth day after Passover and marks the date that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  It’s a pilgrimage holiday meaning that when the Temple stood, people came to offer sacrifices.  Today, we aren’t offering sacrifices, but we still stand together, raise our voices in song, and choose life.




Here’s a video I took while watching the sunrise on Shavuot at the Western Wall

From a single candle, thousands can be lit

When I watch the sun rise over the people and hear them singing, I know that the world is going to be okay.  Some people choose to do evil.  This is a fact and we see plenty of evidence of it.  But more people choose to do good.  More people choose light.  Sure, there may be moments .of regret, but every day we have a choice.  We can choose light and keep choosing it until we break down the power of darkness.

Wishing all the fathers a Happy Father’s Day!

And remembering my Dad z’’l

Does the Messiah like techno music?

I couldn’t imagine how I would piece together the events of this week in Israel.  On Sunday we celebrated the reunification of Jerusalem and there was a fabulous flag-waving parade on my street.  Sunday evening was also the eve of Ramadan and, in spite of some friction caused by the parade marchers, it seemed that we might have that elusive “quiet” that everyone is always talking about.  Then on Wednesday, 4 people were brutally gunned down and 16 people injured in a terrorist attack in a café in Tel Aviv.  This act was applauded by Hamas and celebrated with joy in the streets of Hebron.  How does a week like that even make sense?

I walked to the shuk today and in the middle of the Friday afternoon chaos, I heard the thumping bass and upbeat tunes of the NaNaNachmans.  (Ok.  They aren’t really called NaNaNachmans, but that’s what a few of my friends called them and for me the name stuck.)  And then I knew what to write about.

Who are the NaNaNachmans?

I would define them as modern-day mystics.  They are followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810).  They pray for the redemption of the world and the coming of the messiah.  What marks them in the streets of Israel are the slow-moving vans playing techno religious music while the NaNaNachmans dance in the street.  They often wear white beanies with the phrase Na Nach Nachma Nachman M’Uman on them.

Na Nach Nachma Nachman M’Uman to my ear sounds a little like a mantra.  The full words at the end can be translated as Nachman from Uman (his burial site) or Nachman the Believed.  All over Israel this phrase is very common graffiti; I suppose because it’s meant to be a song of redemption and will hasten the arrival of the messiah.

What do the NaNaNachmans have to do with anything?!?

Several vans were part of the parade.  I don’t know what it is but the NaNaNachmans tend to have the strongest, clearest, highest quality speakers.  Their music is heard near and far, possibly reaching the heavens.

Here’s my video of two NaNaNachman scenes that I happened to catch on video.

It’s the second song that caught my attention.  Not just because it’s got a great techno beat and a repetitive chorus.  It was the words of the chorus.  Here’s my translation.

There’s hope

If we sing together

There is faith stronger than all the fear

We won’t fall, we won’t tremble

Because we are not alone

We have Hashem the One.

Here’s a link to Benny Friedman’s official video.  The guy singing is not the guy you might imagine putting together a techno song, but he is a guy who looks like he’s praying for the coming of the messiah.

And that’s it.  Benny nailed it.  We’re all in this together.  We stand up and sing with faith and without fear.  Whether you are religious or not, you, me, and all of us are not alone.

So we’re going to celebrate life and march proudly as Israelis.  And when our citizens are cut down in violence and hate, we’re going to pick ourselves up and go on – with justice, not vengeance.

I know. It’s not so simple … but maybe it should be.

This is a holiday weekend; we’re going to go the Western Wall and watch the sunrise on Shavuot (Saturday to Sunday) to commemorate receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  So here’s a good opportunity to remember the message of the Torah as passed down from Rabbi Hillel – short enough for a tweet, even before Twitter:

Do not do to your neighbor what is hateful to you.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.