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This week's portion: downside

DOWNSIDE (MAS'EI)

But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live[.] -- Numbers 33:55

Here's the part
God apparently didn't say
at least not aloud
where anyone could hear:

dispossessing anyone
not as easy as it sounds
and tends to have
occasional side effects

feelings of guilt
among the tender-hearted
and a certain hardening
of those who do battle

refugee camps
persisting for generations
breeding bitter fury
which tends to explode

and don't forget
the damage done
to your chelek Elohim,
the eternal spark in you

which dims a little bit
with each interrogation
each humiliation
of another face of God.


The Torah poems I'm writing here bear the imprint of my Israel experiences. I don't think they're the same poems I would be writing if I were back home in Massachusetts. They're subtly flavored by the sounds and scents and sensations of my Jerusalem summer.

Okay, sometimes not-so-subtly. Reading Mas'ei in the wake of my trip to the West Bank a week ago, I can't help comparing the Torah's injunctions about dispossessing the land's inhabitants with the contemporary realities of the Occupation. The Torah's message here is clear, but it's one with which I can't agree -- especially not if it's read as an instruction for how we should behave in this land now.

May this Shabbat enfold this whole land in peace, on both sides -- all sides -- of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship.

 

Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

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The All Nations Café

Tonight I attended a gathering of the All Nations Café. It was extraordinary.

The All Nations Café is first and foremost a strong team of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals, who work together, visit each other's homes and see themselves as part of one family...It is [also] a physical place on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Located in a buffer zone between the Israeli Army checkpoint and the Palestinian Authority, the All Nations Café is easily reached by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and the villages and refugee camps that surround them. It is also a safe place for Israelis from Jerusalem, from the Galilee and from the West Bank settlement block of Gush Etzion to come. Internationals can reach it from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

(That's from the about page; you can get a full history of the enterprise at the page titled story.)

I caught a lift with one of the team members who organizes the gatherings, a woman named Daphna who is also involved with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community here in Jerusalem. We picked up a woman named Simone and her beautiful three-month-old son, and drove through the Ein Yael checkpoint (near the municipal zoo and the train tracks) and then made a sharp turn onto a rutted dirt road. The land is beautiful: steep and rocky, speckled with scrub.

We drove up and around until we reached the top, and then parked. Before us was a panorama of hills with what looked like swank neighborhoods (settlements?) on top of them. In the valley below we could see the edge of Jerusalem. We were on the land of Abed Abd Raba, which is the current meeting-place of the All Nations Café.

We walked down a steep path, through a tidy garden festooned with tin cans (which serve as scarecrows) to a homemade tent attached to a small dwelling made of stone. Beneath the tent, people were clustered, sitting on chairs and mattresses, sipping coffee. A filmmaker (who I think was Dutch? I never got the chance to speak with him) was interviewing Abed, and a woman was translating from his fluid Arabic into English. I settled on a floor pillow and listened to the end of Abed's remarks, which were about his attachment to the land and included the story of how the government has tried to have him thrown off his land so a development can be built there.

I chatted for a while with a man named Nachman, and with an Englishman named David who has strong opinions indeed. I met Hamdan, president of Lighting Candles, and Chris (the other Englishman present) with whom I spoke about Catholicism and about what I think women bring to the rabbinate. Abed came and greeted me, clasped my hands, and wished me welcome; so did a man with a moustache whose name I never learned. I listened to stories told by a gentleman around my father's age, who wore a white dishdasha and red checkered kefiyyah and who proudly informed me that his family has lived on the Mount of Olives for generations, that he is a citizen of no land, and that he travels the world routinely without a passport (he has a document that serves in its stead, which he brandished proudly.) When he got up to leave someone respectfully called him Hajji. (ETA: His name is Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, and he's pretty remarkable. Thanks for the link, Pedantka!)

A doumbek and oud materialized, and there was some singing. Pots of strong coffee were made over the fire, and Abed made sure I was given a glass, which I sipped gratefully. Then Daphna suggested we go around the circle and each share a word or two about who we are and what we are feeling. Though someone complained half-jokingly that music is the true universal language, the instruments were set aside for the moment so we could each speak. About twenty of us were present at that point, and it took a while to go around the tent. Some of the Palestinians translated their own remarks into English, and some of the Israelis translated their own remarks into Arabic; Hamdan translated graciously for everyone else. One man, an artist and film student from Beit Jalla, recited a poem in Arabic.

When it came around to me, I introduced myself, said who I am and where I'm from. I thanked them for welcoming me into their gathering, and explained that I have been in Jerusalem for five weeks and have just under two weeks remaining. I said that I look forward, when I go home, to being able to tell my family and friends and community about this experience of Israelis and Palestinians and internationals sitting together and connecting with one another. And I said that I'm sorry that I didn't hear about All Nations Café sooner in my trip.

As I think about it, though, I think I'm grateful that I heard abut the group exactly when I did. Though I'm sorry I missed the chance to connect with these like-minded folks earlier in the summer, there's something especially sweet for me about finding this group in the immediate aftermath of my Bethlehem and Hebron visit. Coming face-to-face with the difficult realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation is emotionally challenging. Spending an evening with people who have made a conscious effort to connect across religious and ethnic lines gives me hope, and I needed that.

After we'd each spoken our piece, the drum and the oud reappeared, along with a tambourine, and soon people were dancing. Abed brought out mint tea and slices of watermelon, unbelievably sweet. After I ate mine, I stepped outside the tent and looked up at the stars -- the first time I've seen stars since I got here; in the city there's far too much light pollution for them to be visible, aside from one planet I suspect is Venus but can't be sure. I listened to the singing and clapping, the doumbek and the oud, and thought: my life is so amazing sometimes. I am so grateful.

Deep thanks to the All Nations Café folks for making me feel so welcome, and for doing their amazing work, one personal connection at a time.


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A solitary sight-seeing Shabbat

This past Shabbat morning I walked to the Old City and made my way through the souq to the Kotel. A sign beside the metal detectors indicated that the chief rabbi has ruled it permissible to go through metal detectors on Shabbat -- apparently, somehow, the functioning of the metal detector doesn't constitute melacha (one of the 39 categories of forbidden labor). I followed an old lady through and emerged into the space before the Kotel plaza.

I snapped a surreptitious shot of this sign (which forbids photography on Shabbat), then walked over to the women's side of the wall. The divider between the two gendered sections was pushed well to the right: 2/3 space for the men, 1/3 space for the women. The men's side was packed; the women's side was emptier, though women were clustered in the margins. I walked up toward the sliver of shade near the base of the wall, but couldn't get too close; all of the chairs were full, and even the standing-room near the wall was pretty densely packed. Women in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, women in headscarves and hats. One woman caught my eye, in a long sweeping skirt with a bustle and a high-necked, frilly Victorian blouse. The women prayed silently or in a whisper; the men sang with gusto.

Continue reading "A solitary sight-seeing Shabbat" »


A day in Bethlehem and Hebron

Edited to add: This post was written in 2008. If this interests you, I hope you'll also read my 2014 post Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour.

 

"I'm going to Hebron tomorrow," Tad said. "And Bethlehem."

Tad is one of my friends from the Conservative Yeshiva. On Wednesday evening we had dinner together down on Emek Refaim. That's when he mentioned the day trip he was about to take.

"Oh, wow, I'm envious," I said. I told him about the trip to Bethlehem I was supposed to be on which didn't actually happen, and how I spent a day with ICAHD but wish I'd gotten the chance to go deeper into the West Bank. "I wish I could go."

"Come with us," he urged me. "I'll bet there's still space. You can register tonight."

So I did.

Tad and me in Hebron.

On Thursday I went on a Bethlehem and Hebron tour run by a group called Alternative Tours in English. It was amazing and overwhelming and hard, and now I have stories and images and impressions to share. So, here goes: another mammoth blog post (4000+ words) about engaging with the Situation in the West Bank.

Continue reading "A day in Bethlehem and Hebron" »


A novel by Edeet Ravel

The first week I got here, my housemate Yafa offered to lend me a book she'd been reading. She wanted to talk with me about it, and it wasn't a book I knew, so she offered to lend it to me as a prelude to conversation. But I was deep in a Peter Hessler book about China at the time, and didn't take her up on the offer.

The Hessler book is taking a while; his writing is dense, and there are a lot of details to parse. So this Shabbat I decided to set it aside in order to read other things. First on my list was the novel Yafa had wanted to lend to me. It's by Edeet Ravel, and it's called Ten Thousand Lovers. It's set in Israel during the 1970s; Lily, a young emigrant, falls in love with a man named Ami. Over the course of the book, as their relationship grows, both of them have to deal with the implications of what he does, and how his work fits in to the larger puzzle that is Israel.

A long time ago, when I was twenty, I was involved with a man who was an interrogator.

I met him on a Friday morning while hitchhiking from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I was studying at the university in Jerusalem but I always spent weekends in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem shut down at weekends and there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, was at its liveliest on Friday nights and Saturdays. That was the weekend: Friday night and all day Saturday. Sunday was an ordinary working day, and I had to be back for an early class...

That's how the book begins, and I found it mesmerizing all the way until the end.

I don't want to give anything away. The book is so well-crafted, and the pacing is so excellent, that I just want to urge you all to read it for yourselves (and then come back here and talk with me about it!)

I can tell you that there's deep love of Israel in these pages -- and also a real willingness to ask hard, even painful, questions. The characters feel real and believable, Israelis and Palestinians alike. It's set more than thirty years ago, but it feels contemporary. And it feels true to me in the way that all good novels are true: it's a reflection of real human emotional realities, and in places it takes my breath away.

Ravel spent early childhood on a kibbutz in northern Israel, and now lives in Canada. Her protagonist in this book was born on such a kibbutz, and then grew up in Canada prior to returning to Israel shortly before the book begins. So there may be some autobiographical resonance in Lily's story. But that doesn't make the book any less gorgeous, nor its conclusion any less powerful.

Anyway. If you're interested in Israel, in the matzav (Situation), or simply in excellent fiction about complicated people leading real lives, it's really worth a read.


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Another Renewal (and renewing) Shabbat

We gathered in the ampitheatre at the Conservative Yeshiva at 6:30 on Friday evening. As I entered (and went directly to embrace dear friends), Dafna -- one of the two musicians who collaborates with Reb Ruth to create Nava Tehila -- was playing guitar and singing a niggun version of "Yedid Nefesh," a love song to God. We sang as others arrived, sparking more smiles and more embraces. My friend Deb; Reb David (of Romemu) and his fiancée; Holly, who -- with my friend Ora, also here this summer -- was part of my mishpacha group at Elat Chayyim in the summer of 2004. And, of course, we were joined by a couple dozen Jewish Renewal college-age kids who're in town this Shabbat, the reason for our gathering in the first place.

We quieted our singing to a gentle hum, and Reb Ruth explained that when the kabbalists of Tzfat invented Kabbalat Shabbat, the service for welcoming the Shabbat bride, they made a point of davening outdoors -- as we were doing in that beautiful breezy twilight moment. But the CY had other physical plans for us, so we continued singing as we moved into the lobby of the hostel and lit candles; we sang as we descended four flights of stairs (ripples of song bouncing up and down the tiled stairwell); and we sang as we entered our windowless basement room deep in the earth, where we proceeded to raise some pretty amazing musical and emotional energy during the two hours of our davenen together.

Last time Nava Tehila met, I was just back from my day trip with ICAHD. This time, Shabbat came right on the heels of a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron. (A post about that is coming soon.) I'm grateful to have such a warm and sweet community to cradle me through the emotional aftershocks of my dips into the West Bank.

Like last time, we chanted selected pearls from the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, to the accompaniment of two guitars and a few drums. Reb Ruth offered a word of teaching before each. Shiru L'Adonai shir chadash, "Sing unto God a new song" -- a chance to become aware of the new songs of ourselves which we are constantly singing to the Divine. B'amud anan yedaber aleihem, "From within the pillar of cloud [God] spoke with them" -- an invitation to enter into the cloud of unknowing, to be open to the voice of God arising out of what we can't see or know. For me one of the most powerful chants was Shame'a vatismach tsion vatagelna b'not yehuda, "Listen and rejoice, Zion, and dance, daughters of Judah" -- I was overcome with emotion watching my three-year-old housemate as she danced joyously around the room.

As we worked our way through the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, I was struck by how powerful it is that our liturgy connects Jews around the world and across all sorts of ideological divides. On the right and on the left, we were all turning our hearts toward the Divine and welcoming the presence of Shabbat into our midst with more-or-less the same words. (That's a gloss, obviously; there are places where our liturgies differ substantially. But in that moment on the cusp of Shabbat, the common ground was what was most meaningful to me.) It's both comforting and challenging to have that commonality: with Jews who speak my language, and Jews who don't; with Jews who share my politics, and Jews who don't.

The last psalm before "Lecha Dodi" includes the lines Kol Adonai al hamayim, El hakavod hir'im, Adonai al mayim rabim. ("The voice of Adonai is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders, Adonai over the mighty waters.") That chant rolled like gospel, a call-and-response like the best kind of blues. It was amazing. When it had finally died down Reb Ruth said quietly, "If you've ever wondered what is kavod, what is glory...? What you're feeling in the room right now: that's what it is." Just remembering it, I'm getting chills all over again.

After the davenen, I joined two friends at the Three Arches restaurant at the YMCA (one of the only places I know here that's open on Shabbat.) They had dinner, and I had dessert: an enormous plate of sugar-sweet watermelon, accompanied by dense little bricks of feta cheese. Sublime. All in all: a fitting chatimah (seal) to another week in Jerusalem.


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This week's portion: promises

PROMISES (MATOT)

If my body belongs
to a man, Torah says
he gets to decide
whether my vows stand.

If I give my body
to a woman -- Moshe
didn't transcribe,
so Torah must not care.

But if my body is mine
my vows are binding.
The tefillin on my arm,
my silver wedding ring.

By what shall I swear?
By painted tiles.
By strong salty cheese.
By the sound of bells.

My body remembers
your touch on my neck,
pressing away
the knots in my palms.

I want to promise
the world isn't broken,
peace is almost here
but the words won't come.


The opening verses of this week's portion, Matot, always amaze me. On the one hand they feel so restrictive to my modern sensibility, presuming as they do that if a woman is tied to a man (as his daughter or his wife) then his word trumps even her sincerest promises.

And on the other hand there's a hint of progressive values here. A widow or divorcée can make binding vows -- and if the husband or father fails to annul the vow when he first hears of it, he can't change his mind after the fact. But the dominant tone of the passage is still steeped in patriarchal assumptions.

Anyway, this week's poem riffs on bodies and on promises. The ending is a bit bleaker than I had initially intended, but that's how it goes. This temporary life in Israel is complicated sometimes.


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Dinner with the Renewal gang

Renewal folks in Jerusalem, summer 2008.

On Tuesday night we hosted a potluck supper for the Jewish Renewal community in Jerusalem. Five of us are rabbinic students, and one is hovering on the margins of applying to the program. Three of us around the table were in my DLTI chevre, group 4, which was sweet for me. Two of us had been at Pardes for a year; one was about to begin a Pardes year; two of us are students this summer at the Conservative Yeshiva; one is studying at Hebrew University.

When we sat down at the table, Yafa led us in a moment of prayer for those who were impacted by the incident yesterday (another piece of construction equipment used as an implement of fear and damage; last I heard, twenty-four had been wounded, though the only fatality was the driver of the machine. Read more on the BBC website, or at Ha'aretz.) We prayed for healing and comfort for all who were affected by the incident, and for peace here and everywhere. Then we followed our usual household pre-dinner minhag (custom): Arielle, who is three and a half, led us in offering a blessing of gratitude for one another and for the food on our table.

And then we ate, and talked, and talked, and ate. And talked. We talked about yesterday's incident, and about different ways of coping with things like that, and about the implications of the common Israeli practice of asserting that the way to keep terror from winning is to staunchly cling to normalcy. We talked about different schools in Jerusalem, and about what it's like to be Jewish Renewal folks within Conservative and Orthodox and secular academic institutions. We talked about Buddhism and Sufism and mystical Judaism.

We talked about looking at the incident through the prism of this moment in our calendar year (we're in the Three Weeks between when we remember the fall of Jerusalem's city walls, and when we remember the fall of the Temple; for many Jews this is a time of semi-mourning.) We talked about things we've learned from Reb Zalman. We talked about many of our beloved friends and teachers. We segued from pasta and quinoa salads to yellow watermelon and halvah from the shuk.

Eventually we sang "Brich Rachamana" (the one-line blessing after meals which the Talmud says is the absolute minimum one may recite.) We sang it to the tune of a gospel hymn -- the same tune we use sometimes for "O Lord, prepare me / to be a sanctuary," though I don't think that's its origin; it might be "Let the circle be unbroken"? Anyway, we broke into impromptu six-part harmony, and when we were done the melody lingered in the room like fragrance at havdalah.

I'm having a good time at the Conservative Yeshiva. But I've really missed my Renewal chevre, our common experiences and assumptions, the shared lens through which we look at Judaism and God and the world. It was a real blessing for me to spend the evening with this crowd.


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Jerusalem poem #2

I've posted a second Jerusalem poem at the Best American Poetry blog. Here's how it begins:

Postcard #2

The best view of Jerusalem
is from Tel Aviv, one hour
(a million light years) away

where in a day and a half
of ice cream and crafts fair
and sunset services at the port

I only saw one Orthodox guy
looking out-of-place
in his black and whites...

Read the whole thing here. (And this time, unlike last time, the comment feature is working for me there, so you're welcome to leave a comment either there or here!)


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The most beautiful haggadah

I came to Israel with the intention of buying myself a new tallit. I love the tallitot I have, very much. But I've been yearning for one in a different style -- the kind of big square tallit I can really wrap up in -- and I've also been contemplating getting a tallit with  rainbow stripes, given the importance Jewish Renewal accords to the kabbalistic qualities represented by the colors of the rainbow. (Here's one account of how Reb Zalman created the original Bnai Or rainbow tallit.)

On Sunday, after my last class of the day, I walked down the hill to the artists' colony near the walls of the Old City. In a window there I found a big tallit with muted rainbow stripes. The studio was closed, but I called the number posted on the door. The man who answered explained that he couldn't return to the studio that evening, because the British prime minister was in town and the streets of his neighborhood were therefore closed to traffic. But we agreed I'd drop by another time to see the tallit and try it on for size. (Of course, I completely forgot to ask what it costs; here's hoping it will be within my price range!)

Anyway, I left that studio and went a couple of doors down, drawn by the sight of spectacular calligraphy and word-art in a window. When I realized what I was looking at, I was gobsmacked; I'd accidentally stumbled on the studio of David Moss.

An image from the Moss Haggadah: part of the 4 Sons spread.

In 1983, David Moss created The Moss Haggadah. It's a single-edition handmade haggadah, in the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and each page is a work of art. I've read about it, I've seen photographs online, but I hadn't realized that the artist's studio lies along the first route I walked between the Old City and my house, on my very first excursion to the Old City the first week I was in town.

He was on the phone when I walked in, making arrangements to fly out that night, so he opened a book in front of me and beckoned for me to look inside. It was a limited-edition facsimile edition of the haggadah. I moved through it page by page, completely spellbound. Every word of the traditional haggadah is there. The calligraphy is gorgeous. But what's really amazing is the artistry of the individual pages -- the papercuts, the illustrations, the symbolism behind every detail! Every page blows me away.

And then he opened up the companion volume: commentary about every page, references to source texts, explanations of his artistic choices. Why the Four Sons are depicted as playing cards (and the implications of using southern European card symbols rather than northern European ones), and which Hebrew blessing he chose to accompany each of the four sons in spirals of tiny tight words.

When he got off the phone, he came over and extended his hand and asked, "Hello; who are you?" I introduced myself and told him that I'm a huge fan of his work (I think I managed not to sound like a complete fangirl, but it was touch-and-go for a while there) and that I too have created a haggadah (The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach v. 6.0 [pdf]) -- though it doesn't begin to hold a candle to his.

The edition through which I had so reverently paged turns out to be the Song of David Facsimile Edition, a limited edition of 500 copies. (All have been sold; today copies cost about $45,000.) There's also a deluxe artists' edition (two large hardcover volumes, one featuring the haggadah and one featuring the commentary; heavy cardstock paper, gilt lettering, papercuts and all) which costs $595, and a simpler standard edition (a single hardcover book, smaller than the other editions; printed on glossy paper, though no papercuts or hand-attached mirrors) for $195.

After I spent half an hour in David's studio, admiring his other work and chatting with him about what he does and how he does it, I couldn't resist making a purchase. I bought the simplest and cheapest edition of his haggadah (and told him that maybe when I get smicha I'll invest in one of his prints, or upgrade to the artists' edition!) Given my deep love of the haggadah (in both its classical and creative forms), and given the importance of Pesach in my spiritual life and my nascent rabbinate, and given how utterly glorious I find David's labor of love, it was clear to me that this is a book I really need to own.

I can't wait to read all of the commentary page by page...and I know that every time I open my coffee-table-book edition, I'll remember what it felt like to stand in David's Jerusalem studio leafing through the truly limited edition, and his art will once again take my breath away.


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PSA for the FAF

The Fresh Air Fund needs help.

The Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to New York City children from disadvantaged communities since 1877. They have 200 children who need to be placed with host families for August. Host families need to be vetted; August is coming soon; so they've asked a variety of bloggers to help them spread the word about the awesome work that they do, in hopes of finding host families for these inner-city kids.

If you live in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, central Massachusetts, the Finger Lakes region or Capitol district of NY, or on Cape Cod (a list of places and dates appears below the extended-entry tag) -- and especially if you can host a 9-12 year old; they really need more families who want older children and boys -- email angie@freshair.org and let them know you're out there. Or you can call them at 1-800-367-0003 -- ask for Angie.

I'm pretty sure Williamstown, and the northern Berkshires writ large, were a Fresh Air Fund location for a while. I know I'm blessed to live in a place as beautiful, safe, and sweet as Berkshire county. If you're fortunate enough to live in a place like that too, consider opening up your home to a kid who could really use a summer break in your neck of the woods?

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled Judaic and religion-related programming.

Continue reading "PSA for the FAF" »


Both sides now

I'm having an amazing summer. Jerusalem is, in my friend Megan's words, "catnip for liberal rabbis," and it's possible to have experiences here that one can't really have anywhere else. Davening at the Kotel, walking the streets of the Old City, learning from and with rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum... Even when I leave Jerusalem, I get amazing Jewish experiences -- like the one I just had, welcoming Shabbat by davening at the very edge of the Mediterranean, singing as the sun sinks in to the glorious sea.

I'm also having a heartbreaking summer. My friend Yishay Mor pointed me to a new essay by Bassam Aramin called The Palestinian Bar Mitzvah. Bassam is the Palestinian co-founder of Combatants for Peace, and the essay begins:

My son Arab is 14, just past the age that his Jewish Israeli peers are celebrating their bar mitzvahs. This ceremony in Jewish culture is a rite of passage that marks a boy's entrance into the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. And last week, my son experienced something akin to the Palestinian bar-mitzvah.

Bassam's daughter Abir was killed by an IDF soldier at the age of ten in front of her school. In this essay he writes about his son Arab begging him to be allowed to accompany friends to a beach in the Galilee. He describes how he acquiesced, thinking of his daughter and all she didn't get to experience... and how Arab's bus was detained on the way home, and how the people on the bus were treated:

In the industrial neighborhood of Wad Al-Joz in Jerusalem, a group of Israeli Special Forces troops on motorcycles along with police and army reinforcements were stationed on the path the bus from Tiberias was taking to get its passengers, all legal residents of Israel, home. They demanded that the driver stop immediately. One of the soldiers got on the bus and said, "Anyone who moves his head, I’ll put a bullet in it." Arab said to me, "At that moment all I could think of was Abir, who really was shot in the head by a bullet."

The soldier continued, "We are from national security." He then told the young men, about ten of them, to begin taking off their clothes in the bus, in front of the women and girls. Then he took them out one by one and had them lie down on the filthy street, littered with stones and pieces of glass.

This is a hard story to read. Really hard. It breaks my heart and then stomps all over it for good measure. But I think it's important, and I hope you'll read it. I come away filled with respect for Bassam and the work he is doing, and filled with anger and sorrow that these things happen at the hands of my fellow Jews. I find a measure of hope in the story, by the end, but it's still painful.

I know some American Jews who come here and experience nothing but pleasure. For them, Israel feels like Jewish paradise: a place that functions according to Jewish rhythms, where Shabbat is truly a sabbath, where our holy language of prayer is a living spoken tongue, where great Jewish things are happening all the time everywhere you turn.

And I know some American Jews who come here and experience nothing but sorrow. Engaging with the matzav (The Situation) can be a perennial source of heartbreak. Spend time in the Territories, meet Palestinians, read stories like Bassam's, and it's easy to descend into a despair so bleak and all-encompassing that hope seems all but impossible.

In some ways, there's something easy about each of those extremes. Blocking out the bad and focusing only on the good, or blocking out the good and focusing only on the bad: either way one gets the luxury of absolute certainty about what Israel is and what it represents. And either of those attitudes toward Israel can calcify, can become a constraint that holds one in a particular political and emotional position.

For me the real challenge is holding both realities in my mind at the same time. Loving what I love about this place, and also being horrified and angered. Feeling empathy for Bassam and for his children (and others like them) -- and feeling empathy for the 19-year-old kids who are placed in the position of training guns on a bus full of strangers, whose souls are being damaged by the experience of being occupiers -- and also being able to cherish the sound of spoken Hebrew, the many flowerings of Judaism that arise here, and the many Israelis I know and love who are also struggling with this difficult mix.

The cognitive dissonance is exhausting. But I would feel dishonest if I were to eschew the dissonance and focus on either the all-good or the all-bad. Amazing and painful, beautiful and appalling, a source of pride and a source of shame: this place is always both/and. As I cross the midpoint of my Israel summer adventure, that's some of the deepest learning I'm receiving.


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Tel Aviv Shabbat

I think one of my top achievements in Israel this summer is collecting a whole set of Shabbat experiences that I've never had anywhere else. This past Shabbat I left Jerusalem for the metropolis of Tel Aviv -- a scant hour away, though it feels incredibly different, as Seizing the Day in Tel Aviv (in today's Sunday Times) attests -- and joined friends for a weekend that managed to be at once action-packed and deliciously restful, as Shabbat ought to be.

After a fun Friday (crafts fair and Druze pita with labneh and zataar at Nachalat Binyamin, a spin through shuk HaCarmel, some time hanging out and talking and drinking coffee) we drove to the port, a collection of big corrugated-metal buildings that now house swank restaurants along a wooden boardwalk. (The real shipping happens in Haifa.) My friends and I strolled with their dog along the boardwalk, and then found seats in the big semicircle of chairs set up at the edge of the water near Hangar 14, the weekly meeting place of Beit Tefila Israeli.

In such an open space, it's hard to build collective energy, so the crowd felt a bit diffuse. But a few people were singing with gusto, and everyone seemed manifestly happy to be together welcoming Shabbat in such a beautiful place. One of my favorite moments came early in the service, during the series of psalms that lead up to the formal beginning of worship, when we sang Achla Olam -- a Hebrew translation of What A Wonderful World. The sky above us was blue, the sea sparkled merrily, our voices lifted onto the breeze like kites: a wonderful world indeed.

Early in the service the leader spoke briefly about what a difficult week it had been, alluding to the exchange of Samir Kuntar for the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser. (There's information about the exchange at NOW Lebanon, and I also recommend the round-up of Israeli posts at Global Voices Online.) The remarks were in Hebrew, which I mostly couldn't follow, though I caught key phrases. At the end he switched into English to ask us to think about the week we've had in order to be able to put it behind us and truly welcome Shabbat. When we sang Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, we moved from slow-and-sorrowful to fast-and-passionate, and the prayer for peace felt deep and real.

We recited the bar'chu (call to prayer) facing the sea. ("This is our Jerusalem," the shaliach tzibbur explained.) And when we reached the amidah (central standing prayer) we turned again to the water and the setting sun, and as our prelude to the prayer we sang "Eli Eli" by Hannah Szenes: "O Lord, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the lightning in the sky, the prayers of humanity." (We sang it in Hebrew, of course.) The red disk of the sun descended into haze, and then it was gone.

After davenen, my friends and I chose one of the restaurants nearby and ate dinner outdoors, listening to the rish-rush of the waters. The lights of the port sparkled on the gently lapping waves of the sea that the Romans considered the middle of the (known) earth. As we ate and talked and savored Shabbat, I felt for a moment as though where we were sitting were still the middle of everything. The wide world spiraled out around us in every direction, all the way to the full moon hanging over us like a benediction in the sky.


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Last day of (my first) ulpan

During our last ulpan class of the first session, kitah gimel read a Yehuda Amichai poem together. Michal had to translate some of the words for us, but in most cases she translated them from Hebrew into (simpler) Hebrew, which was cool. It's gorgeous, and ambiguous, and the penultimate stanza hangs on a piece of wordplay which I got immediately and which hit me in the most amazing and powerful way. (It merits its own post. I'll try to post about it next week.)

And then we went on a field trip to Tmol Shimshom, a bookstore-cafe right off of Yoel Solomon street (not far from Ben Yehuda; a mere ten minute walk from my house, across the park and up a little street.) The place is exactly up my alley: cluttered with furniture, bookshelves everywhere, big windows letting in natural light.

At brunch there I told Michal that ani m'shoreret (I'm a poet), and that that's why I've loved the poems we've read in ulpan so very much. She was delighted, and chastised me for not telling her sooner -- and immediately went over to the poetry shelves to find some volumes of Hebrew poetry to share with me.

We gave her a thankyou gift, by which she seemed genuinely gobsmacked. ("Zeh mamash lo normal," she kept saying: this really isn't normal! We laughed and several of us agreed we'd been given that compliment many times before.)

I ordered the house breakfast: a hot skillet of shakshuka (eggs scrambled with spicy tomato sauce; in this case, with eggplant and feta cheese), accompanied by little bowls of labneh and astonishing homemade jam and slices of homemade bread. It came with orange juice, and I added an iced coffee to the mix -- glorious.

We talked at our table in a mixture of Hebrew and English (Heblish, my friend Megan calls it): about our lives and our work back home, funny stories about linguistic misunderstandings... By the end of lunch we were all lingering at the table, even though we'd already paid; no one wanted to leave.

Four of us from kitah gimel will continue into session 2: the two men in the class, plus Marissa from whom I'm subletting, plus me. I'm grateful for the continuity, and moved and surprised by the extent to which I'm going to miss our other classmates when they go home tonight and tomorrow. Three weeks ago we were strangers. It's always amazing to me how that changes.

And Tmol Shimshom turns out to have poetry readings at least once a week: some in Hebrew, some in English, some in both together. I aspire to attend a few in the weeks that remain. Bilingual poetry readings in a funky bohemian bookstore-cafe in Jerusalem: what could possibly be more my cup of tea?

How lucky I feel to have had such a good first ulpan experience! And terrific afternoon classes, too: Heschel, psalms, theomorphism, all excellent. Thanks Conservative Yeshiva; kadima (onward) to session 2!


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Moments of connection

On Monday evening I Skyped in to the ALEPH pastoral counseling class I've been taking since February. It meets in two sections, morning and evening; I'd been in the evening section, but now I've joined the "morning" section, which meets from 6-8pm Jerusalem time. Sitting at the kitchen table in the old Beit Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva -- beautiful tile floors, big window behind me casting natural light on my computer -- and hearing the voices of dear ALEPH chevre was surreal and amazing. Like a stitch fastening my life-at-home to my life-here-this-summer.

I had another chance to feel connected with my ALEPH chevre early in the week; my housemates and I joined our colleagues Aura and Ora for dinner on Tuesday night. Aura is here for the summer; Ora just arrived, and will be here for the year. We chose a small restaurant none of us had been in before. The painted plates were beautiful, and the service was friendly. I ordered the "Jerusalem Mixed Grill," which came with salad (cucumber and tomato chopped together) and chips (French fries.) I understood that part. What I hadn't realized was that the mixed grill was a mélange of organ meats. Good thing I'm a pretty adventuresome eater.

After dinner, my housemates brought their daughter back to the apartment and I ventured forth with the two women named for light. We walked to the windmill (one of my favorite places in town), where two sets of chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) were being photographed. (One pair was noticeably more religious than the other...) And then we walked to the Old City, entering via the Jaffa Gate.

We walked around a little bit, and I noticed how different the old city feels by night than it does during the day. (Among other things, on Shabbat afternoon I saw police or army everywhere; tonight we didn't see any at all.) Most of the shops were closed, or closing up as we walked by. In the twisty alleys we didn't hear any Hebrew at all. At one point Aura noticed a plaque set into the floor telling us that the cobblestones in front of us dated from the end of the Roman era here, the third century of the Common Era or so. Sure enough, in front of where we stood were enormous cobblestones set into the road, shiny and polished smooth by centuries upon centuries of feet.

We stopped for a drink in the same little vaulted-ceiling'd alleyway where I enjoyed cardamom-spiced iced coffee on Shabbat. Behind us, a rowdy group of Americans with a guitar sang Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley songs off-key. We ordered beers (I'm growing quite fond of Taybeh) and ate the small plates of mezze that our waiter brought out free of charge (lightly pickled cucumber, slices of sweet dark cactus fruit, salty cubes of feta, and lupini beans in olive oil and herbs.) Beside us on a ledge was an old photo album filled with black-and-white pictures of Jerusalem and environs. Camels parked outside the familiar city gates.


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This week's portion: gut feeling

GUT FEELING (PINCHAS)


Was Pinchas a large man
with powerful arms
and excellent aim

were Cozbi and Zimri conscious
of imitating the keruvim
who embraced inside the mishkan

did the cherubs turn their backs
when Pinchas speared the lovers
through the belly

The Ishbitzer tells us
their souls were connected
and death brought them freedom

but I wonder
how many interfaith couples
will experience this parsha

like a blow to the gut
like proof they're not wanted
like exile all over again


Last week's parsha, Balak, ended with a story about how the Israelites took to whoring after the Midianites, and an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into the community. (Later commentaries would say that they were copulating right in the doorway of the ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting.) Pinchas speared the two through the belly, and God's anger was assuaged. (Find the story at the beginning of Numbers 25.)

This week's parsha, Pinchas, begins immediately after the spearing incident. God rewards Pinchas for his actions with an eternal pact of friendship and priesthood. The story has always been profoundly difficult for me. I've heard teachings from the Ishbitzer rebbe about this parsha, suggesting that Cozbi and Zimri (the lovers in question; their names appear in this week's portion) were bashert (fated to be together) from before the creation of the world, and that death was actually a blessing for them. He also taught that the covenant of priesthood was not a reward for Pinchas' violent behavior, but rather a corrective. I admire the Ishbitzer's struggle to make this story palatable, but it's still a painful text.

The reference in stanzas 2 and 3 is to the keruvim (cherubs) depicted atop the Ark of the Covenant inside the mishkan (tabernacle). Tradition tells us they faced one another, enacting between them the kind of I-Thou relationship we're meant to embody with one another and with God. There's a midrash that the keruvim faced one another lovingly when the Israelites were behaving righteously, and that they turned their backs on one another in shame and sorrow when the Israelites did something wrong.


While we're talking about poetry, I want to point to two poems by Adonis, translated from the Arabic; they're gorgeous, and being here in Jerusalem I find them especially powerful. Thanks for the link, Dave.


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Postcard from Jerusalem at BAP blog

The editors at the Best American Poetry blog kindly invited me to guest-blog there again, and to share some news of and from Jerusalem. My first missive is online there now. Here's how it begins:

POSTCARD #1

Greetings from Jerusalem
where centuries pile up
like spices. Heschel said
this place is a text

waiting for embellishment
but I'm not sure anyone agrees
what the words mean
or how to sing them...

I struggled with the last two lines of the last stanza, and I'm still not sure they're exactly right, but on the whole I like the poem, and I think it offers a window into this moment in this place.

Read the whole thing here: Postcard #1 from Jerusalem.


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Scenes from a Shabbat

The Jerusalem Reconstructionist Minyan was packed: 33 kids from the Reconstructionist youth group, plus the usual crowd, plus a hefty handful of visitors like me. (As Reb Ruth said last weekend at the Renewal minyan, this is the season when Amerian rabbis migrate to Jerusalem!) It was a good service, led by several talented shlichei tzibbur. The singing made me happy.

The woman who gave the d'var Torah offered a lovely insight on the verse mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael ("How beautiful are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling-places, Israel.") In Jacob's youth, he had a lot of ups and downs: stole his brother's blessing, ran away from home, got married and then snuck away from his father-in-law's house, and so on. Then he wrestled with the angel, and became Israel. During the Jacob phase of his life, he lived in "tents" -- temporary dwellings, temporary lives, figuring out who he wanted to be, trying on different ways of being in the world. Once he became Israel and became his fullest self, he was able to build mishkanot, homes where he (and God's presence) could truly dwell. It's a journey each of us recapitulates in our own lives.

At the potluck afterwards, I had the chance to reconnect with Brian Fink, who was on the PANIM transdenominational rabbinic student retreat with me last year. And I met Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Reb Blog! How lovely, to feel connected with the RRC community as well as my own.

We ascended the steps of the Austrian Hospice and emerged to the bright sun of the rooftop. The roofscape of the Old City spread all around us, a jumble of shapes: balconies, satellite dishes, hot water tanks, church roofs topped with crosses, mosque towers topped with crescents. The Dome of the Rock gleamed gold above turquoise like a gem set in the skyline.

Just then the Call to Prayer rang out from the mosque immediately in front of us. The tower is one I had photographed on my first jaunt to the Old City, ornamented with scaffolding at its top; we couldn't have been more than 20 feet away, and the voice was loud and clear. When he stopped singing for a moment, I could hear the voices echoing from the other mosques in East Jerusalem, a weird and beautiful kind of stereo.

I'd anticipated that I would hear the Call to Prayer often here. I heard it faintly once during my first Shabbat in town, but on the whole it hasn't been part of my soundscape. Maybe because I haven't been awake at the crack of dawn; maybe because I'm living and learning and exploring in West Jerusaem. (The high concentration of mosques is in East Jerusalem, that other world just on the other side of town.) The muezzin's call was almost like hazzanut (Jewish liturgical chanting), but not quite. While he sang, I stood on the roof and looked out at the city and tried to impress its roofline on my memory and heart.

I ended my Shabbat in Abu Ghosh, an Arab town just outside of Jerusalem, sitting around a table with three friends, drinking fresh lemonade, and enjoying an unbelievable spread: labneh with garlic and mint, salat yerakot (cucumber and tomato), tabouli, falafel, small green olives, pita...

Abu Ghosh is famous for its hummous; every Israeli I know has an opinion on where one can find the best hummous there (as do most of the American expats I've met), and several people have told me it's the best hummous in the country. Our hummous arrived on a large plate, topped with whole chickpeas, a swirl of olive oil, and a scattering of spice. It was manifestly fresh and homemade, redolent with tahini. (Abu Ghosh is also famous for its history of Arab-Jewish cooperation, though that's harder to experience in a hands-on way over dinnertime...)

Our dinner conversation ranged in all sorts of directions. At one point I mused aloud about whether, if I were writing a Jerusalem sestina, I would use "hummous" as one of my end-words. (The consensus around the table was that it's not a good idea; I may eat it two meals out of three, but it's not a flexible word, so it would limit my verbal options.) As the sun went down, we got back on the road: heading back to Jerusalem, back to this temporary life. Another week begins.


For those who are interested in more Israel photos: I've added a bunch of photos to my Misc. Jerusalem photoset, and another bunch of photos to my Jerusalem: Old City photoset (including some from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the view from the Austrian Hospice roof) -- and I created a new photoset called Shuk / Souq / Market Places. Enjoy!


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Morning prayer at the Western Wall...almost.

Yesterday morning I made it to the Conservative Yeshiva by 7am in order to board a bus which took about 50 of us to the Kotel (the Western Wall) to daven the morning service.

Well, more accurately, it took us to Robinson's Arch. The Western Wall is one of the retaining walls that Herod built to shore up the Temple Mount; the Robinson's Arch area is an extension of that wall. It's contiguous with the Kotel-as-we-know-it but feels somewhat distant because there is a wall between the Kotel proper and the Robinson's Arch area. Because the Israeli Rabbinate (being Orthodox) will not permit men and women to pray together in the official Western Wall plaza, they've allowed the Masorti (Conservative) movement to pray in this Kotel annex. Unlike the regular Kotel (which is gender-segregated but open all the time), the Robinson's Arch area isn't open on Shabbat and requires a reservation (and, if you arrive after 8am, an entry fee.) The Conservative Movement reserved two mornings this summer for egalitarian prayer at (near) the Wall; yesterday was one of them.

The area immediately in front of the wall is cordoned off, so we couldn't stand right next to it as people do in the Kotel plaza. But we stood on the big cobblestones -- once the Cardo, an open-air shopping street -- and some of us stood in the open-air booths which still line part of the street. Once upon a time these booths sold things that people would have needed to bring with them to the Temple. If a family had come from afar to make a thanksgiving offering, for instance, they probably wouldn't have brought their own doves from home, but they could buy them here on the street below the Temple complex. That's where I stood to don my tallit and tefillin and to daven the morning service.

Shacharit (morning prayer) was lovely. I enjoyed it a lot, though I'm not sure that's because the Robinson's Arch area (or the Kotel writ large) feels especially sacred to me; mostly I was just happy to be outdoors in the cool morning shade of a beautiful day. (There's an outdoor ampitheatre at the CY, but it's in full sun, so it's too hot to use during the daytime in the summer.) A new friend of mine who blogs at Beyond the Near led shacharit, and I took pleasure in how her strong voice rang out among the old, old stones. Afterward, we had a few moments to walk around and get a sense for where we'd been standing. I (re)learned that the dents in the street are not from earthquakes or the passage of time, but from the enormous stones which were thrown down from the Temple Mount after the second Temple was sacked. Some of those stones are still there.

When I was here in '98 with my mother we went to Robinson's Arch and to the archaeological park there, but I'd forgotten the name of the place, and I'm not sure I knew it was where Conservative Jews go for egalitarian prayer.

On the bus ride back to the Yeshiva, we heard from Rabbi Lebeau about what it was like to try to pray at the Western Wall in a mixed-gender way before the Rabbinate took pity and offered the Arch area as an egalitarian space. He told us stories about trying to pray as a mixed-gender group in the back of the Kotel plaza and being pelted with stones and with shit. Once, he told us, the police agreed to offer protection for a Conservative group on Tisha b'Av -- but once the prayer got going, the police turned on them and said through their loudspeakers that mixed-gender prayer was against the law and that they had to disperse.

Things are better now, in a certain way. We prayed, men and women together, and no one troubled us. But, of course, the Robinson's Arch area (and the archaeological park of which it is a part) doesn't have the same feel as the Kotel plaza proper. And the compromise doesn't seem to work for everyone. I don't think the Reform movement has chosen to accept the Israeli rabbinate's suggestion that mixed-gender groups should daven only there. And I spoke yesterday with someone who's part of Women of the Wall, a group which davens at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh (new moon.) Its members aren't thrilled that they have to relocate to Robinson's Arch in order to read Torah and lay tefillin. (Read more here: "We do not feel that this is `the Wall.' No one feels that it is the wall. We are not second-class citizens who have to pray in an archaeological park...")

In a bigger-picture sense, I can't help thinking this is a major challenge to liberal Jewish life in Israel. Not just the question of who can pray at the Kotel and how, but the question of how and whether the Orthodox rabbinate will ever come to respect other strands of Jewish tradition. Non-Orthodox rabbis can't officiate at weddings here, unless the couple goes to Cyprus and has a civil ceremony first. (Kind of like me, as a not-yet-ordained rabbinic student, in most of the U.S. Except that someday when I get smicha, my status will change -- in the States; here I will continue to be persona non grata, in an official sense.) I'm not sure what it will take for Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal rabbis to be respected here. A seismic change, a paradigm shift, for sure. Kind of an irony, that so many American rabbis seek, and find, spiritual renewal in a place where the state religious apparatus doesn't honor our rabbinates.


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To market, to market

Colorful abundance at Machane Yehuda market.

On Monday afternoon, as soon as I got out of class at 5:15, I dashed home and dropped off my backpack and grabbed our little grocery cart on wheels and headed down the street toward the part of town where Machane Yehuda market is located.

When I was here ten years ago we were supposed to visit the market on a Friday around lunchtime, but there was a pigua (bombing) there that morning, so our trip was canceled. And during my first two weeks here this time around, I'd been shopping at the Supersol across the street from the Conservative Yeshiva. It was exciting at first (kind of cool to see all of those products, familiar and unfamiliar, labeled in Hebrew!), and there are a few things there of which I've grown enduringly fond (cottage cheese with green olives, Froop, kiwi-pear juice), but it's come to seem like any other Western supermarket anywhere. This is a city with a real market; I should be shopping there! So I went.

Inside the covered market.

As soon as I stepped past the security guard at the gate I was grinning. The market is covered by translucent greenhouse-style ceilings, and everywhere are piles of beautiful vegetables: peppers, eggplants, leeks, potatoes. (It reminded me a little bit of the Hungarian indoor farmer's market where Janet took us last year.) The air is redolent with parsley and mint and cilantro, with spices and fish scales and baked goods. I walked past spice merchants (burlap sacks filled with brilliant colored powders), tea merchants (rooibos and green tea speckled with flowers), piles of honeyed baklava. Glass cases containing cheeses. Chickens and hunks of beef and piles upon piles of whole glistening fish.

The aisles were fairly crowded. From what I could tell (based on dress code), the market is frequented by religious and secular alike, tourists as well as locals. At one far end I saw someone selling tin pots, beside a display of knitted kippot.

I could have spent hours there, walking and admiring the wares, snapping furtive photographs of the bounty. But I was on a mission: Monday night was my night to cook, so I was there with the intent of purchasing supper. Michal, our ulpan instructor, had told us that the days to buy fish are yom sheini or shlishi (Monday or Tuesday); by the end of the week, she said, what's left is only good for gefilte! So I paid special attention to the fishmongers, though I realized pretty quickly that I had no idea what I was looking at. I'm used to choosing among neat filets labeled in a language I understand; here I had no idea what the different fish were called, nor what they might cost.

So I took the plunge: after dithering for a short while, I pointed at a pair of fairly sizeable silvery fish and said, "Shtei dagim, b'vakasha?" ("Two fish, please?")

The fish vendor, gutting my mystery fish .

The fellow plucked them from their pile and asked me something I didn't understand, then gestured to the chopping block behind him. I nodded, and he cut the fish open and gutted them. Afterward, he went over them with what looked like an electric razor, which buzzed the scales off. And then he handed me my two whole fish -- heads and tails and all -- triple-wrapped in plastic, and I put them in my shopping cart.

From that point on I had to hurry; it wasn't that dreadfully hot an evening, but it seemed unwise to linger with raw fish on-hand. I bought fresh figs, a bundle of parsley, a handful of small pale zucchini, some pita breads and an ovoid sesame bread (the texture, it turns out, of a breadstick) and a handful of rugelach and a box of bureka (triangular puff pastries with cheese inside and sesame seeds on top -- one of my favorite edibles here so far.) At a store on the way out I nabbed bottle of red wine, and then I headed home.

I haven't quite figured out how our oven works, so it took slightly longer than anticipated to cook the fish, but they were delicious: tender and delicate, flavored with lemon and parsley. I served them alongside a kind of calabacita (flavored with a local hot pepper paste) and big-gauge Israeli couscous, with figs and rugelach for dessert. A feast.

I'm already looking forward to my next visit to the market. I'd like to try some of the different kinds of tea, and the baklava is totally calling my name...


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