Jerusalem panopticon
Shabbat morning, Italian-style

Waltzing through erev Shabbat with Nava Tehila

The Nava Tehila leaders in Reb Ruth's living room, singing the "Lecha Dodi" we davened this week.

Nava Tehila, the local Jewish Renewal minyan, meets once a month. This Shabbat I attended my second monthly service there. In many ways it was like the first one, only more intense, and correspondingly more wonderful.

The basic structure of the service was what I've come to expect there: pearls from psalms, chanted repeatedly (to original melodies); singing and dancing; space for exultation and space for meditation; and, after the peak which is Lecha Dodi, a short and simple ma'ariv (evening) service. Once again, the service was co-led by the trio of shlichei tzibbur. Alongside them, Father Zachariah in his brown and white habit played violin soulfully; a few talented hand-drummers drummed. But tonight our dominant metaphor was the journey, because this week we're in parashat Mas'ei in which we read about the Israelites' journeying. Reb Ruth invited us, at the beginning, to think in terms of the journey of the evening, and to choose a real journey in our own lives on which to reflect deeply during our davenen. Since I've been on a literal journey this summer (with emotional resonances galore), that was my lens for the night.

So before each psalm in kabbalat Shabbat, Reb Ruth related each psalm to our own internal journeys. Lechu n'ran'na l'Adonai ("let us sing in joy to Adonai"): about getting ready to go, together. Hod v'hadar l'fanav ("splendor and beauty are before God"): about preparing for the journey -- figuring out what baggage we're bringing with us, and which personal/spiritual gifts too. (And so on.) When we reached "Ana B'Koach," which many Hasidim (and Renewal folks) sing after the six psalms and before "Lecha Dodi" which welcomes the Shabbat bride, one of the instrumentalists picked up a digeridoo and its eerie hum accompanied us along with the drum.

This week our "Lecha Dodi" was a waltz, which I loved. (See YouTube video, above.) Soon the whole room was filled with whirling waltzers, who slowly morphed their dance into a three-beat circle dance. It was extraordinary.

After the service was over, we walked to Reb Ruth and Michael's house where a long table was set outdoors. We piled the potluck foods on it, clustered around, and sang for a while: a Shalom Aleichem which I've grown to love during my time here (the song welcomes the angels of Shabbat; the link goes to a page where you can listen to a demo recording of the melody in question, which is another waltz), the blessings over wine and our children and bread. After we ate, people moved chairs indoors, and we clustered into the living room for postprandial good stuff: more singing! We sang new melodies for beloved psalms, again with guitar and violin, sometimes riotous and sometimes gentle.

My friend Nachshon gave the first d'var Torah because he is recently engaged; it's an honor accorded to those who are newly-engaged or newly-wed. He gave it in Hebrew, which meant I couldn't follow all of it, but I followed more than I would have two months ago. More singing. Another d'var Torah, this time in English, from my friend Reb David Ingber: a wonderful story about doubt and about the possibilities opened up in us when we allow ourselves to let go of the need for certainty. We were in stitches as he told us (true story!) about arriving in Jerusalem with a key to a door that doesn't open -- the punchline being, of course, that once he walked 100 feet up the street to the right door, the key worked immediately. How often do we trap ourselves in thinking that because our key is "supposed" to open a given door, we need to stand in front of it and try and try and try, instead of accepting that there might be another place we're meant to be opening?

More singing (Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek, "Open for me the gates of righteousness"), and then dessert. I had the chance to chat briefly with the man I'd spotted last month who I'd thought might be Ghanaian. I'm close; he's from Togo, here studying Hebrew in order to write his doctoral dissertation on the meanings of the word shalom. He was delighted to hear about my connections with Accra. We agreed that surely our paths will cross again, here or in West Africa or somewhere in the wide world.

At midnight, I took my leave, just as the group was gathering to sing again. The walk home would take about an hour; it pained me to leave such a sweet gathering, but I knew I needed to get on the road. Some part of me is already looking forward to my next chance to immerse in Renewal davenen, some months from now. (And clearly, whenever I return to Jerusalem in years to come, I'll want to make sure I'm here over a weekend when Nava Tehila meets.) My deepest, deepest thanks to everyone who co-creates this community, and who welcomed me so warmly into your midst.

By the way, the Nava Tehila gang is working on a cd. Learn more on their blog. I'm glad to know that someday I'll be able to listen to their melodies back home.

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