Pearlstone retreat center, home to this year's Ruach ha-Aretz East.
It is the evening of the fourth of July and the sun is beginning to cast low long shafts of light across the grass. A friend calls my name and I veer off the path back to the room, heading instead to a circle of women in the middle of the great grassy oval in front of the main building at Pearlstone. We talk and laugh and sing songs and crack ribald jokes and when I reluctantly rise to return to my room I am beaming. It is the first time since the first night of this two-week retreat that I've taken the luxury of staying out of the room "late," well after Drew's bedtime, and it feels so good to laugh and sing and talk with my chevre, my holy friends.
David and Aura laughing while we work.
Evening once again. I am in the lounge down the hall from the room I share with Mom and with Drew. The baby monitor is on so I can keep an ear on Drew from a distance. Everyone in our lifecycles class has been tasked with forming a small group and putting together part of a wedding, so four friends and I have gathered to work on our piece of a wedding.
We talk about vows: the halakha of Jewish wedding vows, the custom in some parts of the Jewish world of making the traditional masculine vow reciprocal, the notion of using alternative vow text altogether, whether it makes a difference if the couple we're marrying is gay or lesbian instead of M/F. We decide to offer a "community vow" (a chance for the assembled community to affirm aloud their intention to be part of the couple's married life) and then to transition into using verses from Hosea (in Hebrew) as reciprocal vows. Finally we plan to enfold the couple in a shared tallit so that they can offer their own vows in English. We don't have a tallit to practice wrapping them in, so I offer up my sweater. They put it on -- each of them wearing one sleeve -- and we laugh uproariously.
The next day we do our ceremony bit in class, and we are workshopped. I stretch outside my comfort zone by working entirely without a script, as Reb Marcia does. I'm amazed by how challenging that is, and also how much I like it. I feel so grounded in the moment. Reb Marcia reminds me to throw my shoulders back and speak to the back of the room, to use my "holy schneider's shears" and cut extraneous words out before I say them, and the end result makes my spine tingle.
Mom and Drew.
Every evening at 5:30, when the dining hall opens, my mother and I fill two takeout boxes with whatever looks appealing on the buffet and then we carry our food back to the room. Ethan and I realized during week one of this adventure that if we fed Drew dinner in the energetic buzz of the dining hall, Drew would become so hyped up that he wouldn't be able to fall asleep at his usual bedtime. So Mom and I take our breakfast and lunch in the dining hall, but at dinnertime we three retreat to our room. We feed Drew as he sits in his little pink Bumbo on the table, and then he sits in the vibrating bouncy seat beside us as we eat our own supper.
We sip wine from plastic cups, talk about our days and Drew and whatever else is on our minds, compliment Drew's kicking and laugh at his antics. Our room is scattered with Drew's books and toys. After dinner, I read him a book and nurse him and put him to bed. I send Mom out to enjoy a bit of evening programming while I do homework; later we'll trade places and I'll spend some time with friends. But it is lovely to share the early part of each evening with my mother and my son, just us. Three generations of my family, all together.
A group of my friends practices a setting for psalm 23.
We have moved from weddings to funerals. One evening we are assigned the task of interviewing one another about a real person who has died, and then each of us writes a hesped (eulogy) for the person about whom we learned. A friend and I take turns playing the rabbi and the bereaved family member. We each write a eulogy for one of the other's grandparents.
Our teachers perform two very different funerals for us -- reprising real funerals they have truly done, complete with hesped and music -- and then, over lunch, we create funerals in pairs and then several are presented to the class as though they were really happening. There is something strange and powerful about becoming the assembled community which has gathered for funeral after funeral after funeral. Even though there is no one in the "casket" (a box draped with a tablecloth), each elegy given is for a real person that someone in this class knew and loved.
One of the funerals is for my grandfather, of blessed memory. I have read the hesped in advance, so I think I am prepared and will not be too emotional. But my friends sing a beautiful setting of psalm 23, and then hearing the El Maleh Rachamim chanted unlocks something in me and I have to cover my face and weep.
I lead five women on a walk past the farm and over an earthen dam. We skirt a meadow, and head into the woods. Then, when we reach the arrow on the trail which tells us to turn left, we veer right onto a tiny path which leads down to the stream. On the banks of the stream we leave our shoes, our room keys, our kippot, and our clothes, and then we walk in the streambed for about two hundred yards. One by one we clamber over a fallen tree, chanting "Woman I Am," the mikvah song I learned at Elat Chayyim years ago.
On the other side of the tree is a bend in the stream where the water becomes thigh-deep, and this is where we immerse. Each of us tells the others what she wants to wash away, or what she wants to seal and keep, and then dunks. One of us dunks once; a few dunk three times; I dunk for each of the the four worlds; another friend dunks seven times. Sometimes we chant while one of us dunks (Holly Taya Shere's "Holy Holy"), other times we hold the silence. After everyone has gone, we hold hands in a circle and sing a gorgeous call-and-response shehechianu. Then, still holding hands, we all immerse at once. We come up laughing and whooping.
We head back to the retreat center (passing the men along the way.) And then we change into our Shabbat whites, and gather for the evening's celebration. During one part of the service led by Reb Shefa Gold, we're invited to close our eyes and imagine ourselves in Eden. I close my eyes and see myself, again, in the beautiful verdant woods, dunking in our mikveh stream.
When I attended smicha students' week in 2005, a friend and I leapt over a waterfall into a stream as our own private pre-Shabbat mikvah. That was the summer before I entered the rabbinic program; this is the summer before I will leave it. What symmetry.
The real chuppah.
All week I've wondered who's getting married. The schedule for our erev Shabbat says "6pm: chuppah; 7pm: kabbalat shabbat," and we've been assured that the chuppah is a real one. The room fills with retreatants, teachers and friends, almost everyone in white finery. The buzz of conversation, hugging, laughter. And then the wedding begins. Four of my friends hold the chuppah poles we've been using all week in our class. Hazzan Jack and the other musicians strike up a tune. And then one of our classmates enters, accompanied by his parents. Word spreads through the room: he and his wife had a civil wedding years ago, but never a Jewish wedding. Tonight we will celebrate them as chatan and kallah, groom and bride.
It is an old custom, raising a chuppah just before Shabbat. When the bride enters, we all rise; Hazzan Jack is leading us in a verse of "Lecha Dodi," the song we sing to welcome the beloved Shabbat bride -- and also to welcome this beloved real-life bride. When the couple circles one another, slowly, we chant in harmony. When we reach the sheva brachot (seven blessings), we all sing along with Reb Marcia, using the ancient tune for the Song of Songs. When the glass is broken, we cheer and burst into song. During davenen, the couple dances and beams. After dinner, one of my friends leads us in singing the sheva brachot again, and then the band begins to play. There is dancing and drumming and singing, wedding songs, Shabbat waltzes, whirling around the room. We always sing and dance on erev Shabbat, but this is more. When I leave at 10pm, my friends are still singing.
If you want more glimpses of my time at Ruach ha-Aretz, here's a photoset.