Monday, February 16, 2015

My Shabbat Struggle

The journey to Kesher Hadash so far, has come with numerous adjustments. There's the Hebrew, for one. The other big adjustment is living as a full-time student and not taking any part-time work.  As a member of the over-achieving "Lean In" generation, prioritizing personal and creative growth over income is extremely difficult for me, but it feels good to give this gift to myself (with thanks to the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation).  

My status as a full-time student also means that for the first time in about four years, I have a regularly scheduled two-day weekend.  During most of my time in New York, my two jobs have meant taking days off whenever I could--lately some combination of Tuesday/Friday or Thursday/Saturday.  While not having regular weekends sometimes made it hard to make plans or do things like take classes or get involved with a synagogue, I also enjoyed having days off to break up the monotony of my work week.  The other big upside to having downtime in the middle of the week is I got to enjoy empty grocery stores and open library hours while everyone else was at work.  

But now I am here, with two days off in a row every week that I don't have to negotiate for fear my hours might get cut.  One lovely benefit to this has been that every Friday evening since the beginning of January, I have observed some kind of Shabbat minyan. Those have ranged from the soaring melodies at Shira Hadasha (even though the whole gender separation thing kind of ticked me off) to the energizing drumming in Kol Haneshama's monthly Rosh Chodesh renewal service.  This past weekend at our group shabbaton by the Dead Sea, one of my classmates led us in a beautiful activity that had us at one point identifying different meaningful Hebrew words from one of the prayers and chanting them at different pitches all at once.  I experienced the kind of spiritual transcendence I've only received in glimpses during kirtans at the Bhakti Center in New York.  

With my soul filled up with warmth on Friday, I can then look forward to taking Saturday to catch up on the rest of my life.

Except it's Jerusalem.  And nearly everything is closed. 

When I was living in Germany Colony, I was absolutely dumbfounded walking down the main drag of Emek Refaim.  While 24 hours earlier the street had been bustling and lined with people sitting at sidewalk cafes, now every shop and cafe (with the exception of McDonald's) was completely closed. I felt like I was one of the last survivors of a post-apocalyptic Ray Bradbury short story or zombie film.

A family walks over the dormant light-rail line on a typical Jerusalem Saturday
One strategy is to take comfort in the hoards of tourists in the Old City. The first week, I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Other days I find myself in the Muslim Quarter.  At one point I had some super creamy hummus in a cafe run by a guy who also spent a few years studying at Rutgers in New Brunswick (he eventually couldn't take the dullness of Jersey and escaped to finish his degree in Stockholm).  Another week I decided to walk through Damascus Gate and partake in a cup of spiced corn, a Palestinian street food specialty.  

The bustling Damascus Gate

Other times I took the path along the old train track park to the secular oasis that is the renovated Jerusalem train station.  One fun phenomenon to notice was that the dark, covered, Orthodox dress would gradually give way to joggers clad in the secular uniform of athletic wear.  

Now that I am living closer to the center, I can take advantage of the cultural institutions that remain open on Saturdays.  There's a delightful little art gallery next to my new apartment that boasts a vibrant array of provocative works (that sparked no small amount of heated discussion within our group when we visited there for a field trip last week).

"Rich Bitch" by Inbal Mendes-Flohr, one of the recent pieces on display at The Jerusalem Artists House
All of this is lovely, and yet a bit maddening.  I appreciate the idea of a ritual day of rest for a society--but what if rest looks differently depending on the person?  For some people, yes, rest means spiritually connecting to a higher power in a synagogue and then sharing an afternoon with one's family.  For others, it can mean attending a sports event, for others (like me) it can mean taking in the sights and smells of a fruit and vegetable market and then catching one of my friend's shows.  Around the corner from my apartment (next to the art gallery) there is one sidewalk cafe that is open on Saturdays that is always bustling.

I had an illuminating conversation with a rabbinical student who keeps Shabbat, but said he wished the Mahane Yehuda market was open on Saturdays so he could go there and walk around without buying anything.  "I like the feeling of holding Shabbat in my heart," he said.  "I find that more powerful."

With all of this field research under my belt, I prosed making secular Saturdays in Jerusalem the topic for the short documentary film I will be making with the Ma'aleh. film school.  My religious instructor, however, admitted he would be extremely uncomfortable helping me with a film he knew was shot on Saturdays.  

He did tell me, however, he thought it was a terrific idea for a movie.

Or at least a blog post.  

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