Friday, December 28, 2007

Army Life

This one's for you, Rav Bogard :)

It's been another crazy week here at HUC. Finals are looming even closer than before, and the pressures of writing papers and studying the mass quantities of information we have to learn are giving all of us insane tension headaches. But, with the passing of finals comes the amazing pleasure of coming home and spending some good, quality time with the many friends coming to visit me, my family, Temple Israel, and the United States.

This past Wednesday, our Israel Seminar class took us to 2 different Israeli Army bases to learn a bit about how the army works and to chat with soldiers about their lives. First, we stopped at a Navy base in Ashdod, where we talked to one of the captains of a mid-level ship. We were able to learn about how the Navy protects the water borders of Israel, as they are commonly attacked by suicide bombers and terrorists (a fact I did not know until Wednesday.) We were also able to see a small ship and the incredible amount of technology upon it.

From Ashdod we drove to Ashkelon, where we visited an Army base that trains new recruits. Shai, one of the students in HUC's Israeli Rabbinic program, is a commander on the base, and arranged for us to have a beautiful lunch with the soldiers. After lunch we had a discussion with the 3 Israel Seminar professors, all of whom made aliyah (they immigrated to Israel) early enough in their lives to serve in the army. They told us about their experiences (or, in one professor's case, lack thereof) in the army, what it was like to be an immigrant in the army, and their observations of the attitudes of the Israeli soldiers. After this discussion, we broke into small groups to have discussions with current Israeli soldiers living on this base. We met with 2 female soliders who were both 20 and had been serving in the army for a year. One of them is responsible for placing new soldiers into the right units, and the other is responsible for helping the pyschological needs of wounded soldiers of the families of fallen soldiers. Both of their jobs require a huge amount of maturity and knowledge, and they both talked about how they've grown up in this last year out of pure necessity. They are excited to leave the army and begin their "real lives" (though neither of them have definite plans as of yet) but they also mentioned how being in the army is a wonderful blessing for them.

In Israel, every citizen is required to serve in the army after high school. Men serve 3 years, and women serve 2, and then most of the men are put into the reserves after that (though there are exceptions for the ultra-Orthodox and others who are unable to fight.) It is only after they've served their time in the army that they can go to college, travel, begin their "real jobs", etc.

The majority of these soliders are 18-20 years old. They carry large guns everywhere they go. They are in charge of keeping this country, and everyone who lives here or visits here, safe. I can't imagine being 18 years old and carrying the weight of that responsibility on my shoulders--knowing that any decision I make could impact the lives of my fellow soliders and my country in a life-or-death sort of way. And, many of these soliders are secular Jews, meaning that for them, living in Israel and speaking hebrew is Jewish-enough. They fight for those religious Jews who, for religious reasons, refuse to fight and yet still depend on the Israeli goverment for financial support to feed their children and pay for their Yeshiva training. There's a lot of bitterness that goes around, both inside and outside the army, but that's another story for another day.

Anyways, I am off to write my Israel Seminar paper. I'm hoping to get it completely done by this weekend so I can start on my music history paper. The fun never ends during finals at HUC! Much love to you all--can't wait to see you soon!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Semester in Review

I know, 2 posts in one day...unbelievable!

As the semester winds down, I keep thinking about all of the things I've learned throughout the last 6 months. A friendly professor recommended making a list of these things for all of my classes to help me see the big picture and to commend myself for all of my hard work. I know it sounds selfish to want to do this, but for me, it's a reminder of what I have to be proud of and 2 weeks before finals, I need all the help I can get. So, without any further adieu...

-My ability to write and read has improved significantly, as has my listening comprehension. I am able to more easily understand what is being said to me, though I'm still working at thinking quickly enough to respond. I'll get there.

-I can now tell you the difference between a sh'va nach and a sh'va nah, as well as a dagesh hazak and dagesh kal and other important and completely useless information like that (yep, I wrote that oxymoron on purpose...the info is important, but most of the time, no one really cares.)

-As much as I've struggled with this class, I have to say that I am constantly amazed at my ability to read and translate the Hebrew found in Tanach. It's a thrill for me to look at the original texts, in their original form and language, and translate them verbatim (with the help of sources, of course.)

-Perhaps the most exciting part of learning Jewish liturgy is that it constantly raises more questions than it answers. I find myself thinking about all of the prayers that the Reform movement leaves out of their services, and from there, I think about how rabbis and cantors pick and choose prayers to create their own siddurim. I keep wondering how I can teach my congregants the meaning of the prayers without resorting to English translations (which, in my slightly-educated opinion, is a big problem of the Reform movement.) It's so interesting to learn what's out there in terms of liturgy, both inside and outside of the Reform movement.

-I LOVE learning the Nusach, or traditional melodies, from the Spiro book that was written for the Conservative Youth movement. I love singing them and feeling like a real chazanit (woman cantor) from back in the day. I love the time we have in class to improvise and play around with the melodies we learn to make them more interesting.

I can tell you a brief history of music in the Bible, along with some information about the musical customs of the Yemenite, Sephardi and (at the end of the semester) Ashkenazi traditions. I know how cantillation was created and how the role of the cantor came to be in the synagogue.

I came to Israel hungry to learn how to read and chant Torah and Haftarah, and I'm happy to say that I have learned about both this semester. My Torah chanting skills are really fairly strong, and we've only been studying Haftarah for about a week now, but I'm really excited and picking it up quickly (and only confusing the 2 trope systems on occasion.) AND, I will have the opportunity to show-off my new skills when I chant from the Torah at services next week.

Israel seminar is one of my favorite times of the week, because for the whole day we focus on nothing but learning about Israel and Israeli society. I feel like I have a much better grasp on Israelis and why the are the way they are, and I love that we travel and experience Israel outside of the normal classroom atmosphere. I'm in the midst of writing a paper for the class on Holocaust Education in Israel, and it's just so interesting and a nice break from my Judaic and music classes.

This class is the bane of my existence. That's all.

Israel is a classroom in and of herself. I can now order food in a restaurant, talk to cab drivers, buy groceries, ask for directions and a million other things IN HEBREW. I can walk up a hill without being completely out of breath and do 50 ab-crunches on a big red rubber ball. I know what kind of coffee to order, and where to find the best rugelach in town. I also know how to fix the gas for my stove, pay my electric bills, take a hot shower, and fix the fuses when our electricity goes out. I've learned that I can live on my own, 7,500 miles from my family, friends, and safety net, despite the challenges that always seem to arise. And the list goes on and on...

I say I've done pretty well for myself thus far. I can't wait to see where the next 4 1/2 years takes me.

So excited to see you all and share the stories involved in this amazing journey.

Cantor's Concert!

The Great Eli Schliefer addressing the crowd before the cantorial concert Thursday night.

The C-Squad taking our bows along with Monica, our pianist, after a successful concert.

Hi everyone! I hope you're all doing well. Sorry for the lack of posting this week; finals are quickly approaching and my workload is becoming increasingly heavier by the day. BUT---I am officially less than 3 weeks away from coming home, which provides a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel. Don't get me wrong--I love being in Israel--but I'm super excited to come home to my family and my dog and the plethora of friends coming to visit me.

This past Thursday night, the cantors were involved in the annual Cantor's Concert. We put on a show of Yiddish, Ladino, and liturgical art song in both solo and ensemble arrangements. The show went on beautifully; all of us sang well, we blended as a group (which is difficult to accomplish, not only because we're all sopranos) and the crowd seemed to really enjoy it. The concert was held in the synagogue at HUC, and it was packed to the brim with HUC students and faculty, many of our families (sadly, not my family), my voice teacher, and many community members. It was so wonderful to look into the crowd and see so many happy faces supporting all of us.

I sang 2 pieces, one Ladino and one Yiddish. The Ladino piece was a fun song called "Yo men amore dun aire", or "I Feel in love in with an air." It had a lot of tra-la-la's and required a good bit of performance, so it was incredibly fun for me to sing. The Yiddish piece I sang was called "Fun Vayte Teg", or "From far away days" and was a powerful song about reconnecting with Gd. Both pieces really allowed me to show what I can do as a singer, and brought back such good memories of preparing for and performing recitals. It's been awhile since I've performed anywhere else than the bimah, so it was amazing for me to reconnect with the energy and excitement of a good, live performance.

BTW, Steph took video of the Yiddish piece I sang, and she's working on putting it online. I'll post it as soon as it's available.

In other news, this Saturday I met up with some old friends who are here on a Birthright trip. I haven't seen Jessica or Allyson in a long time, so we sat in their hotel (Birthright trips keep a very tight leash on their participants for obvious security reasons, so they weren't allowed to leave the hotel) and chatted for 2 hours. It was neat to hear about their trip and their first experience in Israel, and even nicer to see some people from home. Rabbi Franken is leading a trip here next week, and I am hoping to not only see them, but to participate in leading a Shabbat service with my friend Jen for them. Not only is Rabbi Franken leading, but my cousin Bryan is in his group, as is my friend Marti's daughter Marissa. I'm very excited to see all of them and be a part of their Israel experience. I hope their time here is as fulfilling and meaningful to them as mine was to me.

Anyways, other than that my life is reading and writing and homework and studying and stressing and preparing for finals and saying a lot of prayers. Thanks for the support and good wishes, everyone...I can't wait to see you all when I get home in 19 days!!!

I get to come home to the Noah-dog, the most amazing dog on the face of the planet, in 19 days!!! And my family still thinks I'm coming home to see them...yeah right :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Different Kind of Prayer

I remember being a confirmation student in the 10th grade, sitting with my classmates in the board room at Temple Israel listening to Rabbis Shook and Mills talk about Judaism and prayer. During one class, Rabbi Shook asked us, "Do any of you ever pray before a big test?" I shook my head no, which was usually the truth; I tended and still tend to save my real prayers for things that were and are, in my mind, much more important.

Everyday that goes by, as we inch closer and closer to finals week (the first week of January) I think about that conversation. Did I need Gd's help back then, when my biggest scholastic fear was that I wouldn't pass my algebra test? I don't think so--I think Gd had bigger problems to worry about. Fast-forward 10 years to the present; here I am, finishing up my first semester of cantorial school, and I couldn't be more terrified of my exams. I still think that Gd has bigger issues to deal with, but more and more of my personal prayer time is about school--about finding the will and the strength and the clarity I need to pass my exams and survive the next 27 days.

I've noticed in recent years that I am not a fast learner; I'm not someone who can hear a lecture or read something in a book and spit out the facts verbatim right away. I need time to let it all sink it, and I need to read it, hear it, practice it twice, three times or more before it's right. I'm not a stupid person, by any means, but it feels that way sometimes, surrounded by all of these intellectual people who all seem to pick things up so quickly. When you've got as much to learn as I do, taking your time to learn it all doesn't really work very well.

What is the major difference between my 10th grade algebra test and my upcoming set of finals? This year, this January, my finals really matter. Maybe the grades themselves don't matter, but I feel a need to prove to myself and my professors that I am capable of succeeding here. I want to know that my hard work the last 6 months can and will pay off. Scholastically and spiritually, each class is a challenge that I want to rise up to and meet head on. I just need the strength, mindset, and comprehension to do so.

So, in spite of what my 10th grade mind might have thought, I'm praying for these exams in the same way I would pray for the major "tests" of the spirit and body in everyday life. Being here makes me realize that a prayer for anything, even something as silly as a test or a paper, is worthwhile of Gd's time and attention if it helps to put my mind at ease.

May each of us gain the skills necessary to succeed in all aspects of our lives, and may each of us come to appreciate the opportunities we are given to challenge ourselves and grow as students, teachers, and human beings. Blessed are you, Adonai our Gd, who gives knowledge to those willing to pursue it.

Kein y'hi ratzon--may this be Gd's will.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

End of Chanukah and Women's Song

Steph's beautiful oil Chanukiyah lit up for the last night of Chanukah

In Israel, it is customary to put your Chanukiyah in the window that faces the street so everyone can see it's light. While we were unable to safely participate in this custom, we enjoyed looking at all of them whenever we left our apartment!

Hi everyone! I hope you had a nice ending to your Chanukah celebrations and that you're enjoying the holiday season. It's still sometimes funny to me how it feels nothing like the holiday season here in Israel. Though it's been chilly, our weather is much more like fall than winter and I haven't heard a single Christmas song or seen a single sprig of holly since last December. As someone who admits to being a traditional Christmastime Scrooge, who typically complains her way through December, I have to say that I miss the holiday season--it's strange to not be inundated with the customs of Christmas from Thanksgiving until New Years. I even miss the overcrowded shopping malls I tried so hard to avoid (whenever I wasn't working in one) during the month of December. I guess sometimes you don't realize how much something is a part of your standard way of life until it's gone from you.

In school-related news, the cantorial students began their program of Jewish Women's Song yesterday, which is actually a joint program with the cantorial students from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS,) the rabbinic/cantorial school of the Conservative movement. For the first time in a long time, all of the cantorial students at both schools happen to be women. Because of this, Eli and Marlena (the director of the JTS cantorial program in Israel) devised a program that would allow us to meet and study together, both in a large group setting and in smaller, one-on-one type settings. We had a wonderful first meeting, which began with a beautiful morning prayer service. Each one of us participated, leading prayers in both traditional Nusach and in more contemporary settings. After the service and some delicious Israeli pastries (my hebrew teacher from STL always told me how dangerous Israeli pastries were...she was right!) we jumped into a day of learning about the various rites of Jewish Women's music. We had expert presenters from the Sephardi, Bulcharian, Iraqi, Farsi and Yemenite traditions come in and perform/talk to us. All of the presentations were phenomenal; each woman was not only well-educated in her subject matter, but had a tremendous amount of vocal and dance talent. Many of them also came with songs to teach us, which was very fun and informative.

Everyone's favorite part of the day was the percussion seminar. A famous percussionist and Jewish music scholar came in to lead us in a rhythm session, where we began to discuss how to integrate drumming into our prayer services. A lot of what he talked about in this first session was about feeling the natural rhythms in our lives, and how any melody we sing can be put into those rhythms fairly easily if we allow for it. I am excited to continue this seminar and bring out my inner percussionist; anyone who's ever worked on music with me knows that my sense of rhythm is not the greatest, so this should make for an interesting experience. I am even more excited to play with my new drum...get ready for some amazing drumming action over winter break!

Perhaps the most exciting part of this program is that HUC students and JTS students pair up to study closely with each of the aforementioned presenters. We drew names yesterday, and I, along with my new friend and JTS student Shoshana, will be working with the Yemenite performer to learn about and perform Yemenite Women's song. We are singing a joint concert in April to show-off everything we've learned and to teach the other students about the culture we've selected.

All of us left HUC yesterday in a wonderful mood and excited to begin our studies together. I am happy to be participating in this program not only for the content, but for the partnership with JTS. In the past, HUC and JTS students have had little to no communication (though our schools here are right down the street from each other.) All of the JTS cantorial students are wonderful, talented women, and I am excited to know them and to, one day, call them my colleagues.

Anyways, I am off to begin organizing and typing out notes in preparation for the serious studying that will take over my life during the next 29 days. All of our professors are discussing their final exams with us, and I am quickly becoming overwhelmed with the sheer amount of studying I'll have to do. But, as Jen wrote in her last blog, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as the end of finals also brings me home to St Louis. I can't believe it's so soon, and I have so much to do before then, but I am so happy that it's coming. Wish me luck surviving until then!

Lots of love from Israel, and start thinking of fun things you want from the Holy Land---I am happy to fill my suitcases with gifts and Israeli goodies for you!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Happy Chanukah!

IDF Soliders lighting a Chanukiyah Thursday night

Happy Chanukah everyone! I hope you're enjoying your Festival of Lights. We've been busy as ever here, trying both to keep up with out studies and to make some time to celebrate this special part of the year.

Chanukah is not a "big" holiday in Israel, at least not in comparison to the High Holy Days and Sukkot. You don't see banners everywhere wishing people a Happy Chanukah, and people don't scurry around trying to find gifts for their children and friends. However, you can tell that it's a holiday; people wish each other Chag Sameach (happy holiday) or Chag Orim Sameach (Happy Holiday of Lights.) There are jelly donuts, called sufganiyot, in every bakery and grocery store. You can smell the potato latkes frying in people's apartments. Perhaps my favorite part of Chanukah in Israel thus far is looking at the Chanukiyot (Menorahs) on people's balconies as I walk down the street. I love seeing the lights twinkle and knowing that all of these families just sang the same blessings that I sang, and that they're celebrating the same miracle I celebrate every year.

It's been a busy week for me; there have been a lot of Chanukah festivities that have accompanied my already jam-packed schedule. On Tuesday, the first night of Chanukah, my community choir had it's first concert. The concert began with Eli lighting the candles and singing the blessings for the Menorah. To many of the students in the choir, this was a little sad, as we wanted to be with our families to light the candles. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, and we managed to put on a halfway decent concert for our small audience.

Wednesday night, I was invited to my friends Sara and Andrea's apartment for Chanukah dinner. Sara and Andrea are from a small town outside of Pisa, Italy, so they showed us what an Italian Chanukah dinner is like. In Italy, they don't eat potato latkes (can you imagine?) but rather, fried chicken with lemon followed by bits of fried dough with a carmelized sugar syrup on top for dessert. It was an oily, delicious feast, and the company was wonderful as well. Sadly, we all had work to do, so it wasn't a long evening, but a great time was had by all.

Thursday night, our friends Erin and Batya were kind enough to invite us to dinner at the home one of their friends who is in HUC's Israeli Rabbinic program. There were a ton of people there, including about 10 children, and we had an amazing time eating latkes (for the first time this year!) and playing with the kids. Everyone who had children brought little gifts for the other children, so we were able to watch the kids open and play with their new toys. It brought back so many memories of my own childhood, when my family would get together and all of the kids received a Chanukah present (a tradition that carries on in my family until this day...we are all still kids, after all...) It was exactly the way I wanted to spend Chanukah in Israel.

We came home Thursday night to begin preparing the feast for the Chanukah dinner WE hosted on Friday night. Steph's friend Molly is in town, and to celebrate her arrival, Chanukah, and Shabbat we hosted a dinner for 5 of our friends. We prepared a TON of latkes, both regular and sweet potato, and the smell of latkes is still permeating our apartment. I grated most of the potatoes and onions myself, by hand (with some help from Steph), and I am proud to say that I only have one battle scar from the grater on my left pointer finger! But, it was worth it; Steph and I had fun mixing and frying up the latkes, and trying to remove all of the bits of potato from our kitchen counters and floors. I also made homemade applesauce and baked chicken with sage and lemon, and Steph and Molly bought sufganiyot from the shuk for dessert. Friends brought roasted vegetables, a delicious spinach salad, special baked califlower and sweet potatoes, and drinks. We ate and ate and ate, played fun games, and watched Grey's Anatomy until we couldn't stay awake anymore.

This morning I participated in Shabbat services, singing/leading 5 pieces. It was a fun and festive service, and afterwards Nicole came over to help us polish off some of our leftovers from last night. After lunch, Steph, Molly and I all took a shabbat menucha (nap) and while they are visiting the Kotel right now, I am here, procrastinating on the tons of work I have to do. It's getting tougher and tougher to stay focused, especially because it's cold and there is no heat in my apartment; all I really want to be doing most of the time is cuddling with my blankets and a good movie or book. Anyways, enough complaining---Happy Chanukah to everyone, and I hope you are enjoying the holiday season in the States.

I leave you with a few of my Chanukah Haikus, written for Nicole's collection. Enjoy, and please comment and add your own!

Chanukah is fun
Lighting the colored candles
Ruach all around

Latkes in the pan
Whole apartment smells like oil
Want to come and eat?

Winter in Israel
My apartment needs some heat
I love slipper socks

(I told you guys I was procrastinating...)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Class Tiyul #2

We just came home from our 2nd class tiyul (trip) to the cities of Caesaria, Tzippori, Tiberias, Safed, and Haifa. It was a great trip, and wonderful to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy some fresh air and beautiful scenery. Compared to the J'lem, these cities were warm, inviting, and a refreshing change from our daily academic grinds. From Jerusalem, our first stop was to the port town of Caesaria. This town was built by Herod and given as a gift to Caesar, the source of it's name. It's a BEAUTIFUL city, with a gorgeous beach and tons of Roman ruins. Also, it is here where Rabbi Akiva is said to have been killed because he refused to stop studying and teaching the Torah. When we first arrived, the cantorial students were asked to sing in their amazing ancient amphitheater. We knew this going into the trip, so we prepared a beautiful 3-part V'shamru. On the bus, Gingy (one of our tour leaders) wanted us to also sing something fun, so somehow Elana came up with an idea. The 5 of us, plus 7 rabbinic and education students sang and performed a rousing version of Queen's Bohemeian Rhapsody, which included air guitar, air piano and air drums, and an amazing interpretive dance. This was all done at the last minute, and it was as hysterical as it was ridiculous. It was definitely something we will all remember for years to come.

The beaches of Caesaria...beautiful!

The cantorial students singing V'shamru in the amphitheater in Casaria. From left to right: Julia, Elana, Michelle, Vicki and I.

After breaking into groups for some text study (on the shore of the beautiful Sea of Galilee, with Gingy, one of my favorite people at HUC) we left Casarea for Tzippori. Tzippori was a city that housed Jews and others in the Hellenistic period. It is where the Sanhedrin, the council that determined the religious decisions for the Jewish people, was founded. The remains found there include many beautiful mosaics, which are pretty incredible, considering they are 2,000 years old. It was nice to re-visit Tzippori (I came when I was on BRI in 2004) and see the mosaics again.

A close-up of the Mosaic floors of Tzippori

Lauren, Lyle and I at the highest point in Tzippori

After we explored Tzippori and had a few more bites of text study, we had an afternoon service in the ancient synagogue. The synagogue is pretty amazing, as it has a mosaic floor that tells us a ton about how Jews worshiped back then. They actually have a Zodiac sign on the floor, and we learned that these Jews connected Zodiac signs to the months of the Hebrew calendar. We had a short and lovely service before heading back to the bus to go to our hotel in Tiberias.

Though it does have religious significance, Tiberias is a dumpy little down in Israel, so we only stayed the night there. However, we were treated to a fun group dinner at Deck's, a lovely restaurant on the water. The food was really nothing special, but we were all pleasantly surprised when a boat came around, announcing we were there and welcoming us. They also played Frank Sinatra's New York New York since the majority of us were Americans. It was a totally random, "only in Israel" kind of moment, but a lot of fun. We had to be up very early the next morning, so we came back and headed to bed early after dinner.

The boat at Deck's that welcomed us to Tiberias. Strange and incredibly Israeli, but very fun.

After a 7:15am (what were they thinking???) morning service and breakfast, we headed out for a day in Safed (pronounced Sfat.) For those who don't know, Safed was the birthplace of Kabbalah, a mystic form of Judaism. We spent the morning touring the little synagogues in the town center, and then we visited one of the many artists who live and work in Safed. His name was Avraham, and is was born and raised in Michigan before making Aliyah to Safed 13 years ago. I didn't care much for his artwork, but it was neat to hear about his personal experience with Kabbalah and how he uses his artwork to connect himself and others to it. We spent the majority of the afternoon walking around the little artist shops and the famous candle store, where I bought some candles as gifts for friends and family.

The Ark in the Abohav Synagogue in Safed. Inside there is a Torah Scroll from Spain dating back to 1492, that is only allowed to be used 3 times a year.

After our day in Safed, I really wanted to take a nap, but instead we all went hiking! Now, you guys know how much I love schlepping through the woods for no real reason, and this hike was really no exception. We were able to see Mt Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel which currently capped with snow, but that was about it. Thank goodness it was short, and we had a nice long bus ride to Haifa, which allowed me to chill a bit.

Neighbors! Nicole and I on our hike. I look awfully happy to be hiking, huh?

We spent the night in Haifa, where we had dinner on our own. A group of us decided to go with Nancy and Gingy to a sushi restaurant pretty far from our hotel. We had a great evening AND (this is big...) I had my first raw-fish sushi experience. I tried some of a tuna roll and a salmon roll, and they were both pretty tasty! I think I'll stick to my veggie sushi for now, but I was proud of myself for trying the fish.

After breakfast this morning, we made our way to the Leo Baeck Education Center in the middle of Haifa. This place is AMAZING...they have primary and high schools, Beit Midrash (Torah study) groups, adult education, and higher-learning opportunities for Reform Jews in Israel. We had a wonderful tour and information session, a question/answer session with some of the high school students (who are all incredibly intelligent and well-spoken), a special Havdallah ceremony, and a wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat celebration with the primary students. The Shabbat ceremony was definitely the highlight of my trip; the kids were SO cute when they were leading the candle, wine and bread blessings and singing and dancing for us. I'd love to go back there at some point and work with them, maybe teach them songs or lead them in a drum circle or something. I hope I have the time....

The Tree of Life at the Leo Baeck Educational Center

The Kitah Aleph (1st grade) students of Leo Baeck preparing for their performance. How cute are they?

Anyways, now we're back and ready for a relaxing Shabbat. We have no real plans, except to babysit our friends Dave and Gal's 3-year-old daughter Dahlia tomorrow afternoon. It'll be nice to have some time to chill out and recharge for the busy week ahead. Hope all is well, miss and love you all. As of tomorrow, I'll be able to say "See you next month!"

Cantor In Training

Hi guys. I'm having some computer issues, which is why I haven't been able to post as often lately. My computer miraculously decided to turn on today, so I'm trying to catch up on some much-needed blogging time. I'm hoping to keep posting, but I'm afraid that the frequency will slow down. I guess we'll see!

Anyways, this week was a big one for me. As part of the HUC first-year program, all of us are required to lead our group Monday morning services. Rabbinical students each have to pair up and lead a service once during the year, and cantorial students are required to plan and sing music for 3 services throughout the year. This past Monday morning, I had my first shot at officially leading a service. It was such a great and educational process for me, and it really was a huge accomplishment. I came into this program never having participated in a weekday service, which meant that there were a lot of new prayers and melodies to learn. The HUC Jerusalem campus also uses many traditional Nusach melodies that I learned and led for the first time, which are a capella and sometimes hard to grasp melodically. However, I learned them, and was able to plan music for a service that went extremely well.

This was the first time I've ever taken it upon myself to actually plan my own music for a service, which required a lot of work and thought. Whenever I've sung services at TI, Linda and I have always planned them together, and we usually know what the congregation likes and needs. Here, they expect the students to do that on their own, and picking out music for 50 people with completely different ideas of what makes a service spiritual and beautiful is not easy. Luckily, I think I managed to do fine; at our service review a few hours later Eli mentioned that he was very happy with my program. He appreciated the different moods for the different pieces and thought I had a good balance of Nusach, congregational melodies, and cantorial solo moments. I was worried about that, because many of my fellow students have mentioned how they prefer congregational singing to listening to the cantor. I've always thought that it is beautiful to have cantorial solo moments in services at times, to allow the congregant to internalize the prayer by listening to a beautiful musical setting. I don't know if the kahal (congregation) was all that pleased with my 2 soloistic moments, but in general I thought the service went well and Eli Schleifer agreed, which makes me happy.

Anyways, I know this may not be all that exciting to you, but for me, it's a huge accomplishment and something that I'm really proud of. I'm SO GLAD that this first time is over, and I kind of know what to expect from here on out. It'll be nice to work with my rabbinical colleagues for my next services in February and March and hopefully be able to enjoy myself a little more and work to create even more spiritual and beautiful t'fillot.

Missing and loving you all!!

Friday, November 23, 2007

An Israeli Take on Thanksgiving

The view of Tel Aviv from our friends' apartment.

Hi guys...sorry it's been so long since my last post. It's been an insane week here, probably the craziest week that I've had yet. It's been a good week though, filled with good friends, fun times, and many important accomplishments. It was hard being away from home for Thanksgiving; I missed the sights, the smells, the tastes, the colors and the family that it always brings. I even missed my yearly struggle of who's house to go to for dinner. I realized this year how lucky I am to have 2 families (sometimes 3) who all welcome me to their Thanksgiving tables.

Before I talk about my actual Thanksgiving Day, I have to make mention of the HUC football team, lovingly known as the HUC-Stables (remember the Cosby show?) HUC had their first-ever "homecoming" celebration this year, before the big football game against Pardes on Tuesday. We celebrated with a pep-rally on Tuesday morning, followed by an exciting and victorious game on Tuesday night. The fans came out in droves to cheer for the team, and even though it was pouring down rain and freezing cold all night long, a fun time was had by all who attended. Because we had choir, I was only able to catch the last half of the game (and I had to miss the tailgate, choir) but I had a great time anyways. Go HUC-Stables!

The HUC-Stables at the pep-rally...we celebrated with dancing, a speech from our Quarterback, and the theme song from "The Cosby Show"

David, our team captain, QB, and native STL'isan (yeah!!!) giving the victory speech after the big game on Tuesday night. The HUC-Stables beat Pardes 33-6.

Now, back to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not celebrated by Israelis in the slightest. Understandably, the holiday is of no importance to them, meaning life goes on as normal on Thanksgiving day (meaning, we had to go to for that.) After class, I hopped a sheirut (shared taxi) with PJ and headed off to Tel Aviv. Our friends Shari, Dena and Stephanie lovingly invited PJ and I, as well as Steph and Ariel, to a Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel in Tel Aviv, and then invited us to stay with them for the night in their huge apartment. The dinner was sponsored by a group called Nefesh b'Nefesh (Soul in Soul) that works with new immigrants to Israel. They made a decent attempt, but I have to say that the food was nothing to write home about. It was great though to be celebrating Thanksgiving with good friends at a nice, big table. We each went around and said what we were thankful for, and toasted to a wonderful Israeli Thanksgiving meal.

An Israeli take on a traditional Thanksgiving me, you didn't miss much.

Our Tel Aviv friends and I enjoying our dinner together. Shari, Dena, me and Stephanie.

Our Thanksgiving table. From left to right: Adam, Shari, me, PJ, Stephanie, Dena, Ariel, Steph

When we were finished with dinner, we went back to Shari, Dena, and Stephanie's beautiful apartment in Tel Aviv. They were so cute and so accommodating...they made these adorable turkey cupcakes for us, which were not only delicious but a great way to get our sugar-rush, since the desserts at dinner were not so great. I don't think it truly felt like Thanksgiving until I saw these. They really made my Thanksgiving wonderful. We stayed up late, playing games, eating these rich cupcakes, and drinking wine until we couldn't keep our eyes open. We woke up late the next morning, and had a leisurely brunch at Max Brenner's, a chocolate factory/restaurant, and then caught the sheirut back to J'lem. We were sad to leave, but so happy to have gotten out of Jerusalem to see our friends and celebrate a fun Thanksgiving. We had a great time, though I will say that I can't wait to have our faux-Thanksgiving dinner when I get home.

The turkey cupcakes the girls made for us! Aren't they adorable (and don't they look tasty??)

So anyways, that's Turkey Day in the Holy Land. It was hard to be away from home, and both Steph and I found ourselves very homesick, but I think we really made the best of it. I'm so happy to have our friends in Tel Aviv who are such a great break from our J'lem circle of friends. I missed you all, and I hope you all had a wonderful, festive Thanksgiving, and that you all have plenty to be thankful for...I know I do!

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Day in the Life

Some pictures of the HUC-Jerusalem campus, courtesy of my friend Julia. It's incredibly beautiful and makes these forever long days a little more bearable (most of the time!)

Since last week's post about my crazy Thursdays, some of you have written asking me what exactly it is that makes them so crazy. So, instead of writing everyone back individually, I thought I'd write about my Thursday, in hopes that I will give you a better idea of what the day is really like. Thursday is actually a great day to talk about, not only because it is so fun-filled, but because it gives a good representation of the program at HUC as a whole. Prepare yourself for the craziness!

My Thursdays always begin with a whopping dose of Hebrew. Yesterday's class was actually really fun; we celebrated Julia's birthday by making her little cards that allowed us to review our verbs in future tense. We ended class with an improvisation exercise led my my friend (and fellow St Louisian) David, where we played games normally found at Improv Comedy clubs. It was so fun and funny and we learned while we played.

After Hebrew, I have a 30-minute break before Liturgy, my next class. Normally I spend my break shmoozing and sipping a cappuccino, but yesterday we had a liturgy quiz which required me to spend my half-hour cramming. It was worth it though--I can tell you the names of all 19 prayers of the Amidah and what they mean. I feel smart :)

Liturgy itself is one of my favorite classes. We spend our time looking at the prayers and talking about how they became fixed in the Jewish rites and what they mean to the Jewish people. We're studying with the Orthodox prayerbook Rinat Yisrael, and while not all of the prayers are carried on in the Reform movement, it's incredibly interesting to see where the Reform prayers come from and the connections between the liturgies. We also talk a lot about Mishkan T'fillah, the new Reform prayerbook, which I've really fallen in love with. I can't wait to receive the finished copy (hopefully soon!) and to use it in my student pulpits next year.

After Liturgy and lunch, I head to my Bible class. OK--Bible is important, I realize, but I have to say that it is my least favorite class here. I've told y'all my woes about Bible, so I won't elaborate here, but let's just say I am looking forward to the time when I can enjoy reading Tanach again, like I do in Cantillation (see below.) Thank goodness this particular Bible class is over in January and I can wash my hands of it (the class, not the Bible.)

Jewish Music History is the next in line for my Thursday classes. Eli teaches this class, and while it's sometimes a bit boring, the class definitely has some interesting moments. Yesterday we talked about the development of Piyutim, or poems about the prayers that are read in a musical manner. The most famous Piyut is probably L'cha Dodi, a prayer/poem that welcomes in the Shabbat "bride" on Friday evenings. Piyutim were originally presented as riddles, and the congregation listened and tried to guess what the riddles were about--they were all the rage in synagogues in the 13-14th centuries and continue to be a part of Jewish liturgy until today.

My last class of the day is Cantillation. This class used to be incredibly stressful; we were never really taught the trope signs, but rather we opened to B'reshit (Genesis) and were told to start chanting. Now that I've caught up a little, the class is incredibly interesting, useful and fun. I chanted 2 lines yesterday, including a really tough one, and while I'm nowhere near perfect (or even GOOD) at cantillation, it's finally starting to stick with me. In order to put my skills to good use, I signed up to read Torah---for the first time since my Bat Mitzvah 12 years ago---at our Monday morning services on December 31st. I am scared TO DEATH to do it (and to present my own translation in front of everyone, which is required of all of us) but I know it will be good for me. I'd really like to read as often as I can while I'm here to get over my anxiety of chanting Torah and practice the skills I am so diligently studying.

So, that's my crazy day. I'm sure your eyes are as tired of reading as my body is at the end of the day! It's exhausting, and I always dread Thursdays like the plague, but at the end of the day I'm happy with my hard day's work. I hope everyone is doing well, and I can't wait to see you all so soon! Looking forward to many happy reunions (and a lot of tasty food) when I'm home.

שבת שלום
Shabbat Shalom!

Aron, me and Julia celebrating Julia's birthday at Shlomtzi's Thursday night. (Like the shirt, Whitney?) :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

FSU Pesach Project

The following is taken from a letter that many of you will receive in the coming weeks on behalf of the FSU Pesach Project. For the last 6 years, HUC students have traveled to the Former Solviet Union to celebrate Passover with the various Jewish communities there. We will not only be leading Passover seders (the traditional Passover meal, where we tell the story of the Jewish liberation from bondage in Egypt,) but teaching Jews about Judaism, Torah, Jewish music, etc. I am very excited to be participating in this project, which I am sure will teach me a great deal about being a Jewish leader, the Jewish history in the FSU, and the many details of Passover itself. If you are willing and able, please donate via the website or mailing address listed below (after all, donations to this project make a great Chanukkah gift...) Thank you so much in advance for your support!

Dear Friends,

This April, forty rabbinical, cantorial, and education students, as well as, friends and family from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) will be traveling to the Former Soviet Union (FSU.) In partnership with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which unites and supports Reform congregations world-wide, we are happy to announce our sixth-annual FSU Pesach Project.

We hope that you will support this student-led initiative. We anticipate that it will cost each delegate $2,000 to participate, which includes: travel expenses, educational materials, Passover supplies for all the participants, as well as, donations to each community, which will enable them to continue observing Passover in the years to come.

The mission of our trip is to provide meaningful Passover celebrations for thousands of under-served Jews in the region. While there has been an abundance of Jewish philanthropy and development in the FSU since the 1990's, there are still only six progressive rabbis to serve over one hundred Jewish communities during Passover.

Therefore, our student delegations will be traveling to more than twenty communities throughout Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in order to lead Passover Seders, conduct educational programming, to create relationships with Jews of all ages, and to strengthen the Jewish identity of these diverse communities.

Please consider supporting this project as a way to recognize the profound importance of celebrating the Jewish story of liberation in a place where freedom from oppression is a very real and recent experience. Tax-deductible donations can be made online at Additionally, contributions may be sent by mail to:
Attn: Diane Bongard
3101 Clifton Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45220

If you have any questions regarding this mission, please send us an email at On behalf of everyone at HUC-JIR, and our partners at the World Union for Progressive Judaism, we appreciate your commitment to making this project a success for us and the entire FSU Jewish community.

You are also more than welcome to email me directly with questions at Thanks again!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Love the Weekend

I love the weekend--really, I do. Being a student at HUC requires so much time, commitment, energy, strength, thought, work, etc etc etc, that by the time Friday rolls around, I can't help but love the 2 days I have to not focus on pushing myself (academically, anyway.) I've grown to appreciate my weekend more than I ever have before since our real schedules began after Sukkot break.

The first reason I love my weekend is Thursday night. For me, Thursdays are my hell days. I have 5 classes, which all require preparation (so my Wednesday nights are very, very busy.) I spend my Thursday schlepping from one class to another, with a backpack so heavy from books that my back literally hurts at the end of the day. However, come 6:30 Thursday night, I shove my backpack into a corner of my room and shout with joy that I not only survived, but have a whole weekend to look forward to. This particular Thursday night, Steph was visiting some of our friends in Tel Aviv, and I had the apartment to myself. I'd forgotten how nice it is to have an apartment completely to myself--don't get me wrong, I love my roommate like a sister, but I also love having my own space. I spent my Thursday night in complete solitude, cooking a healthy dinner, exercising (see below) watching movies, and singing loudly and with my door wide open. It was so wonderful and exactly the way I wanted to end my day from hell.

My Fridays usually begin with a voice lesson in the morning. My voice lessons are another thing I've grown to really appreciate since I've started school. I spend so much time thinking about the Judaic side of my program that I often neglect my singing and musicianship, which I hate. Friday mornings I have the chance to go to my lesson and just focus on singing, which is the real reason I'm here in the first place. My voice has grown tremendously in the last few months; the pitch problems I had when I arrived are nearly gone, and I'm exploring a softer, gentler side of my voice that I really love. My singing feels so free and easy, and my confidence in singing has slowly returned, which is the nicest thing of all. My teacher and I have formed a close bond, which is so important, and though she's tough on me to get things right I know that she deeply cares about my singing and about me as a person.

After my lesson, I head to HUC for my weekly training sessions with my personal trainer. OK, I know what you're thinking, but yes, I have a personal trainer. His name is David and he's a rabbinical student who spent the last 10 years running a personal training business in San Francisco. He's amazing--smart, very positive, and kind towards me, and he mixes in Jewish texts and prayers with the workout. He knows I hate exercise with a passion, but it's important to both of us that I make it a part of my lifestyle. He also helps me with nutrition and relaxation techniques to keep me calm during these crazy weeks. And, even as I sit here with sore legs from doing waaaaaay too many squats (with weights this week...oy vavoy) I know how good it is for me and I see and feel results every week.

This morning Julia and I sang at HUC Shabbat services, which was so so SO nice. I love singing with Julia; she's one of my closest friends here and has an incredibly beautiful voice. She's probably the most vocally talented of the 5 of us and is truly one of the nicest people I have ever known. We sang 3 duets together, and each of us had 3 pieces to sing on our own. Today was the first time I've sang on the bimah at HUC and felt completely comfortable, and I really feel as though I sang well because of that. I'm also quickly building my repertoire of Jewish music, which I am SO excited to share with everyone when I come home. Linda, some of the duets we sang today would be perfect for you and me...maybe we could sing some over my winter break???

I spent the rest of the day doing homework, preparing homemade pumpkin soup (not one of my favorite soup creations, but good enough none-the-less) and attending a Rosh Chodesh text study and comedy function. I'm not ready to go back to school tomorrow, but as long as I have these weekends to look forward to, I'll survive.

OK, I think I must get back to the Biblical Grammar homework I've been avoiding since I started writing this entry. Missing and loving you all...61 days until I come home! Shavua tov and chodesh tov (a good week and a good month) to you all!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Life Goes On

Memorial stone at the Mount Hertzl Military Cemetery. We visited the cemetery, where soldiers are buried (close to the National Cemetery, where all of the heads of the government are buried) last week for our weekly Israel Seminar.

Hi everyone! Hope you're all doing well. It's been another busy week, though I have to say school has been considerably better the last few days. I'm still busy, but I'm working to keep a good attitude and try to sneak in some "Tracy Time" everyday, which has helped tremendously. The HUC Board of Governors was here this week, so there's been a lot of excitement and activities going on with that. They've been sitting in on our classes, attending special meetings, preparing for/attending the Israeli Rabbinic Ordination, and talking to us, the students, about our experiences thus far in the program. I was asked to be on a student panel on Thursday in which the board members could ask us questions about how the year is going. With my state-of-mind at the beginning of the week, I was a bit worried about how I would answer their questions. We were told to be honest, but at these kinds of things, you have to be tactful--they don't want to hear about your particular problems in that kind of setting, and in some sense, they want to hear that the school is doing a good job. Luckily, my mind set was much improved by the time Thursday rolled around, and I was able to talk to them genuinely. They asked us questions about classes, moving to Israel, our families' reactions to us being here, etc. They were all very nice people, and seemed very interested in the cantorial program. One of them was on the committee who auditioned me last February, so it was nice getting to know her and learning about who she is and what she does for HUC.

Thursday night, Steph and I along with our friends Lea, Shari and Dina went to the Jerusalem Theater to see Hadag Nachash, an Israeli pop/hip-hop/electronic band play. I'd seen them earlier this summer when I didn't really know their music, but now that I've had some time to hear them on the radio and around Israel, I enjoyed the show a lot more. Their music is very loud and fun, but usually has some sort of political message. My favorite song of theirs, Shirat HaSticker (The Sticker Song) was composed from a bunch of bumper stickers seen on Israeli cars, protesting war and encouraging peace. They're an amazing band to see live--they're leaving for a US tour in the next year, so if they come to your city, I highly recommend that you go. You'll enjoy it :)

Hadag Nachash! We had 4th row seats and an awesome view... it was pretty amazing.

After the concert, we went to our friend Sam's apartment to celebrate both his 23rd birthday and (belated) Halloween. Halloween is not at all commemorated here, as it's a Pagan holiday (and an American tradition), but we had a great time celebrating on our own. Being the incredibly cool cantorial students we are, we decided to go costumed as trope signs (trope signs, or ta'amim in Hebrew, are the little dots and squiggles you see under the words in the Tanach that tell you how to sing them.) We thought it would be fun to mix each other up and make people sing us; our tag-line all night was "Sing me, baby..." OK, so we're the dorkiest cantorial students ever, but we had so much fun with it and laughed about constantly all night long. In case you were wondering, I was the sof-pasuk, the trope that marks the end of each verse.

4 of the 5 members of the C-Squad: Michelle "Shalshelet", Vicky "Etnachta", Julia "Karnei Para" and Tracy "Sof-Pasuk" (though I think my trope is backwards.) We're the coolest cantors in Jerusalem, clearly.

Anyways, the rest of my weekend was filled the with Israeli Rabbinic Ordination, where the community choir sang the opening and closing numbers, and a lovely Shabbat with the board members. I went to Kriyat Harel, a reform congregation just down the street from here for services, and then attended delicious and fancy dinner at the home of one of the congregants of Harel (with homemade chocolate mousse for dessert...complete and total heaven.) Today was spent observing our Saturday tradition of homework and Grey's Anatomy, followed by dinner with our friends Jen and Dan. It was so nice to have a Saturday completely free--after 2 weeks of constantly running around, I really appreciate the days I have completely to myself.

Now I'm off to do some last minute homework and prepare myself for the busy week ahead. Miss and love you all..68 days until winter break and STL!!!

P.S. For all of you cooks out there: It's getting to be soup-weather in Israel...any ideas for delicious and easy soup recipes? My soup-repertoire is getting a little boring...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Here Comes the Sun...

A beautiful sunrise from Masada, taken 3 days after I arrived in Israel.

You guys are the BEST readers any blog has ever had. Seriously.

Thank you for reading that last post, and for those of you who emailed, thank you for your compassion and understanding. I'm beginning to realize that your most important dreams shouldn't come easily; I think it's the blood, sweat and tears that make you aware of how important your dreams are to you, and in the end, you remember how they actually helped you along the way by making you stronger. I'm trying to keep that in mind, and remembering that I have tons of people back home supporting me all the way. You have no idea how much that helps--from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Anyways, let's talk about something fun--Shabbat, anyone? This was one of my busier Shabbat weekends, with required services and a singing gig Friday night and a special service at HUC on Saturday morning. Here goes:

Friday night, the entire HUC class gathered at Kol Haneshama, one of the Progressive synagogues in town (Progressive Judaism is the Israeli equivalent to Reform Judaism, though it's not exactly the same.) We had a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat service, and though many of the melodies were strange to me, there was so much singing and joy in the room that I couldn't help but sing along anyway. After our services, Michelle (a fellow member of the C-Squad) and I went to the King David Hotel where we joined a Canadian sector of the United Jewish Appeal for a beautiful Friday night dinner. They hired us out to lead them in some zmirot (Shabbat songs), and basically paid us to eat a fancy dinner and sing a few songs between courses. I must say that we ate, sang, and shmoozed like true Jewish professionals.

Saturday morning Michelle and I were asked to sing again at a special HUC service honoring 2 of the retiring faculty members. The service itself was wonderful; the HUC beit knesset (synagogue) was filled to the brim, there were 3 cantors on the bimah (not counting Michelle and I), and Rabbi Feinberg, one of the retirees, was simultaneously grinning from ear to ear and tearing up as he led his final service at HUC. It was beautiful to see him and Ginny be honored in such a special way, and to be a part of something so meaningful to both of them. We then went to a beautiful kiddush, complete with sushi, Israeli cheeses, and cakes that looked amazing even though I didn't eat them.

Our Saturday continued with our new Saturday tradition: Grey's Anatomy and roasted vegetables. Every week, Julia comes over and we watch the new Grey's (Steph downloads them on iTunes...I love my roommate,) eat lunch, and attempt to do homework. It's become a really nice way to relax on Saturdays, and usually we get a lot done in the way of homework.

It's been a few weeks since I've properly celebrated Shabbat; I haven't been good about going to services, and I realize after this week how nice it is to have that few hours at the end of the week to let everything go, pray, and remember why I'm here. I need to start going more often, not only to fulfill my own personal needs, but to experience Israeli synagogue life, as Orthodox as it may be.

I'm trying really hard this week to stay positive about everything. Yes, a lot of stuff is always thrown at me (and today was no exception,) but it's all stuff that I love to do and it's so good for me to be here. I'm learning how to be strong, and how to work harder than I ever have, and it's all for the best. And, I know why I'm really here...the struggles will only make me appreciate the whole experience and all of my accomplishments so much more. Again, thank you all for all of your support--I could not be surviving this year without you.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Somehow Surviving

Just a short post to let you know that I'm still here. It's been a crazy week, with a lot of ups and downs, and I'm not really in the best state of mind at the moment. While I enjoy this program, it's incredibly intense and hard to manage most of the time. My temper flares at the drop of a hat with people who do nothing to cause it to flare. My head is trying to keep up with and memorize the millions of facts, notes, and vocabulary I am learning everyday. My body and mind are struggling to stay awake and alert while I'm in class. It's such hard work, much harder than I expected it to be, and I feel guilty for complaining about doing what I've dreamed about doing for years. I feel bad that many people live their lives never knowing what their dream is, or simply not having the guts to follow it, and here I am, accomplishing what I've always wanted to do and crying and complaining everyday about how much work there is to do before I get there.

There are definitely times where I'm not sure this is worth it. There are definitely times where I want nothing else but to hop on the next flight to the US and not come back. There are definitely times where I question my own readiness and abilities to be here, or compare myself to everyone else here, which always sets me up for disappointment.

I think the worst part is knowing that 95% of the things I study here could easily be studied in the States, without the added burden of living in a foreign country and all that goes with it. Many days, the only part of Israel that I have the chance to see is the street from my apartment to school and vice-versa. It seems silly to me that we have to be here if all we're doing is sitting in class and coming home to do homework. As I wrote in my reflection for the class last week, thank Gd for Israel Seminar, where we get out of the classroom and actually explore all that this country has to offer. It's the one day a week where I'm actually happy again to be here.

I'm staying hopeful that life will get easier, that this year will prove to be worthwhile in all the ways I thought it would be. I'm trying hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's hard most of the time.

So, I'm still here, and I'm surviving. I hope to update soon with a more detailed recounting of some of the better parts of this week. Shabbat, for instance, was really really beautiful. I promise to be much more cheerful in the next post, and to be a little more grammatically correct.

Missing you all like crazy and wishing I was with you (or you were here...come visit please...)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Stop and Smell the Roses

The red rosebush in our garden.

The prettiest rose I've seen in our garden. How can you not be happy just looking at this??

One of the little things about Israel that constantly makes me smile is the abundance of fresh flowers everywhere you look. Most apartment buildings have gardens, and ours is currently blooming the most beautiful fresh roses I've ever seen. We have them in several different colors, and they smell AMAZING--better than any rose I've ever smelled in the states. I try to smell them every time I leave and enter my apartment building because they make me so happy, even if I've had a horrible day. It amazes me how something so small can make such a big difference in my life.

Anyways, thanks to all who commented on my last entry. It's great to know that I have your support and that many of you have been in similar situations.

As far as the never-ending ulpan drama is concerned, I decided to stay in kitah bet a bit longer and see what happens. The rest of the week was a bit easier, thank Gd. I talked to our teacher on Tuesday and told her that I was thinking about switching back to kitah aleph. While she didn't try to convince me to stay, she also didn't seem to understand why I wanted to switch out of the class (in a good way, like she thought I was doing fine.) I told her that it's hard for me to think quickly enough to talk in class and that I'm constantly nervous. She said I could sit-in with the aleph class for the day, but when I went to the other room, I found out they were taking a test and had to return to kitah bet. Tuesday's class ended up being the most comfortable I've been in kitah bet this year, and the rest of the week was also much easier, including the test we took on Thursday. I'm thinking that maybe I am meant to stay in kitah bet, but I guess we'll wait and see.

Bible is still the same. Yoel (our teacher) wants to have individual meetings with each of us to discuss the paper we wrote last week and also things in general. I have a feeling that he'll ask me why I don't participate much in class, which will allow me the opportunity to tell him what's going on. A part of me thinks he'll understand, while another part thinks he'll be a real butt-head about it. I'll keep you posted on what happens. Meanwhile, I just translated the story of the rape of Dinah. The fun of translating the Bible never ends, let me tell you...

Last night Steph and I hosted 12 of our friends for a mexican-themed shabbat dinner (Mexi-bat!) We made a huge pot of vegetarian chili (which, while very delicious, was not nearly as good as the chili I make at home that is NOT vegetarian) and friends brought burrito fixings, mexican rice and desserts. While it was very, very crowded, we all had a great time and ate a lot of good food. Preparing for, hosting, and cleaning up after a shabbat dinner is hard work, but it's always worth it, especially when we sing the shabbat blessings with people we care so much about.

Some of our shabbat table enjoying the chili and burritos we served. On the left side (from left to right): Nicole, Stephanie Mohr, Julia. On the right side (from left to right): Jen, Steph and PJ.

Oh! We had our first thunderstorm since I've been here on Wednesday night. It was so, so nice to hear thunder and see lighting and listen to the sound of rain again. It didn't last very long, sadly, but it was so great for everyone in Israel to have rain, and for the gorgeous roses in our garden to get water that doesn't come from a hose. AND--the rain mixed with the scent of the roses gave our courtyard and garden the most beautiful smell. It was heaven. To celebrate the rain, and because we love the restaurant, we went to dinner at Sushi Rehavia. I came to Israel not even liking sushi, and now I can't get enough. They make a roll with grilled salmon, asparagus, sweet potato and avocado that is TO DIE FOR. Steph and I are actually going back there for dinner tonight, because we love it so much.

So anyway, that's been my week. Thanks again to all who wrote back concerning my crisis' last week, and thanks to all of my faithful readers for giving me a reason to keep posting. And remember, take some time to stop and smell the roses. You won't believe what a difference it can make in your day.

Monday, October 15, 2007

School Sucks Sometimes

The title of my last entry was "School is Hard." I meant to discuss it in the post and somehow got off track when talking about our trip to Tel Aviv. But I wasn't lying. School is extremely difficult, academically and otherwise. I've had several of those "What the hell am I doing here?" moments since the holidays ended that I never really encountered before now. I know why I'm here and I know that I'm meant to be here. I expected school to be challenging in more ways than one. But I never expected this.

Many of my classmates came here with strong backgrounds in Jewish Studies, Hebrew and The Bible. I wasn't one of those people. This is the first time I've experienced studying Torah on an ACADEMIC level, leaving aside the emotional and practical sides of the Bible. We look at how the Bible is written and ask questions relating to what the Biblical authors (yep, there is more than 1 author of the was a surprise to me, too) meant when they wrote the stories. For someone like me who has never studied Tanach regularly in the academic spere, it is easy to feel completely lost in our Bible class. To prepare for class, we are required to read aloud and translate the hebrew text, and once we're in class we take turns reading aloud and discussing what we think of the text. Our professor is very knowledgable and scholarly, but he doesn't have much patience for those of us who are A.) studying the Bible for the first time and B.) struggling with putting our ideas and thoughts into intelligent words. When most of the people around you have read the text before and are able to have the intellectual discussion the professor expects, it's very intimidating to raise your hand to ask the simple question the rest of the class already knows the answer to. Or, reversely, it is equally intimidating to be called upon by the professor and not have the answer he's looking for. I come into the class feeling anxious and worried and leave the class feeling like a total idiot. It doesn't do much to build my confidence or create the joy in reading Torah that Gd wants us to experience.

As far as Hebrew is concerned, it's the same kind of story. After 6 weeks of bitching and moaning about being in kitah aleph this summer, I was switched into kitah bet. Now that I'm there, I don't like the teacher's teaching methods or style and again I'm very intimidated. I'm scared to talk in class, and when I try to, the teacher has no patience. She does not allow me the time I need to think about both what she is saying to me and how I want to respond. It is also hard for me to follow her 75% of the time, because she speaks too quickly for my brain to understand. None of this seems to be a problem for the rest of the class. Again, I enter the class feeling nervous and leave feeling stupid. Thank goodness that I at least have the most wonderful and supportive classmates, who are not only kind and patient with me but are also very helpful in just the right ways. I just don't like the fact that I'm slowing them down.

I'm torn now between staying and fighting my way through kitah bet or switching back to kitah aleph and giving myself a break. A part of me wants to push myself, but the other part of me says that I am pushing myself in plenty of other ways this year (which is really true) and that modern hebrew is probably the least applicable to my career in the long run. I spoke to Na'amah Kelman, the director of the year-in-Israel program, and she's really pushing me to stay where I am and try to talk to our teacher, and I think I'm going to follow her advice, though I'm unsure of what our teacher will say or if she will even be patient enough to let me talk to her.

My other classes are going fine, though they are tough and the work piles up really fast. Eli expects a lot from us and I think in a way the five cantorial students expect a lot from each other (especially those who already know traditional Nusach and cantillation.) I'm doing the best I can and trying to convince myself of that; I'm just waiting for this insecurity to go away so I can feel confident in the fact that I belong here.

Anyways, thanks for reading what has turned into a bitter diatribe against HUC. I'm sorry to bug you with my issues, but I have to admit I feel better now that it's out there for all to see. Any suggestions and advice are always appreciated, and if someone would like to come here and be my personal cheerleader, that would be fabulous.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

School Is Hard...

Independence Hall, in which the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948.

Hi everybody. It's been a long week. Tracy is tired. Very, very tired.

It's been my first week of all of my classes. We've actually experienced what our "real" schedule is like this week, and while I'm learning a ton of interesting and important things, I'm also completely exhausted and ready for a relaxing Shabbat. I think the biggest thing I've learned this week is that time management and prioritizing are the biggest keys to a successful year (or 5) here. Those of you who know me well know that I suffer from the nasty little virus called procrastination, and I'm realizing that it is NOT going to work here at HUC. I've been working hard all week, trying to fill in the little gaps of time in my schedule with reading or singing, but I still feel as though the mountains of things on my to-do list just keep growing and growing. If anyone has any tips on time management, please let me know...I'll need them this year.

One of the highlights of my week was our trip on Wednesday to Tel Aviv. We went to Independence Hall, where David Ben Gurion officially declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. I'd been to Independence Hall before when I was here on Birthright, and I was happy to once again hear the tape of the actual event at the end of our program. When you listen to the tape, you can hear the voices of Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders actually declaring Israel a state, followed by an orchestra playing Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem. Every time I hear this tape I get chills, just thinking about the various struggles of the various people/groups involved with making Israel a state. Listening to Hatikvah in the very room where the declaration was signed almost 60 years ago reminds me of just how lucky we are as Jews to have the State of Israel in our lives.

David Ben Gurion's seat at Independence Hall, right next to a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

After a great lunch stop on Shenkin Street (the 'it' street in Tel Aviv, with the best sushi restaurant EVER) we headed off to the Palmach Museum. The Palmach were one of the forces of the Haganah, a pre-state Israeli underground military organization. The museum is a very cool place; it consists of 12 rooms that you follow in a certain pattern in order to trace the stories of 8 (I think) Palmach fighters. There are cool audio/visual presentations that allow you to see the soldiers along the way and hear them telling their stories. It was definitely different, and though their story does not end well, it was an interesting way to learn about an important part of Israeli Military culture. We then hopped back on the bus to sit in Tel Aviv's traffic before returning to Jerusalem. Overall an interesting, albeit slightly (I'm not a history buff...) boring day.

In other exciting news, I've officially turned in my contract to participate in HUC's annual Pesach Project in the Former Solviet Union. In April, a bunch of my classmates and I will be going to the FSU (most likely Russia or the Ukraine) to lead Passover Seders and teach the small Jewish communities about Pesach. Though I'm nervous about leading my first-ever Passover Seder, I'm so excited to have this opportunity to travel in the FSU and to work with the Jewish communities there, however small they may be.

Anyways, I am off to Shabbat dinner hosted by my friends PJ, David and Tami. Hope everyone is well and I am missing and loving all of you! Shabbat shalom!

Cool picture of the Old City at night, courtesy of my fellow classmate Josh.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

First Day Back

For those of you who needed photographic evidence, here is proof that I did indeed go rafting on the Jordan River on our tiyul a couple of weeks ago. No one ever said being a cantorial student was easy--or dry, for that matter.

Well, I survived my first day back in the "acharei-ha-chagim" (after the holidays) world. It wasn't easy waking up this morning and trudging off to class with a heavy Bible-filled backpack, but somehow, I made it. I could tell that classes have officially begun now; the workload is slightly larger, my class load is bigger (we had 3 cantorial classes that hadn't even begun until this week) and I officially signed up for the 3 services that I am required to sing for. It's finally, after 3 long months, sunken it that I'm actually a cantorial student. What once seemed so surreal is now an actuality, and as exciting as it is, it completely overwhelms me and stresses me out. But, as my dad reminds me, I always survive and--most of the time--manage to do pretty well.

One thing that made today so much better was receiving what seemed like a million cards, letters and packages from the US today. Because of Sukkot, HUC was closed all last week and I wasn't able to check mail. I went to the mailboxes today and happily picked up cards from Rachel, Jane, and Jo (a very sweet lady who was in my hebrew class at CAJE last year), a package of clothes from Whitney, a huge package full of goodies from my neighbor Allison and an envelope filled with good wishes and a CD from the rabbis (or as they called themselves, my "rabbinical colleagues"--another surreal moment) at Temple Israel. I was so happy when I read/opened all of this mail that I am surprised I didn't burst with joy. Thank you all so, so much for thinking of me--it made an otherwise rough day very special.

I am missing you all so much right now; I would give anything to give my mom a hug, play with my dog, go shopping w/ Aunt Diane, attend a service at TI, or teach a lesson at Rock School. From out of nowhere I've been hit with another big bout of homesickness--BUT--this is possibly one of the best times to be missing home. I am happy I have plenty of schoolwork and music to be focusing on now, and I am hoping that I enjoy the next 3 months and add to my list of stories and pictures to share with you all in January.

Thanks again to all who sent me stuff, and thanks to all for reading my ramblings on a consistent basis. It makes me feel really good to know you're interested. Love and hugs to all--I'm thinking of you!