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!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Sukkot Break


We're nearing the end of our Sukkot break, which has been a wonderful 10 days filled with friends, travel, and relaxation. We began the break by celebrating Sukkot, the 7-day Jewish festival that welcomes in the harvest season and the fall. Many Jews build a Sukkah, or a hut that is open on one side and covered with branches or leaves to allow you to look up and see the stars. It is customary for people to eat meals in the Sukkah the entire week of Sukkot. The coolest part of Sukkot for me was all of the various Sukkahs around town. Many people had them on their balconies or in their yards, and almost every Kosher restaurant and hotel in the city had Sukkahs their guests could enjoy. Some Sukkahs were decorated simply and some elaborate, but they were everywhere. It was so neat to see them around and to hear people in my neighborhood talking, laughing, and singing in their Sukkah. It is definitely a memory of Jerusalem I will always cherish. My friends Julia and Elana were kind to invite several of us over for dinner the first night of Sukkot, which was a wonderful way to ring in my first (and probably my only) Sukkot in Jerusalem.

The Sukkah found outside my apartment building. There were fresh flowers and lots of festive decorations inside; very bright and colorful.

After a few days, we headed off to Taba, Egypt for a wonderful and relaxing vacation on the Sinai Peninsula. Our travel to and from Egypt was an interesting experience, to say the least; let's just say that if you should ever travel anywhere in Egypt by bus, bring a roll of toilet paper and be prepared for lots of un-showered and very pushy Israelis. Anyways, once we arrived and passed Border Control (a balligan in and of itself) we were bombarded with cab drivers who were fighting with each other to take us to our hotel. They were yelling in Arabic to each other, and pulling our suitcases to their cabs and telling us to "Come, come...Go go..." It was perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen, and we couldn't help but laugh at the whole debacle.

Once we got to our resort, the Mariott at Taba, we were instantly dazzled by the beautiful scenery and sights everywhere. Our room was huge and had an amazing air conditioner, which was great (we kept the room freezing cold and called it 'The Meat Locker' was fantastic.) We instantly changed into our bathing suits and headed out for the huge pool, which welcomed us with it's cool and refreshing waters.

Our amazing resort...are you jealous?

We spent the next few days just lounging at the pool, playing on the beach, (a 2-second walk from the pool) and participating in the various activities the resort had to offer. My personal favorite was our daily water aerobics class, or 'aerobicim mayim' as I called it, which was a great way to burn some of the many thousands of calories I consumed at each meal.

The pool didn't even have to get out of the water to get a drink!

The beach was another highlight, with it's crystal clear water and many varieties of tropical fish. We rented snorkels to see the fish up close, which was incredible; there were so many colors and types and species. Really, really beautiful. Jen and Dan took some food from the breakfast buffet to feed the fish, which provided all of us with a great view.

The Red Sea and view of the mountains at Low Tide. This beach was a stone's throw from our room, and literally a 2-second walk from the pool. Amazing!

Snorkling! The fish were beautiful and very friendly.

At night, we either ate dinner at one of the resorts restaurants or took the free shuttle to the "town", which had a few more dining options and some cute shops. The bars at the resort had karaoke nights and a so-so live band, so we hung out there after dinner. One night they surprised us with a belly dancer, which was very fun, and on our last night we were treated to an Egyptian dance show. The dance show featured this amazing guy who spun in circles for 15 minutes, wearing a skirt that twirled and came apart into 3 circles which all spun at the same time. It was incredible how he could spin for so long and not get dizzy--I'd have been flat on my face after about a minute.

The Belly Dancer

The amazing skirt-twirling man (click on the photo to get a better view--it was hard to get a good camera shot at night.)

Julia, Ariel, me and Steph waiting for the shuttle into town.

Most of the group after our delicious dinner at the Italian restaurant on the resort premises. Front row: PJ, Julia, Jen Gubitz, Ariel, Dan, Jen Lader, Stephanie Mohr. Back row: Tracy, Stephanie Clark, Michelle. Not pictured: Aimee, Rachel, Jill.

So, while the trip wasn't the slightest bit educational, it was an incredibly fun and relaxing (and very cheap) way to gear up for classes. Steph and I have both been kind of depressed today, just knowing that break is over and we have 3 months of straight classes and homework looming over our heads. We're going to be incredibly busy and learning a lot, which is definitely good, but definitely a bit daunting.

The thing that keeps me going, however, is knowing that the next break (in January) will bring me home to St Louis. Don't get me wrong--most of the time I love school and I'm learning to love Israel--but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of coming home, reuniting with my family, friends, and dog, going to services at Temple Israel, eating real American food at my favorite restaurants, driving a car, etc etc etc. I'm SO EXCITED to walk into the baggage claim at Lambert and see my parents, Adam, and hopefully Noah (you guys better bring the dog) waiting for me.

Sending you lots of love and good wishes from Israel; wish me luck on surviving my acharei ha chagim (after the holidays) schedule!