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...)