Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More video from the Minsk Cantorial Concert

This one is awesome--we ended the concert with this Yiddish arrangement of Dayeinu. If you look closely, you can see me walk out singing during the 2nd chorus--I am in turquoise :) The woman singing was so cute--a true Yiddish diva, she was among the first of the performers to arrive backstage, even though she didn't sing until the very end of the concert.

Video from Minsk Cantorial Festival!

This 13-year-old boy is singing Naomi Shemer's beloved "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" in the style of Shuli Natan, who made it famous. He was definitely a crowd favorite--I am so glad this video was put on YouTube so I could share it with all of you :)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pesach in Jerusalem

The sign that greeted us as we entered the baggage claim at Ben Gurion Airport after our flight back to Jerusalem

As happy as I was to be in Belarus for much of Pesach, I was also happy to get to spend the last few days of Pesach here in Jerusalem. I never realized just how special Pesach was in Jerusalem, but it's a very big deal. The restaurants either kosher-ize themselves or shut down entirely; the grocery stores hide all of their chametz beneath big white pieces of plastic; the city is overrun with tourists and visitors; there are special street fairs and events going on all week long to please tourists and natives alike. The weather has been beautiful, albeit HOT (I'd forgotten about the heat waves that hit this city every so often), and the people once again wish you a 'chag sameach' whenever they see you in their stores or on the streets. It was just a great time to enjoy living in Jerusalem and to hang out with good friends

Just wanted to leave you with some pictures--enjoy! I hope you all had a wonderful Pesach, and an even better time re-entering the delicious world of chametz :)

The plastic sheets covering all of the chametz products the grocery stores aren't allowed to sell the week of Pesach. If they are caught selling something that is not Kosher for Passover, they run the risk of losing their kosher certificate, and with it the majority of their business.

As Steph and I were walking home from the grocery store on Thursday night, we were greeted by a lovely surprise: fireworks right across the street at the YMCA building. I was so happy to have had my camera on me, despite the fact that the pictures didn't turn out very well. It was a wonderful way to get us back into the Jerusalem groove after 2 long trips to Belarus and Spain.
The sign at Cup O'Joe, my favorite coffee shop, assuring me that the food and the kitchen were both Kosher for Passover, and that the restaurant would be open for Chol haMoed, the days of Pesach in which you do not hold seders.

Enjoying a healthy and Kosher-for-Passover brunch at Cup O'Joe with Carlie, Batya, Erin, Steph, and PJ.

Since none of us had a normal Passover seder (matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, etc.) we decided to have an American seder-themed Shabbat dinner this past Friday night on Julia's mirpeset (balcony) after Kabbalat Shabbat services. It turned out to be one of my favorite Shabbat dinners all year, with great food, good friends, lots of laughter, and beautiful weather. From left to right: Tami, Shlomo (Marc's friend), Julia, Marc, me, Ariel, and Greg. Steph was also there, but taking the picture :)

The lovely ladies after a wonderful Shabbat meal. I apparently did not get the memo to wear either green or blue :) From the left: Julia, me, Ariel, Tami, Steph.

Belarus Blog #3

To end my series of posts on Belarus, I wanted to share some interesting and funny observations and quotes.


Jewish Life:
  • The sense of gimilut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness, in every city we went to. We received clothes from both communities (sweaters, coats, ponchos, scarves, etc.) when the people realized we had come unprepared for the cold Belorussian spring. At the end of our seder in Baranovichi, the whole community thanked us by giving us small gifts and joining together in Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem. There was so much love for Israel and respect for their "Jerusalemite" guests present in the room that it was impossible not to feel the power of the words, melody and meaning of the song.
  • The amazing kids in Brest, who gave us souvenir pins, a burnt copy of Shrek 2 on DVD, money w/ pictures of attractions we would see later in our trip, invitations to parties, guided tours of their favorite spots in Brest. They shared their pride of their city and their culture with us as they gave back what they could to the American strangers who came to help them. They might not know much about Judaism, but they understand better than most Americans what it means to be truly Jewish by their generosity and kind words/deeds.
  • In general, the kids know more about Judaism than their parents and grandparents, probably thanks to Netzer Clubs. They are more excited about gathering together and celebrating their Jewish identities in a safe place than their parents ever were. Also, their English is generally better than their parents, particularly the small children we met.
  • Antisemitism is still alive and well in the FSU, particularly in Belarus. It is almost impossible to be openly Jewish and accepted in society, and people hide their Jewish identities to find jobs, go to schools, etc. One of the Netzer kids in Baranovichi (that we did not get to meet) was severely beaten after the Purim spiel this year because he forgot to take off part of his costume that showed the Israeli flag. It's only one example of the hatred that still exists in the world we live in.
  • The synagogues in Belarus are called "offices", and are hidden in obscure buildings in obscure parts of town. The world at large would never know that these are holy spaces, yet once inside, there is no doubt that Jewish spirit and tradition is definitely present in Belarus.
  • Several of the kids have been to Israel, many more than once, and many want to make Aliyah or return to study and spend more time there.
  • Many of the kids speak better Hebrew than they do English. Many choose to study in ulpanim in for 4-6 months and continue their studies with each other in Belarus.
Daily Life:
  • There are coat checks everywhere--in every bar, restaurant, grocery store, etc. You are considered rude if you choose not to surrender your coat. And if you lose your plastic number, you are dumb outta luck when it comes to getting any of your stuff back.
  • The food is basically the same in every restaurant--pork, chicken, fish, potatoes, borscht, bread, and vodka. There are very few multi-cultural restaurants (except for Italian food) and it is/was very, very tough to keep Passover in Belarus.
  • There are war monuments everywhere you turn--statues, gardens, plaques, etc. We don't usually know what they are, as the signs are in Russian, but it's a safe bet to assume they are memorializing one of the many wars or people that were killed in the wars that have taken place over the years.
  • The prices were so cheap to us (2,130 Rubles=1 US Dollar), but very expensive to the people living here. For example, a bottle of water typically cost about 750 Rubles, around 35 cents. It was easy for us to forget that the average salary of $300/month can barely cover the basic needs of a family, even when prices are as low as they are.
  • Apparently, it is acceptable to wear micro-mini skirts and thigh-high 5-inch stiletto heels around town: to synagogues, to restaurants, to work, etc. I decided not to partake in this fashion trend, for the sake of my classmates and the Belorussian world at large. I know they appreciated my thoughtfulness :)
  • People want to get out of Belarus. There are very few opportunities, especially for Jews and women, to do anything more than teach or be an economist. As much as they want to leave, they need to stay with their families and with their home country--many people, especially young women, feel as though they are stuck. Ana, our translator, is scared to even come visit America for fear that she won't want to leave. She knows that there is nothing for her in Belarus, yet she feels as though she can't leave her mom or destroy her loyalty to her country.
  • Small packets of dried fish are in every grocery store, gas station, airport, etc. People in Belarus eat dried fish like people in America eat potato chips. Ana tried to get us to taste them, but we all refused--I'll stick to my potato chips.
  • 2 words: SQUAT TOILET. Basically, a porcelain hole in the ground over which you squat and do your business. They were everywhere (thank Gd not in any of our hotel rooms!)The night of the cantorial concert, the hall had only squat toilets, and I had to go pretty badly. I took the time to take off my skirt and pantyhose, squatted, waited for 2 minutes (a lonnnnng time when you're squatting over a hole in the ground) and nothing happened. It was like my body knew it just wasn't going to be a good idea. So, I waited until the end of the concert, until we returned to our hotel room where we had a legit toilet. It was tough, but I think I made the right choice.
Funny Quotes:

From Grisha, the head Reform Rabbi in Belarus, who sounded exactly like Borat as he briefed us about our visit on the way to Minsk from the airport when we arrived.

  • "Don't worry, the situation will be pinkey-rosey!" (My personal favorite quote from the trip, one I've been using non-stop since returning to J'lem. Grisha was telling us not to worry about the KGB or being deported out of the country. Luckily, none of us had any trouble and made it back to J'lem without any major problems.)
  • "There are no terrorists on the train, only drunk Belorussians." (Apparently, one of the students who was on a prior trip thought that a drunk Belorussian was a terrorist, and ending up running off the train and out of the train station.)
  • "For the concert, please dress in business lunch." (He was trying to tell us to dress in 'business casual' attire for the cantorial concert, and was confused it for the term for the lunch specials in every restaurant in Jerusalem.)
  • "Everywhere there is Coca-Cola, there is a Jew." (No explanation--I don't even know how or why he said this. It literally came from out of nowhere.)
From Ana, our adorable translator:
  • "My douche isn't working--can I borrow yours?" (Ana came to Ari and I's hotel room to ask us this--we looked at each other, dumbfounded, before bursting into a fit of giggles. Confused, Ana asked us what was so funny. Apparently, we didn't know that the term 'douche' is the European term for 'shower.' Conversely, she didn't realize that in America, the word has an entirely different meaning...)
  • "During the summer, it is possible to ride the ponies and the assholes." (We were eating lunch in a restaurant in a park, which had a petting zoo in the summertime. Ana was obviously trying to say 'asses' , and got a little mixed up. She had no idea what the term 'asshole' really means in English, so we taught her a little lesson. Needless to say, she understands it perfectly well, now!)
  • "I need an ass-tray." (She meant to say 'ashtray'--in our pre-adolescent minds, we found this to be hysterically funny--especially Brad.)
Just some fun tidbits I wanted to share.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Belarus Blog #2

This is an excerpt from the journal I kept while I was on my trip. It's one of the saddest, yet most meaningful moments from my visit. This is what your donations helped me to experience and realize--THIS is why I am so glad that I went to Belarus.

20 April 2008

Ari and I were sitting and playing with a sweet little girl after the seder we led in Baranovichi. As we were playing, her grandmother approached us with a smile (and a ponytail of fake blonde curls) to thank us for leading the seder. Our translator Ana was also with us, so she was able to translate the fluent Russian the woman was speaking. After she thanked us, she said she really liked us and wouldn't tell anyone in town that we were Jewish visitors so we would be safe and treated respectfully in the city. As she spoke, her granddaughter, who couldn't have been more than 6 years old, vigorously shook her head 'no' and said something to the effect of "don't tell anyone you're Jewish!" Her grandmother went on to say that her family has been Jewish for generations, but they've never been allowed to actually admit it to the Belorussian world, even their own close friends. Only they and government officials know (your nationality is marked on your Passport in Belarus, preventing Jews from serving in government positions, in the Army, and also from attending most universities or being hired for many jobs.) Again, she thanked us, and led herself and her granddaughter out of the room, back into the world that will never know they are Jewish.

This moment was heartbreaking and shocking. As someone who has aways been proud to be Jewish, who is willing and able to share her love of Judaism with the world, I could never imagine hiding this part of myself from anyone. The freedoms that I have as an American, especially my Freedom of Religion, is something that I've always taken for granted. I realized at that moment how lucky I am to be an American--someone who can live freely and happily doing whatever I want to do. Hearing this woman talk about hiding her Judaism from the world, not even 1 hour after retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the freedoms of the Jewish people at the Passover seder, was a saddening reminder of how much work we still have to do to secure the freedom of Jews here in Belarus and in other places in the world. The question is HOW--I don't know if it's possible for us to do much to solve the dictatorship of the government or the generalizations of the people in the FSU, but knowing that I was here, and that other HUC groups will come in the future, makes me feel a little better. We are giving these people the gift of celebrating their Judaism, something they long for and appreciate SO MUCH. Even though they hardly participated or understood much of what was going on throughout the seder, I knew they appreciated the tradition and the opportunity they were given to be a part of Jewish tradition. I could see in their eyes they they understood the real meaning of Passover, and they relished every moment of the 2 hours they were given to be freely Jewish at the seder today. I hope this program continues, not only for the sake of the people of the FSU, but for the sake of HUC'ers, who will, through moments like this, learn the true meaning of freedom, as well as the responsibilities that come with our freedom.

Every morning we say ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני בן/בת חורין: Blessed are you Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a free person. After this experience, I will never forget just how lucky I am to be able to say these words and really LIVE this freedom, loudly and proudly, for the rest of my life.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Belarus Blog #1

I've been trying to decide for the last 3 days how to write the "right" kind of blog to tell about my Pesach trip to Belarus. There is still so much that I am processing, grappling with, thinking about, that writing this blog has not been easy or something I've looked forward to writing. In lieu of writing one of those boring "this is what we did when we did it" kinds of posts, I finally decided to create a picture blog, with a sampling of the over 150 pictures I took over our 6 days in Belarus. I'll include the link to my account, which has all of my pictures for anyone who wants to see them, but for now here is the story of our trip in 22 or so pictures.

Michelle, Ariel, Brad and I at Ben Gurion Airport, waiting for our flight. In total, there were 8 of us who went to Belarus: Ariel, Brad and I in one group, PJ and Erin in one group, and Michelle, David and Tamar in another group. We flew to Minsk together, seperated to go to our various cities, and joined back in Minsk for the last 2 days of our trip.

After one night in a hotel in Minsk, Brad, Ari and I, along with our interpreter Ana, drove by minibus (the crappiest minibus you've ever seen, mind you) to Brest, which is in Western Belarus on the border with Poland. The first thing we were asked to do in Brest was go to the Holocaust Memorial, pictured above, to lead Kaddish and witness a special ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance. There were special speakers, clergy members of many faiths, and about 30 residents of Brest who were gathered together to remember those killed in the Holocaust.

On the way to our meeting with the Netzer Club, our chairperson gave us a tour of Jewish Brest--that is, what used to be known as the Jewish part of the city before WWII. She took us to what used to be a huge synagogue; during the war, it was used as a stable for German horses and it is now a movie theater and shopping mall. We were able to go into the basement of the theater to see the original walls of the men's section of the synagogue.

After the tour, we went to the "office" where the city's Reform Synagogue is located. There, we met up with the Netzer Club, Europe's equivalent to NFTY, where we had a question and answer session with the kids before leading Kabbalat Shabbat services and sharing snacks, challah, and wine with them. They were amazing kids, full of spirit and a love for Judaism, and they were so kind and generous to us. They wouldn't let us leave without giving us souvenir pins of Brest Fortress (which we would visit the following day) and a burned copy of Shrek 2. After the service, a few of them offered to take us to one of their favorite restaurants/nightclubs for a late dinner, and showed such pride in their city and their culture.

At dinner, the Netzer girls who accompanied us left the table to bring us Belorussian Rubles, specifically because the 50 ruble bill had a picture of the Brest Fortress, where we were going the next day. The kids were so excited that we were there and interested in their city and culture. They were very, very mature for their age, and extremely thoughtful and appreciative of those who come to their city.

The next morning, Brad, Ari, our translator Ari, the director of Brest's Netzer club, and Ola, one of the girls we met, went to the Brest Fortress, where the army lived while Brest was occupied by the Germans. Now, it is full of memorials, old buildings dating back to WWII, a beautiful park, an old church, and a restaurant. It is a chilling place to visit, as you can still feel the tension in the air mixed with the pride and gratitude the city has for it's fallen soldiers. Pictured above is the entrance to the fortress, which can be seen from kilometers before the entrance.

The largest memorial at Brest Fortress--below it is an eternal flame that keeps the memory of the fallen soldiers alive, along with the names of those who died (and those who were 'unknown'.)

After a cold, rainy, and interesting day at Brest Fortress, we went back to the "office" where we led our First Night Passover seder. There were about 35 people present, including families and elderly people. We were told to do a 30-minute "Greatest Hits" seder, so we said the most important prayers, sang everyone's favorite songs, and did a quick lesson on freedom in lieu of telling the Passover story. It went over extremely well, and everyone was happy to be done with the seder and move on to the meal as quickly as possible. After the meal, the kids performed an adorable "show" for us, singing Passover songs in Russian and Hebrew. We played games with them and taught them fun Hebrew songs--they were so much fun to hang out with!

After 2 days in Brest, we moved on to Baranovichi, halfway between Brest and Minsk. We took a 6am train (we had our own private sleeper car, which made Brad VERY happy!) and almost immediately went to our next seder upon our arrival. This seder was comprised of about 100 people, mostly elderly people and a few kids. We were told that the kids were well-versed on their Passover songs, which we found out was NOT so true when we tried to sing Avadim Hayinu and the 4 Questions, but we had a great time with them anyways. They were very happy to help us with the "Order of the Seder" song and even happier to find the Afikomen and receive their prizes. Ari, Brad, and I, just before leading our seder in Baranovichi. Sonia, our chairperson in Baranovichi, gave me this black poncho when she noticed that I was freezing earlier at the train station.

Our stay in Baranovichi was not the most comfortable, as it was freezing outside (about 35 degrees) and our hotel did not have heat. However, we made the best of it, trying to find things to do to keep ourselves warm. We discovered a great little coffee shop near our hotel, and Sonia took us to the Baranovichi history museum (not so exciting, but somewhat warm and better than sitting in our freezing hotel room!) and then to the Baranovichi Holocaust memorial, at the entrance to what used to the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. Pictured above is the Holocaust Memorial, where we lit a yartziet (rememberance) candle and said Kaddish. We spent the remainder of the evening with the Netzer Club in Baranovichi, talking to the kids and their amazing advisor, Margarita. The kids performed original songs they wrote for their Purim Spiel, along with some other songs on piano. They were another great group of kids, and they definitely turned cold, dreary Baranovichi into a warm, lovely place.

From Baranovichi, we took another train back to Minsk, where we met up with the rest of the Belarus crew and Grisha, the Rabbi in charge of us. We spent some time exploring the city before going to a Jewish preschool, the only Jewish preschool in all of Belarus. The kids were ADORABLE, and they knew some English and were able to converse a little bit with us. They put on the cutest re-enactment of the 10 Plagues and the Rabbi held a special Mezzuzah hanging on one of their doors. Above, Grisha is affixing the new Mezzuzah to the door of the preschool.

The boys were acting as cute.

This little girl (I sadly can't remember her name) was sitting next to me and wanted to show off her princess dress. She twirled and twirled, as if she could twirl herself right into a fairy tale. She was so sweet and looked like a little angel in her baby-pink princess gown.

From the preschool, we went to a concert hall where Michelle and I participated in the 4th Annual "Kantorski Festival", or Cantor's Concert. The concert featured about a dozen musicians and dancers, all of whom sang or danced to traditional and modern Jewish music. Michelle and I were each asked to sing 2 pieces, along with a duet. I sang a piece by Paul Ben-Chaim, an Israeli composer, and another piece by Robert Solomon, a modern synagogue composer. Together, Michelle and I sang a lovely Sim Shalom.

The next morning, Grisha took us on a tour of "Jewish Minsk." He brought us to this Holocaust Memorial, where people gather 3 times a year to mourn the over 250,000 Minsk citizens who were killed in the Holocaust. The Memorial is placed in the location where people were lined up to be shot, one by one, for over 2 years. March 4 is an important date in Minsk, as it was the date in which the pogroms began that killed all of these people. Minsk was 90% destroyed by the end of WWII, and nearly all of it's Jewish population was murdered.

This statue leads visitors to the above Memorial, and represents the "hill of death" that people slowly climbed down before they were shot and killed. You can see the shadows beside the iron silhouettes, which purposely represent the memory of those killed. Unlike the people, their shadows (their memory) can never die.

After our tour and a lovely "breakfast seder" at the Minsk "office", we were allowed to spend the rest of the day exploring Minsk. We chose to go shopping (though I came home with nothing but some postcards--Belarus isn't really known for their shopping scene) and to spend the afternoon walking through a beautiful park close to our hotel. Pictured above is a view of Minsk from our hotel room; it's a beautiful and very clean and friendly city.

After a quick nap, we headed back to the office to lead one last seder (on the 4th night of Pesach--in Minsk, it is tradition to hold a Passover seder every night of Passover.) We had yet another "Greatest Hits" seder, followed by a quick nosh with the Minsk Netzer Club before heading out on the town for our last night in Belarus. The city is beautiful at night, as you can see above.

Recognize this? Our favorite discovery in Belarus was a TGI Fridays, where we spent our last night. The food was good (they had Jack Daniel's sauce!) and we were all happy to be in a familiar, American restaurant.

The decor on the walls had this Missouri pennant, along with a picture of Route 66. There are no words to tell you how happy I was to see this--The M-O is represented even in Belarus!!

Me, Brad, Ari, and Ana together for our last night in Belarus. We became so close with Ana in such a short time--we really loved spending time with her. For an 18-year-old, she was so mature, so articulate, and very, very special. She was our voice on the trip, and helped us to find our way though a place where we truly were unable to communicate. We already miss her, and we have plans to keep in touch (and hopefully host her when she comes to visit the US, which will hopefully be within the next few years.)

This isn't the last blog about Belarus. There's so much still left to say, so many stories to tell, so many funny and heartbreaking realizations that I am still processing, 4 days after returning home.

Again, thank you so much to those of you who donated to the project and helped me to have this experience. It was most definitely something I will remember for a long, long time, and an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Todah rabah, thank you, spa-si-bah--I can't say it enough.

Link to more pictures:

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Plant Gene

Our plant, the subject of Nicole's latest blog

I have tons to write about my time in Belarus (which was an incredible experience) but I first wanted to post what Nicole wrote for the HUC blog, which she contributes to on a monthly basis. Nicole is our neighbor and good friend, and she is one of my favorite people at HUC. She's an amazing person and writer, and Steph and I were honored to be mentioned in her latest blog.

As nice as her blog is, I have to say that I can't take any of the credit for keeping this plant alive--it's all Steph, as she is the one who remembers to water it daily (or almost daily) and cares enough to keep our plant growing somewhat strong. She's the real 'mommy' of our plant, and she does her best to take good care of it despite the fact that it doesn't seem to want to take care of itself.

My classmates, Tracy and Steph, who live one flight up from me, have this big plant in their living room. They didn't buy the big plant–it was just in their apartment when they moved in. It sits on the very top of a bookshelf that might actually tip over if the big plant were to grow much bigger. But there's little fear of that, for the big plant has looked like it's been dying ever since we got here last summer. Some of its big leaves are dried up, others hang limp. It's not terribly attractive.
But next to the big plant sits a beautiful thing: A little plastic water bottle. Tracy and Steph use this little bottle to keep the big plant hydrated as best they can. This, despite the fact that the big plant never really shows its appreciation by sprouting new growth or perking itself up–it just kind of hangs there and continues looking...well...big. What's more, even though Tracy and Steph acknowledge that the big plant doesn't exactly add to the aesthetics of the place and may not actually live to meet the next tenant, whenever they go out of town, they ask me to water it. So I do. Because they do.

I often wonder if I am equipped with whatever gene Tracy and Steph inherited that makes them so naturally inclined to keep nourished a big, dying, not-so-attractive plant that doesn't even belong to them–that gene that makes them not even question whether it's worth the bother. "You would keep it alive too, if it was in your house," they assure me. Their confidence in this assertion, I find strangely comforting.

Last weekend, I spent 12 hours in the Emergency Room. I had passed out while leading services earlier in the week (right after we had praised God for "lifting up the fallen," ironically) and had developed some scary symptoms in the days that followed that needed to be checked out. The day went something like this: Sit in waiting room for an hour; blood test; waiting room for an hour; EKG; waiting room for an hour; meet with "Doctor Mazal" (seriously, that was her name); waiting room for an hour; 'nother blood test; waiting room for an hour; 'nother EKG. And all the while, there was Tracy. She stayed the entire time, except for the hour she left in order to go home and pick me up some snacks. This is no small thing–giving up an entire day here. We have so much to do all the time in this program that I am often hard-pressed to give up so much as even an hour to do something that isn't on my list of things to accomplish or places I'm supposed to be. But, you see, Tracy has the plant gene. So for her, there was no question of where and how she should spend those 12 hours. This is just who she is.

And there are others here with the plant gene. Andrea and Sara, who sleep only four hours a night because of their newborn and still insisted on accompanying me to a doctor and cooking me dinner that first night. Anne, who brought me food all week without my even having to ask. Keren, who spent the time to keep me from falling behind in Grammar. Aron, who taped Bible class for me. Eli, who made me the most amazing soup. Nancy, who called every few hours to check in. Daniel, for not thinking my grapefruit-theory was lunatic. My teachers, who've been concerned and understanding. Everyone who made sure I didn't walk home alone when I wasn't feeling well, or offered to come with me for my follow-up tests, or continues to offer to go grocery shopping.

I would love to be able to say with confidence that I know I have the plant gene–the gene which seems so widespread among the HUC population. But all I can really say confidently, for now, is that I have Pesach. A timely reminder, to remember. To remember what this experience has been like, so that whether or not I am blessed with the plant gene, I will recognize–and know what to do–when others are in a similar position.

Tracy and Steph are leaving town again for the holiday. They'll leave the little water bottle next to the big, dying plant, and they'll entrust me with its care. And I'll do my best to live up to their example.

To read the actual post and see pictures, check out

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Have a Job!

It's been an exciting evening around here tonight--besides packing and gearing up for Belarus tomorrow, I found out a few hours ago that I officially have a job for next year! I will be working at Temple Beth-El in South Bend Indiana, serving once-a-month as a solo cantor with a rabbi who, so far, seems fantastic. Beth-El was my top choice out of the 4 synagogues I listed, so I am incredibly excited that it all worked out so well. I am happy that I will have the ability to come back to the Midwest once a month next year to escape the craziness that will be NYC and also to work with Midwesterners--the people that I can most identify with socially and Jewishly. I also think that I will have plenty of good opportunities to learn and grow by working with the rabbi of the congregation, who seems very sweet and on top of where the Reform movement is going. So excited.

Want to find out more about Temple Beth-El in South Bend? Here's the website:

Anyways, I am off to finish packing and get some sleep. Happy Pesach to all of you--can't wait to share my experiences with you as soon as I get back from my trip (cause y'all know by now that there'll be a blog about it...) Much love :)

חג פסח שמח
Happy Passover!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Springtime in Jerusalem...and Elsewhere

The roses of Jerusalem are in full bloom, and EVERYWHERE--I love them more than I could ever describe.

I've always loved springtime, no matter where I am. The trees and flowers are blooming, people are re-emerging in their favorite flip-flops and comfy clothes, and the air smells fresh and clean again. Springtime symbolizes hope and new beginnings--to both people at large and the Jewish tradition. The best part about springtime in Jerusalem is the gorgeous scenery mixed with the excitement and spirit of Pesach (Passover.) Everyone here is talking about it, from the most religious to the most secular. It seems to be one of those holidays that has some meaning to everyone around here, whether it's the Jews redemption from the Land of Egypt or the chance to celebrate tradition, springtime, and new beginnings with family and friends.

This year, Pesach will be incredibly special for me and my 39 classmates traveling to the FSU for the FSU Pesach Project. Thank goodness our Visa dilemma was cleared up (apparently as of January 2008 you need an 'invitation' from the Belorussian government to enter the country, which they did not want to give us for one reason or was a balagan to say the least!) We have our plane tickets, tentative itineraries, seder materials, and Russian Haggadot ready, and now all we have to do is talk with our groups about the specifics, pack, and board our airplanes!

I, along with my friends/classmates Brad and Ariel, will be working/touring/playing 3 cities in Belarus: Brest, Baranovichi, and Minsk (the most well-known city in Belarus.) We will be touring the Jewish areas of all of the cities, leading sederim in Brest and Baranovichi, working with Religious School students and Youth Groups, and I will be participating in the Cantorial Festival taking place in Minsk. I am planning to sing a Hasidic Song, a piece by an Israeli composer, and a fun, musical-theater piece. This Cantorial Festival is a very big deal in Belarus, and I am excited and honored to have been asked to participate (they even wanted my picture to put on a poster for the program--it's the big time!) The whole trip is going to be fantastic, both when we're working and playing; I am traveling with some of my favorite people here and I hope to make a difference in the lives of the Jewish communities in Belarus. Thanks again to all of the people who made it possible for me to go on this trip--it is a once in a lifetime experience, and I can't wait to share pictures and stories with you when I return.

Otherwise, life is pretty mundane right now. Classes are chugging along, and it is getting more and more difficult to want to do the tons of work I have to do. I have 3 interviews this weekend, and need to send in my top synagogue choices by Wednesday--I'll keep you posted on what happens, but I should know where I'll be next year by the end of this month. I am leading some of the music and chanting Haftarah at Saturday morning services the first weekend of May, so I'll soon be beginning preparations for that. We also have 2 concerts coming up, one for our Women's Project with the JTS Cantorials, and one featuring the HUC C-Squad and the Hallel Choir. And then, before I know it, it will be finals time and I will be studying and packing to go home to the States for good.

It's still so scary to me that my time here is almost done. It's funny to me how in October/November I couldn't wait to leave, and now the closer it gets to boarding that airplane, the more and more I want to stay here. I don't think I could ever make Aliyah, but I feel as though I haven't done all of the things I wanted to do this year (though I've done a hell of a lot), and I am sad that the year I've been so excited for is almost over. I can definitely say that Jerusalem is officially under my skin and is one of the places I will always call home.

Hope everyone is well and enjoying the springtime wherever you are. I'm hoping to write again before I leave for Belarus, but in case I don't, I hope you all have a beautiful Pesach and springtime. Oh, and since it's baseball season again and the Cardinals are doing somewhat well (I hope I didn't just jinx them...) GO CARDS!!! Can't wait to go to a game when I'm back in STL :)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Working Girl

As 2nd year students at HUC, we have the opportunity to take optional pulpit jobs to add experience to our resumes and money to our bank accounts. There are a plethora of opportunities to choose from: weekly pulpits (either 10 or 15 hours a week, including Shabbat and High Holy Days), bi-weekly pulpits, monthly pulpits, only High Holiday pulpits, sporadic pulpits (where you only go whenever they arrange for you to go) and more. There's also the option of being a chazzan sheini, or a "2nd-cantor", where we work alongside a cantor as a 2nd-in-command, shadow and/or assistant. The pulpit choices are all over the country, though mostly concentrated in the Northeast (close to NYC) and all have different demands and expectations from their student cantors.

As you can probably guess, it's a challenge to decide what kind of pulpits we are looking for to work next year. My ideal pulpit would be a bi-weekly sheini position, where I would have the opportunity to work regularly with another cantor who would (hopefully) serve as mentor. The bi-weekly part is more for finances than anything else, but I like the idea of having a job every other week and the chance to really get to know a congregation and allow them to get to know me.

Sadly, bi-weekly positions are few and far between, so I am applying to all kinds of different positions. I've applied to several monthly positions, one in South Bend, Indiana, and several in NY state, and a couple of bi-weekly jobs, along with one weekly position (simply because they requested to talk to me...I probably won't end up taking that job.)

The process of applying for these jobs is rather complicated. Here's how it works: First, the Year-in-Israel cantorial class makes a DVD of each of us singing 1 soloistic piece and 1 congregational piece in early February, which is sent out to all of the congregations on the HUC list. From there, we have to fix and send our resumes to Josee Wolff, Director of Student Placement. Starting in mid-March, we begin to receive listings of congregations looking for student cantors from Josee. We tell Josee which congregations we like, and she sends those congregations our resume, and they, in turn, contact us to set up a phone interview (or Skype video interview, if you're lucky.) Then, they call and you have a chat about their congregation, what you can bring to their congregation, etc, all the norms of a phone interview. The congregations list their top candidates, the students list our top congregations, and we are matched up accordingly. Finally, Josee sends us an email in mid-April telling us our assignments and sending contracts from the congregations. I told you it was a complicated process!

It is complicated, but most of the time (from what I have heard) it really works. Steph is going through a similar process right now looking for pulpit positions, and she gets very little say in which congregation she is placed in--I guess I'm lucky that at least I have some say in the matter! The more of these interviews that I give, the more excited I am about working in a congregation next year. It will be a LOT of work, not only organizing services, but organizing classes (that I will be responsible for teaching), choir rehearsals, life-cycle events, etc, but I am so excited and so ready to learn. As I told one congregation earlier tonight, I am very open-minded to the idea of stepping outside my comfort zone and trying as many new things as I can. It's scares the hell out of me, but in the long run will be so beneficial to my career and my confidence as a cantor. I just hope I can find the right balance between work, school, social life, and living in New York City.

So, I will keep you posted on what happens for next year. Keep your fingers crossed that a congregation will like me--I'm positive that I will get a job, but I still need all the help and luck I can get!

Love you and miss you--7 weeks until I'm back in the States for good.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Song and Soul

The hills of Jerusalem (along with my neighborhood Blockbuster) are alive with the sound of music.

Last night I was immersed in music, some Jewish and some not, for the entirety of the evening. After performing in a concert for the Hallel Choir, the community choir I sing with as part of my community service requirement for HUC, I attended a concert of the Jerusalem A Capella Singers which my voice teacher Judi directs. The concert was fantastic in every way; not only did the choir sound beautiful and sing interesting and entertaining pieces, but there was positive energy bouncing off every square inch of the walls. It's an energy I'd forgotten about, an incredible energy that I can't really explain but feel so deeply at certain moments as a musician.

Attending the concert and watching the interaction between Judi and her singers was so special, so intimate, that I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness about the fact that I don't have many of those opportunities anymore. As I listened to and watched the choir perform last night, it brought back so many memories of the energy that comes from choral and soloistic singing--singing Carmina Burana with full orchestra in high school, performing with University Singers at the Matyas Templom in Budapest, singing Cara Sposa at my senior recital, and more. The concert forced me to remember that I am, at the heart, a musician. Singing is my first passion, followed closely by Judaism, and SINGING is the first and main reason I am here.

As a cantorial student, my goal is to share my love of the liturgy and the music that accompanies it with my congregation. It's different than singing an art song or aria in that it's not about me-- I'm not trying to show off my talent or the composer's talent, but rather I am trying to find and connect to Gd and to help others do the same. It's certainly not an easy task, one that all spiritual leaders struggle with at times. But, at the right moments, there is an energy present that is far more powerful than anything I have felt while performing secular or non-Jewish pieces. Moments where I know in my heart that I am doing my job and doing it well; moments where the congregation disappears and only Gd and I are there, together, creating our own unique dialogue. Interestingly enough, it is in those moments where the members of the congregation also feel Gd's presence and their own connection to Gd. THAT is my goal--to help others connect through my connection. In my opinion, that is what being a shliach tzibor, a spiritual emissary, is all about.

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite prayers, Elohai N'Shama, which reads as follows:

אלהי נשמה שנתתה בי טהורה הי
My Gd, the soul You have given me is pure.
אתה בראתה, אתה יצרתהת, אתה נפחתה בי
You created it, You sustained it, You breathed it into me
ואתה משמרה בקרבי
And You protect it within me.
כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי
For as long as my soul is within me,
מודה אני לפניך
I offer thanks to You,
יי אלהי
Adonai, my Gd
ואלהי אבותי ואמותי
and Gd of my fathers and mothers
ריבון כל המעשים, אדון כל הנשמות
Source of all Creation, Sovereign of all souls.
ברוך אתה יי
Praised are you, Adonai,
אשר בידו נפש כל חי ורוח כל בשר איש
in whose hand is every living soul and the breath of humankind.

While I've spent a lot of time and money working the technical aspects of my voice and my musicality, I am 100% convinced that my best singing--my talent and my gift--comes straight from my soul. When I pray these words (preferably in the form of a melody, of course) I am thanking Gd for giving me this special gift and the ability to help myself and others find Gd through song. Because of this prayer and others, and my own deep personal relationship with Gd, I am able to strive to create the spiritual energy I spoke about earlier in this post. My singing is my soul, and my soul is my singing, and there is no greater gift than the ability to use this to make my life and the lives of my congregants more spiritual and fulfilling.