As I complete my final week in Israel, I had the funny thought that I should write to you in Hebrew! Then I realized that if I followed through on that idea, my modest readership would become even more modest! Therefore I have decided to stick with English and show off of with a few key Hebrew words in transliteration here and there!
I came to Israel for a month to improve my Hebrew, but kamuvan (obviously) I have gained much more than an increase in my vocabulary and a refresher course in binyanei hapoalim (structure of verb forms). The best way to express what I have learned is to describe living in the city of Tel Aviv. I mastered the secrets of traveling by bus, train, and bicycle. I was at ease when stopping by at the makolet (market) to pick up chalav v’afarsimonim (milk and persimmons). By the way, these are my favorite fruit and one can only find them here in Israel during certain months. I absolutely eat one per day.
Every day I walked through the Yarkon Park to and from my shiurim (lessons) at Tel Aviv University. I enjoyed the beautiful campus and loved the people-watching there.
I found a nearby yoga studio where I practiced several times a week, figuring out the directions in a combination of Hebrew and yoga-speak: she’ifa v’neshifa (inhalation and exhalation).
I became accustomed to grabbing a late dinner with Sarah and Sagi at one of the neighborhood cafes and greeting my chayal (soldier), Josh, when he would come home from the tzava (army) on Thursday night or Friday morning. I cheered at Sarah’s rugby matches and biked along the many city bike lanes with Josh.
One Friday I traveled with Sagi’s mother Racheli to hike in Timna on our way to Eilat for Shabbat. Speaking b’Ivrit (in Hebrew) while hiking in the desert was a great way to practice words like madhim (amazing), chavaya m’yuchedet (unique experience) and tizahari (be careful)!
And all the while, I have been working hard to improve my Hebrew. Of course, learning for 4 1/2 hours every day in an intensive Ulpan (Hebrew class) with excellent teachers is the beginning. Those of you who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I took great care with all of my homework, completed all my assignments and studied very hard for the weekly test!
But class time has not been the only path to speaking Hebrew more easily. Perhaps, it’s only the foundation for the most important way which is living in Israel and speaking Hebrew every day.
When I needed directions to the botanical gardens, asked an Ethiopian artist at the craft fair on Nachalat Benyamin about her artwork, or ordered a cafe hafuch (cappuccino), I used my Hebrew.
It is true that many Israelis answered me in English despite my best efforts in Hebrew, but it became kind of a joke. Even I can hear my American accent!
One young woman on her bike at a major intersection stumbled through her Hebrew to ask me how to find the entrance to the park. After I explained it to her in Hebrew, she exclaimed, “Oh thank goodness, you speak English!” and asked me to explain again! Yes, it is good to remember always to be humble!
I have found that the best way of all to learn Hebrew has been walking the streets of Tel Aviv and listening to the conversations going by. In the morning hours, students and workers rush for the bus stop, talking into their headsets or phones to their mother or whoever they are meeting later that day.
In the early afternoon, the elders are out in the park, tucked in blankets, hats and warm coats into their wheelchairs. Their aides speak kindly to them about the weather, the children playing, or the people on scooters going by.
Later in the afternoon, packs of school kids take over the sidewalks on their way home. They travel in groups of seven or eight, talking loud, with confidence and slang. I listen in to their worlds and realize that some things are the same everywhere in the world: flirting, teasing and laughing.
In the early evening, mothers or fathers pick up the little ones from gan (nursery school). Some buckle their children into bike seats in the front and on the back. Others walk home slowly, hand-in-hand, an unmistakable bargaining for ice cream before dinner ensuing.
In the evening, people walk their dogs toward the park, greeting other dog walkers and giving the dogs a pat. Always they are happy to see Nandi, Sagi and Sarah’s Hungarian Hound. “Eyzeh chamud!” (What a sweetie!) they all say. In return, I offer a polite compliment to their dog, but it is really just to practice my Hebrew! There is no dog in Tel Aviv as special as Nandi!
As I am about to transition to my third and final sabbatical month, I acknowledge the many people who have made these adventures possible. I am thankful to the president and board of trustees at our synagogue who understand the gift of time to their clergy, to my fellow rabbis for continuing all of our ongoing commitments and initiatives, and to Jon for his ongoing support. For this month, I thank Sarah and Sagi for opening their home and daily lives to me… and a special thank you to Joshie who slept on the couch each Shabbat as I had taken over his room.
Happy Purim to everyone and I will write again next month to share the experience of yoga training.
With friendship and blessings,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I playfully named my three-month sabbatical “Root, Speak, Stretch” to define the way I had planned my time: visits back to my roots, speaking Hebrew in Israel, and stretching my comfort zone (and body) in yoga teacher training.
Now at the end of my first month, I have learned more about roots than I ever expected.
I begin by an admission that when I practice mindful awareness, coincidences start feeling like intentional signs. As soon as I embarked on a discovery of my roots, I took note of trees everywhere. Trees in Portland, Maine were dressed up for the holidays by artist Pandora LaCasse; trees throughout Massachusetts were dressed up after an ice storm by God .
Trees in botanic gardens in Huntsville, Alabama, West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Florida all seemed to lead me on my path. Banyan trees, the pride of Florida, signified the metaphor I had been seeking:
Roots typically remain unseen, growing solidly just under the surface. They provide nourishment, strength, and the source of everything that grows toward the light. New branches and shoots, fragile leaves, blossoms, and fruit demand attention: pruning, picking, trimming, tending. How easy it is to forget that roots also need tending.
And so I am grateful for this sabbatical pause in my full and busy life that has allowed me the calm space to learn something new. Places that represent my beginnings, people who “knew me when” – all deserve attention, all have deep truths to offer.
The idea of an obligation to nurture roots occurred to me first in the context of someone else’s place of beginnings. I spent an afternoon in Boynton Beach with Rabbi Scheff’s parents, Stan and Hannah. Almost a year ago, Hannah‘s parents, Israel and Sonia Neiman, best known as Zaidy Cha and Baba, moved into Stan and Hannah’s home. Tucked into a corner of the couch where I could hold Baba’s hand and listen to Zaidy Cha’s stories, I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of Scheff hospitality.
What I found of significance about that afternoon is something that they all take for granted. The children of these precious elders come to spend the day, son, son-in-law, cousin and their partners, every single Sunday. I am certain that the shmoozing every Sunday includes weather updates, sports controversies and discussions of the waiting times for certain restaurants. The content of the conversations is not what matters. What matters is the very gathering itself. Zaidy and Baba are blessed by a family that acknowledges and nurtures its roots. This awareness of the value of roots came home to me in that moment and has shaped my understanding of the entire month.
I felt fully the power of my origins when I stood on the rocks of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I respected the strength of memory when Jon and I drove by my childhood home, junior high and high school, and when we drove into the silent, snow-covered Jewish cemetery. At the Maine Jewish Museum (yes, there is such a place and no, it is not as small as a closet!) I looked at pictures of the old Jewish Community Center, my childhood synagogue, and Old Orchard Beach. I had discovered the roots of my roots. These kinds of roots require tending.
Sharing time with Cathy, my best friend in Maine, who has known me longer than anyone else except for my brother and cousins, reminded me of who I was as an eighteen year old. Cathy called my parents Momma and Poppa Mack. She and I lived together after college, back when I had never before written a check to pay rent. Cathy has been there for me through every major transition in my life, applauding my decision to attend Rabbinical School even though it was not in the realm of anything either of us could have dreamed of back in the summer of 1978! These kinds of roots require tending.
I traveled to Alabama and Florida to spend time with my maternal cousins. Pam, Ilene, Beth, and Wendy are my closest family members, and we share what no one else does: stories about our parents and grandparents, all gone now.
We laughed about Grandma Blanche’s afternoon tea parties and Grandpa Lou’s adventures collecting shells on Siesta Key, my Uncle Mel’s terrible jokes and my mom’s rules for making grocery lists. My cousin Pam calls me Paula Ellen, the name my grandparents called me. She is the only person who calls me that today. These kinds of roots require tending.
In between my travels, I spent time with my in-laws, Jonathan’s siblings, and friends from my Caldwell synagogue. These people too represent roots. One Shabbat in Caldwell, at Congregation Agudath Israel, Cantor Joel Caplan asked me to lead musaph. I felt the power of leading prayer before the person who taught me to lead it, in the place where I grew as a Jewish adult. These kinds of roots require tending.
As I have been sharing these experiences by phone with my brother Eric, I know that he understands completely what I am experiencing. My insights are not surprising to him. After all, he has known me longer than anyone else alive today. He knows me from before I knew myself.
And these are the kinds of roots that truly require tending.
Who are you calling today? To whom are you sending a handwritten letter? Are you making a reservation for that flight today? We all have roots that require tending.
We are more than where we came from. But we are not all that we hope to be if we do not acknowledge, remember, and honor from where we came.
With love and friendship, and on to Month Two,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As I fold the last laundry load of sheets and tablecloths, I stop for a moment of pure gratitude. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was filled with the obligatory breakfast at the Pancake House, a competitive game of Scrabble, and yoga with three of my kids. In my family, from Wednesday evening through today, we have enjoyed an abundance of family time, food, and joy.
According to Jewish law, if I do not give thanks to God for all of the gifts of the earth that I have enjoyed, then I am stealing. So thank you, God, for holiday tables and Shabbat meals shared with loved ones.
According to Jewish ethics, if I live in plenty without caring for those who live without, then I turn my blessings into curses. On this Sunday, I reflect back to last Sunday.
I was privileged to travel into New York City with an OJC crew of volunteers who have been serving breakfast and providing warm clothing to people who are homeless for at least fifteen years. Meals from the trays of egg and broccoli frittatas, boxes of coffee, bagels, and fresh fruit were accepted with dignity and thankfulness by the sixty people who lined up on the corner of 24th and Ninth Avenue last Sunday morning. Just as important as the nourishment we provided was the respectful friendship we offered in that hour.
The teens who traveled with me in my car reflected on the people they had met during our drive back to Rockland County. They met an opera singer, a Hasidic Jew, a comedian, a recovering addict, and a woman who had lost the ability to provide for her family. I wondered aloud with them about a society that lacks a safety net for so many thousands of people. How alone in the world must a person be to stand on a line in New York City waiting for a free breakfast?
Tonight I write a tale of two Sundays; a tale of two very different Thanksgivings.
Let me always be open to assisting those who have so little and remembering what it means to have so much.
Hallelujah, hodu l’Adonai!
Praise God and give thanks to God.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Of course, the hour and a half we spent putting pasta into sealed and labeled packages was much more than fun. We thought about what it means to provide food for parents of hungry children, survivors of the Shoah, or people who are mentally ill. Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Director of Pantry Packers, challenged us: “Do you know what it means to be hungry? Really. Truly. Hungry?” We were proud to begin our day by providing help with dignity. You can help at: https://pantrypackers.org/.
Next we drove to Gush Etzion to hear first-hand about the courageous work of Shorashim (Roots), a program of dialogue, understanding and bridge building between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The story we heard was one of “us versus them,” an existential conflict, and a deep sense of fear that is common to both sides. According to Noor and Shaul, participants in Roots have enough courage to meet each other and take responsibility for their stories. As Shaul said, “We must come to see that we belong to the same land.
Before we left, I asked Noor to offer a poem or prayer for peace before we sang Oseh Shalom. In English and Arabic, he quoted “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish:
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace)…
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).
Our final tour experience was an exhilarating visit to Hadassah Hospital where we were honored by Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Executive Director of Hadassah Offices in Israel, who gave us a complete explanation of the Chagall windows in the hospital synagogue.
She shared a lovely story about Mark Chagall‘s response when asked if he would create windows for the hospital. He said, “Thank you. I have been waiting to be asked.” What did he mean? He said, “I have been waiting to serve the Jewish people.” Barbara challenged all of us, “How have you served the Jewish People today?”
We were inspired to hear from Dvir Musai, a young man who owes his life to Haddassah Hospital. In 2002, doctors at the hospital saved three young boys, one of whom was Dvir, who were the victims of a terrorist bomb while on a school trip.
Dvir told us, “I imagine that my surgeon must have thought to himself that a 13 year old boy is too young to lose his legs.” Against all odds, and 30 surgeries later, Dvir is the father of two boys and an employee of Hadassah Hospital. He was given back his life in the trauma unit and given two new lives in the Mother and Child Pavilion. There was not a dry eye when Rhoda Friedman gave to Dvir infant caps she had crocheted for newborns at the hospital.
As I write this from Sarah and Sagi’s apartment, most of the travelers are getting ready to board the flight home, filled with memories to last a lifetime. I will be home soon too, after a celebration of the wedding of Sagi‘s brother Roi to Lera and a Shabbat with my kids here in Tel Aviv.
Maybe next time you will be the one to travel to Israel with an OJC trip?!
Warmest regards from Israel,
At the newly renovated Beit Hatefusot, Museum of the Jewish People, we appreciated the way that Jews from all over the world are part of one people. I had visited this museum two decades ago and remembered well the exhibit on synagogues from around the world. I shared with the group the following Yehuda Amichai poem, which he wrote after the original museum opened on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Poem Without an End
The second museum we visited was the Israel Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. For almost two hours, we were guided through Rabin’s life, both personal and professional, Israel’s history and world history, all wrapped into one amazing, complicated story.
On our drive along the Tel Aviv promenade we were blessed with a breathtaking sunset over the Mediterranean.
We ate dinner “in the dark” and watched the play Not by Bread Alone, with actors who are blind and deaf. The lesson of the play is that we should never assume we can know all about a person because of how they present in the world; we all have dreams.
Monday has been a day spent in the Old City. We began as archaeologists, doing artifact sifting from the Second Temple period. We found pottery, blown glass, and bones. Our guide did not enter into the politics of the mindless bulldozing at the site of the Temple in the 90’s. She simply said, “Excavation without supervision, whether legal or illegal, is immoral.”
We continued on to the Jewish Quarter. Our fantastic guide, Nir Ofer (veterans of Rabbi Scheff’s November volunteer missions might remember him) said, “Look at the Western Wall. In reality, we see only stones. And so, if we feel anything spiritually, it must come from within us. Thus the Wall epitomizes a religion that taught the world to worship a God we cannot see.”
As always, we shopped in the Cardo, the main shopping avenue of ancient Jerusalem, and found gifts, jewelry and tallitot.
The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels was challenging but enlightening – so much history in Jerusalem, so little time.
In the evening, we watched the sound and light show at the Tower of David and were able to use today’s Hebrew word of the day most appropriately: magniv (wonderful)!
With love from Jerusalem,
This Shabbat in Jerusalem, we turned toward the Wall itself, at Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian platform of the Western Wall. As our voices rose together in the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat, our hearts were intended toward friends and loved ones back at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We brought into our minds all those we wish could have been with us on such a beautiful evening.
Shabbat dinner at our hotel was enhanced by our guests, Sarah Machlis, Drill-bits, and two lone soldiers. We each shared a highlight of our week and the hardest thing was choosing just one thing to say. Shaya, one of the soldiers, adopted Eileen Rogers as his grandmother before he left us. Who could blame him?
Shabbat morning, we were welcomed to the Masorti synagogue attached to the Fuchsburg Center for Conservative Judaism, Moreshet Yisrael. The chanting of Chazzanit Saralee Shrell Fox lifted us through the entire service, but especially as we joined her in singing Hallel. Rabbi Adam Frank moved us with a drash about the command: Be fruitful and multiply. Why did God so badly want humanity to continue that God made it a positive command? And why do we humans bring children into a world that is so difficult? Rabbi Frank suggested that we believe we can continue to improve the world into the next generations. Judaism teaches that we can.
After lunch, we learned Torah with a Conservative Yeshiva student, Liza Bernstein. She challenged us with a comparison of Noah, a pure man who walked with God, to Abraham, a pure man who walked before God. Participants on our trip brought honor to the OJC through their insightful and enthusiastic participation in the Torah study. Liza will begin rabbinical studies next year at the Hebrew college in Boston, and she will make a wonderful rabbi one day.
After just a little bit of time to relax in the afternoon, we gathered for Havdalah.
Chazzanit Shrell Fox, who led us on Shabbat morning, happens to be an old friend. Among many other talents, she creates beautiful women’s kippot. After Shabbat, she met us in our hotel lobby with samples of her work.
Our current OJC Hazak Israel trip possesses a unique blessing of radical amazement and appreciation because more than half of our group has waited 60, 70 or more years to travel to our homeland for the first time. Almost all of the rest of our group has not been in Israel for 20 or 30 years.
Each experience of these first three days feels precious. Each moment is over-filled with emotion and joy. Like the rabbis of medieval Europe who waited a lifetime to fulfill the mitzvah of putting their feet in the holy land, our pilgrims too are filled with gratitude and pride to be here.
As we approach each experience, we acknowledge its place in Jewish and Israeli history, geography, and spirituality.
Afterward, we share our thoughts — about the layers of history at Caesarea, an introduction to Kaballah through making candles (“The human soul is the candle of God”) in Tzefat, wine tasting at Dalton Winery, the awesome safari to the middle of the Hula Preserve to watch firsthand the migration of thousands of birds coming to rest for the night in the swamp, and a meaningful visit to the residence for children at risk, Kfar Ahava.
There is present in each experience a great tourist moment, and embedded in that same moment, there is a pilgrim’s experience, emerging from connection to Rabbinic thought, Torah, and the stories we tell ourselves.
1. During our hour-long visit to the Hula Preserve, we watched thousands of birds land to rest for the night along their migration route. The air was filled with the calls of cranes and the dramatic flight of thousands of birds of many varieties. After our visit, we read “I Want Always to Have Eyes to See” by Natan Zach, excerpted here:
I want always to have eyes to see
The world’s beauty; and to praise
This marvelous faultless splendor; to praise
The One who made it beautiful to praise,
And full, so very full, and beautiful.
… And then we recited a blessing: Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe Whose world is like this! (Shekakha Lo b’Olamo).
2. During our walking tour of Kfar Ahava, we turned a corner and suddenly there we were – in the peaceful space created by OJC volunteers to remember Rob Katz z”l and Danny Klein z”l. The ability to speak about these two beloved people in the context of a visit to a healing program with powerful ties to OJC was meaningful to all of us.
Rabbi Paula Drill