Sunday, October 5, 2008

Morid Ha Geshem - Who Makes the Rain Descend

At last the High Holidays are upon us. Rosh Hashanah has truly marked a change in the weather. Most days are cooler now. But everything is still green and warm enough to be pleasant. Some mornings the skies are a bit overcast - the sunrise a brilliant gash of orange and gold peeking through. The color of dvash (honey) in the land of chalav v' dvash (milk & honey). I love this time of year best. We eat our Challah with honey, we dip our apples in honey. We are reminded that God intends our lives to be sweet. Honey is a real miracle. Our Rabbi's wife reminded us that honey is the only food that is kosher which comes from a non-kosher animal. It is a mystery to understand how a bee and a flower can make something so sweet, so pure. Honey never spoils or gets rancid. Honey contains natural antibiotics. It is pleasant to eat & good for us! May our lives be just like honey, never rancid, always sweet and good, clean in the midst of the unclean, adding sweetness and health to others around us.

Just before Rosh Hashanah our neighbors, Ari & Leah Cutler delivered a beautiful Baby Boy! (Mazel Tov!) His Bris was the Shabbat immediately preceding the Hag (holiday) & we were invited to the Shalom Zachar (festivities on the night before - happened to fall on a Friday) and the Bris (after services on Shabbat). It was a wonderful occasion. Much singing and dancing. Many friends stopping in, laughter, making much over the new addition, etc., a little shot, a glass of wine, some sweets to nibble, a little miracle to wonder over. Friday night we stayed for the Brachot (blessings) and festivities, then eventually made our way back across the courtyard to our own place. I went out on our rear mirpeset (from which I can see the Cutler's gan) to enjoy the wonderful evening, listen to the continued singing next door, and take a moment to commune with HaShem about how much I loved life in Israel and how grateful I am that we are living here. While I was sitting there I felt a small raindrop on my arm. It was almost a confirmation that HaShem had heard my prayers. Then came another, and another. I looked up at the sky & saw mostly stars, with a little cloud cover coming in from the west. Sure enough soon we had a downpour. It was one of those wonderful times when the rain is gentle and the weather just warm enough that you want to stand outside and dance in it. Soon all our neighbors were either outside or looking out their doors & windows at the miracle of the early rain. In Israel we pray for rain, we plead for rain! It is one of the prayers that we say during Succot. No-one here really expects rain before then.

The rain lasted for about 45 minutes. Then, as quickly as it appeared, all the clouds blew over & the sky was all stars again. It rained again later that night, and again once or twice in the next few days. It is a good omen (not that I am much for omens). But everyone agrees it was a miracle, a special blessing from HaShem, and hopefully a promise of more to come. Did I mention it has not rained, since we arrived, not a drop until that night?

Rosh HaShanah itself was a wonderful experience for me. Though I did not have the proper holiday Machsur (prayer book), that did not prohibit me from entering in, singing the songs I remembered, humming those I did not, reciting what prayers I knew, and making up new ones for myself in places in the service where I was lost.

I guess I should tell you a little about the shul where we daven (pray). Even though our grand and wonderful city of 72,000 people is inhabited by 90% plus Jews, we only have 8 actual synagogue buildings in the entire city. Most of those buildings are used by two or more congregations. I believe there are currently 72 or 73 congregations functioning in the city, so obviously not all of them meet in a building dedicated solely to prayer and Torah study. Most meet in school buildings or house to house, some even meet outside, in a park, or on someones mirpeset.

As an aside I will mention this is a sore spot for the constituents in our city, and certainly an important and hotly debated issue as relates to this falls' Mayoral race.

The Shul we attend (we recently applied for membership & acquired assigned seats for the Holidays), meets in an elementary school which has a large, open, oval shaped central hallway. Every week volunteers go & hang a curtain for the Mechitsa (the divider between the men's & women's sections), set out plastic chairs, roll out the Aron (or Ark - the cabinet where the Torah Scrolls are held), set out the siddurim (prayer books) and in general make sure everything is ready for services on Friday night & Saturday. After Shabbat is over everything is carefully picked up & packed up because there is school bright & early Sunday Morning. It is a labor of love & one in which JDC participates as often as possible. The school we meet in is not air conditioned - which makes for a dewy experience at times - though there are oscillating fans placed strategically around the room, it's wise to come early for a cool seat!

The building itself is not fancy, and often not even very clean. But there are touches to it that I really love. There is a balcony circling (actually "ovaling") above us which leads to upper level classrooms. The central hall therefore has a high ceiling & is open to the second floor - makes for great acoustics when singing, but also carries the echos of children crying or laughing (as is often the case - there are lots of children in our congregation). Along the balcony wall, on the east (the direction we face), the school has installed mosaics depicting the 12 tribes of Israel. Judah is a lion, Asher a gazelle, etc. They are lovely & I never tire of looking at all of them. The Mechitsa is made of a silky golden, translucent, ethereal fabric on the upper half with an almost matching opaque version of the same material on the lower half. The light from the windows and doors that circle the hallway glimmers through it as it wafts in the breeze. During services the hallway is filled with wonderful voices singing and praying. The melodies are familiar, and the atmosphere is filled with Kavanah. (This is a harder word to define - religious passion, prayer with intent, people seeking a sincere and meaningful connection with God, more than just reciting memorized prayers - deliberately focusing on supplication - whew!)

We chose this Shul because it met specific criteria. Ashkenaz (eastern European) in style. It is a predominantly Anglo shul - most everyone who attends speaks English. The services are all in Hebrew (including the Rabbi's teaching & the announcements afterwards), there are about 150 families in attendance, most with at least 3 or 4 children. There are always pregnant mothers to be seen - always. (Did I mention in a previous blog that Modiin currently has the highest birth rate in all Israel?! & that those who contribute to this high birth rate are predominantly Modern Orthodox in persuasion?!!! this is an awesome and wonderful thing - if only I were 20 years younger!?!?)

In America the Shul is the center of the Observant Jewish community for the most part. The social circle you participate in centers around Shul related activities and the close friends you make are mostly those you go to shul with. But in Israel this is not the case. Shul starts at 8:00 ends at 11:30, Many women with little ones don't show up until around 10:ish (that is like in the states! LOL) There is usually no kiddush (blessings and a small meal) after services, like we were used to in the states. Even with a Bar Mitzvah services don't last until 1:00 pm, which is pretty normal time for the states. If someone has you over for Shabbat lunch you may walk home and change your clothes, and have a cup of coffee, before you head to their house. Here the community is wider & you make friends with the parents of the kids that your kids attend school with, or those you meet in your Ulpan, or your neighbors - who may not attend the same shul you do, all in addition to those you go to shul with.

We ourselves are making many new acquaintances, and hopefully many of those will grow into some real earnest friendships.

Next Wednesday / Thursday is Yom Kippur. It is a day of fasting & prayer. In the US one would normally be in Shul all day with seemingly only a couple of 20 minute breaks. I am told here we will be there less, and I admit, about 2:00 I usually hit a wall where my feet hurt and my stomach begins an assault, I feel I just need to sit down and rest. But then I know that is the time I really need to pray in earnest, when my soul is laid bare and my most basic needs are set aside for some serious spiritual introspection. I sense that opportunity will avail itself to me again this year, and I will find HaShem as readily available in a sultry school building in Modiin as I ever did in a comfortable Synagogue in America.

Today we started setting up our Succah (Succot begins a week from today). Succot is my most favorite Holiday. Our lift with all our personal posessions will not even leave the states until October 22nd. So all the beautiful decorations that I have lovingly collected and saved for my Succah are far away. Normally we build our Succah out of nursery fabric (you know, that green mesh fabric one commonly sees as the "roofing" over a commercial greenhouse). It is lightweight, light and air pass through it, but it also helps block out most of the heat from the sun. I also have all kinds of garland (grapevine and leaves in fall motif colors) that I normally drape around the upper walls of the Succah, plus twinkly lights, so the evening meals have a subdued atmosphere, and the decorations still show in the luminous cast even after sundown. Usually I have lots of candles scattered around, plus there was always the sound of the waterfall from the adjacent pond. So this year, sigh, not as nice. I can't afford to buy all new decorations, plus I haven't even seen garland anywhere! Candles are more expensive too. I did break down & buy one strand of twinkly lights (have only seen them in one place), plus we do have the trickle sounds from the mini pond. Also, a first for us, this year we can use palm branches for our skach (covering over the top - you have to be able to see the stars through it). I have always had a particular affinity for palm trees (being a west coast transplant) - but was never able to incorporate any into my Succah. This year, what a special treat for me, everytime I look up at the stars I'll be able to look through palm fronds! Yes, We will make do. I have plans already to have lots of people over. We managed to put together a Succah that will probably seat about 15 - 20 (if we squeeze) on the front mirpeset. If you're going to be in Israel, drop me a line.....

I am told it will rain. I hope so. I look forward to it. In the states I always asked HaShem to send the rain to Israel and not to let it rain on my Succah. I hope all of my friends in the states are praying the same - HaShem, who makes the rain descend, please send the rain to Israel & water our thirsty nefesh (soul, spirit, quintessence)!

Till next time!

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