Friday, November 24, 2017

Sigd: Hearts Facing Jerusalem

Yom Chamishi, 5 Kislev 5778.

"Remember, I pray Thee, the word that Thou didst command Thy servant Moshe, saying, If you transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if you turn to Me, and keep My commandments, and do them; though your outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will I gather them, and I will bring them to the place which I have chosen to set My name there."  
-- Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine spending generations reading these words, and believing that the prophet Nehemiah was speaking directly to you and your people! And then finally coming home, on "the wings of eagles," to "Yerusalem"...

Fascinated with a story I heard about the first Ethiopians to "come Home" to Zion, I have wanted to experience the Ethiopian holy day, Sigd, for most of the decade that I've lived in Israel. Work, weather, and my general shyness prevented it, until last Thursday.

The OU Israel Center arranged a morning tour of various sites integral to the exploration of Sigd, which means "prostration" in Ge'ez, the holy language of both Jews and non-Jews in Ethiopia. Our very competent and entertaining young guide was David Bratspis. ("Go ahead. Just get right into the pronunciation. Don't hide from it: brats' piss.") His self-effacing humor and factual research made him easy to like and respect immediately; and his presentation throughout the day didn't disappoint.


Our first stop was the cemetery on Har Herzl, where David introduced us to the memorial commemorating the loss of more than 4,000 Ethiopians who died en route and in Sudan on their way to the Holy Land in the 1980s and early 1990s. They succumbed to famine and disease; but they also were robbed, raped, and murdered by people they trusted as guides. Happily, many thousand Ethiopians -- also known as Beta Yisrael -- were rescued during the airlifts (designated Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon) from 1984 through 1991.

Representations of Ehtiopian tukulim (huts)






Sitting at the monument, we listened raptly to David as he told us the history of Ethiopian Jewry, facts about the three key languages among the people, and details about their dwellings (a thatched, conical hut called a tukul), and their practices, many of which were decidedly Jewish in nature.

the names of those who perished




David reminded us that it might be more appropriate to call this day (29 Cheshvan, fifty days after Yom Kippur) "Yom Sigd" rather than "Chag Sigd," as it is a holy day of commemoration, and half-fast, and a very solemn day of blessings and prayers. David pointed out that Sigd became an official holiday in 2008.
After our educational visit to the Har Herzl memorial, we re-boarded our bus to head for the Tayelet, a promenade located in Talpiot, and the highest point in Jerusalem. Their holy leaders, called kessim, chose the Tayelet to continue the practice of a mass pilgrimage to the highest available point, and gazing toward Zion.

David showed us an example of the Orit (pictured), the sacred text of Ethiopian Jews.
From the Tayelet, they worshipers can see the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. The Ethiopian practice is to join with their kessim, rabbis, to recite prayers, to read from their holy book called the Orit.

At least this is the practice of some. "What proof do we have that the Ethiopian Jews are authentically Jewish? Some of them (mostly Amharic speakers) hold by going to the Tayelet, to continue the old practices; and some of them (the Tigrinya speakers) wouldn't be caught dead there, and go instead to the Kotel." After we all had a good laugh at the classic joke (two Jews, three opinions), David told us that many Tigrim do join the observance on the Tayelet. But his humor served to remind us that these Jews are part of our family, something we continued to learn and feel throughout the day.

At the Tayelet, we were "turned loose" to walk around, take photos, make conversation. I met lovely people who were more than willing to talk about the day, about their families, about their profound love of Israel.





Some of the ladies were shy at first to be photographed; but after I explained that I write a blog to share what is lovely about living in Israel, they were interested. Once I expressed my happiness in being able to participate in this holy day, they were eager to talk. We discussed how special it is to share traditions, and the joy they feel bringing up their children in the Israel their parents only dreamed of.
Only kessim sit under the umbrellas; so if you see an umbrella in the crowd, you know there is an Ethiopian rabbi there.


We received many blessings from these holy people.

A young soldier was proud to protect all of us as we mingled on the Tayelet.


After this visit, we moved to the Kotel, to say the afternoon prayers with our Ethiopian hosts, who then broke the fast over traditional sourdough flatbread called injera, with which they were very generous. They were also very generous with their brachot. I collected abundant blessings from more than one kes for my sons and their families.


"Will you pass on the observance of Sigd to your children?" The boys were sure. The girl was just shy, as is usual with most girls everywhere.


I saw her standing under an umbrella. "Is your husband a kes?" I asked her. She seemed surprised that I knew the significance. (Score another one for David, our informative tour guide.) "My father is a kes," she answered. After the breaking of the fast, she took the microphone, and made a short speech to the assembled crowd (which I sadly did not understand). She was the first to offer me some injera, even before she took for herself.

Kessim of both groups of Ethiopians davened and broke the fast side by side. We can all learn from each other, I think, about getting along.


I hope to participate again in Yom Sigd, less as a curious observer and more as a fellow olah, as well as in the many and varied cultural customs of my wonderful Jewish Nation. As my dear and wise Mama, a"h, always said, "Why do people fight about their differences? Wouldn't it be better to celebrate our rainbow of colors and all of our different ways of viewing the world?"

The mounds represent the mountains met during their trek to the Holy Land.
Ethiopian Jewry officially recognized by the Rabbinate
You can contact David on Facebook about arranging a tour at David Bratspis Tour Educator.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dancing Visions

29 Tishrei 5778, posted in Cheshvan.

Not a painting of Bryna Kitay, zt"l.  Her dance was sweeter.
It is a beautiful wedding. The bride is, appropriately, breathtakingly beautiful. She reminds me of her mother when I met her, who also took my breath away (and still does). Not merely because God has given her a good face, but because there is authenticity behind her eyes. Her daughter shares that intense and real beauty. (And her father is an accomplished businessman, who at simchas plays the perfect image of the sad/happy clown, still acrobatic over the years.)

The guests touch my heart: they are friends of twenty years and more from the town that reared my sons and their parents in the Jewish faith.

There is so much for which to be grateful tonight.

As I listen to the soulful strains of Im Eshkacheich Yirushalayim -- If I forget Jerusalem -- with closed eyes...

Bryna Leah (aka Beverly) Kitay, a"h, appears in the center of the room. Now I must digress...

I am not a terribly spiritual person. I have had exactly two spiritual dreams in my life. And prior to this experience, I have had exactly two "visions." Only one is relevant to this story:

Many years ago, I was at a Simchat Torah celebration at Congregation Tiferes Yisroel. Rabbi Goldberger was dancing with the Torah, as he did by TY tradition, alone with the Torah, before the group dancing began. The dance was very ritualized, as Rabbi G preserved memory with motion. Details such as a raised hand, a bend of the waist, everything was an echo of a dance of the past. It was told to me that each careful step added to the design of the Ineffable Name of Hashem...

We all knew the steps and the motions, and that they were handed down from Rabbi Goldberger's rebbe.

I closed my eyes...

Suddenly I could see, very clearly, Rabbi Ben Tzion Chaim Shloime Meshulam Zusia Twerski, zt"l,  dancing with Rabbi Menachem Goldberger in the center of the room.

I had never met Rabbi Goldberger's rebbe. I only knew him from photographs. But in that one isolated moment, I felt that I saw him and felt his presence... and that "vision" has stayed with me all these years. There was so much love in that room that evening: the rebbe for one of his dearest talmidim, Rabbi Goldberger for his kehilla and family, our love for him and his remarkable bride, also a talmida of the Rav. The experience has typified for me what it is to be part of a mesorah, a tradition.

Suddenly, at this moment at this wedding, my third vision becomes a new spiritual thread in the tapestry of my Jewish journey.

In Baltimore, at any significant spiritual event, Bryna Kitay could be seen, in her quaint matching hat and suit jacket over a long skirt, arms raised to Heaven, dancing to and for God. Her eyes would be closed, and her expression was one of such sublime peace and openness. The kallah's mother reminds me that Bryna was always the first person in the center of any circle dance, later joined by the ladies around her. "She taught me what circle dancing is about. There's the part about joyous circling with loved ones. And then there's inviting Gd into the dance: bringing down His energy and light into the circle." Bryna left the world in 2016, around the same time of year as this recent TY wedding. I always imagine her dancing in Shemayim for God...

So here I am, at this wedding of these beautiful young people, surrounded by friends who define my family's Jewish roots... and there is Bryna Kitay in the center of the room, eyes closed, arms raised to Shemayim, dancing only for Hashem. Somehow, her presence here adds a layer of shefa and bracha to this marriage of two souls. My heart dances. I long to dance with her, to get her acknowledgment of my presence, but I know this is foolish. Bryna Leah never danced with anyone else except her One-and-Only Partner, in all the years I knew her. If she touched you during the dance, you are blessed. She only had eyes for Him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

So I Guess this is the Bris?

26 Cheshvan 5778.

It's a bit late, but the "baby" had to spend a little more time in the ICU than expected.

With gratitude to God and lots of really wonderful humans, I am happy to announce the birth of the book, and its subsequent transfer from the safety of the incubator to global distribution. L'chayim!


You still get the best deal by ordering from Lulu Publishing.* This is helpful if you live in the States, or have friends traveling to you in the near future.

Happily, little "Big Whine"** is now available from other vendors.

If you live in Israel, New Zealand (Hi, Kiwi!), Northern Ireland (Hi, Valerie!) or the rest of the UK, my personal favorite book seller is Book Depository. They deliver directly to Israel, and their service is timely and professional. (We once received a book that was mangled. I sent photos. They sent a new book in record time. Can you say "customer service"?)

And, of course, there is trusty ol' Amazon, and Amazon UK, and Amazon Spain (I know, right?), and Amazon Saturn...

(If you see the book available elsewhere, please feel free to share in the comments section below.)

Next item on my personal bucket list: to see From Big Whine to Big Grapes (perhaps in time for Chanukah?) in the window of my favorite book store on the planet. (Feel free to click on the link to let Michael and Shira Pomeranz know you're interested.)

When we popped the cork on the champagne in my writing class, a brief conversation ensued.

Sarina (teacher, friend, mentor extraordinaire): I love that sound. It's the sound of celebration.
Ruti (a somewhat mouthy and by sport a contradictory student): Yeah, that's the traditional approach. I think of it as the sound of the next project.
Sarina (ever encouraging): I like that. Write it down.
Ruti (occasionally compliant): Yes, Ma'am.

If you like the book and feel inclined, please write a review at Amazon and/or at Lulu. Nothing sells a book like the kindness of strangers, and friends!

*If you have a book inside you and would love advice about self-publishing through Lulu Publishers, I would be very happy to talk with you. #sharingiscaring

**Nearly every kid has a nickname, right? We love you, BW!!! Make us proud, kid.







Wednesday, October 25, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles - a review

5 Cheshvan 5778.

Finding a really good book is one of the sweet pleasures of life.

Daniella Levy's first novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is by turns a troubling love story, a glimpse into two related religions and their practices, a mystery, a study in the tragedy of our brothers and sisters hidden in the world of the anusim (forcibly converted Jews), a romp through five hundred years of history.

My favorite thing about Ms. Levy's writing is her ease with dialogue. I feel that I know her characters. I can see them in conversation, and I care about them. I wanted so much for their individual and their collective stories to work out, the way you do when you hear a friend's story. There were so many ways for it to go... and I wanted all of my peeps to fare well. Of course, life doesn't always work out that way...

Listening to an interview of the writer (by her husband, Rabbi Eitan Levy), I heard something that made my eyes roll. I should not have been surprised: we live in The Age of the Protest.

Apparently, both Christian and Jewish readers (some of each, not all) expected Ms. Levy to cater to their views on how relationships between Jews and Christians should be written. My understanding, through at least fifty years as an expert reader, is that an author's job is not to make you happy. That may in fact happen... but her job is to make you think. To challenge. To help you grow. At least, this is what my favorite books have done. They also may be entertaining. But the best novels have helped me, through their study of the human condition, to see my fellow human in more detail, to appreciate his struggles, to make us more real to each other.

Not only do Alma, Manuel and Míriam come alive on the page (as do all of the supporting cast of their half-century and transcontinental story), one is offered the opportunity to respect them and their viewpoints and wrestling-matches with their beliefs. The young protagonists share their often acerbic commentaries with each other, and with the reader; these people authentically speak with the unguarded opinion of young people everywhere. The rabbis and priests in the story are all fully-drawn and believable; there are no glib religious caricatures here.

The leitmotif of intermarriage is explored fully, from those who do and are shunned, to those who don't and must bear the heartache of martyrdom for the sake of a greater good. Each position is given its moment to be explored and felt from inside. While I (and clearly the author) have strong views on the subject, I feel enriched by the opportunity to "walk around in the other fellow's moccasins" a while. Understanding another's viewpoint doesn't threaten my own, but it makes me more compassionate.

A bonus: If you love stories about hashgacha pratit -- the hidden hand of God, cv"l, moving things into place behind the scenes -- you will enjoy several subtle references woven throughout the book, as many things "just happen" at exactly the right moment to guide the unfolding of the story.

Another bonus: the loving care in the editing and publication by Yael Shahar and Don Radlauer of Kasva Press has resulted in a beautiful, nearly-flawless book. I recommend trying to get on their very tight list, if you are a writer who wants a very beautiful finished product.

You can read more to intrigue about this excellent story at Daniella Levy. I recommend it!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Yaakov's Teshuva

12 Tishrei 5778.

"Yaakov, dear father, if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?"

He sits for a long, long time. I marvel that he is really here with me, in my humble sukkah. He said a bracha over the tea I brought him, and actually tasted Celestial Seasons Bengal Spice. The incongruity of that, of the traversing of millennia involved, probably strikes me more than anything else about our remarkable morning so far. Before he speaks, a tear rolls down his cheek. I feel horrible, because I caused one of our Holy Avot to cry. As if reading my mind, he speaks reassuringly.

"Do not suppose that this is the first occasion over the centuries upon which I have been asked to contemplate this question." He smiles ironically. (I am in awe of reading an ironic smile on the face of someone from the Bible.) "You at least query kindly, without accusation.

"So I will present you with an answer. I have had many and long occasion to turn the question in my mind, as a leaf turns and frolics on a turbulent stream. Please forgive me if my answer seems to your ears like a lesson. It is for me a penance.

"If I could return to that place in time when I placed on the shoulders of my beloved son Yosef the beautiful coat of many-colored weaving, I would not do it. I would will my hand to lose its cunning before I would act thus, cherishing this child above his brothers, thinking it an innocent and seeming quiet act of profound love for his dear mother.

"Little could I know at that moment -- as God is my witness! -- what jealousy and pain and death would be given birth in the world through the threads of that cursed garment."

I look at him sadly, feeling such pain for him. I realize with new humility that this is not his first such visit. He must have come to Earth -- or must have been sent -- many times, to go through this process. For himself? I wonder. For the good of the world? We are still so divisive. We children still fight so jealously.

I try to give him a crumb of comfort as he sips the still steaming tea.

"Surely, you did not bring jealousy into the world. It started at least with Kayin and Hevel."

He looks at me with eyes both frightening and haunted. "I could have ended it."

I don't ask him any more. I know that he is right. I have spent my entire motherhood trying to correct the jealously and bitterness created in my siblings the day my stepfather drunkenly announced to all of us -- his stepdaughters and even to his own precious children -- that I was his favorite. How dare he? How dare he cause such pain, and certainly give me no pleasure, with that careless remark.

Again -- I sense that my father Yaakov reads my thoughts.

"I am here, this time, to tell you and your husband that you are making a tikun for that mistake. Not merely the mistake made in your own life by others. But in a very small way, your children are aiding in binding the hole in the fabric of our people, and thus the world. And thus in my heart, daughter."

He smiles... and he is gone. I look at the cup of tea. I take it in my hands, and hold it to my lips, and drink a bit, like a tender kiss.

"Thank you, Abba."

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Birth of a Book

21 Elul 5777.

I'm very excited about this project! BS"D, after long months of editing and reformatting, the blog will be coming out in October in book form. For photos, you'll have to check back to the online version; but hopefully the words will be fun to see in print -- especially with the remarkable and insightful cover art by Hanna Tova Glicksman, and the wise graphic design of Hanna Sara (Zeif) Katz. It pays to work with hometown talent, especially when they're related, and accustomed to getting along nicely. (Ms. Glicksman and Ms. Katz are cousins. Nice family, this.)

Since you have been a part of this project from the beginning, as you have read, encouraged, commented, sometimes corrected (and saved me embarrassment), I hope you will also get some pleasure from owning a copy. You'll let me know.

Keep watching here and on Facebook. I'll be very excited to let you know when the labor is over, and the book is born!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Chamber of Commerce Dynamic Duo

13 Elul 5777.

Do you sometimes wish your Chamber of Commerce would get around to promoting the small businesses in your town? I mean, how does a town survive, if no one knows what it has to offer?

The Dearly Beloved and I traveled to Tzfat for a day of unplanned exploring with some old friends from the States. I decided to check in with Miri and Dave, since we were in their neighborhood. Maybe they could meet us for a cup of coffee or for lunch or something...

We've known Miri for around thirty years, since our US Army days in Germany. Our boys grew up together -- not always in the same location, but certainly in the same time-frame. While I don't get credit for making the shidduch with Dave, I can at least say that I was able to tell her that yes, he was a darn good guy, and I thought they'd be good together. They were, and they get better all the time.

Not only did they meet us for lunch -- but they made themselves available as Tzfat's Chamber of Commerce representatives for the day!

First was lunch at a little place called Elements Café. You will find a ton of favorable reviews for this cheerful, charming little vegan place. (I know, right? What's happening to the Dearly Beloved and me? Like -- where's the beef???) We had a terrific time. The food was fresh, creative, plentiful, homemade and delicious. As if that's not enough, the quirky and comedic owner, Zev, along with his staff (who clearly like their jobs), made our visit fun and enjoyable, all while also dealing with a crowd that was appreciating a local rabbi's shiur on the patio. Now, the Dearly Beloved is trying to get me to recreate the pareve blueberry "ice cream," made with coconut cream. We may just have to make another trip to Zev's place...

After introducing us to Zev and his marvelous restaurant, our hosts took us to meet a local artist named Kathleen Wasserman who not only makes gorgeous quilted glass artworks, but teaches others to do the same. Her work was totally out of our price range, but that didn't stop us from drinking in all that color and creativity with our eyes.


Miri had to return to work, but she left us in the capable hands of Dave, who played guide to us and our friends visiting from America for the next few hours. (Remember that I just hoped that they'd meet us for lunch!) Dave took us to see one of the remarkable and beautiful synagogues of the Old City of Tzfat, and told us stories of war heroes from the times that Tzfat was under serious shelling from surrounding enemies during the early days of the modern state.

He informed us of places to purchase locally-made goat cheese, and then took us to meet a young artist named Avraham Loewenthal who works to share his vision of what the shofar blasts of Yom Kippur might look like, rendered in a rainbow of colors, as well as beautiful rainbow calligraphy of the Hebrew expression "Ain od Milvado," which can be translated as "there is nothing but God, everything that exists is only a manifestation of God" -- or as A. J. Heschel said it: "God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance."

Dave then saved us the headache -- after a long day of touring -- of driving further north to find a good winery. "Why don't you just go to the winery nearby, Dalton Winery?" We took him up on his suggestion, and experienced a really nice, private wine tasting, before taking ourselves to dip our toes in the Kinneret.

It was a beautiful trip, with old friends from our past, and old friends from Baltimore. What will stand out for me most was the loving kindness of one couple toward not only visiting friends, but toward the town they hope to see flourish.

I recently read an excellent d'var Torah from logotherapist Avraham (Allan) Friedman. In it, he says: "We all live while searching for and fulfilling different meanings in our lives. Yet, any meaning we have in this life is not for our sake alone. Our own meaning is tied to self-actualization if and only if it is also 'other-directed'...

"'How can we change the world for the better' is a question that we need to ask ourselves."

Instead of sitting around and lamenting that "nobody is doing anything to publicize the artists and businesses in our city," Miri and Dave have found an answer.