Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Belarus Pesach Project

Why was this seder different from all other seders? This year I sang Dayeinu and ate matzah with communities in the country of Belarus, along with my travel partner, Miriam, an HUC rabbinical student. In a partnership between Hebrew Union College and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Pesach Project brings HUC students all over the FSU each year to lead Passover seders. The goal? To help make their Passover experience even more meaningful and joyous, and for us to learn about their culture, the culture from which so many of our families come. Additionally, we strive to unite Progressive Jewish Communities around the world.

We flew into Minsk, the city that my grandparents on my father’s side once lived. However, the city today looks nothing like it used to, given that the entire city was destroyed by the end of World War 2. Miriam and I worked with a translator and led 4 Passover seders together. What an experience.

Belarussian Teens
I could have walked into a NFTY NW retreat, except that everyone was speaking Russian. Young, energetic, flirty and intelligent teens with great questions and a good base of knowledge gathered together for a Passover training retreat. Three of us cantorial students had the opportunity to teach a workshop on Passover music. Two days later these teens were sent out around Belarus to assist other communities in leading Passover seders (just like us!). Seeing this active youth was a very encouraging way to begin our trip.

The Yiddishkeight Community of Grodna
From Minsk we took a 5 hour, squished, bus ride to Grodna, to lead 3 seders in a row. It took a few minutes to adjust to leading with a translator and understanding the local customs and needs of the community. The first two seders were with an older group of people. Soon we were hearing stories about the decades gone by when Passover celebrations were not allowed due to war and Soviet control. For the last 20 years or so they have worked to put the pieces back together. The traditions might have almost been lost, but the Yiddishkeight will never be forgotten. They sang one Yiddish folk song after another, with one woman who always jumped up to the piano and another who took the lead with the solos. They even proudly sang Dayeinu in Yiddish for us! It was clear that the language transported them back to another time. A time associated with all types of feelings; oppression, struggles, and joy.

At a later seder, with a group of adults in their 40s, it was a completely different vibe. This was not the generation who grew up speaking Yiddish. This was the generation that didn’t have the chance to grow up celebrating Passover at all. Almost everything I sang seemed unknown to them, and so I focused more on teaching them the songs. Miriam taught about the seder traditions and shared stories. As the end of the seder grew closer, I asked them what songs they knew and wanted to sing. They immediately broke out into Heveinu Shalom Aleichem and Oseh Shalom. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so different from this community.

Minsk Cantorial Concert
It has become a tradition in Minsk to hold the annual Cantorial Concert in accordance with HUC students visiting for Passover. The concert included beautiful Belarussian dances, choir pieces, instrumental performances, opera singers, a few cantorial style liturgical pieces and the three of us Cantorial students. We each got to sing 2 pieces of music. I have not been so nervous in a very long time. However, once I started to sing, the butterflies flew away and it felt great to sing in the beautiful music hall of Minsk.

Famous from Alaska

Funny enough, it hadn’t occurred to me that the fact that I am from Alaska was going to play any part of my trip to Belarus. What was I thinking? At the beginning of each seder the communities asked where we grew up in the United States. Alaska always got “oohs” and questions. In fact, I should not be surprised at all that I received the same exact 2 questions in Belarus about Alaska as I do in Israel, Oregon, California, east coast…etc.
1. “Is it cold there?”
2. “Do you know Sarah Palin?”

A Translator, Friend and Teacher
The relationship I developed with my translator, Ilona, was one of the most special parts of my trip. Ilona grew up in Minsk, she is in her early 20s and has a degree in linguistics. Miriam and I had the most interesting conversations with her. “What is it like to grow up in a family in which you know that your parents and grandparents were persecuted for being Jewish, and yet you’re not even quite sure what it means to be Jewish because the traditions were interrupted, and the feelings associated with being Jewish were always negative or just non-existent?”
Our translator, Ilona, didn’t just translate words for us, she taught us about life in Belarus, and life as a Belarrusian Jew. On one hand our conversations seemed so familiar, drifting from Birthright Trips, to boyfriends, and to grad school aspirations. On the other hand, as Miriam and I reminisced about our childhood memories in Sunday School and family seders, comparatively Ilona’s Jewish memories began much later in life. She shared with us the story of finding out she was Jewish at the age of 12 and how she decided at the age of 21 to become a Bat Mitzvah.

The Musical Lida Community
It was a 3 hour bus ride to Lida, and we were greeted by a community member, Igor. Igor showed us around town, from castles and motor boat rides on the lake to the more heart wrenching WW2 memorial sites. There was one site, right out of town, in which an entire ghetto of Jews were wiped out in one day. We listened to the horrific story of the adults being separated from the children and brought out into the middle of the forest to be shot. We stood at both the children’s memorial and the adult’s memorial that day. It was brought to our attention that the memorial stone said, “6700 citizens of Belarus were shot here.” Under Soviet rule they were not allowed to write, “Jews were shot here.” Only recently they could add a stone with Hebrew on it and wording that specifies that they were Jews. Quickly I was understanding even more that the oppression and Jewish suffering that we speak about in the Passover seder every year is still part of their personal narratives, it’s not that far in the past for these communities.

The seder in Lida was heartwarming. The children’s choir prepared many songs to perform at the seder. In fact, they had just returned back to Lida from a choir competition in Minsk the week before. Complete with hand movements and smiles, these children (ages 8-16) sang proudly. With enthusiasm the children participated in the seder, watching me intently to see where I would hide the afikomen. Lena, a particularly enthusiastic teen, was glowing after sharing her knowledge of the 4 questions, which she sang beautifully in Hebrew with a Russian accent. After school she studies music at a Music College in town and has aspirations of becoming a Cantor or Rabbi one day.

It’s hard to believe that there is only one Progressive Rabbi for the entire country of Belarus. It was inspiring to see communities made up of lay leaders, flourishing so beautifully. The communities are determined to pass on the Jewish traditions and give their children all of the opportunities they never had. The Sunday School age children are learning Hebrew. The teens are involved in the International Reform Youth Group, Netzer. Young Adults are signing up for Birthright programs to Israel. Teens are having dreams of becoming Jewish clergy. The rebirth of Jewish tradition in Belarus is not an easy task, but it is in good hands.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Purim and Spring fun

Purim in Israel

So, I think it's only fair to update you on the last Jewish holiday before beginning the next….right?

I have never been to Mardigras before, but I’m fairly confident that Purim in Israel resembles this southern celebration. Or maybe it’s more like Halloween…or both put together. There are costumes, parties, music, parades, and most importantly, NOISE!

Plus- I can’t forget to mention the hamantashen! Most Americans grow up using the Yiddish word hamantashen to describe these 3 cornered cookies filled with goodies. We are told growing up that Haman wore a 3 cornered hat. In Israel, however, they call the cookies, Oznei Haman, named after Haman’s ears!! Well, I don’t really care what you call them, because they are tasty! Of course I will always hold on to my old faves like: poppyseed, jam, chocolate, apricot, fig. In addition, Israel has provided new faves for me this year: marzipan, nuts, caramel and white chocolate!

Although celebrating Purim is usually just a one day celebration, many of us students spent more than a month preparing and an entire weekend celebrating. In January, I began learning the Biblical Cantillation for the Book of Esther. As many of you know, every Purim we read the whole Megillah (the whole Book of Esther from a scroll).

A few students and I formed a Purim committee to organize a Purim Party and prayer service for HUC. Dana, a Rabbinic student with a very strong musical theatre background, wrote a Purim Shpiel for us to perform. It is a tradition on Purim for people to put on parodies and spoofs of the story of Esther. Dana wrote “Avenue Shu(Shan)” based on the broadway hit “Avenue Q.” Combined with the Sesame Street themed T’fillah (prayer service) that we wrote together, the entire night was muppet themed. So fun!

Interesting detail about Purim - cities that are or were “walled” cities celebrate Purim a day later than other cities. SO, this meant that a lot of us left Jerusalem the night before Purim to celebrate Purim outside of Jerusalem. We took a bus to a nearby city, Modi’in, and chanted the Megillah at a Progressive Synagogue there called Yozma. Yozma had a carnival and afterwards we chanted the whole Megillah. There was an ensemble of people playing the djembe drums to accompany our chanting. It was a really unique addition that I had never experienced before.

One of the coolest parts of the evening was that right before the performance, a man who was helping to organize the event, noticed Eli in the crowd with his magnificent home-made King costume on. He asked Eli to come down to the stage and parade around as we chanted the beginning of the story that introduces the King. Eli was SUCH a star and came down to the stage and dramatically walked along in King style. The children in the crowd were enamored with him and ran up to him to see him closer. Two little kids started walking behind him holding his “royal cape.” It was SO adorable. Then a bunch of kids started pulling on his clothes, but he was such a good sport and had a blast with it. He stole the show!

That night we headed back to Jerusalem and two friends, Matthew and Leah Letts were in town from Portland! It was so fun to see them and catch up. It was also a great night for people watching! The funniest part was that there were a lot of tourists out and about and SO many of them asked to take pictures with Eli!! It was his night of stardom!

On Sunday, we had no school because it was Purim! So, a huge group of us went to a purim parade outside of Jerusalem in Holon.

That evening the celebration was at HUC. T’fillah and the Shpiel. I dressed up as “Oogifletzet” (Cookie Monster!) Thanks to my friend, Mandy, who supplied me with a poofy, blue bathrobe! In addition, I purchased googly eyes for my head and stuffed the pockets full of cookies. I led the Purim T’fillah service with April, who was dressed up as The Count. Highlights of the service included singing Adon Olam to the tune of Rubber Ducky, Mi Chamocha to the tune of the Sesame Street theme song, and Sh’ma to the tune of “Why are there are so many songs about Rainbows?” Adding humor to the service, since everything on Purim is very joyous, goofy and topsy turvy, April, as The Count, interjected during the Amidah- “Three, Three Patriarchs! Ha ha ha…” “Four, Four Matriarchs! Ha ha ha….” Followed by counting the benedictions as we prayed. [This probably takes knowledge of the Amidah prayer to understand its funniness, but believe me, it was funny.]
The Shpiel, as I mentioned before, was modeled after "Avenue Q," but also muppet themed in general. Of course Haman was Oscar the Grouch and I was King Oogifletzet. Mordechai was The Count, there was a Sunday School teacher and Esther was our friend Jay cross-dressed. The two spies were Bert and Ernie. Best paraody was, “The Internet is for Purim.” With lyrics such as, “Grab your drink and double clink, for Purim Purim Purim.” Of course, since I was the king, everyone bribed me with cookies the whole shpiel. It was FANTASTIC until afterward the shpiel when I realized I had eaten A LOT of cookies. Nom nom nom....

That night we had one of the most memorable Megillah readings ever! We read in a bar on Shushan Street in Jerusalem (Only in Israel, right?!). All kinds of people were there dressed up, many with graggers (noise makers to shake when we read Haman’s name) and some even brought their own scrolls to follow along with. It was so incredibly unique to be in a public place like a bar, chanting from the Book of Esther! What a fun night.

But- do not worry- the weekend was NOT over yet. We also had Monday off from school and so Mandy, Eli and I took a sheirut to spend the day in Tel Aviv. What a weekend!

In the news...
After such a joyous weekend, it was even more difficult to hear about the bombing that happened in Jerusalem near the central bus station. Ironically, I was sitting in class that day making a list of memorable things that had happened this year in Israel, literally think to myself, we are so lucky that it has been such a safe year in Israel. 15 minutes later, I noticed the dean of our school talking to teachers outside our classroom, then the president of the campus joined, and then teachers started to leave our lecture hall to talk with them outside. I could tell something was up. Then students started getting phone calls and leaving and finally one of the teachers told us that there was a bomb that exploded near the bus station, hitting a bus with many passengers. A guest speaker was speaking to us at the time and once the teacher had updated us on the situation, the speaker just continued to speak. We were all very interested in what the speaker had to say, but at the same time the room was very distracted. Finally, the school sent us home a little early. The city continued that evening completely normal, although a little shaken up. I spent the evening at home with Eli that night. It was a strange night. Everyone was dealing with the situation in their own way. Later we found out that a woman had died and many were injured. It had been a while since something like this had happened in Jerusalem. Things had been so quiet. We were all wondering if this was an isolated event, or the beginning of something more serious. It was difficult to get back in the groove of school the next morning, but we did. Israelis keep going after these type of events. We kept going, although much more alert and aware of our surroundings. Some chose to stop taking the buses for a while. Others insisted on living their lives completely normal, with the feeling that if we stop our everyday lives we are giving in to the terror. We prayed and continue to pray for the families and people injured and killed in this incident. We keep living our lives, appreciating the gift of life we have been given even more.

B’nei Mitzvah with Chicago
Then, there are always joyous events that remind us of how fortunate we are. A group of 6 B’nei Mitzvah teens traveled with their families and synagogue members from Chicago to Israel for sightseeing and to celebrate becoming a B’nei Mitzvah. [For those of you who are confused, B’nei Mitzvah is just the plural of Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mizvah.] I was happy to have been asked to serve as Cantor for their ceremony along with the Rabbi of their congregation. It was an intimate service in the same hall that HUC had High Holiday services, that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s a magnificent view. These teens were so sweet. They had all just bought with their families tallitot (prayer shawls) in Israel and yadayim (pointers to read from Torah) during their travels.
So, every year there is some “lucky” B’nei Mitzvah student who “gets” to read the portion about leprosy from the Torah and give a D’var Torah (words of wisdom from the portion of Torah) to the rest of the congregation. Note my sarcasm. These teens were such good sports and all talked in seriousness about what they can learn from this portion and how it applies to their lives. It was so sweet and gross at the same time.
One moment in particular that was special to me and felt “Cantorial” was when the Rabbi had all of the B’nei Mitzvah students go to their families and have their parents put their hands on their head for the Priestly Benediction. I sang the Benediction line by line with the Rabbi interjecting the English in between, just like Cantor Schiff and Rabbi Cahana do at Beth Israel! It was such a beautiful moment for the teens and their families, and for me too. It was just another step forward crossing over the line from being a songleader to becoming a cantor.

Eli’s Parents’ Visit
Eli’s Mom and Step-Dad came to visit for almost 2 weeks. It was fabulous to spend more time with them and see the country together. Both of them have spent good time in Israel, and Eli’s Mom even lived here when she was younger. We had so many adventures while they were here.

Places/things we did together:
• Went to the Quamran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
• Climbed up and down Masada! Toured the ancient fortress ruins on top.
• Floated in the Dead Sea! So unique everytime!
• Visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
• Went on a tunnel tour under the Western Wall
• Traveled to Ashkelon where Eli’s great-grandparents are buried. Back in pre-State of Israel time, his great-grandparents built a house that we had the chance to visit.
• We drove to northern Israel and toured around the ancient ruins of Caesaria on the Mediterranean.
• We had a picnic outside of the Bahai Gardens in Haifa
• Visited another home that Eli’s great-grandparents built in Haifa
• Visited a Druze village in the north and the shrine to one of their 5 prophets.
• Walked around the ancient port city of Akko and hung out in their shuk

Thank you to everyone who helped me raise funds to travel to Belarus to lead Passover seders! I appreciate all of you so much and I can’t wait to report back on how it goes. I leave in the morning!

Chag Sameach to all,