Please help me send one of my Birthright trip mates back to Israel.

I’m asking all of you for a big favor right now. There is a guy on my Birthright trip, let’s call him Moshe, that grew up a half-black/half-Ashkenazi Jew in LA. We’re talking teffillin-laying, Shabbes-keeping, kosher-eating Jew who has had his Judaism questioned every single day that he walked into a synagogue because of the color of his skin. He and his brother have a difficult relationship with Judaism as a result: how can they feel so drawn to HaShem and yet so rejected by their people, G-d’s people?

They apply to Birthright. Moshe gets to go. His brother does not.

Mikvah Bound meets Moshe on their Birthright trip. Though they come from wildly different social circles, being the only two “non-Ashkenazi” on the trip, there is a mutual understanding that cannot be denied. Jews of Color do not experience the same things that converts do, but let’s face it, we’re both outside of the norm of “typical Ashkenazi American Jew”.

Let’s say that during this 10 day trip, Moshe took more than 5,000 pictures and more than 15 hours of video footage. That he then assembled, thanks to his Hollywood industry skills, into a 90 second clip that is entered into a contest promoting our Birthright trip organizer, Israel Free Spirit. This contest has a cash prize that could send Moshe and his brother, let’s say Aaron, back to Israel, together, to study and to rock the Jews that they are.

So, once again, I pester my readers. PLEASE go here. Please vote once a day, on multiple devices if possible, for the next 10 days. Please send them back to the Holy Land. Please acknowledge that this video looks amazingly professional and manages to capture the beauty of Israel and the deep connection between Israelis and Americans.

Todah.

EDIT TO ADD: I am clearly brain dead. He is number 9. Thanks for bringing this to my attention kind reader!

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Shabbes, Shabbes, Shabbes.

So you know that phrase that says Moshiach will come when all Jews keep Shabbat twice (or, according to some traditions, thrice) in a row?

Yeah. I’m pretty sure I’m the one keeping Moschiach from coming.

I am not shomer Shabbat. I never have been, and I don’t think I ever will be. I haven’t been shomer Shabbat in the past because I grew up as a non-Jew doing non-Shabbat-y things on Shabbat. I’m pretty sure Saturday morning cartoons are quintessentially American like apple pie and Twinkies.

I’m not shomer Shabbat because I do not currently live in my own place. I can’t very well ask my parents to please forget that very important game on Saturday.

I will probably not be shomer Shabbat in the future because The Boy will, G-d willing, be the co-occupant of my future abode and he’s more of a wine, candles…and movie kind of Shabbat guy.

It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s that I’m lazy. I admit it. I don’t live in a Jewish area (anyone wonder why Orthodoxy’s going strong? This, more than any other thing, is it, IMNSHO.). I don’t have a Jewish group of people around me 24/7. No one close by for Shabbat or Yom Tov. Getting to shul is an ordeal. Reminding everyone to please not touch the light switches (scotch tape is your friend?) and even if you think this is stupid, it’s not to me, so please, for the love of all that is Holy, just do me this favor for 25 hours.

So.

Here I was. Browsing the list of Birthright Trip Organizers back in September.

Israel Free Spirit: “Shabbat in Jerusalem.”

Wowza. I wonder what it’s like to hear the Shabbat siren.

It may or may not have been the primary decision-factor.

Fast forward a few months and I’m actually IN Eretz Israel. While everyone else was clapping when the plane landed, I was busy saying my Shecheyanu. Not every day that you get to *BE* in Israel.

We are up in the Golan Heights for a few days (which I will talk about later). Then we drove to Tel Aviv. I met The Boy’s Tel Aviv-ian cousin in a bar for a few hours. I slept for four hours. I get on the bus. I am taken to Israel’s Hall of Independence. I am blown away.

I am shuffled to the bus again. Matisyahu’s Jerusalem comes on the speakers.

We are ascending to Jerusalem. It takes 45 minutes. I ask the Rabbi when Shabbat starts. It is already 10:45 after all. “Oh, 40 minutes before. Jerusalem has this special custom.” (The things you learn! I thought it was 18 minutes everywhere!) That’s great rabbi. I’m wondering what the 40 minutes means for TODAY. “Oh. Well it is… what that clock says.”

There is a clock as you enter the city limits. It says the time Shabbat starts and ends. This is mind blowing.

We are dropped off at Marzipan Bakery in the Shuk. I am immediately hungry at the sight of delicious challah. You can get it from the size of your fist to the size of your leg. No joke.

They have the world’s best rugelach. No, trust me on this. You may make great ones that are gone fifteen minutes after coming out of the oven. Your Bubbe may have won countless awards and be in some cookbooks. But these are the world’s best. I didn’t believe the hype. I was a skeptic. I was proven wrong. The chocolate and cinnamon come out on sheets as big as a kitchen table lined with parchment paper and just enough oil to prevent sticking. They are good even days later, but of course are best eaten right out of the steaming bag.

I then prowl the Shuk for two hours. Turkish baklava. Kosher butchers galore. Freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. Judaica stands so I can find my 10 shekalim “Secret Santa” gift. (Yes, my Aish/OU sponsored Birthright trip did in fact include a Secret Santa gift that definitely made me give them the raised eyebrow.) I bought a really nice “poh” dreidle for myself, and a 10 shekalim one for my Secret Santa partner. And more importantly, the pulsating urgency of Shabbat. It was everywhere in this crowded place.

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Then on the bus to our hotel in Bayit Vagan. Two hours to don religious attire. Apparently some of the female participants needed clarification on what an appropriate skirt was. The kippah-less men are presented with presents.

We are transported to Jaffa Gate. We walk briefly through the Armenian Quarter before hurrying through the Jewish quarter to the Aish HaTorah center. The location is… enough to take your breath away. There’s no other way of describing the multi-tiered building perched on the courtyard overlooking the Kotel.

We listen to a pre-Shabbat concert from a rabbi that studied at UCSB. His personality leads me to believe he would still fit in well with the student body of his alma mater. He also had the audience’s—all Aish/OU Birthright groups, plus a few of Aish’s own programs—men singing “Shabbat shalom, Shabbat, shabbat,” in a deep bass-y voice while the women sang, “Shabbes, Shabbes, Shabbes” in a more alto/soprano. It was annoyingly catchy and stuck with us as a motto for the remaining five days of the trip.

They took the men up to the roof top while our group “mom” brought the women to light candles. We were running short on time, so we quickly laid out 22 sets of candles. She tried to set the kavana for the blessing by describing why this is our mitzvah, what it represents spiritually and symbolically. I strike my match and the tears flow. I am not even one year’s old Jewishly speaking. I am here in Jerusalem, watching the plaza fill with soldiers and Chassids and Dati and Chiloni, in Israel, because someone thought I was worthy enough to stand at the wall that we have prayed toward and for. For hundreds and hundreds of years. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more Jewish, more connected. It was spiritually overwhelming to consider the gravity of hundreds of Jews celebrating Shabbat at the wall.

We light and walk to the wall, pushing gently forward. I appreciate that I tower over most women when I deliver the prayers I carried for my mom, my best friend, my best friend’s mom, and myself. I work them into the nooks.
I back away, to the flag pole, and just watch. The energy. The people. I let it sink in.

We walk to our dinner, uphill, in the cold, for an hour. Challah never tasted so good. Our rabbi asks each of us to offer a blessing for the group. I am the last.

“I’ve seen the group dynamic shift three times already on this trip: at the kibbutz, in Sfat, and tonight. One of my favorite Spanish sayings is ‘Y tiene uno que pegarse fuego a si mismo para poder alumbrar a los demas.’ It means one has to set one’s self on fire first, in order to be able to give light to, to illuminate, others. My wish for you all is that this trip sets your soul on fire.”

We walk uphill for two hours to our hotel. People no longer see the joy in Shabbat. I am upset that for the 20 totally secular kids on my trip, those with no religious connection to Judaism, that this is part of their Shabbat. It was miserably cold and we were already exhausted from lack of sleep. I didn’t want this to be 30% of their Shabbat experience. It wasn’t fair to Shabbat that the OU Welcome Center and the Old City are so far from the neighborhood where our rabbi’s parents lived.

But we survive.

And we sleep.

And we eat.

And we listen to our “group dad” speak about his career, which serves as an allegory for life.

And we listen to the secular Israelis complain about the biased view of Israel being presented to us.

And we sleep.

And we do havdalah with bay leaves and Krembos.

And I think I see Moschiach off in the distance, inching closer and closer.

SOPA

I usually avoid political discussions on this blog. I feel they can alienate some readers and are the quickest way to insert my mouth into my foot in the heat of passion.

But, before the U.S. congress at this moment are two bills that I care so passionately about that I had to break my rule of thumb. So consider it more like a rule of pinky or something.

SOPA and PIPA are two bills before the U.S. Congress. They seek to reduce the amount of copyright infringement that occurs on the internet. A laudable goal in my opinion–I think the people that create content should be rewarded for the efforts and innovation.

But, granting a crazy-absurd amount of power to the entertainment industry, who suffers from ginormous amounts of infringement precisely because of their inability to understand the natural rhythms of the internet and their refusal to adapt to technology as it comes about, and to the DoJ, is NOT the way to do this.

These bills would allow *anyone* who reads Mikvah Bound, *or any of the websites LINKED to this site*, to deduce that I am infringing on someone’s copyrighted content. How did they reach this conclusion? What is their proof that this is copyrighted material? Who cares.

With this knowledge of Mikvah Bound’s copyright infringement, SOPA would allow them to contact WordPress, PayPal, Facebook, and Wikipedia to notify them of my infringement. I would have five days to submit my appeal of this notification to the Courts; alternatively, some kind soul at one of the legal teams of the sites mentioned above could decide to fight the fight for me in the courts. But, seriously, what is a corporation likely to do upon notification that Mikvah Bound is infringing: block access to my site as they would be required to do under this law to avoid legal fines and action OR kindly agree to fight my fight for me. Yeah, not going to happen!

There is nothing to prevent Hollywood (or any other industry or agenda-driven agency) from attacking all sites they dislike or disagree with. These accusations do not have to be launched in a public setting, i.e. a court of law. There are no punishments for those who abuse this law’s vaguely worded language, either, should I unfairly accuse innocent websites of infringement. They’ve got those five days to defend themselves after all; it’s their own fault if the accused choose not to do so.

So I am asking you, kind readers to contact your Congressmen (assuming you live in the US. Ameri-centrism ftw!). I am asking you to learn more about this bill and would its ramifications would truly be. I am asking you to consider blacking out your own site or posting your own banner until it is voted on, January 24th.

Thank you.

Where to begin?

Or rather, HOW to begin.

How do I begin to describe 10 days that felt, in all honestly, like ten months?

I heard from everyone before I left that I wouldn’t sleep on the trip, that that wasn’t the purpose of the trip, and that I could sleep when I got back. Yet sleep deprivation, jam-packed itineraries, foreign food, and airplane air will quickly run you down. And that’s without the spiritual and inter-personal exchanges going on.

How do I answer my family and coworkers’ questions of how the trip was? My family cares about me, knew what this trip meant to me, and wants to know if it was everything I wanted. I want to be able to answer, but I’m still chewing on so many sites and questions that I can’t find a way to respond.

For coworkers it’s harder. We generally get along and they were all excited to hear about my plans. But when they ask me how Israel was… they don’t understand how this trip isn’t like a week in Hawaii or Paris. Israel is different for Jews, even for totally secular, or totally disconnected Jews. So I throw out some details tailored to the coworker out of polite obligation and try to move on through the mountain of work I have on my desk.

So for this blog, for the few readers that make a point of checking in…I’m still not at a place where I can begin to describe everything that I experienced. Yes, I will absolutely post later on about specific days or visits that hit me the hardest, that forced me to challenge my beliefs, or that served as strong confirmation and affirmation that resonated deep in my soul.
For now I am left with:

People

There were moments when the Rabbi leader of our trip really spoke to me as a Jew with deep insights into Torah, humanity, and living in a secular world. There were other moments when I questioned my right to be on the trip. Now, days after, I feel myself drawn to the tension he brings to me life. I’m still not sure why, but I have a feeling I’m supposed to learn something from him. If I haven’t already (and just didn’t realize it…maybe it will come in the coming weeks), I am supposed to keep in touch with him for a reason. I wish I knew why.

The madrachim were one of the most delightful couples I’ve ever met. The husband was a Disney animator. Listening to his journey, not only through his career, but also his Judaism, brought lots of questions and expectations (for myself) to mind. In the course of conversations, I learned that he spoke about why he cannot accept my conversion as valid to other trip mates, but he never treated me differently. And if I was your average Reform/Conservative convert, I never would have recognized his subtle, respectful way of handling the wine I brought for Shabbes. He’s a a Mensch. His wife was truly delightful, one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. There is something about Orthodox women that make me feel like a failure as a human being. Not that they ever intend this, but sometimes it’s just hard to feel like you’ve ever done anything worthy in their presence. She is that awesome of a person and her children are so, so lucky to have her as a mother. The Israelis I met really forced me to question my “standards” for the term friend. How do you feel so attached to people after 10 days, while abroad, when it can take you weeks and weeks to open up back home? That is what I spent most of the flight home thinking about. I don’t know the answer.

The tour guide made this trip. He put everything into showing us why he loves his country, and it was hard NOT to accept his infectious enthusiasm for this place. He was so capable of running around silly one moment and then deeply responding to one of your tough questions the next. Our guard entertained us with her beautiful voice, the sad tale of growing up in Southern Israel, and her mini-ulpanim. The Israeli soldiers loved showing us around and yet watched with awe as we explored their home for the first time. I remember laughing after we were given our time at the Kotel on Shabbat; one of them was so surprised and humbled that we cared about the Wall. Really? What must he think of American Jews?

My trip mates were overwhelmingly frustrating with a few saving graces. Many had not travelled abroad. Many were quite JAP-y, sorry to say. A few quickly formed a “cool kids” clique that was hard to break through. I was so tired of them by the second day that I quickly turned to my iPod and journal. There is a girl from my city that I really connected with, a girl from another Southwestern state, and a guy from up in the Northwest. It’s kind of disheartening to realize that 40 randomly selected Jewish young adults… and you can’t stand 35 of them. One of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip was to connect culturally and people-y, beyond religion-ly to Judaism. I’m left with a lot of questions of why I have a hard time connecting to Jewish peers, and I do mean beyond the difficulties I have with my peers, period, introvert that I am.

Israel

I’ve never felt my own country was inadequate before. Yes, the USA has disappointed me on many fronts. But it hit me like a thud on the third or fourth day, while travelling around Israel’s boondocks, that even in Podunk Israel, it was easier to be a Jew than in New York City or Los Angeles. Everything I saw had a hecksher on it. Every restaurant had a sink with a two handled bucket. Every door had a mezuzah. I heard mean shouting “Mincha, mincha!” in parking lots of gas stations. I will never find that in the US. I will always be the minority.

And then I think of all the things I can have in the US that I will never have in Israel: no conscription. Ability to marry a non-Jew if I wanted. No PTSD. It may not be a fair trade-off, but it’s one I’m willing to make.

I’m back.

I have no idea how asthmatic Israelis survive.

I’m back, hacking up a lung, but alive and happy to have experienced what I did.

I’m still not at a point where I can articulate what I experienced, exactly, but I’ll try to put it into words as the days pass.

For now, I will merely reflect what my Facebook status said earlier this morning:

As awesome as Israel was and as much as I can’t wait to go back, nothing beats your own bed, clean laundry, mom’s cooking, and hugging The Boy.

Beep

You have reached the blog of Mikvah Bound. I am either writing on paper or away from my laptop at the moment. Because I am in Israel. Until January 5th.

Please leave a message with your name and contact method after the beep and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks. Bye.

Beep.

I need to start packing

Next week at this time, I will be in Israel. It hasn’t even sunk in yet.

The amount of clothes suggested for this 10 day trip is enough for a month for me. I’m not sure I even have 6 short-sleeved tshirts; and what would I do if I were there in the summer, where they suggest 12?!

Do people actually have that large a wardrobe?

And then I think, yes, of course, if my sister packs a 63 lb suitcase for a week at her inlaws, there are probably people with that many clothes.

Also, to bring my tallit and kippah or to not bring my tallit and kippah, that is the question. Will I have a chair thrown at me for wearing one at the Kotel? What will my OU trip organizer/Aish trip leader think?

Srugim

My mom doesn’t always understand why I’m so excited to see Jews in the media. I think any member of a minority group can relate: we’re very rarely in the media, and when we are, it’s not always as a fully-fleshed out, nuanced character. We’re always some plot device or trite archtype.

So when I see us portrayed as PEOPLE, normal human beings with lives and problems and flaws and amazing moments of happiness…who just happen to be Jewish, Jewish people… I get excited. It’s amazing when we’re not the “self-hating” Jew, or the “funny, intellectual” secular liberal Jew, or the “backwards” Orthodox Jew….

And, shock and horror, I’ve found that many of the films and movies I’ve encountered that have “normal” Jewish characters have come out of Israel. Srugim is one of them. I’m talking non-stop about it and encouraging all people to watch.
Srugim started in Israel in 2008, so I am arriving late to this party. There’s a good chance you already went to the party and returned home, kicking your heels off and loosening your tie. But. If you have not been invited, here it is. You are invited to run, not walk, to your closest copy of Srugim, a tv show about five single Dati Jerusalemites approach their 30th birthday. They live in Katamon, aka the Swamp, a neighborhood/district/barrio for single Datim.

I may or may not have finished the first season in three nights. And I’m currently chugging my way through the second at another equally alarming speed: when will the dishes get done tonight? Do I make my bed or watch another scene in the morning? Do I pray in English so I can finish another episode tonight or do I stumble along in Hebrew knowing it will take three to four times as long? Decisions, decisions.

So what do I like about it?

A) The drama. I can’t stand to be around people in my own life that remind me of Grey’s Anatomy characters. But, I recognize that drama is a compelling genre for its ability to capture the tension in life that we run into. We do have to make tough choices, wade through hard situations, and encounter other beings. Srugim is a TV show, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a level of drama, and situational drama, that I find bearable.

B)Orthodoxy. I’m a Conservative Jew. A happy Conservative Jew. I have my beefs with Orthodoxy, but I honestly cringe every time I see Orthodox Jews portrayed in the media. They’re not wife-beaters stuck in the Middle Ages. They’re not brainwashed and incapable of critical thought. They’re not totally unrelatable alien lifeforms with quaint folk customs for us to gawk at. Of all the media I’ve seen, this most accurately reflects the Jews I know who are Orthodox. It may not be 100% accurate, but it comes the closest that I’ve seen. I’d be interested in hearing what Orthodox Jews think of the OJs in this series.

C)Hebrew practice. I’ve already learned new words and phrases from listening. My accent and rhythym are horrible, but I figure they always will be.

D) Israel. Oh boy. I am so conflicted on Israel (can’t wait to see what I feel like then I get back in a few weeks!) and am currently feeling very much an American Jew. Who is happy to live outside of Israel, in the Diaspora that I refuse to call Exile. And yet watching this series provokes a longing in me. How much LESS of a personal struggle would kashrut be there? What would it feel like to not have to negotiate work schedules around Yom Tov? To have people approach you (assuming you’re a man) in the street asking you to make minyan for them? It’s kinda… mind blowing.

So yes. Please watch. And let’s discuss!

P.S. In case you live under a rock, Matisyahu shaved his beard. I’m clutching my pearls and scratching my head. I joke.

Limmud Bay Area

I was so excited to hear that the Bay Area had finally gotten its Jewish act together and that this winter we would welcome Limmud to our stomping grounds. 

I found out last week that registration is $190, including the sessions, a hotel room, and 4 kosher meals, at a state beach/park in Monterey. Sounds loverly.

Except I thought I had read somewhere that it was being held in San Francisco? And that would mean days at Limmud and nights in the comfort of our own homes in the Bay Area without the added expense of a hotel room and kosher catering (for what I assume to be most of the participants anyway, though I suppose out of the area folks might be interested in coming).  Not having been to Limmud’s in the past, I guess I didn’t realize this was more of a retreat than a conference.

Now I have some weighing of options to calculate: long weekend in Jewish environment with some really rad Yids and the potential to make great connections and friendships, or weekend retreat by my little lonesome self.

Floored.

I just got back from an off-site meeting with some of our contractors. When I was headed out, one of the guys I worked with at many community events introduced me to a new employee of theirs with: “this is the one I was telling you about, the one who converted in May. She works on events and social media monitoring with us.”

“Yeah. Well see, I don’t really believe in conversion, nothing personal. You’re born Jewish or you’re not. I mean, if you died today, who would sit shiva for you?”

Floored. As I said.

And then, overwhelmed, with the realization that she’s right.

I think that’s what sucks the most right now.