"Entrances to holiness are everywhere.

"Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
"Ein lev shalem k’lev shavur. [There is no pure heart like a broken heart]" - R. Nachman of Bratzlav

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Building a Sukkito

You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord, your God. (From (Lev. 23:39-45)
I never got to build a tree house growing up. Living in a lower-middle class suburb, surrounded by cement and cookie-cutter houses, there was not a tree to be found that would have been strong enough to hold up my little body, much less a body of architecture of any scale. No, the best I could hope for was that our neighbors would invite us over to camp in their backyard in a little pitched tent. And even then, it was one of those types of tents that pop up practically as soon as you set it down on the well-trimmed and watered backyard lawn.

Really, I never got to build anything growing up. It just wasn't a skill that I seemed to need, or at least it was one that no one bothered to try to teach me. So when I decided that this would be the year that I would build my first sukkah, I went into the project optimistic, ambitious--and with no idea what I was in for.

My first inclination, of course, was to build something sturdy. Something that would be so solid I'd be able to use it next year, and heck, even the year after that! I started looking for building plans online for a sukkah made completely out of PVC. It wasn't too long after mentioning my idea to a few friends when I got a huge blow back. "PVC? Seriously?" one friend asked. "It's got to be made entirely out of natural materials," another told me. I tried to resist this discouragement, insisting that it was the principle of building the sukkah that mattered to me, not the fine print. So I pressed on. It wasn't until I went to a building supply store and saw the price tag attached to PVC that I decided maybe natural materials were a good idea.

I browsed Craigslist and found a listing for someone giving away free wood just down the street from me. Bingo! Maybe natural really was the way to go!

After loading up on free lumber, I began building the skeleton of my little sukkah that same day. It took me about six hours. I was proud of it! I was a builder! Heck, I was even an architect! I called for my fiancee to come out and took a gander at my work.

"So, what do you think?" I asked, flush with pride.
"Um," she said, cocking her head to the side. "Well....it's a good start. But it's kind of...well, honestly, like a Charlie Brown Christmas  tree. I mean....it's going to be bigger than that, right?"

I stared at her dumbfounded. Was she serious? Could she not see the magnificence of  this work of mind-numbing genius and backbreaking labor?
Nope, "Honey," she said, "If we're inviting people over to eat in that thing, you'd better make it bigger."

Sigh. It was back to the drawing board!

Having run out of free wood, I dutifully trotted back to the hardware and home improvement store in the next town over, and as luck would have it, found a pile of lumber on sale for $0.79 a piece. If I couldn't get this thing made for free, as least I could get it made cheap!

The next week-and-a-half--knowing that I was going to have to do this by trial and error, I didn't even wait for the Ten Days of Repentance to finish before I got to work--was spent obsessively cutting, sawing, drilling, fastening, and building. I went through a good seven packs of screws, two drills, and a hammer before I was done. I finally had a skeleton to build upon.

Two days before the start of Sukkot, I ran down to the thrift store and bought up all their seventy-nine cent sheets. I hurried home, intent on attaching the sheets to form the walls of my sukkah before what appeared to be an ugly storm would begin.

Using a stapler, I hung up and fastened my thin walls of fabric to the now spacey frame. As soon as I fastened the last corner, I felt the first splash of rain fall upon my brow. "Just in time, I thought to myself." The rain, I was to discover, was the least of my worries.

I turned on my heel and headed indoors. Just as I was about to open the door, a long, aching noise cracked through the air: CREEEEEAAAAAAK!"


I ran back around the house. What I thought were going to be simple walls on my sukkah suddenly, in what was steadily growing into a full-out storm, became SAILS. The wind dragged my walls sharply north. Another long CREAAAAAAK. A short silence followed, before the inevitable sound I was fearing finally broke through.


The entirely building began to slump over. I dashed into it, immediately seeing that the center support beam had snapped completely in half, the four outer support beams were beginning to buckle underneath the wind and their own weight. Grasping skyward, I grabbed what was hanging off  of what remained from the support beam, and tore it the rest of the way, just to get it out of the way. I ran from corner to corner, trying to slowly balance each leg, leaning them into the wind...but the gusts just blew harder and harder.

I spent the next four hours slowly inching the entire sukkah behind our house where some protection from the wind could be found, first lifting one leg, moving it five inches forward, then rushing to the next leg and doing the same. Then the next leg, then next one after that.

I was soaked to the bone by the time I got it in a safe alcove behind the house.

But I did it. Sure, the center support was now simply a crooked, sharp stump. The place was a mess. But at least it still stood. I went to bed that night exhausted. I felt beaten. I clearly didn't know what I was doing...so why was I wasting my time building this ridiculous fort out of old wooden door frames, basement bargain lumber, and second hand bedsheets. I fell asleep convinced I was giving up.

The next morning I woke to sunlight streaming in my window. I must have overslept, I thought to myself, It's already the afternoon. I looked at my bedside clock radio. Wait. That couldn't be right. It was barely nine? The sun was out, and not a cloud in the sky? That just didn't happen in Olympia. It DEFINITELY didn't happen the day after a storm like the night before.

But, I couldn't deny it. The day was just naturally beautiful. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered, butterflies fluttered.

How could I NOT spend the day outside? I grabbed my toolkit, slipped my kippah on, and went back to work.

I spent the rest of that day adding on some additional supports to the structure of what I was now calling my Sukkito, or little Sukkah. My next door neighbor was in her yard gardening, and called out. "What is that your making?"

I quickly explained that it was a Jewish tradition to build a small temporary fort during this season. "Why doesn't it have a roof?" she asked, and before I could even finish explaining that the roof needed to be permeable, that one needed to be able to see the stars through the ceiling, she was already running back to her yard. After a few minutes, she returned with a big pile of Bamboo. "These will work great!" I cried. "Take as much as you need," she smiled. And I just pruned the bushes, so feel free to use anything you need"

I went straight to work, grabbing branches, vines, leaves, even the huge 8-feet long stalk of a sunflower, to build my roof.

Finally, I was finished, two days after the official start of Sukkot, but with three days left to spare before the big party I had planned for Saturday. I stood outside, proud of my new handiwork. I still had a lot of work to do; I would need to find somewhere to get Lulav and Etrog, something that I knew would be difficult this late in the game. But for now, I had built something entirely with my own hands. I had built something of which I was proud!

That Saturday, many of our friends came over and dwelt in the sukkah with us. I had been unable to procure Lulav and Etrog.. Still I was intent on participating in the feeling of the mitzvah. My fiancee put together a small psuedo-Lulav made from palm and fern leaves and small shoots of bamboo, all held together by rubber bands. And I picked up a lemon.

At exactly 8:00pm, surrounded by friends and garbed in tallit, I performed the rituals of Havdalah, lighting for the first time the braided candle. I led everyone in the blessings of wine, spices, fire, and separation, before putting the glowing flame out in my glass of wine, with an intensely satisfying sizzling sound. Handing out an outline of the blessings for Sukkot, we all said the appropriate blessings, and everyone took turns shaking our little DIY Lulav and Etrog set, East, South, West, North, and then Up and Down. Once everyone shook to their hearts content, I removed my tallit, and shouted "Well, it's a Jewish party.....so let's eat!" and handed out loaves of my vegan challah.

The whole process of building my Sukkito was a times heart breaking, at other times exhilarating, and completely exhausting on every level. I had to learn a lot of the physics of structure and balance purely through trial and error. But in the end, everyone said that even if it wasn't the first sukkah they had even been to--for some guests, it was--it was probably one of the best, and definitely the cutest.

I am certain I'll build a sukkah next year. Now that I've got one under my belt, and I know a little of the pitfalls and frustrations associated with it--and more importantly did it completely all on my own, with my own hands - I think next year's will be bigger, better, and filled with even more laughs and smiles and the simple joy of the simcha of being with friends together, eating and talking, and looking up into the night sky, watching the moon as it sails over us.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Well, then.

I met someone who said they read my zine, I think in Hawaii.

They said that their roommate was a Chabad Rabbi, who apparently, upon seeing the word "Anarchist" in the title, decided it must be blasphemy, and promptly threw it in the recycling bin. Without actually reading it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The first night

So, I just got back to my room after the first night of the JVP NMM. I had said before that I would be Tweeting and Blogging throughout. However, after talking to several people at the event, out of concern for privacy and the larger concern of organizational security, I won't be blogging about the event itself. As was pointed out to me, this isn't a "Conference", it's a "Member Meeting",  a meeting space for members to meet, network and work with other members.

Instead, I'll be writing about my feelings and thoughts about the day over all, and maybe a little about after hours discussions.

I've already met some amazing people that have been involved with some amazing work, with some surprising connections to people I've met and know in Olympia. I talked several members of Brandeis Jewish Voice for Peace who just this week were rejected by Brandeis Hillel as a legitimate Jewish student group. We had a long discussion about the role of a Hillel on campus and how that can shape the discussion of Israel/Palestine politics on campus. I've definitely got a lot to think about.

There was also an amazing, beautiful Shabbat service. I've never felt so turned on to the type of energy that was radiating through the room like that! I'm really looking forward to sitting down with the many members of the Rabbinic council that I met tonight and have a long discussion about the role of spiritual renewal in this activist movement.

In terms of people I'm looking forward to talking to: Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb and Rabbi Brant Rosen from the JVP Rabbinic cabinet!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A whirlwind weekend

I've got quite a busy next few days.

I'm leaving tonight for Philadelphia, PA. Tomorrow I have an appointment to visit the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and talk to their Admissions counselor. That night and for the rest of the weekend, I'll be taking part in the Jewish Voice for Peace National Member Meeting. I've got a few dates to sit down and talk with a few members of the JVP Rabbinic Council, including Rabbi Alissa Wise, Rabbi Joseph Berman, and HUC Rabbinic student Alana Alpert. I'm especially looking forward to hearing former Israeli Air Force pilot and author of the IDF Refusnik "Pilot's Letter" Yonatan Shapira speak about his work in Palestinian solidarity, as well as meeting up with my new friend and Young Jewish Proud activist Eitan Isaacson, who recently had a great piece up in Zeek.

And then I'll also try to fit in time to enjoy Philadelphia itself! I haven't spent a lot of time on the East Coast so I want to make the most of my time there.

Not sure how sure my internet access will be once I'm there, but I'll try to blog while I'm there.

See ya!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Vegan Challah

I've been told by 10 different people the last couple of days that I should start selling my Vegan Challah.

I suppose that's be one way to finance the next issue of the NJ zine.

Friday, February 4, 2011

This always makes me happy

Shabbat Shalom!

Some thoughts on some Terumah Drash

I've started studying Midrash for the weekly parshah. While reading the drash for Terumah, I came across this little ditty that really stuck out. In discussing the line "And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood":
Our great teacher said: We are indebted to Job, because he added to everything Elihu said. Job said to this companions: 'Do you imagine that even all that you have said exhausts all Yah's praise? Who can declare all the praises and mighty deeds of Adonai? All the things you have said, why These are but the outskirts of Yah's ways,' etc. . .Elihu said: 'The Almighty we cannot find Yah, excellent in power.' He that hears this verse may exclaim: 'Perhaps, heaven forfend, this is blasphemy!' But this is what Elihu meant: We will never find G!d's strength [fully] displayed toward any of His creatures, for Yah does not visit God's creatures with burdensome laws, but comes to each one according to his strength. For know thou, that if G!d had come upon Israel with the full might of Yah's strength when Yah gave them the Torah, they would not have been able to withstand it, as it says, 'If we hear the voice of Adonai our G!d any more, then we shall die. . .G!d, however, came upon them according to their individual strength. . ." (Midrash Rabbah, Ch. xxxiv.1)
 This idea of being indebted to Job, of all people, sits uncomfortably with me. Job, the most depressing guy with the most depressing book in the Bible, has something positive to say?

What makes this passage sensible, though, is the dialectic that it develops between Job and his friend Elihu, who is the one comforter who is not joining in on the pity party that Job's other two friends have started for him. While Job is speaking of the despair of his existential crisis, in his pit of loss and mourning, at the same time, he's talking about it's opposite. According to Rabbi H. Freedman, what Job's saying is that "G!d's greatness is beyond human comprehension.' (ibid, footnote 3), that These, referring both to the devastation visited upon Job's life, as well as to everything that his friends have been saying, are but the outskirts of Yah's ways. G!d's incomprehensible reality is beyond understanding, beyond any system or framework we could hope to dream up, but is nonetheless suffused with everything--in fact everything, including despair (Job) and critique (his friends) on one end, and joy and affirmation on the other (Elihu), are merely the outskirts, merely extensions of that reality. Elihu, in saying that "We will never find G!d's strength fully displayed toward any of Yah's creatures, but comes to each according to his strength,' is saying that even in despair, G!d is approaching. Maybe, then, Despair is the human coping mechanism for dealing with the emotionally overwhelming stress of a Theophany. When you are depressed, or angry, your bodily reactions (decreased or increased heartrate, decreased or increased seratonin or adrenaline, fight or flight response, and so on) is your body trying to defend itself--either by shifting inward as in depression, or outward as in anger, to a stimuli--whether that stimuli is Revelation or a depression triggering event. Remaining at those levels of defense are not sustainable, though, and eventually you have to return to equilibrium and deal with the stimuli in a different way. As a people, the Israelites sent Moses to work with G!d; as individuals, we relieve stress in some way (laughter for some, exercise, sulking?), and then try to approach a problem from a different space. Both are periods when the divine, or the weight of that total reality, approaches (or alternatively, is approached by you) you differently--or according to [your] individual strength. Compare this with R. Nachman of Bratslav's advice on heartbreak:
"It would be very good to be brokenhearted all day. But this could easily throw most people into gloom and depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak. Seclude yourself with God for a given time and break your heart with regret over your sins. Then be happy for the rest of the day.
There is no pure/complete heart like a broken heart.

Put together, Job, Elihu, and R. Nachman are saying that G!d, or the totality of reality, includes everything. And that very same totality of everything necessarily includes elements that aren't always nice as manna from the sky, comforting as matzoh ball soup, or as awesome as a splitting the sea or getting water from a rock in the middle of the desert. To experienced a totalized-reality, that reality needs to include everything, those positives need to be experienced, and are in fact enhanced by, the awareness of the existence the negatives. In a religion that calls for you to be like G!d, you need to likewise be present in everything. By following R. Nachman's advice, and spending a little time with heartbreak every day, to have a Job experience a little bit each day, you partake in the depth of the Divine--not just the cool parts, but in the whole. 

It strikes me as more than a coincidence that the name Elihu ("He is My God Himself")  is so similar to Eliyahu ("Yah is my G!d"), the Prophet who will bring the joy of the Messianic age. Where Elijah will bring ecstatic joy, Job represents crippling despair, and the whole of the Human experience lies in the space in between them, without contradicting either of them. There's so little known about Elihu, that perhaps it's possible that he could have been Elijah himself in disguise, there not to disprove Job's cries of depair, but to complement them.