Thursday, July 31, 2008

MS Forever!

As I've written ad infinitum, I wasn't planning on writing about my experiences on Merkos Shlichus until something interesting happened. Well, today something interesting happened. Last year Mordechai Lightstone was the roving Rabbi in Northwest Connecticut, here's his blog post which deals with what we experienced today.
After pulling into the parking lot of the Connecticut Valley Hospital we searched for ten minutes for the entrance to the wing we were supposed to be visiting. After finding it we had to fill out a brief form, deposit our phones in a locker, and go through a metal detector. We were then permitted to go through to visit our guy, who I will call X, just like Mordechai did.
X came up to us and we slowly ambled on into a conference room. It seems that last year he was in an intensive security wing, while now he's in minimum, which means that he has a lot more freedom. After introducing ourselves we began to discuss Judaism. He's a fan of Mussar, and we talked about how Mussar and Chassidus differ. I told him the famous line, that Mussar lifts a person off the ground while Chassidus brings him up to heaven. This distinction colored the rest of our discussion, which ranged from reward and punishment to heaven and hell, Gan Eden and the world of Moshiach, suffering in Jewish thought, and the purpose of our existence. I did most of the talking, and congratulate myself that I made at least a bit of sense. Once we were finished X put on Tefillin, and we parted amicably.
In the middle of our discussion on Teshuva, wherein I mentioned that Teshuva is properly not repentance but rather return, he mentioned something along the lines of, "Well, I did a big sin. I killed my parents." I didn't quite know what to say, and just responded with a "hmm". The conversation continued unabated, and I explained how no Jew is inherently evil, no matter how heinous a crime he or she have committed. If anything, their soul has merely become covered; all they really need to do is wipe off the grime.
Once we got back to the Chabad house I of course asked the Rabbi to explain what was going on here. In short: X was never all there mentally. At one point he wanted to go and study in Israel. His parents told him that he couldn't. He killed them both with furniture. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and later spent 16 years in a maximum security hospital.
When we visited X he seemed perfectly normal. When I look back at our conversation I think, "Wow, he knows something about good and evil, huh?"

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Now you're gonna get it!

The last several days have seen some exciting action here on TRS. Here's a quick recap: It all started with a blogger who challenged me to a debate regarding my views on Israel. This was great, and I managed a stream-of-consciousness post that partially explained what I believe. So far so good. The comments that followed the post were at first serious, but soon became farcical and fun. For a while comments raged back and forth, with three or four people having a good time, insulting each other and the world in general. A couple people were insulted. They took offense at some of the comments. This was duly apologized for by the people who made those comments. Were these apologies necessary? Probably not, but under the circumstances I think everybody figured that it would be best to simply make a clean sweep of everything.
The next post, of course, was again inundated with comments. No longer was this merely an issue of some guys having a good time; now this involved Lubavitch itself! The Rebbe's honor itself was impugned! By the way, I don't write that last one lightly. I can already see the comments: TRS, you monster! You're making a joke with the Rebbe! You're making light of his honor! You should be hung twelve times over!
In case anyone's interested in what I have to say instead of just jumping to conclusions, then perhaps they should learn a little history about me. I remember fighting with kids in my local Torah U'Mesorah school because I was wearing a Yechi Yarmulkeh. They didn't know what Yechi was, and to tell you the truth, neither did I. Heck, in 1998, I turned in a report that cited "The Rebbe Shlita". My teacher wasn't too happy about this. Even then I didn't quite understand what I had done wrong. Look, you had the Alter Rebbe, Mitteler Rebbe... Friediker Rebbe, Rebbe Shlita. Wasn't that just his name?
Whenever I heard someone impugn the honor of the Rebbe or Lubavitch I always answered them back. One of the proudest days in my life was when I was first accepted by Merkos Shlichus, and became a Shliach of the Rebbe. I am a proud Lubavitcher.
Having said that, I'm also not a moron. I tell the joke, "How many Lubavitchers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, it never went out!", not because I hate Lubavitch but because I love it so much. When discussing Lubavitch with outsiders, I readily admit that we have problems. I don't do this because I hate Lubavitch, but because I love it so much. I'm willing to do some things which Lubavitch is officially against, but not because I have no regard for Lubavitch. I do them because I have a huge amount of regard for Lubavitch.
So have I joined the official "I criticize Lubavitch because I love it" group? No. I don't gratuitously say bad things about Lubavitch. In fact, I rarely say bad things about Lubavitch. Sometimes though, I say what I think is the truth. Seems to me that the vast majority of Lubavitchers also say what they think is the truth. Would I ever criticize the Rebbe? No. Would I, as someone who claims to be a Shliach, ever criticize the Lubavitch that we have today? Of course. And I think that the vast majority of Shluchim would do so also. Any group which responds to criticism by ostracizing the person who made the comments is fundamentally flawed. The Lubavitch I grew up with didn't do so. The Lubavitch of today? I'm not so sure. We try to always put our best foot forward, to not launder our dirty linen in public, to always be on the right side of any issue. This is fine. Again, any group which wouldn't do this would also be fundamentally flawed.
The problem arises when Lubavitch is criticized. We have a tendency to retreat inwards, to try to sweep the issue under the carpet, and to ignore the problem, rather than respond to the accusation. If all else fails, we blame the "crazies" who are infecting the movement; not to worry, of course, they're dying out.
I think that this problem is one that is a result of a "group think" mentality. When you talk to most Shluchim, and most Lubavitchers, they'll readily admit that they have challenges. Some are even man enough to admit that they have problems. Some people say that Lubavitch itself has no problems; rather, it's the people who make it up who have the problems. These people don't seem to understand that a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link, and you can't just cut off weak links. The problem is not fixed by ignoring it, by saying that it's someone else's problem, or by claiming that it's not the real Lubavitch. For better or for worse, people associate Lubavitch with the people in the basement of 770. They may be a cancer, but they're our cancer. We have to deal with it, not ignore it.
The Lubavitch I know and love is one that is not afraid to talk, to laugh, to think. We're unique among Chassidic groups (don't argue on this one, because I may be wrong, but what of it?) in that we have two names: Lubavitch and Chabad. Lubavitch means, "City of love". Chabad is an acronym that stands for "Knowledge", "Wisdom", and "Understanding". We're all about love. We're all about intellect. If we don't know a fellow Jew, we still love him. In fact, as Rabbi Mendel Shapiro's favorite Niggun goes, "To love a fellow Jew, just the same as you, is the basis of our holy Torah. He may be close to me, even my chavrusa or roommate, still I always love him just the same." The biggest Mivtzoyim a Shliach can do is not Tefillin, Neshek, or Chinuch; it's Ahavas Yisrael, love of a fellow Jew.
We're also all about intellect. If something doesn't make sense, question. Still doesn't make sense? Question some more. Obviously, the questions themselves have to be asked with Seichel, with a little wisdom. It doesn't take any brains to simply say that something doesn't make sense. That's probably why people who shrug all answers off their shoulders by saying that they don't make sense are pretty brainless. Asking "Why?" before hearing the end of the answer is not a productive way to learn. Sometimes it takes a person a long time to have their question answered; perhaps the questioner lacks the maturity to understand, or maybe the person who's trying to answer is simply not capable of doing so.

We now come to my issue. Some people seem to think that a blog run by a Merkos-proclaimed Shliach should always toe the party line and never have a hint of scandal be attached to it. I could answer that I take my lead from the great Shluchim who I look up to and strive to be like. I won't name anyone in particular, kicking a popular Shliach out of his Shul because your son needs a place the right thing to do? How about killing a community because you're too prideful to admit that you're wrong? How about money-laundering? How about cheating on your taxes, or scamming the government of funds, or lying to the government about what you're doing? All of these and many more have been done by Shluchim, and head Shluchim at that. I could say that I was just following in their footsteps. I won't, however, because I don't need to. They may or may not have done something wrong. That's between them, their Rebbe, and their G-d.
Have I done anything wrong? Have I shamed Lubavitch forever by not censoring comments? Is the Rebbe embarrassed of me? The answers to that are no, no, and yes, but not for the reasons you think. Did I do anything wrong? Some guys were having a good time. Some people were offended. They apologized if they hurt anybody. Did anything wrong happen? It was pretty obvious that the debate which raged was a humorous one; anyone who bothered to take the time to read the whole thing would soon realize that the exaggerated opinions flying left and right were intended to be funny. So maybe they went overboard. Fine. But has Lubavitch been shamed forever? For everyone's information, I have trashed comments which were inappropriate. But I saw nothing inappropriate in what was going on that night. Some people think that having a good time is a sin. I feel bad for those people.
Lastly, is the Rebbe embarrassed of me? Of course. For this particular incident? I'm not so sure. Am I still entitled to call myself a Shliach? What kind of question is that? I'm not an angel; even if I did something really bad, I would still be a Shliach. Some recent readers of this blog may be under the impression that everything I write is, well, potentially bad. Maybe these recent readers should read the archives, and see what else I've blogged about. Does everything I've ever written reflect well on me or the movement I claim to represent? Not necessarily. Does this mean that I'm a mean ogre? I think not.

Meanwhile, if anyone is really dying to know what I did today on Merkos Shlichus, here's the Duch I sent in to Merkos:

Visited hospital in Sharon, talked to women from Queens there, she was grateful to us for coming, gave her some publications. Left publications for another woman who was sleeping. Did the same for a man in new Milford. Tried visiting family, but not home. Went to Waterbury hospital, saw Jewish patient, wished him well; he wasn't too interested in talking to us. Visited Bochur in school and went over Parsha plus Sichos with him, as well as the the story of the Churban in the light of Chassidus.

Happy everyone?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The past behind

We are currently in the period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av which is known as the three weeks. These three weeks are a traditional time of mourning for the Jewish people, as they commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Our sages teach us that the destruction of the first Temple came about because the Jews were guilty of the three cardinal sins; murder, illicit carnal knowledge, and idolatry. The second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred between one Jew and another. As you can probably guess, being a jerk is a big sin.
All this leads us to a nice little issue: how do we stop being jerks? This isn't only a Jewish question of course. Many people throughout the world would be a lot happier if they stopped being mean. So why don't they stop? Maybe because they don't know how?

The above was a public informational message, brought to you by the corporation for public blogging and the TRS charitable trusts, both of which are always happy to accept your donations at The purpose of this message was to inform the general readership that unless they can all settle down and behave themselves, this blog will begin to look like the message displayed above. No more will commenters have free reign; no longer will snark be an excuse for intelligence; history itself will come crashing down and pulverize the poor minions gathered below.
Some people today made some comments which I intended to respond to, but then they made it clear that they weren't interested in my response. This annoyed me for a couple of reasons: first of all, it's not nice to judge someone without allowing them to respond to accusations, and second of all, it denied me the chance to have a nice long post; if anyone doesn't like tonight's shtuff, well, blame the brave commenters who can't even leave a name to go with their diatribe.

In conclusion, I'd just like to say that loving your fellow man is a tried and true method. What this method accomplishes? I'm not quite sure.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Yeah, that was odd

I started half a dozen posts tonight before I finally gave up and called for some outside help. Thankfully I do have at least one friend in the world, and he suggested that I respond to the truly incredible outpouring of comments that we witnessed this morning here on TRS. So I'll try.
What can I say? This is what happens when a bunch of guys get together and decide to have a little fun. First, my apologies if anyone was offended. As I mentioned, we're guys, and we tend to write bombastic statements without thinking of the consequences. Is this an excuse? Of course not. What is a good excuse is that I think I can safely say that I, TRS, didn't indulge in any truly horrific statements; that honor was left to others. Still, it is my blog, and I suppose that I'm in some way responsible for it. Still, this is America, we have a first amendment, and I don't think that anyone was too hurt by anything that was written tonight.
Be all this as it may, it's funny as I look back at the last hour or so and remember the thrill that was rushing through my veins; what would the next comment look like? Who would say something incredibly crazy next? In short, it was a fun time while it lasted.
Now that it's all over, it's left to me to pick up the shreds and try to weave some sense out of the whole episode. I don't really mind this, because it requires a philosophical bent of mind, with which most of us are equipped at 2:00 AM. So here's how it's going to work: I'll go through each of the major commenters from the binge, and see if I can summarize their position in a reasonable manner.
It all started with me, TRS, at 11:27 PM. Throughout the discussion I was alternatively "lol"ing, and spent the rest of the time trying to respond to the comments. I was trying to stay above the fray and moderate things a bit, though I was spectacularly unsuccessful at the latter, as is apparent from even a cursory glance at the comments.
At 12:17 I responded to Nemo, and inadvertently started the whole thing, which I've only just realized now, actually. I wasn't even trying to insult anyone; all I was doing was making the observation that sabra's comments were often a bit difficult to understand. This innocent observation opened a deluge, which only ended at 1:40 AM.
The opinions expressed by Messieurs TRC (the real chauvinist) and his worthy opponent, "feminist", were grossly exaggerated. Entertaining, but grossly exaggerated.
Nemo tried to inject a bit of reason into the whole affair, but his efforts were apparently swept aside by the tidal wave that was TRC and Feminist. By the way, I assume that everyone here knows the origins of the word "Chauvinist". If not, click here. And here. Good person. I was going to write "Good boy" over there, but that might have opened me up to charges of chauvinism. In order to allay any fears in that direction, I'd like to quote Linus, of Peanuts fame, "I love humanity. It's people that I hate."
Sabra was dealt with rather harshly, I admit, though this may be due to her taking liberty's with certain sacred rites that had long been established here at TRS. These include granting The Almighty Editor grave respect, second only to TRS himself, which she patently failed to do. In short, some would say (of course I would never dream of saying something like this) she got what was coming to her.
And that seems like a pretty good way to sew this particular bad boy up.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Long-winded Israel diatribe: Enjoy!

I hope everyone noticed the new button on the left of the page for the Lubavitch Blog Network. It's all thanks to Chaim Rubin, who has done a great job.
Anyway, Merkos Shlichus continued today, without too much excitement. We met a Jewish employee of Starbucks, who was quite friendly. Unfortunately, all the other people we visited were unavailable for much.
The issue of Israel as a political entity versus Eretz Yisrael the holy land recently came up, and I thought it would serve as a good topic for the rest of today's regularly scheduled blog. The issue was thought to be dead and buried, but a new and strange commenter has arisen who has challenged TRS' assertion that these two aspects of Israel are inseparable. The counter-claim has so far been limited to the assertion that the two are separate; it has unfortunately been devoid of any arguments that would back up this claim.
For the sake of the argument here I'm going to assume that we all believe in creation as espoused in official Lubavitch doctrine. If you don't agree, well, feel free to blast away at each other in the comments section. Anyway, the holy land of Israel is where creation began, and it's where the dove's olive branch (of Noah fame) came from (or maybe that was Eden. Regardless). So I'll accept that the land of Israel was holy before the creation of any political state. The next time we find the land mentioned, it's become the land of Canaan, inhabited by 31 tribes. The land is now not only holy, but also political. When Avraham tried to settle the land he had to deal with the political facts of the time. He made treaties, fought wars, and bought land. He could not treat the land in a merely spiritual manner, because there were facts on the ground. His son Yitzchak had the same experience, as did Yaakov, Avraham's grandson. The land was undoubtedly holy, but it was not exclusively holy. Even then it was intimately connected with the political division of its Canaanite masters.
A short while later, the Israelites came out of Egypt, spent some time wandering around in the desert, and finally kicked the Canaanites out of the land of Canaan. Well, not quite. They actually failed quite miserably in this regard, and they weren't true masters of the land until the time of David, which was 404 years after they first entered it with Yehoshua. Until this point in time, the holy land was constantly beset by both external warfare and internal fighting. It is illogical to suppose that the spiritual quality of the land was unaffected by this ongoing strife. We only need look at the story of Eli the High Priest to recognize that even the service in the Mishkan was not free from interference.
The years of David and his son Shlomo were unique in Jewish history; nevertheless, things were not perfect even then. Since then, of course, the political and religious characters of the land have become enmeshed to the point that they are virtually inseparable.
The real question is perhaps not "Was there ever a time when the political and spiritual characters of the land were separate", but rather, "Is it possible to wonder if they could ever be separate?" The spiritual character of the land is dependent on Jewish ownership of the land; i.e. without Jews, there would be no Israel. I do not argue that the holiness of the land is eternal, but rather with the assertion that it can ever be separate from political realities. Indeed, if the temple were to be rebuilt and all Jews regathered, though the land was still under the dominion of a foreign power, then the Messiah would not have arrived. Only when the land has true political independence, and some would say dominance, could the Messiah truly be said to have arrived.
The argument posited that the land is holy and beautiful, independent of who is in charge. I agree with this. Anything can be viewed independently, out of context. For the land to be truly evaluated, political realities have to be accounted for. The holiest spot to Jews, the temple mount, is currently inaccessible. This is a result of the political reality. One day, when the Messiah comes, this land will be accessible. This too will be a result of the political reality. When Jerusalem can be put on the bargaining table, there can be no doubt that the spiritual Israel, the holy land, is firmly in the grip of the political arbitrators of the land.
As Jews, we have prayed for 2000 years to return to the land. A Zionist would tell you that this has been accomplished. What does he mean? That the Jewish people have political control of the land. Even before 1948, the land was holy. But it was not controlled by Jews. The beauty and spiritually of the land were dependent on the largesse of the ruling empire. After 1948, this status-quo remained. The temple mount is inaccessible. This is not because the land is not holy and beautiful. It is because of the political situation. It would be great if we could say that the spiritual qualities of the land are unaffected by the political realities, but it simply is not true. Even in the times of David and Shlomo, the spiritual life of the country was dependent on their military prowess.
How much more so in our times. There is no pure expression of spirituality in the land, because that very spirituality is dependent on political forces. At the same time, no political decision was ever made that ignored the unique function of the Israel, that bypassed its status as a holy land for all peoples.

Sorry, I know that this piece is a rather haphazard explanation of my view, but I have no doubt that it will be mangled, minced, and possibly maced in the comments, and then it will possibly make sense to someone besides me. Actually, it barely even makes sense to me. Nu nu.

The following is a story that I started writing before I was inspired to blog about whatever it is that I eventually blogged about. It's incomplete, but still possibly enjoyable.

Joshua was a little boy with a precocious talent for making his elders desire his excommunication. The one blemish on his youthful brilliance was that he often said things which weren't necessarily necessary. All children do this, but Joshua's sin was different than other children's misdeeds. You see, Joshua's statements had the unfortunate habit of causing great monetary loss to whomever had the misfortune of being the butt of one of his zingers.
Joshua's parents, who had naturally suffered greatly, were reduced to bankruptcy. Their car was repossessed, they had no money for AC, their Sunday bagels and lox didn't even have cream cheese. Joshua, with the irrepressible spirit renowned in youth and certain varieties of garden cream, was unfazed by the destruction he had wrought, and placidly continued talking and causing great financial loss, which often came simultaneously.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The same vein

Funny, I write what I frankly thought was a terrible post, and Menachem over at publishes it for all the world to see. Last night I email him what I thought was pure genius, and what happens? Neither hair nor hide is found upon the site. Don't worry, by now I've gotten over the disappointment. Of course, he'll probably publish it in a week or two, and I'll feel morally obligated to change this post, not that I will.
Today's MS wasn't too fascinating. The first guy we visited in a hospital was asleep. The second was not home. The third had just popped out of his office. The fourth was also not home. All in all, a lot of driving without too much to show for it. We undoubtedly brought many thousands of Jews closer to their father in heaven, but as I don't know their exact story I can't blog about it.
Instead, due to the great pressure that's been put on me, I'll write a bit about yesterday's visit with Wolf. Yes, he asked the question, "Where was G-d during the Holocaust?" I answered, "Where has G-d been for the past two thousand years? There is no answer, we can only Daven for Moshiach." He countered, "Moshiach couldn't have come sixty or seventy years ago?" I replied, "In the Gemara it says that 'Kalu Kol Hakitzin,' all the deadlines for Moshiach's arrival have passed. He couldn't come during the Holocaust? He couldn't come by the Pogroms, by the Spanish Inquisition?"
After the war Wolf moved to Sweden, where he lived for many years. The government forbade Shechita, and they only had Kosher meat once a week. This meat had to be ordered a few days ahead. They did have locally-Schechted chickens, though he didn't explain why the authorities allowed fowl but not beast slaughter.
Is Wolf frum today? He speaks an excellent Yiddish, and has visited Israel six times, but I don't think he's particularly frum. His grandson is considering going to a reform high school in Israel, which I suppose is a good thing.

Meanwhile, in other news... well, there isn't much, is there? I guess I'll just conclude by wishing you and yours a happy and healthy Shabbat, with wishes that you should internalize the lessons of this week's Torah portion, Mattos, in your daily lives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A land long gone

Today was a day like no other. Most days are like that. Anyway, enough chit-chat. It was looking like today would be a wash-out when we pulled up the drive of a posh elder-living facility this afternoon. All the people we had previously seen were either sleeping or not interested, which is always a bit of a let-down. Nevertheless, we made ourselves strong, and in true Carlebachian manner picked up our guitars and prepared to enter the domicile of our next host. Not that he knew that he'd be our host, but he found out about it pretty quickly.
We introduced ourselves to the elderly man, his wife, and their grandchild, a 15 year old named David who laughed at my jokes and is therefore assured of eternal paradise. See, we Jews have it much easier than Muslims. In what seemed like no time at all we were discussing Wolf's (for that is his name) life story. All the details are his, so no griping, okay?

Wolf was born in a Polish town, with a population of 35,000, on the border with Germany in 1923. His father wore a Shtreimel and was a Chassid of the local Rebbe, whose Tish they would regularly attend. Wolf remembers going to school, half-day to the local Jewish Polish school and half day to the Cheder. The Polish school was only for Jews for two reasons. In Poland, kids had to attend school six days a week. The local non-Jews would send their kids every day but Sunday, while the Jews sent their kids on all days but Shabbos. In order to avoid problems, they had separate schools. The second reason is that no Polish peasant would allow a dirty Jewish kid in his kid's school.

In 1938, when Wolf was 15, the Germans kicked all foreign-born Jews out of Germany. All these Jews were thoroughly Germanized, and it came as a big shock to them. These Jews had originally left Poland ten or twenty years before in order to find a better life, and they had done so in Germany. Even though they had become German citizens, the Nazi's decided to deport them. They were brought to the border on a Thursday, and put outside German territory. The Polish Government didn't want to accept them, as they were officially German citizens. The Germans had stripped them of their citizenship, so they weren't citizens of anywhere.
The local Rebbe managed to bribe the guards to allow the Jews through, but the only time they could do it was on Shabbos. All the townspeople went to the border, with their horses and wagons, and brought their fellow Jews to the town, though they had to go outside the Eruv, as Wold noted. Once everyone came back safely there arrived the additional problem of food, as no one had prepared for the guests. Back in the day, everyone used to make Cholent in their homes and then bring it to the baker's oven to cook until it was ready to eat Shabbos afternoon. The Rebbe announced that all the Cholent was now owned by the community, and would be distributed to the refugees. The townspeople went home and ate herring and crackers.

It was a beautiful town, with two Shuls, several Batei Medrash, a Kosher butcher and baker; life was good. In 1939 the Nazi's marched in and destroyed everything. The local Poles lined up outside, and when they saw a Jewish family being lead away from a house they came in and occupied it. Wolf was in concentration camps for six years. One day, in 1942 or '43, he saw a whole group of Chassidim come to a camp with their Rebbe. They all had long Peyos and Kapotes, as he once had. They turned to their Rebbe as they were being lead to the gas-chambers, and asked him, "What can we do now to save ourselves?" Before, he had always been able to tell them to learn this, Daven that, or do some good deed; now, he had nothing to tell them.

In the camps they were worked from dawn to nightfall, and the religious Jews had no time to Daven in the morning. They would put on their Tefillin while they were walking to the work sites, and Daven by heart. This was of course extremely dangerous, as it was illegal to possess any sort of religious article. Once a guard saw one of the prisoners putting on Tefillin, and he walked over, thinking they were some sort of bomb. When he saw what they were he smacked the prisoner in the face, and the Tefillin fell down to the ground, ruined.

After Yom Kippur one year one of the Chassidim in the camp was desperate to do Kiddush Levana. Everyone else in his barracks told him that he was mad, because if you left the barracks at night then you were shot. He could not be dissuaded, and he jumped through a window, as the door was locked. He went to the fence to try and see the moon, and the guard thought he was trying to escape and shot him.

There weren't only Jews in the camps; many criminals were sent there, including some German ones. Even though these criminals were in concentration camps, they still felt that they had some power, and they were just as happy to kill Jews as were the guards.

After the war a British chaplain gave Wolf a pair of Tefillin, and later he made his way to Sweden. In 1947 he came back home, to his town, but everything was desolate, as he had left it. The sites of the Shuls were still in ruins, and Poles inhabited all the Jewish houses. Wolf realized that there was no more life in Poland; the whole country was simply a cemetery for the Jewish dead.

While he was in the camps, Wolf prayed many times for Moshiach to come. After the war they told him he was lucky that he had survived. He said, "No, the others were lucky. They died."

Where was G-d in the camps? Where was G-d during the entire 2000 years of Jewish suffering? It's not my job to answer those questions, because no human, no matter how great, can answer them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The rain in Connecticut falls mainly on us

Telling a story is not as easy as it sometimes appears. What details are important, and which are extraneous? The subway system in New York, for example, is a wondrous thing. It's truly marvelous when you consider a metal tube hurtling down a tunnel deep beneath the earth. The AC generally works too, which makes the whole thing even more marvelous. There is a large article on Wikipedia that is dedicated to the NY subway system, and many websites whose whole raison d'ĂȘtre is this wonder of America. Nevertheless, when I write that I took the subway somewhere, I don't devote two paragraphs to the experience. I took a subway. I survived the experience. Go me.
I bring up this important topic because of today's MS experience.
The first time I wrote about visiting elderly people, and their reactions, it was nice. The second time was more of the same. The third? Well, we won't got there. My point is that today was more of the same. Yes, it was very nice. We put Tefillin on one man, and visited with several more people, bringing hope and inspiration to the teeming millions of Northwest Connecticut. Nevertheless, it wasn't exactly scintillating work. There were no brilliant lines, no ripping repartee, no incredible shocks to the nervous system. Oh yes, it rained heavily today. Our visibility was, for a time, obscured. We also ate dinner at Chaim's Deli in Waterbury, CT. I always feel bad when I'm served by someone older than me in restaurants; after all, are we not taught to respect our elders? At the same time, I don't like when people who are younger than me serve me in restaurants; who am I that people should do things for me?
The answer to these piddling concerns is that for these people it's a job, and I shouldn't let my hangups stop them from earning a living. And even if you're serving me for free, don't worry; I can deal with it. By the way, in case you're interested, I got a corned-beef sandwich with mustard, fries, and a peach Snapple. What did I write earlier about not recording extraneous details?

So now that I've written a post that will probably not make it onto, as three of my other posts have (thanks Menachem), I think I'll wind this one up with a short anecdote. If I can think of one. Which I can't. Unfortunately, this means that you're blog reading experience will end a bit earlier than was previously planned. The good news is that I can go to sleep that much faster.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Out and about

Today, the 19th of Tammuz, 5768, was a good day. I'm usre you're all thrilled to know that. This morning we drove up to Sharon, CT, and dropped off a "Think Jewish" by a sleeping patient in the hospital there.
Next we went to New York, and then came right back to Connecticut and New Milford. Yossi and I went to visit a patient (yes, I remember his name, and yes, i won't be writing it here; there's a thing call privacy, you know) in the ICU, and turns out we had to talk to his nurse before gaining admittance. The reason for our little chat is that it was recently (this morning) confirmed that he has an antibiotic-resistant virus, MRSA, and we'd therefore have to take a couple of precautions while visiting. We had to wear hospital gowns and latex gloves, and we weren't supposed to touch him, which meant that unfortunately we couldn't put on Tefillin with him.
Nevertheless, we had a very nice visit. He's in the hospital for emphysema, which was caused by 45 years of smoking. He told us, "I remember a Lucky Strike commercial from my childhood that went, 'If you have any respiratory problems, smoke Lucky Strikes.' No one knew back then." In fact, he's pretty young; a Vietnam veteran as it turns out. I remember receiving an email that went through all the things that kids did back in the day, and how most of them grew up and lived happy lives. While that's true, it's also true that people did a lot of things back then which literally shortened their lifetimes. It's also scary to think that we're also probably doing things nowadays which have a lot of negative potential down the road.
After talking about health we got onto his family, including his twelve year old son's upcoming Bar-Mitzvah, and his fervent desire to be able to attend. When you've been hanging around seniors for a week, you begin to understand how very important family is; without them, we're lost.

This point was made very clear by our next host, a sweet old lady in Bantam, whose husband has only recently passed away. She smiled our whole meeting, except when she said, "I miss him." I'm just 21, and I really don't know how to respond. I'm not sure that any amount of training can teach you how to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one. Until you've crossed the bridge yourself, how can you help others make their way over? I translated Kaddish for her, and explained the Jewish concepts of life, death, and resurrection.

Our next hostess was another kindly old woman in Morris, who started our conversation by observing that, "I'm a product of a mixed marriage." Yossi and I looked at each other, not quite knowing what to say, when she continued, "My mother was a Litvak, my father a Galicianer." They came to America well before the war, and her family has been living here in the US ever since. One thing which she very pointedly asked me was, "Are you happy with the direction you've chosen in life, with your decision to become a Rabbi?" I answered, "I think so." I said this, and not just a simple "yes", because the truth is that it's impossible to know what's going to happen in the future. A friend of mine recently asked me, "What are my chance of getting Shlichus (real, married, for-life with bills to pay Shlichus)?" First I told him that if he really wanted it, he could get it, because, as the Talmud says, "Nothing stands in the way of desire"; I then had a brainwave and said, "Truth is, I can't tell you what's going to be in five years. I don't even know what's going to happen tomorrow!"
She then told us that she was very happy to see young people with direction in life. "So many people," she said, "have no idea where they're coming from or where they're going to." I didn't give her the whole shpiel I wrote out above, but her point is still valid. Even if I don't know the future, I can still hazard an educated guess. Many people can't even do that.
We also learned a lot about the non-Orthodox community here in Litchfield. She told us that they have a reconstructionist temple, which she attends, though it doesn't have a Rabbi, just a spiritual leader, a very nice girl from New York. Our hostess said, with a twinkle in her eye, "She got married a short while ago-" "Mazel Tov", I interrupted, only to hear the rest of the sentence, "To another nice Jewish girl." "Oh", I said, not quite sure what else there was to say. "Recently she had a baby girl", and all I could come up with at such short notice was another, "Mazel Tov." At least our hostess got the joke.

Tonight we went to a boarding school near here, where there's a Lubavitcher boy studying; I shall not elaborate, because again, privacy is important. I Chazzered over every Sicha I could remember on this week's Parsha, Mattos, and several that I couldn't. Altogether, a fun and educational time was had by all.
And that, friends, was another day. Will the next one bring joy, gladness, song, jubilation, and slurpees at 7/11, or are we doomed to eating dry crackers with margarine? Only time will tell, so come back soon! Yippee! Hooray! (Yeah, I'm just a wee bit tired.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More MS

It was nice to see that finally posted my shtuff today. I'm still not entirely sure how it's going to work; can I rely on them to read TRS and cull new shtuff for the official MS blog, or do I have to work on that myself. Anyone who's employed by and can answer these questions is encouraged to do so. Meanwhile, time as usual paused for no one, and today was another exciting day of Merkos Shlichus.
Yossi and I started the day with some cold-calling, which is about as enjoyable as running your hand through a metal shredder, pouring salt on the stump, and then licking the resulting (Kosher) mess. Quick question for my readers; if human meat were Kosher, would it have the Halachos of meat, fish, or chicken? Back to more pleasant thoughts, if only slightly. In order to give you the true flavor of MS calling, I'll provide some (almost) real-life transcripts for your reading pleasure:

TRS dialing...
We're sorry, this number does not accept blocked calls.
(Presses 0)
Please wait while we connect your call.
Hello, we're not home right now, please leave your name and number, bye.
TRS says: "Hello, this is Rabbi TRS (no, I don't actually say TRS. I'm just writing that to preserve the shred of anonymity that I still possess) calling from Chabad of Litchfield, just wondering if you'd like to possibly discuss Judaism or Chabad or anything in between at any point. Our number is (whatever it is), and I'd love to hear from you. Thank you, bye.
TRS dials...
Hi, this is Rabbi TRS from Chabad calling, and-
From who?
Why are you calling at dinnertime?
Because it's the best time to reach you.
You know, that's really-(Hang up)
TRS dials...
Hi, this is Rabbi TRS calling from Chabad of Litchfield, how are you doing today?
Good (warily)
I'm visiting northwestern Connecticut this summer with a friend looking for Jewish people, and I was wondering if you'd like to-
Do you know who I am?
No, not quite.
I'm the past-President of Temple (don't ask me to recall, because I can't). We have three Rabbis here, and two cantors; I don't think I'll be needing your services.
Well, bye bye then.
TRS dials...
TRS hangs up
TRS dials...
Hi, this is TRS calling from Chabad, how are you today?
Hang up.
TRS dials...
Hi, this is TRS calling from Chabad, how are you today?
Good (warily)
Glad to hear that. I'm spending the summer traveling around the state with a friend looking for and talking to Jewish people, and I was wondering if you'd be interested in meeting us?
You don't think I'm going to allow a stranger into my home, do you?
Well, I'm a student-Rabbi from Chabad-
I've had a problem with a stranger calling me recently; I'm sorry, I hope you understand.
Yes, of course.
TRS dials...
Hi, this is Rabbi TRS calling from Chabad, how are you today?
Chabad. I'm a student Rabbi who-
A student what?
Rabbi. I'm a student Rabbi from Chabad of Litchfield and I'm spending the summer going around-
Can't you tell I'm hard of hearing? Speak up!
Hi, my name is TRS, and I'm a student Rabbi from Chabad of Litchfield spending the summer going around northwest Connecticut finding and speaking to Jews. Would you be interested in meeting us?
You know, I just got back from the hospital, and I had a broken leg, and-
And (well, a little more conversation; that "oy!" was me was the clincher) I'd love to have you come visit me.

As you can probably tell, it's been a lot of fun so far.
This afternoon we went to the Waterbury hospital and I put Tefillin on a guy who can't speak with his mouth; it didn't matter, because his eyes spoke louder than words ever could. Funny, you read a sentence like that, and think, "Man, TRS is being trite and illogical, eh?" Funny thing is, it's the truth. He really did communicate with his eyes.
After that we stopped at a local mall and picked up a tie each from Burlington Coat Factory. I got a hot sky-blue number, while Yossi went for a more staid English-school style (as he put it) clothing accessory. Mine isn't quite as shocking and classy as my famous orange and pink ties, but it worked on the short notice provided.
With our brand new ties resting comfortably in a plastic bag in the back seat we attempted to navigate Waterbury traffic; it only took us half an hour to go two miles, which made us very nearly late for an appointment with a guy in Torrington. His Hebrew name is Mendel, if that's any help. The building his contracting company is housed in has glorious exposed brick walls and polished yet aged wood floors. In case anyone wants to build me a house, make sure there's lots of exposed brick and wood floors. Thanks.
Anyway, turns out he's a really nice guy, and we sat and talked for about 45 minutes. We talked about the usual things: why we're on Merkos Shlichus, Yeshivas we've been to, the local Jewish community, his family, our family's, how Chabad dates, when we're gonna date, etc. At the end he put on Tefillin, which was a great end to the day.
And that friends, was that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Merkos Shlichus in action

As you may or may not know, I'm currently on Merkos Shlichus in Litchfield, Connecticut. Faithful readers will recall that this blog got its start about a year ago as a response to the original Later I got a spot on that very same website, and the legend of TRS was born.
The question now facing me is what I should do this year. I was asked to blog for the new and improved, but it seems to me that this year it'll be missing a lot of spice, seeing as the end result will be heavily edited. Additionally, I do have a readership for this blog, and it seems silly to abandon this platform for another.
I mentioned the editing, eh? The bigwigs over at Merkos have one major concern-they don't want anything negative appearing about Merkos Shlichus or the Shluchim in a public manner. Now I fully understand this problem; after all, I've done much the same thing over this past year. Nevertheless, I do feel that what I would write for the official Merkos Shlichus would probably have my unique personality and style edited out, and I'd just become one of the many Bochurim on Merkos Shlichus.

Having said all this, I am happy to report that the first couple days here in Connecticut have gone very well. Yossi Beenstock and I spent most of our time visiting old-age homes, which was actually pretty cool. Most of the people were happy to see us, even if we only stayed for a few minutes. We must have visited twelve or thirteen of these homes, which was A. tiring, and B. enlightening.
Sometimes it's difficult to think of things to say; after all, many of these people are in their eighties and nineties. At other times, the conversation flows, and you really feel like you're connecting. Another nice thing is that whenever we left a home, the other seniors gathered around the one we had met and wanted to know who we were and why we had come. I guess that most of these people simply don't get visited very often.
By one of the places we encountered a woman who wasn't particularly interested in the Dvar Torah I was saying. Mind you, it wasn't anything deep, just a cute and positive thingie about today, the 17th of Tammuz. Anyway, as I was wrapping up with her, a woman wheeled herself over and asked if she could listen in. I told her that of course she could, and was she Jewish? She answered me, in Yiddish, "Ich bin a Shiksa with a Yiddishe Hartz", "I'm a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish heart." Then she asked us how we would know when the messiah had arrived. I told her that I wasn't exactly sure what was going to happen, but there was one criterion which he would definitely fulfill. When he comes, the whole world is going to know about it. She then started telling us all about JC, and how she thought that the whole world knows about him, so he must be the messiah. She even mentioned Isaiah 53, though she didn't expound. For a moment there I thought that all the hours of listening to J. Immanuel Shochet would come to use, but I guess it was not to be. Anyway, I responded to her assertion that the whole world knew of JC, "But think about it. There's a billion Chinese people out there, and they're not Christian. There's a billion Indians out there, and they're not Christian. There's a billion Muslims out there, and they're not Christian. How can you say that the whole world has recognized the Messiah when it's obvious that it hasn't?" She then told me that first he would be revealed to only a small group, and then later to the whole world. I said, "Well, that's not what the Jewish tradition holds. I'll know him when I see him. So far, no luck."
We parted on amicable terms; I agreed to believe what I believe, and she agreed to believe what she believes. Still, it was nice to be at the receiving end of Mivtzoyim for a change.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hibba X: Glorious Tel Aviv

Our last morning in Israel dawned bright and glorious, as befits any morning in Jerusalem. Following prayers in the lobby we had breakfast in the main ballroom of the hotel. It was there, and not in the hotel dining room, because there was an all-day seminar for some Jewish renewal group. We gladly gave them our room. I sure hope they appreciated it. Next we made our way to the Golan room and had a final session, where everyone got to talk about how much Israel meant to them. As you may or may not know, if there's one thing I can't stand, it's soppy, sentimental, maudlin, and bathetic speeches. You get the idea. After being exposed to thirty of these I decided that now was the time for action. Though I don't recall my exact phrasing (Where is my James Boswell!), it went something like this:

I really felt a tremendous connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish people (at this point people were rolling their eyes. If they don't like soppy shtuff either, why do they say it?) when I was eating Palestinian produce (at this point I got a great laugh, which made Aharon's look of disgust worth it).

I said some more shtuff, but unfortunately at this point I do not quite recall what it was. Be that as it may, we were soon on the highway to Kfar Chabad, the Rebbe's home in Israel. After stopping at 770 and taking some pictures we found out about the horrible terrorist attack which had taken place in Jaffa Street soon after we departed Yerushalayim. What can I say?
Still, life must go on. We went to the center of town and purchased provisions. I spurned the pizza shop and made my way to Gittel's Shack where I got a great sub, and an iced coffe, for just 22 Shekel. If I recall correctly, the sub had tuna, pickles, lettuce, and hot sauce.
Next up was the Azriely Mall in Tel Aviv. Throughout the many years of my existence I have been grateful to be a guy, which is one of the many reasons why I recite the blessing "Shelo Asani Isha" every morning without fail. This point was made forcefully to me while I was at this mall for about an 1.5 hours. Man, if you've nothing specific to buy, malls are as boring as heck. What do females do there for five hours at a shot? After wandering aimlessly for too long I simply sat on a bench and listened to one of the Boshurim on our trip play the Melodica. He played quite well, but I nevertheless wrote in my diary that I was "bored stiff". Fortunately we eventually escaped and made our way to Independence Hall, site of lots of Tel Aviv history.
Once in Independence Hall we watched a short video about the building and then it was time for the grand finale (of Independence Hall, anyway). We filed into the main hall and heard the story of Israel's declaration of independence. After that was done Hatikva was played, and most of us stood up. One guy didn't, and the guide at the hall screamed at him, which made sense I guess. Not that I'm a big believer in the State of Israel or anything, but when you visit their shrine, it's nice to respect local customs. Following this we Davened Mincha in the video room, which was probably the first time anyone has Davened there in a long time.
After this exciting and patriotic time we wound our way to King George Street and the market there. This was much better than the mall, chiefly because we got these great mini pizzas in the only Kosher bakery in miles. They cost only 10 Shekel. What a steal! I also bought some potato knishes for the flight back; they weren't as good as the Jerusalem ones, though that may have been because they weren't fresh out of the oven. While wandering through the Shuk Eliezer, Zalmen (of the unspellable last name) and I encountered some Arab merchants and had a nice conversation.
And then our time in Israel was up. A bit depressing, I guess. We got to the airport about five hours before the flight, but between this and that we managed to pass the time. Fortunately I got a better seat, for which I was quite grateful. Security struck me as being quite asinine. First they look at your checked bags, but not your carry-on, and then you get your boarding pass and hand in your checked bags to be, what else, checked in. After that they do the regular inspection of your carry-on. My thoughts? If you're a terrorist, you can just transfer the bomb or whatever from your carry-on to your checked bag once you get that through security. With the American system, you don't get your checked bag back after it goes through security, which makes a lot more sense. Anyway, thank G-d that no plane has gone down, so I guess they must be doing something right.
Once I got to the gate I waited for a while, and then made my way to the terminal's Shul. There's a Chabad booth, staffed by a Lubavitcher, and then there's also a Meshichist (I assume) room with a video of the Rebbe playing full time and free drinks, which I certainly appreciated. Next to that is the Shul, where I davened Maariv with great fervor, or so I'd like to imagine.
The plane ride was pretty good; I managed to sleep for most of it. We landed early in the morning, and then it was onto Crown Heights.

And that, my friend, in ten easy installments, was Israel. I am, of course, quite grateful to Taglit/Birthright for the opportunity to see my homeland. Tomorrow I hope to renew my regularly scheduled programming here on the TRS blog, live from Litchfield, Connecticut.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hibba Part IX: 100 Gates

On Tuesday morning we awoke, ate breakfast, and made our way to Amon Hanatziv, the place where Abraham and Isaac first beheld Mount Moriah. They were planning on having a sacrificial time, but G-d stopped that and instead Isaac lived.
Once we were done there it was off to the Old City. There are five quarters in Jerusalem: the Jewish quarter, the Armenian quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, and the tourist quarter. We did a tour of the tourist quarter, and spent lots of good money. Following that was free time for lunch. Eliezer and I were going to have some falafel, but there was a big line of Birthright types, so instead we went to a bagel store. I ordered a lox spread bagel. When I noticed that the lox spread consisted of 99 parts cream cheese and one part lox I instead ordered lox, which was 24 Shekel instead of 16. The girl at the counter put on one pathetic piece of lox. I said, "That, for 24 Shekel?" She said, "You're right", and put on another pathetic piece of lox. I ate the bagel and felt like a moron, which is probably healthy when done in small quantities. Next Eliezer (who had gotten an economically priced 14 Shekel tuna bagel) and I walked past the Churvah which is being rebuilt, so now there's no arch. We walked to the Tzemach Tzedek Shul and I met a couple friends who are learning there, Menachem Aizenman and Nissy Gansbourg.
Once we finished there it was time for another trip to the Kotel. I lead a Minyan for Mincha and then went to the part of the wall which is under an arch. It was a lot cooler than outside.
Once we finished up by the holiest accessible place in the world today it was time for Meah Shearim, founded by Zionists and inhabited by rock throwing radical Chareidim. We walked around a bit, and then came upon possibly the greatest store in the history of mankind: Jerusalem Kippah. At this store, for a nominal fee, they will embroider anything on anything. I decided to get a regular Lubavitch Yarmulkeh, six panel black velvet, embroidered with a Ches, Nun, """ ("), and another Nun. Anyone who's ever learned Siman 92 will know what it means. Eliezer was going to get "Allah Aqbar" in Arabic, but cooler (but not cooler) heads prevailed.
Next up was Ben Yehudah, where we wandered, drank iced coffees, and danced with some Na Na Nachmans which was actually quite enjoyable.
Once we finished dancing it was time for the hotel and dinner, which featured good 'ol American mashed potatoes. I has several plates. There was a Hawaiian themed Bat Mitzvah going on in the ballroom which was pretty funny. There was a whole BBQ right outside our window, which looked pretty good. It was pretty funny to see a bunch of eleven and twelve year olds dancing to disco music while the few older teens tried to flirt without appearing uncool. All in all, a great experience.
In the lobby there were five or six Yeshivish couples dating while we were hanging out. That too was pretty funny. Well, it was pretty funny at the time.
Following this adventure we had a discussion with Aharon about Zionism and you. For more info on what we talked about just ask Yochanan for details.
Yochanan can also tell you all about the mysterious object we saw outside the central bus station. He and I were walking back to the hotel when suddenly a cop yelled at us to get back. We noticed a small suitcase resting by the side of some stairs, and slowly a crowd gathered. There was just one guy from the bomb squad, and he managed to direct everyone quite efficiently. He put on a whole armored uniform, and attached cables to the suitcase. He then walked far away, and pulled on the cables. The bag toppled over, and the guy walked over to investigate the contents. Suddenly a little Israeli girl, twelve or thirteen, came running and screaming, "That's my bag" in Hebrew. Within moments the crowd surged forward and the bomb squad guy walked off, a job well done, if not carried to completion.
And then it was time to go to sleep. And that was that.

Hibba VIII: Up, down, and all around

So there we were, driving to Masada at 4:30 in the morning, wondering if we would ever see our loved ones again. For most of us, this wondering was merely delusional confusion brought on by shock at having seen 4:30 AM after having woken up, not before going to sleep. Some others, the paranoid (androids) and weak of heart and mind were truly scared at the possibility of a mass suicide.
Once we got to Masada we saw the other fifteen Birthright groups also planning an ascent, and realized that this was a big event. We climbed the Roman rampart, arriving at the top with about five minutes to spare. And then we beheld the sight that the tourist guides declare to be the greatest spectacle in all the land: The ceremonial eating of gorilla meat by costumed historical interpreters. Oh, sorry, that sentence was supposed to be written in my latest novel, "Three years vomiting in Africa." Sorry for the interruption. Back to Masada, where was I? Yes, the sunrise. Well, I'm happy to be able to report that indeed the sun did rise. Joy. I didn't quite get the point of hiking up a mountain to see what can be viewed in much more comfortable surroundings at ground level, but I guess that this is just one more rite of passage, like eating dung beetles and driving cars into stop signs.
Once we had finished viewing the sun we made our way to the ancient Beis Medrash and began to Daven. Following the repetition of the standing prayer we were kicked out to make way for an American Bar Mitzvah group who had reserved the site. We moved outside, finished our morning devotions, and then began a tour of the ancient fortress. The thing that struck me was how big it was. Must have been quite a nice vacation spot for Herod, and I'm sure the Roman soldiers enjoyed it too once they finally scaled the walls. Aharon the tour guide told us the whole history of the brave Jews, and some recent research on that great source of human knowledge, Wikipedia, has revealed that most of what he was telling us is propaganda from Josephus, and more recently Yigael Yadin, chief archeologist of the site. As always, nothing is ever as simple as it first appears.
After finishing up with a rousing 12 Pesukim in the Synagogue and a quick tourist-Tefillin trap it was time to descend. Would we go down the notorious snake path, renowned for not being as hard as everyone says it is, or alternatively harder than everyone says it is? Or would be go down the way we came up? Aharon made the decision in a dew moments, and back down the Roman rampart we went.
Once we got back to the hotel it was time for breakfast, which in my case was three rolls with scrambled eggs, jello without coconut this time thank the one above (that was intentional, Eliezer), and some truly horrible coffee. Most of the coffee that I, the poor tourist, drank was fine, but this shtuff was really bad. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it wasn't hot enough. Just a thought.
Next up was Ein Gedi, site of Saul's famous potty break and David's tailoring. We didn't go to the top pool, as it was filled with the nubile bodies of all the other Birthright types we had encountered at Masada, and instead we went into the lower pool, which was fine. I just took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and went in up to my knee, but a significant number of others decided to go all the way and had a quick Mikve dip.
After purchasing and consuming a nestle ice cream it was time for the Dead Sea. This place is certainly cool. I floated for about an hour, and then came out for a quick shower. Oh yes, did I mention that we were once again at a Frum beach? It was at this site that I got my wonderful sunburn which lasted for a week or so and provided hours of peeling fun. Before I got to take that skin off though, I suffered bearable agonies for several days.
And then we were off, driving through the West Bank and up to Jerusalem, where we switched hotels and stayed in the Jerusalem Gate, which has a much nicer lobby than the Jerusalem Gold but inferior rooms. Ours stank of cigarette smoke, but that was soon remedied by opening the window which allowed me to witness a snaggy wedding. After dinner I fell asleep and only awoke at midnight, at which point I prayed the evening services, performed the ablutions which are common among the Nacirema.
And that, friends, was the end of another day. How did you guess?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hibba VII: Beach Bums

On Sunday I woke up at 6:50, lead the congregation from Yishtabach, had a little breakfast, and departed Jerusalem at 9:15. We arrived at the frum beach in Ashdod about an hour later and rushed in. The frum beach is not the world's most beautiful ocean side spot. Once you get over the fact that you're going to have an inferiority complex from being at the nasty beach it can actually be quite enjoyable. There were a bunch of black flags flying in the wind when we arrived, but many of us just assumed that they were a sign for passersby that this was the home of black bulletproof stockings and black Chareidi coats. Some people even thought there were pirates in the area, but alas, it was not to be. After gamboling in the water for about five minutes I began to feel stings on my legs. I figured that these were from the sand. Ten minutes later we were all ordered out of the water. Turns out that those black flags actually signify jellyfish. By the time I got out of the water I had stings all over my legs and arms. Fortunately I had been a t-shirt, because otherwise who knows what agonies I might have suffered. As it was, they just stung for about an hour and the marks stayed for about a week.
Anyway, we still had about an hour left at the beach, and I wandered from people burying other people in the sand to people building massive sand castles to people picking up jellyfish that had washed up on shore. Man, those things are big and ugly. Eventually I dried off (Thanks Eliezer), changed back into clothing, and hopped on the bus to Beit Shemesh, where we stopped off in the local mall and got lunch at the local Shupersol. Bread and turkey never tasted so good. All right, it tastes about the same whenever I eat it, but I'm tying to interject a little romance in here, okay?
As you all probably remember from school, there was once a little boy who had a ruddy complexion and a bunch of older brothers to boot. He was a shepherd boy, and seemed to enjoy fighting with beasts. There was another guy, ten feet tall, who also seemed to enjoy fighting. The two of 'em met up in an epic battle for the ages, between the glorified hills of Tel Azekah and Tel Socoh in the valley of Elah. The little kid won, and everyone was happy. Three and a bit thousand years later, our little group made our way to the top of Tel Azekah and Aharon told us us age old story of David and Goliath.
After we were done with that it was onto the highway to Arad, a town renowned for its Ger Chassidim. No one quite knows why they're there, but they're there, and I guess that's all there is to it. We stayed at the Inbar hotel, but before getting there we went to the local Shupersol to pick up supper, breakfast, and lunch, as we thought that the hotel wasn't as OCD with regards to Kashrus as we were. The Shupersal didn't really have too much, so we bussed down to the local Chareidi hole in the wall food shop, and ended up getting the same food we would have gotten at the supermarket. Once we arrived at the hotel we found out that in fact much of the food was suitable for our consumption, and we gorged ourselves on tuna steaks and jello with coconut sprinkles. I didn't like the coconut part too much, but otherwise it was all good.
Our room had a curious feature; in order to turn the electricity on, you had to slide a card attached to the room key into a little slot. This system was far superior to the Jerusalem Gold hotel, as it allowed us to keep the AC on all night.
One of my roommates (who shall remain nameless) discovered that one of the ways of locking the safe in the room was with credit card, and he spent many happy minutes playing with it. Ahh, the simple joys of life.
We determined to have an early night, as the next day was the climb up Masada, and incredibly enough I was ready for sleep at 9:55.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hibba VI: Day of rest for all but the workers

Friday night at the Kosel is, according to most sources, the greatest experience known to man. The Kosel is also the holiest spot on this green/blue (turquoise?) earth of ours, at least at this point. Aharon made the point that the Western Wall is nothing when compared with what once lay beyond, the holy temple. The Kosel may be the closest place to the divine presence, but that's it. It's a poor second. We got through the metal detectors and may our way to the wall itself. Everyone is always surprised that it's so small. They're also all surprised that they feel so much holiness emanating from it. Well, I certainly found the first to be true. As for the second? I touched it, sure, felt the smooth stones and tried to feel them communicating with me. It didn't quite work. Maybe I'm just too cynical. There's a line from an Abie Rottenberg song that goes, "Where else in this world can you find a wall, whenever you touch it, it touches you? Reach for its stones, they're moist with the tears, of our hopes and our dreams, that we know will soon come true." I didn't feel too touched. Not that I didn't try, mind you. I certainly tried to convince myself that this was the proverbial It. Nothing.
Still, I got to participate in a Carlebach-type Minyan with a bunch of Mayanot Birthright college kids, which was pretty cool, and also contributed to my losing my voice. Used to be, back in the day, that I could sing (scream) for hours on end with no ill effects. Nowadays though, I'm gone in half an hour.
I didn't actually Daven Maariv at the wall, because one of our members had Yahrtzeit, and wanted to Daven after Tzeis. Also, we Davened Mincha a little late to Daven Maariv early, not that this fact stopped too many of my compatriots. Still, who am I to criticize? So all was well. We walked up Jaffa Street and back to the hotel, where we followed a quick Maariv with a more leisurely Shabbos meal. One of the great things about being Frum is that you know that one is supposed to eat the fish and salad course before the meal, skipping the large line which immediately gravitated toward the fowl and meat section. The fish was jarred gefilte fish, which normally I like, but tasted kind of old. And the chrein, that most glorious of accompaniments, was sweet. I recalled a story from my childhood when I first tasted this pathetic substitute for horseradish. A family friend (or maybe it was a cousin, I can never remember these things) came to visit in Mequon, and he loaded his gefilte fish with chrein. We warned him that it was likely to prove hot, but he disregarded our kindly intentioned intervention (ooh, how alliterative) by saying that he liked chrein. Ten minutes later, once he had overcome the coughing, spluttering, water drinking, challah eating, and invective-laced speech that followed (Ok, I made that part up. And maybe some more parts. Whatever)we all agreed that it would make for a great joke in the years to come. All right, so the rest of us were already laughing uproariously, but we were too kind to tell him that then.
That night we came into our rooms and discovered that the AC was off, an event which I already covered a couple days ago, so why bother now? Suffer it to say that not all Arabs are the spawn of the devil.
That week it was Shabbos Mevorchim, and like a good boy I got up early and said Tehillim. Later on we went to Shikun Chabad for the Minyan, which my aforementioned friend lead in commemoration of the Yahrtzeit. This was preceded by a quick dip in the Mikve. Or, might I say, one of several Mikves. Yes, there were three, hot, hotter, and chicken soup temperature. The Minyan itself was pretty regular. As in, we Davened. What joy.
Once it was all over we walked back to the hotel, ate lunch, and had a Farbrengen with a couple other Birthright groups in the lobby. Sholom Mendelson talked about the difference between a civilian and a soldier. A civilian is a someone, a person with an identity, but ultimately he's a no one, because no one cares about him or for him. A soldier, on the other foot, is a no one. His identity is sublimated; he wears the same clothes as the other soldiers, does the same activitys, and even has his name changed to a number. Nevertheless, he's the ultimate someone, because he accomplishes what no civilian does; protecting the country and perhaps even paying the ultimate sacrifice. Sholom elaborated on this theme for a while, and on the general purpose of a Farbrengen. The other groups were very impressed, though this may have had as much to do with the availability of vodka as with the concept. Yossi, the leader of Hibba, also loved it.
Later on he said, and as usual I paraphrase, "You Lubavitchers are incredible! I want to have a group of you with every group of regular people that come." When he said this Aharon's face dropped, and it looked like he was saying "Just don't ask me to participate, thank you very much." Not that he didn't like us; we were just a bit trying for a yekke.
Following the Farbie we walked down to the Knesset, sight of which brought to mind a cute story that everyone's heard and will therefore fit nicely into this blog.

So everyone knows the story of two brothers who loved on either side of a mountain. One was quite poor, and had lots of children. Maybe that was why he was poor. The other brother was richer than Donald Trump on a good day, but he had no children. Both were farmers, because that's just what they did back in the day. The rich brother thought, "My poor brother, so many mouths to feed, so little shtuff to shtuff in them; I'll take some of my abundant wheat and deposit it into his storehouse. I don't need it, and it'll mean a great deal to him. That night he followed through on his plan, and retired to bed feeling quite good. The poor brother had similar thoughts that day, "My dear brother has no children to comfort him in his old age. Let me give him some of my wheat; food is always a good comforter." He too made the journey over the mountain and put the wheat in his brother's granary. This went on for a while, until one night they encountered each other on top of the mountain, and, realizing what each was doing, they fell on each other's necks and began to cry. They decided to move in together, and then everyone would be happy. G-d saw this touching scene from on high, and said, "This is really beautiful. Let me have my eternal home on this spot. Well friends, this spot was Mount Moriah, sight of the Holy Temple.

At the same time as this beautiful story was happening there were another two brothers who also lived on either side of a mountain. One was rich, with no kids, and one was poor, with many progeny. The poor brother thought, "My brother is so rich, and he doesn't really need his wheat. I'll take some, he'll never know. Besides, I really need it to feed my kiddies." The rich brother thought, "You know, I have no kids, and I'm really depressed. Maybe if I had more food I'd be happier. I'll go steal from my brother, he has so many children and is so busy, he'll never know." This went on for a couple nights, and one night they met at the top of the mountain. They realized what each was doing, and began to fight. After a while they both lay dead on top of the mountain. And on this very site was built the Knesset.

Once we finished up at the famous Menorah outside the Knesset we retreated to a park and sat down for a good chat about all sorts of shtuff related to Medinat Israel. We walked back to the hotel, retreated to our rooms for some more bourekas, and later met downstairs for prayers, Havdala, and King David's meal.
Later on I went to the Central Bus Station and hung out for a while with Eliezer and Zalmen (I have no idea how to spell his last name). And that, folks, is the slightly abbreviated version of my Jerusalem Shabbos experience.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hibba Mark V: Jerusalem Tales

So there we were, making our way through to this crazy tunnel, and we passed by the place where King Solomon, him of the 1000 paramours and a tremendous buffet in Toronto, was anointed as King of the Jews. That's probably the coolest thing about Israel in general and Yerushalayim in particular. King David captured the city from the Jebusites by attacking from this tunnel; it really is amazing to think that just a few thousand years ago the original Messiah was walking around, slaying enemies and composing psalms. A little further on was Hezekiah's Tunnel, which even has a nice plaque of authenticity on the wall. Did I mention that the plaque was put there by Hezekiah's men?
The tunnel itself is quite fun to go through. Who doesn't enjoy walking bent over in knee-deep water? Besides, we got these really cute flashlights for free. Presumably someone paid for them, but that's hardly my problem, right?
Once we got out we met some old Arab who owns a house which happens to sit on top of a bunch of archeological shtuff, though so far we don't quite know what's there, as he very inconveniently has refused to allow anyone in. He did offer to sell for one hundred camels, which was a pity, because we only had Parliaments on us. Just kidding, he wanted animals, not cigarettes. And of those we had not a one. Perhaps next time then.
All this tunneling was soon replaced by a great big group dance in the concession area. I'm not sure why we decided to dance and sing. Perhaps we felt like it. Regardless, we did it, and we even got some of the hardier tourists to join in, so a fun time was had by all. All in this particular situation excludes our tour guide Aharon, who isn't a big fan of public exhibitionism. Don't worry, he survived the experience.

Next up was a drive-by of Gehenna, site of human sacrifice and the source of the Jewish version of Hell. It's cute, because a lot of people don't believe in the big barbecue in the sky. Why is that cute? Well, just imagine how you would feel if someone dumped a bunch of sauce on you. I imagine you wouldn't like it too much, which is a perfectly understandable feeling. The lesson to be learned? Never start a paragraph that you aren't prepared to finish. Even more importantly, remember to delete it afterwards if it really makes no sense.

Next up was the Machane Yehuda marketplace and tourist place. Lunch was a kilo of piping hot potato bourekas that were better than any I ever had before, plus a cup of slushy coffee. So yeah, this bakery didn't look like much, but oh boy, were those things. Everyone's favorite editor also got some sweet baked good type thingies, but I didn't have any of those, primarily because I was stuffing my face with the potato deliciousness. He also tried taking a picture of the baker, which the baker didn't appreciate too much. Eliezer quickly took some evasive action, like erasing the offending picture, and everyone was happy.
And aside from a quick Mikve by Mossad Harav Kook, that was about it for Friday. Tomorrow, with the help of the one above, I'll give you the Shabbos report. Lucky you.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hibba Part IV: Up and up we go

The twenty third day of the month of Sivan began, for me at least, at 6:05, with prayers in the courtyard of the hotel. We soon boarded our bus, and drove off to Yerushalayim, eternal capital of the Jewish people and great place to buy overpriced souvenirs. Yossi Cunin, one of my former Shluchim at YOEC and all round good guy, tore Kriah upon seeing the hills of Judea, which was cute. I didn't, because someone said that the Friediker Rebbe said that we don't do that sort of thing, and even though this was never substantiated, well-to put it bluntly, I wasn't interested in ripping my shirt. I'm a sinner. Maybe. Yeah.

After arriving in the city we proceeded to look for lunch. A hole in the wall falafel stand claimed that some of the veggies were of Palestinian origin, while others had been grown by Jews. Later the proprietor said that it was all Yevul Nachri. I figured that the place wasn't trustworthy, but still ate there, because I was hungry, which seems to me to be a pretty good excuse.

Next up was Yad Vashem, where we encountered a bunch of soldiers and my friend Yossi Shomer, who is a (the Rebbe's) soldier of a different kind. We went through the new museum, which is an architectural marvel. I would say that I enjoyed the museum, but that word is not the right one to use in this situation. This past Thursday I went to the Ellis Island museum, which I can certainly say was enjoyable. Yad Vashem is different. Is "fascinating" a good word? Possibly.

Regardless, we didn't have enough to see everything in the museum, not to mention the rest of the site. Later on we watched a video of a survivor from Greece in the visitor center, which was interesting.

Next up was Mount Herzl, and Theodor Herzl's grave. Human beings have a complicated relationship with themselves and those around them. At first I was going to write that Lubavitchers have this issue, but it occurred to me that Jews also do. Then I realized that all people are similarly troubled. The question that was raised at this particular juncture concerned Mr. Herzl, and what we should make of him. Did he think, at least at some point, that all Jews should convert to Christianity? Yes. Did he have a Christmas tree in his house? Yes. Did one of his sons become a Catholic? Yes.

At the same time, without Herzl, would the Jewish state as we know it today be here? Probably not. All the Yeshivas, Mikves, Shuls, Kashrus agencies; they all wouldn't exist. Would the Chareidim who hate Herzl exist? Probably not.

If not for Herzl and the creation of the state of Israel, would Moshiach be here? I don't know.
Speaking of the Chareidim brings up a topic I neglected to mention. On one of the hikes we took I got into a nice little argument with Aharon Wexler, tour guide to the stars, about Shabbos rock throwers. One of my problems is that I love arguing. This trait has lead in the past to my arguing with anyone about anything. Another aspect of this trait is that I often pick the losing side of an argument, just because I want to argue with whoever it is that's expressing an opinion. Sometimes I argue because the person I disagree with is stating their side in too confident a tone; other times I do so because I genuinely believe in a cause, which isn't too rare, because I try to avoid belief in causes. Thankfully, in the last several years, I've managed to wean myself off this destructive habit, though sometimes the temptation is too much for even the strongest of men to pass up. Arguing with people is almost always a futile exercise, because neither side is willing to give any ground, so it's pretty pointless. Be that as it may, I overheard someone question Aharon on the subject of rock throwers. He said that they were evil. I interjected, "Evil? That's a harsh word. We may not agree with them perhaps, but to call them evil? Nazis and suicide bombers are evil. Shabbos rock throwers are perhaps misguided, but not evil." Aharon vehemently disagreed, and said that they were in fact evil. Besides, they violated the very Shabbos that they claimed to protect. Eliezer very kindly disabused our guide of this notion, explaining in clear Halachic phrases that in fact throwing rocks on Shabbos is not necessarily a violation of its laws.

One of the problems of us moral relativists is that people who aren't moral relativists tend to think in morally relative terms only when it suits them or their agenda. Take for example the left wing in Israel. It was recently reported that they were dismayed that the British Embassy in Israel had invited some right wing activists to a function which the left wing had also been invited to. The right wing says that this is a problem of left wingers, that they want to have their cake and eat it too, but in truth its a problem for all people, on all sides of the political quadrangle.

I didn't have a chance to explain to Aharon that I was defending the Shabbos rock chuckers on a whim, and not because of some long standing love affair with them, but I don't think it would have mattered. The argument that, "They're merely doing what they see as G-d's will" is a bad one, and he would have quickly pointed out the obvious holes contained therein.
Hey, at least I didn't lose this particular argument.

Getting back to Herzl, well, he puts us all in quite a bind. The same can be said for another man we visited that day, Yitzchak Rabin. I still remember the Oslo peace accords, and I still remember the night he was shot. There we were, sitting in a theater somewhere in Milwaukee waiting for a Shlock Rock concert to begin, and then they announce that it's canceled because Rabin has died. Instead we said Tehillim.

Once again, we have this dichotomy, of a man who did so much, both positively and negatively, for the Jewish people. The purpose of this blog is to explore these issues at depth, but I'm tired, so I guess this blog will have to fail. Or maybe we can explore them at a different, more awake time. That would be fun.

Moving right along, we made our way to the Jerusalem Gold hotel, were assigned a room, and discovered that it was already occupied by some female-type Birthrighters. Oh, the joy! Not really. After a lot of annoyance, we finally got a room of our very own. See, two Birthright groups booked groups booked blocks of rooms. The hotel accidentally gave the other group three of our rooms, and it took them a while to figure out which of their rooms were in fact empty. Anyway, all's well that ends well, and the rooms were much nicer than the ones op North, so we didn't complain too much. They did have one unfortunate feature however: the electricity only stayed on as long as there was movement in the room. This was a problem on a couple of levels. Firstly, it meant that all our shtuff in the fridge was subjected to a lack of cooling for all the times that we weren't in the rooms. All right, so we had no shtuff in the fridge; that's hardly the point. The second problem was that when we slept we didn't move around too much, and this meant that the AC would turn off, which enabled our bodies to become bathed in sweat, which some people may enjoy. I'd like to meet those people and ask them how it's done. Anyway, this really turns into a problem on Shabbos, because either you make no movement, which means that it's impossible to enter the room, or you do make movement, which turns on the sensor, and thus makes you a violator. If there were Chareidim inside, they'd probably stone you. As it turns out, the hotel has the power to turn off the sensor, but they don't advertise this feature, which means that when we mentioned the problem on Shabbos, and the arab concierge turned off the sensor, the AC was also off. Fortunately the arab bus boy had experience in these matters, and he turned the cooling elements on, ensuring great pleasure for all involved.
After dinner was our big free night, the time given to us allotted to paint the town red, visit relatives, or just visit Mayanot, Daven Maariv, watch Living Torah, do Chitas, head back to the hotel, watch the second half of Spain's semifinal Eurocup win over Russia, and have a relatively early night. Seeing as partying is not quite my thing, and neither is visiting relatives (sorry!), I chose the latter option. And that, friends, was part four.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Addendum to Part III: The bright blue waters of the Sea of Galilee

As was mentioned by so many of my wonderful and devoted readers (welcome Yochanan!), I missed out a significant portion of the day's activities, due to exhaustion and bad hand-writing, for both of which I take full responsibility (that was for you, Eliezer).
The hike. The supposed water hike. Our wonderful tour guide Aharon took us up some big hill which was supposed to contain a beautiful waterfall. Unfortunately, it didn't. As I may have yet probably didn't but will rectify now told you (use your imagination), there's a drought in Israel, which has had some unfortunate results. One of these problems is that the only thing gushing out of Israeli geysers at this point is eloquent sentences, but not water. No matter, I sweated enough to make up for any lack of fresh water bathing.
As for Cheerio's seminary experience-well, it's pretty funny, now that I apply my noodle to the subject, but I never realized that Cheerio was in fact of the other gender. I went back and read her previous comments, and now they all make a lot more sense. Why didn't I click on the name and find out before? I guess that's just one of life's unanswerable questions. Anyway, I'm sure Eliezer and Nemo are already typing comments on this, but please, finish reading before you do anything hasty.
Moving right along to the Sea of Galilee cruise. One thing about that word "Sea". It's a put it nicely, which you know I always try to do, not so seaish. Nothing against Israel, but we have these things in America called "The Great Lakes". They're all much larger than the Sea of Galilee. Yes, I know that it's also known as Lake Tiberias, but what's it known as in Hebrew? The Kineret? That's right, no "Lake Kineret" there.
Regardless of my pet peeve, we took a cruise on the water. I thought it would feature a tour guide telling us various stories about the body of water we were traversing. Once we had pulled about fifteen feet from the dock the speakers went on, and MBD began to sing "Moshiach" really loudly. Then Oyv Simches came on and sang several songs. Oh, did I mention that this was a recording? Sorry 'bout that. Most of the guys began to dance. I wasn't in the mood; after all, cruises are supposed to be relaxing, no? I didn't dance. Everyone got over it.
Anything else I missed the first time over? Oh yes, our session with the soldiers. I fell asleep in the middle. My bad.

Now we stand (well, I'm actually sitting while I type, but you get the point) before Parshas Balak. I'm a big fan of this Parsha, because the whole thing is a story. I love Parshas where the whole thing is a story! For a summary of this week's story, go read (see Eliezer, I finally gave 'em a plug). I'll confine my remarks to Balak's feelings. The poor guy pays a famous imprecatist (one who imprecates [I made that one up myself {go ahead, search the almighty Google}]) a lot of money, and all he does is bless! How did Balak feel after this episode? I'd pay a good deal of money to have been able to listen in to his appointments with his psychiatrist. They must have been fascinating.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hibba Part III: Watering the cedars of Leban

On this day of my journey, I awoke at 6:00 AM. Crazy, no? The first activity of the day was Kibbutz Misgaav Am, which is on top of Israel and within spitting distance of Lebanon. While there we were talked to by a wizened old trooper from Cleveland who's fought in four of Israel's wars and doesn't approve of war. Makes sense. Robert E. Lee, officer in the US Army for a time, once said, "It is well that war is so terrible- lest we should grow too fond of it." War is bad, even though some of the more Chassidish members of our group spent an hour trying to convince our speaker that it would really be a simple matter indeed to just go over and massacre some Lebanese peasants. Not that I've ever fought, of course. Anyway, he was no pacifist, just an old and wise man. We had to pack up, because Mordechai Ashkenazi, head of the Israeli armed forced, was coming to give a speech. It seemed that he wasn't too interested in meeting us, which makes sense to me.
Following that it was time for, you probably didn't guess it but no matter, hiking! Yes, I sweated! The joy!
For lunch I got ripped off at a pizza shop in Tiberias, one of the four holy cities, (blame the almighty editor for this one), but I managed to remain calm and not assault anyone.
Sorry, I'm rather tired, and this post is showing it.
Ooh, these tiny paragraphs are so much fun. They're almost like doughnut holes.
The Rambam is buried in Tiveria, and visiting his grave is considered to be a Segulah for getting hitched. So far neither woman nor horse has come close.

And that, folks, was the day. Short but sweet. In fact, pathetically short. That hike took a lot longer to walk than it did to write.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hibba Part II: Jordanian Joy

One of the few things I've done in my life that I'm unequivocally proud of is my keeping of a diary for the past five years. Unfortunately, I can barely read it. Oh well, there are Maalos and Chisronus in everything, right? So I don't have to rely on my memory, but can instead turn to the written word, which is of course sacred. Yes, it was me who wrote it, but does that really mean anything? I think not.
Oh, and one thing before we get to Israel; Lipa's new CD really and truly rocks. I'm not saying this because he featured me on the liner notes (hint hint), but because I, as a fellow artist, appreciate the man's genius. No one ever said artists couldn't be pretentious, right?
So the first wake up in Israel was at 6:45, which was followed by morning prayers, which I lead, and breakfast, which consisted of three of those really good Israeli strawberry yogurts and three hard-boiled eggs. How's that for symmetry?
Next up was a bus trip to the Golan Heights and a hike there among a bunch of old Syrian bunkers and landmines, which really made the whole experience quite exciting. One of the great things about being anywhere in Israel while we were there was that there were always at least another couple Birthright groups along with us. From what we were told, there's going to be 750 groups in total this summer, so a little crowding was only to be expected.
After the hike it was time for possibly the funniest visit of the entire trip. We visited an olive oil store. All right, it was a whole big thingamajig, but the entire point of us going to the place was to get us to fork over our hard-won American moola. Don't worry, I resisted the temptation.
Since the locale was sorely lacking in a properly Kosher (for our august standards, that is) victuals establishment, we were forced to pursue lunch in the local Shupersol, which ended up being bread and chummus, not too shabby at all. We also got our delegation of 4 soldiers and 2 national service boys at this point. Birthright pairs each group with between six and eight Israeli contemporaries, which are usually co-ed, but for us of course they were all one gendered Hebrews. Two were from Nachal Chareidi, while another was a paramedic in some elite commando unit and the fourth did something, presumably, though for the life of me I can't remember what that something was.
Onto Mount Bental we then trooped, with its signpost to all the major capitals of the Middle East and excellent view of Israel's friendly neighbors. We also explored some Syrian bunkers, which give excellent testimony to the ill-advisedness of joining an army which is obviously so lacking in knowledge of basic human comfort.
The grand climax of the day was rafting the Jordan river. All the advertisements for Jordan river rafting portray it as the equal of New Zealand's legendary rapids, or at the very least Colorado's Royal Gorge, which I by the way nearly died in when I rafted it some years ago. But that's a story for a different time, though probably the same place.
The only rapid on the river was a rather staid and seemingly man-made slight drop near the end of the run. My main enjoyment was paddling upstream, which was ridiculously easy, and swimming plus Mikve, which had the many other rafters on the river laughing. No, of course I did not completely disrobe for the occasion; just try and imagine trying to get all the way under in seven feet of water with a lifejacket. It was pretty funny, because there were a bunch of preteen religious Israeli girls on the river as well, and they laughed their heads off at us the most. My, was that not an awkward bit of sentence. Still, the spirit takes hold of one, and it's better to just hang on tight and enjoy the ride. So yes, as I was saying, the Jordan river, while not exciting in any conventional sense of the word, was quite enjoyable.
That brings us to the night session, where we all met and gret (greeted sounds too plain) each other, with little soundbites of our lives. I said perhaps (why be modest? Strike that "perhaps" from the record Sir!) the funniest thing, explaining that it's best not to drink orange juice directly following the brushing of the teeth. I first learned this lesson in YOEC; at first I thought all the OJ procured by the dear Shluchim was somehow deficient, but gradually it dawned on me that in fact my own excellent hygiene was to blame.
And that, my friends, is the way the cows come home to roost.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Chiba Part I: Over the land and under the firmament we go to Grandma's (and everyone's) house

The Israel experience. Presented to you by TRS. Without pictures, because I'm too lazy to find good ones that match the text. You'll live.

Let's go back to where it all started, beautiful Terminal 4 in JFK, waiting to board our Israir flight. So, um, right, yeah, I guess, ok-we boarded. Joy. My seat was in the very last center row, 41, smack dab (what does that mean anyway?) in the smack dab (and did that make any sense?) of an Airbus A330-300. A rather horrible seat assignment if you ask me. Anyway, I survived. We only took off one and a half hours late, and soon Davened Mincha, followed quickly by Maariv, which itself preceded Shacharis by only a couple of hours. That's one of the joys of flying East, you get to pray at accelerated intervals. Since very few people slept on the flight I had ample time to get to know everyone, which I didn't do. Almost the whole plane was Birthright types, which was pretty cool. Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, of Northwestern University and father of my friend Avremi, was leading a group, but unfortunately he didn't Farbreng. My sources tell me that he was sleeping in business class along with Sholom Mendelson and his wee wifie, who were leading our group.
Once we landed it was Passport Control, which was quickly followed by baggage retrieval and cell phone collection. As in, we collected our cell phones from the cell phone company.

You know, I was scared of this happening. "Scared of writing about cell phones?" you quite naturally wonder, "what's scary about that?" Actually, I was scared of writing in this fashion, the "I did this, and then this, and then this, and then this...". It just strikes me as being morally wrong. Still, it's hard to avoid it when you're trying to narrate a series of events. I guess it's just the price you'll have to pay for reading my travel memoirs.

We then met the travel guide, a perfectly innocent guy named Rabbi Aharon Wexler. Do me a favor, and if you ever take a trip to Israel, use him as your tour guide, and in this way I'll receive slight penance for our group's collective sins. No, we didn't pillage his village or anything like that; we simply managed to come late to virtually every single activity, which caused him to age considerably faster than is the generally accepted practice in this universe we all share. Not to sound self-righteous or anything (I never do that, right?), but I came on time most every time coming on time was required, but of course we're all responsible for our brethren, and...
Onto the tour bus we merrily went, and settled in for the ride up to Tzfas (Safed), one of the four holy cities of the land and a place that's desperately in need of money, so make sure you send some. It was funny, driving on the highway, with everyone asking Aharon "What's this" or "What's that" while he tried to explain that we were in fact passing nothing of interest. Later of course, some of us (remember that I'm a goodie-goodie from time immemorial when you read this) wouldn't listen when there was in fact something of importance to relate, but that's just the way the angel food cake with seven minute frosting crumbles, isn't it. The question just occurred to me: does angel food cake with seven minute frosting crumble?

Moving right along, as we were doing on the highway, we came upon Mount Tabor, made famous by my Bar-Mitzva Haftora, which is of course all about Dvora and her exploits against Sisera and his army. Her song is, by the by, the Torah source for aliens, but that is (also) of course a topic for another time.
Israel's highway system, like many, is not too scintillatingly exciting. Once we arrived in Tzfas it was time for lunch, which I enjoyed in some little Falafel shack on the side of the main road. It was the best falafel I've ever heard. Now would be as good a time as any to explain the food situation in Israel. Basically, there's Kosher food, certified by the local Rabbinic authorities, and then there's OCD food, certified by the local OCD authorities. As Lubavitchers, we only ate the OCD shtuff, which is called "Mehadrin", "Eida Hachareidis", or "Badatz" by the locals. As befits any OCD, there are many different Hechsherim under the Mehadrin umbrella. All in all, it's quite fun trying to find something to eat.
To add another wrinkle, this is a Shmita year, which means that's there's three different types of produce available to consumers: Regular, Heter Mechira, and Yevul Nachri. "Regular" is the shtuff people cultivate on their farms, and the sell; due to the laws set forth by G-d at Sinai, and every day since, this produce is forbidden to Jews of all stripes, though a significant portion of the population ignores this precept, which is why this food is available for sale in Israel. Heter Mechira is produce grown on land which was sold to non-Jews but worked by Jews, a legal fiction which is accepted by lots of observant Jews, but not by us OCD-types, who are forced to rely on Yevul Nachri, basically Palestinian produce. Yummy. Point is, every time you want to eat something you have to find out A. what the Hechsher is, and B. what kind of produce is included. A bit of a pain, but that's the kind of hassle masochists enjoy putting themselves through. If you didn't understand the Halachic controversy, which is perfectly understandable, as I completely failed in my duty to record it here, then great, because I also failed to understand it. I just followed orders, which were to eat Palestinian cucumbers and other veggies. Aharon, our tour guide, is an ardent religious type, and an ardent Zionist (he made the distinction), and he refused to eat Yevul Nachri, which made it rather difficult at communal meals, because whether we ate the veggies or he did, there was always someone who wasn't happy.
Yeah, that falafel was really good. As we hadn't heard the Torah reading yet (it was a Monday), we made our way to the headquarters of "Team Yellow" and chapped a Kriah. It was pretty funny, because a Minyan for Shacharis began soon after; it was about 3:00 PM. Not that I've never Davened Shacharis that late, but I've never done it with a Minyan.
Aharon the tour guide then gave us a short tour (how convenient) of the city, covering the Ashkenazic Ari Shul, Rabbi Yosef Cairo's Shul, and part of the old quarter. Unfortunately we didn't have time for more, which was the mantra of this, and every, Birthright trip. It's truly impossible to see even a small part of the land in ten days, which I suppose is a good thing, because it means that I have to go back. The Ari Shul was built on the site of the Ari's Friday night prayer meetings, and features a Bimah that's raised six or seven feet off the ground.
We switched buses before departing, getting a nice Mercedes vehicle. We were supposed to hike the Arbel, home of Natai Haarbaley, mentioned in Pirkei Avos, but we couldn't because of time constraints, which is really unfortunate. We did Daven Mincha there, and there was even a Chassan present on the mountain, which meant no Tachanun. Joy!
That night was spent at some Galilean hotel, which was, to put it bluntly, not the greatest place in the history of hotelkind. We survived. And that, my friends, was days 1 and 2 in Israel.

So how did it feel to be in the Holy Land? As in, did I feel particularly holy? One of the negatives things about being cynical, and there are many, is that it's tough to feel. So yeah, for the first while I did, but not so much afterwards. See, the secularists would have you believe that it's a land like any other, and while intellectually I know that this isn't the case, it's tough translating that for the heart, especially when everyone around you doesn't think so. Being around a huge concentration of Jews, is pretty wild, but it's not so great when those very same Jews could care less about their Judaism. Obviously there's a vast difference between the state that has Hatikva as its national anthem and the land that G-d has made his own, but it's impossible not to confuse the two.
Anyway, I'll try to deal with this subject a little later, when I have more patience for deep intellectual endeavors.