Saturday, June 30, 2012

Still Lost in Jerusalem...

It's bizarre to physically be in one place, and the rest of you in another. As new problems, revelations and uncertainties arise, I've become single-minded in my focus to get back to Jerusalem, and it has become an all-consuming obsession. Sometimes I think I'm running away from something. Sometimes, I think I'm running towards something. In either case, as things currently stand, I'm running in place. I'm sure I'm not the first or last young Jew to fall in love with Jerusalem only to be brokenhearted by forced separation from her, but for those of us who have experienced it, we know that one may fall in love dozens of times throughout an entire lifetime, but Jerusalem is the love that takes your breath and your heart away. I'm just not the same person now.

People spend years deciding and carefully planning on moving to a foreign country, permanently. Me? I dive in head first with reckless abandon. My impulsive nature has caught up with me and my recognition of it has had no effect on alleviating my desire to go back to Jerusalem. Start over. Begin a new chapter. The current story arc has become tiresome.

So, while my days are pretty much the same, and my mind is set on one, single goal, I've decided to escape for a while from this...whatever this is that I'm doing in this blog, and wander off into the land of fiction. I used to be a daydreamer, so it shouldn't be too hard to conjure up that old behavior again, and put it to use with my writing. Fiction is not something that I do all that often, so I'm terribly rusty, but I need to put my mind somewhere else for a while before I snap, and I might as well throw it onto this blog. So, it's story time, folks. Stay tuned...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Losing My Religion

Two weeks have passed since I said goodbye to Jerusalem and hello to an old familiar foe, Medford, Oregon. The job hunt continues, and the sudden realization of how far away the nearest shul is, a mere ten miles, seems as though it might as well be a thousand miles, considering my lack of mobility. The only kosher meat I can find here are the Hebrew National Franks in the supermarket, and believe me, I know from experience that those get old really quickly. Israel is practically another planet, and I feel like an alien that has been away to see what's on the other side of the galaxy, and has forgotten what the home world is like. The air is different. The sun doesn't even shine the same way here. And then, of course, I've always felt a bit out of place here. The memories of those feelings are still with me, and every time I walk down a familiar path from my past, those memories rise up to the surface of my psyche and overwhelm me.

But I'm not a teenager anymore and I've changed considerably in the eight years it has been since I've lived here. There is some comfort in this realization, but still; old habits die hard, and instead of sticking with the positive attitude that I have been cultivating to guide me through the challenge of living a Jewish existence on a non-Jewish planet, my old friends from the past, good old Self Doubt and Despair, have shown up on my doorstep, and they have been overstaying their welcome. But since they are old friends, just because they have been around for so long and we know each other so well, I've been having a hard time telling them to go away and leave me alone. This was me before Judaism. This is miserable me.

It would be easy to blame the environment that I find myself in for my sudden regression but I share a good part of the blame as well. It would appear that my old habit of sitting and staying stuck with a bewildered sense not knowing what to do, so I'll do nothing, has never really left me. I don't think people every really break old habits. I think they're always there, lying dormant, and once something triggers them to wake up again, getting them to go back to their slumber takes a monumental, single-minded effort. There it is again, that old habit staring you in the face, while you're trying to sleep or get the motivation to get up and out of the house. "Hello," it says to you in a mocking tone. "You didn't really think you broke me, did you?" So, here they are; Old Habits, Self-Doubt and Despair are sitting here with me right now as I write this, just hovering. How annoying.

During these last two weeks, I've exhausted myself looking for a job (I've submitted dozens of applications) and making a concrete plan for my return to Jerusalem. It's been all-consuming, and with each day that passes that I remain unemployed, my already overactive anxiety level amps itself to such a degree that my stomach gets tied up in knots, and I find myself perusing my mother's wine rack once again. Not too surprisingly, somewhere in the middle of this stressful mess, I've been slowly losing my grip on my Jewishness. You see, the plan for my Jewish survival this summer, was to daven twice a day, every day, always light Shabbat candles, always say kiddush and hamotzi over challah and to make sincere efforts to make it to shul at least once in a while, even if that means breaking some of my Shabbat observances, such as paying money for transportation (though there were more than a few times last year when I lived on French Hill when I had to choose between a Shabbat meal at someone's home, or not paying money for a cab and instead, sitting in my dorm, gazing gloomily at the flickering lights of my Shabbat candles, all alone. Needless to say, I always opted for the meal and paid for the cab, of course). The plan has been...well, discarded, for lack of a better term. Today was the first day that I davened mincha, realizing that I was giving up on the challenge of being a one-Jew army until I can be reunited with the tribe. I had no Shabbat dinner the night before, I hadn't lit candles, and no blessings were recited over anything. I am not proud of this, and it bothers me that I put forth such little effort in keeping my Judaism thriving even when out of its element, but I think the most shameful thing I did this Shabbat, was do something that I would consider work, and davening the weekday mincha...because I actually forgot it was Shabbat.

Now, I'm not entirely a halakhic Jew. Far from it. But I am observant in many ways that are meaningful for me, and not working on Shabbat is about as basic as it gets when it comes to Jewish observance. The "work" that I did this Shabbat, was for the sake of a precious job interview at the mall, buying people's unwanted jewelry for cash. At a lonely kiosk in the middle of the mall, I underwent a one and a half hour interview process, a large chunk of which required me to hand out fliers to passersby, awkwardly asking them in they wanted to sell me their jewelry. As I bugged people walking by the kiosk, getting tongue tied as I'm prone to do and having a hard time hiding my complete lack of enthusiasm for what I was supposed to be getting them enthusiastic for, I started to have unpleasant flashbacks of my past mall jobs, trying to sell people things they don't need, or possibly even want. I hate this kind of job, because if there is one thing I am not, it's a salesman. So when I found myself saying, in my too quiet voice, "Hi, how are you? Do you have any broken or unwanted jewelry that you'd like to sell to us for cash?" what I appeared to be saying, considering my overall demeanor, is this: "Hi, how are you? Yeah, I don't care. Look, we'll give you cash if you have unwanted jewelry to sell us, but then again, you can read the sign above our kiosk, and I'm probably annoying the hell out of you by being one of those people who get paid to pester other people until we find the rare person who is actually interested in what I'm pitching to them. In fact, I'm annoying myself right now. Just take the flyer, please? The guy who might hire me is watching and he says these fliers fulfill a quota. Yes, I know I'm awkward and I just told you that we'll take your cash for unwanted and broken jewelry and it's kind of funny, but I feel ridiculous. I'm no good at this, but I need a job. I didn't leave Jerusalem to come here and buy jewelry off of people from a mall kiosk...I want to go home." That's the general vibe I believe I gave off. I tried to fake my attitude, but I'm not a good actor, either. I have the unfortunate "blush intensely when you're nervous and uncomfortable" gene, along with a tendency to get tongue tied when I'm forced to speak to absolute strangers who I have no interest in speaking with, whatsoever. I'll find out on Monday if I get the pleasure of actually getting paid to recreate this awkward scene for hours at a time. Pray for me, will you?

After coming home and taking a nap and glaring at the walls of my bedroom, resenting them for not being the walls of my bedroom in Jerusalem, I distracted myself from my bad mood by reading a book with a cup of coffee outside in the waning sun. "I need to daven," a tiny voice suddenly said to me, and I realized it had been two weeks since I had. I got my siddur from my bookcase, went out into the back yard, faced East, and began praying. It felt good, and I took my time, lingering over the Hebrew words, enjoying the sound of my voice whispering the holy tongue, feeling nostalgic for Jerusalem. I thought of davening in the beit midrash at Pardes with an actual minyan, taking a pause from a long morning of studying chumash or mishna, just before lunch. I reminisced of the time I was on a tiyul to the Golan Heights, and our bus pulled over to the side of the road so we could daven in the parking lot of a closed cafe, the setting sun coloring the sky with such vibrant pinks and oranges, you felt like God was right there in that beautiful atmosphere, looking straight at you as you stood there with your siddur open, rocking gently back and forth in prayer. And then there was the time we had Kabbalat Shabbat services on the roof of a hostel during a tiyul to the Galilee against the backdrop of the sun setting over the sea, where I had just been happily wrestling with the forceful waves, letting them knock me over and buoy me back up again, without a care in the world. It was a good feeling, and I wondered why I had allowed myself to be so distracted with everything else to the point of forgetting this meaningful feeling. Taking a moment out of the day to just center yourself and reconnect with your spiritual side helps make life so much more bearable. I had been needing to do this.

...then I had this thought, right in the middle of the Shemonah Esrei: "Oh shit, it's Shabbat. I'm doing the weekday mincha! Oh, I just said "shit" in my head during the Shemonah Esrei! Sorry, God..." Nothing breaks your concentration and snaps you out of a moment quite like realizing that you're doing something of immense importance to you the wrong way, because in your laziness, you actually forgot how to do it.

So, I did what any person slipping away from their faith would do; hitbodedut. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, it has its roots in Chasidism, and simply put, requires one to go off into nature (if possible) and talk directly to God. "We need to talk, don't we?" I said, as I closed my siddur on the wrong page. "Okay. Let's go to the park."

Hitbodedut may be a highly unstructured form prayer in a religion that has just about everything structured, but it never the less, I think, fills a void for those of us who have trouble leading a structured life. There's also something so biblical about it. This is how Abraham, Sara, Jacob, Moses and, well, everyone in the Tanakh prayed to God. There's something profound in its casualness, something comforting in its nonchalance. I am not going to lie: I could spend hours practicing hitbodedut when I'm feeling particularly troubled or confused. I always come out of it with a clearer head, and a feeling of being rebooted. It would be easy to be cynical and say, "well, you're just talking your problems out to yourself..." In a way, that's true. I have, in the past, talked to myself in a very earnest, serious manner, as if there were someone else in the room with me. One summer, when things were really bad and life was stuck in a horrid, never ending phase of confusing transition, I had some very insightful one-sided conversations with my cat. But there is something different about addressing God, and being removed from your usual environment. While the park down the street from my parent's house isn't exactly remote, it is nice and green and has a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding the valley that this town is situated in. In fact, I didn't even wait until I got to the park to start talking; I talked the whole way there, strolling through the 'anywhere in suburbia' streets. I might have looked a bit crazy, but hey, I used to talk to my cat. But so does the lovable Jon in the Garfield comics! Of conversations looked more like ones with Realfield than the witty, lasagna loving Garfield...

Come to think of it, maybe Jon just imagines Garfield to be witty, and he's a lonely, crazy weirdo with a typical cat...

In any case, I got to the park, lay down in the middle of an unoccupied soccer field, stared at the sky and gazed at the mountains, and talked to God. When I walked away, I felt more centered, more grounded, more inspired to keep my Judaism ever-present in my life, no matter where in the world I might find myself...even in the town that fills my mind to the brim with memories of my angst-ridden youth, without even one synagogue, and a Jewish community that is so small and quiet, I don't even think they exist. No, it's not like living in Israel, let alone Jerusalem, but what in the world is?

On the bright side of this conundrum, I do have a mother that goes out of her way to make sure there's something I can eat at dinner with the family that isn't treyf, who found me a chanukiah so I'd have something Jewish to decorate my room with, and there is a store here that sells challah. The guy at the kiosk in the mall told me that if he were to hire me it would be no problem to work me into a schedule where I'd never work on Shabbat, and I have a Skype date with my former Hebrew professor who has graciously offered to converse with me through the summer to keep my Hebrew from slipping into oblivion. And I finally got around to chastising myself for feeling like I live under impossible circumstances to practice Judaism, when Jewish history is full of Jews defying much more tragic circumstances than I can even fathom to keep their Jewish identity intact, and Jewish tradition alive. If the starving can find matzah for Pesach in the hell of a ghetto, and if the dying can say their prayers all the way up their last moment of life in a death camp...well, then I suppose it's about time I got some perspective. Besides, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then that will only make the homecoming all the more sweeter, whenever I find myself back home, in my beloved Jerusalem.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go show Old Habits, Self Doubt and Despair to the door. They were never good friends, anyway.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

This Isn't Goodbye, Jerusalem! This is See You Later.

Well, I'm no longer lost in Jerusalem, the most interesting, intense and unique place to have the pleasure of being lost in. I'm now lost just somewhere in the vast world. Two full days of travel without sleep, three airplanes, and one jetlagged day later, I have found myself sitting in my robe at my parent's place, by myself, surfing Craigslist for a job, and drinking cup after cup of coffee. Talk about feeling lost.

Looking out the window at a grey, rainy Oregon sky is like looking out at a different planet. Where is the clear, blue summer sky?  The tree-lined Rechaviya streets? The white stone buildings? Where is my beloved Jerusalem? Did I really say goodbye to all that I've grown to love over this past year just a few short days ago? Wasn't I just praying at the Kotel, tears streaming down my face, feeling that I was saying goodbye to God Himself, unplugging from the vibrant Jewish life that I've been so blessed to live?

Perhaps I am coming off as overly dramatic, but as anyone who has left Israel will tell you, it's impossible to leave and feel that you haven't left a significant piece of yourself behind. As my plane lifted off the ground, I began sobbing, my face buried in my hands, hiding behind a curtain of my disheveled hair. "Not yet!" my mind screamed. "I don't want to go!'re breaking my heart."

Saying goodbye and simply letting go when it is time to doesn't come easily to most people, even when you know that you'll be back one day. With me, there's that tiny, but insistent voice in my head saying, "but what if something happens? What if nothing goes according to plan? Remember last year? Remember how your plan didn't work out at all?" It's a manipulative little voice because on the one hand, it's telling the truth; last year didn't go according to plan at all. However on the other hand, the plan was nowhere near as good as what took its place, so why should I fret over having a few curve balls pitched at me, and encountering unexpected twists and turns along the way? Somehow, things always end up working out in the end, and that's exactly what happened over my year in Israel. It's like God dumped a jigsaw puzzle into my life, and told me to just start assembling it: "Here, Megan. None of this makes sense right now, but just keep working on it. It will come together in the end, no matter how frustrated and defeated you feel. Just keep putting the pieces together." So I did. I like the bigger picture that I ended up with.

For someone who has said many permanent goodbyes, a fair share of them not on good terms, I'm sorry to say, you would think that I'd be used to it by now. Some things, I think, you never get used to. The best you can do is cope, until time takes some of the pain away. While I have a plan to return to Israel in the fall, plenty of obstacles remain in my way, most of them financial, so it's difficult to believe myself when I say, "yihyeh besder." I like to think that some of that Israeli nonchalance has rubbed off on me. Instead, the Israeli impatience seems to have stuck the most, which isn't surprising, given my own natural tendency to be incapable of just relaxing and taking things as they come.

So how do we do it? How do we say goodbye before we're ready, deal with transition and uncertainty, let go when we don't want to and somehow remember to be present and to enjoy the things that we've got going for us right now? It's a challenge. Right now I'm just having trouble resisting the urge to say "todah" instead of "thank you," "shalom" instead of "hello," and "slicha," instead of "excuse me." But never the less, I propose the following to other sad souls such as myself who are also mourning the end of their time in Israel and all the things that are suddenly missing from day to day life, whatever our future plans might be. Hopefully it helps, and hopefully, I can take my own advice.

1. On Goodbyes:
Everybody hates them. They're one of the most difficult and sad facts of life. Perhaps there's someone very near and dear to you, someone who has made your life better in some way by being in it, someone who you've gotten used to not being too far away from, their physical presence comforting. After the goodbye, you feel a piece of you tear away, and the sudden lack of their presence is glaringly noticeable. It's easy to think that there's a void in your life now where that person used to be, but really, you're just missing them. It's normal. There isn't really a gaping hole right in the middle of your soul. People can't (or shouldn't) fill voids for you, because for one, that's an awful lot of unfair pressure to put on someone just so they can meet your needs, and two, people always go away. It's inevitable--you are a completely separate entity with your own life to live. They've got their path, you've got yours. Some goodbyes aren't permanent, but rather, more of a "see you later," really. You usually know when those goodbyes happen. Those people make the effort to walk back into your life again someday, if even for a visit. And the goodbyes that are forever? You learn to live without people, because human beings are adaptable creatures. We can suffer a tremendous amount of loss, and still live life, even happily.

Saying goodbye to a place can be just as hard, especially to a place like Israel, and even more so, a place like Jerusalem. The significance of it in many people's lives, certainly in mine, is massive. It's like saying goodbye to a person, a loved one, or a cherished lover that you don't want to let go of. But you're not Israel's only lover, and she's collected many lovestruck Jews who have found home in her embrace. A goodbye to Israel definitely does not have to be for good. She'll be there, waiting for you, for however long it takes to be reunited.

2. On Transition and Uncertainty:
Welcome to life, where nothing is guaranteed except that it will eventually end. Sure, many people do settle down and live stable lives, but life is still full of transition and it cycles through different stages. And most things are uncertain. How dull would it be if they weren't? Wouldn't you rather feel anticipation than be bored to tears with predictability? I know I complain and agonize far too much about living in constant flux and uncertainty of how it will all turn out. But what I wouldn't want, what I wouldn't enjoy at all, would be knowing what happens before it happens. You know how people get pissed off when someone gives away the ending of a book or movie? That's because you want to experience it for yourself. Yes, there's the journey along the way, but we want to experience the whole story. And as we all know, the best stories are filled with action, drama, character development, and a good plot. You can't make a story without the tension of transition and uncertainty...not a good one, anyway.

3. On Letting Go:
This one...this one is the worst for me. When I find something that makes me happy or content, I don't want to let go of it for fear that I'll never get it back. When you're attached to things and people without an existential infrastructure in your life, letting go can be a huge blow to your happiness and well-being. This goes hand in hand with the goodbye, but it's deeper than that. It requires you to not be consumed with missing that which you had to say goodbye to. It requires you to be able to be okay with the goodbye. This is difficult, because there's also a catch: you have to train yourself to let go. Sometimes, you cling and hang on as a reflex. You can even recognize that you need to let go, and you want to, but you simply do not know how. It's tricky, but it can be done. Which brings me to the next issue.

4. On Being Present:
Dwelling in the past and yearning for the way things were before the tearful goodbyes and dreaming of a hopeful future where you are reunited with all the things that you're missing is an easy trap to fall into. It's not the same as fondly reminiscing, or indulging in a healthy dose of fantasy. Rather, it's miserable, and very counterproductive, trapping you in an endless loop of torturing yourself over the way things aren't at the current moment. To escape this hell, keeping yourself busy and occupied is worthwhile. Yep, that's right; distract yourself. Eventually, you'll realize that your life isn't so bad, and you can live it anywhere you find yourself, and with lots of people who show up in it. If you're successful, letting go should come next, because dwelling is a massive part of what makes it so hard to let go. Believe me, I know; I struggle with this constantly.

I want to lose myself in Jerusalem again, and only several days have passed since my departure. The goodbyes still sting, the uncertainty and transitions are consuming my every thought, I'm still attempting to loosen my grip on all the things I don't want to let go of, and I'm anywhere but present. It's a good thing that so few things in life are permanent and unchangeable, otherwise, I'd be really depressed right now. Instead, I'll just keep saying, "yihyeh beseder" each day, and before I know it, it will be. In fact, it already is. I just need to allow my heart to catch up to my head so I can feel it and think it at the same time.

About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

My photo
Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.