Thursday, October 1, 2009

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore….

I returned to Toronto to lead services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and I think I didn’t realize how profound the culture shock would be after only 6 weeks away. Leaving aside the fact that my husband and sons were still in Jerusalem, the whole experience had a surreal effect. I was “home” but where is home now? On the flight back to Jerusalem, speaking Hebrew to the El Al attendants, they asked if I was returning “home” to Israel. Home is where the heart is? What happens when your heart is in two places? And what if sometimes your heart isn’t really “at home” in either?

This became clear on Yom Kippur.

I missed the religiosity of Jerusalem, even if sometimes I can’t stand it. Walking to shul on Yom Kippur from my hotel was an exercise in strangeness. (And of course, staying in a hotel on yontiff was strange enough as it is.) I passed a schoolbus full of kids (it is, after all, Monday), a house being renovated, a gym full of sweating people on treadmills, ladies getting their nails done, a truck unloading. Business as usual, and not just a few Jews among them, I’m sure. Not that I care, but I pause to wonder if stuff being closed, the streets being empty, and people being with their families isn’t a better way to spend just one holy day in the year for Jews—even if they are being “forced” into it by circumstance. I wonder if we would ever pause to disconnect, to think in quietude, to reflect, to stop running, to stop working, to stop producing, if we weren’t somehow “forced” into it by our religion. Forget Shabbos, I’m just talking about one day a year here that Toronto went on being Toronto without the slightest hint of awareness that it was the holiest day of the Jewish year.

I felt really thankful for the small community I have built. I walked into the JCC and it finally felt like a holy day. But on the street...forget it.

Of course it would have been different if I had been walking down Bathurst, the “Jewish strip”. That would have been closed up, quiet, and felt like it was yontiff. But in a way it was good that I walked down Yonge, main artery, to really feel what it is like to live in the Diaspora. I kept wondering why anyone who is truly religiously observant would choose to live in Toronto rather than Jerusalem? To be different all the time, to always go against the grain, to have to search for kosher food, to have to dodge the traffic on Shabbat, to live on a different calendar, to spend your days in a different rhythm and cadence than your neighbors all the time? To live in a Jewish “ghetto” so you can walk to shul and send your kids to school with other religious kids? To pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on day school—and thats per child—so they can get a Jewish education. I understand if you are a religious leader: your job is to inspire others to lead a more Jewish life, and so you serve an important purpose in staying. You are insuring a vibrant Jewish life for those who remain in the Diaspora. If you are in “outreach” your work in the Diaspora is clear- there is so much “bringing closer to Judaism” one can do in North America, its overwhelming. And if you are a liberal Jew, living in the Diaspora is not a contradiction. You can drive to shul in a different neighborhood from where you live. Your kids go to public school. You don’t live always and only in a Jewish world or on a Jewish calendar. You can eat anywhere. But if you are an Orthodox Jew, or halachically observant, I’m sorry, but aside from not wanting to leave the comforts of home... I just don’t get it.

I got back to Jerusalem just in time for Sukkot. What a difference! Sukkahs everywhere, festivals everywhere, a massive "priestly blessing" (Birkat Cohanim) at the Western Wall, a 70,000 person parade of Christian supporters of Israel through downtown Jerusalem; warm enough to sleep outside in the Sukkah every night. Pomegranates still piled high in the market and honey cake being sold on tables all along the streets. We went to the market (Machane Yehuda) on Erev Sukkot at 1 p.m., just in time to snag a gorgeous lulav and etrog for 25 shekels (about $8 US) from the guys trying to make their last sales before chag. The guy we bought it from was standing on top of the table shouting "I'm going home! Liquidation sale! Please, please, please buy an etrog before the holiday!"

Simchat Torah means people have to stop saying acharei hachagim, "I'll get to it after the holidays." There's a second set of hakafot (7 rounds of dancing with the Torah) tonight in Liberty Bell Park for those who didn't get enough last night and this morning. As for me, I feel like The Berenstein Bears And Too Much Yontiff. For the next little while, I'll just keep trying to make two homes in one heart.

Do you like your etrog green, yellow, or two toned?

The guy standing next to us checking his lulav with a magnifying glass.