Cheshvan 18, 5768
October 20, 2007
Dear Friends and Family,
The chaggim are over, we have reclaimed the routine of a six day work week and life is beginning to feel somewhat “normal,” whatever that means. Weeks without holidays to prepare for (and recover from) spread into a stream of days, one after the next filled with getting things done. I have time to finally unpack the last remaining boxes of books, winter clothing and rain gear. Where I will put them, I have no idea. I have time to plan a week of menus and shop more frugally. The laundry will all be done and now I have no excuse for a full ironing basket. With that in mind, I thought that in this letter I would answer a friend when she told me she really wanted to know what a mundane day in Jerusalem was like for me.
This letter will most likely appeal to the women among you. I can’t imagine men being interested in my lists and learning or my adventures procuring needed food items, etc. Hopefully, David will write the next letter, one that should interest the men: “How I Got My Israeli Driver’s License in 9 Easy Steps (give or take a few).” And we don’t even have a car.
As for me, on a mundane day I wake at about 6 in the morning. Above me there is the stone lintel from a Byznatine era column that was uncovered with much excitement in the renovation of this apartment. The column was probably built here before the 7th century, making the home we live in over 1400 years old!
By the time I am having my coffee in our 1400 year-old living room (usually Starbucks, one of the few things I ask people to bring me from America), I hear David coming up the stairs with his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Shalom Gold. They are returning from neitz, sunrise, davening at the Kotel. David has been learning the Gemara in Brachos about how one should do no mundane activity before greeting the One who fashioned us. As a very early riser, he enjoyed his lone routine of exercise, reading the news and doing some office work before his 7 a.m. minyan. However, the more one learns, the more one does-and he just did not feel it was right to begin davening after immersing himself in those mundane activities. So, Rav Gold had the answer; although not the one my husband really wanted. However, now in to his second week of neitz, he says it enhances his entire day to begin by walking through the dark empty streets, dry off his shtender, moist with morning dew and say Shema just as the light permeates the Jerusalem sky with pinks and greys and golds.
He comes home quite hungry, so I make him breakfast, dress and now it’s my turn. The Kotel calls me, too. The streets are still quiet as I move down Misgav Ladach Street past a view of the Mount of Olives. Last month, we watched one afternoon from a distance as former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira. zt’l, escorted by tens of thousands of mourners just hours before Simchat Torah, was laid to rest there. I whisper a prayer asking the holy rabbis buried on this mountain-- where the prophet Zachariah said the Redeemer’s feet will stand at the final war-- to petition the Heavenly Courts on our behalf to keep us safe and bring us all home in peace.
My route continues past Aish HaTorah, down many sets of stairs and over the excavation of an ancient marketplace at the back of the Kotel plaza. Each week, they uncover more evidence of the mundane lives of those who lived in my neighborhood centuries before me, when Jews could actually go the to Holy Temple. Today, my avoda is offered meters below the Har HaBayit, in the tunnels of the Western Wall. I enter where the Tunnels Tour begins and wind my way through the cave like corridors and cavernous rooms under houses where Moslems live. My goal is a beautiful women’s section, the closest we can get to the Kedosh Kedoshim, as close to the center of the universe as one can stand; then I pray Shacharit.
I would like to say that my kavana is amazingly better there. But that’s just not always true. The lists I need to add to and the conversation I had yesterday creep into my prayer and often I wonder how it is that I ended up at Shema. However, I just look up at the wall with its grey stones hewn into rectangles as big as Chevy Suburbans, draw inspiration from the spiritual refinement of women praying around me, and look down at my feet in utter humility. Although prayer is still a struggle, my awe is greater, as is my gratitude.
When I return home, David goes off to Yeshiva Rabbi Akiva and for me, the lists are waiting. I add what I remember, check my email and gather up a load of wash. My breakfast is usually rice cakes and hummos with tomatoes, which, even near November and even in shmitta remain delicious.
This morning I had a yoga class. I have long benefited from this form of exercise, but in America I was bothered because (except for Tzipporah Metzel’s class) every instructor tainted her instruction with yoga’s avoda zara origins. Sara, our instructor, punctuates her instruction with diveri Torah. She and several of my co-students, have known each other since just after the 6 Day War when, as spiritual seekers, they found themselves living together on Har Tzion, learning at the Diaspora Yeshiva and marrying boys also becoming observant there. One of these women, Chaya Makla Abramson, still lives on Har Tzion. She is a living miracle, a woman who radiates warmth and emuna, whose courageous story is told in her book, Who By Fire (Feldheim). Each of them has an inspiring story that, in the weeks since I have joined them, slip out and reveal to me the special nature of these pioneers, whose very lives as mothers in Israel, have helped us reclaim our inheritance.
It’s 11 a.m and I have to get groceries. This week I am using a new online delivery service called Digital City. This is one of the ways I know Hashem loves me! In Atlanta, I was one of the few who mourned the demise of Webvan. Digital City is all that and more. They buy from the grocery, the shuk, SuperPharm, the butcher, a wine store, fish market and cheese shop. I haven’t figured out if the hechshers are all good, so I still have to shop myself some weeks, but for staples DCity is great! My order took about 30 minutes to complete and I chose to have them deliver tomorrow afternoon.
The brick and mortar store I go to is Super Deal. It’s the second stop on the 38 and a short walk, down an alley past a bar and behind the old train station. So much for location, location, location. It hasn’t hurt their business as they have been there for years, and it shows in their assortment of mismatched carts and rustic produce bins. Surprisingly, I find everything I need here. American products cost 3 to 4 times as much. We do buy Philadelphia cream cheese at 16 shekels and Ortega Taco Shells at 28. Pancake mix and syrup are still part of our pantry and they are ridiculously high. Other than those few items, Israeli products are of good quality and reasonably priced. The checkout people do not like to speak English, so I try my best to give them the address and phone number in Ivrit. Arab boys will deliver “b’erev,” meaning sometime between 2 and 9 pm. I have learned it is best to take my frozen and dairy items with me.
After this monthly grocery spree, I usually catch the bus up to King George and walk over to Chofetz Chaim, a butcher on Agrippas. I like them because they have a wide variety of meat, some fish and are English friendly. The woman who works there fondly remembers living in the same building as Rabbi Emanuel Feldman in Baltimore. She helps me to understand the mystery meat here: like what is a #5, a # 3? London Broil is not like at Steve’s, it is twice as thick with a stretch of gristle in the middle, making it a lot of trouble to eat. Steak is entrecote. Period. Cholent meat comes in uniform square chunks similar to large ice cubes. I often strike up a conversation with another shopper who tells me how she cooks the cut she pulls out of the case. Once I bought what I thought was a simple boneless rolled turkey breast, and when I sliced it, discovered it was stuffed with what we think was ground meat. In a happy accident, I discovered turkey shnitzel. This makes a moist and flavorful breaded cutlet for Shabbos day. For 20 shekels, Chofetz Chaim delivers, so I buy enough for several weeks and take my bubby cart full of cold dairy items in search of an iced coffee.
Anglo-Israelis like me, find iced coffee on a warm October day is essential. I know I should really be drinking water, but there is reward in this creamy, sweet, energizing formula that refreshes in a way that water cannot.
I like to walk with other Jews on Jerusalem streets named Hillel and Shammai, Rishonim and Misilat Yesharim. Sometimes I will walk all the way home from town, and sometimes just wander until I think I better get my things to the fridge, so I catch the 38 down at the bottom of Ben Yehuda. I used to squeeze in a trip to the bank, but I finally figured out how to check my balance online, and that is all I need from that bank. They are not at all English friendly. After our klita payments are all deposited, we are closing the account and moving to one I hope will be more accommodating. When you get here, I will tell you where NOT to bank.
By the time I return home, put the groceries in the refrigerator, tend the laundry and check my email, America is waking up. I try to talk to Elise every day in between her work and school. She sometimes feels very alone over there, with her entire (all 3 of us) family here. So, I feel it is important to share my day and hear what she’s up to. I try to catch up and learn on the phone, thanks to VOIP, with one or two people in America each week. The days go by for me as well as you and the time frame is limited, so I don’t keep in touch as much as I like.
David comes home from yeshiva at 2 for lunch and has a couple of hours to run an errand or do some work. He really loves the learning, and although he is not working, just keeping up with a little business in America that helps us out, I feel he needs to do this now. Never has he been in a serious yeshiva that accommodates his lack of background and still challenges him. His years learning at the ASK Yesodei HaTorah in Atlanta laid the groundwork for this. One of these days, he’ll write a letter about Yeshiva Rabbi Akiva and many of you will want your husbands to learn there, too.
In the afternoons, I try do some of that unpacking I was talking about earlier or clean out a closet that has already accumulated things we do not need. Sometimes I have the opportunity to do something to help someone out, just like you often do. Sometimes I have an appointment at the doctor, or I have to wait for a repairman, just like you have to do. Once a month Rabbi Keleman gives an astonishingly life changing shiur in the Rova, and sometimes I’ll write. Like today.
And then it is time to make dinner, on a mundane day, it’s just the two of us. We eat together and David talks about his day; that means I usually get a taste of what he learned over our meal. Delicious. Today Rabbi Aba Wagensberg taught for an hour on tefilla. Tefilla, he said is taking our shopping list of wants and desires to Hashem, Who certainly knows –and gives us—exactly what we need to accomplish our mission on this earth. Why do we have to ask when He will always give us everything we require? Because prayer is for us. To take it into our heart that our mission is not to serve to procure our needs (the shopping list), but to serve Him-by taking what He gives us, and using it to bring ourselves to shelimut. Perfection, completion.
On Sunday nights, I attend a shiur Rebbetzin Heller has been giving for 18 years at Sara Rigler’s house. Now we are learning from Path of the Just on fighting the Yetzer Hara. I like her class because she, like Rabbi Keleman gives us “homework,” something concrete to do or notice to actualize the concepts she presented. This week, she talked about how the Yetzer Hara distracts us, keeps us busy with the mundane and overwhelms us and robs us of our inner space. The Yetzer Hara knows that if we focus on that inner space, there won’t be any room for him. This week our homework is to focus on our inner space for 15 minutes throughout the day: review our actions, examine our mistakes and plan what to do different the next time --- while we are doing something mundane.
On a mundane day, I do just about the same things any woman does. I wake, daven, do chores, shop and cook. It almost never feels mundane. Mundane days are not for Israel. Mundane days are not for Jews.
A mundane day does not start at the Kotel haMaaravi. On a mundane day, one does not do yoga with a woman who staked her claim in the land of our forefathers when it was far from fashionable, far from easy. Walking on streets named for holy books and holy men doesn’t ever happen on mundane days. However, I make them mundane by going through the motions of tefilla, riding on the bus with mindless thoughts or attending a shiur expecting what I hear to change me-without my doing the work to grow.
You can feel you are davening at the center of the world even if you are standing in your living room in Atlanta, Ga. That is not mundane. When you drive into the Kroger parking lot and pray that Hashem will open a spot not too far up the hill and that the vegetables will be fresh and the things on your shopping list will be in stock, that’s not mundane. As you drive to work or carpool and think about where it is that you really need to go in life—and open a spot inside to hear what Hashem answers; when we do this, there is never a mundane day.
Have an extraordinary day, and come home soon.