Rain, Part IV: Thunder in Jerusalem

The rain is over. The forecast continues to tease me with the possibility of rain, but the Jerusalem spring prefers to bring brilliant gray clouds and blow them away just as they grace the horizon beyond my kitchen windows.

Today I heard thunder for the third time in Jerusalem. I looked to the sky and said the traditional blessing we recite upon hearing thunder: Blessed are you, Adonai our G-d, ruler of the universe, whose strength and power fills the earth.

This is one of the few short blessings in Judaism that I feel an affinity for in both Hebrew and English. It never falls flat for me–this idea that G-d is represented in the thunder that rumbles above us, reminiscent of the roars at Sinai.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וּבַעֲב֗וּר תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶחֱטָֽאוּ׃

Moshe said to the people: Do not be afraid. G-d has come to test you so that the fear of G-d may be with you so lest you go astray [lest you sin].

English tends to render Torah in more absolute terms than the Hebrew of the Bible. I imagine that today’s Moses would tell us that G-d wants us to be mindful rather than fearful. Fear is one way to help us remember a significant event, but perhaps the feeling described here is a sense of wonder potent enough to encourage us to pass this story on to our children. That’s not to say that such “wonder” might not also be terrifying. Undoubtedly for some the Hebrews, the thunder was amazing. We can simultaneously fear thunder and lightning with their powers of destruction and admire their beauty as acts of creation.

I hear the shofar in the shabbat alarm that blasts from the Old City, alerting all Jerusalemites that it’s time to light the candles and bring in the day of rest. Beneath this thunder, though, I am not trembling. Rather, I hear the thunder as a subtle undertone from a G-d who has grown since the Exodus.

Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, ruler of the universe, whose strength and power fills the earth.

And then I continue: Blessed are You who gives the blessing of growth and peace to all inhabitants of the earth; the One who hugs us with Her tears and gives us to blossom with Her hope. Who gives this beautiful act of creation to my loved ones.

ברוכה ששנותנת לכל יושבי תבל ברכת גדילה ושלום. שמחבקת אותנו עם דמעותיה, .ונותנת ללבלב בתקוותה

Today no rain fell. Instead, when a rainbow arrived, I released the stress and fears of my week from my mind and received shabbat.

Listen: “Love Is All Around”

When I was a kid, I would stay up watching Nick at Nite long after my parents told me to go to bed. I loved seeing the old shows and laughing at the jokes that I didn’t really understand. I remember making up my own reasons to find them funny, to find the characters compelling, to find their sadness sad and their happiness happy.

I loved “Three’s Company” because it was easy for an 8-year-old to follow. “The Facts of Life” was hilarious to me because my mom said I laughed like Natalie. “The Jeffersons” was great because Flo was a badass and the theme song gave me an excuse to belt about fish not frying in the kitchen.

The Mary Tyler Moore show was different. I was 8 years old and I knew that there was something unique about a show in which a single woman wasn’t a side character or the butt of the joke. I knew it was important to my grandma, and even to my aunts who are the strongest women I have ever known. I knew it was important because as a young queer kid who knew he was gay but didn’t really know what that meant, it just felt like there was something to this Mary.

Today Mary Tyler Moore passed away. I have been singing this particular theme song for many years. Today I share it as I celebrate the women in my life who have made me the person I am, even when they had no idea I was watching.

Rain, Part III: Scribbles on the Temple Mount

The rain returned as I stood on the Temple Mount today. Would you die to protect your mythology? We could see a day in which our children do not fight wars for our spiritual history; we could see a day in which no child need study war. Would you send your children to die for your mythology?

I stand now before G-d and say I would forsake it all for the thought of my children. I would lead and fight wars for them, bend my own morality in shapes to suit their needs, but I will not see them stand in line for guns. I will not see them lift swords, challenge nation; I will not allow it.

Today my head felt naked beneath my beanie. Israeli security asked us to surrender our religious items in the interest of maintaining the shred of peace we call “status quo.” Nobody is fooled: I am a Jew wearing a heavy beanie when it’s barely cold out. I agreed to give up part of my costume so that it wouldn’t look like I intended to pray where the Temple once stood.

Seven years. It has been seven years since I’ve left the house and stood beneath the sky without a kippah on my head. My beanie does not feel the same on my bald head as the tight crochet of a kippah, and today I felt such shame up there with my naked head.

As long as I don’t look Jewish, I guess. I almost cried as I handed over my kippah. Even the guards were ashamed of their collection of religious items, ashamed for asking us to hand over pieces of ourselves. And I have so little that makes me Jewish beyond my own soul—no family name that connotes Jewish roots, no long-lasting tradition, no stories of summer camp, no great legacy of Jewish scholars, no rabbis, no cantors. No Jewish birth. Hardly an acceptable Jewish pedigree short of allowing me to immigrate to Israel, but G-d forbid I should want the Jewish state to recognize me as one of its people as a Reform convert.

You take my kippah and who am I? Am I the text on my arm, Devorah’s song? Am I the song I can’t even sing here on the Temple Mount?

Here where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son to build a mythology is where I doubt my own conviction. If Abraham is a hero for listening to G-d’s word, who am I for wishing to openly defy it? I want to stand here and lift my soul at the spot where Abraham failed G-d’s test. Yes, I believe he failed it. Perhaps our prohibition to pray here stems from the fact that if we were to right Abraham’s wrong—his willingness to sacrifice his child rather than to sacrifice his belief in G-d—we would undo Isaac’s binding.

But where would we be without our mythology? Do I want to untie Isaac’s hands?

The sun reflects off the glistening gold dome. Its reflection is confusing given the cloudy sky and intermittent drizzle. I look around me at the tourists smiling for photos before the Dome of the Rock. Are we raining or drying in the sun?

Rain, Part II: Grief in Jerusalem

It has not rained in Jerusalem in nearly two weeks. The weather report is calling it a “dry period” within this rainy season. I feel lied to by the weather, and I feel foolish for feeling as though a natural force would even recognize me beneath its periodically-gray skies. But I know the sky does not care about my angry, dry thoughts.

I have been in a funk since the rains stopped—perhaps since my little sister went back home after visiting me in Jerusalem. I spoke so much about the rainy season, made sure she packed water proof shoes and a raincoat, and watched as the moisture in the sky evaporated before our faces. Perhaps I took the weather in vain. Weather should just be, regardless of what I want.

There have been two unexpected deaths in my family since the rains stopped. I have said kaddish and submerged myself into grief in the wake of tragedy. The absence of my family has made my grief more complicated by the worry that their grief may be made worse by the distance between us. If I am not there to be the rock for the people I love, I crumble; if I am not there to cry on the shoulder of an older, wiser, stronger rock, will they crumble as well?

The outpouring of love and support from my peers, teachers, and friends in Jerusalem has been overwhelming. My husband has brought happiness into my grief and shared my tears with me when he broke the news of my baby cousin’s death. I was able to turn to the people here whom I love and share my grief with them, my feelings of uselessness, my feelings of being cut off from my family, my feelings of abandonment, my guilt.

Here in the arid winter of the rainy season, I am still moving forward. My absence from family is a dry period of its own, a back-and-forth of blame and guilt that we are not living under the same patch of sky right now. This dryness will pass, and the clouds will again burst upon us. Until then, the pressure in the mountains of Jerusalem will continue to build and crush against my skull, a bearing-down that equalizes the pain in my sinuses with the pain in my heart.

When the period of natural grief ends and the rain does fall once more, I will pray and thank the Universe for relief from these painfully dry days.

Rain, Part I

Rain for me is a religious experience. When I was still a struggling pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin, I would run out of my apartment to stand in the rain. I was in the middle of a slowly-progressing nervous breakdown that ended my studies in 2008 and I had yet to come out of the closet. I spent most of my time in my bedroom listening to music or watching TV, and the depression crept up on me over time.

Depression does that. It does not like to rear its head in a timely fashion, rather, it builds slowly, slowly so that you don’t notice it changing the way you think and feel. Eventually one day, I realized I hadn’t left my apartment in nearly two weeks other than to get food, and even then it was usually under the cover of night.

It rained the day I shared this story at my interview for cantorial school. I could see out the window to the wet buildings across the street from the fourth story windows in the stuffy conference room. The panel of interviewers, mostly faculty, listened and laughed with me. I had been waiting for years to explain how this process led me to Hebrew Union College: how a college dropout who spent years riding around in his dad’s pick up truck with a guitar and a keyboard spent his time singing songs in bars to strangers decided one day to convert to Judaism. How I fell in love with Jewish liturgy after my first service and, with a push from my husband (“partner” at the time), decided to go back to school, finish my studies, and apply to seminary. How we spent years trying to make ends meet until we could finally move to Israel for the program.

During this time, I lost three grandparents. We got married. I graduated from university. We went weeks at a time living off of rice and beans and whatever I could throw into a pot and call “soup.” I sometimes feel myself getting worked up over how life can feel like a meaningless progression toward a finite end, and then I look out the window and it is finally raining in Jerusalem after 5 months of sadness for dry, beige stones.

Those five months were the longest I have ever gone without rain in my life other than one particularly hard year for San Antonio that saw a worse drought than usual. I spent my hours floating leaves and crude boats down small rivers in front of the drainage ditch in the cul-de-sac of my childhood home. I never felt more comforted than when the cold rain would run down my face on my way back to the warm house where my parents would laugh with their strange son. I’ll never forget the pruned fingers and foggy windows of that feeling.

The rain in Austin got me through the worst of my depression. That year was a particularly wet autumn, and had it not been for my excursions into its downpours, I am not sure where I would be today. Would I know my husband’s laugh? Would I have found Judaism? Would I be sitting in a warm apartment in Jerusalem as shabbat creeps over the horizon?

After shabbat this week, Chanukah will begin. And the rains will come again to Jerusalem. This is not a rain that will dampen the light of our candles, but rather the rain in which I will dance and celebrate my journey and my life. Stay warm this holiday, but make sure to enjoy the rain.