Monthly Archives: April 2014
It’s a question that has probably never stopped since the beginning of time: Why do bad things happen to good people? There are so many people in life who we would cast as bad, yet nothing horrible seems to happen to them. In the meantime, there are decent, kind, good people out there who seem to be like Job, where every bad thing seems to be put upon their shoulders.
Most people are not aware of my mother’s illness just by looking at my face. I have told some people and others aren’t privy to the information. But her diagnosis, along with my 60-pound pink suitcase, was another piece of baggage that I was carrying around with me through the Holy Land. It weighed heavily on my mind as I called her as much as I could and wrote her long emails: My mother was sick, and I was 7,000 miles away from her.
As Hannah and I returned to the hostel that Shabbat afternoon in Tzfat, we could already hear the banging in the Kabbalah Cave in the courtyard of the hostel. About 50 or so people ranging in age and religiosity were lined up at a table, starting to pass around salads and slices of challah. We settled at the far end of the table as hummus was dropped onto our plates. It was a whirlwind of song and noise echoed off the light tan walls of the cave.
Eli started walking around the table with bottles of wine. “Who has some words of wisdom?” he asked pouring the red jeweled wine into our glasses. “Would anyone like to share?”
The younger girls giggled to themselves, and I was shocked that an Orthodox man would offer a chance for me, a woman, to be able to share my words of wisdom to the crowd. Of course, before he could change his mind about asking me I said yes (I don’t really need an excuse to talk in front of a big group of people). What words could I give to these people? What could I say?
Then I thought about an old Hasidic custom I saw in the past. Whenever someone is ill or someone has died, any words of wisdom can be dedicated in their honor or memory. I realized what mine would be for: My mother needed these words I was about to say. I needed them too, but I hoped that while she was sleeping on the other side of the world these words could become her medicine.
Shortly after one of the boys stood up, I was asked to stand up afterwards with a smile. Smile for the courage.
“Hi, I’m Reina…”
“Gino! Gino! Gino!” they chanted back, banging on tables. I guess this was my song now, and I began to laugh. But no, I had to concentrate.
“I’m from Los Angeles, California…”
“Gino! Gino! Gino!” I laughed again. But the laughter gave me bravery, too. It was my shield. It was time.
“And before I begin my words, I want to dedicate them to my mother, Yaakova bat Malka. She is very sick, and may my words be her comfort.”
The crowd fell silent. No one expected this. I don’t tend to sensor myself and have absolutely zero filter when it comes to my life. But I didn’t care.
“In her diagnosis, I wondered to myself that old question why do bad things happen to good people,” I said. “I wondered it before when horrible things happened to me and I was led to question my faith. Why do these things happen? Why are these trials given to us?”
I looked at the long table, that table that was once banging with song that now could have a mouse squeak and it would cut through me. I glanced over at the window pane over the doorway, covered in blue, and thought about it as I was talking.
“Imagine if you were blind, and never saw the color blue before,” I said. “Can you picture what would happen if you were given sight and now could appreciate it? The struggle you faced when you couldn’t see blue, and now how glorious blue is because you never had it?”
It seemed like my entire life had encircled on me to teach this, from my mom about to fight for her very existence to my divorce several years before. How did I know then the glory I would experience now while I was trying to get food in my stomach? I was in Israel, a place that I had given up hope of ever seeing again. I was free and joyful, living on my own in Los Angeles. The beauty of this moment was breathtaking. From that moment, I understood the concept between intelligence and wisdom: Intelligence is knowledge from outside sources, but wisdom is knowledge from your own personal experience. That’s why it’s so rare and valuable.
“Sometimes, we need to learn to fight despite everything,” I told the crowd. “We can’t learn to fight without struggle. And you can’t learn how beautiful life can be without seeing the more difficult parts of it. Life isn’t always going to work out the way you want it to. But sometimes you need to see the dark, experience the dark, in order to really appreciate the light.”
I reached for my glass of wine and held it high.
“And for all of you, and for my mother,” I said. “L’chaim.”
“L’chaim!” The call of “to life!” echoed through the cave as we all drank together. The words of wisdom continued, but I felt like somehow I was given a divine quest through this town. I brought the souls of my family with me: My father, sister, younger cousin and mother. We were all meant to heal and we were all going to come out stronger from this, for better or worse. And I would carry them on my shoulders.
And as I sat down, I helped myself to some schnitzel and fed my stomach as my words seemed to absorb into others’ souls. Words of wisdom can often make you hungry.
Before I came to Tzfat, I was driving with my friend Inbar and talking about my plans to journey there. She was amazed at my willingness to go to such a sacred place.
“You should find a tzadik,” she said.
“A what?” I asked.
“A righteous person. There aren’t any in the United States, but there are quite a few in Tzfat. It is said that if you give your prayers to a tzadik, their will becomes G-d’s will.”
My friend Inbar was always into the more mystical elements of the universe, but from that point in the conversation I wanted to find what she was pointing me towards. Tzadiks are supposed to be anonymous, yet somehow known. Their energy is different, and they connect. Like people who were looking in India for a guru, I was looking for an answer to my prayers.
As Lauren, Avi and I rode up to Tzfat, I rode up with a lot of prayers. I thought about my mother, who was so ill, and my family who was suffering tremendously because of it. I thought of me, who had come through so much with my previous life and was somehow still not stable in this new one. I needed direction, guidance. I had to find a tzadik. Maybe it was a lot to ask from in a Shabbat in this town, but somehow I had to try.
As Hannah and I continued our walk through the town of Tzfat during Shabbat, we passed through courtyards and past areas where the artisans make their home in this town. We passed by men dressed all in white, and I wondered if they were tzadiks. I kept questioning who was what as I walked through this town. I riled this idea in my head that I was going to find one. But somehow, with my tears, I had let go of everything except that sense of adventure.
“Here’s a place you should see,” Hannah said as we approached a house. “It’s David Friedman’s gallery.”
“David Friedman?” I asked.
“He’s a very famous kabbalistic artist. He lives here and his gallery is here. I wonder if it’s open.”
We walked into the courtyard with a tree to a blue door. She creaked it open, and much to our surprise, it was unlocked.
“C’mon, let’s go check it out,” she said.
“Are you sure we can?” I asked.
“Of course. Why not?”
Maybe she hadn’t been in America in long enough to remember that, on a day like today where everything was closed, it was best not to walk into places that also looked so.
The gallery was shaded yet filled with golden light as we looked at the pictures, which looked like a combination of Peter Max psychadelia with Kabbalistic twelve-pointed trees and symbols. There was a sense of warm energy, with the hardwood floors seeming to be soft under our footsteps as I admired these paintings.
Suddenly, I heard a woman’s voice that made me jump. “Can I help you?” she asked. It wasn’t rude, simply curious, her eyes looking at us over the white African-style headwrap that covered her hair. My voice began trying to find words, but Hannah jumped in quickly.
“I just came back to Tzfat, and she’s never been here, so I just wanted to show her David Friedman’s gallery,” she explained.
“Oh, well would you like to join us for lunch?” she asked kindly.
My mouth was open. We somehow barged into an unopened gallery and got invited to lunch for it? Hannah and I agreed that we would say our hellos before we went back to the hostel, as they were already providing lunch for us there. It turns out the woman who invited us in was Rivka, the artist’s wife.
We were greeted by a table of eight people, relaxing after having their first course of appetizers. They were curious about these two girls who walked in, one all the way from Los Angeles on a spiritual quest and the other who had made her home there. Hannah at one point met one of the ladies whose daughter was a friend of hers from back home, so they began chatting animatedly. I settled back into the kitchen with Rivka, who was pouring a soup that looked a little like cholent, which is a traditional slow-cooked food that is served for Shabbat lunch.
“So what brought you here?” she asked.
“I just always wanted to come to Tzfat,” I said. “I had always heard stories about the mystics and just wanted to be a part of it.”
“I see. Is there something you’re looking for?”
As I looked at Rivka, who stood so much shorter than me, I sensed this tremendous energy coming off of her, her tan skin and angular features somehow meant to be in my sight. It wasn’t an accident I was standing in her kitchen. This was meant to happen as last night’s table was. Divine providence.
“There’s something that my friend told me before I came up here,” I said. “About finding a tzadik.”
“What about?” she asked.
“Well, she said that if I find a tzadik, they can help me. There is so much trouble in my life right now, and I need a direct line to G-d. My friend said a tzadik can give me that.”
She rubbed her hands with a towel and looked at me sincerely. “I get the sense that you don’t need to find one,” she said. “You came to find something that is already in yourself.”
I looked at her confused. “That I am the tzadik?” I asked. She nodded, and thus added to my puzzlement. How could this possibly be? I am a secular girl living in the United States. There aren’t tzadiks there, and if I was supposedly one of these chosen people to answer prayers, G-d needed some help picking. I could barely help myself, let alone anyone I loved.
The next day after Shabbat, just as I was about to leave for Tel Aviv, Hannah and another friend took me down to the cemetery in Tzfat, where you’re supposed to pray at the blue-marked graves on holidays; in our case, Purim. The blue marks indicated where known tzadiks were buried, and you were supposed to pray there for your own prayers.
That’s when I saw her. She was small, wearing a puffy black coat and a black dress, with long brown hair and freckles. The friend pointed out to me that she was a tzadik, a woman praying up and down Israel for anyone she could find.
As I came to her, I felt in awe. But somehow, her face seemed to recognize mine. She barely spoke any English, but she somehow saw me, all of me. I poured all my prayers into her, for my mother and family, for my friends and eventually for myself. I began to cry, not wanting to be away from her.
“No,” she said in her thick accent, pointing to my heart. “You… happy.”
There was enough in a few words; maybe I was a tzadik, maybe I had no way of ever being one. But I was meant to be happy despite the circumstances. She reminded me of that as I headed back up the mountain to collect my bags and head back to the secular world. As my vision of the rebbe told me (more about that later), perhaps I was just meant to give the world happiness. It may not make me a tzadik, but it’s as good of a cause as there ever was.
I think about her often, the baby that never was. I see her sweet smile, dressed in pink frilly dresses and bows, bright blue eyes shining at me as I lift her and cradle her, singing her lullabies before she goes to sleep.
I thought about her constantly as I journeyed through Israel, from the hills of Tzfat to the Glickman Center for Domestic Violence. In Tel Aviv, I watched a little boy play through the center that was funded by Na’amat, the charity I work with back in the United States. As I saw his big brown eyes stare up at us, I thought about my baby. How it could have been her in that center, in need of protection, if I let the previous man in my life become her father.
The moment I decided to leave my previous life was because of her. I thought of her crying in a corner, her brown hair framing her tears as her father yelled and screamed how something wasn’t put away just so, and how she couldn’t understand what she did to provoke his rage. I thought of him running through the house hitting cabinets, accidentally hitting her, leaving her wondering how she could please a boy who could never be pleased and would never stop being out of control.
The likelihood of her existence isn’t very strong; my medical condition could be a big hindrance on my body’s ability to hold a pregnancy. But she was real enough in my mind that I would do anything to protect her shining face, even upend my life and start a new one.
This idea of my baby came back to me in Tzfat on Saturday morning, the clouds rolling through the sky and the wind chilling me. I went from service to service, as more religious girls were reading the psalms of King David and swaying with the air. They were praying for husbands, for children, for common womanly wishes. I wanted these things, but felt so far away from them; after all, most of these girls had never been married. I had been. And most of these girls would be able to handle a pregnancy without risking their lives. That certainly wasn’t me.
As the Torah readings seemed to come from every corner of the city, I saw Hannah, a girl I had met the night previously who had made her home here in Israel from Florida. She had previously lived in Tzfat, but was now a seminary student while trying to finish school. Her red curly hair and confident stance seemed to make her years older, not in wrinkles but in wisdom. Every room we tried to pray in seemed to overflow, and the written prayers in the prayer books had no English and provided no answers.
“Let’s take a walk,” she suggested. We headed down the winding staircase of the courtyard and began to proceed on the cobblestone streets. The movement of my body seemed to comfort my soul in ways the Hebrew words couldn’t.
We journeyed through the town over the streets, down nooks and crannies while greeting various residents that she had come to know living there. We traveled along the vistas and overlook the spring green fields that were sprinkled with yellow flowers.
Eventually, we stopped and I came to lean over this overlook. The clouds were rolling above our heads as I thought about this point in my life. As we talked about her boyfriend and her hopes of them being together, I spoke about my life and about this child. How I left my horrible marriage for this nonexistent being. It was crazy, because after all, how could you depart a marriage vow on a concept? She wasn’t real, and there was no telling that she ever would be.
The silence settled over us, with no noise but the whipping wind. Hannah’s face became thoughtful as she heard my story and all its insanity. And suddenly, her words crashed into my heart, breaking through the whispers and put-downs.
“Your child is alive,” she said. “She’s just not here yet. But she will be. Her spirit is here.”
They were words so simple,and anyone could dismiss them as being just a comforting thing to say or some new age mumbo-jumbo, a side effect of this mountain town. But somehow my heart knew it was real.
I felt her in that moment as the clouds rolled above me. I knew her before she even found her way into my womb. It was twisted and strange, yet comforting. In the years of doctors telling me of the uncertainty of a baby and my ex telling me constantly no, I heard her now. My unborn child. And my, was she the most beautiful thing in the universe.
I didn’t have words as I began to cry joyful tears, hugging Hannah and allowing her to cry with me in a way I never experienced before, the wind embracing us alongside. Because deep down in my heart I knew that she was right. Any person passing that scene wouldn’t have known, yet two strangers found a way to find comfort each other and let go of the fear. And until I met my child in my lifetime, I was holding onto her soul, like a small flickering candle that would never go out.
Sorry for the delay, everyone — it was hard to be on the road and blogging at the same time when wifi wasn’t consistent. But I return to you talking about the mystical powers of Tzfat and beginning to come into my own on my first Shabbat in Israel.
I laid on my bed on Friday night in Tzfat as my roommate Juliana explained to me the mystery of the universe’s little pockets where mystical powers seemed to reign over the people who visited. There was something different in the air that allowed people to let go in these places, she said, such as Sedona in Arizona and Machu Picchu in Peru. And this town, also known as Safed, was another one of these places.
For years, I had wanted to come here to Tzfat. Jewish legend has it that this is the home of Kabbalah, and in fact most of the Friday night service for the Sabbath was written in this very place hundreds of years ago. The thought captured my imagination when I was told stories about the mystics running out into the fields to dance and greet the Sabbath in joyous celebration. It was then I knew I had to come.
As Lauren and Avi drove me up the windy road through the forests, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was wearing a below-the-knee skirt and my arms were covered; Lauren had warned me before I arrived that this was an incredibly conservative place, even more so than the Old City in Jerusalem. My shoes were covered in dried terra cotta mud from walking through the Ba’al Shem Tov Forest just below the town, which overlooked it.
As Avi and I were walking through the forest he pointed out Tzfat to me through the trees. I was expecting some shimmering city that was as glorious as my first view of Jerusalem was for me all those years ago. Although there was something impressive about seeing this small town suspended on a green hill, it was not as intense of a feeling. When I saw the yellow flag of the Rebbe (more about him and that flag later) flying as we drove up the mountain, I was also slightly hesitant. And it didn’t help that I blew out my right hamstring trying to lug my 60-pound pink suitcase up the narrow staircase of the hostel.
Walking out of my room after getting ready for Shabbat, I saw an observation point on my floor before I went down the stairs. As I walked out and overlooked the green valley with the cold wind whipping at my skirt, I wondered how I was going to have a mystical experience here in Tzfat. I had been running around Israel for the past week reconnecting with my friends. Here I was alone; Brad was supposed to meet me, but he missed the bus from Jerusalem that would bring him here.
I came to this place on a lark, feeling strange with my arms covered in modest dress. Even when I walked down the staircase to the lounge area to light candles with the other girls staying at the hostel, I was left wondering how I got here. I tried to blend in and feel everything that was coming in my general direction: Dance on the women’s side of the synagogue as we sang “Lecha Dodi,” which was composed in the very fields around us. Hug the girls who were entranced by my energy. Bundle up as they sent us towards the homes where we would be having our Friday night meals.
As the pulled hamstring in my right leg started screaming again, I pushed my way up the mountainside to the house where I would be spending my dinner. But as I walked into the house with my leg barely hanging on, there were 15 screaming kids running around, ranging from 11 to about 2. The girls had long dresses and the boys were in various states of fringes, all speeding past crying and yelling at each other in Hebrew about their various toys and books. And then there were all the adults, who could speak English but rather conducted themselves in Hebrew, a language I only knew about 20 words of, while they did nothing to tend to the rowdiness of the children.
I ran out of the apartment into the hallway and cradled my leg on the concrete, feeling the tears coming down my swollen cheeks. In this moment, I wanted desperately to be alone, as I was in excruciating pain and didn’t want to be a burden on my hosts. It was a technique that I learned from a young age. Let them see you happy; no one will take you seriously if you cry. I gave myself about five minutes to lose it before coming back inside and trying to make this Shabbat worthy.
As my hosts began to converse with everyone in their foreign tongue, I felt even more out of place. The kids were scurrying about, either their faces dissolving in tears or roaming around the adults’ feet in state of play. I was trapped next to the bookcase as the children figured that my legs were great things to bump into. With my leg incapacitated with nothing more than ice to heal it, this was painful, and it eventually got to a point where I left to lie on the couch and elevate my legs, the kids continuing to fly around and outnumber the adults.
As I stared at the multiple paintings and pictures of the Rebbe looking down on me, tears rolling down my cheeks, I began to wonder why I came here. Why was I trying to fit into this world? What benefit could I get from it? I’m secular to the bone, and although I believed in G-d and Judaism, I am also the girl who ate pepperoni pizza before she got on the plane to come to Israel.
But then I saw myself separate, away and hidden. What was I doing to myself by being so guarded, really? What was I showing when I was all strong, when in truth it was okay to occasionally be weak? Why couldn’t I let go of controlling things and just feel?
As the ice continued to melt, it was a meditation, a moment caught that I needed before I could open up. As we eventually made our way back down the mountain towards the hostel, there was a table waiting for the returnees from their Shabbat dinners, covered with burgundy red tablecloths and filled with wine and Israeli snacks. Across the table from me sat Eli, a Hasidic boy who I actually noticed as kind of cute earlier. The wine began flowing with the stories around the table, tales of searchers and seekers who were trying to find their way in this crazy world and ended up here by divine providence. There were songs and banging on the tables, and whenever my name would be mentioned, a chorus of a song — that went “Gino, gino, gino” — would burst out with the thuds on the table, something which would cue my laughter.
The energy dwindled as we went into the later hours, and things became slightly amiss as we got to two young girls whose great-grandfathers were very prominent in the Chabad movement and the Chabadnicks at the table tried to prove themselves worthy of their ancestors. My eyes were drooping as Eli mentioned Purim to them, and how there was a mishna (writing) about the descendents of Haman, the main villain in the story who tried to eliminate all the Jews. According to the story, even Haman’s descendents eventually became Jews.
“Ugh!” said one of the young girls. “I would hate to be descended from Haman, wouldn’t you?” The attitude in her voice, so like the girls I grew up with who were ignorant to reality, got to me. I swigged back some wine and decided to open my mouth.
“You don’t get it,” I said, startling the sleepy people at the table, myself included. “This mishna proves it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can be descended from David and still be wicked. It doesn’t matter who came before you, but who you grow to become in this world and what you choose to be. Those people chose to become something greater. That’s all there is to it.”
The girl seemed to bite her tongue in shame, with Eli’s eyes shining in curiosity at me as I quieted down. It caused the conversation to shift again, finishing the stories around the table as Juliana and I headed upstairs to continue in deep conversation about where we ended up. Somehow, as we talked into the night even more, my energy seemed to change. I was open to speak my mind, to be wise, to be bold, to be brave and scared and everything all at once. This place somehow was allowing me to open up. And only when you’re open can you go into the mystical energy of the world and find what you’re looking for.