Center field: Put Jerusalem’s High Holy Days on your bucket list

If America has Sunday drivers, old ladies who only drive to church, Jerusalem has Succot un-handymen, middle-aged desk jockeys who only wield a hammer to construct their temporary dwellings.

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
September 29, 2015 21:12
Succot

Etrog, Succot. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Last week, a friend wrote while sending New Year’s greetings: “Most of the news we hear from Israel is bad, but I hope your own news is good.” True, only bad news is “news.” True, most American Jews unintentionally share our enemies’ addiction to the problematic-Israel narrative, associating Israel with Palestinian terrorism, occupation, Iranian threats, or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged assault on Israeli democracy – when Israeli democracy is doing fine (as Washington grapples with showdowns and shutdown threats). True, by this stage of the Jewish holiday season, we’re supposed to grumble about too many calories consumed, too many work hours lost, and too many errands accumulating. But here’s some great news from Israel: in Jerusalem, we’re just plunging into Succot celebrations... and loving it.

And true, if you detect a Zionist critique of Diaspora Jewry, it’s there. I know it’s not PC to criticize American Jewry these days, with the Jews who feel freest to criticize Israel being the least tolerant of any Israeli criticism. But as a Queens boy, my Judaism has blossomed by tasting and embracing Israel’s model – because healthy relationships entail mutual, loving criticism, not unidirectional preaching. It is not just the contrast between having to steal time from “real life” to do Jewish, feeling pressured and secretive, as opposed to enjoying Israel’s holiday season which includes antacid advertisements for overeaters.

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I also felt low through too many American High Holy Days, with hundreds of well-dressed others in a massive, over-decorated Jewish cathedral, slumped in our seats, shell-shocked, wondering just how long the Jewish opera would continue, with the thrill of scoping out the surrounding fashion show long gone. Our rabbis and cantors are usually blamed but rarely at fault. They are cast – or miscast – in this Jewish high church burlesque, caught in a formalistic, materialistic, High Holy Days feeling factory that has existed for decades, alienated thousands and changed a little – but not enough.

So if this sounds arrogant, Israel-centered, or too Zionist, sorry: if you haven’t experienced a Jerusalem High Holiday season, you haven’t experienced Jewish living at its fullest, truest, deepest and happiest.

Jerusalem’s High Holy Days are a six-week festival of learning and praying, singing and dancing, storytelling and ritualizing, with generous gifting and spiritual heavy lifting. It is 24/7, 3-D Judaism at its finest, as imagined in the Bible and now fulfilled in the Jewish state.

Writing “six weeks” was not a typo – it starts with Rosh Hodesh Elul, the last month of the Jewish year.

Suddenly, Jerusalem’s learning calendar, crowded on any given week, fills up. This year, more than 600 people enjoyed Jerusalem Limmud’s rich stew of intellectual, cultural and spiritual happenings.



Thousands more enjoyed the Sacred Music and Piyyut Festivals, with modern melodies applied to traditional prayers. This mix goes beyond the random class on repentance and renewal. Every night, Sephardim sing “Slichot,” the penitential prayers.

Increasingly, groups of kids and adults, from Jerusalem and beyond, wander the city at midnight – or later – gawking or participating. The haunting, infectious melodies resonate in Jerusalem’s old stone passageways, with storytellers often evoking “Slichot” of yesteryear.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the city luxuriates in spiritual silence, with few cars traveling. On Yom Kippur, Jerusalem becomes a walking (and biking) city. As Kol Nidre ends, white-clad worshipers stream out of the synagogues and crowd the streets, promenading in the middle of the street. The bustling boulevard of Emek Refaim is filled with Jerusalem’s Jewish update to the Easter Parade: colorful kippot and female turbans replace the traditional Eastern bonnet, displaying Jerusalem frumpery not Fifth Avenue finery.

In Jerusalem, we don’t just recall the Temple worship during the Avodah service, we recreate it. After prostrating ourselves repeatedly on the floor (as religious Jews do the world over), when we finish, our cantors don’t warble plaintively. We burst out in joyous song that the High Priest left the Holy of Holies safely. The experience is more broadly understood, more participatory, and transcendent.

We then pivot from this abstract, ascetic holiday to a tactile, fun festival. Succot sprout on Jerusalem’s crowded sidewalks like wildflowers on steroids. Courtyards are filled by patchwork quilts of neighbors’ succot. Balconies overflow with improvised booths.

If America has Sunday drivers, old ladies who only drive to church, Jerusalem has Succot un-handymen, middle-aged desk jockeys who only wield a hammer to construct their temporary dwelling – sometimes bashing their thumbnails, not steel nails.

Meanwhile, charitable projects abound, starting with massive food distributions to the needy. Last week, my 13-year-old daughter and her classmates from the Hartman Girls’ High School built succot for the poor, while my 15-year-old son and his Hartman Boys’ classmates sold hundreds of lulavim and etrogim to finance the school’s year-long food distributions.

During Succot, the newspapers advertise concerts and happenings and plays and hikes for vacationing schoolkids and their parents.

Last week, while eating at a creative restaurant (Alma) in downtown Jerusalem, my wife and I started comparing dishes with the tourist couple next to us. When we asked what brought them to Israel, one replied, “Israel was on my bucket list.” This non-Jewish gay couple from Blue America loved Jerusalem, experiencing Israel as a fun country and spiritual promised land, not a political problem, despite what The New York Times says.

My New Year’s invitation – and challenge – to every Jew worldwide is: put experiencing Jerusalem during the High Holy Days on your bucket list – sooner, not later. Repent, learn, keen, promenade, contemplate, celebrate, sing your heart out and whirl like a dervish, enjoying a supporting cast of thousands and feeling rooted in the place where these activities feel normal. Living Judaism in its natural habitat will nourish you spiritually, in ways that most Diaspora High Holiday experiences simply fail to do.

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s which will be published next Tuesday by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. A professor of history at McGill University who will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution this fall, this will be his eleventh book. Follow on Twitter @Gil- Troy www.giltroy.com.

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