You've been waiting for it, I know. I've been working on this for many days now and finally, the longest post ever in the history of bloggin is here. If you don't want to read all of it and you just want a dose of funny, I suggest skipping down to the final section. The one on meditation. Oh yeah.
Before we get to it, you'll notice that my blog has a slightly new look. I rather like it, but let me know what you think. I've started using the new Blogger Beta and I just wanted to play with my new options a bit.
We spent Rosh Hashana in the south of Israel, in the Negev Desert. This is the long-winded account of our stay there.
EIN GEDI: MIKVAH IN THE DESERT
In 1972, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve was founded by the Israeli government. It is the largest national park in Israel and considered the most naturally important. There are many neato hikes to be had. We went on a rather long one which followed to path of a mostly dry creek bed to a nice little suprise at the end.
The hike ends at a waterfall with a nice pool, which we all hung out in for a while and swam around in. As soon as we got there, I recognized this waterfall. In every brochure for a NFTY in Israel program that I have ever seen, including both summer programs and EIE brochures, there is a picture of this same waterfall, which like most pictures in these brochures, dates to the eighties! You can see it on page two of this brochure. I don't know who that goofy kid is smiling there, but I have seen him more times than I care to.
In any case, the waterfall was quite refreshing, not to mention the ice cream bar I bought at one of the park stores when we got back. One thing I noticed was that this waterfall and its accompanying pool could have been, had we all been naked and saying whatever proper blessings, a mikvah! There were at least 40 seah of water present and the water was defnitely naturally flowing. Thus we had all the requirements for a mikvah. Although nobody present went through the ritual properly, the experience did contribute to my overall sense of cleansing during our stay in the desert.
They say that if you only go to the mikvah once a year, you should go before Yom Kippur. Last year, upon reading that, I had a rather misguided run-in with my bathtub and a garden hose stuck inside through a window. Don't ask. This waterfall was much better.
YAM HAMELACH: PAIN IN MY FINGERNAILS, CROTCH
Rather than list for you all the places that Yam Hamelach caused me pain, I'll let the title of this section of the post speak for itself.
Yam Hamelach, known perhaps better to my readers by its Enlish name, the Dead Sea, is the lowest point on Earth. It is located at five bazillion meters below sea level and it has more salt than God. To use proper scientific terminology, it is neato.
The high levels of salt cause pain and, paradoxically, healing. The pain comes from any open wound on your body so much as a paper cut because all the sudden you have all the salt in the world converging upon said paper cut. For reasons I don't really understand, there is a quality to this water which causes wounds to heal as well. My acne, for instance, disappeared for 24 hours or so after we swam in Yam Hamelach. The German national health plan sends Germans with psoriasis to Yam Hamelach for two weeks for free.
Also of note is the fact that this water is so crazy dense that you float like mad. If you untense all of your muscles, you just sort of lay there on top of the water. This is very unsettling and makes it very hard to maneuver about in any way, shape, or form.
Then there is this crazy mud. They say this mud is so good for you that they package it and sell it as a sort of spa-like product. I was coerced in putting this crazy mud all over me with the promise that it would feel good. It did not. It felt like mud. I don't know what the big deal is with this stuff.
All in all, the sea was fun and only served to add to my sense of cleansing in the desert.
Live from Mitzadah: DAVID ALMOST DIES
That's right. I almost died. Let me explain.
Mitzadah is the name of a plateau near Yam Hamelach. This thing is 305 meters or so straight up. Over the years, a number of nuts built fortresses up there. Crazy. Among them was Herod, who was a rather paranoid puppet Roman king of Israel back in the day (which, by the way, was a tuesday). Then some nutty Jewish rebels took it over, got beseiged by Romans, and committed mass suicide. If you wanna know what I think about these guys... Whatever. I'm gonna tell you what I think of these nuts regardless of whether you want here what I think about them or not.
These guys, believing that they were the last hope for Judaism, holed up on this mountain like some damn doomsday cult (think Waco) . They intended to live up on this mountain indefinitely and they had some sustainable lifestyle worked out with agricutlure up there and livestock and everything. They even had a mikvah. Then, when confornted with certain sale into slavery by Romans who were about capture them, they all committed suicide. If these nuts really believed that Avodah Zarah (foreign worship, idolatry) would be forced upon them by the Romans along with being sold into slavery, why not go along with it? You can maintian Judaism in secret while following foreign rituals without putting your heart into them. It had been done before and it would be done again later in history. These guys however, took a more glorious, bloody, and selfish road. They believed they were the last worthwhile Jews in the world. For all they know, Judaism ended right there with their suicides. That is selfish and wrong. And crazy.
We woke at up 4-o-damn-clock in the morning to hike up Mitzadah so we could see the sunrise from the top. I didn't see it from the top. I was still only like halfway up when the sun came up. They made us hike up this frickin Snake Path, which causally winds its way all over one side of this mountain. There are over 700 steps on this path, not to mention all the parts where it's just plain slope. I finally staggered up, collapsed, and took a nap a good 20 minutes after everybody else. I almost died on a number of occasions on my way up, on account of the fact that my legs were falling off. God that sucked!
Up top it was cool though.
LOTAN: ROSH HASHANAH, ECOLOGY, PUKING
After Mitzadah, we made our way further south to Kibutz Lotan where we remained for the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Lotan is a realtively young Kibtuz, founded in 1983 by mostly ex-NFTYites and Netzer Olami members from all over the world. They currently have about 50 adults and 60 children. Their industries are diverse and mostly agricultural, but they also have a wildlife reserve as well as an ecological focus unlike that of any community I have ever encountered. As a community they are amazing. They are committed to Reform Judaism and ecology in ways that I don't know that I could ever commit to. Their newer structures are made from mud bricks and hay bales. They are incredibly sturdy stuctures and modernly furnished inside. They also have some amazing levels of composting going on as well as some very unique ways of disposing of trash and sewage. You should check out their website here. The grounds are astounding. The parts they live in as well as the agricultural parts of covered respectively in grass and arable land. This type of thing does not occur in the desert on its own. These people have litteraly coaxed this stuff out of the ground. They created topsoil that was not there.
Anway, we attended services there. I have to admit that I can't stand Rosh Hashanah. I see the point in using the time between RH and Yom Kipur to prepare for YK, but RH itself as it is observed, I can't jive with. In normal cultures, people celebrate the new year (feel free to chastise me for that sweeping and probably untrue generalization). They don't sit in their place of worship for hours on end obsessiong over some ridiculous Book of Life metaphor.
That being said, I appreciated the general Israeli approach to it. They celebrate this holiday as well as lament the coming of Yom Kipur. In America we just obsess about getting dressed up and wearing nice shoes for the services which go on for eight million hours and are filled with much pomp and ridiculousness. Here, people have parties, wish people they see a happy new year, and nobody gets all damn dressed up! I wore shorts and Netzer t-shirt to services and everybody thought that was fine. They have a Rabbi on Lotan, but she is just like every other kibutznik there. Having no one who serves as Rabbi of the community, the services take on a very creative, open, and cooperative feel, which I enjoyed.
Tashlich was very nice. If you don't know about Tashlich, you can read about it by following the link at the beginning of the previous sentence. The gist, however, is that by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water, you symbolically cast off your sins in preparation for YK. Back home, Tashlich is always a highlight of RH for me, perhaps because it draws a small crowd and I always prefer small services. I have vivid and fond memories from my earlier childhood of going across the street from our temple to Shoal Creek where we would conduct Tashlich under a rather sketchy bridge.
On Lotan, we found ourselves in the middle of the desert with no running bodies of water. Thus, Tashlish seemed impossible. Josh, however, one of our JHist teacher who spent the weekend with us on Lotan, conducted a rather creative Tashlich-ish service. Yisrael, a kibutznik, led us, late at night, on a walk to a sand dune in the middle of nowhere. We laid down there and stared at the most amazing night sky I have ever seen in my entire life. In keeping with my usual practice of stargazing at camp (Leslie Bass, eat your heart out), I imagined that rather than laying on the ground and looking up, that I was leaning against a wall and looking out and that the void that took over my field of vision was right in front of me. It was truly awe-inspiring! While there several people (including, grudginly, me) confessed various harmful habits that we wished to curtail in the coming year, things we wished to cast off into the stars. I experienced a moment of clarity of vision under the stars, which I suppose should have been a first sign of trouble, but instead I reveled in it.
The trouble I speak of is dehydration. I was informed that the walk to this and dune would be brief. The walk itself ended up being at least 45 minutes each way. As such, I did not bring a water bottle, though I knew by the end that I should have. That night, blissfully unaware of the danger to come, I lay down to go to sleep, but found shortly that I needed to go the bathroom. I had rather a lot of distress in there, developed a headache, and took 2 gas-x and 2 tylenol. As the danger, several rounds thereof later, seemed to have subsided, I stood up, ready to go back to bed, but instead felt suddenly weak. My torso convulsed and I lost my dinner through my mouth. It happened twice more, in rapid succession. After the final upchuck I felt incredibly good, like a high. When that subsided, I made the connection. I was dehydrated. I went across the way to the room of Josh (a different Josh), my counselor. Josh gave me a liter and a half bottle of water and two rice cakes and told me to finish them before going back to bed. The water felt great, but the rice cakes came up four times, bringing us to a grand total of seven upchucks for the evening.
This is the last incidence of note in my desert cleansing. Although I would not have voluntarily undergo the same dehydration again, I am kind of glad it happened. I ate little the following day and this particular experience only added to my overall experience of cleansing and preparation for YK. I can honsetly say that I would like to spend every RH in the desert. It is very clear to me why many cultures use the desert as a source of mystical knowledge, a rite of passage, or a way of spiritual cleansing.
MEDITATION: RIDICULOUSNESS IN THE DESERT
This final part is for fun only. It did not contribute to my overall experience. Actually, it detracted from it. If you like meditation, don't read this. You will hate me when you are done.
Because of Lotan's status as an environmental mecca, it has developed a group of the usual overly-spiritual neuvo-wave-o meditational types. As such, we got a free dose of the meditational exercises that normal tourists have to pay for. Yes, people pay for this. I was shocked too.
We sat down in a circle on the grass, our attention centered upon an Israeli woman whose name I have forgotten. I'll call her Rainbow from here on out. Rainbow was young and not unattractive, with her sun-bleached hair hanging down to her hips, completely untamed. She probably doesn't shave her legs either, now that I think of it, but I don't recall noticing at the time.
She then explained to us where our chakras are. She told us all about them and about energy. I would like to comment for a moment on this so-called "energy." Nuevo-wave-o types often refer to this energy, which not a single one of them has ever managed to explain to me. This energy, so far as I can tell, is invisible, undetectable, unexplainable, and has something to do with "life force" or some such thing.
She explained that there was a chakra on top of my head. In a failed attempt to connect this nonesense to Judaism, she mentioned that it was right were the kippah goes. I have found that most attempts at meditation within Judaism fall short of, well, anything and tend to grasp around in the dark for a way to validate mediation through Judaism.
We then meditated on each of our individual chakras by placing our hands over them and making various mono-syllabic intonations, such as "vaaaaaammmmmmm," "raaaaammmmm," and of course one can never forget "ooooohhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm." At one point, between two meditations, Rainbow opened her eyes (they were closed most of the time, contemplating the universal life force, I'm certain) and glanced at me. I was reclining on my arms in the grass, barely containing my laughter, not meditating on anything universal whatsoever. She then glanced around and informed us all that whether we, personally, were getting anything our of this, we should engage in her various intonations because it helps the people who are trying to meditate with their vibes. There I finally saw the Jewish connection! Guilt! She was trying to guilt me into intoning various syllables!
I have determined that even if Rainbow has chakras and life energies and other such things, I do not. Anway, that sucked.
Coming soon: I don't know. I'll think of something good though.
Live from the Desert: DAVID HIKES, PUKES, MEDITATES