The following is a poem written by Mitchell A. this evening just before Shabbat that he read aloud in front of the entire class at a reflective session at the Menorah in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is published here with his permission.
I Am a Man of Life
I am not a man of religion,
I am not a man of fiction,
I am not a man of myth,
I am not a man of fact,
I am not a man of history.
I am a man of life.
But life is weird.
Life is made up
Of all these things.
History becomes fact,
Fact becomes fiction,
Fiction becomes myth,
Myth becomes religion.
Then all those factors live
In harmony and war
All at once.
All until there is only ash.
Then history rises from that ash
And the cycle continues.
Just as life does.
I could stop writing now, but I feel like I have to try to answer the question— what is it about the human spirit that enables us to create such beautiful poetry?
Friday is a crazy day in Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims ascend the Temple Mount to offer their prayers, Jews hustle and bustle to prepare for Shabbat, tourists squeeze in a few extra visits before the entire city takes a day of rest and renewal. Today we contributed to the craziness of Jerusalem by participating in an archeological dig and going on a culinary tour of Machane Yehudah—Jerusalem’s central market place.
Approximately 10 years ago an illegal building project was undertaken at the Temple Mount. In order to create a entrance to one of the Mosques there, thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Rather than consulting with archeologists the debris was removed without any foresight or concern for preservation. It was rescued by a group of archeologists who recognized the irreparable loss that would’ve occurred if the debris had simply been discarded. As we sifted through buckets of debris we found artifacts dating from the First Temple Period (approximately 800-500 BCE) all the way through the modern era. We found two coins, the dates of which we don’t yet know, as well as many pieces of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic tiles. We literally sifted through history. Did one of us uncover an artifact that would turn fiction into myth? What about myth into religion? We made history rise from that ash.
After reviewing the day’s key archeological discoveries and washing up we headed to Machane Yehudah. Machane Yehudah is such a multisensory, multicultural, vibrant place it’s virtually impossible to describe. This year we were privileged to receive tickets that allowed (and required) us to try food or drink from 6 of the hundreds of vendors in the marketplace. We tasted food and drink unlike anything we’ve ever had before. And we loved it. All of us. Stuffing grape leaves into our mouths, olive oil dripping onto our shoes—you might say we were all “men of life.” The one thing that unites the chaotic bustle of Machane Yehudah is that everyone there is trying to feed his or her family. In that respect, Machane Yehudah just might be one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
After a few hours rest we set out for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem and the last Shabbat of our trip. Shabbat in Jerusalem means slowing down, digging deep, connecting, and opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that our spirit has something to teach us and something to offer the world.
To help get us into the spirit of Shabbat we decided to have our first “Spiritual Check In” of the trip. Spiritual Check Ins are opportunities to cultivate the reflective aspect of the Israel trip. Our spiritual check in this evening was literally miraculous. Here’s why…
The Menorah opposite the Knesset is one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. We’re never been able to stay at the Menorah for very long because there are constantly groups lining up to see it. Tonight we were able to sit at the foot of the Menorah for the entire duration of our spiritual check in—45 minutes. Our tour guides were literally in shock that our session remained undisturbed. Just as we began to “close” the spiritual check in a group of tourists arrived. It’s as if an invisible barrier had been erected to protect the sacred sharing that took place tonight—sharing that broke down some of the remaining barriers among the grade and lead to many tears, laughs, and insights.
Aside from Mitchell’s poem I’m not at liberty to share the contents of the spiritual check in. Confidentiality is part of the protocol. But what I can tell you is that we used a quote attributed to Albert Einstein as our starting off point. The quote was, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It really got the kids thinking. After briefly discussing the quote we gave the kids individual time to reflect. They could write, contemplate, or do whatever they wanted with the time we gave them. When they returned to the group they were welcome to share or not, depending on how their heart moved them. The most important part of the sharing is that it was meant to help the sharer arrive at greater clarity for themselves, to listen to what Parker Palmer calls, “The Inner Teacher.” For that reason we asked kids to focus on active listening and not to clap or respond in any other way to what was shared. Mitchell was the first to share. When we heard his poem it was clear that the spiritual check in was going to be a profound point of connection for the kids. As I said, there was much laughter, many tears, and a strong desire to continue to conversation at a later time.
Having grown even closer through mutual sharing we headed to the Kotel for what ended up being a remarkable Shabbat. The outcome of the courageous struggles of the Women of the Wall is that there is a new section of the Kotel called, “Ezrat Yisrael.” At “Ezrat Yisrael” women and men are allowed to pray together. That’s exactly what we did. Our ruach was so inspiring that others came to join us. As we sung and stamped our feet, the platform beneath us was literally shaking. At multiple points during our song session/ Shabbat service we all traded places to stand next to different people. At the end we sang the Mishebeirach and also recited Mourner’s Kaddish. I made sure to impress upon the kids that the tefilah we experienced at Ezrat Yisrael, and the Torah that our children carry in their hearts as is as legitimate as what they would experience when we ascended to the main Kotel plaza where men and women continue to be segregated. In the past I’ve felt a slight tinge of envy that the Orthodox prayer services had more ruach than our own. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud and devoted liberal Jew. For the first time, tonight, I felt that our prayer experience actually had greater beauty, integrity, ruach, and impact than what was taking place at the main Kotel. Our kids got to experience both, so it’s up to them to decide.
Last but not least, we had a delicious dinner. We wished Sam B. a happy birthday once more and even gave him a few more random gifts (I forgot to mention that his friends bought him all sorts of random chazerai
at Machane Yehudah such as bathroom soap dispensers, high heels, a book in Greek, and other random items from the flea market section). I presented him with a gift from the school—a keychain size version of the Book of Psalms. In presenting it to him, right after the conclusion of our spiritual check in, I reminded everyone that the Book of Psalms gives voice to many of the emotions that were shared during the check in—joy, sadness, confusion, yearning, regret, hope, humility, pride and more. I told Sam that I prayed that he and all of us would experience the deep humanity that was felt by the Psalmist.
If the Hebrew cannon hadn’t been sealed thousands of years ago I’d make a strong argument for adding Mitchell’s poem to it. Perhaps it will appear in a book of poetry one day, or as a creative reading in a siddur. The power of having our spiritual check in at the foot of the Menorah is that it allowed us to join our personal stories with the communal stories of the Jewish people. The Menorah granted legitimacy to our various narratives by serving as a silent witness from our Jewish past. It was truly a fitting place for our check in because, after all, “life is made up of all these things.”