Friday, October 29, 2010

The Future of Adventuring

Hey Friends,

I've set up a time in my regular schedule for writing and editing Yotam ADVENTURES, and I'm hoping that means I'll be giving you fortnightly updates on my doings and derrings-do. I didn't use my time wisely this week, so I don't really have anything publishable in my many piles of note-scrap, but from now on you'll be able to see something new up here every other Friday. I wish I had the freedom and fortitude to publish weekly, but I'm sure you'd get bored of me at that pace, anyway.

I've avoided writing about writing here, 'cause there can easily be no end to that trip, but I'd like to share a couple thoughts and questions about this blog, now at this moment of its transformation.

I'm not gonna be jumping off any bridges again soon, and I'm not gonna be seeing new places and new people all that often, even. I'm mostly gonna stay put here in Jerusalem, running through the same schedule of classes and activities week after week. I've still got a nice big backlog of Ameriventures to write about, and there's always plenty to say about Israel, Talmud, Theology, etc, but the wild and crazy road-trip element is probably gonna be missing from here on out. I'm a little sad to see it go, and I hope I can still keep you interested without it.

A lot of the fun of this blog, for me, has been the experiment in honesty. Can I tell the truth, here on the internet, about my struggles and aspirations and failures? Can I really face myself in public, with the horrible risk of rejection afforded there? Can I show my parents and siblings and friends what I'm really about, and keep on going with it?

I think I've answered that with a Yes, more or less, in the six months that I've been doing this project. Honesty is less and less scary lately, and the challenge instead is becoming one of clarity. Can I see my life clearly enough to write coherently about my experiences? Not the daily litany of events, but can I see the pattern in the process that makes it worthwhile for me? I guess I don't know yet, and this chapter of living and writing is gonna have to explore that a little. I'm gonna be learning a lot of big stuff this year, and I'm gonna be experimenting a lot in my practical theology, and I hope I can synthesize my education in 1500 word doses for other people to also appreciate. If I don't write that into my schedule, like I talked about last time, it'll never, never happen.

So I'm doing this for my sake, for the practice in writing and the push to reflect on things, but I want to make sure it's for my readers' sake, too. So my question for you is, what brings you back here once in a while? What can I do to make this better for you, in what I write about and how I write it? What questions can I ask myself, as I'm sitting down to write here fortnightly, to prompt a message you'll be interested in reading?

If you're willing, please answer in the comments section, so that other people can see and respond and we can get a conversation going. The more I feel like you're invested, just a little even, in reading something interesting here twice a month, the easier it'll be for me to make sure that can happen.

Thanks a lot for your help, and your attention, and your affection and support and curiosity, and I'll look forward to seeing what you guys think about this.

Yours, as often as possible,

Yotam

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hebrew, Habits, and Humility

Hi Friends,

A quick update on the events I wrote about last time. After posting that story, I found out that Rebbe Nachman wrote somewhere about the dangers of the evil eye, and how it can cause embarrassment, and also that by looking at the face of a holy man, like Rav Koenig, you can release trapped emotions. I happened across this info in a book of Rebbe Nachman teachings, and I was totally like "Whoah! That's exactly what happened to me!" So that's cool.

Since that story happened I've started up at school again, and it's a busy, busy life. If I made it to morning prayers every day (Shacharit, 7:30 AM) and went to all my classes, and stayed for evening prayers every night, I'd be at school for a nice, round 60 hours a week. I haven't made it to morning prayers every day, exactly, but I'd like to. I also meet up with my brother and sister after school for more studying once a week, and cook lunches for my roommates most evenings, buy groceries and schoolbooks and whatnot... it all adds up, you know? I had a lot of time to myself back in America, and I just don't, here.

I'm pretty overwhelmed, really. School is hard, and I'm in this new country... Whatever. It's not even culture shock. Everyone here speaks English, and school is a total America-bubble. But I'm surrounded be new people, and I feel totally removed from my former life and self... When I think about taking to friends in the States, I haven't the foggiest idea where to begin. Life here just is, you know. There's no explaining it to anyone.

I'm learning a lot, and that's the reason I came here. I felt, back in LA and in Florida, that I couldn't really grow as a Jew without learning Hebrew, and the prayer services specifically, and I'm picking those up at a good clip. I've got 14 hours of Talmud a week - ancient Aramaic arguments about everything under the sun - and 7 hours of bible study and prayers and studying prayers... I've got a biblical grammar class for two hours a week that scratches my math itch, but I really should study that more in my off time. I'm surrounded by passionate, interesting, knowledgeable Jews with thoughts to share, and I'm taking all of it as fast as I can.

Stopping to write like this, to actually take the measure of my life instead of chasing my next obligation, is weirdly difficult. Day by day I'm just going for it. I'm just going for the ride.

I feel like I'm jogging, or something, and I'm just starting to get into that zone. I can keep up my schedule, learn what I need to and get where I'm going, but I can't stop to think about it. Thinking about it, judging whether it's right or its wrong, if this whole Jewish system I'm studying is brilliance or nonsense, if I'm in the right place, if I'm doing the right thing... Don't bother me with questions, buddy. I'm busy right now. If I tried to know where I am, I'd lose my way and never get where I'm going.

Another of my classes is called Practical Halakha, and we're studying a book of contemporary Orthodox rules. For instance, the first thing you should do in the morning is thank God for restoring your soul to you, and immediately afterward purify your hands with ritual washing. Some Jews often keep a bottle of water and empty bowl by their bed at night so they don't have to touch anything before washing in the morning. Rules like this, many of them reasonable, or at least understandable, and others totally inscrutable even to the experts on the subject, govern basically everything that you do from waking 'til sleeping. (We haven't gotten there yet, but I'm looking forward to learning the correct order in which to clip my fingernails. I'll let you know.) The rabbi teaching the course suggested we try out some of the commandments we read for a week at a time, just to see how they feel on us, but not try to commit ourselves to following all of them right away.

His interpretation of Halakha (lit. The Way, refers to the complete corpus of  Jewish law) is that it's a constant, low-intensity mindfulness meditation. Every little action, a hundred times a day, reminds you that your choices matter, but your ego doesn't. Don't worry over deciding for yourself what order to clip your fingernails in - God or Tradition had worked that out for you, thank you. It's humbling, ideally, to follow an arbitrary, inscrutable ruling over your own personal will.

I feel kind of similarly about my overwhelm here lately. I've always got somewhere to be, something to do, probably something I'm not very good at, no time for laziness, no time for willfulness. I'm taking in more new knowledge every day than I can keep up with, hoping enough of it will stick, not knowing how much is enough, not knowing how much is sticking. I feel like the dumbest guy in my Talmud class sometimes, the least prepared pray-er at prayers, and it's awesomely hard.

This whole year, I'm starting to reckon, is about absorbing a system that might be smarter than I am, aligning myself to something better than me. It's not about God, exactly, in some abstract and wonderful sense. It's about Judaism, a living breathing beast of its own, one that I'm part of and hungry for, and too busy encountering to try to understand. If I do what I'm told, and learn what I can, and just get through the day every day, I'll be right where I aimed at about 8 or 9 months from now. Trusting the process, and letting go of willfulness, is what gets me into that zone.

I'm just going for it. I'm just going, friend. I can't think about where.