The schedule today was totally clear: A Tuesday morning schedule, followed by a Wednesday afternoon schedule and a Thursday evening schedule. Of course!

Wednesday afternoon meant the final nursing home visit. These visits never got much easier for me over the summer, and today, when I was preoccupied with other things in my mind, going there was even harder. I've realized that the only way I can visit nursing home residents is by "acting", by deliberately not bringing my whole self to the interaction. Today I was under too much stress to act at all well, so I cut back a lot on the amount of time I usually spend visiting.

In our final post-visit processing discussion group, most of the conversation was focused on what's next. Will we stay in touch with residents we met? Will leaving them be hard? And so on. All of these questions presupposed a sort of bonding with residents that some people definitely experienced, and that I definitely didn't. I wonder: how much of that difference was due to the dumb luck of the people I met and only sort of hit it off with, how much was due to my general reluctance to visit or spend a long time, and how much was specifically due to my choice to "act"? Regardless, my only reflection on this part of the summer was that it was a stressful activity that I'm glad to be done with. Perhaps I should examine further what that means about me, but I'm not particularly inclined to. I'd rather just leave this as something I'm not good at and don't enjoy.

I enjoy most of the rest of the yeshiva experience a lot more, but this conversation, and the fact that we only have a few days left, left me wondering what I'm going to get out of yeshiva as a whole, and whether I had any of this sort of "bonding" with the students, the faculty, the learning, the lifestyle, the dedication, the material we learned, or any of the other aspects of yeshiva I experienced this summer. I'll be thinking about that a lot the next few days, but I don't think I'll have the real answer for at least another couple months, if not a couple years. I'm enjoying myself, for sure, but I don't know what it means yet.
So. Tisha B'Av. The saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and a full-day fast. We're commemorating the destruction of the two Temples, and lots of other sad stuff. Sad sad sad. Everyone's very sad. You're not supposed to greet friends. Just be sad.

I'm bad at Tisha B'Av. And I like Tisha B'Av. (These go together, because being good at it involves being sad, which is incompatible with liking things.) It's weird; I think I'm too positive of a person to be sad on command. But there's more than that; I find all of the little liturgical and traditional touches to the holiday to all be pointing in a positive direction. And I keep looking for more. Some examples: We don't say tachanun today; it's a supplicatory prayer that's normally only omitted on happy holidays and other positive stretches of calendar, as well as on and around weddings. The liturgy doesn't change that much in other ways, and all of the positive and thankful prayers seem even stronger today. The structure of the evening service in particular is identical to that of the only other two days that biblical selections are chanted in the evening: Purim and Simchat Torah, two of the happiest days in the calendar. The biblical selections that are read throughout the day today all have occasional lines of hope. And, if you're into this sort of thing, the messiah is going to be born, according to tradition, on Tisha b'Av.

I have this metaphor I often use to understand this section of the Jewish calendar. It's like we're on a suspension bridge heading from one year to the next. The bridge starts at 17 Tammuz (a minor fast day 3 weeks ago) and ends at Hoshanah Rabbah (the very, very, very last day of procrastinatory repentance at the end of Sukkot). But the two towers holding everything up are the two fast days, Tisha B'Av (the "sad" one) and Yom Kippur (the happiest day of the calendar). We're now in between the two towers, and on the road to repentance and the year 5772!

Anyway. Last night I had a lovely pre-fast dinner with JA and MR. Then we went to Kehillat Hadar for evening services. One is not supposed to greet people on Tisha B'Av, so little old perky me went around after services saying "Not-Hi!" to amenable people and having friendly conversations, both appropriate to the somber mood of the day and, well, less so. I went home and was thrilled to be able to sleep late, since we started yeshiva late to make the fasting a bit easier. Morning services were odd, because I had trouble relating to all of the "kinot" (elegies about people and things being destroyed) that we sing for an hour. Then there was a 2.5-hour class session, but I had trouble focusing due to the lack of my usual breakfast calories. (Just because fasting is pretty easy for me doesn't mean I don't miss the food...) We let out at 2:30, so I took a lovely nap at home and am now catching up on some email from last week. And getting this blogging done before I head out to a break-fast in an hour or so.

Have a lovely rest of your Tisha B'Av, if you're observing. And, if you have any negative ways to approach today that I may be able to relate to, feel free to share...
Reentry from Havurah Institute land. And what a reentry! For the first time in my 10 Institutes, I went back the next day to my (albeit temporary) life of Jewish learning in community. So it wasn't as big of an adjustment as some years. It was made better by how happy many folks were to see me! It was nice to be back.

Many people seemed genuinely interested in how my week was, including a couple of faculty members with whom my past interactions had mainly consisted of me learning from their lectures or asking them questions. Over breakfast and lunch, I summarized a bit of what I learned from Adam's Jewish Geometry class at 'tute: How the rabbis rounded pi to 3 and the square root of 2 to 1.4, but how they seemed to care a lot more about the inaccuracy in the latter than in the former. And how Jews in New York and Philly should possibly face a bit North of East when praying but actually tend to face due East or a bit South. And how Jews in Fairbanks, Alaska should probably either face Southwest or due North, but actually face Southeast!

The rest of the day didn't have much new. Instead of learning new content in talmud, we had a review day. (This was fantastic for me, because I got to hear some of what I missed last week. One thing I missed was my hevrutah! Good to be back!) Instead of halacha class, we had a closing circle meant as a form of group-generated feedback for the faculty. And then we left early for Tisha b'Av. I'll probably write more about 9 Av tomorrow, but suffice it to say, I interact with it weirdly.

Goodnight!
( Aug. 1st, 2011 07:35 pm)
...I have no idea. I'm taking a week off of yeshiva to attend the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute 2011. A different kind of all-day Jewish learning community! I'll be back in New York next week for the last week of yeshiva, but I won't be blogging this week. (Or at least not every day and not about Yeshivat Hadar.)

Have a great week!
Today at the nursing home, I watched some of the Mets game (rerun) with a resident. While in his room, I heard his roommate complain about his TV remote not working, and the appropriate people who work there not being able to help. So when he was in the bathroom, I fixed it. (Turned the batteries around so they worked, looked up the manual online with the help of [livejournal.com profile] nnaylime, and programmed it for his TV.) The guy was amazed. Value-added visit!

Earlier, back at yeshiva, I got irrationally angry when someone sat in my makom kavua in the beit midrash (my regular seat in the room where we do all of our partnered learning and some lecture-style learning). We're encouraged to actually grow comfortable with our makom kavua, which plays neatly into my nesting instincts. So when someone sits in yours, it's considered legitimately annoying, not just annoying to those of us who usually care about such personal-space things. But I seriously took this out of proportion, and was in a crappy mood for hours. We'll see if I can steal it back tomorrow, or at least learn to channel emotions into slightly more productive outcomes.
Two things of note happened today.

First, I had a bit of a mini spiritual crisis during shacharit (morning prayer services) this morning. It went something like this:

"I don't feel like davening (praying). Like, I really don't want to be here right now. This has happened before this summer, but never when I'm actually at yeshiva for services. That's frustrating. Maybe it means I won't be able to keep up the habit of davening every day once yeshiva is over. Wait, why do I want to do that anyway? Why is that important? I'm pretty sure the G-d I believe in is not a G-d I conceive of as having a personal relationship with me, as caring whether I daven. So why am I doing it? I mean, I keep Shabbat and kashrut because I find meaning in them and I like the communal aspects of them, but if davening isn't doing that for me, what's the point? Hey, cool, I'm actually thinking critically about this stuff! Maybe I no longer need to worry that my Jewish practice is based on a house-of-cards of rote behavior, doing things that are fun, and having some vague notion of being obligated that I haven't engaged with critically! Wait, no, that's not true at all. This 'crisis' isn't at all as severe as what my friends mean when they say things like 'I'm angry at G-d'. And I think if I do seriously question my conceptions of obligation and commandedness, then the whole thing might actually come crumbling down. And I don't feel like I'm really in a position where I need to risk that now. I'll get over this by tomorrow. Nevermind. Man, I'm jealous of my friends who are able to have actual spiritual crises; it means they're actually getting to the heart of what they believe and why."

And it won't even take until tomorrow. I had a nice chat with a faculty member who gave me some new frameworks for thinking about daily davening, based on the little I told him about the conception of G-d I have. And I think it helped. So that was nice.

The second interesting thing started out as a purely sad thing. One of the fellows in my program, S, an Israeli, found out that her grandparent passed away today. She wasn't at yeshiva today, but another fellow announced this to the community. The friend said that S had two choices: to stay in New York and not be with her family during this difficult time, or change her return trip to Israel to leave immediately, mourn with her family, and not return to yeshiva. The friend wanted to present S a third choice: If we all contributed $35, we could buy her a round-trip ticket to Israel, enabling her to both spend time with her family and finish out the summer at yeshiva.

I thought this was, to put it mildly, a long shot. But then, a couple of announcements later, they said it happened. The friend who made the announcement bought S a ticket (presumably footing a not-insignificant amount of the balance herself), and there were hundreds of dollars donated (and still more coming in). S is flying out tonight, and will be back next week.

And suddenly, this was a turning point in the summer for me. There are only 2 and a half weeks left, but what we have for those last days is a real community, not just a collection of people together for the summer. And a quite impressive community it is. This one incident will completely change how I look back on the summer.
The day after I spent 9 hours in Philly packing up everything that was left to pack in my apartment there, and then had a traffic-filled bus ride back.

The day after the night when I went to bed later than I should, and woke up almost an hour early for no particular reason.

The day I left yeshiva early in order to get the commuting part done before the evening lecture, which I planned to watch online instead.

And the day I (hopefully) got in bed by 9:15.

Sleep well.
Not much to say tonight, since I've been behind on sleep all week, and I still have to pack up tonight to spend the weekend in Philly!

Just one quick point: The machshavah (Jewish thought) class switched from Heschel to Soloveitchik this week. And I'm suddenly following things a lot better. It may be that I chatted with the teacher about what my struggles were, but it may be that Heschel just doesn't make that much sense to me at all. Wish I understood him, since so many friends of mine seem to love him, but I just don't get it...

Have a great weekend!
So leading services is a kind of daunting thing to do. It's essentially a performance. You stand up there, in front of or in the midst of everyone, and sing, chant, and perform the choreography of the service you're leading. Everyone else is following and paying attention to you. The only mitigating factor is that the point isn't to perform. It's to lead the community, who are all also focused on their own prayers, and really ideally not as much on the exact nuances of what you're doing.

Well, in the prayer leading master class today, I didn't have that one mitigating factor. Quite the opposite: I led part of the section of services I've been working on, with the sole goal of everyone critiquing my "performance". It was quite the experience, especially for someone like me, who has no performing arts experience or interest of any kind, with the sole exception of prayer leading. Apparently I did quite well, but I have room to improve in certain nuanced areas I'd never thought of before, and my body language in particular is fidgety and not so strong. I got a lot of helpful feedback, and have a lot more work left to do to perfect this one service.

I love this class so much. I want it to never ever end. I think this is the closest I can ever come to learning and enjoying and appreciating art. I'm so sad that next week is already the last session of the class I can attend.

(And by the way, I led services this past Friday night at a shabbaton (retreat over Shabbat, of which we have 3 in the 8 weekends of the summer), and I'm leading in Philly this Saturday morning. Both of those are services I'm much more familiar and comfortable with than the one I'm working on in class. Last weekend went quite well, and I hope this Saturday does as well. Let me know if you're in town!)

Also, unrelatedly, I re-learned today that the rabbis of the mishna apparently refer to pubic hair as "a beard, but the lower one, not the upper one". You're so glad you know that now, right? You're welcome.
Most anyone who has met a Jew knows that Yom Kippur is a Jewish fast day. Less known is that there are 5 other fast days: Tisha b'Av, and 4 "minor" fast days. On Yom Kippur and Tisha b'av, one who is fasting refrains from all food and drink for 25 hours, from sunset one day to nightfall the next. On the minor fast days, you only refrain from sunrise to nightfall. (Or, practically speaking, from bedtime the night before, because one may not want to wake up at 4am just to eat breakfast.)

Today is the first minor fast day I'm ever fasting for. It's the 17th of Tammuz. (3 weeks until Tisha b'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar!!! Woohoo!!!!!)

I never had a good reason for not fasting on the minor fast days before; it always seemed to me to be the biggest gap between Judaism the way I wanted to practice or felt I should practice, and the way I actually did. Interestingly, two days ago, I was reminded that the rabbi who is my yeshiva's chair in Jewish law actually thinks that the minor fast days are optional rather than obligatory in modern times (scroll down to the paragraph beginning "It therefore"). But I decided to fast today anyway, taking this summer in yeshiva as an opportunity to try on mitzvot (commandments) that I've never really tried or taken seriously before. (Plus, everyone else is doing it...) I have, unfortunately, learned today that a "half-day" fast, especially in the summer when it's hot and when sunset is late, is not much easier than a full-day one. And I even had a second dinner and half a gallon of water at 11pm last night!

So we had a short day in yeshiva today. Morning services were at 9:00am and we ended by 2:15pm. (Our usual "short day" of the mid-week, Wednesday, is 8:30-4:00. Tomorrow, though, is a full 7:30-9:00 schedule to make up for lost time.) And, speaking of mitzvot I've never really taken seriously enough before, we had a 3-hour shiur (lecture, in this case interspersed with partnered learning time) on tzedakah (often, though perhaps poorly, translated as "charity"). Tzedakah is a frustrating topic for me for multiple reasons:
  • 10% of your income, even post-tax, is a LOT of money to give up compared to what you might otherwise do and compared to what your peers probably do

  • Jewish life is expensive enough as it is, with communal centers in high cost-of-living areas, expensive kosher food, and for those of us with kids, extremely expensive education

  • Too many conversations on tzedakah end with the moral: "No matter what you're doing, you should do more", which is a guilt-inducing conclusion I've really come to hate

This conversation today raised some interesting questions, but unfortunately didn't deviate from that script enough or reach any of the conclusions I've been wondering about. (For example: I've chosen a job in my profession that pays me less than I could perhaps make elsewhere. I've done this because I like working for a poverty-fighting organization more than a stereotypically money-grubbing company. What effect does this decision have on my 10% tzedakah obligation; does any of the salary I've "given up" count? For another example: rather than calculating 10% of post-tax income, can one count 10% of pre-tax income and subtract the portion of tax money that goes toward certain causes, and if so, which causes and how much does that total?)

I did reach one conclusion that seems valuable, though: If you throw away all of the numbers involved in the tzedakah conversation (10% as a minimum, 20% as a maximum that may have been appropriate in rabbinic times but may be too low now?), it's still the case that the amounts we're talking about are significantly, significantly higher than the 1% (or even much less!) that a lot of people donate to the needy. It's worth having the conversation to push people's usual giving levels significantly higher, whether they reach 10% or 20% or not. If you're in the 1% category (and I probably am), then you've got plenty of room to do better.

Or not. One member of the faculty said to me, after the shiur was over, that he thinks taxes have completely eliminated the obligation for tzedakah. It's an even stronger statement than my wondering about what percentage of taxes "count". More food for thought...

Food. Dammit. I'm thirsty.
A few weeks before yeshiva started this summer, I had a diagnostic/placement test over the phone with one of the faculty members. I was emailed a scanned page from the talmud, and I spent about 15 minutes reading from it and translating (with help, where needed). Even though the part I read was just Hebrew, with no Aramaic, I struggled a lot. Due to not having the best quality scan or monitor, I even misidentified some of the letters, which was embarrassing (albeit solely a product of the circumstances). I was able to identify parts of speech and the roots of many words, but couldn't translate almost any of them.

Today I had my mid-summer diagnostic. I sat down across from the teacher of my talmud level. I read for her and translated a line of mishna (which is usually in relatively easy Hebrew), a line of Rashi (a prolific commentator, whose commentaries are often in easy Hebrew but are always written in a different script, such that some letters look completely different from conventional Hebrew orthography), and a line of gemara (at least nominally in Aramaic), all on the same topic. I didn't understand every word, but I understood most of them. Even if I couldn't quite figure out how all the words fit together (the talmud is written quite concisely and idiomatically, and missing one longer word might mean missing the whole meaning of a clause, or missing one shorter particle might mean missing the idiom that contextualizes the whole passage), I was still moving through. I was quite proud of myself!

After that, I asked her a bit about how I could actually continue learning talmud on my own after the summer, given that learning without a translation only seems viable in an environment where multiple talented teachers are wandering around waiting to be asked questions or hand you sheets with guiding questions. She promised to address that in class soon. But regardless of the answer, it's clear that I've gained some skills so far this summer.

Later in the afternoon, I went to a one-off session on tefillin, taught by 3 women and geared primarily toward the question of women wearing tefillin. (Even in egalitarian environments where women are permitted and even expected* to perform all of the rituals and fulfill all of the obligations that men are, tefillin still are worn significantly less by women than men. Much more so than many other rituals that women in Orthodox communities don't perform.) I really enjoyed the session in part because I like topics on practical halacha (Jewish law) and in part because I like talking about gender in general and Jewish gender egalitarianism in particular, but mainly because two of the three teachers are the two faculty members I've been friends with for about 10 years. It's so wonderful to be in this great learning environment with them, and even better that they're faculty and it's clear that I have so much to learn from these people close to me!
...the day I hit the wall.

Talmud wasn't fun today, and not for any reason I could pick out. I wasn't feeling well through much of the halacha (Jewish law) lecture. I had even more trouble than usual getting some meaning out of the machshava (Jewish thought) lecture. The singing session at the end of the day was a nice conclusion, but didn't help much in shaking the bad feeling from the day.

I guess this sort of thing is inevitable from time to time. (And it figures that it would happen write after I wrote that glowing mid-summer review, huh?) And I'm lucky it came on a Thursday; there's a weekend soon! But right now I'm frustrated, and wondering whether I'll just be coasting through the rest of the summer rather than pushing myself to learn from it, and dropping any thoughts I had about figuring out how to do this sort of intensive learning again at some point after the summer.

I'm sure Monday will be better!
So this is the 4th week of my 8 weeks learning at Yeshivat Hadar this summer. But I'm missing a week later in the summer. So sometime this week is the midpoint. Setting the math to find the exact midpoint aside, I have more time to write on Wednesdays than the rest of the week, so let's call that midpoint RIGHT NOW.

I'm halfway done already! Sad. I wish it were lasting longer.

I've grown and learned a ton so far in the past three-and-a-half weeks! I think it's useful for me if I try to catalog some of them so I have something to look back on in this regard. So:
  • At the start of the summer I was not comfortable with reading and translating even vocalized Hebrew, even relatively straightforward Hebrew texts like the Torah (first 5 books of the Jewish bible). I couldn't even read for pronunciation, let alone comprehension, except with texts I was already familiar with. Now, though I still struggle with reading out loud, a lack of vowels doesn't hurt me nearly as much, and I tend to be able to translate well over half of what I read in Torah.

  • At the start of the summer I didn't know any Aramaic, and had even more trouble reading it for pronunciation than I did Hebrew. Now I know how similar it is to Hebrew, and can often translate or convert talmudic Aramaic into the corresponding Hebrew (even if I can't translate to English). I can also recognize when the talmud is using Hebrew instead of Aramaic, because my comprehension goes up...

  • At the start of the summer I knew that the talmud uses a lot of shorthand, acronyms, idiomatic/technical phrases, and generally a more concise writing style than you'd expect even from other ancient texts. I was really intimidated by all of that. Now I'm much more comfortable with the overall structure even in situations when the meaning is more opaque. In general, I'm not afraid to open a page of talmud and try to figure out what it's saying, even if I need a lot of time and multiple dictionaries to even have a hope of understanding.

  • At the start of the summer I had no idea why one would need multiple dictionaries to translate talmud. Now I know that there's a hard-to-use dictionary that has everything in it, if you know where to look and can understand what it's saying; and that there's an easier and clearer and cross-referenced dictionary that has only technical or common words and phrases in it.

  • At the start of the summer I had never been to a nursing home before. Now I've been 3 times, and am not dreading the next one.

  • At the start of the summer, I was bad at thinking about God, meaning, theology, and metaphysics. Now I can slightly better articulate the ways in which I am bad at those. (And now I at least have some sort of definition of "metaphysics"!)

  • At the start of the summer I had no idea why learning 14 hours a day would be fun (though was kind of sure that it somehow was), didn't know how I'd handle the lack of free time, and wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle 7 weeks of this. Now I'm already trying to figure out how I can one day do something like this again.

Really, so much of my skill-building comes from heightened expectations. A little tangent for you: I was always particularly good at math. When I switched schools in 10th grade, I went to a school that had more math competitions than I was used to, both in the form of a traveling team going to in-person competitions, and in the form of national tests. In my first few months, I took a monthly 5-question test I'd never heard of before a few times, scored better than my classmates in general, and was pretty proud of myself. After that, though, I joined the traveling math team. The next month, the monthly test fell on the same day as a competition we were going to. Before we left, our coach gave us the tests and said, "Our tradition for this competition is to just take the test really quick in the morning, score our fives, and then go." Score our fives? This test was supposed to be easy enough that people on the team could just get 5s most of the time? I was no longer happy with the better-than-my-classmates scores, and ended up pushing myself even harder to keep up with this new standard and get my 5s.

I came into the summer worried that talmud would be over my head, and hoping that they'd go easy on us so I could keep up. Well, they haven't gone easy on us and it wasn't over my head. Each talmud level calmly and prosaically expects more from the students than I thought they would, and covers harder material than I expected, based on the amounts of knowledge and experience associated with each level. People who have limited comfort with Hebrew are placed in a class where they're expected to just tackle talmud in its original text, which is not only Hebrew but also Aramaic, and can't use a translation? People who are better with Hebrew but have no talmud or Aramaic experience are expected to not just read talmud in the original, but also some of the (sometimes more difficult) commentaries?

Those heightened expectations, and the un-noteworthy way that they're just present rather than a hyped-up goal, have led me to be able to accomplish all that I've accomplished. I've been pushed by those expectations, pushed by my chevruta who encouraged us to move up a level to even higher expectations, and pushed by fantastic teachers and insightful classmates. It's not easy work. But it's led to a huge improvement, and in only three and a half weeks. I'm amazed, and grateful.

3 and a half more weeks left. 2 shabbatonim. Only 7 or 8 full 14-hour days left! Luckily, plenty of time to learn a lot more. And I can't wait.
I forgot to mention one key thing I did yesterday: Nap in the back corner of the yeshiva during the extra-long dinner break.

I'm going to take a mulligan on today's post to get a little more sleep catch-up. See you tomorrow, when I hope to have some sort of summary review of my summer so far.
...week 4? Damn, that was quick.

This week is the "Executive Seminar" week. In addition to the 39 fellows and dozen or so faculty, and in addition to the 8-12 people we have at any given time from the crowd who are living in New York and paying one class at a time to attend part of what I'm doing full-time, the Executive Seminar is when we're also joined by 26 folks slightly older than the usual demographic. As best as I can tell, they're retirees and well-off professional folks who can afford $1000 (plus, presumably, a hotel room in Manhattan) to come learn with us full-time for a week.

The space the yeshiva rents, a synagogue that has minimal programming during the week, is usually, I'd say, "comfortably full". This week, it's more like packed full. At times it's overwhelming and a bit ridiculous, but at times it's awesome. The buzz of that many people learning in one room is like nothing I've ever heard before.



Also, today was the first day when I realized that the chapter of talmud we were chosen to learn this summer not only has an interesting mix of obscure law, random discussion, and the occasional story, but also has some pretty well-known content as well. (Good choice, huh?) This morning I learned about something many products of any Jewish education have heard in some form before: the three laws that, in contrast to all other laws in the Jewish legal system, you must die rather than violate, if it comes down to it. (Murder, idolatry, and certain sexually immoral acts like incest and adultery.) I think we're learning more about this part tomorrow. I never wanted to study talmud to get anything practical out of the content; the goal is more to build skills and to connect to the tradition. But now I know (if not for the first time) that it's ok to violate Shabbat or kashrut to save a life, but I can't murder someone! This is (er, almost) practical! Bonus!

In the evening, we (just the full-time full-summer fellows and some faculty) had a discussion about the purpose and role of Jewish learning in life. This was the first "out of the text" conversation about "bigger picture" (meaning, spirituality, theology) stuff all summer that I felt I could completely relate to. I don't know how much of it I retained, but to the extent I kept some of it, it's good food for thought going forward about why I'm doing a program like this in the first place, and what Jewish learning perhaps should look like for engaged people who don't have the ability or background or time to take a summer off.

(I asked a question toward the end of the discussion about the financial accessibility of Jewish eduation, given that we're all able to do this only by virtue of being able to afford making an annualized $18,000/year to sit in the most expensive city in the country and learn torah without producing any goods or services. Of course there's no good answer, but it's good to know once again that more good people are thinking about the problem and how to address it for future generations before they're college-age.)
For the first time I can ever remember, I left a singing circle before an hour had passed and before it ended. Of course, it was 10:00pm, and I have to be back at yeshiva by 7:30am tomorrow. Though that's also true of everyone else there -- more than half of the entire yeshiva was sitting around and singing when I left.

It was mostly Jewish songs, and mostly slow/quiet ones, but I'm totally bringing my Rise Up Singing next time to see if we can't shift the vibe up a bit.

In other news, in the second machshavah (Jewish Thought) lecture/discussion session of the day, I asked, "If your definition of faith in G-d implies some sort of personal connection with a being, then what does it mean to have faith in a G-d conceived of in a Maimonidean/transcendent way rather than a Heschelian way? Is it totally impossible or meaningless?" So, uh, I guess the fact that I was able to ask that question means I'm learning something about machshavah? Even if it was a relatively easy question to articulate (and for the teacher to "answer") compared to the deeper and probably more sophisticated questions that others were asking and that I could barely comprehend. But dammit, my question was a good one too! And I think the answer may lead to a very slight shift in my religious approach to life. Yay!
OK. So we spend 2 hours in the nursing home visiting residents every Wednesday. There are 6 of us assigned in a group to two floors. I'm going to guess that there are about 100 beds on those two floors, and about 40-50 residents present and awake on the floors when we're there.

So, here's the question: If I spend most of my two hours talking to the same higher-functioning more lucid people, figure 4 people (all of whom I'm also visiting with another volunteer from my group), is that valuable? Is that enough? Should I try to visit with other residents? Perhaps the less higher functioning ones or the ones who are more eager to tell harder stories? Does it matter if they're all hanging out in the same common area as some of the people I'm chatting with? Does it matter that I find this work more challenging, in the abstract, than some of my fellow volunteers do?

I discussed this with my "processing group", but I'm curious to hear your thoughts too.
In case you're a visual person and would rather see my schedule than just hear (er, see) me write about it:



I had time to do this because we start late tomorrow! (Actually 8:15, not 8:30, but close enough). And yeah, they feed us 10 times a week; no extra charge. I hear that's because back when they didn't, there were complaints that no one had time to cook themselves affordable food...

Anyway, after the long weekend, including a stop in Philly to do some packing, it was hard to get back into the swing of things. And I'm sad that the Monday off meant missing one of the halacha (Jewish Law) sections of the week. But by the end of the day, things were rocking again. The prayer leading master class seriously has me smiling for 90 minutes straight every week. I love it so much. And I'm convinced by now that I actually know quite a lot about service leading, even by yeshiva standards. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but more than anything, I need to practice! So now I'm excited to find opportunities to lead weekday services (which I've never really done before; they're very different from Shabbat services).

Sleep well, New York!
Quick post tonight.

* For the first time, I was at yeshiva for over 15 hours, counting the commute and a quick stop afterwards. I think 9 hours at home is the minimum I need, so I hope this isn't too common of an occurrence. (On my way home, I ran into 3 yeshiva people who appeared to be going out somewhere. At 9:30pm. When we have to be back at 7:30am tomorrow. More power to them! I'd be thrilled if I needed less sleep, but I don't, and caffeine really isn't my thing.)

* I think I'm starting to understand the machshavah (Jewish Thought) class a bit. We have an hour and a half of study time on Mondays and 2 hours of lecture/Q&A on Thursdays. That three-day gap makes it hard to reorient myself, and the fact that most other people in the class have taken at least one philosophy class makes it harder. But in today's lecture (primarily about the Aristotelian/Maimonidiean G-d that is unknowable and indescribable and arguably irrelevant, versus A.J. Heschel's G-d that has "emotions" and is in search of and in need of humans and is arguably "too human"), my one comment was referred to by multiple other people as a possible challenge to the material, and the teacher started to call me out as an archetypal student who will find certain "personifications" of G-d in Heschel's conception problematic. I consider both of these unmitigated pluses.

I still don't really know what we're talking about in the larger sense, nor do I understand half of the other comments/questions from fellow classmates or half of the reading. But I'm getting something out of lecture, which is good. My "weak point" in a sense is theology. I approach Judaism primarily through practice and ritual and law and music and culture, and I'm conversational in other topics like history and Israel. Really, I'm bad at G-d. I'm even getting antsy writing about the topic now. Maybe after 5 more weeks of this class, I'll get better. I think I'm starting to.

* Short day tomorrow! Still starts early, though. Bye!
So today was the first nursing home visit.

It's possible that all of the talk and all of the support about this visit backfired, making me even more worried about the possible worst-case scenarios of these visits, but I was definitely downright terrified by the time I got to the home today. Through some combination of a newfound self-confidence and an unwillingness to miss a required part of my program, I didn't hesitate, but I sure wanted to.

During the first 20 minutes, I just got the lay of the land. I walked up and down my assigned floors. Twice. I talked to people in my program on my floors who had done a quick visit right away, and asked how it went. I chatted with one of our faculty advisers yet again. I convinced someone else to visit a resident with me. And, finally, I nervously knocked on a door.

15 seconds later, somehow, all the nervousness was gone. M and I were chatting with an elderly gentleman who could have easily been a friend of my grandfather's or something. He grew up and lived his whole life in the Bronx. He has two kids, including a son who was going to call him in an hour when his plane landed in Europe. He showed us his entire wedding album! I don't think he was one of the 20% of residents there with no dementia whatsoever, but he was quite lucid, and someone I actually enjoyed talking to.

As part of our orientation last week, the rabbi on our faculty who is coordinating these visits explained the point: We're not doing this as a community service project, and we're not really doing this to better ourselves. We're doing this because there are these people here who need to be visited. And so I did. After that first visit, I took some time, took a breather, went and found that rabbi, and asked him if the point was to visit people less lucid and with less involved (or no) family. He said that even people like the gentleman I visited still spend most of every day alone with not much to do, and so visiting them is just as valuable.

The nervousness came back as soon as I left the first room. I had two more visits, both of which were almost as hard as the first. The first lasted about 30 seconds, when I asked a gentleman in bed if he would like a visitor, and he politely declined. (We were told to think of that as a positive visit like any other; giving someone the agency to send you away can sometimes be as good of a gift as a conversation.) And I joined a fellow volunteer at a common-area table with several other people for about a half hour. Those residents were slightly less lucid than the first guy, but it still wasn't as difficult as I feared to have a conversation with them. And I think I'm going to go find all of them next Wednesday to say hi again.

In our processing small group afterwards, I told everyone how scared I was beforehand. But I also mentioned how the nervousness went away when I was actually talking to residents. (The anstiness, on the other hand, did not go away; 2 hours is a long time for an introvert to talk to any sorts of strangers.) I said that once I really realized that I was not visiting "a dementia" or "a sick" or "an old", but a person, it was suddenly much easier. And of course I knew intellectually that these people are all real people, with real lives and histories and stories, but it wasn't until I was in a room with one of them that I understood a bit of what that means.
.