I don't really like crowds. I hate the sense of conformity they inspire, that everyone there is alike and will respond to a spectacle in the same way, undifferentiated.
At the end of Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day last April, I wanted to get to Jerusalem's First Train station where there was a public ritual to mark the time in between day devoted to the memorial day both for soldiers and for those killed by acts of terrorism, and Israel's Independence Day. The transition from sorrow to joy can be a difficult and awkward one, to spend a day remembering lives lost and not lived fully and comforting the families of those in mourning, and then at the end of that day to rejoice publicly with dances and parades that there is a Jewish state.
As I walked, I heard singing and saw a crowd on the plaza in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood. I was planning to walk further, but when I saw a huge joyous throng in Yemin Moshe, gathered at a spot overlooking the walls of the Old City, I decided to see what this closer gathering was. From the dress and appearance of most of those gathered, it seemed like a mostly religious Zionist crowd; when I arrived there were speeches being given though I could see a group of musicians assembling and readying themselves. It looked like a fun group, so I stayed to see the crowd separate into a male side and a female side, without a formal partition as they readied to move into a prayer service. I got to the very front of the group, overlooking the stone walls of the Old City, glorious as night fell. Someone in the group started chanting Maariv the evening prayer and people participated from texts on their phones or with a siddur(prayerbook) lit by a phone, ancient words and modern technology combining. Suddenly, the hazzan(cantor) started chanting Hallel, the group of psalms only recited liturgically at special times, such as holidays or the beginning of the Hebrew month and I realized that besides the seder night of Passover, this is the only time during the year Hallel is said at night since nightfall is not thought to augur the optimism and praise expressed there. The band played tunes for the Hallel that were Shlomo Carlebach-inspired and moving, and the entire crowd of a few hundred or perhaps a thousand was singing fervently, many dancing in circles. The intensity and passion of being in a crowd of people who know Israel is our Jewish homeland and we are free to celebrate it, despite the many sorrows of Jewish history, overlooking the place where the Temple had once stood, and did no longer, was one of the most powerful prayer experiences I have had. My only tinge of sadness came from the fact that I felt like an outsider since in the huge crowd, I did not recognize one familiar face.
I felt the way I often feel in Israel, belonging but not, inside yet not actually within. I know the prayers and Hebrew and songs, was able to get swept up in the fervor of the crowd, but because I don't live there it isn't my home though I believe I have a place there as Jew. Were I at a similar event in my current hometown of Pittsburgh, I would know those in the crowd, and have shared Shabbat meals with them. I want to belong, to be part of the scene, but I am not.
Though the music, prayers and view were powerful, as I left, I felt dejected that though I treasured the exuberance of the event and its radiant spirit, I was alone. Then, I saw Rabbi Bonna Haberman a teacher and rabbi ordained by the Jewish renewal movement, in the crowd. I was thinking I should just be happy I saw someone I vaguely knew and leave, until I remembered that I was hoping to write a piece about these ceremonies of transition between the two days. I had seen posters for many of these, sponsored by a whole variety of groups and was curious about what the motives were behind them and why they had become so popular. So, as a professionally minded writer, I went up to Bonna, told her I'd met her at various places over the years like the Women of the Wall and the Leader minyan and that I was working as a journalist and hoping to do a piece on these events. I was stunned and thrilled to hear her tell me that this particular one had been started by a student of hers, motivated by her class at Hebrew University on the concept of "Kiddushin"(holiness) about 8 years ago. She explained that the student had been thinking about how to make this transition time meaningful and relevant to those of his generation, those of the age right after the army; he came up with the idea of a ceremony.
That this ceremony of religious Zionists was started in the classroom of a Jewish renewal rabbi is no accident - the Renewal movement is all about breathing new life to old forms, finding a way to make things of the past meaningful to contemporary Jews. Israel may be best tableau for unfolding of renewal, since it is the very laboratory for generating the modern inflection of an ongoing religious tradition. I believe that Renewal's influence will spread through ways it touches and spills over into ritual life of a mainstream audience. Many of those in attendance might have been horrified to know that the roots of the idea for this evening were in Jewish renewal while others might be tickled. I don't know.
The first year of this ceremony, Rabbi Haberman told me, there were about 20 people, and then it grew, and then it grew some more till it was a huge crowd, listening to words of Torah, and praying and celebrating together. I could not believe my luck that of all the people here, I knew exactly one person in the crowd and she was the one who held the key to the story. I asked if we could have a longer interview and she gave me her email. I was excited to have an excuse to have a long conversation with someone I had long admired and been curious about but never had a chance to get to know well. I contacted her and she said she'd get back to me.
However, a few weeks later I saw a note about Bonna's passing. She did not look like someone terminally ill with cancer and at no point in our conversation or email did she say how serious her condition was. I felt blithe and clueless, like an idiot for not knowing she was seriously ill though I had no way to.
I recently got a blurb from writer Steve Stern about my novel Questioning Return that follows a graduate student as she spends a year in Jerusalem. He wrote of her time in Israel, "the process launches her on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventure that will change your understanding of what it means to truly belong. " Which is funny, since I still don't feel I belong anywhere, and particularly not in a crowd.
And that evening I had a sense of belonging.I learned how this huge raucous joyous evening began, in the classroom of someone deliberate about ways to find joy in the world. Haberman's website says that she was about "grappling honestly and creatively with land, people, history, text, and spirit" https://bonnadevorahaberman.wordpress.com/. This ceremony, and the ones it has spawned, is a tribute to her optimism and intense spirit, something cancer is unable to ravage.
Everyone has choice to feel connected to others or not, to feel connected to the fate of Israel or not. Did I truly belong in the crowd at this ceremony to mark the division between collective sorrow and collective joy?
Being lost in that crowd, singing and dancing unself-consciously, not worried about how I looked to anyone, lurching ungainly with dance steps or my feet colliding with those of others, I was part of the group. I knew the person who started the event and the rabbi who ordained her and her movement.
No I don't belong. But yes I do.