The Beatle and the Havdallah Candle

Bonnaroo. Standing in a field surrounded by 90,000 people in the sweltering Tennessee heat, I counted down the minutes. Only 120 left until I was certain that my life was going to change.

Rewind a year to that same field in Tennessee – no doubt surrounded by many of the same people – and I’ve just seen Radiohead perform a set that quite literally knocked the words out of my mouth and left me silent. Trying to describe the experience as we walked back to our campsites, almost everyone was left searching for words that would do justice to the transcendent musical experience we had all shared. I don’t use the word transcendent lightly. It was – quite literally – an experience that elevated me to new heights. After hours, it seemed that most people had settled on beautiful as the only word that accurately reflected the concert. Turning to a friend, I proclaimed “Well now I’m screwed. No concert will ever be better than that.”

I was wrong.

With 120 minutes left until Paul McCartney was set to take the stage, my body tingled in anticipation. I was going to see and hear a Beatle sing to me.

I grew up with The Beatles constantly in my ears. My parents fed my sister and me a regular dose of classic rock, folk, and classical music, but it was The Beatles who were the staple soundtrack of my childhood, enjoying a weekly set every Sunday out of our old-school, wooden stereo speakers.

So when Macca took the stage and played over three hours worth of thirty-eight songs, I knew nothing would ever be the same. Radiohead’s mind-penetrating experimental music be damned, this was the original stuff. You can search elsewhere if you’d like a musical review of the show; this one’s more spiritual.

Towards the end of Paul’s sonically blistering (he can still wail on “Helter Skelter”) and emotionally moving (I dare any grown man not to shed tears when he sings “Here Today”) set, as fireworks exploded in the sky above me and 90,000 people sang “Naaaah, na na na na na naaaaah, na na na naaaaah…,” I was completely caught off guard. Like a punch to the soul, my body and brain united in a reaction to the experience. While Radiohead left me speechless looking for adjectives to describe the concert, Paul McCartney completely took over my body, soul, and brain.

Before that day, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I physically felt this way. Some people call these sensations hokey, hippy, or crunchy-granola. Fine. Let it be. All I can vouch for is that something for me changed, as my body reacted to the experience:

  • I felt a complete sense of oneness with the 90,000 people around me. Simultaneously and without contradiction, I also felt as though I wasn’t standing in a crowd of strangers, but was the only one who the music was being played for.
  • I felt pure thankfulness for being in that singular moment. For me, that was directed towards God. For others, it may have been to someone or something else. But the moment for me was one of sincere spirituality that was directly tied to my own personal theology.
  • Feeling the experience coursing through my veins and sending shivers up and down my spine, I questioned why anyone would need the help of drugs, when you can experience a full-body-high naturally. As it happens, it turns out there’s some science behind this. But for me, it went far beyond biology.

At the end of the set – recalling our Radiohead experience a year earlier – I turned to my friend with a bittersweet look on my face and said, “Well, shit. Nothing in life will ever be the same. It’s all downhill from here.”

I was wrong.

Last night, exactly a month after seeing McCartney, my body was hit with the same sensations of oneness and thankfulness.

With sweet music ringing in my ears and a leaping flame in front of my eyes, my body was thrown back to that field in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t have been further from there. Here, in the center of Jerusalem, as my classmates and I marked the end of Shabbat and the beginning of our formal schooling on our paths to becoming Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, my body and soul reacted again to an experience in a shocking way. I felt at one with the 40 souls surrounding me, united in the journey ahead of us. I felt a supreme sense of thanks to God for bringing me to this moment in time. Blessed to experience that soul-punching sensation again, the two central foci of my life – music and Judaism – were united in a way that I couldn’t have expected.

That this moment occurred during a Havdallah service is particularly serendipitous, as the ceremony is a multi-sensory experience that – much like Radiohead and McCartney – has the power to cut straight to the human soul. The sight of the flame, the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the wine, and the beauty of the melodies give our body a lingering sensation of the neshama  – the soul – of shabbat.

It seems to me that it’s no surprise that music and Jewish spirituality have the power to biologically affect our bodies in similar ways. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said that the most direct way humans can attach ourselves to God is through music and song. Chassidut teaches that every neshama has its own melody before making the descent into the human world.

Lucky that I get to spend an entire year of spiritual and musical growth with this group of people, I only wish I could say the same for my relationship with Paul McCartney…

Now blogging here and at The Times of Israel

Hey, check out my new blog at The Times of Israel! I’ll continue to blog here, but will also be writing about life in Israel and the rabbinical school journey at the Times of Israel.


There’s No Time Off

There was a brief moment earlier this year during the NHL playoffs between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators that sent rumbles through the hockey-following world, prompting outrage and accusations of classlessness. With a 6-1 lead over the Canadiens and only seconds left in regulation play, the Senators’ coach called for a time-out.

The Canadiens were furious with this seemingly unnecessary move, given that the game was already all but won by the Senators. And yet, the Ottawa players skated off the ice for a few minutes of time away from the action.

Read more at The Times of Israel!

Come and See, Go and tell: Quick thoughts on Bethlehem

I traveled to the West Bank on Friday, as part of a J Street educational visit to Bethlehem. While there, I took a huge amount of photos and notes of what I saw and heard; took in many memories of the people we met with. They will require at least a few posts to unpack.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the words of one of the people we met with who is working to advance coexistence, peace and understanding between populations:

Come and See, Go and Tell

This is what he told us. As best I can tell, it is a variation of a passage from the Christian Bible. And yet, it has a certain Hebrew Bible ring to it – a charge similar to Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof; Tze Ulmad; or Na’aseh v’Nishma. While the man who shared this imperative with us was not Jewish, it didn’t limit his ability to share Jewish wisdom. This is significant, as he had every reason to have a tenuous relationship with Jews and Israel – his land just outside of Bethlehem is surrounded by Israeli Jewish settlements, whose settlers have often provoked and antagonized him.

This ability to overcome such interpersonal challenges and move towards understanding and wisdom is surely a quality that will be necessary if we are to finally achieve peace.

“When the situation gets shitty, take a shit!”

On a winding alleyway in the streets of Jerusalem, that’s the slogan that was emblazoned in blue spray-paint on a wall, just steps from a Orthodox synagogue.

This evening, I went on a Graffiti Tour of Jerusalem, run by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah is an organization of rabbis from all streams of Judaism that advocates for human rights in Israel and North America. You can learn more about them on their site.

The walking tour this evening brought me face-to-face with much of the graffiti that I’ve often ignored while walking to Burgers Bar or Aroma during my previous stays in Israel. As T’ruah puts it, graffiti culture in Israel “combines humor, politics, poetry, current events, Jewish tradition and more in multiple languages.”

While on previous walks through Jerusalem’s streets, I probably would have just laughed at the iconography of the man squatting to relieve himself, today I gleaned a fascinating new message. The Hebrew word for situation – “matzav” is the word often used to describe the current political state of affairs vis a vis the Occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UPDATE (6.4.2013): An Israeli friend has just informed me that this slogan and the icon of the man pooping are from a Shalom Achshav/Peace Now campaign in support of the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. See the original graphic here.

We saw a lot of street art on the tour  – there will most definitely be a second blog post with more shots. For now, here are some of my favorite pieces of graffiti from our tour:


The image is of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. In English, the Hebrew text accompanying the image should read: “Those who believe aren’t afraid” – a lyric from an Israeli song by Eyal Golan. But in the word for “aren’t,” one of the letters has been swapped, giving the phrase a new meaning: “Those who believe in him are afraid.” As our tour guide put it, Israeli graffiti is most-often associated with the political left, as the right-wing political establishment is considerably more well funded. So it’s no surprise to see this cheeky poke at the current (right-wing) government showing up in graffiti form.


The red graffiti on the left reads: “Firing Zone 918,” referring to a military firing zone in the southern West Bank. This is a fairly new piece of graffiti that has appeared in Jerusalem; it is a direct response to the Israeli army imposing a test-firing zone on an area where some 1,000 Palestinians live in the South Hebron Hills. This is a very current situation here, with developments taking place as recently as last week. You can read some more about the situation at The Daily Beast. The graffiti – in it’s harsh, militaristic typography – is attempting to draw attention to an aspect of Israeli society that very few Jerusalemites ever consider, let alone see with their own eyes.

In an almost Talmudic-style commentary on the red graffiti, the black writing to its right reads: “War Crimes.” While these were likely left by two separate artists, the relationship between the two is fascinating and creates its own meta-statement on the situation.


While this looks like an artistic variation of an Israeli flag, it’s a deeply provocative piece of art that is itself a “dialogue” between two seemingly oppositional parties. The diagonal white stripes have been painted over the first piece, attempting to cover up the original artist’s intended message. The Jewish Stars beneath the white-washing originally included Hindu “Om” icons, Christian crosses, and Muslim Stars & Crescents. Ostensibly, the original artist intended to present a message of coexistence, which was seemingly anathema to whoever came along and painted over them.

Luckily, as we rounded the corner, we came across an unaltered version of the same piece:


To round things off, it is worth stating that while Israel at large and Jerusalem in particular remain highly charged political environments, not all graffiti is so heavy-handed. Sometimes, someone just comes along and shares a simple, yet easily understandable message; one that may or may not have already been shared by some pretty powerful religious figures 46 years ago:


More photos from the tour coming soon… Thanks to T’ruah, and our incredible guide, Marisa, for taking us on a literally eye-opening tour.

Wonderbras, Caulking Guns & Apologizing for Everything


Since the year 2000, I’ve celebrated all but two Canada Days from outside of Canada – either in New York or in Israel. Funny thing is, I actually feel a stronger connection to Canadian patriotism when I’m outside of Canada than when I’m at home.

Today was a pretty quiet Canada Day here in Jerusalem. While I did hear fireworks at one point, Israelis love to blow stuff up when they celebrate, so it was probably just the opening of a new mall or something.

So in honour of the Confederation of my home and native land, here’s a rundown of fifteen of Canada’s and/or Canadians’ lesser-known, yet most fascinating contributions to the wider world:

  1. Standard Time: messing up my internal clock since last Wednesday
  2. Basketball: in which we shamefully have only one professional level “team”
  3. Garbage Bags: in which we shamefully pollute the planet, all while making it ever so convenient to get rid of undesirables (can you fit Canadian politicians in garbage bags?)
  4. Peanut Butter: yeah, that was us
  5. The telephone: which – much like international Canadian diplomacy – nobody uses anymore, anyways
  6. Blackberry: which – much like the telephone – nobody uses anymore, anyways
  7. Insulin
  8. Electric wheelchairs
  9. Wheelchair accessible buses
  10. Pacemakers
  11. Wonderbras: you’re welcome
  12. Butter Tarts: you’re welcome
  13. Caulking guns: you’re welcome
  14. Egg Cartons: can you imagine what life would be like without these?
  15. Apologizing for everything: (When I went to the CBC’s website for the 50 Greatest Canadian inventions, it apologized that the webpage could not be found)

Happy Birthday Canada! I miss ya!

Late night thoughts from Jerusalem

  1. Clearly, my body does not respond well to time zone changes. I’m still falling asleep around 3 in the afternoon, and staying up until the early hours of the morning. Need to find a way to make myself more productive during this transition. Solution for tonight: finally finish unpacking. Solution for tomorrow night: try to take over the world.
  2. The way-cool new cultural center of Jerusalem – the rejuvenated Ottoman-era Train Station – is a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. En-route, the new promenade (built along the old train rails, with new running and bike trails) is exactly 3 kilometers. Very convenient for timing my runs!
  3. Stumbled upon this house today, while walking through Baka (the next neighborhood across the street from me). Check out the cool art adorning the sides:


  4. Walking through the streets of my neighborhood, I’ve heard more English and French than Hebrew. I’ve actually heard more English on the streets here than when I lived in Queens. It’s familiar and comforting, but still feels a little bit off… like the city is having an identity crisis. Or is that just me?
  5. Thanks to the “availability” of Netflix in Israel, I just finished Season 4 of Breaking Bad. WOW. No spoilers here, but it was certainly explosive.

Didn’t I already make aliyah?

I moved to Jerusalem three days ago. In many ways, I feel as though this wasn’t as huge and monumental as one might assume. For one, I’ve been to Israel more than a dozen times and have spent more days in Jerusalem than I can count.

I’m also only living here for a year. I still have an apartment in New York, and will be returning home next May, where I will spend the next five years in school. Jerusalem is a city I’m intimately familiar with, and it’s not as though I completely uprooted my life and moved to an entirely foreign city or country.

In many respects, the biggest move in my life was when I left Montreal for a job in New York and actually uprooted my entire life to live in a different country. That required navigating the complexities of US Homeland Security, getting legal permission to work in a foreign country, and driving a U-Haul 500 kilometers down the I-87.

And yet… this is huge. The significance of this year in my life will be unmatched, and the ability to live at the nexus of the Jewish universe certainly is monumental.

And yet… in many respects, I feel a greater spiritual attachment to New York City. From my shoebox apartment, I lived in a concrete jungle. My dreams were made there. Screw cliches, it’s true that New York makes you feel like there’s nothing you can’t do, and the streets certainly do make you feel brand new. (Thanks, Jay-Z).

So while I’m incredibly excited to be here in Jerusalem, there’s an odd sense of something missing, because I feel as though I actually already made aliyah – to New York City. My hagshamah (personal fulfillment) – came from the crowded, paved streets of New York, not the cobblestones of the Old City.

And yet… I love Israel. Deeply. While I have a strong, nuanced and vibrant relationship with this country, I love it in the way that I love the Toronto Maple Leafs; in addition to the incredible highs and great joy, it involves lots of furious screaming and yelling “COME ON!”

My love for New York is like my love for a person – as a friend recently told me, New York isn’t a city that exists in the background of your life; she is a city that plays an active role in your life.

So can I challenge myself this year to renew my love for Jerusalem and Israel? Can this place move from the background to the foreground of my life? Aside from the superficial struggles – like figuring out where to buy tofu – I hope to struggle with my sense of spiritual attachment to this place in the coming year.

Perhaps there’s a reason that the word for place in Hebrew – makom – is also one of the words for God – tough to think about and grasp, but an inextricable and vital part of life.