Wednesday, November 9, 2011

ARE YOU RELIGIOUS?

"Are you religious?"  Moshe asked.  We were on our way to a souk which was an easy walking distance from our apartment.  The morning was as splendid as the company and the quiet between sentences was light and sweet.   I replied without hesitation, " Yes.  I get more religious as I grow older."

Moshe is a genius of one-liners, among many, many other wonderful things.  I am still meditating on that question even now.  It must have been a decade and a half or so ago when he advised me:  "BEWARE OF SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS."  It took me years to grasp the wisdom of it.  Recently I read Thomas Moore's "Meditations" from where I quote what I believe beautifully expounded on Moshe's advice:  "Spiritual authority can easily lose one of the soul's greatest gifts - conscience.  Righteousness can be a form of insanity in which conscience, protector of community, is swamped and undone by entitlement."

So here I was still thinking about his question, unforgotten despite the souk bustling seductively with all sorts of fresh produce, butchered livestock, fresh fish and sea foods, dry goods such as clothes and souvenirs, baked treats, yogurt cones, art and crafts hole-in-the-wall stores.  Did I say there were scrumptious fresh figs and dried nuts?  It was an open market for one-stop shopping and it was seething with vibrant colors, rustling textures, business noise and movement.

I was born in the only Christian country in the Far East to pious parents.  My Father was a staunch Protestant.  Protestantism was a minority at that time.  My Mother was a devout Roman Catholic.  The religion of my upbringing was a fulfillment of a prenuptial agreement.  My Mother wanted us children baptized in the Catholic Church to avoid issues of religion when time came to marry in a predominantly Catholic country. (Not knowing that we would all be moving to a predominantly Protestant nation.) Although my parents were totally accepting of their religious differences and conducted our family life to accommodate both traditions in an egalitarian fashion, extended family and community were not as tolerant and sometimes proved to be an annoyance.  My Father agreed provided that we the children would be allowed to practise whatever religion we decided we want to follow when we reach our age of reason.  Growing up we were exposed to diverse religious philosophies and diverse ways of life and my Father constantly reminded us to learn and to take the best from each one.  Missionary work, tithing, and philanthropy in all its exultant and humble permutations were central to our life and it was in these grounds of humanitarian effort that we encountered practitioners of other religions  like Buddhism, Shintoism and Islam, and then later on, Judaism and Sikhism.  Therefore our exposure was to the best of hearts of diverse peoples.

Mamang, my maternal Grand-Mother, was a rare one.  She was not religious by any stretch of the conservative imagination.  She goes to Church only once a year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.  But the cornerstone of her beliefs and her mode of living was the Ethic of Reciprocity:  "Emu gagawan keng kapara mung tao ing emu buring magawa keka" which is the Golden Rule translated from Pampango.  She was a woman of means and grew up in the 1900s with brothers who were doctors and lawyers and parents who were smart business people.  She herself studied to be a teacher.  She observed the liturgical cycle with her cooking and celebrated patronal feasts or "fiestas" to the hilt with seasonal menus and gourmet sensibility.  Her family owned agricultural lands, mango orchards, fish ponds, etc. etc. so you could just imagine the quality of her fresh ingredients.  Despite her wealth, she was a hard-working woman who woke up every  morning at 4 o'clock and our discipline in domestic arts started with her with the mind that, and I quote her, "If you are rich enough to have help, you will know how to train them properly; if you are poor, then you will not be fazed by household chores." She owned statuary that processed every year, St. John the Gospel Writer, who was dressed in glorious vestments during the Semana Santa when solemnity was marked by bloody flagellants who later wore Franciscan habits in processions, "Stabat Mater" on the violin, formal clothes despite the tropical heat,  and non-meat scrumptious meals which made abstinence a delectable virtue.  I didn't realize how Spanish her heritage was until I finally found her signature flavors, which I have been doggedly pursuing to duplicate,  when I visited Barcelona.  Our Catholicism of course was of the Spanish Colonial temperament as well since we were under their rule for 400 years until American missionaries came and educated us.

Lola Paz, my paternal Grand-Mother, whose parents converted from Catholicism and whose life was based on everything Biblical, was a religious Protestant.  My Grand-Father was a poor Protestant minister.  She was widowed when my Father was 16 and they were the poorest of the poor, my Father's invariable introductory line to his life when he waxed self-referentially.  My Father's guiding philosophy was Augustinian:  "PRAY AS IF EVERYTHING DEPENDED ON GOD; WORK AS IF EVERYTHING DEPENDED ON YOU." He was the breadwinner of a family of 7 children all of whom had baccalaureate degrees, except for one with a medical degree.   All of us 4 children hold graduate degrees except for one who died at age 26; he graduated with a baccalaureate degree in Fine Arts from the same illustrious school we all graduated from, and then went into computers.  My younger sister and brother completed their graduate degrees here in the States.  Indeed, although piety undergirded our daily life, we were not permitted to use it as a crutch.  My Father and Mother were big on the American ethic of hard work, education, success, and missionary work.

Come to think of it, I was literally born into a veritable melting cauldron of differences - how I do I then parlay these rich history into something tangibly significant?  Do I have to...but of course YES!  To much is given, much is expected.  So...how am I religious?

Religion enables me to lavish in the glorious arches of Heaven that I know glow all around me if I but pause, stay still, and dwell on all that is abundantly available and contemporaneously accessible to me.   What is religion but an organizing mechanism by which I make my self sensible to all things godly, to help me aspire to what is noble, and to give me the vis-a-tergo to do what I must.   My invisible Faith can only be made manifest by the quality of the tangible end products of all that I do.  The ineffable beauty of my God is made effable by what ensues from me.  The manner in which I comport myself, how I occupy space and move within it, how I relate to those who inhabit my world, how I tread on the Earth and how I discipline myself in the wise use of its resources, how I accomplish my work, how I choose to respond especially when something unsavory happens to me or to another, most especially then - all these are emphatic declarations I make about my God.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A PEACEABLE GHOST

My short, uncanny pilgrimage to Chareidi country took 203 and 1/2 hours from beginning to end including the going and the returning, for everyone and everything experienced within this space of time was a significant part of it.  The best gifts were the tete-a-tetes that took place as a matter of course, unplanned, but if at all designed it was by the prevailing circumstances of the moment and these were always the unforgettable ones.  And this was how Sapir and I found ourselves, with no one to relate to except each other so we made the most of this most salutary occasion to enjoy and to focus on our budding acquaintance.

Sapir is a modern Jewish woman who is stylish and passionate.  She dotes on her children in exultantly ardent ways in the manner that only mothers do.  One cannot help but remark on how she greets them both on coming and on leaving, hugging and kissing them as if it would be her last time to do so.  That was big lesson number one I learned from her - do not take the precious time you have with your loved ones for granted. She was a captivating story-teller who wore her emotions in her eyes, on her facial expressions and in her body language which effectively filled in the small gaps in her fluency in English.  Just like with her mother , we communicated beautifully. She told of her daughter Menuha's courtship with Ari which faithfully reflected Ari's version.  She told of her daughters' religiosity.  And apropos to this, she told the most poignant story about her father.  Her father was a very religious man.  When he was a young man, he and his brother left the rest of their family in Yugoslavia to lay railroad tracks for the Germans in Austria.  When they returned to Yugoslavia, they found their family wiped out by the Germans.  Sapir grew up knowing her father as a non-religious man.  He was mum about his experience to his children.  Sapir learned about this important chapter in his life from her mother who told the story after her father had passed.  Yet the gentle and pacific nature of his spirit echoes to our time in a peaceable voice, a most sacred legacy of valor by not further poisoning his loved ones with the harshness and ugliness of violence and by holding up his dignity and that of his family in quiet grace. The character of this wonderful man is reflected on the lovely and contented visage of Libi, his wife, and in the solidity and wholesomeness of his children and his children's children.   Sapir believed that her father's piety skipped a generation and thus, was inherited by her daughters.

Can one ever fathom the excruciating anguish wrought by such unspeakable loss? Perhaps that's why he did not speak of it.  It was simply beyond bearing.  If there's a God, why did this happen to a religious man such as he?  This was central to Keren's atheism. God certainly was in the grace with which this holy man tackled every ion of violence that was dealt him and his family - how does one heal from such shattering wounds on heart and soul not to mention physical losses? Only with God in every tear, in every wound, in every hurt, in every emptiness, in every grief, in every longing.  In Sapir's father's honor, I wish for peace in every land and in every nation so that no one will ever know again the agony he bore.  For every man, woman or child violated in any way, shape or form anywhere in our world everyone of us is diminished and only by the grace of God do we become whole again.

Monday, September 5, 2011

PROMESSE D'AMOUR

God's love is huge, enormous, boundless, unfathomable, eternal.  How can one contain and confine even a perfume of it when the fragrance is meant, as it should, to be spread abroad so that it alights on everyone and do its work of fascinating, wondering, uplifting, nurturing, liberating?  There are as many ways as there are human beings in our planet endowed with inalienable gifts of communicating God's love, that part of it which is an attribute unique to one's self, so that we can know Him better, feel His presence even in the ugliest of moments, believe in His justifying goodness of peace and prosperity for everyone whom He loves equally and in a world He created generously.


Talents innate to each of us, and each of us are possessed of our own, when honed for utility make God's love communicable to everyone around and beyond.  A shining example of this is one of my professors of the French language.  I met her in one of the intermediate classes at Onondaga Community College (OCC) in Syracuse, New York where I first took French 101 knowing that I do not have the natural facility for it  but enrolled in it anyway because of a bet.  I was declaring that it was easy to get an A in America if one applies one's self accordingly and to prove this point I took the last class available for enrollment that semester and it so happened that we were having this conversation on the OCC campus.  And that spur of the moment recklessness surprised me in a million charming ways that enriched my life by it having a life of its own - the world opened up to me in various astonishing tangents which enabled acquaintances with unforgettable people.


Katy is a wonderful teacher with both prodigious talent for the expertise and equaled only by her love of propagating it.  By golly, if she's your teacher, you'll be speaking the language, brokenly perhaps but you will speak it.  So, it was not because I was good at it but that she was tireless in teaching it.  I continued to plug along even when I was in Indiana where I enrolled at Purdue University; even then, I would call her to help me with my homework so I can continue to capture that A.  I still have problems with the fluency but I know enough to carry on a conversation if I have chemistry with the other person.  Because communication is largely about compassion. So if two people are interested enough to learn about each other, they could successfully do so even with hand signals and body language.  The reverse is true, no amount of fluency can make adequate the lack of love.


And so that was how Mayim and I encountered each other, in that intimate space of mutual desire to learn of each other in the only language we can communicate with.  It was a fantastic moment for me.  She spoke five languages at least and none of them was English.  But one of them was French and because of my modicum of fluency I was able to bond with her in the most precious and in the most special way.  She was so generous in encouraging me by telling me  I was doing very well when I  knew there was so much to be desired in my fluency.  Nevertheless I put forth everything Katy taught me realizing that I carry her instruction and her essence with me wherever I go and whenever I speak that language.  And Mayim was a fabulous and a charismatic ranconteur, telling of how two weeks before Ari and Menuha met for the first time, she told him to go to the Qottel to pray for his life partner and she was exuberantly pleased that obviously the prayer was answered. Also she told with gleaming eyes of the accomplishments of her grand-children who are patently her pride and joy. She also lovingly shared a short version of her personal life.  Do you know, I had goose bumps all over while I was chatting with her and  even now as I recall it?  I cannot contain my happiness at being able to relate to her.  I would have missed  out on this wonderful grand dame of such singular elan if I did not speak the only language we could share.  Truly, God's love from all angles.



ARI'S LEAP OF AND TO FAITH

Soren, as in Kierkegaard, reaches from the 1800s with the intriguing concept that the only way to know our own truths is to make a leap of and to faith. There was a phase in my age of reason when I was unreasonably captivated by the physical appearance, the upbringing, the short life, the writings, the loss to oblivion and then the tardy posthumous acclaim of this religious and existential Lutheran philosopher from Denmark that all I did was read and read his work even if I did not entirely comprehend the bulk of it and even if I invariably ended up with a headache.  Perhaps because everything about him was weird, peculiar and convoluted, and absolutely sad that I was totally enraptured by him, but most especially by his thoughts which became fodder for my own  private philosophical musings.  Now those haunting abstractions return with ferocious alacrity as they clarify themselves to myself as I witness Ari's happiness at having found himself and Menuha, their promising new life together an organic testament to what might come of it when one makes that proverbial leap as he courageously did eight years ago.  It was indeed an investment of courage, paid with the currency of ceaseless and staunch prayers, against all the fears of his family and his friends when without much ado, so it seemed, he moved from the States to Chareidi Country.  I remembered I was beside myself when I heard of his bold move because I feared I was going to lose him on one front and his friendship on a second - first I feared, panicked in fact, for his physical safety and second, I feared that the differences wrought by our religious beliefs will ultimately dissolve our friendship.  I thank the Good God that those fears were for naught or all of these profound and religious encounters in Chareidi country would have been unfortunately precluded.  More importantly God protects us wherever we are.  As for our friendship which has passed naturally from his parents on its own effortlessly, unwilled by us, a gift from God, therefore our friendship is above our beliefs because it is of God and God is above everything.


My favorite understanding of FAITH is by a modern Christian mystic, the monk Thomas Merton who said, "Faith demands the renunciation of our own lights and our own prudence and our own wisdom and of our whole "self" in order to live in and by God's Spirit."  I knew that Ari was seeking and I knew that he was restless, but I am not privy to the myriad steps, big and small,  that brought him to his decision.  All I observe now is the outcome of that great leap that must have taken an audacious, a transcendent and an unqualified faith.  Menuha made similar remarkable decisions of faith in a parallel universe and then Ari's universe collided with hers.  Where would they be if they did not dare?  But they did!  And as  Saint Augustine foretold - they are now resting easy in God's arms, enjoying the discovering of each other, sharing their lives in prayer, in laughter, and in love.  When I see Ari's eyes twinkle when they behold Menuha, I exult in his worthiness of all those previous struggles.  And we who were witnesses to the sanctity of their wedding vows were opened to a whole new world of friendships and blessings beyond our ken.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bracha H'shem. GruB Gott. Pagpalain ka ng Maykapal. Ojigi.

There is a certain way a body orients itself in space when the owner of that body is a God-loving and a God-fearing soul irrespective of his or her religious persuasion.  Such a person is always aware of the Presence of the Holy in the Universe and as such, one's posture, clothing, health, speech, mannerisms and attitudes reflect a reverential stance at all times, vertically towards God and horizontally towards others.  Even those who deny the existence of God or those who live purely secular lives but are aware of a certain orderliness in a world that is good comport themselves in a maturity of mind and emotion.


Bracha H'shem.  Bless God.
One often hears this blessing many, many times a day in Chareidi country. Whenever someone mentions something good or optimistic or healthy or promising or positive, "Bracha H'shem" is invariably uttered.  It is a humble acknowledgment and exultation that all good things flow from a gracious and a provident God.  One's humanity can get in the way of one's best intentions because life invariably happens even in religious circles.  The religious does not want to dwell in unsavory, negative and traumatic matters.  One time we were driving by a scene of a MVA and Ari admonished us not to look.


GruB Gott.  Bless God or God bless.  Big God.
In the Salzkammergut district in Austria, there is a sleepy and quaint hamlet, Halstatt, hanging on the hills by lake Halstattsee.  I remember the evenings, while tourists mill about the small square and the locals are on their way home, the locals acknowledge anyone they come across with by greeting them "GruB Gott" accompanied by a gentle smile.  It was a sweet way of meeting the dusk in kindness.  I remember meditating about this over a glass of properly chilled buttery chardonnay while people-watching.  I felt like drifting in a soft cloud of Peace.  I was indeed a world away, in a world of unimpaired serenity in the early '90s.


Pagpalain ka ng Maykapal.  God bless you.
When the Philippines was much younger and much more innocent, the townsfolk were very religious.  When it was time for Angelus which was signaled by a peal of church bells, the Filipinos would stop in their tracks if walking or cease whatever they were doing and would recite the short prayer quietly while they stood still with heads bowed. This took place three times a day.  In those days, the country was peaceful and was a progressively emerging nation in Southeast Asia.


Ojigi.  A wordless tribute of respect and honor.
When my niece and I visited Japan we were met by my father's friends who conferred on us the deepest token of respect and honor.  They were in their 70s making us so much younger than them, yet they bowed to us as if we were royalty.  First they would stand straight with heads toward Heaven and their hands at their sides and then they would bend at the waist in almost 90-degree angle in an unhurried and a most solemn manner.  It was not all about us.  It was because of where we came from, from my father whom they worked with, together with other volunteers for peace and reconciliation from throughout the world,  in rehabilitating a devastated kindergarten school after  WWII in a small village in Japan called Sanage.  My father's family was ravaged by the Japanese, yet when he heard similar anguished woes from the war widows, he gave a speech of forgiveness which resonated with all those who heard it and reverberated all the way to our time. It was the beginning of healing between the two countries, meager though it was considering the strong currents of anti-each-other sentiments but it miraculously endured steadfastly into the present, thanks to this small band of men and women.  The Japanese like the other volunteers were religious and were adamant that Japan will not rear its military ambitions ever again.  They are a small group in their senior years and they who are still alive and well are presently working staunchly to stand by their commitment to a peaceable world.




SHEVA BRACHOT

The seven nights following the wedding night were celebrated in seven homes, one for each night, with rabbis, family and friends.  Ari sometimes scheduled them as the days approached with the heads of household usually a friend from the yeshiva or from the synagogue.  I believe others were spontaneous and inevitable like those of Orit's and Iyov's which I missed because theirs took place after I left for my return to the States.  Of the two I attended, I particularly warmed to the one hosted by Menuha's family because I have fallen in-like with them which could only be described as like-at-first-smile.   As such it was comfortable being with them which in and of itself was a grand blessing.

My first encounter with Menuha and her family was the day after we arrived from the States at a luncheon they hosted in a light and airy restaurant inside a huge mall in the heart of Chareidi country.  It was also my first close encounter with a Jewish family on this visit which has a purpose all its own.  As I vowed to do since I do not know what to expect I stood back and waited,  only to be greeted warmly in the manner I am accustomed to - hands extended for a strong hand-shake led by Menuha's father Yoel with ear-to-ear smiles that could not be more welcoming.  Oh! It was so heartwarming, which set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.  Menuha and her older sister Tzofiya are religious and were dressed accordingly.  Menuha's parents Sapir and Yoel, her twin brothers Tobiah and Meir,  Tobiah's wife Marni and Meir's fiancee Hava were self-declared non-religious and dressed more casually.  Tzofiya's husband and boys were dressed casually but were wearing kippahs.  Menuha and Sapir wore semi-causal ensembles.  There was also no separation of genders in the seating arrangement.  We ordered from menus which were issued in both Hebrew and English, the service was excellent and the food was exceptional.  The conversation flowed easily.  They were quite fluent in English.  Tobiah and his wife Marni who is expecting their first child in October just arrived from the States.  Tobiah trained for his work and after his training Marni met him in Chicago before they both flew back to the Pyrenees.  She is employed in PR if I remember correctly. They are young and full of excitement for life.  Yoel has a refreshing candor and a sense of humor that puts one at ease.  First thing he told me, "I just do what my wife tells me to do."  To which I replied, "You're a very wise man." Then he rebutted quietly with his mischievous wide grin, which his sons inherited and could light up a room like a starburst. On Shabbat Pinchas, he told me on a more serious note, "This is as new to me as it is to you.  I am learning just as you are."  It's always nice to have someone with kindred spirit.

My next encounter with the family was on the second Sheva Brachot which was held in their residence not too far from the Xelz Synagogue.  Marni was indisposed and Meir was working but Hava was there from whom I learned that Meir and her are traveling to Italy in a few weeks.  Part of their trip is to shop for her wedding dress in Milan for their nuptials in November.  I asked her how she could tell the difference between Tobiah and Meir who look identical to me but apparently they were not.  She smiled and said that their ears were set differently.  Also present was Sapir's brother Abraham and Yoel's brother whose name eludes me at the moment.  There was an official looking man who joined us who maybe a rabbi and who led the rituals.  The meal was served on two separate tables, one for men and another for women.  On our table, the blessing of the bread, salt and wine was done by Menuha who as usual was dressed stylishly.  One of my warmest memories of this night was being in the presence of Sapir's 86-year old mother Libi, dressed elegantly but not in religious fashion, who spoke only Esfaradit.  I first met her at the wedding.  Her fine needlework took pride of place on one wall of the home together with other art pieces. Somehow we were able to communicate, and very sweetly too. She told me in eloquent body language pointing to me then to her wedding ring and then to her heart which I translated adequately enough that she wished for me to be happily married someday.  She was the third woman in a few days to wish me the same blessing and I was moved by their affection. Shortly after dessert of scrumptious fresh fruits, pictures were taken and they asked me to join which was indeed generous of them.

Sheva Brachot means seven blessings.  They are praises and blessings to God, for the Universe and for the humanity He created, for the bridegroom and bride whom He brought together, and for happiness which also comes from Him.  This is my intuitive understanding of this beautiful rite.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

WEDDING PARTY A LA CHAREIDI

Still dazed, speaking only for myself who was uninitiated in all matters Chareidi, from the solemnity of the Chupa just past, we moved back to the wedding hall via elevators, one for males and one for females.  Ari and Menuha, by themselves alone for the first time retired to the privacy of a small room where they broke their fast and presumably consummated their marriage...whoa! symbolically only.  They joined the festivities after a space of "Hi and Hello" or so it seemed to me and probably to them too.  


In the meanwhile, the hall was keenly bursting with party atmosphere and the guests were eager to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure the bride and groom enjoy themselves to the hilt albeit separated anew - Ari with their male guests on one side of the divider and Menuha with their female guests on the other side.  The guests were big families which included their children of all ages and their babies in prams. There was a band of men who located themselves on one corner of the male side of the hall, also wearing the traditional garb of black-and-white with beards and payes, who played the vivacious Hebrew party music that lent itself to exuberant and highly spirited group dancing. There was none of the de rigueur first dances typical of secular weddings. As it follows, there were no close physical encounters between any male and any female.  There were few stragglers from the men's side to the women's side and notorious of whom right from the start were the twin brothers of Menuha, the strikingly handsome Tobiah and Meir, who sat by their lovely wife and fiancee respectively and even then, there were no dancing and no overt forms of touching.  Four-sixths of Menuha's family as are four-fifths of Ari's family are not as tradition-bound as Menuha and Ari but both families applied themselves devotedly to all the Orthodox rituals required of them. This loyal and loving familial support made every aspect of the celebration nice and beautiful and complete.  


How, you ask, is the fun factor under such seemingly strict constraints? It was amazingly off the chart.  It was FUN as in F-U-N, as in FUN!FUN!FUN! Unexpectedly so, incredibly so, but true.  At first it seemed unlikely but shortly into it, I found the wisdom in this unisexual, sometimes chorus-line like group dances.  Since there were no pheromones distracting the sweet abandon to the guileless movements, the joy in the doing was focused and pure.  It was like an unprogrammed child-play of a sort since the ladies, most of whom were young and energetic, were very creative in innovating line dances using arched embellished  rounded poles under which the guests danced through led by Menuha, a decorated umbrella as a prop for prancing here and there, and such.  We danced in big circles becoming smaller, in trains serpenting around the room, and sometimes in big and in small groups. The main event was when the ladies were gathered around a huge, rectangular plywood, holding it up, carrying it around with Menuha at the center of it, throwing treats in small pouches over the divider to the men's side of the hall.  Can you imagine how strong these ladies were and how fit Menuha was to remain poised on top of the wide undulating thin board? Dancing went on and on; I got pulled to the dance floor whenever Orit's daughters saw me sitting; they made me feel so warmly welcomed and an integral part of the celebration.  One cannot not dance, both young and old. Orit's children were gorgeously dressed to the nines as Noya predicted they would be and their individual personalities sparkled brightly.  Sometime during all of this, there were confettis showered on Menuha which the children, boys and girls alike (yes! the boys can cross the great divide freely) enjoyed doing, rendering everything boisterous and festive.


From time to time, I peeped through the slotted upper border of the divider to the men's side and they too were dancing in groups and in circles and were as loose-limbed and as bouncy as we were on our side.  I saw the brothers Yochanan, Barukh and Ari arm-in-arm and I was moved by the sight of them together.


The food was an abundant banquet served in multiple courses in a sit-down style dining with servers, who also went around with an offering of choices. The first course was bread, salt and mezes already set on the table.  The second was a choice amongst moussaka, spicy fish, or minced chicken in puff pastry. The third was an offering of chicken and steak and I chose the steak which was so perfectly cooked I thought I'd gone to Heaven prematurely!  This course was accompanied by rice pilaf and fresh green beans. The fourth was a dessert course, first a square piece of cake with whipped cream on the side followed by a wide platter of fresh fruits left for noshing in the middle of the table.  There were soft beverages, water, and I can't remember if there was a light wine to accompany the meals.  So much delicious food to sustain the aerobic nature of the non-stop dancing which went deep into the night.  What a party!


Just prior to bidding the last of the guests, the service staff and the hall farewell, we took our places for group photographs as well.  I am certain that there were a lot of impromptu pictures too since the camera and video crew were all over both sides of the hall.

Monday, August 15, 2011

CHUPA

As the evening gently slid into night, Ari's prophecy became a promise fulfilled.  How true,  I have not seen the likes of their wedding!


The first intimation that a ceremony sumptuous with mystery was in the offing was when I set eyes on their CHUPA.  It was grand in proportion with four pillars thickly shrouded in white drapes bound at intervals and holding up the white canopy.  It was set up against one wall of the rooftop and it stood directly under the stars.  There was a j'en sais quoi quality to this Chupa that I have not sensed in other Chupas I've attended.  It was an unnameable mystique.  I made a beeline to it, shamelessly coming up front, as close to it as I can without actually being underneath the canopy.  Ari explained to us earlier that there is no barrier whatsoever between God and anyone in the sacred space of the Chupa. Later after the ceremony I found myself in it with Moshe and Noya.  I wondered, did it count since the rite was over?


As I approached, the ceremony was already under way.  At the edge of my mind I noted that the guests were again separated by gender by an arbitrary divider.  Some guests were seated, most were standing to better see what was transpiring.  There were bright lights for filming purposes.  Again the filming crew were busy at work.  And doing so, they inadvertently covered the view from time to time.  It was a challenge to my resourcefulness but I was equal to the task.


In the meantime,  with face still covered and escorted by Sapir and Noya, Menuha was circling Ari several times,  who was wearing a pure white bunny suit over his wedding clothes (white shirt, black pants, black vest, tie, black suit, and black shoes, all of which were brand new) had his eyes closed while praying and tilting back and forth gracefully.  I think this characteristically Orthodox manner of praying is what is called davening.  He was flanked on each side by Moshe and Yoel.  In one corner of the Chupa there were several rabbis who were in front of a microphone praying and chanting, one rabbi after another, and also Iyov.  At this point I noted that Shmuel was under the canopy on one side of the Chupa.  I do believe that whoever they were that were in the Chupa with Ari and Menuha were of course significant personages in their lives, predominantly Ari's which by extension became Menuha's.


Then Ari placed the ring on Menuha's finger.  She is the only one who gets a wedding band, Ari does not.  There was an explanation why this was which eludes me at this time of writing.  Then Yochanan came under the canopy to place the glass wrapped in thick cloth horizontally in front of Ari's left foot which stomped on and crushed it, the doing so signaled the close of this sacred age-old rite and the beginning of partying-a-la-Chareidi.


Despite my avidity, there were many details I missed which I predict will come in time as we talk about it later.  I can google the rest to fill in the gaps but then doing so will intellectualize an experience that is abundantly personal.


CHUPA was my spelling of choice in honor of the way it was listed on the invitation.  It was an invitation that was one-of-a-kind, forwarded to me by Ari's parents on e-mail. It was in Hebrew with a few parts of it in English written in blue and blue-black ink on a white background.  Modesty was an element listed to signal the deep conservativeness and the holiness of the event including the dress code.

To my anecdotal understanding, chupa refers to both the four pillars and canopy of a wedding chuppah as well as to the marriage ceremony within it.  It can also refer to the first home of the newly-married couple, the absence of furniture signify that human beings take precedence over material possessions.  And chupa is also symbolic of hospitality to weary travelers recalling Abraham's tent which is soft-sided without concrete walls to speak of.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

THE MOST TENDER MOMENT

For once I wished I was omnipresent so I did not have to miss a thing, not one thing!


The atmosphere was suddenly suffused with fervor, drama and solemn commotion.  Ari was entering our side of the hall arm-in-arm with his father Moshe on one side and Menuha's father Yoel on the other.  They processed towards Menuha accompanied by a congestion of guests and camera and video crew.  Intuitively I knew the following was very,very important. This is Badeken, when Ari assures himself that indeed the woman before him is Menuha, his intended bride to avoid suffering Jacob's fate in the Old Testament when Lavon engineered a bride-swap.  I simply had to witness this because today will be the first time that I will see them together in the same space since I arrived. They had not seen each other for two weeks prior to the wedding to accomplish with care albeit separately the pre-wedding cleansing rituals, davening and fasting.  I had to see with my own eyes how he looked when he looked at her.  It was quite a challenge to find a spot to get a full view of the two of them since everyone had the same goal.  After successfully insinuating myself up front I saw Ari's face with a wealth of tender emotions, his eyes gentling lovingly as he looked at her. And was his face blushing with his feelings?  I was so struck by the depth of this encounter between them that my tears welled unbidden and were flowing down my cheeks before I knew it.  As I raised my eyes my gaze collided with Tobiah's, one of Menuha's brothers, who remarked on my affection later.  Next thing I saw was her face was already covered with a thick antique-white cloth like a veil and her head was bent underneath it while she was praying from a text.


As I pondered on what just took place, the groom's and the bride's entourages were on the move again (Didn't I tell you, this is literally and by far the most movable festivity I've ever attended in my long life!)  and this time to go to the fifth floor for the Chupa which was set directly under the sky.  It was challenging for Menuha since she can't see with her veil over her face but she was escorted well by the mothers and the other ladies and arrived by elevator I presume, whole and composed.

THE BRIDE

Menuha is a rare sight.


Menuha is tall and slender with olive-toned complexion, black hair and dark eyes.  On this her wedding day, she wore an ankle-length antique-white gown with a round neck and long sleeves, both of which were edged with a modicum of lace, a waist that emphasized the narrowness of it, and a perfect fit that showcased her well-proportioned physique.  She wore white stockings and white shoes.  She wore a white veil over coifed up-done hair (a wig perhaps) highlighted with discreetly sparkling bead-like jewels - it was all oh! so romantic but in a barely there fashion. The length of the gown enabled her to move about easily which she did a lot of.  She was the most active bride I've ever seen - her movements were quiet, lithe and purposeful.  She was already on site when we arrived and small groups of women were intermittently clustering around her in greetings and well-wishings and something else which will become evident a little later.  She appeared, disappeared and re-appeared, always with either her sister or her mother or with a bunch of ladies.  Finally she re-entered the hall formally on the arms of her mother Sapir and Ari's mother Noya on either side of her and they processed towards the gilded white settee where she sat. Ladies followed and formed two receiving lines in front of the settee.  I observed that the ladies were not only offering salutations but by their body language seemed to be earnestly entreating her for something I-know-not-what-still and she obliged every one of them.  This went on many, many times throughout the night. Shortly her handsome family joined her on the dais and photographs were taken.





THE RECEPTION

On the arrival of Ari's car at the venue, the camera and the video team met him and his entourage which were us and films started rolling.  We proceeded to the fourth floor of the building where the beautifully laid out reception hall divided into the male side and the female side was located. Ari was spirited away to his side or somewhere-I-don't-know where he was not supposed to see his bride-to-be yet. The focal point of the female side was a beautifully upholstered Louis XV-style settee in white and gold on a white dais set against one wall of the room and marked by a white diaphanous hanging.  The dais was flanked by huge crystal vases with elegant flower arrangements within them and these were on stands. The effect was understated yet regal, dramatic and sentimental but not over-the-top.  The tables were formally set for dining with white tablecloths and napkins, with white place settings, silverware and crystal goblets, and completed with a formal flower arrangement.  There was a bunch of prayer cards in Hebrew, I assumed that was what they were, resting against the bottoms of the vases.  The seating arrangement was after-the-fact when a hostess came around asking if we who were already seated were family and labeled our table as such which I picked for its vantage point.  There was a bar on the other side of the room which was a small buffet of hot foods and non-alcoholic beverages to which the guests helped themselves promptly. To the left of the bar was another formally set table for four which was never occupied.  It might have been meant for the bridal entourage.  This was an adventure in and of itself for me since there was no program I could refer to for the sequence of events.  I saw a pile of interesting-looking booklets at an entrance round table but it was in Hebrew and I was not sure what they were.  No one else was carrying anything in their hands that could be construed as a program.  I should have googled "Jewish Weddings of the Chareidi Tradition" but I did not know until I was there that this was what I was specifically invited to attend.  It was proving to be the theme of this week, I learned as the days unfolded.  Back in the States Noya gave me a magazine article to read but was too busy getting my wardrobe together for the trip to read it completely.  I could have asked you'd say but I was so enthralled and caught up by the proceedings to ask.  So I prepared myself to be amazed and delightfully amazed I was.  I was rocked!  There is something to be said about being clueless - full enjoyment at face value, unfettered by expectations.  More significantly, I got to know Menuha's style by observing closely every detail of the event that reflected her choices.  I've concluded that her style is comfortable understated elegance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

ON THE ROAD TO SACRED VOWS

One of my favorite memories took place on our drive from our apartment to where the wedding venue was.  Iyov, Ari's best friend, who stood as his "best man" in all that that role entailed and more, took charge of getting us to the wedding in his van.  "Us" included Moshe's brother Yaakov and his friend Keren, Yochanan and me.  Iyov managed our seating arrangement as well as he could considering relatedness and the separation of genders, and the result was I got the best seat which was next to the driver's.   In another car, Ari was driving initially with Barukh, Moshe and Noya then it became necessary for Barukh to transfer to our van.  While all this was coming to pass, Iyov and Keren were already in the midst of a brisk and an exuberant debate on religion and politics which I suppose started from the time Iyov picked them up from the grand hotel where they were billeted.  My ears perked, my supratentorium spasm'ed to attention, my body became more still as I listened avidly.  At first I wondered why this contest because everyone in this van is Jewish except me and it was only after we were settled in the wedding hall that it made perfect sense when Keren declared that she is a Jewish Atheist.  Iyov is an erudite young man who is steeped in the study of the Torah, the 613 Mitzvot, the Tanakh, the Midrash, and the Zohar, and this list probably does not even cover the bodies of knowledge he is involved in.  He wears his religion on his physical self as expected of a religious like himself - he wears a black wide-brimmed hat with the brim slanted upward, a long black coat over a white shirt, black pants and tzitzit (which is not visible but I know they're there), black shoes, and he sports a long beard and payes, and he makes these look good on his tall and lean frame.  There was a religious basis to every element of his ensemble which he elaborated on when Keren asked - the upslanted brim of the hat is to reflect God's light, the hat itself is a conduit between God and man, the tzitzit a reminder of religious obligations, the long beard an antennae receiving signals from God, the payes a sign of wisdom, and the rest of the clothing is a distancing tool from unwanted distractions.  Keren was putting him through his paces and he in turn considered thoughtfully and without rushing how best to respond to her in attempts to edify her as well as to faithfully represent his belief in a Good God.  The issues she raised were unoriginal but valid and classic in the unfathomable pain they wrought in human history and are a difficult challenge to every God-loving person to tackle but despite that, his responses were carefully thought out, edifying and refreshing.


In the meantime we were tailing Ari's car through the thick of traffic.  Here again, he made his Theology attend him by praying and chanting the Psalms after asking us permission to overtake several cars on the far left lane so we do not loose Ari's car.  He advised to pray the Psalms when one is undertaking a risky maneuver.  A poignant vision of my father, a religious man himself,  reciting  Psalm 91 from memory through the mist of his metabolic acidosis rose in my mind unbidden.  I resolved then and there that I shall develop the habit of praying the Psalms as part of my daily devotions.  It's a beautiful gift.  *Thank you Iyov for this and for every care you took of all of us.*


Being deeply religious did not preclude his savviness with the wider world, specifically monitoring the unstable state of the economic markets as he also owns a hedge-fund business.  He does not excuse himself from working on the practicalities of life for his and his family's survival and so contemporaneously his feet are well grounded on the Earth.  What a guy!



SUCCESS AND FAST FAILURES

We woke up to a quickening of anticipation.  Barukh was arriving from the States today.  Even the limestone that one sees almost everywhere looked honeyed and cheered in the gleaming morning.  Ari was the most expressive of all of us but we were all just as excited as he was to see Barukh again.  This was the fulfillment of Ari's long-time dream, that all of his family would have set their feet on Chareidi soil and it was happening today!  Ari was the only one who knew for sure when he was arriving and in fact, if he was coming at all.  There seemed a vacuum of information but deep in my heart I had no doubt that he would not miss this occasion that is of utmost importance to his brother.  And he was here thus completing their family circle which was everyone's wish come true.

We drove to the airport in a flurry (not the unusual rhythm of our mornings), Ari driving as usual but tempering his speed to abide by his Mom's call for safety.  The roads to were brand new but because of the hilly terrain they certainly undulate with breath-taking turns which felt more so in the fast clip of traffic.  Yochanan had to defer his seat to me because this was my only opportunity to pick up my luggage at the airport which arrived much later after I did. Thanks for the kind consideration, Yochanan.

I did not see him emerge into the arrivals hall at the Chareidi International Airport because I was retrieving my luggage but it made for a family moment for them.  As usual, when we see each other, we hug barely and exchange a few words of greeting which seemed to content us as in all of our encounters during all those big parties that mark family milestones.  Of the three brothers, he is the one I have the most cursory acquaintance with and I of course wondered about that.  Can there be a sweeter endeavor than learning about another and what interests him or her?  Because of my minimal exposure to him, he is like a gift wrapped elegantly but the gift is a mystery at this point waiting to be discovered.  But there are boundaries of discretion one must not breach even one is overwhelmed with fascination, especially so!  What to do? Well, simply nothing.  My wait and see and listen attitude worked its magic as always and learning unfolded on its own natural pace.

Barukh is much younger than me therefore he is a young man. He is a successful corporate executive of a publicly traded company and he has the full complement of PDAs he was rightfully proprietary about to prove it.  He is married to a pretty woman with whom he is in love and with whom he has two children he cherishes with such pride and joy in that way only parents do.  Here he is, a man just a nudge away from the helm of his company, and his fondest narratives are of his children.  He showed a video on his iPhone of his children canoeing in a lake behind the new for-vacation-and-investment house he and his wife just finished decorating.  One of his kids was paddling the canoe with an adult-sized snow shovel - was that ingenuity or what and it was hilarious and yes, the shovel worked well and they were having a blast!  The house was beautifully appointed with furniture they personally shopped for in Lake Superior.

We did have snippets of time on separate encounters where we had short, quiet and companionable chats.  Those enabled me to paint a picture of him in my mind's eye at first with light, subtle strokes for he is a soft-spoken person and moves in a way all his own without stirring the space around him if at all.  When I asked him about the key to his success, he was not coquettish about it but answered me directly, thoughtfully and unelaborately.  There are three  - hard work, general street smarts, and common sense.  He prefaced this by owning his strengths and limitations, acknowledging my profession as a side bar saying that he can't do what I do but this he does and where his peerless intelligence belongs.  He gave me a short history of his work experience which actually spanned 25 years.  Everything he shared he said in short and deceptively simple sentences but the substance of each could not be misconstrued.  He struck me as someone who does not leave anything open to misunderstanding.  He does not make decisions based on emotions.  He does not dwell on unsuccessful decisions he made, instead he accepts responsibility for them, and moves on quickly for the suitable solution.  This he coined "fast failures".  He is not given to drama, in fact he would do anything to avoid it and if unavoidable fix it fast.  He is observant and can synthesize quickly what he knows of in the past and what he sees at present.  He is not timid in assessing reality as he perceives it. He also has a handle on the personalities of those whom he cares about and again, articulates his opinions startlingly because of the way he voices them dispassionately. He is a man of practical sensibilities and has an uncanny intuition in sizing things up.  It was his first time in Israel yet he never demanded anything of anyone for himself, he allowed himself to be led.  He would catch up on his zs when nothing is required of him.  Moshe and I brought him to the Qottel where he took pictures of  breathtaking Charedi scapes on the way there.  But when plans failed the following morning for a day tour, he did not make a big deal of it.  It was funny, we who were purportedly world travelers several times over, did not have shekels to spend nor good phone connections until he arrived and of course, he bailed us out many, many times during the short time he was with us.  And he was quite generous with me too (imagine that, me who was practically a stranger to him), refusing me to repay him for a cab fare and a pizza saying that it was not like I was asking for a mortgage payment.  He never said "no" to anyone especially his brothers. The painting I started of him in my mind soon acquired emphatic and bolder textures as I learned more of him from himself, a man who knows who and what he is, who knows where he wants to go, who knows what it will cost him, and who knows for whom he is doing it and why. It is a secular translation of the biblical admonition - let your yes be yes and your no be no.

It was a delight visiting with him.  When he left, I wished him more power in all his aspirations.


THE BACHELOR'S NIGHT

"Where's the bachelor's party,"Barukh exclaimed.  He flew in today, the last to arrive and the first to depart, and the nuclear family is complete.  Ari was more than vastly pleased that his long-time dream of both his brothers coming to Chareidi country came to pass this week.  He has two brothers in front of him, Yochanan and Barukh, who like him are easy on the eye.  All three differ significantly in how they philosophically view the world.


It was a cozy night-on-the-town in a well-chosen kosher restaurant where Moshe and Noya hosted a bachelor's dinner.  There were only 7 of us - Moshe, Noya, Ari, Yochanan, Barukh, Ari's best friend Iyov, and me. The food was delicious, the Berkan riesling exceptional, the company stimulating, our idiosyncracies notable, and the toasting rich and revealing.


It was a gem of warmth and togetherness, well-wishing Ari and Menuha the best in life, at the same time each of us expressing who we are and what we are about in short sincere bytes.  This night was a highlight. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT

*Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.*


Ari in no uncertain terms brought the observation of this commandment in glorious focus after he and his nuclear family (with the exception of his other brother who has not arrived yet) met with one of the high ranking rabbis on the Xelz Synagogue campus.  I waited for the appointment with Noya in a separate chamber for women but I was not allowed to join them as I am not family.  It was a long, air-conditioned-cold night of watching the women wait patiently, some with children in tow, for their turn to visit with a rabbi while their husbands were doing the same in another chamber. After the much vaunted meeting, we reconvened on the parking lot close to the building from whence we came and the family was overwhelmed with unspeakable praise, reverence and gratitude, and with the enormity of the blessing of being in the presence of such a holy man of God.  It was a momentous occasion.  And Ari stood in a praying stance, with tender emotions on his countenance, thanking God and then thanking his parents for making it possible for him to live this moment.  I stood to the side, quietly moved, until they beckoned me closer, experiencing further the generosity of this most holy night.


On many instances, I noted the limitless thoughtfulness of Moshe and Noya as only parents could be towards their children.  They were open-handed with both their material and non-material gifts, of love, and of every good thing that parents all over the world are wont to do for their children.  In return, parents everywhere are thirsty for the love of their children in whatever capacity they could express it.  The spirit of the law was never about duty, but it was all about love between parents and children.

In honor of my parents, Amor and Anita, I am publishing this my first book under the name they have given me at birth which is composed of my first and second name (the second name being the primary name in the Philippines), my maiden name which is my mother's and my last name which is my father's.  I also included my title in honor of them and as well as of my sister and of my two brothers.  My entire family deserves as much credit for all of my accomplishments as I do because in the Philippines, every member of the family actively contributes to the success of any endeavor any member aspires to.  In the Third World, there are no second chances.  There is no room for failure in that one, holy opportunity.  Therefore it literally takes a family to effect an achievement.  We prayed together, we worked together, we encouraged each other, we helped each other robustly, we rejoiced and we wept together, we gritted our teeth together, we laughed together, and we never gave up.  My parents' Faith in a Providential God was as immovable as the proverbial Rock of Gibraltar. No test weakened that Faith.  And so the ministry inherent in each of our chosen professions and way of life is also all of ours.  Whenever I save a life, I owe it to them, to everything we represent and, to our God.  Today, as we live our own independent lives, we still are present to each other, forever upholding our roots of family and community, forever respectful of where we came from and how we came about, with God forever looming supreme in every decision we make.  It is my pride and honor to belong to a family such as this.


A happy home is the beginning of peace in the world.  This I know for certain.

I WAS LOOKING FOR A BALABUSTA

Courtship, Chareidi-style, is serious business that involves a matchmaker and sleuthing.  "You had her investigated?" I asked Shmuel, laughing at the seeming outrageousness of it.  "Yes," he replied solemnly, "I was looking for a balabusta."  Balabusta is a Yiddish term that embodies what Proverbs exalted as "The Ideal Wife".  Translated into real-terms it means the mistress of the household who is also a good homemaker, a nurturer, a nurse, a counselor, an educator, a CEO-CFO-CAO all rolled into one.  Orit is all that but there is more to her than can be boxed into these neat categories which makes her an authentic balabusta.  Orit is 11 years my junior but so much wiser in the ways of the human heart.  She revels in her husband's strengths and all that he is.  Shmuel is the quintessential alpha male in his looks, in the way he moves, in the way he is as a husband and a father, and in the way he addresses one with Old World grace.  Both are very accomplished in their own rights, successful in their careers in the service of their country and of their community.  I also noticed how well they manage to be expansive towards others in spite of a huge and busy household while forging rich friendships like the one they have with Ari and others. It is as if their lives could still contain so much more and they make it look easy and light. And I know for sure that Orit is a happily married woman because her beauty glows with an incandescense that can only come from a sense of security from a husband who loves her. It does not mean that they escape life's perturbations, it just means that there is a solidity made of hard work and commitment that undergirds it all, immovable no matter what.


Ari strongly affirmed that indeed courtship is not to be taken lightly since this leads to a bond of a lifetime.  He found Menuha through a matchmaker and took time to quickly learn of their similarities.  I did not take long to be impressed by her, at first listening to Ari narrate his discovery of her and her ways. Ari sees his world in details and it was quite apparent that he was smitten from the outset by the manner in which he related to us the loving minutiae that captivated his attention.  At this point, we have not met her in person yet, but we already know that she is well-credentialed, unassuming, disciplined and well-organized, and makes a lovely picnic for two with tablecloth and meticulously prepared mezes.   Most importantly, she was a seeker too, and is now as religious as he is.


I remember how my father observed my mother for a year before he made any moves at courting her.  His one important and convincing discovery was that God loomed large and center in her life as in his.  He as did she had one critical requirement of their would-be spouse and that was "fear of God."  Theirs was a loving and a successful marriage despite their many, many differences.  It occurred to me that undeniably, this is the long lost key to success in marriage in the secular world - the lack of discernment and patience to learn about each other and bringing their respective findings across the bar of reason.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

MY OWN CHERISHED DREAM CAME TRUE IN THEIR LIFE

We were expected at 1130 and we arrived at 1400.  The home of Shmuel and Orit was fairly crackling with anticipation and eagerness for the arrival of Ari and his entourage.  We were first welcomed by their beautiful children of varying heights, ages nineteen to three years old, some huddling in the hallway to receive us with their faces wreathed in winsome smiles. Heavens, I thought, the Sun herself must have come down from its orbital perch to blush their countenances with its glow!  I was so overwhelmed by their beauty and warmth that I unconsciously extended my hand to everyone and each shook it keenly except for the boys.  One of them, possibly age six or seven, who already displayed leadership qualities said, "I am not to do so."  Oh!  Then I understood - males of any age are not supposed to touch a female of any age except for their mothers; not sure with siblings though. The boys wore kippas. The girls wore attractive clothes, still observing the dress code of modesty which each interpreted according to her taste and the result was a study in fashion-a-la-Vogue.  It was quite apparent that these children, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, did not want for anything.  They are happy and healthy, enjoying life in a secure world made robust and stable by the love of their parents for each other and for them.  True love between a man and a woman can be detected a mile away,  even a whiff of it can be leavening to the soul, and that evening I was certainly basking in the inevitable fertile harvests of that love.  I was speechless in my contentment as I take it all in - their devotion to God; their complimentarity and fidelity to each other; their adorable brood of twelve children with given names approved by the rabbi; their well-loved Memere; their friends; their postmodern home with a beautiful view of the city; their elegantly-set table abundant with scrumptious, multi-course Shabbat meal which was a wealthy man's feast Orit prepared from scratch; the fellowship that followed; the restful siesta they offered anyone who needed one; watching the young ones play their respective games while the breeze blew gently across their generous deck; and then, during the sentimental hour of a Chareidi sunset,  a lovely, lovely meal called Havdalah.  At Havdalah, we prayed good-bye to the previous week and prayed hello to the upcoming week.  I could still smell the citrusy herb chosen for that evening.  As if all these bountiful gifts were not enough, Shmuel gave us a lift home in his van so we did not have to walk the way we came this afternoon.  It certainly was an unforgettable Shabbat.



Monday, August 1, 2011

"ONE WHO TREMBLES IN AWE OF GOD"

It was Shabbat.  It was my holiest and my most memorable observance of God's Day-of-Rest while deep in Chareidi country.  The lovely summer morning felt good on the skin and lent itself to comfortable walking because one was not supposed to be riding any conveyance since sundown last evening.  So the streets were quiet and only the breeze and human footfall made imprints on the atmosphere.  No elevators were used.  No telephones either, no computers, no PDAs.  There was no cooking on this day as well.  All the food shopping and cooking were accomplished before sundown yesterday.  No laundry too.  This day, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, was for davening and communing-in-prayer-and-with-food with family and friends. The din from the secular world seemed muted, as if the religious community was  insulated from it.  It was restful and was festive at the same time, just like a day-of-rest ought to be.  


This week-end, Shabbat Pinchas was extraordinarily special because Ari was to be presented, together with two other grooms who were also getting married this upcoming week, at the Xelz Synagogue as part of the pre-wedding intense cleansing ritual of davening, fasting and reading from the Torah.  The Xelz Synagogue is an impressive edifice.  It is vast, modern, polished clean from its rafters to its floors, with beautiful craftsmanship and humongous crsytal chandeliers.  We women, although praying quietly alongside the men, were separated from them by location and by an immovable screen.   We were in what was designated as the women's galleries which are balconies overseeing the main hall below which is the men's domain.  There is also a separate balcony without screens for boys. The boys are free to join the men. Sapir, Menuha's mother, was hailed and honored as the mother-of-the-bride by the women's leadership.  She was moved by their reception of her. The ladies were also looking for Noya but she was indisposed that morning.  I on the other hand felt that I must be sticking out like a sore thumb.  But I did not feel insecure; I was confident that I was where God wanted me to be and He had His reasons why that was.  At a designated time, under the tutelage of Miryam and Rani the women showered goodie bags to the young boys who were eagerly awaiting the treats down in the men's grand hall. Miryam, a 17-year old girl, well-dressed in black-and-white of course, brought all the treats in small pouches which she carried into the gallery in tall Hefty bags.  Her mother Rani was as welcoming as her; Miryam is one of Rani's 14 children.   Earlier I was particularly touched by the masculine roaring chants, which could already be heard on campus from the open high windows,  and at one time seemed to overflow with emotion to my ears despite the fact that I do not understand a word of Hebrew. Before I knew it, I had tears in my eyes.


When Ari arrived this morning, crisp and handsome, wearing a spanking-new tallis gifted to him by Menuha, I knew I was in for something truly religious and esoteric.  As days unfolded, this was proving truer and truer.  As I was getting deeper and deeper into the thick of the religion in the Chareidi tradition, it was like an unmitigated exercise in immersion.  I felt cocooned in a cloud of safety, as if nothing unsavory could touch me.  I was in the zone of kindness and benevolence and my soul was in an attitude of humility so that I was able to soak it in.  I have yet to comprehend all of it in the light of my own background.  One thing I know for sure, this lifestyle of prayer needed to be lived with kindred spirits hence the apparent insularity.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A HOLY MAN

The moment he crossed the threshold into Shifra's living room, I was immediately captivated by him.  He is 84-years old, of medium height, lean and slim, with an erect posture and a kindly face, and he was wearing a black wide-brimmed hat and a long black coat.  It was not so much his appearance as his serene demeanor that riveted my senses.  He was economical in his movements and did not advance further than a few steps beyond the door. Shifra's many children greeted him and he in turn layed his hands on their heads one-by-one and gave them their blessings respectively.  I too wanted acutely to be blessed by him who I now deemed in so short a time to be a kind and a humble man.  The sensibility of his holiness just washed over me. Sapir and I requested to be blessed by him. He blessed us in a short prayer in English, he is British after all, without the laying of hands because a grown man is not supposed to touch a grown woman.  Then he left as quietly as he arrived.  Later, Shifra confirmed my impressions of him who is her father.  He had 13 children and Shifra, who has the most beautiful and the healthiest unadorned complexion I have ever seen on a woman, has 12 children.

BLACK-AND-WHITE ELEGANCE

After quelling my fear of terrorist attacks (which of course took hold only after I bought my plane ticket - go figure), the next arduous task for me was finding appropriate wardrobe.  Having found a long black skirt after three hours of getting in and out of several permutations of a skirt that was black, I was relieved and ready to fly into the Chareidi sunset.  Not so fast Noli, one is not enough!  I was told that if I was in the company of Noach, specially during religious gatherings, I have to wear a skirt and follow all that was prescribed in the way of modest dressing.  With my over-the-top BMI, this was not going to be a walk in the park.  And since it was in the heat of summer, I was not about to wear stockings, or was I?  What have I gotten into?  For the first time, I felt totally out-of-my-depth.  I am a modest dresser myself but I could not remember when I last wore a skirt.  However I was bent on respecting this requirement even if it killed me.  I googled and googled and still, I could not get a foothold on the style.  Until I arrived at Chareidi International Airport, where disembarking female passengers were wearing black and white ensembles in many elegant varieties and were moving with ease in them. I was literally mesmerized. True, the attires were indeed ultra-modest with closed-necks, long sleeves, hemlines midway between the ankle and the knee, legs stockinged, and feet in flat invariably black but stylish shoes.  And if you are a married woman you wore a fetching hat underwhich you had a wig, either that, or you wore an equally attractive snood or scarf which covered your entire head, or a hat alone so long as none of your hair is showing.  Although the designs did not necessarily avoid emphasis on a narrow waist or on appealing curves, the modesty was refreshing and amazingly settling.  It was truly elegant and very becoming on a female form especially if that form is well-proportioned. But what was tantalizing was the many ways modesty-in-black-and-white can be cleverly interpreted by the female mind.  Indubitably, femininity is irrepressible.  I really don't know how I came across in my own version of black and white abroad.  But I resolved in my mind that I will lose weight if only to sport one of these black-and-white confections one day soon.

A STANCE OF STILLNESS

I lifted every step of my preparation to God and I was convinced of His approval since logistically everything was coming to pass with ease. Remember there was not a lot of time to be indecisive.  Yet there is a soupcon of trepidation because of the travel security advisory issued by the State Department.  However I'd rather die brazenly keeping my word than live a long life regretting my cowardice every single day.  The pathetic weakness, if fear overwhelmed my vow, would have dishonored not only myself but also my parents, my grandparents, my ancestors, and all whom I represent.


While I was in this contemplative space, I've decided that I will take a stance of stillness and quiet.  After all, this is not about me.  This is about Ari and Menuha and the celebration of the beginning of the rest of their lives together.  Ari advised me that I will experience festivities I have not seen the like of, and that I will attend every event where his family is expected. I felt utterly blessed by the honor and privilege he had conferred on me.   All the more I committed myself to clear my mind and my heart of biases and of clutter that will prevent me from riveting my attention on what is to come.   I wanted to be totally present to every context with all the wisdom that only innocence can bring.  My spirit was ready to be enriched.  My mind recalled to itself all the understanding it can exercise.  I was also more than willing to physically extend myself in any way I can at any time when called to do so.  Otherwise I was content to meditate on all these sacred gems in my heart.  It was a blissful state to be bereft of an agenda.  I was free to be me.

THE PROMISE

Ari, Moshe and Noya's youngest son is an attractive young man, in looks and in spirit.  He has his mother's sensitivity and warm expressiveness.  He came into sharp focus in my life when he started seeking for his own truths. After he finished his bachelor's degree, he went into a culinary institute (I remember how I enjoyed looking at his notebook with lovely drawings and doodles), after which he started a pizza business.  Still he was restless.  Next thing I knew, he was working for a mercantile exchange.  It was there that he met a rabbi who led him to the Path that chose him.  Shortly he moved to Chareidi Country where he studies in the yeshiva both for learning Hebrew and for going deeper into the Torah and the 613 Mitzvot. In one of his return visits to the States, he edified me, "Noli, there is one out there specifically intended for each of us; we are not meant to be alone."  I wanted very much to believe him and in the same token, I sincerely wished for him to find his life partner and henceforth to live happily ever after.  It was in this spirit that my promise to him was born eight summers ago: "I will attend your wedding wherever and whenever it will take place and only death will bar me from doing so."  So when his folks announced that he found the love-of-his-life and was getting married in Chareidi Country, the decision was a no-brainer - I will be there to witness it.  The Napoleon Bonaparte once said that the only way to keep a promise is not to give it, but I think the poor fellow had not enjoyed the untold wonders of a word well-kept.  

MOSHE AND NOYA

I met Moshe and Noya in the Winter of 1984.  I have always known them for the neat power couple that they are but also for their wisdom and compassion. They were the first to invite me to their home and rabbit stew was the main course at dinner.  The stew was deliciously seasoned but the rabbit needed more stewing.  Noya proved to be an imaginative cook, creative and daring.  Meals are always sumptuous and set in enviable tablescapes that enchant the senses.  She is the soul of style and just by being herself, I discovered my own artistic inclinations and found joy in indulging them.  Moshe by dint of who he is commands attention, not because he assumes it but because his reputation precedes him.  A man of few words, he is smart and wise, also very avant-garde.  They have three sons whose ages are close to mine but I am older than the oldest.  I was present in a lot of the milestones they have celebrated through the years, and they were in mine too.  When my 26-year-old brother passed away, Noya roasted a delectable turkey for my sister and me and unabashedly joined in our tears.  Also she and Moshe are two in all the world who remember to ask about my parents.  Their fabled thoughtfulness is the staple of this most improbable and yet the sweetest of friendships.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

WELCOME

Welcome to my series of essays on my expressions and my impressions of my recent visit to Chareidi country.  Under the aegis of an enduring friendship, every aspect of the journey was pithy with mystical insights.  Every experience was both awesome and humbling all at once.  I went to attend a wedding but it culminated into more than I could have imagined in my most fervent prayer.  I learned a lot.  I understood a lot. I am still learning.  And I am still understanding.  It was a seminal experience that I hope would make me a much better human being than before I went and that I would be a source of peace in my daily movements, for my self and abroad.  I acknowledge and appreciate everyone who sent me on the wings of a thousand blessings and good will.  Thank you.