Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 2)

20 May 2014

And so the story continues:

The next morning saw our Pesach preparations shift into full gear.  We started the morning by burning the chametz collected the night before in a wood burning oven, discovered in one of Livnot’s many excavation sites.  In addition to pieces of bread, we each wrote out on a piece of paper a personal Egypt we were looking to escape, which we then burned alongside the bread.  Afterwards, everyone was given a task that was integral to our seder experience for later in the evening. About half of us prepared the ritual foods featured in the seder, such as chopping apples to make charoset, washing lettuce, cooking potatoes and eggs, all while having a kitchen dance party.  I somehow ended up with an entire half of the kitchen to myself, which I naturally turned into my own personal lettuce washing dance studio.  In the meantime, the other half of the group readied the living room for the seder by setting up low tables and cushions on the floor, so we could adequately recline during the meal.

It was also necessary for everyone to take an active role in the Livnot seder, meaning that at some point everyone would have to get up in front of everyone else and either perform a bit of the hagaddah, or as in the case of one group, lead us through a Pesach meditation.  Being entirely fixated on working dance into my performance, I was first on the list of participants to make a skit of the Pesach story.  Acting alongside me were four guys, putting me in the familiar position of being the only girl in the group.  Our preparations started by me matter-of-factly informing two of the guys that they could do whatever they wanted, but I wanted to dance.  Being really awesome people, they agreed that dancing would be a necessary part of our story telling.  Now, I had a lot of incredibly fun experiences during this week, but putting together this skit is definitely one of my top picks.  Somehow, we had the perfect blend of outrageous personalities, and managed to completely unselfconsciously put together a semi-improv of the Passover story, held together by a line of purposely austere narration.  Within the retelling of the story, I was somehow featured as: a kvetching slave, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, the Egyptian beating the slave (where I stage kicked a guy twice my size…in a skirt), Moshe’s wife, the burning bush (which is the only part everyone remembered, due to my “modern dance” interpretation) Pharoah’s thug, pretty much all of the plagues or a recipient thereof, the ballerina angel of death, and Moshe tap dancing through the red sea of two guys doing the worm.  Even better than all of that silliness, was the fact that out of our skit came the legacy of a program-wide inside joke, which I would repeat here, only the written word couldn’t possibly do the joke justice.  Other skits performed at the seder included commercials for Pesach, Maztoh, and Maror, our favorite of which featured a catchy jingle and a line of Australian slang spoken completely out of context (which we all laughed at, partially out of sheer confusion).

Seder Table (photo courtesy of Tifferet Weinberg)

The seder itself was lead by Tifferet’s family, who introduced some of their traditions to us, such as receiving chocolate chips for asking questions, and bargaining with the afikomem thief to receive the stolen piece of middle matzah.  I, in a stoke of genius, stole my own table’s afikomen, with the intention of preventing another table from stealing it.  To my delight, I was able to negotiate a free Shabbaton at Livnot before I leave Israel in June.  Our seder was more meaningful and thought provoking than most seders I have experienced, where we rush through the ritual only to end at the meal, without finishing up the important second half.  Though I was in the throes of extreme fatigue by the time we neared the end, I was intent on staying up until we got to “L’shana Haba’a” (Next Year in Jerusalem), making this my very first experience in twenty-three years that I not only completed the seder, but completed the second half in its entirety.

The next day was spent relaxing, recovering from the previous night, reflecting, and enjoying an afternoon barbecue.  As we moved from yom tov to chol ha’moed, we finally cleaned up the mountain of dishes (also complete with a dance party) and then were given a free night to enjoy Tzfat.  Our adventures resumed on Wednesday, where we completed a day long hike through one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen.  While I once again fell victim to my unfortunately and chronically weak and injured ankles, making the hike extremely difficult for me, I was determined (through the immensely kind help of my new friends, who may or may not have carried me piggy back for a good half of the hike) to make it all the way to the end.  If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to see the natural rock formations that served as part of an ancient monastery, nor the wild bulls lumbering through the countryside, nor would I have had the experience of swimming in a cool, dark well.  One of the things I noticed in particular, was that the epic nature of the land lent one the feeling of being in a movie, or as several of us discussed, in Game of Thrones.  Our conclusion was that if we were indeed in Westeros–one of the mythical continents on which A Song Of Ice and Fire takes place–we were most likely on the edge of Dorne and the Reach, or straddled between the desert, and the lush, green bread belt of the continent.

The Edge of Dorne and The Reach aka The Golan Heights (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

During one of our breaks on the hike, we set about doing some Jewish learning in “chevrutas” or learning pairs.  We were each given a set of quotations from Jewish thinkers, as well as a series of questions reflecting on these words.  The discussions we were tasked with dealt with the intersection of individual and community, as well as the juxtaposition of being at once extremely special and yet also insignificant.  Each group spent time discussing whether they thought individual or community was more important and why, which I understood as balance is the key.  The other quotation, in which was stated that everyone should carry a piece of paper with the words “I am but dust and ashes” and another with the words “The world was created for me” lead me to the realization, that in my own life, I have carried around both a symbol of all that is special in my world, as represented by a piece of crystal that someone important once gave me, as well as a reminder of the brevity of life, in the form of an Israeli dog tag with my name engraved on it.  Later in the hike, we were once again reunited with our chevrutas in order to make each other lunch, once again reinforcing the idea of giving to others, but also of receiving.  During our lunch, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the founder of Livnot, Aaron, who first explained what he felt the organization’s mission was.

Philip (or Bill. or maybe it was Charlie) our friendly hiking companion.

He explained to the group that his intent was to give the many young people traveling to Israel a place where they could have a genuine Jewish experience.  It wasn’t about becoming orthodox, or observant, but it was about connecting to Judaism in a personal, spiritual way, which many of the programs in place around the country lack.  For example, a large number of our group are participants on Masa Israel programs, where we get to experience life living, working, and studying in Israel, but not necessarily connecting specifically to Judaism.  Our programs on Masa center around Israeli history and culture, such as celebrating holidays central to the Israeli state like Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, or Independence day (both of which were special experiences in their own right, but not necessarily spiritual in nature, even if they are very much tied to the Jewish people).  The experience of Judaism on Livnot helps to provide us with a new understanding of our religion, which we can take with us wherever we go, whether it’s back to our home countries, or somewhere else in Israel. We spent one afternoon split into groups discussing our memories of the role Judaism played in our lives growing up, and how we connected to it, both as a religion, and as a culture.  Many of us did grow up in homes steeped in Jewish ritual, and noticed how connected our parents were, and some even marveled at how disconnected they felt, despite attending Jewish day school, or how they somehow remained deeply connected to Judaism, while their siblings were more apathetic.  The way I always saw Judaism, at least in terms of my life, is that we follow Jewish traditions because they are our cultural traditions, but that spirituality and belief is up to the individual.  I don’t feel it is necessary to unilaterally believe in the Torah, and even in the Rabbinic teachings that follow, but that it is necessary to develop an individual belief system that can be fit into a Jewish framework, because without that tie to our history, who are we anyway?  Additionally, I feel that in this day and age, where we have the ability to be our own people, and practice as we chose, it’s important to uphold traditions that our ancestors were persecuted for trying to fulfill, in part as a way to honor their memory.  In all of our discussions of kabbalah and Jewish connection, I felt very strongly that Livnot is striving to preserve this connection, both to our collective past, as well as to each other as a common people.

Following the Livnot trail (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

This theme of connection pervaded the experience at Livnot, in a very positive way.  I think a large part of the program’s impact was due to the fact that we were constantly encouraged to break down barriers by getting close and connecting with one another, whether it be through a hug, dancing together in a circle, or even singing together, where everyone was at once connected by touch, but also by the spirit of the songs.  After the program ended, I joked with some of the participants that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that we weren’t singing and dancing every thirty minutes or so, but while it may have seemed that we were just having fun at the time, most importantly at core of it, we were exposing ourselves to one another.  We also openly discussed the idea of connection through human touch, and how powerful of an experience it can be, especially given that our three bnot sheirut were all shomer negiah–meaning they won’t touch a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative until they are married.  While the girls withheld from hugging or high-fiving the boys, they were still extremely loving and affectionate towards everyone, constantly encouraging us to go a little further, dig a little deeper, and connect a little more.

It’s only natural then that the most powerful experience I had on the trip was during our visit to the old age home, where we spent the morning singing and spreading joy to the residents.  While some of the participants were moved to sadness by the final chapter of life, I knew we were there to brighten the day for these people.  Being someone who constantly has some thought or another running through my head, no matter if the task at hand is related or not, for me to be so unilaterally focused on one task was indeed an incredibly unique experience.  As we sang and danced for these people, all of my energy was focused on sharing happiness, whether it be through the sound of my voice, the clapping of my hands, or even most simply through my smile.  The experience of bringing happiness to others was so overwhelmingly positive in a way that merely focusing on personal happiness could never be (though I strongly believe it’s up to each of us to actively seek and create personal happiness, even if it’s through the most trivial of things).  The feeling in each room as we sang was electric, filled with this tangible sense of joy that could carry you through the rest of your day, if not longer. Here we were, once again, connecting to each other, and to a previous generation through song and dance, some of which were first sung long before our time, and which we can only hope will continue to be sung long after we’re gone.

The thrilling final installment will be released shortly. 

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