Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The first day of Shavuot just finished. The past thirty or so hours have been pretty excellent.

Shavuot, like most Jewish holidays, started with an evening prayer service at the synagogue, the Oxford Jewish Centre on Richmond Street. The service started at 7:30 (I got there a bit late). When the service got out, I stood outside the sanctuary and talked to the few people I knew. There were three or four people I had met at the Passover at the beginning of the term and Zohar Atkins, Ari's brother and a Bronfman alum.

While I was talking to Zohar, I see a girl in the corner of my eye, and I hear, "Benamy? Yashar?" I turned around and didn't believe who I saw. "It's Leah!" she said. And I just said, "Yeah! Oh my God!" [or something to that effect]. It was Leah Breslow, my counsellor, or madricha, from my summer in Bronfman! Except for the Bronfman fall retreat, my senior year of high school, I hadn't seen her since the program ended. She had come to the Jerusalem Bayit once, but I think I must have been out of town because neither of us remember seeing each other. Long story short: she's traveling around Europe, contacted Zohar, and was staying with him at Oxford for Shavuot.

We spent the rest of the kiddush and dinner catching up. Obviously, since it has been several years, there was too much to tell. She's had a fascinating few years since Bronfman, and it was great to hear some of her stories. The main story is that she's been bouncing from place to place for a while and has yet to find her place. Before my Bronfman year (but after hers), she studied in a seminary in Israel, as girls from her community tend to do. Afterwards she stayed in Israel, working at the Third Temple Institute and studying at Bar-Ilan. She went from there back home to Toronto. She studied some more and then moved in with some friends to a place in the city. She was having a wonderful year. Some stuff happened with an boyfriend-now-ex-boyfriend and Africa, she got some tickets to Europe, and she's been traveling half-aimlessly for the last nine weeks. Then she thought Oxford would be a cool place to be for Shabbat. I'm leaving out a lot of details, but, main point, it's really amazing how these things happen.

It's tradition, for Shavuot, to study Jewish stuff all night. I had just completed my tutorial and History of London presentation, so I don't have anything due for a week, and I didn't have an excuse not to stay up all night studying. The night progressed with some lectures. The first lecture had to do with the meaning of Mt. Sinai being mentioned alongside the description of shmita laws in Leviticus. The guy was a horrible public speaker, so I got some of the main points but didn't understand it all.

The second lecture was much better. The lecturer was an Israeli rabbi, and his talk was titled "Wings to Fly With - Megilat Ruth as a flying manual." This was definitely my favorite lecture of the night. He basically tied together a bunch of descriptions of humans, angels, heaven, and Abraham to describe how kind, loving deeds can, in some spiritual sense, allow us to fly higher than angels. He brought in a lot of beautiful visual imagery of how we are limited physically from doing all the kind things we would like to do. There was a Kabbalistic description of how the gemilut chasadim build up inside us, flowing out of our fingertips, but sometimes can't flow out fast enough. He said that we should be discouraged when we cannot accomplish all the good that we wish, but we should let it keep building up inside us. The spiritual buildup inside has the power, he sort of says, to lift us up so that we can "fly." There were parts that were a bit, maybe cheesy is the right word, for a scientist to listen to, but it was still beautiful.

The third lecture was just all right. This guy, a lecturer of Jewish Studies or something in Oxford, tried to connect the adventurous tales of Rabbi bar bar Hana to Harry Potter, but he seemed incapable of staying on the topic for more than two minutes before wandering off on many tangents that I guess he found interesting. It was more entertaining than the first guy, but I wasn't really sure what the point was. I think his end message I got was something along the lines of, "Some stories are ridiculous to the point where they are pure fantasy. Nevertheless, there is value in enjoying them, and very important, beautiful lessons can be drawn out of them from interpretations as creative as the stories." He made a half-hearted attempt to draw us in with some mentions of Harry Potter, but I didn't really get that either. I liked it, but I didn't think I got anything new out of that message.

After three lectures, it was well past midnight, and I was pretty much done with lectures. There were some more discussion-y things, but I spent the rest of the night talking and listening to people. Mainly, I talked with Leah, Zohar, an older man who had studied Materials Science at Cambridge, and a girl named Jackie (I think) (Another ridiculous coincidence - this girl grew up in southern California, was really involved in JSA through high school, and knew Kai Lukoff and other Petaluma people through it!). We talked about all sorts of things. My memory is a bit hazy - it got really late, and I had only slept maybe 5 hours the night before. I know we talked about making life decisions, mass violence, differences between the UK and the USA, and a bunch of other good stuff. Some of it involved Judaism; some of it didn't (directly). In any case, the night went on.

I got second and third winds, thanks to some Ben & Jerry's at 2 or 3 am, a couple cups of Coke, and a bottle of Sainsbury's whiskey. That didn't keep me from feeling totally exhausted during the Shacharit and Musaf services, which started around 4 or 4:30 am and went until after 6 am. I barely made it onto the bimah to do the glillah for the first Torah. Somehow I did, I ate a bagel with some cream cheese and lox (I'm starting to actually like lox. I wonder if this means that I'm starting to become a real Jew... I'm not sure what that would mean either...), and then walked home. I was asleep by 7:30 am. I haven't been this ahead on school-work in ages, nor have I been up this late/early in ages. Ironic how that works out.


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