Friday, June 06, 2014

A night of learning...

Wednesday at sunset began the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.   It's probably one of those holidays you've never ever heard of if you're not Jewish or very close to a Jewish community.  Myself, first time I heard of this was last year!  And what sort of holiday is it that so few goyim (gentiles) know about it?  Well, you know, nothing big, just when god gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  That's all.  No big deal, eh?  [EYES ROLLING]

Anyhow, here's the real interesting part - not that the giving of a sacred text by the one and only deity of a religion is not important, of course - about the story: the Israelites overslept the day god was waiting for them at the mountaintop.  Now that's one big no-no, keeping your god waiting!?  So, in order to repair this fault, at some point a practice developed of staying up all night studying (therefore avoiding the risk of oversleeping) in preparation for the big day.   That's called Tikkun Leil Shavuot ("rectification for Shavuot night").  And jumping a few centuries ahead, we arrive at Toronto's 6th Downtown Tikkun Leil Shavuot - All-Night Jewish Learning festival at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

So, what on earth was I doing there?  I'm not Jewish.  Either one or two great-grandparents very probably were, but that's about it.  But life, in its randomness, has often put Jewish people and culture in my path.  And (most importantly, methinks) how would anyone not want to participate anyhow???  I mean, a community one doesn't belong to flings its doors wide open (the event explicitly welcomed everybody and anybody to participate), arranges for some 40 sessions with some 45 rabbis, academics and lay leaders (and it's a night of learning, so though the guiding theme is Judaism and the Torah, the sessions themselves were about anything from baking cheesecake and learning Yiddish to Jewish ethics and pandemics and the WHO to queer sex), feeds you during breaks, and all for free?   I don't know, but for me, attending this was a total no-brainer. 

So, what was MY night like?

8:45pm - 9:45pm
First Session 

There were 11 talks and activities to choose from, but in the end my inner architect (I had no idea I had one, until that night) took me to Designing a Synagogue for the 21st Century, with Alex Bozikovic (the Globe and Mail's architecture critic) and renowned Toronto based architects Martin Davidson, Cindy Rendely and Les Klein.  

I have been to a synagogue once and once only in my life (well, twice, but my first one had been turned into something else long ago), so it was fascinating for me to see the interiors of so many synagogues, both old and new, from rich and convoluted Eastern European ones to sleek and minimalistic Israeli ones.  I learned that the podium from where the Torah is read is called the Bimah, and that there is a separate place for the Torah scrolls - the ark.  Kindergarten stuff for some, obviously, but for me it was a peek into a world I've seen very little of (I've been to plenty of Christian churches of many denominations, to mosques, Muslim shrines, Taoist temples, Buddhist temples, but just one synagogue, in Toronto's Kensington Market!). 

Cool talk, I say.

9:45pm - 10:00pm
Cheesecake break

Yes, cheesecake break!  They even had vegan cheesecake!  Alas, my architecture session lasted a bit into the break and I could barely find even meagre crumbs left.   You've rarely seen people going after cheesecake with such gusto! 

10:00pm - 11:00pm
Second Session 

There's two ways for someone to be a Jew: you can be born one, and then there's the hard way.   Unlike many religions who readily take converts, current Jewish practice seems almost designed to dissuade you.  Out of the 11 talks and activities for this session I chose Choosing to be Chosen like Ruth, with Rabbi Jordan Helfman and Benjamin Errett.  

We got to read a number of texts, and it was very interesting to see how some rabbis were clearly against conversion and made it very obvious that converts were second class Jews, and how a few had a most welcoming attitude, even sort of like "we have a valuable religion, this is a modern world where Jews are mostly free and not prosecuted, less share this with as many as we can and with pride!".   

At some point, I questioned the rabbi why some of these texts seemed to hint that someone who wants to convert could be taken in as a Jew right away (with basic instruction and conversion rituals) and be let perfect their Judaism afterwards, while the most common practice today is for someone to first get a rabbi to approve the request to convert, then spend no less than a year studying and living Judaism (and courses have a cost, so this comes with an investment of potentially hundreds of dollars), and then subject themselves to examination by three rabbis before that person can be considered a Jew.  Well, the fact that this must be a long, difficult process was such a given for this rabbi he didn't seem to understand my question, but one other person who had converted to Judaism did say, after the rabbi's (uninteresting) reply to my comment, that she had indeed had a very tough time and that it was a miracle she went through the whole process and that maybe rabbis could make things less tough for people who want to convert sincerely.  Whoah.

There were also some comments about a Jewish soul entering upon the moment of conversion (well, at a specific point, when you take a ritual bath).  I felt like asking what happened to the previous soul of the person, or if that person was considered soulless or empty before that, or what, but I figured that was way too philosophical and a rather unfair question from someone who's an atheist, plus I didn't want to miss another snack break, right?   

But anyhow, it was good to learn about all these different opinions (and, funny enough, I had read an article about this in the Jewish newspaper Forward just this week) and to realize how what would seem a basic aspect of religion can still generate such diverging views!  

11:00pm - 11:15pm 
Pita break and dips

Nom nom nom!  Pita! Hummus!  Sun-dried tomato paste!  Fresh celery! Carrot sticks!  Cucumber!   

11:15pm - 12:15am
Third Session 

This was probably my favourite activity, and it's amazing how this late you could still choose from among 10!  Diziendo las Zemirot (Speaking the Songs): Exploring Traditional Sephardic Song Genres with Dr. Judith Cohen was an absolute delight.  She's knowledgeable, she's a bit wacky, and she has tons of stories.  She told us how she had been to a town in Morocco in the nineties where she recorded the traditional songs of Jewish women there and how, 20 years later, someone from that town, where no more Jews lived, invited her over so she could reteach these old songs which were part of the heritage and tradition of that town.  Isn't that amazing?

We sang a couple of traditional Moroccan Sephardic songs, and in the process we learned loads.  LOADS. That Ladino is what Moroccan Jews call a word for word translation from Hebrew (for example, "la-noche la-esta", mirroring Hebrew ha-layla ha-ze, instead of simply "esta noche", as in Spanish)...  That what they speak is derived from many different Romance languages spoken around the 1500's in Spain but with a strong Castillian base... That they call these language haketiya, a name which seems to derive simply from the verb "to speak" (hiki)... That Hebrew influence has turned the words for "water" and "life" from singular (agua, vida) into plural (aguas, vidas) as they occur naturally in Hebrew (mayim, chayim)... That the word for god is dio and not dios as in Spanish because the s ending was reinterpreted as a plural and was therefor dropped... That these songs usually use very mundane and ordinary local ballads for their musical base and simply substitute lyrics... Wow, this was one big learning session!  and fun!  

12:15am - 12:45am
Chapman's After Dark, ice cream

A big break to enjoy some ice cream, including a devilishly good berry sorbet, while listening a bit to an instant choir (that was one of the activities of the previous session).

12:45am - 1:45am
Fourth Session

Only six activities and talks to choose from, but still!  Though I didn't see the film Noah, I still chose Darren Aronofsky's Genesis...?! with Dr. Dan Mendesohn Aviv.  

Well, after reading parts of the books of Enoch (in English translation, of course!), books that didn't make it to the Christian or Hebrew canon, we realized that Aronofsky's film was actually not even weird enough... he could have gone much further!   These texts mention giants, angels teaching secrets and sins to humans and fornicating with them, many-eyed and six-armed beings, Enoch ascending to heaven and becoming a chronicler of what's going below (and with a super sci-fi'ish new name, Metatron!).  

These Genesis stories are really crazy, and if you didn't like Noah (the recent film), blame Aronofsky for not taking full advantage of the religious texts available to him!

1:45am - 2:00am
Snack break with sweets from the earth

By this time a sugar energy blast was welcome, and with the added advantage that Sweets from the Earth makes vegan desserts!  Yay!

2:00am - 3:00am
Fifth Session 

Obviously, you could see the place wasn't as busy at this time, but there were still four activities/talks to choose from.  And I went for the one that, according to the program, was given by a "punk Jew" that wanted to discuss one-night stands, sex with multiple partners, and the like:   Guided Chevruta Study - Sex Outside the Marriage Bed, with Aharon Trottier.  What better thing to keep you awake and interested, eh?

(By the way, chevruta study means you read a text and discuss it in pairs, and Aharon was there just as a guide and aide.)  

So, anyhow, see??  You can use the Torah to discuss concubines (pilgeshim), one-day marriage contracts, rape, consensual sex, misogyny, sex with strangers... And Aharon brought a very nice, queer energy to all of this, by the way.  After discussing in pairs, and then as a whole group, about different aspects of what we'd read, Aharon concluded the activity sharing with us a blessing or prayer for unexpected intimacy.  Yes, for unexpected intimacy, which could be taken to mean anything from random meetings with strangers (say, in a bus) to [GASP?] anonymous sex.  

3:00am - 3:15am
Snack break

No special treats at this time of the night/day, but there was a bit of everything from previous breaks:  pita, dips, veggies, muffins, coffee, tea, water...  

I felt tired, and I didn't think the next sessions would manage to keep me awake...  This would have been the end of my night of learning, and I would have considered it full, enriching, and a total success.   But there by the tea I saw my chevruta partner from the previous session, and we struck up a conversation.   A conversation we kept flowing during an unexpected long walk together back to my place, and that allowed me to see from a different light Aharon's attempts to find justification in the Torah for queer sexual ethics. By the way, at the Jewish Centre there was a wall where people participating in the Tikkun Leil Shavuot could move around words to create thoughts.  My chevruta partner was the author of the playful one in the middle, "higher revolution, balaganiest sorrow, pogromiest morning, fullest awe, moderatest passion".

My unexpected encounter led me to (re)discover a very different aspect of myself, to see myself with new refreshed eyes, and was the cusp of a night of learning.  It deserves the blessing for unexpected intimacy that Aharon had taught us:

May this intimate time with another person be an encounter with angels that allows us to both touch and see the Divine, in the Name of the God of Israel, who created passion and wove it throughout creation, turning strange places into holy ground and strangers into a source of blessing.

Toda raba and a sheynem dank to everybody who made the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at the Miles Nadal Jewish Centre possible, and a true learning experience.  

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