On the first day of being in the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, it was one of the six annual fast days that traditional Jews observe – thus, one of the rabbis humorously referred to our dinner as our breakfast. This was after an eight hour plane ride during which time we partook in the morning services in the rear of the plane, a long wait in the passport / visa registration area, and a fairly long (yet inexpensive) cab ride.
Change in Setting
For the past couple of months I had been anticipating going to Ohr Somayach and all of the things that I would experience while there. People told me a wide variety of opinions ranging from those that held that it would be a good educational experience to those that told me that I was crazy for going and that they would just brainwash me into doing things their way. Then there were those, in the minority, who held that they would brainwash me and that this was a good thing. The American way of life, with all of its trappings of material obsession and spiritual hollowness – this was the crazy way to live. Living a life dedicated to Torah, and being an observant Jew, and learning how to do these things better – this is what a Jew should strive for, they insisted. It made sense to me, as a person who was in the process of becoming more observant.
I, along with the others admitted into the JLE (Jewish Learning Exchange) program was welcomed with open arms. There was a special dinner for us where we were all given the schedule for the three weeks. Every day a number of classes are offered – at any one point an individual has the choice of which of two classes to attend based on his own interests. In addition, there is a class available to those who wish to learn Hebrew (quite good if one wishes to make alliyah, or a permanent move to Israel) and the extremely important Gemora classes. Gemora entails the Oral Law which was transmitted to Moses from G-d at Mount Sinai, and many debates regarding how exactly it should be interpreted. The text includes not only the results of the debates but the debates as well, so that one reading can follow along the path that the Rabbis took to reaching the conclusions they did.
One of the most important parts of Judaism is the observance of the Sabbath, which falls every week from sundown Friday until around sundown Saturday. (In traditional Judaism, days begin with the setting of the sun – hence why holidays begin the evening before and will end the evening of. For example, the fasting of Yom Kippur begins the previous evening at sunset and ends after sunset of that day itself.) The Sabbath is not merely a day of rest or relaxation, but has great significance. One could write entire books on the subject, and there are many such books, but I will not attempt to summarize them in the space of one article.
An observant Jew refrains from all manner of work, more specifically, which fall under any of thirty-nine given categories. The thirty-nine categories are all related to the building of a temple, and exact laws can be derived from them. For example, the lighting of a fire is prohibited. When you start up the engine of your car, a spark is made in the ignition – one reason why you won’t see an observant Jew driving during the time of the Sabbath.
There are three meals during the Sabbath, which is also known as Shabbos. The first meal, given what I mentioned previously about when the day begins, is the dinner meal of Friday evening. This meal is after Friday evening services. After dinner, there is usually much singing and celebration – Shabbos is a festive holiday! The following morning there are services, which are followed by a light snack. When I was at Rutgers we held services significantly later than what apparently is done for the most part in traditional Judaism.
Here too, there is a special custom, as I believe it is in many yeshivas around the world, for students to go to the homes of local families to have lunch. This serves two purposes: First, it gives the student a nice warm meal which wasn’t made with the mindset of serving hundreds of people but rather ten or twelve. (Bear in mind that this is in part because traditional Jewish parents can have quite a few children – it is quite encouraged, as it is said in the Torah that one should be fruitful and multiply.) Second, it gives students the opportunity, if they did not come from observant households (as the case is for me), to have a glimpse of life in an observant household. One can see the laws of the Torah in practice, and just how happy families can be if they are observant.
At first, all was going swimmingly. I was so happy to be in the city of Jerusalem that I thought that I would never want to leave. Thoughts ran though my head, such as how I could possibly explain this to my family, or what this would mean to my aspirations to direct. Where could I possibly find work in Israel? Would I spend my life studying in a yeshiva, as many did? What were the implications of this on my state of love, that is to say, the quest to find my bashert (soul mate – traditional Judaism holds that 40 days before a person is born, the person intended to be spouse to the person to be born is chosen. It’s a fairly complex procedure and isn’t nearly as simple as I make it sound. Read the book “Shidduchim & Zivugim” for more information)?
Then, one day, something felt wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t feeling right about something. I didn’t really want to wake up in the morning. I felt sad at times for no particular reason. I tried to remember the last time I felt this way and thought about the last time that I was in Israel. Now it all seemed to make a little more sense. I think there must be something like a magnet somewhere in Manhattan, maybe in Central Park (hidden in one of the trees). When I get too far from my favorite city in the world, that which I believe to be the most beautiful city in the world, I feel the pull of the magnet. As the Cole Porter song goes, I happen to like New York. I thus resolved to return home in six months, which had been my intention from the beginning, before I went a little astray. My birthday is in July, after all, so why not be home for my birthday?
After reaching this realization, things went back to the way they were. I felt a lot better about everything. Moreover, everything has acquired a greater sense of importance. It is one thing to put something off if you feel you have as much time as you want – but one is considerably less likely to do so if he knows that his time is limited. Things are going well here, and I am happy to report that no attempt has been made to brainwash me. The staff here are not on a mission to force me to think in a certain way or behave in a certain way. I suggest spending some time learning at a yeshiva for those who have even a little bit of interest and have never done it before.