Posted by: RaeAn | 26 February 2011

Finding Myself in the Desert

It’s been a hectic and crazy past several weeks. I know I haven’t updated as much as I promised I would, but I’m hoping you can find it in you to forgive me!

First off, the past several weeks have been very hard for me health-wise; I was just diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which is apparently what’s been causing me to be so sick the past several months. (The Wikipedia article on the disease is pretty good.) I’ve been really fatigued and weak and sore and cruddy-feeling but am now on medication for the fibro… we’ll see if it does any good. However, the fibro meds have a lot of side effects which take effect immediately, as opposed to the “real” effects which take time to build up… so I instantly started feeling even more tired and sore and even got a little flu-ish. All of which the info packet says is normal. But still not terribly pleasant.

Two days into this fibro treatment, HUC took us on a tiyul (trip) to the south. I almost didn’t go, but the administrative people at school said I could opt out of anything I wasn’t feeling up for and so I decided to take the trip as a little vacation and soul-searching and some much-needed R&R. And I am so, so glad I decided to go.

Day 1: Wednesday, 16 February

We got on a bus at 7:30 am. Not a fun time of day to be awake and on a bus, especially when mornings are already tough with the muscle stiffness. But I made it to the bus on time (victory!) and we started driving south. We went to Yerucham, a development town in the desert in southern Israel; a classmate of mine worked in a school there last year and we had a chance to see the artists’ center, then we went outside of the town and met a Bedouin man whose family is one of the thousands in Israel in “unrecognized” villages — since Bedouin tend to be nomadic, the State of Israel has trouble with the bureaucratic elements of declaring a settlement to be a town or village, but since the Bedouin have been in Israel for many generations, long before the State came into the picture, Israel mostly leaves them alone and ignores the small problems, hoping they’ll go away. (They won’t. It’s complicated.) But it was a great and informative encounter.

After Yerucham, we headed to Kibbutz Yahel, where we’d be staying for the next several days. After unpacking and some down-time, we met up and walked about fifteen minutes to the edge of the kibbutz, where we had dinner under the stars. It was amazingly beautiful there: the air was perfectly clear and the sky was gorgeous. We even had a bonfire and kumsitz/sing-along.


We made a big bonfire around which we roasted marshmallows, sang camp songs, and debated Second Temple History concepts with our professor, David Levine. (He’s the one in the center of the picture looking like he’s passionately defending the historical evidence of Hasmonean something-or-other.) [Picture thanks to Leah Citrin, since I forgot to bring my camera to this little excursion!]

I went back a little early to relax and get to bed since I’m turning into an old person and 10 pm was waaaaay too late for me to still be awake. (Correction: The fibro is turning me into an old person. Sigh.)

Day 2: Thursday, February 17

The rest of the class went hiking. My body didn’t want to do such things since even the “easy” option of the two hikes was supposed to be not-all-that-easy. I love hiking, but I needed a down-day. So I took one.

I had breakfast with everyone, then they left on the buses… I napped until housekeeping woke me up by coming in (which I was happy with — I didn’t want to sleep all day!), then I grabbed my crochet, my book, some snacks, a bottle of water, a jacket, and headed out to the edge of the kibbutz (a different one from the night before) and found a tree I liked… I sat under it and crocheted, read, thought, and relaxed. It was lovely.


This was my view from where I sat for a long time. Almost 6 hours.

So yeah. I sat there for quite some time. I even was able to catch the sunset… which is absolutely gorgeous in the desert!


Sunset from my "spot" at the edge of Kibbutz Yahel.

Once the group got back, my friend Iah joined me (and brought me another jacket… I either didn’t expect it to get that cold after sunset or to stay there that long!) and we talked and laughed and relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. We fiddled with my camera’s shutter speed and got some really good night shots.


The edge of Kibbutz Yahel at night... I needed a full 15 seconds of exposure for this shot because besides the moon and street lamp it was so dark out. But I think it came out well! (Full-size is available if you click on the picture... or any of my photos, for that matter.)

We then re-joined society and had dinner with the whole class, had an info session about Kibbutz Yahel with one of the kibbutz members, Lori, where we learned how Yahel organizes itself and how it all works, then an evening trivia program… the trivia was all about our classmates… and despite having some of the more aloof people on my team, we managed to make it to the final round (didn’t win, but second place is still good — and the first-place team shared the prize, a bottle of good red wine, with us). Then I relaxed with some friends around a hookah. I called home to say hi… and found out my grandmother was in the hospital. She’d had a heart attack, but the medics got there in time so at that moment she was awake and relatively okay. The news shook me up a little bit, but my friends back at the hookah table were all wonderfully supportive and offered to tell the service leaders to put her on the Mi Shebeirach list (the list of people for whom the congregation would pray the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer of healing) for services the next day. Then it was bedtime.

Day 3: Friday, February 18

Friday began with an excursion to Kibbutz Lotan, the sister-kibbutz of Kibbutz Yahel. Both are formally affiliated with the Reform Movement, though they have slightly different central focuses. Lotan is far more focused on eco-living and green everything than Yahel… Lotan is a bit earthier, although both Kibbutzim are agriculturally based. Lotan also places a lot of emphasis on finding Jewish elements  to integrate into their daily work.


Kibbutz Lotan emphasizes Jewish texts and learning as a basis for their ecological methods, and they post various quotes from Jewish texts as reminders to everyone at the kibbutz. So wonderful!

We learned about the philosophies of the kibbutz then divided into groups; mine did organic gardening, and I planted a small garden square according to the rules of some Talmudic source. (Certain amounts of fist-widths between seedlings, etc.) Now, if you know me at all, you know I have an absolutely brown thumb… every plant I try to grow ends up dying. I already killed Charlie (my chili plant from the beginning of the year, if you recall), as well as a cilantro and a mint plant… and that’s just this year. I don’t even want to think how many other household plants I’ve driven to the grave throughout my life. Basically, I stink at growing plants. So I feared for these seedlings… but Leah, the leader of the program, assured me that they would take good care of them after I left and they would grow big and strong. Whew.


The square I planted in the organic garden! The sticks are place-holders to know how many fist-widths apart to put the seeds or seedlings... then we planted five plants. The matching two on the ends are lettuce, the center one is celery, and to either side of the celery I put seeds for some type of flower which you can't see yet. Maybe this will feed someone some day. I feel accomplished.

We also learned about things like their water recycling, food composting, and even their composting toilets.


They helped further develop a composting toilet design that someone else started... and whenever someone uses the bathroom there, the solid waste goes to creating fertile soil and the liquid waste is processed to become water for crops. So some of the date palms on the kibbutz are fertilized by human poo. How cool is that? (Once you get over the "ick" factor, you'll realize it's pretty darn cool. We saw some of the post-composting soil -- it looks and smells just like the expensive stuff you buy in Home Depot!)

After all that, we went to Eilat for some beach time and snorkeling.

Eilat is pretty!

I’d never been to Eilat before, and the only other time I’ve gone snorkeling I flipped out because the feeling of breathing under water felt too freaky and I panicked and couldn’t do it. So I got a snorkel and decided to give it a shot… I got into the water, put my eyes under the water, started swimming away from the dock (the one you see on the right side of the above picture)… and started panicking. So I swam back to the dock.

I sat on the dock catching my breath, then saw the dozens of other people swimming around with their snorkels out of the water and none of them were dying… so I rallied myself and gave it another shot… and I did it! Once I got over the feeling of tightness in my chest that breathing while under water gives me, it was great! I saw plenty of coral and fish and pretty colors and it was lovely.


Me post-snorkeling. Rae: 1, Rae's Fear of Breathing Under Water: 0!

We then returned to Kibbutz Yahel to prepare ourselves for Shabbat. I got all showered and dressed up and checked my email at the one spot on the Kibbutz with WiFi, saw an email from my dad asking me to call.

I called home and my dad told me my grandmother had passed away during surgery. This was ten minutes before Kabbalat Shabbat services… I went to a friend and told her, immediately burst into tears, and she hugged me and helped me get through services. I sat in the back, taking in the sounds of a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service, and right around the Amidah I felt a breakdown coming on so I stepped outside, cried a bit, and some friends came out a few minutes later to offer comfort and sit with me, which helped a ton. (Thanks so much, Nina, Chava, Iah, and Micah!) Nina kept an ear out for where they were in the service and asked if I wanted to go back in for Kaddish (the prayer for mourning at the end of the service), and I did, so I went in and said Kaddish for my grandmother. She was about to turn 90 very soon, and I was really looking forward to moving to California and being near her for the first time in my life; I only saw her every once in a while since I lived in Georgia then Maryland, and I really wanted to have a chance to talk with her, especially about her experiences during World War II… but unfortunately, I’ll never have that chance. Lesson to all: never delay a conversation you want to have with a loved one. The entire HUC community was fantastic and very supportive and everyone said exactly the right things to make me feel better (or to let me cry when I needed to do that).

After services was dinner and then Zmirot (literally translates to “songs”; lots of singing of Jewish songs, mostly Shabbat-y stuff). I didn’t stay for the Zmirot and instead sat outside and took in the desert air and processed my thoughts. I even made a furry friend and had a very sweet kibbutz cat to keep me company for a while.

Several of my friends were going to the kibbutz “pub” and somehow convinced me to go along; the inside was too loud for me, but we sat outside the “pub” (really just a room with a bar and some chairs and tables outside) and smoked hookah and talked. It was really good for me to be around people and I got a chance to talk about my grandmother and it was a lovely night. I turned in relatively early to get a good night’s sleep.

Day 4: Saturday, February 19

After breakfast, we all met up and walked about 20 minutes to a spot outside the kibbutz in the middle of the desert for Shabbat morning services… it was a beautiful location, so peaceful and absolutely perfect for praying. I’ve had a relationship with prayer that, for the past several years, has been dubious at best… but the location, the way the service was run, and my state of mind all combined to create a moment in which I prayed, and truly felt a spiritual connection through the prayer, for the first time in a very, very long time. My friend April led the service, and it was absolutely amazing, particularly the way she had us pray the Amidah (one of the central sets of prayers in the service). On Saturday mornings, we usually do the Amidah once silently, then once all together as a community. For the first one, April told us to all find a place in the area where we could pray on our own, and when we heard the service leaders begin a niggun (a song without words), we would know it was time to come back to the group. I found a spot under a tree and prayed the Amidah… and really, truly prayed it and payed attention to the words (thank you, liturgy class, for helping me know what it actually says now).


My Amidah tree -- the spot I chose to pray.

I heard the niggun begin and I made my way back to the group. I had some wonderful friends sitting near me who offered comfort since I kept waning in and out of tears… and then April explained that instead of repeating the Amidah as a group, she had asked several of our classmates to write reflections in each prayer within the Amidah; there are 19 prayers within the Amidah rubric, all on different themes, such as remembering our ancestors, giving thanks, the greatness of G-d, and so on… the result was a beautiful compilation of thoughts on these themes combined with the experiences we’d had in the desert over the past few days, and it was phenomenal. The whole service was beautiful and meaningful for me… thank you, April, for a wonderful experience, and thank you to all of my HUC classmates for being there for me as I began mourning.

The service ended around noon, and rather than go back with everyone else to the kibbutz, I decided to stick around in the desert a little while to think and meditate and have some time to myself. Some friends helped me refill my water bottle from theirs (thanks for that, too!) and I went back to my Amidah tree and sat under it for a little while. I’d brought a cushion from the kibbutz to sit on and I began crocheting and thinking… then I looked up, saw that there was a perfect little nook in the tree’s branches, and thought, “Hey, that looks comfy… and I haven’t climbed a tree in ages. Why not?”

So I climbed the tree and sat in it. For two and a half hours.

It was amazing.


The view from my perch in my Amidah tree.. the tree you see out there was where we sat for services.

I crocheted a little bit, then I remembered I had a mini Rinat Yisrael (an Israeli siddur/prayerbook we use a lot for studying liturgy at school) in my purse. I took it out and opened to a random page, which happened to be Pirkei Avot (literally “verses of the fathers,” a collection of ethical teachings and tidbits of wisdom) and just began reading through them. My Hebrew was good enough to understand most of it — since it’s an Israeli prayer book, there’s no English translation — and it was actually really comforting. The verses I read were all about the ultimate goodness of humanity and how to treat other people and how to forgive others… it was nice. I then continued crocheting the kippah I was working on and sat and thought and enjoyed the peacefulness of the desert.

After quite some time in the desert, I headed back to the kibbutz… I got to the gate and found it was locked… but it was a very simple lock and with a credit card I managed to pick it and get back inside. (It made me feel so inventive! Ha.) Don’t worry, I locked it back up afterward.

I then spent some quality time with some close friends in my class which was lovely, and then we had a wrap-up program… I left partway through because I wanted to catch a bus straight to Tel Aviv (for a 4.5-hour total ride time rather than take the 4-hour HUC but back to Jerusalem then another hour to Tel Aviv) and went to be with Gal for a while since we had Sunday off of classes so I could spend some time with him before heading back to the world of studying.


Overall, the tiyul was a phenomenal experience. Many, many thanks to all those who helped organize the trip and to all of my friends at HUC who helped me get through the rough patches — you’re all amazing and I love you all!

I titled this post “Finding Myself in the Desert” because I really did learn a lot about myself while out there. I learned that I need quiet me-time every once in a while just to think and be creative and spend time with just myself. I learned that I miss being in nature and that cooping myself up in a classroom, the library, and my apartment all the time isn’t the best way to maintain my mental health and that I should seek the outdoors more often. I learned that I need to reach out to others when I need help, which might include telling them I need some time alone, and that when I do so, the people I surround myself with tend to be the sort of people who are more than happy to lend a helping hand, which means I choose my friends well. I learned how to change crochet colors more fluidly (I taught myself a new trick). I learned that I really love the scenery of the desert, which surprised me. I learned that I should never put off meaningful conversations with loved ones because they might not always be there. I learned that it’s okay to cry and also that it’s okay to move on and enjoy life after a period of sadness, which I’m working on doing now. I learned that being far away from my family makes me sad sometimes and that’s okay and that they’re always here for me if I need them. I learned that I think I’m on the right path in life and even if that path changes, I’m happy with it right now and that’s what’s important. I learned that praying can be a powerful source of healing for me, at least sometimes. I learned that maintaining a positive attitude always makes situations in life better overall. I learned that my fibromyalgia medications kinda suck but they’ll (hopefully) help in the long-run. I learned that life is precious and shouldn’t be taken for granted, ever. I learned that climbing trees isn’t  just for little kids and shouldn’t be. I learned that the Jewish precepts for life, such as how to comfort a mourner, actually work and can help other people.

I learned a lot on this trip, and I look forward to learning a lot more in the future — about myself, about the world, about other people, about life.

Thank you again to all who have supported me recently.

This post was really long, and mazal tov to all of you who made it to the end.. but it was a jam-packed week and I wanted to update you all on it. More to come as I have the time and energy to write!

L’chaim – to life.

~ Rae


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