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Sleepy But Awake: My Shavuot Experience

Some of my readers scolded me via email because I planned to attend a night of Shavuot learning that wasn’t centered around text study.

I heard them.

But I went anyway.

And I hope, for this particular column, we can set aside the debate of whether it’s kosher to include non-Torah-focused discussions on Shavuot –- about Israel, Nepal, Jewish comedy, or meditation, for instance — and focus instead on the rare vitality of a gathering that on the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend managed to draw 3,400 Jews.

Yes, you read that tally correctly: 3,400 people came through this Tikkun – the seven-hour menu of sessions – at the JCC in Manhattan.

For me, that was uplifting in and of itself.

Because New Yorkers don’t do what they don’t want to do.

Which tells us that a heck of a lot of people thought this event was worth their time.

And they didn’t just come for the Zabar’s cheesecake (although it was undeniably delicious).

All those people came to all — or parts of — “Stay the Night,” as the event is named, and happily (okay, sometimes a little aggressively) crowded into classrooms, gyms, dance studios and the auditorium, carrying the color-coded schedule and pounding the coffee.

By the final closing roof concert at 4:15 A.M. there were over 100 still standing. Who says Jewish identity is in peril?

I admit that I arrived late. I missed the first 10 P.M. session because I was coming from my friends’ happy wedding in Brooklyn.

(To my email critics: yes, I know that weddings are technically verboten on Shavuot, but I wasn’t going to miss my high school friend’s simcha.)

I missed the conversation between my editor, Jane Eisner, and Shulem Deen, who writes about his defection from his ultraorthodox community in his new book, “All Who Go Do Not Return” – though I heard it was riveting. And the session on Ruth and intermarriage which apparently packed the gymnasium and was co-led by Rabbi Joy Levitt (JCC director) and Rabbi David Ellenson, who recently ran the Hebrew Union College.

I went to the session on spirituality taught by Rabbi Josh Katzan of Congregation Habonim in New York and his basic premise intrigued me: that spirituality should focus less on how intensely we’re feeling and more on how we handle the situations in front of us.

Using the Leviticus text (yes, here was some Torah,) in which Aaron’s sons make the fatal mistake of offering an “alien fire” to God (and then get summarily smoted), Katzan says these boys exemplify what happens when we get too caught up in our own spiritual intensity.

“Our intense feeling can push us to do something without being cognizant of the impact on others,” said Katzan.

He said “feel-good” moments should not be “the center around which spirituality orbits.”

“I know it rattles the cage to say that,” he continues. “But maybe spirituality is about the world we create, how we respond to the annoying neighbor or the earthquake in Nepal. How we behave says a lot more than how we feel.

How many times has that exact kernel been extracted from these holidays for me? It isn’t about what Judaism does for you but what you do because of Judaism.

This tradition is more about action than emotion.

After fortifying myself with a slice of cheesecake, (did I mention the cheesecake?), I headed into the quagmire of civil dialogue over Israel — or the lack of it — with a panel moderated by sociologist Steven M. Cohen.

Maybe the room was too small, the hour too late (12:30 A.M. start) or the air too stuffy, but the session’s title became instantly self-fulfilling: “Too Toxic to Talk About.”

It was.

What began with presentations from panelists Kenneth Bob, president of Amenu, a Progressive Zionist organization; J.J. Goldberg, who writes about Israel’s security issues as a columnist for the Forward, and Shoshana Rosen, who directs 20s and 30s programming for the JCC, devolved quickly into audience shout-outs, criticism of the panel composition, insistent challenges, and prickly asides.

Rosen suggested ground rules: “Can I ask you to raise your hands if you have something you want to say?” She asked us to notice how our hearts might be racing because everyone had an opinion.

I left the room fatigued by the impossibility of the Israel conversation.

Not to mention, just plain fatigued.

But there was no time to droop.

I went to the 1:45 A.M. lecture about West Bank settlements, given by Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem (“In the image of”), a Jerusalem-based organization that monitors human rights violations.

Because of the title — “Intractable Impermanence: 47 Years of ‘Temporary’ Occupation” — I worried that this session would also feel virulently political. Far from it. El-Ad gave a complex, undogmatic primer on the varying levels of Israeli control in the West Bank and the ramifications.

“We are not a peace organization; we are a human rights organization,” he said. “We don’t advocate for any one political solution. Any solution that would uphold human rights is a solution we would support.”

El-Ad cautioned the audience not to use concerns about security to justify human rights abuses.

I asked him if he thought anti-settlement sentiment now translates to anti-Israel sentiment as a result of the charged political climate.

“There are three separate issues: anti-Israel feeling, anti-Semitism and anti-occupation,” he answered. “They get lumped together, but they’re different. We at B’Tselem are anti-occupation.”

The next session was the only one I walked out of, and not because it was bad.

I just couldn’t rally for interpretive dance at 3 A.M.

Called “Midrash through Dance,” it was taught by Rabbi Mira Rivera, whose personal history was more interesting to me than her directive to physicalize Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) words of prayer.

Rivera was born in the Philippines, grew up in America, and became fluent in Spanish because of her immigrant grandmother, who descended from Conversos – Jews who renounced their faith under pressure during the Spanish Inquisition.

When she described, in graphic detail, how she used to watch the family housekeeper slaughter, bleed, and denude a chicken according to kosher rules, I thought I might lose my cheesecake.

I felt somewhat restored when Rivera instructed us to stand up and stretch. But when we were asked to find a physical expression of the words of 18th Century Rabbi, Judah Leon Kalai (“Es razon de alavar al Dyo, alto i poderoso…” — “It is fitting to praise the God of greatness and of might”), I just hit the proverbial wall.

I decided to check out Israeli folk dancing in the gym, where about 14 people were stepping, skipping and hopping through some of the most complicated dance steps I’ve ever seen. No basic hora here; these people were in another league.

I asked a bystander, “Are they teaching any dances tonight?”

“Oh no,” she replied. “These people go to class every week; they know it all already.”

So I sat back and watched. Which was kind of opportune for the 3:30 A.M. hour.

As I observed these proficient steppers, I couldn’t help noticing that they weren’t smiling. They just moved through their choreography with cool nonchalance – which might have been exhaustion – calling to mind the 1969 film, “They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” those last weary stalwarts managing to remain upright on the dance floor.

I have to admit, I was envious of these dancers. I wished I knew the routines and could join in. They made a traditional form of folk dancing look current and hip.

The Tikkun ended on the roof of the JCC with a final 4:15 A.M. concert.

I cannot deny I felt like a macho-Jew for having stayed the course.

The JCC’s Senior Director of Development, Mindy Schachtman, smiled when she saw me. “You made it to Sinai,” she said.

As the A cappella group from Queens College, “Tizmoret,” started their fourth song, I wished it weren’t so cold or tired.

But as I bid my goodbyes on the roof and took the elevator down to the lobby, I was aware of feeling full.

I’d been buoyed by the fizziness of the evening and moved by what it symbolizes in 2015. This particular party was a microcosm of my year of exploring every holiday: too many smart rabbis to interview, too many worship experiences to try, too many perspectives to include.

I may sound naively astonished, but there are sometimes moments that demand astonishment.

Look how many people came to study, question, argue, move, sing, engage, connect and inform. Look how much cheesecake we ate.

And though I was not surprised by the range of instructors, I was grateful for them. I couldn’t get to them all.

So Shavuot made me feel grateful for all the teachers.

And grateful that there are so many iterations of what it means to revisit Sinai.

And grateful that more than three thousand people were smart enough to want to keep learning.

As I climbed into bed at 5 A.M., the sun was rising, painting the black sky a soft purple-blue. After such a marathon day, I needed rest. But I also felt revived.


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