Dear friends and family,
I write to you from the blistering heat of the Jordan valley, home of the best dates, best spring in all of Israel, and the highest recorded temperature in all of the Middle East.
I have been learning here in a girls yeshiva for the past few weeks.
There are just a few hours before the Shavuot holiday starts and we will go back together to receive the Torah. We have been counting down together 49 days in preparation for this very day.
Together, we have been on a 7 week journey towards freedom. We begin on Passover when we celebrate freedom as a nation, and we end on Shavuot where we celebrate the freedom of the indivudual- the receiving of the Torah.
So as I look out into the golden, freshly cut wheat fields, as the smell of cheese cake flows through the air, I reflect upon my journey over the past 7 week of the omer. Here is a compilation of memories….
Dearest friends and family,
I sit on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya eating matza and quinoa. This year I will be celebrating the Passover holiday, exploring the questions of freedom and slavery, exile and redemption, despair and faith, in the slums of Africa.
So my parents are very scared for me and convince that I will come back to Israel looking half my size, that is if I come back at all. I’m contemplating now what’s going to do it, either malaria, a parasite, someone will steal my organs and ransom them, or the fact that I am a vegan Ashkenazi spending pesach in Africa. Now try to make a list of possible food items. Life just isn’t the same without techina.
I’m sitting beside a nice lady named Helen. She grew up in the slums in Kenya and moved to America in her 20s to find work. She is now going back home to visit. She laughed when I told her that I would be bringing yoga to the slums. She told me that I am in for a surprise to see the way of life there.
So how did I get myself into this adventure? Recently I met a nice lady, Karen Zivan who started a project called “Masa Lakoach”. Her organization is working to bring yoga to IDF (tzahal). She believes that yoga can be beneficial for combat soldiers both mentally and physically. So far, she has been very successful. Tzahal is now in the process of adding a yoga training course into the fitness instructors course in the army. Check out her site! I asked Karen if I could help her out with her project. When I asked her where I could get some training, she suggested Africa.
So here I am on my way to be a part of the Africa yoga project. I will be spending three weeks learning yoga and practicing yoga with underprivileged communities in slums, jails, and orphanages. The goal is to use yoga as a type of therapy for dealing with trauma and connecting between people. Once I leave Africa, I am responsible for creating a yoga project in Israel. Do you have any ideas?
Yoga for angry bus drivers to give them some peace and serenity. Yoga at the kotel! I wonder how many rocks and dirty diapers I’ll get whipped at me.
Yoga for charadim and chilonim to unite between communities. Breathe. Stretch. Unite.
Maybe I can create an Israeli yoga clothing line. לולו לימון.
If you have any other ideas, let me know and you will win a free pair of לולו לימון yoga pants and a sweatband.
As excited as I am to do be stretching in the slums, I’m really sad to be leaving my country, especially at this time of year. I spent the past 3 months walking through my country and meeting the people of Am Yisrael. I finished my journey right on time for Pesach. Pesach is the holiday where we celebrate becoming of a nation, and I feel more connected to my people than ever. So I’m sad to be leaving.
Before I left, I wanted to properly part from my land. I went out for a run to one of my favourite spots in the word, “derech ha’avot”. This translates to “The Patriarchs Way” because that’s literally what it is. It is the ancient road that was used by our forefathers that runs from Megiddo and Hazor south to Beersheba by way of Shechem, Bethel, Jerusalem, Efrat and Hebron.
I run on the part of the path that rides up and down the hilltops south west of Jerusalem in Gush Etzion. The sky is cloudy and grey setting a harsh and somber tone. The fog has blocked all the scenery, leaving only my path visible as if nothing else exists. I feel the fear of the unknown, as I only see 3 meters ahead of me and 3 meters behind. While I run, I think about Abraham who walked this path, knife in one hand and Yizchak in the other on their way to Mount Moriyah for the sacrifice. I think of the Jews who walked this path with their families, donkeys, and crops three times a year to celebrate in Jerusalem. On the side of the path is an ancient oil press and grape press where Jews would prepare olive oil and wine to bring to the temple.
I stray from the path for a moment and walk down the stone steps into the cold cave. At the bottom of the steps is a pool of rainwater, an ancient mikvah where the Jews would purify themselves before arriving in Jerusalem.
On the side of the path stands a giant stone pillar. This is an ancient Roman “milestone”. These stones were placed every mile as a way of measuring distances. I passed by stone number 14 which means that I have about 14 more miles to Jerusalem. About one more day to go. I realize that is the day before Passover. That means that 2000 years ago, the Jews walking towards Jerusalem would be walking exactly at this spot, having a bath and pressing wine, getting exited for the Passover offering tomorrow!
How lucky am I to be able to walk the path of my forefathers. And that for me is freedom.
So have a happy Passover. I will keep you posted about Africa!
Dearest friends and family. I write to you from the Serona hotel in Nairobi Kenya. I am the only white person in this entire complex. I am lying under a mosquito net in my room. My body aches from yoga. I am accompanied by my roomate Naquinoa. Yes, I told her that he names sounds like the trendiest grain of the decade. Naquinoa grew up in the country side of Africa. She lived without electricity or running water. Her family ate from the crops that they grew and the meat and milk of their animals. Last night she gave me a private lesson on how to hand wash clothing.
The participants in the program are extremely diverse.I am good friends with a guy from Sierra Lion named David. He is a Rastafarian and believes that his tribe is the “real Jews” and that Zanzibar is the “real Jerusalem”.
I asked him how he knows. So he quoted Song of Songs. As it is written”I am black and comely”. He explained that from this we know that the Jews are actually black Africans. I told him the the word “comely” translates to the word “nava” in Hebrew. So we both agreed that I am also Jewish even though I am not black.
Along with our religious debates, David and I spent a lot of time speaking about his experiences during the genocide. He described horrific scenes, that he witnessed and experienced. He explained that yoga has helped him and his community overcome PTSD, and he is dedicated to continue teaching yoga to survivors of the war.
I feel very confused about my identity. I am learning so much about so many new cultures and religions and faiths. Specifically, yoga is a particular type of worship that comes from another religion. All of the new things that I am learning are both enriching and confusing my beliefs.
My body kills. I am discovering new muscles in my body that I never knew existed.
My favorite part of the day are the taxi rides. In Africa, a taxi is really a dance club on wheels. Coloured lights flash with blasting African music as we dance in our seats piled on top of one another.
Life is good. Life is really really good.
Monkeys, papaya, yoga
Dear friends and family.
I write to you curled up in a ball in my seat on my plane back to Israel after spending 3 weeks in Africa. I have never missed Israel so much in my life. I miss the people, the hills, the green, the trees, the buses. I can’t wait to arrive in the Tel Aviv airport and have the humid air smack me in the face, see the Jerusalem stone wall, and get butted inline waiting to pass customs.
So I spent Passover in Africa! I felt so disconnected from my spiritual source and from my people, yet I fought hard to stay connected to my identity.
People in Africa thought I was a weirdo when they noticed my weird traditions. It was a great conversation starter. I ended up sharing a dramatic telling of yetziyat mizrayim several times. But then I always got the question, “so why do you only eat quinoa?”. Good question.
I cooked from my own pots, ate lots of matzo, quinoa and peanut butter(until a stupid monkey stole it. I was sitting under a tree eating bananas and kosher-for-Passover-organic-peanut-butter in between yoga classes. The monkey smiled and I smiled nicely back. He looked me in the eyes, and pounced on the peanut butter container in my hand! He darted up the tree and sat on a branch licking the bottle clean. He then threw it back down. I thought monkeys eat bananas. Why couldn’t he take the banana!?)
I left classes to light candles, and I sang Kabbalat Shabbat to myself in a stairwell. The lady mopping the floor and G-d were my minyan.
After the course ended, I had one free night before my flight the next morning to Israel. I had just a few hours left in Africa, and a very important mission. I was going to meet Wanjiku Emuna.
Wanjiku Emuna is the only Jewish convert in Kenya, and it is a blessing that I was able to meet her. The day before I left to Kenya, I bumped into an old friend of mine who suggested I contact a man named Ari Greenspan from the Efrat community who had spent time in Kenya. I called him up and he told me about Wanjiku Emuna, an Africa lady in Nairobi who he helped convert. He asked me if I could bring kosher wine and matza for her. During my yoga program, I was not able to see her because of the busy schedulein the course, so her son came to pick up the matza and wine. I knew that I couldn’t leave Africa without meeting her.
So I arrived at Wanjikus house, a one room apartment with no running water, no fridge or stove. She had a mezuza on her doorpost, and library full of Jewish books. I was greeted with lots of excitement “Rebbitzin Nava is here!” Her extended family had come to meet me as well. Unfortunately her daughter was unable to come because she was shot in the arm in a drive by shooting the day before.
She began to tell me her story of how she found Judaism. She used to be a dedicated Christian. She began to hear voices in her heart that told her to keep the sabbath and to read the bible and learn about Judaism. She began to study the bible intensely and she taught herself Hebrew! She knew in her heart that Judaism was the truth. She tried to make changes in her church, but many were against her ways. She went to the Israeli embassy where they told her to visit the synagogue in Nairobi.
She used to go to the synagogue to learn and pray. Wanjiku began going to synagogue for holidays and Sabbath and sleep on the side of the road as to not break Shabbat. Soon her family and other members of her community joined her in keeping Jewish tradition.
Wanjiku successfully converted a few years ago by a group of rabbis who came to convert a community of Jews in Uganda. She then spent four months in Israel where she got free eye surgery due to the generosity of Ari Greenspan.
So that evening we sang songs, we prayed, and we read the bible together. At 11pm she turned to me and said “Nava, we need you. You must come back again.”
“No way!”, I was thinking. I am getting on that plane tomorrow morning. I have had enough of these crazy monkeys and scary country.
She explained that there is a community of Africans that want to convert. She lived with them for many years and together they celebrated the holidays and the Sabbath. She said that nobody has ever visited them and that they need help. “You must go Rebetzin. You must teach them! You are full of wisdom and spirit. You were sent by G-d. Help us with Hashem’s help to realize our goal… Conversion and Aliyah. It is each one’s desire to know Hashem More.”
And she was right. I was sent by G-D. I had just completed two years of army service teaching Judaism to converts and I am very familiar with the curriculim that is taught and common questions that are ask. I knew that I had a lot to give to the community. This was no coincidence. Although I hesitated and contemplated and told her that I couldn’t go, and there was absolutely no way, and that I was terrified that I would get kidnapped- I knew I was going.
I knew that I was going to change my flight, and risk my life going up to the middle of nowhere Africa in order to help these people. Because if I didn’t, nobody else ever would.
So I changed my flight, got a driver, and sent my parents a quick email “changed my flight. Long story. Love you”.
That night I sang Wanjiku to sleep with Jewish songs, trying to over power the sound of the cockroaches crackling and the occasional gun shot. Just 3 more days in this country.
The next morning I was on the road with Wanjikus son, daughter, and our driver Joseph. We drove six hours north along the great Rift Valley passing slums, giraffes, zebras, and lots of women carrying loads on their heads.
Finally we arrived to Molo. This is the area where the community lives. I was greeted by Moshe, the leader of the group. We got out of the car over looking an amazing view of wooden huts and farmland. The area has no running water or electricity.
Moshe took me to the synogauge that the group built. It is a small room with a black board with the Hebrew letters written on it. They had 3 prayer books and 2 copies of the Pentateuch with Rashi commentary. The people greeted me with fear and great respect.
We immediately began our lessons. Luckily, I am very familiar with the curriculum for conversion because I have spent the past two years teaching converts. We went over Shabbat, holidays, prayers, and they knew it all! I had a special lesson with the women about purity laws, and they knew it all! They use the lake near by as a mikvah.
We sang songs like: Hatikvah, Am yisrael chai, Ose shalom and they knew it all.
Moshe explained that he goes into town to get Internet and prints out the parasha every week for the community and other texts. He and his community used to commute to Nairobi for the holidays, sabbath, and the beginning of the new month. The slept outside on the sidewalk at night next to the synagogue.
After a day of learning, Moshe took me back to his home where I would be sleeping that night. On his house was painted the symbol of Israel, a menora and two olive branches. I met his wife and six children, all with Hebrew names. Sitting in his living room were friends who had travelled hours to meet the “Israelite”. Because there is no electricity, we sat by candlelight singing and learning throughout the night. There was a constant flow of people throughout the night. I taught them songs and tried to answer questions.
When I showed them matza for the first time, they all cried. “This is the bread of our forefathers, the bread of our freedom” I said. We sang “al hanisim”, acknowledging the miracle that I had been sent there. They asked me hard questions of faith, and were angry that I couldn’t answer. “I am not a rabbi, I don’t know”, I explained. “Yes you do! You know! Tell us”.
They asked why bad things happen to good people. They asked why we sinned with the gold calf. They asked about what one should do if he wants to convert but his wife doesn’t believe.
Before we went to sleep, Moshe gave me a bucket of water to wash my feet. He looked at me with embarrassment and said, “oh, miss rebbitzen, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I am not offended,” I said.
” oh you see, when Abraham had 3 guests over, the midrash says that he let them wash their feet because they were dusty from idol worship. But I am sure that you don’t worship idols. Please don’t be offended.”
I was amazed at Moshe’s depth of knowledge. He taught himself Hebrew, Rashi, Hasidut, Kabbalah, and Halacha.
That night all the women slept on the floor in one room, and the men in another. Every hour, a new person would arrive to meet the Israelite!
Everytime there was a knock on the door, I would pull myself out of bed to greet them. They probably all think that Israelis look like me with my complextion.
The next day, we went back to the synagogue and prayed the Hallel for the new month. We learned, sang, and danced together. I left my sidur with Moshe, and he snatched it as if it was gold!
They begged me to return and to bring other rabbis to see them. They asked for me to send them books mezuzah and Tfilin. They asked me to spread the word about them and to try to get a rabbi to convert them and bring them to Israel.
I promised that I would never forget them, and I would do what I could to bring them closer to G-d. I have been in close contact with wanjiku Emuna. I sent the community and MP3 player with Hebrew songs, and a mezuza. The girls in the Yeshiva that I am in sewed kippas for them and wrote letters. I pray to see them in Israel one day.
As I left the community of Molo, I remembered a sentence that one of my soldiers once said to me. She was a few weeks before conversion and said ” I don’t know if I deserve to be Jewish. I don’t know if I am holy enough. It is a privilege to be a Jew” יהודי להיות זכות זה
I had never thought of myself as being a ״lucky״ to be Jewish. I never felt privileged to be a Jew. I just was a Jew-fact. After my time with the community in Molo, I have had a lot of time to think about my identity. Their thirst for Torah, and yearning for Israel, and dedication to the mitzvoth is truly inspiring. I can proudly say that I am privileged to be Jewish. And so this Shavuot, I will receive the Torah as a burden, as freedom, and as a privilege.