Monday, November 17, 2008

Shabbaton Reflections, Part II

It's been nearly a week since I sat down to write my reflections on the first day of the Shabbaton that took place Nov. 7-9. To read the first installment, just click here . And then? Continue on!

I woke up Saturday morning primed to give the Shabbaton the old one-two go! I slept in late, mostly because the folks who lived upstairs (my host lived in a basement apartment) were up at 6 or 7 in the morning and children were running back and forth, feet stomping, throughout the morning. Services and a few programs were running in the morning, but I just couldn't bring myself to crawl out of bed (partially from the sleep deprivation and partially because of my experience the night before at services). I got up, got dressed in a long black skirt and I layered two shirts atop it. And then? I put on a scarf. I'm serious, folks. You haven't seen me in the morning. My hair, while cute when done up right, is an absolute mess pre-shower and doing up. It's like a wild forest of twists and crazy angles and nothing can keep it down. Plus, with the humid weather from the rain, my hair wasn't the only thing looking like hell. I, too, looked like hell. I was feeling sticky and gross, and I knew it was going to be a long day sans shower (I prescribe to the "a shower is okay on Shabbat" philosophy). As I was finishing up dressing, my host awoke and came out to talk to me, not to mention gave me some yogurt and goodies before I went on my way.

I left the apartment and schlepped through the rain (not that it mattered, since my hair was scarfed a la a frummie housewife) to the building where all of the programming was happening. I, like the night before, blended in with the crowd of Jews rushing to and fro from services to lunch to meetings with friends and family. My black skirt whipped back and forth in the rain, and I felt apart of the community, for sure.

I arrived at the building in time for lunch around the noon hour, located some of my fellow UConn Jews and the doors opened and we grabbed a table right inside the door. I sort of forgot that I was wearing my scarf and it wasn't really like I'd felt any different than the evening before, but then someone mentioned to me the scarf and I went into my spiel about how my hair looks hideous in the morning. Someone commented that I looked super frum, and as usual, I smiled. The meal came and was, to be honest, pretty darn delicious. There was gefilte fish, various salads, cholent, challah, salad, cookies, cake, you name it. But it wasn't the meal that was the most memorable part.

Throughout the meal, rabbis got up to tell jokes and parables -- a really funny one about a rabbi and lawyer on a long flight (remind me to tell you about it later!). There was dancing around the main lectern in the center of the ballroom, and men flew through the crowd legs flying and voices wailing. It was a really, really unique and beautiful site. The women, eager to partake, tried to get something going (that is, two of the gals at my table and myself), and eventually we had a circle going and our voices flew. But just about as soon as we'd started the men broke up and we got the social nod to quit and sit. Also throughout the meal, I had the pleasure of chasing the rabbi's youngest boy around the ballroom. He is, really, seriously, the cutest little boy I've ever encountered. At one point, while chasing him as he looked for the rabbi, I grabbed him right as he was jetting off into unknown territory. As I picked him up, the girl with me said "You look so religious, so maternal right now." It was a moment of pride, I'll admit, but the little one quickly squirmed out of my arms and ran on and I, like a good Jewish mother, followed him along until about 10 minutes later we finally got back to the table. I have radar for the little one -- he'd get up and run for the door, I'd let the rebbetzin know he was off again. I have the instinct, what can I say?

After lunch, there were a series of "seminars" on various topics -- Jewish dating, belief, prayer, etc. -- by rabbis and rebbetzins of the Chabad persuasion. I decided to settle into a talk by a rabbi on the topic of belief in Judaism. I was one of the first in the classroom, followed by a girl from Syracuse. We exchanged pleasantries and where we were from and then she asked, "So are you the rebbetzin at UConn?" The scarf! Always with the scarf. I replied no, and made a sort of sudden realization that in the Chabad community, sheitels are the standard it seems, not scarves or other head coverings. The room started to fill up and by the time the talk started, there was standing room only and people were sitting on the floor. The rabbi, who is known for his work on the Gunick Edition of the chumash, kept the conversation incredibly lively by discussing whether Judaism is a rational or irrational religion. Whether our belief is of the rational variety or is irrational, and boy did that stir some discussion. Many people in the crowd began talking about taking a "leap of faith" in believing, and how it's an essential part of Judaism. It was interesting because the men were the only one talking, and the women were sitting quietly. A few of the women next to me commented, saying "the women have nothing to say!"

But me? I always have something to say.

I raised my hand, and said that I wasn't sure if I had an opinion on whether Judaism was rational or irrational, but that the idea that Judaism takes a "leap of faith" is a misconception. I explained that Kierkegaard, when writing about Christianity, said that to be a Christian requires a "leap of faith." In response, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Judaism, alternatively, requires a "leap of action." If you think about it (this needs a full blog post to be honest), it's pretty accurate. I also mentioned that what we think of as "faith" is really meant to be "faithfulness." I blogged about this at length a while ago. But it frustrates me that people confuse faith with belief. The rabbi thanked me for my comments, someone commented that I was nuts, and the seminar went on. Afterward, I wandered the hallways trying to figure out which seminar to go to next, but none struck me. Luckily, I ran into the rabbi from the talk, who I ended up having a lengthy conversation with -- about what I'm studying and working on, the Golden Calf issue (about which he sent me some really comprehensive and stellar stuff from the Gutnick edition), and other things. It was truly -- after the Shabbat dinner -- my favorite part of the Shabbaton. I'm an academic geek, and there's truly nothing like a discussion with a rabbi about anything at all.

But after the seminar? My Shabbat hit a huge, huge brick wall.

I can't explain it, but talking to the rabbi and attending that seminar was a high. After that, and after the second seminar time expired, it was time to prepare for Havdalah and the big group photo. As soon as that all ended, the evening broke out into individual dinners, a gigantic party with a band, and fabrengen's into the wee hours of the night. But as I crowded into the ballroom with hundreds of other students, and as we plastered ourselves against the side wall, I grew anxious and uncomfortable. Every five seconds, as the crowd grew louder and the people grew more tense while we waited for everything to get set up for havdalah and the group photo ... I wanted to leave. I kept wanting to walk out. I could see the rabbi and the rebbetzin across the room and knew I should stay. I looked around the room at the comaradarie, the students chanting school songs and there I was, in a crowd of strangers. Havdalah candles were lit, prayers were said, a few songs were sung, and then the flashbulbs burned and we were done. Like a stampede, people piled out of the ballroom to run home to shower, eat, prepare for the night's festivities as only college students might.

But me? I ran home, called someone, showered, got dressed, and sat down for a few hours with my host to explain why that person I'd called was coming to pick me up and take me away from Crown Heights. As I explained feeling quite alone, too old for the crowd, overwhelmed by the rebbe-as-moshiach-posters everywhere, the sheer volume and size of the group of people, and everything ... she understood why I was leaving. She -- as well as many others since then -- suggested I go back to Crown Heights when I have the chance to really experience a Shabbat without hundreds of other kids, and the suggestion is valid and I intend to take it into account. But by leaving early, I was sacrificing the events on Sunday, which included the trip to the rebbe's ohel and experiencing the entire site with my peers -- something I want to do, but perhaps alone or with merely one or two others, not in a gigantic crowd of hundreds. And just like that, Saturday night, I hopped into the car of a friend with some rugelach from my host in hand, and drove off into the night away from the Shabbaton and away from Crown Heights.

Listen, what it comes down to -- and I must say this briefly, else I'll have a 20 part series on the event -- is that it was overwhelming for someone so conditioned to inward thinking (a result of living a year in Washington DC and becoming as antisocial as a hermit), everyone was doing their own thing and I was left to consider how completely out of the loop I really was, and I felt a lack of connection religiously to anything in Crown Heights. I went in with very high hopes, and the absolute magnitude of the entire event and the population of students there, paired with the lack of cohesion between the students from my school, threw me to the ground and left me feeling lonely. I did, though, realize my limits. I can't say much more than that, but I'll leave it there for now and perhaps develop something for a future post.

It isn't, by any means, an event I'll forget, and I might even give the Shabbaton another try next year. Or, I might just schlep down to New York on my own or with someone special, visit the Ohel, explore Crown Heights, and maybe show up again for a Shabbat. Or, just maybe, I'll stick to Washington Heights, where I felt beyond comfortable and felt at home in the services. I felt in WH like the women wanted to be there, that it was more than a social hour. (As an aside: Maybe I'll make my tour de force empowering Orthodox women to own their religion. It's more than a social hour, damnit. Women aren't bound to the same mitzvot as men, necessarily, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for that connection that we gain by davening and being a part of a society of prayer.)

But there you are. A mere two parts, because after more than a week, it's almost a lost cause trying to put together coherent thoughts about such an emotionally stressful weekend. If you got this far? Congratulations and thank you for the time!