Aliyah and the Rude Yeridah Awakening

When one receives the honor of blessing the Torah before and after one of the readings from it, that honor is called an aliyah, “going up.” The “going up” refers to Zion — Ki mi-Tzion teitzei Torah u-d’var Adonai mi-Yerushalayim — “Out of Zion came Torah and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem”. So merely being close to Torah is akin to ascending to the holy city of Jerusalem, and therefore being close to God.

Likewise, the word aliyah is used to describe the actual process of going to Israel or moving to Israel, as in “making aliyah.”

Aliyah has its shadow self. Leaving Israel, or moving away from Israel, is called yeridah. It has a pejorative connotation in modern parlance. Yordim are Israelis who have settled in the Diaspora. Considering the fact that the Diaspora is considered Exile/Galut by traditionalists, it makes sense that anywhere other than Israel would be considered a spiritual descent.

My yeridah this past week was a rude one. My heart was still in aliyah, my body in yeridah.  Amichai’s poem (included in full in my last post entitled “My heart is in the East”) really speaks to me — I’m like a migratory bird without my bearings on summer and winter.

And so it was that Chaim and I were to spend our first Shabbat back in the Diaspora after four remarkable Shabbatot in Jerusalem. Not only is he still on Israel time, up all night and barely sleeping days either, but he has gotten sick as a result. Nonetheless, it was clear that we were going to go to synagogue last night (why break a perfect four-week record now?). And while it wasn’t clear at first, it soon became clear — we were going to be attending an Orthodox synagogue.

What you need to know about most synagogues in Jerusalem, including non-Orthodox ones (and I assume this is the case elsewhere in Israel, as well) and about Orthodox synagogues in the Diaspora is that you go off to synagogue on Friday evening as soon as the Shabbat candles are lit. In winter that means 4:30 or 5:00 PM, in summer much later. Liberal Jewish congregations in the U.S. don’t generally take sundown into account to set the time of Shabbat evening services — a Friday night service might be 7:30 or 8:00 PM year-round.

What this meant for us was that the only way to retain our sense of aliyah-consciousness, of keeping Shabbat in the way we’d grown accustomed in Jerusalem, was to go off to synagogue as soon as we lit our Shabbat candles at 4:55 PM. And that would mean attending an Orthodox synagogue.

We have several to choose from in our neighborhood, all walking distance, but the obvious choice was the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, made known by its controversial rabbi, Avi Weiss — either reviled or beloved, depending on whom you speak to. He is the founder of a liberal Orthodox yeshiva, Chovavei Torah, that has come under scrutiny from the right-wing of the Orthodox world, who won’t allow Chovavei Torah ordinees to join their rabbinic union (or to place for jobs in their congregations). Avi Weiss is also considered suspect due to the fact that he ordained Sara Hurwitz (who happens to live in our building) as a rabbah, making her full-time clergy at the congregation.

But as much as I hoped that HIR (affectionately called “The Bayit/Home”) would make me feel like I was at Shira Chadasha, the wonderful Orthodox singing congregation we attended in Jerusalem, it didn’t. Yeridah had hit my soul, not just my body.

And then, to top it off, Chaim and I had our first (albeit petty) fight in over a month. We had really, really descended from on high, on all levels.

This morning, we decided to try a different Orthodox synagogue a four-mile walk away in Yonkers, served by my new friend, Rabbi Manny Vinas from Cuba. I met Manny just on Thursday when he came to my agency to speak about Jews of color as part of our belated Martin Luther King Day commemoration, and I was giving the closing remarks and prayer. We hit it off, I knew Chaim would also really like him (in part because Manny is so very critical of Chabad in the same ways that Chaim is). Manny told me that once he needed a minyan/a tenth man for the quorum, and a messianist Chabadnik walked in (one who believes that the deceased Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson/the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the messiah) — noticeable because of a distinctive head covering as well as a yellow crown pin they wear representing the Messiah. Manny refused to count him in the minyan — remarkable!

It was a bitter cold morning this morning, in the 20’s, and we bundled up, ready to go, when I realized that Chaim really wasn’t well enough to go out in the cold, let alone to walk four miles to shul in each direction. So I went by car by myself. I got a little of Jerusalem back there, but not enough to sustain me for the long haul, I’m afraid. Manny did make me promise to give the d’var Torah next time I come, and he gave me a big public welcome, which was quite lovely. He is one of the inclusive and pluralistic rabbis of the Orthodox world, as is Avi Weiss.

For anyone who may be wondering if I have either dispensed with my feminist principles by attending a non-egalitarian synagogue or given up on my Reform identity, not to worry. I’m just in an exploring place vis-a-vis synagogues, playing ethnographer and dilettante and spiritual seeker, all in one. I am sorry Chaim and I didn’t explore some of the small little synagogues in Jerusalem — Turkish, Iraqi, Persian, Syrian — where I know the music would have been new and different, and all would have been Orthodox. I am more open to exploring the “all that is” in the Jewish community.

Since we don’t have a home congregation yet in Riverdale, we don’t feel bound anywhere for the time-being, except by distance (since Chaim will not drive on Shabbat, we can only go places that are walking distance, if we go together). So explore, we can, and explore, we shall…

Tomorrow is my 53rd birthday, actually only 30 minutes away… There is nothing mystical about the number 53, no way for me to redeem aliyah-consciousness through gematria as far as I can tell (unless any of you can offer me a possibility).

So here is Ari Elon’s interesting take on aliyah and yeridah. My prayer for my birthday is that I create God for myself and take off with her for my rooftop in Pampamina-land.

“Everyday I make myself come down from my rooftop, which is Pumbedita, to the land of Israel. This is the sum total of my present Zionism, told on one foot. My frustrating first exile made me dream of going up to the land of Israel (aliyah); the exciting power of my second exile makes me come down to the land of Israel (yeridah). No one can stand such enormous power as Pumbedita’s for any length of time. We need our national home as a place to come down to — and to come down in — so that we can once again take off skyward with renewed strength. My first exile was the direct result of the death of my childhood God who had created me in His likeness and image. My second exile is a living testimony to the birth of the God that I am creating in my likeness and image. Every day I create God for myself in my image and take off with Her for my rooftop in Pumbedita.” (Ari Elon, From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven: Meditations on the Soul of Israel, p. 19)

23 Shevat/February 2, 2013


8 thoughts on “Aliyah and the Rude Yeridah Awakening

  1. Dear Pam,

    Happy Birthday! If there is nothing mystical about the number 53, perhaps that means it is for you to create your own symbolism, your own meaning as the year unfolds. May you be blessed with a wonderful birthday, celebrating being in this life with all its aliyot and yeridot,

    warm wishes, Sandy

  2. Happy birthday to you! My iGematria app tells me that 53 matches up with גן; may this year offer you many occasions to enter into Eden.

    And I hear you about the spiritual impact of yeridah. I struggle with the notion that Israel is inherently a place of elevated spiritual consciousness and that the Diaspora is inherently a descent — and yet I’ve experienced the feeling of yeridah, and it is hard. The most recent time, for me, was after my smicha. The moment of smicha was incredibly powerful, and I coasted on that through the OHALAH conference that year, and then I came home to ordinary life and felt very much in galut for a while.

    I try to think of it as a kind of ratzo v’shov — there’s an ebb and flow to spiritual life, and the upside of being down is that the return to a feeling of aliyah is always possible.

  3. Dear Pam;

    Happy Birthday. 53 is a prime number (no factors except 1 and the number itself), so it is indeed an important birthday. You had to wait 6 years for this prime birthday and will have to wait another 6 years for the next one (but then will have the experience of twin prime birthdays —59 and 61), Enjoy every moment. Best wishes, Susan ( and Stanley)

  4. Happy Birthday Pam. We have so enjoyed your blog from Israel and hope to continue to hear your voice (both in person and in blog). See you next Saturday when we will be hosts.
    Karen and Bill

  5. When David went up, up to the upper chamber over the gate, it was to weep. When the dew descended and the oil onto Aaron’s beard as Jonah descended to the belly of the fish, it was to eternal life. (Psalm 133)

    I hope this is not duplicated – but my comments disappear here – I have enjoyed your journey

  6. Happy Birthday, Pam
    Your blog of your trip have been as if I were in a history class. Thank you.
    Your far-away-friend from the ship,
    Jan (Shaw)

  7. Hi Pam….HAPPY BIRTHDAY a few days late! I always think of it, and usually remember, a few day before my Dad’s. I thought of it a few days before, then not on the real day. So I had a message from Chaim Tues. evening when I got home, tried him twice, and left the plumber’s name and #. Tell him to call John during the day today if he needs anything more. Gotta go, kids coming! Love, Roberta


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