Tel Aviv prayer
By Rani Jaeger | 15/07/2010
It is difficult to breathe in Jerusalem, and difficult to pray, and that's why I travel to Tel Aviv: not to escape from the sanctity but to achieve a moment when there is holiness that emanates from the person rather than the place. Rani Jaeger, among the founders of the “Israeli Prayer House” in Tel Aviv explains why on the Sabbath eve, he goes down to Tel Aviv to pray
Photo: Udi Gindy
1. The beginning
For the past four years now, I have been traveling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to pray in the Beit Tefilla Yisraeli [Israeli Prayer House]. Many Jerusalemites have moved to Tel Aviv to take advantage the many things that it has to offer, and it does. I, as Alterman says, grew up on the pavements of Mother Tel Aviv, went to Jerusalem to study and chose to remain there to live. Nevertheless, I travel to Tel Aviv to pray.
Countless words have been written since the inception of Zionism about the tension between Jaffa (later Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem. We all know the drill: Jerusalem is the holy city, whereas Tel Aviv is a callow city founded on sand. We can see it in Agnon in “Only Yesterday,” and of course in Alterman, and later Oz and Grossman and Guri, and among the critics I will mention only Dan Miron, who wrote “If there is No Jerusalem.” Zionism wanted to create a new reality, and in that difficult birth process, entered – knowingly or unknowingly – into patterns far older that it. The distinction between the mountain people and the people on the coast is as old as this land itself.
The writing on the mountain and the coast in modern literature usually springs forth from the cultural, political and social hustle and bustle. Highway number one indeed links our number one tension; but it is like a two-headed snake, each of which's head is poised to bite the other (and perhaps kill itself entirely). But I travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv not to escape from snakes. Jerusalem has a number of synagogues that are very dear to my heart and inspire me. Each has its own character, smell and color. Just the same, there is something about prayer in Tel Aviv that draws me, to the extent that I am willing to move beyond my own personal Sabbath boundaries to descend from the mountain to the coast.
3. The alter of earth
The air above Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It's difficult to breathe.
(Yehuda Amichai, Ecology of Jerusalem)
I am often asked why we did not establish our Israeli Prayer House in Jerusalem. This question accepts the concept of the division between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Implicit in the question is the in-depth assumption that prayer emanates from a holy place that sustains it, betters it and “throws” it to the right place. That is exactly the reason why I leave Jerusalem to pray.
It is difficult to breathe in Jerusalem, and difficult to pray, and that's why I travel to Tel Aviv: not to escape from the sanctity but to achieve a moment when there is holiness that emanates from the person rather than the place, from the community of human beings from whom the prayer springs forth. Tel Aviv has no holy “bedrock of our existence.” And as for prayer, there is no one on whom we can count other than ourselves. It is difficult to start almost from square one, but that is the beauty and the strength of the matter. As I see it, what we are doing touches on the Biblical idea of “An altar of earth shall you make unto me” (Exodus 20:20), a place of ritual not founded on a holy site, but a return to the earth as a basic element. This is a “reset” of the holy geography and a restart from a more basic and primal place, from which prayer emanates with the hope that “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you” (Exodus 20:20)
4. The sand and the sea
In a wonderful article, Ariel Hirschfeld describes the connection between the poem Walk to Caesarea (Eli, Eli) by Hannah Senesz and the music by David Zahavi, the great musician of Israeli prayer:
“The twofold mention of the word Eli [My God] in the poem, (which is in fact the work of Zahavi) does not refer to Jesus' words on the cross, but rather turns God into the representative of the “self” of the poem. This is a private God… This experience cannot come by means of a pleasant air or choral melody; it is an experience that never abandons the world of the individual, even if he is part of some form of “together”; it is an experience of broadning and of wonderment, and it contains a new genuine way to say this word. This path is not prayer, but rather a search for a path to the word prayer, to the place that will not cancel the unique nature of the secular context in which the song is sung” (“Discussions of place,” Alma, Am Oved 2002, p. 148).
I recall this article in the summer, when we hold Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, with the participation of hundreds of people, in the Tel Aviv harbor. The location is a message in of itself – as one devoted participant said: “When we are outside, in the open air, what we are doing is open.” “But,” I asked her, “our prayer is still structured, isn't it? We have a prayer book with Yedid Nefesh and Lecha Dodi and Alterman too.” “Yes,” she said,” “but it is open just the same. The sea helps us to keep the prayer book open.”
Facing the line separating the sand and water, with the hubbub of the city at our backs, like when we were children in the Yarkon estuary, when we find ourselves in the tiny, hairline space between culture and nature, prayer emanates from us almost on its own. You have to stand with your face to the wind, to gaze at the setting sun, and then there will be a good chance that your kite of prayer will soar. When we start singing Eli, Eli, shedding the musical instruments that usually accompany us, the congregation expresses itself in song. That is a wondrous moment for a prayer leader, when he can go back to being one of the worshippers, his voice carried on the wind together with all the others.
5. Hebrew culture
Tel Aviv has a number of different identities or ethoses: the nonstop city, Israel's financial capital, center of international media, and more. Among all of these, there is a central place, as I believe there should be, for a project of Hebrew culture. This ethos situates the city, even if it is based on rebellion, within the continuum of Jewish time. It is a special privilege and challenge to create a prayer formula that emanates from a Tel, i.e. layers of tradition; and from Aviv [springtime], i.e. from the blossoming of current creativity. Prayer, as an expression of different spiritual and emotional situations, is the forum that expresses both the confrontation and acceptance.
Prayer, exactly like poetry, does not require coherence. Alterman, the great lover of Tel Aviv, could write of it that it is “Exposed and secular, and its electricity is as crude as the thorn and the thistle” (The city of the Jews in “Wailing City” (Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1972, p. 76). And in another famous line, he says: “The avenue is kempt in light and rain / Speak, green one, make noise! Look, God, I am walking / with my eldest daughter down the main street” (Avenues in the Rain in “Poems of the Past,” (Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1972, p. 50).
Is the image of Tel Aviv in literature devoid of all sanctity, or is God there in it? Our prayer book can contain both. This containment is, as I see it, one of the most welcome results of living within Hebrew culture. Finally, we can fear less, lest every action or criticism cause us to be cut off from our tradition or nation. That is why we can distance ourselves from the bother, the tiresome anxiety that causes so many people to declare the identity of everything, like a lost possession, to say whether it is “Jewish” or “human” or “secular” or “religious.” And in the words of Bialik, “Every concept of Jewish culture we narrow down to this small space. That is, everything that is outside it, we have called human. When a person ate bread, if he made the hamotzi blessing over it, then he put a little Jewishness into his eating. If he just ate, then it is human. If he ate kugel on Shabbat, then it was Jewish eating. If there is nothing that is specifically Jewish, then it is no longer Jewish, and has suddenly become human… Here in the land of Israel, all this must come to an end. Here, the concept of culture receives its full significance” (“On the question of Hebrew culture,” Nahalal 1932).
The expansion of culture, and I would add the feeling of wellbeing within it, does not imply indifference in the sense of “anything goes.” We must not confuse wellbeing and ease with slackness. Hundreds of members and leaders of congregations in prayer and community houses throughout Israel are involved in expanding culture every Shabbat, every holiday, and sometimes every day. One step at a time, with countless questions on the essence of the ceremony and the relationship between human beings and humans and God, a new Israeli-Jewish creation is coming into being.
The philosopher John Locke, the author of “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” was right when he assumed that not only does freedom not run counter to religious creativity, but is in fact a crucial condition for it to flourish. Tel Aviv is a free area. What more needs to be said?
Wondrous are the sources of inspiration. An experience of genuine prayer can occur in different and surprising places. I would like to note two people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude:
The road to Alma College, where most of our prayers are held, is sown with synagogues, Tel Aviv cultural assets that are worthy of attention on their own. I get off the Ayalon freeway at La Guardia, and enter Rothschild Avenue via Shadal Street. The great Spanish synagogue. From Montefiore, I can see the Great Synagogue on the corner of Allenby and Ahad Ha'am Street. Between Sheinkin and Balfour is the study hall of the Belze Hassidim, and then the mysterious entrance to the synagogue of Hapoel Hamizrachi at 108 Ahad Ha'am. I had the privilege of getting to know some of the worshippers in these synagogues and to learn from them. For example, from the late Rabbi Lipkin, a Haredi Jew who chose to be the rabbi of a religious-Zionist synagogue. As a child, I felt his gentle handshake, the respect that he gave and never demanded, and his modest prayer on Shabbat. Today I understand that he was a rare combination of two characteristics – love for his fellow man and fear of God.
In the old north of Tel Aviv, I experienced a Shabbat and holiday of a different kind as a student in the A.D. Gordon school, next to the Histadrut General Federation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel (yes, all of that appeared on the sign). The school was located at 7 LaSalle Street on the corner of Eduard Bronstein, because the residents of the neighborhood recreated the world of Jewish-European socialism for themselves on the streets where they lived. Every Friday in the school lunchroom, over chocolate milk and a roll, we would sing “A blue shirt is greater than all the jewels,” the anthem of the youth movements, and then, with an amazing turn of the wheel, which for us was completely natural, we would move on to the traditional Eila hamda libi, husa na ve'al titalam, vekarev pezurenu mibein hagoyim, unefutzatenu kanes miyarketei aretz [These are precious to my heart, have mercy and turn not Your eye, and gather our nation from among the Gentiles and the scattered of our people from the corners of the earth], and wind up with (after all, it was the eve of the Sabbath) Kol haneshamot tehalel ya, haleluya [All the souls will praise You, Hallelujah].
These customs of course embodied unresolved tensions. Any rational observer of this new-old tradition immediately notices the contradictions, gaps, ruptures and yearnings. In them too. But it is exactly that same rational observation that pushes more and more of us not to refrain from partaking of the treasures of Jewish culture in general, and of prayer in particular. To enrich so as not to be poor. We are apparently returning to and living the tension between the people of the second Aliya, of whom Berl Katznelson wrote: “A generation that renews and creates does not throw the legacy of the previous generations onto the dust heap. It examines and explores, distances and draws closer, and sometimes holds onto an existing tradition and adds to it. And sometimes it goes down to the scrap pile and uncovers forgotten treasures, polishes and shines away their rust, reviving an ancient tradition that can sustain the soul of the generation anew” (“From Revolution and Tradition,” Hakibbutz Hameuad, Tel Aviv 1945-6).
Sometimes Tel Aviv masquerades as New York, and sometimes it looks back in nostalgia at its childhood, “Little Tel Aviv.” When you walk its streets, you can see life in the illuminated rooms. It is sometimes surprising to see the extent to which a city that is so individualistic is transparent to the public gaze. For example, take an evening stroll down Sderot Chen, and you will be surprised to see how many living rooms you can look right into, even from street level. It is there, in that peeping gaze, a gaze of distant proximity, that humanity is created. And it is indeed the humanity of “Let us make a man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).
Avraham Halfi was especially sensitive to what could be seen through the windows of the city.
As evening falls, it falls from the heavens
And sits on a stone at my window.
Let us give it a piece of bread, water to drink
And leave it alone: This is a poor God…
(From “Poems,” Vol. 1, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1986, p. 17)
In his quiet way, Halfi sought to swim up the verse's stream. If the Book of Genesis derives man from God, Halfi sought to reach God through the encounter with man, to speak with the Creator through His creation.
The step that we are taking requires quite a lot of courage, both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we need courage to rebuff the petrified views that many of us hold. We generally distinguish between “to learn” and “to do,” and we do not often reveal our sadness and joy, we don't admit that we need help despite our being such autonomous individuals – and what is prayer if not a request for help?
And outwardly, we need courage to break through the inhibitions of the tribe: After all, if you are secular, why would you go to pray? And if you do, then it is just “by chance” and you come equipped with a cynical smile and an anthropological perspective, careful not to really be inside. And one needs to drum up courage to contend with the prevalent approach here to ritualism – an approach that views it as an empty and bothersome phenomenon – just to be able to provide a moment of grace to this experience. And one needs courage to be able to face up to the religious and secular people who repeatedly send us – each for their own reasons – to what they view as the “the one and only real thing” – the Orthodox synagogue.
Our prayer insists on blazing our path. Persistence is needed in order to maintain the paradoxical situation of the “prayer of the heretic” without sinking into total silence, and in order not to sink into complacent spirituality that does not hear the cry of the weak. We need courage to live the secular, reality as it is, to be thankful for what we have without cynicism and to mobilize to change those things that need to be changed. Courage for the “antlike and gigantic” work, in the words of Bialik, of building the life of an urban community that has old people and children, women and men, families and individuals, straights and gays, believers alongside those who sometimes believe and those who never do.
All this is the “Courage to be secular,” like the name of an article that Lea Goldberg wrote in 1938, in which she warned against being blinded, against self-effacement before charisma, and for cautious spiritual work, an effort. Although her direction was somewhat different, I feel that her call is directed at us too. Tel Aviv provides the secularity; we have to search within ourselves for the courage and freedom to do this work.
Rani Jaeger is a fellow of the Hartman Institute