Monday, October 31, 2011

A Slice of Paradise: Journey Along the Road to Eden
October 26, 2011

For two days last week, I stepped out of time and hit the road, joining a journey within a journey within a journey.

The first journey was through the holiday of Sukkot. For seven days, the Torah tells us, we should dwell in Sukkot, re-enacting the wandering of our ancestors when they occupied the liminal space between slavery and sovereignty, between creation and redemption, between vulnerability and security.

This wandering was enacted in particular by Dan Nichols, one of the leading voices of today’s Jewish music scene, and his band “Eighteen.” To create a particular kind of intimate and substantive Jewish communal experience through music, Dan conceived of a tour that eventually consisted of several key elements: first, the band would travel by RV, literally a road show, playing in a different city each night. The second piece was location: geography and culture made the cities of the American south the perfect venue for a mobile community bringing warmth, music, and a sense of connectedness. Third, they would orient it around a time of year that would lend itself to a linkage between the overall vibe of the tour and Jewish tradition: Sukkot was a natural choice.

Thus was born the “Southern Sukkot Tour”: the journey within the journey.

When Dan shared the idea with his friend Doug Passon—a Wexner Heritage Program alumnus and part-time filmmaker—they agreed that the tour would make a great documentary. Inspired by his Wexner learning, Doug conceived of a film that would be part concert movie, part road movie, and part inspirational documentary about Sukkot and new sources of Jewish inspiration in the 21st century. So he mounted a filmmaking operation and he and his crew rented a van to shadow Dan’s RV and film not only the concerts but the stories that they would find along the road in eleven cities in ten nights.

And so began the “Road to Eden”: the journey within the journey within the journey.

I met up with the band and the film crew five days into their trip, in Jackson, Mississippi. That evening, 100 Mississippi Jews brought their lawn chairs and set up for a pot luck picnic in the back yard of Jackson’s Congregation Beth Israel, beside the Sukkah. As the sun set on a perfect evening, Dan and his band played an intimate, joyous concert under the stars. Up front were the kids, ranging from pre-schoolers to teenagers who were veterans of the nearby Jewish camp where they learned Dan’s music in the summer. Dancing, cheering, and singing along, they set the tone for their parents and grandparents. Hebrew rock songs rang out into the Mississippi night.

Later that evening two dozen young Jews in their 20s got together for a late-night Sukkah experience at the home of the congregation’s rabbi. Who knew there was a critical mass
of 20-something Jews in Mississippi? We gathered in the Sukkah and I taught the origins of the custom of Ushpizin as it is recorded in the Zohar. We shook the lulav and etrog. Dan wove his unique magic with a few songs. We created an intimate, energized space where our ancient past met our hopeful future.

The next morning our film crew got an early start. That evening’s concert was to be in Little Rock, Arkansas, but we had a stop to make that would turn our day into a much longer and more interesting adventure.

The Craig family lives on a cattle farm near Brooksville, Mississippi, 2.5 hours from Jackson and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Becci was raised in a kosher home in Jackson and John (who is not Jewish) was raised on the farm the family occupies today. We spent the morning with them and their 14 year old son and 10 year old daughter. They shared the joys and challenges of farming life and of maintaining a Jewish household in such isolation.

As we sat with the pre-bat-mitzvah girl having her Hebrew lesson via skype, and walked the farm with father and son, two themes emerged to answer the question of how these farmers in the rural south connected to the Jewish people across time and space. The first was sheer commitment and tenacity. The same work ethic and spirit that helps the maintain a family farm in the face of a changing economy is what motivates them to drive five hours round trip for a morning at Sunday school twice a month. When the commitment runs up against the logistical and economic challenges of commuting to Jewish life, they have embraced technology to bridge the gap between them and their urban Jewish peers.

The second factor is Jewish summer camp. Jacobs Camp serves the children of the deep south and is perhaps the most potent source of energy and ruach in their lives. While Jewish camps are a bright spot all over North America, in Mississippi Jacobs Camp may very well have saved the Jewish people of the region entirely. The Craig children may live hours from a critical mass of Jews, but their community of hundreds of kids from all over lives in their hearts all year long.

The most poignant proof of all of this was when 14 year old Jacob talked about his Jewish identity. Because of camp, he felt a responsibility to stay connected to Jewish people and ideas. “Like this morning,” he said, unprompted. “We saw on the news that Gilad Shalit was freed and returned to his family in Israel.”

It had in fact been a momentous day for the entire Jewish people and all those who care for Israel. For the first time in 26 years, a captured Israeli soldier had been redeemed and brought home alive. Because of the internet and satellite TV, Jacob was able to access information on events in Israel in the same way as Jews in New York or Tel Aviv. Because of camp, he knew and cared enough to seek that information and rattle it off to a virtual stranger with complete confidence and genuine concern and pride.

Inspired by the Craigs and their story (to say nothing of their delightful hospitality), we spent most of the rest of the day driving to catch up with Dan and his band and crew in Little Rock, Arkansas. We arrived less than 30 minutes before showtime.

I raced around to find Dan. I wanted to make sure that he had Gilad Shalit’s story on his mind so that if he was inspired to weave the day’s news into the themes of the concert, he would have the facts at his fingertips. The intense, five minute exchange had the distinct feel of a late night camp program planning session. Something unexpected had changed in camp, and the next day’s shiur would have to reflect the new reality. After I downloaded my take on the Shalit situation, Dan said “I think you should come up and share your perspective with the group.” At what point in the show? It soon became clear: Dan’s song “redemption” would make the perfect punch line to the “complicated miracle” of Shalit’s coming home in exchange for a very painful release of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

Sukkot is the culmination of two cycles within the annual Jewish calendar, each of which echoes the classical Jewish formulation of the arc of spiritual life: creation, revelation, and redemption. The first is the cycle of the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashana commemorates the Creation of the world and the spirit of all beginnings and fresh starts. Yom Kippur represents Revelation in the unique closeness to God the Jew achieves through penitence and self-denial, a purification echoing the preparation for the Sinai experience where Israel encountered God's word directly, an experience of both awe and terror. Sukkot represents the sigh of relief that we have made it through the "brush with death" of Yom Kippur and have lived to enjoy a year of plenty. It is the time we begin to write the chapter of our future on the clean slate which was initiated on Rosh Hashana and confirmed on Yom Kippur. It is the journey along the road to Redemption.

The second is the annual cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Pesach is Creation: the birth of the Jewish people through the experience of leaving Egypt and passing through the "birth canal" of the Sea of Reeds, setting the stage for them to become a covenanted community. Shavuot commemorates the Sinai revelation which came a few days later, when Torah was revealed as the content of that covenant. And Sukkot again echoes Redemption--not the arrival at the destination of the promised land, but the journey toward it. We have everything we need for our sacred task, and now we have to embrace the vulnerability of the road that will take us there. It is the hope and promise of redemption, awaiting our fulfillment of our end of the bargain.

And so it was that the Jews of Little Rock celebrated the hope of redemption that lies at the heart of Sukkot by celebrating the redemption of Gilad Shalit. We sang Dan's words, inspired by the liturgical formulation ki fadah Adonai et Ya'acov, ug'alo miyad chazak mimenu:

Wandering in the desert, so easy to feel alone
We all need redemption from a hand stronger than our own

And in the Judaically sparse desert of the American south, singing out with Jewish pride, strength, hope, and celebration, we all felt that we had taken one step together toward that age-old destination, on the Road to Eden.


Unknown said...

Really nice, Jay. I could feel your emotions through the whole trip, and really wanted to be there with you. This trip sounded fun and spiritual and it sounds like it meant a lot to you.

Julia said...

Hey! So glad you're writing again! Loving it!