Monday, May 7, 2012

A Jew goes wandering in the desert...

....oh, you've heard this one before?  Well, this one is a little different.  A few weeks ago, I went to the Panamint Valley near Death Valley with Wilderness Torah for Passover in the Desert.  This was a five-day experience in a stark desert, surrounded by multicoloured mountains and sparsely decorated with scrub bush, pebbles and salt flats.  No shade, no cell service, no electricity, no noise, no skyscrapers, a quiet only defined by the tones of the wind and the occasional sound of a jet engine from a local military base.

I got involved with Wilderness Torah when I went to an event of theirs and was delighted to find a group of Jews who were motivated by their spiritual connection to the environment, social justice, and yes, patchouli.  Thinking I'd come into the office a few times a month and organize files, I was instead drawn into the Lev, or organizing committee, of the Passover in the Desert festival.  Through this, I got to help organize and carry out one of the most beautiful, emotional, quiet, and deep experiences I've had.

So what happens when a group of Jews go wandering in the desert?  Here's a summary:

  • fierce, unrelenting winds and dust uninhibited by tall buildings and powerful warm rainstorms and snow which was evaporated by a hot desert sun the next day
  • teams of just as unrelenting volunteers creating colourful, blanket-adorned shelters that welcome attendees into an otherwise naked landscape
  • a loving kitchen team that filled our bellies with passover-kosher home-made pickles, massaged kale salads, vegan matzoh ball soups, stewed dried figs, matzoh brei, sweet and hearty quinoa, healing teas, matzah tiramisu, fresh and nourishing fruits and almond butters which kept us hydrated, joyful and able to immerse ourselves in the wonder of the desert
  • a slow weaning away from time, schedules, emails, phones, where we were instead defined by drums and fire dancers, prayer and laughter, sharing feelings and emotion, more sharing, and more sharing (we are hippies after all), where we were called to meals by the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn) and greeted by guitar and dancing
  • learning about passover, counting the olmert (don't ask me to explain it), LGBTQ issues in Judaism, the BDS movement of Jews in the US, and how to make Passover really, really tasty
  • Hearing about Rock, the one resident in the Panamint Valley ghosttown of Balarat who sells beer for a dollar out of a cooler in his house and likely burned down a mining camp about 20 years ago for reasons unknown
  • snakes, scorpions, birds, ants and packs of wild, wandering burros (don't mess with them)
  • hugs, dancing, cuddle piles, singing, freestyle beatboxing (by yours truly), incredible new friends and connections and a team of inspirational leaders to work with in putting on this amazing festival.
  • a stillness nearly impossible in the rush of the city and the race of our lives
I also, for the first time, experienced meditation of a sort.  The kind of meditation in which you think "okay, slow your breath, clear your mind.  Clearrrrr....yourrrr....miiiiind.  Hey, what's that bird doing?  He's so cute.  No wait, stop it!  Clear....your...ah, my leg itches.  I should have put on more sunscreen.  I wonder if those dates will be put out for dinner.  I liked the dates. With almond butter and...oh crap!  I have to overactive mind...I've got an hour more of this.  Oh screw it.  I'm taking a nap."  Although I felt I had failed at my meditation, a kind new friend explained to me that 90% of meditation is simply getting yourself to the cushion.  And so I've taken to doing an occasional 5 minute meditation which slows me down just enough to have a lasting effect throughout the day.

And so I returned from the timeless inspiration of the desert, changed not monumentally, but in small ways.  Am I more religious? Not so much.  But I do feel so very hopeful and inspired that there are Jews like me who believe strongly in our cultural tradition's connection to the land.  Thank you Panamint and thank you to the incredible families, elders, youth, teachers, students and organizers for what is one of my most memorable experiences.

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