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On Spaces and Searching

My bus pulled in to Delphi well after dark, and I stopped in at the one taverna that was open on the one street in the village. The one man working was hanging Christmas baubles from the ceiling, and he brought me bowls of cheese and eggplant spread and fresh bread. No one else was in the restaurant. The cobbled streets of Delphi were also empty. It was chilly and quiet, but the energy of the streets felt tangible.

The next day I explored the ruins. It’s not known exactly when the sites of worship at Delphi originate from, although estimates place it as early as 1400 BCE. Delphi was a huge temple complex, the centre of which was the Temple of Apollo, home to the Delphic Oracle.

The Oracle was a Pythia, or Priestess, usually an older woman, who would sit on a stool and inhale gasses which came through a crack in the ground. She would then ramble a bit, and the ramblings were translated into prophecies by the priests. The Oracle had major influence during her time, and would be consulted on matters of national importance including wars and colonization.

But people would also confer with the Oracle over personal issues. They would hike over the mountains, and arrive by ship, climbing through the olive groves until they reached the Sacred Precinct of Apollo, alive with gold and riches and worshippers from across the ancient world.

When I visited Delphi I was almost alone. Early in the morning the day-trippers hadn’t arrived from Athens, and the slow but steady rain kept most people away. I climbed slowly up the hill, past ancient marble slabs and overgrown olive trees. Most of Delphi is in ruins, with the better preserved statues moved indoors to the Delphi Archaeological Museum. But even amongst the few remaining pillars and monuments, I felt instantly dwarfed by the size and power of antiquity. These pillars had stood through entire histories, and my brief morning on the hill was little more than a heartbeat.

I felt the same in Athens. Hiking up to the Acropolis, taking in the views of modern Athens sprawling around the ancient epicentre which has been at it’s core since then, was truly fascinating. It’s not so far off from Jerusalem, where ancient ruins lie at the core of modern life and though changed, are still filled with a living vibrancy.

The ruins of Delphi and Athens are scattered with the traces of human life. In Athens, I saw pot shards inscribed with cryptic scribbles - these had been early voting tokens. Each (wealthy male) citizen could cast his vote on a piece of pottery, and cast his vote in the early stages of democracy. The museums of Delphi were lined with rows and rows of crudely fashioned idols - really just lumps of clay with small arms. But the fact that people with such limited resources and such imminent dangers spent their time thinking of things so much bigger than themselves is quite inspiring.

Later in December I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Birmingham called Limmud Festival. Limmud is an international organization, hosting Jewish learning seminars all around the world, but Festival is sort of the epicentre of what they do. 2 500 people packed out several hotels, and all day we shuffled around to the 225 sessions run each day by participants, exploring a plethora of Jewish topics.

It was all a bit crazy, and there was always something happening. One night I attended a one-woman drag show tagged as a ‘coming-out Bat Mitzvah’. There always seemed to be an Israeli dancing circle going on well past midnight. There were craft sessions, Jewish text sessions, cooking - literally anything you can imagine.

But what I found most inspiring about Limmud was the type of people who were presenting. Amongst my young-Jewish-educator-type friends, almost everyone was leading a session or two, which is amazing. Even more so is the fact that the people who attended the sessions we led were not my young-Jewish-educator-type friends, but strangers, many significantly older than me.

Of course there were presenters of the Jewish ‘celebrity’ type like Abby Stein, Clive Lawton and Idan Raichel. But then there was also the space for everybody else. I sat through an hour-long performance of Yehuda Amichai’s life through his poetry, with guitar playing, a laying out of fake flowers, and original songs set to Amichai’s lyrics. As the solo performer, an older gentleman, mimicked laying down the body of his friend who had been shot in the Six Day War, it became clear (if it hadn’t already been), that this was by no means an award-winning theatrical performance. But it was so amazing in that a smattering of random audience members had shown up to be witness to this man’s outpouring of expression. Limmud had created the space for this man to express himself, and had brought people in to witness the moment.

Leading sessions was also a great experience. In my work as a Jewish educator, I end up leading a lot of sessions, but these were different. One of my sessions, called ‘Textiles as Ritual Practice’ explored the connections between knitting and other textiles processes to the traditions and rituals embedded in Judaism. I’ve led tons of sessions on textiles before, sometimes for my ladies Rosh Chodesh group in Mumbai, or as a craft project with my Bnei Mitzvah club here in Glasgow. Usually people join in and have fun, but they haven’t come to talk textiles.

Here, there was a group of fiercely passionate textile artists who had all come because they wanted to talk about their passions and their Jewish lives in a very real way. An older gentleman had brought some wool scarves he had woven to show us, and spoke about how he felt his own personal ‘avoda’ lay more in weaving silk talleisim than in the praying he was meant to be doing in them. It was a wonderful conversation, and the coming together of 2 500 people meant that we could find a group of 15 dedicated fibre artists in order to create the space for that interaction.

One thing about Limmud is that it’s very heavy, and you spend all day thinking and talking and exploring new ideas. Having the physical counterpart to that experience, whether it’s an evening pouring pints at the Limmud Bar, or joining in the daily knit-and-natter session, can be very therapeutic. Another of my sessions was a more hand-on macrame workshop, meant to provide people with the physical skills to complement their theoretical learning. In contrast to my other session, which was full of textile people, at this session people were totally new to crafting. One man expressed his doubts that he could make anything wearable out of a pile of thread. But he walked away with his new anklet tied on and it was such a beautiful thing to see the transformation that can take place over the space of an hour.

In Athens I developed a high fever. After two amazing weeks in Greece, I lay in my hostel bed, too sick to move, and wishing I was already home in Glasgow. Finally the day of my flight arrived. By this point I had managed to walk down the street to a pharmacy where I had stocked up on Grecian flu medication and bought a few plain bread rolls. I was laying in my bed, dreading the hour-and-a-half bus ride to the airport, the cramped Ryan Air experience, and two full days working in London before I could get home to Scotland. Finally I rolled out of bed, to find the Moroccan boy in the dorm room crouched on the floor, praying.

I quickly apologized for intruding into his moment, and went to wash up. When I returned, he told me it was no issue. He asked if I was a Christian, and a bit hesitantly I told him I was Jewish. He was thrilled. “I love Jews! In Morocco we have many Jewish neighbours, and we all get along! We’re all believers of the same thing!” That was potentially not what I was expecting, but we quickly got into a discussion of Moroccan Jewish history (which he knew way more about than I did) and what it’s like to be religious in modern Morocco. He finished off by reminding me to pray everyday.

I think back over all these small moments: Pilgrims climbing up through the olive groves of Delphi, old men singing Yehuda Amichai poems, young men learning to knot friendship bracelets, my Moroccan roommate praying on the floor, even me running around Greece visiting ancient monuments. These are all searches for meaning. And these are not new experiences - it’s comforting to know that the search for meaning is something that has continued on through young girls living in Ancient Greece to old men living in London, from our deep-rooted traditions to the tumultuous nature of contemporary life.

In the words of Yehuda Amichai:

Near the wall of a house painted to look like stone, I saw visions of God. A sleepless night that gives others a headache gave me flowers opening beautifully inside my brain. And he who was lost like a dog will be found like a human being and brought back home again. Love is not the last room: there are others after it, the whole length of the corridor that has no end.

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