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Of Talmud and Tradition

I knit myself a pullover sweater which just didn't work as a pullover sweater. The front bottom edge puffs out in the front at an unflattering angle, while the back edge sticks out on the sides. The sleeves are a bit too far back, and the V-neck just doesn't sit right. It's a beautiful sweater though, blue and purple in a Seattle-spun yarn that I bought in Vancouver, started in India, worked on during the plane ride back to Canada, and finished in Glasgow.

Luckily, in knitting there's a technique called steeking. You take three columns of knitting, and crochet two rows down the spaces in between. You then take a pair of extra-sharp scissors and cut right down the middle. And then your pullover has turned into a cardigan, just like that!

While steeking truly is a bit of fibre magic, it relies on the fibres rubbing together. When you use a pure wool, made out of an animal fibre like sheep or alpaca, the fibres naturally rub, felting together in the friction. This allows the rows to stay put even when the columns are cut (something that would usually result in knitting disaster!). If you were to do so with a synthetic fibre, the likes of an acrylic or polyblend you would pick up in John Lewis or Michaels, the fibres wouldn't hold.

I've been thinking a lot about the handmade, the natural. In Scotland so many things come wrapped in plastic - at the grocery store you don't pick your tomatoes individually, you take a package of six tomatoes wrapped in a cardboard tray pinned firmly inside a sealed plastic bag. The vegetables sit on the shelves, all wrapped in their shiny plastic, and the day after grocery day they all go in the bin.

The idea of modernity is nothing new, of our little plastic realities, but it really hit me this past week as I visited Fife, a historic region of Scotland set on the East Coast just above Edinburgh.

Along the coast, there's a region called East Neuk, with a string of picture-perfect fishing villages set along the Scottish countryside. Rows of brick and stucco houses lie along curving cobbled lanes set with rich Scottish mosses. It rained gently almost the entire time, casting everything in an evenly-lit yet dramatic grey. The High Streets are filled with local cafes and fishmongers, with residential lanes curving down towards the harbours, which are filled with tiny fishing boats.

Walking along the empty piers was a cornucopia of fish smells and the bright colours of endless stacks of lobster cages and fishing nets. These are real, working harbours, not the touristy facade of Brugge or Amsterdam, but living historical villages, pushed into modern times but lingering around the edges.

St. Monan's is the furthest South village, and at its furthest South point lies the town church, built in 1362, by David II, son of Robert the Bruce. The town of Anstruther, further up the coast, gave rest to a Spanish Armada ship attacked by Queen Elizabeth the I in 1588. The cemeteries in all the villages hold the graves of people born in the 1700's, with illegible stumps dating much further back.

This is the history of Scotland, the ancestral roots of people that I know, going generations back to before they lived in the cities, when their great-grandfathers worked fishing trawlers and their great-grandmothers knit shawls and cured halibut. This is the history that I can't go back to Poland and see, but I can see here. While Glasgow is historic, the old buildings have been refurbished and turned into H&Ms. In Pitenweem, families still live amongst ancient stones, and people go out to fish the same routes that their great-grandfathers did.

This week was Assemblies Week at one of the high schools I work at. Each year group gets a separate time when most of them go to church service and I get to sit with a small group of Jewish students. Usually church service coincides with Christmas or Easter, so I talk about Chanukah and Pesach, but this week was just a bit too far between Tu B'Shvat and Purim, so instead I went to the Giffnock Beis Midrash and pulled out a hefty volume of Taanit, one of the 63 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud.

Talmud seems to be all the rage these days, in part due to a project called Daf Yomi which completed it's thirteenth seven-and-a-half year cycle in January. The Talmud is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions which was completed around the year 500. If you read a single page every day, you would finish in seven-and-a-half years. Hundreds of thousands of people study the designated Daf every day (including my housemate and coworker Micheline), and the study of Talmud by everyday people (as opposed to only by learned rabbis) is greatly increasing.

I'm no scholar of Talmud. When I was in Seminary in Tzfat, we had a Talmud class twice a week, and I usually sat in the back knitting and not absorbing any of what we were reading. Talmud is complex. It's not the simple laws, like don't eat milk and meat together. Instead, it's endless random arguments sometimes pertaining to the topic at hand and sometimes going on winding tangents. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell seemingly random anecdotes about themselves and their friends, and virtually none of it gives any practical or halachic advise for what to actually do.

Yet the Talmud is one of the most important books in Judaism, forming the history of our people for thousands of years. I love history and tradition - I love natural wool fibres, handknitting sweaters, spinning my own wool, buying vegetables that don't come in plastic bags - so why shouldn't I love Talmud?

We passed the book around, each student opening up to a random page and reading what they found. Most of it didn't make sense. One student read about a Rabbi who would take off one shoe and expect it to cause rain. Yet this is our heritage - what millions of Jews have died for, and what's given to us not as a burden but as a gift to use and explore. This is not the shiny world of Netflix and microwave suppers, but the return to roots and tradition that we crave.

After two glorious days exploring East Neuk, I headed up to St. Andrews, the historic town frequented by the likes of Mary Queen of Scots and Kate Middleton. After strolling through the elaborate ruins of the Cathedral which once housed three finger relics of St. Andrews and the High Street row of thrift shops, I spent a wonderful Shabbat with one of St. Andrews' only Jewish families.

It was pouring rain outside, but inside we lit candles and made kiddush and blessed the challah and ate vegetables that may once have been wrapped in plastic, but were now deliciously cooked and served in handmade ceramic bowls. We spent 25 hours talking to each other without cellphones or TV, and it was wonderful, because even in the midst of all the distractions of today, Judaism allows us a way to connect back to tradition.

Sunday morning I headed back to the fishing villages for one last bit of Fife Coast before work on Monday. The houses were the same, standing tall against the Atlantic winds. All of the villages lie on the Fife Coastal Route, a long-distance hiking path that heads through St. Monans, Pitenweem, Anstruther, Cellardyke, and Crail, before heading up to St. Andrews and beyond.

And as I walked between the villages, passing grassy stretches and rock formations carved out by the sea, historic salt pans and the expanse of the Atlantic, I thought about how rich our experiences are. I get Shabbat and Talmud, and I get to visit places like this and share in their tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!

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