The Avodah Blog

An Ignited Spark: One Jew’s Encounter with the Divine

By: Elissa Martel

My friends and I used to affectionately call the community we grew up in Baruchline (Brookline, MA being it’s real name). We’d sometimes use the term “Little Jerusalem” to describe our central commercial hub, featuring a number of kosher restaurants, a handful of synagogues, a Kabbalah center, and a Judaica store. Depending upon your persuasion, or your relationship to your Judaism, you might even think that the independent bookstore, beloved indie movie-theater, as well as the high concentration of Chinese and Asian-fusion restaurants are somehow a reflection of Brookline’s strong, secular Jewish community. I think I’ve always seen all of these bits of the landscape as somehow working together to put the “Baruch” in Brookline.

I now find myself approaching my Judaism from a different place. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that my first blog-post about my “AVODAH Experience” would feature Judaism so prominently. There is so much else I could say, but I have found myself so struck by this pluralistic Jewish journey I’m embarking upon. Being around so many young Jewish people, from such vastly different upbringings than my own, has been incredibly eye opening, not to mention living in Brooklyn, which is home to every flavor of Judaism imaginable.

Since becoming an Avodahnik, I’ve witnessed the passing of Jewish time in such unique ways. For one thing, I’ve never really celebrated Sukkot. My last Sukkot memory involves being invited into a quickly-assembled sukkah by a Chabadnik proselytizing at Wesleyan my senior year. It was an amusing interaction, and I figured I was pegged for my dark, curly hair. I never really considered what connection could have existed between us.

The following spring semester I took a class called “Contemporary Radical Jewish Thought” (taught by two soon-to-be Avodaniks) in which we learned a lot about Hasidism and Chabad. The image of every Jewish person in the world containing this divine spark just waiting to be ignited—regardless of religious observance or faith—is one that has really stuck with me.

I’ve been feeling some kind of spark recently…and of all strange times to feel it was on the bus from Clinton Hill to Williamsburg. It was a Sunday, toward the end of Sukkot, and I remember seeing all of these large, wooden structures every few blocks, right smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Later that night, I came upon a family of Hasidic Jews, just hanging out on their front stoop. Little kids were playing in the street. As I walked on, I came across more families, going from one place to the next. Then, I heard Hebrew chanting. It sounded like it was coming from some kind of loudspeaker in the distance, like a Call to Prayer. And even though I couldn’t understand it, it was so beautiful, so soothing.

I was with a non-Jewish friend, and I kept saying to her, “I wonder why all of the Jews are out partying so late! What’s going on?” I gazed up at a nearby apartment building and noticed all of these amazing sukkahs built on people’s balconies, making walls where there were none: out of panels, sheets, and Israeli flags, all lit up in contrast to the silhouettes of people behind them. It dazzled me, and so clearly illustrated the symbol of the sukkah as a temporary structure to be built anywhere, with whatever you have.

(This isn’t actually a picture I took, but I thought it exemplifies what I’m describing.)

I realized the sidewalk structures were sukkahs too, filled with light and laughter, long dining room tables, and people pouring in and out, taking complete ownership of public spaces. Although I was observing this celebration from a distance, something about it felt so familiar. I thought of my own bayit’s sukkah (at the AVODAH house) that we had just built and decorated together. And in some small way, this made me feel like I wasn’t just another curious onlooker, but someone with a connection to this proud and visible ritual.

My other recent encounter with this spark of Jewish interconnectedness came when I participated in the Occupy Simchat Torah service at Wall Street. The Jews in this crowd looked more like me, but I still felt a palpable difference when someone offered me a corner of their siddur (their prayer book) to look on with them. I can’t read Hebrew, and I don’t know how to daven, or pray in the traditional way. While this may have bothered me in the past, I realized that there were so many meaningful, spiritual things that I could do as one of over a hundred Jews that were brought to this communal, ritual gathering. I could participate in the call-and-response style of prayer. I could link arms with my fellow Avodahniks—past and present—keeping warm while we sang and swayed. I could do the hora on Wall Street! Being in this joyous, politicized, occupied Jewish space was completely invigorating. I felt so lit up by the sparks of energy flowing between hands as we danced around the Torah on a street in Manhattan.

Although these moments are different, they both illustrate unique perspectives on Jewish ritual space and community. In some ways, the construction of sukkahs on private porches, balconies, and most notably, city sidewalks, is a radical takeover of space; one might even say an occupation. Maybe the Orthodox community of Williamsburg wouldn’t see their form of worship in this light. But one thing that I can say is that their visibility and intensity is inspiring for this Baruchliner. And through this year with AVODAH, I hope to continue to explore new ways of expressing Jewish ritual and tradition.



Elissa Martel is from Brookline, MA and attended Wesleyan University. As an AVODAH New York Corps member, she is a Student Enrichment Associate at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a college-preparatory school with a focus on law and justice.

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