To the treetops! – Part II

Singapore is a city-state with a population of about 5.6 million people. It’s all of 719.1 square kilometers (277.6 square miles) with plenty of parks. We’re not the “Garden City” for nothing!) and that’s one of the reasons I love it here.

However, much of the time, Singapore is just a city with the noise, congestion, and crowds that characterize cities everywhere. If for no other reason than a change of scenery, it’s important to take a break from the city every now and then and enjoy time in nature where you can’t always hear the cars and see the skyscrapers.

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I’ve done the TreeTop Walk in MacRitichie Reservoir before and it was fun to return with my real camera this time!

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As usual, there were plenty of monkeys out and about at MacRitchie. Monkeys have an undeserved reputation for being cute and cuddly. Outside of storybooks, they’re pests and they’re hard to photograph because they move so quickly (and sometimes throw things or try to bite).

I also enjoyed seeing different colors, especially living somewhere without seasons. I love all the seasons and I miss them here. Time doesn’t pass as quickly and it’s hard to remember what you did when because activities and clothing don’t change. The landscape doesn’t change, either, but there are bits of diversity if you look hard enough.

Planning to visit? Take water (I did), remember bug spray (I did not), and bring a camera (if that’s your thing). Definitely go early in the day before it gets too hot. We were done around 11:45am and did not at all envy the people just getting started.

Take a walk. Take a break. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy trails!

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Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.

A Night in Outer Space, or My First Onsen Experience

I had no plans last Saturday night and eagerly said yes when my roommate asked if I’d like to join her at the onsen. Having heard her mention it before, I knew that the onsen was a sort of sauna/spa and I knew that we’d be naked. I love trying new things and I’m willing to do just about anything with a buddy.

Still, I asked for step-by-step directions before we left the house. What did I need to wear? (Something easy to take off.) What did I need to bring? (Face lotion, maybe a face mask to do a mini facial.) That’s it? That’s it.

And off we went!

I learned that an onsen is a Japanese hot spring, which is replicated as best as possible in a bathhouse, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Bathhouses are part of Korean culture, too, and my helpful guide told me about the differences between them.

When we walked in, we were given small and large towels and a kimono. We locked up our clothes and personal items and like a child, I subsequently copied everything my roommate did as we moved in and around each room.

The first room was the shower room and we sat on low stools, getting used to the heat of the air and temperature of the water. I adore piping hot showers and haven’t had one since leaving the US, so it was really enjoyable to just feel such hot water on my body.

From the shower room, we spent a few minutes sitting in the sauna. I rubbed salt on my arms and washed it off with hot water, leaving a softness that I can still feel two days later. I’ve been in saunas before and sauna heat is unlike any heat I’ve ever felt in the real world. There’s always a moment where my breath catches because it’s so freaking hot but I love the feeling of what is actually just “good, clean sweat.” I love feeling it run down my back in tiny rivers and I love not caring that it’s happening.

Once we felt ready, we returned to the main room with its four pools. This was when I realized we were actually in outer space. The room was dark with low ceilings (rare in Singapore) and walls covered in white tile shaped sort of like hot air balloons. The four pools were roughly oval-shaped and situated next to each other on a raised platform making an almost wave-like pattern along the floor. It was quiet except for the bubbling from jets under the water. There was murmured conversation that could hardly be heard. Weightlessly floating in the pool, watching naked women climbing in and out, I truly felt like I was somewhere secret, somewhere unearthly. That feeling stayed with me all evening.

The first two pools were 38-39°C and the third was half a degree warmer, hence the need for the sauna before entering the water. The water in each pool had a slightly different mineral or chemical formulation to mimic the effects of a hot spring. It was interesting to notice the effects of each type of water on the body. I noticed a tingling and then almost tangible sleekness as my skin got used to what was in each pool. That silky, tight, rejuvenated quality seemed to remain only until the next pool’s sensations washed it away.

The fourth pool was the cold bath, which was 17-18°C. It was shockingly cold. I couldn’t sit down in the pool the first time at all and could crouch down only as low as the tops of my thighs. The cold shower, however, was much easier, if for no other reason than I had just been in a very cold pool.

Feeling clean and refreshed, we dried off and changed into our kimonos to have dinner at the onsen’s Japanese restaurant. We walked down a wood-panelled hallway with elegant lighting placed so that you couldn’t quite see where it was coming from. Thick strips of dark curtain partially obscured any additional light sources from the locker rooms themselves, adding to the sense of wonder and mystery I felt. Again, I pointed out the odd sensation of being in outer space.

Although we didn’t spend any time there, my roommate also showed me the resting room, a darkened space with couches, chairs, and blankets reserved for reading, silent use of electronics, and quiet conversation. More curtains segmented, creating a calm and privacy almost like being in a pod (outer space again!), but far more open with easy access to other parts of the area around.

After dinner, we went through the rotation a second time, though much more quickly and with the addition of the face masks we had brought. This time, determined to prove that I was stronger than the cold bath, I jumped in as much as one can in a pool shallow enough to sit down in, and successfully submerged for a few seconds. Victory.

Throughout our time at the onsen, I’d been very interested in all the different bodies and their shapes, sizes, hair, or lack thereof. I consciously looked at everyone out of pure curiosity, with no element of voyeurism at all. While floating in the very first pool, a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou (though originally from the Roman poet Terence) came to mind for what might have been the first time: “I am human. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

What was strange, and I didn’t realize this until later, is that I was almost completely unaware of my own body. I’m very, very shy most of the time where my own body is concerned (as in, I have blushed at my own reflection in more than one dressing room and quickly discarded whatever I was trying to wear). I do think, however, that shyness is different from being self-conscious. I don’t care particularly what I look like but I do like my own privacy. That was utterly stripped away at the onsen and I didn’t even notice. So now I wonder if my shyness is more of a habit than anything else. I don’t have an answer, but will be exploring this new idea.

We spent a few hours at the onsen and I left with such a feeling of relaxation that it took some real effort to lie in bed and write about the day, which I try to do most nights. My skin felt clean and soft, my muscles loose and comfortable, and my mind calm and easy. I’m really glad we went and it was such a nice way to spend an evening. I highly recommend it.

Interested? Intrigued? Take a look. Let me know if you need a buddy.

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Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place