The studio was buzzing when I entered. Saturday afternoon at 3:30, and there was a steady stream of people arriving. We were all early, eager to find parking at the Tel Aviv Port, usually packed on Shabbat, and a good spot in the room. Yogis of all ages filed in and laid down their mats. As usual in this country, it was mostly women with a handful of men, the majority Israeli with a sprinkle of native English speakers. I spotted a fellow teacher friend and set my mat down next to her, quickly reserving the space on my other side for another friend. At 4pm, the start time of the three-hour workshop, the energy in the room was palpable.
Finally, 15 minutes late, Sean Corn waltzed in and took her spot. This renowned Power Yoga master sat down and beckoned us to come closer and sit in a semicircle around her. She asked for a show of hands of teachers, and at least two dozen shot up. She asked how many of us had come to the workshop the day before. And then, for the next hour, we sat and listened. She answered questions about the Friday practice and talked about the connection between trauma and the body and yoga, inserting personal anecdotes and humor. She addressed how language and culture affect the teaching and that what and how she teaches might not mean the same thing in a different country with different contexts and norms. An hour and a half later, she instructed us to find our mats to start our practice.
Slowly, we moved, deeply and intensely. It was a full-body practice with a focus on the Chakras, the seven energy channels running from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. We held poses for what felt like 50 breaths as the heat in the body intensified. Beads of sweat dripped down my arms and sometimes I simply fell out of the poses when my ankle or leg or arms or back could no longer hold me. Toward the end we did several versions of Camel and Full Wheel, both heart-opening backbends that raised the energy level in the room despite the fatigue. And then, we lay down for the final resting pose.
“Think about the earth underneath you. Think about the land you’re lying on. All the history, your people, your tribe. Thousands of years of it,” she said. The first Chakra, Muladhara or root, is located low down in the coccygeal region and is said to be responsible for the fight-or-flight response. All afternoon, Sean kept relating it to security, survival, safety. Home, she repeated, or at least that was the word I kept hearing. Because that is the word that sets me off, that makes my eyes watery and my heart sometimes skip a beat. When someone asks me where home is—Israel, France, America, California or New York—I trip over my words.
“I don’t connect to the ground underneath me in LA, where I live, like you might here. This is your people, centuries of history and wars and lives lost,” she kept saying it in different ways while I tried to let my body soften. To connect to my root Chakra, to home. Those final words in corpse pose resonated profoundly, and did all I could to avoid the tears and breathed into them.
Since I was little, I’ve been conditioned to listen to loud music. My dad used to turn up the volume dial on his stereo high enough so we could hear it from the living room, down the hallway and into the kitchen.
“Do you hear that?” he’d ask as he cupped one hand behind his ear at a certain point of the song and swayed his hips from side to side. James Taylor and Carly Simon and Simon and Garfunkel cried out to me at a deafening capacity. “Listen to that base! Isn’t it amazing?” he asked, checking to see if we were as impressed by the sound emanating from his four-foot speakers as he was.
As an adult, I have a penchant not only for loud music but also for lyrics that move me like those from my youth. And while Benjamin isn’t musically inclined and Simone swings between today’s pop and 80s music that I never appreciated, Daniella is drawn toward the more alternative side, independent singer songwriters with words I can decipher and relate. In December, thanks to her, the girls and I saw the unknown Irish group Kodaline in a small club in Amsterdam, and last week, we went with friends to see Passenger, a one-man Brit, who jumped from singing on the street to fame with Let Her Go.
At 8pm, we arrived at the Barbi Club in Tel Aviv and joined the line outside the front gate. Since Simone was still on crutches, I asked if she and I could take a seat inside and wait.
When the doors finally opened almost an hour later, people poured in by the dozens. Slowly, the open space filled up with around 1000 spectators, men, women, teenagers. Daniella and our two friends went as close to the stage as they could, standing in what seemed like the second row, while my friend and I hung back with Simone, who had one of the few chairs, a little to the side.
I arrived knowing nothing and was surprised to learn that Passenger is comprised of Mike Rosenberg and a couple of backstage technicians. When he made his appearance sometime after 10pm, I was already fatigued. And then, as soon as he started to strum his guitar and speak, I woke up. He charmed us with stories about girlfriends and exes, singing on the street for money and living in different places to perform.
Of all his songs, the one that moved me most was one he wrote recently called Riding to New York. Before he sang it, he asked us to listen quietly. In his soft-spoken voice and heavy British brogue, he told us about a man that he met in Minnesota after a concert. Craving a cigarette, he left his motel room in the middle of the night in search of a pack. En route, he passed a dark eyed man sitting on his motorcycle, smoking, and they struck up a conversation. The stranger spontaneously said, “That was the greatest cigarette,” as if the man could read Mike’s mind and knew his deep-down need for a smoke. The man, Mike then learned, had lung cancer and was living his days as if each were the last, riding from Wisconsin to New York, to see his children and hold his grandchildren before the end. The song was dedicated to him.
Each line, every lyric, made me think of poetry and how poets string words together to create meaning. As I listened to Passenger late last Tuesday night, I thought about the power of words and the beauty of telling stories, writing prose and singing a song.
With our tickets in hand, we trudged up the stairs to the second floor of Beit Issie Shapiro, a non-profit devoted to helping the lives of people with disabilities. It was early evening, and my girlfriends and I had a few minutes to mingle before the program’s start.
As we reached the hall outside the auditorium, hundreds of women of every age and level of observance gathered around the refreshment tables. Dozens of familiar faces greeted me, women I had met through the girls’ school, synagogue, yoga or friends of friends. Since it was an English speaking event, I heard every Anglo accent from across the globe. Finally, we were told to take our seats.
After introductions from the event organizer and the president of the facility, the speaker Linor Abargil stepped up to the microphone. Crowned Miss Israel and three months later Miss World in 1998, she is tall, dark and exotic. Surprisingly, too, she is religious, with her head covered, long sleeves and a dress below her knees for modesty. I knew little of her story, only that she had been raped at age 18 and has become a public speaker on the topic.
Linor welcomed us in a heavily accented English and apologized for any linguistic difficulties ahead of time. And then, she started at the beginning of her story, telling how she fell into modeling when she accompanied a boyfriend to try out; he was told to go to business school and she was asked to sign up. Stunning and charming, she won Miss Israel. Sent to Milan with an agency, she was homesick, desperate to return. The agency entrusted her to their Israeli travel agent, who would book her ticket and accompany her to the train station. He picked her up and drove her, beyond the city streets into a forest, where he brutally stabbed and raped her. Somehow, she had the wherewithal to beg his forgiveness and apologize for whatever she did that had hurt him. He stopped. She beseeched him to take her to the nearest train station. He drove her there and left her, ticket-less, since he had never booked hers in the first place. She called her mom, who instructed her not to shower or change and to go directly to Rome. There, her mother arranged for someone to meet her, accompany her to the police to file a report and to the hospital to take a DNA sample.
Linor returned to Israel a different girl. Damaged, hurt, frightened. Most of all, silent. She and her family began court proceedings to bring this man to trial. Italy refused to press charges but Israel was vigilant, waiting for him to arrive at the airport and arrest him, which, eventually, happened. He was tried and convicted and imprisoned for a maximum sentence of 16 years.
All throughout those weeks of silence, Linor was encouraged to continue to represent her country at the Miss World Pageant in Seychelles. No Israeli had ever gotten so far and the agency, along with her family, pushed her. She went. Linor sprinkled humor throughout as she imitated the grueling rehearsals they endured, walking diagonally across the stage from the back left to front right and from back right to front left, stopping, standing, waving and smiling.
When crowned Miss World, she fell apart. Not because of joy but rather an inability to process what had happened and why. And she came to understand that she won so that she could become a spokesperson about rape, to help other women speak out and not carry the shame and burden. “The one who was raped is not to blame. It’s the rapist that’s guilty,” she said.
In the past five years, this power house of a woman has become a religious Jew, married, birthed three children, obtained a law degree and traveled the world to interview women and make a movie called “Brave Miss World”, directed by Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecilia.
As I listened to Linor Abargil speak the truth–her truth–and face tragedy through storytelling, I was deeply moved by the power of words.