A Layer of Ownership

Adam:

This is well worth a read.

Originally posted on Converting to Judaism:

Recently, I read that going to the mikveh is more of an additive process rather than a subtractive one. I like that idea a lot. Many of my Christian friends equate going to the mikveh for conversion with baptism, which is fine, but if I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again as a born again Christian, I could have just as easily done that. The mikveh doesn’t wash away our past or purify our souls. It takes what we already have and transforms it. If you’ll permit me to use a food analogy, we are all bagels (different flavors and ages and sizes and seasonings) and the water of the mikveh is the shmear or the cream cheese and the lox- you tasted good and now you taste BETTER. An extra layer of tasty goodness.

I’ve been trying to think of layers I can add that will enrich the Jewish identity of post-mikveh…

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(Jewish) Life, in a Nutshell

My semester is pretty much done. I filed my grades on Thursday and Friday, and hopefully I can plan better for the next semester. This semester was insane – I overloaded myself with grading, and because I was sick early in the semester, I was running behind right up through the last week of classes. That wasn’t fair to me or to my students. I have resolved to do better in the coming semesters.


Before our last Intro class on Wednesday, the husband and I also had to go to the make-up class on Yom Kippur, which we missed because we were both sick with the flu in the fourth week of the class. That was interesting as it was just 45 minutes in the rabbi’s office with two other people who were also taking the make-up. There was no Mr. C. We had a good class, and part of me feels that it was because he was not there.

My husband made an observation that “Yom haKipurim” had “Purim” in it, which floored Rabbi. He said “You’ve gone about six levels deeper than I’d planned to!” Then he told us how the Kabbalists feel that “kipur” – the root of “kipurim” – can be read either as “kipur,” or “to afflict,” or it could be read as “ki” – “like, or similar to” and “purim” – the celebration of Purim. Some Kabbalists apparently feel that in the World to Come there will only be two holidays observed – Yom Kippur, and Purim. They are balances to one another; Yom Kippur is about repairing our over-indulgence, while Purim is about repairing our under-indulgence.

My husband is going to be a Kabbalist. I can see this happening.


Our Intro class finished up on Wednesday. The class was about Shavuot, but most of the class time was taken up with Mr. Christian once again trying to hijack the discussion. By this point, my husband and I knew that everyone in the class finds Mr. C irritating, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been otherwise, but I did finally have to get up and leave for a few minutes (ostensibly for the bathroom) when Mr. C. got into it with one of the other group members, who had finally called him out on something he said. Later, I told her that I hadn’t left because of what she said, but because I wanted to brain Mr. C with my laptop. (Her comment: “That’d be a waste of a good laptop.”)

Thankfully, Mr. C. won’t be in the later class for those who will be converting. Rabbi sent out an email saying that for those who are formally embracing Judaism, the new class will start in June. Since Mr. C. is only interested in “learning” (read here: telling us all about how HIS religion does what we’re talking about, even though none of us could care less), he isn’t part of that group.

Rabbi also took Mr. C. aside during the break of the last class and informed him that it would not be appropriate for him to be part of the new class. Apparently Mr. C. got upset (his back was to me, and it was loud, so I couldn’t hear his reaction – but those who could hear confirmed he was upset) but oh well for him. I have so little sympathy for him at this point that it’s sad.

Another class member said to me, “Now he’ll say that the Jews hate him, too.” (He’s already said the Episcopalians hate him. Gee. I WONDER WHY. Christians, if you want people to take you seriously, trying to hijack a class that’s about a different religion so you can talk about your religion is not the way to go about it. I know that 99% of you don’t do this, but the 1% that do make all of you look bad, just as the behavior of the haredim at the Kotel makes all Jews look bad to the rest of the world.) As an autistic man, I know I’m socially clueless, but this guy makes me look like a social virtuoso by comparison.

I’ve friended almost all the other class members on Facebook, and most of them are going on to the formal class. I’ve sent in my final exam, so I should be getting a shiny certificate saying that I completed the class. Whee!

One of the things that came up when we finally did get into the Shavuot lesson was how Shavuot was a move from just celebrating the harvest to celebrating the receipt of Torah, and the argument about how to measure the calendar days to it. The Sadducees (who were the urban, upper-class, priestly class, who rejected the Oral Torah) wanted to measure it in a way where it would not be the same date every year; the Pharisees (predecessors of the Rabbis, who were the regular Joes who argued for the Oral Torah, among other things – the liberal group) wanted it measured so it would always fall on the same date every year. The Pharisees won that argument.

I find it somewhat amusing that so many Christians lack the context of rabbinic argument, so they read the Christian Bible and see its stories of the Pharisees and the Sadducees challenging Yeshua ben Yosef on points of Torah interpretation as “they’re trying to trip him up and make him look stupid!” when that isn’t the case at all. It was, frankly, description of a discussion between rabbis of different branches, and in many ways similar to what we see in the Talmud of descriptions of rabbis arguing fine points of Torah law and interpretation. There is some evidence that Yeshua was an Essene (another, smaller sect of Jews at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction). In that case, the “challenges” from the Pharisees and the Sadducees were simply rabbis arguing points of Torah interpretation. That sort of knocks the props out from under Christianity for me (again).

One other thing that came up just in passing during that last class: the Mishnah is the Law, and the Talmud is the interpretations of that Law. Good to know! If the beit din asks me that in September, I won’t look like a fool when I answer them.


In other news, the husband and I are planning to go to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at our shul later this month. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s different from the one I went to last year at the Shul Down the Street.

My husband has told me he’s not ready to go to the beit din and the mikveh yet, and he’s planning on spring for that. I’m fine with that; it’s totally his decision, of course. But the other day he said “We’re Jewish,” for the first time. Up until now he’s avoided saying it because he hasn’t been to the beit din or the mikveh, but I think something clicked for him that becoming Jewish isn’t something that just happens when you go into the mikveh. It happens along the way.

I read an article a few months ago about the mikveh (I wish I could find it, but a Google search hasn’t helped me). I liked the idea behind it – it was a convert saying that going to the mikveh does not wash away his past. Rather, it adds a layer of Judaism to what’s already there. The mikveh as an additive process, rather than a subtractive one, is a powerful idea for me.

So that’s what’s going on in Shocheradam land. How about you?

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A visit to the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles

Peter Krasnow. The Wanderers. 1927.

Peter Krasnow. The Wanderers. 1927.

Today my husband and I took a tour of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles with our Intro to Judaism group.

It was surreal. For one thing, Mr. Christian was there when we walked in. I knew he was going to be, and yet I’d hoped that something might keep him away. But my husband and my best friend were both there with me and he didn’t approach me except the once, and then he left when he saw he wasn’t welcome. Which was fortunate.

Most of the Skirball tour was artifacts showing Jewish history from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the Diaspora through the modern day. I was intrigued by the 19th-century artifacts they had from people who had come here with nothing and then begun new trades to support themselves (a woman lawyer’s diploma and a woman doctor’s diploma were both prominently displayed – and dated 1934 and 1925, respectively). I was also fascinated by the different Torah dressings from different Diasporic nations (Italian Torah crowns are impossibly detailed, with tons of filigree; German ones almost impossibly plain by comparison). But then we got into the room that was a duplicate of a big synagogue in Berlin… and it included a display of some pieces of the synagogue from its destruction during the Second World War. Seeing pieces of marble with burn marks still on them made my stomach do a backflip.

That hit me pretty hard. It was hard to follow the docent’s lecture because a) I was in some pain as my arthritis was acting up in my knees – never fun and b) there was music or narrations playing on various displays in each room which made it hard to hear her. But I was able to look at things nonetheless.

I mentioned to my rabbi there that I don’t know if I have any Jewish ancestry. If I do, it’ll be from my mother’s father’s people from Hungary, but the only records I have of them are from the mid-1830s with the last name Horvath. Horvath was a name EVERYONE Jewish took in Hungary. It basically means “not Croatian.” Think “Smith” for how common a last name it is. But the only records are from the Catholic Church (baptisms) and I don’t know if there were conversos in Hungary too, or only in the Iberian Peninsula. The names are all suspiciously Jewish though, apart from the surname. But there’s no way to know for sure.

Anyway.

This museum has actual copies of the Nuremberg Law declarations with Hitler’s signature on them (spit). It was chilling to look at them. Right after that we had to go through a fairly narrow (and darkened almost to black) passage that was called “Six of Six Million,” which showed the photographs (eerily made 3D in the wall) and histories of six Holocaust victims ranging in age from five years old to elderly (age unknown). I was weeping when we left that room. It was like going through a haunted house. Then we came out into an area which had video screens showing Holocaust survivors talking about their experiences. Here’s the one I remember (I saw the captions, but I couldn’t catch the man’s name):

“It was 1944 when the Allied tanks rolled into France. I remember one of the tanks coming up to the camp, and the captain who put his head out of the tank was wearing a star – a Mogen David. And I just stared at him. And he looked at me, saw me, and said in Yiddish, “Du bist Yid?” (Are you Jewish?) and I said “Yes!” and he took me up onto the top of the tank and I was saved.”

I wept, then. I was already crying when I got out of the tunnel but now I was full-on weeping. My friend got me over to one side to sit down, and my husband was also crying – for him, it’s because he has German heritage and he felt deep shame even though none of his family were in Germany at the time. That’s when Mr. Christian tried to approach. My friend glared at him and he apparently thought better of it and backed away, which was a good thing because I was not ready to talk to him then.

My husband said on the way home that there were several places where he felt like he’d been there, or been through it – a display of a 1930s-1940s kitchen set for Shabbat, and when he was walking through the Holocaust tunnel. He felt like he connected to each of the people who were shown in that tunnel. He was also crying a little bit.

It was powerful. It was moving. It was… something I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you should make a point of visiting the Skirball.

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It’s going to happen.

I just had an email exchange with my rabbi.

It looks like my mikveh date will be in September before the High Holy Days if all goes well.

Let us hold firmly to all going well.

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God grew up

This morning, a Quora person responded to an answer I’d given about God. I have to give some background, now.

The original question was posted by someone who is probably Muslim, from their name. They were distressed about atheists not showing respect for God, or for other people’s beliefs about God. My response to that question was:

My God is strong enough to take the mockery from people who don’t believe. I really find it tiring when so many of my fellow theists get bent out of shape by people who don’t believe.

Why is it such a big deal to you? Do you think God can’t take it? Why do you feel you have to defend God? Do you really think God needs defending? Is your God that weak?

I don’t know about you, but my God can take criticism and even denial or rejection just fine, because my God doesn’t need to worry about what people think. My God doesn’t need me to attack people for not believing. God’s far more mature than that.

I got a few good responses. Then, this morning, I got the first jerkheaded one:

WTF? What god are you talking about? You’re Jewish but you don’t believe in the incredibly sensitive, nasty, vindictive god of Abraham?

*sigh* Adonai spare me from the literalists.

See, this is the thing. The literalist mindset (“the way it is written is exactly the way it was then AND STILL IS NOW”) is prevalent among two groups, as far as I can see:

1. Rabid atheists, like Dawkins and those who follow him

2. Rabid fundamentalists, like the Haredim at the Kotel

Neither of these groups gets that there are layers and levels of meaning in the Torah (or, indeed, in any holy book – I’m sure there are also levels and layers of meaning in the Qu’ran and the Christian Bible). They want to read the words as if the words are all there are. I get this mindset. I used to have this mindset – and I’ll admit that in many places I still have it, about many things. Breaking a habit of forty years is hard to do.

But let’s look just at the text of the Torah for a few minutes here, okay? Because I think the key is my comment that God is more mature than the literalists give him credit for (because they are still looking at him in his early years).

God punishes Adam and Eve rather severely. This is like a young parent who overreacts when their too-young-to-understand child does something that irritates the parent.

God punishes the world rather severely in the Flood. This is like a young parent who’s gotten used to being severe.

But then, God’s going to punish Sodom, right? And Abraham calls him on it. Abraham says “Hold up, Adonai. What if I find a few people in Sodom who aren’t sinful? Don’t you have to take them into account? Are you going to punish them, too?”

And God listens. And instead of zotting Sodom with a big lightning bolt, he backs down. (Genesis 18:16-33)

This indicates an increasing maturation on the part of God, doesn’t it?

The fact of the matter is that the Torah is, in many ways, accounts of a young God. It is an early God. It is a God of petty ambitions and jealousy.

That’s not the God I experience. That’s not the God who’s sent me spiritual helicopters. The God I believe in doesn’t care whether people believe in him – he believes in us.

So the only conclusion I can come to is that God grew up.

The fact that the literalists have not is not a reflection on God. It’s a reflection on them.

Maybe someday they’ll grow up too. Until then, all I can do is be patient and wait.

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The Rules Lawyers

Michael Benami Doyle said, in his description of his conversation with the beit din, that there is a prophetic element to being a Jewish convert. I’m experiencing that this week since the Women of the Wall managed to actually read from the Torah and dance with it at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5775.

One of the jobs of a prophet is to draw attention to what’s wrong and how it can be repaired. Prophets are often disliked when they do this; people don’t like being told that what they’re doing is wrong.

And yet. And yet.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women the right to pray at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually try to do.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually do.

It is still wrong to harm anyone who helps Jewish women have access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim did on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, when they beat Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy.

This Haredi man continued insisting "sefer sheli!" (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

This Haredi man continued insisting “sefer sheli!” (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

Nothing excuses the behavior of the Haredim in these instances. They are fundamentally wrong. They are extremists, and they are damaging the Jewish faith far more than women who pray at the Wall, wear tallitot and tefillin, and read from Torah. They are, to borrow a term from gaming, rules lawyers.

Rules lawyers miss the spirit of the law by adhering so hard to the letter of the law. They never see the bigger picture.They never win in the long term, but they do a lot of damage in the short term. The Haredim are harming themselves and don’t know it. They are harming Judaism and they don’t know it (or perhaps they don’t care).

Regardless of their justification for their actions, I cannot see Adonai supporting the behavior of the Haredim towards the Women of the Wall or the men who helped them. Adonai is not a petty God who needs defense against people who want to worship him. If their God is, well – then the only conclusion I can draw is that their God is not Adonai.

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yil’madu od milchamah. 

Perhaps the Haredim should look at that verse and think about their behavior.

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In Praise of the Women of the Wall

I found myself singing along.

Yasher Koach to all these brave women and the men who stood in solidarity with them, and shame on the Haredi man who tried to stop them from praying and reading Torah.

A religion that does not change is a religion that will die out. The Haredim are just hastening the death of Orthodoxy with their behavior.

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Chag Pesach Sameach!

As my husband says, we went to two and a half Seders this week. The first one probably doesn’t “count” as a Seder, which is why he is saying “a half.”

First was our practice Seder with our Intro class. That happened on Wednesday night. Rabbi walked us through it with a haggadah that I don’t think my husband and I will use; it’s aimed at families with young children, and we don’t really qualify. Mostly, that Seder went all right. We brought our own gluten-free matzah and nobody had a problem with it. We also brought a salad (my husband put it together). Of course, Mr. Christian had to interject inappropriate questions and comments, but we’ve gotten used to that. We also brought three jars of horseradish to use as maror. Note to self: jarred horseradish is mild compared to the maror we had later in the weekend.

Then we held our own Seder for a few friends on Friday night. It came out well, but I’m not using the Maxwell House haggadah again – it’s just too preachy. As it was, my best friend and I spent a lot of time changing, editing, and taping-in changes over the text, and it was still too much. I have one started at haggadot.com for next year’s Seders. We made the mistake(?) of using fresh, refrigerated pureed horseradish for the maror; when I took my tablespoon of it I couldn’t hear anything for a minute or so as I struggled not to show that it hurt. It made my eyes water and my ears ring, and wow do I know that I have sinuses now. It’s almost as bad as my friend’s dad’s completely fresh ground-that-afternoon maror – oy!

Our Seder plate (center of the table) had:
– Italian parsley for karpas
– A lamb shank that my best friend roasted and brought (z’roa)
– A roasted hard-boiled egg that we roasted here (beitzah)
– A tangerine (we couldn’t get oranges) for inclusiveness
– Endive for hazeret
– A spoonful of my charoset
– A spoonful of the fresh-jarred horseradish, for maror

On the individual Seder plates, we replaced the lamb shank with chicken wings that had been roasted in the oven along with the roasted boiled egg. Those were easy: toss them with olive oil, three spoonfuls of minced garlic, salt, and pepper, and then just put them on a cookie sheet and bake for an hour at 375F. I know that on some Seder plates, gefilte fish is traditional, but I’m allergic to what they make it with, so we substituted.

Here’s my charoset recipe.

2 Asian pears
1/2 cup dried cherries, minced
1/2 cup pinenuts
1/2 cup pomegranate pips
1/2 cup kosher red wine
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and 1/3 teaspoon of ground ginger

Dice the Asian pears fairly small, and mince the dried cherries. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate. That’s it!

There wasn’t a lot to the cooking; the charoset was the hardest part. We had two roasts in the crockpot that I’d marinated since Wednesday with ground ginger, cloves, some red kosher wine, salt, pepper, and dried onions. Those cooked all day in a little more red wine and were fall-apart tender when we got them out of the crock (we still have one of them in the fridge!). My husband made his amazing salad, our friends brought gluten-free egg noodles that had been tossed with garlic and olive oil, and I made a quickie asparagus that I’ve always been good at. And of course, we had matzah.

Gluten-free matzah doesn’t hold its shape very well. It’s more brittle than regular matzah, and it tends to show up if you have it shipped with no whole pieces. In four boxes, we found three whole matzot. Next year we’ll buy it from a local Jewish grocery my husband found in our city. (I recommend the Yehuda brand matzah; the Manischewitz is very, very dry and bland.)

Running the Seder was stressful for me but worth it. Like I said, though, we need a different Haggadah. I also need to learn when it’s okay to skip ahead; that’s an art form, I think. It was also really awesome to have my friend D there – he’s Israeli, and he read the Hebrew flawlessly. (Someday….) I asked a couple of questions that didn’t really go anywhere – what is your personal Pharaoh?, for example. Eh. I’ll get better at it, I’m sure. Still, we got through it, and we still have leftovers.

Last night we went to the last Seder we’re going to go to during this Pesach. It was at my best friend’s father’s house. This was the Seder that my husband and I went to last year at this time, when I was just beginning to think that Judaism was for me and my husband was humoring me and going because I was going. This time, we showed up with our kippot on our heads, our Mogen Davids around our necks, and ready to fully participate instead of just spectate. Everyone who was part of the regular Seder group congratulated us both on our decision and on our wedding (157 days ago today, by the way) as we got in the front door, and several of them wanted to make sure that we hadn’t felt pushed or proselytized into it by them or anyone else. (Such a refreshing thing, that was.)

My charoset was very well received, and the maror hurt all of us (my friend’s dad grinds his own from fresh horseradish root while wearing an Israeli gas mask made in Germany). After Friday, I’d learned my lesson and I think the bit of maror I put on my plate was about the size of a marble. My husband loves horseradish, however, and he had so not learned his lesson – he had tablespoons of the stuff. However, he had been struggling with a knee injury, and after having two or three tablespoons of the maror he said “well, my knee doesn’t hurt much any more…” A, one of the seder regulars, opined that it was because the fresh maror kills off the nerves that tell you something hurts.

My friend’s dad runs the Seder by having people read bits and pieces in a round-robin sort of way. I did something like that at our Seder, but I wish I’d had a better haggadah. Eh. I have to get off that topic.

Anyway, one of the seder regulars asked about how we had time to take all this wealth away from Egypt but not bake full loaves of bread or get any provisions together. I pointed out that any culture that holds slaves has much of its wealth invested in those slaves, and perhaps what we took away as wealth was ourselves. That got raised eyebrows and some good discussion.

At one point one of the other seder regulars misread “beasts” as “breasts,” and she and my husband got laughing so hard that we were worried that he’d choke or something. That was probably the high point of the seder for me, watching him laugh and eventually laughing with him.

During the festive meal, my husband and I both talked about our intro classes, and people asked questions, and it was good. It felt very much like “this is my place and these are my people,” to me.

At the end of the Seder, when we came to the point where it talked about the Omer, one of the other guests asked about that, and my friend’s dad looked to me and said “Go ahead, tell it.” I was kind of shocked, but I explained about the Omer as best I could, and it seemed to go over fine. That meant a lot to me that he was willing to let me talk about it.

Finally, when my friend’s dad was trying to read his paragraph of “Chad Gadya” and kept blowing it, my friend (sitting next to him) took away his wineglass, and then for good measure I reached over and took away the wine bottle, and everyone cracked up. So there was a lot of good laughter and fun and teasing, which made it fun.

Her dad said to both of us, “We’ll see you next year.”

Today is the second day of the Omer. Hayom sh’nei yamim l’omer.

Chag sameach, everyone.

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Why I became religious

Someone on Quora asked if people only become religious because they’re weak, or because they lack confidence. Here’s my answer.

I didn’t become religious for affirmation or for strength. It has nothing to do with how confident I am.

I became religious because I need ritual, and poetry, and a shared community, and stories that make me think. I became religious because I need connection. I became religious because being part of something bigger than myself gives me solace and satisfaction.

So no, religious belief is not for the weak. (It’s also not weak to admit that you cannot do everything entirely on your own without any help or support – it’s realistic. The only entities who believe that they can do everything all on their own are house cats and libertarians – neither of which realize that they do, in fact, rely on other entities in order to survive and thrive.)

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A further update on Mr. Christian, and other updates

Apparently he doesn’t hear very well. Yesterday, once again, he was back to his old ways of relating everything in the class to his religious views.

Husband and I are considering what to do. We’ll probably be writing a letter to the rabbi.

—–

Our Seder and Matzah plates arrived! So did our four boxes of Manischewitz gluten-free matzah – but every single one was broken. I’ve been told that there’s a GF grocery that sells them (hopefully NOT broken).

We’re going to be holding a small Seder for a few friends from the Bay Area who can’t get back home for their own Seder this spring due to work schedules. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever tried to run. My best friend is going to help with prep and setup, but I need to get a Haggadah that works for me. I haven’t found a good one yet.

Other news as I have time; this is going into the busy season for me with my work.

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