Friday Feature: Special Edition

I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am (about to be) a Jew.

I am thankful that I am part of a liberal tradition.

I am thankful that my marriage is recognized by my family, my friends, my co-workers, my employer, my state, my religion, and now my nation.

I am thankful that five Justices of the Supreme Court chose to take the moral pathway. I am thankful that they prevailed. I am thankful that I can now go to any state in my country with my husband and that we will still be recognized as husbands to each other.

I am thankful for this: Jewish groups celebrate Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage nationwide

Oh, I don’t doubt that there will still be pitfalls. I’d rather not be in a small town hospital in Alabama or Kentucky with him if something goes wrong, for example. But for now, just knowing that he and I are equal to the rest of the people in this nation is really hitting me hard.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha’olam,
Shehecheyanu, viki’yimanu, vihigi’anu, lazman hazeh.

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. Shabbat Shalom.

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Style or Substance?: A Follow-Up Post

A friend of mine told me that a Conservative Jewish friend of hers said this when she read about the whole Elad Debacle of 5775 today: “You know… we don’t talk about the Orthodox. We’re kind of embarrassed about them.”

After the ED of 5775, I can see why. It seems like the Orthodox approach non-Orthodox Jews like they’re Great-Uncle Mergatroyd who just has to spout his anger and bigoted opinions at the dinner table, and expects everyone to just go along with him, because he’s Great-Uncle Mergatroyd.

It saddens me that an entire branch of the Tree is so willing to prune off all the others to maintain its purity, even when there are obvious examples of people who lived as Jews, raised Jewish children, and yet never went through the formal, rules-lawyer, halachic conversion process. Ruth (whose descendant, if you’ll recall, was King David). Abraham. All the women who were taken as brides during the conquering of other peoples. And yet we would never say that their children or descendants aren’t Jewish.

So why do the Orthodox have such a hangup about “you must fit every one of these exacting criteria or you are not Jewish”, anyway?

I’ve read a number of blogs since starting this journey. Occasionally I’ll run into one written by an Orthodox person who lives in an Orthodox community and never ventures outside of it. And it seems from these blogs that in the “frum” community, specifically, there seems to be an awful lot of fuss over appearances. Are you wearing your tallit katan, is your wife wearing a wig or a veil to hide her hair, that kind of thing. And it just tires me out, and I think I know why.

My mother was all about style over substance. For her, how you looked was more important than anything else. How you looked extended to observable behavior. As a result, I have an allergy to people who prioritize style over substance.

In addition to reading those blogs, I also have friends who have left Judaism because they were raised in a similar, frum, Ultra-Orthodox environment. The abuses they report cannot go unremarked:

  • daughters forbidden Talmud study and forced to dress in concealing clothing
  • boys taught that women were second-class citizens
  • intense shaming of those who are “off the derech”
  • parents sitting shiva for sons and daughters who left Orthodoxy (especially if that involved marriage outside of Orthodoxy) but then trying to get back into their children’s lives when babies arrived so that they could try to turn the grandchildren back to Orthodoxy
  • and, of course, the recent exposure of rabbis who molested children and whose communities covered up for them

Somehow, the Orthodox have managed to set themselves up in the minds of many Jews as the authoritative last word on what “Jewish” means. It happens in frum communities all over the world, but it also happens in Israel (witness the haredi control over the Kotel and how they treat the Women of the Wall, just as an example). Too much of it is about style, not substance. It’s about whether you dress in clothing from the 16th century, not your focus on tikkun olam. It’s about whether you are avoiding carrying anything into your house if it’s Shabbat, rather than whether you opened your home to someone who needed a place and a meal on Shabbat. It’s about style, not substance.

I reject that. I reject that fundamentally. For me, Judaism has to be about tikkun olam, and hospitality, and hesed (lovingkindness) – and that has to be the central focus or it’s all just dust and ashes.

If you wear your black hat every day but reject anyone who won’t wear one too, you’ve completely missed the point.

And this brings me back to Pop Chassid. He isn’t being honest in his struggle with the rules. Instead of checking whether the rules can be realistically applied today, he struggles to find bits of support for the rules so they can stay the way they’ve been for 5700 years. That kind of legalistic nonsense is something I don’t tolerate in my students, so why should I tolerate it in him? If he’s not willing to look out and apply Torah to the world as it is today, why should I take his definitions seriously? If his understanding of Judaism isn’t framed in the central values of tikkun olam and tzedakah and chesed, why should I care what he thinks?

It is not just, or kind, to exclude other Jews just because they don’t fit your definition of what Judaism is. It does not serve the goal of tikkun olam to exclude other Jews – it creates more fractures to heal, rather than healing the ones that are there.

Please note: At no time have I said that Pop Chassid is not a Jew. That’s because he’s using a different interpretation of the Torah. I do, however, take issue with his interpretation, because his interpretation goes against those central values, and that’s uncalled for.

If you want to argue with me about this, do it on your own blog. I will be holding the banhammer at the ready.

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Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

Adam:

I don’t think I can add to this.

Originally posted on The Weekly Sift:

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.


Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders…

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Hey, Pop Chassid – it’s not a “paradox.”

Today, I had to make a painful decision.

I stopped following Pop Chassid, who I’ve followed pretty much since I started this journey, and Hevria, the Jewish artistic magazine he started sometime this past year, because apparently Elad Nehorai can’t be bothered to consider me Jewish unless I convert Orthodox (which will happen around the same time the sun freezes over).

Oh, he tries. He says. He tries to understand that a person can be Jewish and yet not be Jewish all at the same time. He calls this a “paradox,” that non-Jews (by his estimation) can somehow have Jewish souls. He says he can’t call people like me non-Jewish anymore, but he can’t call us Jewish either. And that somehow he has to do both.

He recognizes that he can’t call people like me non-Jewish. And yet even after that he still retreats back to the same old, same old Orthodox claptrap and says “but I still wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

Despite his attempts to think it through, he still falls back on “My feelings about this haven’t changed.”

So at the end of it he says he will both consider people like me non-Jewish and Jewish at the same time.

Not good enough, Elad. Not good enough.

I’ll just quote Jonathan Byrd: “Admit that your perspective might feel right and be wrong.” Because it is.

It’s not a paradox. It’s a decision Elad has to make, and doesn’t want to, because no matter which way he goes he’s going to hurt someone’s feelings and/or offend someone.

But regardless of his struggle, I’m still Jewish, and I’m still a Jew. Either accept that or don’t, Elad, but don’t twist yourself into a pretzel saying that I both am, and am not, Jewish. Either be honest that you’re accepting a bigoted, closedminded, narrowminded definition of Jewish (“Orthodox only”), or open your mind and accept that I’m a Jew too.

(Oh, and by the way – the Reform movement of Judaism predates Orthodoxy.)

You can call it a paradox, but what it is, is justifying a bigoted mindset. It’s the same thing as the people saying “heritage not hate” about the Confederate flag. That heritage is hate. It’s the same thing as why Christianity has fractured into thousands of different sects – because of this “you have to be exactly like us or you’re not part of us” mindset.

Demanding that Jews must be Orthodox or else not be considered Jewish is no different.

Now, I shouldn’t care what one Orthodox blogger thinks of my Yiddishkeit. And mostly, I don’t care, any more than I care what fundamentalist Christians think of my gayness or atheists think of my religiosity. But when someone says that who I am is not real, because it makes them uncomfortable? Because it creates a “paradox” for them?

Then yes, I’m offended.

She’asani Israel, Elad, even if you don’t like it. She’asani Israel, even if you can’t handle it.

Pop Chassid has been, and is, a popular Judaism blog. He has a lot of followers. But his popularity does not make him right. So:

I categorically reject his questioning of my Jewish authenticity.

I categorically reject his defense of his decision not to consider me a Jew unless I’m Orthodox.

And I categorically reject his blog, his magazine, and his attitude, until he shows some evolution in this mindset and realizes that it’s not a paradox but only an attempt to protect his prejudices.

I have friends who are Orthodox who consider me Jewish. I have corresponded with an Orthodox person on Quora who told me that Orthodoxy isn’t for everyone, and he doesn’t consider me any less Jewish just because I’m Reform.

If they can do it, Elad Nehorai can do it too.

And until he does, I’m not reading his blog or his magazine any more, and I’m going to encourage others not to, either.

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Our First Friday Night Shabbat at Shul

Normally, we spend Shabbat at home. My best friend and I spend the day together, do the shopping, cook Shabbat dinner, and when my husband gets off work he stops at the gluten-free bakery to pick up challah. My friend always sings the bracha over the candles, I sing the one for the wine (grape juice, in our house) and my husband has almost mastered the one for the bread. Then we have Shabbat dinner. It’s fun, and it’s really special.

Well, two weeks ago the husband and I started not just our second class towards conversion, but our beginning Hebrew class. I’ve been studying Hebrew for more than a year, but the husband was brand-new to it. So we took it together.

Turns out the teacher has been teaching Torah Center and Hebrew and all kinds of classes for over 40 years, and this past Friday was a service recognizing everything she’s done for the community and the shul. So we decided to go to the shul on Friday, for the first time since we’ve started attending this shul.

We will definitely be going back on Friday nights!

My best friend came over and spent Friday with me, as she usually does. But this time she brought things to go to the shul with and in (dressier clothes), and we didn’t shop for dinner as we planned to go somewhere afterwards for it. We did, however, have the husband pick up the challah, which we took with us.

Folks, it was great. It felt like coming home. My husband got weepy a lot, and so did I, but it was so neat to be able to be with so many other Jews, celebrating one of our teachers. The women in front of us said we spoke Hebrew very well (we read the transliterations in the siddur) and that they were happy we were joining the congregation. My friend just beamed her head off.

Our teacher’s students spoke, as did people who’d worked with her in the Religious Education group, and her daughter (a rabbi) spoke as well. Then our rabbi and one of the cantors gave our teacher the same blessing given to new b’nei mitzvot, and everyone got weepy.

It was sweet and powerful and wonderful and amazing. I don’t have words for it, as you can see.

Near the end of the service, Rabbi called up one of our classmates from the Intro class, who had had her mikveh and beit din just the day before, and the entire synagogue erupted in applause, “Mazel Tov!” and “Welcome!” She was quite overwhelmed, and it was just so amazing to see that community response.

It was great. And I just needed to write about it, because it decided all three of us: every other week, we’ll try to go to the shul for Shabbat services on Friday nights. That’s a new thing for all three of us, as my friend wasn’t raised going to Shabbat every single week either.

I can’t wait for the next time we go.

I will be addressing what happened in Charleston and Philadelphia, but I can’t right now. I have to really think through what I want to say before I post it. Suffice to say that it’s horrific what happened, and it’s even more horrific that we, as a nation, are grasping for any explanation possible to avoid the truth of the matter.

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That Family Question…

“How does your family feel about your conversion?”

I know it will get asked, but I’m going to have to answer the question with another question: what do you mean by “family”?

The word “family” is fraught, for me. It’s actually a negative word, for the most part. I’m the oldest of three boys. I rarely met any of my extended family when I was a kid. Basically, I knew my grandparents, my father’s sister, and my mother’s youngest aunt (my great-aunt) and her youngest brother. The rest of the family was theoretical. I knew they existed, but I didn’t know them. They were just names.

My father was the older of two kids. He and his sister were about two years apart. He was raised Methodist, and converted to Catholicism to marry my mother. His sister has no children (she’s been openly lesbian since before I was born).

My mother was the fourth of six kids. All of them grew up in an abusive home. My grandfather was an equal-opportunity pedophile, and we know for a fact that he abused all three of his daughters and at least one of his sons (and me, when I was a toddler and a preschooler). My grandmother divorced him as soon as my mother and father got married, and her youngest son lived with her while their other younger son lived with my grandfather.

My mother’s oldest sister died when my mother was thirteen. The next sister got married to a fundamentalist Christian man, moved to the Midwest with him, had ten children, and was clinically insane for most of her life. We met her and one of her daughters once when I was about sixteen or seventeen, and they were just very strange to everyone in our home. She’s since passed away.

Her older brother stayed with me and my two younger brothers as a house-sitter/babysitter once, when I was in my early teens. It was in the summer, while my parents went to a liturgical music conference in another state. He abused us all, physically and emotionally, during those three weeks. I think the last time I saw him was at a wedding twenty-some years ago.

I’ve met my mother’s younger brother once or twice, and her youngest brother was in the area but not usually around when I was growing up. He came to the occasional birthday party or Christmas dinner. I was part of his first wedding when I was eight or so, and I met his kids from that marriage, but they were ten to fifteen years younger than I was – not exactly playmates, if you get my drift.

So just starting with that, you can see I have a complicated relationship with the idea of “family.” Sure, I have cousins, but the word doesn’t really mean much to me. For the most part, family was where I got hurt a lot, and I left as soon as I could.

As for my family now, well…

My father is deceased, and has been for nearly six years. I know he would have approved of my conversion, but I have no way of proving that.

My mother and I have not spoken in probably three years, and I doubt we’ll ever speak again. She was seriously emotionally abusive to me when I was younger (and I’ve talked about that in these pages, more than once), so once I finally got strong enough to say “no more,” that meant no more.

I know for a fact she wouldn’t approve. First, she never approved of anything that made me happy, because it meant I wasn’t working on making her happy. Second, my mother is a woman of large hatreds. She was racist and sexist while I was growing up; I have no doubt that anti-Semitism is lurking in there somewhere too. (And yet, ironically, if I have Jewish ancestry, it’s probably through her father’s mother, who was Hungarian with the right kind of last name at the right time period. I haven’t been able to dig more out of ancestry.com anytime recently, though, and I’m considering 23andme just to see what they can find.)

So when it comes to my mother, she is bad for me, and I can’t risk contact with her, but I don’t know if the beit din will understand that. This is my big worry.

My next-younger brother and I have a similar problem as I have with my mother: we’ve been at odds for most of our lives, and if we were not blood-related, we’d probably never speak to each other. I see him post on Facebook occasionally, but he lives across the country and we don’t interact much. If you had to ask me what he thought of this, my answer would be “I don’t know.”

My uncle (my mother’s younger brother) is all for it. My youngest brother and his wife are all for it. My dad’s sister says that she knows my dad would have approved. My kids think it’s great (my younger daughter even said “If I was going to be a different religion, I’d probably be Jewish”). But that’s all the blood family I can account for, and that does make me sad.

If you want to talk about chosen family, that’s different. My husband will be going through the same thing a few months from when I do (and maybe sooner; he said “when I have more understanding,” and now he’s thinking October instead of next February), and he is totally supportive. His parents are, too, which shocked us both. Likewise my best friend and her husband. Likewise her parents and all the people who are part of their regular Pesach seder group. Likewise just about every friend I have, even my atheist friends. Even my ex-husband is on board with it.

But I don’t know – will the beit din count that as “family”?

I’m honestly not sure how to talk about this question when they inevitably ask it. Every convert who’s posted their beit din story has mentioned it, so I know it’s coming and I’m really anxious.

Suggestions are welcome.

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We have an official date

(And by “we,” I mean me, my rabbi, the beit din, and the mikveh folks.)

On August 27 2015 (12 Elul 5775), eleven weeks from today and the day after our final conversion class is over, I will meet with the beit din in my rabbi’s office and then go to the mikveh in Los Angeles.

I am shaking and excited. The rabbi called this morning to confirm the date that the mikveh folks had already set for me. The beit din will be at his office in the morning, and the mikveh sometime in the afternoon (I’m trying to get the time moved up so that they’re not quite so far apart; right now it’s scheduled for 4 pm, which is a little late considering Los Angeles traffic patterns).

My rabbi will be my witness. My best friend and my husband can be there behind the screen to be witnesses as well. I’m not going to go into other details like hatafat dam brit (it will happen, but I won’t be writing about it – too personal for me for a public blog).

But it’s settled. I will be a full, official, authenticated Jew before the High Holy Days. Before the New Year.

I guess I’d better look at tallitot again.

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Snapshots of my Jewish Journey

– Tikkun Leil Shavuot was amazing. The husband and I went to it together. There was song, a Kabbalah class (we were part of a living representation of the Tree of Life, which was really neat), some videos that Rabbi felt we should watch on how big the universe really is (which he then related to Torah teachings) and a small service in the sanctuary to close things up.

– My husband and I went to lunch yesterday and admired a very cute baby at the next table. The baby’s father smiled and said “He actually has a Hebrew name.” (For the life of me, I can’t remember it – I know it started with “N” and had a “ry” sound in there somewhere, but that’s all.) So we said “Well, shalom, little guy!” I was wearing my kippah and we both had our Mogen Davids on, so I don’t know if the father was Jewish or not, but he felt the need to tell us that his son had a Hebrew name, which I thought was kind of cool.

– My best friend, my husband, and I went to a used bookstore next door to the local Jewish deli a few weeks ago, and she found this amazing siddur and bought it for me as a gift. It has a metal cover, and inside the siddur itself covers most of the holidays and the Shabbat service.

siddur-avodat-metal-turquoise

– My husband and I are going to start a Beginning Hebrew class in July, and our second conversion class starts on the first Wednesday in June. I’m excited and nervous about both of those things, and I wish Duolingo would get their Hebrew class up and running already (but hey, at least it’s in development).


I realized the other day that it’s been more than a year since I started this blog, and I’ve learned a lot since I started it. At the same time, I’ve also settled down. I will be officially a Jew before the High Holy Days – in fact, I need to contact the mikveh folks to see if they’re open on the morning I want to go there, because it’s a Friday – and it seems like the most natural thing in the world to me. Occasionally I’ve felt a twinge of “am I being presumptuous?” but that, I’ve found, is more about past abuse and not about whether this is right for me or not.

It is right for me. It is me. She’asani Israel.

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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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