15 Elul and Change

BlogElul 2015

Hoo, boy. Can I talk about change for a little bit here? Or a lot bit, here? Because, you know, I haven’t had any experience with change at all. Nope. None. Nuh-uh. No change here. No change at all.

All right, so now that we’ve dispensed with the formalities (where I must always deny change because change is freaking SCARY), we can move on.

I am autistic. Change is frightening for me at the best of times. And yet I still went through some pretty enormous changes in this past week. I went through the beit din and immersed in the mikveh. I became a Jew – that’s a change if there ever was one.

It’s odd. I was longing for the changes, but mostly I was longing to be done with them so I wouldn’t be scared waiting for them anymore.

Judaism has changed me. It has made me more tolerant and less irritable. It has made me more aware and less closed-in. But it’s also made me both happier and somehow less so, at the same time, for different reasons.

I don’t have much to say about this tonight because I’m exhausted, but tomorrow, when I write about prayer, I may touch on change again – because praying is a change for me, too.

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Elul 14 and Learning (How to write a d’var Torah)

BlogElul 2015

Today, I went to my first Torah Study as a Jew. And I want to talk about what I learned there. This is a modified version of a post that I put up on my converts community message board. You can call this entry “Learning how to write a d’var Torah.”

The Torah parshah for this past week was Ki Teitzei (כי תצא), which is Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Like most of Deuteronomy, this is a list of many, many rules. Some of these rules are worrisome – for example, in chapter 22, we get this little gem, about a man who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin:

18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.

Sounds like rather rough times for her, right? But when we look at this another way, we can see that this is actually giving the woman protection in a patriarchal society, where women who were separated from their fathers’ homes and were not married rarely had protection from anyone, of any kind. This seems to be saying “he will provide for her all of his days; he may not put her aside and stop paying alimony.”

Much of this parshah is like that. On the surface, it seems rather harsh. When you dig down, you find that most often, the laws in this parshah are about protecting those who are most vulnerable; who cannot protect themselves.

The final verses of Ki Teitzei are about Amalek, who attacked the Israelites when they were escaping Egypt:

17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

This is not the only time Amalek is mentioned in the Torah, but let’s just look at this time. We’re supposed to blot out his memory but not forget him at the same time. This seems contradictory.

However, when we take these final verses in the context of the entire parshah – about protecting the vulnerable – it becomes clear that Amalek stands as a representative of the yetzer ha-ra, or the evil inclination, that we all carry within us. Why is he a representative of yetzer ha-ra? Because he epitomizes the thing that this entire parshah is saying “don’t do” – he attacked the vulnerable in the group of Israelites, the women and children and ill and elderly who were in the rear of the train. Historically, it was considered extremely unethical to do that – you were expected to attack the warriors at the front of the train, not the vulnerable non-fighters at the back of the train.

So perhaps the final exhortation to blot out the memory of Amalek is to blot out the yetzer ha-ra that leads us to attack the vulnerable in too many ways: blog post comments, snide words, gossip, taking advantage of people simply because we can.

This is the lesson I’m taking forward into my week: be kind to those who are unable to defend themselves, regardless of the reason, and take no unfair advantage of them even if opportunity should present itself.

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Sorry, I missed a day

but today was just overwhelming and I’m still recovering from yesterday’s beit-din-and-mikveh marathon. Part of that is due to how much time we spent in the car in horrid Los Angeles traffic. Part of that was the lack of sleep two nights ago. Part of that was that today was and is still Shabbat and so we had to do things today to have Shabbat this evening.

I will write about my first day and first Shabbat as a Jew in truth another time. Right now I just want to share one small amusing thing from the beit din that I remembered today, so I don’t forget it:

Joanne asked about the Seders I’d been to. I told her I’ve been to three – two at my friend’s parents and one that I ran myself last spring. I said “I have to admit we used the Maxwell House haggadah,” and she shrugged and said “Everyone has at one point. It’s a rite of passage we’ve all gone through.” Everyone laughed.

Also, at several times over the course of the day, I should note that Rabbi M. said that I had enriched the Jewish people by joining the Tribe. It really hit me hard thinking about it today, and I don’t know how I left it out of yesterday’s post.

I will pick up with the #BlogElul tomorrow. Today, it just wasn’t possible – I’m sorry.

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She’asani Yisrael: The Beit Din and the Mikveh

ConversionCert

First, I want to make a recommendation:

If you have anxiety or any kind of problem that causes anxiety, do your best to have your beit din and mikveh right next to each other in terms of time. Don’t separate them by eight hours, as I did. For me, that caused a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety that, if I had had the mikveh earlier or the beit din later, I could have probably reduced, if not prevented.

We – my husband, my best friend, and I – all got up far earlier than any of us are accustomed to getting up, at 7 a.m., to be ready to leave by 8 a.m. to get to our Temple for the 8:30 a.m. beit din. The Temple is about 15 minutes away. Things seemed to be going all right – I got up, got my shower, did my meds, got dressed, had a double cup of coffee, and was mostly okay until we got to the elevator.

Of course it wasn’t working. This is the first time we’ve ever had problems with the elevator in almost two years of living here. I called the landlord and left a message about it, and then we had to go down the stairs, which was not fun and which stressed me out. We very carefully got me down three flights of stairs, with a lot of help. I don’t do stairs because my knees will not let me go up, and my bad balance doesn’t let me go down. This meant that we got to the Temple about five minutes late, and I was a little embarrassed.

Rabbi M. was waiting for us. My best friend and I came in while my husband went to go find parking for the car, but we all managed to get there within a few minutes of the start time. Once we were all seated in his office, Rabbi M. introduced us to Evan B., who is the Temple’s liaison to the URJ, and Joanne L., who is the head of the rituals and practices committee. Rabbi M. explained what the beit din was for, and then we began.

I remember Rabbi M. also asked me to write an article for the newsletter about my journey into Judaism and into this Temple. I’m sure I can do that – I’ve got so much material here already. I asked if I could move my chair a little so I could see everyone’s faces and read their lips if necessary.

I wish I could remember all their questions. Actually, I wish I’d taped the session or something just so I’d have more than memories. But over the course of about thirty minutes, I talked about the name I chose (Yaron Adam Yisrael), and this blog and its name (Shocher Adam), and how they related to my ongoing search for God (Yisrael = wrestling with God; shocher = seeker). I discussed my religious background (Catholic and fundamentalist Christian), how music was worship for me and how, if I didn’t have music, it didn’t feel like worship.

I talked about my failed attempt at the Shul Down The Street. I talked about that first Seder at my friend’s father’s house, and that first long discussion about “Fear God” not meaning “Be terrified of God.” I talked about my best friend’s input and help, and my husband’s decision to convert as well, and all the reading I’d done, and when they asked me that family question I explained that my mother was abusive but that the rest of the family was totally on board with me going through with this. I even mentioned my daughter saying “If I was going to be another religion, I’d be Jewish because they let you argue.” I talked about how the holidays were meaningful. I know I talked about ethical structure and tikkun olam. And I know that I choked up more than once, when I said “I just felt – this is my place, these are my people, this is my home.”

I talked about a couple of things Michael Doyle talked about when he did his conversion, and crediting him for the ideas – about the prophetic aspect of being a ger/JBC, and about finding my soul’s native adjective in Judaism. They understood it all.  A lot of times, I apparently anticipated their questions with my answers so that when I was done, they would say things like “I was going to ask X but you’ve already covered it.”

Evan B. asked me if there was ever a time I felt ashamed of being Jewish and I said to the contrary, I make a point of being openly and obviously Jewish. I don’t proselytize, but I wear a kippah and a Mogen David everywhere, and I do not feel any shame. I said “The only time I’ve felt actively anxious about being obviously Jewish is when the three of us were driving up through Victorville last year, and we stopped to get lunch at a truck stop, and there were swastikas in the truck stop’s bathroom. That worried me.” But I was even able to tell the day of My First Anti-Semitic Slur without too much trouble.

Joanne L. wanted to know what I was going to do once this was done – and asked me if it would be very different or not, considering how much I already knew and was doing. I said I wouldn’t know if it was going to be different until it happened. She also wanted to know how to make the Temple more welcoming for Jews by Choice and I said that I thought they were already doing a great job, but that I would think about it and definitely get back to her later (which is what she wanted).

Essentially, they got it. They really got it. It didn’t take nearly as long as I thought, and it wasn’t like my dissertation defense at all.

Then Rabbi M. asked the three of us to leave (while they rearranged the furniture so it wasn’t so crowded). We went into one of the classrooms and admired the artwork there – a big puzzle made of pieces that were hand-painted by different families in the congregation back in 2002. When we came back in, Rabbi M. had some paperwork for me. I mentioned that my husband wanted me to mention that I intend someday to be a chazzan (cantor) because everything went so fast that I forgot to mention it before, and he’d scolded me a little for not mentioning it.

The main thing in the pile of paperwork was the Declaration of Jewish Commitment, which he said I would read through silently to make sure I agreed with it (I did) and then I would read aloud while holding a sefer Torah.

He told me that my story was not one of change so much as emergence, which they found profound and wonderful (that made me blush).

Then, holding the sefer Torah, he told me that the Torah is our connection to all Jews before us and that after this, I would also be connected to all Jews both now and before, l’dor vador. And that this particular sefer Torah had been commissioned by the congregation, so that it would also connect me to this congregation. After he told me all this, I asked whether I should wear my tallit before taking the Torah, and he said yes. My best friend got the tallit out of the bag it was in, held it out to me so I could see the prayer on the atarah, and I recited it, only stumbling a moment over “vetzivanu” for some reason (Rabbi M. prompted me):

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mizvotav vetzivanu l’hitateif ba’tzitzit.

Then I put it on, and took the Torah from Rabbi M. for the first time.

When I wrote about this during the break between beit din and mikveh, I said that to that point, this was the most profound moment for me today – when I actually took the Torah into my hands. It was lighter than I’d thought, but also slightly awkward. I’d studied Rabbi M. while he held it so I’d see what to do – dominant arm around the Torah with my hand between the two scroll holders on the bottom, and then non-dominant hand wrapped around the other side bracing my wrist – and I was able to hold it without too much trouble. I read the entire Declaration without any faltering, reading all the English-written names as Hebrew names, although I did choke up a bit a time or two.

In reading the Declaration, I said that I stood before God, with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob, with Moses, and with the prophets of Israel (for various reasons and in different ways) in my intentions to become a Jew. I stated that I accepted the Torah and committed myself to a lifetime of its study. I stated that I am part of God’s covenant with Israel. I pledged to give to time and resources to supporting the Jewish community, strengthening Israel, and helping bring about justice and peace in accordance with the vision of the Prophets. I pledged to establish and keep a Jewish home, with certain definitions of what that meant; I pledged to deepen my Jewish observance by active participation in a synagogue (not necessarily this Temple, either), and that I recognized that my embracing Judaism was part of a life-long journey dedicated to tikkun olam, or the healing of the world.

I’ve paraphrased it here, because Rabbi M. wrote it, and I don’t want to publish his copyrighted information.

Below that, it had my Hebrew name (without nikkudim/vowels, so I didn’t recognize it at first!), and stated that I dedicated myself to God’s ways and to honoring all of creation, and then said the Shema to affirm the oneness of God.

Everyone present said the Shema with me.

Then they all signed a number of certificates: certificate of hatafat dam brit, certificate of conversion, and the Declaration. All three had the Hebrew name I’ve chosen: Yaron Adam Yisrael ben Avraham v’Sarah.

In Hebrew letters, that’s:

ירון אדם ישראל בן אברחם ושרה

Rabbi M. also had the check for the mikveh people (our Temple subsidizes the cost of the mikveh for new converts), and a certificate for them to sign there, for me to take with me. He also had a letter from him, on behalf of the Temple, offering me a year’s paid membership, and whom to talk to about that.

My husband choked up several times, and cried both during and after. My best friend videotaped me saying the declaration and holding the Torah, as did Evan B.  from a different angle. I will post stills from these at some point soon, when I get copies.

After that we left the office, and while Rabbi M. was photocopying my documentation I went into the sanctuary for a minute to be alone. I said the Shema in front of the Ark and read the words on the Ark doors: Mitzvot Adonai raba: meyirat eynaim. (Adonai’s mitzvot are pure: they give light to the eyes.) I said thank you. I said “These Jewish hands and this Jewish soul are here to serve you.” And I cried a little bit.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the gift shop window with the tallit around my shoulders, and I gasped. It was kind of a shock to see it. I think that’s when it hit home: I’m a Jew now. Even before the mikveh, it was still profound. I am a Jew.

I went over to the Temple office to talk to the secretary about High Holy Days tickets, and she said to just come in next week to pick up the paperwork. Joanne L. was there and I gave her my email so that she can email me about the rituals committee. I also told her that I want to teach classes at the Temple, and that I had talked to Sharon (the Temple’s education director) about it, too.

When we got into the car, my husband had the CD from our Hebrew teacher, who also sings. He forwarded it to her version of “L’Dor Vador,” and then he cried with hearing it. Those tears were a precursor for some long conversations later in the day. He was profoundly affected.

Then we went to brunch. I called the apartment management and they called back to tell me that the elevator was repaired and working fine. So we came home with about an hour to kill before leaving for the mikveh. I wrote down what had happened up to this point and then tried to calm down a little bit. It mostly worked, although I melted down at my husband simply due to stress and worry (which is a far too common thing for me, sadly).

Half an hour or so before we were planning to leave, I took out my temporary earrings, which have been in since last Friday since I can’t remove captive bead earrings on my own, got my deep-scrub shower, scrubbed my teeth, and got into clean clothes before we left for the mikveh. I took a bag with just my toothbrush and my deodorant and a comb in a small pouch, along with a pair of flip-flops, as the mikveh people had directed. I also had the certificate for them to fill out for witnesses, and the check my rabbi had given me.

The drive up was not bad. We went to the Skirball Center first to purchase a mezuzah – because now that there was actually a Jew in this home, it was fitting that we finally have a mezuzah inside the doorway. We picked out a nice one. My husband also bought a CD of music. We stopped and had a soda, and my husband stumbled his way through the prayer for installing the mezuzah – which we’ll do tomorrow sometime, probably after services. My best friend and I were elated that his Hebrew is coming along so well.

Then we went to the university where the mikveh was, about 45 minutes before we needed to be there. Sitting outside, we saw Rabbi M. arrive early too. He went inside to check us in, and I stayed outside with my husband and best friend, feeling nervous and anxious. I knew that as far as the Reform movement was concerned, I was already a Jew, but for me the rituals of brit and mikveh are so important that I didn’t feel like I was completely a Jew until they were done too.

I gave my wedding ring and my Mogen David – the only jewelry I had left on me – to my husband and asked him to hold them safe for me.

Rabbi M. came back out after a few minutes, and we made conversation. My husband said he was considering October 1st, and Rabbi M. said “Whenever you feel ready, just let me know.” Then we also asked if, once my husband had finished his process, we could do a renewal of our wedding vows as proper Jews, with a Jewish service led by Rabbi M., but the non-Jewish calendar date falls on Shabbat this year (Saturday), so it wouldn’t work. Rabbi M. then suggested we use the Hebrew date for our one-year anniversary, which is 7 Cheshvan (October 20), and that looks like what we’ll be doing. Later, my best friend offered the use of her tallit for a chuppah. We are still discussing this, of course, but it will probably happen just that way. Then Rabbi M. went back in to see what else was going on. There were two groups of people ahead of us when we first arrived, and only one had emerged.

We finally went in about five minutes after the four o’clock appointment. Judith, the mikveh attendant, took us on a short tour of the facilities, showing us all the mikveh pool, which is tiled in blue tile and has seven steps down into it. It didn’t look very deep or very wide, and I was very worried about hitting my head. This is when I found out that immersion in a mikveh is not the “lie back and get immersed” way that we’re all so familiar with from many movies that feature Christian baptism. Instead, it is a straight-down-from-standing movement, almost like crouching down into the water into a fetal position, pulling your feet up so that you’re not touching anything at all – so that you’re floating free. Once I understood that, it became less scary.

She said that once I was ready to get into the mikveh, I should knock on the outer door and then go into the mikveh room, put my towel on the rail, and go down into the water. There was a screw-in plug in the wall that allowed communication with the natural spring and the water already in the mikveh; she said to unscrew it and set it on the side of the pool, then put it back in when I was done. A few minutes after I knocked on the wall, to give me time to get situated, she would come in (behind the curtain) and ask if I was ready. She pointed out the disposable kippot, and the plastic laminated stand that held the prayers for those whose brains might fail them in anxious moments.

Apparently they usually dim the lights down to almost nothing and just let the electric candles light the room when you’re done, if you want, but I did not want. It was already dim and I had a fear of being in the dark and the water without some visual cues. I don’t want to do sensory deprivation, so I said please, no dimming of the lights – they were plenty dim already.

So after we got that all sorted, then I asked if my husband could be with me in the prep room before and after, as my arthritis makes it difficult for me to remove and put on my shoes and a couple of other clothing items. They said no problem. So he was also in the room in front of the curtain with Rabbi M., my official witness, when I did my immersions.

Since I’d already scrubbed myself until I squeaked, I just took a very quick rinse-off shower in the prep room. It was hot outside, so I did need it, but I was glad I was already pretty clean, as the shower was one of those “rainfall” showerheads and it didn’t feel like it had a lot of water pressure. I dried off just as quickly as I’d rinsed, grabbed the towel they’d provided to cover myself, knocked on the door, and went out into the mikveh room in the towel. I hung the towel on the rail and got down into the mikveh with a little help from my husband. It was extremely buoyant water, and very warm – not like a swimming pool at all, and not even like a hot tub. This had its own unique sensation. I couldn’t – quite – touch the floor with my toes, and the water was brushing the bottom of my (trimmed) beard. It was very disconcerting. It was much deeper than it had looked from above. Now I understood why you had to leap up to immerse – you needed the downward momentum to drive your body completely below the surface, or it wouldn’t happen.

My husband and I moved the small laminated plastic stand with the prayers in it to a place I could get to easily, and he took my glasses (which I had to have to see my way into the pool – I’m blind as a bat and have zero depth perception without them, although I can read close up without them on). He unfortunately set them on a black table, and with their black frames, they blended right in, which was a little problematic after the whole thing was over and he couldn’t remember where he’d set them down. He then sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the curtain, and we waited for Rabbi M., and my best friend and the mikveh attendant, who would be behind the curtain as second and third witnesses since they were female.

It felt like a long time, but it was probably only a couple of minutes before the mikveh attendant said, “Okay, Adam, are you ready for the rabbi?” I said yes. Then she asked if I was calm, and I said no, because honestly, I was so anxious about doing it all correctly that I couldn’t really be calm. I was trying, but I was just too anxious and I still didn’t feel like I was going to avoid hitting my head, or pulling my back, or doing something else incorrectly. I wanted kavanah (the deep, spiritual feeling of connection), but what I ended up with was keva (ritual and memorized prayer). But as Michael Doyle said when it was his time in the mikveh, keva is enough to get the job done.

In any case, once I made sure Rabbi M. could see what he needed to see to say whether my immersion was kosher, I took a couple of deep breaths and then let go of the side of the pool. I made sure that I wasn’t near the stairs, so that I wouldn’t touch them when I pulled my feet upwards, and then Rabbi M. said “Whenever you’re ready, Adam.”

I took a deep breath, leapt up a little bit, and plunged down. I made sure to duck my head down too, so that I would be completely underwater. It felt kind of like when you do a cannonball into the deep end, except that I didn’t touch my hands or arms to my sides. But I knew for certain that that first one would be kosher – I wasn’t touching anything and nothing touched me but the water.

I came up, wiping the water out of my eyes and slicking my hair back, and heard Rabbi say, “That was kosher.”

Completely forgetting to don the disposable kippah (d’oh!), I read the first prayer for immersion:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu al ha-tevilah.

Then I took a few deep breaths, leapt up and plunged down again, and heard Rabbi say “Kosher,” as I came back up. I took a minute to collect myself, put the kippah on my head this time, then read the Shehecheyanu. Yes, I read it. Why? Because my brain was frazzled and I just needed the help.

The last immersion took me a little longer. Like Michael Doyle, part of me was thinking, “When my head clears the water again, I’m a Jew for all time.” And part of me was thinking “Don’t screw this up, you want this to be done in three so you don’t have to re-do any of them.” And part of me was, sadly, saying “And move it along because you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t hurry up.”

But then I just cleared my mind, took a breath on a count of five, leapt up, and plunged down one last time.

When my head cleared the water, I heard Rabbi M. say that all-important word: “Kosher!” I wiped water and tears out of my eyes, went to the side of the pool, put on the kippah, and sang out the Shema for all that I had. It echoed on the tile and I was convinced I was off key, and I know that it was obvious that I was crying while I sang it. But then it was done, and Rabbi M. was telling me what a profound thing I had done, and welcome to the Jewish People, and that they would see me outside when I was ready.

And just like that, she’asani Yisrael. I am a Jew.

Then he and the other two witnesses filed out, and my husband asked me if I wanted to get out yet.

Oddly enough, I didn’t. I needed another minute or two to assimilate what I’d just done. I hadn’t hurt myself – a relief – and I had done it all correctly, except forgetting the kippah before the first blessing, but I was shaking and in tears and still trying to process. I asked him to wait a minute while I wept, until I got myself together. Then I wiped my eyes with wet hands, and went to the bottom of the steps. I said, “My tears are in the mikveh now.”

My husband was there with my towel when I got to the top, and helped me dry off. There was a bit of a frazzle moment when he couldn’t find my glasses, but then he did, and went out into the prep room to get my flip-flops – the tile was much more slippery after being in the mikveh than before. He brought them and my glasses to me and made sure I didn’t slip while we went back into the prep room.

There was a bench in the prep room. Once I had my hair combed, my own kippah back on, and my clothes on, he sat at the foot of the bench to help me get my socks and shoes on. He handed me back my Mogen David, which I put on immediately, and put my wedding ring back on me, saying, “I marry you again.” We had a private moment which I’m not going to talk about, and then it was done. I packed up my bag, and he took it, and we went out into the reception area where I was congratulated by everyone there. My best friend hugged me, elated, and said “Welcome to my people! Welcome to my family!”

Judith said she and the mikveh’s rabbi had a gift for me, and offered me a choice of one of five knitted kippot. I chose the green one (green is my favorite color, and I can rarely find a good kippah in that color) and wondered whether to switch my Mogen David kippah for it. They said it was up to me. I decided to hold off on that as the one I was wearing was chosen for the day.

Then my husband made the decision to schedule his mikveh appointment and his beit din. He will be going on October 1st. That’s five weeks away. So we’re not done yet!

Rabbi M., Judith, and my best friend had all signed my mikveh certificate, which I added to my paperwork file. Then we went out, and driving home took two hours plus, and for most of the drive we sang Hebrew songs off my playlist until my phone died, and my husband talked about his own path to his conversion and how it was different than mine. We went to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner, and then we finally got home.

Somewhere in there, I realized that something had changed. It wasn’t like my friends’ reports of suddenly looking down and seeing Jewish hands. It was more like a tightly coiled spring, that had been far too tightly wound up inside me for far too long, suddenly uncoiling, relaxing, fading. Like something that had been incorrect or out of place for years was now, finally, set right.

I had to update this before I forgot the important things. I know this is one of the longest posts I’ve done on this blog, but I hope that it’s helpful to everyone. If I’ve forgotten things, look for follow-up posts.

Also, today was the 12th of Elul, and the theme for today was “forgive.”

BlogElul 2015

I think that in finishing this milestone, I forgave myself for a lot of things I’d been and done over the years. I’m the same person, but I feel lighter. I feel easier in myself and in my mind.

I hope that’s what I was supposed to feel.

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Filed under Conversion Process

Since sundown came, it’s officially the 12th of Elul by the Hebrew calendar.

Today is the day. When morning comes, I’ll be at the beit din at 8:30 a.m. Before the sun goes down again, I will be a Jew in truth and not just in hope and preparation.

Things will not happen in the order they did for Michael at Chicago Carless. For him it was beit din, hatafat dam brit, and mikveh. I have had my hatafat dam brit, and it will be beit din then mikveh, but there will be some differences.

  1. It isn’t going to happen all in the same building. Michael’s day was all in the same place, but the closest mikveh to my Temple is about 40 miles away, and I can’t ask the beit din to drive that far.
  2. It’s separated by about seven hours. Beit din at 8:30 am until whenever, but mikveh’s not until four pm. So there will be a largish break.
  3. We will not be going back to the Temple after the mikveh (at least, I haven’t been told otherwise), so the recognition of me as a Jew (including holding the Torah for the first time, and putting on my tallit for the first time) will very likely happen before I go to the mikveh. But in my heart I know that I will not feel like it’s done until, well, it’s all done.
  4. I am shaky and nervous, but I did get to talk with my rabbi today after our last class was over with, and when I went to Hebrew class afterwards, it became as much a class about being a Jew as it did about reading Hebrew. Everyone was very kind to me.
  5. My best friend and my husband will be with me throughout, which will help.
  6. In the break, I will have a good meal and get a very, very thorough shower and scrub-down.
  7. I will be bringing my own towel and a pair of flip-flops to the mikveh to try to avoid any untoward accidents like slipping on the tile or their towels or robes not being big enough to cover me. (Both of which I am honestly really scared about.)

Rabbi told me what would happen at the mikveh. After I do the ritual bath-and-scrub thing, which will be quick since I will have done a quite thorough bathing before coming to the mikveh, I will go out into the room where the pool is and put my towel down and take my flip-flops off before I go down into the water. After I’m under the water to my shoulders, I will let Rabbi (who is my witness) know that I’m ready. Then I will immerse, lifting my feet off the bottom of the pool so that I’m floating free, and the Rabbi will announce whether it was kosher or not by saying so. After the first kosher immersion, I will say the prayer for immersion. After the second, I will say the Shema. And finally, after the third, I will say the Shehecheyanu. There will apparently be a kippah at poolside for me to put on, to recite each prayer.

Michael was very clear about how this works to get the whole body floating free for that split second that’s necessary. You point your hands in front of you, jump up a bit to give yourself some momentum, and pull your feet up when you go under so that you float free. I am going to try to avoid pulling my back any worse than it’s already been pulled (I have a knot in my lower back that won’t quit no matter how much I stretch).

I’m bringing my tallit clips to the beit din, and my new kippah with me to the mikveh, for wearing afterwards. It has a Mogen David on it that covers the entire diameter of the kippah, a white kippah with a blue star. I have been saving it for this occasion since I got it last year.

I will pack a very small bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb, and my friend will bring the tallit with her. So I’m mostly ready. I’m just scared to death that I’ll do something foolish or say something wrong, or that my klutziness will kick in at the worst possible moment.

Worrying? Me?

Yeah, a bit.

Because, you know, that’s not Jewish or anything…

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Countdown -1: The 11th of Elul and Trust

Today is the 11th of Elul, which is less than 24 hours from when I officially join the Tribe and become a Jew. Tomorrow, I will no longer be a ger or a convert or a person who wants to be Jewish; I will simply be a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “Trust.” And hooboy – this isn’t asking for much at all, right? Riiiight.

Trust has always been enormously difficult for me. Part of this is because I am autistic. Do you know how much trust is established by nonverbal, non-worded means like soothing tones of voice, facial expressions that just “look” honest, and body language? Well, I don’t have access to any of that. For me, the world is worded, and if it can’t be expressed in words, it’s hard to take it seriously or believe it exists. Or, for that matter, trust it.

There’s also the issue of trust being context-dependent, which, again, is hard for me to understand. But in the last few years I’ve finally learned that someone you can trust with your ideas may not be someone you can trust with your car (or vice-versa). Just because you can trust someone to check on your cats while you’re away from home doesn’t mean they’d be a good babysitter. You can trust someone to pick out amazing food at the restaurant, but you wouldn’t trust them to boil water without burning it.

So trust is one of those hairy things for me that I’ve never really been able to deal with in any satisfactory way.

This, of course, raises the question: if you can’t trust, then how exactly do you believe in God, or in what Judaism teaches?

Well, because trust is only part of it. It’s not all of it. And it’s not blind trust. It’s informed trust.

One of the things that allowed me to believe in God again was when I learned that yes, my emotions were a trustworthy source of information about certain kinds of phenomena. That took a long time to learn, but when I did learn it, and finally “heard” what God was trying to say to me, Judaism was the natural outcome of that lesson. Because only Judaism gives me a framework for my trust. And only Judaism allows me to say that sometimes I am going to doubt and be worried (which means not trusting in that moment) without being penalized for it.

But I trust myself more than I used to, too. I stopped judging my behavior so much by social standards that I could no more live up to than a person with no arms could do the butterfly stroke, and started judging it by the standards that I am able to live up to. And you know what? That allowed me to trust other people a little more, too.

Trust is not an all-or-nothing thing. It’s okay to trust a little, or not at all. It’s okay to say “I don’t trust that.” But it is also okay to say “I do trust that.”

This is just one of many lessons I have learned on my journey into Judaism.

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Countdown -2: The 10th of Elul and Counting

Today was the 10th of Elul, which is two days from the day I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

It’s a little funny to me that today’s theme is “count.” But “count” can mean to tally up, or it can mean to matter.

I choose the latter meaning today. Isn’t part of Elul supposed to be figuring out what matters and what doesn’t matter?

So then: What counts to me? What doesn’t? What is really important, and what isn’t? What do I need to hold on to, and what can I let go of, while still remaining myself?

Well, of all the people in the world, my husband and my best friend count to me. My daughters count to me. My brothers and their families count to me, as does my father’s sister (my aunt), my mother’s brother (my uncle), and several of my cousins. My closest friends count to me. My rabbi counts to me. My students – new and old – count to me. My teacher and my chavurah group count to me. My new therapist counts to me.

And on a larger scale, of course every person on the planet counts to me, but not as personally or as viscerally. Some of them count simply because they’re human beings and dammit, tikkun olam, I should care about them.

And my cats count to me, because cats.

My health counts to me. My ability to earn a living counts to me. My home counts to me, although I’m thinking many of the things in the home may not anymore. I may need to find a place to pass on the people I used to be when those things did count to me, so I can leave those people I used to be, behind.

What doesn’t count to me any more? What doesn’t matter?

Making everyone like me no longer counts. Getting everyone’s approval no longer counts. Being perfect… well, that still counts, but not on every level. Only on some.

I’m tired, and it’s late, and I’ve been up since five a.m. with short sleep, and so in the interest of taking care of myself I’m probably going to cut this post a little short. But you get the idea.

Part of Elul is figuring out what counts to you.

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Countdown -3: The 9th of Elul and Seeing

Today was the 9th of Elul, which is 3 days before I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme was “see.” I suppose that follows on from yesterday’s “hear,” right?

I started out writing about literal seeing, but that’s not really what I should talk about tonight.

I gave my first classes of the semester today. Part of my syllabus says clearly, “if this class does not make you uncomfortable, then you are not learning.” I’ll get to what that has to do with seeing in a moment.

This morning I saw this on Facebook. Watch it and then read on.

Have you watched it? Did you get it?

Because you see, Michael Kimmel didn’t see anything until it was brought to his attention. He thought he was just a human being. He didn’t realize he was a white, straight, middle-aged, well-off man. He just saw a person.

And when the black woman brought it to his attention, for the first time, he saw it. And I’ll bet that from now on, when he looks in the mirror, he sees a white, middle-aged, straight man. Not just a human being.

It wasn’t just that he didn’t see them. He didn’t see HIMSELF either. He was invisible to himself.

On Quora, there was a woman who talked about how she taught a class which was all black kids, and she was white. She was subbing. To get them to write, she had them do the “20 Things About Me” exercise. Every single one of them wrote down “black” as one of the words to identify themselves. They wanted to hear her list.

“White” was not on her list. Why? Because being white is invisible to whites. Just like being male is invisible to males. It took her a long, long time to get it across to them that no, she doesn’t think about being white all the time. (What finally did it was when she asked them if any of them had put down a sexual orientation and all the straight kids in the room went “Ohhhhh….”)

I told my students today that it is my job to make them uncomfortable. And part of the way I’m going to make them uncomfortable is to see things they didn’t see before. To look at things they may not want to look at. To view the world through their neighbor’s eyes. Or their enemy’s eyes.

It’s also my job to make them see the things that, right now, are invisible to them. To notice things that they may not see or want to see.

My black students have things to teach me about what I do and do not see. My Latino/a students do too. But they also have things to teach each other.

When you looked in the mirror this morning, what did you see? Because when I did, I didn’t see a white man. I saw a Jewish gay man. I saw my differences – not my privileges.

But I see the white man now, too.

Look in the mirror. Really see what’s there.

Now look at someone else, and see what’s really there.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – but we have to see in order to pursue justice.

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Countdown -4: The 8th of Elul and Hearing

Today was the 8th of Elul, which is four days before I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme was “hearing.”

When the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, it is said that their response was “na’aseh v’nishma,” or “We will do and we will hear.” (Sorry, I can’t find the proper Hebrew spelling, so you’ll have to deal with transliteration. I trust this is not a problem.) Anyway. We will do and we will hear? Wha?

That’s really odd. Shouldn’t you hear the orders before you try to carry them out? This confused me when I first encountered it, and it still confuses me now. I mean, in Judaism the goal is what you do, not what you believe, and I suppose what you believe would come to you by way of what you hear, but…

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who was confused by this. According to one midrash, Moses said to the Israelites after this astounding, seemingly out-of-sequence declaration, “Is doing possible without understanding?” To which they replied, “We will do and we will understand.”

Some traditions translate this as, “doing and understanding will happen simultaneously,” rather than “by doing, we will THEN understand.” But there’s still that whole “hearing” thing to deal with up above. It seems to me that they just let it go without an explanation. Doing is more important than hearing. We’ll get to hearing later. Right now there’s stuff we gotta do, nu?

So what can we hear while we’re doing? What do we actually need to hear while we’re doing? Or is it that the process of doing leads us to hearing that “still, small voice” inside us? Perhaps – stay with me, here – we have to do in order to be silent enough to hear. Perhaps the process of keeping your body working and moving and doing is necessary in order to quiet the mind enough that it can hear. (I know this sounds very Zen, but there’s a fair overlap in the mystical traditions of Judaism and Buddhism, so I’m not going to worry about it.)

Sitting and trying to listen while doing nothing – trying to hear while your mind is noisy and anxious – is probably counterproductive. And doctor after doctor has advised people with panic, depression, and anxiety to exercise – to DO something. And it’s well known that people who have these conditions but make themselves move – or do – have fewer problems and a slightly less bad time of it overall.

It can’t just be the endorphins.

Maybe that’s part of why we had to do first, and then hear.

Of course, this also assumes that the Hebrew was meant linearly – that it meant something to say na’aseh before they said v’nishma. There could easily be other reasons why the words were in that order, including accident. My rabbi told us that the first words of Genesis, Bereshit, when you translate the Hebrew in literal order, come out “In the beginning created God, the heavens, and the earth.” And that’s normal Hebrew grammar – the word order is usually object verb subject. But! The Kabbalists have said “What if “In the beginning” was referring to Something BEYOND God, and grammar isn’t the reason for the word order, and the word order actually matters to the meaning? What if Something created God, and the heavens and the Earth? What then?”

I seem to be taking the flip side of that argument here: what if the word order didn’t mean anything, and it was just easier to say “na’aseh v’nishma” instead of “nishma v’na’aseh“? Haven’t you ever had that happen with names, for example? Charlene and Rick, but not Rick and Charlene. Joanna and Todd, but not Todd and Joanna. It is perfectly possible that they said it that way because to say it the other way was just clunky.

But we won’t know if there’s meaning unless we can calm down the interior voices enough to listen to the interior Voice of the Eternal, either. So I’m going to leave this conundrum as an exercise for my faithful readers.

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Countdown -5: The 7th of Elul and Being

By the Hebrew calendar, it’s already the 8th of Elul. However, I didn’t post on Shabbat, so this is for the 7th. Yesterday was the 7th of Elul, which is 5 days before I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “be.” That’s also a toughie for me. Because today it’s raised the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Being is a pretty encompassing term. It’s also not a word that exists in Hebrew in the present tense – it’s all implied. This can lead to some funny weirdnesses in translation. If I say “Ani Adam,” it literally translates as “Me/I Adam.” Which is clunky in English.

But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. Grammar is something for another day. Let’s talk about being.

When we say I AM something, we mean in the present tense. In the past year, I’ve been saying I am a Jew, more and more, rather than “I will be a Jew.” Because I have felt like I am already a Jew, and this Thursday’s scheduled activities (beit din; mikveh) are just formalities. They will be profound formalities, but they will simply affirm what I already am.

So then what does it mean to be a Jew? Is it about observing a certain number or kind of mitzvot? Is it in the way you dress? Is it in how often you go to Temple? Is it about how perfect you are about being ready for Shabbat before sundown, or not missing Havdalah? This has come up so often on this blog that it might be something my readers are tired of hearing. But today I read something on Quora about Judaism that really struck me. Lisa Reiss said:

Although the term ‘sect’ is used in regard to Judaism, it’s essentially referring to level of religious observance and regional traditions not radically different beliefs.

That, I think, is the best way to sum up the differences between my way of being a Jew and an Orthodox haredi’s way of being a Jew. And even then, I don’t think I’m at a lower level of observance than he is, but a different one.

I’m still a Jew. I may not be his kind of Jew, but I’m still a Jew.

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