It is the second of Elul.

I was told, before conversion, that becoming a Jew was like becoming an American citizen. You have the name and the identity, but all of the social stuff you need to know – the stuff that people grew up with – is stuff you always clunk through rather awkwardly. I still stumble on the prayers even after more than a year of singing them and hearing them. I still don’t always remember to kiss the mezuzah when I go out the front door or when I come in – my hands are full or I’m stressed and I forget. We haven’t done Shabbat or Havdalah consistently through most of the summer because it’s been hot and uncomfortable and making dinner at home has been overwhelming.

And yet. And yet.

I can’t bring myself to leave my home without my kippah firmly on my head and my Mogen David clearly showing. I still say “Baruch HaShem” in response to something where I used to say “Thank God.” I identify as a Jew and when I see things that harm other Jews, I feel umbrage and I get in people’s faces about it. And I never go to bed without saying the Shehecheanyau and the Sh’ma.

Even if the identity is new, it’s solid. The outside behaviors may not always be there, but I know that my Judaism is central to my life.

I miss community, but anxiety has been in the way for most of the spring and summer. I think I might be able to go back to Temple and to services without feeling completely conspicuous in another couple of weeks.

Perhaps one of the people I need to make amends to is myself, for beating myself up this past half year.

 

 

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Today is the First of Elul, 5776

I have renewed our Temple membership for the coming year, or at least started to. We will be going to High Holy Days in October, and moving back into the life of our local Temple community as the new year comes closer.

12 days from now, by the Hebrew calendar, I will have been a Jew for a full year.

It’s time for me to consider where I’ve missed the mark this year. Letting my anxiety get the best of me when I could have faced up to what I was scared of is a big one. Letting this blog lapse is probably another; I’m a new Jew and I should have been writing more so that this blog could help others who are searching for answers.

Today is the day I ask people on my social media to tell me if there’s something out of whack between us due to my action or inaction, so that I can try to make amends, or, at minimum, apologize.

Today is the First of Elul.

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Hate and homophobia cannot stand

My synagogue is holding a joint vigil for the Pulse nightclub victims with our interfaith council and our local LGBT center tonight.

I could not be there in person, because I have been having some really rotten anxiety over the last few weeks that keeps me from being able to leave my home without help. Instead, I am watching the livestream, and liveblogging it here and on Facebook.

Our cantor began the song with “We Shall Overcome.” I sang along here at home.

So far, our rabbi, a local imam, another member of the interfaith council, our cantor, and several other people have spoken. There has been music and song and a defiant refusal to let this stop us and hurt us.

There have been acknowledgments of the harm that the fundamentalist and conservative wings of the Abrahamic religions have done to those who are GSM (gender and sexual minorities). There have been offerings of brotherhood from the Muslim community. There have been expressions of solidarity from the LGBT community. Our mayor is a gay Latino man and sent his well-wishes with the LGBT community center director.

There are two ASL signers at the front of the room.

The imam: “Dear brothers and sisters, they are never going to break us. Be the way you want to be. Be Christian if you want, be a Jew if you want, be a Muslim if you want, be an atheist if you want, be no religion if you want. We are the people of peace, and we’re going to keep doing it. It doesn’t matter what. Salaam aleikum.”

“Love wins when love is a verb.” – LGBT center director

Our rabbi: “We are going to show others that our diversity does not undermine our community – it is the foundation of the very strength of our community!”

The city councilwoman for the district where our temple is located said that our cantor’s voice makes her feel like, if Heaven has music, that’s the sound that pipes through the halls of Heaven.

(I can’t guarantee exact wording here. Sorry. I don’t type as fast as they’re talking.)

She’s also discussing the level of hate that exists in this country. She says, “This recent tragedy (in Orlando) is part of the culture of violence we’re witnessing. How did we get to this place where mass shootings are just another news story? They always involve someone who is ostracized from their community and feel they have to be part of something bigger.”

She says, “I’ve been a prosecutor for seventeen years and I’ve never seen a homeowner use a machine gun to protect their home. We need to talk about gun violence…. Once the grief and tears are past, we have to think about solutions.”

Our congressman’s representative speaks – he could not be here, as he was in D.C. this morning (we’re on the other side of the country). She talks about the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, the Stonewall riots, and other examples of the fear and hate that drive these kinds of atrocities leading right up to Pulse. She also talks about how the guns are far too easily to access and obtain. And finally, she calls for equality for all Americans.

Our cantor speaks about the work that needs to be done, and mentions Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony acceptance sonnet/speech: “Nothing here is promised; not one day… and love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be swept aside; now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

She sings Daniel Nahmood’s “Last Song”:

If this is my last song / If this is my final day
If tomorrow I’ll be gone / What do I want to say
If this is my last song / If it’s my time to go
When my body’s moved on / What will I have to show
No not fortune or fame – they scatter to the wind
The things that make a name – just don’t matter in the end

(chorus)
Is the world a little more peaceful
Oceans and sky a little more blue
Is humankind a little bit wiser
About the good that we can do
Does the sun shine a little bit brighter
Where before there was only rain
If so, then I’m glad I came

If these are my last words / For all of the earth to hear
If all that I have ever been / Is about to disappear
If these are my last words / There’s nothing that I need to say
I have only tried to serve / It’s never been about talking anyway
So much hurt there is to heal – it’s hard to understand
All I can hope to feel is that I am doing what I can

(chorus)

(chorus 2)

Have I given hope to the hopeless / Has a hungry soul been fed
Has a child stood a little bit taller ’cause of something that I said
Have I left a little kindness / Have I eased a little pain
If so, then I’m glad I came
For that, I’m so glad I came

If this is my last song / What do I leave behind
What do I pass on / If I am out of time

She broke down on the last line, and I can’t blame her! Not. A. Dry. Eye.

A pastor from the First Congregational Church of our town speaks next “When I came out, I lived in Jackson, Mississippi.” There’s an uncomfortable titter. He mentions Jack and Jill’s – a gay bar that I heard about earlier today on Facebook in a thread titled “What Was Your First Gay Bar?” He talks about how that bar was a safe place, where he could be himself. “I assure you that some of those folks who entered Pulse Nightclub last Saturday night felt the same sense of safety.”

And it was an illusion. It always is. A place that is supposed to be a sanctuary is not a safe place after all. How do we move forward when our sense of security has been taken from us? What is the antidote to fear? He says it’s love – and not just “holding hands and singing kumbayah” – but with action and with truth.

Our Rabbi speaks now, about “El Malei Rachamim” – a prayer we Jews recite when we are remembering and honoring someone who has died – and then our cantor sings it a capella.

(El malei rakhamim shokhen ba-m’romim ha-m’tzei m’nukhah n’khonah takhat kanfei ha-sh’khinah b’ma’alot k’doshim u’t’horim k’zohar ha-rakiah maz’hirim l’nishmot yakireinu u’k’dosheinu she-hal’khu l’olamam. Ana ba’al ha-rakhamim ha-s’tirem b’tzel k’nafekha l’olamim u-tz’ror bitz’ror ha-khayim et nishmatam. Adonai hu nakhalatam v’yanukhu b’shalom al mish’kabam v’nomar, amen.)

Rabbi gives a closing prayer, and the cantor closes the service with “True Colors.” Yes, that one – the one that Cyndi Lauper and Phil Collins both recorded back in the 1980s.

It’s appropriate.

I’m glad I was able to watch the livestream. I’ve been emotionally locked down and numb since I woke up on Sunday morning. But tonight, hearing my temple’s cantor sing and hearing the community’s words and views, I was finally able to cry.

Hate and homophobia cannot stand against an alliance like this, of all faiths, of all nations. It cannot stand.

For the first time in four days, I have hope again.

 

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In remembrance of Orlando

I cannot say it better so I’m not going to try.

Kol ALEPH

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, expresses horror, shock and grief for the victims of Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We stand with all – LGBTQA or straight, Christian, Jew or Muslim – whose hearts break for the victims, for their loved ones, for a community’s peace shattered, for hope and safety shaken, for rights and dignity trampled, and for political rhetoric arousing religious hatred in its wake. We fervently pray to heal the injured, and we re-dedicate our hearts and hands to building a world in which the twin scourges of violence and hatred end.

In grief and solidarity, we offer this liturgical poem by Rabbi David Evan Markus for use in vigils and prayer services. May the Source of Peace bring comfort to all who mourn, and inspire all to build an ever more just world, speedily and soon.

– Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi…

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Back to Shul Night

13239323_1043186402383629_2280513267283682438_nLast night, my husband and I and my best friend went back to shul for the first time in about four months. Our shul is a welcoming congregation, and they were holding Pride Shabbat last night, in celebration of GLBT Pride happening in our community specifically, and Pride more generally. (This month’s tzedakah box is being donated to the local LGBT center.) There was an actual dinner before the service (donation $18 per adult).

Most of the people who came to this Shabbat were straight couples and families. Many of them were older folks, too. This gives me hope that being gay and being Jewish are not mutually exclusive, at least not for our congregation.

The service was wonderful. Our cantor was hired last summer and it appears she’s made a lot of changes in the musical programs, all to the better. She was on my husband’s beit din last October, which made him very happy because she’s just an awesome person. She included not just a ton of traditional Hebrew prayers but also some modern music that spoke to both acceptance and the gay rights movement. The words were projected onto a screen at the front of the sanctuary in both English and Hebrew, and much of the music was new arrangements by our cantor and two of the other musicians who are congregation members.

At the dinner, the cantor asked all three of us to do a short reading after the Mi Kamocha.

Mine was:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

My best friend read this:

“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” – Harvey Milk

The cantor gave my husband what I feel is the most moving Harvey Milk quote ever:

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” – Harvey Milk

Each of us had a small breakdown moment. My husband cried during the Sh’ma; I cried during the silent meditation after the Mi Kamocha; and my best friend had a few moments during the Hashkivenu and the Mi Shebeirach. But it did what it was supposed to do; it was an emotional service that touched and got to everyone.

Was it good to be back at shul? Yes.

Will we be back again soon? Yes.

Am I glad we went? Yes.

But like I said – emotional.

Shabbat shalom, everyone.

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The Problem I Have With Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, or The Day of Holocaust Remembrance.  27 Nisan.  It’s an Israeli holy day (rather than holiday), observed by Jews around the world, to remember the six million Jews who perished during the Shoah – the Holocaust. “Never again” and “Never forget” are common themes of the day. Light candles, say a prayer remembering those whom we lost. Sounds pretty simple, right?
2016-05-04 at 21.35.59

It’s not.

You see, the Shoah did not just kill Jews, although we were certainly the most systematically targeted. It also killed intellectuals, political dissidents, homosexuals, Gypsies, the disabled, Christians who disagreed with Hitler, and other groups that the Nazis considered less than human.

However, Yom HaShoah is specifically focused on the Jews who died. It is a Jewish-centric (and one might even argue Israel-centric) observance. There is an international day that recognizes all Holocaust victims in January every year, approved by some United Nations council or other. And that’s fine.

But as a Jewish man who is also a gay man, a disabled person, and an intellectual, I have some conflict about the way we observe Yom HaShoah, because only part of my personhood is included in that day’s observances. I cannot remember the Shoah without remembering all of the people who died in it. I cannot remember the Jews who died without remembering the gay men, both Jewish and Gentile, who died in the Shoah as well. I cannot remember the Jews who died without also remembering the disabled who were murdered just as systematically. And I cannot ignore the purging of intellectuals, because they were also part of the millions who were sacrificed on the altar of Hitler’s insanity.

When we partition out our grief, we risk losing empathy for those who are not like us. When we say “Today we’re only grieving for this group, the one that shared our peoplehood, even though lots of other groups died too,” we are drawing the boundaries of our peoplehood a little too closely for my comfort.

Remember the verses about welcoming the stranger?

Let’s do better with that.

Today I remember not just the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, but the five million gays, intellectuals, disabled, Gypsies, political dissidents (those brave people) and Christians who also died because a madman took over a nation and led them into calculated, planned insanity.

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The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.

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Differing opinion? That’s fine, but…

Recently I had someone do what I can only call an anti-Israel, pro-Palestine info dump in a comment to my post about why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders.

I realize not everyone will agree with me. That’s fine. You don’t have to.

But you do have to understand that I’m not interested in having a fight about this, especially when you sail out of nowhere and give me a broadside blast.

If you have a differing opinion from one of mine, and you can’t express it without insulting people who hold my opinion, feel free to start your own blog to talk about it and make it public. I have no obligation to host your opinion on mine, and I reserve the right to delete and block any commenter who decides to push that particular envelope too far.

Have a nice day now.

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Torah Study: Yitro

Today’s parshah was Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23, which is the story of the giving of what we colloquially label the 10 Commandments. But it’s also the story of Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, telling Moses: “Hey, you know what? You’re trying to do everything. You need to delegate some of this work to other people.”

Let’s look at Moses for a minute, first. He’s been the (semi-reluctant) leader of the Israelites for quite some time now. He’s also his people’s head judge – everyone comes to him with their questions and their disputes to get them resolved, whether those are petty disputes or big ones. And, of course, he’s a prophet – he and God have conversations about the Israelites and what needs to be done or should be done.

You know, that’s kind of a heavy load to bear. When is he supposed to sleep, eat, bathe, spend time with his wife and kids? Is he supposed to do any of those things?

So when Jethro takes him aside and says, “Mose old son, you might want to establish a court system so that only the really big problems come to you to resolve,” Moses does just that.

Now hold that thought, “Moses delegating jobs to others,” while I bring in a few other thoughts and tie them together for you.

In our Torah study session today, someone brought up the question of when, exactly, the Israelites shifted to the belief that there was only One God – when did they actually adopt monotheism? Was it when HaShem stated here in Exodus that The Eternal was the only God and that the Israelites were to worship that God and no other?

This created a lively discussion. One of the participants brought up Maimonides’ conclusion that we cannot know the true nature of God, and it’s useless to try, so turn your mind to other things. Someone else pointed out that in the parshah (in verse 19:9), HaShem tells Moses “See, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will be able to hear when I speak with you and also to trust in you forever,” and asked why, after everything HaShem had already taken them through and preserved them from (the Egyptian slavery, the parting of the seas, manna from heaven) they would still need proof in order to trust Moses. My note here was that the move for the Israelites was to begin to have faith without necessarily having proof – that they were growing up and learning to hold contradictions in their minds, moving beyond concrete reasoning.

The third thing that came up in Torah study today was the question of the types of rules the Israelites were given in the 10 Commandments – some of them were “don’t do that” kinds of rules, or what we call “proscriptive law,” but others were “you must do this” kinds of rules, or prescriptive law. It made me think of the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Tarfon, about tikkun olam: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” Up to this point, most law was proscriptive – you are not allowed to do these bad things. But now, we have laws commanding people to actively do things that are good and that have good effects. To me, this means that HaShem was demanding active engagement with, and not just passive acceptance of, the Commandments (and indeed, the entire Torah). Again, this is demanding that the Israelites grow beyond their spiritual childishness and move towards adulthood, an active adulthood in which their behavior was oriented towards healing the world.

Now let me tie these three thoughts together.

Before humans knew about HaShem, humans figured that gods were like bigger people – but they still had to specialize. The work, in a sense, was delegated. This god took care of trees, that one took care of small animals, that one dealt with water and the other took care of weather. But no single god, in early belief systems, could possibly handle every process and every demand of the system we call the universe.

When HaShem became the God of the Israelites, that changed everything. A god that could literally handle everything? Unheard of. But that also put pressure on some human leaders to try to do everything, too. We still see this today – people who can’t delegate.

What I’m trying to get at here is, when we delegate, we admit we are not God. We are accepting that we have to complete a piece of the work and we’re not free to refuse that piece, but we are also accepting that we cannot do all the work ourselves, no matter how pressured we feel to do so. When Jethro points out to Moses, “You know, you have to give some of the work to others, here,” he was, in a sense, saying, “Hey, you’re the leader of your people – but you’re still not God.”

By taking our part of the work and taking an active part in the work, by following not just the proscriptive but the prescriptive commandments, we are admitting both the fact that we are not God, and that we are approaching the work as adults with the knowledge that we are not God.

I remember reading somewhere that Judaism is a religion for adults, not for children. This seems to support that point.

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My father’s yahrzeit

Today is my father’s yahrzeit. He has been dead seven years today. I lit a candle this morning, but I didn’t have a clue what to say while I did it, so I just stayed silent.

I have been really emotionally down all day. Yesterday was my first day back at work after the winter break, and although it went well, it also wiped me out. We haven’t been able to go to shul since last month because of an ongoing dental issue that finally got resolved last Friday (I broke a molar; don’t ask). I was in a lot of physical pain this past month or so, not to mention the ongoing feelings of guilt that I haven’t been at shul regularly.

So I am not exactly in the best of shape to remember and mourn my father today.

He would have been proud of me for my conversion, I think. I wish he’d lived long enough to see it.

He was a deeply religious man. I hope someday to be a little like him in terms of my certainty that God won’t punish me for the life I’ve lived. We’ll see.

I just needed to mention that it’s his yahrzeit today.

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