Category Archives: Identities

Posts about stuff that deals with identities – Jewish, GLBT, and many others.

Back to Epstein: What About the Body?

18 Tamuz 5774

In Chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, Epstein asks us to consider the following question:

What is your religious attitude toward the body? In what ways do you treat it as sacred and in what ways don’t you? 

Wow, Rabbi Epstein. You sure do like to open those cans of worms, don’t you?

I admit that I have a very troubled relationship with my body. I’m overweight and have been most of my life. I have diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, neither of which are fun. I’m short, too. So I don’t like the way my body looks. Since finding out that I am allergic to most grains, I am at least taking better care of my body’s physical needs. I try to walk more than I used to. I’m trying to eat better. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to at least give my body what it needs and avoid the things that can damage it.

But the idea of treating my body as sacred is very difficult. I have always seen it as a meat sack – a vehicle. It’s hard for me to even feel that my body is me, most of the time. I live the life of the mind because the life of the body is sweaty, uncomfortable, and often painful. Sometimes I resent the fact that I got stuck with this body. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.

So what lesson should this question teach me? If we’re supposed to treat the body as holy, as sacred, how can I do that when I can’t even figure out how to accept my body in the first place? It’s a conundrum, but then again isn’t that what Jews are supposed to be good at – figuring out conundrums? I don’t have answers yet, but the questions are sure piling up in a big way from this exercise.

It’s easier to talk about the ways I don’t treat my body as sacred. I will admit I don’t like treating my body as anything but a nuisance. I do the minimum necessary, most of the time. I shower, I shave, I comb my hair, I make myself presentable for social interaction. But I often forget to brush my teeth. I put off eating until I’m dizzy with hunger and I ignore my body’s signals about it until I can’t any more. I hate exercise because it makes me aware of my body. And let’s not even mention sex, okay? That’s not somewhere I’m willing to go.

Most of the time, my body just gets in the way of what I want to do.

Do I have to stop hating my body to be a good Jew? That’s going to be really, really difficult. Right now the thing that’s weighing on my mind about the conversion process the most isn’t all the reading and studying, or learning a new language (Hebrew), or even the social awkwardness of joining a culture that I am not yet as familiar with as I want to be.

It’s the mikveh.

It’s the knowledge that, on the day my rabbi and I decide I’m ready, I’ll have to get naked in front of strangers. That’s terrifying. I never let anyone see my body; I’m covered not from modesty but from shame.

That has to change. I don’t want the day of my dip in the mikveh to be one where I’m walking in a cloud of shame.

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My Jewish&

MyJewishLearning.com is a fantastic site for converts. It’s got blogs, resources, references, all kinds of stuff to help us gerim get into the swing of things in our new chosen community.

12 Tamuz 5774

A recent blog post asks: “What’s YOUR Jewish&“? This post is a simple list of people’s responses – “I’m Jewish AND (&)…” So I thought I’d just do that here for fun. (Be aware: there’s a LOT of “&” for me.)

I’m Jew-ish&…

… white.

… Scots-Irish, German, French, English, Welsh, Hungarian and Dutch.

… raised Catholic.

… queer.

… polyamorous.

… a parent of two non-Jewish kids.

… a teacher.

… a scholar.

… fat. (Yes, this is an important one for me.)

… diabetic.

… grain-allergic.

… arthritic.

… educated.

Now let’s get into some of the other stuff that MJL might not have considered. I’m also Jew-ish&…

… angry about what’s going on in Israel and the Gaza strip.

… disappointed at the state of education in the United States for many reasons.

… tired of people othering everyone. For example, on a comment on the Josh Gad interview on Kveller the other day, someone just had to self-righteously say that Gad, a descendant of Shoah survivors and the parent of two children who are being raised interfaith with his Catholic wife, is a “tragic outcome” of the American melting pot. I happen to think that’s a bigoted opinion and that it qualifies as lashon hara. (Shame on you, Pinchos Woolstone.)

… sick to death of violence, hate, bigotry, and stupidity.

… hopeful that things can change for the better.

… determined to make them so.

So what’s YOUR Jewish&?

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The Prophetic Aspect of Being a Ger Tzedek, and How To Do It Wrong

26 Sivan 5774

When Michael Benami Doyle stood in front of his beit din, his rabbi asked him how he reconciled his deep commitment to the Jewish community with the luke-warm commitment of many of the synagogue’s members at the time. Michael’s response, which I generally agree with, is that there is a prophetic aspect to being a Jewish convert. Michael says that the very act of converting makes us “take Judaism with joy and sincerity and totally in earnest because it’s so new to us, and because of that we often serve as an inspiration to born Jews who may have lost their sense of wonder about their native religious tradition.”

In essence, Michael is saying that gerim tzedek serve as a light to the Jewish community through our lived example. To me, that’s the right way to go about this prophetic aspect of being a convert.

But there are certainly wrong ways to go about that aspect, as well. To explain this statement, I’m going to combine insights from two other areas of my life here, and then tie the package up in a nice, neat bow for you. Bear with me.

First, many different sources that I’ve been reading have pointed out that in the Tanakh, the prophets were by and large very reluctant to be prophets (with the possible exception of Isaiah). G-d essentially demanded it, even though the last thing they wanted to do was go out and tell other people how to live, even if G-d required it of them. If we read the stories of the different prophets, most of them only began to speak their prophecies after great reluctance and some resistance. They did not jump at the chance to go tell people how to behave, or what to do, or what to think. Jonah is the classic example, running as far as he could and still being caught by the requirement that he speak G-d’s prophecy.

So it should be clear that it’s not fun to be a prophet. Prophets tend to say “you should change,” or “what you’re doing is not pleasing to G-d – so cut it out already.” Prophets tend to be rejected by their own countrymen. It’s not exactly a cushy job.

The second insight is that nobody likes to be told what to do by someone who’s just showed up on the scene, prophet or not. Even in non-religious contexts, this is quite clear: the new guy on the job who comes up with a way to speed up production is generally not liked by his coworkers, the new kid who can play basketball better than the other kids because he’s had some actual coaching gets drummed off the team because he makes everybody else look bad, and so forth.

My personal example is Usenet. I used to be an active participant on Usenet newsgroups, which (back in the days when rocks were still soft) were the “internet message boards” of the 1990s. This was before AOL and before Compuserve. Newsgroups were community-policed; that is, there were no moderators to come down on someone like a ton of bricks if they came into the group and started causing trouble. Instead, individuals who were group members had the responsibility of shunning the disruptive new member. This was accomplished by the use of a “killfile,” a small program that filtered out any comments from the disruptive member before you ever saw the message threads.

Sometimes my killfile had twenty or thirty people in it. And most commonly, the disruptive member would come in, say hi, and then immediately begin demanding changes to the way things were done in the newsgroup, simply because they didn’t like how things were being done in the newsgroup at that time. Since newsgroups were, in some ways, very clannish (the longer you’d been there, the more status you had, just like in real life), this usually didn’t go over very well. Oh, occasionally a new member would assimilate and become one of the group, but like as not, he or she would end up in everyone’s killfile because of the demands that the community change for them.

So there is a right way and a wrong way to go about being a prophet in the modern world. If there is a prophetic aspect to being a convert – and I agree with Michael that there is – it doesn’t involve taking it upon ourselves to demand change. Unless we are guided by G-d to do that, we need to keep our traps shut and simply be prophetic by the example of our lives. Demanding doesn’t work. Nor should we think it’s okay to demand anything. Instead, simply living the example will probably bring more people over to our side as they see that what we are doing is working.

The reason this is on my radar right now is that there’s a very well-intentioned person at my temple who is, like me, going through the conversion process. But this person is full of ideas, and most of those ideas are about how the temple needs to change, or become different – “more Jewish.” This person is also one of those extroverted, enthusiastic, and socially clueless folks who come across kind of like a very well-intentioned, good-natured bull in a china shop, with very little sense of boundaries and no understanding of the fact that they’re walking all over them. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the fact is that this person seems to think that demanding change is the right way to get it. As an example, they (and I’m maintaining gender anonymity here as well) thought it would be a good idea to wear a tallit “to make other people uncomfortable.” Never mind that as a not-yet-converted not-yet-Jew, they don’t have the right to wear a tallit! That simply did not occur to them in their enthusiasm and desire to shake things up a little bit.

While it’s certainly appropriate and necessary to confront corruption or favoritism or systemic problems when we see them, I think two things have to happen first. One, we need to have credibility. This person (and I) are not yet Jews, regardless of our yiddishe neshamot. We are conversion students. We currently cannot claim to have a dog in this fight – if a fight even exists (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t).

Two, we need to be very careful not to judge how others live their Judaism by the measuring stick we’re using for ourselves. Just as we have to own our own Yiddishkeit, we have to allow others to own theirs, even if their way of being Jewish makes us uncomfortable. In any congregation, there will be people who follow kashrut to the letter and those who have the occasional bacon cheeseburger. There will be people who can manage to avoid working or doing anything that is disallowed on Shabbat, and there will be those who have to work on Shabbat because they need to pay rent and feed their families. And the moment we start getting judgmental is the moment that any credibility we might have is lost.

This is not to say that it’s not right to make a stink about systemic problems. But demanding that people be “more Jewish” because they’re not practicing to the standard you’ve set for yourself is not right, ever, and it’s certainly not prophetic. It’s just being a jerk – and unless G-d told you to do that, you should probably cut it out.

How can you tell if G-d told you to do it? Well, from the known prophets, you really should feel reluctant. If the impulse to tell others how to live their lives makes you feel excited or happy or smug, that’s probably not G-d talking – and despite what you might think, ego is not G-d.

So yes, live your life as the convert that you are. Show your community what your Judaism is like by your example, because this is a religion of practice, and actions speak louder than words.

But unless you’re addressing actual problems, and not just things that make you uncomfortable because they’re not doing Judaism like you do Judaism, keep your words to yourself.

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Coming Out, One Person At A Time

20 Sivan 5774

Coming out is one of those fraught processes. You can never be sure, beforehand, who will shrug and say “okay,” and who will be excited for you (or perhaps come out to you themselves), and who will freak out and attack you, and who will smile uncomfortably and begin to back away, later distancing themselves from you and disappearing from your life. Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised; sometimes, the surprise is less than pleasant.

As a queer man, I’ve had to come out a lot in the past, and continue to have to do so. Once you come out, you can’t go back in, either – it’s a one-way street. Every new person has to be told, because it’s not usually immediately obvious that I’m queer. (Unless I deliberately flame up, for example, I have to be pretty drunk for my innate flaminess to come out and play. I don’t ping most people’s gay-dar.) And just coming out is only the first step. After that, you get the Question Period, with questions and comments that can range from startled (“But you don’t seem gay – are you sure?”) to compassionate (“That makes sense – what can I do to make this easier for you?”) to outright intrusive or ridiculous (“But… but… how do two men… you know… uh…?” or “You know you’re going to go to hell, right?”).

I think I’ve heard them all, when it comes to being gay.  I’ve heard quite a few when it comes to being autistic, too (I am not obviously or immediately autistic to most people, because their image of “autism” looks like Rain Man, not like me). And some of the things I’ve read from other bloggers who’ve come out to their friends about converting to Judaism have made me insanely anxious about coming out to my friends, because some people are as closed-minded about religious shifts as they are about sexual orientation or even neurodiversity. In the past, I’ve had people refuse to believe I’m autistic, reject me because I’m queer, and tell me that they just can’t handle me being out and to keep those differences to myself. Every time you come out, you risk being attacked or rejected (or both). So coming out can be a dicey process.

However, I am happy to report that so far, of the thirty-odd people I’ve come out to about my conversion, I haven’t had a single negative response. Many have asked intelligent questions: how did I get to the point where I could believe in G-d again after being an atheist? how does the conversion process happen? and even something as simple as Why Judaism? But nobody has been hostile yet. In fact, one of the things that’s confused more people than anything has been the idea that I’ll have a new name. I’ve had to explain that the bestowal of a Hebrew name is more “something that is important inside the Tribe,” and that none of them will have to call me by the new name – that it’s for me to use with other Jews.

My youngest brother and I talked about it last Thursday night on the phone, and he was completely cool with it. We talked about my dad and how he might have reacted; my brother said he thought that if Dad was still alive, he’d approve of this change on my part. That’s a real relief, because I admit I was worried about losing my family over this.  I’ve talked to long-term friends, former grad school classmates, and several folks from my medieval group. One friend who’s a weaver has offered to hand-weave me a tallit (without being asked!), and another one agreed to weave the atarah for it. A third friend, on hearing the news, said “I’m going to crochet you a kippah.” This blew me away, and made me realize just how blessed and rich in friends I am.

I am still stressing about this pretty badly at times, though, because this is only thirty-odd folks so far, and just on my Facebook I have over 500 friends and acquaintances. I found myself making a list of people and rank-ordering them on how close I felt to them and whether they needed to know. That list came out to over 50 people that I feel I needed to talk to one-on-one, whether through FB chat, Skype, or in person, before I make the general announcement on my Facebook page.  And that’s just my friends on Facebook! I also have at least three other social-media sites that I have to comb through and determine “who is close enough to me that I need to tell them one-on-one about this?” That’s a lot of people, and a lot of questions, and a lot of possible rejections. Is it any wonder that I’m stressed?

And yet, this is something I need to do. My plan is to message people on Facebook and give a pretty standard explanation, and then let them ask me questions. The explanation starts with the helicopters joke, continues with the wish to sit shiva after my Dad’s death, goes on with the Spong deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d idea, and then gets into my mother’s NPD and the abuse that made me have trouble trusting my feelings which led to my insistence on empirical/literal evidence for a long time. After that, I talk about the different spiritual helicopters that I’ve been seeing: the fact that the temple is RIGHT down the street from me; the fact that it’s been thirteen years since I first came out and really asserted my adulthood; and then learning about Judaism and its ethics and practices, and how it fits me and makes sense. It took about fifteen minutes, talking, with my brother to get it all out. It took about ten minutes to type it to my friends on Facebook that I’ve come out to so far.

My goal is to be able to post about my conversion by Independence Day or sooner, but even then, the coming-out process is an ongoing thing. With strangers it’ll be pretty easy: I’m wearing a kippah and a Mogen David. But with friends, I feel the need to give them a heads-up before they see me kippah-clad for the first time.

 

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Moving Up the Ladder, or, the Foundation of My Yiddishkeit

17 Sivan 5774

I read a fair number of blogs. Some of them are written by gerim, some baalei teshuva, some born-Jews. And all of them identify as Jewish, or at least Jew-ish.

Identity is a problem for many Jews – gerim and by-birth alike. Gerim struggle with being legitimately Jewish, being Jewish “enough,” fitting into a community and a practice that they did not grow up with, and other issues of being a newcomer in a new world. The baal teshuva (Jew by birth who was secular and is now becoming a religious Jew) faces similar issues to gerim in many ways. Jews by birth have their own problems, including (perhaps) being born into a Jewish culture that has narrow definitions of observance and struggling to fit inside those definitions.

Essentially, most Jews are striving for a static, unchanging, dependable picture of what it means to be a “good Jew” – a standard that, once met, fixes these problems.

But what does it really mean to be a Jew? (And yes, we’re back to that again, because it’s  a perennial question for gerim, baalei teshuva, and even for born-Jews.)  In this post, I’m going to draw together a few posts I’ve read in the last few days, to kind of synthesize this idea that it might be a good idea to know, as a Jew, what the basis of your Judaism – your Yiddishkeit – is, as well as a suggestion for how to feel “more Jewish” in the future.

YaelUniversity recently worried in her blog about not being “Jewish enough.” It felt, to me, like she was buying into the “if-I’m-not-Orthodox-I’m-not-doing-it-right” default, which is a sad thing for anyone to feel. Here’s what I told her:

I don’t think you’re a bad convert. I think you’re a Jew, who is struggling with G-d and with Judaism as so many of us (both gerim and JBB) do. But I also wanted to ask you what your underlying concept of Judaism is, because that can often be a guide to what practices are meaningful for you. For me, it can be summed up in about three quotes and Scripture verses:

Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (That’s verse 6:8 of Micah.)

Hillel again: “Judge not your friend till you stand in his place.”

As you can see, the thing that draws me to Judaism as a Jew by choice is the ethics. If you are practicing Jewish ethics, aren’t you practicing Judaism? And as far as passing on a sense of Jewish identity to your kids, well – holidays. Shabbat observance (as well as you can). Learning Hebrew, when and as you can. Hebrew school. And so forth.

Don’t knock the stories, either! Story is how community is passed on. By all means, tell your little ones the stories. Let them identify with the characters. As they get older, start asking them about the stories – how would they have done things differently if they had been Jacob, or Sarah, or Rachel? Ask them questions and tie them back to the stories. Tie them to Jewish ethics. Let them ask questions! It will give them the rich history of our people to draw upon as they become Jewish adults.

Identity develops from practice, and Judaism is all about practice. Right now, I take intense joy in saying the brachot over meals, saying the Sh’ma morning and night, finding reasons to say the shehecheyanu. I find a deep sense of identity in music – both the music sung at shul and the music of Jewish and Israeli pop artists. I find a deep sense of identity in meditating on the name I have chosen and will one day bear, and what it means, and why I chose it, and what that means for my own Jewish practice. I wear a Mogen David and a kippah. I eat mindfully. I think before I speak. I study Torah as often as I can.

I find that Micah, more than anything, is guiding me. I am working on doing justice, showing mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.

I find echoes of the idea of a “good Jew” identity as a static, unchanging thing in a  recent blog post by Pop Chassid:

“[W]e want, we so badly want, to believe that the growth stops at some point, that we can turn around to say to everyone, “Okay, this is who I am.”

“The truth is, I am sure this applies to people who have grown up religious just as much as it happens to people who have taken it on later in life.  This desire to say, “I am this thing.”

“We want, in other words, to slip back into our old ways, to embrace our desire to freeze the world.”

I think Pop Chassid has this right. We don’t want change. We want stability. To us, an identity has to be unchanging to be stable or correct.

But isn’t it the actions – the practice – that really make the Jew? Isn’t it what we do that we’re judged on? And before we get into an argument about who’s more “observant,” I’ll just share this little story I found (and shared on Pop Chassid’s blog as part of a comment):

I am reminded of a story about a Chassidic Rabbi whose students tried to stump him with this whole “orthodox” thing – although they didn’t use that word. The story goes that they came to him, positing the idea that the 613 mitzvot are like the rungs on a ladder reaching to heaven. One man keeps more of the mitzvot than another, and so is higher up on the ladder. And so, Rabbi, they ask: “Who in the eyes of G-d is higher?”

The rabbi considered the question, and then said “I cannot answer you. You have not given me enough information, because you have not told me which of the men is moving upward.”

Perhaps it would make more sense to look at our Yiddishkeit as something that evolves and is created daily, through our practice, rather than an unchanging, static thing where we can rest on our laurels and not have to work at it anymore (on the one hand), or a standard of perfection that we can never live up to (on the other).

Another blogger I follow, Ayalon Eliach, is in rabbinical school, and wrote recently about why he has chosen to be a rabbi. In some frustration, I think, he said:

“I am heavily influenced by Victor Frankl, who believed that people may enhance the quality of their lives by focusing on finding “meaning.”  Personally, I find meaning when I engage with others over questions about our role in this world; when I take part in movements to better this planet; and when I reflect on my interconnectedness with the universe.  And while we all find meaning in different ways, feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves seems to be a common denominator. […]

“Unfortunately, most forms of Jewish expression today have failed to offer that response.  Instead, they have fetishized dogma, the minutia of praxis, or hollow ritual.  I believe the time has come to offer new approaches that focus on connectedness, spirituality, and reinvigorated tradition.  I want to draw on my personal experiences to help create these alternatives.”

I responded to that post, saying that what I’m seeing in many sources both expected and unexpected is a push to change Judaism in order to make it thrive, not just survive. Inspired by him and by Pop Chassid, I said that the questions need to change from “Are you a good Jew?” to “Is being a Jew/practicing Judaism helping you to be a better person/change the world/make a difference?” Until we do that, Judaism will continue to seem like an outdated tradition.

So I ask my wider audience:

1. What is the basis of your Yiddishkeit?

2. In your own opinion, are you sitting in a static place on the ladder? Or are you trying to continually move upward?

3. What are you doing to move upward today?

As I said above, the basis of my Yiddishkeit is the ethics. And I am trying to continually move upward on the ladder. For me, I realized on Wednesday last week that I had memorized all the brachot for before-meals, as well as the shehecheyanu and the short version of the Sh’ma. I’m now working on memorizing the brachot for after the meal. I’m also working my way through the book on how to read Hebrew that my rabbi loaned me. That’s how I’m working to move upward this week.

I’ll be interested in your answers, if you wish to share them.

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

It occurs to me that I should talk about the spiritual helicopters.

Let’s start with my first encounter with anyone Jewish. I was about eight, I think. I didn’t grow up in the Northeast or any big city area with a big Jewish presence, so for me Jews were oddities that I wanted to understand. I heard a couple of boys at school making fun of the little girl with the six-pointed star necklace, and I found out she was a Jew. At church (at the time, the Crystal Cathedral was “church”) I heard a Sunday School teacher saying that the Jews were going to go to hell for killing Jesus if they didn’t get saved. I was pretty upset, since the little girl at school seemed like a nice person. So I went to my Dad and asked him what this all meant.

He told me, quite gravely, that the Jews had kept their covenant with G-d and that there was no good reason why they should go to hell just because some bigoted people wanted to blame the entire Jewish people for something that only a few of them did. Then he gave me my first copy of the Diary of Anne Frank.

I read that book and I wept. How could anyone be okay with what had happened to Anne? How could anyone be okay with letting the government take people away from their families or put them in camps to let them die? I couldn’t fathom it. But as a kid who was also on the outs with everyone at school at that point because I was smart and queer and it was obvious, I identified strongly with Anne and Peter and the other kids in Het Achterhuis.

From time to time over the years, I’d encounter Jewish characters in books or movies and immediately be drawn to them. I remember them, even if I don’t remember anything else about the books. Abie, in The Great Brain, who was assumed by everyone in the town to be rich because he was Jewish, and who died of starvation because nobody was patronizing his store – he was one of the ones I remember well, and with pain. Many, many characters in Judy Blume novels were Jewish as well, as were several in Paula Danziger novels. Both the main character and the bullied girl in Blubber, for instance, were Jewish.

By the time I was in my teens, I was reading Stephen King, and I was drawn to the characters of Stanley Uris and his wife in IT. I was also revolted by the kid and the Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. In my 20s there was a character in this movie who was a Jewish kid in an all-Protestant 1950s prep school for boys. A character in that book who was careful to keep his Mogen David tucked under his collar. I saw Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. The character I keyholed in on in Ryan was not Tom Hanks or Leonardo diCaprio – it was Adam Goldberg, who played the Jewish private Mellish. Schindler’s List is one I still, to this day, cannot talk about. It hit me so powerfully that tears come to my eyes every time I think about it.

But that’s all groundwork and background, I think. I’m not sure HaShem was tapping my shoulder at that point. It’s just that my first deep identification with the Jewish people was that feeling of ostracism. Of being different. Of being part of a people set apart and special and reviled and persecuted all at once. I had that, being queer and smart and fat and socially slow due to the autism. I know what that’s like. I get it. I always did.

In my twenties, I had a Jewish friend  – a friend of my ex-spouse’s – for a while, and a friend of my own who was in an intermarriage but was not herself Jewish. I went to the second friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, and wished I could understand the Hebrew he was chanting. I went to the first friend’s wedding and marveled at the ceremony and ritual that seemed so real and majestic. In my thirties, I discovered that many of my friends in far-flung areas were Jews: friends in Boston, friends in Texas, friends in San Francisco.

But I don’t think HaShem started tapping me on the shoulder until my father died just over five years ago. I wrote about this in my post on ritual: I wished I was a Jew then, so I could sit shiva. That was probably the first real tap on the shoulder. But I had closed my ears to G-d at that point.

As I’ve said before, I go on a hunt for G-d every year around my birthday. Not this past spring, but the spring prior to that, I found myself reading John Shelby Spong’s book Jesus for the Non-Religious, which is a deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d myth.

Remember, in every Christian church, there’s a huge emphasis on affirmation of belief – of saying you believe. The most constant demand for that, in my experience, was the Nicene Creed, which spells out what you are required to believe, including this:

– There is one G-d, the Father Almighty.

– Except there isn’t, because Jesus was also G-d. Oh, but he’s “one in being” with the Father.

– Also, did we mention the Holy Spirit, who somehow “proceeds” from the Father and the Son? The one who’s spoken through the prophets?

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

Yeah. To me it sounds ridiculous now. But when you’re raised Catholic, you say it at every Mass you go to. It’s part of the service. It’s not optional.

In his book, Spong pointed out that the entire Jesus story, if you put the Gospels and other New Testament books in the order they were written, becomes gradually more and more insistent on his divinity and G-dness, and bends itself more and more into pretzels trying to tie his life to the Hebrew scriptures so that he can be the Meshiach. But – and this was the kicker for me, that absolutely knocked the struts out from under whatever was left of the Jesus story that I still held on to – those stories were and are written in an order that follows the Jewish liturgical year.

That means that it’s very likely that the Jewish followers of Yeshua ben Yosef, the rabbi and teacher, simply substituted their stories about him for the haftarah readings at synagogue services.

To me, that was a helicopter approximately the size of Texas, sweeping away the last vestiges not just of the Jesus myth but the imperative to believe in it with the force of its propeller’s wind. It finished any belief in Jesus that I might have had. He was a man – a rabbi – and I had no obligation to believe anything beyond that about him.

So, that brings us to this year.

I have never trusted my feelings, because when you have a narcissistic mother you learn not to. G-d mostly talks to us through feelings, so I was functionally spiritually deaf. But in learning about and processing the abuse, I began to realize that there were all kinds of signals that I had been missing, or ignoring, like the fact that I had come out and claimed my real self thirteen years ago, after staying functionally a child through my twenties due to pain and abuse and other problems. (A Jewish friend of mine said “Happy bar mitzvah!” when I pointed out that helicopter.) I read about an acquaintance’s Seder plans, and felt a strong pull to go to one. And then I did go to one. And then I felt like I was home, like this was me.

I started reading online blogs about Judaism. I found Mike’s blog at Chicago Carless and wept when I read his post about G-d being on the Brown Line and finding Him there. I identified so deeply with Mike’s journey that I was shocked at myself. And in reading about Judaism, I found everything I had looked for and never found anywhere else: an ethical structure that made sense. A G-d that made sense. The right to doubt. The right to disagree and still be part of the group. Ritual. Music. Tradition. It was all there, just waiting for me to wake up and say yes to it.

I started this blog a few weeks later. Up until that point I’d been cagey on my Facebook and other social media, trying to pretend that it was going to go away. But it didn’t go away. The pull kept getting stronger, and stronger. Finally I had to put it somewhere. I think I opened my first account on a Jews-by-choice forum somewhere around the 21st of April, the day after the Seder I went to for Pesach. Eventually I came here.

When I hesitantly started to ask friends about Judaism, and especially when that whole “fear G-d” thing was blown out of the water at the Seder, there was no going back. I started reading Telushkin the very next week.

Another spiritual helicopter: I’m two blocks away from an open, accepting, interfaith-tolerant, GLBT-welcoming temple. I can WALK there. It’s like G-d was saying “Hey, you have a place you can go even if your partner needs the car.” That, I can’t ignore, can I?

It really was like HaShem had been tapping me on the shoulder but, like Samuel, I couldn’t figure out who it was or if it was a real thing, so I ignored it. But thankfully, HaShem is patient. He can wait until you figure it out.

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Greeted as a Jew

Today, I walked over to the library. I thought that the most memorable thing about that walk would be the book I picked up by Rabbi Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have To Be?, which I’m already half done with and which has brought me to tears of relief and recognition several times. (More on that in a later post.)

But what I’ll remember about today was that a gentleman parked on the street called out to me from his car window, “Shalom! Good Shabbes!” (although that’s odd since it’s not Shabbes – eh), and then told me that he was surprised – he didn’t see many people walking around my town wearing a yarmulke (his word) in public.

We chatted for a minute or two. I explained that I was in the process of conversion, and he told me where he goes to shul (a reform shul in San Pedro), and then we bade each other Shalom and I walked on.

I got greeted as a fellow Jew for the first time by a Jew I didn’t know, who had no reason to beyond seeing my kippah and recognizing me as one of the Tribe.

For some reason, to me, that’s really neat.

 

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Now Comes The Resident Stranger: The First Meeting With The Rabbi

How perfect is it that these verses appear in this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Sh’lach):

15 There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord; 

16 the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.

Stranger. Ger, in Hebrew. The stranger who resides among you.

Today, I spoke with the rabbi at the temple down the street, where I’ve been attending, for two hours. We talked about my religious background, my struggles with G-d, my struggles with religion, my current partnership and my ex-partners, my children and my family. We talked about the fact that I’m in an interfaith, GLBT relationship. We talked about my partner and about the spiritual helicopters. We talked about my difficult relationship with my abusive mother. We talked about Kabbalah. We talked about music and ritual and learning and argument. We talked about tikkun olam.

At the end of that two-hour meeting, I was accepted as a candidate for conversion under his instruction and guidance. His estimate is that it will be about a year. He’s still putting together the conversion class curriculum and hopes to start classes in the late summer for me and the other conversion candidates he’s got learning from him.

I have waited for 43 years. Another year will not be a problem. I was originally going to type “another year won’t make a difference,” but that would be a mistake. This coming year is going to make an enormous difference.

He also approved of the name that I chose. I’m going to keep that to myself for now, but when the time comes, you’ll all know it.

And yes, I said a shehecheyanu when I recovered from the shock.

I talked with my best friend about it over lunch, and just now, walking back to my apartment. I asked her if it was going to change things, now that I’ve been accepted as a candidate for conversion. She asked me why it would. I said, “Because my Yiddishkeit is probably going to get more overt.” She said she would not have a problem with that, so I don’t have to, either.

My partner texted me to find out how it went, and whether I was accepted. When I told him it went great and yes, I was, he responded back that he was happy for me. Even if he will never be a Jew, he supports me in this. It means more than I can put into words.

So now I suppose I should say my rabbi and my temple. My congregation and my shul. My faith and my practice.

My Yiddishkeit.

Because I will not be a stranger for long.

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Hurdles on the Path to Conversion

7 Sivan 5774

Conversion is an exhilarating process, no doubt about it. I’ve been happier, calmer, and more focused ever since I realized that I have a yiddishe neshama.

But like all things that are exhilarating, it’s not totally a happy experience. It’s like a roller coaster – there are scary parts and parts that are hard to deal with, too. Along the way, there are challenges that you have to face in order to get to where you want to be. It’s kind of like that “fear G-d” thing that I wrote about after the Seder: the word in Hebrew actually means something more like “be overwhelmed” – but being in fear is part of being overwhelmed, even if it’s not the main thing.

Like many other bloggers who have written about their first realization that they had a Jewish soul, I knew that I was Jewish as soon as I started to look into it seriously. I knew this was who and what I was supposed to be. The ethics made sense, the beliefs made sense, the theology even made sense.

Putting it into practice, however, has been a little harder than just realizing that this was and is who I am. Some of these challenges are what this post is about. I’m sure there will be more as I go along, but I’ll just list the main ones, for now:

1. Practicing what I believe instead of just saying I believe it. As I wrote about yesterday, learning what forgiveness and apology mean in Judaism, and really putting them into practice, has been humbling. I’m a grudge-holder. I tend to hold on to grudges for years and years, even after I’ve received an apology. Now that I’m actively converting to Judaism, I cannot do that any more. I’m going to have a lot of people to reconcile with this coming Yom Kippur for a lot of different reasons, and I know that I’m going to writhe inside while I’m apologizing to many of them for what I’ve done and said over the years. But that’s what happens when you run up a big debt: it eventually and always comes due.

Just in the last day, I’ve had to throttle the bad feelings I was holding on to about the person I apologized to the day before yesterday. I’ve had to remind myself: we apologized to each other and now it’s over. I don’t get to remind myself of what was said or done before the apology and forgiveness. I have to actively keep forgiving until I can stop thinking about what led to the forgiveness, even if it takes the rest of my life.

Lashon hara is another thing I have to work on. I tend to be very ascerbic about people when I’m annoyed, but that’s lashon hara almost by definition, and I have to cut it out. I’ve started installing something of a censor on my mouth and my hands, and keeping more of my opinions about other people to myself. I’m trying to use the “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary? At least two of these must apply before you say it” metric for saying anything about another person before I open my mouth or start posting to Facebook. But this is a thing I will always have to work on, and I accept that.

This is one of those challenges that says “you must change the way you’ve always done or thought about this issue, because the way you are expected to do it or think it is different now.” This one, so far, has been the roughest one for me to accept. Learning that G-d is not what the Christian churches represented to me was surprising, but a relief. Learning that thoughts are not sins until and unless you speak them and/or act on them was surprising, but a relief. Learning that in Judaism, you really do have to put your money where your mouth is – you can’t just pay it lip service – was humbling and scary.

2. Who is a “real Jew?” I’m currently converting Reform, because converting Orthodox or Conservative would make it impossible for me to live the life I am supposed to live. I don’t think that agreeing to laws I can’t follow (for example, kashrut) is honest, but many if not most Conservative (and all Orthodox) temples would be very not-okay with me not following those laws, pikuach nefesh all aside. My current Conserva-form temple may be unusual in that they accept interfaith and LGBT folks, and I may end up converting Conservative if this rabbi believes he can guide me through the process with a clear conscience, but it will have to be with the understanding that there are some mitzvot I will never be able to perform.

To some Jews (I’m looking at you, ultra-Orthodox) this means that I’m not going to be a “real Jew,” and that hurts. I refuse to believe that Orthodoxy is somehow a “more real” practice than Reform or Conservative Judaism, but there will always be people who feel the need to reject my conversion or my practice as somehow substandard or incomplete.

Dealing with being othered and seen as less-than has been, so far, coming at me from inside the Jewish community rather than outside it. On no less than three different message boards, I’ve been told that the only “real” Jewish conversion is an Orthodox conversion. We all know how I feel about that, but it’s hard to run into this kind of bigotry and rejection inside my chosen community.

3. Am I worthy? The whole presumption thing is a big one for me. The “Am I really worthy of this? Do I really deserve this?” still comes up even now, and probably will until I’ve worked with a rabbi for a while. Every time I take another step closer, I have to actively fight that feeling of not-deserving, of unworthiness. And the othering from the Orthodox folks I mentioned above isn’t helping me shed it. On the other hand, I’m as stubborn as a mule when I want something and I think someone’s trying to keep me from it, so in some ways fighting that feeling is easier when there’s an outside person trying to impose it on me. Being brave enough to reach out to the rabbi and to go to services was one way of fighting that feeling.

4. Coming out as a believer. This one is especially hard for me. People who start out as believers and convert to a different belief system often face rejection, blame, and disappointment from their former belief community. It’s rare, however, that they get challenged on their belief in G-d (apart from the Christian who converts to Judaism and has to explain to their parents that no, they don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah or the son of G-d). I’m going to be coming out to a lot of atheist friends and rejecting their premise that there is no G-d. I am certain I will lose friends over this. This is the one that my mind and soul are still shying away from, because I know it’s going to hurt. I am trying not to pre-judge any of my atheist friends, but there are several who have made very cutting comments about believers on their blogs or on Facebook just in the last few weeks, and I’m trying to reconcile myself to the fact that these folks may not be my friends for much longer. As I said to a friend who is in the know the other day in chat, I’m not afraid of coming out as Jewish – just as theist.

This is especially hard because I still have doubt sometimes too. I still wonder sometimes if I’m making it all up in my head. The thing is, in Judaism it’s okay to have doubt – one of the big attractors for me! – but it’s going to make it harder to defend this change to my atheist friends. It’s also going to be hard because many of them have a bias towards interpreting Jewish scriptures literally and demanding that we provide literal, empirical evidence for events that many Jews understand are figurative stories to make a point about the human condition.

I have to learn – and this is forcing me to learn – that what I can’t change, I must accept. And if I can’t accept, I must endure and go on in spite of it. Yes, it will hurt me, but I doubt it will kill me. And I have to get good with that in ways I’ve never really considered before.

5. What being a Jew means to me. Defining the boundaries of my own Jewish practice has been interesting. Michael at Chicago Carless takes great comfort in davening, laying tefillin, and saying the brachot over meals. Another blogger I know finds that kashrut is especially meaningful to her and can’t understand how anyone who calls themselves Jewish can be Jewish if they don’t keep kashrut. I don’t feel right about laying tefillin, yet, and maybe not ever (sensory processing problems whee). I don’t keep kashrut because of medical issues.

But I pray quietly when I get up and when I go to bed; I try to remember to say the brachot over meals; I am wearing a kippah more and more often now. I am going to go to Shabbat services every Friday that I can, and on Saturdays when possible. I am going to learn how to make challah that is both gluten/grain-free and lighter weight than the current bricks I’ve been turning out. After today’s visit to Fairfax and Pico, (I hope) I am going to wear an obvious (not big-like-a-dinner-plate, but not hidden-under-my-shirt either) Mogen David. I am reading every book I can get my hands on to find out more about Judaism from all points of view. Oh, and of course, I’m putting the hard things into practice like forgiveness, apology, letting go of grudges, and avoiding lashon hara.

And I think one of the major parts of my practice is going to be study. Lots of study. Torah study, Talmudic study, learning to read and speak Hebrew – these are going to be the meaningful things that really make my Judaism mine. A friend said to my partner that she was so pleased he was supporting me in this, and he said “Well, he’s a scholar. This is what’s right for him.”

Now, does that look “Jewish” to others? I don’t know. And I do care, I admit it. I’m not so far along that I can just decide not to care what others think of my Judaism. But I have to remember that nobody else gets to define my Jewish practice or my Judaism. I am the one who gets to define it – the one who has to define it. And the way I’m defining it is mainly through Micah’s delimiters: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my G-d. Praying and saying the brachot, wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, attending services and being part of the community are the part where I “walk humbly.” Making a point of doing the hard things like avoiding lashon hara, learning to truly apologize and forgive, and putting my actions where my mouth is, are “doing justice.” And being kinder to myself as well as to others – that’s the “love mercy” part.

I’m sure that I’ll run into other hurdles on this path, but right now these are the ones I’m in training to overcome.

This will probably be the last post until after Shabbat is over, so I wish you all a very good erev Shabbat. See you Saturday night or Sunday!

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Kippah in Practice

Today was a busy day: my partner and I had to do laundry at the laundromat, and then hit Costco for our monthly grocery run, and somewhere in there we had lunch. But I left my kippah at home, because a) I felt conspicuous and b) I wasn’t sure he’d be comfortable with it, and the last thing I want to do is alienate him with my conversion by being that overt about it.

When we got home, though, and got everything brought in and put away, I put it on almost without thinking about it while he was in the shower.

He saw it when he came out and said, with a bit of confusion in his voice, “You’re wearing your kippah?”

So then I had to explain to him why I was wearing it. What it boils down to is this: I am moving towards being a Jew, and part of what I need to do is follow the various Jewish practices to see if they fit me or not. And wearing a kippah is just – part of that, for me.

More to the point, it feels right. I feel right wearing one. Another blogger I’ve recently started following said that wearing a kippah felt like being under a blanket, safe and protected. That it was very lightweight but you still felt it on your head. You’re aware of it, and of what it means. Yeah. That.

Other Reform and Conservative Jews (either by birth or by choice) that I’ve talked to and read have expressed similar sentiments. Michael at Chicago Carless has said that he rarely if ever takes his kippah off, and one of the reasons why is that he feels it would erase the evidence of a Jew in the world if he did. My best friend does not wear a kippah, but her Mogen David is always on and always obvious, for the same reason.

As for me? This is a public symbol of my identity. It’s like wearing my rainbow bracelet to identify myself as queer. It’s evidence of a person with this identity in the world. Not to wear it is becoming more and more unthinkable for me.

Tomorrow my best friend and I are going to the Fairfax district, finally!, and I hope to come home with several kippot for different occasions so I can return this workaday borrowed one to the temple tomorrow evening. But in the meantime? I’m going to wear it because it comforts me, it feels right, and because I want to.

My partner said that he’s fine with me doing that, so I might pick up a rainbow-themed one for Pride on Sunday, too.

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