Tag Archives: books

Snapshots of my Jewish Journey

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

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

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


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

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

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



Filed under Conversion Process, Day-to-Day

Getting Jewish things…

14 Elul 5774

Sometimes you just want to exult about small milestones that seem huge to you.

Two days ago, my fiancé and I hit Michaels and bought crafty things. I am now in the process of painting a spice box for Havdalah purposes. I have also glued together bits and bobs of wood to make a Havdalah candle holder, which is drying overnight, which will also be painted. And I’m searching for a kiddush-appropriate wooden cup, and food-safe clear-coat, so I can make my own miniature self-made version of a Yair Emanuel Havdalah set. My father painted and created most of my family’s holiday things, so I am now following in his tradition.

It’s kind of neat. I’ll show pictures when I’m done.

I have plans for a hanukkiah, next.

And my hardbound copy of the Torah arrived yesterday.

I think that calls for a Shehecheyanu.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam,

Shehecheyanu, viki’imanu, vihig’ianu, lazman ha’zeh. 

I am very happy right now.

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Backing Off a Bit

I realized on Sunday that I was completely overwhelmed by my life, and that writing a blog post was sort of last on my priorities list. I’ve left you folks without a post for two days, and I can’t guarantee you’ll always get six posts a week (I wish!), so I will not make any promises.

Also, I’ve done a lot of introspection since early May, and that’s starting to calm down a bit now. I will continue to post about my studies, and about the things I’m learning, as well as my day-to-day interactions with others as a Jew-ish person, but there’s also only so much fodder for new posts, you know?

So, here’s what’s been going on with me.

First, I e-mailed a different rabbi to arrange a possible meeting. The current rabbi has me very uncomfortable because I do not feel heard or listened to (two different things). I have not heard back from Rabbi #2, but it’s also just Monday evening. I’ll email again on Wednesday if I haven’t heard back from him by then (who knows; he may be sticking to the “turn away three times” rule).

Second, I’ve been overwhelmed with other things outside of my studies, so I haven’t had a whole lot of new stuff to read (although I have a lot of books to take back to the library at this point). I’ve been working my way through the Read Hebrew practice book, but it’s slow going. I’m also admittedly frustrated by not knowing which “t” sound to use in any given attempt to write a word. For the first time, I understand why so many of my second-language students struggle with “s” and “c” and “k”.

Third, I have achieved grain-free challah that actually tastes like challah! I admit to being quite excited about this; I shared it with some friends who are in the know, and they approved. This makes me very happy.

I’ve been reading other folks’ blogs that deal with what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, but I’ve said my piece about that, I think. I’d like to recommend a couple of  blogs from the last few days for your reading pleasure, however.

Pop Chassid reflects on his biggest mistake: ignoring science. 

Meanwhile, Rabbi Adar talks to us about 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home.

Yep. That’s all I have for you today, folks. (Anyone want my grain-free challah recipe?)

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From My Readings: Leonard Epstein, Chapter 3 – G-d and the Creation of the World

9 Tamuz 5774

In this chapter, Epstein asks us to look at possible explanations for the creation of the world (and, by extension, the universe) that will both allow for what we know from science and what the Bible tells us G-d did. Epstein’s discussion points out that G-d creating the universe implies a moral dimension to the universe, and that the idea that G-d is simply a First Cause (as Deism posits) is antithetical to Jewish thought, because Jews see G-d as involved with humanity, not separate from it.

My take on that, going back to my discussion of Kushner’s view of the limitations on G-d’s omnipotence due to natural law and free will, is that you can be involved without interfering directly. Think of the universe as G-d’s petri dish, if you will. Any scientist worth his or her salt knows that once you start the experiment, you do not interfere with it if you want to see what comes out of your first principles when you started the experiment. Watch? Certainly. Record and learn? Definitely. But you don’t open up the petri dish and mess with what’s going on inside it. And this may be how G-d is involved with humanity at this point – he is watching what is happening as his experiment plays itself out in the petri dish called our universe.

So it is possible for G-d to be involved, then, while still not interfering. I kind of like the idea of G-d as a scientist, myself.

Epstein also discusses possible explanations that integrate both G-d and what we know from science when it comes to the creation of our universe.

First, there’s the idea of G-d as a First Cause that created everything through starting the Big Bang. This doesn’t explain or factor in G-d as involved with humanity, but Epstein also points out that even if we can’t prove that G-d was behind the Big Bang, we also can’t rule out that he might have been.

Second, there’s the idea of the “fine-tuned universe.” There are some characteristics of our universe that seem uniquely suited to life, and if these characteristics did not exist, life as we know it could not have come to exist. The distance of the Earth from the sun provides optimum temperature and living conditions here, but a difference of as little as 5 percent of that distance closer would scorch us off the face of the Earth, while 5 percent further would leave it frozen and unlivable. According to Epstein there are more than thirty different examples of the fine-tuned universe. This, again, does not prove that G-d exists, but it also means we can’t rule out the possibility that like any good scientist, he set up optimum physical conditions in the universal petri dish.

Finally, we have the worrisome fact that the world is random and chaotic – so does G-d, as Einstein once famously rejected, just “play dice with the universe”? Well, Epstein responds, the fact of the world being random and chaotic to us does not mean it’s random and chaotic to G-d. There’s also the fact that supposedly-random, supposedly-chaotic situations still produce predictable outcomes over time (Epstein uses the example of a gambling casino making a reliable profit). The fact that we can’t perceive the underlying order of the universe right now does not mean we never will. We may simply need better tools that have not yet been developed.

Epstein eventually comes to the conclusion that “We are left without an ultimate answer. There is no adequate explanation for creation. Everyone is left believing in some force beyond our understanding.” This is kind of where I am about G-d generally. Given that he can’t be understood with our limited human faculties, I have to accept that he is a “force beyond our understanding.” There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have fought that with every particle of my being because I found it offensive that there were things I could not understand with my limited human brain. I’m past that now, fortunately (and part of me actually finds it a bit childish and arrogant to have ever thought that I ought to be able to!).

In the first exercise of this chapter, Epstein asks us to find ways to connect with the world with wonder, rather than analysis. I will be doing that today and tomorrow, mindfully. A friend of mine on another site wrote about how one of his proofs for G-d is “that there exist things in this universe which are pointlessly beautiful.” He’s got a point, certainly. What is the point of the beauty of a sunset? And yet it is beautiful, for no apparently functional reason. While there are people who will insist that the beauty of a flower is completely functional, I haven’t seen any explanation for the function (or utility) of the beauty of a sunset.

But since it’s hard to write about that exercise (since it’s more experiential than analytical), I’m going to look at Epstein’s next exercise, which goes like this:

“Consider all the options about understanding natural evil. Is there no [G-d]? Is there the traditional [G-d] who is all-powerful and all-good and therefore responsible for natural evil but whose ways we don’t understand? Did [G-d] create the natural world in a way that would inevitably lead to life but which isn’t controlled?”

Interestingly, I think I’ve addressed these in prior posts. At this point, I believe there is a G-d, at least in an agnostic way – I do not have beliefs about his specifics, but I do believe he exists. The reasons why would not satisfy any scientist because they’re experiential, but I still believe he exists. I dealt with the all-powerful issue in posts about Kushner’s work where we find logical reasons why G-d was all-powerful when he first put the universe in motion, but how some of the things he gave us (natural law, free will) now act as controls on his power. And because he started us out with optimum physical conditions and is now letting the experiment run its course, of course it isn’t controlled except beyond the controls of natural law and of moral decisions by those who can exercise our free will – in a word, humans.

I’ll come back to Epstein again tomorrow. For now, though, I’d like to have your thoughts on this as well. Does it bother you that we do not have, as Epstein says, an “adequate explanation for creation”? If it does, why? If not, why not?


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From My Readings: Back to Epstein

8 Tamuz 5774

I’m working my way through Leonard Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism for the next few weeks. In this book, Epstein gives us a chapter on some topic, and then some exercises at the end of the chapter for the reader to think about. He doesn’t number his exercises at the ends of his chapters, so sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out if a sentence is an exercise to write about or just something to think about. For example, Epstein asks us at the end of Chapter 2 to “Consider what is at stake in your beliefs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put this very well: “[G-d] is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.”

Hm. OK. I’m not sure how to parse that, especially with the Heschel quote attached. Since the chapter is about G-d, Epstein probably means our beliefs about G-d. But as a former agnostic/atheist (and even now I’m not sure which of those I used to be), it’s hard to even put my beliefs about G-d into words, let alone talk about the stakes of those beliefs. I know what I used to believe. Now, the only thing I can be sure I believe is that G-d is there, somehow, and that a lot of what I used to think about him isn’t true.

I don’t know what Epstein means when he says “what is at stake in your beliefs.” Does he mean Pascal’s wager? Does he mean what people might do to me if they find out what I believe? Some other stake that I can’t discern yet? I’m at a loss.

So I’ll just address those two things and move on.

Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in G-d, there’s a chance we’re wrong. If we believe and we’re wrong, we simply die when we die, there is no afterlife, and there is no reward. But if we do not believe and we’re wrong, then we end up in Hell. Meanwhile, if we believe and we’re wrong, nothing happens to us, but if we believe and we’re right, then we end up in Heaven. So it’s better to believe than not believe.

But Pascal was talking to Christians, not to Jews. Does the wager even apply to Jews? Since Jews do not believe in the afterlife or in hell, and since Judaism is largely based on what you do rather than your statements of belief, it’s kind of hard to apply Pascal’s wager to Judaism. Besides, I’ve always felt that believing in G-d only because you were afraid of what would happen to you if you didn’t believe in him seems kind of dishonest, and that G-d would see through that in a heartbeat.

However, on a more pragmatic level, there are certainly things at stake in my belief in G-d and my performance of that belief through Jewish practice. On a very mundane level, it means giving up Saturdays as a day when I work and catch up on things, which for me is a pretty big deal. It means that sometimes I will make people uncomfortable when they see my kippah or my Mogen David, or when they see me praying the brachot at mealtimes (although I generally do that sotto voce; it’s my conversation with G-d, not theirs). It means that I may lose friends and even family members when I finish my coming-out process later this month. And it means that I will be a target for violence, because there are plenty of people who don’t like Jews, even today in this supposedly enlightened age.

On a less pragmatic level, the things that I risk in my belief in G-d include the stuff I’ve already talked about having to let go of: empiricism as a solution to every problem, black-and-white answers, suspicion and mistrust.

So what’s really at stake? Pragmatically, it’s my time, my energy, possibly my social relationships, and (in the worst case) my safety. Emotionally, I risk having to admit I’m wrong, having to get good with doubt, and having to change my perspective on the world.

So why risk that, you ask?

Well, in a pragmatic sense, many of the things about being a Jew (which will be the public face of my belief in G-d) that will make me a target are no different than the things about being queer that make me a target. People who hate tend to hate all groups that aren’t just like them. The KKK doesn’t have a Log Cabin KKK group, for example. They hate on Jews and queers pretty much the same way. As far as my belief in G-d specifically making me a target, I expect it’ll mostly be from the die-hard atheists who can’t tolerate other people believing in G-d for the same reasons I used to be unable to tolerate it. But even then, atheists rarely rise to the vitriolic level of a Richard Dawkins or a Greta Christina, and if they do, I can simply ignore them, as hard as that may be.

Taking this a step closer to my own personal life, as far as the atheist friends who demand sameness of belief or nonbelief as a condition of friendship? Well, it was nice knowing them. As the saying says, “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason or a season, not a lifetime.” I have already (probably) lost one friend over this, and I’m just hoping I won’t lose more, but if I do, it’s not that different from when I came out as queer.

So maybe the reason that it’s hard to parse Epstein’s question is because there is nothing new under the sun here for me. Almost everything that I have to face from other people’s reactions is the same stuff I had to face when I came out as queer. This is not my first rodeo. The things at stake that happen internally? That’s stuff I’ve been considering even before I started this blog. Could I maintain my self-respect after admitting I’d been wrong? Could I see myself as intelligent when I still have doubt? Could I accept non-empirical evidence and not think of myself as a fraud?

As it turns out, yes, I can.

But then there’s the other half of Epstein’s exercise, the Heschel quote. In many of the other books I’ve been reading, there’s this presumption that G-d is central to everything in Jewish life. And I can see that it must be for those who are Orthodox and even, to some extent, Conservative. But I’m not in the habit of praying before everything I do and everything I think. I don’t know if there’s a way to make G-d central when I’m at one of my medieval events, for example, except through my practices – avoiding lashon hara, being kind, being considerate.

Is that enough? Must I become a fundamentalist to be a good Jew?

I reject that. While Heschel has wonderful things to say, I don’t think the idea of G-d as an on-off switch is compatible with my Yiddishkeit. I do not think that it’s possible to allow for doubt if G-d must be of supreme importance all the time. I do not think it’s possible to allow for argument and debate if G-d is of supreme importance all the time. I think that in my experience of Judaism to date, it’s been about people – how you treat other people – far more than about G-d being central. And even some writers have said that it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

That also calls the question of what it means to make G-d central to everything. Is it professing continuous belief in G-d that makes him central? Or is it behaving towards others with kindness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, avoiding lashon hara that makes G-d central?

I’d say that as a person who aspires to become a Jew, my answer would have to be that it’s the practice, not the profession, that makes G-d central.

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – Asking G-d Questions

2 Tamuz 5774

Continuing on with Epstein’s second-chapter questions, in this one he asks us to “Make a list of questions you would ask [G-d] if you could.”

This one is a toughie for me, as it feels presumptuous. It feels like I’m challenging G-d or something. There’s also all those questions I already asked G-d, which I now have some answers to, thanks to Kushner and other authors. I can accept, for example, that G-d did not have control over my father dying, or over a horrific event like the Holocaust. Because of the way He set up the world so that we could have humans in the first place, he had no control over what those humans did with their free will.

But what would I ask G-d today, if I could?

What does one ask G-d? Epstein’s prompt seems geared towards “if you could get an answer,” because anyone can ask G-d questions without getting an answer to them – people do that all the time. So, going on the assumption that I could actually get answers, I would ask G-d these questions…

1. Is my father safe? Is he happy? 

For me, this will always be the most important question. My father was the most important person in my life for a long, long time. He was my cheerleader and my counselor. When I had questions I couldn’t get answers to any other way, my father would at least try to help me understand. He accepted me when I came out and I truly believe he’d accept my conversion if he were alive today.

The way he died scarred me – not just that he died, but how he died, and when he died.

It is really important to me – more than I have words for – that he is safe and happy now. I miss my father so much, and I resent that he’s gone, even now.

2. If I have a yiddishe neshama, why wasn’t I born into a Jewish family?

While I know that the family I grew up in made me the person I am today – including my Yiddishkeit – the fact remains that it feels strange, being a Jew-ish person with a Gentile history, past, and memory. I feel a little cheated – as I’m sure all gerim probably do – of not having memories of Shabbats and Chanukkahs and Pesachs and High Holy Days, instead of the memories I have of Christmases and Easters and long Sunday Masses. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up knowing how to speak and write in Hebrew, instead of the vestigial Latin that I learned while singing Mozart Masses for my father’s choir. What would it be like to have memories of Chankkah songs and Hebrew prayers, instead of Christmas carols and Latin Masses? What would it be like to have memories of sitting shiva for my father, instead of the chaotic grief that never really went away? What about a Bar Mitzvah, instead of a First Communion? What would that have been like?

So why did G-d put me in a Gentile family, if I am supposed to be a Jew? What was the purpose behind that?

3. How do I know that it’s You speaking and not just my imagination?

I have nothing if not an active imagination. Sometimes it worries me that I might be simply making all this up. And yet, I can’t quite push away the feeling in my gut that there is Something out there – what better to label that Something than “G-d”?

This is harder than it looks, asking questions of G-d. Some of the ones I’ve thought of, I’ve also shied away from sharing here, either because they’re too personal or because they feel like asking a genie in a bottle for a wish, or a deck of Tarot cards for a prediction about my future. And I’m not into treating G-d as a genie or a fortuneteller. That seems worse than presumptuous; it seems downright disrespectful. So I am not going to ask them anywhere except in my own heart, and maybe not even then.

What questions would you ask G-d, if you could?

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – The Mystery of G-d

1 Tamuz 5774

This book is probably the most recently published of all of the many books on my to-read list. Epstein condenses much of what great thinkers like Telushkin and Robinson have expounded and expanded upon at great length into a relatively short book of ten chapters. Except for chapter 1, which gives an overview of the book, each chapter has a set of exercises at the end for the reader to ponder, think about, and discuss with others. I will be making these exercises the themes of this blog for the next two to three weeks, and I invite my readers to join in and discuss these questions as well.

Epstein begins his series of exercises and questions by asking us to consider G-d. In his second chapter, “The Mystery of [G-d],”* Epstein considers Jewish beliefs and ideas about G-d throughout the centuries, from his qualities to the questions we have about him and everything in between. At the end of the chapter, Epstein sets the first exercise in front of his readers:

“Consider when you feel close to [G-d]. Make a list. This might include, for example, being present at the birth of a child, or on a holy day, or when you are singing. But also consider when you feel distant from [G-d], such as when someone good dies young, or when you read about some tragedy or a great tragedy such as the Holocaust.”

So when do I feel close to and distant from G-d? It’s a good question.

Epstein certainly hit it when he said singing makes me feel close to G-d. It’s practically the only reliable thing for me when it comes to prayer – singing is prayer, for me. When I need to feel G-d, I sing. I love that so many of the prayers that Jews commonly use, such as the Sh’ma and the brachot for meals, can be sung.

Music, generally, makes me feel close to G-d. Right now I’ve got a Spotify playlist playing in the background with several Jewish artists and a few more generically religious artists (or at least songs by more Christian artists that do not hammer on Christian-specific beliefs). And each one makes me feel G-d’s presence a little differently. “Flood” by Jars of Clay talks to me about the support of G-d – “Lift me up/When I’m falling/Lift me up/I’m weak and I’m dying/I need you to hold me/Lift me up/To keep me from drowning again.” As you might expect, this makes me feel G-d’s presence as safety and rescue, when I’m really drowning in despair or depression. It often makes me cry. But it feels, to me, like G-d speaking in my ear: “I’m here. It’s all right. You’re safe.”

Another song by Jars of Clay, “Sinking,” makes me weep for needing forgiveness for the years that I simply ignored and blamed G-d:  “So I don’t need you / I don’t think I need you / Deny myself, deny my heart / Deny your hand, deny your help / and you offer me eternity / but why should I buy that?” This song is all about doubt, which makes it uniquely suited to say what I need to say sometimes. I found myself choking out “I’m sorry, Father!” when I heard this while driving to work the other day. It caught me by surprise.

“Return Again” by Neshama Carlebach makes me long for return – to return to G-d and to the person I know I can be in his presence. Both her arrangement and Aryeh Kunstler’s arrangement of “B’shem HaShem” make me feel protected and surrounded by G-d’s unconditional love. The Josh Nelson Project’s “Seven” makes me feel an intense approval of my Yiddishkeit and my intentions, although I don’t know why. “Hu Elokeinu” by Neshama Carlebach makes me feel exalted.

I feel G-d’s presence when I create. When I’m writing, when I’m cooking, when I create something that is worthwhile – even if it’s temporary – I feel G-d’s presence. I couldn’t say exactly how, but there are times, especially when I’ve been writing, that I feel like I’m the tool of something powerful, a channel to something greater.

And oddly, when I see an ambulance or a fire truck, or I hear sirens, I feel G-d’s presence when I pray for the people those sirens are on their way to – that they will survive and be safe through whatever is bringing the sirens to them.

And of course none of this is rational. It can’t be. G-d can’t be sensed with our rational senses; he transcends them.

When do I feel distant from G-d? When I’m alone and have no music. Being still and quiet does not let me hear G-d or feel his presence. I’m a doer, a mover, a creator, so being still and quiet does not make me feel G-d. Learning to hear him was an active process of curiosity and searching. I’m still not sure how others can hear G-d when they’re sitting and not doing anything, but that may just be me.

I feel distant from G-d when I can’t keep my life together. When the bills are mounting, or when someone I love is hurting and I can’t fix it, or when I feel despondent, I feel like G-d has retreated somewhere unreachable. I have to put on music to bring him back again. I also feel distant from G-d when I have to admit I’m human, with human failings. When I feel tired, or when I’m in pain, it’s hard to feel G-d. That’s probably that ol’ debbil Perfectionism raising its ugly head in my psyche, and I’m trying to learn to recognize that.

Reading about tragedies doesn’t make me feel either close to or distant from G-d. It just makes me feel numb and shocked. It also makes me picture, what it must have been like to be in or present at those tragedies, and that often crushes me flat. Now that I know that G-d does not have control over those things because of the logical requirements of humans having free will and natural law, all I can feel is shock and sadness when I hear of them.

So now I ask you: What makes you feel close to G-d? What makes you feel distant? Talk to me.

*In the original, Epstein includes the vowel in G-d’s name. I have indicated replacements by bracketing the word in any quote from Epstein’s book.

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Why Shabbat? From My Readings: The Sabbath by Heschel, and Who Needs God by Kushner

24 Sivan 5774 (after sundown)

I’ve just finished reading Abraham Heschel’s classic work The Sabbath (and I recommend it, despite the somewhat dated writing style). In it, Heschel points out that the Sabbath is holy because it is sanctified time, rather than a sanctified object. Time is an unusual idea, according to Heschel – it is not something that exists in any one place, nor is it attached to any one thing. Shabbat is important because it is time set aside to recuperate and recover from the daily grind of work and business, and to reconnect – with G-d, with our families and friends, with ourselves. Instead of having to travel to a specific place in order to reconnect, recuperate, and recover, we create a sacred time that can be observed anywhere.

That reconnection can be fatiguing and even intimidating if you’re not used to it. Most of us have seen the family at the restaurant with everyone’s nose buried in their GameBoy, their Kindle, or their iPhone. When was the last time you actually sat down and had a meal with your family, without the distractions of the game on the TV or the GameBoy in your child’s hands? When was the last time you actually spent an hour with someone just talking, with your phone set to “off” rather than “vibrate”? And if you did, did you really connect with them? Or was all the discussion about mundane things like the weather and the latest sports news?

I also finished Kushner’s Who Needs God earlier today. He refers to “the iPhone problem” as it was experienced in an earlier time – with the transistor radio as the interfering agent – as one of the ways we can be together in body and still totally separate in spirit. Before that, I’m sure that it was newspapers, magazines, and books that interfered both outside the home and in it, and at home there was also the TV and before that the radio as interfering agents between ourselves and other people. Kushner talks a lot in this book about loneliness, and how we miss our connection with others more than we realize we do. We compete, rather than connect. We objectify, rather than empathize. And as a result we end up with what Kushner, referencing Martin Buber, calls the I-It relationship, rather than the I-Thou relationship. We see others only as “how can I get something from them/how will they benefit me”, instead of seeing them as human beings with families, or health problems, or crises of faith, or worries.

The concept of taking an entire day “just” to rest is pretty foreign to me, as it probably is to most Westerners who weren’t raised Jewish. I know of about three Christian sects that make a point of Sabbath being an all-day thing, but that’s it. For most people, taking an entire day to rest sounds like a luxury. To others, it may even sound sinful. For me, a day off is ideal for catching up on work – answering student e-mails, for example. Planning my next class. Working on my budget. Organizing my desk. It’s work time, not play time – and certainly not rest time.

I’ve had Shabbat evenings on Fridays. I’ve been to a few Shabbat services at my temple on Friday nights, but the next morning I fell right back into doing what I needed to do in order to get work done – emails, grading, and of course endless Facebooking. I couldn’t seem to conceive of doing Shabbat not just on Friday nights but all day on Saturday, too. Even thinking of trying to have a full evening and day of Shabbat was nerve-wracking to me. What was I supposed to do with myself? Study? How, when I’m not supposed to write (because writing is creation)? Read? What would I do if I ran out of books to read (a perfectly possible scenario for me)? What about my students, and their e-mails, and the homeworks I have to grade, and the classes I need to prep? Heck, what about Facebook? How could I just not be there for a whole 25-hour period?

And what, exactly, would my kids and I – and my partner, once he arrived home – talk about, exactly? How would that look? How would that work? They’re not converting to Judaism – so one of my main current topics isn’t an option for table conversation. Talking about work is sort of not what I had in mind for Shabbat conversation. But what else is there to talk about?

Like the idea of taking a day completely off to rest, the concept of connecting in person is also increasingly foreign to most Westerners. “Connection” has become a term that refers to e-mail, websites, and blogging – and believe me when I tell you that I recognize the irony here, as I write about this issue on a blog. What we used to mean by connection, in-person connection, has become largely shredded away, as if we never needed it or wanted it.

So I didn’t think I could do it. I thought for sure I’d go mad with the tension of not doing anything productive, not to mention the guilt about the aforementioned emails and students. But I had to try. If I’m going to truly live as a Jew, this is part of it. So I need to learn how, right?

One of the things that Shabbat does is give us a holy time to see others as real people and human beings. I decided on Thursday night that I was going to make this Shabbat special, because my kids were going to be here. So I saw my doctor in the morning, I picked up my kids, ran my errands on Friday during the day, and then we prepared a real Shabbat meal. Even though the main dish just did not turn out right, it was salvageable without too many problems. I said the prayers before my older child and my partner came to the table (at their request – and I’m not about to push that on them), but my younger child decided to be there and participated with me as I sang the brachot and the Kiddush. We had even baked challah for the meal – grain-free, true, but it was still challah. We had a meal together as a family, we prepared it as a family, and we cleaned it up afterward as a family. At the table, each person shared something good that had happened to them in the last week. I haven’t had that much connection with my children in literally months.

This morning my younger daughter and I walked to the synagogue and found out that the Saturday morning Shabbat service included a bar mitzvah. Walking home, I felt such a sense of peace, just talking with my daughter, being disconnected from all my electronics, and feeling so connected to my kid and to the greater Jewish community. It was astounding. This afternoon, after I read for three hours from Kushner, my children asked me to play a game of Apples to Apples with them. Sure, it wasn’t entirely Shabbat-related, but in the spirit of spending time with my family, I dove right into it. I’m pretty sure HaShem didn’t mind.

I’m still not sure I can completely keep Shabbat the way the more-conservative Conservative Jews do. I’m not sure I can give up jotting notes down about things that I need to remember but which my somewhat distracted brain might otherwise forget, for example, or cleaning up my kitchen after a meal even if it’s still technically Shabbat by the clock and calendar. But I can’t deny I got something out of doing this. I didn’t quite make it to sundown, I admit, but when I did finally log into my computer about four hours before sundown, I found out that the e-mail and the students were still there. I was able to get the work that I needed to do, done, with a renewed energy and sense of peace that I’ve rarely felt even since I realized I need to convert. More to the point, I felt rested. I haven’t had that feeling in months, either.

So I guess the lesson I’m taking away from this experience is this: Being busy is fine – but being calm is necessary too, and making a sacred space and a sacred time for calm and study and meditation and connection is part of what we need, as human beings, to not just survive but to thrive.

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From My Readings: The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown

21 Sivan 5774

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Telushkin gives us a full year of Jewish values to consider throughout the year – one per day. Telushkin’s plan is that each week’s worth of values can and should form the discussion topics on Shabbat for that week.

I will not be discussing each and every value in this blog, but I find that a third of the way through the book, many of them are tugging at me to write about my own experiences and expectations of them. Today, I’m going to write about kindness.

The Day 4 topic is titled “What Would God Want Me To Do?” According to Telushkin, the value of charity – one of the most important values in Jewish thought and practice – is still superseded by the value of kindness. Kindness can take many different forms, from spending time with a sick neighbor to helping someone carry a load that is too heavy for them, even if doing so might inconvenience us. One might think of kindness as “the charity of our time,” because kindness may take no money but significant time.

In my experience, I have not always been kind to others. I have a tendency to get irritated with people who argue with me, or who insist on small changes to something I’ve already completed. Students who grade-grub for an extra point or two, or for an increase in their grade, are a special pet peeve of mine.

This ties in with a second value that Telushkin talks about on Day 33, from the Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, that states, in effect, “the lesson to be learned from G-d having started humanity with Adam, a single human being, is that each person represents a whole world, and each individual possesses infinite value” (Telushkin, p. 48). In this lesson, Telushkin points out that every profession gives its practitioners the opportunity to treat others like those who have infinite value. As a teacher, I have the opportunity every day to do this, and I admit that in the morass of grading and planning, I often forget that students are real people who may not give me their best, or who try but do not achieve what’s expected. But these students can still be crushed if I do not acknowledge their hard work even if they miss the mark. And this is something I need to work on.

How to work on it comes from a different source: Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in social work and has done extensive research on the issue of shame – and how to deal with it. One of the things Brown talks about in this book is that when you’re giving feedback to people (something teachers have to do all the time), you need to meet others as equals instead of pulling rank. This sounds, to me, very similar to the value of finding infinite value in others that Telushkin discusses in Day 33. It also means making myself vulnerable to the person to whom I’m giving feedback. Fortunately, Brown provides several ways to accomplish this in her book.

First, she says to give the person whom you have to critique three strengths about what they did, and one opportunity to improve it (Brown, p. 200). I’m thinking of a student last semester who wrote a passionate paper about a topic that was obviously near and dear to their heart. The paper had multiple problems, but the passion the writer had for the topic was very clear. That would be one of the strengths I would emphasize in any future conversations about this paper. The opportunity – how to improve – would be along the lines of “Remember that you are supporting an argument, not just giving an historical record of this topic,” and then some positive steps to take to accomplish that opportunity.

I plan to incorporate this feedback into any future paper feedback that I give to my students, especially my online students.

The second technique that Brown recommends is what she calls  “giving engaged feedback” (brown, p. 202-204). This ties in with the kindness issue in Telushkin’s Day 4 topic. The steps in giving engaged feedback include sitting next to, rather than across from, the person whom you’re giving feedback to; putting the problem in front of us both; listening, asking questions, and accepting that I might not fully get what the issue really is; acknowledging what worked instead of picking apart errors; recognizing strengths and how they can be used to address problems; holding the other person accountable without shaming or blaming; owning my part of the problem; thanking them for their efforts rather than criticizing them for their failings; talking to them about how these changes will lead to growth and opportunity; and finally, modeling the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from them (Brown, p. 203).

This only works well in an in-person situation, but I’m looking already for ways to adapt this to an e-mail or online interaction, and see how close I can get to the same effects when my student cannot come to office hours.

Brown also warns: “[I]f I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid […] of being wrong, making someone angry, or getting blamed” (Brown, p. 202). And G-d knows that I’ve felt plenty self-righteous when grading my students. Part of that self-righteousness expresses itself as exasperation, part as impatience, and part as anger that they apparently didn’t listen. But none of that lets me off the hook of being kind in the feedback I give, even as I have to be honest. Honesty doesn’t include sarcasm or sharp words.

Which brings us back to Telushkin and these two Jewish values of kindness and professional courtesy towards others. One of the things that makes us pull away from kindness is the fear of making ourselves vulnerable to the person we’re being kind to, no matter what form that kindness takes. A teacher not picking a paper apart for its errors risks being seen as a softy or a pushover; a person who helps their roommate out of a financial jam risks being seen as a soft touch. But kindness is, in part, always a risk. And G-d requires us to do it anyway. G-d requires us to be vulnerable when performing this mitzvah.

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Just a note: A Conversion Reading List

I’m keeping a separate page on my blog for all the books I’m reading. That list will be updated each time I add or finish a new book. If you want to look or share, it’s here: A Jewish Conversion Reading List

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