Tag Archives: family

That Family Question…

“How does your family feel about your conversion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for my family now, well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions are welcome.



Filed under Conversion Process

Shabbat Shuva redux

Erev Shabbat this week started out very stressful for me. My daughters don’t get out of school until 3 p.m., and I have to pick them up from my ex’s mom’s house, which is about 16 miles away.

16 miles away, you say? Not a bad drive – 20 minutes, right?

Try an hour and a half at that time of day. It’s awful. I can’t get there sooner, because the kids won’t be home yet. Getting there later means even worse traffic going back home. Welcome to Southern California.

So I spent most of the morning doing work that I could do: cleaning up the kitchen from the Rosh Hashanah meal the night before, setting up exams for my students (four of my six classes have an exam starting on Sunday morning, and not all of them were up yet), answering emails, doing a gasoline-and-grocery-run with the fiancé now that his check for the week had arrived; the usual stuff. I had one more exam to finish when I left at 2:45 to pick up my kids, and I knew that my fiancé would be at work that evening because that’s how his work runs and we can’t make them let him off for my religious holidays.

I got to their home at 4:15. We took streets home and that was another hour plus, with a stop at the grocery to pick up a couple things I’d forgotten in the earlier grocery run.

We didn’t arrive home until close to 5:30. So I decided that from now on, Shabbat starts when I light the candles, because no way was I going to be able to bake challah AND make dinner before sundown. Daughter #2 helped me make the entire Shabbat meal, and both daughters took over cleanup when it was done.

Shabbat meal, though late, was lovely: raisin-honey gluten-free challah (I made three loaves: two braided-mold and one piped-spiral crown challah); apples with honey (natch), tomato-garlic soup, plain potato kugel (which Daughter #1 LOVED – which is great, because she’s a picky eater), roasted chicken thighs with spices, Kedem grape juice for kiddush, ice water. I had planned on a dessert of apples and strawberries with Greek Gods honey Greek yogurt, but we were all too full! And I cooked for armies; we had enough soup to fill two quart containers, four pieces of the chicken, half the kugel, and even some apples left over.

Crown Challah

Crown Challah

To make the crown challah, I put a little over a third of the batter into a plastic bag and turned it into a giant piping bag, and piped it into a round baking pan in a spiral. I ran out of batter just before I would have been able to make that little spiral on the top, but it was definitely recognizable as crown challah. I was pleased.

The kids also stood with me while I said the blessings, lit the candles, and said kiddush and ha-motzi. We put away one of the braided loaves, and the round loaf for kiddush at temple this morning (about which, more later) but the one loaf we left out disappeared halfway through the meal. I think Daughter #1 got most of it.

I finished putting together the last exam, and then I collapsed into bed and slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted until pretty late this morning. I didn’t wake up until nearly 9 a.m.

The fiancé and I went to temple while the kids stayed home, which was fine. I was running on coffee and a bagel; I didn’t realize that my fiancé was running on short sleep and only a cup of coffee until halfway through the service. He had to get up and leave for a while. It was also not being run by the rabbi; he was with the B’nei Mitzvah seventh-graders at a thing at the park today, so it was the other fellow leading the services. He’s a great guy, but he’s not the rabbi, and my partner’s patience was very frayed due to hunger and headache. It was also awkward when he led us in “I am a Jew because…” as the main prayer and made a point of saying “I don’t want those who are our non-Jewish guests to feel excluded.” Um, dude… that’s only for me to mention, okay? I also wondered if I wasn’t allowed to say this prayer yet. Awk-ward.

No. It was an accident on his part. I am certain there was no malice. But damn it, I’m on the path, I’m not turning back. Sh’esani Israel. I am as Jew-ish as I can be without the mikveh dip. And that will come, hopefully no later than early June (I want it earlier, but that’s going to be up to the rabbi). But it still made me and my fiancé uncomfortable. I may take the man aside after High Holy Days are over and say “I would have been better with it if you had not made a point of it, okay?”

On the other hand, the crown challah we brought with us got a very happy reception when the worship leader lifted the challah cover and revealed not just their usual big loaf of regular challah but our little gluten-free crown loaf. The response was this sort of breathless chorus as it was revealed: “CROWN challah!” to which the worship leader responded by explaining a) it was gluten-free and b) the significance of a round loaf during High Holy Days. Everyone tried it. It was slightly more cake-y than I’d hoped, but it still tasted good. The alterations I’d made to the recipe (increasing potato starch and decreasing all-purpose gluten free flour, adding two more eggs and a half-cup of honey, and adding raisins) really worked well.

I got asked to submit the recipe to the new Sisterhood temple cookbook.

Then we came home to the discovery that Daughter #1 is without her anxiety meds for the weekend. We’re all trying to be patient with her; it must be hell for her. So we’ve all eaten (mostly leftovers) and now we’re at our corners of the apartment, trying to take the day easy.

After havdalah tonight, I’m going to be back on the emails and student work stuff. But for now I’m going to rest. Tonight I’m going to do some grading so that I can start making headway on it and not be wiped out all day Sunday doing nothing but grading. But that can wait until after sundown when the day changes.

Shabbat Shalom, all.


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Community and Hallelujah

27 Elul 5774

It’s almost Tishri, and I find myself thanking God for that.

It has been… a rough couple of weeks. Although last Friday I managed not to set the oven on fire while baking, I still managed to forget to bring the loaf of grain-free challah I’d specifically made for kiddush after services to services on Saturday morning. I’ve been facing a lot of whelm (as in, overwhelmed) at work and outside of it, even though positive things are happening. Depression – the clinical kind – has been an inconsistent, but constant, visitor. It’s been hard sometimes to keep my mind on what I’m heading for. 2014-09-19 at 18.38.53

See? And I felt so bad, and so idiotic, for not remembering to grab it on my way out the door.

But… I also got to talk about what this last Shabbat’s Torah parshah (Nitzavim – Deuteronomy 29:9 – 28) meant to me in Shul that morning. I’ll just quote the part that the rabbi had us read, and then talk about the Torah study that our rabbi makes a regular part of our Shabbat morning services, in lieu of a sermon.

 “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God – you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, 10 you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer — 11 to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12  in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14  but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

I had tears in my eyes, reading that, for two reasons. I started out with a copy from a website, and then I went and got my copy of the Torah and copied it out here, because the wording matters.

“even the stranger within your camp” and “with those who are not with us here this day” was what brought me to tears that morning. All people who want to be part of it can be. Anyone who wants in, can be in.

I want in. I said that back at Pesach, didn’t I?

Everyone in the shul that morning who heard me say that for me, this was God saying to the stranger and the not-yet-Jew, “You are also part of this covenant,” told me that they were happy I was there and part of their community.

I’ve been going for two weeks. Then I missed a week due to the oven fire. And still, they already see me as their community member. As part of what they are doing and who they are.

I can’t express what that means to me. To already be accepted. To already belong. To be, in some small sense, already a Jew in their eyes.

This part of this parshah also speaks to me as a ger, because those who are not there in body may still be there in soul – as at Sinai, nu? And my soul is being braided into this community, into this place, into these people, with every time I go to shul.

God is in this place, and how could I not know?

Afterwards, I got to talk to J, the man who usually leads song, and asked if he could teach me some of the songs so I could maybe lead sometime when the rabbi asked. He was more than happy to have another singer in the group.

Again, belonging. Perhaps someday, mispachah.

2014-09-19 at 11.43.37

Front of Havdalah candle holder.

I also had my first-ever Havdalah this past Saturday night, and it was more special than I thought it was going to be. I made my own havdalah candle holder and my own bisamim box from crafting materials and acrylic paint over the past couple of weeks, and on Saturday night, they were ready to use for Havdalah. I’m trying to create these items just like my father created so many of my family’s holiday decorations that were so important to us every year.

Back of havdalah candle holder.

Back of havdalah candle holder.

I can’t honor my father in most ways that are religious (although I bought a yarzheit candle for him so I have one when January rolls around), but I’m going to make as many of my own ritual items as I can, and what I can’t make, I’ll purchase carefully.

2014-09-19 at 11.44.07

Bisamim box.

I plan to at least make a hanukkiah and a kiddush cup (I just have to find an appropriate cup). I may draw the line at a Seder plate, though.

I stumbled sometimes, and stammered, and I admit that I didn’t have all the prayers down, but this production from Moishe House Rocks helped me a lot (the song is also really catchy):

I’ve been thinking about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming up much faster than I thought they would. For Rosh Hashanah, I can only point to this rendition of Psalm 150 (Hallelujah) by Hillel Tigay and the community of IKAR, in Los Angeles, for the joy that the thought of Rosh Hashanah fills me with.

And finally, although I know I’ve shared it before, sometimes music just speaks for me more than words can. So once again, I give you the Maccabeats and their amazing Yom Kippur song, Book of Good Life.

I am thankful for all these things. I am thankful for you who read my posts. I am thankful for my life and for the people who sustain me.

On Rosh Hashanah, that’s part of what I’ll be singing Hallelujah for.

And as Yom Kippur is coming up very soon, I ask forgiveness. If I have wronged you in the past year, please let me know. I will do whatever is necessary to make amends.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Day-to-Day, Jewish Practices

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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A Talk With My Partner, and Shavuot

My partner had expressed interest in Judaism after the Seder we went to, but for him that faded, while for me it’s grown stronger. Instead, he’s renewed his interest in neopaganism and appears to be following that path as eagerly as I’m following the Judaic one. So I’ve kind of been on eggshells the last few weeks about a number of things, including my conversion and how it will affect him when he’s not going to convert as well. Today, we had a long talk – one of those ones you have every three or four years – and hashed it all out.

Although I’m not going to share the other things we talked about, because they’re not relevant, he told me, “Honey, I think that your conversion is wonderful. You’re so much happier now that you’re not hating G-d. I think this is totally the right thing for you to be doing, and I support you in it.”

He probably won’t come to most services with me, but he’s even fine with a mezuzah on the doorpost of our apartment, me saying the brachot at meals, and having Shabbat here on Friday nights. He and I are going to go shopping tomorrow to see if we can find a replacement for the broken candlestick so that I’ll have two again by the time Shavuot rolls around. (On a more pragmatic note, he also approves of my grain-free challah and hopes I make it more than once a week; I’ve ordered grain-free flour mix for that purpose and I still need to get more xantham gum.)

He works the swing shift on both days of Shavuot, so I will go to services one of the two days, probably on Wednesday morning. I’ll bake challah on Tuesday morning so I can bring a loaf of it with me to services for the Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, and I’ll attend services on either Wednesday or Thursday morning as well.

I’m trying to find dairy-heavy dishes to make for the first day of Shavuot, and I think I’ve found enough: potato kugel, cauliflower gratin, an egg-and-cheese frittata, and some hard cheeses just as they are (which tend to spike my blood sugar a lot less than dairy-with dishes, of course). I’ll leave cookie-making to those who know how to make them, however, so there won’t be rugelach or sweet kreplach on the table on Wednesday night, even though I’ve found gluten-free versions of the recipes – they intimidate me! Thursday I was planning a beef stew anyway, so the idea of “dairy on the first night and meat on the second” works out fine.

I’m just relieved that he and I had that talk. It’s going to be much less stressful now, going through my practices without thinking that he’s annoyed by them. There’s more than one way for a partner to be supportive when you convert, even if he doesn’t share your beliefs. He’s doing that, and I’m very, very lucky to have him.

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Judaism

My First Shabbat Dinner, Redux, and Telling My Kids

3 Sivan 5774

The prayers went reasonably well, although my ebook reader closed the page with the prayers just after I’d said the candle-lighting blessing. I did, however, get through them and felt accomplished just for getting through the transliterated version. I’ll work on reading directly from the Hebrew later on.

After that I was very, very busy, making all the dinner things. But I’m pleased to report that the dinner went off splendidly, and our guest was impressed. Yay!

The challah was not light-and-fluffy, but it was still recognizably bread, and it tore just like I’m told challah is supposed to tear. It tasted a bit more foccacia-like than eggy, but that’s probably the olive oil. Slathered with butter it was REALLY good. Next time I’m going to try using sugar instead of honey and see if that makes a difference in the proofing of the yeast and the rising of the dough (this didn’t rise much and the yeast didn’t bubble much, either). I’ve also ordered whisks and the smaller pan for next weekend’s Shabbat.

The soup was very well-received and tasted better than I’d hoped for (I am so glad I have a stick blender). The chicken was pretty good and there was enough left over for my partner to take some today for lunch, but I think I want to make it sweeter – the combination of lemon juice AND olive brine made it very, very sour even with the golden raisins added, unfortunately. The rice, although I didn’t try it, was apparently very good. I need to let the green beans cook a little longer, next time.

And one of my candlesticks broke when the flame got near the rim. 😦 So I have to find a replacement for it, somewhere.

My partner paid me a compliment when he got home: “Wow, people will think you’re Jewish with all this food!” We had LOTS of leftovers, but everyone was very full when we got up from the table. So it was a successful Shabbat dinner – yay!

My breakfast this morning was the last bit of leftover challah, some cheese, and some cashews. It was wonderfully filling.

– – – – – – –

About my kids. I have two daughters – sixteen and fifteen – and they’re both incredible young women. They live with my Catholic ex and my ex’s Jewish-by-birth partner, and I mainly get to see them every few weekends for an overnight or two. We have gone about three months without visits due to our schedules not working out, so I was anxious to tell them about my conversion plans. They’ve both been to many Temple services and Shabbats, so I was hoping that neither of them would be too fazed.

Happily, they weren’t. Not only that, my younger one said “If I could choose a religion, I’d probably be Jewish. They let you ask questions and they don’t care if you don’t agree with them.” This means that I can probably look forward to some Shabbat dinners with my kids, now, if they want. I don’t have to hide it from them. It was a lot lower-key than I was worried about, and I’m glad.

When I explained that I wasn’t going to keep kosher, my younger child said “Eh. Not many Jews do. R and N” (her stepmom and one of her stepmom’s daughters) “only keep it because her parents would be upset if they didn’t.” So that won’t be a hurdle either.


Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Wrestling Match #3: Jewish Identity and “Doing Jewish”

I’m on a roll here today. Who knew that creating a blog would lead me to write this many posts in less than a day? In any case, I’ve just noticed that my posts today have had a bit of a theme, and it’s a theme that keeps popping up for me all over the blogosphere today, so there must be a reason it’s there. That theme really centers on the question that almost all converts (and many Jews by birth) have to ask at one time or another: Who is a Jew (and why)? Michael Benami Doyle at ChicagoCarless explores this theme over and over again, both in his pre- and post-mikveh posts, but one of the ones that jumped out at me today had this to say:

The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.

 The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim.

I’ll just give you that quote for the flavor of it – but go read his post for yourself. It’s important. In a similar fashion, Ruth Adar of CoffeeShopRabbi had this to say about the legitimacy of Jewish identity:

[T]here was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece…. Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. 

Emphasis mine, in both instances. Now, one of them says “don’t let anyone else define your identity,” and the other says “the support of the community is important.” They’re both right. I don’t need anyone else’s approval to be the Jew I am becoming, but that feeling of community? Absolutely necessary. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: you need the support of your dad or mom until you get your balance (the community), but you’re the one who has to learn how to get your balance (doing Jewish) – they can’t tell you what it is or how to get there. All they can do is be supportive and give you confidence while you learn. Okay, so I needed to hear that today. I needed to hear that it’s normal to feel anxious when someone questions my sincerity, and that it’s normal for me to be throwing myself into Judaism headfirst with both feet. More so because despite all the work I’m still needing to do, I can’t stop studying Hebrew (so far, I can recite the aleph-bet and I’m working on the nikkudim). I can’t bring myself to let go of the prayers that are becoming more and more a given when I reach for my cup of coffee (Baruch atah Adonai…) or wake up in the morning (I tend to say the short two-line Sh’ma, because that’s the one I know by heart). I can’t stop listening to Neshama Carlebach’s music and looking up the transliterations (and meanings) of her songs so I can sing them too. I can’t seem to stop pestering my Jewish friends with questions and anxieties. And I haven’t even gone to a Shabbat service yet, or talked with a rabbi yet! I’ve just been to a very welcoming Seder and talked – a lot – with Jewish friends. So why have I written so much in this blog on its very first day in the world? Well, it’s that whole “needing to ‘do Jewish'” thing and not really having a place – yet – to ‘do Jewish’ beyond here on the ‘Net. For example: It’s Shabbat, and definitely after sundown, but tonight I can’t really observe it in the traditional way. I don’t have wine or candles in the house, I don’t have a gluten-free bakery nearby where I can pick up gluten-free challah, and I don’t want to bother my partner with my observation of private Jewish ritual when he’s home. This blog is also about trying not to make it so that my Judaism isn’t the only song I’m singing, because no matter how much the harmonies entrance me, to those around me it can seem kind of one-note after a while. My male partner, my fiancé, is not planning on converting, and that’s fine. But I struggle not to have every conversation revolve around this new thing I read about Rabbi Akiva or that comment on a blog that spoke to me. So I bottle it all up and then unload it on my best friend (she’s Jewish) and sometimes I feel like I’m overloading her with it. Sometimes she’s worried that our relationship is going to go away or change into something neither of us wants because of my studies. And I can’t have that – for either of them. I need to get a handle on this “doing Jewish” thing so that it doesn’t alienate my loved ones. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, too. It’s after sundown on Shabbat, but I’m not able to observe Shabbat tonight. (I don’t intend to be shomer Shabbat anyway – I’m converting Reform, so I’m going to take the mitzvot I can do now, and try not to beat myself up for imperfect observance as I learn.) But I can at least write about this path and this journey. I can put this information here instead of overwhelming my loved ones with it. So let that be my Shabbat observance for tonight. (For reasons why this works for me, see the second story on this page, about Rabbi Israel of Rizhin.) So who am I? I am a Scots-Irish Hungarian (with bits and bobs of many other Western European heritages) American with possible Jewish ancestry, who was raised Catholic and has always felt Jewish. I am a ger, and someday (hopefully someday soon) I will be recognized as a Jew by the community. Some of my Jewish friends, including my best friend, have told me that as far as they’re concerned, the day I meet the beit din and enter the mikveh is a formality only, and that they consider me a Jew now, because of my obvious yiddishe neshama. So I’ll keep on praying over my food and in the morning and at night, and as soon as I can make it to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah everywhere except at work. Why? Because, as Rabbi Ruth Adar says, “I would be a real Jew when I acted like one. How does a “real Jew” act? Well, that’s up to the individual Jew, now isn’t it? So now that I’ve put that out there, I need to get my grading done, because for me, part of being an observant Jew is doing what I promised I would do.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches