Tag Archives: first steps

Wrestling Match #7: There’s Always One More Thing

So, my weekend obligation is finally over, and my kids are coming over tomorrow night for the weekend, for the first time in a couple of months due to my weekend obligation and their school schedules. They’re not young – they’re in their late teens – but for the next two nights we’ll have them here, and that changes things. It means that going to Shabbat services, or even lighting candles tomorrow, is out of the question. They don’t even know that I’m pursuing this path yet, and I don’t want to upset them on the first time I’ve seen them in two months.

But still.

Tonight my gentile partner asked me why I hadn’t contacted a rabbi yet, and I didn’t have a good answer. Except… I’m scared to. I feel like I’m not prepared enough.

I feel like I need to have already Read All The Books, and been to services a few (dozen) times, and have all the prayers memorized, and have read at least one full tractate in the original Aramaic, and be able to read Hebrew fluently so I don’t come across like a poseur or a fake. It’s just that old presumption hangover coming back to bite me, I know that…

… except I don’t. Not always.

I feel like just calling a rabbi is like having to be prepared for the spiritual equivalent of my dissertation defense. Before my dissertation defense, I read voraciously, trying to cover every single possible question I might get asked so that I would look competent in front of my committee and my chair. (I did, but they still found things I couldn’t answer, which was humiliating to me even though it was the point of that little exercise.)

So I feel like I have to do the same thing here, as if the first meeting with the rabbi will be like defending a dissertation prospectus. But there will always be one more book to read and one more prayer to learn. There will always be one more thing I can do that’s an intellectual exercise (like writing a blog post, for example) that will allow me to delay the emotional experience of contacting a rabbi. There’s always one more thing that will save me from having to walk in with my naked soul and risk being hurt or worse. Always.

And I feel like I’m using that as an excuse because I’m scared to talk to a rabbi and have him turn me away. Or worse, laugh at me. Or look at me like I’m something he scraped off his shoe. Or declare me just a poseur, and my interest just presumption.

Let’s not even go into the part where I’m queer. Or poly. Or some other things that I will not even talk about in this blog because they are even more personal than those things, if you can believe it. Let’s not go into how much this feels like I’m putting a target on my back and walking out into the firing range, just thinking about sending an e-mail or leaving a telephone message for the rabbi of the synagogue three blocks down the street.

Since I don’t know what to expect, and I haven’t been able to find anything online that will tell me what to expect, I’m stuck.

And I’m scared that getting unstuck will mean coming unglued, and I don’t know what to do.

In my soul, I know I’m Jewish. I know I am. Everything I’ve read about Judaism fits my way of living and how I see the world and, and just everything.

But I just don’t know if anyone can look past my exterior to see that.


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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

From My Readings: “Becoming Jewish” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

20 Iyyar 5774

Although I started this blog thinking about different kinds of oppression and othering and rejection, I don’t want people to think that’s the only thing this blog is going to be about. I mentioned already that I’ve started reading books on Judaism, to better understand whether I really do fit in this niche that I’m becoming increasingly convinced is the one I’m supposed to be in. So in addition to the wrestling matches, the conversations, and the meditations, I plan to use these books as jumping-off points for blog posts here as well.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Becoming Jewish: A handbook for conversion by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs. This book was written in 1993, so it’s about 20 years old. It also seems to be geared towards people who are converting in order to get married to someone who is Jewish (and planning to have Jewish children with them). Like many books about conversion, it doesn’t take people like me and my non-Jewish gay partner into account. So, that’s a weakness.

The part about talking to your non-Jewish family about your conversion looks remarkably similar to advice I’ve seen about coming out to your parents as gay: be prepared for them not to be happy, tell them in person, don’t pick a holiday or a birthday or other special occasion to break the news, stay calm. So that part, at least, has nothing I can really learn. Been here, done this.

However, it also has many good things to say about your new Jewish identity, the process of conversion, what the program of study looks like, and how to lead a Jewish life. It’s that last part that I want to start with here, since many of my earlier posts have already gone over the “identity” thing, and I won’t know what my program of study or my process of conversion will look like until I talk to a rabbi.

For anyone who started out as Christian and is now considering conversion to Judaism, one of the most startling things will probably be exactly what I found: it’s not about what you believe, it’s about what you do. That’s a huge shift in thinking for most people who come from a Christian background, but for me it’s a huge relief. Practice, not belief, is the basis of this religion.

Several of the main practices that Isaacs suggests in order to begin living a Jewish life include holiday celebrations, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observation, making prayer a regular part of your life, practicing Hebrew, and collecting the various ritual items that go with these things: Shabbat candles and candlesticks, a Passover seder plate, a matzah cover, a challah cover, a menorah, a Havdalah set and Kiddush cup, and so forth. He also suggests immersing yourself in Jewish culture: going to Jewish museums, reading Jewish literature, watching Jewish drama, and learning Jewish music. Becoming part of a Jewish volunteer organization is also a good idea.

Obviously, I need to watch Fiddler on the Roof. But I’m listening to popular Jewish music, including the work of Neshama Carlebach; I try to pray the shehakol over every meal (since I can’t pray the ha-motzi, not being a bread eater); I say the Sh’ma whenever I wake up whenever I’m going to bed; I’ll be back to my Hebrew studies as soon as the hand heals up and I can write again; and I’m working on collecting the items that will allow me to celebrate Shabbat (I need a challah loaf pan so that I can bake grain free “challah,” but I’m not quite there yet). Once I can get to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, too.

I’m still wrestling with kashrut; I already have to give up quite a bit of different kinds of food because of my health issues, and kosher meat is more expensive than I can currently afford. Vegetarianism made me physically ill, because it’s so high-carb (I’m a diabetic), so although I do feel a small pull towards kosher, I don’t realistically see that happening.

(About the “challah” loaf pan: this is another thing I struggle with, but I have nearly reached the point where I’ve decided that if I cannot eat bread made of the five brains because of my allergies, I really don’t think HaShem is going to punish me for making a grain-free challah look-alike for Shabbat and praying the ha-motzi over it.  And in any case, that’s between me and G-d. A lot of what we do is symbolic; that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.)

Isaacs’ book is actually quite short, and it seems to be more of a reference than a standalone book. More than half of it is filled with appendices: jewish holidays, the names of Jewish months, Shabbat rituals, and daily prayers. It’s a good place to start, although I’d really like to see one geared toward people who are converting Reform, especially queer people with Gentile partners.




Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism

Wrestling Match #5: Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth

13 Iyyar 5774

It occurs to me that if I’m going to convert (and I am), I’m fortunate to live where I do. In Los Angeles, there’s a much bigger Jewish presence than I originally thought, and it’s not all located near the intersection of Fairfax and Pico (although that’s probably the best semi-local place to go shopping for Judaica)*. I live up the street from a Conservative temple (two or three blocks from my apartment), there’s a Lubavitcher center half a mile away, and there are several other temples of various movements in the area. My Jewish best friend has also offered to take me to her Conserva-form temple in the Glendale area if I want, so I have a lot of places I can go to find and talk to a rabbi and attend a Shabbat service.

Only I haven’t done it yet. I’ve had a prior obligation every weekend day for the last six weeks, which ends after next weekend, and until those are over, Fridays are designated laundry-and-sleeping days (the weekend obligations are quite physically exhausting). I’m also finishing the school year and so I’m rather buried in grading papers, setting up exams, grading final bits of homework, and setting up an intersession class for spring and summer. If you’re an educator or know one, then you know the drill. Being a convert doesn’t mean that the world stops and waits while you pursue conversion.

So I’ve been doing my reading, studying, and exploring here and at home, as I have time and energy. I’ve read about two-thirds of Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and that’s helped. I have about two hundred bookmarks in my browser of sites I’ve read and found useful. I’ve been praying – a lot – and it’s not just pious mouthings. I’ve been trying very hard to remember what the Hebrew words mean whenever I say them, and I have a translation and transliteration in front of me so I can memorize both the sounds and the meanings. I have not laid tefillin yet, and I probably won’t for some time, but I say the Sh’ma morning and night, and I do my best to remember the blessings over meals. I’ve subscribed to a mailing list which sends out the weekly Torah portion so I can study those. I’m planning a trip to my local library tomorrow to see if I can find any of the other books on Michael Doyle’s “read this” list. And as you know, I’ve been examining my motivations for conversion here, in some detail. I’m even grateful for that correspondent who has been trying to convert me to Christianity; she forced me to really look at my reasons in a deep, meaningful way.

None of that prepared me for last night.

My best friend was over for a visit and we decided to walk to a local coffee shop for dinner. The temple is on the way, and although the office was closed, we were able to walk over and look at the grounds. If this becomes my temple, I’ll be pretty happy, I think. I still need to talk to the rabbi, of course, and go to a few services to see if I fit, but one can hope.

It also made me anxious in ways I didn’t quite expect and wasn’t quite prepared for. I felt… again… like I was being presumptuous, and I had to fight that feeling. This is who I am. I am allowed to want to convert. I am not stepping on anyone’s toes or pushing my way in without real consideration of what I’m doing. But I also felt a sense of disorientation and unreality standing outside the sanctuary, and I recognized it immediately – a mixture of doubt and guilt. I know that feeling well. It’s the feeling that crops up any time I trust my feelings over my intellect. It’s the feeling that says, in part, What if you’re just kidding yourself? What if you’re just making up how you feel? What if all that stuff you wrote about G-d was just you pretending? And that hurt. I’ll be honest about that. It made me feel like maybe I was just being a credulous fool.

When you’ve been trained to doubt your feelings about the world, it’s hard to get past it when the doubt comes up and hits you in the face. So I had to fight that feeling, too, and I got a little lightheaded in the fighting. My friend could tell I was upset, but I couldn’t explain exactly why I was. I said “overwhelmed,” which wasn’t a lie; it was just what I could say at the time.

When we returned to the apartment after dinner, my friend had brought her own tallit and her siddur (the 1975 edition of Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book) to show me – kind of a religious show-and-tell, I suppose. She showed me how to put on the tallit (on herself, not on me) and she walked me through saying and singing a few of the evening prayers used at services. I now know that I’ll need a large-print siddur with transliterations, or I’ll be lost and quickly. I can get the phonics from transliterations, but reading directly from the Hebrew text is daunting. And with that feeling of being daunted, the doubt came back: can I really do this? do I really deserve this? am I being presumptuous? am I just faking this or pretending? It brought back the lightheadedness, too. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her tallit, either. It felt like I was doing something wrong. Being an ex-Catholic, I guess I have a bit of a cultural hangup about vestments, and the tallit sure looks like one to my inexperienced eyes.

After a few prayers, she let me take a look at the siddur, and in turning the pages to just glance through it, I found this meditation written in English (which I’m going to copy here). I’ve mentioned the helicopters? It was like Adonai sent me another one, to let me know that a) it was okay to doubt and b) he’s real and I’m not kidding myself.


Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.

But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

That hit me so hard I nearly started to cry. All those years being told doubt was a sin, that doubt was not allowed, that my questions were unwelcome? Reading this meditation in the siddur completely validated my need to doubt and the fact that I doubt. It was a message that said “You are not a sinner just because you doubt. In fact, doubt may make you even stronger in your faith, as you test what you think and see whether it’s true.”

Thank you, Adonai. I needed that.

*The weekend after next, we’re going to visit the Fairfax district. I have a small shopping list: kippah, mezuzah, Mogen David, and large-print siddur. I might not find them all, but here’s hoping.


Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism

Yisrael Means “Wrestling with G-d”

Surprise! New blog. If you’re interested in someone who has wrestled with G-d his whole life, you’re in the right place. Read on.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism, Wrestling Matches