Tag Archives: identity

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

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

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

As the author of the Kveller article said:

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

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

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

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Filed under Day-to-Day, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

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

Before the Friday Feature, a thought or two on other writing.

Sometimes it seems like being a convert means denying everything you were before. Sometimes it seems like you have to be more Jewish than anyone else in order to be accepted as a Jew at all. Is there a better way to look at this?

You all know I struggle with perfectionism (thanks, Mother. Thanks, Catholic upbringing). I have had moments lately where I have felt that my Jewish practice was not all that it could be. Part of this is probably Elul and leading up to the High Holy Days, because we are instructed to consider what we could do better, as well as what we’ve been doing wrong all along, so that we can repair both and address them.

And I’ve been trying very hard to do that. So, every time I forget to say the Modeh Ani on waking, and every time I’m halfway into a meal before I realize I haven’t said the brachot, I feel awful. Like I’m not a good enough, not an observant enough, Jew.

Then, this week, I got to read this essay by Robin Washington on MyJewishLearning.com.

Washington was raised Reform, he says, but had to go to Catholic Masses for a while as a religion reporter. Before that time, he’d felt uncomfortable being called to the bimah. Although he doesn’t articulate it at the beginning of this piece, it becomes clear that the idea of making a mistake when called to the bimah is intensely uncomfortable for him.

Then he notices that even Cardinal Law does not always do things exactly the same way. He is not always perfect. And, occasionally, he goes off-script and says something that sounds suspiciously Jewish. For example:

Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.

Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.

Heck, I grew up Catholic, and that’s definitely not part of the Catholic dogma. Quite the contrary – it’s in direct opposition to it.

So either Law made a mistake by the codes of his church, or he decided to buck the system. Either way, he wasn’t perfect in his performance of his liturgical duties.

This allowed Washington to realize that being called to the bimah doesn’t mean you have to be perfect in your readings. You will not get in trouble if you make a mistake pronouncing a word. It’s not the end of the world if the service isn’t perfect every time.

As someone who has always struggled with perfection, this means a lot to me, especially with the Catholic tie-in there (due to my own Catholic upbringing).

And that brings me to the other writing that I find important this week. On the blog The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building, a blog post by José Portuondo-Dember has me reconsidering the idea that I should shun or drop everything that went into my former religious upbringing in order to be a better Jew both now and in the future. Portuondo-Dember points this out about the mikveh (and, indeed, about having changed identities from one fundamental way of viewing the world to another):

When I went to the mikveh to mark my return to the Judaism of my ancestors, I wasn’t going to wash away the Catholicism I had been raised in. I’ve never wanted to pretend that I didn’t grow up Catholic. It’s a part of my personal history that I will always cherish. Going to the mikveh wasn’t about not being Catholic anymore, it was about entering Judaism. I was going to mark my full immersion into Judaism: heart, body and soul. […]

I see going to the mikveh as analogous to glazing ceramics. The dunking isn’t about leaving something behind—it’s about picking something up. It’s about being immersed and coated, and bringing some of that essence back with me as I engage my future.

That feels like a relief. It means I don’t have to be a “perfect” Jew. I just have to strive for the best I can do. I don’t need to pretend I was never anything else. I just need to be the best Jew I can be, now, here, and strive to do better without beating myself up for imperfection.

 

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My Jewish&

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

12 Tamuz 5774

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

I’m Jew-ish&…

… white.

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

… raised Catholic.

… queer.

… polyamorous.

… a parent of two non-Jewish kids.

… a teacher.

… a scholar.

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

… diabetic.

… grain-allergic.

… arthritic.

… educated.

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

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

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

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

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

… hopeful that things can change for the better.

… determined to make them so.

So what’s YOUR Jewish&?

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Identities, Judaism

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

17 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask my wider audience:

1. What is the basis of your Yiddishkeit?

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

3. What are you doing to move upward today?

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

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

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

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

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

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

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

So, that brings us to this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kippah in Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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My Jewish Reading List: Books I’ve Read So Far, and Questions I Want To Ask

I’ve seen other Jews-by-choice make lists of the books they’ve read or are reading as part of their conversion process, and it occurs to me that it’d be a good idea if I had a booklist ready when I met with the rabbi next week – especially since there’s a very good chance I’ll actually meet him tonight at Shavuot services. So, here’s what I’ve read so far.

  1. Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin
  2. What is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer and Lawrence Hoffman
  3. Becoming Jewish (A Handbook for Conversion), by Ronald H. Isaacs
  4. Why Be Jewish?, by David J. Wolpe
  5. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
  6. To Life! by Harold S. Kushner
  7. Living a Jewish Life, by Anita Diamant
  8. The Everything Judaism Book, by Richard Bank (this is not an especially good reference, in my opinion, for converts)
  9. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, by Anita Diamant (this is an excellent book for converts!)
  10. Read Hebrew in Just 90 Minutes, by Chaim Conway (still working my way through this one)

Other books that are not about Judaism and conversion specifically, but which have informed my understanding of Jewish life and practices because they have characters or important people who are either ethnically or religiously Jewish (or both), include:

  1. The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
  2. In The Presence of Mine Enemies, by Harry Turtledove
  3. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg
  4. Just about any kids’ book by Judy Blume
  5. Any book that has a Jewish character in it

Other things that have informed my understanding of Judaism and conversion include several really excellent blogs on the topic, including Coffee Shop Rabbi and Chicago Carless.

There are other sources, mainly people, that have informed this journey as well.

I also know that if I’m going to meet with the rabbi, I should have some questions ready for him. So here’s a few that I’ve got lined up so far:

  1. What do you feel are the main requirements for a person to be a sincere convert to Judaism?
  2. What is your philosophy about converts and conversion?
  3. What is your understanding of tikkun olam?
  4. I will be in an interfaith, gay relationship. Does this pose problems for you, either personally or professionally, with taking me on as a conversion candidate?

Because, you know, I’m not asking any really risky questions or anything, right?

 

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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.

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