Tag Archives: Jew-ish

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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Commentary and Change

15 Sivan 5774

So, when I comment on some blogs, I use my Gravatar account, which is linked to my WordPress blog. But that’s fairly new. Some of the places I’m commenting these days don’t use Gravatar or WordPress. They allow Disqus, however.

Your internet history follows you around forever. Yes, you can friends-lock your Facebook, or your blog, but when you make a comment on someone else’s? It’s right there out in the open for everyone to see, nine times out of ten. Such is the case with Disqus.

I’ve used Disqus for a long time as a commenting program on many and varied sites. But as I told the rabbi on Tuesday when I met with him, part of my five years of hard atheism between the death of my father and, well, a few months ago, was picking fights with the religious. I did this on many websites and in many places. I lost a lot of friends, and I said a lot of things I am ashamed of and regret now. I have a lot to answer for when Yom Kippur rolls around.

Some who read my comments that I’ve made on these blogs now may follow my Disqus link back and read all my old comments from then. And they will find anti-religious, atheist, and anti-theist comments among them. And some of them may judge me for those comments, which were largely written in anger and in defensiveness. And some of those may think I haven’t really changed.

But change is the only constant in our lives, and I have changed. The last twelve months, and especially the last three months, have been a period of intense change and growth for me. There was a time when I felt anyone who was religious must not be very smart, and anyone who was theist was fooling themselves. But now I see it from another perspective. I no longer think that empirical evidence is the only “real” evidence – I accept experiential evidence, too. There was a time, not so long ago, that I would have agreed with a very religion-negative commenter on Pop Chassid’s blog, rather than with Pop Chassid. So yes, this is a fundamental change in me.

Only time will let me demonstrate that the change is real. I don’t expect anyone to accept that it is right off the bat. But I hope, over time, most will.

And while I’m at it: To those whom I have offended or hurt by my attitude and statements, I apologize. I ask for forgiveness, and the opportunity to make things right. I was in the wrong, and I know it now.

And that said, I’ll wish you all Shabbat Shalom. I’ll be back on Saturday night.

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

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

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

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

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

So, that brings us to this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greeted as a Jew

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

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

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

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

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

 

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My Jewish Reading List: Books I Still Need to Read

13 Sivan 5774

I put this here as a service to folks who might need suggestions for further books to read. I’m also going to be reading these in the next month or two, I hope.

First, the other convert at my temple sent me the rabbi’s reading list, which includes:

  1. The Siddur Hadash, by (I’m assuming) the Center for Contemporary Judaica
  2. The Synagogue Survival Kit: A Guide to Understanding Jewish Religious Services, by Jordan Lee Wagner 
  3. The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin
  4. A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1: Everyday Living, by David A. Teuts
  5. Prayerbook Hebrew the Easy Way, by Anderson, Motzkin, Rubenstein and Wiseman
  6. Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew, book and cassette, revised edition, by Simon and Anderson

Other books I’ve had recommended to me by friends include:

  1. Mah La’asot: What Should I Do? by Alper and Grishover
  2. Embracing the Covenant by Berkowitz and Moskovitz
  3. Elijah’s Violin, a collection of Jewish fairytales from different parts of the Diaspora
  4. Jewish Folklore, by Nathan Ausubel
  5. The Big Book of Jewish Humor by Moshe Waldoks
  6. The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Danya Ruttenberg
  7. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory by Josef Yerushalmi
  8. The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ilya Schor and Susannah Heschel
  9. Essential Judaism by George Robinson
  10. To Pray As A Jew by Hayim Donin
  11. Growing Up Jewish: or, Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books? by Moline

As you can see, I have some reading to do. I can’t afford to buy all these books – yet – but I’ve put almost all of them on my Amazon wishlist.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Yiddishkeit.

Because I will not be a stranger for long.

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Ritual: The Language of My Spirit

12 Sivan 5774

One of the many reasons why Judaism pulls at me so strongly is that there are rituals for just about every event in life: birth, death, learning, confirmation, marriage, separation, beginnings and endings. My autism may be part of the reason why I am pulled so strongly to ritual. I’ve already got several of my own rituals that have nothing to do with religion or with G-d but which help me stay stable, sane, and calm. So a religion that has rituals is the obvious match for my needs, nu?

When my father died, I desperately wished that I had some kind of mourning ritual. I actually remember posting in my LiveJournal, about a month and a half after his death, that I wished I was Jewish just so I could sit shiva for him and so that people would understand that I was not doing well. I remember that the funeral was not about my Dad so much as it was about the religious beliefs of the church he attended (Episcopalian) and being angry that he wasn’t the focus of the ritual. I had nowhere to put my pain, because I had no structure for it. As a result, I had a pretty bad meltdown after summer came and my graduate work was done for the spring. For about a month and a half I was pretty much nonfunctional while I grieved.

Since then I haven’t known how to observe the anniversary of his death (yartzheit) or what to do with the grief when it still occasionally surfaces. Now, however, I have options. I can ask for his name to be put on a list for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I can say the Mourner’s Kaddish. That’s a big, big deal to me.

I suppose that the wish to be Jewish so I could sit shiva could be construed as a spiritual helicopter. I don’t know, but it feels likely.

What I do know is that in Judaism, first you do, and then you understand. More and more, the rituals of brachot, of Shabbat, and even of study have become deeply meaningful to me and I don’t want to give them up. Ritual is one of the things I really need from my religious and spiritual path for it to have any meaning.

Michael at Chicago Carless said in his conversion essay, which he shared, that one of the things Judaism gave him is a language for the things he’d always believed. It does for me, too, because for me, ritual (and music) are the languages of my spirit, and they’re languages I already speak, even if I’m still trying to memorize the alefbet.

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Hurdles on the Path to Conversion

7 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here on Shabbat? Welcome, and I’ll be back on Saturday night.

Last week, I was pretty fried. Shabbat fried me, even. That’s not what it’s supposed to do. And most of what fried me was social media.

So, part of my Shabbat observance, as far as I can manage it for the next little while, will be to disconnect for those 25 hours. Apart from having my phone on for emergency messages from my partners, I will be absent from the Internet for most or all of Shabbat each weekend. So if you don’t see anything here from me on Friday after sundown until Saturday after sundown (Pacific time), that will be why.

Now as with all things Jewish, this is a practice. This means that I won’t be perfect at it, and that there may be times when I need to connect anyway, and I may find that it’s not for me after all. If my students have an online exam on Saturday, for example, I will have to be available to them so that anything that crashes can be put right back up. I am required to check my work e-mail once every day, so I will do that on Saturday mornings to make sure the fires are put out before they get too big to handle. But social media, blogging, chatting and texting will be off the table as much as possible on Shabbat proper. If I visit with people, I will visit in person.

I’ve been very pleased at the numbers on my stats page, as they keep going up by one or two new followers a day. I hope not to lose any of my readers if I skip a day once a week to observe Shabbat. But for me, Shabbat has to be about rest and regeneration and community and prayer, at least for now. I need one day a week that is between me and G-d.

I hope you understand.

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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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