Tag Archives: Jewish practice

Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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

24 Sivan 5774 (after sundown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hating Ourselves Into Righteousness

A friend of mine who is a Health At Every Size advocate recently posted this to her blog: “I cannot state how strongly I disagree with the idea that we can hate our bodies into health.”

I think this applies equally to our souls – we cannot hate our souls into righteousness. Yet how many of us follow practices that are equivalent to trying to do just that? How many of us, when we make a mistake, spend a disproportionate amount of time berating ourselves for the mistake? How often do you find yourself saying “I’m such a sinner, I’m so bad, I’m so evil, I’m so wrong, I’m so stupid, I’m an idiot”?

If you’re like me, probably you do this a lot. In fact, one of the things that attracts me so much to Judaism is that it has set procedures for dealing with this kind of pain – procedures that are meaningful. You made a mistake? Do what you can to correct it and make amends to those you harmed by the mistake. And then you let it go and move on.

One thing that we often forget, though, is that this includes ourselves. When we make a mistake and we’re the only one affected by it, too many of us then beat ourselves up for some period of time for having made it. To me, this is trying to hate our souls into righteousness. It’s a form of lashon hara.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in The Book of Jewish Values, makes this the topic of Day 321 (p. 441-442): “Don’t speak lashon hara about yourself.” This is one of those values that, for me, is very difficult to follow. I was raised by a perfectionist to be a perfectionist, and I was always told that nothing less than perfection was acceptable. (This is what happens when you have a parent with a personality disorder.) As a result, I tend to beat myself up. A lot. For example, I tend to think that once I’ve made a mistake, it’s irreconcilable and irretrievable – that because I made a mistake, others will always think less of me and will always remember it. I believe that I am “not enough” in a hundred different ways. I tend to think I’m unworthy of people’s time, attention, and love – even my own. I was even raised to believe that this was the right thing to do, because without constant reminders of how bad I am, how can I ever improve? I am my own sharpest and most merciless critic. So I’m certainly guilty of performing lashon hara against myself.

But Telushkin points out that that’s just as wrong as beating someone else up with words:

While it is good to be humble […], being modest does not mean denying one’s virtues or disparaging oneself. The Torah verse that explicitly commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) implicitly commands us to love ourselves. And just as you would not wish to hear others speaking ill of someone whom you love, so too should you not speak ill of someone you are supposed to love: yourself. 

As his example in this day’s lesson, Telushkin tells about a rabbi who was corrected by someone else for speaking negatively about himself. When the corrector found out who the rabbi was, he tried to apologize, but the rabbi said “You have no reason to request forgiveness […] On the contrary, I learned from you an important lesson. For decades, I’ve been teaching people not to speak lashon hara about others. Now I’ve learned that it’s also wrong to speak lashon hara about yourself” (Telushkin, p. 441).

Telushkin’s point is valid, certainly. But for many people, the idea of loving the self is difficult. In many sects of Christianity, the self is considered a sinful thing by definition. Moray Allan, while an MA student in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge, begins an essay on this topic by saying “Christianity has often been understood as demanding not self-knowledge, but self-abandonment. The self has been understood as necessarily imperfect, so corrupt that it is worthless: in seeking Christ Christians may abandon themselves, condemning the self and attempting to discard its influence. They may feel that it is impossible both to express the individual self and to emulate Christ”.* So this idea that we should love the self, and ourselves, is sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, especially in a heavily Christian-influenced society where the self is viewed as sinful by definition.

Allan goes on to cite Augustine’s view that even when we have a positive view of the self, the self should come second to G-d. Augustine feels, according to Allan: “[H]is very identity is subsumed in G-d, for he cannot achieve anything independently”.

Both of these views, to me, seem to set us up for failure. On the one hand, the self is so vile we must reject it; on the other, the self is not really important enough to matter in the long run. In both cases, I think this sets us up to continually speak lashon hara against the self.

This brings me back to Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, again. Brown has experience with trying to abuse herself into perfection; indeed, it is the basis of her life work. Brown said that what originally attracted her to social work research on shame was the idea that if you can measure it, you can control it and put it in a box. As she says in one of her speeches,** “There are people who say “Life’s messy. Love it.” And I’m more like “Life’s messy. Clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” When she discovered that people who could “roll with” shame and get through it were people who were the opposite of her, it devastated her, because those were generally the people who said “Life’s messy. Love it.” The acts of cleaning up the messy, organizing it, and putting into a bento box came with a huge helping of shame and self-abuse. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown describes it like this:

“I thought I’d find that Wholehearted people were just like me and doing all of the same things I was doing: working hard, following the rules, doing it until I got it right, always trying to know myself better, raising my kids exactly by the books…” (Brown, Kindle Location 89/2245)

In doing these things, Brown found herself automatically blaming and shaming herself for not living up to the standards set by the rules and by the books. She found herself saying things like “When I’m good enough/thin enough/smart enough” to justify why she denied herself things that were pleasurable. Over the next year-plus, she went into therapy to deal with the reasons she felt she had to be perfect. Then, over a six-year period, she wrote three books on the topic of shame and perfectionism – how damaging shame is, how impossible perfection is, and how the combination of the two can wreck our ability to be kind to ourselves or to anyone else.

Since the first and most important Jewish value is to be kind, I think that this is kind of important for Jews (whether JBB or JBC) to learn about. Telushkin’s statement that we must not practice lashon hara against anyone, including ourselves, is revelatory.

How do you practice lashon hara against yourself? What do you plan to do today to stop doing that?

 I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll be back on Sunday morning.

*Allan’s full essay can be found here: http://jcsu.jesus.cam.ac.uk/~mma29/essays/speakingself/

** Brown’s speech can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-146506

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

21 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Song as Prayer

11 Sivan 5774

For each person, prayer (and worship) means something a little different. For some people, davening means quiet, almost whispered prayers in Hebrew while swaying with the joy of prayer. For some it means the joy of creation.

For me it’s always been about using the power of song to praise G-d. My father was a church choir director for years and years, and man, was he a purist about liturgy. We did not have 70s “folk music” at the Masses he directed. We had Mozart. Bach. Beethoven. You know – the good stuff. And when he couldn’t find good stuff, he’d write his own and the choir would learn it off in nothing flat. When my father finished his master’s program in music composition and conducting, the main feature of his master’s performance was a Mass he’d written called “The Walk of Faith,” and based on the pain of doubt and the need to trust. A recording of it was played at his funeral, and as soon as I can get the CD that my brother gave me to cough it up, I plan to play it on my father’s yartzheit in January every year.

The main reason I kept going to the Catholic church, after I started doubting G-d, was the music. Even in my 20s, when I was in deep denial and pain about the existence of G-d, I still managed to write an entire congregational Mass for the church that I was the volunteer choir director and pianist for at that time. (I guess it runs in the family or something.)

I tell people that my father raised me to be a liturgical musician. If I’d realized I had a yiddishe neshama ten years or so ago, I might have decided to go to cantorial school instead of going through a doctoral program. Singing kept me going to church for a long, long time, and it’s a big draw for me in going to temple, too. Fortunately the congregation at the Friday services seems to have a good sense of song, and some of them even harmonize! (Once I’ve learned the melodies well enough I’ll do the same thing, I’m sure.) I have not yet been able to attend Saturday morning services at my temple, but I want to. I want to hear the cantor and see if that makes me feel the way I felt when I was twelve and singing in my father’s church choir.

I hope it does, because I love to sing. I feel most like I’m worshiping when I’m singing, and when I hear or sing good music is when I most feel G-d’s presence. Since starting on this journey, I’ve been using my handy Spotify account to find music that is both singable and uniquely Jewish. Some of it is in Hebrew, and some in English, but I’ve begun to memorize various songs by popular Israeli and Jewish artists. Some of them are close enough to prayer that I count them as such: Shomer Yisrael and Hu Elokeinu, by Neshama Carlebach, make my eyes sting with tears every time I sing them or hear them. Right now I’m listening to L’dor Vador by Josh Nelson, and it’s having a similar effect. Whenever possible, I sing the brachot over meals. It makes them mean more to me.

But it just occurred to me why it’s so important to have this music available to me. It allows me to feel the presence of G-d again. It allows me to worship again. Yesterday, singing along with Josh Nelson, I felt a presence I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. The hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms stood up with the overwhelming feeling of rightness and awe that washed over me as I sang “L’dor vador nagid godlecha/L’dor vador, we protect this chain…”

This music is another spiritual helicopter for me, telling me that yes, I’m on the right path, and that this is right for me and what I’m called to do. Maybe cantorial school is still in my future – who knows?

What does prayer mean to you?

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A Trip to the Fairfax District, and Shabbat/Oneg Friday Night

10 Sivan 5774

Friday morning and early afternoon, my Jewish best friend took me to the Fairfax district so we could do some Jewish-specific shopping. The night before we had identified a few shops we wanted to go to, including a Jewish thrift store.

I admit that even with a plan, I was kind of overwhelmed. Despite living in the Los Angeles area now, I grew up in a suburb. Crossing the border into Los Angeles makes my mind go offline as I can’t visualize the map, and in my head “Los Angeles” translates into “large undefined area that I can’t process.” It’s a thing. But this is why my partner or my friends drive when we go into LA instead of me. I’d get lost in a heartbeat, even with a GPS trying to tell me the way. As it was, we had some trouble getting to Fairfax because of unexpected traffic, but we did arrive where we wanted to be eventually.

I wore the borrowed cotton kippah that my temple had let me take home on Shavuot last week, and I found out that cotton cloth kippot are generally made of broadcloth. Broadcloth is so tightly woven that it does not breathe at all. So combine black color + broadcloth + Los Angeles midday sunshine and you get “very hot very fast,” so I was eager to find a few crocheted/knitted kippot that would breathe better. (Not to mention that that borrowed kippah was enormous – it covered as much of my head as a baseball cap would.

My friend drew my attention to the street when we got to the thrift store, our first stop. Up and down the street were two or three small kosher delis, a kosher butcher, a couple of stores that were obviously Judaica, a jewelry store, and a social-service agency that was aimed at Jews by the signage. Just standing on the sidewalk, I noticed that at least half the men walking by us were kippah-clad. Several had tallit katan showing under their t-shirts, as well. It felt like I’d come home – or as much like home as an urban area will ever feel to suburban-minded me.

We drove to a more upscale store after going to the thrift shop, and then a new kosher deli – Wexler’s – that opened up in the Grand Marketplace area of town for our lunch and that a friend of my friend’s had said was better than Langer’s (which she thinks is better than Canter’s, a deli that is known in LA for being “the best”). She wanted to confirm that Wexler’s really was better than either of those – and it turns out, it is. Go to Wexler’s if you’re in Los Angeles. Their pastrami is amazing!

I came home with two new kippot, a Mogen David, a chain for the Mogen David, and a few kippot clips. I’d originally intended one of the kippot for this Sunday’s West Hollywood Pride, among other queer-themed events where I want to be an obvious queer Jew-ish person, but I’m so tired tonight that I’m bidding my partner a good time and staying home tomorrow. (I’ll still wear the multicolor kippah tomorrow, though – it looks  something like the one on this page. Eventually I want to get one like this.) I put on the white-and-blue one as soon as I paid for it, and my head was noticeably cooler after that, although it kept sliding down the back of my head even with the clips, which frustrated me a bit. It looks pretty much like this one on this page. (I’m also looking forward to the sage-green-and-white one that a friend of mine in the South crocheted for me when she found out that I’m converting; that should be arriving sometime next week, I hope. I’m thrilled about that one too.)

The Mogen David and its chain were from the thrift store. My best friend bought me the star, and I bought the chain. She commented that it’s important that you not buy your own first Mogen David, and the shopkeeper’s face got a look on it that I couldn’t parse. My best friend later told me “That was the look of ‘Oh, this is a REALLY important purchase.'” I had thought it was disapproval – I’m glad I was wrong.

The Mogen David’s not especially big, but it’s bright silver and pretty obvious if I’m wearing anything dark behind it (which I do, most of the time). I keep catching myself playing with it, and grinning like a loon. This is what it looks like against my T-shirt:

2014-06-06 at 15.24.22

It’s about 3/4″ (2 cm) across from the tip of one star point to the one across from it. It’s very simple but it also makes the statement: Yes, I’m Jew-ish.

And after lunch, I got my very first anti-Semitic slur as we left the district on our way back to the car after lunch. The sidewalk was a little crowded, and a young woman simply shoved past me and said “fat k-ke!” as she did so. My friend was livid, but hey, apparently the bigots haven’t forgotten the classics. I was actually just annoyed. I guess I’ve taken enough abuse for being queer that being abused for being Jew-ish was just more of the same nonsense to me. Still, it’s a first that I won’t be saying the shehecheyanu for (although I did say that for the purchase of the Mogen David and of the kippot).

We intended to make Shabbat dinner before going to services but we left it too late; between Friday traffic and being tired, we bought but did not prepare any food for Shabbat dinner. Oh, well. I now have a good kosher red wine to use for a few future Shabbat dinners, at least. Instead, we had a snack and then walked over to temple to participate in Friday night services. And this time we actually got a minyan plus one extra! I noticed that the convert couple I met at Shavuot (husband is moving towards conversion; wife is born Jewish) was there and that the rabbi counted them both as part of the minyan, so I need to find out how he determines that when we have our appointment on Tuesday.

My friend knew most of the melodies that the rabbi used, but there were a few differences from her Reform services. The service was once again lots of singing and pretty informal; the oneg was fun even though I couldn’t eat anything (again – I need to bring a gluten-free contribution next time I think). The convert couple and I exchanged contact information and the husband said he would send me the rabbi’s booklist. When the rabbi overheard that, he said “Oh, this guy’s probably read all the books – I’ll have to think of something different for him to do.” (I’m still not sure if he was kidding or not.)

My friend will be coming over on Tuesday to go to my first appointment with the rabbi with me. I’m looking forward to it instead of dreading it, so I think that’s a good sign, right?

Next weekend both my partners and I are traveling on Shabbat so I won’t be able to observe it, but I plan to get right back to observance the week after. I’m sure HaShem will understand; I’ll still pray, but it’ll be alone instead of with a group this coming weekend.

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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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