Tag Archives: spiritual helicopters

My Father’s Yahrzeit

Today is my father’s yahrzeit (death anniversary) by the modern calendar. I have decided that, since he was not a Jew, I’m going to observe it by the modern calendar.

Normally, Jews observe yahrzeit in a couple of ways. They go to shul and say the Mourner’s Kaddish after naming their loved one who has passed on, and they light a yahrzeit candle at home. It’s just a small paraffin candle that burns for 24 hours. You’re supposed to light it at sundown on the erev, or eve, of the person’s death anniversary.

I can’t leave a candle burning unattended for 24 hours in my home. It’s too dangerous; we have cats, and I have to go to work before my husband gets home. So I am compromising by burning it for as long as I can before I leave for work, and lighting it again when I get home. I lit it last night after sundown, and cried some. It’s on my desk, next to a photo of my father and my grandmother holding my oldest child when she was an infant.

My father was my rock. He would have been proud of my conversion. He was just that kind of man. It’s because of him that singing is prayer for me. It’s because of him that I value my intellect. It’s because of him that I have been successful – he is my model for success.

Six years ago, my father died of cancer –  far too young. He was just 63. My dad had health problems all his life – headaches, back problems – but when he hit his 50s, he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. Shortly after that, he had surgery to remove a slow-growing kidney tumor.

When he was diagnosed with fast-growing esophageal cancer at 62, they did a scan to see how advanced the tumor in his throat was, and discovered his liver was raddled with it and that there was no point in doing any more surgery. They gave him a year. It was an estimate. What he got was about half that time. What eventually killed him was not the cancer, but the gangrene that set into his feet in mid-December.

It was horrifying. I still can’t think about it rationally.

But I can light a yahrzeit candle for him and say the Mourner’s Kaddish. I said it at shul on Saturday after mentioning his name. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask for his name to be listed in the synagogue bulletin with the family members of other shul members who have passed on or not, since my father was not a Jew. But I might – next year, when I’m a member of the shul and not just a conversion candidate.

Grieving is difficult. I didn’t really get to grieve when my father died. I had to help hold everyone else together. And then there was graduate school, and finding a job, and…. somewhere along the line I didn’t get the chance to really grieve. I remember saying on an old blog of mine at one point that I wished there was some kind of culturally accepted, structured grieving process for non-Jews like shiva. (Maybe that was a spiritual helicopter even then…?)

So every year, when January rolls around, the depression surges in and incapacitates me if I let it. I am hoping that burning this candle on my desk today will go some small way towards making this pain less bad.

Baruch dayan emet, they say. May his memory be for a blessing, they say.

Yes, his memory is for a blessing. Every time I think of him, it’s a blessing.

But I miss him more than I can say.

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Another Spiritual Helicopter

For a definition of “Spiritual Helicopter,” please go to this link.

Today I was late to Rosh Hashanah services. I mean, I was LAAAAAAATE, okay? I misread my ticket and thought that services started at 11:00. I showed up at 10:40 and they were just getting to the Torah reading.

Oops. Services started at 10. It’s Yom Kippur that starts at 11.

I got into the sanctuary, into the way-back-in-the-back with the temporary seating in the social hall, and tried not to cry. For about five minutes. Beating myself up for making a mistake – again. Beating myself up for being late to shul ON ROSH HASHANAH, of all days.

Beating myself up.

Oh. Wait. Didn’t I say, just this morning, that I was going to stop beating myself up for small mistakes? Was anyone else going to care that I made this mistake except me? Was God really going to be offended because I wasn’t on time when I spent at least ten minutes hunting for parking (there’s no parking lot at our shul), really? Did something this minor really matter?

And that’s when the spiritual helicopter showed up. I swear this is not me hallucinating. It didn’t come in words, exactly, but more of a sense. A sense that communicated this:

My son, the God you were told about when you were a child is not Me. I won’t hit you for making a simple mistake. 

I suppose I’ve been told to put my (spiritual) money where my (spiritual) mouth is, nu?

Because then I did cry. Not much, but I did cry – the tears of someone who’s been under pressure after the pressure is lifted.

I have to remember that God is not a spiritual bully. My mother was, but He isn’t.

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Counting My Blessings: Gratitude is a Choice

28 Sivan 5774

Even before I realized that Judaism was the path I needed to take, I was doing things that were Jewish. Gratitude has been one of the main ones, but it wasn’t always that way.

My partner, bless him, is an everlasting optimist. He rejects the negative in the same way I rejected the positive. He may get hurt sometimes, but he’s generally happier.

Two years ago this January, I posted something to my private LiveJournal blog about religion. I noodled about the idea that religion might be more about practice than belief – which, for me at the time, was a completely novel concept. I talked about studies I’d read that show that religious people seem to be happier and more grounded than people who are not religious. I wrote about AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically and what the author seemed to get out of following every rule in the Bible for a year (which he did not expect): more calm, more focus, and more aware of his life and what was going on around him. I admitted, even back then, that even if you do not believe in the deity in question, the practices do things to and for you that you can’t get otherwise.

I think this was a helicopter too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that religious people are happier, and that the reason might be the practices, rather than the beliefs, really shook me up.

That post also had me admitting that I had a problem with Something being out there that I couldn’t sense with my five senses, but instead of saying “and so there’s no proof of it,” for possibly the first time in my life I asked if maybe there was something broken about me, that I couldn’t sense this Something that everyone else seemed to be able to sense. And I admitted that my anger at people who believed in G-d (at the time) was because I was scared that their ability to sense/perceive G-d when I couldn’t might be evidence of me being broken or wrong – and I know I’ve already discussed the roots of that particular hangup here in this blog, since.

It was a big step for me at the time, realizing that I needed a religion that was practice-focused, even if I didn’t say it in quite those words. I did admit at that time that I missed the practice of religion, even though I was still totally turned off by the belief systems.

In the spring of last year, I attended Renaissance Faire several times during the season for the first time as a prospective volunteer, rather than just a patron. At the end of the Faire season I was invited into a Faire family, and the open acceptance blew me away. It blew me away, in part, because logically I saw no reason why I should have been invited or accepted, but I still was. I admitted at that time that “logic is how to go perfectly wrong with confidence,” and that with my doctoral degree in social science I really ought to have admitted that humans are illogical, and run with that, instead of insisting on logic. I apologized to people who I’d been angry towards because of their religious beliefs. And I said “My insistence on logic and my rejection of anything that didn’t have hard concrete proof? Was my own stupidity and arrogance and…. misguided protection of the vulnerable person inside me, that didn’t know how to believe or trust without organization and structure and proof and logic.”

Then, this past January, I realized I was only looking at the negative things in my life – money worries, problems with my health, issues with my students. I’d always called that “realism,” but let’s be honest here; it was pessimism. For me, the positive simply didn’t exist.

At the same time, my partner the optimist had read a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and he shared some of it with me. One thing that struck me was that research had shown that if you ask someone to list three things they’re grateful for every morning, their focus eventually shifts and becomes less pessimistic and more optimistic. If there had been no research, I probably would have pooh-poohed it, shrugged, and ignored it. But I’m a researcher, and so I am convinced by research evidence… so I decided to try it.

At first it was hard to come up with things I was grateful for. And it was equally hard not to think of them as trivial. But having a hot cup of coffee in the morning – I was grateful for that. I was grateful for this amazing apartment that my partner and I moved into last fall. I was grateful that I had friends who would reach out to me when I was hurting. So I began listing three things I was grateful for, every morning, and posting them to my Facebook as a sort of gratitude-accountability thing. At first, it felt really awkward – as any new habit does.

But then something amazing happened. I got happier. Slowly, but surely, I got happier. Sure, I still have my bad moments, but I can’t deny that I got happier by simply reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for.

How does this tie to Judaism? Well, most Jewish prayers aren’t about petitioning G-d for things. They rarely, if ever, say “G-d, do this or that for me, please.” They’re about praise and/or gratitude: Praised are you, G-d, for your works. Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who makes me sleep peacefully. Thank you, G-d, for being there for me when it hurts; for giving me a body that works;  for this food which sustains me; for giving us the Torah at Sinai.

The Modeh Ani, one of the first prayers taught to children after the Sh’ma, is a waking-up prayer that starts the day with gratitude:

מוֹדֶהאֲנִילְפָנֶֽיךָמֶֽלֶךְחַיוְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּבִּינִשְׁמָתִיבְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּהאֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃

Modeh ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, raba emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; your faithfulness is great.

So Jewish prayer is rarely a petition for help; it tends to be a thank-you note or letter to G-d instead.

And now, having gone through this gratitude practice for over half a year, I am ready to pray that way.

Maybe I had to go through these seismic shifts in order to find a religion that was based on practice and gratitude. Maybe I wouldn’t have found Judaism if I hadn’t gone through them. So that’s another thing to be grateful for, isn’t it? Thank you, G-d, for the seismic shifts. Thank you for your still, small voice. Thank you for being there and being patient. Thank you for my yiddishe neshama and my pintele yid.

I’m thankful for my readership – you folks. I’m thankful for my mind, that allows me to take these steps and make these changes. I’m thankful that the rabbi accepted me as a conversion candidate.

What are you thankful for today?

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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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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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Shabbat Shalom!

By my handy Hebrew timer app, I should be lighting my candles around 7:39 tonight. I’ll have to do it earlier than that, though, and my timing won’t be as good as it could be. My partner is not off work until 6:30 and he’s running two errands AND picking up our guest on the way home; the chance he’ll be here before sundown is very, very low.

So, this is me being a pragmatic Reform Jew. I’ll adjust. Candles will be lit at 7, kiddush (and ha-motzi) will be said right after, and then I’ll cook most of the meal that can’t be served until probably 8:15. HaShem will understand.

2014-05-30 at 17.25.58

That is the gluten-free “challah” that I made myself today. I used this recipe, with a couple of tweaks: I used olive oil (vegetable oil gives me problems) and Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose flour. My other flour was coconut flour. I would have used coconut oil but I couldn’t get the jar open (sad face).

The recipe did NOT make enough batter to fill up the mold I bought from Amazon, however, so I’m thinking about buying the smaller one too, and perhaps even one that makes chalets. But first I need to know how this turned out, and I don’t, not yet. I also need a whisk (ours broke when we moved here); I had to make do with a fork when the yeast was proofing, and it didn’t bubble much.

2014-05-30 at 17.25.52

There’s the Kiddush cup and candlesticks I talked about, too, with the challah decently covered. Please ignore my ebook in the background. I’ll be setting the table once everything’s in the oven and on the stove.

I still have some pre-prep to do (onion chopping, mainly) for the dinner, but most of the dishes are ready to go, so it’s mostly “combine these things and put them in the oven/on the stove” at this point. I’ll save most of the challah for my partner and our guest, and just have a little bit myself to say the prayers over, since I don’t want to make either of them uncomfortable.

I had lunch today with a Jewish friend who greeted me with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” as he walked up to me outside the restaurant. I was caught almost off guard and then was able to repeat it back. I don’t think we got any stares, even though we talked incessantly about Judaism and my conversion process both before and during lunch. This friend is not even observant, but he’s glad for me. (He said “Just don’t schedule your conversion simcha during my qualifying exams!” – he’s a graduate student friend from grad school.)

The book I’m currently reading – Diamante’s Choosing A Jewish Life – says that one of the things that the beit din look for during the interview is the use of “we” and “us” instead of “you” and “they.” All during that conversation it was “we” and “us,” pretty much, with a few exceptions when I was alluding to my life before deciding to convert. And it felt natural. It felt totally natural.

Yes, HaShem. I see the helicopter.

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May 30, 2014 · 6:12 pm

Ch-ch-ch-changes… and an appeal to my readers.

24 Iyyar 5774

So my partner told me today that he’s a little worried about my conversion changing me or making me want to leave him.

It’s a normal fear, I suppose. I just don’t quite know how to address it. And this isn’t the usual fear that converts face: my partner and I are queer. That does make it different, because there’s so few resources out there for people like us.

Now, I can’t imagine a future where I would leave him, for any reason. From my conversations with the people at the local temple yesterday, I don’t think that they would make him uncomfortable, or me either, just for being GLBT or for being an interfaith couple. When I brought it up last night, the rabbinical student said, “You will not be the first ones here.”

He was also worried that I was going to start keeping kosher, but I reassured him that that’s not going to happen, because of my own current dietary restrictions. But I can see his point. I will be praying a lot more than I have been, which up until I decided that conversion was right for me, was zero times per day.  I’ll be wearing a kippah most of the time, so it will change how I look. And those are mostly just surface changes.

Frankly, I think that he will enjoy some of the other changes – like the fact that I won’t feel the need to talk religious people down (although I still reserve the right to call certain religious people out on their bad behavior, but that’s a different thing). I’m already calmer than I was, and I think I’m happier. And I think he sees that. He’s already said he thinks this is a positive change for me.

I’m sure that part of his worry is: what will me being Jewish do to our sex life? And I’ve been wrestling with that in my own time, with a few trusted correspondents. Let me put it this way: I’m not going to let it damage our sex life.

But I think most of what he’s worried about is just the changes he can’t predict. The unknowns. And I can understand that.

So, since there are so few resources out there for queer people in this situation, I could use some help from my readership. Is there anything that you can think of that might make him really uncomfortable, that I can address now, to make it less scary? Any ways in which I can help him so that he doesn’t feel so threatened? Any heads-ups I should be giving him now?

And, while I’m at it: does anyone have any advice for me? I don’t mean just about my partner’s worries, but about my own coming out process as I begin to tell friends and family members what I’ve chosen to do. Really, I think one of the things that is stressing me out the most is that so few people that I care about know that I am moving towards conversion to a religious path, after being so vehemently atheist for so many years. When I came out as queer, there was one friend who was very dear to me that completely rejected me and never spoke to me again. That still hurts, and it’s been 14 years since it happened. And just in the last week, reading Facebook and another blog site that I’m part of, I see my atheist friends running down religious people simply because they’re religious, making really nasty and hurtful comments, and just generally being as intolerant as fundamentalist religionists are of anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

It took me over 20 years to understand that I can’t measure spirituality using the same tool as I used and still do use for the material world. I can’t expect my atheist friends to make the same shift as I have.

But it occurs to me I should probably document why I have.

I’ve mentioned the helicopters before. One of them was an article about near death experiences. What convinced me that they have to be the real thing – which means there has to be a soul or something beyond what our material self produces by electrical flashes in the brain – was that the people who went through the NDE could independently verify things that happened while they had absolutely no brain activity. Their lack of brain activity is a matter of medical record, and yet they knew things that they could not possibly know, if the “personality and self are entirely made up of electrical flashes in the brain” school of thought is true.

I am a scientist. At this point, the only explanation that fits the evidence is: there is a soul.  It is independent of the body. And we don’t understand anything about it.

Another helicopter is one I’ve talked about at length here: the fact that I equated my mother’s abuse with how G-d operates. When I realized that my view of G-d was based largely on a faulty filter system, that changed everything for me.

But do I expect these helicopters to mean anything to my friends who are atheist? No. I will be pleased and surprised if they do, but I expect to lose quite a few friends when I come out and say, “Hey, guess what? I’m converting to Reform Judaism.”

My partner is much more understanding than my atheist friends will probably be. For one thing, he believes in G-d. But he still has fears and I can understand that. So please, give me some ways to help him deal with the fears that he’s going to have.

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Identities, Judaism

Wrestling Match #5: Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth

13 Iyyar 5774

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

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

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

None of that prepared me for last night.

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

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

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

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

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

MEDITATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Adonai. I needed that.

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

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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism