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Shocheradam And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Erev Shabbat

Ever have one of those Shabbats that goes so fantastically wrong that you can’t imagine it ever going right again? Read on.


 

Sad

“Sad,” by Kristina Alexanderson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

I really should know better than to write about perfection.

After I put up my post that I made just before the Friday Feature, it feels like everything just went south for me this Shabbat, or at least on erev Shabbat. I had to go to a job HR intake thing that I did not feel prepared for, for starters, having got the command, er, invitation to come in at 10 on Friday morning the previous night. I do not do well with “Surprise! Come here RIGHT NOW!” kinds of e-mails at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. It had been quite a rough week, all things considered. So, resigned to losing my entire usual erev Shabbat morning routine, I went in. The HR person was not a nice person. I felt very conspicuous in my kippah, which made me feel defensive. Probably not the best thing.

I wasn’t in the best of shape when I got out of that meeting. First there was the exhaustion that happens after I have to meet someone new under circumstances I don’t control. Then there were student emails to answer and other work to do that I normally do in the mornings, which was now pushed to the afternoon. Then there was the nap that took away most of the later afternoon. Then there was the realization that someone I’d added on Facebook was a person I had had a very bad interaction with under an IRC handle 12 years ago, and being shook up over that as I defriended them. And the issues the HR person continued to send to me in e-mail all afternoon, some of which are fires I can do nothing about until Monday. And we didn’t really have lunch as such; we just had a late breakfast, so I had a lovely low-blood-sugar episode that I didn’t realize was low blood sugar until I was far beyond the point of no return, and ended up babbling and incoherent, as well as weepy and unable to cope. The phrase that I, and most of my friends, use for this situation is “out of spoon error.” Go read this link for more on that. (Basically, when I’m that low on cope, I become a babbling idiot and I can’t even find my own feet without help.)

Long story short, we didn’t even make it to the grocery, so I started Shabbat (such as it was) without any grape juice or challah, no new flowers on the table, and a sink still full of dirty dishes (morning stuff that didn’t get done thanks to the HR intake intervention blah blah). I resigned myself to a dinner of reheated random leftovers, with no candles, kiddush, or ha-motzi. Basically, my life became a whole big world of no, after the sun went down.

And then, thinking that at least I’d make a loaf of my grain-free challah and bring it with me to Saturday morning service’s Kiddush as I had promised to last Shabbat, I managed to instead make the stand mixer lurch across the counter, flinging hardened batter everywhere and wasting ingredients that don’t exactly come cheap.

Suffice to say that it was a really bad way to go into Shabbat.

Fortunately, after sleeping on it, things seemed some better. We did go to services on Saturday morning and it was refreshing, and my stories of the demon-possessed stand mixer after services were over made people laugh (although I promised that next time I would absolutely have grain-free challah for them for morning Kiddush). Singing the service is getting easier already; I’ve been picking up the melodies. The Torah teaching session that seems to be a standard part of the services was enlightening and made me feel like I belonged, since I could contribute to it intelligently. My partner looked, well, very Jewish in the green handmade kippah I loaned him. And just being among fellow Jews was a hugely calming thing.

Last week, when praying the Birkhot Haschachar, I sang Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam with everyone else. Where our congregation then sings the rest of each prayer in English, however, I fell silent at the line “Thank you for making me a Jew.” This week, I sang it out with everyone else, with tears stinging my eyes. It was a much-needed reminder: I may still be a ways off from my entry into the mikveh and full membership in the Tribe, but my soul is a Jewish soul. And like I said on Friday afternoon, I do not have to be perfect to be a Jew. I just have to keep trying to do a little bit better each time.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’asani Yisra-eil.

 

 

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It’s Erev Shavuot – Chag Sameach!

5 Sivan 5774

(Literally, “Good Festival” in Hebrew – and according to JewFaq.org, it’s one of the three times during the year when it’s most appropriate to say that – Pesach and Sukkot being the other two.)

I’m done with my grading for the spring classes (thanks to some help) and today I file grades, and I’ll be done with that mishegaas finally. From now on I just have to keep up with the online intersession class. This also means I can start writing again; something I’ve been putting off due to the whirlwind of classes and students.

I’ve heard back from the rabbi and we’ve finalized a date for a first meeting – next Tuesday, June 10th (12 Sivan). I’m excited and nervous, and making lists of the books I’ve read and trying to come up with good questions to ask. Anyone have suggestions?

My partner linked something on my Facebook wall about Shavuot this morning, and wished me a happy Shavuot when he got to work and sent me his usual “I made it, I’m safe, love you, have a good day” text. My best friend was over yesterday and she brought me a Mogen David to wear until we make it to the Fairfax district on Friday morning, as well as giving me a gorgeous set of tallit clips that, she says, “ought to be used.” (Yes, I am verklempt.)

Tonight I’m going to be at temple, studying Torah until I get tired, and then I’ll come home and sleep the sleep of the exhausted. But in between now and then, I’m going to make at least one loaf of my grain-free challah so I can take it with me to the study session at temple (because I should provide the noshes I can eat instead of expecting anyone else to, that’s why), and plan out cooking for tomorrow and Thursday. My partner, unfortunately, works the swing shift both days so he won’t be home to have dinner, but there will be leftovers.

Apart from food, I want to talk a little bit about what this day means to me as a Jew-by-choice. Shavuot is one of those smaller holidays, from what I’ve read, and many secular Jews who still celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur don’t observe it. I think that’s a little sad, considering it’s the day we observe the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah. But it’s also a harvest festival – the bringing of the first fruits – and a celebration of what Jews do best: study and learn.

There are reasons that children are often introduced to Torah study on Shavuot, and why (from what I understand) graduation from Hebrew school and confirmation ceremonies happen on or near Shavuot. So it’s not just a celebration of the harvest or the day that Jews became the Chosen People. It’s also a celebration of the ongoing need to study and learn. Although there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot, I think an argument could be made that the mitzvot associated with Torah study are central to it.

As an academic, I think that Shavuot may hold a special place in my heart as I develop as a Jew. In a month or so I’ll celebrate the second anniversary of my dissertation defense, and that’s a big deal to me. I teach and learn for a living as a college professor (adjunct or not, I’m still a professor). Shavuot, for me, may become the day that I reaffirm my commitment not just to the Torah and to the Jewish people (although that’s a big part of it) but to studying, teaching, and learning as my life-work.

So have a blintz and pick up your Torah, and chag sameach to you all.

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Getting My Feet Wet: The Outcome

It turned out to be a very small service. They were one person short of a minyan (if I had already been Jewish in fact and not just in wish, they would have had one). Lots of singing. Good conversation afterwards. Nobody blinked at me being queer. Nobody blinked at pretty much anything. I felt accepted.

Turns out the reason the rabbi hasn’t responded yet is that he’s on vacation this week and moving house. Hey, I’m not going to press him for an answer in that case! I was able to talk to the rabbinical student who ran the service and to one of the older members afterwards. I only felt awkward once, when they realized they didn’t have a minyan because I wasn’t Jewish (yet). And they still offered me wine or grape juice for the kiddush blessing anyway, which shocked me (I didn’t know a non-Jew could be included in that).

One of the women had come to say the Kaddish for her late father, but because there was no minyan, that couldn’t happen. But when I said during the social time after the service was over that I wished I had been able to give them their minyan, but that I wasn’t Jewish, two people said “Yet.” When I explained about my allergies, they said “Then why not make potato-flour challah and say the hamotzi over it? I don’t think HaShem would have any problem with that.”

Yes, it was a good experience. Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be back. And I look good in a kippah!

(For those who are confused; my kids and I and my ex had a communication malfunction; they’re going to be here next weekend, not this weekend, which is why I was able to go tonight.)

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My First Shabbat Service: Diving in Headfirst with Both Feet

23 Iyyar 5774

After an hour-long wrestling match with myself and my nerves, I’m going to go to my very first Shabbat service tonight.

I haven’t heard back from the rabbi (yet), so he may take the traditional route of making me approach him three times, or he may just not have had time to respond (it is the daylight before Shabbat services; I’m sure he has a lot of stuff to deal with today!).

But I’m still going to walk over to the Friday night Shabbat service tonight. On my own.

I’m nervous, but I’m not going to let the knot in my stomach convince me that it’s anything more than nervousness. This is not anxiety, it is not panic, it is not fear. It’s just nerves. It’s nerves just like I get any other time I have to do something new (I did mention I’m high-functioning autistic, right?). And I’m not about to let nerves stop me.

So I have to find something appropriate to wear, and I’ve been given advice about that – a good button-down shirt and a pair of nice jeans will be fine. I can do that. I don’t have slacks right now (I’ve lost weight over the last year and nothing fits!) but I should be able to manage basic business casual. I hope.

I also hope that my Hebrew studies will help me with keeping my place in the siddur, and that I won’t do anything too obviously not-Jewish during the service. (I do know that any time the Ark is open I have to stand up, right?)

It just occurred to me that I’d better eat before I go, too, as the oneg will very likely not have grain-free or gluten-free options, and I don’t know how long the service will last. So I’m going to go do that now.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about this experience, and on Sunday I’m going to try to write about sin – specifically sins of omission. I will try to figure out whether just not talking about certain aspects of my life counts as a sin of omission, or as just keeping my privacy intact.

But tonight, I’m going to see what it’s really like, going to an actual Shabbat service. I’ve been to a seder, a wedding, and a bar mitzvah – and now I want to see what a regular weekly service is really like.

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Here goes nothing: A letter to the rabbi

So after my earlier nervous breakdown, I took myself in hand and said “Self, this is nonsense. You know it’s the next step. Take it already.”

So I did. My letter follows below.

Dear Rabbi,

My name is [shocheradam], and I am interested in converting to Judaism. I send you this request in email because I am partially deaf and hearing on the phone is sometimes difficult for me. I lip-read quite well, however, and in person most people can’t tell I have a hearing loss.

I have been feeling what I can only describe as a “pull” for some time, but I have not had words for it until I was able to talk in-depth with a Jewish friend of mine about her religious path. Since then, I have been studying Judaism and finding answers to questions I’ve never had answers for before.

To date, I have read about two-thirds of Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Literacy,” Ronald Isaacs’ “Becoming Jewish,” Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” and Kushner’s “To Life!” I am currently reading through Kertzer and Hoffman’s “What is A Jew?” I have also put Diamante’s book on order at the local library and should soon be able to read that as well, along with several other books I haven’t had time to read just yet due to work constraints (I’m a teacher and it’s the end of the term).

In addition, I have been reading everything I can find on the Web about Judaism and conversion, from aish.org and chabad.org to Reform Judaism sites. I have joined two message boards for Jewish converts and have found some answers there. I have started a blog about this process, both to work out my own ideas and thoughts and to provide an eventual resource for future converts.

Most of my friends would find it very strange that I want to convert to Judaism, because I have been a fairly staunch atheist for the last decade and more, and I was raised evenly split between Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist evangelical Christian prior to that. However, I can only say that in my ongoing exploration of this pull I am feeling, I have been like Samuel, who heard G-d calling but didn’t know, at first, what he was hearing. That’s the best way I can put it. My partner also observes that every year (around my birthday in April), I go on a hunt for G-d. This year, that hunt didn’t end two weeks after it started, which tells me that I’m on to something real.

Professionally, I am a college teacher, and I have a deep love for learning. In my head, this process has felt rather like preparing for my dissertation defense. Knowing me, I can prepare forever on my own and I still won’t feel like I’m entirely “ready” to reach out for guidance. I am therefore pushing myself to do it anyway (I can always find one more thing I “have to” do before I’m “ready,” even if I’ve been “ready” for months by any reasonable standard).

As I live within a very short walking distance from your synagogue (which seems to me quite serendipitous!) I would also like to know more about [temple name] than I have been able to discover on the website alone. I am glad to see that you are a welcoming congregation that accepts GLBT and interfaith couples, as my partner and I would be both.

Having now dropped all this in your lap, I would like to request a meeting with you, at your convenience, so that we might discuss whether I would be a suitable candidate for conversion under your guidance.

Sincerely,

[shocheradam]

So… we’ll see what happens next.

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

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

But still.

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

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

… except I don’t. Not always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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