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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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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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My first Torah study session

So I went to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at my temple tonight. I found out when I got home that the loaner kippah I wore is WAY too big for my head – ack. But that’s vanity, and minor anyway.

The lessons were interesting. First, of course, we studied the giving of Torah – and the 10 “Commandments,” which (we counted) are more like 17 declarative statements and four promises, depending on whether you count each separate “covet” commandment as a new commandment, but anyway. That part of the lesson dealt with two things – what are the declarations? and what is this thing about Moses going back and forth between the people and G-d?

The first part I don’t think I need to go into detail about, partly because we weren’t allowed to take notes and my memory is not wonderful. The upshot here included a fable that the rabbi told about Moses having to justify why humans needed the Torah and angels did not. It was pretty good, actually. I wish I had a copy.

The second part had several interpretations: Moses needed to have power over the people to be an effective leader; G-d only wanted to deal with Moses; Moses was acting as a buffer/ambassador between G-d and the people much as the Americans were acting as diplomatic go-betweens at the Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel; but the one the rabbi presented us with was interesting. Here it is:

We only pray if we’re actually speaking – whether under our breath or not doesn’t matter. Our mouths have to move for it to be prayer. It has to be deliberate action. What we think is between ourselves and ourselves – our own stuff, in our own heads. It belongs to us and it doesn’t have consequences until and unless we act upon it. Essentially, by making Moses a go-between, G-d was saying “Yeah, you all know I could read your minds – but I won’t. You get the privacy of your own skulls and minds.”

I REALLY like that interpretation, and I said so. The way I was raised? G-d hears everything you think, too.

Another point of the lesson was – human beings are not perfect. We are not angels. And we are not expected to be angels. We are expected to do our best and be honest about it.

Then we got into an interesting Babylonian Talmud reading. I’m not sure how to name it (because I can’t find what I thought was the name of the tractate it’s from) but apparently it’s Shabbath 33b through 34a. This tractate is long, and I’ll come back to it in future posts I’m sure, but the upshot is: two rabbis, a father (who spoke against Rome) and a son, paid for it for 13 years of being in hiding from the Roman emperor, who had sentenced the father to death. Their being in hiding is a little weird, and I’ll talk about that in depth in another post after I’ve slept on this, but when they emerged, they were furious that the regular people were not doing what they had been doing for the last decade-plus: studying Torah. It took a while for them to be convinced that it was okay that not everyone was studying Torah in the depth that they had been (because they were in hiding – what else was there to do?). They were judgmental and self-righteous until they realized that they had judged unfairly – and it took a while.

Now the interesting thing here is that these were tied back to the original Torah study, which I guess is the point. Yes, study Torah – but yes, do the real work of life, too. One of the minyan present talked about a poster he’d seen in Israel which directly challenged the Orthodox haredi (who rarely have jobs outside of Torah study, apparently) that listed all the important rabbis and their worldly professions (vintner, doctor, cobbler, etc.), making the point that they were not just rabbis – they did their Torah study in their spare time.

After the study was over, I got to chat with E, one of the other gentlemen there, who is also converting. He encouraged me to come to daytime services when there were going to be a lot more people – and he cautioned me that when and if I do, to be sure to borrow one of the tallitot that the temple provides for people to wear during services, because that’s expected. He also said that he couldn’t find a non-Orthodox mikveh anywhere in this area, which makes me sad and stressed, but that he wasn’t in a hurry to take his dip, either. I am, but that’s me.

When I first got there, I introduced myself to the rabbi and the one other person who was there, and said “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m borrowing one of your kippot.” He said “Eh. Take it home, it’s fine.” So I did. And I felt conspicuous and completely right at the same time.

I like this temple. I hope that the rabbi and I click as well as we seem to have, tonight, when I talk to him on Tuesday.

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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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