#BlogElul 10: Memory

When I began to realize that I couldn’t run from Judaism any more, I was living in a small Asian country whose only known synagogue was a gathering of Jewish people in a hotel somewhere in the capital.  Not an ideal place to begin my Jewish journey.  Yet, I couldn’t deny that I felt some kind of yearning to participate when I heard two of the Jewish participants in the program conversing with each other at orientation discussing plans for attending the High Holy Days services.  “I want to come too!” I thought to myself, even though I knew this was not possible. 

At a loss for what to do next, I started to do what I always do when I feel confused: I went out, I bought a journal, and I began writing. 

As I began to write, one of the first things I wrote about was that without ever having been raised Jewish, I had a wealth of Jewish memories.  It’s a peculiar quirk of my childhood that I grew up surrounded by Jews, though at a secular school, and Jewish culture was very much embedded into our school atmosphere.  I had memories of learning the four questions for the reenactment of the Passover seder for our annual assembly.  In kindergarten, we learned for the first time the story of Queen Esther and Haman, and got much delight in eating hamentaschen and twirling our groggers around.  Latkes, rugelach, and the deliciously tinned apple juice and matzo we ate in school are vivid in my memory, as is the vibrant yellow of the daffodils we pinned to ourselves at each Passover assembly.  By the time seventh grade was over, I’d been to dozens of bar and bat mitzvahs, and the line Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam had sunk into my head, never to be forgotten. 

I recognize that these are very superficial Jewish memories, but it’s the power of ritualistic acts to create a sense of memory that can be easily recalled, and for me, this was an important starting point. Judaism is the religion I feel most comfortable in and around, the one whose rituals and stories I have soaked in as a child. 

Yet, paradoxically, now I find myself worrying and wondering how I am going to create Jewish memories for future children.  I feel tremendously underequipped to do so without the help of family, and while I know I will have the support of a congregation in filling in the gaps, it’s not quite the same.  

It’s simultaneously liberating and daunting to imagine creating my own sense of meaning out of these timeless rituals to build my Jewish memory as a Jew, and to transmit that memory through the generations as Jews have done for centuries.  I’ll take it one step at a time, and there’s no right or wrong way to do any of this, but the desire to create memories and make them meaningful is undeniably strong. 

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#BlogElul 9: Blessings

I am very much a glass half-full type person, and I find that life is better when I learn to look for and appreciate blessings all around me.  And really, truth be told, I don’t have to look far, because the number of ways in which I am blessed is somewhat astounding.  In a “pinch me, I don’t think this is real,” kind of way. I have friends who are like family to me, I have a family who loves and accepts me, I have a partner who truly is a partner in every sense of the word and stands by, unwavering in his support of this journey even when it doesn’t necessarily behoove him to do so, I am about to enter a profession that excites me and fills me with enthusiasm, I have my health back after a long struggle.  It’s amazing how richly blessed I am, if only for the fact that something makes me laugh and smile each day.

So how does this all relate to blessings, other than the obvious?

Well, I’m a strong believer in the idea that what you put out comes back to you – maybe not immediately, but eventually, someday, somehow, we all get our just desserts. How tasty those desserts are depends on (I believe) the kind of person we have been.

This is a powerful thing to think about during Elul, as we try and take stock of ourselves and prepare to make amends.  If we are honest with ourselves and truly try and change the less desirable parts of ourselves, or even frame things from a more positive standpoint and aim to do more (be involved in acts of chesed, step up our tzedakah giving, or work more earnestly in pursuit of tikkun olam), we send more good out into the world.  And positive things multiply. To quote Dar Williams, “it echoes, all over the world.” And more good begets more blessings. And everyone ends up happier.  And if the world is a happier place, maybe we have accomplished an act of chesed and come one step closer to repairing the world as we are commanded to do.  And that is truly a blessing.

#BlogElul 8: Prayer

It began with an eyelash. And then some birthday candles. And then everything I could possibly make a wish on.  And my wishes, or prayers, were answered.  

That’s powerful stuff for a 12 year old, and it’s what led me to investigate religion and spirituality more deeply and set me on the path I am on today.  

Since then, I have come to rely on prayer throughout my daily life.  Sometimes it’s those trivial ones we blurt off without a thought “please don’t let the bus come before I reach the corner” is a frequent refrain in my life.  But more often than not, prayer is the tool I use to gain clarity and insight on a situation.  Somehow, after prayer, my intuition always seems stronger, my perspective more insightful, and my decision making stronger.  I see answers to my prayers in “signs” (whether coincidental or not, I don’t really care, the point is, they help me) big and small, and usually when I listen to my intuition after praying on something, I make the right choice.  What sort of right choices? Graduate school. Jobs. Relationships. Decisions big and small. It’s when I don’t listen to the answers to my prayers that I get into trouble.  

Prayer is essential to me. It’s the evidence that bolsters my faith.  It’s certainly not a fail-proof method, but for me, my prayer life is an integral part of sustaining my spiritual life.  I’d be lost without it. 

#BlogElul 7: Shofar

I’ve never heard the shofar blown before in honor of the new year, and I won’t start this year, it doesn’t seem, since my temple apparently organizes a communal hike and climbs a local peak before blowing it.  If that’s the case, I’m sorry to have to miss it, but it seems very appropriate to me, sounding out the majestic tones of the shofar surrounded by the beauty of nature. 

#BlogElul 6: Faith

Faith.

It’s so simple and yet so hard.

We speak of having a child-like faith, and if you’ve ever encountered small children, you know instinctively what this means. Children ask questions, but they also have an enormous capacity to accept. To wonder. To be struck by the magnificence of the world around us. To believe.

As adults, we lose that. Reality, rationality, life – they all play their part in trying to chip away at our capacity to believe. To have faith.  Sometimes, it feels that in order to have faith, to believe, we must suspend disbelief.  Strict rationality and faith often seem incompatible, but there’s always that child-like part of us that wants to believe. Sometimes, it’s comforting to not ask so many questions and just have faith, other times it’s excruciatingly difficult.  In what other scenario does saying that you are turning over your trust not just to another person, but to a higher power NOT sound slightly nuts?

For me though, faith comforts us in our darkest moments.  It keeps us going.  It’s that one thing we cling to, almost instinctively sometimes, when things are truly terrible.

I was reminded of this fact again last weekend at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I’d never been, and very much wanted to, especially now, at this stage of my life.  As I went through, I felt duly sickened and horrified by the details I learned, the small facts that broke my heart and made me want to cry, yet also heartened and inspired by the small or collective acts of resistance that saved Jews who would otherwise have been condemned.  At the very end of the exhibit, there was a film playing, and in it, survivors talked of braving terrible atrocities and punishments just to celebrate Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah.  In the midst of the suffering, the death, the absolute inhumane conditions, the spark never went out.  People kept their faith, believed that one day the horror would end, thanked God for blessing them with humanity that their persecutors seemed to lack.

That’s amazing. In the midst of circumstances designed to break the human body and soul, to crush out every last ounce of personhood, faith remained alive.  I know that there are those who lost their faith, feeling that God abandoned them by allowing such a tragedy to happen, but I prefer to focus on the fact that for many others, faith did not die.  It endured, it survived, it grew.

How incredible is that?

#BlogElul 5: Trust

Trust is hard.  To trust in someone, to trust in something, is scary. It’s difficult. It’s hard.  It involves so many unknowns, but more than that, it requires making yourself open to so many vulnerabilities.  And that’s scary.   When we choose to put our trust in something, we have no way of knowing if that trust is misplaced, whether our hopes will pay off or whether they will be crushed.

We trust our hearts to those we love not knowing if we will be heartbroken in return.  We trust that people who care for our loved ones, who are in positions of authority, will not harm or violate basic human decency, but time and again it happens.  And yet, somehow we still manage to trust.  Our trust may be fragile at times, it may be easily broken or damaged, but it’s very resilient.  When you learn to trust again after pain, it’s simultaneously terrifying and rewarding.

For me, taking the plunge to convert involved a lot of trust, mainly in myself.  Now, this might seem like an odd thing to say, but I’ve trusted in other faiths before and ultimately come away disappointed, back at square one.  To trust that this really is the right path for me is downright difficult and scary at times.  I had a moment last night when looking for potential birthday present suggestions to send to my friends that I’m really doing this.  Somehow, by looking at pieces of Judaica I hope to acquire (challah plate, havdalah sets, kiddush cups, etc), it makes it that much more real.  And scarier.

But I have to trust that the initial spark of Judaism that was lit when I was all of twelve years old never went out for a reason.  If it’s lasted from the ages of twelve to twenty-seven, then I have to trust in that.  I’m exploring unknown parts of myself, engaging in introspective and sometimes quite painful or difficult discussions as I go, but I trust that this is right.  That this time is for real.  And so I take a deep breath, calm down, and continue to soak up this wonderful faith and to make it my own.

#BlogElul 4: Counting

Counting gives us something to do. It gives us a way to concretely mark milestones as we drift through the passage of time, gives us an active way of making progress. It guides us through the year as we count down the number of days in the month, the transition from beginning to end, the transition from holiday to holiday, the number of days until Shabbat, the number of hours until we thoughtfully break fast after Yom Kippur, slowly, inexorably marching through the year until we start afresh again.  

Now we count the last days of the year, before we count the Days of Awe, the period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but before we do that, we count the days of Elul, to prepare ourselves for those ten days, and then when it is over, we will continue counting, with renewed and different purpose until we find ourselves here again. 

In a world that often feels rushed, harried, topsy-turvy, the steady rhythm of counting the days, the moments, the minutes and hours gives structure, gives meaning, to our existence.  There’s something really beautiful about that. 

#BlogElul 3: Intention

Creating intent and the proper mindset for my religious practice is not something that is coming easily to me.  I love the rest and relaxation of Shabbat, the time I give myself to disconnect from the world, but over the summer at least, it’s been hard to keep my intentions (grand, lofty ones) about Shabbat and my practice coherent and consistent.  

Having never been raised with a religious practice, even things like learning to get comfortable praying from a set text and a book is a new experience, and I find myself a little frustrated that I start then stop, then start again with different aspects of practice, but I suppose that’s all part of the continuum that is my Jewish experience.  The one constant part of my practice thus far has been candle lighting on Shabbat, and as I told my rabbi, it’s become the anchor for my intentions regarding practice.  I haven’t done kiddush or hamotzi in ages (though I intend to do both this week to try and get myself back into the swing of things), but unless I’m traveling, I light my candles.  I find it too hard to get into the mindset of Shabbat otherwise, to really tune out from the world and to fight the temptation to check Facebook if those two candles aren’t lit.  

There’s something magic about that moment, when your eyes are closed just after you’ve lit the candles and recited the blessings.  Your intentions and prayers for the week seem clearer, everything else seems less pressing and urgent, and it’s a pure moment of introspection before resuming the more mundane experience of eating a meal.  Of all the things I have learned so far, this experience and the impact it has on my intentions is by far the most powerful aspect of my Jewish life. Now I just need to start growing and cultivating that into something more, so that the spirit of those brief moments permeates my intentions the other days and hours of the week. 

#BlogElul 2: Inventory

It’s a foreign experience, taking stock for the new year. I’ve made it a habit for the past several years to do a year in recap type post somewhere on the internet at the turn of the calendar year, but this year feels different.  Perhaps it’s because part of reflecting in the lead up to Yom Kippur is thinking about those you may have wronged, and asking for their forgiveness. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to reflect on things accomplished and goals to achieve than thinking about yourself as a person, doing a self-inventory and figuring out where you come up short and what you would like to improve in the next year. 

My rabbi set me the latter as my task for this season of Elul, and it’s a struggle, honestly.  I don’t know how to begin taking an inventory of how I’ve behaved towards others over the past year.  Sure, there are small moments where I have caused hurt or pain, sometimes even frustration or anger, but I am someone who hates to have a conflict linger, and so I strive to make amends immediately. The forgiveness has been obtained, but how do I work to prevent the situations that caused the hurt in the first place?  

What about striving to be the person I hope to be? Someone who is consistently kind, helpful and caring, someone who does not gossip or “snark,” (a real guilty pleasure of mine), or at least limits how nasty they get in their snark?  Sometimes it’s hard not to go overboard when mocking things or people you find to be absolutely ridiculous and beyond the pale, but where do you draw the line?  

It’s something I think about constantly, and maybe this should be the one thing I try and work on for myself for the coming year.  I do think it is possible to criticize without being mean-spirited, but more than I’d like, I cross that line.  After all, though I don’t strictly follow the Jewish laws of lashon hara (evil speech, the laws that govern speaking derogatorily about another), I think they are sound principles to keep in mind.   Just because someone puts it all out there on the internet does not mean I have to rise to the temptation to be nasty and mock them as much as I possibly can.  At least, that’s what I will try to do. My inventory is a work in progress, but that’s a good starting place. 

#BlogElul 1: Return

Return.

It’s a central concept to the Jewish people; the eternal quest to return to the land of Israel, to return to a home not seen for generations, a home that existed in memory only.  Yet, as soon as I saw this word on the #BlogElul challenge, my thoughts immediately went in a different direction.

Yesterday, I sat with two dear college friends catching up after months of not seeing each other.  I am “out” to both about my conversion process (which remains a fairly closely held secret, partly because I don’t really feel like having a conversation with everyone I know on Facebook about my decision, and partly because I’m not sure how the news will be received by many of my friends who grew up Jewish.  There’s a lot of politics involved in deciding to convert to Judaism at times, and it’s not something I feel ready to delve into yet.  Those who matter know, and that’s what counts.)

As the conversation took different twists and turns, eventually one of the friends asked “so, how are you enjoying being a Jew?” I didn’t quite know how to respond at first because I had to take a moment to adjust to the different phrasing (usually I’m asked how my conversion process is going).  And then I smiled and said that though I wasn’t officially a Jew yet, it was going well, and it still feels like the right decision.

One of the reasons I took this #BlogElul challenge upon myself is because my rabbi asked me to prepare myself for Tishrei by reflecting, and writing is one of the best ways for me to engage in reflection.  But I’m also excited to do this because this is the first year of being Jewish where I will celebrate an entire year, from Rosh Hashanah onwards.  And part of that excitement stems from the fact that from the moment I walked into my rabbi’s office for my first meeting, I have begun to mentally feel like a Jew.  I’m still learning what that means, but it can only be described as a return, a coming home.  After years of religious searching, I finally feel like I have returned to the place my soul always needed to be.

I once read (in the sadly now locked archives of The Kvetching Editor) that Judaism has a concept where the neshamas of all converts are those that somehow got lost along the way from Judaism, but that all the souls of all Jews ever were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to Moses.   That is how I feel.  It’s like my soul always knew I was Jewish, it was just waiting for my brain to come to the same conclusion and allow me to return. There is a fundamental sense of rightness in this decision, and as I prepare to begin my first full year of living as a Jew who has returned to something I possibly once knew before, I am eagerly awaiting the richness my Jewish life will bring.