#BlogElul 2013

Blink and a year passes. Tonight marks the start of the month of Elul, the month of reflection, introspection, of beginning the process of teshuva, seeking forgiveness. Just like last

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Hopefully every day this month, I will be blogging on these themes, just like last year. You can find other fantastic #BlogElul content around the web by using the hashtag – Instagram, blogs, Pinterest – it’s all there.

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Making My Haggadah

It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly time for Pesach (Passover) again.  Passover is the festival that is most familiar to me, owing to the fact that my school had an annual Passover assembly, complete with the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, a song about the 10 plagues, and a lunch of apple juice, matzah and eggs afterwards.  

As an adult, I appreciate the rituals of Passover – the selling of chametz (leavened products), the songs, the seder. Last year, I settled for avoiding eating chametz (but still eating kitniyot, which the Sephardic Jews eat, but Ashkenazi Jews avoid, including rice, beans and corn) and attending a seder.  This year however, as my first Jewish Passover, I felt I ought to do more.  So the matzah has been bought, and is being stored on a chametz-free shelf.  I plan on boxing and selling my chametz to my roommates for the duration of Passover for the princely sum of a quarter. And most importantly of all, I’m leading a seder.  

I’m nervous about this, because I’ve never done it before, but as the time grows closer, I’m getting excited.  The menu has been planned, and now I’m indulging in a truly librarian-friendly activity, creating my own haggadah, the text that tells the story of Passover.  Jews have been fans of the idea of collaborating and recreating materials for centuries, because there are dozens and dozens of haggadot to choose from, but now it’s time to kick it up a notch.  My basic template has come from a local Jewish organization, but I’m locating clips online at haggadot.com to add in, and also using a lovely collaborative one put together by the Velveteen Rabbi

It might not be the most traditional way of doing things, but it’s certainly the most personal. I feel empowered and in control of my observance, and I’m finding new richness in being immersed in the process of actually writing, rewriting, and editing my haggadah in progress.  It’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.  

C-Day

My conversion is tomorrow. At 8:45 in the morning. After waiting and wanting to be Jewish in some part of my soul since I was 11 years old, standing confused in a hallway outside my sixth grade classroom, I am going to be Jewish.  It’s been a long, winding path through different faiths, through being scared, through being challenged, but it’s here. And it’s surreal. But exciting. Marvelous. Exhilarating  After all, how often in life do you get to come out with a new soul? It started to begin to feel real last week, as I took a trip to the mikvah I will be dipping in once my meeting with the beit din is over, and when I had a last meeting with my rabbi.  It finally sunk in when I made a Facebook post about it this morning and before I knew what was happening, my eyes had filled with tears. Happy tears. Incredulous tears. I am going to be Jewish tomorrow. Jewish forever. It’s incredible, it’s humbling, and I will mean every syllable when I sing out the Shehecheyanu tomorrow after my third dip is declared to be kasher, kosher, legitimate, my Jewishness confirmed and sealed. 

Baruch ata Adonai

Blessed are you, Lord our God, 

Eloheinu melekh ha’olam

Ruler of the Universe

Shecheyanu, ve’qi’eh’manu

Who has granted us life, sustained us, 

Va’hi’giy’anu lazmaan hazeh 

And enabled us to reach this occasion. 

Yom Kippur

And so the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar has come and gone.  To be honest, after a month of intensive written reflection for Elul, I felt a little burned out at the idea of more reflection and repentance.  The fact that the Days of Awe overlapped with the start of the semester and student teaching didn’t help any, and made them well, less than “awe”some.  Be that as it may, I can say that I found Yom Kippur services (erevmincha, yizkor, and ne’ilah) deeply moving and meaningful, even though I was even more lost than I was at Rosh Hashanah.

Not only was the music extremely stirring (the haunting sound of the cantor singing Aveinu Malkeinu is going to resonate in my head for weeks to come), the words of the prayers really struck a chord with me.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve done a lot of thinking over Elul and writing this blog about many of the themes addressed, and perhaps it’s because the sins we ask forgiveness for are not just your garden variety lust/jealousy/anger/gossip (though those are present), but encompass things like turning a blind eye to poverty and oppression, to letting people down, or the sin of silence and indifference.

For me, those kinds of sins are not only more relatable, but admitting to them stings more sharply.  Maybe this is because I like to fancy myself a good person, or maybe, and I think this gets more to the heart of things, it’s because these sins call me out for not being the kind of person I want to be.  And that’s powerful.  And motivating. And I’m already seeing a difference.  Yes, this is the start of the new year, and like all resolutions, these have the power to fall by the wayside, but I hope that’s not the case, because the small steps I’ve already taken towards meeting my personal goals for the year feel good.  And I want to sustain that and multiply that feeling until it becomes a greater presence in my life.

The Yizkor service was extremely moving.  At one point, the rabbi asked us to close our eyes and envision ourselves having a conversation with loved ones we’ve lost.  It was a really powerful moment. I found myself talking to my dad’s parents, telling them that I hoped they approved of the direction my life was taking, and wondering what they would make of my choices. I’d like to imagine that they’d be pleased to know that I’d found a career that speaks to me, that I am excelling in graduate school, and that  I’ve found someone who means the world to me.  I also told them that I wish they’d had a chance to meet him, and at that point I had to stop the train of thought before I dissolved into tears (mostly because I didn’t have tissues available).

For context, this is happening when you’ve reached hour 23 of fasting, you’ve been reflecting all day about the things you have fallen short on in the past year, and praying for the will to correct them in the coming, and now you’re imagining deeply personal conversations with loved ones who are gone from your life – it’s hardly surprising that the silence of the sanctuary was broken only by the sound of sniffling.  When I opened my eyes, I noticed how many people around me had been crying.  There’s something very cathartic about it though, and I love that Judaism provides four set occasions throughout the year to ritually remember those who have died in a public context, because it really does lend weight to the idea of remembering the dead and speaking their names so that they may not be forgotten. It’s beautifully poignant.

And then there’s the fasting. I was nervous going into this fast how my body would handle 25 hours of fasting, as I’d only done 13 hours before, but I was determined to succeed or at least hold out as long as possible.  I followed sage advice on the internet and loaded up on complex carbs with some protein before the fast (wild rice with chicken), and crucially, began super-hydrating myself 24 hours ahead of time, while increasing my water uptake for at least two days prior to that.  It made a world of difference.  I felt hungry at times during the fast, and a little headachy (granted, I spent most of the day curled up in bed, reading), but I made it.  And when I broke fast, I wasn’t ravenous, nor did I rush through my dinner.  I’m really pleased with myself for doing this and doing it successfully, because there’s not much that I feel absolutely required to do by Judaism in an inflexible, THOU MUST DO THIS kind of way, but this really did feel like a non-negotiable, and I did it.

So, now that I’ve made it through the big two of the Jewish calendar, I have to wonder how I feel about the whole experience, and it struck me tonight at services that this is a different facet of my relationship with Judaism, the High Holy Days.  Shabbat and I have been developing a relationship over the past year, almost.  We encounter each other on a weekly basis, I’m becoming more familiar with the sounds and words associated with the day, and am slowly becoming able to recite small fragments of the liturgy from memory.   Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur though, they’re a different ballgame.  They’re like the in-laws you only see once a year – there’s elements of familiarity because you’ve been involved up-close-and-personal with Shabbat – some of the same prayers are there, some of the same melodies, but a lot of it is different.  And this relationship takes longer to develop and become accustomed to because the traditions, the words, the melodies, the format – they’re all different, and you only see them once a year.  But I’ll be doing this iyh (im Yirtzeh Hashem, if God wills it), for the rest of my life, which gives me future chances to develop this relationship and make it richer, which is exciting in its own way.

It’s also exciting to think that on Sunday, Sukkot begins, and shortly thereafter, Simchat Torah.  This is exciting not only because I will get to experience these holidays for the first time, but because once Simchat Torah is over, it means I will have completed my first Jewish year.  Hanukkah 5772 fell shortly after I met with my rabbi for the first time, and soon the cycle will begin again, only this time, I’ll be a little bit more prepared, a little bit more familiar, and a lot more confident about feeling my way and creating my own rituals.  Bit by bit, I am building my Jewish life.  It sometimes feels surreal, but the passage of holidays and the repetition of rituals helps remind me that no, I really am doing this.  This is real.  I am really becoming a Jew.

L’Shana Tova!

So the new year has come and gone.  I went to services on Sunday night and Monday morning, though I reached a point in the services on Monday where things had become too overwhelming, my lack of food was starting to get to me (not a good omen for Yom Kippur, but we’ll see  how I fare), and I just needed to get out, so I left.  I wish I’d stayed through the third sounding of the shofar, and for the community taschlish, but I didn’t have it in me, so I left, got myself food, and then had a leisurely walk home in the mid-September sunshine.

When all is said and done, I think I got more out of Sunday night’s service, both because it was a moving service, and because I found that I could follow along with more than I expected.  Sometimes I was just able to pick up the melody of the chant, others I managed to find the right prayer in my transliterated siddur, and still others where I found myself being able to remember snippets of the Hebrew, even when I couldn’t find the prayer in time.  This was hugely reassuring to me, because I’d feared that I would be lost the entire time.  I was still lost at certain parts, but overall, the service seemed to fly by, and I left feeling peaceful.

Monday morning dawned and I’d gone to bed late due to a vicious bout of nasal allergies brought on by the resurgence of pollen in the area, otherwise known as the bane of my existence.  I got to the synagogue about fifteen minutes late, but things were just getting under way.  First though, I had to find a seat.  The previous night had been surprisingly empty – the entire bottom section was filled, but the top was not filled to capacity as I’d thought it would be.  Silly me, I thought the same thing would hold true the following morning, but of course, it did not.  People crammed into pews together, chairs had been set up, and some people had resigned themselves to simply standing.  Luckily, I found a seat, and sat down next to a very nice woman who had a beautiful singing voice.  But I didn’t connect with this service nearly as much as I had the night before.  Perhaps it was the lack of familiarity with the liturgy, the greater sense of not being sure what was coming next, the length, hunger, heat, tiredness – but when 12:30 rolled around and we were still in the middle of the haftorah portion, with blessings being chanted in between passages (services had been meant to end around 12:15), and a good chunk of the liturgy left as per the siddur, I reached my limit.  Others had left before me, and I felt guilty, but it wasn’t a spiritual experience for me anymore, not after three hours.  Maybe next year will be better and different.

I came home and finished cooking a delicious dinner of way too much food: round challah, roast beef with sour cream and horseradish sauce, apples and honey, mashed potatoes, asparagus with soysauce and honey, apple cake and grape juice.  My boyfriend, who had come with me to Sunday services, came over for dinner and stuffed ourselves.  It was a lot of effort, but it was well worth it.

My experiences with the Rosh Hashanah services make me wonder how I’m going to feel next week at Yom Kippur, but I hope I find the experience meaningful.  I’ve heard strains of the Kol Nidre online, and it’s haunting. Given that our cantor has a beautiful, operatic voice, I’m sure the experience will move me.  For now though, I will focus on working towards my resolutions for the year, and relishing the fact that song fragments from Sunday’s service are still floating through my head.

May the new year bring you all sweetness and joy. L’shana tova!

#BlogElul 29: Justice

I’d like to believe that as Jews around the world prepare for erev Rosh Hashanah tonight, and the start of the month of Tishrei, that our reflections and realizations over the month of Elul help us be motivated to act.  It’s not easy, but I’d like to think of it as justice of a sort.  Not justice in the sense of vengeance, or justice in the sense of punishment, but justice in the sense of setting to right wrongs.  We seek to do teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to repair what is broken, to heal what is hurt, to mend what is torn, whether that be internally or externally.  And that to me is a kind of justice in and of itself, that we are actively seeking to make good.  To balance. To say “I’m sorry” and seek forgiveness.  Powerful stuff.

 

#BlogElul 28: Responsibility

I am holding myself responsible, by committing these thoughts to (virtual) paper, in front of an audience, that I will strive to make good on the goals I have set for myself for the coming year.

I will be responsible for:

Taking charge of my health, including getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating food that nourishes my body.

Repairing relationships that have started to fray at the edges or simply aren’t as intimate as they used to be.  I will be present, I will be engaged, and I will make time for those I care about and connect with them as best I can.

Apologizing for the hurts I have caused in the past year.

Furthering my Jewish knowledge and practice, and working harder to integrate myself into the Jewish community.

Work on getting involved in an organization that helps to further the idea of tikkun olam, both in terms of my financial contributions and in terms of my time.

Continue to write and blog.  Both fiction and reflective writing (though I know full well that by the end of this semester, I’m going to hate the very word reflection).

I don’t know where I’ll stand on these things come the 29th of Elul 5773, but I hope I will have at least made progress on all of them.  I anticipate my life being radically different at this time next year in ways that I can’t quite fathom right now, but I know they’re coming.  It’s going to be a crazy ride, but hopefully in the midst of all the work and the day-to-day realities of life, I can carve out some time for introspection and reflection, to ground myself.

#BlogElul 27: Good and Evil

If there’s one thing the process of writing these entries and reflecting upon my actions over the course of Elul has taught me, it’s that there is a great deal of truth to the way Judaism views good and evil, as an intrinsic part of human nature.  The yetzer hara is not demonic in nature, there’s no concept of Satan leading us astray.  When you remove that external agent and instead focus inwards, you begin to see yourself in a different light.  You’re not blameless for the wrong you do to others and for the bad choices you make – you are responsible, accountable. If we can balance out the darker aspects of our personalities and behaviors with the good, then we are reasserting our control and enabling ourselves to make good, healthy, healing, whole choices.

I can’t quite articulate how this makes me feel, but at the very least, I find it quite empowering. Especially at the end of Elul where, if you’ve done it properly, you might well be feeling kind of down about yourself in general, it’s nice to have the reminder that we have agency when it comes to sin.  If we have chosen to do wrong, or cause hurt, we have the power to right these wrongs and learn from our mistakes and do better in the coming year.   I am responsible for me, for my actions, for my behaviors, for my words, for my choices.  I have the power to decide to make bad choices, but I also have the power to counteract the bad with the good.  I can do it.

#BlogElul 26: Readiness

One of the things I wonder is when I will be judged ready to appear before the Beit Din to decide if I am officially ready to become a Jew, and when I get there, what they will say.  I feel ready in some ways, yet woefully underprepared in others.  But we can never be fully ready, can we? We can read, and prepare, and plan, but I don’t know that we’re ever completely ready until the moment has passed.  Only then can we look back and with the benefit of hindsight realize that we were as ready as we could possibly be, and that there’s still an abundance of room to grow.

#BlogElul 25: Forgiveness

I’m sorry.  They’re hard enough words to say, but when challenged to ask forgiveness for the less obvious slights, they become that much harder.  It’s excruciatingly hard at times to not get mired down in thinking over all the terrible and not-so-terrible-but-still-not-so-great things you’ve done this year, evaluating the damage that your actions have done to your relationships.  Sometimes the effect is obvious: hurt feelings, tears, anger, but other times it is far more insidious.  Pulling back instead of engaging, not being present, not paying enough attention, not wanting to get involved, retreating into homework/the internet/other distractions.  These are small acts, and their impact isn’t immediately felt, but over time, they start to escalate.  Before you know what’s happened, cherished moments and rituals become memory, you drift a little further, until sometimes, more often than we’d like, we realize we’re strangers.

I’ve done a fairly honest accounting of my behavior this past year, and while there’s definitely some big things I need to seek forgiveness for, there’s a lot more of this latter kind of behavior that I really need to reign in.  It’s hard – we all have busy lives, stress, other things to get done right this very moment, but I am resolute that I am going to make the effort.  I am going to seek forgiveness for unintentionally removing myself or otherwise not being present in the moment with those I love, and to work on re-establishing connections, conversations, and moments that create more memories instead of having memories of moments that used to be.