#BlogElul2013: See

I’m excerpting this from an essay I published elsewhere on the internet – just a small paragraph, but it sums up my last moments as a non-Jew beautifully.

I head to the preparation room to ready myself for my immersion, trying to stay calm as I look into the mirror before picking up the phone to call Leah, my mikveh attendant, to let her know I am ready. These are my last moments as a non-Jew, I think to myself. I take one last look at myself in the mirror, a smile of anticipation lighting up my face. Taking a deep breath, I call Leah, then head into the mikveh.

That moment, where I looked at myself in the mirror, truly saw myself, and smiled was incredibly powerful. I saw myself as a woman on the verge of a profound, yet invisible transition – from non-Jew to Jew, the fulfillment of a dream long held and long denied.

#BlogElul2013 2: Act

This is going up late due to a combination of international travel and Shabbat. 

One of the aspects of my new Jewish identity that I am trying to puzzle out is “how do I act in a way that conveys my Judaism?” I don’t really know the answer. As I move towards becoming a married woman, I’ve flirted with the idea of head-covering – mainly because I like the symbolic, private aspect of it, but also because there are so many elegant headcovering ladies (of both the Jewish and Muslim persuasions) out there.  But it doesn’t feel quite like “me,” and I don’t anticipate doing it.  So there goes that.

I’ve also spent a lot of time contemplating the idea of kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws. It’s the aspect of my conversion that people ask about most frequently “so, are you keeping kosher now?” to which I always awkwardly respond “well, no, not really.”

But the truth is, it’s a work in progress. I don’t usually actively seek out pork products (not that I used to), but I will cook with them on occasion. I make a conscious effort to have kosher-friendly meals on Shabbat (no pork, no beef with dairy, though sometimes I slip up). I don’t ever anticipate keeping strict kosher, because the system doesn’t make sense to me (keeping different sets of dishes, the apparently transmutable properties of food through layers of foil or saran wrap), but I do think that keeping some semblance of kosher in my day-to-day life would be a defining act of Jewishness for me.

The question is, how do I carry out the action of keeping kashrut in a way that makes sense to me? I don’t put much stock in the idea of hechsers, though I’m always pleasantly surprised when I notice them on favored products.  So where does that leave me? Pursuing ethically sourced food, particularly meat? Pursuing food options that are sustainable, or help support local farmers (like farm shares)? I don’t know, but I want to figure it out, to act and live a Jewish life.

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. 

#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 22: Seeing

On Friday night, I got to see my very first convert be welcomed into the Jewish community.  Not moments before, I had thought to myself that I wished I would have the chance to see this moment, to know what to expect when my time comes, and then as if by magic (but not really), came the announcement that Nancy had converted on Thursday, after being heavily involved in the temple community for years and being married to a Jewish man for over 20.  She walked up, gave a short speech about her journey to Judaism, then was called up to the bima with her husband.  The Torah was taken out and given to her, and then she recited the Shema.  She began singing the first line, and then the entire congregation joined in with her to sing the second.  It was beautiful and it brought tears to my eyes.  Then, the rabbi blessed her, as did the entire congregation (we made a funny sight with our hands up in the air, fingers spread in the style of the Vulcans  kohanim) to officially welcome her as the newest member of the Jewish people.

I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to be a part of this moment, to see what will happen when my turns comes, and for the advance knowledge that I am probably not going to make it through the Shema without bursting into tears.

#BlogElul 21: Hearing

Trying to find a place in a new religion and a new culture with no real guide to help you along save periodic meetings with your rabbi and a bunch of books is not easy.  It’s especially not easy as a late 20-something coming in of your own accord rather than with a partner to ease your way in, but it is what it is.  I’ve struggled, and am still struggling, to try and make myself at home in the community of the Jewish people – I already feel that I am Jewish in my heart and self-identify as such, but it still feels surreal and sometimes a little like I’m lacking an anchor to this faith that I am taking on as my own.

Except for the music.

I am a singer by nature, and someone who picks up melodies and tunes with relative ease.  One of the sessions in my Introduction to Judaism class covered Jewish music.  As I listened to the cantor sing some of the familiar melodies, and began attending services more regularly, I realized that the melodies I’d been hearing each week had started to seep into my brain.  Going back to services this past Friday after a summer-long hiatus made me realize again just how ingrained these melodies are becoming to me, and how displeased I was that one of my favorite songs was being sung with a different tune.  The very fact that I have developed a favorite tune for L’chah Dodi speaks volumes to me, because it means that I do have an anchor.  Each week I attend services, the melodies, the chants, the words, even the wordless tunes we sing in between verses, they’re becoming a part of me.  And given that I’m someone who still remembers songs learned in 4th grade choir, I think it’s safe to say they’re going to be with me for a very long time to come.  I’m still struggling in other ways to feel connected outside of myself to Judaism, but hearing the music helps reassure me that slowly but surely, I’ll find my way.

#BlogElul 18: Love

The difficult thing about writing about love, particularly love within a relationship, is that nothing feels quite right.  Either the words I want to say seem too private, too intimate, to be shared with a public audience, or they feel too trite.  I’ve begun this entry six times already, each time erasing and re-writing, then repeating the process, but hopefully I’ll strike the right balance.

In my entry on blessings, I alluded to the multitude of wonderful people in my life, people who love and support me, who give me strength and support when I most need it.  But this entry isn’t about them.  This entry is about one person in particular, whose love, support, encouragement, and presence in my life is my anchor.

I knew there was something different about you from the first time we exchanged messages. As our third date progressed, I had an even stronger instinct that this was going somewhere good, and after about three months, it started to become clear to me that I could not envision my life without you in it.

Words can never adequately express how grateful I am for your love and support as I have gone on this journey, even though it was a journey that filled you with apprehension when I began.  It is a rare person who is able to tell someone “if this means so much to you, then you owe it to yourself to pursue conversion.  Don’t hold back on my account.”  You will never know how much hearing those words meant to me, and how they stuck with me for months until I finally worked up the nerve to call my rabbi.

You’ve come along with me to the Introduction to Judaism class even though there were many Tuesdays where I’m sure you would have gladly gone straight home after a long day of work, or gone to yoga, or done anything, really, rather than sit in a room learning about Jewish teachings for 2.5 hours a week.  You celebrate Shabbat with me each Friday night, and some of my favorite moments are when I feel you standing behind me, your presence reassuring and comforting me, as I light the candles and recite the prayers with my eyes closed.  There’s magic in that moment, something deeply spiritual and Divine.  And you have gamely opened yourself up to having some intensely powerful, emotional, sometimes raw discussions with me about how we plan to create a future home together, how we will find a way to strike a balance between the two different, rich traditions that we both bring to the table, and what that means for any children we may one day be blessed with.

This is my journey, but you’ve come along with me on it as a measure of your support for me, and as a sign of your love for me, and your faith in our relationship.  You’ve given me support and encouragement to figure out who I am as a Jewish woman and how to navigate what these changes in myself mean for us.

Your love is the greatest gift I have ever been given, and I thank God daily for sending you into my life.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you for loving me.

I love you.

#BlogElul 14: Learning

If it’s not already abundantly clear, I am in the midst of an incredible learning process, learning the ins and outs of a religion and a culture that I am adopting for myself. In the spirit of that learning, I thought instead of a long, weighty post, I would make a list of the things I have learned thus far:

The blessings recited over the Shabbat candles

Ha’Motzi, the blessing said over bread

Kiddush, the blessing said over wine

The Shema

The blessing for the candles we light on the menorah

Melodies and tunes for common prayers

The beginning phrases of the Maariv prayer

About the holidays of Shavuot and Simchat Torah

Celebrating Tu B’Av, the “new year of the trees”

The names of at least some of the Jewish months

A handful of Hebrew letters (working on that…see previous post, #BlogElul 13: Excuses)

The value of regular attendance at religious services

The sense of peace brought by lighting the Shabbat candles

The benefits of disconnecting from the world for 25 hours

How satisfying it is to end my week with those I love, eating delicious food that I have prepared (sometimes with help) that nourishes all of us even as it delights our tastebuds

There’s so much more, I’m sure, but the most important thing I’ve learned so far? Just how lucky I am. Many converts struggle with acceptance, with family members angry or confused about their decision to convert, or relationships gone awry because of this choice, this scary, wonderful, beautiful, life-altering choice.  Thus far, I’ve had none of that.  I won’t say it’s always easy, because it’s not, and there are definitely people in my life who don’t understand this desire to convert, but by and large, the reaction has been largely respectful even if it is curious.  Curiosity is ok; insinuating that I’m converting as the result of an identity crisis because I was raised wrong is not.  But I am so lucky that even on a superficial level, I have support and respect for my decision.  I’ll touch more upon this theme in a later post, but for now, I just want to express my gratitude for those who are cheering me on as I go on this journey.  It’s a wonderful thing to learn just how much you are blessed in life.

#BlogElul 11: Change

(apologies for the backlog of posts – I’ve been away without reliable internet access)

Change is a constant in life, but I think it is somewhat rare to be actively aware of how much I am changing as time passes.  For me at least, it’s only possible to discern changes, big and small, in retrospect.The last time I had such a fundamental sense of being changed was when I got to college, which brought with it a magical four years of exploration, inquiry, and growth.

But this year has been different. A year ago during the month of Elul, I was still working up the courage to call the person who would become my converting rabbi.  I was still in the middle of talking over my desire to convert, feeling it growing ever stronger, but not feeling quite ready to take the jump yet.  I was not a convert, nor had I embraced any real part of Jewish ritual observance, feeling that I had no right to do so until the process was formally under way.

And now I find myself changing.  I am growing in my observance. I am learning the words to prayers and songs, marveling as the once unfamiliar words slowly start to become part of my consciousness and memory. I am starting to feel comfortable identifying myself as a Jew, mentally, I’ve been there for ages, but I’m slowly starting to tell more people in my extended circle of acquaintances about my conversion process.

The end of Elul will bring more changes, particularly, fasting for Yom Kippur.  This is not an optional fast, and the gravity of the day is denoted by the fact that it is the only Jewish holy day that does not supersede Shabbat.  I am nervous.  I have fasted before, but only a sun-up to sun-down fast.  24 hours seems like a different ballgame altogether, and I’m worried that I might fail.  But that’s ok.  As long as I know that this year, I have given it my all and fasted for as long as possible, I will be satisfied with myself.  I have a lifetime to get it right.

#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.