#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 16: Wonder

One of the reasons I am entering an education-centric field is because I that working with kids exposes you to the wonder with which they see the world.  Everything is fresh and new to them, each new discovery about how our world works (big, small, completely unimportant – it can all fascinate a child) is a source of amazement and wonder.  Kids are not cynical, and everything is up for grabs, up for questioning.   While teaching them can be exhausting and exasperating at times, being around this enthusiasm can be contagious.  It forces you to look at the world through new eyes, to rediscover your own sense of wonder and curiosity, which is a fantastic feeling.

One of the things that never ceases to make me wonder is how intricately our bodies work.  When you get down to learning biology and anatomy, and you learn just how many things have to go right, coordinate, fire, sync, release, contract to make even the smallest movements, it’s impossible not to be filled with wonder.  It’s hardly surprising then, that one of my favorite prayers within the Jewish morning liturgy (shacharit) is the Nisim B’Chol Yom – for daily miracles. The italicized notes in my Mishkan T’Filah journal have summaries of the things we give thanks to God for each morning. In order, they are:

  • Awakening
  • Vision
  • The ability to stretch
  • For rising to the new day
  • For firm earth to stand upon
  • For the gift of motion
  • For clothing the body
  • For renewed enthusiasm for life
  • For reawakening
  • For being in the image of God
  • For being a free person
  • For being a Jew
  • For purpose
  • For harmony

I am not a morning person, and I am a long way from being able to pray coherently or meaningfully upon waking, but I try and keep these general sentiments in mind.   It’s not always easy for me, particularly as someone who has struggled deeply with feeling betrayed by their body due to chronic health conditions, but when I find myself feeling upset or frustrated with my body and it not doing what I’d like it to be doing, it helps a great deal to have the words of this prayer flit through my mind.  When I’m focused on appreciation and wonder for life, and for my body, my perspective shifts and I feel more able to move on psychologically and spiritually, which of course helps physically.  Our lives and our bodies are wondrous things, it’s just hard to keep sight of that sometimes.

#BlogElul 15: Health

When I compare myself to where I was last summer in terms of my health, the changes could not be more stark.  Last summer, my chronic eczema was in the midst of a raging flare, brought on by a terrible reaction to medication.  Bleeding, infected, cracked skin covered my body, making it painful to move, difficult to sleep, hard to think about anything other than ignoring the tremendous amount of pain I was in on a daily basis.  For months on end I forgot what it was like to sleep through the night, grabbing rest whenever my exhausted body gave up its intense desire to scratch long enough to let me get a few hours here and there.  I also struggled with the knowledge that my condition was so very public – literally written all over my face for people to see.  I’ve heard often how hard it is to grapple with “hidden” conditions, the ones nobody can see, like pain, but let me tell you, it’s equally worse when you fool yourself (as a matter of necessity) that people aren’t noticing the fact that your skin is a bleeding, peeling, horrific mess, only to get a look or a comment that lets you know they notice, and how.

This was the second time my skin has gotten so bad, but I am resolved that it will be the last time.  I’m not always good about taking care of myself, but I’ve learned I really do need to be vigilant about asking for help and taking the steps I need to in order to keep myself in a good place.  It’s not always easy, but I find that the concept of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish concept of preservation of life (such a strong commandment that if someone’s life is in danger, it overrides the restrictions of Shabbat or any other prohibitions that may usually be in effect) to be a guiding principle.  My eczema was never life threatening, thank goodness, but it easily could have been.  In an age of MRSA infections, it is nothing short of a miracle that none of the patches on my face got infected with MRSA, or that the orbital cellulitis I picked up served merely as a good kick in the behind to get my health in order instead of landing me in the hospital or worse.  Preserving my health is important.  Taking good care of the body I have been given by God is important.

As I take stock of what I want to improve about myself for the next year, my health is definitely on the list.  I’m in a good place now, but some challenges remain.  But this year will be different.  I will be better about seeking appropriate help when I need it.  I will be better about taking my medication, about getting to a doctor before things get terrible, and will never, never, if I can help it, let myself get back to where I was last year.  I am healthy now, and I intend to stay that way.

#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 13: Excuses

Excuses, excuses, excuses.

I am, it’s sad to say, full of them. Especially when it comes to things that I know are good for me, and I know will make me feel better, yet I feel compelled to drag my feet doing them, making up a litany of excuses.  I’m tired. I’m sleepy. I’m not feeling well. I have too much work to do. I have some vitally urgent thread to read. Someone is wrong on the internet!

This happens with tons of things in life. Making phone calls. Driving lessons. Exercise. Reading for courses. Writing. Prayer. Going to synagogue on Friday nights.

The last one in particular is a huge struggle for me. Admittedly, it’s not difficult without reason (there I go, making excuses again).  I do not drive (yet), and thus am reliant on public transport for getting me to and from services on Friday night.  To arrive at services by 7:30, I must be out the door no later than 6:15. On normal Fridays, when services end at 9, if I get incredibly lucky with buses, I’ll be home by 9:45 at the earliest, unless my wonderful boyfriend is willing to come pick me up (after work), in which case I’m home by 9:15.  Yes, I live about a 15 minute drive from my temple, but with public transport, the trip takes almost an hour.  When you factor in my desire to have lovely Shabbat dinners at home on Friday nights, work, school, and the very frequent prospect of inclement weather, it’s hardly surprising that I find it a struggle to attend services on a regular basis.

Yet, whenever I do, I feel better.  It makes Shabbat more real to me, and makes it easier to stick to my resolutions to avoid social media and generally try to disconnect for duration of the 25 hours.  It’s also good for me spiritually and personally because it increases my familiarity with the prayers and the melodies used.  The more I attend, the more I feel like I really belong instead of some clumsy visitor stumbling through the pages of Mishkan Tefilah trying desperately to keep up with the service.  When I hear the familiar melody of the Shema, or the lovely version of Lechah Dodi that our cantor sings as we welcome in Shabbat before the Maariv prayers are said, I feel peace wash over me. My week and all the work that I have done are behind me, and now I am in the sacred, contemplative space offered to me by Shabbat.  Whether or not I am able to wean myself off the countless distractions offered by technology during Shabbat is another matter, but it soothes me knowing that this space is here for me to claim and make my own.

I want to be a person who makes fewer excuses in life, especially my spiritual life.  One of my goals for this coming year is to incorporate religious practice and observance into my life in a more regular fashion, and to start to become a part of my temple community.  After all, there is only so much Jewish learning I can get from books – after a certain point, I am going to need to know how the religious community I have chosen to affiliate with observes, practices and celebrates, and if I keep making excuses, that’s never going to happen.

#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. 

#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.