Yom Kippur 5774: A Hard, Hard Day

Shana tova! Happy New Year! This is my first post of the New Year, 5774, and unfortunately, the themes of tension in this post are feelings that have accompanied the beginning of the year. At the same time, there are good things happening too, but it is hard to feel comfortable when I can’t get my mind off other things causing me anxiety. We are still in the middle of the hagim, Jewish holidays, though and I have hope that things will get a bit easier and more joyful soon.

Now, to the story of my Yom Kippur.

Moving to a new place soon before the holidays isn’t too much fun. On the one hand, you get to test drive a bunch of synagogues in a short amount of time, but you aren’t really able to have a strong connection to a community that feels truly yours for some really important days of the year. Luckily, finding a few synagogues to frequent for services hasn’t been too tough, but it does make me a bit homesick for my congregation where I converted.

The melodies of Yom Kippur are some of my favorite in the Jewish liturgical year. I feel like as soon as Yom Kippur is over, the melodies that my soul has poured forth retreat and spend all year dancing around in my head just waiting to be released at the first Slichot service the next year, a service just a few days before the Jewish New Year and about two weeks before Yom Kippur.  I am in that stage right now, still humming the sounds that filled last weekend, and just like last year, they will never go away but just continue to build inside of me until I can sing them out again next year, G-d willing. The way I think of the melodies is a good description of the way I think of Yom Kippur in general. It is close to the beginning of the year, but in so many ways, I see it as the culmination and climax of the preceding year. All moments of 5773 lead up to that point, Yom Kippur 5774, where I stare soberly at where I have been and where I hope to go and all I can do is pray.

After spending hours in services on Yom Kippur morning, a friend and I took a walk. On this walk we discussed our own unique experiences of the holidays and more broadly community and identity. He raised many thought provoking questions for me. The sheer amount of questions and difference of perspective caused me to turn inward once again and reflect on difficult and challenging experiences of years past. Overwhelming feelings of loneliness, sadness, and absence swallowed me. I felt uneasy and anxious. These are feelings I had been bottling up for months. Feelings that would come in strong waves and then buried deep inside of me to the point where I didn’t feel anything at all. That is the way I experience depression, having no feelings at all. It took a cold grey day in September, filled with prayer, reflection and hunger, to surface these feelings. I wanted to escape them. I was scared, but I knew I had to face them. I had to sit with the heartache so I could feel again, the good and the bad. Following the dramatic mood, I found myself an isolated spot in a mostly deserted parking lot and lied down. As my head  hit the pavement, tears hit my cheeks.  Tears from bottled up pain that had kept me from truly forgiving myself for all the hurt I put myself through. All the judgements I placed on myself. The lack of self care I took. The last tears were shed before Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, when the gates are closed and are fate is sealed.

Was this final act of repentance done in time?  My fate for the year to come is unknown to me, but either way, I am prepared to continue to reflect and grow stronger. I am prepared to sit with my feelings no matter how uncomfortable, as to avoid the possibility of not feeling anything at all. I am prepared to fully inhabit these feelings, to fully feel them so I can fully live life.

My rabbi once gave a dvra torah where he said (I am paraphrasing) a day fully experienced is a day with laughing, crying, and learning. Although this was said years ago, it has stuck with me and I often fall back on this thought. With this idea, Yom Kippur 5774, really was the first day I have fully experienced in some time, and that makes me extremely grateful for the hard, hard day. 

A Reminder At The Beginning Of A New School Year

Studying religion academically can sometimes be challenging as a person that identifies religiously. I have seen it cause people to loss their faith or cause severe frustration. You spend so much time reading religious text asking questions of historical context, literary structure and other scholarly inquires that it is easy to loss sight of where you, G-d and your community fit into the picture. It is too easy to get caught up in study guide and exam questions and stop asking how the text is speaking to you and what connection you have to the text.

As I begin a new program where I will be asked to read Jewish text from a critical, academic perspective,  I want to remind myself that I can learn something deeper and spiritual from all of these text and that should be just as much of a priority. A quote I have adapted from a friend is what I repeat when I begin to loss sight of this:

“Dear Elisheva,

Stop reading Buber* to just learn about Buber. Read Buber* to learn about G-d, yourself and the world we live in.

Sincerely,

Elisheva”

*Martin Buber is a 20th century Jewish Theologian. You can substitute his name in the quote for any religious thinker or text and it still rings true. This is the perspective I want to strive for as I begin this new school year and the New Year.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, but what a shame to ignore it in texts that traditionally and fiercely address these topics just because they are assigned readings. That would truly be a disservice to my spiritual self.

Claiming The Homes I Don’t Fit Into

Originally written: July 10th, 2013

I am getting ready to move… again. I am moving back to the States to begin a master’s program in the Fall. I originally planned to live in Israel for at least 3 years, so leaving after just one year has been really emotional. As I get ready to move into a new apartment, I have been scouring the internet for discount furniture and decor ideas. I always have been a fan of searching for organizing and planning types of website but the amount of excitement and energy I have for planning out my new apartment even surprised me. I realized that part of the excitement is because the living space I have had this year in Israel consisted mainly of things that were included in our rental or borrowed from my adviser. You can’t walk into my apartment and say that any part of it really reflects me, other than the laundry scattered around my bedroom). Realizing that made me think back on the spaces I have lived in since I left my parent’s house after graduating high school. In the past 5 years, I have lived in 10 different rented apartments/rooms. That does not include spending a few weeks over summer or winter break at a friends or relatives, living out of a suitcase for about a month at a time. The 10 “homes” are places I rented for at least a few months at a time, never meeting the same apartment or roommate twice. With so much transience, I still never hesitated to call any apartment home. I just always knew that the address was temporary.

With all the moving of the past few years, and getting ready to move yet again, this time to a new city, I am starting to reflect on where my “home” really is. I know that “home” can be understood in many ways that aren’t a physical place, but I have been concentrating on where my home physically is in the world. Where could I go if I wanted to go home?

Converting to Judaism was finding my home, my place in the Jewish people. The place I belong, the place my soul belongs, is beyond any doubt tied to Am Israel, the People of Israel. That is the place the Hashem has carved out for me within History. I define Judaism as my home because it is were my soul is comforted. It is where I feel I belong and fit in to the rhythm so perfectly. Converting felt like uniting what was always suppose to be.  It isn’t like salt finding pepper but like the chemicals that make up salt finding each other so they can become a united substance that makes itself useful. From the analogies above you can clearly see that I can’t quite articulate the feeling but it is something I feel intensely. Find Judaism as a beautiful home doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges within the match, but at the end of day, I know my soul and Judaism create a synergy, and that makes me feel warm and secure.

With the amazing sense of comfort that my spiritual home brings me, I ask myself what physical place replicates this. The two logical answers to the question, “Where is my home?” are my hometown, where I spent the majority of my first 18 years, and Israel, the home of all Jewish people and where I have begun to create roots living in Jerusalem. People go “home” for the holidays and most special occasions I have celebrated have been in South Texas, at various relatives’ houses. Jews have endured amazing feats to return “home” to Israel, and I too am drawn to Israel as a Jew. These should be the answers. These are the answers, but I think that a big part of why they are the answers are because I don’t have a better idea right now, but I don’t feel comfortable calling them “home” based on my previous, presumptuous definition. I do not fit in in these places. Arriving at either place does not fill me with the warm sense of relief that filled me after my mikvah brought my soul home, not even to a lesser degree. I am filled with anxiety, on edge, in these places. Sometimes, these homes become a source of depression or anger. I also often feel discomfort in these places. The differences I have from everyone else there come out front and center and I am left feeling isolated. Life in both places is far from warm and fuzzy. The challenges remain challenges without knowing there is overall comfort. These feelings make me feel like they aren’t home either, but that isn’t true.

I may never be completely comfortable in these places, but these places belong to me as much as they do to anyone else that calls these places home. Whether I feel it or not, I belong in these places. They are mine.  I belong in Israel as much as any other Jew. It is not any less my home just because I don’t speak Hebrew, I am Mexican, I converted or because I practice Conservative Judaism. It is my Home too. The same reasoning is applied to S. Texas.

Having the power to claim the spaces for myself is something that I have lacked. But even though I am different, it is just as much mine. Through circumstances beyond me, that only Hashem knows, I belong there.

Instead of staying away and feeling like I am just a visitor, I need to build the courage to claim my place. My comfort with Judaism made me realize that I belong there, but finding Home can work the other way too. I can realize I belong and comfort may follow.

Facing Myself After Another Long Hiatus

For the past few months, this blog has seen very few posts. I wouldn’t mind the gaps if I felt I had nothing to add or was just so busy that posting had to move to the back burner, but that is the opposite of what has actually been going on. Don’t get me wrong, I do get busy like everyone else, but I also have had more time than needed to write. I also have had some short spurts where I felt that I have nothing pressing to add to write, but the truth is, through the long gaps on the blog, I have had so much I needed to write.

I have spent some time thinking about how I needed to write so badly as a release for everything I was thinking and feeling and why I kept myself from actually doing it. I wrote off and on in a personal journal this past year, but not as much as I would have liked. After some reflection these past couple of weeks, I think I held myself back from writing because I was scared of where it would lead me. I was scared of facing the dark side of myself, especially in the public space of my WordPress blog.  I am still a little anxious about writing down such personal things on an internet site that is open to the public, but I keep reminding myself that there is a reason I opened a WordPress account in the first place. I wanted my thoughts to be open. I wanted to share a piece of myself with others, even if it is from the hidden space behind a computer screen.

The past 11 months, the time I lived in Israel, brought out wonder and demons within me. I think many emotions were just too powerful to face when they were so fresh, but I am hoping now, with new found courage, I can write more honestly and openly about where my journey has led me in the past few months and where I am going in the future.

“Zionist” isn’t a dirty word.

Being raised Catholic in South Texas means that Israel was never on my radar. My family didn’t, and honestly still doesn’t, have any strong opinions or stakes in the questions of the Middle East. Even when I began studying Judaism in high school, Israel still never really crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I was in college at a liberal arts school, that has the goal of getting students to “think globally” in the mission statement, that I began to learn about Israel. Most of my classes revolved around ancient Israel and it wasn’t until  I became interesting in visiting Israel that I pushed myself to learn about the modern state of Israel and the Middle East.

Even though I knew little to nothing about modern Israel, the negative side of the State was the majority of the information I learned. I quickly learned numerous reasons for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. With these thoughts in the background, which are voices I still hear on a fairly regular basis, I felt supporting Israel meant being judged as someone who was against human rights, uneducated and noncritical.

“Zionist” became a dirty word. It was a word associated with the extreme political right, and a word I dreaded being associated with. I distinctly remember a conversation during my first trip to Israel, studying abroad in the Summer of 2011, where I became apologetic for thinking about moving to Israel for school or work in the future. I had to explain that I was drawn to the land, culture and history but NOT a Zionist. I didn’t want to be mistaken for having the ideals  traditionally, and negatively, associated with Zionist ideals. I knew I wanted to dwell in the Land, but didn’t want to keep others from also making this Land there home. I wanted to live freely as a Jew in Israel, but not if that meant others couldn’t live freely in the same Israel. I wanted to gain every opportunity the Land had for me, the hopes and dreams of the past 4,000 years, but never at the expense of another human being.

These are all things I still want, and even though there are caveats to  each, I have realized that this doesn’t mean I am not a Zionist. Zionism doesn’t have to been colonialist or racist. It doesn’t have to deny other people rights or support dispossession. At it’s best, Zionism does none of these things and still promotes a Jewish (Democratic) State in the Land that has become defined as Israel.

This doesn’t mean I can’t be critical. It doesn’t mean I can’t hold the same values I did before, i.e. justice, equality. It does mean that I encourage a Jewish State that at it best holds true to the Jewish value of dignity of the human person.

I am reaching a stage where I am not ashamed to say, “My name is Elisheva, and I am a Zionist.”

Yom HaZikaron 5773

This evening and tomorrow, until nightfall, is Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron. I heard that the day was going to be very different than the United States’ Memorial Day, which is usually celebrated as a day off with a trip to the beach and some barbecue. I grew up visiting cemeteries every Memorial Day with my grandfather who would place American flags at the graves of all our family members that served in the military, which is quite a few. Even with all the time spent at different grave sites, I never thought of the day as a somber day. Israel’s observance of Yom Hazikaron is similar to the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was just about a week ago. Many restaurants and stores have closed this evening. The only way to know it isn’t Shabbat is from the amount of cars still driving through the streets.

After watching Israelis of various backgrounds observing a minute of silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I knew I wanted to get a better view for the moment of silence for Memorial Day. The first siren for the day was at 8:00 p.m. Just a few minutes before I left my apartment to walk towards a park that was filled with people and near a major intersection. With just a couple of minutes to spare I found my way to the top of a bridge overlooking the park and many Jerusalem streets below. I watched cars and people pass. The siren began. I knew it was coming, that was why I was standing on the bridge after all, yet I was taken completely by surprise. My heart skipped a beat and I stopped breathing for a split second as the stillness took over the city below me. Balls stopped bouncing. Bicycle wheels halted, and dare I believe that even the dogs stopped in their tracks. As far as my eyes could see, people stood on their feet in absolute silence. Cars abandoned. Conversations paused. For that minute, it felt as even thoughts were suspended. It was truly one of the most moving sights I have ever witnessed. It was one of those moments where I am more grateful than I thought I ever could be to be in Israel.

Thank you to all the soldiers and other service men and women who have made it possible for not only me but millions to call Israel “Home”.