What’s in a (Hebrew) Name?

Even before I started the official conversion process, I began to look through various websites thinking through what my Hebrew name would be one day. About three years ago, I found out that my name Elizabeth is derived from the Hebrew Elisheva. Right away I knew that I would use Elisheva as my name one day.

My English name is very important to me because my parents named me Elizabeth because of its Hebrew meaning “my God of promise.”  Also, the gift of life is a huge promise, but even larger are the promises that God made in a covenant to the very people I want to be part of. God’s promise for me can be seen as both my life, God’s covenant, and so much more. I feel that God not only made a promise to all of Israel, but destined me to be part of the promise. And also, remembering that my life, like all life, is a gift from God continually reminds me that my half of the promise is to live/give my life to God- not necessarily in a majestic way, but in the little things. Also, Elisheva the wife of Aaron (the first high priest) in the Torah.

I still love the name Elisheva, but as I come closer to converting I also realize that I want a middle name also. I want to add something because I feel Elisheva isn’t enough of a name change. When I convert, my Jewish soul will finally be actualized and I want to have a beautiful name change along with the process.  Names are important, so I need a good one.

A friend shared this section from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah on name changes:

“From the ways of teshuva [it is appropriate] for the repenter to be calling out always before Hashem with cries and supplications and to do tzedaka according to what he can afford and to distance himself alot from the matter in which he sinned, and to change his name, implying, “I am different, and I am not the person who did those deeds”, and to change all of his deeds to the good and to the straight way and to exile himself from his place. For exile atones for sins because it causes him to be submissive and to be humble and of a fallen spirit.”

He also added these words of wisdom: “Teshuva isn’t the same as a giur (convert), but I do think there are similar elements in it: name-change, moving into a new community, etc. Also I think because as gerim you want to be accepted by the rabbanim and the community you are generally submissive and humble.”

I know that the name change is very important to me, so I am still looking for the perfect middle name. The rummaging through baby naming websites continues.

Ready or Not, Shabbat is Coming

Shabbat is only a few hours away, and I do not feel ready. I am axiously trying to prepare meals, send out emails and run last minute errands before I step outside time to breathe, pause and enter the transcendent.  It is stressful to feel my control over the work week slowly slipping away as we approach the sacred time of Shabbat.

At the same time I appreciate the reality check. Shabbat comes every week, whether we are ready or not, to show us that the world can get along without us for a day. I feel like I have control over things, but Shabbat reminds me that things are ultimately out of my hands, not only on Shabbat when I can not answer emails or do work but everyday of life. For that reason, I will take a deep breath, let go of any control I feel I have, and embrace Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saying Goodbye to My Shorts

Winter has been in full swing, even in Texas, for the past few weeks. The cold weather is a big reason why my shorts have been buried in the back of my dresser drawers. But this week, in the middle of January, I pulled out all my shorts and boxed them up for donation.

Over the past several months, I have been attempting to incorporate a more modest, Jewish way of dressing, tznius. Tznius, or modest dress, is largely observed in Orthodox communities, but some Conservative and Reform Jews choose to dress modestly. Dressing modestly according to Orthodox Jewish code is more than just not wearing short skirts or showing mid-drift. The concept of tznius varies from community to community, but in general, for a women, dressing modestly includes wearing skits that at least cover your knees, wearing close toed shoes, wearing shirts that cover your elbows and collar bone, and if you are married, covering your hair. Some colors or styles of clothing are more traditional for certain communities so if you are joining a particular community it is important to follow their understanding of tznius.

In my community, part of the Conservative movement, dressing modestly is a concern, but not in the traditional ways of understanding tznius. For this reason, and the fact that there aren’t many Jews were I live, I really stand out when I dress according to tznius, but I keep reminding myself that that is no reason to not dress according to the way I understand and value tznius. Dressing according to Jewish tradition is not something I should be ashamed of. All people dress according to what they value and for me that means being in solidarity with Jews around the world who follow Jewish tradition.

Each time I am afraid to look foolish as I put on a skirt and thick leggings (opposed to warm Jean pants) in the middle of Winter, I think of the courage it is taking many Jews around the world to dress differently. Women who are going through the same internal debate as they get dressed, and men who wear a kippah even though no one else around them does.

The action of taking every pair of shorts I own and getting rid of them seems rash, but honestly I have never really like wearing shorts anyway.  I also packed up most of my pants for donation, but a couple pairs stayed in the drawer. I kept them for a few reasons. First, I can wear them with a dress over, if necessary, on a really cold day. Second, it is scary to totally let go of all my clothing, and since my community is okay with pants, if I do want to go back to wearing pants I can. Lastly, it is empowering to know that I have perfectly good jeans sitting in the drawer but I am choosing to wear a skirt.

Following Orthodox tznuis isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t follow it as strictly as someone else might, but I find it to be an important dimension of Judaism in my life, especially at this point of trying to enter the Jewish community. I wish everyone luck in finding what tradition has to offer them and ways to incorporate meaningful practices into their daily life. Clothing is just one way I am reminded in daily life of my relationship to Hashem and to other people in the world.

Brachot (Blessings)

Judaism has a very special way of acknowledging Hashem’s soveriegnty over everything in the world. Many daily actions, like waking up and eating, and events, like rain and seeing some new, are sancified by reciting a brachah or blessing.

A Jew should recite 100 brachot a day. This may sound like an unaccomplishable goal, but it is not as difficult as it sounds. For example, the Amidah, a prayer recited three times daily, contains 19 brachot alone. Daily prayer and normal activity will easily cover the 100 brachot.

The difficult part, at least for me, is memorizing the brachot and remembering to say them at the numerous moments that call for a blessing throught the day. Each brachah is only a few lines long, but it is overwhelming to be faced with the task of memorizing them all. A friend of mine, who is also converting, expressed the same concern. I figured learning the brachot and saying the brachot must be a stuggle that many people who are converting to Judaism or Jews who are becoming more observant. For that reason, I decided to share my approach to trying to learn and recite the brachot. I am still in the process of learning and it will take time, but at least it is not as overwhelming and has beeen a good method so far.

Each week, I learn one new brachah. I recite the brachah over and over and write it down several times trying to commit the blessing to memory. During the week I do my very best to not let that particular brachah go unsaid. With each passing week I add in a new brachah and use all the brachot I know during the week. It is a longer method to learning, but I found that I am much more consistent with reciting the blessing and actually learn the blessing by heart.

This slow but steady approach has been my approach to instituting many Jewish practices into my life. I hope it is helpful advice for others who feel overwhelmed learning many prayers, practices and blessings in any religion.

Tenth of Tevet

Today, the tenth of Tevet, is a minor fast day in Judaism. The fast of Tevet is an observance remembering Nebuchadnezzar II’s siege of Jerusalem. The event is recorded in 2 Kings 25: 1-2, “Now in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, camped against it and built a siege wall all around it. So the city was under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.” This siege eventually led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. In more recent years, the tenth of Tevet has also become a memorial day for Shoah (Holocaust) victims whose date of death is unknown.  It is a General Kaddish Day and memorial candles are lit.

A minor fast includes keeping oneself from food or drink (if they are healthy) from dawn to nightfall. This differs from major fast days, like Yom Kippur, where one restrains from work also and the fast last nightfall to nightfall.

Today, I stand in solidarity with the Jewish people as they keep nourishment from passing through their lips. As I use the day to call to mind Nebuchadnezzar’s siege and those victims of the Shoah with unknown dates of death, I begin to think deeper about what it means to fast. Fasting is a way to remember what has happened. We think about why we are fasting on this day and not tomorrow or yesterday. What is our tradition trying to recall in history. This is the straight forward part of reflection on a fast day. Most people have been told since they were young what they were fasting for on that day, or if they are like me and did not know before, a quick talk with a Rabbi, community member, or even an internet search will clarify what the fast is remembering.

The second and more implicit reflection on a  fast day is relating to the event itself. After asking the question of what happened on this day, you move to asking how this happened, why this happened and how does it relate to myself and my community, past, present and future. Answers will be different for different people, and this second type of reflection is an opportunity for learning and growth.

Everyday we should ask ourselves what our relation to the past is, but on fast days it is more of an obligation. We are asked to link what has been done by our ancestors and what we do now. I love the grandeur of connecting my own life to people of a different time and place. Today, I reflect on what it means for me to fast, not yet a Jew, as Jews for centuries before me have fasted on the same day. I think about how are my set intentions similar and different from those before me.

For everyone observing the fast on the tenth of Tevet, I wish you an easy and meaningful fast. May you find something deeper this day as you connect yourself with the generations before and after you.

Wearing a Star of David

A Star of David does not hold the same significance as a cross does for a Christian, but none the less, it serves as a clear symbol of identity for Jews. This past week, I received a small, silver Star of David charm as a gift. I was very happy to receive the present, because it came as a gesture that the person giving it to me acknowledged the path I am on, converting. The immediate joy was soon replaced with a sense of uneasiness as I thought about wearing the Star of David.

This is the first Star of David I have owned. I have collected a few pieces of jewelry with Hebrew script and a hamsa pendant over the past couple of years, but never a Star of David. I purposely avoided getting a Star of David, because I just did not feel it was right. The Star of David identifies a Jew, and I am not a Jew, yet. I know some people may think I am over analyzing the significance of wearing a Star of David and not being Jewish, but I think of it in the same terms as a non-Jewish man wearing a kippah all the time. People would falsely identify him as Jewish since he is wearing a distinctly Jewish symbol. This can sometimes be dangerous because the non-Jew becomes a representative of Judaism. I do not want to identify myself as something I am not, especially when it is so meaningful to enter the people of Israel after a long, hard process of learning and adhering, not only after independently declaring belief.

Thinking about whether or not to wear the Star of David over the past few days has made me think about what religious symbols really mean and what they serve as. I think there is a important distinction between a person wearing a cross and a person wearing a Star of David. Both symbols, to outsiders, serve as a marker of identity, but to the person wearing them they seem to usually mean something different. A cross is a very meaningful symbol of a strong belief. A cross implies that the person wearing it is Christian, but it really is a fundamental claim about what the person believes. A Star of David does not symbolize a belief but an identity. At this point, wearing the Star of David is a symbol of my Jewish beliefs but not a Jewish identity. It is a sign that I believe in One God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

My conclusion at this point: I decided to wear the Star of David when it will not lead to me falsely identifying as a Jew. I will wear it around my friends and family that know where I stand and complete strangers who would not pay attention to my jewelry either way. If anyone does refer to the Star of David, I will be honest and upfront in letting them know that I am not Jewish. (But, I am a fan 🙂 )