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.

Yes, I am Jewish

“Are you Jewish?”

My mikvah date was about a month ago. In the time since, I have felt a slew of emotions and spent hours in reflection. One of the most exciting feelings is the urge to shout, “I am Jewish.” I have been waiting to say this for so long. I hated not being able to say it before and although I still have slight anxiety about saying it now, I want so badly to say it.

I have not had a real need to say it out loud because all of my friends and family are aware of the change and have no need to ask. Although I felt like it would come up over and over again in conversation and small talk before I converted (when I had the long explanation of being “in-between religions”), it had yet to come up in conversation until today. It felt like it took forever to come up, and I was just about tired of saying “I am Jewish” out loud to myself, but it was worth the wait.

Today, while working at the Jewish Community Center’s camp, I was coloring with a group of kids. A 7 year old girl looked up at me and asked, “Are you Jewish?”  The question seemed to come out of nowhere. I had waited so long for this moment. I put down my crayon, looked up from my picture of the Star of David, and exhaled a confident, “yes.”

It was a relief. I made it through my first encounter of telling someone I was Jewish.  Yes, she was only 7, but I knew it took a lot of strength to be honest with her and myself. I was finally able to give a one word answer to the question of my religion, and that one word said so much. The “yes” was saturated with the roller coaster of feelings that have accompanied me on the journey of conversion. The pain of telling my family, the fear of losing everything I knew before, the curiosity of my first visit to a synagogue, the courage to make life changes, and the confidence of each  “yes” during my beit din.

All of this and more was in my “yes.” I felt it pour out from my heart and soul and sighed with relief. It was really true. I said it out loud and this time it was not only me that heard it. I smiled.

She casually replied, “Oh. I am not. I am Russian.” And she continued to color. I couldn’t help but laugh. I put so much of myself into the moment before and she was asking for my family’s nationality. When she noticed me laughing she asked what was funny and I had the chance to explain to her that I am not only Jewish, but I am also Hispanic because my family is from Mexico.

I don’t think she was nearly as amused by the situation as I was, but I also don’t think she will remember our conversation next week. For me on the other hand, I hope I always remember the first time I told someone I was Jewish. I also hope that in years from now, when the newness wears off, I can vaguely recall the feeling of answering, “Yes, I am Jewish” with everything I have within me.

A Jew is a Jew is a Jew… Right?

I converted in Conservative Judaism, and while I am not ashamed, my first response to the question of my religion is just Jewish. I don’t say “a Jew by choice” or ” a Conservative Jew,” but  just that I am “a Jew.” I don’t do this because I am trying to hide who I am or because I want to trick someone into believing something else. I do it because in my mind a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Earlier this week, a dear friend of mine finished his conversion to Orthodox Judaism. I have known him a year, and we have both been very supportive of each other throughout the process of the others conversion, even though we live on separate sides of the world and have chosen two different branches of Judaism. We have connected many times and shared stories and questions that were very similar.  We had very similar experiences despite being in different countries, of different genders and choosing different paths. Throughout our conversion processes, it was our interactions that further reinforced the idea that “a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” Today, he sent me some pictures of the celebration he had with some close friends after his mikveh. Looking at the pictures made me feel like I was looking at a totally different world. The sight of the black hats and the absence of women in the pictures were both alienating images. I knew the pictures were of Jews and that they were beautiful images but it wasn’t a feeling of connection. I believe that his Judaism is also my Judaism. We share the same religion, but the images themselves were not a point of deep religious connection. My connection to the images did not come naturally, but only when I stopped and told myself that the pictures were of Jews celebrating a Jewish event and I also was Jewish.  As hard as I tried, I could not imagine myself in the room that was pictured. It was foreign.

Right now, I am attending an orientation for the program I will be doing next year in Israel, and everyone in my cohort is a Jew. We all practice differently and some would consider themselves more or less religious than others. I consider myself fairly religious. I am quick to say that my practices do not reflect Orthodox Judaism but none the less are pretty traditional in many ways. This week, both the pictures from my friend and the orientation taught me that maybe that isn’t as true as I thought.

In a room full of Jews (Orthodox, Conservadox, Conservative, Reform, secular, and other), I quickly found my niche in the group with the less religious Jews. Despite ordering the kosher meal and dressing tznius (I sometimes don’t cover my elbows, but did the entire orientation), my place of comfort and friendship in the group was not even among the other Conservative Jews.

This week is making me step back and start the process of thinking about where I really find comfort and connection to others in the larger Jewish picture. I am sure that my place will continue to be carved out when I move to Israel and am surround by even more Jews. I look forward to the process of staying true to what I have learned, who I am becoming and  finding my community within the community.

I am a Jew.

*Deep Breath*

Today was the day. Today, I became a Jew.

The past few days have been a whirlwind. I am going to write out the experiences in order, but wanted to start with a short thought on today, right now.

“I, Elisheva Sima, am a Jew.”

These words are still unbelievable, but the feeling of truth and joy makes me want to let the whole world know. I pray that from this day forward my actions will scream it, my words will represent it, and my soul will forever whisper it.

Is the Most Jewish Thing About Me “Seinfeld”?

This week is the week of finals at school. It is my final finals’ week of my undergraduate career, and it is super busy. As I work on papers day and night, my t.v. is constantly playing Seinfeld episodes that I have on DVD. I love Seinfeld, and it really seems to provide comfort and familiarity amid the chaos of tests and papers.

The constant background noise of Seinfeld has made me begin to question, “is the most Jewish thing about me Seinfeld?” I grew up without knowing a single Jewish person. My interaction with Jews is still limited.  Through my  university, I have met a few Jews, but my closest friends are Christians. My time at shul is really the only Jewish filled time I get all week, you know, besides Seinfeld.

My true introduction to Jewish life has been through t.v., and Seinfeld has always been my favorite show. My lessons include: do not make out during Schindler’s List, there is no need to wait to make Jewish jokes after I convert, and be careful what you tell rabbis in confidence.

A show that celebrates zero Jewish holidays during 9 seasons and only has 1 of 4 main characters as a Jew remains one of my most meaningful cultural, Jewish experiences. As ridiculous as it sounds, the ability to quote Seinfeld with ease and watch mini marathons during finals makes me feel at least a little closer to being a Jew.

Letter to My Rabbi

Over the past four months, I have gone through different options about how to approach the letter I wrote to my Rabbi about wanting to convert on this blog. I considered posting the entire letter, unedited with no commentary,writing a summary of the details of the letter, detailing my feelings regarding the letter or not acknowledging the letter at all. After starting many drafts to this post, I have finally decided that I would like to post the entire, unedited letter with brief commentary. I feel this is the best way to document my experience for myself and others.

First, some background: I have know my Rabbi for about 2 and a half years, first as my professor and later as I started attending his congregation. He is phenomenal, and I simply cannot properly explain what an amazing resource he has been for me with both my academic and personal journey with Judaism. Although I have come to know him fairly well over the past couple of years, I still have difficulties talking with him at times. The only reason I can think of to explain my fear is that I do admire and respect his opinion, and as my professor and the rabbi in charge of my conversion, he has authority and some power to evaluate me.  For whatever reason, it is hard for me to start conversations with him, but when I do, they are always fruitful.

This letter was written about six months after the first time I told my Rabbi I wanted to convert to Judaism and about four months after beginning conversion classes at our shul. He knew I was interested in Judaism and eventually converting, but I had not explicitly made my desire to convert in our community clear. When the topic of converting at our shul was raised in passing, I became too nervous to share that I wanted to convert through our community before I leave in the Fall. I felt that he received the wrong impression from my nervousness, and this letter was my response.

Writing this letter to my Rabbi signified a huge shift in my relationship to Judaism and the process of conversion. Our conversation after he read the letter resulted in the combined effort to work towards me converting before I move. After that conversation, the thoughts and feelings I had about becoming Jewish became more concrete. With each passing day, reality continues to set in, and I realize this is really going to happen. It brings a slew of emotions but mostly excitement.

I can’t attest to the experience of others, but I know that writing and sending this letter was one of the hardest things I have had to do in the process to convert. It is hard to put words to very intimate feelings and then send those words off to be judged. At the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, to wrestle with finding the words, and resulted in one of the most amazing outcomes, a plan for my conversion.

The letter:

“Dear Rabbi,

Let me start off by apologizing for emailing you. You are so busy and have so many emails to read that it is unfair of me to take up your time. With that said, I am going to do it anyway.

I have a mind that dwells, usually on the insignificant things. Since our conversation Wednesday evening I have not been able to get over the feeling that I gave you the wrong impression of how I feel about converting to Judaism. It is very hard for me to share my personal feelings, but I feel I must no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process. I will attempt to write openly and honestly,  בע”ה.

The first time I ever said the words, “I want to be Jewish,” I was 15 years old. It obviously seemed like a long shot since I lived in a small town, near no synagogues, knew no Jews, and didn’t even know what it meant to be Jewish. A few years later, I began seriously considering converting when I realized that it would actually be possible “one day.” I knew I had several steps before me, but I still knew the words, “I want to be Jewish” were true. It has been scary making the leap from serious contemplation over converting to the realization that this is going to happen because I cannot imagine my life otherwise.

That makes it sound like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t and rightfully so. A decision as important as religion, the thing that shapes you and your life, should be difficult. I knew what I believed and knew how I wanted to live my life and it was clearly Jewish (at least in its simplest forms, more complicated theology is something that I will continuously learn and wrestle with). At the same time, I asked myself daily for about a year “Why do you want to do this? It is hard to be a Jew.” This is still a question I sometimes ask. I ask why I would take 613 mitzvot over 7 commandments. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. Why give up something I can (more) easily follow for mitzvot that often leave me scratching my head? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but my heart fell in love with mitzvot before I knew anything else about Judaism. Each day I asked the question, and even now, I can confidently answer that regardless of the gentile status I have now, I know that my soul was commanded to follow mitzvot along with all other Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai. Although I have not yet formally been commanded, I know that I was created in order to be commanded along with the rest of Israel. No matter how difficult it is to live with mitzvot, I know that I will be fulfilling my purpose when I do. Will I be able to be “perfect”? Probably not, but I know I want to live my life trying.

I love mitzvot already, but right now I am not commanded to fulfill them. Right now, every commandment that I follow is for my own benefit and is really only about bringing me closer to Hashem. While this is beautiful in its own way and necessary at times, it does not carry the same weight of being commanded. I can pray, keep kosher, observe Shabbat, ect. but until I am a Jew, it is really only for me. I am excited for the day when I do all these things for Hashem. One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism, to me, is the fact that a Jew is commanded to live for Hashem in all aspects of life, every moment of everyday. It is one thing for me to wake up to pray for myself and another to be tired, want to press snooze and get up anyway, out of obligation, for Hashem.

This is just one example of many aspects of Judaism that I continue to be passionate about and inspired by. I feel this way about just about everything in Judaism and that is one of the reasons I know I want to begin living as a Jew as soon as I can.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to feel like I don’t yet fit in anywhere. I dread being asked what religion I am. I cannot simply say I am not religious, because that is a lie. I cannot say I am Christian, because that is not what I believe or what I follow. I cannot say I am Jewish, because no matter how badly I wish I were, I am not, yet. This has been a horrible state to live in, and I constantly feel like I am lying to myself and others by not identifying as the religion that I practice and believe.

I do not want to continue to lie. I don’t want to continue to live mitzvot only for myself. I know I will only be shalom when my beliefs are an extension of my practices and my practices are an extension of my tribe and my tribe is an extension of my identity and my identity is an extension of my relationship with Adonai. This will only happen when I am a Jew, part of Israel, living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

The hesitation you may have felt on Wednesday was not by any means hesitation over if I want to convert to Judaism. I do with all my heart, soul and might.

Also, if it is possible, I would love to convert in this community and will do anything I can to make that happen. I have been scared to tell you that, because I don’t know what to expect as a response. I expressed my concern about leaving the community, because I was hoping it may prompt you to say something that could give me a more clear idea if conversion here would be possible. Also, it is a real concern. I am sad that I will be leaving the community, but I know it will always be my home. I am sad to be leaving you, but I know you will always be (my) Rabbi.

I hope I did not ramble too much. I tried to be concise, but as much as I am uncomfortable talking about myself, once I start it is hard to stop. I left so much unsaid, but I hope my desire is more clear than it may have been before.

Have a peaceful end of the week. May you have a smooth transition into the transcendent. See you on the other side.

“אלישבע