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. 

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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.

“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.”

The Blood That Flows Through My Veins

The Angel of Death was present what seemed like more often than not in the weeks leading up to my departure for Israel. In the span of three weeks, I lost three people that I loved and cared for very much. Still, months later, not a day passes that I don’t think about them. I think of how much I miss them. I think of how I am a better person because each of them was in my life.

I want to slowly share glimpses into the impact that each of these three men, two my professors and the other my grandfather, had on my life and religiosity. It has taken me time to even begin to be able to write about them, because at first, the pain was just too fresh. My experiences with my professors are related to the way my religious identity has transformed over the past few years. My grandfather, on the other hand, is related to the part of me that has remained consistent. In his life and in his death, he showed me that there is a part of me that remains despite all the changes. It seems appropriate for me to share some of my moments with my grandfather first, because he reminds me that I there is a spark within me that remains unchanged.

My grandfather was the one person in my family who didn’t know that I converted to Judaism or even thought about converting to Judaism. When I went from thinking about conversion to actually being in the process of converting, I talked to my mom about how we should tell my grandfather, her father, that I was no longer a practicing Catholic and was going to be Jewish. My mom felt that he would not be able to understand what it meant for me to be converting. He, like the rest of my family, had never met a Jew. I said that I wouldn’t hide it, but I also would not have a formal, sit-down conversation with him. My religion never came up in the visits I had with him, so it was left unsaid. In the moments following his death, one of the first things I thought to myself was, “Now, he knows.”

The Catholic services that followed his death were something I wasn’t quite ready to face. In the moments leading up to his death, there was no denying the strong Catholic faith that lived within him. In his last few days, his hospital room was filled with prayers and rosaries. I was there as our family priest came to give him the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I helped my cousin prepare the Divine Chaplet that was prayed immediately following his death by his bedside. And in the moments of his lasts breaths, I stood by his bed holding him as he held his rosary. I stared down at his hands gently carrying a crucifix attached to beads that had been rubbed endlessly as he prayed.

Part of me felt the guilt, that I may always carry, about leaving a beautiful tradition that has been with my family and in my culture for generations. How did I walk away from what he held so dear even in his last moments on earth? But the other part of me, the part of me that I knew he would be proud of, realized that there is still continuity among the rapture. It is the faith, commitment and love that he had running through his veins that continues in me. It is the passion and fervor that I saw him living every day for his family, community, and G-d that has been passed down to me, will continue to live within me and will hopefully continue on in my children, their children and their children’s children, with the help of Hashem. I may have gone down another path. I may have a different way of living it out, but it is the same fire within us both.

My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

The dreams that were never meant to be

Life in Israel has been filled with unexpected ups and downs, but even on the most frustrating days, I am still amazed that I am here. I am freshly out of undergrad and in my early 20s. There are various points throughout one’s life that reflection on where one has been and questioning what is ahead is practically built in, and this point in my life is one of them. It is a moment of great transition, which is fragile but full of possibility.

At this moment, I look at where I am and can’t help but be kind of baffled about how I got here. Ten years ago, I would have thought that a Christian girl who converted to Judaism moved to Israel and had a BA in Religious Studies was just not possible, not just for me but for anyone! I was unaware that Judaism was a religion. I didn’t know that people live across the world from their family. I had no clue that someone could have a degree in something that wasn’t a job (e.g. teacher, doctor, lawyer, and engineer).

I love my life now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This is the life I was created to live. And yet, I think of the life I dreamed of growing up and living when I was young(er).

There are so many dreams that changed. One of the first things I mourned the loss of when I knew Christianity was no longer mine was the wedding day I always thought I would have. I think I first planned my wedding when I was six. I had colors for bridesmaid dresses, drew pictures of what my dress would look like and had a church picked out. I now know how different my wedding will look from the one I imagined when I was six and from the one my parents, sister and rest of my family had and imagined for me. Now, even when I try really hard, I can’t imagine myself walking down a church aisle. It is almost like my dreams were just that, fuzzy dreams in the middle of the night that were just a distant, fragmented memory by morning. Now, I couldn’t be happier to dream of my Jewish wedding.

I have had time to adjust to the dramatic changes in my dreams, and they were a slow evolution for me. I slowly gained clarity on who I was and the next baby step in my life after each move. My parents (and the rest of my family) didn’t have that benefit. They just had the image of their daughter’s baptismal gown, which they kept safely tucked away, being passed on to her children for their Baptisms. In what felt like overnight, that dream was gone, and the image is getting fuzzy.  It is hard for them. I know that and pray for our patience.

I know that my life and future are radically different from where I thought they would be, but I know that I couldn’t possibly live it differently.  At each step, it was hard to leave the path that was already beaten and had been imagined, but each time there came a point where staying on the path, untrue to who I was, become a more painful thought than the fear of stepping onto my own, destined path.

Those dreams from my childhood were also of a great life but were not meant to be live out, not by me. I don’t know what is next, but I know that this other, unexpected path is my path.