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.

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.

Hag Hodayah Sameach! My Thanksgiving of Firsts.

Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

This Thanksgiving is my…

first Thanksgiving in Israel.

first Thanksgiving away from my mom.

first Thanksgiving with Jews.

first kosher (non-dairy) Thanksgiving.

first Thanksgiving spent working.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, not only because of the food but because of the overall spirit of family and joy. Now that I have to add Jewish holidays into the mix, I am not quite sure if it is still my favorite but no doubt that it is up there. I love the food, the weather, the family, the feeling of gratitude, and the football. My mom always hosts Thanksgiving and this year was no exception. The cousins, aunts and uncles who usually attend were all there. There were about 45 family members total, but still some people were missing this year, including my grandfather who passed away at the end of the summer. I did miss seeing my family, but the excitement and novelty of Thanksgiving in Israel was enough to keep me from being homesick.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving day, I had to come into work. It was strange to not have Thanksgiving off, but luckily it was a short and slow day. I spent the majority of my time sitting in the office watching Thanksgiving sitcom specials on Netflix. I did multiple episodes of How I Met Your Mother, King of the Hill, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and even an episode of Rugrats to bring back childhood memories. That evening I went to eat Thanksgiving Dinner along with other students in my program at the Deputy Ambassador’s house. It was great to see friends from my program, but the event felt much more like any other dinner rather than Thanksgiving.  The formality of the evening just didn’t make it feel like Thanksgiving. I have to admit that after my excitement for the event, I was let down from the lack of Thanksgiving cheer.

On Friday, my adviser was hosting Thanksgiving at her home. She was having 35 people over for dinner a Thanksgiving themed Shabbat dinner. As soon as I walked in the home, it smelled, looked and felt like Thanksgiving. The food was all traditional but kosher. Everything was so delicious that I didn’t notice there wasn’t butter in my mashed potatoes or dairy milk in my cornbread. I didn’t know any of the guests before the dinner except for my adviser and her husband. The guest list was very eclectic, and I enjoyed everyone’s company. There were only three people from the U.S. (Minnesota, California, and Texas). Other countries represented at the dinner were South Africa, Ethiopia, China, Germany, Argentina, England, Holland and Israel. The mix of languages at the table was inspiring.   That dinner felt like Thanksgiving.  All the traditional Thanksgiving foods were there, including pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and cornbread, but more importantly, her house filled with about 35 of her friends all smiling and laughing together.

Even though my Thanksgiving ended up being a day late and being shared with people I had never met before, it was still a real Thanksgiving filled with love and thanks. I am grateful for the chance to experience such wonderful holiday feelings so far from my family.

I know Christmas will be harder, but at least I know holidays away from family are possible.

Living For Myself, But Not Living Selfishly

Converting to Judaism is the most selfish thing I have ever done. Moving to Israel is a pretty close second. I struggle with the guilt I feel over my selfish decisions most days. I make decisions based on pleasing people more often than I should, but the few decision I have made in my life that have been for myself have all been major life decisions that have effected those around me, most importantly my family.

One of the hardest things I have ever done was telling my parents that I wanted to convert to Judaism. My sister and brother-in-law already knew. My best friend already knew. A few other friends and cousins knew. The only people left to tell, whose response I cared about, were my parents. To be honest, telling them was much more than one conversation. It was a series of conversations over a few years. They knew I was interested in Judaism, Jews, Hebrew and Israel, but they never wanted to believe that it was more than a passing fascination. My parents saw my passion as nothing more than a naïve child mystified by what was in front of her. This is the way they view most of my undertakings. To be fair, it is true that the things I am most passionate about were inspired by my natural curiosity and excitement to encounter and take hold of what intrigued and baffled me. At the same time, there is a difference between wanting to sky dive or even ride a roller coaster, both of which are things I would never have the guts to do, and making major life decisions. I am not haphazard or reckless by nature. Instead, my decisions are made with deliberation, struggle and care, which almost makes it worse because then I am selfish.

I don’t make decisions on a whim without thinking of the consequences to myself or those around me. I carefully think out the implications and aftermath of my decisions, which makes deciding what to eat for dinner a hassle. With large decisions, I know that others will be affected. I know that often I am hurting someone, and yet, I do it. I decide that my wants are greater than someone else’s wants. I make a selfish decision knowing that I am being selfish. I struggle with this. I love the decisions I have made, but I hate the way it has affected other. I often fantasize about how I would live my life if I lived in a protective bubble. Not a bubble that protected me from my decisions, but a way that my family was protected from feeling any impact from my decisions. How differently would I live?

My sister and brother-in-law, my bearers of sanity, talk me back to reality. They remind me that it is okay to make decisions based on what I want. I might sound silly, but it is something I need to be told. It just doesn’t seem right in a Mexican family. Family comes first- always. With the change of times, this is also changing. My generation is really the first to step outside of this box. Family is still of utmost importance, but we learn to redefine what family means and what providing for the family means. It is in my generation that children are beginning to educate themselves and move outside of the 30 mile radius that is the hub of our extended family. As this shift takes place, the generations before us, my parents, their siblings and aunts and uncles, struggle with the shifting priorities. It feels like a true loss of the family unit. I mourn this loss a bit stronger than some of my cousins. I feel myself letting down not only my parents and the generations before them but also the generations to come that will have very different assumptions and experiences of familyhood than I did.

I have created a Hispanic parent’s worst nightmare. My decisions go beyond myself. My family will not be the family that my parents ever envisioned. I live further away than my parents would like. I am pursuing a profession that makes little to no sense to my parents. I am practicing and believing in a completely different religious system than my parents. I am going against tradition in almost every imaginable way, and it hurts us both.

Even though there is pain, I continue to grow. I continue to learn. I continue to live. My sister is right in saying that my decisions are just that- mine. She wants me to claim my decisions as selfish and embrace the selfishness as a badge of honor. That has worked well to inspire her to live a happy, healthy life for herself, but I am different and can’t quite do that. Selfish will always have a negative connotation for me. Instead, I remind myself that taking care of myself and living my life my way is not selfish. Oscar Wilde has a beautiful quote that has become my mantra in times of feeling guilt for my “selfish” decisions.

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live”

This quote has become increasingly meaningful after my move to Israel and as I try and plan what is next. I already try to live my life in such a way that I don’t impose myself on others, but this quote goes beyond that idea by expressing that it is not just okay but necessary to dictate yourself. I can’t make other people see decisions this way, because that would be against the principle itself. All I can do is continue to focus on what is important to me, ask myself how I want to live my life, and live accordingly.

Rosh Hashana 5773

Shana tova umetuka!

It has been over a month since Rosh Hashana, but I feel it isn’t too late to wish anyone a happy New Year, especially since this post is about my Rosh Hashana celebrations.

Rosh Hashanna came about a week after I landed in Israel. I was still getting over my jet lag as the New Year came. The strongest memory I have from the holiday is the scents that filled the air. I was in love with the wonderful smell of spices that came through the open windows immediately preceding a festival. You knew these homes were filled with people busy preparing to welcome guests and the New Year.

I was really excited to be in Israel for the New Year and just as excited that my first festival in Israel was still doubled. It gave me more time to participate with others both in shul and festive meals. I spent the first night of Rosh Hashana with my program adviser and her family (husband, sons, and mother-in-law). The second night was spent as one of many guests at the home of an older couple I met at the Masorti shul I had been attending. The couple are olim from Canada who have lived in Israel for about 35 years.

Both dinners were very nice and very different from each other. My adviser and her family are not very religious so blessings were made over the wine, bread, and new fruit but not in a very formal way. It was a great way to experience how culturally ingrained many celebrations are in the Jewish calendar. Everyone at the dinner, other than me, was related so the night had very little formality in both dinner and conversation. It was very nice to have a family dinner for the holiday. I have never experienced anything like that for any Jewish holiday so it was really welcoming and exciting to participate in the holiday as part of a family, and my adviser has definitely cared for me as if I were part of her family.

The second dinner was also very nice but much more formal. It had guests that were all close friends, other than me who was new, but it was held as a formal dinner party. The conversation consisted of more small talk and general formal exchanges between hosts and guests. Being from Texas, I am not use to formal anything so it was somewhat uncomfortable, but I did enjoy getting to celebrate the holiday within the community from the shul I had been attending. It was great to get an insight into how some people celebrate Rosh Hashana with friends, because the only way I have ever celebrated is through services at synagogue or having honey cake with non-Jewish friends.

I did go to synagogue for services. I went to the same Masorti synagogue where I had met my host for the second night of the holiday. The biggest differences between the services I would have experienced back in Texas and what I experienced at this small Masorti shul in Israel were that we barely made minyan on both the first and second day of Rosh Hashana and that people, including the prayer leader, were dressed in shorts and sandals. You could have easily moved us all to a beach and no one would have had to change, well except me who wore a dress and sweater. For those who didn’t know I was new, the dress certainly helped people know I wasn’t  a regular. So did the blank, deer caught in headlight look that I gave anytime people spoke to me in Hebrew. I have certainly mastered this look.

All in all, it was a great holiday. I am glad that I was able to experience so many different dynamics of the holiday within Israel. I spent time celebrating with religious folks, non-religious folks, Israelis, Olim, families, and friends both within and outside of a syngogue. It was definitely a great way to start off the New Year and my time in Israel.

May 5773 come with many other sweet, new experiences.