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.

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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.

Rhythm of Life: Omer

We are amid an amazing seven week period — the counting of the Omer.  Jews are commanded to verbally count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot after nightfall each day. These days were originally connected to a harvest offering at the Temple and later became a season of semi-mourning in which some Jews do not cut their hair and weddings are not celebrated. For many, the counting of the Omer has become a time of reflection and creating connection between the redemption of Passover, the exodus from Egypt, and the revelation of Shavuot,  the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Counting the Omer each night allows you to take a minute at relatively the same time each day and pause. In these moments, you create a pattern of  becoming fully aware of where you are at the present moment, both physically and in the larger rhythm of the Jewish calender.

During a class on Jewish Mysticism, my rabbi was talking about recognizing the rhythms of our lives and how the Jewish calender, with the flow of the holidays, serves as a the rhythm in a Jew’s life. We discussed how celebrating the same holidays year after year leads to a rhythm that allows you to revisit the same moments each time from a new vantage point. Much like the nightly counting of the Omer, that has one visiting the same  general time each night but with a fresh perspective and at least slightly different position in the world.

I can certainly see the amazing pattern that the Jewish calender creates for a Jewish soul, but during the discussion, I also recognized that the rhythm is not yet part of my life. I spent at least the past four years aware of the many major and minor Jewish holidays cycling through the year, but still, this has not been the rhythm of my life. Instead, I see the place I stand now, and the past years of my intimate venture into Judaism, as a step outside the rhythm.

Each night, as I count the Omer, I acknowledge the place it has settled into the heart and how it has built a pattern into my life. At the same time, I see myself as stepping outside of the established rhythm, and value these moments as beautiful, arrhythmic instants that stand outside the ordinary arrangement of time. I look forward to the future and seeing how the pattern and rhythm of life falls into the natural rhythm of Jewish calender.

 

One of my favorite quotes from a song to accompany my feelings:

“I fall into your rhythm, your beauty I do fly, I rush into your melody, I linger ’till I die.” – Just a Dream (Song), Griffin House (Band)

Pesach Seder, Day 1.

Emotions are competing inside of me, and I am having trouble putting any of them into words. I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family from my congregation for the first seder of Passover 5772. The family was absolutely wonderful. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to sit at their table and learn, eat, and enjoy wonderful company. In so many ways, this was the perfect seder for me, and in so many other ways, the seder left me feeling frustrated or empty. Either way, I KNOW that Hashem led me to that table and was with me throughout the roller coaster of emotions I felt in each moment.

First, let me begin with what was so perfect about the seder. My host family was wonderful. They were very welcoming, and conversation was easy because I felt I had a lot in common with just about everyone at the table. Two women at the seder both converted to Judaism. Another guest was about to convert (in a week). My host’s oldest children were around my age.  Another guest was deeply fascinated with religion and studies comparative religion as a hobby.  Also, the youngest children at the seder, made up of both  Jews and non-Jews, gave me such a great view into family life and community. I can not speak enough to the amazing, instant feeling of community I felt with my host and her family and friends. It was something I had never really felt in this Jewish community.

The main (challenging) thought that kept entering my head throughout the night was whether or not this is already my story. I would be so moved by passages of the Haggadah expressing ideas of freedom and soon begin to feel isolated because of the language used in the Haggadah. The Haggadah, and the story of the exodus from Egypt in general, creates a clear sense of division between an “us” and a “them.” In multiple parts of the seder I would ask myself, “which side am I on?” I can definitely relate to Abraham’s story of leaving the religious beliefs of his father in order to follow Hashem, but does that make me part of Israel? I can feel as though I too am preparing for my flight from Egypt, but does that make me an Israelite?

I struggled with a feeling of otherness at times during Pesach. Pesach is so focused on community and even welcoming in the stranger, but it was just that– I was a stranger. The hagadda says the word “our” so many times and I kept struggling with whether or not I was part of that. It is weird, because I had not felt this so strongly before, even when I say the Aleinu or any other liturgy. But during Pesach there is such a strong sense of “us”- Israel and “them”-Egyptians/other. I have celebrated Pesach before, but this year, when I was more in the community than any year before, I felt most removed from the community. I still told myself I too was being led out of Egypt, but I don’t know if i really believe it. Now, as we approach Shavuot, every night counting the Omer I am reminded that I have not yet been commanded to count the Omer. In other blessings, I have never minded the “who has commanded us..” but since the Omer is an extension of Pesach, linking us to Shavuot, my feeling of being an outsider is still present. I have debated whether or not to even count the Omer then, but decided that I still want to even if I am not commanded and even if it does not really led to me receiving Torah on Shavuot. This may all sound really depressing, but I really do not feel too sad about it. It is not like I did not know I was not Jewish before. It is just that as the time is getting closer to me becoming Jewish, I realize even more strongly that I am not yet. No matter how badly I want the words to be about me, telling my story, they aren’t yet. But hopefully soon.

Conclusion: Even if this isn’t my story yet, I feel in every inch of my being that I want more than anything to join the narrative. I am already excited for next year’s seder (whether or not it is in Jerusalem). And more than anything, I am anxiously awaiting the day I have my own seder where I can help create an open environment of creativity, learning and growth for family, friends and strangers.

Live in Israel for Two Years?

It is now officially late March, and the time has come to receive acceptance (and rejection) letters from graduate schools. I only applied to four schools, two in the U.S. and two in Israel, and I thank God that the two I have heard back from so far have both been letters of acceptance. While I am glad I got into both programs, I secretly hoped I would only get into one program out of the four so the decision of where to go would be made for me. I have trouble deciding what to eat for dinner, so the decision of where to get a Master’s from is pretty much impossible for me.

I spent the past year trying not to become too invested in any program so I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get in, and now, I have to go against the rule I made for myself and rank. There are so many factors to consider, such as money, faculty, location. I also have to at listen to, and somewhat consider,  the opinions of my family, friends, and mentors. I think all the programs I applied to are great and pretty comparable to each other money wise (when taking cost of living, scholarships, and everything into consideration), so it really feels like it is coming down to where I want to live for the next two years.  And as scared as I am to say it, I feel the answer is Israel.

I spent this past summer in Israel studying at Tel Aviv University. I had the opportunity to see many different parts of the country and even spent my last week and a half exclusively in Jerusalem. While two and a half months is not the same as two years, I feel like I had the opportunity to get a good sample of what life would be like living in Israel- and I loved it. I can’t idealize it and say it was truly only the land of milk and honey. I had my phone stolen at the shuk in Tel Aviv, had to sit on the floor of an overbooked bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, and had a few awkward moments in Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem.  Even with the not so great and many frustrating moments, I could still see myself living there (at least for a few years). And what is a better time than when the commitment is only two years and I am only 22 years old?

Mitzvot in Conservative Judaism

I love Judaism.

From the beginning of my desire to convert to Judaism, I knew that I would first and foremost identify as a Jew and the branch of Judaism that I affiliate with would be secondary. While this sounds nice, it is naive to  see the branches of Judaism as artificial divisions. You can think a certain way and practice a certain way but at the end of the day you have to function within a community.

Orthodox and Conservative were the two branches that I spent the most time considering  when choosing a community. I still question where I fit best at times, but for several reasons I know that Conservative Judaism is the right place for me. The tension comes because my practice tends to be on the more Orthodox side of things.

When I discuss this with my friends they tend to think I am crazy and that Orthodox practice is much harder than Conservative practice. I disagree.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both see mitzvot (commandments) as binding. Conservative Judaism, unlike Orthodox Judaism, sees mitzvot as evolving. This difference in opinion leads to differences in practices, like the Conservative movement ordaining female rabbis while the Orthodox movement does not.

For me personally, I feel it is harder to live out mitzvot through the Conservative movement than the Orthodox movement, which is largely why I practice in a more Orthodox way. In Orthodox Judaism, there is a clear sense of not only what to do but how to do it. In Conservative Judaism, there is the same 613 mitzvot, but there is a very different approach that enables you to practice each in ways that are meaningful for you. This ambiguity can be beautiful and confusing at the same time. I struggle with finding the most meaningful way of living out each mitzvot in my life. Especially in this early stage of learning to live as a Jew, I find it necessary and rather comforting to have clear rules and expectations of how to live in the world.

I am in no way saying one way of practicing is better than the other. I think that everyone needs to find what is best and most meaningful for them. For me, I find the structure and clarity of Orthodox practice more comforting , but I am also trying to ensure I understand and value my community’s practices. While the process of trying to find what is best for me is mostly frustrating, I know that it is necessary in order to ensure that I am secure in who I become as a Jew and that I can live out my Judaism even when I leave my present home and community.