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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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.

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.

Fast of Tammuz

How secure is our world?

Yesterday, the 17th of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Today, almost 2000 years later, we are fasting for this breach to our sacred space.

How relevant is the Fast of Tammuz to Jews today. In the year 5772 we are fortunate enough to have Jerusalem and the rest of Israel as a free Jewish homeland. In about two months, I will get on a plane to make this Land my home, but today, by fasting I am recognizing the insecurity of the Land both then and now.

All life is so fragile, not only for Jews and not only Israel. In a world where we constantly struggle to obtain more and are seldolmly satisfied with what we have it is easy to forget that everything sits in an instable state of here today and gone tomorrow. It takes an illness or another’s loss to make us step back and count our blessings, but I feel the 17th of Tammuz comes to remind us that life is uncertain and unsecure. We can experience loss at any moment (and will in just 3 weeks with Tisha b’Av), so let us take time to appreciate everything we have today.

Anticipating My First Shabbat as a Jew!

Shabbat is my favorite Jewish thing. It beats Purim, kosher wine and even bagels. Shabbat is breath outside of time filled with songs, prayers, meals and Torah. Best of all, Shabbat involves moments within community. Shabbat being the same day for Jews around the world allows me to feel connected to those Jews even beyond my own shul.

This is my first Shabbat as a Jew. I now feel even more in connection with all the other Jews commanded to rest on Shabbat. I look forward to no longer being the ger (although I was always welcomed). I look forward to dwelling in Shabbat in a whole new way. Shabbat is no longer something I observe Jews keeping and try to participate in. This Shabbat is my first Shabbat that is me keeping a mitzvah. Shabbat is no longer something I do. Shabbat, along with the 612 other mitzvot, is who I am.

With the help of Hashem, I will dwell is Shabbat and allow Shabbat to fully dwell in me.

Shabbat Shalom.

My Beit Din

The 4th of Sivan, right before Shabbat and Shavuot, I had my Beit Din. I am an anxious person by nature, so the day was one filled with so much anxiety and stress. I cried. I laughed. I threw up.

I arrived at the shul about 10 minutes early. I had spent the morning eating breakfast with a friend and then praying at a local park. The time with a friend and in reflection really helped me calm down, but I still had butterflies in my stomach. The stress related to the Beit Din was mostly about being in a situation where you have to be completely open and sincere to a group of men asking personal questions. I also knew that I had wanted this step to come for so long, but when I first got the news that the Beit Din was scheduled I panicked. I questioned more than ever if I was ready and making the right decision. I think this is similar to preparing for a wedding. You look forward to the day and spend months in preparation, but when the day gets close you remember that the decision is more than about that day, it is about a lifelong commitment. Luckily, I had some friends who calmed me down and reminded me that the whole point of the Beit Din is to make you prove you are ready and sincere. Honestly, that was one of the most amazing things to come out of the process. I proved to myself as much as I did to the Beit Din that I was ready.

In the room, I was asked to begin by telling my story of how I got to the point that I was sitting in front of the Beit Din. Based on my rather short description of my journey, they begin to ask me many more questions. I was asked about my relation to Israel, the Jewish people, the Shoah, my Christian family, holidays, kashrut and many other things. It never really felt like a conversation, but they were very nice the whole time and never made me feel overly uncomfortable. I did have trouble answering some questions, but for the most part they only asked things I have considered at least at some point throughout my journey. The questioning was tiring, and the hardest part was being open to being so vulnerable. I felt overly exposed as my personal journey was picked and probed in order to be judged.

When they finished asking me questions, I step out of the room. I began thinking of all the “right” and eloquent answers I should have given. I am thankful that the Rabbi’s assistant was in the waiting room also and talked to me casually to keep my mind from going crazy as I waited for them to call me back into the room. It was only a few minutes, and then I sat back down in front of them and received their “mazal tov”s. My rabbi said that he only wished I wasn’t moving so I could continue studying here. That was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. All I could say was “thank you.” There are no words to describe the way my body, mind and soul felt in that moment. They asked me a series of questions along the lines of agreeing to raise my children as Jews and tying my destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people. I answered the first question “yes” and the rest “ken” (Hebrew for “yes”). It was probably just silly to them, but it was meaningful to me. I was so overcome by the joy of the moment. I really didn’t expect to feel that incredibly happy. I have never in my life felt so amazing. As I walked out of the room, I felt as if I could not speak, think, see or hear correctly. All my senses faded away as I floated off.

The moments after were filled with such relief. I had been incredibly nervous for the days leading up to the Beit Din, and now all of the stress dripped away. For a few moments, everything in my life felt shalom (whole) and b’seder (in order). It was only an instant, but it was reality. Then I began to feel joy and happiness and accomplishment. I really felt my heart “dance” inside of me. As I came back to earth, I remained in a state of joy and peace, but suddenly realized I was exhausted. I got home and immediately went to sleep in an unnatural state of security, love and joy. And when I woke up, it was time for my last Shabbat as a non-Jew and then Shavuot and my mikvah day quickly followed.

The whole day was amazing and like a dream. It was one of the best days of my life and the greatest I have ever felt. And yet, the memories and feelings are already so vague.