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.

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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.

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.

My Family will be Mourning. My Heart will be Full of Joy.

Since the beginning of Lent, I have felt strange not following the liturgy. Ever since I was young, Lent was my favorite liturgical season (yes, I have favorite liturgical seasons) and the services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were even more anticipated than midnight Christmas Mass. In years prior, I already felt removed from the Lenten narrative, but like many non practicing or believing Christians I still abstained or added a practice for Lent. For me, this was not so much about Lent as just a practice in self-control and trying to move closer to Hashem. This was the first year that I in no way participated in even the most remote practices of Lent or Easter. This is also the first year I will not be with my family on Easter. Which I made sure to let them know was not because I didn’t support their religious practices, but because the timing of Passover prevents me from visiting family.

Last year, was the first time in my life that I said “halleluyah” during Lent. The Catholic Church does not sing halleluyah during Lent because it is a time of mourning, but since I would daven the Shema and Amidah each day I would quietly say it to myself. This year, the first Shabbat after Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) was the  first time I publicly said “halleluyah.” I remember the moment it came to say “halleluyah” in the repetition of the Amidah. I took a deep breath and with strength and joy I declared, “halleluyah.” For everyone else in the shul, the moment came and passed unnoticed, but for me it was a clear declaration of my theology and praise for Hashem.

In the Western Church, the Lenten season is coming to an end. This is an intense time for many Christians as Palm Sunday has passed and there is anxiety as the liturgy goes through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth and eventual death.  These days lead up Easter, which is full of joy, but in the mean time many Christians are stricken with grief. All of lent has been a time of mourning, but it culminates in these last few days of the season. This year the last days of Lent coincide with the beginning of Pesach (Passover). Now with Pesach approaching, I await the moments of looking up to the heavens and joyfully singing Hallel. I can’t help but feel strange by the fact that as I open my heart to let the praise and joy flood out for Hashem and redemption my family will all be without liturgy of praise and in a moment of emptiness. Jews and Christians around the world are set in tension on Friday and Saturday when one community experiences Hashem answering their cries for freedom and the other community is crying with great loss. Friday night and Saturday are moments  when the people of Israel are being drawn closer to redemption and freedom and Christians are ultimately in a state of emptiness and darkness. The Israelites are on their first steps towards returning to Israel and Christians are deeper in exile from freedom than any other time.

When my heart is full of joy for bnei Israel (children of Israel) from all generations that are making their way from slavery to freedom, my family, along with all Christians, is mourning. I will sing songs of praise and scream from the depths of my soul “HALLELUYAH,” while they sit in a place of darkness.

Before the weekend is up, they too will experience freedom in their own way. Yet, still, the tension will remain.