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.

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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.

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.

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

I was not lost, but I certainly found.

The famous author of The Lord of the Rings series, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote the words, “not all those who wander are lost.” This line has become a well-known quote because so many people can relate to the idea of wandering. Throughout our lives, we encounter many moments of wandering. We move from school to school, city to city, and job to job. Throughout the numerous processes of wandering, many of us are fortunate enough to stay rooted by family and friends. No matter how many times we move to a new city, we always have our “hometown.” In these instances, it is clear it see that those wandering are not necessarily lost and retain their roots.

On a deeper level, we wander in our minds, hearts, and souls as we explore ideas of why we are put on this earth and what direction our lives are headed. It seems like the deeper types of wandering happen when you don’t have a clear direction. Even if you are not lost, you are lacking clarity in a meaningful way. Some of us begin to learn more about different religious traditions as we wander through profound questions that either were previously unanswered or not sufficiently answered. With the majority of conversion stories I have encountered, from a variety of religious traditions, the converts describe their experiences as going from being lost to being home. They often begin in a state of little to no religious conviction and make a total transformation when they find their religious tradition and realize life now makes (more) sense. I can definitely relate to the end result feeling. I understand what it feels like to have this new found religion as the home you never knew existed but where you most certainly belong. But the first part, the experience of being lost or without a “home,” I have never felt.

I grew up in a very stable and loving two parent household. My parents, like their parents and their grandparents, created a nurturing, Roman Catholic household.  I had church every Sunday and catechism classes every Wednesday. I participated in many Church activities, like Vacation Bible School, youth days, and Christmas’ pageants. Besides a brief rebellious streak when I hit thirteen, I loved going to church, catechism classes, and all other things Christian. I had a clear religion with clear beliefs in a clear community. I never felt lost. I never had profound moments of doubt or skepticism. I never felt like my needs were not being met. I had the Church and never expected to want anything else.

When I began learning about other religious traditions, in junior high and high school, my study was based on interest of cultural diversity and had little, if anything, to do with theology. I began wandering even though I had a firm conviction in what I believed. I cannot easily relate to the story of other converts who were not spiritually fulfilled before they found their religion, but I can relate to their feeling of finding home, finding more fulfillment then you ever imagined possible, and finding a relationship with God and a community. I have never had a child, but I imagine that my experience is similar to the feeling of a parent. You led a fulfilling life before your child, but then you have your child and realize your life takes on new meaning, experiences, and fulfillment that you never knew you were missing. I never knew I was missing Judaism until I found it, and now I cannot let go. I did not wander because I was lost, but I can not deny that I found significant meaning I never knew I lacked.