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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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.

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.

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.

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.

The Mikvah Date is Set!

Right now I have way too many emotions fighting inside of me that I can’t write a coherent post, but I wanted to share that my beit din and mikvah date has been set. I am very excited for the closely approaching dates. I just found out last week and the dates are as follows:

Beit Din- Friday, May 25th

Mikvah- Tuesday, May 29th

I will add a more extensive post over my feelings, a good and bad, in the coming days. Until then, be sure to know that the most prominent feeling is joy!