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.

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A Practical Question: To Wear a Kippah, Tallit and/or Tefillin or not?

With my conversion date approaching so quickly, I am facing practical questions I really hadn’t given much thought before.

Today, the question I have on my mind is trying to decide if I will wear tallit, tefillin and/or a kippah when I convert. Up until this point, I have never worn any of them, other than trying on a friend’s kippah once just to see how it would feel.

I don’t know how comfortable I feel with the idea, but it is also the custom in my Conservative community. I know when I move to Israel I will most likely not have to wear any of them, but I am trying to decide what to do while I still live here. I know I don’t have to do any of them, but I feel that it is something important to consider since it is so important to my community. The majority of women in my shul wear tallit and a kippah at least during Shabbat services and some wear tefillin during weekday services. My community also does require anyone going before the community in the service to wear both tallit and a kippah (or some sort of head covering).

The main thing I want is to be consistent in my practice. I want to believe in what I am doing to the point that I am not just sometimes praying with my tallit or only sometimes covering my head in the synagogue. But I know it will probably take some trial and error before I find out what I is comfortable and meaningful  for me.

I think I wouldn’t mind wearing tallit in private while I pray in the morning, but at this point couldn’t imagine myself doing it in public. Maybe just because I have never worn it. I think my biggest mental barrier is that I see all of these things as clearly masculine and  maybe that is why I don’t feel comfortable with them. If I don’t even wear pants, how can I wear tefillin? Also, a head covering doesn’t seem to give me the same uncomfortable feeling as wearing a kippah itself. A kippah is not a mitzvah, but a minhag (custom) that is traditionally for males. I see it as something that is a male symbol where as I see another head covering, like a scarf, as female. I would like to cover my head for the same reason that men wear a kippah, but then how do I justify only wearing it in the synagogue? And can I really cover my head in another manner, not a kippah? I think wearing a hat or scarf might be as equally uncomfortable because it is a symbol of a married Jewish woman, and I am not married.

At the same time, I do like the fact that tallit and tefillin are strictly Jewish and therefore outwardly represent a change in my identity. A man once converted can begin to wear tallit and tefillin that he was not able to before during prayer. I can’t really think of an equivalent for a female. I wish I had an outward symbol of my Jewishness. Something that is reserved for Jews. I mean, I will wear a Star of David, but that doesn’t feel quite the same.

I will keep thinking over the question of wearing a kippah, tallit and/ or tefillin. I will also try to think of other meaningful mitzvot or minhags that can be added when I become a Jewess.

Letter to My Rabbi

Over the past four months, I have gone through different options about how to approach the letter I wrote to my Rabbi about wanting to convert on this blog. I considered posting the entire letter, unedited with no commentary,writing a summary of the details of the letter, detailing my feelings regarding the letter or not acknowledging the letter at all. After starting many drafts to this post, I have finally decided that I would like to post the entire, unedited letter with brief commentary. I feel this is the best way to document my experience for myself and others.

First, some background: I have know my Rabbi for about 2 and a half years, first as my professor and later as I started attending his congregation. He is phenomenal, and I simply cannot properly explain what an amazing resource he has been for me with both my academic and personal journey with Judaism. Although I have come to know him fairly well over the past couple of years, I still have difficulties talking with him at times. The only reason I can think of to explain my fear is that I do admire and respect his opinion, and as my professor and the rabbi in charge of my conversion, he has authority and some power to evaluate me.  For whatever reason, it is hard for me to start conversations with him, but when I do, they are always fruitful.

This letter was written about six months after the first time I told my Rabbi I wanted to convert to Judaism and about four months after beginning conversion classes at our shul. He knew I was interested in Judaism and eventually converting, but I had not explicitly made my desire to convert in our community clear. When the topic of converting at our shul was raised in passing, I became too nervous to share that I wanted to convert through our community before I leave in the Fall. I felt that he received the wrong impression from my nervousness, and this letter was my response.

Writing this letter to my Rabbi signified a huge shift in my relationship to Judaism and the process of conversion. Our conversation after he read the letter resulted in the combined effort to work towards me converting before I move. After that conversation, the thoughts and feelings I had about becoming Jewish became more concrete. With each passing day, reality continues to set in, and I realize this is really going to happen. It brings a slew of emotions but mostly excitement.

I can’t attest to the experience of others, but I know that writing and sending this letter was one of the hardest things I have had to do in the process to convert. It is hard to put words to very intimate feelings and then send those words off to be judged. At the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, to wrestle with finding the words, and resulted in one of the most amazing outcomes, a plan for my conversion.

The letter:

“Dear Rabbi,

Let me start off by apologizing for emailing you. You are so busy and have so many emails to read that it is unfair of me to take up your time. With that said, I am going to do it anyway.

I have a mind that dwells, usually on the insignificant things. Since our conversation Wednesday evening I have not been able to get over the feeling that I gave you the wrong impression of how I feel about converting to Judaism. It is very hard for me to share my personal feelings, but I feel I must no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process. I will attempt to write openly and honestly,  בע”ה.

The first time I ever said the words, “I want to be Jewish,” I was 15 years old. It obviously seemed like a long shot since I lived in a small town, near no synagogues, knew no Jews, and didn’t even know what it meant to be Jewish. A few years later, I began seriously considering converting when I realized that it would actually be possible “one day.” I knew I had several steps before me, but I still knew the words, “I want to be Jewish” were true. It has been scary making the leap from serious contemplation over converting to the realization that this is going to happen because I cannot imagine my life otherwise.

That makes it sound like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t and rightfully so. A decision as important as religion, the thing that shapes you and your life, should be difficult. I knew what I believed and knew how I wanted to live my life and it was clearly Jewish (at least in its simplest forms, more complicated theology is something that I will continuously learn and wrestle with). At the same time, I asked myself daily for about a year “Why do you want to do this? It is hard to be a Jew.” This is still a question I sometimes ask. I ask why I would take 613 mitzvot over 7 commandments. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. Why give up something I can (more) easily follow for mitzvot that often leave me scratching my head? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but my heart fell in love with mitzvot before I knew anything else about Judaism. Each day I asked the question, and even now, I can confidently answer that regardless of the gentile status I have now, I know that my soul was commanded to follow mitzvot along with all other Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai. Although I have not yet formally been commanded, I know that I was created in order to be commanded along with the rest of Israel. No matter how difficult it is to live with mitzvot, I know that I will be fulfilling my purpose when I do. Will I be able to be “perfect”? Probably not, but I know I want to live my life trying.

I love mitzvot already, but right now I am not commanded to fulfill them. Right now, every commandment that I follow is for my own benefit and is really only about bringing me closer to Hashem. While this is beautiful in its own way and necessary at times, it does not carry the same weight of being commanded. I can pray, keep kosher, observe Shabbat, ect. but until I am a Jew, it is really only for me. I am excited for the day when I do all these things for Hashem. One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism, to me, is the fact that a Jew is commanded to live for Hashem in all aspects of life, every moment of everyday. It is one thing for me to wake up to pray for myself and another to be tired, want to press snooze and get up anyway, out of obligation, for Hashem.

This is just one example of many aspects of Judaism that I continue to be passionate about and inspired by. I feel this way about just about everything in Judaism and that is one of the reasons I know I want to begin living as a Jew as soon as I can.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to feel like I don’t yet fit in anywhere. I dread being asked what religion I am. I cannot simply say I am not religious, because that is a lie. I cannot say I am Christian, because that is not what I believe or what I follow. I cannot say I am Jewish, because no matter how badly I wish I were, I am not, yet. This has been a horrible state to live in, and I constantly feel like I am lying to myself and others by not identifying as the religion that I practice and believe.

I do not want to continue to lie. I don’t want to continue to live mitzvot only for myself. I know I will only be shalom when my beliefs are an extension of my practices and my practices are an extension of my tribe and my tribe is an extension of my identity and my identity is an extension of my relationship with Adonai. This will only happen when I am a Jew, part of Israel, living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

The hesitation you may have felt on Wednesday was not by any means hesitation over if I want to convert to Judaism. I do with all my heart, soul and might.

Also, if it is possible, I would love to convert in this community and will do anything I can to make that happen. I have been scared to tell you that, because I don’t know what to expect as a response. I expressed my concern about leaving the community, because I was hoping it may prompt you to say something that could give me a more clear idea if conversion here would be possible. Also, it is a real concern. I am sad that I will be leaving the community, but I know it will always be my home. I am sad to be leaving you, but I know you will always be (my) Rabbi.

I hope I did not ramble too much. I tried to be concise, but as much as I am uncomfortable talking about myself, once I start it is hard to stop. I left so much unsaid, but I hope my desire is more clear than it may have been before.

Have a peaceful end of the week. May you have a smooth transition into the transcendent. See you on the other side.

“אלישבע

 

 

Passover in College

I have attended Passover seders for the past four years, and last year I didn’t consume any chametz (including leavened breads, oats, rice, corn and peanuts). But this year, I am going to be having my first real Passover complete with cleaning my apartment, selling my chametz, and conducting the search for chametz the day before Passover. While I have been anticipating Passover all year so I would be able to have a Passover more closely aligned with Jews around me, I have also been stressing over Passover for about the past month.

Living in a college apartment is not the same as having a Jewish home. The hardest part of the situation is that my roommate is not Jewish. While this does pose some issues for general kashrut (kosher) laws, it becomes much harder when the dietary laws become stricter over Passover. Also, having a college student budget does not allow for too much frivolous spending and lets face it, Passover is not a cheap holiday. In order to have a kosher kitchen for Passover you can’t use your ordinary dishes, pots, pans or utensils. Also, you need to get a whole new pantry full of food for 8 days.

After many weeks of stressing and running over scenarios in my head, I have found a non-ideal but practical solution to making it through Passover in my apartment. First, let me say it would be so much easier if I had a Jewish home to be in that already kept the mitzvot of Passover, but I can not invite myself to live with someone for eight days! But, if you have the option to help someone else prepare their home and stay with them, it would be a great way to learn and escape the issues of a roommate who doesn’t keep kosher for Passover. Now, my solution:

I am going to get rid of all the chametz (that I own) in my apartment, as well as clean the entire apartment (except my roommates room, which I never enter), car, and other possessions. During Passover, I will not use the kitchen at all since my roommate is going to continue to prepare food normally in there. We already discussed that for the week she will keep all food in the kitchen only. I will use a mini fridge set up in my room to keep all my food separate. Basically, all my food consist of for the week is raw fruits, (approved) raw veggies, and cheese approved for Passover. I also bought some prepackaged Passover junk food in order to keep my sweet (and salty) tooth at bay. I will use all paper goods for my food and won’t eat or take food outside of my room. I will drink still bottled water.

It is not perfect, but is what I see as a reasonable solution for Passover this year. Hopefully, next year I will be able to properly prepare and keep Passover in my home.

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?

Bereishit (“In the beginning…”)

I am on an extraordinary journey, that will never end, but is just beginning.

In the beginning, I was skeptical about beginning a blog that deals with the very personal journey of converting to Judaism. To be honest, I am still nervous about this process, but after many months of consideration I am taking the plunge and beginning to share my thoughts and experiences.

For the past year, I have documenting my thoughts and prayers in a journal. Recently, I began a digital journal on my computer specifically for archiving my experiences with Judaism, recalling my first memories of interacting with Judaism to the present days.  Today, I begin this blog with the intent to extend my writings into a new medium, become more aware of my journey (past, present, future), and just maybe provide interesting reading for someone else.

When I began to seriously seek out information on conversion, I looked for personal accounts and experiences. Unfortunately, I was largely left unsatisfied with the gap of information with personal experiences. I dug deep into books on halacha (Jewish law), Torah, and the logistics of the conversion process. These books were invaluable to my study and decision to convert, but without hearing more stories of converts I was left confused about the practical and emotional issues I was going through. I have a friend who converted to Judaism, but we are coming from such different places in our quest that she left me with more confusion than strength.  I read and heard multiple stories of Jewish converts, but it wasn’t enough. Conversion, and the reason for conversion, is very personal and different for everyone. For every story I read that spoke to me and I related to, I would have twenty more I just did not understand. I began to branch out my search for personal accounts of people converting to any religion. These were some of the most helpful stories, but at the end of the day we were still facing unique issues because of the difference in religion. When thinking about how to tell my parents about wanting to convert, I even consulted stories about gays coming “out” to their parents. There just is not enough personal, anecdotal information out there for those interested in converting to Judaism.

A very good friend is in a very similar place as I am, on the journey to join Israel. He has provided more help than any book or other resource in understanding my journey. He lives in a different country than I do, so the internet is the only way we communicate. Still, the ability to share our experiences with each other has made the world make just a little more sense. We are able to share practical issues, such as how to observe mitzvot (commandments) as a person converting, and emotional issues, such as dealing with family issues related to our conversion. Even though these are very personal issues, I see it as necessary to share my experiences so someone else will have them as a resource, not at all as a guide but as a friend’s story. I can not provide this experience for everyone, but I hope by sharing my story I am doing the little bit I can to fill the gap, provide someone else with some things to think about, and maybe help someone find their own words to describe their journey.

Speaking of words, they often fail, especially when trying to describe religious experiences. Not only will I be unable to find the perfect words to explain my experiences, but I can do nothing more than describe my unique experiences.  I encourage anyone reading to ask questions and comment on their journey with Judaism or their own faith, even if not a convert. We are all on our own journey.

And for that journey, a prayer:

“May it be Your will, Adonai, God of our ancestors, to lead us in peace and guide our steps in safety so that we may arrive at our destination, alive, happy and in peace.”