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.

My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

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.

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.

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.

Where the hell is the redemption?

Passover has finally come. I have so many emotions about the holiday I have been thinking about and beginning to record, but I feel the need to post something else first.

Today, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A few weeks ago is when he first went to the doctor and found something abnormal, but today still came as a somewhat shock to my family. My father is young and in generally good health. I know that prostate cancer is usually treatable and trust that with proper care he will soon be well.

At the same time, I did have a few moments of tears and an overall day of contemplation. Even with the belief that my father will be okay, a stream of emotions came across me. Cancer is a big word. It brings up all sorts of feelings, and for me it most definitely brings up the idea of mortality. So many loved ones in my life have passed away from complications of cancer. And most recently, my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer but is luckily in remission now. This also makes me question my own death and have the feeling that cancer is also inevitably in my future. It is news like this that makes me realize what little control I have over life, and that scares me.

I live my life with a fairly realistic outlook. I know death is inevitable, and I hope when the day comes I will accept and maybe even embrace it. I know that other things in life are also out of my control. As much as I want to accept this, I find a part of me fighting. I am not angry at Hashem but frustrated by my lack of understanding. I am in the middle of Passover, a holiday about redemption, and receiving bad news and reflecting on the fact that there are bad things in the world. I have to ask myself, where the hell is the redemption?

I understand that being redeemed does not mean that everything is perfect, and making the world a better place is something we do have some control over. These are just my current frustrations. I will continue to celebrate Passover. I will continue to not eat chametz. Even though, I am not yet liable, not part of Israel, and sure don’t feel redeemed (right now).