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.

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.

Moving to Israel

This past week, I found out where in Israel I will be living for the next year. I was extremely excited and suddenly the fact that I am going to be living in Israel became real. I have been talking and thinking about it for so long, but having the actual location and grant terms in my hands made my heart skip a beat. Immediately, I began to think about how lucky I am that it is written in the stars for me to make Israel my home. I think of the thousands of Jews throughout the centuries who knew Israel was their home but were prevented from living in the land. I think of Moshe, the greatest prophet of all, who also wasn’t able to go into the Promised Land. I count my blessings everyday and now I have a very important one to add, one that can easily be taken for granted. I will try my best to remind myself and be grateful because I am in the minority of the Jewish people throughout history.

I can’t wait to get to Israel.

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.