Yom Kippur 5774: A Hard, Hard Day

Shana tova! Happy New Year! This is my first post of the New Year, 5774, and unfortunately, the themes of tension in this post are feelings that have accompanied the beginning of the year. At the same time, there are good things happening too, but it is hard to feel comfortable when I can’t get my mind off other things causing me anxiety. We are still in the middle of the hagim, Jewish holidays, though and I have hope that things will get a bit easier and more joyful soon.

Now, to the story of my Yom Kippur.

Moving to a new place soon before the holidays isn’t too much fun. On the one hand, you get to test drive a bunch of synagogues in a short amount of time, but you aren’t really able to have a strong connection to a community that feels truly yours for some really important days of the year. Luckily, finding a few synagogues to frequent for services hasn’t been too tough, but it does make me a bit homesick for my congregation where I converted.

The melodies of Yom Kippur are some of my favorite in the Jewish liturgical year. I feel like as soon as Yom Kippur is over, the melodies that my soul has poured forth retreat and spend all year dancing around in my head just waiting to be released at the first Slichot service the next year, a service just a few days before the Jewish New Year and about two weeks before Yom Kippur.  I am in that stage right now, still humming the sounds that filled last weekend, and just like last year, they will never go away but just continue to build inside of me until I can sing them out again next year, G-d willing. The way I think of the melodies is a good description of the way I think of Yom Kippur in general. It is close to the beginning of the year, but in so many ways, I see it as the culmination and climax of the preceding year. All moments of 5773 lead up to that point, Yom Kippur 5774, where I stare soberly at where I have been and where I hope to go and all I can do is pray.

After spending hours in services on Yom Kippur morning, a friend and I took a walk. On this walk we discussed our own unique experiences of the holidays and more broadly community and identity. He raised many thought provoking questions for me. The sheer amount of questions and difference of perspective caused me to turn inward once again and reflect on difficult and challenging experiences of years past. Overwhelming feelings of loneliness, sadness, and absence swallowed me. I felt uneasy and anxious. These are feelings I had been bottling up for months. Feelings that would come in strong waves and then buried deep inside of me to the point where I didn’t feel anything at all. That is the way I experience depression, having no feelings at all. It took a cold grey day in September, filled with prayer, reflection and hunger, to surface these feelings. I wanted to escape them. I was scared, but I knew I had to face them. I had to sit with the heartache so I could feel again, the good and the bad. Following the dramatic mood, I found myself an isolated spot in a mostly deserted parking lot and lied down. As my head  hit the pavement, tears hit my cheeks.  Tears from bottled up pain that had kept me from truly forgiving myself for all the hurt I put myself through. All the judgements I placed on myself. The lack of self care I took. The last tears were shed before Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, when the gates are closed and are fate is sealed.

Was this final act of repentance done in time?  My fate for the year to come is unknown to me, but either way, I am prepared to continue to reflect and grow stronger. I am prepared to sit with my feelings no matter how uncomfortable, as to avoid the possibility of not feeling anything at all. I am prepared to fully inhabit these feelings, to fully feel them so I can fully live life.

My rabbi once gave a dvra torah where he said (I am paraphrasing) a day fully experienced is a day with laughing, crying, and learning. Although this was said years ago, it has stuck with me and I often fall back on this thought. With this idea, Yom Kippur 5774, really was the first day I have fully experienced in some time, and that makes me extremely grateful for the hard, hard day. 

Anticipating My First Shabbat as a Jew!

Shabbat is my favorite Jewish thing. It beats Purim, kosher wine and even bagels. Shabbat is breath outside of time filled with songs, prayers, meals and Torah. Best of all, Shabbat involves moments within community. Shabbat being the same day for Jews around the world allows me to feel connected to those Jews even beyond my own shul.

This is my first Shabbat as a Jew. I now feel even more in connection with all the other Jews commanded to rest on Shabbat. I look forward to no longer being the ger (although I was always welcomed). I look forward to dwelling in Shabbat in a whole new way. Shabbat is no longer something I observe Jews keeping and try to participate in. This Shabbat is my first Shabbat that is me keeping a mitzvah. Shabbat is no longer something I do. Shabbat, along with the 612 other mitzvot, is who I am.

With the help of Hashem, I will dwell is Shabbat and allow Shabbat to fully dwell in me.

Shabbat Shalom.

I am a Jew.

*Deep Breath*

Today was the day. Today, I became a Jew.

The past few days have been a whirlwind. I am going to write out the experiences in order, but wanted to start with a short thought on today, right now.

“I, Elisheva Sima, am a Jew.”

These words are still unbelievable, but the feeling of truth and joy makes me want to let the whole world know. I pray that from this day forward my actions will scream it, my words will represent it, and my soul will forever whisper it.

Tu B’shvat- The New Year of the Trees

Hag Sameach!

Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees, just began a few hours ago. This is the first year I celebrate Tu B’shvat, and I was lucky enough to attend a seder for the holiday at my synagogue.

I spend my work week studying Judaism with my academic hat on and especially lately, have been analyzing liturgy. Of course, there is some intersection and overlap between my personal religious life and the material I read and write academically, but it is easy to get distracted by the academic questions.

Tonight, with the beautiful poetry and symbolism in the Hagaddah, I was able to let the visions of peaceful trees and nature take over me. More than once, I got caught up in the beautiful feelings and lost track of what was going on around me as I focused on one word or idea that had significance for me in that moment.

It is those moments, when I just lose myself, that I know I am in love. I know I love Hashem. I know I love Torah. I know I love Judaism. And I know I love all the people of Israel and cannot wait to be one of them.

The intensity of the feeling, like all feelings, passes or fades, sometimes even as quickly as it came. That does not mean that the love is no longer there or that I can never have it back. Our relationship with religion is like any relationship. We have cycles with highs and lows. We have days we want to give it our all and days we just want to hide in bed. That is okay. It is more realistic, and healthy, to not ignore any emotion but feel them for what they are and honestly acknowledge their presence in the moment. Judaism teaches that each new moment is full of new potential. Do not dwell on moments past, but be fully present in this moment so that it too can pass and you will be given a brand new moment, a brand new breath full of possibilty.

In this moment, I want to thank Hashem, the Source of all, for giving us the wonderful trees and plants of the earth to shelter and nourish us. May we continue to be inspired by the ever changing seasons and renewal of the trees that show us that new seasons, new days, and new moments bring new possibilities for renewing our whole selves.

Brachot (Blessings)

Judaism has a very special way of acknowledging Hashem’s soveriegnty over everything in the world. Many daily actions, like waking up and eating, and events, like rain and seeing some new, are sancified by reciting a brachah or blessing.

A Jew should recite 100 brachot a day. This may sound like an unaccomplishable goal, but it is not as difficult as it sounds. For example, the Amidah, a prayer recited three times daily, contains 19 brachot alone. Daily prayer and normal activity will easily cover the 100 brachot.

The difficult part, at least for me, is memorizing the brachot and remembering to say them at the numerous moments that call for a blessing throught the day. Each brachah is only a few lines long, but it is overwhelming to be faced with the task of memorizing them all. A friend of mine, who is also converting, expressed the same concern. I figured learning the brachot and saying the brachot must be a stuggle that many people who are converting to Judaism or Jews who are becoming more observant. For that reason, I decided to share my approach to trying to learn and recite the brachot. I am still in the process of learning and it will take time, but at least it is not as overwhelming and has beeen a good method so far.

Each week, I learn one new brachah. I recite the brachah over and over and write it down several times trying to commit the blessing to memory. During the week I do my very best to not let that particular brachah go unsaid. With each passing week I add in a new brachah and use all the brachot I know during the week. It is a longer method to learning, but I found that I am much more consistent with reciting the blessing and actually learn the blessing by heart.

This slow but steady approach has been my approach to instituting many Jewish practices into my life. I hope it is helpful advice for others who feel overwhelmed learning many prayers, practices and blessings in any religion.