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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My Family will be Mourning. My Heart will be Full of Joy.

Since the beginning of Lent, I have felt strange not following the liturgy. Ever since I was young, Lent was my favorite liturgical season (yes, I have favorite liturgical seasons) and the services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were even more anticipated than midnight Christmas Mass. In years prior, I already felt removed from the Lenten narrative, but like many non practicing or believing Christians I still abstained or added a practice for Lent. For me, this was not so much about Lent as just a practice in self-control and trying to move closer to Hashem. This was the first year that I in no way participated in even the most remote practices of Lent or Easter. This is also the first year I will not be with my family on Easter. Which I made sure to let them know was not because I didn’t support their religious practices, but because the timing of Passover prevents me from visiting family.

Last year, was the first time in my life that I said “halleluyah” during Lent. The Catholic Church does not sing halleluyah during Lent because it is a time of mourning, but since I would daven the Shema and Amidah each day I would quietly say it to myself. This year, the first Shabbat after Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) was the  first time I publicly said “halleluyah.” I remember the moment it came to say “halleluyah” in the repetition of the Amidah. I took a deep breath and with strength and joy I declared, “halleluyah.” For everyone else in the shul, the moment came and passed unnoticed, but for me it was a clear declaration of my theology and praise for Hashem.

In the Western Church, the Lenten season is coming to an end. This is an intense time for many Christians as Palm Sunday has passed and there is anxiety as the liturgy goes through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth and eventual death.  These days lead up Easter, which is full of joy, but in the mean time many Christians are stricken with grief. All of lent has been a time of mourning, but it culminates in these last few days of the season. This year the last days of Lent coincide with the beginning of Pesach (Passover). Now with Pesach approaching, I await the moments of looking up to the heavens and joyfully singing Hallel. I can’t help but feel strange by the fact that as I open my heart to let the praise and joy flood out for Hashem and redemption my family will all be without liturgy of praise and in a moment of emptiness. Jews and Christians around the world are set in tension on Friday and Saturday when one community experiences Hashem answering their cries for freedom and the other community is crying with great loss. Friday night and Saturday are moments  when the people of Israel are being drawn closer to redemption and freedom and Christians are ultimately in a state of emptiness and darkness. The Israelites are on their first steps towards returning to Israel and Christians are deeper in exile from freedom than any other time.

When my heart is full of joy for bnei Israel (children of Israel) from all generations that are making their way from slavery to freedom, my family, along with all Christians, is mourning. I will sing songs of praise and scream from the depths of my soul “HALLELUYAH,” while they sit in a place of darkness.

Before the weekend is up, they too will experience freedom in their own way. Yet, still, the tension will remain.

Mitzvot in Conservative Judaism

I love Judaism.

From the beginning of my desire to convert to Judaism, I knew that I would first and foremost identify as a Jew and the branch of Judaism that I affiliate with would be secondary. While this sounds nice, it is naive to  see the branches of Judaism as artificial divisions. You can think a certain way and practice a certain way but at the end of the day you have to function within a community.

Orthodox and Conservative were the two branches that I spent the most time considering  when choosing a community. I still question where I fit best at times, but for several reasons I know that Conservative Judaism is the right place for me. The tension comes because my practice tends to be on the more Orthodox side of things.

When I discuss this with my friends they tend to think I am crazy and that Orthodox practice is much harder than Conservative practice. I disagree.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both see mitzvot (commandments) as binding. Conservative Judaism, unlike Orthodox Judaism, sees mitzvot as evolving. This difference in opinion leads to differences in practices, like the Conservative movement ordaining female rabbis while the Orthodox movement does not.

For me personally, I feel it is harder to live out mitzvot through the Conservative movement than the Orthodox movement, which is largely why I practice in a more Orthodox way. In Orthodox Judaism, there is a clear sense of not only what to do but how to do it. In Conservative Judaism, there is the same 613 mitzvot, but there is a very different approach that enables you to practice each in ways that are meaningful for you. This ambiguity can be beautiful and confusing at the same time. I struggle with finding the most meaningful way of living out each mitzvot in my life. Especially in this early stage of learning to live as a Jew, I find it necessary and rather comforting to have clear rules and expectations of how to live in the world.

I am in no way saying one way of practicing is better than the other. I think that everyone needs to find what is best and most meaningful for them. For me, I find the structure and clarity of Orthodox practice more comforting , but I am also trying to ensure I understand and value my community’s practices. While the process of trying to find what is best for me is mostly frustrating, I know that it is necessary in order to ensure that I am secure in who I become as a Jew and that I can live out my Judaism even when I leave my present home and community.

Shabbat (Conservative Style) x 4

The decision of which branch of Judaism to convert through has been a long, hard road. I feel like my theology and practices fit one branch on this issue and another branch on another issue. After much thought, I decided that the Conservative movement was right for me. Even after that decision, even after many months of living within the same Conservative synagogue and working with the same Conservative rabbi, I still go through bouts of doubt when I don’t exactly fit into the practices and beliefs of the community. One of the most frustrating instances I face, weekly, is that my way of “keeping” Shabbat is different from the majority of my community’s practices.

Usually, I observe Shabbat in ways that would be associated with Orthodox practice. I do drive to shul, because there is no synagogue in walking distance, but I also make sure to prepare my food ahead time, not to write, and stay away from my phone, t.v. and computer.  While I enjoy observing Shabbat with these practices, it feels very isolating at times to be separated from the normative practices of my community, like eating out after Kabbalat Shabbat. I have not found anyone in the community to share my Shabbat practices with, so it often becomes a lonely experience to come home and eat and read in silence. In order to avoid the feeling of isolation, I would usually try my best to stay up late on Thursday night and wake up early Friday so I would be tired Friday night and not have to spend too much time alone after services. As it is getting closer to the summer, I know that Shabbat will only begin to feel like it is lasting longer and longer with late sunsets on Saturday. And as things stand now, this only means I will be spending more time feeling isolated than before.

After months of frustration over Shabbat, I finally realized I am approaching this wrong. Yes, I love a more Orthodox approach to Shabbat, but that is not the right approach for everyone and my community finds value and meaning in another approach. Instead of being frustrated by the disconnect between my practices and my community’s practices, I need to push myself see things in a new perspective and try to better understand how my community finds wholeness in Shabbat.

For that reason, I decided to dedicate at least 4 weeks to Conservative style Shabbats. I began last Shabbat, Adar 16, and plan on continuing until the Shabbat before Pesach. Last week, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat service and then joined a few friends from shul for a dinner at a local restaurant. On Saturday, after services, a friend and I drove to a conference I had to attend on Sunday a few hours away. Normally, I would have waited until after Shabbat to make the drive, but decided that spending the five hours in conversation was a better use of Shabbat than my usual reading alone. We even stopped at a restaurant on the way for some food. I have still kept some earlier practices that keeps Shabbat sacred for me personally while blending in with the community better and not having the same isolating effect. For example, I still do not use my phone, watch t.v, or use my computer. My outlook on Shabbat for these four weeks is to build relationships and seek the “spirit” of Shabbat in new ways. This primarily calls for me to be in community and learn from others. Whether I end up keeping Conservative style Shabbats or returning to my previous practices is still to be determined, but either way, I certainly know that this is an opportunity to learn and grow.

 

Stay the Same

One phrase is more prominent than any other when reading through the signatures of my junior high and high school yearbooks- “stay the same.” Usually this phrase is paired with the idea that I am “cool” or “fun” to be around.

Obviously, we don’t really want people to stay the same in every aspect. We want people to grow past the immaturities of high school and think beyond the concerns of a teenager. At the same time, we cling to our idea of who those close to us are and crave their consistency for our own sake of retaining a “cool” friend.

I never thought I would be confronted with the suggestion to “stay the same” again, but now as I tell those closest to me about my decision to convert, most have the same response: I will always love you as long as you “stay the same.” Or, if they don’t want to make their love seem so conditional, they find another way of saying that all they are concerned about is that I am happy and will “stay the same” person they have come to know and love.

While I understand that the care and concern of my loved ones for me to “stay the same” is genuinely connected to their idea of my well-being, I feel uncomfortable addressing their concern to “stay the same.” Part of me addresses their concern sensitively and answers that Judaism is not something new in my life and has been forming who I am gradually for the past few years. This answer expresses my idea that Judaism does change me, but it has already begun and they still love me now so they should not think they cannot love my change in the future. The fact that I will continue to change is more implicit, because I do not want to cause worry.

My other response is not as gentle but is how I really feel. Judaism does change me. It has begun changing me and will continue to change me for the rest of my life, but the day I step out of the mikvah (ritual bath) and become a Jew will be the most transformative moment of my life. If becoming a Jew was not fundamentally transformative, why would I convert? If I was going to remain the exact same person, there would be no reason to convert. The beauty of any ritual, especially a conversion ritual, is that the person is changed in a very profound way. I know that this is harder for loved ones to hear, so I will continue to try and give the more gentle description of how I see Judaism shaping my life.

Judaism has changed what and how I eat, pray, dress, think, and approach God and others. I will continue to change and grow throughout my life with Judaism as my guide.

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.