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.

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.

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.