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.

A Practical Question: To Wear a Kippah, Tallit and/or Tefillin or not?

With my conversion date approaching so quickly, I am facing practical questions I really hadn’t given much thought before.

Today, the question I have on my mind is trying to decide if I will wear tallit, tefillin and/or a kippah when I convert. Up until this point, I have never worn any of them, other than trying on a friend’s kippah once just to see how it would feel.

I don’t know how comfortable I feel with the idea, but it is also the custom in my Conservative community. I know when I move to Israel I will most likely not have to wear any of them, but I am trying to decide what to do while I still live here. I know I don’t have to do any of them, but I feel that it is something important to consider since it is so important to my community. The majority of women in my shul wear tallit and a kippah at least during Shabbat services and some wear tefillin during weekday services. My community also does require anyone going before the community in the service to wear both tallit and a kippah (or some sort of head covering).

The main thing I want is to be consistent in my practice. I want to believe in what I am doing to the point that I am not just sometimes praying with my tallit or only sometimes covering my head in the synagogue. But I know it will probably take some trial and error before I find out what I is comfortable and meaningful  for me.

I think I wouldn’t mind wearing tallit in private while I pray in the morning, but at this point couldn’t imagine myself doing it in public. Maybe just because I have never worn it. I think my biggest mental barrier is that I see all of these things as clearly masculine and  maybe that is why I don’t feel comfortable with them. If I don’t even wear pants, how can I wear tefillin? Also, a head covering doesn’t seem to give me the same uncomfortable feeling as wearing a kippah itself. A kippah is not a mitzvah, but a minhag (custom) that is traditionally for males. I see it as something that is a male symbol where as I see another head covering, like a scarf, as female. I would like to cover my head for the same reason that men wear a kippah, but then how do I justify only wearing it in the synagogue? And can I really cover my head in another manner, not a kippah? I think wearing a hat or scarf might be as equally uncomfortable because it is a symbol of a married Jewish woman, and I am not married.

At the same time, I do like the fact that tallit and tefillin are strictly Jewish and therefore outwardly represent a change in my identity. A man once converted can begin to wear tallit and tefillin that he was not able to before during prayer. I can’t really think of an equivalent for a female. I wish I had an outward symbol of my Jewishness. Something that is reserved for Jews. I mean, I will wear a Star of David, but that doesn’t feel quite the same.

I will keep thinking over the question of wearing a kippah, tallit and/ or tefillin. I will also try to think of other meaningful mitzvot or minhags that can be added when I become a Jewess.

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

 

 

Rhythm of Life: Omer

We are amid an amazing seven week period — the counting of the Omer.  Jews are commanded to verbally count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot after nightfall each day. These days were originally connected to a harvest offering at the Temple and later became a season of semi-mourning in which some Jews do not cut their hair and weddings are not celebrated. For many, the counting of the Omer has become a time of reflection and creating connection between the redemption of Passover, the exodus from Egypt, and the revelation of Shavuot,  the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Counting the Omer each night allows you to take a minute at relatively the same time each day and pause. In these moments, you create a pattern of  becoming fully aware of where you are at the present moment, both physically and in the larger rhythm of the Jewish calender.

During a class on Jewish Mysticism, my rabbi was talking about recognizing the rhythms of our lives and how the Jewish calender, with the flow of the holidays, serves as a the rhythm in a Jew’s life. We discussed how celebrating the same holidays year after year leads to a rhythm that allows you to revisit the same moments each time from a new vantage point. Much like the nightly counting of the Omer, that has one visiting the same  general time each night but with a fresh perspective and at least slightly different position in the world.

I can certainly see the amazing pattern that the Jewish calender creates for a Jewish soul, but during the discussion, I also recognized that the rhythm is not yet part of my life. I spent at least the past four years aware of the many major and minor Jewish holidays cycling through the year, but still, this has not been the rhythm of my life. Instead, I see the place I stand now, and the past years of my intimate venture into Judaism, as a step outside the rhythm.

Each night, as I count the Omer, I acknowledge the place it has settled into the heart and how it has built a pattern into my life. At the same time, I see myself as stepping outside of the established rhythm, and value these moments as beautiful, arrhythmic instants that stand outside the ordinary arrangement of time. I look forward to the future and seeing how the pattern and rhythm of life falls into the natural rhythm of Jewish calender.

 

One of my favorite quotes from a song to accompany my feelings:

“I fall into your rhythm, your beauty I do fly, I rush into your melody, I linger ’till I die.” – Just a Dream (Song), Griffin House (Band)

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.