Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Praying for Peace

Drawing by a Palestinian, shared on a Facebook page called Israel Loves Palestine

I just want peace.

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That Jewish (B)oy

When I talk about myself and my Jewish journey, I never ever like to start by talking about my Jewish boyfriend.

Even though he is at the start, he is not the reason. In the past, I’ve tried to leave him out my conversion story entirely whenever possible. Sorry dear.

The truth is, he is certainly an important person in my life and in my decision to embrace Judaism. But so is my sponsoring  rabbi, the Jewish girl who lived across the hall my freshman year, the man who stayed up late discussing philosophy with me, and my current college room mate who is just as inquisitive as I am when it comes to Judaism. There are lots of people I’ve met who have shaped the woman I am.

But it all starts with a boy, and I’m going to face my fears and do the very thing I’ve avoided doing for so long. Tell where it all started, boy included.

We met in my 10th grade Holocaust studies class. Cheerful, right? The teacher was incredibly positive, making the subject matter bearable. And as the token Jewish kid in our class (by token, I mean the only one), David got to answer all the interesting and not-so-tactful questions from my classmates. I sat next to him, and we became friends. I never thought that we would be dating junior year and then into college.

It was David who took me to my first Purim celebration, David who brought in the dreidels to Science class, David who wrote me little Hebrew notes and passed them to me in Latin class. He was Jewish. I was not. It was simple and sweet and an uncomplicated part of our relationship, just like how his eyes were brown and mine were blue.

In college, things began to change. Since both of us were very religious, we agreed to learn about each other’s religions now that we had entered into a more long-term, serious relationship. He would watch documentaries on Catholicism; I joined Hofstra Hillel. At that point, I enjoyed being both Catholic and Jewish. Shabbat dinner on Friday, Mass on Sunday. It was a fun intellectual pursuit at first and nothing more.

Come winter my freshman year, we separated, for various reasons, religious differences being one of them. After David was gone, my friends expected me to lose interest in Judaism. So when my interest only increased, I began to wonder… If I was not doing this for him, then why am I still doing it after he’s gone? I began to have a more spiritual connection to Judaism, a religious interest that hadn’t been there before when I read books. I attended my first services. Went to a Jewish museum. When he was out of the picture, I began to find myself in Judaism.

It was only a few months later that I began to feel the need to choose: Jewish or Catholic? I knew that as fun as being both was, these religions had contradictory messages, different interpretations of G-d, and too many differences for me to do both (Messianic Judaism never really appealed to me, more on that later). David was back in my life, but it was my decision. Jewish or Catholic?

I wish I had a single moment where G-d yelled “JEWISH!” and I suddenly saw the road to Judaism clearly, strewn with challah and lined with kippah clad men waving Israeli flags. But it was more a gradual indication of my soul, heart, and mind that led me to Judaism. Hebrew classes, Shabbat dinners, gaga tournaments, Torah study, Jewish music… All of it spoke to me and who I am, what I love, and how I want to live. It’s only grown more and more clear.

There was a time at a mass on Palm Sunday two years ago where I was so wholly surrounded by people, physically linked by hands and spiritually linked by the central prayer of the Our Father, and I felt disconnected. Alone. Isolated. I nearly started crying at the loss of something beautiful and at the idea that my soul had become foreign in a once familiar environment. After the next week, I stopped going to mass altogether. For the first time in my life, I became a non-practicing Catholic, and I started to truly feel, do, and become Jewish.

So, it all started with a boy. It will continue with this same boy, I hope for a long time. But it is MY choice for ME and for G-D. I make this choice because it is right for me- it is who I am and who I have become. I am so grateful that I have someone special to share this journey with, someone who puts up with all my naive questions. But I am also glad that I do not make this choice for marriage, for children, or for any other external pressure. This is my choice. And this is my story.

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For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

Jenn:

Such a helpful article. I have strong feelings but a limited understanding of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, and I’ve hesitated to write about it in my blog because I fear saying the wrong things. It’s good to know that I can take a step back and find ways to help others and inform myself.

Originally posted on Coffee Shop Rabbi:

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of

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Leading Friday Night Services!

I’m happy to announce that Friday night I successfully co-led my first Shabbat service! I am thrilled that the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel gave me this opportunity and happy that David agreed to not only lead the service with me, but also patiently went through each prayer and taught me whatever I didn’t know.

Despite my preparation, punctuality, and the small turnout, I was pretty nervous. I felt distant as I watched people file in from my little carpeted step. When I looked out from the bima, I felt like everyone was counting on me, relying on my voice to guide them through the prayer book and through some kind of spiritual forest.

Mostly, I focused on getting the words right, and I was almost too caught up in leading the service to actually enjoy it myself. The balance between leading and personal spiritual fulfillment will come with practice and time, as I know from previous performance and religious experience. I was a cantor at my church for 6 years, and it took me about a year before I could feel comfortable and truly pray without feeling like I was just going through motions.

However, there was a moment where I felt truly connected to everyone, to G-d, and to what I was doing. When we went through the service beforehand, David and I could not agree on which tune to use for the Barechu. We decided that I would sing the first line myself, and then David would come in with the congregation at the second line. As I stood before the ark, everything just fell into place. My voice came out strong and confident, the words resonated with truth, and I felt as though I was conveying a message older and greater than myself. It just sounded right. It also sounded very Jewish, if that makes sense. Maybe because the tune was traditional, the Torah was staring me in the face, or everything flowed in a wonderful way. I liked it. A lot.

I’ve always liked being up close to the Torah. The last time I prayed up in front was at EMJC during Rosh Hashanah when my friend and I were invited up to open and close the ark. I remember thinking from my seat that when the rabbi and cantor turned their backs to everyone and faced the ark, it was rude. But being up there myself, it felt intimate and beautiful.

After the service, I was shocked to learn it had lasted only half an hour! I try to think how long it actually felt… and it’s almost as if time didn’t exist while I was up there. David and I got lots of positive feedback, and all of the congragants really appreciated our efforts. It felt good to be appreciated, but even better to know I was capable of doing something that is so important to me.

Fingers crossed that this is my first of many more to come!

In other exciting news this week, I’ve officially registered for the Introduction Judaism course at EMJC. First class starts Sept. 9!!

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Not Quite Ripley’s: Hidden Righteous Ones

When I think of legends, I think of King Arthur. I think of knights that could have been, men that might have been, and ideals that were certainly real enough to be tangible. Legends shape the world we live in today and linger on in traditions and rituals.

Our visiting rabbi talked about Jewish legends this past week, and he said you could believe it… or not. Up to you.

He focused specifically on legends surrounding Jewish wedding traditions. While many people are familiar with wedding traditions, we don’t always know why we do them. We have a modern interpretation attached to each symbol, but Louis Ginzberg offers us a world of demons in exchange for our own fanciful explanations. According to Ginzberg, Lilith plays quite a large role in our weddings. For those of you who have not heard of this demon woman, type her name into Google. You’re in for a treat.

Getting married under a chuppah? Breaking the glass? We claim that one symbolizes the home to be and the other represents the destruction of the temple and the sadness of the Jewish people. For Ginzberg? The chuppah is a circular, enclosed space to keep the demons out. A veil hides happiness from wicked ones, white  shrouds a living form and masks the true nature of the occasion… And a shattering glass wards off all lingering demons at the sidelines, allowing the married couple to make their quick exit.

We’ve abandoned these old myths for prettier stories. Even as I heard them, I thought to myself It’s just a legend. But isn’t there always a part of us, the small part enthralled by a ghost story, that wants to believe? We hold out hope for fictional characters because their emotion and their struggles are so very real to us.

It’s just a legend and you don’t have to believe anything.

But what if…

There’s always a what if.

There’s another legend in Judaism, one that our rabbi did not cover but I learned about recently, about the tzadikim nistarim, or hidden righteous ones. Some simply refer to them as the 36 men who will save the world.

They don’t “save the world” in a superman sense, but they represent the best of humanity, spare G-d’s wrath, and uphold righteousness. At any one time, there are 36 men living who care for the Earth, and as long as they are alive, G-d will not destroy the world.

And they don’t even know who they are.

A true lamed-vavnik (as they are sometimes called for the Hebrew letters that represent the number 36) is too humble to even consider that he may be one of these special men. If he becomes aware of his true identity, he either dies or the task passes on to someone else. No matter how ugly or cruel the world becomes, as long as these 36 men live, the world will be spared.

This concept of the few righteous sparing the entire world goes back as far as Abraham’s bargain with G-d for Sodom. If 10 people could be found in the city that were good, the Lord would spare everyone. Abraham won the argument but lost the city.

The morals of Abraham’s argument and this legend shape who we are. We never know when we might meet one of these men (or women) or if we might be one ourselves. So, we live AS IF we are one of the hidden righteous by being the best people we can be. Our actions perpetuate the teachings of the legend without necessarily admitting that we know 36 really awesome people who just happen to be keeping us alive. And did I mention? Legend says that one of these 36 men could become the Messiah.

So believe it or not, the lessons of legends impact how you live your life.

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Chai Notes Spring Concert

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but part of the reason for that is due to some technological battles.

BUT NOW IT’S FINALLY HERE!

The video of my group’s spring concert!

For those of you who don’t know, I am the musical director and President of Hofstra Hillel’s Jewish a cappella group, Chai Notes. We sing Jewish and pop music, and we provide community service as well as perform at campus events. The group was founded four years ago and has grown beautifully since then. I absolutely love the girls, the music, and the wonderful difference that we make in the world. This is our first ever concert (recorded by the Hofstra AV department).

Enjoy!

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Challah in the House!

Hooray!! My first attempt at homemade challah!

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Aside from being a little darker and denser than I wanted, I think it was a good (and tasty) effort. :)

The recipe came from a cookbook my mom owns, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, and the it’s called 400 Year-Old Challah. Works for me.

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My Musar

Musar defined:  a spiritual movement founded by Israel Salanter in nineteenth-century Lithuania with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among traditionally-minded Jews (from myjewishlearning.org).

Our rabbi compared musar to tikkun olam- fixing the world. Jewish people have a duty to try and repair the world through service, good works, and advocating social justice. However, instead of focusing on fixing the world, we use musar to focus on fixing ourselves. A kind of spiritual self-improvement that uses introspection to reach holiness, as illustrated by the book the rabbi was holding in his hand (Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis). While I haven’t read any of Alan’s book, I can have some of my own ideas about musar. To me, the musar movement requires cultivating a kind of inner light and strength.

I’m often more inclined to want to tackle the problems of the world. But the world is daunting. I’ve been reading fictional books that deal with poverty, corruption, Nazism, rape, abuse, and murder. Just your casual summer reading list. I want to fix so much in the world that scares and angers me. I try to share these aspirations with others, but the horrors are so great that no one wants to heed them. Besides, what can I really do?

When I focus on fixing myself, I make a little more progress. I know, it sounds like the selfish route. Why fix the world when you can focus on yourself? But listen, if I’m heading out into this world in a few years, I want to be armed and ready. And if I’m heading into a Jewish community that struggles to thrive in a troubled world, I want to have the proper arsenal:

- A sharp tongue that knows when to strike and when to build up

- An eager ear ready to accept words without judgment

-Patience when working with souls that range from very young to very old

-A skillful set of hands that can flit about tasking with a certain animating grace that inspires and humbles

-A mind that finds purpose in what I do

- An open disposition

- A connection to my soul that blurs the edges of this world and another- like the comforting grayness of the rain as it smudges against the window and mixes with the palate of gray clouds in the sky, glass blurring the line between divine openness and the closed boundary of this world.

How do I equip myself with these things? Self improvement through inner awareness.

I’ve noticed that the #100happydays campaign focuses on gratitude and appreciation of small blessings. This is the first step in self-improvement: counting blessings.

Then, the second step is turning these little blessings into accomplishments and lessons.

For example, today I became more physically aware of my body through breathing exercises in my voice lesson and built confidence in myself by taking charge of a project in my new work place. I am gathering skills everyday that I can use to help people. My past knowledge of graphic design allowed me to work with a man and make his vision of brochures for the Special Olympics a reality. Developing greater kinesthetic awareness as I work with my voice is a tool I will store away and use in the future.

My goals for self-improvement range from small to large… Making challah from scratch, offering advice to friends when needed, finishing a few sewing projects, and being a better listener.

I am gathering skills every single day. Matched with my goals, my growth can be both exponential and unlimited. I can repair what is inside and save it until I need to use it for the outside. Before we can repair the world, we must first “repair” ourselves. Just wait. The day will come when this introspection transforms more than just myself.

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A Sister Of A Different Kind

This weekend, I visited a Catholic order in Ohio called The Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Because my sister wants to be a nun.

She is visiting this order for two weeks to see if she wants to join, and the family decided we were all going to go with her and check it out.

At first, I didn’t want to go. I’ve been tiptoeing around Catholicism (and consequently, my family) since I stopped identifying as Catholic over a year ago. After my parents’ negative reaction to my announcement about wanting to convert, I lived with a fear that all Catholics would not only ridicule my decision but heartlessly lash out. I’ve happily learned that the reactions are as varied as the people themselves. Many of my Catholic friends do not only show surprise when I tell them, but respect and intrigue for taking my faith so seriously.

But nuns, I thought. That’s a different story.

The order is new and very small, consisting of only 6 people total. They devote their lives to contemplative prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and community service. If you want to learn more details, their website does a better job explaining their purpose than my fumbling words can.

I knew my family was planning to participate in Mass with the other members of the order once we got there. I no longer go to church with my family and can not receive communion since I am not living according to the rules of the Catholic church. I figured that these faith-filled adults would view my abstinence from communion (which they believe to literally be the blood and body of Christ) as the most offensive affront.

The night before we left, I explained to my sister that I wanted to see the place where she might live the rest of her life, but I wouldn’t be fully participating in Mass. She told me I didn’t even have to be in attendance I could take a walk around the lake while everyone else prayed.

I wondered, wouldn’t it be odd for her to introduce me as her sister and then walk away?

Not at all, she assured me. They already know you’re Jewish.

Questions tumbled out of my mouth and tripped over each as they each tried to dominate my attention. When did you tell them what did they say won’t they hate me now?

She reassured me that all the members of the order have family who have left the Catholic faith, so they won’t think any less of me. In fact, they’ll appreciate my attempt to grasp and experience a way of life that isn’t my own. In some sort of weird show of gratitude, I began to explain how I felt about Catholicism and how I didn’t want to offend anyone.

She interrupts me, saying, “Ellie, I know. You don’t hate Catholicism, you just love Judaism.”

On the surface, it would seem like my sister and I have very little in common. There are certainly times when it is hard for me to fully grasp her love and devotion to Jesus. Most days though, we understand each other perfectly. She is one of my closest friends, and she not only accepts my decision to embrace Judaism but understands the why behind my choice. Both of us are choosing paths that are little understood by our families and nearly unheard of in society.

When my uncle asked me “Won’t it be weird having Jeanne become a sister?” I joked that she’s been my sister for the past 18 years. Though said half in jest, I meant it in both the religious kind and blood relation. After meeting the nuns, I can see how well she fits into their world, their prayerful lifestyle and demeanor coming naturally to her. No matter how I feel about her faith or what  I believe, I think she is making the right choice for herself. We both accept each other’s paths and we have the same goal: to grow in our passions and do good for this world.

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Friday Night Shabbat Services

There are two things you should know about me if you don’t already:

1. I love to sing, especially prayers/Jewish music

2. I love Shabbat- it’s all the best of Judaism rolled up into 25 hours (food, prayer, community, G-d, rest, learning, giving back, etc.)

You’d think someone who loves singing and praying at shabbat services as much as I do would have had some kind of religious transformation the first day she ever attended services.

But I have to tell you, the first day I went to Jewish services in February 2013, I didn’t like them. Despite being reassured that the service was “easy to follow and mostly in English” by my friend, I found the backwards squiggly Hebrew daunting and the periods of silent reading uncomfortable. My first impression of the rabbi was that he was nice enough, but I kept my eyes glued to the prayer packet most of the time. I didn’t know what the prayers meant, I couldn’t figure out where we were, and I was thrown into this small little mass of people moving and singing and praying in something that was so strange… Yet intriguing in its mystery.

I went back the next week. There was a part of me that was drawn by the foreign language and minor melodies, something that tugged at me and urged me to return. I was able to locate some of the transliterations and hum along with the less manageable prayers. I remember distinctly that the Mourner’s Kaddish terrified me because it all sounded the same to my untrained ear.

Slowly, I began to learn the prayers by listening, and I loved the simple tunes that lingered in my mind long after Shabbat ended. I would hum Lechi Dodi and Mizmor Shir Leyom HaShabat around the house (and still do). I learned the Hebrew alef-bet over the summer and continued studying Hebrew into the fall, which helped immensely. The more I learned- about the Sabbath bride, the soul leaping like a deer to welcome G-d, the extra soul, the Sabbath angels- the more I was able to appreciate the beautiful prayers that were blossoming at my lips. For silent prayers, I knew I could never get through the whole prayer. So, I would read a line in Hebrew, learn its meaning in English, and then just hold it in my heart for a few minutes while everyone swayed back and forth around me.

A few months later, well after I had become a regular at services, I was asked by a student to lead Kiddush because the student who normally led it would be absent. I was so so excited and practiced the tune and the words, finding online recordings and using the both transliteration and Hebrew to make sure my pronunciation was top-notch. I called my boyfriend and sang it to him over the phone ad nauseum. We typically start at “Yom Ha-shi-shi. Va-y’chu-lu Ha-sha-ma-yim…” so it was quite a bit for me to learn in a week

Friday morning, the rabbi asked who would be leading Kiddush that night. When I proudly told him that I had volunteered, he stopped in his tracks. I reassured him that I had been practicing hard and could say it for him now, but he exchanged a worried look with the other rabbi, and they stepped inside his office behind closed doors. When I was brought inside, I was told I could not lead that prayer because I was not Jewish. By saying Kiddush, the leader fulfills the obligation of all the other Jews around him. No Jew, no go. I was crushed.

To this day, I say Kiddush under my breath with the leader to fulfill an obligation for another kind of people: those who are unable to say Kiddush, due to lack of religious freedom, expression, or any other barrier in their hearts or on their lips. I say it for those who feel obligated but are unable, like me.

Now, I’ll be co-leading Friday night services in July, and I could not be more excited or blessed to have this opportunity. I’m meeting with the rabbi tomorrow afternoon to go over everything, and I can’t believe that just over a year ago I was singing these tunes for the first time. I’ve come a long way, and plan on learning more as I go.

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Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes, I feel like I don’t belong anywhere.

I’m not sure if it’s my religious situation, my age, or just a feeling that everyone experiences at some point.

However, my straddling both the Catholic and Jewish world at times makes it hard to fit in, and my small town only helps to illustrate the tension. (I’ve always hesitated to call it my hometown- where is home, what does it look like? I’m still trying to find it.)

The ladies from church remember me as a cantor, altar server, Sunday school aide, or all of the above. They accost me at parades and in the store with seemingly harmless smalltalk. What are you studying in school? What do you want to do with your degree? Simple questions meant to be engaging disarm me and signal for a retreat further behind the convenient mask of silence. Coming from a large family who is very active in their church, it’s impossible to go anywhere without being recognized as “oh, you’re the __adjective__ family from St. Jo’s.”

Catholicism is unavoidable when I’m at home. A crucifix in every room, grace before every meal (sometimes a meal consisting of pork sausages), only Christian music in the car. I wrote a draft of this post with a pencil stamped “Diocese of Harrisburg.” I tend to feel like an outsider both in my town and  within the house.

So, you would think I feel at home in the small but tight-knit Jewish community here. However, having grown up in a rural, predominantly Christian town, all of the Jews have known each other since preschool. When I first started to go to the temple here, people either assumed I was 1. not Jewish or 2. not from around here. Once I had been introduced as “David’s girlfriend” by his family, the title and the associations with it stuck.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel like I can never shake the stigmatism that comes with being a shiksa once people know that I am not Jewish. Or rather, I will never be Jewish in their minds, no matter what I believe or feel. Picnics, social gatherings, and other events tend to stress me out because I don’t know anyone and no one bothers with introductions other than “this is David’s girlfriend, Ellie.” How can I ever become anything else if that’s all most people bother to learn? It’s hard to establish yourself where people already have an idea of who they think you are.

Here’s what I do. I blend with the family- head bowed during prayers, properly amused by both retelling of homilies, and familiar with the song lyrics of both hymns and Superchick songs. I go to Jewish services and try to pray without feeling overly self-conscious (which rarely happens) and attend the social events with a smile and a name tag that says “hi, I’m David’s girlfriend and I’m not from here.” There’s a chance it could get better with time. And there’s a chance that I need to get out of here.

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Planted From A Seed

When I was 14, I started the Teen Choir at my church. There was a kid’s choir (2nd-7th grade), an adult choir (more of a senior citizen choir if you ask me), and a youth band, which featured a collection of brass, strings, guitars, and a guy on set that we called King Nebuchadnezzar for his role in a local neighborhood play. They only played at one mass each year, graduation mass, in which a handful high school soon-to-be grads would sit in the front row in their robes, bring up the gifts, and exit the sanctuary to a rallying chorus of “Go Make a Difference.”

So, there was never really a place for teens who wanted to sing. And when I’m frustrated about something, I let someone know and I do something about it, if it’s important enough to me. Which is why an ad appeared in the bulletin and I was sitting a few weeks later in the basement of the Catholic school with a box of pizza and one quiet, punk-ish, emo-ish girl. She turned out to be one of my best friends and a lovely singer, and the very first teen choir started as two singers and my mom on piano. By the time I graduated high school, it had grown to about five singers and a flutist, with my mom still on piano.

Just last night, I heard them rehearsing for the first time since I’ve been home from college. The sounds of saxophones, voices, flutes, and cellos drifted up the stairs to my room. I smiled at all the different textures and sounds. How wonderful for something that started so small to grow into something mighty.

Liturgical music, to me, has always been set apart from other forms of music making. It doesn’t really matter about the skill level of the performers or who sings more solos or who looks better. It’s about glorifying God and making beautiful music that will inspire people to sing along with your praises, bringing them closer to God though song. For me, there’s no greater purpose than that. Teaching that to teens gives them the opportunity to use their musical talents in a way that transforms them and their music into something more meaningful than just notes on a page or words of prayer.

As the director of the kids’ choir allays said, singing is like praying twice: once for the words and once for the song. A prayer, a song, a single voice is only a seed. My teen choir, small and quiet, started almost afraid to bloom. Purpose, music, and the congregation encouraged growth, and with time, blossoming. Watching others nurture this group with care assures me that it will continue to flourish, allowing the music to take root here and reach out to the heavens, creating a connection to something greater than ourselves.

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Days of Rest

Before last night, I had forgotten how to rest. I’ve been home on vacation for a week starting today, but I didn’t know how to take a break from the busy, hectic life I’d been leading. Rest? What is rest? Even sleeping ten hours a night was a chore, another item to check off my to-do list. Catch up on sleep. Check. I’ve read a book, applied to 10 jobs, and cleaned around the house, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of restlessness that followed me everywhere.

Early Friday afternoon, I was dreading services that evening. Please G-d, can we skip the day of rest this week? You’ve nearly killed me with rest already. I swear, I’m good, I don’t need anymore. Let’s have dinner, sing some songs, and get back to the real work.

I didn’t realize I had forgotten what the real work was. Or whose work I am supposed to be doing.

See, resting involves letting go. Forgetting a schedule, forgoing plans, and letting a lot of things up to chance. And as I sat surrounded by loving people and heartfelt voices and the beauty of the space that is Shabbat, I saw that there’s a lot I need to let go. The past semester and whatever grades I’ve earned. This desire to be constantly moving forward. The fears of the future. Sometimes, I need to relinquish some of that control and just accept whatever happens in the day, and not worry about what’s coming next. Only then can I truly rest.

So today I helped chop wood, went on a few errands, and now I’m sitting listening to the birds. For me, doing no work involved letting G-d set the agenda for the day, enjoying the gorgeous spring weather, and letting nothing other than the cool breeze stir my heart.

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Paschal Flame

My story is already woven into the fabric of the Jewish people. It has been since before I was born. I’ve only just stumbled upon the tapestry now and can only see threads at a time, shimmering and elusive.

Here are a few loose threads from Monday and Tuesday’s seder. Pesach can best be summed up in bursts of light and sensory moments.

Candlelight blurs the edges of time-

Curling around the edges of faces, giving the back of Marc’s kippah-covered head a new lively expression,

Tracing the features of people I love until the edges are left glowing behind my eyelids when  I close them,

Reflecting off Eliyahu’s glass in the middle of the table, sending reddish beams into my own cup.

When I pour the liquid light into my mouth, it dries out my throat, and the contents of the glass beside me  soak through the table amidst much laughter and napkin-mopping.

At the other end of the table, Eric holds the matzah above his head as he says the blessing, the shimmering cloth cover dripping with tassels.

The evening melts away, sliding along silver candlesticks.

Words congeal, passing from mouth to mouth as we try and steal lines of the haggadah from each other, making it into a game.

Smiles flicker, spreading warmth and glow from one person to another,

Wavering in the kitchen where the debate is more heated than even the meatballs.

Only sparks remain from an luminous evening,

Lighting the night

Mixing with flakes of cold, wet snow

Guiding us back home

And fusing us together.

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My Pesach Mishpacha (My Passover Family)

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!

I could write about everything that happened at my first seder in a nice chronological order, but some aspects are more important than others.

Like family.

I could not have asked for a more perfect seder or for a more beautiful representation of the Jewish people. The seder is nothing without a family to share it with, and everything in the haggadah is incredibly family oriented and kid friendly.

Allow me to introduce you to the family I’ve adopted after two nights.

My friend’s mom was the voice of the seder. Every time a song appeared in the haggadah, she would walk over to play the old upright behind me. The room vibrated with minor melodies, her mellifluous voice lingering long after dinner as she continued to spin out the blues, doo-wop, and swing.

After meeting my friend’s dad, I now understand where my friend gets his sense of humor. His dad had no qualms about both making his guests feel welcome and making fun of them. His open-nature and slightly goofy personality put me at ease.

And who could forget about grandma with her soft smile and kind eyes?  She had a bright spirit in the way that she twirled on the living room carpet, grasping her grandson’s hand tightly in her own. She would call out “How are you, my kinderlach?” as we walked in and gently rest her hand on my back throughout the evening.

Oh, kinderlach. That’s us.

The kinderlach

The kinderlach

Traditionally at Passover, there are four types of children: the wise, the wicked, the immature, and the simple. Each child asks different types of questions reflective of his name. It is clear that the wise child is favored over all the others because he asks the best questions and his name “wise” has the most positive connotation. However, the seder would not be possible without all four types of kinderlach, and each of us added something important to the seder.

The wise child: He ended up leading most of the seder and has a quiet control about him.  He knows the ins and outs of Passover and likes to be the one not just with all the answers, but with the most in-depth questions. There’s something calming about someone who is comfortable taking the lead and setting the example.

The wicked child: She doesn’t always see herself in alignment with what everyone else is doing. Sometimes, she is able to take a step back and question herself, asking whether she truly believes what she’s been taught. She has enough self-awareness to remind us of an outsider’s perspective while still fully participating in the traditions she loves.

The simple child: He asks the most important questions like when are we going to eat? What’s for dinner? His warm heart is full of the zest of life. He reminds us that even though we are gathered to celebrate an important holiday, we need also to live in a way that appreciates the simple aspects of life. His slightly maniacal laugh adds an infectious humor that lightens the mood of the entire evening.

The one who does not know what to ask: She is experiencing Passover for the first time. She has read up on the rituals, and her mind is constantly full of questions. However, she would rather take it all in rather than question the beauty she sees unfolding before her eyes. Some might take her silence for stupidity, but she is truly a master observer.

I couldn’t help but grow closer to such wonderful and varied friends. The people I was with truly made my first Passover both sacred and special. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to know them all a little better.

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One Heart, Two Worlds

Last Wednesday, our social justice discussion was about the ten plagues in the Passover story. Should we have shown compassion to the Egyptians? If they came knocking on our doors that had been painted with blood, would we have let them in, knowing they would die? I feel that if we stood by idly and watched the Egyptians suffer, we’d be just as bad as the thousands of “innocent” Egyptians who stood by and watched their fathers, brothers, and friends enslave an entire race.

Micah, our discussion leader, remarked that compassion for both sides is what made Moshe such a good leader. He was raised by Egyptians and alongside Ramses, but he also had a duty to the Jewish people. He was “of both worlds,” as Micah put it.

I am also of both worlds. I’m aware that this coming week is both Passover and Holy Week, even though I will only be celebrating one holiday. I enjoy the pictures of my sisters’ gorgeous Pysanky Easter eggs, even though my own egg is not among them. I can remember the sweet taste of chocolate bunnies, even though the sweeter taste of freedom is what fills my mouth now.

Similarly, I play viola (the alto voice of the orchestra) and sing soprano one in choir. So, I can appreciate the (sometimes dull) harmonies and pick them out in a concert while also tracing the melody line. I am of both musical worlds, the string and vocal, and of the two voice parts.

I may not live in two worlds, but both have shaped me into the woman I am today. Like Moshe, I was raised one way but now live differently. My upbringing may not define me, but it gives me an extra lens from which to see the world. I have a window into one tradition, a home in another, and a loving heart for the people in both. Hopefully, my compassion for both sides can help me approach this holiday season and every situation with openness, love, and understanding.

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Ah-Ha-Ha!

Just a little something fun. I described this video to my friend as equal parts impressive and humorous.

My first reaction was something along the lines of “Whoaaaa-hahahahahahahawhoa.” Definitely impressed with the talent and the high level of cuteness.

Enjoy!

 

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Static on the Jewdar

“I had my bat mitzvah in Israel.”

These words shimmy across the office and tug on my ears. I swear, I wasn’t even listening to the conversation happening in a different room until this sentence came and introduced itself to me. “Listen, interesting stuff over here”, it says.

I feel like I’ve developed some kind of Jewdar (my friends use this term when describing the innate sense they have that allows them to tell right away whether someone is Jewish or not or being able to find the nearest Jew in the room). Anytime someone mentions something Jewish, I tune in.

So, I wander over to my co-worker’s office and invite myself into the conversation between him and my friend. She retells her story about birthright, her bat mitzvah, and how she truly discovered herself when she visited her homeland.

Even though she is the one with the interesting stories, she begins to tell Scott how intriguing I am.  My friend only found out a couple days ago that I was not yet “officially” Jewish, I just “do Jew” I suppose you could say. She jokes that I’m more Jewish than she, though I protest. Everyone’s different. I tell Steve about my upcoming Intro to Judaism class in the fall.

While fascinated, he is slightly skeptical. He asks me, “But what if you’re wrong? What if being Catholic was right and now you make the wrong decision and you have to live with that?”

Trust me, I’ve thought about this question a lot. When I first started exploring the beliefs of Judaism and asking myself how it compared to my Christian upbringing, I was terrified. I thought I would get sent to Hell just for even considering that Jesus was not divine. Later, after I had reconciled my own beliefs, I began to question how my family, who is so loving and good, could believe in something that I believed to be falsehood. Why would my sister, who wants to be a nun, devote her life to worshipping a man like a god? How could I accept the divinity of Christ as a child and then lose it in adulthood? Was I a stupid child or a wayward adult?

I told Scott that everyone is right. Or even better, there is no right and wrong, only different ways of expressing interpretations and opinions. If you believe in something and your beliefs help you to become a better person and add goodness to the world, more power to you. If it works for you, then you should do it.

For me, I could live what I was told was “right” my whole childhood. But that would not be true to myself, and THAT is what makes Catholicism wrong for me. Judaism is what connects to me on a deeper, spiritual level and it is the community in which I have made my home. As a child, I believed what I was told, and so it held truth. Now that I do not believe any more, the gospel speaks no truth for me. It is not right for me, and I would be living a lie to say otherwise.

Scott had enough of an open-mind to appreciate my answer, for which I am grateful. I know my reasoning is not popular  in many Christian circles. But that’s okay. I’ll try to stay out of trouble, unless my Jewdar tells me otherwise.

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Taking Off the Costume

Every holiday, I look forward to making new memories.

I experience these little “newborn Jew” moments, or “firsts” as I call them in my head: simple kodak snapshots of a Jewish holiday or ritual that are meaningful to me because I am consciously experiencing them for the first time.

Then, I write them down, much like a parent keeps a scrapbook of her baby’s first steps, first solid food, first toy, first birthday. Not every Jew can remember the first time she went to services, had apples with honey, or plated challah, and these moments  are infinitely special because they can never be recaptured or seen from new eyes ever again.

Even though I’ve celebrated Purim before, I thought today’s “first” would be learning moment, a profound connection, a new food, or an eye-opening experience. But it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Today was the first time I told a rabbi, any rabbi, that I want to be a cantor.

I’ve talked to my friends about my aspirations, other cantors and cantorial students, teachers, my parents (story on that some other time), and even my co-workers. But I’ve always had a deep-set fear of talking to a rabbi about it.

I don’t know why. Maybe I thought he would laugh in my face. Maybe I was afraid of denial or rejection or misunderstanding. But when the rabbi asked me why I was studying music in college, my heart prompted me for an honest response. My face flushed bright red, and I blurted out, “I want to go to cantorial school!”

I felt all the eyes of everyone around me, even though their conversations continued. And the rabbi? His reaction was priceless.

“Zoinks!”

He looked at me with shining blue eyes from under his felt turkey hat, and they were glowing with respect. A little incredulous too, but warm and encouraging. He began to ask me how my conversion process was going, and I told him that I’ve been studying one-on-one and begin formal classes in the fall. He asked which cantorial school I wanted to go to, and we discussed  the different options for women in leadship positions across the movements of Judaism.

It felt so good to be myself. Dressing up is one thing, but concealing your passion is a mask that no one should have to wear. I’d been hiding for a little too long, and today I just wanted a chance to be myself.

Maybe Esther was afraid to tell people she was Jewish. Wait, no, she was terrified. It sure wasn’t easy, and I can understand why. Even though she felt so comfortable in her own skin and she knew who she was, the fact that she would have to reveal herself to an authority figure who held power over her was daunting. I bet she blushed a little or her voice shook. But she couldn’t betray her heart, and neither can I.

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Jeremiah’s Got a MEGAPHONE

Every other Wednesday at Hofstra Hillel, we have a learning session on social justice in Judaism led by Micah, a student at the Yeshiva University, Mechon Hadar.

Tonight’s discussion was filled with delicious hamantaschen, lively conversation, and the importance of tochechah: rebuke.

After sharing stories of times when each of us was called out, we focused on Leviticus 19:17, which says “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Rebuke your kinsman and/but incur no guilt because of him.”

This verse from Leviticus asks us not  to stand by while someone else commits a crime because it is our duty to rebuke him. The Talmud tells us that “Whoever can prevent his household from a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if [he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world, he is responsible for the sings of the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b-55a).

This passage filled me with questions. When are we responsible to rebuke other people? How do we know when we can make a difference? Am I doing enough?

We had plenty of ideas. First, “can” implies that the action is only necessary if we know it will result in an impact or change. If we have power, then we are responsible, and the amount of power is equal to the responsibility. One might argue that by being responsible for a single person, we have the power to change the world, since that person can go on to change his entire life and the lives of others. However, I like to see it in levels: take care of your household, if you can, then take care of the community, then move on to the world. Of course, if you are a world leader with the power to influence many, you might influence the world while neglecting to take responsibility of your household.

In reproving our kinsman, we take responsibility for him and his actions. If we truly care about people, we will rebuke them in a gentle, loving, and kind manner, as Maimonides advises in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot (Ch. 5:7). We do not need to make a public spectacle, but if we approach our kinsmen in the right way, with loving intent, our advice can change their lives and bring them one step closer to paradise.

Towards the end of our discussion, we talked about prophets. And let me tell you, they were masters of giving and receiving rebuke. One minute they’d be advocating repentance; the next, they’d be run out of town for their words. They would stop at nothing to correct the flaws in society because they felt it was their responsibility to do so.

Should we all become prophets then, publicly denouncing the wrong in this world and taking on the responsibility to correct it? If Jeremiah had a megaphone today, what would he say? We all have the power to become prophets, which means we carry on their responsibility. We are responsible for the actions of those we can influence, and if we learn to give and receive rebuke, we begin to lessen the corruption in society.

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This Kippah’s a Keeper

So I have a confession to make.

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was sleeping, I put on his kippah.

I’ve been itching to know what it feels like to have one resting on your head for about a month now. I almost snuck one out of the Hillel office last week. But I would have felt bad just putting it on in front of everyone. “Ellie, what are you doing?!” they would ask.

Anyway. I held it in my hands, velvety and dark. I try to imagine what it feels like, and I hesitate. Who am I, a woman and a Gentile, to put on such a thing? I wonder if there’s a prayer that should be said before putting it on, so I make one up quick. The muttered Hebrew mixes with the sound of snoring.

I pause.

Every tiny milestone in Judaism I wish to savor and enjoy, for you can never do something for the first time again.

Then, I settle it on my head.

My first thought is that it’s lighter than I expected. Whenever I see a Jewish person wearing one, his kippah looks so weighty. The next thing I notice is a sense of gravity and comfort. I comprehend how such a simple article conveys a physical sense of separation between me and G-d. I also find the feeling of being beneath something comforting. Like sleeping under a blanket. Secure and covered. Safe.

Lost in thought, I close my eyes. I suddenly see every Jew back through the history of time: men at the East Meadow Jewish Center on Long Island where I go to shul, those in Europe during the Holocaust, those in Israel, those from biblical times. And I feel connected back through time right up until the moment where I stand there, connected to a people I know so deeply but can barely begin to understand.

I open my eyes.

I take the kippah off, a slight smile warming my face with the morning sun, and put it back where I found it.

I didn’t think wearing it would have such a profound effect on me. I can start to understand now how Jews can make them a part of their everyday wardrobe, why they are worn at Shabbat. Light and nearly weightless, but not invisible enough to forget.

A gentle, firm reminder: that I am commanded, that I am Jewish, and that I am yours.

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