Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Hebron: Finding the Good in the Bad and the Ugly

Hebron. A place and a people to be reckoned with.

When we started talking about Hebron in my last ethics class, I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. From a Biblical perspective, Abraham purchased this little plot of land from the Hittites so he could bury his wife, Sarah. This place is said to be the resting place of our ancestors- Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and all the others that follow. Fast forward through a history in which the Jews are exiled and the land falls under Muslim, Egyptian, and British rule. The Jews once again reclaim Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967. Shortest history lesson ever. You’re welcome. Mollie brought me up to date in her blog Treasure Your Being, and I highly recommend you check out the rest of her fascinating post, Tiyul to Hebron.

To put it mildly, things are not good in Hebron. There is rock throwing and use of tear gas and all sorts of violence that makes me sick just thinking about it. Doors smeared with stars of David and slogans like “Arabs to the gas chambers” echo with a haunting sneer from own bloody past. I struggle with the injustices of Hebron and with the disdain that I feel for this deep-set hatred.

Before I go on, let’s return to the text because there’s a lot we can learn from our forefathers about where we went wrong in this modern day conflict. A narrative in Midrash HaGadol says the following:

“Come and see Avraham Avinu’s humility – the Almighty had promised to give the land to him and his offspring forever, and now he could not even find a burial spot for his wife without paying a huge sum of money. Yet, he did not question the attributes of the Almighty or protest. What more, he spoke with the inhabitants of the land only in modesty…Said the Almighty, You lowered yourself – I swear that I will make you a master and prince over them!'”

The act of purchasing the land is not the key in this narrative. It is the way in which Abraham handles himself when negotiating his purchase. The Biblical law states that the land belongs to us, but the ethics imply that we are to be humble, fair, and respectful when dealing with the Hebron’s native inhabitants. Regardless of the situation or who has the authority, Judaism teaches that we treat people fairly.

Violence occurs because the “law” is being upheld- namely the regulations stipulated in a scared text- without considering the way in which we should ethically uphold them. Claiming that Hebron is ours without showing love, humility, and respect does not only blatantly disregard the most important part of the teaching, it also fails to embody the values of Judaism. If we disregard the values, we are not living Jewishly, nor are we acting in a just way as human beings.

What can we do with this knowledge? How can we begin to combat today’s violence? I’m not naive- I know peace is not easy, nor is it immediately feasible. How can we restore the balance between justice and ethical practice in a world where we value ethics so little?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answers for you. But discussion is a place to start. If I am permitted to quote Micah (the leader of my ethics class), he suggests that we initiate friendly relations “one day at time, building one relationship, one smile, one act of kindness, and mobilizing and organizing the shit out of other people to do the same.”

Breaking the Silence (BTS) is working to do just that. Many Jewish people are unaware of the conditions in Hebron, so BTS collects testimonies and leads tours in order to raise awareness of the issues on both sides. BTS activists refuse to take a side in the issue, but they recognize that the status quo is intolerable and SOMETHING needs to be done.

The rest of us need to acknowledge what is happening and do our part in resolving the conflict. There are many that stand with Israel regardless of its policy or actions, and I understand your steadfastness. But I am more of agreement with Michael Goldin when he says, “our institutions are only worth having if they promote what is just and fair. If they stand with Israel regardless of what it does and ignore which direction its political winds are blowing, there is little point to their existence.” Justice. Fairness. Empathy. Humility. These are the directions we need to head towards. If we refuse to acknowledge the validity and the humanity of the other side, we will never have peace, and the fight is over before it has begun.

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Pavane For a Bullet-proof Soul

Sometimes, the very thing that’s about to send you over the edge is the same thing that keeps you from jumping.

Mashup of two pieces, Pavane and Titanium.

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Different Hats

It’s getting cold outside, and that means sweaters and hot chocolate and HATS. I’m really in love with and especially particular about my hats. They have to fit just so. And if it doesn’t frame my face just right, I won’t buy it. Please don’t ever try and buy one for me. I own a grand total of 5 hats, and no, you can not try them on. MINE.

I’ve considered wearing a lot of hats throughout the years. The jobs I’ve thought about settling on my head are as varied as any hat fanatic’s collection. Astronaut. English teacher. Lawyer. Scientist. Violist in a Broadway orchestra. Nature center worker. Cantor. When I finally get to try one on, I’ll know for sure if I’ve found the perfect match or not.

There are also a lot of different “Jewish” hats out there: types of Judaism that people practice, the main ones being reform, conservative, and orthodox. I’d argue each Jew wears a hat unique to himself, an interesting blend of upbringing, family history, and synagogue influence. Someone asked me today how I decided I wanted to convert to conservative Judaism. Different hats. It has to fit just right, I tell them. It’s a lifestyle, a culture, and a community. While I quite enjoy attending the services at reform temples and meeting Jewish people from all backgrounds, I settle most comfortably into the conservative mold. It frames my soul just right. The melodies of the prayers, the feeling of being bound to the law, the traditional community… It all makes a lot of sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried on the reform and orthodox hats as well. Even the reconstructionist hat with its colorful wool edges and bouncing pom pom took a trial run atop my head for a weekend. And I don’t dislike the spiritual reflection I see in the mirror as I try each one. I stand there scrutinizing my soul, striking different poses, looking at each hat from different angles. I’m just happy to have found one that fits better than all the rest. And who knows? I’ll probably be making some alterations as I go.

This past month, I’ve been trying to get my life under control. As a writing tutor, office assistant, musical director, and undergraduate student, I’ve been juggling a lot of hats. I’m so bundled that you can barely see my face. You’ll catch a glimpse of my conservative kippah under all those hats, if you look closely.

So, I tip my hat(s) to you and wish you all a lovely day. It’s good to be back.

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HHD Meditation #5

Wow. Yom Kippur starts tomorrow. Tomorrow night. I can hardly believe it. I’ve been preparing all week, and yet somehow, the time still managed to slip away.

Wake up, Jenn! Yom Kippur is here whether you're ready or not. Props to Ben, who blew the shofar over Rosh Hashanah and Hannah for taking the pic.

Wake up, Jenn! Yom Kippur is here whether you’re ready or not. Props to Ben, who blew the shofar over Rosh Hashanah and Hannah for taking the picture.

I’m really quite excited. Rabbi Lyle knows a reform rabbi, Rabbi Judy, and she invited me to her house for dinner and her synagogue for services. So I’m going there tomorrow, spending Saturday at the conservative shul in East Meadow, and then breaking the fast with Hillel Saturday night. Then it’s on to Parker Nursing Home for Chai Notes’ first community service gig on Sunday morning and Lulav/Etrog shopping in Flushing Sunday afternoon followed by a dinner of falafel and shwarma. It’s basically a Jewish paradise this weekend, and I’m trying to get all my work done tonight/tomorrow morning so I can truly enjoy it.

Maybe the day of atonement shouldn’t elicit such joyful feelings of anticipation, but I think they’re okay. I’m determined to move forward this year, determined to have a good day and meaningful fast, determined to become a better person. I think I can do that without feeling gloomy or beating myself up. I know in Catholicism, fasting on Good Friday was always associated with pain and mutual suffering. We were meant to feel guilty for causing the death of a god who didn’t deserve to bear our pain but did. It was a heart-rending kind of fast, but not one like this. I feel Yom Kippur to be more cleansing, the turning of a new leaf, and my sincere apology to do better. I don’t feel sad or guilt-ridden about my sins. I feel a resolution to spiritually improve myself.

I want to close this short series with a heartfelt thank you. I’m thankful for the people in my life who make all of these wonderful opportunities and days possible. I’m thankful that G-d has been so good to me recently. I’m thankful for the chance to enjoy simple pleasures- a beautiful song, a piece of blue sky, a chocolate cookie after dinner, a five minute walk with a friend. I’m so thankful to be in a country and a place where I can choose to be who I am. I can choose a Jewish life. And I choose it with all of my heart.

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HHD Meditation #4

Today when I had a short break, I went back to my room and literally meditated. I laid facedown on my bed and thought about nothing. And just was. Wasn’t asleep. More like daydreaming where the occasional picture would flit across my mind, but no conscious thoughts.

Then I returned to being aware of time, wondered how long I had been there, and got up. It was so nice and so rare for me to take half an hour and not think about anything because I am definitely the over-thinking type. Always. Before I took a break, I felt really dead inside. Overwhelmed, overworked, and unhappy. Now I feel peacefully content and ready to keep chugging along.

So, I don’t have much to say today. I don’t want words to clutter up the open space that I feel inside. Instead, here’s a song I found afterwards that brought me to tears, and I still don’t know why. Childhood nostalgia, the poignancy of Joseph seeing his mother for the last time, the simple melody. Something touching.

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HHD Meditation #3

Planting flowers at bubbe's house.

Planting flowers at bubbe’s house two summers ago.

When I was in the Hillel office today, my friend cut his finger on a paper cutter. After watching him search the office for a few minutes for a bandaid, I spoke up. “I have one in my backpack if you want.”

You have no idea how many times I’ve used that line so far just this year and how many bandaids are now plastered on various students’ fingers/backs/toes/miscellaneous body parts. And I’m happy to help. I’m the girl who’s got hand sanitizer, tissues, pens, and first aid supplies on her ALWAYS. Cause you never know when you’ll need it or when you can help someone else.

My other friend, the one without the blood dripping from his finger, watched me with an admiring smile as I produced the latex panacea from my backpack. “Look at you, always so prepared. You’re going to make a great mother some day.” A compliment that means more to this care-taker of a woman than you can ever know.

He then launches into a story from his weekend. Apparently, the cantor at his temple was sick for Rosh Hashanah. And the sub was… not even close to up to par, by which I mean she had trouble carrying a tune. A few minutes into the first song, he turns to the guy next to him and says, “Gosh, we need Jenn here. She could do this.” Not five more minutes had passed before the girl on his other side tapped his shoulder and said the exact same thing.

My heart warmed in a matter of seconds, and those were the best compliments I received all day.

You know what makes me want to be a cantor? Sunday night, I cooked dinner for my entire a cappella group. I rarely cook for myself because it’s so much work and I don’t enjoy eating the food alone. It’s so much more rewarding to cook for others, and a meal tastes better when I share it with people who appreciate my labor. It means so much to me to be able to give someone something wonderful that I’ve made.

I truly enjoy Shabbat services. I really do. And if I can not only celebrate them every week but give them to someone else, then I would be a million times happier sharing my joy with others rather than just reveling in it all by myself. The other parts of cantorial duties are appealing as well. Spreading knowledge and music. Preparing young children to become adults. Teaching adults about themselves  and helping them along the same journey that I currently am on. Sharing sharing sharing. Please just let me share with you.

I feel like I only just comprehended for the first time what a life of service truly is.

Each week, I feel so happy as Shabbat approaches. All I wish for my friends is that they can find some rest each Shabbos. And I want to be the one to bring that comfort to them. Some cookies, a hug, and a listening ear is all I am qualified to provide right now. Maybe some day, I can provide the same nurturing spiritually? Or at least a Biblical kind of bandaid, a hot meal from heaven? I hope so.

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HHD Meditation #2

Janine Jankovitz, WCU Hillel's rabbinic intern from RRC, leads us in Rosh Hashanah morning services.

Janine Jankovitz, WCU Hillel’s rabbinic intern from RRC, leads us in Rosh Hashanah morning services. Photo credit to Hannah at WCU.

I spent this Rosh Hashanah at West Chester University, celebrating with Hillel, their Jewish student organization. There was no Torah reading, but there was a Torah. Or a piece of one at least. A few years ago, the Holocaust and Genocide Prevention Club visited Poland, and they brought a treasure back with them: a piece of the Warsaw Torah discovered buried in a wall, a fragment of G-d’s word that survived the fires of Hell. Knowing that it didn’t belong in a pawn shop, the students pooled their money, brought it back to West Chester, and donated it to the library. You can read the full story here.

For Rosh Hashanah, a few of the students and I helped move it through the pouring rain to the student center building where it sat on display for the day. We prayed the service with it sitting at the front of the room, the glass case crouching over the tired block letters that trudged across the page.

As we prayed through the service, I thought about all of the Jews that have come before me. Thought of the men and women and children who heard words chanted from that very scroll. Heard the faint echoing of their voices in ours, like overtones in a scale. Saw them fade one by one into an ashen past. Imagined that their descendants sat around me as students, praying in front of the same scroll that their ancestors davned in front of even as the sky overhead darkened.

The fragment of Torah that was hidden in a wall in Warsaw, Poland during WWII.

The fragment of Torah that was hidden in a wall in Warsaw, Poland during WWII. Photo credit to Hannah at WCU.

I often worry that I don’t have enough of a connection to the Jewish people, that I don’t feel enough like one of the fold, one of the chosen. But sitting there staring at that Torah, I felt my aching heart cry for what happened and glow proudly at what we’ve become. Despite all odds, a fragment of the Torah survived. So did a fragment of the Jewish population.

In one of my conversion classes, Rabbi Art Vernon put some of my fears about connecting to the Jewish people at rest. He pointed out that most of our ancestors are not Native American, yet we feel a strong and tangible connection to the United States. We know the national anthem, we fly our flag proudly, and we have some sense of belonging to this country. So too with Jews and Israel. Some of them can trace their ancestry way back to the Israelites, but the others… Who knows? Regardless of where they come from, all Jews have a connection to the Jewish people and nation. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t matter whose blood we have running through our veins or who had ancestors at Mount Sinai. What matters is the love that we foster as we grow closer together.

Connection. Oh so important as human beings and as Jews. Something I hope to create more of as I grow in the coming year. More friendships, more Jewish acquaintances (need to up my Jewish geography score), and more love for a people that I am proud to call my own.

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L’shana tova…

Sorry, I had to. This was definitely me in high school when I first heard about a Jewish holiday other than Hanukkah. Say what? There’s more to Judaism than dreidels and menorahs? Tell me more…

Shana Tova

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HHD Meditation #1

Zinnias are my favorite flowers. This is one of the many I planted during Summer 2014.

Zinnias are my favorite flowers. This is one of the many I planted during Summer 2014.

I’ve decided that between now and Yom Kippur, I am going to do my best to post one High Holy Days (HHD) meditation per day- something that I’ve learned about myself, the holiday, or the world around me. Hopefully, by the time the sun goes down on Oct 3rd, I’ll have my introspective game face on and be ready to reflect and renew.

I noticed over the course of Rosh Hashanah that I’m a country girl at heart. Not the stereotypical flannel-wearing, leather-boot-sporting, country-music-loving (I strongly dislike the musical genre) girl. Not even the girl who goes to state fairs or rides horses or drives a pick-up (though I wouldn’t say no to one).

I’m a girl who belongs in nature. The girl who has spent summer nights stretched out in the middle of the asphalt road soaking in the moon beams and getting lost in the stars. The girl who has stroked the backs of bumblebees and let spiders cling to her finger as they trail a silky thread back to the ground. The girl who relishes clear blue skies, a glowing sun, and lush green leafiness.

I can’t live without nature and I am forever grateful for it. Whether you believe in G-d or not, you can see that there is so much beauty in the natural world surrounding us, and its perfection is greater than any human design. While I like the idea of a well-manicured lawn and nice rows of trees (even I have to cut the grass and trim the hedges), there’s also a part of me that likes the untamed beauty of a twisting forest and the murkiness of a lake and the wildness in the ocean. I love the bit of me I see in nature, and my heart often aches when I spy a bird soaring in the sky. How I wish I had wings. I see a lot of G-d in nature, in the beauty and intricacy of its design and the forever cyclical pattern of the world. And I yearn to be a part of that design, part of that wholeness, and one with that beauty. I need greenness and sunlight the way I need water and air. It’s essential to my very makeup and impossible to live without.

This coming year, I hope to never take nature for granted, to be grateful for its never-ending beauty, and to do everything I can to grow closer to the world around me.

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I’m fairly limited with which pictures I can share because I only have what’s on my computer. Hopefully, these will capture some of what I feel is most precious in the world.

Morning sunlight shines through the trees in PA.

Morning sunlight shines through the trees in PA.

Photo credit goes to my sister Jeanne on this one, a dragonfly resting near the water.

Photo credit goes to my sister Jeanne on this one, a dragonfly resting near the water.

Robins built a nest on our back porch this summer. I spent a good couple hours watching the mom and dad take turns feeding their babies.

Robins built a nest on our back porch this summer. I spent a good couple hours watching the mom and dad take turns feeding their babies.

Double rainbow from our backyard.

Double rainbow from our backyard.

So. Much. Orange.

So. Much. Orange.

Cucumber Falls. Later renamed "Jojo Falls" because she fell in.

Cucumber Falls. Later renamed “Jojo Falls” because she fell in.

These bendy flowers have some personality, that's for sure.

These bendy flowers have some personality, that’s for sure.

New snow, new daylight, new trees.

New snow, new daylight, new trees.

Sunrise from the 12th floor of Axinn Library.

Sunrise from the 12th floor of Axinn Library.

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Where Am I Coming From?

When I think back on Rosh Hashanah last year, the rabbi’s sermon comes to mind. He focused on the questions “Where are we coming from?” and “Where are we going?” Every time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, these are good questions to ask ourselves. A year ago, I was celebrating the high holidays for the first time. I was a college sophomore taking my first music classes. I was a young woman who essentially had no idea what she was doing. And I still am, so that’s a good thing, right? Gotta be consistent.

Luckily, I kept a journal on my experience last year, and I am so glad I did. I like having that reminder of where I am coming from. I can open to a page and see exactly where I was a year ago. Normally, I don’t share my journal entries online. It would be a frightening experience for everyone. But just this once, I’ll tell you openly and unabashedly what was going through my mind last year. No editing either. Just you, me, and my past self. Don’t judge her too harshly. After all, present self is baring her soul to you right now…

 

9/4/13 Erev Rosh Hashanah: Right now, I am grateful, renewed, and refreshed. Ready to start out the new year right. Above all, tonight leaves me with a feeling of peace. Peace within my community, peace in the safety of G-d’s arms, peace within the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers, peace between every person, every smile, every shana tova. 

9/5/13 Morning before shul: G-d, you are everywhere. You fill everything. It’s so easy for me to get distracted with the cares and worries of the world. But when I sit with you and put my fears to the side, you put your arm around me like a best friend. I’m just happy to sit here quietly with you. This morning, nature was my shul. There, in the sun dappled shade beneath a dancing tree, I was happy to live. To be. To breathe huge lungfuls of fresh morning air. Nature oozed beauty out of every pore, and I felt G-d’s smile on a world and woman reborn. 

9/5/13 Afternoon: Then, shul itself. A musty red book filled with page after page of dark hebrew letters. A room full of chairs that filled as the day went on. A lot of chanting, standing, and sitting. Most times, I had trouble keeping up. I felt a little out of place and lost. It helped to not focus on the individual words and just get lost in the booming voice of the hazan. Later, the rabbi and cantor brought the Torah into the congregation. I stretched out my worn prayerbook to its golden plate, then brought the cover back to my lips. That was one of my favorite moments.

9/5/13 Night: Tonight was beyond beautiful. Abby and I went to a friend’s house to join her family for dinner. I have never met a more loving funny, kind, Jewish family in my whole life. I immediately felt like a part of their family the way they welcomed me to their table. The food was so good. Homemade, warm challah, matzoh ball soup, fish, chicken, brisket, apple pie… Everything was delicious. Her entire family was just so warm and welcoming. I hope more than anything my future family will be like that some day. Out of everything I’ve experienced this holiday, a meal with these 14 people has by far been the best. So much warmth in their eyes. I couldn’t get enough. G-d, I am so blessed. Thank you. Thank you so much.

9/6/13 Afternoon: Returning to shul was like returning home.Already, it felt less strange, and I felt more comfortable with the people and the prayers. Listened to Torah, prayed, kissed book/Torah, and then left. My life is starting to feel like the cycle Jay talked about yesterday, “I go to shul, come home and eat, go to sleep, get up and go to shul, eat, sleep, and then do it all over again.” It’s such a natural, peaceful life. I can’t believe the holiday is over and my life resumes tomorrow. I feel like a richer, fuller person after two days of renewal.

My heart, soul, and being are content.

 

It’s easy to see where I’m coming from. It’s a good place. Where I am going… That’s a little bit harder to answer. I plan on going in a direction that allows me to continue to grow as a Jew, as a young adult, and as a scholar. I think I’m on the right track. Here’s hoping.

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Reflections For A New Year

I’m sitting down at 11:37PM the day before Erev Rosh Hashanah trying to collect myself and do some introspection.

And it ain’t working.

This hectic lifestyle leaves me no time to breathe, and that’s how I like it. A busy life is rich, exciting, and fulfilling. At least, that’s what I tell myself to get me through the sleepless nights, 12 hours days, and color-coded craziness.

A new year, a new start. I can think of some things I did very well this past year and some great accomplishments. Becoming more of an empathetic and active listener. Increasing my knowledge about Judaism, life, and music through both formal and informal learning. Fostering friendships, trying new foods, and traveling to new places.

And I can think of some things that still need improvement. There’s one thing that needs some serious work. To be honest, I don’t do a very good job taking care of myself. My natural instinct is to take care of others- thoughts like send that care package, text her back, plan our rehearsals, help him with his homework, and make dinner for them run through my head every day on a constant basis. I often end up at the bottom of the list. While it’s important to be selfless and giving, it’s also important to take care of your own physical, mental, and emotional well-being. That’s hard for me because I’m not particularly fond of myself. I have an abundant affection for my friends and family, but Ellie? She can wait another day.

This year, I’ve decided that I have waited long enough. Time to take some time for myself. Of course it’s easier to indulge in my hobbies during the summer because there’s more time for leisure than during the school year. But when it becomes hard to find time for meals, sleep, and health, that’s how I know I’m struggling. Being a little selfish every now and then will only better equip me to continue to be the friend/lover/classmate/supporter that I want to be for everyone else.

I’m going to start tomorrow- the world can wait. You, G-d,  and I have some prayers to say, a dinner to eat, and a train to catch. This year, I’ll start basic- eat three meals a day, get eight hours of sleep, take medicine when you’re sick (yep, I avoid even that)- and once I’ve achieved a good state of physical well-being, then I can focus on the mental and spiritual. Then, only then, will I be ready to help everyone else. Fix yourself. Really fix yourself. And then we can fix the world.

Shana tova. May your coming new year be sweet and full of life’s blessings.

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A Little Jewish Humor

In my second Intro to Judaism class, we focused on Chapter 23 in Leviticus. Though maybe focus isn’t the right word. We went off on tangents about redemption, marriage, The Frisco Kid (guess I have something to add to my movie list), and a book called The Carp in the Bathtub. As a diligent note-taker, I wrote down everything that we learned about each holiday. I can now tell you where the different sounds of the shofar come from, the true meaning of a scapegoat, why we use a citron for Rosh Hashanah, and the process of Teshuva. And I will, in a couple of posts to follow.

However, there is much to be learned from this rabbi in his humor, his jokes and stories. He is an amazing storyteller, with a vibrant, passionate voice that makes every fact seem like some kind of unknown secret we are all just discovering for the first time. He’s also very humorous, interjecting his own life experiences and  jokes into his teaching.

It’s amidst the laughter and the lightness of the situation that we learn something, and the funny parts that stick with you. So, I’ve got a few one-liners to share. The learning and the serious stuff will come later. Even if these jokes don’t make sense, they’ll at least make you pause. And I hope they make you smile.

Everyone says youth is wasted on the young. Youth is NOT wasted on the young. It is a gift given to the young so that they can raise children. (This got an appreciative chuckle from all the parents and some nervous laughter from the young adults.)

Yom Kippur is not an endurance test. It’s not about being the last one standing after everyone else has passed out.

Hey G-d, I’m doing my part. Look at me! I’m here! Now you do yours.

You know the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So their pet fish becomes gefilte fish, and you can imagine the kids are a little upset.

We ALL go over the finish line together. I’m talking about collective redemption. 

So we have our willows, our myrtles, and our etrog. What do we do with them? Shaky shaky shaky shaky, shaky shaky shaky shaky shaky, shaky shaky shaky shaky…

Scene from The Frisco Kid: They have just announced the marriage of the rabbi to another man’s daughter. Someone shouts “Drinks for everyone!” Another person asks, “How are we [the synagogue] going to pay for this?” To which a man replies, “Take it out of the building fund!” (After telling this story, my rabbi just looks at everyone and says, Board members.)

It might be a holiday for you, but it certainly won’t be the holidays for me! 23 days and what, 9 sermons?!

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My First Class

One class down, many more to go!

Tuesday night, I had my first Introduction to Judaism class at East Meadow Jewish Center with Rabbi Art Vernon, who is quite the lively individual. Between his 20+ years of teaching and his five grown children, he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to share with us. Obviously, he doesn’t know me very well yet, but I’m hoping as the weeks progress we can form some kind of teacher/student relationship.

Even more interesting than the rabbi are the students. Jews from Syria and Turkey and Florida accompany their equally diverse partners. There’s about 10 of us total. Some of my classmates have been keeping a kosher home and raising their children “Jewish” for the past ten years and are now deciding to make it official. Others just want to see what this Jewish stuff is all about. Regardless of background, everyone has been touched by Judaism in some way and is now taking a definite and firm step to make it a part of their lives. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.

We didn’t learn much the first day- mostly intros, getting the syllabus and materials, and starting to talk about Rosh Hashanah. I learned that the most important holiday, agriculturally speaking, in Judaism is Pesach, or Passover. The high holidays only became important after Christianity- we needed something to compete with Lent, Christmas, and Easter. Who knew?

So, the night was full of little tidbits of information like that. I now have a really nifty calendar that tells me what day it is in the Jewish year, all the holidays, and the candle lighting times. I’m also the only single, childless, young(er) person there, but that’s okay. You find Judaism at whatever part in your life makes the most sense, and I don’t think age is a determining factor.

Mostly, I’m just excited to get to know everyone better and learn more. Day one = success.

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Sounds of Shabbat

Shabbat began with the sounds of the shofar, tekiahhh… Long and wailing, then short, piercing, and urgent. The notes wavered and flickered as we lit the candles and ushered in a Shabbat that was soon to be full of sound.

I realized I had picked the best seat for davening as soon as the first prayer began. I sat surrounded by men who could harmonize. And, my goodness, there’s nothing more intimate. The words of the prayers are all wrapped up in a beautiful melody, and then someone adds an extra layer. Picture a wool sweater, all knit together by threads- these threads are Hebrew words that form the whole prayer. The harmonizing voices form a layer of fuzz, the way you can see the little fuzzies of a sweater standing out like frizzy hair. A frizzy golden glow to our evening prayer.

At dinner, Chai Notes provided musical accompaniment to the sounds of 100 people enjoying delightful food and company. Even though our group had greatly diminished and our repertoire was small,  we sang quietly, our light voices filled with both vital energy and calm serenity. Our small size created not only precision, but an joyous reverberation that can only be found between those who are both good friends and good musicians.

The last notes of Matisyahu’s One Day had only just dissipated when Birkat began. I’d never heard 40 people sing Birkat at the top of their voices until Friday night, and I can assure you there’s nothing like it. The same harmonies that had woven themselves into the service now squirmed their way back into the after-dinner songs and split the seams of everything I had ever heard before. My mind could not grasp how vibrant the whole room sounded. The very walls were pounding.

The sun preserved some of this thrumming intensity, beating down on us the next morning as we walked to services. Sweat dripped from our foreheads as vowels dripped from our mouths. We paused only to wipe one melody from our lips before the next one could spill over and begin anew. Broadway tunes melted into humid air that had already soaked  in notes from Jewish a cappella tunes and pop songs. Our voices were as soupy and strong as the air we breathed and provided us with the sustenance we needed to walk 3 miles to shul and back. The spring in our step was matched only by our boisterous voices. Singing, singing, singing. You couldn’t stop us if you tried (and trust me, when we all started singing songs from Avenue Q, Rabbi Dave tried).

The cool hum of the air-conditioned synagogue muted our joyful whoops and sobered us all up a bit. As the rabbi delivered his sermon, his solemn words stacked up like a brick wall around my ears. He lifted the weighty words from his mind with much effort. Slavery. Child labor. Immigration. Ancient Egypt. Oppression. When he urged us to think of donating, raising awareness, and being conscious consumers, I knew our compassionate efforts could help erode a wall built on thousands of years of hate.

I decided to break down some of my own walls and head to the local chabad house for lunch. I’d never experienced the Orthodox community first hand, and I figured it was about time. I arrived still slightly skeptical, and the screeching voices of children greeted me as soon as I opened the door. I developed an immediate affection for them, these youngsters ranging in the ages of 2 to about 8. And it was the voices of children and their rabbinical father that carried me through the meal. Little Sholom delivering his d’var Torah first in Yiddish and then in English. Rachel asking politely for the brownies and Rivka screaming for them. Mendel’s serious, excitable voice that asked questions and told us about all the wonders of being oldest of 6- he beamed when I told him I was the oldest of 5. All of the children banged on the table as their father preached or sang with gusto. While I was unaccustomed to some rules (the rabbi’s aversion to shaking my hand) and uncomfortable with some of the questions (what is your last name?), I found the entire family very warm and welcoming. I left Rivka giggling in the front lawn as she tried to follow me back to campus. Orthodoxy often echoes of the past, but I heard only the sounds of new life and vitality in that house. And it made me very happy.

This Shabbat was restful, musical, and rejuvenating. How else can I describe it? I hope to have many more as wonderful as this. As we enter into a new week, I wish you all peace and happiness. Shavua tov.

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Back to the Grind

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I last blogged. Let me catch you up on the excitement that’s happening now that I’m back in NY:

-I start my official conversion classes IN TWO DAYS! Can’t wait. I spent all of last fall searching the surrounding area for a class that best fits my needs, and the one at East Meadow Jewish center seems like the best way to go. Wish me luck as I continue my learning.

-I had an incredibly restful, amazing Shabbat. Separate blog post on that later.

-My a cappella group is holding auditions this week, and we had our first performance of the semester at Hillel’s Shabbat dinner. I’m excited to see the group grow and make beautiful music together.

-I’ve met some wonderful first-year students and have already formed some great friendships.

-I am partaking in the #sukkahchallenge set up by Rabbi Lyle, our director of Jewish Life on campus. It’s a 5 in 5 challenge: five chapters of the Mishnah Sukkah in five weeks. We read, study with a chevruta (partner), and then get together for a group discussion.

I am really, really looking forward to the holidays. I hope that the revitalized energy I feel at the start of this new school year is a harbinger for all the goods things to come in the new year.

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Promised Bird

“But I was part of the chain of the tradition now, as much a guardian of the sacred Promise as Rav Kalman and the Hasidim were, and it would be a different kind of fight from now on. I had won the right to make my own beginning”
(The Promise by Chaim Potok, p. 342).

I really long for this right. In Potok’s book, Reuven earns this right after receiving smicha (Rabbinic Ordination) at Hirsch University. I don’t necessarily want to become a rabbi like Reuven, but I want the right to make my own beginning. A right to my own Jewish interpretations once I am a member of the fold.

Judaism shapes its people, and the people in turn shape Judaism. While I believe in G-d, I also believe religion is a complex collection of beliefs and practices created by men and women.

I want the right to my own piece of Judaism: a little fluttering bird that I can ornament as I wish. I breathe light and life into it, and it flies back into the piece of sky from whence it came.

A bird with wings that are sparkling, sharp, and smooth like glass. Wings layered in tiny, crisp feathers, blurring only when in motion. Grace and beauty coalesce in every tilt, every gesture.

A bird bright and brilliant, capturing radiant sunbeams that spin themselves off the wingtips and go shooting into the great blue yonder, dissolving before clearing the heavens.

A birdish kind of bird with flip flap flying wings.

Made, born, created, raised, blessed, and sent away with a benediction into the great vast sky, humming of a loving kiss.

My own and yet an entity all its own, never mine to keep but mine to care for, this bright blue bird that smells of summer sky and dewy mornings. My own, but not for keepsies. And me, a Guardian of this sacred Promise.

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Robin Williams

I’m sorry to post something so sad after my last post about Tisha B’Av, but it’s necessary. These are mixed times that we live in, full of both heartbreak and joy. Right now, a little heartbreak.

When I first heard about Robin Williams’ death, I felt shock. Disbelief. A man whom I associated with joking, laughter, and priceless voice imitations lost his battle with depression. It’s like finding out a friend has stage IV cancer after he’s died. I didn’t know. But how could I?

I felt angry. Why would God, who spared my life two years ago by sending me someone to talk me out of suicide, not send a person, a voice, a hand for this man who was a light in the world? Why me, small, insignificant and struggling, and not him?

Just as my perspective is only one among many Jewish ones, so is my voice only one representation of those who are depressed. I don’t like to talk about my depression because I don’t want people to see me as different or sick and treat me as thus. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with Seasonal Afffective Disorder (SAD), which is slightly different in itself. But still the same struggles, the same battle every winter that many face every day.

Robin Williams has always been an actor I’ve admired. From The Dead Poet’s Society to Good Morning Vietnam to Aladdin, there was such a spark that he brought to the screen that made me fall in love with not just his acting but the entire feature. When people ask me what my favorite Disney movie is, I say Aladdin. Then they assume because I like Jasmine, or the story, but it’s always the big blue Genie (and later the voice behind him) that draws me to the screen and that particular VHS tape time and time again.

I don’t want to talk about how he died. But I do want to tell you that my surprise over his death taught me an important lesson, one worth sharing. People who are sick ARE normal people. We picture a depressed person as the one sitting in the corner by himself- moping, sad, and alone. But depressed people make jokes. They feel good some days. They put up a freaking good fight just so we don’t have to see them when they fall. They hide behind funny faces because they’re afraid that the one true face, their own, is too miserable to share with those around them.

Sure, some people are more susceptible to depression than others, but don’t be fooled by stereotypes. And though I’ve just spent an entire blog post on it, don’t remember Robin Williams by his depression. There is so much more in his life that is worth sharing and remembering, so much more that I hope far exceeds his life.

I thank God often for sending someone to save me that day, and I’m eternally grateful to the human being who saved my life down by the train tracks two years ago. I’ll never understand why some people die and some live, who decides, and why the world is unfair. But I have learned to celebrate life, to be sensitive to others, to reach out when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my own dark thoughts, and to laugh often. I’m sorry, Robin. Sorry you didn’t win this one. Sorry it had to end like this, sorry you didn’t see in yourself what the rest of the world saw in you. I promise to keep smiling, to keep fighting, and to remind others that they might be the person someone needs.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams, DPS

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Tisha B’Av: A Time of Mourning

This evening marks the end of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month Av on which Jews fast in memory of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a day for general sadness and mourning, and Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, is usually read.

I think I might have gotten it all wrong this year. I almost missed this day just because… I forgot. I should have put a note in my planner or something. It wasn’t until after lunch as I stood in the kitchen baking a cake that I remembered I was supposed to be fasting. Now I’m sitting here trying to grasp all the sadness that goes into this day and somehow make up for forgetting to mourn.

There’s a lot to be sad about. From biblical persecution to the horrors of the Holocaust to the current conflict between Israel and Gaza, sadness has touched every Jewish generation to walk this earth. I often feel connected to this collective sadness, and G-d, it hurts so much. When I listen to bubbe’s stories about the Holocaust or see the faces of the fallen IDF soldiers, the pain scattered throughout Jewish history comes alive in a very real way.

I embrace so much sadness that I don’t know what to do with all of it. I just stand there holding it in my arms as it gnaws away at my heart.

I can relate to the sadness that I see in the world, but it’s harder to connect to the destruction of the temples that occurred years and years ago. I know of a camp counselor who, on Tisha B’Av, asked all her campers to lay out their most prized possessions on the floor. They all sat in a circle and imagined that the item had been destroyed, going around one by one to describe why that particular item was so important.

Destroyed. Obliterated. Your most precious possessions, gone from the face of the Earth. Picturing a loss of this magnitude makes my heart ache and a little panicky, and then I remember that the loss of the temple is real and part of this heart-rending sadness… It’s almost too much to take in.

If my ramblings fail to capture some of this sadness that I feel, music tends to evoke an emotional response in me. And whether you listen to these recordings of a cantor chanting the trope from Eicha like I did or you find another minor melody, it’s my final offering of sadness. A last cry in the dark of the night.

It’s so easy to turn a blind eye to suffering. Don’t be like me and so many others. Don’t forget, don’t turn away from the hurt that’s in the world.

Maybe I’m doing this day all wrong. But it’s the best I can do with this broken, imperfect heart of mine.

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I Believe In…

I’m reading a book called Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg, and even though it was published over 60 years ago, Judaism hasn’t changed too much since then, comparatively.

Many religions have creeds. Creeds set forth the beliefs of a religion, and by saying them, members are joined together by their common thoughts and bound to their gods in the words they promise. The ones specific to Catholicism are The Apostle’s Creed and The Nicene Creed, one of which is said at every Sunday mass. It begins, “We believe in One God, Father Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible, and in Jesus Christ, the only begotten son…”

Does Judaism have such a creed, an outlining of beliefs, a statement of ideals?

Non-dogmatists would argue that Judaism does not have a creed. Where are these ideals written down? Who created them? Even when Maimonides, a respected Jewish philosopher, proposed Thirteen Principles Of Faith, they were rejected.

Dogmatists claim Judaism does have a creed. What kind of religion could exist without a backbone, a foundation of beliefs on which to build and grow? How could the Jewish people survive against the pagans for so long without a set of ideals holding them together?

Both sides have valid points, but Steinberg suggests that neither has the complete picture. A middle approach would say that Judaism has a specific religious outlook but not a single dogma that professes this outlook. Here are some of the main thoughts outlined by the “moderator” in Steinberg’s argument, the middle of the road interpretation:

- The existence of the Jews does not depend on upholding a creed because they are more than just a religion. They are a nation bound together by tradition. Other religions, such as Christianity, are solely religious groups, comprised of people who are very different but held together by similar beliefs. More similar than different, the Jews all share common rituals, bloodlines, and history and do not need a creed to act as a unifying force.

- Judaism did not have its beginnings in a creed, unlike how the Roman Catholic Church had the Council of Nicea at its formation to declare laws. Rather, the growth of this religion was more organic, and the individuals that practiced it held distinct, personal convictions that are too complex to be captured by any propositions. The natural progression of the entire group cannot be summarized in a declaration of beliefs.

- A formal creed would limit freedom of thought, which is necessary to acquire knowledge and understanding. This is one of the aspects I love most about Judaism- there are no right or wrong answers to questions, everything is left up to interpretation, and people are asked to come to their own conclusions about an issue. Impossible when a doctrine tells you how to think.

- Ethics are of a greater importance than doctrine. It is more important to show justice and mercy than to possess the correct idea, and morals take precedence over logic. In some other religions, the rule leads to moral understanding. There is a rule, and by following it, good things will happen. It yields positive results. In Judaism, the moral leads to the rule that is followed. Judaism teaches how to interact with others and conduct oneself, and then allows Jews to determine how and what they should think. The Christian sentiment “Believe and ye shall be saved” can be turned on its head in Judaism and is in the book of Jeremiah: “Would that men forsook Me,” says G-d, “if only they kept My law”. Conduct over conviction teaches save, and then believe.

The moderator presents us with ideals that are tangible but unwritten. Does Judaism have a core of beliefs that binds it together? I think so. But these beliefs are not set in stone or written on parchment. No, they are impressed upon the hearts of the Jewish people, passed down generation to generation, and kept alive through actions that will always speak louder than any written words.

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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 always 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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