Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Rain Rain Go Away

Chag Sukkot Sameach, my friends.

We’ve had quite a lot of rain this week, and I was just thinking about how appropriate it is. As a group of us stood huddled under the skakh (roof) of our sukkah with the rain dripping in and the icing running and starting to pool on our cookies, I thought, “It should rain every year.”

Rain helps us reflect on the impermanence of structures and the fragility of life, which is exactly what we should do on this holiday. We escape the rain at other times of the year by hiding in our homes, watching from behind thick glass windows as the world gets drenched. When it gets under our skin and drips down our backs and squirms its way into our clothes, we experience rain in a whole new, uncomfortably intimate way. I was happy for a little discomfort if it helped me connect to my ancestors and the struggle that they lived through. The Israelites used to live in tents, so the least I can do is spend a couple days in one.

Then came the weather alerts, the storm watches, and the threat of the hurricane. I felt the guilt seeping in. What have I done? All I wanted was a little rain. I began thinking back to the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy three years ago, and I start reconsidering my newly formed relationship with rain. As I stood outside taking down the decorations from our sukkah, chilled to the bone, I came to resent the weather and the sudden harshness of the environment.

Even though the hurricane blew out to sea, enough gusty wind made its way up to New York to demolish our sukkah overnight. What started as this:

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Became this overnight:

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Fragility doesn’t just mean impermanent. What is fragile quickly snaps under too much pressure. If human life is as fragile as our flimsy sukkah (which by the way, was not so flimsy), then there are countless human lives that are also in this demolished state.

Brandon, blogger and photographer behind Humans of New York, captured the brokenness of human life in a haunting series of refugee photographs. These people are the embodiment of fragility- they have lost everything, fled from their homes, experienced unimaginable trials and pain, and don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next.

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Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that I could build a house in Syria. It only had two rooms and a bathroom, but for me it was paradise. We lived there for about twenty years. We did not want to leave. We have young children and no money to travel. But it became impossible to live. Our house was situated between the army and the opposition. Every day the army knocked on our door, and said: ‘Help us or we will kill you.’ They came to the restaurant where I worked and accused us of feeding the enemy. We hid in the cellar while they beat the manager. If the opposition managed to capture our village, we would also be killed. They would accuse us of collaborating with the army. We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” (Lesvos, Greece)- Caption included with photo

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I’m working as an interpreter. I know what these people are going through. My family fled Afghanistan because the Taliban wanted to kill my father. I arrived in Greece fifteen years ago. We came across a river from Turkey. We tried to walk at night but we knew that we’d been caught because we kept seeing red lasers pointed at us. We saw the glow of night vision goggles through the trees. But nobody approached us, so we thought that maybe we had been mistaken, and we kept walking. Eventually we came upon a car along the road that had driven into a ditch. The lights were on and the doors were open. We thought somebody might be hurt inside, so everyone ran toward the car. But it was a trap. The police came swarming out of the trees. I’d been told many times that they’d beat us when they found us. But it was even worse than I imagined. They treated us like animals. They wore masks and gloves because they were afraid to even touch us. It was like we weren’t human.” (Kos, Greece) -Caption included with photo.

Life is not just fragile. Life is broken. Spending time in our sukkah, laughing, enjoying good food, and thinking about life is a mitzvah (commandment) and a wonderful way to spend Sukkot. But if we really open our eyes to fragility and our hearts to empathy, there is no way that we can stand by while the lives of others are destroyed by some inexplicable storm. For those of us who are lucky enough to not have to trudge through the storm on a daily basis, we need to extend an umbrella. Offer a rain coat. Open our homes. We need to do what little we can to somehow fix these glaring injustices.

The values of Sukkot are not archaic. They can help us fix the world we live in right now, today. I was deeply saddened by the stories that Brandon shared, so when he posted a fund to help the refugees, I knew immediately that I needed to contribute. I wish there was more I could do, and my heart aches for everyone affected. We need to be the stability in the storm, whether that means supporting each other emotionally, financially, or physically. Though we break easily, we are all stronger together.

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Happy New Year

The new year starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited! I am welcoming this new year as a Jew for the first time. It feels absolutely stunningly wonderful.

My simple resolution: to be joyful. I resolve to be messier, haphazard, abundant, and beautiful loving proud HAPPY.

To let my feet dangle off the edges of oblivion and proclaim

THIS.

This is me.

Jews are pretty good at hospitality, if I say so myself. I think it’s in our nature. I can think of no better example than the welcome I had at camp this summer.

On July 12th, I casually mentioned to a close friend of mine, an Israeli and fellow staff member, that yesterday was my Jewniversary. She looks at me.

“Your what?”

“My Jewniversary. It’s been exactly one month since I converted to Judaism.”

“You’re WHAT??!”

So that prompted my long explanation and her presentation of two slices of cake at lunch. She got the entire table to sing with her in loud, racuous voices, “Siman tov and mazel tov AND SIMAN TOV” until they finally paused to catch their breaths and gasp, “Why are we singing?”

Lea shouted, “It’s Jenn’s Jewniversary!!!”

They glanced at me with shining eyes and gathered lungfuls of fresh air and began the chorus anew- SIMAN TOV AND MAZEL TOV.

When the singing subsided, they asked more seriously, “Why are we singing?” and I shared my story to an incredibly captivated audience. This prompted my Rosh (boss) to organize a party, which I insisted that I didn’t need.

Nevertheless, after a Shabbat dinner in August, I was led into a room filled with rabbis, friends, colleagues, bunk mates, and people who had somehow come to know and love me within the past two months. Before anyone could say anything, the cantor led the entire group in a song. Avinu Shaaaaalom Aleichem… The first sweet notes of welcome were not spoken but sung, and I couldn’t help but think how fitting.

A few people spoke warmly and passionately about my journey. I received the most precious gifts that night- kind words, hugs, silly anecdotes, and even an acorn from Israel to plant at my own home someday. I fought back the tears that I felt at all of this sudden warmth and love and affection. Then we cut the cake, and a friend of mine shoved piece after piece into my hands, faking a German accident and harkening back to the bubbes we all know and love, “Eat, eat, put some meat on your bones, have another, my darling…” We dissolved into laughter as everyone circled me to offer their warm wishes and congratulations.

So tonight, I welcome the year 5776 in the same way- with laughter and singing, good food and family warmth, emotion and nostalgia. It’s now just past my three month Jewniversary- I look forward to many more in the year to come.

Shanah Tova! May your coming year be a sweet one.

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Head Over Heart

Scene From Above

I stand before my reflection,

Reflecting that this depiction of my self is incomplete,

contemplating tradition.

Tradition.

The word bounces off the tiled walls and ricochets in my head,

mixed with the notes of a fiddler perched just out of sight.

High above my head You sit

looking down at my fiddling thoughts

uncovered and bare for You too see.

So I cover them gently,

hiding myself from your view

and as I slip from your sight the last part of my being slips into place

and I am whole.

Somehow, in embracing a tradition, I become untraditional.

If you can recall my first blog post, I talked about what it was like when I put a yarmulke (said like yah-mih-kah) on my head for the first time. Now, the new year year is approaching the old one is ending, and I find myself coming full circle as I talk about the same subject once more.

See, ever since I’ve tried on my first yarmulke, I’ve wanted to keep it snugly on my head. But at the time, it wasn’t really an option or a possibility for me. I wore one this past Passover at a friend’s house, but that was different. That was following what everyone was doing, taking what was already placed in my hands and following suit.

I thought maybe at camp I would have an opportunity to wear one, and I did. Oh, did I have countless opportunities. But I convinced myself that by the time I found one that I liked and put it on, people were used to me without it and it was “too late.” So I learned how to pray with a talis (prayer shawl) instead, which was equally fulfilling.

Now it’s Friday, the first real Shabbat services and dinner back at school, and I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror trying to decide what to do. The reasons behind my wearing of one- respect before G-d and as a reminder of who I am and what I do- are clear, but still I find myself wavering.

I catch myself thinking, “I’m going to be the only woman wearing one. People are going to ask.” I try to shut these nagging worries out. But then I realize if I’m thinking these things, I can’t be the only one. Other women in my community might also want to wear one, but no one wants to be different. Someone has to be the first.

With new resolve, I take the black clip in my hand, attach the kippah to my head, and walk out with my head held high. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror- my entire self smiling and new and so Jewish and resolved and content. I’ve never looked more like myself.

The aftermath is almost irrelevant. But it’s too nice not to share. I’ll never forget everyone’s reaction when I walked in the room. I felt like someone who has lost 20 pounds or come back with a stunning new haircut. You look so good! That looks amazing on you! You’re my little Jewish girl! The compliments were unnecessary, but they were affirming. I did get one confused person asking, “Why are you wearing a yarmulke?” And my simple response was “because I can.”

Funny to think that while your head is covered your soul is laid bare. A kippah is more revealing to me than a short dress or a Jewish star around your neck. You know right away- hey, she’s Jewish. And that means something to her.

I’ve made a few other changes to my lifestyle this summer. I hope in this coming year, I can have the courage to continue to change for the better. More than that, I hope my comfortability with my Jewishness and my willingness to share gives others the courage they need to change themselves.

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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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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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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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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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