Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

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 #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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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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