Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Bound By Love

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to get a feel for the community and learn more about their cantorial program.

I don’t want to overload you with all the details, so I’ll tell you one of the most touching parts of my day, though I admit there were honestly many, including the emotionally charged service led by a second year cantorial student.

During a meeting with one the rabbis, we left campus to grab a cup of coffee and go for a walk on a gloriously sunny afternoon. I love how nature is a hidden gem in the city: the blue skies are almost as elusive as the patches of grass. So when I found myself in a park above street level on a perfectly clear day, I thought I had stumbled onto a little slice of heaven.

The rabbi and I talked about Israel, the chaplaincy program, and a lot of different subjects. It was a deeper get to know you chat than just the typical rundown of name, academic skills, and personal history.

Then, he asked me a question that was simultaneously predictable and surprising: “How do you feel about davening with tallit and tefillin?”

I paused. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to these traditional objects. For those of you who don’t know, a tallit is a prayer shawl that you wrap around your body and tefillin are small boxes containing scripture that are wrapped around your head and arm.

 

Image courtesy of http://coffeeshoprabbi.com

Image courtesy of http://coffeeshoprabbi.com

I told him that tefillin was outside my comfort zone- it was something I’d never tried and honestly a point of apprehension for me. Maybe that sounds silly, I remarked, but it was true. I explained that I understood the ritual in concept. I know that tefillin are there to remind us of G-d’s commandments and that the tradition comes from the book of Deuteronomy: “and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” But I confessed that I had a hard time understanding how these little boxes that I found awkward, cumbersome, and even intrusive added to prayer. How do they create a more fulfilling and spiritual prayer experience? How do they enrich the task that you are doing?

Obviously, there are many answers and interpretations to this question.  All I am offering is one that finally resonated with me.

With regards to the tallit, it acts as a loving embrace and source of comfort. When you pray with a tallit, you feel as though you are surrounded by God’s love. I’ve noticed the connection before. I remember noticing during the part of the Rosh Hashanah service when the men up front pulled their prayer shawls over their heads that they reminded me of David hiding under his fuzzy blanket, and I almost started laughing in shul. This layer of love adds to your prayer experience, and I had no trouble picturing myself held in a loving embrace, as it is a metaphor that I visualize often during prayer.

Up until this point, the rabbi and I had been walking. We had long since left the park. He stopped on the side of the street, and I thought we were about to enter a building. He gestures to his head, illustrating how one tefillin resides smack dab in the middle of your forehead. He then gestures to his bicep. The other is wrapped around your arm and down your hand, the box facing inward towards your heart. This way of wrapping binds your heart, mind, and arm all together. If you are not consulting your heart in your thoughts and actions, you are acting without conviction. All three should always be tied together.

Then he holds up his hand, threading an imaginary strap among the fingers. The prayer recited when wrapping the band around the fingers is beautiful, translating to the following:

I will betroth you to Me forever.
 And I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy.
 I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God.

Coupled with the loving embrace of the tallit, the use of tefillin in prayer is an act of transformative love. Each and every time we put on the tefillin, we are betrothed once again to G-d . Daily prayer with tallit and tefillin becomes a very powerful symbol of unconditional love, and a renewal of connection and a promise to know G-d intimately resides in one’s soul. That is the beauty of these simple objects. I never knew my soul ached to express that relationship through this ritual until now.

Of course, the emotional connection would not be immediate. It takes time to grow accustomed to something entirely new (see my post about the first time I attended Shabbat services. Not a happy camper.) I’m not going to don these objects immediately either because I want to ease into them with a community or mentor who can show me the ropes. I want my tallit to be significant, whether because I make parts of it myself or pick out a symbolic design. I want to explore the text of the prayers that I’m saying as I betroth myself to G-d.

For now, I’m grateful to have a better understanding of a ritual that can be so significant and moving. It’s not that I never had good explanations before this one. I’ve just never found an explanation that connected so well with me. With this new knowledge, I’ll set some tentative goals. I’m hoping to be praying with tallit a year from now and have at least started to experiement with tefillin by the following fall. But who knows? The path of my Jewish self-exploration could take me anywhere.

Leave a comment »

Israel’s Namesake

Hi there, bloggers. I know it’s been a while.

Before I say anything else, I hope you all had a wonderful Pesach or Easter or just a normal week if that’s what it was for you. I was incredibly blessed to be invited to seders in PA for the first two nights, and I truly enjoyed the food and company at both.

Also, there’s some exciting news in my life that I’d like to share with you all. First, I completed my Introduction to Judaism course last month! The last session was bittersweet and also touching- it overlapped with the first class of the next group of students, so I said goodbye and they said hello. Next month, I am *hopefully* going before a bet din… and then on to the mikveh if all goes well! I can’t believe that this milestone in my process is nearly here. Then in June, I start work at a Jewish summer camp as an archery instructor! I’m incredibly excited to both help kids grow and grow myself in our Jewish identities.

As I’ve been telling everyone who asks why I’ve fallen below the radar, both on the internet and in my face-to-face relationships, I over committed this semester. I took on extra classes, extra work hours, extra responsibility. I’ve always been an expert juggler in the past. But I never realized how far was too far until I took on too much. Now, I’m sounding the retreat and carefully extricating myself from non-essential activities (hey, blogging). I’m gritting my teeth and bearing the rest of the burden that remains on my shoulders. Now that it’s spring break, I have a little time to myself again.

Lately, I’ve been feeling stretched thin. Or, as a character from one of my favorite movies says, “Like chocolate pudding scraped across too much ham.” My sponsoring rabbi often tells me about the analogy of the rubber band, and I’m feeling a bit like the rubber band right now with regards to my work. Someone who is new to Judaism will attempt to follow every rule, far over-extending himself and stretching the rubber band nearly to its breaking point. Then, he’ll withdraw back to a spot that is comfortable for him, and the rubber band is no longer in danger of breaking.

However, the rubber band remains taught, maintaining some of that tension even after the newly religious Jew finds his optimal balance. Tension is essential in our lives because it defines our relationship as Jews. The title of Adam’s blog, Wrestling With G-d, nicely encapsulates the wrestling match that ensued between Jacob and the angel of G-d and resulted in his name change to Israel. We question, we bargain, we argue, and we converse with G-d and each other. It’s simply not in our nature to do things to easy way.

So how do we go about creating tension? One rabbi I know infuses tension into his davening. Every week, he changes something about the way that he leads services,whether it’s a new melody or the omission/addition of a prayer. He explained to me that a goal of his leading services is to make everyone uncomfortable at least once so they can grow. Since then, I’ve tried to approach prayer in that way. If I find myself muttering the same words over and over again without infusing them with any new meaning, I’ll switch to reading the English translation. I’ll emphasize a different word. I’ll skip to a part that I normally don’t get to read. When we become comfortable, we stop conversing with God. We stop actively talking, but more importantly, we stop listening.

My observance of Judaism is certainly riddled with tension. I often find myself struggling to find that balance between assimilation into society and identification with the minority. Where does the tension between me and secular world cease being productive and start becoming unrealistic? I don’t want to push myself too much, but then how can I know when I’ve reached that breaking point? I want my life to be Jewish, but I want that expression of Judaism to be both relevant and fulfilling.

I’ve discovered a guiding principle. I truly believe that even the oldest of teachings can be made applicable. I’m not saying I know how, but I think there is a way to make even the concept behind sacrifices at the temple relevant instead of skipping over that section every time and saying “we don’t do that anymore.” Instead of asking, “How does the world fit this mitzvah?” we should be asking, “How does this mitzvah fit in my world?” From there, I think there’s plenty of opportunity to infuse our lives with tension that is relevant and constructive.

It’s good to be back. I can’t promise you will hear from me regularly, but you will hear from me at every opportunity I have. Promise.

4 Comments »

Circumcised Heart

You know how people have second thoughts about marriage the night before their wedding?

I’m having second thoughts about converting. And I haven’t really felt unsure since I first started considering conversion.

It all started when I lost my keys today. I had the key chain, but my ID had fallen somewhere. I was on a tight schedule and would be late if I didn’t find them soon. I peered into the trash, retraced my steps, and checked all my bags and pockets, until I finally emptied out my purse and there it was, slipped into the middle of my planner.

A prayer flashed across my mind before I could stop myself.

“Thank you, Saint Anthony.”

I tried to cover up my thought with a quick Baruch Hashem, but it was too late. No matter how much I chose to ignore it, I had just muttered the Catholic prayer that my mother always taught us to say whenever we find something. St. Anthony is the patron saint of all lost things, so you pray to him when you want to find a missing item and then you thank him when you find it.

The idea that a small part of me still clung to Catholicism really made me question myself. Am I still Catholic, deep down inside? Is there a Catholic woman under all this Jewish stuff? Or a Jewish woman buried beneath a lifetime of Catholic tradition?

Little by little, I’ve felt Catholicism fade from my life. Sometimes, it really hurts to let go. I know I’ve shared all the wonders about conversion with you as I revel in new Jewish experiences, but there are also a lot of dark moments and self-doubt. Sometimes, it feels like a part of my soul is dying. And death, for us overly attached, immortal-loving humans, is painful.

I first felt this loss years ago during Mass at Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the most important holiday. I was by myself in a brand new, unfamiliar parish. I had fallen in love with Judaism, but I was still torn as to where I really belonged. Halfway through Mass, Catholics recite a prayer called the Our Father, and they all join hands. As I clung to hands of complete strangers, I felt incredibly disconnected both physically and spiritually from the chain that linked our hands and souls. I realized for the first time that I no longer believed and I no longer belonged. I almost started crying right there for the loss of that interconnected feeling and for the ostracization from something bigger and more beautiful than myself. I realized that my very self had changed and I no longer identified with everyone around me.

I experienced similar feelings the day after Christmas this year. I participated in some of the same traditions- spending the day with family, exchanging gifts, enjoying a festive meal, and watching Christmas movies- but at the end of the day, I failed to connect to the true meaning of the celebration. It was like I was role playing someone else’s life and could not truly celebrate with joy and gladness this foreign holiday that no longer contained any special reverence for me. And I mourned for the loss of self, that part of a little girl’s heart who sang that Jesus Christ is Lord loud and clear in church and truly meant it. That part of me was gone.

I know this sounds dismal. But if we are honest with ourselves, conversion is painful. Look back to the first converts, Abraham and Isaac. G-d asked that Abraham undergo circumcision at the age of 99. NINETY-NINE, people. That was not a painless proess. He could hardly walk afterwards. While men who convert today also can undergo hatafat dam brit, a symbolic drawing of a drop of blood, women do not have any physical ritual to undergo.

However, all converts must circumcise their hearts. They cut away a part of themselves with which they no longer identity, whether they come from a religious or agnostic or mixed background. G-d removes a part of the heart so that can choose us as his own. And it hurts. It is painful at times, especially as the process is happening.

At this point, my prayer to St. Anthony is nothing more than a habit, like someone who curses or someone who always leaves his keys in a specific place so as not to lose them. It’s okay to still be a little Catholic underneath. You shouldn’t cling to your old ways, but you can still feel the need to genuflect when entering a Catholic church or have a little hand spasm when 6 people around you cross themselves after a prayer. Old habits die hard. Especially the ones sewn into your heart.

5 Comments »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

1 Comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

**************************************************************************************************************

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

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.

1 Comment »