Over a week ago, when I was blogging about all of the things I was putting on the back burner, I said that in my next blog post I would focus on the thing I was moving to the front burner so that I could really steep in it. (That's a weird metaphor, but somehow not a mixed one, even though I think if you were actually going to let something steep it would probably be on the back burner. Whatever.) Famous last words, of course, and I promptly decided to rearrange furniture (a project still in process, but on Sunday I graded and worked at my desk in its new location in the sun room, and I was SO happy there!) and then had a big department head decision to blog through.
So here it is, nine days later, and I'm finally ready to talk about what I wanted to talk about back then. And the thing I'm focusing on this spring won't be a surprise if you look at the "Reading and Exploring" list over on the left-hand side. Yep, this is the spring of exploring Judaism.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an hour-long one-on-one meeting with the rabbi who is teaching the Introduction to Judaism class that I'm taking. We're past the half-way point in the class now, and I'm continuing to read widely and to study Hebrew and I've been to Friday night services a couple of times at what I'm now thinking of as "my synagogue, sort of," and I started thinking, "You know, maybe I could really do this." So I made an appointment with the rabbi, and we had a really great conversation, at the end of which I had a bunch of books I was supposed to read, a reflection essay I'm supposed to write, some practical assignments to do, and an appointment at the end of May to meet again.
Which is to say that I'm now officially a conversion student, which is what you have to be to have a regular study appointment with a rabbi. But we're both really clear about the fact that I may or may not convert -- who knows? -- and that this study is all about my trying to find my way without any particular destination in mind. So I don't think I'm operating under false pretenses or in any way committing to anything prematurely.
And the rabbi and I agree that this is going to be SO fun! He's got a ton of conversion students right now (which must be a very rewarding part of his job, I would think), but he seemed jazzed that I was eager for homework, and he piled on the books, pausing only once to ask, "Are you sure this isn't too much?"
My homework between now and the end of May is:
- to read Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks with Jesus so that we can work through some of my Jesus-as-teacher-rather-than-messiah questions. I'm now three chapters in and actually finding it kind of annoying, for reasons I'll blog about when I've finished it, but it's certainly thought-provoking.
- to read at least six essays in Dov Peretz Elkins's A Shabbat Reader: A Universe of Cosmic Joy and write a personal response to them. I've only read the introduction to this book and honestly find the subtitle a turn-off, but it's an edited collection, so the voice will obviously differ among pieces; I'm sure I'll find more than six that I'm interested in.
- to make a regular Shabbat practice, alternating between Friday night and Saturday morning services and creating a Friday night Shabbat dinner ritual with D. More on this in a minute.
- to learn about and participate in Passover. He told me to read the Passover section of Arthur O. Waskow's Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays and to read at least parts of Ira Steingroot's Keeping Passover: Everything You Need to Know to Bring the Ancient Tradition. I've done this part of the homework already and enjoy both Waskow's and Steingroot's voices. And our synagogue is having a Second Night Seder next Tuesday that D. and I are going to attend. I think that will probably be the entirety of our Passover celebration this year -- I don't see myself cleaning all of the flour out of the house this weekend -- but it is still observing the holiday in a real way.
- Do something -- my choice -- in observation of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 28 and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) on May 6. I don't know what I'll do about the former, but for the latter I started reading last night Ari Shavit's My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit is a self-described peacenik who is against Israel's occupation of Palestine but also has strong feelings about Israel's need to defend itself, so I think this will be a helpful introduction to my thinking more intentionally about Israel, a huge topic about which I have many conflicting ideas and thus have traditionally avoided thinking or talking about at all.
- And in the meantime, keep up with my homework for the Intro to Judaism class. This includes both reading and Hebrew lessons.
That is indeed quite a pile of homework, especially since I'm also finishing up the academic year during this same period. But I am going to bed early at night, eager to pull out a book and read some more. And I'm feeling much more relaxed and focused now that I've put other stuff on the back burner. Well, "focused" is probably too strong a word for someone who has a huge pile of books by her bed and reads a different one every night, but at least I'm not also trying to do other things.
My synagogue's main worship service is Friday night at 7:30, which I'm finding rather difficult to combine with a relaxed Shabbat dinner that same night. There are also Saturday morning services, but most of those are taken up with bar or bat mitzvahs. But once a month there's a "Community Shabbat service" in which there are no bar or bat mitzvahs, and I went to my first one this past weekend. It's apparently always a pretty small service and was even more so on that gray, rainy morning; there were only ten folks there in addition to the rabbi and cantor. But hey, that's a minyan. And I have to say that I *loved* this service! First of all, folks got tapped for the various Torah-reading honors (the Torah readers already knew ahead of time, but these were the other things like reciting a prayer before the reading, lifting and dressing the Torah, etc.), and the rabbi looked around and said, "WN, would you like to open the Ark?" So yay, there's a new experience!
And then after the Torah reading, there was a d'var Torah, a discussion of the Torah passage led by a member of the congregation. And then everyone who was sitting in the pews chimed in; clearly the expectation was that everyone had thoughtfully read the Torah passage ahead of time and had something to say about it. And dang, it was fun! I mean, they do this sort of thing on Friday nights as well, but that's more of a sermon by the rabbi with some space for questions and comments afterward -- still better than a usual sermon in the Christian churches I've been to, where I always wanted to stop and discuss what was being said. But this felt like the discussion I'd have in class, and as I looked around the room I thought, "Wow, I think these are my people." And I certainly had no intention of saying anything at all ... but then I thought the discussion was going a bit off-kilter because people were focusing on the first two parts of the Torah portion and ignoring the third, which clearly threw some of their comments into question, and before I knew it my hand was up and I was chiming in. And people listened and nodded thoughtfully, and then when the rabbi was trying to wrap things up, someone raised a hand and asked a question based on my comment, and the rabbi wound up giving a little 10-minute lesson on ritual purity and impurity (during which he noted, "As WN said," and "WN is quite right that ..."), and the guy sitting behind me wanted to talk more about my comment afterward. Did I mention that it was all SO FUN?!
I'll have to wait another month for the next Community Shabbat service, but in the meantime twice a month there's a Torah study in the rabbi's study. It's always a smallish group (it must be, in order to fit into his study), and a lot of the same folks show up. So that's what I'll be doing this Saturday morning!
There are a lot of other adult education sort of events that go on on a regular basis, which is one of the things that attracted me to this synagogue. And the title of this post refers to a comment someone made on Saturday morning about one of the other classes that's going on, a comment that again made me think, "Hmm, maybe these are my people!"
So that's what's on the front burner for me these days.