I'm now working in a new genre, a version of the "what I did on my summer vacation" essay: My Jewish journey. I had to deliver one of these this morning, at my B'Nei Mitzvah class; I'll have to write a more robust version for the beit din for my conversion, and then I have to write a mini-version for the actual Bat Mitzvah in April.
I had a terrible time writing this -- just couldn't ever settle my thoughts -- and so I mostly wrote the whole thing this morning before I presented it at 11:00. And our printer at home isn't working, so I had to read it off my iPad; I've never presented that way before, but it fortunately went just fine.
But here's the annoying thing: We're supposed to practice respectful listening to these journey presentations, by which the rabbi means that we sit in silence for about a minute after the person finishes, and then we ask questions raised by the person's experience and his or her presentation. But the rabbi forgot to remind everyone of that pattern this time, and dadgumit, no sooner had I finished than one woman launched in with tons of unwanted advice for me, including the fact that she hadn't seen me at Torah study this fall and that I really should be attending regularly. So then I felt really defensive and protested that I was teaching an overload this fall and really busy, none of which was the point, of course, and why was I defending myself to her anyway? And she is the coordinator of the class, for heaven's sake! although, sadly, lacking in social skills. The rabbi tried to head her off, and before the next person read her journey narrative, he reminded everyone of the respectful listening protocol.
I was emotional enough afterward that, I'm embarrassed to say, I actually started crying during the last 10 minutes of class while I was supposed to be practicing Hebrew with another student in the class. I don't think anyone else but the other student saw that I was crying, but I felt very awkward. And then I cried all the way home. A total overreaction, but my reaction nonetheless. I gave myself permission not to do any brain work for the rest of the day and spent about an hour outside raking leaves.
D. is super mad at the woman and says people without emotional intelligence really shouldn't be in positions of leadership like that, and she wants me to talk with the rabbi about her. The awkward thing is that this woman originated the adult bar/bat mitzvah program at our Temple and has always been the coordinator of it, so she has a clear and reasonable investment in it, and it would be awfully hard to boot her out in the next iteration of the course. On the other hand, she really does have the sensitivity of a blunt instrument, and as I was fleeing the classroom after class today, I heard her saying to another participant, "You're so quiet in class. You never say anything? What's going on?" -- undoubtedly well-meaning, but again such a blunt and potentially hurtful way to phrase her comment. I assume that we'll get the opportunity to evaluate every part of the program after April, and perhaps I'll say something then.
Anyway, in case anyone is interested, here's what I read this morning:
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My Jewish journey probably has one unique quality to it in the context of our B’Nei Mitzvah class, and that is that I’m the only one in the room who isn’t actually a Jew! Fortunately, that is scheduled to change on January 6, when I meet with the beit din and immerse in the mikvah.
And perhaps it’s because of that fact of not being a Jew that I’ve been struggling to figure out the starting point of my Jewish journey. Was it when I signed up to take the URJ’s 6-month Introduction to Judaism a couple of years ago? Or a few years before that, when I took the URJ’s three-week “A Taste of Judaism”? – an experience that did not go well, and that convinced me for a few years that Judaism wasn’t for me after all and that perhaps that meant there was no religious place for me at all. Or did my journey begin almost 20 years ago when I was trying to decide what religious affiliation I should choose, the group that would most closely mirror my own theological beliefs, and couldn’t find a Christian denomination that came close to my own monotheistic ideas; at that time, I knew a lot of Jewish people, all friends in graduate school, but it didn’t even occur to me to look outside of Christianity for a religion that matched my ideas; all of those friends were New York Jews, with all that that identity entails, and the very notion that someone outside of that identity could “break into” Judaism was simply beyond my ken. Or did my Jewish journey begin a few years ago when my partner and I learned how to play mah jongg through a class at our local branch of the library, and a colleague at school laughed and asked me, “WN, could you be any more of a little old Jewish lady?”
So, instead of thinking more about the past, let me focus instead on where I’m hoping this Jewish journey takes me in the future, once I actually become a Jew in January. After all, I’m hoping that far more of my Jewish journey lies ahead of me rather than behind.
- First, I want to keep learning. The Jewish emphasis on study as a sacred obligation resounds powerfully with me and certainly is in line with my own inclinations toward reading and thinking. I’m currently taking an online course through Tel Aviv University on the Holocaust; I already have my eye on starting Hebrew College’s meah program next year; and I anticipate a joyful path of continuing study. This part of the path is a natural fit for me, a continuation of what I always find myself doing. So let me turn to the parts of my future Jewish journey that I anticipate being more of a struggle:
- I need to keep wrestling with Hebrew and with Torah study. I will confess that it was the thought of learning Hebrew that kept me from even embarking on this Jewish journey for a long time. I thought I was just too old to learn a new language, especially one with a completely different alphabet, and so that there was simply no way I could ever become a Jew. I finally overcame that hurdle in that I decided not to let the language barrier become a religious barrier, but Hebrew itself remains a worrisome challenge. As someone who cares deeply about texts but who is not gifted in the study of languages other than English, I have shed more than a few tears during this B’Nei Mitzvah course, and I anticipate that my days of crying over Hebrew will continue as I make my way on this Jewish journey.
- And that difficulty with language translates for me into what is the least meaningful part of every Shabbat service, which is the Torah reading. The ceremony of the Ark, the Torah scroll, the undressing and elevating and re-dressing the scroll – all of that leaves me unmoved. And yet, the d’var Torah afterward, in which the community wrestles with the text, is one of my absolute favorite parts of Judaism. Indeed, whenever I’ve had doubts along my path to conversion, all I have to do is participate in a Torah study or a d’var Torah to feel that, indeed, “these are my people.” So my difficulties with the Torah service are, first, that it’s making the object of the Torah sacred when for me it is the contents alone that are sacred. It seems to me that we could get more effective study done if we all just had paperback copies of the Torah that we could write in and stick post-it notes on. And I know that such post-it note study is a vital part of Judaism, so it’s simply the treating the scroll itself as a sacred object that I wrestle with. It feels like a historical leftover from the era before the printing press, when the entire community had just a single physical text that they had to gather around. Of course, my medievalist friends (of whom I have a vast number) have long argued that those of us who study mass-produced texts have lost something vital in no longer treating the documents themselves as something rare and beautiful and sacred, and I certainly admit their point. Moreover, I’m firmly of the belief that, just as ideas can inform actions, so can actions inform ideas. So yesterday morning I dutifully held the corner of my tallit to the Torah scroll as the rabbi carried it around, and then I kissed that corner of my tallit. Yes, it felt like rote performance, but sometimes such performance can deepen into something more meaningful.
- And my second difficulty with the Torah portion of the Shabbat service – something I need to reckon with as my Jewish journey continues – is, not surprisingly, about language again, in that listening to community members read aloud the Torah in Hebrew is not itself a meaningful activity for me because I don’t know Hebrew and neither do they; of course, I’ll have to engage meaningfully with that part of my struggle as I prepare my Torah portion for our B’Nei Mitzvah, a challenge that I’m really looking forward to in part because it will force me to reckon with this part of the Shabbat service that still feels alien to me.
- Speaking of Shabbat: I hope very much that one important element of my future Jewish journey will be internalizing the rhythm and celebration of Shabbat. I grew up in a household that firmly taught me that relaxing is what you do after you have done all of your work, a particular work ethic that was only reinforced by years in graduate school in which we were taught that you have never finished your work and thus should never relax. I think that the Jewish model of definitively putting work aside for a day is much healthier, but I haven’t yet internalized it. Not that I’m hard at work every Saturday, mind you … but I always feel like a slacker when I’m not and am very aware of what I’m not doing, which means that I’m never really having that feeling of Shabbat shalom. I think that coming to feel Shabbat is vital for my own psychological and spiritual well-being, as well as making me to feel truly a part of the Jewish people.
- Similarly, I look forward to internalizing the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. I’ll confess that I have never felt less Jewish than during the High Holy Days. Passover I love, and Hannukah I can embrace – but of course both of these mirror important moments in the Christian calendar with which I grew up. The High Holy Days don’t feel like anything more than obligation to me at this point. And I met the obligation, but it felt imposed from the outside rather than coming up from the inside.
But, unlike my anxieties about Hebrew, all of this discussion of what I hope to internalize is not at all angst-y. I am confident that the passage of time, when coupled with ongoing study, intentional observation of ritual, and the deliberate pursuit of both keva and kavanah, will make my future Jewish life a rich one. I’m looking forward to the journey.