Coming Out … Again!
I ‘came out’ to my immediate family over the Thanksgiving holiday by letting them in on the conversion. We all live in four different states and find our way to each other only a few times a year. I had no reason to think I’d encounter anything close to rejection, but it was still something I wanted to do in person.
I talked to my father and each of my two sisters separately, kicking off the conversation by asking them if they’d noticed Brian and I had been observing the Jewish High Holidays for the past few years.
Each of them had, and when I told them I was taking the step of converting to Judaism within the next year or so, they each came back with the same “if it makes you happy,” sentiment.
The younger of my sisters asked if I was going to “start wearing one of those things” on my head. “Not all the time!” I answered.
Only Brian laughed.
So now it’s out there, this big part of my life that they have, at best, a marginal interest in.
I have so many hangups when it comes to talking about my life with people who communicate marginal interest in it. And I’m so spooked by the slightest whiff of possible rejection, so I tend to clam up most of the time.
Which leaves “What are you doing this weekend?” a long way away from the casual question it used to be.
“Well,” I might tell them, “I rearranged my schedule at work so I can go to a Friday afternoon Torah study group. Then I’m going home to clean the house and prepare all the food we’re going to be eating for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All before sundown. Then it’s light some candles, say some blessings, then three or four hours of services at our synagogue. Oh, and I probably won’t answer the phone until sundown on Saturday.”
Even since Thanksgiving, the best I can do most of the time, I’m afraid, is “Oh, nothing special.” Very, very disappointing.
On December 20th, Brian and I went on a ten-day trip to Florida, first visiting my father for two days, then driving ten hours south to Key West, where we stayed for about a week with Brian’s family, then back to spend another two days with my father. I was very rushed in the days leading up to the trip, but I had been planning to find a Judaica shop in which to buy a menorah for us to take with us. I didn’t get myself organized enough to find one and go there, and in any event, I would have felt funny going by myself, grabbing a menorah, and rushing out again.
So I ended up at Target instead.
The item I got there wasn’t packaged as a ‘travel menorah,’ but it was so small it might as well have been. We stuck it in the suitcase and unpacked it on our first night in Key West, where we spent the Christmas holiday with Brian’s parents, sister, and niece. I’m quite close to all of them, but this was my first time seeing them again since I started on the path towards conversion.
They were very nice, Brian’s twenty-three-year-old niece in particular, as I fumbled with the candles and the xeroxed blessings. I tried to pique their interest by relating to them that Chanukkah commemorates events that came out of great suffering and violence, and that much of it is about Jewish defiance and identity in the face of a powerful non-Jewish society.
We lit candles on each of the nights we were there, and one night I even made latkes. I think they enjoyed it all, even if they didn’t show much of an appetite for the depths of meaning.
And me? I loved those little candles. I loved their simplicity and their warmth. I loved knowing that anyone who walked by our window would believe there was an observant Jew inside. And I loved educating the family about the fact that Chanukkah isn’t just the Jewish Christmas.
On the Friday we were in Key West, we lit Shabbat candles and said kiddush in the sand.
We arrived back to my father’s house on the last night of Chanukkah, and that’s where I let go.
A bit of history here. Everyone in my family has always perfectly happy with only the television running, cold beers in their hands, and friends and family over to visit.
What I brought to this was a deep-seated unwillingness to assert my need for something different, my need to be something different, so that meant everything important to me happened when I was alone in my room.
And there I was that night, a thirty-nine-year-old would-be Jew with my loving and supportive husband by my side, more secure in myself and more plugged in to what’s important to me than I had ever hoped to be growing up in that house.
So what did I do? Did I ask my father to set aside some time and space for Brian and me to honor this one important observance? No. And somehow, going back to my old room, lighting the candles alone with Brian just seemed hollow, stupid even.
Just as stupid, alas, as I felt sitting in my father’s truck, twenty-plus years prior to that, asking if he knew how to get to the nearest synagogue.
So I shoved the menorah back into my suitcase, and opened up a beer. My father could be forgiven for not noticing how conflicted I was. I didn’t even tell Brian until after the moment had passed. I did what it took to not stand out, to not ruffle feathers, to not appear to have a need.
It may not sound like much, but I hate that I let something our first Chanukkah slide because of unprocessed teenage angst. I hope I do something different, something better the next time, such as not letting my hangups stand between me and what’s important to me.
We had Shabbat #4 after we got back, and I like the way it went. I had the day off and was able to cook lots of yummy food and still make it to Torah study, where I participated more than I usually do.
We had our friend Rob over for dinner, and he and I ended up sort of leading the blessings together. I knew the words, he knew the words and the melodies, and he rolled off the translation when I paused to think about how I felt about the English gloss of olam. More on that below.
We spent time talking about Jewish observance, the practicalities of Shabbat, and theology. I talked my conflicts with some of the sentiments in the blessings I’m learning (again, more below). We talked square dancing, caught up on Rob’s stories of his pet bird, this and that, here and there.
In the back of my mind, what I think of as my ‘Jew-o-meter’ kept running. Am I thinking and feeling the right things for Shabbat? Is our conversation pleasant enough? Did I say the blessings right? How am I supposed to learn the melodies when everyone seems to sing differently anyway? And do they have to sound like German drinking songs?
For the first time, I think, I let go of all that and let my eyes rest on those two little candles. Breathe in. Breathe out. Look at my friend. Look at my beautiful husband. Pour some more wine and just relax.
We’re moseying through the Moses story at CRC’s Torah Study. Each week, I understand more deeply what an extraordinary group assembles on Friday afternoons, how deep some of the bonds are.
In any given week, we’re about half retirees and half working people. About half born Jews and Jews by choice. About half black, half white. And no one seems afraid to bring up something off the wall, something personal in response to any given passage.
Our facilitator keeps it all going, I think by modeling what I understand to be classic ways of interacting with the Torah. Reverential, but not afraid to question, to call G¤d to account, or to crack a joke. Scholarly, but not to the point of making scholarly work out of it. Open, but in a way that magically steers us clear of frivolity without anyone feeling like they’re being shut down.
And she’s helped me understand what I didn’t get when I first started and would likely lose sight of if I sat in her chair. Torah study is as much about building bonds between people as it is about wrestling with the text. It’s as much about the life of the community as it is about studying Torah for its own sake.
As for me, I’m starting to feel like a regular, and I can tell that for as long as I study Torah, my biggest challenge is going to be not letting my inner academic take over. I have ten years of training in textual criticism, philology, and linguistics — enough, in short, to suck the joy out of pretty much anything.
By the week of Shabbat #4, I had started a small research project connecting the tribal names in the early parts of Genesis to the archaeological and linguistic atlases of the Near and Middle East of the Bronze age. I learned, for instance, that the Elamites referred to in Genesis spoke a language related to modern Tamil, Malayalam, and other languages of southern India. The Hittites spoke a language distantly related to English, a fact that was only discovered in the early 20th century.
And then I woke up. What the hell was I doing? Judaism is not graduate school. Torah is not just some pickled ancient text like the ones I cut my teeth on as a budding academic. I could bury myself in the Torah’s linguistic and archaeological arcana, and it wouldn’t bring me a damn bit closer to understanding why it matters to people.
Along with this smack in the head, something Susan said at our December meeting really stuck with me. I don’t recall her exact words, but they were in response to my fumbling account of how, for lack of a better word, weird the Torah can be, the way it is so obviously stitched together between jarringly different sources, the way the characters are drawn so minimally, so paradoxically.
Rabbi Susan pointed out just how deeply human it all is. No one tries to gloss over the obvious seams, because the Torah is sublime and imperfect, grand and petty, otherworldly and flesh-and-bones. Just like we are.
The Abrahams and the Sarahs fumble about in their flawed ways, encounter the divine, and live out their messy, wrenching transitions from it.
Just like we do.
Looking at Torah with a copy editor’s eyes, I could have wrestled with it for a lifetime and not understood as much.
Last week, when the Torah was carried past me, I reach out and touched it, and then touched my fingers to my lips, for the first time. And I felt such sweetness.
When I was translating the kiddush on that first Shabbat of 2009, I didn’t pause on olam for nothing.
That phrase in the brachah, melekh ha-olam, has me very conflicted, and I know I’m not alone.
Let me be clear about one thing before I say anything more. I believe in G¤d now, enough to drop vowels to communicate my awe and respect. I didn’t before I started down this path. Far from it! During large stretches of my adult life, I went out of my way to declare myself an active atheist.
What changed? In part, it was the encounters I describe elsewhere on this blog. Feeling the depth and nuance in Jewish theology — the centrality of being a G¤d wrestler, being yisra’el — took me most of the rest of the way.
But the G¤d I believe in is the one I find more in services and contemporary writings than in the words of some of the prayers and blessings I have committed to learn.
I know most progressive Jews live in this same struggle. I guess I’m just working out my version of it, trying to do it justice.
I just don’t believe in a being that created every leaf of grass and all of my internal organs just as they are, so it’s hard for me to say prayers like modeh ani, which I try to say every day, and mean each and every word.
‘Returning my soul to me?’ I don’t sincerely believe that our souls go anywhere when we sleep, and while it’s easy to understand the prayer as a more encompassing expression of gratitude, I have twenty years of experience in obsessing about words. So I end up having the same conversation with myself over and over, and I rely heavily on the Hebrew to make the medicine go down, so to speak, and give me the connection to the tradition that I find so powerful.
I’ve always had an interest in science, and I believe, as many scientists do (especially John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist turned priest), that G¤d did something much more clever than fashion everything around us just as we see it. What if G¤d created a universe that created itself, and still does, according to the laws of physics that G¤d ordained? That would leave enough room for living beings to evolve brains big and subtle enough to try to understand it all … and feelings deep enough to encompass awe and love.
But I don’t think it could have left room much room for parting seas or choreographing human events on the scale that we usually concern ourselves with. That makes it hard to translate melekh ha-olam as ‘the king of the world’ or ‘the ruler of the universe.’
But this is why I love Hebrew so much. I don’t have to translate olam as ‘world,’ or ‘universe. It can just as easily mean ‘eternity’ or ‘forever.’ And that’s where I can see a living, loving G¤d acting as a Sovereign, as the Ruler of all that is eternal.
Head and Heart
You see that when I wrestle with questions of faith, I start getting wrapped up in physics, probability theory. More things that draw me into my own head and would keep me there, analyzing and obsessing, if I let them.
This is the half of Michael that, when left unattended, turns cold, analytical, cynical, distant. The half that at one time or another has come close to breaking every relationship the other half of Michael holds dear.
But it is also still half of me, so central to who I am that I can’t just wish it away. For better or worse, I was born to be a learner of things, an overthinker by nature. But like everyone else, I was also born to love, and to be loved, and to engage the world in love.
This is what is so special, so precious to me that I tremble as I write the words.
Judaism has a treasured place for both those halves of me.
The lonely, misfit kid who locked himself in his room, pining to be loved for who he was — for everything he was — can finally come home.
Brian was sick on the first Saturday after we got back, so I went to services at CRC on my own. I started crying during Avot v’Imahot and I didn’t stop for quite a long time.
Why this happens is so hard to put into words, and I’m trying at a moment when the feelings are a little distant. But this is how I know G¤d exists. I feel shechinah breaking my heart open, and all I can do is cry.
And on this day, I walked through the doors feeling that the conversion process can be isolating at times. Pretty much everywhere I go besides a synagogue, I’m the only one with Judaism on my mind. When I’m among Jews, I’m still something of an outsider. As welcoming and embracing as CRC is, I’m still new to the place and the traditions, and without something like a one-on-one coach with mindreading abilities, there’s no way for that to not be isolating sometimes.
Our trip was also isolating. The only would-be Jew in the family, struggling to keep up with observances that are mostly new to me, among people who have only known me as someone with no connection to Judaism. It all came amid moments of disassociation, where if I became immersed in a book or a movie, I would find myself coming up for air, momentarily forgetting where and when I was, and suddenly remembering that, oh yeah, it’s late 2008 and I’m becoming a Jew.
Back at CRC, surrounded again by people and tradition, the soft melody of Avot v’Imahot came over me. I just opened up and wept. It felt so familiar and embracing, even though I’ve probably heard less than a dozen times.
I stood there, sobbing through words I didn’t even know six months ago, I felt some piece of what it must mean for thousands of generations of Jews to have embraced the fragmented, flawed characters in these stories.
In one perfect moment, I felt like I got it. K’dushah. Taking the divine and the human, the sublime and the flawed, into your arms — and loving them equally.
How could I not cry?
13 Tevet 5769. I think I’m in love.
I started understanding back in December or so just how life-altering this process is. Converting to Judaism is easily on a par with getting married, having a kid, changing careers, or moving to a new country.
Of all these things, I think getting married best captures what the process feels like to me.
I think of the time from 2006 to 2008 as a sort of dating phase. Judaism and I went out a few times, had some nice meals, exchanged a few phone calls. Nothing serious. Things started getting serious in September. We stopped dating other people in mid-October and started spending more and more time at each other’s houses.
Right now, in the middle of Tevet and the first weeks of January, I feel like we’re poised to move in together. And it’s really emotional.
There’s a time in the early months of most serious relationships, I suppose, when you wake up next to your still-new partner and think, “Who is this person, really?” You mourn a little for your life as a single person. Your friendships from before are challenged by the new arrangement. You may feel a little boxed in at times. It’s taking work to come to terms with your partner’s moods and quirks.
I experienced all these things when Brian and I first got serious with each other, which was happening in exactly this season sixteen years ago. I had doubts. We both did.
In the spring of that year, I went away for a week or so and felt like one of my arms had been chopped off, leaving a vague phantom limb in its place. Then I came back and had him in my arms again, and a wave of relief washed over me. Then I just knew.
I think something like this happened that day during Avot v’Imahot. I came in with my doubts, with my cranky aches and pains. And just like in that moment with Brian, I took it all into my arms, and the relief was profound and overwhelming and beautiful beyond words.
First Comes Love, When Comes Marriage?
I’m writing now on the Sunday night after the tremendous experience of CRC’s spiritual enrichment weekend. So many things happened that took me by surprise. One was a point at the beginning of t’fila on Saturday morning — realizing that my normally crippling self-consciousness was gone.
It came back, as it always does, but before it did, there I was on my feet, swaying back and forth, grinning from ear to ear as I belted out Adonai s’fatai tiftach, ‘Adonai, open my lips.’
As late as a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have seen that coming in a million years.Another was a point on Monday, just before the last session with Rabbi Rami. The room was filled with people, only a few of whom I knew. Understand, in any other place, even a short time ago, I would have been crawling out of my skin. I would have felt like a great interloper, a fish out of water, a poseur just waiting to be exposed. These are the things I tend to do to myself at such moments. But this time, surrounded by strangers and one of only a handful of people not born into the tradition, I was totally, utterly without tension.
It’s hard to communicate how extraordinary this all was. But I think I can articulate clearly the two things I took away.
First, CRC is home. I will still explore Jewish life through other congregations, but when someone like me experiences something like this, it’s as good as a sign from G¤d. Burning shrubbery of some kind would not have seemed at all out of place.
And to have my husband beside me, welcomed, valued, and totally included in his own right– well, there just aren’t words for how precious that is.