This month’s short diary opens with simple gratitude.
With thanks for the breath in my body, the love that surrounds me. For the grace that brought me to this journey. For the freedom I have to take it. For my beautiful husband, whose embrace of this journey has made it sweet beyond words.
For the open arms and many simple graces of CRC. Blessings on your eyes. Blessings on your children. Blessings on the ground beneath you. Selah. (Anita Diamant, The Red Tent)
I took on a second job of sorts in January, teaching a course on the history of the English language at UMSL on Monday nights. I’m about halfway through, and it’s very taxing, as I knew it would be. It’s left me sort of gasping for breath most days of the week, and it has helped me understand more deeply the cost of carving out perfectly good daytime and evening hours for the rest and devotion of Shabbat.
At the same time, I understand more than ever how vital it is. Our pre-Shabbat days are recent enough that I remember running around on Saturdays, trying to get things done and ending up more often than not in front of the television, drinking, because we just needed to stop.
I understand now how much I need the discipline of Jewish observance. I need help remembering to stop, to slow down, to reach out to strangers, to be grateful. I need it like I need air.
It’s been a struggle to keep up, with what still feel like baby steps, with a commitment to prayer. I have so many years of conditioning to overcome. Outside of Shabbat dinner, I almost never think of saying hamotzi until I’ve already shoveled the bread down my throat. Without kiddush, I can go through a whole glass of wine before it even occurs to me to remember how fortunate I am to be drinking it.
At services, my prayers are such a mix of sublime connection and total, fumbling awkwardness. One minute, I’ll be standing and reciting the Kaddish from memory like I’ve been saying it all my life, so centered in its shared observance. The next minute I’ll be fumbling around with the siddur, trying to find the right page and stumbling through a prayer I haven’t touched yet, like Adon Olam.
And That’s Okay.
Please understand what a huge milestone this is. I’m okay fumbling around, appearing not to know what I’m doing, at acute risk of coming across as insincere, with a roomful of potential witnesses.
Maybe it’s because Hebrew is so integral to my experience that I have absolutely no problem standing and reciting words I don’t understand. The rhythms and cadences and earthy consonants feel like prayer to me. Simply being there — chanting in unison with people who, for all I know, don’t understand much more than I do — feels like prayer to me.
At work, sometimes the only breaks I get throughout the day are when I quiz myself on whatever piece of the siddur I’m working on, reciting the words in whispers and jotting down the Hebrew on scraps of paper. And it feels like prayer to me.
Right now, the truth of it is this. I’m happy to spend the rest of my life peeling back the language, word by word, to wrestle with the meaning. I’ve gotten to know the insides of the Kaddish, v’Ahavta, and now I’m in the Aleinu.
Aleinu is one of those prayers that sounds, from just its melody, like it just came off a successful tour of the German beer hall circuit.
But oh, what’s inside of it. Put it into its history, and it crackles with Jewish defiance. For G-d did not make us like the nations of other lands … and our destiny is not the same as anyone else’s.
I struggle with many of the ideas in the fixed prayers in the Siddur, but this isn’t one of them. The idea that the Jewish people have a unique part to play in the unfolding of human history is deeply resonant to me, all the more when it is woven together, as I think it should be, with Judaism’s distinctive insight into humanity: We are not broken. We don’t need to be saved, and we have everything we need to create an ideal world here and now.
If not for the Jews, this idea would have been lost centuries ago. And I can say, without a whisp of exaggeration, that I’ll die happily if my actions in this world add even a tiny bit to the survival of this tradition.
My First Gig as a Would-Be Spokesjew
A moment at work a few weeks ago took me totally by surprise. One of my coworkers, who is also a part-time social work student, asked me if she could interview me in conjunction with a course she was taking.
“I feel a little awkward asking you this,” she said. “I hope you don’t feel uncomfortable, but I could really use the perspective of someone who’s ….”
And then she trailed off, the awkward moment upon her.
“Gay,” I said, thinking I knew the drill.
“No, Jewish,” she replied.
The look on my face must have been priceless.
“I’d be honored!” I said with what must have been unmistakeable cheer. “I’m not a real Jew yet, but I’d still be honored.”
“Oh, you’re not?” she asked. I had told her about the conversion, but it occurred to me then that the only conversion she’d ever witnessed was probably Charlotte York on Sex and the City. All Charlotte had to do, it seemed, was nail a mezuzah to the door of her penthouse.
She still wanted my perspective, though, and over lunch, we talked about Jewish history and the place of present-day American Jews in the shifting racial, political, and economic balance of have’s and have-not’s.
I surprised myself in the way I was able to weave much of what I’ve learned over just the past year or so into a broad narrative overview. We talked about the ways in which, in spite of the deep integration and material success American Jews have enjoyed in the past century or so, the long historical memory of oppression is rarely off the Jewish radar screen.
I talked about the rise of the Reform movement in Germany and how integrated many German Jews felt just before things went so horribly wrong. I talked about the existential fears of Jews living today in other parts of the world — in Israel, Eastern Europe, Venezuela. And I also talked about how, in spite of all this, Jewish communities everywhere continue to be so extraordinarily vibrant, joyous, and sometimes about the only people you can find who believe that with enough hope, love, and hard work, humankind can repair the world.
“At some point, you’ll have a ‘we’ moment,” I remember reading in one of the first books I picked up about conversion. “You’ll be talking about Jews or Jewish tradition, and you’ll want to say ‘we’ instead of ‘they.'”
This wasn’t my ‘we’ moment, but it certainly wasn’t a ‘they’ moment either. Even using the word ‘they’ didn’t feel right at all. When I talk about Jewish observance to my friends and family now, I always feel like I’m talking about something that’s mine. Just a few months ago, I would have fallen over myself to correct my co-worker’s assumption that I was Jewish, for fear of presenting myself as something I’m not. But at this wonderful, accidental moment, I didn’t. I didn’t even need to.
G-d Wrestling. Warning! Strong Language Ahead
My experience of Torah these past few months has been such that I’ve wondered if some plan is at work. I reached peaks of ecstatic spiritual connection in Tevet and Sh’vat, right around the time that the congregation and Maggie’s Torah study group were at the same point — the deeply mysterious enounters between G-d and Moses at the beginning of the Exodus story, heavy with their grand history and promises of redemption, crackling with mystery.
Now, two or three months later, we’re almost at the last, most sadistic of the plagues in Torah Study, and the congregation is in the early post-liberation chapters, with their obsessing on architecture, carpentry, and butchery, their endorsement of murderous religious purges and a hereditary priesthood.
The intense glow of Tevet and Sh’vat is becoming more of a comforatble warmth. And it the middle of it all, I feel I’m moving into my first real — and, as I see it, totally necessary — crisis of faith.
The tradition is showing me, in its three-thousand-year sweep, what I perceive to be two beings. One is just another vengeful Middle Eastern tribal deity, the other a source of infinite compassion for all humankind. One sanctions mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and the slaughter of animals. The other mourns the death of the Egyptians, weeps with the oppressed, and seems to love unconditionally. One demands prayer and groveling supplication like a vicious tyrant, one reaches out to us through prayer and soothes our hearts.
I know which one I think of when I’m standing, tears streaming down my cheeks as I sing the sh’ma. And I know which one I see acting out in the sado-masochistic three-way in Exodus. I have been squirming, in intensifying stages of anguish, since Moses first approached Pharoah. At least half of me has been pleading for mercy on the Egyptians for at least the past two plagues.
And yet I know — I feel every time I hear the sh’ma — that these two beings are one, echad. I also know how ancient and how very basic this anguish is, how central this kind of G-d wrestling is to the tradition inspired by the rabbis. And I don’t want to miss out on a single moment of it.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles, who I heard interviewed on public radio, put it in a way that spoke to me: “The wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.”
The deeper I get into this journey, the more the parallels with marriage make sense to me. Because there’s a point in every serious relationship, I suppose, when your partner does something so repellent that the instinct to flee kicks in. The first poop stain in the laundry, say, or the suddenly remembered ex-boyfriend who pops up for the first time in the middle of a conversation after you’ve already moved in together. The magical stranger who swept you off your feet becomes a big, farting bundle of issues you only get a break from when one of you leaves home. And you think to yourself, Who is this person, really?
My marriage to Brian is the first and so far the only challenging relationship I’ve never walked away from at some point or another when things got rough. It’s the first time I’ve chosen to embrace someone totally, in all his wonders and flaws, and to be embraced in the same way. And I treasure that more than I treasure my own breath sometimes.
Embracing Judaism will be the second such act, and when I understood that, I understood the depth and scope of this journey in a new way.
I’ve been reading a fair amount, this and that mostly. After months of philologically heavy Torah study, I longed for something narrative, so I checked out The Red Tent. It was totally spellbinding and helped me understand a number of things more deeply. The breathtaking scope of what can be counted as midrash, the anguish that must be a part of reading Torah and seeing women’s lives shrunk down, more often than not, to footnotes. I hadn’t understood before that when G-d commands Jacob to destroy the household gods in his family’s possession, he was probably crushing the women’s most sacred objects.
With Pesach approaching in all of its daunting ritual detail, I’ve been reading a volume I found in the CRC library, Keeping Passover, to get ready. I know it’s another of those observances that will only make sense after many repetitions, so I’m glad the week has worked out such that we’ll be going to no fewer than four sedarim: first night at the home of Brian’s supervisor, who’s a member at Shaare Zedek, the second night at CRC, Saturday again at CRC with the LGBT group, and Sunday at Rob’s.
As the holiday gets closer, I’m getting swept up in the knowledge that Pesach is one of only two times in the year when just about the whole Jewish world — secular and observant, liberal and conservative — comes together in one grand stretch of days, one singular focus.
In the meantime, one thing has taken me totally by surprise this month — my wonderful new companion on the conversion journey: Brian.
I’m not sure when this happened, but at some point in the past few months, Brian became less the groaning but patient spouse, for whom Judaism was just one relative inconvenience after another, and more an explorer in his own right. Somewhere along the line, the sh’ma touched him as it touches all of us with its beauty and mystery.
Brian has been seeking out readings on his own, asking when the next Thursday Lunch-and-Learn is. He gave up a birthday gift card so that we could buy our first JPS Tanakh and made the official move for us to start the process of becoming members of CRC.
“I’ll probably convert,” Brian has said a few times in the past month as he’s wrestled with the same concerns I have. Am I really serious about this? Am I getting into it for the right reasons? Brian was confirmed as a Methodist when he was a teenager, so he comes at these questions with a story that’s quite different from mine.