Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Religious Upbringing: Christian by osmosis, I guess.
Spiritual Home Base: Central Reform Congregation
A String of What I Thought Were Random Occurrences Led Me to Judaism
The most immediate random occurrence was a suggestion from Brian, my husband, that we spend a year observing the Jewish holidays. It came in 2005, after we had become active members of Eliot Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist community. One of Eliot’s ministers was leading a Bible Study class Brian and I had been going to for a few months. It would have been the fall of that year that we were reading from the book of Jonah, and our minister pointed out that Jonah is often read during the Jewish High Holidays, which were in full gear at that point. Brian thought it would be a grand idea to explore the Jewish roots of Christianity, which in a roundabout way was the basis of our newly found Unitarian faith.
Rewind. Roll Tape from Reagan-Era Redneck Territory
Here’s where I need to go back to about 1985. My parents and I were living in rural northern Florida, in the early ascendancy of the Christian right. I was the brainy overthinker I am today, deeply hungry for an intellectual life but cut off in the pre-Internet world.
I had many aspirations but no mentors, no peers, no discipline, and nothing but vapid, Reagan-era anti-intellectualism around me. Alone in my room, I started teaching myself electrical engineering, then Chinese, then started writing plays. I clutched at pieces of the outside world that came in over the bootleg satellite television we had, one of which turned out to be Barbara Streisand’s movie adaptation of Yentl.
Don’t Think I Don’t Know How Cheesy That Is.
I am deeply uneasy about owning up to this. Nowadays, the movie is more often the butt of jokes than anything else. The name ‘Barbara Streisand’ tends to turn everything it touches into camp-tinged piffle — stock in trade of drag queens and Comedy Central.
But for a lonely, misfit kid hungry for a life of the mind, it was electrifying.
There, in the fictional Polish shtetl, was a culture that revered learning and literacy. Scholars and thinkers were more than isolated eccentrics put up with by bemused parents and teachers. They were central. They were valued in exactly the way I wanted to be valued. I had to find out more.
My high school library had not a single book on Judaism, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have checked it out for mortal fear of standing out more than I already did.
The county library had a few titles, and I checked one of them out. I don’t remember which one it was, but I do remember one singular moment, lying in my room with the book atop my chest. Learning is central to Jewish life, the book told me. It was true, I must have thought to myself. It wasn’t just the movie. I remember a moment of pure joy, a feeling of having found a way home.
I didn’t actively hide my exploration from my parents, but I didn’t look for their support either. I remember riding in my father’s truck at one point, stopped at an intersection with no fewer than three churches on it, when he told me, in a moment of supreme awkwardness, that it was time to talk about sex. I was fifteen, so repressed that I might as well have been a eunuch. Sex was the furthest thing from my mind.
My father asked me if I had any questions. I asked him if he knew where the nearest synagogue was.
I think he asked me to explain my preoccupation with Judaism, and I think I didn’t. My parents were so totally at home in their world that I would never have had the force of will to ask them to come out of it — to, say, drive me to the nearest synagogue, which must have been at least fifty miles away.
I plodded along in my undisciplined way for some time, maybe a year or so. I checked out a book on Jewish humor, which was fine but didn’t give me a lot to work with. I checked out a book on Biblical Hebrew and started teaching myself. I got as far as learning most of the alef-bet before I started to lose focus.
Fast-Forward Twenty Years
I had a few encounters over the years after that — a dinner and havdalah at the home of a gay Jewish couple in Germany, going with a friend to a Shabbat service at a Conservative shul in Toronto. I got a degree in linguistics and some casual exposure to the common grammar of Arabic and Hebrew, with their triliteral roots and throaty consonantism. None of it reawakened the connection I had felt before, and so for a span of twenty years, that was pretty much that.
But when Brian said out of the blue, “Let’s spend a year observing the Jewish holidays,” I was all for it. This was the height of our involvement with Eliot Chapel, and we were giddy with the openness of Unitarian Universalism.
We started with our most obvious resource, Rob, a member of the Reform synagogue closest to where we live. He loaned us A Complete Idiot’s guide to Judaism, which he had given his Greek boyfriend to read, and we took in bits of it along with bits of other things, mostly from Wikipedia, until it was time for the High Holy Days in 2006.
Arriving at the Chase for Erev Rosh Hashanah, I think we were both nervous as hell. Why? I guess I don’t like to stand out, neither does Brian, and we both thought we probably would. It wasn’t until well into the service that I began to understand that we were just fine in the diverse crowd that night.
Still, throngs of people streaming into the Chase on a work night, filling parking lots and wearing tallits and yarmulkes? For me, it was waking up to the knowledge of a parallel world that for my whole life had existed alongside my own without me noticing a thing. I remember feeling like people were giving me a once-over before saying l’shana tovah, which I proudly repeated back, having memorized the phrase just before we got in the car that night.
I remember feeling the weight of the machzor, the order of service, in my hands, and I think we didn’t find out until that very night that the service lasts over two hours. I had known from our readings that Jewish observance was rigorous exercise; I think this was the point when the gut caught up with the head.
If my story had been even slightly different, I would have spent those hours in bemused incomprehension, like a tourist.
As it was, my head was buried in the machzor whenever there was a lull in the action. I parsed out the Hebrew letters, realizing that I still knew most of them. I fished out words I had learned and forgotten, pieced together new ones from their consonantal backbones: b-r-k for ‘bless,’ m-l-k for ‘king’ or ‘rule.’ The pronouns ani, atah, hu, the definite article ha, the way -nu is tacked on to the end of words to say ‘us’ or ‘our.’
It was like being back in graduate school. It was familiar territory, and I loved it.
What I Wasn’t Prepared For
Erev Rosh Hashanah melts together in my mind with the services on the eve and day of Yom Kippur ten days later. Even after three years observing the High Holidays, I still don’t remember which prayers and songs go with which day.
I was prepared to not understand much. I was prepared to just be present with my mind open and my mouth shut.
I wasn’t prepared for the thunder of the liturgy. When Leslie and the choir delivered Avinu Malkeinu, it hit me like an oncoming train. I remember gasping. I remember what I felt in my chest — a kind of freefall, still frozen in place, a sense of the heart breaking open. I remember my eyes filling with tears. If I had given myself total freedom, which I wasn’t about to do in the middle of someone else’s holiday, I might have fallen onto my knees at that moment.
Another wordless moment came with the sh’ma — a feeling of being laid bare, trembling in the presence of something — as waves of sound crashed around me in CRC’s unique custom, all coming together in the words Adonai echad. God is one. Even as I write this, the moment is still real, and my eyes still fill with tears.
I learned the Hebrew word for this. Shekhinah. A divine presence, I have read, that dwells inside people and their gathering places at perfect moments.
Full Steam Ahead. Then Not.
Maybe I talked about my experiences with Brian. Maybe I mentioned them to Rob. Maybe I kept them to myself. I’m not sure. But I went into the Jewish year of 5767 with a seriousness about immersing myself in all things Jewish. Thirty-seven year-old Michael was as fired up as fifteen-year-old Michael had been. I think I even mentioned the ‘C’ word to Brian.
Then in late October, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and everything started falling apart. When I wasn’t working or maintaining a semblance of a life, all my energy was with my mom, and it didn’t matter that I was eight hundred miles away and couldn’t do much at all. I couldn’t concentrate for shit. Square dancing, housework, and pointless web surfing were about all I could manage.
My mom’s health went through its ups and downs in the winter and started unraveling in the spring. She lost her ability to walk, then lost her mind to a mix of grief and side effects from chemo. The end diagnosis came in July. She called me in the first week of August and asked me to come down to Florida. I was on a plane the next morning.
I took with me a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I remembered from the High Holy Days, and on the seven nights I spent alone in my room as my mother lay dying, I started memorizing a line at a time. Yitgadal v’yitgadash sh’mei rabbah. B’almah di v’ra chirutei. I had only a vague idea what the words meant, but they gave me a shred of peace, and I clung to them for dear life. After she was gone and Brian joined me in Florida, I lay in his arms, choking out the words as I cried and cried and cried. V’yamlich malchutei b’chaiyekhon uv’yomeikhon uv’chayei d’khol beit Israel.
Back at home, I clung to the Kaddish and memorized every word of it. I said it at night through my tears, knowing that with the High Holy Days approaching again, I would stand with the other mourners as I struggled to make sense of the shocking absence where my mother had been.
The Heart and the Head
Okay. It could be that my heart was just in a very receptive state when all of this started happening. I can’t rule out the possibility that if Brian had said, “Let’s try Islam!” I wouldn’t have a comparable story to tell with Arabic words instead of Hebrew.
That’s why I need to make clear that the services — all three years of them — touched my mind just as deeply.
In Judaism, I see a marriage of head and heart, two parts of me that have usually been at odds with each other. I see a faith that is as subtle and supple in its philosophy as it is fiercely practical in its decisions about how to live day to day. I see a tradition that is fundamentally – and often surprisingly – open and honest in its struggle to understand the nature of G-d and G-d’s relationship with humankind. I find people who, even as they all come to different ways of looking at things, put a shared, rock-solid sense of ethics at the center of it all.
All well and good. Send a brainy Unitarian Universalist into a Reform service, and that’s probably what he’ll come away with. What came as a total surprise was Judaism’s engagement with the Torah. I grew up thinking of the ‘Old Testament’ as bad news, whole books full of an angry, vengeful god. Unitarian Universalism taught me to replace dread with detached intellectual engagement, but before that first service two years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that it could be greeted with singing and dancing. Gleeful, totally sincere, and totally contagious.
What stuck with me as well, from the very start, was the concept of tikkun olam. Engaging with the world, being a healing presence — all good liberal faiths embrace this, but there’s something different about the approach of Reform Judaism. Maybe it’s a lack of encumbrance. When Christians go out into the field, they take with them a history of atrocities committed in the name of charity. When humanists and Unitarian Universalists go out into the field, they still tend to carry that history with them, along a sense of their own vulnerability and a deference to other people’s beliefs that can be crippling.
Reform Jews go about tikkun olam with a grace and matter-of-factness — sort of a collective ‘of course!’ When I add this to the stand of Reform theology — we are not broken, we don’t need to be saved, and we have everything we need to create a paradise on earth — I see a readiness to engage with the world that I, for one, have had difficulty finding before.
One Small Step…
For a year after my mother died, my grief left little room for anything else.
I went to Shabbat services a few times, especially on the first yahrtzeit of my mother’s death. I still thought about conversion, read bits from the Idiot’s Guide before the sleeping pills kicked in at night.
But as the High Holy Days came around again in 2008, I went at them with a pretty strong sense of purpose. I had the good sense to take a vacation day on Yom Kippur, and through the hours and hours of services, I realized how much had been sinking in. I memorized lines from a few prayers and blessings. The sh’ma. Mah tovu. Modeh ani. Shehekhiyanu.
I grabbed a brochure on adult education and identified the Basic Judaism course as the first destination for people thinking about conversion.
On the way to Rob’s house to break the Yom Kippur fast, Brian asked me if I was still thinking about conversion. I told him I was. Then I think he asked me if I wanted to convert. And I told him I did.
A few days later, I reached out to CRC’s adult education director, and found out I would be welcome to just drop in on the Basic Judaism course. I came to my first meeting on Saturday, October 18th, and was one of four people there. Everyone else was at the huge Obama rally that day.
That Was in the Fall of 2008
For me, as for most people on a conversion journey, the beginning of the process is laden with doubt. Do I really want to do this? Am I doing it for the right reasons? How far am I willing — or even able — to go down this road?
A slice of that conversation happens with pretty much every mitzvah we engage with for the first time — a mitzvah being a sacred commandment, a required observance, a good deed prescribed by the tradition. There are only about six hundred of them. And if you’re walking the Reform path, the internal debate is even more complex, since the tradition asks us to weigh each and every mitzvah on our own internal moral and practical scales.
It’s sorta like trying to do math problems in your head while playing a game of miniature golf. You’re adding and subtracting, weighing and measuring as you move along, and at every corner, you encounter some new experience you have to navigate your way through.
It can be stressful enough if you let it. And if you’re a pathologically self-conscious overachiever, you tend to let it.
And then, when you least expect it, G-d’s grace settles upon you in the midst of it all, stripping everything else away, and you find yourself in moments that words can’t touch. And it all makes sense.
So that’s pretty much where I am, at a point where a fiercely inward-looking process has become more outward-looking. With me being who I am and doing what I do for a living, that means starting a blog.
So welcome, b’ahavah v’shalom.