Intellectual integrity, Jews for Jesus: get you some

I jinxed myself.  Just the other day I was thinking “Wow, the commute in DC was so much more frustrating–no fixed schedule, TONS of tourists, and Jews for Jesus.”  Well wouldn’t you know, they appeared yesterday at my BART station.

I don’t understand what they hope to accomplish.  There is not a soul in this country who is not aware of Christianity (oh how I wish followers of other faiths could say the same in reverse), of Jesus, of Jesus’ followers. There’s a church on just about every corner–and sometimes more than one.  If people were interested in learning more about Jesus, they know exactly where to go.

Believing in Jesus as Christ is a choice, it’s a faith, it’s a belief.  It is a Christian belief, however.  Let’s be real: you can’t believe in Jesus Christ and be a Jew at the same time.  Religion in the United States–based on yes, the Christian model–is not a four-part identity of religion/tribe/nation/culture.  Our market economy of religion does not care where your currency comes from, so long as you make your purchase where you feel most at home.  You can be Jewish ethnically but be a practicing Buddhist.  You can be a Jew nationally, but believe in Christ.  But have some pride in your faith and stop tarnishing the name of your former religion and your forever-culture/nation/tribe with games of semantics.  Own your choice.

The 30th Jewish Film Festival

I didn’t know San Francisco has the distinction of being the first Jewish Film Festival in the US.  What I do know is that pulling into the Castro and seeing the normal assortment of residents and their pooches mixed with tzittzit, kippot, and bagel and lox spreads was quite the humorous sight.  I know there are Jews who are gay, hell, I even know there’s a synagogue that caters to the LGBT community in San Francisco.  I’m used to gay neighborhoods, and I’m used to Jewish neighborhoods.  I’m just not used to Jewish-gay neighborhoods.

I saw three movies on Saturday.  Te Extraño from Argentina was another film about the Dirty War.  If you haven’t seen previous films on the subject, I recommend it.  And while I realize the production of these films can be therapeutic, I have to wonder if Argentina is moving on from this epoch, healing, and working to build the institutions that will prevent it from reoccurring.  I know my year there in 2006 would tell me yes, but I do not understand why the film industry seems to be lagging a year or two behind.  I didn’t connect to these characters as well because I found the protagonist immature, the older brother naively idealistic, the grandmother annoying in her favoritism, and the mother too much like a door mat.

Ilusiones Ópticas was from Chile, and was much better than I had anticipated it to be.  You almost have to see it twice to catch everything–while the director has the characters in the foreground moving along the plot, you’re missing hilarious scenes in the background.  I liked how the various subplots came together in the end; though I wish the connection between the characters had been a bit stronger.  The ending was way too vague as well, but perhaps that was the intent given the message.

Saviors of the Night is your stereotypical “Christians helped save some Jews” during World War II.  Interesting, but highly predictable.

The festival runs for two more weeks, and I hope to put my pass to good use.

The New Kid on the Block

I went to one of the congregations I had researched online for Kabbalat Shabbat services last week, and I really enjoyed it.

In the past, I’ve tried to hide in the back, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. I could come for services, and slip out before oneg. I was too embarrassed to say “I’m here to try you on for size and maybe ask your rabbi to sponsor me!” This time, I’ve lost a lot of my former anxiety or nervousness and decided to alter my approach: I was so bold as to sit in the front and introduce myself to the other congregant already in the pew and the rabbi when I got there. I didn’t remember there being a female rabbi on the staff, and she confirmed my memory by announcing that the congregation’s rabbis were on vacation, so she was pinch hitting.

It was the middle of summer, so of course attendance is really low right now—half of the people were out of town guests from New York, Boston, and Europe, and the substitute rabbi made sure to introduce herself to everyone and ask if they were here to say kaddish.

It’s strange to see how much Hebrew I’ve forgotten, and yet how familiar the liturgy’s patterns still remain. Her d’var Torah was amazingly simple in content, but complex in structure. She connected the people-wide fast of the week in remembrance of all of our historical losses to the comfort G-d orders us to receive this Shabbat—nachamu, nachamu, ami. Solidified by a repetition in the Torah of our mitzvot, we are encouraged to turn inward and to prepare for the Days of Awe, when G-d reveal’s G-d’s greatness, and goodness, and forgives us, grants us life, and starts the cycle again. I loved it.

The thing is though, I still struggle to take JOY in Conservative services. I absolutely loved Reform: it left me each week with a little pep in my step, with an emotional and spiritual hug. I loved singing along, I loved the small chapel filled with familiar faces, I loved the exuberance.

I don’t get that feeling from Conservative services. They’re a lot more serious in nature, which ironically enough, I would think I enjoy MORE. I’m pretty serious, pretty simple, and pretty to the point—it seems like we’re a good match. Part of the problem, I know, is that I can’t keep up with the Hebrew in Sim Shalom. It’s incredibly defeating and frustrating to want to participate fully, but to be forced to stay mute while reading the English silently or making a fool of yourself stumbling along in a very foreign tongue. I need to learn Hebrew stat. The other part is that while I read the English translations offered of the Hebrew, I feel like I might as well pull out an ArtScroll siddur. It is not gender-neutral, and it employs so much of the King James language and imagery I don’t like about my grandparents’ church that it’s simply off-putting to me.

Yedid Nefesh is more than enough to make me stay, however. I remember the shortened chorus version we sang in Reform services, but Holy Moses, it doesn’t even begin to compare with Conservative services. I absolutely love this version. It’s the first thing I want to know how to read in Hebrew.

I stayed for oneg and talked to an older couple for a while. She is black, so I suspected she converted, but did not ask because, well, we’re not supposed to remind people of their status. She volunteered it though, through our conversation on travel, and she recommended some books to me. She’s this quirky, very well read woman with a bit of a kick in her; it’s just so funny to hear Yiddish word after Yiddish word drop so naturally from her mouth as though it were the language she grew up hearing. Her husband is a bit quieter, and seems to have resigned himself to his fate as her mate. They were adorable.

I liked the new, contemporary, building, the rabbi, the people. I liked the size of the congregation, I liked that they offer transliterated versions of Sim Shalom (though I didn’t realize that until after), and I like that I was finally “brave” enough to linger during oneg without feeling cornered.


Mikvah Bound: o i c what you did there

I’ve been involved enough with the online conversion community to recognize that bloggers documenting the process eventually reach an identity crisis after immersing in the mikvah. Their title—poignant or witty—correlated with the immediate goal of conversion; now that they are Jews, do they keep the same blog, or do they create a new one to document the next phase?

I wanted my blog to be able to grow with my identity, accommodating different facets and thus I purposely crafted a pun as my title. The mikvah is my short term goal, representing the end of the conversion process and the beginning of one’s life as a Jew. It is a declaration of my destination, as those embarking on a road trip might scribble “California bound” on a dirty car window.

But the mikvah is not used for conversion alone. Once I emerge from the mikvah, I will be bound to the identity, to the history, to the people, to the mitzvoth. I will acknowledge my rights and responsibilities as a member of the tribe, I will struggled to determine what it means to live righteously with Torah as my compass.

And one day, G-d willing, it will be my destination again. Before Jewish communities built kosher butchers, synagogues, cemeteries, and yeshivas, they were required to build a mikvah. Brides and grooms dunked before their weddings and wives maintained family purity with monthly visits. Some individuals even went before the Days of Awe. I want to build a Jewish home, grounded in my love for G-d, Judaism, and my eventual husband, to nourish whatever children G-d graciously entrusts into our care.

I used to view monthly visits as an archaic, misogynistic practice declaring female bodies inherently ritually impure. Whatever reasons, religious or merely religious-cloaked, were offered in the past for continuining the practice, I can see it taking on different meaning in my life. I can see it as a tie to my beginnings as a Jew, and my continued affirmation their people are my people, their G-d my G-d.

Rabbi H.: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

I told my bff about my research into Jewish congregations in San Francisco last week.  I told her how excited I was about finding one that I felt I could really connect with, one whose rabbi I was excited to meet, whose process I respect.

And then she told me she wanted to contact my rabbi too.

Yes, that’s right, my rabbi.  The rabbi I haven’t even spoken to yet.  The rabbi I’m not even sure will agree to sponsor my conversion.  The rabbi I haven’t listened to on Friday night.  The rabbi I haven’t even accepted yet.

I don’t know why her announcement bothered me so much.  I love her like a second sister.  She befriended me in sixth grade and has jumped at all my joys and held my hand as we navigated all my sorrows.  We’ve talked about every subject imaginable, we’ve survived college on separate coasts, and we’ve already bequeathed our not-yet-conceived-children to each other should some horrible accident ever happen.

My path to Judaism began with her at my side.  We explored the Holocaust and introductory texts together.  She’s hosted my Chanukah dinner and shared the reading at my Seder.  I know her to be an upstanding, moral individual who strives to do good.  She would be an asset to any spiritual community.

Why was I so territorial? I didn’t get it.

Was I proud about my conversion? Was I using it as a source of arrogance, something to brag about, to set me apart from others as something unique and interesting to share at parties?  I don’t think so.  I respect the right to decide for one’s self the religious identity, or lack there of, that best suits the person.  I’m always delighted to meet other converts, Jewish or not.  We share a common bond of embarking with timid steps, struggling to embrace our family and new homes, and desiring a level of perfection often not understood, and even scorned, by those born to our faiths.  No, it wasn’t pride in being different.

Was I too independent, unwilling to share the process?  I remember sitting in sessions before, annoyed and frustrated.  I didn’t understand why the rabbi let one individual lead us down a tangent.  I grew suspicious of non-Jews’ intents to “learn” with their frequent criticisms of Judaism and audible lauding of their own faiths.  I shut out the sections tailored to engaged converts that failed to acknowledge how the same topic applied to single converts, if it did at all.  I lamented the rudimentary nature of the curriculum, longing for more depth, for knowledge that could not be acquired by reading any of the numerous introductory texts on the market.  I would welcome her insight, her different point of view, her desire to dig deeper at class.  No, it wasn’t independence.

On the BART ride home hours later, it came to me.  I had played by the rules.  I had respected Judaism’s conversion process—study, beit din, mikvah—and worked to overcome the resentment at the simple conversion requirement of other religions—a declaration of faith, maybe followed by immersion.  I cried when I had to stop my third time, afraid that future attempts would taint my sincerity in the eyes of the beit din I would eventually encounter.  I dealt with the awkward stares, questions and silences that revealed Jews’ strong desire to ask me what on earth made me want to convert to Judaism, but who refrained out of politeness.  I pretended to understand why I was good enough to go out on a few dates with, but not good enough to have a relationship with to Jewish men who only dated Jewish women.  I carefully crafted my announcements to family members, respecting their beliefs while trying to explain my decision.  I came to realize, to truly understand and not just mutter for appearance’s sake that Judaism wasn’t going anywhere.  There’s a process, there are rules, and I will obey them.

I realized that what bothered me was that she wants Judaism on her own terms.  She wants to be able to keep the practices of her Indian background.  She refuses to give them up because it’s so hard to separate the Hindu religion of her mother from the Hindu culture of her parents, family, and support network.  She won’t give up Ganesh, she won’t give up raki, she won’t give up Diwali, she won’t give up her gitas.  She respects the Christian theology of her godmother, of the selfless Christ-figure she has studied with friends in divinity schools.

When she approached a rabbi in college, he told her she would have to give them up.  She refused.  She said they were such a part of her that she couldn’t part with them, even if she tried.  To some extent, I understand.  I think it would be similarly hard for a Jew to cut out the religious, cultural, national, and tribal aspects of Jewish identity, to keep some, and to give up others.  I understand myself, because I know my culture is heavily American-mutt-Christian, and that I feel like such an outsider to Jewish humor, linguistic norms and family life.  My culture will never become American Jewish.  At best, it will be a bridge or a hybrid.  I should be empathetic to her internal struggle.  But I’m wasn’t.  I’m not.

The five-second decision to talk to “my” rabbi revealed a sense of non-chalance about religion, about the conversion process, and honestly, yes, my struggle to reach the mikvah.  She cracked a joke about being ale to tell people she was a Hin-Jew in a year and the kinds of looks she would get.  She made the course sound like the skill class you would take to learn to make French sauces–a fun, light-hearted way to get out of the house on Wednesday nights.  I realized this “hobby” approach to a process I had started and stopped three times, of my dedication and resiliency.  And then I realized, I was judging her.  I was self-righteously judging her and I needed to stop.

I can’t know what’s inside her heart.  I can’t know what discussions she’s had and with whom.  I can’t know what decisions she’s made, what research she’s done, what a beit din will consider sincere enough.

I am quite thankful to have caught myself in this mental process; it will help me to evaluate other behaviors and actions on Yom Kippur.  It will prompt my to ask for forgiveness of not only her, but any others I realize I have wronged.

May she forgive me.  May G-d forgive me.  May the rabbi guide us as individuals, on our own unique journeys, through our own struggles, recognizing our distinct strengths and backgrounds, wherever our destination may be.

And may she roll her eyes at the same obvious question or glib comment in class with me.

Shul Shopping: Thank you, come again

I’m by no means a novice to the shul shopping experience.  After all, this is my fourth attempt to complete the conversion process.  I’ve gotten used to the experience by now: careful elimination, nervous composition, and finally anxious mutual inspection.
The liberal Rabbi closest to me in my college years outright refused to do conversions: he was simply too busy in a growing congregation.  The adamant declaration stung, but it was in his Little Rock congregation that my love for the liturgy was first nourished.

My choice to familiarize myself with Houston’s Reform rabbis in 2007 was not so much an affirmative decision in Reform’s favor so much as a rejection of the Conservative movement.  The one paragraph on the USCJ’s website devoted to conversion only addressed those about to commit the “horrible crime” of intermarriage.  Nowhere did it even mention those gerim, like myself, who came to Judaism alone.  I could forgive a congregation making this oversight (perhaps its institutional history had only encountered partnered converts) but it was truly reprehensible in my eyes for a national organization to hide behind the cloak of Judaism’s anti-proselytizing nature in order to not roll out the welcome mat to all those who sought shelter.  Well, if Conservative Judaism didn’t want me, then I didn’t want it.

To Reform I went!  I considered the two large congregations in Houston.  No distinguishable difference from my eyes, so I decided to attend services at the one closest to my home.  I witnessed a joyous service in an intimate chapel and listened to the sermon of a rabbi I immediately came to admire for her insight and genuine character.  I went home immediately and drafted an email to her.  I delayed sending it for three days because I wanted to remove all traces of overzealous enthusiasm and overeagerness from my words.  She responded immediately and had the Clergy Assistant set up an appointment for the next week.  I anticipated interrogation concealed slightly with pleasant demeanor.  I could not have been more wrong.  I fell in love with her immediately and could not wait for the course to begin.  When I had to leave Houston abruptly, I was devastated in large part for my fear of never finding a rabbi I connected with as well as her.  I don’t know if I still hold her up on a pedestal, but I have not been able to replace her yet.

She was gracious enough to put me in contact with a former colleague who has recently assumed the pulpit in the southern East Bay.  This time I was spared the process of careful construction of an email.  He was nice enough when meeting, and agreed to let me continue the process with him and his cohort.  I felt so out of place in the congregation full of elderly couples who either viewed me as an abnormal specimen to examine, or as the savior to their single 50-year-old nephew’s problems.  The wit espoused by the rabbi on the bimah did not resonate with me.  My discomfort with the match caused me to stop the process before I went to graduate school.

I was excited to attend a graduate school with a large Jewish population in upstate New York.  Maybe I could finally interact with Jews my age and make some friends.  I tried attending services at Hillel, but was disgusted by the favoritism displayed toward the Conservative students.  Conservative services were conducted in the worship space on the first floor.  The room had beautiful stained glass, graceful wood paneling, and an impressive ark.  There were always surplus copies of Siddur Sim Shalom on hand.  Reform students worshipped in the basement library with a portable ark and Hillel-made siddurim.  Students often had to share or worship from memory.

I became disgusted with the disparate provisions and left after a few weeks.  I didn’t realize when I signed my lease that one of the oldest congregations in the nation was a mere block from my door.  I was elated at the prospect of starting the conversion process, only to find that the rabbi was about to retire in January and was phasing out duties.  I attended worship but did not approach his already burdened plate.

The process was overwhelming in DC.  There were so many congregations and chavurahs to consider that I resorted to asking members of my graduate school cohort for recommendations in order to weed some of them out.  The requirement was simple: large young adult population, easy access to public transportation, and egalitarian.  One Conservative congregation was recommended over and over again, so I went to a Kabbalat Shabbat service.  I loved it.  I wrote to the head rabbi and he directed me to an associate.  I met with the associate rabbi in the middle of summer.  His questions were more intensive than the previous rabbis’.  He was thorough, but distant.  I was so ready to be Jewish that I decided to accept a reserved rabbi in exchange for a good congregational fit.  It would only be a year anyway, right?

I couldn’t find a job.  I had to move home in November.  I sampled the congregations in the East Bay and didn’t find any that I liked.  I know you can’t judge one entirely by its cover, but I have anecdotally found that the quantity of information provided on a congregation’s website directly corresponds to their acceptance of the process, and indirectly, their welcome mat.

When I started a contract job in San Francisco in June, I considered finding a sponsoring congregation in the city.  I narrowed the search to three, and have confirmed appointments with two of the rabbis.  I will wait until the other returns from Sabbatical before setting up one with him.  And hopefully, finally, G-d willing, I will visit the mikvah by Shavuot 5771.

Mikvah or bust.

Elul: the Bat Signal

When Batman is needed in Gotham, the Commissioner turns on the Bat Signal.

When Judaism is needed in my life, Elul turns on its own homing device.

I find it bemusing that I can always tell when the lunar month is about to begin. Ask me at any other point in the year what Hebrew month we’re in and you will receive a deer-in-headlights look. But without fail, Rosh Chodesh Elul subtly beckons me home, alerting me to the approaching Yamim Noar’im and the commencement of Introduction to Judaism courses in communities nationwide.

Like secular New Years’ resolutions, my dedication to observance waxes high in autumn, with a slight return to orthopraxis for Pesach, and a major decline during the summer months.

Then I miss it. I miss Shabbat melodies and reverence. I miss stumbling over foreign glyphs. I miss turning and turning and turning the beloved stories of Genesis and Exodus for new kernels of meaning.

Elul turned on the signal last week. I responded by consulting the movements’ websites to find a community, to find a sponsor, and to find a home.

May G-d grant me success in my endeavors.