And It Begins…

Rabbi H. sent out the welcome email letter yesterday during lunch. I read it and could not help but smile. This is my fourth attempt to convert. My fourth rabbi. My fourth approach. If I can steal the idea of “beshert” from Jewish marriage for a second, I’d like to apply it to the conversion process and say I have found my beshert uh… shel giyur.

I have so much respect for Rabbi H. as a teacher and guide, and for the process he has crafted in his short time as a pulpit rabbi. It will require more of me than absorption from text and discussion, and yet he has realistic guidelines from the beginning:

The syllabus is not a road map to Judaism, it is a resource guide to compliment your journey. Like graduate school, it is impossible to read and know all that is suggested in these pages. …What must come from you are questions and reactions that these texts inspire.

The simile he employed encourages me to think that he has referenced material beyond a Judaism 101 level; might there be some 200 – 300, or even 500, level texts? Will I be able to explore what confounds me, what angers me, what moves me in greater depth? I’d love the opportunity, absolutely love it.

He also mentioned the role of discussion in the class:

I will also lead each class with a text of reflection. This text will be studied in tandem, known as hevruta, with another classmate who you do not know. This is how we will begin our class time together.

So many other classes feel lecture oriented, with the converts employing the passive recipient role in the class. And just like class, there are always the people who are too afraid to look stupid, and thus never open their mouths. There are the people that hog the lecture time with their obvious and/or incredibly personal questions. There are those who compare Judaism to their faith/the faith of their childhood (usually these have been the members of the public or partners of Jews about to get married and thus taking the class so that rabbi would agree to marry them). We might actually get to know one another. To build a bond as a cohort. To learn from one another, and to push one another. That excites me. A lot.

There have been so many times where I wished it had worked out, that I could be a Jew by now. And while I’ve always found the clichéd “things always work out” comment to be overly simplistic and even down right insensitive, I’m beginning to agree with its wisdom in this particular case. I love Rabbi H. I love Rabbi P. I love CBS and its community. So excited for next week!

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Rashi’s Daughters: An Addicting, Irritating Trilogy

A woman at CBS recommended the series to me, so I tracked it down at my handy, dandy library. I read each of them in less than three days because they were that addicting. I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters in the shower, on BART, while eating dinner. I became so attached to them—even the youngest one, who annoyed me to no end. It was interesting seeing all three come “into” themselves via social and economic roles bequeathed to them via their marriages to men of certain professions.

The main family had been in the wine-making business for generations. I have a lot more respect for every borei pri hagafen I say now. Wine making seems so easy in this era—I’d never considered how the technological advancements, let alone the more obvious agricultural ones, removed a lot of the craft from the task. How does one prune the vine? What temperatures should the wine cellar fall between, and how do they maintain them with windows only?! When I think of Judaism’s ancient love affair with wine, I begin to question how all could afford kosher wine for all the simchas of life.

While I will never agree to follow the laws of niddah 100% as outlined in the Rabbinic tradition, my stance softened after reading through three women’s life experiences with the rules. The human aspect became a little more acceptable, while the actual practices (separate sheets and beds and no passing items) became more irritating the longer I read them. So I can go without certain intimacies for two to three weeks. How can I ever relinquish the need for a hug on a bad day though? I can’t. I simply can’t. That’s an emotional need, not a physical one.

This isn’t to say I give this series two thumbs up though. Hardly. I don’t know a single man for whom the book would resonate. They may be out there, but they’re likely to be the kind who raved about say, The Mists of Avalon. Second, while I fully admit my lack of knowledge in the area, I feel like the author clouded her portrayal of the Jewish characters with our modern understanding of feminism, at the expense of the Christian society included in the background of the plot. I find it hard to believe that women, Jews or not, were treated as well as the women of this book. Maybe I’ve bought into feminist lies however.

But the most aggravating thing was the CONSTANT explanation of EVERY Jewish phrase, custom, and holiday in the book. I understand that this book has to appeal to more than just the American Jewish population or the author would never make a profit. However, there is this thing called a glossary. Or even an appendix where the author lists additional resources. By the end of the second book, the author’s descriptions of every.little.Jewish.thing was so disruptive. Entire PASSAGES were lifted from previous books when the same topic came up again! Use italics, explain in the glossary, and move on. Why is it entirely our burden to have to explain ourselves? It’s strikingly similar to the “Tone” argument surrounding racism—the burden should fall on the ignorant to educate themselves. And I mean ignorant in the true meaning of the word, not today’s epithet.

CBS. I love CBS!

I went to Young Adult Shabbat. We didn’t have a minyan, even if you counted the non-Jews. And I loved it. The rabbi was great. The people were great. I didn’t feel out of place. I didn’t feel like they looked down on me for being a convert, as I’ve often felt in the past. I didn’t feel like it was a wild hookup/dating scene. It was great, so great that I’m going to the planning committee event on Wednesday to plan the next one! I love it. I love this community. I will shut up now. That is all.

Jewish Minimalist Lifestyle: an exercise in futility

I’ve lived in small spaces my entire life.  I grew up in a 900 sq ft ranch style home built in the 1950s; my parents bought it when I was just 3 and some change.  My sister and I shared a room until middle school and I’ve only had one common area to cook, eat, and hang out in my entire life.  I don’t know if I’d even know what to do if suddenly a family room or den plopped out of the sky onto the back of our house.

Well, no, I know exactly what I’d do.  I’d run screaming, begging it to disappear.  One thing I have developed from my mother is a sense of entitlement to whatever object strikes my fancy at the moment.  The difference between her and me, though, is that far fewer things strike my fancy, and I have moved from the Bay Area to Arkansas to Houston to the Bay Area to Upstate NY to DC to the Bay Area in seven years.  I’ve whittled down my possessions to the bare minimum of what I really, really want to keep.  (Except for books—but my perspective is very different now, a year post-graduation, than it was as a college student loathe to “sell back” all the knowledge she had gained at the semester’s end.)

But my horror at the prospect of an additional room comes from the fact that we already have three shops and an attic full of possessions.  My mother is sentimental and she loves decorating for the holidays.  She overestimates what she “could get” for collections from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and she is somewhat paranoid about being audited, resulting in banking statements from the 1970s being kept in filing cabinets.  Finally, she has never developed an accurate sense of how much leisure time she has to spend crafting, yet she purchases craft supplies ad nauseam.

Her own sense of entitlement is why we have three shops and an attic full of possessions.  Well part of the reason.  The other is that my father is a tightwad who refuses to get rid of anything because he might one day need it and would hate to shell out the money to buy something he once owned.  But the problem is he doesn’t make investments with his purchases, he always goes for the cheapest thing that last for 12 days and breaks down shortly thereafter.  And then he keeps the broken down parts incase they prove necessary in the future.

Now, this is not pick on my parents day. We all have quirks and flaws.  We all determine value differently, both economically and emotionally.  I understand that my way is what is right for me and their way is what is right for each of them.  We’re allowed to be different as long as we respect our differences.

But if I’m being perfectly honest, I know my parents are the reason I find the (nascent/growing) minimalist living movement very, very appealing.  I know many are starting to make this choice out of economic reality, and so it needs to be approached from a place of respect and humility.  But I’ve stumbled upon the list of 100 things and the challenge to create my own.  I will never be able to live with just 100 things, but they definitely have inspired me to consciously think about my purchases.  Fewer possessions means easier moves, less time spent cleaning, and more savings.

But then I stopped to think.  Judaism, living a Jewish life, would make that very difficult.  It took me about 30 seconds to name only 20 things a Jew “needs” to live observantly.

Tanakh, Siddur, Machzor, Chumash, Talmud

Candlesticks, challah cover, kiddush cup, tzedakah box, havdalah set

Shofar, sukkah, menorah, grogger, seder plate

Tallit, kippah, t’fellin, mezuzah, handwashing pitcher

So, while I am not sure I will ever be able to live a minimalist’s lifestyle, I have encouraged my mother and I to take concrete steps to move toward a less-cluttered lifestyle.  I am going through my books and getting rid of half of them.  I am going through my closets and donating everything I have not worn in a year.  I am shredding all forms (minus taxes and school loans) that date beyond 12 months.  I am using the library more and the bookstore less.

But if anyone knows of a Jewish minimalist, please point them my way.  I’d love to meet them. Or at least observe them.

They Are Not Puppies In The Window

Needless to say, I disapprove of any soldier taking pictures of captured individuals and posting them on social networking sites for all the world to see. Soldiers are humans, they have family back home, and they want some way to document the portion of years they served their country and risk their life. I get that. What I don’t get is an IDF soldier taking personal pictures while on duty, let alone of Palestinians in handcuffs.

I’ve seen the Facebook and MySpace profiles of cousins who served in the forces. I’ve seen pictures of their antics, and I’ve been thoroughly disgusted, knowing that their actions are the reason the Ugly American stereotype exists. But at least they were doing it on their own time.

But, I’m already sick of hearing this situation compared to Abu Gharib. Men in these pictures were not crawling around on all fours. There were not only in their undergarments, with a leash around their necks. They were not required to form dogpiles while in the (nearly) nude, violating their religiously-based sense of modesty, let alone human dignity.

I expect the IDF to investigate this occurrence, but more importantly, I think it’s time for the military institutions in this world to question the culture maintained within its ranks. Are these crude humans drawn to the institution, or are they created there? Either way, the situation calls for some serious change. Perhaps the IDF can start by clarifying for this (deliberately obtuse?) former soldier why her actions are so disgusting.

Memo to American Public: Rights not determined at the ballot

Rights are not subject to popular vote or public opinion. I don’t understand why this concept is so difficult for so many Americans to understand. The majority does not get to infringe on the constitutional rights of the minority just because they wield the might of numbers.

This summer has brought two topics to the forefront of American culture—gay marriage and religious freedom. Seemingly unrelated topics until you consider the societal structure of the debate. We have civil marriage in this country. Moral objections of some private citizens—not even an overwhelming majority—should not legislate the discrimination of some 10% of our population.

Similarly, the use of privately owned land in accordance with city ordinances and state law should not be dictated by the outraged bigots taking to the streets over some perceived indignation for desecrating the memory of their loved ones.

I don’t even remember when I first heard about the controversy surrounding the mosque being built in downtown Manhattan. I refuse to call it the ground zero mosque after becoming more familiar with the facts surrounding the situation. It’s not at ground zero, but two blocks away. It is not visible from ground zero due to the height of buildings in between the two sites. It is on a side street, away from main thoroughfares to the original TwinTowers. It is destined to be a community center, analogous to a JCC—with room for prayer space, but also educational wings, a fitness center, and craft rooms.

It intends to nurture the American Islam that the world needs so desperately right now. One that sees no conflict between democracy and al-din. One that educates their women. One that encourages adoption of religious customs according to a person’s personal conscience. One that believes in the power of dialogue to resolve conflicts. One that defends the religious tolerance and plurality that makes up the fabric of American life.

Over the weekend, President Obama defended the group’s constitutional right to build the Islamic center. And he is already receiving critiques from the GOP who plan to use the statement to its advantage in the midterm elections. How un-American could you be? Where is the outrage over the blind hatred displayed in Tennessee this summer? Where is the outrage over government-mandated discrimination? Where is the outrage in denying Constitutional rights to American citizens?

Religion has thrived in America precisely because of the separation between church and state that maintains a religious free market. You may not like Islam, but you do not have the right to legislate that preference. I would donate to the construction efforts if I could locate such a fund.

Then all that has divided us will merge

And then compassion will be wedded to power

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle

And then both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will

And then all will be rich and free and varied

And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young

And then all will cherish life’s creatures

And then all will live in harmony with each other and with the earth

And everywhere will be called Eden, once again

–Judy Chicago

The Way Into The Varieties of Jewishness

Dr. Fishman writes a nice introductory text to those lacking insight into the evolution of Judaism’s many modern flavors.  If you’ve read another introduction, however,  I don’t know how much additional insight this book could provide.  I mean, it is only 225 pages long.  You can’t throw in the whole megillah.

That said, I found one section in particular that particularly interested me.  Entitled Three Types of Converts, one section in the eighth chapter details a tripartite model of Jews by Choice.  I wrote to the author asking for more information about how this model was developed, because it is so unlike anything other book on conversion I’ve read.

It basically says there are three “types” of JBCs: activists (30%), accommodating (40%), and ambivalent (30%).

Activists “start on the road to conversion before they meet the Jew to whom they will become engaged or married,” “disproportionately” join Conservative and Orthodox congregations, are overwhelmingly women, and become intensely involved in Jewish life by taking on leadership roles in organizations.

Accommodating converts do not think about conversion until asked by their spouse/partner. follow the observance level modeled by said partner, and grounds their Jewish life in the home instead of leadership positions in Jewish organizations.

Ambivalent converts don’t “care” about organized religion and therefore tend to convert for the sake of the children.  They have warm feelings toward Jewish social and intellectual endeavors, but don’t want their homes to become “too ritual-oriented”.  They disapprove of the “Chosen” status and feel “passively” Jewish.

I don’t know what to think of this model.  What beit din worth its salt would approve the conversion of an ambivalent convert? They clearly have deep reservations to becoming Jewish, and I think it does them a great disservice to have them take the plunge.

I clearly identify with the activist label (to be honest, it fits me almost perfectly), but I would really like to see the studies that say they overwhelmingly join Conservative and Orthodox affiliated synagogues.  I’ve known plenty of committed Reform Jews for whom Reform ideology best fits their worldview and the form of Judaism that brings the most amount of meaning to their lives.

I also have to wonder why most converts are women.  I know men have the additional hurdle of circumcision to overcome, but the vast majority of American men are still circumcised at birth (I think it’s around 60% today?), with even higher levels in the past.  While I would not be eager by any means to stick a needle into the analogous portion of my body, I don’t think a prick is as daunting as the entire procedure.

Do men search for meaning and encounter the holy in significantly different ways than women?  Are these ways not typically Jewish?  Are they not in the synagogue, but out in society or in the home? Is there a way Judaism could better serve the needs of men, Jewish or those considering Judaism?

I hope Dr. Fishman writes me back.  This section leaves me with more questions than answers. I really would like to learn more about us gerim from an academic POV.

I made my first kugel!

I loved kugel from the moment I first tasted it.  Sweet, rich, and not too heavy, it was divine.  So when I heard about the young adult Shabbat potluck coming up, I decided it would be a good dish to bring.  Classically Jewish, simple to make.  But, never having made it before, I didn’t want my first run to be for the potluck.  No one likes retrieving their dish to find it untouched, especially when you’re the newbie.

So I decided to make a test run.  I selected an apricot kugel recipe from one of my favorite online recipe collections, allrecipes.com.  The hardest part was boiling the noodles, and an hour later, I was sampling the goods.

And boy, is it tastey.  I feel very Ashkenazic today.  My mom hates cottage cheese, though, and I should probably not eat the entire casserole dish of kugel myself.  I think I might share at work.

Meeting with Rabbi H.

I met with Rabbi H. this week. Most rabbis I’ve met with to discuss conversion start off by asking how I got to their office. He didn’t. He asked another open ended question, one that got straight to the point: why are you here? It’s always awkward when a conversation starts immediately with what one person needs from the other.

To be honest, his question startled me momentarily. Maybe he already knew of me, maybe he saw my initial email to the office, but whatever the case, he didn’t learn about Number the Stars or about interviewing Shoah survivors for the school newspaper.

Once I spoke a little bit my history, it came out that this would not be my first attempt, which I think set off a red flag in his mind. He asked me why I had stopped. I think he was afraid that whenever I hit a rough spot in the road that I gave up and tried to find something easier. Maybe that was my own insecurities coming out, but I tried to explain myself in such a way that would assuage his concerns. They simply weren’t good fits. I want things to feel right when I finally take the plunge.

In the course of our conversation, he made many reassuring statements—like he wasn’t the arbiter of my Jewish identity. I will have to mull over that statement a bit, because in fact, yes, he and the two other members of the beit din are the final judges. Perhaps he meant the manifestation(s) of my Jewish identity? Even that doesn’t seem right; this is the Conservative movement, hence the mitzvoth are supposed to be binding, and I don’t get to determine what that means like Reformers do.

His approach to the class sounds interesting. So many rabbis are spread thin with congregational demands that this class often turns into a lecture series. Which can be fine for those completely new to the material, or those who are deeply introverted and introspective. While I am decidedly the last two, it sounds like this will move beyond regurgitating the reading and require some deep thought and concrete action. I kinda like that.

Other cool things out of the rabbi’s mouth:

He encourages journaling. That’s good. I’m not sure whether to mention the blog to him or not though.

He does not sponsor hobby Judaists’ conversions. Pick a religion and stick with it; I agree.

He sends people raised in other faiths back to their own religion before sponsoring, to verify that this is what they want instead of being a temporary blip in the Strong Faith Highway.

Some not so cool things out of the rabbi’s mouth:

There’s not really a chance to learn Hebrew via a class at the synagogue—they recognize that the JCC does it better. Well that’s nice, but the class is quite expensive there, even with membership. So I guess I will continue with my self-study.

I left the office somewhat uneasy Tuesday night, but after a few days’ reflection, I don’t feel so unsettled about his approach. There’s a newfound respect for his conversion process, fully cognizant of his lingering novice-hood to the pulpit and open to modifying his process until finding the one that works for him and his candidates. Can’t ask for much more than that.

First tastes of Reconstructionism

I met with Rabbi K. last week. She put me at ease almost immediately, listening to how I arrived at her door and outlining what her requirements would be. She even attempted on-the-spot answers to some of my more difficult questions about Reconstructionist theology, which I appreciated because they weren’t easy ones. Her husband converted, so I know she would be inclusive and doesn’t think of us as different from born Jews. As a person, she reminds me a lot of Rabbi S., my original sponsor.

Most appealing to me was her recognition of my years and years of study. She won’t make me take another Intro to Judaism course, even though I’ve only taken them in college and with the other two movements. The process with her would consist of meetings, one-on-one discussions, and her encouraging my congregational involvement and Hebrew studying. She’d want me to live a full year of the holiday cycle, but the ease with which she spoke this made it sound like the most laid back experience possible.

I also really liked that she acknowledged different people demand different offerings from their Jewish communities. The criteria range from community to movement affiliation to rabbi to geography. That she recognizes that was encouraging.

I went to services that week to experience that community, to see if it’s who I want guiding me to Jewish life. I felt like they pulled people off the streets from Telegraph Avenue, the dress was so casual and so relaxed. I can’t tell whether it troubled me because it’s so unusual, or because I have a serious problem with it in a house of worship. I felt too conventional in the circle.

I did love the services though. They’re uplifting without appearing to be a mega-church dog and pony show. She has a really nice voice, and keeps a good rhythm so that people can actually experience the service instead of rushing through it.

While I love some of the Conservative melodies (Yedid Nefesh!), I also remembered how much I had missed some of the Reform versions, which are apparently shared with Reconstructionism. Aleynu is one of my favorite prayers though, and they didn’t say it. I know Reconstructionists reject the Chosen status, but there are plenty of ways to modify the problematic line without throwing the whole thing away.

During oneg, I started speaking with a woman who turned out to be a rabbi as well, from the same cohort as the pulpit rabbi. She moved to SF to serve as a chaplain at a local hospital. After we talked for a while, a man joined us. He was shul shopping, and he asked me what my experience was. I explained why I was shopping and a brief overview of my experience to date. We started talking about the movements’ affiliation, and why Reconstructionism appealed to me as a bit more open minded than Conservatives on a few topics like the cult of personality surrounding Israel. The chaplain rabbi immediately responded with saying that she doesn’t believe Jews should publicly criticize Israel. It was so awkward I had to “clarify” my position to “appease” her. She clearly did not like what I had to say. I expected more from a liberal rabbi that spoke so highly of the rabbi who told me in her office not days before that she didn’t expect me to love the country.

I love the rabbi (9.5/10). I like the services okay enough as long as they don’t leave out Aleynu every week (8/10). I’m not so sure the community is for me, however (4/10).