We Are Not All Beautiful

Around this time last year, I nearly published a post about beauty. I had known almost intuitively and from a very young age that, at least in matters of love and romance, a woman’s primary value lay in her physical beauty. In one of my earliest memories, dating from about age six, I told my mother that, based on everything I had learned from television and movies, men fall in love with women because they are beautiful. My mother, probably seeking to realign my priorities and perception, said, “No, Meggie, people fall in love with who you are, not how you look.” Stubbornly, I insisted, “Okay, fine– but they don’t get to know who you are unless they like the way you look.”

I spent my childhood playing with (and occasionally beheading) blonde, blue-eyed Barbie dolls. In my favorite books, the blonde, blue-eyed sister was consistently held up as “the pretty one” (Mary in the Little House on the Prairie series, Amy in Little Women), and so I daydreamed of adulthood and the hair dye and color contacts it would enable me to procure. As I grew older and became the perpetual fat kid of my elementary school classes, I began to understand that, to many people, fat=ugly, and I despaired of ever being beautiful. 

My post last year, though, wasn’t about any of that. It was written in anger, not despair. Sometime in mid-adolescence, I had come to terms with the fact that society’s standards of conventional beauty were, in all likelihood, beyond my reach. What made me angry was that I had been told, falsely, that it didn’t matter. Cultivate your brain, your sense of humor, your talents, the adults in my life told me, and the way you look will only matter to shallow people, people who are beneath you anyway.

It seemed for a while that that was true. I hit my stride in college, and I dated people who cared about my wit, my jokes, my politics– people who never mentioned my hair color or my waistline. I wore clothes that pleased me, not necessarily ones that flattered my body, I never learned to do anything at all with my hair or to skillfully apply makeup, and I really believed it didn’t matter. I abandoned a career in theater because I had the wrong body type to be an ingenue, and I moved on to the legal world, and later to the rabbinate, looking forward to being evaluated on the merits of my mind. I met a man I thought I would marry, a man who loved my dedication to our shared faith, my humor, my intellect, my enthusiasm. 

Then, about a year and a half ago, that man walked into our home and said, “I love you. I love everything about our life together. You’re as smart as I am, and I love our conversations. You make me laugh. You understand the difficulties of my career and support me. We’re incredibly sexually compatible. You’re everything I always dreamed about finding in a partner. But it’s important to me to have all of the trappings of success, and that includes a wife other men will envy. I know intellectually that other men see your beauty, but I can’t. I know you’ve looked like this since we met, and I’m so sorry. I’m not proud of this, but a few inches of subcutaneous fat are standing between me and happiness.”

Yes, that’s a direct quotation. A speech like that stays with you.

In the aftermath of that breakup, I became obsessed with appearance. I dieted, I bought a curling iron, I spent hours watching makeup tutorials, I purchased a new wardrobe I couldn’t afford. I read study after study and article upon article detailing all the ways that appearance determines success in every facet of life, especially for women. What jobs you get, how trustworthy you seem, what friends you make, what bars you get into, what you pay for a car– everything, it seemed, turned on being beautiful. The beautiful was co-terminal with the good. I felt misled. If I had listened to my own instincts, and to the messages of the media rather than to my parents and teachers, I might have devoted the time necessary to become as attractive as I could be. I had wasted so much time, and I was so far behind.

A year later, I am still angry. But my frustration is no longer directed toward those who claim that the world is other than it is. Instead, I am angry at society itself. Argue the evolutionary biology all you want, blame the subconscious, decry the media’s focus on appearance, but this focus on beauty is completely out of proportion. What I want is an end to the idea that you must be beautiful to be worth anything

Imagine that a woman is asked to describe herself. She says, “I’m intelligent, I’m funny, I’m generally happy, I’m short, I’m religious, and I’m loyal. I’m impatient, I’m clumsy, I’m ugly, I’m a terrible listener, and I’m not a dog person.”

Did you feel sorry for her when she called herself ugly?

It is okay not to be beautiful. That woman doesn’t necessarily have bad self-esteem. She may not hate herself. Why do we feel compelled to say, “Of course you’re beautiful!” or even, “Every woman is beautiful!”? Is every woman a good listener? Is every woman patient? Does lacking one of those qualities immediately devalue her as a human being? 

For that matter, more than beauty should matter. How often do we dismiss a supermodel’s intellect because all she needs is beauty, and so anything else doesn’t matter? In response to the beautiful actress Olivia Wilde playing a journalist in a new film, a writer in GQ declared the casting unbelievable, writing, “With that tush, who’d need to be literate? Who’d want to?”. How much are we missing out on because we tell beautiful people that developing their other gifts is superfluous, that they should just sit there and look pretty?

Look, if you want to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that’s fine. Some people like Bauhaus architecture and some are into obese men. Great. And, for that matter, everything is relative: in a room of people who can’t string together a sentence, President George W. Bush could be a good public speaker; I’m short in the company of 20 Norwegians and tall when surrounded by Jews; compared to endive, romaine lettuce is sweet. And, of course, standards of beauty vary across cultures and time: 11th-century Frenchwomen used special devices to give themselves double chins, Chinese foot-binding yielded deformed but tiny feet, the 1980s had that shoulder pad thing. But it is not such a silly thing to look at the standards and tastes of one’s own time and place and say that someone is not beautiful.

When my ex-partner told me that I wasn’t beautiful, he wasn’t saying anything that I hadn’t thought about myself. But I was so shocked and so deeply traumatized because I had internalized the idea that his love for me would make him think that I was beautiful– and that if it didn’t, he didn’t love me. I didn’t expect that loving me would fool him into thinking I was a good dancer, or very humble, or thrifty. We readily accept that others can love us despite our flaws and weaknesses, but the idea that we could be ugly and beloved, the thought that beauty could be just one trait among many rather than a necessity for being a valued partner, is alien to us.

It is a serious flaw in my ex-partner’s character that my beauty deficit could outweigh (no pun intended) all of the things he valued so highly in me– a very specific combination of attributes not fully listed here that he acknowledged would be virtually impossible to find in another partner. I understand it, though, because even as I write this, I know how heart-wrenching it would be for me to live my life with someone who did not think I was beautiful. My heart twinges, just as yours did, when I read the woman’s description of herself as ugly.

This is what I want to change. I don’t know how to make it happen, but I want to live in a world in which beauty isn’t the trump value, in which beauty is no more or less than one trait among many that make up a human being. I want to be able to hear someone say, “I just don’t get your sense of humor” and “I just don’t find you very pretty” and have them pack the same punch. I want to get a job based on the relevant skills, not because the interviewer finds me more attractive (and, according to many studies, thus thinks I am more capable) than the other candidates.

I don’t want to see the end of beauty; that would make the world a poorer place. I want a richer world, where beauty is one color in the tapestry of a life and not the loom that determines that life’s shape. The cloth can be whole and valuable without that one strip of color.  

Please stop equating the beautiful with the good. To be ugly is not a tragedy, not a disaster of fortune. You can be ugly and valuable. Ugly and happy. Ugly and worthy. 

 

Rape on a College Campus

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My first college roommate was a film student with a pink streak in her hair. She became very involved in organizations and events with a strong feminist bent, which were plentiful on our campus, and her film work reflected this interest. As I watched her edit a documentary on sexual assault, however, I was ambivalent. This issue in particular, I thought, suffered from overexposure. During welcome week, all the freshmen had been subjected to an hours-long presentation on the dangers of sexual assault on college campuses, and every man in the room squirmed in his seat as the actor/presenters on stage demonstrated various modes of pressure, coercion, and manipulation. The school’s “Take Back the Night” observances had enormous turnout. Our Center for Women and Men provided endless resources. Rape=bad. We got it.

Except…we didn’t, apparently. The last few years have forced me to see how little our perception of rape has really evolved over the last half-century. While defense attorneys in rape cases may no longer directly reference the sexual history of a rape victim in an attempt to discredit him or her, and while the law books have (mostly) been updated to recognize spousal rape, rape of men, non-penetrative rape, and more, much of our society clings doggedly to the idea that rape without physical assault and struggle isn’t “really” rape.

I thought that this outlook was dying out, that it, like widespread opposition to marriage equality, was a relic destined to last only as long as the Baby Boomers. The 2012 elections saw condemnation, albeit somewhat weaker condemnation than I would have liked, and the defeat of some political candidates who spoke of “honest rape” (Ron Paul), described how “some girls rape easy” and thus men should be wary of engaging in sexual acts with women who might later regret them and cry rape (Roger Rivard), and expressed support for abortion only in the case of “legitimate rape” (Todd Akin). I read plenty of articles that claimed that these comments reflected a broader worldview than many of us realized, but I attributed this, in part, to media sensationalism.

The Duke lacrosse scandal catalyzed, and Penn State and Steubenville advanced, the discussion of rape culture. It became part of our social discourse, and was, for many, an acknowledged problem: our social structures aid and abet rapists, our media and entertainment promote sexual violence in ways subtle and profoundly obvious, and the phenomenon of social media has made victims more vulnerable to invasion of privacy in addition to the violation of bodily integrity. The Internet exploded with campaigns, grassroots and top-down, to advance the cause of consent. Essays were everywhere, urging parents to teach their children (usually focusing on sons) to respect the rights of others, encouraging young men to be “upstanders” rather than “bystanders,” and confessing personal stories of sexual assault. Some of these articles were less than perfect; many put the onus on potential victims (usually presumed to be women) to prevent the violation of their bodies, few talked about the rape of adult men (especially by women), and some bordered on hysterical (ask me sometime about my theory on the song “Blurred Lines”). But the word was out. We all heard the statistics: one in three college-age women is sexually assaulted, some ridiculous percentage of rapes (anywhere from 30% to 90%) goes unreported, etc. I had faith in our ability to make this right.

And then, last night, I had one of the worst paradigm shifts of my life. I attended a screening of a new Israeli film whose English title is Six Acts. The screening was on the Columbia University campus, was put on by Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, and it was followed by a discussion led by a documentary filmmaker and activist against sexual assault. About 20 people trickled into the event, taking free candy and gently mocking the swag laid out for grabs: mints, foldable Frisbees, cups, and buttons bearing messages about sexual consent. “Keep Sex Sexy: Talk!” was better than the ambiguous “No More,” but whatever.

This is not a review of the film, but a summary is necessary. Six Acts is, fittingly, divided into six segments. The film opens with a montage of a young woman using her webcam to take self-portraits. This is Gili, a teenager described as being “in the top five of her class” and new to her school. She lies about where she lives, presumably because she doesn’t want the “cool kids” to know that she isn’t as wealthy as they. The only interaction we see with her mother is a brief argument, and Gili says that she hasn’t spoken to her father, who is shown snoring on the sofa, in two years. Omri, a good-looking and wealthy classmate of Gili’s, summons her to the mall parking lot one night, telling his friend Tomer that she is “just like the girl from Eilat [presumably Tomer's love interest] but less fat,” and the charismatic Omri does some more objectifying. When Gili arrives, the ambivalent Tomer retreats, Omri sends Gili after him, and after some half-hearted flirting, Gili manually stimulates Tomer to orgasm.

Gili’s desperation is almost palpable: she lies about having friends to drive her to meet the boys, she praises Tomer’s pathetic choice of lookout point (a parking lot), and she readily agrees with and to virtually anything the boys say. When Omri and Tomer hop a fence to swim in a hotel pool, Gili follows. She flirts with Tomer, who pointedly ignores her. Omri, however, is interested, and when he playfully removes her bikini top, Tomer leaves the water. Omri then insists on having sex with Gili. Gili protests: no, not now, I don’t want to, Tomer is right there, I’m on my period– all variations on “no.” Omri smoothes over every objection: “but you’re so sexy!”, “Tomer doesn’t mind; it actually turns him on”, “oh, it’s okay, we’ll figure out something else”– and then initiates anal sex with Gili. No. Wait. I’m sorry. He anally rapes Gili.

For me, this incident in the movie colored everything that followed. Gili, a rape victim, romanticizes the act. Omri sends her text messages praising her, calling her sexy, and she reads and rereads them. Omri promises his friend Shabat that, in an implied exchange for marijuana, Gili will provide some form of sexual gratification; Tomer does not seem keen on the idea. Gili arrives, under the pretenses of studying for an exam, and Tomer leaves, asking Gili to stop calling him. Sad and vulnerable Gili submits to the ministrations of Omri, her rapist. Though she protests that she does not want to, and then that she doesn’t want Shabat in the room, Omri coerces her into fellating him, calling her a whore and dismissing it as a joke when a shocked Gili becomes upset. Shabat attempts to initiate sexual contact of his own during the blowjob, and Gili slaps him away. Shabat masturbates, occasionally reaching out to touch Gili, and when Omri orgasms, he tells Gili to “hold still” and “be a good girl” while Shabat touches her and finishes.

The rest of the film sees Gili’s female peers gossiping about her provocative clothing and sexual mores, Gili bragging about her sexual encounters with Tomer and Omri (perhaps for social capital, perhaps as a coping mechanism), Omri attempting to curry favor with a friend by making an intoxicated Gili fellate both of them in a bathroom stall, Omri filming an unaware and drunk Gili while she fellates him (and distributing the video), Omri sending underage Gili to buy beer so that he can desert her and have sex with his (much younger and presumably wealthy) girlfriend, Shabat raping Gili (more on that later), Omri’s parents turning a blind eye to the inappropriately sexual behavior of Omri’s younger brother, Omri’s father and his friends viewing and praising pictures of Omri’s sexual conquests, Omri “offering” Gili to yet another friend and finally to his 13-year-old brother, and, in the ambiguous final scene, Omri’s father driving Gili home. In that scene, Omri’s father tells Gili that her shirt is on backward, and she takes it off to turn it around, exposing her bra.

The film was upsetting and sadly relatable, but the most disturbing part of the night was just beginning. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention to the beginning of the conversation, not least because the facilitator sounded unprepared and began with something along the lines of, “So, what do you want to talk about?”, a line that was met with reverberating silence. Gradually, though, people started talking. I think my alarm bells first started going off when someone said that the movie dealt with class issues, and that Gili’s relative poverty was linked to her being and dressing like “a slut.” The facilitator repeated this word, describing various characters’ outfits and actions as “slutty” or “not slutty.”

I didn’t speak up until the facilitator described Shabat as “kind of an ally.” She said that he was the only one who asked Gili if she liked the way he was touching her, and that he was concerned about whether Gili had had an orgasm during their encounter. I don’t even think I managed to raise my hand before blurting out, “Right…after he RAPED HER.” You see, in this scene, Gili comes over to Shabat’s house and confides in him that Omri is angry with her over her failure to sexually satisfy his friend at the club. Shabat, who had driven drunk Gili home from that night, says that he didn’t like the way Omri treated Gili, and they sit on his bed and talk. Gili replies, “it’s fine” or “I don’t care” to Shabat’s offer of a massage and when he begins to stroke her arm. Shabat, a chubby guy, straddles a prostrate Gili to better massage her, then rapes her. She says, in succession: no, please don’t, I don’t want to, you’re crushing me, no. Shabat refuses to stop, so Gili asks him to put on a condom, a request he denies, saying that he will pull out, which he doesn’t.

Well, according to several people at this screening, that wasn’t really rape. One of the event organizers said in response to my comment, “Well, she did ask him to put on a condom, so she ended up consenting.” The facilitator said that the lines were pretty blurry here, especially since Gili “made choices” to go to Shabat’s house and laid on his bed. After all, she said, although Shabat was physically crushing her, he probably would have stopped if she had physically resisted more forcefully, or if she’d screamed. I responded that, in addition to the fact that NONE OF THESE THINGS MAKE THAT NOT RAPE, Gili’s actions throughout the film are exactly in line with a rape victim, someone who has suffered and survived a serious trauma. You know, the rape in the pool?

Oh, wait. Some people in the room didn’t think that was rape, either. The facilitator wasn’t sure that there had been penetration, so that would mean it wasn’t really rape. An undergraduate woman said that since Gili flirted with and kissed Omri and joked about not wanting to have sex, and since she used the excuse that she was on her period, which would probably indicate she would have sex if not for that, it was really kind of her fault. She was “teasing” Omri and “sending mixed signals.”

At this point, I experienced, for the first time in my life, being blinded by rage. Determined just to make it out of the room without physically harming someone, I furiously texted a friend, (mostly) blocking out further discussion of how Gili’s silence was consent, how her bragging after the fact indicated that she had consented, how her continued socializing with the boys showed that she really wanted it and needed to “take responsibility for her actions that led to what followed,” how her consent to kissing meant that the consent to sex was assumed, how her texted joke to Omri about having “a gang bang in the toilet” justified his insistence that his somewhat reluctant friend violate her, how her “slutty” clothes were indicative of something being “not quite right in her head.” (Yes, something was “not quite right.” SHE’D BEEN RAPED.) One participant pointed out that Gili is evasive about the reasons she transferred high schools, saying that people “made up stories” about her. Maybe, this person reasoned, it was really that this had all happened before, and she “makes bad decisions.” Someone else chimed in, saying that because Omri’s father didn’t ask Gili to remove her shirt, her actions showed “judgment problems.”

The facilitator told us that what she liked about the film was that it didn’t romanticize the sex, and that anyone who was “turned on” by the movie had a serious problem. She discussed films, both comedies and dramas, that do romanticize non-consensual sex, saying that she thinks our broader culture understands much better now what rape is like than we did “in the 80s.” She defined rape culture for a participant, mentioning the Twilight series and its “romantic violence” as well as the Steubenville case. She told us that she herself is a rape victim, and that rape is not romantic. And then she continued to assert, and to agree with others’ assertions, that in this film, there were “a lot of things in play,” “serious questions of agency” (a word she pulled from something I said and then proceeded to misuse), and “gray areas” in the rape scenes.

The facilitator invaded my self-imposed cone of silence, asking me directly, “So, do you think this movie could be used to teach about consent?”. I told her, my voice shaking, that I could see how, properly presented, this film could be used to demonstrate all the ways that non-consent can manifest itself, and how insidious rape can be, but that I was shocked to hear in this discussion all of the misconceptions about rape that we’ve fought to change, not to mention a disturbing amount of victim-blaming. She responded that maybe in certain contexts, “like with high school students,” that would need to be underscored, but not in general.

And then I left. An older woman who left when I did told me that she had been as shocked as I, and she was glad there was “at least one other sane person in the room.” But, by and large, I don’t think I came across as the sane person in the room. I think I looked and sounded angry. And I think that most of the people in the room disagreed with me to one degree or another. And that terrifies me.

Can we review? An underage girl, usually drinking or smoking marijuana, is subjected to vaginal, anal, digital, and oral penetration. Almost every time, she verbally articulates that she does not want to engage in that sexual act: sometimes she says she doesn’t want it at all, sometimes she doesn’t want it then, sometimes she doesn’t want it with that person, sometimes she doesn’t want it because of other conditions. Many of those times, she physically struggles, attempting to stop the sexual contact. On at least one occasion, at the club, she is too intoxicated to stand, appears unaware of her surroundings, and is so silently reluctant to engage in oral sex that Omri’s friend insists that he can’t let her fellate him. EVERY SINGLE TIME, even with the hand job in the beginning, the man (or men) in the scenario is deliberately misleading her as to his intentions and frame of mind.

That’s rape. It is. I will say it a thousand times if I have to– but I never thought I’d have to. I am distraught that I have to.

Why is this on a blog about Judaism? It’s a Jewish issue. Why? Pick your reason. I’m Jewish, and I’m angry about it. The film is Israeli (though my issue is not with the film). The event was put on by the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. There were Jews who watched the film. There were Jews who said that what they saw wasn’t rape. Judaism is a tradition that tells the stories of the forcible rape of Tamar by Amnon, of the sexual coercion of Jacob by Leah, of the sexual trickery of Judah and (another) Tamar, of (depending on your understanding of the text) Ishmael “sporting with” Isaac. It is a tradition that has, since the time of Talmud, recognized that rape does not always– or even usually– mean a strange man using physical force to vaginally penetrate a physically and verbally struggling woman with his penis. 2000 years ago, the rabbis said, however imperfectly, that we have to do better than that in our attempts to understand the havoc wreaked by sexual violence and impropriety. They were right. And we are failing.

What happens if, God forbid, one of the people who attended that screening– someone who heard people saying that what they saw wasn’t rape, or who said it himself– goes to a party, has a drink too many, and is coerced, rather than physically forced, into performing a sex act? How many times do you have to hear someone cast aspersions on whether non-consent is “really” rape before you’re too ashamed or scared to come forward? How many victims can you see blamed before you view your own rape as your fault? How many rapists hear conversations like that one and think that what they’ve done isn’t “really” rape?

I don’t have an ending for this story. I want to say that I know what to do, the next steps to take, the right calls to make. I don’t. But I know what I saw on that screen, and I know what I heard in that room, and I know that I am terrified.

Where You’re Weak

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Happy summer, everyone! Yes, yes, it’s technically still spring, but apparently, New York City has just decided (or global climate change has dictated) that we should jump straight from winter to summer. Just like the seasons, my life seems to have sped up, and one week from today, I will embark on new adventures that will take me far afield from the city I’ve just begun to call home. Tomorrow, I will watch some of my best friends receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) and be formally recognized as leaders of the Jewish community. It will be many years before I receive a tallit (prayer shawl) and bracha (blessing) as part of the tekes hasmakhah (ordination ceremony), but suddenly, I feel as though a hundred years from now might be too soon. 

I am overwhelmed by how quickly my life is changing, and perhaps it is in response that I feel the need to reflect. I have officially finished my first year of rabbinical school. It has been a time of intense growth, and the growing pains have, at times, brought me to my knees. I have been inspired by the way my communities have stepped up to help me face heartbreak, bereavement, and humiliation. I have learned with luminaries of Jewish thought, giants of Talmud study, and the Jewish leaders of today and tomorrow. I have acquired more knowledge than I could process and been humbled every. single. day. by how much I still need to learn. I find myself now in a place of deep gratitude, and I am somehow both more and less sure of my place in the world. 

Last week, I was in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It was Shavuot (often translated as “Pentecost,” though the Christian Pentecost is very different)– my favorite holiday, and I spent it upstate at a summer camp, on a retreat with a fabulous independent Jewish community. Shavuot…I remember calling my dad three years ago to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to answer the phone for two days, and he asked what this holiday entailed.

“Well,” I told him, “we stay up all night learning about Judaism. And we eat cheesecake.”

“You mean it’s your birthday party?” he asked. 

Well, kinda. I converted not long before Shavuot 5767 (2007), and Shavuot celebrates revelation, when all Jews accepted the Torah, just as I did in the mikveh (ritual bath). We literally stand during the service as the Ten Commandments are read. We stay up all night beforehand because, so the midrash (explanatory story) goes, the Israelites overslept on the day they were to receive the Torah, and we don’t want to keep God waiting again. We eat dairy foods because once we received the Torah, we needed to learn how to properly slaughter animals and which parts of them we could eat. Our tradition teaches that the soul of every single Jew who ever lived or will live stood at Sinai and accepted the covenant (and, by the way, this is the reason that a popular Jewish matchmaking site is called Saw You at Sinai). 

And, because Shavuot celebrates an entire people “converting” to Judaism at the time of revelation, we read the Book of Ruth.  Ruth, the Moabite widow of an Israelite, refuses to leave her mother-in-law, Naomi, and utters the phrase that spawned a thousand wedding vows: “Where you go, I will go. Where you dwell, I will dwell. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” There follows a convoluted story involving inheritance, gleaning in the fields, and a lot of uncovering people’s feet, but the end result is that Ruth, the righteous convert, is rewarded by being the great-grandmother of King David. 

This year, I approached revelation with no small amount of trepidation. I first celebrated Shavuot with my former partner, and it was the first holiday we celebrated as a couple; we called it our chagaversary (chag=holiday). Shavuot ends the period of semi-mourning called the Omer, which begins on the second night of Passover. This year, mourning so many of my own losses, I made the Omer my thing. This was the first year I did every night of the ritualized counting process. The Omer has all kinds of mystical associations for each day, and I meditated on them. I measured my time just as the ancient Jews measured their grain for the Shavuot sacrifice. And then…I was supposed to give it all up and get back in the game. Receive the Torah. Recommit myself to my people. Revel in revelation.

I didn’t think I could do it. I booked myself onto this retreat as a desperate measure, to take me away from the familiar patters of synagogue and study. I prepared to be miserable and nostalgic and lonely and pathetic.

And then, as it usually does, Torah came to my rescue.

In my first shiur of the night, will-be-a-rabbi-tomorrow Eric Woodward taught us the familiar story of God offering the covenant to other peoples. [What follows is my own paraphrasing, not Eric's.]

“Children of Esau!” said God, “Do you want the Torah?”

“Sure! Wait…what’s in it?” asked Esau.

“Thou shalt not kill,” said God.

“No, we can’t do that. Killing is inherent to our nature,” said the children of Esau.

The children of Moab and Ammon said no because they couldn’t give up adultery. The children of Ishmael could not bear the prohibition on theft. And the children of Israel?

“Children of Israel!” said God, “Do you want the Torah?”

“Yep,” said Israel.

“Wait…really? Are you sure? Don’t you want to know what’s in it?” asked God.

Na’aseh v’nishma [We will do and we will hear],” said Israel.

The Israelites accept the Torah and the covenant, and all is well. Right? 

Well, not quite. After hearing the voice of God come from the smoking mountain, after hearing the call of the shofar (ram’s horn used for ritual purposes) and trembling in awe, after the receiving the Ten Commandments, after the spectacle of Revelation, the Israelites are told to wait. Moses will ascend the mountain and get the rest of the story (i.e. the other 603 commandments. Yes. Seriously. 603.). And what happens? The people grow anxious. They doubt. They forget that moment of terror and glory, often called the wedding of God to the Jewish people. And, of course, they break their marriage vows: they build a golden calf and worship it.

You see, God offered the Torah to all the other nations and, when asked, presented each with one commandment, the first commandment– the one God knew would be the most difficult for that nation to obey. Israel, though, didn’t ask. And what is Israel’s first commandment? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”* Belief. Israel would find it most difficult to have faith, to trust that God was there when the mountain stopped smoking and the thunderbolts ceased. 

Torah, my colleague explained, hits us where we are weakest. Esau needed to kill, Ishmael to steal, and Israel to doubt. Over and over, from this moment forward, Israel will doubt her God, cry abandonment, and stray from the marriage bed. Israel means “one who struggles with God,” and we’ve earned the right to the moniker. I’ve struggled more than some, perhaps, but only because I’ve chosen to stay in the fight– plenty of Jews give up, seeing no point in endless exhaustion. We cannot “just believe.” It’s a blessing in that it compels us to continue the study and expansion of our tradition, and it is a curse that too often leaves us unable to connect on a simple level when all we want is to cry out. We cannot just accept that God is there, waiting for our call. 

This year, God found my weakest points. God forced me to find the tools to fix myself, laid me low to show me where I most needed work. I cannot yet be grateful for this tough love, but about twelve hours after that shiur, with drooping eyelids and frozen feet, I lifted the Torah in the ritual of hagbahah and displayed it to the congregation. I love taking part in the service in this way because it gives me a crutch: the tangible weight of the Torah is a taste of the metaphysical weight of my dedication to Judaism.

As I sat back down, cradling the massive Torah scroll, I intuited precisely the teaching Rabbi Shai Held imparted the next day in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe: to really live the lesson of Shavuot is to make Shavuot less important. We must learn to dedicate ourselves to and receive the lessons of the Torah every day. Judaism, Rav Shai taught, is like marriage: there are moments of high drama and fireworks, but if those are the essential components of satisfaction for you, look elsewhere. Stability, intimacy, a sense of object permanence– these are the rewards of covenant. The Jews accepting the Torah in the desert were living on the adrenaline of split sea and quaking mountain; they were standing under the chuppah (marriage canopy) and feeling a rush of emotion as they looked at their beloved. The wedding is easy. The next 3000 years? Kashrut and Shabbat? The Inquisition and the Talmud? Intermarriage and $25,000 bar mitzvah parties? The Arab-Israeli conflict and denominational divisions? That’s where the going gets tough, where passion falters and dedication must pick up the torch. The easy thing, the natural thing, in any relationship is to drift apart. Choosing every day to grow closer to your partner, human or Divine–that’s a covenant. What a revelation.

 

 

 

*Note that different faith traditions enumerate the Ten Commandments differently; some traditions call this the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, and some combine it with the statement “you shall have no other gods before me.” 

Lashon Kodesh– Holy Tongue

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I speak 3 languages. Sort of. Perhaps it’s not the most linguistically correct way to take inventory, but that number is an aggregate: English (my mother tongue), Spanish (functional, learned in childhood), French (enough to “get around,” as they say, and acquired through immersion), Italian (if you sing as much opera and eat as much pasta as I have, you’ll pick some up, too, and a class helped), German (enough to get into trouble and not back out again), and Hebrew (the work in progress– currently somewhere between impossible and exhilarating).

The power of language never fails to astonish me. I recall with crystal clarity the times words were my jailers, my torturers, my only weapon. Momentarily lost on a Beijing thoroughfare, the riptide of illiteracy threatened to pull me under. With five words, I lost lover. An insult was carelessly hurled at a child, and twenty years on, my eyes fill with tears at the summoning of the phrase’s ghost. Pages and hours of excuses have averted personal disaster. Comfort given, frustrations aired, needs made known– all with a word.

My languages change me. You’ll laugh, but in Spanish, I am wittier, more jocular. In French, my voice is lower, darker, and softer, and I tend toward the philosophical. Italian heightens my awareness of my body, and I speak slowly, tasting each syllable as it leaves my lips. I am easily frustrated in my clipped but clumsy German, and Hebrew…Hebrew is an essay all its own. The lashon kodesh (“holy tongue”) of my spiritual ancestors, a language unspoken for centuries, the key to countless books I’m dying to devour– I am desperate for Hebrew to sink into my skin, to read it as language and not code. Someday.

The flavor of each language reflects its development, recalling the families and strangers who have shouted its obscenities and murmured its tenderest fumblings at the illustration of love. The personalities, localities, cultures, situations that use a language are absorbed into its essence, become that essence, part of the larger whole.

It is sometimes the smallest word that betrays the greatest difference in meaning. My favorite example of this is (of course) Jewish. As a child, I learned from my teachers. At home, I learned from my parents. On television, I learned from Big Bird and Mr. Rogers. At university, I learned from my professors, my fellow students, my mentors, and my books.

In Jewish settings, we learn with.

There are teachers in Judaism, of course, and there are students. But just as we all can lay claim to our tradition, so do we all teach each other. As the Talmud says, “I learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but I learned the most from my students” (BT Makkot 6a).

It doesn’t always happen, of course– any seminar can devolve into lecture, and a text study can quickly devolve into discourse. But when it does happen?

I have just returned from the most incredible learning experience and, as is so often the case, it is one into which I stumbled, blundering through my spiritual wilderness and grasping for a handhold. Six weeks ago, I was gasping for air, seeking escape anywhere I could find it, and a dear friend recommended I apply to the Clal Rabbis Without Borders student retreat. Though nearly a month had passed since the application deadline, I was allowed to register, and from Thursday to Sunday, I learned with men and women from across the spectrum of Jewish practice, belief, and identification. I have yet another reason to believe in…something. God? Fate? The insight and intuition of friends? Whatever I need to thank: thank you.

I could relate the content of the sessions; I will do so in future posts. Four days in a bucolic postcard of rolling hills and frolicking goats, sunshine streaming in the wall of windows while we delved into text and tradition. There was tachlis [practical consideration]– how and why to value advocacy as much as service, dealing with difficult board presidents, using text to support social justice causes, finding and leveraging hidden sources of power. There were broader lessons: learning to rebuke with love, to advocate with respect, to manage without manipulating, to give in without giving up. Learning with.

We came from everywhere. Boston, California, New York, Toronto, Israel. From places of love and hurt and loss, of confusion and devotion and joy. From the prime of life, from naïveté, from the marriage bed and the state of “radically single.” From schools deemed Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Secular Humanist, Pluralistic, Renewal, Conservative. We arrived strangers, and on Sunday, we mourned the loss of a strong kehillah (community). In our final moments together, we shared which lessons we would take back with us. How had this “retreat” really been an advancement?

For me, the question has ten thousand answers. The most important (right this second) is this: it can be done. We can build community in an instant, from any material. We can love the stranger. Why?

We speak one language: Judaism. It isn’t Hebrew or prayer or text or creed or peoplehood or statehood or history or blood. It is all of these things. It is none of them. It is (at least!) ten thousand others. Our Jewish language. Our dialects differ, our accents grate, we speak too loudly and for too long…but we hear each other. As we all speak our Judaism, we shape it, and it shapes us. And when we converse, we are shaped to fit each other, molded and bonded. It can never be unison, but it is a symphony: counterpoint and harmony.

Is this only possible in a room of rabbis and rabbis-to-be? No. The range of knowledge in that room each day was staggering, even disheartening: how could we learn with each other when our skills were so disparate? Chasms yawned between our mindsets: how does a believer use Talmud to learn about God from an atheist? One school led a traditional mechitzah (a divider between men’s and women’s seating) service, another asked us to meditate and chant, a third taught Calvin and Hobbes: how do we pray together?

The answer: by letting it happen. Every story told, every opinion shared, every question asked was a new lesson, and we had much to teach. Any group of people can build these bridges of respect, understanding, and love. We succeeded by being ready to learn.

We came there open, and we left overflowing.

In the Heart

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On the advice of one of my rabbis, I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in the Jewish community: as a future rabbi, as a convert, as a woman, as a Conservative Jew, as an American. This rabbi, in our most recent conversation, said that he feels that I sometimes use my conversion as an excuse or a crutch, or as a defense mechanism. This stung.

Usually, though, insights sting because they hit a nerve, and I know in my heart that he’s right. I do tend to discount my own opinions on the basis that I’m still new to the Jewish community, and I often blame my weak Hebrew and other skills on the fact that I didn’t grow up in services or Hebrew school. Converts have the same status as born Jews, but somehow, I always fear being unmasked, exposed as a fraud.

What I explained to my rabbi, though, was that he has no idea what he’s talking about. I told him, with a catch in my voice, that he will never understand how it feels to introduce himself in synagogue and always be met with a look that says he doesn’t quite belong. Sometimes it happens before a person even knows my (very Irish) name. When I was a gabbai [usher and service facilitator] at the High Holidays last year at JTS, a man looked at me, looked at my (very Ashkenazic-looking) then-partner, and asked me, incredulously, “Are you Jewish?! You definitely don’t look Jewish.” I was wearing a kittle [a white ritual garment worn by service leaders], a tallit [prayer shawl], and a kippah [skullcap], and I had introduced myself as a rabbinical student. This man didn’t mean that I wasn’t acting like a Jew; he meant that I didn’t look like any of his Eastern European relatives. (The primacy given to Ashkenazi Jews in American Jewish culture is a subject for another post.)

To his credit, my rabbi knows that he doesn’t understand what this is like. He’s just telling me to get over it, which I should.

There are so many things about conversion that are difficult and will probably never get easier. Spending Jewish holidays with my non-Jewish family, or with no family at all. Spending non-Jewish holidays with my non-Jewish family and figuring out how to participate (for their sake) while being true to my identity. The fact that the State of Israel considers me Jewish, but the Rabbinate there does not. Never having memories of a Jewish childhood: Hebrew school, finding the afikomen at the end of the Pesach seder, being blessed by my parents at Shabbat dinner. Being welcomed as a Jewish adult (and a real-life preteen) as a bat mitzvah. 

On Monday, though, I experienced a profoundly different kind of exclusion from traditional Jewish experience. Some of you will be familiar with the Jewish traditions surrounding death and dying, but for those who are not, here is a brief summary. A Jew is commanded to mourn formally for a few close relatives: parent, child, sibling, spouse. Upon hearing of the death, the Jew tears his clothing, and for seven days, she “sits shiva”– sitting on low stools, covering mirrors, not changing clothes, not bathing, not studying Torah, etc. There are decreasingly strict phases of mourning that last for 30 days after burial, and, for parents, twelve months after burial. For a parent, a child “says Kaddish” (recites a special prayer praising God in the presence of a quorum of ten adult Jews) for eleven months. 

What I love most about Judaism is that it provides a framework for nearly every experience in life. (Well, nearly every experience in a man’s life– we’ll have another discussion about the places it fails to serve women.) There are specific phrases to say when you hear of a death (Baruch Dayan ha-Emet, or “Blessed is the True Judge” or when you first see a mourner (HaMakom yenachem et’chem b’toch shar avay’lay Tzion vee’Yerushalayim or just HaMakom yenachem, meaning “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”); there is no need to search for the right words. Anyone who has experienced a deep loss knows how difficult even basic functioning can be, and Judaism requires us to provide food for mourners, to care for their needs in this time, and even asks us not to speak to mourners until they initiate conversation, lest their grief be so overwhelming that even talking would be too much.

And, of course, Judaism outlines every step of the funeral. We are forbidden from giving a eulogy that misrepresents the deceased as being more meritorious than he was in life. We do not have flowers. The body is not embalmed, and the funeral takes place as soon as possible after death. Family members literally bury their relative: they shovel earth into the grave. There are countless other small rituals, each designed to give meaning to every step of the process, and all intended to honor the deceased and those who mourn him.

My grandfather died almost two weeks ago, and his funeral was delayed until Monday, when the necessary relatives could be in attendance. There were flowers everywhere. His body was embalmed, and there was a public viewing in the funeral home. Every person in attendance was showered and well groomed and no one tore any clothing. Jesus figured prominently in the service, as he did in my grandfather’s life. No one offered my mother eggs or lentils, some traditional foods for mourners, and we had to procure our own post-funeral meal. My uncles will not be saying Kaddish, and we will not mark my grandfather’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) with candles and remembrances.

And you know what? That’s okay. I won’t pretend that it was my most comfortable moment standing there at the graveside, unable to say “amen” to prayers offered in my grandfather’s memory because they were also uttered “in Jesus’s name.” Nor is it ever easy to hear someone explain, however good his intentions, that the only way to spend eternity with my loved ones is to abandon the religion that shapes my identity and my life. But I found my perspective in the assignment I prepared for today’s Talmud class. The last line of the sugya reads, “ולא היו מתאבלין אבל אוננין שאין אנינות אלא בלב– And they observed no mourning rites, but they grieved [for him], for grief is only in the heart” (Sanhedrin 45b). 

My grief is in my heart. It is weighing down my soul. I don’t know how I will feel when (and may it be a very, very long time from now) my parents die and I am unable to say Kaddish for them, to rend my clothes and wallow in my sorrow in a darkened room. Should I ever (God forbid) lose a spouse, a child, or a sibling, I may feel robbed of the grieving process to which, as a Jew, I should be entitled. But in this moment, in the aftermath of this loss, I am able to accept that this experience, like so many others, is specific to my status as a giyoret. Though I have wedded my future to that of the Jewish people, I come from another place entirely, and it deserves its own acknowledgement. Singing “Amazing Grace” at a Christian funeral is as much a part of me as was my inclusion of my grandfather in my prayer for healing in my daily Amidah (standing prayer). 

This is not a weakness. My non-Jewish background allows me to engage in dialogue with Christians with a unique perspective. I can approach some of the most mundane aspects of Judaism with the enthusiasm of the novice. And, to be completely honest, my genetic makeup will add valuable diversity to the Jewish people if I am lucky enough to have children. I know all of these things– really. The challenge is in finding the ability to feel distinct without feeling like an outsider, an interloper. To be different is not to be wrong. I hope that one day, that idea, like my grief, will inhabit not only my head but also my heart. 

 

Baruch Dayan ha-Emet– Blessed Is the True Judge

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“I will never let anyone say anything bad about Jewish people. When I left Broken Bow to come to California, I had to borrow the money from Mr. Frank Yahtz, a clothier. He and Sam Adler– they were both Jewish clothiers in town, and whenever Mr. Yahtz or my daddy would run out of something at one of their stores, they’d borrow it from the other store. Mr. Yahtz loaned me the money to go to California, and when I came home and tried to pay him back, he said, ‘Your money’s no good here.'”

My grandfather first told me that story when I was 19, upon hearing that I had decided to convert to Judaism. (From Shylock and Fiddler‘s Motel to Frank Yahtz, I guess the Jews are always the moneylenders and tailors of the world.) He repeated it many, many times over the next several years, and he told me repeatedly how proud he was of my decision to enter the rabbinate. (He did, occasionally, think that that meant I was becoming “a Jewish nun,” but we can’t have everything.)

My grandfather died last night, at the age of 85. It was both expected and shocking, as these things can be, but he was ready for it in a way the rest of us never could have been.

Judaism has plenty to say about death and dying, but it has much more to say about life and living. It is my grandfather’s life on which I wish to focus, and the beautiful mark he left on the world that I wish to preserve in my memory.

My grandfather began life as “Cottontop,” so called because he was the lone blond-haired, blue-eyed son in a large family of Choctaw Native American descent. As a boy, he picked cotton under the Oklahoma sun and grabbed pigs’ hind legs to race them like wheelbarrows. His best friends were Junelle and Dibble, and he loved all his brothers but worshipped his eldest sister. When he came to California, he worked unloading produce trucks, selling suits, and doing any other job he could find. He always said that he married my grandmother for her children, and I didn’t know for many years that none of the same blood flowed through our veins. He told me that I, born a few weeks before he turned 60, was the best birthday present he’d ever received. When he retired, he couldn’t bear to be idle, so he did the landscaping in local shopping centers. He was proud of his garden, but not half so proud as he was of his family.

And when my grandmother, his “sweet wife,” died five years ago, the fight went out of my grandfather. It is a sad way to see the full force of love, but I have never seen a better testament to the power of partnership. Without his helpmate, my grandfather finally acquiesced to our insistence that he could no longer stay in the home they had shared for more than 40 years. His days devolved into television marathons and forgotten meals, and he gradually lost the ability to keep track of the settings and characters in the story of his life. He had been the youngest 70-year-old any of us had known; he became the oldest 80-year-old I’ve ever met. It is easy to read this as a sorrowful tale, but I prefer to look at it in reverse, to read into it the strength that my grandparents gave each other. I hope one day to find a love as enduring.

For longer than I can remember, I have called my grandfather every Sunday afternoon, and though I knew that he would no longer be able to answer me, I had intended to call tomorrow. The doctors had not predicted so sudden an end to this kind, patient man’s life, but he slipped the surly bonds of earth too quickly for me to be allowed one last conversation. Given that I will never have that chance, I will follow the example of my rabbi, who addresses his deceased congregants directly when officiating at their funerals. Here is what I would have said to my grandfather.

Hi, Ampaw. I know you can’t talk very well right now, but that’s okay. I’m so glad that we got to talk a few weeks ago, and I hope we’ll talk again soon. I love you so, so much, and I just want you to know how proud I am to be your granddaughter. I am just as happy in my life as you always wanted me to be, and I know you’re proud of me, too. You’ve always been on the front burner with me, and I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck. I wish I could be there with you right now, but I want you to imagine getting a big kiss from me. All my friends and teachers say to tell you they hope you feel much better soon, and we’re all praying for you. I love you.

In the coming weeks and months, I’m sure that I will find comfort in the fact that my grandfather’s end was peaceful and even desired. For now, though, I am consumed by, if resigned to, my own grief, and my sense of isolation is overwhelming. It seems that I am destined to experience loss after loss this year, and though we have just left Passover behind us, I feel more in common with Job than with Moses.

Rest in peace, Ampaw. You are loved, and you are missed.

Dayeinu– Enough

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I hope everyone had a perfectly wonderful Passover or Easter, or any other holiday you celebrate. I was lucky enough to visit my “family” of choice in Chicago for TWO FULL WEEKS, and I’ve never felt more blessed. There are a hundred things I could say right now, but in the interest of timeliness, the following is a rough transcription of the d’var Torah I gave at the first-night seder I attended. The hosts asked us to prepare some “homework” to share with everyone, and this was my contribution. Thank you for allowing me to share it with all of you.

[As a bit of background, the song "Dayeinu" (meaning "it would have been enough") comes near the end of the seder, and in it, we thank God for each of the miracles God performed in the Exodus from Egypt, and we say that any one of them would have been enough. Full explanation can be found on the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dayenu)]

On “Enough”

I attended my first seder (a meal and ceremony commemorating the study of Passover) when I was 19. I was in the midst of my conversion process to Judaism, it was dress rehearsal week for the spring opera, and my dear friend (and fellow opera student) Alex was not going to be able to attend a seder, so I decided to host one for him late at night. The charoset (a traditional food made of apples, raisins, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet wine said to represent the mortar the Israelites used to build the cities of Egypt) was made with grape juice and vodka– not quite kosher for Passover (when almost all grain products are forbidden). The matzoh balls fell apart in the soup, the chicken wasn’t kosher, and the haggadah (the book that guides us through the ritual of the seder) was one page long and printed off the Internet. We made kippot (yarmulkes or skull caps) out of printer paper.

Toward the end, though, Alex led us in a rousing version of “Dayeinu,” and I followed along in the translation. I thought it was downright remarkable, a beautiful testament to the love the Israelites felt for their God, and an incredible sign of faith and thankfulness.

Now, years later, I think that “Dayeinu” is the least Jewish part of the seder.

“Dayeinu” is the functional equivalent of a girl reminiscing about an old relationship. “Oh,” she says, “remember how happy we were? How everything was absolutely perfect and we thought the sun rose and set in each other’s eyes?”. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend– that would be God– is saying, “That’s funny…I seem to remember that you spent the entire 40 years in the desert bitching and moaning about how I wasn’t good enough to you. ‘Wah-wah, we want meat! Wah-wah, we need water! Wah-wah, are we there yet?…” and I did stuff like make you eat so much quail that it came out of your noses and a bunch of you died when your bellies exploded.”

“Dayeinu” isn’t just un-Jewish. It’s un-human. It’s the very opposite of human nature and experience to look at the good things in your life and say, “I have enough. Even without this job, or that friend, or this designer sweater, I’d be perfectly happy.”

When do we say that we’ve had enough? When we’ve had too much. When you say, “I’ve had enough to eat,” it really means your trouser seams are bursting and you can’t make room for the tiramisu. “I’ve had enough” means you’ve had more than you can handle. Too much frustration. Too much failure. Too much pain.

When do we ever say that we have enough wealth? Enough power? Enough success? Enough love?

This doesn’t just come from a sense of acquisitiveness or a desire for more. It comes from a deep-seated belief that just as we do not have enough, we are not enough. When do we look in the mirror and say that we are rich enough or beautiful enough? When are we thin enough or tall enough or smart enough? When are we convinced that we are strong enough to handle all the “too much” in our lives?

The beautiful thing about Pesach, though, is that it’s the beginning of the year. (The Jewish calendar has several celebrations of the new year, relating to different markers on the agricultural calendar.) Once upon a time, this was when we restarted the Jewish calendar, but even now, though it’s unseasonably cold, you can look around and see the beginnings of new life in the world.

So let us begin this new year with enough, and as enough. We teach that all people are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. And the point of “Dayeinu” is to say that even when the Israelites didn’t think that God was enough, when they doubted that God unleashing the plagues would melt Pharaoh’s heart, when they weren’t sure if splitting the sea was within God’s power, when they were afraid to wander in the wilderness and trust that God would take them to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel)– God was always enough. God was enough the whole time. The Israelites had to get to the end to see that with each miracle God performed, God made it possible for the Israelites to grow closer to the apex of their own potential.

And if God is enough, and if God always gives us enough, and if we are created in the image of God, then the answer is obvious: we can be enough. Not because we lower the bar and grow to accept where we already are, but because we have the endless potential for good and for growth. And we can be strong enough to cope when we’ve had enough. “Dayeinu” is aspirational; read not, “It would have been enough,” but, rather, “I will have been enough.”

And so my bracha (blessing) for us all as we enter this new season is this: may we hold on to the feelings of endless gratitude and overflowing blessing that well up in our hearts as we sit around the seder table, and may we see ourselves the way that God sees us. May we see that we are enough.

What I Did for Love

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Musical theater (or theatre, if you’re feeling British or snooty) fans will recognize the reference in this entry’s title. More importantly, they’ll know that the love to which it refers is not romantic love, or at least not that subtype of romantic love that involves another person. This kind of love is the ardor one feels for one’s calling in life, whether it is performing on a stage, defending the rights of the downtrodden, or making things work.

For me, this love is Judaism, and the question I am asked most often, on a near-daily basis, is why I converted. So, once and for all, here is the story, and maybe I can just refer future questioners to this blog post.

There are two answers to this question. One is pragmatic, logical, and true. I have wanted to be Jewish since before I can remember. No, I don’t know what my first exposure to Judaism might have been, but it occurred before my earliest memory and is generally agreed to have happened around age four. No, I do not have any Jewish relatives. No, I did not have any Jewish classmates until I was much older. Maybe it was the Rugrats Passover special, maybe my Methodist pre-school did a lesson on other religions…I don’t know. Sorry.

Whatever that first spark was, it lit a huge fire. My entire childhood was filled with Jewish learning. I read dozens of books about Jewish history, culture, food, folklore, and the Holocaust. (The fact that there’s an entire genre of Holocaust children’s literature deserves another post.) When allowed to choose my own topic for a project, it was always Judaism. In seventh grade, my only Jewish classmate had a bat mitzvah, and I think I scared all the members of her Reform Temple with my enthusiasm in the sing-along portions of the service. (I totally thought the transliterated Hebrew– Hebrew written out phonetically in Latin characters– was Hebrew, and that I was just really, really good at it.)

When I got to college, I made friends with Jews for the first time. I did a huge amount of reading about theology and decided Judaism fit my beliefs. I started going to services at the college Hillel Center for Jewish Student Life and finally approached the rabbi. “Look,” I said, “I know you’re supposed to turn me away three times, but I’ve been wanting this for fifteen years, so can we please just skip that part?”

One year, several essays, dozens of books, and an intensive 19-week series of classes later, I got the go-ahead from my rabbi to make an appointment with the beit din [rabbinical court]. Three very elderly rabbis questioned me on my observance and my intentions (and asked about six different ways if I was doing this to get married), and then I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath] and emerged Jewish. Ta-da!

There. That’s the easy answer: I love Jewish people, theology, culture, and observance. Being Jewish fits with what I want in life and how I feel about myself. It all makes sense.

There is, though, that pesky second answer to the question of why I converted. This one is harder to explain. Shmuley Boteach does a pretty good job, though, in his book Kosher Sex, when he explains that the conversion candidates he has successfully seen through the entire process usually cannot explain why they want to be Jewish. It is, he says, akin to trying to explain why you fell in love. You can list every trait that makes this person suitable for you, and expound on how their goals and yours fit together, and explain what led you to this point– but in the end, you just fell. It’s indescribable. And that is the truer answer for me: I converted because I felt that I needed to be Jewish, and I don’t know why.

Often, Orthodox people (and sometimes more liberal Jews) will tell me that I wanted to convert because I have a Jewish soul. There’s this idea that when God made the covenant with the people of Israel, the covenant had already been offered to all the other peoples of the world, and they had turned it down. (I mean, it’s really tough to keep up our end of the bargain. Just sayin’.) But the individuals within those communities who voted to accept the covenant? Those souls belong in this beautiful relationship with God and the Jewish people, and though they may be born into non-Jewish bodies, they have to find their way home.

There are many other stories about why converts happen, but I particularly like that one. I don’t like that many Orthodox people change their minds about me having a yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul, in Yiddish) when they find out that my conversion wasn’t Orthodox…but that’s another issue.

Any converts or potential converts reading my blog? I’d love to hear your experiences and questions.

The Seventh Day

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I had a fascinating conversation with a friend the other day. I was saying how much I look forward to Shabbat, and she asked, “Are you shomer Shabbos?”. For those who don’t speak Jew, someone who is shomer Shabbat (or Shabbos, to pronounce it like an Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jew) does not transgress any of the Sabbath prohibitions. There are 39 categories of these, all related to constructive or destructive acts, and they have been interpreted to mean everything from cooking to flipping a light switch to riding in a car. 

I told my friend that I am, indeed, shomer Shabbat, and that it’s a requirement in the rabbinical school. I was surprised to hear that she is not, as she’s someone I knew to be quite observant in other ways. She eats in uncertified (what other people call “unkosher”) restaurants, though she sticks to vegetarian food, and I know she often attends daily prayer services.

When I asked her if she minded my asking why she is not shomer Shabbat at this time, she said, “I really, really want to be! It’s just way too hard.”

It’s funny, but I never thought of becoming shomer Shabbat as being a difficult process. It was gradual for me; as recently as two years ago, I took the bus to synagogue and got manicures on Friday nights, but I kept the positive mitzvot [commandments] like going to services and having guests for Shabbat dinner. 

All it took for me was one Shabbat spent with an ultra-Orthodox family for me to realize how much I needed Shabbat. Yes, needed. Twenty-five hours away from anything stressful, even something as simple as wondering whether I’d remembered to switch off the hall light, was a revelation. Now, Shabbat is the center of my week and the center of my life. The meals with friends, the hours in synagogue, the long walk home (I live almost an hour from my shul), the board games and singing in the homes of strangers and friends…I don’t know what I’d do without it.

There are practical challenges, I suppose. It took a while for me to explain to my parents why I’d be unreachable for twenty-five hours, but I started calling them just before I lit my Shabbat candles, and they get it now. I missed going out with friends on Friday nights, but now they know to come to my home for a delicious dinner before they head out to the club. When I’m away from home, I’m often in a position where I’m not allowed to carry things to and from synagogue (long story…another time), and I have to hide my keys. I have to arrange exactly where and when to meet my friends so that we don’t miss each other, since we can’t call or text. 

In other ways, though, American society makes this easier than at any time in history. The technological marvels of the slow-cooker and the light timer alone have made life on Shabbat infinitely easier for Jews. The institution of the weekend (a concept only about 80 years old) means that most people never face the quandary of explaining to the boss why they have to miss a workday every week. True, Jews live increasingly far from synagogues and traditional Jewish neighborhoods, but those who care about observing Shabbat know where to seek their real estate, and Jews can, in most places, be free of fear of harassment on their way to and from shul and meals. To a Jew a hundred years ago, any one of these things would be a miracle.

Without community, Shabbat can be isolating. As a convert, Shabbat when I’m at home with my parents, many miles from the nearest synagogue, is sometimes heartbreaking. But for me, these experiences just underscore for me how vital it is to seek out, and create when necessary, beautiful and warm Jewish communities of friends and, I hope, eventually a Jewish family of my own. 

Do you have questions about Shabbat observance? What was most difficult? Do your experiences match my own, or am I way off base? 

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