Tuesday, October 19, 2010

First Meeting with the Rabbi

Wow, a month. That’s bad- even for me.
      I met with the Rabbi almost 2 weeks ago and we had an official conversation about starting the conversion process. On the whole, I think the talk went well. The only touchy part was when I showed him my tattoo. I didn’t want to start this process on the wrong foot; I wanted to be completely upfront and honest from the get-go. This was probably due to previous experiences, but I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew everything.
     So, my tattoo. Shortly before I graduated last June I got a tattoo on the inside of my left wrist. It’s the Tarot card the 2 of cups. One cup has my Hebrew name (Ahava) and the other cup has Adonai spelled in Hebrew. It’s immensely symbolic to me; I knew that I was about to graduate college! I was going to move to New York and either conquer the world or fall flat on my face. I knew myself well enough to know that I can get caught up in the small things, both good and bad. I live my life with so much passion that it’s easy for me to get off track. I wanted something to help remind me of what is really important, help ground me when my head gets so far in the clouds I can’t see straight. At the end of the day, it’s me and Him, for better or worse. I wanted it on the left arm because I have another tattoo on my right leg, and I like to keep things balanced. I also wanted it on my left arm for the same reason that it’s customary to wear a wedding ring on the left hand; the veins in the left ring finger pump blood straight to the heart, so there’s more symbolism there.
      I understand how this can be offensive to people and trust me; that is definitely not my intention. I want to be perfect (unattainable, I know. It’s my thing). The perfect person would not have body art that offends people in places that offend people. I hadn’t really thought too much about my tattoo offending people. I knew that Tattoos weren’t exactly… okay in the Torah and the Jewish community, especially after the Holocaust. The last thing I wanted was to remind people of that horrific event. But my tattoo meant something to me. It might be childish or na├»ve, but it was meaningful to me.
        After our talk I, of course, freaked out. What if I offend everyone? What if it stops me from being able to convert? Should I get it removed? On and on, it’s very exhausting to be me sometimes. Eventually I calmed down, and talked to my roommate who had a very good point; sometimes I will do things that other people will not approve of. It will happen. This will be one of those things. I just have to get used to it.
        So that’s been a huge struggle of mine lately.
        The rest of the talk with the Rabbi, as I said, went really well. I filled him in on my experience with Judaism thus far (basically, everything in this blog) and he helped prepare me for the next step. Ideally, it would be classes but as they cost money and as I was recently laid off I don’t have any money. That part has to wait. In the mean time, I can do other things to start living a more Jewish life. He noted three key things: keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat and performing Tzedakah. I had tried to keep Kosher before, and I had tried to observe Shabbat during college. My problem, as with everything else, is that once I decided to do it I dived in 100%. I tried to follow all the Kosher rules, half of which I didn’t really know. That didn’t last long. I had tried to follow Shabbat when I was a Freshman. I didn’t go on the computer, talk on the phone, anything. By the end of those 25 hours I was focused solely on checking Facebook. Shabbat had lost all meaning.

      This time it’s different. I’m going to slowly incorporate elements of all of these Mitzvot into my life.
      For Shabbat I will not work and I will not clean. Any cleaning project I have I will save for after. Now, in light of recent events, if I find a job that requires me to work on Saturdays, I will take it. I think G-d will understand. If that happens, I will find another way to make Shabbat different from all other days. Maybe I won’t go on the computer for the whole day or make any personal phone calls. I’ll worry about that later.

     For Kosher: I had spent the last year and a half adjusting to my Gluten allergy (I knew that would come up again) which in and of itself is an incredibly restrictive diet. However, I feel that I have a better handle on that. So now I have incorporated the two main Kosher rules I know how to follow: I do not mix meat with milk and I do not eat pork. Those are the rules I am most comfortable with, as they are the most common and, for me, the easiest to follow.

    For Tzedakah; Tzedakah loosely translates to charity. It is in the Torah that the Jewish people give what they can, when they can. Usually, it comes in the form of donating money to charity, usually 10% of your paycheck. A way that the rabbi explained it to me, when discussing giving change to those less fortunate is basically (paraphrasing): I might not agree with the decisions you’ve made in your life, but everybody needs to eat. That, I feel, is essential. Everybody needs to eat.
       Before my current situation, I would give change when I had it. Now however, I am finding other ways to give back. I recently applied to volunteer with the Trevor Project. As some of you probably know, the Trevor Project is an organization that helps LGBTQ teens. They have, among other things, a 24-hour suicide hotline and Dear Trevor letters where people can submit non-time-sensitive questions, sort of like a Dear Abby set up. I still haven’t heard back from them, so I will look into other areas of volunteering. Since I cannot financially give back, I will find other ways to do so.

       That’s the long and short of the last two weeks. Hopefully it will be less than a month before my next update, but I’m not promising anything J

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mom, Dad, We need to talk

I am currently reading this book a friend gave me; “Choosing a Jewish Life” by Anita Diamant. One of the things she mentions in her books is having to tell the parents about your decision to convert. She gave great advice about how to tell them, advice that I wish I had known a couple years ago.

I've already told my parents of my decision to convert, as well as my grandparents. Most of the rest of my family, however, has no idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that we are all spread out over the country and have lost touch over the years. However, if I ever get married in the future, I want to have a Jewish wedding, and I would like my family to be there, so i'm going to have to face it eventually.
For now, though, I thought i'd share with you what my experience has been like telling my mom, my dad, my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandparents. I told my parents separately, as they divorced when I was 11.

I told my mom first. I don't remember exactly when, but she's known about my decision for a long time. I guess at least since I was 19, when I firmly made the decision that I would convert. She's been nothing but supportive from the beginning. In fact, she admitted to me once that when she was a kid, she wanted to be Jewish, which I found odd. We both, at one point of our lives, wanted to be Jewish but we weren't.

 My parents raised myself and my brother to be spiritual, but not affiliated with any religion. When I was growing up, my mom would talk about God and Guardian Angels. If I was ever upset, she said, I could talk to my Guardian Angel and they'd take care of me. Through her teaching, I learned to have a personal relationship with God, but I had no religious background.

I told my dad a couple of year ago now, I think. I merely mentioned it in passing, we didn't exactly have a serious conversation about it. My father is a man of few words and, though I don't like to admit it, still intimidates the hell out of me sometimes. I mentioned Judaism to him every now and again. I didn't want to throw it in his face, but I did want him to know that I was planning to drastically change my life, and our family dynamic. He seemed fine with it when I mentioned it, occasionally posing a question or two.
Before I moved to New York I sent him an e-mail explaining how I was preparing for my move and how excited I was to finally be able to start the conversion process, once I got there. He replied, saying “I'm not sure i'm completely on board with your conversion to Judaism.” That was it. He didn't disown me, but he wasn't totally on board. I sent him a polite, if not formal, response that kindly said I was sorry he wasn't on board, but that didn't change anything. This was something I was going to do. I regret how I dealt with it, sometimes. One of the great things about the book i'm reading is Anita Diamont's emphasis on the convert being aware that this is going to be a big adjustment for the family, not just for the convert themselves. I wish there was something else I could do. I don't want to send him a book, or an article or anything, because I don't want him to take it the wrong way. Ideally, i'd love for him to be involved, or at least aware of this process, but I don't want to make him feel uncomfortable.

I told my Catholic grandmother (maternal) that I was converting a couple years ago as well. Actually, my mom might have been the one to mention it. Either way, she was also extremely respectful of my decision. She sent me an e-mail saying that she knew I was looking into religion and just wanted to tell me more about hers. She wasn't trying to change my mind, she just wanted to give me information about Catholicism. She asked if she could send me a book about Catholicism, and I agreed. I was a little worried about what she was going to send me. When I opened the package I found “Catholicism for Dummies.” I laughed right there! I was expecting something far more ominous. I looked through the book, and I still have it. Even though it is not my religion, I respect Catholicism and all it's practices. Plus, I just love that I have “Catholicism for dummies.”

I was most nervous about telling my father's parents. They lived in Oklahoma and they were members of the Church of Christ, something I've never had a problem with, in fact I love them for that, but I had no idea how they'd feel about my conversion. They were so far away they had been the most out of the loop about my conversion. I told them last fall before thanksgiving, because I was going to spend the holiday with them and I was wearing a Star of David necklace. I was really worried about what they were going to say when they saw it but then my mom said, “If you're worried, why not just be an adult and call and tell them before you go?” She didn't say it to be mean, just stated it as fact. Love you, mom!

I called my grandmother. I said something to the effect of, “I just want to let you know that I'm converting to Judaism. I'm not doing it for anyone else, it's just something I am going to do for myself. I'm just letting you know because I have a star around my neck.” I wanted to get it over with quickly. Also, not what I should have done. In hindsight, I really should have opened up a conversation, not slipped it in like a side-note, but that's what I did in the heat of the moment. My grandmother didn't quite understand what I meant when I said I had a star around my neck (not that I blamed her. I could have been a lot clearer.) She thought that I had tattooed a star around my neck, and freaked out a bit (I would too.) Once everything was cleared up, she seemed much more okay with the whole thing.

When I went to visit them, my grandmother handed me a list of bible passages she wanted me to read before I made my final decision. I was reminded of my Grandma sending me Catholicism for Dummies. I respected her request and even looked up the passages on Google when I got home. I heard what she had to say, even if I didn't agree with it.

Over thanksgiving, my grandfather and I had a conversation while we were all playing a card game. it went something like this:

Grampy: You read a lot, don't you.
Me: yes.
Grampy: You ever read the Bible?
Me: No, I haven't.
Grampy: You've never read the Bible?
Me: No.


Grampy: I have a friend who taught sunday school for a long time and she could teach you about the Bible.

Me: Well, i'm in school, haha, and it's senior year and I've got a lot going on, so I don't think I'll have the time.

Grampy: It'd just be over e-mail.

Me: Oh Grampy, look, it's your turn to play.

That was it. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was out in the open, everyone knew about it. In hindsight, as I said, I wish I had dealt with the initial announcement better but I just kind of dealt with it like ripping off a band-aid which, upon reflection, is how I deal with everything, but that's not how I should deal with a situation like this. Judaism is so important to me, I feel I should have given it more time for discussion. However, when my family (or anyone, really) asks me questions about Judaism and my choices, I'm more than happy to answer them, to the best of my ability anyway.

So there you have it! That is my experience telling my family that I converting to Judaism. I could have done it better, but at least I did it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur was on Saturday. I had decided to fast for the first time in my life, and was pretty freaked. I had been advised, as a way to prep for the fast, to eat a big meal before the fast starts. Sadly, I didn't prep for that as much as I could have. I ate, but I wasn't totally full, and I ate too early. In the long run, I don't know that it made too much of a difference, but I still felt I should have prepared better.
Saturday was difficult, but not nearly as hard as I imagined it would be. Throughout the day, hunger would hit me in waves. I was thinking a fast would be a day of constant hunger in which you tried to distract yourself with prayer but I happily discovered it was quite the opposite- It was a day of prayer interrupted, every now and again, by annoying hunger pains. Most of the day was almost pleasurable. There was a lot of intense praying, which felt wonderful. There are few things in this world quite like sitting in a Synagogue and just praying.
The services themselves were intense. We remembered all those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It was a day of atonement as well as a day of remembering the suffering of those who came before us. It was then that it really hit me, as it hadn't before. As I was sitting there, hungry, as millions of human beings were in the concentration camps, I better understood their suffering. Let me get something straight right now; I am in NO WAY equating a day of fast and atonement to the suffering felt in the concentration camps, it was just at that moment, I understood. I have been blessed in my life to have never known true hunger. There, I felt hunger. I understood.

It got really difficult at about 5 pm. This was it- the home stretch. I tried to distract myself with prayer, but I had prayed so much that morning that it was difficult. Eventually I just succumbed. At about 6pm I stopped actively praying and thought longingly about the fast being over. I wasn't even so much hungry as I was weak and I wanted it to be over. I had taken myself out of the day.
I came back when it was the choir's turn to sing. We were 45 minutes from the end of the fast and I, along with my choir members, went back onto the Bimah and squished together and we sang. It was so beautiful. The music moved me in a way I hadn't felt in a long time. It felt amazing to be singing with the choir again, something that (before this High Holiday Season) I hadn't experienced in a long time. In that synagogue, surrounded by Judaism and Hebrew and beautiful music, I just kept thinking “I am home.”
While on the Bimah, I was starting to get shaky and focused on not passing out. I didn't think I would, but I didn't want to get to that point. We finished singing, we sat down. The fast was ending, it was time for the Havdallah service. They turned off the lights in the sanctuary and lit the candle. It was so moving. I sat in a room full of people, weak after fasting, watching the candlelight. I felt unbelievably blessed to have been a part of this. I felt blessed that I was in good enough heath that I could fast, blessed that I was there, at that synagogue, actively participating. I was drained and emotionally exhausted and running on adrenaline at the same time. It was one of the most intense moments of my life, that whole day was. Havdallah ended and the Shofar was blown one last time, signaling the end of Yom Kippur. I had done it. I had made it. I wish I could better describe that feeling. I wish I could better describe that day, but I can't. And maybe I’m not supposed to.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shana Tova!

I realize I haven’t written anything here in about two weeks. I’ve been meaning to, but I have been busy. Expect that a lot. Sorry. I wish I could say I was better about blogging/writing in general but I can’t. Anyway, let’s get to the main event:

Rosh Hashanah

      Thursday I got up and out of the house later than I had planned, I lost my metro card and had to spend another 30 bucks (there goes my savings), the trains were acting funky and I had to get off one and on another and I got to the synagogue and showed my ticket, went upstairs, and sighed. In front of me were at least 100 people, most wearing Kippot and Prayer shawls. The Rabbi, Cantor and I believe the former presidents of the synagogue were walking with the Torahs and I smiled. I was home. I quietly sat down and watched the service. I still didn’t know what they were saying most of the time, as I don’t speak Hebrew, but I was fine with that this time around. I sat and I watched, and I listened and I took it all in. I experienced it as an outsider, yes, yet I had never felt less like an outsider in a Synagogue. Though I didn’t sing with the congregation, as I didn’t know the words or the songs, I still felt a part of what was going on around me.
       When it was the choir’s turn to sing, we all gathered around the podium on the Bima and we started singing. It felt so good to be singing in a choir again. I have always been a choir girl and it always brought me such joy, but I hadn’t been in a choir for a couple of years and I missed it. But here I was- singing in my high soprano register that I had not properly used in a long time (I had been working on developing my chest voice and Broadway-sound the last few years and sadly haven’t had much of a chance to sing in my soprano range). By this point of the day the sun had moved and it was shining through the stained glass windows and it was so beautiful and I was so happy I almost cried. It was such an amazing feeling.
          I talked to one of my fellow choir members who told me that she had recently converted and gave me the information about the course. Apparently, for conversion I don’t go through a specific synagogue but “The Center for Conversion to Judaism.” Yeah, there’s a center specifically for conversion.

            Before Rosh Hashanah I was kind of freaking out. Well, more than kind of. It occurred to me that I was actually going to start the conversion process. Here it was, after four years (at least) of planning for and waiting, I was plunging headfirst (as is my style) into the biggest, most life-changing event of my life and so, of course, I freaked out. Conversion is supposed to be a year of intensive study. What if it takes up all my time and I can’t pursue anything else (I’m also an aspiring singer/actress, like everyone else in New York City)? Will I have time to do both, or will I have to sacrifice one for the other? Could I really pick one, if it came to that?

            Needless to say, I blew things just a wee bit out of proportion (as is also my style). Then I just dialed it back, and I talked to my friend who had given me the info on the Conversion center. She said that the class was one hour, one night a week. I calmed down. That was completely doable. I didn’t have to give up my entire life to convert. However, I’ve never converted before, so it may turn out to be more than I bargained for, or take more time than I planned for, and if that’s the case, I’ll adjust accordingly, but why freak out now? As the old saying goes “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Something I have to remind myself at least once a week.

            I live with passion. I throw myself into everything I do. I’m either 110% in something, or I’m not in it at all. In a lot of ways that’s a good thing, but it makes life difficult in situations like this where my love and my attention is somewhat divided and I want to throw myself 110% into multiple things at the same time. But I freak out for a little while, and then I calm down and figure it out and everything goes back to normal.

            I’m also going to fast for Yom Kippur this year. I’m nervous, truth be told, because I’ve never fasted before. I don’t do well not eating. I get shaky and spacey and nauseous and I will be standing on the Bima singing for who knows how long. What if I faint, or get sick? And here again, I was worried about something that didn’t even happen yet. I talked to the Cantor and she said that, if it comes to that, if it gets really bad and I’m in danger of being sick, I can eat or drink something. The point of the fast, she said, is not to make yourself sick, but to use the absence of food and water to bring you to a higher level of prayer, in a sense, bring you closer to God (now, I might have misunderstood her, I am not meaning to put words in her mouth here, That’s just what I got from when we talked. If that’s not really how it is in Judaism, my apologies.) But it made me feel better.  

          I want to do something for God. Something in return. Every day I look around and where I am and what I’m doing and He has played a big part in that. He’s always there for me and I really want to do something for Him. I want to use this fast as a way of expressing my love and gratitude to God. And also because, as I’ve said before, if I’m in something, I will be 110% in it, or at least as in it as possible.

So that’s about where I’m at right now. It’s good. I’m happy. I’m emotionally pretty spent, because it’s been so up-and-down since I got here, but I am happy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Introduction to Judaism

Before I get much further in this blog, I want to talk a bit about my journey thus far. It’s been kind of crazy.

When I was in High School, I met this girl (we’ll call her Anne), she told me she was Jewish and therefore I thought she was the coolest person ever! When I was younger, the idea of conversion didn’t even occur to me, I didn’t even know it was an option. “Jewish” was just something I wished I could be, but wasn’t. Anne introduced me to prayers and really what Judaism was (or what we thought it was). I had gone to Shabbat services with her a few times at our one and only reform synagogue in Bellingham and also to her friend’s house. I’m not sure how she knew this family, but they were Messianic Jews, and I went to a few Friday night dinners at their house. We would watch a movie about the New Testament and have a Shabbat dinner where we said a blessing to Yeshua (Jesus). Needless to say, it felt very weird to me. But I went a few times because it had some tie to Judaism, which I craved.

My freshman year of college, Anne introduced me to the Rabbi with WWU, through the Chabad organization. Anne told this Rabbi that I was Jewish, just as she had been telling me for years (one of the reasons I loved hanging out with her. She assured me that I was, in fact, Jewish, even though I wasn’t. I wanted to believe her.). Everything went fine that year; I went to services every Friday night and loved it. Here it was – a real Shabbat service, Here was Hebrew and Gefilte fish and Challah! I loved every minute.
 I remember in October Rabbi asked me who in my family was Jewish. He asked if my parents were and I said no. he asked about grandparents, and again I said no. Later that spring (2007), the idea of conversion finally came into my head. This was something that I could do! No, this was something that I was GOING to do. I was going to convert.
I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this, Anne had recently joined the Army and had left home, and I didn’t have any other Jewish friends so I went to the Rabbi’s wife, the Rebbetzin. I asked her what to do about conversion. She said that they don’t really encourage it, and after all I was only 19, why don’t I wait a few years and then re-evaluate things. She said they believed that I was born not-Jewish for a reason.
I took in everything, it all sounded fine to me. After all, I was only 19 and I had just started college. I was fine waiting because I knew I would convert one day. If it wasn’t right then, well that was fine.
Then I asked her if I could still keep coming to Shabbat, even though I’m not Jewish. She said “Yes, of course. You will always be welcome in our home.”

Less than a week later I got an e-mail from the Rabbi. He said that we needed to have a conversation and I can’t go back to Shabbat until we have this conversation. I was shocked, but agreed to have this conversation. I tried to set up a time to talk. He said that his wife was in New York and we couldn’t have this conversation till she got back. In the mean time, I could not come to Chabad. So I waited until I knew the Rebbetzin was home, and tried again. Well, he said, the High Holy Days were coming up and he was extremely busy and we’d have to wait till after they were over. I sent him e-mails. I called about once a week (I didn’t want to bother him too much). Nothing. He never got back to me; he kept pushing me off until finally I gave up. I was in my sophomore year of college and up to my eyeballs in work, so I stopped calling.

I didn’t go to Shabbat for two years.

My senior year of college I moved in with three Jewish women who all went to Chabad. I told them my story and they offered insight. As they had all been going to Shabbat for the past few years, they found out what happened. They told me that since my friend Anne told the Rabbi I was Jewish, when he found out that I wasn’t, he thought that I had lied to him and that’s why he wouldn’t let me come back. However, I was friends with one of the other girls who told the Rabbi and Rebbetzin that, if there had been a miscommunication, it was a mistake; I surely wouldn’t lie to them. Basically, she vouched for me. The Rebbetzin believed her but the Rabbi still wouldn’t let me come back.      
My senior year we had another Rabbi come to WWU. I started going back to Shabbat and I made sure that new Rabbi and his wife knew that I wasn’t Jewish, right from the get go, so there was no confusion, so there wouldn’t be a repeat of my freshman year.

Though I gave up on the idea of going to Shabbat for those two years, I didn’t give up on the idea of Judaism. I checked out other religions. I went to a few catholic and protestant services. I sat in on a Pagan service. I looked, I did my research. Nothing felt the way Judaism feels to me.

So there it is; the whole sad, sorry tale. And I’m still here. I’m still converting.

High Holy Days

I joined the choir at Town and Village synagogue. We’re going to do the High Holy Days services. I’ve gone to two choir practices so far, not nearly enough for the perfectionist in me to feel ready to perform them, however Cantor Postman gave us CDs with recordings of our parts so that we can practice, which will help.
            Tonight at T&V Cantor Postman is going to basically explain the music that will be sung at the services; what the English translation of the music is, the significance of the songs to the services etc which I’m really excited for. One of my biggest struggles with services is the fact that, since I can’t read Hebrew and I haven’t been going to shul for very long, I don’t know any of the prayers or songs. Most of the time during Shabbat services I just hum along, or read the English but it frustrates me immensely. I want to be able to not only recite the Hebrew prayers/blessing but understand what I’m saying. Tonight will be good because that is exactly what I’m going to learn. I need to know what it is I am singing about exactly. I want to be able to connect with the liturgy and the meaning behind the music, and this will help me with that.
            It’s all about connection. I realized that a few years ago. My search for Judaism is a search for a connection; a connection with God, with other people, with music. Life is all about connections. 

Friday, August 20, 2010


Hello Blogosphere! 
            Some things you should know about me:
-         I am not Jewish by blood
-         I am Jewish at heart
-         I am converting
-         I am allergic to Gluten.
        However, this blog is going to deal mainly with the first three bulletins. I got this idea from a woman I met at Shabbat last week. I am converting to Judaism; I decided that a long time ago. The only reason I haven’t started the process yet is that I was in school for most of my life. I decided to wait to start the conversion process until after I finished college, which I did, last June. The reason for this is that, my sources tell me, the conversion process takes a year of intensive study. Well, I was already doing that. So I waited until I finished that study to start this next, more important (to me) study.
      I graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington and then moved to New York City because I could, because I have big dreams, because I love New York City, and because as much as I love Bellingham, if I had to stay there any longer I would have screamed. The time simply came for me to move on. So I did.  
      I went to Shabbat last week at this synagogue off of 1st street- the Town and Village Synagogue. I had wanted to go to a synagogue since I arrived here. I wanted to pray and basically just to be with God for a while. The service started and the Cantor, Shayna Postman, had the most beautiful voice. I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t know any of the prayers she was singing and therefore couldn’t really sing with her, but I listened and I took it in and it was just wonderful. I had found it. I found a sense of home that I only get at a synagogue.
      More than that, I had found other converts like myself. When I was in Bellingham and told people I was going to convert, they always asked “Why.” I understand that they were curious and they all meant well by it but I was so sick of trying to answer that question. Because I couldn’t. My reasons for converting are so hard to articulate. A phrase I heard in a Tarot book (oh yeah, I read Tarot cards too) was “a great truth you can’t put into words” and that’s exactly what this is. It’s impossible for me to explain my decision to convert to anyone, but I just know it to be the truth. It’s what’s right for me.
      With these other people, other converts like me; I didn’t have to explain, because they got it. They understood because they’re on the same page, or very similar pages.

      So long story short- this is going to be a blog about my experience through the conversion process. It might not actually start for a little while, as the High Holidays are coming up and I’ll likely wait until after that to start everything. Plus the classes cost money, and I don’t really have that at the moment. But when something happens, I’ll let you know.