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.