Last week when I went to the Israeli consulate to get a visa for my upcoming trip to Israel, the security guard, after taking in my kipa and tzitzit, asked me “Atah yehudi?” Are you Jewish? On my replying “bevadai,” of course, he persisted in asking “Atah yehudi mimakor?” “Were you born Jewish?”
With my Indian passport and a name most uncommon among Jews, he clearly had me pegged for a convert. And that aroused his interest. Most Jews are like that Israeli guard; they know that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, and hence a convert is an object of curiosity to them, something unusual. The very word in Hebrew for a convert is ger — an alien, indicating an outsider. Nevertheless, I would argue that converts and the experience of being a ger are crucial to the essence of the Jewish people.
I haven’t posted in awhile, because this fall I had to move from my happy city apartment (within walking distance from two Conservative shuls) back home to a rural village in Eastern Ontario. When I told people that I was moving there, one of the old guys at the morning minyan said, “Oh yeah, the synagogue in [Nearest Sizeable Town] has been gone for years. I was the last one to daven there.” I heard of one family that was there at some point in the recent past, but apparently it’s like all the Jewish people here have been driven out of Spain. Based on walking around my little village during Hanukkah and looking for lights in the windows, I can say that I seemed to be the only one observing it. Kosher butcher? Ha ha, no. Population is around 3500 people (this includes people living further out in the country), but there are three churches, two Protestant and one Catholic. At the little diner up the street, they put ground pork in the hamburgers. (When I informed the waitress that I sorta keep kosher, she warned me about it.)
I know there are plenty of worse places to live, and I’m still in touch with my rabbi via email, but it’s tough for me to feel severed from the community. I have to make my own Jewish experiences happen as best I can, instead of being able to observe and learn from the people around me.
I had to move on Shabbat, just as Sukkot was beginning–the moving company only gave me one other choice of date, and that was Yom Kippur, so I said no. I couldn’t celebrate the holiday at home, too exhausted and busy with unpacking. For weeks, though, I had recurring dreams that I was building a Sukkah. It was a little every night, fleeting images of setting posts and beams, hanging canvas, laying branches. Since I do so much reading during the day on Convert Stuff, I have related dreams pretty often (we’ve all had the Nazi dreams, let’s be real). Sometimes I have feverish pre-Shabbat dreams about what I’m gonna cook, discovering in a panic that my menu won’t work because the dessert has dairy. But this was slow and progressive, consistent from night to night. Finally I had the last one: I dreamed that my job was finished and the Sukkah was built, and I was sitting down inside it to eat. I felt accomplished, at peace. And that was it.
Now in December, my Hanukkah went off without a hitch. I learned the blessings and songs, set out my chanukkiyah, lit the candles, and cooked latkes, falafel, sufganiyot, perogies. When the 7th night fell on Erev Shabbat, I carved the bottoms of regular Shabbat candles with a knife so they’d fit in the menorah, candles big enough to burn from the early, early sunset (4:05pm) to nightfall. It was lonely, somehow lonelier than if I’d been alone in my apartment–I feel self-conscious singing the berachot in front of my mother. But I still loved it and was sad when it was over.
“But this isn’t actually…a rejection of Jesus, is it?” my mother asked. I was stunned, because I’d thought she understood what I was doing. I didn’t want to tell her that yes, that’s part of the deal, because I knew it would hurt her feelings. But I said yes, I have some theological problems with Jesus, and I’m not just doing it because Conservative Judaism is easier on homosexuality than Catholicism is. I’m doing it because I love the whole religion. I love the people. This is how I want to live.
It hurts that people approved more when I was miserable and angry inside the Catholic Church–people who love me. I know that this is just a communication thing and a time thing, and that everyone else will get used to it. It will look less alienating and scary to my family as they realize that I’m not trying to deny my ancestors or cut myself off from their traditions, but meanwhile…meanwhile all I want is to go to shul on a Saturday night for Mincha, Seuda Selishit, Ma’ariv and Havdalah. I want to sing the goofy setting of Adon Olam and head downstairs for kiddush on Shabbat morning, eating herring on crackers just because dammit I will start liking herring. My friend the gabbai hugging me when he sees me in the crowd. The sunlight coming through the windows at breakfast after morning minyan, shining on the transparent pink slivers of lox on the bagels, on the sliced melon and bowls of strawberries. People calling out questions after a d’var Torah.
All I want is everything, I’m greedy. And I’m lucky, because I live in the age of the internet and I can still find ways to not be alone. I wonder about how people did it in other periods of this country’s history, when they really were alone. There’s a Jewish graveyard a few miles from here, and I think about those people. How do we live without the others?
There’s an Orthodox shul somewhere close by in the neighbourhood of my Conservative one–I’ve never been there, and I’m not sure where it is, and I only know it exists because I see the Black Hats wandering in the neighbourhood at the same time as I’m heading to services.
I’m gonna hypothesize here that a lot of converts have a bad habit of staring at (or surreptitiously watching) anyone who’s visibly, observantly Jewish. Especially if (like me) you grew up in a place where there just were none around, but maybe even if you didn’t. Seeing a man in a kippa means that I will be subtly watching him until he’s out of my immediate range. I still pay close attention to the other people shopping around me in the kosher section. It just always represented something I was relentlessly curious about, hungry for. In Catholicism, one of the reasons for the Roman collar and the religious habit is to make people remember that the spiritual world exists, to provoke that hunger if possible. Visibility.
And added to that, with the Black Hats, there’s the more general curiosity about an insular group. They look out of place next to everyone else on the street, they don’t acknowledge me if I give a little shabbat shalom nod as I pass them on the sidewalk, and they make me think of Chaim Potok novels, which were one of my first introductions to Jewish literature. They’re also just visually interesting–there’s always a few in the crowd who are dapper and make the uniform look good, and some young guys who don’t really have beards yet but are trying hard, and some who are a mess of flapping coat panels and fringes and poorly fitted trousers. And the old men look like ghosts.
I usually wear a hamsa necklace, and when I’m on my way to or from shul I wear a little crocheted beret, but not a kippa. Lately I’ve started to sometimes wear a Magen David instead of the hamsa, as a more recognizable symbol, and I actually feel a little self-conscious about it. Not unpleasantly so, but I wonder if people notice it, if it makes them assume different things about me than they otherwise might have, if (as teachers always told us before we left on field trips) I’m “being a good ambassador.” Strangers seeing me on the bus or at the grocery store will see this visual cue and assume that I’m Jewish, and that’s new for me. If I were on display to the degree that the yeshivish guys are, I think I’d be pretty neurotic about it, but maybe their thoughts and motives are different.
So I guess I shouldn’t be staring. Sorry, bros. But the other night, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I was walking home from shul by myself. It’s a long walk, it’s not always well-lit, and really it’s probably not a good idea for me to take it after dark. But as I turned onto the main road, this bunch of yeshivish guys were walking ahead of me. Wherever they were headed, it was the same route as I was taking, so I trailed behind them as we walked through side streets, alongside city parks, under an overpass. I would have been very nervous doing that with a crowd of secular young men–if I did it at all. I’m not someone who worries a lot about this, compared to other women I know, and a few other dudes on the street won’t faze me, but a bunch of guys who know each other? That’s trouble. Even if all they do is yell something. But I knew these guys wouldn’t touch me, and they wouldn’t yell dirty shit at me, and I felt safe until we parted ways.
Sometimes I’m not sure what to write. I am treated with so much kindness at shul that I sometimes scheme a little to avoid having favours done for me, because I can’t do anything to repay it. A woman hugs me and draws me in for a kiss on the cheek when she sees me at Kabbalat Shabbat. The gabbai takes me aside to teach me to chant the birkot hashachar, tells me the nuances of meaning in certain Hebrew words, drives me home while blasting Carlebach melodies through open windows. An Asian-Canadian woman talks to me a little about her conversion process; she was raised Protestant, and when I say “Catholic” we both laugh. Eternal enemies. The cantor’s voice is so resonant that I feel the vibrations in the soles of my feet, in my fingertips where they hold the siddur. An intense young man wears four clips on his kippa to keep it in place on his very straight hair, and he politely refuses to shake my hand because he’s shomer negiah. I’m pleased with myself for knowing the term right away. We pound on the table singing zemirot. Instead of nitpicking or finding me inadequate, everyone seems to exaggerate what I’ve learned or what I practice, especially when they introduce me to others: “She already keeps kosher!” (Well, I don’t separate utensils yet but) “She reads Hebrew!” (A bit, painfully slowly) “She’s been attending shul very regulary!” (More like every other week, but okay.)
My friend the gabbai spends hours with me going over the siddur, picking out books for me from the synagogue library, teaching me tropes and melodies, showing me how tefillin are wrapped, and basically everything he can think of. He gives me twenty dollars in cash, unprovoked and randomly, but when I politely refuse he tells me that a very holy woman he knows gave it to him at a cemetery visit and told him to do something good with it. As it happens, I was nearly broke and wondering what I’d eat for Shabbat. So I take the money.
I’m not sure why I’m so surprised, but I am.
I was a picky eater as a kid. I still am in a lot of ways, but I’m more open to trying new foods, which has been one of the fun things about exploring Judaism and kosher food. The traditional Ashkenazi stuff has all been new to me, and a lot is stuff I would never have considered trying otherwise. Gefilte fish, it’s a problem. I was delighted and vindicated to read that the British Jews do fry it, as that seemed to me like the only possible strategy when I first opened a package of it. My people! You understand! Similarly, cold marinated herring in a jar just creeps me out. But kippers, nice and hot and buttery, that I can do.
The meal above is one of my fusion attempts, trying to merge stuff that’s traditional for me with a Jewish diet. Kippers with butter, toasted challah rolls with more butter and a dab of Marmite, and by G-d a cup of tea. (The Guinness glass to the side is unrelated as it’s my all-purpose water glass.) The challah rolls are working for me like gangbusters–putting out two full loaves every Shabbat is just wasteful for me, living alone, but a bag of the small rolls can last me pretty well in the fridge and they look cute. It looks to me like having two rolls set out under the cover fulfills the obligation just like having two big loaves, since a roll is certainly more than the size of an olive and complete in itself, but I might be wrong. If you already like Marmite or if you think you can appreciate the delights of a salty-yeasty table spread, then I can tell you that yeah, putting it on challah is a good idea. Is it kosher? Looks that way!
Kippers do have a bone issue, so not so good for Shabbat, but the ones I bought fresh from the fish section had wayyyy more bones than the frozen Neptune-brand package which is boil in the bag–if those could be heated up and drained before candle-lighting and kept warm for dinner, they’d work. All dat Omega-3 fo me, and apparently they’re not too mercurified to eat more than once a week.
Tea with dinner is a major comfort thing for me that reminds me of my mother; I don’t know how widespread it is outside the Maritimes, and it feels like it’s in decline, but when I was in the hospital here in Ontario it was served with every meal, so who knows. I made tea ahead of time for Shabbat dinner this week (I like it strong) and it felt like everything clicked into place. A nice warm teapot on the Shabbat table is, dare I say it, heimisch.
Good are the radiant stars our God created,
He formed them with knowledge,
understanding and deliberation.
He gave them strength and might
to rule throughout the world;
Full of splendour, radiating light,
beautiful is their splendour throughout the world;
Glad as they go forth, joyous as they return,
they fulfill with awe their Creator’s will.
Glory and honour they give to His name,
jubilation and song at the mention of His majesty.
He called the sun into being and it shone with light.
He looked and fashioned the form of the moon.
Koren-Sacks siddur translation.
Sometimes it seems like either I get my apartment properly ready for Shabbat and have a proper dinner, or I actually get out to services, but not both. I was too exhausted on Saturday morning to do anything but sleep, and I was late enough getting out of the house for evening services that I might as well have not bothered, because they were all locked up–I felt like a criminal creeping around the grounds trying the doors and glancing up at the security cameras. Catholic churches are almost always open, even if you’ve missed Mass, if you want to go in and just chill (these days that applies only to the bigger ones, but it’s still the ideal). Jewish buildings are high security because unfortunately there’s a need for it.
So I walked home again, did havdalah, and because the moon was bright tonight I went out on my balcony to say kiddush levana. There is an overhang but it’s close enough to open sky for me, and I feel a little oddly exposed when I pray out there–I live in a complex with two buildings facing each other, so often when I’m on my balcony I’m trying to avoid eye contact with other people out on theirs. But I love kiddush levana, even though I wish I could be saying it properly with a minyan. The prayers are beautiful, and it represents a healthy balance between the human desire to venerate creation and the demand of monotheism to worship only one God. Kiddush Levana has the beauty of paganism, restrained and heightened by its self-imposed limits. I address my shalom aleichem to my view of the city at large, my birth-city which I love; to quote St. Columcille, it is for me “that noble angel-haunted city…the best-beloved place”.
The moon isn’t a deity in Judaism, and we bless it as we bless each other, as equals, all of us in the same universe together and made by a common creator. And of course in that vein, kiddush levana is especially appropriate tonight as we remember Neil Armstrong:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” — Armstrong’s family, announcing his death in a written statement
Shalom aleichem, then.
I am all for boundaries in the kitchen. Whether they’re halakhic (not serving rabbit) or culinary (traditional Italian cuisine frowns upon serving fish with cheese), limitations tend to inspire creativity. Still, without the speed, the tools, or the technical skill of a professional cook, it’s a tall order to complete the dishes by Shabbat’s arrival and to warm them in such a way that is halakhically permissible and non-detrimental to the food. The meal inevitably suffers.
It’s nearly impossible to serve anything that is both warm and green, for example. Reheated vegetables almost invariably lose their color. This means I can’t make the chive sauce I like to serve with cod, or sautéed spinach. This means my pea soup is inevitably brown.
Restrictions like these can make traditional Shabbat observance seem like deprivation. Shabbat is not conceptualized as an ascetic practice; rather, the obligatory nature of Shabbat and its attending constraints are supposed to usher in a higher luxury. Eating has always been central to that sense of luxury. Rabbinic literature is full of imaginative descriptions of Shabbat meals. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer tells us that a man should always set a full table on Friday night, even if he only needs an olive’s worth of food. Likewise, many traditional Shabbat songs feature culinary themes. “It is an honored day,” writes Ibn Ezra in his poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” “a day of enjoyment, of bread and good wine, of meat and fish!”
I still eat better on Shabbat than I do any other day of the week, since I actually bother to cook, but preparing food ahead of time frustrates me too. I’m not a fan of meats served cold, and other tactics do dry things out.