Category: The Heart

Almost the only Jew in town

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?



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.

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted

Excerpt from This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l:

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba-al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot — secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms.

All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba-al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba-al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously — how utterly — he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.

All right, you’re hired, the Ba-al Shem said.

But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.

So the Ba-al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba-al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax — the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, where he may be — the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” [*]

I first encountered Rabbi Lew’s telling of this story maybe five years ago.  More or less by accident, I found his sermons on his congregation’s website and read through them all.  I was still in university, the last year of an obscenely long B.A., and due to depression I was failing hard.  I couldn’t afford another year.  I loved being at Queen’s, loved learning, loved my professors, loved Latin and loved philosophy.  In fact, I had three of my favourite courses ever that year: philosophy of medicine with Jacalyn Duffin, Judaism in its Classical period with Herbert Basser, and an amazing, intimate lecture on Vergil and Cicero with the late Ross Kilpatrick (do I z”l for gentiles too?) and Michael Cummings.  All my professors were sympathetic and eager to give me accommodation when I explained that I was having emotional problems, and I still couldn’t get it together to meet those standards. I blew it.  And I was crushed when I realised I would have to leave school and go back home in order to fully recover.  This is the story that came back to me then, the line from Psalm 34: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

When I was a teenager, I tried to use my knowledge of religion to feel superior.  I was a messed-up kid who’d been bullied a lot for being the bookish type, and I happened to be pretty good at learning theology and Church history–my family background gave me a leg up there, and the rest was natural proclivity for that sort of thing.  When I like something I get obsessive and zealous, and at the same time I was dealing with family health crises (my dad had a severe stroke and was disabled), so you can imagine how that worked out.  I was obnoxious.  And that unhealthy interest couldn’t sustain itself, so for a year or two I just stopped.

When I was in university, another terrible incident in my life knocked me down hard.  I went back to church, but I wanted something different from it now.  I wanted meaty, bony strength.  I wanted something that would make sense of suffering.  And by that I mean (paradoxically) something that wouldn’t make sense of it.  Explanations, arguments, and apologetics weren’t enough anymore, and what I wanted was just the beating, bloody heart, the presence of God that exists in suffering.  The ax that chops open the door of the king.

I don’t thank God for the things that have happened, but I’m intensely grateful to have learned from them.  I’m grateful for the books I found, the teachers I was given, the art and music that came into my life.  Having that story and that snippet of Scripture in my head helped me feel less alone.  Without the story I would never have given that line much thought, but with it the Psalm has an anchor.  Now I’ll never forget it.

Guide for the Perplexed

There’s a great moment in the not-so-great movie Skinwalkers in which the hero, Jimmy Chee, is a Navajo cop who’s also exploring his spiritual traditions.  At one point a sarcastic young tough guy pokes his head out a car window and yells at Jimmy, “He’s a cop! He’s a medicine man! He’s confuuuused.”  Then he cackles and peels out of there.  (I’m heartbroken that I can’t find a youtube link, because the delivery is hilarious and I laugh every time I even think about it.)

That’s what I think of when I try to summarize my religious stuff.  I’m definitely not unique in this, since confusion is a pretty natural reaction to religious matters.  But some people are only confused by one religion while others feel confused by two or three or several or all of them.  I grew up in a mixed marriage, Catholic and Protestant. Yes, this is still technically only one religion, but let me list some aggravating factors:

  1. My father’s side, Protestant, was really Protestant, by which I mean Irish.  When my dad was a kid, his father discouraged him from playing with Catholic kids.  Orange Order, the whole deal.  My dad overcame that programming, obviously, but continued to give Catholicism a lot of side-eye as an institution.
  2. That side also died out by the time I was born.  I never knew any of those relatives.
  3. My mom’s side, Catholic, is really Catholic.  Several relatives belong or belonged to religious orders, and are still active in Catholic education.
  4. I went to Catholic schools for most of my childhood and adolescence.
  5. But my dad was very active in the Anglican church and had even intended to seek ordination.  He didn’t end up doing that, but he did get a theology degree and was a lay reader.

So my parents raised me in the Anglican church, but I was marinating in this very Catholic milieu.  Some people would shrug this off and focus on the bigger picture, but not me.  When I was a teenager I already wanted to attend the Catholic church instead, but my father (see above re: the side-eye) wouldn’t support me.  I did anyway when I went away to university and was formally received into the Church, and my dad got over it.

All that being said, other things were going on in my spiritual life at the same time.  I was fascinated by Judaism.  There weren’t a lot of outlets for me to explore that–I lived in the farthest corner of Eastern Ontario, a place whose demographics were mostly Scottish, Irish, and French, with a lot of New Canadians of South Asian origin.  The Jewish community was vanishingly small, its living members probably outnumbered by the graves in the little Jewish cemetery that adjoined the gentile one outside of town.  Instead I read books by Chaim Potok and Amos Oz and Yehudah Amichai, Jewish authors who wrote with very self-consciously Biblical styles.  However, before that, when I was a small child my father taught math at a yeshiva in Ottawa.  I attended a seder with my parents and was allowed to hide the afikomen, I heard my dad tell stories from work about the rabbis and the yeshiva boys, and otherwise got exposed to more Jewish stuff than I would have normally.  At one point (probably after hearing one too many “King of the Jews” references at church), I was confused enough to ask my mother, “Are we Jewish?”  I remember being disappointed by the answer.

Sed contra est, although I thought pretty hard about Judaism and conversion often as a teenager and a young adult, I felt like I wasn’t able to give up Catholic beliefs and practices.  I like icons, I like statues.  I love the saints, and my relationship with Our Lady is complicated but (I think) valuable to me.  Graven images seem to do me a lot of spiritual good.  In fact, before I went ahead with joining the Catholic Church, I spent some time exploring paganism.  This turned out to be too much graven-images for me, though: I still like learning about it and seeing what other people get out of it, but for me, it didn’t really take me anywhere.

I continued to read a lot about Jewish spirituality.  I took a course in university on rabbinical literature that introduced me to the Talmud, which I really loved.  I read a lot about the modern state of Israel and learned a tiny amount of Hebrew.  One of my Jewish friends said to me once, “It’s almost too bad you seem so happy as a Catholic, because you’d make a great Jew.”

Nevertheless, I wasn’t actually that happy.  The Church hurts the ones who love her.  That’s not a bug, necessarily: I still believe that suffering and spiritual challenge are how you move forward, and confronting the Church as a believer is tough.  It should be tough.  My issue was being gay.  After struggling hard for awhile, as a gesture of good faith, I decided to try doing things the Church’s way.  I remained celibate for about six years.  I finally stopped for the following reasons:

  1. After trying for six years to absorb the Church’s teaching, I still didn’t believe it myself, and I couldn’t in good conscience see myself proclaiming it to other gay people as the truth.  I knew that I would feel terrible about myself if I did.
  2. The Church says the teaching is based partly on Natural Law, which means that anyone (regardless of faith) should be able to perceive it as true.  I think this is pretty plainly not the case, and I refuse to accept widespread bigotry as evidence of God’s will.
  3. The way Scripture talks about the forbidden sex acts, I thought that the clearer and more useful interpretation is to read them as forbidding male-on-male rape, abuse, and sacred prostitution.
  4. “By their fruits you shall know them”: when I look at Catholics who push for anti-gay interpretations, I see at best people who are refusing to listen to others.  The best examples of that side are still heavily invested in denying what gay people actually say about their lives.  We all know what the worst look like, and to be honest, most of the people arguing tilt toward the worst, not the best.  I’m not expecting everyone to be perfect in order for their position to be true.  But I would expect that knowing the higher spiritual truth leads you to treat people better.  I felt ashamed that I was keeping company with people who argued like that.  I winced when I read their arguments, and yes, that includes the people who use nicer language and pretend to understand our struggles.

So that’s about where I stand with that.  But that’s not what made me think about leaving.  The Church’s decisions/mistakes in worldly matters are serious, but they’re not what the Church is all about.  Catholicism has done worse and survived worse.  I don’t even need to give examples, although I’ll mention the Cadaver Trial because, Cadaver Trial.  Also, while I like that Conservative Judaism mostly agrees with me about homosexuality, it’s a side benefit more than anything; what’s more important is that I have a lot of respect for the way in which Judaism resolves this sort of dispute, where multiple opinions get a chance to tussle with each other.

I moved back to Ottawa, and in the big city I found that I could now stoke my love for Judaism with the finest fuel: the food.  The Loblaws by Baseline station has a huge kosher section, and as soon as I got here I started doing most of my grocery shopping there.  Not a big deal in itself.  When I was in university I had an Israeli roommate who was an animal rights advocate, and since we were both philosophy majors, we had a lot of conversations about the ethics of meat.  Her recommendation was, roughly, “If you agree with me about this stuff but you don’t want to give up meat completely, you should eat kosher meat, because they at least try to limit the animal’s suffering.”  So I did that.

But as I started to immerse myself in Jewish food culture, still continuing to read about the religion (and to like what I was reading), I started to think about doing more.  Challah in the bakery section! I would think. But challah’s for Shabbos.

Well, what if I tried keeping Shabbos?

If I did want to ask a rabbi about converting, I thought, I’d want to be sure first that I can even keep all these commandments.  Could I handle keeping even most of the rules about Shabbos?  Could I keep a kosher diet all the time?

So I tried it.  I knew gentiles aren’t supposed to keep Shabbos unless and until they become Jews, but then I wasn’t really in danger of keeping the rules perfectly anyway–I still used the computer and wrote and called my mother on the very first night I tried.  But I cleaned my apartment, bought challah and kosher wine, unscrewed the refrigerator bulb, put an aluminum foil blech on the stove, put out a tablecloth and candles, recited some of the blessings, ate, read me some Old Testament, and slept.  And I liked it.

I still try to keep Shabbos–one week I forgot completely until the sun had gone down, another week I didn’t get the apartment cleaned in time, but mostly I make an effort for Friday nights.  I also keep a fuzzy sort of kosher: I’ve cut pork/shellfish/etc. out of my diet completely, I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal, I look for the kosher symbol on packaged food. I don’t separate utensils because I can’t afford another set (university lifestyle continues, but I would kasher my kitchen if I could afford more dishes), and I do eat from restaurants.

So that is roughly where I’m coming from.  This blog is a place to put my thoughts while I’m sorting things out.