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?
All my relations: I had lunch today with my aunt, for the first time in awhile. She’s had cancer since last Christmas and is still going through chemo, but she seems to be doing better. She’s looking frail, but we didn’t talk about her illness; I asked a couple of open-ended questions and then let the subject drop, as she was more interested in giving me advice about my job search (this has always been one of her favourite activities). Since we were eating, and since it’s been a pretty major new thing in my life, I told her that I’ve been exploring Judaism and I keep kosher now. She had to ask what that means and what I can’t eat, which surprised me, but I tried to give a nice concise answer. “No pork, no shellfish, and I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal. But fish and dairy is okay.”
That sounds complicated, she said. I explained that it wasn’t as onerous as it might sound, and that I eat very well, and in fact I cook more and pay better attention to what I’m eating now than I did before. This was the part that mattered to her–she worries after my eating. And ordering food wasn’t difficult: chicken breast sandwich with lettuce and mayo, chips, that checks out. Pepsi, pareve. Cheesecake was out for dessert, but the apple pie was okay.
I’d been worried about telling her, because she’s often very blunt about personal decisions like that, and (like the rest of my maternal relatives) she’s a good Catholic. But the only wince-worthy moment was when she earnestly asked if I’d done any networking at synagogue, because “Jewish people are very good with business.” I just told her no, the people at synagogue were mostly retired or they worked in education, just like our family does. No special Jewish financial bonuses for signing on.
Life is strange; I saw the sun last night, as I closed my eyes to sleep: New mitzvot I’m trying to pick up. I wrote out Modeh/Modah Ani on a card and taped it up by the bed, and Asher Yatzar in the bathroom. This has helped me practice writing out Hebrew (I am very, very bad at this), and it also helps me read it as I try to focus on those letters and only look down at the transliteration if I have to. I have pretty extreme anxiety attacks a lot, especially at night, and thanking G-d when I wake up alive and okay makes perfect sense to me. I really am grateful every time and I love being able to say the prayer. I did wonder whether I should say it after a substantial nap (like three hours or so), or if I woke up at sometime other than morning, e.g. shift work or just sleeping inverted days. The impression I get from looking it up is that since Modah Ani does not contain G-d’s name, one can say it after any substantial amount of sleep, but is only obligated to say it when awakening in the morning. If this is wrong, feel free to correct me. I sleep weird hours, so it is relevant to my interests.
Asher Yatzar is a weirder one, but I really like it too. We’ve all had Unfortunate Moments when the tubes and cavities are not in working order, and being grateful for their good functioning seems to me like a better spiritual hygiene practice than only praying for their repair when things are going wrong. I like the way the blessing brings wonder to a totally mundane function, acknowledging the complexity of the human body. And I can say it several times a day, which helps me learn.
We had a couple of thunderstorms here recently, too, which gave me the opportunity to say that beracha. Those berachot on sights, smells and discoveries in nature are part of Judaism’s great beauty to me. Yes, we can thank G-d in any language at any time for whatever is beautiful to us, but ritualising it gives it greater weight. I bless G-d for his creations even when I personally don’t feel inspired or impressed, because my reactions and emotions are not what make thunder great. The fact that I’m used to my digestive system’s functionality doesn’t make it less worthy of praise. G-d’s activity in the world deserves blessing for the sake of what it is.
I called my mother last night and told her that I’m giving serious thought to converting. I didn’t say a whole lot about my reasons; I really don’t see a need to bum her out by talking about how I don’t think the prophecies fit Jesus and that there’s no indication of the Messiah being God incarnate. She already knows, of course, that I’ve always had a weird, inexplicable attraction to Judaism. And she said she thought it was a good thing to explore, and she was supportive of my dietary changes even if I have to move back home again. Apparently for Pesach the little grocery store in my tiny hometown got some brisket in, so there’s always the possibility that they might order things in–it’s the kind of place where the owners know everyone in town.
We also talked a lot about our disappointment with Catholicism. Maybe I should emphasize here that everyone in my family is inclined to traditional attitudes of obedience to the Church. My dad had a lot of disputes in the Anglican church over liturgy, since he was heavily involved in it, and he taught me that you can always have an opinion (and you should be able to back it up with solid sources), but if the priest shuts you down you say “Yes, Father.” My mother taught me that the Church as an institution is full of ordinary human beings, but in the long run it resolves its internal problems and remains morally relevant, and we have to be patient. We’re a liberal, intellectual family, but it would have never occurred to us in the past to say that the Pope is just behaving like a criminal or that the Church is going steadily downhill rather than uphill. And we wouldn’t have said it because we didn’t believe it, not because we were afraid to speak our minds. We gave them the benefit of the doubt.
So it bothers me a lot to let things end this way, even though I feel like my conversion is long overdue. The two things aren’t connected up that much: even when I wasn’t totally out of patience with the RCC I still felt a deep longing and affinity for Judaism. I wanted to be part of that world but felt like there were too many obstacles, that it wasn’t something I could really do. Now my frustration is overcoming my inertia and the fears I have surrounding change (what will my friends think, what if the rabbis all refuse, what if I look stupid, etc.).
Also, at the same time as I’m sorting through this, the American Woman is going through all the stuff one accumulates from a Mormon upbringing. We rant and roar together about structures and hierarchies, getting unsatisfying answers to questions, being told to pray until the unsatisfying becomes satisfying, having no recourse. We drain the swelling, and each time there’s a little less. Have I mentioned she’s amazing? Because yeah. I lucked out.
There’s a Northern Irish proverb that goes, “God kicks with both feet, and keeps His shoes clean.” I’ve adopted it as a sort of motto for the sheer exhaustion one feels sometimes while trying to process all this. It often feels like we’re being punished just for caring, for trying to do the right thing. A wonderful gift I’ve received in reading about Judaism and praying with the siddur is that God’s presence and personality emerge from the texts and I know that it’s not Him who’s kicking. These are strictly human problems. God is bigger.
A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain. Yes, in the rain.
There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.
And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.
– Yehuda Amichai