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.
So I decided this week that it was about time I tried going to Shabbat services. I searched for the nearest Conservative synagogue, found the address on Google Maps, and set off early this morning.
I’m a pretty good walker. I’m not fast or athletic in any way, but I have a lot of stamina and I like to take long, meandering walks for hours. But in the sun it was rough, and that is my own fault for not thinking ahead and getting sunscreen. It’s a beautiful walk, though, crossing the Experimental Farm and later through a park, down a flight of metal stairs installed on the side of a steep wooded hill. And then a few streets of auto glass shops, because you can’t win them all. Like a genius, I didn’t write down Google’s directions so I got lost at one point and had to stop in at a Canadian Tire to look at their maps.
Anyway, I was triumphant and got there in time. My dad was always mortified if we didn’t make it exactly ten minutes early to church (preferably fifteen) and would fuss about the indignity of walking in on the procession, so that’s what I tried to do. Instead I found that there was no big hurry, and the small group was still waiting for a minyan. They have no rabbi of their own at the moment (Catholics can relate!) but they led the services themselves, playing it by ear (Catholics cannot relate). Everyone was very chill and friendly, especially when I said I wasn’t Jewish and had never done this before, but was interested in converting. They got me a Chumash and siddur, explained what the little squares mean in the Hebrew text, pointed out that we were using the version that included the matriarchs in the prayers, and generally made sure that I was able to follow along.
I was surprised by how much (spoken) Hebrew I knew. I only recently learned the aleph-bet and am pretty slow picking my way through it, but during the prayers and Torah and Haftorah I could follow where we were in the English translation based on vocabulary words that I recognised. Mainly I got confused during prayers that were sung to a melody that everyone else knew but I didn’t, but when those cropped up I just waited, looking at the English text or trying to soak up the melody for next time. I was also thrown by the Torah scroll being carried through the congregation–I could see how the men were venerating it with the tzitzyot, but did the women do something different? Was I allowed to touch it as a non-Jew? I didn’t know, so I defaulted to Catholic liturgical training when faced with a new and confusing ritual: do nothing and stand aside to let other people in the row do their thing.
Of course some of the prayers were in English, and I was even asked to read one, which was awesome. (It was this one, roughly, adapted for Canadian use in our siddur.) The dvar Torah given by one of the congregation was far more erudite than I’m used to from Catholic homilies–my family were always tough critics, and I learned to dread sermons read word for word at the pulpit. This guy spoke from notes but they were actually necessary, since he was citing sources and making a scholarly argument. The other difference I noticed is that it was an argument about liturgy and history, rather than an exhortation to feeling a certain way. (I get that a dvar and a sermon aren’t the same thing, I’m just comparing because they occupy a similar sort of place in the liturgies.) My talks with the American Woman about Mormonism have made me more sensitive to religious activities that try to whip up and manipulate the emotions, and the services here were very much not about that. There were opportunities to focus in on your own feelings, particularly during the silent parts, but no pressure to feel a certain way or to display outward signs of “spiritual feelings”. This is exactly what I want.
I didn’t feel too out of place. All the other women wore kippot and most wore tallitot, but no one drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t. Everyone introduced themselves or introduced me around to other people, made conversation and invited me for kiddush afterwards. I was awkward and nervous, like I usually am with new people, but it was a pretty forgiving environment. (I failed to politely escape taking some gefilte fish, even though I cannot deal with that stuff cold. “Oh, no thanks, not for me.” “No, HAVE SOME.” So I did.) A very motherly rebbetzin said I was brave to come and was surprised that I was trying to keep kosher already, which, my heart grew three sizes that day. It was really, really great to have encouragement. She introduced me to her husband, who’s led conversion classes before, and he was also super supportive and suggested I get in touch with him. Nobody tried to discourage me three times or anything.
In short, OMG WHY DID I NOT TRY THIS SOONER.