First Yom Kippur

Monday was my first ever Yom Kippur fast, and yesterday evening was my first Yom Kippur service.  Maybe it was the hunger, but I was genuinely moved by the whole experience.

We had our pre fast dinner around five o’clock so as to finish in time to go to the evening services, dinner was pasta and copious amounts of water and by the time we left for the services, I was feeling pretty stuffed. Getting to the services proved to be a problem, we were going to take the bus (I know, I know, no shomer shabbas of us!) but the bus never came, and neither did a single empty cab. We waited for almost forty minutes and finally had to concede that we were not going to make services. This really disappointed us, but since it was the first time we were going to this particular synagogue, neither E nor I wanted to be showing up half an hour last (especially since SHARP was written in bold print on the synagogue schedule).

Having failed to make the evening services, we retreated home and I spent the rest of the evening feeling really thirsty and reading Jewish Literacy. I’m loving this book by the way, highly recommended for anyone considering conversion or who just wants to learn more about the Jewish religion.

Yom Kippur itself was unfortunately not as observant as I would have liked. I had an especially pressing meeting at work and while my work is pretty accommodating of various schedules and religious observance, it would have been a bit rich to ask for Yom Kippur off considering I am not as of yet, Jewish. So, hungry and battling a lack of caffeine headache, I went to my work meeting in the morning and then met up with E in the early afternoon.

We rested some, and I made the stupid suggestion of breaking the fast that night with burgers and Monday Night Football, and then we were off to afternoon services at the synagogue.

About the synagogue – this time we choose to go to what would be the closest synagogue to us, about fifteen minutes by bus up the street. When we arrived for the afternoon services, there were probably only fifty or so people there, all of them older, many of them clearly very “progressive”. This is a conservative synagogue, and many of the women were wearing kippas and prayer shawls and then general vibe of the place was a relaxed atmosphere. The rabbi was extremely welcoming, coming up to us at one point and introducing himself and later explaining how the services would go.

Now, I’m not going to lie, these services can be tough. I don’t read Hebrew (yet) and it is difficult to feel part of things when you have no idea where you are in the prayer book. I would like by Rosh Hashana next year to at least be able to have a sense of where we are in the book instead of just relying on E to tell me to turn the page. Still, the Ne’ila was beautiful and handled wonderfully by the Rabbi taking the congregation from solemnity of the recitation of sins to the blowing of the shofar (or in the case of this synagogue, the many, many shofars, there must have been thirty people up there with them).

After services we celebrated breakfast with the congregation and talking some more with the Rabbi. I got a really good feeling from the man, very warm and welcoming, if a bit left of center. He encouraged us to come back for Shabbat services, and I think we will.

Conversion Reading List

Just a quick post today to note what the reading will be for the conversion I am taking and some thoughts on study:

The text book is Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice

The bible we’ll be using is the JPS Tanakh

Other recommended reading is:

Jewish Literacy

Jewish Holidays

Living a Jewish Life

And, because I am insane and obsessive, especially when it comes to books, I have also bought

Becoming a Jew

To Be a Jew

To Pray as a Jew

These eight books are going to be my starting point in study, but I expect to head off in a number of tangents along the way.

I am really excited about this process, there is so much to learn and so many other avenues to explore, including for me looking into Gershom Scholem’s work, the codification of much of Jewish tradition in the middle ages, the place of Jews in the Frankfurt school, and much, much more. As this blog develops, I hope to have it branch off into both personal meditations on my own journey in Judaism, but also more general writing about aspects of Jewish history and theology that interest me.

Rabbi Reflections

The meeting with the Rabbi last night went very well. He was as warm and welcoming in person as he seemed on the phone and I feel very lucky that my first experiences with conversion have been with someone like this.

Sitting in his well-appointed study, we spent some time just chit chatting, E told him about her back ground in a semi observant home, I talked about my interest in converting and we shared some of the up and downs we have had with E’s family around my not being Jewish (more on this in a later post). After which he gave us a rundown of what his class will be like.

The program is set to be 18 weeks of study with other people considering conversion. It will meet once a week. I asked about the concerns with converting with a conservative rabbi and he had a thoughtful answer which boiled down to – it’s up to you, but he outlined some of the pros and cons of an orthodox conversion.

Pros:

An Orthodox conversion isn’t going to be challenged by anyone in the future, i.e., no one will doubt you’re Jewish*;

No one is going to doubt your children are Jewish (thought this isn’t as big a deal for E and I since she is definitely way Jewish); and

Though E thinks this is not going to be an issue, I worry her family will not accept this as a real conversion unless it is an orthodox conversion. It is one of the ironies of conversion that the convert is generally held to a more rigorous standard than what those who are born into a religion. There are things in E’s family from which I am excluded because I am not Jewish, it would be extremely frustrating if I were to continue to be excluded from those things after conversion.

Cons:

Converting in an orthodox manner means kabbalat ol ha’mitzvo., Meaning, I would need to accept the yoke of the rules of Judaism. All the rules. That would mean either never eating in my parents’ home again, not going to my sister’s wedding or my nieces and nephews baptism or lying to the beit din. I am not excited about either idea.

As the rabbi** said, no one follows all the rules, the important thing is to understand the importance of the rules and to do as best one can. I’m down for that, but that is not enough for Orthodoxy.

Additionally, I think that when it comes to picking a shul, E and I will be much more comfortable in a more egalitarian synagogue. I would prefer mixed seating; it would be nice if E could be on the Bimah. Conclusion Right now, I am leaning heavily towards a conservative conversion. I have some more thinking about it to do, but conservative seems like the right approach***.

Either way, we have signed up for the course the Rabbi teaches beginning the first week of October. I am already extremely excited.

*As long as you convert with a Rabbi approved by the Orthodox Rabbinate currently calling the shots in Israel.

** This guy is going to figure heavily in my life I think, I should come up with a witty nickname for him.

*** Can I tell you how little I know about Judaism that I was shocked to find out that conservative is really liberal while reform is like far left. I really thought conservative was like Orthodox light when really it seems to be more like serious Reform, if that makes any sense.

First Rosh Hoshannah Reflections

I went to my first Rosh Hashanah services this weekend with E. As my previous post mentions, we choose the services at Georgetown which were, I guess, conservative in nature (Mixed seating, mostly in Hebrew, no acoustic guitars). The place was packed with students and families. A couple of observations on the holiday and services:

1. The majority of the service was in Hebrew, but the prayers books thankfully had translation. I’ll admit to not understanding much of what was going on. I understand the importance of Rosh Hashanah as celebration of the New Year, but the relationship of the specific prayers in the service to the holiday is something I definitely didn’t understand entirely.

This is not to say I wasn’t moved, I was, but more for the larger reasons I am often moved at Jewish ceremonies. The enormous history and tradition in these ceremonies is awe inspiring, that they have been carried on for so long in the face of such opposition is astounding, and the fact that young Jews like E and the many Georgetown undergrads who were at this ceremony, are committed to carrying on the traditions into the next generation is a testament to the power of the religion. That, and the use of a Torah scroll that had been hidden during the Holocaust and was now once again being used to celebrate the new year was as moving to me as any of the prayers.

2. People come late and leave early? I had no idea. I was really nervous about making sure to get there on time, but E told me not to worry, that many people would be late, and when we showed up, about half an hour late, she was right. The place was packed, but people continued to stream in for at least the next hour and then, with an hour or so left to go in the service, people started to leave. This does not happen in a Catholic Church.

3. The rabbi was clear, but his sermon wasn’t particularly inspiring. Twice he mentioned the Kabalistic interpretation of the reading, which in my ignorance, I found interesting. I thought Kaballah was a more fringe element in Judaism, but apparently not.

4. On Sunday, E and I couldn’t make it to services again, but we did do our own version of Tashlikh in Rock Creek Park. I know this is supposed to be done with a congregation, but at least we did it, and it was strangely beautiful praying together on the side of Rock Creek Parkway. I really enjoyed it.

First Rosh Hoshannah

Rosh Hoshannah starts tonight, and E and I will be celebrating it in our home. Tomorrow, we’ll be going to services at the Jewish Center at Georgetown. Much discussion went into where we’d be going for these services. In years past, E has gone to a more orthodox congregation, one that has a mehitzah. This year is the first year I am attending services with her and she worried that while the service itself is likely to be confusing, it’d be even worse if I was all alone through it. So, we’re off to the more reform synagogue, if it is awful and E can’t stand it, we’ll be back to the more traditional service for Yum Kippur.

The mehitzah thing is one of the many, many issues I imagine we’ll have as we go through this process. While I have a lot to learn about Judaism, I am uncomfortable with the idea that men and women can’t pray together. The idea that the separation of the sexes will lead to less distraction seems to both deny the existence of homosexual desire and the fact that the separation may make the mystery of the opposite sex even stronger.

On the other hand, I am a big believer in tradition and seriousness in religious practice and am frankly not all that interested in hippie dippy reform stuff. I am hesitant about all water down versions of faiths. If the mehitzah is part of the service, who am I as a new comer, and, as of now, a goy to disparage it? Then again, can’t we find a balance? Can’t we have both tradition and equality? Is there some way to be egalitarian and not also have acoustic guitars? These are the questions that E and I talk about as we wrestle with what our place is going to be in the spectrum of Jewish observance.

Introducing the Ger

As our story begins your narrator, me, the Ger, is a thirty four year old man raised in a reasonably observant Irish Catholic home. The Ger was confirmed in the Catholic Church and then basically never went to church again. For years he wasn’t very religious at all. At times, he was downright hostile to the idea of spirituality. Then, two and a half years ago, he met a wonderful woman who we’ll call E, and things began to change.
E was raised in a reasonably observant Jewish home. She went to the high holidays, her family often did shabbos dinner, and she often attended synagogue, but she doesn’t keep kosher and her Hebrew is a little rusty. Being Jewish is hugely important to her, and the Ger has now been to his share of joyous Jewish weddings and somber and moving Jewish funerals. At first, when conversion was brought up, he stubbornly refused. He was born an Irish Catholic and by God, that was how he’d die. But things change, and slowly the wonders of the religion and traditions started to affect him and the Ger got to thinking about how powerful it all was the relation to God through a combination of intellectual discourse and spiritual belief. The beauty of the ceremonies and traditions and he started to feel a real calling to be part of all that and to share it with E and be a model of the good Jewish man to he and E’s theoretical children.

So the Ger started thinking about converting. At first he did so half in jest, bringing it up for a laugh to feel out the waters, and then, more and more seriously. He began reading about it on the internet, he began buying books and now, in a couple of days, he has his first appointment with a Rabbi to seriously discuss it, and he is scared to death.

Right now, I don’t know where this is going to go. I think I am going to convert, but I still have reservations. I am still thinking it through. I want to use this space to discuss the excitement and concerns I have about conversion, Judaism and Jewish history.  Let’s see how it goes.