Book Review: Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation

Allan Lew

A meditation on the Jewish High Holidays by one of the most important reform rabbis of the last fifty years. A deeply honest and moving book. The most spiritually moving piece of literature I have read, maybe ever.

As close readers of this website know, I converted to Judaism a number of years ago. The reasons for that conversion are complex and personal and hard to explain. Since converting, my relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed. E and I have always attended high holiday services, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t always approached them with all that much awe. That’s changed in the last couple of years. It’s changed in part because my son now attends a Jewish school and we are now much more involved in a Jewish life. It changed because we became members of a powerful, progressive synagogue with an incredibly dynamic rabbi. And it’s changed in part because I am older, with a life more complicated and perhaps more in need of spiritual solace.

And it’s changed in part because of this book.

One of the things that initially attracted me to Judaism was the way in which it welcomes an engagement with the spiritual through the intellectual. This book is a wonderful reflection of that type of engagement. Lew takes you through the Torah’s proscriptions for the various holidays, he explains how our traditions and rules came to be, and why, but he never lets you forget that this is more than an intellectual exercise. It is more than an obligation. It is a complex apparatus designed to allow us to engage with ourselves (and for some of us, our God) is a real, visceral, and perhaps transformative way.

If you come to my synagogue for the high holidays, you’re going to see a variety of expressions of Judaism. You’ll see the egalitarian orthodox minyan. You’ll see the various kids services, in all degrees of wild, you’ll see bored teenagers waiting for it to end, and others with their heads deep in their siddurs. One thing you’ll also see is numerous people with this book beside them. Next year, once again, I’ll be one of them.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


Studying in Public: Keeping My Nose in the Books on the High Holidays

One of the leading scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls prays at a modern orthodox synagogue I have attended on occasion.*  While he prays, he keeps open before him a number of books – midrashim on the Torah and Talmud, I believe.  When there is a break in the service, he turns to his other books and continues studying.  He doesn’t want to waste a minute.

A rabbi once told me that he would sometimes get annoyed with the custom in many reform and conservative synagogues to call out of page numbers during services.  “Sometimes” he said, “I just want to explore the prayers on my own.”

I kept both these stories in mind this High Holiday season when I made a conscious effort to allow myself to move between being present in the communal aspects of the services, and to take time for myself to practice my Hebrew.  It turned out to be the most fulfilling High Holiday season I’ve had yet.  I’m not saying the leading scholar would have approved, I’m sure he wouldn’t have.  I was lost for much of service.  And I’m not against call about page numbers, I’d be completely lost without it.  But both of these anecdotes speak to having some private time in a public service.  That is what I did this year.  In taking the time to study a bit, as opposed to just sitting there, pretending I knew what was going on, I opened up the mysteries of the language, and thereby of the services, just a little more.

I’ve been going to services for a number of years now, and this was the first time I was able to read any of the Hebrew, albeit much more slowly than the cantor.  Taking time during the prayers to focus on reading it for myself, even if it meant getting stuck far behind the rest of the congregation, allowed me to interact with the text in a new way – as a reader, of sorts, as opposed to merely following the pronunciation half a beat behind my wife.

That said, “reading” Hebrew is a strange thing.  Many Jews who “read” Hebrew aren’t really reading – they’re pronouncing.  They know how to say the words, but they have little understanding of what the words mean.  I am just beginning to reach this stage.  I can pronounce, a little, if by pronunciation you mean sound out the word like a four year old.  Understanding will come, but it will be many High Holidays from now.

Walter Benjamin, studying in public.

*For those who don’t know me, I am not by any stretch modern orthodox.  Also, this story would be far more compelling if I used this scholar’s name, or the name of his shul.  But, unbelievably, the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is insanely catty and has on multiple occasions devolved into insane internet wars.  I would very much like to keep this gentleman, and this blog, out of all that.  Google around if you want to know more, nerd.

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.

Rosh Hashanah

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 conservative 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.