Last week’s 100 days of Milo focused on the classical world, this week, we’ll focus on Judaism. I converted to Judaism about six years ago and since then, I’ve studied the religion (and Hebrew), on and off. Here’s a basic resource page I put together largely for my own use. Perhaps you’ll find it useful as well.
Generally, a classical education in the western sense begins with Latin. The languages use of roman characters, status as the grandfather of the romance languages, and deep influence on English all make it much easier to lean than, say, Greek. My father knows Latin; my wife studied it and can still conjugate the occasional verb, phrases from it pop up constantly in my work as a lawyer. I should really be starting there, but for idiosyncratic personal reasons I am starting with a language that is generally not even considered part of a classical philology course of study. I am starting with Hebrew.
Why? Three reasons. First, I want to be a better Jew. A couple of year ago I converted to Judaism under the auspices of the conservative movement. My wife and I are not particularly observant – we’re high holiday Jews basically, with the occasional random Shabbat service thrown in but when I do go to services much of what is happening is entirely lost to me. I cannot participate, I cannot even read along. It makes the experience frustrating, and often dull, knowing Hebrew would help enormously with this and with my general appreciation of Torah and Talmud.
Second, one of the areas of classical history which most interests me is the period surrounding the codification of the Talmud and the birth of the Christian faith. The developments overlapped and understanding both means understanding Hebrew. Probably also Aramaic, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it many, many years from now.
Third, my wife and I plan to have children, and we plan to raise those children in the Jew faith. If these theoretical kids are going to learn Hebrew than goddamn it, so am I.
All of this is a long introduction to why I spent four hours this Sunday as Temple Emanuel on the Upper East Side participating in a “Hebrew Marathon”. The idea of the course is to cram into four hours an introduction to the Hebrew alphabet and some ability to navigate your way through the prayer book. It wasn’t going to teach you to read, never mind know the vocabulary, but it did give you a sense of what the alphabet was and how it was pronounced.
It was hard, it was fun, it was a start. I had some background in the language from personal study, which put me ahead of many in the room, but it was still a struggle to keep the letters straight. The plan is to capitalize on this kick off by practicing everyday for half an hour or so.
- Identify the letters and their pronunciation (yes I really do have to start that basic)
- Read the Friday night prayers without looking at the transliteration.
I am in no hurry with this. If it takes a lifetime, that’s fine. I’m just going to pick the cow up everyday and see how far I can carry it.
This weeks interesting ger is Jamaica Kincaid, African American novelist, big time gardener, and convert to Judaism.
Kincaid who is probably most famous for her novels Lucy and Annie John hasn’t spoken much in public about her conversion. I read a number of pieces by Kincaid in college, but never once heard she was Jewish until I started doing research for this Interesting Gers project. It seems to be a very personal topic for her and she’s been quoted as saying “I don’t know why, but I do feel that God is a private issue.”
Though Shawn and Kincaid have divorced, Kincaid is still active in her Reconstructionist Shul in Vermont, reading her work at various services. Somehow it seems fitting that a woman who has had a life as interesting as Kincaid’s finds herself at home in a congregation which has an interesting history of its own.
Five months is a long time. A lot has happened, an awful lot.
At first I thought I would use this space to talk about the trials and tribulations of conversion. What worried me about the prospect and what excited me. But I got cold feet. By the third post, this blog was getting alot of hits and I got worried that in the relatively small world of people converting to Judaism in the D.C. area, someone in my conversion class, or even the rabbi with whom I am working, was going to run across it. So I clammed up. I took a conversion class and decided officially to convert. Throughout I kept my thoughts about the process to myself. Now, I think it is time to jump back in. I feel more confident about my conversion and less worried about who will know my concerns about the process. Today, I’d be happy to have the Rabbi I am working with read this blog.
My excitement about my conversion and about Judaism in general has never waned, and I thought this could be a good space to talk once again about Judaism, Jewish history, what it means to convert, and the mechanics of doing so.
So, hello again. I hope someone decides to read this thing.
Class this week was pretty amazing, the subject for discussion was the Sabbath, something E and I in our own way have been attempting to honor. We light candles, we say Kiddush, but we’re not shomer shabbas, and we don’t always get the candles lit by sundown. Still, you do what you can do. Readings included Abraham Joshua Herschel and Mordecai Kaplan (a lot more on these guys in upcoming posts).
The Herschel reading in particular with its envisioning of the Sabbath as a cathedral in time resonated with me. One of the things that distinguish Judaism from Catholicism is the portability of the religion, that celebration and observance are not dependent on the presence of a priest or of the building of a church. Ten Jews, some candles, and a torah and you’re good to go.
This portability definitely comes in part from oppression, from anti-Semitism and from having to hide. But Judaism is also a religion of abstraction, of ideas and history and words. Ritual is an important component, but few of those rituals depend on being within a specific place. Judaism is a religion you can take with you. Did the abstraction and heavy reliance intellectual thought that I associate with Judaism today develop because of oppression, or in addition to it? I have no idea, I’m no Jewish historian. At least not yet.
But the ability to take the religion with you and hold the ceremonies wherever one could resonated through this particular class, in part because of the abstract time based natures of the Sabbath, but also because of a Torah scroll the Rabbi brought to class. Little more than a foot and a half tall, it was the smallest Torah scroll I had ever seen. Rabbi’s cousin had bought it at a flea market in Japan of all places, and had spent thousands having it restored. It was a pretty special thing. From analyzing the way the scribe had formed the letters, they had been able to discern that the Torah had originated somewhere in Eastern Europe about a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and that the scribe was either from, or had been trained by someone who was from, Czechoslovakia. Yeah, apparently they can track it down to that level of detail. Amazing. It was a beautiful object and an important thing, I felt honored to be able to be so close to it.
As I stood there in class, staring at this Torah Scroll and trying to imagine the journey it had taken from East Europe to Japan, I was moved by this religions ability to migrate and protect and create little cathedrals in time all over the world.