Last week I sent in my final essay to my Rabbi, I had to get it done and after I saw the theme for tonight Slichot program, I thought I’d better do it. As I get closer and closer to my beit din, I cling more to the activities at the shul. I don’t want to miss a thing. At the same time, I push it away a little–this has been fun. All this learning has been fun, more fun than any class I ever took in College (Sorry Millikin.) I do wonder what type of chemist I’d be today, if I’d taken to my chemistry studies like I’ve taken to studying judaism. Even my spanish–which I did love and take seriously–I think I’ve worked harder at Hebrew than I ever did at Spanish. I’d still be fluent if I’d loved Spanish like I am learning to love hebrew.
I don’t want to fun to end, but I’m ready for the next level. One thing I’d forgotten in trying to schedule my beit din and mikvah is to track my period. You have to wait seven days after the last day of your period to do a mikvah. I usually start on the new moon, which will be Rosh Hoshanah, so it will be a few days after Yom Kippur before we can even schedule it. Assuming my body continues to work like clockwork.
Without further ado, here is something I wrote. The question from my Rabbi, as always, “What does judaism mean to me and why do I want it in my life?”
“We don’t need you. Orthodox, conservative, reform, doesn’t matter, we don’t need you.” With those words, my public study of Judaism began. Over the course of our first meeting, you suggested a few book titles, invited me to “try on Jewish living” and see if it fits. On the way out, you said, “Services are at eight.”
It was Christmas Eve and my first erev Shabbat. I brought my roommate with me and he pointed me in the right direction during services. That night, we watched a movie, drank beer, and talked about my interest in converting. On Christmas morning, I did what all the books say not to, I told my dad. He wasn’t surprised, just like my mom hadn’t been surprised, just like my sister wasn’t surprised. Everyone else, it seemed, knew that I was on this path but me. After all, they named me Leah.
Now my first Rosh Hoshanah is around the corner and just beyond that, I’ll sit before a bet dein and go to mikvah. Time to answer the questions again, “What does Judaism mean to me and why do I want it in my life?”
“Try it on and see if it fits,” is what you asked me to do. The simple answer to the questions is, “This fits. It is where I fit and it fits me.” As I become accustomed to the rhythms of the calendar, I find fulfillment where I might have expected to find sacrifice. The best example is Shabbat observance. In January and well into May, Shabbat for me was the time it took me to race to temple for services on Friday night. It might last an hour or two after I said Shabbat Shalom to other congregants, but by Saturday had disappeared into my normal work hours. Some weeks I had the reminder of Shabbat, because I’d baked challah; but mostly it was gone. Nights when I didn’t go home after services, I met up with friends at bars.
Now my Shabbat begins as I leave work at 5PM and travel home. I try to have time to light candles in my own home before setting off for services. I no longer mumble along, but know some prayers and some Hebrew. I don’t rush out of the onegs anymore, but stay and chat with other congregants. On Saturday mornings, I get coffee and write, then head to services again. My friends have now learned that there is no point in inviting me to happy hour on Friday night or for a day of running around the city on Saturday. It might not last till sundown, but my observance stretches into the afternoon. With it, I find rejuvenation and calm I didn’t have before.
I’ve said before, that in Judaism I found a structure for the beliefs I’d already formed, the words to explain how I’ve always done things. The analogy that fit in March and still fits is this. Finding Judaism has been like finding my bookshelves organized into a library—alphabetized by author and subject, Dewey Decimal system, a card catalog. Instead of making decisions, “Cause I felt that way” I can look to guidance in the Torah, the Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers, and other Jewish resources. In the tradition, I find tikkun olam and tzedakka—words to help define the innate need I’ve always had to help, to make a difference, to be involved. Now they aren’t just these things I feel, but mitzvoth. Speaking more tangibly, I’ve certainly put my money where my mouth is in the last few months. I’ve given more to non-profits in one year than I have in many previous.
I also looked around and realized that I’ve found a community. Community is something that I’ve missed since moving to Chicago, but didn’t realize it. As I’m asked to participate and organize at Emanuel, I realize that I’m starting to belong here. Days when I think I’ll never feel Jewish tend to be followed by days when I can follow the prayers somewhere outside of the synagogue walls, asked to answer questions of traditions, or thanked for becoming the webmaster.
I still believe this is best for me and the family I hope to have. Some days I’m afraid that I won’t have a family of my own. I can’t help but wonder if I’ll continue to find meaning in a family oriented tradition, if I never have my own. I worry that I’ll never learn enough on my own, but at the same time realize that the friends I’ve made at Emanuel will pull me into the greater family of Jews. I worry about what it really means in my family of origin. It’s easy to dismiss the December Dilemma, because I don’t have kids and haven’t done much for Christmas in years. But I have a nephew and with his birth, Christmas is becoming more important. At the end of the day—the stressful December weeks are short and Judaism offers too much to leave it now. We’ve talked about it, me and my parents, and realized they raised us with very Jewish values, they just didn’t know it.
In a nutshell, this is where I fit. In a layered onion, it is where my beliefs have found structure, where I have found a community and extended family, where I have found a way to talk to God and bring God into my life, where I have studied with an intensity my college professors wouldn’t recognize, where I’ve found a new language, where I’ve found a spiritual home. I want it in my life, because knowing now what I know—how could I set it aside?