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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Shavuot–one hell of a night.

Last night I finally came down from my Shavu’ot high and debriefed with Ronnie about the whole experience. Much to my surprise, I did not collapse when I got home from work. I met up with my friend Jill, a writer (and lawyer, but she’s really a writer) from L.A., and we went for a nice long walk along the lake.

When I got home, I yapped on the phone for an hour or so and then finally pulled the covers over my shoulders and ended Shavu’ot.

So. Shavu’ot (or is it Shav’uot?) is the commemoration of being given the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is a pilgrimage festival and to celebrate we eat Dairy and study the Torah all night. Sounds kind of lame and like it might upset your lactose intolerant stomach. Pull an all night to study Torah? Leah, the Leah we know from college, stay up all night to study the BIBLE? To learn about God? To talk about God like I know him?

Yeah. I did. Part of this first year of study is to experience the calendar, all of the holidays, and try on Jewish Life. See if it fits. That means Torah study and matzah. Mitzvot and yiddish slang. I struggle with seeing myself as a Jewish person, when historically I am not. Spiritual yes, but God? No. Not historically, not two years ago. So it is hard for me to understand that I went to all night Torah study. I can’t imagine how weird it is to people who knew me before the Jew thing started.

BACK TO THE POINT. Shavu’ot.

First I went to my own temple for our Erev Shavu’ot service. It doubled with the confirmation of the tenth graders from my congregation. I went in a grumpy mood. I’d had an odd day, not a bad day, but was up in my head about a lot of things and just all wrapped up in my. I had a prayer on repeat in my head all day, but the Hebrew version–so I don’t know what it means or really where it falls in the service. Just that it was there.

I was relieved to be able to go to service and the confirmation was so amazing to be a part of. The eight students lead different parts of the services, some read Torah, said blessings, prayers. Each read part of an essay they’d written at the Rabbi’s request. About what is different about being a Jew. What is the best part. What do they find difficult. What sort of Jewish life will they lead, now that they are joining the adult community (or the big ones, as the Rabbi said.)

Each essay was beautiful. I looked at the confirmands and thought, “But they don’t look Jewish.” And I thought that was wonderful. I love when I notice the diversity among Jews. Not just in practices, but visually. Asian Jews. Black Jews. Tall Jews. Short Jews. This Jew, that Jew. Diverse, but all Jews. Each of these young adults–15 years old–had thoughtful essays about being a Jew today, about continuity, insightful comments. I wish I could remember quotes, but each was terribly moving.

Since Shavu’ot is a celebration of the Torah, all of the scrolls were taken from the ark and paraded around the sanctuary. All of the scrolls were “dressed” in white–except the scroll that was damaged during the Shoa, it remained dressed in black. On any given shabbat, one scroll is removed–so to have every scroll taken and walked around the sanctuary. It really affected me.

But what got me the most was the moment of private blessing each student received from our Rabbi. In addition to a sermon and public blessings, each had a moment with the Rabbi. Their parents stood to receive the blessing with them, but nothing could be heard in the sanctuary. Other than the Cantor singing a beautiful song. Imagine a movie–you see the lips move, you see the people move, but instead of the words you hear the song.

Then I wandered home, feeling I’d done my part for Shavu’ot. I thought, maybe I’ll go to Tikkun Leil next year. Then at 10:30 I thought, “I can go for the first bit and then come home.” I flagged a cabbie and got, I swear, Garrison Keillor as my driver. “What’s going on at the temple so late on a Sunday?” “Oh, you know, just Shavu’ot.” “What’s that?” I explained a little, “Torah? That’s the first four commandments, right?” Not exactly.

As I got out of the cab he said, “Shalom, that’s how you say it, right?”

I arrived on time, as I do to things. I haven’t internalized Jewish Time yet, maybe because my temple is always very timely. Maybe there isn’t Jewish Time, but I’m starting to think there is. Arriving on time, I was one of the first ten people there. Literally. TEN. “Oh shit. I’m one of ten people? This is not going to be fun.” By the time the 11PM panel got started (around 11:30PM), I would estimate 200 people were there.

It started with a lively panel of five rabbis–talking about personal god, historic god, spirituality, prayer. I love this stuff. I also end up feeling like I’m studying with the right rabbi for me. The panel is, though, five men over the age of 40 (probably 50) talking Torah. By the end of the night, I meet young rabbis and a chic rabbi my age. Yeah, I said Chic. She said it, I can say it. (By the way, chic rabbi–please email me.)

I ran into one former co-worker and saw a couple familiar faces, but nobody from my temple that I knew. After the panel, the night was broken into break-out sessions. The first I chose was on a specific prayer said on Shavu’ot morning. The Hallel. In the group, we debated the God who shows up on Mount Sinai and the God who is described in the Hallel. One is drama and thunder and lightning, one is a judge, personal and compassionate. I broke into a debate about the Hebrew and what it means to see God. I surprised myself, “Look. Does it matter how they ‘saw’ god? I’m a Jew by choice. I do not have a genetic connection to Mt. Sinai, my parents weren’t there, but I was. I don’t care if it was thunder and lightning or confetti, I see god every day. If not every day, then hopefully a couple times a week.”

I get frustrated by my lack of Hebrew–I can’t go to the original text and understand it. Argh. I forget the blessing that I’ve already learned so much and I get focused on how much there is to learn. Will I ever learn enough to feel Jewish?

However, when your name is Leah and you are at an all night Tikkun Leil, nobody questions your Jewishness. It felt good that people assumed I was a Jew. As much as I want this year to pass, so I can say, “I am a Jew,” I am loving the learning and I’ll miss every holiday being the first. Every experience being the first experience.

I went to a session on the Book of Ruth–which is traditionally read on Shavu’ot. Ruth is the original convert, the first Jew by choice. I’m considering taking that as my Hebrew name, but it might be cliche. A convert named Ruth. It was amazing–like no study of literature or history or poetry I’ve ever been to. Man, oh, man. What does this name mean? What is being said in these two sentences? I had NO IDEA how much is packed into every verse of the Torah. I know that sounds ignorant, but it is true.

Pssst. It can be exciting to study the Torah. It is loud. It is argumentative. It is laughing. It is fantastic! Rabbi Aaron led a great session on the Book of Ruth.

I have to say, I barely needed the coffee I drank in between sessions. I wasn’t nodding off or battling the need to sleep. I was so energized. It is hard to explain how it felt to be pulling an all nighter in a room of yamakah wearing Jewish men. To look around and not see a bare head. To hear people my age discussing the intricate details of the Hebrew. It was powerful.

Finally we gathered together for the morning prayers. I didn’t get a tallit, I never see women wear them. I did manage to get a siddur. Good thing, cause morning prayers are a little (and I when I say a little I mean A HUGE INSANE AMOUNT) different that erev Shabbat at my temple.

I did recognize my Hebrew as a blessing during the prayers. At times I was able to follow along and even chant some of the prayers. Of course, the shema never changes (even if the melody does.) I felt like a foreigner standing with 20 Jews, facing east, and praying. Welcoming the day. Davening. But I wasn’t treated as a foreigner. Nobody assumed I didn’t belong. And I don’t think I was the only first time morning prayer person, but I felt like I was.

Two men were there with strollers and their infants. One, a rabbi, had kept his stroller with him the whole night and his baby slept through Shavu’ot. (There is a certain belief that it is never too early to start learning the Torah and if that means an infant is present for the Tikkun Leil, so be it.) The other walked up to us and joined us. I thought it was an accident, until he began calling out page numbers for the less informed to follow along.

I slipped out on our way back for Torah reading. I did, after all, have to get to work. But I felt like I’d had a wonderful night’s sleep. At my desk at 9:30, it was a different story, but at 6AM, after studying since 11PM the night before and praying at dawn.

I felt energized and feel energized thinking about it. It made me feel a part and separate. Again, I get so focused on what else I have to learn, that I forget how much I have learned. And I have learned a lot since Christmas–about Judaism, about god and about myself.

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