יום ראשון, ינואר 14, 2007


2006: An extraordinary year (personal reflections)

I have been meaning to get around to a post reflecting on 2006 for a while now—well, at least two weeks. It was my first year of Jewish observance beyond lighting Chanukah and (semi-regularly) Shabbat candles. In fact, it was the Shabbat before (Gregorian) New Year’s Day that my wife and I first entered a synagogue other than as a tourist (usually in Eastern Europe, some highlights of which can be seen at the Flickr set linked on the left sidebar).

We had been talking for months (maybe years) about looking for a shul to call “our own,” but for whatever reason, the time apparently had not been right before. Well, now we have attended almost every week (sometimes both evening and morning services) in that year (-plus) since. Our shul-shopping ended with our having “test-driven” only two. We have never been back to the one we attended that last Shabbat in December, 2005. It was the one geographically closest to us, but not close enough in any other sense. It was Conservative, and while that might itself be reason enough for it not to be a good fit, it was probably more the sense that a very small Jewish congregation that meets in a church just was not what we had in mind. (The ark was strategically placed in front of the Christmas tree and, as it was Unitarian Universalist, there were few other signs of Christianity around—not even a cross—but still, it was a church.) It is nice that Jews and Christians can worship in the same space, but it was not what we wanted. The next week we attended the closest Reform synagogue—about thirty minutes away. It turned out to be not only (relatively) close geographically, but also close to our hearts. We felt more both more comfortable and more welcome there than at our first “candidate” synagogue, and we joined a few months later without even shopping further. We are both very glad we did.

The first service we attended at this Reform shul was a bar mitzvah, as were one or two subsequent services. Then one Shabbat morning we walked in and there were about 20 people present. (At this point, I will mostly stop with the “we” as I am speaking only of own experiences the rest of the way.) At first, I found this quite intimidating. I had thus far met very few people at the synagogue, and could not read a single letter of Hebrew. (The typical service is a mixture of English, Hebrew with transliteration provided, and a significant amount of Hebrew without transliteration.) I knew very little about rituals and “accepted” synagogue behavior. Plunge right in! What was intimidating at first quickly came to be my preferred form of morning worship. While more than twenty fellow worshippers is nice, I take great meaning and comfort from being in the presence of the regulars, many of whom I now count as friends and teachers. We are fortunate also that the synagogue has two rabbis who are inspiring teachers and spiritual leaders, and a cantor with an amazing voice and high-energy commitment to enriching our worship experience. In fact, we really have four rabbis, as the husband of one and partner of the other are also rabbis who regularly contribute to the life of the congregation. Moreover, the husband of the senior rabbi is the instructor in my Intro to Judaism course and thus instrumental in opening my Jewish eyes and heart.

2006 was a year of incredible new experiences that I never could have imagined as it started. I witnessed a conversion service. I wish I could relate the inspiring and moving story of this particular woman, but this would hardly be the place for that. Suffice it to say that, even several months later, it remains one of the more powerful experiences of my first year of serious observance. In her remarks to the congregation, she perfectly encapsulated why Judaism is the right choice. (I will address that question from a personal perspective in other posts; this one is going to be long enough as it is!)

At the time, conversion was something I had barely begun to think about. My Jewish father-in-law (more about him later) told me early in 2006, as I was beginning to attend services, that he remembered that when he and I first met in 1991, I told him I was thinking about converting. I have no recollection of having said that, but I am certain that if he recalled such a conversation, then I said it. (As I have related elsewhere in this space, I have been interested in Jewish history and culture since the 1980s some time, if not earlier, but I had little interest in “religion,” per se, until very recently.) After that conversion service, I told the rabbi who had led that service that I was interested in conversion, and she asked me to contact her and meet with her whenever I was ready. It took me several more months before working up the will to do so. Meeting with clergy and declaring a desire to convert is not something to be done lightly, and I decided I would spend time reading, thinking, and discussing with my wife and others before formally presenting myself to the rabbi as a conversion candidate. In the meantime, I witnessed two more conversion services, attended many more services of various types, read most of a complete Torah cycle, and finally felt my earlier uncertainty nearly evaporate. (Why only “nearly”? Because sometimes I still wonder about the need for formal conversion. It is not a sense of doubting I want to live as a Jew; it is a doubt about whether I need an institutionalized imprimatur in order to feel Jewish. But I am almost certain I will complete the process, God and the beit din willing.)

So, what a year it was! With my wife, I attended Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur services. On my own, I attended a service in the sukkah on the first Shabbat of Sukkot. I find something meaningful in an almost mystical way, that I can’t quite put my finger on, in the following. In my first year of holiday observance, Rosh Hashanah fell on both Shabbat and the first day of autumn, and as a result, Sukkot began on a Shabbat (with a perfectly clear night to enjoy the full moon). Chanukah also began on Shabbat and coincided exactly with the winter solstice (about which I wrote previously). Even my birthday fell on Shabbat (calculated by the Gregorian calendar, at least). No, there is probably nothing religiously significant in all of this co-incidence—just part of the calendar cycle. But in a year when I first began to pay attention to Shabbat as a day apart, having big events on the Jewish and my own personal calendar fall on Shabbat was noteworthy. And, given that I enjoy fruit growing (on a fairly serious scale) and thus have always paid attention to seasons, seeing the linkage of Jewish festivals to solar as well as lunar cycles, and having his be a year when the equinox and solstice coincided more closely than usual with holidays was spiritually meaningful.

Now, about that observance thing. I make a point of not working (especially in the sense of practicing my regular profession) on Shabbat, and I have found that truly liberating. I spend the day, after service, reading (Torah or books on Jewish history or just something I feel like reading that is not work-related or the news). Often my wife and I go out for lunch—something we rarely can do other days. Other days we spend time with a family member or friends. The biggest step forward in my Jewish observance has simply been recognizing one day as set aside for disengaging from the hurly burly. I also generally will not update either of my two blogs or check e-mail on Shabbat. A big test of my Shabbat observance will come in June when graduation day comes. As a member of the faculty, I am expected to attend (not that anything bad will happen to me if I do not), and it is a special day in its own right, celebrating the completion of two years of professional education for students that I have the privilege to teach in a required course in their very first quarter. But it is Shabbat; it may come every week, but it is only one out of every seven days, and I am loathe to treat one as anything other than a day for rest and Jewish learning. We’ll see. (The dilemma did not arise in 2006, as we were in Montreal at the time of graduation; it was for a conference, which meant I was “working” on Shabbat, presenting an academic paper and participating in the discussion of others. But it was a great conference, and I suspect I will always make the occasional Shabbat exception for truly extraordinary—even if not exactly holy—professional opportunities. One regret I have is not having found the time that weekend to attend a shul in Montreal, a city with a long-established and lively Jewish community.)

I did not manage to fast on Yom Kippur. I blame my hypopglycemia. One can’t properly take in the most powerful prayers of the year if one passes out from lack of blood sugar, after all. However, I ate almost nothing throughout the day, and even that partial fast (if there is such a thing) was powerful in focusing the mind. I was one of the few at the service to be wearing conspicuously non-leather footwear. I wore my plastic garden clogs; I was pleased when I saw a couple of other congregants also observing that one piece of Yom Kippur tradition.

As powerful as my first Yom Kippur experience was, I think it was on Sukkot that I felt the deepest connection to Judaism of any point in the year between the conversion I witnessed early in the year (as I mentioned above) and the end of the year (which I will get to, eventually). Sitting in the Sukkah that morning, with the sun shining through the (California native) palm fronds covering the structure, and with the first seasonal rains having fallen just the night before, was an intense experience. We read several passages from various sages about Jewish responsibility for caring for the earth, lent to us by God, and for its bounty that we celebrate with that festival. The rabbi called on me—fortunately “cold-calling” is not a regular feature of our Shabbat services as it is of my classes!—to read a passage that she knew would especially resonate with me. It was about the importance of planting trees—something so important that, according to this writing, even if you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah. I was honored to have been asked to read such a moving passage.

As Sukkot came to end, we celebrated an Erev Shabbat service that was a mix of Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah rituals. And, as the congregation was well in to its circuits around the sanctuary with the Torah scrolls, it started to rain. (Talk about mystical connections!; we don’t even get rain at that time of the year very often.) The following morning was Shimeni Azeret, and its Yizkor service, about which I wrote previously.

The year, 2006, entered its final month with a family tragedy. My father in law, Aryeh Lev ben Zvi Hirsch, died on Kislev 10 (December 1). It was rather sudden, albeit coming after a couple of weeks in hospital and in a year when his health had gradually declined. So, much earlier than I had ever bargained for, my Jewish learning suddenly included mourning. There is no easy way to experience the pain of losing someone so close. I have lost both my parents within the past six years, and now this. With Aryeh Lev’s agreement in his last days and the support of his wife of 50+ plus years that he was leaving behind, we chose to have a memorial at our shul, led by one of the rabbis we had come to know in this past year. This is the same rabbi I had met with just a few months previously to begin the formal conversion process, and she happens to be the granddaughter of the rabbi who led the bar mitzvah of my late father in law many years ago in Connecticut. (Talk about mystical connections!) (We had known of this connection since joining the congregation, though unfortunately, the rabbi and my father in law did not meet.) We sat shiva (though not for the literal seven days) and we had a minyan from the congregation at the house of mourning. I think my mother in law, although never observant, derived comfort from these traditions. I know I did. The experience showed how observant Jews take seriously their responsibility for the welfare of the community, and revealed how the traditions work to help mourners to disengage form worldly responsibilities for the first days as a means to cope with the shock and loss, but also to ease their way back into the world beyond our grief. The kaddish has new meaning now, of course. I knew it was inaccurate to call it a “prayer for the dead” to the extent that it never mentions death. But in the wake of this great loss to our family I now understand that one of the core principles of Judaism is precisely what is expressed in the kaddish: Whatever else we may be experiencing, we always recognize that God is awesome; we are forever in debt for God’s blessings that we experience during the time that we and our loved ones are on this earth, and our duty is to live our lives in a way that honors God’s blessings. My father in law did that in his life, and may his memory be an inspiration to me in 2007 and beyond. Aryeh Lev told me just a few months ago, “welcome, you will be a good Jew.” May I prove worthy of his welcome.

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