...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Retrospective

1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? 

So many things related to converting to Judaism: immersing in the mikveh, being counted in a minyan, wearing a tallit as a Jew, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, making Havdalah, etc. I hosted my first Passover seder this year. I lived by myself in my own apartment for the first time; I also lived with a romantic partner for the first time. This was the first year I worked full-time for the whole year (as opposed to being in school for part of the year). I assumed more responsibility at work and attended a few professional conferences, which I'd never done before. In January 2008 I got pretty sick and it was the first time I've managed all of my medical care without someone else's help.

2. Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year? 

I don't think I made any resolutions last year; in any case, I didn't keep them. I've been trying to cut processed and industrial foods out of my diet for the past several months, and I'd like to continue that in 2009. I'd also like to progress in my observance of kashrut by making more of a separation between dairy and meat products, and continue learning Hebrew. This isn't a resolution per se but I want to continue to make time to read academic-type books in sociology, gender studies, and religious studies.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? 

Several parents I know through the preschool gave birth. I'm friendly with a couple of them, but not especially close.

4. Did anyone close to you die? 


5. What countries did you visit? 

I didn't visit any other countries. Actually, I don't think I made it out of Oregon in 2008. (Can that be right? The only other state we visit on a regular basis is Washington, and I don't think I went up there this past year. Huh.)

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? 

Hmmm...this was a pretty good year, actually. Not perfect, but I can't think of anything that I really lacked.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory? 

November 2: my conversion. November 4: Obama's election.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? 

Converting to Judaism, natch.

9. What was your biggest failure? 

Losing contact with old friends.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? 

Yes. Towards the end of 2007 I developed a very painful, deep cough. I coughed so hard that I was certain I had fractured a rib; the pain was so severe that it hurt to breathe. I also had a 104 degree fever. On December 31, 2007 (what a way to spend New Year's Eve) I checked into Urgent Care at Kaiser Permanente and had my chest X-rayed. Diagnosis: I had walking pneumonia that I had exacerbated by walking around with it for a month instead of getting it treated. My rib wasn't broken--the doctor said that a bit of the lining of my lung had become inflamed and was pressing against my rib, which is why it hurt so bad. I was prescribed an inhaler, some narcotic cough syrup, and a round of antibiotics, but the antibiotics didn't kill everything and I ended up visiting Kaiser several more times over the next couple months. Each time I got a different diagnosis, which was pretty frustrating. Finally everything seemed to go away on its own. I also had a few bladder infections (fun!) and a minor bike accident a few weeks ago.

11. What was the best thing you bought? 

It's funny, because when I answered this question two years ago I was all talking about plane and train and bus tickets for my travels. In 2008 the best things I bought were much more mundane: a safety can-opener that makes opening cans a delight; and big black rain galoshes. Laugh it up (Daniel) but I'm thankful for those boots every time in rains.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? 

My spiritual community's; friends; Daniel's. Those who supported me in my spiritual search.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? 

Various work-related people.

14. Where did most of your money go? 

Groceries and rent.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? 

My bet din and mikvah for conversion; having days off work; going to the Jewish Renewal retreat in Eastern Oregon, the election and Obama's victory.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008? 

"Who Gives a Fuck About An Oxford Comma?" by Vampire Weekend. Daniel introduced me to them; I remember lying on the bed in his room at his old house, listening to the album. That song was also playing on the radio when we bought our computer, except that they bleeped out "fuck."

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: 

a) happier or sadder? Happier.

b) thinner or fatter? Thinner. 

c) richer or poorer? Richer.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of? 

Staying in touch with old friends and meeting new people, venturing out of the apartment, riding my bike, working on spiritual disciplines like praying and studying scriptures, reading thought-provoking books and educating myself.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of? 

Hoo boy. After Easter last year I bought several pounds of marked-down Easter candy at Walgreen's, thinking that it would last Daniel and me for the rest of the year. Surprise: we ate all that candy within three weeks. I mean, I'm talking like 17 Cadbury eggs alone, not to mention all the jelly beans. So I wish I'd eaten less cheap crappy Easter candy. I also wish I hadn't been so content to let inertia take over. Sometimes after Shabbat service or something I'd decide that I didn't really want to talk to anyone, so I'd leave really quickly; I wish I had forced myself to push past my discomfort and shyness and work on making real human connections.

20. How did you spend Christmas? 

Daniel and I spent the holiday, as well as the last five or so days of Chanukah, with my parents and brother down in Eugene.

21. Did you fall in love in 2008? 

Yes, or rather, I fell in love in 2007 and was in love all of 2008 (aw!). Mush alert: We exchanged "I love you"s for the first time on New Year's Eve 2007.

22. How many one-night stands? 


23. What was your favorite TV program? 

LOST and Project Runway.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year? 

No, I've been trying to let go of grudges from my college years.

25. What was the best book you read? 

It's hard to choose, but the first two books that come to mind are "The Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avante-Garde" and "The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950." Two very different but equally captivating books. I also loved "Geek Love" by Katharine Dunn; it was probably the best fiction book I read this year. I'm hoping to put up a post sometime soon about some of the great books I read this year.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery? 

Daniel introduced me to lots of great music, of which Joanna Newsom and Antony and the Johnsons might be my favorites. We went to see Antony at the Schnitzer as part of the Portland Time-Based Art festival, and it was gorgeous.

27. What did you want and get? 

I wanted to confirm and strengthen my relationship and commitment to Judaism, and I did.

28. What did you want and not get? 

I guess I had this idea that when things in my life settled down and became generally okay--you know, having my own place, a good job, a satisfying spiritual life, living with a man I love--that I wouldn't get sad anymore, or that little things wouldn't bug me, or that I would always be happy and content. And I realized this year that that's not true. Things are good in my life, but I'm not happy all the time. Maybe no one is.

29. What was your favorite film of this year? 

Hmmm...I'm drawing a blank. I saw movies that I liked, but none stands out as a favorite.

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 

I turned 23 on February 18. Daniel and I went out to the Doug Fir for dinner--we had been there ten days earlier, too, for his 25th birthday on February 8th. He gave me a copy of AJ Jacob's "The Year of Living Biblically," which I had been wanting to read ever since we heard AJ Jacobs speak at Powell's. Later that month Carla and I had a joint birthday/apartment-warming party at my place.

31.What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? 

Winning the lottery? I don't know. It as a pretty good year, overall.

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008? 

I wear skirts a lot more than I used to--probably more often than I wear pants. Most of the skirts I wear are from a little longer than knee length to calf length. I just find them more comfortable, especially since I constantly have to bend over, stoop, squat, etc at work and it's a hassle to keep tugging my pants back up. It's not really a religious thing, although I think some people think that it is. I also stopped shaving my legs this year because I realized that I just did not give a shit about leg hair. It's been seven or eight months since I last shaved them.

33. What kept you sane? 

Involvement with P'nai Or, reading in a coffee shop on the weekend, vigorous discussion with Daniel, sweet hugs from sweet children at work.

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? 

Sully from "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" (Daniel insists that I delete that answer, but I'm not going to, because Sully was HOT!) Also, Jemaine from "Flight of the Conchords."

35. What political issue stirred you the most? 

The election, of course. Various feminist issues.

36. Who did you miss? 

Friends who have moved away.

37. Who was the best new person you met? 

Different people at work and friends from P'nai Or, and people I met at the Jewish retreat over the summer.

38. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008. 

You have to be your own advocate, because if you don't stand up for yourself, no one else is going to. That sounds a little pessimistic, but I think it's true. As women in a misogynist society, we're taught not to advocate for ourselves; that it makes us pushy, or selfish, or whiny; women tend not to want to be the squeaky wheels. It's been a struggle for me to work past these gendered assumptions, as well as my own natural shyness, to advocate for my own needs at work. I'm slowly getting better at it.

39. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. 

"First thing you do, drive right through that Holland Tunnel, 

Pay your toll to the soul on the other side.

Pick up your ticket, everything will be all right.

Drive, baby, drive."

--"Holland Tunnel" by John Phillips.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow day?

No...no snow day. After an unusual week at the preschool (we had a delayed start on Monday and an early release on Wednesday due to snowy and icy conditions; on Monday and Tuesday especially, it felt like the Arctic Tundra outside), I was really hoping that today would be a snow day. I had already planned how I would spend the day: curling up with Sarna's American Judaism: A History and a cup of tea, watching some daytime TV, going downtown to Powell's to finish my holiday shopping. Alas, although it was snowing lightly this morning, the powers that be decided we would just have a delayed start. Oh well; we only have half of our normal amount of students, and the composition of children is such that it's been a really fun, peaceful, collaborative day (in other words, the screamers and biters are absent). It's been the kind of day that reminds me what attracted me to early childhood ed. in the first place: collaborative projects, funny stories, working together creatively, learning how to communicate with each other, those kinds of things. Everyone in the class spontaneously began playing this game that they were on the Polar Express to the North Pole, and Cara and I got some fantastic documentation done (part of the Reggio approach is documenting children's play and conversations).

Thanks to those who expressed concern and well-wishes after my bike accident at the beginning of last week. My right arm got progressively more sore over the course of the day, and by Monday night I could hardly move it. I knew it wasn't broken but I guess I just strained the muscle or something, since I landed on my right side and my arm and shoulder absorbed most of the shock. It's nearly back to normal by now. My nose is not broken, although it does still sort of hurt when I blow it--when I fell, I think my nose must have hit against my right arm, and maybe I bruised the cartilge or something.

I made a resolution a couple months ago that I would read the Torah portion each week on Friday night, so that I could be an informed participant in the Saturday morning Shabbat service. Of course, in the couple months since I made the resolution, it's been realized exactly twice. Last Friday I read the portion V'yishlach, from Genesis (it's the portion immediately preceding the Joseph cycle); V'yishlach contains, amongst other things, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. There's this part when Esau comes up to Jacob and everyone's like biting their fingernails because they think Esau's going to kill Jacob, but then he "falls on Jacob's neck" and kisses him. I was reading the portion in the Jewish study Bible that Daniel's parents gave me, and it has this little explanatory notes from the midrash (interpretation) on the side. At this part it notes that in the Torah scroll there's a series of six dots over the word "kiss;" they're not related to the pronunciation of the word, so it's kind of a mystery about why they're there. Some rabbis say that the dots denote rabbinic suspicion over the inclusion of the word "kiss" in the story, pointing out that "kiss" and "bite" are nearly the same word in Hebrew. And, according to the explanatory note, a traditional midrash is that Esau did indeed intend to bite Jacob, but God--just in the nick of time--hardened Jacob's skin so that Esau could only kiss him. And that's why the Jews are called a stiff-necked people. (Rimshot!)

There's another explanatory note about why Jacob crossed back over the river to the place where he ended up wrestling with the angels. Rabbinic commentators wondered why he would return to the place he'd come from all alone--so they decided that he must have gone back to retrieve some "little jars he'd forgotten." I absolutely love that kind of minutely detailed midrash (and there are midrash like that for seriously everything). Like, God forbid there be any minute question or inconsistency in the text. It's like rabbinic fan fiction.

Monday, December 08, 2008


I was on my way to school this morning on my bike. I had two bags full of egg cartons that I was bringing in for an art project dangling off my handlebars. I don't know what happened exactly but I think my knee bumped one of the bags and it threw off my balance and I fell ass over ankles off my bike and onto the street. I stood up and shook myself off, disoriented. My right shoulder and nose both really hurt but nothing seemed broken and I didn't feel or see any blood. I was still in sight of the apartment and I wanted nothing so much as to hobble home and crawl back into bed with Daniel.

A couple people stopped to see if I was okay and one kind, compassionate young woman put my bike in her car and drove me the rest of the way to work. My boss said I should take as much time as I needed before going into the classroom and one of my co-workers said I was in shock, so I laid down and drank water and held an ice pack to my shoulder and cried a little. I called Daniel to tell him what had happened but instead of starting with, "Daniel, I'm okay" I started with "Daniel, I was in an accident on the way to work" so he got scared and I felt bad for scaring him.

I don't think my nose is broken, but it definitely hurts. I think it's swollen--it feels swollen--but it's hard to tell because my nose was already pretty big. My shoulder's hurting more and more as the day goes on. I was planning on going to the gym after work, but I think instead I'm just going to go home and drink some tea and watch DVDs with Daniel.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Fun with Photobooth

The other night Daniel and I spent some time playing around with Photobooth on our Mac.

Look at us. We're so mumblecore.

I call these next two "Geek Love."

And lo, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon me in the form of hands. Giant freak hands.

Contrary to popular belief, the sun is not the center of the universe. The center of the universe is Daniel's glasses.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two Hebrew notes

This week was very difficult at work. I'm glad that it's over. Three day week coming up: hurray! On Wednesday evening Daniel and I are taking the train down to Eugene, where we'll spend Thanksgiving with my family; we're coming back up to Portland Saturday afternoon. I haven't had a paid vacation day in a long time (not since Memorial Day last May, since I ended up working on Labor Day and Veteran's Day), and I relish the luxury of being "on the clock" while I sleep in and lounge around my parent's house for two days.

Last week in Hebrew class we heard a very sweet teaching. As I've written before, the first letter of the Torah is Bet, which is sometimes pronounced Vet (depending on whether or not it has a dot in it, I think). The last letter of the Torah is Lamed, from the word "Yisrael." Lamed and Vet together spell the word Lev, or heart--the whole Torah is written around and wrapped around the heart.

When I told Daniel that, he said, "But what if you don't love the whole Torah?" It's a good point. But I think you can love the Torah and its overall message without having to endorse all the ethnocentric and violent and misogynist stuff (in my opinion the homophobic stuff has its root in misogyny). There's this old story about the famous Rabbi Hillel. A gentile asked him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel is said to have said, "Love your neighbor. The rest is commentary." Would that that Torah be written on my heart.

Hebrew note 2: The Torah portion this week is Chayyei Sarah, usually translated "The Life of Sarah," which begins by talking about the death of Sarah and how Abraham secures a cave for her burial (you can find it near the beginning of Genesis, after the binding of Isaac). When you read it in English it begins with "Sarah was 127 years old," but the Hebrew actually reads, "Sarah was 100 years old, and 20 years old, and 7 years old." Rashi explains that it is written this way because Sarah had the wisdom of a 100-year-old, the idealism of a 20-year-old, and the innocent beauty of a 7-year-old (which Reb Aryeh admitted being a little creeped out by). In Hebrew, there actually is no word for "life," a singular. Chaim, usually translated as life, actually means lives. It's a plural, just as "mayim," water, is plural. "Chayyei Sarah" actually means "The Lives of Sarah." There is no singular life! You could take that to mean that all lives are lived together, running together like water, or part of a collective, or that on some level we live multiple lives, or that there are multiple stages in our one physical life.

If I couldn't have had my bet din and mikvah in the week of Lekh Lekha, the rabbi and I talked about how Chayyei Sarah was my second choice. I remember being struck by this idea of lives being plural last year when this we read this portion, and feeling that it resonated with my experience. I do feel that with conversion (or as my rabbi sometimes refers to it, "revelation"--drawing on Jonathan Omer-Man's idea that converts are "revealed Jews") I'm entering a new phase of my life.

(Bringing it back down to the nitty-gritty plane: who's been going through my blog entries and giving them all one star? Not cool.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Learning Hebrew with the preschooleres

I'm taking a beginning Hebrew class with a handful of other people from P'nai Or. It's taught by a woman from the congregation, and definitely has a Jewish Renewal flavor to it--we talk a lot about the deeper meanings of the letters and traditions behind them, Kabbalistic significances of the letters, gematria, that kind of thing. I'm really enjoying it, even though it's very difficult (why, oh why do so many of the letters look nearly identical?!).

I had a realization on my way home from class tonight: I'm acquiring Hebrew the same way my preschoolers are learning to write in English. "Teacher Jessica, how do you spell "submarine?" "Let's sound it out together: Sssss. What makes a sssss sound? That's right, S! Su--bbbb--mmm-rrrr---nnn. Sub-ma-rine." The older ones can usually sound out the consonants and then we help with the vowels.

I write in Hebrew the same way. I was trying to spell my Hebrew name Shulamit the other day. I muttered to myself, "Shhh--That's a shin--Le Le Le--lamed---mmmmm-mem, okay, then a TTT--Tav." I wrote down the consonants Shin Lamed Mem Tav and wiped my brow with exertion. Then I threw a couple extra lines and dots in for the vowels. Were they the correct vowels? Maybe, maybe not. But I felt proud of myself for just writing SH-L-M-T.

My preschoolers' letters are big and sprawling, falling all over themselves and the page. They don't have the muscle control or experience to form tidy, contained letters in a neat line. Oftentimes when kids begin writing the letter A, it comes out looking like an H. They don't know how or are not able to slant their lines and make them come to a point. As they gain literacy experience and practice, they start developing the shapes of their own letters. It's the same way for me with Hebrew. My handwriting is big and sloppy-looking, getting confused and tangled in the unfamiliar shapes and proportions of the letters. Sometimes my aleph looks like an X, and ayin's a mess. I was a somewhat late reader when I was a child--my literacy didn't really start to take off until late in first grade. I can only trust that as I eventually learned to read and write in English, if I stick with it and keep practicing and exposing myself to Hebrew, I'll learn that too. For now, my preschoolers and I will keep sounding things out and getting used to the shape of the letters on our papers and in our mouths.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Lekh Lekha

My bet din was held last Sunday in a small room at the Portland Jewish Ritualarium in SW Portland, not too far from Portland State. The Ritualarium is a converted house; I gather that the couple who runs it lives upstairs and makes the mikvah and anteroom available for those who need it. The bet din, composed of my rabbi and two men from the congregation, sat on a couch one one side of the room; I sat in a chair facing them in the middle of the room. Behind me in a semi-circle were my parents; Daniel and his parents; Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema, three women from P'nai Or; Jade, a friend from work; and Sylvia, my old professor and thesis advisor from college.

I was nervous. So, so nervous! I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to authentically represent my thoughts and feelings. But once the questioning began I eased into it an relaxed. The rabbi asked me about the spiritual path that led me to this point. One of the other men me about elements of Jewish practice that I had adopted; the other man asked how I envisioned my relationship with the nation of Israel. They reminded me that the Jews have been persecuted from time immemorial and that anyone who wants to join a persecuted people has to be a little meshuga. (Okay, they didn't use the word meshuga.) There were moments when I didn't feel like I was able to say exactly what I meant, but overall I felt that I was able to represent myself and my path authentically. And then, the rabbi sent me to the mikvah for the three immersions that would make me a Jew.

Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema and I rose and walked down the short hallway. I stopped in the bathroom and disrobed, then joined the other three women in the mikvah. My mom and I had peeked in to see it after we arrived at the Ritualarium, so I knew what to expect: a series of steps leading down to a shoulder-deep tiled pool. Hebrew transliterations of the blessings hung from the walls. This was it. I handed my towel and my glasses to Harriet then walked down the steps into the water. You have to immerse a particular way: all parts of the body have to simultaneously be submerged without touching anything else (ie you can't have your feet on the ground). I was so intent on getting the immersion right that I forgot to close my mouth all the way and when I came back up I was choking. I coughed and spluttered for a minute then said the blessing for immersion and Shecheheyanu. After the second immersion I said the Sh'ma and Baruch Shem; after the third immersion, I said as much of the V'ahavta as I knew. Then I climbed back out of the pool and wrapped in the towel. It was surreal. Mateh Esther began singing and clapping and the other women joined in. My mom later told me that they could hear us in the waiting room, and the rabbi joked that it sounded like we were having too much fun.

I went to dry off and get dressed. I remember that I was self-conscious about taking too much time to get dressed, since everyone was waiting for me, so I carried my socks back into the room in my hands and then gave them to Daniel to hold. The rabbi announced the Hebrew name that I had decided on, Shulamit Yiskah, and we signed the papers. Then there were some blessings and the rabbi took out his guitar and began to play. Harriet grabbed my hands and we began to dance, spinning around and around. I grabbed Jade and she joined the circle. Soon everyone in the room, including my parents, had joined hands and was dancing around the small room at the Ritualarium. It was such a moment of joy. Daniel's father Jeff told me afterwards that the look on my face was of pure happiness.

Looking back on the experience, the overwhelming feeling and impression is one of affirmation. The bet din, rather than being a scary, judgmental experience, was one of affirmation and support. I felt fortunate to have my parents there and to know that they're so supportive of this. I know it was a moving experience for both of them, and I think they felt honored to be there.

So, now I'm a Jew. I'm no longer just "interested in" Judaism, or studying for conversion, or exploring my options--I'm a Jew. I'm Jewish. It still feels surreal. Yesterday was my first Shabbat as Jew. The Torah portion was Lekh Lekha, in which God tells Abraham to leave the land of his father and go out to the land that God would show him--an amazingly resonant and significant Torah portion for a convert. During the Torah reading, Harriet handed me a tallis to wear. It felt different to wear a prayer shawl--different, but also oddly comfortable and very, very right.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Good Friday

I felt like a good teacher today. It was a wonderful feeling.

On Wednesday, I walked into the classroom and two-year-old E looked right at me with a grin. "Jessica, I love you so much!" he said. We should all receive such affirmation.

(I don't really have anything original to say about President-Elect Obama, so I'll just say: WOOOOOOOO! I'm also planning on posting about my bet din and mikvah later this weekend.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The line of succession

Daniel's looking at the back of Jessi and the Awful Secret. "What's an alternate officer?" he asks.

"That means she takes over for anybody who can't come to the meetings, like if Stacey is in New York then Dawn's the treasurer," I say.

"So if Kristy's not there, Dawn's the president?"

"Yeah, but Kristy very rarely misses meetings--"

"If Kristy's gone, why wouldn't Claudia just become president, and Dawn the vice-president?"

"Well, that's just not how it works."

"...What if Kristy was shot? That would mean that Claudia would become the president."

"I think if Kristy were shot, the Baby-Sitter's Club would get disbanded."

"The Baby-Sitter's Club must go on, Jessica. THE BABY-SITTER'S CLUB MUST GO ON."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Prospective Immigrants Please Note"

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

I found this poem by Adrienne Rich on Rachel Barenblat's Velveteen Rabbi blog last summer. I remember being struck by it then, and feeling like both the poem and Rachel's commentary on it really spoke to my feelings about my conversion. She writes, "I see a chiastic structure here. For me, the middle stanza is the pivot on which the poem hinges. 'If you do not go through / it is possible / to live worthily,' Rich writes. Whatever leap you're considering taking: there's nothing wrong with not taking it. But if you don't take the leap, you won't know what new vision might await you on the other side." It's true: I could live a good life, a worthy life, a noble life as a non-Jew. I could live in tune with my spirituality; I could participate in loving relationship and live an ethical life. But what will blind me? What will evade me? And when I step throught the door, when I come out of the mikvah as a new-born Jewish woman, what "new visions" will be waiting for me on the other side?

Tomorrow, I'm taking the leap. God willing, tomorrow at 2pm at the Portland Jewish Ritualarium I will have my bet din and mikvah for conversion. Please hold me in your thoughts and prayers. I treasure your good intentions and energies directed my way.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


This week, the yearly cycle of Torah readings begins all over again with Genesis 1: "B'reishit," "In the beginning." Tishrei, the last Jewish month, came in with a bang (actually, it literally came in with a blast of the shofar, a trumpet-like instrument made of a ram's horn) on Rosh Hashana; a week later came Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. We rested for a couple days then Sukkot began; Sukkot lasted a week and a day then was followed immediately by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (Simchat Torah was especialy significant for me because it was my very first official Jewish experience, two years ago). (How interesting to re-read the blog entry I wrote about that first Simchat Torah!) Now we ease into the month of Cheshvan, the only Jewish month without any holidays or fast days (finally, a respite!) On Simchat Torah we celebrated the completion of the cycle of Torah portions; now we roll the scrolls back to the beginning and start over again with Genesis. "B'reishit." "In the beginning."

Except, as Reb Aryeh pointed out, "B'reishit" does not mean "in the beginning"--or more accurately, it doesn't have to mean "in the beginning." The Bet (the first letter of the Torah) is missing the diacritical mark that tells you how to pronounce it. If it's pronounced "BAH-rey-sheet" than it means "in the beginning." If it's pronounced "BUH-rey-sheet" then it means "in a beginning."

I just love that. For me, just that article switch opens up whole worlds of interpretive possibilities. What would it mean if we consider that our planet, that we ourselves were part of a beginning, not the beginning? That suggests to me an unending renewal, the sense that we can always begin again. The medieval Kabbalists were turned on to this interpretive possibility (it's not something invented by postmodern theological progressives); according to the rabbi, in the Zohar, Kabbalists elaborate on seventy different ways of understanding what it means to have been created in a beginning.

Another interesting thing that the rabbi pointed out: take a look at the letter Bet, the first letter of the whole Torah. It's closed on one side, and open on the other. Remember that Hebrew is written and read from right to left, so that the subsequent letters flow from the open side of the Bet. Creation flows from the opening of the Bet; Bet literally turns its back on whatever came before. And yet, a little tail extends backwards from the base of the Bet--a little part of the letter reaches back to the space before the beginning. This is significant for me as I think of the beginning of my Jewish life. Like Bet, I'm turning my back on certain things and older ways of being; choosing one path over others. But also like Bet, a little part of me reaches back to what I used to know. This is a beginning for me, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the beginning.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

For Daniel

Happy anniversary! There's no one with whom I would have rather spent the last two years. I love you!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Setting the date

First thing you do, drive right through that Holland Tunnel,
Pay your toll to the soul on the other side.
Pick up your ticket, everything will be all right...

That's from the song "Holland Tunnel" by John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), from his solo album "John the Wolf King of L.A." Daniel and I saw The Squid and the Whale a few months ago, and then Daniel found the soundtrack at the library; both are wonderful. "Holland Tunnel" is my favorite song off of the soundtrack. It's hard to explain exactly how good it is without hearing it; Daniel suggested that one of the reasons it's such a compelling song is that the kind of soporific accompaniment is so evocative of aimlessly traveling. One blog I read suggested that it's meaningful as kind of a prequel to "California Dreamin'." For me, the line "Pay your toll to the soul on the other side" evokes the sense of leaving, of crossing a boundary and beginning to manifest a new identity: meeting your soul on the other side. The "soul on the other side" of the tunnel could be the toll-taker, but it could also be your new manifestation of yourself--the whole "you never step in the same river twice" kind of thing. There's a sense of uncertainty, maybe some sacrifice ("paying your toll") but at the same time the assurance that "everything will be all right."

If the Bible had a soundtrack, "Holland Tunnel" might be playing when God tells Abram "Lech lecha!" Go take yourself out of the land of your father and go to the land that I will show you. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah: they meet their souls on the other side.

Today, Reb Aryeh and I set the date for my conversion. He suggested some time in early December, tying it to Chanukah, a holiday that's all about dedication. That sounded okay, but I asked if we could do it earlier, since I'm anxious to make it official. We started looking at the calendar, and suddenly the first full week of November leapt out: the week when the Torah portion of Lech lecha will be read. What more perfect time for conversion, for my own personal lech lecha, could there be? God willing, on November 2 I will appear before the bet din (religious court) and undergo the mikvah for conversion (immersion in a body of water--kind of like Jewish baptism).

I can't wait to meet that soul. Drive, baby, drive.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

You know what I hate?

When you tell a parent that their child did not take a nap that day, and the parent looks at you all quizzically and significantly, like, "Ohh...?!, as though you were kneeling over their child shaking them, like "WAKE UP HEY YOU WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP." I feel like saying, "Yeah, not only did your child not sleep, but he was so noisy and restless on his mat that he kept everyone else up, too. So take it up with your kid, not with me. Believe me, I wanted him to take a nap, too."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Big brown bear

Several months ago, my co-teacher Cara brought introduced our class to a wonderful CD called Dance for the Sun: Yoga Songs for Kids. The CD is comprised of a dozen or so original children's songs arranged to walk kids through various yoga poses. Some of the songs on the CD can be listened to without the yoga component, like "Caterpillar, Caterpillar" or my favorite "Midnight Moonlight." The songs are really catchy but also well-arranged and musically interesting.

One of the songs is called "Big Brown Bear." The kids love this song and it's incredibly catchy, but lyrically it's not the best song on the CD. Several of the verses don't rhyme, or don't have a consistent rhyme scheme: "I'm a bear, I'm a bear, I'm a big brown bear / munching on some berries / I think the blue ones are the best." Or: "I'm going fishing / salmon fishing / gonna find some fish to eat / the salmon are the best." Still, though, the kids love singing it and clomping around like bears and it's SO CUTE when they all lie down and curl up at the "Gonna find a cozy cave / and take a long rest" part at the end of the song, so we end up singing it a lot.

The other day I was at home singing the song for Daniel. He was like, "I think you might be giving the children an unrealistic image of big brown bears." Then (this part is in poor taste) we started thinking of how to adapt "Big Brown Bear" to be relevant to the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man. Like: "Gonna find a man to eat / the blond one is the best" and "I'm a bear, I'm a bear, I'm a big brown bear / All you see in my eyes / is emptiness and void."

I don't think I'll be introducing the new lyrics to the children.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Nothing says "enforced joviality" like...

...getting an email from your boss with the subject heading, "LEMONADE SOCIAL....attendance required."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

27 Dresses and The Banger Sisters: A Study in Opposites

This evening Daniel and I watched 27 Dresses--I know, I know, but I kind of wanted to see it. It looked awful in the trailer, but like possibly either a fun or a hilarious kind of awful that I wanted to experience, so I put it on my Netflix queue.

It wasn't. It was just awful in a mediocre, vaguely distasteful way. The "witty" "banter" fell flat and the characterization was poor. Plus throughout the second act the audio was improperly sync'd, which made it seem like a poorly dubbed foreign film.

On the other hand, The Banger Sisters, which I checked out from the library a month or two ago, was awful in a hilarious, flaming blaze of snakeskin leather pants, faltering English accents, borderline personality disorder-suffering, pseudo deep Jim Morrison references kind of way. Where to begin? How about the awkward and ill-conceived sex scene in which Goldie Hawn's aging groupie seduces neurotic, suicidal writer/hitchhiker Geoffrey Rush? As Daniel put it, "This has to be the least downloaded sex scene in internet history: 'Hey, let's watch Goldie Hawn get it on with the guy from Shine!" Or Goldie Hawn yelling at Susan Sarandon's spoiled kids, a tirade after which they, bowed and humbled, immediately begin to wash the dishes? Or the passing off of common Jim Morrison trivia ("He called himself the Lizard King!") as somehow unique? Or the most incompetent bellboy in the industry, who doesn't understand the meaning of "Please don't tell the crazy lady in the snakeskin what room I'm staying in?" Or Susan Sarandon's entire wardrobe?

Yes, The Banger Sisters was awesome, and it has set the standard for hilariously bad movies. The bar is high, friends. Cool as Ice high.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hairy-legged feminist

As I mentioned in the last post I stopped shaving my legs a couple months ago. There is a feminist motivation behind it (I do believe that shaving body hair is an artifice of femininity, though I think there's nothing wrong with it per se as long as you acknowledge the artifice), but honestly the primary reason is laziness. I just don't care about having smooth legs enough to expend the time, energy, and money (not to mention the inevitable nicks and cuts) required in keeping them that way. I wear skirts and dresses often, but to my knowledge I've never been looked at askance by anyone I come across for having hairy legs. If anyone at Shaarie Torah or Kesser Israel, the Orthodox synagogue I went to for a lecture on Monday, thought that it was weird, they kept their opinion to themself.

Occasionally now the kids at school notice my hairy legs. The other day I was wearing a skirt out on the playground, sitting on the corner of the sandbox and watching a group of my preschoolers play. S, a four-year-old girl in my class, came up and stood in front of me. She's sometimes like Jekyll and Hyde but we've been going through a great patch for the past couple weeks. She's going through a period of being very affectionate to me. "I love your legs!" she said. "You have hairy legs, but that's okay!" and then she kissed my knee. I don't let the kids kiss me for a multitude of obvious reasons, but she swooped down so fast that I couldn't stop her. There was nothing to do but laugh and tell her that next time she could just blow me a kiss.

Yesterday I was in the sandbox again in a skirt with C, a four-old-boy. I was wearing a skirt again. "Why do have hairy legs?" he asked. "Some women choose to have smooth legs; some women choose to have hairy legs," I explained in my Objective Observation teacher voice. "Oh," he responded, "...my mom chooses to have smooth legs." "I choose to have hairy legs," I said, and he ran off to play with a friend.

As my leg hair has grown in, I've been interested to notice for the first time that it's kind of patchy. My calves, lower shins, and ankles are pretty hirsute, but there is almost no hair on my thighs, knees, or upper shins. And what hair I do have is pretty light and short. I don't know if it's going to get any longer or darker as it grows, but I did tell Daniel that he could tell me if it gets crazy hairy and starts to bother him.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Hello, blog

It's so hard to start posting again after a month of not posting. I'm not sure whether to jump in with something substantive, or to recount all the minutiae that I enjoy chronicling on my blog: that Daniel and I are on this healthy-eating kick and I've been trying lots of new recipes; that we've also been watching The Ben Stiller Show on DVD and it's really funny, but the guest segments are kind of lame; that we've also been watching Project Runway online and I feel a compulsion to root for Leanne since she's from Portland; that we finally cleaned out the bedroom after saying "We've got to do something about this bedroom" for over a six weeks and it's so nice to be able to see the floor and make a straight path to the door without having to step over stuff; that I decided to stop shaving my legs because it's an artifice and who really cares; that last week at work was really frustrating on Monday but got progressively better until on Friday it was surreally good; that I've read The New York Times Sunday magazine a couple times when I've found it in the magazine rack at the gym and I enjoy it, so maybe I should start subscribing; that I am discovering that I really like cooking; that I put up mezuzot on the doorposts of most of the doors of the apartment and I'd say I remember to kiss them 90% of the time. Stuff like that.

This is not minutiae, but something I left hanging with my last post: the rest of Ruach ha'Aretz was wonderful, with so many precious moments of community and devotion that I hope never to forget. Rabbi Hannah Tiferet Siegel lying on her back in the grass with a group of children, chanting the Sh'ma; an entirely danced Kabbalat Shabbat service led by Rabbi Shefa Gold; my friend Izzy coming into the room during Kabbalat Shabbat immediately after doing the mikvah for conversion and just glowing; learning the blessing for ritual hand-washing ("Netilat Yadaim") from a loving and kind older woman; rising early for morning davennen; learning about nusach (traditional prayer melody) from a cantorial student during lunch. Reb Aryeh, my rabbi from P'nai Or, came for the last few days and Shabbat, and we chatted briefly; he commented that I was probably learning in one week as much as I would learn in a year through attending P'nai Or and independent study. It was true. I appreciated how the retreat showed me not just pretty much the full spectrum of Jewish Renewal (from more traditional nusach to a shacharit service led almost entirely in silent meditation, and everything in between) but a wide spectrum of Judaism. I generally consider myself pretty Jewishly informed and knowledgeable, and it was nice to be knocked down a little bit, to realize what a novice I am and how much more I have to learn.

What a convenient transition to talk about what I was planning on writing about: visiting different synagogues in the Portland area. When I first met with Reb Aryeh in April to announce my intention to convert, he suggested that even though I've officially joined P'nai Or I should visit different synagogues, to see a fuller spectrum of Judaism and to get an idea what it's like out there. Daniel's dad has been totally supportive and has taken me around for Friday night services at a few different places: Neveh Shalom (Conservative), Shir Tikvah (unaffiliated, but pretty Reform), and Beit Haverim (Reform). I've also gone to Havurah Shalom (Reconstructionist) several times on my own. Of the ones I've visited, I feel most comfortable at Havurah Shalom, since I really like the philosophy behind Reconstructionism.

Yesterday I went out of my comfort zone a little and visited Shaarie Torah, a Traditional synagogue in Northwest Portland. That's "Traditional," not Orthodox, because although they have sections designated for single-sex seating, there is also the option of mixed-sex seating, and because they use a microphone at the bima (pulpit). (In an Orthodox syangogue, men and women sit in different sections, separated by a barrier called a mechitza.) Although Shaarie Torah allowed mixed seating, it was not an egalitarian shul: not a single woman was called for an aliyah to the Torah, no woman present wore a prayer shawl, and the liturgy did not mention the names of the matriarchs. There's a part in the Amidah (central standing prayer) where it goes Baruch ata Adonai, magayn Avraham v'ezrat Sarah (Blessed are you God, the shield of Abraham and the helper of Sarah); it was jarring to me for the cantor to end the sentence at "magayn Avraham" and go right to the next paragraph. There were several moments like that during the service.

It was more difficult to follow along with the service because the prayer book did not include transliterations of the Hebrew. I can't read Hebrew, but I can usually follow along pretty well if the prayers are transliterated. There are some parts of the service that I have memorized, like the first few paragraphs of the Amidah, and some parts that I sing along with if someone else is leading, like the V'ahavta, but without the transliterations I miss a lot. I really have to learn to read Hebrew.

I was glad that I was dressed pretty modestly (calf-length fully skirt, elbow-length, high-necked shirt) because all of the women I saw except for one were wearing long skirts, and some wore hats to cover their hair. I felt slightly self-conscious carrying my messenger bag, since I didn't see a lot of other women carrying things (one is not supposed to carry things outside on Shabbat unless you're within an eruv, which is a whole other post), but oh well. I found it somewhat jarring and odd that they said three separate prayers during the service for the United States, for the state of Israel, and for the Israeli Defense Force (for the latter, that their enemies would be "speedily and totally destroyed"). It made me wonder what the political leanings of the congregation were.

I arrived about an hour late to the service, but there were still a full two hours after I arrived. Since yesterday was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, it was kind of like half a holiday and they added the special holiday prayer service called Musaf, which added a good forty minutes to the service. It was definitely the most liturgically traditional service I've been to.

After the service there was a full Kiddush lunch. The education director introduced herself and some other young people to me; we all sat together and talked. Everyone was super friendly, but I didn't tell a single person that I was not born Jewish. I'm finding that in some communities, like in Jewish Renewal, there's an arms-flung-wide-open acceptance of converts; in others, there's an acceptance but an assumption that I'm converting just to get married (at Neveh Shalom one of Daniel's dad's friends, on hearing that I was converting, responded "Mazel tov! When's the wedding?"); in others, there's more of a distancing. At Ruach ha'Aretz I did not hesitate to tell people about my spiritual journey because I knew I would be understood and the journey would be celebrated, but as I explore other Jewish communities, I'm realizing that I don't have to tell everyone I meet that I was raised Christian and have not officially converted yet. It's my business, and sometimes it's nice to just be assumed Jewish.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

I've got a beautiful feeling, everything's going my way

Every morning here at Ruach Ha'Aretz I've arisen early (6:20) to make it down to the conference center in time for morning davennen (prayer--"Daven" means "to pray" in Yiddish; davennen means prayer, and "davenning" is Americanized Yiddish), led each morning has been led by a different rabbi or rabbinical student. This morning davennen was led by a couple. The man began singing, "Mah tovu ohalecha..." It took me a moment to realize that he was singing it to the tune of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma! The prayer Mah Tovu laudes the beauty and goodliness of Israel's tents and dwelling places. I couldn't think of a nicer way to start the morning.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


This morning at P'nai Or there was an adult bar mitzvah (occasionally adults who didn't have the opportunity or the inclination to have a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony when they were twelve or thirteen study and prepare for one later in life). The service was so moving: the man's emotion at taking on the responsibility, his wife and teenage daughter's support, the ecstatic dancing during the Mi Chamocha. To me, it perfectly captured the Jewish Renewal mentality and approach to tradition; I wanted to bottle the experience and carry it with me to help describe Renewal to others.

The Torah portion this morning was Korach, from the book of Numbers--it's the story of a man named Korach and a couple of his friends who question why Moses and Aaron should have all the power. Are not all the children of Israel holy? God punishes Korach's rebellion and causes the earth to swallow him and his followers up. In his d'var Torah ("words of Torah," a sermon/speech about the portion) the bar mitzvah man shared some of his wrestling with the text; for him, as for me, it can seem that God is punishing Korach for raising a very legitimate complaint. Why should Moses and Aaron hold all the power? My feelings about the text reminded me of the way that I kind of always sided with Judas in one of the gospel stories: maybe that fine ointment should have been sold and the money donated to the poor. I know the traditional explanations of those verses, and the rabbi did some 'splaining about how the text indicates that Korach, like Judas in that gospel story, was pursuing his own glory and enrichment. Still, though.

Tomorrow I'm leaving for Ruach Ha'Aretz ("The Spirit of the Earth"), a Jewish Renewal retreat in Redmond, Oregon. I'm a mix of excited and nervous right now--nervous about dedicating pretty much a solid week to Jewish practice, prayer, and learning, and excited about, well, dedicating a solid week to Jewish practice, prayer, and learning! I don't think I'll have internet access while I'm there (the resort probably has wireless, but I'm leaving the computer in Portland) so the blog will take a little vacation as well (although with my recent lack of frequent updates, if I hadn't said anything about going out of town, you probably would not notice a difference.) I Hope everyone has a nice 4th!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Koko; symposium; good-bye; article; retreat; Shavuot; teaching

The first DVD that Daniel and I watched on our new computer was a French documentary from the 1970s about Koko the gorilla who learned sign language. (Yeah...Koko. That chimp's all right.) I really enjoyed it, both for its discussion of Koko and how I felt that it captured a particular moment in time, a zeitgeist, kind of of. There were many funny and touching moments and you couldn't help but be charmed by Koko and taken with Dr. Penny Patterson, the woman who worked with her. At one point Koko was kind of throwing a tantrum and kept dumping some papers out of a cardboard box, and Dr. Patterson was getting increasingly frustrated. "Koko, you are being a bad gorilla!" she said, as Koko stomped sulking to a corner of her enclosure. I turned to Daniel and said, "That was pretty much my morning."

Speaking of work, today another preschool teacher and I took the day off from the classroom to go to a symposium at the Opal School/Portland Children's Museum with our boss. The symposium began Thursday and goes until Saturday; I'm attending the latter two days only. The Opal School is a charter school connected with the Children's Museum that incorporates a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to education. Different teachers and directors from the Opal School gave presentations about documentation of children's art, creativity and understanding, and the Reggio approach, and we had the chance to visit the classrooms of the Opal School. They were so beautiful and intentional--all the materials so well arranged, all the students' work so meaningfully documented--that I found myself both inspired and discouraged. Inspired, because it gave me some wonderful ideas for my classroom next year, and discouraged because I'm not there yet and I continually struggle with engaging children with special needs (ADHD, conditions on the autism spectrum, oppositional/defiant personalities, etc) with the Reggio approach. More and more I look forward to the beginning of the new school year, and to starting fresh with an almost entirely new group of students--not because the children themselves won't present some of the same challenges I'm having now, but because I feel much more confident, self-assured, and intentional as a teacher now than I did last September.

Today was my co-teacher Eduardo's last day with us--he's accepted a wonderful job opportunity elsewhere. We've been teaching together for over a year, and I will truly miss him. Since I was gone today at the symposium, yesterday we kind of made a day of it and took the kids for a picnic snack at the nearby municipal rose gardens. After snack, Cara, Eduardo, and I gave the kids some safety guidelines then just let them run around the garden and dip their hands into the fountain. The weather was beautiful, the roses were in bloom and I was filled with such a feeling of joy and peace.

Daniel mentioned to me on Wednesday that this week's edition of the Willamette Week was a front page story on Alex and Brett Harris, the young men behind The Rebelution. I was pretty comically excited--I actually hooted--when I heard that, since I've long been interested in the Rebelution and Reformed Christian culture and theology. After their Portland Do Hard Things conference in the spring, I saw a kid walking around Pioneer Square in one of their T-shirts; I wanted to pull him aside and grill him about his theology and his understanding of what it means to be a rebelutionary. (I didn't, of course. But I wanted to!) You can ready the Willamette Week article here. I admit that after Daniel told me about the article, my immediate reaction was that they should have interviewed me, since I spent so much time on their forum when I was in college. (I think my exact, not-so-humble words were, "I know the most about the Rebelution of anyone who's not a rebelutionary.") But of course, Daniel was right that that was a somewhat illogical reaction, and not necessarily true. Anyways, the article was interesting and I really want to read the God's Harvard book about Patrick Henry College that the article mentioned.

Things have come together for me to be able to attend Ruach ha-Aretz, a nationwide Jewish Renewal retreat held this year in central Oregon, and I'm incredibly excited.

The other preschool teacher with whom I went to the symposium is a Seventh-Day Adventist, and during lunch we talked a bit about our different religious traditions. She asked about the process of conversion to Judaism, and I asked if Seventh-Day Adventists practice the gifts of the spirit (speaking in tongues, prophesy, healing, etc). The conversation came around to the holidays of Pentecost and Shavuot. Pentecost, of course, occurs fifty days after Easter ("pente") and commemorates the visitation of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled believers. Shavuot is like the Jewish counterpart, or the Jewish original from which the Christian holiday drew meaning. It occurs fifty days after Passover and commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It's traditional to stay up all night studying Torah on Shavuot. This year, I made it to about ten forty-five. Next year I hope to crack midnight!

A month or so ago I was out on the playground at the end of the day with a few remaining kids from my class, including four-year-old S. S often gets philosophical around 5:30 and goes into this kind of free-verse, prose-poetry way of speaking. "You're Teacher Jessica. You're a teacher. You go'ed to college to be a teacher," she said. Although I try to listen to the kids in conversation more than I speak, my initial urge was to correct her. But then I thought--"Huh, maybe." My degree wasn't in education, but in some way maybe I did go to college to be a teacher. I generally believe that wherever we are we are meant to be; there's possibility of growth and blessing in every place. That's absolutely been true for me in this job. S's comment came within a week or two of my one-year anniversary of teaching preschool. I still want to go to graduate school, but I'm also happy where I am, living in Portland, living with Daniel, learning Judaism, and teaching preschool.

Monday, June 09, 2008


I'm writing a blog post on my (I mean, "our") new computer! Daniel and I went in together to buy a refurbished MacBook...so shiny and beautiful. Buying it felt kind of illicit.

The thing about my old computer is that so many of the different things were broken--the DVD player, iTunes, iPhoto; I couldn't download anything new or upload songs to my iPod. It's exciting and weird to have a computer where everything actually works. (Plus, the Mac store was able to salvage my old hard drive, so hopefully I didn't lose any of my old papers or photos.)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Loss and gain

On Friday evening there was a tragic accident and some coffee was spilled on my computer's keyboard. Since then the computer hasn't been able to switch on. Many tears were shed. I took it to the Mac Store by the Lloyd Center today, and the guy said that the cost of repairs would exceed the value of the machine, but that for about a hundred dollars they could try to recover the hard drive and "enclose" it for me. We'll try that and cross our fingers that all was not lost. Daniel and I are probably going to buy a new (or refurbished used) computer together. I'm sad about my old computer and I dearly hope that they can recover my files and pictures. I had that computer for five years; it got me through college and through my first post-college year. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Yesterday afternoon I was walking home from the bus stop and passed by this long, gorgeous coffee table with an inlaid wood design. "FREE!" a sign proclaimed. I never pass by free stuff, but this table was four or five feet long and too heavy to carry, so I started dragging it down the sidewalk. I was about two or three blocks from the apartment when a City of Portland utility worker stopped me and said, "Let me do you a favor." He put the coffee table in his City of Portland pickup and delivered it right to my front door. The kindness of strangers, you know?

Thursday, May 22, 2008


On Tuesday the divorced father of one of my preschool students asked me out on a date, and the whole experience surely has to be among the five or so most awkward moments of my life. (I talked with one of the directors of the school about it because I was totally weirded out, and she said that it's pretty common for single dads to ask out their children's teachers. Still, though, how could you possibly think that it would be appropriate?)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Overheard on my way back to my classroom as a teacher tried to shepherd five two-year-olds outside

Teacher: "X, please put on your coat. It's raining outside."
Child: "Why?"
Teacher: "Because it's raining outside. In Oregon, it rains year round, because we live in a temperate climate."
Child: "Why?"
Teacher: "Why do we live in a temperate climate?...Just put on your coat."

Saturday, May 10, 2008


On Monday I met with my rabbi to discuss my desire to formally convert to Judaism. I don't know if that will surprise anyone who reads this blog. It's something that's been percolating for over a year, and I've been certain about it for the past couple months--certainly, by Purim, I knew. The rabbi called it a choiceless choice and I think that is an apt description.

Reb Aryeh was very encouraging and said that he was not surprised, but advised that I continue my studies for the next several months, learning more about kashrut, increasing my Shabbat observance, practicing making brachot, and visiting different shuls (since most of the praxis I know now is Renewal and Reconstructionist), and meeting with him periodically to discuss my progress. He suggested that the formal conversion itself--appearance before a beit din and immersion in the mikveh--might take place sometime a little after Rosh Hashanah, which is to say, in the fall. I would love it to fall around Simchat Torah, as it would mark the two year anniversery of my involvement with P'nai Or and my introduction to Jewish life.

More later. Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Be Holy, as I your God am Holy

Yesterday I went to the Shabbos service at P'nai Or, as usual. This time, I decided to stay for the Torah study afterwards, which I've never done before. Just a small group of us, maybe ten or twelve people, stayed; the rabbi passed around the Chumashim (texts) and studied the weekly portion in more detail. The portion for the past week was "Kedoshim," the so-called Holiness Code from Leviticus ("kedosh" means "holy" in Hebrew). This portion, as well as Acharei Mot, which we read a couple weeks ago, contains the infamous "a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman" verses; P'nai Or's Torah study mostly consisted of unpacking these verses from a progressive Jewish perspective and locating them within their Sitz im Leben, while still working within a respectful-of-Halachka framework.

For me, this was a timely discussion, since the night before, Eric and Amy and I had talked about those verses as they relate to homophobia within religious discourse and tradition. As I said on Friday, I often find the way that liberal Christians (not Eric and Amy, but speaking generally of theologically liberal traditions, like the UCC) dismiss those verses to be problematic, supercessionist (although I didn't use that word on Friday) and vaguely anti-Semitic. Often I find liberal Christians, in rejecting Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, tend to say, "You can't take the anti-homosexuality verses any more seriously than you take the verses against not mixing different kinds of fabric or touching pig skins." I think there are two distinct positions operating within that sentiment. First, making that point underscores the hypocricy of contemporary fundamentalists/conservative Christians who cherrypick verses from Leviticus to support their homophobia, while ignoring other parts of the Holiness Code. I think this is an absolutely valid and necessary criticism of such Christians.

However, I think there's another tendency among liberal Christians who point out the lesser-known verses of the Holiness Code, and that's to make a mockery of the religious practice of the early Jews and dismiss nearly all of Leviticus out of hand, as though the New Testament renders it unnecessary and unimportant. This position says, albeit in a more subtle way, "Those Jews believed all sorts of crazy legalistic crap about not mixing fabrics and not touching the dead; we Christians are under the New Covenant and don't need those old codes of conduct." It's this attitude--and I think it's widespread, although not well-interrogated or acknowledged, among liberal Christians when they discuss uncomfortable texts like Acharei Mot and Kedoshim--to which I object, and which I find to be rooted in all sorts of anti-Semitic language about legalism and Pharasaical religion. (Let me be clear that I'm not grouping Eric and Amy with those Christians.)

One of the things I've most appreciated about where my spiritual journey has taken me is that, as a Christian, I always had a tendency to dismiss the "Old" Testament, or understand it solely as a historical document; it was interesting from an academic perspective but I didn't find much religious inspiration in it. Living Jewishly has encouraged and required me to take the Torah more seriously, without falling back on the typical Christian impulse to supercessionism. It's been a good change.

Side note: Kedoshim also includes the prohibition against garments made with both wool and linen; this prohibition is known as Shatnez. It's a pretty big deal and is taken seriously within frum (observant) communities. But Reb Aryeh noted that in the days of the Temple, the High Priest wore garments of mixed fabrics. I was shocked to learn that, and in fact there was an audible gasp throughout the congregation. The High Priest also kindled fire within the Temple on the Sabbath, which outside of the Temple was forbidden. Very, very interesting.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

As long as you're you, I will love you

My co-teacher Cara brought in a tape of criminally catchy children's songs a few days ago. The first song begins,

If I were gorilla, ya ya ya ya ya
I'd eat me a banana, na na na na na
And build me a tree house
And swing from the vines
But I'll always come home, 'cause I love you.
Ya ya ya ya ya ya ya.

Other verses begin "If you were a daisy, zee zee zee zee zee" and "If you were a spaceship, tree tree tree tree tree." The chorus goes, "It doesn't matter to me / Whatever you happen to be / As long as you're you, I will love you."

We've been singing these songs every day at Cara's morning circle, as well as throughout the day (I sing a lot throughout the day to calm kids down, to occupy some of them while we're waiting for others to get ready, to get kids over to circle, etc). And this gorilla song has been in my head for DAYS. I was singing it to Daniel the other night: "If I were a gorilla, ya ya ya ya ya...as long as you're you, I will love you." He paused for a minute and then said, "But if you were a gorilla it would change the very nature of your consciousness." It's true--I guess being a gorilla would be a deal-breaker. But I can't amend our preschool lyrics to, "As long as your personhood and consciousness remain fundamentally the same, I will love you." Somehow I don't think the preschoolers would get it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

God's gonna hook you up

A year ago last November, Daniel and I happened upon the televangelist Paula White fundraising on TBN. As I remember, she was exhorting the viewers to send her $77, or $207, or $2007--some amount of money related to the upcoming year, 2007. She promised that for those who sent in their pledges, "God's gonna hook you up"--which Daniel and I agreed made God sound kind of like some guy your cousin knows out in Gresham who can get you a discount stereo.

The other night we were watching TBN and, sure enough, good old Pastor Paula was up there a-preachin' and a-hollerin- and a-speakin' in tongues. "You get up, and you go to that phone," she pleaded. She sounded close to tears. She gesticulated wildly. People in the audience fell on their knees and lifted their arms. This time, she wanted people to pledge $88, or $888, or $8888--since this is 2008, you see. She explained that sending in money wouldn't guarantee you anything--God's not going to hook anybody up this year, one imagines--but it will put you "in alignment for assignment."

Paula preached--"preached"--for about an hour. She circled around various topics and thoughts. At one point she defended the importance of the eights in $88, torturing a verse from Isaiah. Finally she gave up the exegesis and just shouted, "God CARES about numbers! If God didn't care about numbers, he wouldn't have taken a whole book of the Bible and named it NUMBERS!" Which really just demonstrates, you know, a lack of understanding about trends in modern biblical studies.