...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

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.