Friday, October 14, 2016

The Face of G-d

Glory, Shock, and Awe. We are not worthy.

My placeholder:

We Are Not Worthy

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tefillin Selfies: So Simple

This is an interesting phenomenon. Selfies are the height of narcissism when they are frequent and posted online.

Then, I suppose there are the tefillin (twittery) selfies (new to me) that send a message. Sometimes.

My question is: What is that message? Like, is it cool to wear tefillin? What is the message?

I don’t think it’s cool to wear tefillin. As a tefillin wearer, wearing tefillin is an instrument for mindfulness and a deepening immersion into connecting with G-d. On the surface, wearing tefillin fulfills the mitzvah, draws the spiritual community together. But make no mistake, wearing tefillin is all about standing before G-d, and the covenant- swearing fealty, and a reciprocity. It is a true binding, in love, in awe. To all. It demands everything.

Does a tefillin selfie tell you that?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Who is adventurous?

Isn't our entire journey as Jews always an adventure?

It is for me.

It's been quite a while since I've written here, but I realise, no matter where you are, no matter if there is community or not, you're still a Jew and that is always, always a challenge whether you care or not.

I just moved across country and actually chose my living premises within a reasonable distance from a shul. That was my imperative. I've been without Jewish community for years, because of the distance, and I couldn't stand it any longer.

Having said that, I am nervous about attending a new shul (Conservative). I am so happy they not only have minyan in the morning, but also minyan in the evening.  I can eventually get my tefillin on which matters a whole lot to me (if I can get up that early). But I am alone and not that young, and female. It's always a challenge.

No matter how much a temple tries (thanks to committees), people like me are an afterthought and it always shows, especially in required seating; this is the time when I feel like an outsider, while everyone else, the families and couples, even young singles, get to be seated as is their wish, with all their familiars. I never did have that. Yes, Jews can be marginalised, even in the religious Jewish community.

For years I have read blogs especially those of New York Jews, and they are so lucky, having synagogues within walking distance, restaurants, butchers, a vast Jewish community to feel at home with, to keep kosher with, to be Jewish with on all levels- at their finger tips. I want that and I will never have it.

I'm a nomad looking for home, one which I lost since my rabbi/mentor/spiritual advisor died by suicide.  One I lost when I had to move. I don't think I will find anything close to that from now on and I am afraid of a new community when my last experience was not pleasant.

This is treasure. To be a Jew. To experience the adventure. To want so much more than just the status quo. Yet even the status quo has a place.

This is the treasure which so many Jews take for granted, irked often by the rules. It's about more than rules, it is, indeed, about community. I've backslid so much because I didn't have community. Community is the genius of Judaism. Not because of pressure but, rather, because of inspiration. Imagine wanting to climb higher, become more righteous, and there they are, people who are showing you the way.

I realise, finally, that being a Jew is an adventure, wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter your situation. I will write about that.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What I Know Now

When I started this blog I was enthusiastic about G-d and community. It was a hard row to hoe at the time and if it hadn't been for the kindness and charity of my fellow Jews online I could not have survived. A massive shout out to you all. And much love. You are all in my prayers.

I really wanted to know G-d, wanted to report what I learned, how G-d informed my life, spoke to me, but most importantly, knowing G-d.

So this is what I know now:

1. G-d is alive and ever elusive. I have no idea what G-d's deal is.

2. If there is a grand plan, I don't know what it is. But when I look back, I see my path.

3. G-d has never let me down.  Life can really suck but I feel G-d's presence almost all the time. I sometimes don't feel it when I am sick. Yet I live in hope. G-d simply is. Present.

4. In extremis, the mystical stuff arises and G-d does speak. Here, I address G-d as the Source.  The Source blesses me with what I call, Abraham's Shield.  Let me tell you, it is a complete mystery to me. This once happened when I was praying in an Anglican cathedral.  For me, that Source is everywhere. And there was no temple handy. The Shield alleviated a ton of distress (and no, it wasn't some psychological denial thing). I don't know why G-d answered my call but G-d did. G-d brought surprise and joy. I still don't know what to make of it. And always, always, I ask, why me.

5. I no longer do daily prayer though I think about it and miss it. It is true, that Jews need each other to keep going, to keep praying, to keep doing, to keep aspiring . But when I do pray, I feel totally connected to G-d. I perceive it as a total blessing that The Source answers and keeps me girded.

6. Isolation from a community of Jews is no life at all.  You will backslide. Backsliding is not a bad thing, but if you are spiritually ambitious and hungry, you just can't advance on your own. Unless you're one of those holy tzaddikim that hold up the world. I am not one. Or a hermit.

7. We are so essentially bound to each other, Jew to Jew, human to human, life to life, all of life,  planet to planet, way out into the universe, it is all true, those cliches.  G-d drives it all, is the engine and bounces in our net.

8. I subscribe to the panentheistic view that G-d is everything.  It began for me with the idea that this world is a thought or image in G-d's mind. But when I think of atoms and subatomic particles I know that we are all G-d as much as we are star stuff. And G-d is all.  Yet G-d is so much more, stuff we can't fathom, transcendent. It fits with stories in the Torah about G-d telling Moses to keep barriers between G-d and the people lest we die. We just can't stand that much knowledge of G-d.

This is one of those sucky things that doesn't make much sense unless you can imagine that all is suffused with G-d.  Actually, all is G-d. And it's not something that can be intellectualised.

9. When I began this journey, I thought I could get to know G-d, but I really haven't so far, except that somehow G-d has consolidated G-d's presence in answering my dire cries-  G-d's presence is definitely a constant. I feel like G-d has gotten to know me. Or more so, I know that G-d is knowing me. Booyah!

10. It is true that study, prayer, charity and humility can bring one closer to G-d. Imagine if you could see yourself with G-d's eyes; then you know what you were meant for.  It is true that there is a sweetness and a pleasure in studying Torah, in prayer, in acts of kindness, in attempting to know G-d. It all counts, for you. But you need the heart for it.  It's really not religious bullshit.

It is all way more than halacha, it is way more than interdictions, it is way more than restrictions- it is Life, and you do have to possess a  circumsised heart and I think that is the biggest obstacle for all.

My life materially is no better. I struggle. I don't know if the spiritual riches compensate, but I do know that if I had a choice, I would always choose G-d. As mysterious as G-d continues to be. And I still haven't given up on trying to know G-d. Go figure. I'm thinking it's a life's work.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Conversion and Identity: The Loaded Jew

I've recently trawled the net checking out Jewish blogs, especially this one, Michaltastik!, written by a passionate, opinionated Jewess and a convert.  It got me wondering...

Being a proselyte, I find, can engender a loaded identity.  I really want to say, "having been a proselyte".  I fail to understand the need to identify oneself as a convert years later (unless, I guess, you are looking to marry, and that's a whole other story).  Why does it carry so much meaning, for it seems to me that it only carries so much baggage.  I surely can't imagine making a career of it, and yet I have encountered a fair amount of people who seem to do just that.

One might as well identify oneself as a Neojew (with greater emphasis on the 'N' than on the 'j') because we all really need one more formal category to fragment the tribe. In a 'post' or 'trans' denominational Jewish society, heck, what's one more division?  Neojews should start their own movement, like the Ba'al Teshuva movement, with the tag, "Once I Was Lost and Now I'm Found".  Amazing grace, indeed. Let me be forever stuck with these extraordinary monikers rather than revel in being an ordinary Jew.

It doesn't help that fuelling the Jewish identity juggernaut, around the fringes you get the almighty Orthodox triumphalists who, like rote ridden hamsters, feel it is their religious duty to set us all straight; like trolls, you can identify them by their insistent derailing of cogent online discussion where, parrot-like, they smite us with arguments about cheeseburgers and driving on Shabbat.  Because, of course, these things undermine the very core of Judaism and all Jewish thinking and especially Jewish identity. Oy vey, the drama!

I'm not knocking the facets of identity which we all depend upon to keep us sane and balanced as individuals and by which we are recognised. Without identity, one is truly adrift and forlorn. Those who converted sometimes have stories to tell that born Jews and others can barely fathom. Yet above all else, true religious conversions ('to convert' finds its roots in Latin, convertere, to 'turn around'), stand alone, whether it be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or other.

True conversion is not merely about adopting a different religion; it is an event wherein one encounters G-d and one's hidden self.  Abraham was in essence a convert when he encountered G-d, as were Sarah, and Jacob; their names were changed for a reason that had nothing to do with 'adopting' religious practices.  Moses, even more strongly than they, was the quintessential convert, whose identity was initially hidden until his encounter with G-d; once uncovered, Moses turned around to who he truly was.

Then Ruth came along. Ruth adopted both a religion, and for the first time in spectacular conversion history, a people, and she did it out of love. Unhappily, it seems that it has been forgotten that she was the enactor, the adopter, not the adopted. Sadly, her conversion can superficially be represented as becoming Jewish for all the wrong reasons, often an argument in contemporary times.

In possibility Ruth's conversion may have heralded a contemporary veiling of that initial truth, of conversion as a 'turning around', as an uncovering of identity after an encounter with G-d. Instead, she becomes a gioret (masc., ger), forever identified as a stranger.  So now we argue fruitlessly about "who is a Jew".  In my opinion, we are asking the wrong question and it is not a good question either.

Today, yes, you bring with you all the experiences from the past which will always remain a part of you. But they are not always religious experiences just as they may not be for born Jews. When you bring all of yourself to a Jewish present, your past makes not one iota of difference to your Jewish identity which is shaped by one's encounter with G-d and/or an encounter with other aspects of being Jewish. If you question Jewish identity, then you are looking and living on the surface, whether Neojew or born Jew; the question of identity will always haunt you and harangue you and others and undermine Judaism and the Jewish people.

Mordecai Kaplan described Judaism as an evolving religious civilisation.  That is not a belief I share but it makes me wonder.  When so many of the Orthodox, at least online, and so many big macher rabbis are concerned with the minutiae of practice and developing greater and greater stringencies within halakha,  when the social consequences of people's religious practices take centre stage, it makes me wonder if he wasn't a bit prophetic (if you substitute 'devolving' for 'evolving') .  Here it seems that Judaism is becoming more and more "man-made" in the sense that enhancing the encounter with G-d is irrelevant. Jews are becoming strangers to their own religion.

And perhaps it takes someone who was once on the outside to point that out, and that people convert or return for all sorts of reasons, but the one I think that is most powerful is an encounter with G-d, echoing the paths of our spiritual kindred. Converting people to a godless model, on the other hand, is simply unJewish (cf this cogent argument for being Orthoprax and how that relates to Jewish identity).

I think that G-d does work in mysterious ways. You may convert to marry a Jew or Jewess and then it snowballs from there or it doesn't. But if it snowballs, there is some encounter with the core identity, the Jew you were meant to be but was denied you at your birth. In some ways, we are like Esau, whose birthright was stolen. And I don't know about anyone else but the coarseness and sensuousness of Esau is as much a part of me as Jacob the delicate geek (as represented by the Sages) studying in tents.  Meeting Jacob is the crucial moment, becoming Israel matters more than anything, and after that, wrestling with G-d is the constant refrain.... just like any other Jew for whom Judaism encompasses more than ethnic/religious/social identity.

The core identity does not rely on a religious society and its norms. Community is all important, especially in Judaism,  but on some level religious identity transcends religious society and its norms.  In my experience community is there to keep you going and keep you growing. It can be a nurturing, inspirational environment, the kind that encourages one to aspire more, do more, study more, be more; and it provides support and hope.  On the downside it can be alienating and strangle all expression and wrestling with G-d, just like the rote ridden hamsters.

The experience of conversion, the moment when you are called, and when you decide to answer that call from G-d, who points you in the direction of home, is unspeakable. It is not in the ritual or in attending to religious norms.  It is so powerful that it sweeps you along with perfect faith and certainty that this is what G-d intended and that G-d will help you see it through; it made me fearless in that pursuit.  To see the raised Torah scroll was the validation, because I finally met myself.

When you go through the ritual of conversion you dissolve into the tribe, and you are absorbed. It happens because of G-d, not because of the tribe, and because of G-d some of the tribe accepts and receives you. You bring your unique self to the community just like any other Jew, not your identity as a convert, unless you are invested in being a Neojew.

Yes, in day-to-day sharing and relating, it can be awkward when born Jews speak of their past, their family experiences, things you were deprived of in terms of Jewish experience. But, in my opinion that is a relatively small thing, unless that is all that matters or is a relatively big thing in a community. What you carry with you is a remarkable story and experience intimately shared with our spiritual ancestors. What you carry with you is the fact that your soul was Jewish from day one and that you are no different than any other Jewish soul. There is no need for a Neojewish identity, for you have simply uncovered what was always there. The rest is merely commentary.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kaddish and My Father

What do you do when you need to say Kaddish for your father, and it brings up so much pain that there are days when you hesitate to do it?  When that which should bring healing, comfort, uplift, simply becomes another dreaded situation to avoid, at which you balk?  And when you finally say Kaddish, and sincere and earnest as you might hope it to be, you often forget the words, or plough through it, or stoically recite every.single. syllable. you wonder if this reluctant, fractured whole counts for your father's soul.  Even though every word drags as if you're wading barefoot through a quagmire of molasses.

I never imagined that reciting Kaddish could seem like a curse.

I can now place z"l after my father's name. But is he really "of blessed memory"?  As the cliché goes, "It's complicated". We had been estranged (as I have been from the rest of my family) for 20 years. 

I learned of his death a week after it happened, through my ex.  The ex and his wife had been away, so the phone message was a week late. My sister said that my mother wanted me to know that my father had died.  Sis left her own phone number, but no other details. My sister is not a fan of mine and hell will freeze over before I call her.

I finally found a death notice online a week later.  He died suddenly in Mexico, and he can't be buried till the ground thaws in the spring.   He died enjoying life.  But in his obituary they forgot to mention that he was a war veteran.  I have not yet written my mother; I hate that my sister will read the letter.

Therapy showed me the annihilating influence of my father, his browbeating, when I was a child.  I adored him then, and admired him for the longest time.  But in the end there was only pain and grief and disappointment.  But he is dead now, so our relationship has changed.

In Poland he was raised taunting and trashing Jews.  Ironically, his uncles were partisans during WWII and rescued Jews from Treblinka.  As an adolescent I would call him to task about his casual, mindless denigration of Jews.  I don't think there was hatred; he just never thought about it. I guess it's quite an irony that I am a Jew, but I consider my fortune due to the merit of my great-uncles.   It is also more than ironical that the life he endured as an adolescent during the war, as a displaced person, interred in a labour camp in the gulag at Arkangelsk is akin to what so many Jews suffered.  He knew so much suffering and loss, and saw horrendous deaths and murders.  As a child.

I did not attend his religious service which was 3000 miles away and too late.  Actually, nobody asked me.  I have no family to mourn with.  I have no Jewish community to mourn with me, to support me, to sit shiva, and I am too far away to go to minyan every day.

So every day I say Kaddish for my father and the experience seems antithetical to its purpose.  I have always thought of this most beautiful and life-affirming of prayers as the balance and steadiness and antidote for all grief.  Ritual provides structure but Kaddish also provides healing over time.  What I have hated so far is that saying Kaddish brings memories of my father back, and with them my deep ambivalence.  Every day I am forced to think of him, if only briefly.  My mourning is complicated.  At the moment, Kaddish highlights that point.

On the other hand, my father now is pure neshama and there is no longer that relationship of mutual disappointment and hurt.  Our relationship has changed, but surprisingly it still exists.  And there is no question for me that he has passed on to another life and that certainty is not due to pure faith but a knowing.

I've been looking at photos of him and it has disturbed me that gazing upon his face through the years I am not moved.  I have felt guilty, too, that somehow I cannot summon visions of great loss now.  I have been mourning the loss of my father for decades, so I suppose that this is not different; I never imagined there would be reconciliation either. I guess I mourn the relationship or lack thereof more than anything.

One day, after saying Kaddish, I forced myself to peruse photos of him again, from my childhood onwards.  You can keep the pain at bay, but not forever.  And I found my father in the photos devoid of his image, yet totally infused with his presence. I realised the enormity that was this working class man's shelter and feeding of me, and of my first rate education. Even more so, he, like I, was obsessed with home: he built them, I'm still searching for one.  In early retirement, he singlehandedly built a couple of houses, taking wood from the forest of my parents' property.  He taught himself and did it all.  I was so proud.  They owned forest and field, garden and spring, a small farm and gallons of maple syrup.  I find my father in the nature that he dwelled in.  My father's presence is everywhere, in every picture without his image, in every picture where he was.

My father (and my mother) suffered so much loss and terror as children, so much trauma.  They passed on that trauma to me.  It is hard not to excuse him for everything, knowing the life he was cheated of, but that would be unfair- he does not totally get a pass.  Still, he wanted to live the American dream, and I am so glad he got to live it to the fullest.  He died on vacation, too, which I find quite fitting.

My grief is complicated by all these things- the abusive father, the father I understood and felt compassion for (even when young), the father I simply adored and was proud of and admired, the father that in the end rejected me.  He was a decent human being, a man of his word, a snappy dresser, had beautiful handwriting, an operatic singing voice, was intelligent and intuitive, a quick study and very skilled with his hands, but found little of value beyond himself and his few interests, and really did not value people.  We never really had conversations; all I remember is his jeering. He wasn't crazy about Jews, either.  And he was damaged.

My grief brings up many losses, the reliving of primal emotions, the loss of family and possibility and the loss of potential, among other things.

I miss my father, the one I knew simply as a child .  I realise that, then, his presence gave me a sense of place, a love of nature, and a hunger for home.  When I look at his photos now, they do not move me; but when I see photos of the houses he built, the land he owned, the countryside and parks he strolled through and fished and swam in, then my father becomes real and he and I meet and I feel myself a part of him and he a part of me, and we, part of it all.

Baruch Dayan Emet.

Rest in peace, kochany Tato. May God spread his shelter of peace and healing over you and all who love you. You are finally Home.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

At Christmastime: Musings about Pig

What dire straits!

I itch to put up lights or decorate a tree, a couple of things I loved to do.  It meant rich beauty and vibrance and life.  I love light. I hanker for those days this year.  I know it comes from the fact that I have no Jewish community, and no Jews in the neighbourhood.  This is a place where you have to scour for candles for Hanukkah.  I have been using candles in the past sent by a friend from LA.

As I was hunting for them I realised I have a hanukkiah meant for oil, my very first Hanukkah purchase.  So I will use that this year.

Still, Hanukkah is when I decided to leave my marriage and in addition it's been downhill financially ever since.  Not great memories.  And I am also ever mindful that it's a minor holiday, because for me, it's a rabbinic dictum and not from the Torah.  I can't take it as seriously.

My best friend from LA, as always, is sending me little gifts for all the days and she is not a Jew.  There is a place in heaven for her.

Often I think about the relative ease that some Jews have- being born into a community, having kosher food at your fingertips while I still crave bacon that many have never tasted.  I don't really keep kosher but I do refuse bacon and that takes a lot of effort on my part.  I wonder about those born into a community where keeping kosher is not difficult, where even the pizza is kosher.  I marvel at that.  Or where there's a shul or mikvah within easy reach.  Where everyone eats and talks and believes a lot like you.  Where the only thing that occupies someone is how to become more stringent or to determine whose kitchen is kosher, or how to organise one's life more Jewishly.  How much you all take it for granted and are blessed.  You wonder about believing in G-d, or what constitutes an infraction of some mitzvah or belief, or what your neighbour is doing, while I just struggle to not eat pig.

Clearly, G-d has a sense of humour.

Chag sameach to all!