Mini Update

I’ve neglected this blog as of late, largely in part because the biggest thing on my mind right now isn’t something I’m really ready to post publicly yet. Although I’ve wanted to write about it, and probably will write about it, the timing isn’t right.

As an update, however, I will say this – I’ve started my Choosing Judaism course and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve had two classes thus far and I’ve already learned a great deal. We’ve discussed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—two major Jewish holidays that have just happened recently. I love the format of the class; we discuss Jewish ethics, phrases, and holidays… a little bit of everything!

I’ve also begun teaching myself Hebrew. Well, not literally teaching myself—I’ve found a great resource with online podcasts and lessons for a work-at-your-own pace kind of learning experience. I’m familiar with the names, sounds and pronunciations of approximately the first half of the Hebrew alphabet which is a start. Learning a language, especially one with a few sounds we don’t really have in English, is definitely a trying endeavour. I’m determined, although it’s a little tricky, but I would really like to have a basic understanding of Hebrew before I complete my course in May. (Which means I have some time!)

I’ll update more later when I’m not so exhausted—physically, and emotionally.

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My First Shabbat Service

Before the Service

I’m writing this in the hour or so before I have to catch the bus to attend my first Shabbat service. I have all the standard worries – what do I wear? Where will I sit? What if I sit in the wrong place? What if I look stupid when I can’t follow the prayers or the music? Ultimately, I may well say or do something wrong. And I probably will look stupid. It’s inevitable, I think, considering I’m walking into an environment that is 100% unfamiliar to me, on my own, with no one to guide me along. But that’s okay (I think!). It’s all part of the learning process. I’m not sure if I want to sort of show up, hide in the background/go unnoticed, observe and slip out… or introduce myself, talk to people, put myself out there. I’ll probably figure it out while I’m there.

Honestly, I’m not as nervous this morning as I have been throughout this past week. I’m not sure why that nervousness is gone, but I’m glad. (That said, it’ll probably hit me full force when I get there. I have a decent dose of social anxiety; new situations, new people, can be very hard for me.)

I wonder how different it’ll feel, if it’ll feel different at all, attending a Shabbat service over, say, a Christian service. I attended a private Christian school from grade 7 to 12, and it was… well, it was awful. It completely changed my perspective of Christianity (and not in a good way). I haven’t been able to attend a Christian service without extreme anxiety in years. The last time I even tried I ended up leaving part way through the music at the beginning to sit in my mom’s car and wait for the service to finish. I’m desperately hoping that this is different. I think it will be, though.

Well, here goes nothing.

After the Service

I’m home now from the service and I know, technically using my laptop on Shabbat is a no-go. However, I’m phasing myself into the Shabbat thing slowly, and I really wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot about them. By the time I start the classes in September I’m hoping I’ll be fully-Shabbat observant. Or at least much closer than I am now.

First impression when I walked in the door – people were very friendly. And while no one came over to me immediately, despite how lost I must have looked, when I went to ask the greeter where I was supposed to go as it was my first time there he was so quick to grab a passing member who was friendly and more than happy to guide me upstairs, find me a place to sit, and later come over to make sure I didn’t have any questions/knew I was welcome. I’m glad I asked for help – my overall impression of the synagogue might have been different if I hadn’t.

So I went up to sanctuary (is that what it’s called? I don’t know…) and got settled in. By the time the service started the place was pretty packed, and people continued to steam in as it went on.

I love the sound of Hebrew, and I love all the singing. The Rabbi was warm and engaging, cracking jokes and smiling often. I didn’t know what was going on, but at least he called out pages so that unfamiliar people like me could follow along. Not that I could read the Hebrew, or even the phonetics. But still, it was nice to have something to follow.

I’ve always been so impressed with the reverence that the Jewish people have for the Torah. When it was pulled out and walked around the congregation people reached out to touch it with their prayer shawls and then kissed the fabric that had touched the holy text. It was pretty spectacular to watch. The other thing I loved about the service was that it was so full of life. That’s something that, according to the reading I’ve done, is so important to the Jews. Life, and joy. Despite all the awful things that have happened to them, their religious ceremonies are inherently joyful. There was singing, and clapping, and laughing.

The most difficult part for me was having this longing to be part of them, and knowing I’m not. Yet. Sitting there almost felt like pretending to be something I wasn’t, but something that I wanted to be. They were doing a luncheon type of thing afterwards, and I was invited to stay, but staying felt wrong somehow. Like I hadn’t earned that yet. I was an outside among those who have historically (and even today) been the outsiders. But that’s okay, because I will be one of them some day. It’s kind of difficult to explain that feeling any better than this, and maybe it doesn’t make sense, but it’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness reflection. I may come in and tidy it up later, or not.

At any rate, I’ll be going back next week, and hopefully by the time the class begins in September I’ll be familiar enough with the rhythm of the service to be able to maybe even participate.

P.S. Despite my fear that I would feel the same thing at this service that I did at Christian ones (crippling anxiety, to the point of having to leave), I did not, and I was fine. It was a wonderful experience over all.

Reading List (On-Going, Frequently Updated)

So with the program I’m taking (starting in September), there’s no assigned reading list. This has its benefits (no late nights cramming before a class so I know what’s going on the next day) and its drawbacks (no deadlines and due dates imposed on me, forcing me to get my butt in gear!). But it means I can really focus on the titles that interest me, and the subject matter I’m most excited about. Apparently, people tend to pick one focus when studying Judaism – history, theology, or mysticism. Ever the history nerd, I suspect after I really develop a solid understanding of the basics my reading will gravitate towards historical texts and analysis.

So this is my on-going, self-imposed reading list. Titles that are purple and bold are ones that I’ve completed. If you have suggestions for books that really should be on this list, comment and let me know!

  • Why be Jewish” by Edgar Bronfman
  • Choosing the Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends” by Anita Diamant
  • To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in the Contemporary Life” by Hayim Halevy Donin
  • To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service” by Hayim Halevy Donin
  • Jew and Improved: How Choosing to be Chosen Made Me a Better Man” by Benjamin Errett
  • The Anguish of the Jews” by Edward H. Flannery
  • Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers” by Arthur Green
  • The Genius of Judaism” by Bernard-Henri Levy, translated by Steven B. Kennedy
  • The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism” by Dennis Prager
  • Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism” by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
  • Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals” by George Robinson
  • A Code of Jewish Ethics” by Joseph Telushkin
  • Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, its People, and its History” by Joseph Telushkin
  • Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historical Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers” by Joseph Telushkin
  • The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living” by Joseph Telushkin
  • The Ten Commandments of Character: Essential Advice for Living an Honorable, Ethical, Honest Life” by Joseph Telushkin
  • Judaism” by Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein
  • Why be Jewish?” by David J. Wolpe

The First Step (Part II)

My meeting with Cantor Mass was at 11am – I was so relieved to find that he was friendly, welcoming and happy to answer any and all questions that I had. (And I definitely had lots… and will have plenty more to come, I’m sure!)

I’m going to be starting the Choosing Judaism class in September. It’s not a “conversion” class in the strictest sense of the word… apparently in the past lots of attendees were already Jewish and looking to learn more about their people/history/religion/background. I think this is great, because I’ll be meeting a pretty wide variety of people when I attend.

The class runs from September 2017 to May 2018. I’ll get to experience all the major Jewish holidays during the program. If I still want to convert at the end of the process (I don’t have to commit ahead of time, but I am going into it with conversion in mind) I prepare an essay on my journey to Judaism thus far and stand before the Beit Din – generally a council of three rabbis – who will ask me questions and determine if I’m sincere and ready. If they decide yes, I go into the Mikveh (ritual bath) and come out a Jew.

It seems pretty simple, but I know it’s not – in that there’s a lot to learn and experience before I’m ready to take the leap. It seems rather foreign to me because growing up in a Christian (protestant) environment, you only had to say a little prayer and then poof, insta-Christian. They don’t require you to study, or learn, or understand what you’re getting into before you join. (I think the Catholic Church maybe does though? I don’t know anything about conversion to Catholicism.)

There’s no required reading list in this particular course, which is apparently something of an anomaly. But that’s okay – I’ll do my own reading. Oh and will I ever read! I already have about ten books coming in to the library near my place from other libraries in the city. I’m going to power through those before finding more. I’ll get what I can from the library, and buy copies if I really love them. There are some on suggested reading lists online that I can’t get out of the library so I’ll have no choice but buy them if I want to read them. But hey, I’m a big fan of book buying so this is no hardship for me. XD

I feel like I’m headed in the right direction, and it’s a good feeling.

The First Steps (Part I)

This morning I’m meeting with Cantor Anibal Mass; meeting with him is the first step in the conversion process. At least at this particular synagogue (Shaarey Zedek). I’m hoping to take the Choosing Judaism class that he teaches which starts in September. I almost took it last year, but found out about it two weeks in and didn’t want to jump in two weeks behind everyone else. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I also had a mini freak out – conversion to Judaism isn’t something to be taken lightly. I decided at that point I still needed a little time to explore if it was what I really wanted to do. I’ve since decided that yes, it absolutely is.)

I have no idea what to expect today. I am equal parts nervous and excited.

Later today I’ll update on how the meeting went.

If I find out today that I will definitely be taking the class come September, I’ll need to consider how and when I’ll make the decision public. I guess technically I’ve made it public here already – but no one is currently following this site (because I haven’t told anyone about it!). I know I have a lot of friends who won’t support this, but ultimately it’s not about them. It’s about what I need to do to live the life that I want to live.

I’m lucky at least that I have a great support system in my family. My mom, brother and sister are all on board. My mom a little less so – she supports me doing what I need to do, but I think it’s hard for her having her kids leave the religion of their childhood… the belief systems she taught us. And I’m not the first one to go rogue… my brother is atheist/agnostic. My sister is still a Christian, but not of the type that we were as kids.

Some of my friends are really great about it, and I appreciate the support more than they know. Others I haven’t told yet because I’m pretty confident that the response will be less than enthusiastic. I’m also preparing myself for hostility and I’m telling myself it can come from the most surprising of places. Antisemitism is everywhere but I’m ready to face it. At least as ready as I can possibly be.

I’m going to get ready for my meeting. Part II to this post will come tonight!