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Cathedrals in Time

October 16, 2009

Class this week was pretty amazing, the subject for discussion was the Sabbath, something E and I in our own way have been attempting to honor. We light candles, we say Kiddush,  but we’re not shomer shabbas, and we don’t always get the candles lit by sundown. Still, you do what you can do. Readings included Abraham Joshua Herschel and Mordecai Kaplan (a lot more on these guys in upcoming posts).

The Herschel reading in particular with its envisioning of the Sabbath as a cathedral in time resonated with me. One of the things that distinguish Judaism from Catholicism is the portability of the religion, that celebration and observance are not dependent on the presence of a priest or of the building of a church. Ten Jews, some candles, and a torah and you’re good to go.

This portability definitely comes in part from oppression, from anti-Semitism and from having to hide. But Judaism is also a religion of abstraction, of ideas and history and words. Ritual is an important component, but few of those rituals depend on being within a specific place. Judaism is a religion you can take with you. Did the abstraction and heavy reliance intellectual thought that I associate with Judaism today develop because of oppression, or in addition to it? I have no idea, I’m no Jewish historian. At least not yet.

But the ability to take the religion with you and hold the ceremonies wherever one could resonated through this particular class, in part because of the abstract time based natures of the Sabbath, but also because of a Torah scroll the Rabbi brought to class. Little more than a foot and a half tall, it was the smallest Torah scroll I had ever seen. Rabbi’s cousin had bought it at a flea market in Japan of all places, and had spent thousands having it restored. It was a pretty special thing. From analyzing the way the scribe had formed the letters, they had been able to discern that the Torah had originated somewhere in Eastern Europe about a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and that the scribe was either from, or had been trained by someone who was from, Czechoslovakia. Yeah, apparently they can track it down to that level of detail. Amazing. It was a beautiful object and an important thing, I felt honored to be able to be so close to it.

As I stood there in class, staring at this Torah Scroll and trying to imagine the journey it had taken from East Europe to Japan, I was moved by this religions ability to migrate and protect and create little cathedrals in time all over the world.


The nature of the convert.

October 8, 2009

As someone pursuing conversion, one of the things I find it important (and difficult) to balance between enthusiasm and fetishization and between interest and hobbyism*. I’m excited about Judaism, I love diving into new areas of study and this is an area of study big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but as I get deeper into this I need to remember two things.

1. This isn’t like any of my other interests. This isn’t an interest, it is a change in life and it needs to be treated with a serious and rigor that I don’t often bring to interests. Becoming a Jew isn’t like getting interested in the rules of cricket. It is much, much more and I need to be aware of that.

2. I think it is easy in the first blush of conversion to get very wrapped up in all things Jewish and to almost fetishize the people and the culture. I do not want to do that. I want to remember that my excitement can be off putting, that it can appear that I am treating a living culture like an anthropology project – something to be analyzed and dissected.  Judaism, especially certain aspects of the intellectual life Jewish life, are very exciting to me right now, but I have to realize that doesn’t mean that I can’t be offensive in how I discuss them or talk about them.

Additionally, I need to remember that being a Jew means a lot of different things to different people. Many of those ways of being Jewish will be something I will never understand or participate in. As an adult convert to Catholicism will never know what it felt like for me to be an altar boy, I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home. The experience of the convert is necessarily different and one should pretend that it is otherwise.

All that said, I’m learning a lot, and I am excited about where this is going. If I can stay self aware about how I handle this process, I think it is going to be great.

*I totally made that word up.

First Class

October 7, 2009

We had our first conversion class last night. I think it went very well. The Rabbi is a welcoming and thoughtful person. The breakdown of the class was as I expected – nine people six of whom were couples who were either married, engaged or considering getting married and three who were there by themselves. Everyone seemed excited, reasonably knowledgeable and friendly.

The class itself was very introductory, going over terminology, discussing the idea of peoplehood, etc. I found that while I had done the assigned reading, I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about some of the concepts and was at a loss to define ideas as simple as “holy”. We wrestled for a long time in the class with the idea of a people “set apart” or “chosen”. It’s a loaded subject, especially in a class full of people converting, and the Rabbi tried to walk a fine line with regards to it, emphasizing that translation isn’t meaning, and that “chosen” does not have to lead to a chauvinistic view of Judaism. He’s a smart and thoughtful guy; its going to be an interesting class.

Interesting Gers: Martha Nussbaum

October 2, 2009

I am going to start a new Friday feature here on Nom De Ger. A short little profile on an interesting or inspiring convert to Judaism. First up, an intellectual hero of mine, Martha Nussbaum.

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most important poltical philosophers working today. She teaches at the University of Chicago, has written a number of books including the must read Sex and Social Justice*. She is just ridiculously smart. She is also a ger.

It is not easy to find a lot of information on Nussbaum’s conversion. It would seem that like many converts, she originally converted for marriage when she married Alan Nussbaum. However, long after she and Alan Nussbaum divorced, she stayed involved in Judaism and had a bat mitzvah in 2008.  At her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum gave a d’var Torah. Here is an excerpt:

As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. . .  So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.

You can read the whole piece here. Nussbaum hasn’t shared why she converted, nor why she chose to have a bat mitzvah at age sixty one, but I think her intelligence and sense of justice is a great addition to the Jewish community.
*Nussbaum is also involved in the great gossip of the intellectual elite. She was involved for many years with Cass Sunstein before Sunstein ran off an married Samatha Powers, but that whole thing is a discussion for another blog.

Yom Kippur

September 30, 2009

Monday was my first ever Yom Kippur fast, and yesterday evening was my first Yom Kippur service.  Maybe it was the hunger, but I was genuinely moved by the whole experience.

We had our pre fast dinner around five o’clock so as to finish in time to go to the evening services, dinner was pasta and copious amounts of water and by the time we left for the services, I was feeling pretty stuffed. Getting to the services proved to be a problem, we were going to take the bus (I know, I know, no shomer shabbas of us!) but the bus never came, and neither did a single empty cab. We waited for almost forty minutes and finally had to concede that we were not going to make services. This really disappointed us, but since it was the first time we were going to this particular synagogue, neither E nor I wanted to be showing up half an hour last (especially since SHARP was written in bold print on the synagogue schedule).

Having failed to make the evening services, we retreated home and I spent the rest of the evening feeling really thirsty and reading Jewish Literacy. I’m loving this book by the way, highly recommended for anyone considering conversion or who just wants to learn more about the Jewish religion.

Yom Kippur itself was unfortunately not as observant as I would have liked. I had an especially pressing meeting at work and while my work is pretty accommodating of various schedules and religious observance, it would have been a bit rich to ask for Yom Kippur off considering I am not as of yet, Jewish. So, hungry and battling a lack of caffeine headache, I went to my work meeting in the morning and then met up with E in the early afternoon.

We rested some, and I made the stupid suggestion of breaking the fast that night with burgers and Monday Night Football, and then we were off to afternoon services at the synagogue.

About the synagogue – this time we choose to go to what would be the closest synagogue to us, about fifteen minutes by bus up the street. When we arrived for the afternoon services, there were probably only fifty or so people there, all of them older, many of them clearly very “progressive”. This is a conservative synagogue, and many of the women were wearing kippas and prayer shawls and then general vibe of the place was a relaxed atmosphere. The rabbi was extremely welcoming, coming up to us at one point and introducing himself and later explaining how the services would go.

Now, I’m not going to lie, these services can be tough. I don’t read Hebrew (yet) and it is difficult to feel part of things when you have no idea where you are in the prayer book. I would like by Rosh Hashana next year to at least be able to have a sense of where we are in the book instead of just relying on E to tell me to turn the page. Still, the Ne’ila was beautiful and handled wonderfully by the Rabbi taking the congregation from solemnity of the recitation of sins to the blowing of the shofar (or in the case of this synagogue, the many, many shofars, there must have been thirty people up there with them).

After services we celebrated breakfast with the congregation and talking some more with the Rabbi. I got a really good feeling from the man, very warm and welcoming, if a bit left of center. He encouraged us to come back for Shabbat services, and I think we will.


September 23, 2009

Just a quick post today to note what the reading will be for the conversion I am taking and some thoughts on study:

The text book is Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice

The bible we’ll be using is the JPS Tanakh

Other recommended reading is:

Jewish Literacy

Jewish Holidays

Living a Jewish Life

And, because I am insane and obsessive, especially when it comes to books, I have also bought

Becoming a Jew

To Be a Jew

To Pray as a Jew

These eight books are going to be my starting point in study, but I expect to head off in a number of tangents along the way.

I am really excited about this process, there is so much to learn and so many other avenues to explore, including for me looking into Gershom Scholem’s work, the codification of much of Jewish tradition in the middle ages, the place of Jews in the Frankfurt school, and much, much more. As this blog develops, I hope to have it branch off into both personal meditations on my own journey in Judaism, but also more general writing about aspects of Jewish history and theology that interest me.

Rabbi Recap

September 22, 2009

The meeting with the Rabbi last night went very well. He was as warm and welcoming in person as he seemed on the phone and I feel very lucky that my first experiences with conversion have been with someone like this.

Sitting in his well-appointed study, we spent some time just chit chatting, E told him about her back ground in a semi observant home, I talked about my interest in converting and we shared some of the up and downs we have had with E’s family around my not being Jewish (more on this in a later post). After which he gave us a rundown of what his class will be like.

The program is set to be 18 weeks of study with other people considering conversion. It will meet once a week. I asked about the concerns with converting with a conservative rabbi and he had a thoughtful answer which boiled down to – it’s up to you, but he outlined some of the pros and cons of an orthodox conversion.


An Orthodox conversion isn’t going to be challenged by anyone in the future, i.e., no one will doubt you’re Jewish*;

No one is going to doubt your children are Jewish (thought this isn’t as big a deal for E and I since she is definitely way Jewish); and

Though E thinks this is not going to be an issue, I worry her family will not accept this as a real conversion unless it is an orthodox conversion. It is one of the ironies of conversion that the convert is generally held to a more rigorous standard than what those who are born into a religion. There are things in E’s family from which I am excluded because I am not Jewish, it would be extremely frustrating if I were to continue to be excluded from those things after conversion.


Converting in an orthodox manner means kabbalat ol ha’mitzvo., Meaning, I would need to accept the yoke of the rules of Judaism. All the rules. That would mean either never eating in my parents’ home again, not going to my sister’s wedding or my nieces and nephews baptism or lying to the beit din. I am not excited about either idea.

As the rabbi** said, no one follows all the rules, the important thing is to understand the importance of the rules and to do as best one can. I’m down for that, but that is not enough for Orthodoxy.

Additionally, I think that when it comes to picking a shul, E and I will be much more comfortable in a more egalitarian synagogue. I would prefer mixed seating; it would be nice if E could be on the Bimah. Conclusion Right now, I am leaning heavily towards a conservative conversion. I have some more thinking about it to do, but conservative seems like the right approach***.

Either way, we have signed up for the course the Rabbi teaches beginning the first week of October. I am already extremely excited.

*As long as you convert with a Rabbi approved by the Orthodox Rabbinate currently calling the shots in Israel.

** This guy is going to figure heavily in my life I think, I should come up with a witty nickname for him.

*** Can I tell you how little I know about Judaism that I was shocked to find out that conservative is really liberal while reform is like far left. I really thought conservative was like Orthodox light when really it seems to be more like serious Reform, if that makes any sense.