return

empty road sign; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I opened the front passenger-side door and sat down, glancing at the three other people waiting for me in the car as I shut the door. He smiled at me: “You miss home. Not just your family. You must if you’re taking pictures of a sign by the side of an empty road.”

I felt the tears begin to form. “I do miss home. Sometimes so much I can’t allow myself to think about it.”

I’ve never been to this particular place before, but I instinctively feel it as familiar.

I’m at a rest stop in Ellinger, Texas, on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. I stand at the edge of the small parking lot, on a curb that gives way to a shallow ditch that runs alongside that empty road that passes by green fields and that seems to end at the horizon a couple hundred feet away. Even in mid-September, the heat rises from the road in shimmery waves, the exhaust from cars on the highway and in the parking lot adding to the 90-degree air temperature.

The empty road dead ends into the highway, and across the intersection the arrows of two black-and-white signs, both with “71” inside an outline of the shape of Texas, point in opposite directions: north and south. A few abandoned tin-walled structures sit behind the wooden fence that separates highway from field.

Back on my side of the highway, three signs give the distances to the local Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, down the empty road that must become fuller past the horizon. Another sign advertises pecans for sale beyond the furthest church.

Peh-CANHS, I think. That’s how we say it here. Not PEE-cans, as they do elsewhere.

Walking across the empty road to take my photograph, I see an enormous white canvas that the church signs have obscured. “Romney-Ryan 2012” is backwards, since the logo faces the highway. I wonder whether it sits on public land at the same time that I know that few will care. This stretch of highway and this empty road is red.

Small white clouds only intermittently dot the expansive blue sky, which I always think seems bigger in Texas. Or was I just taught to think it so? Would I really recognize this landscape as Texas if the outline of the state were removed from the road sign?

I am a Texan, but I haven’t lived in Texas in 12 years. And there’s a chance that I might not again. When my nephew was born, the hospital gave his parents a discharge sheet congratulating them on “the birth of your new little Texan.” Will my children be so-called? What does it mean that he is a “Texan”? What does it mean that I am?

I love my family and Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock and Longhorn football and Astros baseball and bluebonnets and mesquite trees and the hill country and the car ride from Houston to Austin on a hot day.

I don’t love the death penalty and retrograde politics and homegrown presidential candidates and heat and humidity and traffic and suburban sprawl. I’ve become an East Coast urban Jew, like my husband, and so much of my former home has become an anathema to me. And perhaps I have become an anathema to it.

Molly Ivins said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She knows the mixed feelings that come with loyalty to a state that is often easy to deride as buffoonish. How can I be homesick and horrified at the same time?

In his memoir of his life under the ayatollah’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie writes about his and others’ dilemma as Indian writers but expats in the United Kingdom:

Who were they, and to what and whom did they belong? Or was the idea of belonging itself a trap, a cage from which they had been lucky enough to escape? He had concluded that the questions needed to be rephrased. The questions he knew how to answer were not about place or roots, but about love. Who do you love? What can you leave behind, and what do you need to hold on to? Where does your heart feel full?

He is surprised when a writer still living in India explains that his writing, that of a native son, is “highly problematic” in the country.

I claim Texas, but would Texas claim me?

As I fly back to Boston, it doesn’t feel like home. I like it, and I may one day grow to love it, as I did D.C. I think that home is Texas, and I always leave a part of me there. It’s a part that wouldn’t know what to do in Boston.

Rushdie calls this migrant consciousness. I moved because I couldn’t do what I want to do there. So I’m here now, and I am grateful and blessed. But the move required the construct of a new identity. You can’t ever go home again.

My parents have lived in Texas for more than 40 years. My grandparents were born and went to school in Texas – and moved back in retirement; my aunt and uncle did the same. My cousin moved to Madison after college for graduate school and then work and moved back several years later. My brother never left.

Re-entry into my “real life” has been very hard this time around. Enrollment in rabbinical school has amplified the differences between who I was and who I am. Will I ever feel whole in either place?

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

feminist teshuva

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.

first services

On Monday I led my first service all by myself, an hour-long morning service for Rosh HaShanah. (In June, at my bat mitzvah, I just led two parts of the service: the Amidah and the second part of the Torah service.)

rosh hashanah prep; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A little over a week ago, the community relations coordinator at an assisted living facility about 10 miles north of Boston emailed the school to ask if there was a rabbinical student available for three one-hour services (on both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur). The director of job placement at the school then emailed the student body with the plea — and noted that it would be a great opportunity for someone with little experience, that it would be a real mitzvah for the center, and that the center would pay for the services. The first certainly described me; the second pulled at my heartstrings; and the third sealed the deal. I volunteered.

Helpfully, the center had a shortened service booklet (above) that had been put together specifically for its services, so I was able to work from that. I added a few parts and wrote a d’var torah; found tunes for parts of the liturgy that I’m not that familiar with (because they’re specific to the High Holidays, which are only once a year); got a crash course in shofar from a fifth year student (who was an awesome teacher!); and outlined and timed the serviced. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. At least as much as I could in a few days, during the first week of classes.

After the first day, I was just glad it was over. About two dozen people came, as predicted by the community relations coordinator. A few were the children of the residents, and I think they were my toughest audience. The residents were of varying cognitive and physical ability: about half were from the assisted living side of the center, and the other half, from the skilled nursing side.

I didn’t feel particularly nervous, but I performed with only mixed success. I did the parts I knew well (except when I started the Amidah in the wrong tune, which happened both days for some reason). And I was pleased with what I had written to say: an introduction, a kavanah (intention, or meditation, for the service); a preface to the shofar service; and my d’var. And, per the advice of the rabbi in charge of job placement — who sat down with me last week to offer advice — I greeted, and introduced myself to, and chatted with everyone before the service started. I think this went a long way in earning me some goodwill in spite of my mistakes.

Ah, yes: The mistakes. I just forgot most of the tunes for the High Holiday-specific parts of the liturgy. I do not have much singing ability, despite my performance at my bat mitzvah — which came after months and months of practice. And when I did remember how a part started, I usually got off track in the middle. These missteps were made worse by the fact that the tunes didn’t seem to be known very well — at all? — by the service participants. So it was just my poor singing that filled the room. I had wanted to learn them, though, to break up blocks of just plain reading in Hebrew; I think if I were a more skilled song leader, I could have repeated the refrains and gotten more participation.

I’m pretty sure that after I finished one “song” I heard a woman say, “This is terrible!” My husband maintains that the speaker was probably talking about something else, but I’m not sure she was wrong. I felt terrible at not doing well by the residents in their celebration of the holiday, and I felt even more terribly about representing Hebrew College poorly. I had, after all, told everyone where I studied when I introduced myself.

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

When I left, I felt sick at the idea of going back the next day. I started to calm down as I drove away — and I began to feel better when I started to pay attention to the program that happened to be airing on Boston’s NPR affiliate: author Brené Brown spoke about her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I almost laughed aloud as I listened to Brown explain that “Overcoming shame, and allowing ourselves to take risks and ask for help is important not only for our personal and professional success, but also for our success as a culture.” Then I began to marvel at the view of downtown Boston from the Tobin Bridge (left), feeling grateful to be living in such a beautiful city and to have such unique opportunities.

By the next morning, I felt much less embarrassed and much more determined to do (and capable of doing) a better job on the second day. And so it went.

I slowed down and made sure to get the transitions from piece to piece right (calling out page numbers, opening or closing the ark, explaining the prayer that followed, etc.). I also decided to take one of the sefer Torahs from the ark. I wasn’t able to read the portion for that day (the akedah), but I knew the songs for the Torah service well, and people generally love to touch the scroll. I didn’t flub the Hebrew, and I remembered the tunes. After the service, I stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands, wished them a happy new year, and chatted briefly. It was a nice way to end the service; I wish I’d done it on the first day. Plus, it gave all of the participants a chance to tell me what a lovely service it was, which many of them did. Many also asked whether I’d be back for Yom Kippur.

Side note: As a rabbinical student (and as a rabbi, too, I imagine), the “holidays” are overwhelming. I spent all my free time before and during the holidays in preparation (for the services or the meals), and then three to seven hours a day at holiday meals. Several families associated with Hebrew College generously hosted me, but the majority of the people at these meals were unknown to me, and meeting new people as a rabbinical student can be exhausting. Rosh HaShanah is now over, and in a way I feel as though it didn’t really happen. Davenning as a service leader bears little resemblance to doing so as a service participant, and I didn’t have any time to do the reflection on the new year that I spent much of the last month preparing to do. Welcome to the rabbinate, I suppose. I need a chag from my chag.

Back at the assisted living facility, I was especially proud of the fact that I seemed to have won over a woman who was very cranky when she arrived. She sat down and basically began heckling me. At 10 minutes before the hour, she called out, “Let’s get this service started already!” Then she offered, “I suggest you introduce yourself to everyone before you begin!” When I told her where I went to school, she shook her head. “I’m very familiar with all of the rabbinical schools, and that’s not a rabbinical school.” Later she asked, “What will you call yourself? A rebbetzin?” She wrinkled her nose and gave me a doubtful look when I said that the term would be “rabbi.”

What took the cake, though, was her remark after the service. She came up to me and beamed, telling me what a great job I had done. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.

“You’re going to make just a wonderful rabbi’s wife!”

UPDATE: The community relations coordinator called me on Thursday, two days after the second service to tell me how much the residents loved my services! She said they especially appreciated how I greeted each of them, asked their names, and then took the time to talk with them.

so it begins

I just completed my first week of school (well, sort of). Sunday and Monday were orientation, and Tuesday through Friday were the first four days of a pre-semester seminar. My classes will start in earnest next week.

It’s hard to relate all of the feelings I’ve had in the past week. Frankly, it’s been overwhelming, but in the best way possible. I’ve loved meeting my new classmates, the returning students, and the faculty, as well as beginning to learn as a class and to pray as a community.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of the week in a kind of emotional suspended animation: I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. “It can’t really be that for once in my life I am in the right place.” “I can’t actually be doing what I supposed to be doing.” I know that not everything about this school and my experience as a student is or will be perfect. But I have never known peace like this.

First things first! The best thing about rabbinical school so far: I get to sing every day, and no one cares if (that?) I sing out of tune. I get to sing during morning prayers, and most communal time starts with a niggun (wordless melody). Even my class does! (Indeed, the fact that my admissions interview ended with a niggun solidified for me that Hebrew College was the right place for me.)

hebrew college’s selichot leader; photo by dena trugman (via instagram)

One of my favorite parts of the last week has been selichot, which unfortunately won’t be a regular occurrence throughout the year. Selichot are poems and prayers said during the Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays. They explore themes of penitence and G-d’s mercy — not, perhaps, the most cheerful of topics — and at Hebrew College start at 7:00 a.m., before the morning service — giving an idea of how moving they must be to draw a crowd. (I have a limited music vocabulary, so I can only try to explain why.) In fact, more than one returning student told me that, despite the early hour, they were not to missed. Many of the tunes have strong beats and feature repeating lines, facilitating participation. And the Hebrew College tradition in many of the songs is that anyone can take a verse, while we all take the chorus together; I’ve loved hearing the variety of experience, accuracy, and ability that results. In this setting, not everyone sings well, but anyone can sing. I’ve never had an experience like selichot before, and I find that the songs stay with me all day.

Orientation was great mix of practical and spiritual. We met administrators, did icebreakers, told and heard personal journey stories, and started learning about core elements of the Hebrew College curriculum: personal and spiritual growth, tefila (prayer), beit midrash (literally, “house of interpretation”) and hevruta (study partners), and (good, old-fashioned) learning. I was particularly struck by something the director of admissions said as he welcomed us to orientation. He noted that school begins at an odd moment in the Jewish calendar, during the month Elul, a time of preparation for the High Holidays in which we reflect on teshuvah (literally, “return”). We atone for our sins by trying to make right our relationships with our fellow human beings and with G-d. Taking the first step in a new journey may feel out of sync with the prevalent theme of repentance, but, he said, “I know that for many us this beginning may represent a return in a very real way.”

This combination (which doesn’t even include the practical side of rabbinic education, which is to come in the curriculum), exemplified in the orientation schedule and in the introduction to the core elements of the school’s curriculum, is the essence of what I was looking for in a graduate program. I know I would not have been happy in a purely academic setting (as for example a Ph.D. program). I ultimately want to use my knowledge of Judaism in the service of others, and I am so excited to be an institution that recognizes the importance of spiritual and personal growth.

hannah, whose story is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah

The seminar for first-year students is about the passages from the Tanakh that we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’re looking at the primary texts in the Hebrew Bible as well as a variety of commentary on them: sections of Talmud and other rabbinic sources, modern and contemporary perspectives, and Israeli poetry. The rabbi who teaches the course is our class advisor (and will be teaching one of our fall semester courses); he assigned a text, Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, as part of his commitment to looking at the primary texts through a feminist lens. I am thrilled that this perspective is given such importance, especially since so many of the High Holidays’ stories feature women.

This week marked for me the beginning of the hevruta study experience, as mentioned, a hallmark of the Hebrew College curriculum. Every morning after selichot, shacharit (morning prayer), and our facilitated Elul reflection, the first-year students split up into pairs to work, in the beit midrash, on the assignments for class that day. We switch partners every day (although we will eventually choose permanent study partners for the year). I was nervous about this part of the learning process. I’ve had a few experiences with hevruta learning, but nothing this consistent or systematic, and I have always thrived well in a very traditional, individual learning setting (lecture by professor and supplementary reading). I wasn’t sure I was going to like working in hevruta. To be sure, I chose Hebrew College in part because of its emphasis on hevruta learning, but I did so with trepidation, anticipating that it would be a challenge, pushing me out of my safety zone.

On Tuesday my first partner, who spent last year in Israel studying in hevruta, told me that it would ruin me for me classroom learning. I’m not sure I’m ready to go quite that far, but I have absolutely loved this week, completely confounding my expectations. It helps that I’ve jibed well with the four classmates that I’ve worked with so far: I’ve really appreciated their different strengths, and partnered learning has helped me to realize my own strengths (to wit, and unsurprisingly, grammar and translation of the Hebrew texts).

My final thought from this first week takes me back to the first day of orientation, Sunday — and my birthday. When I first found out the week’s schedule, I had the fleeting thought that it would be an odd way to spend my birthday (not least because I’d be among a fair number of strangers), but the more I considered, the more I thought that it might actually be perfect. The director of admissions in particular made a big deal of it, leading the group in “Happy Birthday” singing not once but twice, and when I thanked everyone after blowing out my candles, I said, “There is no place or group of people I would rather be on my birthday.”

And it really was true: I am incredibly privileged to be able to pursue this dream. What better gift could I ask for on my birthday than to be taking the first step on that journey?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,861 other followers