short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.

solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver. Another example: A nazirite is not allowed to drink wine. Therefore you are not allowed to offer wine to a nazirite because of lifnei iver.

By contrast, veahavta lereiacha kamocha is hardly heard in legal discourse, outside of a few citations by the Rambam. And I can imagine how helpful it could be! Don’t hit anyone — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t overcharge in business — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t throw loud parties at 3am — because love thy neighbor as thyself.

But no, it’s the bit about the blind person that gets dragged out time and time again.

In interpreting biblical verses, giants in the tradition, such as Rashi and Rambam, pull on the Talmud’s statement, “Ein mikra yotzei midei pshuto” (Shabbat, yevamot) — a verse’s interpretation may not contradict its plain meaning. Though it isn’t universally applied, let’s try it here.

What is the literal meaning of lifnei iver? The halakhic implications of not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind would surely include tucking your backpack under your chair rather than leaving it in the aisle at the library. Making sure that all announcements posted on the bulletin board are also conveyed auditorily. Taping down the edges of rugs so they don’t get folded and become tripping hazards.

Using lifnei iver to name a category of situations where a person is drawn to forbidden acts not only obscures the simple meaning of the verse, it also subliminally erodes the esteem in which we hold blind people. They lose their agency, becoming faceless victims to circumstance, led into horrible situations because they can’t control their own environments.

We have a similar problem in English. We say that someone is “deaf to the cries of those in need” or “blind to the plight of people.” What we actually mean is “willfully ignorant.” We use “schizophrenic” to describe an incoherent argument and “obsessive-compulsive” to describe our coworker’s tidily organized desk.

But this leaves us open to harming others in our inarticulate use of language. How would it feel to be a deaf person and have your identity constantly used to mean “ignorant”? How would it feel to be struggling with anxious repetitive behavior that caused clinically significant impairment and have your diagnosis dismissed as behavior typical of precise or controlling personality types?

Perhaps we are drawn to expansive readings of lifnei iver because we convince ourselves that we would never be so careless as to place an actual barrier in front of an actual blind person. And it feels daunting to try to shift our language around any of these issues. There are too many people asking too many things of us. And maybe I don’t understand why they are asking me to change my language from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

How would the halakhic category of caring for each other’s vulnerabilities be different if we framed it as Veahavta lereiacha kamocha instead of lifei iver? If we came from an angle of thinking through and asking how we can be of service to another human like ourselves, rather than taking a patronizing tack and assuming we know how to best serve a person who is unlike us?

Veahavta lereiacha kamocha relationships are admittedly harder than lifnei iver relationships. It requires us to learn about each other’s experiences, act with compassion and humility, give benefit of the doubt, and trust that everyone else is doing the same. But what we stand to gain is a life where we learn about each other’s experiences and community characterized by compassion, humility, trust, and second chances.

Kamocha means that the person in question is fundamentally like me, relatable. It pushes against our instinct to view ourselves as separate from each other. Kamocha encourages us to see difference as incidental rather than fundamental. This solidarity lends itself to compassion. Problematically, the lifnei iver frame puts me in a place of approaching an “other” who is fundamentally different from me. On the other hand, the veahavta lereiacha kamocha tack lends itself to broadly defining who we mean when we say “us” and using language to both reflect and encourage inclusive notions of community.

In the mindset of lifnei iver, if I don’t understand the utility of putting effort into changing language, then it isn’t incumbent upon me to try. I don’t have evidence leading me to believe that what I do is going to trip them up. Additionally, I have no responsibility to be proactive, to think about and ask about other people’s needs. If I just care about avoiding stumbling blocks, then I am only responsible for the harm I do through action, but not the harm I do through inaction

But if we work the same situation from a frame of veahavta lereiacha kamocha, we come to a very different conclusion. A human being has told me that they want me to change my language around a particular topic — gender, mental illness, disability, race, income, whatever. They seem to have a real stake in the issue. Veahavta lereiacha kamocha does not invite me to weigh whether I think this language should or shouldn’t matter to them or whether it will or won’t radically change society.  It invites me simply to respect another human’s stated experience and join them in creating the world they wish to live in.

the world is on fire

I lost it this morning while chanting Torah.

I volunteered to read the weekday portion, Emor, at the beginning of the semester, not realizing that this reading would coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, we read the first 10 to 20 verses of the weekly portion. Parshat Emor begins with special laws for priests and for the high priest in their temple service, specifically around ritual impurity. Midway through the reading, a verse states:

“When the daughter of priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles: she shall be burnt in the fire.”

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As repugnant as it is on any day to read a sacred text, with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal liturgical event, about burning a woman to death, it is unconscionable on a day when we remember the Holocaust. I started crying, and I had a hard time stopping.

I was a little embarrassed, especially since at least one person at the Torah with me didn’t understand what was going on. I think the majority of folks got it, though. (There’s also the complicated relationship that I have to the Holocaust as a convert, as well as my anxiety how others perceive my relationship to the Holocaust as a convert — but that’s another story.)

Mostly, though, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re told to do something to one of us that will later be a part of the mass extermination of us by others. It’s almost as if the Torah presages the Holocaust.

Complicating the day further is the fact that on Mondays I take a class on the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. The traditional understanding of these services is really hard to stomach in conjunction with the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur in particular we confess our sins and declare our hope for G-d’s forgiveness. On Yom HaShoah, it’s hard not to think that G-d owes us.

My professor acknowledged this difficulty when he began the class by citing Yitz Greenberg: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

I would add, or a burning woman.

the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

As I’ve mentioned several times in this space, my first year of rabbinical school was really difficult for me, for a number of reasons. For one, everything was new: We moved to a new city so that I could start a graduate program in an area I’d never done academic study before after being out of school for more than 10 years. Plus I was being asked to make myself vulnerable on a daily basis with people I didn’t know at all — and to think about some of the most profound questions that we ask ourselves as human beings. Then, add all of this to the fact that the people I was with eight hours a day (my first-year cohort) had a fair amount of trouble trusting each other and meshing as group.

I started seeing a therapist here in December of 2012, just a few months into my first year of school. I know it was a good idea in a general way — if I’m going to be in a pastoral role, I need to have dealt with my own issues so that I’m not holding my own pain while holding others’ — but what motivated me to seek help then was an explosive incident in class. My intense reaction to the discussion took me by surprise (and, if I’m being honest, embarrassed me, too).

I completely lucked out in my “search” for a therapist in the area: I visited just one woman, who had been recommended to me, and I felt like it was a good fit immediately. I’ve been seeing her ever since.

I’ve been in therapy on and off since college when I first started seeing someone in the university’s health services department. I didn’t go regularly until I lived in D.C. and I needed support for my volunteer work at the rape crisis center. I now go once a week, and I feel like I need every hour.

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

Sometimes it’s frustrating to think about how many years I’ve been working on my issues, for indeed, I am still dealing with a lot of the stuff that I first started talking about in college. There’s a part of me that wants to just be done with it and move on. But I also know that’s not really how it works. I do hope, however, that my need for help will someday not feel as urgent as it does now. Right now, I at times feel broken beyond repair. I wonder if I’ll ever feel whole, or anything like it.

There are definitely bright spots, though. I know how absolutely privileged I am to even be able to see a therapist, let alone be free to find a good fit and not have the choice be limited by insurance. (My insurance does cover part of the cost, but I’m reimbursed at the out-of-network provider rate, and paying for part of expensive is still expensive.) I also am beyond grateful to my husband, who also recognizes how important this is for me and has agreed to prioritize the expense. I am also fortunate to have been able to find medication that very effectively helps with my depression. Most of the time, I feel “normal” — or more accurately, I feel like myself. And that is a relief.

This is not to say, however, that I don’t have times when I feel depressed, when I can’t do much of anything. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, I feel helpless. I have a hard time accessing my own strength and resources that I know theoretically that I have. (For a good illustration of how depression works, see these posts from Hyperbole and a Half: Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two.) All I can do most of the time is wait for it to pass, which it usually does within a couple of days (which relatively short period of time I am extremely grateful for — though it doesn’t always feel “short”). I wake up one day feeling better, and I pick myself up and go back to my life.

I write this because I think sharing my story, my journey with mental illness, is an important part of destigmatizing it and destigmatizing seeking help for it. I write this for myself, too: I can’t always convince myself of the fact that my depression is not a moral failing on my part, even though I know intellectually that it is so. It’s chemical, and it’s genetic (several members of my family also have experience with depression). I continue to work on accepting the fact that I will probably struggle with this my whole life — and that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life. And some days that feels more acceptable and manageable than others.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

happy second birthday, NPITV!

No Power in the ‘Verse turns two today! I started the blog as I was applying to rabbinical school, and I am now a quarter of the way through school (or will be once the small matter of two finals and two papers is taken care of).

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

The following are my three most popular posts from the past year (which are also the most popular posts to date):

1. “yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”: A painful reflection I wrote the morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

2. she who has a why: A tribute to my friend Elissa, who died this spring at the age of 29. May her memory be always for a blessing.

3. there are six matriarchs: (And you can own a shirt that says so!) A meditation on the ger (“stranger”) in Jewish tradition.

Thanks for reading — and for accompanying me on this journey!

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at www.therearesix.com

The t-shirt I mention in this post is available for purchase! All proceeds go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a local organization that my husband and I think is doing really important work. Wear your Jewish feminist commitment with pride. To own your very own matriarchs t-shirt, go to www.therearesix.com.

In an odd confluence of events, I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about ancestry.

First, my husband made me an awesome shirt. (It’s in the style of this “goddesses” shirt — at least this is the first instantiation that I knew about; one of my classmates said the meme was originally from a band.) My shirt lists the six Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. You can buy one here, thanks to my husband, and all proceeds will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

When my husband and I were talking about making the shirt, his idea included just the first four women, who are indeed traditionally considered “the matriarchs.” Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, who married Rebecca, who had Jacob, who married Rachel and Leah. The latter two women gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel) and Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (Leah).

But Bilhah and Zilpah also gave birth to sons of Jacob whose lines would become four of the twelve tribes of Israel. The two were handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, given to the women by their father Laban on the occasion of their marriages to Jacob. Bilhah had Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah had Gad and Asher. The tribes that these men and their brothers (and their nephews) founded ended up in Egypt as slaves to Pharoah, leading to the Exodus story that is foundational in Jewish history. If, in the logic of the Bible, patrilineal descent is what matters, then Bilhah and Zilpah deserve as much recognition as the traditional four matriarchs for their role in the creation of the Israelite people.

Of course, that’s a low bar. If we know little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we know even less about Bilhah and Zilpah. They are passed from Laban to his daughters, and then loaned out by them to Jacob. They are so considered property that it is Rachel and Leah who have the honor of naming Bilhah and Ziplah’s sons. So we’re told in Genesis 30:6, after Bilhah gives birth for the first time, “And Rachel said: ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan.” Bilhah and Zilpah speak not a word in the Torah.

This issue of inclusion comes up most often in the amidah, the “standing” prayer and the most central one in Judaism. Said at every prayer service, the amidah begins with a section usually called the Avot (“Fathers”). It begins, “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, G-d of our Fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Jacob, and G-d of Isaac.” In progressive circles, one usually adds the Imahot (“Mothers”): “G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Rachel, and G-d of Leah” — as well as adding a few other words at various places to make the prayer more inclusive.

As my friend and teacher Eli Herb says,

When Jews use the word “imahot” they mean Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This comes from old traditions that say there are seven ancestors, namely those four women plus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many Jews appended the name of the “imahot” to ritual prayer as a feminist gesture. This gesture was remarkable in its time. However, as a convert, I have never been able to figure out how to include imahot authentically. This is for the very simple reason that there are NOT four matriarchs. There are six. The two that are left out are of questionable status as “part of the tribe” because they were slaves. I do not know how any self respecting feminist/progressive Jew can continue to omit two of the imahot. Yet the vast majority of the “progressive” Jewish world, including Hebrew College, can not seem to move past the discussion of how important it was to include “THE imahot” in the amidah. We are NOT including “THE imahot,” friends. Rather we are making a dramatic statement about how we still do not know how to truly include the imahot; we still actively silence women and strangers.

Most of the time at Hebrew College, at my synagogue, and at the Hebrew school where I teach, the prayer leader includes “the” imahot. (A few of my classmates don’t, and, frankly, it irks me.) If not all/none of the imahot are included, I make sure to say them to myself. (A husband of one of my classmates tells me that there is rabbinical precedent for recognizing the six matriarchs, in Bemidbar Rabbah and Esther Rabbah.)

This year I’m in a new tefila group, the so-called “Moshiach Minyan.” We explore the way prayer can be a forum for collective liberation and how it can sustain us in our work as activists. A recent exercise saw us rewriting the Avot section of the amidah. I found this task both daunting and exciting — and in an hour, I came up with a list of names of those who made it possible for me to be me.

Blessed are you, Lord, my G-d and G-d of my ancestors. (Ancestors? Antecedents. The ones who came before.) The G-d who created those who created the world I inhabit, who have accompanied me on my journey, and who allow me to exist as I am. The G-d of Southern Baptists; the G-d of Hardy; the G-d of Homer and Socrates; the G-d of Virgil and Ovid; the G-d of the Brontes and Eliot; the G-d of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Bulgakov, and Akhmatova; the G-d of Wells-Barnett, Lorde, Rich, Sanger, and Doe.

We shared our writing with each other, and almost everyone wrote about some aspect of their inheritance, whether from parents loving or harsh, from civil rights pioneers, or from past experiences. Mine reads like a timeline of my intellectual development, and I’m not totally sure that’s what I am seeking when I say the avot and imahot section of the amidah.

Like Eli, I feel conflicted when saying this portion of the amidah. As a convert, these nine ancestors absolutely are my ancestors. And they’re not. I still feel a tiny twinge when I’m called up to the Torah and I give my Hebrew name as “Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah.” (“Bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah” is the traditional formula for converts, whose parents generally don’t have Hebrew names.) I don’t love being publicly marked as a convert (the only place in Jewish ritual where that happens), and I feel it’s a little disrespectful to my actual parents.

And I can feel even worse when my ancestry is questioned. I volunteer once-a-month at a nearby senior living facility, leading a short Shabbat morning service. The first time I was there, I was talking to several of the residents after the service, and one of them asked me about school and what I was studying. She then exclaimed, “You don’t look Jewish at all! You could be a little Irish girl!” And then she kept repeating it. As I’ve written before, I usually pass pretty easily, so it’s always a bit jarring when I don’t. I didn’t take the bait (if bait it was — I’m never quite sure what people want to hear when they say things like that). I just shrugged and smiled.

The issue came up again recently in an “Exploring Jewish Diversity” workshop that I took through the Boston Workman’s Circle. The class was billed as a conversation about how cultural heritage, class, race, and privilege inform Jewish identity. In the States, Jews are largely assumed to be white and Ashkenazi; Jews of color and of other cultural heritages are often ignored. We were given a list of Ashkenazi privilege to examine. Many of them describe me — and some absolutely do not. My friend who attended the workshop with me asked me if I considered myself Ashkenaz. Similarly to my feelings about the avot and imahot, I absolutely do — and yet am not fully. I learned to be Jewish in and I now inhabit an Ashkenazi Jewish world. It is my cultural heritage, one that I chose (if not that thoughtfully). But, for instance, I am obviously not at risk for genetic disorders that are prevalent in this population. And I’m still occasionally questioned about whether I’m “really” Jewish.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,969 other followers