questions in a vault

For the past three years between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — often called “The Days of Awe,” or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew — I’ve participated in 10Q‘s question-a-day online activity. Once you sign up, the organization prompts you on each of the ten days to go to its website and answer that day’s question. (If you miss a day, you can go back to previous questions.) The questions are designed to get you to reflect on the past year and make commitments for the coming one. After Yom Kippur, your answers “are sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection.” I’m doing it again this year.

a lovely M.A. Hadley plate from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

a lovely m.a. hadley plate (a family tradition) from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The website is not explicitly Jewish (I’m not sure why), but I can’t see the timing as anything but. I’m guessing, though, it wouldn’t occur to non-Jewish participants and might just seem like an interesting exercise, if an oddly timed one.

Update: My friend Melanie tells me that the organization behind 10Q, Reboot, intends “to make Judaism relevant to those who are secular/completely assimilated.” I think this extremely interesting, because this exercise appeals to me, too, as a religious Jew. (Plus, I am sort of fascinated by secular or humanist Judaism.)

I was pleased — and not a little surprised — when I got my answers from 2012 at the end of last month. I actually did some of the things that I wrote that I wanted to, and where I didn’t, it’s because it’s still a live issue for me. I voiced my waning support for the president, I talked about my parents’ efforts to be more involved in my Judaism, and I wrote about my ongoing struggle with my weight.

On Day 8, I was asked and I answered:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2013?

Your Answer:

Tefillin!

Indeed, my experience wearing tefillin while praying has been one of the best things about rabbinical school for me so far.

While looking through my photos from two years ago to include in this post, I was struck by what I left out. I was definitely in the thrall of my first few weeks of rabbinical school; I wrote quite a bit about it, at the expense of other important events in my life, like my bat mitzvah! For this year’s questions, I definitely need to use my photos from last year to jog my memory, which I recently discovered is quite poor. While I was in England this summer, I saw two old friends (one from college and one from my first job in D.C.), and both of them remembered so many more things about our friendship that I did. On the plus side, it was totally amusing to hear stories that I seemed to have forgotten.

It’s not too late to join in the 10Q fun if you’re interested: we’re only on Day 5!

columns of consonants

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again.

This is how I’ve been spending a good deal of my time this summer, as I mentioned in a previous post. We’ve held a once-a-week summer minyan at Hebrew College on Thursday mornings, one of the weekdays on which Torah is read. And I’ve leyned (read Torah) every week there since the end of May. I’ve also read four times on Shabbat at Nehar Shalom, the community synagogue in our new neighborhood.

I’ve loved reading Torah ever since I first did so at my bat mitzvah a little more than a year ago. I was part of an adult b’nai mitzvah class, and we each read three or four verses. One of my classmates dropped out towards the end, so I read her part as well — a whopping seven verses! And I worked on those seven verses for about four months.

A few weeks ago I read for the fourth time this summer at Nehar, and I was the only reader — for a total of 30 verses. (Nehar follows a triennial cycle of Torah reading, meaning that, like many other congregations, only a third of the weekly parshah is read each week.) I learned those in under a week. Same thing yesterday: The weekday portion for parshah Eikev is unusually long — 25 verses — and I learned those in about a week, too.

I’m proud of this progress — most of which has been achieved in the past two months by just forcing myself to volunteer. Both the minyans I’ve been reading at this summer use a Google doc for sign-ups, and it’s amazing how indelible it feels to type your name in a shared, editable web document, in a field marked “aliyah 1.”

Indeed, it has been one of my goals this summer to improve my Torah reading skills. This past year I took an entire class on Cantillation, the art of the ritual chanting of Torah, and it’s a bit of a complicated process. The class focused mainly on learning the melodies associated with each trope mark, as well as the technical skills needed to be able to learn a section of Torah for ritual reading.

A printed book of the Torah in the original Hebrew — one used for studying — has vowels, as well as other symbols (called trope marks) above and below the letters that aid in pronunciation and indicate the proscribed melody. But a Torah scroll, what is used in services for the ritual reading, has none of those; it’s column after column of Hebrew consonants, sometimes without spaces between words. Oftentimes a single letter will be elongated in order to make the columns both left- and right-justified. And some of the letters also have adornments, tiny crowns that seem to sprout from their tops. It’s fair to say that all of this presents something of a challenge for the novice Torah reader.

When learning a part of Torah for ritual reading, I use Trope Trainer, which I can’t recommend enough. Depending on how the program is used, it can practically do the work for you, or be just a helpful tool. It gives the dates of each parshah, and you can open just the reading for a particular day, customized by whether you’re in Israel or the Diaspora and whether you follow the triennial or the yearly cycle. Then you can choose melody, voice, and accent. An electronic voice will sing the whole thing for you — or just a word, a phrase, or a verse. (I now only use this feature to double-check the melody of an unusual trope combination.) It identifies each trope mark, transliterates each word, and indicates the syllabic accent. It provides translation and sheet music. It indicates all k’rey, or words that are read differently than how they are spelled in the scroll. What I like most is the export feature, which creates a PDF of the reading, with or without vowels and trope marks.

statges of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

stages of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So: I start by printing the reading with vowels and trope marks; then I highlight the text with various colors that correspond to the different trope mark families (so that the same melodies are the same color). I read the text to fluency and make sure I understand what it means. Then I practice singing, using the highlighted text. I usually practice about 20-30 minutes at a time, until I start making a bunch of mistakes, and then I stop and take a break. A little while later, I practice again.

More than any other skill I’ve worked to master, chanting Torah is a marathon. You just can’t cram. The words and the melody have to have a chance to make “tracks” in your brain, as one teacher explained to me. So I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

Finally, at least a day before I am scheduled to leyn, I begin practicing from the plain, Torah-scroll-like text. I see what I remember, and I check the highlighted version if I’m not sure. I create mnemonic devices to help me remember the vowels of unusual words and the order of melodies. I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

On the days I’ve read at school, I’ve been able to come in early and take out the Torah scroll and practice a time or two again from the scroll itself. After a few times stumbling through a reading that I thought I knew cold, I realized that the lettering of the scroll was tripping me up (a phenomenon that I hope will lessen over time, with more practice). Looking at the actual text — being able to see which letters and words in the scroll look different from the typeset — has helped enormously.

I’m particularly proud of my skill at finding my place in the scroll: I used to think that I’d never be able to find the beginning of the parshah in the sea of Hebrew letters, but I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. This rabbi thing just might work out.

bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

beit din

Yesterday, I got an email at 7:30 a.m. from the rabbi who married me and for whom I do clerical work once a week (she has a private practice). She needed a third for a beit din and a witness for the concomitant mikveh. I had a meeting that ended when the event was supposed to begin, but I agreed to duck out early, grab a cab, and race north to Adas Israel, the location of the community mikveh in D.C. It wasn’t what I was planning to do yesterday morning, but I am so happy that I did, for many reasons.

The event was a conversion for a 13-year-old boy who was marking his bar mitzvah in Israel in two weeks. Neither of his biological parents were Jewish. His father died when he was very young, and his Jewish step-father adopted him at a very young age (the boy even had the stepfather’s last name). His mother is still not Jewish, but she and her husband have raised the boy so.

A beit din (literally “house of judgment”) for conversion consists of three individuals — generally rabbis, but two can be educated Jews as long as one is an ordained rabbi who is an expert in the rules of conversion. I served along with two rabbis.

adas israel mikveh

I was really impressed with the young man. He was articulate about his desire to affirm his Judaism — and he was honest (saying, for example, that he didn’t like his Hebrew school — hee!). The beit din was mostly just a conversation among everyone. We then headed to the mikveh. The male rabbi and his father actually witnessed the three immersions, but the door to the mikveh was slightly ajar so that we could all hear him say the blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite blessings. We threw candy at him when he emerged from the room. Unfortunately, the rabbi had brought (kosher!) taffy, which he couldn’t have because he had just gotten braces; I was able to scrounge up a piece of hard candy in my purse for him. At the end of the ceremony, the father asked if he could make a donation to a charity I cared about to thank me for my participation, and I asked for a gift to the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, where I serve on the board.

This experience was so amazing — very special to me and incredibly holy. I was thrilled that I made the effort to be there. Plus, the rabbi on the beit din who I didn’t know has already been super helpful. He was very encouraging about my rabbinical school decision, and we’re already having a discussion about a possible fundraising job during school!

I got to sign the conversion certificate, the same template that I received two-and-a-half years ago. (Also, it turns out that I have as much trouble writing in cursive in Hebrew as I do in English. Must practice!) Before the family departed, the father thanked me for participating, noting that “you always remember these moments and those who were there.” I smiled and flashed back to my own beit din, knowing it was true.

a new spring

(probably not) cherry blossoms in scott circle; photo by salem pearce

Yesterday, Saturday, was a gorgeous day here in the nation’s capital. It was sunny and 70 degrees, and Shabbat was made sweeter by the fact that I had found out the day before that I was accepted at the third rabbinical school to which I applied. After morning services, I sat in Dupont Circle with my husband and felt like I could relax for the first time in at least six months. I read (Patti Smith’s Just Kids) and took a few photographs (right and below).

Yesterday felt like a new beginning in another way, as well: I led part of the Shabbat morning service for the first time! Sixth & I hosted a Learner’s Minyan in the morning, led by Rabbi Shira Stutman. The rabbi who is teaching my adult b’nai mitzvah class, Lauren Holtzblatt, arranged for the class to lead the parts of the service that we’re planning to in June during the official ceremony. I’ve volunteered for the second half of the Torah service (putting the scroll away) and for the mourner’s kaddish.

st. patrick's day green grass at dupont circle; photo by salem pearce

Unfortunately, the past month of travel hasn’t left me any time to practice, so I had to beg off of the Torah service part. I decided to go ahead with the mourner’s kaddish, which I realized while I was leading is actually a little unnerving. The only people who are standing and reciting most of the prayer with the leader are the few in mourning or observing a yahrzeit (although I did ask those whose custom it is to stand to do so). Even so, I could only hear myself in the large sanctuary that was hardly filled, and saying the mourner’s kaddish by (what feels like just) myself is quite different than saying the hatzi kaddish with the whole congregation, when it doesn’t matter if I stumble over a word or two. I’ve got some practicing to do.

Despite my nerves, though, I was able to say to the congregation yesterday that I was leading and saying the mourner’s kaddish for the family of Trayvon Martin. This clear abrogation of justice has troubled me all week: I am proud and privileged to be an American, but I sometimes loathe my country’s institutions.

But the long road is coming to an end: I’ve gotten into (in alphabetical order) Hebrew College (in Boston), HUC-JIR (in New York), and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (in Philadelphia). I am tentatively leaning towards one school, and I am pretty sure it will be a choice between two of them. But I’m not ready to make that intention more explicit at this point.

I now move on to the decision-making part of the process, which I hope to wrap up in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

torah portion

parshat naso; art by siona benjamin

Since October, I’ve been taking an weekly young adult b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I, where I got married.

Isn’t that how the life cycle goes? Marriage, bat mitzvah two years later, followed shortly by rabbinical school? No?

My participation in the class is a little strange, since I am in a more than slightly different place than most of my classmates. (As far as I know, no one else is applying to rabbinical school.) And the experience of my classmates is pretty varied: Some are products of mixed marriages, so didn’t grow up Jewish, but are now connecting with their Judaism; others had a bar or bat mitzvah as a kid but didn’t feel like they got much out of it and want to learn more now. And still others grew up nominally Jewish and just didn’t have b’nai mitzvah. There is at least one other convert.

I’m in the class to learn the order of services, the prayers, and trope, and to have the experience of leading services and chanting Torah. To be sure, I’m getting that, even if the class occasionally veers a little too much into the “Introduction to Judaism” realm. Plus, I love the instructor, the beyond awesome Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel.

The ceremony will be this summer at Sixth & I, and our parshah is Naso, from the book of Numbers (the longest of the weekly Torah portions). The parshah addresses priestly duties, purifying the camp, the wife accused of unfaithfulness (sotah), the nazirite, the priestly blessing, and consecrating the Tabernacle. The four or so lines that I will be chanting (Numbers 4:28-5:2) are the end of census instructions and the beginning of those for camp cleaning.

We talked about the full parshah last week and began to work on our d’vrei Torah. Most of our discussion in class focused on the ritual of the sotah, because it’s just wacky. There’s really no other word for it, at least at first glance. It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We began discussing it more seriously than an initial reading would suggest it merits, but I don’t know that I’ve gained much insight into the passage yet.

And so, I leave you with this: “What also floats in water?” “Bread! Apples! Very small rocks!”

a peeps profile

Note: This post, originally published on my Tumblr, was the second in a two-part series about our cats that I wrote as a birthday present for my husband. The first part is about the boy cat, Miju.

In late 1998, a small black-and-white cat was born, and Joe Grossberg adopted her two years later from the Washington Humane Society. Records indicate that Joe paid $65, provided by his mother, since the cat was a Chanukah present and (meant to be) a friend for her big brother.

She was being fostered in the Adams Morgan apartment of Marjan Philhour along with many other dogs and cats. A solitary and … tempermental creature, the little cat was often on edge in this environment. So naturally, she bit Joe when he first visited. And thus, Joe met Peeps.

photo by katie jett walls of red turtle photography

Over the years, Peeps has gained more names than pounds. Because of her size, people always think she’s a kitten. But she’s not; she’s full grown.

Peeps’ hobbies include sunbathing, staring at the wall, sleeping in the puff chair, eating cat grass, and jumping on bookshelves. She would more often opt to be alone than with others, but she at times likes to snuggle underneath a blanket. She earned the nickname “Spider Peeps” via her intrepid climbing to the top of wherever she can mange to get.

Peeps’ favorite food is tuna. She gets a can twice a year — on her birthday, and then again on Miju’s birthday; she devours each serving in one sitting. She also likes ice cream, milk, and coffee, much to Joe’s chagrin.

Peeps is not good at understanding the concept of “the phone.” She is good at detecting arrival at the apartment. She likes sniffing and hates being brushed.

Peeps’ most prized possession is her cardboard scratcher, which she somehow managed to gain dominion over, despite her brother’s alpha cat tendencies toward all their other shared possessions in the apartment. On the few occasions he has dared to use it, her eyes turn black upon hearing the noise of claws on cardboard, and she shoots over to it and hisses and bats at him until leaves.

When she wants to be petted, Peeps rolls over on her back and shows the potential petter her “secret dot.” A majority white cat, Peeps has seven black patches (seven being a mystically significant number in Judaism), including one not readily able to be seen. Her face is half-black and half-white, like a yin-yang symbol, or a black-and-white cookie.

In her free time, Peeps studies Torah. She recently became bat mitzvah (on her 12-1/2 birthday) and has shown supernal devotion to learning. Indeed, as Joe is fond of noting, Peeps is an angel from heaven.

All About Peeps
Full name: Peeps Labanit Choni Hamagel Chetzi v Chanukah Heather Feather Grossberg-Pearce

Nicknames: Pea, Peebee, Peapod, Peasoup, Peek-a-souk, Peashoot, Peashoot Salad, Soup, Soupy, Soupy Sales, Soupselah, Peepselah, Bubelah, Spider Peeps, Speep, Bean, Beanselah, Chetzi

Breed: domestic black-and-white shorthair

Gender: female

Birth date: November 15, 1998

Adoption date: November 14, 2000

Total adoption cost: $65

Adoption weight: 5.3 lbs

Current weight: 6.1 lbs

Likes: talking to Joe, sitting on the heater, sleeping in the couch crack, eating cat grass, barfing up cat grass, grooming, small cakes, Torah study, alone time, smelly clothes and shoes

Dislikes: being picked up, large groups of people, other cats, sneezes

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