the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

elohai neshama

אלהי נשמה collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא

אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי,

וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי

וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה

בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי

רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים

My G-d, the soul that you put in me, it is pure: You created it, you formed it, you breathed it in me, and you tend it in my core. But you will take it from me and put it back in me in the world to come. For all the time that the soul is in my core, grateful am I before you, Adonai my G-d, and G-d of my ancestors, master of all works, lord of all souls. Blessed are you, Lord, the one who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Earlier this week, a classmate led our tefila group in a guided meditation through the prayer elohai neshama (so called for the first words of the prayer). As we sat or stood in stillness and silence, listening to the meditation, experiencing this prayer in this way felt exactly right to me. Elohai neshama is an intensely personal prayer, beginning by addressing the divine with the words, “my G-d” and continuing throughout the prayer to speak directly to G-d. Many Jewish prayers are said collectively, in the first person plural (“we”), and talk about — not to — G-d. So having what was in many ways a private experience was a great choice for this prayer.

I love the progression of “you created it, you formed it, you breathed it in me.” In my meditation, I was struck by the image of a soul made for me alone: G-d was thinking of me when G-d gave me my pure soul.

On top of that, G-d is guarding (a tense shift from the previous verbs) — as in, G-d continues to guard, to tend — my soul. G-d created my soul for me, and G-d will also make sure that my soul stays in me, that it stays pure, and that I stay true to my soul and do not lose it. While my soul is in me, the prayer continues, I am grateful lifanecha, “before you,” emphasizing that personal relationship with G-d that is the birthright of my soul.

Lastly, I was really struck by my classmate’s interpretation of ribon, usually translated as “master.” He suggested that this word could denote less of a controlling G-d — and more of an expert (as in “the great masters of the Renaissance”). It resonated with me as an acknowledgement that G-d is really good at creation, and G-d gave me the soul that was right for me.

I don’t think that I want to address here the issue of taking and restoring of soul, as I find it problematic and incongruous to my understanding of the rest of the prayer. (I should definitely work it out at some point, but I’m okay leaving it for now.)

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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

the arc of prayer

The rabbinical school curriculum requires that students join what are called “tefila groups,” with a new focus this year: tefila (“prayer”) as a spiritual practice. The idea is for everyone to “practice tefila with a spiritual practice group that shares goals and develops a consistent set of forms for its tefila.”

We were asked to come up with ideas for these spiritual practice groups, and the groups that ultimately formed, after a few weeks of discussion and proposals, included those committed to experience prayer as catharsis, as struggle with the divine (however conceived), as liberation theology, and as obligation. The groups daven together at least once a week and then meet on Thursdays to process the prayer experience as well as the group’s continued goals.

new tallit for rabbinical school; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The group I joined is planning to explore the liturgy of shacharit, the morning service, unit by unit, seeking to make a personal connection to each part. As my classmate who proposed the idea explained, he was inspired by a story he heard on NPR about a musician who had digitally remastered Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to make it last 24-hours. His vision for the tefila group was to essentially daven shacharit over an academic year.

We’re working on the selection of liturgical units (unsurprisingly, there are more of them than there are weeks) and schedule for davenning. On the day we pray together, we’re planning to just daven the prayer that we’re focusing on that week (with perhaps the prayer before and after it, so we can look at transitions, too). On Thursday, we’ll be sharing how that experience was for each of us, as well as any creative expression of the personal connection that we’ve made to that prayer.

It’s hard to overstate how excited I am by this prospect. I need to learn the service better (for myself, and as a professional skill), and although technical goals aren’t the point of these groups, I know I won’t but get to know the prayers better.

I can think of so many things that I’d like to do for each weekly unit; knowing that my time is limited, and that I want to push myself in this project, I’d like to commit to making a visual representation — probably a collage — for each prayer. I don’t think of myself as a creative person, so I’m nervous about the prospect, mostly that I won’t be able to achieve something that is meaningful and, more importantly, not cheesy. I’m hoping that a trip to the craft store a) won’t kill me and b) will provide some inspiration. I would also like to write here about my experience each week, hopefully with a picture of my finished product.

We’re starting tomorrow with elohai neshama, a short prayer at the very beginning of shacharit that praises G-d for creating humanity and for helping each person maintain his or her spirit and spirituality. More to come!

living waters

Before the holidays, I visited the mikveh, as I usually do in the early fall, when I officially became Jewish three years ago, completing my conversion with a beit din and a visit to the mikveh.

mikveh at mayyim hayyim; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The community mikveh in Boston is called Mayyim Hayyim (“living waters”). It’s egalitarian, which means that both men and women can use it “at the same time.” Most traditional mikvehs are used almost exclusively by women, with prescribed, separate times for men on those rare occasions when they might visit, and the pool is drained and refilled between the times for women and those for men. At Mayyim Hayyim, there are co-ed times, when men and women could both be immersing, though obviously in separate pools. It’s an unusual arrangement.

Every time I go to the mikveh, I think that I should do it more often. It is a truly relaxing and refreshing experience. It’s also a wonderfully solitary experience, which this introvert especially appreciates from among the majority of Jewish rituals that are communal experiences. (There are some immersions which are halachically required to be witnessed, but mine was not, and so I declined the presence of the mikveh attendant.)

The ritual of the mikveh requires complete cleanliness and removal of all clothes and accessories, “[i]n order to remove all physical barriers between you and the water of the mikveh,” as the preparation instruction sheet notes. You shower and clean every part of your body, scrubbing underneath nails and sloughing off dead skin on knees and elbows. You remove all makeup and nail polish. You brush and floss your teeth. Mayyim Hayyim has a beautiful set of meditations for this process.

I actually got a little stuck on the removing of nail polish this time; I’d just gotten a pedicure the week before (I should have timed that a little better). It is so silly that it was so hard for me, and I tried to reason that it was just because I hate to waste money. But I finally decided the polish was emblematic of something that I was trying to hang on to but also needed to let go for the new year. (I’m actually not sure I’ve identified that specific thing is. At least I’ve symbolically let something go?) Off it went.

mayyim hayyim gate: “go in peace”; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A mikveh visit typically consists of three complete immersions, with head underneath the water and feet off of the ground, and with blessings said after each one. Mayyim Hayyim has a selection of blessings for various rituals, from conversion to marriage, from coming out to healing. There’s not an existing ritual, as far as I know, for commemorating a conversion (more on that below), so I chose blessings for the new year.
The meditation after the last immersion follows:

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev—repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh—repairing the soul and tikkun olam—repairing the world.

As part of the commemoration of my conversion, I also asked for an aliyah at the morning Torah service that week. I told a classmate when he asked that I don’t usually mark the anniversary publicly. As he noted, Jewish tradition holds that once a person converts, it is as if s/he has always been Jewish. Indeed, there is a sense in which I have been Jewish my whole life. But there’s also a part of me that likes to remember that day, which felt like the first day of the rest of my life.

The classmate who was leading shacharit that morning offered the kavanah of gratitude for the service, and she asked me to connect the occasion to gratitude when I came to the Torah.

I am grateful, every day, to be Jewish.

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

through the looking-glass

I made it.

!ברך אתה יי אלחינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Summer classes ended yesterday, and I passed Hebrew 4, as my teacher told me this morning. She asked me to meet with her the day after the final because I panicked during it and couldn’t quite finish. We talked through the text together, and then she gave me opportunity to answer the questions I hadn’t gotten to. This is just one of the ways in which she is a great teacher.

It was disappointing to leave the last class feeling completely frustrated by my performance (although there was also an odd symmetry to having the last class end in the same way the first class did). But yesterday was not at all indicative of my experience in the second four-week class. I got an A- on my midterm, and almost everyday the teacher told me that my homework was “superb.” I felt relaxed in class, and I even made Hebrew jokes (dorkiness acknowledged). Perhaps most importantly, I feel prepared for Hebrew 5, which begins in just a few short weeks, since I will continue with the same teacher. In fact, I pity my future classmates, the ones who did not share with me in the experience of this summer, because they have no idea what they’re in for. She is fair but tough, and I am so glad that I now know what to expect from her class.

Recalling the anxiety, fear, and complete incompetence that I felt during the first course (Hebrew 3), I can still feel the knot in the pit of my stomach that I had almost every day. In this case, ignorance served me well, as I don’t know that I could have knowingly put myself in this situation. (Well, one type of ignorance served me well: I certainly wouldn’t have minded actually knowing more Hebrew before the start of the class.) But as the cliché goes, I am stronger for this experience.

One of the highlights of the summer was the minyan on Wednesday mornings. Two upperclassmen started it, and we had a consistent if small showing each week, a mix of faculty and students who were still in Boston this summer. I loved starting those days with prayer, quiet, reflection, and meditation. It’s not a surprise that I enjoy davening, but it has been a bit of surprise to me how much I’ve loved it. While I enjoy praying on Shabbat, I haven’t had a more regular prayer practice until now. Even when I was facing the possibility of more sleep, I went to minyan anyway, and I was always glad that I did. I felt calmer and more centered — and so ultimately more ready for class on Wednesdays. Various people led the morning service, and the different selections, melodies, and readings made what can become rote into a new experience each time. This is an intentional prayer community, and I am excited to do this regularly in the school year.

Peeps supervises midterm studying; photo by joe grossberg

I have learned more Hebrew in the past two months than I have in the previous two years, when I started studying seriously to be able to enter the rabbinate. I unearthed all of the skills that I developed in college (most of which were based on already having a good grasp on the material) — and learned new ones (based on generally not knowing what the hell is going on). I also got a glimpse of some of what I might be able to expect of myself as an older student, especially in contrast to the other students in my class, all of whom are 7-10 years younger than I am. First and last days notwithstanding, I felt like I generally panicked less and apologized less, trusting that the instructor would both see my effort and know where I was developmentally, as a good teacher does. And she is an excellent educator.

I also realized the difference between a class taken simply to fulfill a requirement, or even to learn something interesting, and one that is the basis of vocational calling. My success in this class is vital to my future as a rabbi, and I had to be mindful not to let my frustration and anxiety about my limitations become dislike of Hebrew, while still giving myself permission to count down the days and be glad that this intensive Hebrew experience is over. A two-hour Hebrew class three times a week is going to feel like a breeze after this summer!

Orientation starts a week from Sunday. Bring it on.

life unrecognizable

Last night I dreamed that I blogged here, so I’m taking the fact that I didn’t conjugate Hebrew verbs in my sleep as a sign that it is time to write again.

Since I last posted (excluding my d’var torah, which wasn’t written for this site), I left my job, celebrated my bat mitzvah, said goodbye to my D.C. life of seven years, moved to Boston (or Brookline, or Chestnut Hill, or West Roxbury, depending on whom you ask), attended my brother-in-law’s wedding in Mexico, and started the first of two intensive Hebrew courses this summer.

Please excuse the completely unoriginal observation that moving, particularly to a new city, is one of the hardest events in the life cycle. My life has indeed become almost unrecognizable to me: I feel so little connection to who and where I was just a month ago, were it not for the anchor of my husband and my cats, I might be convinced that I had landed in an alternate universe. I don’t remember feeling this way (at least not as intensely) when I last uprooted myself and moved from Raleigh to D.C. And I can’t even think about my past life. As I hung my print of Washington, D.C., neighborhoods the other night, I almost started crying as I read the names of the places I know and love — places that seem so familiar and so far away.

The main issue here is, I think, the class. I am taking Hebrew 3 (and next, Hebrew 4) to be ready to take Hebrew 5 in the fall as part of the Mekorot curriculum (the preparatory year at Hebrew College). Four days a week, it’s four-and-a-half hours a day, with perhaps two 5 or 10 minute breaks, and with eight hours of homework each night. I’ve studied many languages, and more than one intensively, but I’ve never had an experience like this.

I’ve done almost nothing but go to class and study for the past three weeks. In the afternoons and evenings, I look at the clock and decide when my next break will be, and I actually look forward to taking 15 minutes to unpack a box or call the pharmacy (that’s what I do for fun these days). I work until midnight or beyond and then get up at 6:00 a.m. to run, shower, and then head to class. I’m not eating much. Joe works from home for now, and even though we’re in the same space more than we’ve ever been, we barely spend time together. My rabbi called last week before she left for Israel for the summer, and my first thought was, “It’s good that she’s leaving the country tomorrow; the phone call can’t last too long.” When today’s holiday was announced, I wondered, “Do we celebrate the Fourth of July here, in this land of never-ending Hebrew?”

Part of the academic struggle is my inadequate preparation: My two years of classical Hebrew and then working my own way through the Hebrew 1 and 2 book did not ready me for this particular class. It is some consolation that none of my classmates seem adequately prepared for the class. Two others have a classical background and are similarly struggling with vocabulary and speaking, while the two who completed traditional modern Hebrew courses are struggling with grammar. I’ve been playing catch-up since day one, and that’s an unpleasant and unfamiliar feeling.

I’m used to being a “good student” in the most conventional way: In previous language classes I’ve understood grammar, learned vocabulary, read texts, absorbed nuances of pronunciation — and all easily. Learning languages, I would have said, is a joy and a strength. I don’t think I realized what an amazing gift that was: The rug has now been not pulled, but jerked, out from under me.

What I am expected to digest and to produce isn’t manageable. I can only figure out some of what I should be working on to improve my skills, and even if I could determine my weaknesses, I would haven’t time to work on them. I make innumerable, embarrassing mistakes because my brain has become Hebrew mush, and right now I can’t even do correctly what I already know. Each morning as I walk into class I wonder if I’ll be able to do what’s asked of me, and sometimes I’m not. The water is at my nose, and I’m struggling to keep my head above it.

So I’m learning how to be a “good student” in a different way. I complete all of the assignments; I make myself say something even though I know my mangled Hebrew must cause my Israeli teacher’s ears to bleed; I ask my classmates for help; I remind myself that there are no grades and that I only have to pass. When the thought “I hate this language!” begins to flicker at the edge of my brain, I reach for my new mindfulness practice of reminding myself that I’m only going to get through the next six years if I love Hebrew. I meditate before class. I do my best and let go of the rest.

hydrangeas at apartment complex; photo by salem pearce via instagram

I had some inkling of this challenge: I postulated in my application that I would likely not have in rabbinical school the same experience as in undergrad, where everything came so easily to me. But I couldn’t have anticipated feeling like this.

And it’s not all bad or challenging. I’ve learned more Hebrew in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Along with all of my classmates, I passed my midterm. New England is unbelievably beautiful in the summer. I run almost every day. My husband cooks amazing dinners. I appreciate Shabbat more than ever.

There are things to look forward to as well: Joe and I have tickets to a Red Sox game, and my mom visits in two weeks. This weekend I get to see my friend Emily, up from D.C. We’re planning a day trip for Joe’s mid-month birthday, and I’ll make my first visit to Cape Cod in mid-August. And I just got an email from a fifth-year rabbinical student who is organizing a once-a-week summer minyan: An hour of morning prayer will go a long way in easing my anxiety. Plus, I got my fall semester schedule! I can’t wait for some variety in my studies. I’m taking Genres and Themes of Biblical Literature; Introduction to Mishnah; Cantillation; and Jewish Life and Practice.

And yes, Hebrew 5. The beat goes on.

praying with my feet

JOIN national summit program; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I spent last Sunday and Monday in New York, at the HUC-JIR campus, attending the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice (JOIN for Justice) first National Summit, the organization’s first. I heard about it through Jews United for Justice, one of my favorite D.C. organizations. As a rabbi, I want to do organizing, so it was a good opportunity to network with other Jews doing social justice work. Indeed, those two days I walked around thinking, “Yes. These are my people.”

Simply put, the conference was awesome, for little and big reasons. I am dork, so I really liked that everything ran on time and stuck to the schedule. (Not everyone showed up on time to sessions (myself included on one occasion!) but that’s a different kettle of fish.) Every session I attended had a written agenda of what was to be covered, and in good organizing fashion, the agenda was reviewed and affirmed before each session. What can I say? I like knowing that presenters know what they’re doing.

The conference also got me super excited about moving to Boston. Bostonophiles had told me what a great city it is for social justice, but seeing is believing. I heard about so much good work going on and/or based there (where JOIN itself is located!), through Moishe Kavod House, Jewish Association for Law & Social Action, Massachusetts Senior Action Council, Boston Workman’s Circle, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and more. I’m thrilled about the potential opportunities I’m going to have in rabbinical school.

And I heard some downright inspiring speakers: In the opening assembly, Simon Greer of Nathan Cummings talked about the Jewish legacy and future of social justice: “At the March on Washington, Jews blended in; at Occupy Wall Street, Jews stood out.” Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance spoke about community/labor coalition building: “All progressive movements, worker-related or not, bank on the utilization of the labor movement. We have to lift it up.” Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School highlighted the necessity of a moral aspect to social justice work: “One cannot long last as a light to the world and a darkness at home” (in reference to the occupation of Palestinian lands). Gordon Whitman of PICO emphasized the importance of religious Judaism: “We can’t have just a secular Jewish social justice movement.” Nancy Kaufman of the National Council of Jewish Women: “Social justice comes from Jewish values — but has universal goals.”

One of my favorite sessions was “Mindfulness and Organizing Work,” led by Rabbis David Adelson and Lisa Goldstein. I really identified with Rabbi Goldstein’s section on text study as a mindfulness practice. As she noted, looking at a piece of text is the default Jewish spiritual practice in organizing — but doing so often puts participants into an intellectual space that can be anxiety-producing and can lead to tearing others down. “How can I demonstrate that I know more about Judaism than others? What if I don’t understand what someone else says? How can I show my independence of thought by disagreeing with the author?” Instead, Rabbi Goldstein suggested looking at text from mindful perspective: “What it wise, beautiful, true, or helpful about this text? What does this text teach me about myself and about where I am in the world?”

the prophet isaiah (i love the prophet art at huc!); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Personally (as opposed to professionally), my favorite part of the conference was seeing my old friend David Segal (now Rabbi David Segal). We hadn’t seen each other since high school, when I was his yearbook editor. We’d friended each other on Facebook within the past couple of years, so we had some idea of what the other was doing. But because of the time built into the schedule for relational meetings (thanks, JOIN!), we were able to make that deeper connection as adults and as organizers. I got to hear about his path to the rabbinate and to Aspen, and I got to tell him about my path to Judaism and to the rabbinate. When we parted, headed to different sessions, he told me a story that gave me chills.

A friend of his, also a convert and a rabbi, shared with him a midrash (or perhaps a midrash on a midrash?): Between creation and when the Israelites went out of Egypt, G-d is said to have visited and offered Torah to all of the nations of the earth, who ultimately rejected it; only the Israelite nation, at Mount Sinai, accepted it — becoming the “chosen” people. David’s friend noted that in each of the rejecting nations, though, a few people in the back of the crowd raised their hands and said, “Wait! I want it.” That is him, he said.

That is me, too.

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