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.)

the buffyverse talmud

For a creative writing assignment for my Talmud class last semester, I was asked to write a mishnah and accompanying sugya. A mishnah refers to the smallest unit of the Mishnah, redacted in 200 CE, a part of the Talmud, and therefore in this case to a few, generally unattributed, rabbinic statements on a particular topic.

The other part of the Talmud is the gemara, the debates of the generations of rabbis subsequent to the Mishnah; the Talmud was redacted between 350 and 500 CE (depending on the edition). A sugya is a building block of gemara, a proof-based elucidation of an aspect of the mishnah.

As readers of this blog well know, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. So for this assignment I chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my source text. I wrote a mishnah about the power of words in hevruta (the paired learning that takes place in the beit midrash), and then I used episodes of Buffy to write the gemara to explain that mishnah.

After I mentioned the project on Facebook, several people asked to read the finished product. So here it is. (It’s a PDF because of the formatting, which mimics a page of Talmud.)

I will note that the document will likely be nearly incomprehensible unless you know a great deal about both Buffy and Talmud. (And since I know more about Buffy than I do about Talmud, I’ll admit that Talmud studiers might find that aspect incomprehensible as well.)

For those only mildly curious, here’s the mishnah — with Hebrew “signal words” in parentheses — which contains a quote from Buffy. Who can name the episode and speaker (without Google)?

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e 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.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

tefillin

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Earlier this semester I took on mitzvat tefillin, the mitzvah of tefillin, or “phylacteries” as they are often referred to in English. (I am not sure why the latter word is any clearer than the former, but some have heard the Greek word rather than the Hebrew.)

Tefillin are the set of black boxes with leather straps that are worn on the head and on the arm during weekday morning prayers. They are the Talmudic solution to the exhortations in the Torah (in several places) to “bind them [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). The meaning of “totafot” is not entirely clear; it is often translated as “frontlets” (which, in some possibly circular logic, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a band or phylactery worn on the forehead”). And tefillin is a rabbinic word; it’s not found in the Tanakh.

The rabbis interpreted “them” (which refers back to “these words” from an earlier verse) to mean the verses in which totafot are mentioned in the Torah; thus, each set of tefillin contains the four verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment scrolls.

At the beginning of last semester, I borrowed a set of tefillin from the Women’s Tefillin Gemach, a free loan society (“gemach”) that, as you might guess, lends tefillin to women. Many people — including lots of my classmates — inherit tefillin from their grandparents (or maybe even parents). Obviously that is not an option for me, but the gemach exists as well for women who were born Jewish; some might have been passed over, in favor of a brother or other male relative, for inheritance of a set. Unlike wearing tallit, laying tefillin is still not all that common among women. Even among my classmates, I would estimate that less than half of the women wear tefillin, while most of the men do.

I borrowed a set of tefillin from the gemach in August, tried them on once, and then let them languish in my tallit bag. There was enough going on already during my first semester of rabbinical school, and I just wasn’t able to take on one more new thing. So I prayed last semester just in my tallit (which itself was a new practice).

still life with tefillin; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

still life with tefillin (with metal casings for the boxes); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During our winter seminar on feminist theology and practice, I started thinking about tefillin again, especially as we talked about changing prayer and other ritual to make it more accessible for those for whom it was not originally created. And then I came across an abridged prayerbook with blessings in all feminine G-d language. I decided that I would start to wear tefillin — and that I would learn the blessings from this book (and deliberately not learn the traditional blessings). So I say the traditional blessing when putting on my tallit — and something a little different when putting on my tefillin. It’s a way of making my own a practice that still feels very . . . male.

I also say an alternative passage from the Tanakh as I finish putting tefillin on my hand. Traditionally, one recites Hosea 2:21-22: “And I will betroth you to myself forever; I will betroth you to myself in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This is certainly a lovely sentiment. However, the prayerbook I found suggested an alternative, which resonated much more with me. The passage I say is from Ruth 1:16, her devotional words to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” Indeed, the words of a fervent convert are certainly more appealing to me than the problematic metaphor of marriage between G-d and Israel.

I learned the blessings and the passage from the Tanakh one night while working at the front desk at school (which I do two nights a week). And that same night I learned also how to wrap tefillin . . . by watching a video on YouTube! (All of the many how-to videos of course all feature older men — or IDF soldiers — so I may have found an eventual project!) That evening I just put on the tefillin and took them off, over and over and over again, until I was able to do it fairly quickly (it’s a complicated process).

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

Worn, tefillin look weird. Full stop. It’s possible that since I didn’t grow up seeing them, I find them a little more jarring than most Jews, but I think it’s more probable that they’re just odd. I say this because the first time I was shown how to put on tefillin, by my bat mitzvah rabbi, she said, “Don’t they look funny?” — and I loved her for that. However, wearing tefillin while praying has felt completely natural. It just seems right. I am so excited to continue the practice and to observe what effect it has on my prayer.

This is not to say I haven’t had my frustrations. My first barrier to overcome was my fear (or fear of my annoyance) that it would take too long to put them on. That evening spent practicing got me to an acceptable speed (and yes, I timed myself!).

What I’m having trouble getting past is the fact that tefillin are meant to be laid against the skin, and the wrapping starts at the upper arm. Tefillin were not designed with women in mind — nor for that matter were women’s clothes designed with tefillin in mind. Most men’s upper-body garments are conducive to being pushed up or aside to expose the upper arm; the same is generally not true of a lot of women’s clothes. So in the dead of New England winter, I’ve been doing one of two things: I’ll wear a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt (with, say, a cardigan). Or I’ll wear a camisole under a more form-fitting sweater or turtleneck and wriggle halfway out of it during davenning. Both of these options make me feel considerably less modest than I’d like, especially during prayer. (Thank goodness for tallit!) And both mean that every morning I have to think, “Can I lay tefillin in what I’m wearing?” I know mitzvot aren’t supposed to be effortless — but I’m pretty sure that the men at my school aren’t thinking about this.

I’ve written this post from my perspective as a cis-gendered, female-identified student (and have admittedly used a gender binary throughout): I am also interested in the experiences of others with this practice.

What would tefillin look like if a pluralistic community, of Jews of all types, were designing them today? How would we understand words of Torah “for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes” (Exodus 13:9)?

first services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

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.

asking for help

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from all people. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In the process of applying to rabbinical school, I did something I almost never do: I asked for help.

My mom says that I came out of the womb saying, “I can do it myself!” (An old copy of that I Can Do It Myself Bert and Ernie book was a present one year from my parents.) Indeed, I’ve always been an independent person, preferring to work alone rather than in a group. I don’t think I even had anyone even look at the applications I wrote for college admission. This instinct is in some ways positive: I have a great deal of confidence in my own abilities, and I rarely doubt whether I am up to the task. But it’s also a little ridiculous: Simply put, I don’t know how to do everything that I set out to do, and clearly whatever I am doing would be improved by asking for a little help.

There’s a deeper element to this tendency, though: I have a hard time opening up to people. I am hesitant to make myself vulnerable. I’m scared that those I choose to share with will see my flaws and weaknesses — and won’t like me because of them — and, somewhat obviously, that I do need help. And I’m scared that if I ask for help, I’ll get criticism that I won’t be able to handle.

These truths do make my choice to start a blog somewhat mystifying. What am I doing in this space but bearing my soul? But I started this blog more for myself (writing is cheap therapy!), and I don’t expect to gain any kind of sizeable readership. Plus, I feel less exposed just sending my thoughts into the internets.

I don’t know what exactly made me decide to do things differently this time around. Maybe it was my first school visit, when an admissions officer said, “We’re here to help you through the admissions process.” I remember thinking that this was a bit of a revelation, although I’m not sure why I assumed the process would be adversarial. But I did decide to seek help.

So far I’ve visited four schools, met with 11 D.C.-area rabbis (and have appointments with three more), and spoken with at least a dozen current students, as well as admissions deans at all four schools. All of that went well — and has been helpful to boot. Meeting with rabbis helped me to work on my “why I want to be a rabbi” speech, and I got to hear what they liked and what they didn’t like about their alma maters, as well as what they wish they had known before starting rabbinical school and a career in the rabbinate. (Though, I recently realized, with some amazement, that I haven’t asked anyone I’ve met with, “Why did you become a rabbi?” I should probably start doing so.)

A little tougher for me has been sharing my personal statement with others. But I did it. So far I’ve asked seven people to look at it, and I’ve been gratified by the responses. Of course, I have to admit that it’s been easier since the feedback has been universally positive. But everyone has had suggestions for improvement, and my essay is definitely the better for them.

This experience has been an exercise in humility, which is undoubtedly good for me. Continued practice in this area will be good for me in my rabbinate, and in life.

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