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.

labor seder

Sunday night was Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder; for the two months prior, I led the program committee that wrote the haggadah. I was also honored with a reading and with leading the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite prayers. As the graphic to the right alludes, the event this year focused on the issue of immigration in the D.C region.

As my reading, “Why a seder about immigration?,” stated,

In Hebrew, the word for immigration (“hagirah”) comes from the same root as the word “ger,” a word that can mean “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “other.” The word is used frequently in the Torah, most often in mandates to treat strangers living in our midst with respect and decency since we ourselves were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been in the position of the stranger, and much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.

In short, the fact that all Jews at some point immigrated to our country obligates us to be concerned about the plight of all immigrants in our country. During the seder, we talked about the demographics of the immigrants in the D.C, their contributions to the region’s economy, and the struggles that they face, including paths to citizenship (for those who came here both legally and illegally). We largely focused on issues related to jobs — of which citizenship is obviously a huge part. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all recently been grappling with laws relating to immigrants, in particular the DREAM Act and the local reaction to the federal “Secure Communities” program.

Immigration issues have become a passion of mine since I studied their local implications as part of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a program that JUFJ runs to train “the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers.” I learned a lot from the unit — and even more from writing the haggadah. I strongly believe in the kind of immigration reform advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an ally of JUFJ and a co-sponsor of the seder — to wit, “. . . an effective immigration system guided by the rule of law, the national interest, fairness, and compassion.” There are specifics to this vision which I won’t get into here, for a variety of reasons. At this point I am so deeply enmeshed in this philosophy of immigration reform that it’s really hard for me to understand the ferocious opposition to any realistic — to say nothing of compassionate — action. It’s an issue that progressives don’t even agree on. However, if you seek vitriol, read the online comments on news articles that cover efforts other than the immediate deportation our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In addition to delving pretty deeply into immigration policy, I also began thinking about my own family’s immigration story. They aren’t Jewish, but they’re not Native Americans either — so they had to have arrived at some point. But it’s a story I hadn’t heard.

I decided to ask my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that facilitates these kinds of conversations. Or more precisely, I’m not sure he’d understand why I was asking in this context. Plus, my father is a lawyer, which for him means that he has to give precise answers at all times. It turned out that he had some genealogy, from my maternal grandfather, as well as his own family history. When I asked him about it at the beginning of February, he told me that he had loaned out his “big file” with all of that information to his brother and wouldn’t be able to get it back until mid-March. I told him that was fine, chuckling to myself that he didn’t give me any idea of that file’s contents; he never wants to misstate. A few days later, though, he got back to me with some details.

woody guthrie, apparently a relative

My maternal great-grandmother’s birth name was Guthrie, which family line can be traced back to John Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to my grandfather’s notes, John Guthrie arrived in Jamestown in 1652. There was apparently a Guthrie Castle built in 1452, near Guthrie Hill, and that a Guthrie was dispatched to France in 1299 to get Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart”) to return to Scotland to oppose the English. It appears from my grandfather’s charts that the name was spelled “Guttery” until about 1854, when it became “Guthrie” again. My dad concludes this section: “Phil Kastelic [my uncle] may be able to tell you more about the recent Guthrie line: apparently Woody Guthrie is from the Guthrie family tree, and PMK is very proud of that connection.”

On his side of the family, my grandfather recorded Thomas Wilkes as his earliest known ancestor; he was born around 1630, location unknown. His son, Joseph Wilkes, is shown as having been born in New Kent, Va. in 1660. There are separate notes based on correspondence between my grandfather’s father and a Wilkes relative in Maryland that indicate that Thomas Wilkes arrived from England on February 25, 1653, at age 23, as an indentured servant. These notes also indicate that the birthplace of Joseph Wilkes was “just up the York River from Jamestown.”

So, not only did my grandparents’ ancestors both arrive at or near Jamestown in the 17th century — but they arrived within a year of one another! I was proud to tell this story at the seder on Sunday night, during the table discussion of attendees’ own family immigration stories. And I’m looking forward to hearing about my dad’s side of the family.

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.

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