columns of consonants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

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)?