a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

MikvahVersary-And a New Name!

Posted on: August 17, 2016

mary's spring

Five years ago today I became a Jew.

It seems like forever ago and like I’ve been Jewish my whole life.

I have fond memories of Christmas, enjoyed getting new Cabbage Patch dolls for Easter, Jesus is alright with me, but being Jewish fills my neshema, my soul. It’s who I am and it’s hard to remember my life before Judaism.

My last week in Jerusalem, one of my absolutely favorite people, one of my soul friends at Pardes told me they had something special planned for Tuesday. The school schedule was a trip to Mount Hertzel and another option I’ve forgotten already, but we planned on skipping and enjoying some precious alone time before I left. The original plan was to go to Tel Aviv, but when they called me to tell me about a well important to women of the Quran, New Testament and Torah I said yes.

The three of us piled into a cab and went for a twenty minute drive to the town of Ein Kerem to a well known as Mary’s Spring (The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Miriam). We stepped tentatively 150 feet down into the earth via an iron ladder in desperate need of re-welding to the comforting cool of an ancient well. The Spring is a tourist destination and is beautiful, but a little known fact is that tucked away behind the man-made spring that pilgrims go to to wash is an ancient well hidden in the trees. And in that well, next to two of my soul friends, I received from them blessings of love, fertility, joy, continued learning and friendship. I immersed in the frigid waters of the not-kosher mikvah and I gave myself a Hebrew middle name – רוח. It’s not a traditional Hebrew name, in fact I don’t think I know a single person with רוח as their first or middle name, but it spoke to me and it’s what I wanted to take with me.

רוח or Ruach in English means Spirit, specifically Divine Spirit. It was רוח that was filled within my neshema in Jerusalem, it was רוח that inspired my learning and it was רוח that allowed me to love completely two people who were, only three weeks before we entered that well, together strangers.

So my Hebrew name, in English is, Daughter of G-d Spirit. Which I think is perfect. Happy 5th Jewish birthday to me!

 

So, How Was Israel?

Posted on: August 8, 2016

13576745_10208806618855422_5960017635355263465_oThis is a question I’ve been asked for the past two weeks, and it makes sense. I did just spend an entire month funding for my trip to Israel and then almost one month in the country. Folks want to know. What did I do, where did I go? Did I engage in the conflict? Did I visit Palestine? Did I do any social justice work? Did I connect with this organization or that organization? What did I do?

I fell in love with Torah.

I fell in love with soulmates.

I fell in love with myself.

I fell in love with my neshama.

I fell in love with Judaism.

I didn’t leave Jerusalem, or Baka for that matter, really.

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13576745_10208806618855422_5960017635355263465_oCan you be a “normal” person and be religious?

This is a question I’ve been rolling around in my head for sometime that is now being asked much more loudly since my return from Israel and studying at Pardes. Tomorrow makes one week exactly since I’ve been back in the U.S and my heartache for Jerusalem and Pardes and learning is still pressing. My first foray into reality was riddled with tears, anxiety and a general sense of being overwhelmed and unsettled. While I did not venture out of my tiny Baka neighborhood, the Old City, or the walls of Pardes, having such an insular and focused reach only helps amplify the lost feeling I’m experiencing and this pull for stronger Jewish community and Jewish life.

Judaism requires a lot from us – 613 mitzvot we’re supposed to live by because Torah says so, to make the world a better place, to bring the Messiah, to be good Jews, to be good people. These 613 commandments are meant to shape us, the Jewish people, so that we can be a light unto all other nations. And people do this, they live their lives according to Torah Law, and it can, frankly, be a bit scary. One of my chavrutas (chavrutot?) shared her experience in an ultra-Orthodox, Haredi home this past Shabbat in Israel, we agreed that there is something really amazing about the automatic community that an Orthodox life brings, but we also agreed that the particular Orthodox she experienced; women davening on hard benches behind opaque curtains forbidden to speak, daven or sing in an audible voice, sharply right-wing opinions, strict roles based on gender, is not the kind of religious life we’re seeking.

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Travel bLog #9 – Heading Home

Posted on: July 27, 2016

I’m sitting in the lunch room at Pardes. Chavruta partners have all dispatched back to their classrooms, as the last twenty minutes of classes for the day wind down. I skipped my afternoon class today to get some last minute shopping done; spices and olive oil, and to pack up my room and belongings to make my way to the airport and back home.

I’ve done a fair bit of crying. It still feels like my heart is breaking a bit. The heart break is to do with the people that I’ve met, to be sure, but it’s also to do with the unbelievable feeling of taking these three weeks for myself. To explore and meet parts of me that I never knew, parts of me that I barely recognize, and parts of me I hoped were there, but needed to look for.

There will be follow up blogs about the actual texts that I’ve learned, texts I want to explore further and the sexy things about Torah I’ve discovered (yes, Torah is sexy), but for now I just want to bask in the glory and gratitude that has been these three weeks.

 

Travel bLog #8 – Coming Down

Posted on: July 25, 2016

As much as I consider myself to be a kind, loving, caring, giving person, I have a tendency to push people away. This usually happens when I know something they don’t know that may or may not be good or bad for them, when a hard decision needs to be made, or when I come to the end of something or have to leave someone. I turn inward in a reflective and defensive way. As much as I love to cry, and do so freely, I also have a hard time making myself really vulnerable to people, especially when it feels like my heart is breaking.

Over the last three weeks I have fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love with the exhilarating, dizzying, mystifying, frustrating Torah (and all that goes along with it). I’ve fallen in deep and tortured love with the city of Jerusalem. I’ve fallen in love with Judaism all over again. And I’ve fallen in love with people who seem to have the ability to see into the most spiritual, sacred inner most parts of my soul. People who I share so much in common with, people I didn’t expect to meet and people I didn’t know were missing parts of my life. It was one of these soul friends who saw me, like they always do, tonight pulling away.

I have learned many things during my time at Pardes and I’ve grown to know several truths. And the truth of the matter is that nothing can or will come close to the magic that has happened here. I may come back to this city, I may come back to this city with these same people, but what we’ve shared can’t be replicated. It exists in this space and time and that time is coming to an end.

In just two days I will board a plane and return to my life. These days filled with study and wonder and frustration and awe and love and spirit will be replaced with life. And while I’m equally so excited to return to my wife and our life, I’m just as heartbroken and sad to be losing this intangible thing that’s happened to me here. My neshama is so full. And I am so grateful.

Travel bLog #7 – Scribe Life

Posted on: July 23, 2016

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I’m not sure if it’s purposeful, but after two weeks of study it’s nice to see ways in which the classes that I’m taking overlap with one another. Scribal Arts, a sort of elective, is only given twice a week and I had to pay extra money to take it.

Taking a step back and looking at some halacha (of which I am not an expert) and it can seem to some that it’s halachically wrong that a female-bodied Jew pick up a pen and write, say, a sefer Torah. If one would do such a thing it (the Holy Torah scroll) would be considered posul, or unfit/unkosher. While other text point to the fact that women can, in fact, write a Torah scroll. In fact women have!  There are other rules that apply as well; one must be an observant Jew, one most go into writing with the best of intentions, one must be knowledgeable in Torah. Simply put, it’s not something that one does for fun.

And it is fun!

I’ve been taking this class and it’s done a number of things for my mind and spirit at Pardes. It’s allowed me to stop using my brain in a demanding way and allows the more creative spaces of my brain to take over. It allows me to become more familiar with the Hebrew Alef Bet as well. And it’s inspired me to write a mezuzah for our home. Which is, as the gentleman at the Sofer store informed me, is a really big deal.

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***WARNING: BABBLING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS AHEAD!!***

 

 

I’m in a really weird, intense, intimate, mentally, spiritually, physically exhausted place.

Learning Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Gemara, Halacha for 7 hours a day 5 days a week is beyond. The first week at Pardes I found myself on the brink of tears on many occasions. And now, at the end of the second week, I am in awe of the magnitude of Jewish study (with the realization that I have barely scratched the surface.) In these two weeks I’ve contemplated the connection of our matriarchs and patriarchs in connection with Islam (More on Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar later-also 100% not the point of the class), I’ve grappled with the complexities of women’s roles in Judaism (and how it fits into my life as a lesbian Jew looking for avenues into a more observant life), I’ve been baffled by how binary and incredibly patriarchal the Jewish faith is, I’ve been memorized by the beauty of Shabbat … and then twenty seconds later furious at the ways in which it’s prohibitive to spiritual growth, I’ve turned over the idea of faith in Gd in a world where such faith makes you “crazy”, and I’ve found a deep appreciation of Hebrew calligraphy. And this is just inside of the classroom. Outside of the classrooms I’ve forged incredibly deep, intimate, and in ways emotionally fragile friendships that I know after I will retain after this wonderful bubble that is Pardes learning bursts in a week (unless you wanna help me stay and Go Fund Me!).

This week, Pride Week in Jerusalem, culminated with a Pride Parade through the streets of Jerusalem. It was my first and only Pride event of the year and I had a lot of trepidation about attending. Last year, a 16 year old girl was stabbed during the Jerusalem Pride Parade and later died. Her name was Shira. She was sixteen. On Tuesday I joined my fabulous Women in Judaism rabbi and several students (including the small and mighty queer contingency) for Meeting Place-a series of informal/formal dialogues around Jerusalem about LGBTQ rights, views and tolerance. I snuggled close to my dearest friends while sharing my truths as a black, lesbian Jew in Israel during Pride. I listened to other LGBTQ American Jews share their truths as we all sat on woven mats in Zion Square. Around our circle sat other groups, speaking in Hebrew and beyond us a metal police barrier holding us in. I wanted to be there, to be present in a space that was so sacred and pure in the work of honoring Shira’s memory through dialogue, but I couldn’t help but feel unsafe. Which is a huge difference from how I was feeling when I first arrived. Crowds gathered around Zion Square. Some of them members and allies of the LGBTQ community joined us. Others were just Israelis enjoying the cool evening off of Ben Yehuda (a bustling area) and would stop to watch.  I noticed a woman walking around the square clapping loudly. Was she trying to drown out our conversation? Israelis of varying observance and dress paused and sometimes stopped to watch for extended periods of time. As the night progressed I couldn’t help but notice a man dressed in a white shirt, black pants with long tzit tzit and a velvet black kippah approach the barrier with a couple other men dressed as he was following close behind. They engaged in heated dialogue with some Hebrew speakers and while I couldn’t tell what they were saying, the body language of both the folks inside the barriers and outside the barriers was … on guard.

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Because of my limited Hebrew skills I’m limited in the classes that I can take at Pardes. So instead of pouring over a line in a tractate of Talmud word by word with a Hebrew/English dictionary, I get to spend my morning sessions talking about the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Judaism (and I would argue Christianity and possibly Islam, though in Islam the story shifts a bit in terms of whose story is told and whose is not, which we could say is problematic in Judaism and Jewish text as a whole, but that’s another day and another blog).

So Patriarchs.

We’ve been studying the story of Abraham and we have come upon the Akedah, which some Jewish scholars argue is the pivotal narrative of this idea of trust/faith in Gd because to our modern ears (and likely to the ears of Abraham) the idea of sacrificing ones child just because Gd says so is, well, absurd. And this is a point that I will stick firmly at, no matter what. And that’s fine because, Jewish.

But what I found to be incredibly interesting today was from a Rabbinic Midrash from the 2nd century that sounded very much like Christianity. Of course when I read it in chevruta I didn’t know it was from the 2nd century, but I guessed it probably was. And what I find interesting and a benefit to being not just a convert to Judaism, but someone who is and was exposed to other faith traditions is that I saw it right away. Because my chevruta also had exposure and learning of other faith traditions, they saw it too – which was a relief. So it got me wondering about how not only the monotheistic religions influenced one another, but specifically how the early Christians influenced Judaism (and possibly vice versa, but I don’t think this as much).

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WARNING: RAMBLING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS AHEAD

 

I posted on FB earlier this week that Jerusalem has been a much welcomed (albeit slightly guilt-ridden) respite from the continuous killing of black bodies in the U.S. And while I would’ve loved to join friends across the States in protest, marches and demonstrations, the realities of the white “progressiveness” of the PNW would’ve inevitably irritated me. Just as many well-meaning posts on FB have irritated me this past week, the past months, the past three years of BLM (and frankly, longer). So, it was a sigh of relief to be here in Israel away from all of the drama.

And yet, I’m not.

I’m studying in a land and place that has been steeped with racial and ethnic drama since Torah times (as I’m learning by pouring over the first few chapters of בְּרֵאשִׁית and שְׁמוֹת at Pardes). We could say that the Jewish people have always been on the receiving end of hatred. And here I am. A black Jew studying about my Jewish history in a land where I can honestly walk around quite invisibly.

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13603223_10208786022380523_4679016779557525279_oMy first Shabbat in Jerusalem and I’m alone on purpose.

I attended a Minyan at the recommendation of a friend. The room was packed – standing room only. I felt a bit out of place and the Hebrew in the siddur and around me was overwhelming and intimidating. But the רוח ruach, the spirit, of the room helped to slough off my anxiety and I allowed the melodies to penetrate my ear and stir an awakening I’ve been craving for so long in my soul.

I blinked back tears of … happiness? sadness? longing? spirit? joy? pain ?

Release.

I needed this Shabbat alone to take in and absorb it all.

I posted this Facebook entry and photo last night after returning from Kabbalat Shabbat Service at Tzion last night. To say that the service was good is to put it lightly. It was spiritually overwhelming and just what I needed.

I’m in a country whose language confounds me. Granted, I never did put much effort into learning it, which I hope to change in the coming weeks, months, years. I attended a service that was entirely in Hebrew with a siddur entirely in Hebrew (thank goodness I brought my own). But I didn’t need the transliterations or the translations for the niggun to have its effect on me and my spirit. And by the time we got to Yedid Nefesh (chanted in the melody of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen) I literally had to fight back tears.

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