Posted on: August 17, 2016
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!
Posted on: August 3, 2016
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.
Posted on: July 21, 2016
***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.
Posted on: July 15, 2016
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.
Posted on: July 9, 2016
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 ?
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.