Category Archives: jewstuff

christmas and me

That sounds like the title to a made-for-TV movie, doesn’t it?

In thinking about my relationship with Christmas there is the B.C. era and the A.C. era.  Before Conversion and After Conversion. (To Judaism, that is, in case you were wondering.)

I grew up with Christmas and like many who grew up in religious homes, had the usual mix of religious/secular feelings about Christmas.  My parents played the whole Santa Claus game with my sisters and me, and we also went to Christmas Eve services at church and had nativity scenes around the house.  I don’t remember pondering much about Christmas, it just was.  When you are part of the majority culture, you have the privilege of being able to take many things about your life for granted.

Then, I converted.

My first Christmas as a Jew was spent in Jerusalem.  It was the first year I was married to Mr. X, and we were spending the year there as part of his graduate school requirements.  I barely noticed Christmas that year, thanks to the lack of red and green decorations and Christmas carols playing everywhere you spend money.  Christmas was actually on Shabbat (Sabbath) that year (as it will be this year), and the day was taken up doing the usual Shabbat things.

The next year, I was back in the U.S., and came face to face with the American Christmas Industrial Machine once again.  That was the year of the “War on Christmas,” or rather, the “War Against the War on Christmas.”  I found the whole thing highly ridiculous.  As a person who had very recently switched from the “Christmas” side to the “non-Christmas” side, I was hyper-aware of how much Christmas (not “the holidays,” but full-fledged Christmas) permeated the very air one breathes in the US in December.  War on Christmas?  Where exactly?  That year the first thing I thought when I woke up on December 25th was, “It’s Christmas,” but something in me reared up every time someone told me “Merry Christmas.”  I wanted to shout, “It’s not my holiday!”

That year, and for the next couple of years, I had a somewhat adversarial relationship with Christmas.  I was very, very aware that it was no longer “mine,” and as I was married to someone who was very threatened by the idea that I might miss Christmas or want to celebrate it with my family, I made sure to show how much I was annoyed by the whole thing.

Last year was the first year I was both Jewish and not under Mr. X’s thumb.  Now I feel like I have the best of both worlds.  Christmas is impossible to avoid in this country, but I no longer feel like I have to.  I can enjoy the bits and pieces that I want to enjoy (the lights, gifts with my family, receiving the occasional holiday card from a faraway friend), but I get to opt out of the annoying parts, like sending Christmas cards, or feeling obligated to decorate.  I kind of like that there are more get-togethers this time of year and  I really like helping my clients have a better Christmas.  On the other hand, I like getting out of cheesy gift exchanges at work and  I really like not feeling like I should buy presents for all my friends.

Of course, there’s no escaping the music, that’s a burden we all must bear. 🙂

in awe, part 2

Here we are, in the last waning hours before Yom Kippur.

It’s been a week since I’ve posted.  I thought I would be posting every day this week, but life did what it does and here I am a week later.

I’ll be in shul tonight and tomorrow.  As I mentioned before, I’m not so much for the idea of atonement.  I spent too many years wracked with guilt, too many years atoning for anything I could think of.  Tonight I am taking the opportunity to focus, to reflect, to connect.  Tonight I am not embarking on a journey of self-flagellation.  I’ve been down that road before.

The High Holidays have grown on me.  I finally got to the point where I could give myself permission to do my own thing, to use the time how I need to, and to float in and out of the words on the page and not be chained to them or to the often problematic theology of the day.

Tomorrow morning, before joining the congregation, I’ll attend a memorial service for my friend who died in the floods last week.  They found her body and we’re going to say goodbye.

I feel like I’ve got about 10 posts in me, but I’ll end it here.  I don’t have to make this the perfect post; I don’t have to say it all.  For those of you observing Yom Kippur, I hope it is a meaningful day for you, whatever you do.

in awe

We are now in the Yamim Noraim or the Days of Awe (though some say we’ve been in them for about a month already, nobody can deny we are definitely in them now).  The ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are also called Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, or the 10 days of repentance.  Now, I’m not too big on the concept of repentance (I overdosed on it several times while growing up), so I prefer another meaning that the word “teshuvah” has—returning.  The “ten days of returning” is something I can deal with without doing too many mental gymnastics or getting painful flashbacks from my childhood.

The idea of “returning” reminds me of something my therapist said to me a few weeks ago.  We were talking about ideas about God, ideas about belief and spiritual practice.  She told me that she thinks that the reason that regular spiritual practice is so important (her example was “even just sitting in church for a couple of hours a week”) is that it helps us reconnect to ourselves.  Growing up, I would have thought this bordered on heresy (after all, we’re supposed to be connecting with God!), but this makes a lot of sense to me now.  Maybe I’ll talk about this more another day.  Maybe not.  The point is that I am seeing these ten days, and especially the hours I’ll be spending in shul (synagogue) as a time to refocus, to renew, to reconnect with the deepest part of myself, the part of myself that connects with the eternal.

As a part of this, I have decided to participate in 10Q this year.

10 Days. 10 Questions.  Answer one question per day in your own secret online 10Q space. Make your answers serious. Silly. Salacious. However you like. It’s your 10Q. When you’re finished, hit the magic button and your answers get sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection…Next year the whole process begins again. And the year after that, and the year after that.

(And you definitely don’t have to be Jewish, so check it out if you’re interested.)  I’m planning to post my answers here.  So here goes, question #1:

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

The most significant thing(s) that happened in the past year all have to do with breaking my ties to X.  In the past year we went to mediation for the divorce, the house was foreclosed, the divorce was finalized, he gave me a get (Jewish divorce), I went through the When Your Relationship Ends class, and he married ____.

Today I am so much more free than this time last year.  Last year at the holidays X was so very much an anchor holding me down, a very heavy weight on me.  Last year he was almost all I could think about.  This year I am thinking about how I can live my life to the fullest.  I am thinking about how I can let others in.  Last year the best I could do for myself was put up walls of self-protection.  This year I am thinking about how to bring them down.

seder report

Well, I was pleasantly surprised.

I left at midnight, before the afikomen was found (basically the end of the seder).  We all showed up at 7 but things didn’t get started until about 8.  We started the meal portion of the seder about 10:45 or 11 (things are fuzzy to me at that point).  Before going, I had discussed with a couple of people some of my anxieties, and my expectations about how long things would last.  Well, it was really a lot of fun, and I only wish that things had moved a bit more quickly toward eating (I did eat before I went, but by 11 I was starving again).  I met some interesting people (maybe friend potential?) and was generally pleased by the evening.

One thing I noticed was that it was assumed that I was a Jew-by-birth.  I think that I go around (in Jew-y type settings anyway) believing that I’ve practically got a big sign on my forehead that says, “JEW BY CHOICE.”  Well, I guess I don’t.  I got a couple of comments/questions about “growing up learning Hebrew,” etc. (we had some good talks about language acquisition—one of my favorite topics to geek out on) and it really surprised me.  I just said, “I didn’t grow up learning Hebrew,” and I think that was just taken to mean that my family just wasn’t very observant.  I would have been happy to clarify, but the conversation went as conversations go when there’s a bunch of gregarious people in the room, and the opportunity seemed to have passed, and it didn’t seem like I needed to announce to the room, “I CONVERTED.”*  There were two women there who seem to have some friend potential, so we’ll see how that goes.

All in all, I went home really happy, though really tired, and now I’m trying to finish paperwork for the job (can’t you tell how hard I’m working?).  I have in my head that little voice saying, “You shouldn’t be working on the 1st day of Pesach…”** but I am exercising my freedom (it is zman heruteinu—the time of our freedom—after all) and am choosing to be Jewish in the way that works best for me right now, and not for my warden Mr. X.

Definitely a different beginning to Pesach than last year.

Chag Pesach sameach.  Happy Passover.

*Um, run-on sentence much?

**The first two and last two days of Pesach/Passover are considered “chag” or “holiday” and Jews more observant than myself refrain from doing a number of things, including working.

show and tell: lighting the darkness

Please see what the rest of the show-er and tell-er’s are showing and telling over at Mel’s.

If you don’t know, we are in the midst of Chanukah (there are16 ways to spell it apparently!).  This holiday comes right around the time of the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), when things are about as dark as they’re going to get.  It is right in the midst of this darkness that we celebrate light with our festival of lights.  Each night as we light an additional candle, adding to their numbers, the light gets a little brighter, reminding us that darkness is not impenetrable, nor is it forever.

This photo below is of my Chanukah menorah (chanukiah) from last night.  It’s a new chanukiah, as I didn’t bring the other memory-laden ones I had before with me last Spring.  On the side, you can see the dreidel that Delenn gave me in the dreidel exchange.

May you find light in your darkest nights this winter.

ghosts of new years’ past

In case you hadn’t heard, we are right in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days, also known as the High Holidays.  (Here is a nice, user-friendly introduction, if you are interested.)  I found myself in shul (synagogue) on Saturday, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the experience–not so much the experience of now as the experience of remembering what has brought me to this point.  Hence, this post.

♦My first Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) was the year I was studying about Judaism, before I had converted.  Mr. X was back in his state after spending the summer with me (we were in a long-distance relationship at that point).  I was finally starting to feel familiar with the Shabbat (sabbath) service–knowing the tunes, recognizing more or less the order of things (the synagogue where I went conducted the entire service in Hebrew).  Then came Rosh Hashanah.  Little was I to know that they would change all the tunes and add tons more to the liturgy so that the little I felt familiar with suddenly disappeared.  And instead of meeting in the small library as usual, we met in the big sanctuary, and people I had never seen before showed up, and the services seemed to last forever.  I was less than impressed with all this High Holiday upheaval and was more than ready to get back to business as usual.

♦My second Rosh Hashanah was in Jerusalem.  I had converted, X and I had married, and we went to Israel as part of his school program.  As you can see from that previous sentence, everything had moved really quickly in the previous year, and I hadn’t really had time to process very much of it.  Other things that were going on in my life included my family being pretty upset about my conversion (what with my going to hell and all–they’ve come a long way, baby, since that time), and my graduating with my master’s in social work.  As far as Jewish observance in general was concerned, something I couldn’t really see at the time, but is crystal clear now (thank you, hindsight!)–my religious observance level was 100% determined by X and what he wanted.  Needless to say, I was feeling pretty stifled, pretty suppressed–but didn’t even know it.  X was also very threatened by anything on my part that he perceived as not totally enthusiastic about Judaism on my part.  Along came the High Holidays and their (seeming to me) hyper-focus on “repentance.”  At the time I was carrying around a whole-lotta baggage from my Christian past that hadn’t been dealt with, and the High Holidays were the one time of the year that Judaism felt uncomfortable to me because of this focus.  X, of course, instead of being understanding, or giving me space to work out my own issues from my own past, just piled on the guilt about my not being totally gung-ho about the New Year.  Because, you know, everything else I had done so far wasn’t enough. (And again, I wonder, how could I not see it then?)  So that second Rosh Hashanah was mostly about getting through it.  And a big relief when it was over.

♦Rosh Hashanah, take three.  We were back in the U.S., and Mr. X was completing the last year of his program, after which he would be a full-fledged rabbi.  Based on the previous two years’ experiences, I was not exactly looking forward to RH.  I had just started a new job, and had to take off several (unpaid) days at the start due to these holidays.  I remember hosting a couple of meals–there was always a lot of work to do, but the person I was always worried about pleasing was X.  Things needed to be “just so” for him.  He always had an idea in his mind about how Jewish things should go, and if they didn’t go the way he wanted, well…let’s just say his mood would swing.  Looking back it is so easy for me to see how much I did without really wanting to, how much I did because I was afraid not to, but at the time, I just had a tight feeling in my chest, a feeling of being stuck, though I couldn’t have put those words to it.  If I didn’t really want to go to religious services on Shabbat, how much more did I not want to go on Rosh Hashanah, when I would be trapped there for hours longer than usual, hungry and bored.

♦The fourth Rosh Hashanah was the first year that Mr. X and I were in the town that I’ve referred to elsewhere as “Small Pond.”  He had taken a pulpit job, and we were firmly in the “honeymoon” stage that new clergy often experience with congregations.  A friend of ours that we had met the year we lived in Israel came to lead the musical parts of the services, and having her there was wonderful for me.  I hadn’t gotten a job yet, so I wore myself out cooking and cleaning and we hosted every meal (lunch and dinner) for our cantor friend and her parents.  As for the services, I remember thinking that I hated the High Holidays a little less that year.  Sweeping praise, I know.  This may have had something to do with the fact that X eased off somewhat in his pressure of me at the time (in Jewish things).  I think partly this has to do with the fact that I was pressuring myself so much, he no longer needed to…

♦The fifth Rosh Hashanah…the honeymoon was definitely over.  It was our second year in Small Pond, and we had been trying for several months to conceive.  About a month before RH, I had seen my ob-gyn for my yearly exam, and had received a diagnosis of PCOS.  We were referred to the “fertility specialist” in the practice.  When RH came around, so much was up in the air.  I didn’t know yet that X’s sp.erm analysis would show severely low-mo.rphology.  I didn’t know how long it would take to get a definitive answer about that, even.  I just knew that my worst nightmare had just opened up and pulled me in.  That year, there was another visiting cantor, but not a friend.  Also, X’s parents came to visit for the High Holidays, and stayed with us, so I had less space to deal with my feelings.  There was a lot for me to do, and a lot of emotion running just below the surface.  I don’t remember much of my impressions about the religious aspects of the HH that year.  I just remember being in pain and being scared.

♦The sixth Rosh Hashanah.  Last year.  It was my fifth as a Jew.  Things were hard between Mr. X and me.  I had started getting emotionally healthier, and that meant a lot more saying, “no.”  That meant a lot more trying to figure out what kind of religious observance I wanted to have, for me, not for him.  This last part freaked X out more than anything else.  He was losing his grip of control on me.  I was learning how to take care of myself.  I was learning that I could live without him.  At this point I had not consciously imagined leaving him, though he would throw it in my face and accuse me of planning it (which blew my mind at the time, and I would do anything I could to convince him it wasn’t true–crazymaking).  I was trying so hard to hold myself together and hold my marriage together.  I still didn’t know that it would have to be one or the other, that I couldn’t have both.  It was during the High Holidays last year that I reconnected with the Divine.  I don’t really know how else to describe my experience, but it was an amazing time for me.  Amazing and hard, as I still had to come home with X.  I didn’t really focus on the machzor (prayerbook) or the set liturgy that everyone else was doing.  I stayed in my own head mostly.  There were a couple of images that came to me during that time.  These images gave me peace and I don’t know how I would have gotten through that month, that autumn without them.*

♦This year.  Seventh Rosh Hashanah.  Sixth year as a Jew.  First year on my own.  I had not been wanting to do anything Jewish at all, at all, at all.  I had been starting to wonder about myself, if I was going to want to stop being Jewish.  I didn’t want to want that…

About a month ago, maybe a month and a half ago, I was walking Miss Famous and I heard in my head some of the traditional tunes for the High Holidays.  These are tunes that are only used at this time of year.  I found myself wanting to be in shul for the holidays.  With that desire came a great relief.  I don’t know what my Jewishness will end up looking like, but it is still there, and it will be mine.

So I only went first day RH this year (it’s a two-day holiday).  I didn’t know how I would react, being in shul again, after so many months being away.  I decided that I really like being anonymous, or at least, not being the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife).  I liked just blending in.  There were tears, and there was relief.  There was no panic attack**, and there was nothing out of the ordinary (unless you count the tears).

*

*

*

*I will talk about these another time.  This post is already so long, I would not want them to get lost in it.

**I’ve never had a panic attack, but I found myself wondering and worrying about my reaction to being in shul again, being in those services again with how connected they are to Mr. X in my mind.

on ownership

A while back I talked about having a difficult time with the experience of certain things because of the associations that they have for me.  A cigar is not just a cigar if you will.  Or rather, an avocado is not just an avocado.  Nor are olives olives, nor acoustic guitar music…well, you get the idea.  When you’ve made another person’s needs and wants the center of your universe for so long, a lot of material things end up taking on additional significance, as they can seem like the key to domestic tranquility.  At least that was my experience.  Maybe I was just looking for anything to be the key to domestic tranquility, as I certainly didn’t have it.

But I digress.  I was talking to my friend, Cherry, about this tendency to shy away from certain things: foods, books, etc., because they seemed to be too much infused with something from X.  She told me that after her last serious break-up, she couldn’t listen to music anymore, any music, not for a really long time.  We’re talking for years.  The reason?  In her words, her ex “owned” all the music.

Not literally of course.  Cherry’s ex did not have some kind of universal copyright to every song ever written, but, in Cherry’s mind (and partly due to some abuse issues in their relationship) Cherry did not allow herself access to something that could have been an amazing source of comfort for her.  Painful comfort, I’m sure, yet still a comfort.

♦♦♦♦♦

During the six years I was with Mr. X (almost five years of marriage–our anniversary just passed by), he was my teacher.  I don’t mean to say this in a creepy way (though there was that element), but he taught me so very much about judaism.  One thing I will not fault him is his intelligence, and once he devoted it wholeheartedly to learning about judaism, well, he was like a runaway train.  Something I would say about X when we were together was that he either did things not at all, or 150%.  He did not “like” things, he would love them with his entire being–music, food…and judaism.

So, he knew a lot.  And when I was with him I learned and learned and learned and learned and learned.  To be honest, my motivation was often survival (though I could not see this at the time)–to keep his love and to be the super-jewess (which were part and parcel).  But still I learned and learned, and I just soaked it up.  I was a sponge.  Another thing I cannot fault him–he is a phenomenal teacher.  You know if I am saying something so positive about Mr. X, it is true.  He is one of the best teachers I have encountered.  And I had him all the time–at home, in the car, on vacation..  So, I learned a lot.  All the while in a pressure cooker, but all the while soaking up with my spongy brain every nuance I could grasp.

♦♦♦♦♦

As I said:  Cherry’s ex did not have some kind of universal copyright to every song ever written, but, in Cherry’s mind (and partly due to some abuse issues in their relationship) Cherry did not allow herself access to something that could have been an amazing source of comfort for her. Painful comfort, I’m sure, yet still a comfort.

And my ex does not have some kind of universal copyright to every jewish thing ever, but, in my mind (and mostly due to some abuse issues in our relationship) I have not allowed myself access to something that could be an amazing source of comfort to me.  Painful comfort, I’m sure, yet still a comfort.

X had a teacher once, who, when asked permission for something taught in class to be used for teaching somewhere else, simply said, “It belongs to the jewish people.”  As in, it is not mine, I don’t own it, I won’t pretend to have any rights over what you have learned from me.

What X taught me (and I must admit, he did teach me), did not belong to him.  He did not own it.  He was just the conduit.  So I will no longer pretend that he has all the rights over what I learned from him.

He has taken enough.