Monday, December 5, 2011

Transliteration: Handy or Handicap?

Going from Reform to Conservative Judaism, one change is noticeable immediately. Before they start singing and you notice the tunes are different, before you notice that not just the men, but the majority of women are wearing a kippah, you open the prayer book and notice that it's just in Hebrew with English translations. There's hardly any transliteration (where the Hebrew is spelled out phonetically in the alphabet instead of the aleph-bet).

The old Reform prayer book was set up in a similar style to the Conservative prayer book, which was first printed in 1989. But in 2007 the Reform movement replaced that with their new book, called the Mishkan T'filah, which features Hebrew, transliteration, and English translation. The Mishkan T'filah and Reform Judaism are how I learned Jewish services and the transliteration is probably the thing I miss most about them since making the switch to Conservative Judaism.

But is transliteration handy or a handicap?

Handy
Transliteration makes it easier to follow along. When people are talking really fast, they tend not to enunciate and when that's happening in a language you don't know, with a different alphabet, it's easy to get lost on the first word. When I first started going to synagogue, I heard a jumble of unfamiliar sounds strung together, but I could read what they were saying and kind of follow along that way. The transliteration allowed me to follow along silently at first and, once I was comfortable with the tunes and the language, to chant/sing along. Transliteration helped me distinguish words from each other and then I could learn words and meanings by hearing them and saying them over and over in different prayers. So even if I can't spell them in Hebrew, I know these common words:
vimru = and we say
shalom = peace, hello, goodbye
Mitzrayim = Egypt
avinu = our father
sh'ma = hear
l'dor vador = from generation to generation

I learned the Hebrew aleph-bet on my own, because I want to learn Hebrew and then I started trying to follow along with the actual Hebrew in the book. If I ever got lost (which I did frequently), I always had the transliteration to fall back on to find my place. Being able to follow along and participate gave me confidence, which is always nice.

Handicap
On the other hand, taking the transliteration for granted in the Reform movement left me completely out of my element when I switched to Conservative Judaism. I can barely follow along with the prayers I know, because I can't read the Hebrew fast enough. I felt like I was fairly active in trying to connect the transliteration to the actual Hebrew, so I can't imagine how lost I would be if I had just ignored the Hebrew column altogether. Now I feel like I have to re-learn everything and my confidence in services is completely shot. I feel worse about not being able to participate now than I did when I first got interested in Judaism, because at least then I was new to the religion. Now that I know what it's like to be able to participate or at least follow along, I feel like an idiot at services.

There are a lot of really important reasons to know Hebrew too. For one thing, Hebrew characters show us the roots of words and how they are related in a way that transliteration doesn't. The way Hebrew works, the letters are all consonants and marks under or next to those consonants serve as the vowels. So two words can be made up of the exact same consonants (thus sharing a root), but have different vowels that give them different meanings. Being able to see those things in the Hebrew allows you to make connections that you can't do with a translation or transliteration.

I need to learn Hebrew to do serious in-depth Torah study. I love Torah study; it's possibly my favorite part of the week. I have a really excellent Torah study group here and there's plenty to talk about each week using just English translations. But some things don't translate quite right out of Hebrew and some words carry double meanings that don't come across in translations, but that add new meaning to the story. Besides that, I don't know of any Torah that has been transliterated and I don't think it would be worth it anyway. Transliteration is great for prayer books, because it allows people to participate in the services even if they don't know Hebrew or they're rusty. As I demonstrated above, I think transliteration is a great way to pick up random vocab, if you're paying attention. The Torah, on the other hand, is meant to be read and studied. Being able to read it in Hebrew through transliterations doesn't help that goal, since there's no comprehension of what's going on actually involved.

Have I answered my question? No. I'm a good Jew in that sense. I'm probably not going to answer it either, but feel free to tell me what you think!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Warding off evil in The Exorcist

I saw The Exorcist (1973) for the first time on Halloween. I hate scary movies and this one is consistently voted onto "Top Horror Films" lists across the film community, but it was the price I paid for wanting to be social on Halloween.

It is scary. And gross. I could have gone my whole life without seeing it, but the rest of the night was fun, so I guess it was worth it. I tried to keep my mind off the scary parts of the movie by focusing on little things and came across a piece of Judaism almost right away.

In the movie the little girl, Regan, gets possessed. Sorry if I just ruined the movie for you, but I promise that will be the last spoiler and the movie is so ingrained in popular culture that you really should have known that part already. In several scenes at the beginning of the movie, Chris, the mother, is seen wearing a particular necklace.

Regan (before possession) and Chris. Image courtesy of imdb.com


Image courtesy of judaica-mall.com
You can't see Chris' necklace that well in this picture (though it's clearly visible if you're looking for it in the movie), but it is a hamsa hand necklace. The second photo should give you an idea of what her necklace looks like. The hamsa hand is a symbol found in many ancient and modern religions (including Judaism) and it is thought to ward off evil. I'm not generally a superstitious person, but there was this one week where a bunch of little things kept going slightly wrong and I seriously considered getting a hamsa hand necklace, in part because of the superstition and in part because I wanted an everyday Jewish necklace and hamsas come in millions of designs. In the end, I went with a Mogen David/Chai combination that I posted a few months ago. Probably a good idea, since the hamsa didn't seem to work for Chris and Regan in this movie.


Here is a better picture of my new necklace than I originally posted. The Mogen David (or Star of David) is a typical symbol of Jewish identity. The symbol in the middle is a chai, which is Hebrew for life. The chai is an important part of Jewish life; we shout "L'chaim!" ("to life!") at weddings, b'nai mitzvot, conversions, holidays, and any occasion that celebrates and affirms life. If you've ever received a monetary gift from a Jewish friend and noticed that it was a multiple of 18 instead of a multiple of 5 ($72 instead of $75, for example), you can attribute it to the chai as well. The practice of giving in multiples of 18 is based on a Kabbalah (a mystical part of Judaism) number system, which assigns numerical values to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The word chai is made up of the letters chet (8) and yud (10), making 18. Thus, the number 18 and its multiples stand for life and giving in those amounts means you are giving a wish for life. I hunted for a Jewish necklace for a very long time trying to find one that I would want to wear every day and that would outwardly symbolize the profound meaning that I find in Judaism. This necklace has worked out perfectly.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Genesis

Background on how Jews read the Torah/Bible
The Torah is the first five books of the Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The entire Torah is broken into portions (parshiot in Hebrew) and we read one per week in order. When we get to the end, we start over with Genesis. Since we just passed the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), we started over with Parsha Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8). There is a corresponding Haftarah reading (a reading from the other parts of the "Old Testament." These do not necessarily go in order). You can find all the portions and their corresponding Haftarah readings here.

Actual topic
Anyway, we just started over last week. It amazes me just how much stuff is packed into Genesis. In Bereishit, for example, we get two creation stories, the forbidden fruit, Cain and Abel, and then a list of descendants all the way up to Noah. In Torah study last week, we skipped creation and spent almost two hours just talking about Cain and Abel.

This week, in Parsha Noah, we read:

  • the flood,
  • the first vineyard, which was immediately followed by a very drunk, naked Noah in a tent,
  • another long list of descendants as Noah's sons repopulate the world,
  • the Tower of Babel,
  • and more descendants, ending with the introduction of Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah).
So basically, there is a lot packed into Genesis and, even though it's the same content every year, there's always something new to focus on. This deliberate way of reading the Torah is one of my favorite parts of Judaism.


Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's in a Name?

Erin
Origin: Irish
Meaning: Ireland

Aaron
Origin: Hebrew
Meaning: Exalted, Strong

My name has never really held any meaning for me, not that I don't like it. It does not, as with most Erins, denote an Irish heritage (I'm a mix of mostly German and Portuguese). It's not derived from some old family name. More often than not, I say my name too fast and people hear Ann or Karen instead. My parents just liked the name Erin, so here I am.

Aaron, on the other hand, is a common name for Jewish boys. Biblically, Aaron was Moses' brother, his second in command, and the priest from whom all Kohanim (the Jewish priestly class) descend. Because of this, I find a new layer of explanation attached to my name during introductions in a Jewish context. I have two very recent examples of "the name conversation" to share.

The first was at Rosh Hashanah dinner with my fiance's cousin's cousins (he has a large and convoluted extended family, so just go with it). After they finished figuring out how he was related to someone they were also related to, but not related to them directly, the cousin's cousins turned to me:

One said, "What was your name again?"
"Erin."
"Karen?"
"No, Er-in," I enunciated. Then I spelled it out for them, just to be sure.
"Oh. Are you Irish?"
"No, my parents just liked the name Erin."
"It's an unusual Jewish name."
"Yeah, my parents aren't Jewish. I converted."
From everyone, "Oh mazel tov (congratulations)!"

This led to a conversation about why I decided to convert and the differences between Christianity and Judaism, which I won't get into here, but let me just say that a belief in Jesus is not the only difference between the two.

Conversation #2 took place on Yom Kippur between me and the old woman sitting next to me at services:

After sitting next to each other in silence for two hours, she leaned over and said, "You look very young. How old are you?"
"I'm 23."
"I bet people say you look much younger than that."
"Yeah, I usually get 12."
"Oh, you'll appreciate that when you're older."
The age conversation is another one that I have on a regular basis. We were asked to rise as the Torah was taken out of the ark and our conversation ended for a while. Some time later, she leaned over again to ask, "What's your name?"
"Erin."
"Ann?"
"No, Er-in."
She spelled out, "A-a-r-o-n?"
"No, spelled E-r-i-n." At this point in the name conversation I always think to myself, Seriously? Aaron with two As is a male name and I am clearly a not a man.
"Oh..." she said. "That's an odd name."
"Yeah..."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rosh Hashanah Reflections

I have been really bad at blogging recently, so here is a quick update on my life:

I moved from Nashville to Philadelphia, a big change to which I will probably devote a separate blog post. Marc (my wonderful fiance) and I joined a Conservative synagogue here that is the friendliest place I have ever been.

I visited NYC for the first time in my life. My only impressions of it before this came mainly from Law & Order. First impression in real life: It's very big. The subway needs some fans or something to blow the air around, because it's very stuffy down there. It's an excellent way to get around though. I didn't get to see anything touristy, so I guess I will have to go back and do that at some point. I did get a tour of the Bloomberg building, visited JTS, and had lunch at a kosher deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (where I'm pretty sure my tank top made the Hasidic waiter uncomfortable, but it's summer).

And I started work at Maccabi USA, a Jewish non-for-profit dedicated to building Jewish pride and culture through sports.

One of the many wonderful things about working for a Jewish institution is the fact that we get Jewish holidays off. So between Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, my work weeks in October are incredibly short. As the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) begins, the rabbi at my new synagogue asked us to reflect on the following questions:
  1. What blessings have occurred in the past year? What difficulties have I endured, or do I continue to endure? 
  2. Are there any lessons that I may draw from these past experiences? 
  3. What are my prayers and hopes for the coming year? How will my past experiences help me to chart a path to achieving these goals? 
Since this is my first official year as a Jew, I figure I should try to answer them. So here goes:

This year has been incredibly eventful and I have a lot to be thankful for. I got engaged to the love of my life, converted to Judaism (which was a two-year long process for me), learned the Hebrew alef-bet, and moved out of the South to the east coast, where I am much less likely to find confederate flag memorabilia.

Tangent: That flag drives me nuts. They put it on license plates, beach towels, clothing, and, I'm sure, pretty much anything else they can manage. You can call it a "symbol of Southern pride," but history has made it a symbol of racism, oppression, and violence, and you can't wash that history out of it or pretend it didn't happen.


Anyway, back to my new year's reflections. A difficulty:

Judaism is a religion of lifelong learning. That's what originally drew me to it. I like the feeling that it will never get old, that there will always be a new meaning to discover or something in the Torah that I missed last year. But being a new Jew (Jew by Choice, convert, etc) presents its own learning process that I am finding particularly difficult. I'm not talking about the technical aspects, like learning Hebrew and getting Jewish cultural references. Those can be overcome with Rosetta Stone and a Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movie marathon.

And I'm not talking about feeling singled out as a convert. Once you convert to Judaism, you are supposed to be seen as just as Jewish as every other Jew. True to this rule, no one has questioned my Jewish background. In fact, I frequently encounter the opposite - when a story comes up about "one year at Christmas" or "my cousin's Catholic wedding" people are confused by the idea that my family isn't Jewish.

No, my struggle stems from those things you can't learn, those experiences that make up the Jewish childhood I didn't have. Learning new songs at summer camp, suffering through Hebrew school, searching for the afikoman at Passover. Basically, this is a completely unnecessary struggle that I have fabricated. No one expects a Jew by Choice to have those experiences, but they seem so integral to everyone else's Jewish identity that I don't know what a Jewish identity should look like without them. I have no guideposts for building a Jewish identity without a Jewish past, starting from scratch. I don't want to wipe away my non-Jewish past, because that has made me who I am and I happen to like who I am. My task this year will be to figure out how to construct a Jewish identity that incorporates my past.

Shana Tova
Happy New Year

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mogen David

I got my first Mogen David today!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Jewish Reading List

Over the past two years (wow, it's really been two years; I started this journey a long time ago) I have read everything I could get my hands on concerning Judaism. This is a list of most of the books I have read so far. They explained Judaism to me, helped me with my conversion decision, and continue my development as a Jewish adult.
  • Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and their Family and Friends by Anita Diamant - An excellent resource. Talking to a rabbi about conversion isn't that scary, but if you want more information before that step, consider this book.
  • The Everything Judaism Book by Richard Bank - Easy to read, lots of sidebars for random additional information
  • Every Person's Guide to Judaism by Stephen J. Einstein and Lydia Kukoff - It's a little dry
  • To Life! by Harold Kushner
  • The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel - I love Heschel and need to read more of his work
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok - Jewish fiction might be my new favorite thing
  • The Tapestry of Jewish Time by Nina Beth Cardin - Everything you ever wanted to know about Jewish holidays. And it's a very quick read, despite the huge amounts of information it presents.
  • Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Elie Kaunfer - No comment
  • Exile by Richard North Patterson - Don't prepare to be amazed by the writing or plot, but it does a decent job of laying out the Israel-Palestine issues for a thriller novel.
  • As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg - Excellent historical fiction set in the Hellenistic Period (1st-2nd centuries CE) that deals with the conflicts between logic and religion, doubt and faith.
  • Doing Jewish Theology by Rabbi Neil Gillman - I reviewed this already!
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner - I think I like Kushner's ideas, but I don't like his writing style. He isn't difficult to read and he is great for non-Jews or people considering conversion, because he is very explanatory of Jewish terms and practices.
  • Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning in Theory and Practice by Diane Tickton Schuster - I have been reading this on and off for a while; I'm about halfway through and so far it is fascinating.
  • Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman - I'm in the middle of this one right now too. If you are interested in the inner workings of congregations (how to create a community, religious education reform, adult education programming, membership engagement, etc), this book is excellent. My fiance read it a few months ago and loved it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grasshoppers

In the past week's Torah portion, Shelach, God told Moses to send 12 scouts into Israel to check out the land. They returned with the following pronouncement, "Yeah, the land is definitely flowing with milk and honey and it's pretty awesome, but it's full of big scary Anakites, Amalekites, and Canaanites." Two of the scouts (Caleb and Joshua) disagreed with this assessment, but the other ten had already managed to incite fear and panic. The result? God said, "Fine, you can stay in the desert then."

Two things really struck me about this portion on a personal level:

1. In describing the people who live in Israel, the ten doubtful scouts say they look like giants and that "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13:33)

I think like this all the time. I don't tend to voice an opinion unless I feel like I have all the facts. By all the facts, I mean leaving no stone unturned and I pretty much always think that there must be something out there that I haven't read or haven't thought of. This kind of thinking generally leads me to belittle my own opinion as "uninformed" and if I'm unsure of myself, I think everyone else must be able to tell and must think of me that way too. So when the Israelites saw themselves as weak and small, I could relate. But as we learned in the Haftarah reading from Joshua 2:1-24, those "giant" Anakites, Amalekites, and Canaanites, saw the Israelites as a real threat.

My take-away: Don't assume that everyone else sees me the way I see myself and don't be so self-conscious. I should focus more on my strengths. Even if the Israelites were set on seeing themselves as grasshoppers, they should have noted that grasshoppers can be incredibly intimidating in numbers. Maybe all the excitement of crossing the Sea of Reeds, receiving the Torah, and building the ark made them forget that a swarm of locusts destroyed Egypt's crops not that long before (thanks, Plague #8).

2. If the Israelites had just had faith that God would be with them when they entered the promised land, they wouldn't have had to spend 40 years wandering around in the desert. Their fear immobilized them and left them unable to move forward into their land and to develop as a people. I tend to lean in the direction of the ten fearful scouts, though I don't like to admit it. Instead of trusting that everything will be fine, I worry that something will go wrong and then limit my activities in order to avoid those imagined scenarios. I have been getting better at ignoring those doubts and just having faith that I will have fun. The evidence backs me up - nothing ever goes wrong when I make the effort to hang out with friends or try something new and I even usually have fun. The Israelites had similar evidence in support of just heading into Israel on faith - the plagues, the Sea of Reeds, manna, clouds of fire and smoke, receiving the Torah! They forgot all of that in their fear that this time it wouldn't work out in their favor. I don't think anyone would say that was a smart move on their part.

In light of these insights, my goal this week is to be more like Joshua and Caleb - to have confidence in myself, to have a little faith, and to try something new.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Quote of the Week: Judaism is...

"Judaism is a lifelong search for God." -Rabbi Flip Rice, Congregation Micah, Brentwood, TN

Book Review: Doing Jewish Theology by Rabbi Neil Gillman

Worth reading? Sure

Doing Jewish Theology is a contemplation of myth, ritual, and practice in liberal Judaism by Conservative Rabbi Neil Gillman. In it, he discusses the divinity of the Torah, halacha, the indefinable nature of God, rabbinical education, life after death, and chaos, all topics I was excited to read about.

Before I begin, I need to note that I will be using "liberal Judaism" in this post as Gillman uses it to denote non-Orthodox or non-literal branches of Judaism, specifically Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
My biggest problem with the book is the last chapter: "In Praise of Birkat Kohanim." The Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) has gone out of fashion in liberal branches of Judaism, mainly because of its hierarchical and un-egalitarian structure. Gillman argues that it should be reinstated because he finds it to be a powerful ritual and thinks that it adds "drama" and allows for more congregant participation in what is otherwise a fairly spectator-leader service. Egalitarianism and outdated hierarchies aside, he seems to be motivated mainly by the fact that he is a kohen. He wants to make the Birkat Kohanim more egalitarian so that he can share it with his daughters, since he has no sons (kohen/priestly status was passed down from Aaron, Moses' brother, through the male line only, so daughters cannot be kohanim).

The self-serving overtones of this chapter could have been subdued by better placement in the book. Even if it had been placed just a chapter before, between his third-to-last and second-to-last chapters on ritual and chaos, respectively, it would have made a significant difference in my overall impression of the book. For one thing, since the Birkat Kohanim is a prayer and ritual, it would have flowed better following the chapter on ritual. It felt tacked onto the end, almost forced. The Birkat Kohanim chapter is only five pages long, so I could have easily forgotten it if there had been another chapter before the book ended. Instead, I have to struggle to remember the earlier parts of the book that I felt were better argued or made more interesting points.

Rabbi Gillman spends a long time in the first few chapters discussing the various works of Abraham Joshua Heschel and other Jewish philosophers and theologians. While I think I might have gotten more out of those sections of the book if I had read more Heschel beforehand, overall, I enjoyed Heschel's philosophy and Rabbi Gillman has inspired me to read more of his work.

The other major point of this book that stood out to me was halacha and what constitutes an halachic movement. Gillman offers a very candid analysis of the Conservative movement's theology and views of halacha and the problems that arise in trying to explain their decisions to their congregants. Halacha in the liberal branches of Judaism is incredibly interesting. In Orthodox Judaism, halacha is believed to literally be God's laws. Gillman rejects this literalism. His argument rests on three liberal assumptions (found on pages 171-3 of Doing Jewish Theology):
  1. Human language is inadequate and all our characterizations of God are metaphors. 
  2. Liberal Jews accept a human component in Torah. Here he, again, quotes Heschel (among others): "Torah is a midrash on revelation." 
  3. Halacha is the Jewish community's understanding of God's will 
Basically, humans are incapable of capturing the essence of God in speech, thus the Torah was our best attempt at recording what God said, but ultimately halachic law is based on human understanding and when our community's understanding of God's will changes, we should be able to take steps to change the laws. In the Conservative Movement, this has led to the reversal of the halachic law that says a kohen (of the priestly class) cannot marry a divorcee. On the other hand, the Conservative movement maintains halacha on the issue of Jewish identity and does not recognize patrilineal descent. Traditionally, Jewishness is passed on through the mother, so by not recognizing patrilineal descent, the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not considered Jewish without undergoing a conversion. I'm not sure where I fall on issues of halacha at this point, but I appreciated Gillman's in depth look at halacha, the history of halacha in liberal Judaism, and the benefits and problems the Conservative movement faces with their particular brand of halacha.

Rabbi Gillman covers many other excellent topics in this book, including creation, eschatology, Rabbinical education, rituals and myths, and chaos.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Scream, You Scream: Keeping Kosher

There is ice cream in my freezer that I could not eat yesterday. That is probably the worst part about keeping kosher.

I started keeping kosher-style around the beginning of April. My fiance and I started out just eating kosher Shabbat dinners and worked our way up from there. No more turkey and cheddar sandwiches for lunch, no more chicken parmesan. I rarely ate pork (except bacon) or shellfish to begin with, so I haven't missed it much, but I never realized how often we mix meat and dairy in the same meal before last month. Go to Chili's or someplace with similarly-limited vegetarian options (even the salads all have chicken) and try to find a meat entree that doesn't have cheese on it. It is difficult.

But that is manageable. At home, we have all-meat or all-dairy meals that don't seem limited at all by the absence of the other. The difficulty is in the definition of "in the same meal."

If I have mac and cheese for dinner, I can wait 30 minutes to an hour, and then eat meat. If I have a steak salad for dinner at 6:00 PM, like I did last night, I have to wait 6 hours to eat that ice cream in my freezer. As I sat there at 8:30 wanting nothing but a small bowl of ice cream, I thought, "How ridiculous, this is clearly not the same meal anymore." As a Reform Jew, I could very easily have chucked kashrut out the window and had my ice cream anyway. The Reform Movement encourages individuals to make informed choices about which laws they follow and find relevant, because that leads to innovation instead of stagnation. While I agree that personal choice and informed decision-making are important, I think this view will always have the potential to become "prove to me why I should do this." But I don't think that's the point. That is an easy way to say, "Keeping kosher doesn't make sense today, so I won't do it" and many Reform Jews do not keep kosher. I tend to view the laws through the question, "Why shouldn't I do it?" If there's no good reason not to, then I say why not give it a try? So I keep kosher, even when the six hour waiting period doesn't make sense to me and deprives me of ice cream.

In the end, I settled for a bowl of pineapple last night instead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Click these links for more information about the waiting period between meals and other kosher laws.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My Blog Name

In response to a request that he summarize Judaism and the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said the following:
"That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah.  The rest is commentary, go and learn it."
I chose this as my blog name, because I like the sentiment. The first sentence speaks for itself. Do you recognize the golden rule? You may have learned slightly different wording in first grade ("Treat others as you would like to be treated"), but there it is. The second sentence underscores the essence of Judaism - the idea that Judaism is the teachings of God plus the teachings of our ancestors as they studied God. What would it say about God if God's teachings could be summarized in the short time that you can stand on one foot? What would it say about people who spend their whole lives studying Torah? Judaism is a tradition of continued learning and growth. I will mark my continued growth here and this blog will be my own commentary as I go and learn.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Yael bat Avraham v'Sarah

Two weeks ago, I converted to Judaism. I am now whole-heartedly 100% Jewish. It was a decision two-and-a-half years in the making and not one that I took lightly. The road to choosing a Jewish life was fraught with questions about theology and practice, concerns about culture and language, and the more personal question of how my family would react (they have been incredibly supportive). While I am sure I will touch on all of these things at some point in this blog, I want to focus today on my Hebrew name.

Have you ever thought about what you would name yourself if you had the chance to go back and make a suggestion to your parents? How would you choose a name that encompassed who you are, who you hope to be, and who you may ultimately become? Choosing my Hebrew name was one of the most difficult parts of my conversion. I was in the home stretch, after all. Wrestling with God and questioning my religious place in the world were behind me. I had already chosen Judaism and just needed a name that would ground me in the history and tradition of the Jewish people.

Should I be Miriam or Deborah? They are strong, recognizable Jewish women. They were women with their own connections to God, women who were leaders in their community. Eliana means "God has answered," which is a fitting summary of my conversion experience. Plus, it is pretty and starts with an E, as does my English name. I continued like that through all the Hebrew names that even remotely interested me. I even made a color-coded spreadsheet to help me organize my thoughts on each name.

In the end, I chose the Hebrew name Yael bat Avraham v’Sarah. On my spreadsheet the name Yael had this note: "Awesome, but too violent?"

The story of Yael can be found in Judges 4-5. Under the leadership of the prophet Deborah and the Israelite military commander Barak, the Israelite army fought the Canaanite army for their freedom after 20 years of oppression. The Israelites won, but Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, escaped to the tent of an Israelite woman named Yael and asked her to hide him. She invited him in, gave him milk, and tucked him in for a nap. Then Yael "picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died" (Judges 4:21). Yael was proclaimed a hero and "the most blessed of women" (Judges 5:24) for her actions and the Israelites enjoyed forty years of peace.

I chose the name Yael as my Hebrew name because Yael is a complex Biblical woman and a strong, independent hero. Her role as a woman, caregiver, and assassin should cause us to think critically about gender roles, human nature, and questions of life and loss. I hope to always think critically about Judaism and to not shy away from difficult theological questions. Though the story of Yael is difficult because of its violent nature, it is ultimately a story of bravery and victory. Yael’s story ends with joyous song, dance, and praise. Though Judaism may, at times, continue to challenge me with its complexity, as does the story of Yael, I believe that it will also give my life joy and blessings.

Chag Sameach, Happy Passover!