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