This is my first year actually celebrating Chanukah, and I’m loving it and not even particularly missing Christmas.  I find both parts of the Chanukah story – the Maccabean revolt and victory for religious freedom, and the lamp oil that miraculously lasted for 8 nights of Temple dedication – to be comforting and inspiring.  I’m also really enjoying starting new traditions with my fiance, which so far have mostly centered around lighting the menorah (not a fancy one yet, just something cute I found last-minute at the drug store) and saying the blessings together, and me spending hours making traditional foods from scratch and then us eating them.

Food has always been very big in my native Polish-Catholic culture, especially surrounding holidays, and it’s the same in my new adopted Jewish culture.  As the joke you may have heard goes, the theme of (almost) every Jewish holiday is “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”  Food has a way of comforting and bringing people together, and the dishes we eat on particular holidays often have symbolic meaning – for example fried foods on Chanukah to symbolize the miracle of the lamp oil.  It’s important to me to make a special homemade dinner for every holiday, preferably incorporating Jewish and Polish influences, and that includes every night of Chanukah.  It can be time-consuming and a lot of effort, but so worth it!

In fact, a homemade sit-down dinner from scratch (boiling store-bought ravioli or the like doesn’t count) instantly sets the night apart for me and Aaron, because it never happens in our busy home outside of holidays and some Shabbats.  I can’t even think of a better way to make holidays special.

See posts on my other blog, The Vegan Cook, for recipes for some of the dishes I’ve made this Chanukah:  regular potato latkes, sweet potato latkes, and potato pierogi, and the festive cranberry-coconut cookies and chocolate-chip muffins you see below 🙂

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Hello again

I apologize for abandoning this blog for a few months – I had been preoccupied with some personal and family issues, and I also haven’t been engaging in my Jewish study as regularly.  However, you’ll be happy to know that Judaism and my spirituality have been my rock and safe place during tough times, and my Rabbi has provided a kind ear and lots of guidance and support.  I’ve always enjoyed going to Friday night Shabbat services after a stressful week, and now I find the story of Chanukah very inspirational, and the traditions I’m starting with Aaron to be quite comforting.

So anyway, I’ve now decided re-dedicate myself to serious Jewish study and to come back to this blog.  My side problems aren’t completely resolved, but I need a distraction and I’m still definitely committed to Judaism and to my conversion.  As my Rabbi says, one of the themes of Chanukah is “Out of the darkness comes the light” – so this is the perfect occasion for me to lift my spirits and return to regular Jewish study and commentary.

Happy Chanukah!!

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So I met with my Rabbi yesterday for our first one-on-one meeting regarding my feelings at this point in my conversion journey.  She really put my mind at ease about certain things, particularly my anxiety and desire to be accepted as a Jew.  She mentioned, as Samantha did, that the Torah does not allow a distinction between born Jews and converts.  The feeling of being accepted really comes from your own internal feelings and those of your community.  My experiences with born Jews and Jewish communities have so far been very positive, and I’ve always felt welcomed and included at Central Synagogue, on my Birthright trip, and among other Jewish social circles and activities.  I do have a little bit of anxiety about coming from a different place than born Jews, and particularly about not having grown up Jewish and not having those memories of Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays, and really being new to all of that.  But I guess those are normal feelings for converts.

I hope that over time I’ll come to truly feel like a Jew, no different from anyone else.  I think that being “official” after a ceremony and the mikveh will help (I just love things like ceremonies and symbolism).  And if it doesn’t fully happen by the time Aaron and I get married (which probably won’t be for a couple of years, mainly due to financial reasons), I expect that having a Jewish wedding and raising a Jewish family will make me feel more Jewish.

I also realized, as I was reflecting on the “what does your family think” portion of my conversation with Rabbi R., that perhaps I was a little harsh in my rant about my mother in my entry on my journey towards realizing that I want to convert.  Maybe there’s a chance that my mother will accept my desire to be Jewish and my relationship with Aaron if I actually talk frankly but gently with her about my feelings, instead of getting irritated and angry.  I think that she wants me in her life so badly that maybe she’ll come around just so she doesn’t lose me; because I’m fully ready to distance myself from her (even more than the current situation) if she doesn’t respect my life choices.  We’ll see how this works out.

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Talmud, Midrash, Responsa, Other Commentaries

My class reading and lecture last week were on the Jewish foundational texts other than the Bible, i.e. the Talmud, commentaries on the Talmud, Midrash, and Responsa.  So here is my summary of what I’ve learned:

  • The basis of Judaism is scholarly debate and having multiple interpretations of every aspect of the law, the Torah, and other sacred texts.
  • Judaism evolves over time; commentaries on sacred texts never end.
  • Everything about everyday life is important and worth commenting on.
  • Explanations of Jewish law are meant to be accessible and understandable by all.
All of these things draw me even more to Judaism.  I’m a huge believer in debate and multiple points of view, especially with regard to law and ways of life.  There is no one absolute truth; and even if there was, there’s no way we as humans would know for sure what it is.  I also love that Judaism evolves and adapts to current times and everyday life.  A huge lack of that is what I hated about Catholicism, and I felt so out of place among its teachings and dogma.  Furthermore, Judaism regards every ordinary person as worthy of having relevant commentaries and sacred texts written on their everyday life, and worthy of understanding those texts.  That is why commentaries and responsa keep being written, to keep clarifying the law and making it accessible to all.  I think it shows a great deal of respect for the intelligence, holiness, and overall worthiness of the ordinary person.  And all these things make it the ideal religion, I believe.
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Faith in Times of Tragedy

On the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, I wanted to write about keeping faith in God in times of great human tragedy such as this one.  This is also something that Jews have to grapple with in light of the Holocaust, which was of course numerically an even greater tragedy.  How can we be expected to believe that a benevolent God exists who loves us, if He allows so many innocent people, His people, to suffer and die at the hands of evil?  During the Holocaust, a God-less regime took the lives and dignity of millions of God’s Chosen People, the followers of the Torah, in addition to innocent people of other backgrounds, Catholic priests, and heroes who tried to save the Jews.  On 9/11, a country that stands for equality and freedom, that was founded on religious principles, was attacked by a fanatical, fundamentalist group that uses God’s name to condone evil; and thousands of good Christians, Jews, and Muslims were lost (yes, there were Muslims who worked in the World Trade Center and died), in addition to heroic policemen, firefighters, and emergency responders and the heroic passengers who downed their hijacked plane before it could reach another target.

So, why does God allow these things to happen?  I don’t have the definitive answer, but I have three main ideas that personally help me reconcile these events with my faith:

The first is an idea that some religious thinkers (I don’t remember the specific names) came up with after the Holocaust, to explain how it’s possible for God to exist and at the same time allow for such atrocities to happen.  They decided that basically, as we the human race have evolved and matured and become more intellectually advanced, God has increasingly taken a “hands-off” approach with regard to His creation.  He doesn’t interfere in human events as much as He did in biblical times anymore, but lets us make our own decisions.  God’s not going to come save us from each other every time we want to slaughter each other or blow each other up; we’re responsible for ourselves and for each other.  It may be an upsetting idea, but I think it makes a lot of sense.  At the same time, I don’t think God is entirely absent from human events, and He does help us to find justice eventually.  After all, WWII eventually ended, Hitler didn’t achieve his goal of wiping out the entire Jewish race, and the Nazis lost and were brought to justice.  Similarly, Al Qaeda didn’t bring America to its knees, future terrorist plots were foiled, and many of its leadership were captured or killed.

Secondly, I think God allows these terrible things to happen to test us and our character.  In the case of the Holocaust, God probably wanted to see whether people would fall into the Nazis’ ideas, or take the easy route and stand idly by, or reject evil and risk their lives to try to save their Jewish neighbors.  There were people in each of those three categories; today we think of those righteous gentiles who saved Jews as heroes, but they often say that they only did what felt right to them.  In the case of 9/11, I think America passed God’s test in some ways but failed it in others.  We certainly came together after the tragedy and showed both love for the victims and their families as well as national unity and patriotism.  However, some people have used the terrorist attack as a tool for political fear-mongering, an excuse for invading other countries, or a reason to persecute unrelated innocent Muslims.

And third, I’m a very “look at the bright side” kind of person, and I try to see the positives in all tragedies.  God allows bad things to happen, but He also allows good to come out of them.  Like I mentioned above, America came together after 9/11 and showed great strength and unity.  We’ve also implemented security measures on the police and federal investigation levels that have made us safer overall.  I would argue that there were also some positives that came out of the Holocaust.  Mainly, antisemitism is now taboo in many Catholic and Christian circles, because we’ve seen what antisemitism can result in.  By the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, Jews were no longer blamed by the Catholic Church for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Later, Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Poland and witnessed the Holocaust, was a great friend of the Jews and worked tirelessly to repair Catholic-Jewish relations, and rejected the ideas that Judaism is obsolete because of Christianity or that Jews are no longer the Chosen People because they rejected Jesus as Messiah.  Also, most non-Jews, at least here in the U.S., now support the idea of Israel as a necessary Jewish state.

I hope that on this day and others, we can look back at our past human tragedies and continue our faith in God, and think about what it was that God wanted to teach us or test us on.  Did we pass God’s test?

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A couple of things have been bothering me the past few days, and I finally got a chance to sit down and write about it (been pretty busy with a new job and various social engagements).  I was telling a Jewish friend about my conversion, and first he asked me if it’s with a respected Orthodox rabbi (he himself isn’t Orthodox, I think Conservative); when I laughed and said I’m doing a Reform conversion, he told me I’ll never be able to get married by the Israeli rabbinate.  Which I knew already, and I frankly don’t see why that should be a factor in my conversion choices.  I’ve always wanted to have my wedding in New York.  I could still make aliyah and emigrate to Israel as a Jew if I want to, because non-Orthodox converts from outside Israel, as well as grandchildren of Jews on the paternal line, are included in the Law of Return.  And my American non-Orthodox marriage would be valid there.

Still, I’m sometimes bothered by Israel’s mixed messages as to who is accepted as a Jew (“you’re Jewish enough to be a citizen but not Jewish enough to get married here”).  I love Israel and will always support it, and I’m even thinking of devoting several months of my time and energy to do volunteer work there.  I always give its leadership the benefit of the doubt, and even if I question some of its policies, I will defend its right to make them.  If I was called to the IDF, I would serve with pride.  All I want in return is to be recognized and accepted as a Jew.

But anyway, the Israel stuff is not even the big deal part (I think once the Israeli government switches to more left-leaning policies, they may warm up to the idea of non-Orthodox Jewish weddings).  Here’s what’s really bothering me:  my friend also said, “Jews are a very tight-knit club, we appreciate newcomers, but you’ll always be seen as a newcomer from the outside.”

I’m trying to not let it get to me or dampen my spirits regarding my conversion, but it’s actually upsetting me a little.  I’m putting in all this work and effort; I’m consciously choosing to be Jewish despite it not always being an easy road; and I probably have more love for Judaism and observe more of it than many born Jews.  Yet, just because I wasn’t raised Jewish by a Jewish mother, I’m doomed to be an outsider for the rest of my life?  Seems kind of wrong, and I really can’t imagine that the Reform movement condones this line of thinking.  I need to talk to my Rabbi about this.  At least Aaron doesn’t agree with my friend’s statement (and obviously has no problem marrying a Reform convert).

By the way, Samantha also wrote about her own desire to be accepted by other Jews, in the context of her way of observance; I guess we converts have to deal with the anxiety of entering this “tight-knit club”.

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Orthodox Life and Jewish Families

I spent last Sunday on Governors Island, which is a historic military fort island off the southern tip of Manhattan and is today a quaint and relaxing spot for leisurely strolls, biking, picnicking, and all kinds of musical events and art exhibitions.  Something that’s very noticeable there on summer Sundays is the significant number of Jewish Orthodox families walking and biking around, since it’s very family-friendly and convenient from Brooklyn by ferry.  You can’t deny that they stand out — with their head coverings, up to 8 kids per couple, and very modest and usually dark clothing despite the hot weather.

Even though I have no desire to be that strictly observant, I am absolutely fascinated by Orthodox families, especially the women.  How do they do it?  First there’s the clothing — while I’m sweating in a t-shirt and shorts, the Orthodox women are wearing 3/4-sleeve shirts, skirts past the knees, and stockings.  They look so mature, elegant, and put-together, seemingly devoting their entire lives to their religion and their families.

Then there are the kids.  I usually find little kids incredibly annoying, but Orthodox children are so quiet and well-behaved, walking hand-in-hand next to their parents.  My boyfriend Aaron says, from his experience growing up Conservative, that Hebrew school is like a daily punishment, but I think the parenting has something to do with it.  We went to play mini-golf, and the course was full of non-Orthodox kids running around, cutting in line, being loud, some barefoot, some shirtless, with no parents in sight.  On two occasions a father appeared out of nowhere and yelled at his daughter for cutting in front of others at a hole, which didn’t stop her from doing it again.  Then there were the Orthodox families, with the parents accompanying and playing with their children on each hole.  Maybe it’s hovering on their part, but it was visible that both the parents and the kids were having fun.  Fun that didn’t involve running around or yelling or annoying those next to them.  There were even two teenage Orthodox girls playing with their parents.  My parents rarely did stuff like that with me and my sister, and when they did, no one got along particularly well.

I don’t think family closeness is just an Orthodox thing, I think Judaism in general is very family-oriented.  After all, many of the most important holidays and traditions take place in the home.  I know I’m still somewhat of an outsider, but my impression is that having a family dinner and candle lighting on Shabbat and a Seder on Passover are more important than even going to services on those occasions.  I think this is wonderful and makes these holidays more meaningful.

When I was in Israel on my Taglit-Birthright trip, after our brief Shabbat service on Friday night our trip leaders asked us discuss our own Shabbat experiences and traditions.  I was surprised to learn that, even though most of the participants weren’t religious, many grew up having family Shabbat dinners every week.  They described Friday nights as a beloved ritual and a time of family closeness, when nothing else mattered and the troubles of the preceding week were forgotten.  I was very jealous and vowed to raise my family Jewish, with Shabbat dinners every week.

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Some Jewish converts had a singular, significant moment in their lives when they realized they wanted to be Jewish; others just always knew or it was a gradual realization.  For me it was also sort of gradual, with a few significant points and significant characters.

For most of my life I didn’t know about my Jewish heritage and didn’t know any Jews, because I lived in Poland for the first 11 years of my life and in a Polish-American community for the next 8.  Poland is now predominantly Catholic, and most of the Holocaust survivors who didn’t move to Israel or the U.S. after the war gave up on their Jewish identity and religion and didn’t tell anyone about it.  I was raised Catholic as well, though my father’s family was less religious than most other people and I grew up on foods like challah, latkes, and herring.  My sister and I even got gelt, the chocolate coins in gold wrapping that are traditionally given to children on Chanukah, for Christmas.

Once I went away to a top college with a significant Jewish population, I found myself very drawn to Jewish boyfriends and Jewish friends.  I found that I got along very easily with Jews and that we had similar life views.  I found Jewish traditions fascinating and became very curious about them.

At some point while I was in college, my sister and I did some online research on our background, and everything about our father’s last name (Grezak) pointed to a Jewish past — like the relatives in Israel, a presence in Warsaw, and someone who went through Ellis Island and had her nationality listed as “Hebrew.”  Our last name is very rare, and generally anyone in Poland with the same last name is somehow related (there is no equivalent to the American “Smith”).  It all made so much sense!  Like how my grandpa wasn’t religious at all and my grandma had no family or relatives (entire Jewish families perished in the Holocaust, but Polish gentiles were usually killed individually for things like resistance, not the entire family).  Even in terms of physical looks, I got most things from my father’s side and I look more Ashkenazi than gentile Slavic, with for example my dark, thick, frizzy hair that I had hated for most of my life because I didn’t know anyone else in Polish communities who had it.  My sister told our parents about our Ellis Island finding; I wasn’t there but apparently our dad got a very angry look on his face, and later our mom confirmed in private that our father’s aunts had told her that he’s a Jew but doesn’t know about it.

So at that point I started learning more about Judaism and Jewish traditions, to the point of obsession.  I was very drawn to everything about it, particularly the focus on intellectualism.  I also for some reason liked Jewish men so much more than non-Jews.  I gradually took on a Jewish identity, and my friends started asking me when am I converting.

I don’t remember how long ago I started thinking about converting, but for a long time I didn’t take on that idea seriously, solely because I knew it would upset my mother to no end (she’s super Catholic and old-fashioned, and would also see it as me rejecting the way she raised me) and I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the guilt trips and the nagging and the verbal abuse that I expected would follow (I already got some taste of it because she suspected I thought about converting).  But I also didn’t see myself as Catholic anymore and disagreed with so many things about that religion.  Judaism just fit my personality and my personal morality and life views so much more.  I started keeping kosher, occasionally going to services, and observing some of the holiday traditions.

Then I went to Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip in February 2010 (the secular organizer that I picked decided I was Jewish enough given my heritage, somewhat-observance, and the fact that I identified as a Jew).  It was a truly profound and life-changing experience.  I felt such a connection to the land and the people, both the Israelis and the other American Jews on my trip, and I really felt like a Jew.  I knew that conversion would make me really happy and complete.

Even my mother noted that I came back from Israel really happy.  I also figured out my feelings toward Aaron and we developed a strong romantic relationship.  We joined a local Reform synagogue as associate members and started fully observing holidays and some Shabbats, and I took Hebrew classes and did various activities with the Birthright Alumni group in New York.  Whenever I was at synagogue or some Jewish activity, I truly felt like I belonged.  Still, over a year passed and I didn’t yet have the guts to stand up to my mother and actually officially convert.

Then, around April of this year, I got this strong urge to go spend a few months in Israel.  I was going through some difficult points in my professional and personal life, and I wanted to get away from everything for a while and spend some time in the land that I fell in love with.  I signed up for a 5-month Masa volunteer trip, and, by claiming I was Jewish, I qualified for grants to cover most of my living expenses and wanted to apply to Jewish organizations to cover the rest.  Aaron was very displeased about my choice, partially because he felt I was abandoning him but also in large part because I was trying to take advantage of all these opportunities for Jewish people when, in his eyes, I wasn’t fully a Jew because I never converted.  He liked to remind me that he had put in so much effort into his bar mitzvah and his Jewish education and I did none of that.  And I did feel like I was sort of cheating the system and felt guilty about that.

So I had this moment when I realized he was right and I thought, why not just finally convert and finally become a Jew.  I think this was sometime in early May.  My relationship with my mother was also disintegrating at that point, and I realized, admittedly with Aaron’s influence, that she was being selfish and I had no obligation to sacrifice my happiness for her and spend my life pleasing her.  I deserve to be happy and fulfilled, and I can’t be afraid to do what I truly want.

I decided to postpone my Israel trip till next year and convert first, so that I can participate as a Jew (and get the financial benefits) and it would be even more meaningful.  Aaron is very supportive of my conversion and started doing all these traditions with me, even though he wasn’t observant at all when we met, which means a lot to me.

I’m probably not going to tell my mother until after my conversion ceremony (or maybe not at all), and to be honest, I have no problem disappearing from her life if she doesn’t accept my choice.  She already doesn’t accept my relationship with Aaron for completely nonsensical reasons and has said and done some hurtful things (which is a whole another story of its own, but it’s mostly because he’s “taking me away” from her).  But that has no effect on me, and I’m willing to not invite her to our wedding because Aaron’s very adamant about that and I don’t want any of her drama.  It might be selfish or horrible to say this, but honestly, my religion and the love I share with Aaron are more important to me than my mother.  I don’t think of it as being selfish; I see it as being self-interested and proactive in securing my happiness and personal fulfillment.

I didn’t really mean to get into a tirade about my mother, but she was a pretty significant factor throughout my journey to conversion.  I’m just really happy now that I made this choice and I’m excited about the process.

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An Omen?

I talked about visiting the Western Wall in a previous post, and I just remembered another aspect of that visit.  There was a Rabbi nearby collecting money for the poor, and after we were done praying, two of my friends and I went up to him and gave him some shekels.  He blessed us, prayed for our families, and gave us little red strings for good luck (I think it was some kabbalistic thing).  He asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I said no (it was sort of a complicated story with Aaron at that point), he wished for me to find a “nice Jewish man.”  I tied that string around my wrist and I’ve kept it for over a year, usually putting it in my purse wherever I went.

Well, shortly after 1.) I firmly decided to convert and 2.) Aaron and I started seriously talking about getting married, I lost the string.  I’m pretty sure it fell out of my tiny clutch purse when I was rummaging through it in a dark restaurant while having a really good time playing phone scrabble with Aaron.

So, it’s like I don’t need the string anymore — I have my Judaism and my “nice Jewish man.”

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Last week’s topic in my conversion class was Shabbat, and since I didn’t have this blog yet then, I’ll talk about my thoughts now (since it’s also Shabbat now).

At first when I was reading before class about all these things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat, it sounded nice in theory but so hard to actually live up to.  No traveling?  A complete rest?  No writing??? (Writing is a category of work?)

Then as I continued my reading I realized that the point is to approach Shabbat not as a series of prohibitions and a day of sitting around idly, but as a day to cast off your troubles and responsibilities and do other, special things that you don’t get to do during the week.  Judging from my books and from what my Rabbi later said in class, the Reform movement doesn’t put as much focus on the specifics that you are or aren’t supposed to do — rather, the point is to distinguish Shabbat from other days and make it holy in whatever way is fitting for you.  You should be choosing activities that 1.) give you both physical and mental relaxation, and 2.) enhance the joy, rest, and holiness of the day.  When I started thinking of Shabbat not as a day you’re not allowed to do stuff but as a day on which you’re entitled to peace and joy, it made it so much more appealing and attainable.

Our Rabbi talked about things that may seem against the traditional, Orthodox prohibitions for Shabbat, but can nonetheless be “in the spirit of Shabbat.”  For example, if gardening relaxes you and is something you don’t ordinarily get to do, then it’s good for Shabbat.  Seeing family and relatives is also in the spirit of the day, even if you have to travel to visit them.  I guess the point is to primarily just not work at your job and to make the day special.

Interesting tidbit according to my reading:  apparently you should have sex with your spouse on Friday nights to celebrate the joy of Shabbat.  It’s so cool that Judaism, unlike some *ahem* other religions, embraces sexual relations as a joyous and significant part of life.  Last Saturday morning I commended Aaron (the husband-to-be) for fulfilling his mitzvah, hah.

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