Let me tell you a secret: After my bar-mitzvah (the ceremonial step from childhood into adulthood for young Jewish men), I was convinced that I had learned everything Judaism had to offer. I could read Hebrew, lead the prayers; I knew Torah stories, could even offer some midrash (commentary). So, I said, my journey in Judaism is complete.
I pursued spiritual fulfillment from other traditions, and I ultimately settled into Paganism, and Wicca in particular, for about three or four years.
Then, well, then I was Jewish again. Let me explain.
There’s a dent between the “I” I was before and the “I” I am now. Life batters us. Damages us. We try (and sometimes we succeed, yet sometimes we fail) to rebuild ourselves, but no matter how close to perfect our handiwork comes, we’re never quite the same as we were before. We change. Piece by piece, part by part, cell by cell, until we are all unrecognizable. But bits remains. Bits will always remain–in our appearances, perhaps, or our temperaments possibly–but in time we become someone different. Someone new.
It’s this tide going in and going out that’s the journey of our lives. Through sorrow and joy, through love and disappointment, each instant shapes us for the next. We are a function of powers beyond us, yet we cannot be differentiated–nor can we be integrated. What leads us is all that we have. There is no other relation.
Metaphor aside, where do I stand? In this moment, I am more than a man sitting before a screen, typing furiously upon a keyboard abused by his hands. Nor are you–my audience, a reader, a friend perhaps, or even a stranger–just a person behind a computer or on the other side of a tablet or e-reader. You are whole, as I am whole, and the missing pieces are not quite missing, but not yet discovered, not yet chiseled from this form we call our bodies.
I’ve come a long way, yet sometimes I fear I haven’t come at all.
I spent six weeks in Israel the summer of 2009. It was one of the most amazing and definitive experiences of my life and served as the perfect bridge from homeschool and Hebrew school to college. One of our writing assignments near the end was to write about what it means to be Jewish. A lot of people despised it, many of us knew it was coming, and I just sat in the computer lab until it was finished.
No matter, as a prelude to the assignment, we were asked to walk around an area of Tel Aviv where we were visiting for the day and see what people living in Israel considered Jewish. We went up and down the streets in small groups. We walked to a cafe. We walked past soldiers. We sat down with some modern Orthodox Jews. It was exciting, yet nerve-wracking approaching strangers in a strange land (alright, it wasn’t that strange, but I’m naturally quiet, so it was surely an exercise in extroversion!). And then, with our classes, we sat down. And then they dumped it on us.
The essay doesn’t stand as my best example of writing (in rereading it, I feel it lacks an air of sophistication about its coherence and structure), but it reflected my evolving views on Judaism and being Jewish at the time, and for that, it did what was intended of it. I hadn’t ever had the intention of sharing it at the time, at least with none other than our teacher, and since length wasn’t it issue, it ended up becoming a fair bit longer than the bit I posted yesterday. So, without further ado, I present to you the essay I called “Recon.”
Ten years ago today I became a Bar Mitzvah. Four years ago today I was confirmed. And not only is this weekend my birthday, it is also Shavuot–the birthday of the Torah, the celebration of God giving his word to us, his chosen people, the Jews. It’s said that all Jews were present at Sinai when the Law was given. If that’s the case, it was this day almost four years ago that divinity struck the mundane and carved commandments into stone.
It’s a time for reflection, and if it isn’t, I want it to be. It’s a tradition on Shavuot to study late into the night. At midnight, the sky is said to open for a sixtieth of a breath, barely a split second, and the way into heaven can be seen. These past two or three years I’ve looked, but I’ve been too slow to see it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about me and Judaism. How I realized, some nights ago, that I haven’t been saying the Shema before I go to bed, and that when I do, it hasn’t been as poignant as in the past. How, without religious school, my last constant act of observance has been broken. We don’t go to services so much anymore. We don’t light Shabbat candles. Just last week I played video games all day Saturday without even realizing it was Shabbat. I keep kosher, but by now it’s habitual. And habitual isn’t quite ritual.
This morning was the second “Shababa” at the religious school where I teach. It’s a new experiment this year, having “Shabbat school” one weekend every month or so instead of having school on Sunday. So far I’ve enjoyed them; they’re different, but unique and a pleasant experience for teachers and students alike.
Today I had the honor of giving the d’var Torah, which in Hebrew means “words on the Torah.” It’s comparable to a sermon, except it’s not preaching, it’s teaching. See, Jews don’t proselytize–we perseverate. And with all our perseverative studying, it’s only natural to share it with others (since studying the Torah is itself a commandment).
In any case, though short and sweet and written with a younger audience in mind, I thought I may as well share the drash here for anyone who may wish to read it.
These past four days I was attending the ISJL Education Conference, the ISJL being shorthand for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the organization that provides Hebrew school curriculum and other services to over sixty congregations in thirteen southern states. It was a gathering of at least a hundred, if not two hundred, Jews from more cities than I’d ever heard of and it was wonderful.
We had a fellow from the ISJL who visits every few months. It’s just part of the program, you could say. One thing she told me often is that I must, that I absolutely without a doubt had to meet the ISJL staff rabbi, one Rabbi Marshal Klaven. He was unlike any other rabbi I’d ever meet, she said, and I’d like him.
I did like him. And he really was unlike any other rabbi I’d ever met.
It was this day two years ago that my life changed forever. After living a double-life for longer than anyone should be forced to, I came to a terrifying realisation that I wasn’t just gay and Jewish, I was a gay Jew. The feeling that coursed through me brings to mind the stories of the shattered vessel of Kabbalistic fame, wherein God’s breadth was too great to be contained that it shattered what had tried so carefully to hold it in. I became that shattered vessel: I had longed to hold God within me, but his breadth was too great, and I shattered.
I started this blog ten years ago. True, the calendar reads only six months today, but I began with a New Year’s special in which I looked back at the last ten years of my life. The ups, the downs. All of it. In all honesty, I had intended to post it on a forum I frequent (rather infrequently now, I’m afraid), but with a longstanding desire to start a blog of my own, it seemed the perfect time–and the perfect topic–to do so.
Jacob is an Orthodox Jew. He thinks Benjamin is attractive, but because the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, he resists his impulses and tries to find his girlfriend Sarah more appealing. Meanwhile, Sam, a Conservative Jew from a nearby congregation, is studying to become a rabbi with the encouragement of his family and his boyfriend Dan. How is it that these two Jewish men lead such similar, yet drastically different lives? What causes Jacob to hide his homosexual feelings but allows Sam to live openly gay?
Cultural Differences in the United States and Israel
This past summer I spent six week studying abroad in Israel. Although I had not foreseen this assignment then, three weeks of Sociology classes have given me the ability to look back upon my conversations in Israel and evaluate them not merely in the context of students and counselors but also in the context of people from different cultures meeting for the first time. Early in my trip it was hard to distinguish different cultures on the campus where I stayed, surrounded mostly by other Americans in my predominantly Jewish group, but as the program went on and I interacted with more Israelis and observed their customs, I came to discover many viewpoints commonly held by Israelis that are not as commonly held by Americans.