Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shomer Shabbos

This weekend, I decided to be shomer shabbos. While I am converting under the Reform or Conservative moment, I decided that I wanted to try everything out before I reject anything.

It was an amazing experience. It made me appreciate just how pressure Shabbat is, not only in the spiritual sense, but practically as well. The 24 hours change the pace of your life, the energy in your body, and how your mind works. You appreciate each moment, since you are refraining from the usual distractions and work of the rest of the week.

After this experience, I understand how I can keep Shabbat special, even if I am not being completely observant. It is more about making sure that Shabbat is distinctly set apart from the rest of your week. For some people, this might mean they will not drive or talk on the phone. For others, they might refrain from watching television or listening to music. Whatever it might be, you change how you interact with the world and recognize it as holy, rejuvenating time. In rejuvenating the spirit, you are more energized to do G-d's work during the rest of the days.

The services themselves were only okay. I am not thrilled with the Conservative shul we attended. Friday night services were wonderful, as always, but Saturday services were all praying and no spirit. The congregation mumbled through the prayers, blessings, and Torah portion. It was mind-numbing, nothing like my home Shul.

Spending time with D and M during the 24 hours, though, was fantastic. We ate, drank, prayed, laughed, studied, slept, and played. It was fantastic, and M did a particularly spectacular job of making my first shomer Shabbos special.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Kosher Choices

For the past two weeks, I have been making "kosher choices." This means that I am making sure that everything I eat is kosher, but not worrying yet about what kind of kitchen (or factory) it is made in. I thought this was a good way to slowly transition and train myself to eat kosher.

I am choosing to go kosher, not only because it outlined in the Jewish covenant with G-d, but because it is a regular reminder of being set apart and having a unique connection with G-d. This seems to be the essence of kashruth.

So far, the decisions haven't been too difficult. Sure, I am missing a few items here and there, but this process reminds me of when I was a vegetarian for two years. While it is more restrictive than that, it's along the same lines.

This morning brought a great challenge, however. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to take my Mom to the hospital for a minor surgery; this is much earlier than I get up regularly. After checking her in and sending her off, it was 7:30 a.m. I am tired, mildly cranky, and hungry. My plan was to go to Starbucks, because I can get a kosher coffee drink and several of their pre-wrapped items are kosher.

As I exited the hospital, I forgot about the monster wind and rain storm outside. The closest Starbucks was 5 blocks away (a long distance for coffee in Seattle) and I had no umbrella. In light of this complication, I returned to the cafeteria to make the best of an annoying situation. As perused my options, I realized that I had a choice of dry eggs, hash browns, and a stale biscuit.

Yummy.

I always knew that the Americans love their pork in the morning, and that love was in grand display in the cafeteria, mocking me at every turn.

However, in all honesty, as I sat eating my dry eggs, potatoes, and biscuit, I was comforted by the idea that many other people have a similar experience everyday.

If only there was veggie bacon or tofu sausage available....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Law and Tradition

I am in the midst of reading To Pray As a Jew. It is interesting how the line between law and tradition tends to be blurred in Judaism.

A good example is tefillin. The Torah commands one to bind the words to one's head and one's arm. That's fine. But, through Rabbinical discourse in the Talmud, one is now commanded to put on tefillin every morning, except on Shabbos and a few other days.

How do we know that G-d commanded us to do it only once in our lifetime, as opposed to daily?

I am not one who tries to throw tradition out the window. I completely understand the value of traditions. My concern with religion has always been that customs become synonymous with Biblical law. These blurred lines are not healthy for any system, and can result in unnecessary zealotry.

Another example - wearing a kippa. There is no religious law telling a man to conver his head when he enters synagogue. It is simply a tradition to show respect for G-d. That's great. But, try stepping into a synagogue without a head covering and pay attention to the looks you receive. Some will look on in great discomfort because one chooses not to. For some, this discomfort comes from someone doing something different, but others might actually believe G-d commanded men to wear kippot.

Where is the checks and balance for these things?

Supportive Parents

I was visiting with my parents on Sunday, and G-d kindly reminded me what a wonderful family I was born into.

While my family has its fair share of dysfunction, at the very core of everything, my parents love me very much. In talking more about my conversion to Judaism, they both had so many questions about the different practices, rituals, and philosophies. When I told them our last name has Hebrew origins, my Mother smiled and said, "Well, then I guess it was meant to be," meaning that my being drawn to Judaism is no surprise.

I also said a Hebrew prayer over Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago.

My parent simply want me to be happy and to have a fulfilled life. Whether it be me changing careers, coming out as a gay man, or deciding to convert to a different religion, they are standing next to me, supporting and loving me.

I am very lucky. Praise G-d.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Parsha Reflections

The story of Joseph's dreams, his brothers' envy, and his prosperity in Egypt brings to mind the idea of how the world treats dreamers and strivers.

Joseph's dreams could be taken literally, as simply images that come to him in the night. I read the portion differently; there seems to be something relevant in here about being driven.

Joseph was out of the ordinary and did not seem satisfied to simply live life like his brothers. He had dreams and seemed to strive for greatness. His brothers were threatened by this because they did not have these same dreams and were threatened by Joseph's greatness. While Joseph displayed some arrogance, he beared no ill will. And, instead of helping Joseph achieve greatness, his brothers tried to keep him down.

This is what we do to people in our world today. Anyone who strives to live a different (and often better) life than the mainstream is often attacked, misunderstood, sabotaged, and scapegoated. I believe this comes from how threatened people feel by the amount of control they have in life. People often say they feel powerless; I believe it much more daunting to hold a belief system revolving around choices in life. Every choice we make can elevate us.

Jospeh's brothers felt threatened by Joseph not just because of his potential "power," but because he took responsibility for himself and had lofty goals. Instead of improving themselves in response to envy, they tried to tear him down.

The final portion, about Joseph helping the butler and baker, seems to be about how there are many "takers" in the world. Joseph, through his own choices, became elevated in G-d's eyes. The Pharoah's butler, in a moment of need, asked Joseph for help. He gave it to them, only asking that they help get him out of jail. The butler eventually forgot.

People often receive help and assistance, but rarely say thank you, let alone returning the favor. It is often true that those who create good lives for themselves (financially, socially, familially, spiritually or otherwise) are often taken advantage of by people. Once again, rather than improving one's own life, many choose to simply feed off of the work that other people have done.

From what I can gather, there is nothing particularly special about Joseph, other than he strives to improve his life. Maximizing the gift of life that G-d has given us is truly a great path towards happiness.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Jewish Souls

In finishing Becoming a Jew last week, I realized something profound about my spritual journey.

My entire life, I have felt set apart and "chosen" by G-d for something different in life. I've never followed the path of the masses, and have enjoyed life on a much higher level because I have remained on my own authentic path. I have always struggled with the world and other people, but have felt protected, loved, and encouraged by my connection with G-d.

At the end of the book, the author theorizes that all converts are really Jewish souls coming home. This resonated highly with me, as I have always felt very drawn to Judaism. The next day, I was doing some searching for a Hebrew name, and found out that my last name has Hebrew roots. I began to wonder if my family has Jewish blood that was forgotten along the way.

I now truly feel like I am a Jewish soul coming home. I feel great comfort and joy adopting Jewish beliefs and traditions. It's actually the first time I have ever felt like I truly fit into something.

What a wonderful experience it is - a great beginning to a lifelong journey.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Darfur Wall

This is an incredible site, designed by a friend of a friend.

Darfur Wall. There are numbers on the page, ranging from 1-400,000. People can pay $1 to have a number lit up, bringing it from darkness to light.

First post

Welcome to my blog. I am excited about marking off a small space, focusing on my learning and growing toward Jewish conversion.

My hope is that I will not only be able to reflect personally here, but that a forum exists for others to connect with my experiences. Whether you are someone heading for conversion, a Jew, Rabbi, non-jew or whatever, that you might find something of value here. While I am focusing primarily on my conversion, I believe all of life's experiences have grander themes and commonalities that we can all share.

Welcome and enjoy.