I’m writing a series with the same name on the Velvet Park website. Here’s a link to the most recent article I wrote for them. http://www.velvetparkmedia.com/blogs/black-gay-and-jewish-part-two-finding-path Because of the nature of the site, I usually try to keep my entries for them around 600 words. Because this is my personal blog I can write and write and write.
I’m using my experience of conversion to Judaism as one third of the novel that I’m writing. The novel, Black, Gay, and Jewish, is about me, my life, and my struggles with these three varying identities that make up who I am and how I indentify. Writing here and on Velvet Park allows me to sort of flush out smaller themes so that I can remember and so that I can write. Obviously, my Velvet Park posts focus mostly on Judaism, because it’s what I’m focused on now. Here, though, I can explore all three of the themes of my book.
Like that little Introduction to this post? I did, too.
On Tuesday afternoon I walked into a temple in Midtown East and boarded the elevator with a tall girl I’m guessing is about 25 or so. We both walked the room we were told to the week before and met with the Rabbi who was conducting our Conversion Course. That’s right, readers, I’m enrolled in a conversion course! I cannot tell you how excited I am but there’s a lot of, “buts”, involved in this course. It’s not a conversion course in the sense that after the many weeks of meetings and study that I will automatically go into my mikvah and come out the other side a Jew. She’s told us that afterwards if we’re still interested in continuing the conversion process that it’s a discussion we can have at a later date. I’m also not 100% positive that this synagogue, which is huge, beautiful, and a little bit imposing, will be my synagogue. In fact, in the next few weeks I have more temples to attend Shabbat at and more meetings with prospective rabbis interested in discussing the conversion process with me. Still, this rabbi was amazing, friendly, engaging, and seems genuinely passionate just about Judaism but about converting prospective Jews by choice.
Those simple facts are attractive to me, the fact that I wasn’t the only person of color in the room was also very attractive to me. To my immediate right was a Swedish au pair who’d lived and worked for a Jewish family for over 6 years. Her family’s holidays became her holidays and she found herself identifying closely with Judaism. Next to her was a middle-aged father of two. His wife was Jewish and they’d lived a Jewish life for the entire span of their marriage and in his words, “it was time.” Next to him was a Cuban Kabbalistic who realized that Kabbalah, didn’t work without the recognition of its important place in Judaism, as a whole. He’s been studying Kabbalah for ten years and his Catholic wife supports him. Next to him was a black man just back from a long length of time living in Israel. When he came back to the US he struggled with missing Israel when he realized that he missed Judaism. Next to him sat the girl I’d taken the elevator with. Her fiance is studying to be a rabbi and she’s drawn to the religion and has decided to convert. Next to her was an Asian woman whose father is Jewish. She rediscovered her roots and found her place of belonging when she got engaged to a Jewish man. Then the rabbi, a strikingly beautiful, engaging, energetic, and passionate woman who captured my attention from the moment we said hello to when we said good bye 2 hours later.
The class is intense. There’s an actual syllabus with 5 books that are required of us to read. The Torah portions are also assigned readings and in addition to the bi-weekly group meetings we’re all required to meet with her individually to talk about things. I left the class energized and excited. For the first time, even though I’ve attended Shabbat services and read countless books, I felt like, This is It! I’m really going to do this!
The class was on Tuesday and on Friday night I made my way back uptown to attend Shabbat service at the synagogue. I was thankful when I noticed that the service would be held in their lower, pavilion level, rather than in the imposing sanctuary. The pews formed a circle around the rabbi and cantor so that everyone was a part of the service. I was late by about 20 minutes because of some really annoying train re-working but when I walked in the ushers smiled at me, “Shabbat Shalom.” I was given a prayer book and directed to open seats (it was packed!) They were in the middle of singing when I sat down and the gentlemen next to me showed me the page number and place we were at in the song as he smiled at me. He was older, alone, with grey hair under his kippah. It’s going to sound really odd, perhaps, but the circle style of worship was genious. For me, the circle reminds us that we’re all in it together, you’re connected to the people around you. Circles have no beginning and no end, they’re inclusive (and a bit exclusive, no?) After the first song ended, and I actually recognized the melody, I felt tears brimming in my eyes. The words and prayers and songs were familiar and the sermon given by the rabbi were meaningful to me.
After service we were invited for refreshments and a tour of the historic sanctuary. I introduced myself to the rabbi and he was warm and welcoming. The congregants were warm and genuine, I even had an interesting exchange with a Jewish grandma.
While pouring Kosher wine (thankfully not Manichevitz)
Older Lady to her friend, about me, “My what a beauty!” to me “Shabbat Shalom! You’re beautiful”
After a few moments, “Are you here with someone? Are you single?” It was pretty cute.
Friday morning I helped Mirs move to Ditmas Park. She’d been telling me about the amazing diversity of her new neighborhood for two weeks and I finally got to explore it with her. We have friends who live there but we’d only seen their side of the street. Mirs’ side is a little more interesting. Her building is giant and filled with Russian speaking neighbors and the smells of curries and stews in the hallways. When you walk out of her door and go a few blocks it turns from Russian to Pakistani. The shop windows are in Arabic and the food is Halal. There is an Indian influence with beautiful saris in the windows. The men were dressed in traditional attire, beards and head coverings. A few more blocks then it turns from Pakistani to Jewish. There’s the Flatbush Yeshiva, many temples, I presume are orthodox, and since it was Friday afternoon, busy-looking women, children, and men. We found many a Judaica store-my new favorite, Eichler’s, where I purchased my mezuzah, which is affixed to my door, as well as my Hebrew magnet letters.
Before finding Eichler’s we walked into a smaller Judaica store in search for the perfect mezuzah. The ladies who ran the shop were adorably sceptical when we walked in but smiled, wished them a good Shabbat, and asked where the mezuzahs were. After I found my mezuzah we went into a bakery that was bustling and running low on challah. We got a small loaf and I went to temple leaving Mirs home.
It’s been on my door for almost 48 hours and walking past it as I leave or enter my apartment has made me realize that it’s not only a mitzvah to put a mezuzah on my door but it’s reminded me that I need to make my home into one that I find sanctuary in. By placing a mezuzah on my door I’ve made my home, my space, a holier one and with that comes the responsiblity for me to make it more comfortable, more inviting, more uniquely my own as opposed to a place that I live in.
So much of my life is stressful right now and my home, my sanctuary and protection from the outside world, needs to feel like that. I’m a list maker and right along with finding a Hamsa Hand to put in my entry way I’m realizing that my books on Judaism are multiplying quickly, I don’t have a place in my house comfortable or conducive to writing, my small kitchen has so much empty and unused space that I could better utilize for cooking. And even though my living space is small, I want to have Shabbat dinner here and invite over friends to enjoy it with.
I’ve taken so many steps towards my Judaism and there are hundreds of steps that I still need to take. What excites me the most ist hat I’m excited to take them, eager to take them, but also realizing that I need to take them slowly so that I appreciate them.