Thursday, December 21, 2006

My First Official Judaism Lesson

Well, i finally did it. After years of agonizing about this, i finally got the nerve to ask for help, and i finally got it. i am very, very happy about this. Here's what happened:

Previously , I mentioned that i had set up a meeting with a Chabadnik in a nearby Chabad house. This house turned out to be a small well lit room, with a desk and two tables and a library of religious books. this is what i noticed when i first entered the room and greeted the only other occupant - an orthodox Jew who was not the one i talked to on the phone. After we greeted each other he immediately put a kippah on my head because he said this is a synagogue.; i looked around again and then i noticed for the first time a tall closet covered with velvet brocade - obviously a Holy Ark, and right next to it a stand for placing the Torah and reading it. i am not surprised that i missed this - it just goes to show me once again that it is very difficult to see things if you are not looking for them,or at least if they are not recognizable and familiar to you.

Soon enough my mentor arrived. he looks younger than me, with deep-set eyes that are dark as well as soft. He is also soft spoken and pleasant and i feel very comfortable with him. We sit down in the middle of the room opposite each other and he asks me what exactly do i want. I explain that i want to learn how to be Jewish - how to do things. i tell him that i am not interested in philosophy and abstractions just in doing things. He asks me if i feel the urge to be Jewish or is this just an anthropological field trip for me. i am happy that he is familiar with the term and i admit that i have indeed studied anthropology and that i am a sociologist by training and also by nature but that in this case i am seeking healing for my soul. I proceeded to tell him about the terrible dream i had (recounted here), and that really seemed to floor him - i bet he hadn't heard that before!

So we started. For some reason he insisted on teaching me something from a book, even though i told him on the phone, and once more just two minutes ago that i want to do things, that i am sick of abstractions and learning from books. A few years ago i would probably have stopped the session right there, or at least shut down, mentally. Thankfully i have changed. I told myself that if he is to be my mentor i have to at least give him the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. I reminded myself of the numerous, endless mistakes i made as a teacher, and then, finally i asked myself: "what would my wife do in this situation". I knew exactly what she would do - she would go along with the authority and listen as well as she could and when the time was right she would express her desires in the most polite and inoffensive way possible, which is what i did.

We started with a passage from a book called "The Tanya". he did not explain what it is or who wrote it he just started reading. The passage said that God desires that man should be His abode on this world of the bottom. I learned that God is endless light and that one cannot look at it directly without perishing, without becoming one with Him, that therefore the light is obscured so that we may see His glory, and that sometimes the light may be obscured to such a degree that a man may feel utterly alone "ani ve afsi od" as the saying goes in Hebrew.We went on for a while in this vein. Meantime people were coming in, walking around and talking and sometimes interrupting my mentor to ask him questions, mainly "when is Mincha".
In any case, these sort of ideas are very familiar to anyone who has studied and practiced Jungian psychology or Zen-Buddhism. To me this was completely understandable, utterly obvious and a fact of everyday life, and i told him so when the opportunity arose. I told him that i do not have a problem with my relationship with God,and that maybe i am already a Hassid. Something i said, or maybe the tone of my voice convinced him that we should change course. He asked me again what i would like to do, and again i told him that i would like to do - something, anything, "after all" i said, "anything you teach me will be completely new; for instance, what's this Mincha thing everybody is talking about? What do you do in it, and how is it done?"
He asked if i would like to learn to put on a tefillin, and i said sure. actually i was very glad to - ever since i discovered that i actually own a tallish and tefillin I've been dying to learn how to use them. So we did - he showed me how, and soon i was standing in the middle of this room/synagogue/library/study hall with a kippah on my head and a teffilin on my forehead and arm. I felt strangely satisfied. i wanted to see how i looked but there were no mirrors in this synagogue, so i had to gaze at my hazy reflection in the windows. it didn't look as weird as i thought it would. He said that it is customary to recite some holy passages while putting on the teffilin and that maybe i should stay with them for the Mincha prayer. That left me a few minutes to be with myself, holding a prayer book, wearing a teffilin in front of so many strangers. Once this would have terrified me, but this time i feel alright. I do not mind all the people seeing me like this, i understand that if i want to be a part of a community than some privacy will be sacrificed, and actually, it feels good. I'm pretty sure i was beaming with pleasure, just standing around and being Jewish. It felt so natural, so like coming home, finally arriving. Sometimes you just know that you are at the right place at the right time, doing exactly what you were meant to do. That's how I felt.
Then Mincha began. My mentor led the prayer and was not available to explain what's going on, but fortunately a nice guy standing right next to me helped me follow the short service, and answered all of my numerous questions, including the last one, when my mentor continued praying when everyone else had stopped - apparently Chabadniks have to add a few prayers for their "King Messiah".
After the prayer was over i had to take off the teffilin. I thanked my mentor profusely, and he asked if i want to continue studying next week, to which i answered of course, and then i left to go home - from one home to another!

So that was my very first Judaism lesson - at least since my Bar-Mitzvah, and it made me very very satisfied. I felt like a desert that had a bucketful of water thrown on it. Of course - now i want more, and i will get it, and maybe, like the desert after a good rain, i will put forth some flowers. Who knows what they will look like?
Anyway - i don't think i will have to suffer through any more bad dreams about being Jewish.
The big question for me now is what will my wife think about this? How far will she be willing to let me go?Does this frighten her? How does she feel?
Well i asked her when i came home and after i told her about the lesson. She said that she will follow me wherever i go - and that she has already made her peace with the possibility that i may become a practicing Jew. She said that she prefers that i work through this part of me, and that i integrate it into my life, rather than repressing it and dealing with the consequences of such a repression.
I told her that the most important thing for me is our relationship, and that i am not going anywhere without it, and without her, and that if i have to wait for her to overcome problems that she has with orthodox Judaism than i will wait as long as needed.
This of course does not mean that i actually plan becoming observant, but, for instance, i think i would like to lead such a life for at least a while. I also know that i would like to experience a sabbath in an orthodox home just to learn how it is done, and my wife has already agreed to come with me to such a weekend, so i think that aspect will be ok.
It seems that now only I can stop myself, which is exactly as it should be in a loving relationship.

Response to Comments From the Previous post:

WestBankMomma recommends the book "To Be A Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Donin.
Interesting that you should mention that book. A year or two ago i happened to be browsing through a used bookstore in downtown Jerusalem, which had mostly Hebrew books, but turning around i saw a shelf or two of English books, and among them a book titled "To Be A Jew". This was in the same period of time that i mentioned in my previous post, where i was really curious about Judaism and strove to learn whatever i can, however i can, so i picked it up and read a bit right there. The book immediately struck me as being straightforward and to the point, explaining everything concisely but clearly in everyday language - just what i was looking for! It was far and away the best book i had encountered, way better than anything i had seen in Hebrew.
I bought the book and started reading. If i recall correctly i made it up to chapter six - the dietary laws. Somewhere around there i remember sitting in the kitchen , reading, when suddenly i said to myself: " you know Joe, actually, this makes sense".
That very night i had this dream:

I was a German officer in a death camp, walking around the barracks, doing nothing in particular when suddenly i am summoned by my superior to the office of the chief commander- who happened to be Hitler himself (although in this dream he looked exactly like Colonel Klink from Hogan's Hero's). It turned out that he suspected me of being Jewish. Of course i denied the allegations, and i nervously started telling antisemitic jokes, to prove that i was as antisemitic as the next Nazi.Hitler just stared at me with his cold, pale blue eyes, laughed a little and finally dismissed me. I walked away knowing that he knew I was Jewish, and that he knew that I knew that he knew it. I understood that it was only a matter of time until i too was taken away to be killed.
Fortunately, i woke up in time to escape that fate. You will understand of course, that i stopped reading that book...
although i think that today, after everything that has happened to me since then, i can continue reading it without any horrible side effects, so thanks for reminding me about it!

Mother In Israel recommends a few books that i have not heard about, and i will be sure to check them out. She also warns me about Chabad's somewhat unorthodox ways, and their brand of Hassidut.
"As for Chabad, be careful because much of what they teach is Chabad chasidut and not, for lack of a better term, "normative practice." It's important to understand the difference. Not to mention their philosophy which is also "out there" sometimes."

At the moment i am not so concerned with the niceties of ritual - i know so little that right now i just need some kind of start. If Chabad are willing to give me this start then i am more than glad to take advantage of it. Actually, if i had not managed to get help from them, i do not know where i could go to - at least on the internet there are not all that many organizations who are willing to help a guy study Judaism.There are a few that seem to me too, i don't know - superficial - like amnon yitzhak's organization, while others seem too self-aggrandizing.
Chabad at least is very well-known, they are not in it for the money (i don't have much anyway), and they seem very tolerant. the mincha prayer was attended by a cross section of Israeli society, young and old, Ashkenazim and Sephardi, and in fact only one guy there was actually Chabad-looking. All in all the atmosphere was very calm and relaxed. Also, Chabad has a lot of experience in these situations- i am far from the first secular guy they have taught.

About the Hassidut - i have no objection to that. i am not particularly interested but i'll just have to wait and see how much of it i am expected to learn with this guy. in any case, we haven't yet laid out a course of study, or even agreed about what and when and so on.(that said - this "Messiah King" thing they have going on seems so odd - it's such a Christian concept, isn't it?)
i am very much aware that i am just beginning, and that Chabad is just one brand of Judaism.
I hope that as i go on i will be able to get a broader look at Judaism, and maybe i will even reach the point where i will be able to differentiate between "normative practice" and Chabad practice. At the moment that is just beyond me.
In short, thanks for the good advice, and the warning. At least i know that if something seems wrong or weird i have someone to ask about it, and that is very reassuring to me.


Anonymous said...

Yasher Koach! May you have Hatzlacha Rabba on your path of teshuva. Chabad is fantastic but absolutely stay away from anything "political" having to do with Chabad until your mentor feels you're ready. [specifically regarding what you heard at the end of the prayers (Yechi...)]Other than that, thank you for doing your part to bring Moshiach Now!

Jerusalem Joe said...

dear anonymous,
you are welcome.thank you for your support.
i do not understand your remark about politics and Chabad - as far as i know they are Zionist Hasidim, which is fine with me, but other than that i believe that they are not affiliated with any specific political party in Israel.
about the messiah - well, he sure seems to be taking his own sweet time!

mother in israel said...

Great that your first class was so successful!
There are now two religious Zionist groups that do outreach. One is, which offers classes in TA, and Maayanei Hayeshua, which sets up tables on Fridays all over the country to pass out Shabbat candles and help men put on tefillin. They publish a weekly newsletter, which I like very much. It's written for the religious community and I couldn't find out what they offer secular Israelis other than those tables. I will try to find out.

Menashe said...

I think by political he means how people feel and what they say about the Rebbe being or not being Moshiach. This is a very touchy subject and can easily be misinterpreted by an outsider. The truth is that the dispute is for the sake of Heaven since we are trying to decide what exactly the Rebbe would want us to do. I suggest you ask your mentor if any questions arise. There's alot of anti-Chabad propoganda out there; try not to buy into it.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Mother in Israel - thanks. i appreciate your efforts.

menashe - i am completely uninterested in such things. i just want to learn the basics of leading a Jewish life.
if and when i accomplish that and decide i want to live an orthodox life, i may have to decide upon a specific community.
until then my concern is with joining the jewish community, not the chabad community.

mama o' the matrices said...


congrats on identifying a need, respecting and finding a way to fulfil it. Personally, I tend to be a bit wary of Chabad, but I think it's wonderful that you've found someone to teach you what you want to know.

Politics aside, there's a great personal strength in embracing all of the bits on one's self.

Best of luck on this journey!

westbankmama said...

I'm glad it went well for you!

Portugal said...

To mama o' the matrices: i agree with you.