Monday, September 29, 2008

Neither Inside, Nor Outside that World.

Hebrew homework went quicker than I had anticipated, so I have decided to reflect on my weekend spent in New York, so that I can sit down and write a Rosh Hashanah post tomorrow. So let us begin -- I will give an overview, and then some general observations/delights of my Shabbos weekend :)

I set off on a bus to New York at 11:20 a.m. on Friday after jetting off from my Hebrew class amid a stormy, stormy downpour. I got into the city around 3 something, schlepped my way to the A train, and headed uptown to 181st -- Washington Heights. Now, I know nothing about neighborhoods in New York, except that Crown Heights is super Jewy. To be completely honest, I had no idea that Washington Heights was a hot-bed of Orthodox Jewish action. I got to Susanne's place in time to shower (the humidity ate away at me all weekend), and for us to head off to shul. I was, in a word, blown away by the synagogue we went to. The layout was familiar to me from books (the way there's a large men's section with seats facing each other and the women's section behind on each side behind the mechitzah), but it was unlike any shul I'd been to before. There were so many people of all flavors -- black hats, fancy suits, women in stilletos, women in hats, sheitels, scarves, men with colorful kippot, men with traditional black kippot. The entire room seemed to move in one gigantic wave, with men davening at lightning speed, women peering above and over the mechitzah, other women davening with a beautiful force that I only hope to be able to envelope myself in once I am comfortable with the service and the Hebrew. It amazed me how perfectly harmonized the room grew with each prayer, each song like a well-rehearsed choir. And as soon as it all began, it was over. Crowds moved out to the large hall and the women and men intermingled, chatting and flirting issuing "Shana Tova" and blessings upon pregnant women. In truth, I stood in awe of them all.

We moved on to Shabbos dinner -- all female -- where I had the luck of meeting a bounty of beautiful, strong, intelligent religious women in their late 20s. All single, all searching (well, except our engaged Sus). The "shidduch crisis" that is often spoke of seemed alive in that room. There was gefilte fish and kugel and challah and brachos and chatting and discussion about men, family, conversion, and the upcoming holidays. There was singing, lots of singing, and a farewell late in the evening after which we headed home to bed. We quickly threw ourselves into bed after some chit chat, to wake up in the morning for services.

In the morning I was faced with the big Shabbos woe: what to do with my hair. I know it sounds really stupid, but not showering on Shabbos is the one thing that I've always struggled with. I managed to do something with it, throwing on a polka-doted headband, and we were off to shul. I'd never been to a morning service before, and there were far fewer people at the service, but it was equally powerful, intense and devotional. Services went quite quickly, and we left to head off to Yeshiva University for lunch. Yes, I was going to sit down in a cafeteria room with a couple hundred YU kids over Shabbos lunch, and it was going to be outstanding. We trekked up, got there before lunch started and in time to watch the worker boys setting up the lunch with Sus's fiance ordering the boys about appropriately (it was, to be honest, a pretty amusing scene to which I have created a soap opera: "Shabbos Kitchen" with lots of really exciting music). Watching these boys come in, sit down to lunch, was really a sight. It was a microcosm of the shul scene, with boys from across the board -- super frum, sorta frum, religious. Black hats, peyos, fancy pin-striped suits, polos, you name it. Some were rowdy, some were merely pious. And me? I think I stuck out like a truly sore thumb -- I wasn't a rebbetzin or the daughter of a rabbi, I was just some girl sitting at the back staff's table. But I did meet a religious Jew from Nebraska, and that delighted me.

And then? Shabbos nap. Oh. Yes.

But then I woke up for evening services and my hair was disgusting and a mess, so I got to try out the scarf look. The response? "You look super frum!" Yes, I did. I blended in perfectly, I guess. But we got to shul post-services and ended up back at the locale we'd hit for Shabbos dinner for a bit of a nosh, some conversation, a story about one of the rebbes (super interesting and other-worldly), and finally, the end of Shabbat. We went home, we showered (B"H!!!), and we went out to meet up with those mentioned in my previous post for a fun night of drinking, a house party -- where a Jewish comedian told me I had beautiful Jewish lips and that I blended in well after he was told of my history as a Jew -- and a late night home in bed. The rest? History (well, a meet-up with Evan and a trek to his mother's house where his grandmother thrusted food in our general direction en masse, followed by a trek home in the rain and a meal at a kosher-style restaurant.)

So what to say about the entire weekend? It was absolutely amazing. To be completely honest, I've been blessed with knowing some pretty amazing religious Jews who make being Orthodox look like a walk in the park. I'm not sure if that's because it *is* a walk in the park, or they just have it mastered. But kashrut, being shomer shabbos, going to shul, it all just seems so doable, so workable, so -- right. This, of course, even while being lost about 3/4 of the time in shul. Now, back in Chicago the Orthodox shul's rabbi would throw out the page numbers in the Artscroll regular and transliterated versions. But in a shul as huge as the one in Washington Heights, it cannot be expected that anyone would throw them out. Thus, it was pretty difficult for me to keep up, even having been familiar with the siddur. Back in Chicago, I was always on time, and I could thus always keep up. At every meal I had to reach for a transliterated benscher, and this bothered me. I want to daven in Hebrew, I want to know the words and for the language of my people to resonate. I want the letters of the aleph-bet to thread a cord around my tongue! And this frustrated me. It continues to frustrate me. There are so many things I don't know and when I heard about the courses offered at Stern for women and how much information is delved out about all the little details of davening and shul and meals, I longed for that life. I'll admit at many points throughout the weekend feeling cheated -- cheated out of a lifetime of being Jewish, having that lineage and lifestyle handed to me on a silver platter. But then I remembered that where I came from and how I got to my Jewish soul makes me who I am as a Jew. I try so hard to not be bitter or envious, I try to return myself to my place and reaffix myself. But sometimes, just sometimes, it is so hard. I should know the dinner blessings, shouldn't I? I should know the tunes and songs and prayers. But then I remember: I have only been to a handful of Shabbos meals -- all in the past nine months. I must, must, must be patient. What else? I absolutely loved being in a neighborhood where frum Jews were constantly in the streets, walking around, present -- it was a Jewish neighborhood (with a bit of a Latino flavor), and I felt at home and comfortable and at ease there. Sus let me check out her Women's Artscroll Siddur , which, I have to say, I must purchase. I read through the intro and preface, thinking it might be a little on the patronizing side of things, but it wasn't -- it highlighted where to start when you get into shul late, what prayers can be skipped, etc.

I find myself at a loss, though. I feel like there was so much I had wanted to say about the Shabbat in Washington Heights -- my first fully shomer Shabbos -- but that I cannot now recall. When you don't write on Shabbat, you lose your thoughts, I think. I do know that it was relaxing, easy, calm, and it allowed me to really see my potential as a religious Jew. On the other hand, it had me thinking about where I am going in many aspects of my life -- personally, academically and otherwise. I thought more about an Orthodox conversion and how and where that can happen. I discussed with acquaintances my realization that essentially, I am in stasis for at least the next two years -- I cannot make the appropriate travel to work with an Orthodox rabbi weekly (cost, school, lack of transit), so I am more or less just stuck. The process, I guess, continues. What I do have, though, are friends, rabbis and acquaintances who understand my situation and are sympathetic and accepting of it. I don't feel outside, but I don't feel fully inside the world I view myself in. It's a complex problem, I think. And so it goes as a ger.

I'd like to say that from here on out I'm all shomer Shabbos all the time. But there have been made vows for Saturday trips to the Poconos and otherwise non-Shabbat type activities. I ask myself why, of course. And I know the reader is probably confused. As the holidays come upon us, there is a little spiel about a holy, pious man who says the sh'ma every day of his 85 years, except for one night that he happens to miss because he was ill or otherwise unable. And because of this, it is as if he had never said the sh'ma in all his years -- because he missed but one night. And thus, the holidays approach and we're able to resolve such situations. So, what does this mean for me? I'm not sure. One observant Shabbat for 10 non-observant Shabbats makes me something. What it is is being torn between two worlds, walking a tight-rope to keep both afloat for whatever reason. Maybe I don't want to be like those beautiful, intelligent girls on the cusp of 30 or beyond who haven't found their match. Maybe I don't want to be lost to the world I once knew. Maybe I'm making excuses, and I know very well that the answer to certain questions should be "no, Shabbat is the holiest day in the calendar -- for it appears in the decalogue." But something causes hesitation.

What I learned this weekend, then, is that the path it continues to be beaten by these hopeful feet. And that, I think, is going to have to be enough for now. And in my heart of hearts, I know G-d hears my song. Even if I it means I have to sing a little bit louder during these holidays.