Tag : Melanie Weiss

January 20, 2015 by

A Beit Din Without the Beards

“I have a question,” asked S., my first conversion student, a serious and cerebral college student. “I know we’ve covered the High Holidays, and I understand what they are, and all of that. But the thing about Yom Kippur — how am I supposed to feel?”

No one had ever asked me that before; in fact, I’m not sure anyone ever told me that before. Once asked, it seemed the most obvious question in the world. We talked about it for the better part of an hour, this young man and I, about the shadings between fear and awe, about hope and solemnity. It was the first time that I learned about Judaism from someone on the path to becoming Jewish, though definitely not the last.

I was teaching him because my wife, Rachel — with her packed schedule as small-town rabbi and Hillel advisor — asked me to. How could I prepare someone to become Jewish? Sure, I co-taught our own rural Hebrew school and had worked for Jewish organizations all my life, had lived in Israel for a year, expounding ad infinitum about Jewish history to others on my fellowship. But explaining Judaism — and processing what for so many born-Jews is perpetually unexamined — turned out to be a different matter altogether.

In the two years since that first experience, I have worked with 12 conversion students, teaching in our local coffee shop, our dank synagogue classroom, and in other states (God bless Google, seriously). I love the questions people ask. Why does the Hebrew root of the word for sanctification imply set-apartedness? What do you mean most Jewish law doesn’t come from the Bible? Why is Shabbat 25 hours and not 24? If there’s not a Hell, how does God punish bad people? Sometimes, I don’t know the answers. More often, there isn’t just one answer, and the struggle to accept that exemplifies why converts are so often our best and brightest.

How people have ended up learning with me varies wildly. Those in our community, who maybe know the synagogue but have never been, or who live close enough to have heard of us, might reach out to Rachel, the most public Jew around. Others begin attending services and hear about classes I teach — including Intro to Judaism. A friend two hours away wished aloud that she could learn the laws of kashrut, which led to an entire class series taught online and captured on film. A professor at the local college thinks she might have some hidden Jewish ancestry, and is panting to learn more. A non-Jewish partner was considering conversion before she ever met her Jewish husband-to-be. Shockingly mature college students have decided this is the way they want to bring meaning into their lives. A small congregation in rural Virginia found my YouTube series, the recorded classes I left up after the online series ended. They have no teacher to guide their conversion cohort of five, and want to know: could I do it, maybe? I haven’t said no yet, though my enthusiasm is always tempered with a little bit of dread, and solemnity. Is this the time I’m going to seriously misrepresent Judaism to someone?

What I did not know but should have perhaps guessed is that this work is deeply intimate. I am a happily agnostic observant Conservative Jew, and discussing spirituality and my feelings is not an area of natural comfort for me. Yet zoom in on a recent lesson, one in which my student asks me, “Why does God let bad people go unpunished, at least in the short term?” I start in via Maimonides. “No, “she presses. “I want to know what you think about God.” There’s a long pause before I can even begin to answer.

And there’s more. In part because of my relationship with my students and in part because frankly we are a little hard up for observant Jews here in Maine, I’ve begun sitting on the beit din — the Jewish religious court. I didn’t actually even know that non-rabbis could do this until I moved to sparsely populated Maine, yet here I am. And if I myself automatically assumed that my inclusion in the decision-making body somehow rendered those conversions suspect, might not other people? Might not other institutions in the Jewish world?

But my initial reaction to serving on the beit din, or being asked to — that automatic impulse that surely I couldn’t count — was born out of unfamiliarity and ignorance. As someone who was born Jewish, I’d never really thought about conversion much at all. When I had, I had the mental image you might expect — a couple of older rabbis (male, obviously) looking down severely at a quivering supplicant.

And as we know from recent news stories, the experience can be freighted with gender- and age-related power dynamics, though surely most male rabbis work as hard as possible to keep that from being the case. Yet I’ve been told of conversions in which applicants were told to wait months before mikvah could be scheduled, told they needed to pay a fee, told to wait to be contacted only to continue waiting and waiting.

That’s not the case with those who find Judaism via our little shul. I’ve never seen a beit din that was less than two-thirds female, and the ones I’ve been on are usually entirely female. Though there are moments of solemnity and tears, there is always laughter, and usually at least a little chocolate, as the rabbinical court sits around the same small round table as the convert. I have learned about the kind of joy that is still and calm. There are always, always hugs, which somehow never figured in my imagined scenario with the beards and the fierce scowls and the sitting in judgment.

Nor, I guess, did I imagine the ridiculous tachlis parts of a conversion. I’m not just pointing to the 20 email conversations to book a date, book the mikvah, wait — who’s going to turn it on ahead of time so that the water can warm up? No, I’m pointing to me in the mikvah, pantless and thigh-deep, scooping out a handful of bugs with a paper napkin while cheerfully reassuring the mercifully unaware convert waiting in the bathroom that we were almost ready, just one more minute! This is me, remembering to grab an extra box of tissues as we close the door to the rabbi’s study behind us, ushering a spouse or best friend or child into the room with an encouraging of course you can come in too! Here I am — endlessly bemused, amused, and still a little surprised to find myself one of the guardians of the gates, a coach and a guide to this thing called Judaism.

When people express incredulity that I’m still here, somewhere far away and cold, so unlike the Jewish metropolis I come from, I explain: what a precious thing it is to have someone invite you to stand inside her life with her, to help mold it and alter it.


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October 7, 2014 by

Terrorism Induces Unexpected Parenthood

reviews - all I love and knowIt is, as reviewers have noted, a provocative premise: in the new novel All I Love and Know (HarperCollins, $26.99), the fallout from a Jerusalem suicide bombing ricochets through a family, setting numerous relationships off-balance and making everyone question roles, beliefs and responsibilities. The two main characters Judith Frank gives us are a pair of gay men who confront sudden and unexpected parenthood when they must adopt a niece and nephew orphaned in the bombing. What makes the premise of this book new and untried is that the two are grappling with their politics as well — about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, of course, but also about their queer visibility in 2003.

While this narrative of two Israeli children adopted by their gay American uncles in the wake of their parents’ death from terrorism is indeed provocative, and while some of the issues it raises play out compellingly in its characters’ lives (what is the likelihood of a romantic relationship surviving sudden and horrific trauma?), the book, particularly in its first third, is marred by clumsy and overwrought politics. Matt, the non-Jewish boyfriend who wrestles with his place in the grieving family, doesn’t quite understand why it might not be appropriate for him to blurt out, “Wow. Is that occupied territory?” as he approaches Jerusalem for the first time. Similarly, though it may be entirely appropriate and right for authors to inject their own political leanings into a work of fiction, Frank seems not to notice that her constant comparisons of Israel to South Africa might not be a good fit for the circumstances in which she has placed her characters as they face momentous human loss and the genuine suffering that she has invented for them. In this case, the polemic feels unsuited to the story.

There is a lot going on in All I Love and Know, which perhaps accounts for some confusing errors in the narrative. (As an example, Frank accurately depicts Ethiopian security guards in front of popular cafés in Jerusalem, yet for one of the Israeli children adopted by the gay uncles, an African- American neighbor in Northampton is “the first brown person she’d ever talked to.”) Some subplots — like Matt’s troubled relationship with Jay, a close friend dead of AIDS — seem unnecessary. So much is happening already between Matt and his Jewish partner, Daniel. Daniel’s twin, Joel, was the young father killed along with his wife, Ilana, in the bombing. The custody battle between Daniel and Ilana’s religious, Holocaust-survivor parents is complicated by his homosexuality, portrayed, somewhat confusingly, as being more offensive in the Israeli legal system than in the American one.

The intense relationship between Daniel and Matt, and the inner grieving of six-year-old Gal, supply the most compelling parts of this book. Judith Frank has introduced new points of view for examining these complicated relationships, and she is to be commended for this. Yet All I Love and Know does, in the end, seem a fitting title for a book that leans heavily towards political sentiment, denying us better knowledge of the world in which it is set, and the characters the author brings to life.

Melanie Weiss is the Director of Education at Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, and the Director of the Kadima Beth Hebrew School program at Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine. She is a Lilith contributing editor.

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