Artist Date 5.2: A Rabbi Like Me

 

According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.

I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.

I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.

Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.

“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.

And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.

Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.

No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.

Only that, suddenly I could go.

I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”

I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.

And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.

I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)

I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.

“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.

So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)

I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.

Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.

Until recently.

I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)

I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.

There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.

I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”

Up until now.

I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.

Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.

She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.

She is, in a word, serious.

She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.

I have no doubt.

But under that, I have another thought.

That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)

Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.

I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.

Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.

I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.

And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.

 

“Whatever Gets You to God”

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

 

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.