Friday, February 27, 2009

Oldbook-itis :-)

An interesting thing happened the other day: I was browsing at Book Man & Book Woman on 21st. Well, this isn't the unusual part, I do that pretty often because I love books and I have developed an incurable mean case of old-book-itis. I love books that have history as objects, not only as art. I always look for little handwritten notes inside the books. Somehow these notes fill the books with "life", they were owned by someone -- or maybe they have exchanged owners over time -- and you can even feel the extra beauty radiating from these books.

This time I paid special attention to the Judaica section and bumped into a prayer book. I started to flip the pages to see if it was something that I could use. To my surprise, the book had a note on the very first page, according to which it has been given as a gift by Rabbi Randall Falk in 1984 to a David for his bar mitzvah. Under the signature of Rabbi Falk it said: Congregation Ohabai Sholom. I almost bought the book because I felt it was a calling I had to answer to but I decided to let the thought sink in for a while.

Today I am going back to the bookstore and if the prayer book is still there, I am going to buy it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I became a member of the congregation! This last Sunday we had an invitation to a brunch organized for new members of the Temple. I have to tell you how much I appreciated my husband to get up in the morning and come with me. He loves sleeping in on weekends and still got up and went with me. These are the "little" things we do for someone we care about. He ended up having so much fun, meeting interesting, new people and having the opportunity to get involved, which he loves.

I have received a new member goody bag from N on Friday, after Shabbat service. It included a CD with prayers and songs sung by the Cantor of the Temple. I love his voice and can't stop listening to the CD ever since I got it. It is still in my laptop's CD player so that I can turn it on whenever I feel like it.

I always enjoy being at Temple, whatever the occasion. I don't know, there is something there that keeps attracting me. It has to be a mixture of things: the people I see there, the rabbi who is teaching me about Judaism and takes care of my learning very attentively; the ladies of the knitting club, Miss E -- who has been through so much during her very long and interesting life -- takes her time to teach me patiently how to knit and tells me stories of her life; N, whom I became friends with instantly when we first met and with whom I enjoy every minute we spend talking and having lunch together; the friendly atmosphere, that is nuanced by the wise spirituality in the air ... well, I could have just said: everything :-)

Today I had lunch with N and we had a good time chatting again before I went to see Rabbi S for my next lesson. I love these sessions with her because I learn so much during that one hour we spend talking. These discussions help me clarify blurred things and give me more and more insight, which, in turn, make Judaism even more attractive for me.

I cherish everything about my studies, my new friends and community that has unconditionally accepted and welcomed me -- even considering the fact that I am (probably, but not certainly) not Jewish. I love reading the books Rabbi S assigned for me, my favorite is the one written by Rabbi Kertzer. I read it as a suspense novel :-) Can't put it down, therefore I am always ahead with the readings vs our sessions.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I have never-ever felt so much at home. As I am advancing with the studies I want to belong among the Jews even more. I simply know I found what I was looking for. I am ready and willing to work hard to earn the trust -- and even in many cases true friendship -- of the people who are giving me so much. They might not even know how much that is.

My newfound life opened up layers of my soul that I have never known existed. Or I knew about them but they were buried so deep that I forgot about them completely. My existence is starting to be complete, for the first time during my 34 years.

The very first prayer I learnt in Hebrew is the Shema. I say it every night and every morning, as it is commended. I sometimes prayed before but I always felt it was kind of rude to just get in and ask for things. I have always prayed for strength, to be able to deal with the hardship of my life -- which were quite numerous, considering my age. I would say life was pretty "generous" in providing me with suffering, and I don't mean that as a complaint. My Mom used to say: there should be a purpose of your life, a guardian angel by your side. She said that because I have almost died when I was born and doctors considered it a miracle that I was alive.

There was a second time, when I was 26: almost died again, and it was, again, considered a miracle that I survived. The doctor who "saved" my life said it was my strength and willingness to fight and not give up that kept me hanging there. He just performed an operation -- a life-saving one -- but it would have been in vain without my strength -- he said. Why am I writing about these things? Because I think they are strongly related to the journey I have taken on recently. If I have that much strength, I want to share it. Sure, I can use it for my own purposes or share it with my close loved ones, but the truth is, even after that there is a lot remaining. I need to give. And, I think, it is very much in line with the Jewish values.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I have been lost this week in research. I realized that what I know about my family tree is close to nothing. My Mom's parents were a "contemporary Romeo and Juliet" story, their parents (my great grandparents) did not approve of their love and therefore cut all contact with them. My Mom hardly knows anything about her grandparents. All she knows is that they fled from Poland during the Polish-Soviet war from Poland. My grandfather was born in Russia, a couple of years later. I have researched their family name, which so far appears to be a very common Polish-Jewish surname. My Mom promised me to talk with her brother to see if he remembers anything. My uncle still lives in Russia and keeps in touch with one of the cousins of theirs. I certainly hope he'll know some more about the family but I also know that it is nearly impossible due to the alienation of my grandparents from their ancestors. It is so interesting, though.

Both my grandparents died a violent death at a very young age: my grandfather died in a car crash when he was 49. An 18-wheeler hit their car head on, he died at the scene. My grandma was with him, she got severely injured. This all happened before I was even born. My grandma lived to see me as a newborn baby but soon after my birth she committed suicide. She always felt guilty for the death of her husband because she knew he was not very good at driving -- they hardly ever drove anywhere -- and she still insisted on them taking a road trip to see my uncles divorced wife to talk to her and try to convince her not to rip my uncle off everything he had. On their way back they had the accident. The driver of the 18-wheeler was drunk and he admitted to being at fault. He sat in prison for several years for negligent homicide. My uncle kept in touch with him, visited him in prison regularly and forgave him for killing his (and my Mom's) parents. He even filed a request of mercy on the driver's behalf and finally the driver was discharged from prison. I always admired my uncle's generosity and kindness. Both him and my Mom "forgave" the guy and did not want his kids to grow up without their father. I think there is no greater level of forgiveness and generosity. Even though I remember Rabbi Schiftan's teaching about forgiveness, and I even agree with it, I still wish I could be so merciful to someone who took almost everything I love from me.
My grandma was a psychiatrist and my grandfather was in the military -- as a musician. He could play all the woodwind and brass instruments equally well. He stationed, for a while, in Hungary -- in the town where I went to university, Szeged -- and he spoke fluent Hungarian. Which came very handy when my Mom took home her boyfriend (my Dad), who was Hungarian, an international student at the University of Saintpetersbourg (Russia). That is where my parents met.

On my father's side, there is even less information available. His mother died when he was 17, I never knew her. I only saw pictures of her and I know she was from where today Slovakia is. My paternal grandfather was a baker.

Overall, I think this qualifies as my conversion-project. I am going to research more, especially when I go home to Hungary for my upcoming (and last) IVF protocol. I am going to ask the congregation to give me its blessing and dedicate a prayer that I can finally, after so many years, have my only dream come true.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

True love and Chai

The meaning of love has always been a mystery to me. Probably I am not alone with that thought :-) Yesterday it was valentine's Day and even though some think that it is a holiday crafted by candy makers and florists, I like this day. In my view, the emphasis is not so much on the gift giving part, but on love. I know I am sentimental and sometimes even naive -- despite all my experiences, which is kind of cool :-) -- but I am convinced that this is a nice holiday.

What it means to me is that there is at least one day of the year which is dedicated to the person(s) we care about. I put the plural between parenthesis not because I am a fan of polygamy but because I care about a lot of people and I even love a lot of people. Now, I am in love with only one, the One. It is nice, even without gifts, to take some time and reflect on what two people who are in love with each other share together.

The legitimate question of what this all has to do with Judaism might very well have emerged :-) For me, a great deal. First of all, as I am changing my perspective (or finding my way back to my place on Earth, depends on the point of view we take) and that puts a new light on my relationship with my husband. I cherish our life even more than before, I see sides that were either invisible or blurry for me.

We usually give symbolic gifts to each other on Valentine's Day and try to focus on each other -- let's be honest, this is really difficult to do in our accelerated world: work, different kinds of stress factors and the like make it hard to take our time and focus on sentiments.

Yesterday G cooked me dinner while I was out for a coffee with my best friend B (we call each other sisters :-)) for a few hours (her boyfriend made a surprise dinner for her, as well :-)). He gave me a silver Chai pendant as a gift, which means so much to me. It means he knows me and listens to me and understands if something is important to me. He made me very happy by showing how much he cares -- not by the charm itself but by the fact that he thought of getting such a gift.

Chai means life, and G means life to me. My love gave me life -- in many-many respects. I hope one day the two of us will be able to give our lives to someone else by giving them life.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I am pretty sure my readings and discussions with the rabbi change me. It is probably true because this process involves a lot of learning. Learning the tradition, the history, and the culture of Judaism. And learning generally changes people because it opens up another perspective to see the world around us. It may be only my obsession with learning but I enjoy getting to know new layers and aspects to shape the way I see things. This is why I studied so many languages in the first place. They are the gateway to other cultures.

I am fascinated with both learning and Judaism, so this seems to be a rather good combination. This week I got to know more about the beginnings of what we call today Rabbinic Judaism. The forerunners of rabbis are thought to be the Pharisees, a religious "sect" or party of Judaism in the 1st century C.E. These people studied the Torah and interpreted its verses and commandments. I would say: updated them. This is so amazing, though. It got me thinking: how enlightened and therefore learned these people were. First of all, while Christianity still considers its Bible as credible accounts of their history, Judaism in the 1st century was already tending toward not taking the Bible literally but symbolically. This can only be possible if people (well, mostly scholars at that time, but still) acquire a high level of abstract thinking.

My feeling is that even though Judaism has been through so many oppression, persecution and torture, it has survived because of its emphasis on studying, thinking and therefore being open to new ideas and adjustment to new social, technological, scientific, etc. conditions. Being able to adjust and accept the world "on the go" is a very valuable asset for survival.

I never knew, though, that the roots of such ability of abstract thinking went back to the very early history of Judaism. Even in the 1st century, at the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism, rabbis and sages were able to think of the sacred Scripture as "guidance" from God as to how they should live their lives to make the world a better place for everyone. Jewish laws are derived from the Bible but in some cases they can even be in opposition with the words of the Bible. This is amazing for me. One might think that religious people would stick to every word of their Scripture, which would be, in my opinion, a very limited view of the world. Jews were (and are) making their laws based upon the Bible, by flexible rules of interpretation.

This flexibility is also originated from the 1st century, from the School of Hillel (who was a Pharisee himself). They (the Hillelites) established 7 rules of interpretation, which later was extended to 13 and 32. Hillelite approach, I guess, became the basis of contemporary Judaism, especially of Reform Judaism. This school promoted liberal views and human-centered approach to rituals.

When I first looked into Judaism a little more deeply I still thought that the rules of tradition and rituals were rather strict. I even looked up websites of synagogues in the city and found exact times to light the Shabbat candles on Friday night: 18 minutes before sundown. Although I like the Holy Day of the shabbat, I think it might not be possible for everyone to be home at that exact time and light the candles. They can work late hours or be away for some reason and it should not be considered as if they were "bad" Jews. The more human-centered approach -- which was represented by the Hillelites -- seems to be more reasonable: the important thing is to light the candles and celebrate the Shabbat, not the timing. This is the human response to God's commandment: Shabbat starts when people recite the kiddush.

All in all, I always knew that Judaism put great emphasis on being learned and aware of the world, it was still shocking (in a good way :-)) to learn that this is not a recent, contemporary development of the Jewish culture but it goes back to the beginning of our Common Era. This is astonishing -- again, in a good way :-) I never knew that public education even existed by the 1st century -- not only in Judaism, but in general.

This is always confirmed in my thoughts when I go to the Shabbat service and see a teenager reading from the Torah. I mean, these guys are teens, with all the problems a teenager can possibly have: pimples, girl/boy troubles, issues of popularity among their peers -- well, there is really no need to mention all the troubles, everyone knows :-)
Take this young guy, for example, who last night re-read his Torah portion in front of the congregation to celebrate the 1st anniversary of his becoming a bar mitzvah. He was a cute teen, wearing a suit and tie with Vans sneakers :-) He also was quite serious and even proud about reading the Torah. Usually, among teenagers, popularity is inversely proportional with being smart publicly. This is not the case in this congregation, that is for sure (probably in Judaism in general) :-) And this is one of the aspects I respect, admire and love about Judaism.

Friday, February 6, 2009


My hubby and I were talking the other night, about various things: family, our future, my Jewish experiences. We have a little difficulty with his and it used to upset me greatly whenever we talked about them, and he got downright mad whenever we talked about them.

So I have stopped bringing the topic up. Last night he brought it up and he was really surprised about my reaction (well, even I was surprised :-)). I told him I am not mad at them and I am more than willing to accept them for what they are and I am ready to forgive them every mean stuff they have said and done. More so, I would like us to be open and able to communicate with them so that things get settled.

When I finished what I wanted to say about the topic, my husband told me: this Jewish thing is doing good to you, you seem to be calm and relaxed ever since you started studying. I never thought about that but now that he mentioned it: he was absolutely right. I am calm. I don't have rage attacks when something upsets me. It has even been put to a test recently and will be for the following week. The reaction it induced was not rage, but more like sadness. Oh, yes, a little quiet crying was involved, too.

I feel that I am changing as a person, and people around me seem to notice it. I get comments about how I look different, something to do with inner shine. I am shining. This is what I was looking for the whole time, all through my almost 35 years on planet Earth. And I found my inner shine, I think. I am becoming a better person and it is made even more beautiful due to the fact that the transition is done through learning. I value intellect very much, in fact, it is one of my highest priorities and principles.

Interestingly enough the issue of injustice came up in my reading this week. And in my life, I might add. I have not been very lucky lately -- in the past 4 years -- and today I hit bottom. I have never been jealous or envious when someone got what we have been fighting for since ... well, forever. And even now I am not. I just felt the injustice so deeply cutting through my soul like a sharp knife that I broke down. I basically spent my day today crying on and off. My sweet friends tried to comfort me but the truth is that only I can help myself. And this time not only do I have to accept the fact that someone else -- one with wrong intentions -- will become a mom before I ever will (if at all), but also I will have to smile and be happy and nice about it. Injustice. Now that I read the Jewish perspective about it everything seems to have settled down. I have always viewed injustice to be a fact we have to accept as it is, an axiom. It may sound odd but it consoled my raging soul. It is just what it is and I don't have to think that maybe one of my relatives did something bad and now I am paying for their wrongdoing. It is just humbug. There are a lot of things in life that have an explanation. Injustice is not one of them.

After a day of crying we were driving home with G so that I can be there when Shabbat service started I told G how deep I am now in the hole my fate kept digging for me and how I was losing hope that this series of misery would ever end. Yes. And just when I finished the sentence, our phone rang. We had to pull over because G can't focus on two things at the same time. He kept wowing and I heard our lawyer's voice from the other end of the phone. We have been approved yesterday for permanent residency. These little words mean a LOT: I can finally WORK, we can finally have PLANS (well, this is mostly important to G), we are out of the cage we've been in for years. I can't believe it. It must have been a miracle.

The reason I am writing about this is that ever since I have started to be in contact with the Jewish community here, GOOD stuff started to happen to us. For the first time in our marriage -- aside from the little things, of course because our life was no all miserable only mostly. For the first time. Ever. And I know deep down in my heart that it has to do with Judaism. Or, with my finding my place. My people. Even my name is Jewish. It means Jewish woman.

Tonight at the Shabbat service I felt it talking to me. There was this prayer, the one we should say to ourselves. It told me everything I needed to know tonight. It touched my soul and gave me back my strength, the strength I am known for everywhere -- in Hungary and now in the US. I always thought there was no place to find strength, it has to be found inside of us. And this is what this prayer told me, confirmed my strength and faith to go on and not give up. Ever.

Ivan sat with me. He saw I was sitting alone and decided I should not do that. I love this, how Jews really do care about the other. Even if the other is not (yet) Jewish. Even if they are not very religious: like my doctor, Dr. W. He is the most amazing doctor I have ever crossed paths with. Helps people not so uch for the money but for he feels that is the right thing to do.

N made challah for me. It was such a sweet gesture, she made it herself. When I got home I shared it with G and we had a nice glass of wine with it. After all, it is Shabbat today.