The Days of Awe and Cheder

Today, I started my new part-time job – as Cheder (religion school) Teacher for my synagogue. My extensive qualifications for this role are that no-one else volunteered. I co-opted the eldest to help, who at 14 is regarded as an adult member of our community. We have seven children to teach, split into two classes – one of a six and a seven year old (looked after by my eldest for most of the session), and one of five children approaching Bar or Bat Mitzvah age, so between the ages of 10 and 13.

I am rather baffled at this new stage of my life, which is unexpected, and so far, after a single class, exhausting. Who knew that two hours of looking after five lively and intelligent children, teaching them stuff I don’t really know about with no plan or curriculum, would be so tiring?? Apparently I’m ‘rather strict, but in a good way’, whatever that means:-s I did treat everyone as if I was in a business meeting and they were my stakeholders – now I just have to make sure that in my workshop on Tuesday I don’t wave my Hebrew flash cards around and start teaching everyone the Shemah…

It’s obvious to me now that I know very very little about either Judaism or teaching, so I’m mentally preparing myself for a steep learning curve. The older children have said they want to learn Hebrew, which will be a challenge since I don’t yet even know my Aleph Bet off by heart (the flash cards were mostly for me!), and the order of the Shabbat Morning service, so they are well prepared for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. There will also be a degree of discussion about the Jewish celebration cycle, and this did take up quite a bit of today’s lesson, because we’re coming into a very busy part of the year.

At sundown a week today, Rosh Hashana begins. This is the Jewish New Year (well, one of them – we have several). We eat apples and honey or honeycake to celebrate the sweetness of the new year (and some people eat fish heads to celebrate the head of the year – I can assure you, not in my house!) The Jewish calendar year will change from 5775 to 5776, and the Days of Awe will begin.

Ten days after Rosh Hashana, comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. To quote from one of my favourite websites,

“The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.

One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that G-d has “books” that he writes our names in, writing down who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,” repentance, prayer, good deeds (usually, charity). These “books” are sealed on Yom Kippur. This concept of writing in books is the source of the common greeting during this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” ”

Darn it – I wish I’d found that quote and copied it out before class:-)

So to all of you, whatever path you follow (or none at all), whatever part you play in my life, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Chag Sameach!

How My Body Talks To Me

Since I started on the Paleo/supplement route, I’ve been noticing my body’s responses more, and I’ve realised that it communicates with me in some very clear ways:

  • Hair and nails dry and brittle – need more coconut oil or coconut milk in my diet
  • Hay-fever like symptoms – too much lactose in my diet (or sometimes hayfever)
  • Hungry – need to eat more protein
  • Exhausted, feeling generally deprived and miserable – need to eat more healthy fats
  • Cramp in legs or feet (especially when doing yoga) – need more salt in my diet
  • Serious pain in digestive system – I’ve eaten more than a teaspoon of any kind of grain
  • Weight gain – too much stress/not enough sleep
  • Mouth ulcers – too much stress/not enough sleep
  • Painful joints – not enough salmon (or mackerel, depending on bank balance)
  • Feeling down – need more very dark chocolate
  • Headache/migraine – I’ve eaten too much very dark chocolate (it’s a fine balance which falls somewhere between 100g and 150g of 85% Green and Black’s per day)
  • Achy muscles – need more yoga
  • Feeling twitchy – need a walk in the fresh air
  • Feeling anxious, having brain fog, inability to finish a sentence or a hot cup of tea – I have three children:-)

I Am Fat (not child friendly)

Eleanor Miller:

Three years on and nothing’s changed except my age:-)

Originally posted on Eleanor's Blog:

As I write this it’s the evening of Christmas Day, and although we’re a Jewish/Pagan multifaith household, and we celebrate slightly differently, we’ve all eaten ourselves into a stupor over the last three days. So my weight is on my mind right now. I can feel my clothes getting a little tighter, and I know I’ll have put at least a few pounds on by the time everything settles down.

I’ve been overweight since I was eight, when I became chubby. At the age of eleven I went to WeightWatchers (the old system, which in my opinion was a fairly good one) and I was then slim from the ages of thirteen to eighteen. At eighteen I left home and went to University, and dieting or healthy eating was the last thing on my mind. By the age of twenty I was overweight again, and by twentyfive I was fat.

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Happy Passover!

Chag Sameach and Good Yontif – Passover has started.

Did I:

  • change all of our crockery and cutlery?
  • clean the entire house?
  • sweep all the corners with a feather and burn all of the remaining chometz?

Did I heck.

But – I did:

  • bag up all of the flour and pasta, and sell it to the nearest non-Jew (The Husband, conveniently enough. who hid it in the cupboard under the stairs);
  • sweep the cupboard where we keep such things and the floor under the cupboard;
  • bought the entire stock of Sainsburys Swindon’s Matzo crackers (there’s none in Cwmbran Sainsburys, cannot imagine why).
  • I will also shortly be attempting to cook cinnamon balls and coconut pyramids:-)

Tomorrow we will be celebrating the Seder meal at my Mum’s, with the traditional Passover dish of – er, lamb and apricot stew, with burgers for middlest who doesn’t like lamb:-s

Sadly, this year, the thought of trying to live for eight days without chicken nuggets, weetabix or cornflakes (for the boys) is a bit too much. But by goodness we’ll do without bread! As long as no-one finds the bread rolls I hid in the freezer…

Chag Sameach everyone. They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!

“It’s Not Complicated”

Gosh it’s been a long time since I blogged! Those Bar Mitzvot certainly take it out of you. My eldest’s Bar Miztvah was the best day of my life. I don’t remember much about our wedding, thanks to the very efficient Venue Manager who kept myself and The Husband supplied with spirits for the whole day. Giving birth was amazing but painful and exhausting. My Bat Mitzvah (well, both of them!) was – well, a long long time ago. I remember enjoying them both but I don’t remember much about them.

But my eldest’s Bar Mitzvah was perfect. He was wonderful, and read his Parsha beautifully and confidently. Friends and relatives came from all over the country and even from abroad, and it was so good to catch up. The Shul catering committee provided a wonderful buffet, and food (mostly cake!) brought by our kind loved ones was amazing. The entire Shul congregation were welcoming, friendly, helpful and generally just wonderful, especially the wardens and especially to those of our extended family who aren’t Jewish themselves and so are unfamiliar with the setup of the Shabbat Morning Service.

Life has since returned to what passes for normal in our house. Summer holidays came and went and were great, including the Imp Club National camping weekend and a week at the seaside at Haven in Burnham-on-Sea (highly recommended if you have children – oh and do check out the Bakelite Museum! It’s amazing:-). New term has started, with the inevitable chaos and paperwork (and money flowing toward school like water – I’m sure we didn’t have this many school trips when I was at school!) My colitis went into remission with the advent of the Paleo diet, and has since come out of remission, but I’m wrangling it back into the cupboard. We’ve just this week started fostering abandoned kittens for a local cat charity, and somehow in between all of that, I do a full time job. No housework you understand – well, something has to give.

But sometime, somehow, somewhere, I found religion. That sounds as if I’d had it once and lost it, but that’s not the case – there was no crisis of faith. For a long time I’ve known what I believe about the world around me. I have very well defined spiritual beliefs. I have a moral code that I try my best to adhere to. I’m on a constant (in my darker moods, a constantly failing!) quest for self-improvement, and I’m always trying to dig deeper into the nuances of what I believe and what the best way is to cope with the various situations I find myself in.

For some time I’ve felt conflicted about how drawn I am to Judaism. When I was younger, it was just who I was, something that I did a few times a year. When I was a teenager, it was something that made me different to most of the people around me, which I quite liked, but the actual religious observance, being religious, wasn’t cool. During my explorations into spirituality starting in my late teens, I developed a dislike of dogmatic religious observance, mostly because of how it affects others. There were a lot of people around me who felt the same.

But recently, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with a great many people, Rabbis, other Jews, learned and wise people of all religions, spiritual beliefs and none, what they actually believe (and also, I have to say,  I’ve read up on some great resources on the Internet) . This is not the same as observance. Last week, at Rosh Hashana, I listened to a student Rabbi give an inspiring and thought provoking sermon on what he actually believed – which owed a lot more to the Gaia principle than to the concept of some old bloke with a beard up in the sky somewhere, looking down on us.

I’ve noticed over the years of being what I thought of as a cultural Jew, and living with a Pagan, that the similarities between the faiths were greater than the differences. The underlying tenets are pretty much the same, although the history and myth cycle are very different. Sometimes there are startling similarities between the observances.

I am really happy and comfortable celebrating the Pagan Wheel of the Year – it seems appropriate for me, living in Britain with the seasonal cycles. But I am also a Jew. I am a British Jew. And if I deny myself the opportunity to worship in the traditional Jewish fashion, I find something essential missing from my life.

I don’t go to every service every week. I try to get to a Shabbat service once a fortnight or so, and to most of the festivals. My life is not set up to physically get to the Synagogue more often than that, otherwise I would go more often. But when I do go, I enjoy it so much. It’s like a meditation to me (I meditate sometimes, and also do yoga, and it’s a similar kind of feeling). I definitely feel that I connect with something – whether it’s my own subconscious/unconscious/higher self, the global community of Jews all praying at similar times, or the Jewish God with a long white beard sitting on a cloud, I do not know and I do not care. I feel recharged and empowered. And happy.

I’ve been closely examining the words of the prayers and meditations in the services, and there are very few places where I feel my beliefs don’t at least broadly align with the words I’m saying. So attending a service and saying the ritual words enables me to pray, to think about my spiritual attitudes, to feel the gratitude and thankfulness that might otherwise pass me by in this busy and often stressed world.

I wish my Hebrew was better. I wish I knew more about the traditional prayers and how and when to use them. I wish I could get to Shul more often and also do more of the social stuff in the wider community. I wish I knew more about the Mitzvot and the traditions. I wish I was in a position to hang out with the radical Jewish thinkers of the day (probably around Leo Baeck college:-) Actually Leo Baeck is running some interesting looking evening courses that I would love to attend, but I live a bit too far away to attend in person. I want to say the Shema twice every day and observe Havdallah and put a mezuzzah on my front door.

I draw the line at some things. I hate wearing hats, so the idea of a headscarf or a sheitl (wig) is a nightmare. I have enough trouble keeping my pink feminist kippah (skullcap) on for the whole of a service! I’m all for gender equality in the services, I have a tallit (prayershawl), I’ve had a Bat Mitzvah, taken various parts of various services. But I can’t wear tefillin. I do wear jeans and leggings and tshirts, (although recently I’ve noticed that I feel increasingly uncomfortable wearing anything that shows cleavage, knees, or elbows and I’m not sure that’s my age!). I don’t keep Kosher and never will. I use my laptop and the TV and car on Shabbat and High Holy days, although I try to keep mundane work to a minimum and I won’t do my paid job on those days. And – I’m married to a Pagan.

This is my path. This is who I am. I will not impose my beliefs on anyone else. I don’t think anyone else *should* do things my way. But – I am a Jew. A British Reform Jew. An observant, practising, religious British Reform Jew. It’s time to come out of the closet, or ark, or wherever I’ve been hiding, to stop being ashamed of what I believe and how I choose to observe that, to disregard the fact that in this day and age it’s generally regarded as being weird and uncool by many of my friends/colleagues/peers and to just get on with being who I really am. Time to change my religious relationship from ‘It’s complicated’ to ‘In a religion’.

Oy Vey The Bar Mitzvah

Just a short post to explain my silence recently… the Muse has not visited. Or maybe he/she did, but couldn’t get in through the door of my mind – which is currently full of The Bar Mitzvah.

For those of you who don’t know (and I can’t imagine why I haven’t told you yet, even if I’ve never met you before), Eldest Son turned 13 recently and his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age rite of passage celebration, is almost upon us.

Each Shabbat, in Synagogue, a specific part of the Torah scroll is read out by an adult member of the community. The Torah scroll contains the text of the five books of Moses in the form of a scroll handwritten in Hebrew. Without pointing – and pointing is basically, Hebrew vowels. Since it’s specified in advance, and the same bit happens each year on the same Hebrew date (which obviously is not the same as the Julian date), once the date of the Bar Mitzvah is set, we know which portion of the scroll the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) will need to read.

For nearly a year therefore, Eldest he has been preparing for the Shabbat service where he will read his portion of the Torah Scroll. He’s been learning that particular piece of the text in Hebrew with vowels, off by heart, so he can read it from the scroll by using the text without vowels as a prompt. It is difficult, but he’s doing really well. And luckily, even the Jewish members of the congregation on the day (and they will be outnumbered by the non-Jewish members, given the varied backgrounds of our friends and family), probably won’t notice if he gets it wrong. The Wardens might, and they’ll correct his pronunciation, but it’s a rare portion that gets read without a correction, even by the Wardens, who are seasoned at this.

In the meantime, for the parents (and in our case, Grandma), this is like organising a wedding without the Bride. Family members and friends are coming from,  not quite the four corners of the globe, but close to it. Catering has been organised and outsourced to the Synagogue Catering Society, location luckily is the hall under the Shul, so no complicated decisions to be made there, clothes have been bought, and travel arrangements have been, well, arranged.

Obviously all of the stress has set off my colitis, which is not helping, but finally today, I felt that the pieces were falling into place. I’m now starting to feel as if I might just enjoy it…

And just in case any of my Paleo followers wondered, no, the food on the day will in no way shape or form be Paleo. Not even remotely. Health and wellbeing are all very well, but 4000 years of history and culture, and the combined weight of family expectations are just too much to argue with. Especially when you have an aunt who has MasterChef levels of food creations skills and is bringing a car-boot full of cakes.  It won’t be a boozy affair, but I am expecting a serious sugar hangover for several weeks afterwards…

I don’t know how to be Jewish

History is Always Complicated

I was born into a UK Liberal Jewish family. At the time, my Shul was a member of ULPS (United Liberal and Progressive Synagogues), an organisation now known as Liberal Judaism. I think I had a baby blessing – I can’t actually remember:-) I remember going to Shul in North London now and then when I was very young, usually for Passover. The Communal Seder meal has a smell and taste that’s been the same in all the Shuls that I’ve attended:-) Boiled eggs, salt water, salmon of some kind, often cold, and of course matzos.

When I was four, we moved to South Wales, and started attending the ‘local’ Reform Shul in Cardiff – only 15 miles away. I had my Bat Mizvah at Cardiff, and then did it all over again in London in the Liberal Shul because that’s where most of our Jewish family lived.

I went to Cheder, or Jewish Religion school, every week from the age of about three until thirteen. Ten years. And I learned a lot – working backwards, I learned my Parshah (specific reading from the Torah scrolls, handwritten in Hebrew and without vowels). Mine was the bit of Genesis just after Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac and ended up sacrificing a ram instead. It gave instructions on what to do with the dead ram in order to sacrifice it properly – so basically, a recipe for a burnt offering.

I learned about life in the Shtetl (the Jewish towns or villages and sometimes ghettos in Central and Eastern Europe). I learned about the creation of the State of Israel. I learned about the stories in the Torah. I learned Hebrew, and some of the more common prayers in the services. I learned about the Kosher laws, and also learned why in my household, we didn’t keep Kosher.

But at no point did I learn about the daily requirements of Judaism, especially those which are not performed in the community. Nor about how the prayerbook works or how the services work. I didn’t learn the why behind each of the prayers, or about the commentators on the Torah.

My practice when I was young consisted of going to Shul once or twice a week until I was 13 and had my Bat Mitzvah, going to the services for the High Holy days, not eating bread at Passover, and lighting the candles at Chanukah. We always lit the candles and said the blessings on Friday night, but never celebrated Havdallah.

I fell away from Judaism, as many young people fall away from religion, and then when I was nearing 30, on the spur of the moment I dragged the Husband to Israel for a touring holiday. Around the same time, I found the local Shul, which was another Reform Shul in Kent, and became a member there. I attended Friday night services, occasionally Saturday morning services, Festival services, and social events. I was a member of the committee for some years. But still the gaps in my education remained, and I wasn’t really very aware that they existed.

And My Family Is Even More Complicated!

My parents were both Jewish. My father was brought up Christian – his maternal Grandmother was Jewish from Frankfurt, but converted to Christianity to marry. However, when my father and mother got married, he decided to convert to Judaism. His sister, my aunt, married my mother’s brother, my uncle, and she also converted to Judaism. I have two Jewish cousins, and a positive rainbow of other persuasions in my family – Methodism by marriage, Welsh Baptist, Salvation Army, Dawkins-loving Atheists.

Even though The Husband is a (Methodist-born) Pagan, we had established early on that any children we had would be brought up Jewish until they were old enough to decide their own spiritual or religious paths. I’m very lucky that The Husband is fascinated by all religion and completely accepting of my Judaism and that of the children. I’m even luckier that every community we’ve been involved with has welcomed him as part of the community without judgement and without any pressure on him to convert – even though he can’t technically become a member of a Synagogue.

So when the children arrived, they all had baby blessings. They all attended Cheder, and actually still do. Eldest is coming up to Bar Mitzvah age and now attends most Shabbat morning services with me, and usually has a small part in the service. The younger two come to festivals, social gatherings and Family services. We have Shabbat Evening meal at Grandma’s (my own Jewish Mother), and light the candles, drink the wine, eat the er, challah substitute which is often croissants or brioche.

To all intents and purposes we look like a typical Reform Jewish family – well, if there is such a thing! Of course we teach our children that no one way is the only right way, that Judaism is their culture, heritage and history as well as their religion, and we also teach them about what Daddy believes. Luckily for us, the curriculum on Comparative Religion is pretty excellent – they know a lot more about some other religions than we do.

If Not Now, When?

And recently I’ve been feeling that this is not enough.

I’ve been reading some Jewish blogs and various articles, mostly Reform although that does have a slightly different meaning in the US. I’ve read about students converting, and about people learning to be Rabbis. They talk about Mitzvot, and observance and how these things seem to give structure and meaning to their lives.

There are a great many services in the Siddur – but I get confused reading through them. Some are for communities, some for families, some for solo observance. I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to do when. I don’t have a list of the appropriate blessings for the various events in our lives. I only knew there was a blessing to put on the Tallit when I saw someone else saying it before he put his on. I know that one, the Shabbat blessings and Shechekiyanu, and that’s all.

I have looked up the Reform Jewish website but there’s nothing really on there about such things. Most Reform Jews I know are observant to the same degree as me, or maybe they don’t talk about what they do. In my circle it seems somehow uncool, untrendy, to be observant.

No-one ever taught me any of the rules. Somewhere, between Fiddler on the Roof (my great-grandparents did indeed come over to the UK from Russia, from towns and villages very similar to that depicted in the film, with lives and practices very similar too), and 2014, something was lost. Something that it seems, everyone else either knows and assumes I know too, or doesn’t care about.

Maybe It Really Is Hip To Be Square

From what I have read, from sources varying from to the Coffee Shop Rabbi and a good many places in between, I have realised I would like to know more. I’m very careful about dogma – I’m not one for doing something just because someone said I should, or because someone else says HaShem  might want me to. (HaShem means The Name and is a respectful way to write G-d, since it’s not polite to use His name unless we’re actually praying  – I guess I know some things then!) I cannot believe that HaShem cares right now if I wear wool with linen or eat bacon for breakfast. If HaShem is anything like my impressions of er, Them, They will care that my clothes are not made by slave labour, and that the origin of the bacon is a happy, outdoor reared pig.

But I want to know more. I think it’s entirely appropriate to say Sheckekiyanu when I wake up, purely because I am grateful to wake up at all, and for the new day. Although I will probably never learn a consistent way to spell it in English:-) And if I wake up feeling awful, which I sometimes do, it might just help me to remember that not all days are bad, and I still have many blessings in my life.

I’m not saying for a single second that I could go from zero to Tevye and Golde overnight – nor would I want to. I am not an Orthodox Jew, and have no desire to be one. But I do want to know what it is, as a Reform Jew, I might be expected to do – so I can make my own choices what and how to observe, rather than falling into a pattern through ignorance.

I believe one of the main strengths of Judaism is that each Jew has their own relationship with HaShem. Yes there are Rabbis, wise, learned, available to give guidance, but I know I have my own relationship with G-d. That relationship does not have to go through anyone else. I yell, and He listens. One day, He might even answer:-) So I say to You, G-d, what do I do now? Where should I go, read, look, discuss, learn? What do I do?

And let’s see what answer pops out of the blue into my inbox:-)