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, www.jewfaq.org:

“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!

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“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…