At The End Of A Difficult Year

The new year is almost here. Time to reflect, I suppose. [As if not all posts are reflections, really..]

This has not been an easy year. In fact, it may actually have been one of the hardest thus far, so I hope the new year will bring a bit of happy change. One of the things that I have been really struggling with this year, and which very nearly pushed me over the edge, is something I haven’t really shared on here. I am hoping that as time goes on, this too, will become something I feel comfortable sharing here. I mean, considering the things I do share, there really shouldn’t be much of a problem, but for whatever reason, I’ve just not quite found it in me to write openly about it so far. Too painful, somehow, seeing it in black on white..

I remember myself at this time last year, on the verge of a minor break in therapy, which I knew would soon be followed by a seriously major break; my therapist’s maternity leave, and I can still feel that horribly cold, hard lump at the bottom of my stomach, which would turn every time I thought about it. The horrendous abandonment issues I was battling with and the separation anxiety I was trying to keep under control. I remember desperately trying to come up with ways to convince myself that I would indeed be able to survive this break, and although I can’t say I truly found any one method that worked wholeheartedly for me, I did make it through. Was brought to my knees a number of times, for sure, but somehow I managed to get back up again.

I think the thing that helped me the most was doing what I have always done when things get tough: writing. Writing this blog, or even just thinking about what I might want to write on it, should I find the words and the energy, helped a lot. And more than that, your lovely emails and comments.. well, I couldn’t even begin to explain how much they have meant to me. To have someone who has never even met me, reach out and show that they care. That’s really something.

Then there’s that other kind of writing. The writing I do when I need to completely escape; working on my book. That’s been useful, too. To allow myself to go to another place, to think about someone else’s problems, to focus on someone else’s daily comings and goings, trying to paint it in words. Still, as I said to A. in my most recent therapy session, although in the moment it feels very much like escapism, when I read back later on – even years later – I can often see that I was working something of myself out through the characters I create, only it happens in a way that is somehow more free, less constrained by the emotional red tape I may put on myself.

And, in the midst of really struggling with near constant flashbacks, I finally found something that helps me with them; my beloved Rubik’s cube. Yes, I’ve turned into even more of a geek than I was at the beginning of the year, but, hey – if it works, it works. I’d much rather look like an absolute 80s retro nerd on the tube, than not being able to go out at all. Now, of course, solving a puzzle like this, no matter how many times you do it, it doesn’t solve the puzzle of your Self, but – honestly – it really has made a difference to my life this year. It may not get to the root of the flashbacks, but it does help me get through them, and sometimes that’s all you can ask of yourself; to get through.

And, of course, faith has got me through, too. Even when it’s felt impossible to look ahead, there is this space inside where I can go to, where I can be still, and just breathe, and know that whatever happens, there is someone who is looking out for me.. And it helps. I can’t explain it, it just does.

Sitting here, thinking back, I am – as always – struck by how lucky I am to have the friends that I have. Not to mention my absolutely amazing sisters, who I could not manage without even for a single day. To be surrounded by people who are there for me, to whatever extent I feel able to let them be. People who won’t give up on me, even when I myself have. That is a true blessing.

So, as hard as this year has been, there are also many, many things for which I am grateful.

Thanks for staying with me this year.
Hope to see you in 2013.

xx

Once again, a favourite quote at the end of the year..

“..and it’s been a long December
And there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass..”

A Long December lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

PS. If the world does indeed come to an end tomorrow, could someone please let me know, as we’re an hour behind most of Europe here..

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Candle Lighting, Ice-Skating & Honouring Thy Mother And Father

A painted chanukkiah on my window

A painted chanukkiah on my window

Tonight is the first night of Chanukkah (Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukah..whatever.. you know.. the Jewish holiday.. חנוכה), and thus time to light the first candle. The mitzvah of lighting Chanukkah candles states that one should not only light them, but that one should publicise the miracle of Chanukkah, thus it is customary to place your chanukkiah on the windowsill so that it can be seen by people walking past. Now, I would love to do that, but unfortunately where I live there are no windowsills, so I can’t do that.

Wanting to still fulfil the commandment, I did the next best thing; I painted a chanukkiah on my window. This is something I get from my mother, who used to paint advent candles on our kitchen window every year, “lighting” another candle each Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas. So, choosing to publicise my chanukkiah in this way feels doubly good, because it can also be seen as a way of honouring my mother. And that matters to me, not only because it’s a commandment, but because it is so easy to, when thinking back to my childhood, focus on all the things that were less than ideal. As much as there were a lot of things that were not right, there were also many things that were really good. Happy memories, which need also be allowed space in my heart.

Another happy memory came to life for me a few weeks ago, when I – for the first time in ten years – went ice-skating. Prior to going, and in spite of having not skated for such a long time, I was thinking How hard can it be? Growing up in the very north of Sweden, I got my first skates when I was something like two and a half, and I’ve been skating reasonably regularly every winter all the way up until I moved to London ten years ago and took on the shape and size of a baby whale.

Baby whale attributes aside, I really didn’t think skating would be a problem. Bit like riding a bike, right? Wrong! I stepped onto the ice and for the first time ever I felt aware that there was a chance I could fall. I mean, I was properly scared. I was like Bambi on ice, only less graceful. It was like learning to walk again. And yet, as surprising as this was, there was something else that also hit me straight in the chest, and that was an utter sense of freedom, of happiness. I felt like a child again, like the kid I used to be, when things were good.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my last few sessions with A., exploring this, because I genuinely can’t remember the last time I felt so free and happy. The closest thing to it is when I write or paint, but this was way more than that. It brought back the memory of going skating with my family as a kid. Either my mother or my father would take my brothers and I down to the rink, and it was the best thing ever. Often we’d go to one of the many outdoor rinks which most schools in my home town had at the time. These were rinks that hadn’t been Zambonied to perfection, rather, it wasn’t unusual for us to get to the rink and find it completely snow covered. So – as a family – we would have to clear the rink before we could even begin skating. It would be pitch dark all around us, even if it might not be late at all, only the floodlights at the rink cutting through the darkness, making me feel as if the only thing that existed was my family and I, and the sheer joy of speeding across the ice.

Happy memory trigger

My Beloved Skates
Happy Memory Trigger

Being back on the ice again brought all of this back to me. I remember how my father would have us do ten laps clockwise and then another ten counter-clockwise as a warm up, before we were allowed to free-skate, and how we kids would do it without questioning him, despite the fact that my father happens to be possibly the worst skater in the history of ever. It was, as I explained to A. in session, special – because – growing up I didn’t have very many rules given to me by my parents, and this, well, it allowed me to be the kid, rather than the responsible little person I had to be at most other times. Another ice-skating memory that came flooding back is from when I was really little, back when I was only just able to stand on the ice in my skates, and my mother would hold my hands to support me. It may seem like a very small thing, in the grander scheme of things, but – as I said to A. – it must be important, because I remember it. I have a million memories of worrying about my mother, feeling like I was the adult, and plenty others where the child/adult boundaries were blurred, to say the least, and this – in contrast – was a situation where my mother was unquestionably the adult, and all I had to do was to be a child, safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t let me fall.

So, as I light my Chanukkah candles this year, at the very darkest time of the year, I am challenging myself to remember the brightest, happiest memories.

Happy Chanukkah!

xx

PS. Just in case you didn’t know, the Holiday armadillo – as introduced in Friends – is a myth. The Chanukkah GECKO, on the other hand, is clearly real. See photographic evidence below.

Chanukkah 5773 - Day 1 The ACTUAL chanukkiah

Chanukkah 5773 – Day 1
The ACTUAL chanukkiah
..and the very real Chanukkah gecko..

Self-Harm & Self-Piercing

Not very long until A. is back now.

Looking back at this break I can honestly say that there were definitely times when I didn’t think I would be around to see her return to work. I had some very very low points, where it felt entirely impossible to think that I could make it through. As you know, early on during this break, I did accidentally on purpose overdose, and even though this may sound weird, that wasn’t even the lowest point I got to. In fact it wasn’t even near to being the lowest point.

Then I had a bit of a breather, where I went to spend time with my sisters, where I reconnected with my faith, where I felt a little less frightened. Went back to only having the normal amount of flashbacks. And that was nice. And much needed. I count my blessings that I do have those times when things are a little easier. I try to take notice of the good in life, I really do. I know that reading this blog, it may seem that I only focus on the hard times, but I really do try to balance it out, to see the bigger picture.

I have to admit, however, that these last few weeks it has felt a little as if I am starting to slip again. I’m not sure if that is perhaps because, knowing that this therapy break is nearing its end, I am allowing myself to feel a little bit more than I have during the majority of this time. It’s possible. People keen to criticise my choice of therapy and therapist will, I’m sure, draw the conclusion that going back to therapy is what is making me worse; that therapy is itself the culprit. Needless to say, I disagree. Strongly.

Still, I do have to take these dips seriously; I am very well aware of my tendency to sink hard and fast, and to try to waive it off as nothing would be decidedly unwise. So, I’ve reached out. I’ve talked to my sisters, my friends, the Samaritans, just to make sure that I don’t plummet.

I did have a night last week which was particularly bad, where I felt very very tempted to get the scalpels out again, to release the tension, to get away from the bad feelings surging through my whole system. I resisted. Sort of. I had them out. I looked at them. Held them in my hand. Then I put them down. Put them away. Decided it was a bad option. Thought some more, and decided that there was something else I could do, which was a little less destructive, a little more spiritually meaningful. Something which I had been thinking about doing for some time.

The end result is a freshly pierced nose.

I know, to some, this seems little better than cutting myself, but to me, there is a big difference. Self-harming through cutting is a way of making my body look worse, it’s almost like physically punishing myself, not just through the pain inflicted while cutting, but also in the way the scars will always be there [and, trust me, I have plenty]. They only serve to make me feel bad, because they make me think of how I was unable to control my impulse to cut. Make me feel weak. And I don’t like feeling weak.

A piercing to me is different.

Whilst people may have varying views on the aesthetics of body piercings, or religious reasons for opposing them, to me, they are pretty – plain and simple: I like them – and my interpretation of religious text does not cause me to see them as forbidden. And so, in my mind, choosing not to slash my skin in destructive desperation, but deciding to do something different [albeit similar]; it makes me feel that I can control my impulses, I can convert destructive energy to something much more positive:

A sparkling reminder, right in front of my nose, that even bad nights do pass.

I feel I need to write a little something here about self-piercing: I am not an advocate of it, despite having done it more than once myself. Each time I’ve done it, it has been done as responsibly as possible. No dirty safety pins, no pound shop jewellery. Always clean hands and/or using gloves, always clean work surfaces, always proper after-care. Never without thinking it through, and never without, in my opinion, a genuinely valid reason for doing it myself.

You can read a detailed piece I wrote about my first self-piercing and my reasons for doing it myself here. Some of the things I say there are not quite how I see things now; it’s been four years. But the key is that it was a thought-through and reasoned decision. Not an in-the-moment act. In contrast to self-harming.

Even this latest piercing wasn’t something I did lightly. The reason I had the appropriate equipment in the first place was that I had been thinking about doing it for some time. And by thinking about it I don’t mean in the middle of the night in a moment of feeling very low, but during the day, consciously weighing the pros and cons. I made the decision to do it that night, because I wanted to – perhaps even needed to – prove to myself that I could do something other than cut, something which for me had meaning, something which wasn’t a destructive and impulsive form of self-punishment.

If you do choose to DIY pierce; do the research. Then think again. Think about why you are wanting to self-pierce and the risks involved. Also, think about where you want your piercing. Not all places are ideal for self-piercing. In fact, most aren’t. [In hindsight, I would have to admit that the nose definitely isn’t particularly ideal for self-piercing. And it was darn painful!] Also, just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be.

If the reason you’re considering not going to a studio to have it done is that you’re underage, get your parents to come with you to give their consent. Or wait until you are legally able to give consent. If you want it that badly, you’ll still want it in a year or two. From a religious point of view, getting your parents’ consent also matters in terms of honouring your mother and father through not choosing to do something your parents directly oppose. I’m not meaning to be preachy, I’m merely pointing this aspect out. [For me this was always a non-issue, as my mother sports a sparkling lip piercing of her own.]

For most people, people who just want a piercing because it looks good, my advice will always be: Go to a professional piercer! You won’t end up accidentally mis-aiming and come out with a wonky piercing in a place you hadn’t meant to have one. Seriously. Going to a professional piercer will generally be a much better experience; quicker, more than likely less painful and much much simpler all round.

First and foremost;

remember to be kind to yourselves.

xx

PS. I do realise I am displaying an astonishing amount of double-standards when it comes to self-piercing, but in my defence: I am an adult, I had a valid reason to do it myself and it was a thought through decision. And, as I wrote earlier, looking through a rear view mirror: I wouldn’t recommend piercing your own nose to anyone. Anyone. That includes my future self.

Staying Awake For Shavuot

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What Happened At Mount Sinai?

It’s a quarter to seven on a Sunday morning. I’m just back from shul. I’ve been there since six in the afternoon yesterday. You see, we are celebrating Shavuot, when we, in addition to eating hideous amounts of dairy food [particularly cheesecake, which I really don’t like], we do a full night of studying followed by a special morning service at sunrise, known as tikkun leyl Shavuot.

You see, Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelite nation at Mount Sinai, and there is an often told Midrash which tells of how the Israelites, in preparation for the receiving of the Torah, went to bed early the night before in order to be well rested the following morning, as the Torah was to be given to them at the first light of day. Sounds sound enough, doesn’t it? Proper good night’s sleep before a major event. Only the Israelites forgot to set the alarm on their iPhones and ended up oversleeping, and God had to wake them up. Not great, and as you can imagine God was decidedly unimpressed with this. So rather than just gently waking the sleeping Israelites, He – or She – did so by lifting up Mount Sinai and holding it over their heads, telling them that they had better get up pretty darn sharp or He [or She] would drop the mountain on them. A pretty rude awakening – but hey – it’s God, and I suppose God can do as S/He wishes.

So, to make up for this embarrassment, and to ensure there is no risk of oversleeping yet again, Jews all over the world stay up all night studying the night before the anniversary of this momentous occasion, and as soon as the sun rises a special service is held where the commandments are read out for all to hear.

[Also, being Jews, we get through an enormous amount of food on this night of study, but that’s a whole nother story..]

Now, I’m not someone who has a literal understanding of the Bible and of what happened at Mount Sinai, but I do like this idea of staying up for a whole night with my friends, learning lots of things, and having really fun and interesting discussions.

At my shul – which belongs to the Movement for Reform Judaism – we hold a joint tikkun leyl with one of the liberal synagogues every year, which makes this night even more interesting, as you don’t just get to argue and discuss with people from your own synagogue, but you actually get to do it with people from a different strand of Judaism. Although reform Judaism and liberal Judaism are both progressive strands of Judaism, there are also some very distinct differences, and that really adds a bit of extra spice to the mix.

This year the sessions I chose to take part in were a dialogue about conversion to Judaism – which, for obvious reasons, caught my interest, a discussion about whether God is dead and a more hands on creative session, where we made clay figures to try to express our own personal relationship with God. Trust me, at three-thirty in the morning, having not slept, there is nothing more fun than being allowed to regress to childhood and play with clay!

As the sun rose this morning, we all [well, us brave souls who had made it all through the night] climbed the stairs all the way up to the roof of our synagogue and held the morning service up there in the open, overlooking a beautiful but still sleeping London. It’s a very special service indeed.

There is a lot more I could write about this night of study, but to be honest, I’m so tired I could quite easily fall asleep if I stare at the computer for too long, and I wouldn’t want that to happen, as I’m going for another service at 11. I have contemplated going to sleep rather than attending this service, since, technically, I’ve already been to a Shavuot morning service, but this later one will have all of our little kids there, dancing and singing on the rose petal strewn floor of the Sanctuary, and it’s just the cutest thing ever. Noisy – but cute!

So for now I am going to stop writing and just focus on staying awake until it’s time to get back to shul.

All the very best, and if you are so inclined:

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

xx

PS. My memory of the above Midrash may very well be faulty, as my brain isn’t entirely alert and with it at the time of writing, so please don’t ask me to cite my source more specifically.

AN HOUR LATER:
On second thought, I think I’ll watch the service online, I don’t think I could possibly get my body in an upright position for long enough to get to shul. Just sooooooo tired.

EVEN LATER:
Did by some miracle make it to 11 o’clock service and back. Now: Bed, bed, BED!

When You Have No Voice – Making A Decision To Communicate

It’s been a long time, I know, but I’ll try to put you all back in the picture, as I know you will have all been eagerly awaiting my next update. [What? No?]

In the last few weeks I have been dealing with one of those much dreaded periods of flashbacks, and things have often felt completely and utterly hopeless. The flashbacks have by no means gone, but there have been a few days every once in a while when there have been fewer, and I’ve been able to find at least a little breathing space in between. When things are bad, that’s the time to focus on small blessings.

At the beginning of last week I had to go into hospital for a whole battery of tests and examinations. Part of these was a gynaecological exam, which for me is essentially an equivalent to psychological torture through physical means. I always try to prepare whoever is doing the exam by explaining that I come from a background of having been sexually abused as a child, and that these exams are pretty much garanteed to trigger off flashbacks; in short that they may need to brace themselves for my emotional response. They then usually say something along the lines of “Don’t worry, darling, I’ve seen it all before”, which is of course very kind and much appreciated, but it generally tends to become apparent that this is not really the case. When they’re faced with the sobbing heap these exams turn me into, it’s often clear that I react worse than most people they’ve examined. This then spirals into this odd cycle of them feeling sorry for me, and me feeling sorry for them having to carry out the exam on me..

So, not nice at all.

This particular nurse was absolutely fantastic, though, I have to say. It was very obvious that she was affected by my reaction to what she was doing, but because she was very open about that, I found that somehow reassuring and it in many ways it helped bring me out of the flashbacks and back into the here and now where we both were.

Concurrent with the flashbacks and general depression I have this week come down with some seriously nasty bug. This bug, by the way, is completely unrelated to the hospital thing, unless I have really lucked out and managed to contract MRSA while I was there..

At first I thought it was just hay fever, as this is the season when I usually have to stay indoors with my inhaler close to hand at all times. Had a very painful throat – not sore – painful, something I don’t usually get with my hay fever, but initially I just assumed that my body had decided to take my allergies to the next level. As it turns out this wasn’t it. Came down with a 39C temperature [that’s 102F, if you’re so inclined] in the middle of the week, and it’s been going ever since. So, what with the painful throat and the fever I’ve essentially had to be on paracetamol non-stop. It’s not great, Ibuprofen tends to be more effective, but for various reasons I am currently banned from taking that particular pain reliever, so there you go.

Feeling miserable on all levels is not a great place to exist and things have been unbelievably difficult. I know my last entry was pretty dire, and from there I suppose you could say things went south. Having no therapy has been really challenging, it feels like years until A. returns from maternity leave. But, I am still around, still fighting – even if the evidence of this has not been posted on my blog.

This Friday I had been invited to two sedarim – the special meal eaten by Jews on the first night of Pesach, but instead I spent the evening in bed, fighting flashbacks and this blasted bug. Last night I had booked a place at the communal 2nd night seder at my shul together with many of my friends. I did make it there, in fact even went for a pre-seder drink with one of my friends, but didn’t make it through the meal. Was feeling incredibly rough and then began having flashbacks, and I had to make the decision that I needed to make sure I could make it home safely before things got even worse. Hated having to leave, but as it turns out it was probably a wise choice.

This morning I woke up having absolutely no voice.

I have lost my voice in the past, but never quite this completely, and it’s kind of an interesting thing; the second you discover you have no voice [in my case when I began recording a voice message for my sister] you realise how much you rely on it.

I don’t usually use my phone or computer on Shabbat or during religious festivals. This is not so much because it’s biblically and/or rabbinically decreed that one should not use iPads or Blackberrys during festivals, as much as – being a modern reform Jew – I’ve made the informed decision that for me stepping away from all my techie gadgets and disconnecting for a bit makes those times different to other times. I am normally contactable at any given moment, day or night, be it through texts, Facebook updates or tweets, and so I like to make Shabbat and festivals different and special to other days, through unplugging in this way. Admittedly, most of my friends think this is completely bonkers, but hey, it’s just the way I roll.

However, since that accidental-on-purpose over-dose the other week, I decided that it’s actually a lot more life-embracing to temporarily break that self-imposed rule than to keep it. Which is why you are seeing this update today, during a week I would normally steer clear of modern technology.

To help me through particularly rough patches over these past few weeks I have often sought support over the telephone from my sisters, my friends and the Samaritans, regardless of whether or not this has been on Shabbat. Being able to talk about what’s going on, both physically and psychologically, makes me feel less like I’m on my own in this.

So, as you can imagine, waking up this morning, with no voice at all, has come as a bit of a shock, and has left me feeling very vulnerable. Which is why I’m sitting here now, writing this..

I guess that even when you haven’t got an audible voice, you can still find ways of making yourself heard.

Do be kind to yourselves,

xx

Three Key Rules For Surviving The Present

*

“..when all I really want, I said to myself, is to survive the present..”

*

Sitting here, alone. Trying to somehow keep it together. And failing miserably. I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own life, and while there may well be a key to the lock, it seems impossible to find. Or maybe I’m just looking in all the wrong places?

I haven’t been able to attend service for weeks, owing to flashbacks. Haven’t even had enough head space to follow them online. Still, as my therapy is on now on hold, I know that it will be important to find other, non-destructive, ways to cope, so this morning I decided to brave it and just push myself that little bit extra to get there. Which I did.

I now regret that bitterly. As lovely as the service was, I was struggling throughout it, trying to stave off the flashbacks that insisted on popping up, and it took all I had to somehow stay in my seat and not just rush out. I tried to focus on the music, on the words, the prayers, and to a degree I suppose you could say that I succeeded, but what is normally something that feels naturally easy and enjoyable, today took a lot of hard work. By the time service was over and it was time to exchange the customary Shabbat shaloms [“have a peaceful day of rest”] I was exhausted, and I only barely scraped by during kiddush. Feel very bad about it, because I know I probably came across as a bit off to others, but it was the best I could do. Having greeted the people I know, I made my excuses and left as quickly as possible. The second I got on the bus home I just broke down in tears.

Of course, tears are not the enemy, if anything they are an entirely appropriate response to the difficulties I’m facing, and they’ve been waiting to fall since I left my final session with A. But it’s not nice when it happens in public. It just isn’t.

It was hard saying goodbye to A. The session in itself was reasonably OK. I managed to talk about the extreme separation anxiety I was [and still am] experiencing, and I think that was important. To be able to say how hard and frightening this long break feels, to be honest about how uncertain I feel about whether or not I have what it takes to make it through to the other side of it. To talk openly about why it’s so hard, this effective re-experiencing of every other time I have felt abandoned, neglected, second-best and left behind, with no one to care for me. To feel that there is no one I can truly trust to see me through.

Of course – and I said that, too – in my final session, I know that I’m not really all alone. I know that there are lots of people in my life who care about me and who want to see me make it through, people who are more than willing to offer me support. But, at the same time, as I’ve described many times in the past, a therapist is in many ways a pseudo-parent, and so, having a break – especially a big one like this – is bound to cut pretty deep. And when you cut deep, you bleed, and it inevitably leaves a scar. It’s impossible to just pick up where we left off, as if nothing’s happened. So there is a fear of that, too. Of what it will be like once A. is back. Will I ever feel able to trust her in the way I was? Because, unlike other breaks, at the end of this one her whole world will have changed. That moment when she goes from being a pseudo-parent to her clients, to being an actual parent will be unlike anything else. And even if we manage to reach that Winnicottian good enough place together again, the fear of another abandonment will linger, as it’s likely that in due time she will want to have another child. In fact, whether or not she does, the fear will be there, regardless.

So things are distinctly uphill right now. I keep thinking Oh, I’ll talk about this in my next session, and then I crash with the realisation that that next session is so desperately far away.

I told A. that I would do my very best to stick to my usual 3-rule therapy break survival plan:

1: No matter what; keep breathing in and out
2: Try to find ways of coping other that resorting to self-harm
3: Even if I fail on number two, stick to number one!

That made A. smile, and I will try to keep that in my mind and in my heart, because I do want to make it through.
I just don’t entirely trust it that I will.

xx

The quote at the top is from the book Are You Somebody? © Nuala O'Faolain

Beit Din, Mikveh & Conversion – My Big Day

It has been nearly two weeks since my formal conversion to Judaism, and I have been meaning to post an update about it ever since, knowing full well that I will never be able to find ample words to describe what the day was truly like.

I was incredibly nervous on the day, much more so than I had thought I would be, and I am really glad that I had both Dev and my friend D. with me to help keep nerves in check [or at least be on hand to make sure I was where I needed to be, when I needed to be there].

True to form we arrived ridiculously early, meaning we had time for a stop at The Bagel Café before my appointment. Not sure if this was a good idea or not, really, as I had a Twix, and sugar-rushing myself just before going before the Beit Din may not really have been the wisest of things to do.

Having all but choked on my Twix we made our way upstairs to where the Beit Din convenes and had a bit of time to wait around before it was my turn. The person going in before me happened to be one of the women from my J-Prep group, so that was quite nice.

Then all of a sudden [or so it felt] it was my turn. Rabbi D. escorted me into the room and slipped me a “They are going to love you” on the way in; a really kind and warm touch.

Was a little jolted by the fact that this was an all-male Beit Din. Not because I mind male rabbis, or because I felt strongly about having a mixed Beit Din, but because I simply don’t do well being alone in a room with only men, regardless of who they are. Had to take a moment to steady myself and mentally focus on the fact that this was a completely safe setting and that there was no real danger, regardless of my internal warning bells going off like crazy.

I really wish I was able to remember who was on the Beit Din that day, but honestly, I haven’t a clue. Well, that’s not entirely true, one of the men was someone who I sort of knew, or at least have met previously, only I was far too nervous in the moment to recognise that.

My meeting with the Beit Din is all a bit of a happy blur, but I do remember one of the rabbis starting out by saying that this wasn’t really one of those tests where you pass or fail, and although this was of course something I had been telling myself over and over in the past few hours, I found this exceptionally reassuring coming from someone other than myself.

What did they ask? Well.. I’m not entirely sure. I know that there were a lot of questions, many more than I had expected, and that they asked about how I had found my way to Judaism, [why not Islam or Christianity?] and that I gave them a run-down of that, including why, for me, Reform Judaism was the natural choice.

I was also asked if there was anything I had struggled with or found difficult, and I explained that I had had a conversation with one of my rabbis about the exceptions to the principle of Pichuach Nefesh, because I was unsure if I understood it correctly and was finding some interpretations I had come across somewhat hard to stomach. I also mentioned how I find the somehow socially acceptable interdenominational slagging off quite offensive, because although I could never be anything other than a Reform Jew that doesn’t mean that I think of other denominations as somehow lesser. That, just as we work on interfaith matters, perhaps some work is needed on intrafaith dialogue.

I only had one properly ‘factual’ question, and that was to talk to the Beit Din about the festival of Simchat Torah which was starting the evening after my conversion. Had no problem with that, since I had pretty much assumed they’d ask about that, and also Simchat Torah happens to be one of my absolute favourite holidays.

The other more precise question I was asked was regarding my own observance; I decided to talk about making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat and also how I had made a special Havdalah upon leaving Drayton Park, to mark the transition between going from this very very difficult period, to something more positive. As a follow-on question, or perhaps to check I wasn’t just making this up, one of the rabbis asked could I recite the blessings for Havdalah? My immediate reaction to that was to panic as I normally use my siddur when I make Havdalah, but then I just firmly told myself that I do know these blessings without reading from the siddur and went on to recite them by heart.

I also talked about how, for me, action is a very important expression of faith; that praying and going to shul are only two ways of being observant, that I think that social action is every bit as important as other more conventional ways of practising religion. Talked about tikkun olam both in terms of green thinking and in terms of looking out for others less fortunate than myself.

I have a feeling that my reciting the Havdalah blessings, may have been the reason why I was not asked to read anything in Hebrew to the rabbis. I was, however, asked what I would have read, so I told them that I had decided just as I stepped into the room that I would like to read the Modim part of the Amidah, since that seemed appropriate for the occasion, and – really – there is no time when the Modim isn’t appropriate, in my opinion.

Was asked to step outside for a moment while the rabbis conferred, so I did, being greeted by Dev, D, and rabbis D and H outside. Have no idea how long I had to wait, not too long though, I think, and then we were all filing back into the meeting room, crowding it somewhat.

My conversion certificate was read out to me, but in all honesty I was still buzzing so much I can’t say I really remember much of what was said. I was mainly just really moved by the occasion and only truly remember the moment I was called by my Hebrew name for the very first time. That felt like a very powerful moment.

Following the meeting with the Beit Din we made our way down to the mikveh for my ritual immersion. Rabbi H. was my Jewish witness and came with me as I immersed in the water and recited the blessing for tevilah and the Shehecheyanu, marking my entry into the Jewish people. I have to say that I’m not great with people seeing me naked, especially my various scars, but it still felt OK. The mikveh at the Sternberg Centre can, admittedly, not by any stretch of the imagination be accused of being a particularly serene place [think septic tank meets oversized foot bath..], but making tevilah still felt deeply spiritually moving.

After I got out of the mikvah Rabbi H. asked how I felt. I had to take a moment to feel it through before answering that I felt like I was exactly who I have always known I was, yet everything was different.

I know this has been a bit of a blow-by-blow account of my big day. There is so much more I could write about it, and chances are that I will, but for now I think this is what I can offer.

All the very best,

xx

PS. If you are interested in reading my letter to the Beit Din, please click here.

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My siddur (prayer book) - complete with nail varnish flowers..

Freedom

Today is my day to go before the Beit Din. But,

Today belongs to Gilad Shalit.
And freedom.
And the value of human life.

Much love,

xx

Reform Judaism, Conversion & Finding My Own Path

It is now less than two weeks ’til I go before the Beit Din, the Jewish rabbinical court, for the formal completion of my conversion to Judaism. Prior to that I had to sit down and write a statement to the court about what this means to me.

I thought I’d share it with you.

~ * ~

Nearer to two years ago a lovely lovely lady called P. was the designated meeter-and-greeter at the doors of my shul. It was also the very first time I visited a synagogue. I introduced myself to her and openly admitted that I was very nervous as I had never attended service before and was worried about doing the wrong things at the wrong times. Without hesitation, and with what I now recognise as characteristic generosity, P. asked would I like to sit with her and her husband so that I could just copy what they were doing?

I’ve been sitting with them ever since.

These days P. likes to embarrass me by introducing me to people as “their star pupil”, when, really, the truth is that they – alongside the rabbis and my fellow J-Preppies – have been star teachers; have been people I have learned and continue to learn so, so much from. I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been befriended by long-standing members of the congregation as well as newbie J-Prep students, allowing me to not only stand on the sidelines, but to feel genuinely part of the congregation and synagogue life. A true blessing.

This past year has been a big year of learning, of spiritual growth and understanding, yet at the same time I firmly maintain that my Jewish journey did not start with the J-Prep course, nor will it end with it. Certainly, this year has been different to any other year, and my life has been truly enriched by it, but rather than seeing the meeting with the Beit Din and the formal conversion as the end goal, I feel that it marks the end of the beginning of my Jewish journey.

I came to the J-Prep course having never lit Shabbat candles, never made Kiddush, never affixed a mezuzah and so forth; I had a very bookish understanding of what Judaism is. I now feel that I have much deeper insight into what it really means to be Jewish, and have discovered that the things I had connected with prior to J-Prep; my faith in the one true God, the Torah as a religious compass and so on – all the things that had brought me to the J-Prep course in the first place – have held true for me and haven’t changed. But, I now also know and appreciate that Judaism offers so much more on top of that. I have discovered that many of the core principles of Judaism hold the same moral values as those passed down to me by my parents; the pursuit of justice, championing democracy, being generous to those less fortunate and being open to those different to myself.

I have been struck by the strong sense of community, the constant strive to make informed choices and decisions – even the freedom to challenge the texts we’ve studied – and they have all added a whole new dimension to my life and to the way I think about faith and religion.

Being Jewish means, especially this time of the year, to stop and reflect introspectively, to take a long, hard and truly honest look at what I can do to better this world through bettering myself. It means doing that very difficult thing; asking forgiveness. From God, from my friends, sometimes even my enemies, and, maybe the hardest thing of all; forgiving myself for those times when I have let myself down. To, rather than simply berating myself for my shortcomings, accepting that I am not perfect and never will be, but also recognising that I have been given the blessing of making a different choice in the future.

Even my choice of Hebrew name – Emunah אמונה – serves as a reminder to keep faith in my mind and to remain faithful, not just through words, but through actions and deeds; through actively doing what I can to help heal this very precious and beautiful world we have been given, whether it be through choosing Fairtrade products over products of unknown origin, making sure I recycle things rather than just binning them, or through taking on an active role in the setting up of a refugee drop-in centre rather than leaving it for Mr & Mrs Someone Else to do. It is a reminder that it’s not enough to just tell people that I am now Jewish. I need also recognise for myself and demonstrate to others that I am Jewish not only when I attend service or say my prayers, light my Shabbat candles or study Torah (all of which are, of course, integral parts of living a Jewish life), but that I am living Judaism in all aspects of my life.

To formally convert to Judaism is the difference between looking at someone else’s photograph album and being alive and present in the very moment that snapshot is taken.

Being Jewish is not just an adjective, it is also a verb.”

~ * ~

Click here to read about my meeting with the Beit Din.

Below is this year’s film from The Movement for Reform Judaism.


Yom Kippur, Leather Boots & True Repentance

 

 

My beloved and much appreciated Doc Martens

During the High Holy Days, and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – in particular, there is a commonly observed Jewish custom of not wearing leather shoes. One reason given for this custom is that traditionally leather shoes have been seen as being more comfortable than other shoes, and on a day of such solemnity one should minimise one’s comforts.

Another basis for this custom is that it would be inappropriate to wear leather shoes on this day of repentance, as an animal had to die in order for those shoes to be made. To some degree I agree with this and thus, last year, I made the decision to not wear leather shoes throughout the entire High Holy Day period.

This year I’ve not been quite as observant in this regard,  mainly because my energies have been focused on things other than what clothes to wear and what shoes go with which outfit. But also, last year, while I did make a conscious decision to not wear leather, I couldn’t get this niggling thought out of my head: Why is it seen as inappropriate to wear shoes [or coats, belts, handbags and so on] made from leather only* at this time of the year? Surely, if you truly believe that one should not wear something for which an animals life had to be sacrificed, then this must be true all year round? No?

Now, while I’m not prepared to give up my Vans, Docs or other items made of leather, I have been pondering this idea, on and off, and wondering if there is not perhaps another way for me to honour the fact that an animal had to die for me to have those comforts? Or maybe an additional way?

So, this morning I got all of my leather shoes and boots out, and spent a good few hours cleaning, polishing and buffing them. I didn’t do it in order to make them look good – although that is a nice side effect, indeed – but to make sure I kept them in the best possible condition for them to last as long as possible.

I know this probably sounds like the seventh degree of madness, but while sitting there, doing this work, I really did feel an odd sense of connection with something other than just a pair of old Docs. I was sitting there, remembering all the times I’ve worn those boots, how much I love them, how they’ve been with me for such a long time – almost as if we’ve been on this big spiritual journey together, and that through caring for those shoes I was in a sense paying my respect to the animal from which they came.  And it felt meaningful.

Will I be wearing my Docs for Yom Kippur? Probably not.
But I do feel that the true repentance, or, rather, the genuine acknowledgement that these boots didn’t just spring out of nowhere, took place during those moments of connection – and came from a very real place.

xx

PS. If you enjoyed this alternative take on atonement, you may be interested in reading this piece, written by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers  about how people suffering from an eating disorder could make teshuvah by not fasting on Yom Kippur.