Sunday, March 15, 2015

Judaism, Mentality, and Vera

This is my first blog post done from an actual computer and not my trusty cell phone.  Heh, let's see how this plays out.

In less than a month from now, I am going to become a Jew.  Yes, you read that right.  A Jew, a person of Jewish belief and faith, a Jew-by-Choice.  And I bet you're probably asking yourself this question:

Why?

I'm glad you asked.

This isn't an easy question to answer, at least on my end.  The thought of even considering another religion than the one I was born into, let alone choosing to take on another religion and not any religion at all, isn't one someone takes very lightly.  When I was at the end of my proverbial rope in November 2013, I knew that I needed to believe in something because I could no longer believe in myself.  I didn't have much to turn to, though; my father and my second ex-fianc√© were both Orthodox Christians.  My mother, even though she married an Orthodox Christian, maintained her Presbyterian beliefs.  I even asked why G-d (an explanation on that later) would make me suffer through all of this unnecessary pain.

It wasn't until December 13, 2013, that would give me a way to explore what I was really capable of doing with myself.  And it came through an issue of Cleveland Scene magazine.

Picture this, I'm sitting at a deli on Pearl Road and Brooklyn Avenue in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood on a rather nice early Friday afternoon.  Folks are coming in and out, ordering their sandwiches and gyros for their pre-weekend meals.  As I'm waiting for my sandwich to arrive to my table, I grab a Scene magazine and opened it up.  In one of the first few pages was this full-page color advertisement, eye catching with the purple background, asking folks to try "A Taste of Judaism".  I was intrigued by it at first, but then realized I didn't have much money to play with; I had just left my job earlier that week after being there for 5.5 years.  Then, towards the bottom of the ad, it said that the once-a-week for three week course was free.  Heh, I like free.  So, as my sandwich finally arrives to my table, I decide to give this a run.  I mean, shit, I'm about to go through bankruptcy and applying for disability, I have nothing better to do with my time.  I decided to check it out.

What was amazing about "A Taste of Judaism" was not that it took place in one of the two synagogues (or shuls or temples) located west of the Cuyahoga River in the Greater Cleveland area (seriously, there are, like, 30 shuls east of the Cuyahoga River), but who was attending the course along with me.  Half of the students (mostly older folks, retirees and such) were also Orthodox Christian.  A couple told me of their Orthodox Christianity (they were American Orthodox, as they call it; here in the USA, Orthodox Christians identify themselves by which ethnicity and/or language their services are given, and yes, they drop the "Christian" because "hello, who else is Orthodox but Christians?" mentality) and also explained they were taking the class because "Orthodox Christianity is so close to Judaism, and we would love to learn about our Jewish history."  Meanwhile, I, identifying as (at the time) Ukrainian Orthodox, just nodded my head and kept my focus to the instructor and her explanation of what made Judaism so special, and why it is so misunderstood (especially on Cleveland's West Side).

The one of two things that got me hooked to Judaism was the triangle concept of G-d, ethics, and the community.  G-d (most Jews believe that if they were to use the actual word of G-o-d [minus the hyphens] in a text that is not considered kadosh, or holy, then it is viewed as an abomination to G-d; go figure) is a being of our understanding; you don't have to deal with a "used car salesperson" (my description, not anyone else's) as a middleperson between you and G-d.  Ethics are ways of living based on Torah, or the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), in the Hebrew Bible (or Tanach; Christians refer to this text as the "Old Testament").  And community is where people pitch in to not only help themselves and one another, but to make the religion thrive for several millenia.  Works of volunteerism, caregiving, and social justice are very important to Jews.

The other thing that got me hooked was Israel.  Especially when an emissary from Israel came in to talk to the class about what life is like there.  Some of the things I've learned were as follows:  
  1. Israel is in Asia and not Europe (thanks, Eurovision, for fooling me on that one, heh)
  2. The Land of Israel and the State of Israel are two different concepts within one nation (the Land being more biblical while the State being more diplomatic), and
  3. There are folks to emigrate to Israel to live there....and they love it!  
To me, that was completely unheard of; why would folks go to a country where they are the target of hate and jealousy among its surrounding countries and they get bombed from time to time by their neighbors?!

And that's just it; the mentality.  The mentality of Jews is so far different than the mentality of Gentiles (or non-Jews).  The word "Jew" itself is not a derogatory term, but a positive identifying label.  The idea of tikkun olam (reparation of Earth) is something that everyone has a part in.  Something about sharing the joy and love of being around one another, regardless if you even believe in G-d itself, and not to be admonished for your lack of belief.  Judaism, to me, is not just a religion, but it is a way of life.  That way of life within the Jewish religion lit a spark in me after the Israeli emissary did her slideshow presentation about her life back home, and I wanted more.

After "A Taste of Judaism" ended, I signed up for "A Feast of Judaism," which explored deeper into different concepts of Jewish life.  I found a Reform (very liberal, open, and affirming) synagogue (yep, on the East Side in the city of Beachwood) that I now attend almost regularly, for both Friday night Shabbat services as well as Wednesday morning Torah studies.  And on April 14, 2015, I will proclaim myself to becoming a full-fledged Jew.  I seriously can not wait for that day.

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