Friday, May 29, 2015

The Speech, The Rest, and Vera

The following is what I presented during Friday night Shabbat service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, on Friday, May 22, 2015.

A link to the archived service is right here.  The fun begins with an introduction at 34:25.  Note: the presentation of the speech had a few extra words, but everything else was included.

Shabbat Shalom.

My name is Vera Anna Didenko.  The name Vera Anna Didenko is my current legal name.  In 1981, I was born with the name Vera Ann Pletin, the second and final child to a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian father and an American Presbyterian Christian mother.

I was baptized as an Orthodox Christian, and I attended Sunday services at different Ukrainian Orthodox Christian churches for a number of years with my family.  But because my father did not speak or teach the Ukrainian language in the home, my family was isolated and ostracized by the church community.  In 1993, my parents told me that we were no longer going to church.  No reason was given, we just stopped going.

For the next twenty years, I visited other churches of various denominations, as well as Orthodox churches of various ethnicity, usually for Christmas or Easter or with friends.  With each church I attended, however, I didnt feel like I fit in.  I tried to return to the Ukrainian Orthodox church. When people of the congregation came up to me, they would speak in Ukrainian.  And when I couldnt respond, they looked very disappointed, like I was supposed to know all of this.

In December 2013, I read the latest edition of Cleveland Scene magazine.  In that issue, there was a full-page advertisement of an upcoming event called A Taste of Judaism. The once-a-week-for-3-weeks event was free, but you had to register to participate.  I decided to give A Taste of Judaism a try.  And to my surprise, about half of the students enrolled in A Taste of Judaism were also Orthodox Christian.  The students in the class were given sweets in the beginning as part of the learning process.  I liked the concept that the instructor explained what Judaism emphasized: the triad of G-d, Torah, and Community.  It was a concept unfamiliar to what I had experienced in the Christian belief.  Another unfamiliar concept I discovered in this class was the encouragement to have an open mind; to make your own decisions, to be open to learning new things, and to question why things are instead of just following a specific doctrine or face severe punishment.  By the third and final class, a guest came in to show us a slideshow of what life was like in Israel.  It was when she showed a slide of Tel Aviv, something clicked, like a light bulb was activated, inside my head.  I was impressed by what I saw on that slide.  I felt that I needed to investigate this a bit further.  

At the end of the series, the instructor handed out a list of all the synagogues in the area.  On the East Side of Cleveland, there were about 85 synagogues listed (okay, maybe not that many, but they were a lot).  I decided to check out a synagogue on the East Side.  Out of this list, I picked five synagogues to check out, based on researching their websites.  I decided to go in alphabetical order, starting with what I thought this place was called, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.  

When I first came here, I was really scared.  This was territory that not many West Siders, that I knew, ever did and openly admitted to; enter a synagogue.  And then I met Rabbi Josh Caruso.  He seemed really nice when we began talking about why, of all things, did I want to become a Jew.   Then Rabbi Caruso started to mention about maybe I should attend a synagogue back over on the West Side because it was closer to where I lived.  He kept trying to discourage me two more times.  I began to think that, well, it must be true; these folks dont like West Siders after all.  But then, Rabbi Caruso handed me a couple of books to read.  At this point I was really confused; why tell me to check out a West Side temple but then give me some books to read?  Finally, Rabbi Caruso gave me a quick tour of the synagogue (oh yeah, Rabbi Caruso corrected my attempt at saying the temples name; its pronounced Anshe KHesed,). He also told me to check out a Friday night Shabbat service, the Wednesday morning Torah study, and the Chevrei Tikva Chavurah, the LGBT service held at Fairmount.  And that whole discouragement thing Rabbi Caruso was trying to do?  I found out thats what a rabbi does to a conversion candidate; to see if they are really interested in converting or not by discouraging them.  So much for the East Side/West Side drama.

I started this exploration into the unknown by attending the Wednesday morning Torah study class, where I would get to know classmates including Marilyn Bilsky, Sandy and Bob Schwartz, Pat Singer, Laurenda Messer, Archie Berk, and Jim Samuels.  A couple of days later, I attended my first Shabbat service at Fairmount, being grouped with Paul Sobel and Leah Ratner as guides to get me familiar with what happens at a service.  A week later, I attended both a Shabbat service with Fairmount Temple and with Chevrei Tikva Chavurah.  With Chevrei Tikva, folks including Rivkah Tobin, Janet Held, Karen and Bob Gross, Joyce Donnelly and her son Bruce, and Keith Abramson welcomed me in with such open arms.  And those books that Rabbi Caruso gave to me?   One of those books was Aleph Isnt Tough, the first of a Hebrew workbook series for adult beginners.  Heh, I finished that book, the second book, Aleph Isnt Enough, and Im halfway done with the third book, Bet is for Breishit.  Pretty soon, Rabbi Caruso is going to have to order for me the final book in the series, Tav is for Torah.  And during this entire time; I did it despite how my parents felt.  My mother wasnt happy that I was studying Judaism to begin with.  My father was more cautiously optimistic about my ambition; just dont give them any money, he warned.  I continued to attend both Friday night Shabbat services and Wednesday morning Torah study classes, making the 19-mile drive one way from Parma Heights to Beachwood and back.  At times I would drive to temple, other times I had to rely on the RTA.  

I didnt make it to the other four synagogues, I stayed here at Fairmount.

I ended up getting involved with other aspects of Jewish life outside of temple.  An example would be attending a Seder during Pesach.  My very first Seder took place at the Goldfarbs.  Ivan and Sonia invited me to experience what Pesach was truly about.  The feeling of being one with the Seder was truly an awesome experience; being able, if only for a few hours, to experience the joy and humility of being free, no longer being kept in some form of bondage to something cruel and evil.  Since my first Seder, I have been to four more Seders; celebrating with Chevrei Tikva, with the Women of Fairmount Temple, at the Singers, and once again with the Goldfarbs.  

I was even inspired by a passage from a book called Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, that I made my first piece of Judaica jewelry; a necklace with a heart and a bow.  On the heart, it reads: Proverbs 3:3, which tells us: Do not let either grace or loyalty, nor truth or faithfulness, leave you. Bind them on your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.  For some people, certain Holy Scripture verses have so much meaning to them.  With this verse, it almost makes my name stand out.  Two words, truth and faithfulness used in separate contexts of the same passage, is derived from the same word in two different languages.  And that word is Vera.  So I call Proverbs 3:3 my Vera-verse. 

What my studies in Judaism did for me helped bring out some of the things I really didnt believe I had until now; self-confidence, self-esteem, self-care, and forgiveness.  Whenever I felt like I was at the end of my rope, I would pick up the other book Rabbi Caruso gave to me, On the Doorposts of Your House, and read the prayer for someone who has experienced trauma in their life.  Whenever I felt the need to run away, I would find myself escaping to the Lelyveld library, to pick up a Tanakh and just read for a few hours.  And after it was all said and done, along with the gracious support from all of my Gentile friends, it was Judaism and Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and Chevrei Tikva Chavurah that were the driving forces that saved me from myself.  Being one with the community here was like I had found my match; a makeup foundation that I could wear on my face as well as on my sleeve and on my soul.  

I made the successful transition from Gentile to Jew on April 14, 2015.  And I have you to thank for giving me a chance to actually live a life; to have dreams of doing great things and growing old and being in a beloved community and one day down the road to visit Israel and to do an adult bat mitzvah, and so many other things.  Before Judaism, I had none of those dreams, or any real dreams of my own future; I was just surviving, lucky if I would to see tomorrow because I was just a drifter in this life.  And now with Judaism, I dont have to just survive, I can live.  I can thrive in this life, because I now have this chance.  I have this freedom.  I have this choice.  I have this identity.  I have this voice. 

I am Vera Anna Didenko.

I am autistic.

I am pansexual.

I am genderfluid.

And now, I am a Jew.

Shabbat Shalom.

2 comments:

  1. Come experience the beauty of Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun. Unplug and be uplifted!
    Our Carlebach-style Friday evening service is filled with uplifting song and our new Shabbat Rocks! service is sure to get you singing (see more information below). The Friday evening service usually begins at 6:00 pm, but when it begins at 7:00 or 7:30 pm, we hold a festive oneg afterwards. Please view the Daily Minyan page for this week's current time.
    Saturday morning is filled with activity ranging from our weekly Starbucks, Bread & Torah study, religious school, children’s services, and Open Tent, an alternative lay-led minyan. The centerpiece is the service in the David J. Moskowitz Sanctuary led by our fabulous Cantor Aaron Shifman and our terrific team of rabbis, which begins at 9:00 am. Experience the depth of prayer, hear the Torah chanted by our knowledgeable core of readers of all ages, wrestle with the meaning of our texts and traditions, and join us for a beautiful kiddush in the Gross Atrium following the service.

    Shabbat services Cleveland

    ReplyDelete
  2. Come experience the beauty of Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun. Unplug and be uplifted!
    Our Carlebach-style Friday evening service is filled with uplifting song and our new Shabbat Rocks! service is sure to get you singing (see more information below). The Friday evening service usually begins at 6:00 pm, but when it begins at 7:00 or 7:30 pm, we hold a festive oneg afterwards. Please view the Daily Minyan page for this week's current time.
    Saturday morning is filled with activity ranging from our weekly Starbucks, Bread & Torah study, religious school, children’s services, and Open Tent, an alternative lay-led minyan. The centerpiece is the service in the David J. Moskowitz Sanctuary led by our fabulous Cantor Aaron Shifman and our terrific team of rabbis, which begins at 9:00 am. Experience the depth of prayer, hear the Torah chanted by our knowledgeable core of readers of all ages, wrestle with the meaning of our texts and traditions, and join us for a beautiful kiddush in the Gross Atrium following the service.

    Shabbat services Cleveland

    ReplyDelete