Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.

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Remembering Mom (and Grandma) on her Birthday

This week we marked my mom’s birthday.  She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration.  Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.

Family photo

Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places

One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning.  The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times.  When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless.  When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.

I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday.  The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself.  It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.

Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax.  As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday.  But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything.  Birthdays are very special in our family because of her.  Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me.  I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get.  And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.

I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller.  It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself.  It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma.  I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me.  And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:

I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma.  In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life.  Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real.  She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan.  The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.

But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me.  Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me.  She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring.  She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make).  She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow.  She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity.  I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.

Photo of my grandmother

One of many beautiful pictures of my mom

While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind.  So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.

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Celebrating Shabbat on Vacation

Lighting the candles with iShabbat in Seattle

My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’t celebrate Shabbat at all.

My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, “Mommy, its Friday.”

“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.

“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”

“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.

“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.

“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”

“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.

“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.

“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.

It wasn’t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.

After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.

I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.

Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is very…un-Shabbat. It’s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.

Our second vacation Shabbat was observed at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island

I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles “burned” over a two-hour period.

With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.

We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.

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Reason # 1: Why Being Interfaith is a Plus

When you are a mixed-faith couple, you loose the ability to assume from the get go.  The question is not when we celebrate Yom Kippur, with whose family will we break fast?  We need to start from more basic questions: Will we celebrate Yom Kippur? Will we both fast? And now that we have kids, how will we celebrate with our kids?

This inability to assume, and therefore the need to have an intention about our practice, is one of the greatest things about being from different faiths. In my marriage and co-parenting, I think this sometimes gives us a leg up, and its something that I wish was celebrated more.

When my husband and I were first thinking about marriage, we went to meet with a rabbi who ran a course for interfaith couples. Before he told us about the class, he asked us if we thought we’d have a Jewish home. We told him we thought so, but we hadn’t figured everything out yet. With this in mind, he recommended that rather than taking his interfaith class, we take his Intro to Judaism class, to figure out if we were going to be an interfaith family or a Jewish family (he had marriage classes for both).

ParentingSo we took the class. It was a great class. We learned that we loved to study together.  And the class triggered a long series of conversations, about what holidays we wanted to celebrate, and how, about how we imagined marking life cycle events, and, at the core, about what it meant that we would create a home and life together, a nuclear family that melded the two individual histories we brought to the coupledom.

[As an aside, InterfaithFamily has a great online workshop for interfaith couples called "Love & Religion" that you can learn more about here.]

This is where the “leg up” comes to bear. All pairings, whether you were raised next door to one another or in different countries, bring two separate perspectives on life to the table when they marry. In an interfaith pairing, the separation between the perspectives is pronounced, highlighted by the difference in two easy to identify components of family history. This can be a gift – a gift in that the differences shout out to us, and demand attention. For Eric and me, it meant the dialogue about how “he” and “I” would become “we” started before our engagement, before we were thrown into trying to make a wedding that was fun for everyone (it was!), building a home together, and raising kids. It demanded a way to talk about things, to identify difference, and to navigate it.

I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but sometimes in same-faith couples, the differences are subtle, and they whisper until they need attention, often coming as a surprise. While our life together is not without our share of these surprises, I am thankful, particularly as we try to parent a 4-year-old who is as strong-willed and self-determined as I know I was at 4, that the interfaith dynamic of our relationship made negotiating differences a part of our life and commitment from day one.

Being interfaith is often talked about as a challenge, a barrier that separates you from the rest of the community. While I won’t deny the challenges, I think perhaps we have a few positive things we can teach to those who “in-marry.” Can you name some others?

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Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor

Shabbat at camp is "cool" and adds a sense of sacredness to the camp experience.

My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.

I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.

I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.

But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.

As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.

Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.

My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.

An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.

I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.

Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”

Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?

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Nice to Meet You (and why I almost didn’t become your IFF blogger)

Jessie and her daughters

My name is Jessie and I am very excited to have my very own blog on InterfaithFamily. My bio will tell you some of the following: I live in Boston with my charming husband and my two (fascinating, and almost always charming) daughters. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and my husband was raised Protestant. We are raising our children Jewish.

I look forward to sharing some thoughts about our life as a family for two reasons. One is because we are always retooling, reassessing and renewing our path, and I hope to explore that with others who might be doing the same. Second, I think that the fact that we were raised in two faiths has strengthened our relationship and spirituality, and is generally a plus – an often-unsung bonus of being “interfaith” (more on that in future posts, which I hope will be helpful to you).

Today, though, I wanted to start out by reflecting on this concept of being an interfaith family, something that I have been pondering for a few years now. Because of the two reasons I just described, I love the idea of blogging here. But I almost didn’t answer IFF’s call for bloggers, because after 8 years of marriage, interfaith doesn’t fit right for me.

In common definition, I guess “interfaith” is a category we inhabit, but it doesn’t feel like it tells our story. Eric and I agreed early on that as parents that it was our responsibility to choose one religion, and to partner in weaving that tradition into our family life (something I also hope to talk about with you). So we are Jewish, but of course nothing is straightforward.

I think the best explanation of my family is that we are a Jewish home in a loving multi-faith family. I am lucky that my husband and I have come from two great families with strong values and dedication to being families, and maintaining those connections has always been at the forefront of our decision-making. Our extended family includes a multitude of spiritual practices, both within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), and Christianity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian). We have family members who don’t practice any religion. And we have some family members who practice more than one faith in their home. So the bottom line is that we deal with lots of questions that are often categorized as “interfaith,” but I don’t use that term for my nuclear family.

Because our story is multi-layered (whose isn’t?), so is my goal for my children. I hope that they will grow up as Jews with a deep respect and curiosity about the faiths of our family members, an ability to help grandparents and cousins and friends celebrate religious holidays with joy, and an understanding that all people of faith are struggling with the same questions – what it means to be a good person, how to find purpose in life, and how to connect with others.  I’m looking forward to reflecting on that with you.

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This is my Story. What’s Yours?


My maternal great-grandparents standing outside of their Conservative synagogue with my grandmother and great-uncle.

My name is Jane Larkin and I’m excited to be one of the new writers for InterfaithFamily’s parenting blog. I’m the Jewish half of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. I live in Dallas, TX with my husband Cameron and eight-year-old son Sammy. Cameron lives Jewishly and is actively involved in raising Sammy within Judaism. But this isn’t my whole story.

As a Jewish young adult, I always assumed I would marry a Jew and I did. But after two years the marriage ended in divorce. The relationship failed because I married for religion, not love. I wanted to prove to my family that I could in-marry, which is not the best criteria for choosing a mate.

The fact that in-marriage was important to my family was ironic since I came from a family in which intermarriage and Jewish continuity had co-existed for generations. My subsequent intermarriage was just following in my family’s footsteps.

My maternal great-grandmother was not Jewish when she married my great-grandfather in the 1920s. She never converted, but lived her life as a Jew within Conservative Judaism and raised Jewish children – one being my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother was married to the son of an Orthodox cantor by a prominent Conservative rabbi in the 1940s when no denomination recognized patrilineal descent. My grandmother’s religious lineage was kept secret since it was known that neither she nor her future children would be accepted as Jews. Still, my grandfather’s Orthodox parents accepted the match recognizing that inclusiveness was a good investment in a Jewish future.

My father also came from an interfaith home. His mother was not Jewish, but she too created a Jewish home and supported Jewish family life. My dad became a bar mitzvah in the 1950s at a Conservative synagogue that his father helped to build.

What all of this interfaith family history means is that technically, my family is not Jewish even though we have practiced and identified as Jews for generations. I often wonder how many other Jews have interfaith DNA in their genealogical closet. I suspect that there are others that choose to keep their religious lineage a secret even though families like mine are now recognized as Jewish by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

So this is my family’s interfaith and Jewish story. I hope that by sharing it that you will be encouraged to share yours too.

 

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Three Year Olds and God

There’s something about that age, for my kids, anyway.  Three is where they start to get a concept of God – and I find it absolutely magical.

When Jessica Mary was three, she was so fascinated by the concept of God that I started looking much more seriously at Judaism, because I wanted a strong religious foundation for her.  There was no Church of Melissa that I could send her to for formal instruction, and when I looked at raising her in my spiritual tradition or Marc’s – Marc’s was the clear winner.  On the theological bones of it, Judaism was such an easy fit for my beliefs – and Judaism had the added bonus of already having a huge community waiting to welcome her.  She loved the rituals, lighting the candles and making the blessings, and explaining that something was a mitzvah was the quickest way to ensure her cooperation.  As a three year old, her spirituality was already so defined.

When Samuel Earl was three years old, he was the same way.  He wanted to have a birthday party, just him and God for his fourth birthday.  Part of that was that he didn’t like people all that much and at least God wouldn’t be looking at him and making him talk – but part of it was also that he had a profound connection to nature and trees and being outside.  I called him my little Druid – he was intensely connected to nature.  I remember him sobbing after a really bad storm came through and so many trees were lost.  It was painful for him on a level that was hard to watch.  For Sam, his belief in God has always been intense and natural and easy.  God is his friend, God made the trees and when there is damage done to nature, Sam is devastated, not just for him, but also for God.

And my Julianna Ruth, who turned three in April… Last night, I started reading her a book that I had picked up for Sam for summer reading. First Book of Jewish Bible Stories - and I just read the beginning of it, where God first created the world. She was fascinated.  It was a story she’s heard before, because she goes to preschool services at the synagogue, and she knew the song about the days of the week, ending in Shabbat. She was so excited about it, reading about her friend God. She announced that he was her new best friend, and how he must have created people so that they could be his friends – and I thought about what a fascinating way children have of boiling down theology to their level.  And how safe and reassured she was – God was out there, and God loved her and she loved God, and it was so exactly what I wanted her to take away from the story.

I struggle sometimes with Judaism.  I don’t feel at home with the culture all of the time.  I don’t like gefilte fish, and don’t understand Hebrew.  But what I love about it is that the Jewish God is my God. He (or She) is the one that I’ve been connected to for as long as I remember, and I have always felt as though we have a very personal, individual relationship. And when I’ve struggled the most is when I’ve felt cut-off from that relationship. But in the end, I believe what my kids believe. I think three year olds know it all already, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand it: That God loves us, and gave us tools to make it easier to connect with each other and with God, that the natural world is intimately a part of God and that in the end, the world is a better and brighter place because of our relationship with God.

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Shabbat

It was what sold me on Judaism in the first place.  Shabbat represented family harmony, elevating common everyday things to a sacred level.  Taking a whole day, an evening and night and the whole next day to just appreciating what you have.  Preparing a big dinner, taking a quiet moment to light the candles and thank God for the food and the light and the family in front of you, spending the next day partially with community, and partly with just family… It was the first thing about Judaism that felt like it was mine, the first thing that made me feel like I wasn’t just doing it for someone else, this was what I wanted.  For me, for my husband, and for my kids.  It’s the foundation for me, it’s what keeps me grounded in Judaism.  I don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, the emphasis on the Torah is sometimes confusing to me – but Shabbat, Shabbat I understand.  Shabbat brings me back, week after week, to what I want most for my life.

So why is it so hard?

I think it’s a function of my life right now.  I’m essentially alone with all three kids all week long.  My husband works so much, and the hours are so brutal.  I’m achingly aware, all the time, of his absence and how much the kids miss him.  How much I miss him.  And how much EASIER it is when he’s home.  Just having another adult in the house, someone to answer the questions or pay attention or help with homework, even just someone to pour me a cup of coffee when I’m too busy to do it myself.

Friday night comes and goes, and he’s not here.  I’m trying to make an effort to at least light the candles with the kids, but last night’s dinner was beans and hot dogs.  I put my toddler, Julianna,  to bed, and then my ten year old daughter, Jessica, conked out on my bed next to her.  Sam, my almost seven year old, was rocking and rolling until Marc came home around nine thirty or so.  He ended up falling asleep on the couch while poor Marc ate leftovers after everyone else was sleeping.

This morning – I was just irritated.  The house was in shambles, coffee wasn’t made.  Julie was up at the crack of dawn, followed almost immediately by the other two.  The kids were battling, Julie was exhausted and screaming, literally screaming whenever something didn’t go her way.  Nothing went her way.  And I yelled at Marc until he finally left the house just to escape.

I drove to the synagogue, in no mood for any kind of spiritual activities at all, but Julie loves it so I went.  Dragging a reluctant Sam, because he wanted to stay home and color.  Jessie had gone to my in-laws for a visit, so I just had the two little ones.  They did not behave in an exemplary fashion, and at one point, I had to lean over and hiss in Julie’s ear “If you don’t stop right now, we won’t come again.”  That’s right, I threatened to take away Shabbat if she couldn’t behave.  Stellar parenting right there.

As I was driving home, still aggravated and feeling put upon and stressed out, I grumbled to myself that I don’t like Shabbat.  I was thinking it’s too close to the work week, there’s too much stress and pressure and I need a day to decompress before I can really relax and appreciate my life.   But Julie piped up from the back about how much she LOVES Shabbat, she get to see Ellen and Aviva and Abi and Tali at the kids service, and challah and grape juice.  I thought for a minute or two, but even after that, I was still crabby and unpleasant.

Then I got a brief window of time, went out all by myself.  Marc took the kids and they let me go without too many tears.  For a brief period of time, I was able to just… be.  Just exist.  Do what I wanted, go where I wanted to go.  So I got take out chinese, and went to get books.  Of course.  And I felt better.

Maybe a whole day for Shabbat is just out of reach for me at this point.  Maybe all I can manage is a few minutes, here and there.  I did light the candles last night, and Julianna, oddly enough, can recite the blessings by herself.  I didn’t know that until last night.  And Jessica cleaned the house while I was gone earlier and had a tea party with Crabbianna to keep her occupied.  On my way back, I picked up Sam and brought him shopping with me, and we picked out dessert for tonight.

Maybe Shabbat is found in little pockets of time that I manage to cull out of my life these days, maybe I should try harder to find them during the week.  Moments like yesterday afternoon when Sammy sang on stage, and last night when my Jessie snuggled up next to me like she was a little girl and fell asleep that way.  Moments when Marc loves me despite the fact that I yelled at him until he left, rather than fight back with me, because clearly I was too irritable to have a rational discussion.

Maybe I need to rethink Shabbat.  Just a little.  Just for a while.  Because there’s opportunity for holiness everywhere, and gratitude and solace and harmony.  There are moments, every day, I just need to be more present and aware of them.  Maybe I need to focus more on trying to have a little of it every day, instead of resenting the fact that I can’t have a whole day of concentrated Shabbat-ness.

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Hair covering Imposter

I have been sitting on my couch for much of the afternoon reliving my experience in Israel, looking at some pictures and trying to find another flight to go back.

I covered my hair while I was in Israel, in part because I wanted to protect my head from the sun, but also because I was in the Holy Land, I felt a bit compelled to cover my hair the same way I do when I go to Shul.

There is the concept in Jewish tradition that a married woman covers her hair, as a symbol of modesty. Hair is considered sensual, and a married saves all her sensuality for the eyes of her husband alone. I have grown to appreciate this concept. I have been wearing skirts that go below my knees and long sleeve shirts for quite some time.

I hadn’t taken the leap to covering my hair full time. Right now I feel a strong pull to do it. Part of me feels a bit like an imposter though. Since my husband isn’t Jewish, I know there are a few mitzvahs that I don’t have to do, like keeping the purity laws (going to the Mikvah every month). I don’t know if covering my hair would fall under that category as well.

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