A Rabbi, a Puppy, a Catholic and a Jew Walk into a Bar

  
Emily and Jose take a break from wedding planning to enjoy time outside.

Emily and Jose take a break from wedding planning to enjoy time outside

A rabbi, a puppy, a Catholic and a Jew walk into a bar… Sounds like the setup for a bad joke, right? Much the opposite. It was a brainstorming session for incorporating religious traditions and the things we love into our wedding ceremony.

Jose and I joined a reform synagogue last year—Rodeph Shalom on Broad Street. We joined not because I felt particularly religious at the time, and not because Jose is planning on converting, but because we felt a strong sense of community there. Jose accompanied me to a High Holiday service there a few years back and we noticed same-sex couples, multiracial couples and folks of all ages. It was eye-opening to me. Growing up in Baltimore, I had not seen that kind of diversity inside a synagogue. Jose and I instantly felt a welcoming and inclusive vibe and figured this synagogue must be doing something right. Jose even remarked that this was not the exclusive, “chosen” mentality he’s previously encountered with Judaism. I agreed.

We took a class with a young rabbi by the name of Eli, and it proved extremely beneficial for us in understanding each other’s spirituality. The class was called “Judaism 101,” but it was not designed to preach Judaism’s teachings. It was a discussion about the basic tenets of Judaism and whether we identify with those principles and ideas of god (little “g” and big “G”). With our classmates old and young, Jewish and not, religious and not, and of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, we discussed how each of our upbringings have influenced our thinking. Jose got to dip his toes further into the world of Judaism and I got a refresher course and some new information.

Rabbi Eli invited the class to his beautiful apartment in the city for Shabbat dinner and we loved the experience. We’ve since gone to a few other Shabbat/Hanukkah dinners through the synagogue and through InterfaithFamily, and we have kept in touch with events happening at the synagogue. Through the wedding contest that we recently won, the officiant was chosen for us. She is amazing (see my previous blog post!), but I wanted to incorporate a personal touch for the Jewish aspect of the wedding. The ketubah signing (Jewish marriage license) traditionally happens right before the ceremony and it is very important to me, so we reached out to Rabbi Eli to see if he would be interested in officiating it.

Rabbi Eli suggested we meet at a bar (how cool is that?) and we brought along our 7-month-old puppy and sat outside at one of the best bars in the city. If you had asked me at age 13 whether I’d be having drinks with a rabbi at a bar I would have slapped you and called you crazy. If you had even asked me whether I’d belong to a synagogue and have a rabbi that I called on, I might call you crazy for that. Needless to say, there we were.

We spoke with Rabbi Eli about the most meaningful thing to us in the wedding—the ceremony. Although we were there to discuss the ketubah signing, he became an amazing sounding board for all of our questions about the ceremony. We discussed what religious traditions we could incorporate and how the choices would be significant to our families and friends. We talked about how to involve our families in the ceremony. We disclosed that while we enjoy sharing our love publicly (if you are friends with us on Facebook you know), I am private about things that are important to me and I want the ceremony to feel intimate. Most of all, we expressed how we are using our engagement as a time for reflection about our relationship. We are honest about what we each want from our marriage and we recognize that this is the time in our lives to speak openly about it. (Sidenote: It’s a lot less scary to ask your partner direct questions than to wonder what they think, and it’s a lot easier to do it now than in 10 or 20 years.) Plus, we want to build a solid foundation for the rest of our lives together and we want to be prepared for any challenges that may arise.

One of the biggest challenges in planning a wedding is to avoid getting wrapped up in the minutiae. I am eternally grateful to have won a wedding contest, because it has, for the most part, allowed us to remain relatively free of financial woes and family drama that is usually inherent in planning a wedding. Surely, the time will come when those challenges appear, but for now we are able to keep our focus on the marriage, not on the wedding, and we can focus on the foundation we’re building together.

After our meeting at the bar, Rabbi Eli shipped us a book he recommended we read, called Meeting at the Well: A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged. I’m about halfway through it, and it’s great. The focus of the book is on using the engagement period, however long it may be, to work through how you both feel about certain issues, religious and otherwise. While some of it can be cheesy, it does have exercises and discussion points on topics ranging from raising kids to intimacy to finances to how you spend your free time. It’s a great resource for us to discuss things we never thought would be important. I learned some new things about Jose in the process, which truly surprised me after six years of dating and five years of living together.

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to the fun stuff: bachelor and bachelorette parties, the tastings, the engagement photo shoot, working with the DJ on what songs to include and planning our honeymoon (no that’s not included!). Stay tuned for more updates on our wedding planning!

The Beerorah

  

The 4th Annual Beerorah (From 2013)

One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.

We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”

As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.

But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.

The 5th Annual Beerorah (From 2014)

That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.

You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.

Happy Holidays!

I’m doing it for me.

  

In the middle of the grueling Intro to Judaism class, I decided to devote yet more time to the synagogue and take the Beginner Hebrew class, taught by the Rabbi’s wife. We met on Sunday mornings, which meant I could go to the synagogue directly after the earliest Mass. The beginner class focused on the letters, pronunciation, and meanings of some basic root words and the intermediate class focused on the Hebrew in some of the common prayers. I ended up taking both Hebrew classes. For the last session, before summer hiatus, I read the Avot to both the Rabbi and his wife. The Rabbi would fix my pronunciation without even looking up and I would have to repeat the word until it was perfect. At the end of what seemed to be the longest hour of my life, the Rabbi asked me why I am taking all of these classes.

Without even thinking, I responded, “I’m not doing it for Sam. I’m doing it for me.” No one had ever asked me this question before and I hadn’t really thought about it, so I was shocked at the automatic response. It’s true; Sam was not pressuring me into taking any of these classes. He didn’t even ask me to take any of the classes. I took the initiative and signed up for the classes on my own, did all the reading, and practiced all the Hebrew, (and sometimes even refused Sam’s assistance).

“I’m doing it for me.” I want to learn about Judaism because it’s such a big part of Sam’s life. He devotes his Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and his life to Judaism and I want to understand why. I want to understand him better. I want to help Sam choose the Hebrew text for our Ketubah, and then be able to read and understand it. And, if we do decide to raise our children in the Jewish faith, I would like to be able to help them.

Throughout this quest of understanding why Sam is so devoted to Judaism, I am finding the religion, culture, and the language to be fascinating. The prayers, songs, and rituals of Friday night service are incredibly rich and deeply rooted in history. I find Sam’s synagogue to be a very peaceful and comforting place. Going to services regularly is spiritually fulfilling (to an extent). I feel a sense of belonging in his congregational community, and I also play on the temple’s softball team. I enjoy the home rituals, especially the challenge of finding Kosher for Passover recipes. However, in learning about the Jewish faith, I am reminded that it is not the religion for me.

Anne and Sam 2014

As Sam and I plan our lives together, I will continue learning about what makes him tick. I will take my time and go at my own pace to find where I belong in the religion aspect of his life. (Religion is one of those things where you have to find it at your own speed and enjoy it.) I do not plan to convert to Judaism, but I plan to continue learning about Sam’s religion, for myself.

How do you #ChooseLove? Tell us here!

Adventures with Sam

  

Sorry for the radio silence; throughout these last few weeks, I have been going on a series of vacations and experiences: adventures with Sam. He has taken me to Londonderry, NH, Grand Rapids, MI, Lambertville, NJ, and Allentown, PA. It’s been a busy month!

Sam at Moonlight Meadery

Sam at Moonlight Meadery

In the beginning of June, we visited Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire. They gave us a tour of their facility and we tasted about 14 different meads (honey-wine). It is incredible how they can mimic the flavors of apple pie or mojito with fermented honey. While we were in Londonderry, we visited a local brewery (603 Brewery) and a winery (Zorvino Vineyards). We can now say that we have been to a meadery, winery, and brewery in 2 days.

Last weekend, we drove to Michigan for the National Homebrew Conference. This is Sam’s jam- three days of all you can drink homebrewed beer! About a hundred different homebrew clubs from all over the country brought their best beers, and vendors showcased brewing equipment and supplies, and poured us more beer. Besides drinking and talking to vendors, there were about 50 different seminars. These speakers, titans of the beer world—Mitch Steele, Brew Master at Stone Brewing Company and John Palmer, author of How to Brew, and many others—talked about how different yeast cultures react in different temperatures, how to improve fermentation, and the secrets of aging in bourbon barrels and, you guessed it, they served more beer.

Members of Sam's homebrew club at the National Homebrew Competition

Members of Sam's homebrew club at the National Homebrew Competition

 

 

 

After three days of drinking really good beer, listening to famous beer people and talking with hundreds of other people about homebrewing, we have some really good ideas for our beer themed wedding.

Some of these Adventures with Sam have been “studying” for our wedding.  This past week, our families met at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to see Fiddler on the Roof.  Throughout the show, I heard them whispering to each other, “Will Anne and Sam have this at their wedding?” My mom held her breath while the bride and groom were hoisted on chairs, and my little brother was amazed at the dancers balancing bottles on their hats.

TThe Bottle Dance. Photo by Lee A. Butz. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Fiddler on the Roof.

The Bottle Dance. Photo by Lee A. Butz. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Fiddler on the Roof.

 

 

A few weeks before seeing Fiddler on the Roof, we went to a wedding near Lambertville, New Jersey. Throughout the wedding, we took notes on what we would do similarly or differently. The ceremony and reception took place outside on a lovely farm with a small group of friends. It was a perfect setting for dancing under the tent or enjoying the bonfire with a cocktail. We loved how all of the aspects of their wedding reflected who they are as a couple and we hope that our wedding does the same, which is why we will have a beer themed wedding.

Whether it is beer related or “studying” for our wedding, the Adventures with Sam are always fun times with many stories to tell. Maybe I should start writing a book and title it:

Adventures with Sam: The Story of My Life.

 

 

 

Symbols and Rituals and Traditions. Oh my.

  

These last few months have been busy with dress fittings, selecting the menu, arranging the seating chart, creating the invitations, ordering the suits, and other wedding plans. Sam and I continually remind ourselves that the wedding is only one day and we should focus on preparing for a marriage. This lifelong commitment to each other begins at the wedding ceremony. With that in mind, we are trying to combine the rituals and symbols of both Judaism and Catholicism in our ceremony.

            Sam’s parents (Pennye & Phil)                    on their wedding day

We specifically chose our priest and rabbi to not only co-officiate the ceremony, but also to guide us along this spiritual journey. The rabbi is someone very dear to Sam and the priest is the presider of my family’s parish. These two special people have been a part of various life cycle events in Sam’s and my life. They know us and our families very well, and we are honored that they will be officiating our marriage ceremony. The rabbi and priest continue to help us in the marriage preparations by proofing our ketubah language, assisting with Diocesan paperwork, and helping us with the order and symbols of the ceremony. In our first meeting with the priest, he gave us words of wisdom to keep in mind, throughout this entire process (and our lives): “Keep your own faith at heart, but do not minimize or trivialize the faith of the other.”

If I were converting to Judaism, or Sam to Catholicism, we would have chosen a specific house of worship for our ceremony, such as a synagogue or church. Because we are not, we decided to have our ceremony in a country club, a “neutral” location. This way, both faiths are equally visible and our guests won’t be uncomfortable in attending a wedding in another house of worship. By having our wedding on a Sunday afternoon, Sam and his family can still go to Shabbat services, and my family can go to early Sunday morning Mass.

Throughout the ceremony, we want to honor each other’s faiths, focusing on the similarities, rather than the differences. We have asked my brother, Chris, and Sam’s sister, Stacey, to help us explain the wedding rituals and symbols in each of our faiths at the start of the ceremony.

There are a few symbols that are used in both religions, such as bread, wine, rings, and most importantly, the vows. Sam and I will say the blessings over the bread and wine in our own respective religions.  The priest and rabbi will guide us in exchanging our vows and rings.

We have adapted some rituals and symbols to be more conducive to an interfaith wedding.  The chuppah is a symbol unfamiliar to my Catholic family, whereas the unity candle is a symbol unfamiliar to Sam’s Jewish family. We will sign our ketubah during the ceremony rather than before it, honoring the Catholic tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other beforehand. The traditional Jewish Seven Blessings will be said, with both fathers participating.  At the end of the ceremony, we will break the glass. This has many meanings in the Jewish faith, but for the two of us, it will also symbolize the breaking down of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths as our families are now joined together.

By incorporating some Jewish and Catholic wedding rituals in our ceremony, we will signal to our friends and family our intent to continue practicing our religions.  We hope that this public declaration of faith will communicate our plans to remain strong in faith while supporting our partner’s religious practice.

Passover Seder with Both Families

  

By Sam Goodman

 

Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?

We’re currently in the middle of one of the most widely-observed Jewish holidays, Passover.  One of the Shalosh Regalim, or three pilgrimage festivals (literally “three legs”), in ancient times Jews throughout the land of Israel would gather and make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and is one of the few holidays mentioned in the Torah.  In modern times, it is observed by abstaining from the consumption of items with leavening (e.g. bread, cake, beer), and with a festive meal on the first two evenings, which is called a seder.

When I was growing up, we would have the first night seder with extended family.  Between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my nuclear family, there would be about fifteen of us crowded around the table, hearing Poppop recite the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.  It was always fun running around with the cousins, searching for the afikomen, and staying up way past our normal bedtimes.  We still meet at my uncle’s place every year on the first night, and although lately we’ve had a couple faces missing from the table due to cousins living abroad, or away at college, usually at some point we would Skype them in.  Also, as some of the older cousins have become involved in serious relationships, there have been new guests at the table – including, for the past three years, Anne.

The second night seder had a very different tone than the first night while I was growing up. My two sisters and I would each get to invite one friend, and beyond these three friends, it would just be our nuclear family at the table.  We lived in an area that had very few Jews, so most of our school friends had never been to a seder before.  At the beginning of this seder, we would start by explaining the symbols on the table – the matzah, different items on the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, etc.  Diana, my youngest sister, would start the explanation; Stacey, the middle child, would add things that Diana had forgotten, and provide additional layers of meaning behind the symbols; and I would continue with the things both sisters had left out.

This year, we invited Anne’s parents and siblings to our second-night seder.  As an added twist, my Dad had asked me a few weeks ago if I could lead our seder.  My father, an accountant, was a *bit* exhausted by the night of the second seder, which fell this year on April 15th.  After a few weeks of reviewing the haggadah and the Passover story, I had committed as much as I could to memory, and felt prepared for what was to come.

Anne and I arrived at my parents’ house around 5:30, about half an hour before the seder was to begin.  I wanted some time to settle in, and do some last-minute reviewing of my notes and the biblical Exodus story.  Thanks to some heavy traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I ended up having quite a bit of extra time – Anne’s brother Chris showed up around 6:15, and her parents and two youngest siblings didn’t arrive until nearly 7PM.  After some brief greetings, we sat down at the table, and the seder began.

won't you help me sing these songs of freedom?

Passover Seder with Both Families

We began with my retelling the story of the Exodus, beginning with Joseph’s trials and tribulations, culminating in the arrival of the Hebrews in the Promised Land, and hitting all the major high points along the way.  Unfortunately, due to my nerves, I ended up hitting many of the minor points as well, resulting in a retelling that felt as long as Cecil B DeMille’s epic film.  In reality it was probably only 15 minutes, but it felt much longer. At least nobody could say I missed anything important!

After my retelling was complete, we began reading from the haggadah.  After the first cup of wine, my nerves (finally!) began to ease up.  We went popcorn-style around the table, each person reading a paragraph.  As we reached the Four Questions, we broke our order and had Theresa, Anne’s youngest sibling, read them.  We continued along, with Anne’s parents and siblings asking questions as we went. What foods do we “dip”, as mentioned in the Four Questions?  What’s the egg for? Why is the shank bone, rather than another part of the lamb, used to symbolize Passover offering? Is that really a lamb’s shank bone, or just a chicken bone? When do we drink more wine?  In some cases, the answers were literally on the next page of the haggadah, but I was able to field most other questions without significantly affecting the flow of the service.

Finally, it was time to eat the main meal.  Anne had prepared eggplant dip, chopped liver, and potatoes, and my mom cooked up some beef brisket, chicken, and fruit kugel.  Everything tasted delicious, though it certainly helped that we were having a very late dinner.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go through the post-meal portion of the seder due to a confluence of the delayed start time and Anne’s youngest siblings’ bedtimes (the following day was a school day, after all).

I’m certainly in no rush to lead my next seder, a responsibility I hope continues to be held by my healthy father and grandfather for many years.  However, it was a lot of fun studying the details of the seder and the Passover holiday while preparing to lead it.  Also, I’m extremely grateful that Anne’s family is open to learning about the customs and holidays of my faith.  While we certainly differ on quite a few theological matters, I appreciate that Anne’s parents are willing to join my family for holiday celebrations.  It displays both a confidence in their beliefs and an acceptance of my ability to practice my faith.

On a completely unrelated note, I listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog.

When did I know Sam was “the one”?

  

Just like all beginning relationships, I had plenty of questions. “Will he still like me if I eat three burgers for dinner?” “Will my parents and siblings like him?” “Will his parents and siblings like me?” “Will we get along with each other’s friends?” “Will he be ok with my Catholicism?” At first, these questions bugged me. I had doubts that the relationship wouldn’t last because we are so different. However, after talking it over with my friends, something clicked. Instead of focusing on the fact that we were different, I began to embrace it.

I started sharing my hobbies with Sam. When I was with Sam, I experienced things differently than when I was with my other friends. After going to the theater with my girlfriends, we would talk about the rehearsal process, technical elements, and cast and crew. Seeing the exact same show with Sam, we would talk about how we related to the characters and how the acting moved the story along. Sam also started sharing his love of concerts and brewing with me, and introduced me to Judaism.

I began going to synagogue with Sam a few months into our relationship, and it was confusing at first. The service was completely different from the Catholic Mass, and it didn’t help that I didn’t understand Hebrew. After attending a few more services with Sam, I started researching the holidays and cultures and began to find joy in the ways that the Jewish holidays could benefit me personally or spiritually. Creating a menu for Passover became an exciting search, between my friends and I, to experiment with different ingredients within the dietary restrictions mandated during the holiday.

Sam and I started turning activities into exciting adventures.  Over the past two years we have attended numerous family holiday celebrations; the National Homebrew Conference, several beer festivals, numerous Synagogue events, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and other concerts; stewarded a mead (honey wine) competition; road tripped to Chicago (twice), Boston, and Minnesota; held a game marathon during the two-week black out of Super Storm Sandy; and celebrated a handful of friends’ interfaith/intercultural weddings.

Beer makes the holidays bearable.

Sam and Anne (2013)

So when did I know that Sam was the “one”? The answer is three-fold:

  • When I found that life is more fascinating with Sam than without him,
  • When being with him, no matter what we are doing, brings sheer happiness and joy, and
  • When I realized that I am comfortable with myself around Sam and being with Sam is helping me to grow as an individual.

Fasting on Your Wedding Day

  

By Sam Goodman

Ash Wednesday fell this past week.  The holiday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of penance, fasting, and abstinence in the Catholic faith, as well as many other Christian denominations. Ash Wednesday is one of the two days during the liturgical year that Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 observe a fast; the other is Good Friday (which happens to fall on Anne’s birthday this year).

My first introduction to the concept of a Catholic fast was Ash Wednesday two years ago, when Anne and I had been dating for only a few months.  She had told me that she was fasting, but had asked me to have dinner with her that night. I thought that was strange, and upon further questioning found out that a Catholic fast means partaking in only one full meal throughout the course of the day.  Also, during the Lenten season (between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter), it is customary to abstain from a pleasurable activity.  Among the most common are giving up sweets or Facebook.  Alternatively, a Catholic could also consciously perform an action throughout the Lenten season to bring himself or herself closer to God, such as pray more often, forgive more easily, or complain less frequently.  Finally, during Fridays in Lent, Catholics do not eat meat.  As with kashrut, in which it is considered pareve (neither dairy nor meat), fish is not considered meat for the purposes of the Lenten abstention.

Diana (Sam’s sister), Stacey (Sam’s sister), Anne, and Sam on Yom Kippur 2013

The two most well-known Jewish fast days (Yom Kippur, one of the “high holidays”, and Tisha B’Av, the date commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem) require abstinence from not only food and drink, but also washing, applying perfumes, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations.  These fasts last 25 hours, and take place from sundown to sundown during the holiday.  For those of you who’ve never tried it, it can be really tough to go without anything to eat or drink for a full day!

I bring this up on the Wedding Blog because it is traditional for Ashkenazic Jews to fast from sunrise until after the ceremony on their wedding day.  This is because the sins of the bride and groom are forgiven as they begin their new life together. In that way, the wedding functions like Yom Kippur, one of the most holy days in the Jewish calendar.  I intend to uphold this tradition during our wedding, fasting from sunrise until our Yichud, a ritual in which the bride and groom are secluded in a private room for about 15 minutes immediately following the conclusion of the wedding ceremony.

Our wedding is less than two weeks after Yom Kippur.  Normally I’d be concerned about my ability to endure two fasts in such quick succession, but this is one of the reasons why our ceremony will be over at 4:30pm!  In any case, I’m looking forward to a pair of meaningful fasts in the month of October.

Intro to Judaism

  

I signed up to take an Intro to Judaism class at Sam’s synagogue. When I went to (what I thought was) the first class, I sat amongst a classroom filled with 20 other adults. Everyone was taking the class for various reasons: to re-affirm their faith, learn the basics, teach their children who were going through Hebrew school. Then there was me — I was just curious to learn about Judaism.

Class began and I soon realized that this wasn’t the first class session. The class was trying to come up with a concrete definition of a Jew. Is it one’s actions or faith or name? Are you born a Jew? Are there specific qualities that make someone Jewish? Everyone was referring to specific Torah passages, famous historical rabbis and different articles and writings. Not having read any of the material, I quickly got lost in the conversation, and became more and more frustrated as the class continued.

I talked with the rabbi after that first class to see if he could offer me some guidance. He gave me the syllabus, book list, and articles to read for the next class. He told me that this class could be used to convert to Judaism if I wanted to take that step.  In that moment, I felt under attack.  I only wanted to feed my curiosity about the religion.  I was insulted that the rabbi seemed to take my expression of interest as a chance to proselytize.

I got home that evening and stress-ate an entire 1lb bag of M&Ms. I didn’t want to continue the class because I didn’t feel spiritually ready to have my religious beliefs criticized.  After some careful prodding by Sam, I drudgingly forced myself to go to class the following week.

Fast-forward 12 weeks and I love the class!  Over the course of the class, I’ve gotten to know the rabbi and his mannerisms, and I now recognize that that first comment was not meant to be demeaning, but only to offer an opportunity to convert if I was so interested.  I have made it clear that I do not intend to convert to Judaism, but have used this class to reaffirm my own faith.

There is another Catholic in the class, which I am grateful for, although his mannerisms and occasional off-topic meanderings remind me of my grandfather.  The class has dwindled down to a core group of 7 people: 3 who were born and raised Jewish, 2 who converted to Judaism in their adult lives (including the rabbi’s wife), and 2 Catholics. It has been really interesting hearing the different stories and interpretations that everyone brings to the class.

A few class sessions ago, we talked about the different Jewish life cycle events, discussing the symbols and meanings behind the brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage. The marriage segment of the class turned into a Q&A about our upcoming wedding. The class was curious as to whether we plan to have the standard Jewish symbols and customs at our wedding, such as the chuppah, smashing the glass, etc. Those were easy yes and no questions that Sam and I had previously discussed.  Then they asked the why questions. Why are having those specific traditions and customs and how did we come to those conclusions. My answer was to read this blog!

We are about half way finished the course.  So far, we have had in-depth conversations about a number of topics, including the afterlife, order of the Shabbat service, Torah, holidays, and history of Judaism.  The second half of the class is delving into the history of Judaism.  I am consistently doing the weekly readings (sometimes over 300 pages!), answering the study questions and always bringing my own set of questions. This prep work has made class a lot less frustrating and a lot more fascinating!