Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, educator and blogger. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband who is pursuing rabbinical ordination.
The Stupid Jew
I'm a stupid Jew. OK, I know that sounds negative. I guess what I mean is that I feel like a stupid Jew. There is a large gap between the Jew I want to be and the Jew I actually am. Some days, I know exactly how to bridge the gap but most days, I find myself either entirely clueless or paralyzed by fear. Right now, I think the fear is winning.
Where does that fear come from? I didn't grow up Jewish. I'm a convert. I didn't become Jewish until I was 26 years old. I've only been Jewish for two years. I studied Judaism just one year before that. Some would say I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But recently, I visited my 6-year-old sister-in-law's debut as Shabbos Ima (Sabbath mother). Watching as she lit candles at the simulation Shabbat (Sabbath) ceremony held at her elementary school, I realized that I still have so much to learn. As I watched the kids effortlessly singing highlights from the Shabbat prayer service I realized that even a Jewish first grader has a lot to teach me.
I should be excited about all I have to learn, no? The first year I was exposed to Judaism, I was buoyed by this feeling of intense happiness. I was able to download an overwhelming amount of new Jewish knowledge into my brain. I thought my head might burst but I was just so excited to know Judaism. And now that I'm actually Jewish, I'm just overwhelmed by Jewish guilt. Why aren't I learning faster? Why don't I pray more often? How come I'm not the Jew I thought I would be? Where did that Jew go?
It's REALLY hard. I used to be the girl that always had the right answers. I waved my hand furiously whenever the teacher asked a question. I got straight As. Now, I feel like the girl sitting in the back of the classroom. I'm pulling straight Cs. Even though I'm listening, sometimes my face is buried into my crisscrossed arms and pressed against my desk. I am cowering in my ignorance with a fear that I will never be able to catch up. And I don't know how to stop that fear from getting the best of me, time and time again.
In other ways, I'm still that A+ student. I do have a faith in Judaism that I do not have in myself. But to me, Judaism isn't just about faith. Faith, which has always come to me so easily, has never been the problem. But Judaism is about its rituals and rituals can be difficult. How does that saying go? "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Maybe there's something to that. It certainly explains why this is such a hard road. Here I stand in the middle of the road insisting that this old dog can learn new tricks. Oy vey.
My little sister, who isn't Jewish, watches me struggle on this road. She survived last year's Pesach (Passover) with me. She even helped me keep kosher. She now demands latkes on Hanukkah. Yesterday, after listening to me gripe about my "Jewish" problems, she told me, "It seems to me that Judaism is a journey. You'll never know everything, Aliza. Every day is just another day to learn something new. You've got to stop thinking you'll ever know everything because you won't. It's about the journey, not the destination." And because she's my little sister who knows a thing or two about knowing everything, my mood instantly lifts as the words fall from her lips. Yes, Judaism is a journey, a road no one expected me to take, and I hope to have the rest of my life to find my way.
Buoyed by my sister's words, I think about the journey. I let myself think about how I have learned many new tricks. For one, I know my way around a siddur (prayer book) even if I can't always follow services. I even have a limited Hebrew vocabulary. Though it doesn't get me very far all the time, sometimes it does. When my mother-in-law, who also came to Judaism late in life, watches me muttering away after a trip to the bathroom, she asks if I'm talking myself. "No, I'm just saying the blessing," I reply. And she's floored that I know Asher Yatzar by heart, the little prayer for after the bathroom. Yes, this old dog has learned new tricks. But I want these tricks to stick without ever losing that original sunshiny feeling I felt the first time I did them.
What was that feeling? It felt like something deep inside of me was on fire. I bet the rabbis would it was my neshama, my Jewish soul, crying out. It's a soul that I picture as a sunflower leaning unabashedly towards rays of sunlight. And to me, Judaism was the sun. Judaism warmed me even on those days when my lack of knowledge left me feeling cold.
And now even when that feeling isn't sparked as fast as a matchstick off the side of a matchbox, I keep picking myself up again and again. Even when it feels much easier just to fall on my face and stay there. I keep trying to find that perfect Hebrew class. I keep trying to take on new observances and learn new Jewish ideas, even when the old ones are still rattling in my head because I haven't nailed them down. I keep on that road with no destination in sight.
So I steel myself for the disappointment that comes when I realize I'm on the wrong page at services and there's no one (I'm willing) to ask for help. Tomorrow, I'll ask for help. Tomorrow, I'll try harder. Thank G-d for tomorrow, I tell myself. And then I realize that it's today. And that today, I have tried harder. I have pushed myself. I have found the strength to carry on. It's all about the baby steps.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." God. In traditional Jewish circles, it is forbidden to write or say God's full Hebrew name. This custom has carried over into English by some, who write "God" without the vowel (o) and replace it with a hyphen. Some use variations of this, such as G!d or G@d.