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Those Hard-to-Grasp Nuances of Judaism

You can spot me right away. I'm the one blurting out, "Congratulations!" when everyone around me is yelling, "Mazel Tov!" I've been married to a Jew and raising our children as Jews for 20 years. About nine years ago I chose to convert. But even with the studying that was integral to the conversion process and the years I've spent in the Jewish community, there are still things I don't get right away. It's not the Yiddish phrases or ritual observances that make me feel like my slip is showing. It's the nuances that trip me up.

My Jewish life got off to a shaky start. It wasn't until I had dinner with my future-in-laws for the first time that I became aware of the extent of my ignorance of things Jewish. They served a white, oval food with a shiny sauce, on a bed of lettuce. I didn't ask what it was because it seemed to be something they ate all the time. I wasn't going to ask a stupid question the first time I had dinner with them. Taking a tiny taste I realized it was some sort of cold fish. When I was nearly done my father-in-law-to-be asked, "Do you know what you're eating?" It sounded more like a quiz than anything meant to be helpful to the uninitiated. "Of course I do," I lied. He waited expectantly. "It's gefilte fish," I said, amazed as the correct answer popped out of some recess in my mind.

Determined to do better, I prepared for my first service--or thought I did. It was a Kol Nidre (eve of Yom Kippur) service my husband and I attended when we were newly married. Held in a chapel in the National Cathedral, there was a small group of people and a cello in the intimate space. I knew all about the traditional prayers. But not having read that Jews never kneel, I was surprised the kneeling pillows the Episcopalians used during their Mass had been put aside for the evening. I noticed that only a few people recited the prayers out loud. Having grown up Catholic, where participating in the Mass is de rigeur, I assumed Jews must not pray aloud and went back to following along in my siddur (prayer book). The mellow tones of the cello were haunting and the Hebrew words held my attention as I became engrossed in the service. Suddenly, everyone in the room began to chant in Hebrew. There was nothing on the page to indicate we should join in, or even that there was a melody involved, but somehow everyone knew. It was profoundly beautiful. Of course today I know they were reciting the Sh'ma. Having three children who all could chant it by the time they were in preschool, I now understand how fundamental it is to Judaism. But I understood none of that then, although I did know I wanted to be part of this community.

I studied harder before my first Thanksgiving at my in-laws. When the question of what was inside the mezuzah came up, I was the one with the answer. When my husband's baba (what his family calls his grandmother) gestured for me to come talk to her after dinner, I was thrilled at the invitation. There were no more chairs so I sat on the floor beside her. "Stand up!" she yelled in her heavy Eastern European accent. "We only sit on the floor when someone dies!" So much for what I'd read in the books! I knew better than to try to read up on anything when we went to visit her grave three years later. Still, even knowing that flowers are for the living, I was shocked that there were no flowers at the graves. And when my husband rooted around on the ground and then put a rock on her headstone, I felt as if I'd just beamed down from another planet.

These days there are fewer and fewer things that are completely unknown to me. My non-Jewish friends perceive me as a reliable source of Jewish information. My kids know me as someone who can help with Hebrew homework and the words to the traditional seder questions. Yet when we receive a birthday check made out for $108, I need half a second to realize it must be multiple of chai (18, a lucky number). When I go to a kosher home and the hostess says it's OK if my serving plate is not kosher as long as the food on it is, I understand that she is being kind and accepting the food despite the non-kosher plate. But it's not until I'm rinsing the platter in the sink--dripping water all over the dairy dishes--that the importance of the history of my dish in this moment becomes clear--I have contaminated her dairy dishes.

As for an aliyah? I'm frankly still confused as to whether it refers to going up on the bimah or moving to Israel. (The word can be used to mean either one.) But I do know that any conversation about this topic is important. If I hold on a minute more, I also know the next sentences will make the meaning clear.

I love being Jewish despite those times when I feel like my slip is showing. Over the years, as I've been involved in life-cycle events and High Holy Day services, I'm better tuned to the nuances--the things you just don't find in a book. It's important to me because someday I'm going to be the baba!

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Gina Hagler

Gina Hagler is a freelance writer living in the Maryland suburbs with her husband and their three children. You can see more of her work at

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