We are now in the month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, and the time of the High Holy Days. Though not as immediately recognizable as Hanukah, even many non-Jews can name at least one or two of these holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and maybe even Sukkot. But if we really want to understand the breadth of this period, we have to look back several weeks to the beginning of the sixth month of the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul.
Taking this view, the order of the holidays looks (broadly) like:
That’s a lot, and it all occurs over nearly two months. Out of these, the three most-observed are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. They are the New Year (for people), the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles (Harvest Festival), respectively. Now, you may ask yourself, “Why would the new year come in the seventh month of the calendar?”
Here’s where we see one of the major themes of the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, literally the “head of the year,” comes in the seventh month, echoing the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and renewal, and the most important day of the week.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish calendar.
Although I have observed Yom Kippur several times in the past – 25-hour ritual fast included – this was by far the most meaningful for me. Until recently, I didn’t know that Judaism traditionally has five daily prayer services. Now, Yom Kippur is the only day of the year on which we observe the fifth service, known as “Neilah” in Hebrew, which means “closing,” and refers to the closing of the gates of Heaven.
Neilah is the most intense part of the Yom Kippur service. The Ark is opened, and remains open for the duration. Those who are able must stand until the shofar is sounded. It is an uncomfortable, emotional, plaintive service. It was an intensely spiritual experience.
And now that Yom Kippur has passed, we are nearing the end of The High Holy Days. I am also approaching the end of my conversion process. On Thursday, October 15, 2015 – my 31st birthday – I will officially convert. I will go before the beit din, then dunk in the mikveh, then have a small celebration with friends and family.
As part of my conversion, I have the opportunity to choose my Hebrew name. There are, of course, various ways to go about this substantial and important task. I had some ideas, but I started by looking at the Torah portion for the week of my birthday/conversion. It is the story of Noah, told in Genesis 6 – 9.
Although an (arguably) righteous man, I wasn’t particularly moved by Noah’s story. However, the story of Noah did present another option, one that had already been on my list. One of the most well-known symbols from this story is the dove, known in Hebrew as “yonah,” a common male name in Hebrew (read: Jonah in English). This brought me to the story of the minor prophet Jonah, who is known for being swallowed by a large fish (or whale, depending on the translation used).
Jonah is a complicated character, and the Book of Jonah is read as the haftarah portion during the Mincha (afternoon) service on Yom Kippur. The central theme of the story is generally understood and accepted as being about the power of repentance, which is the primary theme of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The Book of Jonah is, to me, an example of one of the things I love most about Judaism. Although it is about sin and forgiveness, it leaves us with more questions than it answers. Jewish scholars have wrestled with the meaning of the story for centuries. The Sages chose this book as the haftarah on Yom Kippur in order to assure us that God’s primary relationship with humanity is one of mercy, kindness, and love.
But even more so than this, the book speaks to me on a profoundly personal level. Many people believe that Jonah flees his prophetic task for fear of failure. Or worse, a fear of not knowing what would happen were he successful. For many years, this was what concerned me about my decision to convert to Judaism. What if I didn’t make it? What would people think? And what if I did make it? What then?
According to “Machzor Lev Shalem,” the service book we read at my synagogue during the High Holy Days, “At times we want to flee from responsibility, because the task is difficult. Like Jonah, we can learn to trust enough to love – and allow ourselves to be loved” (p. 368). In so many ways, I have found my home, and a loving community that inspires me to tackle the difficult tasks ahead.
From a young age, I was surrounded by positive Jewish role models. They weren’t just adults, but also fellow students in classes and in extracurricular activities. I believe that they were there for a reason, in some sense; that they were there to support me – whether directly or indirectly - in my journey to this point.
In my studies during the last couple of years, I have found new ways to incorporate Judaism into my daily life. These changes weren’t drastic, life-altering changes. They were things that I had wanted to focus on, and through Judaism I was able to connect them to a deeper meaning and value that motivated me to make a change. I wanted to make these changes not out of fear for my soul or fear of punishment, but because I want to lead a meaningful life that can be an example for others. Above all, I want to have a rich, meaningful relationship with God
The best example I can think of is the project I worked on with Rabbi Kahn, called “Challah Back Kitchen”. Through this project, I explored aspects of Jewish history through food traditions, and learned about kashrut. Beyond my own education, the experience of working on this project has helped me connect in new ways with friends who were unfamiliar with Judaism. I hosted a couple of dinner parties in which we had lively discussions about kashrut, the challenges faced when deciding to keep kosher, and why it’s important (to me). I was also able to expose people to new rituals, such as Havdalah, and the blessings over wine and bread.
I will appear before the beit din and go to the mikveh on Thursday, October 15. This will also be my 31st birthday, which adds to the emotional weight of the experience. Though it is the end of my formal preparation for conversion to Judaism, it is just the beginning of a lifetime of Jewish living and learning. I have been studying the High Holy Days recently, preparing myself for the marathon of Tishrei. One of the most important themes is the cycle of the year. How it both ends and begins at this moment in the calendar. How Judaism values the energy to start anew that is born from an ending.
I feel Jewish and have felt Jewish for a long time now. When I lived in New York City, I met with Rabbi Rachel Weiss at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to discuss studying there for conversion. During our conversation, I explained to her my connection to Judaism and how I had gotten to that point. She shared with me that there is a belief in Judaism that sometimes Jewish souls are born into non-Jewish bodies, and those who convert are uniting the body and soul.
When I attend services on Friday evening or Saturday morning, I feel a deep connection to the words in the siddur. I have never been moved in the same way as I am when I hear Hashkiveinu, or when I hear congregants around me reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish. These words and verses speak to my soul, and while I may not yet have every piece memorized, I believe that God recognizes the intention and I feel connected to Him and to the Jewish people.
I have created a Jewish home for myself, which will hopefully one day include a partner and children who will share my love of and passion for Judaism. I will likely cry a lot on October 15. Not tears of sadness, but of pure joy. It has taken a lot for me to arrive at this point and, similar to the way we pray for rain after the harvest to help begin the natural cycle again, the tears will mingle with the waters of the mikveh to prepare me to start my Jewish life.