And rabbinical school is on hold. The day that Ryan lost his job in early October, on my way home from school I made a conscious decision to finally let my guard down and be joyful about having begun my rabbinic studies. I mused about how exactly in the moment of my life I felt. And that evening, hours after learning his news, I remember telling Ryan that I still had the feeling that my life was going in the exact direction in which the Universe intended it to go–even though it was clear that my studies might end up being financially unsupportable.
At the time, the thought of quitting school so soon after beginning filled me with dread. Then earlier this month, I stopped taking things so personally and pivoted. I withdrew from school completely to focus with Ryan on our mutual re-employment. I decided that a more secure financial footing on both of our parts was the best way to move forward–with rabbinical school or anything else.
While I was working up to the decision, I expected a real sense of loss and sadness upon finally going through with it, even though leaving school might only be a temporary separation. What I did not expect was the feeling of my entire life suddenly opening up, in a surprisingly refreshing way. I’ve thought a lot about that feeling this month, and about its implications, which are unexpected and significant.
I’ve realized this month that for the past three years, I’ve been missing big parts of myself that I used to value and that used to bring me joy. Not because I decided to let those parts go, but simply because my focus was naturally–and needed to be–elsewhere. During the past three years of my Jewish journey–discovering Judaism, studying for conversion, and achieving cruising altitude as a rank-and-file Member of the Tribe–forging a self-confident and informed Jewish man’s identity pushed a lot of other interests and concerns to the back burner. The sudden shock of leaving rabbinical school opened up a lot of space and clarity for me to understand that.
The upshot is that, surprisingly, I feel far more that my life is going in the direction that the Universe expects it to go in this post-pivot moment than I did on that day in early October. I’m not going to say learning this was the point of beginning school in the first place, or that I don’t intend to return to school. I still think I’d make a hell of a rabbi. But before I get there, I want to make sure I move forward with all of me, not just my Super-Jew-by-Choice identity.
That’s an identity that has unclenched, for want of a better word, in the past few weeks so much that Ryan has happily remarked upon it. I still swim in the deeper end of the mitzvot pool. But I find myself being a lot more fearlessly playful and experimental with my ritual and davenning–not to mention much more joyful.
Other realizations have been more pointed. I no longer feel a pressing need to be at synagogue every Friday night. I find myself questioning the intrinsic worth of studying Talmud traditionally and of deferring my own God-given wisdom to the wisdom of sages from another millennium. And I have little patience left with the uneven experience of worshipping at my home synagogue–especially due to an often derogatory rabbinic attitude given voice on Shabbat and directed at God language and elements of the liturgy that suppose a relational Deity.
I wonder whether this is normal for Year Four of a newish Jewish journey, or whether perhaps I’m realizing that I’m far more a post-denominational Jew than I ever realized. Either way, what it does make me, finally, is Jew who feels secure about his own Jewish legitimacy.
It’s a topic addressed recently and well in blog posts from Punk Torah and the Coffee Shop Rabbi (here and here.) Here’s my take on the matter: I’ll choose how I roll Jewishly because as a Jew that’s my right. And if it means I attend or don’t attend a worship service or a rabbinical school, have faith in my rabbi’s ability to be an open-minded spiritual guide or not, roast a maple-bacon turkey this week (seriously, it’s awesome), or even whether I sidestep the alleged December Dilemma and put up a Jewish tree, that’s my business. I don’t need to be quiet about any of it, and I don’t need to lose sleep over any of it, either.
And far from any of it making me somehow more or less a Jew, actually all of it mirrors the fact that I am absolutely legitimately Jewish. Being in total agreement with a single rabbi, shul, community, or denomination is not what makes you a legitimate Jew. Being Jewish is what makes you a legitimate Jew. Nothing more and nothing less. And any Jew who claims otherwise is engaging in perhaps the one truly Jewishly illegitimate act.
I’m also happily rejoicing in the beyond-the-shtetl parts of me that I haven’t explored for a while. As you may have noticed, my blog has a new tag line, “Jewish by Choice, Journeying by Transit”. My exclusively Jewish blog focus is widening back out to include the urbanism and public transit topics I used to write about in its earlier days. I can’t tell you how many non-Jewish topics I’ve sat on in the past three years. I’m fiercely Jewish, yet I’m more than just Jewish. And I think my blog should reflect all of that, because it all brings me joy and has meaning.
And then there’s the rest of my life, or at least the next of my life. Ryan as usual has unexpected and wonderful irons in the fire in terms of potential next career moves. I’m not so sure what’s next, or what that suggests about when or whether rabbinical school comes back. As Dallas said to Ripley, I’m still collating. But I’m doing so from a much more liberated position than before, and with a great sense of God and guidance. My sense is that it will involve writing, and outreach, and potentially remote work for social-justice based causes not necessarily based in Chicago. Or maybe that’s just my dream.
Finally, the buried lede is the most surprising unless you were a reader back in 2007, which was the last time I said something of this nature. For various reasons having due to with our individual personal experiences and aspirations, Ryan and I are considering leaving Chicago. And by considering it, I mean we’ve talked about it at length for weeks and I’ve thought about it for several months. And by leaving Chicago, I mean moving to Los Angeles. And by moving to Los Angeles, I mean I would still get around on transit.
But I would finally learn how to drive. Sha na na na na na na na na, sha na na na na.
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