They say the best way to learn Jewish is to do Jewish, and I’ve been learning just that in an expected place lately: the supermarket aisle. It’s a lesson that’s come much earlier than I ever expected. It takes a year or more to join the Jewish people, and I’m only standing at the very beginning of my conversion journey to Reform Judaism. Local Jewish friends have invited me to their synagogue, I’ve met the rabbi, and I’ve begun participating in community events.
It’s the tip of an iceberg I had heretofore only read about. And boy, have I been doing a lot of reading. I’ve been persistently haunting the Judaica section at downtown’s Harold Washington Library Center for several weeks now, prompting fellow blogger Leah Jones to point out to me, and rightly so, that I have a lifetime to learn about Judaism and I shouldn’t feel a need to learn everything all at once. Not ever having met me in person, funny how she pegged exactly what I wished I could do.
After all the holidays, and rituals, and philosophy of Judaism that I’ve been devouring, I know how well I seem to fit the faith and it seems to fit me. Uncannily so. But I didn’t quite know how to answer the question “Why?” until another new-media Jewish acquaintance made a sweet and surprising request:
“I want to hear more about how HaShem tapped you on the shoulder sometime if you’re willing.”
That’s the answer, I realized. In a nutshell, that’s what it felt like: like a tap on the shoulder. Not a tug on my arm. Not a billboard in front of me. Not a shout in my ear. Just a whisper, and I turned my head to make it out, and realized I had never looked in that direction before.
On Saturday evening, I got the chance to hang out with a group of young professionals exploring their own relationship to worship and to HaShem. (“The Name,” the polite term for God in everyday conversation…I haven’t quite worked my way up to inserting a “_” in the English word. If you read on, though, you’ll know I may get there.) We met with the rabbi in the synagogue’s temporary outdoor Sukkah to celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot, and to do the Havdalah ceremony which marks the end of Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. I was lost through the Havdalah ceremony but did my best to try and follow along. But when I was invited to hold the holiday’s ritual lulav (bound branches) and etrog (citron fruit) and do the Netilat Lulav blessing, I surprised myself by not stumbling on the words.
I knew studying Hebrew for a failed Israeli teenage crush would come in handy someday.
But I also know I’m an abject noob. So finding myself standing frozen for five minutes in front of a shelf of deviled ham in an aisle at Jewel recently came as a shock. In my mountains of reading I’ve learned about kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws about keeping kosher, which very roughly gloss into: eating only animals with cloven hooves that chew their cud; eating only fish with fins and scales; and not mixing dairy and meat in the same meal, or even the same time frame. Traditional Jews are more apt to follow kashrut, or at least to follow it strictly, than are Reform Jews. Reform Judaism leaves questions of observance to the individual. I knew I had to understand kashrut. But I know I’ll never be the kind of Jew who keeps a separate set of kitchenware for milk versus meat products.
And yet…the act of putting a can of deviled ham or a package of bacon in my shopping cart, or a container of chicken stock for the quinoa that will accompany my cheese-covered soy burgers, has kept me at Jewel for far longer than ever before. Pondering. Rationalizing. Putting things into my shopping cart, rolling away, and then rolling back to return items to shelves. I really doubt strict kashrut observance is in my future. But considering how important this journey feels to me, the hypocrisy I feel every time I try to put trayf (a non-kosher item) in my cart, or think about planning a meal that would violate kashrut is astounding.
I never expected to feel this way, but I do. I can’t ethically reject kashrut without knowing what it is. And I can’t really know what it is without doing it. So now the supermarket is a minefield, if a temporary one, and I’ve unexpectedly come to understand the meaning of learning Jewish by doing Jewish.
It’s kind of like the email I sent to the rabbi asking for a formal meeting about conversion and to discuss a plan of study. I didn’t think it would be so hard to write. Friends suggested I say I was interested in converting, wanted to learn more, needed advice. All of that is true and he already knows all of that anyway. What I was afraid to say was how I really feel, which was driven home to me by how thoughtful a grocery shopper I seem to have become. That I feel like I’ve been tapped on the shoulder by HaShem and found a place and a people I never knew would feel like home. And that I don’t feel worthy enough to feel those things but I do. And I need to know where/how to begin.
But much like that can of deviled ham seemed to hop its way back onto the shelf at Jewel, those very words seemed to type themselves out in my email, shortly before the Send button pressed itself.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.