Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Rabbi F,

Shalom! I got your email address from Barbara Ma; she couldn't

be sure what the exact spelling was, so I am trying two in hopes that

this will reach you.

I met you briefly at your daughter's bat mitzvah a couple of

weeks ago, which I attended with Dan and Barbara Ma.

I live in Kirksville also.

For many years now, I have been busy pushing my spiritual journey, one

I considered inevitable, into the distant corners of my life. Every

six months or so, I would have an existential crisis, during which

time I would ask myself whether or not the presence I have felt in my

life since I could form words in my head was actually G-d, how could I

know? And what does He want me to do? What will happen to me when I

die? What am I supposed to be doing here and now? How can I make my

life meaningful?

I would wrestle with these questions, without any real solutions, and

then push them away and go about my life again, quietly suppressing

them on a daily basis.

I have three children, all boys, ages ten, seven, and six: Sam,

Christian (I know), and Tommy. Three and a half years ago, I left my

husband, so there seemed quite enough on my plate to deal with without

worrying about my spiritual life.

But the one thing I did know was that when it was time for me to leave

my husband, time for me to go, it was as if G-d had been waiting for

me to make that decision. He could not make it for me, but once I

did, everything fell into place with an ease and grace that felt to me

to be Divine.

I am now living with a man (Dereck) who, although not

officially Jewish, teaches a class on Judaism, and has always said his

worldview is Jewish, although he was raised Lutheran. He studied

Hebrew at the .

And although I thought this was interesting, I did not question him

about it overly.

I was raised as a member of the Church of JC of Latte-Da

Saints. From the time I was eight years old until I was 18 years old,

I believed in it deeply, and I was deeply observant. I attended

Brigham Y U for two years, at which time my critical

thinking skills awakened, and the faith began to unravel.

It took me nearly ten years, but I finally took my name off the

records. And the loss of that religion, that culture, left somewhat

of a gaping hole that I found easy to ignore most of the time.

And yet, how, then, do you begin to rebuild your faith in G-d? I

could never call myself an atheist. There were feelings, a presence,

experiences I could not deny. However, I haven't considered myself to

be a Christian for most of my adult life—since reading the New

Testament and feeling overwhelmingly that it was not true.

I had yet another existential crisis beginning in February 2004, when

a young friend of mine had a profound stroke at the age of 35. I had

a conversation with a Christian man that awoke all of my questions,

and yet I knew that Christianity was not a path I could embrace.

Barbara is of the opinion that it doesn't matter, that I do not need

to explain why I do not consider myself to be Christian. However, it

matters to me, because of the journey I have taken here. And also,

because I want it to be very clear that I do not have claims on any

other faith.

My ex-husband has been taking my children to a Christian outreach

church, and the children sometimes come home and ask me to express

beliefs that I cannot express. So, it became necessary for me, faced

with spiritual children such as I was myself, to find something to

give them which would reassure them that I am going to be okay, and

that we are all going to be okay together.

But what was that to be? Not protestantism. Not Catholicism. In the

meantime, I started talking about spirituality with my friend, Liza,

who is Greek Orthodox. She and I both agreed not Greek Orthodox.

In the backdrop of all of this were these facts about my life:

~ I have always loved Jewish holidays and rituals.

~ I have always had Jewish friends.

~One of the first dates I had with my boyfriend was to go to the

Mandells for Seder, and we have spent every Seder with them since

then, and other holidays like Hanukkah, and Tu Bishvat.

~I have always provided for my children books about Hanukkah and Seder

and read them every year.

~ I have at times felt guilty for not keeping kosher.

~ I have distrusted German Shepherds ever since I learned they were

used in the concentration camps.

~ I have never liked Wagner because of his politics, not to mention

the fact that he was Hitler's favorite composer.

~ I have baked challah and mandel bread for years, and gone out of my

way to learn how to make authentic Jewish bagels.

~After seeing the movie Europa E, I was afraid to circumcise my

children for fear that they would not be able to hide, as the Jewish

protagonist in the movie did, from Nazi's. That is probably the most

irrational thing I've ever thought or done, and now I regret it, but

my reasoning at the time was that this was something they could do

later, but not something that could ever be undone.

~After my friend's stroke, within two weeks, I had organized a

fundraiser for her with two friends and we have raised $12K and

counting. This is part of my tzedukah, of the ways I already act.

As long as I have known Dereck, he has not worked on Saturdays,

setting one day aside for no work and encouraging me to do the same.

A few years ago, I was in a Jewish bookstore on Devon Avenue in

Chicago. I told Dereck that although I was attracted to the mezuzahs

and the Hebrew keyrings, I felt like I couldn't just be a tourist and

buy things that didn't belong to me. I couldn't be an interloper. I

said, "I have such strong respect for Judaism, I can't do it."

I have no idea why it has taken me this long to put it all together.

So, in the midst of my existential crisis, I was just about ready to

sweep it all back under the rug again, when I mentioned to Barbara at

a playgroup what I had been thinking about and started asking her some

questions about Judaism.

1) Why did G-d create us?

Because of a creative urge.

2) What are we supposed to do?

Keep the mitzvot (commandments in the Torah) and continue the creative process.

3) Do I have to love G-d more than I love my children?

You love G-d by loving your children.

I started getting very excited about the answers she was giving me

because I had not known this before. Our conversation was longer than

that, but these things stand out to me.

I started reading. Dereck gave me Jewish Literacy by Telushkin (and I

have mainly been reading the parts I wanted to read); Being Jewish by

Ari G (I read all of it); books on Jewish symbols and customs.

Barbara and I decided that Saturday to start having Torah study with

our little boys on Shabbat, and this Shabbat will be our first. That

afternoon, from, we ordered some books: I Have Some

Questions About G-d, and Being Torah. Barbara asked us to join her

family for Shabbat dinner, and by that night, the books had arrived.

I made challah for the meal. After the candles, the kiddush, the

blessing on the challah, we ate, and talked and talked. The next day

was the bat mitzvah.

My ex-husband has our children every other weekend, but during the

week, I started reading to them from I Have Some Questions About G-d

and saying nightly prayers. A few Fridays ago, we had our first Shabbat.

Due to scheduling, I didn't have the children two weekends in a row,

so it was Dereck, me, and a non-Jewish friend. We went slowly, and by

this time, I had received from Amazon Choosing a Jewish Life and

Living a Jewish Life, both by Anita .

We went through the Shabbat ceremony in Living… and explained to our

friend what we were doing. Barbara had gotten me Shabbat candles the

week before. Afterwards we just talked and watched the candles.

Since then, we have had two Shabbats with the children, who loved it.

Dereck, who, as I mentioned, teaches Judaism here at Truman State

University, and I have had many many conversations and he teaches me

about Judaism. For Shabbat, we have agreed to keep kashrut as a

household, and also to have a policy of no computer use Friday night.

I do not use the internet during Shabbat. We will have Friday

evenings together as a family.

As you can probably tell, I am interested in formally converting to

Judaism. Judaism contains all the tenets I have already been living:

treat others well. There is a G-d. Teach your children. Have

traditions and rituals you can pass on to your children.

It has been right here in front of me, and I never knew it. Years

ago, my friend Joe used to tell me, "You know, Jen, I think you're

Jewish." I am adopted, so that may be the case.

But whether I was actually born Jewish or not, I am Jewish in my soul.

I would love to speak to you more about this and find out what I need

to do formally to convert. In the meantime, I am already observing

Shabbat, and the holidays, and teaching my children.

My oldest son and I are learning the Sh'ma in Hebrew, and I am

starting to memorize some of the Shabbat prayers.

I have questions: my children are not circumcised. My ex-husband

will probably not allow them to convert. He will not like the fact

that I am converting. At all. When I mentioned to him once during

our marriage that my biological heritage could be Jewish, he replied,

"I wouldn't like to find out you are Jewish."

"Why not?"

"Because that would mean that the children are Jewish."

These are the only things that trouble me. The more I read, the more

I feel joy. I am not tormented by the questions that have tormented

me for years. Dereck said, "If I had known that you would find your

answers in Judaism…" So ironic because it has been right here all the


Dereck is very supportive of my desire to convert. I suppose that I

will let him speak about his own feelings for himself.

My contact information is this:


More options May 25

Dear Jen,

I enjoyed reading your letter. I am not going to try and address the many points or aspects you have raised in it in this very quick and short reply. Just 2 address these points would necessitate a long coversation. Keep doing what you have already been doing -- study and learn -- I can c that your study is also leading you to many actions, not the least of which is your Tsedakah project.

Try and see whether u can find James Michner's THE SOURCE. This bk. will give you an idea of Jewish history. Indeed, Judaism is not only a religion, it's a peoplehood, hence Ruth -- funny that I mention her on the eve of Shavuot -- says to Naomi: "Your people will be my people and your God, my God." "People" came first -- she got it right. This gentile woman would hence become King David's Grandmother.

Try a find works by Milton S; tho he has been dead for 50 yrs. his works

are very impressive.

When I find more time -- but before long -- I'll take on your many questions.



" You shall rise before the aged." (Leviticus 19:32)

Just a quick sound byte:

~ I have at times felt guilty for not keeping kosher.

Non-Orthodox Jews have an array of Kosher levels -- all the way 2 none, exactly as Paul preached 4 . . .

As for me and my family vegetarianism works just fine and I believe that God intended humans, if nol all animals, 2 be so.

Let me recommend a site: I luv his Jewish tapes but don't always care for his politics.

Stay well,


Hi Rabbi F,

I have ordered the following books by Rabbi Steinberg:

Believing Jew: The Selected Writings [Hardcover] by Steinberg, Milton

Basic Judaism; and The Making of the Modern Jew. I also got The Source.

Last week I ordered:

1 of Does God Have a Big Toe? : Stories About Stories in the Bible

1 of The Chosen

1 of The Bedside Torah : Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams

1 of Where Does God Live?

1 of The Story of Religion

(Don't worry, I read a lot).

Do you like any of Prager's tapes in particular? A lot of the titles

are very compelling-- one surprised me, Why Jews Must Seek Converts.

That makes me feel better!

Thank you again for your recommendations.


P.S. I had to chuckle when you recommended vegetarianism-- I often eat

vegetarian on my own. Trying to get my family to adopt the same is a

little tricker! But we are keeping Kosher on Shabbat, which is a BIG

step for the men in my life!


Good luck - let me know how it goes.

good letter back from the Rabbi - I see I had his email address

slightly wrong, I'm glad you figured out the right one.

We should also read something from Ruth tonight (maybe read

beforehand so we can discuss if we want). I found some neat stuff on

a website called You might want to subscribe

(it's free) they have lots of good info. and discussion groups.

So, can you eat dairy stuff? I was going to get some dairy stuff for

tonight, since it's Shavuot.



Jen to Barbara

More options May 25

Hey there,

Well, I don't know whether I can or not-- so I'll try :)!

I'll check out the website. I subscribed to too.


But we are keeping Kosher on Shabbat

As Dennis Prager teaches somewhere the reasons 4 keepin' K -- other than Torah's subjecting one's desires to God, thus imparting a measure of holiness to her life -- R the following:

1. Distinguish bet. the human and the animal (who cannot discipline h.s. when it kums 2 food). To wit, I keep K, I am in control of my decision-makin' process -- a characterstic the animal does not have.

2. Distinguish bet. life and death; Judaism prohibits -- besides other types -- the flesh of animals that kill other animals, & milk(life) tog. w/ meat (death).

3. Prohibit gratuitous suffering to the animal; hence prohibiting all types of killing animals -- particularly thru huntin' that may not be "clean" kill -- and limiting it to Shchitah -- a humane method that limits measurably the suffering of the animal. Still, Vegetarianism rules them all (and if u know what to eat, it is the healthiest, tho Torah is concerned w/ the health of the soul and is NOT 2 be read as a Physician's Desk Reference.

Hag Sameach (A Joyous Holiday),


I agree that vegetarianism is a safe bet. We have been eating more and

more fish in our household, because that helps us to be healthier, and

it also makes keeping Kosher easier.

Last night I made challah in the shape of a seven-rung ladder and

blintzes, all with my children, and explained Shavuot. Then, we went

over to Barbara and Dan Mandell's house for study.

Making the blintzes with my children made me feel more connected to

traditions and rituals than even lighting the Shabbat candles.

We made plans last night for Sukkot and shelter building.

Back to Kosher-- can I distinguish what I do from my family's needs at

this point? If I am not living in a completely Kosher household, how

will that affect my conversion?


Back to Kosher-- can I distinguish what I do from my family's needs at

this point?

You R not "committed" (or pledged) yet to follow the Mitzvot.

If I am not living in a completely Kosher household, how

will that affect my conversion?

DEpending on the Rabbi w/ whom you'll convert. Orth. and Cons. Rabbis will want to see evidence or hear from you that you adhere to K laws. Reform rabbis represent a movement that allows personal autonomy. You want, you keep. You don't want, you don't keep. REform unlike the other two is non-halachik (bound 2 J. Law) in relation to rituals or mitzvot bet. God and man. Yet whatever u do should philosophically be based on knowledge rather than on ignorance. In principle ANY educated course of action is leg. in Reform (in the domain of the ritual). Orth. and Cons. are bound 2 J. Law, yet even there one may find different interpretions or gradations.

Incidentally, I don't eat anything that has a face of a living creature, fish included.



Well, it is an interesting question, and one I had to study more

before I could make my answer.

For me, it seems absurd to convert to anything if you don't want to

observe its history, customs, practices, and rituals. Also, it would

be ridiculous for me to convert at all if I did not want to be bound

by the covenant; if I did not want a heritage to belong to, to pass on

to my children.

If I did not want a Jewish identity, then I could simply observe what

I want to observe at home and not convert. For that matter, I could

keep covenants and not convert.

However, I do want the belonging, the covenant, the peoplehood.

And I am aware enough that Jewish numbers are dropping, particularly

the numbers of observant Jews, so it makes sense to enter the Covenant

for practical, political reasons. And not the least of which, it is

covenant to read the Torah during service throughout the year. I

cannot help to keep this covenant, I cannot help to make a minyan in

Kirksville either, if I have not entered the convenant.

I know that politically speaking, I am not prepared to become an

Orthodox Jew (if I were, I would have to move to St. Louis and live

within walking distance of a Synagogue), and that if I convert to

Reform, there will be some Orthodox who question my conversion, and

particularly that of my children unless they undergo circumcision

someday. And if we go to Israel or my sons want to marry Orthodox

women, they will have to (and maybe I will as well) convert to


However, given my political views, I think that Reform is the most

sympatico: I would not have to compromise my political views to

become Reform. Specifically, I refer to gay rights.

Also, I am not currently married, and have no specific plans to become

married. This would, to my knowledge, specifically rule out

Conservative and Orthodoxy.

So, although I believe the Torah to be divinely inspired; I believe

the Sabbath should continue to be observed on Friday-Saturday; I

believe that all of the holidays should be observed; I believe that

the services should continue in Hebrew; I am teaching my children the

Sh'ma and saying it with them daily-- all of these actions should

suggest Conservative. However, from what I have read about Reform, it

is more possible to be Reform and to navigate through the rituals and

observances, than to be Conservative and be in favor of gay rights.

Also, I am aware that in Judaism, it is less important what I believe

than what I DO.

But metaphorically speaking, I think the intent, the trying to

observe, has merit.

In reference to keeping Kosher, if I were single, had no children, no

partner, then none of the laws of Kosher would be an issue for me at

all. I would be vegetarian and that would be it.

However, since family meals are an important part of our lives, and I

live with a group of dedicated carnivores, one of whom is not ready to

convert to Judaism, and three of whom cannot convert because of

custody issues, I don't think I can issue proclamations for the family

about Kosher.

But Dereck and I have daily conversations about it. Yesterday, I told

him that I was going to keep Kosher for myself. He mentioned some

feelings of loss that there were foods that we enjoy together than now

we cannot have together. I said, "Well, these foods (sausage,

spareribs) are not good for my digestive system, in addition to not

beind kosher. And isn't it enough that I am there? Do I have to be

eating the same dish?"

He had to admit that these foods are not good for me (or really, for

anyone) and that maybe, yes, that would be enough.

I can see a point in my household where we eventually have separate

meat and milk dishes, and I can see us moving slowly toward observing

the laws of Kosher. If we lived in an area in which it were easier to

obtain Kosher meats, I would feel better, and I am willing to come to

Columbia for them as much as I can (I get parve for Challah in


I realize that I am in the rather unusual position of being a woman

among non-Jews in a household who wants to convert.

I don't know whether or how I should mention this next part: But

since we are talking about covenants and keeping them and conversion,

I will share this with you:

Last night I was at baseball game for my son, and talking with my best

friend. She was telling me, as she often does, about her sister, who

is unbearably poor, raising three children, has a husband who drives a

truck whose back is out so he can't work, they have mounting medical

bills, and this poor woman just sounds so much like Job with all she

has had to bear in her adult life.

Yesterday I could not hear this story without great discomfort (I

never can) thinking about my own significant blessings, the money I

have been spending on beautiful tableclothes for Shabbat and Kiddush

cup, and candleholders, while this woman is trying to stretch a dollar

to feed and clothe her children.

So, I wrote my friend a check for $100 and told her to use it for her

sister-- in the way she felt best, whether it be to buy her something

she needs, just give her the money, or to give it to her slowly over

time. I asked her not to tell her sister where it came from.

It is not out of my nature, or unique to my studies of Judaism to to

do this. Several years ago, I gave two friends $1500 because they

needed it desperately and I had it to give. I have always told Dereck

that this is part and parcel of who I am: I cannot enjoy what I have

if there are those who are suffering and I can somehow ease their

suffering, even in small ways.

And yesterday when my friend was thanking me, I said, "It's a mitzvot.

It's a commandment. I'm keeping it."



DEar Jen,

I have only read about one half of your "Megillah" and addressing its issues would take us a long conversation.

Be it as it may -- and till u hear from again (soon) let me say this: you may not be a Jew (yet), but you do sound like a sound one!



I have today read about half (more than half) of Milton Steinberg's As

A Driven Leaf. It has left me a little sad tonight. I have

experienced doubt as he has, left only tremulously with faith in G-d.

And I find it somewhat ironic to be reading about a great Rabbi

Master in the throes of a deep existential despair about the Tradition

which for me as provided answers and great joy.

Reading about his tribulations has not caused any of my own answers to

be questioned or troubled, but instead, I find myself deeply

sympathetic that he cannot find the peace that I have found.

And this is a somewhat new position for me to be in.

I have memorized the Hebrew alphabet, and am writing it over and over

again so I can learn it thoroughly. The vowels still confuse me, but

I am just beginning.

I also have my own Torah and commentaries now. It is beautiful. We

had a tornado warning today, so I took to my basement my Torah, my

prayer book, my kiddush cup and candlesticks (my children were not


It felt good to have these things to protect and care for. The

tornado dissipated over K, and then reformed to the North.



And this is a somewhat new position for me to be in.



I also have my own Torah and commentaries now. It is beautiful.



The Torah says on its binding "A Modern Commentary" and is edited by

W. G. Plaut. It is an issue of the Union of American Hebrew

Congregations. Dan and Barbara recommended it. They said that Eliot

Fox (is that right?) is the best, but I had a hard time finding his.

I can see now, coming in the last 100 pages of the Steinberg book,

that what Elisha will come to understand is that he cannot reason his

way to some undeniable truth-- that he path he started on is the path

to which he must return.

But I suspect it will not be as simple as all that for our Elisha.

I'll write more when I have finished.


The Torah says on its binding "A Modern Commentary" and is edited by

W. G. Plaut.

Tho not the "last word" -- you'll never 've the "last word" on anything let alone on Torah commentary-- this commentary is fine. I use it as my text bk. for my MU class on the Torah. When you "graduate" from this book in 'bout 10 yrs. you'd find other commentaries awaiting 4 your perusal. Everet Fox's book is not necessarily a commentary; only a very fine translation.


Well, having finished As A Driven Leaf on Monday, I thought I would

reflect on it for you. I will say that it is a very compelling read,

even though I anticipated its events and outcome along the way. That

did not prevent the journey itself from being masterful.

And I will also say that the existential crisis therein makes any that

I have had look like a toddler's temper tantrums.

One of the things that is particularly fascinating in the book is the

education Steinberg himself must have had in order to have written it.

He must have studied the Greeks: Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid at the

very least.

I have studies Plato and Aristotle, but not Euclid (though I have had

some rudimentary geometry), so I was able to follow the book very


I have never thought myself that I could determine through ration and

reasoning what the Truth about the universe was, though I have at

times thought that perhaps it was possible to unearth some kind of

indisputable Truth during this life.

The relativists are also very appealing to me. Although I believe

that one sole Universal Truth guides the Universe, I have also read

Borges and find his postulates about the imagination very compelling.

But I digress.

Because I have never shared Elisha's own surety of where his path

would lead him (and ultimately did not, could not lead him), I was

able to step outside of his crisis a little more than I would have

been able to if he had taken a path that would have seemed to me to

produce more results.

In the past few months, I have read some interesting books: Rational

Mysticism, The Search for the Contemplative Life, In Search of Grace.

It is interesting that the one component they all seem to share is

community. Love for our fellow humans. That seems to be the one

thing we can do and say and know with some surety.

But they also, these books, reflect on the necessity for faith into

action. And to me, this is the biggest message of As A Driven Leaf.

Elishah comes to realize that the only way he can comfort the woman he

loves as she is dying is through offering her the tenets of his own

forsaken faith, the psalms and Hebrew prayers. And he comes to

realize that his own life in study has been utterly wasted because the

conclusions led him only to confusion and chaos. His life would have

been better spent loving his fellow men than alienating and betraying

his people.

One of the things I have had to come to is that instead of waiting to

find out definitively what to believe, how to act, that I had to take

that leap of faith and start doing something.

It makes sense to me, it resonates with me, that by keeping the

mitzvot, I am loving G-d. And that by loving my children, by

preparing their meals, by cleaning up after them, I am loving G-d, and

keeping his commandments.

And this, therefore, also gives meaning and honor to the most

seemingly menial tasks. The constant household maintenance, meal

preparation, that once was very tedious to me (not unlike Elishah, I

would rather read a book), now has a specific meaning besides the

endlessness of Sysyphus pushing his rock: Yes, the dishes will always

have to be done. The work of life has to be done. We need to continue

G-d's work, and to love and take care of each other and the earth.

I was reminded the other day of an anecdote from my college days: It

was approaching Earth Day in April, and I was still attending the

Mormon Church. I stood up and spoke of how important it is to take

care of the earth and to recycle, etc. etc.

After I had finished, the minister stood up right after me and said

that Earth Day and recycling were distractions of the Devil, to keep

us from our priorities, and that if we had faith in G-d and kept the

commandments, the earth would take care of itself.

I was stunned. I could not believe my ears. Not only had he just

completely flattened me publicly, but the complete absurdity of what

he was saying just stupefied me.

So, when I saw the recycling bins at Beth Shalom, I smiled to myself.

I like the emphasis on what we do in Judaism, but I also appreciate

the context the beliefs bring to it too.

Barbara and I are going to start studying the Torah in conjunction

with the cycles that are being read with the congregation. And we are

going to discuss it via email, as well as lunch once a week (it's too

much to try to do adult study on Shabbat and study with the kids).

Dereck, my beloved, teaches Judaism at Truman State University (I may

have told you this already) and has studied Hebrew for years. He is

helping me with my Hebrew studies.

We are coming down for services Friday night, so you can meet him then.



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