R is for Rabbi

Eldridge Street Synagogue

It took three tries, as expected, for him to return my call.

“Hello, this is a message for Rabbi F. My name is Christine, and I want to convert to Judaism, and study with you. I would like to discuss next steps. Thank you.” I was nervous and overeager.

If I’d known better at the time, I might have, among other things, winced when saying my name, Christine, the most Christian (i.e., non-Jewish) name out there. I certainly winced for the next several years when introducing myself at shul. And sometimes the congregants would also wince and add, “Do you have a Jewish name, dear?” No, I did not. You don’t have one until you finish your conversion.

I called two more times.

After the third message, Rabbi F invited me to meet with him at the synagogue. I sat outside on the steps, intimidated by the doors of the synagogue. I couldn’t bring myself to knock on those huge wooden doors, or to open them. Eventually the rabbi came out looking for me. He wore black slacks and a white short sleeved shirt. He had a large white beard and wore eyeglasses and a kipa. “There you are,” he said, and introduced himself. His voice, the tempo of which was of someone who chose his words carefully, was higher than I’d expected. He did not put out his hand to shake. This was an Orthodox rabbi, and touch between men and women is forbidden. That much I knew. Thank goodness.

He led me inside. It was an old building, and his office was a small room off of the main room, steps from the wooden bimah. The three walls without a window in the office were covered floor to ceiling with books. The window faced north, so that the office was covered in the cold blue northern light I love.

I’d just graduated from college, and the bookshelves were familiar to me, even if the synagogue was not; I’d sat in offices like this before in Wheeler and Dwinelle Hall, during office hours with professors. Throughout my five years studying with Rabbi F, he would often stand up and pull a book off those shelves to seek answers.

He expected me to ask questions. This was a major paradigm shift for me. I was coming from a culture in which learning occurred by passive listening and memorizing what I was told. In which authority should not be questioned.

What do you mean? I asked. I was scared. Intimidated.

He replied by asking me a question. He asked how I expected to learn if I didn’t have any questions. He also said that by coming with my own questions each week, I would direct my own learning.

It made sense.

So each week, I came up with questions. I felt self-conscious coming up with questions, and even more so when I dared ask them. But I was rewarded; these questions would lead to lengthy and enriching discussions with the rabbi. And over the next few months and years, the questions begat more questions, and I began to feel more at ease with my curiosity. I became an actively curious person.

Years later, when I started teaching freshman comp, I remembered going through this paradigm shift. And I channeled the rabbi and shared the above anecdote, in hopes that my students would take the leap, dare to ask questions, and become more active learners.

And when I came across challenges, Rabbi F’s advice was always three dimensional, sometimes quite literally so. When it came time to consider meeting the Beit Din, he told me something that sticks to this day. “Identity is not just one thing: it is comprised of legal identity, community identity, and self identity. The Beit Din will approve your legal identity, the community, which includes your family, will define your social identity as a Jew, and last you have your self identity as a Jew. If you self identify as a Jew, that is the most important of all.”

Rabbi F changed my life in so many positive ways. He was my guide into Judaism (a world that did not always welcome me with open arms–and a world in which I often stumbled, like the time I saw a salmon fish cake and before I could think asked, “Is that a crab cake?” I had already hung my head by the time the cook uttered a disdainful “No.”), and I will be forever grateful to him for his wisdom and kindness. In so many ways (maybe all ways) my conversion process was a major paradigm shift–not the least of which was turning me into a more active student. I am a bolder, more curious, and more confident woman today having studied with Rabbi F. And perhaps I would not have become a writer if had not unearthed an adventurous and curious self.

*****

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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2 Comments

Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, Reading, The Personal

2 responses to “R is for Rabbi

  1. Nate

    Yeah, the ‘bet is back!

    The learning via discussion thing is huge. When people say that Jewish culture “values learning” this is what they are really talking about (probably not a coincidence that many of our great thinkers and writers are Jewish.)

    CZ, have you been to see Angela Buchdahl in NYC?

    • I have not yet gone to see Rabbi Angela Buchdahl! I didn’t realize she was in NYC (I read her essay about kimchi on the seder plate once). NYC is so awesome.

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