erika davis is a washington state-based writer, blogger and jewish diversity advocate. For almost 8 years she recorded her journey to judaism in her popular blog, Black Gay and Jewish. Today she blogs about her life in the PNW and occasionally writes in third person

Journey To Judaism Parts 1-5

When I shut down Black, Gay and Jewish I had over 350,000 words and over 1000 pages of documentation. As much as I'd love to edit myself from 8 years ago, this is who I was and what I wrote. 

 

Black, Gay, and Jewish Part 2

Tue, 10 Aug 2010 01:19:27, erika, [category: black-gay-and-jewish, post_tag: first-time-in-a-synagogue, post_tag: shul-shopping-2]

**This was originally posted on 05.16.10 on my main blog**

Friday was Shabbat Services at the Village Temple and with great trepidation this black lesbian set foot into a synagogue for the first time.  Technically it was the second time since I'd chatted with the Cantor the week prior but the first time I stepped foot into a synagogue with the intention of going in, sitting down, and willing myself through an entire service composed mostly of Hebrew, a language I haven't the faintest clue about.

Just the walking in part was really nerve racking and although I've finished Being Jewish, Choosing a Jewish Life and am half way through Living a Jewish Life I was not at all prepared.  My fears and reservations were subdued by the sweet gentle men who wished me, "Shabbat Shalom" when I walked into the foyer of the Temple.  There was lingering outside of the Temple doors before we were escorted in with blue binders that contained all of the prayers for service.  It took me a while to get the swing of things, the fact that the binder opened from the back threw me but after the third Psalm I allowed myself to stop trying to read the Hebrew phonetics of the songs or their English translations and just enjoyed the sound of this ancient language around me.

I'd be lying if I said that I was comfortable but I know I wasn't uncomfortable.  I also know that while I have no idea how to speak Hebrew I have a desire to learn.  I was comforted by the queer couple behind me, the Latina woman who offered me wine, and the black man with a kippah on his bowed head as his lips moved while reciting Psalms and prayers in Hebrew.   My meeting with the Rabbi is next month so I have time to visit a few more synagogues and read more books.  So far, though, I'm feeling a little nervous but very confident in my decision.


 

Black, Gay, and Jewish Part 3

Tue, 10 Aug 2010 01:22:31, erika, [category: black-gay-and-jewish, post_tag: judaism]

**This was originally posted on 06.06.10 on my main blog**


So my appointment with the Rabbi is on the 15th.  While I've only attended one Shabbat celebration at the Temple I've been doing a lot of reading and soul searching.  Thankfully, a lot of friends and family members have been helpful in asking me a lot of hard questions, which I'm sure the Rabbi will ask me as well.

1.  Why do you want to be a Jew?  Do you know what's going on in Gaza right now?    That's a question I got the other day.  Yes, I'm aware of what's going on in Gaza right now but for me, it's important to realize that not all Jews agree with Israeli occupation, not all Jews are Israelis, not all Jews are Zionists.  Personally, I think what's going on in the region is fucked beyond belief.  I also think that it has less to do with belief and more to do with politics and power.  Those things are tricky and can make things really hazy.

And why do I want to be a Jew?  Why not is probably the wrong answer.  Luckily, it's not my answer and I'm not quite sure how to word the answer except to say that it feels right.  I've been a spiritual wanderer for as long as I can remember.  Growing up as a child of Baptist and Methodist parents attending a Catholic school and surrounded by Christians and Muslims a like I never knew a Jewish person until college.  In the time from grade school awe of Jesus to my rejection of Christianity as a college freshman I rejected all monotheistic faiths for Paganism.  I tried that on for about 5 years and can still cast with the best of them but when I came to NYC and was surrounded by so many beautiful houses of worship I tried on the Episcopalian hat.

I loved that the Episcopal church ordained woman clergy, I loved that they welcomed gays and lesbians but as I took communion every Sunday I doubted and after a year I stopped attending all together.   When I opened my first Jewish Book, Being Jewish, by Ari Goldman I felt at ease; at home.  It sounds incredibly cliché but I immediately felt a sense of calm come over my being and I felt happy.  I was engrossed and in awe in a way that I can't really explain except that it feels right.

I've since read Living a Jewish Life and Choosing a Jewish Life  both by Anita Diamant and The Color of Jews by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz.


 

Black, Gay, and Jewish Part 4

Tue, 10 Aug 2010 01:25:16, erika, [category: black-gay-and-jewish, post_tag: pre-conversion-posts, post_tag: shul-shopping-2]

**Originally posted on 08.01.10**

I'm writing  a series with the same name on the Velvet Park website.  Here's a link to the most recent article I wrote for them.  http://www.velvetparkmedia.com/blogs/black-gay-and-jewish-part-two-finding-path  Because of the nature of the site, I usually try to keep my entries for them around 600 words.  Because this is my personal blog I can write and write and write.

I'm using my experience of conversion to Judaism as one third of the novel that I'm writing.  The novel, Black, Gay, and Jewish, is about me, my life, and my struggles with these three varying identities that make up who I am and how I indentify.  Writing here and on Velvet Park allows me to sort of flush out smaller themes so that I can remember and so that I can write.  Obviously, my Velvet Park posts focus mostly on Judaism, because it's what I'm focused on now.  Here, though, I can explore all three of the themes of my book.

Like that little Introduction to this post?  I did, too.

On Tuesday afternoon I walked into a temple in Midtown East and boarded the elevator with a tall girl I'm guessing is about 25 or so.  We both walked the room we were told to the week before and met with the Rabbi who was conducting our Conversion  Course.  That's right, readers, I'm enrolled in a conversion course!  I cannot tell you how excited I am but there's a lot of, "buts", involved in this course.  It's not a conversion course in the sense that after the many weeks of meetings and study that I will automatically go into my mikvah and come out the other side a Jew.  She's told us that afterwards if we're still interested in continuing the conversion process that it's a discussion we can have at a later date.  I'm also not 100% positive that this synagogue, which is huge, beautiful, and a little bit imposing, will be my synagogue.  In fact, in the next few weeks I have more temples to attend Shabbat at and more meetings with prospective rabbis interested in discussing the conversion process with me.  Still, this rabbi was amazing, friendly, engaging, and seems genuinely passionate just about Judaism but about converting prospective Jews by choice.



Those simple facts are attractive to me, the fact that I wasn't the only person of color in the room was also very attractive to me.  To my immediate right was a Swedish au pair who'd lived and worked for a Jewish family for over 6 years.  Her family's holidays became her holidays and she found herself identifying closely with Judaism.  Next to her was a middle-aged father of two.  His wife was Jewish and they'd lived a Jewish life for the entire span of their marriage and in his words, "it was time."  Next to him was a Cuban Kabbalist who realized that Kabbalah, didn't work without the recognition of its important place in Judaism, as a whole.  He's been studying Kabbalah for ten years and his Catholic wife supports him.  Next to him was a black man just back from a long length of time living in Israel.  When he came back to the US he struggled with missing Israel when he realized that he missed Judaism.  Next to him sat the girl I'd taken the elevator with.  Her fiance is studying to be a rabbi and she's drawn to the religion and has decided to convert.  Next to her was an  Asian woman whose father is Jewish.  She rediscovered her roots and found her place of belonging when she got engaged to a Jewish man.  Then the rabbi, a strikingly beautiful, engaging, energetic, and passionate woman who captured my attention from the moment we said hello to when we said good bye 2 hours later.

The class is intense.  There's an actual syllabus with 5 books that are required of us to read.  The Torah portions are also assigned readings and in addition to the bi-weekly group meetings we're all required to meet with her individually to talk about things.  I left the class energized and excited.  For the first time, even though I've attended Shabbat services and read countless books, I felt like, This is It!  I'm really going to do this!

The class was on Tuesday and on Friday night I made my way back uptown to attend Shabbat service at the synagogue.  I was thankful when I noticed that the service would be held in their lower, pavilion level, rather than in the imposing sanctuary.  The pews formed a circle around the rabbi and cantor so that everyone was a part of the service.  I was late by about 20 minutes because of some really annoying train re-working but when I walked in the ushers smiled at me, "Shabbat Shalom."  I was given a prayer book and directed to open seats (it was packed!)  They were in the middle of singing when I sat down and the gentlemen next to me showed me the page number and place we were at in the song as he smiled at me.  He was older, alone, with grey hair under his kippah.   It's going to sound really odd, perhaps, but the circle style of worship was genius.  For me, the circle reminds us that we're all in it together, you're connected to the people around you.  Circles have no beginning and no end, they're inclusive (and a bit exclusive, no?)  After the first song ended, and I actually recognized the melody, I felt tears brimming in my eyes.   The words and prayers and songs were familiar and the sermon given by the rabbi were meaningful to me.

After service we were invited for refreshments and a tour of the historic sanctuary.  I introduced myself to the rabbi and he was warm and welcoming.  The congregants were warm and genuine, I even had an interesting exchange with a Jewish grandma.

While pouring Kosher wine (thankfully not Manichevitz)

Older Lady to her friend, about me, "My what a beauty!"  to me "Shabbat Shalom! You're beautiful"

Me:  "Thanks!"

After a few moments, "Are you here with someone?  Are you single?"  It was pretty cute.

Friday morning I helped Mirs move to Ditmas Park. She'd been telling me about the amazing diversity of her new neighborhood for two weeks and I finally got to explore it with her.  We have friends who live there but we'd only seen their side of the street.  Mirs' side is a little more interesting.  Her building is giant and filled with Russian speaking neighbors and the smells of curries and stews in the hallways.  When you walk out of her door and go a few blocks it turns from Russian to Pakistani.  The shop windows are in Arabic and the food is Halal.  There is an Indian influence with beautiful saris in the windows.   The men were dressed in traditional attire, beards and head coverings.   A few more blocks then it turns from Pakistani to Jewish.  There's the Flatbush Yeshiva, many temples, I presume are orthodox, and since it was Friday afternoon, busy-looking women, children, and men.  We found many a Judaica store-my new favorite, Eichler's, where I purchased my mezuzah, which is affixed to my door, as well as my Hebrew magnet letters.

Before finding Eichler's we walked into a smaller Judaica store in search for the perfect mezuzah.  The ladies who ran the shop were adorably skeptical when we walked in but smiled, wished them a good Shabbat, and asked where the mezuzahs were.  After I found my mezuzah we went into a bakery that was bustling and running low on challah.  We got a small loaf and I went to temple leaving Mirs home.

It's been on my door for almost 48 hours and walking past it as I leave or enter my apartment has made me realize that it's not only a mitzvah to put a mezuzah on my door but it's reminded me that I need to make my home into one that  I find sanctuary in.  By placing a mezuzah on my door I've made my home, my space, a holier one and with that comes the responsibility for me to make it more comfortable, more inviting, more uniquely my own as opposed to a place that I live in.

So much of my life is stressful right now and my home, my sanctuary and protection from the outside world, needs to feel like that.  I'm a list maker and right along with finding a Hamsa Hand to put in my entry way I'm realizing that my books on Judaism are multiplying quickly, I don't have a place in my house comfortable or conducive to writing, my small kitchen has so much empty and unused space that I could better utilize for cooking.  And even though my living space is small, I want to have Shabbat dinner here and invite over friends to enjoy it with.

I've taken so many steps towards my Judaism and there are hundreds of steps that I still need to take.  What excites me the most is that I'm excited to take them, eager to take them, but also realizing that I need to take them slowly so that I appreciate them.


 

Black, Gay, and Jewish Part 5

Tue, 10 Aug 2010 01:27:21, erika, [category: black-gay-and-jewish, post_tag: black-jews-2, post_tag: gay-jews-2, post_tag: jews-of-color-2]

**Originally posted on 08.02.10 on my main blog**

I'm rereading the book "Choosing a Jewish Life" by Anita Diamant.  I started reading it around May of this year and read through it quickly.  I had her other book, "Living a Jewish Life" and various other titles to get through so while I did, indeed, read it, I didn't grasp very much of it.  It's still a quick read the second time around by now when I read the Hebrew transliterations I know that I'm pronouncing the words more properly.

One of the suggestions Anita makes in this book is that you start to make your life, your home, more Jewish by making little changes.  She suggests dietary laws, subscriptions to Jewish magazines or newspapers as well as the "normal" mitzvahs like attending temple, keeping Shabbat, and reading Torah.  Little by little I've been making changes to better Jewify my home and life.  My next endeavor? Magazine and Newspaper subscriptions.  I'm looking for resources that I can relate to.  Those of a liberal and inclusive perspective I more closely identify with because I'm a black Jew.  I'm still on the look out for a black Jewish publication so if any of you have suggestions, please let me know.

I'm also looking at those from an Orthodox perspective as well as a Conservative perspective so that I can learn.  I think it would be naive of me to just focus on reform and more liberal Jewish practices because if I ignore others, I'm not really "getting it" or appreciating it.  Google was very helpful in my search and my credit card is going to start to bleed soon if I subscribe to them all so I will not.  I won't get through them all, any way.  Luckily, there are a few quarterly publications in addition to the weekly newspapers so I think I'll figure something out.



Best thing I've found, though, is the openness for submissions and the writing contests!  I've been keeping three separate notebooks; Black, Gay, and Jewish that I write in daily so that I can better shape my memoir.  It's great to see how the themes of belonging and sometimes feeling like an outsider in this skin of mine is mirrored in all three of my identities.  There are times now when I don't feel "gay enough" because I don't fit into the stereotypical mold of what a lesbian is or is not.  My childhood is filled with painful memories of peers or my parents telling me that I wasn't black enough.  Now, as I enter Judaica stores or flip through pages of Jewish magazines I'm hard-pressed to find a face that looks like mine.

On the other hand, I love a beautiful woman who I want to spend my entire life with.  When I see her I get happy and I feel lusty at the same time.  This fact, and my love, adoration, and attraction to women, in general, make me a lesbian.  I'm undeniably black.  I cannot change the kinky curly texture of my hair nor can I make my skin, that's darker in the NYC sun, any lighter than it will be in December.  While I'm not formally a Jew, inside I'm starting to feel Jewish.  I actually said, "we" to Mirs the other day, instead of  "them" when talking about Jewish people.  We spent the night looking up Jewish names for our unborn children as well as for the Hebrew name I will take.  I'm leaning to Charna, which is a Yiddish name of Slavic origin that means "black."

These three identities are seemingly different but through the writing of my memoir and my pieces here and on VP, I'm beginning to realize that they're not all that different because I'm making them three in the same.
 

In Which I get Jew-Bashed, Reflect on Jewish Prayer, and Ramadan

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