For the past 16 years, Craig Taubman has compiled and published a collection of short introspections called Jewels of Elul.
It’s based on the Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days.
A really good way to spend an hour doing Jewish learning this week is to read through the Jewel of Elul archives. It’s an amazing list of writers, and the lessons are all bite-size. And I of course recommend signing up to get the booklets as they come out.
This year the subject is “a lesson learned from my parents,” and he asked if I’d contribute 200 words. So here’s a short riff on that, nothing too shocking:
Asking a convert for lessons on Jewish life from their parents is tricky of course, but I’ve wedged a lot of their wisdom (and mistakes!) into my Judaism. The one I think about often is from my mom, and it’s showing up.
No matter how much my brother and I complained and fought, we would dress up and walk down the steep hill to our little local church every Sunday. And I would fight. Rending my garments, gnashing my teeth (this wasn’t church specific—I fought any effort toward organization or hair brushing). My mom was on her own with us then, and I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to get us dressed and organized for church every Sunday. But we got out the door. And we walked down the hill. It gave us structure and taught us about obligation and maybe too taught me fake-it-til-you-make-it, which is seriously underrated. (Judaism calls it na'aseh v’nishma—we will do and then we will understand.)
In Jewish life, even more than in Christian life, physically showing up is crucial. Just getting into the room together is a key part of Jewish life. You need a minyan. You need enough hands to lift the chair. You need someone strong to guard the body. You need other Jews, and they can’t be by phone. Ideally, you want to live close enough that you can walk on Shabbat to your shul. You need density.
Today, we all feel deep comfort in living online. There’s comfort in feeling like I’m connected to people even as I’m actually entirely alone, with a screen. Judaism rejects that. And when I feel the inertia inside me, especially now as I’ve calcified from lock-down, when I want to gnash my teeth a little at the idea of putting on nice clothes for a shabbat, I remember my mom, zipping up my smock dress.