Sometimes awful things can lead to happy accidents. And so it is that thousands of years of different cultures and governments persecuting the Jewish people has caused them to spread throughout the world, setting up pockets of thriving tight-knit community not just in the Upper West of New York or Beverlywood, Los Angeles, but in Argentina and Venezuela, South Africa and Australia.
This week, I was out in the world reporting, and so my challenge was to do Shabbat on the road, with a group of Jewish people, in a city I didn’t know. And it got me thinking about how different the Jewish sense of place is, and how converting is also about seeing home in a different way.
I grew in San Francisco, and on my dad’s side, the family has been there in that city (on basically one hill in that city) for six generations, seven generations now with the little ones growing up.
Down at the water is where Dad worked on the tug boats, top of Russian Hill is where Grandma and her sisters lived. I lived after college for years in my aunt’s house, same house she’d grown up, same house her parents had enjoyed, so three generations of Bowles women had thrown parties in one same garden. In the Central Valley was where my ancestor who first came over raised his cattle. The farm’s almost all dissipated now, but we still have a mid-sized tomato, melon and alfalfa farm in that valley on that same land, which my cousin runs and where he raised his three boys, one of whom god willing will run the place. To top it off: My job since age 22 has been to document that city of San Francisco and its trends.
Which is all to say: My sense of place is rooted very deeply in a few square miles.
Converting to Judaism has made me realize what a privilege that was.
In America, there were laws about where Jews could and could not buy property. And historically, Jewish property was often something that could be taken — not just in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, but in all kinds of eras and all kinds of countries. Like Shabbat, the Jewish treasures had to be mental and artistic treasures, internal valuables that could move along with them.
[I won't get into Israel in this little email. That deserves its own piece. Plus, I’ve never been! Our trip was cancelled because of Covid. But please put here in your mind a placeholder for Zionism and the sense of place of Israel and that history.]
And over the last few years of slowly converting, I’ve gotten to know those diaspora communities and the serendipity and pleasure of them. I’ve done Shabbat in Sydney Australia. I made my uncle drive me to the Jewish Day School in La Jolla because I was curious.
Since there is so rarely a seven-generation-home, there is a sense of being at home in the world. And consistency comes through the Jewish rituals. You can go just about anywhere and plug into something that feels deeply familiar.
A little like how going to a Starbucks in Paris is deeply comforting, going to Shabbat in another city is comforting. After the wine blessing, there’s the Challah blessing.
Getting my head around this has been mind-blowing in how it’s expanded my sense of place and where Bari and I could live. It’s made me obsessed with the idea of our children being fluent in Hebrew — how cool that they could go around the world and connect with people all over it? One language that connects pockets of (let’s be honest) probably some of the most interesting people you’ll find in every city around the world.
So this past week of Shabbat, with Bari in tow, we looked up a group we really like called Base, which organizes a Rabbinic family living in a Jewish community to host young Jews at their home, an effort to meet people where they are.
We drove to a beautiful Miami backyard where Rabbis Adam Gindea and Jessie Silverman Gindea host every Friday night. There for dinner were young people who’d grown up in three different countries. English was not everyone’s first language. But everyone knew the same Hebrew prayers.
And slowly, more and more, so do I.
On the topic of Base, I got a note from another Base rabbi, Avram Mlotek.
Before all this pandemic, I went to his Upper West Side sukkah (an outdoor thatched roof hut for the Jewish harvest season festival).
He sent me a video of him and his family doing a social distant rendition of Woman of Valor, traditionally sung by a husband to his wife on Shabbat.
Now, this song is considered sort of sexist by modern liberal Jews, but I love it and make Bari sing it to me every week. It starts:
A woman of valor who can find?
She's worth far more than a goldmine
Her husband’s heart trusts in her
And he shall lack no treasure
She's good to him and never does him wrong
Everyday her whole life long
She searches for wool and flax
Her hands make up for all she lacks
For housekeeping: a call for voices! I want to try to make a home for conversion stories and put them together to publish in Tablet.
If anyone wants to send me a paragraph or two (or more) about thoughts they’ve had about conversion (or not converting) or something they want to get off their chest or ask a rabbi, send it my way. We’d love to make a little community of this if there’s interest. In my mind I call it Convert Corner.
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And this Substack will always be free for all readers, but if you do want to contribute to the effort, I’ve set it so you can! An annual membership buys you 1-2 phone calls from me to any spouse who just really might love to convert if she knew how fun it is.
For my formal Jewish education efforts this week, I’ve started my favorite historian and rabbi’s new lecture series — Jewish Political Greatness: Ten Studies in Statemanship.
It was about King David and what made him the ideal Jewish King and what made him different from a great non-Jew king like Winston Churchill. In short: David was humble and saw his limits. He could not build the temple. That had to be his son, Solomon.
Tzedakah of the week is (what else) give to Base, which has been so welcoming to this convert and which does such good work.
Giving might mean donating money. But it might also mean finding out if they’re hosting anything outdoors, and getting plugged in to your local one. As readers of this blog know, I am very skeptical of Ashkenazi food, but I can assure you, you always eat well at Base.
I received some reader feedback to last week’s humor column.
It was to watch this brilliant Seinfeld episode about a convert who makes Jewish jokes way way too soon. I think it was a hint? I choose to ignore it.
See you next week!