Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wrestling With a New Jewish Identity

One of the talents I have tried to cultivate from a young age is the ability to step back and view myself from the outside. It has helped keep me out of trouble on any number of occasions, and is probably the best tool anyone has for improving themselves. If you can’t be honest with your evaluation of yourself (both better and worse) there’s not much hope. Using this handy tool, it feels like I’ve had a very good grasp on my identity for most of my adult life now. It is also what makes this blog possible, and not unbearably boring. However, nothing to this point has prepared me to “view” the drastic change to my identity that has taken place recently.

It sounds sort of insidious when stated in that fashion, but it’s not a wholesale identity change in a flush-and-start-over sense. It has simply been a penetration of Jewish thinking, hashkafa, concepts, and even words, into everyday life. If the analogy is glasses that are used to view the world, then what is happening is simply a new prescription instead of ditching the glasses entirely. That’s to be expected whenever you make a dramatic life change, such as taking on a structured religion where there was no religious observance before.

As it becomes more and more part of my identity though, the real issues of becoming Jewish grow more clear. On more than one occasion recently, I have had to stop from saying something in Hebrew in general conversation. This is and of itself isn’t unusual. Being a dedicated computer geek often means having to substitute the wonderful shorthand of technology for speech that lesser humans can understand. (I am continually self-evaluating, I never said it always worked…yeah, gotta work on the arrogance a bit.) It takes a second to realize that not only is it not the lingua franca of casual conversation, it’s so foreign that it would stop conversation dead and move it towards a conversation about yourself and why you even know it.

Being your average middle-class white guy for most of your life doesn’t prepare you to be on the outside of the larger American society looking in. Not that there has been an instant ejection of self-from-life of course…just the slow recognition that I no longer share the same reality as my coworkers and friends. Not because they have changed, but because I have changed. It’s quite a shock every time some event brings this to the fore again.

This is probably the hardest part about a Jewish Orthodox conversion in general for an intellectual introvert. You are slowly withdrawing from social life as you knew it, and immersing into an entirely new and foreign one. The learning itself is relatively easy. It comes naturally to you, and brings you real joy. On the other hand, creating a new social support network is a difficult and at times terrifying job. It’s something you never excelled at, never particular enjoyed, and you’re doing it out of sheer desperation for a sense of community to cling to.

In this regard, I am fortunate that my personal rabbi is around my age, and an irrepressible extrovert. He loves people, loves helping others, and thankfully, has taken a shine to me. He has been the key to getting Shabbat invitations with families in the community, suggesting places I just show up to learn, etc. I really do love the man with all my heart. I shudder to think what the last year would have been like without his guidance. (It was hard enough as it was.) I hope the opportunity to take these experiences and extend a friendly hand towards someone else presents itself. It seems like I owe it to the world for my good fortune.

This post has rambled WAY more than I would have liked, but being pressed for time can do that. It’s also hard to keep a good reign on existential angst in around 700 words. (The self-imposed soft limit set for posts.) The topic will probably be revisited on a more focused level at some point in the future.

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