Monthly Archives: August 2010

On Teshuvah

by Louis E. Newman (Northfield, MN)

All of us at one time or another have had the experience of losing our way. Sometimes, perhaps when we’re traveling in a foreign place, we become completely disoriented. At first we think we know which way to head, but when we set out in that direction we discover that our own sense of direction has failed us. When we realize that we don’t have the foggiest idea where we are or how to get to our destination, we are thoroughly lost. Such moments can arouse profound feelings of helplessness and even despair.

Being morally lost likewise involves a sense of despair. We have fallen into the same patterns of hurtful or self-destructive behavior so often we feel that we’re beyond the point of being able to change. We don’t know which direction to turn in order to find our way back to a life of honor and integrity. And before long we may come to believe that, for us at least, there is no way back. I have known many addicts who have lived for years with such feelings of helplessness.

Ultimately, though, the point of all these metaphors of movement is that the same steps that led us into the ditch of transgression can lead us back to the high road of ethical living. Teshuvah—returning—is the name Judaism gives to this process of retrieving our sense of direction. Repentance is the ultimate form of return. After turning our gaze away from God and straying from the straight path, we can still find our way back. And it is as simple as taking just one step in a new direction. For turning in a new direction, by as little as one degree, will lead us over time to a wholly different destination.

Louis Newman has been thinking, teaching, and writing about Jewish ideas for over 30 years.  One of the country’s leading scholars of Jewish ethics, he is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies and the Humphrey Doermann Professor of Liberal Learning at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His most recent book is Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah (Jewish Lights 2010).

This excerpt is from Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah @ 2010 by Louis Newman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

To read more about Dr. Newman and his work, visit

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A Jew by Choice

by Anna Gersman (Schomberg, Ontario, Canada)

Doubts, fears and uncertainty have plagued my life and the choices I have made, including my decision to become a Jew. I was brought up an atheist, knowing nothing of God, prayer or ritual. I feared religion and avoided it. I could not understand its purpose. Growing up, my ears were filled with jeering words of ridicule for those who did have faith. “Religious people were weak;” “Religion has caused all the wars and problems of the world;” “There is no scientific proof or rational thought to verify religion;” “Look at the millions murdered in the name of religion,” I was told. As a child, places of worship filled me with dread. The great emptiness of godlessness clouded my childhood. I was firmly exiled from God.

The conversion of an atheist is not easy. The long process, for me, was a series of small steps, gently guided by the encouragement and patience of those who loved me, my family and friends. I found my way cautiously with great fear and distrust.

The initial strands of my journey began when I met my Jewish sailor husband in the early 1980s. I fell in love with his warmth, humour and kind spirit.  We sought adventure and together one glorious September, we set sail for the Caribbean in our sailboat. Looking back, I wonder what guided me, where my inner faith and strength come from that helped me push off from the shore. We were not of the sea. He was a Jewish boy from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was from Newmarket, a small town in Ontario.  Together we sailed out onto that massive expanse of water, enveloped by its surging power and energy. As we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda, our world was endless sky and sea. We felt God’s breath blow across the surface of the ocean, softly, gently at times and then fiercely.

Caught in our first storm at sea, I was terrified of capsizing and being pulled down into the cold dark depths of the Atlantic. I did not know how to pray, and yet I prayed with a desperate conviction for survival. I felt God’s presence many times out on the ocean, in the power of the universe, in the vast array of stars, in the schools of dolphins leaping in the moonlight. I realized I could not feel exiled from God at sea, and after several ocean voyages, I was no longer an atheist. I knew there was a God and yet I was a long way from formal religious practice.

My husband was a secular Jew, and we enjoyed the social part of being with family and friends during the Jewish holidays. My mother-in-law accepted me as a non-Jew, regularly encouraging me to “just have a baby dear.” Her words were wise because in fact the miracle of childbirth brought me significantly closer in my journey towards Judaism.

When my oldest daughter was five-years-old, prompted by discussions at school, she asked me “Mommy, what are we?” Those words sent a hollow echo reverberating though my godless soul. I sensed my duty as a mother was to understand my own spiritual identity and pass this on to my children. I had learned over the years to prepare the traditional menu for the Jewish High Holidays. I could make chicken soup and knaidlach (matzoh balls), but I did not understand the rituals or historical significant of the holidays. I spoke to my husband about our children’s sense of uncertainty about their religious identity, but he could not fully comprehend the void I experienced. He had an unshakable confidence in his own heritage, a strong sense of belonging and identity. He had difficulty seeing the yearning and bewilderment in our child, but he took her hand and went to find a synagogue to attend High Holy Day services.

For me, the goal of parenting is to create an independent, capable person. My understanding of the goal of conversion is to create an independent confident Jew, eager to explore further. For my children’s sake, I knew I had to convert. I told my husband and he looked at me tenderly saying, “I have waited a long time to hear you speak those words.” I felt privileged to have married someone, who stood by me while I stumbled on a personal journey towards faith. We joined Temple Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue. Our children were enrolled in Saturday morning Hebrew school, and gradually over time the unfamiliar became familiar.

I cannot describe the joy I felt learning the Torah stories alongside my children. The stories of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, came alive for me as I slowly painted my interior world with their ancient symbols of hope, redemption and forgiveness. The first few times we attended services my husband wept as emotions long buried in childhood flooded back. The Hebrew prayers and melodies he had long forgotten came back with new significance and meaning as he sat with his family in shul. It was wonderful for me to witness his reconnection to Judaism, and his experience helped me feel secure in my decision to become a Jew.

During my conversion interview the rabbi asked me, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” “For my children,” I replied. “I want them to know God.” He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he said “usually we want people to choose Judaism for themselves, but this is a good place to start.” At first I struggled to be part of the synagogue world; I was uncomfortable with the prayers, fearful I would do or say the wrong thing. The rituals of Shabbat drew me in like a moth to a flickering flame. Gradually, as I stumbled through the Shabbat blessings each week, I came to know the peace that Shabbat brings.

At synagogue services I wrap myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) designed by my husband and painted by my daughters, feeling the shelter of God’s love when I draw it around myself. I have learned the great comfort of communal worship, being led in prayer as though through a beautiful garden. Now, I feel safer to ask questions as I continue to search for my own way of being Jewish. The loving ancient words of the Torah and the siddur (prayer book) bring me solace and comfort in this fast paced high tech world.

At my daughters’ B’nei Mitzvot the rabbi spoke to them, stating “our hope is that you will continue in the path of Jewish learning.” I hear that universal message and know that their journey, like mine is ongoing. I hope one day to visit Israel, and to chant Torah, but for now I listen for the sound of God’s voice as often as I can in all that I do.

It is not easy to convert from nothing, to construct a religious life without a solid foundation set in childhood. Each person undertakes their own unique and personal journey towards faith. I have been fortunate.  I chose a loving Jewish partner who waited patiently for me to make my choice; lucky, to have chosen a shul and congregation accepting and tolerant of differences; lucky, to have found a rabbi able to encourage and welcome the unaffiliated, the disenfranchised, and do the holy work of outreach. As we read in synagogue, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mishkan T’Filah – Reform prayer book.)
Anna Gersman grew up in a large family in King City Ontario. She has traveled and sailed extensively in South Africa and the Caribbean with her husband and children. She has been a nurse for over 20 years. She is currently working with seniors as a case manager in home care and as a camp nurse at URJ Camp George during the summers. Anna has been a member of Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario since 1997. There she found a spiritual home, encouraged to develop every aspect of Jewish life. Anna is currently working on a memoir of her journey to find her Jewish voice. She lives in Schomberg, Ontario near Toronto with her husband Sydney, and their teenage daughters Ariel and Liora.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author from Living Legacies –  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl,  PK Press: Toronto, Canada, 2010.  For more information about this publication or to order copies please visit

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On Expectations and Commitment

By Esther D. Kustanowitz ( Los Angeles , CA )

I believe that commitment is commitment. Even more so, I view matrimony as a commitment that is inviolable. But recently I was reminded that not everyone has the same barometer for what is considered commitment. I had dinner with a potential business associate, a married man with children. Suddenly, over the course of dinner, our business seemed to veer into funny business. First came a few compliments, most of them professionally related. Then he asked to hold my hand. I told him no, and that he had made me uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop him. He told me it was simple affection and I was over-interpreting it, but I think my yeshiva day school background spoke up at that moment. Years of learning about drawing fences around areas of temptation, creating moats and walls that kept sin in the barely visible distance, suddenly made sense. But in that more compromising position, in that moment of a potential breach in a protective fence, I was uncomfortable.

Since that hot summer night, I have wondered what I’d done to convey that there was possibility there, or whether I overreacted at a display of affection that perhaps, as he kept claiming, wasn’t what I perceived it to be. I pondered how similar the actions of hand-shaking and handholding were, and tried to revisit the events from alternate perspectives. I put myself in his shoes, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was expressing an intended affection-minus-sexual-desire only to be rejected. I stepped into his wife’s loving and trusting shoes, and wondered how I would feel if my husband, the father of my children, was in a foreign city and held the hand of his younger, female, single potential business partner over dinner and wine.

Maybe this kind of thing happened all the time for him and his wife. If so, perhaps it wasn’t a violation of their commitment, and therefore, strictly speaking, within their understanding of morality. Or maybe they had an open relationship that permitted liaisons on foreign soil. I put on my yeshiva girl glasses and thought to myself, this is why people are shomer negiah, and don’t touch members of the opposite sex until they are married to one; because “good touch” can turn to “uncomfortable touch” while a wineglass empties. But regardless of any subjective moral codes or extenuating circumstances between him and his wife, for me this action on his part represented a crack in their commitment. And that made me uncomfortable.

I believe in honest communication, and have high standards once commitment is proclaimed. And because I know not everyone mirrors my constant commitment to commitment and communication, I try to keep my expectations (and sexpectations) in check, while keeping my standards high. It’s a hard line to walk, and this line is probably part of what has kept me single. This is something that I, and probably other single Jews, struggle with, and is sometimes categorized among the frustrated as “unrealistic expectations.”

Where are our models for contemporary Jewish dating? Maybe we need a liturgy that gives us the words to praise the divine elements of dating, or a Shulchan Arukh (code of Jewish law) that instructs us how to behave. Every Passover we read about being commanded to “see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt ,” about identifying personally with an ancient story and people. By seeing ourselves there, we can begin to understand what their lives were like and the choices they made.

I believe that by keeping in our hearts the injunction—whether divine, rabbinic, or personal—to treat others as we would like to be treated, and by clearly communicating our intentions, we elevate our dating behavior to a higher ethical level. We—or at least I—can only hope that at the end of the dating process, this approach will yield a more concerned, communicative, and ethical partner to stand at our side as we conquer the world. To put it another way, by elevating the way we see each other while we’re seeing each other, we will more fully be able to see ourselves.

Esther D. Kustanowitz writes, edits and consults on matters relating to Jewish life, pop culture, dating and relationships, and online social media. Esther wrote “First Person Singular,” a singles column in New York ’s The Jewish Week for more than four years. She currently blogs at My Urban Kvetch ( at Jdaters Anonymous ( She also consults for the ROI Community, an international network of young Jewish innovators in their 20s and 30s, and has been known to teach improv. She lives in Los Angeles , CA .

Reprinted from Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices, Vol. 4: Sex and Intimacy, © 2010, edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, published by The Jewish Publication Society with the permission of the publisher. Available from the publisher at

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Memories of East New York

by Joyce Halpern (Cherry Hill, NJ)

Having been raised as a Jew in a gentile neighborhood, I was delighted with the vibrant Jewish community where my husband grew up.  We visited his parents in this neighborhood frequently during the late 1950’s and 1960’s when I was in my twenties. Family members and neighbors told stories about their immigrant experiences as children.  Some talked about “the old country” and their good fortune to become Americans. My mother-in-law took me shopping and demonstrated some of the accepted folkways in the neighborhood.  Others traditions I learned from family gatherings and from my own observations as I walked the streets and mingled with the people.  I knew this unique, cohesive society would some day disappear, so I made some notes so I would not forget it.  From these notes, I present a loving memory of a vanished neighborhood.

Some of the Jews who had come to America as children in the 1920’s later established a community in a section of East New York.  They were garment and factory workers or small shop owners.  Having left the tenements years ago, they now lived in long, two-family duplexes.  Modest synagogues were nestled in all neighborhoods so children could walk to Hebrew school. Streets were lively with walkers because walking was the primary mode of transport.  Small shops, owned by men who formerly made their living from pushcarts, nudged each other on streets, their signs with bold Hebrew letters competing for attention. Clothes, bolts of fabric, and pots were displayed outside under the careful eyes of the shlepper. “Come inside, Mrs.,” he would call.  “I have bargains.”  Customers entered the store and the drama of negotiation began. Buyer and seller played their expected role until a price was struck.  Bargaining was conducted in Yiddish.  English was too passive a language for such an important struggle.

Many of the homes in East New York had porches where children gathered.  Some adolescents sought a more sophisticated venue.  The corner candy store was their salon.  Quiet chess players or combatants arguing about politics could also adorn porches. Extended family members lived within walking distance.  Children could show up at any relative’s house for an after school snack.  Relatives gathered frequently. They might play cards, debate union activities or just visit, but they always ate a six course meal.  So much togetherness was a mixed bag.  Everyone had an Aunt Sadie who found dirt in corners of houses and children who were too thin.  “He is tsu din,” she scolded a mother.  “Why don’t you make him eat?”

Cooking and baking were serious, time-consuming jobs for housewives.  When they met each other, they often greeted one another, not with “Hello,” but rather “So, what are you cooking for supper tonight?” Preparing for any holiday was always a frenetic activity. Women jostled for attention at the kosher butcher shop vying for the plumpest chicken.  Then it was off to the fish monger to select a swimming carp.  Grinding the flesh to make gefilte fish was an onerous task which the women did willingly every holiday. The traditional dishes they cooked were an essential part of every holiday experience.  On Rosh Hashanah the air in the neighborhood  was layered with the delicious smell of chicken soup coming from so many homes, yet another link in communal joy.

The High Holidays were an opportunity for neighbors to display their growing prosperity in America.  How proudly they walked to the synagogue wearing clothing they could never have afforded in Europe.  This was a once-a-year show, however, because garment workers had lay off times over which they had no control.  Solid financial stability would only come in the next generation of their college-educated children.

Joyce Halpern enjoyed a long career as a teacher but has always been a writer.  She  was contributing editor to an art magazine and an art newspaper, and, as a free lance writer, her articles have appeared in various Philadelphia and New Jersey publications.  Recording her observations and feelings in both prose and poetry has been a life long necessity.

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by Leslie LaskinReese (San Rafael, CA)

Lori asked if we would sit shiva and  I said no, who would come that knows Mom?  That was my knee jerk reaction.  Raised a Jew but not trained a Jew.  We never sat shiva growing up. I didn’t even know what it looked like when I was young.  But the day after Mom died I realized I needed to sit shiva.  When I told Dad he sounded almost relieved.  Or maybe I was imagining things.

We are Reform Jews.  Orthodox Jews sit shiva for seven days.  That’s what shiva means: seven.  Reform Jews sit shiva for three days.  I don’t know who picked three.  Officially shiva begins as soon as the funeral finishes.  I checked in with my friend who is studying to be a rabbi and she said shiva can begin when I need it to begin.  So my shiva began on Sunday.  My dear dear friends brought lunch and dinner and spent time with me.  They let me talk and they listened.  They made me sit down and they fed me.  They gave me room to breathe.

Last night and tonight we had a service at home.  Our wonderful cantor and my friend who is almost a rabbi officially, and is clearly a rabbi in every other way, led beautiful services and gave me room to pray and remember and cry surrounded by friends who will wrap themselves around me and my family.  It gave me a place to begin.  I stopped holding my breath.  And I told them about Mom.

So yes, I did sit shiva Lori, and it was amazing.  Thanks for asking.

Leslie LaskinReese is a writer and restaurant designer living in Northern California.  Leslie’s writing can be found at something’s burning ( where this piece first appeared.  When she is not writing, Leslie is either designing restaurants  or tending her family.  Someday, Leslie will have the courage to seek print publication for one of her many writing projects.

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