Category Archives: Religion

Nerd Cred and Teaching with Ms. Marvel

Given my overall nerd cred (Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), the fact that I was nearly 30 before I really began to get into comic books might be surprising to those who know me. I would say that my first brush with Marvel came with a computer game my brother and I had called “Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge.” It came with a comic book, which I’m pretty sure is still at our mom’s house (along with a decomposing pile of 5 ¼” floppies). Regarding DC, Christopher Reeve’s Superman was on regular rotation in our VCR, and to this day if someone in our family says “I’ve got you!” the only response is “You’ve got me… Who’s got you??X-Men: The Animated Series was a huge part of my formative years, and my roommate in college had copies of Wolverine: Origin that I sometimes skimmed, but nothing ever sucked me in.

Nevertheless, comics are something I’ve always dabbled in cursorily. I know myself. Huge, overarching storylines, alternate universes for certain characters, intricate plots? Sign me up! So I avoided them. Harry Potter kind of burned me for Works in Progress (let us not forget the Three-Year Summer), so comics just seemed too… open-ended.[1]

When Iron Man came out, I wasn’t terribly interested. Eric Bana’s Hulk had been less than stellar, so when The Incredible Hulk came out, I responded much in the same way as I did when they announced the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies: Really? Again?? Right after Iron Man came out on DVD (blu-ray?), my cousin E. and her husband C. had me over to their house to show off an awesome new home theater system, and we watched it.

My interest was peaked. However, that might have been RDJ blindness more than anything else.

I really didn’t bust my butt to watch anymore MCU movies, though. On the DC, side, beyond the original Superman movies, I had seen Batman Begins and of course saw The Dark Knight (though to this day I still haven’t sat down and watched The Dark Knight Rises). Other encounters with Batman (go Keaton!) as a kid came edited for TV with commercial interruptions on TNT. My only brush with the Fantastic Four prior to last summer’s mishigas was season 4 of Arrested Development. I hadn’t even seen the X-Men movies until early 2015 (the rampant livetweeting of which led to several unfollows on Twitter and Facebook).

Mystery Men and The Incredibles, however, are still on my list of favorite movies of all time.

So why this lengthy confession? Well, things began to change in 2014. I barreled through the MCU in preparation for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which I knew I’d be seeing that summer. And I started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then Agent Carter (if I start something, I watch it all. Completionist/Perfectionist Syndrome). And then… Yeah, it became my go-to distraction when I needed a break from work.

But jumping into actual comic books from the movies and television shows was terrifying and daunting. It’s like jumping into Doctor Who: where do you start? From the beginning? From the most recent major event? And with which character? And what publisher? And will people judge you if you pick the wrong place to start?

The answer came in the form of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel. Word had gotten around to me that the new Ms. Marvel was going to be a young Pakistani-American Muslim woman, and I was intrigued. I began to talk to others about Kamala Khan, and intrigue became genuine interest. It was a new series, and really all that it required was someone to basically tell me who Carol Danvers was and why this was a Big Deal.  So this summer, armed with my debit card and my super supportive partner, I began buying comic books.

The summer of the Secret Wars seemed to be a pretty good place to jump in. I picked up the first trade paperback of Ms. Marvel… and then several back issues… and then some Captain Marvel… and then Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps

It got out of hand. Not in a “I spent all my rent money on comic books” kind of way. More of an “I bought a box and dividers and bags and boards and now it’s all organized” situation.

Students at Roanoke College after our discussion of Ms. Marvel.

Students at Roanoke College after our discussion of Ms. Marvel, December 4, 2015.

The idea then came up to use Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal in the classroom. During Fall 2015, I taught a general education special topics course at Roanoke College entitled “Who or What is God?”  In it, we focus primarily on the history of God in Western religion. I try to incorporate media in the course each time (this year, the syllabus included An American Tail, Saved!, Doctor Who, and Ms. Marvel).

The first time you use a new resource in a course, you never know how it’s going to go. You, of course, bring your expertise to the table and pick what you hope are well-informed resources, but at the end of the day, you just never know how students will react. I used The Frisco Kid in a Judaism course once… it didn’t go well. Conversely, I’ve used Doctor Who several times at this point, which has been so successful I was able to publish an article.

A few days before the assigned day for Ms. Marvel, I reminded my students of the upcoming book assignment and asked how many of them had ever before read comic books. Of the fifteen students in the course, only one raised their hand. This got me even more excited—sharing a new medium and an awesome story is the kind of stuff of which teacher-dreams are made.

On a whim, I tweeted G. Willow Wilson to see what might come of it. Her kind words inspired me to share them with my students, who in turn were about as excited as you might imagine (read: super-super-excited).

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.19.32 AM

Not gonna lie. I got a little Kermit-the-Frog-Flaily.

The class discussion went wonderfully. We were able to tie in Kamala Khan’s story as a Pakistani-American woman to the inflammatory comments being made by Donald Trump regarding the Muslims of Jersey City after the 9/11 attacks. Most of my students are barely older than Kamala Khan herself and they, to, grew up in a primarily post-9/11 world. Overwhelmingly, they stated that they appreciated reading the story of a young woman from their world, representing Islam in a positive way. The last few years of teaching Islam have been some of my most rewarding—my students come in just wanting to know what they often call “the truth” about Islam, which generally refers to separating away radical Islamism from Islam. I think in some ways, this is influenced by the fact that every semester brings more Muslim students in my classes, so students are dealing with having Muslim peers more often than in years past. I was proud of my students this semester, especially for being so willing to check their biases at the door and consider the experiences of Muslims their own age.

In other comments, first-generation students in the class were able to tie in their experiences with those of Kamala Khan–being stuck between two worlds and not being quite sure of their identity. As a whole, the students appreciated the different representations of Muslims they saw in the comics, from Ms. Marvel’s concerns over the modesty of her clothing to Kamala’s brother Aamir’s more pious observance as compared to her parents’ traditional values. Many students were able to compare Kamala’s experiences to religious affiliation in their own families, religion and denominational differences notwithstanding. The title of the trade paperback might be “No Normal,” but much of the conversation revolved around how Kamala was “just like them”: from secretly writing fanfiction to being tempted to eat bacon to getting caught having snuck out after curfew. This is why I love using fiction to apply course concepts—students find themselves and their own experiences in a text, and their empathy with “the other” kicks into overdrive.

I absolutely will put Ms. Marvel on my syllabi in the future (in fact, I already have–I’m using it in my course on Islam this semester).  My only regret with the assignment was that I did not assign a written component to our discussion. I would have loved to hear even more of what they thought. I definitely will be assigning a journal or some sort of responsorial writing assignment in the future.

The students brought many questions to the table. But by far the best question that I got at the end of class?

“Are there more comics, Ms. Jordan? About Kamala?”

Yes, dear student, absolutely.

[1] PS: To my dear buddy MW, I still blame you for getting me to start Game of Thrones without telling me that only four (at that time) of the books were out…

For forays into using sci-fi in teaching, see my post The Impossible Pit:  Satan, Hell, and Teaching With Doctor Who.

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Wedding Cake for All

Yesterday was a good day.  I woke up to the news that SCOTUS had ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage.   And while the ruling doesn’t change my life in any real way, it does give many of my friends the same rights that many of us take for granted simply for having been born straight.

I decided that I had to do something to help celebrate this day.  I didn’t know what might happen, given gay marriage has been legal in California in June 2013, but I had the idea to go to the Santa Clara County offices and hand out cupcakes to newlywed couples.  If someone was eloping today in celebration, they deserved the best part of weddings:  cake.

24 Cupcakes and a Pentax Camera

Banana for scale.

Given that the SCC Wedding Chapel was going to close at 3:40, I realized I didn’t have time to bake the cupcakes myself, so I got a tray of beautiful rainbow-colored cupcakes from Safeway, grabbed my camera in case anyone didn’t have someone taking pictures, and headed to downtown San Jose.

With the help of some employees, I found the wedding chapel, located adjacent to the cafeteria.  The first thirty minutes or so were rough–I almost gave up. honestly.  A news crew from NBC Bay Area showed up, thinking like I had that there would be a line of people getting married.  They left within a few minutes.

Cupcakes with Sign

You’d never know I used to do graphic design…

I decided to give it fifteen more minutes, and I’m so glad I did.  I got to witness four couples getting ready to get married yesterday (I didn’t actually enter the chapel).  I had positioned myself near the entrance of the chapel at one of the cafeteria tables.  It was a little awkward at first–I was just sitting there, and several people just assumed I was waiting for another wedding.

Eventually, the universe smiled and someone asked me what the cupcakes were all about.  And I explained to them what I was hoping to do: bring a little wedding cake joy to anyone getting married on this historic day.

The idea was a hit, and I almost started crying.  After that, everything just kind of flowed perfectly.  I met four couples yesterday, some opposite-sex, some same-sex, all super happy to be getting married that day.  I’m actually on the official camera rolls of one of the couples, which was so fun.

Happy couple at wedding.

Super happy couple!

I wanted to share this with you all simply because it was fun.  And appreciated.  Small gestures as allies can go a long way toward showing people how much others care.  Pride is happening up in San Francisco this weekend, and I’m sure it’s going to be one of the most amazing on record.  I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to take part, but being around yesterday’s couples totally filled a need to be outside doing something that I didn’t realize I had been missing.  It’s been a whirlwind couple weeks of events for our nation, between the events Charleston and SCOTUS’ decisions on the ACA and FHA.  I’ve been outside my bubble of close friends and family, so going out and doing something fun simply for the sake of doing it was refreshing.  And seeing the joy of the happy couples getting married (and enjoying cake–who doesn’t love cake??) was so worth it.

Bride eats cupcake.

The speed with which she ate this cupcake was inspiring.

Let’s be real, the upholding of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage (or, as we should probably call it, marriage) isn’t going to “fix” the discrimination LGBTQIA individuals face on a daily basis, in the same way that having a black president didn’t end racism.  Multiple states still have no laws protecting the aforementioned individuals from being fired based on their sexual orientation.  But yesterday was a step toward making a large portion of the US population feel like accepted citizens of our country.  One good friend expressed her feelings as “overwhelming,” that she now felt like a full citizen of our country by being given the legal ability to marry the woman she loves.  And yes, this friend is in California, where she could legally have done this since 2013.  But there is something amazing about the knowledge that your marriage options aren’t limited by the state you live in, that all people who feel as you do have the same right to marriage as any heteromonogamous couple.

This isn’t the first major decision on who can marry whom this country has gone through.  Anti-Miscegenation laws in the United States weren’t officially deemed unconstitutional  until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.  Spanning from all non-whites in several southern states, to laws specifically including Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans in countless others, anti-miscegenation laws are generally recognized as racist today (though trust me, there are many exceptions).  But these laws were justified with the Bible in the same way that laws against same-sex marriage have been justified my whole life.

Photo of couple at Nevada/California border.

Two places at once!

I can’t fully understand the joy so many of my friends yesterday.  And while yes, my partner and I do sometimes get dirty looks when we’re out together, I generally go from day-to-day without my current relationship being questioned by anyone (in fact, generally it’s pretty encouraged).  But knowing that even fifty years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case (hell, it wouldn’t have even been legal), breaks my heart.

I could talk about the separation of church and state, or Judao-Christian values.  I could be an utter snob and translate some biblical Hebrew or Greek to show off my MA knowledge.  But trust me, it doesn’t work.  Instead, I’m choosing to focus on the looks on the faces of brides and grooms I saw yesterday, the joy that literally radiated off of them.  I’ll focus on those friends who expressed relief for finally feeling a part of this crazy project we call America.  And I’ll feel grateful that a small step was made toward improving the quality of life of so many families across our country, families who will now have inheritance rights, death benefits, health insurance, and access to most of the basic economic and social rights so many of us take for granted.

Thoughts on Not Being Vegetarian (in California)

I need to admit something to all of you:  I’m in a mixed relationship.

You see… sometimes, I eat meat.  My partner… well, he’s a lifelong vegetarian.

I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism for years, sometimes for ethical reasons, more often for health reasons.  Most days, I prefer getting my protein from plant-based sources, finding I feel healthier on days my stomach isn’t weighed down with animal parts.

And then, about once a year, I have a Ron Swanson-level squee-fest over the mere idea of a steak.

Thanks http://nbcparksandrec.tumblr.com/ for the perfect visual.

Thanks http://nbcparksandrec.tumblr.com/ for the perfect visual.

This preference toward vegetarianism is on a moving spectrum, from complete vegetarianism in high school to having chicken and turkey in the house during most of grad school.  The last year or two has been mostly a “I don’t have meat in the house, but sometimes I eat it out” sort of situation.

So where’s my “so what?’ of this post?  Let me tell you a story.

As of today, I’ve been living in California for a month.  San Jose, to be specific.  And I’ve noticed a few differences between my current home and where I live 9 months out of the year:  gas and groceries are way higher priced, diversity is actually a thing here, annnd there are usually way more vegetarian items on a menu (complete with being able to eat my body weight in avocado – yay!).

While I may not be ethically/religiously vegetarian, my partner is.  So while I honestly will eat whatever you put in front of me (including hákarl with a brennivín chaser while attending a conference in Iceland), I’ve learned to be more mindful of scouting out vegetarian options (don’t even get me started on being on the lookout for hidden gelatin and chicken broth…) when we go out.

And we’ve had some pretty good food the last month.  By far, my favorite find has been the Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing, whose vegetarian/vegan and seafood options are truly top-notch.

But lately, I’ve been noticing a trend when we order food.  I do say trend, as at this point, it’s happened multiple times.  The first couple times, I chalked it up to the server mixing up seats on an order.  Or the fact that often, a second person (not our server) would bring our food to the table.  No big deal.

But then it kept happening.  The most recent example was when we went out for pho on Saturday.  We’ve found a lovely place near us that does a decent vegetarian pho, which I’d ordered the first time we went.  But this time, I was feeling seafood.  I’m from the Chesapeake.  For me, seafood is generally always going to win over a vegetarian option.

So we’re sitting there, munching on vegetarian spring rolls when our food comes out.  The gentleman carrying our food announces “vegetarian?” and before we can answer begins putting it down in front of me.

Actually, no, thank you, that delicious bowl of seafood is mine, thanks.

So what’s going on here?  I’ve come up with a two options.  Either

  • there still is an inherent bias that women are more likely to be vegetarians than men, or
  • given my partner’s height, people assume that he can’t be vegetarian.

This second option has actually come up repeatedly.  People legitimately think that if you’re tall, you must eat meat.  When visiting family in India, people actually vocalized on several occasions that my partner must eat meat in America because there’s no way he could be that tall otherwise.

If I really wanted to make this article even more confusing, I could add in an entire side adventure about misconceptions in the West about Indians and vegetarianism.  But it seems that conceptions about size, masculinity, and vegetarianism, at least with what I have encountered, trump the “all Indians are vegetarians” myth (though you would think the conflicting perceptions would at least make servers pause before automatically plunking down a bowl of veggies in front of me).

I’m laughing to myself as I sit here thinking about all of this–in California.  In the Bay Area.  You know, the part of the US that all of us East Coast snobs refer to as “crunchy,” “granola,” “organic,” and high on its own smug (thanks Matt and Trey).  If any place were going to be openminded about vegetarianism, this would be it, right??

The good news is, through all of this, I’m having to rethink my preconceptions about living on the West Coast.  Yeah, there might be more vegetarian options (and yes, the aforementioned avocado comment is real – you really can get avocado added to anything) out here on the Left Coast, but male vegetarians still confuse people (apparently).

Which is intrinsically ridiculous.  I started doing some research and came up with some things, including a website devoted to vegan bodybuilders and this list of famous vegetarians (including Sir Paul, Mike Tyson, Ben Franklin, and, of course, Gandhiji).  I even found this really interesting article about Griff Whalen, a wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts who decided to go vegan for health reasons.  Just read this excerpt from the article:

Despite the health benefits and Whalen’s decided push for such a diet, being a vegan is not the most popular move to make in the NFL. The few other players who have professed plant-only diets have riled up fans, media pundits and even teammates.

They’ll ruin the team’s chances of a winning season. They’ll be weaker on the field. They’ll get tackled and outplayed more easily. Meat is a must for the NFL. Protein. Manly food. To eat plants-only is foolish for a football player.

So yeah, there definitely seems to still be a misconception here about size, strength, and the health benefits of a vegetarian/vegan diet.  And of course, we can debate all day about size, strength, and whether or not vegetarianism affects either.  But the bias really seems to be clearly on the side of “of course you can’t be big and strong only eating plants.”  Unless, of course, you’re Popeye.

Notice he's not standing up straight...

Notice he’s not standing up straight…

So does what I’ve been witnessing at restaurants really come down to this continued belief?  Does it really just come down to the 15-inch height difference between myself and my partner?

I have no idea.  But it keeps happening.  And every time, I roll my eyes, and my (far more) gracious partner smiles and tells the waiter “No, actually I’m the vegetarian.”

And then I chow down on the souls of recently departed shellfish, preferably slathered with all the avocado the kitchen has.

Shellfish that, from what I’ve been told, apparently isn’t kosher

Judaism, the Convert, and Identity

Today, I take a short break from dissertating and finishing the road trip blog (yes, I know I’m three weeks late and 2 days of trip behind… I’m having problems with the GoPro footage) to bring you some thoughts I’ve been having about race, identity, and Judaism in light of the Rachel Dolezal coverage.

I can’t speak the motivations, thoughts, and aspirations that led Dolezal down the path she has taken the last several years.  And frankly, plenty of other people are weighing in on those sorts of issues.  What I can speak to is the kind of personal questions her story is making me ask about my own identity.

I’ve spoken before about converting to Judaism on this blog, so I won’t rehash those details.  What I instead want to focus on is one’s identity once one converts to Judaism.

Part of our religious lives as human beings is the history we inherit from our family members.  And I can give you dozens of such stories about my family: from stories my dad has told me about getting Easter suits to the history behind each of the Christmas ornaments my mom’s parents bought for myself and all of my cousins each year to the hour upon hours of my own childhood spent rolling and mixing cookies with my Baltimore cousins in December.  And I will gladly tell any children I may have these same stories.

However, these are the stories connected with my formerly Christian identity and my family history.  The stories of my Jewish identity, while plentiful and fun in their own right, do not stretch past my own lifetime.  In a religious tradition where history is so linked with identity, being a convert to Judaism leaves me at least feeling somewhat bereft of history and traditions.

I’ve talked to many of my convert friends about this feeling–like something is missing or, even worse, like we’re “faking it” on some level.  We don’t have years of camp memories or a menorah we inherited from a family member.  On some holidays, even years after our conversion, we still struggle to sing songs that, if we were raised Jewish, would be second-nature to us.  Our hearts are Jewish, but our cultural memory is sorely lacking.

For me, my first Passover as a convert was a pivotal moment in this search for a Jewish identity.  Would my fiancé and I be serving rice and beans as part of our seder?  Were we instituting Ashkenazi or Sephardi rules in our house?  And for what reason?  I brain-agonized over this for a while.  My family history is that of Western Europe, so… Ashkenazi?  I’ve actually traveled and studied in the Middle East and have (barely) learned some conversational Arabic, so… Sephardi?  And those of us who convert often joke about which identity we get to “claim” (most of us go Sephardi because, let’s face it, a Passover without rice, corn, or beans sounds like hell), but the jokes really cover up a feeling of emptiness.

The beauty of conversion is that one chooses their religious identity–that one becomes Jewish because it the religion that speaks most to them.  But there is a comfort that comes from inheriting tradition that we did not realize we took for granted prior to conversion, from the little things we did in our pre-Jewish lives that we did not realize were so much a part of our identity.

For instance, I had a Christmas tree in my California apartment this year–the first Christmas tree in my home since my conversion.  Hanukkah bushes as a general rule annoy me–Hanukkah has plenty of its own beautiful traditions without having to co-opt the Christmas tree, too.  And yeah, I do get it.  Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with the baby Jesus and any sort of truly Christian symbolism.  But in my brain, you can’t separate the two.  But my partner (also non-Christian, I might add) grew up with a Christmas tree and decorations and mentioned missing having them in our apartment, so I picked up a small rosemary plant and some lights and baubles and set it up as a surprise.

I didn’t realize how much it would hurt, not because I felt like I was betraying my Jewish identity in any real way (Again, I totally get that a Christmas tree is a pagan symbol brought into Christianity.  It’s not like I set up a manger scene in my living room.), but because I didn’t realize how much I missed the ritual of decorating a tree.  And yeah, I do get that warm, fuzzy religious feeling from lighting my menorah and setting up my seder plate, but I don’t have the memories of a childhood of doing that to meditate upon as I do it.

What I’m trying to say, incredibly longwindedly, is this: for the last week or so since the Dolezal story broke, the story of a woman who went great lengths to take on an African-American identity, both internally and externally, I’ve been asking myself if I am any different as a convert to Judaism?  I say prayers I believe in with all my heart, attend services with other Jews, and identify with Jewish culture and literature, but I was not born/raised Jewish.                               If (and I say a huge if here because, again, I really don’t know enough about the situation to pass any judgements) Dolezal has anything to feel/be guilty for, am I guilty of the same things?

So I’ve reached out in various ways to other converts I know.  And we’ve all kind of come up with the same answer:  the difference is in transparency.  When you wish to convert, you make your intentions known to the community.  The entire conversion process is very public.  First, the rabbi introduces you to members of the community as one seeking conversion.  Then, you go through classes, some of which include members of the temple/synagogue who are there to instruct you on ritual, practice, Hebrew, or any other number of things.  You publicly attend services and eventually, you stand before that congregation stating your intentions plainly.  And once you have converted, it is considered a sin for anyone “born Jewish” to remind you that your ancestors were not Jewish (basically, you are to be treated as if you have always been Jewish).  You are not barred from any part of Jewish life after your conversion; you are as Jewish as anyone else.  This sort of transparency seems to be lacking from Dolezal’s story.

Judaism is a religion.  There are cultural elements, there are ethnic elements. There are last names inherited in some traditions, and there are dietary traditions.  Judaism is far more than the books of the Tanakh and the Talmud.  And conversion to Judaism is accepted by the community (though I can tell you that more than once, the other Jews in my life seem baffled that I would convert).

As a convert, I have had to learn to navigate these elements, and sometimes, in incredibly weird ways, I’ve had those moments of “passing” as a lifelong Jew.  I remember inviting people to my conversion, and having one of my Israeli friends be shocked to find out that 1) I wasn’t Jewish already because 2) I “looked” more Jewish than her (I still can’t even tell you what the second half  of that means).  And with the last name of Jordan, I’ve had Jews go 50/50 on whether or not they consider Jordan to be a “Jewish last name.”

But I’ve never lied about my convert status, even if it supposedly is a sin to remind me of it.  I have never and would never enter a new Jewish community and lie about having a grandparent who survived the Holocaust or claim an Israeli family members that did not exist.  I don’t create a narrative of participating in childhood Purim spiels or fake knowing prayers I don’t actually know.  This would be an insult both to my tradition and to my loving family who raised me with their own traditions, holidays, and prayers–family members who have been beyond supportive of me on this journey.  My cousins, aunt, and father, for instance, held a Hanukkah meal for my ex-husband and I years ago, asking us to bring a menorah and say the prayers so they could learn about who we were.  And if my mom or dad ask me to help put up Christmas lights, you better believe I will.

I guess what I’m saying is this:  identity is fluid.  I don’t feel comfortable making decisions on where to draw the line on that (in Dolezal’s case, the conversation has gone from can one be transracial to whether or not she has been performing the equivalent of blackface to whether or not she should lose her professorship–and I feel in no way equipped to answer any of this), but in any case of identity, and maybe this is my background in religious and ethnographic studies talking, I do believe that transparency is key.

I’ll admit it:  I do sometimes feel that I’m not as Jewish as someone who grew up in the tradition (and I wonder if others see me that way).  It’s a pretty shitty feeling, and one I know I shouldn’t have.  I worry about what being a stand-alone convert (one without any sort of Jewish heritage and without a Jewish partner) will mean for raising children to feel any sort of connection with a Jewish identity. And then I remember all of the Jews in my life who have welcomed me into their homes and lives and realize that any kids I may have are going to have plenty of adopted aunties and uncles that will spoil them rotten (Singer, I’m looking at you) and give them the kinds of Jewish role models that helped shape my own religious life.

I’ve gotten really far away from Dolezal, I know.  Like I said, this post was going to be about the things her story has made me consider.  Frankly, this TL;DR post is going to end in aporia, mostly because I still don’t really have any answers.  If nothing else, talking about her story with other Jews-by-choice has helped me remember both that I’m not the only one who has these doubts and that I’m incredibly grateful for a religious community that is supportive of my entrance into their tradition.

I haven’t told my daughter about the Chapel Hill shooting

A must-read.

Shabana Mir's blog: Koonj - the crane

I haven’t told my eight year old daughter about the Chapel Hill shooting.

I don’t want her to know that Muslim college students who are model citizens, work hard, and do everything right are still at risk of being murdered in cold blood by their neighbors.

barakatI want to conceal from her as long as I can, that basketball-playing, all-American, joyful young Muslim college students are at risk of being executed in their apartments.

After being murdered, these community volunteers who devote themselves to the poor and the needy, are blamed. They used a parking spot. They laughed and talked in their own home. They wore clothes that reflected their faith.

This young radiant couple and the young wife’s sister – ‘best third wheel ever,’ Deah called her – had a bright future and they looked toward a better world for all of us.

What was their fault? What did they do to be executed?

A shot in…

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Sun Salutations in Shul

In June, my partner and I drove from Blacksburg to the Poconos to spend time with his family and on the return trip, we visited his Shanti Mama – Big Mama to many of those there.  It was definitely a kindred spirits sort of moment, wherein Big Mama and I immediately began speaking of our mutual love of comparative religion.  He took S. aside at one point and began talking with him about the connections between Hinduism and Judaism and how he and I could find much common ground between our religious backgrounds.  I joined into the conversation and (as usual) derailed it to other things, but the ideas stuck in the back of my head.  Part of the wonderful challenge of being in an interfaith/intercultural relationship is having to navigate these differences in religious traditions.

Yesterday, when I attended my first yoga class at Hillel at Virginia Tech, the concepts I had discussed with Big Mama resurfaced in my mind.  My Hillel has partnered with Blacksburg Yoga Collective to offer donation-based yoga classes once a week at at our Jewish center.  The new Hillel center has many multipurpose sorts of rooms at the center, so I was quite shocked when our yoga session was held in the main room normally reserved for services.

If you are unfamiliar with the Malcolm Rosenberg Hillel Center, the sacred space is actually one of my very favorite.  It is simple, multipurpose, and not one piece of furniture or decoration in the room stands out to me as ostentatious and unnecessary.  Natural light streamed through the room coming in from narrow windows starting halfway up the walls and going up to the top of the vaulted ceiling.  It was the first time I had seen the space not set up for worship – the chairs were stacked at the periphery of the room, the ark housing the Torah was closed, and yoga mats and blocks were stacked at the side of the room.  Sunlight poured in, heating window-shaped blocks of warmth on the carpet under our bare feet.

I was immediately struck by how awesome (an overused worse, to be sure, but in this religious setting awe-struck was how I felt) it was that we were practicing an ancient Indian form of bodily and mental meditation in a religious space dedicated to a (not quite as equally) ancient monotheistic religion from Palestine.

I will admit that with regard to the meditative quality of yoga, as with most meditation, I am completely unable to clear my mind or focus solely on my breath or the alignment of my body.  And often, when trying to ease into a particularly difficult pose, my lack of poker face shows the instructor (in this case, Thea, one of the best yoga instructors I have ever had) just how much I loathe them for a single instant (after which, I attempt to, you know, remember that I’m there to relax and care for my body and not to have angry thoughts and facial expressions…).

So it should not at all have come as a shock to me that my mind wandered back to Big Mama’s words about the similarities between Hinduism and Judaism.  And, being in a space where I’ve sung Kol Nidre, where I’ve attended Shabbat services several times, I began to hear the Hindu-inspired words from our instructor and attempt to put them into a Jewish context.

There are two things I cannot shake from brain thoughts yesterday, the first being Thea’s reminders to find support in the earth below us, to press our hands into the ground below us, to place our weight back onto our feet that ground us.  We have a phrase in Hebrew, tikkun olam, which translates to “repairing the world.”  If you research the word olam in Strong’s, there are connections with this word and eretz, or earth/land, in the Hebrew Bible.  So often my brain hears tikkun olam as “repairing the earth,” however etymologically problematic.  Tikkun olam is the directive we have as G-d’s created beings to care for or be stewards of creation.  In our yogic practice, instead of repairing the world, we actively used the earth, or land, or world to repair ourselves.  We found strength pushing against the ground beneath us, finding stability and strength in its immovable, constant nature.

In Christianity, there is a Golden Rule, given down by Jesus:  Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  In most of the World Religions textbooks I’ve taught from, they point out that “Eastern” (I use this with a slight rolling of my eyes.  Eastern from what POV?) religions generally have a version of this rule in the negative sense:  Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto yourself.  It is a difference point of view on the same basic concept.  Of course, we cannot just call this something unique – these texts refer to this negative sense of the Golden Rule as the Silver Rule, and those of us who grew up under the influence of the modern Olympics know that Silver Is Not As Good As Gold.  The Silver Rule, if we choose to call it that, is not inferior to the Golden Rule; it is simply a different way of describing the same concept.

As I stretched and pushed my body ever so slightly past where it was willing to do, finding strength in my breath and the ground beneath me, I was struck how my yogic practice was the inverse, or a different point of view, on the same practice only a few weeks ago I had done in that same sanctuary space.  Instead of vowing to help repair the world, the world – the earth – was repairing me, was helping me to realign my sore joints and come as close to achieving five feet of height as I ever will.

The second thing I was struck by was the sunlight itself.  As part of our morning practice, we performed the surya namaskara (sun salutation) multiple times.  I have performed yoga in multiple states, over about a decade, in various spaces, but never in a space with that much sunlight washing over us.  In college, yoga class (my PE credit) was held in an auxiliary gym with no windows.  At Virginia Tech, our on-campus classes are held in an, again windowless, gymnasium.  When I lived in Athens, my favorite classes were held in an old warehouse, again, sans sunlight.

To perform a sun salutation, in my Jewish house of worship, while being mindful the creation words of Genesis 1, was powerful.  It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I left for yoga, bundled up in a hoodie, but inside the sanctuary, I was not cold at all in my yoga pants and tank top.  It was the first time I had ever truly performed a sun salutation (and I’d never realized I hadn’t!), and the feeling was almost overwhelming.

I am one that tends to get quite sad during the winter months.  The shortening days and the lack of sunlight (we don’t call it Bleaksburg for nothing) really does get to me.  Even as much as I love rain, days on end of bleak weather can bring me down.  This year, I have read/reread about 100 books preparing for my comprehensive examinations for my Ph.D., and I spent as much of that reading time outside as I could, either on my back porch or, for most of this summer, in California, soaking up the sun like a lifesaver.  In fact, I think this summer was the first time in my life I’ve been even remotely tan (yes, Dad, I did wear sunscreen).  And the fact that most of the major changes in my life that have come in the last year have been supported by my partner whose name literally means Sun was not lost on me as I stood there, toes grounding me to the earth, beams of light flooding the room.

I doubt I would have felt this way if we had had our practice in any other room of Hillel.  The merging of two forms of religious practice, and the meaning that can come from interfaith dialogue, should never be taken for granted.  Shanti mama, you are right; there is much that can be found in common between Hinduism and Judaism.  I had not, however, expected to discover some of these connections so powerfully as I did at my Temple during what was supposed to be just me getting up that day and heading to yoga.