The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of weirdness. Since I last wrote, the entire United States has essentially shut down to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. Putting all political and social analysis of the virus and its impacts aside, the process of my conversion seems to have been little affected thus far – except that it’s impossible to go to synagogue and meetings have all taken place on Zoom.

Here’s a brief update on what’s happened recently: I finished the Jewish Family Law class with my rabbi’s wife (more to come on that later), and I found out that I needed to fill out an application for conversion through the Chicago Rabbinical Council. I reached out to the CRC and got a copy of the application, and began making my way through it at night after work.

It’s a doozy of an application. You have to provide information about your religious upbringing, your parents’ religious upbringing, your friends, your relationships with supervisors, teachers, and peers, your exposure to Judaism, travel to Israel, hobbies, and interests, etc. I enjoy filling out applications that allow me to write long-form answers, so I took a couple of weeks to fill it out as thoughtfully and completely as I could and sent it in.

The CRC is graciously working with my somewhat unique situation: Although my sponsoring rabbi is Orthodox, he isn’t currently affiliated with the CRC. But because I know him well, and am so close with the Jewish community in Lakeview, the CRC is letting me start the conversion process with my Lakeview rabbi, and then letting me finish it in an Orthodox synagogue in West Rogers Park. Interestingly, the mother of the Jewish family I nanny for spent several years living in West Rogers Park and although she now lives in Lakeview, she is familiar with many of the synagogues and rabbis in West Rogers Park, so I have a bit of an in there.

And speaking of West Rogers Park, I had an exciting event happen this week: I finally found and moved into a great little apartment in none other than… West Rogers Park! Some people call it West Ridge, but it’s really all the same. I’ve been walking my dog over the last few days, exploring the streets and parks by my apartment, and I’m so pleased with where I decided to live. A fascinating mix of churches, synagogues, and mosques are in the area, and the people who live here are equally diverse. I almost signed a lease on an apartment further east, but when I visited the apartment, I was surprised by how poorly kept the neighborhood was. I talked to a young Arab man at a gas station and asked him if he lived nearby, and when I said I was considering moving to the neighborhood, he, completely unprompted, told me to go west of California because that’s where the Jews live and they “mind their own business and keep things clean.” In my head, I agreed, but out loud I thanked him and did not sign that lease.

Good thing I didn’t! I really like the apartment I chose here instead. It’s a very spacious studio, and I worked all week to get it set up. It’s awfully cute, if I do say so myself. The kitchen is separated from the living space, and my neighbors all seem very nice. I haven’t seen a mezuzah on any of the doors in my building, but I haven’t checked them all yet – and I will!

I have really enjoyed the process of deciding how to make my home a Jewish home. This is a work in progress, and I know it will change continuously, but I’ve done a few important things so far. The first was that I posted messages on local Jewish Facebook groups and asked around to see if anyone was getting rid of meat or dairy dishes. I was able to supply myself with an entire kitchen full of both – which meant I could move immediately into a kosher kitchen and not have to spend a fortune on new dishes. I did have to buy a couple of things, like cutting boards and meat knives, but I saved a ton of money by taking other people’s old things – which they were glad to get rid of! Everybody just left their things outside their apartments or homes, and I wiped them down, picked them up, and took them to my apartment and organized them all.

If you’ve never kept a kosher kitchen, you can’t believe what a tremendous amount of space it takes to have two sets of everything! One of the most important parts of keeping kosher means using separate dishes for meat meals and dairy meals, as the two never mix. My kitchen doesn’t have much in the way of cabinetry to begin with, so I had to get creative when it came to organizing my dishes. I bought a cute cubby set at Target and used that to help hide things away behind grey and white fabric drawers, and everything actually fits quite well. I don’t eat much meat, so the dairy stuff is in easy-to-reach places, and I’ll just wrangle out the meat stuff when I need it.

Another part of keeping kosher is only having kosher foods in the house. These can be tricky to find, but because so many Jews live in my area, even Target has a selection of kosher meats and cheeses. During my time as a nanny for the first Jewish family I worked for, I got plenty of shopping experience looking for foods with hechsher symbols, so that wasn’t a problem at all. I never noticed these before I knew what kosher food was, but if you look at food packaging and see a little “U” with a circle around it, that means the food is kosher. There are other kinds of kosher symbols, but that is the most common. Certain foods are unexpected quite difficult to find in kosher varieties – macaroni and cheese and pasta sauce, just to name a couple – so some things take some searching. Fortunately, I also live very close to two kosher supermarkets, so I can also go there and not have to worry about whether things are hechshered or not. But, you know, any excuse to go to Target…

The family I’m working for generously gave me a move-in gift of a kosher cookbook and a hand towel with the end of the handwashing prayer (עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם) embroidered in Hebrew. I hung it over my oven, but I won’t dry my hands on it because I want it to stay clean and nice. It’s beautiful and fits perfectly on my tiny little oven handle.

I also had a rectangular chalkboard framed in gold from my old classroom, so I wrote the Birkat HaBayit (blessing for the home) on it in Hebrew and drew a little picture of a house underneath. The Birkat HaBayit is very common in the doorways of Jewish homes, and I thought it was a lovely reminder of the kind of home I want to have:

בְּזֶה הַשַּׁעַר לֹא יָבוֹא צַעַר.
בְּזֹאת הַדִּירָה לֹא תָבוֹא צָרָה.
בְּזֹאת הַדֶּלֶת לֺא תָבוֹא בֶּהָלָה.
בְּזֹאת הַמַּחְלָקָה לֺא תָבוֹא מַחְלוֹקֶת.
בְּזֶה הַמָּקוֹם תְּהִי בְרָכָה וְשָׁלוֹם.
Let no sadness come through this gate.
Let no trouble come to this dwelling.
Let no fear come through this door.
Let no conflict be in this place.
Let this home be filled with blessing and peace.

After I finished getting everything set up, then organized, then finally cleaned up and all the boxes taken out to the garbage, I sat down to make myself lunch – parve (vegetarian) matzah ball soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. Matzah ball soup is a common passover food, but it’s also fucking delicious and easy to make. I ate while I looked around satisfactorily at my new little proto-Jewish apartment and my dog watched me jealously, but I couldn’t spare even a little for him.

All the hard work of filling out the application, finding an apartment, and moving in is a blessing in many ways. Not only do I feel lucky to still be working my normal job and able to move, but the work of moving and getting myself set up provides a much needed distraction from the sad and disappointing fact that Passover has basically been cancelled this year. I was looking forward with great longing to being in Israel during springtime, and to see Udi again. Now I don’t know when I’m going to see him, whether he’ll come here next or whether I’ll go there, and I have no idea when I’ll be able to be in Israel. It sucks. And everybody I know in the Jewish community is experience similar disappointment and heartbreak. Everyone was supposed to travel to see their families and nobody can do so. We can’t even have a seder with friends and local family members. I was looking forward to my first seder with Udi and his family, and what a special experience that would be, but it’s not going to happen this year. Everyone is doing a remarkable job of staying positive, and at least I can be working and spending time with Jews I adore, but it’s a sad and weird time in many ways. Udi is shut up at home in Israel and is bored and misses me. His parents miss him. I miss him.

Despite all the weirdness and uncertainty, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here (although Israel would be a close second). I’m surrounded by a community of people I know and trust, and I’m able to keep working towards my long-term goals. As frustrating as it is to hunt for toilet paper because people are freaking out and being silly about buying things they don’t need, it’s also amazing to watch people come together and figure out how to help each other. The synagogue’s chesed members are working overtime to make sure that everybody is taken care of. I donated a small amount toward a Facebook fundraiser for a young Chasidic family whose father died of Covid-19, and which had raised over $350,000 in 24 hours. There is still so much good going on if you can tune out the noise and know where to look.

So – the next step in the conversion process is setting up a meeting with my sponsoring Rabbi and beginning to prepare for my first meeting with the Beth Din. There is a list of books that I need to read before my first meeting that is separate from the conversion list from my sponsoring Rabbi (which is the list I’ve been drawing upon in my self-study so far). There is a substantial list of review questions to study and learn, and, as always, lots of reading to do. I’m glad that I’m moved in and will have more time for studying and reading, and I’m excited that I’m living in my first Jewish home. Get thee behind me, virus! Things are going to be okay.

Shavuah tov!

If you’re interested in reading more about what makes a Jewish home Jewish, check out this article from My Jewish Learning:

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