Brooklyn Rain

The harsh traffic sounds became a soft sizzle. The winds crept up a bit and softened the situation, left a blurred sort of impression in my eyes. I opened the windows to a symphony that cured my ailing ears from the stale complaint of the horns and jagged barbs of highway noise. I sat and breathed for a moment, unaware that the rain had begun to come into the room. I imagined a dramatic red velvet curtain curling at my luxurious entrance on a palatial balcony overlooking the once-parched implacable city streets. The curtains in fact were in on the production, back-up singers carrying me to my greatest villain song.

The first good rain came before we had fully moved in. Most of our life was still in boxes. We were without routine or the comforts of home, but our home was already a thrilling adventure. In the heat of summer we sweat a flood upon our skin, sticky sleep on air mattress sheets. The heat was unbearable with the windows closed and so we were at the mercy of fourth avenue’s incessant taunting. The masses line up to turn left onto 17th street, shooting their frustrated honk at my face. The expressway lines our master bedroom’s bay windows and the passersby pollute the quiet moments of morning light that mean an end to the LED street lamps in my eyes.

Our first few weeks here were a challenge. Between the noise and the headlights blaring into our room, sleep was miserable. We were forced to choose between sleepless, noisy nights with a breeze or a stuffy nightmare with a slightly muted reminder that just beyond our windows is a bridge to Manhattan that never quiets down.

But days like today remind me of why we loved this apartment when we first saw it. Behind closed windows in a cozy apartment on a chilly day we are sheltered from the rain I love so much. I look up at a sheer grayness as Manhattan disappears behind the downpour and the diffused light casts a melancholic glow upon the room. Here we are in the midst of a deluge and all I can think of is how lucky we are to have our own piece of unobstructed sky through the windows.

Today I cannot see the Statue of Liberty from my kitchen window, but I instead see the bricks on the building across the street darkened with rain. I see the puddles forming around the construction of the Prospect Ave. R Train stop. The cars seem less hurried, their occupants subdued by a sense of resignation that yes, today I will be late because of the rain. Today is a perfect day.

These Cloudy Days of Awe: Hin’ni and Nina Simone

It’s been ages since I have just put on headphones and listened to music. I sing so much at school and while preparing for classes, services, and the High Holy Days that the last thing on my mind is music for recreation. I sit at the piano and hammer away my frustrations, I sit and learn new pieces on my guitar, but I never listen. I have closed off my ears in exhausted frustration.

I do chores to the soundtrack of NPR. I opt for TV when I need noise at home that doesn’t require anything of me. I don’t know how long I’ve been this exhausted, but it has become a fact of life. When I finally get to relax, my fuel tank is empty and I simply do not have the capacity to enjoy music outside of work and school.

Today, however, I broke out my headphones. On my way to Penn Station to catch a train to my pulpit in Schenectady it dawned on me that it has been so long since I have listened to music that I didn’t know where to start. This time last year I made a playlist for the Days of Awe, the days of this season during which we look inward to take spiritual inventory of our year. Who were we, what did we do, whom did we love? Whom have we harmed?

The first song had me nearly in tears. It is a particularly heavy song, weighed down by memories of my days as a singer-songwriter. I sang it to open each set. I played and sang my heart out in bars and listening rooms hoping to find some kind of connection, but I mostly came up empty in terms of spiritual satisfaction. I felt a kind of numbness in my performance high that was not only confusing, but totally uninspiring. Today as the Days of Awe playlist continued, I remembered why I added each song to this list last year. I began looking at the time between then and now. How have these songs changed? How have I changed? How has my relationship with music changed?

I am going to stand before a congregation I love and pray with them during these Days of Awe. I am going to literally and metaphorically beseech G-d for guidance through the process of forgiving myself and others. I will stand on the bimah and pray through music for myself and on behalf of the congregation. This year, however, I am responsible for delivering a piece of liturgy that has both inspired me and terrified me.

Nina Simone’s famous cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on next. Her fervent prayer that the good within her outlast the bad struck me. I have spent days, weeks, and months feeling the pressure of the upcoming holidays and I have mostly felt crushed beneath their weight. I have struggled to present a true version of myself to the world while hiding my feelings of inadequacy.

Baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
And sometimes it seems that
All I have to do is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I could not believe it. I’m on my way to do something that scares me to death and here is a song I have sung for years and finally understood. This feeling exists all around me, and I have never listened.

“Hin’ni,” I will chant.

Here I am standing before this congregation asking You, G-d, to look past my shortcomings and accept the words in this room. If I should fall short, I ask humbly that you do not fault them on my behalf. Please give me the strength to do this to the best of my ability… I don’t know what else to do.

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I used to pray this every time I walked onto a stage. Now, finally, I pray this in a place where I belong, no longer performing, and no longer searching for fulfillment. Truly, hin’ni.

My Days of Awe were cloudy days in which I felt lost. I’m still a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, but I can say for sure that my heart and soul are in the right place. As we go into these magnificent, terrifying, and challenging days, we will find our own ways to stand and say Hin’ni. I offer my spiritual disclaimer in no uncertain terms: I am scared. I am still learning and I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing. But I am also a soul whose intentions are good, and all I can do is hope that my work and my intentions are enough for this season.

And when it’s all done, I promise to listen to music again.

Blessed are you, Eternal Source of the Universe, who hears our prayers.

Shanah tovah.

Struggle, Part III: Home

I am running out of my weird Ukrainian deodorant from Israel. The sunscreen tube is almost empty. My last squeezes of pastes and lotions from the year. A halfway house of life that has abated the culture shock I’ve hoped to avoid thus far out of fear of finding home foreign.

My toothpaste boasts the smooth English words and graphics known to American brands. It’s replaced by Turkish or Polish or Romanian depending on what the discount shop had in stock. The bristles of my brush are beginning to bend after their use before returning to the United States. And my vials of essential oils marked אץ התה have dried up.

I have little proof other than photographs and funny stories of my day-to-day life in Jerusalem. It is not my grand experiences or tourist accomplishments of which I am the most proud, but rather the times I successfully battled with customer service in Hebrew to get my way. The screaming match with my landlord. How nonchalantly I could visit the post office by the time my year came to an end.

When I visit Israel next will I feel as though I ever lived there? My feelings on this matter have less to do with the romanticized idea of Israel and more to do with the peculiarities of uprooting your life after you’ve worked so hard to establish a home somewhere. Alex and I did that. We had a life full of routines and idiosyncrasies; regularities and particularities. As these begin to emerge for us in Brooklyn, I wonder how soon it will be until I forget what the walk home from the grocery store looked like or just how beautiful the beach was in Tel Aviv. I fear that perhaps these memories will sprout new qualities as time goes on and maybe I will misremember the good and exaggerate the bad. Or vice-versa.

Our apartment in Brooklyn is on a noisy Avenue just south of Gowanus and Park Slope. The neighborhoods have ridiculous names from characters that perhaps New Yorkers recognize, but to me they are mysteries that I have to uncover like I did in Jerusalem. I find myself already relishing the banality in my walk to the subway and I’m comforted by how quickly I have grown used to this new place. I pat myself on the back for this survival skill. While I may recover slowly from the pain of uprooting, I can quickly establish new roots when the environment is right.

Everything about life in Brooklyn is turned on its head by life in Schenectady. In Brooklyn I hear cars speeding past on the highway all night long. Their headlights hurl wicked shadows onto the exposed brick fireplace at the foot of our bed. I hear emergency vehicles and horns honking. I hear people shout in the street until midnight and have to use a white noise machine to equalize the noise pollution if I want to sleep. The apartment is warm and muggy. Without A/C we have to choose between the noise of the street for a decent breeze or the stickiness of stagnant air to muffle the commotion outside. We open and close the windows as the day goes on. The light comes in and moves across the apartment as the afternoon grows old. My husband walks through the door with a look of relief and exhaustion. It is perfect in every single way because it is home.

In Schenectady I turn on the A/C (even though I am not warm) for noise. I am frightened by the total silence and darkness I had in San Antonio. My childhood windows face a city park with no lights or traffic. In Schenectady, even the nearby neighbors’ lights are off and the entire house is a shadow. It is so serene with its lush woods and incredibly tall trees. I wonder if I can handle this peaceful place and I laugh at myself for such a preposterous thought—here I can actually sleep, and as soon as my head hits the pillow the sun greets me. Here too, with its idyllic Mayberry solitude, is another perfect home.

Why am I so quick to find home? Something inside me seeks to normalize the fear of not belonging. I believe growing up as a child with a secret—my queer identity—encouraged me to make the unfamiliar as familiar as possible. The ultimate exercise in survival, I force myself to empathize with my surroundings, to make them known to me. If the world is uncertain and I cannot know how it will treat me, I must at least know where I stand.

The entirety of my year in Israel and move to New York has illuminated a text I have seen inscribed upon mantles and pasted across t-shirts. “Know before whom you stand.” In the Jewish world, and especially in the liberal Jewish world, this statement is a tired cliche. Its wisdom is eternal, though its constant usage had rendered it nothing more than another slogan to me. For better or for worse, I always find out before whom, with whom, and in spite of whom I stand.

There is a reason I need a room with windows and why I pray outdoors and why I insist on traveling by foot in a new place. I must know before whom I stand. From when I was a little boy with a secret until now I have always tried to pinpoint my place in the universe. I am grateful for this need I have to search. The search has brought me home. Again and again and again.

Struggle, Part II: Leaving

Lot’s wife looked back; I closed my eyes as I left Jerusalem. I chose not to look behind me, but it will not save me from becoming a pillar of salt.

As I sat in the taxi on the way to the airport, I realized that as soon as I enter the United States I won’t have a working cell phone. I began rehearsing how to fluently ask someone to borrow their phone in Hebrew but I don’t have to do this anymore. I don’t have to anticipate my interactions before I leave the house and make sure I can conjugate potential verbs correctly if they come up. I stress about sounding stupid and how to throw in enough colloquialisms and slang to pass as Israeli so that I will be taken more seriously. It works almost all the time, but not without practice.

How would it feel if this were actually my forever home and not “just” a place I loved? I don’t want to live my life grasping the majority of the conversation around me but not quite *all* of it. I don’t want to always be just slightly out of place and to continue to default to a foreign tongue to clear things up when my thoughts switch to Hebrew. When I wake up with Hebrew on my lips because I had been dreaming in this other language and it still feels strange. What am I to do?

I am returning to my home where my native tongue is the default language of the land. I cannot help but admire and feel for the people who live in the United States because there was something about it they loved or needed but for whom English is still a foreign tongue.

I love Hebrew. It thrills me to speak it. It’s concise and percussive and perfectly expressive. Its slang has roots in holy text and its neighboring Arabic. It feels good.

Home feels like home and a distant, slightly uncomfortable memory. It was perfect, only its reemergence on your horizon means your current dream has come to an end.

I cannot look out my windows as we’re driving. I remember how Naomi Shemer wrote Lu Y’hi driving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. What could I write at this tumultuous time? I am leaving my city of gold without a song upon my lips.

It’s bittersweet. But I am finally ready.

Struggle, Part I: Returning

I started knitting a baby blanket the day after Alex and I returned from New York. We signed a lease on an apartment in Brooklyn after falling in love with the second place we saw. I could have skipped all the way back to San Antonio, relieved that our apartment search went so well.

I bought the yarn with a clear picture in mind. Here I am, 28 years old with the most incredible husband by my side, about to leave San Antonio again. For good this time. We leave knowing that in four years we will have to decide where to start our lives as we start our careers. And now that I am running out of time to avoid making decisions, our plans to start a family are coming into focus.

But the vaguest memory of a walk down Yoel Solomon sets me back. The thought of Jerusalem elicits a tightening in my chest, a contraction of my stomach, a single heart beat during which every memory of the past year rushes back to me. Its tide recedes in an instant and the realization that I lie 7,000 miles away from my friends and my spiritual home sinks in. I never knew exile until I stood for the last time on the Israeli side of airport security before returning home.

I think my sadness could have been mitigated by a visit or two to the US during my year in Israel, but only to the detriment of my connection to the land. Having spent a full year experiencing the Hebrew calendar and seasons in the land of Israel, laughing, crying, celebrating, and mourning, has let me (or perhaps forced me) to regard two lands as my home.

I expected to land in San Francisco in mourning. I was prepared to walk through customs and begin adjusting as well as I could to a foreign home land. Instead I was put off by how easy it was to feel at home in a place I had not missed that much in the year I was gone. I guess because I knew my year in Israel was just that–a year–I was able to jump in with a limited emotional commitment. Between the presence of my husband who put his life on hold for a year to be by my side and the fact that our return to the United States was inevitable, I had no difficulty with the idea of living abroad for a year. Instead I was uncomfortable with how easy it would have been to stay.

I talk about it romantically but it’s because I feel it. And then I think about how others may not understand that situation and it might just be like how inexplicably happy that woman in Under the Tuscan Sun was to be in a place that she knew was like 75% awful but there was some ridiculous charm that made it her ultimate happiness.

I don’t remember how the movie ends but in my version she goes back home and realizes that’s actually where she wants to be. And she struggles with this. And she feels guilty for turning her back on that place but she’s just not willing to sacrifice the comforts of home, no matter what dreamworld she was in that fulfilled her so completely.

Coming back to America and remembering how much I love my hometown makes me wonder if I was ever so in love with Israel. I think I was. I successfully romanticized its biblical history, its pain of exile, and its rebirth as a nation of determined Jewish people and I made its story my own. I connected to its patriotism in a way I had always feared in the United States. And yet I knew that my unwillingness to live my life as a non-Israeli born Israeli would keep me from ever submitting to the Zionist dream of making aliyah.

Yes, Israel’s allure is unending and Jerusalem’s pull on me knows no bounds, and yes I still tear up when I peruse a particular psalm or hear my favorite Israeli pop song, but I also found myself dreaming another dream from a rooftop in Brooklyn on the Fourth of July. A year away made this day finally make sense to me, not for any beautifully patriotic reason, but because I got to see how Israelis love their country on their Independence Day. Part of me wants that. The rest of me knows that settling in Israel would just be settling. I cannot leave the comforts of America behind, nor can I leave my future as a parent in the hands of a powerless Israeli Supreme Court and a morally compromised legislative body that refuses to stand up for my right to adopt children. My home state of Texas has failed me time and again on this matter, and just as I refuse to start a family there, so too do I turn my back on Israel.

If I will it, it is no dream. Truly, if I were to take my place in Zion, I would be forsaking my dream. I need Israel to exist for my children, but more importantly, I need my children to exist in the first place.

For them I sacrifice everything, even Theodore Hertzl’s romantic vision. In the meantime–as with all things Jewish and Israeli–I struggle. And I dream.

Beaches, Part III: Shabbat

The sun is setting on my last shabbat in Jerusalem.

Our front door is cracked to make a cross-breeze through our kitchen and our birds are napping on their perch to the sounds of pigeons cooing. A dog barks in the distance and a neighbor is scraping dishes. In an hour the traffic will pick up as the sleepy city emerges from its shabbat. Mosquitos and car horns will pour in through our windows as the birds prepare to sleep after the cannon that announces the end of today’s fasting for Ramadan.

When the stars begin to light the darkened sky, I will light the braided candle, pour the wine, and smell the sweet spices one last time in my home. I can see the walls of the Old City from the windows in our kitchen, and tonight I will sing to them as I perform the ritual acts of havdalah, separating shabbat from the rest of this difficult week; separating the holiness of rest in my home from the beautiful chaos of departure. Separating Israel from America before I cross the sea back to a place that is supposed to be home.

My throat tenses and it’s hard to swallow when I think of leaving it all behind. I get dizzy and irritable when Alex makes plans for our future or talks about what we need to accomplish during our month in Texas before we make a new home in New York City. I don’t want to live in that noisy place that never sleeps. My heart is here in Jerusalem where the stores close on Friday afternoon and time freezes just long enough for me to catch my breath.

I have prayed on the beach before. In fact, before coming to Israel, that was the only thing I have ever truly enjoyed about the beach. Standing on the wet sand as the waves wash over my feet, gradually moving forward to the East as I wade in the water, finding that on the coast of Texas I can be as close to Jerusalem as possible in the Gulf of Mexico.

When I pray on the beach in Tel Aviv, I cannot face Jerusalem. A popular progressive synagogue in Tel Aviv has made that a part of their unique worship experience. Perhaps something as intrinsically holy and perplexing as the ocean can be just as worthy of our attention as the remains of the Temple.

I lit shabbat candles on the beach with Alex and our friend Muhammad. We sat and listened as the waves crashed in, drank cheap vodka, and marveled at how quickly Israelis run home when the sun retires. I sang a few songs and we made kiddush on the beach. By early July we had made a lifelong friend in a country in which we had lived for only three weeks. I had not yet grown accustomed to shabbat in Israel, yearning instead for the routine of Friday night prayers followed by dinner out with friends. In the glow of the shabbat candles, I thanked the Universe for friendship that glowed like light even when the lights of the city went dim.

It is time to light the candle that ends shabbat. I am tempted to postpone the ritual in hopes of greedily stealing more time, but I know my efforts are fruitless. We will leave this place and this time. We will leave these beaches. We will leave our friend.

Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary.

Beaches, Part II: Hilton Beach

As we approached the beach, I suddenly became hyper aware of the amount of clothing I was wearing.

In Jerusalem I almost always wear pants. Something about the mountains and the feeling of conservative modesty make jeans more comfortable for me than the shorts I used to wear in Texas. I joke about tzniut, the religious concept of modesty that has come to refer mostly to women’s dress in certain Jewish communities, and how I insist on “being tzniut” when I walk around in Jerusalem. Joking aside, I like dressing conservatively, and given the cooler-than-usual summer temperatures in the city (which tend to be between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than San Antonio) wearing collared shirts every day with jeans is something I can do year-round. Along with my kippah, summer hat, and sunglasses, only my arms are exposed, but the tattoo sleeve of my left arm feels to me like an extension of my clothing. And I love it.

The morning I got dressed for the beach in Tel Aviv, however, I gleefully pulled my shortest shorts from the closet and stood before the mirror. I have nice legs—they’re the only part of my body that I really like—and they have become very muscular since living in such a pedestrian-friendly country. I liked the way my shorts showed my progress, even though they rise well above my knee and felt oddly “foreign.” I couldn’t remember having purchased them, let alone when I thought I would be comfortable putting them on, but on this day I was going to show myself to the world.

On my way out the door, I took a horrible fall down the stairs. I bumped down the last seven steps to the ground, bruising my left femur from my hip to my knee. A combination of embarrassment and pain broke out across my face as hot tears stung my cheeks in the presence of some horrified neighbors. “Ani b’seder, ani b’seder.” I’m okay. I’m okay.

I had not been on a beach in a social setting for years, so I am embarrassed to admit I assumed my short-sleeve button-down with its tropical flowery pattern and shorts would fit in. I felt simultaneously strangled by my abundance of clothing and yet naked in the presence of so many people in bathing suits. Hilton Beach is a lovely place, but like other Tel Aviv beaches that are littered with gym equipment and showers, it socially reinforces a certain body type and presentation of the perfect physique. I showed up to the party having missed the memo.

When I’m nervous I twist my wedding ring around my finger. I looked down at my hands, let my ring finger go, and took a deep breath.

“Alex, will you help me with my sunscreen?”

He never pressured me and instead met my eyes with a sweet “are you sure?” I was as sure as the ring around my finger—I wasn’t there to impress anyone. I was just looking to have a nice day relaxing with the person who loves me enough to help me love myself, and if that meant pushing myself a bit, I was willing and ready.

And so I slowly unbuttoned my shirt, glancing around to intercept the looks that I was sure my ghostly white skin would attract. But nobody cared. No necks craned to gawk at my body or how awkwardly I disrobed. I put sunscreen on my stomach and chest, conscious of how my flesh jiggled as my hands grazed my curves. But Alex’s hands on my back comforted me. This was the first time in as long as I could remember that wind and sun had touched these parts of my body… and it was thrilling.

When you resign yourself to the fully-clothed sidelines, you forget what the water feels like. I had expected some reminder of a bath, but the salty, cool water splashed my thighs and I yelped. Had it really been this long? Had I truly forgotten what the ocean felt like? Beneath the sky with just a pair of tiny shorts and a kippah, I walked into the blue waters up to my waist. My toes dug into the bizarre sea bed and I shivered with excitement.

To my left and right, magazine models splashed one another as paparazzi snapped their photos. On the beach, Greek statues lay side by side as the sun glistened in the perfect droplets on their perfect skin. But in the middle of the shallows, a powder-white, 27-year-old child was loving the ocean for the first time.

I headed back to the beach, dizzy and giddy with excitement. On my stomach on the blanket we spread across the sand, I wiggled my hips into the soft earth and briefly closed my eyes. The sounds of the people around me continued uninterrupted. I slept.

Late that night I painfully walked back up the steps to our apartment, still dressed for Tel Aviv. I examined my leg, already developing its triumphant blues and purples, and rinsed myself in the shower.

No need for pajamas tonight.

Beaches, Part I: A Realization

I never liked the beach as a kid. I was probably the only child I knew of who felt a hot disdain for a day in the sand and water. Inevitably I would find sand in my molars, and a disgusting mixture of sunscreen and sea water coating my body. It wasn’t until I moved to Israel and sat on the beach in Tel Aviv that I realized the truth: I learned to dislike these things to protect myself from a reality that scared me.

I was the first kid in my fifth grade class to hit the 100-pound mark on the scales. I remember how ashamed I was when I looked over my belly and peeked at the round number. For a while I could move slightly side to side or stand on my tiptoes to make it go back to 99.8, but eventually I lost that battle too. I had been aware of my chubby face and rounder body for a long time, but my fuller chest is what earned me the hurtful nickname “moobs.”

I have carried this hatred of my body with me my entire life. Even though my medical issues with my ears prevented me from diving freely into the water since first grade, the real reason I made my peace by the pool with a book rather than a bathing suit is because I could never handle the feeling of people’s eyes on my chest. As time went on, the body that never saw the sun grew whiter with age and only added to my humiliation. When puberty came about and my friends’ bodies began to even out and become more firm, my womanly curves stood out no matter how tight the tank top I wore beneath my school uniform clung to my skin.

I spent my life carefully avoiding spaces that required me to undress in front of others. I double checked the lock on every fitting room, carefully noting how far down anyone would have to stoop to see me through the slats in the door. I peeled my clothing off as if I were on fire when I had to change after football practice. Luckily I could run home immediately after football practice to shower rather than joining my friends who casually disrobed the second they entered the locker room. I successfully hid my body from the time I hit puberty until my early 20s.

My husband was the first person to see me without a shirt for nearly fifteen years. Even then I was uncomfortable. He told me he loved everything about me, including my body. For the next five years I struggled to love the parts of me I had tried to ignore my entire life.

When Alex and I moved to Israel, we met our best friend. He decided to take us to the “gay beach” in Tel Aviv where he assured us there would be lots of eye candy sprawled out on the sand and enjoying the waves.

I felt a cold sweat developing as five years of self-love washed away.

“I don’t need to worry about a bathing suit,” I stammered. “I can’t swim anyway. You know… my ears.”

Vegan Bolognese: the third generation’s take on a family recipe

Vegan bolognese. Works well with TVP or frozen, packaged crumbles! Recipe in comments.

A post shared by Stefano Iacono (@stefamaybe) on

My grandma confessed to the family a few years ago that she really doesn’t care for cooking. She fashioned herself a master chef who spends hours in the kitchen. She is an expert at repurposing leftovers, and a purist where it counts. (She and my dad famously argue over tomatoes–she insists he does not simmer them long enough, and he says she uses too much tomato paste)

My grandma has five children and a husband with a larger-than-life personality. She is from Lille; he came from Santa Elisabetta via Tuscany. When this charming Sicilian man met the brilliant but unassuming French school teacher in Paris, he tried to convince her that he was a Frenchman.  I don’t know if she believed him, but she decided to give him a shot and they were married six months later.

She cooked Italian food as if it were her passion. It was apparently not. I didn’t know of her love for celeriac grated with mayonnaise, boiled artichokes, and bouillabaisse until I began cooking and asked her one day about her favorite dishes.

Still, I feel guilty that my favorite thing she ever made me was the bolognese she was known for in our family. Other than mussels with white wine–a non-kosher delight–this was the dish I always asked her to make. Continue reading “Vegan Bolognese: the third generation’s take on a family recipe”

Yom HaShoah as a Jew-by-Choice

In October I went to Yad Vashem, the museum and research institution dedicated to the remembrance and study of the Shoah, (the Hebrew word for “Holocaust”) with my parents. I always break down at some point in the numbing barrage of testimony and have to excuse myself, but I noticed that with my non-Jewish parents by my side, my discomfort was heightened.

Nobody tells you when you convert to Judaism that dealing with the Holocaust is going to be one of the hardest things you ever do. Jewish communities express their pain about the  Holocaust by remembering it as an event that either happened to themselves, their families, or that could have happened to them if they had lived in that time period.

What if it couldn’t have necessarily happened to me? What about the morose part of my Jewish identity as a Jew by choice that guiltily wonders if I would have escaped the Nazis since my Jewishness comes not through blood but rather through religious conversion? An equally dirty thought: would I have been worthy of the suffering of my people? Is it worse to be lumped in with your people or to be passed over and separated from them?

Tonight we sat beneath the night sky at Yad VaShem together with survivors of the Shoah as Israel began its national day of remembering the Holocaust, its victims, and its survivors. We heard their stories, wept together, and sang HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, at the end of the event.

At one point in the ceremony, Israeli actor Adir Miller read the last letter that a man named Gustav Jacobson wrote to his daughter Ruth before he was murdered by the Nazis. In October, when I stepped out of the museum to catch my breath, I nearly collapsed as a thought occurred to me. While I may not have been “Jewish enough” for Nazi selection and persecution, my children most certainly would be simply because their names will be Hebrew names and their lives will be Jewish lives.

Jacobson wrote to his dearest Ruth that she should live her life without bitterness. He, after all, knew that his was ending and all he could do was focus on the love he felt for his daughter. Through my tears, I found my own way to remember, mourn, and feel my people’s suffering. Tonight, beneath the stars of Jerusalem, with members of the Israeli Defense Forces and Holocaust survivors sitting just rows away from me, I saw my children.

Tonight I saw my people. May they never again suffer.