Fulcrum: the point on which a lever rests or is supported and on which it pivots. Or: a thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation.
There is a conversational game I like to play with close friends sometimes, where we challenge each other to view our lives as stories and call out the top 3 points in the story when “everything changed.” You know, where you thought the plot might go in one direction but bam! the storywriter inserts a thing, a moment, an epiphany, and there’s a shift, and then our protagonist heads off in a completely new direction. This game is best played with drinks in hand, btw, if you ever want to try it. It can be a great ‘get to know you’ game, played at a surface level, but it can also be a deeply bonding exercise when played with vulnerability and those you trust completely.
I thought about what to name these moments and the word fulcrum came to mind, so I looked it up. The definition does not surprise me, but as sometimes happens when you research the meaning of a word you’ve been using forever, I suddenly saw something new about it.
I was thinking about fulcrum moments because, as part of my Jewish journey, I need to articulate “why.” Why now? Why at all? Why move from being comfortably Jewish-ish to affirming a fully, formal Jewish identity? Where is the pivot point in my story?
Any good writer knows there are two ways to write about character change. There is the slow build, cleverly woven into scene after scene in such a way that the reader has only a vague sense of something afoot, but doesn’t really see it coming, until there is a quiet acknowledgement and then they have to go back and review all the evidence that it was happening all along, Mystery and romance stories use this method all the time.
And then there is the shock & awe approach, almost always created by an external force, in which the character makes a proactive decision (good or bad, intentional or un…) to address something, and the reader can immediately see the character shift. Adventure tales use this method. I think mainstream tragedies and comedies make use of both methods, though I tend to admire most those writers who have perfected the slow build, perhaps because it demands more of me as a reader.
When I think about my Jewish pivot point, I want so much to identify the shock & awe. Because it’s easier, right? It’s easier to explain to someone, it’s easier to write a paragraph than it is to write a book, it’s easier to demand less of the reader and simply point to the obvious, earth-shattering thing that happened and the obvious response my soul made. And I can indeed point to two huge external events in my life where I have had moments of spiritual reckoning.
The first was September 11 2001, when, on what was supposed to be a quick overnight business trip to New York City, I found myself grounded in mid-Manhattan, without friends or family or a working phone line. I set out from my claustrophobic hotel room and the unfolding horror on every TV screen, thinking I wanted something to eat. Of course all the restaurants were closed. But also, as I walked, I realized I wasn’t really hungry. What I was looking for was people — my people — Andy, my kids, my friends & family, someone I could hug and cry with and yes, pray with. And then, I was suddenly looking for a synagogue, thinking, “It’s New York, there’s gotta be a shul here somewhere and that’s where I’ll find my people.”
The second reckoning came soon after November 8 2016. The campaign and election of Donald Trump was shocking, disheartening and frightening to me, but I did not anticipate the ferocity and speed with which I suddenly felt on shaky ground. It wasn’t even the political loss that shook me – it was (and continues to be) the apparently winning attacks on values I hold most dear. Truth matters. Compassion matters. Learning matters. Hard work and hard decisions matters. Respect for life, every life and all of Life, matters. And, being in conscious community with those who share my values — whether we disagree on other things or not — matters.
As I readied myself to be part of the Women’s March in Chicago and and began to follow ever-more-closely the news of rising anti-choice, anti-science, anti-journalism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, anti-POC, anti-LGBTQ, anti-semitism happenings across the country, I was thinking about where and when I would best be an ally to various communities. I suddenly realized that when it came to anti-semitism, I didn’t feel like an ally, I felt like I was already part of the community. And not just because my husband, my children, my friends…but because, me. Because I suddenly saw the very bright line connecting my own deepest values with the values of Jewish faith and Jewish history. And once again, this phrase, “that’s where I’ll find my people” came to me.
I spoke with a friend, a rabbi, at the time, and I told him I was ready to convert. He asked me why and all I could articulate then was that I was ready to remove the footnote from my name — you see, I still have to say I’m Jewish-ish, but not really Jewish, not really, well mostly, yeah pretty much, yeah more than a lot of actual Jewish people in terms of how I live my life, but still, not really. But now I want clarity, for myself and others. No waffling, no second-guessing. Columnist Leonard Pitts, recently said this so much more elegantly: “These times demand to know who you are and what you believe. You can’t run from that. You can’t split the difference.”
But here’s the thing: When I go back to the definition of fulcrum and I think about it less as a pivot point, and more as a point upon which my spirit rests, I don’t see the shock & awe. Rather, I see all the small moments over the past 30 years that have built to “quiet acknowledgement” of my Jewish identity. I’ve become Jewish the way a quilt is stitched, thread by thread and knot by knot and some parts smooth and easy and others lumpy and difficult. I became more Jewish:
- that time I made our wedding chuppah
- that time my heart swelled as my (non-Jewish!) father made the toast at our wedding and ended with, “L’Chaim!”
- that time I made my first matzah ball
- that time we accidentally, magically found the oldest synagogue in Provence (The New York Times found it later that same year) and I asked the elderly French attendant there about the tiny chair along the wall. She looked at me and asked whether I was Jewish and when I demurred, she smiled and said, in French, that I had une âme juive, a Jewish soul
- that time I stayed in the sukkah in our backyard, and watched the stars come out
- that time I listened to my daughter sing “Elohai, elohai” with her Kolit (children’s choir) and realized I’ll never hear that song again without crying (still true)
- that time I worried about whether my son could keep up with his schoolwork while he was traveling to Milwaukee to be with his best friend in hospital, and he told me it was okay because it was a mitzvah and he was doing the right thing
- that first time I stood and said Kaddish for a dear, dear friend
- that time I grabbed my dear friend’s hand, with a full heart, and pulled her into the middle of the hora dance at the celebration of her daughter’s bat mitzvah
- that time we planned and hosted a Seder for 40, oops now it’s 50, oops, the neighbors have no place to go and now it’s almost 60 people
- that time we were in Maine for the holidays and we walked into the woods and blew shofar and sang by the river
- that time I wasn’t sure whether we could afford the time or money to travel for someone’s wedding and then I reminded myself of the commandment to share another’s simcha (joyous occasion)
- that time the kids’ high school choir sang “Hatikva” as part of their program and I teared up
- that time I decided that at every Passover and every Rosh Hashanah we would make donations to both Mazon ( a Jewish organization fighting hunger) and the Greater Chicago Food Depository
- that first time my mom asked if we would be lighting the Chanukah candles at their house while we were there with them over Christmas
- that time I fell in love with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath, and realized this was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read:
“A thought has blown the market place apart. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day.”
My Jewish story isn’t an adventure tale. It’s a romance.