Modah Ani מודה אני – a gratitude beginning

The Modeh Ani (Modah being the female form of modeh, to give thanks) prayer is traditionally recited by (traditional) Jews upon first awakening each morning. Our Jewish ancestors apparently considered a night’s sleep to be a kind of “death” and each morning a resurrection of sorts, or at least a return of the soul to its body. The prayer is a simple one, expressing gratitude for awakening with our soul returned/intact and being able to experience a new day.

The prayer can be literally translated as “I give thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in compassion; how great is Your trust.” In Hebrew, it sounds like this — or transliterated: Modah ani lefanecha, melech chay vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla raba emunetecha.

In Hebrew letters (without the markings for Hebrew vowels as I’ve no idea how to make those work yet with a Hebrew keyboard):

 מודה אני לפניך, מלֹך חי וקים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Here’s the thing. While I love studying Hebrew language, Torah and Jewish text, I have always found the act of prayer to be a bit of a challenge. I confess to having some “prayer FOMO” when other people talk about how spiritually fulfilled they are when they take up regular prayer. But most traditional “God-language” sends me in the opposite direction: images of Fathers and Sovereigns feels medieval, made-up and not-at-all how I imagine a Universal Power or Presence to be manifest in the world or in my spirit. I often find myself feeling either disconnected or argumentative when I’m set in front of a traditional Hebrew prayer or blessing. I want to say the words, but only if they mean something to me. It’s not enough to mumble things I can’t understand; and it’s not okay to say things I don’t mean.

So when I heard friends in my Mishkan conversion cohort talking about how they’d incorporated this simple blessing into their morning routine, as a gratitude practice, I felt FOMO pangs again and decided it was time to do some work. Fortunately, I found a source on my very own bookshelf that turns out to be exactly what I needed. Poet, translator and scholar Marcia Falk wrote The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival in 1996. She has used her talent and her study to carefully reconstruct blessings in a way that honors their intent and tradition, but invites new images for divinity into the theology. I was excited to learn that her work has been adopted and adapted across a spectrum of Jewish liturgy and communities, notably feminists and progressives.

Falk’s rendition of the Modeh Ani goes like this:

נשמת חיי תברך וקרב לבי ישיר:  כל עיד נשמה בקרבי מודה אני

Nishmat chayay t’vareykh v’kerev libi yashir:  Kol od n’shamah b’kirbi modah ani.

The breath of my life will bless, the cells of my being sing:  In gratitude, reawakening.


Ahhhhh. My gratitude practice begins tomorrow.


Amirah Ruth – choosing my name

An important part of formal conversion to Judaism is to choose a Hebrew name. It’s been more challenging for me than I would have thought. First of all, it’s a weird thing to name yourself. It feels oddly vulnerable to tell someone else you picked this name for yourself and know that they are wondering, or even asking you, “Why? Why that name? What does it mean to you?” Part of me feels like this should be a private thing, and yet by definition a name exists for other people, right? For other people to use, to call you, find you, bless you (curse you), whatever or however they use it…but one rarely calls oneself.

It’s even more challenging to name oneself in a foreign language, of course. I’ve studied enough language to understand that it’s easy for a non-native speaker to focus on one translation or meaning of a word, and miss entirely the nuance or context or additional meanings that might be attached to it. This is why Google Translate still has a ways to go, and why “Chinglish” or even old people using slang, can be so amusing.

So I started by scouring books and websites on Hebrew language, and baby-naming books, and Biblical references. I emailed Rabbi Ally (Allison Tick Brill), who is facilitating our Mishkan Conversion Cohort and who has patiently responded as I’ve bounced around from one idea to the next. I finally realized my best resource was to ask friends who know and love me and also happen to have lived in Israel and speak fluent Hebrew — Ilana listened patiently as I shared some of my thinking with her, and then she and Mark came up with a wonderful list (Hebrew Names) that built on what we’d talked about.

As I shared with Ilana, I’ve always felt spiritually connected with trees. All kinds of trees, though I’m particularly fond of apple trees — both because of where I grew up, where apple orchards are plentiful — and because I happen to love apples and the time of year (fall) when the tree boughs are gorgeous and full of fruit.

Mark told me the Hebrew word for “apple tree” would be Tapuach – but since apples aren’t really a native fruit to Israel, there’s no Biblical reference point. What’s more, when I googled the word, I learned that there’s an Orthodox settlement in the West Bank that’s name Tapuach…that’s not something I want as my namesake.

So we thought some more about “tree” and also words that are associated with trees – branches, boughs, seeds, roots, fruit.

The name that feels right is the word I chose to name this blog site now – Amirah אמיוה. Hebrew is a gendered language, and the masculine form of this word, Amir אמיר, means “treetop.” The feminine form Amirah אמיוה means “a statement, saying or personal truth.” I’ve also seen it translated as “One who speaks.” I like that. I think it both describes me and challenges me in a good way.

It’s common to pick a second name, as well — I guess that’s kinda like a middle name in our secular tradition. So I’ve chosen the name Ruth רות. In the Torah, Ruth is actually the “first convert to Judaism” and the story of Ruth and Naomi is read each year on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which this year fell just last month on the day I began this blog. As it happens, Ruth is also the given name of both one of Andy’s grandmothers, and one of my own. And in a perhaps beshert (Yiddish for “meant to be”) coincidence, my grandmother Ruth Layman told me years ago that her grandmother was…wait for it…Jewish. Which, if true, means that my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish and if I could ever prove it, that matrilineal line of descent would supposedly mean I’m already “officially” Jewish! Of course, I don’t have such proof and I suspect the rabbis would take issue with the idea given that none of these generations (until my own daughter…) were raised Jewishly. But still…it makes my heart happy to think about 🙂

Spiritual moments of reckoning

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.


Being Jewish-ish

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. — Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 6:3

Almost thirty years ago, Andy Jacobs and I declared ourselves beloved to each other, forever, and were married under this chuppah. In the months leading up to our wedding, I had decided to create the wedding canopy as a surprise for Andy on our wedding day. I found a book of Jewish embroidery and traced a beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry from it, and then created the pattern of flowers around it; I pencilled it all onto a large piece of satin and then, over many late nights and weekends, secretly sewed it together. It has hung every day since in our bedroom (except for the three times it has been borrowed to bless other family members’ weddings).

During our engagement, Andy and I studied Judaism together, found a shul, talked about whether I wanted to convert or not, and…I wasn’t sure. I’d been part of the Unitarian church in my Massachusetts hometown and felt the open-minded, progressive-but-rational community, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and ethical behavior in the world, were aligned with my own spiritual needs. I also had an extraordinary respect and love for the Unitarian Minister there, who in fact co-officiated along with a “renegade rabbi” at our wedding that fall in the Concord Unitarian Church.

But meanwhile, I was enjoying our Jewish study together. As a language lover, I found Hebrew fascinating and beautiful; as an avid learner I found its emphasis on constant engagement with text and interpretation very satisfying. Jewish rituals, especially around the home and family, fed my spirit. I found much of Judaism’s ethical guidance on how to live a good life made sense and helped keep me grounded. Beyond all that, it was, and is, clearly a foundational part of Andy’s spirit — his own way of thinking, communicating and being in the world, his sense of self, and his relationships, especially with his family.

So we agreed even before we married that we would raise our children in the Jewish faith, with a clear Jewish identity, and that our home would be a (liberal) Jewish home, whether or not I officially chose Judaism as my own faith. We celebrated the Jewish holidays in our home, hosting seders, hoisting sukkahs, lighting shabbat, havdalah and menorah candles, and blowing shofar. Jewish friends and family, and Jewish music, art, books, film, food, travel, events and causes have all been a huge part of our family’s life. Our children became b’nai mitzvah and visited Israel as young teens, Andy & I each served on our synagogue’s board, and over the years we’ve continued Jewish learning in lots of ways.

As years passed, it became clear to me and to those around us that I’d taken on a Jewish identity, even though I’d never formally converted. I started to refer to myself as “Jewish-ish.” People who don’t know my background are often surprised to hear I wasn’t raised Jewish.

I thought often about whether to formally convert, and then after awhile I knew it was something I wanted, but there always seemed to be something holding me back. The rabbi we were with wasn’t the right person to guide me through the process, I thought. Or I looked at my daily calendar and decided I wasn’t ready to prioritize the time and study the process would take, over other home/work/life stuff. Or once I even went to visit the mikveh, and somehow the formality of it scared me off. So I put off the “process” and just focused on living my Jewish-ish life, in part because I couldn’t articulate how the actual conversion would change anything real inside me, or would really matter to my beloveds — all the people I care about.

Here’s how I came to my spiritual moment of reckoning.