Pausing at the Doorpost

New meaning for the mezuzah

I walk my new husband, Jim, to the elevator and kiss him good-bye. The door closes and I whisper my prayer of thanks for him and for his return. I touch the mezuzah hung on the right side of our doorframe; I bring my fingers to my lips. To myself I say, Torah, and go into the kitchen for a glass of water.

The practice of hanging a mezuzah, which means doorpost in Hebrew, dates to biblical times. A mezuzah, the box or cylinder affixed to the doorpost, does not have any spiritual significance unless it contains a parchment scroll with the Sh’ma, the proclamation of God’s oneness, and biblical verses. Therefore, impress these words of Mine upon your heart … Inscribe them upon the doorposts of your homes and upon your gates … You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall speak of them when you sit in your home, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up… .

I am most comfortable acknowledging the mezuzah when I am alone or with Jim. Visitors following me into the apartment may catch the swift movement of my hand reaching up, but I tend to hide the final act when my fingers go to my lips. I feel their curiosity at my back. I wish I weren’t too self-conscious to turn to them and say, “I like how this leads me to contemplate how I will be in my home.” But I am. The burn is still fresh in my mind from the time I was asked by one guest, “How is this any different than being an obsessive compulsive? What if you forget to kiss the mezuzah? Do you have to back track to make it right?”

I was embarrassed by the idea that I was being considered a Two Scoop, the term a friend of mine uses to describe certain religious people. It seems to him that when they “find” religion they open their heads and remove two scoops of their brains before closing them again. But I find myself to be my most rational when acknowledging the mezuzah, as it leads to the careful consideration of my actions after I cross the threshold.

While I have learned to put myself no longer in the line of judgment or ridicule or condescension (I talk about my Judaism only with those who also have a religious practice), I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only a few years before, I was the person who judged and looked down upon religion. I believed that it was used to instill fear and keep the masses controlled, especially after living in Utah, where it seemed as though the line between church and state was drawn in pencil and followed quickly behind with an eraser. After drinking from the waters of Torah, though, I began to appreciate that the building of a spiritual foundation was based precisely upon the tension inherent in free will. Many times Jim and I will be having a disagreement in the elevator going up to our apartment. I will be pit-bulling the topic, clamping my opinion and viewpoint down hard on Jim’s every word and shaking it in the jaws of my righteousness. Reaching up to acknowledge the mezuzah on our doorway breaks the momentum. It gives me that split-second chance to lighten up and ask, Would I rather have some peace and quiet? The heated moment quickly cools, as I feel pressed to find a solution.

On occasion, I have needed to pause for quite some time outside our apartment before I could acknowledge the mezuzah and take responsibility for my actions. As it is our habit that Jim unlocks the door to the apartment and stands aside as I go in, he is obliged to stand behind me in the hall until I calm down. Fuming, and with my arms crossed, I struggle with the want to allow my temper to reign with the full awareness that that state of mind can not enter our apartment; I can not have a marriage, I cannot have a life that allows the lack of self-control, the lack of regard for Jim and our being together. Certainly, I feel stupid and childish when this happens, but I was born with a 0-90 in two seconds temper, and I know this is what working to manage it looks like. After a few moments, in the safety of Jim’s love, patience, and care, I finally admit that my anger, as usual, has nothing to do with the person or situation I seem mad at, but my fear. Along with my temper, I have a Chicken Little quality that gets me riled up. Once I calm down, I can cross our threshold into a more honest moment.

May the words of Torah, Lord our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people. … I impress the words of Torah on my heart to try to remember to be kind, forgiving, creative, and compassionate, though I usually forget by the time I am in the kitchen making breakfast—we don’t have a mezuzah on every door frame, which would be found in a more Orthodox home.

In the years of study leading to my formal conversion, I did become intrigued by the Orthodox community. I thought once I converted I would have mezuzot throughout the apartment, following my desire to slip into the full rhythm of the Jewish calendar year, leaving the secular one behind. I wanted to wind myself up within each ritual: wake with morning blessings on my lips, go to shul and pray, be kosher, buy kosher, dine out kosher, light candles, light candles on time, buy white, wear white, spread the Shabbes table in white. Make kugel, eat kreplach, and, at a drop, know the difference between the two.

Instead, I was cautioned by stories of converts who were more observant than the families they marry into and the strain it caused. One well-intentioned convert I knew had her inlaws over for Shabbes dinner. As she walked around the table with a bowl of water and cup for everyone to participate in the ritual cleansing of the hands before a meal, her mother-in-law moaned, “Oh, no. This isn’t the kind of Jew you are going to be.” The porcelain bowl might as well have been shattered on the floor.

I also didn’t want to be the butt of the old joke: A Jewish businessman warns his son against marrying a “shiksa.” The son replies, “But she’s converting to Judaism.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the old man says. “A shiksa will cause problems.” After the wedding, the father calls the son, who is in business with him, and asks why he is not at work.

“It’s Shabbat,” the son replies.

“But we always work on Saturday. It’s our busiest day.”

“I won’t work anymore on Saturday. My wife wants us to go to shul on Shabbat.”

“See,” the father says. “I told you marrying a shiksa would cause problems.”

For my union with Jim, and joining his family—none of whom observed more than the major holidays—I released myself from the attempt to restructure my life with the many rituals of Judaism. I knew it would be too much, too soon. When the mikveh waters dried in my hair, no longer a student of Judaism but a Jew; no longer single but married; no longer only a daughter but a daughter-in-law, all remarkably different states of being, I realized ritual could bind if not tied into my new life with grace. With my intention to create peace, I began to question: What good is my Judaism if it creates strife in my marriage or with my in-laws? Jim’s family lived only blocks away, gathering long before I showed up. Why would I disrupt the flow, rather than see how I would fit into it?

To retain a sense of grace, I decided that in the quiet act of prayer, with the acknowledgment of the mezuzah, I would absorb the religion through a sieve — a mesh intertwined with foresight, reflection, and personal experience. I would familiarize myself, thoughtfully, with the other rituals before I would feel compelled to practice them. Then, when I am 12 years into Judaism, the length of time in the life of a Jewish girl when she is considered an adult and responsible for her actions and the practice of daily rituals, I will become a Bat Mitzvah, “daughter of the commandment.” Until then, I want to have what Jim and every other person who was born Jewish has: time to live within the ease of my choices, time to understand myself as a Jew.

This is an excerpt from Nash’s work-in-progress, “The Morning of My Judaism: An Exploration of the Jewish Morning Prayers Through the Study of Native American Basketry.”