Everyone has their own story. This is mine.
Kedoshim is a parshat read once a year from the Torah, one of my Jewish holy texts, and has a profound sentimental value to me. It translates to Holiness. Why this then? You are probably asking. Why the holiness code?
The fall before my bat mitzvah at 26 years old, I said to my cantor, “It doesn’t matter to me how long I have to wait for my bat mitzvah, I would just really love to do mine on Kedoshim.” She asked me, “You want the holiness code?” Of all the Torah portions I could have asked for, this was the one I chose!
To understand the why, I have to tell you a story.
Six years ago, when I was still an undergrad at University of Wisconsin Whitewater, I started training in Aikido, a martial art that was founded in Japan in the late 1940s. It was there I met Sensei Lionel Romanzow, of blessed memory, who is a shining example of kedoshim.
We were at the time a small, rag-tag group of college students. Maybe 10 people at the most would train regularly, 2 hours, four days a week late at night. I would never make it back to my dorm earlier than eleven at night, Monday through Wednesday.
I can see the wide-eyed looks on your faces! Was I insane? Probably. More than likely I was just trying to step up to the next level. No matter how you look at it, that was still nothing compared to Romanzow Sensei. He lived in a southern Chicago suburb, where I still train sometimes, a two and a half hour drive one way. Yes, you heard me correctly. One way. He’d make that trip every week for us, after a full day job. He’d train with us maybe 10 people for two hours. After, he’d make the same two and a half hour drive back at 11 at night, getting home maybe 1:30 in the morning, most likely later, and still have to get up for work early the next day. All he asked for in return was for us to step up our game.
His reasoning? The Japanese philosophy of Shugyo. There’s no English translation of it, nor is it something that can be achieved overnight. It’s unique to everyone and must be strived for over the course of a lifetime. It’s making dinner for your family, although they’re all adults, perfectly capable of making their own dinner. It’s taking time out of a hectic schedule to tutor or comfort a friend. It’s arriving early or staying late to clean. I could spend all day trying to spell out shugyo, but I think you get the picture.
Three years ago, my rabbi at the time was facilitating the Torah study that morning. Those who know me during the Torah studies, I don’t really talk much unless I’m clarifying a connection I may have made. I was listening, and listening, trying to make a connection to understand this portion. What was I missing? I couldn’t ask her afterwards because she had b’nai mitzvah to officiate.
To me, what I saw in Kedoshim at that moment in time was just a list of what you need to do to be holy. Observe Shabbat. Honor your parents. Study Torah. Welcome the stranger. That’s just face value. There had to be more to it. For example, how?
That night, I received a text from one of my senseis, asking me to call her. I knew something was wrong because I was always the first to message her, and always via Facebook. When I called, she told me Romanzo Sensei had passed away.
The next day, on my way to Aikido, I finally understood the point my rabbi was trying to convey during her study, and it is not as abstract as I believed.
The one thing that stuck out to me was the idea of separation. Adonai said: And you shall be holy unto Me, for I, Adonai, am holy, and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.
Similar to how the bride and groom are separated from everyone else at a wedding.
Moses’s adherence to, and passing on of these mitzvot, are what separates him from the rest of the Israelites. It’s the following of the commandments, and refraining what Adonai said to Moses was forbidden that separated the Israelites from other nations.
Romanzow Sensei’s holiness code of shugyo is what separates him from other martial artists, other people. This code included traveling to other states to visit other dojos, often driving for several hours after a full days work, paying the dues of those who want to train but are financially strapped, opening his home to out of town students, treating us to lunch and dinner, and best of all, starting not one, but several thriving aikido programs.
And it was this shugyo that inspired me to keep training when I wanted to quit all those years ago. Even in this ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I train virtually.
Because of shugyo, this holiness code, I would not be writing to you today.
It was shugyo, kedoshim that inspired me to be the woman I am today.
The aikido and Tai Chi Gal.
January of 2020, and March of 2020, I lost three, very important parts of my life, My father, my aunt, and my congregation.
I was lost. I had no idea where to go. I stood at the gates of Devorah’s Secret Garden, shaking, scared, alone, having a “map”, or random friend request, sent my way randomly.
Devorah, or Debbie Orman, the Tai Chi Gal, as you may know her, answered, took me by the hand, and planted the seeds I needed in my soul to be able to bloom once more. In a few short months of following her programs diligently, and a few one-to-one sessions, I bloomed from a wilting flower, to a vibrant rose, Shoshanah, in her garden.
As tribute, and Inspiration, I am now following her footsteps in helping, even in a small way, to change the nature of mental health throughout the world, by doing weekly meditations and meditative and peaceful drawing on my life, and to continue to pursue my dream of being a rabbi.
It is shugyo that inspires me to keep training both physically, and spiritually. On, and off the mat, in front of, and away from the camera.
It’s the reason I get up in the freezing winters to train or pray. It’s the reason I would travel to seminars, or stay behind to help cover the kids class when coverage is needed. Even little things like sweep the mats, or host a friend for the weekend during a seminar, or just in general. It’s the reason I would take long sabbaticals from synagogue, or work a shabbos at the hospital.
Romanzow Sensei always said, “If someone came up to me saying Sensei, Sensei where’s aikido? I’d answer: do this, and go here. But in the end who has to take the walk?”
It’s not an easy walk, but someone has to.
That’s what I believe parshat Kedoshim is all about. It’s a manual for shugyo. God gave us the instructions for holiness, just like Romanzow Sensei, even my grandmother, my mother, and so many others, gave me the instructions for shugyo.
Moses took his walk. Romanzow Sensei and Debbie Orman both took their walks; so must I.
And I am.
Walking the Path to Harmonized Energy, spreading inner peace throughout the world.
The Aikido and Tai Chi Gal • Shoshanah Shirah, of Devorah’s Secret Garden
On March 11th, 1993, Ashley was born in Milwaukee, and always felt most herself in smaller, intimate environments. Everything changed when she moved to Whitewater to finish her Psychology degree. There, she met the mentor who would set her on an entirely new path, one who led her to move to Chicago, and back again. Ashley currently lives with her two cats on Milwaukee’s east side, working as an Outpatient Registrar, doing her part to combat the ongoing pandemic.