I told my bff about my research into Jewish congregations in San Francisco last week. I told her how excited I was about finding one that I felt I could really connect with, one whose rabbi I was excited to meet, whose process I respect.
And then she told me she wanted to contact my rabbi too.
Yes, that’s right, my rabbi. The rabbi I haven’t even spoken to yet. The rabbi I’m not even sure will agree to sponsor my conversion. The rabbi I haven’t listened to on Friday night. The rabbi I haven’t even accepted yet.
I don’t know why her announcement bothered me so much. I love her like a second sister. She befriended me in sixth grade and has jumped at all my joys and held my hand as we navigated all my sorrows. We’ve talked about every subject imaginable, we’ve survived college on separate coasts, and we’ve already bequeathed our not-yet-conceived-children to each other should some horrible accident ever happen.
My path to Judaism began with her at my side. We explored the Holocaust and introductory texts together. She’s hosted my Chanukah dinner and shared the reading at my Seder. I know her to be an upstanding, moral individual who strives to do good. She would be an asset to any spiritual community.
Why was I so territorial? I didn’t get it.
Was I proud about my conversion? Was I using it as a source of arrogance, something to brag about, to set me apart from others as something unique and interesting to share at parties? I don’t think so. I respect the right to decide for one’s self the religious identity, or lack there of, that best suits the person. I’m always delighted to meet other converts, Jewish or not. We share a common bond of embarking with timid steps, struggling to embrace our family and new homes, and desiring a level of perfection often not understood, and even scorned, by those born to our faiths. No, it wasn’t pride in being different.
Was I too independent, unwilling to share the process? I remember sitting in sessions before, annoyed and frustrated. I didn’t understand why the rabbi let one individual lead us down a tangent. I grew suspicious of non-Jews’ intents to “learn” with their frequent criticisms of Judaism and audible lauding of their own faiths. I shut out the sections tailored to engaged converts that failed to acknowledge how the same topic applied to single converts, if it did at all. I lamented the rudimentary nature of the curriculum, longing for more depth, for knowledge that could not be acquired by reading any of the numerous introductory texts on the market. I would welcome her insight, her different point of view, her desire to dig deeper at class. No, it wasn’t independence.
On the BART ride home hours later, it came to me. I had played by the rules. I had respected Judaism’s conversion process—study, beit din, mikvah—and worked to overcome the resentment at the simple conversion requirement of other religions—a declaration of faith, maybe followed by immersion. I cried when I had to stop my third time, afraid that future attempts would taint my sincerity in the eyes of the beit din I would eventually encounter. I dealt with the awkward stares, questions and silences that revealed Jews’ strong desire to ask me what on earth made me want to convert to Judaism, but who refrained out of politeness. I pretended to understand why I was good enough to go out on a few dates with, but not good enough to have a relationship with to Jewish men who only dated Jewish women. I carefully crafted my announcements to family members, respecting their beliefs while trying to explain my decision. I came to realize, to truly understand and not just mutter for appearance’s sake that Judaism wasn’t going anywhere. There’s a process, there are rules, and I will obey them.
I realized that what bothered me was that she wants Judaism on her own terms. She wants to be able to keep the practices of her Indian background. She refuses to give them up because it’s so hard to separate the Hindu religion of her mother from the Hindu culture of her parents, family, and support network. She won’t give up Ganesh, she won’t give up raki, she won’t give up Diwali, she won’t give up her gitas. She respects the Christian theology of her godmother, of the selfless Christ-figure she has studied with friends in divinity schools.
When she approached a rabbi in college, he told her she would have to give them up. She refused. She said they were such a part of her that she couldn’t part with them, even if she tried. To some extent, I understand. I think it would be similarly hard for a Jew to cut out the religious, cultural, national, and tribal aspects of Jewish identity, to keep some, and to give up others. I understand myself, because I know my culture is heavily American-mutt-Christian, and that I feel like such an outsider to Jewish humor, linguistic norms and family life. My culture will never become American Jewish. At best, it will be a bridge or a hybrid. I should be empathetic to her internal struggle. But I’m wasn’t. I’m not.
The five-second decision to talk to “my” rabbi revealed a sense of non-chalance about religion, about the conversion process, and honestly, yes, my struggle to reach the mikvah. She cracked a joke about being ale to tell people she was a Hin-Jew in a year and the kinds of looks she would get. She made the course sound like the skill class you would take to learn to make French sauces–a fun, light-hearted way to get out of the house on Wednesday nights. I realized this “hobby” approach to a process I had started and stopped three times, of my dedication and resiliency. And then I realized, I was judging her. I was self-righteously judging her and I needed to stop.
I can’t know what’s inside her heart. I can’t know what discussions she’s had and with whom. I can’t know what decisions she’s made, what research she’s done, what a beit din will consider sincere enough.
I am quite thankful to have caught myself in this mental process; it will help me to evaluate other behaviors and actions on Yom Kippur. It will prompt my to ask for forgiveness of not only her, but any others I realize I have wronged.
May she forgive me. May G-d forgive me. May the rabbi guide us as individuals, on our own unique journeys, through our own struggles, recognizing our distinct strengths and backgrounds, wherever our destination may be.
And may she roll her eyes at the same obvious question or glib comment in class with me.