He Gets It

I hung out with The Boy last Friday.  We made dinner and played a game and out of nowhere, he looked at me and said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Now it’s just like you were born Jewish.”

I don’t think he knew what that meant to me.  I had to look away to not become overcome with emotion.

Not every Jew I’ve encountered on this path has reacted negatively, but the negative responses far outweigh the positives.  Some are out-and-out negative reactions—looks of horrors and scoffs of “Psh, you’ll never be really Jewish.”  But some are more subtle, hidden in jest, “Why on EARTH would you do that?”  Both place the convert-to-be in a defensive position, of explaining ourselves and our life choices.  Yes, we eventually manage to form an elevator response to deliver, along with a thick skin, but we shouldn’t have to.

On the flip side, I’ve also been at services or holiday events where someone’s reaction is really positive, and a good percentage of the time, they will start to explain Shabbat or the chag to me, as though I have no idea what these concepts are and just decided to plow ahead with the conversion process anyway.  How do you stop someone short in a mini-lecture without sounding rude?  Would you lecture a baal teshuva in the Conservative or Reform movements about what the holidays mean?  Do they not know we have, in most cases, spent months and even years studying on our own before working up the nerve to approach the rabbi?  The answer is obviously not. (I have an idea running around in my head that I’d like to approach the rabbi with: offering training sessions to the congregation about how to interact with converts and a mentorship program to next year’s conversion class.  Much still needs to be fleshed out, but I’m working on it; that’s for another post though.)

The Boy didn’t do either.  The Boy just accepted me as I was. As though I were like him: knowledgeable enough to make his own choices about his own Judaism.  An equal.

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D’varim: Devarim (5 of 5)

I returned home in November, after most conversion courses in the area had already started.  I took a long time researching congregations in the area, first in my section of the East Bay before eventually expanding to the Peninsula and City.  By then, I had developed a good sense of reading a congregation from its website: if it does not mention conversion on its website beyond a request to call a rabbi and if it does not mention a young adult group—separate from any singles group—I know by now that it will not fulfill some of my most important needs at this stage of my life.

The East Bay Jewish community is small and fragmented, but I fell in love with three congregations in the City after visiting.  This is a vast improvement over my experiences on the East Coast, and I consider it affirmation that I am a West Coast Jew.  Perhaps the quotient of independence and confidence, the live-and-let-live attitude and determination to move west still imbues our congregations with a welcoming open-mindedness that I did not find in the South or the East.  Here, especially at Congregation Beth Sholom, I feel like I can spiritually breathe while still holding onto the tradition that grounds me, without compromising my morals and values.

Yet, even today, I find it difficult to be myself completely.  There are still congregants—mostly Baby Boomers and their parents—who launch a racial diatribe against “the Arabs” on their first encounter with me.  Were these comments made about any other people, I truly believe today’s Jews would not stand for it, and thus these comments leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  It concerns me because we share an aboriginal land with another indigenous people and any future peace brokering will require an acknowledgement of their right to this land and their peoplehood, as much as our own.

If I speak up, I risk severing a bridge that stands little chance of being repaired, or even worse, am quickly rejected as an insincere convert by a member of the very community I seek to join.  Thus, Israel is still the hardest obstacle left for me to overcome.  I am very conflicted in my support of Israel, both because there are political decisions that I vehemently disagree with and because I grow increasingly uncomfortable with the power of the religious right in a supposedly democratic government.

And yet, despite this lingering conflict over the State of Israel, I know I am ready now.  I haven’t finished working through my problems with infant circumcision or all of the edicts about family purity laws.  I still fear never being able to find a Jewish husband with whom to raise a Jewish family and wonder what will happen if my future progeny decide to go down the Orthodox path.  I don’t know if those fears will ever go away.

But I’ve always imagined the rituals of conversion to be a bit like koshering dishes: my soul is Jewish, but my body is not.   Just like you have to toivel the dishes and put them through fire until red hot, so it is with the body, which may have been used for non-kosher things in the past, even if they weren’t wrong or evil things.  They weren’t Jewish things.  They weren’t done with Jewish devotion to truth and learning and justice.   To convert, my body must be put through the water of the mikvah and the fire of the mitzvot.  And because I know for certain that I can accept all of the mitzvot while being intellectually honest and emotionally true, I am ready now to muster all of the audacity it takes to go before G-d and say “I am ready to be one of Your chosen now!”

I know now that it’s not just that I want Judaism.  I took a long time to make sure it was not just my emotions or some phase I was going through.  I know Judaism is a lifelong commitment, to the people Israel, to our G-d, and to myself.  It requires a lot of hard, serious work; it’s a burden, a blessing and a mission.  But now I know that my soul needs it.  That it is the most authentic way for me to live my life so that I feel connected to the Holy and to my people.

I want to raise my children with the empowerment to question, the zeal for honesty, the reverence for learning, and the deep commitment to create a better world that has bewitched me and called my Jewish soul out of this long ancestry of wisdom, prophecy, and promise.  Because my Judaism is a deep source of satisfaction and obligation.

D’varim: Bamidbar (4 of 5)

My last semester at college, I took a class on Judaism.  The professor converted under Reform auspices after writing her dissertation on Jewish construction of mythic monsters and it was really encouraging to see a convert present Judaism to people encountering it for the first time.  It reassured me that one day I would reach that point of familiarity and confidence, too.  As one of few Jewishly identified students on campus, that semester I was often called upon by my classmates to explain or defend some of the more troublesome of Jewish practices in the eyes of a modern, liberal audience.  One religious studies major presented her term paper on the family purity laws, which were not well received.

It was difficult to encourage my peers to see the other side of the practice, to remove their own socio-political biases that labeled this misogynistic and archaic.   It was difficult to encourage this of them when I still wrestle with the practice myself.  I like that women are responsible for counting the days, for bathing with such fastidious attention to detail, and for notifying their husbands after visiting the mikvah.  Judaism trusts women with responsibility.

And yet I acknowledge for myself that men once had to visit the mikvah for their own spiritual impurity due to the loss of potential life within them, before the rabbis of yesteryears changed the rules.  And I recognize that my emotional needs include hugs at the end of Rough Days, days that cannot be scheduled according to my biology.   My classmates respected my honesty in articulating the internal conflict, and I found a new tolerance for ambiguity in my approach to Jewish practice.

After graduation, I moved to Houston to participate in Teach for America’s program.  The closest synagogue to my apartment complex was also the oldest congregation in the state.  I fell in love immediately with one of the rabbis and asked her to be my sponsoring rabbi. The class proved frustrating however, when my co-students moved the discussions from topics that almost all converts experience—deciding how to build a Jewish home, trying to master Hebrew, telling your family—to topics that some of us simply could not relate to, like the stereotypical in laws, trying to motivate your fiancé(e) to participate in Jewish activities with you, and trying to prove that you weren’t doing this for marriage alone.  As the minority student, however, I simply felt outnumbered.

When I was forced to move home, my Houston rabbi put me in touch with one of her former colleagues.  I finished the class with this rabbi’s group, but when it came time to begin our biweekly meetings, routinely forgotten meetings on his part and a sense of humor that did not mesh with mine made me realize I wasn’t ready to convert under this rabbi’s sponsorship.

When I went off to grad school, I lived two blocks from Hillel and one block from a Reform synagogue.  I started out at Hillel, attending the Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Reform students met in the basement library with a portable ark and photocopied siddurim.  Conservative services were held upstairs, in the Hillel center Sanctuary, with copious copies of Sim Shalom. I was really put off by this blatant disparity in resources and started attending services at the Reform synagogue.  The community was very insular and the rabbi made comments about converts, Muslims, and Israel from the bimah that assured me that we would not be a good match.

To complete my master’s, I moved to DC with the intent of completing my internship and eventually finding a job.  I sought out congregations with thriving young adult populations and found a Conservative congregation that blew me away.  The course was thorough, academic, and provided a full spectrum of Jewish views.  I enjoyed the required Hebrew portion and was finally able to understand the importance of Oral Torah for living lives we recognize as Jewish today.  As a result, Karaite Judaism no longer sounded as appealing to me in light of the ever-increasing stringencies espoused by some Orthodox rabbis.  But once again, I was one of few conversion candidates who was not engaged and the class discussions did not allow for full participation on my part.

Even more frustrating was being told that I had to wait until May to convert while those with impending weddings visited the mikvah as early as October to avoid the taboo of intermarriage.  I don’t believe intermarriage weakens Judaism or the Jewish people—I think a lack of devotion to one’s faith and identity weakens the Jewish people.  I disagree with Conservative Judaism on this point and am prepared to deal with the consequences if my rabbi cannot officiate at my wedding.  But I wish the process of conversion were respected by more rabbis as much as the taboo of intermarriage.

Part of me knows it is my own fear talking, the worry of never finding a Jewish spouse with whom to create a Jewish home.  The last Jewish man I dated decided after five months that the opinion of his Orthodox mother mattered more than our connection or my honesty about my status and situation from the beginning.  I grew attached only to be told I wasn’t good enough to be brought home.  I know you can’t extrapolate and that a few Jewish guys’ behavior does not represent all Jewish men.  But there is that fear, which coupled with my distaste for the opinion in Jewish culture of intermarriage, that made that conversion course particularly unbearable.  It was a hidden blessing when I had to return home due to not finding a job.

D’varim: Vayikra (3 of 5)

When I entered college, I enjoyed a level of freedom I had not yet experienced.  I could attend services if I wanted.  I could keep Shabbat when I wanted.  I could go to synagogue without having to answer questions from friends and family, answers I may not be able to articulate even to this day.

My liberal arts college’s motto, Unto the whole person, really spoke to me and guided me on my educational path. I sat with my fellow freshman in a lecture hall for the required course Journeys.  We read from the Qur’an, the Gospel, and seminal scientific, literary, and sociological works.  After reading portions of the Qur’an, I decided to take a course on Islam the second semester of my freshman year.  Part of it was to better understand the political developments in a post-9/11 world, but the real reason was to come to know Islam so well that I would be certain of my desire to convert to Judaism.  The class changed my view about the Western World’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage and captivated my mind with beautiful conceptions of G-d and the level of individual devotion required by each Muslim.  Yet, as much as I loved the religion I studied, I realized I could not embrace the cultures associated with it, and thus that I could never take Shahada.

The next year, I enrolled in Religions in a Global Context with the same Buddhist-Methodist professor.  I was surrounded by classmates who grew up in small Southern towns in Christian families.  Some accepted the faith they were raised in as their own and practiced it with pride; the vast majority rejected Abrahamic faiths for being patriarchal, authoritarian, and materialistic.  I listened with increasing rage as they labeled Judaism an arcane system of arbitrary laws established by an authoritarian elite.  Eventually, logic returned to me—of course there is not a faith that will meet the needs of every person on earth—and I came to realize that my appreciation for the mitzvot, for the clearly demarcated ideas of positive and negative behaviors set me apart from my peers who preferred the more ambiguous nature of some Eastern philosophies.

The final project in the course was to write a religious credo that helped me articulate my self-conception as an attenuated theist who loved the idea of predicate theology I encountered in Reconstructionist texts.  I explained my love of the Jewish approach to the Torah: active, participatory, almost antagonistic in its love of tearing down the text to build up meaning and commentary through stories and debates.  The contradictions are not troublesome because they invite discussion and argument during which agreement is the last thing on anyone’s mind.  Torah is about us, in each age and generation, and making sense of the world and what role G-d plays or does not play in it.  The emphasis on the process of interaction, of interpreting, of questioning never resulted in Judaism arrogantly assuming it maintained a monopoly on Truth.  Judaism’s lack of pressure is precisely why I feel comfortable exploring, questioning, and seeking.  That it provided clear cut answers on many topics yet refrained from answering all of life’s questions appealed to me because not all of the work was done for me.  Instead, it fans the hidden spark of my mind and my soul.

As a Spanish and International Relations major, I chose Argentina as my study abroad site for its status as a melting pot society.   They absorbed immigrants from all over the world and built a cohesive national identity—as long as you weren’t Jewish.  In the summer of 2006, I sat in classrooms where my Argentine classmates said that the Jews who died in AMIA were not considered Argentine in their eyes, and thus there was no need to mourn their loss on the anniversary of the attacks or to pursue justice for their deaths after the disastrous mishandling of the case by the Argentine authorities.  I watched my host mother’s best friend, a descendant of Lebanese Christians, launch anti-Semitic tirades inside the apartment I lived in, while conveniently claiming to be Jewish while in the car to avoid street panhandlers selling Catholic trinkets.  I watched classmates cheer when Israelis died during the Lebanon war.  I struggled to find my voice, to answer the call of G-d, publicly, for the first time.  Who am I to speak for this people, when I’m still an outsider wanting in?  Who am I to defend this people, who have survived through much worse for four millennia?

A trip to the Jewish barrio of Buenos Aires, Once, gave me courage.  A kosher McDonalds and two-foot-tall mezuzot showed me Jews were part of Argentine society, regardless of ignorance and hatred on the part of its citizens.  Travelling to Peru on spring break, I struggled to breathe in the high altitudes and upon seeing my Magen David necklace, a group of Israelis got up from café chairs to help me schlep up the hill.

And weeks later, I remember a classmate turning to me one day on the bus ride home, asking in a disparaging tone of voice with a snarled lip if I thought another bus rider was a Jew.  It took all of two seconds for “I don’t know if he is, but I DO know that I am Jewish” to come flying out of my mouth.

G-d called.  G-d had been calling.  And in Argentina, on my own, away from my family and friends and the identity that I assumed in their presence, I finally found the courage to answer.

I know I am Jewish because the Jewish religion is still the most reliable source of ethical and moral values in the Western World.  Because Judaism compels us to reconfigure the loneliness of exile and Otherness into the struggle for truth and justice.  Because our identity gives us strength to do what is right and important for the sake of the rest of the world.  Because Judaism understands that words can wound, can maim, and can kill.  Because Judaism affirms that women have a role in this tradition, and that it was the righteousness of women that led to our liberation from Egypt.  Because Judaism is not governed by any hierarchy imposed by G-d and that we can all communicate directly with the Holy.  Because our G-d cares what people do and rewards and punishes people as an expression of divine care.  Because doing as we are commanded is the fire test of our strength.  Because the toughmindedness of the Jewish tradition provides us with a vehicle to confront the challenges of life, fueling our perennial quest for perfection.  Because we audaciously propel ourselves toward a future conceived with the tremendous faith it takes to believe in the possibility of a new Genesis.  Because we are G-d’s partners—equal, worthy, and competent—in building a just world, not because it is the nice thing to do but rather our G-d-given obligation to actively live and participate in the world around us.

D’varim: Shemot (2 of 5)

Tenth grade changed everything for me.  Not only had I matured to understand that holy ideas can be good, even if in practice they are misapplied by their human believers, but I was also shocked to learn that I wasn’t anti-religious.  I find it no strange coincidence that my introduction to social justice coincided with my true introduction to Judaism.  While I had read the American Girl series about the World War II era; Anne Frank’s diary; Number the Stars; and Make a Wish Molly! as a child, I was ignorant of Jews and Judaism beyond a basic understanding of what transpired during the Holocaust.

Tenth grade world history included the Second World War and naturally, the Shoah.  My social studies instructor brought Holocaust survivors through the Facing History and Ourselves program and the books Night and The Sunflower into my life.  My burgeoning adult intellect came to see Judaism as a powerful tool of resistance to the evils of the world.  Fighting for peace and existence is what defines us as Jews; it encourages us and ennobles us.  I learned this from Jacques, a Hidden Child from Brussels, who spoke at my school; the residents of the Warsaw ghetto, courageous enough to uprise; and the Bielski brothers, who were brave enough to fight.  In the midst of one of humanity’s greatest horrors, Jews fought to protect their responsibility to bring peace to the world.  It is one of the biggest demonstrations to me that we are a covenantal people, with a dogged and chronic permanence, and a unique ability to transmute pain and horror into life-affirming substance.  We suffered, we survived, and we built out of these ashes one of the most successful countries in the world.

The Holocaust remains one of the central points of Diaspora Jewish identity in the twenty-first century.  I grapple with my connection to this atrocity every time the topic comes up.  I remain uncomfortable claiming this history as mine, despite my impending conversion that would have been enough for the Third Reich to condemn me to the camps.  The Shoah is, for me, a matter of history, not personal memory.  I do not seek to distance myself from the possibility of a repeat experience in the course of history; I lodge my destiny with this people, and the destiny of my children and my children’s children.  I distance myself only because it feels emotionally dishonest to claim this as my own when my family did not fear for its life, flee its homes, or wear its identity on its sleeve.

Yet it was the lessons of the Holocaust that led me to my library to understand better who the Jews were and what Judaism was like.  I read book after book, and each resonated with me more and more.  I discovered that I wasn’t non-religious—I was just not a Christian like most of my family.  I was self-conscious like any other teen and hid this new facet of my identity from my family and friends.  While the clues were prominent enough to put together if they wanted, I never voiced to my family members that I would one day enter the mikvah.  I was only sixteen at the time—I was afraid they would reject me or accuse me of being in one of many adolescent phases, this one particularly hypocritical due to my previously vocal distaste for religion.

But I knew that my name would one day be included among the names of the people Israel, and nothing can extinguish that light of identity.  Ten years later, I will finally go before a beit din and make official my affinity, my membership, and my obligation to this people, my people.  It is not a common choice in this increasingly secular world: some seventy years after Hitler’s regime, the choice to abandon Judaism has no consequences in our modern American society.  But to claim this heritage as your own, with pride and confidence, regardless of consequences, is the litmus test of one’s faith.  Ani yehudi.  I find new ways and new reasons to say that each and every day.

D’varim: Bereshit (1 of 5)

Ye-hi ratson mil’fa-ne-cha Adonai elo-hei-nu vei-lo-hei avo-teinu sheh-toli-cheinu l’shalom v’ta-tzi-deinu l’shalom, v’tad-ri-cheinu l’shalom v’ta-gi-einu lim-choz chef-tseinu l’chayim ul-simcha ul-shalom V’ta-tsi-leinu mikaf kol oyeiv v’oreiv v’listim v’cha-yot ra-ot ba-derech u-mikol mi-nei fur-a-niyot ha mit-ragshot lavo la-olam.  V’tish-lach b’racha b’chol ma-asei ya-deinu v’tit-neinu l’chein ul-chesed ul-racha-mim be’ei-necha uv-einei chol ro-einu, v’tishma kol tacha-nu-neinu. Ki Eil sho-mei-a t’fi-lah v’ta-cha-nun a-tah. Ba-ruch a-tah Adonai sho-mei-a t’fi-lah.

It’s said that the souls of Jewish converts stood at Mount Sinai, present with all the Jewish people to receive the Torah.  These souls of the gerim were merely placed into non-Jewish bodies, with the end result being a slightly longer journey home.  To be honest, I don’t know if I was born with a Jewish soul or if I was raised with a Jewish soul by my thoroughly non-Jewish parents.  But reflecting on my childhood, my Jewish nature was always, clearly there.

The Jewish historically-baked obsession to understand and repair things came early to me.  My baby pictures capture my earliest facial expressions, revealing my attempt to understand what was going on around me; I make some of those faces even today.  Books captivated my attention from an early age and my parents were kind enough to indulge my curiosity with frequent trips to the library, museums, and bookstores.  My parents also embraced my chronic urge to question and to understand everything around me by guiding me into the harsh realities of the world with sound judgment and a moral compass swayed only by the magnets of justice and love.  Their active participation in our local community conveyed the importance of social involvement and sparked an interest in politics and public policy, subjects that intrigue me to this day.

So, while today I can see my Judaism fermenting from birth, I wasn’t aware of it then.  What I was keenly aware of, however, was the secular nature of my parents’ household, the Christian fervor of my grandparents and extended family, and the religious radicalism in my newspapers and evening news.  I grew up with a mile wide and inch deep knowledge of the approximately twenty religious traditions practiced in my school district and an outward respect for their adherents.

In reality, I carried a deep disdain for religious individuals.   Granted, my exposure to religion at the time was overwhelmingly the media coverage of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, at home and abroad.  Based on my secular upbringing and fueled by my adolescent rage, these people who read ancient texts literally and who controlled entire populations through manipulative socio-economic tactics contradicted my ultimate belief in the capacity of mankind to do good and be good; I thought to be a champion of progress and freedom and humanity, you had to be an enemy of religion.

Today, I suspect that part of that condescension was jealousy cloaked in the guise of disdain.  As much as I would have resented being told what and how to believe—particularly because I viewed many of the dictated beliefs in religions to be misogynistic and fundamentalist—I envied the framework religion provided to my peers: the outlined tenants removed the difficult ambiguity in determining our origins, morality, and life’s purpose, and they had a built in extended family that nourished friendships and provided support during times of hardship.  Despite my parents’ love and support, I was keenly aware of this social structure’s absence in my life.  The value I placed on community was not strong enough to overcome my internal struggle to balance freedom of belief and prescribed faith, however.

This internal contradiction is one reason Judaism appeals to me today.  With its emphasis on orthopraxis and restrained orthodoxy, I appreciate Judaism’s sense of moral order, one that pervades the universe and provides a sense of purpose through ritual and liturgy that organize the chaos.  I knew long ago that Judaism worked for me; I just had to determine if the feeling was mutual.

Yom HaShoah

We begin–with silence.
The silence of death:
the silence after destruction;
there are times when songs falter,
when darkness fills life,
when martyrdom becomes a constellation of faith
against the unrelieved black of space about us.
There are no words to reach beyond the edge of night,
no messenger to tell the full tale.
There is only silence.
The silence ofJob.
The silence of the fourteen million.
The silence of memory.
Let us remember them as we link our silences.