if i were a jewish girl
Image credit <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/kodakviews/>Kodak Views</a>. No changes were made. <a href=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/>CC BY 2.0</a>
Sometimes when I tell people that I want to convert to Judaism, they are surprised – as well they should be. I have a habit of hiding things that are important to me or that I am proud of (for example, I waited until tech week to invite friends and family to see me as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof when I was in high school, and then wondered why no one was able to make it on such short notice). However, if you look into my religious background closely, you can see that the seeds of my neshema (Jewish soul) were planted early on. I began to experience discontent with the religion I was raised in as a teenager, as many young people do. I never wanted to be confirmed. When I was in high school, I knew that something was amiss with my Catholic upbringing. At the time, the most exposure I’d had to other faiths was through my older sister’s practice of Neo-Paganism and Wicca, so I figured that would work for me. I remember when I told my priest that I didn’t want to be confirmed because I didn’t think I was Catholic. Not having the heart to tell him I was interested in witchcraft, I told him I was thinking of attending Unitarian Universalist services. He was appalled – “You know they don’t accept Christ as their savior, right?” I didn’t care.
Fast forward a little over ten years later. I took the confirmation class at my Episcopal church because I wanted to learn more about the Episcopalian denomination and faith, not necessarily because I wanted to commit myself as Episcopalian. The closer we got to the date of the confirmation, the more I knew it wasn’t right for me. I had just wanted a learning experience. But I was encouraged to go through with it because I had put effort into attending the classes and participating in the course. I tried to throw out lifelines. I tried to let people know that I didn’t want to be an Episcopalian; I didn’t want to be a Christian. Well-meaning people offered advice. I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that the issue was that I don’t accept Christ as my savior. I believe in G-d, and I knew from exploring Neo-Paganism that the G-d I believe in is the Abrahamic one. Various aspects of Christianity, from the Trinity to the culture of church to the overall philosophy and belief system, didn’t feel right to me. I know that I am not just a spiritual person but a religious one; however, being Episcopalian – or even more broadly Christian – wasn’t the best fit.
True to form, I told few people that I was planning on seeking an Episcopalian confirmation and didn’t invite anyone but my sponsor to the ceremony. I thought a few months in advance that I might organize some sort of reception, but I never followed through. Part of the reason was that I let few people into my personal life and have difficulty sharing things. Part of the reason was because I knew deep down that I didn’t want to go through with it. I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that going to church was filler for me. I wanted to sing, and I wanted an excuse to put makeup and a pretty dress on once a week and get out of the house. I just wanted that social outlet until finally converting to Judaism was a possibility.
My journey toward desiring a conversion to Judaism began in my early twenties. I was binge watching Sex and the City, and the effort that Charlotte went through to convert to Judaism for her boyfriend/fiancé/husband was interesting. I started thinking about what it would be like to date someone who was Jewish and what it would be like to convert for their sake. Then I started thinking about what it would be like to be Jewish because it was something I wanted. For myself. I began to poke around. I had a friend who listed her Facebook religious leanings as Jewish, even though I knew she’d been raised Protestant. I asked her what it was like to convert. She said she wasn’t actually Jewish; she’d just stated that because she didn’t believe in Christ and she thought publically identifying as Jewish was the best way to get that point across. I knew that most faiths required some sort of public conversion process, and it didn’t sit well with me that this young woman called herself Jewish without doing any of the work. Jews accept sincere converts, but you do have to convert in order to call yourself Jewish. What I really wanted to get out of that conversation was tips on how to initiate the process – I was too nervous to start it on my own.
I remember my sister and father discussing Judaism in my pre-teen years. I overheard them saying that Judaism was closed off; they weren’t welcoming; they didn’t want converts. I told that to a young Conservative man I went to school with and he angrily told me I was wrong. I didn’t understand that conversation at the time. Now, in my early twenties and starting to look into the legalistic aspect of a conversion to a faith outside of the one I was raised in, I started to question the logic of my sister and my father. I started to understand the reaction of the young man I went to school with. Many gentiles assume that the Jewish faith doesn’t want converts because they don’t proselytize. Jews don’t believe that Judaism is the One, True Path ™. They believe there are other ways for non-Jews to connect to G-d, and that’s A-Okay by them. Because they don’t hand out pamphlets on the street or tell nonbelievers that their place in the afterlife is in hell, many goyim (non-Jews) believe that the Jewish faith doesn’t accept converts. That’s not the case – as I mentioned, the Jewish faith accepts sincere converts, and always has. Ruth, who converted and lived her life with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, is one of the most famous examples of this. Hebrew names, however, are probably the most profound example. A Hebrew name is the first name, taken from the Hebrew Bible (Tanach); after the Hebrew given name is traditionally the names of the Jewish parents of a child. For a convert, the parents listed are Abraham and Sarah – the first converts to the Jewish faith. Judaism was founded by converts. I took comfort in that as I sat at the Shabbos dinner at the Chabad house for the first time.
I was still working when I attended the Shabbat service and meal, and the Chabad center was one in Milford which was near where I was living with my parents at the time. The people were friendly, and the Rabbi and his wife just wanted to show other Jews the connection to a higher power that could be felt with keeping certain mitzvos. They wanted to show the other Jews the beauty they found in being observant. Baby steps were better than no steps. The second time I went to the Chabad center, I had looked a little more into the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and I was nervous and showed up long before sunset to talk about the service and Judaism itself. I thought I’d be turned away because I wasn’t dressed modestly enough. I left the dinner that night burning with even more questions and a desire to know more.
I took on the lofty goal of extensively studying Judaism before pursuing a conversion. I’d always been incredibly legalistic when it came to taking on contracts – when I was fourteen, I ended up in a hospital for a “suicide attempt” because I refused to sign a safety contract based on semantics. I had a habit of reading any contract thoroughly before signing it, which annoyed the adults in my life. I never wanted to commit to anything unless I was 100% sure I could follow through with said commitment. I never finished the Torah or the Talmud when I took them out from the library. What I didn’t realize at the time was that studying Judaism is a life-long process – I could never know everything about the faith before converting. Spending Shabbos studying the Tanach and the Talmud is a traditional practice for a reason – being Jewish is a learning experience that lasts a lifetime. I thought I could know everything, and I thought I had to know everything, in order to make a sincere conversion. I became overwhelmed with the amount of information there was to absorb. I recall going over the 613 mitzvos, checking off ones I thought I couldn’t complete. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the point of being Jewish is to try to follow the 613 mitzvos; actually following through is near impossible (at least until the Messiah arrives and the temple is rebuilt in Israel). Even Orthodox or religious Jews don’t follow all 613 mitzvos to a T. In striving to be the perfect Jew before I had even converted, I started to close a door to a wonderful opportunity. The nitzotz ha yehudi – the spark of Judiasm inside me – was there, but I didn’t know how to define it. I did not feel any rush to convert. The Talmud and Torah were big books; I was young; I was busy with work. I knew that I believed in G-d, and I thought I had time to pick a faith. I put off looking into a formal conversion to Judaism because I wasn’t sure it was right for me, although I would occasionally attend Shabbos dinners at the Chabad center.
Ever the perfectionist, I wanted to be positive that this was the best path, even if it meant denying the powerful and natural urge that drew me to Judaism in the first place. In the Kevin Smith film Dogma, one of the characters describes faith as a glass that gets bigger as you get older. When you’re young, the glass is easy to fill. When you’re an adult, the same amount of liquid doesn’t fill it anymore. You need a more intense connection with the divine. The large glass that had been near empty for so long felt as though it would overflow when I pictured myself as a Jew. But I wanted the water to come from Poland Springs and not the tap. I wanted everything about faith and the conversion process, which is often messy and complicated, to be flawless. What I neglected to realize was that whether or not the water was pristine and cost $5.00 didn’t matter – it was the fact that I had more than enough life-giving liquid to sustain me that was important. As long as the water didn’t come from Mexico, who cares if they had to add a bit of fluoride or chlorine to make it drinkable? A thirsty person, much like a starving soul, needs a full glass of potable water more than it needs a sip from the Fiji bottled water brand (and most bottled water is filtered tap water to begin with). Faith is not perfect – something that I didn’t yet know.
Working in retail, I didn’t often have the chance to enjoy a leisurely Friday night Shabbos dinner with the Jewish community at the Chabad center. So I got my Jewish fix in other ways. I started reading articles from the Jewish parenting website Kveller after an author cross-posted something there from Offbeat Families, the latter being a site I frequented. I immersed myself in Jewish culture. Jewish people were surprised that I knew as much about the Jewish faith as I did; they were impressed when I complimented a woman on her sheitel (a wig that a married Jewish woman wears) or wished someone a shanah tovah (a traditional New Year greeting) on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year and an important holiday). I had a few Jewish cousin-in-laws, and I would discuss converting to Judaism with them and their families at reunions and gatherings. My cousins’ families would suggest to me I go for a Reform conversion and told me it would be a good fit. I asked one of my cousins if I could celebrate Chanukah or Passover with her family. She smiled and said that would be fine. I told a young man I was dating at the time that I planned on converting to Judaism. I knew in my heart it was an eventuality at that point. But I still vacillated. I was afraid of making a commitment and not following through.
In the winter of 2011, I started experiencing what appeared to be symptoms of a repressed memory of childhood trauma. I spent Christmas and my birthday in a respite center that was right down the street from the Chabad house. I had spent the past three years waffling between waiting my desire to convert out and inquiring about the conversion process, and I was itching to get started with celebrating Jewish holidays. I didn’t know where to begin. I thought of asking to walk down for the Chanukah celebration the Chabad house put on. I was too afraid to ask. My stay in the respite center was the culmination of a downward spiral that had made me unable to work and caused me to become a recluse. I wanted to sing, to get out of the house. So I started going to the Catholic church I’d grown up in. I tried really hard to make it work. I tried to date only Catholic girls (despite what creepy old men who have schoolgirl fetishes will tell you, finding a Catholic lesbian to date is difficult). I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to convert. Rather than trying and failing, I went forward as though I’d already failed. If I didn’t try, that meant I didn’t have to worry about not doing it perfectly. If I couldn’t be the best Jew out there – or if I couldn’t convert at all – then damnit, I’d be the best at whatever else I was doing. Even if my heart wasn’t in it. There was barely a splash of water in my glass at the Catholic church, but I was so thirsty I didn’t care. Even though my heart wasn’t in it, I would go to church so I could put on makeup and a pretty dress and get out of the house.
A cycle started. Every Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year that occurs sometime in the fall), I would attend services at the Chabad center. I would take on some level of observance, but I wouldn’t attend the Shabbos dinners on Friday nights because I was dating a young woman who lived in Acton and weekends were the time we set aside to see one another. By the end of the secular year, my lack of involvement in any sort of community and my inability to attend services weighed heavily on my spirit, and I would quietly wait until the fall again where my neshema pulled me back to High Holy Days services. I’m not sure why I picked that particular time in my life to look into a conversion, especially when all the best sources say don’t date anyone during the conversion process (partly because most rabbis will look down upon an interfaith union; also, what if you dated a Jew and were thought to be converting for their sake – or what if you wanted to take on more observance than they did? Dating during a conversion often ended up as a hot mess, I was told). I think what drew me was that things started getting serious with this young woman from Acton, and I started thinking about the life I wanted with her and for our children. Religion is often a topic that comes up during conversations about the future. So, while I would talk the talk when it came to looking into a Jewish conversion, I was still terrified that because I was dating a non-Jew, it wouldn’t happen. I would go to church off and on because I wanted a social outlet; I wanted to get out of the house. The Catholic church I attended offered 5 PM services on Sundays for those who liked sleeping in, so I was able to see my girlfriend and still put on makeup and a nice dress and get out of the house. Every time I ran into someone who was Jewish, I would ask questions. People warned me that, in some people’s eyes, I would never be seen as Jewish unless I had a halachic conversion (an Orthodox conversion done to the letter of Jewish law). I looked into a halachic conversion, and found that, since I was engaged to a woman (and that woman wasn’t Jewish) I wouldn’t be able to pursue one. Initially, I was heartbroken. I thought back to my relatives telling me that I’d make a great Reform Jew. I found out that Orthodox, or halachic, conversions were only seen as important by those who wanted to seek Aliyah in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim controlled Jewish life. I remembered how I felt before Conservative Judaism began accepting gay marriage and gay converts; how I thought that it didn’t matter if I was a halachic Jew or not. I looked into conversion classes in Newton through Conservative auspices. I felt like I didn’t have the support of my family. I signed up for the class, got the fee waived because of my low income, and bought the books.
I knew I had a neshema, or a Jewish soul who had been present when the Torah was handed down from G-d to Moses. I knew I had felt the nitzotz ha yehudi, or that I felt the spark of Judaism. I knew that when someone wants to be Jewish, G-d listens. But as it turned out, the classes weren’t as easily accessed via public transportation as I thought. I ended up not taking the classes, and the fear that I would never become Jewish made me try to be the best Christian I could. At the very least, I needed a social outlet that worked with my schedule. And so I would go to church to get the chance to put on makeup and a pretty dress and get out of the house.
The girl I had been dating who lived in Acton – the one I didn’t attend Shabbos for – was now my fiancée. We were looking for a place to live together. Every time we picked a spot, I would look at the shuls in the area, making sure there was one within walking distance of where we’d be living. I thought that once we moved in together, I’d have the money to attend conversion classes. She worked in the city, so we had to live near the Commuter Rail, and the Conservative organization had changed offices. They were now accessible via public transportation. We moved in together. As we started to discuss our future family, religion would undoubtedly come up. I thought about creating new family traditions unique to us and the children we wanted. I thought about teaching my children about the faith I had chosen, while encouraging them to make the choice that was right for them – a chance I had never been given as a child, or as a teenager who never wanted to be confirmed. I knew that I had a neshema. I knew that I had felt the nitzotz ha yehudi. I knew that when someone wants to be Jewish, G-d listens. But we weren’t within walking distance of a shul. We didn’t have the money for me to go into Boston once or twice a week, late at night. I would go to church so I could put on makeup and a pretty dress and get out of the house.
A pattern emerged – a new cycle. I was no longer attending Rosh Hashanah services in the fall. Instead, I would stop going to church during the summer break, where there was only one service instead of two and the choir didn’t sing. I would bake challah (a traditional Jewish bread eaten on the Sabbath) on Fridays, and while not fully keeping Shabbat, I would try to be intentional and use electronics less frequently – sort of what’s called a “Reformative” (Reform/Conservative) observance. I tried to read more. I tried to watch less TV and not use my computer or smart phone. I tried to pay more attention to my fiancée. Rosh Hashanah would roll around, and I would become upset that yet another conversion class was beginning and I wasn’t involved. As a result, I would try so hard to be a good Christian because I was afraid I would never be able to convert to Judaism. I didn’t want to try to convert and fail. I didn’t want to talk to a rabbi and be told no. The heartbreak of that situation was more than I could bear. I would keep up my Christian practice until Lent, but every Easter, the idea of celebrating the divinity of Christ threw me off. The summer break loomed and because I couldn’t wrap my head Jesus being the messiah, I would stop attending church and perpetuate the cycle. The fall would come and the roller coaster of emotions began again. At that point, I even went so far as to tell people I wanted to look into pastoral counseling or ministry - I was immersing myself in Christianity to tried to ignore the nitzotz ha yehudi that turned from a spark to a flame. Because of this flame, this desire, at least once a month I have a dream that it turns out I’m halachically Jewish. It turns out that my grandmother’s mother, or her grandmother, was Jewish. All I have to do is take on observance; I don’t have to enter the mikveh after a year of study and approval from a beit din. I feel at home when I have this dream.
While I knew Christianity wasn’t a good fit, I had trouble verbalizing to others why Judaism was the right path for me, and not another non-Christian denomination or faith. I believe in G-d, but I don’t believe the Messiah has come yet. I believe in the 613 mitzvos and I believe in the Jewish culture; I believe I can find a Jewish community to belong to, even though I’d be a convert. It’s a sin to remind a converted Jew of their status. I’d never even have to tell most people I converted, unless I wanted to. Outside of Israel or certain ultra-Orthodox circles, not being halachically Jewish was something I really didn’t have to disclose or worry about. I believe in the Jewish holidays; I believe in the Jewish philosophy. I believed that, if I had to live my life out as a Noahide – because all people are commanded to follow the seven Noahide laws; only Jews are required to observe the 613 mitzvos – that would be OK, because on some level G-d would have known I’d want to be Jewish and it would level out in the next life. I believe in an extended metaphor that an Orthodox Jewish woman had illustrated online: the afterlife is a concert. Those who are close to G-d love the music. Those who love G-d but who didn’t live their life out in a G-dly way would think the music was mediocre – not their favorite band, but they could handle listening to it for all eternity. Those who were distant from G-d – the rapists, the murderers, the people who did terrible things – they would react to the concert the same way I would if I had to listen to Justin Beiber for all eternity; meaning, they would hate it. I believed that, even if I never had a chance to convert to Judaism while I was alive, G-d would look at my neshema and welcome me as a Jew and I would have front-row seats to the best eternal concert I could imagine.
I took heart in the story of another convert I’d read about on Kveller. She said it had taken her fifteen years, but she was finally hoping to finalize her conversion process by Rosh Hashanah that year. Most Jewish converts who operate under their own volition wait longer than is necessary. I’m not alone in having taken seven years to formally pursue a conversion process. I’m not alone in trying to make sure that the faith I was raised in really wasn’t the right one. Jewish converts tend to over-think things. But I know that when someone wants to be Jewish, G-d listens. I know that I have a neshema. I feel the call of the nitzotz ha yehudi.
When someone has a neshema, they don’t need to go somewhere outside of their belief system to have an excuse to put on makeup and a pretty dress and get out of the house. I no longer feel the need to go to church so I can do those things. Instead, I feel the need to go to shul, where I can celebrate the beauty of Judiasm and put on a pretty tichel and feel connected to G-d. What I do feel the need to do is return home, to the faith I was meant to be a part of. When someone has a neshema, they don’t have to douse the burn of the nitzotz ha yehudi while they’re patiently waiting for their dip in the mikveh, the only body of water that wouldn’t douse that Jewish spark. They know – I know – that whether as a Noahide or a Reform Jew, they will follow G-d in the best way they know how.
When someone wants to be Jewish, G-d listens.