I will never forget the conversation I had with a rabbi soon after I made the decision to convert to Judaism. I served him and his wife breakfast in the restaurant where I then worked. Don’t ask me how we got onto the topic of my conversion, but he had an incredible impact on me. I don’t usually have such a meaningful, memorable conversation before 8 a.m. Perhaps that’s why his words have been so lasting.
He told me Judaism is fortunate to have someone like me, who is enthusiastic and fascinated about committing to become a Jew. Flippantly, I asked him if Judaism is lucky because it is gaining a Jew in me or because it isn’t losing one in my Jewish partner. He chuckled and took a sip of his decaffeinated non-fat latte, as I held my breath, afraid that I had offended him.
Unfortunately I never received an answer. Eighteen months later, I’m still pondering his comment and many larger questions: Does Judaism even want me? Will I ever truly identify as Jewish?
When I told my Jewish partner that I would convert, I could not have imagined how overwhelmed I would later feel. I did not take the decision lightly, but I never thought it would make me feel so confused. Since we began dating six years ago, I have endeavored to learn more about Richard’s religious and ethnic identification. Learning about a Jewish home, celebrating Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and the like, are satisfying my lifelong curiosity about Judaism and my historical familial connection (my paternal great-great-grandmother was a Polish Jew.) There is no question that my imminent marriage to Richard prompted my conversion. While I realize Jewish law has always discouraged conversion for the sake of marriage, I believe my sincere conversion can actually serve to enrich the Jewish community and family that immediately surround us, and even perhaps others beyond our community.
I was not raised with any religious teachings. My mother is a Catholic who refused to bring my sister and me up in the same strict religious environment in which she was raised; my father is a non-practicing Protestant. If anything, I thought it would be easy to convert since I had no religion to abandon.
And it’s not as though I made a hasty decision. Although Richard rarely ever went to shul, synagogue, and had seldom discussed religion with me, he raised the possibility that I would convert. It took me a few months to feel confident that my partner was not simply satisfying his parents’ desire that he marry a Jewish woman. I needed to know that my proposed conversion would be for him and us; not any outside forces. Once I felt sure of this, however, I quickly grew excited about welcoming religion and spirituality into my life. If it was important to Richard, it was important to me.
The largest hurdle the conversion has erected is accepting the fact that many Jews will not recognize my Reform conversion. Despite the fact that we will raise our children in the Jewish faith, Israel won’t accept my children. I can now read Hebrew, have read most of the Five Books of Moses, innumerable Judaica books, and the checklist goes on. Many of our Jewish friends are impressed that I know more about their history and religion than they do.
But being Jewish is not simply about reading and studying; it’s about feeling Jewish and experiencing life Jewishly. My Reconstructionist rabbi, in his New Age way, tells me I must “own” my Judaism to truly feel a part of it. Will I “feel” it before my approaching mikveh, or ritual bath, that is part of the conversion ceremony? What do I have to do to “own” my Judaism? I wish I knew.
In the few months since my initial meeting with our rabbi, I’ve been in tears during the Shabbat candle lighting and prayers, and again during several meetings with our wonderfully understanding rabbi at Or Shalom synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Fortunately, I have enrolled in an immersion and conversion class with some people who identify as Jews, some who identify as non-Jews — and some who feel they are halfway in between, like me.
As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, a Jewish man divulged that he had wept bittersweet tears during his first prayers many years after he had renounced God and religion. His experience gives me great hope and relief because it affirms that I’m not alone in this sense of being overwhelmed. Although I never overtly renounced God, I felt–because of the omission of religion in my life–that I had no right to a personal relationship with God.
I don’t know exactly why I cry (and I write that in the present because it is ongoing), but I know these aren’t tears of sadness. I’m confident that I will soon have a better understanding of where they originate. I’ve mentioned that my paternal great-great-grandmother was Jewish. Could my tears be through her? Any journey home is an emotional one.
I’ve read that in the Bible, when the Israelites were given the Torah, their response was: “We shall do and we shall hear.” In other words, they promised to act first, and to hear or understand second. To leap before looking. I feel that’s what I’m doing. I still don’t have the answer to the questions I asked the rabbi nearly two years ago, but perhaps I don’t need a response. The answer to most of my questions and initial doubts are within me. Eventually they will surface. For now, I’ll just continue leaping.