Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Circumcised Heart

You know how people have second thoughts about marriage the night before their wedding?

I’m having second thoughts about converting. And I haven’t really felt unsure since I first started considering conversion.

It all started when I lost my keys today. I had the key chain, but my ID had fallen somewhere. I was on a tight schedule and would be late if I didn’t find them soon. I peered into the trash, retraced my steps, and checked all my bags and pockets, until I finally emptied out my purse and there it was, slipped into the middle of my planner.

A prayer flashed across my mind before I could stop myself.

“Thank you, Saint Anthony.”

I tried to cover up my thought with a quick Baruch Hashem, but it was too late. No matter how much I chose to ignore it, I had just muttered the Catholic prayer that my mother always taught us to say whenever we find something. St. Anthony is the patron saint of all lost things, so you pray to him when you want to find a missing item and then you thank him when you find it.

The idea that a small part of me still clung to Catholicism really made me question myself. Am I still Catholic, deep down inside? Is there a Catholic woman under all this Jewish stuff? Or a Jewish woman buried beneath a lifetime of Catholic tradition?

Little by little, I’ve felt Catholicism fade from my life. Sometimes, it really hurts to let go. I know I’ve shared all the wonders about conversion with you as I revel in new Jewish experiences, but there are also a lot of dark moments and self-doubt. Sometimes, it feels like a part of my soul is dying. And death, for us overly attached, immortal-loving humans, is painful.

I first felt this loss years ago during Mass at Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the most important holiday. I was by myself in a brand new, unfamiliar parish. I had fallen in love with Judaism, but I was still torn as to where I really belonged. Halfway through Mass, Catholics recite a prayer called the Our Father, and they all join hands. As I clung to hands of complete strangers, I felt incredibly disconnected both physically and spiritually from the chain that linked our hands and souls. I realized for the first time that I no longer believed and I no longer belonged. I almost started crying right there for the loss of that interconnected feeling and for the ostracization from something bigger and more beautiful than myself. I realized that my very self had changed and I no longer identified with everyone around me.

I experienced similar feelings the day after Christmas this year. I participated in some of the same traditions- spending the day with family, exchanging gifts, enjoying a festive meal, and watching Christmas movies- but at the end of the day, I failed to connect to the true meaning of the celebration. It was like I was role playing someone else’s life and could not truly celebrate with joy and gladness this foreign holiday that no longer contained any special reverence for me. And I mourned for the loss of self, that part of a little girl’s heart who sang that Jesus Christ is Lord loud and clear in church and truly meant it. That part of me was gone.

I know this sounds dismal. But if we are honest with ourselves, conversion is painful. Look back to the first converts, Abraham and Isaac. G-d asked that Abraham undergo circumcision at the age of 99. NINETY-NINE, people. That was not a painless proess. He could hardly walk afterwards. While men who convert today also can undergo hatafat dam brit, a symbolic drawing of a drop of blood, women do not have any physical ritual to undergo.

However, all converts must circumcise their hearts. They cut away a part of themselves with which they no longer identity, whether they come from a religious or agnostic or mixed background. G-d removes a part of the heart so that can choose us as his own. And it hurts. It is painful at times, especially as the process is happening.

At this point, my prayer to St. Anthony is nothing more than a habit, like someone who curses or someone who always leaves his keys in a specific place so as not to lose them. It’s okay to still be a little Catholic underneath. You shouldn’t cling to your old ways, but you can still feel the need to genuflect when entering a Catholic church or have a little hand spasm when 6 people around you cross themselves after a prayer. Old habits die hard. Especially the ones sewn into your heart.

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A Sister Of A Different Kind

This weekend, I visited a Catholic order in Ohio called The Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Because my sister wants to be a nun.

She is visiting this order for two weeks to see if she wants to join, and the family decided we were all going to go with her and check it out.

At first, I didn’t want to go. I’ve been tiptoeing around Catholicism (and consequently, my family) since I stopped identifying as Catholic over a year ago. After my parents’ negative reaction to my announcement about wanting to convert, I lived with a fear that all Catholics would not only ridicule my decision but heartlessly lash out. I’ve happily learned that the reactions are as varied as the people themselves. Many of my Catholic friends do not only show surprise when I tell them, but respect and intrigue for taking my faith so seriously.

But nuns, I thought. That’s a different story.

The order is new and very small, consisting of only 6 people total. They devote their lives to contemplative prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and community service. If you want to learn more details, their website does a better job explaining their purpose than my fumbling words can.

I knew my family was planning to participate in Mass with the other members of the order once we got there. I no longer go to church with my family and can not receive communion since I am not living according to the rules of the Catholic church. I figured that these faith-filled adults would view my abstinence from communion (which they believe to literally be the blood and body of Christ) as the most offensive affront.

The night before we left, I explained to my sister that I wanted to see the place where she might live the rest of her life, but I wouldn’t be fully participating in Mass. She told me I didn’t even have to be in attendance I could take a walk around the lake while everyone else prayed.

I wondered, wouldn’t it be odd for her to introduce me as her sister and then walk away?

Not at all, she assured me. They already know you’re Jewish.

Questions tumbled out of my mouth and tripped over each as they each tried to dominate my attention. When did you tell them what did they say won’t they hate me now?

She reassured me that all the members of the order have family who have left the Catholic faith, so they won’t think any less of me. In fact, they’ll appreciate my attempt to grasp and experience a way of life that isn’t my own. In some sort of weird show of gratitude, I began to explain how I felt about Catholicism and how I didn’t want to offend anyone.

She interrupts me, saying, “Jenn, I know. You don’t hate Catholicism, you just love Judaism.”

On the surface, it would seem like my sister and I have very little in common. There are certainly times when it is hard for me to fully grasp her love and devotion to Jesus. Most days though, we understand each other perfectly. She is one of my closest friends, and she not only accepts my decision to embrace Judaism but understands the why behind my choice. Both of us are choosing paths that are little understood by our families and nearly unheard of in society.

When my uncle asked me “Won’t it be weird having Jeanne become a sister?” I joked that she’s been my sister for the past 18 years. Though said half in jest, I meant it in both the religious kind and blood relation. After meeting the nuns, I can see how well she fits into their world, their prayerful lifestyle and demeanor coming naturally to her. No matter how I feel about her faith or what  I believe, I think she is making the right choice for herself. We both accept each other’s paths and we have the same goal: to grow in our passions and do good for this world.

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