Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Welcome Home

I’ve been staying at my parents’ house for a little over three weeks. But today was the first time in a long time that I truly came home.

Let me bring you up to speed on my family.

My family is a very religious Catholic family of 7 (two parents, five kids including me). And it all stems from my mom, who is the powerhouse of the home. Church every Sunday, confession on Saturday, a crucifix in every room, grace before meals, rosaries in the evening, church every morning at 7:30AM in the summer (it didn’t even feel like a chore by the time I reached high school- I WANTED to get up at 7 and go), Christian music in the car and on the radio, fish on Fridays (even when it’s not Lent), and all of us kids have been altar servers, lectors, cantors, the like in church.

In my family, it’s always been 1. God, 2. Family, 3. School, and then 4. Everything else. I’ve been pulled out of class and dress rehearsals for church obligations in the past. All of my parents’ decisions are based on the Catholic church’s interpretation of Christianity. Even though I decided Catholicism is not something I could truly live whole-heartedly, this upbringing coupled with my loving parents gave me the solid foundation I needed to grow into the moral, respectful, observant woman I am today. I have no qualms with my parents or my childhood.

The last time I was here was the week of Passover/Easter because it was my school’s spring break. Despite my awkwardness with eating a completely different diet than my family and dipping out to go to seders at friends’ houses, I found my mother was extremely accommodating of my religious decisions. I was touched by every little gesture that my family made to accommodate my foreign Jewish lifestyle.

Apparently, spending Passover with my Catholic family was the best thing I could have done.

Today, my mom said that having me home for Passover gave her the opportunity to try and help me live according to my new lifestyle, such as when the two of us went out to buy matzah together. She really wants to help me live my new life, but she feels like she can’t ever really support me in my religion the way she can for my siblings because she doesn’t know anything about Judaism.

To hear my mother say that she wants to support me and my new identity made my heart swell. I’ve been waiting to hear these words for a really long time. I honestly thought I would never get her approval. I knew that my Jewish lifestyle felt like a rejection of everything my parents had ever taught me, and I preferred Shalom Bayit- peace in the home- to fights over my life choices.

For a while, I’ve been living Jewishly, regardless of whether I’m at school or with my family. This Jewish identity is one that I’ve adopted as my own and one that I am proud of.  Now I feel like my mom has come to a point where she has adopted a Jewish daughter as her own. It’s more than I was ever expecting, and for the first time, I feel like I can be comfortable in my own skin at my house.

Though my family will not be joining me at the mikveh this Thursday, it’s nice to know that I have their acceptance waiting for me when I return home. After thanking my mom for everything she’s done so far, I assured her that there’s much more I want to learn as well and we could do it together. I can see her in my future as a Jew- it’s easier for me to now picture my parents at my wedding, my children’s Jewish life rituals, and holiday celebrations. While it won’t be easy, it’s wonderful to know that we’ll be together for the important stuff, and that’s all that matters.

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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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Dear Mom and Dad

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I sat surrounded by family this Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but ask: Why have a family? Other than the biological impulse to reproduce, it’s an expression of love, fulfillment, and a way to carry on one’s legacy. Every human being is someday going to die, so we need those who will continue to embody our own core values after we are gone. In that way, we live on through our ideals. Descendants are one way to make sure that the goodness we attempted to plant in the world grows and flourishes.

Someday, I hope to continue your legacy so that your love will never die. You have taught me well and impressed on me your most important values, which now guide my life as an adult. Love G-d and seek always to do his will. Offer praise through a life of gratitude. Respect all life for it is sacred. Honor those who are older and wiser. Show goodness and charity and kindness to all that you meet. Make a place for art and beauty in your life. Maybe you never said these things to me, but they were loud and clear in your actions.

Without your love and upbringing, I never would have found myself in Judaism. I know that when you first became parents, you had hoped also to pass down your Catholicism, for it not only embodies your values, but shapes who you are as faith-filled adults. I respect that greatly, and I also hope to pass on my religion to my children and allow it to guide their lives.

The way in which I wish to live my life- a prayerful, impactful, meaningful life full of kindness- calls me to a Jewish life, just as Jeanne is called to be a nun. I have decided to convert to Judaism. The decision I make is not rash, but well-thought out and shaped by the experiences I have had. Judaism allows me to not only live as you taught but to live as I am. I am the woman who chants in Hebrew every Friday night to welcome the day of rest. I am the woman who shares in the rich cultural and historical tradition of a resilient people. I am the woman who stays up late debating the ethics and morality of modern-day issues and conflict in Israel. I am the woman who braids challah, bakes hamantaschen, spreads lox over bagels, and sips matzo ball soup. I am the woman who believes in a G-d who invites me to follow his commandments. I am the woman whose soul dwells here but also in heaven each night as I sleep, whose heart belongs with the Jewish people, and whose mind accepts their teachings. I am the woman who has been shaped by your love and will in turn shape the world lovingly.

I promise to continue your legacy. I can not change my values any more than I can change my blue eyes or my love of potatoes. I can mask both those things behind colored contacts and a starch-free diet, but it’s still me underneath. Likewise, I can not change who I have become. I have found myself and a way to live ethically and lovingly. Your values guided me along, and the love for G-d you instilled in me helped me to search for G-d in everything that I did. I am more than happy to have found him, and I know as the years go on, I will not only turn to my values but to both of you as I struggle to make a career, raise a family, and do good for this world.

I understand this letter is bold and a lot to grasp. Please do not think that I am hiding behind words. You know I am much more articulate in my writing than in my speaking, and I am always open for future discussion. Above all, I love you and appreciate everything that you have done for me. Thank you.

Love Your Daughter,

Jenn

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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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Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes, I feel like I don’t belong anywhere.

I’m not sure if it’s my religious situation, my age, or just a feeling that everyone experiences at some point.

However, my straddling both the Catholic and Jewish world at times makes it hard to fit in, and my small town only helps to illustrate the tension. (I’ve always hesitated to call it my hometown- where is home, what does it look like? I’m still trying to find it.)

The ladies from church remember me as a cantor, altar server, Sunday school aide, or all of the above. They accost me at parades and in the store with seemingly harmless smalltalk. What are you studying in school? What do you want to do with your degree? Simple questions meant to be engaging disarm me and signal for a retreat further behind the convenient mask of silence. Coming from a large family who is very active in their church, it’s impossible to go anywhere without being recognized as “oh, you’re the __adjective__ family from St. Jo’s.”

Catholicism is unavoidable when I’m at home. A crucifix in every room, grace before every meal (sometimes a meal consisting of pork sausages), only Christian music in the car. I wrote a draft of this post with a pencil stamped “Diocese of Harrisburg.” I tend to feel like an outsider both in my town and  within the house.

So, you would think I feel at home in the small but tight-knit Jewish community here. However, having grown up in a rural, predominantly Christian town, all of the Jews have known each other since preschool. When I first started to go to the temple here, people either assumed I was 1. not Jewish or 2. not from around here. Once I had been introduced as “David’s girlfriend” by his family, the title and the associations with it stuck.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel like I can never shake the stigmatism that comes with being a shiksa once people know that I am not Jewish. Or rather, I will never be Jewish in their minds, no matter what I believe or feel. Picnics, social gatherings, and other events tend to stress me out because I don’t know anyone and no one bothers with introductions other than “this is David’s girlfriend, Ellie.” How can I ever become anything else if that’s all most people bother to learn? It’s hard to establish yourself where people already have an idea of who they think you are.

Here’s what I do. I blend with the family- head bowed during prayers, properly amused by both retelling of homilies, and familiar with the song lyrics of both hymns and Superchick songs. I go to Jewish services and try to pray without feeling overly self-conscious (which rarely happens) and attend the social events with a smile and a name tag that says “hi, I’m David’s girlfriend and I’m not from here.” There’s a chance it could get better with time. And there’s a chance that I need to get out of here.

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One Heart, Two Worlds

Last Wednesday, our social justice discussion was about the ten plagues in the Passover story. Should we have shown compassion to the Egyptians? If they came knocking on our doors that had been painted with blood, would we have let them in, knowing they would die? I feel that if we stood by idly and watched the Egyptians suffer, we’d be just as bad as the thousands of “innocent” Egyptians who stood by and watched their fathers, brothers, and friends enslave an entire race.

Micah, our discussion leader, remarked that compassion for both sides is what made Moshe such a good leader. He was raised by Egyptians and alongside Ramses, but he also had a duty to the Jewish people. He was “of both worlds,” as Micah put it.

I am also of both worlds. I’m aware that this coming week is both Passover and Holy Week, even though I will only be celebrating one holiday. I enjoy the pictures of my sisters’ gorgeous Pysanky Easter eggs, even though my own egg is not among them. I can remember the sweet taste of chocolate bunnies, even though the sweeter taste of freedom is what fills my mouth now.

Similarly, I play viola (the alto voice of the orchestra) and sing soprano one in choir. So, I can appreciate the (sometimes dull) harmonies and pick them out in a concert while also tracing the melody line. I am of both musical worlds, the string and vocal, and of the two voice parts.

I may not live in two worlds, but both have shaped me into the woman I am today. Like Moshe, I was raised one way but now live differently. My upbringing may not define me, but it gives me an extra lens from which to see the world. I have a window into one tradition, a home in another, and a loving heart for the people in both. Hopefully, my compassion for both sides can help me approach this holiday season and every situation with openness, love, and understanding.

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Static on the Jewdar

“I had my bat mitzvah in Israel.”

These words shimmy across the office and tug on my ears. I swear, I wasn’t even listening to the conversation happening in a different room until this sentence came and introduced itself to me. “Listen, interesting stuff over here”, it says.

I feel like I’ve developed some kind of Jewdar (my friends use this term when describing the innate sense they have that allows them to tell right away whether someone is Jewish or not or being able to find the nearest Jew in the room). Anytime someone mentions something Jewish, I tune in.

So, I wander over to my co-worker’s office and invite myself into the conversation between him and my friend. She retells her story about birthright, her bat mitzvah, and how she truly discovered herself when she visited her homeland.

Even though she is the one with the interesting stories, she begins to tell Scott how intriguing I am.  My friend only found out a couple days ago that I was not yet “officially” Jewish, I just “do Jew” I suppose you could say. She jokes that I’m more Jewish than she, though I protest. Everyone’s different. I tell Steve about my upcoming Intro to Judaism class in the fall.

While fascinated, he is slightly skeptical. He asks me, “But what if you’re wrong? What if being Catholic was right and now you make the wrong decision and you have to live with that?”

Trust me, I’ve thought about this question a lot. When I first started exploring the beliefs of Judaism and asking myself how it compared to my Christian upbringing, I was terrified. I thought I would get sent to Hell just for even considering that Jesus was not divine. Later, after I had reconciled my own beliefs, I began to question how my family, who is so loving and good, could believe in something that I believed to be falsehood. Why would my sister, who wants to be a nun, devote her life to worshipping a man like a god? How could I accept the divinity of Christ as a child and then lose it in adulthood? Was I a stupid child or a wayward adult?

I told Scott that everyone is right. Or even better, there is no right and wrong, only different ways of expressing interpretations and opinions. If you believe in something and your beliefs help you to become a better person and add goodness to the world, more power to you. If it works for you, then you should do it.

For me, I could live what I was told was “right” my whole childhood. But that would not be true to myself, and THAT is what makes Catholicism wrong for me. Judaism is what connects to me on a deeper, spiritual level and it is the community in which I have made my home. As a child, I believed what I was told, and so it held truth. Now that I do not believe any more, the gospel speaks no truth for me. It is not right for me, and I would be living a lie to say otherwise.

Scott had enough of an open-mind to appreciate my answer, for which I am grateful. I know my reasoning is not popular  in many Christian circles. But that’s okay. I’ll try to stay out of trouble, unless my Jewdar tells me otherwise.

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