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Writings on Motherhood, Judaism, and Happily-Ever-Afters

conversion to JudaismCategory Archives

A Good Jew

I’m Jewish.  I formally converted almost five years ago, under a Conservative rabbi and before a Conservative Beit Din.  I studied for almost a year, and that was after close to seven years of independent study on my own.  I’m an active member of the synagogue, President of the Sisterhood, an accomplished chicken soup with matzoh balls maker, and I’ve got four loaves of challah rising at this very moment.  My eleven year old is carrying around books on how to make her bat mitzvah more spiritual and meaningful, my seven year old has his own yamulke that I crocheted for him, and my three year old has been reciting the blessings for Shabbat dinner for over a year now.

That being said… sometimes I’m pretty sure I’m not a good Jew.  Organized religion is still hard for me, and probably always will be.  I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the concept of the Jewish people as a “tribe” because that means that if I’m a member of this tribe, I’m not a member of a different one.  That my children are members of this tribe, and not the tribe that I grew up in.  Even putting aside the issues around intermarriage, and the need to define the kids as Jewish and only Jewish – I’m still… not really there.

There is so much about Judaism that I love.  The concept of humans created in God’s image, and thus having a little bit of the Divine within us, the foundation principal that my job, as a Jew, is to argue with God, to develop a deep and personal relationship.  The concepts of mitzvah – of rules in place to follow, honor your parents, visit the sick, help those in need.  Lovingkindness, keeping kosher, sanctification of everyday events – all of that, I’m completely on board with.   I celebrate all of the holidays, springtime has come to mean Passover for me, and I prefer Hanukkah to Christmas (but that’s a whole other endless series of blog posts…).

And yet… I still feel like I’m not sure I WANT to be a part of the club.  I’m not sure that I’m doing it with the right frame of mind, and I push back automatically.   I’m not good with the separation – the idea of Jews being different from Christians being different from Muslim being different from atheists.  The idea of a “people” separate from other “people” doesn’t make sense to me.  I don’t know if it just a side effect from growing up feeling so very disconnected from any organized religion, or if it’s a natural part of conversion – after all, I am the same person post-mikvah as I was before.  Julie is not fundamentally any different from Jessica, because she was born post-conversion, and thus Jewish from birth, instead of having to go to the mikvah as a five year old.

I was having this sort of existential crisis earlier, partly because I LIKE thinking about these things, and partly because I just finished reading the new book Burquas, Baseball and Apple Pie by Ranya Tabar Idliby.  She also wrote The Faith Club, about her relationship with a Christian mom and a Jewish mom.   And Marc reacted very differently to the book, or to my discussion of the book, than I did.  He had an immediate and visceral reaction, as a Jew, and I… didn’t.  I don’t think of her story as fundamentally any different from mine.  We’re both just moms.  The fact that she’s raising Muslims in post 9/11 United States makes her story challenging in ways that mine aren’t.  But I was able to read her story, find it compelling and interesting, and not instantly respond as  Jew.  Why is that?  Why do I react so differently?

So that set me on this whole soul searching debate – maybe I’m not a very good Jew.  But I do love Judaism, and when it’s just me, I think I’m really good at it.  It’s when I run into the Jewish community that I start to stumble.   It’s when I join the club – that’s when I start questioning.  Because, as Marc pointed out, playing Uno with one of my best friend’s husband is too difficult for me because he likes to follow the rules.  Absolutely and without question or flexibility.  I require flexibility.  “If the rules for Uno are too rigid for you, then, yeah, any kind of organized religion is a stretch.”

I don’t like doing ANYTHING because it’s “the rules,” and I instinctively try to opt out of any exclusive group.  Even when I’m actually pretty happy about everything the group does, and I even really like being in a leadership position within the group.  Because I love being the President of the Sisterhood, and thinking up new programs to get more people involved.  I want lots of involvement, and more and more people.  Because if I’m going to be in a club (or religion), I want to make it open and inviting and get more and more people involved.  Break down the barriers.  Make it a club that everyone can be a part of – all you have to do is want it.  That’s why I put such an emphasis on interfaith and welcoming Jew-by-choice members.   And that may be at odds with Judaism at times – but… they let me in.  A group of rabbis sat me down, questioned me thoroughly, and said okay.   So even if I don’t always feel like I’m the best Jew – even if I don’t always know for sure and for certain that I want to be better at it – this is club that I’m in.  It’s not always comfortable or easy – but it’s mine.

Mikvah

Yesterday afternoon, I formally converted to Judaism.

When I first met Marc, and immediately got pregnant :-), I was completely freaked out about the fact that he was Jewish. I didn’t know ANYONE who was Jewish and the thought of trying to balance out his traditions with mine was really scary. I knew that I wanted to raise her to have an awareness and understanding of her whole heritage, not just mine, and started reading all that I could about Judaism. We talked, incessently at times, about what being Jewish meant to Marc, what he hoped it would mean for his children, how I felt about raising her in a faith that wasn’t mine, what was best for her, for him, for me, and for us. And agonized and stressed out and worried and read. Read, and read, and read. I think at this point, I’ve read more books on Judaism than Marc’s entire extended family.

And the more I read, the more I started to realize that this was what I wanted. Not just for the kids, but also for me. This was an organized Church of Melissa – this summed up what I felt about the Divine, about my responsibility as a human being, about what I wanted for me, for my marriage, and for my kids. And once Jess got a little older, and started asking about God, it was easy to find the answers to give her in Judaism. It was easy to explain spirituality and make her a part of a community of people who all felt the same way. It was easy to show her a code of conduct, a way of living her life by showing her Judaism.

But… it’s still so hard for my family to understand. I have a complicated mix of pagans, witches, C & E Catholics (Christmas and Easter Catholics) and “I believe in God but not in organized religion” people in my family, but I don’t have anyone who actually belongs to a church, let alone a synagogue, and actually attends on a regular basis. Nobody who thinks that sending Jess to Hebrew School twice a week and attending services on Saturday is a good idea. Nobody who sits down with the their kids every single Friday night, has a big family dinner, blesses the children and makes a big production of it. And certainly nobody who voluntarily observes Shabbat, with no television, no computer, no driving if we can avoid it, and family time. They love me, they love my kids, but think I’m out of my mind.

I try to balance it out, make everyone know that I’m still me, I just light candles on Friday night, and really want to live my life this way. I really want to raise my children to feel a sense of obligation and gratitude for all that they’ve been blessed with. I want to hold them to a high standard of academic achievement, to encourage them to take nothing on faith, but to make up their own minds about everything. I love Judaism. I feel at peace with the decision. It’s like I found a whole group of people who want what I want, who believe what I believe, and I love that and value what it means for me and for my children. But I really struggle with wanting my family to understand that I couldn’t do any of this if I hadn’t been taught to make my own decisions, if I hadn’t learned these values from them. That going thru the mikvah doesn’t change anything about who I was, who I am, it just adds a layer onto to it.

On a side note – Sam’s watching Spongebob Squarepants. I never let my kids watch it, but it was on after Diego and I was doing dishes… and when I realized it was on and went to change it, he started crying. Feel like a bad mother because of it, but like the fact that I was able to type this whole thing in one fell swoop 🙂

No conflict here…

Shabbat dinner is the part of Judaism I can really get behind… it was my favorite part from the very beginning. And I’m thrilled to betsy about it today… I have my challah rising, plans for everyone to get a nice bath and have the house clean and pretty in preparation. I think this is such a lovely tradition and it’s so important to me, I think, because we didn’t really do it all that often when I was little. Or when my poor mother tried, Scott usually managed to stage some huge drama that ruined the whole thing.

Conversion

Converting to any religion should be a big deal, but it seems as though converting to Judaism is a bigger deal than most. And it’s something that occupies my thoughts more and more these days, struggling to honor who I am and what I want to raise my children with and reconciling that with my husband. I feel as though I’m putting a lot more effort into this than he is, and sometimes it’s so frustrating. Especially because it is such a lonely process, there’s nobody who understands or supports what I’m doing. Not really. My family loves me but their main concern is that I not go too far, not lose what I am in this. My husband loves me as well, but his concern is that I go far enough, that I make the sacrifices and do it well enough so that our kids grow up as Jewish as my stepchildren do. There is nobody who I can talk to that really understands where I’m coming from, who understands the conflicting loyalties I feel, to my family, to my husband, to the Jewish people, to myself.

The overall goal is to have a Jewish household, with Jewish kids. 100%, totally committed, Jewish kids. But is that fair? To me, to them? After all, I’m not Jewish yet, and even after converting, I’m still not ever going to have had a Jewish childhood, I can’t give them the traditional Jewish Bubbie. I give them my mother, and I think they’re better off because of that. But that flies in the face of what Judaism is supposed to be – never, never have intermarriage, you must be all Jewish, all the time. If I accept that precept, I have to acknowlege that my marriage is wrong, that my children should never have been born. Marc should have stuck with his own kind, and I would have been better off not stealing Jewish seed to make non-Jewish children. I’m exaggerating for effect a little bit, but that’s the way it feels sometimes.

But still – I am trying. Because I love so much about Judaism, because the values and traditions are a part of who they are, I want to give them that. I just worry that I’m getting lost in the process, that what I think, and what I believe, and what I want for them to understand about the world, about the Divine, about other people, is not getting thru. Or won’t get thru. If I do it this way, if I send Jessie to an Orthodox day school, if I teach her to respect a religion that sometimes can be very anti-woman, am I also teaching her that she’s less than her brother? How am I honoring her when I do that? How am I teaching her that her mind is as valuable and as important as his, when the religion places so much more value on the woman as the center of the home, the washer of dishes and the changer of diapers, the keeper of all things domestic?

I don’t want her to think it’s her only option, I don’t want her to believe there’s only one definition of femininity, or for that matter, for Sam to grow up thinking that only women who dress modestly and don’t speak unless they’re spoken to are worthy. I want her to be opinionated and stubborn and to speak out. I want her to be whatever she wants, if that’s a stay at home mom who bakes challah, great. But if it’s a driven business woman who hates to cook, that’s just as good for me. I don’t want her to have to fit into a preconceived notion of what a woman should be, any more than I want Sam to feel as though being a man means following one path, and one path only.

I want them to believe that their lives are filled with wonder and magic. That each of them have been gifted with brilliant minds and caring hearts, and they have the responsibility to use their gifts. I want them to be responsible and considerate, but also confident and able to make their own decisions. I want them to feel as much kinship with my family as they do with Marc’s. I want, I want, I want… I don’t know what I want. Mostly, I want to feel better about this process that I’m going thru.