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Feb 27

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.

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