Thursday, December 23, 2010

Be Prepared to Review the Conversion Manual

December 25, 2007. I was living in Chicago, at a point of frustration with my Judaism. Unsatisfied with the Reform synagogue I was attending, I stopped attending. On December 25, 2007, I was in flux. I volunteered at the Spertus Jewish Museum for their family day because, well, what else do Jews do on Christmas? I was excited. I was eager. I was stoked to spend Christmas Day -- a day of alienation in the U.S. -- with gobs and gobs of other Jews, appreciating Jewish history and art. And then? Well, I'll let you read for yourself. I think that this day, and this post, was a huge turning point for me in my Jewish journey. If you've never been put in a situation like this, then you likely don't know how intense and soul-crushing the words of a single little old Jewish man can be. Even as strong and confident as I am in my Judaism today, this story continues to hurt. This, folks, is the reality of being a convert.

Warning: It's long, but I promise you, it's worth it. And if you do read it? You'll be touching my soul in a way you cannot possibly understand. 

Please read all instructions carefully. 

I read all the books. I made sure to read and reread all of the chapters and digressions into the plight of not converting Super-Mega-Ultra-Orthodox. I checked the little box that said "You realize that a lot of Jews won't think you're Jewish, right?" I joked with my Reform rabbi and my Reform friends and even made sure to read all of my mom's nonchalant e-mails about how "You know, you'll never REALLY be Jewish, right? Just look at what's his face, you know, Sammy Davis Jr.!" But a lot of the time, it doesn't matter. About, oh, I'd say, maybe 36 percent I guess. But then there's wanting to marry the perfect Jewish mate (did he have to go through this? or was he lucky enough to be born into?), or have kids, or go to Israel, or interact with other, well, Jews. And most of the time, I don't really think about who thinks I am or am not a Jew. It's irrelevant, because I know that I am a Jew. Yes, I went through the process, I dipped, I was presented, I had the bet din, I did the whole shibang. But I did it Reform, and to a lot of Jews, that isn't good enough. It isn't enough because those three Reform rabbis aren't *really* rabbis and the ceremony wasn't *really* halakhic, and my process definitely wasn't *really* halakhic.

And then this guy today had me back to that square one point, where all Jews by Choice end up at least every now and again, when something happens or someone says something. That point where you think, "If I was meant to be a Jew, then why the heck wasn't I born that way?" It's not a statement of denial of the present person, but rather a struggle to figure out why it's so much easier for everyone else, why the trials and tribulations for me? And as I write this, I recognize that it's quintessentially Jewish to run into these hurdles, these questions, these insecurities -- but for these things to be brought on by another Jew? Albeit, a Jew who thinks ("knows") he or she is a *real* Jew?

Listen. I volunteered today at the local Jewish museum. It's Christmas, and for Jews that means we need something to do that doesn't remind us that, ya, the rest of the world is ignoring their credit card debt while opening shiny new toys and noshing on ham. So I volunteered to hang out for three hours and make sure little kids didn't shmear their chocolaty fingers all over the new exhibit on the top floor of the brand spanking new building. The day was going along absolutely perfectly. I was so stoked to see Orthodox and Reform and the random passersby join together for some Kosher baked goodies and a giant inflatable caterpillar. It was this Jewish utopia where all Jews are created equal. I even ran into a coworker who is as excited about Judaic studies as I am (she's the Orthodox gal I work with). I was on top of the world, I was hanging out in the upper echelon of Jew excitement and happiness, and it seemed like it was only getting better when this stout elderly man in a newsboy cap started talking to me.

His name was Wolf. He was carrying a bag of something and had his pants pulled up in that old man way where they sit far above the waistline, which disappeared years ago. His little cap made him look like an overgrown child and when he asked me where all the food was, I thought, this is someone's grandfather! someone's father! and here he is asking me where to get a nosh. I explained that the treats had been gone long ago, swept up by hungry munchkins. I then told him he could go down to the cafe for some food if he was interested. We walked for a little bit and he struck up a conversation with me, poking fun as to why I hadn't managed to save him a brownie. After nearly two hours of silence and wandering around, I was excited to be talking to this little old Jewish man.

Then came the questions.

Is the cafe kosher? he asked. Yes, I answered. Do you keep kosher? he asked. I grinned, knowing where it was going. I made a motion with my hand to sort of say "so so" and said, To some extent, yes. He responded with, You're a good Jewish girl, no? You should keep kosher! I laughed a little and explained that I was working toward it, feeling almost guilty that I didn't, in fact, keep fully kosher. Old people have this way of making you feel guilty, and this guy, without even trying, was laying it on thick. What's your name? he asked. Amanda, I replied. What's your last name? he asked. I hesitated. This is that point where that whole "What's in a name?" thing comes out. Um ... Edwards, I replied. The look on his face made me anxious and nervous, so I blurted out, Not very Jewish, eh? He got a very stern look on his face. You are Jewish, yes? he asked. I quickly responded, (realizing that if I was volunteering there on Christmas I had to be Jewish, right?) Oh yes, of course I'm Jewish. He cocked his head a little, still looking fairly serious, children were buzzing around us, strollers and people muddling about the lower gallery. So what are you then? he asked. A convert? I got excited suddenly, with this jolt of convert pride flew up out of me, forcing me to respond, Yes, I am a convert ... by my own accord, too. He then started asking me why I converted and what led me to where I was and I gave him the brief version of how I ended up where I did. I explained Nebraska wasn't filled with Jews and that I'd spent about three years on the process.

So what are your parents? he asked. Christians? Jews? What? I never know how to answer that question, because they're more or less agnostic, I guess, but they believe in Jesus, so they're sort of Christians, but completely non-practicing. I explained this to him and he said, So are you sure they're not Jews? Are they definitely Christians? I didn't get what he was implying, though now that I think about it perhaps he wanted to know if there was any Jewish lineage in my past. I responded, Nope, they're Christians all right. I'm the only Jew -- so far as I know -- in my family tree.

Just then a lady he knew walked by, and I felt absolutely relieved. He went back into jovial-old-man mode and started showing pictures from his recent trip to Israel. He had pictures of him playing the violin for the rebbe (or at least this is what he said, I'm not sure about the status of the rebbe, so I could have been misunderstanding) in Israel. He was so proud of the pictures, and kept saying, Now those! Those are some serious Jews! Eventually the woman walked away and the old man named Wolf picked back up his questioning. This is when the situation got truly uncomfortable, and at the end, I was left feeling emotionally drained and as if I'd let down the world. As if I wasn't good enough. As if I'd failed on my mission to become who I was meant to be (Lech L'kha). So you converted? he said again. Yes, I replied, in April 2006. How did you convert? he asked. I stopped, dead in my tracks. It's times like this that I wish I could create lies on the spot, but I've never been good at that. I can't make up fake telephone numbers or random facts or anything. I'm just no good at lying, but I regret the truth so much because of how it made me feel, because of how it turned this nice little old man into the ultimate naysayer about who I really am. Well, I said with a slight tone of disappointment, I converted through the Reform movement.

He just stared at me. With these piercing eyes, like all of a sudden I was a stranger, I wasn't worth joking with and I wasn't really his kin, his anything. I laughed uncomfortably.

But, I said, you know, I have considered going through more serious (yes, I said serious, because I knew that was the right word for this man) conversion. I think about getting married or having kids, I said, and I wouldn't want them to be ... (I trailed off.). Then he finally spoke up. You know, he said, do you want to marry yourself a nice Jewish boy? I replied, Of course, of course. Then, he said, you know you're going to have to convert Orthodox, it's the only way, really. At this point I just listened. He started talking in this flurry of urgency that when I think about it almost sounds more like he was saying "You idiot, what were you thinking!? You have to be more serious! You have to go the whole nine yards! What a waste of time and flesh!"

But then came the real kicker.

You know, he said, I don't want to sound like I'm judging you, because I'm not, but you know, and I'm being serious here, that you're not really Jewish, right? You're not really Jewish Jewish. I felt like I was going to vomit. It was those words "You're not really Jewish Jewish" that echoed in my head from the point he walked away until just now. And those words will continue to echo from this point forward. Before, I'd read those words, from my mother and friends and people who didn't really believe what I was doing. But I'd just read them. On paper or the erasable tablet of the Internet. No one had ever said them to my face in a way that was so cutting, so vile, so personal ... and even now, as I write this, those words and this story -- what should have been a pleasant story -- brings me to tears.

Our conversation deteriorated after that. He repeated the "I'm not judging you" line, and continuously encouraged me again and again to convert Orthodox. He wanted me to understand the "reality" of it. He then started talking about wanting to hit up Lake Geneva and then wished me a good day and walked away. I was absolutely devastated. From that point on, I started noticing things. All the men with their yarmulkes and the Orthodox women with their caps and long skirts and the tzitzit and sidelocks and the quintessential "Jewish" nose. I went to the bathroom to escape it. I suddenly felt like I was on the outside looking in. I was outside the window, looking through the glass at this world that I so want to belong to, that at my very core I know I am a part of, yet at that moment I was so far away from it. I looked into the mirror, and thought to myself, At least you were born with hair as dark as night and skin as white as the snow. At least you look Eastern European, Amanda. At least you have something going for you.

I get that being Jewish isn't about looks or about perceptions. And 98 percent of the time I really get it. But this time, just this time, I stopped feeling Jewish and started feeling like someone who is trying so hard to be something that she wasn't born as. I looked at the kids and the teenagers and was reminded that I'll never go to Hebrew school or have the traditional bat mitzvah. I will never grow up learning the aleph-bet or see my little brother be circumcised in the tradition of our people that has survived thousands of years. I will never. And every time these thoughts crept back in, I reminded myself that when they came for the Jews, they didn't come for the Orthodox, they came for ALL Jews -- secular, converted, religious. They came for them all. And I hate that this is what it comes to, sometimes, when I'm reminded that I am not Jewish enough for the rest of the world.

I'm struggling right now to feel positive about where I am, and it's because of an old man named Wolf who just wanted a nosh, but the words from this old-school Jew who plays the violin and keeps kosher was enough to really tip me over and spin me around. I don't think my reaction to a similar conversation with a Jew my own age would have incited such panic and stress and emotion in me, but when an elderly Jew who has managed to retain the tradition his entirely life calls me out and questions my Jewish authority, I just feel the need to feel accepted. Maybe it's because I never connected with my own grandparents, or maybe it's because I admire the Jews of generations past who had to grow up with such different lifestyles than me, when assimilation and acculturation were so pressured upon new Jews in America. Now, I know I can't know where this Wolf comes from or how long he's lived here, but I do know that when he was a kid his family used to go to Lake Geneva. He had the slight hint of an accent, so maybe his parents were from the old country or maybe even he was born in the old country. Either way, I'm projecting this imagine of the traditional Jew who, despite all odds, managed to hold on to his tradition, his culture, his people-hood. And what am I to this old man?

A nothing. Schmutz. Someone who is trying, but hasn't tried hard enough, and who isn't Jewish Jewish. If you get my drift.

I'm not sure where to go from here. I have this mental image of what I want my life to be like, how observant I want to be, how observant I want my future husband to be, how I want to raise my children to be proud and involved in their Jewishness. And I know -- at this point I am completely conscious of this -- that my present state just isn't going to make those things happen. And then here comes Wolf, reminding me that I'm definitely not able to make those things happen, being Reform and all.

Listen. I'm happy with who I am, believe you me. I'm happy with my conversion, and it was right for me when it happened. I was my newly ordained rabbi's first convert, and for him and me that's something memorable. My conversion had a goof in it and caused me to dip in the mikvah twice. My rabbi took me for sushi afterwards and we talked about how I should enter the rabbinate (his idea, not mine). My conversion, the night of, that is, was the night of the final banquet for my college newspaper, and a few of my friends skipped the formal part to come watch my conversion ceremony at the temple. I then went to the party and got drunk, on what else, Manischewitz. The thing is, my conversion has a story, and there was a lot leading up to it that is emblazoned on my brain, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world. In 2006 when I converted, I truly became Chaviva bat Avraham v'Sarah.

But times like these, times like these I wonder if I shouldn't go further. If that Orthodox kid who I met at Starbucks in D.C. in summer 2006 -- ho said "So why are you Reform again?" when I explained my status, my beliefs, my observance -- had a point. I think, if anything, his point was more significant and dare I say it, thoughtful, than old man Wolf's thoughts on my situation. At any rate, if I convert more "seriously," it won't be because of Wolf or the Orthodox kid. It will be on my own terms, in my own time, and in my own efforts. And that will never change.

I just wish Wolf, and his posse of holier-than-thou Jews, would let me be, would let my mind be at ease, would allow me to be who I am, Jewish as I am. I get that I'm not Jewish enough for a lot of you, but I'm Jewish enough for me. I checked the little box, remember?