Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The convert and the Jew.

Well, there's been a lull for me. My weekend was unexpectedly jam-packed with fun-having and merrymaking. I mean, I agreed to all the things I participated and one thing I subsequently canceled, but I didn't realize how busy it would make me. There were two nights of drunken revelry with friends from Yelp.com; a morning/afternoon spent in West Rogers Park with a friend, who is Orthodox, and her family; a lunch date with three other Yelpers, followed by a play with those same three Yelpers. I ended up ditching out on a dinner with some Jews at The Bagel, though. By Sunday night, I was just beat. Beat in the best sense of the word, but even still. So I did laundry and bought groceries and should have gone to bed early, but I didn't. I'm now kicking myself, so this will be my great effort of the evening, followed by me tumbling into bed and passing out. So a few thoughts.

My morning/afternoon in West Rogers Park was really a great experience, even though we didn't make it to shul. I mean, I could have gone with the friend's husband, but I felt like I might be more comfortable at home with my friend and her kids. In truth, my first Orthodox shul experience -- I hope -- will be with a friend who happens to be of the same sex as me. So I played the new version of the LIFE board game (and it's sooo complicated with bells and whistles now) with the older kids. We had lunch -- which was delish -- and generally enjoyed one another's company. Then another couple came over with their three youngins and we sat around and chatted. It was a completely relaxed day. I'm not going to lie -- it thrilled me on my way home to see men in black hats walking around the neighborhood.

On a different note, Schvach sent me a few interesting quips over on AskMoses.com, and I thought I would share this one, because I find it profoundly poignant. In reply to the question "If a convert is meant to be born Jewish, then why wasn't he born Jewish?"

A convert who was born to a non-Jewish mother but wishes to convert to Judaism has a difficult challenge that must be overcome. It is one thing to choose to return to one’s roots, even if that decision is contrary to how one was raised, but to essentially choose to become part of a people, culture, religion and heritage that is foreign to the one you were born into, is a test and privilege that is rare.

G-d provides each and every individual with unique circumstances and tests that the person must undergo in order to reveal who he/she truly is and what he/she is capable of.


The Talmud actually refers to the convert as "the convert who converted" rather than "the gentile who converted" or "the person who converted". This implies that even before converting the prospective convert's soul is innately connected to the concept of conversion and Judaism, and that gives him/her the strength to go through with a conversion.

What is essential is having both the faith within ourselves to pursue what we know to be truth, and when we need help, to trust that even if we can't make it through on our own, G-d has the ability to carry us through. And as we all know, the harder the challenge, the greater the reward. When we endure and ultimately break through our restrictions to become who we are meant to be, we have a resolve, determination and strength that we never could have achieved had it not been for the challenge that was set before us.

I really love, and feel that that first part truly defines who I am as a convert. I'm not a goy who converted, I'm a convert who converted. It's such a beautiful idea, nu? And then there is this bit on when a convert attains his/her Jewish soul. Now, I am the biggest kabbalah ignoramus there is, and for some reason I've just failed to get into kabbalah -- academically or personally. Now, when I say this, you have to understand that I in no way judge kabbalah or kabbalists and I quote many of them quite frequently and the ideologies and espoused ideas are truly fascinating and meaningful to me -- I simply do not have a working knowledge of kabbalah that would make me anything of a novice, let alone expert.

According to Kabbalah, a convert is one who's soul possesses a latent Jewish spark, was born to a non-Jewish mother, and therefore must undergo the process of a Torah conversion in order for the Jewish spark to be actualized as a Jewish soul. This “non-Jew” is born with a potentially Jewish soul, yet it is not revealed at this point or accessible.

This means that this person is not Jewish, but has the ability to become a Jew through a proper conversion process. Once this person chooses to undergo a conversion, and accepts to live according to the dictates of the Torah, it is then that the soul is revealed and accessible, and from this point on, the “Jew” is revealed.

This is also why, interestingly enough, the date that the convert immerses in the Mikvah, the ritual bath, is the moment that the Jewish soul is revealed within the body. This process of emerging from the water is compared to a birth process, in which the baby bursts forth from the water-filled environment in which he was contained. The baby existed beforehand, but reaches completion and attains independence at birth. So, too, the convert contained a Jewish spark beforehand -- a spark which blossoms and matures upon conversion.

Isn't that beautiful? I dipped in the mikvah twice (new rabbi, I was his first convert, and there was some confusion!), but I remember the feeling of the mikvah the first time. The stillness, the quiet, the overwhelming sense of peace.

So those are the thoughts for now. I think they're beautiful, really. I was telling my friend this weekend that as a convert, it's incredibly difficult because you are told that once you convert, it is as if you had always been Jewish and that necessarily you needn't tell anyone that you were once "not Jewish." However, AS a convert, it almost feels like your duty to "represent," to serve as a sort of, example, for those who want to convert but perhaps feel overwhelmed or lost. It's why I'm proud to be a part of Jewsbychoice.org and to write about what it means to be a convert, yet it makes sense to me when a friend says, "As a Jew you may find following the pursuit of Judaism as a Jew to bear greater reward than to pursue Judaism as an initiate," I feel that, completely and wholly. It's a tug and a pull, two directions, two different takes on being one who has sought and found who she was meant to be. I think the conversation is a lifelong one, though. One that likely will never be satisfied, perhaps.

I'm hoping this week sort of eases by, as I have a really good, old friend hitting Chicago up on a layover and I couldn't be more stoked to see him!! SUPER STOKED, in fact. I'll be going to Sushi Shabbat this week at the Reform shul I haven't been to in, well, months. I'm sure I'll get some interesting looks, but the only reason I'm going is because it's the only time I see certain people. The crappy thing about it is that it's just a bunch of 20/30-something Jews prowling. Ugh.

I'm also hoping to have something pretty substantial to write about this week -- as I'm nearing the end of the Conservative Movement in Judaism text. I also picked up a Solomon Schechter book, which has the article "Catholic Israel" in it. I've heard mixed opinions about it, but we'll see what I have to say upon its completion.

So be well, friends and G-d willing, I'll have something substantial for you in a few days!