Monday, March 5, 2012

Ask Chaviva Anything!: Conversion, Divorce, and Observance

It's been quite some time since I did an installment of Ask Chaviva Anything! so I thought I would take a bit of time and hammer one out. These questions all came from the same person back in November, so I hope they're still reading and will be pleased that I'm FINALLY answering their questions! If you have questions for me, feel free to ask away.

Some of these will be heavy. Are you ready?

I'm curious to hear your self-observations on your religious practice (1) Before you were married,  (2) while engaged, (3) while married, and (4) while divorced. Did you find yourself more strict in certain areas at different phases, less strict?
This is a most excellent question. How to answer? I can say without flinching that my religious practice before I was married was much more "full" if that makes sense. My observance was about me, and me alone. When I got engaged, I was able to begin looking at other observances that I was to be taking on come marriage time. While married, I began to feel a little lost. Living in Teaneck, NJ, my religious practice became more rote because it was easy to be Jewish. You didn't have to think about practice or observance; everyone just did the same things, ate at the same places, went to the same synagogue. I think that while I was married I regressed a lot in the sincerity of my observance. Now that I'm divorced, I'm in a place of reexamining my religious practice. As a result, you might say I'm "less strict" than I was while married or even engaged, but I think that is probably a natural progression for many when divorce comes. Either that, or you throw yourself into strict observance to fill the void. But right now, I'm in a comfortable place.
Could you walk us through the thought process you had when choosing to leave the NY/NJ area as a new single with hopes of remarrying?
Well, for starters, I didn't have hopes of remarrying, and to be honest I still don't. Leaving NY/NJ was a simple choice. I needed to be someplace where I could clear my head and start fresh on a life that was all my own. This wasn't the first time I've done this. I picked up and moved to Chicago once on a whim, and did sort of the same thing when I quit Chicago and headed for Connecticut. I'm a move-on, start-over kind of person. It's just how I function.

That first month after the religious divorce -- the get -- I was in a head-spinning place of "Meet someone super religious right now and get married to them right now." Luckily, I got out of that headspace. My ex-husband went that route, whereas I went a different route. I reevaluated my family background, my religious headspace, my wants and needs, and at the current juncture, I have no desire to get married or have kids. There are a lot of reasons for this that I haven't discussed on the blog (shocking, I know), but it's a decision with which I've definitely made peace.
What systems of support do you wish existed for the potential convert, convert engaged with a beis din, and the convert post facto (a Jew)?
The essential system of support should simply be whatever community the convert -- at any stage -- lives in. There shouldn't be a need for some kind of special community or foundation to support the convert, but that's an unfortunate reality and it is why there are organizations devoted to assisting converts in Israel. So I run my Conversion Conversation Group on Facebook for individuals at all stages of the process, and I've found that just having a safe space away from the eyes of rabbis and the prying community has helped so many feel comfortable.
If you could pick one time period of Jewish history in which you could witness (i.e., live through it) what historical period/events would it be?
Without a doubt the Middle Ages. It was such a tumultuous and inspiring time to be a Jew, I think. I would have loved to meet Ovadiah ha'Ger, Maimonides, and the like. There was so much movement between Europe and North Africa, and I think that experiencing Egypt during this time would be quite beautiful. On the same note, I would have loved to float around Europe at this time!
What mitzvos do you feel most connected to? The least?
Without a doubt, I feel deeply connected to prayer -- simple things like the Shema and Modah Ani. They keep me on a cycle of waking and sleeping, living and dying. I also feel deeply committed to kashrut, the true roots of kashrut and what it means to understand food and consumption. On that note, I'm also connected very much to tzniut, in all of its forms, but especially in speech. As for those I'm least connected to, that's a good question. I suppose taharat ha'mishpacha (family purity), largely because the span of my marriage that I observed it, it was a dismal experience. Mikvah in that realm, too, held little comfort for me. That being said, when I observed mikvah for conversion, it was an incredibly powerful experience.

Also: I think that living in -- or at least regularly experiencing -- Israel is a huge mitzvah. That's probably the one I feel most connected to overall!
How connected to your "old life" do you feel?  Meaning how has your mentality changed since becoming more observant/converting in terms of world view, politics, priorities?
The truth is, I don't think that I've changed much, outside of feeling more worldly and interested in how the world functions and how it understands religion, peoplehood, race, ethnicity, and identity. Converting to Judaism and becoming more observant has taught me that our (the Jews) greatest enemy is ourselves. I find it constantly troubling how Jews are willing to join forces to fight outsiders but insist on continuing to judge and break down one another. (A great example: Reform Jews recently spoke out in support of Beren Academy when they were told that their basketball game couldn't be rescheduled. How is that relationship the rest of the year?)

I think, if anything, that I've simply come to be who I always was: curious and searching, believing with a sound mind and full heart that there is one G-d and that our actions in this life are what matter the most. Those are values and a mentality that I have held since I was a child, and those are the things that led my neshama to really thrust itself into the spotlight and led me to realize my Jewish self.