by Pat Alder (New Paltz, NY)
What a long, strange trip this has been for me.
I suppose you don’t know many Jews born in a Catholic hospital, do you? Allow me to explain. I converted to Judaism in 2003 at age 47, but I had been a “practicing” Jew for thirty-three years prior to that day. Do the math.
I can trace the beginning–the first time that I felt the pintele Yid–to when I was a kid exploring my neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, on an old bicycle with hard rubber wheels. (At least I never worried about a flat tire.)
OneI heard an intriguing sound coming from a small house with a kelly green fence surrounding the small parcel of land.
Transfixed, I stood alongside the fence, listening, delighted, and, like a tuning fork, my being resonated with the singing that floated out of the windows toward me.
After a while men in black hats and suits poured out of the little house talking and wishing each other something that sounded close to ” Goott Shabbis.”
When I told my parents, who were good Catholics, they thought it was time that I learned about my own religion and sent me towhere I proceeded to be the gadfly in Sister Mary Linus’ class.
“Okay, if Jesus could convert wine to water, why could He not have prevented His death? He didn’t know what was coming?”
I was six years old.
Once I was whacked with a ruler for forgetting some aspect of dogma, and I grabbed the ruler–my fiery Irish Latin temper ablaze–and smacked the sister back.
My parents were called in to speak to the Mother Superior, and, shortly afterward, my full-time religious school training was over, except forclasses for Catholics attending public school.
My friends in public school were few, but mainly Jewish. I asked questions, many questions, of them, and–wow!–they answered me.
The more I read, inquired and observed, the more I felt the pintele Yid inside me and saw myself as Jewish.
I’ve heard it said that people who feel Jewish–but who are not born Jewish–possess a Jewish soul.
I wasn’t Catholic. But was I Jewish?
All I knew then was that the most basic tenets of Judaism made more sense to me than the whole of Catholicism.
Fast forward twenty-three years to my first marriage to a Reform Jew.
I began the conversion process and took the classes. But the day we were married, we moved from New York to Vermont where my new husband had a new job at a radio station.
Although he was supportive of my goal, our marriage fell apart after four years. Despite this setback, I continued on my quest to become Jewish.
Twenty years later I found myself back in the Hudson Valley area of New York. I knew no one and was too busy at work to make friends. In desperation one night I prayed: “If you know of one person…one good person here. . . let me know.”
Unbeknownst to me, a good person was nearby. His name was Chuck, and he was my managing supervisor at work. We were on chatting terms. He knew I was Jewish, but only I knew that I was Jewish in spirit. It was the Yom Kippur services.. He told me of a temple he attended and invited me to come along to
Yom Kippur morning. It had been sixteen years since I was last inside a synagogue, and I was nervous. Chuck spotted me and waved me over to join him. At first the prayers were unfamiliar, and Chuck was giving me a play by play of the service itself. I hummed where I needed to, bowed where I needed to, and generally followed my friend.
Soon after the holidays, I began to attend shul regularly. I got to know the rabbi and many of the families. After one service I went over to the rabbi and asked if there were conversion classes and told him of the incomplete one I had started and now wanted to finish.
He was delighted to hear I wanted to do this and told me the classes were, which was fine at first, but then I began a new job and continued studying as a “distance learner,” calling, e-mailing, and meeting with the rabbi so he could monitor my progress and answer my many questions.
Some of my questions were answered, and some were “chok,” which means “There is no conclusive answer, but one accepts it on faith.”
Now that was an answer I could live with, even if it didn’t answer the question directly.
I studied for a year, observing all the holidays, learning Hebrew.
Hebrew. That was the most difficult part. But I had a very patient teacher in Naomi. Eventually, I could read the letters and slowly make out the words. My proudest moment was driving back from Monroe and being able to read a sign written in Hebrew. “Hey! I know those letters!!”
But what did it say? I didn’t know. I think that’s how Hebrew is taught. Learn the words first, we’ll get to what they mean later on. G-d knows what you are saying. (This approach reminds me of the story about a man who prays by repeating all the letters again and again without forming any words: “I give G-d the letters,” he says, “and G-d will know what I am saying.”)
A year. The holidays flew by, month by month. I said Kaddish for my father, lit the Shabbat candles, observed Havdalah, fasted and feasted. I loved every minute.
It was time. If I was going to complete the process, it was now. I asked the rabbi if it was really time. We talked in his office, and he thought I was ready to go in front of the Bet Din. But was I truly ready?
Nervous? I was panic stricken, despite all the ribbing I got from the rabbi and others.
On the scheduled day, I walked into the rabbi’s office at the stroke of noon and saw, in addition to the rabbi, the cantor and Howard, another person who I knew fairly well. I thought the Bet Din was made up of three rabbis. These were folks I knew!
“You mean…y’all are it?” was my first question.
“Yes.. we… all… are” was Howard’s reply.
I answered many questions, primarily regarding my Shabbat observances and my belief in Jesus. (I didn’t really have a belief. I said that he was a nice person, but no son of G-d.) I left thinking: “I don’t know… I hope that was okay.” I felt drained, tired, although I had spent less than an hour answering their questions.
The Bob Hope. After the service, the rabbi grabbed my arm, and, in my surprise, I shot him an annoyed look. He knew in that instant, I needed to know their decision.services later that night went well. Most of the congregation liked the Purimshpiel where I told jokes a la
“Did I make it?” I asked.
“Yes, yes you did” the rabbi replied.
Wellllll, not exactly…yet.
“We now need to schedule you for the mikvah,” the rabbi told me, smiling.
A week later, towel in hand, I went into the Orthodox shul where the mikvah was located. A lovely bubbeleh, Claire, took me in hand and showed me around.
My being sans attire in front of her? Well, that was a different story altogether. “Look, it’s not like she hasn’t seen other naked women before you,” I told myself in an effort to calm my jittery nerves.
The mikvah smelled of humidity and pine cleaner and was quite warm. Claire took my towel, and I gradually immersed myself into the warm, slightly fizzy water.
The three men who formed the Bet Din stood on the other side of the door, yelling. ” Okay! Now dip three times into the water.”
Claire was there to make sure I dipped myself completely and, indeed, performed the mitzvah.
But I’m a rather overweight woman, and, for those science buffs reading this, a quick fact: Fat floats. I couldn’t immerse under the water for the life of me. Like a champagne cork, I bobbed to the surface.
Finally, I felt my body go below the water’s surface. Then twice more…and, finally, the blessing, which the rabbi said in Hebrew and I repeated after him.
The words, when translated into English, mean, “Blessed are You, King of the world, Who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.”
Once the immersion was completed, I was asked to say the “,” and I said the first line loudly, proudly, and with thirty-three years of suddenly freed passion. Then I repeated the rest of the prayer after the rabbi.
As soon as I finished saying the words, I heard the three witnesses singing “Mazel tov and siman tov” and clapping along with the melody. Claire was singing and clapping as well.
Then it was over, and I was official, even though the paperwork had to be filed, and I still needed to choose a name.
I was Jewish…really, really Jewish.
“Welcome to the tribe!” is the greeting I get once I tell other Jews of my conversion.
And I must say I don’t think I could have fallen–or should I say “dipped”–into a better tribe of people.
Pat Alder, a comedienne, writer, and occasional background actress, has appeared at Stand Up New York, the Improv in Los Angeles, the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, and at many other clubs and Jewish Community Centers nationwide.
The author/performer of the one woman show, Man! What a Life! and a contributor to the online comedy magazine Shtick!, she was the last person seen on NBC’s short lived comedy series Cold Feet (1999) and refuses to accept blame for its cancellation.
Pat performs comedy in NYC when she can, continues to work as an actress, and writes every day, usually in her time sheet at her day job.