Tag Archives: choosing Judaism

A Tribute to My Father, Merkler Andras (6 Jan 1933 – 30 April 2015)

By David Merkler (Barcelona, Spain)

When I was 14 years old, I wrote my O-level English language project entitled: “My father’s experiences during the war.” At that time, I was extremely unsure about what had happened. I knew my grandfather and uncle had died in the war, but little else. I sat down in my father’s study, asked him some questions, and he told me a few sketchy details. Either he didn’t want to remember or simply had drawn a veil over everything. Either way I can remember the opening lines of my project: “My father was born in Budapest on the 6th January 1933 and twenty-four days later Hitler came to power (on the 30th January 1933).” Call it bad timing. Born Jewish at the wrong time in the wrong place.

The suffering of Hungarian Jewry was the longest and, in some ways, the cruelest of all of European Jewry. Hungary beat even Nazi Germany in passing the first anti-Semitic law in 20th century Europe in 1920. The Numerus Clausus limited the number of university places available to Hungarian Jewish students. In the 1930s neo-Nazi politicians in countries allied to Nazi Germany, including Hungary and Rumania, passed anti-Semitic legislation mirroring what had been passed in Germany limiting their individual rights to work, circulate, own property etc. More significantly, they collaborated with the Nazis, deporting Jews to lands controlled directly by the Germans where they were exterminated and their armies participated in the massacre of Jews. In their madness these countries sent poorly equipped troops to fight alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviets who killed and imprisoned them in massive numbers. Exploiting their weakness to encircle the German troops besieging Stalingrad in 1942, the Soviets broke out of Stalingrad, inflicted the first defeat on the Nazis, and initiated the beginning of the end of the murderous Nazi machine.

My father’s parents, Valeria and Istvan, were working in Germany in the early 1930’s. Valeria, like anybody who had any sense, knew that things were only going to get worse. They returned to Hungary, and Valeria did what any normal person would do—she had her children baptized, converted to Catholicism, and sent to Catholic boarding schools. The war started. The war raged on. And until 19th March 1944 most of Hungary’s Jews—more than 600,000—were still alive.

Finally, as Hungary tried to change sides in 1944 knowing that the Nazis were going to be defeated, a contingent of the German Army and SS led by Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary, took control, established their headquarters in Budapest’s largest synagogue, installed an even more extreme neo-Nazi anti-Semitic government, and initiated the deportation of Hungary’s provincial Jewry, mostly to Auschwitz. The deportation of the capital’s Jewish population began but was not completed.

My father’s childhood memories in that last year were, amongst others, of peeking through a hole in a wall to watch a film where Jews were not allowed to go, of the guilt he felt later at stealing bread from a woman at night in the ghetto, and the shame he felt when boys who he had gone to school with saw him wearing the Star of David, which marked him out as a pariah. He would suffer starving conditions (many died of hunger and thirst in the ghetto), tuberculosis, and would finally be liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945 after the city had been besieged and bombarded for weeks. His father, Istvan, and brother, Peter, were deported and later murdered in the last few weeks of the war. We know that Istvan’s remains lie in a mass grave in Brück-an-der-Leite. We don’t know where Peter fell or was murdered. He was marched to a sub-camp of Mauthausen called Gunskirchen He has no grave. My grandmother Valeria told me he had been liberated by the Americans at Gunskirchen, but was too weak to survive. My father said we simply don’t know. He retraced the route of the final march with a Hungarian Jewish survivor. I think my grandmother wanted to believe that her son had tasted freedom, if only briefly, at the age of 15 before his murderous end. Valeria’s sister, Elsa, was amongst the first to be deported from Budapest. We know nothing of her fate. My father always believed she had been deported to Ravensbruck.

At the end of the war my father was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother, Valeria, who had made her way to England in 1938, enlisted in the American army where she worked translating correspondence from German to English to help the Americans capture Nazi war criminals. (I hope her work contributed to the capture of some.) She was based in Germany and travelled to Hungary (which was under the control of the Soviets), found András, and bribed Soviet border guards with American cigarettes so she could take him out of Hungary, first to Germany and later England. So now you see why my father wanted to be buried with his mother in England, where we laid him to rest a month ago.

We are only here as Jews because of those who came before us and made the decision to be Jews, sometimes against all odds. That was my father’s case. He decided to be Jewish against all the odds, to venerate those who were murdered, and pay respect to past generations who had lived peacefully as non-religious Jews.

The day of death is the marker of who we actually became. My father chose to be Jewish. He chose to bring up a Jewish family. And he chose to remember and venerate the past when he wrote his book on the history of his family. His last words to me were “G-d bless.” When I saw him on his deathbed, I told him that he should go to heaven and say hello to Istvan, Valeria, and Peter, and not worry. The Merklers and our Jewish identity would continue here on Earth. I asked him to squeeze my hand if he understood. He squeezed my hand.

I make the same decision as my father to be Jewish and venerate those past generations.

David Merkler was born and grew up in London, England  and now lives in Gelida, outside Barcelona, Spain. You can reach him at davidmerkler@languagesbarcelona.com

If you’d like to learn more about David’s father, you can read ”My Father Is Dying” (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/my-father-is-dying/) which he shared on The Jewish Writing Project in 2011.

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Filed under European Jewry, Family history, Hungarian Jewry, Jewish identity

Navigating Between Two Worlds

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

When my friends and I entered our synagogue for Shabbat services or for Hebrew school during the week, we were required to cover our heads. A pile of yarmulkes was kept in a large wooden bin standing by the door to the sanctuary.

Back then we didn’t call them kippot but yarmulkes, a Yiddish word meaning skullcap, which linked us more closely to our roots in Eastern Europe than to the new seeds that had been planted in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s and were beginning to sprout in America in the 1970s. Yarmulkes were made of soft velvet or scratchy nylon. They sat perched, rumpled and creased, on top of my head and on the heads of my friends as we bent over our Hebrew primers or sat bored out of our skulls waiting for junior congregation services to conclude. Yarmulkes looked like small rags or tiny handkerchiefs that my grandfather might have taken out of one of his dresser drawers. Kippot, on the other hand, were usually small, round, knitted or crocheted head-coverings that fit snugly to the back of one’s head, often held there by two or three bobby pins.  Young, modern Orthodox Jews wore kippot, while mostly older men wore yarmulkes. We weren’t modern Orthodox Jews, so my father and my brother wore yarmulkes, and I wore one, too, no matter how silly I thought it made me look.

The only other time during the week that I wore a yarmulke was on Friday night. We gathered in our dining room around a table set with fine china plates and crystal glasses. Mom lit the candles to welcome Shabbat, and Dad raised his wine goblet to recite the blessing over the wine. Standing at the head of the table, his prayer book open in one hand, a silver Kiddush cup filled with wine in the other, his reading glasses balanced at the end of his nose, Dad would read the Hebrew words with the slightest of accents, a holdover of the Eastern European-accented Hebrew that he’d learned as a boy. I’d watch his body tilt slightly forward, as if in the shape of a question mark, and noticed his hand tremble slightly. My eyes were fixed on the Kiddush cup. I watched to see if he’d accidentally spill any wine onto the white tablecloth.

On those Friday nights, the yarmulke on top of my head felt odd. It made me feel like an alien. How could a flimsy piece of cloth perched precariously on the back of my head make me a better Jew? Besides, it was distracting. How could I concentrate on the words of the prayers if I was worried about the yarmulke falling to the floor whenever I shifted my head from one side to the other? Even though I sat perfectly still while Dad recited the Kiddush and then the motzi, the blessing over the challah, I had trouble thinking about anything besides how foolish I felt wearing the yarmulke. I don’t think that I ever felt comfortable wearing one, but I never considered removing it. I’d been told that wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect for God, and I wanted to be a respectful Jew, even if I didn’t fully understand all the prayers or rituals, or why wearing a yarmulke was a sign of respect.

Each time I reached into the bin as a boy to select a yarmulke and set it on my head, I felt as if I’d found a magic talisman with mystical power, a symbol of being Jewish which made me feel as if I’d stepped inside Jewish history, linking myself to all the Jewish men who had covered their heads throughout our people’s history to show their faith and loyalty to God. Someone—a teacher, my father, or a friend—must have told me that I needed to cover my head when observing Jewish rituals or stepping inside a synagogue. At baseball games, though, when we sang the National Anthem, we had to remove our hats. In contrast, in temple we kept them on. It was confusing, this business of being Jewish. Each time I put on a yarmulke, I felt this confusion. It was disorienting to make the transition from one world to another.

As incredible as it may sound now, I wasn’t fully aware of living in two different worlds as a boy, except during the month of December. Every year, from kindergarten through sixth grade, I dreaded the week after Thanksgiving when the custodian placed a 6-foot tall, freshly cut pine tree in the school’s central foyer signaling the start of the Christmas season. The tree gave off the sharp, tangy scent of a far-away forest, and I loved that smell but felt guilty for liking the tree so much. Over the next month the scent of its pine needles filled the hallway and classrooms, and, like my non-Jewish friends, I became excited at the sight of the red-and-green lights blinking on and off in its branches. On the night of our school’s Christmas concert, shiny gifts wrapped beneath the tree made it look as if Santa Claus had just dropped them off his sleigh.

Our music teacher was a skinny woman with toothpick-thin legs, eyes the same shade of blue as a robin’s eggs, and hair as straight and silky as the gold tassels that hung from ears of corn in July. Each year she lined us up in rows according to height on the half-dozen shallow steps in front of the tree. And every year I felt more and more uncomfortable standing next to the tree in the back row, worried people in the audience might mistake me for a Christian singing Christmas songs, afraid God, in his disapproval, might see fit to punish me for not standing up for my faith.

During those concerts I barely opened my lips to sing. I trembled with the certain knowledge that if I sang the name of Jesus aloud, God might send a bolt of lightening to end my life. Instead, I stood in the back of the choir pretending to sing, and hoped none of my friends standing on either side of me, or any of the adults sitting in the audience, would notice my silence. Nobody seemed to care about my Jewish identity or about my feelings as a Jew singing in a Christmas concert. For weeks after the concert, long after the last notes of the songs had faded away and the tree had been taken down and tossed into the incinerator room, I felt as if I’d betrayed my people and my God.

As a young boy, I didn’t realize how many seemingly inconsequential choices, such as putting on a yarmulke or singing in a Christmas concert, I had to make to navigate through the shoals of forming a Jewish identity. Nor did I recognize the larger, more significant choices that I had to make to help solidify my connection with Judaism and my link to the Jewish people. Somehow I made these choices—keeping kosher, attending Hebrew school, preparing for my bar mitzvah—without resenting them, even though I must have offered some resistance. Was it my father who insisted that I attend Hebrew school? Or was it my mother who gently pushed me into making these decisions? Or perhaps I was nudged quietly by my own conscience?

Now I can see how these choices added up to create in me a sense of being Jewish. But then, as I was making these choices, I was confused, uncertain about which path to follow. I had no way of knowing, except for some internal compass that was nearly impossible to read, which choice would lead me closer to my heritage and which might take me further away.

Bruce Black is the founder of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, as well as in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. You can read more about his book, Writing Yoga, here: http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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A Jew by Choice

by Anna Gersman (Schomberg, Ontario, Canada)

Doubts, fears and uncertainty have plagued my life and the choices I have made, including my decision to become a Jew. I was brought up an atheist, knowing nothing of God, prayer or ritual. I feared religion and avoided it. I could not understand its purpose. Growing up, my ears were filled with jeering words of ridicule for those who did have faith. “Religious people were weak;” “Religion has caused all the wars and problems of the world;” “There is no scientific proof or rational thought to verify religion;” “Look at the millions murdered in the name of religion,” I was told. As a child, places of worship filled me with dread. The great emptiness of godlessness clouded my childhood. I was firmly exiled from God.

The conversion of an atheist is not easy. The long process, for me, was a series of small steps, gently guided by the encouragement and patience of those who loved me, my family and friends. I found my way cautiously with great fear and distrust.

The initial strands of my journey began when I met my Jewish sailor husband in the early 1980s. I fell in love with his warmth, humour and kind spirit.  We sought adventure and together one glorious September, we set sail for the Caribbean in our sailboat. Looking back, I wonder what guided me, where my inner faith and strength come from that helped me push off from the shore. We were not of the sea. He was a Jewish boy from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was from Newmarket, a small town in Ontario.  Together we sailed out onto that massive expanse of water, enveloped by its surging power and energy. As we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda, our world was endless sky and sea. We felt God’s breath blow across the surface of the ocean, softly, gently at times and then fiercely.

Caught in our first storm at sea, I was terrified of capsizing and being pulled down into the cold dark depths of the Atlantic. I did not know how to pray, and yet I prayed with a desperate conviction for survival. I felt God’s presence many times out on the ocean, in the power of the universe, in the vast array of stars, in the schools of dolphins leaping in the moonlight. I realized I could not feel exiled from God at sea, and after several ocean voyages, I was no longer an atheist. I knew there was a God and yet I was a long way from formal religious practice.

My husband was a secular Jew, and we enjoyed the social part of being with family and friends during the Jewish holidays. My mother-in-law accepted me as a non-Jew, regularly encouraging me to “just have a baby dear.” Her words were wise because in fact the miracle of childbirth brought me significantly closer in my journey towards Judaism.

When my oldest daughter was five-years-old, prompted by discussions at school, she asked me “Mommy, what are we?” Those words sent a hollow echo reverberating though my godless soul. I sensed my duty as a mother was to understand my own spiritual identity and pass this on to my children. I had learned over the years to prepare the traditional menu for the Jewish High Holidays. I could make chicken soup and knaidlach (matzoh balls), but I did not understand the rituals or historical significant of the holidays. I spoke to my husband about our children’s sense of uncertainty about their religious identity, but he could not fully comprehend the void I experienced. He had an unshakable confidence in his own heritage, a strong sense of belonging and identity. He had difficulty seeing the yearning and bewilderment in our child, but he took her hand and went to find a synagogue to attend High Holy Day services.

For me, the goal of parenting is to create an independent, capable person. My understanding of the goal of conversion is to create an independent confident Jew, eager to explore further. For my children’s sake, I knew I had to convert. I told my husband and he looked at me tenderly saying, “I have waited a long time to hear you speak those words.” I felt privileged to have married someone, who stood by me while I stumbled on a personal journey towards faith. We joined Temple Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue. Our children were enrolled in Saturday morning Hebrew school, and gradually over time the unfamiliar became familiar.

I cannot describe the joy I felt learning the Torah stories alongside my children. The stories of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, came alive for me as I slowly painted my interior world with their ancient symbols of hope, redemption and forgiveness. The first few times we attended services my husband wept as emotions long buried in childhood flooded back. The Hebrew prayers and melodies he had long forgotten came back with new significance and meaning as he sat with his family in shul. It was wonderful for me to witness his reconnection to Judaism, and his experience helped me feel secure in my decision to become a Jew.

During my conversion interview the rabbi asked me, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” “For my children,” I replied. “I want them to know God.” He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he said “usually we want people to choose Judaism for themselves, but this is a good place to start.” At first I struggled to be part of the synagogue world; I was uncomfortable with the prayers, fearful I would do or say the wrong thing. The rituals of Shabbat drew me in like a moth to a flickering flame. Gradually, as I stumbled through the Shabbat blessings each week, I came to know the peace that Shabbat brings.

At synagogue services I wrap myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) designed by my husband and painted by my daughters, feeling the shelter of God’s love when I draw it around myself. I have learned the great comfort of communal worship, being led in prayer as though through a beautiful garden. Now, I feel safer to ask questions as I continue to search for my own way of being Jewish. The loving ancient words of the Torah and the siddur (prayer book) bring me solace and comfort in this fast paced high tech world.

At my daughters’ B’nei Mitzvot the rabbi spoke to them, stating “our hope is that you will continue in the path of Jewish learning.” I hear that universal message and know that their journey, like mine is ongoing. I hope one day to visit Israel, and to chant Torah, but for now I listen for the sound of God’s voice as often as I can in all that I do.

It is not easy to convert from nothing, to construct a religious life without a solid foundation set in childhood. Each person undertakes their own unique and personal journey towards faith. I have been fortunate.  I chose a loving Jewish partner who waited patiently for me to make my choice; lucky, to have chosen a shul and congregation accepting and tolerant of differences; lucky, to have found a rabbi able to encourage and welcome the unaffiliated, the disenfranchised, and do the holy work of outreach. As we read in synagogue, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mishkan T’Filah – Reform prayer book.)
Anna Gersman grew up in a large family in King City Ontario. She has traveled and sailed extensively in South Africa and the Caribbean with her husband and children. She has been a nurse for over 20 years. She is currently working with seniors as a case manager in home care and as a camp nurse at URJ Camp George during the summers. Anna has been a member of Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario since 1997. There she found a spiritual home, encouraged to develop every aspect of Jewish life. Anna is currently working on a memoir of her journey to find her Jewish voice. She lives in Schomberg, Ontario near Toronto with her husband Sydney, and their teenage daughters Ariel and Liora.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author from Living Legacies –  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl,  PK Press: Toronto, Canada, 2010.  For more information about this publication or to order copies please visit http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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Shabbat and the Single Girl

by Leah Jones (Chicago, IL)

I’m 28, single and Jewish in Chicago. Like most single Jewish women, that means JDate, JCC events, and being set up by well-meaning friends. What sets me apart is that I’m also a JBC—a Jew by Choice. I started studying with my rabbi when I was 27 (and single) and met with the beit din (legal body convened for conversion), went to the mikvah(ritual bath), and took my Hebrew name at 28 (and single).

I converted for the same reasons most people convert, so that my children will be Jewish. I am simply missing the one detail most people have before they make this choice—a Jewish partner. On the night that my synagogue publicly welcomed me into Jewish life, a good friend said, “I understand converting for children, but why these young, single people would convert is beyond me.”

She said that to me and my friend Brad, another single JBC in my congregation. Her own husband is a JBC and he converted when their son, who was raised as a Jew, was 18. He certainly didn’t convert for the sake of the family, but when it was right between him and God.

Getting to God

All right, fine, I’ll admit it. My conversion wasn’t “pure.” Along the way, there was a Jewish man. In my opinion, he was Jewish enough that he wouldn’t marry a non-Jew, but too secular to ask a non-Jew to convert. I had enough respect for him that before I made my move I wanted to decide if conversion was an option.

I went to a bookstore and got a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. I read the book and read it again. I got online and read conversion stories, learned about different movements within Judaism, ordered more books on Judaism. I decided, “Yes. This makes sense to me, if it came down to it, I would convert for him.”

By the time December rolled around I’d completely forgotten him, was dating somebody else, and had also read Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. Add to the mix my twin sister starting her own family and my grandmother dying from a three week battle with pancreatic cancer. I was ready to admit there was something more to the world, that there had to be a higher power.

On December 24, Christmas Eve if you are keeping track, I met with my Rabbi for the first time and went to my first Shabbat service. Instead of agreeing that it was obvious I should convert, he gave me a list of books and asked me to “try it on and see if it fits.”

Trying it On

Over the course of the next year, I officially tried on Judaism. I joined a synagogue, went to services every week, tried to study Torah, and taught myself Hebrew. I also read more books on Judaism than anyone thought possible. The first couple months I was parched for knowledge and raced through books as if someone might take them away from me the next day.

I went to every special program at the synagogue and was invited into people’s homes for holidays and life events. It was fascinating to experience each holiday and moment of the calendar for the first time as an adult. I hope that I approached it with a child-like sense of wonder.

There were moments when I was certain that I would never feel Jewish or learn it all. Once, just before Passover, I was at a large Jewish bookstore and the number of books was so overwhelming that I started to cry. At Shavuot, I’d stayed up all night studying Torah with 50 other Jews. Nobody questioned my Jewishness, but at the morning minyan I didn’t know the prayers and couldn’t follow along.

But in September, I went to a havdalah service with the Jewish Community Center. I was outside of the safety of my synagogue and this time I didn’t just follow along mumbling, but I knew the songs and the prayers. I felt like a Jew, I knew it was starting to sink in.

The week before my conversion, I went to a bris (circumcision) and sat shiva with friends. With the exception of a wedding, I’d experienced the entire calendar and life cycle moments. I could safely tell my rabbi, “Yes, this fits. Judaism fits and I’m certain that this is the right choice.”

Organizing a Library

I’m a bibliophile and love books. I have books on every surface of my condo, bookshelves are two deep in places, and unread piles sit next to my bed and couch. Finding Judaism, for me, has been the same as coming home and finding my piles organized into a library. In Judaism, I found the words to describe how I’d always felt and the resources to make decisions in the future. Words like tzedaka and tikkun olam, sources like the Torah, Talmud, my rabbi and my community.

Many Jews by Choice find Judaism through a Jewish partner, which I didn’t. But in Judaism, we find the same things—a way to live in the world, a way to raise our children, a community, thousands of years of tradition, and a relationship with God.

Sometimes I worry that I should have waited, I should have found my Jewish husband before I converted. Let’s be honest, I’ve shrunk the dating pool considerably. I risk being a single, Jewish woman for years to come. In the end, I decided that I’d rather be a single Jewish woman, than just a single woman.

Leah Jones is the owner of Natiiv Arts & Media, where she is a social media coach for rabbis and rockers. She’s been writing her personal blog Accidentally Jewish since 2003 and chronicled her conversion to Judaism on the blog. While she’s based in Chicago, she finds excuses to travel the US and spends as much time as possible in Israel.

To read more of Leah’s work, visit her blog http://leahj.blog-city.com as well as her website Natiiv Arts & Media http://www.natiiv.com and Twitter http://twitter.com/leahjones

And if you’re considering Conversion, here are a few books, as well as web resources, that Leah recommends:

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant
The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Blech
Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
Search for God at Harvard by Ari Goldman
How To Handbook for Jewish Living by Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs

On the Web:

This essay was originally published on her blog, Shebrew, in January 2006 and is reprinted here with permission of the author. You can visit Shebrew at http://www.shebrew.com/

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From Jew-ish to Jewish

by Rachel Reeves (Brighton, UK)

I feel frustrated at the moment.  I’m sitting here on the train, wishing I had my laptop instead of having to resort to my illegible scrawl.  This will be my ‘nth’ iteration of my innermost thoughts about my journey to becoming Jewish.  My initial version was written in the time running up to Shavuot – which has now long since passed.  Reading it back to myself now, it comes across as rather thin and superficial – not because that’s how I feel about my Jewish journey, but because I’m afraid to let too much out.  It’s an intensely personal thing and I’m afraid of baring my soul to readers who know nothing about me.  But, if I don’t tell the truth, then what’s the point of writing it down in the first place?

This redrafting has partly been inspired by a few in-depth conversations I’ve had with a new (Jewish) friend of mine.  He was born Jewish, lived very un-Jewishly for many years and has only recently started to bring his Jewishness back into his life.  He wants to be productive, contributory, a good Jewish person.  From what he tells me, he carries a lot of guilt around for basically ‘checking out’ for a large part of his life.  This really made me think hard.  I had made the assumption that all born-Jews I had met had lived intensely rich, fulfilled Jewish lives.  All the things that I, as an in-transit convert, had not.  To be honest, it has not been unusual for me to feel terribly jealous of these seemingly settled, comfortable, confident people that I have met over the past few months!  But this insight has been a bit of a revelation for me, at once helping me to feel a little less different (we are all, it seems, dissatisfied with our situation on some level!) and also a little more unsettled.  If all I can look forward to is more self-doubt, more internal pressure to do better, then why am I doing this?

And I suppose that this is the six million dollar question.  The easy answer that I have at the ready (for a short-hand ‘in’ to anyone at the synagogue that asks) is that somewhere in my family’s past there are Jewish roots.  True, but I don’t think that it totally answers the question.  That answer does nothing to reveal the deep-seated urge within me to be Jewish.  At the first Shabbat service that I attended, the rabbi (who has a beautiful voice) led the singing from start to finish.  The passion and haunting melodies pulled at something in my soul to such an extent that I knew there was no way that I could just be an observer.  I wanted all of ‘that’ to mean something to me, to form part of my way of living, breathing and being.

It’s not easy, but then nobody ever told me it would be.  Much of the time, I have felt only Jew-ish.  As if I am not putting enough effort into this journey of mine.  There is always something else demanding my attention, my time, my energy.  I see other people who have embarked on their conversion path at the same time as me and they seem so much more prepared, practised, consistent, organised. I just see them as being in a better place than me.  I know that being Jewish requires a practical commitment. It is far more about ‘doing’ Jewish than just considering yourself Jewish and having the piece of paper to prove it.  I expect that’s where my friend’s guilt is coming from. All those years of not ‘doing’ are clearly an important and serious issue for him.  And in a small way, I can appreciate this.  After all, my concerns all arise from the fact that I think I’m not ‘doing’ enough.

Judaism has had to adapt to the times over and over again.  I have joined a progressive form of Judaism – a truly modern iteration that still attaches great importance to traditional ceremonies, the Hebrew liturgy and inclusivity.  It may not suit some, but it certainly speaks to me.  The ethical and social approach fits broadly with the morals and guidelines that I tried to live by ‘before’ and those which I was brought up to value in an atheist household.  I wrote in my first attempt that I was concerned by the fact that this chosen religion of mine was centred around the family, and children in particular, and that I don’t have children to whom I can pass on my traditions.  To some extent, this concern has waxed and waned depending on how comfortable I feel with how much I am contributing to the community that I have joined.  I don’t want to be what a former colleague of mine referred to as a ‘net contributor’ – someone who takes more than they give, or who doesn’t give at all.  I would like to think that this ability to contribute is only limited by my current status (the one I refer to as Jew-ish) rather than by any natural disinclination to become a fully-functioning member of the community.  This ‘Jew-ish’ status also has more practical implications since I don’t really have any right to influence what happens in the community as yet – not until I become a fully-fledged member, which in turn can only happen when I become a fully-fledged Jew.

So, how do I feel with regards to my conversion?  Do I feel anywhere even close to being Jewish yet?  Well, I was immensely flattered and pleased to hear from someone just starting out on their conversion journey that they thought I was born-Jewish and had no idea that I was only a bit further along the winding path than they were.  Of course, this was all about outward appearances – the fact that I could follow the service, point them in the right direction in the Siddur when they lost their place, could sing or speak most of the Hebrew and knew other members of the community.  Yes, this is all part of ‘it,’ this progression towards becoming a Jew, but what about what is happening inside?  How do I really, really feel?  To be honest, I’m not sure that I know.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t know if I am doing the right thing, which is certainly beyond doubt and something I don’t ever remember questioning.  What I’m trying to say is that from day to day, my feelings change.  On one day, when I’ve made sufficient time to study Hebrew a bit more, when I’ve read a bit more of one of my many books on Judaism, when I ‘get’ a reference to some inside joke, then I feel that I am making good progress.  The very next day, when none of these things have happened, when for some reason I can’t attend a service, or when I’ve forgotten the Hebrew I learned the day before, I feel as if I am getting nowhere and have perhaps even gone backwards.  There have been days when my heart hasn’t been in the study, there have been Shabbat services when I have felt as if I am going through the motions and classes when I haven’t applied myself wholeheartedly to the work in hand.  This all makes me sound like a terrible student and perhaps not someone that should be welcomed with open arms into the Jewish community, which needs strong, disciplined, committed members for its future growth and benefit.  But I am trying my best.  When I feel that I have slipped, I work harder the next time. I try to approach the next study time with a different viewpoint and clear my mind of all the other day-to-day concerns that do their best to interrupt my train of thought.

But ‘this’ isn’t all about study, commitment and discipline.  It’s about spirituality, becoming a part of a people, history and life.  For some inexplicable reason (and believe me, I have tried to work out the ‘why’) I have always felt an affinity with the Jewish people, even when I was very young and before I knew about my own hard-to-pin-down family history.  I have always felt a little bit different, part of an indefinable ‘other.’  I couldn’t work out what this was until I first entered the synagogue for my first Shabbat service.  Never mind that a great portion of it was in a language I knew almost nothing about, that the constant flipping backwards and forwards through the Siddur confused me beyond belief.  I felt as if I had found my home and would do whatever I could to make sure that it became that place of refuge, a true sanctuary, for me in the future.

Much of this gives the impression that I am trying to run before I can walk – which of course is perfectly true (and it won’t be the last time it happens, either!).  I want to know Hebrew inside out, understand all the rituals and the history behind them, help influence the running of the synagogue – all of it now (or even better, yesterday).  At least it shows that the commitment is there!  But even if all that were true at this very moment, that I had ‘passed the test’ and was now a fully paid up member of the Jewish people, would that mean I could rest on my laurels and stop learning?  Actually, no it wouldn’t.  Of course.  It would just mean that one part of my spiritual, practical life had ended and I would now be embarking on a new stage in my Jewish journey.  And I can’t wait to set off on that future path, wherever it might take me.

Rachel was born in Birmingham, England and has gradually moved south over the years until finding her true home in Brighton, on the south coast.  Any further moves south will involve moving to another country! She tries to work, rest and play to the best of her ability and believes that she has always been Jewish in her soul, but only found herself in the right place spiritually and mentally to actively ‘scratch the itch’ last year.  Starting her conversion journey has become more enriching than she ever anticipated. You can read more about her journey at her blog: http://shavuatov.wordpress.com.


Filed under Jewish identity, Jewish writing

From Ghetto Girl To Rabbi’s Wife

by Aliza Hausman (Riverdale, NY)

I have always been a stranger in a strange land.

My childhood years in Washington Heights, an inner-city New York offshoot of the Dominican Republic, were Rapunzelesque. I watched the goings-on in the ’hood from our sixth-floor apartment, which towered over the hilly area. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to play outside because of the drug dealers, the culture, and the language, all of which my mother was sure were veneno—poison. According to Mom, Spanish was okay, English even better, but “talking Ghetto,” the Spanglish slang of the streets, was no good.

I learned about religion watching The Ten Commandments over Easter. On Sundays I attended catechism classes at the local Catholic school. At home my mother practiced a blend of Catholicism and Santeria (Afro-Caribbean “voodoo”), taking me to brujas (witches) to cure my allergies. I had no idea that only blocks away, in the midst of my Dominican ghetto, there was a Jewish neighborhood.

So how in the world did I find my way to Judaism?

It started with a car ride. My best friend, Igor, a Russian Jew, had gone to Israel an atheist and come back Orthodox. Driving around the neighborhood with me and my sisters, he thrilled us with tales of going kosher, living life as an observant Jew, and scaring all his old friends. He wore a black kippah, soon to be coordinated with the white shirt and black pants that would become his signature wardrobe. I was wearing a halter top and short shorts. All I knew was that Judaism meant I wasn’t allowed to hug him anymore.

“Wow! That’s so interesting. Tell us more!” my sisters chorused from the backseat. And then to me: “You should be Jewish! You always wanted to be Jewish. Remember?”

When I was 13, a visit from a Holocaust survivor to my junior high school had piqued my interest in Judaism enough that I stole the Star of David my mother kept with her cross and wore it every day. I went to the library’s religion section, where I discovered that the Jewish notion of G-d matched the one I’d always had in my head and heart. G-d was always watching over me and always listening. There were no intermediaries standing between us.

“Mom, I want to be Jewish,” I declared one day, running to her in a frenzy of excitement, books in hand.

My mother’s lips curled in horror before she reeled her arm back like a baseball pitcher and cracked a slap across my face. Later, various family encounters would teach me that anti-Semitism was alive and well in the world. I put Judaism on the back burner.

At 25, I tried going back to the church. I hoped Protestant Christianity might be less fire-and-brimstone than Catholicism. But the calculation that no Jesus equals eternal damnation didn’t sit well with me. So when my best friend started talking, I was intrigued.

Two months later, I was knee-deep in Jewish books and had an appointment with an Orthodox rabbi. No Jesus. No Trinity. No more scary confessions to priests. No nuns looking perturbed when they asked all the students to draw G-d and I held up a drawing of a giant yellow squiggle and said,“G-d is light.” In my head, G-d was as bright and warm as a sunburst, always lighting the way ahead. Even at 8, I wasn’t drawing Jesus idols.

Over the year I became a constant presence in the synagogue office. I took weekly classes. I assaulted the rabbi daily with questions via e-mail. I read late into the night and listened to educational MP3s on the way to work. I was a human iPod, downloading a lifetime of Jewish learning into my brain.

I saw Judaism as an extension of the personal relationship with G-d I had already honed over years of angry rants and silent wishes aimed at the heavens. I got high on how Judaism could teach me to make every action in my life holy and how to focus on bettering myself for my time on Earth, not as a ticket to Heaven.

Judaism began to color all the areas of my life. I bought my last pair of pants from the Gap and a week later sold them to a fellow teacher at the high school where I worked. I charged knee-length H&M skirts by the dozen. I prayed all the time and for everything. And when I discovered Shabbat, I sighed with relief. Shabbat was the first vacation this workaholic had taken in a long time.

I finally confessed my decision to convert to my father in an international call to the Dominican Republic. “Dad, I’m going to be Jewish. You’re going to have Jewish grandchildren.”

After a long pause, I heard a faint chuckle escalate into booming sputters of laughter. “You’re crazy!” No, I assured him, I wasn’t.

But still I was a stranger. My olive skin was much darker than the Ashkenazi faces I saw at shul. People stared at my curly Afro. When I told my non-Jewish friends that people at shul complimented my “tan,” they reacted in disbelief: “But you’re so white!”

Six months into my conversion, I met my future husband, then a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at a housewarming party for some rabbinical students in Washington Heights. Here, at least, I felt like the consummate insider—Dominican and (almost) Jewish in a neighborhood that had long been home to both groups.

After nearly a year of studying, the rabbi thought I was ready to convert. But first I had to survive Israel.

My husband’s supportive mother sent me to a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school. Orthodox Jewish boys dated for marriage, and we couldn’t wed until I was “kosher.” In Israel I realized that I was becoming part of a family. Like any family, there is bickering and infighting. Sometimes we can be dysfunctional in the way we tear each other down. But we can also be amazing in the support systems we create: cooking meals for new mothers, sitting shiva with friends, and partying at glorious weddings not to be missed.

Two months later I returned to New York to dip in the mikvah. A beit din (rabbinical court) of three rabbis asked me questions before shepherding me into the little pool. Fresh from the mikvah and clasped in a bear hug by my friend Devora, I was sure that, though I had been born to a non-Jewish mother, I had always had a Jewish soul.

Am I still a stranger in a strange land? As I pack my husband’s lunch before he heads for rabbinical school, I wonder how many other Dominican Jewish rebbetzins are out there. But I’ve never felt less alone in my life. The story goes that converts, too, were present at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah, but we were lost along the way and have had to find our way home.

And where is home?

Ruth, the most famous convert of all, put it best: “Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.”

You said it, sister!

Aliza Hausman, a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator, blogs daily at Memoirs of a Jewminicana: http://www.alizahausman.net. She is currently working on a memoir.


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

A Ger in Gan Eden

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.)

One Saturday morning I 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 to Catholic school where 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 for Wednesday afternoon classes 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 High Holy Days. He told me of a temple he attended and invited me to come along to Yom Kippur services.

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 on Tuesday nights, 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 Purim services later that night went well. Most of the congregation liked the Purimshpiel where I told jokes a la 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.

“Did I make it?”  I asked.

“Yes, yes you did” the rabbi replied.

I’m Jewish!

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 “Shema,” 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.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity