On Converting to Judaism

If you’ve come for books, you might want to give this post a miss. It’s nothing to do with them, or hardly anything, anyway. More about books soon, I promise.

What follows is a little essay I wrote for Rabbi Barry Block of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, my congregation. He’s leading me through my formal conversion to Judaism, a process I’ve almost concluded. One of the requirements was to write an essay to the prompt “Why I Want to Convert to Judaism at this Time.” Writing it proved really useful to me, and I post it here in case it’s of interest to others. I’ve revised it only slightly.

Why I Want to Convert to Judaism at this Time

There are many remarkable things about having a child. One of them—a bit joyous, a bit painful—is seeing one’s self reflected in her, not just in face or body-type but also in behaviour or character. Our daughter is cautious, scared of change, uncertain in new situations. But once she’s comfortable or sure of her surroundings, she opens up, embraces the situation, chatters away nonstop. In these ways, at least, I see myself in her. (She’s also brave, and funny, and smart, and capable of great love. These things might come from me, but they certainly come from her mother. And I haven’t even mentioned the things that are hers alone.)

I begin this self-reflection with my soon-to-be three-year-old daughter because time has become palpable and visible through her. And for me the most pressing part of the prompt for this essay is its final phrase. Why now? For I’ve been saying I want to convert to Judaism for quite a long time, more than three years in fact, since before T was born.

Judaism has been a significant part of my life for a long time. As my therapist says (see, I even have a therapist!), I’m a philo-semite.  My first girlfriend was Israeli. My study of Holocaust Literature, which continues to be an important part of my professional life, began already in college. But it wasn’t until I met M in graduate school that Judaism and Jewishness really became central to my life. At the beginning of our relationship Judaism was a vague presence, something meaningful to M of course, and something I was supportive of and even, in a mild way, interested in, but not, I thought, something to do with me. I accompanied her to High Holyday services, because I loved her and wanted to be a good boyfriend. But as I met her family, and as our relationship grew more serious, as I celebrated my first Passover and Hanukkah, as I accompanied her to her home synagogue, Judaism became more and more part of my life too. When we moved to Pennsylvania we had more Jewish friends than ever before. But it wasn’t until we moved to what might seem the Unpromised Land of Arkansas that I really began to think of Judaism as an identity that I wanted for myself. It helped that Judaism became central to my wife’s professional life. It also helped that Judaism offered excellent protection from Bible Belt Christianity. But mostly it was because Judaism became our way of making a new home for ourselves in a strange place. The Jewish community of Arkansas, particularly but not only at Temple B’nai Israel, welcomed us with open arms. That was a wonderful feeling.

In the beginning—as is still true at this time—my attachment to Judaism was intellectual. Art Spiegelman’s claim that for him Judaism is the skeptical intellectual tradition of Freud and Kafka has always resonated for me. How could I not thrill to the idea of the “people of the book”? What better description could I offer of myself than a person of the book (and books)? What is d’var Torah other than the kind of close exegesis that is at the very heart of my professional work and personal avocation? How could my secular humanist upbringing not agree with the principles of tikkun olam? Being able to share these experiences and values with M only made me love Judaism more.

Remember the Seinfeld episode about the guy who converts for the jokes? That’s me, too—because the jokes testify to Judaism’s love of and respect for words. So you could say that I came for the jokes (a.k.a. the Kafka) and stayed for community. I began to think of myself as Jewish. Many people, even Jews, thought I was Jewish. I lived as best I could as a Jew. And yet I had not converted. Every once in a while I would receive a reminder, almost never ill intentioned, that I wasn’t Jewish. And I would feel hurt. So convert already: that’s the obvious response, isn’t it?

I had started down the path to conversion once before, after several years of unofficial, as it were, that is, self-taught experiential learning. Then T was born, and there was an exhausted year in which no one in our house slept very much, and then M hit a crisis in her career and I came up for tenure, and then there was a time of transition at the congregation: there was always something going on, something that quite reasonably meant that I could postpone finalizing and actualizing my decision. Yet these reasonable reasons don’t tell the whole story. It’s only at the level of something other than reasonableness, something closer to unreasonableness, something much more unconscious than conscious that the truth of the situation is to be found. For if I’d really, really wanted to, I could have prioritized my life differently, I could have put the conversion process at the top of my to-do list, I could by now (actually, really, officially) be Jewish. So why didn’t I?

Over the past five years I’ve learned quite a lot about myself. (Recall the therapist I referenced earlier.) Not enough to break away from the unthinking patterns of behaviour that are sometimes harmful to myself and those around me, but enough to recognize, even if after the fact, that those patterns are there. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard for me to ask for things. The reasons why aren’t important for my purposes here. What matters in this context is that I typically feel resentful when people don’t recognize the thing I want but have not asked for. This state of affairs is unfair to others, obviously, and hard on me, too. (It’s wonderful that T has no trouble expressing what she wants.)

So perhaps the most important reason it’s taken me so long to convert is because it’s been hard for me to ask. Asking, even more than converting, is scary. What if I’m refused? It’s funny that I can feel this way when the evidence of acceptance, by this congregation and by the religion and culture more generally, is all around me. This is a deep-seated, powerful inhibition it’s taken me a long time to acknowledge. Equally powerful is my worry that something will change—about me, about the world—when I convert. I worry that I’ll lose that quality, so valuable to me, of being neither in nor out, of being on the margin, in having a foot in two places: a Canadian who lives in America, a Gentile who lives as a Jew. I see now, however, that this fear is the old cautiousness at work again—fear that taking on the new will mean losing the old. It’s an economy of psychic scarcity that I am becoming mature enough to put aside in favour of an economy of psychic plenty. Intellectually, I’ve known for a long time that Judaism is the perfect place for someone like me, predicated as it is on a repeated recognition of—though not undue reverence for—the old, the past, the towering three-thousand year-old tradition. But now I know this emotionally and psychologically, too, and, taking the lessons offered by my Jewish daughter, I’m ready to express my desire and embrace the new, to take a deep breath, open my mouth, and ask for what I want–to belong.

[Postscript: When I met with Rabbi to talk this over, he said something perceptive and reassuring: this business of being betwixt and between ,neither here nor there: that’s the way Jews have been described, sometimes by themselves, often by others for centuries. Sometimes that description has been antisemitic: the allegations against Dreyfus, for example, were that a Jew couldn’t really, wholeheartedly be a Frenchman, so how was he to be trusted? Maybe, Rabbi suggested, we are now in a position, at least in this place at this time, to think about this neither-nor generously, as possibility rather than as absence.]




8 thoughts on “On Converting to Judaism

  1. D- Didn’t read this until just now. It made me miss you. I wonder if it is a matter of embracing your exile. And I wonder what we would have said if someone had told us twenty years ago that you would become Jewish and I would become Anglican. Strange and, in its way, totally delightful.

  2. This is a fascinating post to me. I recognize many things in myself which you talk about, having once been resentful that no one could “guess”, or interpret, what I wanted and was reluctant to articulate. I also am cautious, reluctant to embrace change and shy at first, although no one who knows me well believes this because of my ability to laugh. Deeply. Enough about me.

    It is wonderful to find one’s place, and community, in one’s religion. A like-minded group has been a great comfort to me in my life, especially one of faith. The Jews are God’s Chosen People, what an honor(!) and every time I read the Old Testament (which is every year), I am greatly moved by their story. His promises to His people are so beautiful I record them in my journal, assured when I read the New Testament that as a Gentile I can be grafted in. But it is not the same as being Jewish, practicing the Jewish faith in its tremendous tradition.

    Thank you for sharing your story here.

    • I could tell we were kindred spirits!
      Thanks for your kind words about my post.
      I do find Judaism beautiful–one of mnay things that drew me too it.
      I”m not sure if I mention this in teh essay–it’s been a while since I wrote it–but I didn’t convert “from” anything. That is, I didn’t practice any religion beforehand. Religion was just a non-starter in my household; atheism always seemed like the only sensible option.
      One thing I love about Judaism is that you can be 100% Jewish and not believe in God at all. (This always blows my students’ minds.)
      I wouldn’t call myself an atheist any more. The God of the Torah makes a lot of sense to me. How much do I believe it? I don’t even know, but I’m not even sure it matters.
      That was kind of a meandering response, sorry!

      • I am not surprised, very much, that a person could be 100% Jewish and not believe in God. Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus Christ being the Messiah, right? So that is all in line.

        For me, it is critical to believe; I must believe that I am not alone here or I would have neither hope nor comfort. (My adoption has made solitude an issue in my heart; perhaps this is partly why I responded the way I did to The Garden narrator.)

        But we find our own paths, and the discussion is fascinating. I only wish we could be face to face across from a cup of coffee or something, instead of having these snippets of conversation in a thread of comments.

        Please know, that I would never mean to offend; discussing religion has lots of potential for offense, and I am only trying to share my perspective as I listen to yours.

      • Not offensive! No worries!

        Well, *most* Jews believe in God. But belief and being Jewish aren’t incompatible. Jews believe in the Messiah, too, they just don’t think Jesus is it. Jews believe Jesus was a historical person with a lot of good ideas. They just don’t think he is the second coming. The reason they think that is that the messiah will only come when th eworld is perfected/redeemed. And it certainly isn’t yet. The thing I love most is that this perfection will only come about therough our own efforts. That is why it is a mitzvah (a commandment) for Jews to repair the world. Only in this way can we bring about the messiah. This emphasis on what we do in this life is very appealing to me.
        Anyway, agree about the coffee. The internet is frustrating because it introduces you to many people you never meet!

  3. Pingback: “Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  4. You say, “The thing I love most is that this perfection will only come about through our own efforts.” Whereas I am also yearning for a perfected world, but realize there is very little I can do in my own power although I certainly try. I hang on this verse from the New Testament: “8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10

    I suppose that it is on this point, our own effort, that the main difference between Judaism and Christianity lies. Yet we both believe we must do good in this world.

    Thank you for the explaining your experience, your feelings, your faith here. I always love to learn new things, understand different perspectives.

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