This is a love story. If that makes you uncomfortable we can part ways right now and none will be the wiser. This post has taken months to write, longer still thinking about what I could possibly throw down in words to reflect a sea change within. This year has not taken the usual route of reading and writing. It’s been time spent looking inside, asking questions, learning and settling in to life as a Jew. Not unlike moving house, one day you are stumbling over boxes and loose ends in an effort to put things right. Soon the new space begins to feel familiar and nights in the dark don’t feel so discomfiting. You sleep soundly.
Becoming a Jew is something I contemplated for many years, even though I remember sitting in a warm Presbyterian sanctuary as a girl and feeling happy there. I enjoyed dressing up, wearing shiny shoes and being around people who were fragrant and upstanding. It was all very nice. There was only one problem, a pestering thought that rose up from time to time. In trying to speak that thought I found that there was no outlet for its acceptance or acknowledgement. This created an adolescent version of cognitive dissonance within me. The thought was my disbelief that Jesus rose from the dead. I just didn’t buy Christianity’s stronghold, and I felt like a fraud each time I confronted this knowledge within myself.
This was not a dark place to be spiritually as a child growing up in East Tennessee. I chalked it up to the necessity of doubt. Then in seventh grade I became friends with a girl who changed my life, though I wouldn’t know it for some time. She was the blondest, most gregarious songbird of a girl, and our mutual regard was instant. Her name is Jacqueline, and when we became friends I knew that there was something unique about her. She simply exuded something that I wanted for myself – a confidence and zest that’s impossible to describe. When our junior high school talent show featured her singing Come Saturday Morning in a beautiful, strong soprano voice that a couple of the students sitting near me derided as being Jewish, it felt as though I’d been slapped. My knowledge of Judaism was nonexistent. I had only the faintest schoolgirl understanding of the Shoah and no exposure to Jewish culture. But I loved Jacquie. She was outspoken and a friend to all. Known for her boisterousness in both humor and kindness, her voice was clearly finer than anything else in the talent competition. And she was being judged harshly because of her Jewishness. I knew that it was unfair but could not begin to imagine how much so. What endears me to Jacquie then and now is admiration for how she took the snub. She knew that her talent offering was the best; not only did she not retaliate against anti-Semitic overtures, she never missed a beat in remaining open to anyone. She retains this characteristic, and it serves her well as a mother, teacher, musician, and cantor.
I moved here in 1987 and learned somehow that there was a synagogue in town. I would drive by and imagine myself in attendance, sitting in the back to listen and learn. It seemed an impossibility as I didn’t know any members and knew nothing at all about conversion. This was a dark time spiritually as I felt godless and lost. Around 2000, I met a couple of Jewish women who were starting a book group. The group floundered, but one of the friendships remained. Wendy was instrumental to the slow and gradual introduction to Judaism that I took. She listens, instructs, and laughs both with me and at me along this way. She was the perfect person to travel with me to Iowa City this June for the conversion ceremony, and she cried tears of joy as I held the Torah for the first time. We learn together, the girl raised in Studio City, California, who never attended synagogue as a child and who became a bat mitzvah at age 49, and the girl who grew up in Appalachia, the child who felt the pintele yid but could not name it.
My first visit to the synagogue for Shabbat was in 2003, the same year I entered nursing school. One of the great things about going back to school is how fresh ideas seem when you find them as an adult. Along with the principles of acid-base balance, there were many exciting thinkers to discover, chief among them Martin Buber whose I-Thou changed the way I view people as a nurse and brought me closer to a Jewish understanding of God. As I began thinking differently about the world and started to catch glimpses of what can only be described as the Divine in others, I began to wonder if my absence of belief could be instead a way of searching for God. This discovery still has the power to surprise and overwhelm me. In order to find God on my own, I had to turn my back and be godless to fully break with what I didn’t believe. There are days when you could knock me over with a feather at the outcome. To make such a journey, a derekh, from someone who could not find God into someone learning to look for HaShem in everything, is a great and continuing joy.
For so long the values, music, rituals, prayers, and language of Judaism drew me as though I was being summoned home in the evening by forces of warmth and light. When I began attending Shabbat services, the congregation and rabbi welcomed me and I have never looked back. There are many Jews, the malakhim, who share with me their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom – rabbis, congregants, classmates, friends. There is S., who, without realizing it, opened a door in me through which fear vanished forever. There are those whose work and writing shapes me every day. There is Martin Buber. The tradition is so plentiful that I can only hope to scratch the surface. Judaism stands to welcome the convert as it has for more than three thousand years; now it is my home, too.