Live from the Lilith Blog

October 13, 2010 by

A Wildly (Maybe Not) Un-Feminist Choice

I chose my mid 20s to make a wildly un-feminist choice. I converted to Judaism. For a man.

Krauss

I got a good liberal arts education, and took all of the appropriate feminist theory courses. Luce Irigaray could do no wrong, as far as I was concerned. So you can imagine what went through my head when I found myself, 8 months pregnant, wading into a mikvah like a dirigible. The woman running the show pretty much had to hold me under with a paddle, the bubble of my enormous body kept trying to surface. The idea of submersion took on a bit of a double meaning, if you catch my drift.

I’d like to pretend that I “always felt Jewish” or that discovering Judaism felt like coming home. But no such luck.  And I don’t give much credence to that kind of magical thinking anyway. I remember one of the women in my conversion class, waxing poetic about discovering her true Jewish self. To put it bluntly: she sounded like a Moonie to me. Brainwashed. And whether or not he will admit it, I think my husband (then fiance) felt the same way. Slightly put off by her fervor. Like he was being out-Jewed by this Julie-come-lately, as she manically koshered her kitchen.

I also had to navigate the awkward fact that I am agnostic. Or, as I sometimes say, “optimistically agnostic.” I don’t believe, but on my good days, I feel a shimmer from the great beyond. Like divine grace murmuring in my ear below the din. So for me to undergo what is essentially a religious process (no getting around it) felt akin to–at 25–suddenly professing a belief in Santa Clause.

Note that I am not uncomfortable with ritual gestures. I practice Ashtanga yoga, and am at ease with repetition and cyclical movement. And I have faith in things larger than me: they just happen to be processes with tangible results that offer close to immediate gratification. Burning bushes and plagues of locusts, the notion of commanded-ness, all of this pretty much elicits an eye roll and a “show me.” Also, my knee-jerk resistance to authority puts a real damper on my ability to follow orders, laws and the like.

No, I cannot disguise this process as a path of self-discovery, something I would have stumbled upon anyway. For one thing, that sort of posits my husband as a guru/savior figure who led me to my true self. And that I can’t stomach (to his credit, neither could he). Also, it diverts from the simple fact that I did this for love. I did it because I wanted a family with the man that I eventually married.

So love came first. Not un-Jewish, that. Also, not un-feminist.

The kinship with the rest of The Tribe came later. And I’ll get into that more in coming weeks.

But I recently stumbled upon this article in Slate about the most isolated man in the world. The lone surviving member of his tribe, he lives in a wide swath of the Amazon, undisturbed and entirely self-sufficient. It sort of sent a chill down my spine. Markings that he has left on trees indicate that he may have some sort of spiritual practice. Researchers have theorized that this is why he can endure the solitude. Thank God, I thought, at least he has that to hold onto. And that’s when my reasons for doing all of this crystallized: I did it to create and to sustain love, and so that I can refer back to my loved ones, through gesture and ritual, should I ever find myself utterly alone.

–Liz Lawler

Liz writes, practices and teaches yoga, tends to a man, a son, and a dog (in no particular order and with very little grace). She lives in Brooklyn with the lot of them. Now you’ll excuse her, while she breaks up a dog/toddler fight.

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  • victoria

    really enjoyed reading this. I knew there was something you’ve been holding out on with me! mikvah?! really?! that explains the trauma I sometimes see in your eyes when discussing being pregnant!

  • http://LeahElisheva Leah Elisheva

    “I’d like to pretend that I “always felt Jewish” or that discovering Judaism felt like coming home. But no such luck. And I don’t give much credence to that kind of magical thinking anyway.” As a young, twenty-something female who converted to Judaism out of a sense of deep conviction, I find the above quote troubling on several levels. Having the sense that one has always been or has always meant to be Jewish is something quite common in the experiences of the vast majority of converts I know and ought not to be chalked up to magical thinking or silly supersticions. While I agree that the way that woman expressed the sentiment may have been a bit off-putting for some, that feeling is there and quite genuine for most of us. I would love to see Lilith exploring other perspectives on this because while I appreciated the author’s candor, many others see the act of conversion in a diametrically opposed way and many of us, particularly female converts, often have to deflect the prejudices of others who assume that we converted for the sake of marriage.

  • Valerie

    I suppose I am one of those Moonie you described – sincere, committed, and in love with Judaism. Apparantly you find these emotions to be…what? Something you can’t tolerate in people? As opposed to what? Lying so you can convert? Sad, really sad.

  • Rachel

    I am currently converting, not for marriage, but in preparation of it. I can relate to the idea of the suddenly super observant Jew seeming brainwashed. There’s one woman in my class who went from secular to anything but. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand how someone can be so observant so suddenly. It doesn’t really seem sincere to me, but that’s more a product of my mother switching religions every few years and being completely devoted every time.
    Converting shouldn’t be only for the fervently faithful. If people who are born Jewish can remain Jewish while being fully secular, why can’t converts? The author isn’t saying that she lacks faith, but that she has issues with the hierarchy and being told what to do.

  • Lizlawler

    Hi everyone,
    (author here) Glad that this got some reaction. I think it’s important to point out though that this is the beginning of a three-part story about my conversion process that I am writing for this blog. This post is a personal testimony, where I am relating my ever-changing experience of Judaism. This has been a 6 year journey, with many twists and turns.

    The fact is, I never felt intuitively Jewish, in much the same way that I never felt an intuitive connection to God, period. And I am also trying to underscore the fact that “converting for the sake of marriage” (which you seem to think is an unfair prejudice) is actually a very loving, very Jewish thing to do. It is putting family and community first. I find it odd when women who convert for their own personal reasons seem to look down on those of us who did this in anticipation of marriage. As if our reasons are suspect because of that. As women in 21st century America, we have the right to choice, to personal agency.

    If you feel like you were always Jewish at heart, and that this is your true faith: good for you. I am so grateful that there are people like you around to uphold those values and keep up that end of the religion, because I just can’t. Don’t mis-conceive the impressions that I had (and thanks Rachel for understanding that this was candor) in the beginning of my experience as anything more than that: impression. I used the word “seem” because this is what I saw, a fervor and a religious zeal that was completely alien to me.
    That said, thanks for making your voices heard.

  • Pingback: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: A Two-Act Conversion Story. « The Lilith Blog

  • http://LeahElisheva Leah Elisheva

    Rachel, I think you raise an interesting point with your question regarding born Jews being totally secular and asking why converts couldn’t be as well. I would argue, from my personal vantage point, that one who is converting to Judaism is thereby choosing to cast their lot, so-to-speak, with the Jewish People, adopting religion, history, ETC., ETC., but I recognize that this process is not always seemless and can be downright difficult for many. For me, that identity-formation just came naturally. Upon further reflection, I am grateful for the opportunity to read a perspective on conversion that diverges so dramatically from my own. It further underscores the point that converts each have their own stories, are certainly not a monolith and that these varying perspectives deserve exploration. I also think that the Jewish community can learn a lot from this as well.

  • Lizlawler

    Thanks for this Leah, so nice to be in conversation with articulate women. peace, Liz.