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