Practice Makes Jewish

KraussLet me round out this story in a last navel-gazing post. In the aftermath of my conversion, I felt a big, “now what?” There is a sense that this is a pivotal moment; you have the opportunity and the burden to make good on all of these promises, these openings in yourself and your life. But I was in the odd position of having to define the notion of “secular conversion” for myself and for the little family that I had very recently created. No one bats an eyelash when a born Jew refers to him/her self as a “secular Jew.”  But for me to say that… Well, this gives pause. And why the difference?

This gets us into uncomfortable territory. Because to talk about this, you also have to acknowledge that we (sometimes) still revert to thinking of Jews as a race, an ethnicity, a group of people defined not just by faith, but by some particular coding in their DNA. I can’t be a secular Jew because, well, I am not made up of the right genetic stuff. I don’t look Jewish enough to be a Jewish Atheist. (Are you wretchedly uncomfortable yet? Offended? Should we even be talking about this?) It’s nonsense, of course. Or, at the very least, it is problematic. The fact is, there are Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc. Sometimes we sanitize the language by referring to Jews as a “nation.” But nations, by definition, have geographic borders, and in spite of Israel’s existence, Jews are still a diasporic people. Finding a coherent definition of “Jewishness” is a quixotic and nuanced process.  

So, there I was, as a new Jew and new mom, not only examining my notions of faith and God, but also picking at the scab of my deeply buried racisms. I realized that I can’t resolve these anthropological questions to anyone’s satisfaction. I reduced the investigation to one of language and practice. On one level this became an exercise in semantics, as I parsed the definitions of “Jewish,” “Jewish woman/mother” and “prayer.” Take this last one, for instance. Most definitions of prayer rely heavily on God for their meaning. But I like the simplest: “a petition, an entreaty.” It’s a reading that makes of praying a kind of intention setting. But all of the linguistics chatter makes this seem overly academic. It really wasn’t. Sorting out these ideas became a joyful unlearning my pre-conceived notions of myself. I urge you: take yourself apart by re-defining the words that make up your identity. You will find peace and freedom in re-writing the language that delineates you.

The structure of a page of Talmud reinforces my approach. This is a testament to intellectual and ethical rigor: it is a patchwork text, a millennial argument between sages. Wrestling with questions of principle and more fundamentally, with the very existence of God. If arguing and anguishing over words and ideas makes one a Jew, then I have been here all along. Annotated texts are the substance of relativism, throwing authorship into question, allowing for addenda and re-appropriation by later generations. This is, in fact, a modern religion. It brings up the image of Jacob, wrestling with the Angel/God. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about: just wrestling with the idea of God. We are all angels wrestling with deity.

Every day, I re-affirm my identity. I wake up and chose Judaism. My relationship to Judaism is like an alcoholic’s relationship to recovery. It is a process of daily re-affirmation, of choice. Jewishness is not a static layer of identity for me (or for you, I suppose) it is a path, a process. I am in argument with myself over it.

–Liz Lawler