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A Convert’s Passion for Judaism

At the Shabbat service in which my conversion to Judaism was celebrated nearly ten years ago, my husband and my four children and I did not sit together but were scattered throughout the sanctuary. This was not planned; neither was it an accident. My conversion caused conflict and divisions among us; my Jewish husband who was not interested in religion, any religion; my two non-Jewish (from a former marriage) children; and our two younger children. I had all alone fallen in love with Judaism. It would have been less disruptive if I had fallen in love with another man.

My decision to convert had been ripening for a long time. Once it occurred, it seemed organic, not radical. Recently, when someone suggested that I took on a “new identity” when I converted, I bristled. No I didn’t. I am the same. I just found the religion, the tribal garb, the community that helps me make more sense of the world.

I was born into a family that was nominally Greek Orthodox (and I delight in telling people that I have an Orthodox background), but hardly religious. We went to church only for family occasions and for Easter (not Christmas, which was viewed as a secular American holiday).

In this respect, as well as others, I was an oddball in my family. I did care about religion but I found the Christian myth distancing and I was never drawn in. I was drawn to Jews and to their cultural language from a very early age. My best friend was one of the few Jews in my town, I taught myself the Hebrew words to songs from Jan Peerce and Connie Francis records, I considered rushing the Jewish sorority in college, and I pretended to be Jewish after I moved to New York. Why? I don’t know. Nevertheless, converting to Judaism also did not then occur to me. Perhaps it is because I didn’t think of Jews as a religious community but as an ethnic one, and you can’t join an ethnic community…can you?

In my re-entry into religious engagement in my late 20s, I had fascinating, exciting conversations with a smart, liberation theology-oriented former Roman Catholic priest, whom I then married. After three years and two children (Dimitri and Katherine), we separated and divorced and shortly thereafter, I married my real husband, a Jew who is Jewish through and through but not one tiny bit interested in Judaism. We agreed that our children would be “raised as Jews,” although we never talked about what that might mean. We certainly never talked about my converting, nor about whether our children would convert. By the time we had been married two and a half years, we had two children. Sam was ritually circumcised on the dining room table and we had a baby-naming for Julia.

From the very beginning, I wanted to “celebrate” (or in some way acknowledge the existence of) Jewish holidays. All I knew about were the Big Three, so that is what we did. Initially I had little notion about how to organize a seder. I also didn’t know what to do at home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I set about learning. I no longer thought I was telling a big fat lie when I said I was Jewish. I began to consider converting but it was not on my active agenda; I would think about it, I told myself, after my parents were gone.

And then came the turning point.

I came home from a three-day conference I had attended with a friend and announced to my husband of ten years that I was going to convert. What had happened? At the conference, in an “identity” game, we were asked to stand under the sign that best represented us: Protestant, Catholic, Liberal, Activist, and so on. I was overcome with regret that I was not entitled to stand under the sign that said “Jew.” That’s where I felt I belonged, but I also felt that to have stood there would have been dishonest. I had to choose a sign that did not reflect my primary identification. It was at that moment that I realized it was time to make it official, my parents’ good health notwithstanding, my husband’s shock and dismay and lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, my children’s confusion notwithstanding. I signed up for lessons. Little did I know that I was about to fall totally and hopelessly in love with Judaism.

I studied for a year before I converted (I am still studying), and during that time, I became increasingly interested and then totally absorbed. I could not talk about, think about, read or worry about anything else. I was often breathless with excitement about what I was learning, especially Torah and history. I saw a connection to what I was learning in everything. I pointed out the connection at every opportunity. I thought that everything I was learning was known by every Jew, and I thought I would never catch up. I made my friends crazy, and even lost a few who thought I was “too Jewish” (music!). When a friend told me around the time of my conversion that I (like all Jewish souls from the beginning of time) had been at Sinai, I was moved to tears. (I have since learned how commonplace is such praise of converts. Nevertheless, each of us believes that it is true.) Don’t even ask about my first trip to Israel.

“Conversion week” was full of surprises. The moment of immersion in the mikvah was not transcendent—too much like baptism. But the Beit Din, the three-rabbi Jewish “court” that questioned me then and there to ensure that I was ready to take on the “yoke of the Torah,” was exhilarating. I had studied for it as if it were Ph.D. orals. It turned out to be a very snappy, very Jewish conversation for which I was more than prepared. The rabbis were famous and smart. I felt so cool. I felt like I was home.

Then there was the Torah service on the next Shabbat. I had an aliyah, of course, and I also chanted part of the haftarah and the blessings before and after the haftarah. But the moment of greatest bliss for me was carrying the Torah around the sanctuary, seeing a sea of joyous faces advance, surround and then part before the Torah and me. (To this day, carrying the Torah is an honor I prize much more highly than an aliyah.) At the party afterward, my husband had the best line of the day: He noted tartly that my conversion was his mother’s revenge.

Then came the inevitable necessity of telling my parents. I actually didn’t tell them— my children inadvertently exposed me when they referred, in a phone call with them about a month later, to “when Mom converted.” I was going to tell them, but hadn’t yet gotten around to it. My mother was shocked and immediately assumed that this meant that I was not Greek anymore, and she prepared, I am sure, to do the Greek Orthodox equivalent of sitting shiva. I explained to them that I was and would always remain Greek, and that being Jewish had no effect upon that. I told them that my being Jewish just meant (for present purposes) that I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. My mother replied, “Well, neither do I.” My mother never exactly said so, but I knew what bothered her was that now I was “A Jew”; now I was different, a little alien from her (how could a Jew be her daughter?), and a member of that group about which ugly things are said. She is still not entirely comfortable with it, but the dust has settled.

The conversion itself turned out to be just the beginning. I continued studying, and learning Torah has been the most transformative experience of my life. I have spent my life as a public interest lawyer, and perhaps that was a useful precondition for being a real Jew, but it is in Torah that I found my Jewish soul, this Book which has kept the Jewish people together for thousands of years. Every word, every letter, every punctuation mark, has been analyzed, pored over, caressed, and has yielded its meaning, for thousands of years. Every generation sees it through its own lens, but nothing is lost. The dialogue across the ages is sublime.

Learning Jewish text, feeling a part of the sweep of Jewish history, being connected to this mad enterprise that demands, in the same tone of voice, the pursuit of justice and the saying of a prayer for going to the bathroom, has re-ordered my life. It’s not that I have “found God.” In fact, I have much less of an idea of God or of whether I believe in Her than I did ten years ago. But I know that there is holiness. I feel it when I learn a new insight that leaves me breathless. I feel it when I, hardly a New Age type, open my mouth and sing the word “Ya” and I experience one of those rare moments when I am totally and unselfconsciously present.

I know that sometimes I go too far. I can’t analyze any problem that arises in my life or anyone else’s without finding a parallel in the life of Jacob or Tamar or Esther. I delight in throwing around the Jewish organizational alphabet soup: JCPA, UAHC, NIF, ZOA. I can’t take a shower without humming a niggun. Most of my friends are tolerant. Some of them, born Jews, have rediscovered Judaism in the wake of my mad passion.

The friends who found my obsession too much to take could at least go home at night. My family couldn’t escape. I introduced increased practice into our family routines, and expected everyone to love it as much as I did. After all, we were all Jewish, weren’t we? (My younger children, then seven and nine were converted, willingly, shortly after I was. As for the two non-Jewish kids, I just ignored the fact that this was not their tradition.) No more mere one-hour “family service” on the haggim (the major holidays). No, it was the whole day, or two days, and erevs as well. No more celebrating only the Big Three. There were many other festivals and fast days to observe and celebrate; and shul on Shabbat; and no chazzer in the house, not even egg rolls or pepperoni pizza. There were mezzuzot on every doorpost, and—this was big— there was no Christmas tree.

Not everything was a battle, but almost everything was an issue. I turned my husband, a man who had been indifferent to Judaism, into one who was often positively hostile to it. All of the children, but especially the younger ones, heard too much strife over Jewish issues. Some early issues were predictable, like whether we’d have a Christmas tree; others, less so, like whether we would light candles on Friday night if our guests were not Jewish. Later, my desire to stay in the city and go to shul on Friday night, and the children’s desire to stay in the city on any pretext at all, left my husband isolated in his desire to continue the longstanding family practice of going to the country every weekend. My older daughter, Kate, with whom I had a very difficult relationship under the best of circumstances, felt, I think, even more distanced from me because of my new passion for something alien to her. Dimitri’s equally unfortunate reaction was to seek to please me by bringing home Jewish girlfriends whether he liked them or not. And all of them knew that they could get to me by putting down things Jewish.

But there was good stuff too—deepened understanding, spiritual enrichment, and fun: The children’s bar and bat mitzvahs were moments of transcendence for all of us, even their Christian grandparents. None of us us will forget seeing their Greek Orthodox grandmother sitting patiently with a transliteration and helping them practice their haftarot. And we have become for our friends the address for the Let’s Eat portion of most Jewish holidays. Our many trips to Israel, in various combinations, have been extraordinary and have contributed to the strength of Sam’s and Julie’s Jewish identities—and Kate’s as well. On a trip a few months ago, she told a young Ethiopian man she met at a bar on Yoel Solomon Street who suspected her pedigree that yes, indeed, she really was Jewish.

What accounted for the fact that the unmixing of this mixed marriage was a mixed blessing? Much of it was my fault. First of all, I was insecure and very defensive in my Jewishness. I had (had?!) an authenticity complex. I saw rejection by other Jews around every corner, and my feelings were hurt even when no criticism was intended at all. At a dinner party several years ago, the host commented that all the men were Jewish and none of the women were. I waved my hand and said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Well, you are not a real Jew” and my eyes welled up. Such incidents served only to deepen my insecurity and ensure that I would continue to try too hard—relentless study, passionate davvening, self-consciously peppering my discourse with Hebrew and Yiddish. A friend who was often in Israel with me pointed out that a dream I described to her was one that I had every year in Israel for several years running—that doors were being closed in my face. I avoid telling people that I am a convert. I pretend to know nothing about Christianity.

I was also grossly insensitive to my family’s feelings. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t fall in love and bring the new lover into the home and expect everyone else to fall in love too. When you are in love, you are a little crazy. I didn’t see that I couldn’t expect everyone to follow me off this cliff.

And my husband felt spurned. He felt jealous that my passion was not for him alone, and cheated that I had discovered riches in his tradition that had never been revealed to him. And angry that I, whom he continually described as a shiksa from California, was “out Jewing” him, a strongly identified Jew; that it was I to whom our friends addressed their questions about Jewish ritual, practice and history.

And now, ten years later? Things have gotten better, much better. For one thing, the sheer passage of time has made a difference, has given each of us a chance to get used to a new status quo. We’ve all grown up a little too. Dimitri has gotten over his need to pick girls who will make mom kvell. Katherine, philosopher, has decided that religion needn’t divide us but can be a medium of connection—we now have long conversations and e-mail exchanges on the Jewish perspective on questions of philosophy and religion that interest her. Sam and Julie are committed Jews, and Zionists to boot. My husband credits me with the fact that our children have strong Jewish identities of which he is most proud—especially since the Jewishness of the children of many of our friends is in serious remission. Finally, that perennial favorite, the Christmas tree issue, doesn’t come up anymore because we now just go away together for the Winter break. For the most part, we have stopped using Judaism as a battleground on which to wage other contests, and it is more likely to be used in good-natured teasing. Recently, when we were talking about our future retirement and I told my husband that I (unlike he) don’t want to move to Connecticut “because,” I said, “I am a New York Jew,” he good-naturedly replied, “If you were really a New York Jew, you’d want to move to Connecticut.” He tells people that it was my conversion that made our marriage mixed. He also knows what is out of bounds. He never calls me a shiksa.

The other thing that has changed is me. I realized that I could not continue headlong in the direction and at the pace I was going with a family that didn’t want to go there. In addition, as time goes by, I feel more authentically Jewish, so I have less need to prove it. I have become more comfortable with the necessity to flatten my Jewish trajectory—I will not become a rabbi, keep kosher or make aliyah. That in turn has promoted another Jewish value, shalom bayit, peace in the home. I have learned that a Jewish home in which peace prevails is more Jewish than one filled with acrimony and four sets of dishes.

Kathleen Peratis is a civil rights lawyer in New York and the chair of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.


And others say…

by Sarah Blustain

When one member of a family embraces Judaism— either through conversion or a simple return to observance, she may be surprised to find her loved ones resistant, even resentful. Two recent books follow these difficulties with humor and sensitivity. In The Year Mom Got Religion: One Woman’s Midlife Journey into Judaism (Jewish Lights), Lee Meyerhoff Hendler writes, “Unshared transformation requires patience, a thick skin, a sense of humor, a good memory, love and empathy.” Though Hendler’s take is humorous, one imagines her pain on “The Mother’s Day from Hell,” when her husband responded to her new kosher observance by taking the family out for a crab dinner.

Liberal baby-boomer Roberta Israeloff goes through a similar transition in Kindling the Flame: A Woman’s Spiritual Journey (Simon and Schuster), recalling the fits and starts that take us from her sons’ whining “Do we have to?” [go to synagogue] to her eldest son’s bar mitzvah reflection: “That was the best bar mitzvah I’ve ever been to.”