A Trek from Catholicism
The baptismal records at a church in New Jersey have a certificate showing that on July 5, 1969, my Jewish father converted to Catholicism. My family has always kept this quiet, our mother teaching us to be sensitive to the feelings of those who would find this a betrayal. When my mother and father married in 1957, he was a non-practicing Jew, and she was a devout Catholic. Without question, my parents knew that their children would be raised in her faith. Twelve years into the marriage my father died, leaving my mother and six children behind. Twenty-five years later, the silence around my father’s conversion would lead to the sounding call of my own voice as a Jewish woman.
While living in Utah in my early thirties and dealing with the loss of a dear friend, I turned toward Judaism for solace. A non-practicing Catholic, I could have turned to Catholicism, but when I had tried this in my twenties—joining others in prayer groups or reading the New Testament before bed—I felt disconnected.
The idea of practicing Judaism came to me after my older brother David, who lived in Utah as well, mentioned having attended a few synagogue services. I stood in his kitchen dumbfounded. I didn’t know there were any Jews in Utah, the state known for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons. There were 650.
The following Friday, I went to Congregation Kol Ami with a friend from work. Ghosts of my father and his brother, Al, seemed to stand before me on the bimah, the raised platform from which worship services are led. The President of the Board stood a full six inches shorter than Rabbi Wengar, who was leading the service. My Uncle Al had stood the same size alongside my father, who had been tall and had a full head of hair, like Rabbi Wengar. Uncle Al had been my height, tall for a woman, below average for a man, with thinning red hair. Before cancer had ravaged his body, he was round, as was the President of the Board. Rabbi Wengar had full lips like my father and the same easy smile. My eyes darted back and forth between the two of them; a cache of memories and mourning stuck in my throat.
I began going alone to the Saturday services. Before this, I had never heard the song of Hebrew: I was washed over by a river without bottom. Too shy to join the oneg Shabbat, the informal gathering after Sabbath services, I would drive directly home and lie in bed with my thoughts humming. My favorite melody turned out to be that of the Shma, the revered prayer which declares God’s Oneness: Listen, Israel, Adonai our God is One. It is the first prayer I learned in Hebrew: Shma, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad. I was in wonder at these words, since they were the last of the rabbinic scholars in past centuries burned alive while wrapped in Torah scrolls, and upon the lips of those about to enter the gas chambers. On Shabbat, as the summer sun rested on the edge of my bed, I would repeat the Shma in my mind and be soothed.
Sitting in synagogue over the following weeks, I brimmed with a remembered awareness of myself. I loved the sounds and the prayers; thankful for life in spite of loss. I swam in an inarticulate homecoming, as I took unpaid days off from work to celebrate the High Holy Days, light-headed from fasting, but filled with a sense of having reached the brink of myself, then going beyond into a forgiveness that dissolved any sense of separation between me and another. I began reading books that opened me up to the world of Judaic rituals and five-thousandyear- old traditions. I discovered the instruction to probe, and this was where I swam most freely: questioning. I didn’t worry that my feet didn’t touch the bottom, that I was treading with no end in sight. I was buoyant within the waters of Judaism.
I found that my mother and I were able to celebrate my father’s family without having to deconstruct her spiritual foundation. In our phone conversations, I would tell her how Judaism felt like a Return for me. I’d ask her what she would think if I converted, and she’d say, “I married a Jewish man, why would I mind having a Jewish daughter?”
Soon after, though, my viewpoint on conversion changed considerably. One day after services, I was sitting on my bed reading a book on Judaism. Fall was stepping into Utah. The leaves outside my window were turning color; a gentle breeze lifted the curtains. The author, a rabbi, suggested to the people who were searching for meaning within religion to go back to the one in which they were raised, reasoning that the fundamental practice of most religions was the same: Love thy neighbor as thyself. He didn’t believe it was necessary to travel down a completely new road to find one’s meaning or solace. I lowered the book, surprised by the sense of relief washing over me: I was being given permission to keep our family secret in the closet. All I would have to do is turn back toward Catholicism and then The Apostate, my father, could remain there in the dark.
For years, my father’s act—renouncing Judaism—had pressed the air like wings in my mind. I was always warned by my mother not to release it to anyone Jewish for fear of it seeming a slap on the face, rather than breezy conversation. Her warning was justified. Once, at a poetry reading, I was talking with an elderly Jewish man and I mentioned that my paternal grandfather had changed our family name from Geltzeiler to Nash. The gentleman’s face fell and I was unable to lift it to an understanding that my grandfather did this for the safety of his children. I was told that he had dragged his finger down page after page of the phone book to find a generic last name so my father and uncle could go to school: with a new last name, they would be safe from endangering connections to the Geltzeiler cousins who were bootlegging in Newark, New Jersey. Regardless, my grandfather became, in this man’s eyes, a Jew to be ashamed of. I didn’t understand; I did not grow up learning about my heritage this man was mourning over: After my father died, we lost all touch with his side of the family. It was after this encounter that the shame surrounding my family’s name change slid a bolt across the closet harboring the secret about my father finding Jesus.
I put the book back on the shelf in the living room. I decided that with a past that could lead to judgment and controversy in the future within the Jewish community, I would take the option not only to step away from Judaism, but make my way back to Catholicism. I would seek to recall the cool water of my baptism slipping over my forehead; receive the communion wafer as the Son of God; confess my sins in Confession. This way, I could continue to hold the secret within me, deem myself powerless to speak for a man in his dying days: My father converted to Catholicism six months before he died, and was buried in a Catholic cemetery in New Jersey with my mother’s name and birth date chiseled in the stone alongside his, waiting for the date when she joined him.
Ensconced in judgment and shame, I watched the door of reason slowly close in my mind. While I knew that I had sat in synagogue and whispered to my forebears, “I hear you when I speak,” I told myself I’d be able to have Christmas and Nat King Cole, multi-colored lights on freshly fallen snow, children anticipating Santa Claus—if I simply placed my hands over my ears. I’d be able to stand alongside my family at Mass and welcome the sound of their song in my heart. I’d be able to rest on Sundays, along with the rest of the country. I would be able to remain in step, get along, and keep quiet.
Some weeks later, in the dark of a December morning, tree branches crackling under the burden of ice, I put the last few things into my packed car for my return to New Jersey. It was time to go home. Beneath a sky pierced with stars, I began my drive over the Rockies and across the Mississippi. Resettled, I began attending Mass and studying what I tried to believe was the dormant Catholicism within me. Before a year was out, I found myself without a religion.
I was in church one Sunday, and on the altar was a child in the arms of her family; she was being baptized. As I was reciting a prayer in perfect step with the congregation, enjoying the ease with which I was remembering the dance of kneeling and standing and sitting and responding throughout the service, the words suddenly stopped rolling out of my mouth and into the collective pool of belief: I did not believe in the sacrament of Baptism, “…unless we be born again of water and the Holy Ghost we can not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Truth Himself told us.”
The congregation created a soft sound of rolling thunder through the church as we all sat down again. I looked at the people around me; I did not believe a single child would be shut out from God if she wasn’t baptized.
I walked back down the marble stairs as a member of the church for the last time.
For awhile, I was without a religious identity, until I realized that if I were to have children I wouldn’t raise them anything but Jewish. With this quiet, simple knowingness, I fully recognized myself as a Jewish woman. Two years later, I converted with my mother’s blessings. Five more years would pass before I’d have the fortitude to disclose my father’s conversion to anyone but my closest intimates. For the rest of my life I will yearn for the intricacies of my father’s journey toward July 5, 1969.
Marian Nash lives in New York City. This piece is excerpted from her manuscript-in-progress, The Morning of My Judaism: An Exploration of the Jewish Morning Prayers.
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