Jew Too? Part 3 – Pride & Prejudice

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A few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience. Interesting only as it relates to my very new and fresh perspective of being someone who is converting to Judaism.

I was at a restaurant with a group of moms, most of whom I didn’t know. We were basically all there because of a function our kids were involved in. In the very close-knit community in which I’ve lived for the past 20 years, even if you don’t “know” someone directly, you probably have less than 2 degrees of separation in your social circle. So, as many of the moms began to interact, one mom asked another “don’t I know you from church?” The conversation rapidly turned into a discussion of who went to what church in town. In the past, when my kids were younger, I would’ve piped right in and offered that I went to one of the well-known Methodist churches in town.

Instead, I immediately developed a feeling of dread. All I could think of was – what if someone asks me what church I go to??? My mind was racing … do I just say “I’m Jewish”? But I’m technically not yet. Do I say I go to Congregation Kol Ami? But technically I’m not a member yet. So do I just say I’m in the process of converting to Judaism? That could create an interesting opening for conversation at a table full of Christians, ha! All I could imagine was the long awkward pause that might follow or the uncomfortable attempts to either ask questions about it, or maybe an effort to just change the subject. My mind fast-forwarded to the fact that I also might be judged in some way – that my kid may be judged or ostracized in some way. I would become “the Jewish lady” in conversations that were discussed afterwards. I felt as if I had some sort of dark secret that I had to choose whether or not to divulge.

I was caught so off guard – not only by the situation, but my reaction to it. How could I have never thought of this and how I would react? Most of my closer friends know about my conversion and I have discussed it with many of them. My Facebook friends know I post and blog about it. But I had never thought about discussing it with people I didn’t know. In person. Without the safety of my carefully thought out words on a computer between us.

My husband (who is Jewish) and the very few Jewish friends I have here in the north Texas area (I can count them on one hand) had told me how they do not always like to “advertise” the fact that they are Jews because this is such a Christian-centric part of the country. I know some people here who’ve never even personally known someone who is Jewish. Their customs, not only as a religion but also, as a culture, are completely foreign to most people who have spent their entire lives living in Texas. So I get it. And there is still prejudice. Yes, there is. I have a Jewish friend whose son recently asked a girl to a dance. The girl was not permitted to go with him. Not because her parents thought she was too young. Not because they didn’t want her to go on a date yet. Her parents are apparently devout Christians and they would not allow it – because he’s Jewish. And they admitted it. Wow. Right here in suburban DFW. (Side note: Jews are not often thrilled when one of their own dates or marries outside the faith, so that can also be viewed as a “prejudice” of sorts – but this is usually more common with orthodox or conservative Jews. For them, and even sometimes reform Jews, it goes much deeper as Judaism is tied to a cultural heritage and lineage as well as a religion. And that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Even so, it would be very rare that a reform Jew would prohibit a date to a dance outside of the faith.)

If you read my earlier blogs, you know that because of where I grew up (the northeast US and then Southeast FL, both of which have sizable Jewish populations) I was exposed to and familiar with the Jewish faith from a young age. I always had Jewish friends growing up. In fact several of my best friends in high school were Jewish. I dated Jewish boys. But I’ve lived here long enough to know that, if you are Jew, you truly are a very small minority of the populace.

So I sat there. I sipped my drink and avoided eye contact and hoped no one asked me anything directly about what church I belonged to. Now that I am one of “them” – a Jew and all the stereotypes that go with it – I did not necessarily want it to be known. And, after I left the restaurant and had time to think about it, I HATED myself for it.

When I told my husband and another close friend who is Jewish what happened they were like “uh huh.” That’s it? “Uh huh”? I was floored! I wanted them join me in my self-reproach and shame. I wanted them to tell me “well, this is how we deal with it” or “this is what you should do.” “Here’s how you can be a Loud and Proud Jew.” But they didn’t. Perhaps because they have dealt with this type of situation all their lives. Dealt with knowing they are a tiny minority. Dealt with knowing they are different. Dealt with the stereotypes. Dealt with insensitive comments from people who didn’t know they were Jewish. Dealt with anti-Semitism and knowing that societies have tried to ostracize them and even eliminate them from the face of the earth for centuries. Most Jews I know are exceptionally proud of their heritage and customs but, when you grow up knowing the timeless persecution endured by your ancestors (and even contemporaries), it’s got to have a profound effect on how you identify yourself with those who aren’t Jewish. And so many of them have grown accustomed to not necessarily “advertising” that they are Jewish in certain situations. Not a big deal to them. “So what?” they say. As my rabbi told me, the Jews have a saying “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

Maybe I’m making too big a deal of the whole thing. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive. I suppose it’s just part of my conversion journey. But it really had a profound effect on me after which some soul-searching ensued. It made it very apparent that I’ve never been considered to be part of a “minority” of people. By choosing Judaism, I’m now part of this tiny little sliver of a people/culture/religion who’ve struggled to exist for thousands of years. It was a little jarring to see a few of the anti-Semitic events that were reported in the news recently. To think that people could actually hate me, want me out of their city, want me out of their country or even want me DEAD simply because I’m choosing to be a Jew. Wow. That’s pretty heavy. Maybe why I felt that impulse to clam up.

It’s also given me some perspective on what it might be like to be in a minority of a category that you cannot “hide” as easily. If you are a person of color or if you are of a certain race, you cannot choose to hide your “different-ness” and you can be assessed on that alone before you even have a chance to say one word.

So now that I’ve had time to let the experience sink in, roll it around in my head and digest it (with some Manischewitz wine), I’ve decided I’m not going to react the same way the next time I’m in a similar situation. If I’m asked what church I go to, I will just be honest. I will say “I’m converting to Judaism! Can I enlighten you with some Torah knowledge? Offer you a piece of matzo?” Just teasing! I will proudly and simply say (without any reservation) that I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Whatever follows – any awkward pauses or tentative questions, I will simply lighten the mood with good sense of humor and use my witty personality to navigate. And THAT can be my opportunity to break into some Yiddish and offer to let them see my horns. Wink-wink!

Jew too?? Part 2 – Confession of Pre-teen Doubter

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Growing up, my parents weren’t “religious” by any stretch, so I guess you could say I was “loosely” raised in the Catholic faith. My family was Irish-Catholic on my dad’s side and Italian-Catholic on my mom’s side. Two crazy sides of Catholics! We went to church on the “big occasions” and celebrated all the major Christian holidays with our Italian-Irish twists, but led pretty secular lives for the most part. I did attend a Catholic school for first and second grade and very reluctantly went to catechism (basically the Catholic version of Sunday school). But what I learned in religion class and catechism only inspired more questions in my head. And that magical mystery we call “faith” was something that eluded me.

Honestly, by the time I was 7 years old, I began questioning the religious faith I was supposed to be developing. Yeah, I was one of those kids they called “precocious” for my ability to relentlessly question EVERYthing from the existence of G-d, Jesus, and the holy trinity, to the reality of the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause and flying reindeer. I was the kid who very matter-of-factly told my cousins one Christmas Eve that it was my Grandpa in the Santa suit and beard pretending to be Santa for all of us – could they not see it?? Yep, I was THAT kid. Looking back, I feel really bad for my mom and grandma who bore the brunt of my interrogations.

When I was in 2nd grade, like most other Catholic kids, I experienced the milestone of making my first communion. Having that crazy tasteless wafer stick to the roof of my mouth for 10 minutes after having to drink the “blood” of Christ from a common chalice, blech!!! (At least today I might’ve enjoyed the wine, ha!) But I do have to say that wearing the pretty white dress and the tiara with the veil attached outweighed the scary parts.

Not long after that, I saw my mother pretty much abandon the Catholic faith. After she and my dad divorced, the church would not annul their marriage. That meant she could never marry again in the Catholic church. So she pretty much divorced the church along with my dad. She later married my step-dad in a small civil ceremony.

By the time I was 12, it was time for the second big milestone that Catholic kids take part in. “Confirmation” is regarded as the “perfection of baptism” and is a required right of passage to be a true Catholic. (Well, it was back then – not sure if that’s changed.) In addition to deepening my relationship with the Holy Spirit (try wrapping your mind around that one at the age of 12), getting confirmed also involved something that was completely and totally horrifying to me – even more than drinking out of the common chalice – and that was making your first “confession.” To a priest. In a tiny booth. Just you, him (the priest that maybe just gave you the awful wafer?), and your … SINS. You know, the scenes you see in TV shows and movies where you go into the spooky wooden booth and confess all your sinful acts and impure thoughts to the faceless voice behind the screen. ACCCKKKK!

And then there was the punishment for whatever you confessed – you’d have to say Hail Mary’s or Our Father’s to repent for whatever awful things you thought or did.  What would happen if you lied? Would they know?? Would lightening strike me on my way out of the creepy booth?? Should I confess that I don’t like the wafer at communion?? That I hate drinking from the chalice? Don’t’ worry – it won’t be that bad, they said. It’ll be FINE – everyone does it, they said.

Well, pre-teen rebel that I was, when push came to shove, I flat out refused to do it. Luckily, for me, my parents didn’t feel strongly about pushing the issue and my grandma, who probably had as much influence in my life as my parents, said if I had anything to confess I could do it in the privacy of my own prayers. She asked “what could a 12 year old possibly have to confess anyway?” Right on Gram!! Because, seriously, from my knowledge of the 10 commandments, I couldn’t figure out what violations I had done that were bad enough to confess.

So by the age of 13, just as my mom “divorced” the Catholic church, I also did so in my own way.

And as went through my teenage years, I continued to have more questions than answers about religion and the “faith” that I was supposed to have developed – as a Christian who believed in a savior or even as just a believer in G-d at times – never stayed for much longer than a nanosecond. My mind always ended up talking me out of it. But, for whatever reason, I did always pray and I nevertheless asked to be forgiven for the self-perceived “sins” that I committed throughout my teenage years.

Since, as I mentioned earlier, my family wasn’t devoutly religious, none of this created tension in my family. And most of my friends growing up had the same type of casual religious structure to their lives, so I never felt ostracized or out of place. Most of the families I knew were Catholic or Jewish and, aside from the usual holiday traditions and major milestones like confirmations and bar/bat mitzvahs, we led pretty secular lives. I never personally knew any Baptists growing up, so no one ever tried to “evangelize” me. In fact that concept was completely foreign to me and I would never experience that phenomenon until after I was in college.

Through all of that, my dear sweet Gram was the person with whom I always turned to for my “deep” faith discussions. I knew I could talk with her about all my beliefs, disbeliefs, doubts and convictions without judgment. She would listen, we would discuss her views and experiences in life and she would always end by just saying “follow the golden rule – do unto others … “ She assured me that, some day, in my own time and with my own life experiences to give me more perspective, I would figure it all out. Boy do I miss her.

And so I continued to wander in my faith journey …

Jew too? 1st edition: Why? Why???

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So why would anyone, at the age of 48 who, as a child, was raised in the Catholic faith, decide to become a Jew?  Why??

It’s certainly not an easy process to join the Jewish faith. It’s not like you just start attending synagogue and, if you like it, they ask you to join or go through a quick baptismal and you’re in. Nope. Jews don’t “evangelize” or try to convince you to become Jewish. In fact, it is common for a rabbi to actually DISSUADE you from becoming a Jew on your first request, and sometimes even the second or third request. Once you decide you are truly committed and you find a rabbi who agrees to guide you through the process, it typically takes between six months to a year to complete the necessary religious studies and rituals. Becoming Jewish, again, is not easy.

Also, Judaism is not a common religion. Well, where I grew up it was. But even in NY, where I was born and where the highest percent of Jews reside, it’s less than 10% of the populace. According to web sites I’ve visited in my research, in most states in the US, Jews make up less than 3% of the population. So you’re not exactly joining the popular kids club, especially in my current home state of TX where Jews make up less than .5% of the population. Wow.

Is it the food and festivals that drew me in? Like the mostly Italian-American environment I was raised in, food and family are a big part of most Jewish holidays. But, hey, it’s not all fun and games in Judaism – at times you actually have to FAST to get to the “feast.” I think the Italians would rather die than fast. EIGHT days of presents at Hanukkah? Sweet! Lighting the menorah is cool and spinning a dreidle is fun. And aside from gefilte fish, the food traditions can be pretty awesome. Potato latkes, matzo ball soup, brisket, kugel, challah bread, rugelach … mmmmmmm!!!!

Then there is converting because you are marrying a Jew.  I’m NOT doing it because I want to marry a Jew and he and his parents/family insist on it. I’m already married to a Jew and his family accepts and loves me even though I’m a “shiksa.” I have children from a previous marriage who were raised as Christians and we are not having any more children, so becoming Jewish to raise my children as Jews is not an issue. It is also worth mentioning that, if you convert solely for the purpose of marriage, some conservative rabbis do not feel you necessarily have a “true Jewish soul.”   So picky these Jews are!

So, back to “why?” …

It’s been a very long, complicated journey. And it’s pretty impossible to sum up in a few paragraphs. So that’s why I decided to journal my thoughts that led me to convert and then through my conversion experience.   And blog about it. I’m still not sure why I feel compelled to share it. It’s really soul-baring at times. It’s coming to terms with your deepest doubts, fears and questions about spirituality. It’s coming to terms with “breaking” from a religion in which you were raised and the “fallout” from that. How? How do I go about explaining this? What will the repercussions be? On my family? On my kids? On my relationships with my friends? Especially with those who are devout Christians? All this and more … I will discuss to the best of my abilities to put into words. Thank you for joining me on “Jew too?”  🙂