It was just a couple of weeks before my conversion, and five minutes into my conversation with Tracy, the receptionist at the Gerim Institute, when the inevitable question came up: "And now I need to ask," she said, "will you be having a token or real circumcision?" We had exhausted all the other logistics of my upcoming conversion--time, date, place, Jewish name, rabbis--but this was the big one. Male Jews are required by law to be circumcised; like most American guys my age, I already was. But even converts who are already circumcised are required by Jewish law to undergo a token circumcision, a quick drawing of blood by a mohel, or ritual circumciser. "Token," I told Tracy with a laugh.
I had endured months of joking from friends and family about the imminent "snip." If it wasn't the first question everyone asked when I told them I was converting, it was certainly the second. "Are we invited to the bris?" my friends wanted to know. "Noah, I hope you can afford to lose an inch or so," many joked.
My token circumcision was performed at the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath where I would convert. It was a minor operation, despite the hype. The mohel put on plastic gloves, matter-of-factly drew the required blood, and dabbed the blood on a swab, which he then presented as evidence to the bet din, the court of three rabbis who would question me before my conversion.
After my circumcision, Sara and I went out to lunch with Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the rabbi I had met with frequently to discuss the conversion process. We arrived back at the mikveh at quarter to one and stood around the lobby for a bit, waiting for my turn with the bet din. The mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim, is located in Newton, Mass., and just opened this past spring. It sits in a small, colonial-era house, renovated in a smart-looking modern design. In the back of the building, there are two ritual baths, separated by a sky-lit common area and each connected through a pipe to a pool of "living water" collected from rain outside the building. The baths were closed in and each had an adjoining bathroom/waiting room. Earthen stone tiles, hard wood, and comfortable, spacious bathrooms made it feel more like day spa than a religious center. By late June, the time of my appointment, roughly 150 people had visited the mikveh in its first few months of operation, 50 of them for conversion.
My bet din comprised Sharon, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, who taught our class, and Rabbi Judith Kummer, the head of the Gerim Institute. As with the circumcision, there had been speculation from friends and family about the bet din. Was it a quiz? Could you fail? A bit nervous, I envisioned three old bearded rabbis in black robes sitting in elevated chairs and issuing judgments on my lack of knowledge. In reality, Sharon, Rabbi Reinstein, and Rabbi Kummer dressed in work clothes, not black robes, sat around a table with me, not on elevated chairs, and engaged me in a broad and open conversation about my choice to convert.
Rabbi Kummer asked the first question: "Describe your journey to Judaism for us, Noah." I answered routinely, about how Sara and I met, how our relationship had grown, how we had begun to discuss my converting, how the Gerim course had gone, and how my feelings on conversion and Judaism had evolved. But I also told the rabbis that I thought my journey to Judaism was just beginning. My relationship with Sara and my conversion classes had brought me closer to Judaism and linked me inextricably to its practice, but conversion itself was by no means an end point.
And now, after only a couple of years with Sara, and six months in conversion courses, it was hard for me to imagine claiming these issues as my own, or having a similar emotional stake. I wasn't raised Jewish. I haven't experienced, and until recently, haven't thought seriously about issues of homeland, history, and anti-Semitism. My identity wasn't built on these themes, and while I understood them, I knew that my immersion in the mikveh wasn't going to make them an immediate part of my being. The bet din confirmed these feelings. All agreed that defining myself as a Jew was more than just a conceptual leap and would take years of accumulated experience. This was still a transition and any transformation was going to have to take place over years of practice and involvement.