It was cold the first night of my conversion class and Sara and I found the rest of our classmates huddled in the waiting room of the synagogue. The receptionist, a dutiful and serious woman, held us there until a critical mass had formed and then she ushered us through a security door and upstairs to our classroom. We seated ourselves around four banquet tables arranged in a square, most of us with our significant other, and so we staggered Jew, partner, Jew, partner.
We were a diverse crowd. I smiled as I surveyed the room, thinking that soon, people of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Vietnamese descent would be joining the Jewish ranks. I myself am about as Nordic looking as one can get. My blond hair and blue eyes stand out in synagogue and it's unlikely I'll ever be mistaken for a born Jew.
The staff welcomed us, checked our enrollment payments, passed around the sign-in sheet, issued security passes, and explained the synagogue's rules: no smoking; kosher food only; men must wear kippot (the traditional Jewish head covering); no entrance without your security pass; no more than three absences; and partial refunds only through the first three class sessions.
Classes at the Gerim Institute (now named Jewish Discovery Institute) met Wednesday nights from 7 to 9:30 on the second floor of a synagogue in Brookline, MA. Sara and I attended together, since those converting with the intention of marrying a Jewish spouse were expected to bring our partners to class.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein, a thoughtful, middle-aged man who taught fifth grade at a local Jewish day school, led our Gerim courses. The rabbi was an avid singer and at the beginning of each class, he led us in a rendition of "Shalom Aleichem," a song traditionally sung to welcome Shabbat. That first class, the born Jews and some more familiar with Jewish practice all sang as the uninitiated slowly picked up the tune and hummed self-consciously along.
"Shalom Aleichem" was followed each class by Hebrew lessons. We practiced with a hevruta, a study partner. Most of us were coached by a future spouse, as Rabbi Reinstein made his way around the room helping the neophytes with that elusive "kha" sound. We began with simple consonants and moved on to consonant-vowel combinations and then to words. By the 8th week of class, we could all read along with "Shalom Aleichem," which by this time had been transformed from a feeble sing-along to a resounding chorus.
Learning to read and speak Hebrew had a profound effect on my practice of Judaism and how I felt about the conversion process. For the first time in Sara's and my relationship, I was able to follow along with each blessing without falling mute and staring at my feet. Throughout our relationship, I had learned selected and simple blessings, but now I could read and pronounce each syllable. This vocalization added meaning. I could now speak the blessings and feel the sound, and this visceral act brought me closer to each ritual. I slowly shifted from observer to participant.
After the first few weeks, we diverged from the conversion issue and focused on learning Jewish history, theology, and holidays. Our curriculum worked its way from "distilling the Jewish essence" to the Torah and Jewish history, and then proceeded through the meaning of Shabbat and the high holidays.
Learning Jewish tradition and theology further enriched my Jewish experience. Learning Hebrew had allowed me to participate more actively in Judaism's songs, blessings, and holidays, but learning about tradition and belief gave me access to those rituals; previously hidden meanings slowly revealed themselves. I had experienced similar transitions at both the Thai and Belgian monasteries I had lived in, but despite my complete immersion in both settings and my increased understanding, I had still always felt like a tourist. I had been a tourist in Judaism as well for years, passively practicing with Sara and her family. But now I was able to find meaning in its history and practice and I brought that meaning into my observance.
At Harvard University Hillel for a recent Shabbat service, I began to feel that, when singing "Shalom Aleichem," I was taking part in ushering in Shabbat. I could sense the release and the anticipation of the minyan (the group of worshippers) as they looked forward to the Day of Rest. I sang, comprehending better than before, the meaning of the song and its utopian promise of timelessness.
In March, two counselors from Jewish Family and Children's Service visited our class. They were there to facilitate dialogue on issues of conversion and family, and we spent the first hour of three consecutive classes talking in small groups. We began the discussions by describing our family and religious backgrounds, which varied from strong tradition and identity to none at all. This was the first time we had spoken openly about the inherent conflict in raising a Jewish family with Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim grandparents, or in identifying with Judaism when our past linked us to another faith.
Hearing my peers' experiences brought my own identity conflicts into focus. As I sat listening to a story of one relatively non-practicing Christian family who had celebrated Hanukkah this past year as a way to accommodate their soon-to-be daughter-in-law, I knew that this would not be my reality. My parents and siblings have more enduring traditions and would continue to practice Christmas; and that practice was to be valued by our family. Sara and I hadn't (and still haven't) decided how we would handle the holidays. The dynamic of Hanukkah/Christmas time would no doubt stress an already complex family identity, especially for our kids. We joked that if the kids noticed, as we did, that Christmas presents tended to outshine Hanukkah presents, they might convert right back to Christianity.
Ironically, as Gerim classes continued and as I grew to understand and appreciate the language and practices of Judaism, my feelings about the actual act of conversion became more dubious. Whereas I should have regarded conversion as a natural affirmation of my transformation and learning, I continued to regard it with skepticism. Now that I had taken the classes, couldn't I understand, practice, and teach these traditions to my children? Why was it so important to go through the actual ceremony? Gerim classes were not leading me on a smooth trajectory to conversion.
As Sara and I continued to discuss these conflicts in depth, Sara sought the advice of her childhood rabbi. He suggested we talk with a peer of his from rabbinical school, Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, who had been a teacher of Sara's during a summer in Israel. I decided I would like to speak to Sharon alone and we agreed to meet periodically for lunch. Our conversations were some of the most valuable I've had about Judaism and conversion.
At our first meeting, I shared my background with Sharon and also some of my ambivalence surrounding the conversion process. Our talks focused primarily on identity--how I identified with Judaism, how I fit in with Sara's family, how my family fit into this picture. I spoke about my growing appreciation of Judaism and my more involved practice, but also about my ambivalence toward conversion. Sharon understood, and one salient distinction arose through our conversations: When we bought a home, went to synagogue, raised our children, would I describe our Jewish house and practice as "ours" or as "your mother's?" How important was this "we" to me?
At one of our meetings, Sharon shared with me the story of her friend, Michael. Michael had been a Jewish convert through marriage for ten years when his wife died. He and his wife had been active members of the Jewish community and as he mourned, the community came together around him, offering support. Some weeks had passed, and Sharon and Michael were talking. "You know, Sharon," Michael said, reflecting on the community's response to his wife's death, "for the first time in my life, I now feel truly Jewish." It was a profound moment for Sharon in two ways. On the one hand, Michael was responding to Judaism's greatest strength--community. On the other, Sharon had been close friends with Michael for ten years and had never known that he didn't "feel truly Jewish."
In the months leading up to my conversion ceremony, Sharon and I continued to meet and correspond. Our conversations still focused on concerns of being and feeling Jewish, and as my knowledge and practice increased, Sharon helped me understand my transition to this new identity. But she also did not shy away from acknowledging the complexities of this transition. It had taken ten years and a life changing event for Michael to "feel Jewish." I had been in courses for five months. I was now more ready to continue the process but I realized that the process would not end with the conversion ceremony.
Coming next: Would I be needing a "token circumcision" or the real thing? the lady at the synagogue wanted to know...