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.
At the end of the conversation, the bet din signed legal documents for my conversion including the Certificate of Admission which records that I "declared [my] intention and desire to enter the Covenant of Israel." It continues, "Upon questioning him we found him to be sincere in his intentions and adequately conversant with the doctrines and laws of our holy Faith." Then, along with Sharon as my sponsoring rabbi, I signed my Declaration of Faith, which spells out my commitment to Judaism and to raising a Jewish family. The forms are a personal declaration but also legal documents, and as such they now sit in my "legal" folder in a filing cabinet, along side parking tickets and my apartment lease.
When I came out of the bet din, Sara's dad and uncle were waiting for me. They had surprised me with their visit and though I didn't want the day to be an elaborate celebration, their presence was another reminder of the family and community I was joining. We talked about the bet din and I endured a couple more jokes about my circumcision. Then it was my turn to enter the mikveh.
Rabbi Kummer led me to the waiting room and we reviewed the process: I was to take a shower to make sure I was clean, wash off any deodorants, conditioners, or hair gels, remove any belly button lint, and wrap myself in a clean white sheet, left for me in the waiting room. I should take as much time as I liked and then call Rabbi Reinstein, who, as the only male member of my bet din, would oversee my immersion.
She shut the door and I stood for a second, alone in the small waiting room outside the bathroom.
I took off my clothes, hung them in the closet, and went into the bathroom. Now alone, I began to feel nervous. The bet din was the conceptual and legal confirmation of my conversion, but the mikveh was the symbolic and spiritual confirmation--the defining moment. I did some half-hearted push-ups to try to relieve stress. No luck. I surveyed the sink area: toothbrush, q-tips, alcohol, nail clippers. I got in the shower and washed well. I finished toweling off, made sure that there were no loose hairs on my body, then wrapped myself in the white sheet I had been given, and sat down next to the phone.
I picked up the receiver and told Rabbi Reinstein I was ready. A moment later there was a knock from inside the mikveh and he opened the door. The mikveh room was small, about ten by ten and the mikveh itself was sunken, with stairs leading into a five-by-five pool, about five feet in its deepest part. I took off my sheet and descended the seven stairs into the pool. I unscrewed the cap on the pipe leading outside and connected the two pools. The inside pool was made "living water" by this act.
"Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al ha-tivilah (Blessed are You O lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion)," I said, after I had immersed myself and lifted my feet and floated without any part of my body touching the walls or the floor of the mikveh.
I followed this blessing with the Shehechiyanu, the traditional blessing Jews say upon experiencing something new. "Baruch ata, Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, shehechiyanu v'kimanu v'higiyanu laz-man hazeh (Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and permitted us to reach this season). Witnesses to my conversion, including Sara's family, stood outside the mikveh to listen to the blessings. After each blessing a chorus of "Amens" could be heard beyond the door.
I went back to the bathroom, folded the sheet, set it on the chair, and dressed. As I left the mikveh, Sara's family, along with Rabbis Sharon, Reinstein, and Kummer sang "mazel tov" to me. Sharon had poured a cup of wine in the kiddish cup Sara's dad had given me to commemorate the conversion, and as Sara and I stood together I said the blessing over the wine, my first blessing as a Jew and my first mitzvah, or good deed.
Standing in the circle and passing the kiddush cup around, I knew this was just the first of many significant moments in my Jewish life. My wedding was just a few weeks away, soon followed by my first High Holidays as a Jew. These would be the first of my Jewish memories, memories that will come increasingly to define me. The bet din had asked me to describe my journey, but my journey is still being formed--in every song, blessing, holiday, and milestone.