My mother grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, the eldest of seven children. She hunted squirrels, set rabbit traps, and caught frogs, which she skinned, butchered, then fried in flour, salt and pepper, and then ate.
My mother was Catholic, my father Lutheran, but when they got married, they converted to another Christian faith, the Worldwide Church of God, which preached that Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not to do away with it. This meant that the laws of the Old Testament, including the prohibitions against “unclean” or “non-kosher” animals were still upheld. No more squirrels, rabbits, frogs, or turtle soup for either of my parents, or for any of their kids.
Over the years, my father would randomly say to my mother, “I guess you really miss your frog legs. I know you liked ‘em an awful lot, and now you can’t have ‘em any more.”
Though she usually ignored these little digs, one time my mother replied, “Maybe there will be frog legs in heaven.”
“No, there won’t be,” the keeper of heaven said, shaking his head. “They aren’t clean.”
“Maybe God will make them clean in heaven,” my mother countered.
“No,” my father insisted. “He can’t.”
“With God, all things are possible,” my mother concluded.
“Yes, all things are possible, but God wouldn’t do that.”
My mother is ever hopeful, ever trusting, and believing in the power of God to make the unacceptable acceptable. Just as she tends not to like it when distinctions are drawn between ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ whether with reference to animals or to people, she assumes that God, too, accepts everyone at face value, regardless of their presumed value or lack thereof.
We were the only family in our community to attend the Worldwide Church of God. There were any number of sacrifices that I was willing to make, and did make, for my faith, and being quite different from our immediate family and friends was just one. Frog legs, pork, shellfish–didn’t touch ‘em. We also didn’t celebrate Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, or Halloween–pagan origins.
We understood that Jesus was Jewish and we believed that the Law had not been nailed to the cross when Jesus was crucified. Thus, like the first-century Christians, we observed Saturday as the Sabbath, and we went to church on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Sukkot.
We weren’t supposed to watch “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeannie”–demonic. However, when the church banned make-up as harlotish and Jezebelish, I began to kick up a fuss. For someone like me, with my white eyelashes, mascara was not an optional luxury. It was a necessity.
My inability to accept the make-up edict indicated either that I did not have God’s Holy Spirit, or the male leaders of the church were attempting to control women by controlling various aspects of a woman’s body. The church’s position on make-up ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end of my relationship with the church, because I could never wrap my head around God requiring this kind of a sacrifice from me.
What God wants from us, what God finds acceptable or unacceptable, what I am willing to sacrifice or not, for the sake of my faith, have been and continue to be ongoing questions, ongoing discussions in my life. When I was 19 and a junior in college, I went to Israel on a study-abroad program, to a large extent because I felt that if I were actually in the place in which God had spoken with man, God had become man, I would be closer to answering the many questions that afflicted me. My ongoing internal diatribe in Jerusalem went something like this:
If Jesus agreed to die for our sins, why were we responsible for his death? He did it of his own free will, it was his choice, so why should we feel guilty?
If he died for our sins, then we could pretty much do anything because hey, He died for our sins, and anything should thus be forgiven, anytime. If everything weren’t forgiven, then his death was meaningless. Either Jesus died for our sins and we were okay, no matter what we did or what we believed–or he didn’t.
Who had Jesus thought he was? Had he believed himself to be the Messiah? Could a man/God forgive sins? Were all of these questions I had a result of letting Satan into my mind? If I had more faith, would these things fall into place? Was questioning automatically wrong? Did it indicate a lack of belief in God? If I were to, say, separate the church from God, would God be okay with that, or were the two of them a package deal? Was the only way I could get to God through the church, obeying its doctrines, obeying God’s servants in the church who did have God’s Holy Spirit? Was the only way to God through Jesus, and did I have to ask everything in Jesus’ name, as the Bible said? Or were there other, equally valid, paths to God, ones that did not rely solely on my faith and on my heart, which were frighteningly unpredictable, but also entailed using my mind and my intellect? I was losing my footing, though I clung to the certainty of everything that I had been taught and everything that I believed.
I studied in Israel for two years, chasing the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem and back; I sought it not only within churches, but also in synagogues and Buddhist temples. I never found it. By my mid-twenties, I ultimately decided to give it all up: I gave up the quest to get saved, gave up to God the direction that my life should take.
In January of 1989, I was 27 years old, and I sat in a classroom in a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, along with about 50 other women, most of whom wore long-sleeved blouses and skirts that covered their knees, and sported engagement rings. For these Orthodox Jewish women, this was a pre-marriage class. For me, it was one of the courses I’d been requested to attend by the rabbi I had consulted about converting.
“During your menstrual period, you are timeah,” the teacher explained to us, “which does not literally translate from the Hebrew as ‘unclean.’ When your period ends, every day you do a check, a b’dikah.”
It was not just the fact that I was tall, blonde, and Germanic-looking that set me apart from these women hunched over their desks, scribbling down the finer points of menstrual blood and marital relations. Nor was it the silent, internal, “What would Jesus do?” monologue that I could not quash. Rather, while all of the other women were making their way through the syllabus–tumah and niddah, states of purity and impurity; breaking the hymen–it was evident that I had zipped through the syllabus a long time before, for I was five months pregnant and unmarried.
The man that I was involved with was Jewish, but it was not for him that I was converting. Nor was it really for myself, or for God, because I figured that God accepted me, loved me, no matter what I called myself. (My mother had taught me well.) Rather, it was more for the sake of my unborn child. The rest of the world was not so broad-minded as God, after all, and if I wanted my child to be viewed and accepted as a Jew within the Jewish world, then I needed to convert.
Despite the draw that Judaism had held for me since the two years I’d spent in Jerusalem, it was difficult to commit completely to Judaism, because what if I was wrong? Christianity potentially offered me everlasting life, and all I had to do was believe in Jesus, a guy who loved me unconditionally, promised to save me, and didn’t talk back. Judaism, conversely, required me to follow this ancient law and in exchange could provide me only with the privilege of being a part of a persecuted minority whose rabbis were a wonderfully contentious lot and didn’t throw the word “love” around all that much.
Nonetheless, I persevered.
At the end of the pre-marriage class, the teacher gave each of us a supply of b’dikah cloths to check for blood during the seven days following our periods. I imagined Jesus’ blood mingling with menstrual blood, the past merging with the present. How were those two bloods related, anyway? One saved, one defiled; one had been offered as a sacrifice for your spiritual life; the other indicated that potential physical life had been lost.
A year later, under the waters of the mikvah, the ritual bath, I was submerged once, twice, three times until the mikvah lady pronounced a triumphant “Kosher!” Then, holding my naked six-month-old son, David, in my arms, I went under the warm water one more time with him, to convert him as well.
In these ancient waters, I gave a passing thought as to how, in the church, you were said to receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of water baptism. In my case, I was not exactly washing away my past; rather, I saw my immersion in the water as an immersion in the history and language and religion and country of the Jewish people.
Recently, a friend of mine told me that the non-Jewish spouses of members of his synagogue feel that they are entitled to be called to the Torah during their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. To this I--a true blend of my mother’s live-and-let-live attitude and my father’s there-are-absolutes mindset--replied, “Why do they think they are entitled? It’s a privilege to be called to the Torah, and you have to make a commitment to being Jewish, you have to be willing to step up to the plate and be accountable for your choices!”
Then I thought again of how my mother sacrificed frog legs for her new faith. She would never, ever believe that she was entitled to take communion if she was not Catholic, or be called to the Torah if she were not Jewish. Though God might not mind if she chows down on deep-fried frog legs, and though God might not care if I call myself Jewish or Christian, here on earth it is a different matter.
Despite her boundary-less approach to life, my mother recognizes that you can’t have it all; there is a price to be paid if you choose this over that. I have heeded her lesson, for it is not yet on earth as it is heaven.