On the advice of one of my rabbis, I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in the Jewish community: as a future rabbi, as a convert, as a woman, as a Conservative Jew, as an American. This rabbi, in our most recent conversation, said that he feels that I sometimes use my conversion as an excuse or a crutch, or as a defense mechanism. This stung.
Usually, though, insights sting because they hit a nerve, and I know in my heart that he’s right. I do tend to discount my own opinions on the basis that I’m still new to the Jewish community, and I often blame my weak Hebrew and other skills on the fact that I didn’t grow up in services or Hebrew school. Converts have the same status as born Jews, but somehow, I always fear being unmasked, exposed as a fraud.
What I explained to my rabbi, though, was that he has no idea what he’s talking about. I told him, with a catch in my voice, that he will never understand how it feels to introduce himself in synagogue and always be met with a look that says he doesn’t quite belong. Sometimes it happens before a person even knows my (very Irish) name. When I was a gabbai [usher and service facilitator] at the High Holidays last year at JTS, a man looked at me, looked at my (very Ashkenazic-looking) then-partner, and asked me, incredulously, “Are you Jewish?! You definitely don’t look Jewish.” I was wearing a kittle [a white ritual garment worn by service leaders], a tallit [prayer shawl], and a kippah [skullcap], and I had introduced myself as a rabbinical student. This man didn’t mean that I wasn’t acting like a Jew; he meant that I didn’t look like any of his Eastern European relatives. (The primacy given to Ashkenazi Jews in American Jewish culture is a subject for another post.)
To his credit, my rabbi knows that he doesn’t understand what this is like. He’s just telling me to get over it, which I should.
There are so many things about conversion that are difficult and will probably never get easier. Spending Jewish holidays with my non-Jewish family, or with no family at all. Spending non-Jewish holidays with my non-Jewish family and figuring out how to participate (for their sake) while being true to my identity. The fact that the State of Israel considers me Jewish, but the Rabbinate there does not. Never having memories of a Jewish childhood: Hebrew school, finding the afikomen at the end of the Pesach seder, being blessed by my parents at Shabbat dinner. Being welcomed as a Jewish adult (and a real-life preteen) as a bat mitzvah.
On Monday, though, I experienced a profoundly different kind of exclusion from traditional Jewish experience. Some of you will be familiar with the Jewish traditions surrounding death and dying, but for those who are not, here is a brief summary. A Jew is commanded to mourn formally for a few close relatives: parent, child, sibling, spouse. Upon hearing of the death, the Jew tears his clothing, and for seven days, she “sits shiva”– sitting on low stools, covering mirrors, not changing clothes, not bathing, not studying Torah, etc. There are decreasingly strict phases of mourning that last for 30 days after burial, and, for parents, twelve months after burial. For a parent, a child “says Kaddish” (recites a special prayer praising God in the presence of a quorum of ten adult Jews) for eleven months.
What I love most about Judaism is that it provides a framework for nearly every experience in life. (Well, nearly every experience in a man’s life– we’ll have another discussion about the places it fails to serve women.) There are specific phrases to say when you hear of a death (Baruch Dayan ha-Emet, or “Blessed is the True Judge” or when you first see a mourner (HaMakom yenachem et’chem b’toch shar avay’lay Tzion vee’Yerushalayim or just HaMakom yenachem, meaning “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”); there is no need to search for the right words. Anyone who has experienced a deep loss knows how difficult even basic functioning can be, and Judaism requires us to provide food for mourners, to care for their needs in this time, and even asks us not to speak to mourners until they initiate conversation, lest their grief be so overwhelming that even talking would be too much.
And, of course, Judaism outlines every step of the funeral. We are forbidden from giving a eulogy that misrepresents the deceased as being more meritorious than he was in life. We do not have flowers. The body is not embalmed, and the funeral takes place as soon as possible after death. Family members literally bury their relative: they shovel earth into the grave. There are countless other small rituals, each designed to give meaning to every step of the process, and all intended to honor the deceased and those who mourn him.
My grandfather died almost two weeks ago, and his funeral was delayed until Monday, when the necessary relatives could be in attendance. There were flowers everywhere. His body was embalmed, and there was a public viewing in the funeral home. Every person in attendance was showered and well groomed and no one tore any clothing. Jesus figured prominently in the service, as he did in my grandfather’s life. No one offered my mother eggs or lentils, some traditional foods for mourners, and we had to procure our own post-funeral meal. My uncles will not be saying Kaddish, and we will not mark my grandfather’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) with candles and remembrances.
And you know what? That’s okay. I won’t pretend that it was my most comfortable moment standing there at the graveside, unable to say “amen” to prayers offered in my grandfather’s memory because they were also uttered “in Jesus’s name.” Nor is it ever easy to hear someone explain, however good his intentions, that the only way to spend eternity with my loved ones is to abandon the religion that shapes my identity and my life. But I found my perspective in the assignment I prepared for today’s Talmud class. The last line of the sugya reads, “ולא היו מתאבלין אבל אוננין שאין אנינות אלא בלב– And they observed no mourning rites, but they grieved [for him], for grief is only in the heart” (Sanhedrin 45b).
My grief is in my heart. It is weighing down my soul. I don’t know how I will feel when (and may it be a very, very long time from now) my parents die and I am unable to say Kaddish for them, to rend my clothes and wallow in my sorrow in a darkened room. Should I ever (God forbid) lose a spouse, a child, or a sibling, I may feel robbed of the grieving process to which, as a Jew, I should be entitled. But in this moment, in the aftermath of this loss, I am able to accept that this experience, like so many others, is specific to my status as a giyoret. Though I have wedded my future to that of the Jewish people, I come from another place entirely, and it deserves its own acknowledgement. Singing “Amazing Grace” at a Christian funeral is as much a part of me as was my inclusion of my grandfather in my prayer for healing in my daily Amidah (standing prayer).
This is not a weakness. My non-Jewish background allows me to engage in dialogue with Christians with a unique perspective. I can approach some of the most mundane aspects of Judaism with the enthusiasm of the novice. And, to be completely honest, my genetic makeup will add valuable diversity to the Jewish people if I am lucky enough to have children. I know all of these things– really. The challenge is in finding the ability to feel distinct without feeling like an outsider, an interloper. To be different is not to be wrong. I hope that one day, that idea, like my grief, will inhabit not only my head but also my heart.