Musical theater (or theatre, if you’re feeling British or snooty) fans will recognize the reference in this entry’s title. More importantly, they’ll know that the love to which it refers is not romantic love, or at least not that subtype of romantic love that involves another person. This kind of love is the ardor one feels for one’s calling in life, whether it is performing on a stage, defending the rights of the downtrodden, or making things work.
For me, this love is Judaism, and the question I am asked most often, on a near-daily basis, is why I converted. So, once and for all, here is the story, and maybe I can just refer future questioners to this blog post.
There are two answers to this question. One is pragmatic, logical, and true. I have wanted to be Jewish since before I can remember. No, I don’t know what my first exposure to Judaism might have been, but it occurred before my earliest memory and is generally agreed to have happened around age four. No, I do not have any Jewish relatives. No, I did not have any Jewish classmates until I was much older. Maybe it was the Rugrats Passover special, maybe my Methodist pre-school did a lesson on other religions…I don’t know. Sorry.
Whatever that first spark was, it lit a huge fire. My entire childhood was filled with Jewish learning. I read dozens of books about Jewish history, culture, food, folklore, and the Holocaust. (The fact that there’s an entire genre of Holocaust children’s literature deserves another post.) When allowed to choose my own topic for a project, it was always Judaism. In seventh grade, my only Jewish classmate had a bat mitzvah, and I think I scared all the members of her Reform Temple with my enthusiasm in the sing-along portions of the service. (I totally thought the transliterated Hebrew– Hebrew written out phonetically in Latin characters– was Hebrew, and that I was just really, really good at it.)
When I got to college, I made friends with Jews for the first time. I did a huge amount of reading about theology and decided Judaism fit my beliefs. I started going to services at the college Hillel Center for Jewish Student Life and finally approached the rabbi. “Look,” I said, “I know you’re supposed to turn me away three times, but I’ve been wanting this for fifteen years, so can we please just skip that part?”
One year, several essays, dozens of books, and an intensive 19-week series of classes later, I got the go-ahead from my rabbi to make an appointment with the beit din [rabbinical court]. Three very elderly rabbis questioned me on my observance and my intentions (and asked about six different ways if I was doing this to get married), and then I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath] and emerged Jewish. Ta-da!
There. That’s the easy answer: I love Jewish people, theology, culture, and observance. Being Jewish fits with what I want in life and how I feel about myself. It all makes sense.
There is, though, that pesky second answer to the question of why I converted. This one is harder to explain. Shmuley Boteach does a pretty good job, though, in his book Kosher Sex, when he explains that the conversion candidates he has successfully seen through the entire process usually cannot explain why they want to be Jewish. It is, he says, akin to trying to explain why you fell in love. You can list every trait that makes this person suitable for you, and expound on how their goals and yours fit together, and explain what led you to this point– but in the end, you just fell. It’s indescribable. And that is the truer answer for me: I converted because I felt that I needed to be Jewish, and I don’t know why.
Often, Orthodox people (and sometimes more liberal Jews) will tell me that I wanted to convert because I have a Jewish soul. There’s this idea that when God made the covenant with the people of Israel, the covenant had already been offered to all the other peoples of the world, and they had turned it down. (I mean, it’s really tough to keep up our end of the bargain. Just sayin’.) But the individuals within those communities who voted to accept the covenant? Those souls belong in this beautiful relationship with God and the Jewish people, and though they may be born into non-Jewish bodies, they have to find their way home.
There are many other stories about why converts happen, but I particularly like that one. I don’t like that many Orthodox people change their minds about me having a yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul, in Yiddish) when they find out that my conversion wasn’t Orthodox…but that’s another issue.
Any converts or potential converts reading my blog? I’d love to hear your experiences and questions.