A convert in a strange land
I have embraced Judaism. When will I be embraced in return?
I am Jewish. It is how I identify myself. My father is Jewish. My mother is Christian.
My Judaism is a beautiful challenge; one I happily accept.
But the faith of my forefathers, of my peers, and of my family often frustrates me on a level that I cannot capture in words. Judaism cuts to the essence of who I am and challenges my identity. Judaism brings me a lot of joy; it also brings me pain.
My Jewish life is a journey, and so the challenges, the highs and the lows that I experience while wandering on my Jewish path are only to be expected.
After long consideration, I find myself going through an Orthodox conversion. Will I feel any more Jewish after I dip in the mikve and am pronounced a daughter of Abraham and Sarah than I did when I decided to go to religious school, become a bat mitzvah (with aliya l’Torah), keep kosher, major in Jewish studies, associate with a Jewish community, join a Jewish sorority or make aliya? I do not know.
Because I so strongly identify myself as Jewish, it pains me to know that a significant part of the Jewish people does not recognize me in return. I have become more religiously observant and have made the decision to convert precisely to show my commitment to the Jewish people – to become part of the community. Yet, even as I give myself, all that I can sincerely offer, to officially being part of Am Yisrael – life does not let me forget that I am a convert.
In a letter to Ovadiah, Maimonides writes, “There is no difference whatever between you [the convert] and us… do not consider your origin as inferior.”
Maimonides’ words are a small part of a larger Jewish tradition that teaches to love the convert as oneself. Yet, the convert is also often reminded of his or her non-Jewish heritage. For example, he/she cannot make the declaration during the Bikkurim ceremony that “G-d swore to our forefathers, and to us” [Mishnah Bikkurim1:4].
I recently stopped dating someone, not because we were incompatible as people, but because he is a Kohen and I am a convert. If my origin is not supposed to be considered inferior, and if I am supposed to be loved as oneself, how am I supposed to feel when I am told that I cannot marry a Kohen because as a convert I am considered promiscuous? I grew up in a world surrounded by Jewish people. I am no more likely to have slept with a non-Jewish man than many of my fully Jewish counterparts.
The presumption made about my sexual history happens because I am regarded as inferior. The Jewish man I marry is restricted and my Judaism will again be questioned when the time for marriage arrives — because I am a convert. The Rabbinate can tell me again that my Jewish lifestyle is not enough, and subsequently strip me of my convert status. How do we come to terms with these contradictions?
These personal religious struggles manifest themselves in Israel and have national implications. My mother’s religion lies at the forefront of Israel’s confused Jewish definition. I find myself at the center of a tug-of-war between Israel’s religious and secular identity. In America, these personal struggles are left to the individual to figure out. In Israel, the system attempts to make a choice for you.
And yet, when it seems that my efforts to be part of the Jewish community are not enough and, when I feel that I will never be Jewish enough, I turn to my religion for comfort.
When you sit in the middle of two different Jewish worlds – one that accepts you without question and one that affirms the merit of these religious challenges – comfort cannot be found in any of the people that surround you.
When no one understands the nuances of my views, I turn to Jewish text and commentary.
These moments of pain bring me one step closer to finding clarity in how to define my Judaism and its role in my life.
When I struggle to understand different viewpoints surrounding issues of religion, looking at the written sources filters out the voices that surround me and that pull me in different directions. In questioning and in feeling frustrated, I am forced to affirm and refine my beliefs. These moments of pain bring me one step closer to finding clarity in how to define my Judaism and its role in my life.
Going through the conversion process forces me to engage with my Jewish identity. But even with its positive aspects, issues associated with conversion are ever-present, especially for people who grew up in a Jewish household and who have a Jewish father. These stumbling blocks can prevent converts from feeling like part of the Jewish people. I have embraced Judaism. When will I be embraced in return?
The author of this article asked to use a pseudonym for fear that revealing her true identity would negatively affect her conversion process.