“Are you still going to be Jewish?” – Or, “This isn’t ‘Nam! There are Rules!”

I should start by saying that if anyone needs to freak out on this blog post, please do it here on WordPress and not on my syndicated statuses (I really don’t want a Facebook avalanche).  I’m sure there will be some Big. Shock. on some of your parts by the contents herein.

I visited my grandmother in Baltimore yesterday.  I was in town in preparation for a trip out to the Left Coast today (I’m typing this on the plane next to two lovely new people I’ve just met.  Tyler Durden would be so proud).  It was the first I had seen Gramma since announcing my divorce to my family and close friends (if you’re just now learning this, sorry.  You may be my close friend and I just forgot…  Yes, I’m fine.  No, I don’t want to publicly talk about it), and to say I was apprehensive to see her would be an understatement.

I’ll admit it; I’d chickened out and hadn’t told her myself (I made my father do it…).  My grandparents were married 49 years before my grandfather died, and having only been married 2.5 years, I’ll admit I was a bit embarrassed to admit to her that I had failed.  Of course, being the good grandmother she is, she hollered at me for thinking she wouldn’t understand and told me I had her full support.

But one of her questions did blindside me:  Are you still going to be Jewish?

Too much Passover for one hand.

Too much Passover for one hand.  2009.

I suppose it’s a reasonable question on the surface.  My partner and I converted together (along with my wonderful friend E.) about four months after we got engaged, so I could see how it would seem that I had converted because of him.  But her question got me thinking: how many people in my life 1) think I’m Jewish because of my partner (and if this is a lot, how bad am I at communicating?) and 2) do not understand how conversion to Judaism works?

These questions kept me up last night.  Seriously.  I’m an instructor of religion, after all, so what do I do with all this nervous mental energy?  Start composing a blog post in my head at 3:30 in the morning (on my cousin’s couch, between superhero sheets, like a BOSS).

Some things people should know about converting to Judaism (NOTE:  this is from a Reform/Liberal POV, so it is, of course, liberally biased):

  1. The rabbi will not let you convert if they think you have been coerced in any way.  Meaning, you cannot convert for someone.  It must be your choice, and the choice must be made freely.
  2. Many people do convert when their intended spouse is Jewish, but in many Reform (and some Conservative) marriages, conversion isn’t necessary.  For Orthodox couples, both partners must be Jewish.  In any case, it still must be the choice of the convertee and not the partner.
  3. There is an education process associated with conversion, which gives you time to change your mind if necessary and to make sure you fully understand the new life you are choosing.  This can vary in length depending on the denomination and the impetus behind conversion (I’ve heard it as few as six weeks in the event of an upcoming wedding and as long as 18 months).
  4. Part of your vows when you convert (in front of a beyt din) are to live a Jewish life and to raise any children you have as Jewish and to forsake all other previous religious vows.
  5. When you convert, it is not an individual experience.  Three other Jews have to stand for you (the aforementioned beyt din).  The ceremony is public.  Your community becomes your family.  You take on the entire history of the Jewish people as your history.  The Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition – all of these historical events happened to your people.  Your rabbi makes absolutely sure you understand this.

And what about my conversion?  I will not go into the details of why I chose to convert, but I came to the decision separate from my partner.  I had been contemplating this decision since high school but did not convert until October 2007, due to moving around and trying to find the right temple to take classes.  Classes were monthly, taking place over the course of one year.  In addition, I had to attend services weekly to make it through one entire festival cycle.

Torahs are really heavy.  I don't recommend strapless dresses.

Torahs are really heavy. I don’t recommend strapless dresses.  2007.

When someone converts to Judaism, they take on a Hebrew name.  This is the name one is called to the bema, or altar, with, to say prayers and to read from the Torah and other books.  If born Jewish, your parents choose your Hebrew name, and you are “that name the son/daughter of their names” (so if I were to use my English names, I would be Holly the daughter of Michael and Cynthia.  As a convert, I was given the parents Abraham and Sarah, the de facto parents of all converts.  I chose the name Devorah after my Aunt Debbie, who has always been incredibly supportive of all of my school, religious, and life goals.  Now that I am changing my name back to my maiden name, I had considered taking Devorah as my middle name, or second middle name, but it doesn’t quite work with Holly Jordan.  And Dr. Holly A. Jordan just looks smashing on a door.

Being Jewish with my partner, who converted in the same class with me (again, because he was already on that path and not because of me), was a blessing.  Knowing that I would raise Jewish children in a Jewish home was an important part of my relationship.  I will not say that relationships cannot work out with different religious traditions (all my Cashews prove otherwise, and I’ve got some Jain-Hindu and Muslim-Jewish friends, too), but having that support, and having a Jewish wedding and life, was always important to me.

But no, my new life doesn’t mean an end to my Jewish identity.  My Jewishness is my self, not my relationship self.  I think I’ve been Jewish since my father brought me home my first menorah from a yard sale (or since I realized that Old Testament/Hebrew Bible stories are WAY more fun [and less redundant] than New Testament stories).

If nothing else, the tumultuous events of the last several weeks have led to a rededication to my Jewish life.  My first Friday alone in my apartment, I took down my candlesticks and kiddush cup for the first time since I moved to Blacksburg and welcomed in Shabbat (with my sad little Stouffers veggie lasagna and bottle glass of wine) with my dog.  I felt more in touch with my Judaism than I had since my wedding.

So will I still be Jewish?  Yes.  Could I convert back or to something else?  Absolutely.  I have that ability as a human being.  But the process of conversion ensures that it is a decision that you do in fact want.  I am Jewish.  Nothing will change that.

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7 responses to ““Are you still going to be Jewish?” – Or, “This isn’t ‘Nam! There are Rules!”

  1. karynandjohnweigand

    Well put! I got a lot of the same questions after my engagement ended. I get those questions a lot still: “So you went forward with the conversion even though you didn’t get married?” It takes forever to explain to people that I was already on the path to conversion WELL before John, and that I would never have converted “for” someone in the first place. So thanks for writing a blog post I can link to!

  2. I think some older, less educated folks think of it like changing denominations within Christianity. Like going from Lutheran to Catholic or Baptist. They don’t get the big picture. Don’t take it personally. And fully expect super hero bedding as a future random gift (not committing to birthdays or holidays)!

  3. Sarah McGwier

    I’m just now reading this (I’ve never read your blog posts before…shame on me!) and I LOVE it! Call me crazy, because, well, I am, but I’d like to think I had a tiny influence on your appreciation for Judaism since we met in high school and I am Jewish 🙂 One of my most favorite things about my religion is how accepting we are of everyone! I’m proud to have you as a part of our people 🙂

  4. Pingback: Judaism, the Convert, and Identity | Holly Jordan

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