I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Emma Leslie.
Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up? Did your parents talk much about their own faith, or take you to any religious services? When do you first remember being aware of the concept of God, and what did you think of it?
Neither of my parents spoke much about their faith. My mother grew up in Washington state, and went to the Presbyterian church on Sundays with her family as a matter of course, but I don’t think she had a particularly intense relationship with religion, and I never heard her talk about God or Jesus. My father, who grew up in Paris, was raised Catholic and had been an altar boy. He occasionally spoke to my brother and me about his belief in God but he was profoundly anti-clerical and did not want us to go to church or to receive a religious education.
When I was a teenager, this all made more sense, when I found out that he had been abused by a priest on a church-sponsored camping trip. He told his parents about it but they brushed it off – I think it was perhaps too difficult at the time (this was the mid-1950s) for my grandparents to fathom the possibility of this kind of sexual abuse, but it led to a deep rift between my father and them.
I was allowed, a few times, to go to Midnight Mass in Paris with my grandmother. I thought the music and pageantry were very beautiful and moving, but I didn’t feel particularly spiritually connected to it. I don’t think I really believed in God until I was in high school. As a child I was very interested in myths as well as magical creatures like fairies and goblins and monsters, but I didn’t connect them to an ethical practice or the order of the universe or anything like that. In my mind these were entities who were capricious and volatile in the use of their powers, it was very difficult to anticipate what might upset or please them. Later, in high school, we had to read a little Descartes and Rousseau and Voltaire and I think they appealed to the deist in me.
It sounds like you were familiar with how religion can be beautiful and harmful from an early age. At what point did you first start learning about Judaism? Did you come to be interested it through reading, or did you meet someone whose spiritual experience impressed you, or _______?
I didn’t really have much sense of Judaism growing up. It wasn’t until after college, and I moved to L.A., that I made many Jewish friends. I fell in with a circle of friends, some of whom half-jokingly called themselves “superjews,” and compared notes to see who was more Jewish. They were all very smart and funny and quirky people my own age whose interest in religion had outlasted the childhood obligation to go along with whatever their parents told them to do. They were continuing to explore it for themselves on their own terms. I found this totally novel and fascinating and frankly thrilling. Up till then the people I’d known had either not taken religion very seriously or openly scorned it. But here were people I liked and admired who took seriously the idea that religion could speak meaningfully to them.
When I started dating one of these friends, I asked him all kinds of questions about growing up Jewish and what it meant to him. I was also fascinated by the stories he told me about his parents, whom I decided were a lot like the couple in Philip Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus. His father was the Neil Klugman character, brilliant and ambitious, from a lower-middle class Eastern-European Jewish family (only raised in Cincinnati instead of Newark). His mother was the Brenda Patimkin character, equally brilliant, but grown like a hothouse flower in patrician luxury (except in the manicured suburb of South Orange instead of neighboring Short Hills, New Jersey).
I was also starting to think about the lack in my own upbringing. I didn’t have any religious traditions, aside from the handful of midnight masses, and lighting cierges, the long, creamy-white tapers, in memory of my great-grandmother every time I visited a church in France. I began to wonder, for the first time ever, what it would mean to have those traditions, and also to have a spiritual framework for thinking about the meaning of life.
So at this point you were interested in finding spiritual traditions and a spiritual outlook. How did you get from there to converting to Judaism? I know that Judaism doesn’t proselytize – did you consider other faiths at this point? Did you feel a strong pull to Judaism in particular? How did you begin the conversion process?
Mostly I asked Matthew, my then-boyfriend, questions. It struck me that he was not much of a believer but nevertheless had a very strong Jewish identity. He was agnostic about the existence of God, but had a bone-deep sense of his own Jewishness, as well as a moral attachment to acting like a mensch. That was novel to me. I had understood religion in terms of faith, but this was a very different model. I was attracted to the idea that what counted most was not one’s beliefs but one’s actions. At the same time I was both intrigued and puzzled by Jewishness as a cultural and ethnic identity that overlapped with the religion without being contained by it.
We went to services occasionally at the temple his family belonged to, and, to my ears, the emphasis on social justice and healing the world was also matched by a gentle attitude towards the self. Being a good person was not co-extensive with abnegation and guilt, but rather with compassionate action and understanding. I found this very appealing. Still, I didn’t see myself as a religious person.
When Matthew and I married we decided that if we had children they would be raised Jewish. I liked the idea that my children would feel part of a spiritual community, and have traditions that connected them to a long history and a global culture. It was also important to his family that we have a Jewish wedding and the rabbi we connected with wanted us to take an Introduction to Judaism class. We sat with other “interfaith couples” in one of the preschool classrooms at Temple Isaiah in west L.A., while a kindly, slightly hippy rabbi educated us. The more I learned, the more impressed I was with the way Reform Judaism (which is what I’m familiar with) has kept its connection to traditions that are thousands of years old, while addressing modern dilemmas and working to keep up with contemporary understandings about race and gender and sexuality. I felt lucky to be marrying into a faith and culture whose values made sense to me. If it didn’t feel exactly like it was mine, that was okay.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my son that this question of Judaism being mine/not mine became more urgent. I thought about what it would mean to give my son a Jewish education while not being Jewish myself. Saying, “you and your father are this, but I’m something different.” What was I anyway? How would I explain it coherently to a small child when I wasn’t even sure how to explain it to myself? I wanted the three of us to be the same thing, not to stand outside the circle of their shared faith and traditions.
There was also the (to me) weird question of matrilineal descent. Traditionally a person is considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish. In Reform Judaism there is a conditional patrilineal descent: children of Jewish fathers are considered Jewish if they receive a Jewish upbringing. We intended to do this, but I found the double-standard disturbing. I didn’t like the idea that Nathaniel, in the absence of having a Jewish mother, would have to somehow prove his Jewish bona fides to others. And I didn’t like the philosophical illogic of having different standards for mothers and fathers.
I think, perhaps, this is when I started to actually feel Jewish. I was grappling with a religious question that actually had bearing on my life. Before I had been free to consider religious principles in an abstract way: some were appealing, some were less so, but they affected me very little except insofar as they stimulated my intellect. I could walk away at any time. Here, I think I felt for the first time what it meant to belong to a faith. There was a point of principle that was infuriating and confounding, and it mattered to me. In a funny way this is what it’s like to love people, too. Some of the things they do may be deeply annoying or puzzling, but when you love them you can’t just walk away unaffected.
I had never felt pressure from Matthew’s family to convert but my internal sense of pressure was building. The way I saw it, I probably would have converted at some point, and this was an added incentive to do so, but, awkwardly, it was an incentive that came with a deadline: convert before the baby was born!
What does it mean to you to be Jewish now?
It was twelve years ago that I met with my favorite rabbi and talked to him about why I wanted to convert. As tradition dictates each time we met he would try to dissuade me from converting, and each time I affirmed my wish to join the Jewish people. I remember being eight-months pregnant and driving up the Sepulveda pass to go to the the mikvah, the ritual bath that is a final step before the conversion itself. I disrobed in a little room, and the mikvah attendant inspected me, gently brushing my shoulders to make sure no stray hairs had fallen there to compromise the absolute nakedness of my body and its contact with the fresh water. Stepping into the water, I imagined myself embraced. My enormous belly with my baby inside was buoyant and I felt both light and full. At my conversion ceremony the next day the rabbi chuckled that it was his first two-fer.
In those twelve years of being a Jew and raising Jewish children (five years after our son was born, we had a daughter), my Jewish identity has become very comfortable to me. In the early days I used to feel a bit sheepish when religion would come up in conversation and I would pipe up to announce my Jewishness. I felt like I was trying on new, stiff clothes that didn’t quite belong to me. But now those clothes are worn in and cozy and familiar.
I still have a great deal to learn about Judaism. The religion is dazzlingly deep and complex, and rabbinical scholars have been teasing out the meanings of the Torah for centuries and centuries, building up a secondary set of texts, the Midrash, that interpret, develop, distill and argue the lessons of the Torah. I realize too that, as much as I try, I will never fully know what it is like to have grown up in a Jewish family and to be Jewish from the very start. But that’s okay, I have my own experience of being Jewish and of the journey that brought me here. I am so grateful that, as an adult, I have found my people and they have welcomed me home.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.