The Convert Series: Emma Leslie -The Toast

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Emma Leslie is a self-driven religion and history enthusiast.  She currently lives in Sydney, reads religious texts to unwind and thinks jokes about the eruption of Vesuvius are “too soon.”

I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Lurene Grenier.

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?

I am technically still in the process of converting to Judaism, but I should be done in December (I’m a solid way through, I started in October last year).

Well, I grew up Catholic — all my dad’s siblings have saint’s names, and my Nana refused to speak to my mum for a while after my brother was born because she spelled Mathew with one t so it didn’t count as a saint’s name. This is what happens when Irish and Italian Catholics marry each other.

When I was little we went to church every week, but I also know that we brought colouring books, so it’s not like they were overly invested in preschool-aged me paying attention. When we lived in the UK for four years, we never went to church, not once, but when we came back it was back to every week — I don’t know why that is. When I was about 11 or 12 I went through a phase of being a Good Catholic, bringing a missal to mass to follow along and playing flute at services. At some point after my Confirmation (when I was 12), we stopped going to church. It might be because I’d done all my sacraments? I’m not going to pretend my family’s religious practice makes sense to me. They identify strongly as Catholic, but these days they only attend church at Christmas and Easter.

I went to Catholic school, excelled in religious studies even though I convinced myself I was an atheist from fairly early on, and then my curiosity about the Jewish experiences of my (raised Orthodox) best friend turned into a desire to actually do it for myself. (I distinctly remember wanting to be a nun when I was in primary school, not because I was overly invested in God but because I didn’t want to get married. Tiny Emma had not considered being queer instead.)

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the concept of God, but I remember I was never really convinced. When my Granny died when I was eight, it was the first time someone I knew had died, and I remember being confused that a god would let that happen. It felt like I was missing something — that everyone else could feel the presence of God, maybe have a chat over a cup of tea, have proof that God existed. It was kind of like when you accidentally miss the first act of a play — everyone knows who everyone is and what’s going on, and just assumes you do, too. So I became an angry atheist, you know that particular Asshole Atheist sort.

As part of a progressive congregation I’ve finally found a place I belong in a way I never did in the Church. I am still agnostic, because for me Judaism isn’t really about God, it’s about the ritual and the community – which is a valid way to approach Jewishness because faith really doesn’t come into it all that much.

Yes! Oh, gosh, there is a word for people like that – Chreasters! (Christmas and Easter-only attendees, that is.) They’re a very sought-after group; every church is desperate to reel them in during their twice-yearly appearance.

Did you find that as you continued to grow up, your atheism continued to be motivated by anger, or was it tempered by something else? Was it something you spent a lot of time thinking about, or was it more of a one-and-done decision?

A fun Commonwealth Catholic-specific joke that you may not find funny because you are neither of those things: we call them “CandE Catholics,” as a play on CoE, Church of England. (There is a Jewish equivalent, High Holy Days Jews, who only turn up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to the point where synagogue attendance increases so dramatically there’s a ticket system.)

I think my atheism was mostly anger? The Church hated people like me – women, people who ask questions, lefties, queers, I was just a bundle of everything the Church doesn’t like. [I don’t know if you know this, but the Catholic Church does officially endorse political parties, at least in Australia, and here they endorse the conservative party because of a Red Scare thing that happened in the 1950s, it’s really interesting but obviously not what you’re asking me about, sorry. I just really love discussing what a huge impact that had on Australian politics for 20+ years.] I was angry that people like me had no power in the Church, were of no worth to the Church, were seen as lesser. But at the same time I kept exploring religions — I looked into Judaism a few years ago, actually, before deciding it was too steep a learning curve since I didn’t know anyone who could guide me through it at the time. Like many culturally Christian white atheists (I imagine), I flirted with Buddhism for a bit, but I wasn’t passionate about it in any way. I always told myself that one day, in the future, I would just sit down and Decide, once and for all, what my thoughts were about religion. That never happened, but it was very much in the back of my mind: the knowledge that I wasn’t done, I hadn’t arrived at my final destination in my religious journey. It was actually one of my ‘I’m sad because I have no religion and I crave ritual and structure’ mopes that prompted my best friend to offer Judaism to me — and here we are, a year later, and I spent ten straight hours without food or water at shul yesterday for Yom Kippur.

PS: the Hebrew for altar (מזבח) and the Hebrew for kitchen (מטבח) are only one letter different (mizbach vs. mitbach), which meant I was very confused when I mixed them up while listening to a Torah portion, and then I thought of the Toast’s series about replacing words in the Bible, and I laughed a lot. I don’t know if that actually ends up being funny when you do find and replace it, but if it does, you are welcome to use it.

That is the best joke I have ever heard.

It makes a lot of sense to me that your atheism would be, at least for a while, driven as much by resentment of awful church policies as anything else. I don’t know what it was like for you, but a lot of my own Young Atheism was more anti-church than it was pro-much of anything else (I got better, eventually, but I think there’s very much a place for anger in any cosmology.) Sometimes it takes a while to sort of depressurize from the religion of your youth before you can think more seriously and constructively about what sort of faith or worldview you would like to have.

It’s interesting that you mention a brief interest in Buddhism, which, yes, is super common among disaffected former Christians, I think. An aspect to conversion that can be lovely, I think, is the idea that you can examine other religions and find something to appreciate in all of them, but you encounter one in particular that sort of announces “home-ness” to you, if that makes any sense. What was it about Judaism that first compelled you? I know it’s not a faith that encourages proselytization, so that must have been interesting.

Yeah, Judaism really does feel like home. At first it was the appeal of highly ritualised structure and also the….comfort of praying in a language you don’t know, which sounds weird, but I felt that whenever Catholicism got its Latin on, too. The structure and ritual is really comforting to me, knowing there’s a script for when x, y and z happens, and also there are so many festivals. Christians have so few they have to awkwardly pretend Christmas in July is a thing (or is that just down in this hemisphere?). The Jewish calendar has a month, Cheshvan, that is nicknamed mar-Cheshvan (literally “bitter Cheshvan”) because there are no holidays. For a whole month.

As I did more research, the things that really struck me about Judaism were its position on sin and on questioning and argument. Sin isn’t really a bit thing in Judaism — there’s no idea of original sin, and the word for sin in Hebrew is related to ‘missing the mark’, as if you’re on track by default, unlike Christianity. There’s also no hell, but that’s more because Judaism’s official position on the world to come is basically an elaborate shrug. Judaism doesn’t like asceticism — and coming from a religious tradition where high officials still self-flagellate, that’s a big change for me. I love it. Also a really big change is that Judaism is all about asking questions. There’s a concept called ‘arguing for the sake of heaven’, where arguing about theology is encouraged and that’s literally the format of the Talmud. ‘There are seventy faces to the Torah’, the saying goes, meaning that there are an infinite number of correct interpretations. If you disagree with the Catholic Church, on the other hand, you’re a heretic, and you’re not encouraged to ask questions at all.

You’re right in that it’s not a proselytising religion, but weirdly enough I found that resources are really clear and easy to find. Most progressive Jewish synagogue’s websites will have a tab specifically about converting through their shul, what that entails and how to go about it. I couldn’t find anything about conversion on any of my local churches’ websites, in contrast, despite the fact that I know the Catholic conversion process is similar to Judaism’s. And because Jewish communities are so tight-knit, once you’re committed to converting people are really happy to help in any way they can. Honestly I am really struggling to explain this because I have very little to compare it to. In my Catholic parish we never (to my knowledge?) had any converts, proselytising wasn’t mentioned at all really. So I suppose the only way that aspect really influenced things was that there wasn’t the pressure that I would be doomed otherwise, because Judaism doesn’t think everyone else is going to hell.

I…did not realize they celebrated Christmas in July in Australia! Is that because it’s cold, then? More to the point: when you say progressive synagogues, do you mean Reform? I’m aware of the sort of three main branches of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – but I don’t know how much room there is within those three branches for difference of opinion. Which tradition are you converting to?

A second question. It sounds like a lot of your movement toward Judaism was informed by how much you connected to its intellectual traditions. Has there been an emotional connection as well? Have you had anything you would characterize as a spiritual experience that’s led you in this direction (however you define ‘spiritual experience’)?

Honestly, the wiki page for Christmas in July explains it better than I ever could. It’s mostly just a gimmick, honestly. Anyway.

Progressive is basically the umbrella term for non-Orthodox movements (though it sometimes doesn’t include Conservative Judaism, it depends on the context), but it also gets kind of complicated outside North America because different countries have different flavours and related movements? So, for instance, in the UK a Reform synagogue would more closely resemble an American Conservative synagogue, whereas a UK Liberal synagogue is a better analogue to US Reform. In Australia we call ourselves Reform but we’re much closer to the Conservative end of things than the average US Reform synagogue because of historical reasons and politics and such. Sorry, it’s weird and complicated and I don’t even understand it 100%. (I don’t think anyone does.) I’m converting Reform, but to standards that would satisfy the Conservative movement because the head rabbi of my shul is Conservative. Honestly, I don’t really see eye to eye with either of them and I’m more comfortable with the Reconstructionist label, but that doesn’t exist outside of the US, so I’m happy to go with progressive/Reform for now. (If that answer is waaaaay too complicated, I totally understand, and feel free to say I’m converting Reform and I’m calling it Progressive because of the difference between movements outside the US.)

In terms of differences of opinion, Orthodoxy has its own groups within it that follow their own leaders and rules, Conservative Judaism has a central governing body that issues binding rulings, and the Reform movement has a central governing body but its rulings aren’t binding, so there’s a lot more room there.

I’ve had an emotional connection, yes, but I don’t know if it’s spiritual. Part of it is just getting emotionally attached to the community — knowing everyone, whose daughter is getting married, who’s just become a grandparent, and my shul was so welcoming and eager to adopt me that it felt like home from very early on. Honestly though I don’t think it’s spiritual — I find prayer (as in, set prayers) comforting like I do the rituals, and I suppose sometimes, when there’s no one else there and it’s just me and the ner tamid (the light that always stays on in the sanctuary), it does feel….shul does feel different from elsewhere. Perhaps there’s something there. I’m agnostic in the sense that if there is a God, I believe God would be totally non-interventionist, so it kind of doesn’t matter? But I like the idea of God being life itself — that elusive thing that makes the difference between a lump of meat and a living thing. When I say blessings, I’m just expressing wonder at the fact that life exists in all its amazing variety, that I’m alive right now to experience it. That’s what I get from religious practice — a framework through which to express wonder and remember that it’s amazing that I’m alive, that flowers smell beautiful, that mangoes are delicious.

I have genuinely learned something today! And that’s a really lovely, helpful way of looking at things. I love talking to someone who’s converted but also considers themselves agnostic – you hear the expression ‘with the zeal of the converted’ and often tend to think that converts must be very gung-ho about their own definition of God, so it’s lovely to hear about your experience, where you’ve found a religious community you want very much to be a part of, but don’t necessarily have a certain, fixed idea of what God is.

We’re getting quite close to your actual conversion date! Can I ask you a bit about what that process looks like? It’s so interesting to me, because, you know, in most Christian traditions, you can pray a certain prayer and bam, you’re in. Maybe you get baptized, but it’s all very quickly done. In Islam, I believe, you make the proclamation of faith, and you’re a Muslim. I like the idea that you’ve picked a future date to become Jewish, and that it requires a community recognition, and a set of rituals.

The process before the beit din differs between movements, so I’m not speaking for all Jewish conversion experiences, only the ones under the Australian Progressive moetzah. (Generally, the vast majority of Progressive conversions will look like this, but Orthodox ones will look very different.) Before I can go before the beit din, I have to experience a full cycle of festivals and a full year of Judaism 101 classes, taught usually by the rabbi in classroom style. I then have to pass three exams – I’ve already passed one of them, which is very exciting. There’s a take-home exam, which is very much about your personal feelings and journey, primarily, which the beit din read over before they see you. Then there’s a closed book exam which is mostly facts – vocabulary, Biblical figures, that kind of thing. And then finally you get to the beit din, which is a rabbinical court. Three rabbis sit in a room and grill you, basically. There are some set questions that are ritualistic – “Do you understand that being tied to the Jewish people means antisemitism,” “Do you accept that there is only one God,” and then there are questions that are up to the beit din. For instance, my take-home asked me my feelings about Israel, and my rabbi said that the beit din would probably take issue with what I wrote. Apparently sometimes the beit din has asked a prospective convert’s position on Jesus and had to reject them because they still believed Jesus was the son of God. Ultimately the beit din are the final arbiters of whether or not you are allowed to become officially Jewish. They’re not trying to fail you, obviously, and you can be deemed not ready and try again at a later date, but that’s certainly the most intimidating part of the whole process. So let’s say the beit din gives you the go ahead, then you go to a mikvah, which is basically any body of “natural” water. Usually these days it’s a bit like a swimming pool, tiled and indoors, but since the only mikvah in my city is strictly Orthodox, my shul uses the sea. You go into the mikvah completely naked (including nail polish) so that there’s no barrier between you and the water – you even have a shower beforehand and scrub under your nails and everything. You dunk three times and say a specific blessing, and then once you emerge from the mikvah, you’re Jewish. This isn’t a communal thing – as you are naked for the whole process, it’s usually just you and the mikvah attendant who double checks you did it correctly while trying not to look at your naked body.

Also, if you have a dick, you have to be circumcised, but that bit does not apply to me. The beit din, the mikvah, and the circumcision if applicable are the actual official bits of the conversion process, with everything else just being a structured way to prepare you for the beit din decided upon by your community.

After that, you’re as Jewish as someone who was circumcised at eight days old, so there’s no real official communal celebration after that, but you generally get a special call up to the Torah the first Shabbat after your conversion because, hey, you can do that now! And obviously there are often informal celebrations with the community because they’re your friends. It’s a difficult line to straddle because Jewish law emphasises that a convert is exactly as Jewish as any born Jew as soon as they’ve been to the mikvah, and you’re not supposed to draw attention to the fact that someone’s converted because that would be treating them differently. On the other hand, it’s a happy occasion worthy of celebration.

I think a significant thing to keep in mind is that celebration is more of a constant thing – when someone has an honour in a service, so if they read a prayer or say a blessing in front of everyone or open the curtain in front of the Torah scrolls – everyone congratulates them and shakes their hand on the way back to their seat. For opening a curtain! So while you don’t necessarily get a big celebration, now that you can have honours, you’re going to get congratulated every time you participate in a service.

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