Fake It 'til You Make It: My Conversion to Judaism
I met my husband, Matthew, the old-fashioned way – at the office. Even before we started dating, it was clear that although he was secular in his observance, he strongly identified as Jewish, and his children would be raised as Jews. (The workplace banter was pretty intense.)
I had abandoned my Roman Catholic upbringing, but I still wanted to raise my children with a moral framework centered on a monotheistic God, so after we started dating and eventually discussed marriage, I readily agreed to raise any children in the Jewish faith. Matthew accepted that and never pressured me to convert. “It’s a lot of work, you know,” he told me. And although Matthew’s parents would have been thrilled if he had married a nice Jewish girl, they were extremely welcoming to me, which meant the world to both of us.
When we began living together, I teased Matthew for only observing (and then complaining about) the “deprivation” practices of Judaism, such as fasting on Yom Kippur and avoiding chametz (leaven) during Passover. I respected those observances but wondered: What was the point? He seemed mostly to be doing it out of guilt. Guilt and sacrifice were abundant in my Catholic upbringing, and I wanted no part of that.
I started researching the Jewish holidays to make them more fun and meaningful. Food was an obvious place to start, and to my delight, both my mom and my stepmom gave me Jewish cookbooks when Matthew and I announced our engagement. (Fortunately, they were different cookbooks.) I learned about fried foods during Hanukkah, sweet foods on Rosh HaShanah, challah on Shabbat, and all about the seder plate. It was overwhelming at first, but as each year went by, we added a little more to each holiday.
We were married by a lovely rabbi and had a ketubah (Jewish wedding contract), the Seven Blessings, a homemade chuppah (canopy), and of course, the breaking of the glass. I became pregnant and we went temple shopping. I couldn’t figure out the structure of the services or understand the prayers, and I didn’t know any of the songs. The bending, the bowing, the kissing of the Torah – I never knew what was going to happen next. Just when I felt totally lost, Matthew would start singing along and hum the same tune all weekend. I thought of his ancestors, saying that same prayer centuries ago, and I felt a duty to ensure that their songs and prayers would continue.
After our first son was born and we moved to the suburbs, we joined our local Reform synagogue, as well as PJ Library, which sent picture books explaining the holidays. The illustrations of happy families sitting around a table loaded with food, wine, and candles all looked so fun. Inspired by their example, we started saying the Shabbat blessings on Friday nights and the Sh’ma before bedtime, and made challah, hamentaschen, and Hanukkah doughnuts. We created our own Passover haggadah and had a big seder. We even made gefilte fish and built a sukkah.
I began to appreciate the Jewish emphasis on action over belief, of learning through doing. When we had first started dating, I was accepting of Judaism but had not wanted to “choose a side.” By observing these holidays and rituals, I realized, I was committed, whether I liked it or not.
During the first years of our family life, I thought about conversion but wanted to wait until my sons were older so I had more time to study. That also allowed me to postpone telling my own family. It was one thing to tell my parents that their grandchildren would be Jewish, but actually converting myself seemed more difficult to share. Then, as my older son turned 4 and had questions about everything, I realized that I feared the day that he would ask, “Mommy, are you Jewish?” I’d get defensive. “I’m Jewish on the inside,” I would say, “and we are a Jewish family. I just haven’t done all the paperwork yet. It’s a lot of work, you know.”
After that imagined conversation, I signed up for a class through the Union for Reform Judaism, arranged for a babysitter, and called our rabbi to ask about the conversion process. I could almost hear him smiling over the phone. When I told my parents and brothers, I was mostly met with…nonchalance. Apparently, they had figured it would happen eventually.
Although the class was indeed a lot of work, it provided a systematic and rigorous study of Judaism, and helped me learn with my mind what I already felt with my heart – conversion was not an instantaneous event, but was a journey that had begun years before, when I first began to wonder why we fast on Yom Kippur, and would continue long after my sons and I emerged from the mikveh.
Learn more about Introduction to Judaism and Taste of Judaism classes and find one in your area by visiting www.reformjudaism.org/classes.
Susan Brownstein and her family are members of Temple Sinai of Glendale in California.