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At the time he'd decided to convert to Judaism, Akira didn't know that his maternal grandfather Jules was Jewish. He was figuring out his own Jewish identity while doing case management as a social worker for elderly Holocaust survivors. He documents the experience in Surviving, written with his wife, Ellie Ohiso. (Zinc Plate Press, 2008).
|Akira's grandfather left his family a silver kiddush cup when he died.|
As Ellie and I became closer, I started attending Jewish events at the college Hillel. I spoke to my Jewish friends who thought I was crazy for even considering converting to Judaism. "Dude, being Jewish sucks." I started going to synagogues in my neighborhood and talking to rabbis. What I soon realized is that by going to a Reform synagogue, in Ellie's eyes, I would not be Jewish enough. Not that she truly believed this. I know she wanted our relationship to work out, but she spoke a lot about her parents, her community and what they might think.
It soon became clear to me that within Judaism there was a lot of inner strife. I had Orthodox rabbis denigrate the Reform and Conservative movements and visa versa. One Orthodox rabbi said, referring to Conservative rabbis, "They throw a little holy water and they think they can make someone a Jew." I even had Conservative rabbis judging the Reform movement while they were being judged by the Orthodox movement. "We do not accept Reform conversions."
As I continued to learn about Judaism, I discovered that even within the Orthodox movement there were different levels or strains that separated Jews even further. It was all very confusing to me and I couldn't understand how you could be a Jew to some and not to others.
Ellie and I continued to date and deny the fact that there was this religious barrier between us. We had so much fun together, but knew that one day we would have to face the big Jewish elephant in the room.
A ritual circumcision was done to symbolize Abraham's Covenant. As the rabbis watched, a drop of blood was drawn. This ancient ritual connected me to thousands of years of Judaism. I thought of Ruth, the first Jewish convert. I thought of my great-grandfather who was forced to renounce his Judaism. One rabbi told me that converts were God's way of replenishing the lost Jewish souls of The Holocaust. Another rabbi told me that if you save one life you save the world. I felt like I was saving future Jews as I brought Judaism back to my family.
Baruch Ata Adonoy Eloheinu Melech Ha Olam Asher Kidishanu B'Mitzvotav Vitzivanu Al Ha T'Veelah.
While I was underwater, I cherished the silent moment. All the struggles, all the adversity, all the questioning of my Jewishness only prepared me for life as a Jew. I knew that now I would not only be judged by Jews, but non-Jews as well. As I came to the surface and saw the faces of three bearded men, I finally said to myself, "No one can take away my Jewishness. I am a Jew."
They gave me loud hearty "Mazel Tovs" and handshakes. I chose the name Akiva Micah Ben Avraham Aveinu. I signed the conversion document and walked out of the unfamiliar shul to my car. The three rabbis got in their cars and drove away, leaving me to process what just happened. I was standing in a strange parking lot, in a strange town, and, yet, after 34 years of living, I, for the first time, finally felt like I was home.