Converting Meant Adding Judaism, Not Losing Japanese

  
Kristin conversion

Kristin at her synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el. Credit: Laurel Street Kitchen

On March 22, 2016, I completed a journey many years in the making when I sat before a beit din (rabbinical court), immersed myself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath), and converted to Judaism. It felt as if my soul had finally found the home it had been searching for my whole life. In Judaism, I found a sense of community I longed for, and so much comfort in the rituals of our thousands-of-years-old tradition. I also gained a new sense of responsibility as a Jew: to do my part to repair our world. It is a day I will always remember as one of the most powerful and meaningful days of my life.

My journey to Judaism started long before I met my now-husband Bryan, but my interest in it deepened because of him and his Jewish heritage. I’ve always been interested in learning about my Japanese heritage, so when Bryan and I started discussing our future together, I was quietly interested in conversion early on. Since I was not raised in a particular religion, I felt fortunate for the gift of choice given to me by both my parents. I’m grateful that they also fell in love with Bryan and supported my decision to convert wholeheartedly from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean the process was easy by any means.

After years of attending Jewish holiday gatherings at friends’ homes, Introduction to Judaism courses at our temple, countless meetings with my guide rabbi, Hebrew classes at the JCC, building Jewish community at our Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el, regularly attending Shabbat services, reading Jewish books and cooking Jewish recipes, one would think that I would finally be ready.

There was just one problem: I was afraid that there wasn’t enough space within me to take on being Jewish. I felt I was barely holding onto my Japanese heritage. I had spent my entire life tightly gripping the few parts of my heritage that were left for me. My dad’s generation had lived through being Japanese-American in Hawaii during and after World War II, and they had to assimilate as quickly as possible if they were to keep their families safe and rebuild their lives here. Though my Mom is from Japan, she quickly learned the importance of assimilation as well. So much of my heritage was lost before I came into the world. The same can be said for Bryan’s Jewish heritage.

Luckily (though it did not feel so lucky on those early Saturday mornings), I grew up going to Japanese school and spending summers in Japan. But Saturday school and Japanese relatives don’t teach you how to navigate being Japanese-American in America. I’ve spent most of my life feeling painfully in between: Not behaving quite Japanese enough in Japan and not looking American enough in the US. To top that off, I’ve often felt the pressure of being the last “link” to the Japanese part of my family. I was hanging onto my complicated Japanese American heritage by a string. I worried that by adding Judaism to the mix I would lose it all, and my heart ached for my ancestors and for future generations of my family.

Synagogue

Kristin’s synagogue. Credit: Perfect Circle Photo

This is how I ended up in my guide rabbi’s office sobbing. I told him I wasn’t ready and that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. To which he responded, “You’re ready.” I was completely baffled, but he continued by asking me if I had ever considered that there was space for everything? I hadn’t. And that simple change of perspective was exactly what I needed to hear. I walked into his office only being able to see two options: Holding on to my Japanese heritage or letting go of it to be Jewish. Thankfully, he helped me to see there was a third choice: What if there was enough space for everything?

The funny thing is, now I have a company called Nourish that does exactly that: We help people define their cultural narrative, on their own terms. I’m not just Japanese. I’m not just Jewish. I’m not just American. I’m a Japanese-American Jew. While it’s complex, I have even more opportunities to celebrate who I am, and more opportunities to reinterpret my heritages in ways that help me connect more deeply. I may still use chopsticks incorrectly and unpack some takeout before lighting candles on Shabbat sometimes, but never have I felt so connected and nourished by my Japanese and Jewish traditions. I’d like to think that’s all our ancestors could have wanted for us, anyway.

Next spring, I will celebrate my bat mizvah at the same temple where Bryan and I were married. In a few weeks, I will travel to Japan to study my heritage. In some ways, I feel I am reclaiming the lost parts of my Jewish and Japanese heritage and now there’s plenty of room for both.

The Mikveh Is Better Together

  

By Kelly Banker

mikveh

Photo courtsey of Mayyim Hayyim

As a young Jew raised in a secular home, I never imagined that being in a committed relationship with someone who was of a different faith tradition (or none at all) would feel especially impactful to me. In fact, labeling my relationship “interfaith” has been a fairly new paradigm in my life. However, in the past few years I have increasingly identified with my Jewish identity and have spent time living and working in various Jewish intentional communities.

I am in a committed relationship with a man who identifies with his Presbyterian roots, just as I identify with my Jewish ancestry. As we grow closer as a couple, we also spend more time navigating our diversity in religious beliefs and practices. These conversations and experiences have been and continue to be a blessing. The depth of our spiritual and intellectual engagement with one another and with our respective traditions serves as a profound model for the two of us in how to approach differences with love, respect and connection.

A few weeks ago, I was in deep need of a ritual space. I was yearning for a way to mark a rite of passage, a moment in time, with my partner, and yet finding something that would be meaningful for the both of us was feeling increasingly difficult. I felt drawn toward marking the day with Jewish ritual, which I knew might be a challenge as an interfaith couple. I can’t quite name what the calling to Jewish ritual is, but it feels visceral, ancestral—written into my body.

Mikveh couple

Kelly and her partner CJ

When I asked my partner if he would be willing to mark this moment by visiting Mayyim Hayyim (a Jewish spirituality center in the Boston area) together, he was receptive but also distanced from it. He said that he would definitely go with me, but that it would be for me, and not for him. Since he is Christian, and the mikva’ot (ritual baths) at Mayyim Hayyim are for Jews and those converting to Judaism, immersing in the baths is neither an option for him nor a strong point of identification. A mikveh is designed for enacting a Jewish ritual that includes dunking under water (and involves much more that goes along with that act), typically to honor a lifecycle event, rite of passage or other life event. My partner is wonderful and knows how important the mikveh is to me, so he went along with me.

I had spoken to the staff at Mayyim Hayyim in advance of my visit to think through how to best make my partner feel welcomed and involved, despite his not being able to immerse. We talked through several options, including a hand-washing ritual and his being present in the space to witness my immersion. I was inspired by their attention to ensuring that Mayyim Hayyim was welcoming for an other-than-Jewish person who was understandably apprehensive about visiting a mikveh.

When my partner and I stepped across Mayyim Hayyim’s threshold, we felt a subtle shift. The warmth and kindness of our mikveh guide made us both feel at ease and since she had been informed of our interfaith status, she focused her tour on providing information so that my partner would feel comfortable, able to ask questions and connected to the place and to the ritual itself. Prior to arriving, he and I had decided that he would witness my immersion. Yet there was a feeling that came over us as we were exploring the space with our guide, a sort of holiness that neither of us could quite pinpoint. As I began preparing, I felt my nerves begin to spark. Was it strange to have my partner witness me? Was it too non-traditional for the both of us? Would the immersion hold meaning for me if he was there, and vice versa?

I stepped into the mikveh room wrapped in my sheet, and there he was, waiting for me. As the mikveh guide had taught him, he held up the sheet to obscure his view and I walked the seven steps into the sacred water. As I immersed, he lowered the sheet just beneath his eyes to witness my transformation. I prayed, sang and felt held by the water-womb and by his modest, unassuming gaze. I not only felt the renewal that I had been seeking, but an increased connection to my own self and to my partner. In that moment, I felt the sacredness not only of the water and of the space, but of my body and of our love for one another. I climbed the seven steps out of the water and he wrapped me back in the sheet. I had never felt such warmth.

As we thanked our guide and stepped out into the brisk air, I felt a newness on my skin, the blooming of new beginnings and the bittersweet sting of endings. We held hands and I asked him what he thought. He breathed deeply and paused. “It’s a holy place.”

His words underscored what many of us who immerse here regularly know, but it was a feeling I never thought would be accessible to us as a couple. We walked on, hand in hand, the air chilly against our faces, still basking in the afterglow of Mayyim Hayyim’s quiet holiness.

A version of this piece was originally published by Mayyim Hayyim

Kelly Banker works as a Jewish educator and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House. Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies and has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Kelly is a doula, a farmer and a certified yoga teacher. She loves feminist theory, ritual, movement, exploring the woods, poetry and the moon.