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.

You Got That from Me—and My Mother

  
Leigh and mom

Leigh & her mom circa 1976

After belting out an energetic rendition of “The Bare Necessities” recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, “Where do I get my love of music from?”

I’ll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then there’s my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now I’m passing it along to Molly and my sons.

It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, I see that my mom—and her interfaith experience—have been a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.

My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didn’t really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didn’t convert.

When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their household’s religion—even if it’s not the religion they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.

I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.

That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.

My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didn’t) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.

I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.

Leigh and kids

Leigh with her children

Often, I see my mom and dad in my children—in the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfully—because I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. It’ll also motivate me to sing more often—and energetically.