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June 27, 2011
I am a Jew-by-choice. I always felt drawn to Judaism and it was no surprise to anyone when I started dating a Jew. Although conversion was not my initial plan — I was raised in a liberal Catholic home — I began taking Introduction to Judaism classes eight years ago, certain that I wanted whatever children I had to have a spiritually sound upbringing and that Judaism was the path that made most sense to us.
But as I studied more and more, the desire to become a Jew myself grew so strong and vivid that I decided to take the plunge. Coming out to my parents wasn't easy. They could not understand the powerful drive to do something they viewed as so radical; they clung to the idea that I was doing it for my husband, in order to be fully accepted, which was certainly not the case. Nevertheless, harsh words and judgments were made out of hurt. Those were painful times I came to embrace later on as yet another test of how determined I was to choose Judaism, but it did not happen overnight.
I did pursue my conversion studies and converted when I was five months pregnant with my first daughter. Although it was no secret to anyone, it remained a taboo between my folks and me; we operated on a 'I love you but can't handle this so please let's not talk about it' understanding, which worked for some time. To be more accurate, it worked until something as life-changing as a new baby came into the picture, and that approach became no longer acceptable.
We wanted to celebrate the bliss of our first daughter as well as honor our religious choices with a simchat bat — the Jewish welcoming ceremony for baby girls in which they receive their Hebrew names, the plural of which is "smachot bat." We planned for a very low-key celebration at our synagogue; just our parents, siblings and a couple of close friends. I dreaded the moment of 'breaking the taboo' by inviting my parents and, indeed, the moment was awkward at best. I approached them separately and, having been hurt most by my father when I announced my intention to convert to him, I put off inviting him, bringing myself to do it only one day in advance (not the best example of etiquette, I know). Neither of my parents were to come, something that I knew was likely to happen, but had I not invited them, it would have been my choice instead of theirs. I was sad not to be able to share such an important lifecycle event with them, but I did my best to let go. After all, I figured I couldn't have the cake and eat it too.
However, on the actual day of the ceremony, to my surprise, my mom showed up. She was obviously rocked to her core and so was I. I burst into tears of gratitude, knowing how difficult the moment was for her. Up on the bimah, ready to read the Torah, I felt somewhat naked. It was the first time my mom saw me as a Jew, wearing a tallit and chanting Hebrew blessings. Now I cherish and understand the tremendous value of that moment, but back then I just wanted to get it over with and go back to our comfortable, albeit childish, 'unspoken taboo zone'.
Two and a half years later, we were blessed with the arrival of another daughter. Remembering the awkwardness of our first daughter's simchat bat, I was less than eager to organize my new baby's ceremony. Our rabbi, maybe sensing this, kept insisting that we organize it until we finally set a date. That first occasion had been loaded with mixed feelings: love, guilt, uneasiness... It had been so overwhelming! But first times usually are, aren't they? I had felt so guilty that time that I had refrained from including the people that are important in my life; I had wanted to keep it small enough that my parents would not feel as if we were celebrating 'in their face'.
This time, I decided enough was enough. After all, over two years had passed since then; they had the most wonderful relationship with their granddaughters and had been able to see that any fears regarding how my choice of Judaism could put a gap between them and my children were groundless. So I invited everyone I had not included in the first one: my aunts, my grandmother, family friends... That was quite a crowd. For many of them, it would be the first time they would set foot in a synagogue, and so I told my rabbi in advance. I did not want anybody to feel like an outsider; I used the invitation as an opportunity to explain the ceremony for them. When the day came, everybody showed up. And, yes, it was sheer celebration.
There was a spirit of festivity and joy that filled the air. A boy also became bar mitzvah that very Saturday and a couple to be married received a blessing, so everyone had a good glimpse of the spirituality imbued in each of these meaningful lifecycle rituals. Our rabbi made a beautiful parallel between Passover and Easter (we were approaching those holidays) that made everyone feel engaged and included. I sang Shehecheyanu with all my soul and, as I did, my eyes met my father's: there was love, pride and joy in the look we exchanged.
As it turns out, each of my daughters' smachot bat, besides being celebrations in their own right, were two very important milestones in the affirmation on my identity as a Jew. The first one, with all of its uncomfortable emotional load, put me face to face with the reality of being an adult making adult choices, and acknowledging myself as such in the eyes of the people through whose eyes we never cease looking at ourselves. It was a necessary step that led to the burst of joy and sharing that was the second simchat bat, out of gratitude not only for the blessing of a new life, but for the blessing of belonging to a family that will be there no matter what.
I am Jewish, but that does not mean I do not honor my heritage. I love how I came to be a Jew. I thank my parents for having given me a spiritual education. And, most of all, I love that my spiritual journey has been one of the powerful tests and decisions which have made me grow as a person and, God willing, will continue to do so for the rest of my life.