Johanna Karasik is the program director of BCI (Brandeis Collegiate Institute) in Calif. Previously, she spent four years working for Hillel in engagement and programming. Johanna received a bachelor's in psychology from Colo. State University, and has written articles for Interfaithfamily.com and Shebrew.com. She welcomes emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My Glass House
I've lived in a glass house since the day that I was born, although I didn't realize how beautiful it was until I was about fifteen years old. My house has been my haven, my foundation, my support. It's filled with amazing people, history, and culture--all of which are mine. The front door is always open, but I never want to leave. My parents and siblings have never lived in my glass house, but they visit once in awhile and my mailbox is always full. As wonderful as their letters are, I wish they lived there, too.
My soul is welcome to roam throughout the house, as is my craving mind. My body does its best to keep up but is weighed down by a heavy heart.
After twenty-two years, there is still one room that I have not yet set foot in. I can see inside and the door is not locked, but the guard says I can't go in. He doesn't care about my resume, my rapport, my good deeds. My actions and words are not good enough for him. I'm left to watch my friends slip though the doorway without any trouble at all. I peer in from outside, fogging up the glass, secretly recounting the resumes of the privileged ones and wondering why I'm the one who must complete one more mission before I can enter. Hurt and confusion, longing and joy guide me in circles as I continue to wander throughout my glass house.
My mother came from a Catholic family and my father considers himself to be half-Jewish. It think it was the result of my parents' own childhoods that, growing up, I was not given any type of religion. The extent of my exposure to Judaism was the occasional Hanukkah party or Passover seder with my grandfather's humanistic group. When I was fifteen, I began studying different religions. My search lasted a few years but throughout that time I always came back to Jewish ideology and felt a connection to Judaism. No matter what I read or who I talked to, I always returned to one truth: I am Jewish.
After high school, I started embracing my religion more. At first I was reading about the culture and attending services sporadically. But it didn't take long before I was taking classes at synagogues, spending Shabbat (the Sabbath) with my Jewish cousins, and finding different ways to immerse myself in Judaism. A year ago, I was happily "sucked in" by Hillel. I became really involved and soon fell in love with the Hillel community.
I come from a Jewish bloodline. I can tell you about my great aunts and uncles who perished in the Holocaust, about my great aunt Rose who hid in a cemetery to escape the pogroms, and about other members of my family who did not survive Jewish persecution. I can tell you about my secular great grandparents who kept a strictly kosher home and about my cousins who comprise the "typical" Jewish family.
My mother is not Jewish, my father has difficulty relating to the culture, and I was not raised in a Jewish home. When I tell people my story, I'm usually asked why I want to be a Jew. I have difficulty answering that question, mostly because I don't remember choosing. Judaism is coursing through my blood. It's embedded in my mind, my thoughts. I've always thought like a Jew. Judaism is in my heart, my soul. I feel it through the music, and let it flow through my body as I dance. I did not choose Judaism, but, for some reason, it chose me.
I'm struggling a lot with my Jewish identity. There's no question that I feel Jewish, but halakha (Jewish law) says that I am not a Jew. Until very recently, the topic of conversion was highly offensive to me because conversion indicates change. You can't become something you already are. I couldn't understand why just because my mother's not Jewish, I have to undergo a year of study, impress a board of three rabbis, and submerge myself in a mikvah just so others would accept me--so they would stop telling me that I'm not really a Jew. It made me angry that I have to jump through hoops while my peers with Jewish mothers don't have to lift a finger to be called a "technical" Jew.
It was only a few months ago when I began looking at conversion more positively. I started thinking about the pros--the first of which being the learning process itself. Also, I would be accepted as a Jew by many more people than I am now. And because of that acceptance, I would be able to participate considerably more in the Jewish world. Because I'm not Jewish according to halakha, I'm excluded from things that I think many other Jews take for granted. Examples: I don't count for a minyan (a quorum of ten adult Jews, needed to read from the Torah). I can't have a Bat Mitzvah, so I can't stand on the bimah (podium) or have an aliyah (honor of saying a blessing over the Torah). I don't have a Hebrew name. And unless I convert, I will not be married as a Jew--meaning I can't have a traditional Jewish wedding. Even if my future husband is Jewish, we'd probably have to find a rabbi who would perform interfaith marriages.
As I thought more and more about all the reasons to convert, I eventually decided that it was the way to go. I stepped up my independent study and found a rabbi in my fairly non-Jewish college town. I really liked him, especially after he told me that when I first walked though the door he was thinking, "She has a Jewish soul--let's just affirm this." But when I made the decision to convert, I don't think I had thoroughly thought everything through, because I'm now having a difficult time sorting out my emotions. I soon began having serious doubts about converting. I'm hurting because I'm not being accepted as I am. I think I have proved that I have the knowledge, hunger, and heart of a good Jew. I'm used to being my own toughest critic and it's difficult to feel that I am something and then be told that I am not.
For the most part, I feel welcomed by the Jewish community. But at the same time, I feel the exclusion. What I hear is: "Johanna, we'd love it if you'd join us for services, but we can't allow you to fully participate because you know you're not really one of us, right?" While I can see why halakha has to determine who is a Jew as well as the guidelines for becoming Jewish, it's still hard to accept that I, an active member in the Jewish community, a person who has nothing but love and devotion to Judaism, has to be labeled as an outsider simply because of a technicality that I had no control over.
My family has always supported me--but they are not Jewish. They don't celebrate my holidays, they aren't at services with me, and often my Jewish vocabulary is returned with quizzical looks. I love my community and enjoy sharing Judaism and Israel with my Jewish friends and neighbors. But I can't help but feel a little sad when I look around at all the families at services or hear funny stories about Hebrew school because those are things that I haven't experienced. My friends, both here and at home, have been amazing, although I know they're never sure how to help me. But they're willing to listen to my thoughts, or to just be there when my emotions take complete control and all I can do is cry.
I have good days--those when I'm all about conversion. And I have days when I feel too ostracized to push through. But I never stop learning--I never stop being a Jew--because I know that no matter what I decide about conversion, I can't walk away from Judaism. I can't walk away from my soul.
I'm not sure what the future holds for me, although I imagine that I will ultimately decide to go through with the conversion, primarily so that my children do not have to endure similar struggles. I am the only one of my grandfather's descendents to continue our family's Judaism. I feel like I have a lot of weight on my shoulders and I'm terrified of failure. As scary and stressful as it is, it's also a great honor and I'm proud to pass on our amazing culture. And I'm also really ready for this struggle to be over. Because I can't just stop being a Jew, conversion may be my only option. Otherwise I will probably continue to wrestle with this for the rest of my life.
So for now, I will wander throughout my glass house, soaking up the history, people, and culture until I'm ready to appeal to the guard and enjoy my home completely.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.