This article is excerpted from This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy by Debra B. Darvick, Read the Spirit Books, $16.99.
El Al security pegged me as a potential terrorist the minute I tried to board the Frankfurt to Tel Aviv leg of my trip to Israel. I seemed to fit their profile of a woman likely to be carrying a bomb. Me. A blonde, blue-eyed female, newly divorced, my kids left behind with their father in Michigan. I was photographed, then interrogated for what seemed like hours. Edgy guards combed through every bag I had, roughly unwrapped all the presents I'd brought for the friends I was visiting. Finally they allowed me onto the plane, but eyed me suspiciously the entire flight. No one believed I was who I said I was--a Jewish woman going to visit friends in Israel. It was like converting all over again.
My conversion to Judaism was the most traumatic experience of my life. It wasn't warm. It wasn't lovely. It didn't feel welcoming. Even conversion's sealing moment--the mikvah (ritual bath)--was less than I had anticipated. I was one of a group of bathing-suited women holding small cards printed with the appropriate prayers, dunking on cue in a synagogue swimming pool . . . once . . . twice . . . three times. I emerged from the water with disappointment lodged in the place I'd reserved for renaissance.
I converted for the one reason they tell you not to, because I had fallen in love with and was engaged to marry a Jewish man. A child of Holocaust survivors no less. By the time my husband asked me for a divorce seventeen years later, I had a kosher home, went to shul (synagogue) every Saturday, had daughters in a Jewish day school. Out of practicality, I knew I would keep a Jewish home for my daughters; I would not lose them for anything in the world. But the question haunted me: "I'm not married to a Jew any longer. I converted to marry him. How attached am I, really, to Judaism?"
When the get (Jewish divorce) was final, I needed a change of scenery. I don't know why, but I decided to go to Israel. I'd never traveled anywhere alone and, up until then, Israel had always been connected to my husband and the visits we made to his family living there. But I had friends of my own I was eager to see in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If only the flight would land and I could prove that I was who I said I was--single mom, pleasure traveler, Jewish adult on a private mission.
My friend greeted me at the gate. He was glad to see me, but something in his manner was off. "I hope you don't mind coming with me," he said. "I have to make a stop before we go home."
"Well, I have to go to a funeral."
What could I say but, "Okay"?
The funeral turned out to be that of a boy who had studied in yeshivah (Jewish school) with my friend's son. He had been stationed in Lebanon and was killed in an army confrontation. And now he was about to be laid to rest on Har Herzl. The cemetery was filled with young people crying and holding on to one another. In America young people rarely bury each other; they go to funerals of old people. These Israeli young adults were burying one of their own. It was the first time for some, but not for others. For many it would probably not be the last. The mother part of me wanted to reach out and comfort them one by one. There was nothing I could do but grieve with them.
The day was sunny and beautiful. The sky, clear and cloudless. I could hear the wheels of the caisson grinding on the gravel path, growing louder as it neared the grave. The mourners' keening spiked higher as each turn of the caisson's wheels brought the coffin closer. Then the plain wooden box was lowered into the earth and mourners began the sacred task of laying their loved one to rest. "Yitbarakh v'yishtabach," the agonizing shoveling began, "...v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam," dirt thumped on bare wood, then the sound grew muffled as the grave filled, "...v'im'ru amen." My ears were filled with the sounds of people shrieking.
It mattered little that I didn't know the 19-old soldier who had died. I mourned the boy as deeply as if he were my own. I mourned Israel's loss and I mourned what this meant for the Jewish people. The funeral was the saddest thing I'd ever experienced in my entire life, even as it struck me how incredibly Jewish it was. Despite all my years connected to the survivor community, the funeral drove home to me the sadness of Jewish history in a way I'd never imagined.
We made it back to Jerusalem in time to eat a late dinner before nightfall and the start of Shavuot. Tired from the flight, I'd had little time to rest or process what I'd just experienced. It was my friends' custom to go to shul for study and then at about three or four in the morning walk to the Kotel (Western Wall) in time for sunrise. When we set out from their small neighborhood synagogue, it was so dark I had no idea where I was walking. I just followed those ahead of me. We arrived at the Wall as planned just as the sun was rising. As the light grew, I saw masses and masses of people, all dressed in white, preparing to daven (pray). It seemed like hundreds of thousands of people were there. Men praying together. Women praying together. Everyone was davening in different ways, but focused on the same goal--devotion to God, transcendence of the mundane, acknowledging the significance of the holiday.
Opening up the siddur (prayer book) I'd brought, I realized I knew enough to follow the service in this huge crowd of people. I didn't have to ask anyone for page numbers or paragraphs. I didn't have to move ahead to a familiar prayer and listen for the group to catch up to me. Listening to the leader of our little section, I knew what was going on. I wasn't an outsider. I was davening with the group, within the group in this wonderful place as the sun brushed Jerusalem's ancient stones with the golden pink of day break. I continued to daven, and as the sun grew brighter I felt it burning through years of insecurity, of self-doubt and anger. Once, upon meeting me, a cousin of my husband's thrust a prayer book into my hands and commanded, "Read!" His chutzpah (gall) and lack of respect infuriated me. I recalled how I always felt my husband and his family examined me, wondering if I were truly a convert. Rosy glow gave way to the candid light of day; I realized that throughout all the years of my marriage I had tried to reject my past and act as if the Christian part of my life didn't exist, as if there were something negative about the first twenty-three years of my life.
The sun rose high in the sky. Before I knew it, the various prayer groups were breaking up and leaving the Kotel plaza in waves of white. We were nearly finished davening Shacharit, the morning service: "Vatitein lanu Adonai Eloheinu b'ahavah chag hashavuot hazeh, z'man matan torateinu." (Lovingly Lord our God have you given us this festival of Shavuot, the season of the giving of our Torah.) I closed the siddur. "My Torah," I thought. "It belongs to me too."
My friend's wife came over to me. The exhaustion I felt was mirrored in her eyes. We exchanged no words but began walking back to her home for my first good sleep in Israel. Over the next few days I realized how much my friends cared about me. Whatever doubts I had about myself, my friends didn't share them. I realized that I had kept questioning myself even though everyone around me had long ago accepted me.
From Jerusalem I went to Tel Aviv, and before I knew it, it was time to go home. I had unconsciously begun the trip thinking of it as the final test. That if I didn't enjoy it, if I returned feeling the same as I did when I was married, then I would have some hefty issues to confront. But the trip made me realize the rabbis are right. Converting isn't a true decision if you make it for someone else. Don't do it for marriage. Do it for yourself.
After that trip I felt I'd really paid my dues. I returned home realizing that I am a blended person. I'll never be like a person who was born Jewish and I don't have to be. I'm my own special kind of Jew. All the years I'd been married I was surrounded by survivors, and I felt I could never measure up. But that trip made me feel like a survivor in my own right.
The flight home went off without a hitch. No one interrogated me, no one stopped me or searched me. I fit a profile that earned me mere glances of boredom from security--tired but ecstatic traveler returning home to America, a piece of Israel cradled deep within her Jewish heart.