Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
Twelve years ago on a Yom Kippur afternoon, at the request of my rabbi, Steven Silver, I stood on the bimah (podium) at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, California to address my congregation about my Jewish journey. To the dismay of some and the delight of others on that long-ago day, even though I was up on the bimah on the holiest day of the Jewish year, I was not a Jew. In fact, that speech was the culmination of several years of reading, soul searching and pondering over the question of whether I wanted to take the necessary steps to become Jewish. But let me start at the beginning, rather than the middle of my journey...
Twenty-two years ago, I fell in love with and married a Jewish man. We never thought much about religion nor even considered it an issue. We were both 25 years old and deeply in love and that was all that mattered then. In order to wed, we did what we had to do to satisfy the State, our families and our faiths. Our wedding ceremony was designed to please everyone--it included both a rabbi and a priest. Shortly after our wedding, we moved to Northern California. We celebrated his holidays and my holidays, and we were happy together.
Five years passed. We had a child, a son. Suddenly, religion became an issue--an important one. Although for seven months after our son was born, we didn't really talk about it, the day arrived when we agreed a decision on the subject had to be made. We knew we couldn't raise him with two religions, and for us, no religion was out of the question, so we had to make a choice between Catholicism and Judaism.
Prior to our marriage--as one of the hoops we had to jump through to get married by a priest--my husband had agreed to raise our children in the Catholic faith. I, therefore, assumed that we would have our son baptized. That is, until my husband informed me that he really wanted his child to be Jewish. After recovering from the shock, I agreed to think about it, if we would both keep an open mind and educate ourselves about each other's religion. I had no idea at the time that the foundations of my faith were about to be deeply shaken...
Our first meeting was with Rabbi Gerald Raiskin at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California. During the course of our initial conversation, we discussed the Christian Bible and the Torah. Rabbi Raiskin pointed out that there were no vowels in the Torah itself. After a short lesson on the Hebrew alphabet and a look at a Torah scroll, I began to realize that the Bible I had grown up with... the Bible that I had been raised to believe was the literal Word of God... could really take on multiple, contrasting meanings dependent on vowel placement in the original text. The Rabbi explained--in a greatly simplified manner--that the Talmud was a collection of debates over the different meanings of various phrases and that even today, scholars struggle with interpreting certain passages. In essence, there was not, nor could there be, a "literal" translation of the Bible. The first fracture in my religious beliefs appeared...
As agreed, we next attended a baptism class at a nearby Catholic Church. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it was clear that the other couples in the room were having their children baptized because that was what was expected of them. They attended this class out of duty; it was merely a requirement to be met prior to the ceremony.
When it was our turn to introduce ourselves, we stated that we had not decided what to do about our child's religion and needed some questions answered. You can imagine the looks on the faces of the other participants and the teacher! There is no way for me to describe the experience of that evening without sounding disrespectful of the Catholic Church. Suffice it to say that I came away from that class with a few more cracks in my religious foundation.
To say that we agonized over the decision of how to raise our son is to underestimate how seriously we took this matter. We knew that whichever decision we made, we would cause one side of the family great pain. After much questioning and no small measure of soul searching, we decided to raise our son Jewish. Little did I know that that decision would so profoundly change my life.
My husband was raised a Conservative Jew and went to Hebrew School through Confirmation. When it came to understanding his religion, his education had stopped in the 10th grade. He clearly wanted his children raised as Jews, but it seemed to me he had no idea what that meant. When I began asking him questions about Shabbat (the Sabbath), the holidays or any other Jewish practice, he really could not tell me much.
Undeterred and committed to our decision, I embarked on an auto-didactic Jewish education. I read, I asked questions, I read some more. I searched everywhere for answers to the myriad questions I had. If I could not find a specific answer, I adapted something from my past and put a Jewish twist on it. I made sure we were members of a synagogue where I was able to enroll in classes. I made sure our son and later our daughter were enrolled in Jewish preschools. I got involved in the temple's schools, which opened up additional resources for information and assistance.
It was the day that one of the preschool teachers asked me--me, an Italian, Catholic woman--if a particular food item was kosher for Passover--and I knew the answer--that I realized I was truly living a Jewish life and that most people thought I was Jewish. But what brought me to my personal crisis point was the death of a family friend, murdered at the age of 30.
I was sitting at his funeral, listening to a priest try, with great difficulty, to explain this young man's death, this terrible tragedy, in Catholic terms. I remember feeling that his words and the funeral Mass were so foreign to me. I did not feel comfortable or comforted. My grieving took place the following Saturday at an adult friend's Bat Mitzvah. Her Torah portion--which involved the death of Aaron's sons--and her D'var Torah (teaching story) moved my soul and brought the tears forward. I grieved in the arms of the people who were my true community.
Of course this kind of tragedy raises many questions for those left behind. As morbid as it now seems, one of my more unsettling uncertainties was--who will bury me if I die tomorrow? I knew at that moment that I did not want a Catholic burial. I also knew I would not be having a Jewish funeral unless I took formal steps to change my religion.
So again, I undertook some serious introspection. I had to make certain that I was not experiencing some unfulfilled childhood rebellion nor succumbing to some disguised coercion from my Jewish family. What came back to me was a very strong desire to embrace a faith that satisfied my need for spiritual growth. A faith where I could participate fully, without being limited to a prescribed role. A faith where I could question, debate, challenge and learn as much as I wanted, and along side the greatest rabbis. A faith where there were no profound mysteries guarded by chosen initiates. A faith where I could live, and raise my children, with the obligation of responsibility rather than the guilt of being born in sin.
The next big hurdle for me was a feeling that somehow I had to renounce my past, discard all my previous life experiences, in order to truly be accepted as a Jew. Instead, I discovered that the important lessons from my childhood and young adulthood could be carried forward. I was able to find a way to honor the lessons of tzedakah (charity), study, commitment to community, religious values and faith that were taught to me by my parents, grandparents and teachers. I discovered that while I was choosing to practice a faith that seemed very different from theirs, I did not need to toss aside everything they had given me. In making peace with my past, I was able to fully embrace my future and the decision to officially convert to Judaism.
I entered the mikvah (ritual bath) and answered the questions of the beit din (court of three rabbis), but it was at my conversion ceremony at the synagogue that I truly felt the power of my decision. I was able to tell the congregation about the very personal love I have for Judaism in all its expressions. How the words of Torah called out to me and when I listened and followed with my heart there was just one choice. I described my need to be one with my husband and children not only in mind and heart but in faith as well. I was able to thank my temple community for the acceptance, nurturing and gentle guidance they had given me. I talked about the meaningful and powerful ways I had found to express my spirituality--the rituals of home and temple, my involvement in a Rosh Chodesh group and my work with the temple preschool. When the rabbi blessed me that evening, I felt surrounded and embraced by God's presence and love. I had made the right decision. I was home.
The transition went very smoothly. I continued to observe the Jewish holidays and perform the rituals of the home. I began serving on the temple board of trustees (I was still dripping from the mikvah when they asked me to come on board!) But even with all of that, I began to feel that something was missing. I needed a more spiritual dimension to my Judaism.
I realized that because of my upbringing, it was the idea of community worship, of praying in public every week, that was missing from my life. So I started attending Saturday morning services, where I was quickly intimidated by the ritual I did not understand, by the language I could not follow, and by melodies I could not sing. Once again I felt like a stranger in a strange land. My experiences were so overwhelming and confusing that I retreated. But throughout this journey, God has never let me back down from a challenge...
I was given an aliyah (called up to give a blessing over the Torah) at that year's Rosh Hashanah service. Having never had an aliyah before, I was scared to death, but my husband recorded the blessings and I learned them by heart. As I stood there, knees shaking, voice trembling, watching the cantor chant the Torah portion, I was transfixed. "I want to do that," I thought. And as if reading my mind, the rabbi whispered to me, "It's time for your Bat Mitzvah." With that, an Adult B'nai Mitzvah class began, and I found myself chanting from the Torah. I realized then that while my conversion ceremony had changed my identity, my Bat Mitzvah had changed my soul. I was no longer a stranger to the proceedings. With a little education, my early fears and sense of alienation had been dispelled. I had been given the strength and courage to overcome them, and I felt a profound sense of accomplishment.
With my conversion and Bat Mitzvah over, I assumed it would be a good long while before I had any more major Jewish experiences. But God--apparently enjoying a good laugh at my expense--presented me with an even more incredible challenge. After several years of serving on the board in many positions, I found myself accepting the role of temple president.
After my two-year term, filled as it was with the heights of triumph and the depths of despair (nothing in my life is done half way), I decided to swear off active participation in synagogue life. Sitting on the sidelines would be just fine by me. And although I was offered many roles and responsibilities, I was able to firmly say, "No, thank you" and continue focussing on my family and my business.
That strategy worked, until my husband was offered "the job of a lifetime" in Massachusetts. So a year and a half ago, I found myself moving to Wellesley, Massachusetts, 3000 miles away from family, friends and community. It is truly daunting to have to start over again at 47 years of age--finding a house, discovering a new community, learning about a new culture, coming to terms with a seasonal existence (i.e. SNOW!), building a new network of friends. There were days after we first arrived when I thought, "This is it. The husband can stay. I am packing up the kids and going home."
But I am not a quitter. I shopped around and found a temple I felt comfortable in--Temple Beth Elohim. I joined the family up. I read the bulletin and learned about the Women of Temple Beth Elohim. I decided that would be a good place to meet people. I almost did not go to that first meeting. I didn't know a single soul and I was terrified. But when my daughter reminded me that I had made her go to school and SHE hadn't known anyone, I decided to be a good role model. So I went, met Gloria Fox and Carol Agranat, the two remarkable chairpeople of the group. The next thing I knew I was chairing the group with two other remarkable women, Nancy Wolk and Abby Rischon. "That didn't take long," my family said...
Back in Redondo Beach, I had felt like one of the more educated Jews in my community. At TBE, in my workplace and in the Boston community, I was surrounded by Jews much more highly educated than me. Again, that uncomfortable feeling I had to do something about. So, I signed up for the Me'ah class, a 2-year program of adult Jewish education. Somehow, through that class, temple spies or Rabbinical Sixth Sense, I am not sure which, I came to the attention of Rabbi Joel Sisenwine. The next thing I knew, I was at HUC in Cincinnati, participating in the Outreach Fellows program learning to facilitate groups of people considering conversion to Judaism. Sitting in that program, I felt like my life had come full circle. Here I was, a Jew-by-choice, learning how to be a support person for others on this incredible journey. And as if that wasn't enough, I had recently accepted a new job as the director of community development for InterfaithFamily.com. My life was now completely immersed in conversion and interfaith issues!
On Yom Kippur, 5763, exactly 12 years to the day after I had publicly declared my intention to convert to Judaism, I was again standing on a bimah at the invitation of my rabbi, this time at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, talking about my Jewish journey. On that long ago Yom Kippur, I stood on Temple Menorah's bimah with my feet in two worlds struggling to reconcile my past--the voices, the memories the feelings of the people who brought me into this world and educated me--with my future--the invitation from a world at times strange and yet comfortable to me. This Yom Kippur, having reconciled those worlds, I stood on another bimah, miles and perhaps lifetimes away, firmly planted in Judaism and about to embark on a path dedicated to helping others with their journeys.
If my past is any indication, this new road will be just as memorable.