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Going Under, Letting Go

June 22, 2012

With my wedding just under one year away, I am doing all the things brides-to-be all over the country are doing: shopping for dresses, looking at magazines, tasting layer cakes. But part of my wedding preparation has been slightly unorthodox (pun intended) ? I visited the mikveh, as part of my conversion to Judaism.

What made this so unusual was that I was already a Jew.

Before I met my Jeff, my fiancé, I had never heard the phrase "matrilineal" or "patrilineal." I certainly never thought it had anything to do with me. Even though I hadn't had any formal Jewish education, I had long since cast my lot with the Jews. I believed I was a Jew when I thought my mother had converted to Judaism, I believed I was a Jew even when I found out she really hadn't. I had gone to Brandeis. I eschewed pork and made fantastic brisket. I believed my privilege of being born a female in the United States, where I would be allowed an education and freedom over my own body, was by the grace of G-d. I dedicated my life to serving others and found the strength to do so from Jewish prayer and ritual. I knew who I was, and I was a Jew. The idea that I was anything but was preposterous.

A mikveh, a body of water used ritually for a few purposes including conversion.

But to Jeff, a dedicated Kohain (a biblical label referring to the original priests of the Temple who were set apart by Jewish law), the idea was very real, and it stood in between him and his dream of passing on to his children the traditions he honored and felt deeply connected to. Being a Kohain was the thread that tied him to the past 5,000 years, the knot that held him tightly to something much larger than himself. As a Kohain, he was drawn to the customs ascribed to this class of Jews, including bestowing the priestly blessing over the congregation and delivering the first blessing over the Torah. Despite my unwavering identity, in his eyes my womb held a pair of scissors that sever his lineage. For him, the answer was clear: I needed to officially convert. For me, it was horrifying.

I refused the notion of conversion; I fought it. Some days I would begrudgingly accept it, only later to angrily throw it back at him. I laughed and joked about it to my friends, but when I was alone I would cry in shame. How could I, after spending a lifetime being labeled as a Jew ? a fact that both brought immense meaning to my life and had made me an outcast in my tiny rural town ? be told that I wasn't Jewish enough? Was it true? Was I really not Jewish enough?

I tried to compromise. I started learning Hebrew and preparing for a bat mitzvah, hoping that it would be a bridge between my identity and Jeff's history. It wasn't. Finally, I stopped arguing. I surrendered. I rolled my eyes, and said I'd do it: I'd go to the mikveh, I'd sit in front of a beit din and let a rabbi tell me what I had already known my entire life. Jeff was relieved and hummed along with excitement; I felt numb.

As the date of my immersion at the mikveh drew closer, I retreated into thought. For all my pride in my Jewish identity, I had so much pain associated with being Jewish. There's the obvious ? the leaden understanding of it would have been me that all Jews alive today wear like an albatross around our necks ? but so much other pain, too. I had shame and fear from the emptiness where the tradition should have been in a house with two parents who really could care less about formal religion; the frustration of sitting in shul and wanting to connect with the prayers and community around me but not knowing the language or the motions. Conversely, I was rubbed raw from a childhood spent in my rural working-class town where I was labeled as an other, an alien, a target. I was told I was an outsider and made to feel like one during those formative years when all I wanted was to fit in. (Some context: the town I grew up in was mocked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for refusing to change the name of a tiny body of water from "Jew Pond" to something else, claiming to not understand why it was offensive.) I had the pain of the ignorant passing comments made by those I'd trusted; I had pain of having fallen for one of my close friends, only to ruin our friendship when I realized that the fact that I was Jewish and he wasn't meant we had no future together. I carried all these things with me, surely as I wore a mezuzah around my neck, and as the years went by they got heavier.

One day, while I was trying to think what I would say to the beit din before my immersion, I had a revelation. What if, instead of dreading the mikveh, and seeing it as an obligation I had to undertake because I was somehow less than, I owned it and made it my own? What if I used the mikveh as a chance to let it all go? I am no longer the only Jew in my town, subject to jokes and ignorant references. I am no longer quietly squirming during services or, worse, afraid to go. I am no longer unsure of where Jewish practice fits into my life or afraid of how it will impact my future.

And so, when the day came, I was excited. I stood proudly in front of the beit din and told my story. As I prepared for the immersion, I thought of all the ways I had grown and changed. I spoke to my unconceived children, telling them that I was doing this in part so that they would be free from the shame and confusion I had known. I accepted that the approval of the beit din and the new name on the paper did not change who I was, and that the seven steps into the water were just that ? seven steps, out of a lifetime of thousands.

I held my breath, closed my eyes, and dove deeply.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue." God. In traditional Jewish circles, it is forbidden to write or say God's full Hebrew name. This custom has carried over into English by some, who write "God" without the vowel (o) and replace it with a hyphen. Some use variations of this, such as G!d or G@d.
Audrey Etlinger

Audrey Etlinger is a New Hampshire native who lives in Brookline, MA with her fiance Jeff and their chocolate lab, Brady. Audrey is a graduate of Brandeis University and works in public health. In her free time, she is an outdoor enthusiast, dinner-party thrower and voracious non-fiction reader.

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