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How One Phone Call Helped Me Convert to Judaism

Republished September 7, 2011

Dale is one of those fearless people who start things and get you to join them in their ventures, however risky. She is fully aware of her persuasive abilities, but when she called me up 11 years ago to ask if I wanted to come help her start one of these projects, I don't think she knew that she was going to jump-start my conversion to Judaism. But that's how it was.

Cape Ann Sunset
Sunset off of Cape Ann, Mass. Photo: Flickr/walknboston.

I had always liked Dale, but I only knew her from a few chance meetings at parties and local events. We lived only a few blocks away and so we would see one another occasionally. But still it felt strange to hear her voice on the phone when she called me one day and invited me to a neighborhood Shabbat dinner.

"It's a new idea," she said. "I thought all the Jews who live nearby could come."

"I'm not really Jewish," I said.

"Just come," she said.

I was 34 and had been struggling with my faith and my mixed heritage for years. I had studied Jewish literature. I had visited the temple in Gloucester, Mass. I had even had a meeting with the local Conservative rabbi about my confusion. I said I felt "sort of Jewish" and that my father was Jewish, but my mother was not. The rabbi looked at me sternly and said, "Charlotte, there is no such thing as sort of."

But even if officially there is no such thing as being "sort of Jewish," that is what I felt. Sort of. Kind of. Half, to be exact, at least ethnically. Even more confusingly, most people thought I was Jewish. I have dark curly hair, a big nose, a Jewish last name: all the stereotypes. But I had been raised a Christian. I had no idea how to start living a Jewish life and I was not sure I wanted to. The rabbi had concluded our conversation by saying that if I wanted to be Jewish I would have to study and go through a long process to convert. This felt like an overwhelming prospect. I hadn't experienced any inner stirring of faith. When I went on an exploratory trip to services at the synagogue, it was hard to figure out what was going on because it was all in Hebrew, and now, here was Dale, calling me up and asking me to come be Jewish at a Jewish dinner.

"No, really," I said, "I'm not Jewish. I just have a Jewish last name."

Dale was undeterred.

"You're interested though, aren't you?" she said, "I've seen you at the temple."

This was true. I was certainly interested. But it was also evidence of how small our community is. On Cape Ann, we only have one temple. There is no such thing as anonymity. My tentative steps had been witnessed and I was embarrassed. I didn't want Dale to think I was something I was not. And yet, I wished things were different so that I could just say yes.

"I can't," I said.

"Come on," she said. "It doesn't matter what you are."

It didn't matter if I was really Jewish or not? This was news to me.

"OK," I said, suddenly, liking the warmth in her voice, "I'll try to make it."

But as the days before Shabbat ticked by, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. I didn't belong at a Shabbat dinner. I wouldn't be able to say any of the prayers. I didn't know the rules. I wouldn't fit in. Just as I was thinking of canceling, the phone rang.

"Hi," Dale said, "No backing out. I'll come get you."

So there it was, she had me cornered. And actually I was glad she did. Now I had no choice and I was sure she wanted me there, even though I was only a half-sort-of Jew.

Dale picked me up and we walked down the street to the Shabbat dinner. When we opened the door, I recognized lots of my neighbors, Claudia, Audrey and Richard, Sarah and Steve. I didn't know these people were Jewish. Before I said hello, I told everyone I wasn't a real Jew, but no one seemed to care. Instead, there was lots of neighborhood gossip to discuss. And when it was time for prayers, only a few people really seemed to know what to do. I fit right in. Even full-blooded Jews didn't know anything about Jewish rituals.

As the night wore on, Dale thumped the table to get our attention, "Listen," she said, "Here's my idea. Why don't we do this on a regular basis?" "Yes," said Sarah. "Once a month."

And that was it. For almost 11 years, we have met on the second Friday of each month. And the practice has spread throughout the community. Thanks to Dale, the Jews of Cape Ann gather in their separate neighborhoods to have Shabbat meals together every month. And over time I have learned the prayers. When I got up my courage to try going to services again, I had people to sit next to who could show me when to stand, bow my head and turn the page. Steve began to teach me Hebrew. Sarah taught me how to make challah. Audrey, Richard, Claudia and I went to Israel. Finally, I converted.

This year, the new rabbi of our temple invited me to dinner right before Yom Kippur. And, as I sat there at his table, I realized that I felt like I belonged. I knew the prayers. I knew everyone in the room. Dale was not there, but I thought of her. She had helped me leave behind my "sort of" status and I was grateful.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
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.
Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.

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