April 14, 2011
Originally published on Chicago Carless.
Thirty days from today, I will be a Jew. On Thursday, May 12th, I’ll undergo the rituals that will make my conversion to Reform Judaism complete. A few weeks ago at Friday evening services, in response to someone’s comment about these rituals our cantor joked, “We hit ‘em over the head and drag ‘em to the mikveh, and that’s how we make a Jew.” There’s a grain of truth in that. This blog post is a look at the rituals I’ll undergo to become a halachic (legal) Jew under Reform auspices.
(It’s worth noting that Orthodox Jewish authorities often feel free to deny the halachic nature of Reform Jewish conversions. But since I’m not Orthodox, I feel equally free to deny the authority of Orthodox authorities. ‘Nuff said.)
Funny thing is, converts often feel Jewish, know their Jewishness quite deeply, long before they get to the mikveh. That’s definitely been my experience during my conversion journey. I’ve made many friends at temple, haven’t missed an erev Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath evening) service in seven months, have studied 30 Judaica books since August, and officially joined the synagogue in March. My pantry is full of Pesach (Passover) food and will soon be bereft of chameitz (leaven and leavened foods.) And I feel at home in my congregation, in my faith, and for once in my own skin.
But converting to Judaism is more than a feeling or a faith. It’s also joining a community, a people. So once your rabbi deems you ready, there are a few specific ritual hoops to jump through to make things official. When I met with my rabbi to discuss my conversion essay, I knew I was ready when he asked me, “What would you say if I told you I didn’t think you were ready?” After I finished telling him there was nothing he could say that would change my mind, I asked him if that was a ritual question he asks everyone near the conversion finish line. “Could be,” he said with a grin.
Here’s what will make me a Jew on May 12th…
That morning, Ryan and I will drive to the Reform-friendly Community Mikveh of the Conservative Movement in suburban Wilmette. (What’s a mikveh? I’m getting to that.) We’ll meet our congregation’s rabbi and cantor there, as well as a cantor whom I’ve never met before. The three will serve as my Beit Din –a religious court who will discuss my conversion journey with me and ask me ritual questions to ensure that my desire to join the Jewish people is sincere and my preparation (in terms of study and practice) is adequate. The Beit Din is required, but isn’t a cause for worry. The idea is that if you’ve made it to your Beit Din, by that point you’re Jewish in all but formality.
Hatafat Dam B’rit
For millenia, male circumcision has been the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The Reform Movement does not demand that male conversion candidates undergo circumcision, and my pediatrician took care of that 40 years ago, anyway. But I have chosen to undergo Hatafat Dam B’rit. It’s a ritual circumcision performed by a professional mohel, who will draw a ritual pinprick of blood from you-know-where and display it on a gauze pad to three witnesses. It is, in essence, a re-enactment of the covenant of circumcision, and I am traditional enough in my faith to feel that without this ritual my conversion would be incomplete.
Immediately after Hatafat Dam B’rit, the big-time ritual–mikveh. The right-to-left Hebrew word at the top of this blog post. The ancient Jewish immersion ritual on which Christian baptism is based. Most likely, also the point at which I’ll cry like a baby. (I would be in good stead on high sentiment, too–see sweet mikveh stories from fellow bloggers Michael Getty and Leah Jones.)
It’s usually (mine will be) a private, indoor, built-in pool of chest-deep water about the size of a very large hot tub. Leading down into the water are seven steps, symbolizing the seven days of the Creation story. The water is warm, a mix of purified tap water and collected rain water to make sure the waters are “living.”
I’ll prepare in a separate room, washing and grooming thoroughly and removing anything that might serve as a barrier between me and the mikveh waters. When I’m ready, I’ll don a robe and the mikveh attendant (likely in my case, Carol, the famous Wilmette “mikveh lady”) will escort me to the mikveh. My rabbi and Ryan will both be there. The other members of my Beit Din will be behind a privacy screen. All will avert their eyes as I disrobe and enter the water.
I will immerse beneath the waters three times. Each time I do so, I must ensure I float free. Each time I emerge, if I have successfully immersed and floated free, the attendant will call out “kosher.”
When I emerge the first time, I will say the mikvah blessing (see Leah Jones’ full page on the blessings):
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha‑olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha‑t’vila.
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.”
I’m not required to say anything after the second immersion, but like Michael and Leah, I will recite the Sh’ma, Judaism’s central statement of monotheism. I doubt I will get the words out all at once without sobbing, but we’ll see.
After my third and final immersion, I will recite the shehecheyanu blessing, said on special occasions:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eeloheinu, melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higyanu lazman hazeh.
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has supported us, protected us, and allowed us to reach this season.”
I’ll say the shehecheyanu because the moment I emerge from that final dunking, I will be a Jew. One-hundred percent, undifferentiated in any way from Jews-by-birth as per the Torah (Hebrew bible) and ancient Rabbinic opinion. (This is an important halachic point that secular Jews sometimes find difficult to wrap their minds around.)
And there you have it. At a later Friday evening service after my conversion is complete, I will have a naming ceremony at which my rabbi will give me my official Hebrew name for use in religious legal matters. All new Jews receive the same religious surname: some version of Ben (Bat) Avraham Avinu V’Sarah Imenu, literally, son (daughter) of the biblical Jewish patriarch, Abraham, and Jewish matriarch, Sarah. That will be my Jewish “last name” too.
But the first part of my name I get to choose myself. I did so carefully, to try and represent where I’ve been and who I now know I am. My mother named me Michael, already a biblical Hebrew name, and I want to honor her decision. The name is a question, really, “Who is like God?” drawn from the lyrics of the Song of the Sea, the Mi Chamocha, that legend the Torah tells the Hebrews sang in celebration after the parting of the Sea of Reeds. I’m keeping it in my Hebrew name because I don’t think my mother named me that by accident.
Neither do I feel the discovery of my people was an accident. Joining the Jewish people has taught me why for 40 years I felt out of phase with my life. I know rediscovering them has been the point of my life up to now. I’ve never blogged about my existing, most likely Sephardic heritage because there’s almost nothing to tell for certain, except that I have matrilineal Jewish ancestors. I wish I knew more. In my heart, my conversion journey has always felt like a return. The name Ben-Ami means “son of my people.”
So my Hebrew name will be Micha’el Ben-Ami. Michael, son of my people. Which I will officially be in thirty days.