Lyssa Friedman lives in Mill Valley, California and worships at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.
I Chose a Non-Jew--and the Non-Jew Chose Judaism
Originally published February, 2001. Republished May 23, 2013.
After fifteen years together, my partner Daphne chose Judaism. She appeared before a beit din, a rabbinic court. She submerged in the mikvah, or ritual bath. The attendant proclaimed, "Kasher, kosher!" when she resurfaced.
"Mazel Tov, congratulations!" someone shouted.
"You have much in common now," someone observed.
Yet, although six pointed stars now hung from both our necks, my partner's conversion did more to highlight our differences than our similarities.
My own relationship to Judaism has shifted. During my childhood religious education, I questioned the existence of a God that science could not prove. At adolescence, warned against interfaith dating, I deemed Judaism clannish and paranoid. As a teenager, understanding enough Hebrew to know that God bore a man's name, I judged the prayer sexist.
And when I left for college, discovering escarole and cabernet, I decided that matzah balls and Manishewitz were provincial.
Then, a friend died. I stumbled into a San Francisco synagogue to recite the mourner's kaddish (prayer said when a loved one dies) and heard melodies that felt engraved on my DNA. The following week I crept to the back of the sanctuary and found my place in the siddur, or prayer book. Gradually, I reacquainted myself with the liturgy, joined the congregation, became a lay service leader.
So, how has Daphne's conversion highlighted our differences?
First, Daphne would not have changed jobs or homes without seeking my opinion, yet she had made a life-altering decision alone. So as she went to the beit din, I saw someone distinct from me in her singularity.
Daphne had made a choice I would never be challenged to make. Some say that by returning to a Jewish life I, too, have "chosen" Judaism. But if switching from secular to observant is a choice, that choice feels superficial, like opting for Streit's over Goodman's. On the other hand, Daphne's choice seems major. Because of this, part of her internal world remains a mystery to me.
Now the most significant difference between us is how we define ourselves as Jews. I may have moved from the back pew to the bimah, podium, but if you ask what makes me a Jew, I answer Hebrew or the Holocaust. Israel or yiddishkeit. Felafel or a bissel of chopped liver on a cracker.
What is missing from this list? A dialogue with God.
This, then, is our biggest difference. I am a Jew regardless of my relationship to God. Daphne, lacking the baggage of Hebrew school, gefilte fish or Zionism, is a Jew because of her relationship to God.
Still, because I was born a Jew, I've been permitted to define myself by culture, or ethnicity, or history. And no beit din has checked this list to see if a connection to God is on it.
Rabbi Avraham Kook writes that true repentance lies in the drive to return to the purity that existed at birth, before sin. If wrongdoing isolates a person from God, repentance helps overcome that isolation.
Perhaps the Jew-by-choice is like the newborn, in a state of ritual purity. For the mikvah (ritual bath) is a kind of birth chamber from which the new Jew emerges spiritually cleansed, and into which he or she descends only after repentance, after standing poised between two worlds, after making a choice.
Like the Israelites after the Exodus, celebrating physical survival at the Sea of Reeds, the person choosing Judaism cleanses the body before journeying into the mikvah. And like the Israelites forty years later, celebrating spiritual survival at the end of their desert ordeal, she accepts the divine and receives her passport to the promised land.
Shortly after Daphne's conversion, I confessed my struggle with faith and belief to a friend. Raised an evangelical Christian, he has detached from the religion of his childhood but remains in deep conversation with God. Because he knows the place Jewish ritual occupies in my life, he was surprised that I feel doubt.
"Whether or not you feel God's presence," he said, "God has been good to you."
Now, after fifteen years of lighting our Shabbat candles, I hand the matches to Daphne. I feel like Moses forty years after the Exodus, who led the Israelites to Canaan only to die at the border. I shlep my Jewish baggage to the crest of Mount N'vo and survey the promised land.
Daphne beckons from across the boundary. Unlike hers, my faith remains challenged. Unlike my Christian friend, I cannot converse freely with God. But I can separate meat from dairy, daven, or pray, on Shabbat. And just as we retell the story of creation each year, I have a chance to move closer to God. I may not feel as if I have just emerged from the mikvah, but my self-awareness can grow. My forty years of wandering remains incomplete.
As my friend says, God has been good to me.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the action of making something kosher (like cleaning a kitchen). Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. 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. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Yiddish for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm going to daven Saturday morning.")