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"Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life" is Andi Rosenthal's monthly column about "the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage."
When I decided to convert to Judaism in the summer of 2001, my father was the first person I told. I broke the news to him on a hot July afternoon, over lunch at the Wall Street Grill and Bar, a restaurant which--like other significant downtown landmarks--is no longer there.
Our conversation took place during one of his frequent trips to the city to visit me in my office at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. There was nothing better than a workday interrupted by a visit from my dad, who would always arrive well before our lunch date so that he could tour the museum, connecting with his past, and, unbeknownst to him, my future.
After lunch, the server cleared our plates away and we lingered for a little longer over coffee and cheesecake. I told him about my decision. His initial reaction was silence. I saw the mixture of pride and dismay in his eyes. "Mazel tov," he said finally. "Are you sure?"
"Okay," he said, sounding resigned. "But it's not going to be an easy road. Believe me. I know."
It was the reaction I had expected, because throughout his adult life, my father was a Jew who could barely acknowledge being Jewish.
When he died--shockingly, suddenly--of a cerebral hemorrhage this past March, he had only just broken a silence that had lasted more than fifty years.
My dad, whether he ever realized it or not, was my closest companion on my journey towards Judaism. Yet his rejection of Judaism in his late teens--the same age in which I had come to embrace it--was the result of a combination of factors. His parents had died suddenly; his father first, when my dad was only fourteen, and then his mother, who had also converted to Judaism, just four years later.
Once his father was gone, his mother no longer felt it necessary to maintain a Jewish home. And then, once she died, my father's brother and two sisters all converted to Christianity when they married non-Jewish partners. Finally, when my dad married my mom, he gave up the last claim to his heritage by agreeing to raise my sister Laura and me as Catholics.
For all of the years of my life, my father's religion was a subject of silence. Laura and I, over the years, asked him questions, all of which were answered vaguely, or not at all. We never really knew what he believed, or what he considered himself to be. He affirmed only that my sister and I had been brought up to believe in a certain religion--our mother's--and that was it.
Yet my decision to convert surely must not have come as a surprise to him. Because my father's Jewish past was a mystery that had fascinated me ever since I was old enough to realize that distant cousins of mine had become bar mitzvah, I had gravitated towards Judaism my whole life, taking Jewish Studies courses in college, and working in the Jewish professional world. I can only now imagine how disarming and disconcerting it must have been for him to see his family's legacy so inexplicably, vibrantly alive in the next generation.
As my father's yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) approaches, in just a few short weeks, and I come to the end of the cycle of a year of saying the Mourner's Kaddish, I cannot help but wonder if this was the way in which my father wanted me to mourn for him. Because his parents died so long ago, I never knew how their deaths impacted him from a religious standpoint, or how he reconciled his notions of God with his personal sense of loss.
And such an overwhelming sense of loss seemed to take its toll on my father. I never really knew what he thought of God, or how he felt about his children being raised as Catholics. For all of the years I knew him, he seemed to want to be isolated from any discussion of theology or faith. In time, as he saw his brother and two sisters marry outside of the Jewish faith--in essence, becoming scattered from their homeland--he was left without a community to provide support for his Jewish identity. The resultant grief and loss that he felt made it impossible for him to maintain his Jewish identity--until he saw that identity take root in his youngest child.
But as soon as I told him of my intention to convert, my father became my Jewish community. Even before my friends, teachers, rabbis, and congregation, my dad was a living connection to the choice that I affirmed not only for myself, but for us both.
A few months before my conversion ceremony took place, I was involved in a car crash--which meant that my dad was the person who would pick me up from the train station after work, and drive me to my Derekh Torah class at the Jewish Community Center.
After class, he would pick me up and take me home to my apartment, and during those car rides he would ask me questions about what we had studied that evening. For the first time in our lives, he shared stories and memories of his childhood, of his parents, of how he celebrated all of the Jewish holidays with his parents and siblings, and of what it was like to grow up as a Jewish kid in a Christian neighborhood.
In the end, we had only four years to talk about it. We planned a trip to Israel that I hope I will make someday, when it is not too painful to remember that we would have gone there together. Because even though it was painful for him to remember the losses of his parents and his Jewish identity, he gave me a connection in time to my own history and heritage that I never thought would be possible. Even though, with our name--Rosenthal--he gave me the gift of a recognizable Jewish identity, in the last two years of his life he also gave me the gift of a Jewish family and a Jewish memory that I never knew we had.
Now that he is gone, when I witness the conversion journeys of others who do not have a Jewish family member, I realize that perhaps I never truly understood what conversion really means, or what it takes to stand up, alone in the world, and affirm a decision and a belief that is not shared by those who are closest.
My father was the person whose name I took on the day I converted, who is with me when I am called to the Torah, whose past made my Jewish identity a reality. And now, I am the only Jewish person left in my family. Without my father's presence in my life, I have taken shelter in my own community, spending even more time with friends in my congregation, trying to figure out the role of a Jewish mourner as I learned it from the remnants of my father's memories of mourning his own parents.
As my year of mourning my father ends, I console myself by studying how the Jews in exile recalled Zion by the waters of Babylon, where we sat down and wept. My father remembered Zion more than fifty years after his own self-imposed exile because my conversion represented a return home for us both. I hope to someday carry forth to future generations the remnants of the Jewish legacy he has bequeathed to me--the promise of his return from exile that I will carry forth, someday, when my own exile of mourning has ended.