Elaine K. Markowitz, a former English teacher and current freelance writer, lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes at Congregation Rodeph Sholom and is an avid biker.
The Late Bloomer
To the casual acquaintance, Susan Weis' decision to become Jewish might seem odd: her children are grown, she long ago divorced her Jewish husband, her significant other for several years was a secular Greek Orthodox man, and she has reached her mid-60s. Why now?
"Because," she says, "I have finally arrived at the place I've wanted to be for almost my whole life. At last I truly feel a sense of God every day."
The route to completeness was a long one for Susan. Raised in small-town Tennessee, her parents came from deep-rooted Episcopalians on one side and Methodist farmers on the other. Her home was largely a secular one that celebrated only Christmas and Easter.
"Unlike many Jewish homes where rituals are a regular way of life," she explains, "many Christian homes don't have much by way of ritual. I never felt my home was a venue in which I could express religious feelings."
The initial turning point in Susan's spiritual journey occurred when she was only 15.
Recognizing a spiritual void she didn't fully understand, she spoke to the minister, who "came across as cold," reluctant to give her any guidance because her family had not been faithful churchgoers.
"I had trouble with Christian dogma," she says. "I felt many of the rituals lacked meaning, even though the church was a gorgeous, historical church. I looked at the men who were the pillars of the church, and I wondered if they felt a sense of God's presence."
Television proved the vehicle for a push toward Judaism. When Susan noticed a mezuzah being shown on a program she has since forgotten, it piqued her curiosity enough to send her to the library to read more on Judaism. "From that early experience reading," she says, "Judaism remained in the back of my mind as something I always wanted to get back to."
By age 19 she was in love--with a young Jewish instructor at the local community college. In the radical '60s, when many young people left traditional religions, Jason, her future husband, identified with the Jews as a people, but not a religion.
Yet his grandmother's seder moved Susan further along the road to Judaism. "It was so wonderful," she recalls. "Alan's large extended family all came, and everyone was warm and welcoming. I truly felt I belonged and wanted more than ever to identify with being Jewish."
Conversion might have been a serious option for Susan had anyone presented her with that idea. "I didn't even know I could do that," she claims, remembering the failure of Alan, his family, and even the rabbi to mention the word to her. But when the couple married and raised their three children, they attended a large Reform temple, where Susan felt accepted and became active. No one knew she wasn't Jewish.
Years later, however, she realized how uncomfortable she had been with that life, and told a friend, "I felt I'd been playing a role and I didn't want to. I wanted to become official, but didn't know how to go about it."
In 1981 Susan's marriage dissolved. Heartbroken and anxious to leave the city filled with people and memories attached to her married life, she moved to Tampa, Fla., where she had friends, and where she subsequently met a non-Jewish man with whom she began a relationship. Two of her three grown children followed her shortly thereafter.
Wanting to re-connect with Judaism, she took some preliminary steps: getting involved with the Tampa Jewish Federation, subscribing to the local Jewish newspaper, and attending services at the nearby Conservative synagogue.
"I went on Friday nights," she says, "and immediately felt a sense of God sitting beside me and comforting me. Those nights in the synagogue, coupled with discovering the novels of Chaim Potok, began my move toward greater observance."
The greatest impetus of all came when, many years later, a casual glance at the Jewish paper revealed an Introduction to Judaism course, co-taught by the city's two Conservative rabbis. As soon as she walked into the class, in the synagogue library, she knew she had done the right thing.
"I could talk to the two rabbis about everything and they were warm and understanding. I was back on my journey toward becoming Jewish."
The rabbis advised her to move into observance by degrees, beginning with observing Shabbat. "It was so uplifting," Susan says. "I felt I was in the place I had wanted to be my whole life. Becoming Jewish was a commitment I was truly ready to make."
Shortly thereafter Susan had her conversion. She now keeps kosher, attends services on Friday night and Saturday morning, does not write on Shabbat, and reads avidly all the newspapers and books she can that deal with Judaism and Jewish life.
Susan, now in a new relationship with a Jewish professor who shares her enthusiasm for Jewish traditions and worship, says that Judaism continues to define her life and bring her joy.
"Right up there with the birth of my children," she says proudly, "going into the mikvah (ritual bath, which is the final step to conversion) was the happiest day of my life.
Susan has finally become "official," and in so doing has completed the journey she began over 40 years ago.