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I never met my father's mother, Esther. She was only forty-eight when she died of cancer in 1953, in the Bronx apartment where she had raised her four children. My father, the eldest boy, returned home from active duty in Korea when he learned that she was dying. His father, Sidney, had died four years earlier, when he was just fifteen. Now, at nineteen, he sat in the kitchen of the apartment, waiting for the nurse to come out of the bedroom where his mother lay.
It was December, nearly time to celebrate Hanukkah. A celebration was out of the question--instead, he and his sister Florette had decided to buy some small gifts for their younger brother and baby sister, so that they would not feel deprived when their neighbors started to decorate their doors with bright tinsel and drag Christmas trees home through their hallway. They did not celebrate many of the holidays anymore since their father had died on Passover. Since then, every ritual was little more than a reminder.
The nurse finally walked into the kitchen, softly closing the bedroom door behind her. It did nothing to mute the sick woman's cries of pain. My father gazed at the nurse, in her white uniform emblazoned with the Sacred Heart. She was a nun from an order who cared for the dying in their homes.
"Can't you do something for her?" my father asked, his young voice rising in anger.
The woman faced him with a thin-lipped smile and replied, "She is doing her penance."
"For what? What could she have possibly done?"
The nurse said nothing. Instead, she put on her coat, and picked up her purse. She opened the door, looked pointedly at the mezuzah and then back at my father, and walked out.
Six years after his mother's death, my father stood in the rectory of Holy Cross Church and signed a document stating that any children born to him and mother would be raised as Catholics. They took their vows. "And after that," he told me forty-four years later, "I didn't think about being Jewish anymore."
* * *
There was no conflict in our "interfaith" home about which holidays we would celebrate or which traditions we would observe. My father was reticent on every issue, from the dresses my sister and I wore at our First Holy Communion to the names we chose when we were confirmed. But when I was thirteen years old, I was invited to the Bar Mitzvah of a childhood friend. It was there, for the first time, that I heard prayers being chanted in Hebrew. And it was then, for the first time, that I felt my heart stand at attention. I did not read or speak Hebrew, and I had no intellectual understanding of what was being said. But it felt almost as if someone had called me by my true name.
That feeling did not go away. At the age of eighteen, I enrolled in my first Holocaust studies course. I spent the next four years studying literature written by survivors--people who struggled to put experiences that defied words into language. The sense of being compelled to bear witness swung wide the door that had been opened by that first experience of hearing prayers in Hebrew. As my studies progressed, and as new connections were forged, my path towards Judaism became ever more clear.
For a long time, I wanted to become Jewish because I felt angry that someone named Rosenthal was being raised as a non-Jew. To me, following everything I had learned about the Shoah, it seemed a betrayal to the Rosenthals who had kept their traditions, only to perish. I wanted to be able to identify with the strength and resilience that had helped a community to rebuild following catastrophe. And I wanted to live my life with a passionate commitment to social justice, so much of which was represented throughout the sacred texts and modern lessons of Judaism. The only problem: How to tell my mother.
Although she was not particularly religious, her family traditions were important to her. When I would proudly define myself as half-Jewish, she would often shake her head and say, "You're Catholic. You were baptized and confirmed. End of story."
In 1999, I began working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Even on the day of my first interview, I remember walking out of the building and looking up at the sky. All at once, everything I had studied--all the years I had questioned my need to learn about the Holocaust--this discipline of devastating sadness--made sense to me. I remember looking up and saying aloud, "Oh! This is what You meant! Thank You!"
The museum is a place that allowed me to respond to the feelings within that were drawing me ever closer to making a commitment to Jewish life. The day-to-day work there enables me--and the rest of my museum family--to help build and maintain a home for sacred memory. In the years since I began this rewarding work, there was no day more meaningful than the day my parents visited. My father had seen the museum several times already. But when my mother visited, I was able to explain so much to her about what becoming Jewish would mean to me. I had been so afraid of hurting or disappointing her. But when our tour came to an end, she pulled from her purse a small box, which contained a Star of David pendant. She said, "Now I understand what this means to you. I know you want to convert. It's fine with me. I understand now."
* * *
I began my official journey towards conversion in mid-2001. As the date for my ceremony approached in the summer of 2002, my father and I met nearly every week for lunch to discuss the things that I had been learning in my class. As I talked, he would tell me stories from his childhood--stories of rituals and holidays, traditions and memories, all of which he had kept hidden for so long. One day in July, we were at lunch together and he told me the story of why he had chosen not to discuss his Jewish upbringing before now.
"I was so angry at God," he told me. "He took my father when I was fifteen, and then four years later, cancer killed my mother. She was a young woman. My sister Barbara was only five years old. And then, when she was dying, there was that nurse, that nun. She was supposed to be a holy person. Instead of showing compassion, she said that the cancer was my mother's penance."
"For what?" I asked.
"For converting. My mother was a convert, too. She converted to marry my father. She embraced this tradition because it was important to him--and it became important to her, and to all of us. That nurse..." He paused. "That nurse made her believe that she was being punished for becoming a Jew. My mother died thinking that she was going to hell. She had no peace at all, at the end. I didn't want anything to do with religion after that."
I was stunned. Here I had been thinking that I was the first person in my family to change their religion. But then I realized that more than a generation ago, my grandmother had been a young woman making the same choice. And that she had died having made this choice, believing that she had offended God. Even though it was a choice that she had made out of love.
I looked at him in silence. He then said, "Now that you are converting, I often wonder if I should have said something, or fought a little harder for you and your sister to know something about your heritage other than your name. But every time I thought about my parents, it just hurt too much to talk about. In the end, I guess I didn't have to worry." He smiled. "You found your way."
* * *
My family and friends gathered with me on August 30, 2002, to witness my ceremony of conversion. The night before, my mother had given me a pendant of Israeli glass from Jerusalem. My father, debonair as ever in his kippah, welcomed every guest with a radiant smile, full of pride and a joy that he had not experienced since his childhood.
Early that morning, I went to the mikvah. As I immersed, I closed my eyes and tried to envision my grandmother as a young woman, with her bright hair and her deep green eyes, as she began her own journey. I said the blessings that she had once uttered, immersed in the waters as she had. And after I said the Shehecheyanu (prayer giving thanks to have reached this day), I whispered one more word--her Hebrew name, Hadassah.
Since my conversion, I realize that the discovery that my grandmother was also a Jew-by-choice continues to shape my perspective in new ways, especially since now, a year later, I am a bride-to-be. I once believed that my conversion to Judaism was a way for me to reach back into the past. But now, I often find myself wondering if it is also a way for her spirit to touch the future.