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Homecomings

January 11, 2007

My journey to Judaism has been a lifelong search for my spiritual home, one that I am grateful my three daughters, brought up as Jehovah's Witnessses, have been able to accept.

My parents raised me in the Eastern Orthodox religion. I always remember feeling like there was something missing. My maternal grandparents escaped from Czechoslovakia at a time when pogroms were raging through Eastern Europe. Were they Jews? Had they falsely raised my parents to believe they were Christians? I probably will never know for certain, yet as I searched for a religion that felt comfortable for me, studying and examining many religions--including Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, Buddhism and various forms of Christianity--none of them felt quite right.

Several years ago, I focused on Judaism because one of the strongest reasons I had spent time with Jehovah's Witnesses was their attentiveness to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew Bible was a magnet drawing me in, and so I decided to investigate Judaism. As soon as I began to learn about it, I sensed a rightness, a feeling of belonging, and as I continued to study and attend Jewish services my certainty grew. Studying with a small group led by a rabbi, my love for what I was learning gradually led me to the decision to convert. However, I didn't feel as if I were converting, but rather returning--that Judaism was my real home. On December 23, 2004, I met with the tribunal of rabbis and underwent immersion in the mikvah, the ritual bath. Never before had I experienced such intense emotion as I did that day: I had come home!

Chris, my significant other, has been a distanced Jew for most of his life, so when we began dating I was unaware of his background. After two months of dating I realized how important he was becoming to me and told him we needed to have a serious talk. I explained my commitment to Judaism and my concern about his feelings. His reply, "Leona, I'm a Jew," stunned me. His father had changed his last name and given his children Christian-sounding names, hoping to protect them from persecution. Chris' attendance at services was minimal. When he married, it was not to a Jew, which further removed him from mainstream Judaism. Although both his sons became Bar Mitzvah, Chris had never done so. He has been very supportive of my journey, but my "brand" of Judaism--Reform--is very different from his, which is secular, and he is a bit cautious. Chris still follows the pattern of his life, while I, as a new convert, have a heightened awareness of my spiritual needs, which include becoming an active part of a spiritual community.

My own adult children have watched and wondered what on earth I was doing! They had been raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, although all of them left that denomination long ago. Sadly, not one of them has yet found a spiritual home. The pain of disfellowshipping (similar to shunning) they experienced when they left the Jehovah's Witnesses, each in her own time, was very great, and the loss of longtime friends left wounds that have been slow to heal. Because religion was such a large part of our lives, we have had very open discussions about my current path. Perhaps the most difficult discussion was when "the" question was asked: How can you deny that Jesus is the Messiah? Since we had studied the scriptures together as a family, argued about them and discussed them often, I was able to refer to sections of the Hebrew scriptures to help them understand my conviction. When I reassured them that I still view Jesus as a prophet, they became less anxious. I had been dreading that question, yet when it came I was ready, and so were they.

My children also have a familiarity with the Hebrew calendar, the festivals and celebrations, which greatly aided their acceptance of my conversion and mitigated its impact on them. This impact has been the greatest around the holidays. Since my three daughters are all adults and not living at home, I was hopeful we could work together to solve the holiday problem. Thankfully, so far we have been successful. We are all very close and my active involvement in Judaism has strengthened our bond. I believe the primary reason is their very enthusiastic involvement in my celebration of holidays: they have attended them all with a willing-to-learn attitude.

The first family holiday in my home was Purim. We all dressed in costumes, had a wonderful feast beginning with dessert, and played games as I told the story of Purim. During the telling, everyone booed loudly using their noisemakers at the mention of Haman's name. I loved every minute of it, as did all the children and grandchildren.

My children and grandchildren have joined Chris, his family, and me for the Passover seder twice now. Our first seder together was very stressful. I worried about everything--from the food, to the seating arrangement, to the order of the meal. While I had attended Passover celebrations at friends' homes, I had never hosted one. The second year was much better as we used an unusual haggadah (book telling the story of the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt)--A Different Night by David Dishon and Noam Zion. It is a family participation guide that allowed us to design our own very special and unique seder meal. While I still spent lots of time cooking, planning and stressing, we had a wonderful time. Everyone--even my granddaughter Jenna who was only four years old--took part, read or said prayers, and ate so much we could hardly move.

Chris and I also wanted to share Yom Kippur, the most solemn of holidays, with both of our families. Yom Kippur concludes several days of praying, meditation and reflection on the previous year and a day of fasting to repent for transgressions committed during that year. We debated whether to take everyone out for Chinese food after services in the evening but decided to bring in the food and have our families back to our home. Only my youngest daughter was able to attend services with us, but perhaps next year the others will join us, at least for a while. There were thirteen of us at dinner; we spoke about the significance of the High Holidays and then we let the chopsticks fly.

This past winter we celebrated only Hanukkah, not Christmas. Chris's sons, eighteen and twenty-one, were a little dismayed, since they had grown up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. Still, they joined us for a traditional meal of brisket, latkes, plenty of gelt and presents all around. The grandchildren helped make jelly doughnuts for dessert and everyone gobbled them up. Isn't it amazing how food is so central to all our celebrations?

What to do about the Christian holidays presented a concern. My home has always been the traditional holiday location. As my girls grew up and moved away, they mostly came home for the holidays. Would they feel abandoned? Now they are parts of extended families as well, and holidays are divided amongst them. After discussions with my rabbi, I reached a comfortable decision. While I would no longer host Christmas or Easter at my home, this didn't mean I had to close the door on being with my children, grandchildren or extended family. My daughters are developing their own traditions and celebrating their holidays in their own unique ways. They invite me to their homes for these celebrations and, of course, we all have the holiday of Thanksgiving in common.

I no longer need all the containers filled with holiday decorations and ornaments collected over the years. My daughters will have those to keep, along with their associated memories. And I now have the benefit of added storage space! Blending our celebrations and our faiths has added new dimensions to all of our lives. All of us, in a way, have come home.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. 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 "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game). Hebrew term, synonymous with Jerusalem.
Leona Junguzza

Leona Junguzza is the program coordinator for Health Management Resources in Norwood, Mass., and has recently converted to Judaism. She shares the joy of life with Chris, her significant other, three daughters, five grandchildren and one adorable dog, Maxie.

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