Monday, April 16, 2012

My Conversion, Part 3: Introduction to Judaism

***Note May 14, 2012: I was unhappy with the way I rushed through this segment, so I rewrote it.***

Shalom and welcome to Part 3 of my conversion story! Please read about my childhood and college years first.

We pick up the story in the summer before my senior year of college. After giving Christianity another chance and then taking a serious look at my actual beliefs, I found I had a lot in common with Judaism and decided to check it out.

Marc (my boyfriend, now fiance) and I were spending the summer at school in Galesburg, IL doing research and working. Galesburg is a town of 35,000 located a three hour drive west of Chicago and about 45 minutes from the Quad Cities on the Iowa border. Luckily, Galesburg has a synagogue, because western Illinois is not filled with them and the closest one outside of Galesburg was a 45 minute drive. We started going to Temple Sholom in Galesburg, where they got just over ten people (a group of ten Jews is a minyan, required for certain prayers in Judaism) every Friday night and had a rabbi who drove in from out of town once a month to lead Saturday morning services.

There were four major barriers I had to get over before I was ready to pursue conversion:

  1. Hebrew was (and continues to be) a problem. Language barriers are tough and not quickly solved. I have been actively engaged with Judaism for close to four years now and I'm still working on learning Hebrew. Fortunately, I started out in the Reform Movement and their prayer books are completely transliterated (the Hebrew is written out like it sounds in English), so I was able to follow along and participate without knowing Hebrew. I've discussed the pros and cons of transliteration before.
  2. Christmas was hard to give up, but I wasn't going to let one holiday get in the way of a religion that had everything else I wanted. Giving it up wasn't easy though. Christmas was always my favorite holiday, not to mention it's the family holiday for my family. My family celebrates Christmas basically as a secular holiday and I'm still trying to figure out how I'm supposed to interact with it now that I've converted. This year was the first year in my life that I wasn't home for Christmas. I really thought it wouldn't affect me, but then out of nowhere a couple of days before Christmas, I got really choked up about missing it. I'm struggling to build a Jewish identity for myself out of my past. Sometimes I look at my experiences before Judaism and think they fit really well with who I am now or, in some cases, seem to have foreshadowed my conversion. But then there's things like Christmas and I'm not really sure what to do with them. When Christmas actually rolled around this year, I thought I would really miss it, but I was completely fine. I called my family to say hi and then Marc and I got some Chinese food and watched It's a Wonderful Life.
  3. Judaism puts a great emphasis on the fact that it is a generational religion. It's passed down from generation to generation from Abraham and Sarah to today (theoretically). Before I converted, it was hard to think I would ever feel fully Jewish without that family connection. Taking a Hebrew name ending with "bat Avraham v'Sarah" (daughter of Abraham and Sarah) is designed to give a convert that familial connection. The flip side of that is taking the name without feeling a little like you're dropping your own family. Abraham and Sarah are not replacements for your family; they are your spiritual progenitors. Being comfortable with dual-natured relationships like this is important, because Judaism is full of it.
  4. Along those lines, religion and culture was the final hurdle I had trouble with before I decided to convert. Judaism is inexplicably both a religion and a culture simultaneously. I was raised to understand religion and culture as two separate things. Growing up, I didn't think of Lutheranism (my religion) as having anything to do with my Midwestern American culture. I didn't really jump this hurdle so much as it just disappeared. I woke up one day and the religion-culture thing just made sense. It's like light being both a wave and a particle (this lesson is the one part of high school physics that I remember).

Learning Judaism for me was mainly about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was going to stumble over the Hebrew (even with transliteration), run into conflicts between beloved childhood traditions and Judaism, and have trouble with theological concepts and I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if I wasn't ok with stumbling sometimes. Throughout my life, I tended to avoid uncomfortable situations or situations where I might embarrass myself, so sticking with Judaism long enough to become comfortable with it was a big accomplishment for me in and of itself. Over time, I came to see these four things as positive attributes of Judaism instead of issues standing in my way.

Continue the story here!