Monday, May 14, 2012

My Conversion, Part 3: Deciding to Convert

So, I have realized that in my haste to post the previous segment of my Jewish journey and to keep it brief, I neglected to actually tell the story of my connecting to Judaism. And what fun is this if it's not a story, but just a series of my thoughts on Judaism at disjointed moments in time, taken out of context? So I am giving myself a do over.

As always, I encourage you to start at the beginning and follow the links back to this point in the story.

To recap briefly, I left my Lutheran roots and became agnostic. After a lot of serious thought about my beliefs in college, I decided to look into Judaism.

I have always been really uncomfortable with the unknown and Judaism had a lot of unknowns: different theology, rituals, traditions, melodies, prayers, and language. I think Hebrew is the hardest part about Judaism for a newcomer. Hebrew puts up a barrier to engagement that cannot be quickly overcome. Luckily, I started out in the Reform Movement, where the entire prayer book is transliterated (written as it sounds with English letters), so I didn't actually have to learn Hebrew right away to participate. Still, I was frustrated that I couldn't make the "ch" sound that is so prevalent in Hebrew and non-existent in English and that I couldn't understand what was actually being said. My choices were to follow along silently with the English translation or try to participate with the transliteration - I couldn't do both. I might have given up on Judaism just because of Hebrew if it hadn't been for Lecha Dodi. The song welcomes Shabbat on Friday night and the melody got stuck in my head every week. Humming a song always makes me want to sing it, which involves knowing the words, so I learned the chorus to Lecha Dodi. From there, I managed to learn the Sh'ma (the central prayer in Judaism) and random phrases from other prayers and songs. The more Hebrew I picked up, the more I appreciated the language and its continued use as an integral part of the religion.

Connecting with Judaism wasn't just about incorporating new customs and ideas into my life, but letting go of some childhood customs as well. Christmas was particularly hard to let go of. What kid wouldn't find Christmas fun? Gifts, lights, Santa, magic, and family. Even as I got older, Christmas was still the family holiday in my family. We basically celebrated it as a secular holiday (using a Santa hat as a tree topper instead of a star or angel and such) and when I started to become seriously interested in Judaism, I still hoped to hold onto Christmas in that secular way. Unfortunately, my goal was to find a theologically satisfying religion, which kind of conflicted with this desire to ignore the theological underpinnings of a holiday just because I liked it. I couldn't make a theological exception - although I tried anyway - and reconcile that with my overall goal. Christmas 2010 was my last Christmas before I converted (I was in the conversion process at that point). I went home to celebrate with my family and the family time was nice, but it didn't feel like my holiday anymore. This past winter was my first Jewish Christmas and I went through a weird wave of emotions. Between moving 750 miles from home and starting a new job in the Fall, I chose not to travel home for Christmas. When I made the decision in late October, I really thought it wouldn't be a big deal. I would be home around Thanksgiving; I could see everyone I wanted to see then. I was fine until about two weeks before Christmas, when I suddenly felt this huge loss, like I was going to be missing out on something important. I didn't miss the tangible stuff, like the lights or gifts, but the intangible family moments. Christmas itself turned out to be a non-event, just like I originally thought it would be. My fiance and I rented a movie and ordered Chinese food for my first authentic Christmas as a Jew. Here's hoping that next year I remember that everything was fine and just skip the sad part in the middle.

Another problem I had connecting to Judaism was fitting myself into the idea of l'dor v'dor, "from generation to generation." Judaism is a religion and a people (more on this in a bit), which means that it has been passed down from generation to generation, at least theoretically, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. When I first started thinking about conversion, this was one of the major things that held me back - for two reasons. I didn't think I would ever feel fully Jewish without that family connection. Family history plays a big role in Jewish life. Your Hebrew name is "YOUR NAME daughter/son of DAD and MOM". Converts take a Hebrew name ending with "bat/bar Avraham v'Sarah" (daughter/son of Abraham and Sarah), which is designed to fit them into the family tree. The flip side of that is taking on your Hebrew name without feeling a little like you're dropping your own family. The whole generational thing does not seem to be explained very well to potential converts and after having finally gotten it, I can see why - it's a confusing concept. Abraham and Sarah are not meant to replace your parents; they are your spiritual progenitors. Your relationship to Abraham and Sarah and your relationship to your parents only makes sense if you don't think about it too much. The second you try to really focus on what those relationships mean to your potential Jewish identity (if you're thinking of converting), it gets confusing again. Being comfortable with dual-natured relationships like this is important, because Judaism is full of them.

Another one of those dual-natured relationships is that Judaism is a religion and a people and culture. No one was ever able to satisfactorily explain how Judaism can be both a religion and a people. It's something that just is. But I grew up thinking of religion and culture as two completely separate things. My Lutheran religion had (seemingly) nothing to do with my Midwestern American culture; there is nothing specifically Lutheran about apple pie and baseball. The idea that Judaism could be both was something that just suddenly made sense to me. Overnight, I went from not getting it to being one of those people who gets it and can't explain it to anyone else.

Figuring out all of these things was really important to my decision to convert. Read about that decision and the official conversion process in Part 4, the final part of my conversion story!