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An Almost Jew on Christmas
I’ve been converting to Judaism for a while, and it’s felt really natural for me, but as Christmas ends without much nostalgia on my end, soon comes Easter. Christmas has never felt particularly religious; Easter has.
It is the crux of the whole difference of course, but I hadn’t quite faced it. I can tell you how many stars have to be in the sky to signify that Shabbat (the day of rest) is over; that Shammai actually made some great points over Hillel; that Mizrahi and Sephardic food is simply much better than Ashkenazi food. But I haven’t reckoned with Jesus.
Growing up Greek Orthodox, Easter was my very favorite holiday. Occasional lamb on a spit in the front yard at Yaiya and Papou’s; incense-rich Church service — the whole thing. And the Easter greeting, the thing you say to one another in Church, is simple: Christos Anesti. Literally: He is risen.
This is a newsletter about converting to Judaism. Specifically me, converting to Judaism.
I’ve been converting in my heart since my first date with a very beautiful woman named Bari. She thought I was a communist; she knew I wasn’t a Jew. Before we even went out she said there were two things she needed me to know before we kept talking: “I’m a proud American and a proud Jew.” I think I wrote back something like, “Cool!” (Nothing about us is cool.)
I started with a very fun Jewish 101 class at The Kitchen, a community in San Francisco led by Noa Kushner. I’ve met with rabbis, and I have a list of activities I’m still working through. I’ve gone to Reform Temples, Reconstructionist drum circles, Conservative synagogues, to an Orthodox shul where women sat separate from men, and to a farm shul featuring goats. I’ve been living on a Jewish calendar. I wear a Jewish star. We have Shabbat dinner and light candles every Friday. I’ve begun to feel quite Jewish.
Judaism’s not a religion in the same sense as, say, Evangelical Christianity is — it doesn’t require an a-ha moment of belief. There’s no one thing I need to accept into my heart and then poof I’m Jewish. But reckoning with Jesus is sort of a baseline requirement. That is the dividing line. I rationally can very easily get my head around the idea of Jesus being a brilliant and radical rabbi versus the son of god. But all the ways Jesus is imbued in my childhood and language is more complicated. Christos Anesti isn’t something I usually translate.
Judaism is a faith, yes, but it’s also — or maybe more so — a people. Ruth, the first convert, announced it as: Your people will be my people. So the best way to join it is to live it, among the people and the culture. I’ve been taking it slow. I’ve been enjoying it.
Before I dunk in the mikvah (the ritual bath used for major life events, such as a conversion), I want to go deeper into Judaism. I’ll spend my whole life studying it, but as I join this people and look toward starting a Jewish family, I’d like to really challenge myself to understand it and feel the ways being Jewish changes me.
This newsletter has a few purposes: 1) Most importantly, I want to keep my friends and family up to date and also make them laugh. 2) In challenging myself to learn more each week, knowing I have to send this out will keep me accountable. It’s sort of like a homework assignment you guys will receive but never asked for. And 3) One day in a few years I’d love to write a book about conversion, maybe with Bar, and these notes will be a good start for that.
I hope this newsletter has guest posts from people already in my life — various members of the Weiss family; my Jewish godmother, Alana Newhouse; and more. I’d love to hear from people who have converted or are converting. I only included family and friends on this initial list, but feel free to share it. Anyone can sign up. I’m going to shoot for this coming out Thursday nights.
I’m very pro-conversion. Some 60% of American non-orthodox Jews who marry, marry non-Jews. I say: Try and convert ‘em! And if you’re the goy in the relationship: Give it a shot! Judaism’s a great program. It works. It’s time tested. It offers the kind of community people need and that too many don’t have. It offers structure and ritual that elevate one’s week. And the thing I liked best at least at the start: it doesn’t require belief so much as practice. That’s really nice.
From my understanding, the main reason Jews don’t try to convert people is millennia of persecution, so now the idea of a proselytizing Judaism makes the Jews I know laugh. But if my exploration of Judaism so far has taught me anything it’s: Judaism is great. Putting electronics away on Shabbat has made me happier and kinder. Challah is delicious. And Judaism gives me historical perspective, a reminder of eternal things beyond the here and now. It feels good to not think of myself as an individual struggling against the world but a member of a community, with obligations to it. Finding obligation in a religious context has helped me see the other communities I belong to and have duties towards.
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long.
TORAH OF THE WEEK
One of my favorite rabbis is Meir Soloveichik. His lectures are brilliant (he has one Lincoln and the Jews that blew my mind). He has a series on all the Jewish holidays, and this week we watched the one on Hannukah.
The moment I especially loved from this is when he contrasts two archways or entryways: the arch of Titus, in Rome, and the archway of the Jewish home.
The arch of Titus, created to celebrate the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in the 1st century, features Roman soldiers carrying the menorah from the Jewish Temple on their backs — the ultimate sign of their triumph and Jewish defeat. The panel opposite that image is of Titus accompanied by his gods.
Soloveichik compares that combination of symbols — of paganism and of conquest — to the symbols that adorn the Jewish home during Hannukah. These are not symbols of empire, but of the mezuzah on one side of the doorway, which declares the oneness of God, and the lit menorah on the other side. “A place whose very entryway alerted its inhabiters that in a world that hated the Jews outside they were entering a haven of divine benevolence.”
Rome fell. Judaism survived. It survived because the doorway into a home became the triumphal arch. The table became the altar.
If you like this journey and want to contribute some tzedakah, please give to the Joint Distribution Council, the leading Jewish humanitarian organization. They provide emergency relief to Jews around the world, and the money you donate goes to those in need not to a bunch of admin.
AND FOR FUN
We just just watched Valley of Tears, about the Yom Kippur war, which I didn’t know anything about.