Getting It Wrong Is Part of Conversion
Or so I tell myself!
As the cab door closed, I knew instantly that the short-shorts were wrong.
I was in Borough Park, the premier Hassidic neighborhood of the world, really, and I was meeting some of my close friends (a beautiful Modern Orthodox family) for an afternoon in the neighborhood. Walking, shopping, some lunch. I was hoping to start to gain an understanding of this thriving, insular, often confusing part of the Jewish world.
I assumed Borough Park was maybe half Hassidic folks and half older hipsters of the UPPAbaby VISTA sort, as per the general rule Brooklyn. I’d put a plain t-shirt on at least, changed out of my cut-off tank top emblazoned with: Provincetown and scenes of naked men on a beach. So I thought I was being totally savvy about religious conservatives.
Hassidic Jews wear the garb of 19th Eastern European Jews. Women wear long skirts and cover their arms and knees and chests. Men wear hats and long coats, even in the summer heat. And when I got out of the car I realized how unbelievably out of place I was. It was a 100% Hassidic community out that day, and I looked approximately like a prostitute.
Maybe a younger version of me would enjoy the feeling of rebellion, but the goal was not rebellion. Older me actually wants to respect this world and gain some real knowledge of it. And so all I felt was so, so embarrassed. I was embarrassed for myself, for how little I knew about Judaism still, years into this. I was embarrassed for my friends and their kids who had to walk around with me now for an afternoon. I was embarrassed for the nice folks of Borough Park who were doing their best to run a community according to their values and here I was barging in, showing a horrific amount of upper thigh.
My friends, of course, said it was totally completely fine! Don’t worry at all! We started shopping in the wonderful bookstore that also has Judaica. I was getting my confidence back. I saw a cute shabbat candlestick. I said, maybe I’ll bring this home. I had just mastered my Hiddur Mitzvah flashcard (Hiddur Mitzvah: the mitzvah of beautifying Jewish ritual objects).
My friend was confused. Shabbat candlesticks, she said gently, are bought in pairs.
I almost collapsed in shame. How could I still know so little even after this long?!
I write this confession for a few reasons.
First, to share my shame, which helps soften it. Second, because many of you who’ve signed up for these missives are converting, and I write it to say: there are times you’re going to mess it up or feel like there are too many rules to ever learn in one life, and that’s (I hope? I think?) normal.
Third, because I’m appearing before the Beit Din very soon.
There I’ll be before my rabbi and two other rabbis for a test. And if it goes well I’m getting in the mikvah. And if that goes well, then we’re all having brunch. And if that goes well, then I’ll be a Jew. I won’t say I’m becoming Jewish — I’ll be able to say I am Jewish.
But there is Borough Park and the shorts and the candlesticks.
I’d gotten comfortable in my Jewish learning. I watched my lectures and went to shul and had friends for shabbat. Getting it so wrong there helped remind me: there is no completion in this learning, for a convert or for someone born Jewish. There is no ta-da moment when you’ve got it down.
There is no completion in studying what it means to be a Jew. There is no end to learning how to live a good Jewish life. There will be no end to learning about the history of the people I’m joining. My conversion will just mean that I can finally, finally start. And those will be the questions I study with my family for the rest of my life. I’ll be confronted with a million candlesticks. I’ll show up in short shorts in a thousand ways.
Now, however, I do own a long skirt. It’s unusual in my closet, for sure. And I cannot wait to go back to Borough Park with those friends of mine and try again.
Thank you as always to Chosen By Choice readers! If you want to write an essay about conversion or anything related to it, I love guest writers: email@example.com.
I love this series. Kudos for having the courage and the chutzpah and the smarts to write so well about something that matters so much. I was raised in a very Jewish household, but lacked a traditional Jewish education, and I always felt deeply insecure about it. Incredibly, it was Chabad (an Orthodox sect of Jewish outreach rabbis) that first made me feel entirely legit. Your inevitable fears, missteps, and inspirations are so familiar to me. I so look forward to these posts. More, am I absolutely delighted and honored that you are choosing to join the tribe. Cheers, sis!
It is a great story and a powerful learning experience. Some of my favorite anecdotes come from mistakes I made in learning Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish. Some are hilarious, but the wrong and right words are seared into my memory.