I Denied Him (At Least) Three Times

A guest essay about a fiancé converting. And a few thoughts on joining the Jews in 2021.

One very wonderful thing doing this blog has brought to my life is that I’m in touch now with a lot of converts. A lot!

I’m in touch with people who’ve mikvah-ed (dunked in a ritual bath) and people who are thinking about it, with people who are born Jewish but don’t feel like they know anything and with people who want their girlfriend to think about conversion, even with people who are confused to hear that their fiancé seems to want to do this (as you’ll read in the guest essay below).

And what it makes very clear to me is that even during hard times, even when nasty things are shouted in the streets of New York and London and when antisemitic slogans mindlessly spout from the mouths of friends, even then: People are still running toward Judaism and the Jewish people.

They are running toward these beliefs, toward these rituals, toward this faith and toward this community.

Even when the old hatred is rearing its head in the enlightened West, even when it seems that to be in good standing means disavowing an expanding litany of Jewish beliefs, even when rabbis are attacked and synagogues are vandalized, Gentiles are still becoming Jews.

Nervous Episcopalians are still Zooming into Judaism 101s. Appointments are still being made to stand before the beit din (a group of rabbis who approve a conversion).

This past week we celebrated Shavuot, the harvest holiday that commemorates the revelation of the Torah and is also, for some reason I can never understand, the convert’s holiday. It is when Jews honor Ruth and all converts since her. I only know this because Bari every year goes, ‘Oh my god it’s Shavuot and I didn’t do anything special for you!’ The point is not that I deserve something special, though I of course do, but that this difficult week in the news coincided with the moment to remember all the people joining the tribe.

This moment of growing hatred in the West might subside or it might not. Either way: there are a whole lot of us who are new here in these parts and who are armed with the zeal of the convert.

For the Jews-by-Birth who read my little blog, I do hope you feel that.

Now to our essay.


I Denied Him (At Least) Three Times

By Carol L. Skolnick, a writer living in Santa Cruz, California.

Soon after G. and I began dating, he loaded Judaism for Dummies onto his Kindle and, in short order, he knew more about the tenets of my religion than I did.

At the time, I was preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah in celebration of my upcoming 60th birthday. During those few months, as we grew closer and eventually merged households, G. dutifully accompanied me to holiday services, recited Shabbat prayers like a champ, ferried me to my Hebrew classes, asked thoughtful questions of our rabbis, and gamely sampled eastern European chazerai. “I don’t think that’s right,” he’d call out from the next room as I softly inserted F-bombs into my Hebrew blessings, Haftarah, and Torah trope whenever I messed up. 

G. asked me to marry him a month after the adult B’nai Mitzvah: possibly the shortest amount of time between a Bat Mitzvah and a betrothal in modern history. Three years later, as our COVID sheltering-in-place was coming to an end, G. announced his intention to convert to Judaism.

Raised with cultural trappings but no Jewish education, I was nearly a Jew-by-Choice myself. “If you forget who you are,” I often heard growing up, “some anti-Semite will remind you.”

So I never forgot, but when I sought spiritual solace, it was in ashrams, where I chanted Sanskrit mantras and bowed at the lotus feet of gurus. I dined on pasta in the Vatican City one Passover, and made sure my family knew about it. I attended shul sometimes with friends on high holy days, lit Chanukah candles most years, and tried to remember the yahrzeit of each of my parents after their deaths, but that was the extent of my Jewish involvement for most of my adulthood…unless it was for something fun, like a Purim party with plenty of spiked punch and hamentaschen.

G. wasn’t acquainted with many Jews when we met, but he knew well from history and recent events that it’s not so easy to be Jewish. A known Neo-Nazi cell in our city, “Jews will not replace us,” anti-Semitic cartoons disseminated during a local political campaign…who would choose this? “You don’t have enough problems?” I asked him.

“It’s not a snap decision,” he said, and of course, it wasn’t. While other homes became shrines to Peloton bikes and bread baking during the pandemic, our tiny living room had transformed into an unsanctified sanctuary. Here in the past year, on Zoom, we attended more synagogue classes, Shabbat services, memorials and celebrations than I ever have in more than a decade of temple membership. We wore white, repented, and fasted while seated on the couch in front of the very screen from which we streamed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Shtisel.

G. is already a beloved member of the community, whether he converts or not.

(Understand that our reform synagogue leadership is welcoming to the extreme, much like my old co-op board back in New York City: “You wanna live here? Great!”) No one doubts his fitness to be a good Member of the Tribe; it’s obvious. I mean, the man counted the Omer this year. All 49 days. Who does that? 

Neither do I question G.’s sincerity. I only want him to be abundantly aware of what he’s getting himself into: “Are you sure you’re doing this for reasons other than Rock Shabbat and oneg? You do know what a brit entails, right? Have you, like, actually read Mishpatim?”

Also, while G. experiences the joy of a Yeshiva boy in a kosher candy store, I continue to struggle with what we are asked to do and be as Jews, even after my peak experience of reading aloud from the Ark of the Covenant in front of God and everyone. I’m a tad envious of his relative ease of entry to the mishkan, whereas I was a naysayer; one of those terrible people who wrote “NO!!!!” in the margins of hotel Bibles, next to the passages in Leviticus that I didn’t like. Before discovering that everything I had been seeking elsewhere was available in my own backyard, I did a lot of psycho-spiritual work, got taken for more than a few cultic rides, and had to experience devastating disillusionment. 

But truly, G.’s enthusiasm is inspiring; both in his love of the study and teachings, and his willingness to wrestle with the parts that few of us love. His open heart keeps me open to delving deeper as well. So I am both happy for G., and will support him on his journey from Jew-ish to Jewish, to the best of my cynical and agnostic ability . . . at his side throughout, just as he there was for me, on my own journey to becoming who I already was and am.

Thank you as always to my readers — and to our Chosen By Choice essayists! Keep the pitches coming: nellie.writing@gmail.com. And thanks to our generous supporters (consider becoming one if you like what you’re reading), we pay $300 per essay.