They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!
But mostly: A wonderful Convert Corner contribution about some things in life just taking time.
When I first thought about whether I might convert, I figured it’d be pretty easy, pretty quick. Like my editors as I was growing up in newspaper Style sections would say: Keep it tight, keep it bright.
Converting to Judaism has been neither tight nor bright. It’s a long process and often requires taking on quite a brutal history lesson.
Last week we had the very beautiful piece from Catalina Trigo on Modern Orthodox dating, as a convert. This week I want to publish another Convert Corner essay, one by Siân Gibby, a writer, editor and translator living in New York.
Here is Sian Gibby on letting conversion — and life — take the time it needs.
The other night a lady from my synagogue, a delightful person of some 90+ years, called me to ask about my conversion. She told me her grandson’s non-Jewish fiancée was considering it, and that she (my friend) had consulted a Reconstructionist rabbi in New Jersey only to be told that the process takes a year.
“Can that really be right?” she asked me on the phone. “Did it take that long when you did it?”
I assured her it had indeed and that, what was more, many rabbis advise a considerably longer preparation period, if possible. She sounded incredulous. Why so much time?
I became a Jew in 2005, thirteen months after commencing study—a period during which I learned about and observed all the holidays, studied with a Hebrew tutor, was assigned a godmother-guide to show me how to davven, and visited Israel for the first time. It was an intense and otherworldly year.
But my conversion was a long time coming in a different sense. I became a Jew at age 39. Though I’d been religious since childhood, I never cared about Jesus of Nazareth; the real compelling figure for me was always Ribono shel Olam, the “lord of the universe.” I didn’t know you could join the tribe of Israel unless you married a Jew, so over the years Judaism became a kind of hobby for me. I practiced Quakerism and married a Presbyterian guy; then I divorced, moved to New York City, and encountered—at last!—people at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun who felt like I did about the maker of the heavens and the earth. There, by some miracle, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon became my conversion teacher. So, a lot of religious water had gone under the bridge by the time I decided to be a Jew.
Once the path opened out to me so clearly, I felt exasperated by the timing.
I remember complaining aloud, at one of the regularly scheduled meetings with Rabbi Matalon, while he scanned his bookcases for some volume he wanted me to read: “Rabbi! I’ve lost so many years! Doing no mitzvot! Ignoring Shabbat. Why am I just learning this stuff NOW? I’ve wasted so much time!” With his back to me, his eyes still roaming calmly over the spines on his shelves, he replied gravely, “Such would seem to be God’s plan for you.”
So, I couldn’t make up those lost years, but I did my damnedest to absorb everything I could in that year. My conviction, combined with my joy and my eagerness to learn, seems to have convinced the rabbis who signed my certificate of conversion that those mere 13 months were in fact enough in this case. My certainty about becoming a Jew was the plainest, most undeniable thing about me, clearer than anything—my Midwesternness, my gender identity, my face, my voice. But certainty isn’t enough to make you a Jew. You must experience and participate. The year takes a year, and you have to surrender and let go of your own sense of time.
On the phone the other night with this shul friend I wanted to say that twelve months is nothing when you are metamorphosing your soul. By rights it should take an eternity! It should take at least one lifetime! It should fill every waking moment, and the sleeping ones too. As it turned out, all the work I did couldn’t prepare me for the quiet magnitude of the conversion itself. As keen as I was, as much as I learned and did, that morning at the mikveh something unearthly took place. After a year of Shabbatot and chagim, mitzvot and prayer services; a year of choking down gefilte fish, of songs and of tears, a year of becoming lovingly enmeshed with the lives of the people in my congregation—the day I became a Jew was (as tradition describes the messianic age will be) a day that is neither day nor night.
Naked and blind in the mikveh pool, with a blessing on her lips, the new Jew comes face to face with an Absolute Truth, and life begins all over again.
It is transformation. It is birth and it is death.
Rabbi Simon bar Yochai and his son lived in a cave for twelve years. And Jacob worked twenty to marry Laban’s daughter. Some stuff needs time. Jews know about time, and we recognize that our little schedules mean precisely nothing. How long should it take for a blossom to wither? What’s the right timeline for continents to birth mountains? What is the life expectancy of the blue jay? Holy things take as long as they take.
For Jewish learning this week, Bar and I watched a documentary that was (despite my usual aversion to documentaries) really good.
It’s about a Jewish lesbian couple (yes just like us) facing antisemitism in the Netherlands and deciding to leave for America. The title — Never Again Is Now — makes it sound like it might be sort of aggressively political, but it’s a thoughtful, fascinating, personal story, beautifully produced and beautifully narrated.
For anyone who wants to understand why Jews are leaving Europe, this is a really good film to watch. It’s also a good film for those Americans (be they either naive or malicious) who still claim that antisemitism is only something you find among the right-wing, something that’s only a problem when voiced by QAnon fanatics. It’s just not true.
On the bright side: Guess where these two women moved? Los Angeles, California! Yes we’re going to hang out. I’ll update you all with a selfie.
Coming up in March, I’m going to write a long-ish essay about how Judaism handles death. And then we have a (tight and bright) piece by one Suzy Weiss outlining the sometimes nonsensical rules of real life Kosher living in a modern, observant Jewish home — and how she watched yours truly screw them all up.
As a reminder — Convert Corner essays are paid! $250 for the little essay, and as I get more subscribers we’ll kick it up to $300. No one should write for free. I can also promise a nice and devoted readership — we’re getting 5,000-10,000 readers per post. The one about Lashon Hara a couple weeks ago got many times more, but that was mostly people wanting to dunk on a Times reporter, so we don’t count that one (I shan’t be dunked!).
Also happy Purim! This is one of the more curious Jewish holidays for a convert. But in short: Everyone dresses up and reenacts a moment when the Jews were not killed en masse but instead lived. As the joke about Jewish holidays go: They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat! Or, in the case of Purim, also drink and dress in costumes. The phrase to use to wish someone a happy Purim, that I’m still working on saying, is: Chag Purim Sameach.
With love from sunny Los Angeles . . .
Shag Pour-em Sam-eech!