I am a bad convert

Or maybe an excellent one, depending on how you look at it. I certainly “wrestle with God” as Jews are commanded to do, or more exactly with Jewish practice. It all comes down to the “selectively observant” mention in the subheader of this blog, but the truth is I often feel more deprived, unfulfilled, or frustrated than selective. Sure, I am proud of the fact that I always try to understand both the letter and the spirit of any law or tradition. I find the exploration of the historicity of Jewish law (i.e. how it evolved over time and under what circumstances) exciting, inspiring and fascinating, but the bottom line is:

I observe Shabbat, but in my own way. I keep Kosher, but in my own way, I practice taharat hamishpacha, sort of, I celebrate all of the major holidays and put effort in preparing for them, both logistically and spiritually, but, the thing is… I am not sure any of that makes me legit in the eyes of any Jewish community, and I can’t find where to belong.

Both my esteemed teacher and the Beit Din probably had hopes that I would be a little “further along” both the doing and the learning by now. They would probably look at my unconventional ways and declare my conversion a failure, recall it  perhaps, if that’s even possible.

And so what? Why do I care so much? I am not sure. I have always been one to do my own thing. I was never a big fan of group think or conformity. I’m not exactly a rebel or an original though. In fact my life is quite ordinary, but I have always preferred solitude to pretense, if pretense was the cost of company.

So why did I even convert? I could have practiced without the need to make it official, it turns out a lot of people do… I just felt compelled to, but that too, I had to do on my own terms. I searched high and low for a rabbi and found one who lived in Montreal. Adam and I drove two hours each way every Sunday evening for two years to enjoy the wonderful teachings of Reb Arie Chark. I didn’t do it halfway, but the trouble began when Reb Arie suggested I found a congregation to call home and a rabbi to convene a Beit Din. I was fortunate to find Rabbi Popky, who was also a wonderful teacher and whose philosophy jived very well with mine. Yet no congregation has felt quite right.

I know I am Jewish, I’m pretty sure God has no particular issue with the way things are, so why am I not content with the current state of affairs?

The beauty of being a convert is that you get to figure out  what works for you from scratch. You get to write your own traditions, to bring your own understanding to millennial, century or decades old practices.

That of course, is also the greatest challenge of being a convert. Nothing is self-evident. There is no deeply rooted emotional attachment to this or that practice to guide you, no memory of the smell of challah baking in the oven, or of a family gathered late into the night around a Seder table. Everything is brand new, it’s a colossal effort.

There is so much to learn and understand, I often feel like one lifetime is not enough, especially with weeks currently going by faster than I count them.

And then there is what I simply can’t do on my own: incorporating or creating family traditions requires that the family be on board, and, although they most often are all for it in theory, practice is another challenge entirely when every new idea must be submitted, debated, explained before you can jump in and make a jolly, joyful mess of it.

The Beit Din is just the beginning, I knew that then, I know this now. I knew also that it would not be easy, yet I never imagined that the hardest part would not be how to incorporate this or that observance, but to decide what observances to incorporate. This difficulty has turned into urgency now that the little ones are here. They look up to us, they look up to me, and other than beautiful, complex, rich theories and stories, I feel that I don’t have much to offer them. Yet.

5 thoughts on “I am a bad convert

  1. Zhu says:

    Keeping in mind that I have no idea what I’m talking about considering that 1) I’m not Jewish 2) I have never converted…

    … I would think that converting to a religion takes a lot of adapting. I mean, there is a reason why you converted: maybe Judaism “spoke” to you, maybe you saw it as a little seed that could grow inside your mind. If I were God (not that I would want this job, too much overtime and too little pay regarding the responsibilities), I’d be pretty honoured that one chose me instead of simply perpetuating the family tradition (or whatever environment). Of course, you can be critical because you are doing things in hindsight. You can’t obey blindly, you need to know the “pourquoi du comment” to do it right, much like a kid testing limits when exploring the world. You can’t just say “no” and expect the kid to obey without questioning why this or that is off limit. At the same time, like you said, that’s the beauty of it: you are writing the story of your relationship with God.

  2. Thanks Zhu! What a beautiful way to put it. The real tension I think is that I am not only writing the story of my own relationship with God and the Jewish people, but the early chapters of my kids’, too. They will soon write their own, but in the meantime, how do we (I) pass on knowledge and a sense of Jewish identity to our kids, when our own sense of Jewish identity seems so out of sync with the accepted norms. Adam is not a convert, yet he feels very much the same way, so I guess it’s something that many Jews struggle with too (and come to think of it, that’s probably the same for all religious converts, and for immigrants too – double whammy for me!)

  3. I don’t think you’re a bad convert. I think you’re a Jew, who is struggling with G-d and with Judaism as so many of us (both gerim and JBB) do. But I also wanted to ask you what your underlying concept of Judaism is, because that can often be a guide to what practices are meaningful for you. For me, it can be summed up in about three quotes and Scripture verses:

    Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

    Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (That’s verse 6:8 of Micah.)

    Hillel again: “Judge not your friend till you stand in his place.”

    As you can see, the thing that draws me to Judaism as a Jew by choice is the ethics. If you are practicing Jewish ethics, aren’t you practicing Judaism? And as far as passing on a sense of Jewish identity to your kids, well – holidays. Shabbat observance (as well as you can). Learning Hebrew, when and as you can. Hebrew school. And so forth.

    Don’t knock the stories, either! Story is how community is passed on. By all means, tell your little ones the stories. Let them identify with the characters. As they get older, start asking them about the stories – how would they have done things differently if they had been Jacob, or Sarah, or Rachel? Ask them questions and tie them back to the stories. Tie them to Jewish ethics. Let them ask questions! It will give them the rich history of our people to draw upon as they become Jewish adults.

    Identity develops from practice, and Judaism is all about practice. Right now, I take intense joy in saying the brachot over meals, saying the Sh’ma morning and night, finding reasons to say the shehecheyanu. I find a deep sense of identity in music – both the music sung at shul and the music of Jewish and Israeli pop artists. I find a deep sense of identity in meditating on the name I have chosen and will one day bear, and what it means, and why I chose it, and what that means for my own Jewish practice. I wear a Mogen David and a kippah. I eat mindfully. I think before I speak. I study Torah as often as I can.

    I find that Micah, more than anything, is guiding me. I am working on doing justice, showing mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.


  4. Dear Shocheradam, thank you for reading my “complaint of the convert” post, and most of all for taking the time to write this jewel of a reply.

    Thank you for reminding me through your comment that I am already doing a lot, personally and as a mom, and to check in with my Jewish principles for guidance. The main one for me has always been “Lekh Lekha”, be on your way, leave everything you know behind and follow what is calling you… I suppose I should not be surprised then to be feeling a bit lost from time to time 🙂 Walking humbly with God is also a very present notion in everything I do.

    Thank you also for reminding me through your fantastic blog that it is a gift from HaShem to be different! Major kuddos for your post “Hurdles on the path to conversion” in particular, I thoroughly enjoyed it, it articulates really well very complex notions that every convert, I think, wrestles with. You have a new follower 🙂

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