My Judaism

A Guest Post from Shuala Elisheva

One of my earliest memories, religiously speaking at least, is from kindergarten. We were all sitting at our lacquered tables, clumsily working dull, rusted scissors through bright sheets of construction paper.

It was December.

Around me, the other students were cutting out Magen Davids, dreidels, chanukiahs, candy canes, presents or Christmas trees. One or the other. Oh, but not I – I had roughly pasted a Magen David to the top of a jagged Christmas tree. I was puffily proud, in the way that only a 5 or 6 year old girl can be.

Though that didn’t last very long.

Maybe a little background: I come from an interfaith family. And, at least for a while, it was a true interfaith family: synagogue with my father’s reform family on Fridays, church on Sundays. Pesach followed closely by Easter. Chanukah and Christmas together.  I mean, why not eat latkes before Santa comes to visit? I bet a man of his girth loves carbohydrates and tubers as much as the next, especially on a night filled with such gift-giving exertion.

That’s how it started, at any rate. My parents, who love each other truly, decided that each child would be able to make his or her own decision about heaven, and G-d, and all the other really weighty spiritual matters upon which they did not agree.

Sounds like a winning formula for a modern religious upbringing.

Except not. At all.

Back to kindergarten: endless mockery. The other kids laughed at my Christmas tree, derisively snorted and said “you can only be one or the other, you can’t be both!” I went home and cried and cried and cried, because that couldn’t be true, I could be the spiritual daughter and religious heir to both of my parents…right?

Wrong.

After that episode, my mother clamped down. She’s forceful, when she wants to be, and my father is much more easy-going. So, it was church from then on – no services at synagogue, except for the high holy days.

I didn’t realize then what had been stolen from me. And I didn’t realize it until much, much later. In the meantime, I drifted aimlessly from spiritual paradigm to spiritual paradigm, from natural worship to atheism to philosophical resignation. Once I asked my mom about a bat mitzvah, because I had just attended my cousin’s.

I was baptized not a year later.

Still, I never felt quite right. I never felt really comfortable, or at peace.  Sometimes I would get an inkling of starry rightness – or, rather, of belonging. I read “Night” by Elie Wiesel and sobbed because it was about my people.  Maus left me numbed and broken. But it wasn’t until I was cast in a play in my high school called “This Savage Parade” that I put two and two together, so to speak. If you’ve not read this script, I highly suggest it. In any event, what was so important about my being cast in this show was that I was cast as a Jewess – one who had survived the Shoah and moved to Israel. I felt more completely WHOLE on that stage, playing a character, than I ever had in reality.

That was the beginning. I started reading voraciously – Torah, Tanakh, poetry, prose, fiction, and comics.  I could not yet speak out, not at home. There was no way to sit my parents down, while I was still living under their roof, and inform my mother that her religion was not “for me.”

I could not do that for myself until college, when I was no longer living there, no longer subject to her moods and whims. College provided other opportunities, too. I started to go to Hillel. I went alone, of course, because I had no Jewish community, no friends from BBYO or NFTY or shul. I tried the reform services first, but I found them to be bland, truthfully. Like Wonderbread, trying to be everything to everyone, with no real heft or fibrous substance.

I didn’t get up the nerve to try a conservative or orthodox service until I had enrolled in beginning Hebrew. It was there that I met my best friend; she led me gently through the conservative services, taught me all the melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat, and helped me to catch up with the other Jewish students in our Hebrew class insofar as minhag and culture were concerned.

I loved all of it. I absorbed as much as I could, though I always felt famished and frustrated. I spoke with the Hillel rabbi once about converting – he asked why? Why would I do such a thing if my father was Jewish and the reform movement already considered me a Jewess?

The simple answer is because I had to. That’s all there really is to say, isn’t there? We gerim can draw things out for our audiences, talk about spiritual thirst and hunger for those who listen with rapt attention, but the truest, cleanest answer is that we go to the mikvah because we have to, because our neshamas have no other choice. In the Mayim Chayim of the mikvah is our peace, the last piece of our journey back to Am Yisrael.

My friend from Hebrew class made it possible. Her family friend was a rabbi who was recently granted Orthodox smicha, and she put me into contact with him. He convened a Beit Din of other Orthodox rabbis; they questioned me, questioned my commitment, and then gave me the go-ahead.

The day of the mikvah, it rained. Torrents and torrents of rain, not just the spring drizzle that usually mists Texas during Adar. One of the rabbis joked that I could just run around outside in the rain, and it would probably be a halachically permissible immersion.

My friend served as balanit – she made sure I didn’t drown when I missed the stairs completely and almost toppled into the water headfirst. This is a problem you’re bound to encounter when you are almost blind without glasses or contacts. She listened to my recitation of the blessings, and watched each of my immersions, pronouncing them kosher.

When I emerged with wet, curly hair and a huge smile, I was pelted with kosher jolly ranchers and cries of “siman tov u’mazal tov!” to the rhythm of the rain outside.

I can say without hesitation that I have rarely, if ever, been as happy as I was in that moment.

The rabbis did not disregard my heritage. They allowed me to use my father’s name in my Hebrew appellation, instead of Avraham Avinu [though Sarah Imeinu is my mother, according to my Hebrew name]. One of the Beit Din members somberly remarked that I was a rarity, a child of an interfaith marriage who willingly rejoined the tribe. Then he smiled, brushed off his solemnity, and told me that he thought my nose had grown a little in the waters of the mikvah.

Since then, I have found that while my neshama is at peace, my heart still trips that careful seesawing path between parents – it was easier for the rabbis to acknowledge my family history than it is for me. My mother does not know that I visited a mikvah; why should she know? For her, it is betrayal enough that I chose Judaism over her faith. That was the action that mattered – that rejection.

Slowly I find myself incorporating parts of her life into my religious observance. I serve fried green tomatoes for Chanukah along with sufganiyot. I fry corn bread into patties to serve on Shabbat. Barbecue brisket will always trump stewed brisket in my heart of hearts.

The important thing is – I found my way home.

Shualah Elisheva is a fried tomato sort of Jew; a Texan geyoret, she is an attorney, a constant student, and a lover of autumn + lit candlesticks.

If you would like to submit an essay for the MY JUDAISM column, the guidelines and disclaimers are here.

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14 responses to “My Judaism

  1. shualah, kol hakavod (all the power) to you on your decision to become a full-fledged Jewess according to Halacha! I am always so impressed with those who choose to convert to Judaism & become observant etc especially in today’s day & age when so many formerly observant young ppl. are leaving the fold b/c they are disillusioned for one reason or another. I am always so inspired by stories such as your own so welcome home sister :)!
    btw, the name shualah seems most original. can you share with us how you chose the name? thanks!

    • shualah elisheva

      i chose shualah for a number of reasons: i love the jewish traditions of naming children after strong creatures, and my favorite saying from pirke avoth is from yehuda ben teima. then i read perek shirah and what the fox sings about justice just seemed too perfect. so, shualah!

      thank you for your kindness, and i hope you have a beautiful shabbat!

  2. Mazel tov!

    > One of the Beit Din members somberly
    > remarked that I was a rarity, a child of an
    > interfaith marriage who willingly rejoined the
    > tribe.

    I quote Conversion to Judaism: Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge by Rabbi Marc Angel:

    Rabbi [Benzion] Uziel[, the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi] was deeply concerned about the fate of children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Such children, although of Jewish stock (zera yisrael), are in fact not halakhically Jewish. Children raised in such intermarriages will be lost to the Jewish people entirely. Thus, it is obligatory for rabbis to convert the non-Jewish mother [even if she is not observant of the mitzvot] in order to keep the children in the Jewish fold. Rabbi Uziel noted: “And I fear that if we push them [the children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment and they shall say to us: ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek.’ (Yehezkel 34:4).” In another responsum, Rabbi Uziel wrote: “I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance and to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers.”

    > Then he smiled, brushed off his solemnity, and
    > told me that he thought my nose had grown a
    > little in the waters of the mikvah.

    See, this is why we need local rabbis to be leaders instead of roshei yeshiva, instead of a centralized conversion bureaucracy. With a local rabbi, you actually have a relationship!!!

    (For the exact same reason, American and Swiss federal representative democracy has/had government more localized than nationalized, so that everyone would be governed by authorities local to them and familiar with their situation. Rousseau’s concept of the social-contract was meant to be applied to a small city-state like Geneva, and much of the bloodiness of the French Revolution was due to the attempt to apply his theories to the entire country of France. You shouldn’t be ruled by a government far beyond the mountains in Rome, and neither should your rabbi be in Rome either.) (The other reason for the bloodiness of the French Revolution was that it was too secular. The American Revolution was an explicitly religious revolution, and the King of England called it the “Presbyterian Rebellion”. G-dliness provided the morality and curb on human nature to prevent bloody violence.)

    • By the way, it is no mere coincidence that the American and Swiss governments are similar. After all, Locke-ian democracy in America is owed ultimately to the Reformed/Calvinist Christians Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Zwingli in Zurich. And they say religion and democracy contradict. Pfoofey, adarabbah, the religious invented democracy!!!

      But something gives me the funny feeling that I’ve gone a bit off-topic…

      > The simple answer is because I had to.

      When I was doing my own conversion, the rabbis would remind me that I could remain a gentile and be liable only for the Noahide laws, and that I had no obligation to increase my liability. I responded that I’d rather spend all eternity in Gehinom as a sinful Jew than in Gan Eden as a righteous gentile. When I think about my life, about my future, I cannot imagine myself as anything but a Jew, anywhere but in Israel. If you took away my Jewishness, I’d have nothing left, and you may as well take away my life. What good is Gan Eden as a righteous gentile, when your entire existence seems meaningless and empty without Jewishness? My mother has told me the exact same about herself. We’ve both agreed that without being Jewish, life has no meaning for us.

    • Crud, I meant Heinrich Bullinger, not Heinrich Zwingli. Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger.

      • shualah elisheva

        thank you so much for your in-depth reply! i have never heard that quote from the sephardic rabbi, but i tend to agree. i think that for every one or two interfaith children that return to am yisrael, 8 or 9 are lost.

        hope you have a wonderful shabbat!

        • Thank you 😀 Every once in a while, someone appreciates my copious and verbose replies. Thanks again! 😀

          Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman (another Chief Rabbi, but Ashkenazi this time) held a similar position. Regarding the wave of Soviet olim, he said that (1) having a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother still makes you somehow part of the Jewish people and deserving of conversion (like Rabbi Uziel said), (2) one should be lenient with the Soviet Jews, and not be as particular and strict as one otherwise might, because to be strict would cause a hillul hashem and make them feel as if they aren’t welcome (Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman in Germany was similarly concerned for public opinion regarding giyur), and (3) one should be lenient on conversion in Israel because the non-Jews there will speak Hebrew and marry Jews anyway.

          Re: (3): Rabbi Unterman says that when was a rabbi in Britain, he would not convert the non-observant, because they’d marry a gentile and assimilate. (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said much the same.) However, Rabbi Unterman continued, in Israel, since the non-observant technical-gentiles will marry Jews, one should convert them. (Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin has said the same.)

          My focus here was on (1), regarding the children of intermarriage, but I thought I’d summarize the rest of his position while I was at it. See my laundry list of sources here here, but add especially Shmuel Shilo, “Halakhic Leniency in Modern Responsa Regarding Conversion,” Israel Law Review, vol. 22, 1988, pp. 353ff.

          Rabbi Marc Angel has said often that giyur ought to be easier, because when we insist on being strict, all we accomplish is turning people away to Reform and Conservative conversions. It’d be better, he says, for us to be lenient on giyur and at least have it all be Orthodox, than for us to stick to our standards and thereby strengthen the heterodox movements.

          And let’s just say that what the rabbis in Israel are doing with giyur has no basis in halakhah. There’s a story in the Gemara (see here) that when the sons of King Saul vexed the Gibonites, they (the sons) were hung for months, rather than the single day prescribed by the Torah, so that everyone would see how severe the prohibition of vexing a convert is. Recall that the Gibonites converted to Judaism via subterfuge and deceit, and that they were so cruel-hearted that King David later forbade marriage with them. Despite this, the sons of King Saul were hung for months for vexing them, and the Gemara comments that it was good to violate the Torah law prohibiting hanging someone for more than a day, in order to demonstrate how heinous it is to vex a convert.

          Shabbat shalom!

  3. Excellent essay 🙂 I felt the same way when I emerged from the mikveh – my neshama is truly a Jewish neshama and this month will complete the dream that started with my own conversion – now I will have a Jewish family. My husband is completing his conversion on the 25th 🙂 My son did with his bar mitzvah 3 years ago. That is the ultimate blessing for me – a Jewish family.

    Kol hakovod!!!!

    • shualah elisheva

      kol hakovod to you, as well! a jewish mishpacha is truly a gift. REVEL in it.

      gut shabbes to you and yours!

  4. This was a beautiful story — and on so many levels I really felt true resonance with you. And that Wonderbread line? Brilliant!

    Mazal tov, from one ger to another!

    • shualah elisheva

      you made me blush, truly – i certainly look up to you and the strength it takes for you to put yourself out there daily.

      you’re a source of inspiration whether you realize it or not.

      kol hakovod to you, as well, and a wonderful shabbat tomorrow!

  5. Some of this reminds me also of my journey as a BT. I grew up one of two Jews in my class and was stuck having to act as the Jewish Ambassador each holiday, defending why if I was forced to make a stocking in arts & crafts I would insist it have a menorah on it. Its way too big of a responsibility for a 5-year-old to defend why they want to practice their religious beliefs.

    I loved where you wrote about your best friend helping serve as your guide. So much about a person’s journey to Judaism and observance has to do with the influences they have and people they meet along the way. I also credit the friends I made in college as helping me become the frum woman I am today. I feel lucky that Hashem helped bring them into my life.

    Yasher koach for sharing your story!

    P.S. Being married to a Texan myself, I’ll defend BBQ brisket alongside you. Its by far the best! 🙂

    • shualah elisheva

      texas brisket is king. and thank you, and chaviva, and hadassah, for providing such a warm and welcoming online jewish community.

      again, you said it – that friendship and bond makes all the difference to staying on and exploring the derech.

      gut shabbes!

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