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?
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.
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