Progress

Yesterday I wrote a short post about how I hadn’t heard from my Rabbi about my conversion essay and then, hours after posting, I got a reply. Rabbi, are you reading my blog?

Anyway, he seemed to like the essay and had no real edits of it, so we’re on for a meeting with the Beit Din at the end of June. I’m considering posting my conversion essay here so others can get a sense of what one would look like. Look for that early next week.

Interesting Gers: Jamaica Kincaid

This weeks interesting ger is Jamaica Kincaid, African American novelist, big time gardener, and convert to Judaism.

Kincaid who is probably most famous for her novels Lucy and Annie John hasn’t spoken much in public about her conversion. I read a number of pieces by Kincaid in college, but never once heard she was Jewish until I started doing research for this Interesting Gers project.  It seems to be a very personal topic for her and she’s been quoted as saying “I don’t know why, but I do feel that God is a private issue.”

I believe, like Martha Nussbaum Kincaid’s conversion arose because of her marriage to a born Jew, in this case, Allen Shawn (of the famous in Manhattan Shawn family), but I could be wrong.

Though Shawn and Kincaid have divorced, Kincaid is still active in her Reconstructionist Shul in Vermont, reading her work at various services. Somehow it seems fitting that a woman who has had a life as interesting as Kincaid’s finds herself at home in a congregation which has an interesting history of its own.

Where my conversion stands

Since I stopped updating regularly here, I’ve taken substantial steps toward converting in the conservative movement. I’ll give you a recap of how all this went down.

First, around the time of my last post, I had started attending conversion class with a conservative rabbi h ere in the D.C. It was a great experience. The class was roughly half couples in the same situation as E and I, where one half of the couple was Jewish by birth and the other was considering conversion. (interesting note – I was the only man seeking conversion; in all the other couples it was the woman who was converting). The other half of the class was single woman going through the conversion process by themselves. The class was an overview of Jewish theology and tradition as well as a place to discuss the challenges faced in conversion. Issues of melding the families, handling Christmas, raising kids, etc. were discussed at length along with the rules of kasrut and how to pray the sh’ma. I gained an enormous amount from the class and now, two months after the class ended, I am still processing and attempting to remember all the information I learned there.

Converting to Judaism can be an overwhelming process. If you’re like me, you know the broad outlines of the faith, but there is so, so much to learn. It can seem daunting. Taking in the outlines of Judaism is a classroom environment was very helpful for me, and I’d recommend it to anyone else considering conversion. Working one on one with a rabbi (which is the stage I am in now) is essential, but I think if you’re starting from square one, a classroom setting is a good way to go.

As the class ended in February, I met with the Rabbi one on one. That conversation was both an examination of where I am in my journey and a discussion of next steps.

E and I are at this point living some of the traditions. We’re celebrating Shabbat when we can (E and I are often separated on Friday night due to her being in NYC and me being in DC), but we’re not regular members of a synagogue, and I cannot read Hebrew. Me learning Hebrew and us finding a shul in which we feel comfortable are the next concrete steps we need to take and I hope, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be going before the beit din by the end of the summer.

Five Months

Five months is a long time. A lot has happened, an awful lot.

At first I thought I would use this space to talk about the trials and tribulations of conversion. What worried me about the prospect and what excited me. But I got cold feet. By the third post, this blog was getting alot of hits and I got worried that in the relatively small world of people converting to Judaism in the D.C. area, someone in my conversion class, or even the rabbi with whom I am working, was going to run across it. So I clammed up. I took a conversion class and decided officially to convert. Throughout I kept my thoughts about the process to myself. Now, I think it is time to jump back in. I feel more confident about my conversion and less worried about who will know my concerns about the process. Today, I’d be happy to have the Rabbi I am working with read this blog.

My excitement about my conversion and about Judaism in general has never waned, and I thought this could be a good space to talk once again about Judaism, Jewish history, what it means to convert, and the mechanics of doing so.

So, hello again. I hope someone decides to read this thing.

Notes on Jewish Conversion

Originally written for another website. 

As someone pursuing conversion, one of the things I find it important (and difficult) to balance between enthusiasm and fetishization; between interest and hobbyism*. I’m excited about Judaism, I love diving into new areas of study and this is an area of study big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but as I get deeper into this I need to remember two things.

  1. This isn’t like any of my other interests. This isn’t an interest, it is a change in life and it needs to be treated with a serious and rigor that I don’t often bring to interests. Becoming a Jew isn’t like getting interested in the rules of cricket. It is much, much more and I need to be aware of that.
  2. I think it is easy in the first blush of conversion to get very wrapped up in all things Jewish and to almost fetishize the people and the culture. I do not want to do that. I want to remember that my excitement can be off putting, that it can appear that I am treating a living culture like an anthropology project – something to be analyzed and dissected.  Judaism, especially certain aspects of the intellectual life Jewish life, are very exciting to me right now, but I have to realize that doesn’t mean that I can’t be offensive in how I discuss them or talk about them.
  3. I need to remember that being a Jew means a lot of different things to different people. Many of those ways of being Jewish will be something I will never understand or participate in. As an adult convert to Catholicism will never know what it felt like for me to be an altar boy, I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home. The experience of the convert is necessarily different and one should not pretend that it is otherwise.

All that said, I’m learning a lot, and I am excited about where this is going. If I can stay self aware about how I handle this process, I think it is going to be great.

*I totally made that word up.

 

The nature of the convert.

As someone pursuing conversion, one of the things I find it important (and difficult) to balance between enthusiasm and fetishization and between interest and hobbyism*. I’m excited about Judaism, I love diving into new areas of study and this is an area of study big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but as I get deeper into this I need to remember two things.

1. This isn’t like any of my other interests. This isn’t an interest, it is a change in life and it needs to be treated with a serious and rigor that I don’t often bring to interests. Becoming a Jew isn’t like getting interested in the rules of cricket. It is much, much more and I need to be aware of that.

2. I think it is easy in the first blush of conversion to get very wrapped up in all things Jewish and to almost fetishize the people and the culture. I do not want to do that. I want to remember that my excitement can be off putting, that it can appear that I am treating a living culture like an anthropology project – something to be analyzed and dissected.  Judaism, especially certain aspects of the intellectual life Jewish life, are very exciting to me right now, but I have to realize that doesn’t mean that I can’t be offensive in how I discuss them or talk about them.

Additionally, I need to remember that being a Jew means a lot of different things to different people. Many of those ways of being Jewish will be something I will never understand or participate in. As an adult convert to Catholicism will never know what it felt like for me to be an altar boy, I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home. The experience of the convert is necessarily different and one should pretend that it is otherwise.

All that said, I’m learning a lot, and I am excited about where this is going. If I can stay self aware about how I handle this process, I think it is going to be great.

*I totally made that word up.

Interesting Gers: Martha Nussbaum

I am going to start a new Friday feature here on Nom De Ger. A short little profile on an interesting or inspiring convert to Judaism. First up, an intellectual hero of mine, Martha Nussbaum.

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most important poltical philosophers working today. She teaches at the University of Chicago, has written a number of books including the must read Sex and Social Justice*. She is just ridiculously smart. She is also a ger.

It is not easy to find a lot of information on Nussbaum’s conversion. It would seem that like many converts, she originally converted for marriage when she married Alan Nussbaum. However, long after she and Alan Nussbaum divorced, she stayed involved in Judaism and had a bat mitzvah in 2008.  At her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum gave a d’var Torah. Here is an excerpt:


As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. . .  So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.

You can read the whole piece here. Nussbaum hasn’t shared why she converted, nor why she chose to have a bat mitzvah at age sixty one, but I think her intelligence and sense of justice is a great addition to the Jewish community.
*Nussbaum is also involved in the great gossip of the intellectual elite. She was involved for many years with Cass Sunstein before Sunstein ran off an married Samatha Powers, but that whole thing is a discussion for another blog.

Study

Just a quick post today to note what the reading will be for the conversion I am taking and some thoughts on study:

The text book is Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice

The bible we’ll be using is the JPS Tanakh

Other recommended reading is:

Jewish Literacy

Jewish Holidays

Living a Jewish Life

And, because I am insane and obsessive, especially when it comes to books, I have also bought

Becoming a Jew

To Be a Jew

To Pray as a Jew

These eight books are going to be my starting point in study, but I expect to head off in a number of tangents along the way.

I am really excited about this process, there is so much to learn and so many other avenues to explore, including for me looking into Gershom Scholem’s work, the codification of much of Jewish tradition in the middle ages, the place of Jews in the Frankfurt school, and much, much more. As this blog develops, I hope to have it branch off into both personal meditations on my own journey in Judaism, but also more general writing about aspects of Jewish history and theology that interest me.

Rabbi Recap

The meeting with the Rabbi last night went very well. He was as warm and welcoming in person as he seemed on the phone and I feel very lucky that my first experiences with conversion have been with someone like this.

Sitting in his well-appointed study, we spent some time just chit chatting, E told him about her back ground in a semi observant home, I talked about my interest in converting and we shared some of the up and downs we have had with E’s family around my not being Jewish (more on this in a later post). After which he gave us a rundown of what his class will be like.

The program is set to be 18 weeks of study with other people considering conversion. It will meet once a week. I asked about the concerns with converting with a conservative rabbi and he had a thoughtful answer which boiled down to – it’s up to you, but he outlined some of the pros and cons of an orthodox conversion.

Pros:

An Orthodox conversion isn’t going to be challenged by anyone in the future, i.e., no one will doubt you’re Jewish*;

No one is going to doubt your children are Jewish (thought this isn’t as big a deal for E and I since she is definitely way Jewish); and

Though E thinks this is not going to be an issue, I worry her family will not accept this as a real conversion unless it is an orthodox conversion. It is one of the ironies of conversion that the convert is generally held to a more rigorous standard than what those who are born into a religion. There are things in E’s family from which I am excluded because I am not Jewish, it would be extremely frustrating if I were to continue to be excluded from those things after conversion.

Cons:

Converting in an orthodox manner means kabbalat ol ha’mitzvo., Meaning, I would need to accept the yoke of the rules of Judaism. All the rules. That would mean either never eating in my parents’ home again, not going to my sister’s wedding or my nieces and nephews baptism or lying to the beit din. I am not excited about either idea.

As the rabbi** said, no one follows all the rules, the important thing is to understand the importance of the rules and to do as best one can. I’m down for that, but that is not enough for Orthodoxy.

Additionally, I think that when it comes to picking a shul, E and I will be much more comfortable in a more egalitarian synagogue. I would prefer mixed seating; it would be nice if E could be on the Bimah. Conclusion Right now, I am leaning heavily towards a conservative conversion. I have some more thinking about it to do, but conservative seems like the right approach***.

Either way, we have signed up for the course the Rabbi teaches beginning the first week of October. I am already extremely excited.

*As long as you convert with a Rabbi approved by the Orthodox Rabbinate currently calling the shots in Israel.

** This guy is going to figure heavily in my life I think, I should come up with a witty nickname for him.

*** Can I tell you how little I know about Judaism that I was shocked to find out that conservative is really liberal while reform is like far left. I really thought conservative was like Orthodox light when really it seems to be more like serious Reform, if that makes any sense.

Questions, questions, questions

We have our first meeting with a Rabbi tonight, and I am both excited and terrified. He is apparently conservative and runs numerous classes for those considering conversion. Some questions I intend to ask:

1. What are the positive and negative things about choosing a conservative synagogue for conversion? My understanding is that some orthodox will not accept a conservative conversion. Will this be a problem later on? What are the differences between the two?

2. What exactly does the conservative synagogue require for kabbalat ol ha’mitzvot? Am I required to keep kosher? Am I required to be Shomer Shabbat? These are the two things that worry me the most, especially the Kosher business. My family is generally supportive of my conversion, but I am sure as hell not going to stop eating in their home after conversion. Also, I love oyster and would miss them terribly.

3. E and I are likely moving back to New York in January, do that have any effect on the course I will take?

T minus three hours to Rabbi conversation. Let’s see how it goes.