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On My Conversion

07/15/2018 09:51:43 AM


Nancy Mahl


My loving, kind, and fierce wife, Amy; my warm, wise, and generous father and mother-in-law; my brilliant and funny sister-in-law and her fine family in no way encouraged or required this conversion.  It came out of the experience of preparing for our Jewish wedding two years ago, and of learning from a gifted and patient teacher like Rabbi Hannah, who makes the simple complex and the complex simple in the best possible ways.

I am drawn to a people who are unafraid of questions. I am concerned also, that to immerse myself in a Jewish community will bring change to the community because I did not grow up in a Jewish home.  That my questions will erode or change the culture of the people I seek to formally join. It is my hope, in raising two Jewish sons, that their cultural birthright of traditions, practices, history, community celebrations and sorrows will not be diminished by my newness. There are some things that I don’t understand or internalize, some spots where the old way is more comfortable because it is familiar. In seeking to become a Jew, I wish to affirm for myself and my family, that I will commit to a lifelong process of questioning the desire for the familiar that is at the root of rejecting the unfamiliar, and set aside the old practices and prejudices with which I was raised.

Julian asked me, “if it is so important to you that I go to Hebrew school, why aren’t you a Jew?”  It was an important question and deserves a serious answer.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and was deeply involved in the church as a young person. The slow dawning that the Church was not a safe place for me, and the dogma that was never subjected to question or discussion made those ties dissolve decades ago. The parts of Catholicism that I love: the art, architecture and music will always be available to me without any spiritual engagement. I have no hatred for my former religion. I am sure it brings comfort to many people, and many good deeds are done in the the church’s name. 

I still have a close friend from childhood who is a priest. I told him of my decision to convert, and he roared with laughter: he said that I had always been a Jew, he was glad I was finally embracing my inquisitive and disputatious nature and finding my people.  This feels true, but also I am finding a warmer, more nurturing part of my nature as I am immersed in the process of Jewish parenting.  The affection, concern, protectiveness, and celebration of Jewish children as demonstrated in my family and congregation has been a revelation to me, and I strive to emulate these methods.

In a peculiar coincidence, I was adopted as an infant.  My biological older sister found me last year and we compared notes about what we knew of the back story. I told her I was a lesbian and had a wife and two children. She paused and said “well...just how Catholic are you?” I said not at all Catholic. That my family is Jewish. She burst out laughing and said, “Shabbat shalom! I converted to Judaism 40 years ago, and your great big Jewish family is eager to meet you.”  We have become close and she has offered me much advice and support.  I had embarked on the path to conversion with Rabbi Orden before finding out I had biological Jewish relatives, but it certainly sweetened the experience.

The experience of being an adopted person, and a gay person who came out as a teen has often left me feeling like a stranger at family gatherings. I looked, thought, and behaved very differently from my adoptive family, who were loving people to the best of their abilities.  My dad’s father was a secular Jew, his mother Irish Catholic. My mother converted to Catholicism to marry him, she had been raised a sort of Unitarian agnostic, and although she practiced a strict sort of Catholicism the rest of her life it was more of a practice than a belief. I don’t know how my (adoptive) parents would’ve reacted to conversion, but it would’ve likely involved some long, philosophical discussions and fears about antisemitism.

I ended up working in the trades, and have usually been the only woman on a job site, at a union meeting, or at a work event.  I want not to be a stranger at my own dinner table, or in my family, or in my larger community.  Converting won’t change my past, but it will change my present and future. I would like to spend my life with my family, and I’d like to be buried next to my wife. I’d like to teach our grandchildren how to make holiday foods and how to light candles. I’d like to see myself as a leaf on their tree, part of something that predates me and will continue after me. 

And what of the religious part of Judaism? I haven’t had any sort of Christian practice in 30 some years.  I could not reconcile an interventionist G’d with a world of human cruelty, I tried very hard to cultivate a personal relationship with G’d as Christians ought, but it all seems simplistic and small in the face of the richness and muchness and raw, wild teeming of the universe and it’s contents.  To attempt to define the wondrous and horrifying creative power at the heart of all things seems hubris to me.  I like the words Rabbi Orden quoted from Abraham Heschl: The Ineffable.  The silent Aleph that the heart can hear but the tongue can’t speak. The practice of Shabbat, to create sacred temporal space, to be an intentional part of a community that extends backward and forward in time, and to defend that people’s history and future seems like enough. Judaism is very good at holding a space and a time for wonder and contemplation. And it doesn’t seem to spend much time on prayers of supplication to a divinity that doesn’t protect you. Or prevent war. It seems G’d’s hands are to be found at the end of our own sleeves, and I’m comfortable with that. I don’t expect miracles beyond the love of my family and the miraculous daily world of plants, animals, oceans, stars and the millions of other hearts, gigantic and microscopic, beating around my own.   As our Luca says, “The universe as it is is enough: what more could anyone need?”  Which is what I think when I hear “Dayenu!”  around our table.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780