Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Jew by choice’ Category

The first bat mitzvah I attended was that of the daughter of one of J’s colleagues. I didn’t know the kid or the synagogue. It was an eye-opening experience.

It was an Orthodox synagogue, one that would probably be described as ‘Modern Orthodox.’ So I wasn’t particularly surprised that the bat mitzvah was on Saturday evening, rather than during a service. The rest of the experience was a surprise, though.

The kid read a couple of prayers (which could have taken her all of half an hour to learn, as she went to Jewish day school and had been taking Hebrew for 7 years at that point). She then made a speech. I expected a speech on the parsha (Torah portion) of the week, but nope, she just picked a topic. Thirteen years have elapsed between then and now and I still remember that topic clearly. It was: What Golda Meir Means to Me.

Even accounting for the fact that the kid was 12 years old, it was lame. It sounded just like the essay Maya wrote not long ago on why Meir is a Jewish hero, which took her a day to write. Golda Meir is an easy bulls-eye as far as proving Jewish heroism.

After her speech, the rabbi came up and praised her for all her hard work, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he said that with a straight face. I couldn’t imagine that he really thought this child was so intellectually weak that this paltry effort should be praised as hard work. He gave her a pair of candlesticks and we all went and had lunch in the elaborately-decorated events room.

I know that different Orthodox communities celebrate bat mitzvahs in very different ways and I don’t know all of them, so please don’t view this as a condemnation of all Orthodox bat mitvahs, but I did look at this one and vow that any daughter I had would not be treated as such an intellectual light-weight.

I was talking recently with the wife of a Hasidic rabbi and asked her if they did bat mitvzahs for the girls. They did, she said, then went on to describe pretty much what I’d witnessed at this other place. She went on to tell me that in the classes she taught, she concentrated on how to be a good Jewish adult and woman and proffered the opinion that the girls’ experiences were actually more meaningful than that of the boys, as the boys were so busy stressing out over learning the Cantillation and their Torah portion that they couldn’t absorb any deeper lessons on becoming a Jewish adult.

I think she’s selling both the boys and the girls short, as I think there is enough room in the average kid’s brain to learn how to chant Torah and how to be a good Jew, all at the same time. I confess, I did not tell her so.

She also told me that the girls are delighted to not have to go through the trials of learning how to read the Torah. I believed that. A couple of years ago, after witnessing her cousin’s bar mitzvah, Maya announced she wasn’t having one. Shyer then than now, she watched him up there in front of everyone, chanting and even occasionally making a small slip-up, only to be saved by the rabbi, and decided she would die if forced to do that.

I told her that she had no choice. She’s Jewish, therefore she is having a bat mitzvah. “I’m converting to Christianity then,” she announced. You can’t, I told her. “You converted to Judaism!” she argued. I lied: “I know. You can convert to Judaism, but not out of it.”

After sulking for a few moments, she said, “Fine. But I’m not chanting Torah.”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“Girls don’t have to!”

“Other girls don’t have to. You do.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“That’s not a reason!”

“You’ll thank me when you are older.”

“No I won’t.”

But I believe she will. I’ve seen the pride, relief and accomplishment on the faces of kids who have just successfully completed their Torah portions. I’ve felt it to, after I read from the Torah in Israel. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in struggling with something truly difficult and mastering it, then demonstrating that mastery in front of your whole community. I cannot help but think that while the girls who do nothing more than a prayer or two and a speech on what Golda Meir means to them might initially feel relieved to have avoided all the hard work they see their brothers doing, ultimately they realize they’ve been dissed. Their community is subtly sending the message that they can’t cope with anything more.

I know that isn’t what those communities intend. They are doing their best to get around the problem that they believe fundamentally that girls cannot touch the Torah while at the same time trying to give them the same sense of welcome into adulthood the boys have – different, but equal is the phrase they like to use. But of course, it isn’t equal, not when it takes a boy a year or two to prepare for his coming-of-age, and the girl really needs no more than a month or two for hers.

So, despite all the stress I’m facing preparing for Maya’s bat mitzvah, schleping her to shul school, the inevitable battles over practicing her Torah and Halftorah portion, the nerves that will no doubt be involved, I’m still grateful to be doing this.

I can’t wait to see the look of pride, relief and achievement on my daughter’s face, well earned.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I confess that for years, I’ve been dreading Maya’s bat mitzvah. They are such huge deals and it all seems so overwhelming to handle. Maybe it is because I converted and therefore never went through one of my own (or, more likely for my generation, watched my brothers go through bar mitzvahs), but I’m not sure that is all, because J is pretty much terrified too.

Her bat mitzvah date is April of 2009 – a year and a half away. I thought that was enough time to keep my fingers in my ears and loudly and tunelessly sing, “Lalalala, I can’t hear you” for a while longer, but apparently not. A few days ago, a friend whose kid is having her bat mitzvah about the same time asked me if I’d signed Maya up for her class at shul yet, and was I going to the meeting? Huh? I knew nothing. J knew nothing.

So I called the synagogue, where the nice secretary peppered me with questions – how much is she going to read? Are we having our evening even at the synagogue? Are we having the lunch kiddish there? Will we be doing a Friday night thing, or Saturday morning thing? I dunno I dunno I dunno.

So I went to the meeting, where I was happy to see I wasn’t the only perplexed parent there. I realized that it was in fact high time Maya start the classes, as apparently they are supposed to take them for 1.5 to 2 years. I can’t figure out what it is going to take so long to learn, since she can already read Hebrew fluently and knows many of the prayers. As far as I can tell (but as I said, I’ve never done this before), she needs to learn the cantillation.

The Torah is a complicated thing to read. Hebrew for grown-ups doesn’t have vowels. You can put the vowels in, as they are marks that go under and over certain letters to let you know, for example, that the ‘t’ sound will be ‘ta’ or ‘to’ or ‘ti’ but after you learn how to read fluently, you drop the vowels. So no vowels in the Torah. There are lots of other little marks on the words, though. They tell the reader how that word is to be chanted. All the different marks, called trope, have their own specific tune and the kids need to learn them so they can properly chant their Torah portion.

This does strike me as nightmarishly difficult and so I do see requiring a far amount of prep time, but now I’m not so sure, since Maya came home from her first class at ‘shul school’ last week with a page of the names of all the different markings, and began singing them to me. Next!

Okay, it isn’t that simple, but she certainly is sucking up the information. At least one of us has a brain. I panicked at the meeting when I discovered that classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays only. I asked the Rabbi about tutoring as, I explained, Maya has piano on Tuesday and delivers her papers on Thursday. I know one has to make priorities, but piano is unmovable and I think having a job is very good for her. To bad. The tutors are booked solid.

Thursday seemed more flexible, but then I saw that the class was currently populated with 4 boys from her grade at school. Nuh-uh. One boy’s mom came over and told me if I put her in that class, they’d carpool her there and back. That’s very sweet, I told her, but Maya will freak if I put her in that class. But, said the mom, they are very nice boys. Nice? Nice has nothing to do with it. They have penises and nothing else matters.

I then realized that piano is only half an hour and I could race from it to the synagogue, and at least she’d be in a class full of girls, with her best friend. I signed her up. Leaving the meeting, I phoned Maya to tell her the news, as I knew she was keen on being with her friend. After I told her, she said, “Mom, my piano lesson is on Wednesdays.”

So, so not ready.

Read Full Post »

Okay, I don’t have all the answers, but this is a column I wrote for the Jewish newspaper, for which I did journalisty things like research and interview people, so it is my take on things. The most difficult part of it was keeping my own experiences out of it, so maybe I’ll write those up tomorrow (or the next day …)

__________________________

In some ways, it is difficult to discern how the broader Jewish community views those who have converted to Judaism. Of course, there is the ‘official’ line, but finding out what people really think can be more difficult. It seems that the best way to find that out is to ask the Jews by choice themselves how they feel they have been welcomed in their chosen religion.

Both the Torah and Talmud instruct that once someone has converted, they are as Jewish as any other, to the point that their conversions are considered irrelevant and not to be referred to. They are not ‘converts,’ but merely ‘Jews.’ But Jewish experiences in the diaspora before the last few decades made Jews very suspicious of those wanting to join them, and there is some evidence that the suspicion hasn’t completely disappeared.

It doesn’t help that Judaism is more than just a religion, but a culture, even an ethnicity. Some – both those converting and born Jewish – question the possibility of successfully joining someone else’s culture.

Add to that the controversy over who does the conversion, that the Orthodox movement does not accept conversions performed by those of other movements, and the question of acceptance is of real concern.

Every Jew by choice interviewed for this article remembers facing negative comments about those who have converted. Ironically, these almost always came from people who did not realize that they were speaking to a convert. Many Jews by choice find it easy to dismiss such remarks, and the people who make them.

Michael Walsh, a Jew by choice whose volunteer work in development in the Jewish community brings him in contact with a wide variety of people, says he has always felt completely welcomed and accepted. He has heard the occasionally disparaging remark, he admits, but says, “The key is to not be sensitive to stupid comments. They don’t represent the wider community.”

He also points out: “It is a glass-half-full kind of thing. You will find what you are looking for.” He explains that he believes those expecting acceptance are more likely to find it.

Another Jew by choice, Wayne Moore, said something similar. He feels you get out of life what you put in, and someone who converts with sincerity and immerses themselves in the community will be fully welcomed.

About the occasional unpleasant comment, Moore says, “No one else’s reactions really matter. I did this for myself. I have a supportive wife and extended family and they are the ones who matter.” That being said, he feels completely accepted by the Ottawa Jewish community. “I have always found it very warm and welcoming.”

While Walsh and Moore haven’t found that their decisions to convert for their Jewish families has made their acceptance any more complicated, Christine Kessler admits she sometimes feels judged by those who think she converted to marry her husband, Gary, a born Jew. She finds this a bit frustrating, especially as she had decided to convert whether she married Gary or not.

The mere fact that Kessler and some others who converted before marriage feel the need to point out that they would have ended up Jewish anyway demonstrates that there is still some stigma around converting ‘just to get married.’ Another Jew by choice, who we’ll call Sara, as she declined to be named for this article, describes her deep frustration and hurt at being asked a number of times if she’d stay Jewish should her husband leave her or die.

“It shows they don’t consider me really Jewish,” she said, “Like I’m just playing at it for my husband.”

Sara was not the only convert who not willing to be named. Their opinion was that while they weren’t ashamed of it and would tell people if they asked, it just isn’t anyone’s business and they see no reason to advertise it.

Sara says the worst comments are the unintentional ones, such as when she told a good friend a Jewish joke. “It was self-deprecating, as they tend to be, the sort that might be considered anti-Semitic if someone Jewish wasn’t saying it, and he said that it made him uncomfortable to hear it from me, since I hadn’t always been Jewish. It made me realize that even though I sometimes even forget I haven’t been born Jewish no one else does, and that really hurt.”

It is possible that those who convert for faith alone rather than to marry someone Jewish manage to avoid some of these feelings of being judged. David M. is a good example. He says he has never felt any negative judgment about having converted, although he does admit that, upon finding out he did it just on his own, people do tend to ask, “What, are you nuts?”

“They are always joking, though,” he adds. “I do think that not converting for marriage does add to the perception of my sincerity, since I came to it completely on my own. Which is not a fair judgment about people who convert to marry, of course.”

Interestingly, the most obvious source of potential rejection – converting under a non-Orthodox rabbi – had little effect on the non-Orthodox Jews by choice who were interviewed for this article. While some kept within their own smaller Reform community, others are fully involved in the wider community and have found the rabbis of Ottawa to be completely welcoming.

While obviously Orthodox rabbis do not consider these Jews by choice to be Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), and would not perform a marriage or bris for them, when not in that sort of situation no one spoken to has ever been treated as anything less than a full member of the community.

Clearly, acceptance into the Jewish community is an issue fraught with emotion for many people who have converted. But despite the fact that prejudices and problems still do exist for those who have chosen to be Jewish, everyone interviewed has found Ottawa to be a welcoming and largely non-judgmental Jewish community.

Read Full Post »