20 Years A Jew: One Convert’s Observations in Seven Installments

By Athena DeRasmo


Installment 7 – “And then there was Israel…”

Haifa Shrine of the Bab

Haifa. I sat in a tiny office in a government building – bleak, institutional, and oppressive. Like most Israeli government buildings, it could have been a set for a cold war film. Across from me sat a clerk – a stern, Russian-Israeli female about 15 minutes past her prime and more than a little bitter; the perfect government employee. In Israel, many government office workers are Russian females – smart, multi-lingual, indifferent, and frankly a little scary!

It was 2002, and I was making Aliyah. The Aliyah office was very quiet. The violence of the Intifada had brought a dramatic cessation of tourism and immigration to Israel. The year 2002 alone brought 47 separate bombings, with no end in sight. The country felt shut down. Ironically, it was also a great time for converts to immigrate. Minister of Interior Eli Yishai, while very right-wing, was also a pragmatic man. His policies opened the door wide to diaspora converts wishing to immigrate. I guess he figured anyone who was crazy enough to make Aliyah during this bloody time, who was he to stop them!

I had not told a soul of my plans to make Aliyah. I did not contact any of the many immigrant aid organizations. In hindsight, perhaps I should have, but Aliyah is a very personal decision. I figured once I had my Israeli citizenship firmly in place, then I would share the news. I knew I was taking steps that would change the rest of my life; first a new faith and culture, now a new county. There was no way to know how it would all play out – but it felt right, even amidst all the balagan.*

The clerk was processing my paperwork. It was going well; my conversion had been in good order. When my Bet Din was being assembled, I was interested in having a female Rabbi. I had approached one, but was told that if I wanted to make Aliyah, a conversion document with a female Rabbi listed could be problematic. So, my Bet Din was all male, with Rabbi Goldfarb at the helm. Subsequently, my paperwork was HaKol Beseder.* There was a routine interview portion. The clerk then looked at me hard, almost cross, and asked, “So why do you want to live here, now, during all this mess? You are from Hawaiʻi. Are you crazy?” I told her, “Well, I fell in love, it just kind of happened.” She rolled her eyes a bit, and nodded knowingly. I stopped her. I said softly, “No, I mean I fell in love with Israel.” And I watched those stern, bitter, Israeli eyes well with tears.

A few weeks later I became an Israeli citizen.

Field and Tree Golan Heights

________________

*Balagan – mess

*HaKol Beseder – ok, all in order


Installment 6 – Conversion and Jewish “Pedigree”

I have it on good authority that once the conversion process is complete, that’s it! The convert is no longer a convert; they are a Jew. No discussion or question – being a convert needs no disclaimer. If only this were true. There will always be someone who thinks a particular convert is not Jewish enough, the right “kind” of Jew – or even Jewish at all!

Many factors can influence the perception of a convert’s pedigree. Intention: Was the conversion for marriage, or was it spiritual, or both? Why a person converts may be more important than how a person converts. Affiliation: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or other movement. Affiliation is a huge deal-breaker for some. Expression: Is the convert Shomer Shabbat, attending only the High Holidays, or are they mostly secular? While I was shul shopping in Maryland, congregants would often ask me, “where do you live?” I thought it a strange opening question, until I realized that they were trying to ascertain whether I drove or walked to shul. Then there is the question of Politics: Is the convert right- or left-leaning, are they supporters of Israel, are they ambivalent? Jews are rightfully attached to their political beliefs. But are politics a good yardstick by which to measure a convert?

When weighing the legitimacy of a conversion, what all these factors have in common is the notion that conversion to Judaism is not necessarily a done deal. Rather, it is contingent on varying ideas defining what is a Jew. In 1999, Hungarian Playwright George Tabori said, “Thirty years after Auschwitz the rabbis are still discussing in detail what a Jew is. Everyone knows it, except the Jews. […] I would not be a Jew if the Germans had not reminded me about it […] To be sure, the price for this conversion was too high.”

With the current rise of demonstrative racism and anti-Semitism; with the world-wide Jewish population still struggling to make a comeback from WW2, every Jew must be considered a precious member of the tribe. Degrees of Jewishness and disqualifying conditions erode the most important attribute of Judaism – the persistent belief in family, community, and service.

As someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, moving from place to place, the idea of a cohesive community was nothing short of miraculous. As a convert, I continue to be ever amazed that Jews aspire to this goal. However; if we are all to participate in Jewish service for the greater good, there can be no exclusivity – all must be welcome – come as you are.


Installment 5 – Modest* Fashion and the Modern Woman

Mt. Carmel at Night.

Dictionary Definition of "Modesty."

I am not a modest woman – never have been. However, when I was going through conversion, I went through changes. Becoming a Jewish woman would be a big responsibility and I needed my outside to be more in keeping with my inside. I decided that a more conservative appearance would be appropriate. My decision to change to a modest appearance would mean a radical shift in my personal style. Having a background in theatre, I understood the power of costuming and using garb to enhance an experience; however, there would be no artifice in this particular costuming. So, the hemlines came down, necklines came up, I gave up sleeveless fashion, and footwear became practical. I wore my hair simply and covered my head for shul. Like keeping kosher, for me, modest fashion was not going to be a sometime thing, but rather an ongoing representation of my observance. These fashion changes would become permanent, and I grew very comfortable with my decision.

Modest fashion was particularly helpful to me during my five years in Israel as a single woman. My modest fashion acted as a deflector shield for many unwanted advances from some Israeli men (both Jewish and Arab) who believe that single women get off the plane in Tel Aviv in order to meet them. My frum appearance allowed me to travel into areas that are typically taboo for a seemingly unaffiliated woman, such as Arab villages & Orthodox neighborhoods. On occasion, I was called out for pretense – for presenting as something I was not. On one such occasion, in Haifa, I hailed a cab on Shabbat. A secular driver pulled over, curiously asked where I was going. I told him, “The Synagogue at the bottom of the hill,” Mt. Carmel. He said, “You look religious, you go to Beit Knesset, then you act religious – you walk,” and drove away. In Israel, where all opposites meet, you play by the rules!

My time in Israel was 2000-2005. When I returned to the US, I continued to dress in modest fashion, knowing full well that modest is as modest does – and as a modern woman, it has to be asked, what is modesty? Considering the current course of the modern woman, once desirable attributes of “modesty” are no longer desirable – Who would desire their daughters to be timid, docile, reticent, or meek? It would seem that modest fashion and actual modesty have little to do with one another. Modest fashion is neither a guarantee of virtue, nor a misrepresentation of piety. However, it can be said that modest fashion in the modern world is a statement of cultural and religious identity, which also has the added benefit of saying, most unmistakably, “Hey, my eyes are up here!” A modest statement? Thankfully, I think not.


Installment 4 – Balancing Secular and Sacred

Every day this convert is faced with balancing sacred observance and a vast secular life, which challenges my observance at every turn. Shabbat is a big help, the precious island in time, as are the holidays. There is also the plethora of Jewish activism, volunteerism, clubs, and committees, and to be sure, the work is never done! Nevertheless, the question of how to manifest Judaism day-to-day remains a challenge.

Personally, keeping kosher style* is a choice that has been very meaningful, and helps to bridge the gap between the secular and the sacred. When I choose to take the time to carefully scrutinize the purchase, preparation, and consumption of my food, I am inviting a very private observation that allows me to be demonstratively Jewish. Even the mundane task of grocery shopping brings me closer to my goal of living a meaningful Jewish life. To say I do not miss bacon would be a lie. I miss a lot of things – my grandmother’s Vina Dosh (vinegar pork roast), Lau Lau on New Year’s Day, good Italian cold cuts, lobster!

Yes, the list goes on and on. Perhaps this is why keeping kosher is more difficult for new Jews. We did not grow up Jewish; we enjoyed years of forbidden fruit; and we know exactly what we are giving up if and when we decide to keep kosher or kosher style. As a foodie, culinary art school graduate, and former food service professional, keeping kosher was more than just a dietary change – it was a profound cultural and professional change.

So aside from the obvious, that keeping kosher is a mitzvah/commandment that is halachically ordained, why on earth do it? Do I think the Holy One actually cares if I have baby back ribs? No, I do not. Do I believe in keeping kosher for kosher’s sake? No, I do not. Let’s face it, keeping kosher is tough; especially here in Hawaiʻi! Americans are notorious when it comes to food: over-fed and under-nourished.

Conversely, Jews have always had a special relationship with food, and keeping kosher bumps that relationship up a notch. The level of connection that keeping kosher style affords me is very comforting, and I am a little less lost for it. So yeah, I miss bacon, I know what I have lost, but I also know how much I have gained! The decision to keep kosher continues to be the right decision these 20 years.

*“Kosher Style” (for me) means no consumption of non-kosher meat and no mixing of meat and dairy, ever. I am very conscious of hechsher and ingredient lists. I do not separate cookware/dishes/cutlery. Living in Hawaiʻi I mostly defer to vegetarianism.


Installment 3 – “What’s an Orphan To Do?”

With High Holidays 5779 behind us, it seems fitting to comment on what the Holidays mean to this convert. I have heard it said, and I paraphrase, “Time keeps the Jewish people.” The Jewish calendar sustains the Jewish people in the diaspora then and now. It can even be said that time is more important than geography. We do not need to know the exact location of Mt. Sinai, but we do need our calendar to remind us when it is time to commemorate what happened there. We do not need the Kotel, but we do need our holidays. Even precious Jerusalem is just a pile of rocks when compared to the sacred moments in time that make our continuation as a people possible and assured.

So, if time keeps us, then it is right that we turn around and keep time. The Jewish community, families, and individuals share this responsibility – as a conversion candidate 20 years ago, this really sealed the deal for me. The single flame that burns in every Jew would burn in me and follow me wherever I would roam. Be it to different congregations, different lands, new destinies, my life as a Jew came with me and could be manifested in time, anywhere, place did not matter — have Torah, will travel! And so, I did.

For years I would have different homes in different lands, and it was during this time that I discovered that even with the calendar and my Jewish flame, I was in a very practical way – an orphan. My own biological family has never held any interest in my conversion or anything Jewish. They do not even know when the holidays are, what they mean, or even what I can and cannot eat. My conversion is ignored by my family, and frankly, it does not bother me. My conversion is my own. However, what does bring me sadness is when I find myself without a place to go on the holidays. More than once I have created a Seder plate for one, or had a tuna sandwich as my Rosh Hashana feast, or settled for French fries instead of latkes – talk about your bitter herbs! To be sure, congregational events help with this loneliness, a lot! Some years I get very lucky with a really nice private invitation. When I was living with Sophia [my non-Jewish daughter] sometimes it was just the two of us, and that was good too. But the fact is, that without a Jewish family or significant Jewish other the Holidays can be a time that reminds a convert that they are ever so slightly outside of the tribe. This is no one’s fault, it just is.

As the years have gone by my Jewish skin becomes more comfortable, the Jewish calendar is now a natural progression for me, and my flame continues to burn.  I will do my part to keep time, and in turn, time will keep this orphan.


Installment #2 “Why Judaism? What made it special (to me)?”

As I mentioned in installment #1, the form and function of Judaism has always been hugely attractive to me. Who can deny the intellectual appeal, the turning of Torah again and again, and the Socratic method of study? Even for those of us who tend to be more spectator than participant, the questions and curiosities are there, and we are obliged to get involved with the process of Judaism. This keeps Judaism alive, vibrant, relevant, and ready to take on the modern condition.

Another attribute of Judaism that is very intriguing is the inherent disinterest in proselytizing and seeking the conversion of non-Jews. Because, as I see it, deeds are more important than faith, and what we do is more important that what we believe, there is no need for non-Jews to “join the club!” Living a good life is enough. Unlike other monotheistic religions that threaten soul damning repercussions for being a non-believer, Judaism is not in the saving business. I believe it has no interest in placing the yoke of Judaism on others. To me this is the ultimate expression of coexistence and tolerance. I could not resist learning more about a club that was not interested in having me as a member (with regards to Groucho Marx).

The test of time is a useful yardstick by which credibility can be measured. Judaism can certainly boast the attribute of longevity and the respect it commands. It is remarkable to me that after everything, which has occurred over thousands of years, Judaism remains strong and enduring. I recall a proselytizing group coming to my door to share “the word.” When I told them, “This is a Jewish home,” they politely smiled, nodded, and left without a word. I like to believe that their reaction came from respect. I think it can be said that Judaism is the closest thing the world has to an “O.G.” religion still operating in modern times. The permanence of Judaism is a powerful and impressive thing indeed!

When I was going through my conversion process one of the members of my Beit Din asked me about the fact that I was not baptized and that I had no affiliation with any other religious group. I explained that I was born in the 60s and my parents did not see the need to impose belief systems on their children. Furthermore, while they believed religious education was an important part of being an educated person, my parents felt that it was up to the individual to find their spiritual affiliation. As a young person, I did look around, study, and observe, but I was always something of a spiritual orphan. It was a struggle, and as a young woman, I often felt lost. It wasn’t until I was a mature woman that I realized I had been wandering long enough and that it was time to find a home. I was told by a Rabbi, “For you, this is not a spiritual conversion, this is a spiritual adoption.” And so, it was.

I cannot finish this installment without mentioning the resolve and humor of the Jewish people. This feature of Judaism is very endearing and attractive to a non-Jew, and as a conversion candidate, I was no exception. What’s not to love! After all the Jews have been through – to succeed, to persevere, and still have humor – who wouldn’t want to belong to such a family! And so, I do.


Installment #1 The decision to convert: Simple, right?

 

In 1998, I attended Rosh Hashanah services at Sof Ma’arav with a friend. The next week, I returned for Yom Kippur services on my own. After that, I started attending weekly Shabbat Services. I remember that I would open my siddur from left to right and it took a while to break the habit. The congregants may have thought, “What is the deal with this little goyish woman?” but they didn’t let on. I was even set up with a completely transliterated siddur in a three-ring binder, which allowed me to participate in services without knowing a single word of Hebrew. Sof Ma’arav was then, and remains to this day, hospitable and kind to anyone who comes to services. I find this remarkable. It does not surprise me that so many conversion candidates have found their way to Sof Ma’arav.

Even though I am local to Hawai’i, Jews and things Jewish were not unfamiliar to me. My father was a Bronx New Yorker (Italian) who spoke Yiddish and had many Jewish friends. However, my knowledge was cultural and secular, so attending services was something brand new. After a couple of months, I informed my non-denominational family that I was seeking conversion to Judaism. I made my announcement over Thanksgiving dinner. My Grandmother exclaimed, “Oh thank G-d, I thought you were going to tell us you were pregnant!” My being divorced, I guess she thought being Jewish beat the hell out of being pregnant!

Rabbi Morris Goldfarb was to spearhead my conversion education in what proved to be a very busy 15 months. I attended Torah study, regular services, experienced all the Jewish holidays, started keeping kosher, and changed my personal style to Hawai’i modest, floral frum. A Bet Din was selected. On January 2, 2000, the Pacific Ocean was my Mikveh, and the Littmans threw me a lovely party.

Simple, right? Well, no. Conversion to Judaism is complicated. There is a reason it is infrequent and special.

Going back to that first Rosh Hashanah service, I was at a time in my life where I recognized something was missing. I came to understand that my spiritual life was lacking form and function. I remembered when asked if religion was necessary to have a spiritual life, the Dalai Lama said, “Religion is not necessary to have a spiritual life, but it can help!” Experiencing the apparent form and function of the High Holiday services was like a switch being flipped – I was very interested, and I wanted to know more!

Well here I am, 20 years later and very secure in the knowledge that, along with having my children, converting to Judaism is the most meaningful thing I have ever done. I am home. In the next six installments I will share some observations from my journey as a convert, a Jew, and a Woman. Welcome to my story and enjoy!