Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why I Dread Simchat Torah

This is the most frightening blog entry I’ve made to date. The reason Simchat Torah, the most joyful holiday of the entire year, fills me with dread is that I am terrified of the aliyah. To be specific, I am terrified to say the Hebrew names of my “parents.” In fact, I have always managed to be out of town for every Simchat Torah except this one. And if I didn’t have to work erev chag, I’d be out of town this year, too.

I wasn’t born Jewish. There. I said it. When I was converted, before moving here and joining my present community, I was promised by my rabbi: now you can enter a new community seamlessly, and no one need know you ever converted. Well, that’s true as long as you don’t participate in women’s tefillah, attend a Simchat Torah service in your community, or get married. Then, everyone will know. Which is a pity, since I was told all my life that I looked like (the young) Barbara Streisand.

I know I’m being dramatic. I know there are many converts who are just as good, knowledgeable, and valuable to their communities, if not more so, than people who were born Jewish. Besides, I know there are plenty of born-Jews whose parents just happen to be named Sarah and Abraham.

But I’m touchy about it. My conversion experience was awful. It was worse than undetected placenta previa and an emergency c-section. It was worse than lying in a dark room for three days, screaming and throwing up pain-killers because the nurse in recovery made me wait until the pain killer wore off before I could leave the hospital after surgery on a shattered wrist (She didn’t believe I didn’t have general).

My conversion was, psychologically, worse. The superficial reasons were understandable—I lived 70 miles from the nearest orthodox shul. I begged to be given materials to study, only to be told, “conversion is not a college entrance exam.” I studied anything I could get my hands on--alone. I learned Biblical Hebrew for two years and Aramaic for one. The first time I came before the bet din, the rabbi (who told me I didn’t even need to learn Hebrew) opened the siddur at random and asked me to sight-read. I was able to do so, haltingly. Then he commented: “I thought you were a scholar, but you read like a child.” I was sent home because I couldn’t answer what to do when a fleischig pot was triefed by dairy. I answered, “I’m a vegetarian! This would never happen to me. But if it did I’d get rid of the pot.” Turns out, the correct answer was “ask your rabbi.”

Although I made dear friends for life in that community, and the rabbi was a lovely person, there were other circumstances, rotten luck, general naivte and other problems that made the experience so nightmarish. I’m glad it’s over. But I would be more glad if I didn’t have to announce that I’m a convert once a year.

It’s not that I was raised without religion. I have an MA in theology. I spent a year in a convent. It’s just that I wasn’t raised with THIS religion. And I wasn’t even looking for religion or to convert when I left my birth-religion. (It’s just “not done” if you’re Catholic).

Still, it was all worth it. Even though I went from being an expert in one religion to a baby in another.

And in general, I look forward to the chagim. I never pray as intensely, and am never as honest with myself and with G-d as on Rosh H’shanna and Yom Kippur. It seems that every year, just before this time, I am faced with what seems like the worst challenge of my life—conversion, one year. Getting a job, one year. Having a child (though, to be honest, in my prayers I asked for a husband first). This year it is a custody battle and getting to move to Israel, since Baby Daddy is now unwilling to negotiate my going. I suspect that if I did not have these challenges, I would not pray so intensely and so deeply.

I am looking forward, though, to the year that my biggest challenge is dealing with my feelings about Shimchat Torah. I understand that it’s my problem. It’s a stupid problem. And I suspect one day I’ll even get over it.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are being sensitive, but we are all allowed to be sensitve at times. If it bothers you I would suggest getting your story ready. You could say you were estranged from your parents or your mother was called Sarah but you were never told the name of your father, or that you were adopted from a jewish family. You are making the big assumption that people actually listen to hear what your parents names are, I doubt that anyone really does. It would be a shame to miss out because you want to avoid the issue.

Anonymous said...

In the two out-of-NYC communities in which I've lived so far, being a convert is nothing too out of the ordinary, and most people accept it lovingly and with open arms. Even if people are listening to the names of your parents, you can choose to just name Abraham, since a mishaberach is technically said with the father's name (though many women choose to name both parents); like you said, there are plenty of Jews-from-birth who's fathers are named Abraham.

Don't dread it; embrace it. I know it's easier said than done, especially since I have not walked in your shoes, but I understand parts of what you're going thru- I wasn't raised in an Orthodox home, and there were many times in my life when I felt (and sometimes still feel) like I was a baby at something that others were more experienced at, simply because they were born into it.

Embrace it, if only because it makes your life more beautifully complex, multifaceted, and appealing.

Gluckel of Manhattan said...

Dear Maya bat Avraham v'Sarah...

I have tremendous admiration for your journey. As a Jewish educator, I have found that ALL of us who choose to live Jewish lives are Jews by choice. In this day and age (did I really say that? I sound OLD) it is easy enough not to choose to live in deep connection and relation to your Judaism. You sought this out, you worked for it, you made it yours; personally, I was just born into it, and so you are much stronger for your choice.

Find a shul with a communal aliyah where they call up a bunch of people at a time. Then you won't have to say it...

The Calico Cat said...

My husband only uses his father's name - maybe you could choose to only use Avraham...

As my Rabbi said on Kol Nidre, we nned to choose to live unambiguously Jewish. Many do not make this choice... Since you do, you should embrace it fully.

Shtetl Fabulous said...

I may not believe in everything Judaism teaches, but I firmly and unequivocally believe that every Jewish soul was at Sinai. You may not have knowingly been born Jewish, but your soul knew it.

It's sad to hear of your negative experiences as a Jew by choice. I know my life has been touched many times by people who converted - from the age of 5 when my family sort of adopted another family as they went through the conversion process - to the Sukkot dinner I attended last night.

All I can say is to keep your faith and don't let the insecurities and narrow definitions of others make you feel bad.

Maya said...

Thanks everyone.

Debby said...

I grew up Jewish in a reform synoguage, now I attend more religious services and I feel a similar lack of... what is it I feel... I guess the feeling is lack of belonging. So I think I understand, but at the same time I hope that you and I will feel more comfortable with each year.

Lynn said...

We are told that converts are to be honored. I am another convert who doesn't feel honored to be one though..I don't feel I've ever been anything other than Jewish (when Gd made me born a gentile, he was teasing :) ) -- but my pain is less from the process itself than from the constant questioning of its validity by those more observant than we are. We are caught between conservative and observant, with the observant not accepting 4/5 of us as Jews, so we cannot be a full part of that community...and yet our less observant friends already don't understand us (a Jewish boss chewed me out for reminding her I can't work on Rosh Hashanah - she was outraged, "even though it's the second day?!!") - and when I cover my hair (working on it...so far part time :) ) a good friend of mine tells me how much I look like a 'cute yente'. I think she's trying to be kind, but the look she gives me when she says that is kind of odd. I also don't think using the names Sarah and Abraham will necessarily 'out' you as a convert and I know that even just for you the reminder is unpleasant, but be thankful if your conversion is one that is accepted by your rabbi and the rest of your community. It is no small something in this world of divided Jewry.