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.