People often talk about Jewish pride in what seems an impersonal way. It is as if Jewish pride should be a slogan flung far and wide, to counter the rising tide of antisemitism. Or as though Jewish pride should be a cheer, to grow and gather voices from there to here, into some great communal crescendo. Or like a badge of courage, to boldly pronounce one’s lack of shame for standing in the truth – in love and kindness – in the heart of what it means to be a Jew.
My pride in being Jewish is deeply personal. Wherever I am and wherever I go, I secretly dance with a bubbling joy within what I imagine as the now flowering gardens at the very heart of my Jewish soul. My soul that is not a thing – not the property of any man – but a beautiful rose responding to Gd’s light.
As a child, I remember being woken up late at night; hauled out to the cold living room while still in my PJs. My bohemian mother who took us to every kind of church imaginable (EXCEPT a synagogue!) so that we could one day “decide for ourselves” somehow found it essential that we not miss one moment of footage of the holocaust. I have always had a rather photographic memory. The number of times this footage has played and played, I cannot say. I hear “never again” and my every cell rises up as one great regiment, ready for action. So it has always been the case for this girl who was raised with “no religion.”
My Papa was fond of repeating choice sayings. “Keep on swinging at those windmills!” — “Follow dat car cabby!” — “Get your elbows out at the table…say…make some room for me!” — “No man is an island.” — “Man stands for a long time with his mouth open, waiting for a roasted chicken to fly in.” — “We’re ALL JEWS.” After my Papa died, I began to wonder about that last phrase. At one point, when I asked my brother, he said, “If you do the research, you’ll find that it’s true.”
In college, I was engaged to a nice Catholic boy. I went to a Jesuit university. I tried so hard to be Christian. But I handed back the ring because I knew the truth. Not the whole truth that only revealed itself many years into a hard test of endurance later. Just the portion of truth of which I was aware in that moment – that I could not bring myself to harm him by pretending that I could ever honestly raise children up as Catholic. After years of running late to church so as not to miss my part in the choir; years of following the procession that resulted in the baby Jesus being placed in the manger; years of walking next door for Sunday night dinners with his grandparents, I yielded to the truth that was for me like a mountain within – immovable.
More than five years ago, I unexpectedly overhead my ex describe to #1 how soldiers were made out of men. “First you break their spirit, then you dominate.” I shall never forget these words because of the way they formed in the very air through which I moved, spontaneously coming together into a fist that entered straight through my abdomen. Then, as unexpectedly as that blow hit, I felt a draft sweep through my being. It was as though the door to my inner garden that I thought had been entirely sealed had suddenly revealed a crack; a crack through which my soul sent up an unexpected smoke line – a breath into my being – a joyous tone of some unsung melody. In that moment I knew three things for certain; that one’s spirit is the hardest thing to break; that Gd IS; and that one’s soul belongs to no man, but exclusively to Gd.
I shall not here get into what prompted me to buy Rabbi Wolpe’s book, Why Be Jewish, some years before that moment came; before I remembered it wedged in between books encased behind a glass door that I rarely ever opened. As I read his book, I wrote in the margins, as I’m in a lifelong habit of doing. My final note is in the picture above. But the emotion that I felt at the close of this most important book was more than love. The emotion was also a sense of outrage. Why had my mother never taken me to a synagogue? Why had my university required religious electives that did not include Judaism so had me taking Black Liberation Theology? And, more to the point in that moment of question, I remember thinking back to one unforgettable experience in my childhood – the breakfast served by Mrs. Hearn after a birthday sleepover in my fourth grade year. What is essential to know is that my mother refused us sugar cereals but for very rare occasions. And she never once bought Captain Crunch. That morning, Mrs. Hearn served – and I ate – NINE bowls of those sharp golden cubes of indescribable delight before going home with a thousand cuts in the roof of my mouth and having it out with my mother – “YOU LIED TO US!!!!!” That was exactly what I said to her. Because, to me, omission was a lie and she had never told us of the existence of this, the best, most amazing cereal on the face of the earth. And this is exactly how I felt upon closing Rabbi Wolpe’s book – about the omission of Judaism over all the years of my growing up. It was, to me, as though my entire life, to that moment, had been spent in omission.
As I have mused privately with friends, one of my upcoming books may tell about my five year journey of conversion and that perhaps I shall title it, “A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Mikveh.” I even have an opening paragraph or two, as follows:
“What I left behind at the Mikveh
When my mother died on the table at the age of 52 and the medical practitioners used paddles to bring her back to life, it resulted in her making the following declaration, “In my last life I was a smoker. In this life, I am not.” When she returned home from the hospital, she took out her long, black, rhinestone-studded cigarette holder and began to add an extra rhinestone to it each year that she didn’t smoke.
My entrance into my new life may appear to have taken a more evolutionary route, but it was no less an awakening as if I had died on a table myself.”
For one who has never taken this journey, it is like the difference between those who have children and those who do not. While I’m sure each conversion story is different, for myself, I know that I wrestled with the process of conversion much like Jacob wrestled with Gd. The thing is, I am and have always been a Jew – it’s just that nobody ever told me. As I did some research, I learned that my father’s surname is one of the oldest Jewish surnames in Sicily and one letter off of one of the oldest Sephardic Jewish surnames in Spain. On my mom’s side, I learned we have a Mordechai…a few Abrahams… several Rachels and Sarahs… but genealogical research on her side presents a task that feels much like falling down a worm hole. So, regardless and as my favorite Chabad Rabbi Levin insisted, there was but one route for me. Still, I wrestled with the process, as it was really odd to think that I must convert to what I already am. At one point in my wrestling, I even once imagined that I would stubbornly sit before the rabbis and say nothing except perhaps ask them how they could possibly argue with what Gd had created in this very being that sat before them. But that is not what I did, when it came down to it. And, while I had hoped for that magic that many converts feel in the moments after their first mikveh, I had none. I had none because nothing in my soul had changed. Rather, my soul was revealed to me in a moment some time ago and I found only a sense of acceptance in that moment of mikveh.
As a side note that pops into my consciousness as I reflect on this last thought is what I have come to know is that truth manifests itself more through revelation than through investigation or discovery. Which reminds me – I recently shared with a dear friend and very wise soul that I believe acceptance is the most powerful element in the universe and cannot, for the life of me, understand why it’s not listed on the periodic table. His amazing response was that it is…it’s in the white space (it was at this point that I felt another lovely breath come sweeping through my garden gate – he is so right! )
In any event, this automatic writing has come a long way around to simply declare that Jewish pride is, to me, a very sacred and deeply personal value. It need not be yelled from rooftops. Rather, worn openly, nakedly, and joyfully each day.
© 2016 Aliza Wiseman, All Rights Reserved.