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Julie Gray

Julie Gray

Posted: June 30, 2010 01:18 PM

My Jewish Identity Crisis

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I converted to Judaism 25 years ago. Under a Sukkah, as I recall, because it was -- wait for it -- Sukkot. For you gentiles, that's a Jewish autumnal harvest celebration. It's kinda cool.

A day earlier I had been rolled around in the surf near Santa Barbara (where I then lived) and barely said my conversion prayers between waves. My temple didn't have a mikvah. Sucked for me but I have to give my rabbi kudos for not laughing as I was tossed in the waves. He let me emerge with my dignity and new Jewish identity intact.

The day following my conversion, I was married. Which is why I converted. Because my then fiancé was a (very) semi-observant Jew (you know the drill: Yom Kippur, Chanukah and the occasional bris) and he wanted to be married under a Chupah. The very first Jewish wedding I ever went to was my own. It was nothing like Fiddler on the Roof and I want to go on record with that complaint. Also, there were knishes served at the reception.

Twenty-five years, two kids and a divorce later, I'm still Jewish. Or am I? I no longer live in a Jewish household. Or do I?

Believe me, I was a typical zealous convert. My kids both went to Jewish preschool, sang to Hebrew tapes in the car, went to religious school and learned about their history and forefathers and culture. And my son had a bar mitzvah. My daughter, interestingly, declined.

I knew more about Judaism than most of my in-laws. I vociferously insisted on living a Jewish lifestyle to my very assimilated in-laws, who oddly cared VERY much that my then husband marry a Jew but didn't actually do much in the way of observance outside of a chaotic, sped up Seder every year. I insisted my parents not give my kids Christmas presents. I hectored my heretofore unaccepting Jewish in-laws about being more Jewish. I must have been intolerable.

Suffice to say that I did such a great job making my children Jewishly identified that each year when St. Patrick's day rolled around, my kids stared at me blankly when I reminded them that they were also Irish. They still do. Have you seen your mother? I tell them.

After the divorce, I was adrift. Guess I'm not Jewish anymore. And I'll be honest, that very first holiday season I bought a huge Christmas tree and decorated the hell out of it. I enjoyed the pine smell and the grandeur of its blinking lights. I enjoyed the freedom I suddenly felt to drink egg nog, hang candy canes and sing "The Little Drummer Boy" once more!

But it didn't take long for me to again feel adrift. Especially when my ex remarried a Jewish woman. A real Jewish woman. All of my insecurities came flooding back. I remembered all those times when I was so much younger and newly converted and I felt like an imposter at synagogue. I felt that all eyes on me because I don't look Jewish. And before anyone says oh come on, Jews come in all colors and stripes -- no, seriously, I don't look Jewish. I am Irish and Scottish and save for the brogue, that's the deal with me physically.

So what was I to do? Do I light a menorah? Put up a mezuzah? If I go to temple without my kids or Jewish husband, am I an imposter? Am I Jewish or did that get revoked?

A few months ago, a friend who was living and working in Jerusalem invited me to go visit. Israel, are you crazy?! It's dangerous! But when a friend died suddenly, I rethought it. Why the hell not live my life to the fullest! Plus, my friend added a side trip to Egypt. Egypt, baby, Egypt! The Middle East!

The minute I got off the plane at Ben Gurion, I felt at home. I cannot explain it. I love Israel. I love the irascible, difficult Israelis. I love the terrain -- all of it. The deserts, the golden, rock-strewn hills and the glittering Mediterranean. I love the Negev, The Red Sea and Haifa. I love Jaffa and the Dead Sea and Caesaria. I love the food, I love the little water heaters on every roof, I love the laundry lines and the market place. And I really love shakshuka.

I don't love the wall, the razor wire and the security. I don't love the way Israel has been condemned for the flotilla incident. I don't love that loving Israel somehow means you are a religious or political fanatic.

Some say that those who convert to Judaism were Jewish in another life. Maybe so. I'm not sure how else to explain the deep connection I feel to Israel and to Jews in general. I get it. I get them. I am one of them. Or am I?

When I was last in Jerusalem, I bought a beautiful hamsa. Do I get to wear one of those? Am I really part of the tribe even though I wasn't born into it? I decided to damn the torpedoes and wear it.

Recently someone, taking in the hamsa said to me, you're JEWISH? I would never have thought so. I know what that means. You don't look Jewish. There was a long pause, as I contemplated giving the usual explanation of how I converted, you see, and raised my children Jewish and and and ... but instead I only nodded 'yes.'

If being part of this tribe means that I love most everything about it -- the food, the language, the stories, the tradition, the hope, the journey, the values, the argumentativeness and the continuum -- I guess that makes me Jewish.

But it wouldn't be Jewish not to say that there are parts that I disagree with completely. The Judeo-Christian patriarchal construct, the politics in Israel, insularity and ultra-orthodoxy. And I'll be honest, knishes I am not fond of. You really can't change my mind about that. They say the Jews are a stiff-necked people. Damn straight we are.

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rhonacorinne   19 hours ago (8:52 PM)
this is adorable... this piece makes me smile ... i don't know what to say... it definitely sounds like a perfect fit...

i have had, over the years, the most wonderful experience having friends who either were in the process of converting to judaism, or already had. i was able to completely identify with them, as we went through most of our early 'orthodoxy' together .... them from a non-jewish background, me from a secular/humanist background (my parents dropped almost all observance practices before i was born) ... kashrus classes, classes on shabbos..parsha classes on shabbos and during the week.... yarmulkas on their boys .... upsherim (haircuts for boys at three)... these ladies were absolutely super jews ...and powerful examples for me...

... as we have almost grown up together in judaism and have seen our children become the next generation of Jews ... these remarkable Jewish women still encourage me to hang on... and appreciate this incredible religion that we both still have ...
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Tulka2   21 hours ago (6:17 PM)
When my son was eight, some kid on the school yard made some crack about Jews. The teacher overheard my son say, "Shut-up. I am a little bit Jewish too". He is, in biological fact, 100% Irish. It is my proudest mom moment because, you see, in a bright and human future, we shall all be a "little bit" Jewish and Catholic and Polish and Buddhist. ;)
monthofmay   5 hours ago (10:35 AM)
One of the funniest evenings of my life was waiting in an audience of local Jewish people for Elie Wiesel to show up for a talk. With my dark hair and eyes, they assumed I was Jewish...and the chatter got more and more delightfully Jewish as everybody got tired of sitting there. Being a fly on the wall with people completely comfortable with each other is pure delight.
momand2boys   11:30 PM on 7/03/2010
I converted after our 1st son was born (he did too - mikvah at 4 months!) Although I'm still married to my Jewish husband I've struggled with many feelings of identity usually inadvertently caused by another Jew. I grew up in a place where there were few Jews so when asked where I'm from the questions can feel intrusive. I've learned, like you, to just say "Yes" when asked if I'm a Jew. I am certainly the most committed adult Jew in my husband's family - our son's bris was the first either his parents or grandparents had ever been to! For me it is all about commitment and like another poster said about actions.
amymari   05:36 PM on 7/02/2010
"The day following my conversion, I was married. Which is why I converted. Because my then fiancé was a (very) semi-observant Jew (you know the drill: Yom Kippur, Chanukah and the occasional bris) and he wanted to be married under a Chupah."

You know, I just cannot imagine doing this - converting to a different religion or taking on new religion just for marriage. I only know one person who has ever done so, and she converted to Judaism. It would be the end of the relationship for me.

Religion is personal and private, spiritual journeys are complex. It seems to me to be disrespectful of that individuality and privacy to insist that the bride or groom to be convert to your religion. Ms. Gray, it seems like you wanted to without much pressure to but there may be situations where no conversion, no wedding exists.

Why is YOUR religion so much better that I must subjugate my own personality and beliefs, change who I am even more? Who are YOU to tell me how to think and act and keep my house?? It's something I would never, ever ask of someone, and would never want asked of me - to convert only to be married.

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quivira   12 minutes ago (3:23 PM)
Yes, religion is personal and private. And this posting seems to be a bit disrespectful to those who choose to convert. And where does she say her religion is so much better than others? This is her personal story--not her telling others how to live their lives. You have the option not to convert--that should be respected. But so should the author's (and everyone else's, for that matter) decision she made.
amymari   05:26 PM on 7/02/2010
You sound like my significant other's sister. She was raised Catholic, and fell away from it. When she was around 40 she met and married a man who was Jewish. She converted for that reason, although I don't think she was pressured to. I think she just wanted to. Now she is much more into the traditions and holidays than the family is. She even said she has some kind of laminated card in her billfold stating she is Jewish or something, like an ID card? Never seen it but she's mentioned it. Does anyone know what I am talking about?
kodimirpal   12:59 PM on 7/02/2010
In the Bible itself, the Jews are called the faithless people, who had broken their covenant with God when they had relapsed into idolatry and worshipped the Golden calf. They had made an unwarranted innovation when they had introduced the oral law. Time and again they had failed to listen to the warnings of their prophets.

Jews claim that they had crucified Jesus though Muslims believe that Jesus had not really died at all on the Cross. What had seemed to die was only a simulacrum. Can a knowledgeable Jew tell me whether, officially Judaism recognises the fact that Jesus Christ was the messiah that Moses informed about in the Bible, coming after him? Do the modern day Jews feel sorry for their cruel and unfair treatment of Jesus Christ?

Is conversion possible in Judaism?

In Hinduism, there are people known as Dalits( or Harijans, the outcastes), many of them were converted to Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in order to enhance their social status. I want a Jewish brother to tell me, if say the 150 million dalits( the outcastes of India) want to convert to Judaism, what should they do? After conversion will Judaism give them equal treatment?

Is there any truth in the statement a Jew is a Jew only if his mother is a Jew. In no other way. There is purity of Jewish race. Should a Jewsih man marry a non-Jew, his children are not 100% Jewish. Is it true?
courtb   02:17 AM on 7/02/2010
It's amazing how much I can relate to this piece - and I was born Jewish! It didn't bother my growing up, that I don't look Jewish and don't have a Jewish last name (formerly Catholic, agnostic New York Italian father). My synagogue at home was mostly interfaith marriages. I had Jewish friends in school but most of my friends were not Jewish. I was active in youth group and attended Hillel in college. That's when I first learned about the whole "reform isn't really Judaism" thing. My Hillel was a mostly successful pluralistic society, but there were certainly those orthodox students who passed judgment. But I didn't feel the true divide until I worked for a Jewish student organization in the UK following graduation. The orthodox synagogue waxed poetic about all their interfaith work but made it clear they wanted nothing to do with the non-orthodox branches of Judaism. A co-worker was discriminated against for having a non-Jewish fiance. I constantly faced prejudices as to how Jewish I really was because of my background.

It took me a long time to be proud in my faith and what I had to offer both Judaism and the world. Stand tall and take it from one Irish Jew to another - we are proud to have you!
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Enock Zamora   06:04 PM on 7/01/2010
Julie, Julie, Julie: A Hebrew makes another Hebrew, and such a person is called "Proselyte". But a proselyte does not make another proselyte, [Gospel of Phillip]. The story of the olive tree, and of "Grafting" also explains your "Crisis". To put it another way, when one except's Christ, they become a [Jew], one is not born one. :)
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WolfmanZ   05:57 PM on 7/01/2010
Btw, beautiful hamsa!
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WolfmanZ   05:55 PM on 7/01/2010
>> I am one of them. Or am I?

You most certainly are what you feel in your heart. Anyone who say otherwise or makes you feel bad - they're small minded. What you did took courage and conviction. Yes, I know that it was originally a convenience (!?!) for your marriage, but you sound like it really transformed your life and infused your soul. Don't feel bad, feel great about yourself and shout out loud that "this is who I am, and if you don't like it, go suck an on a sabra fruit!"

I have close friends, the mother, also a convert, from Scandinavian stock. Mother and two daughters are blond beauties who really don't look Jewish, but they are more committed than most that I know who were born into it.

I have another friend, born Cuban Catholic, converted, married a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx. She drags him to synagogue.
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The Q   02:36 PM on 7/01/2010
I'm a convert to Islam and your story really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing.
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WolfmanZ   06:05 PM on 7/01/2010
Thank you, too. Good, well meaning people should band together.
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Elizabeth Schwartz   01:59 PM on 7/01/2010
Sometimes being Jewish is important to non-religious Jews because of our history and (shudder) our future: We're less than 1/10th of one percent of the world's population - so it's almost painful when a Jew converts away from the faith (do NOT rest in peace, Robert Novack - for mostly other reasons but that, too). Welcome to the tribe, shvester.
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Halsey   01:51 PM on 7/01/2010
I love almost everything about Latin America. The smiling faces (in spite of economic difficulties many face), the procession of Our Lady of Guadalope, the food, did I mention the smiles, poor children kicking an old soccer ball down a dusty street. I love the PEOPLE (and the drug trafficking breaks my heart). That does not make this Slavic woman a say Mexican, even though I can pass as Andalusian (blonde Spaniard) with my accent and use of Castillian Spanish.

I would think it has to come from your heart. When I've gotten off an airplane, whether in D.F or Guanjuato or Taxco or Cuernavaca, I get that feeling of coming "home". Hard to explain.

I guess I'm only saying that if you feel in your heart you are Jewish, you are (I'd say even ceremonies aside, they are after all only ceremonies, not the soul). If I had the means, I'd probably move to a nice quiet (not touristy!) Mexican pueblo. Ironic, money makes many illegal immigrants wanting to enter the US at risk of life, and money, keeps me from moving to their country. If there's a heaven, it includes the winding roads of Guanajuato for this huerra!
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happycat   01:37 PM on 7/01/2010
To me, Judaism is how I identify myself culturally. I don't practice the religion anymore, but I feel it inside.
TheFriendlyAtheist   01:33 PM on 7/01/2010
I guess if you really must have a religion Judaism is as good as any, and better than many.

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