Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Becoming Jewish - Ari Linder

 See below a stirring conversion essay by TBE congregant Ari Linder.

I can’t remember if it was Friday or Saturday, but I remember that I cried. Newly dating instead of being friends, I decided to join Leo in attending weekly shul services via Zoom. Leo asked me to turn away at a certain part (the amidah) when they’d need to do “prayer choreography”. They didn’t want to feel self-conscious. I turned away, thinking I’d take a moment to talk with whatever higher powers exist, and started with, “Hey G-d, it’s me….”  And then I cried. I wasn’t expecting it. I’d prayed recently, sure, but only when following a specific prompt or attending a formal religious service. G-d and I hadn’t shared small talk or unstructured conversation in at least a decade. I felt like suddenly something bigger had turned its invisible body fully toward me, paused everything else it was working on, and given me its undivided attention. What do you say in that moment, early COVID-19 pandemic, when you suddenly feel like a kind energy entered your space? It felt both comforting and scary. I decided to keep carving out time for a personal spiritual connection and see where it went.

Pandemics are apparently great for learning about a new religion. Zoom services let Leo and I talk deeply about the content without bothering anyone. I could ask stupid questions. I could spend more time on a section without anyone knowing I didn’t turn the page. I could write down notes without learning that people don’t write at shul on shabbos. Zoom also made services into my own unique delight as Leo sang harmonies to Cantor Kaplan’s melodies. I had a private Jewish music concert twice weekly in our living room. Who could blame me for falling in love with both Leo and services?

It's perfect to remember now, one month before my wedding, the first dvar topic that hit me hard. Rabbi Hammerman asked us to examine if that day’s pandemic emergency “Break the Glass” feelings might actually have some positive “Breaking the Glass” components, like when we symbolically smash glass under the chuppah. I didn’t know what the wedding smash represented before then but the idea of reframing an emergency, seeing bittersweet instead of just bad, stuck with me. Relatable connections seemed more common in Jewish services than I remember experiencing when I explored other religions.

Childhood’s Catholicism taught me to strive to be like Jesus, a legendary, god-like human. “What would Jesus do?” But I feel the opposite of god-like most days. That perspective wasn’t relatable. What did it mean if I couldn’t be just like Jesus? My Jewish G-d feels more like a spouse or partner. We’ve dated. We decided where we both stand on different issues. I understand what G-d likes and G-d understands what I like, we compromise on many points, but we’re both happier together because we’re passionate about the same important things.

Judaism couldn’t ask me to be perfect because not even G-d is perfect. We can read about times when G-d got it wrong, or G-d overreacted, or G-d listened to a good human argument and changed Their mind. (And yes, that last reference to G-d used a gender neutral pronoun because being Jewish means my G-d isn’t exclusively male.) My Jewish G-d isn’t an angry grandfather in the sky monitoring my moves to see if I’m worthy. My G-d is someone who offered me a special relationship, negotiated what that will initially look like, and we’re both committed to growing this bond together.

Jewish leaders helped feed my growing spiritual bond. The Jewish rabbis and cantors I’ve met are so beautifully different from the other spiritual leaders I’ve known. Rabbis and cantorsaren’t kept separately from society. Our leaders are allowed to be spouses, parents, partners, and (typical shul politics aside) normal humans like the rest of us. Jewish rabbis are committed to being our teachers. The great ones can prompt us to think, engage in the texts and writings, and form our own relationship to the material and our world. The best ones are skilled teachers who also listen and care and occasionally learn from us, too. Rabbi Hammerman invites community members up to share their own dvars. He even complimented 13-year-old Ethan on his bar mitzvah dvar, saying Ethan’s perspective was impressively new and worth sharing. Religious leaders praising a newly-minted adult for religious perspective? Ordination clearly wasn’t something that separates the best idea-havers from the rest of us.

So many Jewish community customs make sense for us not-god-like humans. There are important Jewish laws, but almost every law can be broken if human life is at stake. There are traditions for grieving, for being recognized as someone in grief, for supporting that person through grief, and for making sure they’re with other people every year on that grief-filled anniversary. Compare that to Catholicism’s two day grief process, or the 0-2 workplace bereavement days you’re lucky to get, and Judaism feels so much kinder. 

Judaism doesn’t recruit (probably because others typically punish us for it) but I bet we’d be popular in a universe where we could. There can be something for everyone here. Our shul, and the one where Leo was raised, both allow children to play and be their spontaneous child-like selves during services. Kids don’t need to restrict themselves unnaturally into perfect mini adults. Jewish law entitled wives to certain respects and pleasures from their husbands. Ancient Jewish societies describeroles for every person – even atypically gendered folks like tumtum or androganos. Passover bravely embraces different people by highlighting 4 different “children” reacting to a story, and lovingly tells us how to adapt ourselves to their different needs. Even our heroes aren’t god-like. Sarah was considered too old to bear children, Issac became too blind to differentiate his sons, and short-tempered Moses had a speech impediment. But those respected leaders carried our people forward.

There was so much newness to learn but it was a perfect time for me to learn new things. I watched Miriam Anzovin’s daf yomi videos, asked Jewish friends about their observance, and soaked it all in. Leo’s family provided my first lesson that all Jews observe differently. Brother Ian’s temple is a little more reform, Leo’s is conservative, their parents’ shul is “conservadox”, and brother Austin’s community is orthodox. I listened to their family debate using the torah. Would this particular kind of sale hypothetically be allowed by halachic law? And if so, would Leo’s lawyer-in-Britain brother be able to argue that way in British law? Coworkers and friends told different stories at every holiday. I realized that there’d be a lot of flexibility in how I could define my Judaism. As long as you and G-d are on the same page about it, it counts.

I can’t tell you what day it happened. There was no lightning bolt or midnight dream, no neon sign, no wrestling match won against an angel. Little by little I felt like I belonged. I began to feel sad that I couldn’t count toward minyan on icy winter Fridays or summer Saturdays. I began to imagine how I’d still be Jewish if Leo ceased to exist, what it would be like to tell my parents I’m converting, and what in my life would change. By the time Leo and I started talking about getting married someday, I had decided to convert.

As someone who wasn’t born Jewish, I first tried to study enough so I wouldn’t look conspicuously clueless. One congregant asked Leo if their son (me) had his bar mitzvah yet. Then I tried learning enough to pass as someone born Jewish. That mostly worked. But by the time I decided to convert, I felt authentically included when Jewish people say “we”.  Tradition tells us that all Jewish people, even fresh new Jews-by-choice like me, were magically together at Mount Sinai. That was such a comfort to learn. I started sharing part of my conversion journey. I told my closest coworkers (nerdy Jewish guys), the Jewish friends in our nonbinary group, and my fellow congregants. Once people finished being surprised that I wasn’t born Jewish, they were warm and welcoming and sometimes confused. “Are you sure you want to be Jewish these days?”

Everyone’s conversion should be lucky enough to take a significant period of time. These past two years have let me create and recreate a family Passover recipe routine, decide new ways to mark Tu B’shvat, and experience Yom Kippur differently in a year so taxing that it felt hard to offer personal atonement. I had time to be not-yet Jewish when October 7th happened. Learning generally about Israel is very different from learning how to understand your specific Israel opinions when others are attacking them. I had time for my Catholic father’s initial supportive reaction about converting, “There are many different ways to get to New Jersey”, to fade into questions like, “If it’s a kosher-style menu at your wedding, will I recognize the food?” He’s got questions (how Jewish!) and is still learning what it means to be Jewish. I am still learning that, too.

Rabbi Hammerman eventually said I could visit the mikvah and complete my conversion whenever I was ready. Imagining a perfect scenario included this perfect essay, perfectly memorized Hebrew prayers, a perfectly-me tallis, the perfect Hebrew name, and so many other perfect ways I’d prove that I’m ready to be Jewish. I ready myself to send this essay after midnight, laughing with Leo about how it’s not perfect yet, and realize why everything is exactly as it should be. Choosing Judaism meant embracing the ways humans aren’t perfect but can still be valuable parts of our community. I’m ready for a continued commitment to living a good life by partnering with the same G-d who picked Moses. It’s exciting to see what G-d and I do next. Maybe we’ll help other nonbinary Jews find a Siblinghood amongst the Sisters and the Men. Maybe we’ll start a new chevra kedisha team for trans and nonbinary Jews to have dignity after death. Whatever G-d and I do together next, I’m sure it’ll be perfect.


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