Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Truths of the Holocaust

By Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Novelist and editor William Dean Howells famously told Edith Wharton that the problem with American audiences was that they always wanted “a tragedy with a happy ending.”

That longing explains what led to the recent controversy over Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, now canceled by the publisher Berkley Books, though a film version may still be in the offing.

The story won hearts across America and its teller appeared twice on “Oprah.” As a young boy, Rosenblat wound up in the German concentration camp of Schlieben, 95 kilometers northeast of Leipzig in eastern Germany. This satellite camp of Buchenwald made munitions, and for six months (or seven according to some versions) he had wordless encounters across the barbed-wire fence with a Jewish girl hiding locally, pretending to be Christian. For that whole period, she threw him food. Fifteen years later, they met on a blind date in New York and discovered, to their mutual amazement, that he was the boy behind the barbed-wire fence and she was the girl who fed him. And so, they were married.

I missed this heartwarming tale in all its versions online and elsewhere, but as soon as I tuned in to it in December, when the New Republic reported that there were doubts about Rosenblat’s forthcoming book, I realized it didn’t add up, couldn’t add up. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I’ve read about and studied the Holocaust for over 30 years, publishing fiction and essays about the legacy of survivors’ children. Nobody was allowed to approach concentration camp fences on either side, prisoners or strangers. The fences were usually electrified and extremely well guarded. The notion that any kind of communication like the one Rosenblat describes could continue unobserved at a concentration camp for six months, let alone six days, is risible.

In one online version of the story, Rosenblat addresses the improbabilities at their first meeting, but in doing so, further undercuts his own veracity: “Of course, you couldn’t touch the fence, because it was electrified. And even if you got near the fence, the Nazis would shoot you. Yet something on the other side of the fence caught my eye: a young girl, 10 years old, hiding behind a tree … I asked this little girl, in German: ‘Do you have anything to eat?’ I saw that she didn’t understand me, so I repeated the question in Polish. Next thing I knew, she reached into her coat, took out an apple, and threw it toward me … it actually landed in between the two rows of barbed wire, so I took a big risk crawling in there to reach it. But it was worth it. How long since I’d seen an apple!”

Given the height of the fences and their solidity, how could a little girl have thrown food over the outermost one and how could he have crawled between them without anyone noticing?

A memoirist friend of mine opined that if Rosenblat had been a talented writer, he would have taken the fence “story” and turned it into a dream sequence; after all, camp inmates did dream about food, as Primo Levi and many others have reported. Rosenblat belatedly told the New York Times, “In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.” Of course, a dream in Rosenblat’s memoir wouldn’t have earned it the same kind of notoriety, despite the fact that the story of anyone surviving the camps is in itself astonishing enough without having to embellish the truth.

Still, it’s not surprising that Rosenblat’s ghost writer, his agent and his editor were taken in, and didn’t ask enough questions. Ditto Oprah, who seems to be making a habit of pushing faked memoirs. Rosenblat’s story satisfies our American need for romance; our desire to find a happy ending even in the most unspeakable tragedies; our desperate and perhaps juvenile need to feel that even in the Holocaust, love and kindness overshadowed evil.

The truth is far less romantic. Anna Pawelczynska, a Holocaust survivor who became a sociologist and wrote about Auschwitz years after her liberation, observed in her book, Values and Violence in Auschwitz, that the golden rule was not a good vade mecum in the camps, where Western norms had collapsed under the Nazi onslaught of brutality. But it did exist in an altered form: “Do your neighbor no harm, and if possible, help him.”

A late cousin of my mother’s once told me that my mother saved her life in their camp by getting her some cheese when she was sick. She didn’t know how my mother managed, but she was convinced that given the miserable rations, the meager amount of extra protein was enough to help her recover.

My mother never told me this story herself, and as a story, it’s not big enough to make it to Oprah or a film. It doesn’t satisfy our need for dramatic, splashy events that can somehow turn tragedy into triumph. But it’s far closer to the truths of the Holocaust — that in the face of this rampaging evil, acts of heroism and mere kindness were few and far between, and often only in a minor key — truths that decades of memoirs, films, histories and Holocaust education courses don’t seem to have brought home.

Lev Raphael, a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of nineteen books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities. A former public radio book show host, academic, and columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.com.

You can check out his latest book, the memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped, at http://www.levraphael.com/mygermany.html.

And you can view a YouTube excerpt from one of his talks at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFhrajH-6AE

This essay is reprinted with permission of Salon.com,where it originally appeared under the title “The Holocaust memoir so heartwarming it had to be fake.”

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From Ghetto Girl To Rabbi’s Wife

by Aliza Hausman (Riverdale, NY)

I have always been a stranger in a strange land.

My childhood years in Washington Heights, an inner-city New York offshoot of the Dominican Republic, were Rapunzelesque. I watched the goings-on in the ’hood from our sixth-floor apartment, which towered over the hilly area. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to play outside because of the drug dealers, the culture, and the language, all of which my mother was sure were veneno—poison. According to Mom, Spanish was okay, English even better, but “talking Ghetto,” the Spanglish slang of the streets, was no good.

I learned about religion watching The Ten Commandments over Easter. On Sundays I attended catechism classes at the local Catholic school. At home my mother practiced a blend of Catholicism and Santeria (Afro-Caribbean “voodoo”), taking me to brujas (witches) to cure my allergies. I had no idea that only blocks away, in the midst of my Dominican ghetto, there was a Jewish neighborhood.

So how in the world did I find my way to Judaism?

It started with a car ride. My best friend, Igor, a Russian Jew, had gone to Israel an atheist and come back Orthodox. Driving around the neighborhood with me and my sisters, he thrilled us with tales of going kosher, living life as an observant Jew, and scaring all his old friends. He wore a black kippah, soon to be coordinated with the white shirt and black pants that would become his signature wardrobe. I was wearing a halter top and short shorts. All I knew was that Judaism meant I wasn’t allowed to hug him anymore.

“Wow! That’s so interesting. Tell us more!” my sisters chorused from the backseat. And then to me: “You should be Jewish! You always wanted to be Jewish. Remember?”

When I was 13, a visit from a Holocaust survivor to my junior high school had piqued my interest in Judaism enough that I stole the Star of David my mother kept with her cross and wore it every day. I went to the library’s religion section, where I discovered that the Jewish notion of G-d matched the one I’d always had in my head and heart. G-d was always watching over me and always listening. There were no intermediaries standing between us.

“Mom, I want to be Jewish,” I declared one day, running to her in a frenzy of excitement, books in hand.

My mother’s lips curled in horror before she reeled her arm back like a baseball pitcher and cracked a slap across my face. Later, various family encounters would teach me that anti-Semitism was alive and well in the world. I put Judaism on the back burner.

At 25, I tried going back to the church. I hoped Protestant Christianity might be less fire-and-brimstone than Catholicism. But the calculation that no Jesus equals eternal damnation didn’t sit well with me. So when my best friend started talking, I was intrigued.

Two months later, I was knee-deep in Jewish books and had an appointment with an Orthodox rabbi. No Jesus. No Trinity. No more scary confessions to priests. No nuns looking perturbed when they asked all the students to draw G-d and I held up a drawing of a giant yellow squiggle and said,“G-d is light.” In my head, G-d was as bright and warm as a sunburst, always lighting the way ahead. Even at 8, I wasn’t drawing Jesus idols.

Over the year I became a constant presence in the synagogue office. I took weekly classes. I assaulted the rabbi daily with questions via e-mail. I read late into the night and listened to educational MP3s on the way to work. I was a human iPod, downloading a lifetime of Jewish learning into my brain.

I saw Judaism as an extension of the personal relationship with G-d I had already honed over years of angry rants and silent wishes aimed at the heavens. I got high on how Judaism could teach me to make every action in my life holy and how to focus on bettering myself for my time on Earth, not as a ticket to Heaven.

Judaism began to color all the areas of my life. I bought my last pair of pants from the Gap and a week later sold them to a fellow teacher at the high school where I worked. I charged knee-length H&M skirts by the dozen. I prayed all the time and for everything. And when I discovered Shabbat, I sighed with relief. Shabbat was the first vacation this workaholic had taken in a long time.

I finally confessed my decision to convert to my father in an international call to the Dominican Republic. “Dad, I’m going to be Jewish. You’re going to have Jewish grandchildren.”

After a long pause, I heard a faint chuckle escalate into booming sputters of laughter. “You’re crazy!” No, I assured him, I wasn’t.

But still I was a stranger. My olive skin was much darker than the Ashkenazi faces I saw at shul. People stared at my curly Afro. When I told my non-Jewish friends that people at shul complimented my “tan,” they reacted in disbelief: “But you’re so white!”

Six months into my conversion, I met my future husband, then a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at a housewarming party for some rabbinical students in Washington Heights. Here, at least, I felt like the consummate insider—Dominican and (almost) Jewish in a neighborhood that had long been home to both groups.

After nearly a year of studying, the rabbi thought I was ready to convert. But first I had to survive Israel.

My husband’s supportive mother sent me to a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school. Orthodox Jewish boys dated for marriage, and we couldn’t wed until I was “kosher.” In Israel I realized that I was becoming part of a family. Like any family, there is bickering and infighting. Sometimes we can be dysfunctional in the way we tear each other down. But we can also be amazing in the support systems we create: cooking meals for new mothers, sitting shiva with friends, and partying at glorious weddings not to be missed.

Two months later I returned to New York to dip in the mikvah. A beit din (rabbinical court) of three rabbis asked me questions before shepherding me into the little pool. Fresh from the mikvah and clasped in a bear hug by my friend Devora, I was sure that, though I had been born to a non-Jewish mother, I had always had a Jewish soul.

Am I still a stranger in a strange land? As I pack my husband’s lunch before he heads for rabbinical school, I wonder how many other Dominican Jewish rebbetzins are out there. But I’ve never felt less alone in my life. The story goes that converts, too, were present at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah, but we were lost along the way and have had to find our way home.

And where is home?

Ruth, the most famous convert of all, put it best: “Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.”

You said it, sister!

Aliza Hausman, a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator, blogs daily at Memoirs of a Jewminicana: http://www.alizahausman.net. She is currently working on a memoir.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

Shards of Faith, Reassembled

by Van “Zev” Wallach (Stamford, CT)

I wear a chai — the Jewish letter symbolizing life — around my neck. I’ve studied Hebrew and Yiddish, have visited Israel, subscribe to Jewish newspapers, and have been told I look rabbinical. In fact, my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas.

Hearing this religious background, you would never imagine my spiritual journey began as a New Testament-reading, hell-fearing member of the First Baptist Church of Mission, Texas. How the heck, so to speak, did that happen? And how did I return to Judaism?

The story began when my mother’s German ancestors moved to Texas in the 1870s, settling in small towns amidst Christians who enjoyed nothing as much as hectoring Jews until they saw the light. My mother married my St. Louis-born father, son of Russian immigrants, in Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas. They moved to France, where their union produced two sons.

As in other spheres, the Russians and the Germans couldn’t get along, so my parents divorced and my mother returned to her hometown of Mission, on the Mexican border. My father remarried and moved to New York, and I saw him one weekend in 10 years, a gap lasting from 1962 to 1972.

Shards of Jewishness lodge in my earliest memories. While my mother had no outward interest in any faith, she had bucked the family trend toward intermarriage and then provided, for reasons I cannot fathom, some aspects of a Jewish home. I like to think that a spark of the neshama, or soul, of Rabbi Schwarz remained in her and she unconsciously passed that along.

Once we went to Temple Emanuel, although my brother Cooper and I didn’t like it. Mom taught us the essential Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma. We had a menorah in the house, the Union Prayer Book, and The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud, printed in the 1920s. Mom kept a bottle of Manischewitz concord grape wine in the refrigerator, forever skewing my taste toward nauseatingly sweet kosher wines.

I remember Mom sobbing when she watched Judgment at Nuremberg on TV. She saved her ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract. But we never had a Shabbat dinner, nor a seder, nor Hanukkah celebrations. An unexplained rift with the Jewish community in nearby McAllen ended almost all contact with other Jews in the area.

Isolated and indifferent to Jewish practice, my mother left religious instruction to our Southern Baptist neighbor, Mrs. D. Her basalt-hard faith reflected the Baptists’ smothering love of and barely concealed disdain for “the Jewish people” to make our family a natural target for intense spiritual cultivation.

Every Sunday, Cooper and I got carted off to the First Baptist, and in the summer we attended Vacation Bible School. My search for identity in an overwhelming non-Jewish world flowed toward Christian belief. From a young age, the hellfire messages of Baptist preachers terrified me into unease, guilt, and finally acquiescence.

I accepted Jesus to relieve the gnawing fear of damnation and was duly baptized on Super Bowl Sunday 1972. That’s also the day the beloved Dallas Cowboys, coached by Mission’s own Christian gentleman, Tom Landry, beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3. Thank you, Lord!

And yet, we remained the town Jews. My mother’s family moved to Mission in 1925; everybody knew who and what we were. Mrs. D called Cooper and me her “Jew-els.” When golf-obsessed Cooper wanted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, the adult sponsor exclaimed, “Why, Cooper, you can’t join the FCA. You’re a Jew!”

Meanwhile, a kernel of curiosity about our heritage sprouted in me. I listened to a San Antonio radio show, The Christian-Jew Hour, and read literature from the so-called Messianic Jews to try to square the circle of irreconcilable belief systems.

The circle would be broken when Cooper and I finally visited our long-absent father in Manhattan for a week in 1972. A self-employed engineer with WASP pretensions, he attacked my religious beliefs and most aspects of our small-town Texas upbringing, which he loathed. In his ham-handed way, he showed me I didn’t have to be a Baptist. He pried a few fingers from my death grip on the King James Bible.

Doubts, like weeds, cracked the concrete of my faith. Bit by bit, I became disenchanted with Christianity. It felt less organic, more imposed on me. As a high school sophomore I was nervy enough to talk to the rabbi in McAllen, although I could not admit my Baptist background. I even attended Rosh Hashanah services in 1974, my great act of teenage rebellion.

When I told my mother what I was going, she started crying. “Van, I didn’t know you were interested,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think you would understand,” I said. I was 16 years old.

I stopped church but lacked the strength to start going to temple. By 1975 my identity and belief as a Southern Baptist had vanished. My Jewish self-education started as I read books like This is My God by Herman Wouk and Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg.

I liked what I read about Judaism, the faith’s simplicity and self-acceptance versus the devouring anxiety I felt as a Christian, where I always wondered if I measured up to perfection, whether I really believed. Trust me on this – Jewish guilt is nothing compared to the fears of a doubting evangelical. The last time I ever attended the First Baptist was to get a graduation Bible as a high school senior in 1976.

I first met Jews outside my family as a freshman at Princeton University. I checked out Hillel activities during Freshman Week and signed up for Hillel classes. But while I had left the Baptists, they hadn’t left me. My heritage dogged me, along with my utter lack of familiarity with Jewish practice and culture (getting the jokes in Annie Hall doesn’t count).

I had never attended Hebrew school, never lit Hanukkah candles, never had a Shabbat dinner, never attended a Passover seder. The Jews at Princeton seemed so East Coast smart and at ease, even jaded, in their faith. I felt shame at my ignorance. Book learning could not replace the experiential void. I yearned to know and be accepted, but I had no way to do that. Like the simple son at the seder, I did not know to ask.

I thought about unburdening myself to the Hillel rabbi, but he intimidated me. Indeed, I feared all Jewish authority figures as echoes of my father who would mock rather than understand me. Christianity remained my cross to bear. While my former beliefs held no appeal, I could not find a niche in Princeton’s Jewish life.

Jewish holidays passed in silence. Nobody invited me home for seders. Had I been more involved in Hillel, able to say those three hardest little words — “I need help” — then maybe I would have been welcome somewhere. I never asked, and nobody ever answered.

That changed in my senior year when classmates Marc and Steve invited me to join their families in Brooklyn and the Bronx for Passover. These friends helped me take my first steps in living a Jewish life. They both did great mitzvot — good deeds — and I will always be grateful to Marc and Steve and their parents for welcoming the stranger in their midst.

The pace of Jewish exploration quickened after I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton. Synagogue-hopping became my weekend obsession, as I sought to expand my Jewish experiences. I sampled everything from Reform to the Flatbush Minyan and for a while attended the beginners’ services at the orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue. But I could never talk about the past. I arrived at services eager and anxious, and seemingly from nowhere.

How deeply that past remained embedded in me soon became obvious. I had met a woman, Beth, who was Jewish, jolly, and from Long Island. She invited me to join carolers bringing holiday cheer to Brooklyn. I reluctantly agreed and we gathered one Saturday.

Was the first song “Jingle Bells”? I don’t remember. What I do recall is a sudden choking feeling. A wave of anxiety washed over me as I realized, I can’t do this. The songs all had meanings and childhood associations far beyond secular celebration.

“I’m sorry, I have to leave,” I told Beth as I hurried away.

I called her later to explain. While Beth saw the songs from a distance, to me they reflected a faith I had been raised in, an affirmation of the birth of the Savior. To this day I do not sing or listen to holiday music — whether the topic is Jesus, a white Christmas, or Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

I finally settled on the conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn as my shul. I still recall my first Saturday morning service. I knew so little about Jewish customs that I recoiled and shook my head when a man offered me the honor of an aliyah during the Torah reading.

During an aliyah, you read prayers in Hebrew before and after parts of the weekly recitation from the Jewish Bible. I had no idea what to do, and I declined. Who was I to deserve this? What if I screwed up?

I had reached an impasse. Spiritually, I was at ease in Jewish beliefs and had no desire to go backward, but I saw no way forward without ‘fessing up to my ignorance and what I viewed as my twisted background. I finally decided to speak with Kane Street’s rabbi, a man I immensely liked. In this Jewish version of a confessional, I came clean – about my parents, the Baptist beliefs, the unguided drift from Christianity to Judaism, my sense of shame at what I had been.

To my surprise and delight, the rabbi was not the least bit shocked. It turned out I wasn’t the first Jew to lack a bar mitzvah or an enriching Jewish upbringing. Imagine that. Our conversation marked my fresh start as a Jew. As the Baptists would say, I got right with God. I felt relief that I had faced the facts of the past and didn’t get laughed at.

Over the last 25 years, I have built my version of a Jewish life. I have studied Hebrew and feel, if not fluent, then more aware of what’s happening during services. I was married at the Kane Street Synagogue in 1989 by a new rabbi, a woman I like to call “Rebbe Debbie.”

Since my divorce in 2003, I have dated only Jewish women, who I find intelligent, passionate, and adorable. The rhythms of Judaism seeped into me, so that I transferred the emotional response I had to Christian prayers and music to Jewish liturgy that I have heard hundreds of times – Aleiynu, Adon Olam, Yedid Nefesh, Ain Keloheynu, Kaddish and Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.

My adult experiences are catching up to the intellectual leap I made as a teenager. I gave myself the Hebrew name “Zev” (wolf) to use when I have an aliyah, an act that rattles me only slightly now.

While I’ve made peace with my past and current beliefs, I am still aware of the split in my life. My Jewish friends remember childhood seders; I colored Easter eggs. They played with dreydls; I decorated Christmas trees. They hated Hebrew school; I liked Vacation Bible School. My childhood and adult sides are mostly separate.

The chasm yawned whenever I returned to Mission and visited with Mrs. D. My break with the past saddened her. “Could you ever believe the way you used to?” she once asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m happy with what I am now.”

But some shards of faith bridge the distance of decades. I have the family menorah and the Union Prayer Book from Mission, and books that mention that hardy Prussian on the prairie, Rabbi Schwarz.

The chai around my neck? Mom gave that treasure to me for Hanukkah 1979, four years before she died of cancer. While a Baptist preacher presided over my mother’s funeral in 1984 and she was cremated, her older sister Charlotte, a fervent Baptist, placed Mom’s tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Gonzales, Texas, next to their parents’ graves.

Whenever I’m in McAllen, I attend services at Temple Emanuel – where I feel most welcome. And I still say the Sh’ma every night, the way my mother taught me.

Van “Zev” Wallach is a writer based in Stamford, Connecticut. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. Van writes frequently on religion, politics and other matters. His interests include travel, digital photography, world music and blogging, which he does at Kesher Talk http://keshertalk.com/, where this piece originally appeared.

“Shards of Faith, Reassembled” is reprinted with permission of the author.

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A Ger in Gan Eden

by Pat Alder (New Paltz, NY)

What a long, strange trip this has been for me.

I suppose you don’t know many Jews born in a Catholic hospital, do you?  Allow me to explain. I converted to Judaism in 2003 at age 47, but I had been a “practicing” Jew for thirty-three years prior to that day.  Do the math.

I can trace the beginning–the first time that I felt the pintele Yid–to when I was a kid exploring my neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, on an old bicycle with hard rubber wheels. (At least I never worried about a flat tire.)

One Saturday morning I heard an intriguing sound coming from a small house with a kelly green fence surrounding the small parcel of land.

Transfixed, I stood alongside the fence, listening, delighted, and, like a tuning fork, my being resonated with the singing that floated out of the windows toward me.

After a while men in black hats and suits poured out of the little house talking and wishing each other something that sounded close to ” Goott Shabbis.”

When I told my parents, who were good Catholics, they thought it was time that I learned about my own religion and sent me to Catholic school where I proceeded to be the gadfly in Sister Mary Linus’ class.

“Okay, if Jesus could convert wine to water, why could He not have prevented His death? He didn’t know what was coming?”

I was six years old.

Once I was whacked with a ruler for forgetting some aspect of dogma, and I grabbed the ruler–my fiery Irish Latin temper ablaze–and smacked the sister back.

My parents were called in to speak to the Mother Superior, and, shortly afterward, my full-time religious school training was over, except for Wednesday afternoon classes for Catholics attending public school.

My friends in public school were few, but mainly Jewish. I asked questions, many questions, of them, and–wow!–they answered me.

The more I read, inquired and observed, the more I felt the pintele Yid inside me and saw myself as Jewish.

I’ve heard it said that people who feel Jewish–but who are not born Jewish–possess a Jewish soul.

I wasn’t Catholic. But was I Jewish?

All I knew then was that the most basic tenets of Judaism made more sense to me than the whole of Catholicism.

Fast forward twenty-three years to my first marriage to a Reform Jew.

I began the conversion process and took the classes. But the day we were married, we moved from New York to Vermont where my new husband had a new job at a radio station.

Although he was supportive of my goal, our marriage fell apart after four years. Despite this setback, I continued on my quest to become Jewish.

Twenty years later I found myself back in the Hudson Valley area of New York. I knew no one and was too busy at work to make friends. In desperation one night I prayed:  “If you know of one person…one good person here. . . let me know.”

Unbeknownst to me, a good person was nearby. His name was Chuck, and he was my managing supervisor at work. We were on chatting terms. He knew I was Jewish, but only I knew that I was Jewish in spirit. It was the High Holy Days. He told me of a temple he attended and invited me to come along to Yom Kippur services.

Yom Kippur morning. It had been sixteen years since I was last inside a synagogue, and I was nervous. Chuck spotted me and waved me over to join him. At first the prayers were unfamiliar, and Chuck was giving me a play by play of the service itself. I hummed where I needed to, bowed where I needed to, and generally followed my friend.

Soon after the holidays, I began to attend shul regularly. I got to know the rabbi and many of the families. After one service I went over to the rabbi and asked if there were conversion classes and  told him of the incomplete one I had started and now wanted to finish.

He was delighted to hear I wanted to do this and told me the classes were on Tuesday nights, which was fine at first, but then I began a new job and continued studying as a “distance learner,” calling, e-mailing, and meeting with the rabbi so he could monitor my progress and answer my many questions.

Some of my questions were answered, and some were “chok,” which means “There is no conclusive answer, but one accepts it on faith.”

Now that was an answer I could live with, even if it didn’t answer the question directly.

I studied for a year, observing all the holidays, learning Hebrew.

Hebrew. That was the most difficult part. But I had a very patient teacher in Naomi. Eventually, I could read the letters and slowly make out the words. My proudest moment was driving back from Monroe and being able to read a sign written in Hebrew. “Hey! I know those letters!!”

But what did it say? I didn’t know. I think that’s how Hebrew is taught.  Learn the words first, we’ll get to what they mean later on. G-d knows what you are saying. (This approach reminds me of the story about a man who prays by repeating all the letters again and again without forming any words: “I give G-d the letters,” he says, “and G-d will know what I am saying.”)

A year. The holidays flew by, month by month.  I said Kaddish for my father, lit the Shabbat candles, observed Havdalah, fasted and feasted. I loved every minute.

It was time. If I was going to complete the process, it was now. I asked the rabbi if it was really time. We talked in his office, and he thought I was ready to go in front of the Bet Din.  But was I truly ready?

Yes.

Nervous? I was panic stricken, despite all the ribbing I got from the rabbi and others.

On the scheduled day, I walked into the rabbi’s office at the stroke of noon and saw, in addition to the rabbi, the cantor and Howard, another person who I knew fairly well. I thought the Bet Din was made up of three rabbis. These were folks I knew!

“You mean…y’all are it?” was my first question.

“Yes.. we… all… are”  was Howard’s reply.

I answered many questions, primarily regarding my Shabbat observances and my belief in Jesus. (I didn’t really have a belief. I said that he was a nice person, but no son of G-d.) I left thinking: “I don’t know… I hope that was okay.” I felt drained, tired, although I had spent less than an hour answering their questions.

The Purim services later that night went well. Most of the congregation liked the Purimshpiel where I told jokes a la Bob Hope. After the service, the rabbi grabbed my arm, and, in my surprise, I shot him an annoyed look. He knew in that instant, I needed to know their decision.

“Did I make it?”  I asked.

“Yes, yes you did” the rabbi replied.

I’m Jewish!

Wellllll, not exactly…yet.

“We now need to schedule you for the mikvah,” the rabbi told me, smiling.

A week later, towel in hand, I went into the Orthodox shul where the mikvah was located. A lovely bubbeleh, Claire, took me in hand and showed me around.

My being sans attire in front of her? Well, that was a different story altogether. “Look, it’s not like she hasn’t seen other naked women before you,” I told myself in an effort to calm my jittery nerves.

The mikvah smelled of humidity and pine cleaner and was quite warm. Claire took my towel, and I gradually immersed myself into the warm, slightly fizzy water.

The three men who formed the Bet Din stood on the other side of the door, yelling. ” Okay! Now dip three times into the water.”

Claire was there to make sure I dipped myself completely and, indeed, performed the mitzvah.

But I’m a rather overweight woman, and, for those science buffs reading this, a quick fact: Fat floats. I couldn’t immerse under the water for the life of me. Like a champagne cork, I bobbed to the surface.

Finally, I felt my body go below the water’s surface. Then twice more…and, finally, the blessing, which the rabbi said in Hebrew and I repeated after him.

The words, when translated into English, mean, “Blessed are You, King of the world, Who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.”

Once the immersion was completed, I was asked to say the “Shema,” and I said the first line loudly, proudly, and with thirty-three years of suddenly freed passion. Then I repeated the rest of the prayer after the rabbi.

As soon as I finished saying the words, I heard the three witnesses singing “Mazel tov and siman tov” and clapping along with the melody. Claire was singing and clapping as well.

Then it was over, and I was official, even though the paperwork had to be filed, and I still needed to choose a name.

I was Jewish…really, really Jewish.

“Welcome to the tribe!” is the greeting I get once I tell other Jews of my conversion.

And I must say I don’t think I could have fallen–or should I say “dipped”–into a better tribe of people.

Pat Alder, a comedienne, writer, and occasional background actress, has appeared at Stand Up New York, the Improv in Los Angeles, the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, and at many other clubs and Jewish Community Centers nationwide.

The author/performer of the one woman show, Man! What a Life! and a contributor to the online comedy magazine Shtick!, she was the last person seen on NBC’s short lived comedy series Cold Feet  (1999) and refuses to accept blame for its cancellation.

Pat performs comedy in NYC when she can, continues to work as an actress, and writes every day, usually in her time sheet at her day job.

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