by Rachel Reeves (Brighton, UK)
I feel frustrated at the moment. I’m sitting here on the train, wishing I had my laptop instead of having to resort to my illegible scrawl. This will be my ‘nth’ iteration of my innermost thoughts about my journey to becoming Jewish. My initial version was written in the time running up to– which has now long since passed. Reading it back to myself now, it comes across as rather thin and superficial – not because that’s how I feel about my Jewish journey, but because I’m afraid to let too much out. It’s an intensely personal thing and I’m afraid of baring my soul to readers who know nothing about me. But, if I don’t tell the truth, then what’s the point of writing it down in the first place?
This redrafting has partly been inspired by a few in-depth conversations I’ve had with a new (Jewish) friend of mine. He was born Jewish, lived very un-Jewishly for many years and has only recently started to bring his Jewishness back into his life. He wants to be productive, contributory, a good Jewish person. From what he tells me, he carries a lot of guilt around for basically ‘checking out’ for a large part of his life. This really made me think hard. I had made the assumption that all born-Jews I had met had lived intensely rich, fulfilled Jewish lives. All the things that I, as an in-transit convert, had not. To be honest, it has not been unusual for me to feel terribly jealous of these seemingly settled, comfortable, confident people that I have met over the past few months! But this insight has been a bit of a revelation for me, at once helping me to feel a little less different (we are all, it seems, dissatisfied with our situation on some level!) and also a little more unsettled. If all I can look forward to is more self-doubt, more internal pressure to do better, then why am I doing this?
And I suppose that this is the six million dollar question. The easy answer that I have at the ready (for a short-hand ‘in’ to anyone at the synagogue that asks) is that somewhere in my family’s past there are Jewish roots. True, but I don’t think that it totally answers the question. That answer does nothing to reveal the deep-seated urge within me to be Jewish. At the first Shabbat service that I attended, the rabbi (who has a beautiful voice) led the singing from start to finish. The passion and haunting melodies pulled at something in my soul to such an extent that I knew there was no way that I could just be an observer. I wanted all of ‘that’ to mean something to me, to form part of my way of living, breathing and being.
It’s not easy, but then nobody ever told me it would be. Much of the time, I have felt only Jew-ish. As if I am not putting enough effort into this journey of mine. There is always something else demanding my attention, my time, my energy. I see other people who have embarked on their conversion path at the same time as me and they seem so much more prepared, practised, consistent, organised. I just see them as being in a better place than me. I know that being Jewish requires a practical commitment. It is far more about ‘doing’ Jewish than just considering yourself Jewish and having the piece of paper to prove it. I expect that’s where my friend’s guilt is coming from. All those years of not ‘doing’ are clearly an important and serious issue for him. And in a small way, I can appreciate this. After all, my concerns all arise from the fact that I think I’m not ‘doing’ enough.
Judaism has had to adapt to the times over and over again. I have joined a progressive form of Judaism – a truly modern iteration that still attaches great importance to traditional ceremonies, the Hebrew liturgy and inclusivity. It may not suit some, but it certainly speaks to me. The ethical and social approach fits broadly with the morals and guidelines that I tried to live by ‘before’ and those which I was brought up to value in an atheist household. I wrote in my first attempt that I was concerned by the fact that this chosen religion of mine was centred around the family, and children in particular, and that I don’t have children to whom I can pass on my traditions. To some extent, this concern has waxed and waned depending on how comfortable I feel with how much I am contributing to the community that I have joined. I don’t want to be what a former colleague of mine referred to as a ‘net contributor’ – someone who takes more than they give, or who doesn’t give at all. I would like to think that this ability to contribute is only limited by my current status (the one I refer to as Jew-ish) rather than by any natural disinclination to become a fully-functioning member of the community. This ‘Jew-ish’ status also has more practical implications since I don’t really have any right to influence what happens in the community as yet – not until I become a fully-fledged member, which in turn can only happen when I become a fully-fledged Jew.
So, how do I feel with regards to my conversion? Do I feel anywhere even close to being Jewish yet? Well, I was immensely flattered and pleased to hear from someone just starting out on their conversion journey that they thought I was born-Jewish and had no idea that I was only a bit further along the winding path than they were. Of course, this was all about outward appearances – the fact that I could follow the service, point them in the right direction in thewhen they lost their place, could sing or speak most of the Hebrew and knew other members of the community. Yes, this is all part of ‘it,’ this progression towards becoming a Jew, but what about what is happening inside? How do I really, really feel? To be honest, I’m not sure that I know. This doesn’t mean that I don’t know if I am doing the right thing, which is certainly beyond doubt and something I don’t ever remember questioning. What I’m trying to say is that from day to day, my feelings change. On one day, when I’ve made sufficient time to study Hebrew a bit more, when I’ve read a bit more of one of my many books on Judaism, when I ‘get’ a reference to some inside joke, then I feel that I am making good progress. The very next day, when none of these things have happened, when for some reason I can’t attend a service, or when I’ve forgotten the Hebrew I learned the day before, I feel as if I am getting nowhere and have perhaps even gone backwards. There have been days when my heart hasn’t been in the study, there have been Shabbat services when I have felt as if I am going through the motions and classes when I haven’t applied myself wholeheartedly to the work in hand. This all makes me sound like a terrible student and perhaps not someone that should be welcomed with open arms into the Jewish community, which needs strong, disciplined, committed members for its future growth and benefit. But I am trying my best. When I feel that I have slipped, I work harder the next time. I try to approach the next study time with a different viewpoint and clear my mind of all the other day-to-day concerns that do their best to interrupt my train of thought.
But ‘this’ isn’t all about study, commitment and discipline. It’s about spirituality, becoming a part of a people, history and life. For some inexplicable reason (and believe me, I have tried to work out the ‘why’) I have always felt an affinity with the Jewish people, even when I was very young and before I knew about my own hard-to-pin-down family history. I have always felt a little bit different, part of an indefinable ‘other.’ I couldn’t work out what this was until I first entered the synagogue for my first Shabbat service. Never mind that a great portion of it was in a language I knew almost nothing about, that the constant flipping backwards and forwards through the Siddur confused me beyond belief. I felt as if I had found my home and would do whatever I could to make sure that it became that place of refuge, a true sanctuary, for me in the future.
Much of this gives the impression that I am trying to run before I can walk – which of course is perfectly true (and it won’t be the last time it happens, either!). I want to know Hebrew inside out, understand all the rituals and the history behind them, help influence the running of the synagogue – all of it now (or even better, yesterday). At least it shows that the commitment is there! But even if all that were true at this very moment, that I had ‘passed the test’ and was now a fully paid up member of the Jewish people, would that mean I could rest on my laurels and stop learning? Actually, no it wouldn’t. Of course. It would just mean that one part of my spiritual, practical life had ended and I would now be embarking on a new stage in my Jewish journey. And I can’t wait to set off on that future path, wherever it might take me.
Rachel was born in Birmingham, England and has gradually moved south over the years until finding her true home in Brighton, on the south coast. Any further moves south will involve moving to another country! She tries to work, rest and play to the best of her ability and believes that she has always been Jewish in her soul, but only found herself in the right place spiritually and mentally to actively ‘scratch the itch’ last year. Starting her conversion journey has become more enriching than she ever anticipated. You can read more about her journey at her blog: http://shavuatov.wordpress.com.