Tag Archives: conversion

My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Judaism

The Making of a Viking Jewess

By Nina Lichtenstein (West Hartford, CT)

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman in Starbucks asks. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flushes through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of 23, I immersed in a mikvah to complete my Orthodox conversion a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend.

Before I respond to her, I breathe. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t get emotional I tell myself. “Sure I’ll stay Jewish,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage a smile. She smiles back at me. “He’s meshuge to have divorced you for her, and a shiksa to boot! I will tell him so if I run into him!” I cringe. You are so lacking boundaries I think, but I say, “Oh, please don’t. It’s OK, things happen for a reason. And besides, she is good to our kids and they like her.” The woman scoffs, and steps up to place her order.

My Jewish identity was not threatened by my recent divorce as much as was my emotional well-being. While falling asleep at night, I would entertain elaborate fantasies. I can have a partner who will sing “Eyshet Chayil” for me on Friday nights! I could move to Israel and finally become fluent in Hebrew! Or become the writer I had always wanted to be by moving to, say, Maine. I could move back to Norway….

My experience with my extended Jewish family had lasted for nearly 25 years before my marriage ended. My ex-in-law family was an unusual Jewish clan — a loud, fun-loving, tight-knit group of right-wing, N.R.A.-supporting, worried Jewish germaphobes. To them, family was everything, and they protected it —as well as their property — from intruders and strangers with love, dedication and overprotective fervor. My ex-mother-in-law was not your run-of-the-mill Yiddishe mame, because this matriarch carried a .38 in her handbag and could swear like a trooper. Nor was my father-in-law your every day zaydie; he did 100 push-ups and 100 pull-ups in his basement every morning before 5 am, and on his days off he’d be packing a Smith & Wesson in a leather holster, driving a tractor in his fields while smoking cigars. Their greatest enemy, after public schools and their “liberal brain-washing agendas,” was the ubiquitous germ in all its imaginable permutations. Despite their eccentricities, I grew to love them deeply.

It must have been a shock to them when, in the summer of 1985, I — the braless, Scandinavian, nationally programmed socialist that I was at 19 — introduced myself with a firm, confident handshake. I was 5’ 10” tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed, outspoken and independent, and I had decorated my handbag with peace signs, a pink women’s liberation fist, and reminders to “Party Naked!” My guess is they privately hyperventilated, and I don’t mean in the same way their son had when we first met.

I was just about to finish a year in the U.S. as an au pair when we met at the camp resort where my host family and I were spending Memorial Day weekend. He was super-tall, with a dark complexion and a gregarious personality; to me he was both exotic and intriguing. Not to mention fun. We were married three eventful years later.

It was clear early on in our courtship that the fact I was not Jewish posed a major problem for my boyfriend’s family. I remember tears and sobs over long distance phone calls once I returned to my native Norway at the end of the summer. “Religion doesn’t matter,” I would attempt. “It’s that we love each other that is important!” But listening to my boyfriend enumerate his parent’s arguments and concerns, I soon learned about the perpetual concept of ensuring Jewish continuity. I realized that the Jewish identity of a Jewish family could be shaken to the core by the prospect of a non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

Coming from a typical Norwegian Lutheran — but mostly agnostic — family whose main religion was carpe diem, enjoying life and long summer nights on our huge wooden boat on the northern fjords, I approached the matter pragmatically. I told him, “If it takes my becoming Jewish for us to be together, I will do it, rather than live my life without you.” And so what had begun for me as a gap-year experience between high school and university launched a trajectory that would lead me far from home into a life of diaspora, of living in between countries, cultures, families and languages.

My parents never once tried to dissuade me. In fact, they encouraged me to fly back to the States to explore the relationship, lest I live my life regretting what could have been. Yet when my dad walked me down the aisle to the huppah in the Orthodox synagogue where my wedding took place, wearing a kippah for the first time in his life, with a violinist in the background playing “Sunrise, Sunset,” he tightened his grip around my arm and whispered, “If you don’t like it, you can always convert back.” Little did he know. Once a Jew, always a Jew.

My early gifts from my mother in-law-to-be — Howard Fast’s The Jews: Story of a People and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen — were but the seeds of what became an interest in earnest. Although not practicing Orthodox Jews, my boyfriend’s family belonged to a small Orthodox shul where a large number of the members were Holocaust survivors and their families, many chicken and dairy farmers originally from Poland. After their rabbi turned me away from conversion the requisite three times, I was accepted as his student, with the caveat that I also enroll in Jewish Studies classes at the university. My readings had prepared me for this “dance of admittance.” Much harder was when, after studying with him for two years and finally presenting myself to the Vaad HaRabbonim (official Orthodox rabbinic committee) of Boston for conversion, they rejected my candidacy. Since I did not readily agree to go to Israel for a year to continue my studies in a yeshiva for women, as they demanded, they feared I was not truly committed to Judaism, but more to my boyfriend.

Thankfully, persistence paid off. After another year of regular classes, both in the rabbi’s study and at the university, I finally became a full-fledged member of the tribe. It must have helped that, while in Oslo for a semester as my grandmother lay dying, I was admitted to join the conversion group at the synagogue there, one known for its strict Orthodox guidelines. Finally, on an early fall day in 1988, dressed in a modest below-the-knee skirt and a white Laura Ashley blouse, I sat in front of three rabbis and answered their questions. What were my feelings about Christmas trees, and about henceforth calling Abraham and Sarah my real parents? Was I ready to observe Shabbat and kashrut even if it might complicate my relationship with my family? I remember feeling nervous but holding my own. This was just the beginning of my Jewish life, I told them. I intended to keep learning and developing as a Jew. They liked that. I dunked in the mikvah while the rabbis stood behind a screen, and as I said my blessings and noticed how surreal the moment felt, they pronounced their “amens” at the sound of the splashing water. With that, and my soon completed degree in Jewish Studies, I had evolved to become a Kosher Viking Jewess. I was adding some welcome material to the gene pool, eventually raising robust Jewish children with a proud Norwegian heritage, and observing Shabbat and holidays. I even used the mikveh for monthly immersions; it was a wholesome deal, and the continuity issue seemed resolved.

Our three sons attended an Orthodox Jewish day school from nursery through 8th grade, and learned to layn and daven and get by in Modern Hebrew. But they also appreciate their Norwegian heritage. They speak Norwegian, are citizens of Norway, will break out and rap in Norwegian as they tote Viking necklaces interlaced with their Stars of David and chais. My husband and I wanted them grounded in both traditions, giving them Thor, Balder and Odin for middle names, and they seem to appreciate the richness of belonging in more places than one. Hopefully, as adults, they will also want to pass their Norwegian heritage on to their children.

Although not observant by any Orthodox standards, my mother in-law taught me by meticulous example not only how to make the clearest chicken soup, the fluffiest matzo balls and the most tender brisket, but also how to prepare the Passover seder, and make the High Holidays meaningful. With me, she gained a third daughter, one who was eager to learn, asking many questions along the way. Soon they went from being kosher-style to kosher, and when I converted they offered me an inscribed siddur thanking me for having enriched their Jewish lives.

Whether it was unique to the in-laws’ brand of compulsions, or more about their discomfort when it came to anything to do with “strangers” — germs included — their fear of many lurking dangers meant that the in-law family lived in an environment defined by language and habits reflecting all the worst-case scenarios that might compromise the clan. I was part of this hyper-vigilant kinfolk for close to 30 years, and I had to work hard at times to not let osmosis influence my own attitude too much. After all, my birth-tribe was stoic, cool-headed northerners who found the expressiveness of more “exotic” tribes to be exaggerated drama, and at times plain overwhelming. Over time, I acquired certain mannerisms and ideas that were not high on my parents’ list of things they admired. I interrupted, complained more openly, obsessed about the minutiae of kashrut and Shabbat and argued adamantly for freedom of public religious expression. I would challenge my parents about their view of the world, and I introduced them to rabbinic thoughts and Jewish philosophy. To help cope with the occasional incongruities of opinions, I would make light of all the meshugas, the in-laws’ and mine, although I also realized my own sense of self was morphing as the years passed. For me, it was a package deal: in order to be a member of their tribe, I bought in lock, stock and barrel.

Twenty-five years went by while my husband and I lived a comfortable suburban life in a relatively diverse community teeming with Jewish life. Twenty-nine synagogues of all affiliations, a bustling JCC, a kosher market and Judaica store, and a public school system that never would question its Jewish students for taking off for any Jewish holidays, great or small. We agreed about making the investment and sacrifices that necessarily come along with the desire to instill a strong sense of Jewish identity in our offspring.

After all the observant practices I had taken on in my life as a Jew — including an Orthodox conversion and wedding, as well as the many daily, weekly, and life-cycle rituals which I loved and that were all very prescribed — I wanted a formal, Jewish termination to our marriage. My ex-husband had no objection. Deciding to divorce after much deliberation — and to divorce in this way — felt like the most independent decision I had ever made, and was critical to my self-definition.

Soon after we had performed the get divorce ceremony in our rabbi’s study, with the three bearded, ultra-Orthodox rabbis who had driven up from New York City to be witnesses, I was reminded of the increasingly narrow stance the rabbinate of Israel was taking on the kinds of U.S. conversions they accepted. Watching as the bent-over scribe fished out the tattered feathered quill and tiny plastic inkwell from the inside pocket of his black coat, his thin, pale and ink-stained fingers running across the smooth, lined parchment paper spelling out my Hebrew name — Naomi bat Avraham v’Sarah — I remembered my first conversion rejection in Boston. Everything that had happened in between seemed to flash before my eyes. My marriage and my carefully built Jewish family unit would no longer be what defined me. But I did still have my own Jewish self and my three Jewish sons to move forward with me into the world.

With my Jewish identity in the forefront of my consciousness, the next week I composed a letter to the Rabbinic Council of America, the arbiters of the strictest Orthodox Judaism. I wanted them to re-issue my conversion certificate, since I knew that the Beit Din (rabbinic court) of Hartford that originally converted me had been comprised of three aging rabbis from a generation of Modern Orthodox rabbis known for their (relative) leniency. Embarking on this new chapter in my life, post-divorce, I wanted to re-affirm my commitment to Judaism and at the same time minimize the chances that I or my sons might have our Jewish identities questioned should we chose to make aliyah or marry in Israel. Although it felt humiliating having to “prove” to someone, yet again, how Jewish I had become and how Jewishly I had thus far lived my life, I breathed through it. And I wrote my heart out. Hineini — here I am, I told them.

The new conversion certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

A native of Oslo, Norway, Nina Lichtenstein is a mother of three mostly grown sons and Jew-by-choice who writes and blogs at “The Viking Jewess” (http://vikingjewess.com/) where she muses about living life in-between cultures, languages and traditions. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, Literary Mama, and The Washington Post. You can also find more of her work at “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish” (https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/), a blog that shares stories with converts to Judaism.

This essay was first published in Lilith magazine–independent Jewish & frankly feminist-and is reprinted with permission of Lilith and the author. 

 

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An Unexpected Discovery

by Laurie Rappeport (Safed, Israel)

Several years ago I became involved in guiding a group of students who were studying the history of the American Jewish Experience through music. The kids were examining Jewish America of the 21st century.

Toward this end they explored the traditional liturgy and music of successive waves of immigrants who made their way to America’s shores over the past 400 years. It was probably one of the most interesting subjects that I’ve ever tackled with a group of students.

The project first brought me into contact with the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music, which provided the students with a significant percentage of our research material. Much of the Milken material relates to the first Jewish immigrants who arrived in South Carolina from Brazil in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and, after fleeing to South America, were forced to run again when the Inquisition reached South America.

The students had a wonderful time and I put the experience in the back of my mind until recently when I suddenly discovered that the history of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, was, in fact, my own history.

Until that time, as far as I knew, I was a bona fide gefilte fish and kreplach Jew with roots in Poland, Belerus and Lithuania. However, it turns out that one of my grandfathers, who hailed from England, was the descendent of Dutch Jews who were almost certainly of Spanish origin.

In 2008 I received an email from a man in New Zealand. Geoff had been born in Birmingham England and immigrated to New Zealand in the ’50s with his father and brother. However, recent documents had come to light that indicated that Geoff had, in fact, been adopted, and that his biological father had been Jewish.

In following through the family history that my family knew, as well as the history that Geoff had been able to determine, we were able to ascertain that Geoff and my mother were second cousins. A subsequent DNA test with my mother’s brother confirmed the relationship.

Throughout the following year Geoff showed great interest in his Jewish ancestry. Still living in New Zealand, he read voraciously about Judaism and Israel and contacted me on Skype several times a week to find out my take on the things that he was reading. In 2009 Geoff and his wife, Jenny, came to Israel to meet the family and attend my son’s wedding.

Geoff and Jenny continued to research our family’s history but they were also fascinated by Judaism. They returned to Israel the following year to celebrate Rosh Hashana with us and in February 2011, under Israel’s Law of Return, made aliyah. To say that no one was more surprised than I was is an understatement!

Geoff and Jenny joined an ulpan course to learn Hebrew and completed a formal conversion program in February 2012 with a giur and a Jewish wedding celebration as a new Jewish couple. The story of their return to Judaism was featured as a Friday spread in Israel’s largest newspaper. They bought a home and now live a 20-minute walk from my house in Safed in northern Israel.

Geoff has continued to explore our common genealogy and discovered a number of interesting details of our family’s life in England. The majority of England’s Jews are, like America’s Jews, descended from Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (One interesting note: many of these immigrants had intended to make their way to America but, when the ships docked on the eastern shore of Scotland or England, were tricked by the sea captains into thinking that they had arrived in America and never completed the train ride that would have taken them to the western shore and their second boat to America.)

What Geoff discovered was that, in at least two lines of our family, our lineage can be traced back to Dutch Jews who were welcomed to England by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1600s. (Jews were expelled from England in 1266 and were not allowed back into the country until Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, invited them to return.)  The majority of the Jews in Amsterdam during that period were descendants of Jews who had fled Spain in 1492.

Suddenly, my students’ project took on a whole new meaning as I realized that the art, music, traditions and customs of the Mediterranean and Sephardic world comprised my own heritage as well.

There’s still much left to determine about our family’s history, but access to the increasing availability of both English and Dutch records may open the door to new discoveries. One far-flung cousin was able to find her ancestor’s ketubah in Italy while another break-away branch of the family has been located in Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that one of their descendants lives up the road from me in the Golan Heights!

In the meantime, Geoff and Jenny have become core members of our local synagogue. (Geoff arrives every Shabbat morning at 8:00 am. I told him that, in my entire life, I’d never made it to shul before 10:00 am.) Their latest project is wine-making, which they undertook so that, when they spend time in Italy (which they do every summer), they’ll have plenty of kosher wine.

Laurie Rappeport is originally from Detroit. She is an online educator who works with Jewish day school and afternoon school students to teach them about Judaism and Israel. She frequently uses the Milken Archives as a resource for historical studies about Judaism. 

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