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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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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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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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