Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

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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Bible Stories for Atheist Babysitters

by Roz Warren (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

What the five-year-old who I baby-sit for wanted to do yesterday was torture his Barbies.  

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“Because we’re bad guys!” said Hanina. 

“Can’t we be good guys?”

“Not today. Today we’re bad guys.” 

You may wonder what a five-year old boy is doing with Barbies in the first place. They belonged to his mom. She’d hung onto them, no doubt hoping to pass them along to a daughter.  But Hanina is her third son and last child, so they ended up his.  

Hanina doesn’t dress them up and send them out on dates with Ken. Their fashionable outfits are long gone.  Hanina’s naked Barbies participate in the same activities as his other toys. They explore. They fight battles. They act out Torah stories. (Hanina is an Orthodox Jew.)  

We searched Hanina’s room but could only find one Barbie. We carried her to the kitchen table and Hanina got out the Play Doh. He popped off Barbie’s head, then stuck a glob of bright orange Play Doh where her head had been. 

He seemed pleased with the result.

“Can we be good guys now?” I asked.

“Not yet,“ he said, encasing Headless Barbie’s arms and legs in strips of green and blue Play Doh. 

As a feminist, I can’t say I was crazy about this game. But as a creative person, I could appreciate it as a form of self-expression. 

I’d seen works of art similar to “Headless Barbie Immobilized In Play Doh” at MOMA.

As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, I’m all in favor of working through a little boy’s perfectly normal sadistic impulses in a safe and harmless way.  Much better to pop the head off Mom’s hand-me-down Barbie than pop a real school mate in the nose.   

Once Headless Barbie was mummified in blue and green, Hanina lost interest. “Can we read “Bible Stories for Jewish Children?” he asked.  He snuggled up next to me on the living room sofa and I read to him.      

I was raised by secular atheist Jews. Caring for Hanina has meant, among other things, actually getting to know what’s in the Torah.  

We both got a kick out of the fact that when God commands Moses to confront Pharoah and demand that he free the Jewish People, Moses tries very hard to get out of the gig. Yet he rises to the occasion and ends up doing a pretty good job.  

Reading about Samson and Delilah, I learned something I hadn’t been aware of.  The book, calling Samson  “a champion of the Jewish People,” described several of the things he did, even as a youth, to torment the Philistines. One was setting fire to the tails of a thousand foxes, then turning them loose in the Philistine‘s fields, burning all their crops. 

“That’s not very nice,” I said. 

“The Philistines were the enemy of the Jewish People,” Hanina reminded me.   

“I get that,“ I said. “But what did those poor foxes ever do to the Jews?“ 

What I was thinking about  (although I didn’t share this with Hanina) was the so-called “triad of sociopathy,” three signs that a child might grow up to be a psychopath. These are: animal cruelty, fire setting, and persistent bedwetting. The young Samson seems to have killed two of these birds with one stone. (In fact, he’d killed way more than two birds. The kid had killed a thousand foxes!) 

This was a role model?

On the other hand, it put any qualms I might have had about Barbie abuse in perspective. 

“Can we just keep reading?” Hanina asked. 

We returned to the narrative. Samson grows up and falls for Delilah. She betrays him. He brings down the temple on his enemies, killing himself in the process. The full page illustration was of the bearded Samson lying with his head in Delilah’s lap as she signals to a soldier to sneak over and cut off his hair. 

At Hanina’s age, I was reading “The Cat In The Hat” and “Little House On The Prairie.”  Nobody ever sat down and read me Torah stories. This is what I’d missed.  Adult content! Seduction and betrayal! You don’t find a lot of  that in Dr. Seuss.

When we were done reading, we moved on to a game Hanina improvised in which we pretend to be mother and father birds caring for our babies. The living room sofa became a nest.   “We’ve brought you some yummy worms!” we announced to our young.  “Who’s hungry?”  

Being kind and nurturing is more in line with Hanina’s essential nature than being cruel and sadistic. I was happy that, at least for now, he’d gotten that out of his system. But I remained troubled by Samson’s treatment of those foxes. As I was leaving at afternoon’s end, I mentioned this to Hanina’s father, a Kabbalah scholar. 

“Samson was a thug,” he agreed cheerfully.

Not exactly the response I’d expected. 

“He could have used a good therapist,” I volunteered. 

Of course, if Samson had had a good therapist, he might have refrained from tormenting the Philistines. Or falling for Delilah, who, clearly, was a Very Bad Choice. 

And then where would the Jewish People be?

Hanina’s father told me that one eminent Jewish scholar had actually published an article concluding that Samson was a thug.

“A lot of people weren’t happy about that,” he said.  

Maybe not. But I am. And I’m even happier to know that my favorite five-year-old is being raised by an abba who is willing to call a thug a thug, even if he is a hero of the Jewish people. 

As for poor headless Barbie, knowing Hanina, when I turn up next it’s likely that she’ll have her head back and some clothes on, ready to perform the role of Moses‘s mom in our “story of Passover” play.  

But if she’s still encased in Play Doh, I’m sending her to MOMA.

Roz Warren (www.Rosalind warren.com) writes for The  New York Times and the Funny Times. Her work also appears in the Jewish Forward, Huffington Post and Christian Science Monitor, and she’s been featured on the Today Show. (Twice!)  Roz is the author of  Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor. http://ow.ly/LpFgE   You can connect with Roz on Facebook at www.facebook.com/writerrozwarren and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRozWarren. 

This essay first appeared on www.womensvoicesforchange.org and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

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