How Christmas Helped Me Discover—and Eventually Reclaim—My Jewish Roots
When I was a child, my family’s history was hidden from me. Now I’ve made sure that my own child will always know where she came from.
“Degan is … ” I pause. Didn’t I already say this? I repeat it, just in case. “Degan is incredibly supportive.”
“Is he interested in raising a Jewish family?” the rabbi asks.
I stare blankly, but she persists. “Is he interested in being Jewish?”
This is like asking if our postman is interested in becoming the Queen of England.
I continue to stare, but no help is forthcoming. And then it dawns on me. She makes me say it myself. “I can’t convert unless Degan does, too?”
“Right,” Rabbi Klein exhales, relieved I have finally figured it out. “We want to make sure you are on the same path. Together.”
I leave her office in a daze. Biking down Bathurst Street I almost get run over by a delivery truck; it whizzes past me, horn blaring. There has been a mistake. I didn’t make myself clear. My family died in Auschwitz. My father is Jewish. Who are they to tell me I’m not wanted?
Like a film on fast forward, the spring rushes by. I edit my novel and feel pleased with my progress. Despite the rabbi’s warning, Degan and I do end up enrolling in the JIC, and we enjoy it. We plan for our wedding and get married, and soon I am pregnant. I want, more than anything, for my daughter to be born a Jew. Then one day I get a phone call from Rabbi Klein. The board has reconvened and changed its decision; now, as long as a rabbi advocates on my behalf, I can convert. If I want to.
I go in front of the beit din, which is easier than I’d imagined. They ask four or five questions, and give me the stamp of approval. The only thing remaining is to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath where women’s life passages are marked. By now I am seven months pregnant. On the morning of the mikveh I wake early, edit a little, feel the baby moving around like a Mexican jumping bean. I review the blessings I will need to recite. I set to work taking off my toenail polish, which proves to be a big task as I lean over my even bigger belly. But the Torah is clear: The body must be completely unadorned.
When we arrive at the mikveh, Degan kisses me goodbye: He will be waiting in the small adjacent room. I take a slow breath and look at myself in the changing-room mirror, thinking of my great-grandmother Ruzenka, fasting quietly, secretly on Yom Kippur. I think of my grandparents and the weight they must have lived with. I think of the relatives before them, with names like Isaac and Israel.
I know I will miss certain things about Christianity. I wonder how the holidays will look, how I will balance Hanukkah with the Christmas festivities still important to my parents. I worry I’m making a decision that will set me apart from them. Today, though, I feel ready and excited. Conversion, I have come to feel, is what is required for me to step fully into the empty spaces where my father’s ancestors were erased. It would at one point have seemed excessive, but now it feels perfectly right. It isn’t just about God, it’s about history and family. Which, I’m starting to think, are all bound up in the same ball of string.
As a writer I believe in the power of words, but there are moments in life that words can’t do justice, and for me the mikveh is one of them. Rabbi Klein shows me into the pool. I’ve been picturing something exotic, made from shimmering green tiles, perhaps canopied by lush tangled vines, but this looks more like a large square whirlpool at a health club. Nevertheless. I take my first steps in; the water feels silky and warm. It rises up over me. Once I am standing up to my shoulders the rabbi begins to speak.
The water in the mikveh, she says, is fitting for this particular day. For me. The flow of a river, continuity, my father’s family far behind me, and the life growing within my belly, flowing forward to the future.
As though she, too, can hear the rabbi’s words, my daughter turns a somersault. From the outside I look still, but inside me everything is moving.
Rabbi Klein reads a beautiful passage from the Torah. Then it is time for the dunks. She tells me to spread my fingers and toes so the water will touch every part of me. I have heard so much about immersion having to be “kosher,” about not a strand of hair being allowed on the surface, about dunks being annulled because a big toe touched the bottom, but Rabbi Klein is very casual. “Make sure you are immersed,” she says, “but don’t stay under too long!”
But once I am under I want to remain there as long as I can, to make the moment count. I churn my arms. I picture the baby inside me, fully formed. The water holding me, my water holding her.
When I finally come up, the rabbi recites the blessing concerning immersion: I repeat it back. Then it is time for the third and final dunk. When I emerge from the bath I will be a Jew.
On Aug. 23, 2009, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She weighed 7 lbs., 2 oz., and was pink-cheeked, wide-eyed, and alert. In Jewish tradition, we gave her a middle name that honors her great-great grandmother Ruzenka, who, against all odds, practiced her Judaism all her life.
I haven’t yet told my daughter about the Holocaust; she doesn’t know the history she comes from. She knows only the joy of singing—loud and off-key, like my father—at the children’s service at synagogue. And when she covers her small eyes as we light the candles on Friday night, I think of Ruzenka, the secret lodged within her, and of the bridge we have slowly, painstakingly built from trauma and grief back to new life.
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I found a memento from my bar mitzvah in my parents’ house. Was it finally time to let go of the past, or was it worth keeping?