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Academic Transfer

In order to understand her identity, an Irish Catholic student at the University of Virginia had to follow her passion: a major in Jewish Studies

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“You’re running away from who you are,” a family member warned me before I left for a spring break trip with my university’s Hillel. I couldn’t blame him: I am a blue-eyed, baptized Catholic, the product of a lifelong religious education set in classrooms with crucifixes hanging on the walls and statues of the Virgin Mary standing in the doorways. Most of my childhood classmates came, as I did, from large Catholic families with conspicuously Irish and Italian surnames. Despite my total immersion in all things Catholic throughout my upbringing, however, I always felt acutely estranged from both the Church’s religious precepts and Catholic culture overall. But on the cusp of that trip, I felt for the first time that, rather than escaping from an identity, I was actually starting to figure mine out.

A few years before, a totally unexpected encounter with the Jewish Studies department at University of Virginia turned into a consuming intellectual passion. Now, three years and many experiences with Jewish life later, I have found that Jewish Studies has become much more than simply an academic pursuit for me. In the strange, twisted, but amazing trip that has been my college experience, Judaism has provided me with the friends, mentors, values, and spiritual community that I didn’t even know I had been seeking. What started as an avowedly intellectual interest has influenced the entirety of my life.

***

I grew up in a very loving, very religious Irish Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs—the kind that flies a surprisingly tasteful flag featuring the scene of Jesus’s birth, illuminated by a spotlight, outside our front door during the Christmas holidays. During my childhood, my parents brought my three siblings and me to Mass every Sunday, where we squirmed and giggled our way through the weekly sermons. Cultural Catholicism pervaded our lives, from the elaborate religious rituals that we regularly observed to the social conservatism of our parents.

In ninth grade, I was enrolled in a strict, all-girls’ Catholic high school—a world of assigned lunch table seats and abstinence-only sex education. Rather than bulldogs or wildcats, we were, unfortunately, the Marians. Marians were required to observe all sorts of rules, the most undeniably humiliating one being the requirement to introduce formal dates to a welcoming line of benign but intimidating nuns.

We still had fun, of course. My friends and I invented imaginative games in our Latin class and threw the occasional breakfast tailgate at my parking spot before homeroom. We joked incessantly about our mandatory yearly assemblies with a local pro-life, chastity-promoting Catholic organization, from which we always received bright red stickers that asserted, “I’m Worth Waiting For!” But, though frustrated with Catholicism, by a large majority we identified with the politically and socially conservative views of our parents. I discussed with pleasure “building a wall” for the “illegals” and withholding taxes for the wealthy, and my government class contained one endearing but lonely liberal—a spike-collar-wearing Hillary Clinton devotee with multiple piercings and a pink streak in her hair.

When I started my first year at the University of Virginia, I felt ecstatic to finally experience freedom. Like so many of my peers’ college choices, my own decision to attend U.Va had been uninformed; I had no idea what I wanted to study or who I even was. My chance introduction to Judaism occurred when one of the first students I met, on one of my very first days at school, invited me to attend a Shabbat dinner at U.Va’s Hillel. Being a spacey 18-year-old with virtually no social inhibitions, I agreed.

At that time—before the Hillel’s new multimillion-dollar addition was completed—Shabbat dinners took place on long, crowded tables on old hardwood floors in two rooms featuring posters about Israel and ceiling-high bookcases filled with texts about Judaism. The warm lighting, the books, and the other students who seemed suspended in that hazy, magic time between the end of the school day and the weekend ahead—it all seemed so homey. I was utterly, inexplicably besotted. Of course, I was also utterly, comprehensively Catholic.

But, as I now realize, this new exposure to Judaism coincided with the emergence of some festering issues with Catholicism’s theological precepts. That fall, I enrolled in a course about the Hebrew Bible—during which it dawned on me that no one, including me, had to read the Bible as God’s Word. Still, I wasn’t sure what this meant for observance. During my Bible professor’s office hours, I would interrogate the petite, bewildered woman about her belief in God and Christianity. Repeatedly, she replied that she couldn’t share with me her own personal views, only the academic discourse.

The following semester I enrolled in a Jewish history course. I was astounded by the Jewish historical narrative and Jews’ contributions to intellectual and cultural life despite one horrendous instance of persecution after another. The American Jewish immigrant experience seemed particularly fascinating: Yiddish theater, Tin Pan Alley, you name it—for whatever reason, I was into it.

With the help of my obliging Jewish history professor, who took the time to respond to my theological queries during office hours with even more thought-provoking responses, I began to make peace with the religious teachings of my upbringing and explore new religious philosophies. And then he made an unexpected suggestion: that I consider majoring in Jewish Studies. Having no better ideas at the time, I decided to pursue it.

The next year, I became even more involved in Jewish life. I started going to Shabbat dinners every Friday night with my growing network of Jewish friends, several of whom I met in my quirky, close-knit beginners’ Hebrew class. One weeknight at Hillel, I was startled to find myself teaching a recent convert how to braid challah. I also took an incredible class about Jewish philosophy with a soft-spoken professor who explained the development of Jewish thought from Spinoza through post-Holocaust thinkers. From him, I learned for the first time about the compatibility between atheism and Jewish religious observance. Now, here was a philosophy that I could get behind! As a lifelong skeptic, I loved Judaism’s encouragement of theological inquiry, of questioning rather than knowing the answers. In addition, as I read more about Jewish thinkers who had existed on social and religious margins because of their Jewishness, I felt an odd affinity with them. In my (somewhat dramatic) perception, I was the ultimate Jew: a non-Christian, non-Jewish insider-outsider who perilously straddled the lines of membership in both communities. I didn’t fit anywhere.

***

Through Hillel, I also formed close friendships with several older, intellectual Jewish students, who began to influence my increasingly left-leaning views with their advocacy of typically liberal political causes and interest in tikkun olam.

One spring, I accompanied them to Miami for one of Hillel’s weeklong service trips—the group’s only non-Jew. I didn’t really know why I wanted to go on a specifically Jewish trip, but I’m glad I did. While in Miami, we spent time at the Jewish Federation there. As we sat in the Federation’s conference room, festooned with blue-and-white crepe decorations, we listened to speeches about Israel advocacy, social justice, and the 4,000-year-old Jewish legacy. Surprised at the fervor of these talks by wealthy and influential Jewish leaders who were mostly middle-aged men, I looked around at my group quizzically, but no one else even batted an eye. Despite my friendships with everyone in the group, I was suddenly aware that I lacked the exposure to the kinds of people and conversation that my Jewish friends had. No matter how much I learned in school, I could not replicate the actual lived experience of American Jews without having grown up as one.

I began to hate explaining that yes, I am a Jewish Studies major but, no, I am not actually Jewish. When my parents’ friends brought it up at dinner parties or during holidays when I went home for break, I tried to change the subject immediately or talk about my siblings’ lives instead. I think that many of these people from home suspect that I am using my academic life as an act of rebellion, the intellectual’s equivalent to selling drugs or getting a navel ring. (I would argue, though, that selling drugs seems a lot more profitable to me than majoring in Jewish Studies.) And all along, I kept vehemently claiming that the religion itself did not interest me.

During my third year in college, I enrolled in a class about Jewish ritual. I had to: It was a required course. Sitting in the back row with one of my equally disinterested friends, I felt only annoyance. I would have rather taken a class about Israel or Zionism, and here I was wasting time learning about Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the like.

As the class progressed, however, I had to admit that I liked the way our professor elucidated the connection between important life events and their physical recognition with rituals. Once, this professor assigned us a short paper with which we were to record our observations of an on-campus Jewish religious event. I took the assignment in a different direction by composing an affectionate portrayal of Jewish life as I had come to know it with a description of Hillel’s Yom Kippur services. I talked about my Hillel crew—my friend whose parents begged her to show up on Friday evenings and High Holidays in the hopes that she would defy the crushingly majority-Christian demographics of U.Va and one day meet a nice Jewish boy. I also talked about my token “intellectual” Jewish friends, the “eat-and-run” crowd of scruffy, Doonesbury lookalikes who showed up for High Holiday dinners and left conveniently before services. I went on and on, comparing the march of students to services from Hillel to that of kids on the way to a much revered but dreaded summer camp tradition. Once again, as a student of Jewish history and culture, I observed these Yom Kippur services from within the community but ultimately outside it.

I expected a C or C-minus with instructions to follow directions next time, but instead I received an A+, with a request to attend my professor’s office hours sometime. I began visiting her often; we talked about religion and identity in depth, and I began to consider the obvious benefits of participation in a spiritual community.

***

I admit that my situation is an odd one. Having traveled to Israel and completed most of my Jewish Studies course requirements, I am embarking on my last semester at U.Va and feeling very much a part of the Jewish community. I’ll be finishing an undergraduate thesis about the U.Va Jewish community, and I plan to apply to graduate school for Jewish Studies in a year or two. When in conversation with someone about Jewish life or Jewish traditions, I often accidentally say the word “us” or “we” when referring to the Jewish community. If I find a guy at U.Va inexplicably unattractive, I sometimes find myself explaining to my friends that he is, regrettably, way too goyish-looking. When Friday afternoons roll around, my friends—Jewish and non-Jewish—know to expect a probably bossy-sounding mass text message from me inviting them to Hillel that evening. Unlike most of my Jewish friends, however, I don’t receive any pressure to go there, or to fast on Yom Kippur, or to meet a nice Jewish boy.

And I have come to increasingly dislike Christmas—the buildup, the hype, the packed malls, and the materialism. (As Jewish holidays literally celebrate suffering, I think they would be a welcome and interesting change for me!) And I have made the decision, however reluctantly, to formally convert in the future. But, while this certainly sits toward the top of my to-do list post-graduation, I am not looking forward to the process. Conversion seems like a formality, a “box-checking,” to publicly legitimize the group affiliation that I felt very strongly and naturally from the beginning of my relationship with the Jewish community.

I do sometimes worry that some karmic Christian retribution will one day bite me in the tuchus. What if one day I have children and end up producing little self-hating Jews who bury themselves in Philip Roth and major in Christian Studies in college? What if they only support Israel so that Jesus has a place to land during the apocalypse? For now, though, I have enough on my hands with my own identity.

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Really enjoyed this. Written with humor and thoughtfulness. Fascinating journey you’ve been on/are on.

Very interesting article. Funny how “outsiders” appreciate what we often take for granted or dismiss entirely

Harold says:

Wonderful article, Anne!

Some readers here might not like to hear this, Anne, but if you do decide to convert, be sure — for your own sake — to do an Orthodox conversion with an Orthodox rabbi.

Then you will be accepted by all, and your “outside” will be like your “inside”.

Gabriella says:

Well written article, great job Anne!

Marty Janner says:

Anne,

Your article was well written! Certainly of what we can learn from the other guys! Whatever direction you go in your future life, you will always remember with conviction that the religious path we pursue, may be somewhat different,there is a strong commonality!

Jessica says:

I loved the article and am glad that you have found so much support and feel so comfortable as you come to terms with a new identity.

I hope that others who enter the field of Jewish Studies will feel a part of the intellectual community whether or not they choose to become involved with the religious/cultural community. I think it is important that the academic field of Jewish Studies be open to as many voices and perspectives as any other academic field, separate from the personal identity of the academic.

I also hope that non-Jews who encounter and fall in love with Judaism will have the opportunities that you have had to feel that they are welcomed and have a space to explore who they are and their changing relationship to Judaism. I am so glad you have had such a positive experience.

As a UVA alum, I am also very proud that you found all this at UVA. Like you, my Jewish identity was deepened, strengthened, and in some ways completely changed through my experiences at UVA, in Jewish Studies and in Hillel and I am so grateful that I was encouraged, taken seriously, and treated with such kindness and respect. I’m glad, but not surprised, to hear that this level of professor engagement with students, and the warmth of the Jewish community, have not changed.

Engrossing story. Have you read the fine print about getting blamed for everything, up to and including natural disasters?

Barrie Rockman says:

Anne,
I loved it. You have a great future as a writer irrespective of your choice of formal belonging. I hope I shall live long enough to read your next instalment.
Of course religion is about belonging and membership.

Harold is right. The more you learn the more you will understand just how correct he is. Do your due diligence and be ruthless in your pursuit of the truth. You will find that Torah observance is the only proper (kosher) way to go given the magnitude of the changes you are making. I wish you best in your continuing spiritual journey! Chodesh Tov! :)

The UVA Jewish Studies program is apparently quite superficial and seems to fail to address Jewish involvement in kidnapping, white slavery, profiteering, financial crime, sabotage, terrorism, assassination, exploitation of the peasantry, revolutionary violence, mass murder, ethnic cleansing,and genocide since the Napoleonic period.

Anne Grant will broaden her understanding if she looks at modern Polish and Eastern European Jewish historical political economy.

At the very least she might realize that modern American Christmas observance is a creation of the marketing executives of the major Jewish-owned department stores and represents a major break from traditional American Christmas traditions and spirituality.

Nachum says:

I hate to be a party-pooper: Ms. Grant seems very sincere and a true lover of the Jewish people, for which we must be eternally grateful in these troubled times. But she seems not to realize that, at the end of the day, Judaism, in terms of what one converts to, is a religion, with all the duties and responsibilities (and benefits!) that entails.

I’d like to remind her that there’s always been a place in Jewish thought for righteous non-Jews, who we value and love. Conversion is a great thing which by all means she should undertake, but there are good reasons and, well, better reasons to do so.

Mary Boys says:

Anne:
Thanks for your well-written essay. As a non-Jew with immense respect for and love of Judaism, I understand your draw to this tradition, both intellectually and in terms of religious practice. If you believe you are “called” to convert, then do it with integrity and passion. But I hope you will move beyond equating Catholic Christianity with conservativism and obsession with sexual morality. There is a deep and wide intellectual tradition, diverse spiritual practices, and a lively community of progressives. Yes–there are many troubling aspects to Catholicism, but as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, when you stand in the tradition, you have right to protest! So I shall continue standing within it, while wishing you wisdom as you live into the question, as Rilke put it. mcb

pierre says:

On several levels, I find this familiar and sad, and in its enthusiasm very similar to many (ultimately), Charedi gerim I have known who came to Judaism by way of college. EVERY teenager, every frosh has wrestlings, especially if they come from a background with a strong worldview – what’s not “you” is new and novel and different, everything can pose a challenge (a guilty pleasure all it’s own) – and just as Judaism celebrates every goy who wonders in to a Hillel (now VERY much “open to everyone”), asking questions and doubting their identity – a million Jews leave judaism for the “East”, secularism, and identity-doubting. Along her educational path, I hope she’ll find out how much Judaism has formed it’s texts and identity around how non-Jews had formed theirs, she will (hopefully), learn HOW the Masoretic text came to be normative for Rabbinic Judaism, how so many views held by her conservative Catholic family – however loving they were – have been, to varying degrees, held systematically by classical Judaism to this day, and hopefully she’ll keep asking questions and NOT end up in a seminary where she’ll learn how relative the “free inquiry” sell often pitched in Judaism is. I lament the sad state of Catholic education, even/especially in Conservative catholic circles, that has produced so many disenfranchised youth, just as I lament the state of Jewish education and it’s increasingly-disenfranchised Jewish educated kids (even from yeshiva/seminary) who opt for Buddhism and mostly secularism. I’m sure her religious education was as free of classes including “religious encounters”, including Eugene Fisher or others, as hillel and friends is jam-packed with them. Perhaps if her education had been more mainstream, she’d have found her place.

Tim Sullivan says:

This piece reminds me of decisions regarding religion that I made at a similar stage in my own life, decisions made with a lot of personal hubris but little actual knowledge. I hope and pray that Anne will someday come to understand and appreciate the close connection between Judaism and Catholicism. My own return to the Catholic faith was greatly enriched by my study of Judaism. It’s obvious that Anne has only a minimal understanding of the Catholic faith. One doesn’t have to reject Christianity to have a rich appreciation for Judaism.

wow-thats what i call intellectual honesty and true self-searching.
girl-if u think that converting is still only a “formality” then it shows that u r approaching being a jew only from an intellectual point–once(if)u do it-u will see how different it actually makes u.
Like having a bf/ living with a bf/ getting married-and if person tells u that they didnt feel any different after marring the guy they lived with-then they truly still dont understand the meaning of marriage.
I wish u much luck and come back to isr for real Jew studies:)

Christopher Orev says:

The author writes:
“In my (somewhat dramatic) perception, I was the ultimate Jew: a non-Christian, non-Jewish insider-outsider who perilously straddled the lines of membership in both communities. I didn’t fit anywhere.”

Thanks for this essay. I chuckled as I read the above. A few years into my conversion study and preparation, I felt the same way. I made the same “us” and “we” slip-ups that inspired quizzical looks from Jewish and Gentile friends alike.

Curiously, even after my conversion, the “membership” questions linger. As a Conservative Jew, many MOT don’t regard me as Jewish (this despite years of study, adult circumcision, mikveh — in other words, the conversion was by the book, just with the “wrong” rabbi). Yet I appreciate this limbo for the same “insider-outsider” reason you mention. I’m secure in and proud of my Jewish identity and practice, but I’m also regularly reminded, slave-in-Egypt style, to empathize with all Jews, to prioritize klal Yisrael, even when it’s very tough.

Hmmm. I was raised Modern Orthodox in the South. I was taught not to question someone’s conversion or even bring it up; just none of your business.

Converted Jews (if you knew about the Conversion at all) were to be given the same respect as Born-into-Judaism Jews, regardless of whether it was an O,C or R conversion.

Therefore, anyone who gave someone else grief over their “not Kosher enough” conversion … was being exceptionally RUDE!

This is an incredible story and I wish you the best on your journey. Just one or two points I’d like to pull out.

Conversion is a major decision and you see everyone has their opinion about it. But really what you are doing now is selecting a product, a new identity. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism are substantively different and you should really become familiar with what each hold as their expressed beliefs and the trade-offs of deciding to be one or another. Don’t let someone else tell you which one is the right one for you without really exploring what each are about.

What other point that concerns me a bit was the line “Conversion seems like a formality, a “box-checking,” to publicly legitimize the group affiliation that I felt very strongly and naturally from the beginning of my relationship with the Jewish community.” I know of another case of a guy who expressed a similar opinion and is now in year three of conversion limbo, with a religious Jewish girlfriend who is there waiting with him. It’s sad. Please understand what you are getting into. It’s a fundamental change all of your relationships: community, friends, family, G-d…yourself!

I’m happy to talk with you about it, and while I don’t do conversions I can put you in touch with people who do if you would like.

I met Anne when she was an intern at The Philadelphia Jewish Voice. I am from Israel, the tenth generation of a family from Jerusalem. I now live in Philadelphia, where my two favorite women and role models are converts. Anne, if you choose to pursue this path, I know that you will be just like them!

Tom Moore says:

Thanks for sharing your journey toward Judaism. Don’t worry that conversion will be a formality – it’s more like being engaged to be married. You will be joining a family, and every part of the process will be meaningful. It’s important to have somebody that you have a good relationship with (a smart, funny rabbi) to guide you on the path, and a community you feel at home with to join.

Good luck! (from a Jew-by-choice).

Laurie Weinberg says:

Very interesting and moving – I understand Anne feeling like the formal conversion process would be a bit alien as she as morphed on her into a passionate Jew, part of our community already. I hope her family can come to share her joy in what she has found.

Caroline says:

As a prospective convert with a similar background — Catholic school, etc. — I loved this article. Mazel tov on finding a place where you belong.

“And I have made the decision, however reluctantly, to formally convert in the future. But, while this certainly sits toward the top of my to-do list post-graduation, I am not looking forward to the process. Conversion seems like a formality, a “box-checking,” to publicly legitimize the group affiliation that I felt very strongly and naturally from the beginning of my relationship with the Jewish community.”

This seems a little counterintuitive. If she feels the connection, why does she mind converting? If she doesn’t want to convert, how sincere is the connection? Can someone clarify?

I totally glossed over this part:

“(As Jewish holidays literally celebrate suffering, I think they would be a welcome and interesting change for me!)”

Weee! I just LOVE suffering!

lefty2g says:

I have a close friend who is a SHRINK. We have very interesting conversations that often segway into deep philosophical discussions. He is Jewish, as am I. Neither of us are from a religious family. He became a Psychiatrist because he was fascinated by the human mind and what it was capable of. The last time we met he told me he believed anti-semitism was a product of jealousy, and envy.

In Psychiatry, he was taught, feelings like anger, fury, or rage, turned inward (possibly due to the inability to EXPRESS IT OR RELEASE IT on your boss or wife/husband, an overbearing parent) becomes DEPRESSION). On the other hand, feelings of ENVY and/or JEALOUSY in non Jews, can easily be turned towards others and become ANTI-SEMITISM, hate and other negative feelings.

Jews have become pretty successful in every society where they lived for any length of time. They are recognized as being “children of the book”. Education is very important to all Jews as years of persecution left them with nothing in many countries. The children were taught, “they can’t take that from you”. In pre-war Germany, 98% of ALL DOCTORS IN BERLIN WERE JEWISH. Consequently, in all Jewish homes, education was stressed for years and years. To this day the percentage of Jewish doctors, lawyers, dentists, and CPAs percentagwise, exceeds the number of non-Jewish doctors, dentists, lawyers, and CPA professionals percentagewise when compared to the total population of each group. It is easy to see why those who pay little attention to education can come up with HATE as a driving force. Instead of doing something to elevate themselves, they blame others for keeping them down which is not true, however, it is easier to blame others than take responsubility for oneself.

Great piece of wonderfully personal writing. But I don’t think you need to worry about your future kids: people who enjoy Phillip Roth probably won’t be into Christian studies. Seriously, if you remain as open, curious and loving as you are now, your kids will be fine!

PS: Though I’ve never wanted to convert to Catholicism, I could see becoming Irish. I mean, James Joyce…Sam Beckett…the music….

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Academic Transfer

In order to understand her identity, an Irish Catholic student at the University of Virginia had to follow her passion: a major in Jewish Studies

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