Five years ago this month (as I wrote in Tablet at the time), I entered the mikvah and finalized my conversion to Judaism. About two months before, in response to my timid query, the rabbi I was studying with promised, “You will be a Jew by Rosh Hashanah.” And I was.
The High Holy Days have had an enhanced meaning for me ever since. As I have taken part in the communal observance each year since 2009, I also have silently evaluated how my sense of being Jewish has intensified or altered over the intervening months. Those personal assessments have focused on my learning, praxis, and integration into the Jewish community here in my hometown, as well as in Israel on visits there, and have been a private and fairly prosaic process.
But this has been a very different year, and these upcoming Days of Awe will have a very different tone resonating in my Jewish soul.
When I began my study for conversion, my rabbi showed me a passage from tractate Yevamot and invited me to discuss it with him: “If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that the people of Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?’ ”
I instantly responded to the over-arching message in the quote with great seriousness. I had been reading and studying Jewish history for years—since childhood, really. I knew about the despicable expulsions, the evil pogroms, the hideous concentration camps. I felt I was quite familiar with the various persecutions, oppressions, and afflictions of the Jews.
But what stopped me short was the verb tense, and the descriptor—“at the present time” rather than “in the past,” “are” instead of “were.” In the year 2009, I realized I was being asked to not only confront the established history of the Jews, but to insert myself into that reality in the present moment, and to imagine its manifestation in the future.
As I sat in front of the rabbi, staring at those words of … Instruction? Warning? Challenge? Resignation? Prophecy? … I was intensely aware that this was a knife’s edge moment, a critical demand for true commitment. More than when I was in the mikvah, more than when I was in front of the beit din, more than the many times my Jewish friends would ask jokingly “why-in-the-world” I wanted to convert, this was when I fully confronted the life-altering, irreversible choice I was making, and its gravest of consequences.
Those few seconds of internal examination felt eternal, looping forward to the end of my life and back to the present, backward to my birth and forward to this encounter in the rabbi’s office, over and over again. That history I had read about would be mine, if I said yes to it. And that future would be mine, if I said yes to it. I reread the passage and briefly moved to the next one. “If he replies, ‘I know and yet am unworthy,’” the tractate continued, “he is accepted at once, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments.”
After a few more breath-holding seconds, I heard my voice soberly and sincerely answer, “I know and yet am unworthy.” The rabbi and I sat silently for a few seconds. Then he began his instruction—about those commandments, the major and minor, the enjoyable and the difficult. For the next few months I spent most of my time worrying about learning the details of kashrut and the existence of unfamiliar fast days.
In the years since my conversion ceremony, I have observed Shabbat and holidays, gone on shiva calls and to funerals, attended many simchas, and—wonder of wonders!—was married to my beshert under the chuppah with family and friends and dancing and singing. I went to Israel a number of times, falling in love with it over and over again—the food, the music, the art, the gorgeous scenery—along with everything the land and its people had to teach me.
There was so much warmth and joy, it was easy to forget those chilling words “persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions”—until a couple of months ago. Now I am sensing, rather than reading, the phrase “at the present time.” Now the relevant verb tense is far too “present”—and looks to be “future” as well. Now I would rather go to Israel than on our anticipated “roots tour” to Sweden, my ancestral homeland, and Poland, my husband’s. Now I regret my trips to Paris, after seeing how its beautiful exterior covered so much ugliness.
I had been living a Jewish life and participating in Jewish observance, but these past few months have embodied what I was faced with during those eternal seconds of self-examination in the rabbi’s office years ago. The depressing, frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism and hatred, using the war in Gaza as a cover, is an expression of what was embedded in that passage my rabbi presented to me. Now I am worried, I am sick at heart.
But I am not afraid. And I am so very proud to be a Jew.
“Jews do not despair,” my rabbi told me during my studies. “Jews celebrate taking responsibility,” one of my dearest Jewish friends wrote to me right after my conversion ceremony. These truths are a part of what drew me to Judaism and the Jewish people in the first place. They hold me up and give me strength in the face of renewed intolerance, hostility, and danger.
They are the reason I still get tears in my eyes and a fullness in my heart when I revisit the well-known passage from the Book of Ruth:
“But Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d.’”