Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m an engineering student, raised Catholic, but would call myself atheist. Not even spiritual. Despite all of these things, I have felt a pull towards Judaism. It feels crazy to me, but here we are. My Catholic grade school held seder meals which I remember loving. My Catholic high school sent us to retreats at the obviously Jewish Camp Solomon Schechter, and I felt so jealous looking at the history of the Jewish people painted on the walls around the camp. I remember in high school when I told my friends I was converting to Judaism and even started bringing latkes to lunch. Throughout college I’d dabble in Hebrew and scour the “about us” pages of my city’s synagogues. I coached soccer at the JCC down the street and felt so strangely at home with all of my Hebrew speaking kids.
I don’t know how to explain this weird tie I have with Judaism. I know there are some ideas in Judaism about souls returning to the faith (or something along those lines), but that sounds a little too woo-woo for me to identify with. I can’t rationalize it, but I’ve had at least a decade now of sadness that I’m not Jewish.
After all this time, I’m more seriously considering conversion. Does all of this sound utterly nuts, like I’m a weird Jewish groupie? An atheist Jewish convert sounds like I’m just doing it for the latkes. Would I honestly be accepted? Would I go my whole life hoping nobody is going to ask about my nonexistent Jewish upbringing? Would people secretly judge me for using Jewish slang and having a terrible Hebrew accent? Would anyone want to marry me? I’m also a lesbian, and feel like I’m restricting my dating pool down to nothing. There’s also the fact that I don’t believe in God so I feel like a fake, or some sort of gentile Rachel Dolezal. Am I even someone the Jewish people would want on their team, a lesbian atheist?
It feels crazy to uproot my life, deeply confuse my family and friends, whittle down my spouse potentials, and learn a difficult ancient language if I won’t even be accepted. Israel wouldn’t accept me (the Orthodox definitely don’t want the atheist lesbians) or any gay marriage I have. I don’t want to be the lonely convert.
Thanks for a great show, for Jews and possible crazy Jew groupies.
We were so moved to get your heartfelt letter. We have talked to a lot of converts in our day—indeed, we did a whole episode on conversion—and it’s true, your story is unusual. But not unique. Go listen to the segment from that episode on the girl in Savannah, Georgia, who, like you, was drawn to Judaism while barely old enough to ride a bicycle. Who knows why people love what they love, why they choose the hobbies they choose, have the affinities they have? Sure, sometimes there is an easy explanation: Dad put a football in your hands when there was still a pacifier in your mouth. But often as not we just are who we are, for no particular reason: flower-lovers, cilantro-haters, dancers, introverts. You love Judaism, or Jewishness. No need to interrogate it further.
So what to do? Whatever will fulfill you most. It sounds like that might be conversion. Lots of born Jews, including practicing born Jews are atheists—so are plenty of converts. Lots of converts are lesbians, too (and they don’t trouble themselves much what the Israeli rabbinate thinks). You worry about your Hebrew? Join the crowd. Only one of the three of us, the Israeli one, speaks Hebrew passably. As a Jew by choice, would you find that some Jews would not treat you as a “real Jew”? Yes. Screw them. Nothing you have told us makes you a bad candidate for conversion.
So do this: Go find a synagogue with nice people, and go find a rabbi you like. (Note that that’s two assignments. The rabbi may not be affiliated with the synagogue, although she or he may be.) Talk to people at the shul. When they ask if you are new, say yes. Feel free to tell them that you are exploring conversion. Chances are, you will find other converts. If you can’t, post a note in our Facebook group—they’ll write back. Talk to the rabbi, too. The main thing is not to be isolated in this quest. But then again, that’s the main thing in life, isn’t it?
Whatever the extent of your faith and your practice, we want to hear your question, about anything. Write to us at email@example.com. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.