A few days before my 40th birthday, I converted to Judaism, submerging three times in a mikvah after completing a beit din and a year of study at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. For nearly two decades, I’d attended services there and more recently up in Westchester County, as a gentile. I’ve been married to a Jewish woman for 14 years, and we have two wonderful children together, also Jewish. During the past year our rabbi said, at several points, that he already considered me to be a “common law Jew,” but was glad I wanted to make it really official after all these years. He said it was not necessary, but I signed up for a yearlong Pathways course anyway. I had taken another one years earlier, before my wedding, but I wanted to spend a year studying the Torah and thinking about what it meant to me to finally become Jewish. I’m a writer, and I’m told I have a contemplative process. But when a few months later, the rabbi asked me for a short personal statement for the beit din, I eagerly turned out 22 pages, making it the longest he’d ever received. I could have written much more.
Following the mikvah ceremony, I was heartily welcomed to “the tribe” by my friends. That night I stood up in front of our congregation to sing the Shema from the bimah. The next day I mailed my paperwork to the American Jewish Archives and made a backup copy of the beautiful certificate declaring my Jewish identity. With it, I even would have the right to return to Israel and acquire citizenship there if I ever chose. I am absolutely 100% Jewish. And yet I have one lingering question: Am I a Jewish writer now?
I became a writer, by one version of events anyway, in the back pews of a Lutheran church in my hometown in suburban New Jersey. My family was not religious, aside from celebrating Christmas with presents and Easter with baskets of candy. I was never baptized, and our active church attendance was very brief: just a few weeks when I was 8 years old. I found it all so boring that I passed the sermon hours reading The Little House on the Prairie. When we abruptly stopped going, and instead began spending Sunday mornings at YMCA swimming lessons, I thought nothing of it. Only later would my mother explain to me that she’d marched us out in the middle of sermon the pastor was giving about the domestic role of women. That was a dealbreaker for my small-business-owning mother, who for most of my life has also been my father’s employer. I’d somehow missed all the drama, lost in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
As a young boy I continued to be an avid reader, and I already wanted to write my own books someday. In college, I went to study creative writing and began to form my own thoughts on spirituality in the secular humanist mold of my literary idol Kurt Vonnegut. Reading his novel Cat’s Cradle had reinforced my agnosticism in high school, much to the frustration of some evangelical friends bent on “saving” me, but even as I devoted myself to the religion of fiction, I began having some doubts.
My two closest writer friends, Ariel and Martin, both Jewish, would often draw from their religious and cultural traditions in their weekly workshop stories. They spun yarns about Jewish families arguing and struggling during a long Passover weekend. They wrote about dead grandparents returning as golems to crash a bar mitzvah party. I realized quickly that I didn’t have this same well to draw from.
I told myself that because I was freelancing in my spiritual beliefs, I had creative freedoms they didn’t, and that I could tap into all religions, myths, and writers—not just the Jewish ones like they did. But despite all that self-assertion, I never did. My characters were most often agnostics like myself. Often, they were interested in quantum physics or astronomy, as I also was, seeking rational and scientific answers to the biggest questions of existence.
Then I fell in love. I met Leah halfway through college and knew that things were really serious between us when she brought me home to meet her parents and attend Rosh Hashanah services with them. Eventually she asked me if I’d ever consider converting to Judaism. I said I didn’t see how I could convert from nothing to something. But when I said I was “nothing” then, what I meant was that I believed I was “everything.” Nondenominational, cross-cultural, seeking truth anywhere and everywhere. I said it felt arbitrary for me to pick one faith out of the many, just because I was in love with her. She asked if I thought anything might change my mind someday and I said I wouldn’t rule it out. I supposed I might someday have a spiritual crisis, or epiphany, perhaps following the death of a loved one. That’s always how it seemed to go in stories, I thought. Either way, it just didn’t seem right to me then and there.
I was, if you can’t tell, only 20 years old then. And I had no way then of knowing that within another five years my younger sister Jennifer would become diagnosed with a rare cancer, and that despite all our heartbreaking efforts, and her enduring months of painful treatments, that she would die just eight months before Leah and I planned to get married.
As this was happening, I was taking a Judaism course with Leah, not to convert but to learn more about her beliefs and how we’d raise our children. Instead of feeling drawn more strongly to a spiritual life by my sister’s death, as I’d imagined, I was pushed away from it. I was angry that anyone would believe in God in a world where my sister had died for no reason whatsoever, at just 22 years old, with such a beautiful promising life ahead of her. When I spoke to a friend about it all, he advised me that in the Jewish faith it was common to take a year off from big decisions after a major loss. It struck me as odd, running resistant to the post-loss epiphany I’d imagined I ought to be experiencing. But I agreed, and it did in fact allow me time and space to find my way back again.
Leah and I got married; our wedding was officiated by a rabbi, and we circled one another underneath the chuppah and I smashed a glass inside of a napkin. We exchanged wedding rings inscribed with the words from the Song of Solomon: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. We hung our ketubah over our bed. We posted a mezuzah on our doorframe. And as mad as I was then at whatever Higher Power might be out there, all of these traditions meant something to me—I just didn’t know yet if it meant everything to me. If I wanted them to really be my traditions, over any others.
We have two Jewish children together, and as we’ve raised them, I have slowly fallen in love with Judaism on my own terms. I loved its history and songs, its emphasis on questioning and not expecting answers. I appreciated that it was not a religion actively recruiting converts—everyone’s patience with me was a far stretch from the pressures I’d received from my born-again classmates in high school. Like Groucho Marx, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to be part of a club that wanted me for a member. Still, attending every High Holiday service with my family, I would feel real joy. Each year on my sister’s yahrzeit, saying the Kaddish has brought real relief. Watching neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, I felt real anger and fear for my family. Learning to cook food from Israeli and Yiddish traditions, I felt I was connecting with traditions carried out for thousands of years.
Only I still wasn’t really connected to them, myself. I was still a tourist in a foreign country, albeit one who had been extending his visa over and over and over again. I knew that the only thing preventing that connection, at this point, was my own reticence. But still I did not act.
Instead, I found myself awaiting an epiphany of some sort. Some single, clarifying moment where I’d know the right thing to do. Then, one day as I was teaching a story from Joyce’s Dubliners to my undergraduate students, it hit me—epiphanies were a key part of Catholicism, but perhaps not Judaism. A Joycean story builds to a climactic moment of revelation (another Christian-loaded word) where a character achieves a kind of clarity of themselves and an understanding of the nature of life. A sort of moment of divine intervention or connection occurs. But that, I considered, was not how it worked in Judaism. That post-Moses, there is not expected to be any direct communication with the Jewish God by his people. Jews have to work it out for themselves. To read the Torah, analyze its meaning, debate its application, and ultimately come to their own decisions.
My epiphany was that for my story, no epiphany was required. I only had to make my choice.
And so, I approached our rabbi about the conversion process last summer. I wondered if he would demand to know what had taken me so long, but of course, he was just happy I’d gotten there in my own convoluted but meaningful way.
One hang-up that I’d had over the past 20 years of my wandering, was that I had a hard time believing other Jews would really see me as one of “the tribe.” I’d paid careful attention to the kinds of stories my friends told about the things that made them feel Jewish. It was the Jewish summer camp they went to, or their first journey to Israel. It was a classful of Russian refugees whose parents had fled persecution in the 1990s. It was the first time they’d read Portnoy’s Complaint. It was memorizing a Torah portion for a bar mitzvah. It was getting shoved into a middle school locker as someone yelled slurs and mocked the shape of your nose. It was walking into a Starbucks covered in green and red decorations, the day after Halloween, and knowing your holiday items were consigned to a little shelf somewhere at the back. It was building a sukkah in the backyard every fall. It was being blamed for the actions of a government halfway around the world, for whom you had never voted. It was all these things, and so much more. Good, bad, ugly—their identities stemmed from experience, not just birthright.
As a convert, I feared I’d have neither of those things. That some certificate saying I dipped myself in some holy water wasn’t going to cut it.
But my rabbis told me that the Torah sees converts as equals to those who were born as Jews, or even somehow more special, because we chose it. Resh Lakish in the Midrash writes, “The convert is dearer than the Jews who stood before Mount Sinai. Why? Because had the Jews not seen the thunder, the mountains quaking and the sounds pf the horn, they would not have accepted the Torah. But this one, who saw none of these things came, surrendered himself to the Holy One and accepted upon himself the kingdom of heaven. Could any be dearer than he?” (Tanhuma B, Lekh Lekha 6)
It took me a long time to see the truth in this, and I’m glad to say that by now I’ve witnessed the happiness and acceptance of lifelong Jewish friends dozens of times over. They know me and they know what this means to me, and what this journey has involved. I will always see my path as different from theirs, but I know now that it isn’t inherently inferior.
And yet—when I sat down to my laptop the next day and brought up my novel, I again wondered how this change had touched that other crucial part of my identity—not as father, husband, or friend, but as writer. How would it be part of my art? How would it be part of the “author” suit I sometimes donned when I spoke to readers? In this regard, as I presented the deepest parts of myself to total strangers, I still worried I’d be seen as an impostor.
Growing up, I was a big fan of Seinfeld, and would watch episodes in reruns on Channel 11 with my friend Josh on the phone. Josh was Jewish because his father was and because his mother had converted before they got married. But he said he planned to convert out of it as soon as he turned 18. He hated going to synagogue, hated having different holidays from everyone else, and hated being picked on by others for being Jewish. He resented feeling like an outsider, being marginalized, and yearned to shake off an identity he’d never asked for and personally found no value in.
So it was with ironic delight that Josh enjoyed the classic Seinfeld episode “The Yada Yada,” where Jerry suspects that his dentist Tim Whatley (played by Bryan Cranston) has recently converted to Judaism in order to tell Jewish jokes. It offends him, Jerry shouts memorably, “not as a Jew, but as a comedian!”
I’d thought about this episode many times as I faced my fears of nonacceptance after I converted, and it brings up a more specific question for me now. I’m not a comedian, of course, I’m a writer. If I were to now declare myself a Jewish writer, am I just the Tim Whatley of literature?
Buried in Jerry’s critique of his dentist’s Jewish jokes is, I think, a very serious point. To make a joke is to prod something sensitive, often to make people uncomfortable—this is what great fiction does, too. To be able to poke fun at an identity, a whole group of people, is a highly charged thing. When someone makes a joke at the expense of a group from outside of that group, it can be rude, bigoted, even hateful.
But the same joke told by someone within that group is acceptable, maybe even laudable. There’s incredible power in the ability to take ownership over, let alone to wield a term or a stereotype that’s been (and is still being) used to oppress you, is a powerful thing. I don’t see it as some limiting facet of supposed political correctness, but an expansive foundation of genuine basic decency and respect.
Hence Jerry’s frustration with his dentist. “Don’t you see what Whatley is after?” he yells. “Total joke-telling immunity. He’s already got the two big religions covered. If he ever gets Polish citizenship there’ll be no stopping him!”
Tim Whatley’s crime, in Jerry’s eyes, is doing an end run around the usual rules of comedy. He claims Whatley doesn’t offend him as a Jew, and perhaps he really means that. Even so, there are lines that are tricky to cross. What earns a Jewish person the “immunity” Jerry’s talking about, to make jokes about Jewish stereotypes? I’d argue it comes back to experience. If you are someone who has been marginalized by supposed jokes about your identity, then there’s power in reappropriating that for yourself. But if you’re someone who, a week ago, wasn’t Jewish and who hasn’t ever experienced any real discrimination as a result of that identity, then you aren’t re-appropriating anything. That, to me, is the heart of the Tim Whatley problem.
And so, I think, it applies to my calling myself a Jewish writer now. It would be disrespectful to the Jewish writers I’ve grown up sincerely admiring. I could do my best to mimic what they do, and write a narrator having a bat mitzvah or traveling to Israel, but it wouldn’t be very authentic. I haven’t done those things. If I, today, like my college writing buddies, suddenly began cranking our modern reinterpretations of Isaac Babel or I.B. Singer stories, or if I began dropping Yiddish-speaking grandmothers or kabbalistic golems into my work, I’d be about as bad as Tim Whatley, DDS.
Just thinking about it—to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld—offends me, not as a Jew, but as a writer.
Yes, over the years, I’ve written Jewish characters. I’ve also written gay characters, female characters, Asian American characters. I think it’s vital to the ongoing life of fiction that all writers be able to considerately, thoughtfully, and complexly imagine life beyond the edges of their own experiences. But there are lots of shades within this vitality. Having one Jewish character in a novel with five protagonists, told in a close third person, is subtly different from, say, writing in the first person and directly centering the voice of a Jewish character in a novel.
I’m not saying that’s impossible for a gentile to do, nor a convert to do. I’m only saying that it is different, likely far more difficult to pull off believably, and that it runs a much higher risk of being done badly. Risk is good in fiction, I tell my students when this comes up now in my own workshops—but you have to stick the landing, or you’ll have earned all the criticism that comes. Can you stick the landing, then, I ask them? If you can’t, keep practicing until you can.
So, where does that leave me? With one word: “yet.”
Am I a Jewish writer? No, but I’d like to be someday.
This year as I took the Pathways class, I was also working on a novel about my grandmother’s memories of her childhood in Holland during WWII. As I studied the Torah and discussed Jewish history, I noticed a subtle pulling of my attention toward fleshing out the story of my grandmother’s Jewish neighbors, who fled her apartment building at the start of the war. I more readily see their plight as tied to the hypothetical plight of my own kids, and now myself, if history were to repeat itself. When my grandmother told me about a relative who was imprisoned in the Vught concentration camp, I was compelled to use his scenes as a way of highlighting the murder of the many Jews who were there with him—along with “asocials,” homosexuals, resistance fighters, Romani people, and so on. A year ago I don’t know that it would have stood out to me as a focus, but now it does.
What comes next? I don’t know, of course, and that’s the best part of any story. If I truly have been “a common law Jew” for a decade or two, that’s already some amount of experience to draw on. But right now I’ve only got a week of actual Judaism under my belt. But that will soon be two, and then a month, and then a year. Two days after I converted, I turned 40, and I thought about how, on my 80th birthday, God willing, I’ll be able to say that I’ve been Jewish for half my life.
By then, I’m betting, I’ll have something interesting to say about it.
Kristopher Jansma is the author of two novels, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards and Why We Came to the City. He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is the Director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz College.