Studying for a Jewish conversion is a serious matter. My husband and I jointly undertook a conversion to Judaism because we were drawn to Judaism’s strong sense of community, the prominent role of study and debate in Jewish life, and the fact that Judaism is a non-evangelizing religion. My husband and I are questioners, and Judaism embraced our questions and provided us with a comfortable home for our spiritual development. Our studies involved deep discussions about prayer, end of life decisions, anti-Semitism, and Jewish history. The one major break from all of the reading and debating was Purim. From the children’s Purim carnival that I volunteered at to the raucous party I attended at Mishkan Chicago, the holiday exemplified for me what it means to find joy in being Jewish. I couldn’t wait to celebrate it last spring for the first time as a Jew, after going to the mikvah.
Since I’d been pregnant throughout my conversion course, I was looking forward to having a drink or two for Purim. I couldn’t wait to get my chunky infant daughter into her pineapple costume and take photos of her at her first carnival. I wanted to show my non-Jewish mother what fun it was to spin a noisy grogger during the reading of a religious text. But as the holiday approached a year ago, talk of the novel coronavirus was starting to overshadow conversations about hamantaschen and Megillah readings. The holiday ended up being more subdued than expected.
When I took my daughter to a local Purim carnival, I suggested that we leave her in the stroller. I didn’t need her picking up unnecessary germs. We watched other children play games while we stood to the side and munched uneasily on cheese pizza. My daughter couldn’t see out of the sides of her stroller, so she opted to take a nap. I felt anxious about the crowds and chose to head home early. It was the first time that I’d taken our daughter to a Jewish event, but it was the last time that I was in a crowd in 2020, and the last time that I was out of my own home without a mask.
Purim 2020 marked the start of a very unusual post-conversion year for our family. We didn’t have to spend Purim in quarantine last year, but every subsequent holiday would be celebrated from our own dining room. What started out as “a couple months of social distancing” turned into a full year (and counting). Lockdown is difficult for any observant Jew, but particularly for convert families who still take their cues from the community around them. I wasn’t sure that we were ready to navigate our post-conversion year alone. But as my husband pointed out, you’re not totally alone when you have the internet. I guess that has become the theme of 2020 and 2021: that we could continue to grow in our new Jewish identity despite the challenges posed to us by the pandemic.
We were supposed to go to our rabbi’s house last Pesach, which felt like a pretty big deal to us as new converts. The invite made us feel like VIPs, as it was. Predictably, it only took a few weeks for us to be uninvited once the realities of the pandemic set in. We were disappointed, but readily agreed that health was paramount and planned to celebrate from home. After hanging up with the rabbi, I immediately called Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor to order a Seder plate. There was no way that my husband and I, as recent converts, were going to get the Seder plate right on our own. I wasn’t really clear on where people found things like lamb shank bones and I didn’t have time to Google how to make charoset while also working and taking care of our 5-month-old. I worried that, like Purim, Pesach would be anticlimactic. Seders are supposed to feel like family meals, not online classes. Luckily, my skepticism was unfounded.
We wound up with a beautiful Seder plate from Zingerman’s and were able to sing and eat with our entire shul via Zoom instead of just a few select guests. Seeing everyone’s smiling faces on Zoom made me feel like we were back in shul on a Saturday morning. Happy to be in her own home, our infant sat politely on her father’s lap and ate her mashed carrots without making a peep. I was relieved that my terrible singing voice could be muted as needed thanks to the wonders of technology. Munching on leftover matzo the next day, I declared Pesach an unexpected success. I let myself consider that “unusual” need not mean “unfulfilling.”
Shavuot ended up being a success, as well. Our late-night study session transitioned smoothly to our screens in lieu of the synagogue library. I had planned on getting a babysitter for the late-night event, but since we were at home, we plopped the baby in her crib and logged on. As new parents, that was a dream. It felt a tad bit lonely not to be able to chat with fellow congregants between study sessions, but we made good use of the chat feature on Zoom to ask questions. I ordered my own cheesecake instead of sharing snacks at shul, but this was advantageous given that no one could swipe the last piece of caramel cheesecake. We were physically isolated, sure, but it still felt like we were part of a broader community. I felt a bit more confident in our ability to navigate holidays in lockdown after Shavuot.
For the High Holidays, Mishkan Chicago usually hosts large, crowded services in a local theater. I was looking forward to singing and praying with new and old friends. Given that crowds and pandemics don’t mix, Mishkan instead organized an outdoor, socially distanced taschlich. In masks and rain boots, we trudged out to North Pond on an idyllic fall day. Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann blew the shofar and then directed us to spread out around the water with a handful of pebbles. We “transferred our sins” onto five pebbles each and tossed them into the pond, where we watched them ripple the water below. My daughter was delighted to see so many other humans in one place. From behind our masks, we offered small waves to other families. I never thought I would be so thankful to pontificate on my shortcomings in a crowd, but I was. The taschlich was more active and meaningful than zoning out during long High Holiday services.
On Yom Kippur itself, our small family dressed in white from head to toe and marched from our bedrooms to the living room to livestream services. I missed being able to sway to the music in the presence of our friends, and being able to sleepily munch on macaroni at a break-fast gathering, but knowing that Jews worldwide were all swaying and fasting in time with us was comfort enough. It was actually nice to be in my own space where I could focus entirely on prayer rather than being distracted by the crowds.
I have to admit that we lost our steam around Sukkot. We had planned on enjoying a communal meal at our shul’s sukkah, which would have relieved us of both building the sukkah and cooking the meal to eat in it. My husband insisted that he was never going to be able to build a kosher sukkah on his own.
“It took the entire men’s club almost three hours last year,” he moaned, “It’s impossible.”
“Do what our ancestors did and consult YouTube,” I suggested.
“It’s not funny,” he insisted. But he laughed anyway, because what else is there to do when you’re stuck at home trying to avoid a dangerous virus for months on end.
“Let’s skip it,” I offered, “God will forgive. We can put our toddler’s pink tent on the balcony and call it a year.”
That’s what we did. Another nontraditional holiday, but not a bad one. My daughter was happy enough to eat her dinner on the balcony, taking in the chilly fall air and spying on the pedestrians four stories below us. Unique, but fulfilling. I was proud of us for muddling through.
Throughout the pandemic, we tried to attend Saturday services via Zoom whenever possible. After the baby started crawling, watching services mostly involved chasing her around while prayer continued in the background. It didn’t feel quite as holy as being in shul, but it somehow didn’t feel lonely, either. With every shout-out from the rabbi or a friendly wave from another congregant, I felt a little warmer and happier than I did during the rest of the week.
By the time Hanukkah rolled around and my daughter had crossed the 1 year mark, it sunk in that we had missed out on nearly a full year of in-person holiday celebrations. Hanukkah is usually celebrated in the home anyway, so there were no major changes in plans. We couldn’t have our parents over for latkes and gifts, but they enjoyed attending our celebrations via FaceTime.
And then December faded into January, and we found ourselves making plans for Purim 2021. From Purim to Purim: a full calendar of holidays spent under lockdown. This year, our plans are modest. We will attend a Zoom Megillah reading (or two), and my daughter will show off her firefighter costume at day care. Sure, we’d love to have a raucous party like we did the year before our daughter was born, dancing and drinking late into the evening. But Jewish practice can survive without the bells and whistles. We’ve seen firsthand that Judaism is remarkable in its ability to adapt; we have been able to pray and study and connect to our community even if we can’t stand side-by-side at services. We have been pleasantly surprised that when some of life’s distractions fall away—picking out a great Yom Kippur outfit or shushing a toddler while the rabbi reads from a Haggadah—you’re left with only the essence of the holiday. Prayer, community, stillness. Things have been hard, but they’ve also been good. We have laughed at our inability to assemble a Seder plate and a sukkah; we have prayed fervently; we have taken careful notes during a Zoom lecture and have discovered that we actually can recite the Amidah while our child bangs on pots and pans. I am confident that since we grew in our Jewish knowledge and identity during the pandemic, we will find a way to continue to do so no matter what 2021 brings.
Shannon Gonyou is a practicing attorney, a mother to a spunky 15-month-old, a convert to Judaism, and a member of two synagogues: Congregation Beth Ahm in Michigan and Town & Village in New York City.