My Path to Judaism: Converting While Keeping My Muslim Roots
My alarm went off earlier than usual that morning, but I was already awake. I had spent the night tossing and turning. It seemed unreal that an entire year had passed since I made the decision to convert to Judaism.
As I showered and dressed in a white T-shirt and linen pants, I thought back to the discussions I had with my Rabbi about Jewish rituals. “Dress in plain clothing,” she had told me. “You want to be an open slate as you enter the faith of Judaism.” I wore no make up, nail polish, nor jewelry.
I was nervous as I sat in silence with my stepmother, stepsister, brother and father around the kitchen counter that morning. I was about to take a step that would change my life forever.
My Missing Pieces
My father is a Pakistani-Muslim. He has been my guide, friend and beacon of light when I was sure I couldn’t brave the darkness. He instilled in my brother and me all the principles of good human beings, without emphasis on religion. My father has always supported my ever-expanding outlook on the world because his view is that all religions have a place on Earth.
Despite having a weak connection to Islam, I loved the Muslim traditions that my father surrounded me with: decorating my hands with mehndi (henna), being enveloped by hordes of family and friends, and listening to the sound of his voice carry like waves evenly pitched up and down as he spoke Urdu.
But I could never understand his language. My father didn’t pass that aspect of his heritage on to my brother or me. The missing pieces of my puzzle were not what drove me away from my Islam. I didn?t convert because I felt something absent. I just needed something more. I chose Judaism because I felt more than a physical connection to the teachings, as I had through my father with Islam. I felt a spiritual bond with Judaism that inspired me to learn and practice religion beyond the confines of a holy temple.
My Younger Years
My birth parents had been divorced several years earlier when my dad remarried to my Jewish stepmother. I was four years old at the time, and my father left the majority of decisions concerning me to her. My parents selected The Epstein School, a private Jewish school in Sandy Springs, as my elementary school. On my first day of 2nd grade at Epstein, I stood outside Hebrew class. A blonde girl stood a few feet away with her mother, and as I sat there gazing around, the mom introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Mrs. Baron and this is my daughter, Diana. Are you new here as well?” I nodded and smiled at Diana. She smiled back.
“I like your hair, it’s really long and pretty,” she told me.
“Thanks! My parents don’t want me to cut it because in my father’s culture women don’t cut their hair,” I replied.
Diana was intrigued, and we were inseparable from that day forward. I had been afraid of Epstein because I wasn’t used to change, but all it took was having one friend to stand beside me to wash all my worries away.
Between attending a Jewish school and making new Jewish friends, I became enveloped in the very essence of Judaism. Hebrew came naturally to me, and on Friday nights I automatically asked my parents to help me light the Shabbat (the holy Sabbath for Jews) candles.
Making the Decision
I did not convert right away. I allowed my interest in Judaism to grow as I did. Instead of forcing myself on religion, I focused on the aspects of Judaism that connected with my life. I found similarities between Judaism and Islam, such as the laws governing food and the emphasis on charity. My attraction to Judaism, however, came with the knowledge I had gained from years of going to synagogue and school. Because my father allowed me so much freedom, I was able to find a place where my principles were intertwined with religious rituals. By middle school, I considered myself Jewish in every way but legally. At 12, I made the choice to convert and take my first step away from my family and toward independence.
Silence lingered at the kitchen table on that April morning. I knew my father wouldn’t be at the conversion ceremony, but I was not unhappy to face this experience alone. There was an understanding that I needed to do this by myself. No matter how much support I had from family and friends, in the end, I was choosing this path for my own life.
The drive to the synagogue passed too quickly. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. But I knew, for the first time in my life, I had the power to decide. I said goodbye to my family as Rabbi Bortz greeted me in front of the synagogue and took me into an unfamiliar room.
“Do you know where we are?” Her tone was gentle.
“No, I didn’t even know this room existed,” I said.
“We are in the mikvah (a ritual body of water where Jewish women go for cleansing). This is where your conversion will take place. Are you ready?”
A second stretched into a minute, and I had no response. Was I ready? Was I ready to change the path of my life, leave behind an old skin and take on a new one? I had no answer because I really wasn’t sure. I knew I could not give a definitive answer, so I nodded and then undressed. Rabbi Bortz joined my family in a neighboring room. The mikvah was at the far left of a room, surrounded by tiled floors and ceilings. The mikvah itself resembled a miniature lap pool.
“Whenever you’re ready, Yasmeen.” I heard the voice of my Rabbi and looked around. I noticed the small cut out on the wall to my right and pressed my hand to the tiles. I took a deep breath and then walked forward into the water. I felt the cold stone steps as I walked down.
I robotically recited the blessings each time I arose from the water, unaware of the words escaping my mouth. There was the distant sound of the Rabbis blessing me, but they were far from my mind. In my head, I saw myself growing up, my father’s smiling face as he dressed me up in Indian clothes and bangles as child, and his proud gaze as I became a young adult and began making my own choices. I saw all of these things, and then a blank canvas, waiting for me to fill these spaces with new ideas, memories and thoughts. The world was mine for the taking, and as my head broke the surface of the water and I took my first breath as a Jew, I felt reborn!
I stepped from the water and placed a white robe around my body. This was only the beginning of my life as an individual. I felt liberated from the bonds of childhood, as if suddenly I had made the leap from adolescent to adult in mere moments.
My Puzzle is Complete
It has been five years since I converted, and since then I have learned a lot about my family and myself. I have become closer with my father because I have matured since that event. As I found my own religion and created my own traditions I gained appreciation for the things I love about Islam. I still celebrate cultural holidays and festivals with my father and family friends. At each Jewish holiday I explain every ritual practice so that my family is not just a spectator of my religion. When I tell people that my family is Muslim and I am Jewish, I always get the same reaction: surprise. Globally, Muslims and Jews are considered enemies; however, from growing up in a household where both religions are present, I am a living testament that the two can find solace in one.
Yasmeen is a senior at The Weber School. She says she loves to laugh and drive her red Mustang.