Rocking the Cradle: A Midlife Conversion Story
Rock-a-bye, Baby, in the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come Baby, cradle and all
The cradle will fall … and fall – it did. The cradle of Roman Catholicism ? the faith into which I was baptized as an infant and participated in until adulthood – “came down” recently and catapulted me into a decision to convert to Judaism . Unlike the nursery rhyme baby who finds herself adrift and without anchor, after my decision, I found myself finally at a place in which I felt as if my “authentic self” had space to breathe, to think and to rest. My decision to convert was not made lightly – nor was it made in the glow of impending marriage. My decision to convert was not made to appease future in-laws or to please a spouse. My decision to convert was made because – finally – a confluence of abstracts had come together in an almost mystical way — “the time” for me to claim my father’s heritage had come.
As the adult daughter of an interfaith marriage, I have lived a life full of the richness of two different but intertwined traditions. Because I am in my early fifties, I was born in a time before there was a publicized “December Dilemma” for interfaith households. I was raised in a time when intermarriage was still a real oddity, a time when many Jewish partners in interfaith marriages found themselves metaphorically dead to their families and many non-Jewish partners in those marriages found themselves ostracized by both their birth families and their in-laws. But I was lucky. I was raised by parents who remained dedicated to their own religious tradition and still fostered an atmosphere of respect for the other one.
Yes, our family had a Christmas tree. Yes, my sister and I had Easter eggs. Yes, my Irish-Catholic mother, my sister, and I went to Mass on every single Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. But we also were weaned on chicken soup and mitzvah balls. We saw our father kiss a mezuzah upon entering and exiting our home – that was as normal to us as seeing him brushing his teeth. We kept a pasha for the General Israel Girls’ Orphanage in our kitchen. We watched my father mark the marshiest of his parents. Many childhood Sunday mornings found us returning from Mass to feast on a potato cudgel that one of my father’s relatives brought to share with us. Both in major ways, observing our father spending the High Holy Days in the neighborhood synagogue, and in minor ways, as we learned not to hang wash on the line on a Jewish holiday, we lived a delicate balance between the worlds of the Jewish doer and the watcher.
I think that in my secret heart, however, I was meant to be a doer. My sister was not, and that’s okay. She remains a practicing Roman Catholic. Just as children born of the same parents can have different colored hair and eyes and different likes and dislikes, so, too, can they feel connections to different religious traditions. My journey from the world of the observer to the world of the participant was long. It took years of agonizing introspection, a complete upheaval of my personal comfort zone – and the support of two men, my husband and my rabbi.
My feelings for my cradle religion were affected deeply by its theology, including although not limited to the role of women in the church. They were affected as well by the devastating scandals that have rocked it. My desire to listen to sermons about God, and about a human being’s relationship to God, instead of pleas for participation in debt reduction campaigns also colored my feelings about the Catholicism that surrounded me. As I found myself sitting in church week after week, feeling agitated and unsettled instead of connected and comforted, I started to wonder why I was still going through the motions. Why was I still slipping envelopes into collection plates and dashing madly to get to weekend Mass? Just to ensure that my body was present while my eyes searched through the monthly missal to find the “Old Testament” reading for the weekend?
Finally, I stopped going to Mass. And no one was more surprised – or bothered – by that decision than my husband. Like my mother, I had married a Jew. My husband is funny, tall, funny, smart, funny – and a deeply religious Conservative Jew. When he fell in love with me, I know that he was as surprised as anyone else, including his children! I am his second wife, not the biological mother of his children but the one who came along years after the dissolution of that relationship. I know that he was surprised to fall in love with me, because he had always preached to his children about the evils of intermarriage, but, as he discovered, the heart follows its own direction.
My husband had to make some painful decisions himself, including the severing, at her insistence, of the relationship with one Orthodox daughter. Then we married and set up a home where the two traditions, Catholicism and Judaism, existed side by side, just as they had in the home of my youth. We each respected the other’s religious identity and observance, as my parents had. That arrangement might have lasted forever – except for the stirrings and turbulence within my own spirit.
Even now I cannot explain how it was that I started to feel more connected to Judaism. Perhaps it began one Chanukah, when I decided to learn the blessings in Hebrew so that I could present my husband with that new skill as we lit the menorah. Or perhaps it happened the year that I convinced my husband that it was our responsibility to host a seder for his elderly relatives. But in fact I think that simply watching my husband live his daily life, unburdened by continual internal rantings against his religion, is what sealed the deal for me. I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to feel that same kind of peace that he felt, and I finally quieted myself sufficiently to listen to what my soul and my heart had been trying to tell my mind for years. They were telling me that my essence is Jewish.
Had I been allowed to choose my religion when I was a child, I do not doubt that I would have opted for my father’s tradition rather than my mother’s. That decision would have had nothing to do with loving one parent more than the other, or even with identifying more with the essential tenets of one faith than the other. No, I would have made that choice just because everything about Judaism always seemed to feel better to me than anything about Catholicism. I was a spiritual changeling. It took me decades to gain the confidence to correct the cosmic glitch created when I was baptized in infancy.
It was easier for me to go through the conversion process than it might have been for others. Part of that ease came from my childhood; I had grown up exposed to many of Judaism’s concepts, traditions, and practices. But I think that for most people who are brave enough to attempt something as radical as conversion, the hardest challenge is the need to find support strong enough to make that change seem possible. For me, that support came from two places. First, there was my husband. As soon as he heard about my intention, he was overjoyed.
Never once during our marriage had he asked me to convert, or even to consider conversion. But his delight in my decision to convert was palpable. My journey’s main planner, however, was not my husband. It was not even me. The man into whose hands I placed my complete trust was my husband’s rabbi, Joseph Mendelsohn, who had just accepted the pulpit at Temple Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism-affiliated synagogue in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Maybe it was because he was new that he was so receptive to me. Maybe his willingness to listen to my story and his respect for my family convinced me that he could help me navigate through this new experience.
Rabbi Joe provided me with a series of lessons that helped me understand the why behind the what. In other words, his enthusiastic teaching helped me place the traditions, practices, and rituals I had seen and participated in throughout my life in a rich, meaningful context. His philosophy held that the conversion was not just the ceremony that marked the process’s end – although his insistence of the traditional mikvah and bet din was unswerving. Still, for him conversion was the process itself, the process through which he guided as weeks turned into months and the seasons kept changing. To Rabbi Joe, conversion’s culminating ceremony is “the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence.”
Although I was sure that the step I was taking was the right one for me, I found the days just before the ceremony to be difficult. I could not sleep. I had an almost constant headache. My back ached. My temper was shorter than usual and my emotions were even closer to the surface than they normally are. I was a wreck. My husband’s even-tempered responses to the chaos around him, and his silent effort to give me as much room as possible, manifested themselves in a thousand ways. Although I was unable to acknowledge his kindness then, I will never forget it.
Finally the day came, and I found that the feelings I had that day were similar to those I had felt on my wedding day. More than anything, I wanted to be by myself. I wanted not simply to prepare physically for the experience, but to still myself and to listen to God’s voice, as I had when I made my initial decision. And I did. The hours I spent getting ready to meet my husband, Rabbi Joe, and the other members of the bet din were hours I would not have traded for the world. The reflection and contemplation steadied me and supported me as I made the drive into town . Rabbi Joe’s approach to the conversion ceremony inverted the traditional order. He asked me to visit the mikvah before meeting with the bet din. He felt that it was important for me to make the physical step before I asked that the legal one be certified.
Walking across the street from the synagogue to the mikvah, accompanied by my husband and the three men who made up the bet din, felt almost surreal. My companions tried to make the journey an easy one. Each one said something lighthearted and comforting. Hearing them talk outside the small room in which I made my final preparations provided a sensory anchor for the experience. Walking into the actual mikvah room and completing the immersion rite was an experience unlike anything else I have ever done. Every fear I had evaporated, and I felt confident and strong as I recited the ancient Hebrew blessings. I felt more and more as if I were getting closer to where I wanted to be. Each chorus of “amen” from the waiting, listening men outside the room strengthened the sensory anchor and urged me forward through the next step.
After the mikvah we walked back into the rabbi’s study, where what he called the conversation began. It was friendly, focusing on my story and my intentions instead of attempting to find minutiae from law and history with which to confound me. After a very long time, the pronouncement came. “We’re ready to sign”! Each man’s signature confirmed that I was now in my spiritual home. My husband was invited into the room then, and all four men stood and sang a song of congratulation and joy to me. How could I not feel loved, respected and honored in the midst of that?
The last part of the ceremony included only Rabbi Joe, my husband, and me. We walked into the sanctuary so that the Aron Kodesh could be opened for me and so that I could make my personal declaration of faith. So there, before God, anchored by the love of my life on one side and the architect of my journey on the other, I became – fully, finally, and forever ? part of the people of Israel, part of the family into which I had been born but not raised. My home town is far from Oz, but Dorothy’s words could not be more appropriate for me. “There’s no place like home,” she said. It took me a long time to find this home, this Jewish spiritual home, but the journey was worth the effort.