I was not raised in a religious family. My mother was nominally an Episcopalian, but she hadn’t been to church for years, and my father was a Catholic who stopped attending Mass when the Church stopped speaking Latin. Since I had been intellectually precocious from an early age, they never pushed a particular faith on me, and beginning in high school, I began a life-long fascination with religion.
In my teenage years, I explored, in no particular order, Taoism, Buddhism, numerology, atheism, Baha’iism, and Zoroastrianism (okay, the last one for only a few minutes, but I did look it up). I particularly admired Hinduism, with its multiplicity of gods. I always thought it would be great, if you felt REALLY happy, to have more than one god you could thank. Or, if something really annoying, but not really important, happened, it would be nice to have a really specific god to curse–”Why do you smite me, God of Staplers?”–instead of generic venting to the Creator of everything.
Then when I got to college, I fell in with a group of Epicopalians. There’s a rough crowd. I went to Mass and I liked it. Great tunes. Also liked the incense thing. I’m a sucker for smells and bells. I did notice there were no people of color. Thought that was kinda weird. But, I kept going, mostly because I had joined the choir, so it was like having a steady gig.
At some point I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church. LOVED these guys on paper. No pesky creeds or doctrines, and an underlying belief that there is truth in all faiths. Although, to be honest, it sorta felt like I was attending a Sunday humanities lecture–not much emphasis on anything that felt transcendant. See, I still believed in God, even if I didn’t believe God could be found in a particular building, or box. I went regularly, though…after all, I was in the choir.
So, for several years, I just said I was an ‘unorthodox’ christian–powerful myth…symbolism that still resonates…great music. But at a certain point I felt I was so ‘unorthodox’ in my ‘christianity’ that I wasn’t doing myself, or Christendom, any favors by wearing that label. I agree with one of my comedy heroes, the lateBill Hicks, who said “I feel about Jesus the same way I do about Elvis. Love the man, love his work…but I can live without his crazy fans.”
So what was I? I went to the library to find out. I had always been inexplicably drawn to Judaism–it seemed to be the western religion that required the least amount of mental gymnastics, and…I had dated some Jewish girls. For some strange reason, almost all of my friends were Jewish (though almost none of them practiced).
So I’m reading this list of theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, and it was like, “yeah–that’s me”…”uh huh, that’s how I view the world”…”yeah–that’s what I believe.” And at that moment, I had an epiphany (how I wish there were a word for that that isn’t so associated with Christianity). I realized that I had always believed as a Jew–I just had never applied for a membership card.
So, always being the type to jump right in, it was time to convert. I called a few synagogues, and found out that the Conservative one was starting a class, and I signed up. See, here’s big difference here between your Jews and your Christians. If I want to say I’m Christian, what I have to do is…just believe it. Not so with Judaism. This wasn’t even an Orthodox conversion, and I had to take SIXTEEN WEEKS of classes.’People of the Book’ is right–and people of the syllabus, the handouts, the synopsis…oh, and on top of that let’s try to learn an entirely new language written in entirely different characters–written backwards in entirely different characters.
When I finished the class there were a couple of rituals to go through before things would be, for lack of a better word, kosher. First, I would need to affirm my bond with the people of Israel in front of witnesses, and then take a bath. Not your rub-a-dub kind–this would be a get naked and get into a pool of water in front of other people while you say a memorized Hebrew prayer kind of bath. You really do feel bonded with a spiritual leader when you’re bobbing around in a bathtub looking up at a man in full rabinnical garb.
Now in the Conservative movement, a male convert needs to be circumcized. Having been born in the U.S. in the sixties, my thought was ‘been there, done that.’ Much to my surprise, there is a ritual for guys who’ve already been ‘clipped.’ ‘Hatafat dam brit.’ Sounds mystical. Sounds like a beautiful ceremony to link me with centuries of Jewish men before me. Except it’s not really a ‘ceremony.’
What it is, is me with my pants at my ankles allowing someone (who, in theory, has had SOME training at this) to take a needle and draw a drop of blood from the end of my most special and typically not punctured body part. Now me, I’m not even comfortable with a zipper being too close to my penis. This is a part of conversion they don’t mention in the handouts.
The point is, when I pulled my pants up, I was officially Jewish (I’m almost sure that sentence sounds better in Hebrew). The problem is, as it turned out, none of my Jewish friends were very…Jewish. I would call and share with them some fascinating experience I’d had on my faith journey and they would roll their collective eyes, as if to say ‘ Man, why would you go through all of that?” I would call to wish them a good Tu B’Shvat and it was like asking someone who hated basketball who they thought would win the Final Four.
I’ve been to Shabbat services at many synagogues since converting, and though I love the prayers and the readings (and the music–although something in a major key might be a selling point), I never like I fit in. I know it takes time, but I wonder sometimes whether I’ll always feel like this. The problem, seems to me, is that while one can convert to a religion, I’m not entirely sure how to convert to a culture. I didn’t spend my formative years trying to get out of Hebrew School–I didn’t dread having to do my Torah reading at my bar mitzvah–I didn’t spend time making latkes standing next to my Bubbe. I didn’t have a Bubbe.
Looking back, though I might wish I could ‘invent’ a Jewish past for myself, I’m happy where I am. I consider myself a questioning Jew, wrestling with faith. Like Isaac. Isaac is actually my Hebrew name, and one of the meanings associated with it is laughter, and if you can’t laugh, all of this ‘search for meaning’ stuff is pretty pointless anyway.
Actually, I think I’d like to coin a new word for my belief system. You can call me–a Smorgasbordian. I’m just sampling what’s on the religious buffet table until I’m spiritually full. Maybe in a while, I’ll go back for another helping.