10 Things Nobody Told Me About Converting to Judaism
The story of how I came to convert to Judaism is relatively straightforward: I met a man I loved -– his name is Ben and he happens to be a Modern Orthodox Jew -- and through him, met a religion I also loved. And we lived happily ever after. JUST KIDDING. We dated long-distance while he was in Israel, found a rabbi, broke up with a rabbi, found a new rabbi, and basically struggle each week to keep kosher/attend synagogue/observe Shabbat/etc. (Can you tell there are a lot of rules in Judaism?)
But the toil has been worth it, the rewards, many, and bottom-line: Ben is my beshert (that’s yiddish for “soulmate.”) So in the case that you meet your own Ben (Mazel tov!) and end up feeling like you’ve hopped on a crazy-train meant for CONVERTS ONLY, I’m here to assure you, that no, you are not crazy, yes, conversion is hard, and YES, you can do it. But when you feel like you can’t (and girl, I’ve been there) here’s some advice I hope you find helpful.
1. They really will deny you 3 times.
When I heard about the tradition that all rabbis turns potential converts away a number of times, I laughed it off –- until it really happened. My rabbi canceled my meeting approximately three times before finally agreeing to see me. (Potential convert PSA: Persistence is key in this situation. If you push that door hard enough -– and, trust me, that’s what the rabbis want you to do -- they will eventually open it.)
2. There are different “types" of conversion, depending on what branch of Judaism you’re converting into.
To grossly overgeneralize, a Reform conversion usually takes the least amount of time; an Orthodox conversion (what I’m undergoing -– and the only conversion that’s “accepted” by the Rabbinate of Israel) is the most cumbersome. To make things even more complicated, most Orthodox Jews don’t view Reform conversions as valid, and some people convert more than once. (Yes, I wish it was simpler, too.)
3. Your less-religious friends will step up their game.
This has been interesting to observe. I grew up with a few Jewish friends whose extent of Jewish education ventured as far as celebrating Hanukkah and taking a free birthright trip to Israel. Yet, as my knowledge deepened -- and I, the convert began to become more fluent than the born-Jew -- these same people suddenly had a burst of interest in their own religion. Was I the catalyst? Hard to know for certain, but it’s a role I’m happy to play, if it means I’ve nudged just one person into learning more about their own history.
4. You’ll basically “speak” a new language.
And no, I’m not talking about Hebrew, though you’ll probably pick up a bit of that, too. So much of being Jewish is cultural: understanding the humor, the terminology, the traditions, the food. (Mmmm, the food.) The first time I was able to laugh at a joke Ben’s father made that required previous Jewish knowledge or casually dropped the word “minyan” or “mitzvah” in conversation without feeling like a fool, I practically wept, I was so happy. And yet…
5 …You’ll still feel like a fraud sometimes.
Am I a phony for wearing a Star of David necklace before I’m fully converted? Can everyone around this Shabbat table “tell” I wasn’t born Jewish? Is it obvious that I’m not on the right page at synagogue because I can’t read Hebrew yet? These are all thoughts that have gone through my head. But like acne and unwaxed eyebrows, I assure you, nobody is noticing as much as you are. [That said, use common sense: Don’t walk into a meeting with your rabbi in a mini-skirt and major cleavage.]
6. Breaking up (with a rabbi) is hard to do.
OK, it’s actually not that hard. And anyway, that’s not the point –- the point is: not every rabbi is going to be a perfect fit. The first one I met with instructed me that pants were off-limits (Very religious Orthodox women generally only wear long skirts) and assumed I would never, ever see my family for Christmas again (Big, fat NOPE.) Let’s just say it wasn’t a good fit.
But don’t despair if you don’t mesh with the first rabbi you meet, it’s akin to finding the right doctor or the right therapist -- and a rabbi is a bit of both -– wait for the one that understands your personal story and is willing to guide you as you continue to write your chapters.
7. Doubt will be your #1 enemy.
No matter how many times Ben tells me he loves me for me, there’s a quiet voice in the back of my head that grows loud during my bleakest moments: Would he still be with me if I decided I couldn’t be Jewish? I’ve confronted him on this issue and his answer is resoundingly, reassuringly yes –- and I believe him –- but I’d be lying to you, reader, if I said that my self-worth hasn’t wavered, that I wonder, more often than I’d like: Am I good enough, as is? Not as Anna, the Jew, but as just Anna, the person?
8. The word Shiksa will make you dry-heave.
Under no circumstances, call me the S-word. And while you’re at it, don’t tell me that I sort of “look Jewish,” or that “LOL -- You’ll be a Blonde Jew!" It’s offensive and you’re perpetuating gross stereotypes.
9. You’ll feel like you have two identities.
When I’m around Ben’s family, I feel like Jewish Anna, paying close attention to make sure I don't greet Ben’s brother with a hug (Observant Orthodox men don’t touch women, even to shake hands.) and that I’m not using a “meat” spoon in my cereal. (Laws of kosher dictate the separation of milk & meat.) But when I’m around my friends & family, I tone the “Jewish” down and revert to “Old” Anna. Except the problem is, I’m not that girl anymore and sometimes it feels unnatural. Both instances feel a bit like I’m playing a role, exaggerating the parts of me that each party feels more comfortable with.
10. You’re a gift.
As a convert, you know the meaning of humility. You have incredible strength and conviction. You carry the mindset and life experiences of a non-Jew into the Jewish world, a perspective that is desperately needed. You’re an example to born-Jews to commit themselves to their heritage. You’re the bridge between two worlds and you help them translate and understand each other. You are a gift. Never forget it.