Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spiritual Autobiography

Rabbi asked me to write a spiritual autobiography in honor of my conversion today.

It has taken quite a bit hard work, patience and perseverance to get to this point, this stage where I embrace Judaism and literally take the plunge. It started out, more than three years ago, in a wading pool in a coworker's backyard.

You see, there was a coworker named Anne who had a crush on a fellow coworker, my Ryan. At the time, I had nothing to do with this charismatic male coworker other than a shared history at the University of Kansas and at the student newspaper, where I was known for my no-nonsense approach to my work and he was known for quite the opposite.

Anne shared with me her unrequited love for Ryan, who I vaguely knew was Jewish. She conjectured that perhaps he did not feel the same for her because of her Christian background. And, there, as we were neck-deep in a kiddie pool, she said she would convert for him.

At the time I silently scoffed, both because the idea of converting for someone was preposterous and because I was fairly certain more than religious beliefs divided the pair. I also didn’t quite believe that a couple needed such commonalities to be successful.


Fast forward a few months, and I suddenly had everything to do with this Ryan fellow. I was fast falling in love with him. Living in Joplin, where Jews didn’t even have High Holiday services for a lack of minyan, our religious discrepancies weren’t an issue.

I, a privately identified agnostic with a Methodist background, and he, a conservative Jew, were drinking after a Kansas Jayhawk football game in Lawrence, Kan., when a few drinks led me to be a little more honest and a little less guarded.

“You know,” I told him, “we’re perfect for each other in every way.” He smiled and held onto me a little tighter (much to the chagrin of Anne, who was both upset that her Missouri Tigers were trounced by their rival and that this scene was unfolding just beyond her booth).

“But really,” I continued, “name one thing about us that isn’t perfect.”

A few drinks had made a commitment-shy Ryan a little more forthright himself.

“You’re not Jewish,” he countered. “That’s the only thing.”

The alcohol and levity of the situation numbed me from his honesty, but at that moment I realized my future.


Oh sure, I hemmed and hawed about it. I wasn’t sure (OK, I was pretty sure) I didn’t believe in G-d, and I resented Ryan because our love was forcing me to confront my spirituality.

“Why do you get to sit there and believe whatever you want and still be Jewish,” I would complain, “when I have to proclaim my spirituality for others to judge?"

He didn’t have an answer. He shrugged his shoulders. I pouted.

One night I told him I wasn’t going to do it. It was too much I told him. The work made me angry. I felt like I was trying to butt into a tight-knit group of friends who weren’t even sure they wanted me. Two years into our relationship, we were strong enough for this argument, and his answer, filled with certainty and devotion, made this day possible.

“Do what you feel is right,” he told me. “I will love you anyway.”


It was months in the making when I finally had my first meeting with someone who could do something about me not being Jewish. After countless nights of soul-searching and discussions over drinks with close friends and family, it was time to talk to a rabbi who could tell me exactly how this all would work.

By this point, I had celebrated a few Jewish holidays and no longer celebrated ones from my upbringing. I quietly gave away an Easter bunny night light my aunt gave me and passed off to my mom an angel statue that my cousin gave me for Christmas.

The rabbi gave Ryan and me a roadmap for my conversion. To my chagrin, it was a roadmap with lots of question marks, more a Choose Your Own Adventure novel than Rand McNally. We were given a list of books to read and some general guidelines and we were on our own.

Our solo studying began in earnest. Ryan and I began observing Shabbat on Saturday mornings -- the only time we reasonably could get away from work. With our scrambled eggs and turkey bacon, we read passages from our recommended books. We discussed, argued, compared and contrasted. We talked about God (maybe I could believe in a higher power?), mitzvot (how in the world do you remember them all?) and tzedakah (what is really enough?). Our answers were all over the map, and through those early weeks both Ryan and I began growing our Jewish partnership.


My Jewish identity began to take hold, too. I was thrilled to discover the new magazine Jewish Living, a Judaic take on Martha Stewart Living. I cooked my first Passover dinner and prepared the seder with only a few mistakes (mostly noted by a new word for me, “Oy,” muttered under my breath). I made Hanukkah cookies and grumbled about the lack of appropriate gift wrap available at my local Wal-Mart. I told everyone I knew about a Kosher subway that opened in Kansas City and complained to my girlfriends at restaurants when everything seemed to contain pork.

I read anything I could about Judaism: Judaism for Dummies on the elliptical at the gym, Basic Judaism during my dinner breaks at work and The Devil in the Details (a hilarious memoir of an Orthodox girl who grew obsessive with Jewish law because it fulfilled her OCD desires) in bed at night. I bookmarked several Jewish sites to satisfy my -- sometimes -- hourly curiosities.

My mother noticed a change, too. She smiled when a bit of yiddish or a sigh would escape my lips during conversation. It all made sense, she said, when she met my mother-in-law for the first time.


It was then that my formal foray into Jewry began with classes at the Hillel House in Fayetteville and membership at Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

I remember my first class when I met Miriam. It was like I met my possible future, and I couldn’t believe that I would ever get there. (“I love the way Miriam's Hebrew just rolls off her tongue,” I wrote in my journal on June 26, 2007, "I think my tongue is too short for all the inflections and quick syllables of Hebrew and Yiddish.”)

But over the months of classes, I got a bit closer, little by little. I learned the practices and even got a bit better with lighting matches. Hebrew scared me, but I conquered it (more or less), and I can’t wait to learn more and perfect my infantile “chet” so I can properly say my Hebrew name, Michal, in the future.

The traditions have grown to be a part of me by attending synagogue and keeping Shabbat in any way we can. I find myself humming prayers to myself while I fold the laundry and complete other mundane tasks. It used to be difficult to keep myself from drinking a milkshake with my Sonic burger. Now I don’t even think of it. (Junior burger, no cheese and a large Diet Coke, please.)

There is still so much more to be accomplished, I know. I still struggle with personal prayer. I remain cynical about the role of G-d in our lives. And we both want to observe Shabbat in a more meaningful way. Our new life, in so many different ways, awaits us.


I am constantly asked, “Why do you go to ‘Jew school’?” Many others ask if I’m doing this for Ryan, if Ryan’s family would shun me if I didn’t.

On the day of my conversion I can tell you this:

I am doing this because it is in my heart. I am doing this because I seek answers to questions I didn’t even know I had three years ago. I am not perfect, I don’t know everything, but someone or something else is and does.

Ryan and I will raise a family, and we will go to Israel. I will learn Hebrew and hope to be an adult b’nai mitzvah someday.

I hope in a few years, I’ll be a little more like Miriam and I’ll struggle a little less.

But until then, I will enjoy the struggles and growing pains, and I’ll take great joy in the little accomplishments with Ryan by my side.


1 comment:

eeds said...

Hi Michelle,
Your spiritual autobiography is beautifully written.

I'm blessed to hear how God is pulling you closer to Himself through this journey.

I'll be praying that as you and Ryan begin your beautiful life together that He will continue to open your hearts to His love and will.

Congratulations again on your wedding. I'm sure it will be beautiful!
God Bless,