Tonight at sundown, the Jewish New Year – Rosh HaShanah – begins. As Jews, we enter into the ten holiest days of the year, the Days of Awe, to culminate in the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is one of my favorite times of the year: the holiday is about beginnings, sweetness, and humble reverence.
It’s only fitting that today I share the second part of the story of my conversion to Judaism. You can read part one from Monday here: Finding G-d in the Music.
. . .
Sometime after I came back from Vocal Institute that summer of 1998, Larry and I spent a lovely day in Ocean City, New Jersey. We sat on a bench on the Boardwalk, just outside of Stewart’s Hot Dogs. I was very unceremoniously trying to eat a very messy, massive chili dog. And somehow, in all this idyllic Jersey Shore summer moment, our conversation got very heavy.
“My parents brought up the fact that you aren’t Jewish the other day,” Larry blurted out of nowhere.
A mouth full of chili dog, I mumbled: “Mrumph-kay. (gulp, a swig of cream soda) What did they say?”
“They said they really liked you and that you’re really nice, but if we were getting serious that maybe I should think about a nice Jewish girl,” Larry said, almost embarrassed.
I chewed on the end of my straw, looking out at ocean, the seagulls whining into the sea breeze. I couldn’t tell if he or his parents were joking. “So what did you say?”
“I told them it didn’t matter, that I loved you, and that if we got really serious I hoped they’d stand by me,” he said, defiantly. “They said okay and then didn’t bring it up again.”
Still chewing on my straw, I said: “Huh. Good to know.” I stood up. “Hey, let’s go to the arcade.”
The seed had been planted. Not maliciously or willfully, but that conversation would stay with me over the years.
. . .
Finding G-d was one thing. Figuring out the way in which I chose to interact with G-d was another. At the age of 16, I began shopping for a religion to call my own.
I read books like a fiend. I started with broader world religion texts, reading about everything from Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism to Judaism. As I began my quest to find a religion, I immediately turned from Christianity. I think a large part of it is because as I was raised Protestant, I never felt close to that faith; I never connected with G-d through a Christian lens.
All this time, I’m dating a nice Jewish boy, whose parents invite me over to their family holiday dinners – Rosh HaShanah, Hanukkah, Pesach (Passover).
And then Larry and I were invited to our friend’s little brother’s Bar Mitzvah. That night would change everything.
. . .
I had never been to a synagogue before. What I knew of Judaism up until that point had been through an iconic understanding of the religion and its symbols: the Star of David, yarmulke (head coverings worn my men), the Rabbi as the spiritual leader. I had read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen the summer before my freshmen year of high school. We had a close family friend who had been a double agent working for Mossad and the Russians during WWII, ferrying Russian Jews into the safety of Israel. I had watched Schindler’s List and studied the Holocaust in middle school.
My understanding of Judaism was peripheral, at best.
Larry and I were running late to Randy’s Bar Mitzvah service. It was a Friday night and we hustled ourselves into the synagogue. I didn’t have time to take in the surroundings as we could hear the Friday evening service had already begun. Larry stopped me before I walked into the sanctuary.
“Hold on a sec, I gotta grab a kippah and tallis,” he said, reaching for the bin of head coverings and pulling a shroud from the rack next to the door. He placed the kippah on his head, just slightly towards the back of his crown, and opened the door for me.
We came in and sat near the front. Before Larry sat down, he stretched out his tallis, the fringes dangling from the edges, his lips barely moving as he read something silently from along the top edge of the shroud. He kissed each edge once where he held it stretched taut with his hands before whisking it around his shoulders. I sat there, marveling at a side of my boyfriend I had never seen before, at what was clearly a habitual act for him.
I pulled out a siddur and opened it, the Hebrew lettering resembling Mandarin Chinese it was so foreign looking to me.
“Try this way,” Larry whispered, smiling. He turned my siddur upside-down in my lap. “You read Hebrew from right to left.”
Embarrassed, I wondered to myself: “What had I just gotten myself into?”
. . .
During the service, I looked around the sanctuary, admiring its beautiful architecture: the airy windows, the exposed wooden beams, the ornate decoration at the front of the room. I snuck glances at the people sitting around us, heads dotted with kippot on the men and boys, families clustered together, Randy sitting there in his suit looking only slightly terrified.
Larry gently nudged my arm to rise, the creak of the pews and shuffling of feet echoing somewhat in the lofty space.
The congregation began to sing at once:
“Sh’ma y’Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad.”
I was transfixed in the beauty and unity of such a lyrical line. I had no idea what was being chanted but this haunting melody rocked me to my core. The congregation continued with the second half of the prayer, the V’Ahavta, also chanted aloud. There was something so ancient about the words and melody as the congregation sung in unison, calling from thousands of years of tradition.
As a vocalist, I felt that melody chanted right through my body, a deeply resonant moment. As the congregation continued, the air felt bright and charged. It was a familiar sensation. Just as I had found G-d in music, I had found His Name – Adonai – in music as well.
. . .
As Larry’s mom drove us home, Larry and I sat in the back seat. As we drove away from the synagogue, Larry asked me what I thought of the whole thing.
“It was nice,” I said timidly, still processing everything I had just taken in. “The synagogue was really pretty inside. I really liked the singing, too.”
Larry smiled, “Good. I’m glad you liked it.”
“Yeah,” I trailed off. After a minute or so, I timidly asked, “What was that part, when we all stood up and everyone sang the same thing?”
“It’s the affirmation of the faith. It’s what you sing every Friday; it’s one of the big important prayers said by every Jew, everywhere,” Larry informed me.
“Huh. Good to know,” I said, turning to look out the window at the chilly December evening.
. . .
A few days later, I checked out Harold Kushner’s To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking from my high school library.
To this day, it remains my favorite book on the subject of Judaism.
. . .
It wasn’t long before I had made up my mind. After all this searching, this wandering even, I knew in my heart that Judaism would be my path. I told Larry I wanted to convert to Judaism and he was thrilled. We told his parents and they were initially lukewarm, skeptical even. They needed to see just how passionate I was for the faith for themselves and over the years, became wildly supportive of my conversion efforts. I told my parents and they were surprisingly supportive, becoming more so as time went on. They were completely open to me finding a religion for myself and happy that I had found something that made sense to me.
And in the summer of 1999, after two years of dating, Larry and I broke up.
. . .
Larry and I came to a mutual decision while I was away at the NJ Governor’s School of Music for a month during the summer. It was an epic break up over the phone – a payphone no less – as I kept feeding quarters into it over our tearful three-hour break up conversation.
My mom was very supportive after the break up. When I got home at the end of July, my mom took me out to dinner at Applebee’s. I needed the comfort food.
As we waited for our food to come out, my mom asked how I was doing. I told her I was sad but that I needed to move on. I still had my senior year of high school to look forward to, after all.
“Do you still want to convert?” my mom asked, genuinely curious.
I paused. As much as I was still hurting from Larry, thinking about my faith came from a completely different place in my heart.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “I mean, Larry and his family introduced me to Judaism, but I was never doing this for him. This was always for me.”
And it would be, even as Larry and I remained friends throughout senior year. My mom even bought me my first Hanukkah gifts that year. I continued to read and study like a fiend, immediately connecting with my campus Rabbi when I got to college. I joined Hillel. I went to student-led services on campus.
When Larry and I got back together about two months into our first semester at college, he was thrilled I was still so passionate about Judaism.
And yet, it would still be another 7 years before I would formally convert.
. . .
That’s it for this part of the story. Tune in this Friday as I wrap things up and talk about what it was like the day of my conversion and how I came to the Hebrew name, Miriam.
And to all who celebrate the Jewish New Year: wishing you and yours a joyous l’Shana Tovah and a year full of health and happiness!