"Blessed are you God…who did not make me a non-Jew."
Personal Essay on Converting to Orthodox Judaism
“Baruch ata Adonai sh’lo asani goy" (Blessed are you God who did not make me a gentile) begins the daily Jewish prayers.
My partners family is religious and lives according to the Jewish Law (Halacha). They reside in a Jewish community within Israel, and we often visit them for Shabbat dinners and holiday gatherings. As a Jewish Orthodox family, they are incredibly open to my fiance and I being secular and driving to their house on Shabbat. One night during Rosh Hashana dinner, as I sat around the dining table with the entire family, I could not help but feel a sense of discomfort in my skin. As I sat and looked around the table the father said it was time for a blessing, he will go around the table and give each one of us a blessing for the New Year. A traditional family moment in Jewish households before a big holiday. As he starts and makes his way around the table, I remembered what I was taught in my conversion: my mom is not my mom anymore, and in certain Jewish blessings the person giving it needs to say the name of the father and the mother of the receiver. In my case, I knew that as soon as he asked me everyone would know that I am a convert, as I and other converts are now daughters of Sarah (Bat Sarah), the first matriarch in the Torah, the mother of all mothers since we resigned our birth ones after converting. As my turn got closer and closer, I did what I always do in these situations and politely asked to be skipped. Only some prayers require the parents' name, and I don't really know the difference and how to identify which blessing needs it and restrain myself from any blessings at all. It goes beyond my minor embarrassment of publicly announcing in a blessing that I do not come from this world; it is the grudge I feel towards a religion that will not allow my mother, the most important person in my life, to be a part of my new Jewish life. That means when I get married her name will not be on my Ketubah, only my father's real name since a non-Jew cannot be on a Jewish contract. "But this is irrelevant, this is such a trivial detail because being Jewish is what matters here," other Jews will often tell me. Again and again, I will hear this from others, that this is foolish, and just a technicality in the Jewish Law, but others do not see the deeper roots this takes in converts lives, in my life.
I feel a necessity to start my story by letting you know my distaste for extremist religions of any kind, including the one I chose. My short existence is measured in 28 years, my Jewish life has been much shorter, as I have only officially been Jewish for less than three years. Living in Israel as an Olah Hadashah (new immigrant) comes with the general assumption that you are Jewish, which in most cases is right, to think that I am Jewish would not be a total error of judgment. The Law of Return gives the right to Jews to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship along with many other benefits helpful when moving to a new country. The law was extended to anyone with any Jewish grandparent, and to spouses married to Jewish partners, regardless if they were considered Jewish under the Orthodox interpretations of Halacha (Jewish Law). Jewish converts are also allowed to make Aliyah and gain citizenship, not just orthodox conversions but also reform and conservative conversions, all who are not considered valid and officially Jewish within the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The law gets confusing when the state combines in with religion; there is no separation between church and state in Israel, the rules of God also rule over the general laws of the country.
Being allowed to make Aliyah and gain citizenship is only half the process of coming to Israel. If you are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate Court, then your rights get limited. In Israel the extreme ultra-orthodox branch of the religion rules over the daily Jewish life: you get married, have kids and die according to their standards, God's laws. One can only get married in Israel if you prove your mother was Jewish, as the Jewish soul is passed on by the mother in Judaism. It is an exhausting task I have witnessed many friends go through when trying to file for marriage in Israel: the extensive documents, letters from Rabbi's and official Ketubah's from their parents and grandparents marriages, all this to prove to the Chief Rabbinate that they are genuinely Jewish according to the Halacha (Jewish Law). The only type of Jewish conversion accepted in Israel by the Chief Rabbinate is the ultra-orthodox branch of the religion, the one they see keeps true to their interpretation of God's rules. Spread around the world there are less than 40 Rabbis that can perform this deed, in some places like all of South America and Poland, there are no recognized Rabbinic conversion courts at all.
I remember the day of my Aliyah flight from Brazil to Israel. Almost 36 hours, two layovers and three flights later, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport. I was making Aliyah to enlist in the Israeli army. I got off the plane with a group of new immigrants coming from Russia, and I was the only South American, the group coordinator only spoke Russian or Hebrew, I spoke neither at the time. They rushed us to the Ministry of Interiors office at the airport to get our new Israeli Identifications, and this is one of the first things a new immigrant does when coming in the country, straight out of a 36 hours flight, get your picture taken and put into the system. The woman behind the desk helping me was asking for documents and necessary information, she asked what religion I wanted to be filed under, I naturally said with a condescending tone "Jewish of course." I had just made Aliyah, a few weeks away from joining the Israeli army, I thought I was undoubtedly Jewish. She informed me this was not possible, technically yes, I can say I am Jewish and move to Israel, officially I am not Jewish according to the Halacha (Jewish Law), so I would need to pick a religion to be written on my identification.
My mother is Brazilian, and she doesn't consider herself part of any religion. She does believe in God, and during my childhood, she had a small statue of baby Jesus next to her bed, but always refused to label herself Catholic or Christian. She did not want to be affiliated with any religion. Growing up in Brazil where the majority is Catholic it is impossible to escape the influence of religion. As all the schools, holidays and significant events mostly revolve around some version of worshiping Jesus and his disciples (but I guess we can say the same about Israel and Judaism except in Brazil, technically, there is suppose to be a separation of church and state). My father was Jewish but passed away right after my first birthday, and he never got a chance to pass down his culture to me, but my mom would always tell me that he wasn't very "Jewish" anyway, they never really celebrated holidays or practiced any Jewish traditions. My mother has never forced any religion on my sister and I. On the contrary, she tried to convince us it was not necessary for our lives, but at the same time indulging in our wishes to find the right religion, a God. I grew up hearing from her how extreme religious devotees often turn out to be the ones with broken morals, excusing bad behavior with God's word. Distorted interpretations of laws passed down through time as God's laws.
The home my mom had created for my sister and I was deeply rooted in acceptance and non-judgment, we experienced with other religions and took from each what we felt fit with our values as a family. I had the privilege of learning about different beliefs, we went to various churches and cults, always trying to find a sect I could connect to, but they all seemed so, and I will not be polite here, crazy. I remember trying Spiritism, and this has a massive following in my hometown of Fortaleza. We went to a few meetings together as a family, but one night they told us they could communicate to our deceased father and clarify unresolved issues in the family, and we ended up leaving right after, it was too much to believe, my mother drew the line in talking to the deceased. Another time we went to a Christian church that all my friends attended, I begged my mom to take us against her will. That Sunday night during mass, a homeless man came in to hear the sermon and rest for a while, he asked for water, and the priest quickly kicked him out with such disgust that my mother instantly got up and left with us. She stated the absurdity of the situation where men claim to be so holy and close to God, but dispose of others as garbage when they aren't seen as fit. We never went back, and I would hear about this night in church for years, as proof of what can happen when you get blinded by religion.
Around age 8 I was feeling like the outsider in my school because all my classmates were getting ready that year for their first communion, but I wasn't allowed to participate as I hadn't even been baptized yet. I remember going to a Catholic church in preparation to get baptized. Towards the end of the Sermon that night everyone lined up to receive the sacramental bread, which represents the body of Christ. I wanted so badly to go up, but one is only allowed after doing their first communion, I hadn't even been baptized, my mom didn't believe in restrictions of ceremonies and religions and nudged me along to get in line. All I remember next is that weekend at a local church my mom invited her close family friends to be our godparents, and she took my sister and me to get baptized. I had pictures of that night, both my sister and I in puffy white dresses standing in front of the dark church in the background, our hairs wet from holy water. The picture disappeared during the time my sister got converted, no proof of the past made it easier to transition into our new lives. Stories of spying on converts are known in the convert community, may it be true or just rumors no one likes to take chances after going through such hard measures to become Jewish, why risk it all over a picture.
My sister and I fall into the category of Jews who make Aliyah but still aren't Jewish enough to get the legal right to get married here. We both went through the draining task of converting according to the Halacha. I was deeply committed to being genuinely Jewish, to making sure my kids will, and they would not have to go through what I did up until that point. I look back now and don't know the person I used to be, so infatuated with religion and seeing it as the only way to exist in Israel. When people find out I converted through the army Nativ course, I usually hear a sigh followed a smile, disdain sometimes, they see is the easy way to convert, a cop out, not as hard as doing it the "real way" as a civilian with the state Rabbinical Court. Course Native is a private Orthodox conversion course with its own rabbinical court inside the Israeli Defense Forces. It provides non-Jewish soldiers looking to convert to Judaism a faster, but much more intense, course of conversion, lasting a minimum of 7 months, depending on how it is spread out during one's army service. Split up into three seminars, each seminar lasting one month, the soldier undergoing the conversion must move to the base where the course is held. The State Conversion Authority, under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate, controlled all the conversions in the country outside of the IDF. The course takes a minimum of 1 year with weekly classes around 2 hours each, after the lessons you get to go on with your regular life, no one watching over you at home, check what you're eating and if you're praying. In the Native Course, though, you are under constant observation and pressure, no moment alone. Currently, in Israel, the conversions done by the Nativ Course have been up for debate at the Knesset, as the Chief Rabbinate argues the course is too lenient, not orthodox enough as the commanders leading it are not up to the standards of the Orthodox branch. They debate whether to cancel the program and if the diplomas given are even valid, putting my conversion certificate in a state of limbo and uncertainty.
I remember during course Nativ I lived by stringent rules, the feeling of always being observed and judged followed me every day in the army, from the first day of the course until the final Beit Din. I changed my lifestyle and ways to fit the Jewish rules. For breakfast I would bring a packet of ready-made apple and cinnamon oatmeal, my usual breakfast toast had been replaced ever since I realized the consequences of eating bread and having to finish the entire Birkat Hamazon prayer every time I ate it, and just gave it up, one of the harder prayers to learn in my opinion. Towards the end of the course, the commanders in charge keep a close eye to make sure we always say the right prayers at the right times, checking that we are indeed living in accordance to Jewish law. The course consisted of learning and praying, putting to practice what we learned in the classrooms. I had different classes, and I can't recall the exact names and what their specific topics were, but it covered a range of things we had to learn for the final test, like the Jewish laws, holidays and traditions, our relationship with God and general study of the stories in the Tanach. An extensive amount of subjects to memorize in 7 months.
In one of the lessons we were trying to understand the concept of the Sages, how they got to the position of power of interpreting God's laws, and from that how can we follow their rules and create our own relationship with God? This idea is hard to grasp when you don't grow up in a Jewish house or community where you learn from birth that this is the way God wanted things. It is easier for me to question the basic ideas of Judaism because it hasn't been rooted in me since I was a kid, I have no blind faith that this is what God wanted and I needed answers to understand. I came from a rational state of mind that has no place in religion, the base of any religion is just faith. The Rabbi who was our teacher was trying to assist the students in understanding what/who is God and the men he bestowed the responsibility to carry on his word. They are exclusively men, in every religion, I have explored I always found this common thread between them all, the core of them. As most religions have strong roots in the gender binary, the separation of responsibilities and the positions each one holds in society. This moment was when Judaism started losing me, as I felt that all extreme religions placed women's needs second to everyone else's. It was written in the Torah that only men would carry on and interpret the word of God as if men can be morally inclined enough to not put their fellow men's needs before women's. Women must confine themselves to motherly duties and household activities, not worry themselves with external ideas. This extreme side of Judaism I had to learn and absorb to get converted is not the Judaism I believe in today.
I can not deny that I learned a lot about Judaism in Nativ, as my Catholic education had deprived me of any real Jewish knowledge. I did also learn about what it meant to be a Jewish convert. Converts must resign their birth parent that is not Jewish and be known as sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah. Converts must never marry a Cohen, for only the pure-blooded Jews can marry into the Jewish Holy family of Kohanim. As a lot of these things may seem trivial and insignificant to others that did not go through the same process as me, the nuances of my life experiences made the whole process challenging and made me lose myself. Getting converted while doing a two-year service in the IDF as a lone soldier was nothing less than challenging, as my experiences that led me to that choice had broken me and left me with a sense of self-hatred that I only imagined religion could cure.
As part of the conversion ceremony, women must go to the mikvah to get clean and pure after they pass their Beit Din. Become a new person, like how when I got baptized at age seven by a priest, but in the Jewish religion, it is a more disturbing ceremony. The three Rabbi's in the Beit Din must be present inside the mikvah with the convert while she says the three blessings and they must witness her fully immerse in the water three times. Immersion in the mikvah needs to be done in a specific way, no part of one's body can touch the floor or walls, arms and legs spread wide to make sure each centimeter of our bodies is in contact with the holy water. In Judaism, only men can be witnesses.
A list of tasks that must be done before the bath is sent out to all the girls:
-shave all the hair in your body as you usually would.
-get your nails cut and cleaned, no nail polish.
-do not wear makeup, perfume or any jewelry, your body must be in full contact with the water.
-you need to count a minimum of 7 days after your last period before coming.
-make sure you are as pristine as the Virgin Mary.
I think back about the walk down the long set of stairs of the bathtub in the mikvah, as three older rabbis observed my descend. I was wearing a cover over my body, a veil, the kind you wear when you stay at hospitals overnight, it was a little thicker than the hospital covers, as to give us a sense of security that our bodies will not peep through the fabric. But, fabric moves in water, when you dive in a pool with a dress every girl knows that basic physics makes it raise up revealing our skin beneath it, and when we leave the water fabric clings to our bodies showing every curve like a second skin.
So as I walk down the steep stairs in my veil of confinement into the tub, there were about ten steps and nothing like a regular bathtub. All I could think about was making sure my gown wasn't opening up or clinging to my body, and I kept repeating in my thoughts trying to calm my anxiety "we are all naked under our clothes anyway." I get to the bottom; they order me to look up, the clear positions of power deeply discomfort me. There is another woman in the room, and she was there to make the girls feel at ease in contrast to the three male bodies present taking over space as I stood in a vulnerable position looking up at them. There had been horror stories in the past about how Rabbis would take advantage of young converts, all this crossing through my mind as I stood in the cold water. I see the three old men looking down at me, their eyes lingered, and I put my head down. They order me to look up again as my eyes keep falling to my bare feet at the bottom of the water. I am asked to repeat the blessing after them. I carefully repeat each phrase making sure I am the best convert I can be, as Freud would say that my father issues did turn me into an overachiever. Arms, legs, fingers, and toes all spread out, closed eyes, deep breath and quickly with a push from myself I leaned back as if being pushed off the edge of a building, the water consumes my body.
Shema Yisrael, Adonal Eloheynu, ___ Echad.
As I come up for air, I realized I forgot the second Adonai, I skipped a word and questioned if it even happened, I waited to see if anyone noticed, but no one heard what happened, the Rabbis didn't react, neither did the woman standing by the door. My Hebrew at the time was far from fluent, not that much has changed now, and I was extremely embarrassed, I did not want to ask them to stop and say I didn't understand and had made a mistake. What if they stopped everything and told me I could no longer proceed? I was so preoccupied with making sure they couldn't see my body that I didn't focus on speaking. Nervously I stood paralyzed waiting for them to proceed, or not, but thankfully the ceremony had finished.
I complain and struggle with the sealing ceremony for Jewish converts. How can it be allowed that men watch during such a personal, intimate moment? How can it be that in a religion of such modesty imposed on both women and men to cover up and keep their bodies sacred, that men should not look or touch women besides their wife before and after marriage, why is it allowed for them to watch? I have been given many answers, mostly that the Rabbi's present are pure in their intentions and of heart, that they do not look at the women sexually or inappropriately. They are above that and solely there to witness the ceremony is done correctly, as the Sages had written that this is the only way for a gentile to convert. So what can be said for the other Rabbi's that have taken advantage of converts in the past? Were they pure of heart? Was God unaware of women converts and the discomfort and shame of going through this when he spoke through the Sages? Another reason I have been told is that in the past when the laws were written, this was not seen as a problem as it is now, women's issues and rights were not relevant, the mentality was different when the Laws were written. If so, then why would God have spoken down to the Sages that this will be the way and it is written in the Torah? In my opinion, God is not an unenlightened being going through time with humankind and learning along with us. Just because we have been recently made aware of women's issues, this does not mean God has just discovered this as well. God does not change Its mind as it goes through the years, the Jewish Law does not change through time as society becomes more enlightened and modern either. This way of life to me cannot be what God wanted, to make women invisible.
I am not the same person I was when I walked down those steps three years ago, and I could never be so cavalier about a situation I feel is barbaric, invasive and disrespectful. This whole process for me was distorted interpretations of God's word. I write this article, not with the goal of attacking the ultra-orthodox. I merely look for a more in-depth understanding as to why we still follow these rules, why women in this branch of the Jewish faith allow this to continue happening in these manners. I got converted because for me at that time in my life was essential to be officially seen as Jewish by the state, it felt like it was the only way to belong in Israel. Today I see that residing in Israel goes beyond the strict beliefs of the orthodox Jewish faith.