I’ve spent most of my adult life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the reigning deity is liberal politics, and in Miami Beach, where the locals worship sun-bronzed physical perfection. Not that there’s anything wrong with either one.
But there came a point — amid an array of midlife disjunctions, including an empty nest, an unraveling relationship and my mother’s terminal illness — when I realized I was feeling a certain spiritual malaise. I had always thought of myself as an agnostic, not an atheist. Still, I’d been completely uninterested in organized religion of any kind. My suburban New Jersey family was what I can only describe as secular Protestant; we didn’t go to church, but my mother had us baptized “just in case.” I had been married for a decade in my 20s to a secular Jew, and my children were raised in that tradition: bageltarians, basically.
I was on board with that. More of my friends were Jewish than not. Since my teens, I’d been besotted with everything culturally Jewish, from the mot just-ness of Yiddish to the novels of Philip Roth. When a girlhood friend discovered as an adult that her grandmother was a Jew, I was jealous (although it did give me the chance to quip that some of my best friend was Jewish). During my marriage, my former mother-in-law put no pressure on me to play Ruth to her Naomi; I think it was good enough that I wasn’t identifiably Christian. But I embraced her tutorials in the handover of the prince, learning to make chicken soup with the secret ingredient (feet) and becoming wise in the ways of yahrzeit candles and mezuzot.
In all this ethno-cultural swooning, there was not a single thought on my part about religion, per se. Theologically speaking, our mezuza might as well have been a four-leaf clover. I had no idea what Jews believed in. But neither did a lot of the Jews I knew.
Years after my divorce, I interviewed the late philosopher, biologist and neuroscientist Francisco Varela for a science magazine. Varela believed that objective, static “reality” was a myth. You and I might look at a rainbow and collectively agree as sighted humans that it has certain properties, like seven colors. But a cat, whose rods and cones process only red and green, sees a different rainbow, and a bird may well see colors that aren’t perceptible to the human eye. In fact, Varela thought the pigeons he worked with might be seeing other dimensions. For that matter, people who lived eons ago and had different brains may have seen something else altogether. All we really know about a rainbow is where its characteristics intersect with our biological ability to perceive them. The cat and the bird are still experiencing completely different, equally valid physical realities.
I loved this stuff. And while it didn’t jumpstart me to contemplate organized religion, it definitely made me ponder the legitimacy of things that can’t be verified.
Much later still, I briefly attended a 12-step group for loved ones of substance abusers. Although it was supposedly not religious, the meetings included lots of praying and referencing of higher powers. I had a near-allergic reaction. And yet, another part of me recognized that the people I was feeling so snottily superior to had something I lacked. As I began to imagine what it might feel like to have a spiritual dimension in my own life, my old flirtation with all things Jewish kicked in. Without having much of a clue as to what a spiritual journey might involve, it struck me that I would probably be most comfortable making it among practicing Jews. I went to see a rabbi.
I had stumbled into a rich evolutionary moment. The Jewish Renewal movement was working to synthesize modern concerns, like feminism and ecological awareness, with ancient traditions, such as Hebrew chanting, kabbala study, meditation and the dancing-in-the-aisles joyfulness of the Hasidic sects. Soon I was devouring the works of Michael Lerner, Arthur Green, Rodger Kamenetz, Mitchell Chefitz, Lawrence Kushner and Aryeh Kaplan. As I plowed through my reading list, I learned to my delight that what I valued about cultural Judaism — the poetry of the language, the passion for justice, the irony, the food — was rooted in “the religious part.”
I also experienced a surprisingly easy transition from having my nose pressed against the glass of belief to feeling the warmth inside. The rabbi I met with every week gave me a pivotal piece of advice: Instead of intellectualizing everything, just go through the motions of saying the prayers… and see what happens. To my amazement, the rituals took on a life of their own. (I am reminded here of the observation of that other Jew, Woody Allen, that 80% of success in life is just showing up.)
There is a tradition, not really followed these days, that converts to Judaism should be turned away three times, to test their commitment to an often despised minority. I had my own trials, including a required course that spent very little time on the parts of Judaism I was interested in and a lot on teaching women half my age how to cover the challah bread properly after they made Shabbat dinner for their future husbands. But the biggest challenges during the year of my conversion came from living largely in a milieu in which religion is pretty much regarded as the opiate of the masses.
Several friends whose lives seemed to be no less screwed up than mine expressed alarm when they heard my plans, their premise being that no intelligent person would turn to religion except to salve a deep existential wound; hence, things with me must be far more horrendous than they had realized. One dear friend said that although he would never need the “crutch” of religion, it was probably a good thing that other people (apparently, such as weak-willed moi) could find solace in it. I heard numerous lectures on why religion is responsible for most of the world’s ills. My then-, now ex-, partner asked (sotto voce, in synagogue): “Do you really believe this crap?”
But the most common reaction was embarrassment. Friends with whom I had shared confidences about sex and finances apparently found the subject of God way too personal. Years earlier I had surprised my circle by taking up with another woman; now I had a new understanding of which love truly dare not speak its name. Few people asked me any substantive questions. Indeed, they were clearly dying for me not to jawbone about whatever it was that I found so compelling about religion.
This holding up of a secular cross against the vampire of religion was true of recovering Christians and lifelong atheists, but among the most adamant were the pastrami Jews who hadn’t been in a synagogue for decades. They made it clear they already knew all they needed to know about Judaism. Even when I noted that many things had changed since their bar mitzvah days, they all but stuck their fingers in their ears.
No one’s reaction pained me more than that of my friend Jane, one of the smartest and most ethical people I know. She told me flatly I had lost my mind — although she, at least, was willing to engage with me. Jane had turned her back on Judaism when she was 12, at a time when women couldn’t be rabbis, Hebrew was discouraged and services tended to reflect the wider post-war American anesthesia. And yet, the more I assured her that this was hardly what I was signing on for — for instance, I was required to study the Hebrew that had been denied to her as a girl — the more tension I seemed to create.
I was fascinated by a modern movement toward “eco-kosher” values: taking the traditional Jewish concept of mindful eating and applying it to how food is raised and its impact on animals, workers and the earth. Jane and I had both stopped eating mammals and birds years before, and we shared an interest in greenmarket agriculture. I thought she would be all over the eco-kosher cause. Instead, she rolled her eyes as if I’d joined a cult. It was only after many months of tearful fights that I came to realize that she felt as deserted as I did. I was not embracing the Judaism she could relate to from her childhood (even though she had rejected most of it). And — to add insult to injury — her shiksa friend was abandoning her for a Judaism that bore no resemblance to anything she, a Jew by any traditional standard, could recognize.
I formally became a Jew in a total immersion ceremony in the amniotic fluid of the Atlantic Ocean. Photographs of me from that day glow with salty spray and pure happiness. As time passed, my friends adjusted. Jane and I, in particular, worked to find ways we could be Jewish together, including a joint trip to Israel. In one of life’s strange little circularities, I also now have quasi-Jewish grandchildren. One of my semi-Jewish daughters married a not-especially-practicing Jewish man around the time I converted, and their kids celebrate Jewish holidays. L’chaim!
The stereotype of converts is that we’re the Jewish equivalent of more Catholic than the Pope. Not me. I may not eat corned beef, but I do eat shellfish. I’m frequently critical of the policies of the state of Israel, and if I had a son, I probably wouldn’t circumcise him.
Nor would I dare argue that religion is a panacea. But it has become my vantage point for connecting some pretty important dots. I feel like I’ve become fluent in a beautiful language with complex grammar — although I still need to learn to think in it.
That this is possible, I take on faith.
Lindsy Van Gelder is a freelance writer living in Miami Beach.