A Fraught Journey To Judaism

Author's Conversion Proved Alienating — and Liberating

Holy Land: Before her conversion in 2000, Lindsy Van Gelder traveled to Israel.
Courtesy of Lindsy Van Gelder
Holy Land: Before her conversion in 2000, Lindsy Van Gelder traveled to Israel.

By Lindsy Van Gelder

Published January 15, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.