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.
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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.


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