Kelly was one of those non-Jewish girls I’d always envied — the ones who seemed to know where every cool party was and dressed with an urban flair. So it took me by surprise when, one day last year, she excitedly told me that she was converting to Judaism.
I knew she loved “Jewy” things. She even had a blog, “Bunny Shapiro,” where she posted pictures of old Jews eating at delis, mezuzas she found pretty and, because she worked in the fashion business, photos of Jewish fashionistas. But I figured the whole Jewish thing was just part of her eccentric persona, not something a non-Jewish, 30-year-old downtown New Yorker would seriously consider taking on. And she told me she wasn’t doing it for a Jewish guy; she was taking the big step on her own.
I was really puzzled. I am from a Hasidic background and have struggled with my own Judaism, sometimes feeling that it was a burden to be so different. Never mind the nightmares I had as a child about the Holocaust. So why did this cool New York woman want to become Jewish?
Because I’m a journalism student, I naturally decided to do some research. I ended up writing my master’s thesis on singles converting to Judaism. I found that some did it because they felt Christianity didn’t give them the answers and Judaism did, or because a parent or relative was Jewish and they wanted to reconnect to their heritage, like the one man I interviewed who converted after he discovered his ancestor was a Marrano. One of the best reasons I heard was from a rabbi who told me the story of how, years ago, a single woman came to him to convert “because of Paul Newman in the movie ‘Exodus.’”
But each reason had the same underlying theme: All these people experienced a deep connection to Judaism and to Jews. “Have you ever been with a group of people and just felt you belonged?” one single convert I spoke with explained.
I met Kelly often as I was writing my thesis, and our friendship grew stronger. She told me that she had wanted to be Jewish since she was a little girl growing up in Canada. The homes of her Jewish friends (“There was Rachel Mendelsohn, Talia Klienplat”) seemed like warm, loving places, where everyone got along, holidays were always being celebrated and the mothers were glamorous and “over the top.” Her home was very different. Birthdays and holidays were rarely celebrated, and the house felt cold, her parents distant.
That feeling of coldness followed her into the neighborhood church that the family would attend occasionally. “I was always freaked out by Jesus on the cross. Aesthetically it’s just dark and scary, worshipping a dead man on a cross,” Kelly said. Not surprisingly, her family isn’t that supportive of her conversion. But Kelly is nonplussed. She doesn’t expect them to understand her feelings for Judaism.
A few months ago I went with her to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. At one exhibition, Hebrew letters flashed on a large screen, followed by pictures of children studying Torah, images of Israel and of smiling families. The screen went dark for a few moments, and then hundreds of candles lit up the room, their flames flickering across the walls.