I’m a convert to Judaism, but I think, looking back, that I was always meant to be a person of the book. My mother used to read Louis L’Amour novels to escape the suffocating world of Rushville, NY. I read Tamora Pierce and Daughters of the Moon to find my place in a world otherwise inhospitable to nerdy introverts. My roots are layered with letters, misfits and long novels.
Judaism, as a religion, heavily focuses on roots. Our roots stretch back over four thousand years, and the modern state of Israel was reborn through the strength of this dedication. This commitment to discovery is something that always drew to me Judaism; we are charged with learning the roots of the texts and searching out meaning. Seeking Jewish communal roots is just as important as exploring individual roots — knowing our collective Jewish roots is crucial to our collective memory and to understanding who we are as individuals.
That doesn’t mean of course, this comes without challenges. Converts endure many awkward conversations about why we converted, to the point where I’ve developed an elevator pitch to avoid delving too deeply into the topic. I can play Jewish geography well enough to make people think I grew up “not religious” instead of “not Jewish,” but it’s difficult explaining away 11 and a half years of Catholic schooling.
Jewish summer camp songs? Don’t know ‘em.
Weirdly specific Ashkenazi cultural references that born Jews just know in their kishkes? Don’t know those, either.
The great love for kugel and gefilte fish? That eludes me, too.
This focus on roots might seem off putting for a Jew by choice, but rabbis say that all converts were present at Mount Sinai, too, receiving Torah and establishing their roots with God. The holiday celebrating that covenant, Shavuot, affords an opportunity to examine my roots and the wings my grandmother and mother gave me.
Jews come from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds, and their roots intertwine with mine; I have close friends from the Former Soviet Union, Guatemala and pre-revolution Iran; their praying styles, food and commentary on the world are now reflected in my own worldview.
The biblical Ruth, celebrated during the holiday of Shavuot, did this work as well. She rejected her nationality, her family and her previous religious affiliations. She became one with the Jewish nation — and, in doing so, she created the line of King David.
But unlike Ruth, I don’t reject the places I’m from and my history. They’re a part of me, and I carry them in my heart.
Shavuot is a holiday meant to reconnect and recommit, and it’s important to me to explore the ways the women in my life have impacted my roots as a feminist and as a Jew. My grandmother grew up in the New Hampshire, in a small Italian-English family. During the Korean War, a handsome soldier met her at a pizza shop, and well, as they say, the rest is history.
I realized recently that I never knew my grandmother. We were never close — she was naturally close to animals, busy with her grooming shop and her dogs. We connected mainly over Scrabble games with my mother. In settling into “adulthood” and Los Angeles, I realized I wanted to know more about her in order to learn more about myself.
Papa and Gege eventually made their way to the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes and settled on a decrepit farm, complete with the chickens and quarter horses my mother and her brothers would grow up showing. Gege put her roots into the farm. She tended the crops, took care of the animals, and raised my mother and my uncles. Gege taught me to bake, to pay attention to the cookies when the timer goes off, and to be kind to everything. Her attitude of kindness infuses everything about my Judaism and inspires me to live out “derech eretz kadma l’torah.”
Gege also became close her mother in law, Nonni, a fresh off the boat immigrant from an even smaller town in Sicily. Nonni taught Gege nearly everything she knew about being a housewife — from boiling eggs to making her famous wedding soup we only ever ate at Thanksgiving. Nonni never lost sight of where she came from — forever a small-town woman who made the arduous journey to the United States when she was young. After her divorce, she received a special dispensation from the Pope so that she could continue in good conscience receiving communion. Much like Naomi, she opened her home to Gege and taught her what she knew.
As I build a life in Los Angeles, I think of how far my roots have spread. How do I reconcile the roots of a redneck, whose new roots include a history spanning nearly 4,000 years, with this complex city?
This is where Gege (my grandmother) and my mother gave me wings to fly. They encouraged me to go far from my comfort zone — to different countries, to a different religion and to a partner I would have never imagined myself with. It seems I do share some similarities with Ruth after all.
Because of Gege, my mother, and women like Ruth, I learned to fly, but I also learned the resilience of my roots — they’re both sturdy and flexible.
My wings are strong enough to carry me through any changes I may face. My roots are strong enough to handle a turn in seasons. Ruth weathered the changes in her leaves, because she knew who she was and where she came from. I draw strength from her example as the seasons in my life change, slowly but surely.
Shavuot is a time for me to recommit, to return. It also happens to fall near the anniversary of my beit din and journey to the mikvah. As a convert, it’s so important to me where I’ve come from, to assess where it is I want to go. I come back to the countryside I grew up in as often as I can, cook the pasta sauce Gege and my mother lovingly perfected, and honor the women who shaped me – Naomi, Ruth, Gege, and Cheryl.