As far as I can remember in my adult life, I have been attracted to Judaism. At the age of 34, I sat down with my father and told him that I believed he was born Jewish. He was speechless. I had just uncovered a family secret. Psycho-genealogy might explain this subconscious awareness I had, an awareness that was passed on from my ancestors. I felt Jewish in my kishkes.
What follows are snapshots of various experiences I have had along my journey to Judaism and since my conversion.
When I worked in the oncology clinic at the Jewish General Hospital, (and yes, I had specifically chosen to work there), I met many women who accompanied their husbands for treatment on Fridays; their anxiety was palpable, not only because of the impact of cancer on the entire family but also because treatments needed to be finished in time to return home to prepare for Shabbat.
Rabbi Greenspan’s classes opened my eyes to the importance, the meaning and the beauty of welcoming Shabbat. Gradually, I internalized this: Shabbat is down time, time devoted to family, to study and to re-energizing for the week ahead.
I experience the anticipation of Shabbat when going to the Montreal Kosher Bakery on Victoria around noon on Fridays to get a challah. There is a flurry of activity, a frenzy of ensuring all foods are prepared on time. Shabbat took on a greater meaning when I went to Israel last year; in Tel Aviv, I saw vendors with large batches of homemade foods sold to people rushing home to prepare for Shabbat. In Jerusalem, on Friday afternoons, as the sun went down, so did the noise level. The light rail no longer ran on Jaffa Street. There were no cars, except for those of Muslim taxi drivers. On Shabbat morning, large numbers of people walked to and from their synagogues; around 1pm, the city came to life again, with entire families walking together. I was in another world. I had never seen so many people taking time off with their families.
Spending time with one’s family… eating meals together as families … setting aside time to do this … in such a busy, busy world. That is Shabbat.
On family reacting to the process of conversion…and it is a process!
My mother, (may her memory be for a blessing), a very devout Catholic, lived her last years with moderate dementia. One day, I was crying because of pain following a surgery, and she told me: « don’t cry little girl, I’ll call your Mommy ». My mother was in front of me, but it was not my mother, the mother I had known, who was talking. This same woman, my mother, in a moment of greater presence one day told me: “don’t change your religion…we chose such a good one for you.”
My sister initially would make comments such as: “I don’t like THOSE people.” This same sister, when I was recently at her home for a meal, told me: « this, this and this dish contains meat AND dairy…I made this version without meat in it, for you ».
Adapting to this journey to Judaism was a challenge for my daughter. She has encouraged and supported my choice all the way; she was even present at the mikveh, during the immersion ceremony.
I would like to share with you a small collection of pearls from my daughter, which I have committed to memory: “Mom, does this mean I am Jewish too?” AND “Mom, I don’t know how to cook for you anymore” AND a considerate and respectful “Do you mind if I order pork?” But my favourite is: “Did you eat meat for dinner? No? Oh, good: then let’s go to Dairy Queen.”
My father who converted from Judaism to Catholicism after striking a pact with God, praying he would come out alive after escaping the Nazis, told me: “Helene, how can I be against your doing this when I went through the same process?”
My journey to Judaism spanned decades. My path to Judaism was a journey for my family too.
And now, I’m Jewish
Yes, I get frustrated at not knowing my prayers in Hebrew, in forgetting how to read Hebrew, (rather, I guess and sound out the words). I am happy there is transliteration in our Siddur but that won’t take me very far as I consider studying towards celebrating my Bat Mitzvah.
As the eldest in our family, I’m in charge of our family burial plot…in a Catholic cemetery where I can’t be buried. That poses quite the dilemma. So I met with Rabbi Grushcow and came to realize that I belong to a community with the openness of mind to have sections for interfaith couples in the cemetery…my daughter wants to be buried with me…I guess that’s maybe where we would be?
So, while I can’t be buried next to my family, I can have my name engraved on the family tombstone in the Catholic cemetery. Charlie suggested that I also have the following engraved next to my name: “Helene has relocated and can be found at the Jewish cemetery.”
I’m Jewish now…so that means I have had to re-think my living will.
I have always wanted to be an organ donor to help to save a life. I discovered that, in Judaism, this is called Pikuach Nefesh. I can donate my lungs, heart and kidneys and these donations could save a life. Can donating corneas also save a life? That’s a Talmudic moment…
I live with Parkinson’s disease which is not a disease that leads to death. Some of the current research in this field is toward finding a cure. This research requires working with brain tissue, so I would like to donate my brain for this kind of research. Under the strict principle of Pikuach Nefesh, it may not be allowed. That’s another Talmudic moment…
So yes, I am Jewish
I feel as if I have two identities; the “before” Helene and the “now” Helene. This is pretty much the same as the transition I underwent in my professional identities: the Helene before nursing and now, Helene, the nurse. Both changes have brought me serenity, and have allowed me to blossom into a life I finally feel I am meant to live, a life of meaning.
And it’s also like I’m speaking a whole new language. And I don’t mean Hebrew or Yiddish. Being Jewish is more than being religious; it’s tasting and cooking new foods, learning about new yet old traditions and celebrating them. It’s making unfamiliar words part of your everyday language…mitzvah, minhag, mensch, schlep, gefilte fish (yuck !) no…not gefilte fish.
Being Jewish is about having roots, realizing I can’t be Jewish alone, that I am part of a whole, vibrant community.