Whenever people ask about how I “became” Jewish, I tell them it was when I turned eight. In some sense, this is entirely ridiculous—I have always known that Judaism is a part of my life. What I mean when I say I “became” Jewish is that we joined Temple Shalom of Newton. From that moment on, I went to Hebrew classes until I graduated from high school. I served as a regional board member for the North American Federation of Temple Youth Northeast region, attended all Temple Shalom youth group events, and have even gone on to take Modern Hebrew classes in college and serve as Colby’s Hillel president.
I don’t mean to list my Jewish resume. It’s just that the idea of when one becomes Jewish and what being Jewish looks like often confuses me. Non-Jews have told me that I’m “very Jewish” because of all these Jewish activities in which I participate; Conservative and Orthodox Jews have told me that I’m not Jewish because my mother wasn’t Jewish at the time I was born. When my mother decided to convert to Judaism last December, these questions of how does one become Jewish and what does it mean to be Jewish were on my mind.
The ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim was beautiful, in a way that felt particularly comfortable for my family. A number of friends joined us, along with all our rabbis, and we listened as my mom answered the questions and recited the blessings—and made jokes that had us all giggling.
When my mom rejoined the group afterward, she seemed, well…the same. Happy, of course. We all were. But I couldn’t identify anything particularly different or “more Jewish” about her. So, I returned to my questions: How does one become Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish? And this is what I decided:
In my mom’s case, her conversion seemed to me a bit like a wedding. It was a ceremony to declare and celebrate the permanent commitment to a love and lifestyle that already exists. It was a beautiful ceremony, so completely marked by my mom’s sense of humor, values, and love for her family and friends that even though it followed a long-time Jewish tradition, it was unique to her. To me, she had already seemed Jewish for years—she had been attending Temple Shalom’s services, programs, and classes since we joined the congregation thirteen years before. She had hosted Passover seders, Yom Kippur break fasts, and Hannukah parties (she makes the best latkes). And she raised a “very Jewish” daughter. Whether she “became” Jewish when we joined the synagogue or at some other point in her Jewish journey, only she could tell you. But I feel that the mikveh ritual did not make her Jewish. It confirmed her commitment and perhaps made it “official,” but most of all, it was a celebration. And what a celebration it was.
As for what it means to be Jewish? That’s a whole other blog post.
Laura Rosenthal is a member at Temple Shalom of Newton. She is an English major at Colby College, where she will be a senior this year. Laura has spent time at Mayyim Hayyim for her mother’s conversion in December 2013.