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The nature of the convert.

October 8, 2009

As someone pursuing conversion, one of the things I find it important (and difficult) to balance between enthusiasm and fetishization and between interest and hobbyism*. I’m excited about Judaism, I love diving into new areas of study and this is an area of study big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but as I get deeper into this I need to remember two things.

1. This isn’t like any of my other interests. This isn’t an interest, it is a change in life and it needs to be treated with a serious and rigor that I don’t often bring to interests. Becoming a Jew isn’t like getting interested in the rules of cricket. It is much, much more and I need to be aware of that.

2. I think it is easy in the first blush of conversion to get very wrapped up in all things Jewish and to almost fetishize the people and the culture. I do not want to do that. I want to remember that my excitement can be off putting, that it can appear that I am treating a living culture like an anthropology project – something to be analyzed and dissected.  Judaism, especially certain aspects of the intellectual life Jewish life, are very exciting to me right now, but I have to realize that doesn’t mean that I can’t be offensive in how I discuss them or talk about them.

Additionally, I need to remember that being a Jew means a lot of different things to different people. Many of those ways of being Jewish will be something I will never understand or participate in. As an adult convert to Catholicism will never know what it felt like for me to be an altar boy, I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home. The experience of the convert is necessarily different and one should pretend that it is otherwise.

All that said, I’m learning a lot, and I am excited about where this is going. If I can stay self aware about how I handle this process, I think it is going to be great.

*I totally made that word up.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2009 11:46 pm

    A terrific post, Seanv2! The concerns you express make a good case for taking things slowly. I’ve been involved in a focused study of Judaism for 14 or 15 months and, relatively early on, I was often consumed by fetishization and Jewish chauvinism. (Your mention of “an anthropology project” hit particularly close to home, as I’ve studied comparative religions for some years, and it was, in fact, a fascination with the anthropology of belief that gradually tempered my hostile atheism and, in turn, opened up the door to Jewish mysticism and practice.)

    The last 5 months, however, my abiding love of Judaism has been more grounded. The enthusiasm is by no means absent, but it is experienced intermittently. “Entrances to holiness are everywhere,” but I don’t enter them all of the time!

    I’m almost at a point now where I feel I’m ready to begin study with a rabbi, but I still don’t feel mentally prepared.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 14, 2009 6:24 pm

      Very interesting that you say you came to religion through an anthropological lens, I think my experience might be similar, and that is something I don’t want to lose. I just need to make sure to temper that and be aware that it is part of the way I approach things. I think as long as I stay aware of these issues and how they effect the way I experience a religion, things will be fine. It is when I get wrapped up in my own obsessive interest that things can get hairy.

  2. The Sikh Geek permalink
    October 14, 2009 2:01 pm

    I think that line between interest and hobby can be drawn pretty thinly. It may seem like reading a lot on a subject is similar to a hobby, but the spirit underneath it is so different. When you’re hit with awful news, you don’t go to a spy novel the way you go to scripture. I get misty at movies sometimes, but it’s nothing at all like sitting in a gudwara and feeling a tie between me and everyone else there as thick and real as if it were a fog. I think the hobbyist stuff is just a reflection of the way your mind works and your learning process, but that doesn’t mean it reflects on your heart or your soul.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 14, 2009 6:26 pm

      You’re right, it doesn’t mean it reflects the heart, but especially when talking to others who were born Jewish, I think it is important to keep in mind how one is coming across. No one likes the jerk who keeps going on and on about things one either doesn’t care about or already knows.

  3. Debbie B. permalink
    October 19, 2009 12:04 am

    Seanv2,

    To respond to your comment: “I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home.” Don’t forget that some Jews grow up in unobservant homes and may also not have already had those childhood experiences. There are several members of my primary minyan who are JBB but grew up with little Jewish tradition or education. I have sometimes been surprised to find that out since some of these people now keep kosher homes, send their kids to Jewish day school, read Torah, etc. so you wouldn’t know about their background from their current Jewish involvement and knowledge.

    Are you familiar with the term “bal teshuva”? It refers to a Jew from a non- or less-observant family who becomes observant as an adult. In some ways these people are in a similar situation to converts. And similarly, they show a high level of zeal (which yes, can be a bit too much sometimes).

    Seanv2, I’m guessing that you are relatively young, so you have lots of time to develop your own history of Jewish involvement. Some members of my minyan have been Jews by Choice for over 30 years now. One of my minyan’s most frequent and skilled Torah readers (one year, he read Rishon, the 1st Torah reading, *every Shabbat*!) who gives wonderful D’vrei Torah because he reads extensively about Jewish theology and thought (like a great one on Bereshit this past Shabbat) converted at age 21, I think, over 30 years ago.

    I am a new convert, but I have 25 years of memories of participating in Jewish holidays. While studying for conversion, I enjoyed sharing with my sponsoring rabbi photos showing myself and my family celebrating various Jewish holidays throughout the years. One of the earliest such photo was of our sukkah the first year my husband designed and built it 20 years ago. These photos showed my rabbi that I had truly been actively participating in Jewish ritual for over two decades and it allowed me to review my long history with Judaism and think about what it meant to me then and now.

    I didn’t become a bat mitzvah at age 12 since I wasn’t Jewish as a child, but most Jewish women who are my age (late 40’s) didn’t either (or at least didn’t do the same things as the boys) since the BAT mitzvah for girls is a relatively new tradition even in the more progressive movements. The first time I took an aliyah felt similar to a becoming a bat mitzvah. My minyan sang “Mazel tov v’siman tov” when I did the former. In my secondary minyan, the person who was leading services the first time I took an aliyah read a “Mi Sheberach” blessing over me. And I really felt like I became a bat mitzvah the first time I read Torah for both my minyanim on Shavuot. The Orthodox mother of a friend noted that unlike me, she has never read Torah. And unlike her (Orthodox) granddaughters, she has never chanted Haftorah or from the book of Ruth.

    As someone who comes to Judaism as an adult, you have the chance to savor and think deeply about all your early Jewish experiences. Unlike some Jews by Birth, you will not take for granted Jewish experiences because you have never known anything else.

    Don’t be too worried about your enthusiasm. I think that the enthusiasm of converts and their decision to become Jewish when they didn’t have to do so can be a great inspiration to Jews by Birth and remind them that being Jewish can be something wonderful and desirable .

  4. December 18, 2009 4:56 am

    I found your blog today. I saved it so I can come back again. You should post more! It’s a very interesting topic!!

    • seanv2 permalink*
      March 23, 2010 6:41 pm

      Hi Dena,

      Thanks for stopping by, I am now officially blogging more. I hope you come back around!

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