I Tried to be Jewish but It Didn't Work
By Jan Wilberg on April 15, 2013
If I was Jewish, we would be having Shabbat dinner right now. We would be lighting candles and blessing the children. We might sing songs and certainly bless and drink the wine. Gentiles who think Jews have no fun because they don't celebrate Christmas don't know about Shabbat and the hundred other rituals of Judaism, most of which involve gathering a lot of people around a table, blessing, remembering, eating, and being very joyful.
I tried being Jewish but it didn't work. I married a Jewish man and when we adopted three children from Nicaragua, we made the unusual and inscrutable decision to raise them as Jews. A flimsy Methodist, it seemed to me that raising them as Jews would connect my kids more firmly to my husband's family.
It puzzled people. Over dinner at a friend's house, a college professor told me the kids should be raised as Catholics since they came from a Catholic country. Baffled as to how a Methodist from Michigan and a Jew from Philadelphia would gracefully transcend all to raise children in yet another faith, I let the matter drop. When you have adopted kids, everybody has an opinion about what you should do with them. It comes with the territory.
So I did my best to be a good Gentile wife and mother in a Jewish family. My older daughter, by then on her way to college, no doubt wondered where the newfound religiosity came from; we had spent years as single mom/single child with scarcely a breath of religion. One Easter we went to a Unitarian Church on the other side of town where we were invited to stand and introduce ourselves during the service and we both skittered off to the car as fast as possible afterward. Too welcoming for us, I guess.
I went on to give her an abbreviated, instant coffee version of the Christianity I'd learned in Sunday School up until the 3rd grade and what I picked up from reading Paul Tillich in college. I focused on the parts I liked - Jesus' kindness to strangers and all the marvelous healing - and skipped what continues to stump me to this day - the philosophical, logical underpinnings of the crucifixion and resurrection. I never really understood the concept of Jesus dying for my sins. If I live to be 100 and read a thousand explanations, it won't make sense to me.
That's why the prospect of being Jewish was so attractive. In my mind, Judaism basically stopped with the end of the Old Testament. I was good with that. It felt right and comfortable.
So I approached our rabbi, the one who had presided over my children's bar/bat mitzvahs and asked him about conversion. And true to form, without telling me as much, I had to ask three times before he would pay attention. I took classes on Jewish history and customs. I sat in the dusty living room of the Hebrew teacher with six other aspirants to learn another language. Foreign matter to this Methodist. In my world, if you want to be a Methodist, you show up. Maybe you bring a casserole. That's pretty much it.
Not so with Judaism. It was hard. And the prospect of standing up in front of the congregation and doing the equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah, meaning most importantly that I would have to read a passage of Hebrew and say the prayers in Hebrew, nearly paralyzed me. But I thought I could do it. I had already spoken from the Bimah for my children's Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. There is a traditional mother's speech - an ode that she speaks to her child and about her child to the congregation.
The rabbi and I met to talk further about conversion. He told me that since my parents were not Jewish, I would become the child of Abraham and Sarah. I understood this as symbolic, as an adoption, if you will. I knew adoption very well from having adopted three children although I, myself, had never before been adopted. It wasn't offensive to me.
But I couldn't do it. I thought of my parents, Roy and Ginna, sitting at home reading the Sunday paper while I walked with my sister and brother to Sunday School at the Methodist Church
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