Around Shavuot, my children come home from school with projects about the Jewish people accepting the Torah. Holding their sweet drawings, I am transported beyond the mundane routine of my life to my own unexpected decision many years ago to accept the Torah.
Raised in a nice Midwestern non-Jewish household, I regularly attended church and youth group as a child, graduated high school and headed off to college where I became solidly agnostic. After graduating, I moved back home, got an entry-level job at a law firm, and tried to sort out what exactly I was going to do with my life.
This new adult life was dramatically different than my collegiate life, and I was miserable. I missed the late night philosophical conversations, the creative opportunities, the vibrant community I had been a part of. This new life felt painfully lifeless.
In the midst of this existential crisis, a curious thing began to happen. Random people began to ask me if I was Jewish. At first it was a man who worked in the same office building as me. We would occasionally see each other outside on break. After a few months of chatting, he asked me what temple I went to.
A couple of weeks later, it happened again at a coffee shop. A guy came up to me and asked, rather abruptly, “Are you religious or secular?”
I didn’t even understand the question.
“You should go to Aish.com!” He proclaimed.
Over the next few months this phenomenon kept occurring. At a concert, someone asked me point blank if I was Jewish. At a party, a girl asked me if I was a member of the tribe. I even had a German exchange student apologize to me for the Holocaust.
I was thoroughly weirded out by this point, and mentioned these bizarre happenings to my mother over lunch one day.
“Mom, people keep asking me if I’m Jewish.”
“Oh? That happened to my mother all the time. She had a lot of Jewish clients at the salon and they would always tell her that she looked so Jewish.”
As if all that weren’t enough, while poking around in my parents’ basement, I found a genealogy project I had done in eighth grade. The name of my family that came from Prussia in the mid-1800s…it was Kramer. There were also Millers and Neumans. I began to wonder if we did have Jewish heritage after all.
I followed the advice of that one random guy from the coffee shop and went to Aish.com.
It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. I was blown away by the attention to detail, the depth of tradition, the endless layers of scholarship and applicable life wisdom. Here was a guidebook for a society where, I sensed, one could live a deeply fulfilling life within the boundaries of these ancient and yet somehow entirely contemporary, relevant rules.
After devouring article after article for months, I had to acknowledge the painful reality that my “Jewish” appearance and potentially Jewish ancestors weren’t nearly enough of a connection to give me access to this incredible religion. If I wanted to live my life according to Torah, I would have to convert.
I would have to make a decision that would set me on a course that was drastically different than anyone I knew. It would separate me from my family on the holidays that we had always celebrated together. It would bring me into a culture that I had no previous connection to and of which I knew very little.
I was just a young, single, twenty-three year old. How could I really understand the gravity of this decision?
Almost fifteen years later, I’m grateful that I trusted my instinct. Being connected to the powerful truth of Torah would be worth any challenges that came my way. I wouldn’t say that my daily life is full of inspiration, or that living in a frum community hasn’t been without serious challenges. But in the mesorah that is now mine, my children’s and all their future descendants, I have found, and continue to find, the wisdom and tools to live a truly good life.
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This makes me laugh.
This is the second comment I’ve left on your blog today. I wrote before that my husband and I lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the city. In fact, the man who rented to the apartment to us gave us a discount. We didn’t understand why at the time and later found out it was because he said we were a “nice young Jewish couple.”
We’re not. But we often were confused for Jewish, too.