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Over the years, Rabbi Bernice Kimel Weiss has shepherded hundreds of non-Jewish students into the family of the Jewish people. For most, the interest in Judaism is sparked by a decision to marry a Jewish man or woman. But that is only the beginning. In the gentle hands of a teacher who has witnessed and understands their turmoil, their conflicts, their tears, they bare their personal struggles. What emerge are amazing, powerful, soul-stirring stories of re-creation - the ...
Over the years, Rabbi Bernice Kimel Weiss has shepherded hundreds of non-Jewish students into the family of the Jewish people. For most, the interest in Judaism is sparked by a decision to marry a Jewish man or woman. But that is only the beginning. In the gentle hands of a teacher who has witnessed and understands their turmoil, their conflicts, their tears, they bare their personal struggles. What emerge are amazing, powerful, soul-stirring stories of re-creation - the extraordinary adventure of becoming a Jew at the turn of the 21st century.
An Asian-American whose father owns a Japanese restaurant marries a secular Jew but leads him to Orthodox Judaism; a Belgian raised by nuns meets a Jew and finds her faith in Israel; a former Sunday school teacher from a small farm town falls in love with a Jewish girl and with her faith as well; an African-American woman lawyer, a Harvard graduate, discovers Judaism and keeps kosher in a small southern town: their varied stories and eight more are revealed in these pages. The twists and turns and the direction their lives ultimately take are a source of inspiration to those contemplating Judaism, and to all in search of faith. They are a gift to the Jewish people.
When You Try to Please the One You Love
Sharon Explores a New Faith
A striking couple entered my office, referred to me by the rabbi of a major synagogue. Sharon and Seth both had tremendous charisma, sophistication and class. Both were remarkably bright and articulate. Although she had just moved from Belgium, Sharon's English was excellent. However, Seth did most of the talking, explaining that he wanted Sharon to study with me and learn about his Jewish background. My impression was that because she had been brought up in a convent in a European country, with very limited exposure to Jews, Sharon would have a longer journey to Judaism than many of my other students. This is going to be some task, I thought to myself.
At her request, I met with Sharon much more frequently than with other students. Yet many of our sessions didn't deal with the academics at all, but rather with how she could conceivably live a Jewish life. Alone in America, without her family and friends, she was missing the comfort of the known—in her case, Catholicism. She wasn't a reluctant student, but I wasn't sure that studying Judaism was something she really wanted to do. And I wasn't about to push her, because our tradition holds that one should not convert for someone else—despite the fact that having a Jewish partner is often the motivating force behind the exploration of Judaism.
As we progressed through the months, I sensed a continuing resistance on her part, perhaps because Seth was very busy with his work (medical research) and didn't find time to come to the sessions. She felt that studying about Judaism wasn't really the shared experience she had anticipated and was really quite upset that he didn't accompany her. So determined was she to bring him that she picked him up from the airport very early one morning and brought him to a 7:30 a.m. class. I'll never forget that session; Seth was so overwhelmed by what we were studying that he had tears in his eyes. Since then, his attitude about participating with Sharon has been entirely different. He has become her partner in study. As a result, Sharon's attitude has changed as well, and she has embraced Judaism wholeheartedly. I told Seth to take Sharon to Israel because I sensed that there, Judaism would become a part of her being. As fate would have it, a trip to Israel came up through Seth's work, and he took Sharon along.
Seth Speaks First
I didn't ask Sharon to convert to Judaism or make it a mandatory part of our relationship. I waited, the way you wait for the tulips. Maybe I planted the seed, the bulb. But I never asked her; it would have been too much to ask too quickly. But as our love grew stronger, Sharon just knew. It's for our future together as a family that we share the same values, the values of Judaism.
That's where religion adds synergy and closeness. Some people start with the same religion and build with other things. We started with other things in common and are building with religion. Sharon received her education from Catholic nuns, but we probably wouldn't have fallen in love if she had been the typical convent girl. She had an unusual and very difficult family life, and she wants something different from that in the future. We share a vision of what our family life will be like together. At some point, at a different phase in our lives from where we are now, we will be more organized, more open to having a Jewish home. But it would be wrong to wait for that time without acquiring a knowledge of the fundamentals of Judaism; there's a lot of reward in the transference of knowledge and values. What helps Judaism flourish, what makes it so attractive, is that you have the ability to question and review multiple explanations and interpretations.
I grew up in a Catholic boarding school, praying at lunch, dinner and breakfast, and attending church a minimum of once a day. I wasn't raised by my parents, but by nuns and monks. When we went to bed, we had to cross our hands over our chests, lest God see our breasts. Sometimes I still go to sleep like that. I did not feel compelled to go to mass or confession, but I did pray a lot. Oh, I'm still praying, only now to a different God. My feelings have evolved in such a way that God has become different. In the past, whenever I had a problem or felt sad or really nervous, I always went to church and sat there. It made me really relaxed. I feel I can't do that anymore, and that was difficult to accept for some time.
Yet my Catholicism had been mostly based on God, not Mary or Jesus, and I always had more liking for the Old, rather than the New, Testament; so in that sense I can say to Seth, "My God is also your God." That way I don't feel I betray my old faith in God.
The people I went to boarding school with seemed so superficial—into cars and parties. So I didn't want to go on with them to the Catholic university, even though it was considered the more Catholic, the better. As for me, I had had enough. You make your choices in life. I then had seven years at the non-Catholic university, earning my main degrees in Germanic philology, business communication and international negotiations. I have a master's degree and started my doctorate as well. My higher education made me open-minded, and my job at a postgraduate institute of European studies, where I worked with thirty different nationalities, opened my mind enormously.
Through work I met Seth. He came to Brussels, where we coauthored a book on an infectious disease. A medical doctor, Seth works on health-policy issues and is also a university professor. Although I had read a few books on Judaism before meeting Seth, my only previous Jewish contact was with a girl in boarding school who was part Jewish but did not practice Judaism. After two years of transatlantic dating, I chose to follow Seth to America. But it wasn't an easy decision. I had a very good job in Belgium and my friends around me and my family, so I had to give all that up. In Washington, D.C., I got a job as an official in the economic division of an embassy. In my former job, I was an executive, so I was used to ordering people about. But now people are ordering me about, so career-wise I've taken a step backwards.
Of course, I knew Seth was Jewish, and I quickly came to realize during one of the holidays that Judaism is not only a religion, but also a culture. I felt Seth would not have objected had I not been willing to convert to Judaism, but I felt he wouldn't have been 100 percent at peace either.
Seth was reluctant to speak about being Jewish. I have the impression that many Jewish people are hesitant to admit being Jewish. We Belgians all know Antwerp, with its Hasidim in sidelocks, and the Jews in the antiques market in Brussels. In my language we say, "He is as stingy as a Jew"—a lot of people use this expression—or as wealthy as a Jew. The word Juif, for Jew, is harsh-sounding. Yet my parents were never anti-Semitic—or against any minorities for that matter. I never heard them utter a word against any other religion. But I do realize that going through conversion to Judaism makes me part of a persecuted group. When I was teaching in Warsaw, I decided to drive out and see Birkenau and Auschwitz. It was horrifying, because when you're actually standing at that place, you can vividly imagine how it must have been. Hopefully, it will never happen again, but one never knows. I'm not hiding my Judaism or the least bit afraid of showing it. I wear the Jewish Chai symbol around my neck, and already at the embassy where I work they are assigning me files on Jewish matters.
At first my mother didn't say anything when I told her Seth was Jewish. Then she said, "It doesn't really matter what he is as long as he takes care of you." It so happens that she loves Seth. With my father, a retired human-resources director, it was more difficult. The Jewish religion he is not really bothered about, but he refused to meet Seth because he disapproves of my choice of an American who doesn't even speak our language.
My grandmother on my mother's side is a descendant of a French aristocratic family; one ancestor was chancellor of the exchequer in the seventeenth century. We had a couple of castles, and my grandmother still owns some real estate in France. My father is a farmer's son who eloped with my mother, with the result that her parents did not speak to her for a couple of years, until I was born in fact. My grandmother always said, "There will always be a division between the aristocracy and the others."
Because he was an outsider, my father more than anything wanted me to marry an aristocrat. It would provide him the perfect opportunity to raise himself through me. In fact, that was the direction my life had been taking before I met Seth. I had been engaged to a well-known baron whom I knew from school, but whom I regarded more as a brother or friend. I have always had a strong sense of responsibility toward my family, and I had this feeling of duty toward my father. He is a very domineering person; I was scared of my father really. It has only been a couple of years since I got out of this proposed marriage to the baron. The pressure on me from my father was enormous; now he can't show off to anyone.
I knew my parents had an unhappy marriage—I have no recollection whatsoever of their exchanging affection. My mother was terrified of my father. He abused her physically. And if you see that as a child, you see it the rest of your life. He would drop her off, just push her out of the car, in the middle of the night somewhere. Somehow she managed to come back home. I have a lot of painful memories like that. It was easier for me when I was far away from home and not confronted with it. But bit by bit, I learned to loosen myself from my father's grip—though he tries to this very day to put some kind of guilt trip on me. Of course, I also love my father from the emotional point of view. You can't turn your back on your own flesh and blood. And he is beginning to accept the idea of my marrying Seth. When he saw me recently, he realized that I'm happy with my life now. He said, "Well, you look very good." In his own way he loves me.
For twenty years my father actually led a double life. Three days a week he spent with my mother, and four days a week with a younger male friend. I always thought he was away on business. I never imagined that he was having an affair. My mother knew about it from the beginning, but divorce wasn't acceptable. She never told anyone about it until I was twenty-one or twenty-two. My childhood and youth were not easy. My mother was sick with throat cancer and suffered from severe depression as well. For me, being able to go through all of that, just knowing that I was able to survive, makes me think I'm capable of handling almost anything.
Children who come from situations like mine can go two ways: Reproduce the life you have or figure out for yourself what you would like to identify with and find it. I can say I never will be with a man who hits me or cheats on me because I have taken lessons out of my past. I don't want a loveless relationship like my parents had; I want a loving relationship. I look forward to creating a home and sharing a family life with Seth. My mother never cooked or cleaned, but I like to do domestic things. I know what it is like not to have a home life. Even on Christmas we were not together. My father was always out; my mother was always depressed. Sometimes I say, "I've got parents, but no home to go back to." That is hard to acknowledge. My friends have become my family. For me, home is my friends, even if those friends have families of their own. Fortunately, I had a nanny who was very loving, a warm, outstanding woman who died when I was ten. Her name was Rachel. Along with my school, she had a positive influence on me. To this day, I feel her as very much a presence in my life, and if ever I have a daughter, I'll call her Rachel. I fell in love with Seth, but not blindly. Until my mother became ill, I never had a really close relationship with either of my parents, so I'm still trying to get used to Seth's closeness with his family. I haven't quite figured out the closeness of Jewish families.
With regard to accepting Judaism, going to Israel with Seth this year definitely changed me. There was this shock, seeing the clash between Judaism and Christianity in Israel. It was a little weird for me. The religion of my youth was so deeply rooted. Until I was twenty-five or twenty-six, I had gone to church every week. But seeing the monks in their robes moved me to be confronted with the realization that Catholicism was now only a tradition for me, no longer a religion I practiced. It was a reaffirmation for me that what Catholicism stands for is not really what I stand for. It made me realize there's no turning back. And I don't want to turn back. I'm at ease with myself. It was actually a good test for me.
At the Western Wall, it was very emotional for me to see people praying so fervently. For Seth, too, it was highly emotional. There's a small place there for women. I was praying and writing my wishes on paper, and tucking the paper into the wall. And then Seth took out a prayer from one of the books that Rabbi Weiss had given him. It was about two people starting a new life together. So then he said, "This is the place where I became a man and this is the place where I would like to become a husband." Before I knew it, he was down on his knees and proposing to me. I was just crying and crying. At first I didn't answer, I was so overwhelmed. I expected we would get married at some point; it was the logical conclusion. But I did not expect to become engaged like that, in such a romantic fashion (he had carried the prayer in his wallet all the way from home). My conversion to Judaism some time later was special, but it wasn't the powerfully present experience the Israel trip was. It was more the normal result of the trip, more a formality. The transformation had already taken place.
When Sharon and Seth came back from Israel, Sharon had an engagement ring on her finger, a blue sapphire with white diamonds around it, to represent Israel's colors, blue and white. They came to see me together, both full of energy and life. I never before had sensed such excitement in either of them. Sharon told me about how Seth had become so emotional in Israel that he got down on his hands and knees near the Western Wall and asked her to marry him. This was where he had become a Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen (he is now thirty-five), and where he wanted to propose to his wife-to-be in order to carry on the heritage of his grandparents to future generations. Later, they traveled around Israel, visiting the ruins and walking in the Old City of Jerusalem. Sharon told me how she knew at last that she had come home. Her conflicts about what it means to embrace Judaism and raise a Jewish family faded. She recognized that among the Jewish people is where she belongs.
(c)2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Converting to Judaism by Bernice K. Wiess. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.