a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

How is Today Different Than Any Other Day?

Posted on: August 18, 2011

I’m Jewish-that’s how!  Yesterday was a truly wonderful experience that I still haven’t quite figured out how to word.  Not only did I leave the mikveh Jewish, I got a new nephew!  There was something really powerful about the warmth of the mikveh waters, it symbolized my re-birth as a Jewish woman.  I couldn’t help but think of my nephew’s birth as I felt the warmth surround me before my first dunk.  The similarities of actual birth and rebirth into Judaism were palpable.  Even though he was miles away, the waters surrounding me were giving me a new life, I felt connected to him and to my family.   I’m not super crazy spiritual with the whole rebirth/new life/ scenario.  It became tactile for me in that moment.  I remember thinking a million things but one was: We {humans}all come from water.

I was grateful to have my partner by my side for the entire day as well as friends join me back at the synagogue to help welcome me.  Not to mention the messages on my Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail.  Overwhelming is the only word I can use to describe the day.  Exhausting is the other.   The experience will be posted later, I’m still finding the words.  In the meantime…

I presented the following Personal Statement to my beit din (who ROCKED) as well as to the folks who came to my conversion ceremony.  I debated sharing it for the entire world to read and decided that I would.  It’s the most personal thing I’ve shared with the Interweb-blogosphere.

Trying to concisely put into words what the process of becoming Jewish is like is like trying to count grains of sand or stars in the sky.  It is too numerous, too much, too overwhelming that I barely know where to start.  It is a feeling that I’m sure most converts feel and one that most born-Jews will never completely understand.  It is a feeling I want to hold onto for the rest of my life-because after the moment I emerge from the mikveh-it will be the moment that forever changes my life.
Several times now, on my blog, I have made reference to this part of becoming Jewish as closing a chapter of my life while the act of being Jewish opens another chapter.  The journey that brought me here has, in some ways, been really long.  I’ve spent the past week thinking of my first Jewish experience and remembered a couple that lived in the ballroom of my parent’s home where I grew up.  Gina was a Baptist woman from Alabama and Dan was a Jewish man from New Jersey.  They married and had a son named Ethan that I cared for on Friday nights when they attended services.  Sometimes I would accompany them and while I didn’t understand the Hebrew and my job was the babysitter, I remember being captivated by the sounds of the prayers being said around me  Those moments, at 10 years old, were my first Jewish moments.  Now, 21 years later when I find myself in a room of friends, I notice that the majority of them are Jewish.  It isn’t something that I’ve done purposefully, but as I meet new people, as I forge new relationships with people I’m finding that these people are Jews and that I am surrounding myself with Jewish friends and creating a Jewish community for myself.
When I think back to March of last year when I first decided that I wanted to take the steps to become Jewish it was hard for me to imagine that the day would come that I would be Jewish.  I suppose I wondered how a black, lesbian, former Baptist/Catholic/Pagan/Buddhist/Atheist would join the covenant of the first people to know and accept God.  More than anything my path to Judaism was a path of research and searching for a religion that I felt drawn to, a religion I could take an active role in, and a religion that allowed my questioning mind to continue to question.  The best thing about being Jewish is knowing that the learning doesn’t end and in a lot of ways the teaching never ends.
I’ve already been a self-declared convert to Judaism.  Through media outlets I am aware that some Jews by Choice feel no need to self-identify after they’ve become Jewish.  On one hand I agree that I am Jewish, but on the other hand it is important for you to see me as a Jewish Convert.  It is a choice that I have made, the conscious decision of joining the Jewish People, but it is a choice I will make daily to-live Jewishly.  I feel, in my being that I am Jewish and am proud that it was a choice that I got to make.
There is and continues to be so much awe and wonder in Judaism.  As a child in church I would watch my mother be moved by Spirit and wonder why I couldn’t feel the same thing.  I searched for that feeling for years, through experimentation of many faith-paths and found it in Judaism.  Now that I will be Jewish my wonder is how I will be the best Jewish person that I can be.  What I will bring to the Jewish people, and how I will live my life Jewishly.  At times this can be overwhelming; how can I keep Shabbat when I have to take the train to shul, how to I keep kosher when eating ethically, locally, organically is more important to me, have I recited prayers correctly, did I forget a Fast Day, etc.  Then I remember that the journey doesn’t end in the mikvah-it begins.
One of the struggles that I continue to have is finding my place within a people that have existed for centuries and that will continue to exist for centuries after I am gone.  It is that fact-that we will continue for centuries after I am gone-that makes me happiest. It is comforting to know that my small contribution to the Jewish people will be woven into the history of Judaism itself.  It is a lot of responsibility and it changes everything, not just in my life but in the lives of my family.  This step forever makes me a part of the Jewish people and my children and family after me.  Admittedly, the people hood aspect of Judaism is the largest struggle or me while the religious aspect has always been the source of happiness, comfort, and joy.  As I continue to become an active member of the Jewish community and working within the community, bring my unique history, perspective, and culture I know that one day the two will seamlessly become one.
I like to use the imagery of a large tapestry when I think of converts to Judaism.  We converts, with our pasts our histories, our cultures are nothing but a thread in the tapestry of Judaism.  We don’t exist without the entire piece and the piece wouldn’t exist without us.  It may seem, to the untrained eye that we don’t fit, that we don’t belong, that we perhaps weaken the tapestry.  I feel that without the thread of New Jews, the tapestry wouldn’t exist, we do fit, we do belong and we, in fact, strengthen it.

The thing about writing about my process of becoming Jewish is that the process will never, truly end.  I will be becoming Jewish until the last words of the Sh’ma leave my lips when I die.  God promised Abraham that he would make his decendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Today, I am one of those decendants.  My becoming Jewish will live on in my children and their children after that.  For now, I can honestly say that the process has been one that has filled me with the wonder and awe of God that I’ve been seeking since I was a girl and it is comforting to know that this is just the beginning.

8 Responses to "How is Today Different Than Any Other Day?"

Siman tov u’mazel tov!
My beit din did not require a personal statement; I was glad of it because I would have been stumped until that great getting-up morning trying to figure what to say on paper. I do much better when they ask me to run my mouth. 🙂
What name did you choose, btw? Took me a month to settle on Bruriah Shalhevet.

Oh, and I wonder if your mikvah ran with the same custom mine did – bathe first, but *don’t* dry; the water still beading on your skin before you step in for immersion is symbolic of your past life and experiences. It joins with the water of the mikvah, which represents the warmth, love and experiences of the Jewish people, changing it and making it more than it was.

For me that was the most beautiful image; all that I was and had been was being accepted into the tribe.

Love it love it love it.

Especially this part: Trying to concisely put into words what the process of becoming Jewish is like is like trying to count grains of sand or stars in the sky. It is too numerous, too much, too overwhelming that I barely know where to start. It is a feeling that I’m sure most converts feel and one that most born-Jews will never completely understand.

and this part: I like to use the imagery of a large tapestry

…..until the final sentence.

You write beautifully and I’m glad I got to see a bare part of your neshama.

@Gretchen-I chose the name בתיה Batyah. The mikveh lady was wonderful. The mikveh lady also instructed that I wash every inch of my body (which I did @ home) and then again at the mikveh and NOT to dry off. The imagery they gave you is beautiful!! I wasn’t told why, just not to 😉
@Natalie-Thank you thank you thank you!

[…] Jews-by-Choice. One blogger in particular, the fabulous Erika Davis of Black, Gay and Jewish who officially became a Jew only yesterday, still openly struggles with how to conceive of her identity as a black woman and a […]

[…] of a tapestry in relation to converts to Judaism.  Most recently, I used this imagery in my conversion essay.  I know that as a convert I bring an ethnic diversity as well as a blended family since my […]

Found this post through your recent Jewish Convert Bonus post and loved reading this! Thank you so much for sharing Personal Statement for everyone – I can’t imagine how vulnerable this must have been! You’re SO right though – it doesn’t just end with the Mikveh! That is just the very step to a long, beautiful journey. I have a few convert friends and their stories are so captivating and wonderful to hear and be a part of. I look forward to continue reading your posts and see the things you’ll learn and unfold in the beautiful world of Judaism 🙂

Thanks so much, Jordan!
I think that all rabbis who are converting should remind, warn or inform new Jews that there’s an new world just beyond the mikveh waters. A lot of my JBC friends have experienced what we like to call the New Jew free fall. It definitely takes some time to get comfy in new Jewish shoes 🙂

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