a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

I am Jewish

Posted on: August 19, 2011

Nearly every one of my Jewish friends has called or text me with messages of, “You were always Jewish to me.”  The echos of that e-mail urging me to re-consider conversion still rings in my ear.  It’s weird.  I don’t look different, but I do feel different.  I didn’t think that I would.

On Wednesday morning I woke up around 4AM to the sound of my cell phone.  My mother sent a picture of my newborn nephew, Jacob.  I was half awake, and the picture quality on my downgrade LG Flip phone made the picture harder to see but I could see God in that picture, just as I see God in all of my nephews.  I was groggy but felt happy.  I’d secretly hoped that my sister would have a longer labor.  A little back story, her first son was born in under 10 hours, the second in under 8 hours, Jacob came out by himself.  She pushed twice and he was born in under 5 hours of labor.  In my mystical/spiritual head I hoped that just as I stepped into the warmth of the mikveh waters he’d be born.  Still, we share the same birth day, August 17th, 2011.  After talking to my mother while she searched the hospital parking garage for her car, chatting with her on the phone as she drove home and only hanging up after she was safely in her home I stared at the ceiling of my room in the dark.  I watched the sky outside of my window turn from dark grey to dusty pink to light blue to sky blue.  Around 6AM I finally decided to get out of bed.

I don’t think I ate breakfast, which would explain why I frantically called my partner right before the beit din to get me a banana from the market.  I took my time padding around my apartment, made coffee before filling a tupperware container with kosher salt for my shower.  I knew that I’d have to shower at the mikveh before entering the mikveh waters, but I figured I’d have nerves so I wanted to make sure to shower and scrub at home as well.  I scrubbed salt with olive oil and soap; every inch of my body before washing and scrubbing my head and scalp.  I cleaned my ears and took off my toe nail polish before clipping my nails.  I put on my clothes, checked my bag to make sure that I had my conversion statement, readings, and my pocket Tanakh in my bag before pinning a knit kippah on my head.  I turned on my iPod and played a mix of Noam Katz and Noah Aronson songs on repeat for my entire train ride.

As I settled into a seat on the crowded C Train I felt perfectly fine.  I opened up the book of Ruth and read it.  After I finished reading Ruth, I re-read my conversion statement and felt perfectly fine.  No jitters, no nervousness, no anxiety-it felt like a regular day.  Until 34th street.  I literally thought, Omigosh, four more stops and I’ll be Jewish!  The nerves hit me like a pile of bricks; on my feet.  I kid you not, walking out of the subway car was like walking through molasses.  I felt my mouth and throat dry, I felt my palms sweat, I felt my knees start to buckle.  What was I thinking telling M that I wanted to spend the night alone to reflect.  I needed to see her face, to hug, her, to see her smile.  As I got to 74th and Columbus I reached for my phone and watched my hand shake.   I scolded myself for drinking coffee on an empty stomach as I felt my teeny tiny bladder beg for relief.  I went into a Starbucks so I wouldn’t be the 31 year old girl who has an accident on the Upper West Side.

When I got to 74th and Broadway I saw M waiting with a banana in hand. I hugged her tight and told her how nervous I was.  We walked the two minutes from Broadway to the Upper West Side mikveh and I felt frozen.  Literally so nervous and anxious and excited.  What if I say the wrong thing?  What if they say no?  What if I can’t be Jewish?   Irrational thoughts, yes but I just needed to see the faces of the people who’d been with me along the way.  When we rang the buzzer to the mikveh and the door opened with my rabbis on the other side I felt relieved, but still nervous.  This was it.  Would I cry?  Would I answer the questions correctly?  Would they know I was sincere?  Would they accept me?

My conversion rabbi, Rabbi Laufer, told me as we started something she’d told me before.  The beit din serves two purposes; they are gate keepers of Judaism and they’re also there to be the first to welcome me to the Tribe.  She reminded me that it wasn’t a test and as the beit din started I felt my nerves, anxiety, and fear of the unknown fade away.  I felt comfortable and we talked for about a half hour before they sent me to another room to confer.  Five minutes later Rabbi Laufer mazeled me and The Mikveh Lady, who was amazing, lead me to a change room.   I had to shower again, scrub again, get wet again and not dry off.  When I was ready, I rang a bell and she brought me to the mikveh.

It was a pool with deep blue tiles and the water was incredibly warm-I could’ve stayed in it forever.  I’ve read several mikveh accounts of converts weeping with the overwhelming joy of the mikveh waters and becoming Jewish.  I wasn’t that convert-I was more focused on doing the dunks properly and shouting the prayers loud enough for my beit din and girlfriend to hear.  Every time Gieta (the mikveh lady) yelled “kasher!” and the beit din and my partner shouted “whoo hoo!!”  to my kosher dunks I grinned and felt giddy!  I was becoming Jewish!  After the third dunk and the third “kasher!”  a huge Mazel Tov erupted from the hallway and I gave soggy hugs to Mirs and my beit din.

After the mikveh I met Rabbi Laufer and Rabbi Myers along with a few friends at the synagogue for my formal introduction and acceptance into the people Israel.  The ceremony consisted of a few different parts, taking the vow to live a Jewish life, raise a Jewish family and stand with the Jewish people, a beautiful blessing from Rabbis Laufer and Myers, accepting of Torah, as well as reading my personal statement and a passage.  The passage I chose was from Ruth.  I’d read it on the subway ride over and decided earlier in the week that it made the most sense, given that Ruth was Judaism’s first convert.  I’d gotten through my conversion statement dry-eyed and was admittedly smug as I started reading the short, famous passage from Ruth.  I was proud that I’d escaped public crying until the words of Ruth resonated within me so quickly, so powerfully, with such awesome strength that I completely broke into tears and couldn’t speak.

“Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.  For wherever you go, I will go.  Where ever you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried” Ruth 1:16-17.

The area in bold is where it hit me, where I the power of this life cycle knocked the wind out of me.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.  The mikveh waters made me Jewish but uttering those words, a declaration of the choice I made, made me feel connected the Jewish people.   I don’t think that I will be able to read those words without tears in my eyes for a long while.  I read them on the train, I’d read them and quoted them for months.  Reading them, in shul, in front of the ark, in front of my friends and moments later feeling the weight of the Torah in my arms-literally and figuratively.  It clicked-I am Jewish.

I could just as easily go on with my life as if nothing has changed, but something has changed.  I am Jewish.

10 Responses to "I am Jewish"

CONGRATULATIONS that’s awesome!

Thanks Colleen! It really was awesome!

You must be so happy. During the conversion and even at mikve, they knew that you are gay ? That’s not a judgement but I’m pretty sure that’s a reason for a lot of rabbi to refuse your conversion.

Everyone knows I’m gay, Joss 😉

What a beautiful post! I’m so happy for you, Erika!

Thanks, Sarah-It was a truly wonderful day and experience.

Wow! Congratulation!!!
It has been a long but rewarding path for you. I hope I get the chance to experience similar results as you did when my conversion course ends in December.

Once again mazel tov,

Thanks William! Enjoy conversion preparations for as long as you can! I had to remind myself so many times to stop and smell the roses because I was pushing so hard for the finish line 😉

I cried reading this post, especially when you got to that infamous quote from Ruth – could feel just how overjoyed you were at becoming Jewish. My own beit din/mikveh is in just a months’ time and I simply cannot wait to become who I always knew I was. I’ve been reading your blog with interest for a while now. It’s fantastic.

Mazel tov!

[…] feeling very reflective today. It’s my one year Jewish Anniversary. This time last year I was making my way from the Upper West Side Mikvah to Congregation Rodeph […]

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