I grew up in East Tennessee and didn’t meet my first Jew till after college. Two years after that, I was Jewish myself, married to a Yankee Jew and running a kosher home in Nashville. I had a kid, taught for a Conservative Synagogue, got an M.A. in Jewish Studies, had another kid, directed Jewish family education programs, invented the Bible Belt Balabusta and JewishEveryday.com, and then, just about the time I needed progressive lenses, I came out of the closet. The convert closet. Maybe it was the new glasses, but I suddenly saw it was time.
Why did I never allude to being a JBC (Jew by Choice). Tradition, partly, and some earned fear. More about that later. Why am I alluding to it now? Lots more about that later.
About the terms, GONE JEWISH:
JEWISH: Although workers who Witness in my home think they know what Jewish is, they don’t. Neither, apparently, does anyone else. I have lost track counting the constitutive elements of Jewish identity. After a couple of decades studying, living, and pondering the puzzle, I can safely say that Jewish is a matter of opinion, and no way, no how will one opinion satisfy all.
At the most conservative level, Jewish means being born of a Jewish mother who has been born of a Jewish mother who has been born of a Jewish mother and so on back to the dawn of time (or, in the confessional chronology of the Orthodox calendar, 5772 years ago), with no conversion or intermarriage or funny business at any time whatsoever. (Back to Abraham and Sarah, I reckon, although they themselves were converts…) If you have the documentation, this will get you past the fummiest of synagogue membership boards and might even satisfy Israel’s Interior Ministry should you wish to make aliyah.
At the most liberal level, Jewish is simply to self-identify as Jewish, no questions asked. Show me the Jew who won’t be asking questions about that.
GONE, as in GONE JEWISH: Lordy, lordy, talk about matter of opinions. Is it really possible to go Jewish when you weren’t there before? I belong to several online Jewish Mom/Parenting sites, and if you want to see the challah hit the fan, start a forum thread called “kosher conversion.” Watch for inflammatory phrases like “Torah true,” “real Jew,” “blood Jew.” It gets ugly fast.
Sometimes it seems that the phrase “convert to Judaism” (that’s convert as a noun and a verb) is an oxymoron. Can a Jew by choice really make a choice that leads to universal acceptance? Or it is really “once a Christian, always a convert?” If universal acceptance is a desired outcome of conversion, see implied warning in “JEWISH” above.
Does this make me bitter or apt to rant? No. I love the complications of the life I’ve chosen, and most of all I love the family this life has produced, the radiant core of my universe. Without one, I wouldn’t have the other.
After 20 years, I finally believe that the only authority worth cow-towing to is internal. In a way then, I am going with the liberal definition of Jewish above: I self-identify as Jewish. I did, however, study under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, pass the bet din (a panel of judges, but literally “house of judgement”), take the mikveh dip, and recite all appropriate blessings and prayers in a formal conversion ceremony. I am Jewish by the laws of Conservative Judasim, but by any Orthodox standard and to Israel’s Ministry of Interior I might as well be the Pope.
Luckily, I am happy where I am, so the latter authorities can kiss my grits.