...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Lekh Lekha

My bet din was held last Sunday in a small room at the Portland Jewish Ritualarium in SW Portland, not too far from Portland State. The Ritualarium is a converted house; I gather that the couple who runs it lives upstairs and makes the mikvah and anteroom available for those who need it. The bet din, composed of my rabbi and two men from the congregation, sat on a couch one one side of the room; I sat in a chair facing them in the middle of the room. Behind me in a semi-circle were my parents; Daniel and his parents; Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema, three women from P'nai Or; Jade, a friend from work; and Sylvia, my old professor and thesis advisor from college.

I was nervous. So, so nervous! I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to authentically represent my thoughts and feelings. But once the questioning began I eased into it an relaxed. The rabbi asked me about the spiritual path that led me to this point. One of the other men me about elements of Jewish practice that I had adopted; the other man asked how I envisioned my relationship with the nation of Israel. They reminded me that the Jews have been persecuted from time immemorial and that anyone who wants to join a persecuted people has to be a little meshuga. (Okay, they didn't use the word meshuga.) There were moments when I didn't feel like I was able to say exactly what I meant, but overall I felt that I was able to represent myself and my path authentically. And then, the rabbi sent me to the mikvah for the three immersions that would make me a Jew.

Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema and I rose and walked down the short hallway. I stopped in the bathroom and disrobed, then joined the other three women in the mikvah. My mom and I had peeked in to see it after we arrived at the Ritualarium, so I knew what to expect: a series of steps leading down to a shoulder-deep tiled pool. Hebrew transliterations of the blessings hung from the walls. This was it. I handed my towel and my glasses to Harriet then walked down the steps into the water. You have to immerse a particular way: all parts of the body have to simultaneously be submerged without touching anything else (ie you can't have your feet on the ground). I was so intent on getting the immersion right that I forgot to close my mouth all the way and when I came back up I was choking. I coughed and spluttered for a minute then said the blessing for immersion and Shecheheyanu. After the second immersion I said the Sh'ma and Baruch Shem; after the third immersion, I said as much of the V'ahavta as I knew. Then I climbed back out of the pool and wrapped in the towel. It was surreal. Mateh Esther began singing and clapping and the other women joined in. My mom later told me that they could hear us in the waiting room, and the rabbi joked that it sounded like we were having too much fun.

I went to dry off and get dressed. I remember that I was self-conscious about taking too much time to get dressed, since everyone was waiting for me, so I carried my socks back into the room in my hands and then gave them to Daniel to hold. The rabbi announced the Hebrew name that I had decided on, Shulamit Yiskah, and we signed the papers. Then there were some blessings and the rabbi took out his guitar and began to play. Harriet grabbed my hands and we began to dance, spinning around and around. I grabbed Jade and she joined the circle. Soon everyone in the room, including my parents, had joined hands and was dancing around the small room at the Ritualarium. It was such a moment of joy. Daniel's father Jeff told me afterwards that the look on my face was of pure happiness.

Looking back on the experience, the overwhelming feeling and impression is one of affirmation. The bet din, rather than being a scary, judgmental experience, was one of affirmation and support. I felt fortunate to have my parents there and to know that they're so supportive of this. I know it was a moving experience for both of them, and I think they felt honored to be there.

So, now I'm a Jew. I'm no longer just "interested in" Judaism, or studying for conversion, or exploring my options--I'm a Jew. I'm Jewish. It still feels surreal. Yesterday was my first Shabbat as Jew. The Torah portion was Lekh Lekha, in which God tells Abraham to leave the land of his father and go out to the land that God would show him--an amazingly resonant and significant Torah portion for a convert. During the Torah reading, Harriet handed me a tallis to wear. It felt different to wear a prayer shawl--different, but also oddly comfortable and very, very right.