Jerusalem, Before and After Converting to Orthodox Judaism

When I first visited the holy city as a college student, I felt like an outsider. Going back as a convert, I still did, until a group of praying women showed me that I belonged.

Jerusalem, Before and After Converting to Orthodox Judaism

We’ve all traveled somewhere that changed us, yet we don’t always think to go back. In this series, “The Second Trip Around,” made possible by the “Don’t Skip the Trip” campaign, our writers do just that. 

We were on our way to the Western Wall when the two college friends I was traveling with wandered away to look at a crumbling Roman column. A plump, maniacally happy religious man — sort of like a Hasidic Santa Claus — approached me with his hands outstretched, a tiny red thread dangling between his fingers. I knew what it was — this was 2004, and Madonna had been into Kabbalah, the study of mystical Judaism whose adherents wore similar red strings, said to warn off the evil eye, for almost a decade by then. I didn’t know, however, if it was appropriate for me, a blond Gentile in tight jean cut-offs and a tank top, to accept it.

“But,” I said, backing up, “I’m not Jewish.”

“It’s okay!” he said, before tying the string around my wrist, where it would stay for almost a year afterward.

I loved what Jerusalem had to offer, but I had no idea what any of it meant, or what I could partake of. When I watched the girls my age sway and sob at the Western Wall, I was moved by their emotion, but I felt more like an intruder than an empathizer. When I peeked into the tiny library near the Wall’s base and saw the men there poring over one tract or another, I was perplexed, but ultimately dismissive. “What new things could they possibly be learning, after all these years of studying the same books?” I asked.

“You’d be surprised,” replied my friend, Marisa, the product of an observant family and modern Orthodox schooling.

Nearly twelve years later, I am no longer surprised. Over the holiday of Passover in 2016, I returned to Jerusalem, this time as a card-carrying (well, conversion-certificate-owning) Jew, one who keeps kosher, observes Sabbath, and feels all the requisite guilts and joys. It was a slow but steady progression to observance, one that perhaps began in earnest during that first trip to Israel. First, I noticed a growing fascination — perhaps best described as academic — with Judaism. I pursued that interest, and started studying with various rabbis and exploring different schools of Jewish thought, finding myself increasingly drawn to Orthodoxy. From one month to the next, I took on new restrictions: tossing out my old jean cut-offs in favor of knee-length skirts, giving up the beloved shellfish of my New England childhood, and eschewing Netflix binges on Saturday in favor of religious services and long meals punctuated by spontaneous outbursts into traditional melodies. I’ve been an “official” Jew now for about a year and a half; every day, I pray for the Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Countless times during the week, the City of Gold comes up in conversation, in a text I study, or at the synagogue my husband and I attend.

It is perhaps obvious, then, that I would feel incredible anticipation as my husband and I waited for our (very delayed) El Al flight to Ben Gurion. Through the throngs of Jews milling about in the airport hallway, I spotted a girl I had crossed paths with once, who was on her way to visit her in-laws in the seaside city of Herzliya. She asked if I was off to see family, and when I said that I had no family in Israel, I thought I detected a look of faint puzzlement — what Jew has no family in the Holy Land? When we finally boarded, I buckled in and commanded myself to relax, in hopes of making use of the whole five hours to sleep. But it was harder than I anticipated; I was so giddy that I was about to spend six days in a state of spiritual transcendence so euphoric it would be nearly unbearable, like during my conversion ceremony, when I cried tears of joy from beginning to end. In the back of my mind, though, as I finally drifted off somewhere over Luxembourg, a niggling thought: what if Israel didn’t embrace me the way I had embraced it?

It wasn’t just paranoia. Historically, Orthodox converts, many of them, like me, who converted with modern Orthodox rabbis (as opposed to, for example, Hasidic), have been consistently undermined and insulted in their attempts to integrate into Israeli society. In 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that all foreign converts were eligible to emigrate immediately after conversion, but the Rabbinate, which is mainly made up of rabbis from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority, has consistently flouted that edict in the decade since. Horror stories abound: a young bride’s mother was dragged back to a beit din (rabbinical court) to prove her conversion from twenty years prior was valid; a woman’s conversion was revoked after she lapsed in her religious practice, despite the resounding verdict from scholars that this was an overstep in rabbinic authority. For those of us outside the state, the pain is more philosophical, but just as primal: after years of adjusting to an entirely new life — new dietary restrictions, new demands on time, not to mention a radically new sense of personal identity — to be told by an authority figure that you don’t count is emotionally devastating.

Our second day in Jerusalem was Shabbat, so after a hearty breakfast of matzah, scrambled eggs and salty Lebanese cheese in our hotel, we headed over to morning services, held on the bright second floor of a community center in the German Colony. All around me swirled the sense of warm belonging: members greeting each other with kisses, women leading their antsy children out to the patio to play, men, who looked like ghosts through the gossamer curtain that acted as a mechitzah, rising and sitting on command. Though I can read Hebrew, I get lost easily during rapid-fire davening without the assistance of a translation to refer back to, and thus I found myself hopelessly adrift, just standing and bowing when others did, convinced that everyone could tell I was lost and panicking.

The next morning, my husband and I navigated the narrow streets of the Old City toward the Western Wall to meet a tour guide who would lead us through the underground tunnel that spans the length of the Wall. Amongst the crowd, I noticed a wide variety of Jews hustling to get to the Wall to pray: Asian women with traditional Jewish head coverings, American families wearing jeans and tapping at iPhones, big Hasidic broods, the children in adorable matching get-ups. I had previously been somewhat self-conscious about my muslin sunhat — stylistically more fit for a wind-swept New England beach than the utilitarian turbans favored by most pious women — but felt buoyed by the sartorial reminder that there are many ways to be Jewish. After joining up with our tour group and descending into the tunnels, we traversed the thin passageway until we reached a point called “the Cave,” which is thought to be the closest accessible point to the historical Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple where the Divine was thought to reside.

“Religious women like to come to pray at this little clearing in the tunnels, and we should try not to disturb them,” the guide said. As we maneuvered around the women, I paused momentarily, and then saw my husband make a face that said, “Stay, if you want.”

I looked at the handful of women around me – maybe ten of them, ranging from teenagers to grandmothers. Each one was dressed in a long, earth-tone skirt and a standard head covering, and they were clustered together in the tiny, dark alcove, eyes fixed on their prayer books, the younger ones standing and swaying rhythmically, the older ones resting in white plastic chairs. I tugged nervously at my dress – calf-length, but a little too colorful, a little too mainstream. Did they know I was different? Could they detect my questionable Jewish-ness? After a few minutes, I realized that of course, none of these women were paying the slightest attention to me. None of them asked if I was Jewish as I wriggled for space at the wall; in fact, no one had asked me that once since my arrival.

Reaching out to touch with my fingertips the cold stone in front of me, I remembered what I had always known: that my beliefs alone cannot be managed, regulated or politicized by any external force. The contact — between my fingers and a physical spot charged with sanctity, between my inner self and the city of Jerusalem, between me as a person and the things I choose to find meaning in — cannot be altered by any institutional body. And as long as my faith in that unimpeachable right was continuously strengthened, then I, too, would be strong enough able to stand defiantly in the face of those who might doubt me, and to speak out in support of those like me.

The final full day of our trip was occupied with a few fun, typical tourist activities — a trip to colorful Mahane Yehuda market, lunch at Tmol Shilshom bookstore, and a brief jaunt through Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood just a stone’s throw away from the modern downtown triangle. After a delicious evening meal at the Eucalyptus Restaurant, where we drank wine harvested from Galilee grapes and ate meals seasoned with herbs that grow in the Jerusalem foothills, my husband and I spent a moment on our hotel’s outdoor terrace, staring in the direction of the Old City. “This is your history, too,” he whispered to me. “You belong here.”

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