When the Sunday sun goes down tonight and evening is officially installed, the 8th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar will begin. On Iyyar 8 one Hebrew year ago, my neshama (soul) finished its forty-year-long journey to rejoin the Jewish people. Happy Jew Year to me. From the day I realized what my life had been leading up to all along through the doubtless surety I felt during my conversion studies, my life on its unexpected detour to Judaism always felt like coming home.
“Amech ami, v’Elohayich Elohai…”
I vowed to myself on mikveh day last year that I would make it a point to return to the mikveh of my conversion every year to mark my unending joy and gratitude at becoming Micha’el Ben-Ami–Michael, son of my people. I’ll do that on Tuesday evening. That gives me a couple of days to think about how I felt last year after mikveh, and how my Jewish identity has progressed in the months since then.
There was an unbounded joy immediately after emerging from the waters, knowing I would never be converting again, that I had returned to my tradition. (Some Jewish thought suggests the souls of all Jews were present at Sinai, and the task of the convert is to remember that in this lifetime.) In fact, that joy has never abated. It followed on the heels of anxious wonder that overtook me the night before mikveh, on my last day as a non-Jew. It was as if I was getting married in the morning. I knew the next day would change my life. I looked forward in anticipation, but I was nervous about getting all the day’s rituals right. And I was nervous about being a good Jew.
In the waters that marked the beginning of my Jewish life, I asked God to make me a good Jew–and threw in a plea for Hebrew skills, too. A year later, I remain struggling to find better and better ways to use a Jewish decision-making lens to manage and make sense of the intersection of my life, God, Judaism, and the people with whom I share my shul, my place of work, and my planet. That, I think, is the definition of a thoughtful Jewish life. My rabbi leaning over last week at Shabbat morning services after I chanted the blessing before reading the Torah and telling me it sounded like I was developing an Israeli accent with my Hebrew was icing.
I have been most grateful for the ability to use Jewish practice to see the holy that is always hiding behind the ever-present mundane hours and tasks of existence. The rituals and blessings that add a layer of contemplation and connection with the ephemeral on top of everyday tasks. My inability to eat a lunchtime cookie, or unexpectedly run into a friend, or get out of bed in the morning without recognizing such everyday miracles for what they are, and expressing thanks.
They say conversion is not an endpoint, but a beginning. I can definitely say that since last year my Judaism has grown, changed, deepened, and taken me in directions I never expected that I’d ever be interested in exploring on mikveh day. A year ago I didn’t lay tefillin in the morning, pray (as close as possible to) three times a day, or ever think I’d be sitting here in a tallit katan with tzitzit that I had tied myself. What a difference a year makes.
Atah gibor l’olam, Adonai…
But if I’ve learned anything in the past year it’s that my neshama feels very connected to the traditional end of the mitzvah pool, and I no longer feel shy about the way Jewish tradition moves me. After all, I waited to be so moved for 40 years. And it isn’t a purely humanistic Judaism that’s moving me, either, where God is an impersonal force of the universe and action is the only relevant defining point of our tradition. Because I don’t think any of those things are true about Judaism or are useful bases solely around which to define an informed Reform Jewish life.
Instead, flowing from my Reform Jewish engagement with Judaism, I believe with perfect faith that an infinite Being can be things far beyond my comprehension, both the Echad of all and a deeply personal, loving, engaged presence in my life. I celebrate the radical amazement that Heschel taught me could help me jettison the need to define God’s abilities in human terms and make a leap of faith. And I will live the rest of my life with a chassidic yearning to sing out about the normal mysticism of a Jewish worldview with the power to redeem and enlighten.
Not to mention with the ability, discovered in the past year, to bake one hell of a loaf of challah. Who wouldn’t be thankful for that?