Two interesting things happened two New Year’s Eves ago. The same evening Ryan introduced me to gin, he also began pondering his Hebrew name. At three in the morning, his boozy suggestion of Jesus—pronounced in Spanish—was a facetious one. But until we joined our new synagogue this year, it was the last time his Jewish conversion journey had a shot at making it to the finish line.
Shortly before I completed my own conversion in the spring of 2011, Ryan and I had a massive argument about keeping a Jewish household. Before my beit din, I would be promising to do just that: affix a mezuzah to my front door and observe—from my Reform denominational perspective—the ethical and ritual commandments, including the weekly Sabbath and the rich calendar of Jewish holidays. Our former rabbi at our previous shul warned me that our religious differences might become a barrier between Ryan and me.
Of course, he never really cared to understand who Ryan and I were as people (one of the reasons we left our previous shul a year and half ago.) After I went to mikvah and was officially Jewish, Ryan told me that he had been on his own, silent journey to join the Jewish people for months. But he didn’t want to get in the way of my conversion journey—so he created a phony conflict about keeping a Jewish home so I wouldn’t suspect what was really going on inside of him.
Ryan’s Church of Christ upbringing mirrored my own Roman Catholic childhood. Our families—his Andersons, my Doyles—were devout in word but less so in church-going deed. And the faith that connected them even tenuously to God just never connected with us. We both spent our adulthoods seeking Deity but rejecting organized religion. For me, it was a spiritual crisis and a trip on the Brown Line that brought me to Judaism—where I’ve remained without a doubt sine Hashem tapped me on the shoulder in August 2010.
For Ryan, however, it was synagogue, itself. When we met four months later in my journey to join the Jewish people and knew we were meant to be a couple, we didn’t have the privacy of our own apartments. (That would come soon enough—we moved in six weeks later.) Instead, we had two standing dates: driving around Chicagoland night after night to talk, with a couple of cups of coffee and a box of Munchkins nestled between us; and Shabbat dinner and synagogue every Friday. Sometimes we’d do both in the same evening.
There were times Ryan would complain to me about spending every Friday night at synagogue. He’d later explain that he complained because he didn’t want people to think he was going just for me. In reality, very quickly he was going for himself. God had finally led him to a spiritual home. Surprise! That home was a Jewish one.
Because we were never fully accepted at our old shul (which systematically denigrated members who didn’t have children in the religious school), Ryan eventually refused to move his conversion journey forward there. Yet, even for several other starts and stops due to circumstance and life simply being lifey, Ryan long ago began identifying as Jewish in his personal and professional lives. A big part of the reason for joining our new congregation was for Ryan to have the chance to finally bring his conversion journey in for a landing with rabbis he trusts.
We will be different Jews. I wear my Judaism and my status as a convert on my sleeve. Ryan’s equally open about his journey, but quieter in the telling of it. I swim in the deeper end of the ritual-commandment pool. Ryan is a volunteer at heart, and driven by the ethical imperative to heal the world. I’ve got a mystical Chasid hidden somewhere inside of me. He’s got a lifelong synagogue committee leader waiting to come out.
At the beginning of December, we began attending together a Union for Reform Judaism “Introduction to Judaism” course. The 16-week course is given several times a year at shuls across the country. Our course is being taught by the rabbis and Jewish educators of our own synagogue, at our own synagogue. It’s the kind of personal experience Ryan yearned for at our old shul for years.
After having lived Jewishly for so long, for Ryan the course is also partially a formality. He had the choice of moving forward through personal study, instead, the way that I did. But the hundreds of pages we will read and discuss together will deepen Ryan’s already wide-ranging Jewish knowledge, and help solidify in his mind and heart that the endpoint is finally approaching, and he’s looking forward to the experience. (And actually, it’s probably more like thousands of pages—Jewish converts are expected to master a pretty substantial knowledge of Jewish history, thought, and practice.)
When he gave me permission to write about his journey this month, he also shared with me the more reasonable Hebrew name he’s been considering: Ya’akov (Jacob.) I don’t recall the conversation, but Ryan said I once suggested the name because like Jacob, he also has struggled with God. The journey I took without doubt, Ryan has taken from day one playing Devil’s advocate, just to be sure.
I think it’s a wonderful name. Sometime soon after Passover next spring, it will be his name for Jewish religious purposes. Of course, it won’t be his only Jewish name.
Next spring, Anderson will be a Jewish name, too.