It’s interesting to approach Pesach from the position of being in the desert a week early. Having already rejected my longstanding assumptions about congregational life and where I intend to spend the future, there has been a funny sense of self-confidence combined with a relative lack of comfort. It’s a combination I’ve been enjoying making friends with.
A close convert friend and I spent some time talking this month. He’s been feeling disconnected from his Judaism and his Jewish community, because his internal assumptions about what Judaism and Jewish community should be haven’t been matching up with his experience. That sounds a lot like what I felt myself going through the first few months of this year.
Almost. The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.
The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim. How could it be any different today?
I told my friend what I told myself this year–you are the owner of your own Judaism. It is not for any other Jew to tell you what is or isn’t Jewishly acceptable. Your politics? Your level and style of observance? Your opinions about tikkun olam? What you put in your mouth? What you put on your seder plate? Your internal struggles with God? All totally and completely Jewish things to wrestle with–and wrestling with your path in this world is about as normatively Jewish as it gets.
As I told my beit din several years ago, there is a prophetic aspect to joining the Jewish people. Being Jewish is not easy, but being a convert is even more difficult. We take no step on our Jewish paths for granted. We examine, and turn over and over, and sit with, and live, and test, and poke, and prod, and try, and succeed, and fail, and hope, and suffer, and wonder, and reach out for Adonai. Every moment of our lives.
This is the part that Jews-by-birth seldom understand. We are hard-core Jews. If we weren’t, why would we have left our own birth traditions in the first place? All those angry, annoyed, dissatisfied, argumentatively motivational, only very occasionally happy prophets in he Hebrew Bible? They never died out. Nice to meet you. They are who we are.
Jews-by-choice understand that I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Which is a sentence that probably freaks out born Jews. So be it. No apologies for who we are.
There is a power in realizing that you have allowed others to define for you what is acceptable and normal, what it is your right to expect out of Judaism and what you have no right to demand. It happens without realizing it, and I wonder if it is a normal part of the convert path.
What I’m more sure is a regular feature of being a Jew-by-choice is this moment. The time when your Jewish life tells you to take the wheel. Mikvah is long behind you. You aren’t the same person you were when you emerged from the waters. And it’s time, maybe the first time, to find your spiritual self-confidence, stop looking to others, and make your own Jewish choices. (Like the one I made last year to observe a seven-day Diaspora Passover.)
Sometimes, hard Jewish choices. But if you’re not living your own Jewish life, why be Jewish at all? I told my friend I was kvelling for him. His life isn’t east right now. But it’s certainly Jewish. And he’s certainly a self-aware Jew. Not a happy Jew. But a Jew who knows, more and more, who he is. Really is.
That describes me and my life right now, too. There are two ways forward when you realize that. You can roll your own Jew in edgy confidence. Or you can go back to your comfort zone, wrap yourself in apathy, and live as the Jew everyone else thinks you should be. I’m sure our forebears felt pretty comfy in Egypt, living the limited lives that others pre-determined for them. But look how that turned out. See #diedinthedesert.
This Passover, I’m all out of apathy. My personal Egypt is my Jewish comfort zone, and it can stay behind with the leaven. My matzah of hope this year is all about my future. The last thing I intend to carry through the desert while I move forward is the burden of trying to make others happy about a journey that doesn’t belong to them.
The Jewish tent is wide. It shelters many types of Jewish journey. Those journeys are not Jewish because others say so. They are Jewish because individual Jews embark on them. They’re not always comfortable. They’re not meant to be. But you can’t reach the promised land unless you pick one.
So pick one and get moving. Your comfort zone be damned. Embrace your Jewish self-confidence and let your kishkes be your guide. Because you’ve probably been sitting on your ass too long. I know I have.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.