Tired of living in fear

This Shavuot, I'm proud to be a convert.

I was sitting one evening in my favorite coffee shop in Jerusalem’s German Colony. Itamar, our waiter, just like every other day, endearingly called me hamooda [cutie]. The Russian security guard knew my name, and all things were familiar. Except, this time, I was there with a young Anglo man, whom I had recently met. His hair was long and tied back in a ponytail, his head uncovered by any yarmulke or hat.
Through the heavy haze of cigarette smoke, I ate my cake and drank my coffee, while he chain-smoked and drank his beer. Between rapid inhalations of carcinogens, he described his hatred toward Jewish converts. He intensely opined that converts are “fake Jews,” of whom we should be suspicious. When challenged, he admitted that it was possible, albeit doubtful, that there could be a convert, who he would believe to be genuine.
So, using the interrogation tactics I had developed through conducting hundreds of depositions, I inquired, “What if she kept the mitzvot? What if she kept Shabbat and kashrut? What if she dressed modestly? What if she washed her hands before eating bread? What if she bentched after every meal and every visit to the bathroom? What if she converted for herself and not to marry a Jewish man?”
With every mention of an act he himself did not perform, he answered, “Yes. I would believe that she’s Jewish.”
And, so, I retorted, “That woman is me. Check please!”
THREE YEARS ago, my rabbi said to me, with immense pride, “Ariella, your ancestors are smiling right now, because, today, your soul is returning to the Jewish people.”
After studying for nearly two years under rabbinical supervision and being interrogated for an hour and 45 minutes on blessings, Jewish laws, holidays, the Sabbath and the historical and philosophical aspects of Judaism, I was finally going into the mikve. His words filled my heart and replaced my mental exhaustion with relief and joy.
Moments later, I made my final preparations for the mikve. I removed my contact lenses, cleaned my nails and combed through my hair one last time. As the mikve lady checked my nails for dirt, I prayed that I might never feel like an outsider again.
Because I was unable to walk into the mikve, I was placed on an old hydraulic lift, which hadn’t been used for years. The mikve lady released a bungee cord attached to the lift, and the chair, upon which I was sitting, began to rapidly plummet into the mikve waters. With all her might, she grabbed the chair, as I gasped with fear. And she anxiously summoned the rabbis into the mikve room for help. Two of the three rabbis hurried to my rescue, grasping tightly to the chair, to prevent the impending tragedy. Though terrified, the only thought I had at the moment was, “Thank you, God, for this bathrobe!”
In the adjacent room, the mikve lady quickly undressed into a bathrobe and entered the mikve, to assist the rabbis in slowly guiding the chair into the water. As my feet entered the water, I realized that the mikve had not been heated and was as freezing as New York’s winter weather. However, I did not complain. It was not until several minutes later, when my 65-year-old friend entered the mikve and screamed from the excruciatingly low temperature, that the rabbis realized why I was shivering.
I lowered myself off the lift and stood in the murky waters, paying no heed to other women’s hairs, floating on the surface. Struggling to breath, I muttered the blessing. After the third, bone-chilling plunge, the rabbi announced, “Mazal tov!” and everyone followed suit in congratulating me.
But, the mikve lady, in her thick Hungarian accent, said “You were meant to be a Jew, because only a Jew would be forced to endure such suffering.”
BEFORE GOING into the mikve, I knew and accepted that from that day forward, I would be subjected to persecution, discrimination and even terrorism, as a result of being Jewish. I even expected the occasional suspicious interrogations by Israeli airlines and the Jewish Agency, when making aliya. I was prepared for questions about my conversion, what the process was like, whether it is a recognized Orthodox conversion and so on.
What I didn’t anticipate was that people, like the chain-smoker, would look down on me for not being born with the privilege of being Jewish and the gift of Torah. And, worse, I never suspected that I would have to fear the possibility of a rabbi, one day, annulling my conversion.
Right before I made aliya and fulfilled one of the most meaningful and important mitzvot a Jew can fulfill, the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem annulled thousands of Rabbi Haim Druckman’s conversions. They issued this promulgation after one of Druckman’s converts admitted to the beit din of Ashdod that she never kept the mitzvot. For this, thousands of presumably legitimate converts and, in the case of female converts, their children, were declared gentiles.
As a result, every day, for nearly two years, I have been frightened that I will, one day, be stripped of my title, of my religion, my customs, my lifestyle – of my people. I have intently tried to conceal the fact that I am a convert and that most of my family is not Jewish.
However, this year, as I count down, or rather up, to Shavuot, the day we all converted at the foot of Sinai, and prepare to read about the biblical convert, who is the progenitor of our greatest human king, King David, and, ultimately, the messiah, I have made the decision to be proud of being a convert. Today, I have a better understanding of the issue of the convert versus the Jew from birth.
The issue is not who my mother is, but rather who I am. The question for all of us is – what have you done today? Are you a Jew by birth and an idol worshiper by practice? (Insert the name of your favorite idol, be it stone, drugs, money or physical pleasure.) Or are you a Jew by practice? By conversion, I am a Jew. By practice, I am a Jew. The chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, pony-tailed guy, on the other hand, is only half way there.
I will never again be made to feel like an outsider. I will reenter the mikve every day, if forced to do so. And, if, God forbid, the Chief Rabbinate wishes to challenge my Jewishness, I will unabashedly profess that “wherever your people go, I will go,” including sub-zero mikve waters, and “where you die, I will die,” including a bombed Jerusalem bus, and “and there, I will be buried” – that is, undoubtedly, in the land of Israel.
The writer is a Jerusalem-based attorney with a doctorate in law from Emory University. She made aliya in 2008.