Some Jewish converts had a singular, significant moment in their lives when they realized they wanted to be Jewish; others just always knew or it was a gradual realization. For me it was also sort of gradual, with a few significant points and significant characters.
For most of my life I didn’t know about my Jewish heritage and didn’t know any Jews, because I lived in Poland for the first 11 years of my life and in a Polish-American community for the next 8. Poland is now predominantly Catholic, and most of the Holocaust survivors who didn’t move to Israel or the U.S. after the war gave up on their Jewish identity and religion and didn’t tell anyone about it. I was raised Catholic as well, though my father’s family was less religious than most other people and I grew up on foods like challah, latkes, and herring. My sister and I even got gelt, the chocolate coins in gold wrapping that are traditionally given to children on Chanukah, for Christmas.
Once I went away to a top college with a significant Jewish population, I found myself very drawn to Jewish boyfriends and Jewish friends. I found that I got along very easily with Jews and that we had similar life views. I found Jewish traditions fascinating and became very curious about them.
At some point while I was in college, my sister and I did some online research on our background, and everything about our father’s last name (Grezak) pointed to a Jewish past — like the relatives in Israel, a presence in Warsaw, and someone who went through Ellis Island and had her nationality listed as “Hebrew.” Our last name is very rare, and generally anyone in Poland with the same last name is somehow related (there is no equivalent to the American “Smith”). It all made so much sense! Like how my grandpa wasn’t religious at all and my grandma had no family or relatives (entire Jewish families perished in the Holocaust, but Polish gentiles were usually killed individually for things like resistance, not the entire family). Even in terms of physical looks, I got most things from my father’s side and I look more Ashkenazi than gentile Slavic, with for example my dark, thick, frizzy hair that I had hated for most of my life because I didn’t know anyone else in Polish communities who had it. My sister told our parents about our Ellis Island finding; I wasn’t there but apparently our dad got a very angry look on his face, and later our mom confirmed in private that our father’s aunts had told her that he’s a Jew but doesn’t know about it.
So at that point I started learning more about Judaism and Jewish traditions, to the point of obsession. I was very drawn to everything about it, particularly the focus on intellectualism. I also for some reason liked Jewish men so much more than non-Jews. I gradually took on a Jewish identity, and my friends started asking me when am I converting.
I don’t remember how long ago I started thinking about converting, but for a long time I didn’t take on that idea seriously, solely because I knew it would upset my mother to no end (she’s super Catholic and old-fashioned, and would also see it as me rejecting the way she raised me) and I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the guilt trips and the nagging and the verbal abuse that I expected would follow (I already got some taste of it because she suspected I thought about converting). But I also didn’t see myself as Catholic anymore and disagreed with so many things about that religion. Judaism just fit my personality and my personal morality and life views so much more. I started keeping kosher, occasionally going to services, and observing some of the holiday traditions.
Then I went to Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip in February 2010 (the secular organizer that I picked decided I was Jewish enough given my heritage, somewhat-observance, and the fact that I identified as a Jew). It was a truly profound and life-changing experience. I felt such a connection to the land and the people, both the Israelis and the other American Jews on my trip, and I really felt like a Jew. I knew that conversion would make me really happy and complete.
Even my mother noted that I came back from Israel really happy. I also figured out my feelings toward Aaron and we developed a strong romantic relationship. We joined a local Reform synagogue as associate members and started fully observing holidays and some Shabbats, and I took Hebrew classes and did various activities with the Birthright Alumni group in New York. Whenever I was at synagogue or some Jewish activity, I truly felt like I belonged. Still, over a year passed and I didn’t yet have the guts to stand up to my mother and actually officially convert.
Then, around April of this year, I got this strong urge to go spend a few months in Israel. I was going through some difficult points in my professional and personal life, and I wanted to get away from everything for a while and spend some time in the land that I fell in love with. I signed up for a 5-month Masa volunteer trip, and, by claiming I was Jewish, I qualified for grants to cover most of my living expenses and wanted to apply to Jewish organizations to cover the rest. Aaron was very displeased about my choice, partially because he felt I was abandoning him but also in large part because I was trying to take advantage of all these opportunities for Jewish people when, in his eyes, I wasn’t fully a Jew because I never converted. He liked to remind me that he had put in so much effort into his bar mitzvah and his Jewish education and I did none of that. And I did feel like I was sort of cheating the system and felt guilty about that.
So I had this moment when I realized he was right and I thought, why not just finally convert and finally become a Jew. I think this was sometime in early May. My relationship with my mother was also disintegrating at that point, and I realized, admittedly with Aaron’s influence, that she was being selfish and I had no obligation to sacrifice my happiness for her and spend my life pleasing her. I deserve to be happy and fulfilled, and I can’t be afraid to do what I truly want.
I decided to postpone my Israel trip till next year and convert first, so that I can participate as a Jew (and get the financial benefits) and it would be even more meaningful. Aaron is very supportive of my conversion and started doing all these traditions with me, even though he wasn’t observant at all when we met, which means a lot to me.
I’m probably not going to tell my mother until after my conversion ceremony (or maybe not at all), and to be honest, I have no problem disappearing from her life if she doesn’t accept my choice. She already doesn’t accept my relationship with Aaron for completely nonsensical reasons and has said and done some hurtful things (which is a whole another story of its own, but it’s mostly because he’s “taking me away” from her). But that has no effect on me, and I’m willing to not invite her to our wedding because Aaron’s very adamant about that and I don’t want any of her drama. It might be selfish or horrible to say this, but honestly, my religion and the love I share with Aaron are more important to me than my mother. I don’t think of it as being selfish; I see it as being self-interested and proactive in securing my happiness and personal fulfillment.
I didn’t really mean to get into a tirade about my mother, but she was a pretty significant factor throughout my journey to conversion. I’m just really happy now that I made this choice and I’m excited about the process.