by: Karen Jacobs – Amirah Ruth
June 5 2018 – 23 Sivan 5778
Almost thirty years ago, Andy Jacobs and I were married under a chuppah that I had created for our wedding day. It has hung every day since in our bedroom (except for the three times it was borrowed to bless other weddings). During our engagement, we studied Judaism, found a shul, talked about whether I wanted to convert or not, and…I wasn’t sure. I’d been part of the Unitarian church in my Massachusetts hometown and felt that UU was aligned with my spiritual needs. I also had extraordinary respect and love for my Unitarian Minister, who co-officiated along with a “renegade rabbi” at our wedding in the fall of 1988.
But meanwhile, I was enjoying Jewish study. I loved the Hebrew language; and I found engaging with Jewish text to be very satisfying. Jewish rituals, especially around home and family, fed my spirit. Much of Judaism’s ethical guidance on how to live a good life and love others made sense and helped keep me grounded. Beyond all that, it was, and is, a foundational part of Andy’s spirit. So we agreed even before we married that we would raise our children in Jewish faith/identity, and that our home would be a (liberal) Jewish home, whether or not I officially chose Judaism as my own faith. As years passed, it became clear that I’d taken on a Jewish identity, even though I’d never formally converted. I started to refer to myself as “Jewish-ish.” People who don’t know my background are often surprised to hear I wasn’t raised Jewish.
I thought often about whether to formally convert. After awhile I knew it was something I wanted, but there always seemed to be something holding me back. The rabbi we were with wasn’t the right one to guide me through the process. Or I wasn’t ready to prioritize the time that study would take. Or once I went to visit the mikveh, and somehow the formality of it scared me off. So I put it off and just focused on living my Jewish-ish life. I couldn’t articulate how the actual conversion would change anything real inside me.
So, now, why move now from being comfortably Jewish-ish to affirming a Jewish identity?
Any good writer knows there are two ways to write about character change. There is the slow build, in which the reader has only a vague sense of a happening shift, until there is a quiet acknowledgement and then they have to go back through the story to see that it was happening all along, Mystery and romance stories use this method all the time. And then there is shock & awe, almost always created by an external force, in which the character makes a proactive decision or has an epiphany, and the reader can immediately see the shift. Adventure tales use this method.
When I think about my Jewish pivot point, “what changed?” I can point to two huge external events in my life where I indeed had moments of “shock & awe” spiritual reckoning.
The first was September 11 2001, when I found myself grounded in mid-Manhattan, without friends or family or a working phone line. I set out from my claustrophobic hotel room and the unfolding horror on every TV screen, thinking I wanted something to eat. But as I walked through empty streets, I realized I wasn’t hungry. What I was looking for was people — my people — someone I could hug and cry with and yes, pray with. I was looking for a synagogue, thinking, “It’s New York, there’s gotta be a shul here somewhere and that’s where I’ll find my people.”
The second reckoning came soon after November 8 2016. The election left me feeling unexpectedly lost. It wasn’t even the political loss that shook me. It was the attacks on values I hold most dear: Truth, compassion and learning matter. Hard work and hard decisions matters. Respect for every life and all of the world’s Life, matters. And, being in conscious community with those who share my values matters.
As I thought about where and when I would best be an ally to various communities I felt were under attack, I realized that when it came to anti-semitism, I felt like I wasn’t just an ally, but that I was already part of the community. And not just because my husband, children, friends…but because, me. I suddenly saw a very bright line connecting my own deepest values with the values of Jewish faith and Jewish history. And once again, this phrase, “that’s where I’ll find my people” came to me.
But…I don’t think it’s these times of shock & awe that have ultimately moved me to my affirmation. Rather, it is all the small moments over the past 30 years that have built to a “quiet acknowledgement” of who I really am. These moments have slowly stitched my Jewish identity together as a quilt: thread by thread, knot by knot, until at last I see there is no more sewing to be done, I’ve only to wrap myself in the story. I became more Jewish:
- that time I made our wedding chuppah
- that time my heart swelled as my (non-Jewish!) father made the toast at our wedding and ended with, “L’Chaim!”
- that time I made my first matzah ball
- that time we accidentally found the oldest synagogue in Provence, and the elderly French attendant there asked whether I was Jewish and when I demurred, she smiled and said, in French, that I had une âme juive, a Jewish soul
- that first time my mom asked if we would light the Chanukah candles at their house while we were with them over Christmas
- that time I stayed in the sukkah in our backyard, and watched the stars come out
- that time I listened to my daughter sing “Elohai, elohai” and realized I’ll never hear that song again without crying (still true)
- that time I worried about whether my son could keep up with his schoolwork while he was traveling to Milwaukee to be with his best friend in hospital, and he told me it was okay because “Mom, it’s a mitzvah”
- that first time I stood and said Kaddish for someone I loved
- all those times we said the prayers over the candles, wine and challah on Friday nights, and if the kids had friends over, or we had friends visiting, then they just joined in
- that time I grabbed my dear friend’s hand and pulled her into the middle of all the hora dancers at the celebration of her daughter’s bat mitzvah
- that time we planned and hosted a Seder for 40, oops now it’s 45, oops, the neighbors have no place to go and now it’s more than 50 people
- that time we were in Maine for the holidays and we walked into the woods and blew shofar
- that time I wasn’t sure whether we could afford the time to travel for someone’s wedding and then I reminded myself of the commandment to share another’s simcha
- that time the kids’ high school choir sang “Hatikva” as part of their program and I teared up
- that time I decided that at every Passover and every Rosh Hashanah we would make donations to both Mazon and the Greater Chicago Food Depository
- that time I fell in love with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath, and realized this was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read:
“A thought has blown the market place apart. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day.”
My Jewish story isn’t an adventure tale. It’s a romance.
My friends Ilana & Mark, who are wise, beloved and fluent in Hebrew, have helped me choose as my Hebrew name Amirah Ruth תור הוימא. I have always felt spiritually connected to trees, so it’s meaningful to me that the masculine form of the word Amir רימא, means “treetop.” The feminine form Amirah הוימא means “a statement, saying or personal truth.” I’ve also seen it translated as “One who speaks.” I like that. I think it both describes me and challenges me in a good way. And, as Rabbi Ally Tickman Brill told me, I can think of my Jewish self as sitting atop a strong tree trunk, but with branches reaching out to provide sustenance and comfort to others and roots reaching deep to keep me grounded.
I’ve chosen the middle name Ruth תור not only because of Ruth’s significance in the Torah as the first convert to Judaism but also: Ruth is the given name of both one of Andy’s grandmothers, and one of my own. And in a perhaps beshert coincidence, my maternal grandmother Ruth told me years ago that her maternal grandmother was…wait for it…Jewish. Which, if true, means that I’ve got matrilineal Jewish descent! Of course, I don’t have any proof and none of these generations (until my own daughter…) were raised Jewishly. But still…it makes my heart happy to think about 🙂
How is my life Jewish now? What will change as I become Amirah Ruth? Well, we already celebrate Jewish holidays in our home. Jewish friends and family, Jewish music, art, books, film, food travel, events and causes are all part of our family’s life and they’ll continue to be. I do think being part of Mishkan’s Conversion Cohort has reminded me of how much I enjoy ongoing Jewish learning. I hope to be part of more Mishkan learning opportunities and events, and to deepen and grow more connections within this community.
After Andy & I found our nest empty and moved from Northbrook to Chicago a few years ago we fell away somewhat from regular Friday night rituals and even our occasional Shabbat service attendance. So, it’s also been nice as part of my conversion process, to return to those traditions and find them just as meaningful now as they were when the kids were with us. I still don’t think we’ll be “regular” about attending services, but we’re actively working again to put them on our calendars and we’re gratified when we succeed.
I began our Conversion Classes with a complicated relationship to Jewish prayer. Honestly, that’s still true and I suspect it will remain so. As Rabbi Lizzi named it, the “elephant in the room” is that it’s difficult to commit fully to prayer when you’re not sure what you believe about God. And I’m still not sure.
Two important things have happened because of my journey, though..
First, I came to a realization that my path into Judaism, the part that has always been most important to me, has never been about prayer and the spiritual; rather, it has been about behavior and the ethical. It took me awhile to untangle these attributes and realize that they are, in fact, related but different. And to feel confident that my connection to the Jewish faith is 100% sincere and legitimate even if the “God stuff” is not the part I’m connecting most tightly with.
Second, the work I’ve done with Rabbi Ally, and as part of the Conversion Cohort, has helped me to remember what should be obvious but unless I’m practicing it regularly I forget: when I actually dig in and study a particular prayer or practice or even a troublesome text, I almost always find or reconstruct its meaning and feel more connected to it.
With this realization, I recently began a blog and am hoping to use it as a way to keep myself accountable to Jewish study, growth and practice; and to invite others to share in discussion and learning with me. Much of this essay has been synthesized from my writing there: https://amirah.blog/.
I know now that I am ready to take on the commitment to affirm myself in the Jewish faith. I am incredibly grateful to the Beit Din — Rabbis Lizzi, Lauren and Ally — as well as to the patient, trusting, encouraging and generous members of my Mishkan Conversion Cohort. This experience in and of itself has been a blessing and I’m looking forward to the next steps in my Jewish journey.