In honor that this week is Passover, I’m going to let you in on something.
You know the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye has a dream that his daughter should marry Motel, the impoverished tailor and not Lazar Wolf, the creepy and old, but wealthy butcher? It was a premonition of sorts, even though, technically, Tevye concocted the whole dream in order to help his daughter get out of a marriage arranged by Yente, the matchmaker. And, it worked.
Well, that’s what happened to me. Only, not exactly the same way.
My dream was very real–I swear I didn’t make any of it up–and my dream told me I needed to convert. So I did. I converted to Judaism.
At the time I was engaged and living in Seattle with the man I’d be marrying in less than a year (and then later divorcing). Of course, there was no talk of divorce in those early days, only of unconditional love and, oh yes, religion.
The fact that I was (a lapsed) Catholic and he, a Jew, was what we would call today, the trending topic among his family and extended family. No doubt, the pressure was on, but when it came to religion, I was on the fence. Frankly, I hadn’t been a very good Catholic. I was a Catechism school drop-out, after all.
A lot of what I learned about the Jewish faith I learned through osmosis from my friends. Having grown up in primarily Jewish neighborhoods, I could see my friends walking to the synagogue on the High Holy Days, using Yiddish words in conversations with their parents, noshing on bagels and lox, gefilte fish, too (which look icky but I grew to appreciate). And my best friends’ grandmas were Holocaust survivors. Get the picture? So back to my dream.
In my dream I saw my fiancé’s parents holding hands and facing me. And standing behind them, shoulder to shoulder, row upon row, were past generations of Jews. There were Jews from the days of Exodus, Jews from the Spanish Inquisition. Even Jews from the Mayflower. (Okay, so there were only two from the Mayflower, but still.) Most of the Jews in my dream were from the time of the Holocaust, and standing beside them were the ones who came to America, including Grandma Gussie, my fiancé’s grandmother, who arrived at Ellis Island when she was a young girl in the early 1900s.
Grandma Gussie was a smidge of a woman, less than five feet tall, with an ample bosom and pointy glasses. She was standing just behind my fiancé’s parents but I could see her there, which must’ve meant she was standing on a soapbox because really she was too small to see otherwise.
How I loved that woman. She was so good to me. Ironically, nobody had wanted to tell her about me, that I was going to marry her grandson, but when we finally did meet, she pinched my cheeks and took me under her wing. She loved to paint landscapes and still-lifes and she painted incessantly. Everyone in the family owned at least one of her works of art, often more. She would come to dance at my wedding, with a delightful zeal, kicking up her heels and showing us she still had it at 82. What a lady.
Now, where was I? Oh yeah, in my dream, none of them said a word, their faces brimming with their history, their wounds, and their Jewish pride. How could I turn my back on all this, they seemed to be asking me. How could I consider not raising my future kids in the Jewish faith? As I stood there staring back at them, I was overcome, and I swear I could hear the poignant song of the fiddler on my roof.
When I awoken that morning, I knew what I had to do. I had to convert.
I felt a surge of faith like I’d never felt before. I felt the weight of a people on my shoulders, pushing me forward, as if a legacy had been handed to me, mine to keep, to cherish and move forward. Like a lantern placed in my hand, I could not snuff it out.
It was as if my whole life had been leading up to this moment.
Like I said, I grew up in Jewish neighborhoods, watching my favorite Jewish comedians on TV and in the movies–Alan King, Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar. I went to a Jewish university, whose founding faculty included Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt (okay, so she wasn’t Jewish, but with her credentials, who cares?) and in college, I took a slew of courses in Jewish history and read tons of books–fiction and nonfiction–on the Holocaust. I never cried so much. Truly, there was so much that I already loved about the Jewish faith.
I made up my mind, and my fiancé and I found a synagogue and started taking classes together on Judaism. I loved those classes. Every Sunday morning for a couple of hours, the assistant rabbi would teach us about the holidays, how to keep a Jewish home, the prayers, the songs. Much of it was foreign to me but I learned to love the Shema prayer and the songs with their haunting melodies. Soon it felt natural, second nature. And when I was ready, we met with the rabbi. And so I converted and the name I chose for myself was Rachel Tovah.
We divorced, as you know, but I remain Jewish and raised my children in the faith.
As for Grandma Gussie, we grew close, she and I. I’m so glad for the time we got to spend together. When I became pregnant with my firstborn, we phoned her to share the news. She was overjoyed. Shortly after, though, she died and never got to see my son, who was born during Passover, or Pesach, as it is also known. But in keeping with tradition, we named him after her.
So that’s my story. What’s yours?