Fiddler on My Roof

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.

Sarah's Bat Mitzvah with Rabbi

My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

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.

 

Fiddler-on-the-Roof-Matchmaker 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?

38 thoughts on “Fiddler on My Roof

  1. Some friends of mine (now getting divorced after decades) have only one child, a daughter named Christa. When she got married she converted to Judaism but kept her first name, something that struck me as strange.

    • Don’t forget, Jesus Christ was Jewish. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it. I myself am named after a saint, but bearing no resemblance to her, I kept my name despite this. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for directing me to this post. How did I miss it? You posted it on Tuesday as you usually do. When I saw Adele’s post on Friday I thought “busy week”. What a wonderful story and thank you for sharing it with us. The reason why D1 was in CA was a job offer five years ago to teach at a Jewish school in OC. She’s back in TX now. My best friend at the high school where we taught together for 30 years “adopted” my daughters always remembering their birthdays, Christmas and Easter with a piece of Chantal making quite a collection in their young adult lives for their kitchen. I wrote about the origins of my family in the post earlier this year “The Ring” that speaks to my belief that our roots were sephardic Jews from Spain. My Dutch maiden name de Kanter almost confirms that for me, but still I am not certain. Another dear friend is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She hosted us in Trinidad which I wrote about in “Mom, now where are we going?” And the birth mother of my husband who was adopted was Jewish. Oh dear, I think my comment has become a post. Again, thank you so much for sharing your story which apparently is compelling me to tell mine/ours.

    • Did D1 like her job? Was wondering why she returned, whether the job ended or did she just miss being home? Thank you for sharing your experiences and memories. I’m glad my post triggered remembering all the good people who’ve been part of your life.

      There’s so much prejudice and misunderstanding in the world, but I have found that both can fall by the wayside when you meet and make a personal connection with the person of the race, ethnicity or faith in question. Growing up, we were the only Latino family on a block where everyone else was Jewish. I was very young and had no idea this wasn’t the norm. The women on our street took my mother under their wings. My mother spoke little English, but they cared for her, protected her and showed her how to live in America. I’ll never forget Frieda, a woman who lived across the street from us. At the beginning of every school year, I’d stop by and tell her what grade I was now in. And she’d act surprised and scream with delight that I was getting to be such “a big girl.” Then she’d squeeze my cheeks and give me a cookie or some other treat fresh out of her oven. All our neighbors were kind and friendly, and that was my first experience of life in a Jewish community. This was just 15 years after WW II had ended. So much grief had been experienced. Some of the grandparents and parents on my street had survived the Holocaust but it was a neighborhood filled with love and good times. We spent so much time outside playing, hanging out, chatting–even in winter!–I treasure those memories. It was only later that I learned the world was different, much different than my little corner in Queens.

    • Thank you, Liz! I’m delighted that you enjoyed my story. It seemed like a good time to tell my story and I’m glad I did. Thanks, too, for stopping by and reading my blog! Cheers! 🙂

  3. What a lovely story to share at this time of year. I can tell your faith means a lot to you, even keeping it after the husband was gone. Perhaps that was his real gift to you and your child.

  4. —–Monica,
    nobody can quite tell a story like you, my dear.
    I loved every single word.
    It’s as if you are sitting across from me & we are having tea together.
    I mean, Christians and Jews love each other! Right?
    LOVE! xx

    • Kim, thank you so much for the lovely compliments. When I was younger, and it was the norm to write letters, I’d write regularly to my best friend from high school. She would say, my letters were so conversational she felt I was sitting across from her when she was reading them. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she meant. It was the only way of writing I knew! 😉

  5. Monica, I’m back! And it seems that I’ve made it back in time to say, Happy Passover! Like Debbie, I did not know you were Jewish! How did your Hispanic family feel about that, or were they also agnostic? I only had one Jewish friend going up and the one thing I remember is him calling his grandmother “Bubbie.” Whenever we went over to her house, she insisted everyone called her Bubbie. The thought still makes me smile today! I’m starting from to back and my gosh, do I have a lot of reading to catch up on! You’ve been busy, my friend! Hugs to you, Sir Henry, and little Oliver from Roxy and me! 🙂

    • Somebody pinch me! I can’t believe you’re back! How exciting. How delightful! As for me converting, my family was very supportive. My father, who wasn’t religious at all, even wore a yamulke at the wedding. Hugs to you and Roxy! Can’t wait to catch up!

  6. I love the Jewish faith (my step son is Jewish) but like you, I have always read about the Holocaust, consuming all I could to understand the terror, hoping somehow to absorb it and help the world heal from that tragedy. And commit to living differently. I really felt touched by this post, probably because of my interest, but also of your respect and love. So nice to learn more about my friends across the computer. xo

    • Thank you, Jodi. There’s so much I appreciate about the Jewish faith, and you’ve hit on a few. Gmach is another. The Jewish belief in helping those in need with acts of loving kindness.

  7. What a wonderful story, Monica (I mean Rachel Tovah) and I love that photo of you on the bimah. More important, following one’s dreams clearly takes us to some very deep places, if we’re paying attention.

    • That’s not me, Deborah. That’s my daughter! Do you think we look alike? Some say we do but I don’t see it. I think she’s very pretty. In any case, I’m pretty sure you were about the only person in the blogosphere who knew; I’m just very glad you got to read the why of it.

  8. What a fascinating post, Monica–and on so many levels. I had no idea that you had converted, nor that a dream had played such an important role in that process. You know, I feel in love with Sara in a dream? Dreams are so incredibly powerful!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • They sure are. I’ll never forget how when I was 9, I was sent to live in Venezuela for a year. And I knew I was missing home when I started dreaming about it. The lights of Broadway were actually calling to me! Besides, I could see my older brothers’ outstretched arms. Boy, did I want to go home after that. As for Sara, I do remember you writing a post about it. Good for you!

  9. Just a thought that there is a certain percentage of the spanish immigration to the America’s that was really the Spanish Jews fleeing the persecution. Who knows? Some of those ancestors might actually have been yours.

  10. Monica, there is so much I love about you, this story is beautiful and heartfelt – I feel like I was right there with you. Grandma Gussie is someone I would have enjoyed being around.
    I have very close Jewish friends, I don’t know a lot about the Jewish faith but I love learning about all the traditions – They, in turn, like learning about my Buddhist philosophy.
    Happy Passover my friend !

    • Thank you, MM. I don’t know everything about Judaism, but if you ever have questions you can ask me. One of the things I like most about this religion is they don’t believe in proselytizing. No one goes door to door trying to sell you on converting. It has to come from within. Maybe one day when we meet up–and I know we’ll meet up–you can tell me about your Buddhist philosophy. 🙂

  11. An interesting story Monica. Another interesting insight into your life, faith and beliefs.

    I have no faith I am for want of a better description an atheist. Though I have friends from all faiths and as a youngster one of my great interests was church architecture.

    Dreams can be funny things, my mother says I have second sight, and of course I can’t argue with my mother!!

  12. Monica, I never knew this about you — thank you for sharing! When I was growing up, my closest friends were Jewish. There wasn’t a real synagogue in our town, but I went to services with them and found them hauntingly beautiful. The music and language spoke to my depths and served to give me a deeper appreciation for my own faith. Later, in one of my working jobs, I found myself again surrounded by some wonderful Jewish ladies, who regaled me with stories of Seder meals and such. Happy Passover to you and yours!

    • Debbie, it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about, though those close to me have always known. But it was the the anti-Semitic tragedy in Kansas, on the eve of Passover, that made me want to write this. Enough is enough. I’m glad you have an appreciation for the music and language, too. To me, there is nothing more beautiful or haunting than the melodies of the prayers. They seem to hold within them hundreds of years of pain and tears. If you lived nearby, I’d invite you to a Seder. Maybe next year!

  13. I love your story. A little more insight into my friend Monica. Hope your knee is feeling better. Happy Passover–Barb

  14. I love your conversion story. I love you kept faith after divorce and you raised your children within that faith. I have always found greater affinity with the Jewish traditions than with the Christian.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us Monica.

  15. Interesting dream. To see or talk to the dead in your dream forewarns that you are being influenced by negative people and are hanging around the wrong crowd. This dream may also be a way for you to resolve your feelings with those who have passed on.

    Alternatively, the dream symbolizes material loss. If you dream of a person who has died a long time ago, then it suggests that a current situation or relationship in your life resembles the quality of that deceased person. The dream may depict how you need to let this situation or relationship die and end it.

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