My mother-in-law chose the Hebrew name Shir when she converted to Judaism three years ago, just four years after my husband converted before our wedding. She is now formally known in the Jewish world as Shir bat Avraham v’Sarah: the song of one of the faithful daughters of Abraham and Sarah.
It’s not for me to tell my mother-in-law’s story–her strict Mormon upbringing, her decision to join the army (where she met my father-in-law), her feminist leanings in a community not quite ready for them, her newfound independence and identity when my husband left for college–her journey is hers to know and discuss. But what I can talk about is how her journey met mine and all of Jewish history through her son, and I don’t know which of us is more surprised at where we are now.
Apparently, my mother-in-law always had a fondness for and interest in Jews, since Mormon liturgy includes the Old Testament and Jews are looked upon with kindness in her community. Homes with mezuzot hanging on their doorposts were not to be approached by Mormon missionaries, she was told. Once my husband and I got engaged, she started to ask me a lot of questions, and I felt a little bit under the gun. Here I was being asked to speak for “Judaism,” when in my own family, there was little cohesiveness, with family ranging from atheist socialist kibbutzniks to right-wing religious Zionists living in settlements across the Green Line in the West Bank. How could I speak for all of Judaism?!
I shared with my mother-in-law my experience, my love of ritual, my love of science and reason, and my devotion to Israel. I honestly thought she was just being curious. It never occurred to me that she would convert. She started to attend Shabbat services weekly at a Reform synagogue in San Jose, California. My husband and I didn’t talk much about it; we were both sort of in denial about what this might mean. She announced proudly that she was very excited to have found her “own” synagogue without asking me to help her. It was hers and hers alone, she said. I hated to break the news to her that my aunt and uncle had been members of that particular synagogue for about 15 years; all of my cousins had their Bar Mitzvahs there and I knew that community well.
Shir with Mayim’s Orthodox Aunt
Finding a Place in a New Community
That detail became irrelevant as my mother-in-law truly made this community her own, immersing herself in classical text study, going to lectures, seminars, and Hebrew classes, and attending Torah study and Saturday morning services more regularly than many Orthodox people I know. She thrives in the Jewish world: I have seen her analyze Leviticus and Ezekiel like a seasoned scholar, question my husband and my adherence to antiquated halacha (Jewish law) like a feminist Rabbinical student, and chant from the Torah at her adult Bat Mitzvah like–well, like a beaming and nervous Bat Mitzvah girl (she was relieved that being tone-deaf doesn’t exclude you from becoming a Jew).
She has gone twice to Israel, once with her synagogue, and once with us. She has crossed green line after green line in her modest Orthodox clothing (adorable hats and ankle-length skirts), giggled while drinking lattes with my Orthodox aunt like a true native in a mall in Jerusalem, and prayed with devotion in the single-sex, curtained rooms where even feminist women must pray when we visit my family. She is a gracious and commanding presence: fearless, devoted, and wise. She questions with love, she studies with all of her heart, soul, and might, and she possesses a yiddishe neshama, the soul of a Jew.
The story goes that all Jews, even those who were unborn, or those who would later convert, stood at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah to the people. My mother-in-law was certainly at Sinai, but wandered on a different road for thousands of years. I like to think that she was searching all of that time, but she was so far removed from us that she didn’t know what to search for–until I met her son, fell in love with him, and married him according to the laws of Moses and Israel. She feels she is right where she is supposed to be, and she is an incredible addition to this tribe.
Explaining “Newer” Jews to a Child
Our 5-year-old son recently asked what it means when Safta, grandma in Hebrew, says she “became a Jew” (he was only 3 when she converted). My husband and I stared at each other dumbfounded: none of us had told him that she was a convert! We told him that some people are born Jews and other people want so badly to be a part of our people that they convert, and now she is Jewish just like we are. He hasn’t yet had the cognitive follow-up of, “If she didn’t start out Jewish, how did Dada become Jewish?” but he will soon, and maybe we’ll let her explain that one.
This got me thinking, though. We should tell him about her conversion. Converts have always been a part of Judaism and the concept of conversion introduces a lot of important aspects of heritage, ethnicity, religious identity and peoplehood; all of which our son will need to know about as he grows as a Jew.
But I will let her do it in her time. This is her journey. It is a huge undertaking, as an adult, to learn a new language both literally and societally. It’s hard to become a Jew: she can’t pronounce a “chet” like we can, she just inherited a bunch of sometimes confusing and/or restrictive holidays about us surviving yet another attempt on our existence, and she is now part of a constitutionally neurotic–if endearing–family that literally has rules about what flavors of bagels are and are not acceptable to consume. (For the record: Jalapeno? Not acceptable. Sorry Ma.). But she chose this life for herself on her terms, and she finds beauty in the tension, challenge, and subtleties of being a Jew. She is proud of this new life and she brings to our people new life; a new song.
Shiru L’Adonai, Shir Chadash.
Sing unto God, a new song.