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Saturday, March 11, 2006

My Conversion Essay

This post appeared on my other blog, Sushi Kiddush, about a month ago, but I felt it was a great way to introduce myself to 100.bloggers. I think this blog is an amazing idea and I hope it facilitates democratic discourse that breeds understanding and tolerance. I look forward to being part of something very special. Thanks Troy.


Spiritual Biography

I grew up in a secular family. My mother came from an Irish Catholic background and my father, being Japanese, came from a Shinto/Buddhist background. However, both my parents, like most children, drifted from their religious backgrounds as they moved into adulthood. As a child, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and even celebrated some Japanese religious holidays like Boy’s Day, but they were not filled with much religious meaning. In fact, I never connected Christmas to any religious meaning until my mother enrolled me in confirmation classes at the local Methodist Church at the age of thirteen. Christmas, until that time, was a holiday to receive presents and to have a big roast beef dinner. I enjoyed it very much, but I never thought of Christ when I voraciously opened up a Star Wars figure or zoomed down my block on a new dirt bike.

From about the age of eight my mother was taking my sister and I to the local Methodist Church for Sunday school and to attend services. My father stayed home and watched football. He had no time for religion and made no bones about not going. What I realized later in my adult life was that my father would not have gone to a football game either. He became more distanced from the family emotionally and slipped into a deep depression. He still, to this day, has not adequately treated his depression, and I, as a social work student, think he suffers from some sort of social anxiety disorder.

So my mother took us to church on Sundays, and helped at the church fairs, and became friends with the congregation, not for the religion, but for the support and community. In hindsight, I think she did it because she knew my father was drifting farther and farther into himself and his private world. She needed the social outlet.

For my sister and I, it was great – we made friends and went to church outings. We played, laughed, sang and danced. It was fun. It was a childhood experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life and it has made me who I am today. But then my life changed the day I walked into my first confirmation class. Jesus was brought into this world from a virgin birth. We are born with original sin. We must repent for our sins in this world so that we can have a better world in the after life. These tenets just did not make sense to me. Why pray to some abstract guy with thorns in his hair because he tried to do some good in the world? I knew plenty of people trying to do good in the world and there was no religion called Mom. Why should I repent for something I did not do? Why repent in this life when I could live in this life?

I eventually finished the class to please my parents, and stood up on the altar and ate the body of Christ. The congregation clapped, cameras flashed, the choir sang, and I stood on the altar facing a sea of smiling Christians saying to myself, “I will never go to church again.” Well, it was not this revelatory and deliberate. Months earlier, I heard my mother saying that once you are confirmed, sign the church book, and you become a member of the church, you can do anything you want. I made a choice not to go to church once I got confirmed. And I didn’t.

Through high school and into my earlier twenties, I dabbled in different religious ideas. I liked the solitary meditative approach of Buddhism, I liked the practical-I’ll-see-it-when-I-believe-it approach of agnosticism, I liked the cathartic rebelliousness of nihilism (don’t worry I only joined a rock band and sang about rebellion, I didn’t actually do it), and I liked the community of Judaism. I always saw my Jewish friends surrounded by family and friends and celebrations. Even in sad times there was community, support, and bagels and lox (just kidding). But, there was this sense of togetherness despite it all and I liked the comfort of that.

I played in a rock band until my late twenties using creativity as spiritual experience. And it is a spiritual experience. There is a oneness and nowness to creativity that takes you outside of your selfish needs and connects you to a higher state of reality. You just trust enough to let whatever comes out of you be what it is and that is cathartic, exhilarating, introspective, and evolutionary. You evolve and understand yourself better. This is what I am currently trying to experience in prayer - to think of prayer as a gift you are giving to God, instead of some ritual act that you must complete because the Torah says to. When you think of prayer as a gift to God it takes the pressure off yourself. You are not concerned with yourself anymore, but for something outside yourself. I don’t want prayer to be expediency. I want that oneness and nowness that I experience in my creative pursuits. I want Kavannah.

I went back to school to complete an art degree and in the process met my soul mate Ellie. She grew up in a Modern Orthodox family and, as you know, it was rather tough on our relationship. Here is a joke to explain what I thought the situation was like; A nice Jewish boy meets a Native American girl at college named Dancing Cloud. They fall in love and the boy works up the courage to bring his girlfriend home to meet the parents. He says to his mother, “Mom, I would like you to meet my girlfriend Dancing Cloud.” His Jewish mother says, “Nice to meet I'm sitting shiva.” Very funny, but true in many cases. And Ellie was more terrified than I was. So there was not a lot of confidence that we could make the relationship work, unless I converted to Judaism.

In the meantime, Ellie had been bringing me the Chumash, canonical Hasidic stories, Jewish folklore, tractates of the Talmud, and anything that might interest me, depending on what holiday was occurring at that time. We ate at kosher restaurants around Queens College, I attended events at the Hillel, and I even started talking to different Rabbis to see if Judaism might be right for me. It felt right, but I just wasn’t sure. It took awhile to work up the courage to attend a Sabbath service, but I eventually did. I loved the sound of Hebrew, I loved the singing of the cantor, I loved the movements of the men davening. I wanted to know more, to be able to contribute to these mystical foreign words, to be able to say these words with Kavannah.

I felt like this was right for me and when I found out from my mother that my great-grandfather was a Russian Jew I knew I had a Jewish soul. She showed me a kiddush cup she found in her basement as a child and I immediately connected to the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, the persecuted people of the thinning Diaspora, the Holocaust, Theodore Hertzl, everything Jewish. I cried for people I once only had a distant connection to.

I know I have family now that was persecuted by anti-Semitism and I know I am a Jew. Not by law, but by soul. I want to become a Jew by law. Ellie has since told her parents and they support us in our journey together through this program and beyond. My parents have always supported us because religion was never an issue. I originally had a problem with religion dictating a person’s choice of partners - how could religion dictate love? I still feel that love should not be dictated, but I also understand why the Jewish people preserve such a unique and tested religion. They have been dictated to disappear for millennia, but they are still here based on survival and halacha.

I want to join the Jewish community and live a Jewish life. I am eating kosher, I have mezuzahs on my doors, Ellie and I celebrate Shabbos, and I am wearing a kippah more regularly now. It takes time, but I am getting there. I learn something new each day about Judaism and I strive to fulfill the mitzvot. I love the structure of a Jewish life because it reminds me of a higher purpose in even the simple things. People always say things like, “How can you follow all those rules?” or “That lifestyle is so oppressive.” I was one of those people before I gave it a try. It has its moments of frustration and tedium, but so does life. Everybody has to set limits on their life and I choose to set these limits. If not, we’d be a disordered chaotic wasteland of self-interest. Only when I began to follow these rules and set limits did I feel freer. And for that, Omayn.

Welcome to the 100 Bloggers community. And very nice post. I look forward to reading much more of you here.
Thanks, Troy. I honored to be here.
"I love the structure of a Jewish life because it reminds me of a higher purpose in even the simple things."

I think if there is one thing about judaism one should never forget, it is that.

every mitzvah is a religious speed bump, designed to give you pause and reflect on the holiness of existence.

Good luck with your conversion and learning.
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