My friends Anne and Victor had their daughter, Sarah Jane, baptized this Sunday past.
The e-invite to the service showed up in early August, but I left it alone for the longest time. To say I had conflicted feelings about going would be an understatement. On the one hand, I love Anne and wanted to be there for what was clearly a meaningful and important ceremony for her.
On the other hand, Anne and Victor attend the church I grew up in, a church that left some significant spiritual scars on my soul. And regardless of what church I am in, I have noticed a growing discomfort with the liturgy.
In the end, I valued friendship over spiritual discomfort. I emailed Anne that I would be there.
I'll be the Jew in the pew, I wrote.
A longtime friend, knowing I had converted to Judaism many years ago, recently alluded to my conversion, adding that he assumed I'd done it because I was married to a Jewish man at the time.
Oh, no. Not at all. I was well down the path to conversion while still in high school, while still firmly ensconced within the walls of St. Mark's.
I'd already caught whiffs of Judaism in grade school, reading Sydney Taylor's All-Of-A-Kind Family series with its Jewish holidays and traditions. For a little girl in a very small town in a very straitlaced church, those books were a revelation. I knew that there were other churches in Delaware, starting with the large Catholic church one block away. But other religions? What was a shofar? What was a dreidel? What were the High Holy Days?
It was novelist Chaim Potok who blew open the doors to Judaism for me. A high school teacher put My Name Is Asher Lev in my hands, wanting me to read it to understand the soul of an artist. I was more fascinated with the struggle between Lev's artistic soul and his Jewish one. From that novel I went on read as many of Potok's novels as I could find, then jumped into books on Jewish faith and spirituality.
That was probably the true beginning of my conversion: when I began to seek out Judaism in earnest. By the time I actually began preparing for my formal conversion, I'd been a student of Judaism for the better part of a decade.
I practiced Judaism, in a manner of speaking, until about a quarter century ago. There were several factors, especially including the many years in which I lost so many pieces of my inner self. It is only in recent years, floating along in a sea of spiritual feelings, all the time drawing nearer to the shores, that I recognize the shores are the same ones I struck out for over 40 years ago.
I just finished reading The Magician's Land, the concluding novel of the brilliant Magician trilogy by Lev Grossman. I see a lot of myself in Quentin Coldwater, who found a life of passion in his books and eventually in his beliefs. I was especially satisfied that Quentin resolves the destruction of the other world, Fillory, by performing the ultimate act of tikkun olam and mending the broken world. Even at those points when I was the most distant from Judaism, I tried to practice tikkun olam. Sometimes when I look back at my past, I am able to see that tikkun olam is the one constant thread in my life no matter where or what I was. I believe firmly it is the thread that has drawn me back into the faith.
In the end, I am glad that I attending Sarah's baptism. She sailed through it without a peep, her eyes wide open as she took in the church. Anne wiped away tears as she and Victor and their son Sam sat back down. It was a heartfelt occasion.
And this Jew in the pew took it all in, hugged her friend, and then walked out of the church into the sunshine.