Every time I tell my friends that I am on my way to becoming Jewish, they tell me I am just like Charlotte in Sex and the City. I wish it was as simple.
My initial exploration for converting to Judaism started with a loving request from my atheist Jewish fiancé Aaron. He is neither religious, nor observant and my initial and misguided response was that somehow I will get a paper signed at City Hall to have my name printed in the book of Jewish people and we will live happily ever after.
I guess this shows how amateur I was when it came to the Jewish identity. I did not grow up in a Jewish neighborhood or had any significant experience with Jewish culture before. And yes I did read Korean comic books based on Talmud when I was little with rabbis as cartoon characters, but that is for another day.
As we started our weekly meeting with a Rabbi (like a real person, not a cartoon character), I started realizing just how serious of an identity, culture, and religion Judaism was. Who was I kidding! It is an ancient identity, more complicated than it is ancient; involving a higher power that Islam AND Christianity believes in; yet incredibly secular.
Hence the question began- Am I committing to the religion? Identity? Culture? All of it? But I am already Korean, and American, and I wasn’t looking for a religion.
I wanted to understand his reasons for the request for conversion. It was about family, he said- so that the two of us can have a united front when it comes to bringing up children. Then it was not even about kids any more, as he would still want me to convert even if we did not have kids, it was actually so that I could connect better with his side of the family. It was definitely not about the higher power, but it was about all other customs and food.
I understood those things were important, but I struggled with why it meant “I” have to change. I am aware of the matrilineal nature of Jewish identity under certain denominations of Judaism- but not even an Orthodox Rabbi that converted Ivanka Trump can make me Jewish according to Israeli Rabbinical Court, so as long as we are living in the US, we will fall into that wide pool of jew-ish people, when it comes to “really how Jewish is your family?” question.
The most eloquent and well thought-out reasoning from Aaron went as follows: that he considers Judaism the mother ship that empowered and enabled him to go and explore the world, during which process he found me, an incredible Korean lady (in his own words), but he cannot just abandon the mother ship because there is something of value there. To him, the mother ship a.k.a Judaism represents close family, high value on education, and moral compass.
Yes, these were admirable values. And I wish I could have that Aha moment that I now really wanted some Judaism in my life. But no. he was born into it, and I was not. I needed to find my story in it.
I had to take a step back. Remember that no one can “make” me do anything. Even though Aaron was the reason why I started considering Judaism, I then had to “choose” it for myself. This took a long time for me to realize, and it took even longer to search within. But once I went through the list of Jewish food I like, and put that aside, like Rugglach, Challah, and some Matzo ball soup, I could focus on something deeper, even existential.
So here are some of MY whys.
I like that Judaism focuses on the present and empowers “self”. Much of Jewish teaching focuses on “leaving the world a better place” than when one got here, and focusing on what one can do today. I also like that Judaism encourages learning by questioning. Age or even status is not the absolute barometer of authority or wisdom, and everyone is encouraged to question the status quo.
In my experience with Jews and Jewish institutions, I also see pursuit of excellence without obsession over perfection, and emphasis on persistence yet acceptance of contradictions. I can embrace these approaches and grow from them, which I am looking forward to.
This is just the beginning and I am sure as I experience and live more of Judaism, I will gain new appreciations. But here I am- starting to embrace contradictions in life, letting go of the urge to put everything neatly in boxes. Cause that just ain’t life!