Through the heavy haze of cigarette smoke, I ate my cake and drank my coffee, while he chain-smoked and drank his beer. Between rapid inhalations of carcinogens, he described his hatred toward Jewish converts. He intensely opined that converts are “fake Jews,” of whom we should be suspicious. When challenged, he admitted that it was possible, albeit doubtful, that there could be a convert, who he would believe to be genuine. So, using the interrogation tactics I had developed through conducting hundreds of depositions, I inquired, “What if she kept the mitzvoth? What if she kept Shabbat and kosher? What if she dressed modestly? What if she washed her hands before eating bread? What if she bentched after every meal and every visit to the bathroom? What if she converted for herself and not to marry a Jewish man?” With every mention of an act he himself did not perform, he answered, “Yes. I would believe that she’s Jewish.” And, so, I retorted, “That woman is me. CHECK PLEASE!”
Three years ago, Rabbi Schwartz said to me, with immense pride, “Ariella, your ancestors are smiling right now, because, today, your soul is returning to the Jewish people.” After studying for nearly two years under rabbinical supervision and being interrogated for an hour and forty-five minutes on blessings, Jewish laws, holidays, the Sabbath, and the historical and philosophical aspects of Judaism, I was finally going into the mikveh. His words filled my heart and replaced my mental exhaustion with relief and joy.
Moments later, I made my final preparations for the mikveh. I removed my contacts, cleaned my nails and combed through my hair one last time. As the mikveh lady checked my nails for dirt, I prayed that I might never feel like an outsider again.
Because I was unable to walk into the mikveh, I was placed on an old hydraulic lift, which hadn’t been used for years. The mikveh lady released a bungee cord, attached to the lift, and the chair, upon which I was sitting, began to rapidly plummet into the mikveh waters. With all her might, she grabbed the chair, as I gasped with fear. And, she anxiously summoned the rabbis into the mikveh room for help. Two of the three rabbis hurried to my rescue, grasping tightly to the chair, to prevent the impending tragedy. Though terrified, the only thought I had at the moment was, “Thank you, God, for this bathrobe!”
In the adjacent room, the mikveh lady quickly undressed into a bathrobe and entered the mikveh, to assist the rabbis in slowly guiding the chair into the water. As my feet entered the water, I realized that the mikveh had not been heated and was as freezing as New York’s winter weather at the time. However, by nature, I remained silent and did not complain. It was not until several minutes later when my sixty-five-year-old friend entered the mikveh and screamed from the excruciatingly low temperature, that the rabbis realized why I was shivering and showing signs of hypothermia.
I lowered myself off the lift and stood in the murky waters, paying no heed to other women’s hairs, floating on the water’s surface. Struggling to breath and with a chattering jaw, I muttered, with all my might, the blessing one says before submerging into the mikveh. After the third, bone chilling, plunge, Rabbi Schwartz announced, “Mazal tov!” and everyone followed suit in congratulating me. But, the mikveh lady said more than “mazal tov.” She said, in her thick Hungarian accent, “You were meant to be a Jew, because only a Jew would be forced to endure such suffering.”
Before going into the mikveh, I knew and accepted that from that day forward, I would be subjected to persecution, discrimination, and even terrorism, as a result of being Jewish. I even expected the occasional suspicious interrogation by Israeli airlines and the Jewish Agency, when making aliyah. I was prepared for questions about my conversion, what the process was like, whether it is a recognized orthodox conversion, and, of course, the inevitable, “why on earth would you choose to go from keeping seven commandments to 613?!” What I didn’t anticipate was that people, like the chain-smoker, would hate me for not being born with the privilege of being Jewish and the gift of Torah. And, worse, I never suspected that I would have to fear the possibility of a rabbi, one day, annulling my conversion.
Right before I made aliyah and fulfilled one of the most meaningful and important mitzvoth a Jew can fulfill, the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem annulled thousands of Rabbi Hayam Druckman’s conversions. They issued this promulgation after one of Rabbi Hayam Druckman’s converts admitted to the bet din of Ashdod that she never kept the mitzvoth. For this, thousands of presumably legitimate converts and, in the case of female converts, their children, were declared gentiles.
As a result of this event, every day, for nearly two years, I have been frightened that I will, one day, be stripped of my title, of my religion, my customs, my lifestyle… of my people. I have intently tried to conceal the fact that I am a convert and that most of my family is not Jewish. Each day, I have prayed that, today, I am not reminded of the “insects” I once ate and gave up to study Torah. I have desperately pleaded with God that my future children will never be told to “remember the deeds of [their] fathers.”
However, this year, as I counted down, or rather up, to Shavuot, the day we all converted at the foot of Sinai, and prepare to read about the Biblical convert, who is the progenitor of our greatest human king, King David, and, ultimately, the Mashiach, I have made the decision to be proud of being a convert. Today, I have a better understanding of the issue of convert versus Jew from birth. The issue is not who my mother is, but rather who I am. The question for all of us is – what have you done today? Are you a Jew by birth and an idol worshiper by practice? (Insert the name of your favorite idol, be it stone, drugs, money or physical pleasure). Or are you a Jew by practice? By conversion, I am a Jew. By practice, I am a Jew. I am complete and true. The hateful chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, pony-tailed guy, on the other hand, is only half way there.
I will never again live in fear of being hated, for “dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” I will never again be made to feel like an outsider. I will re-enter the mikveh every day, if forced to do so. And, if, God-forbid, the Rabbinut wish to challenge my Jewishness, I will unabashedly profess that “Wherever your people go, I will go,” including sub-zero mikveh waters, and “where you die, I will die,” including a bombed Jerusalem bus, and “and there, I will be buried,” – that is, undoubtedly, in the land of Israel.