I have a long history of insomnia, nightmares, sleep paralysis, and according to my sister who I used to share a room with, a bizarre tendency to sit up in bed and stare creepily at nothing while exclaiming, "What's that!" before casually lying back down, and drifting into unconsciousness again. All in all, I have an overly anxious brain, and the wheels in there have not stopped turning since I was old enough to worry, which was fairly young, when I thought Jesus was watching me from behind the bedroom door closet that wouldn't quite close all the way. I was deathly afraid of the dark until I was 10, and wouldn't sleep facing away from the wall, for fear of possibly seeing something scary in my room. Needless to say, I'm an anxious person, and it has affected my sleep immensely over the years.
So, it's not too surprising that I'd have nightmares concerning a recent "who is a Jew?" debate that my attention was called to during a lecture at Pardes last week. Here's the deal: I have a Conservative conversion, which makes me eligible for aliyah, but not eligible to get married to a Jew in Israel (though if I married outside of the country, and then hopped back over, the marriage would be recognized), my hypothetical kids would not be considered Jewish, and I wouldn't have a grave plot in a Jewish cemetery. I could sidestep these issues by having a second, Orthodox conversion through the rabbinute here in Israel, but that calls all kinds of deeply personal issues regarding my current status as a Jew into question. Personally, I know I am Jewish, and I don't care what the Orthodox have to say about that. My conversion was legitimate, I trust the judgement of my beit din, and I have no interest in turning frum by the standards of some other Jewish entity that arrogantly claims itself to be the only legitimate form of Judaism. So what should I do?
I'm struggling with this, and it's been affecting me a lot more than I consciously realized until recently. I'm having the strangest dreams over it.
The other night, I had a dream that I was being forced to have Shabbat dinner with a round table of people who I either don't care for, or would rather leave in my past. They were asking me all kinds of personal questions about my life as though they were my beit din, and they had some sort of power to revoke my Jewishness based on how I would answer their questions. I became more and more frightened that they would do this to me, but I still felt compelled to answer the questions honestly, even when I knew that the answer would be a point against me. I started sniveling like a pathetic child, and finally yelled (in dramatic soap opera style), "Judaism is all I have! It's all I have left!" like a desperate plea for them to stop putting me beneath their microscope, to stop looking for chinks in my armor. I don't remember how the dream concluded, but I woke up too early, and in a foul mood.
Then last night I had a real nightmare. I was standing in this long line of Jews wearing striped prison uniforms, like the ones the concentration camp inmates would wear. There was this barely repressed terror in the air, and we were surrounded by these huge walls, and the line was moving in a painfully slow procession towards something. As I got closer, I realized that we were lining up at a huge pit of lava and fire, and were taking turns stepping into it, to our certain and agonizing deaths. Some people however, were being chosen by some unseen force to avoid the lava pit, and leave the enclosed area. It wasn't clear why the ones being chosen to live were being chosen. And as the people got closer to the pit, the panic grew and grew, and some of the people, overcome with the inability to stand the anxiety of what would happen when it was their turn, committed suicide, but jumping into the pit, screaming the whole time. Other people were beside themselves and didn't know what to do, paralyzed into inaction, and others walked slowly and obediently into the pit, as though if the had faith, perhaps God would split the lava into two fiery walls, like He split the Red Sea for Moses and the freed Hebrews as they escaped the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and on the other side of the pit would be some sort of way out. But God didn't split the lava pit like He split the Red Sea. People just walked into it like mindless zombies, as though they were giving up and only going through the motions of faith. I was one of the people who was beside themselves and unsure of what to do. I was shaking and pacing while a sense of very real and very intense dread was controlling me. Needless to say, I woke up without feeling rested, my heart pounding, my hair wet at the roots with sweat.
So here we have two dreams: one where I am emphatically begging to be recognized as a Jew while confessing all of my flaws, mistakes and sins to people who don't like me or want to have anything to do with me, and will likely take my Jewishness from me, and a second one where I am a Jew...and I'm facing the terror of uncertainty, the certainty of my mortality, confusion over who gets to avoid agonizing death and why, and the validity of religious faith in the face of such horror. This second dream and its elaborateness, vivid detail, and Holocaust imagery really shocked me. I have had very vivid and grotesque images in my dreams before, some of which would have probably made Aleister Crowley cry, and panic and dread have woken me up many, many nights. But this one is really going to stick with me and haunt me for some time.
In Chumash class, I have been studying Exodus while all of these questions and issues revolving around my conversion are floating around in my mind. I am aware that some view the Holocaust as analogous to enslavement in Egypt, and even through such utter hell, the Jewish people still survived as a people--a deeply traumatized people, but a people. And somehow, I fit into this, and I want to fit into this, because at my core, it is who I am. I didn't have to take on Judaism, complete with it's long (and continuing) history of persecution, antisemitism, victimhood, suffering, strife, and uncertainty, but you know what? I did.
I want to make this distinction clear. I view my being a Jew as not a choice, but something that was already in me all along, waiting to be realized and discovered. I view the term "Jew by choice" as I would view someone identifying as "gay by choice." And as gay people will tell you, they are who they are because that's the way they are wired, not because they felt like it might be interesting to try on this queer identity. Still, you do have a choice in the manner, and the choice is between these two things: you can embrace who you are and declare it to the world knowing full well that there are a lot of people out there who hate you, who see you as inferior, who want to deny you your humanity and the rights that come with that humanity, who misunderstand you, who want to hurt you, and even kill you. Or, you can choose to deny who you are, refuse to openly be what you are, and remain half of a person while you struggle with pushing your true self away. That's where your choices lie.
I didn't have to convert and loudly announce to the world that I am a Jew. But I didn't want to be half of a person. In some ways, it would have been easier, at least on the surface, to not take on the yoke of responsibility that comes with joining the Jewish people. Maybe it would be easier to stay in the closet. But is easier better? And what happens when you dig down a little deeper, and you find this entire other facet of your being that would make you whole if you want to let it. Would you just ignore it?
I live in a post-Holocaust world, and I left the comfort of my gentile American life to declare myself a Jew, and then I ran off to the Middle East, to a tiny, widely hated country that even in times of peace, is in what appears to be permanent survival mode. Either I'm crazy, or I'm 100% on board with embracing my Jewishness and joining the Jewish people, complete with all of their afflictions. I could very well be both.
So, who is a Jew? I get the complexities surrounding the issue, and I know that the current tension and honest pain that I'm feeling over the fact that my legitimacy would be called into question isn't because the Orthodox are just plain mean. The real debate is "what does it mean to be Jewish in our modern world?" Is halakah still relevant? Can halakah change? Is there something else that defines us as Jews? If so, what is it? And what do we do with all of these people that want to join us? How will they affect us? What will it mean for the modern state of Israel? These questions have never been so relevant and pressing in all of Jewish history. Today, Judaism is seeing an unprecedented number of people wanting to convert, wanting to embrace their Jewishness and join Am Israel. It's not surprising that we're still struggling in the search for answers to these questions. This is precisely why the convert's struggle with identity is precisely a reflection of the struggle of Judaism today to define itself. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and all the grey areas in between these Jewish movements don't agree on that definition. Israel as a state is also still defining itself. And in my own small, insignificant little life, I am struggling to define myself as well. All I do know is that I am Jewish, whatever that may mean. How I choose to proceed from here is my choice to make, though my ambivalence regarding those choices is likely to follow me for some time to come.
About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard
- Ma'ayan Dyer
- Jerusalem, Israel
- I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.