The Layers Project Magazine

Insights Into The Lives of Jewish Women

When I Dunked In the Mikvah, My Soul Came Home

Andrea Grinberg | Categories: Features

A Jew by Choice’s journey through the euphoria — and pain — of the Orthodox conversion process.

I remember when everything changed.

For a year, I had been engaged in a deep exploration of observant Judaism, making connections with mentors and going through intense spiritual growth and challenges. Still, I struggled to imagine a life as a fully observant Jew that would allow me to continue my life as a musician (hello, Friday night concerts!). Nonetheless, I was determined that this was the path I needed to take.

But then everything changed. People who had been warm and accepting suddenly took a step back; conversations that had once flowed so naturally took an awkward turn. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore: was I being paranoid? Did people suddenly not like me? I had to know and finally asked one of my mentors point-blank: Why was I suddenly being treated like I didn’t belong in the Orthodox Jewish world after having been welcomed with such warmth and love?

The answer: I wasn’t really Jewish. In the Orthodox community, my mother’s Conservative conversion was not accepted. The pain I felt in reaction to this news was staggering.

Imagine that for the first time in your life you have found true connection, happiness, and purpose. Imagine that you’ve decided to devote your life to fulfilling that purpose, no matter the cost to your other life “plans.” Imagine feeling all the disparate parts of your soul falling into place, the deep joy of knowing that you have roots that extend beyond time. Imagine finding the truth you’ve been searching for your whole life, only to be told that it’s not yours to keep.

Walking away simply was not an option. I remember feeling nauseated with jealousy when a friend casually mentioned going to Jerusalem to learn Torah; that night, I cried for my loss, for the aching need I felt to continue on the journey I had begun.

When I first began my exploration of observant Judaism, I had decided that I would not walk away, no matter what I had to face. During this dark time, I visited my mother’s grave repeatedly and found myself writing words that, in retrospect, seem almost prophetic: “I don’t know how, but I know that this skirt is right. The cello is right. It doesn’t matter that they don’t make sense. I have no idea how, but it can work.”

I somehow couldn’t shake the feeling that I already was Jewish, but it didn’t matter. If converting is what I needed to do to live the life I wanted to live, so be it.

What followed was a year of intensive study at Shea’rim in Jerusalem and in Toronto, a year that I had originally planned on spending in Boston pursuing a master’s degree in music. It was during my time in Toronto that I discovered that my mother’s Conservative conversion had in fact been very similar to an Orthodox conversion. I would, therefore, be considered a Ger L’Chumra, meaning that it was unclear whether I was technically required to convert, but would do so just in case.

As it turns out, the intense halacha study I was able to engage in and the incredibly thorough, challenging, but always kind expectations of the Toronto Beit Din helped me to more fully discover my passion for living and learning halacha, Jewish law. I wrote a 12-hour test on all aspects of Judaism towards the end of my conversion process; I felt pride in knowing more about Torah than I ever otherwise would have.

Converting to Judaism is like committing to marriage. I remember, when writing the conversion test, suddenly being struck by how fair it all was: I had no business committing to observant Judaism unless I knew all of this stuff. This test, the meetings with the Beit Din firing questions at me, all of it was so…fair. It was simply a litmus test so I could discover for myself whether or not I was ready for this commitment. Now I was.

I remember the Beit DIn questioning me before I took the plunge. The questions weren’t practical any longer.  Instead, the Beit Din prodded me about my commitment, my hopes and dreams as a Jew: Was I committed to being a Jew in every aspect of my life? Was I committed to living a life of honesty and truth, to seeking spiritual growth until the end of my days? Did I understand my unique place in the world and my purpose as a Jewish woman? DId I understand that this commitment I was taking on could and would at times be painful?

I considered these questions carefully, but I had no doubts. I was not scared. Each “yes” came from a part of me that had never spoken. When I stepped out of the mikvah, I remember crying, finding it hard to breathe; the separate parts of my soul were finally one.

Saying “yes” in the mikveh was like saying “I do” to a soulmate. Marriage is a commitment for life; the only way to truly be with one another is to give all of yourself. Judaism is more than a religion or a belief or a heritage. It is our whole life, from the moment we wake up, with every step that we take, with every bite that we eat, with every word, with every thought. I am Jewish when I go to the bathroom, when I change a diaper, when I’m craving chocolate, when I hear a piece of beautiful music. Being Jewish is a complete commitment to the purpose of my soul.

People have asked me whether I feel like I got a new soul once I took the plunge into the mikveh. Some converts say yes. My answer is no. I felt like the parts of me that were already there were finally more connected. I believed that I already had a Jewish soul, that spiritually my conversion wasn’t required, though physically it was.

Along my path towards conversion, I was faced first with the pain of not knowing whether I was Jewish and, at times, with hurtful, misinformed comments. I know that most people didn’t mean to hurt me but simply didn’t understand the pain their casual remarks could cause.

Discovering that my mother’s conversion may not have been valid rocked me to the core. Looking back, I still don’t know whether her conversion was valid or not. But I know one thing for sure: along my own path to conversion, my soul found its new beginning in a place that felt like home.

About Andrea Grinberg

Andrea spends the majority of her time playing with her two sons and then collapsing on the couch with her husband to drink homemade hot chocolate. She is also a professional cellist, co-director of the Baltimore Bows, founding member of Chamber Encounters, and the creator of Wrapunzel. Her life seems to be about turning contradictions into harmony and giving her creator a good laugh.

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