Being Jewish-ish

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. — Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 6:3

Almost thirty years ago, Andy Jacobs and I declared ourselves beloved to each other, forever, and were married under this chuppah. In the months leading up to our wedding, I had decided to create the wedding canopy as a surprise for Andy on our wedding day. I found a book of Jewish embroidery and traced a beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry from it, and then created the pattern of flowers around it; I pencilled it all onto a large piece of satin and then, over many late nights and weekends, secretly sewed it together. It has hung every day since in our bedroom (except for the three times it has been borrowed to bless other family members’ weddings).

During our engagement, Andy and I studied Judaism together, found a shul, talked about whether I wanted to convert or not, and…I wasn’t sure. I’d been part of the Unitarian church in my Massachusetts hometown and felt the open-minded, progressive-but-rational community, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and ethical behavior in the world, were aligned with my own spiritual needs. I also had an extraordinary respect and love for the Unitarian Minister there, who in fact co-officiated along with a “renegade rabbi” at our wedding that fall in the Concord Unitarian Church.

But meanwhile, I was enjoying our Jewish study together. As a language lover, I found Hebrew fascinating and beautiful; as an avid learner I found its emphasis on constant engagement with text and interpretation very satisfying. Jewish rituals, especially around the home and family, fed my spirit. I found much of Judaism’s ethical guidance on how to live a good life made sense and helped keep me grounded. Beyond all that, it was, and is, clearly a foundational part of Andy’s spirit — his own way of thinking, communicating and being in the world, his sense of self, and his relationships, especially with his family.

So we agreed even before we married that we would raise our children in the Jewish faith, with a clear Jewish identity, and that our home would be a (liberal) Jewish home, whether or not I officially chose Judaism as my own faith. We celebrated the Jewish holidays in our home, hosting seders, hoisting sukkahs, lighting shabbat, havdalah and menorah candles, and blowing shofar. Jewish friends and family, and Jewish music, art, books, film, food, travel, events and causes have all been a huge part of our family’s life. Our children became b’nai mitzvah and visited Israel as young teens, Andy & I each served on our synagogue’s board, and over the years we’ve continued Jewish learning in lots of ways.

As years passed, it became clear to me and to those around us that I’d taken on a Jewish identity, even though I’d never formally converted. I started to refer to myself as “Jewish-ish.” People who don’t know my background are often surprised to hear I wasn’t raised Jewish.

I thought often about whether to formally convert, and then after awhile I knew it was something I wanted, but there always seemed to be something holding me back. The rabbi we were with wasn’t the right person to guide me through the process, I thought. Or I looked at my daily calendar and decided I wasn’t ready to prioritize the time and study the process would take, over other home/work/life stuff. Or once I even went to visit the mikveh, and somehow the formality of it scared me off. So I put off the “process” and just focused on living my Jewish-ish life, in part because I couldn’t articulate how the actual conversion would change anything real inside me, or would really matter to my beloveds — all the people I care about.

Here’s how I came to my spiritual moment of reckoning.

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