Oy Betcha: The Question

This is a guest post by Tiffany Gallagher, who recently started blogging with her husband at Oy Betcha! about their adventures converting to Judaism. She doesn’t really get tired of answering The Question because she likes to hear herself talk.
I’m converting to Judaism. What do you get when you become Jewish? If you’re a glass-is-half-empty type, it’s six hundred and thirteen rules you’ve got to follow, and a bit of guilt for each one you don’t. Approximately seven hundred different recipes for kugel. Seven to eight days of matzoh and no booze to help wash it down. Thousands of years of persecution.
Converting to anything but Judaism seems to make more sense. Those converting to Christianity, if the sales literature is to be believed, get absolution for sins and a place in Heaven. To become a Methodist or Lutheran brings with it the added benefit of coffee and bars after services. The Hindus have gods who kick ass and take names, a small price to pay for giving up hamburgers. Wiccans get the naked frolicking of Beltane, while Buddhists get to sit on their rears (on pillows, even!) and smile beatifically while meditating their way to a higher plane of consciousness.
“What made you decide to convert?” If you slip it into conversation that you’re converting to Judaism, The Question inevitably follows. It’s innocent enough, but has underpinnings of “Why in the world would you want to do that?”
Answering The Question is less complicated when I’m talking to someone who is not Jewish. Any answer is acceptable and fascinating. Why, you’ll get to celebrate Hanukkah, they say. But, oh too bad, you can’t eat bacon! Other converts don’t really need to pose The Question; maybe they know the answer is too complicated for a typical friendly chat.
When it comes to discussions with born Jews, however, it gets a little trickier. My first thought is, “Shoot, let’s hope I don’t mispronounce any words.” I cannot pronounce my native English half the time, let alone Hebrew or Yiddish. The second is, “Is this person religious?”
I’m stymied by how to address this with the non-religious. It would be like trying to tell a lapsed Catholic about how you feel Catholic school will be fantastic for your children. I have the impression – and it may be wrong – that non-religious Jews see Judaism as restrictive, in a negative way, and their inclination would be to shoo me away. Who wants rules when you can have freedom? Who wants to associate themselves with one of the most maligned groups in history when you’ve got all that blonde-haired-blue-eyed-Scandinavian-in-Minnesota homogeneity going for you?
When I first read about Judaism in high school, something clicked. It made sense. Then I got to the dealbreaker, bacon. (What is this obsession with bacon?) It’s taken years – and since I am a lady, I will not tell you how many years – for me to get to a place where I felt comfortable enough to pick up books about Judaism, talk to rabbis and attend services. And while I still have not embraced all of the restrictions of Judaism (see again: bacon), I appreciate them the same way I appreciate the restrictions of different types of poetry. When you force yourself to write within the framework of a sonnet, your mind focuses and, ironically, expands.
I think those who are at least a bit religious will understand why I am in love with Judaism. Those restrictions remind you that G-d is a part of every bit of your life. For me, to not be Jewish will be to live my life halfway. To forgo the opportunity to connect with the Divine in favor of the safety of the default of agnosticism and secular holiday celebrations is a disservice to myself, my family, and if I want to be all self-important, the world. I am a better person when I am playing Jewish, and G-d willing, someday I will not just be playing.
(Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)