Coming out of the (Jewish) closet

closetI’ve spent my life largely feeling like I was different than the rest of my family.  My family is very loving and respectful, yet staunchly secular.  There is a level of pride that my family feels in bucking anything associated with religious tradition.  For example, I grew up celebrating Giftmas rather than Christmas.  They are evenly split into indifferent agnostics and armchair atheists.  Surrounded by the attitude that we were “too intellectual” to need spirituality or religion, my personal draw towards Judaism was something I kept to myself.

This judgmental value set put me in a precarious position — keeping me firmly closeted in my deep-rooted and inexplicable longing towards Judaism.  It goes back as far as I can remember and grew with age.  College provided opportunities for me to secretly experiment behind my family’s back — electives on Jewish history and Torah, discussion with friends on Hebrew school and holidays, linguistic dabbling in Hebrew.  With each experience, my joy and longing grew, yet I kept it quiet from those I was closest to because I wasn’t ready to deal with their reaction.

Eventually, I decided that I wanted to convert.  It was time to come out to my family as a closeted future Jew.  I was enormously nervous to tell them.  More nervous than when I announced I was moving cross country.  More nervous than when I told them I was getting divorced.  This wasn’t just a decision or action that they might reject.  It was an essential and ever present part of my being.   Mind you, at this point I was already in knee deep.  I’d interviewed Rabbis and visited synagogues.  I’d made a connection with a local congregation and was already deep into learning the Hebrew alphabet and voraciously reading every book recommended by my Rabbi.

Largely, they were supportive.  My youngest brother, who I have long made reference to all things Jewish to in passing, responded with an utterly bored, “You’re converting to Judaism?  Gee, what a big freaking surprise,” and proceeded to peruse the the menu at the restaurant we were at.   After disclosing to those around me, it was time to tell the big kahuna, my mother.
My mom is a true matriarch.  Whether or not we roll our eyes and simply appease her or truly heed what she says, on a surface level, she’s the boss.  Plus, in a serious way, she could really give any good guilt-tripping Jewish mother a run for her money.  I can’t say that it was an easy conversation.  I can’t say that she was particularly supportive or understanding.  But I think the idea of it is settling in.  When I talk about shul or my studies, she’s quick to change the subject and pretend that I didn’t say anything about it.  But she recently, silently and without comment, gifted me a piece of art that says “shalom” in Hebrew.  In her own proud way, she’s coming around.
The best part of it is that in the end, I’ve come to truly feel that it doesn’t matter if she embraces it or not.  She is my mother and I love her.  And I thank her for raising me in such a way that I was able to listen to what my heart was asking and to follow that.  But this is my calling and I don’t need her or anyone else’s approval to follow the path I am meant to follow.  And that realization holds more power and comfort than I ever could have imagined.