The Jewish Holiday That Reminds Me of My Conversion
During the autumn of my first year of medical school, I noticed what looked like a lean-to built onto the side of my dorm’s rooftop. It was adorned with leaves and plastic fruits, and someone had hung their old bedsheet to create one of its walls. The wolf from “The Three Little Pigs” could have blown it away with a single huff. I had no idea what it was and was too busy to ask. I was having enough trouble understanding biochemistry that year.
Nearly two decades later, I figured it out. “Ohhh, that’s what that was!” I exclaimed to my rabbi who was teaching me about Sukkot during my conversion. It was like the time I rewatched an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and understood what “shonda” meant. What other Jewish Easter eggs had been hiding in plain sight?
My rabbi explained that Sukkot, the third of the three major Jewish festivals, commemorates the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert. That structure I had seen in medical school was a sukkah, of course. As my mind conjured up the memory of that bedsheet flapping against the wooden posts, I was perplexed. The Korean immigrant in me who had once lived in a trailer and had ached for a brick home couldn’t understand a holiday celebrating life without permanent shelter.
The Jew in me now understands. This holiday is about the strength that powered the Israelites through their journey. Their story is also one of faith. Faith that no doubt wavered but endured.
As I approach Sukkot this year, I’ve been reflecting on my journey of conversion and life as a Jew. And as I see it, that journey has gone through three phases.
Phase A might as well be called Phase Awesome. My rabbi taught me the life cycle events and the holidays, but we also discussed Kabbalah and what the divine meant to him and me. It was like free therapy. A year later, I went before a jury of three rabbis who peppered me with questions that my in-laws later confessed would have stumped them. Once the jury decided I had passed, I underwent the mikveh ritual.
I was now a member of the club. And everything is awesome when you’re part of a team, right? I loved it. Lighting Shabbat candles, making latkes, drinking Manischewitz. I was handed a set of holidays and rituals by which I could weave spirituality into my life. This was the glorious honeymoon phase. But all honeymoons must come to an end.
Then came Phase B, and B was for “but.” It was a word I heard from far too many members of my club. But you don’t look Jewish. But your name isn’t Jewish. But please explain to me how exactly you’re Jewish. You read Torah so beautifully at services, but weren’t you reading the transliteration?
I have felt many times like I was not American enough. Now I wasn’t Jewish enough. I grew up under the white gaze. Now I was dealing with the white Jewish gaze. This was the phase when I thought to myself that this might have been a huge mistake.
Not too long after my conversion, I brought salsa verde chicken to a Rosh Hashanah dinner. It is a dish that my family has always loved. It’s tangy and has a mild kick. At the dinner, a Jewish guest turned to me and said, “You should know that the chicken at Rosh is actually supposed to be sweet — for a sweet New Year.” This person probably meant no harm. But I felt injured. I was a fraud and so was my chicken.
So phase B was NOT awesome. It was so not awesome that phase B had two parts. The first part was all the questioning and judgment from others. The second part was the internalized oppression that began to sink in. I found myself anticipating the judginess, and I started doubting myself.
So that brings me to phase C — complicated. Complicated because my life as a Jew is but not always awesome, especially since I don’t “pass” in the Ashkenormative American Jewish world. After 15 years, there are times when I still feel “other.” But I have embraced phase C because indeed it is the most Jewish phase.
Ironically as a convert, I have the privilege of being uber Jewish because my complex Jewish experience is inherently filled with lots of navel gazing. My husband, who was born to Jewish parents, has never once questioned his identity as a Jewish man. How un-Jewish is that — a life without questioning?
I realize now that my conversion process is my own version of Sukkot. My life as a convert has required strength and faith, both of which have flailed along the way. I suspect this was true for the Israelites as well. No doubt, there were moments of weakness and doubt that shrouded their journey through such insecurity. Perhaps along with celebrating strength, we should also celebrate its underbelly: vulnerability. Perhaps I too should celebrate my own vulnerabilities: when I read Torah in front of my nearly all white congregation, when I cook chicken for Rosh Hashanah, when I walk into Ashkenazi spaces.
I will approach Sukkot thinking about the uncertainties that I have overcome and have yet to encounter. I would like to think that I will be able to celebrate my frailties along with my successes. But just as I wish for others to be patient with me, I must be patient with myself.
This essay was originally published at Hey Alma.