- Lighting candles on Chanukah
- Attending seders at my uncles’ homes
- Not eating chometz during Pesach
- Not playing baseball on Yom Kippur, it shouldn’t be a shande for the neighbors.
Nevertheless, we were intensely Jewish. My parents spoke Yiddish and sent me to Yiddish classes for a few years (unfortunately, they didn’t succeed in teaching me the language). I attended a Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul, a secular substitute for religious school, where I learned about Judaism and Jewish history and where we discussed such questions as how we could call ourselves Jews if we didn’t practice the religion. In lieu of a bar mitzvah, my class put on a play about Jews in America. Just about all my friends were Jewish, of the same sort as myself. Even my high school, the Bronx High School of Science, was about 90% Jewish at the time.
Although we did not keep kosher, my home was also Jewish in the culinary sense. My grandmother, who lived with us, baked challah every Friday. My diet included plentiful quantities of chopped liver, noodle kugel, potato kugel, chicken soup, ruglach, gefilte fish, etc., etc. Soul food for Ashkenazim, in other words.
This description of a secular Jew—unaffiliated, nonpracticing—still describes my brother. The difference between us, I am sure, stems from whom we married. He married a woman who was born Jewish. I married Tricia.
Then when David was about eleven, he said that he would like to take communion.
At that time, b’nai mitzvah celebrations were optional at OPT, and David opted out. However, I was taking Hebrew classes, having been raised with a strong background in “Old Testament,” both at home and in college (where I had studied Greek, the language of the New Testament). Chuck and I were both attending Rabbi Gerson’s Torah study group, and we made a commitment to attend all family Shabbat services with our children. I found myself participating more in the life of the congregation and feeling more and more Jewish. One day while riding the el I became aware of this as a sort of assimilation, realizing that I was thinking “we Jews …”. It may have been around this time that Sarah said, “One person in our family isn’t Jewish; I think it’s Dad.”
In the mid-1980s Cantor Cohn asked me to tutor the b’nai mitzvah students in the texts of their Torah and Haftarah portions, after which he would teach them the chant. This was something I very much wanted to do but I felt that if I were the parent of such students I would want them to be taught by a Jew. I began meeting privately with the Rabbi. One of the most meaningful things he said in those conversations was that all Jewish souls stood at Sinai, although not all of those souls were born into Jewish families. I struggled with the implications of this step: my mother was still living, and it would be difficult for her to accept my conversion, which I knew she would see as a rejection of salvation. Then Rabbi Gerson, in a sermon that was perhaps during the High Holy Days, seemed to challenge me directly to make a decision, and on July 6, 1986, I “entered into the covenant of Israel as a righteous proselyte,” in the presence of a Bet Din composed of Rabbi Gerson and Kitty and Dan Hall. My immersion was in Lac Labelle, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, when the Gersons, Halls, and we were picking up our daughters from OSRUI. I took as my Hebrew name Hannah Miriam for my grandmother Annie and my mother Miriam, to show that I was not giving up my past in my acceptance of Judaism. After the ceremony Rabbi Gerson asked the children if they had any questions, and Sarah, ten years old, asked, “Does this mean I am Jewish?” “Yes,” said the Rabbi. “You have two Jewish parents, so you are Jewish.” My mother, with the support of her pastor at Pilgrim Congregational Church, came to accept my conversion. I carry my tallit in a needlepoint case she made for it, and on holidays we use a challah cover she embroidered.