There I was, minding my own business, when my wife Robyn, she of good British stock, she who counts baronets, vicars and King Edward III among her ancestors, told me she plans to convert to Judaism.
She had, in fact, already signed up to study with a rabbi — Bridget Wynne of Jewish Gateways — and had committed to attending services at Kol Hadash, a nearby congregation. With me or without me.
All I could stammer in response was, “Why?” This was nothing I had ever asked of her or wished she would do.
Robyn, though deeply spiritual, isn’t religious and never has been. Like me, she grew up in a secular home in Southern California. Her family did make a big deal over Christmas, but in that kooky L.A. style: sunny weather, presents galore and fake snow under the tree, and nary a manger, Virgin or savior in sight.
On the other hand, her whole life seems to have steered her in the direction of Team J. Growing up, she knew countless Jewish kids and often joined them for services. She spent years doing Israeli folk dancing, something she describes to me as “pure love.” Most of her boyfriends were Jewish, as was her first husband.
Once she hitched her wagon to this J. staff writer, she incrementally began to absorb my Jewish world, everything from the Traveling Jewish Theatre to rockin’ Shabbats at Chochmat HaLev to my traveler’s tales from the Holy Land.
When Robyn and I got married five years ago, Rabbi Bridget asked her if she had ever considered converting. The seed was planted then, and the spirit of Yiddishkeit worked its way ever deeper into her.
What caused her desire to fully bloom was her disgust over the explosion of anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric in recent years.
“Little by little I’ve seen more anti-Semitism,” she says. “Not just dissing Israel but dissing Jews. It’s becoming more and more OK to do that in the media and in casual conversation among Berkeley liberals. It’s starting to sound to me like we’re on another trajectory that we saw in the 1930s.”
The current spate of Palestinian stabbing attacks in Israel did her in, especially the “intimacy” of the attacks, as she describes it.
“That someone would go up to a random person only because they were Jewish, knowing nothing about them, and randomly kill them — that was the last straw for me.”
She decided to emulate the Holocaust era’s Righteous Gentiles that she so admired and take a stand.
And here we are.
Watching Robyn dig deeper into Judaism reminds me of the time in my life when I awakened to my Jewish roots. Though I spring from good shtetl stock, and grew up on chopped liver and gefilte fish, I, too, am a convert of sorts.
In my youth, when it came to Jewish culture, I was like the fish that, when asked how it liked the water, replied, “What’s water?” It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and the father of a toddler that I decided to mindfully explore my identity.
I read every book on Judaism and Jewish history I could. I hung out at Chabad to wrap tefillin, learned the alef-bet and joined a synagogue.
It’s overly facile to compare the obsession with all things Jewish to a kid playing with a shiny new toy. But Judaism for me then was new, and oh how it shined.
It shines for Robyn now, and I enjoy witnessing her giddiness over it.
“Over the centuries, Judaism has evolved and changed instead of becoming mired,” she tells me. “It reminds me of the Constitution. It was purposefully made to grow and change over time as society changed.”
I totally get Robyn’s enthusiasm for Judaism and Jewish life. It’s no different from mine of 30 years ago, and feels a lot like falling in love.
And trust me, Robyn in love is a beautiful thing.
“The impulse inside each person to love other people, the Earth, and perform actions that will incrementally make the world perfect” is her God concept, she explains. “I think that impulse has to be the most essential goodness.”