According to Jewish teaching, there is a place for all virtuous people in HaOlam HaBa (The World To Come) regardless of their national identity, but I knew that in HaOlam HaZeh (this world) what my neshama (soul) truly yearned for. For so long, my mind had fought with my neshama that Jewishness was not an option for me. I was born as a Gentile and I would die as one – what I did in between didn’t matter. It was like a dysphoria, and one that was inescapable.
Yet by the time of November 12th 2016, the title of that week’s Torah portion (parsha) “Lekh L’kha“, played like a broken record in my mind.
It was through my usual weekly study of the parsha that I learnt how the 19th Century Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain taught those words applied to all, and not just to Avram, to whom it was first spoken.
This was a message for me as well, and I knew exactly what it meant – go to yourself. Give in to the nagging of your neshama, who wants, needs and fundamentally is, Jewish.
Even at that realisation however, the magnitude of the sacrifices I would have to make terrified me. I was walking blindly into an abyss and felt it necessary to put the breaks on, at least for a while.
Only a couple weeks later I was dancing to Christmas carols whilst decorating the tree that stood proudly in our home. Yet still, it’s presence in the corner of our living room made me feel a sort of uncomfortableness that I had never experienced in any of the previous Christmases of my lifetime.
I relished in the irony of the tree staring down the branches of my new Chanukah menorah.
During previous holiday seasons, we spent the evening of the 24th of December at my Grandma’s local Catholic Church, where a fellow congregate would dress up in a creepy Prophet Elijah costume and walk up and down the aisles to symbolise how Christmas meant the fulfilment of the messianic prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6.
Yet after a lifetime in the Church, 3 years as an actual practitioner and countless hours of persistent study, I just couldn’t find where that was fulfilled. It bothered me to the point of tears, and it became so vexing that I even contacted Jews For Jesus about it (a plight I document here).
In a witless retaliation for their staff’s rudeness, I purchased their nemesis Penina Taylor’s (who formerly worked for Jews For Judaism) book Scripture Twisting: A Course in Jewish-Christian Polemics and began reading two days after Christmas on night 3 of Chanukah, when my Mum and I packed up and AirBnb’ed a converted-shed on a farm in the south of the state.
There was no WiFi and barely any radio reception, so I had plenty of time to wallow in my existential crisis and in a cliché last resort, I prayed for a sign that Judaism was in fact the correct path for me.
We continued driving and ended up in a small town with an approximate population of 339 people.
As a sucker for anything vintage, there was no chance that I wouldn’t explore the small second-hand shop that resided on the corner of the tiny main street. Browsing through their available books, I almost screamed when I saw Jonathan Fox’s rare and out-of-print Halacha Companion: Useful Notes in Practical Jewish Law haphazardly placed on the shelf.
Jews make up only 0.4% of Australia’s overall population and in a town so tiny, it felt like the book had been placed there, in a butterfly effect, especially for me to find.Though other scenarios seem mathematically improbable and I tend not to believe in coincidences, attempting to think logically, I tried to convince myself that this was simply one.
As we continued on our drive down the rich red dirt roads, the only radio station available was the static-y news station, with the same stories on repeat after every hour; With my two books in tow and beautiful Australian scenery to observe, I was barely tuned into the broadcast, when my ears suddenly perked up at the sound of an interviewer introducing Nissim Baruch Black to his show – “that sounds like a Jewish name?!”.
Formerly Damian Jamohl Black, Nissim was a rapper and convert to Orthodox Judaism from Christianity, and like me, had come to the faith through the work of Jews For Judaism. He discussed the sacrifices he had to make to pursue that path, including almost pushing his marriage to divorce;
Perhaps hearing that interview was nothing more than mere chance, but the subservience and total surrender to G_d that echoed through his voice reminded me of how my yearning for that same sense lead me to my current existential state.
That night I lit the Chanukah menorah in the shed window and in the eloquent phrasing of The Gerim Corner the moment I basked in it’s glow, I had “start(ed) to develop a Jewish sense of time and..(felt) thousands of years of history seeping into..(my) bones and settling somewhere deep in..(my) chest”. Suddenly I had a whole new family tree, and each Jew born into this world was my relative. I was bat Avraham, and I knew that I had pursue every possible avenue to make it official.