From the time I was ten years old, I tried to be a believing Christian. I was raised Anglican from birth but never took it seriously. There is no emphasis on spirituality within Anglicanism. Despite being at church each Sunday it all seemed ridiculous, and it was clear to me that everyone in the pews was there for social reasons and appearances, nothing more. They didn’t meaningfully believe a word they were reciting from the prayer books.
Around that time I befriended a family that had converted to Christianity from Judaism. They were deeply spiritual and believing. I wanted to be like them- but simply couldn’t believe. The whole notion of Christianity was ridiculous to me: a man tortured for my sins is a good thing? And we were supposedly living in the messianic age predicted in Jewish prophecy? None of it made a shred of sense. But I persisted in trying to believe; I prayed, asked God for belief, attended church with this family (much to the horror of my mother). But nothing happened. For a few years I concluded I was an atheist but in my late teens went back to trying to believe in Christianity, this time with more gusto. I explored other branches of Christianity, like Orthodoxy (which I still have a deep respect for). I discovered a beautiful Orthodox church in my neighborhood and spent hours attending liturgy and vespers. I spent so many hours standing during those liturgies that I would be dizzy and weak by the end of it. But I still didn’t believe, and felt like a fake just going through the motions.
Around this time I befriended a friend of the above-mentioned family and we began attending byzantine Catholic masses together. It was in one of these masses that it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I believed in God (so I wasn’t an atheist- yay!) but I simply did not believe in Jesus. This was a radical and huge revelation for me, and a sense of God’s presence flowed through me in a way I’d never felt before.
I can’t remember exactly how or why but I immediately began pursuing conversion to Judaism. Perhaps it seemed like the logical step for a “Christian” who believed in God but not Jesus. Perhaps it was due to the Jewish influence of the above-mentioned family. I’d always been strongly drawn to the few items of Judaica in their home, like siddurs, and had taught myself to read Hebrew from them.
Coming from a Christian background I assumed Jews would be happy to receive and absorb a convert. I was in for a rude awakening over the next few years, but despite the negative experiences I dealt with over the conversion process, it remained an enormous comfort to finally have religious faith. It felt like swimming in a beautiful, warm ocean to have the deep faith I’d been praying for all those years.
But there were problems, and big ones. First, I was already married to a (gasp!) non-jew. My husband is nominally Catholic- it is purely cultural to him- but that cultural part in him runs deep. At first he was accepting of my conversion (in retrospect I think he wanted to appear enlightened and “tolerant”) but we began to have more and more tension between us over my religious beliefs. It got to the point where he was downright rude and cruel to me over it. When it reached the point of the children being raised as Jewish, again, he was initially tolerant, but eventually began to balk over my efforts to raise them in my new faith. It got so bad that I realized I might have to choose between my marriage and my faith. I chose my marriage.
Along with these problems, I began to have issues with Judaism. Not the faith I held within me, but the practical experience of being a convert in the current world of Judaism. While I was always welcomed in whatever shul I attended, it was only until it was discovered I was a convert. Then the attitude quickly changed and I was regarded as a weirdo and an outsider. I quickly learned converts are only welcome within Judaism- and then only to a degree- if they convert for the purposes of marrying a Jew. A “free agent” convert is viewed with suspicion. Don’t get me wrong, people were by and large nice to me- only a handful outright verbally attacked and shunned me- but it was eminently clear from all angles that I was on the outside looking in. I have two particularly vivid and painful memories in this regard, one at a Jewish wedding and another at a Simchat Torah service, where I understood painfully and clearly that I would never be an accepted part of the world I was standing in.
I also consistently encountered the same problem I had with Anglicanism. Reform, Conservative, and even “Conservadox” Jews simply aren’t spiritual. It’s a community and historical identity for them, not a deep spiritual faith. The only place you find consistent pursuit of spirituality within Judaism is in the Orthodox branches, but there was no way in hell (pardon the Christian reference) they would ever let me be a part of their fold, as a Conservative convert married to a Catholic. There were also certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism I could never follow, like covering my hair or dressing ultra conservatively (I dress conservatively, but I do show my arms).
After some years all these problems reached critical mass, and to save my marriage I abruptly abandoned my dearly held effort and left the only religion I’d known in a meaningful way. It is so painful for me that I never talk or write about it (well, until now) and my husband and I never discuss it. He pretends it didn’t happened.
My husband began taking the kids to mass. Remember, he is only nominally Catholic, so it was a “look what they are now” gesture to me. I stood on the sidelines and watched my kids raised as Christians. They were enrolled in Catholic school (we never could have afforded the Jewish day schools anyway) and still are. He dropped off on taking them to mass once the so-there gesture was final, and now the kids don’t even attend mass. I feel like the same cycle of empty religion is being handed to them, just like with me as a child they are being given a “religious label” without spiritual content, though two of my daughters have evolved- without our influence- into Jesus freaks.
For the sake of the kids I tried once again to be a believing Christian. I tried going to mass with them, tried going to other branches of Christianity. Read Christian books. Still nothing. I’ve finally concluded after decades, cumulatively, that I simply am not nor was I ever meant to be Christian. But I feel so distant from Judaism, and it’s been so long now, I no longer feel the deep attachment to Judaism either. I don’t know if this is due to emotional trauma or if I really have lost my faith. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
There were a few tenets in Judaism that I had ethical or doctrinal (to borrow another Christian term) issues with. Namely, I felt the notion of “the chosen people” was unethical, no matter how Jews try to spin it. I also had issues with the situation in Israel, which to be honest I never paid attention to during my conversion process because I was so swept up in my newfound belief. No, I don’t think the Israelis are evil monsters and the Palestinians innocent lambs. But it’s a really ugly situation all around and I know many an American Jew with their own inner conflict on the matter. So in a way it was a mild relief to no longer have to grapple with these issues, and there is a sense of freedom that comes with being “label-less,” but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about having lost my religion.
I have considered just practicing quietly without my husband’s knowledge, or even going back to attending shul. I don’t even know where my conversion certificate is. I could go back to following kashrut- boy has kosher meat gotten expensive!! But we are mostly vegetarian anyway. But I guess it boils down to a fear of being hurt again, and I don’t want to confuse the kids. As far as they’re concerned, they’re Catholic. But why can’t I even bring myself to pray and pick up the siddur? In the privacy of my room, what consequence would that have? But I can’t do it.
I have considered exploring other religions but nothing rings true to me. I know there are plenty of people who happily got through life without a religion, but I’m not really one of them. I feel nameless, homeless, spiritually adrift. The idea of being buried in a Christian cemetery upsets me. Why do I even care? But I’d rather my body be lost at sea, or eaten by wolves.
I ran into the rabbi who converted me a few years ago and he asked where I’d been. I briefly explained it had caused too much tension with my family and had reached a breaking point. He paused for a moment, looking both annoyed and thoughtful. “Well you should have considered that before you started.” Gee thanks. I also ran into his wife sometime later, who asked the same thing- then her eyes zeroed in on a necklace I was wearing with a small stamped image of Jesus- I wore it because it had belonged to my beloved grandmother. I’d never worn it while practicing Judaism but figured I may as well put it back on after the fact. She pointed to it.”Whats that?”
“Look Mrs. Rabbi,” I wanted to say, “If I could believe in the man in this image, I would, but I clearly didn’t and don’t, so could you please get off my case?!” But instead I politely explained it had belonged to my deceased grandmother, and bid her goodbye. That was the last I ever saw of either of them.
My grandmother’s pendant.