Posted on | September 11, 2006 | By Administrator | 22 Comments
One of the great things about the internet (and this blog) is the ability to make friends with others that you probably would never have otherwise met. Through a comment here on the blog, I became friends with Amishav. Here, he shares the backstory of his “in progress” teshuvah path.
Confessions of a Bayou Jew
Well, its about time I fessed up I suppose and came clean with the whole story.
I had previously mentioned on my blog that my family originally came from Germany and that they had settled in South Louisiana, particularly the Donaldsonville area- which at one time was the Capital of Louisiana. From there they moved a bit down the Bayou LaFouche to Napoleonville, where they had a store and a plantation that specialized in sugarcane production.
The matriarch of my family, Caroline Schrieber was extremely successful and had amassed a small fortune of 94,000 dollars by the time she passed away in 1904. But things were not going well for my family Jewishly. We don’t know why, or exactly when, but the sad truth is that my family converted to Catholicism and were baptizing their children by the nineteen teens.
Still though, as late as the 1950s according to my mother, aunts, and uncles, our family was not so affectionately referred to as, “those damn Jew bastards.” You would think that this would raise the eyebrows of my mother and in fact it did. I was told that my mother’s generation did ask my grandparents why they were being called Jews. It didn’t make sense to them to be called Jews because they were practicing Catholics. The answer that they got from my Grandparents was, “The people in the town are confused. They are calling us Jews because we are Germans and they don’t know any better.” This excuse was sufficient for my mother, and she lived her life as a practicing Catholic.
It makes me incredibly sad to know, and also a little bit ashamed, that I come from a line of people that turned away from its faith. We all have our burdens to bear, we all have our separate tikkuns to make- mine just happens to be a little bit different than the one that most people have.
So anyway, my mother, who had no idea that she was Jewish, married a man descended from English Puritan stock, and raised me as a Catholic.
There was just one problem. From the time I was of an age to use my capacity for critical thinking, and for me that was around the age of seven or eight, I knew I had a problem with my religion. I just didn’t believe any of it. I didn’t believe that a man could be G-d. I didn’t believe that the bread and wine that the priest consecrated turned into the body and blood of Jesus, and I sure as hell didn’t believe that being a cannibal would send me straight to heaven.
But I tried. I really tried hard. I wanted to make my mother happy. I wanted to fit in with my Catholic schoolboy chums. So I tried praying harder, going to confession, and doing all the stuff that good Catholic boys did publicly. But on the side I was studying Buddhism, reading the Upanishads, experimenting with meditation, reading books on the occult and so on. I was one weird little kid.
Things reached a breaking point for me when I was in high school. I was attending Catholic school, taking the mandatory catechism classes, not believing a bit of it, and I refused to be confirmed. That caused a huge stink. My mother thought I was just being a rebellions teenager, but I swore to her that it wasn’t that. I simply didn’t believe what Christianity had to offer me.
I had to meet with priests. I had to talk to the principal of the school. I had to talk to the Christian brothers who educated me. I had to see a therapist. But I wouldn’t budge. And finally, the priests told my mother that I was sincere and that I shouldn’t be confirmed. I give them credit for this.
But then I was on my own spiritually- I knew I was lost, but didn’t know how to get home, or even where home was.
So I figured out that I wasn’t a Catholic at an early age, and officially walked out of the Catholic church by 16, but what was I supposed to do?
I became an atheist. I studied philosophy. I studied Zen. I learned about Bahai. I danced with the Hare Krishnas. I even read the Koran. But it was all wrong. Every time I walked into a new religious environment I felt like an idiot, a poseur, a fraud. And I wanted to believe so badly, but I couldn’t. It never occurred to me to study Judaism because I had always been told that it was an outmoded legalistic faith that had been superceded by the religion of love, Christianity.
Many years later, It was at Christmas time and I was trying really hard to be merry and have the, “Spirit of Christmas,” and as usual it wasn’t working. So I went down to the annual display of Christmas lights that the City of Denver puts up every year. It’s really very attractive and the buildings look really neat, and I was just thinking to myself, “Why can’t I just be Jewish and not have to deal with all this crap?”
I shrugged it off, but then a few days later I realized that I really didn’t know anything at all about Judaism. So I made an appointment with a rabbi.
How did I know which one to speak with? That was easy. I looked in the phone book and found the one with the color ad. I figured that had to be the biggest and the best. Funny logic huh? But I didn’t know any better. It was a reform shul, and I made an appointment with Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum.
We had a 30 minute slot together but ended up speaking for nearly 2 hours. I guess that was a good sign because he told me that I really should come and see a service.
I went on a Friday night. It was winter and there weren’t many people there, so they had services in their small chapel, which is really very beautiful.
But I didn’t really notice much of its beauty. All I could think about was that I was a beacon of ignorance, and I thought everyone in the place knew that I didn’t belong there. I remember walking in, and someone said, “Good Shabbos,” to me. I took the announcement sheet, nodded, and mumbled back to him, “Hmm. Shum. Ehem,” and coughed. It was so pathetic. I just didn’t know anything. So I sat in the last row, took out a prayerbook, stood when people stood, sat when people sat, and tried to not look too idiotic.
Then something really strange happened. At a certain point in the service, right before the Torah reading, the Rabbi, one I had not seen before, went up to the ark, took out a Torah, and said, “Aytz Chaim Hee.” I had never seen a Torah. I didn’t know what the words he said meant. I knew nothing about what I was seeing or hearing. But at that point I started shaking, and crying, and I had to hold onto the seat in front of me because my knees were getting weak. Why? Because at that moment, I understood. I realized that I had finally come home.
My home was Judaism and after a lifetime of searching, I finally walked into my father’s house.
I had a Sinai experience. I was willing to accept the Torah without really knowing what I was getting into. So I started learning.
I read Telushkin, Fackenheim, books on the holidays, prayer, Talmud, history, Yiddish- I immersed myself in all the Jewish stuff that I could.
After studying for a year, I decided to tell my mother what I was doing. By this time I was 26 years old- I was finished with college, I was paying my own bills, and Judaism was becoming an ever more important part of my life. Nevertheless, it didn’t go over well. She was very upset, took it as a personal rejection of her, and things were not good.
I don’t think it helped that her father was dying and she was really stressed out. Needless to say, my interest in Judaism was not a positive force in my relationship with her at that moment. I felt terrible about this because I really like my mother, but I knew what I had to do.
Right before I officially converted, I had a visit from my uncle Butch. Butch had come up to Colorado to ski with his family and invited me to stay the weekend with him at the condo he was renting in Copper Mountain. I gladly accepted and made the drive up to see him.
After the usual family greetings, Butch sat me down at the table and slid a bowl of gumbo in front of me. The dialog that followed went something like this:
“Uncle Butch, I don’t think that I can eat this.”
“Aww, come on now. Why is that?”
“I don’t eat pork or shrimp any more. So I can’t eat the gumbo. I’m sorry.”
He looked at me in silence.
“Well, I’ve been studying Judaism for a while now, and I’m going to convert.”
“Oh, yeah. Your momma mentioned something about that to me. She’s pretty upset about it too.”
“I know. I’m sorry she feels that way.”
“Well, you know, she shouldn’t be that upset.”
“Why is that?”
“Because we’re Jews.”
At that point I just about fell out of my chair. Uncle Butch then told me the whole story. As it turned out, just before my Grandfather died, he told his children that we were Jews, that the story that he had passed on to my mother and aunts and uncles was a lie, and that the reason why the whole town knew us as Jews and called us Jews was that we were, in fact, Jews.
Then it all made sense to me. All the years of confusion. All the turns down dead end streets. All of it was meant to be. I didn’t fit into any other religious faith because I wasn’t supposed to. I was born a Jew, but didn’t know it. And I thank Hashem for the journey that I undertook because I know how precious Judaism is. I know what a gift it is, because once it is lost in your family it is so terribly difficult to bring it back.
When I told this story to Rabbi Greenbaum, he said that I still needed to convert because I had been baptized a Catholic. So I followed through, did the mikveh, an ultra-orthodox mohel did the ceremonial taking of a drop of blood (thank goodness the custom in America when I was born was for all boys to be circumcised- Jewish or not), and then I was back among my people.
It hasn’t been easy. I faced a lot of prejudice and suspicion because I don’t really look so traditionally Jewish, and then there’s the question of the whole reform “conversion” thing. But I’m trying to work through those issues and become continually more observant, one day at a time.
So there you have it, the confessions of the Bayou Jew are complete. Some people will probably look down on me because of my past. But Hashem works through ways that we cannot possibly understand. And I know that there is a reason for what happened to my family. And that truth will be known at some point in the future.
Now you know the reason for my name, Amishav. My people return. This time, never to be lost again.
** Amishav has some inspiring moments from his first trip to Israel up on his blog.