Being queer, having a complicated relationship with your family is almost a requirement. Which is a joke, of course, but at the same time, not entirely. There’s a whole spectrum between president of PFLAG and writing checks to conversion therapy centers. After I came out, my family didn’t kick me out of the house, but I spent most of my childhood understanding that there were certain things I needed to not talk about with them.
Because of the often negative ways our families react to our sexuality and identities, queers are big on chosen family. The relationships that come from that ethos are often deep and beautiful. When I think of the people who have held me, listened to me, and loved me, for whom I only have to be myself, it’s my college roommate who listened to me talk about gender and sends me flowers to this day when I’m sad. It’s the friends who send me tweets that’ll make me laugh and cry, the ones who just understand.
But as a convert to Judaism, I have another kind of chosen family in my life, too.
Conversion was the most profound and personal thing I had ever done without my blood family backseat driving. My relationship with them has long, long been complicated, and it was so damn liberating to do something without feeling like I needed to ask their permission.
One of the most exciting parts about converting is getting to choose your Hebrew name, but what didn’t thrill me was the way in which traditional Jewish names also include the names of one’s parents — for example, if somebody named David has a daughter named Leah, her full Hebrew name would be Leah bat David.
Having gone through the entire experience of rabbi meetings and Intro to Judaism classes and Shabbat services purely on my own terms, I really didn’t want to append my parents’ names to the Hebrew one I spent so long choosing. So when I found out that, as a convert, Abraham and Sarah — yes, those folks from the bible — would be my “Jewish parents,” I was breathtakingly relieved.
As My Jewish Learning points out, “As the convert is technically considered to be a newborn child, reference to the parent must be of the spiritual parentage adopted by entering into the Covenant of Abraham.” Abraham and Sarah are considered the forbearers of Judaism, the very first Jews, and their descendants are supposed to be “as numerous as the stars in the sky.”
To be the child of Abraham and Sarah felt like a clean slate. It felt like a chance to shed the questions about why I don’t go home for Thanksgiving and why I don’t have a weekly phone call with my family. And as the archetype of parents, it means both that you can’t disappoint them by being who you are, and they can be whoever you want and need them to be.
So while no, I don’t have memories of them, and no, I can’t just call them up to ask for advice, Abraham and Sarah became my connection to Judaism, something I wanted so badly for so long. If I could shed some part of my complicated relationship with my parents at the same time? So much the better.
But starting afresh is a double-edged sword. There’s amazing freedom and creativity involved — you don’t have to grimace through awful moments because you’re outvoted by family. That part is fantastic.
You also don’t have memories to draw on. You can’t call your grandma to get her haroset recipe, and nobody’s handing down the family heirloom menorah to you. As my official conversion date loomed near, I — who had so long relished the chance to shake all that history stuff off — was lonely. I felt so intensely rooted in Jewishness, but surrounded by a gulf of missing family and lived heritage.
So I started thinking about Sarah, my soon-to-be adopted mother. I wondered if Sarah ever wished for someone more human than God to turn to with her questions. Did she ever look at all the work she’d accomplished and worry that she hadn’t done it right? Did she feel the presence of this divine force that had completely upended her life? Did she ever just wish she could talk to her mom?
Two things happened as I was thinking — or as my wife called it, “moping, but understandably” — about this.
First, one of my best friends messaged me to ask when I was going to come over and learn how to make latkes. She was very clear that the learning itself was not optional; she understood that I don’t like onions, but that’s not the point. Oh, she added, and had I picked a haroset recipe because she was choosing between two and maybe she should just make both and did I think that was too much?
I realized then, to my own genuine shock, that no moment of my conversion had actually been done alone. More than that, I was already standing in the center of a queer Jewish family.
It was that same friend who answered every “I have a Jewish question” text that I sent. She sent me the Alef-Bet song and laughed when I had it stuck in my head for two days. She showed me the Rugrats Passover and Hannukah episodes. She told me my favorite Prince of Egypt song was, in fact Mi Chamochah. She watched Disobedience with me and we both yelled when Dovid granted Esti her freedom. She corrected my Hebrew pronunciation and showed me how to put on a tallit. Her and her wife gave me and my wife our Shabbat set as a wedding gift during my conversion year. She told me she was proud of me.
I realized if I wanted a haroset recipe, I already had someone to call.
And then my grandmother, very offhandedly, told me over the phone that she wished we lived closer because she would have loved for me to use her wedding china for my first seder. She’d looked up what Passover entailed on her own. She also said she was proud of me and that she knew it was going to go well. The complications weren’t gone, but she knew I was Jewish and that mattered to her.
And my dumb ass thought I was all alone.
Very recently, I immersed in the mikveh and spoke my affirmation on the bimah in front of the ark. For both of those moments, my friend moved the heavens and earth of her life to be there, so she could bear witness to the closing of this time in my Jewish life. I didn’t expect her to be there for either, but she was.
She heard me speak my Hebrew name, which was not the one I thought I wanted. It was chosen to honor both of my great grandmothers because conversion isn’t a shearing off of who I am and where I come from. As a gift, she and her wife gave me a recipe box, filled with recipes from both their families and from my conversion rabbis and a special card with instructions on how to pick the best brisket.
I have always felt like I stood at Sinai, but in rifling through those handwritten cards, I finally felt like I had come from generations of Jewish mothers, too.
When I got home from the mikveh, there were flowers outside my front door. They were from my grandma.
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