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My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Pamela Chapman, Kallat B'reishit, 5778 / 2017

18/12/2017 12:18:19 PM


Any talk about my Jewish journey begins with one simple – but somehow very complex – statement: I am a Jew by choice. 

The usual response to that statement – among Jews and non-Jews – is “why did you become a Jew?”.  Or sometimes “why WOULD you become a Jew?” which I take as a slightly different question.  So – when I was invited to talk about my “Jewish journey” I knew I would have to reframe that idea – that I would have to talk about “my journey to Jewish”. 

When I truly reflect on the question of why I became a Jew I realize how far back the answer lies. My journey to Jewish can probably best be conveyed through a series of small vignettes from my life…

The first one is a bible – a tiny white leather bound Old Testament, with silver edging on the pages, and a tiny silk ribbon to mark the place. This beautiful little book was given to me at my christening, by my godfather – and as soon as I was old enough to handle it I treasured it.  But little about what was between the pages held much interest for me… but for the Book of Ruth, where the little silk ribbon took up permanent residence.  I have always loved the poetry of that story, and of the language – “your people will be my people, your God my God”.  What foreshadowing - of what my life would become!  I’m sure I imagined myself as Ruth, as perhaps many young girls do – and yes, maybe I was dreaming at least in part of the kind, strong, handsome Jewish man that I might one day find.

[and as it turns out, did find!]

This love for the story of the Jews culture continued through my childhood – what little of it was available to a small town girl growing up on Georgian Bay.  I swooned over the tragic story of Hodel and Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof, read Leon Uris novels and all the classic Jewish coming of age stories, admired another dashing “Jewish” man in “Exodus” (maybe it’s the swooning over handsome Jewish men that is the common theme here!).

And then there was my grade 11 essay on “The Problem of Palestine”, which I uncovered when I was packing up my house in Ottawa a few years ago – I laughed reading my earnest youthful Zionism, but at the same time realized that my perspective hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.

As I became an adult I continued on my Jew-friendly path by going to school at University College at U of T and then to Osgoode Hall Law School – where most of my friends, including my best friend, were Jewish. I first marked the High Holy Days with her family in first year, and I proudly fasted with my dear friend.  Those friendships, and the sense of community and belonging that they revealed to me, were represented by a Star of David pendant that my best friend gave me for my 21st birthday, which I still treasure and wore on the day I went into the mikvah, together with the beautiful one that Lyle and I bought during my first trip to Israel.

I was – and am - a passionate student of history, of politics, of philosophy, and a voracious reader – and in that way I discovered the best of Jewish thinking.  Becoming one of “the people of the book” felt like a very great honour, and I have loved the opportunity to study Judaism, to step into the great tradition of textual study as the foundation of debating big ideas, to read Jewish poetry and learn Jewish songs.  I may have been a rare candidate for conversion, who actually loved learning Jewish history and didn’t mind doing homework – and when I had the great privilege of studying with the Hartman scholars when they first came to Toronto to offer a community leadership program I was so enchanted that I went to Jerusalem the next spring, which I described to friends and family as the chance to do an amazing graduate seminar on philosophy for 10 days.  These are other ways that this tradition has been a comfortable fit for me. 

So – one could argue that I was long meant to become a Jew.  But I wandered in the desert of “secular humanism” for a long time before I finally arrived in the promised land.  I did have a basic exposure to Christianity when I was young – my Mom, born and educated as a Catholic, including convent schools, began the family tradition of converting by becoming an Anglican to marry my Dad – more shocking than it sounds, given her Irish background and my Dad’s family’s staunch Englishness.  That meant that I was sent to Sunday school – one tradition that the two cultures share! – where my passion for the story of Ruth continued.  And of course there are family pictures of my sister and I wearing towels on our heads doing an annual tableau of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus (my sister always forced to be Joseph while I got to wear blue and be the more glamorous Mary). 

But my Dad was more dedicated to being an atheist, than my Mom was to maintaining some semblance of a Christian education – he practically cheered when I refused to have a confirmation as a teenager, telling the Minister that I did not believe that Jesus was the son of God.  I suppose that too counts as a key moment: even then I didn’t understand the idea of religion as test of belief, as much as a map to how to live, and how to build a just, a better, world.  Without a real commitment to Christianity we lived a classic North American non-affiliated life of superficial attachment to the fun parts of the traditions – I’m a great Christmas baker and can easily whip up a turkey dinner for 12.  But some sense of attachment to a spiritual tradition eluded me most of my adult life. 

That left me unable to answer the question “what religion are you?” for a long time, until I settled on the answer that I gave Rabbi Tina when she first interviewed me as a candidate for conversion.  “Girl Guides”, I said, which I’m guessing may have been the only time she got that answer!  But when I think back to my childhood and teenage years, that really is the tradition I was raised in, and in many ways I think it is the tradition that explains my interest in becoming a Jew. 

My grandmother was a Girl Guide leader, so my mother and her three sisters were all Guides at a young age, growing up in a tiny town in Northern Ontario, and my mother replicated that tradition by taking my sister and I along to Guide meetings and camps and conventions until we were old enough to become Brownies and then Guides and then Rangers.  I can still recite the Guide promise: “I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the Queen, and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Guide law”.  The values of that tradition are deeply imbedded in me – service, community, connection with the natural world – along with the rituals and most of all the ethics – the sense of reflecting, discussing and aspiring to understand what being good means.  I like to think that I jettisoned – with some revisionist horror - the colonial, patriarchal, authoritarian elements of that tradition, during my years as a lefty university student dedicated to more critical ideas of social justice.  But really, the way my hippie, progressive mother modeled Girl Guide values had much in common with the things I love about Judaism: tikkun olam, tzedakah, kavanah. 

I’m often asked whether something in particular prompted my decision to convert – to go from Jew-friendly to Jew.  Lyle and I will shortly mark our 15th year together, and from the beginning we shared a Jewish life.  We joined Darchei Noam together, we celebrated the holidays with family and friends, I learned to make matzoh balls and chopped liver and homemade chrain, we travelled to Israel.  Of course most people think that Lyle wanted me to convert, but I didn’t even tell him when I first launched the plan, and while deep down I knew that he would be happy to have me join him even more firmly in our Jewish life – and he was! - a tiny voice worried that becoming a Jew might take the shine off what made me attractive to him – that I would no longer be the “golden shiksa”.  But, joking aside, I knew he would embrace me as a Jewish partner, just as he had embraced me fully without me being Jewish, something that, sadly, not every non-Jewish partner experiences.

My relationship with Lyle was an important piece of my choice to become a Jew, though – no question.  It gave me the experience of living a Jewish life, and that was very important – necessary, I think – to allow me to actually imagine that I could claim a Jewish identity for myself.  And he has supported me fully as I’ve navigated trying to make that real, by becoming a more involved member of DN, by doing an adult Bat Mitzvah – even down to putting up with me sometimes laying claim to knowing more about something Jewish than he does.  When he teases me that I’m such a “macher” –and for the fact that I still can’t properly “ch” -I know that he’s proud of me, and I feel that he truly sees me as Jewish.

Which, I want to say frankly, is the challenge that I’m sure any Jew by choice feels, at least some of the time, or at least for some time.  I converted 10 years ago this past June.  I studied and struggled on that path with Rabbi Tina’s love and support – she has been another critical figure in my journey to Jewish - and I went into the Mikvah with her waiting for me to emerge – definitely one of the more magical moments in my life.  That experience does feel like a rebirth, but it’s not always easy to hang on to that feeling when you have to navigate the practical reality of how to feel Jewish, to be Jewish, to be seen as Jewish, on a day to day basis.  This is not a tradition that easily embraces people wanting to join, and there are hundreds of tiny impediments to ever feeling quite the same as a Jew by birth – whether it is the daily cultural references, the scattered Hebrew or Yiddish words, the endless playing of “Jewish” geography.  As many of you know, I feel very strongly that the future of Jewish life – including of this community – will depend on whether we can really reverse the centuries-old tradition of not inviting people in, and of how well we truly adapt to embrace interfaith families.  This is not the time to talk politics, or to make a pitch, but I hope that my “journey to Jewish” can be an example of how permitting people to find their way, in their own time, can add dedicated Jews to our ranks, instead of seeing Jews by birth drift away.

And let me finish by coming back to how I began – to the simple, yet complex, statement that “I am a Jew by choice”.  Sometimes I think that is the best thing ever to be able to say – that it is the best possible way to be a Jew.  I’m here only because I want to be, only because I love what Judaism offers, only because of my faith in its promise.  For me, just being a Jew represents Kavanah.

Thank you all for embracing me in this community, for permitting me to serve, and for granting me this amazing honour.  Shabbat shalom.

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784