Mothers and Daughters and Conversion

Mothers and Daughters and Conversion My daughter has just converted to Judaism.

She is not the first of my many adopted daughters to have done so, nor will she be the last.

But musing over a cup of coffee about the complex process of conversion, I wondered about her biological mother’s reaction, and how our newest Jewish daughter was handling it.

For any parent, a child’s decision to walk away from her upbringing is often perceived as a personal rejection.

How well do I remember that moment so many decades ago, when I announced to my own parents that I had chosen to observe the kosher laws.

“But what will you eat?” my father fretted, ever the Daddy who believed that surely one could not possibly exist without bacon and eggs on the plate at least once a week.

“You’ll starve!”

My mother, more sanguine, simply nodded; it fit in with the rest of my adolescent rebellion and she was convinced it would pass, as had my decision not to wear a bra.

But it hadn’t, and my father was personally insulted.

“You must honor your father and your mother,” he intoned. “It says so in the Torah. I know that.” He didn’t realize that by observing the Torah’s laws, I was honoring him even more – how could he? He himself never had the opportunity to learn them the way I had.

The memory of that struggle rose up once again as I reflected on the journey my latest daughter had traveled.

Lithe and lovely, with warm chocolate eyes rimmed with long dark lashes, Rivkah is the child of parents who speak Spanish and Italian, both descendants of “Conversos,” Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal during the 14th and 15th centuries CE. 

Her mother, tiny and sweet, doesn’t say much – she generally lets her Jewish-born Cuban husband do the talking. Tall, with an impish smile and a gentle manner, Rivkah’s father nevertheless conveys an image of strength.

Although Rivkah’s mother converted before she was born, the non-Orthodox process carried no halachic (Jewish legal) weight – a fact the family only learned years later. Further, since Judaism is carried only through the maternal bloodline, Rivkah was not yet Jewish.

When Rikvah made aliyah to Israel, she was immediately welcomed under the country’s Law of Return, which states than anyone with one Jewish parent or grandparent on either side may gain instant citizenship. However, this would not assure her the right to marry a Jew under Israeli law; the marriage laws in the Jewish State are still defined by Torah standards.  Rivkah later told me that the first thing she did when she arrived in Jerusalem, therefore, was apply to the country’s conversion program “to correct the mistake.”

I wondered now what her mother was thinking, and what she had told her mother about her final trip to the Rabbinical Court last week. There she was tested in her faith and her knowledge of Jewish law. She vowed her love for Hashem and her People, recited the Shema, and took on a new Hebrew name. She also made an appointment to immerse herself the following week in the mikvah, a ritual pool of purifying waters that would complete the conversion process.

How did her mother feel about her daughter’s act of “purifying” herself to become a Jew? I wondered if she was angered by this act of “correction” as Rivkah sought to resolve the issues raised by her mother’s “mistake.”

It is unlikely that Rivkah’s mother would have the background to understand that when her daughter G-d willing marries, she will repeat that process once a month as she renews her wedding joy with her husband.

Her mother has likely never dipped herself below the warm, comforting water of the mikvah pool. I wonder what, if anything, she has heard about the practice.

I hope she will understand that it mirrored her own youthful instinct to reach for the truth.

Only through the living waters of the mikvah – tap water alone is useless; it must be combined with rain water for use in a mikvah constructed according to very detailed and specific halachic directives– can the spiritual and physical purity of a Jewish body be restored.

It's a remarkable gift, one that is unique to Jews, and particularly to Jewish women. The commandment for a woman to purify her body when renewing marital relations each month, the mitzvah of maintaining family purity, is central to the Jewish faith. It is the pillar which has upheld our people throughout the centuries, in fact, regardless of hardship or torture endured.

Ice cold water on a frigid winter's night? Our great-grandmothers faced that and more in Eastern Europe, without any hesitation. The mystical power of the planet's natural bodies of water, created before anything else was given form on this earth, offer a straight path to purification.

Water and spirituality are synonymous, and the Torah is known as “mayim chaim” – that is, the “water of life.” Those who reach out for that source of purity, as did Rivkah and her mother before her, instinctively sense that basic, core truth.

What remains is only the immersion, and the merging of physical and spiritual realities into one seamless, liquid experience.

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