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My Jewish Identity Crisis

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I converted to Judaism 25 years ago. Under a Sukkah, as I recall, because it was -- wait for it -- Sukkot. For you gentiles, that's a Jewish autumnal harvest celebration. It's kinda cool.

A day earlier I had been rolled around in the surf near Santa Barbara (where I then lived) and barely said my conversion prayers between waves. My temple didn't have a mikvah. Sucked for me but I have to give my rabbi kudos for not laughing as I was tossed in the waves. He let me emerge with my dignity and new Jewish identity intact.

The day following my conversion, I was married. Which is why I converted. Because my then fiancé was a (very) semi-observant Jew (you know the drill: Yom Kippur, Chanukah and the occasional bris) and he wanted to be married under a Chupah. The very first Jewish wedding I ever went to was my own. It was nothing like Fiddler on the Roof and I want to go on record with that complaint. Also, there were knishes served at the reception.

Twenty-five years, two kids and a divorce later, I'm still Jewish. Or am I? I no longer live in a Jewish household. Or do I?

Believe me, I was a typical zealous convert. My kids both went to Jewish preschool, sang to Hebrew tapes in the car, went to religious school and learned about their history and forefathers and culture. And my son had a bar mitzvah. My daughter, interestingly, declined.

I knew more about Judaism than most of my in-laws. I vociferously insisted on living a Jewish lifestyle to my very assimilated in-laws, who oddly cared VERY much that my then husband marry a Jew but didn't actually do much in the way of observance outside of a chaotic, sped up Seder every year. I insisted my parents not give my kids Christmas presents. I hectored my heretofore unaccepting Jewish in-laws about being more Jewish. I must have been intolerable.

Suffice to say that I did such a great job making my children Jewishly identified that each year when St. Patrick's day rolled around, my kids stared at me blankly when I reminded them that they were also Irish. They still do. Have you seen your mother? I tell them.

After the divorce, I was adrift. Guess I'm not Jewish anymore. And I'll be honest, that very first holiday season I bought a huge Christmas tree and decorated the hell out of it. I enjoyed the pine smell and the grandeur of its blinking lights. I enjoyed the freedom I suddenly felt to drink egg nog, hang candy canes and sing "The Little Drummer Boy" once more!

But it didn't take long for me to again feel adrift. Especially when my ex remarried a Jewish woman. A real Jewish woman. All of my insecurities came flooding back. I remembered all those times when I was so much younger and newly converted and I felt like an imposter at synagogue. I felt that all eyes on me because I don't look Jewish. And before anyone says oh come on, Jews come in all colors and stripes -- no, seriously, I don't look Jewish. I am Irish and Scottish and save for the brogue, that's the deal with me physically.

So what was I to do? Do I light a menorah? Put up a mezuzah? If I go to temple without my kids or Jewish husband, am I an imposter? Am I Jewish or did that get revoked?

A few months ago, a friend who was living and working in Jerusalem invited me to go visit. Israel, are you crazy?! It's dangerous! But when a friend died suddenly, I rethought it. Why the hell not live my life to the fullest! Plus, my friend added a side trip to Egypt. Egypt, baby, Egypt! The Middle East!

The minute I got off the plane at Ben Gurion, I felt at home. I cannot explain it. I love Israel. I love the irascible, difficult Israelis. I love the terrain -- all of it. The deserts, the golden, rock-strewn hills and the glittering Mediterranean. I love the Negev, The Red Sea and Haifa. I love Jaffa and the Dead Sea and Caesaria. I love the food, I love the little water heaters on every roof, I love the laundry lines and the market place. And I really love shakshuka.

I don't love the wall, the razor wire and the security. I don't love the way Israel has been condemned for the flotilla incident. I don't love that loving Israel somehow means you are a religious or political fanatic.

Some say that those who convert to Judaism were Jewish in another life. Maybe so. I'm not sure how else to explain the deep connection I feel to Israel and to Jews in general. I get it. I get them. I am one of them. Or am I?

When I was last in Jerusalem, I bought a beautiful hamsa. Do I get to wear one of those? Am I really part of the tribe even though I wasn't born into it? I decided to damn the torpedoes and wear it.

Recently someone, taking in the hamsa said to me, you're JEWISH? I would never have thought so. I know what that means. You don't look Jewish. There was a long pause, as I contemplated giving the usual explanation of how I converted, you see, and raised my children Jewish and and and ... but instead I only nodded 'yes.'

If being part of this tribe means that I love most everything about it -- the food, the language, the stories, the tradition, the hope, the journey, the values, the argumentativeness and the continuum -- I guess that makes me Jewish.

But it wouldn't be Jewish not to say that there are parts that I disagree with completely. The Judeo-Christian patriarchal construct, the politics in Israel, insularity and ultra-orthodoxy. And I'll be honest, knishes I am not fond of. You really can't change my mind about that. They say the Jews are a stiff-necked people. Damn straight we are.

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