Julie Gray

The Worst Jew Ever.

That’s me. The worst. When I converted, 28 years ago, I was a kid. 22 years old. I converted because my fiancee was Jewish and he wanted to be married by a rabbi, under a chupah. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof, the Jews seemed like great people! No problem! I studied for a year and did most of the reading. I went to synagogue on Fridays and met with my rabbi once weekly to ask questions. But mostly, to be perfectly honest, I went through the motions.

My real education about Jewish culture, anyway, was becoming part of my now ex’s family. Oy. They are a very large family that immigrated to the US to escape the pogroms in Ukraine. From this family I learned a fair amount of Yiddish, I learned where the best marbled rye in the Valley is, I learned how to make chicken soup (if you share the recipe, Julie, Grandma Ethel once memorably said, always leave off the secret ingredient – parsnip. That way your chicken soup will be better than anybody else’s.) I learned the stories of Bubbe and Zaide from Russia. I learned how one acts and what one brings to a bris, wedding or baby naming. I learned what a “ghetto mentality” is like and that brunch is a central part of the Los Angeles Jewish experience. That and arguing over which deli is the best. (Cantors).

The first Jewish wedding I ever attended was my own. Let me ask you – what’s with the throwing the bride and groom around while on chairs?! I had no idea. I got married with a community ring from Hungary placed on the idex finger of my right hand. Charged with buying the glass my soon-to-be husband would step on (just like in the movies!) I bought a heavy crystal glass so it would be special. My fiancee almost seriously injured himself. Perhaps it was a sign.

True to my word, I raised my two children Jewish. Meaning we lit the shabbat candles, we made Purim costumes, we schlepped to Hebrew school twice a week, we signed up for Camp Kee Tov every single summer. We did not keep a kosher home, although I would have had my then husband expected that. I did what was expected of me, as best I knew how. I didn’t have any prior experience to draw from.

My ex’s family, after having settled in Los Angeles by way of Boston and Kiev before that, had done what so many in the Jewish world, I now understand, fear – they had assimilated. They had become Reform Jews. I honestly didn’t know the difference nor care, really. I was Jewish by choice, for love, and I was determined that my children would know that they were Jewish and be proud of that.

Religiousity didn’t come into it for me. I am the daughter of two very liberal academics who thought my conversion was just great!  True to their counter-culture generation, my parents eschewed organized religion completely and saw it as intellectual weakness. They saw my conversion to what for them was a fascinating ethnic group as a feather in their liberal caps. Little did I know then that over the years, this colorful ethnic group would in some ways distance myself from my parents. They never did hunt for Easter eggs with their only two grandchildren.

All I knew, at age 22, when I converted, was that I loved my fiancee, his Jewish identity was important to him, and, as I began to study Judaism, I was determined not to break the chain of the Jewish experience, of the Jewish people. My kids would know who they were.

And I did a great job. So great that on St. Paddy’s when I made a corned beef, my children looked at me strangely – but why, mom? We’re not Irish, we’re Jewish. To which I replied – have you SEEN your mother?! Gaze upon this freckled, Celtic face and think on that for a sec you guys.

So years passed, lighting the candles, going to services at synagogue, immersing my children in a Jewish life the best way I knew how for a person who had converted. I bought Hebrew tapes to listen to in the car and the kids would sing along, learning their alef bet and some basic Hebrew.

But as my children got older, I began to take an interest in Judaism for my own edification. I began to read books about Jewish history, about the sages, about the long, colorful, intense conversation with themselves and with gd that the Jews have had for over two thousand years. I began to take much more interest in Israel and what it really means.

I remember telling my children one day that Israel is important and that they should go someday. That Israel matters as part of Jewish life. Because we need Israel, we need a homeland. This on a sunny day on a leafy street in Oakland where my kids were one of several religious and ethnic groups living in the neighborhood. They looked at me oddly, I’ll never forget that. What are you talking about, mom? From their safe, secure, American environment, coupled with the naiveté of youth, my kids had no idea what the political, emotional, social, historic or religious significance of Israel really was. Not that they hadn’t seen and heard a lot about Israel in Hebrew school, etc. But this “eretz Y’israel” was an abstract for them. Next year in Jerusalem. Sure, yes. Pass the matzoh.

Then the divorce came. I wasn’t sure – was I still Jewish? What was my obligation now? I won’t lie, the first couple years afterward, I bought myself a very large Christmas tree. But it didn’t satisfy. I had come too far. But where was my Jewish community? My own family was not Jewish. I wasn’t sure which synagogue to join, or quite what to do about maintaining or otherwise nurturing a Jewish identity of my own. I mean, did it really matter? My children and their Jewish identity had been my focus. I was just a technicality, a doorway for them. Being an achiever, I did a pretty good job. But what about me? Where did I fall, in the scheme of things and did it matter?

I began to light the shabbat candles not for the kids but for me. I experimented with making a ritual out of the lighting, the prayers, the quiet of shabbat. I knew that when I lit the shabbat candles, I was joining Jews all over the world in doing the same thing and that made me feel like maybe I did belong. I took my kids to give tashlich on the beach in Santa Monica, and it was I who felt a lifting of my spirits as we cast away the regrets and less than ideal behavior of the year before. I made round challah and apples and honey and for once – it was I who reveled in the glow of it all. After more than 20 years, being Jewish started to matter to me, personally. And it was and remains such a gift. One I did not see coming.

Two and a half years ago, I made aliyah. Me! The convert! The worst Jew ever! Well, maybe not the worst, but certainly the most dull witted. It had taken me over 25 years to realize that this converting thing? Was my gift too. And that Israel – she matters. And that Zionism? Is a thing I believe in.  I wanted to make a contribution to Jewish life, history and to Israel in particular. But could I do it? Who was I to even think I could make any kind of difference at all in this ballagan of a country in this ballagan of a situation?

Well – I have a moderately sizable readership on the Huffington Post and in Script Magazine (since entertainment was my background). Maybe I could write about living in Israel – about that transition from the US and from Hollywood in particular – as a way in, as a way to put a humanistic face on Israel and Israelis – so often misunderstood and maligned. So that is what I have been doing. Even though I am the worst Jew ever, I have had so many readers email me and say I didn’t know that about Israel. I didn’t know that about Judaism. And this fills me with pride. To be a vehicle for understanding, compassion and new perspectives.

Recently, I was informed that I am actually not Jewish at all. Either are my children, by the standards of halachic law. Not only do Reform converts not count, Reform isn’t even a form of Judaism, according to people like our new President Rivlin.

Ever grateful for crumbs, I will note that my kids are Jewish enough, though, to take advantage of taglit and even to make aliyah as I did. But once they get here? According to the Rabbinate? They are not Jewish. They cannot marry in Israel.

Imagine how that feels after a journey of 28 years. I failed. The chain is broken. My kids are not Jews. Despite the fact that their ancestors were followers of Rabbi Nachman in Ukraine and spoke Yiddish and davened and lit the shabbat candles for generations and generations. Even though some perished in pogroms and are buried at Babi Yar. Even though my kids eat the same chicken soup their great-grandmother taught me to make. Even though my son stood on the bima and was bar mitzvahed. No. My kids don’t count and either do I. Score one for polarization and intolerance – the world has three less Jews.

Variously, I have been told that I am as Jewish as Ruth and Sarah, the most illustrious of Jewish women in the Torah! I have been told that yes, this is quite sad, how I am not Jewish at all but some kind of a deluded mistake. And I have been very sweetly offered that I can fix this situation! I can convert again properly! All I have to do is go through an Orthodox conversion and obey the laws of kashrut and halacha and that I will actually count!

Believe me, this sounded tempting. I can count! I can be a real Jew!

But then I wonder – in this great “who is a Jew” debate – who or what is really being served? Am I the worst Jew ever? Really? I don’t know, I’ve met more than a few Israelis who fit the who-is-a-Jew requirements perfectly but who are loan sharks, cheaters and drug addicts. By halacha, they are Jews – just bad Jews. By this reasoning, it is better to have bad Jews than deluded gentiles who think they are Jewish, love Israel, light the shabbat candles and teach their ethnically Jewish children Jewish values. I can’t quite wrap my head around this thinking. Rules are rules, damn the torpedoes, we will insist on specific observances and in doing so we completely miss the point.

And I also wonder – as I write about Israel, about the profundity of the Jewish experience in every realm in every epoch and unto today, just how such a way of thinking is a positive one for the Jewish people. A stiff-necked people who have been arguing with gd and themselves and what it all means for thousands of years. A people who have been exiled and persecuted and nearly annihilated. A people split into two far flung regions and divided by a huge culture gap. A people under intense scrutiny and held to double-standards. A people who continue to live with memories of the Holocaust and thousands of rockets pointed at Israel every single day.

This is what we are arguing about? Who is a Jew or alternatively, who is Jewish enough? The biggest threat to Judaism, to the Jewish people themselves does not come from without it comes from within. Assimilation is not the threat. Intolerance is. Personally, I respect the dahti in Israel and around the world, who more than practice but curate the roots, leaves and shoots of the Jewish religious tradition. It is very important. I am not suggesting that we all go have brunch and argue over whether the brisket is too dry at this particular deli and call ourselves Jewish. But I am arguing that there is room for all of us, that pluralism and tolerance are Jewish values.

The first time my daughter came to Israel, I took her to the kotel. This nonchalant, American, Jewish kid stood there at length. And she cried. There are no words, she said, touched to the roots of her soul by the experience. She is the first family member on her dad’s side to come to Israel since the great-grandfather she never met.

Yes, I am writing this on shabbat and yes I lit the candles last evening. Shabbat is a day I like to take to reflect and to think, a day I luxuriate in quiet focus. I think that’s okay. I think Hashem approves.

I don’t need to be “fixed” but thank you.

I am a Jewish woman and the proud mother of two Jewish children.

Even if I am the worst Jew ever.










About the Author
Writer, editor and content creator Julie Gray lives in Northern Israel with her life partner, Gidon Lev. Let's Make Things Better, co-authored by Gidon and Julie will be available in Fall 2024 (Hachette/Pan MacMillan).
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