I seemed to be suffering a strange and recurring case of mistaken identity — and it would end up changing my life forever
"Are you secular or religious?”
I looked up from the table at my favorite coffee shop to find a total stranger standing next to me.
“Excuse me?” I was baffled by his question.
“You should go to Aish.com!”
You should go away, I thought, and turned back to my coffee and my journal.
This was just one incident. I seemed to be suffering a strange and recurring case of mistaken identity — and it would end up changing my life forever.
But let me start at the beginning: I was born in sunny California to two lovely non-Jewish parents. When I was just a few years old, my parents decided to return to their Midwestern roots, which offered greater proximity to grandparents. Our family grew to include my younger brother as we bounced around between Cincinnati and Chicago for the next eight years, settling in Des Moines, Iowa, when I was ten.
There we stayed, amid the corn and soybean fields. No, we did not own a cow or a sheep or any livestock. We lived in a pleasant subdivision with nice neighbors, and I had a very typical suburban childhood.
I was a good girl and did what was expected of me, which mainly meant working hard and making good choices. We went to church every Sunday, and I also participated in our church’s youth group. I did well in school, had a nice group of friends, and was very active with extracurricular activities, most revolving around music.
After high school I went to a small liberal-arts college in Missouri where I continued to study music. When I got to college, though, I found that doing what was expected of me was more complicated than I’d anticipated. It seemed that college wasn’t just about good grades: We were supposed to be having fun (but not the kind of fun my parents would approve of), packing in lots of new experiences, and shedding whatever inhibitions we’d had in high school.
Being religious was considered very uncool. What 18-year-old wants to be uncool? Not me. So I proceeded to do what was expected, had a bunch of new experiences, and became very confused and somewhat miserable, though I would never have admitted that to myself.
My career plans were to study music on the graduate level, hopefully leading to work as a professional classical musician. To my teachers’ surprise, though, I failed to get into any of the schools I applied to. I found myself completely adrift. I was graduating with honors but moving back in with my parents.
While I was in college, my parents had moved from Des Moines to St. Louis. Not only was I not moving forward, going to a new school, I was moving to a completely unfamiliar city, where I didn’t have the benefit of familiar landmarks, neighbors, or friends.
As I tried to figure out what the next step in my life should be, I got an entry-level job at a local law firm where I acclimated to this new corporate culture. After a short while, I noticed a distinct pattern: On Monday, we’d come in, talk about what we’d done over the weekend, complain about it being Monday, and gossip about our coworkers and bosses. Eventually, we’d get around to doing some work.
As the weekend approached, we’d talk about what we were planning to do over the weekend. The weekend would arrive, we’d carry out our plans, and then Monday would come around, and we’d start the whole cycle over again.
After a few months of this, I began to feel uneasy. This was adulthood? Was this what I could expect for the next 40 years of my life? I just thought that it would be, I don’t know, more substantial. You could say I was having a quarter-life crisis.
This is when the strangest phenomenon started happening. People started asking me if I was Jewish.
The first time it happened was outside my office building. I’d often go outside on my break, and sometimes there was a guy from another office in the same building who was on break at the same time, and we’d schmooze. One day he asked me, “So, what temple do you go to?”
“Um, I don’t,” I replied. “I’m not Jewish.”
“Oh,” he said. And then there was a really awkward silence.
The next time it happened was at a party. Some girl, a friend of a friend, turned to me. “So, a member of the tribe?”
“Uh, no, not me,” I replied.
Then there was the coffee-shop incident with the guy who told me about Aish.com. There was the hip-hop concert I went to where someone asked me, point-blank, if I was Jewish. And then there was the time I was at a bar, and a German exchange student came up to me and apologized for the Holocaust.
“It’s okay,” I said, beyond uncomfortable and not knowing what to say.
“It’s not okay!” he insisted.
“You’re right! It’s not okay!” I agreed. “But I’m not the person you should be apologizing to.”
These strange encounters went on for months. I didn’t know what to make of them. One day, when I was having lunch with my mother, I mentioned them to her.
“Oh yeah, that happened to my mother all the time, too.”
Her mother had been a hairdresser in the Milwaukee area, and she’d had a number of Jewish clients who insisted that she must be Jewish because she just “looked so Jewish.” I’d grown up thinking my mother’s mother had been German, so this was very new information for me.
As if all these incidents weren’t enough to pique my interest, I found a clue to a more personal connection. I was going through boxes in my parents’ basement (I was still living with them, and my mom is the type to save every project I’ve ever done), and I found a genealogy project I had done in eighth grade.
This project showed my lineage, pretty far up on my mother’s side. The name of the family that came over from Europe in the mid-1800s was Kramer. There were also Millers and Neumans. Just like that, I realized that maybe all those people had been on to something. Maybe I did have Jewish ancestry after all.
If I had Jewish ancestry, I might as well see what being Jewish was all about. I’d had Jewish friends and neighbors growing up. My piano teacher had been Jewish. My knowledge of all things Jewish didn’t extend much beyond matzah-ball soup and popular entertainers. But I remembered that the coffee-shop guy had told me about a Jewish website, so I went to Aish.com and started reading.
I was floored by what I found. Full disclosure: The first articles I read were dating advice. I’d never had a problem with getting good grades or doing well professionally, but when it came to my personal life, I was floundering. There was no real guidance, apart from magazines that, frankly, gave horrible advice. None of my friends were having any success either. It was a disaster.
I was relieved and amazed to read article after article full of advice and suggestions that were so refreshing, that made so much sense, that were so validating. From there, I went on to read about the laws that govern social interactions. I was completely astonished.
Growing up, I’d been taught morality. I knew the golden rule, that you were supposed to treat others the way you wanted to be treated. We tried our best to be good people, sure, but I was always a little fuzzy on the details. When push came to shove, when relationships got complicated (as they are bound to do), I didn’t have anything more than vague aphorisms to guide me.
But here on the pages of Aish.com were actual guidelines for how to interact with people, in a staggering number of potential situations a person might find themselves in. They were vast! Comprehensive!
If you see a friend and an enemy unloading a donkey at the same time, you have to help your enemy first, because doing an act of kindness will soften your heart, and you’re not supposed to hate anyone anyway. And there were actual laws against gossip? And slander? Incredible!
I found myself thinking that if there was a community where people were trying to live according to these laws, I wanted to live there. I wanted to be with those people. I felt like I’d found the syllabus to living a good life, a meaningful life. A life where I’d have the tools to handle any situation that came my way. I wanted in.
There was just one problem: As I was reading and learning about Judaism, I was also coming to the difficult realization that any potentially Jewish ancestors I had were really just good Lutherans. They were all buried in non-Jewish cemeteries. If anyone had ever been Jewish, it would have been back in Europe, and halachically, it would be basically impossible to confirm.
So I was faced with a dilemma. In order to live according to this incredible life syllabus, I was going to need to convert. To a whole different religion. This was not in my five-year plan. It was weird. I mean, really weird. I didn’t know anyone who had just changed religions. And I wasn’t even religious. It’s not like I was going from one religion to another. I was going from nothing to religious. I had no idea where even to start.
But how could I not try? How could I know that there was a Torah in the world, that there was a community of people who were living according to these perfect rules, this amazing way of living, and not try to go there? How could I just go back to my office job and talk about my weekend plans? It was inconceivable.
Since the only Jews I’d ever known were Reform, that’s where I started. I tried out a few different synagogues, but nothing felt like a fit. It didn’t feel like what I’d been reading about. After about a year of muddling around, I ended up at the Aish office.
I can only imagine what kind of first impression I made. A confused 25-year-old, very colorful, very liberal, very earnest, but also very clueless about frum social code. My first Shabbos (which I prepared for by reading “How to Be a Good Shabbat Guest” on Aish.com), I showed up at the townhouse of the rabbi with a bumper sticker on my car that said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” The rabbi didn’t say anything, but I remember how he raised his eyebrows when he saw it. I had a lot to learn.
And learn I did. I learned in classes, I learned one-on-one, I learned listening to endless tapes (remember those?) while I worked at my office job. I spent Shabbos after Shabbos with kind, brave people who let me into their homes and lives and taught me what it meant to be a Jew.
I soaked up as much as I could, paying attention to everything from how people spoke, to what they wore, to how they did their hair. I wanted to show that I was an excellent candidate. That despite my somewhat colorful past, I could absolutely make it in this new society. I could follow all the rules — the halachic ones and the unspoken ones.
It’s not for the faint of heart, joining the frum community. I made many painful gaffes. I invited myself to weddings, asked embarrassing questions, imposed myself when I shouldn’t have, and failed to show up for Shabbos meals. But I was young and determined, and I plowed ahead.
After about a year (which felt like an eternity, but, in retrospect, is so short), I joined the Jewish People. Everyone encouraged me to go spend some time learning in Israel, so shortly after my conversion, I headed off to Neve Yerushalayim. I spent an incredible year learning in-depth and falling in love with the land.
Coming from a small out-of-town community, it was amazing to be completely surrounded by Jews nearly all the time. And to be so completely surrounded by Jewish history, to have access to kevarim, to gedolim, to get to see the sunset from the top of Har Nof. I was in heaven.
At seminary, I didn’t just learn how to read a Ramban. I also received priceless guidance about my musical abilities. When I started pursuing my conversion, I’d assumed that my time as a classical clarinetist was finished. Most performances are on Shabbos, so pursuing a career was essentially impossible.
When the menahel found out I was a musician, he told me that I absolutely must practice every day. Just because I became religious, he said, it didn’t mean I should leave everything behind. That was definitely not what I was expecting to hear, but I took it seriously.
Over the course of that year, I performed and taught on campus, played in a community orchestra, and taught at a music school in Bnei Brak once a week (my Hebrew was so bad I had to teach mainly using hand gestures!).
After my year was up (and my money basically gone), I returned home. I planned to work in the summer, so I could finance another year of learning. My rav encouraged me to date while I was home, which I was highly skeptical about. I mean, I was going back to St. Louis, which doesn’t exactly have a huge dating pool of frum Jews. Besides, I was sure my bashert was in Israel, because that’s where I was going to spend the rest of my life. But if my rav said I should date, I figured I should do my hishtadlus.
Man plans, you know the rest. About a month before I was due to return to Israel, I met my husband. He was living in Memphis, but his brother lived in St. Louis at the time. His name had come up before, but he was always busy, so I kind of forgot about him.
When my husband, who actually wasn’t busy for once, came up to meet a new niece, he found out he was going on a date with me! I was also caught unaware, and I wasn’t able to check his references before we went out. (I was scandalized by this — they really drilled it into us at Neve to check those references!). We had a good first date, I checked his references, and we got engaged the first night of Selichos.
So instead of going back for a second year of seminary or looking for apartments in Israel, we moved to Memphis where my husband finished up his final semester of medical school, and then we moved to Cleveland for his residency program.
You know how you reach what you thought was a finish line, only to realize that you’ve just begun a new race? That’s kind of how I felt. I’d reached all my goals. I was frum. I was married. We were starting a family. Now what?
Now started real life.
It took me a good few years before I was able to really be comfortable being frum, to find that balance between who I thought I was supposed to be and who I actually am. For a while I tried to hide the fact that I had ever not been Jewish, which was a little complicated, as you might imagine. As my kids got older though, that became an impossible task, and as I saw how supportive and accepting everyone was of my background, I realized that I’d been scared for no good reason at all.
My parents, after realizing that no, this was not a phase I was going through, were very supportive of my conversion. We have a very close relationship, and they’re very respectful, even of the more interesting parts of frum life. “I don’t understand why you can’t flip a light switch on Shabbos,” my dad said once, “but I see what a wonderful community you live in, and I’m glad you have that.”
“It was just so obvious that this is what G-d wanted for you,” my mother told me. “How can I argue with G-d?”
We’ve been blessed with five kids, ranging in age from one to eleven, so day-to-day, I’m very busy with the usual stuff a Jewish mother is busy with: laundry, dinner, bedtime, trying to stay calm while they fight about some great perceived injustice.
As for music, I’ve kept the advice I got at Neve very much in mind. When we were newly married, I taught piano and clarinet lessons from my home. I was also part of an all-women’s band, where I played clarinet, flute, and saxophone, and wrote and arranged songs. Fun, right?
I’d jump at any chance to play, whether it was a Neshei play, a kumzitz, or a high school production. Often, I’d bring a baby or two along, and childcare would just somehow work out.
When my children got older, and I got busier with carpools and homework, teaching after school really didn’t work anymore (much to the sadness of both me and my students). But with most of my kids out of the house during the day, I was able to start playing piano for the local day schools, for siddur and Chumash parties, and graduations from pre-K through high school.
While I do find playing in the frum community very satisfying, it doesn’t fulfill the same emotional place as playing classical music with other trained musicians. This is slightly more complicated, as it’s a balancing act to use my skills without compromising my standards.
But over the years I’ve been able to play with community bands, in chamber ensembles, and many community orchestras, and whenever one opportunity comes to a close, I know Hashem has something else waiting for me when the time is right.
Recently, I hosted a variety show in my home, blending both of my worlds. It included a couple of musical performances, a couple of writers reading essays, some nice food, and some art, all from frum women across the community. It was a small event (my house isn’t so big), but it was incredible. Someday, I’d love to do that on a more regular basis.
It’s been nearly 15 years since I converted. My wide-eyed wonder has matured into the comfort and challenges of habit. Most days I’m too busy running my household and squeezing in creative endeavors to reflect on the Hashgachah that brought me to Yiddishkeit.
But at times like this, when I have the opportunity to share my story, I’m filled with gratitude and awe that this is the life I get to live, that this is how I’m getting to raise my children.
And now, when anyone asks me if I’m Jewish, I can proudly say, “Yes, I am.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 694)
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