Prayer: I would start there. Heschel writes that prayer is a radical act; prayer demands we remove the blinders covering our eyes—and our souls—throw convention aside, and search at our core for a glimpse larger and more complete presence than our unitary selves. Understanding this radical act—experiencing it in moments of prayer—was the final “click.” These moments catch my breath, creating an internal quiet leading to wonder—an intersection with the divine. Finding these moments, accessing them, was the penultimate step to my conversion.
There were many steps before. But none driven by home, friends, or community. Our home was, and is, a Jewish home, honoring that world as well as all the other worlds making up our family. My friends were my friends—Jewish and not, white and not, LBGTQ and not. Although two statements from this earlier time do resonate. First, a very close friend quoted Lenny Bruce that to be a true New Yorker meant you were at least 50 percent Jewish. Feeling every bit a true citizen of this great city, I took that both as an honor and a challenge. The second was the guidance and direction given to me by Vienna Anderson, the Episcopal priest who, along with a rabbi, married Joan and me 32 years ago. Vienna, knowing that Joan was pregnant, looked at me and said, “Christopher, you’ll raise your child as a Jew, of course. Judaism is the senior religion.” A wonderfully clarifying statement—then and now.
The part that B’nai Jeshurun played is more nuanced. Joan brought our family to BJ in 1988, just at the inflection point when Marshall’s impact was first being felt. From that moment until now, I have only felt a sense of acceptance and welcome. I remember a very early event in the basement at 88th Street—was it Purim? I don’t recall—with a very young Roly and a very young Ari, where I knew everyone in the room was within the circle they were creating. That was the feeling then; that is what I feel now.
I think my first Jewish learning came when I took our son to children’s High Holy Days services—and stayed for the service. I recommend that to everyone. The learning peeled away several layers of adult dryness and dust, leaving the bones and the wonder. I remember well a moment when the Torah was opened and rolled across the laps of all the kids at the service—sitting dutifully as the scroll unrolled across their legs and around the full dimensions of the room. I remember thinking I should pay close attention to a faith that could so honor a core precept of teaching Torah in such a wondrous way. The next step also is connected to the High Holy Days: on one particular occasion I came at the end of Yom Kippur to join Joan at Ne’ilah. I came in just as Roly, Marcelo, and Ari were chanting; the glow and glory of faith, and what it could be, shone on their faces.
There were many, many more steps on my path associated with Shabbat services. Steps that included being there Shabbat after Shabbat for more than twenty years, learning and studying Torah, learning the liturgy, both in form and meaning, and arriving at a point where I might call myself a member of the “BJ faith.” Had that been all, I don’t believe I would have converted.
I return to prayer. Roly taught a course and a few retreats about the formal structure of prayer put forth by Maimonides. On one retreat, in Israel, I sensed I had got to the point where my being had become Jewish. In a way it was like realizing that after many, many years of “transliterating,” I was now “thinking in Jewish.” From there, a series of formal steps—decision, further study, ritual circumcision, Beit Din, and mikvah. Each independently meaningful; all collectively necessary. No surprises. No “I wish I had known.” Calm and certain on my part. In fact, the greatest skepticism was from our son, who cross examined at some length until he was convinced that I wasn’t just doing this to be “a BJ Jew.” His acceptance was extraordinarily important for me.
I know Joan loves me—no more and no less.
I end with prayer. I have found these moments through Judaism, through my journey, my study, my work. It has not been a short journey; it has been worth each step taken. It will be worth each step to come.