Everywhere I have lived, no matter which community I’ve belonged to, I’ve never quite fit fully in it. I was a foreigner even in the place where I was born, asking too many questions and never quite fitting with even my own family. I remember coming home after my first big trip outside the United States. I’d been fortunate to win a scholarship to spend a summer in Japan as an exchange student and when I returned, I found that as much as I hadn’t fit in while I was in Japan, being a foreigner with curly red hair and only the most basic of Japanese language, I also no longer fit in back home, either. Even when I spoke, my language was littered with Japanese words here and there, wherever they seemed to fit better than the English words.
I wandered, always searching for a home a place I would fully belong. Along the way, I’d assume that the feeling of not quite fitting in meant something was “wrong.” One of the things I have learned through my long time spent in conversion, though, is that perhaps some of us are both blessed and cursed with that feeling of never quite being fully in one world or another, but keeping a foot in each. It enables us to consider multiple perspectives and have empathy for both sides. It also creates loneliness and an ache for belonging.
A conversion candidate is very much a person who lives between worlds. For the purposes of Jewish law, you’re sometimes treated as a Jew and sometimes not. The degree often depends very much on where you are deemed to be in the process as well as the opinions of the Rabbi(s) guiding you. You may find yourself doing things only a Jew would do, except without saying the blessing or you may find yourself suddenly left out of certain things or even fully included. There’s little that’s clearly defined. You also find yourself immersed in an adoptive community, but having ties elsewhere to, to friends and family who don’t always understand the Hebrew and Yiddish that creeps into your vocabulary.
I also sometimes think this is part of the root of the idea that converts are both a blessing to Israel and a thorn in its side. Converts bring new blood, new enthusiasm, and fresh perspectives to the Jewish people. They can invigorate others and inspire others. They also become an anchor that pulls Jews back to the world where often they may prefer to retreat from it. Their zealousness can also become an irritation. There’s always the fear that in the internal tug o’ war that goes on inside a convert’s heart, that the world outside will win and the convert will turn their back on the mitzvos. After all, it’s not an easy thing to sit with that feeling of never quite belonging, never quite being completely one thing or another, but both and neither. The human mind likes things much more neatly categorized.
I think that battle was at the heart of our sojourn away from Orthodox Judaism. We needed to wander to be sure that we would want to stay for good and I’d rather do that wandering before conversion than, as I’ve watched many converts do, after. For 2 years, we wandered, climbing mountains and living an empty freedom. G-d and I kept talking, but our conversations were strained, the kind you have when you are an adolescent, still figuring out where you fit with your parents when you’re also trying to be an adult yourself. Our relationship had to mature somewhat. I had to realize that I needed to trust more and let go more. He patiently waited and, when we did return, he smoothed the way for us to come back.
Now, when I have that feeling of being in two worlds, but never fully in either, I no longer resist it. I accept it as a gift, albeit a sometimes difficult gift. This is my unique path that I’ve been given to walk and it’s not a sign of anything amiss. I acknowledge it, let it have its moment, and then I let it pass by, like any other feeling.
And it does.