For three generations, people assumed we weren't Christian, but Jewish. Was there a Jewish connection in my family hidden in the past?
My childhood followed a typical Midwestern Protestant archetype: football games, summer jobs, formal dances, church on Sundays and all the trappings of popular culture. I was a happy kid who excelled in school and looked forward to college and a bright future.
I attended a small liberal arts college where I led the clarinet section in both the band and orchestra. I also became enamored with a more liberal lifestyle, and the religion I was raised on soon fell by the wayside.
Over the next four-and-a-half years I continued to progress as a clarinetist -- studying music theory, history, composition and arranging. It was clear to me and my professors that I would go on to obtain higher degrees in the field of music. So when I received only rejection letters from my graduate school choices, I was devastated. Instead of registering for classes, I returned to my parents' home, confused and unsettled.
My life plan was turning out differently than intended.
After regrouping, I began working as a paralegal and trying to decide what degree I wanted to do next. After much contemplation, I decided that pursuing a career in music performance wasn't the path I should take.
I always had a focus in my life, so this indecision was disconcerting. It seemed that my life plan was turning out a bit differently than I had intended.
Yet I had no idea how different it was going to be.
Several months after graduation, I was a guest at a small social gathering. A couple of party-goers asked me in casual conversation, "So, member of the tribe?"
"No, Protestant, but thanks," I replied.
They murmured that it had really seemed I was Jewish.
Only a few weeks later I was near the office parking lot, shooting the breeze with an employee who worked in the same building. In passing, he asked me, "So, what synagogue do you go to?"
"Um, I don't," I informed him.
Again, a few weeks passed, and then, at a free concert in a crowded auditorium, someone nearby turned to me and asked point-blank, "Are you Jewish?"
I didn't know what to say. Never before had anyone confused me for a Jew. Now three times in a few months?
Not long after these occurrences, I was at lunch with my mother.
"Mom, people think I'm Jewish."
"Funny, that happened to me the other day."
I almost spit out my soup.
She continued, "I was at the hairdresser, and he asked if, after my mother passed away, did my father marry another nice Jewish lady."
"And what did you say?"
Another client thought I was Jewish today.
"I said, 'No, my father is Roman Catholic'." She paused, and then continued, "You know, come to think of it, it happened to my mother, too. She came home from the salon where she worked in Minneapolis and remarked that ‘another client thought I was Jewish today.' This must have happened frequently because I remember it distinctly, and I was only 12 at the time."
"Mom, this isn't normal. People don't just 'think you're Jewish' for three generations!"
Incredibly, not much later, we found a ream of genealogy in the basement which 'just happened' to detail my mother's ancestry all the way back to her relatives in Prussia who came over in the mid-1800s.
Their name? Kramer.
Was there a Jewish connection in my family, hidden in the past?
I began to wonder what it would mean to be Jewish; if my family really had a forgotten tradition, pushed away by years of oppression and assimilation. I started noticing how many synagogues I passed on my way to work. I saw how many Jewish names were on buildings around the city. Things seemed to be changing all around me.
It was like I had fallen through a rabbit hole and was now in a parallel Jewish universe. At first I noticed the exteriors -- Jewish references in books, on television, in film. I was amazed at how much was out there that I'd never noticed.
Somehow, though, I began to wonder what was beyond the cultural facade. After all, Jews have been around a lot longer than bagels, lox and Woody Allen.
So I started attending services at different synagogues. I loitered in the back, too petrified to talk to the rabbis. I had no idea what was going on during the services, and even less of an idea why I kept going back for more.
Something which began so superficial, blossomed into the deepest thing I had ever encountered.
Eventually I was drawn to full Jewish observance, and with it, the discovery that to be Jewish meant watching your words, lest they cause someone else harm. That it meant strong family values and an emphasis on education. That it meant respecting people for their inner qualities, not their social mobility.
The more I learned, the more I was impressed. Here was a belief system by which to live a fulfilling and meaningful life on a daily level. I was amazed at how something which began so superficially blossomed into something of such depth.
There was only one problem: I wasn't Jewish.
So I converted. Well, it wasn't as easy as that, but I did it anyway. My family was initially skeptical of this new "phase," but once it was clear that I was serious, and the positive results kept increasing, they became incredibly supportive. My mother even attends classes occasionally to learn more about my new lifestyle.
Maybe if I would have furthered the research into my family lineage, I would have found Jewish roots. But I felt an urgency to connect to this amazing treasure I had discovered, irrespective of what lay in my past.
This lifestyle modification was definitely not in my five-year plan, and if I had gone to graduate school for music, I doubt whether all this would have transpired (or at least not so quickly).
There's an idea that the soul of every convert was at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah with the rest of the Jewish people. I'll be celebrating that momentous event on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. And soon after, I'll be taking the logical next step: flying off to Israel to study Torah, close to the source.
Thank God for unexpected events.