> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

My Journey to Judaism

October 5, 2016 | by Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom in order to move up.

They say travel broadens the mind. Perhaps it does, but that wasn’t the reason why I left England, my country, my home, my family, my entire life behind me and set out to travel the world. By most standards you would probably say my mind was already pretty broad.

At 15 I had already left home. I had been a regular child, in a regular, secular, Protestant home. Middle-class management, two-point-two kids, two cars, two weeks annual vacation. My path was laid out before me – college, career, marriage, children, retirement, death.

And then, as a teenager, I started asking uncomfortable questions: Why am I here? What’s the point? My parents were bewildered by my questions. They had no answers and I concluded that there were no answers, there was no point, and I wanted out.

I fled from my home, a confused, angry 15-year-old, to find the truth, if there was such a thing.

I fled from my home, a confused, angry 15-year-old, to search for those answers, to find the truth, if there was such a thing. Living in a dirty apartment in a seedy seaside town, hanging out in the twilight world of amusement arcades with a gang of anarchical punks was my first experience to broaden my mind. Like me, they had no answers, but unlike me, they didn’t care. They wanted only to drink or drug themselves into oblivion, and so I threw away my questions and joined them.

Tired of drunken oblivion, I thought perhaps I could find the answers I sought in learning. Four years at university studying philosophy certainly broadened my mind. But I found only questions, no answers, so I moved on.

I tried to fit into the dreaded rat race – career, apartment, fiancé – and threw it away in disgust. I was tired of careers and conventions and the crime-ridden West Indian neighborhood into which I moved attracted me. I drifted into the underworld life of drug-dealing, little caring what would happen to me. But at some point I stopped short. There was still a speck of hope within me that there were answers to my questions. But I knew that I would not find it in England. The time had come to seek farther afield. And I was desperate. If I didn’t find the answer, then there was no reason for me being here. And in that case, I might as well be dead.

I became a wild woman, wandering the world hunting for that elusive truth. I took a one-way ticket to Muslim Morocco. I experienced the exotic scents, sights, and tastes of this most sensual country, and fell in love with its beauty. But I could not accept the life dictated by Islam for the Moroccan women, slaves in their own homes spending their lives serving the men. I was desolate. I had certainly broadened my mind, but I was still empty inside.

The family turned out to be heads of the Turkish mafia. I rebelled against their tyranny and my life was in danger.

Turkey was my next destination. A job as an au pair to one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, vacationing in one of their luxurious beachside hotels, sounded like an experience to broaden my mind. It certainly was. The family turned out to be heads of the Turkish mafia. I rebelled against their tyranny. But Mafia families do not tolerate insults to their honor and I was in danger of my life. Warned by an insider, I fled before they could carry out their “punishment.”

A period of tranquil serenity in a rural Turkish village followed. Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, I wanted to laze my life away in this timeless wonderland. But it was a dream, a fantasy that couldn’t last – and I still had no answers.

I spent months traveling Spain with a group of street-performers, the days busking in the streets during the Spanish city “fiestas,” and the nights getting high. It was fun experiencing the stunning Alhambra Palace in Granada and the ancient grandeur of Toledo. But the excitement soon waned. Getting high in Spain was little different than getting high anywhere else, and I still had not found what I was looking for.

I returned to England, empty, desperate. I had travelled halfway across the world to find answers, but it seemed there were none. There was no other logical conclusion: there was no reason to live, and so I decided to die. At first, I did it indirectly. Back in the crime-ridden West Indian neighborhood where I had earlier tasted the forbidden pleasures of illegal substances, I began my downward slide. I wasn’t yet ready to kill myself, but if I happened to take an overdose of drugs by mistake, well, so much the better.

I went down, down, down, the mix of illicit substances depressing me even more, until finally, I did take that overdose – deliberately. I was found and taken to the city psychiatric hospital. There I stayed, by court order, for six months. I was under restraint and guarded around the clock from my frenzied attempts to escape this life. This too was travel of a kind – travel into the deepest abyss of mental and emotional hell, a place where you never want to go, even in your worst dreams.

Somehow, I survived. I was released into the world, strangely renewed. I hadn’t succeeded in dying, so I decided to give life a chance. Still seeking that ultimate truth, I decided to travel some more, but in a different dimension – the spiritual dimension. Like Jethro, I tried every type of idol worship under the sun – Hinduism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and more. But my soul found no comfort.

I travelled to Israel and after years of tortured travels, I found my home.

What was left for me in this world? For some reason I had never once thought of Israel or Judaism in all my travels, whether physical or spiritual. It suddenly came into my head to travel to Israel as a kibbutz volunteer. And that was where, after years of tortured travels, I found my home – both physically and spiritually. For the first time in my life, I felt that I belonged – to this land and to its people.

I couldn’t explain why. At this point, it was nothing to do with religion – I had barely even met a religious Jew since I came to Israel, and the kibbutz where I was working was rabidly secular and fiercely anti-religion. It was something deep within me, a feeling that I had never had even in England, a feeling that these were my people and this was my land and I was an intrinsic part of them. I felt that I had to be Jewish, and I was ready to do whatever it took, ready to perform all the mitzvot - even if I didn’t yet understand them. I felt that this is where I belonged and somehow yearned to return to my people.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain my feelings to a doubting rabbi at the local beis din, a Jewish court that oversees conversion. Suspicious of my motives, he nevertheless agreed to open up a conversion file for me. And so I began to study the Torah, to the utter bewilderment of my virulently secular kibbutzniks who proudly served chametz during Passover, sold cheeseburgers on Shabbat and could not fathom why anyone would actually choose to become Jewish. In the midst of the atheistic desert of the kibbutz there was a religious settlement, where I began my journey into Judaism – the greatest broadening of the mind ever.

I was totally blown away that there was such deep wisdom in this world. I discovered a pure fire, holy knowledge, uncorrupted, and finally found within the Torah many of the answers I had been seeking for most of my life.

I fasted on Yom Kippur while they ignored the fast day and munched sunflower seeds in front of the television.

I didn’t yet understand the reasons for the mitzvot but I began to observe them with great care. I ignored the mocking laughter of the kibbutzniks as they lit up their cigarettes on Shabbat while I, the non-Jew, refrained out of respect for the holy day. At Passover I ate matzah while they feasted on bread, and I fasted on Yom Kippur while they ignored the fast day and munched sunflower seeds in front of the television. It was hard but I didn’t care. I was filled with fire and enthusiasm. I realized that my finite mind would not be able to grasp the infinite depth of the Torah commandments, but I knew they held vital importance and believed greater understanding would come through observing them. After so many years of hunting, I felt I was finally on the right path.

Intellectually, the truth of the Torah was blindingly clear to me. But that same intellect, tarnished by so many years of atheism and anarchism, was reluctant to give up its independent will and struggled to accept the existence and the mastery of the Creator of the Universe. I had to wrestle with making room for God in my heart.

But I was trapped. The beis din would not convert me if I remained in such a secular environment. And yet until I was Jewish, I could not live anywhere else in Israel without the work visa that the kibbutz had issued me. And so, to my horror, I had to return to England. There, lonely and alone in the country of my birth, longing and yearning for Israel, I had no choice. Desperately, I turned to God, this Infinite Being that until then felt so distant and abstract, and threw myself on His mercy. And incredibly, miraculously, I discovered that He had been there all along. My years of built-up anger against this seemingly cruel, meaningless world had blinded me. Once I realized that I did believe, it came as a wonderful release, as though I had been holding back something vital from myself and now it was all suddenly let out. I realized that deep inside, my soul had instinctively known that the truth was to be found in Israel with the Jewish people.

Visa or no visa, I made up my mind I was going back to Israel. I would trust in God to make things work out. Within the week I was on the plane. I arrived in Israel right before the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah – and the timing could not have been more appropriate. I was referred to the Chief Rabbi of the Tzfat where I completed my conversion in a whirl of inspiration and exploration of the holy texts – this was truly mind-broadening. And one Monday morning, in a state of euphoria, my soul was purified in the waters of the mikveh and I emerged newborn as a Jew.

Finally, I joined the Jewish people, to whom spiritually I already felt I belonged. I no longer needed to travel – I had reached my destination.


Leave a Reply

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram