054 | Gone Goy: A Dip, a Daven, and Dance—I’m a Jewish!

Last week I submerged in the symbolism of the mikvah, an ancient practice as the final step in the process of Jewish conversion/realization/rebirth. How I feel right now and in the past 10 days (J+10):

In shock. Joyful. Renewed. Blessed. Welcomed. Enveloped. Dizzy. Exhausted.

I’m elated yet it also feels guilty to be happy right now, in 2020, a month out from an election, with hundreds of people dying daily.

I’m now legally, spiritually Jewish and dripping wet with emotions. Here’s what happened.

Before swimming in only a mask

Heading back to American Jewish University felt like any other time; I’ve been there often and this time didn’t feel real, until walking from my car toward the mikvah. After a brief whore’s bath in the sink, I sat with Rabbi Susan Goldberg and Rabbi Morris Panitz and talked about what was going to happen.

Already, I was in altered space, where I would remain for a good week.

I entered the mikvah room alone; Rebecca and Ellen—Nefesh coworkers and my Jewish aunties—waited outside, and I’m so glad they could be there. I’d toured the mikvah before, then thought briefly I’d immerse in the ocean, then here I was. I took my time looking at the space, imagining the others who came here before me, and trying to soak in the moment and the emotions.

I was going to enter the ritual waters and emerge officially Jewish. No more Schrödinger’s Jew or Jew-ish; just Jewish. This metamorphosis I could not have foreseen even just a couple of years ago feels so obvious now, so right, and so very amazing as a tribe, a practice, a worldview, and a family.

I stripped down and approached the small, dark waters, and I audibly said “wow”. Gently, I gripped the rail and taking deep breaths, slowly descended the 7 stairs into the mikvah, stopping on each one. The last one I paused and waited until I was good and ready.

The water was remarkably warm, dark, and silky, and here I stood up to my shoulders in what could normally be just a hot tub but is specially built as a kosher bath for conversions, to mark life cycle events, and is part of an ancient practice that I admire. Here, in the room where I soaked naked, 10,000 others had converted to Judaism.

After centering myself and focusing on my breath I picked up the little bell to indicate I was ready and before even ringing it, Rabbi Morris entered with Rabbi Susan behind him. She had to stand behind a curtain, and he came and sat some distance away.

There are 3 submersions and before each, the Rabbis spoke of what I was entering, what to think of as I did it, and what to say after. (A Dip, a Daven).

The first was to imagine all the people who were not there: those that couldn’t come in person with COVID restrictions or the ancestors not there because they passed. I welcomed in my family, my Nefesh community, those who had hung on my journey and were with me from wherever they were: my local J’s like Shaun and Jonah, and those I grew up with like Stefani and Geoff. I thought of all the Rabbis and matriarchs and leaders I had studied and followed. I also invited in all those lost; those for whom a visit to the mikvah would be a sacred honor that they would never enjoy again. On the heels of the holy days I was keenly aware of those who observed Yom Kippur or celebrated Rosh Hashanah in captivity, in squalor, in starvation, under the specter of death and genocide, and all those who never even got to do that, unable to mark the holiest days at all; or who survived but had to hide their Jewishness, forced into conversion or denial.

I went under and popped right back up. It was hard to stay under and I was trying not to touch the sides, to fully surround myself with water.

Things were already fuzzy. I know that Rabbi Susan spoke and can not remember what she said. I was in a different place. I know I clunkily recited some Hebrew, took my time absorbing what the Rabbis said, and then remembered I hadn’t taken the stopper out of the side of the mikvah. That’s what makes it kosher, the collected rainwater flowing through as did ancient bodies of water, like mikvahs in caves.

Second submersion; more Jewish, another prayer. Dip, Daven.

The entire time in the waters didn’t feel real, I didn’t feel ready, yet felt beyond ready, an overripe fruit, a pomegranate beyond ready to be cracked open. I was incredibly ready back in March and passed a window where it felt radically, immediately necessary to enter the water. (See last entry: is time even real this year?)

So here I was, realizing in the mikvah that others have no doubt felt the same at this moment, that for sure if I felt ready for the Beit Din then I was ready for this and no matter the circumstances, I would have felt all I was feeling to some degree. The campus was empty, I hadn’t seen Rabbi Morris since March, Rabbi Adam wasn’t there, I couldn’t see anyone’s damn face, and there would be no reception or dinner after.

Yet it was very real, and as I prepared for the final submersion I seriously hesitated. I was about to go under, waited again, then took a big breath and did it, and after getting a kosher submersion (not touching anything), grabbed a wall to stay under a moment longer.

Saying the Shema after this third submersion, the first time saying it as a Jew, felt familiar and wondrously new all at once. My body buzzed, I pictured my journey to this point, all the things good and bad that led me here to these wonderful people, these guides and friends who I can’t imagine life without now.

The Rabbis left the room. I could stay in the waters as long as I needed.

The moment the door closed behind them I sobbed, salt tears mixing with the ritual waters, and felt my hands briefly tingle. I breathed into it, said “I’m Jewish” a few times, and took another 9 submersions for good measure. 12 is a good, Jewish number, and I made personal reflections before each.

I felt all at once a tremendous joy and sadness, exhilaration and fatigue. I was literally dripping with symbolism, renewal, and ancestral guidance, cocooned in the sense that I was Jewish all along, a lost lamb found, a Jew at birth who had returned. The tension of dual feelings—being ready as I ever would be, yet not feeling ready—was familiar, and those two things feel the same, really.

Before those final dips and slowing exiting the waters I did two things. I sang El Na Refa Na Li, “God please heal me”; and I verbalized my Mankind Project affirmation: I am worthy.

Then came the dance.