Am I Jewish Enough: My Road to Conversion and Finding My Jewish Soul

I had lived in Israel for five years when an elderly man named Gidon Lev called to ask if I could meet him for coffee. He had been referred to me by a fellow editor. At a small café in Ramat Gan, Lev explained that he was a Holocaust survivor and had written about his life and needed help to turn his work into a book. I learned that of the 15,000 children imprisoned in or transported through the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived. Lev was one of those children. He also was the first Holocaust survivor I had ever met.

I was drawn to but terrified by the prospect of working on his project. While I knew his story was important, what would possibly qualify the likes of me to take on a project of such historical and cultural importance to the Jewish people? This was sacred ground, and I was not Jewish enough to write about it. All of my Jewish self-doubt came screaming to the surface. The alpha and the omega — the alef and the tav — of my Jewish self-doubt began 36 years ago in Los Angeles, where I can practically smell grandma Ethel’s stale pot of Maxwell House coffee on her dining table in Van Nuys.

It was 1984, my first Passover seder, and the first time I had met my fiance’s Jewish family. Moments earlier, I had noticed a little boy maybe 4 or 5 years old, who was bored. Nathan seemed like a nice kid. Would he like to play with a ball?

Nathan and I watched in amazement as the red rubber ball bounced into the air and collided with a Westinghouse iron perched on the edge of a dresser. The iron wobbled for a millisecond and then fell through the top of a small, glass-topped coffee table. Glass shards flew into the air like drops of water, sending a shockwave of sound in every direction.

There were dozens of family members crammed into Ethel and Harry’s humble, little home. They all came running in. Ethel was not at the forefront. She didn’t need to be. Ethel was the de facto majordomo of the family, though I didn’t know that yet. I was blond, 21, not Jewish and I later realized to my embarrassment, wearing pink rhinestone earrings in the shape of little crosses. I was a Madonna fan. The evening did not improve.

I had heard from others that to visit Israel is to instantly feel at home. I had my doubts about such a reaction, and yet that is precisely what I felt.

Ethel had the patience for about two-thirds of the seder, little of which was read in “Jewish,” as she called it, before she stood up and said, “Oy, forget about it. Who wants matzo ball and who wants meatball?” Whatever a matzo ball was, it didn’t sound nearly as good as a meatball to me. It was my second misstep of the evening. Ethel was invested in her matzo balls. Her rheumy, hazel eyes locked onto mine. Without shifting her gaze, she called over her shoulder in her South Boston accent. “Julie doesn’t want the matzo ball. She wants meatballs.” She pronounced it “meat bawls.”

Her sister Clara, 4-foot-something excluding her beehive, was in the nearby yellow-wallpapered kitchen, wearing her usual polyester slacks and floral blouse, doling out her popular sweet-and-sour meatballs, no doubt smiling to herself. Clara’s oldest son, Charlie, was a “very big success” in Hollywood. He had a swimming pool.

I grew up in a rural town in Northern California. When I was a kid, the population was 3,500, and my family didn’t live “in town.” I never encountered Jews or any other ethnic group. I had seen “Fiddler on the Roof” — that was the extent of my knowledge of Jews.

The Jewish life depicted in the film, while clearly old fashioned, was so exotic to me. Although — or maybe because — my grandparents on both sides were religious (Episcopalian on one side, Christian Scientists on the other), my parents raised my brother, sister and me in an entirely secular, average American way. Easter, Halloween, Christmas, baseball season, birthdays and summer vacation were the major highlights of each year.

When I was 21, I met Ethel’s oldest grandson, Jon, who had deep brown eyes and curly hair. He was reading Henry Miller and preparing to graduate from college. His intellect, sensitivity and depth were utterly beguiling. When Jon and I told Ethel that we planned to be married, her shoulders dropped in defeat. “But — what about Judy?” — she asked. Judy had been Jon’s previous girlfriend. Judy Feldstein.

My feelings of rejection and bewilderment crashed headlong into Ethel’s recognition that some kind of clock was counting down on the world she used to know. The first female non-Jewish spouse in the family, I was the face of assimilation, the terrible, logical outcome of the price to be paid for living in the United States. When my fiancé and I rushed to comfort Ethel with the fact that I planned to convert, she was dismissive. I just couldn’t understand. I thought she would be thrilled.

During my pre-conversion study, I learned about Shalom Aleichem, the Mark Twain of Jewish folklore, who preserved in amber a fast disappearing world even as he wrote of it. Shtetl life was a world of anguish, pride, tradition, pogroms, hardship, observance, humor, superstition and opinionated argumentativeness. It was from this world that Ethel Glassburg’s parents arrived in the United States. Ethel was not an optimist.

Julie Gray and Gidon Lev; Photos courtesy of Julie Gray

Although she had big, ornate, silver Shabbat candles, I never saw Ethel light them or mumble a single prayer in 20 years. Grandpa Harry, either. The only childhood memory that Ethel told me about was having her hand slapped for lighting the oven on Shabbat. Her family members were deli owners, first in Boston and later in L.A., where they had a deli in Boyle Heights. Ethel and her siblings worked in the restaurant for more than 30 years. Rye bread, corned beef, matzo ball soup and pickles were Ethel and Harry’s daily experience. They worked hard to provide for their children — the next generation.

As I studied for my conversion, my heretofore somewhat assimilated fiancé helped me memorize prayers, light Shabbat candles and pretended to enjoy my terrible attempts at his grandmother Ethel’s kugel recipe. But the more my fiancé and I practiced the rituals of religious Judaism, the more Ethel scoffed, and the more she exerted her powers of passive aggression. She laughingly dismissed my questions about where to buy Shabbat candles: “How should I know, dear? She pronounced it “dee-yah.”

I felt I would never be good enough, and worse, what was I was trying to be, anyway? An apology? A substitute? I was so ungainly, so obviously not Jewish compared with the women in Jon’s family or those at synagogue, with their dark eyes, petite frames and beautiful names like Miriam or Shoshana. 

I spent a year studying for my conversion. I enjoyed my weekly meetings with the rabbi, the classes that I took and the services I attended. It was an unexpected, enriching chapter of my life that was, for me, an atheist, not connected to religion or belief but to tradition and culture. Let the chain remain unbroken. But it seemed to me that Ethel was guarding a border that I was not allowed to cross and that there was a password and its name was sorrow.

I was converted during Sukkot, at a synagogue in Santa Barbara, under a sukkah. Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Harry came to the small ceremony, and we went out to dinner afterward. Ethel enjoyed the meal, especially the salad bar, but made no comment about my conversion. I’m glad she didn’t because I felt, in that moment and for years afterward, like an imposter. I didn’t feel Jewish. How Jews were supposed to feel, I wasn’t sure, but still. Indeed, I didn’t look different after my conversion. I didn’t choose to use the Hebrew name given me by my rabbi — Sarah Aviva. I was still Julie, she of Irish-Scottish stock, from rural Northern California. Where was the great, cosmic, collective Jewish consciousness I was supposed to be connected to now? I had gone from Jew-curious to Jew-adjacent, and now I was Jew-compliant. But it wasn’t good enough — I wasn’t Jewish. I realize now that I was practicing something very Jewish, even then. I was questioning what it meant to be a Jew. I had many miles to go.

When I was a kid … I never encountered Jews or any other ethnic group. I had seen “Fiddler on the Roof” — that was the extent of my knowledge of Jews.

Ethel never spoke of the past and regarded it with boredom. As far as she was concerned, it was far more interesting how many people were coming to a party she was “making” so she could plan how many card tables to bring into the living room. Her greatest tragedy was the unexpected death, in a car accident, of her oldest daughter, Barbara, who would have been my mother-in-law. Ethel never spoke of Barbara, thinking perhaps that the silence was simply easier. I often think that it was because Barbara wasn’t around to mold me into a proper Jewish daughter-in-law that Ethel, somewhat grudgingly, did.

Ethel transmitted the complex family politics and relationships to me at every bris, birthday, seder, anniversary or wedding. She let me know who we admired and who we were disappointed with and why. Other topics included how so-and-so had gained weight, that so-and-so was a mensch, who got divorced, who was going to college, and so on. From Ethel, I learned which deli was the best (Frohman’s) and which store had the best marbled rye (Ralphs), and later, that judging by the size of my tuchis, my unborn child was definitely a boy. She was right. Ethel was a human Rolodex of family and food information crossed referenced and filed according to a specific paradigm of midcentury, lower-middle-class, first-generation Jewish immigrant expectations.

My then-husband’s other grandmother was similarly diffident about the past, yet focused on food: where to get it at the best price, and how to cook huge portions. Later I discovered that Betty — formerly Rivka — had witnessed a Cossack break into the family home and shoot her uncle during a pogrom.

Neither Ethel nor Harry lived to attend my son’s bar mitzvah, nor did they live to see me and their grandson divorce. Ethel would have been upset, naturally, for such a disturbance in the family, but I also suspect she may have felt, in some small way, “right” about me after all.

The first Christmas season after my divorce, I bought a towering Christmas tree. The following autumn, I skipped any and all High Holy Days services. I had, it seemed to me, no one to be Jewish for anymore. A year or two passed in this way, before it struck me that I could be Jewish just for me. But shortly after, my ex-husband remarried a Jewish woman. I was riven. I had been a substitute after all. I hadn’t been the real thing. My kids were in college; it was a lonely time. I felt that I didn’t belong to anyone or anything. But wasn’t there something in my back pocket, wasn’t there that “being Jewish” thing? Could that be a source of guidance, comfort and maybe even belonging? Had my Jewish license expired when I divorced? I wasn’t sure.

I started to light Shabbat candles and revisited the reading list I had been given when I had converted. I rediscovered the contents with new enthusiasm and began to add to that list. In particular, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” by Amos Oz struck me deeply. Not that I wanted to actually go to Israel, God forbid. What a hot, dusty, dangerous place it seemed to me if the television news was any guide. But in the autumn of 2008, a close friend died unexpectedly. Shortly after that, another friend who was spending six months in Jerusalem for a job asked if I wanted to visit her. Shaken up by my loss, I said yes.

I had heard from others that to visit Israel is to instantly feel at home. You were in the Jewish state — the homeland — and your Jewishness would go up to “11” on the dial instantaneously. I had my doubts about such a reaction, and yet that is precisely what I felt. Although I couldn’t articulate it then, it was a significant turning point in my evolving Jewish identity.

I just couldn’t get enough of Israel and of Israelis who were so different from anything I had ever experienced. Israelis were so dynamic, so jarringly frank, endearingly nosy, multifaceted and vital. They came from so many places, connected by a shared history and belief system expressed in myriad ways. When I was in Israel, I felt more alive somehow, more alert, connected and authentically myself. I returned to visit every six months before it occurred to me that I could actually live there. I didn’t yet know that a terrible tragedy would help me make my decision.

When I made aliyah in 2012, I was reeling from the back-to-back losses of a close friend to breast cancer and my brother to suicide. Something about the hot, dusty embrace of history in Israel comforted me — and how badly I needed that comfort. How badly I wanted to be thousands of miles away from grief and loss. It didn’t take long to realize that grief cannot be outrun; I just had to let some time pass. But another feeling animated me. I was so grateful to Israel — the country had taken me in when I was utterly broken — I was determined to give back. I looked for opportunities everywhere I went to be kind, engage and learn as much as I could about this new country of mine.

Slowly, my long-held belief that I was not really Jewish was supplanted by a different feeling — that of being a new Israeli. While I was in the U.S., most of the Jews who surrounded me were Ashkenazi and second- and third-generation Americans. They shared a specific experience and viewpoint. But in Israel, we were from all over the world and of every persuasion. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardic descendants of Holocaust survivors; there are kibbutzniks, Iraqi, Yemeni and Moroccan Jews. There are Jews from South America, South Africa, England and Spain. There are Christian, Muslim and Druze Israelis, too. If I didn’t “look” Jewish in Israel, neither did my Russian neighbor or Ethiopian doctor. Israelis didn’t question my Jewish “credentials,” and neither did I. It was enough to be here.

But I discovered a paradox. Although Israeli society was warm and welcoming, the Israeli rabbinate completely rejected my Jewishness. It is a rejection more painful than the rejection by Ethel. For Ethel, it wasn’t whether my conversion was through one stream of Judaism or another; it was something bigger than that — or maybe smaller. It seems that I was just barely Jewish enough to qualify for aliyah, but in Israel, I am marked down legally as a non-Jew. I cannot be married in Israel and I cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Those may not seem like important things, but they are — and it hurts. My Jewishness also is rejected by strict adherents of halachah. However, a friend who is an Orthodox rabbi told me he disagreed with this rejection and that it was a sin to question a convert’s motives or authenticity.

Still, in practice, the Byzantine rules and regulations of the rabbinate and the full-throated arguments of religious dogmatists isn’t a daily part of my reality. Israel, as a living, breathing land and people with a past, present and future are. Slowly, month by month and year by year, in my small way, I became a part of the fabric of Israel, at first as “the American lady living upstairs,” then later as a friend, borrower of eggs, workmate and sometimes even co-habitant in a bomb shelter.

But I still didn’t feel qualified to write a book about Gidon Lev’s life. I felt he needed a Holocaust historian, an expert in modern Israeli history and someone experienced working with those who have suffered deep trauma. I was none of those things.

Lev’s belief that I was exactly the right person to write the book about his life was unwavering. I couldn’t help myself. His optimism, charm and beautiful blue eyes, his can-do, persistent, opinionated and funny personality made me fall in love with him. He became, as I call him, my Loving Life Buddy. But he was, as he’d say in Yiddish, a “nudge.” He cajoled me constantly to work on the book.

The source material alone exhausted me. He had hundreds of handwritten pages or pages that he sometimes pecked out on his computer. The jumbled files on his computer desktop were stored in any number of folders and had strange names. There were photocopies of photocopies and sticky notes covered everything. How could I even begin to sort through it all?

In a moment of inspiration — or maybe desperation — I made an appeal on a private Facebook group that describes itself as “a resource for women and gender nonconforming writers of all backgrounds.” I explained that I needed help getting organized, typing, retyping and transcribing recordings. Within hours, more than 248 people replied. Among the heartfelt, enthusiastic offers to help, there were also cheers and tears and emojis of support. There was something so incredibly moving about the outpouring that I wept. Some offered to go over the original writing and organize it by subject. Others offered to type handwritten pages. With the generous volunteers’ help, a mountain of files and piles of paper had been corralled. It was a huge step forward.

I wrote a book proposal. This was something like a book — a maybe book. I had successfully kicked the ball down the field. Now, the book would be contingent upon gaining outside approval. In a circuitous way, my plan backfired on me.

As I pitched the proposal, literary agents said that “the Holocaust is too depressing” or “there are too many books about the Holocaust.” Then, something truly Jewish — or maybe Israeli or perhaps both — kicked in. I didn’t have time to wait for permission or approval to write the book. It didn’t matter how doubtful I felt about my Jewish authenticity, identity or the “marketability” of the subject matter. Lev was not getting younger, and there are very few Holocaust survivors alive willing or able to tell their stories. Anti-Semitism was on the rise. If not me, who? If not now, when? I wouldn’t give up. I decided to write something that I would want to read and, in doing so, I gave myself permission to write the book. I had crossed the Rubicon — I officially was one of the stiff-necked people. I didn’t take no for an answer.

 I couldn’t help myself. His optimism, charm and beautiful blue eyes, his can-do, persistent, opinionated and funny personality made me fall in love with him. 

Diving into Lev’s book, I couldn’t have imagined what I was about to immerse myself in — the most profound trauma of the Jewish experience. In my first decades of being a Jewish convert, I had focused, joyfully, on Jewish culture, tradition and history. My ex-husband’s family had not suffered during the Holocaust, so I was not exposed to this abyss of horror other than intellectually. While I still held — as did Lev — that his book should not focus on the Holocaust, the chapters that included his experience had to be put in context and done correctly. It was a painful rite of initiation.

I read dozens of books about the Holocaust and watched hours of documentaries about a peculiar camp called Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto.” I learned more about the Final Solution; the Nuremberg trials; Heinrich Himmler; Hermann Goering; Joseph Goebbels; Ilse Koch, “the bitch of Buchenwald”; and the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann and John Demjanjuk. I read Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl. I did research at Yad Vashem and Beit Theresienstadt and read hundreds of articles and lists of atrocities.

Lev placed a collection of family photos from before the war on a poster board in my office, for reference. Every day for months, I walked past the sepia-tinted photos of Lev’s murdered family as I took my coffee to my desk. Every day I saw something new, some detail, some smile, some joy. And in later pictures — exhaustion and fear. Then the transport papers.

At Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem, I found out, alongside Lev, that his father, Ernst, had been given experimental drugs at Auschwitz before he was put on a train to Buchenwald, where he arrived dead. We learned that Lev’s mother was incorrect in thinking that his grandmother had been, in her words, “electrocuded” [sic] but that indeed, at Belzec, there was experimentation with electrified platforms to kill Jews quickly in large groups. Lev’s grandmother did not meet that gruesome fate — she met another. She was sent to Treblinka.

For Lev, the process of sorting through his memories and pictures of his life was a kind of late-in-life reckoning that brought him some closure. But for me, things that seemed like distant black-and-white newsreel footage were becoming horribly real. I had become a student not just of Lev’s life and the Holocaust but also of humans’ capacity to embrace and act on evil. My heart was laid open; I could not forget what I had learned.

Diving into Lev’s book, I couldn’t have imagined what I was about to immerse myself in — the most profound trauma of the Jewish experience. 

I began to have nightmares about the Holocaust; of trains and cold and pits. When my grown son living in the United States told me that he would not be willing to wear a kippah in public and my daughter mentioned that she can “pass” as not Jewish — just in case — I began to worry about my children.

A piece of my Jewish identity puzzle, one that I had questioned for so long, began to fall into place. It wasn’t my heartbreaking exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust by writing about it, it was that I, as a Jewish woman, had contributed something tangible to the Jewish story in the act of writing the book. I had taken up the torch and carried the weight on my back to bring Lev’s story to light. I had played a part in the Jewish experience. As you do, when you’re a Jew. As did Ethel, in her way.

I wanted to make peace with Ethel. Maybe now more than ever. So, I read about the world her ancestors had come from before the deli, orange tree and marbled rye. I discovered that from 1881 to 1901, more than 700,000 Russian Jews — entire families and even whole villages — arrived in the “goldina medina” at the rate of 35,000 per year. From 1900 to 1914, another 1.5 million Russian Jews arrived in America. I read about the pogroms, the discrimination, the plan the czarist regime had for its Jews: one-third starvation, one-third conversion and one-third emigration.

Perhaps it was this sorrow, this awful collective experience of being betrayed by “outsiders” for generations that didn’t allow Ethel to accept me. Collective memory and genetic trauma may have a role to play, certainly. Ethel lived a small, but nice enough life in Boston and later, in Los Angeles. She played bridge and mahjong, and she had an extensive family that all lived near to one another. Never in her life did she experience an outsider status. She lived in a bubble of her own making. Did Ethel have a ghetto mentality?

Then I began to wonder what Ethel would have been like had her family emigrated to Israel instead of the United States. Had it not been for a “yes” here and a “no” there, a left turn instead of a right, a Zionist or socialist in the family, Ethel may very well have found herself in the yishuv rather than Boston. What possibilities might have unleashed themselves in Ethel’s experience if she had come to a country where she had the opportunity — where she was the opportunity — to explore and create a larger, newer Jewish identity through building a nation and a future. 

In America, Ethel and her family were a minority ethnic group, but they were welcomed with fewer conditions and more opportunities than they could have dreamed of. Still, it was a life in which Jewish summer camps and Jewish education were not something Ethel’s family could afford. Ethel came from a particular, thin slice of the American Jewish experience. One that came with limits.

“Ours is not a club you can just join,” says Samuel Finkler to his Finkler-obsessed friend in Howard Jacobs’ “The Finkler Question.”

I think this is what Ethel meant but didn’t say, and what she felt but couldn’t articulate. What she was resistant to was my joining a “club” that was, in her lived experience, a small one becoming smaller by the day, defined by ethnicity, fading cultural habits and little else. I wouldn’t want to belong to that club either.

 I, as a Jewish woman, had contributed something tangible to the Jewish story in the act of writing the book. I had taken up the torch and carried the weight on my back to bring Lev’s story to light. 

When I converted, I was something new to myself — a young Jewish woman making conscious choices in a new era. I chose to engage with Judaism, at my own pace, in my own way. I chose to dive in, with all of my heart — no matter how many years it took and will take — the questions and answers of what it means to be a Jew.

In this chapter of my Jewish life, so many years later, I live in Israel, alongside my beloved, the subject of my book, “The True Adventures of Gidon Lev,” whose birth name was Peter Wolfgang Löw. He did not have a bris or a bar mitzvah; his Czech Jewish family was secular. Today, his offspring live very Israeli lives: Some light the Shabbat candles, others go to protests, some live on a kibbutz and some in Jerusalem, and the whole family puts on a skit at Passover.

On Shabbat, we I deliver flowers to the neighborhoods and towns that surround ours. As we roll down the streets in our beat-up car full of fragrant flowers, I see other Jewish women, heads covered, dressed modestly, rushing home to get Shabbat dinner ready. I see fishmonger Jews, taxi driver Jews; I see old, young, sun-bronzed or pale Jews. I see protester Jews and high-tech Jews, Yiddish-speaking Jews and LOL-speaking Jews.

And I see myself, too, with my freckled, Irish-Scottish elbow sticking out of the car window as I wrangle with Waze to input the next address in Hebrew. I’m an Israel-living, flower-delivering, latke-loving, hummus-eating, protesting-injustice Jew. I’m a Holocaust-remembering, future-thinking, book-writing, always-becoming Jew. Shehecheyanu. And yes, I’ll have the sweet-and-sour meatballs.

A native Californian, Julie Gray has lived in Israel for eight years. Her writing has been published in The Times of Israel, Moment Magazine and The Huffington Post. “The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist.” debuted this summer. 

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