November 12, 2019

The New Jew

In the time it took to conduct this interview, Sara Meyer had time to change her religion. On the train ride to the Israeli Rabbinate in Haifa, Meyer was officially a Swedish Christian on a tourist visa. The passenger who rode home, however, was a newly minted Jew eligible to make aliyah and call Israel her home forever. 

On the way to the Rabbinate, Meyer nervously played with a strand of her hair as she tried to remember all the intricacies of Jewish law and prayers before an oral test by a panel of three rabbis who would determine her fate. Three years had passed since she began conversion classes with the former chief rabbi of Stockholm, Isak Nachman, and two since she began intensive study in Israel. But many more years had elapsed since Meyer was a little girl in the 1970s and knew, with total certainty that she wanted to be part of the Jewish people. With no Jewish family, Meyer acknowledged that the yearning might seem strange. “I was always sad that I wasn’t Jewish,” she said. “It’s a feeling. It’s hard to explain.” 

At the Rabbinate, one of the three unsmiling rabbis congratulated Meyer on her conversion. In a quaking voice, Meyer recited the Shema and declared her belief in one God and His Torah. 

On the train ride home, Meyer said that one of the rabbis said he wouldn’t allow her to convert unless she promised to live in Israel for the rest of her life. Meyer said after making the promise, she was flooded with a sense of relief. Until then, she said, her life had been all over the place, metaphorically and physically. 

“I feel free,” she said. “For so long, I was an observer, an outsider looking in.”

“I was always sad that I wasn’t Jewish. It’s a feeling. It’s hard to explain.”

The feeling, she explained, wasn’t limited to her experience of being a gentile among Jews over the past two years. Having lived in 30 countries while she was growing up, being “the other” was well entrenched. Her father, an engineer, was a restless adventure seeker. His career allowed him to travel anywhere and the family lived in many countries including Iraq, Iran, the Americas, Europe, the Philippines, Thailand and Israel. 

When she was 6, they lived in North Korea in a building for Westerners and weren’t allowed to leave unaccompanied. They lived in a 170-square-foot room, and the regime aired propaganda movies during the weekly cinema nights. Still, Meyer has fond memories of her time there. The cramped quarters meant that there were always children playing in the corridors. 

When she was 19, Meyer came to Israel and spent a year at a secular kibbutz in Ein Gedi but she said the experience left her wanting. On the one hand, she was miserable; the people seemed interested only in partying. On the other hand, it was a “magical time” because she would spend hours walking on her own in the breathtaking scenery of Ein Gedi and praying to God. 

In subsequent years, Meyer pursued a range of career paths, including writing, acting and political science in New York and Sweden. Today she is an artist. Her enormous canvases — a nod to naïve art with recurring Jewish themes — are sold in a gallery in Stockholm but she is hoping to expand her business to Israel.

“My art became happier since I came to Israel — less introspective,” she said. “I joined the world around me. I am home.”