Michaela

In celebration of my friend Sue Katz Miller’s grand “coming out” with her first book on raising interfaith families (Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I decided to post this chapterlet ahead of where it belongs in the memoir’s sequence. Sue’s experience as a parent, earnestly summarized in this New York Times Op-Ed, reflects the open, generous posture it takes to traverse traditions, and confidence of faith in your own faith. My chapterlet is about the swirl of all that in one person.

One and one-half wandering Jews; free to wander wherever they choose

Are traveling together, in the Sangre di Cristo

The Blood of Christ Mountains, of New Mexico

On the last leg of their journey, they started a long time ago

The arc of a love affair, rainbows in the high desert air

Mountain passes slipping into stones

Hearts and bones, hearts and bones, hearts and bones…

 

One and one half wandering Jews; returned to their natural coasts

To resume old acquaintances; step out occasionally

And speculate who had been damaged the most

Easy time will determine if these consolations

Will be their reward; the arc of a love affair; waiting to be restored;

You take two bodies and you twirl them into one

Their hearts and their bones; and they won’t come undone

Hearts and bones, hearts and bones, hearts and bones…

 

– Paul Simon

David was born to a tribe of St. Louis Jews, of great-great-grandparents who had migrated from the land that straddled Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. Educated and energetic, they planted their families in suburbs stretching north and west. Some became merchants and salespeople, accountants and business leaders, and prospered. Their descendants built summer homes in the Ozarks and joined synagogues that crawl with sport utility vehicles. Others struggled more to meet their middle class aspirations. One generation in, assimilation had become a natural goal for most. David’s grandparents sent his mother to Christian Sunday school.  By the time his parents met and married, it no longer seemed compelling to pass on the old traditions to their children. Into this void poured the liberal, secular values of New England, where David’s father taught at university, and the agitating social consciousness of his feminist mother and school teachers. David learned to celebrate Christmas as the pagan holiday it originally was, and to warily eye all organized religion. By the time we met, I had been to more Seders than he had. We listened to Paul Simon and joked, Who’s the one, and who’s the half?

My parents became Catholic in Saigon, in separate acts of conversion that completed their separation from the Communist north and the most passive elements of their parents’ Buddhism. They proudly had me baptized in Notre Dame Basilica in the center of the city’s old quarter, its spiritual core, where twenty-nine years later and pregnant, I gingerly navigated among herds of bicycles and romancing Vietnamese teens huddled together on the plaza outside.

The baptism didn’t take. Once in America and without memories of churchgoing in Vietnam to guide me, I was buffeted by my parents’ split allegiances. Some Sundays, we went to the Irish Catholic church in East Mt. Airy, where Latin still prevailed for half the service and we were the only dark faces in a sea of ruddy complexions. One weekend I spent the afternoon at the house of a leading congregant, a spinster whom my parents thought a saint and who had adopted a Vietnamese boy my age, and I watched her chase and scream at him until he dragged me into a bedroom and begged me to help him escape. I never told my parents. Other Sundays we drove down to South Philly, where a Vietnamese priest greeted my father with deference and I was herded in with Vietnamese kids who spoke English with heavy accents, if at all, and who were uninterested in my library books. Some Sundays we went to no church at all. My father had me join the Vietnamese church choir, until they figured out by my persistent muteness that I couldn’t read the song lyrics. For a while, he also had me join a Baptist church choir three blocks from our house, and while a few school classmates made that feel more comfortable, I was the only non-black member, and clearly not made of the right vocal stuff. Because it was unavoidable growing up in Philadelphia, I sat through my share of Quaker meetings too, with one friend or another.

The lessons were opaque to me. I did not honestly feel host to a Holy Ghost. I was not comfortable with the notion that someone had died for me and sins I had not yet committed. I was never confident that what I did with the communion wafer once laid in my mouth was proper. I went into a confession booth once and left befuddled after five minutes, having said nothing. Except for the obvious comfort it gave my parents and the music, none of it was healing. No one sat me down to explain where the story began and how it ended.  No one, it seemed, was willing to convince me to care. No one worried that I did not. When I was done counting hats, and feathers in hats in the pews ahead, I wandered off to meet Michael.

I knew but a handful of Jews; my parents had none for friends. But even from a distance, I felt a twinge of envy. In those houses, it seemed, everything got talked about. There was unedited argument, and questioning, and doubt. They wielded sarcasm and irreverence like whips, and somehow at the end of the day, knowing what it was to be outsiders and to pass, they still remembered to feel sad and burdened and fortunate. Those houses seemed so much more expansive than the chapels. If I had a house like that, I imagined, I could ask why I belonged in my family, what place I have in the world, and what I should do for it. I could ask where the story began and how it might end. Somehow, I thought, that story would curve on itself, and bring me back home to my grandparents.

We muddled through, David and I, without any more tutoring. In college, I watched with a quizzical awe as my college roommate, born of Congregationalists off the Mayflower, dove into her Judaic Studies major. I learned the Jewish holidays by marking when her classes were cancelled. A somewhat atheist minister friend married us. We accepted Passover invitations and fought over whether the Christmas tree should be live or artificial. We ran with the folky crowd, chasing Maypoles and random creation myths. And we listened to Bach and Handel, choosing to believe that God was merely a convenient cover for the patronage that fed their magnificent works.

I listened for cues from Jewish friends. Converts don’t really fit with the whole Chosen People thing. Of course German Jews are better than Russian Jews. Don’t worry, his family will love you – You’re a doctor; what’s not to like?

Then three months post-partum after my second baby, I inched a bit closer. As the progesterone drained, I craved something more than the intermittent wailing from the baby and the furnace. I missed the music. A friend suggested I visit her Episcopalian church. It’s very ecumenical, she promised, half the members are agnostic.  I used the two mile walk to rehearse a calm, reflective posture. I sat on the end of a rear pew, by the center aisle to better see the minister, and followed along. And when the singing began, I gratefully opened the hymnal.

There the problem lay bare. I could not speak the words Christ or Savior, not even mouth them. How did this happen? Every verse posed this hurdle. My brain pinched and my tongue lodged in the roof of my mouth. I quietly closed the hymnal, tucked it back into the corner of the pew, and slipped out.  I used the walk home to forget what had happened. Just outside the door, my milk let down and the baby wailed.

I thought nothing more of it, until the start of the second year with Blue when I was exhausted from my tug of war with Michael’s ghost. I could see the arc of that affair coming to an end and what it would feel like to rip apart from him. I would need to ready new support structures, internal scaffolding, something convincing in his place. And then came the quiet realization that it had been waiting there all along for me to claim.

I shopped for a conversion class. After three friends independently told me the same story of how the rabbi at their temple had called all the non-Jewish spouses up to the bema at Rosh Hashanah to thank them for their support, I thought that seemed a clear sign. He sounded like a good rabbi to learn from.

“I only have one requirement for enrolling,” Danny said on the phone after probing on my history, “Do you have a good sense of humor?”

“It’s excellent, but I thought you were supposed to turn me away three times?”

“It depends on how good your sense of humor is, and you’ve got spunk. You’re in. See you on Tuesday.”

I fell in love with him on the first night, and the second, and again when we spent a quiet hour together talking. Each class wound around his own ongoing, internal dialogue about his confidence, doubts, and associations with a given tenet or tradition. Another rabbi had come for a refresher. Danny stuttered with a child’s excitement over every scholarly detail and whenever we stumped him with a question. He cried when talking about Israel and rolled his eyes when someone asked repeatedly how God could ever forgive us on Yom Kippur if the people we wronged refused to forgive us first. Not everything in life gets resolved, you know. We argued more loudly after that, and the low-ceilinged basement classroom felt expansive.

One Sunday night the following June, I bathed and removed my nail polish and printed out my conversion statement. The next morning, David, the boys, and I drove to a conservative synagogue because Danny’s temple did not have a mikvah.. I passed before the beth din and their questions, then into the dark mikvah waters. When I emerged, flushed and lightheaded from the steam, Danny inscribed my Hebrew name on the conversion certificate, and Michaela was born, again. The list of people discomfited by the seeming abruptness of my decision and journey was at least as long as that of those who celebrated it, but I couldn’t afford to wait. I already considered you a Jew, one friend reassured me in email. This was a mere formality. It had been only eight months since I announced my intentions to Blue.

“Michael was Jewish….,” Blue began.

“Half Jewish,” I corrected him.

“His mother was Jewish, so he was Jewish,” he pressed.

“Yes,” I answered. Wasn’t that always clear?

I am the one, and the half.

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4 Responses to Michaela

  1. greenboat says:

    Wonderful — goosebumps at the end.

  2. Beautifully written and your decision so understandable. I applaud your courage and your attention. I think that very few people recognize their longing to be in an intentional community of shared values. I am constantly grateful to have been born into a flexible faith tradition (UU) and celebrate that you have found your spiritual home.

    Recently, I tried pretty hard to track down your ongoing writings and had no luck. It’d been nagging at me for months and months. How do I find them????

  3. Beautifully written, Mai, and your decision so understandable. Yet it also took courage. I feel very few people recognize a need to join a community with shared values – a kind of intentional community. I am constantly grateful that I was born into a very flexible religious tradition (UU), and I celebrate that you have found your spiritual home.

    Several weeks ago, I tried to find your writings here in WordPress (which I joined to follow you), and I came up short. I hope this marks my new ability to follow you. With love, Zabby

    • Mai Pham says:

      So happy to hear from you, Zabby. Strange how organic a process that conversion was. You would think that a relatively smart, self-aware person would have figured this out a long time ago, right?

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