Shavuot is the ultimate holiday of transformation, exemplified by Ruth, who radically transformed herself from a Moabite to a Jew. The following exchange offers a glimpse of one couple’s transformation from assimilation and intermarriage to becoming an Orthodox Jewish family living in Efrat, Israel, the place where Ruth found her home among the Jewish people.
It’s Sunday morning. Growing up, Sunday morning meant going to church with my parents. When we met, Sunday morning meant getting through the music for three services at a mega-church. Even not so long ago, Sunday morning meant conducting the church choir and playing organ in Walpole.
This is not one of those Sunday mornings. I’m nervous as we get into the car together, distracting myself by asking if you took along the new transformer action figure for Micah and the doll for Ilana. I know they’ll like them. Sometimes bribery can be more effective with children than the most well-reasoned explanations.
As we pull into the mikveh (ritual bathhouse) parking lot, panic overtakes me. Not for what’s about to happen, but because we might be spotted. Everyone drives by here. They’ll see our car. They’ll wonder why, since women make their monthly trip to the mikveh at night, our car is sitting here on a Sunday morning.
Deep breath. I can’t worry about any of that now.
As you take Micah and Ilana to another room, Tova, the community’s rebbetzin, flashes me her warm smile and embraces me. I realize how much Tova has been an anchor for me. Ever since I began studying with Rabbi Hyman, I always knew I could call Tova about anything, ask her questions about anything, confide in her about anything. As important as Rabbi Hyman has been, I now see how much responsibility for the community sits on the shoulders of the rabbi’s wife.
Tova and I are together as I pace the floor, awaiting the grilling by the Beit Din. Finally, the door opens a crack and they ask me to come in.
I quickly realize my nervousness was unnecessary. This Beit Din is every bit as thorough as the Beis Din I encountered in Boston, but the similarities end there. So many questions, so much discussion – but all with a sense of warmth and compassion.
I honestly cannot remember much of what transpired. My hour with them remains a jumbled blur in my mind. All that stands out now is Rabbi Weisfogel’s smile and one question he asked me about my singing as an Orthodox Jew, given some of the issues.
Rabbi Weisfogel was born in Ireland, and before World War II studied in the famed Mir Yeshiva in Poland, probably the greatest yeshiva in the world at that time. He escaped Poland just ahead of the Nazis and sought refuge in Shanghai for much of the war.
The rabbis ask me to step out of the room for the longest ten minutes of my life. When they invite me back, I hear their hearty “Mazel Tov” through a fog, followed by their request that I get ready for the mikveh down the hall.
All this preparation – it’s taken years. And now it comes down to this. I descend each step of the mikveh, feeling the water touch my feet and begin to envelop me as I continue down. My eyes take in the white and blue tiles on every side, and I feel the warmth and comfort of this moment surround me.
My feet settle on the floor beyond the last step, three-quarters of me cocooned in the water. I prepare to immerse, conscious that all of me, down to the very last hair, must be covered by the water.
There is only the water – for a brief moment, it is as if nothing else exists. Then I come up, my face hitting the air, jarring me back into the world. I begin to say the blessing for immersing, and when I start to fumble, Tova helps me through it. Then, down into the water two more times. Tova’s job is to make sure I immerse fully. She smiles and yells to the rabbis in the next room, “It’s good!”
And then I say the Shehechiyanu blessing:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has given us life, has sustained us, and has brought us to this time.
I woke up this morning simply as Gayle Berman. I’ve now ascended from the waters of the mikveh reborn as Avigail Shira bat Avraham. Avigail connects to Gayle. I chose Shira as my second name because it means “song.” And “bat Avraham “ – daughter of Abraham, the appellation given to all converts because we trace our spiritual lineage directly back to Abraham, the first Jew.
But I don’t think I feel different. I realize now that I already felt Jewish on the inside. The mikveh was a confirmation of what I’ve already become.
A part of me says this must be a dream. I grew up in a Reform temple. When I met you, I could barely struggle through the Hebrew alphabet, never mind having a clue about what was inside the Hebrew Bible. I went to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and craved lobster the rest of the year. When I met you, you were Minister of Music in a church many times the size of the Monroe Temple, working for a pastor who has since gone on to advise churches around the country how to become mega-churches. We were married by a Justice of the Peace. We said we wouldn’t have children.
It’s no dream. I couldn’t have begun to dream up any of this when we were married 16 years ago, not even in the wildest recesses of my imagination.
How to understand by what turns of fate it came about that you are an observant Jew, I am an observant Jew, and we are an observant Jewish family. We could just as easily have remained childless. We could just as easily have been sitting together this morning in a Texas mega-church. We could just as easily have a yours-mine-ours situation with church, synagogue, Christmas trees and menorahs wrapped into one not-so-tidy package. We could just as easily have walked away from all religion, touting the ersatz freedom of a life with no strings attached.
But today, it is those possibilities that seem unimaginable. Today, destiny is shouting “observant Jewish family” and nothing else.
But now is not the time to reflect – a big part of the day still beckons. We did manage those two more dunks in the mikveh – you with Ilana and me with Micah – and now we can say everyone in the family is officially Jewish. That transformer action figure and the doll gave them a very positive outlook on the whole thing.
But I can’t wait until 6:00 this evening. For at that moment, there will be no more double life – just an Orthodox Jewish family on the inside, on the outside, to everyone. I like the idea that we now need to get married in a Jewish ceremony – it affirms this long trip we’ve taken together.
I wish we could get married in Springfield, with all our friends cheering us on. But I can’t imagine telling everyone that, well, actually, we haven’t exactly been a Jewish family, but now we are, and would they please come to the wedding. Some secrets are best left alone – at least for now.
So we’ll get married in front of perfect strangers in Newton. It could be worse.
In the meantime, the rest of the day has turned out a bit lighter than its profound beginnings. It would have been nice if someone had reminded us before last night that you need a veil and that we need a plain wedding band for the ceremony, unlike what we bought when we got married the first time.
But had we known earlier and had more time to shop, we wouldn’t have experienced what it’s like to buy a wedding band in the Walmart jewelry department. Nor would we have been so resourceful as to search for a veil among the racks of Halloween costumes at Marshall’s. If anyone should comment on the ring or veil, I think I’ll just say they’re family heirlooms.
Ok – until 6:00. Sixteen years ago, I was blessed to marry a wonderful woman named Gayle. Today, I am blessed to marry Avigail Shira bat Avraham.
We’re counting down to ma’amad har Sinai (the historic revelation). Will you re-accept the Torah this Shavuot? Will you be born again?
This has been excerpted with edits from Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, an inspiring story of the Jewish tradition’s capacity to move souls and to change lives. Gayle was the Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church and Harold was a secular Jew from New York. Doublelife is true-life story of finding love, transforming the spirit, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
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Harold Berman is an author whose writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Jewish Week and The Jerusalem Post. He was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. Harold graduated from New England Conservatory of Music and received his law degree, cum laude, from Boston College.
Gayle Berman is an internationally acclaimed singer and has performed leading roles with companies such as the Rome Festival Opera, San Antonio Opera, Boston Academy of Music, and with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Gayle has also served on the voice faculties of several colleges and universities. Gayle and Harold are now raising their family in Israel.