You never know when someone you’ve just met will change your life. I have attracted many of these people, the sort who turn your life upside down and force you to see it in a whole new way. Did Ruth, whose story we read every Shavuot, expect upon meeting her mother-in-law for the first time that she would follow her to the ends of the Earth? That she would forever be intertwined with the story of a foreign people? I doubt it. Life-changing connections can start off so inconspicuously, we almost overlook them.
I was 13 when I met her. Hannelore Marx, a Holocaust survivor who came to my junior high to tell her story. She almost didn’t come. Someone tried to convince her that there was no point in sharing her story with those Dominican kids in the neighborhood in which we both lived, Washington Heights. Lucky for me, Hannelore didn’t listen. After hearing her speak, I wanted to be Jewish. I wanted to be a survivor. I had hope. I was less lost, less alone. Hannelore told me there was a whole group of people who had experienced unspeakable horrors and survived them. Maybe I could, too.
I had always been suicidal. My father abandoned our family when I was 4. My mother —overwhelmed by taking care of three daughters and surviving on welfare — was always angry. I didn’t realize until much later, she was also mentally ill. It wasn’t until 8 years old that I realized other people had mothers who didn’t beat them with rollerblades and telephone cords, throw knives at them, or promise to kill them if they told anyone about it.
I was almost 15 when I went to the library to research Judaism. My mother said I could be any religion I wanted to be, goodbye Catholicism, as long as I completed my confirmation. I researched Buddhism, even Protestant Christianity but ultimately, came back to Judaism. I connected instantly with the idea of an unfiltered, ongoing connection with G-d (no Jesus, no priests, no original sin!). Judaism focused on our time on Earth, and the good in people. For years, I’d assumed I was the ultimate sinner for not believing in Jesus, for feeling so connected to the “Old Testament,” for being obsessed with watching “The Ten Commandments” while eating peanut butter and jelly matzah.
When I told my mother I wanted to be Jewish, she slapped me. She owned a Star of David (don’t know why) and as far as I knew, had never had a bad experience with a Jew. The idea of her daughter becoming Jewish repulsed her, so I let Judaism go. When I ran away from home at 17, kidnapped my sisters at 21, fought my mother for custody of one until 24, I was certain G-d had forsaken me. It was an angry, nightmarish time. When I finally won custody of my sister, I was surer than ever that all the pain I’d experienced had a purpose, that G-d had been watching me the whole time. I was a survivor but felt incomplete.
I’d met him at 18. I thought it was a schoolgirl crush. Igor was Jewish, though a proclaimed atheist, and superbly philosophical. I was Catholic, talked to G-d everyday and thought philosophy was for people who had too much time on their hands and had never really lived. Our friendship didn’t make sense but it lasted throughout college and afterwards. By 25, we were in the same place, both searching for G-d. He became an Orthodox Jew and the more he told me about it, the more I wanted to be one, too.
Here was this crazy, crazy religion that infused all of life, even the most mundane everyday tasks, with spirituality. Praying after going to the bathroom? Praying over a new moon? Praying before, and after, every morsel of food? My irreligious Jewish friends told me I would end up barefoot, pregnant and oppressed; my Christian friends said there were too many rules. I loved it! I was home. I met the perfect rabbi at the perfect shul; I was at the right place at the right time.
I cracked a joke during the conversion process, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I married a rabbi?” I could pester him with all my questions for the rest of our lives. He would be just as obsessed with Judaism as I was. I met my future husband at a party in the one place I said I’d never return to…Washington Heights. He bugged me for weeks before I went out with him. And when we were dating fairly seriously, he announced he was becoming a rabbi.
The conversion process was easy. Figuring out how to cover my afro after marriage was hard (I shaved my head once). Trying to keep up with the social cues of New York Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewry was exhausting. Soon enough, I learned not to judge Judaism by everyone who practiced it. I would let nothing shake the faith that I had made the right decision. A decision, incidentally, that according to a PEW Forum survey, one in four Americans have made. Like me, all over America, many grew up in one religion and left for another. I’ve met ten other Dominican Jewish converts!
But I am in the running to become, I think, the only Dominican American Orthodox Jewish rabbi’s wife. Pretty hard to imagine on the days I have a hard time following services or when someone clues me into something Jewish I’ve never heard of, I could someday be a Jewish role model. People tell me conversion stories are inspiring. It’s inspiring to hear about those of us so in love with Jews and Judaism, we turn our lives inside out to join. That’s my story and the story of many converts living side-by-side with you every day. Like them, I can’t imagine my life without the Jews who’ve changed its course forever.
Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and speaker. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband. Visit her blog at http://www.alizahausman.net/.