Leaving the Church, and Cynthia, Behind

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Synagogue Doors
12 Feb 2009

One of my conversion rabbis, Haskel Lookstein, recently made headlines for walking into a church. The timing strikes me as a little crazy because I can’t stop thinking about a certain question I asked my other conversion rabbi, Elie Weinstock, and the ramifications of the answer he gave me. When I was converting to Judaism, I asked Rabbi Weinstock if I could walk into a church again. I wasn’t planning on returning for services but I had my sights set on visiting the Sistine Chapel someday. It was also an answer that bothered many of my Christian friends, particularly my friend, Cynthia.

Cynthia was a first-generation Italian-American Catholic, the kind of hardcore Catholic that went to church on other days besides Sunday. She was the big sister I had always wanted. She went with me to look at apartments in college so I wouldn’t fall prey to strange roommates or swindling realtors. And it was Cynthia who gave me $800 once as a Christmas present because I wanted to visit my father in the Dominican Republic, who I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years. Cynthia told me the experience would change my life and my relationship with my father forever. She was right, of course, like big sisters often are.

I loved Cynthia. I saw a bit of myself in her. I wanted to be as generous as she always was. I wanted to be as good a person as Cynthia was. She was faithful. She attended church often, even helped in the rectory, I think. Unlike most of my friends, Cynthia refused to have sex before marriage. I looked up to her, even though we were both about 5’3.”

Like all good Catholic girls, Cynthia wanted to get married in a big Roman Catholic Church. I didn’t. But I wasn’t a good Catholic girl. I’d dreamt of being married in a synagogue without ever having set foot in one. I’d hungered to be Jewish before I’d even known what Jewish was. At eight years old, in Sunday school, I had quickly learned that I saw G-d differently than other Catholics did. The idea of Jesus confused me but the story of Moses drew me in. I didn’t know that one story came from the New Testament and the other came from the Torah. I just made it a point to watch “The Ten Commandments” religiously every Easter and I gritted my teeth through church.

But would I go back to church to see her get married, Cynthia wanted to know. So even though the idea of setting foot in a church again made me uncomfortable, I asked my rabbi about it. He spouted off phrases like “functioning churches” and “the pain and suffering the church has caused the Jewish people.” He spoke of idols like the big crosses that had always made me cringe. The answer, basically, was “no.” I took that to include attending the wedding ceremonies of my family and friends, even Cynthia. And secretly, I was glad. Now that I had found my place in the world, I didn’t want to look back. The church was my past, Judaism was my present and future.

But telling Cynthia I wouldn’t attend her big church wedding, even one that was very much imaginary at the time, was another thing. Cynthia had been incredibly supportive of my conversion. She had asked me only gentle questions about it. She had told me that if I really believed in what I was doing, it was the right thing for me. There were never any recriminations from Cynthia—none of the unreturned phone calls there had been from other Christian friends after the confession: “I’m converting to Judaism.” Cynthia still returned my calls and she never asked why I didn’t, couldn’t, believe in Jesus. Our friendship soared high above our religious differences.

Then I told Cynthia I would never set foot in a “functioning” church again. I uttered the words in a calm, soothing voice, the kind you’d use with a child, not a nearly thirty-year-old woman. She didn’t understand. Her voice was shrill, high and taut with tension.

“You won’t come to my wedding?” Cynthia asked. “But why?”

I tried to explain, the words like peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth, I couldn’t get them out right, I stumbled over them. My sister later told me I should have said, “This is one of the things my new religion asks of me and I can’t turn my back on it.” I don’t think that would have ameliorated Cynthia’s hurt. She said at church that they always prayed for the Jewish people. She couldn’t understand why my religion asked me to never walk into a church, not even for one-time events and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t enough that I would attend the reception I couldn’t eat at…if it wasn’t in a church.

I remember the fear that enveloped my chest like fingers with long nails piercing and squeezing my heart. I was afraid that if I hung up on Cynthia, I would never hear from her again. On the phone, I emailed my rabbi, hoping that there was some other way he could say “this church thing” in a way that wouldn’t hurt Cynthia. I remember signing onto a Jewish website and reading the answer to some question like “Why can’t Jews go to church?” and then reading the answer aloud to Cynthia in a shaky voice, bereft of soothing tones, a voice that cracked with fear.

I remember thinking that Cynthia wasn’t listening. I pictured her as a child, crying in the corner, her ears covered up with her hands. There were no words that would make it better. Our friendship was being tested and I would soon learn whether or not our religious differences could really separate us. She told me again and again that she would go to my hypothetical wedding in a synagogue and that it injured her that I wouldn’t be there for her wedding. It felt like we were playing tennis, volleying the same ball, the same words, back at each other over and over again. The conversation lasted hours but we weren’t getting anywhere. There was no place to go.

In the happy ending of this story, we would have both swallowed our pain to maintain our friendship and “that church thing” would have become the elephant always in the room with us. We would have never spoken of it again. We would have glanced at each other more warily until we finally came to trust each other again. Maybe I would have given in and said, “For you, I’ll set foot in a church again, but only for you.” But I didn’t say it. When we finally hung up the phone, I trembled slightly, trying to battle against the fear that threatened to unhinge me. We would move past this, I told myself. But there was doubt. I counted on my fingers the body count left over from my decision to convert, the friends I had offended, insulted and hurt, the number felt high. Too high. I tried to reassure myself that those had been lesser friendships, not true friendships like the one Cynthia and I shared.

I emailed Cynthia. I apologized profusely for causing her pain. I told her how much I loved her and I detailed how much she meant to me. I left messages with her mother and father, who fondly remembered feeding me, and I listened deeply for signs in their voices that might help me gauge whether Cynthia was ignoring my calls. They said she just wasn’t home. Eventually, I stopped bothering them. She never called. She never wrote. I never heard from Cynthia again. She never made it to my big synagogue wedding; I never found out if I would have caved for her big church wedding.

Three years later, when my in-laws took me and my husband to Rome for a big family vacation, I knew the first place I wanted to go. It was the only exception I had been willing to make early in my conversion. I had always known that if someday it were possible, I would go to the Sistine Chapel and stand below Michelangelo’s rendition of Adam and G-d. I tried not to think of Cynthia when I finally stood under the ceiling and I told myself that the Sistine Chapel was not a functioning church.

The next step on the tour, though, was St. Peter’s Basilica. Its claim to fame according to my guidebook was a statue of St. Peter and the Virgin Mary, the 1972 story of the man who yelled “I am Jesus Christ!” before smashing the Virgin’s nose and fingers on the statue, and an infamous crypt. The Basilica also held relics that included St. Veronica’s handkerchief bearing Christ’s face and finally, “a fragment of the True Cross.” There was no way I was setting foot in that church. Instead, I sat in front on the steps while my family filed in to “look at the art.” I eyed a mass schedule that told me the Basilica was very much a functioning church and I could think of nothing but Cynthia.

When my husband and his family exited the church, my husband looked stunned. Everyone, including the Jewish tour guide, had gotten caught up in the middle of Mass. They’d had to sit through parts of the service before they were allowed to leave. My husband was sheepish but I felt ever more certain of my convictions to sit out that part of the tour. Cynthia had been too great a loss. Walking into St. Peter’s Basilica would have felt like a desecration of my long lost friendship with Cynthia and the oath I had taken before her.

As we left St. Peter’s Basilica, I looked back once. I was looking back on my past as a Catholic; I was looking back at it as the wife of a future rabbi. I was looking back at Cynthia, too, feeling my heart clench just as painfully as the last day we had spoken to each other. And then finally, I turned, looked ahead and put one foot in front of the other. I knew there was no going back.

Aliza Hausman a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband who is pursuing rabbinical ordination.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.