It is really difficult for me to gather all the thoughts and reflections on Judaism I have had from the age of five – I am now 34, so there were quite a few.
It is almost impossible to sum them all up, but I will try – ever since I can remember I was fascinated with Jewish religion and culture and I have had the feeling I somehow belong to it. My parents are neither baptized nor have a church wedding, and I was brought up as an atheist, even though down deep inside I have always felt there is a superior Force and I remember praying with my own words quite often. The only person in my family that was religious was my maternal great-grandmother – she was a Catholic but with a more Protestant approach to life – very positive, involved in the community activities, hard working and never forcing her religion on any of the family members. I have watched my great-grandmother and also friends at school (everyone except for me and maybe two other children went to religion classes and took first communion at the age of eight) and I have decided I definitely believe in G-d. Since I did not believe in Jesus, I always wanted to become Jewish, but my parents explained to me that it is impossible (it was about 1987, so I guess the only working synagogue was orthodox) and that if I felt so strongly about G-d I should become a Catholic. I had studied a prayer book and learned all the prayers but they all seemed so artificial I gave up the whole idea. I definitely did not feel Catholic and getting baptized would have been a lie to myself and G-d.
When I turned 19 and went to the university, my desire to become Jewish was so strong that I wrote to the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, z”l. He never replied, but I completely understand now, that it was my responsibility to make more effort and explain my case. Nevertheless I was very young and inexperienced then and I simply took it as a no.
The very next year met my husband to be, who, to his knowledge, is not a Jew. We fell in love and after finishing studies, we did move in together. We got married four years ago, in a civil ceremony. My husband was raised Catholic but has lost his faith in high school. He always knew how important Judaism was to me. When we started establishing our home together we knew already that the Sabbath would become the centre of our week – both hard working, self-employed we needed a complete and full rest from the daily activities and also depth of reflection on our life, where we come from and where we are going to, who are we as people, how we can improve our relationship with each other, with other people, and in my case – with G-d.
My husband, being the wonderful person that he is and knowing about my desire to convert, has presented me with the best gift I could ever imagine for my 21st birthday – a Siddur. After that I had no doubt I want to marry him and that he will support me in my journey to Judaism. Since the very beginning of our relationship we have lived in accordance with the 7 Laws of Noah and we have celebrated the Sabbath by finishing work earlier than usual, lighting the candles, thanking ourselves for whatever good we did to each other during the week, supper with chalet and fish, drinking kosher wine, not working until Saturday evening, not using the computer and possibly also the phone. Last year we have also fasted together (I have fasted during the Yom Kippur before, just on my own) and abstained from the forbidden activities during Yom Kippur.
After this profound experience and after some 13 years of constant reflection on my life and faith I have gathered my strength and decided to enroll in a year program of postgraduate studies at the Historical Institute of the University of Warsaw – the subject of the program was Studies on the History of Polish Jewry. My aim was to come as close as possible to the Jewish community in Poland and, if at all possible, to have my second attempt to convert.
My grandfather wrote and published memoirs where he notes some 85% of the lodgers of that building were Jewish and other 15% Catholic. He does not say he was a Catholic himself, nor does he refer to any religious or church ceremony he has attended or participated in in his life. He does mention many of his Jewish friends, their homes where he has spent Shabbat, a wedding ceremony of his best friend just after the outbreak World War II, koshering dishes for Pesah which took place each year in portable cauldrons on every street corner of the quarter in which he lived in, which then became the larger Ghetto. He does describe how he played football with his buddies in Maccabi sports club in Wola, how he met with other young socialists, including members of the Bund in some basements in Marymont or Żoliborz. He also sais how the knowledge of Yiddish has helped him with understanding German in the horrible World War II times. He does not say too much about but I know him and his younger brother, Jerzy, who was a member of ŻEGOTA, have collected money and food, which they have smuggled through the walls of Warsaw Ghetto.
My father, the person who could shed some light on the mystery, did not have a good contact with my grandfather and he never wanted to dig in the past. My parents are both members of Polish intelligentsia – both very educated, both humanistic, altruistic and idealists, a bit disillusioned now. When I was born they were living on Pańska Street, not far away from where my great-grandparents lived before the War, but of course in a modern, socialistic, tiny flat. A lonely child, and almost the only child around, I was surrounded with my parents’ friends, a vast majority of whom were Jews who somehow managed to survive the events of 1968 and remained in Poland until the 1987 – then virtually all of them left to the US or Canada. Since those were the remaining few, my parents were now left friendless and a bit too old to make new ones, considering how cautious and distrustful they became during the Communism years. Born in 1948 and 1949 as children of pre-war socialists, instead of becoming hippies, they got involved in Solidarity but not to the point where it could endanger their family. After 1989, unprepared for economic changes, they had plenty of worries of their own – my struggle with finding out who I was, claiming Jewish roots was not welcome – I now understand it was feared.
I remember a conversation I had with a trusted family friend who stayed in Poland. It was when I first celebrated Hanukkah – in 1997. He told me I will not be welcome by the Jewish community, he warned me it is a closed circle, that they value the pureness of blood highly. Was it just a concern or was it supported by his own knowledge and experience? For it was him who has read the Biblical Stories to me when I was a child, he who bought the Wisdom of Talmud, who took me to see the Nożyk’s synagogue back in 1984, when it was mainly serving as a museum. With him I also explored the Jewish Prague in 1987, with its wonderful tiny cemetery, beautiful Stara-Nova, and Spanielska synagogues, Golem mysteries. He has introduced the literature of Bruno Schultz and Isaac Bashevis Singer to me. He is the one who made and still makes the best gefylte fish, who has taught me to always check the freshness of an egg by breaking it into a separate bowl.
Once I really wanted to convince myself I have Jewish roots. Now I realize that even if I do it is far more important for me to learn the Jewish customs and religion by myself, to create a Jewish home, to be able to pass it on to my children. This is exactly why I took the first chance that came across during my postgraduate program – I have approached the reform rabbi who has visited us, Rav Brian Reich to ask about the conversion classes. He has invited me to Beit Warszawa, where I now take Judaism Step by Step classes and try to make up 34 years of my life. I have met dedicated Rabbis and Educators there, who have revived Jewish life in Warsaw. Every holiday I have read and studied about I could now see and take part in – Hanukkah with Rav Reich, Tu Bi Shvat which we, the group of Step By Step students, have organized by ourselves, unforgettable Purim and of course Pesah, both with wonderful Rav and Rebecin Kadden who have shown me what a Jewish loving marriage should be like. Last but not least, Rav Haim Beliak, who had organized Shavuot, who takes care of my Jewish education and prepares me for this most important step of my life, the step I always wanted to take, but did not know how. Now I feel I know. My life has become what I always dreamt it to be, I live in accordance with my spiritual needs and the religion I practice helps me and gives me strength. I am due to complete my post-graduate program in Jewish Studies in December 2012. This experience has helped me to meet many of the very few Polish Jews still living in Warsaw – people with various backgrounds; some of them religious and observant, some with more secular approach, treating Judaism as a civilization – all of them wonderful, open-minded, interesting and very inspiring. I am taking part in Jewish life on many levels – religious and cultural and I intend to do so in the future.
My husband joins me whenever I participate in services at Beit Warszawa and enjoys it but since he does not have the faith, he cannot convert with me. I love my husband very much and I simply cannot force on him something as fundamental as religion, but he has assured told me that our weekly Sabbath both at the synagogue and at home is very important to him and that it feels very special, and I know he means it. We want to have children some day and he agrees to bring them up in Jewish faith. Now it is my task to make sure they will be born Jewish.
I hope this essay will help you to analyze my motivation to become Jewish. I myself have a feeling this will not be a conversion but a homecoming.