I waded in the waters of the mikvah, anticipating the rabbis' entrance. For more than two years I had pictured this moment, this last phase of my conversion's journey when I would finally become a Jew. My patience endured, as I moved around the small pool; a white soaked terrycloth robe concealing my nakedness, weighing me down in the water and anchoring me into the profundity of the moment. Indigo blue-and-white Moroccan tiles blanketed the walls around me. A hum from the room's heating vents buzzed in the moist air, lulling me into an eager peace. The waters were kind and soothing and much warmer than I had expected.
I had gone in order to find the woman I longed to become.
Wrapping the wet robe snugly around my thighs and neckline to ensure modesty before the rabbis came in, I repeated a passage from the Torah again and again in my mind, "Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land I will show you" -- God's call to Abraham. I had gone in order to find the woman I longed to become. She had told me she would wait for me to cleanse my life and that it would take much more than time.
A mikvah is a tiled reservoir, two square feet by six feet deep, containing a minimum of twenty-four cubic feet of water (200 gallons) derived directly from natural resources, such as accumulated rain water or melted snow or ice. Ritual immersion, tevillah, is the total submersion of the body in the mikvah and is the core component of the Jewish conversion process. The ritual of immersion is not something a convert can do on her own. Since it involves a major change in a person's communal status, it is treated as a community function. Therefore, the immersion is administered in the presence of a three man rabbinical court.
The rabbis entered the room.
They were all in their 40's, with full beards and dispositions of solemnity. Only one of them was a familiar face -- the rabbi I had spent numerous hours together, as he counseled me emotionally, intellectually and even politically in preparation for this day. He acted as head of the Los Angeles Beth Din or Orthodox Jewish rabbinical court. I looked upward from the waters where I floated to meet his downward gaze from the platform above, hoping to find safety in his confidence and control over the moment. I did. He asked if I wanted my friends to join us for the ceremony, and to my delighted nod, he left to fetch them both. I took a deep breath, reminding myself to remain present in the moment, and to breathe.
They are my closest female friends, Elizabeth and Storm. Elizabeth is a photographer and Jewish. Although she is a secular Jew, Elizabeth's visceral sense draws her time and time again back to Judaism's most poignant and moving moments: Kol Nidre services, candle-lighting on Shabbat, a conversion ceremony. She has a strong intuitive attraction to life's most precious occasions, and she can capture those occasions with the exactness of her timing behind a camera lens.
Coming from a six-foot-tall, three-colored died long hair, tattooed, stunning Amazon-like shiksa, her reprimands are great shocks for their poor recipients.
Storm is a singer, performer, model and a non-Jew, or "shiksa" as she likes to say with a hearty chuckle, though she knows more about Judaism than most Jewish people I know, from watching me attentively in my studies over the years. Upon first-time introductions to a Jewish man, Storm has no qualms about asking him if he wrapped tefillin that morning, and she's been known to chastise Jewish folk for being out-on-the-town listening to her perform live music during the Nine Days, a traditional period of mourning when we refrain from listening to music. Coming from a six-foot-tall, three-colored died long hair, tattooed, stunning Amazon-like shiksa, her haughty reprimands are great shocks for their poor recipients. I'm sent reeling every time. Little did I know that while I bobbed around in the mikvah's waters, Storm waited in the adjacent room complaining to a group of religious women about how much she was craving a nice, juicy, freshly caught crab.
My two friends hesitantly followed the rabbi and crept into the room with wide eyes, beaming nervously. They positioned themselves on the platform opposite the rabbis. I looked upward at the group of five and recognized this linking of the secular and religious worlds; manifest in us all were the representations of five different synagogues, varying interpretations of the same religion, and religious non-belief, all bound together in this solitary ceremony. Yes, it can be done, if only for an instant, I thought to myself. The rabbi looked down at me and began to speak. He directed me to repeat aloud after him...
The air around us became thick with meaning.
"I, Jenna Erin Ziman, do hereby solemnly swear, in the presence of the undersigned members of the Beth Din and in the presence of the Almighty God, that I accept all the mitzvot of which I am aware, and that I will learn in the future, both scriptural and rabbinical, as binding upon me personally from now and forever..."
The air around us became thick with meaning. Internally I began to panic and looked to my rabbi again for solace. His gaze became a porthole to a different space entirely, and I locked-in, desperate to continue. My voice began to weaken and quiver.
"Specifically, I undertake to observe the Shabbat, festivals, the laws of family purity, kashrut, both in my home and outside, and the laws of charity among others. I do solemnly accept the God of Israel as the sole, indivisible Lord of the universe..." I paused, and began to cry. "All this I do declare after due deliberation and in perfectly sound mind. So help me God."
The rabbi continued without regard to my emotional swelling. He spoke of the limitations I would have to face, from this moment on, with respect to adhering to the laws of Shabbat and keeping kosher. He asked me why I was choosing this path.
"This path had already been determined for me," I told him. "It was just a question of when, through the exercising and expression of my own free will, I would unlock the reality of this path for myself. It was my free choice, but it had already been decided."
The rabbis nodded. I kept my eyes on the rabbi.
"My life," I said, without taking a breath. "I would give up my life."
All the weight of the ceremony intensified, and with a degree of seriousness I had yet to see from my rabbi, he said, "If you were to go to Israel right now, there would be people there who would want to kill you." I nodded in understanding. "And if one of them put a gun to your head and told you that you had to choose between giving up your faith or your life..."
"My life," I said, without taking a breath. "I would give up my life."
My answer injected into me a burning sensation that could only be called Fear. I fought to ready myself for this emotion's steady descent. My body was motionless, as the rabbis watched me being cradled in the arms of stopped Time.
From uncertainty and panic, to thinking, thinking, thinking, to flow, and then finally to being, I turned my back to the rabbis and lowered my body into the water. And there she was, the woman I had so longed to become --this woman who had tried my wisdom, anchored my ignorance, topped my dreams, determined my path, and who had waited so long for me to find her. I reached out for her and found my heart in a moment of sacred illumination, elevating us upward in time and inward in space as she kissed my essence in a place called home. The equation was solved, alongside the knowing that it was neither of us who had done the math, in a union allowed only under the sight of God. It was a moment of surrender without the consciousness of vulnerability -- a true mating of souls. Heaven and earth changed places, our mingled beings caught in the median of their exchange. It was larger than silence. A panicked dive into the one-second of my self's past and future. A call to life.
In a locked open gaze, I could see that she was weeping for this faith and for those who had loved and died for this faith before us. And so I took on her tears, awoke from my frivolous dream and emerged from the waters with a new history and a new name: Yael.
Heaven on Earth.
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