icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



I asked my friend Lakme if she would come for dinner and if we could talk about how it had been for her to convert to Judaism. I'd waited a long time to ask, afraid she might be offended, afraid of what it could mean in my life. She was delighted, and I was nervous.

I'd met Lakme and Gershon, her rabbi husband whose profession made her the rebbetzin, in rural New Mexico, where they were starting a retreat center. Living in a collection of villages and rural stretches with a population of 3,000 at the outside, I had laughed when the postmistress first mentioned "our rabbi." I thought she was joking. Not too long afterwards I met them at a New Year's Eve dinner.

That spring Lakme and Gershon invited my daughter and me to Seder in their old adobe house, nestled in a rinconcito of pink, gray and yellow walls that led to rocky mesa tops. It seemed an unlikely spot to be celebrating Passover, and in the home of a rabbi, no less. It was the place where the tiny mud-and-stone El Oratorio de Jesus Nazareno had lately been home to cross-bearing, self-flagellating Catholic Penitentes. Close by, Native American Church members planted their tipis and awaited sacred visions.

During the Seder Gershon departed from the Haggadah to offer additional teachings. One of them struck home. "The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the Land of Narrows," he said, "When the children of Israel left The Land of Narrows, they entered The Wilderness. The Wilderness belongs to no one; hence, it is a place for everyone. This is to show us that spiritual teachings do not belong to anyone. No one group can lay claim to them."

I savored those words. More shared Seders and other Jewish family rituals passed before I invited Lakme to dinner. Only later did I realize that my invitation contrasted with what Gershon had said about spiritual teachings belonging to no one. I had asked Lakme because I wanted to lay claim to something, to be part of a faith community, to belong.

There is a place in New Mexico where the red rocks flow like great splendorous waves, a red sea on the high desert. The waves move in and out, in and out, different shades in varied light—red-gold at sundown with a tinge of melancholy at the edges, wine red after rain, soft pink at dawn.

Just before my senior year of high school the alumni of the Reformed Bible Institute gathered with their spouses and children for a picnic beneath those massive waves, salmon in color on that particular day. We ate food that people eat in Michigan—Jell-O salad, baked beans, potato salad. And we ate foods that most folk in the Midwest had never seen or tasted—Navajo fry bread, mutton ribs and mutton stew. Some of the Institute's alumni were Diné. The rest were Dutch American and Dutch Canadian.

As always, Ella Descheenee whispered my secret Diné name in my ear and giggled and hugged me. Ella had known me since I was a baby because her husband Ed was my father's mentor at the Bible Institute. In Diné bizaad, you are not supposed to say your secret name to anyone else, but I can say the English meaning, "Girl Who Reaches After Things." Growing up I thought it was about being a grabby toddler, but maybe it is also about curiosity, desire and will. What I know for sure is that Ella loved me.

At the end of our picnic, we stood together in a small knot at the edge of an arroyo that cut into the earth between the waves. The leftover food had been packed into pickup truck beds and station wagons. We sang, and our voices echoed off the rocks:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
There are ways in which, like it or not, I will always be bound by that tie.

After my dinner with Lakme, she told me her conversion story. It began with a dream that, like mine, took place in a church basement. Unlike mine, hers was a vision of knowing without a doubt who she is and always has been—a Jew. Certain in that knowledge, she began the formal conversion process.

When Lakme had finished, I took a deep breath and told her that I had been thinking for years of converting. I tried to convey my motivation, starting with the similarities between my upbringing and my perception of Orthodox Judaism. I talked about the stories from the Old Testament that had nourished me in childhood. We had identified with the Israelites of those stories; they were God's Chosen People, and so were we. I was taught that the Jews who were maligned in the New Testament were not the everyday people, but the politicians, who had acted as politicians ever have. I talked about how Jewish teachings from Lakme and Gershon had opened my heart and returned the Book to me in a way that I loved. I told her about living with Sylvia and Abe, about my first Seder and how important ritual is to my soul. I also told her about a deep-seated fear that I could never truly belong.

Lakme agreed that it took chutzpah to convert. Laughing, she told me that a potential convert to Judaism must be asked three times why they are converting. "It's just supposed to be three times total," she said. "But it seemed like every Jew I knew had to ask me three times." My heart sank; I didn't know if I could muster the requisite chutzpah.

Lakme is a maggid, a teacher of the sacred. Over dessert and tea, she offered to spend Tuesday evenings with me, exploring the five areas of study required for conversion. I accepted.

Lakme and I met over dinner every other week for five months, and those meals seem now to have coalesced into one long, soul-satisfying dinner with the rebbetzin. Our second meeting stands out because Lakme arrived that night with an armload of books, mostly about Jewish history, and a box of Shabbat candles. History is one of the five areas a person studies in preparation for conversion, and I had asked to start there.

The candles were a pure gift, an invitation, a welcome. Maybe I romanticize Shabbat, remembering the lovely golden glow during candle lighting in the film version of Fiddler. But it seems fitting to end the workweek in a spirit of gratitude, of intentional community, in communion over a meal.

When I was small, living in the Navajo Nation in the tiny village of Shiprock, I played in the blazing summer sun with Rudy and Bobby Yellowhair. Every day we made miniature Diné sheep camps in the dirt. Every day we began anew, brushing our palms over the camps we had made the day before. I always started with a little rounded hogan, poking a stub of elm twig into the top for a stovepipe and embedding four short twigs on the east side to make a door. Then I broke a bunch of twigs into short, even lengths to make a sheep corral, pushing them into the softened earth we'd stolen from the edges of my father's squash hills.

I imagined tiny people coming in and out of the hogan to chop wood and cook fry bread. I talked for them, speaking the creole that linguists call Dummitawry English, the language Bobby and Rudy and I used with each other. When Bobby and Rudy switched to Diné bizaad, I recited the Apostles Creed in Diné bizaad. It was the longest piece of spoken Navajo I could manage, and I spoke softly, embarrassed to have Rudy and Bobby hear what I was really saying, but it had to be Diné. I felt poverty-stricken in the language that I needed in order to belong.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 4/5/24.

If you are just joining, you can find your way to the beginning of the series using the Table of Contents.

Post a comment