When I was 20, I asked my parents if we were Jewish, and they said we were not. I had brushed off my pull toward Judaism for years, but over time it grew so powerful that I started to believe it may well be part of me. I asked aunties and uncles until finally I got to my maternal grandfather. Sitting at his large San Francisco dining table, he replied slowly and thoughtfully. “Well, my mother was fully Jewish. And my father was fully Jewish. So, I suppose that makes me Jewish.”
With some coaxing, he explained how our family’s Jewish history had been covered up to avoid anti-Semitism in the early 1900s. My mom was surprised. She was 50 years old and had no idea half her ancestry was Ashkenazi Jewish — even though as a child, she, like me, asked her mother if she was Jewish, and even though her greatest passion as a teenager was Israeli folk dancing. Our Jewish heritage was a family secret, just one generation from being lost entirely.
After my grandfather’s admission, my mind raced with a lifetime of memories brushing up against Judaism. Why had the tone and cadence of the songs in Fiddler on the Roof seemed uncannily familiar? Why the mysterious hot tears at the first Shabbat service I attended? Why the undeniable attraction to Jewish men: Were some Jewish ancestors pulling for me to make Jewish babies?
Since I was already convinced I must be at least a little Jewish, it was both affirming and daunting to get the facts from my grandfather. I read The Red Tent, went to occasional services and friends’ “Shabbatluck” gatherings, and tossed bread into the Pacific on Rosh Hashanah. Judaism stayed nearby but still felt just out of reach. The vast number of customs and blessings and the Hebrew language felt intimidating.
In my early 30s, my husband and I conceived our first child, and I experienced a rush of desire to connect more deeply with Judaism. I read ravenously and joined Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s Intro to Judaism class. I felt like my family line’s final guardian of a very tender, small flame of Judaism that was never fully extinguished. I was ready to rekindle that flame more fully. I felt filled with humility and gratitude to my ancestors who had been through so much to carry it forward to me. I did not want to turn my back on them. Rabbi Danny Weiner at Temple De Hirsch Sinai explained that conversion would be a conscious reclamation of my Jewish roots, mending the brokenness in that lineage. That was my guiding light as I moved forward.
In August 2017, I dunked my naked, eight-months pregnant body in the warm, fresh waters of the mikveh. Just before entering, I received an email from my 93-year-old Jewish grandfather. “Congratulations, Amber,” he wrote. “You have joined a rich and historic tradition that will provide a splendid cultural and religious framework for your child as well as a way for you to return to family traditions that have been absent for many years. Grandmother and I are proud of you and want you to know how very much we admire your recognition of the importance of these traditions and the courage and determination to have made them yours.”
My family now lights candles and welcomes in Shabbat every week. We’re learning to honor the many Jewish holidays and to live by the punctuation of time given by the Jewish calendar. Though I still feel shaky with some of the blessings, holidays, and rituals, it is beautiful to see my 2-year-old participating. She is the first person in my family to grow up with these traditions in at least four generations. We are healing a 100-year-wide wound in our family, becoming whole again.