Rosh HaShanah begins at sundown this Wednesday. I get very reflective and introspective this time of year, as many Jews do worldwide, and rightfully so: we are about to enter into the Days of Awe.
On Rosh HaShanah, Adonai (G-d) opens the Book of Life. For the next ten days, the Merciful One enters the names of Who Will Live and Who Will Die for the next year. On Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is Sealed. It is understandable then, when this time last year, we were deeply shaken on a spiritual level when we had our house fire, right smack in the middle of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It’s one of those moments where everything screeches to a halt and suddenly you feel very small in a Very Great Big Universe.
. . .
My adult life has been marked by moments of spiritual introspection like these; in these life-changing moments, good or bad, I turn to G-d. The very title of this blog comes from two once barren women in the Torah. My crisis of identity as a barren woman turned into a crisis of faith. I railed against a G-d who could be this cruel.
This was not my Adonai.
And yet, I wasn’t even born Jewish.
. . .
Quite the contrary. I was born Christina Keiko Suwa. My original given name was from my Obachan, a devout Japanese Christian who was a missionary in Korea during World War II. My middle name is a variant of my Obachan’s name, Kei. She asked my parents to name me whatever name meant “a good Christian” in English.
So Christina it was.
(I’m stoked I wasn’t born a boy: I would have been named Chester Tetsutaro.)
All this week as I promised, I’m telling the story of my conversion to Judaism: my religious roots, my choosing Judaism, and setting out on my life’s path as a Jewish woman. If there are super Jewish-y things that need explanation, I’ll throw those in there too. I’ve always come from an educational approach to my Judiasm.
So let’s start at the beginning.
. . .
Sandals, a white beard, and a toga: the Holy Trinity in my image of G-d. I’m not exactly sure why G-d wore the garb of an ancient Greek, but there you have it.
G-d had no face in my mind. It was like someone cropped the picture just above his bottom lip, so that all I saw was his long white beard, his toga draped neatly over his seated body, the hint of a sandaled toe peaking out from beneath the hem of his toga.
It’s a silly image, childlike in its conception.
And yet even as a child, I didn’t believe in It. There was no Old Man in the Sky, I told myself. And I believed that as fact for a long time.
. . .
My mother is Irish Protestant, raised in the South. While I didn’t know what being Protestant really meant, I learned from a very early age that we were Irish Orange and damn proud of it. My father is agnostic despite being raised by a Christian missionary in Japan.
Our family was not affiliated with any one church. We were CEOs: Christmas and Easter Only. For me, Christmas was all about Santa, decorating the tree, and hoping to score some sweet presents for accumulated good behavior. Easter was never about the death and resurrection of Christ. It was about jellybeans and ornately decorated baskets and the occasional book or CD, which seemed to be the token Easter Bunny gifts each year.
And I was okay with all of this, I mean, how could I not be? Three major gift-giving moments evenly spaced throughout the year: Easter in March, my birthday in May, Christmas in December. As horrible as this sounds, I was more concerned about what presents I was getting than whether or not some deity thought I was deserving of them in the first place.
You could say I had a capitalist approach to religion.
. . .
I was a staunch atheist as early as 10 years old. I remember very distinctly telling a classmate of mine in fifth grade: “There’s no such thing as G-d. He doesn’t exist.” I was met with indignation, ridicule, and distrust. I took a very classic atheist approach, even in that last year of elementary school. “If there’s such thing as G-d, prove it,” I would challenge my more believing classmates.
And of course, they couldn’t, so I felt vindicated in my non-belief.
. . .
For a long time, G-d was as much a myth as was Santa or the Easter Bunny, just another convenient holiday-time figment of the collective imagination, like society’s favorite imaginary friend.
That all changed in 1998. I was 16 years old.
I found G-d in the music.
. . .
At 16, I was fortunate enough to attend a two-week intensive Vocal Institute camp at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. I had begged my parents who saved up the money and before I knew it, July was here and I was off to “college” for two weeks – the longest I had ever been away from home.
I quickly made friends. It was kind of like Glee, in that for the first time I wasn’t the lone outlier interested in music. We were all the music geeks. But where Vocal Institute differed from Glee is that we were all focused on some very serious classical choral works and committed classical development and training of our voices.
We ate, slept, and breathed voice work. Out of the 150 participants, I was selected to be in an elite group of 16 vocalists to perform more difficult choral pieces. Those two weeks were one of the most rewarding and challenging learning experiences in my entire life, finding G-d aside.
. . .
We were led by Dr. James Jordan, who I know now is an incredibly prolific choral conductor. At 16, I couldn’t really appreciate his distinguished level of clout within the choral music world. Looking back, I realize what a unique and privileged opportunity it was to study and learn from him.
Dr. Jordan is a very eccentric teacher. There was his hair: longish and near white, and as he would gesticulate with such enthusiasm, he looked rather like a muppet of Jim Henson’s design while up on the stage.
More than anything, Dr. Jordan loved music. He loved it in its very essence and loved it with passion in his body; he was often soaked in sweat after particularly rousing rehearsals from conducting with such force. He was captivating, aggressive, blunt, demanding and commanding. In a lot of ways, Dr. Jordan’s style is very much like Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen. He whipped us 16 year olds into some serious vocal shape.
It was Dr. Jordan who played gatekeeper between me and G-d.
. . .
Our large main choir had a variety of pieces to sing for our big concert at the end of Vocal Institute. One of those was “O Clap Your Hands” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an early 20th century English composer. The text for the piece comes from Psalm 47.
At one particular rehearsal, Dr. Jordan was pushing us really hard. We had been off with timing (there are some abrupt time signature changes in the piece) and the energy just felt really blah. It was our last rehearsal of the day before dinner and free time. We were all tired and hot. We had been singing the same short passages for nearly 2 hours, over and over again, Dr. Jordan still not satisfied with our musical delivery.
After another fairly lacklaster run, he set down his baton with resignation on his music stand and then sat down on the edge of his small stage, hanging his head. For someone so vibrant and energetic, we were shocked to see him so overtly dejected in our efforts.
You could hear a pin drop in that cavernous rehearsal space. We all waited tensely for him to speak. Barely above a whisper, he began.
“I want to tell you a story,” he said.
And so Dr. Jordan told us about Ralph Vaughan Williams and how that despite a body of substantial church choral works, Vaughan Williams was an atheist who later became agnostic, most likely from writing all that religiously-focused music.
“Most people who have sung Vaughan Williams’ works are shocked to learn he didn’t believe in G-d for most of his life.”
What Dr. Jordan said next was something that probably would get most teachers fired today. (I’m creatively paraphrasing what he told us.)
“This song is about joy and celebration of G-d. The way you’ve been singing it sounds like a funeral dirge. I don’t feel your joy, your reverence. It just feels rote.”
He stood up and continued: “I need you to sing this song with every ounce of yourselves, with every cell and molecule in your body; I need you to sing your joy into the highest heights of Heaven, no matter what G-d you believe in.”
And then it was though as if he were speaking directly to me:
“Even if you don’t believe in G-d, I need you to sing towards the idea of something greater than you, bigger than you, and fill this room with your whole heart and voice. If Ralph Vaughan Williams could do it, so can you. Now let’s sing it one more time.”
We were silent. Only the shuffle of 150 music scores was heard as we rose from our chairs and as the accompanist began forcefully on the piano.
(Here’s a video of another choir singing “O Clap Your Hands” on YouTube.)
In the brief three minutes of the piece, I was changed. I had never before sang with such conviction, such passion, such joy and humble reverence for something greater than me in this world. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face as I sang the climax of the piece.
When we were finished, we saw that Dr. Jordan had been crying, too, as had nearly all 150 of us high schoolers: you would think we all just came from a spiritual revival.
“Now that’s how you sing this piece. Thank you. That’s it for today.”
And he walked off the stage and out of the room like it was no big deal. The room exploded in chatter, laughter, some loud sobs – a hubbub of voices and conversation. We were all asking the same question: “What just happened here? What were we just a part of?”
Me, I didn’t say much. The tears wouldn’t stop flowing. I cried all the way back to my room, brushing off even my closest friends on the walk back.
“I just need some time to think and be by myself, okay?” I pleaded, running up to my room.
. . .
I sat by myself and just thought and thought. What had just happened? What came over me? Why can’t I shake this feeling?
I went for a walk in the middle of campus, the night humid and warm. Crickets called as the stars blinked through a hazy summer evening veil. The wind whispered in the trees. I felt like all of nature was trying to tell me something: everything felt electric and alive.
Hands in my pockets, I looked up at the night sky.
“Maybe You do exist,” I said aloud.
. . .
That evening, on my nightly phone call to Larry (we had been dating just nearly a year), I confessed my new belief. He was shocked, but supportive.
“And where did this new belief come from?” he asked, genuinely curious.
I explained what happened at rehearsal.
“All my life, I ruled out G-d in favor of science,” I said. “And tonight, when I was walking around, I realized that science can’t explain everything. It can’t explain the love I feel for you. It can’t explain the love I feel for my music, or what happened to me today in rehearsal. G-d has to be the missing figure in an otherwise scientific equation. And I’m ready to accept that variable.”
“Well, good. I’m glad. I really am. You sound happy,” Larry said.
“I am. I feel really good about it right now,” I went on. “I’m ready to accept G-d. Now I just need to work out all the details.”
. . .
Tomorrow I’m participating in Kathy’s awesome Time Warp Tuesdays Blog Hop. Check out her place for all the Time Warp Tuesday posts and stop by here to read mine.
Wednesday will feature part two of my three-part series on my conversion to Judaism. In two days, I’ll talk about how I actually came to Judaism. Hint: a bar mitzvah is involved. Come back Wednesday and Friday for parts two and three!