From My Readings: “Becoming Jewish” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

20 Iyyar 5774

Although I started this blog thinking about different kinds of oppression and othering and rejection, I don’t want people to think that’s the only thing this blog is going to be about. I mentioned already that I’ve started reading books on Judaism, to better understand whether I really do fit in this niche that I’m becoming increasingly convinced is the one I’m supposed to be in. So in addition to the wrestling matches, the conversations, and the meditations, I plan to use these books as jumping-off points for blog posts here as well.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Becoming Jewish: A handbook for conversion by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs. This book was written in 1993, so it’s about 20 years old. It also seems to be geared towards people who are converting in order to get married to someone who is Jewish (and planning to have Jewish children with them). Like many books about conversion, it doesn’t take people like me and my non-Jewish gay partner into account. So, that’s a weakness.

The part about talking to your non-Jewish family about your conversion looks remarkably similar to advice I’ve seen about coming out to your parents as gay: be prepared for them not to be happy, tell them in person, don’t pick a holiday or a birthday or other special occasion to break the news, stay calm. So that part, at least, has nothing I can really learn. Been here, done this.

However, it also has many good things to say about your new Jewish identity, the process of conversion, what the program of study looks like, and how to lead a Jewish life. It’s that last part that I want to start with here, since many of my earlier posts have already gone over the “identity” thing, and I won’t know what my program of study or my process of conversion will look like until I talk to a rabbi.

For anyone who started out as Christian and is now considering conversion to Judaism, one of the most startling things will probably be exactly what I found: it’s not about what you believe, it’s about what you do. That’s a huge shift in thinking for most people who come from a Christian background, but for me it’s a huge relief. Practice, not belief, is the basis of this religion.

Several of the main practices that Isaacs suggests in order to begin living a Jewish life include holiday celebrations, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observation, making prayer a regular part of your life, practicing Hebrew, and collecting the various ritual items that go with these things: Shabbat candles and candlesticks, a Passover seder plate, a matzah cover, a challah cover, a menorah, a Havdalah set and Kiddush cup, and so forth. He also suggests immersing yourself in Jewish culture: going to Jewish museums, reading Jewish literature, watching Jewish drama, and learning Jewish music. Becoming part of a Jewish volunteer organization is also a good idea.

Obviously, I need to watch Fiddler on the Roof. But I’m listening to popular Jewish music, including the work of Neshama Carlebach; I try to pray the shehakol over every meal (since I can’t pray the ha-motzi, not being a bread eater); I say the Sh’ma whenever I wake up whenever I’m going to bed; I’ll be back to my Hebrew studies as soon as the hand heals up and I can write again; and I’m working on collecting the items that will allow me to celebrate Shabbat (I need a challah loaf pan so that I can bake grain free “challah,” but I’m not quite there yet). Once I can get to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, too.

I’m still wrestling with kashrut; I already have to give up quite a bit of different kinds of food because of my health issues, and kosher meat is more expensive than I can currently afford. Vegetarianism made me physically ill, because it’s so high-carb (I’m a diabetic), so although I do feel a small pull towards kosher, I don’t realistically see that happening.

(About the “challah” loaf pan: this is another thing I struggle with, but I have nearly reached the point where I’ve decided that if I cannot eat bread made of the five brains because of my allergies, I really don’t think HaShem is going to punish me for making a grain-free challah look-alike for Shabbat and praying the ha-motzi over it.  And in any case, that’s between me and G-d. A lot of what we do is symbolic; that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.)

Isaacs’ book is actually quite short, and it seems to be more of a reference than a standalone book. More than half of it is filled with appendices: jewish holidays, the names of Jewish months, Shabbat rituals, and daily prayers. It’s a good place to start, although I’d really like to see one geared toward people who are converting Reform, especially queer people with Gentile partners.





Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism

5 responses to “From My Readings: “Becoming Jewish” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

  1. I’m pretty sure that deity doesn’t wish you to hurt yourself, and that the rules are “more like guidelines, really.” It wouldn’t make sense for deity to command you to poison yourself just because it’s a good idea for everyone ELSE to eat that food… in the desert… on the other side of the ocean … in a totally different culture. But then, I’m Pagan, and not having to listen to non-sense (for me) just because it works for someone else is a big reason WHY. And you knew that. 😉


  2. If you haven’t read “Choosing a Jewish Life” by Anita Diamante, you should. It’s insightful and goes a little more in depth and it’s an easy read. Also the nosher on just posted a gluten free, oat flour challah recipe. I can tell you that “coming out” again for me was super easy, I stressed over it more than I should have and all the things in my head never came about. My family though is amazing and very accepting. If you want someone to talk to that’s also I this journey you can email me.


    • Right now I’m working mostly with donated books, because we’re a bit short this month for reasons I won’t go into, but I’ll see if they have that at our local library. As far as the challah recipe, I’m as allergic to oats as I am to spelt, wheat, rye and barley, unfortunately 😦 Thanks for the comment, and I’ll drop you an e-mail when this hand begins to allow me to type again without pain (I sprained it a week ago, and now I’m paying for it…).


  3. FreeTrav

    Don’t let the fact that you can’t eat grains stop you from saying the haMotzi before meals. I went to a Jewish summer camp for a few years, and at every meal, we said the haMotzi, even if the meal was known to be bread/grain-less. Someone actually queried the rabbi about that, and we were told that the “bread from the earth” can be read metaphorically, as being any and all food.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s