People are always shocked to hear that I used to be Jewish. The real kicker for most people is that I became a Catholic. They want to know how the hell that happened. Here’s the story.
In recent months, my father has grown in his faith, probably because of the three strokes that left him sitting in a rehab center in Swampscott, Mass. It’s a Jewish rehab with a room for services, and those Friday and Saturday services have become the big thing he looks forward to all week. My step-sister and her daughter have been going to the Saturday-morning services, to the delight of a rabbi used to seeing a room full of elderly, broken down bodies.
I’m glad to see his deepening faith, because it was always hard to tell where he stood during my younger years. He has always believed in God, but other than the high holidays and some of the obligations of childhood, God usually didn’t have much to do with our upbringing.
In fact, before I go any further, let me answer the first question people like to ask: “How did your parents feel about your becoming a Catholic?”
My mother didn’t seem to mind, but then she married an Irish Catholic almost 30 years ago. She converted herself, but we’ve been estranged for the last five years and haven’t had the opportunity to discuss faith.
My father didn’t seem to mind. Since my sister told him she was gay a couple years before, the news that I was converting was probably far less dramatic for him. And he had accepted Wendi’s news with an open mind anyway.
Besides, his view of God has always been broader than the Jewish teachings he grew up with and tried to pass on to us kids. One day religious denominations came up and he said something like this:
“Won’t people be shocked after they drop dead to discover it (the different denominations) all comes from the same place.”
He was also accustomed to celebrating Christian holidays, though it was always in the secular sense. Every Christmas growing up, we had a Christmas tree and did all the Christmas things a secular family does.
But on the high Jewish holidays, we would attend service at an old temple in Lynn, Mass:
When my brother Michael had his Bar Mitzvah in 1979, it was a big, huge deal. The reception was bigger than most wedding receptions I’ve been to. I was 9 and he was 13, which is typically the age when a kid undergoes the right of passage. But I was 13 when Michael died, so having a Bar Mitzvah was the last thing on earth my angry, rebellious younger self wanted.
My father eventually made me do the Bar Mitzvah when I was 16. It was done in the old Lynn temple pictured above. The rabbi pointed at a few sentences that were Hebrew but written out so I could say them.
“Just recite these when I tell you to,” he said.
“What do they mean?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it. Just read it at the part of the ceremony when I tell you to,” he said.
The rabbi was cutting me a lot of slack. He knew I was embarrassed to be doing this so late and wanted to make it as painless for me as possible.
The unintended consequence was that nothing about the Bar Mitzvah was going to bring me deeper into the faith.
Fast forward to 1993.
Erin and I start dating, and on the day she takes me home to meet her family, pork chops are on the menu. My future father-in-law takes Erin aside, and, somewhat panicked, asks: “Wait a minute. Isn’t he Jewish? He can’t eat pork shops.” I ate the pork chops, and, about a month later, attended a Mass at what is now my home church. Something about it interested me, because I frequently came back.
I spent the next decade in the religious wilderness. I went to the occasional Mass, but usually when Erin went, I stayed behind.
Meanwhile, between 1994 and 2003, my great-grandmother, grandfather and both grandmothers died, and their funerals soured me on the Jewish faith more than ever. There was no family rabbi, so we hired one for each funeral service. They’d come and ask about the newly deceased, and during the funeral would talk about everything they had been told about the person.
I thought it was all a bunch of bullshit, not seeing at the time that the problem wasn’t the faith, but how my family observed it, which was not much.
I started going to church regularly when Sean was born, and sometime between 2001 and 2005, something struck a chord and made me decide to become a Catholic. Erin never forced it on me or made it a condition of our getting married, though we did agree to bring the children up Catholic.
I slowly inched toward my Faith over time, and my battle with OCD marked a turning point. Somewhere in the summer of 2001, I started to feel the need to explore my faith and see where it would lead. By 2005, I was going through the Right of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). In 2006, I was Baptized a Catholic.
Part of my OCD therapy involved relentless self criticism and loathing. Self-hatred is not too strong a description. I was so convinced that I was flawed beyond repair that I simply plowed along with my self-destructive behavior. I couldn’t get out of my own way.
Catholic conversion entered the picture because, as I was peeling back layer after layer in the struggle to find myself, I found that I simply couldn’t get there without help from a higher power. In 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, a central theme is that you need to put all your trust in a higher power.
Through the struggles, my beliefs have come into sharper focus.
Some people want to debate me on my beliefs, but I don’t give in. I’m fully comfortable with my faith and don’t need to explain it to anyone.
For the most part, though, people show the proper respect. My friends are all over the place when it comes to religion. I count atheists, Protestants, Mormons and Wiccans among my closest friends.
Sometimes, it leads to some enlightening discussions. One of my closest friends did the exact opposite of me and converted to the Jewish faith. We’ve talked at length about the differences and similarities between our faith and have found much in common.
Jewish and Catholic guilt, for example, are pretty much based on the same things.
One time at lunch, I asked my friend the question that was really burning in my head:
“So, for an adult who becomes a Jew, you have to get circumsized, right?”
“Well,” he said between bites of his sandwich, “They just sort of poke it.”