People are always shocked to hear I used to be Jewish but became Catholic. They want to know how the hell that happened. Here’s my story — an important part of which is how my conversion actually gave me a better appreciation for my Jewish roots.
Truth be told, I didn’t appreciate being Jewish when I was a kid. Our family observed the Jewish holidays on a secular level that had little to do with spirituality. Each December, we put up a Christmas tree (my father jokingly called it a Hanukkah bush) because most other people did so. That was a secular, cultural act as well.
In recent years, 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 became the big thing he looked forward to all week. 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.
On the high Jewish holidays, we did 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. 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. I appreciated that immensely. But by the time I entered adulthood, the Jewish faith had failed to permeate my soul.
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. And something unexpected happened: I came to appreciate my Jewish roots in ways I never could as a kid.
One of the reasons is that my conversion involved a deep dive into The Old Testament, the first five books of which — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy — comprise the Torah. The struggles of the Jewish people is something I appreciate and identify with more than ever. Without the education I had on the road to Catholicism, I’m not sure if that appreciation would have materialized.
I’ve learned that some of the central virtues of Christianity are rooted in Jewish teachings, particularly justice, truth, peace, love, kindness and compassion. I try to live by those virtues every day, though I admittedly come up short some days.
People always ask how my parents felt about my becoming a Catholic. My mother didn’t seem to mind, but then she married an Irish Catholic more than 30 years ago. My father didn’t seem to mind. 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 the subject of religious denominations came up and he said, in his typically unfiltered manner, “Won’t people be shocked after they drop dead to discover it (the different denominations) all comes from the same place.”
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 burning in my head:
“So, for an adult who becomes a Jew, you have to get circumsized, right?” I asked.
“Well,” he said between bites of his sandwich, “They just sort of poke it.”
Catholics and Jews share a sense of humor, too.