People often ask me how I became a Jew. While most expect me to tell them how I converted, the response is really not that simple. Was I born Jewish? No. Did I convert? Well, I don’t believe so.
My journey began at the age of 4. I received a scholarship to attend the Hyde Park Unitarian Co-Op School in Chicago. The school took a very progressive approach toward education. For example, I learned to read when I “discovered” a recipe to bake cookies on a large easel. After several days of staring at it, I finally asked what it said. At that point, I was invited to bake cookies! Baking cookies involved a lesson in reading, mathematics and measuring.
I also got the chance to print the recipe to take home and bake more cookies with my family. According to my family, the written recipe looked like a 4 year old wrote it but I had achieved a milestone that would lead to many years of literary explorations.
We often took field trips that involved discovery. We visited our classmates’ homes to celebrate birthdays. Before each field trip, we learned about the hosting student’s culture. These early social studies lessons were much more relevant to me as a young child than any lesson from books I later learned in public schools.
At this early age, I “discovered” a people with whom I strongly identified. Something called to my spirit. I informed my mother that I would be Jewish when I grew up. This declaration was made with the same enthusiasm and conviction of children dreaming to be firemen or ballerinas.
Throughout the years, my identification with the Jewish people and religion grew. I secretly celebrated with friends in their homes and shuls. At 12, I informed my mother that I was Jewish. My fundamentalist Christian mother explained that she would support me as long as I became a morally upstanding member of society. Mother believed that religion should encourage people to positively contribute to the world around them.
I firmly believed that I was “called” to be Jewish. I had a sense of t’shuvah (or return). I felt a pull to something that felt familiar beyond the lessons I had learned about Judaism. I took every class at every synagogue I came across. I knew the only way to identify myself with Jews was to strongly affiliate with Jews. I couldn’t be a gastronomic or cultural Jew. I had to practice what I believed. Because my mother was a fundamentalist Christian, I couldn’t “be” Jewish. I had to “practice” Judaism.
Until I was 25 years old, practicing according to my sense of t’shuvah worked for me. Then, I was informed by my Army commander that I couldn’t be Jewish because I was an African American. He declared that I would not be “allowed” to continue practicing a religion I must have been faking to get out of work. I was told I had to file written documentation proving I was Jewish. I formally converted to get a certificate to continue practicing as I’d practiced since age 12.
I was finally, in the eyes of others, Jewish! However, I maintain I returned to Judaism! I was Jewish at 4 years old, at 12 years old and at 25 years old. My n’shomah was Jewish! So yes, I was born Jewish and yes, I converted. You choose to which theory you subscribe.
Phyllis M. Wiggins, Ph.D, 51, is on the board of Congregation Sinai in Fox Point and has sung with the Milwaukee Community Jewish Chorale. She is the American Red Cross Logistics Lead for Southeast Wisconsin.