Photo Caption: Julia Clardy (center) and her family the day of her conversion | Photo Courtesy: Julia Clardy.
Religion didn’t factor into my life until I was 9 years old. Every winter my family had a vague Christmas celebration that was much more focused on family than it was on religion. I had no idea who Jesus was, and to me, Christmas meant presents and Chinese food at Great Grandma Betty’s house. I didn’t really know what religion was or what it meant.
My stepmother and stepsisters are Jewish, and it was only after meeting them that I began to focus on what religion meant to other people. If you have ever read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume you’ll be familiar with the main character Margaret’s search for religious connection. Margaret goes to different religious services and delves deeper into the idea of God, all while suffering the pains of adolescence and the horrors of middle school.
I embarked on a similar journey, as I was fascinated by religion, and hungry to learn more. What attracted me to Judaism was the emphasis on conversation; I didn’t have to know everything right away. I loved the idea of learning with others about being present in our religion, and what it means to lead a Jewish life. These are elements I still find extremely compelling.
At 9, I decided that I wanted to convert. My experience at the mikveh (a ritual bath where conversions and other Jewish lifecycle events are marked) was powerfully Jewish, and powerfully feminist; as I began this new chapter in my life I was supported by several powerful Jewish women, including my aunt, my stepmother and the rabbi who performed my conversion.
My aunt is also a convert, and I was lucky enough to have her walk me through my conversion process. I vividly remember her taking off my pink nail polish in the bathroom at the mikveh, telling me that I had to be as clean and unmarked as I was the day I was born. This was going to be a second birth, a start to my life in the world of Judaism.
Wrapped in a long white sheet, I walked towards the steps of the mikveh. Once I entered the warm water, I was instructed to turn the red crank on the wall, letting rain water into the bath, which meant the water was now alive. The rabbi then told me to fully submerge myself. I inhaled deeply, sounds echoing off the walls and high ceiling, and sank to the bottom of the mikveh.
Underwater, I opened my eyes. Lights had been turned on inside the bath, and the colors in the water shifted from green to purple. My body was completely weightless, and my dark hair floated around my head. It was silent. My face broke the surface of the water, and I inhaled again, saying several words in Hebrew. I repeated after the rabbi: “Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu bi-tevilah b’mayyim hayyim.” (Blessed are You, God, Majestic Spirit of the Universe, Who makes us holy by embracing us in living waters.) “Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam she-heche-yanu, ve-ki-y’manu, ve-higi-yanu la-z’man ha-zeh.” (Blessed are You, Source of all Life, Who has kept us alive and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.)
My conversion was a new beginning in many ways. This was the first time I felt the power of spirituality, and with my aunt and stepmother as incredible Jewish role models, the power of womanhood. These two ideas are bonded and intertwined completely in my mind, like the many wicks of the Havdalah candle. Every Havdalah service I attend, I am reminded of this transformation, and I am grateful to be part of the Jewish community and part of the traditions inherent in Jewish womanhood. To me, being a part of the Jewish tradition means I am surrounded by strong Jewish women in my school community, in my temple and in my family. Having these women to look to and learn from has been such a gift, and they have helped shape me into the passionate Jewish woman I am today.