The Beauty of Choice
by Avram / MNHTN
By Cecilia Sena
This is the story I find myself telling often:
“Well, neither of my biological parents are Jewish, but part of my step dad’s family is Jewish and growing up, I celebrated some holidays with them and had conversations about Judaism and Jewish values and found myself really interested in learning more. So, I started college wanting to learn more and see what Judaism might mean to me on my own, and after a couple years of Jewish experiences and living Jewishly, here I am, having discovered the connection I had always wondered about.”
It’s a good story. People like hearing it, I like telling it. But it’s also the 2-minute distillation of the story of the formation of a soul, the start of a life, and the discovery of a self. It’s the short version of a story that will never end.
I was baptized Catholic because it was the tradition of my family. My mother went to Catholic school and my father is from a Catholic Hispanic family. It was simply to culture to baptize a baby. I don’t remember ever being religiously observant as a child—my mother and I went to church a few times when I was young, we went for Christmas some years, I grew accustomed to the wall of crosses hanging in my grandparent’s house, and calling New Mexico my home meant the iconography of La Virgen de Guadalupe everywhere I went. I don’t remember missing religion in middle and high school. Mostly out of convenience, I identified as agnostic. I didn’t understand why or how people felt connected to organized religion, but recognized that just because something is beyond me doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I spent time feeling angry towards organized religion; my young, naive, "scientific"; mind writing it off as meaningless and valueless, simply a tool to manipulate large groups of people. I spent time feeling angry towards Catholicism, for having shamed my mother for choosing to follow through on her teenage pregnancy. I spent time feeling angry towards people for putting their successes and faults on their God. Anger or distaste is not a difficult emotion to feel, at least not in this context.
Love is a much more complicated emotion. When you choose to love something unconditionally, it means choosing to struggle with it. It means making up your mind to never reject it one way or another. It means that no matter what you are presented with, you choose to love it. Love is a choice; it takes work, it takes discomfort, it takes understanding, it takes stretching and learning and growing. Love is the experience of looking at something that feels impossibly difficult at times and choosing to say yes instead of no. Choosing love is a challenge far beyond that of choosing indifference. I can only begin to list the reasons I chose to love Judaism in the beginning—the values, the community, the practices, the culture, the history, the people. It’s a constantly growing list that will never be exhaustive nor fully representative of my relationship with my Judaism. But I can also list the endless struggles and challenges that Judaism has brought to my life, and the fact that I can name those struggles, that I can come back to them by myself or with others, that I can embrace the experience of discomfort is how I know I love Judaism. I stick with it in ways I didn’t know I could. I am a different person than I was when I was born, but I’m also very much the same. My soul has always been mine. While much has changed on the surface throughout my life (that is the nature of life, after all), this is who I am. I am not someone who makes up my mind easily, but this is not a matter of making up my mind or making a decision. This is simply the process by which I am uncovering my soul and revealing my self, it is the experience of being fully alive, it is the feeling of having waited my life for something I didn’t know I had, it is being home. I choose every week, every day, every moment of my life to be Jewish because to choose anything else would be to deprive myself and the world of my true
I can point to moments that uncovered pieces of my Jewish soul before I knew the effect these experiences would have: the first time I shared my story, the one I am so very accustomed to now, the words awkwardly falling out of my mouth as I struggled to express something that felt so impossibly inexpressible; the first time I studied Torah and thought my head was going to explode, full of
excitement and eagerness; the first time I heard Torah chanted and I cried at the sheer beauty; the first time I was so moved by a Jewish experience that I couldn’t keep it inside, I had to write it down; the first time I led services and felt a connection to and a love for a community on a level I had never felt before; the first time I questioned myself and wondered if I belonged—and chose to persist in the belief that I do; the first time I felt like a stranger in a strange land—and convinced myself that that is a truly beautiful feeling and a gift; when I chose to give my fear, anxiety, and uncertainty over to eagerness, boldness, and inquisition; when I called my mother and cried over the phone describing to her what it means to me to be Jewish; when I, with confidence, told my grandmother in front of her wall of
crucifixes the story of Jacob wrestling with God and explained that to be a child of Israel is to struggle with God; the first time I went to a new shul by myself, worried they’d “find me out”—before I realized I'm like any other person just going to shul; the first time I walked in to a Jewish space and felt like I belonged; the first time I fixed a piece of this broken world not for myself, but for everyone else who has
walked this planet and for everyone who has yet to step foot on it. Yes, these are the moments that stand out to me today, right now. Yesterday, this list would have been different. Tomorrow, this list will be different. My life is composed of these moments that form my
identity—too many to list but too impactful to forget, and too complicated and confusing to keep static.
I’m in constant awe of the beauty of choice. People seem to like to call people who convert to Judaism “Jews by choice”, which seems strange to me. Aren’t we all Jews by choice, in one way or another? Either you choose to call yourself Jewish by the same process I choose to call myself Jewish, or none of us are Jews by choice and we were all simply destined to have Jewish souls (in which case—stop calling
me a Jew By Choice). But I’ll choose to believe the former—we are all constantly choosing to be Jewish. I am Jewish with intention and purpose and conviction. That is my choice, and the fact that I can and do make it is the greatest blessing I could think of. I often feel like a mishmash of thoughts and experiences and history that doesn't ever quite fit together perfectly. In my mind and in my body, I carry with me worlds that often feel irreconcilable and at odds with each other. My worlds—my heritage, my identity, and my soul—come together in my single self. At times, I feel as though there is so much inside, and so much in conflict, that my seams might burst, and my worlds might overflow out of my body. They haven’t yet, but I still worry some day they will. The mishmash that is me does not feel graceful or coherent, it does not feel well thought out or planned. But I think I'm on my way to making the seams lay flat, to turning this mishmash in to something that resembles a puzzle in progress.
Cecilia Sena, originally from Santa Fe, is a student at Columbia University and is currently studying in Base's Jewish Questions class for conversion.