Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Conversion Speech on January 17 @ Temple Israel


Until recently, I was a very unlikely candidate for conversion. Even though I am Japanese, I was raised in a believing Protestant household, and subsequently became a Born-Again Christian at the age of ten at a Christian camp in Japan. At 18, I moved to the U.S. to attend The Juilliard School. I used to be a Christian violinist, giving church concerts, appearing at evangelical events and on Christian TV programs. And I led prayer groups at a church in New York City. Yes, I was that crazy Shiksa.

It was about ten years ago, that I started touring with “Pharaoh’s Daughter”, a Jewish Middle-Eastern band consisting of mostly Israelis and few Gentiles. It’s headed by an American Jew, Basya Schechter, an ex-ultra-Orthodox woman from Borough Park. We have performed at many Jewish festivals and all imaginable venues; Carnegie Hall, JCC’s, synagogues, colleges and even prisons. We traveled, ate, laughed, and occasionally, we cried together. For the past ten years, I got to participate in many Jewish events, from attending Passover seders to a Limmud Conference in England. Casual, yet intense discussions with my band mates during our travels, often left me thinking afterwards. I even started to question some of the doctrines of Christianity.

But it really wasn’t until 2007, after a long ride home from a gig in upstate New York, that my internal life was completely changed. During the drive, our drummer started questioning about the authenticity of the first-century Jewish carpenter- that there are many competing ideas about this man who became an itinerant rabbi. So when I got home, I got online and started digging into the historicity of this man so that I can refute this myth theory, and other shocking claims. It was a mind-boggling and revealing experience.  I began to think for myself instead of believing in blind faith. And by the end of my second day, I realized that I had been wrong, and the drummer was right!

I was so devastated that my knees felt weak and my voice trembled. I prayed for two more days in the name of this Jewish carpenter, desperately asking him for a sign. But nothing happened. The faith I had kept since I was five years old had completely crumbled down. He was my best friend, my God, my Father, and the center of my life. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Yet I had to figure out how I was going to live the rest of my life. Am I going to live a double-life and keep this from everyone?  Or, am I going to tell my family, being fully aware that the news will most certainly devastate them? Are they going to ostracize me as a result? Coming out to Christian family and friends can be very risky. As matter of fact, I once came out to one of my closest Christian friends only to be rejected. She said I was never a true Christian. Losing my spiritual friend and my faith of 30 years was painful enough, but losing my real life friend was demoralizing.

Though transitioning was difficult, I felt freer than ever before. I no longer had to hide my doubts- some of the Christian doctrines are extremely difficult to fathom and contradictory such as the concept of trinity, original sin, free will, after life (eternal suffering), and predestination. I finally felt truly authentic to myself again just like I used to feel before I became a Christian. Now I am doing exactly the same thing as I used to as a child, passionately pondering upon all of those fascinating things, like the universe, consciousness, brains, emotions, and all aspects of life. I still remember being five years old, and one day, made a conscious decision to give up my “thinking processes” and to follow the faith of my parents’. What five year old wouldn't want to trust her parents? After all, they are the ones who taught me not to run into the traffic or not to touch the hot stove.

Thirty years later, my husband Sam and I happily became parents to a baby girl named Naomi- spelled with two Chinese characters, meaning “shining and beauty.”  Naomi was the name I had picked 30 years ago when I was learning the story of Ruth and Naomi in my Sunday school class- a name that is one hundred per cent Hebrew, one hundred per cent American, and one hundred per cent Japanese. In the Bible, Naomi was the Israelite mother in law of Ruth who was a gentile who freely chose Judaism as I do this Shabbat. It is a story of loyalty and honor, and a commitment to her mother in law.

I, too have a mother-in-law whom I respect very much. Her name is Professor Rebecca Newsome. She was born in Salisbury, Maryland. She was the top of her class all throughout her life, and had received master’s degree in nursing and became a professor at the prestigious Black university, Hampton University in the 1970’s. This is no small accomplishment for someone who came from a family where both her parents were illiterate and her grandfather was a slave.

My commitment to my mother-in-law will be to teach and educate her granddaughter Naomi to strive for the best in academic studies and to be a mentsch – a person of dignity and noble character- to honor the hard work and sacrifice of her grandmother. Half a century ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King and other courageous Black leaders, often marching hand and hand with rabbis, made it possible for us to have the rights to go to the same universities as the whites, or to dine at restaurants and stay at five-star hotels, or to attend desegregated religious services. We may not be sitting here tonight if it wasn’t for their efforts.

However, while many of us minorities have been enjoying all of those wonderful privileges for many years now, the struggle for equality is still not over for many Americans.  Dr. King’s march included demands for equality in employment, wages, and housing. Unfortunately, there is a legacy of discrimination in this country, and certain groups continue to suffer disproportionately. 300 years of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow law and other state sponsored laws have lasting effects that are still felt today among underprivileged African American populations. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Being Japanese, I am often a victim of racist remarks, and have had countless sleepless nights thinking about racism.  Yet, I tend to stay passive partially because the Japanese person in me tells me to “Gaman” - "to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity”. Japanese culture discourages making of any waves. It is also my ignorance on this topic of systemic racism, which keeps me from taking an initiative.

Limmud, a Hebrew word for “learning” is one of the most important Jewish values. Limmud is not just limited to the studying of Judaism, but also includes learning in general. In the age of information, ignorance is a choice, and as a new Jew, I must strive to learn more about the history of African American struggles and other complex social issues of our generation that too often keep us divided. And I will join the collective effort of tikkun olam, “healing the world”, striving to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people. I understand that this cannot happen overnight, but I can do my part in the way that I live my life as a mother. By converting to Judaism, Naomi will be taught the importance of integrity, social justice, and empathy for all people as opposed to closing blind eyes on day to day struggles of people in need. She will be encouraged to embrace all of her traditions and learning of history and cultures, and to be a truth-seeker so she can make informed choices in her life. She will be taught to value the sanctity of life above all, importance of action over words, and to live a socially responsible life and stand up for those who cannot.

However, over the past few weeks, a few Christians tried to tell me that I am making a huge mistake by converting my child to Judaism. I know exactly where they are coming from, and I sincerely appreciate their concerns for the fate of my daughter’s eternal soul. I would have done the same thing if I was a Christian still.

Contrary to a common misconception, Judaism is not Christianity minus the New Testament. Judaism holds very different perspectives and interpretations of the Bible, and its philosophy and values have been carefully examined and scrutinized over thousands of years. Jews of each generation have been wrestling with the written texts spanning nearly 4,000 years, from the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, to Midrash, and so on. Today, Judaism’s rich traditions and rituals are still observed by Jews in many different forms, and it continues to cater to the myriad needs of contemporary Jews, while caring for all of humanity.­

And for someone like myself, who grew up without traditional rituals and seasonal celebrations of her own ethnic culture, due to her Christian belief, Judaism’s adherence to its rich traditions, rituals, Hebrew language, music, attire, and even food, will add so much depth to our family life, and feeling of being connected to the wider community of my people. I also believe that Reform Judaism is a constructive vehicle to practice morals without religious dogmas, allowing individuals to approach Mitzvot in the spirit of freedom and choice. The principles of Reform Judaism resonate with me because they are not only Jewish values, but also some of our human virtues, including commitment to social justice, equality of women, principle of inclusion, and Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day. I therefore chose Judaism for myself and my most beloved daughter.

As I stand here tonight, I realize how so many people have played different roles in my becoming a Jew. I started playing the violin here at Temple Israel in 2007 with Cantor Nesis. Over the past six years, I have had the privilege of observing dozens of wonderful Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls being called to the Torah. Pretty early on, I realized that Reform Judaism held keys to the kind of parenting I wanted for my own child. While they have all impressed me, there was one particular person who made a big impression on me. Her name is Julie Aaron; she became a Bat Mitzvah on September 26, 2009. She was like a burst of sunlight. Though she was only thirteen and petit, she stood tall, and spoke with such enthusiasm, joy, sophistication, eloquence and wit. I was so moved by Julie and her story that I remember wiping my tears as I walked down on Park Avenue after that service. “How amazing would it be to become parents to a beautiful girl like her!” I thought.  Julie, of Vietnamese origin, here at Temple Israel, raised in a loving Jewish family, has been one of our official witnesses this evening!

7 months later, we found out that we were going to become parents. And I still kept thinking about Julie’s Bat Mitzvah. In secret, I was regretting that I didn’t put my time and effort to convert to Judaism earlier so our child could have been born a Jew. So this was a big dilemma, and there were very few people with whom I felt comfortable talking, namely my friend Colette Levinstein. She is the one who gave me the idea of converting my child, and she became one of my key Judaism consultants, and today, is also here as our witness.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my Jewish friends and colleagues who inspired me through their excellence in what they do. Thanks to Basya Schechter, John Zorn, Gerard Edery, Craig Taubman, Cantor Nesis, Cantor Abelson, Cantor Ben-David; to each of you my gratitude for your music and words, wisdom, friendship and trust in me to be “Jew-ish” enough to work with you. I would also like to thank my agent, Moishe Rosenfeld for being a mensch, representing me and my Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble for the past 7 years. Thank you to my husband Sam Newsome for your support in every possible way, and shedding light on things that I wouldn’t have contemplated otherwise.  And thank you to my rabbis who have taught me along the way so far; Rabbi Janet Roberts of the Intro to Judaism class, Rabbi Buyer, Rabbi Stolof, Rabbi Sepadin, and Rabbi Gelfand. I look forward to our future journeys! I would also like to mention my secular Jewish bandleaders and conductors, the legends whom I had the greatest honor of working with, who had passed away; Alexander Schneider, Jack Elliot, and Michael Brecker. I can see all of you in heaven, smiling at me right now.

Lastly, Mom, Dad, I thank you so much for giving me life, and giving me the perfect pitch genes. I certainly would have never been playing here tonight if it wasn’t for the DNA I inherited from you guys which gives me a huge advantage as an improviser and a composer. Thank you for raising me and supporting me throughout my life. I had had truly unique and extraordinary experiences, especially for a Japanese person, being raised in a close-knit Christian community where we spent our time with missionary families from the U.S. and Germany. I probably would have never had this kind of strong desire to join the Jewish tribe, my newly embraced people, if it wasn’t for your values, integrity and love for your community of Christians. You also made so many sacrifices for your children’s education, and instilled in us the value of education. I remember you used to tell us how Jews studied all of the time regardless of their situations, and that we should study hard also. Mom, you loved classical music so much that every morning, you played records of the greatest violinists, Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Menuin, Zukerman, Oistrakh, Kogan, Gingold, Mintz, Auaer, Stern, Perelman and list goes on. Did you know that every single one of them were Jews? I think you get my point.

Naomi. When I first started this journey, I always thought Judaism would be good for you. But I now realize that your becoming Jewish is good for the Jews, Blacks, Japanese, and otherwise. As the Temple President Leaf Rosenblatt said, “You being Jewish is good for everyone”! Your unique experiences and perspectives will be an invaluable asset to all people. I know you will encounter many stares, comments and questions from people who do not have the best of intentions, or just out of ignorance. But your parents will always be there for you. We know a thing or two about hardships. Besides, you now also have the Jewish people on your side. You will be gaining strength and wisdom from all of the rabbis, from Maimonides to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Gelfand. You will be better than fine. You will be awesome!