Torah Is "In The Air"
By Chava Miriam Ashkenazi
I think it would be fair to say that I have a unique connection to Israel. I was born in the U.S. into a (religious) Catholic family. I never felt a connection to Catholicism and in fact, felt an aversion to it. I also always had an interest in Judaism, although my only exposure to it was through Reform Seders and Bat Mitzvot of friends.
In my early 20's, I moved to Brooklyn and decided to explore this lifelong interest in Judaism.
I began by taking out books on Judaism from the library and after six months of self-study, I decided that I would like to learn with a rabbi. I chose to study with an Orthodox rabbi because I felt that Orthodoxy was the closest "source" of Judaism. After a year and a half of study and life-altering changes, I was blessed to become a member of the Jewish people.
One particular challenge that I faced when I converted to Judaism was the Orthodox concept of "Kol Isha", that a woman is forbidden to sing in front of men. This was an issue for me because I am a professionally trained opera singer.
At the time when I began to explore Judaism, I was singing in the Juilliard Choral Union, which is a co-ed choir. Eventually I started to feel uncomfortable singing in the mixed group, so I left the choir.
However, I was very fortunate to discover a Jewish women's performing arts group, Nishmat Hatzafon, who perform for women only. I performed with them as a solo artist, and eventually became their musical director.
Shortly after my conversion, I began to feel a burning desire to go to Israel. I arranged to come through Taglit (Birthright). My plan was to stay for a year and study in an English-speaking midrasha (Judaic studies program), with the help of the MASA program.
The Birthright experience was amazing. I've been told by many Israelis that I have been to places that even they have never been, in their own tiny country.
However, I was bothered by the fact that I felt like I was living in an "Anglo bubble", and was not really connecting to Israel and its people through language. I decided to transfer my MASA scholarship, and moved to a religious kibbutz (Kibbutz Yavne), where I participated in a 5-month Ulpan program to learn Hebrew.
While living on the kibbutz, I became friendly with a lone soldier (also from the U.S.), who introduced me to the man who is now my husband.
After being in Israel for less than six months I was already engaged, and in another five months I was already married (quite a busy year)! My husband Daniel was also not born in Israel, so together as a married couple, we made aliyah.
In order to really feel like myself here in Israel, I knew that I had to find an outlet for my desire to sing. I was amazed to find that Israel has many opportunities for religious women to express themselves artistically, and still observe the laws of "Kol Isha". I currently sing in a "Jewish Gospel" women's choir directed by Mika Karni. I also give an annual recital (for women only) as a fundraiser for the non-profit organization at which I worked.
As if my story wasn't interesting enough, my husband Daniel was born in East Berlin during the time of the "Iron Curtain". Once "the wall" came down and he and his parents were able to leave the country, they decided to move to a small island called Kos (near Rhodes), Greece. Daniel always knew that there was "something Jewish" in his family, but it was never discussed (as seems to be the case with many Holocaust survivors who stay in Germany).
His grandmother (father's mother) always spoke to him in Yiddish, but he thought it was just a dialect of German. Upon meeting an Israeli tourist in Kos and learning that Yiddish was in fact its own language and a language spoken by Jews, Daniel confronted his parents for some answers. It turned out that he has three Jewish grandparents, except his mother's mother, so he was not halachically Jewish.
Daniel then decided to return to Germany for high school, and began taking classes on Judaism taught by a local rabbi. Upon graduating high school, Daniel returned to Greece for university. He became affiliated with the Jewish community and continued his studies with the community rabbi. When the time came to consider conversion, Daniel's rabbi strongly (and wisely) advised him to go to Israel to convert, because the conversions done in Greece are only accepted in Greece.
Daniel traveled to Israel and after a year of study in the Yeshiva Machon Meir, he was finally able to convert. We are also fortunate that his Rabbi from Greece, who has been a very strong support system for Daniel and for us as a couple, was the officiating rabbi at our wedding.
Today, we are blessed to be living in Jerusalem.
This is just one of the things that I love about this city and Israel in general. Because my husband Daniel's family lives in Europe and mine in the U.S., there was never any question that Israel would be our home.
I don't know if it was fate or if it was just "beshert", but I believe that this is where we are supposed to be.