When friendly strangers find out I'm a convert to Judaism, they want to know why.
And I've learned to be ready.
I have two stories: One is
respectable, and one involves comic books and video games.
The first is the one I bring out for casual conversations, for puzzled strangers and for grandparents. It fits in a neat little box, and people nod their heads in an understanding way when I'm talking, so it must make sense.
It goes like this: I asked my best friend (not a Jew) about Judaism, and he recommended I read Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin's "Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism."
I did. With a few more books under my belt, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at Temple Beth Sholom; it happened to be the shul closest to my old apartment.
I called the front desk at Temple Beth Sholom and said I wanted to talk to a rabbi about converting. That's how I met Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell. He said he didn't turn people away from Judaism, because he knew how wonderful it was for him. He expected me to study, to experience the ritual and to bring Judaism into my life. I said I was game.
Donnell and I looked at the prayer service and talked about what the prayers meant to me. He encouraged me to look at Shabbat and what I could include or exclude to make the day holy. Most important, he helped turn my book learning into emotion and communion with God.
"How do you feel?" he would ask after I described things I'd done. That's how Judaism traveled from my brain to those places in my stomach and heart that make me cry and laugh.
I explained my interest in Judaism to my parents -- an atheist and an agnostic -- and they both thought it sounded like a good idea for me.
After more than a year of study, I converted. There was a beit din with Donnell and Rabbis Stephen Einstein and Heidi Cohen to determine my seriousness about conversion. I went to Tarzana for a ritual circumcision (I was already circumcised). Finally, I went to the ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Some guy saw me dunk naked (he was a rabbinic student making sure I did it right). And when everyone had left the room I got out of the mikvah and said the "Shehecheyanu" privately. I knew I was a Jew. I hadn't believed in God, and now I did.
So, that's the story I'd tell you if I met you on the street. But if we crossed the street to a coffee shop, and the subject stayed on Judaism, well, I might come clean: I converted to Judaism because of superheroes and video games.
When I was a kid, I read comic books (OK, I still do). I wanted fantastic powers to use for good deeds.
Sadly, it was no dice on being Superman, cape flapping in the breeze, rescuing innocents from scowling super villains. Like all of you, I am left with the more mundane abilities of humankind: smiles to make someone feel better, an ear to listen when someone needs to talk, a hand to help others, and a heart and a voice to thank God.
The rabbis knew the power of those little things in life and what a difference they could make. They had rules for putting on a happy face, helping the less fortunate and blessing God for every beautiful thing in the world (and there so many).
Then, about the time I read that Prager and Telushkin book, I was playing a video game called "Morrowind." In it, I played a freed slave brought to an island kingdom to perform work for the king, but the most amazing thing to me was a bit of a side quest: joining the native religion. I performed pilgrimages to holy sites and brought food to the poor and healing potions to the sick. Doing good for good's sake triggered that childhood yearning in me that said "Life is for doing good and being good, in big ways and little ways."
I had always tried to be good and compassionate, but I realized I wanted a path to lead a good life, and Judaism provided the right one for me. There's where the story ends. Well, really, it doesn't end at all. I'm a Jew now, trying to be a better Jew and bring more good to the world. I even dream of being a rabbi someday. That's about as super heroic as I'll get.
I also know that if you let your tallit blow in the breeze, it makes for a great cape.
Brendan Howard lives in Anaheim and is an editor for a video trade magazine.