Reflections on My Spiritual Journey: Claiming Judaism By Ivy Helman


“Is Ivy Helman Jewish?”   This question and knowing that eventually I’d have to respond one way or another to it has caused me many sleepless nights.  At the same time my faith journey has become integral to who I am and I would like to spend some time today sharing it with you.

Why share this and why now?  Well, first, I have not been ready until now.  In addition, external forces which I will talk about in a minute are making my spiritual path an issue.  So I share my story with a measure of concern about its possible effects but also with a great deal of joy about the ways in which my faith journey has challenged me to grow, reflect and change.

Margaret Farley emailed me about two weeks ago asking me how I identified religiously.  Someone had emailed her asking if I was Jewish because this person had read one of my past blogs in which I wrote “my rabbi” on feminismandreligion.com.  This same person is reviewing my book: Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents.   Here is how I answered Margaret: “Hi Margaret, I’m Catholic although I do attend services at a Jewish synagogue on occasion since I was raised in essentially a multi-faith home.  On that blog, there really is no Jewish voice, so I try to comment on ideas from that tradition as much as I can.  Ivy.”  I felt unauthentic sending that email.  But, I did.

Still troubled by that answer and rather than put my friends and colleagues in the middle of questions about my faith, I feel that this has now become a public issue that I must address.  It is a question I have known I would have to answer at some point.  Nevertheless, this is not a decision that came easily or quickly.  I’ve literally agonized over it now for months.  During the time, I’ve never questioned my resolve to be Jewish and to continue to follow that spiritual journey in my life; I’ve worried more about how other people will respond and how their responses will affect my career in academia.   If I were allowed to rewrite that email to Margaret, then this is what I would say.

Hi Margaret,

First, I am not Jewish, not yet anyway.  I am in the process of converting with a wonderful Rabbi and an amazingly supportive community at Temple Emmanuel in Lowell, MA.  This transition feels natural and has become, for me, a return home.

My journey to Judaism began in my childhood where I grew up living in two worlds.  My paternal grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, was Hasidic from Romania by way of Manchester, England (my grandmother was Roman Catholic).  While raised Roman Catholic, we learned from an early age about his faith and about his childhood, but he wouldn’t speak much about anything else since his family and mine died in the Shoah.  I remember him pulling out old photographs of his family and giving us their names.  However, he also pointed out how he was the only one besides his mother and little sister who had survived the Shoah.  On high holidays, he would bring out his prayer books, tefillin, tallit and kippah and pray.  He also tried to teach my dad many of the prayers especially the Kaddish so that my dad could pray it after my grandfather died.  Long story, but I ended up being the one to pray it by myself for the year after his death.  (I know there is probably some skin crawling going on in the Jewish community at that, but at 22 I did what I thought was best.) My grandfather was and continues to be an inspiration to me.  I know I get my fascination with religion from him and from growing up in a house of Jewish and Roman Catholic perspectives.

This journey continued when I started my Master’s at Yale University.  There, I studied Judaism almost exclusively.  It was also there that I learned to read Hebrew.  I worked summers in a Jewish summer camp as a baker learning how to make 99 loaves (enough to feed the entire camp) of Challah from scratch on Fridays, kosher dietary practices and some of the basic prayers.

Now that you have some of my background and introduction to Judaism, I would like to return to my spiritual journey and specifically why I have decided to convert.  On a personal level, Judaism as a religion and as a way of life has always called to me.  I’ve thought a lot about converting over the last ten years but I’ve never done it partly because I haven’t lived in one spot long enough, but mostly because of my academic career. Steeped in Roman Catholicism and desperate to see justice for women within the tradition, I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between anti-modernism and anti-feminism in the Roman Catholic Church.  I also wrote my first book about the official theology of womanhood by the Vatican (the one mentioned at the beginning of this blog).  Within these last few years, from an academic standpoint, I have felt like I have dug myself so deeply into Roman Catholicism that I have also left no room for me to have my own authentic spiritual journey.  Justice-seeking for Catholic women is a high priority for me as an academic.  Yet as I continued to write my book about the official theology of womanhood, I also began to notice how my own spiritual practice had been left undernourished.  More importantly, I realized that I could not push it aside any longer.  It has become just as important to me and just as much a part of my life as working for justice for Roman Catholic women.  Deep down, my conversion to Judaism has little to do with my academic work and more to do with a profound resonance in my soul.

Yet, there are also concrete concerns regarding my spiritual path and my professional life which have become a huge line in the sand for me.  It has been quite clear to me from the start that there is a possibility that being upfront about my faith journey could jeopardize not only my academic career but also my own ability to provide myself with food, shelter and basic needs.  I found out in early January that Boston College does not have any courses for me to teach next year due to the hiring of two new full-time positions.  This is my main source of income even though I am also an adjunct at Merrimack College.  I have yet to find sufficient replacement for this income although I have taken on another part-time job (at a liquor store) to try and make up for some of the loss.  Come May 15th, my main source of income dries up.  This is about a month away!  In addition, my recently published book, Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents, is currently being reviewed.  In all honesty, I have been trying to avoid “the Jewish question” because I fear that it may hinder the reception of my book and therefore my employment prospects.  The effect of this could quite literally leave me homeless and hungry.

Getting to an emotional and spiritual point in my life that I can claim my identity has been a process. Identifying as Jewish (soon) will not nullify my concerns about justice for women within the Roman Catholic tradition and in religious traditions worldwide.  On a level closer to home, it will also not allay my worries about joblessness and the reception of my book.  In fact, these concerns are the reason I have delayed claiming this identity publicly and professionally for so long.

While some people may write off my book or my religious identity may disqualify me from jobs at Catholic institutions that want practicing Catholics, I have come to terms with this because however painful that may be, my spiritual journey enriches my life in so many ways.  It has made me and continues to form me into a better teacher, a better academic and a more balanced person. As a teacher, I am better able to address my students’ own spiritual development as I have thoroughly embraced my own.  As an academic, I know intimately two religious traditions: Roman Catholicism and Judaism.   Finally, as a balanced individual, I have reconnected with God in a much more profound and direct way.

To be clear, while I try to give voice to a Jewish perspective on this blog, I am not yet Jewish.  That is about a month away!  I am proud of all that I have accomplished up to this point, including the difficult and challenging spiritual journey I am taking.  Had I been ready, I would have spoke up sooner.

Thank you for listening.

Ivy

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).



Categories: Catholicism, Christianity, General, Judaism, Spirituality, Vatican, Women and Community, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work, Women's Agency, Women's Spirituality

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19 replies

  1. Good for you Ivy. Two Roman Catholic women who were in the Yale grad program in RS with me and Margaret Farley converted to Judaism. I have always felt a great deal in common with Judaism, though I never seriously considered converting. Now that I am writing a book about God with my theological pal Judith Plaskow, I am realizing that I never had much “to do” with Jesus and his stories. I have come to the conclusion that I never understood the controversies about the Trinity because I was and still am a radical monotheist, though not of the anti-pagan sort, obviously.

    I followed your link and it looks to me like you have found a wonderful community. I wish you well in your choices.

    As one who also converted out of Christianity after getting a PHD in it, I can tell you that I am still being told that “we need a Christian” to teach that, even though I am fully schooled in the subject matter and quite equipped to teach it. So much for theology being about a search for the truth. I was also once told that the suggestion I made that “Mary Daly might be right” was so upsetting to my students at a progressive seminary that it became the reason I was not invited to repeat my class on feminist theology in which Mary Daly was the only post-traditional voice. I mean really does Christianity have so little going for it, that students cannot learn about it from someone who raises questions about it?

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  2. Hi, Ivy, we have met before on these pages, now I discover we have something important in common.
    My gg grandfather was a Jew from near Frankfurt am Main in Germany. He emigrated to
    Manchester, where he met a Roman Catholic girl from Ireland. They fell in love and married.
    Both families cut them off completely. Imagine! Twenty years of age (as they each were) and alone and penniless in Victorian Manchester. Perhaps because they were in love, or else
    completely mad, they emigrated to Australia. (I found their names on the passenger manifest for the steamer which took them there). Australia didn’t work out so well, so they came back to the UK and settled in Liverpool (near Manchester and with large Irish Catholic and Jewish communities) where they raised a family.
    My gg grandmother’s culture survived in the form of a fervent, almost pagan Catholicism, in which my grandmother bought me up. (She taught me to make altars and say prayers which sounded like charms, which, of course, they were, and remember the dead). From my gg Grandfather (who was a linguist and a scholar) I inherited a love of books and learning and study for its own sake.
    My father’s people were Cornish. His mother was Cornish Romany (gypsy) his father a free- thinking anti-clerical Cornishman who made a living any which way he could and had a reputation as a dog whisperer: it was said that he could stop a mad dog in its tracks simply by staring it down. From him I inherited an almost mystical love of the landscape, especially the ancient, pagan landscapes of the far west of Britain; from my Romany grandmother a deep skepticism toward authority, a profound respect for the natural world, and a tough line with the police. She didn’t believe in ‘god’ but in her children and her ancestors.

    With that kind of mix, the Catholicism in which I was bought up was fairly lax. In my early twenties, following on a personal trauma, I lost my faith completely. For some good while I was ‘agnostic’; then slowly, over many years, I recreated a faith for myself out of the materials I had to hand. For me, the religions of the Book were a non-starter.As an adult I could not return to any faith which would demean and stifle me as a woman.
    I read and studied (that Jewish blood !). I found myself much in agreement with Jung: Christianity (and by extension Judaism and Islam) had little to offer a modern sensibility, yet the human spirit craved a spiritual dimension. In order to find a faith for the contemporary world, I had to go back very far indeed, beyond Christianity, to the ancient Mother Goddess faith of old Europe.

    I think perhaps you and I have had a similar journey, during which we have passed through a landscape we would each recognize, yet have arrived at very different destinations. Such is the journey, such the arrival.

    Blessings, June.

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  3. I find your reflections really moving and your spiritual journey very inspiring Ivy. It reminds me a little of the story of my professor, Géza Vermes, who has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of our time.

    He was born in Hungary in 1924, to Jewish parents. All three were baptised as Roman Catholics when he was seven. His father died in the Holocaust. After the Second World War, he became a Roman Catholic priest. He left the Catholic Church in 1957, reasserting his Jewish identity. In 1965 he joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, rising to become the first professor of Jewish Studies before his retirement in 1991. In 1970 he became a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. He is one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research.

    If his achievements are anything to go by, your academic background, an intimate knowledge of two religions and a yiddishe neshama will also bring you similar success, both, in work and personal life.

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  4. ps Can anybody explain why my text generates its own paragraph indents ? Please excuse the rather strange layout in my last post !

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  5. I am not an academic so I probably can’t contribute on the level you may need from me. I understood perfectly the personal difficulty you have had revealing your intended destination along the road of your journey. I could feel your big intake of breath, followed by an exhale as you pressed the button that published your post. How’s that for identifying with the story of another? I felt that identification within my body.

    For years, I have struggled over the decision to “come out” as a Christian. It isn’t a popular choice these days. Certainly there was never as much at stake for me as there clearly has been for you. I don’t have a career to loose. For me the stumbling block was the dislike of being mistaken as a fundamentalist. I have encountered hostility in the past, enough of it that I became gun shy of announcing my faith. When it is not being assumed that I am a fundamentalist, then I risk being mistaken as a sad little creature willing to live under the iron will of patriarchy. To claim to be a Christian seems to involve an admission of lack of intelligence, no matter which mistaken assumption is at its base. I have found that in general people no longer contemplate faith or religion with any depth, and so have difficulty understanding the role it plays in a person of faith’s life. Often people have a very unimaginative image of religion that leaves no room for variation. As for the patriarchal structure of the church I am perfectly aware of the injustice involved and of how it has hurt me as a woman. I know I don’t have to defend myself here, within this uniquely open discussion. I can assume this is understood. I am as angry as any woman, but I can’t step out of my imperfect faith any more than I can step out of our imperfect society. I have to stay in both and do my best to evolve as a person within those perimeters while at the same time not allowing myself to be confined. (I hope I’ve said what I meant to say there)And I would love to read your books.

    That being said, the other part of the equation is that the more I explore my faith the more I find within myself. I was raised as a Catholic, but later as being Catholic became impossible for me, I joined the United Church which has offered me sanctuary so to speak. Lately though, I have been recognizing that Catholic imagery has been surfacing in my brain. Images of cathedrals and the Virgin and for some reason a purifying fire. I wake up in the night longing to be in a Catholic church, a place that for a large part of my life I have felt nothing but hostility towards. I have been nourished these past 20 years through the United Church, and this longing is in no way the result of a failure of that faith community. In the past I have had a fascination with the Jewish faith, more so than even my Catholic background. I have felt a connection to it, which became stronger as I read the OT commentaries written by Robert Atler. I kept thinking that this heritage is a part of mine, and I began to see Christianity as the child of Judaism. I don’t know why this shocked me. It isn’t as if I didn’t already know this. Somehow these two things are working within me, the link to Judaism and a barrage of Catholic imagery.

    I am hoping my comments are not becoming tedious here. I am enjoying the discussion, even if I must come to it with such limited credentials. I feel I am being strengthened, but am concerned that I am receiving more than I can give. I’m moving towards something I can’t quite see yet. Thanks for your post. I hope it all goes well for you, and congratulations on completing the steps towards becoming Jewish.

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  6. Lori-Ann, your post has the conviction of truthfulness and sincerity, than which no higher authority could be cited.
    As a long-time-ago Catholic myself, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever going into a Catholic church whenever I feel like it and lighting a candle to Our Lady (who is, for me, the

    Goddess). You have as much right to attend a Catholic service should you want as anyone else so long as you act in a respectful way. (whether you should take communion is another matter).
    I think perhaps you should follow your own good heart in these matters, and stop yearning for one authority or another (the priest, the pastor, the rabbi) to give you permission.
    Needing a community is a very different matter from having a faith, and when the two get conflated it muddies the water.
    This is a community. You are part of it. Doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything people say ! Cherry pick !

    Blessings

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  7. June, I am laughing a little bit over your comment about lighting a candle. My blogpost for this week happened to be about my ‘pyromania phase’ and tells the story of my three year old self going a little pyro with the candles at church for which I was promptly sent to hell by an old woman who was standing behind me. I have much more self control now, so i may soon go light a candle to Our Lady and find out how I feel about. Thanks for your words.

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  8. With regard to Prof. Farley’s email, was the implication supposed to be that if you Ivy were or were to become Jewish, then, your analysis of the Vatican documents is suspect? By what criterion?

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  9. Ivy and June, how interesting that you have a connection with the Jews of Manchester. It was my home town, my parents lived there all their lives and I only left in my mid-twenties.

    I once described my background as “traditional Jewish – my parents were atheists!”. Nowadays I am a pagan of Jewish origin, and I like to make as many links as possible.

    A year or so ago, a woman friend converted to Judaism, her father was Jewish but not her mother. At her conversion ceremony I told a story which I now tell for you, Ivy.

    A jew was a witness in a court case. The judge asked him his profession. “I am a minyan maker.” “A minyan maker” asked the judge, “What’s that.” “Well, when there are nine present, and I join them, then there are ten.” “I don’t understand” said the judge, “when there are nine present and I join them, then also there are ten.” “Nu” replied the Jew, “another Jew”.

    So here is a welcome in advance to Ivy the minyan maker.

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    • Funny joke, Daniel. To turn serious for a moment, I just want to note that within many of our lifetimes, women were not counted in the 10 counted for a minyan “number of people necessary to be present for prayers to take place in a group). Back in the early 1960s, after my mother died, the Reform rabbi visited our house to, among other things, conduct a prayer. He looked around the house of at least 30 people and declared that the prayers could not begin yet because we needed 10 men. The more than 20 women didn’t count. The message to me was that my prayers for my mother didn’t count. Ivy, may you always counted as a minyan maker.
      Judith Laura
      Jewish by birth, Unitarian Universalist and Goddessian by choice.

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  10. Hi, Daniel: as you will know, Manchester, together with nearby Liverpool, was and is a great melting pot. In the 19th C there was a big Jewish community there, as well as large numbers of Irish Catholics, all immigrant families. I think many who arrived may have been on their way elsewhere. Ships left for America and Australia from Liverpool. A Jewish great uncle of mine eventually found his way to Peru (from where he sent postcards, two of which have survived) while an Irish Catholic cousin married a Chilean. A census taken at my g grandmother’s home in the late 19th C has people born in Germany, Ireland, Chile, England, Australia and Jamaica all living under the one roof.
    The kind of journey Ivy describes is one which is a direct consequent of the changes and upheavals which created the modern world. In a traditional society, her parents and my gg parents would never even have met, let alone married.
    For myself, I think that we honor our dead as we try to resolve again the questions which must have troubled them. I believe Ivy’s ancestors, and my own would be proud of us both, as much for the distance we have traveled as the places at which we have each arrived.

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  11. First I would like to say thank you to all of you who had read and an additional thank you to all who have also commented on the post. I have particularly enjoyed reading the comments on here that also contain conversion stories.

    To respond to some of you: Carol – to be honest, I’m not sure why this person asked but I have witnessed others criticize someone’s work for the only reason that the individual had chosen to not remain within the Roman Catholic Church. The refrain I’ve heard on numerous occassion although as of yet not directed specifically at me is: that person has no right to comment or critique if they have chosen to no longer be a member of that community.” As far as I’m concerned I would have to think that my faith does matter if this person took the time to email Margaret.

    June: When my Jewish grandfather married my Roman Catholic grandmother, they were cut off from their families as well.

    Lori-Ann: While I think my journey has some complexities due to the fact that I am an academic who specializes in Religion, I also think that many people encounter issues as converts irregardless of their level of education. It can be from family, collegues and even friends who at the news of conversion see that person as different. In a way, it has a similiar feeling to me as coming out did.

    I don’t think I’ve missed addressing any questions. If I have, please let me know.

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  12. Your courage and honesty are inspiring, Ivy.

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  13. Ivy, I suppose we are talking about the spectre of Mary Daly here; I have even heard it said in women’s studies in religion contexts that Daly’s perspecitve on catholicism iwas no longer that of an “insider” and therefore less valid than that of a woman who remained catholic. to my mind Daly’s insights should not be taken as the only word, but they might “possibly” (said with irony) be more rooted in deep understanding of traditional texts than those of lots of “insiders.” same with your intensive study of the texts. lots of catholics don’t know how bad the actual documents of the tradition really are.

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    • Carol, you are so right, a person who has stood both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of a building has a much better idea of that building’s architecture than someone with a more limited view.
      The odd thing is, this idea (about the perspective of an ‘outsider’ ) is not applied in an even handed way. The Catholic Church is only too happy to listen to the views of converts on the
      shortcomings of whatever faith they have come from.
      When a convert with, for example, a communist background, takes issue with Marxist ideology, the Church is quick to propagandize their views. And of course, if the criticism of an ‘outsider’ is invalid, so also is their praise; in all logic, good Catholics should refuse to listen to ANY critique, good or bad, which doesn’t issue from an orthodox source.
      An organisation which refuses to accept opinion from what it determines as ‘outside’ is a cult. And on the issue of Catholic women’s rights, the church is becoming increasingly cult like as it retreats into an ever more intransigent position.
      Besides which, all this begs the question of how you define an ‘outsider’. The fact is, that women have always been ‘outside’ in the Church (as they are in each of the monotheistic faiths).
      The priesthood is the central, defining ministry of the Church, and, since women are excluded from this, they are, de facto, ‘outsiders’ one and all.
      Perhaps some outsiders are just more outside than other outsiders.

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  14. I related very much to your journey towards Judaism and to your experience with it as a child. My mother is Jewish and my father was raised as an Irish Catholic who hated the concept of God and the church as an adult. I grew up being fascinated with Catholic art and imagery, and just wanting to fit in with the other Christian kids. I was one of two Jewish students at my elementary school, and I was made fun of more often than not. However, I much like you, have always been drawn to Judaism. I understand your concern about what “outing” your conversion might do for your career and your book, and I admire that you were able to write about it on the blog. Though I don’t know if I will ever practice Judaism as my personal religion, or merely grasp on to its cultural significance for me, I hope that I too can come to an emotional and spiritual place in my life where I can claim some kind of identity. For now, it’s a hodgepodge, but your article gave me some hope that an identity can be found through an ever evolving process.

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