“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.
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 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).