I spent 10 years as a convert in Judaism and 5 years as an immigrant in Israel. Then I left it all. But 10 years of my life, the most formative years of my life, were still all bound up in Judaism and the Jewish homeland. When I “made yeridah” (“went down” from Israel, returning to the US), I returned to West Virginia. In West Virginia, nobody cared where I’d been or what I’d done or what I’d been through.
It was lonely. I needed to process it all: all my experiences, all my changing beliefs, all my transforming self. But when you go away for a long time and return, all people want to do is update you on what you “missed.” It was true: America had changed a lot in the time I was overseas. But I honestly could not have cared less about that at the time. I needed someone to listen. For a long time. And I just could not find anyone who was interested in hearing about Israel and my conversions and all my confusion about God and turbulent feelings about Jews for hours and hours and hours. You know how when someone comes back from a trip to Europe and all they talk about is Europe? And everyone starts to complain, annoyed, “All she ever wants to talk about is Europe!” That was me. So in order not to be annoying, or to be perceived as the snob who wanted to rub in everyone’s faces how much time she’d spent overseas, I just kept it all to myself. Real lonely-like.
On top of needing to talk about what I had been through, there was what I was going through at the time: what cultural scholars call “re-enculturation,” the process of readjusting to one’s native culture after being away from it for a long time. No one but another West Virginian who had converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel and returned to West Virginia at exactly the same times as me could understand what I was experiencing. And how many of those are there?
One. So far as I’m aware.
Double the loneliness.
Then there was the fact of all the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about life in Israel. A typical conversation went like this:
“Oh my gosh! Erin! I haven’t seen you in, like, ages! Where have you been?! What have you done?”
“Well, I converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel. I just got back.”
“Whoa, that’s intense. [Enter stereotype:] Was it really scary there?”
“No.” (It was really hard for me to keep my patience at this point.)
“I mean, what about all the bombings and the missiles and the war and stuff? Wasn’t that, like, really intense?” (Yes, I know what you meant!)
“No. People go on with life. It’s not like it appears on CNN.”
“Oh. Well, hey, we’re going over to so-and-so’s house tonight for a bonfire.”
And that was it. That was the end of their interest. Despite the constant tidal wave of emotions and thoughts churning inside me, I felt reduced, on the outside, to a 10-second myth-debunker. That’s all people wanted to know. From my side, it felt like they weren’t interested in me. Because I had so much I needed to say. So much I needed someone to listen to.
I imagine that leaving the convent is a lot like this. Especially if you were there for a long time. Especially considering all the misconceptions people have about being a sister. Especially if you’re in a place that’s not heavily Catholic.
Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through that period of my life. I know that not having anyone to listen to me forced me to turn to God. We worked it out, “processed everything” together, on our own. And I guess that’s the way it should have been. After all, my travels were spiritual travels (much like yours, I presume), and though being around a bunch of people who don’t understand or aren’t interested can make me feel like I traveled “that road and this one” very much alone, the truth is that I was never alone. I had a Fellow Traveler. And He was always interested. He always understood. He was always willing to listen. Even for hours and hours and hours.
It can become really easy to get bitter at other people’s lack of interest in where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been going through all these years. It took me over a year to finally find some compassion for them. Because I was so wrapped up in myself, trying to process what had happened to me, what was happening to me, it took me that long to see things from their perspective: Just like my life had gone on in Israel, so had theirs in my absence. I couldn’t just show up again and dump 10 years of spiritual and cultural turmoil on them. It was, as they said, too intense.”
After about four years, I finally met someone who was interested in hearing the whole story. The weird thing was, when the opportunity arose for me to spill it all, I was the one who gave the Cliff’s Notes version. It just felt odd at that point to talk about it for hours and hours. Because at that point, I had finally gotten past it all. I had processed everything that needed to be processed, expressed everything that needed to be expressed. But I’d done it slowly, over time, with my Fellow Traveler, rather than in one great big sudden dramatic dump with someone who wouldn’t have been able to understand anyway. I think it worked out better that way. More naturally, at least.
If you have someone who is willing to let you dump it all out on them, consider yourself hugely blessed. If you don’t, and you really need one, this ministry is for you. Reach out to your fellow former-sisters in the Comment boxes. Share your experiences, and be willing to listen, too.
But if none of those things is an option for you, then know that, as time goes on, you’ll work it all out anyway. Slowly, over time, with your Fellow Traveler. Until one day, it will just feel strange to make such a big deal out of it. Because life will have gone on.
By J.E. Sigler.