What's the Yiddish for Hillbilly?

Akiva Asher

[A letter submitted to the Beit Din in the process of Jewish conversion]

To whom it may concern,

I’ll be the first to admit: when it comes to introductions, I count it a personal victory if I don’t stutter or try too hard to blend in with the room around me. My name is Edward by birth, Charlie by nickname and Akiva Asher by choice. In writing this, I hope to convey to you what has colored my life and guided me to this moment—I’m gay, autistic, and spent a lot of my early life schlepping between the foothills of the Appalachians and the general banality of the low-land south and lower Midwest. As an aspiring member of the tribe, this constellation of attributes has not a few times prompted people to ask me (usually in hushed tones), “And you want to be Jewish? What, it wasn’t hard enough?”

To which I replied once, after a tequila sunrise: “I applied for other hardships, but they overlooked my application.”

My first interaction with Judaism beyond a casual reference in a dusty Bible Study classroom was when a synagogue opened up not too far from where my grandparents lived. I remember hearing my mom remark on it with a passing lift of excitement. Small towns have little beyond the gossip mill and the savory nightly news to chew over. I asked her what a synagogue was, and she said, “That’s where Jews go to worship on their sabbath, which I think is Saturday for them?” A quick nod from my dad confirmed as much, but I still had questions.

“Wait, like the people from the Bible? They’re still around?! Can we go?! Do they still speak Hebrew?!”  The last part being less a question, more a jolt of excitement at the idea of hearing this language I had only seen as strange block letters in a book at my school, where separation of church and state meant that we just didn’t open on Sunday. 

“No, honey, we can’t go. We aren’t Jewish. We believe in Jesus.”

To which I said, not reading the room (a reoccurring theme in my life): “Well, I don’t. Let’s go!” Prompting a swift hand to come clapping down from above.

Years later, the second would be lighting Hanukkah candles at a friend’s apartment while her little boy ran around frantically.

“Charlie, want to light one?”

I froze on the spot. I wasn’t against the idea; I had just never been asked. At this point, I had worked with, lived with, and ridden to work six days a week with Israelis on and off again for five years. Two companies I worked with were Israeli kiosks, and they provided housing and a company car. I had gone to countless Shabbat dinners, a wedding or two, and had shared rooms with deeply religious Israelis where I had awoken more than once to the soft prayers accompanying the wrapping of tefillin as a roommate stood by the window. I had seen all of the religious activities from sunup to sundown, Shabbat and hagim, but I had never participated as an active player.

Taking the shamash, I clumsily said, “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu  Melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu v ki'y'manu v-higianu la-z'man ha zeh” in a mouth only used to saying Israeli slang and swear words.  Something clicked and fell into place like a lock catching a latch. I was hooked.

I spent the next year obsessively reading everything I could about Judaism. The Judaism I had known  thus far was a range of everything from the most secular of  kibbutznikim, to moshavnikim who had come from Orthodox families  and since gone off the derech, to Modern Orthodox and more  traditionally dati people. But I knew so little about the Judaism of the diaspora, and that was the world I knew I would be joining. I was a bird tasting air outside of a cage for the first time. 

The second time it brought up an issue was when the man I was living with told me he wouldn’t stay with me if I decided to become Jewish. “We were both raised Christian! I’m not taking Christmas away from any kids we have. You can’t keep this up. It was a fun hobby, but now it’s done.” Many verbal fireworks later, I sat alone in my apartment crying, single, and holding a ring. I remember thinking to myself in a moment of shaky clarity, “If this is what it means, then so be it.”

Judaism, as many of my more traditionally inclined friends have told me a thousand times and counting, is a hardship. You’ll be othered, treated poorly and at times potentially in grave danger. You’ll have to live by so many rules. What will your family say? Converts aren’t always received well, why make your life harder than it already has been? You don’t need this.

But that’s the thing, I do need this. I have spent a lot of my life mapping a mind and soul that already left me a stranger amidst what should have been the most familiar. A late-in-life diagnosis of autism clarified for me a feeling of otherness that growing up gay in the South never really explained away. I had already lived a life twice over with being the outsider, failing to assimilate to customs and beliefs that should be as native to me as breathing. And yet this was the first time in my life I looked at something and realized I belonged.

As someone who has struggled with abuse, addiction, housing insecurity and poverty I am no stranger to danger and stress. These two things for me have been some of the only constant companions in my life. Judaism offers something that I think so many people do not realize when we encounter the absolute worst life has to offer us. You could always turn away, sure. Or you can dig in your heels and fight like hell. You can contemplate it, pray over it, argue with G-d and anyone else standing within shouting distance about it. Laugh, joke, weep, mourn. There is room for all of this, but you must engage with it. 

Judaism as I see it transcends the flimsy boundaries of English grammar and lives as happily as a noun as it does a verb. Presumably, there is a third option that is kosher for Pesach. Think and philosophize as much as you like but you must actually do something. Quoting Rabbi Tarfon, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” 

My Judaism informs my days, my nights, my work and my rest. I like rules, and I love boundaries. I do this, not that. I am this, not that. My morals say this, not that. The ethics I try to live my life by are like mezuzot on my soul—here marks the boundaries of what is home, what is good. In these ancient boundaries, I find fresh air and rest, comfort and excitement. In the plurality of Klal Yisrael, I may count myself among those who have fought for survival with wit and humor in times of love and joy, and in times of loss among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. But whenever we are, we are not alone. 

In parting, I would like to say one final thing that Judaism means to me. Recently in my conversion class we talked about the Lamed Vavnikim, and this reminded me of something I had thought once while reading in bed. In mystical circles, these are the thirty-six righteous people for whom the world is not destroyed. 

Excluding perhaps Dolly Parton, I really couldn’t think of anyone off the top of my head who was so filled with loving kindness that they deserved such divine accord. However, I reasoned, what if it wasn’t the same thirty-six people? Surely all of us at some point have a moment in our lives where against all odds we side with our highest nature. What if each of us get a turn at it, a split second where we are for whom the whole of the universe was created, and for whom it is not destroyed. Dust and ash may come later, but for a moment we in our hour of mercy become partners with HaShem in the act of Tikkun Olam. 

To me, this is at the very center of conservative Judaism. Eschewing the standard “where modernity and tradition meet,” I would like to propose that we share in something far richer. The gift of conservative Judaism is that at its heart, it takes the name Israel quite literally. Here, now, we wrestle with G-d amidst fear and darkness. The world is uncertain, bleak even. But still we fight on against what should be insurmountable odds. How does one wrestle with antisemitism, xenophobia, baseless hatred? What does one do when ethical questions arise that require nuance and standing up can place a target on you? What does it mean to love mercy in a world that tries its hardest to object to our very presence as a people? We fight, we live, probably make a food-based holiday, and we rise again and again. For this too is Torah.

Akiva Asher (he/they) is a gay and Jewish writer originally from middle Tennessee with roots scattered across Kentucky and Oklahoma. Having worked several odd jobs such as a Dead Sea kiosk worker, a locksmith, a delivery boy and a few incarnations as a retail clerk, he currently resides in the state of Tennessee with two black cats named Trixie and Treats where he is taking classes to become a web developer while teaching himself Hebrew and Spanish with many more languages to come at the exasperation of friends and loved ones.